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(looking for) shapes in the silence

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For the last three and a half years, Gideon Nav’s morning routine had been the same.

Every day began more or less identically— with a hundred push-ups, a hundred sit-ups, and (on days Gideon felt particularly motivated) a thirty-minute jog to tie it all together.

Then she would shower. She would flex in the mirror until she felt either satisfied or a twinge of chagrined shame, and then she would pick the day’s variety of suit based on how badly she needed to do laundry.

Then came coffee, the subway, and the inevitable ordeal of waiting for her boss to arrive.

So Gideon really should have guessed from the first moment of this day that it was going to be a unique flavor of fucking terrible.

She knew from the very instant she woke up, in fact, because her alarm clock read a blinking, blank 12:00 instead of what it should have read, which was 6:00am.

Gideon blinked. Panic moved slower than her hands did, though it caught up with her by the time she read 8:13 on her phone’s lock screen.

“Oh. Fuck,” Gideon said abruptly, half-surprised in her post-sleep haze that she’d spoken at all. She blinked again, then looked blankly out the window and repeated, “Oh, fuck.”

This development relegated her usual workout to the very back of her mind, which she was sure her muscles would resent her for later.

But for now, Gideon threw the covers off her bed, not bothering for once to replace them, and tugged an undershirt on before reaching blindly for something clean.

Considering most of her clothing choices were half-asleep and completely panicked, Gideon thought she’d done the best job she could at finding an outfit. She ended up in a simple black suit with an equally simple white shirt underneath, and decided for today that a tie would only slow her down. She left her top button undone, hoping she achieved an artfully messy look rather than an actually messy look.

It was fine. Whatever. What were they going to do — fire her?

No: Gideon Nav was the best damn assistant to the editor-in-chief that the Ninth House Publishing Corporation had ever seen. They could barely afford her as it was.

Or, at least, that was what Gideon reassured herself as she fumbled for the emergency deodorant in her bag, elbowing her way through the door of the coffee shop downstairs.

Her heart sank momentarily at the sight of the line — it was at least twenty people deep and moving about as quickly as one might expect a glacier to — but it ticked back to life at the sound of a high, excited voice calling her name.

“Order for Gideon,” called her favorite barista with a knowing look. “You’re late.”

Gideon briefly considered leaving this barista the entirety of her worldly possessions when she died, then remembered that said possessions only amounted to a PS4 and a decrepit computer that she refused to part with.

“I think I owe you my life,” Gideon said matter-of-factly, pushing her way through a few annoyed customers. “Seriously. If you ever need someone killed, come to me and I won’t ask any questions. I’ll even bury the body for you. I know a spot.”

The barista — her name tag read Anastasia — let out a laugh. Little streaks of grey ran through otherwise black hair, wisping out from the bun she had it tied in. “I’ll keep that in mind. Is your boss really that bad?”

Ears lined with bone-studded jewelry, words edged with steel and barbed with iron, and a hard, rose-black stare flashed through Gideon’s head. Her palms prickled at the thought, and her hands tightened around the cup.

But Gideon forced a smile onto her face. “Oh, she’s worse. Imagine if, like, the worst person you know had a weird, even worse goth cousin, and you’ll start getting an idea of her. And since I’m, like, three seconds from proposing, I can tell you the whole sad story at our wedding.”

Anastasia rolled her eyes fondly. “Please. I’m much too old for you, you flirt. Get out of here.”

Gideon didn’t need to be told twice. She left with a wave and a chorus of thank-yous — as well as a sizable tip — and focused her attention on getting to her job.

A quick check to the bus schedule told her that the next bus wouldn’t come for twenty minutes, so she resolved to walk the distance instead. Even now, after nearly four years of living in New York City, she hadn’t quite gotten used to not having her pickup truck.

She settled into an awkward half-jog after the first ten minutes of her walk, and ended up making it through the towering black doors of the Ninth lobby with six minutes to spare.

Even with sunlight streaming through the windows, it was always dimly lit. When she had first started working there, the inlaid porcelain and bone had seemed impossibly intimidating — and, to be honest, a little weird.

Now it was just par for the course. Their publishing company had originally made its name in horror and thriller novels, so maybe a little gothic decor was warranted.

Gideon shoved herself shamelessly through the doors of the nearest elevator, much to the displeasure of her companions, and ran haphazardly through the list of things on her boss’ docket for the day.

9am, meeting with the Eighth branch, Gideon thought, watching the numbers change as the elevator rose. 9:30, meeting with Palamedes about— I dunno, whatever the fuck he’s doing now. The elevator stopped two floors before where Gideon needed, and she resisted the urge to scream.

She took a breath and continued her list. 10:15, meeting with— who was it again? Gideon racked her brain. They had gotten a call from somewhere important a few days ago that her boss had completely neglected to return, and something about it scratched at the inside of Gideon’s head.

The lady she’d spoken to on the phone had been— well, rude was an understatement. Her voice had been high and perpetually annoyed, and she had patently refused Gideon’s offer to reschedule whatever meeting her boss had forgotten — or, more likely, refused — to attend.

Oh, well. How important could it be?

The doors opened, and not a moment too soon. Gideon rushed out without thinking — or looking — and ran headfirst into a bustling intern.

She was only able to save one of the very warm, very full cups in her hand in time— because the other ended up all over her. The feeling of hot coffee soaking into a brand-new, pristine white dress shirt was one Gideon wished very badly that she would never relive.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” She said, more to herself than the intern, who looked as though his heart was about to drop out of his ass. Rage and fear and panic flared through her in turn, eventually settling into a heated sort of desperation.

Gideon looked around frantically. She only had a minute and a half, and the only person that would be reliably around on such short notice was—

“Camilla,” Gideon said raggedly, hauling ass over to her cubicle. “Camilla. Camilla. Two Knicks tickets, company box, if you give me your shirt right the fuck now.”

Camilla Hect looked up from a game of online chess — against Palamedes, no doubt — with a puzzled look on her face. It resolved into understanding at the large, beige stain on Gideon’s chest. She looked down at her own shirt, which was more or less the same shade of white as Gideon’s, with a sigh. “Nice spill.”

“Blame the intern from Marketing,” Gideon said in a rush. “Look, say yes or say no, but do it fast. I only have a few minutes.”

Camilla looked at her game, looked at her shirt, and looked at Gideon. “Yeah, alright. I have a spare in my locker at the gym anyway.”

“Marry me,” Gideon said, shedding her suit jacket hastily. “I’m serious. I’ll pay for it all. I’ll get us a sexy little honeymoon suite in Cabo—”

“Yeah, hard pass,” said Camilla, undoing her tie. “How am I going to be a hot silver fox if you lock me down this early?”

Gideon couldn’t argue with that. “Respectable.”

“Thanks,” Cam said. “I thought so too.”

They switched shirts hastily. Camilla was a little shorter and a hell of a lot less broad than Gideon was, but the shirt fit well enough. It pulled lightly against her shoulders as she moved. Hopefully, her boss would take that as a sign of bicep-related vanity rather than one of ill-timed misfortune.

Across the room, the next elevator dinged, which meant it was time to fucking go.

“That’s my cue,” Gideon said hurriedly, pulling her jacket back on and picking up the remaining cup of coffee. “I’ll get you those tickets, Hect. You can bet your life on it.”

Camilla waved her off, returning to her game with a brusque nod and a thumbs-up, and Gideon practically threw herself into the office she’d spent the last three years hating. The name painted in fine, filigreed black-and-gold letters on the glass door seemed to mock her as she did.

And then, as the office sent itself into a panic trying to look professional and appropriately busy, the elevator doors opened— and Harrowhark Nonagesimus stepped out ready to eat the world alive.

Harrowhark was the heir to the Ninth House, the prodigal daughter of the strangest publishing empire in the world, and the biggest, nastiest capital-B bitch Gideon had ever met. She barely came to Gideon’s shoulder, and yet most who met her thought she was over six feet tall from sheer power of intimidation.

She had taken over the company at the age of 17. Now, eight years later, she was still the youngest person ever to run it.

She was a strange, almost unbelievable success story: starting an accelerated university education at 14, getting a degree in Brit Lit in nearly half of the usual time, and staring down executives five times her age in board rooms all before she could order a drink to wash it all down.

And when she walked into the top floor of her building, it was like the hand of Death casting over a sickroom.

The office felt silent in an instant, with everyone who had been scurrying finding a spare wall to press themselves flat against. Cubicles were filled, heads were ducked out of sight, phones were made silent within a nanosecond.

And Harrowhark, clad in black from head to boots, began to approach.

Gideon stiffened, cleared her throat, and tried not to look constipated. With a broad, lopsided smile that she knew Harrow would roll her eyes at, she said, “Morning, boss.”

“I have a meeting in ten minutes,” Harrowhark said by way of greeting. She took the coffee gracelessly out of Gideon’s hand. “And I got my aunt to do the Oprah interview.”

“Which one?” Gideon asked. There were two of them — both decorated authors in their own right — and they tended to bleed together in Gideon’s memory. One hadn’t been seen in the public eye in years, while the other seemed perpetually dismayed by the current state of press. Both were blind. Neither was pleasant.

Harrow didn’t seem impressed by her lack of recall. “Lachrimorta,” She intoned, taking a sip of the coffee. There was a momentary instant, just as there was every morning, where Gideon prayed to whatever was listening that they hadn’t fucked up her order.

Today, it seemed she would be spared.

“She’s been complaining about her lack of press for decades,” Harrow continued impishly, turning hands painted with black nail polish to the stack of manuscripts on her desk. “So I finally told her to do something about it. The whole ordeal barely lasted the morning.”

Gideon nodded blithely. “Does that mean she’s going to stop calling me about her sales?”

“In a perfect world, maybe. In this one? Almost certainly not,” Harrow sighed. “Though I will remind you, Griddle, that that is my great-aunt you’re talking about. She’s a part of my family, and as such, there are things I am allowed to do that would be considered— what’s the word I’m looking for?”

“Douchey,” Gideon offered.

Harrow gave her a look, continuing, “That would be considered unseemly if you were to do them.”

“I thought you liked how honest I am with you,” Gideon said. “I mean, considering everyone else is too scared of you to say hello, I get the feeling you consider it a breath of fresh air.”

“Camilla Hect isn’t afraid of me,” Harrow said, with a tone that suggested vague disinterest. “She says good morning to me every day.”

“Camilla Hect isn’t afraid of anything. I once saw her eat a ghost pepper without flinching.” At Harrow’s resulting glare, Gideon put her hands up in surrender. “Low bar. That’s all I’m saying.”

Harrow hummed lightly at that, offering a shrug in response. She looked at the schedule on her desk and paused. “Who am I meeting with at 10:15? The First House isn’t set to meet with us until the end of the quarter.”

“Uh,” Gideon said. “So. About that.”

“Griddle,” Harrowhark said. “I have not kept you in my employ for three years—” (“In your employ? What are you, a pirate?” asked Gideon.) “—For you to forget the names of those I meet with.” She stood, blinking black-rose eyes lined with carefully smudged black eyeshadow. It gave her face the hollowed-out, dark appearance of a skull, which Gideon thought was a little much even for her. “Figure it out or pack your things.”

Gideon wracked her brain again. The woman had been upfront and openly bitchy in the way that only lawyers and elderly medical receptionists could be, which meant—

“She was from Legal.” She snapped her fingers. “Some lady from the legal department asked to speak with you today. Something about a visa application.”

“Then tell her I’m busy,” said Harrow, as if the very idea offended her. “I have done nothing to violate my visa, and the government knows that just as well as I do. Reschedule the meeting for next week, or next month, or next century for all I care.”

Gideon thought, personally, that the woman wouldn’t take well to being told— well, anything, but especially anything negative. She couldn’t even offer a thumbs-up in response.

Just a few more days, Gideon told herself, trying to breathe slowly. Then I’ll be home and—

“Oh, and I need you to work this weekend,” Harrowhark added disinterestedly. She was frowning at some piece of paper on her desk. “With Lachrimorta’s launch coming up, I can’t afford to let anyone slip through. I’ll be here nearly the full 48 hours, and I expect the same from you.”

Gideon blinked. “No.”

There was a terrible, dreadful beat of silence.

“What do you mean, no?”

Gideon shifted where she stood, but refused to yield. “I asked months ago to have the next three weeks off.”

“What could you possibly need three weeks for?”

God, Harrowhark had a punchable face. Gideon had to take a breath. “A family friend is mega sick, her 33rd birthday is in a few days, and I haven’t been home in three years.” She nodded towards Harrow. “And, lest ye forget, O lady of the night, you approved it after I helped you close that deal with that soldier selling her memoir.”

That soldier’s name was Dve,” Harrow corrected, choosing to ignore almost all of what Gideon said. “And circumstances have changed.” Gideon squeezed her hand into a fist, trying very hard not to scream, and Harrow let out a passive sigh.

“If I don’t see you in the office on Saturday morning,” Harrowhark said, as if she were explaining it to a child, “I will fire you. I will make sure your manuscript — and yes, Nav, I know it’s yours, your horrid voice is horridly indicative in your writing — never sees print.” Harrow leaned forward, steepling her fingers into a tent. “You will never work in this industry again. Do you understand?”

There were many things Gideon wanted to say, and most of them ended with Harrow’s face being shoved into her desk. One ended with Gideon’s fist connecting with her face; three years of overtime and never-ending work made even in one solid blow.

But that couldn’t happen. That wouldn’t happen. So help her, Gideon would be a goddamn editor.

Never mind that she had no experience in upper management; never mind that she hadn’t been on a date in two and a half years; never mind that she was missing a sick woman’s birthday celebration to work for someone she despised.

At least there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

So what Gideon said was: “Fine. I’ll rebook my flight.”

“And?” Harrow asked, expectant and unmoving.

A beat. Gideon’s molars ground into each other, and she had to tighten her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. It only half worked, but their trembling was from rage and not fear. “And I’ll see you Saturday.”

And Harrow smiled. It was a hard, borderline cruel smile, and one that spoke of victory. “Good,” She said. She took another sip of coffee, which Gideon took as her cue to leave. A call from Harrow, curious and almost lighthearted, stopped her at the doorway. “Oh, and Griddle?”

Gideon’s jaw ticked. “What?”

“Have you always chosen—” Harrow checked the label. “Half-caf cinnamon oat lattes with an extra espresso shot as your beverage of choice in the mornings?”

Fuck. She had been hoping she’d gotten away with it. “...Yes.” Gideon cleared her throat. “It’s— it’s like Christmas in a cup.”

“Is it,” Harrow remarked blithely. “Because every time we’re on a trip, this is what I order. You, on the other hand, usually drink a cup of black coffee and complain it isn’t bitter enough.”

How the fuck does she know that? Gideon thought, eyes widening. She cleared her throat again. Fuck. Was she doing that too much? “Look, if this is you asking if I order two of what you drink in case I spill one,” Gideon said, “the answer is no. Because that would be stupid and pathetic, which I am not.”

Camilla chose this moment to walk past the open door of Harrow’s office wearing Gideon’s coffee-stained shirt. “I talked to Palamedes,” She said, leaning in. “He’ll have his next draft over by the end of the week.”

“Wonderful.” Camilla left, and Harrowhark bore an expression best described as feral, greedy joy. She turned it on Gideon with a sharp grin. “Well, since you’re not stupid and pathetic, as you claim, perhaps you can answer something else for me.”

“What?” Gideon asked, hearing the edge in her voice. It was incredible: not even nine in the morning, and Harrow was already working at her last nerve.

“Who’s Anastasia?” Harrow asked innocently, batting her eyes. She held up the coffee cup, where— ah. Well, that was a shame.

212-919-2290. Give me a call if you decide to follow through on that proposal :) — Anastasia.

Gideon wished, briefly, and not for the first time, that someone would kill her. “I’m going to leave now,” She said brightly. “If we never talk about this again, it’ll be too soon.”

“I’ll see you for the Eighth,” Harrow said as she left. “And do remember not to say anything this time. Your job is to sit next to me and look imposing. You are a prop, Griddle. We have to remind them that the Ninth—”

“—Will not be reckoned with,” Gideon finished, having heard this same sentence about a thousand times in her years working for Harrow. “Sure. I’ll be outside.” She was sure Harrow was making a face or rolling her eyes, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.

With a sigh, Gideon plopped herself down in the cubicle that had been hers for the last few years. It was across from Harrow’s office, which at the very least meant she would have a few seconds’ advance warning before they set off to do whatever the fuck Harrow needed to do.

That, however, was not where Gideon’s mind was.

She had never been one for pictures or decorations or— well, much of anything, really, so the only touches of personality in the sparse little cell were a small, tidy cactus in one corner and a worn picture of her and Dulcinea Septimus from her college days.

She looked at it for a moment. It had been taken right after one of her hockey games, and her hair was still wet from the shower. Dulcinea looked radiant — in a pale, fluorescent sort of way — even with her hands in her crutches. Both of them were smiling broadly, and Dulcinea was in the middle of laughing at something Gideon had said.

It was a scene as familiar as the back of her hand; she remembered every detail even now. It was the last time she had seen the other woman, and nearly four years had passed since.

Christ, she had missed so much. Isaac and Jeannemary’s bar and bat mitzvahs, Dulcie’s 30th birthday (and the ones that had followed it), Abigail and Magnus finally finishing the library. It had been too long since she’d been home.

Gideon’s eyes landed on the phone next to her computer. Guilt flooded her in waves, creeping up her throat and squeezing harder with every passing second.

“Just do it, dickhead,” Gideon muttered to herself. “Just— just fucking get it over with.”

With a sigh, she dialed Dulcinea’s number— and remembered too late that it wasn’t even five in the morning where she was.

Still, the other woman picked up on the third ring. “This is Dulcinea Septimus,” She said, voice as musical as ever. “To whom do I owe the pleasure?”

“Hey, Dulcie,” Gideon said, trying not to sound as horrible as she felt. “Look, I’m sorry I’m calling so early. It’s—”

“Gideon Nav, as I live and breathe!” Dulcie exclaimed, audibly delighted. “This is a surprise! A welcome one, of course. Though I’m afraid I don’t recognize this number! Did you get a new phone?”

“No— well, yeah, but I’m calling from the office,” Gideon said, eyes flicking over to Harrow’s door. No movement yet. Good. The last person Harrow discovered frolicking on company time, as she had put it, was fired on the spot, and Gideon had no intention of following them out the door. “It’s—” She closed her eyes. “It’s about my trip up to see you.”

She could almost picture Dulcinea holding up her finger. “Well, if it’s bad news, I will refuse to hear it,” She said, twinkling over the phone line. “What’s happened?”

“I have to work this weekend,” Gideon said. “Actually, let me amend that: I’m being forced to work this weekend.”

Dulcinea hummed. “By your boss?”

“The one and only,” Gideon muttered. “Yeah. My time off has been approved for months, and you know what she did? Little shit threatened my job over— actually, you know what? That doesn’t matter.” She let out a frustrated sigh. “Just— my point is, I’m going to be a few days late, Dulcie. I’m sorry. Fuck.”

“Someday, you are going to call and say that you’ve quit, and our entire town will rejoice for months.” Dulcinea went quiet on the other side of the line. “Is it terribly rude of me to say that we planned for this?”

“Somehow that’s worse,” Gideon groaned. “Just tell Abigail—” A flicker of black followed by a quick movement from the glass door had Gideon changing tack smoothly. “—That we take all of our submissions here very seriously here at the Ninth. Thank you for calling,” She said, and hung up with a flicker of guilt.

“Was that your family?” Harrow asked lightly, approaching her.

Should’ve known, Gideon thought dimly. “Yep,” She said, popping the p.

“Did they tell you to quit?”

“Every day.” Gideon nodded towards the hallway to the conference rooms. “Is it time?”

“It’s time,” Harrow said, voice somber. She gave a stiff jerk of her head. “Come.”

That couldn’t mean anything good. Gideon followed a half step behind her, shooting weary looks to all the coworkers she passed.

The Eighth was waiting for them in the conference room, looking just as pious and just as brittle as ever.

Today they were represented by Silas Octakiseron, who was probably the most deeply unpleasant person Gideon had ever met.

When Gideon had first arrived, she had been confused to hear people discuss the Eighth, the Seventh, and the Sixth in the same tones as they did the Ninth. Both, as it turned out, were branches of the larger Mithraeum Publishing Group, of which the First House was the flagship.

The different branches dealt — more or less — with different subjects: the Second made its name in war stories, the Third published high-stakes political thrillers in the same breath as hard-hitting nonfiction, the Sixth dabbled in historical nonfiction and biographies, the list went on.

But just as the Ninth House had gotten its start in horror and gothic fiction, the Eighth began with religious nonfiction.

A simple silver cross hung around Silas’ neck, and the fire of the congregation burned behind the drained, translucent blue eyes that stared out at them. He had long, faint blondish hair — it seemed to grow paler by the day, in fact — that was tied into a neat, sallow ponytail behind him.

His eyes were sunken, his lips were lifeless, and his hands were a cacophony of vein and bone. He bore closer resemblance to a corpse than to his nephew, who sat beside him and occupied nearly twice his mass. Colum Asht was nearly twice Silas’ age. Gideon still wasn’t super sure how their relationship worked.

“Finally,” Silas said simply. He stood with all the force of a leaf falling from a tree. “Please, Nonagesimus. Have a seat.”

“A fanatic from the Eighth telling me to have a seat in my own conference room,” Harrow said with a tone akin to wonder. “The world is going mad.” She remained standing. “Do you know why I brought you here?”

“To compare notes from the quarter,” Silas said. “Or perhaps to suggest a merge, though I can’t imagine why.”

Harrow’s expression shifted to one of impassive superiority. “Your ability to miss the point is unparalleled.” She took a step forward, resting a hand on the table. She had no fewer than six rings on her fingers. “I called you here because I wanted to see the look on your face when I told you that the Ninth House plans to buy out Cristabel Oct and the elder two Asht brothers."

Silas’ porcelain face cracked. “Those are our three biggest contracts." He blinked once, then twice more, though his voice remained relatively stable. "You can’t do that.”

“Oh, I can,” Harrowhark said. There was no joy in her voice— only steel. “I’ve spoken with my legal team as well as yours. We’ll pay them better and offer them more, and they’ll take it in a second. We’ll run their upcoming books.”

Anger, red and puffy, clouded the lily-white face of Silas Octakiseron. “You can’t,” He repeated. “It’s impossible.”

“It isn’t,” Harrow said simply. “I’ll have my legal department contact yours by the end of the week.” Without another word, she walked out the door.

It took Gideon’s brain a second to realize what the fuck had just happened, at which point she followed Harrow out the door awkwardly. “Can you really do that?” She muttered, catching up with Harrow down the hall. “Buy out their contracts?”

“I’m still working on it,” Harrow admitted. “But— yes. I think so. Now that Lachrimorta’s launching her book, we have the appropriate funds to cover the expenses from the presale alone.”

“Damn,” Gideon said, letting out a low whistle. “Harsh.”

“Octakiseron is the human equivalent of candle wax, and the Eighth has always treated its authors terribly. They take and take and take, barely caring about their well-being, until all that’s left is an empty husk,” Harrow said. “This has been a long time coming. I have a difficult time empathizing with him.”

And as much as she disliked Harrow, Gideon couldn’t argue with that.

They had almost made it back to the office when there was a sound from behind them. Footsteps, loud and fast, and approaching rapidly until—

“You,” Silas spat, getting the attention of the entire room, “are an awful, heretical, poisonous little witch.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Harrow muttered.

Silas didn’t seem to hear her. He raised a long, bony finger and jabbed it in her direction. Venom clouded his words. “You think you’re so powerful. You have nothing— you are nothing. You have no one, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.”

“This is all a boatload of fun,” said Harrow briskly, “but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Silas would not be stopped. “You think you can overpower the Eighth?” He asked, voice taking on a hard, oaken edge. “No. Don’t think we’ve forgotten: your own parents died rather than run this company. All you are is a blight to their memory.”

Harrowhark froze where she stood. For a moment, between the stark lines of her face and the angles of her eyeliner, she looked statuesque.

“This plan of yours is illegal and amoral,” Silas continued, “and I will see the Ninth burned to the ground before I let you backstab us.”

Gideon, for her part, had absolutely no fucking idea what she was going to do.

She had to do something— for fuck’s sake, anything was better than just standing there. Silas was advancing like a pale, wispy thundercloud, and his bodyguard’s hand looked like it was inching towards the inside of his suit jacket.

Gideon didn’t like Harrowhark, but neither of them liked Silas. At least with Harrow the only present threats were to her career. A fight (or worse) wouldn’t do anyone any good— and if she was being honest, hearing Harrow so loudly and publicly denigrated was getting on her damn nerves.

So as Silas advanced, Gideon moved smoothly between them, put a hand flat on Silas’ chest, and said, “Nope. Talk to her like that again and I’ll throw your ass out of the building myself.” She made her mouth a hard line and squared her shoulders for good measure. “Get out.”

She wasn’t sure where it came from, nor whether it was the right thing to do, and just as Silas opened his mouth to respond Harrow raised a hand.

“That won’t be necessary, Nav,” Harrowhark said. She turned around with a carefully-placed bored expression. “Security has their jobs for a reason. It would be nonsensical to take it from them.”

Her face shifted again, this time into a perfect, gravelike mask. “But my assistant is not wrong, Octakiseron. If you want to leave with all of your teeth, you’ll leave quietly and send someone else next time the Eighth has business here.”

Security — which had materialized out of nowhere — began to approach, putting a firm hand on Silas’ shoulder.

“Fine,” Silas spat. “I hope you die alone.” He left with his head held high and his fists shaking with rage, but without another word.

Gideon let out a breath as the elevator doors closed. “Okay,” She said, unevenly. “Well. That happened.”

“Astute observation, Griddle,” Harrow said, but it lacked its usual bite. Gideon looked down and saw her hands trembling by her sides. Harrow must have seen her eyes flick down, because they tightened into fists a second later.

Neither of them said a word as they made their way into her office. Gideon thought about asking if she was alright, then thought better of it, and was almost on her way full circle when Harrow snapped, “Stop looking at me like that, Nav. I’m fine.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Gideon protested halfheartedly. “And I was looking at you like I normally do.”

“I refuse to argue about this,” Harrow said, putting her head in her hands. “Get Camilla. I’m calling Palamedes.”

And that was that. It was as if the whole altercation had never happened.

The minutes ticked by slowly, and the hours went even slower. The meeting with Palamedes Sextus was a bright spot, which almost made up for the near-brawl that had happened earlier in the morning.

Palamedes was a kind man, which was rare. Gideon usually zoned out during their meetings — though not for lack of trying — but she was pretty sure he and Harrow knew each other from their days in university.

He held a position as a professor at a university in Ireland, but the few times he had been to their office he had made an impression— he was tall and slender, with warm brown skin and messy black hair, but what Gideon always remembered were his eyes. They were a bright, lambent grey, and gave an electric transformative quality to the rest of his face.

Camilla had served as his representative at their company for years now; they were old friends and cousins to boot. So when he and Harrow were talking over the finer points of his manuscript, pointing out archaic literary references and subtle nods to 15th-century literature, at least Gideon had someone to roll her eyes with.

Gideon snapped back to reality when she saw the clock hit 10:15. She had been able to call the immigration office while Harrow was talking to Palamedes, so there was no real deadline, but seeing the timestamp sent her instinctively into alertness.

“—and I’ll admit, trying to revive Chaucer for a modern audience is admirable,” Harrow was saying into the phone, “but you’re a fool if you think they’ll understand the nuance of your work, Sextus.”

“You have too little faith in your readers,” Palamedes replied, voice tinged with a gentle Northern English accent. Even over the phone, Gideon could picture the wry smile on his face. “Is it so hard to imagine that people might surprise you?”

“In my experience, yes.” Gideon made a hurry-up sign in the air and tapped her watch, which earned her a withering glare and a middle finger in return. Still, Harrow finished with, “Now get back to writing, Sextus. I have work to do.”

The line clicked dead a few seconds later, which meant Camilla gave Gideon a brief thump on the back and got the hell out of the office.

“I thought you rescheduled the immigration meeting,” Harrow said, skipping any pleasantries. “I told you to reschedule the immigration meeting—”

Gideon rolled her eyes. “Fuck’s sake, Nonagesimus, take a breather. I rescheduled the damn meeting.” She nodded towards the stack of papers on Harrow’s desk. “But you have a packed schedule today, and that whole pile still needs reviewing by the end of the week. Also, text me your lunch order, because I know for a fact that you haven’t eaten yet.”

At this, Harrow seemed to deflate. “Oh,” She said after a moment. “Where are you going for lunch?”

“Probably the deli.”

“Very well. In that case, will you—”

And Gideon never heard what Harrow wanted her to do, because she was interrupted by the phone on Harrow’s desk ringing.

Harrow blinked, then looked up at Gideon expectantly. Gideon rolled her eyes and answered the phone.

“Nonagesimus’ office,” She said blandly. At the other person’s voice, Gideon’s eyes widened, and she looked at Harrow. “She’ll be there right away.” She set the phone down into its dock. “Um. Okay, holy shit, it’s— it’s Gaius. He’s in a conference room and he says he needs to see you.”

At this, Harrow’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. “The Emperor is here?”

“I will never understand why you call him that, but yes, and he wants to see you,” Gideon said.

Harrow rolled her eyes, but there was a sense of urgency to her movements that she’d lacked all morning. “For heaven’s sake. He runs a publishing empire, which makes him the Emperor. It’s a nickname, Griddle. Keep up.”

“Okay, well, do you want me to come w—” Harrow shot out of her seat and began walking faster than Gideon had ever seen her move towards the hallway.

Gideon jogged after her lightly, but wasn’t able to catch up before the door to the conference room opened. Harrow took a seat at the table and jerked her head slightly towards the door in a motion that meant wait outside.

Gideon did, though she rolled her eyes on her way out. The doors in the building were glass and very little sound was stifled through them, so at least she could get a good look at the people in the room.

* * *

Harrow turned her attention to the people in front of her as the door slid closed.

The Emperor, as Harrowhark and most of the other branch heads referred to him, was a middle-aged man with greying brown hair. Everything about him was plain. He lacked the frivolity of the upper class, and opted instead for a simple white button-down, black slacks, and nondescript black shoes.

He had a plain, strong-jawed face, with lines by his mouth and crows’ feet by his eyes— which were the only truly distracting part of him. They were almost entirely black, though a thin ring of white circled the irises.

In all her years of working with him, Harrow still had no idea how someone ended up with eyes like that. She didn’t think it would be appropriate to ask in public.

The Emperor leaned forward in his seat at the sight of them and offered a hand. “Nice to see you again, Harrowhark. I’m John Gaius, head of the First House, blah, blah, blah. Please, have a seat.”

Next to him was a woman with brown hair and a tightly pinched expression. “For God’s sake, John, she knows who you are.”

“Oh,” said the Emperor, as if he hadn’t considered this. “Well, you’re probably wondering why you’re here.” His voice took on the distinct impression of a middle school principal about to give someone a dressing-down. “This is Mercymorn Joy—”

“I called your assistant days ago to schedule a meeting,” said Mercymorn Joy, who lived up to neither part of her name. “On the way here I was informed that it had been rescheduled, which is both childish and absolutely stupid considering—”

John let out a sigh. “Mercymorn is in charge of our legal department. She and I are old friends, so she called me and asked me to— what was it you said?”

“Knock some sense into a foolish, horrid little child,” answered Mercymorn.

“There you go.” John leaned forward. “Harrowhark, it’s come to our attention that you violated the terms of your work visa.”

Harrow blinked. “That’s not possible. I just submitted the application— this isn’t—” She blinked again. “How?”

John, for a moment, looked genuinely sorry for her. “Do you remember when you went to Toronto for the book fair last spring?”

“I had to,” Harrow said. “We were going to lose one of our biggest clients to Simon and Scheuster if I didn’t intervene.”

“Yes, well, clients or not, you were expressly forbidden to leave the country while your application was being processed!!” Mercymorn said. “Can you read? This is a genuine question. John told me you were young and I want to know how much of a child I’m dealing with.”

Harrow’s eye twitched. “I’m twenty-five,” She said carefully. “And when I first took over I was 17. I am well aware of the terms of my visa—”

For a moment, Mercymorn’s face took on a fiery, almost feral quality. “Then you should have known!! All of the information is on our website!! It isn’t hard to find!!”

“I’m a little busy running a publishing house,” Harrow snapped. She put her head in her hands. “What’s going to happen to me?”

“You’ll be deported back to New Zealand. Or to England, if you’d prefer,” John said. “It’s my understanding that you hold dual citizenship.”

Harrow nodded along lightly, obviously calculating her next steps in her head. “That’s fine. I can run the branch from London or Auckland—”

“You most certainly cannot,” Mercymorn said.

John stopped her from saying more with a weary hand. “What Mercymorn means,” He explained, “is that you’re not legally allowed to work for an American company if you’re deported. And yes, Harrowhark, I know that it was founded by your parents in New Zealand, but since it was acquired by my company, it is technically American.” He paused.

“I’m sorry,” said the Emperor softly. “Until we figure this out, I’m turning over operations to Silas Octakiseron. The Eighth will manage the branch—”

“LIke hell it will,” Harrow spat. “Absolutely not. Octakiseron is not allowed within 500 feet of this building.”

“Harrowhark, you have turned this company on its head,” said John, almost pleadingly. “If there were any way we could have you stay, we would, but there isn’t—”

And then the conference room door opened, and a head of red hair poked in. “Sorry, hate to interrupt,” Gideon said, “but Casseopeia from the Sixth wants to talk to you, Harrow.”

Harrow’s resulting glare could have bored holes in the table, and she waved a flippant hand. “Not now.”

“Yeah, I know. I told her you were otherwise engaged, so no biggie,” Gideon said, completely missing the way Harrow froze at the word.

Engaged.

No. No, that was—

That was a stupid, foolish plan. It was a nonstarter.

Harrow looked up, then looked at Gideon with a hard stare and beheld her for a moment.

It was batshit insane, it was probably illegal, and it was definitely going to bite them in the ass if it backfired— but Harrow didn’t have any other choice. Her work was too important.

And God help them, it might actually work.

Gideon frowned lightly at the expression on Harrow’s face, which she was sure held a dangerous, unreadable expression. “Um. Everything okay?”

Harrowhark ignored her question. “There’s something you need to know,” She said to John and Mercymorn. She locked eyes with Gideon, holding her gaze firm.

White-ringed eyes flicked between them, and a frown flickered on John’s face. “Alright.”

“Well, it’s interesting that you’ve chosen to tell me about the visa application now,” Harrowhark said, turning to John and Mercymorn, “when Gideon only proposed last weekend.”

John blinked. He looked between them. “Excuse me?”

“I’m getting married,” Harrowhark said.

“To who?” John asked.

“To my assistant,” said Harrow, ignoring the choking, strangled noise of surprise Gideon made from the door. “To Gideon Nav. We’re engaged.” She paused, then stood. “Aren’t we, Griddle?”

“No,” Gideon said, because she was the worst. “What the fuck?”

Harrow closed her eyes. “It’s alright, darling,” She said through half-gritted teeth. “We can drop the act now. They know.” She met Gideon’s eyes again, sending a silent prayer that she would go along with it. “We’re engaged. Are we not?”

Gideon’s golden eyes were wide and extremely confused, but after a few seconds’ pause she made a jerky motion with her head that could, in some situations, be mistaken for a nod.

“Um. Y— yes.” She blinked. “We are— um. We’re going to get married.” She gave them an awkward thumbs-up.

“Does that solve our little problem?” Harrow asked, turning expectantly back to John and Mercymorn.

The Emperor of the Nine Houses looked like he wasn’t quite sure what to say, and settled after a moment on, “Sure.”

Mercymorn’s eye twitched. “Fine.”

“If I may ask,” said John carefully, “how did this… happen?”

Harrow blinked. It was a hasty, ill-conceived plan, which meant she was a little strapped for answers. “Well,” She began, buying herself another second. “Three years of late nights, book fairs, and coffee runs make for a close relationship. One thing led to another—”

“Yep,” added Gideon helpfully.

“—and here we are,” finished Harrow. “Engaged. To be married.” A pause. “We’re just— just two people who fell in love when we weren’t supposed to.”

Gideon blinked. “Yeah.” She blinked again. She was doing a lot of blinking. That wasn’t good. “Yep,” She said again, weakly. She gave them another thumbs-up.

Rather than risk any more of whatever ill-fated road they were heading down, Harrow said, “So if that’s all, then I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave. We have a lot of work to do.”

“Well, I’m afraid you won’t be able to work while under investigation,” Mercymorn said.

Harrow’s eye twitched. If Gideon was in this room for another second, she was going to start blabbing, and Harrow couldn’t risk that. “Then I’ll be doing wedding planning, and— such things.”

She practically shoved the two of them out of the room. Gideon was, for once in her life, utterly speechless. Harrow pulled them into her office and closed the door.

She sank into her desk chair and put her head in her hands. “Fuck,” Harrow muttered. Then, louder: “Fuck!”

“So, not that I don’t agree,” Gideon said. “But do you mind explaining to me what in the hell just fucking happened?”

“We’re engaged,” Harrowhark said, as if it were obvious.

Gideon’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “Yeah, so, we’re really not. Like, really, extremely not.”

“Well, we are now,” Harrow rushed. Gideon opened her mouth to protest (which, in her mind, was a very fair reaction), but Harrow held up a hand. “Listen, it’s too late to go back. You saw what happened in there, Griddle.”

“No, I didn’t,” Gideon said instantly. “I didn’t see or hear anything, and I especially didn’t see or hear anything that could get me tied up in— whatever the fuck kind of scheme you’re about to run.”

“I believe you mean whatever the fuck kind of scheme we are about to run, darling,” Harrow corrected, practically snarling out the last word. She chewed at her cheek furiously, thinking hard enough that Gideon could see smoke coming out of her ears.

After a moment, she let out a short, frustrated breath. “I am in a predicament. If you help me through it, I will give you the promotion to editor you’ve been chasing. I will—” She searched frantically for something else, and her voice took on a kind of desperation Gideon had never heard. “So help me, I will run your stupid little manuscript with ten thousand copies first run—”

“Twenty thousand,” Gideon said. It was worth a shot, right?

Harrow’s jaw ticked. “Twenty thousand copies first run, and I will ensure you get whatever position you want in this company or others. Help me with this and I will make sure you want for nothing. You will be rich, you will be successful, and you will never have to see me again once it’s over.”

Gideon’s palms prickled. She resisted the urge to scratch at them. “So, what, I help you avoid getting deported and you nepotize my way through the company?”

“Yes. In short: you marry me until my work visa gets re-approved, we get a quick divorce after an appropriate length of time, and then we never have to see each other again,” Harrowhark said. “This company is my family legacy. If I don’t have this, I have nothing.”

“You have about ten pounds of black eyeliner,” Gideon said unhelpfully.

Harrow roundly ignored this. “Do this for me, and I’ll make sure it’s worth your while.”

“I know you’re proposing, but I didn’t think you’d proposition me so early.” Harrow rolled her eyes. “And I haven’t agreed, asshole. What if I say no?”

“Then I will be deported to New Zealand — or, God forbid, to England — and you will have to work for Silas,” Harrow said.

Gideon made a face. “Yeah, hard pass. He’s even worse than you.”

“I will let that comment slide because of the gravity of what I’m asking you,” said Harrow with a tone that passed for gracious. “But we need to move quickly. The fiance visa process can be brutal, and we cannot even for a second let down our guard. If anyone finds out it’s a ruse, I’ll be sent out of the country—” Harrow cut off, chewing at the inside of her cheek. “And you’ll likely be thrown in prison.”

Gideon made another choking, strangled sound. “Hey. Hey. Hold on. I’m risking prison for this?”

“Nav,” Harrow said. Gideon heard a thin stream of desperation leak through the cracks in her voice. “If there was any other way, I would choose it in a heartbeat.”

“So you don’t want to marry me? I’m offended.”

“Be serious for once in your life. Neither of us want this,” Harrow said. “I am simply trying to make something out of a bad situation.” She paused. “Now hurry up. We need to speak with someone at the immigration office in the next hour.”

“I still haven’t agreed to this batshit idea,” said Gideon. “You do know that, right?”

“Well, make up your mind quickly,” Harrowhark said, seemingly depleted of her endless reserves of patience. “Come on. The car is already on its way.” She pushed past Gideon in a wisp of black smoke, making her pointy way towards the elevator.

Gideon followed her, rolling her eyes as hard as she could. Camilla met her gaze on the way— and, to her horror, mouthed married? with her eyebrows nearly at her hairline.

“How does the whole damn company already know?” Gideon asked in a low, irritated murmur.

“Word travels fast when an entire building fears you,” Harrow said lightly, sliding self-assuredly into an elevator. The people already in it pressed themselves flat against the walls. “Better start getting used to it.”

They descended slowly, with numbers blinking at each floor they passed, and one by one the people in the elevator vacated it. Gideon waited until they were alone to respond. “I still haven’t agreed to jack shit, darling.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

Harrow gave her a look. “I called you that for show.”

“And I’m rehearsing for the next one,” Gideon said. “Sugarlips. Penumbral lady. Ruler of the night.”

Harrow tapped her foot impatiently on the floor. “Those ones took a bit of a turn, don’t you think?” The doors finally opened to the lobby, and Harrow sped out, walking faster than someone her size should have been able over the large black-tiled floor.

Gideon jogged lightly after her, catching up in a few steps. She settled in a half-step behind the other person. “I’ll never understand how you move so fast,” Gideon said. “Your legs are, like, three inches long.”

“I’m five foot two, idiot,” retorted Harrow. “Come on. The car is waiting for us.”

“Hell,” Gideon muttered. “I’m really doing this, aren’t I?”

Harrow paused with a hand on the door and turned. “Have you made your decision?”

Years of offenses flashed behind her eyes. Every late-night breakdown Harrowhark had ever caused her, every missed opportunity, every second spent slaving away at a job that demanded her life, and she finally had a way out.

It was a black-clad, terrible way out, but if Gideon could pull it off, it was guaranteed.

“Hell,” Gideon said again. “Yeah, I have.”

“And?” Harrow tried very hard not to sound expectant, but the eagerness in her eyes betrayed her.

Gideon let out a weary sigh. “I will do this for you,” She said. “But don’t let it get to your head, Nonagesimus.”

“You may keep whatever thoughts you have about my head to yourself, Nav,” Harrow said. “And do hurry up. We’re late.”

* * *

“So,” began the immigration lawyer, sitting across from them both with a saccharine smile on his face. “My name is Augustine. Joy said you’d be down here shortly, so for now consider this a preliminary visit.”

Harrowhark frowned. “You and Mercymorn know each other?”

His face took on the expression of someone who had years’ worth of information to hold back before he nodded. “Unfortunately, yes. We know each other very well,” Augustine said, smiling like he’d just made a joke neither of them understood. Something in his voice made Gideon’s nose wrinkle. “But that isn’t why we’re here, is it?”

“No,” said Harrow.

“Guess not,” muttered Gideon, who would have been more than happy to stall.

“How long have you two been together?” Augustine asked, poising a gold-filigree pen over a clipboard. His hands were absurdly well-manicured, which both put Gideon at ease and made her a little suspicious. People who put too much time into their cuticles could only be trusted on occasion.

Remembering the question, Gideon cleared her throat. “Two years,” She said matter-of-factly, following the loose narrative she and Harrow constructed in the car. “We got together after my first year working at the Ninth, we stayed in separate living arrangements to keep people from getting suspicious, and I proposed last weekend.”

Beside her, Harrow seemed to relax marginally. The lawyer nodded along as she spoke. “Right,” Augustine said slowly, scribbling a few notes down. In the same way one might inquire about the menu at a luncheon, he asked, “And just to be clear, this isn’t some arrangement you two have concocted, is it?”

Harrow made a strangled noise in her throat, and Gideon resisted the urge to wet herself. Her voice came out higher than she was intending. “What?”

“You’re not marrying each other so she—” He gestured graciously to Harrow, “—can stay in the country?” Augustine leaned forward. “Because as much as I hate to ruin our little mood, that’s a federal crime. Punishable with jail time and one hell of a fine.” He nodded towards Harrow. “But if you confess to it now, the only one that will pay for it is her.”

The reminder sent Gideon’s head spinning. She tried very hard to focus, and turned toward Harrowhark to do so.

Harrow was staring at her hard enough that she was surprised a hole hadn’t been burnt into her suit jacket. Her eyes were wider and more uncertain than Gideon had ever seen her look. As she watched, Harrow swallowed lightly, throat bobbing as she did, and Gideon watched the veins and tendons shift for a moment.

Two futures stretched out ahead of her. There was one timeline for the two of them that ended here, with Harrow taken away in handcuffs and Gideon free to go.

And then there was the other.

Gideon looked at her a second longer before a brief, lopsided smile appeared on her face. “We’re just two people who fell in love when we weren’t supposed to,” She said, hearing the echo of Harrow’s earlier words in her voice. She turned back to Augustine. “That’s all there is to it.”

“Of course,” said Augustine with the ghost of a smile. His voice was kind and cordial, and held the very soul of manners within it. “I don’t mean to offend. You would be surprised how many people try to find a way to the left of legality,” He said. “I just figured I would ask.”

He shuffled a few papers on his desk and, with renewed vigor, turned to Gideon and changed the subject. “So, you proposed. My congratulations to the happy couple.”

“Thanks. We’re just thrilled,” Gideon said, reaching over boldly to squeeze Harrow’s hand. She realized after the fact that it was probably the first time they’d touched intentionally. Whether for fear of breaking the ruse or simple shock, Harrow didn’t move her hand away.

She did shoot Gideon a glare that could have killed a plant, but that was more or less expected. “Yes,” Harrow said, with about as much excitement as if someone had told her to clean a toilet by hand. “Thrilled.

There was a sort of dark satisfaction that flowed through Gideon at seeing her play along. Maybe this wasn’t the worst arrangement in the world.

Augustine watched them carefully, jotting something down in the notepad in his hands. “Well, I see in my notes that you have a fairly significant period of time off in the coming weeks.” He looked up. “Can you tell me about that?”

“Oh,” Gideon said. She looked at Harrow, then back at Augustine. “Yeah. It’s been a damn long time since I’ve been able to go home, working for the ol’ ball and chain here,” She said, nodding lightly to Harrow and ignoring the accompanying eye roll. “And one of my friends is sick in a major way, so when she said she was having a birthday party I said I’d bust my ass to come home.”

“With your new fiancee, I assume,” Augustine said, looking between them expectantly.

Gideon blinked. Harrow’s eyes widened.

They made brief eye contact, and as black met gold something passed between them. “Yep,” Gideon said, popping the p.

“That’s correct,” said Harrow, sounding — somehow — even less excited than she had before. There was something else in her voice. It was strange: Gideon couldn’t place it, but the way Harrow was looking at her made her feel uncomfortably seen in a way she wasn’t used to.

Thankfully, Harrow turned back to Augustine a second later. “Her time off starts on Friday, I believe.”

“We fly out Thursday night,” said Gideon, suddenly relieved that she hadn’t cancelled her flights.

“And where are you flying?” asked Augustine, dutifully taking notes. “I only ask because, well, I’m afraid we can’t let you leave the United States.”

“Oh, no.” Gideon shook her head. “Dulcie’s up in my hometown, so we’re flying to Sitka—”

“Sitka,” Harrow repeated, nodding along. “Yes.”

“—up in Alaska.”

Gideon felt a renewed sense of that same dark satisfaction hearing Harrow gag on her next word.

“A— Alaska.” She turned very, very slowly towards Gideon. “We’re flying to Alaska.” Rather than her usual self-assured nature, her words had the quality of someone who was trying very hard not to scream.

Yop,” said Gideon, who was by now extraordinarily pleased with how the situation was turning out. “I think I mentioned to pack something warm, sweet cheeks.”

Harrow’s eye twitched. She opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Augustine.

“Right. Well, that will do it for today’s visit,” He said. He stood, brushing some invisible dust from his impeccable suit, and gave them a smile that showed all of his teeth. “There’s a list of questions for the actual interview that you’ll need to answer, so you can take your time together to prepare.”

Augustine slid a folder across his desk. Gideon reached for it, but Harrow got there first. “Thank you,” She said, nodding imperiously. “Are we free to go?”

“Of course,” Augustine nodded. “Have a safe flight,” He said, opening the door for them. “I look forward to seeing you again.”

“I wish I could say the same,” Harrow muttered, though only Gideon heard it.

She elbowed Harrow lightly and gave Augustine a wave. The door closed behind them, and Gideon leaned down. “So,” She started brightly. “Scale of one to ten. How fucked do you think we are?”

Harrow shot her a look, sliding her sunglasses back onto her face. “If all goes to plan,” She said, walking as fast as her legs would take her towards the door, “we won’t be fucked at all.”

“Is that what you told yourself in high school?”

“I really do hate you,” Harrowhark said. “Do you know that?”

Gideon put a hand on her chest in mock flattery, opening the door for them both. “Aw, that’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me, honey! You shouldn’t have.” As it swung closed behind them, she leaned down. “But, hey, I wasn’t kidding about packing something warm. You get cold when the thermostat hits 75.”

“I can pack for myself, thank you,” bit out Harrow, shoving her way onto the sidewalk.

Gideon put her hands on her hips and stopped. “You know, the least you could do is ask me.”

Harrow stopped, whipping around with an annoyed look on her pointed face. “For heaven’s sake, Griddle, what inane thing are you jabbering about now?”

“I’m just saying,” Gideon said, crossing her arms over her chest. “You basically strong-armed me into marrying you — which, I admit, I did eventually agree to — and you didn’t even ask first.”

Harrow’s eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “Of course I’ve asked—”

“Nope,” Gideon said. “I mean asked.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly. “I mean proposed.” A beat. “Ask me to marry you, Harrowhark.”

Harrow clenched her jaw so hard Gideon thought it might break. She let out a deeply irritated huff. “Will you marry me,” She said flatly.

Gideon shook her head. “Nope. Down on one knee and everything.”

“Someday you will die, and I will go to your funeral laughing,” Harrow said.

“Maybe someday, but it sure as hell ain’t happening now.” Gideon tilted her head. “Kneel or I walk away.”

Harrow’s face tightened, crumpled, and sharpened in turn. “Fine,” She spat. She got slowly down on one knee, giving Gideon the meanest glare she’d ever received. “Will you marry me?”

Gideon’s expectant face resolved into a sweet, pleased smile. “Why, yes, Harrowhark. I will. Thank you for asking.”

“I hate you,” Harrow said again, getting to her feet.

“I know you do,” Gideon said, letting out a pleasant sigh. “And I hate you too, babe. Marry me about it.” She checked her watch. “Oh, look at the time. You’d better book your ticket, hot stuff. Wouldn’t want to leave me all alone on that plane, would you?”

Harrow gave her the finger, rolled her eyes and, without another word, walked away.

Gideon watched her go.

Harrow’s posture was atrocious, but when she walked it was always with her shoulders set back proudly; she moved as if she was trying to physically dispel the notion that she was anything less than the most experienced, most high-ranking person in any room she walked into.

She walked with wind in her shoes and fire in her eyes. She walked with purpose, with rage, with ambition and pride and power all wrapped up in one five-foot-two bundle. She never did anything, never saw anyone, never walked anywhere without a reason.

And just for a moment, Gideon caught herself wondering if she would walk down the aisle the same way.

Chapter Text

The next two days passed in a blur. Gideon found, as the hours ticked by, that she would forget about the arrangement she and Harrow made until the most inopportune times.

In fact, just as she would settle into a calm, quiet routine of exercise or dishes or laundry, the memories would slam back into her head with an audible crash, and just like that she was dizzy and only half-aware of what she was doing again.

Generally speaking, she went back and forth between I can’t believe I’m marrying Harrow, of all people and well, at least I’m getting married and Dulcinea is going to lose her mind— which, in her defense, were all statements based in reality. It wasn’t like she had any delusions about the arrangement.

Somehow, in this delirious post-engagement haze, Gideon managed to pack her suitcases. In the years that had passed her by, Gideon had managed to cobble a few gifts together for the people she was going to see.

For Abigail, she had been building a stack of antique postcards and rare books, hoping to satisfy her foster mother’s urge for collection and categorization. For Magnus, she wrapped a beautiful baking dish in as much newspaper as she could find.

Isaac and Jeannemary were set to receive a few of Gideon’s old Zippo lighters and a set of brass knuckles respectively (in addition to checks for their college funds and two tickets to visit her in New York for spring break).

Even Coronabeth was getting something. Ianthe wasn’t, because fuck Ianthe, but Corona was. Gideon was sure she was one of — at most — five people in the world that knew it, but Corona had something of a fascination with vintage jewelry. Her gift was deceptively simple: a thin golden watch with a newly-restored face, and one that bore the symbols of the sun and moon engraved on the back.

This left Dulcinea.

Hers was the hardest gift to find— which, given that it was also the most important, meant Gideon had been stressing about it for months now. It was difficult to shop for a woman that didn’t put much stock in worldly possessions— after all, what do you get for someone who knows their days were numbered?

Dulcie had joked for years that purses and dresses wouldn’t look half as good in a hospital bed, which ruled out clothes and accessories. She wasn’t as big of a reader as Abigail, held no affinity for cooking, and didn’t have the physical strength to tend to a garden the way Protesilaus— her nurse— did.

But she did have a sense of humor. She had eyes that sparkled and an endless zest and thirst for life. She had a deep, overwhelming desire for connection and experience, and wanted nothing more than to see the world.

And Gideon couldn’t give her that on the salary she made— but she had an idea of where to start.

Now, her gift was tucked carefully in between layers of sweaters and woolen socks, and as long as the old projector was still in the library, everything would be just fine.

Harrow was waiting at the gate when Gideon arrived. She had a neck pillow — with the tag still attached, Gideon noticed — swinging from one arm, and had a pair of expensive earbuds in. With her eyes closed, she almost looked peaceful.

Almost.

Black eyes snapped open as Gideon drew closer. “You’re late,” Harrow said, by way of greeting.

“Traffic was nasty,” Gideon said. “And we don’t board for another forty minutes.”

Harrow closed her eyes again, leaning back against the seat. “Punctuality is a virtue, Nav. Now, are you going to sit, or am I going to have to feel you staring at me for the next forty minutes?”

“Forty minutes and eleven hours,” Gideon corrected. “We have a few layovers, but nothing too nasty. And being in Economy Plus will help with—”

“Economy Plus?” Harrow interrupted, almost scandalized. “Oh, Griddle, have some sense. I upgraded both of us to First Class the moment I arrived.”

Gideon blinked. “Oh.” A pause. “Normally, you make me fly Economy when we go places.”

“Yes, well, normally, we aren’t going to Alaska to meet your family.” Harrow cracked an eyelid. “Desperate times, desperate measures, and all that. I can’t have them think I’m a piss-poor partner.”

Fair. “Nice alliteration.”

“When used with consonant sounds, it’s called assonance.”

“You’re an assonance. Y’know, I’ve never actually flown First Class. What’s different about it?” Gideon leaned in conspiratorially. “Is there a massage table? Be honest.”

“Be serious,” Harrow said, shooting her a look. “For me, very little changes. I don’t take up all that much space as it is.” She paused, then let out a quick huff and looked at Gideon. “You, however, are twice my size and infinitely more irritating. I imagine it will reduce the risk of hearing the entire cabin hearing you complain for twelve hours.”

After Harrow had proposed, one of the quiet insecurities at the back of Gideon’s mind was the fear of things starting to change between them. Since that idea was fucking horrifying, it was almost a relief to see Harrow be just as mean-spirited and insulting as she had been for the last three years.

“You’re a marvel,” Gideon said lightly, plopping down next to her. “Seriously. Even when you do something nice, you find a way to make me want to smack you.”

“If you want me to add you to the restraining order against our dear friend Octakiseron, just say the word,” Harrow replied briskly. She switched subjects smoothly, nodding towards the crumpled knapsack by her feet. “I’ve been reading over the folder Augustine gave us.”

“And?” Gideon asked. “Are you ever going to let me see it, or am I going to have to guess what’s in it?”

Harrow rolled her eyes, pulling a manila folder out of her bag. “Here,” She said, nearly shoving it into Gideon’s arms. “It’s ridiculous! I don’t know how they expect us to just— know all of this about one another! No one knows this much inane information about another person. Look at this.” She pointed towards the third question on the list. “There is no way you would know my favorite childhood sports team.”

“Oh, easy,” Gideon said. “The All Blacks.” She was met with silence, and turned to see Harrow staring openly at her. There was an intensity to the emotion in her eyes that made Gideon shift in her seat. “What? You have a jersey framed in your apartment. Remember that time you stubbed your toe and couldn’t come into the office?”

Harrow rolled her eyes, but something about it lacked its usual bite. “I twisted my ankle, you ass.”

Gideon knew this — she had needed to bring ice packs, an ankle brace, and a doctor to the apartment — but pushing Harrow’s buttons was one of her favorite hobbies. “Close enough. Anyway, I noticed it. I didn’t take you for a sports fan.”

“I’m not,” Harrow said, and offered no further explanation.

An awkward silence settled between them. After a moment, Gideon nodded to the next one. “This one’s easy, too. Allergies.”

“And what am I allergic to?” Harrow asked.

“Pine nuts and the full spectrum of human emotion,” replied Gideon. She gave Harrow a grin. “This is going to be fun. See, I’ve been paid to learn all this about you, and I would bet my life that you don’t know jack shit about me.”

At this, Harrowhark seemed to bristle. “Please.” She gestured impatiently for the list of questions, cleared her throat, and said, “You say your favorite color is gold because it brings out your eyes, which I would believe if it wasn’t for the fact that every time the sky is clear you nearly trip over yourself staring.”

Gideon paused with a hand reaching for the question list. “How did—”

“And,” Harrow continued, “whenever we go on trips to the West Coast, I always seem to find you looking at the ocean instead of working.” She looked back at Gideon with a mix of pride and satisfaction in her eyes. “Your favorite color is blue.”

“Maybe I just like big bodies of water,” said Gideon stubbornly. It was a hasty, knee-jerk reaction to the startling realization that Harrow had observed her. “Did you ever think of that?”

“Is the sky a body of water now?” Harrow asked the air, pondering to no one in particular. “I thought we were flying today, not going for a swim.” She handed the folder over again. “Keep going through the list.”

Gideon’s eyes flicked down towards it. “Is there a reason we have to do it right this minute?”

“We’ll need these answers practiced and ready for when the time comes,” Harrow said. “Unless, of course, you enjoy the idea of being arrested and spending the remainder of your twenties in prison.”

“If this is your way of asking to put me in handcuffs, at least give me a safeword to use,” said Gideon, feeling endlessly content by the horrified noise that escaped Harrow’s mouth.

Years of — at the very least — mild professionalism meant Gideon had held back the worst of her comments, but that was out the window. If Gideon was selling her soul to her boss, the least she could ask for was an unrated cut of the experience.

And besides: if Harrow was going to marry her, it was best that both of them be completely transparent about their feelings, even if those feelings did include a few raunchy sex jokes. Really, Gideon was doing them a service in the long run. She was a hero. She wondered about commissioning someone to make her a medal, then realized that was a bit much even for her.

“You are incorrigible,” Harrow said, confirming her thoughts. “Read the next question.”

They managed to make it through about thirty minutes of questions — interspersed with enough bickering that four families near them got up to leave — before the time to board finally came around.

When their group was called, Gideon stood, shouldering her backpack. She looked down at Harrow, who was stuffing the folder into her already-overflowing knapsack. There was an old, worn-looking journal that poked out.

When Harrow caught her looking at it, she glowered. “Fix your horrible golden eyes somewhere else.” With a smooth, practiced motion, she slid the strap over her shoulder. Black eyes rimmed with black liner scanned the line.

Gideon had seen many of Harrow’s different faces over the years— her boardroom face, her about-to-fire-someone face, her nauseous post-dairy face. But this face was a thinking face. She was probably calculating their wait time in her head, or integrating the area of the plane just to see how much volume it could hold, or— something equally inane and quantitative.

Without really meaning to, Gideon found herself watching her. Today — well, tonight, really — both of them were dressed to travel. This meant that Gideon was in a hoodie and joggers, and that Harrowhark had — Gideon counted — seventeen pieces of jewelry on her hands alone.

Harrow regarded her appearance in the same manner as a knight might have regarded their armor, except that her appearance usually included less metal and way more anatomy. Gideon could never understand why, but she was particularly fond of bones.

The thought spurred a memory. A few years prior, the Ninth had been on the verge of being merged with the Fifth. Harrow had hated this idea; she had always resented the idea of — in her words — becoming an appendix.

If this company is a family, the Ninth is its crypt, the First’s Board had told them. What value does it hold?

Right before their meeting, Gideon had watched Harrowhark take a contour brush to the hollows of her cheeks until the bones and planes of her pointed little face resembled those of a skull more closely than they did a living, breathing person. She dressed herself in veils of black lace and hung a silver crucifix around her neck. And she strolled into that conference room like she was going to her grave.

The Ninth House is a place for the dead, Harrow had told the Board. If it is a crypt, I am its keeper. If it is a body, I am its exhumer. And if it is a skeleton, I am a goddamn necromancer.

And then, of course, she proceeded to show them the presales of their latest big-ticket books. It had been more than enough to convince them.

Gideon rarely understood — and even more rarely agreed with — her boss, but she had to admit: that had been pretty badass.

It didn’t come as a surprise that her editor was as committed as she was to upholding the Ninth aesthetic of bones and gloom and chains, nor was it a shock to see that Harrow was thinking hard enough about random shit — like, for example, wait times — that she was about to work herself into a hernia.

But what did come as a surprise was what she said next. “Your family,” Harrow asked, still staring intently at the line. “Tell me about them.”

Her voice came out clipped and brisk, as if she’d just given an order to make another copy of a manuscript she was, no doubt, going to eviscerate. For a second, Gideon thought it was a joke, but then Harrow looked at her expectantly.

“Uh.” Gideon frowned out of habit, straightening her shoulders. “‘Kay. What do you want to know?”

“Start with your parents,” Harrow said decisively. She led them into the first boarding group. It was fast-moving, which was a blessing. As it turned out, there weren’t very many people flying to Alaska at — Gideon checked her watch — 12:41 in the morning. Go figure. “Names, countries of origin, job histories— Nav, why on Earth are you laughing at me?”

“Babe. Honey bunch. My little priority mail package of bones,” Gideon said, wiping away an imaginary tear. “If I knew those, we wouldn’t be on our way to Alaska right now.”

Harrow paused for a moment as the attendant scanned their tickets, and lowered her voice as they entered the sky bridge. “It is cruel and unjust to make jokes you know I lack the context for.”

“Fine. Here’s what’s up.” Gideon took a breath, preparing her usual speech. She had, by this point in her life, given this speech several times.

“My mom died when I was a baby. She passed me off to an orphanage in New Jersey which, I guess, is where I was born. Still not quite solid on that, but I’m 90/10 I’m from Trenton.” The people ahead of them shuffled forward, moving into the plane at the speed of a tortoise.

“Before she died, all she said was Gideon, so that’s what the nuns called me,” She continued, ducking her head to step into the plane. Their seats were near the front. She tossed her backpack onto the window seat, then gestured impatiently for Harrow’s suitcase. “When I was— I dunno, seven or eight? I had been a big enough pain in their ass that the lovely, wonderful sisters of St. Dominic got completely sick of my shit and shipped me up to one of their, like, buddy churches in Alaska.”

“Pause,” Harrow said, watching Gideon slide her suitcase into the overhead compartment. “I don’t know what I was expecting your life to be like, but this sounds closer to the plot of a poorly-written children’s movie than information about the people we’re visiting. Can I expect that in the next five business days, or should I let your monologue run its course?”

“You can’t rush perfection, sweetheart.” Gideon slid into her seat and pretended not to see Harrow’s eye twitch. “Anyway. A couple from Wales ended up fostering me once I was up there. Magnus Quinn and Abigail Pent.”

“Quinn and Pent,” Harrow nodded, as if relieved to finally hear something noteworthy. “And they’re— Welsh?”

Gideon shrugged. “Well, Abigail is Welsh. Magnus is a local, but they met abroad,” She explained to Harrowhark, who was losing patience rapidly. “And they fostered a few kids after me, too. Isaac and Jeannemary.”

Harrow’s nose wrinkled. “Children?”

“Worse,” Gideon said. “Teenagers.”

“Dreadful.”

Gideon shrugged. “They got better once they finished puberty. Where was I?”

“Assuming God is on my side, you’re approaching the end.”

“Rude,” Gideon said, pressing a hand to her chest in exaggerated hurt. “Anyway, Dulcinea is an old friend of theirs. She’s the lady whose birthday we’re celebrating.”

Harrow nodded. Gideon could practically see her filing away the information she was being told. Briefly, she pictured a library-style shelving rack with different names on dusty boxes. She figured Harrow wouldn’t be a digital database kind of person. “And why are we making the effort to fly three thousand miles for someone that isn’t actually a member of your family?”

At this, Gideon turned to face her. Her voice lost its humor for a moment in favor of soft solemnity, which was just as weird to do as it probably was for Harrow to hear. “Because when someone is sick the way she is— and I mean big-time, years-long, live-in nurse sick, Harrowhark— birthdays mean a hell of a lot more.”

Harrow’s face smoothed into unfortunate realization. Her jaw tightened. “Ah.”

“No shit, ah,” Gideon said. Silence followed, and in the quiet Gideon realized for the first time that they were in the First Class cabin. The seats were broad and comfortable, with a kind of easy give to the cushions that had her settling back against them. Cupholders sat between them. There was a blanket on the seat that Gideon had, without realizing, placed on her lap. She blinked. “Oh, shit.”

“What?” Harrow asked, digging around in her bag for something.

Gideon leaned in conspiratorially. When Harrow moved closer, all she whispered was, “We’re on the plane.”

Harrow paused, blinked, and looked over at her with an expression bordering on murderous. “We have been on the plane for nearly five minutes. There is no possible way you just noticed now.”

“I was a little too focused on sharing my super-tragic backstory to look around,” Gideon said, leaning back against the seat. “This is nice. I could get used to this. Hey, when we get divorced, do I get half of your money, or are you going to make me sign a prenup?”

Harrowhark whipped out a pair of over-ear headphones and made deeply, deeply unimpressed eye contact as she slid them onto her head.

“No more questions, I guess,” Gideon muttered, shrugging to herself. That was fine by her: maybe now, rather than keeping her guard raised and ready, she could relax for a second.

She only managed to close her eyes for two and a half minutes — she counted — before there was an impatient tapping on the armrest next to her.

Gideon cracked an eyelid open to see Harrow staring blankly ahead. Her knee was bouncing. Her hands were tapping quickly — though erratically — at the armrest. Her headphones sat over her ears, and even over the distance and the roar of the engines Gideon could hear the music blasting through them.

The flight attendants closed the door, and one began to run through the standard safety features. Harrow’s eyes darted up briefly, then fell back into empty space. Her throat bobbed up and down every time she swallowed — which, Gideon noticed, was approximately every two damn seconds — and when the ding rang through the cabin she flinched.

Oh, Gideon thought unexpectedly. She’s scared.

She wasn’t sure how the understanding had come to her, but now that she had thought of it it seemed impossible to let go. The hand that wasn’t tapping a rhythmless, formless beat at the armrest was clenched and trembling by her side. Even her face was a tensed playground of fear; her jaw was working, tightening and releasing every few moments, and the veins at her neck were popping out.

Not scared, Gideon amended internally. She’s fucking terrified.

For a moment, she wondered how she had missed this beforehand— but then, of course, she had never actually flown next to Harrow. They had always been in different cabins.

The lights went down, bathing the cabin in relative darkness, as they began to pull away from the gate. Harrow’s eyes squeezed shut, and her mouth began to move. Gideon only realized after seeing her lips form the word Deo that she was praying.

In Latin. Because of course she was. Trust Harrow not to take the easy way out after Vatican II.

And Gideon didn’t know what came over her, but when the plane maneuvered into position and the engines raised themselves to roar in earnest, she reached out a hand in the space between them.

Harrow cracked an eyelid open and saw the broad, strong palm resting face-up on the armrest, and for a moment all she did was stare.

Then — just for a moment — she met Gideon’s eyes. Her eyes were uncertain, and held within them an uncharacteristic vulnerability.

And then the plane lurched forward, and without quite meaning to Harrow slid her own bony, wiry hand into Gideon’s and squeezed her eyes shut again.

Years spent in a Catholic orphanage meant Gideon knew what Harrow was doing like a dog knows a trip to the vet. And it was no surprise to learn that boss had been raised Catholic; it was a very insular group of people that could create someone so needlessly gothic, repressed, and dramatic all at once.

Plus, Gideon had needed on several occasions to deliver things to the parish Harrow attended, and — after a particularly nasty incident involving a motorized scooter and a puddle — had even helped clean and repair the medallion of the Virgin Mary that Harrow wore around her neck.

Gideon didn’t, like, love the Church as an institution, but faith was different. And it was a simple act to say a few words if it meant ten hours’ worth of comfort— and, she thought, ten hours without Harrow snapping at her out of nervous tension.

So she promised herself that — if asked — she would deny it ever happened, and she began to murmur a prayer in time with the other woman.

It was brief — no more than a minute, really — but it had the desired effect. Harrow was finishing up a Hail Mary, and when Gideon’s mouth began to move alongside hers, forming the Latin words with perfect accuracy, her eyes snapped open.

Gideon pretended not to see her, opting instead to look at where their hands sat joined. Almost against her will, her thumb stroked gently the knuckle of Harrow’s.

The plane evened out after about half of a decade of the Rosary. As the PA system went off with another ding, Gideon watched the color start to return to her fiancée’s face.

One of Harrow’s greatest strengths was her ability to maintain her composure. As soon as she seemed to remember where she was, it took less than three seconds for her to tug her hand away from Gideon’s.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Harrow said, flashing her a low-intensity glare. The brown skin of her face still held a faint greenish tint, but it was a marked improvement from earlier. “I don’t remember asking you to touch me.”

“Harrow, for fuck’s sake, relax,” Gideon said, flexing her hand to herself for a moment. “So we’re just going to ignore the part where you held my hand?”

“I remember it differently. And,” Harrow said waspishly, leaning back in her seat, “as I recall, you offered.”

God, you’re annoying.” Gideon leaned back, looked out the window, closed her eyes, and opened them again. “Hey, can we bust out Fiancée Jeopardy again? I’m bored.”

“When the nuns sent you to Alaska, I imagine they paid extra for a nonstop flight,” Harrow said, ignoring her question. “You are already an overgrown child. I cannot imagine being stuck with you as a toddler for more than an hour at a time.”

“At least now I can use the bathroom without a chaperone. Just think, sweetheart, it could be so much worse.” Gideon nodded to the backpack. “Come on. It’ll get your mind off the flight.”

A pause. Then, almost unexpectedly: “It will,” Harrow admitted. “Fine. One hour, and then I have work to do.”

Gideon eyed the laptop poking out of Harrow’s knapsack in distrust. “Didn’t they tell you not to work?”

Harrow gave her a look then that she had never seen before. Black eyes gleamed like dying coals in the sickly half-light of the plane, but the fire in them betokened a kind of conspiracy Gideon had never before been privy to. The sight made her stomach turn over. Any more of this, and she’d end up in the hospital.

“And when,” Harrow asked, “have I ever listened to what people tell me to do?”

* * *

Eleven hours — plus a few delays, plus a few layovers — later, their shoes touched solid ground again. The clocks in the small airport told Gideon it was just before noon, which was perfect. It had already been a hell of a day.

She did the calculations in her head: it would take them around an hour and a half to get back to the house — which was, of course, assuming Magnus and Abigail didn’t offer to take them out for lunch — and that would give them some time to relax and recover from the plane ride.

The feeling of brisk, cold air hit her as soon as she stepped off the plane. Gideon closed her eyes and breathed deeply, smiling despite herself at the familiar feeling of her skin growing dry and a shiver running through her. She was grateful for the sweaters she’d packed, but she thought she would let the cold linger on her a moment before reaching for one.

The Northeast had her on the ropes with its winters sometimes, but nothing compared to polar air. It had been too long since she’d felt it.

At the sound of teeth chattering, Gideon looked behind her to see Harrow trembling like a leaf in the September chill. “Don’t start,” Harrow said, holding up a finger as Gideon opened her mouth to start. “I did, in fact, pack a jacket.”

“Good. Because if you want mine, you are shit outta luck. I’m cold, too,” Gideon said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Come on. It’ll be warmer in the car.” She reached for Harrow’s suitcase, dragging it behind her out of habit, but felt a hand on her arm stopping her.

Gideon looked up to see a fraction of worry in Harrow’s rose-black eyes. “Wait,” She said quietly. She was clearly aiming for a commanding tone, but it fell short somewhere around uncertain. “These people.”

“My family,” Gideon said. “Yeah?”

Harrow’s eyes searched her face. “Do they know who I am?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course they do.”

“Griddle,” Harrow said, desperate irritation leaving her in a short breath. “Do they know what I have been to you?”

“My boss?”

“Charitably, yes, but I don’t flatter myself that you have conveyed it as such,” Harrowhark said, with surprising awareness. Gideon didn’t have time to awkwardly avoid addressing it, because she continued: “Now, final question. Do they know that we’re engaged?”

The question stopped Gideon short.

It occurred to her — somewhat delayed — that in all of the rush of the last few days, she…

Well. She had told Magnus and Abigail that plans had changed, then changed again, but— fine. Maybe she hadn’t actually made the time to tell Magnus and Abigail that the partner she was bringing was the boss she’d spent the last three and a half years complaining about.

“So,” Gideon began. “Sort of?”

Harrow’s eye twitched. “Nav—”

“Cool your jets. They know I’m bringing a girlfriend,” Gideon said, defensive. “I didn’t tell them we were engaged.” A sudden self-conscious guilt flowed through, and her eyes flicked away from Harrow’s face for a moment. “It didn’t feel fair to tell them over the phone.”

This made Harrow falter, though — to her credit — her pause only lasted half a second. “So then I will be introduced as your girlfriend,” She murmured, nodding to herself. She looked like she was doing calculations again: take the derivative of half-baked plan and get fake fianceé. “Fine.” She looked back at Gideon, then gave a curt nod. “Let’s go.”

As it turned out, they didn’t have to go very far.

To say the airport was small would have been — in a word — generous. It sat at the very tip of a very narrow peninsula, and therefore was to other airports as a bite-size piece of chocolate was to a king-size candy bar.

And perhaps it was because of this and not despite it that there was a sort of charm to it that always rendered Gideon thoroughly taken aback.

The snow-capped mountains, the vast sea, the towering royalty of the place— after years spent among the towering, near-palatial Financial District of New York City, it was difficult not to feel a sort of whiplash in the midst of clear skies, natural beauty, and blessed quiet.

Harrow did not seem to share the sentiment. “Lord, I’m freezing,” She muttered. “Before we meet them, is there anything specific I should know about your family? I have no desire to make a fool of myself.” Her voice took on something of a pained, breathy tone from the exertion of keeping up with Gideon, who was much taller and gleaned a certain joy from being difficult.

Gideon scanned the area, finding mostly people in jackets that weren’t warm enough and empty baggage carousels. Considering the only plane landing for the next three hours was their own, it was no surprise to see it so lonely.

“They’re good people,” She said, and meant it. “They can also be weird as hell. Magnus sends me written invitations any time he wants me to go grocery shopping with him. They do absurd, arcane bullshit and have a ton of little routines and etiquette rules they stick to.” A pause. “So I think you’ll fit right in.”

Harrow shot her a brief glare, though it held more anxiety than anger. “I’m going to dance on your grave one day.”

“Have you always been this much of a romantic, or is—” Gideon cut herself with a broad, grinning smile at the sight of two matching cable-knit sweaters. “Oh, shit! There they are.” She waved a hand. “Abigail! Magnus! Over here!”

Directly ahead of them, Abigail Pent broke out into a rare full-face smile, and Gideon — as always — was completely struck by it.

Abigail was a mystery. To say she was tall would have been an exaggeration, yet no one could call her short. To say she was particularly beautiful would have been an exaggeration, yet no one could call her plain. And to say she was anything other than brilliant would have been untrue at best and a cruel, bold-faced lie at worst.

Her hair was a thick, wavy, brown, and was in its usual style: tied back in a neat bun. Two strands hung out to frame her face, perfectly equal in a way that always reminded Gideon of curtains at the sides of a window.

And a window she was: though she usually opted for smaller displays of affection, the beaming, radiant smile that now sat on her face lit up every room she was in.

And there beside her was Magnus Quinn, waving in delight with a broad grin on his face.

The brown skin of his face and hands was browner now; Abigail said he’d been working on projects out in the sun for weeks now. He had thick black hair that was only just starting to show streaks of grey, and the neatly-trimmed beard at his was flaked with salty white. His hands were well-manicured; his style was impeccable; his black-brown eyes shone with mirth and joy at the sight of them.

He was shorter than his wife by an inch or so, which meant he leaned up instead of down to murmur something in her ear that made her smile grow even wider. He had the face of someone who was not afraid to love and lose: crows’ feet by his eyes, laugh lines at his mouth, and a lifetime of joy and sorrow written in every expression.

If Abigail was a window and a spark of flame, Magnus was a strong oak door and a set of logs. No house was complete without them; no hearth was warmed without them. They were home embodied.

And then Gideon found herself wrapped in one of Magnus’ bone-crushing hugs, which did, admittedly, break the spell she had been under.

“Oh, look at you, Gideon!” Magnus’ voice came out in a rumbling, stately bellow, and he reached up to ruffle Gideon’s hair. It was odd that a movement so simple could send her flashing back to her teenage years, but there she was blinking away the time from her eyes. “Goodness. You’ve always been strong, but now you look like you could take me in a fight in a second.” He winked.

“She’s been able to do that since she was fourteen, my love,” Abigail said politely, still beaming at them both.

“Abby, allow me some measure of dignity in front of the children,” Magnus complained good-naturedly. To Gideon, he said: “Jeannemary is taller than me now. Did you know?”

“I bet she never lets you live it down,” GIdeon said, unable to stop smiling.

“You know her well.” Abigail cupped Gideon’s cheeks in her hands and pressed a lingering kiss to her forehead in another rare display of affection. It made Gideon’s heart hurt. “It’s good to see your face again, Gideon. We’ve missed you.” She took a step back, and her smile cleared away and left quizzical, academic curiosity in its place. That was the Abigail she remembered. “Now. Where’s this girlfriend?”

“Uh,” Gideon said. Actually, that was a good question. She had sworn Harrow had been behind her the whole time, so where— ah.

Gideon turned around to see Harrow a few steps away, looking at the three of them with an expression best described as abject terror. It smoothed over quickly at the realization that she was being watched.

“She’s right over there,” Gideon said, forcing a smile onto her face. She made her voice louder and called: “Babe, are you coming?”

Harrowhark Nonagesimus walked over, head held high and eyes open wide, and stuck out a hand. The jewelry on her wrists jangled, discordant rather than melodic. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” She said in a clipped, brisk voice. “I have heard a lot about you both.”

Abigail blinked. Magnus opened his mouth, then closed it again.

Harrow picked at her nails for exactly two and a half seconds before she cleared her throat. “My name is—”

“Oh, we know who you are,” Magnus said flatly.

Gideon’s eyebrows raised. It was the closest to rudeness that Magnus had come in — if she had to guess — fourteen years. The last time had involved Abigail, a PTA election, and the mother of four that lived three doors down from them. Gideon still got chills thinking about it.

He seemed to realize this instantly, because regret transformed his face. He put up a hand and hung his head. “I apologize. Please forgive me, it’s— it’s wonderful to meet you, Harrowhark.” Magnus paused, giving her an awkward nod. “I think, perhaps, we’re a bit, erm…” He trailed off, looking over at Abigail for some kind of guidance.

“Overcome,” Abigail finished. “This— is not what we were expecting. But, please, don’t mistake us: it isn’t an unwelcome surprise. And, truthfully, we should have guessed. Three years’ worth of time spent together, close proximity, and all that.” She nodded mathematically, then smiled. She took Harrow’s hand in both of hers. “Well, like my husband said. It’s wonderful to meet you.”

Harrow’s eyes widened, and she nodded as if stupefied. Magnus approached as if preparing for a light hug, which made her entire body seize up.

Gideon resisted the urge to put her head in her hands, but Magnus, with the soul of manners, paused and took on a chagrined, understanding smile. He cleared his throat and, instead of approaching her further, asked, “Do you want me to carry your knapsack for you?”

“Oh,” Harrow said eloquently. She blinked. “No. Thank you, but that won’t be necessary.”

Magnus nodded as if he had been expecting this, and a wry smile played at his face. “Right,” He said, meeting his wife’s eyes. “Then no more wasting time! Let’s get you both home.”

Gideon and Harrow settled into silence during the walk to the car, listening to Abigail and Magnus relay the events of the morning to them. They — which was to say, Magnus — went on for nearly ten minutes about how excited everyone was to see Gideon again, and how everyone was dying to meet Harrow.

Privately, Gideon thought this would have made her more excited than she seemed to be. Most people would have died instead of meeting Harrow. Excitement felt as though it would be new for her.

“—and, you know, Dulcie set up a whole party for you,” Magnus called from the driver’s seat. Abigail was in the passenger’s seat beside him, her hand rested intertwined with his atop the center console.

Gideon looked down at her own hands, then over to Harrow. She was pressed up against the opposite window with her hands in her lap. The memory of the first flight resurfaced, and she clenched and unclenched a fist without thinking. “You’re kidding,” She said halfheartedly.

Magnus met her eyes in the rearview mirror and winked. “Well, you know how she is about festivities.”

As the car continued its slow, steady lurch forward, Gideon settled into a conversation with Abigail and Magnus.

And Harrow didn’t move. She stayed where she was, keeping half an ear on the voices around her, and looked at the window at the town that would be her home for the next three weeks.

It wasn’t her favorite, but Harrowhark had to admit there were worse places. The situation was nightmarish — she hated the idea of being on this trip, and having to fake being engaged Gideon of all people made her eyes twitch — but she had done it to herself. At least it was a beautiful nightmare.

Harrowhark had grown up in the Southern Hemisphere, so the very top of the Pacific Northwest was new for her. And New Zealand had its share of mountains, to be sure, but she had never seen anything like this.

The town itself was quaint, with a few main streets and a few storefronts here and there, but it seemed obvious that the true spectacle was in the natural world. Huge, towering snow-capped peaks sat close enough that Harrow had to crane her neck to see the top. The sea stretched out on the other side, with buoys marking distance and a few connected waterways providing an alternative to driving a car.

As they drew closer into town, Harrow found herself people-watching. Her eyes followed a roving pack of teenagers walking and laughing with each other, then tracked to mothers holding hands with their mitten-clad children as they crossed the street.

She eyed a younger couple, both of them holding hands with a young girl who appeared to be their daughter. Every few steps, they swung her dramatically into the air, she would burst out in bright, delirious laughter, and the whole thing would start again. Harrow found herself smiling.

That’s when she noticed the name of the store above them. Quinn General Store. Harrow blinked, then frowned. She looked to the next building: Quinn Family Coffee House.

Next to that was the Quinn Center for Urgent Care, the Pent Library, and a bar named Abby’s.

Harrow blinked again. Without moving her head, she flicked Gideon — fiddling with a loose thread coming out of the seat — in the thigh. “Nav—” Harrow cleared her throat, remembering the ruse. “Darling,” She started again, eyes moving slowly over to her, “you never told me that your family owned property in town.”

Gideon’s mouth opened, but it was Abigail who answered her. She barely even turned to look at them. “Well, Magnus’ family has run the general store and the clinic for decades, of course, but most of this—” She gestured to the town around them, “—is a recent development.”

“Recent,” Harrow repeated. “How recent?”

“About seven years ago, some of the properties here were on the verge of failing,” Abigail explained. “So Magnus and I invested some money into the town to fix it up. He insisted on the library taking my name—” (“As I recall, you didn’t protest very much,” Magnus muttered to no one in particular,) “—And the bar was more of an inside joke.” A pause. “He calls me Abby.”

“I gathered,” said Harrowhark.

“Yes, well, don’t be intimidated,” Magnus chimed in, looking at her in the rearview mirror. “Really, it’s much less impressive than it seems.”

Gideon leaned in next to her. “He’s lying out of his ass,” She whispered conspiratorially. “Just wait until you see the house.”

The house, as it turned out, was only accessible from town by boat, because clearly Harrow hadn’t suffered enough already. A plaque near the dock read Canaan House, which should have been an early warning sign: any house with a name was bound to be either haunted or obscene.

Her legs wobbled as they finally pulled into port. Her stomach had been churning for ten minutes, and it was only by God’s eternal grace that she didn’t spew chunks of airplane breakfast all over the wood of Abigail and Magnus’ dock.

Gideon offered a hand to help her onto solid — moving, but solid — ground again, and Harrow’s first instinct was to wave it off. But Magnus and Abigail were watching, and Gideon’s eyes kept flicking nervously towards them, so Harrow sucked it up and accepted it.

She gripped the railing of the pier tightly as her land legs began to return to her. Harrow let out a long, measured breath of air.

“Doing okay?” Gideon asked. Her voice was wretchedly chipper, and Harrow couldn’t help but think she was doing it on purpose. “You’re looking a little green around the edges, babe.”

“If I never do that again, it will be too soon,” Harrow muttered, careful not to let her voice slip into a register that could be overheard. “Now. Where’s the house?”

Gideon blinked. “Is that a joke?”

Harrow opened her mouth, but Gideon cut her off with a nod that gestured behind her. Harrow turned, ready with a barbed comment about her intelligence, and found that her words died in her throat.

To call it a house seemed like a gross understatement. It had the largest deck Harrow had ever seen, with more windows than she could count and a sprawling floor plan that didn’t seem as though it could stop even if it tried. It was gorgeously designed— all white paint and black or gold trim, with large windows and tasteful stonework accents.

It was a house in the same way a food court was a restaurant; which was to say, it was four times larger and held seven times more variety than any house Harrow had ever beheld in her life.

“Oh,” Harrowhark said, realizing dimly that she was staring. “I see.”

“I’ll get your bag,” Gideon said behind her. “And remember, sweetheart, we have guests inside. Game face goes on the second we get in the house.”

“I don’t have a game face,” said Harrow, still staring openly at the house.

“Sure you do. It’s the one you make when you’re about to tear Palamedes’ drafts apart.”

This got her attention. “Well, if he would listen to me when I made suggestions, I wouldn’t have to tear them apart.”

Gideon sighed. “Not the point.” She leaned in closer, dropping her voice. “Look, we get through this and we have the entire night to ourselves. Just— mingle. Talk to people. Play nice.”

“I know how to mingle, Griddle.”

“Remember the Second’s gala two years ago?” Gideon asked, raising an eyebrow. “You kept asking people to explain and then defend their stances on military intervention, and then you went through and deconstructed their arguments. You made two people cry.”

“It’s as good a conversation starter as any, and it lets me get to their core beliefs without wasting time,” Harrowhark said, with only the hint of a pout appearing on her face. “And besides, that was at a heavily military event. I was trying to— what’s that phrase you like to use?”

A hint of a smile ghosted across Gideon’s face. “FSU, baby. Fuck shit up.”

“Indeed,” Harrow said. “Terrorizing old men at a gala is one thing, but meeting your friends and family as your significant other is— well. Suffice it to say I have no intention of doing that here.”

“So you admit it,” Gideon said. “You were terrorizing them.”

Harrow looked back at her with a gleam in her eyes. “I admit it freely,” She said, “and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Gideon laughed then, full-throated and surprised, and Harrow told herself that it was just the nervousness in her chest that made butterflies flip in her stomach. “Alright, Nonagesimus,” Gideon said, nodding towards the house. “Ready to go bring hell?”

Harrowhark let out a quiet scoff, not even bothering to respond before setting off resolutely towards the house.

She was a born-and-bred New Zealander in a world of white Americans. She had stared down boardrooms full of men four times her age that would sooner give her their coffee order than listen to her proposal for the next quarter.

She had fought tooth and nail for her place in a corporate environment that seemed determined to try to remove her, and she had done so without sacrificing any part of her agenda.

And now Harrow had to talk to a group of people. Big fucking deal.

Harrow could and would do this, and she would do it well. How hard could it be?

* * *

Thirty minutes in, Gideon found her hiding in the kitchen.

“There you are,” Gideon said, allowing only a hint of relief to slip into her voice. “Fuck’s sake, Harrow, everyone’s asking about you.”

“I’m taking a breather,” Harrow said imperiously. Her nose was only the slightest bit upturned.

“A breather?” Gideon looked towards the door, then back at Harrow, and a humorless laugh escaped her mouth. “Dude, we just got here. How do you already—”

“Just give me a second, Nav,” Harrow bristled. “There are more people here than I was expecting, and it’s been a long day.”

“Well, duh,” Gideon said, hopping up to sit on the counter across from her. “I told you to sleep on the plane. Not my fault you need, like, the planets aligned the right way to get some rest.” She nodded toward the main room, where it seemed half the town was listening to Magnus talk about Abigail’s newest research project. “By my count, there are probably three hundred and fifty people here.”

Harrow balked. “Three hundred and— Griddle, when you said your family was comfortable, I didn’t think you meant they were nobility!”

“Look, it’s not a huge community!” Gideon said, feeling a strange defensiveness for her foster family. “Dulcinea knows everyone — and I mean, everyone — so the entire town knew I was coming home.” A thought occurred to her. “And speaking of Dulcie, Abigail said she was running a few minutes late, so she should be here any—”

A loud, rancorous cheer from the front of the house interrupted her, and Gideon smiled despite herself. Speak of the devil. She nodded toward the door. “Okay, breather over. Let’s go, Nonagesimus.”

Harrow pushed herself gracelessly off the wall, rolling her eyes. But she was careful not to let anyone catch her with her guard down: she straightened her spine as they got into the living room, keeping her pointed chin held high and her expression perfectly aloof as she floated past groups of people.

Gideon walked half a step behind her, letting Harrow take the lead even as she guided them to the foyer.

Just in front of the ornate, sturdy door at the front of Canaan House stood a woman in forearm crutches and a floor-length gown of seafoam green.

Pale, pinkish brown hair fell down her shoulders, framing a paler face with a nearly translucent tint. It was so very odd to see such life in a person whose entirety foretold death, but Dulcinea had always had bigger plans for herself than that.

Sparkling blue eyes turned on them instantly, and a beaming, portrait-ready smile crept over her face.

“Oh, Gideon, you’re here!” cried Dulcinea Septimus, voice like a melody. She drew closer to Gideon as fast as she could, hobbling on her crutches. Gideon spared her the extra effort and closed the distance, pulling her into a careful — though affectionate — hug.

“Hey, Dulcie,” Gideon said, muffled by the hair suddenly in her face. She pulled a strand out of her mouth. “It’s good to see you again. And you too, Pro.”

Protesilaus Ebdoma — Dulcie’s nurse and another old friend — was standing behind her rifling through a small bag of first-aid supplies, and gave her a wave. The sleeves were cut neatly off of his scrubs, which was likely due to the sheer size of his hulking arms. He gave her a wave and a low, resonant hum. “Welcome back.”

“Good to see me? You little red-haired fiend.” Dulcinea pulled away, raising an incensed pointer finger. “I’ve been trying to visit you for years now, and this whole time the only thing I needed was a party big enough to warrant your appearance. Well!” She raised an eyebrow. “I certainly hope it doesn’t disappoint. I have big plans.” She finished with an exaggerated wink before turning to Harrowhark.

“And you!” Dulcie said, leaning back to survey her. “The newly-existent girlfriend. I must say, you have excellent bone structure.” She nodded approvingly. “Very symmetrical face.”

Harrow blinked, then glanced at Gideon, who shrugged helplessly. “Thank you,” She said carefully.

Dulcie nodded. “Now, you’re Gideon’s boss, too,” She said, lowering her voice as if they were sharing a secret. “Is that correct?”

Next to Gideon, Harrow stiffened. “It is,” She said, unyielding. “My name is Harrowhark Nonagesimus. I—”

“Completed your education at Oxford when you were 17, moved to the United States within the year, and took over your parents company all before you could drive,” Dulcinea said, nodding. “Believe me, we know. Gideon talks about you every time we call.”

“How wonderful,” Harrow said drily, shooting her a sideways look.

“I always thought so, too.” A small, wry smile broke out on Dulcinea’s face. “Between the three of us, I’ve always had a suspicion there was more to your relationship. You had the rest of them fooled, but never me. And we’ve all been dying to meet you since we found out.”

Gideon was suddenly very aware of how still Harrowhark went beside her, and elected to ignore almost all of what Dulcinea said. She frowned. “But— hold on, Magnus and Abigail only found out she was my—” She cleared her throat. “They only found out we were together this morning. How did—”

“Word travels fast,” Dulcinea said with a knowing smile. A pause. Then: “And Pro’s wife saw you in the parking lot while she was picking up groceries across the street.” She leaned forward to clasp their arms, holding one of them in each hand. Her smile softened, and her voice faded into something sweet and genuine. “I’m happy for you both. Truly.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Gideon saw Harrow relax fractionally, and couldn’t help but smile. Dulcinea was difficult to resist, even for those with a presupposition against her. “Thanks, Dulcie.”

“Anytime.” Dulcinea leaned back, clapped her hands together, and ignored Protesilaus’ noise of concern when she nearly lost her balance. “Now! I demand a story. And do heap on the details. It’s so rare that I hear something new nowadays.”

“I thought you were the town’s biggest gossip,” Harrow said, shooting a glare in Gideon’s direction when she received a gentle elbow to the ribs.

“Precisely,” Dulcie said with a wistful sigh. “It’s a dreadful bore. Every piece of information I hear has made the rounds tenfold by the time it’s the talk of the town.” She gestured to the couch. “Come. Allow an old woman—” (“You’re 32,” rumbled Protesilaus behind her,) “—her vices.” She sat down primly, gesturing for them to do the same. “Spill.”

“Oh,” Gideon said, suddenly very lost. She cleared her throat to buy them more time, then realized she was out of ways to stall and looked to Harrow. “I would— but, you know, it always sounds so much better when you tell it.”

“You’re the writer,” Harrow said, because she was the fucking worst. “Set the scene for us.”

Gideon tried to say fuck you telepathically, which worked about as well as expected. “Fine.” She blinked, trying to recall the story they’d created. “Well,” She said, drawing out the pause as long as she could. “It all started about— what, a year ago? when we went to a book fair in Detroit—”

“The book fair was in Austin,” Harrow said, giving her a look, “and it was a year and a half ago.”

Gideon resisted the urge to flick her in the leg. “See, this is why I asked if you wanted to tell it.”

“Forgive me for having faith in your storytelling abilities,” Harrow said. “As I was saying. Eighteen months ago in Austin.” She paused, and when she looked at Gideon then it was with an expression she had never seen before. “We were drunk,” Harrow said, as if she had only just remembered, and memory hit Gideon with the force of a sledgehammer.

They had been drunk in Austin, as it happened.

It was strange— it was the only time Gideon had ever seen it happen. She had come down to the bar the night before they left to see Harrow already there, and had sat next to her out of pure stupid sentimentality.

It had been a bad day for the Ninth: one of their foremost authors had cancelled and left them stranded. Harrow had taken it hard, because she took everything hard. There were two empty glasses next to her when Gideon slid into the stool beside her.

Rough night? Gideon had asked.

Harrow had been in the middle of taking a sip, and her mouth did a twist that could almost have been called a smile. Not my best, she had said. Are you going to join me?

And for some reason, Gideon did. They had shared more conversation and more truth then than they ever had. And sometimes, on nights when resentment gave way to clarity, Gideon wished very badly that she remembered more of it.

They hadn’t spoken about it the next day, but Harrow had never looked at her quite the same way.

“You were drinking double shots of vodka,” Gideon said, almost awed by her own recollection. “Shit, babe, you were drunk when I got there.”

“I was tipsy,” Harrow corrected immediately, holding up a finger. “But— yes. We began to talk, and as the night drew on, one thing led to another, and…” She trailed off, cleared her throat, and looked away, and Gideon realized with a start that the skin at her collarbone was flushed a dark brown.

“We kissed,” Gideon said, filling in where Harrow wouldn’t. “Um.” She was blushing now, too. What the fuck was wrong with her? “A— a couple of times, actually.”

“Scandalous,” said Dulcie gleefully, leaning in. “And then what?”

“Well. I mean.” Holy fuck, this was so much more difficult than she was expecting. “We— started hooking up,” Gideon said. She cleared her throat. Joking about having sex was much easier than talking about it point-blank, even if the sex in question had never actually occurred. “Yeah. Um. So— so after that, it kind of— kept happening?”

“Never at home. Only during events and book fairs,” Harrow added, still not quite able to meet her eyes. “And— well, after those events and book fairs.”

One of Dulcinea’s eyebrows arched. “Well, you must have figured it out somehow. Look at you now.”

“Uh. Sort of,” Gideon said, feeling a traitorous heat curl up her neck. “Yeah. We—”

“Griddle was the one to make it happen,” said Harrowhark unexpectedly. Gideon’s head whipped towards her, and their eyes met for the first time in several minutes. Harrow held her gaze without violence or expectation. “She asked me— how did you put it?” The corner of her mouth quirked up. “She asked me to put my money where my mouth was.”

Dulcinea smiled. “Very Gideon thing to say.”

“I thought so, too,” Harrow said, further surprising her fiancée. “I came up with— an arrangement of sorts for us. Things to avoid outside speculation, all of that. And then it all came to a head last weekend when—” Harrow cut herself off abruptly. Gideon remembered at the same time as she did that their engagement was, technically speaking, still a secret.

“Last weekend when what?” Dulcie asked eagerly. She leaned forward with a kind of curious hunger in her eyes. “Come on. It was getting so good, Harrow, you can’t stop there! What if I die before it’s over? What if the cancer takes me?” She fanned herself, miming a fainting spell. “I can see a light forming at the end of the tunnel as we speak.”

Protesilaus let out a sigh behind her. In his deep, sonorous voice, he said, “Please stop joking about that in public.”

“Oh, Pro, don’t be a bore,” Dulcie said. “How else am I to cope?”

Gideon hid a smile. And she had to admit: for two people who had never actually told this story, they were doing a remarkable job of keeping it interesting. She glanced at Harrow, who gave her a brief nod. They were doing this, then.

“When I proposed,” She finished, watching realization turn to shock on Dulcie’s face. She offered a weak smile. “Surprise.”

“No,” breathed Dulcinea. “No— Gideon Nav, I swear—” Her mouth dropped open. Worry flooded Gideon for about half a second before a huge, grinning smile bloomed like flower petals on her face. She dove into Gideon’s arms, enveloping her in a hug, and after only a second’s pause pulled Harrow in with them.

“Congratulations,” She murmured, pulling back with shining eyes. “You— oh, you rascal, I knew there was something between you!”

“You probably knew it before we did,” Gideon wheezed, feeling rather squeezed between Harrow and Dulcinea.

“I refuse to accept that,” said Dulcie, leaning back. “Now. A few things. Do Magnus and Abigail know?”

Gideon shifted uncomfortably. “I didn’t want to tell them over the phone.”

“Understandable,” Dulcinea said, nodding along, “but you should do it fast. I’m afraid I’m a horrible tattle, and the whole town will know within the hour. The walls have ears here.”

A slight furrow appeared in Harrow’s brow. “Are they not your ears?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Dulcie brightly. “If Magnus and Abigail don’t know, Jeannemary and Isaac won’t, either. Nor will Coronabeth, nor Ianthe, nor Naberius—” Her voice dropped lower, and she seemed to continue largely to herself, listing off names and families in low tones.

Harrow leaned in to whisper to Gideon. “Are these more siblings I don’t know about?”

“The Tridentarii? Hell, no,” Gideon replied, matching her volume. “Corona and Ianthe are twins, but Naberius is just an ass.”

“And will I meet them?” Harrow asked.

As if on cue, Gideon heard a snorting, inexplicably musical laugh from a few rooms over and let out a quiet sigh. “Almost definitely.”

“Are you two talking without me?” Dulcinea pouted. “Fine. No one gets to hear about my trip to Spain.”

“When did you go to Spain?” Gideon asked.

Dulcie shook her head airily. “Well, you would know if you weren’t so busy talking with your fiancée about sex and love and— joint baths, or some such romantic nonsense.” The twinkle in her eyes gave away the joke. “But in seriousness, I would love to hear more about you two once we have time to sit and chat properly.”

Something behind Gideon’s head caught her eye, and she turned to see Magnus beaming in the doorway. “Hello, Dulcie,” He said fondly. “I made the macarons you like.”

“Oh, Magnus, you shouldn’t have,” Dulcinea said, in a tone of voice that suggested she was about to eat an entire plate. “Every day I get closer to renewing my offer to be your and Abby’s third.”

Magnus flushed, and let out a flustered laugh. “You’re going to send me into an early grave if you keep talking like that.”

“Save me a seat wherever you end up. Goodness knows I’ll be there soon enough,” said Dulcie with a wink. “I think I’m going to find Judith and make her listen to me talk about sex.” She gestured to Gideon and Harrow. “But I think those two have something they want to talk to you about.”

Gideon managed an awkward, weak smile and a thumbs-up. All in all, not her best response. Next to her, Harrow pinched the bridge of her nose.

Dulcinea left the room with her hulking knight of a nurse in tow, and as she did Magnus turned towards them with an innocent sort of surprise. “Something to tell me?” He asked. “Alright. I’ll be back in a moment— let me find Abby.”

Gideon felt something touch her arm and looked down to see, to her great surprise, a hand resting on her forearm. Harrow was looking at her with a strange intensity in her eyes. “This is it,” She said solemnly.

“This is it,” Gideon repeated faintly, nodding. “Yeah.”

“Are you ready?” Harrow searched her face for something— weakness, maybe, but Gideon wasn’t sure. Whatever it was, she didn’t seem to find it.

Gideon looked down at where Harrow’s hand rested on her arm. “I think so,” She said after a moment. “Are you?”

“No,” said Harrow quietly, which surprised them both. She moved her hand away. “But I suppose I’ll have to be.”

Magnus and Abigail reappeared in the doorway a few moments later. “Found her,” Magnus said, smiling tightly. “Now: what was it you wanted to tell us?”

Gideon looked to Harrow; Harrow looked to Gideon.

And then, somehow, their hands found each other again. “I wasn’t completely honest with you earlier,” Gideon said, still looking at Harrow. Whether it was for conviction or for reassurance, she didn’t know. “Harrow isn’t— she isn’t my girlfriend.”

Magnus’ eyebrows rose, and Abigail cocked her head to the side in confusion.

“We’re engaged,” Harrow said simply. She broke their eye contact. “Gideon is my fiancée.”

There was a full beat of silence.

Then Magnus exhaled. “Well,” He said lightly. “Then I’m glad I splurged on the champagne.” And he broke into a smile. “Congratulations, you two.”

Abigail looked between them with a surprisingly sober expression. “Thank you for telling us,” She said, with a generous dose of seriousness in her voice. “Is— anyone pregnant?”

Gideon choked on her spit, and Harrow’s mouth dropped fully open. “No,” Gideon managed. “No one is pregnant.”

“I thought it was worth asking,” Abigail said, raising her hands. “You never know.” She looked marginally more relieved, and a ghost of a smile appeared on her face. “Well done, you two. Do the children know?”

“Are the children here?” asked Magnus with a long-suffering sigh.

“Fair point. Well, I’m sure they’ll be happy to hear the news as well.” Abigail offered Harrowhark a hand to stand with. “Shall we tell our guests?”

“Uh, not quite yet,” Gideon said, reaching towards her without quite knowing why. “There are a few more people I was thinking she should meet—”

“As I live and breathe, do I hear Gideon Nav?” called a smooth, delighted voice from the living room.

“Right on cue,” Gideon muttered. Was everyone here running on a timer, or did she just have shit luck? It was hard to say

Magnus and Abigail took their leave, but Coronabeth Tridentarius walked into the room like she owned it— though, to be fair, she walked most places like she owned them, and more often than not she did.

Huge, beautiful golden curls cascaded down her shoulders, only barely hiding the expanse of bronzed skin and purple fabric that sat below. She was wearing a lavender pantsuit, and it really should not have looked as good as it did. Gideon thought Corona could probably wear a potato sack and make it look like haute couture.

The cool purple brought out her eyes, which were just as startling as her beauty was radiant. There was a jewellike sparkle to the gleam that shone there, and the skin at the corners crinkled as she grinned.

Gideon let out a breath. Hot damn. Time had been very, very kind to Coronabeth. “H— hey, Corona,” She said, clearing her throat. She stood, watching lavender eyes drag up and down her body. “Good to see you.”

“It fucking better be,” Corona said, pulling her in for a tight, abrupt hug. She pulled away with her hands on Gideon’s shoulders, shamelessly feeling the muscles below her shirt. “Goddamn, Nav, you look just as delicious as always. It’s been— what, five years since you came up here?” She shook her head. “Thank God you’re home. I was about to start wilting.”

Gideon found it very difficult to believe that Coronabeth could ever do something akin to wilting, but her focus changed to Harrowhark when lavender eyes met black. One perfect eyebrow arched on her face. “Oh, but I seem to be interrupting,” Coronabeth said, though without an apology. “Are you going to introduce us?”

“Right,” Gideon said, clearing her throat again. She had to avert her eyes every time Corona turned towards her. The cut of her blouse was a deep, deep V, and— well, suffice it to say it put the v in very fucking distracting. “Harrow, this is Coronabeth Tridentarius. Corona, this is—”

“Harrowhark Nonagesimus,” Harrow finished, offering a hand and a hard stare. “Gideon’s fiancée.” Was that— jealousy on Harrow’s face? There was no way. This was too good.

Now both of Corona’s eyebrows were raised. “A fiancée, Gideon?” Delight broke out on her face. “How wonderful! So that’s why you brought her home. We’ve all been wondering what made you decide to do it now, but a ring changes things.”

Then, much to Gideon’s delight and Harrow’s eternal torment, Coronabeth took Harrow’s hand and pulled her in for a hug. The ratio of Harrow’s height and Corona’s height were such that, when Harrowhark began to splutter out a protest, it was in a faceful of the soft golden skin exposed by her blouse.

Gideon couldn’t help but notice that Harrow was a little more flustered coming out of the hug than she was going in, and somehow the knowledge that not even she was immune to Corona’s charms satisfied her.

“Yes. Well. It’s nice to meet you,” Harrow said in a deceptive monotone, looking anywhere but ahead of her.

“Oh, just wait until you get to know me,” Corona said, insinuating that it would be a playfully dreadful experience. “You’ll regret the whole incident, I promise. Ianthe always says—”

“Oh, this will be good,” came a new, snide voice. “What does Ianthe always say?” It was alike in pitch and cadence to Coronabeth’s, yet it lacked her humanity and— well, to be honest, it lacked most of her. It lacked her radiance, it lacked her kindness, it lacked.

And that was Ianthe summed up, wasn’t it?

Gideon turned with irritation already building up inside her to see the pale, smirking frame of Coronabeth’s twin sister leaning in the hallway. “Having a little party in the foyer, are we?” asked Ianthe, slinking forward. “How strange. My invitation must have been lost.”

“Ianthe,” said Gideon flatly.

“Gideon,” said Ianthe in the same tone.

Gideon looked her up and down disdainfully. “Still a bitch?”

“Oh, of course,” Ianthe said, as if any suggestion to the contrary would have offended her. “And you? Still a raging moron?”

“Only on weekdays. On weekends I settle down a bit,” Gideon said. “So, did you eat Naberius, or is he stalking around somewhere? I was just thinking this party needed a little more hair gel.”

Ianthe shrugged. “When last I saw him, he was answering a Grindr notification and talking with Protesilaus about French poetry. A true Renaissance man.”

They continued bickering as if it was their mother tongue, and Corona leaned down to Harrow to murmur, “They do this every time. It’s like watching hyenas fight.”

“Fascinating,” Harrow said, in the same low tones. “How did you two meet?” A pause. “You and Gideon, I mean. I gather you and Ianthe met in a hospital room somewhere.”

“You’re funny!” Corona said, delighted. “We met on the playground. Well. If by playground you mean middle school cafeteria, anyway. She and Naberius got in a fight, and Ianthe thought it was so fun to watch that she insisted she sit with us.” She let out a wistful sigh. “Look at them now.” She nodded towards Gideon. “Whatever you’ve been feeding her in New York, keep doing it. She’s delectable.”

“That is my fiancée you’re talking about,” Harrow said, ignoring the way her eyes lingered where Gideon’s arms were crossed over her chest.

“I know,” Corona sighed. “You’re lucky to have her.” She paused, then looked at Harrow. “And I think she’s lucky, too. Time will tell.” She nodded as if she’d made a decision, then said, “Have brunch with me sometime next week. You and Gideon both, if you can.” A pause. “And Magnus and Abigail. They’ve always been sweet to me.”

“What’re you two talking about?” asked Gideon, as if she had a sixth sense of knowing when she was talked about. She turned briefly to look between them. “I heard my name.”

“We’re talking about you, of course,” said Coronabeth with a roguish wink. “And I’ve been meaning to say, your chest looks wonderful. Your surgeon did a phenomenal job.”

Harrow blinked. “Surgeon?”

“Top surgery,” Corona said, as if it were obvious. “Surely you’ve seen her shirtless. It’s been— what, two years?”

“Two and a half,” Gideon nodded, smiling. “Yeah. My scars are all healed up.” There was a pause, and then her face flushed a warm, dark shade of brown. “Yeah, she’s seen me shirtless. Tons of times,” She added for emphasis. “Right, honey?”

Harrow blinked. “Oh,” She said, eyes dropping to Gideon’s chest. Now that she thought about it, it had always struck her as flatter than the average. “Yes. Of— of course. Many times.” She finished with a brisk nod, hoping it was believable.

The idea that Coronabeth knew something she didn’t was inevitable, of course, but it itched at her mind. She knew it had no right to; that was only logical. And yet a traitorous part of her mind whispered all sorts of things Coronabeth and Gideon had shared, and most of them presented her with obscenely inappropriate mental pictures.

Harrowhark tried to quash it, though without success— and so she was almost grateful when the bloodless twin focused on her.

“I can only assume my lateness made me miss a few fundamentals. You’re the girlfriend,” Ianthe said, narrowing her eyes. Cold, near-lifeless lavender flicked up and down Harrow’s body in a way that reminded her of a butcher preparing to break down a hunk of meat. If she strained her ears, she could hear the sound of a knife being sharpened. “How fascinating. I must say, you’re not Nav’s usual type.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Gideon lowly, straightening her spine. She moved ever-so-slightly in front of Harrow, as if attempting to shield her.

“Normally, you go for blondes and bimbos— or both, in my dear sister’s case,” said Ianthe matter-of-factly. “Your girlfriend appears to be zero for three.”

Harrow stiffened next to Gideon, and some of the blood drained from her face. She hated being proven right. The mental pictures — as well as the accompanying jeers from her own infinitely irritating internal monologue — returned in full force.

Harrowhark opened her mouth, ready to defend herself with ice into her voice— and was completely surprised when Gideon beat her to it with steely conviction in her own.

“Yeah, well, you don’t know shit about me, Tridentarius.” Gideon took Harrow’s hand in her own, intertwining their fingers firmly together. Harrow tried not to let her mind linger on the feeling of the warm, callused palm in hers. “Because if you did, you’d know Harrow was my fiancée, not my girlfriend.”

Ianthe’s eyebrow curled up in surprise. “Well,” She said, blinking. “That is new. The woman you’ve been complaining about for years is your new wife-to-be.” She looked between them with something in her eyes that made Harrow’s stomach churn. “Very interesting.”

Gideon narrowed her eyes. “What.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Must I always be made into a villain?” Ianthe said, with a general air of villainy about her. “My comment is entirely innocent. I simply couldn’t help but notice that your fiancée has an accent.” To Harrow, she asked: “Australian?”

“New Zealand,” Harrow said, taking a half step closer to Gideon.

“My mistake.” She nodded towards Harrow. “You seem intelligent. I’m sure you know that marrying an American citizen puts you on a much faster pathway to citizenship.”

At this, Coronabeth’s waning smile finally cracked, and she reached for her sister’s elbow. “Ianthe,” She murmured, tugging her closer. “That’s enough.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Corona’s expression turned hard, and her voice went with it. “Stop it.”

“Stop what? I’m not implying anything,” said Ianthe Tridentarius, who was — in Gideon’s experience — always implying something. “Simply stating facts.”

“Yeah, well, state them somewhere else,” said Gideon in the same voice she’d used on Silas Octakiseron. “Or, hey, even better: just shut the hell up.”

Ianthe let out a high laugh. It would have been musical if it hadn’t sounded like a pane of glass breaking. “There’s the Gideon I remember. Perhaps I did miss you after all,” She said, letting out a contented sigh. “I know Corona did.” The radiant twin’s eyes widened, but before she could open her mouth Ianthe continued, “Ever since you two ended things she’s been desperately hoping you’d come back.”

At this, Harrow chanced a look up at Gideon, who had closed her eyes in an effort to stop herself from punching Ianthe in the face. There was no ending for this that was good, which meant they had to leave before anything went wrong.

“Well,” Harrow said, injecting as much ice into her voice as she could muster. “Then I’m sure they’ll have a lot to discuss when we get brunch.” She wrapped a hand around Gideon’s wrist. “Now, if you’ll excuse us. It’s been a long day.”

Gideon went with her when Harrow pulled them into a hallway, though she looked about as happy as someone on death row. “I meant to tell you—”

“What?” Harrow hissed. “That one of the first people you wanted me to meet was your ex?”

“Well, yeah, but it was years ago,” Gideon said in a rushed whisper. Her eyes darted around the narrow hallway, trying to make sure no one could hear them. “Listen. Corona and I had fun, but it wasn’t anything serious. And now we’re friends, because that’s something people who break up in a healthy way can do.”

“Tell that to her sister. She seems more than happy to hold that candle for both of them.” Somewhere, it occurred to Harrow that she had no reason to feel the dark, twisting pull of jealousy that she did. She closed her eyes, trying very hard to calm the nervous, staccato beat of her heart.

The bigger issue was, of course, what Ianthe had said about her and her visa. If anyone — anyone, which included purple-eyed strangers that had a muddy agenda — found out, it would be the end of them.

“No weakness,” Harrow said, opening her eyes. “No cracks in the mirror. We can’t let up for a second.” She searched Gideon’s face. “Promise me.”

Gideon had been fidgeting the entire time, but she stopped at the sound of those two words and really looked at the woman across from her.

Harrow’s mouth was drawn in a thin, desperate line, and her jaw was tight enough that it bulged out by her temples. Her hands were held in each other, tight at her chest, like she was half a second from wringing them. And her eyes— those damn inscrutable black eyes were laid bare for her now.

Shit, Gideon thought, letting out a quiet breath. She’s scared. “I promise,” She said quietly. Harrow’s relief was immediate. “Trust me, neither of us enjoyed that.”

“Given that you looked as though you were half a second away from tackling her,” Harrow said, “I gathered.”

Gideon thought of limp blonde hair and a cruel smile. “Can you blame me?”

Harrow glanced back to the foyer, then shook her head once. “Not at all.”

“Exactly,” Gideon said. She let out a short huff, trying to regain her composure. “But it’s— it’s cool. Corona’s gonna give her some business about it, and if God’s on our side she won’t bring it up again.” A high-pitched cling rang out, and Gideon ducked her head out of the corner they’d found to see Magnus gently tapping a spoon against a flute of champagne.

Her eyes widened. “Uh oh.”

“What?” Harrow asked, pushing past her to get a look.

As it happened, this meant Magnus saw both of them. “There you are!” He exclaimed, a broad smile drawing over his face. “Come here, you two. I was about to tell everyone the good news, but I’m sure they would much rather hear it from you.”

“Shit,” Gideon hissed. She forced a smile onto her face, stepping out from the lovely shadow of the hallway, and found herself clenched tightly. She gave the assembled crowd an awkward wave. “Hi, everyone.”

There was a general murmur that answered her. Out of the corner of her eye, Gideon saw Harrow move out of the hallway to lean against the door. She was watching her curiously. There was an expression on her face that Gideon couldn’t quite place.

Hell, Gideon thought hopelessly. As if the Harrow Situation wasn’t enough, she hated public speaking. She needed to lie down.

“So,” Gideon started, hearing her voice crack. She cleared her throat. “So, um. I’m sure a lot of you know that I’ve been living in New York for the last few years, and— that it’s been a while since I’ve been home.”

“Hear, hear,” Magnus murmured behind her, putting a warm hand on her shoulder. Reassurance had always been his strong suit.

Gideon gave him a tight, brief smile. To the crowd, she said: “Well, I want to tell you why.” A narrative formed in her mind, and without thinking she went with it. Her lips flickered into a lopsided smile. “I fell in love.” This garnered a murmur and a few stray whoops from the crowd.

Then she met Harrow’s eyes across the room and raised a hand, gesturing to her. “That woman — yeah, the goth one with the bracelets over in the corner — is my boss. Her name is Harrowhark Nonagesimus.” Murmurs rippled through the crowd, and Harrow’s eyes widened a fraction.

Now or never, whispered a voice in Gideon’s head. Her lopsided smile widened into a grin, lighting her face up like a Christmas tree. “And I’m gonna marry her.” She jerked her head towards herself, and Harrow blinked in surprise before walking over to join her. Gideon put a hand on her lower back, feeling the muscles tense beneath her.

Murmurs turned to loud murmurs, and a few surprised whoops echoed through the crowd. “So,” Gideon continued, still looking at Harrow. “I guess this is an engagement party, too.” She shrugged. “Surprise.”

Surprised, delighted applause broke out from the crowd, and someone shouted, “Show us the ring!”

Gideon’s eyes widened, but Harrow answered smoothly. “No rings yet,” She called, to general disappointment. “Gideon’s having one custom-made, and the one I ordered hasn’t shipped yet.”

“Custom-made,” Magnus nodded approvingly. “Very nice touch.”

And then a particularly brave member of their audience — though, Gideon had to admit, it sounded suspiciously like Dulcinea — shouted, “Give her a kiss!”

And Gideon froze.

It was useless to pretend she hadn’t heard it, because nearly everyone around them took up the chant of kiss her! kiss her! kiss her! within the span of five seconds.

Harrow, for her part, was trying very hard to look normal. Her throat was bobbing every few seconds with the force of her swallows, and she was blushing again. And yet she met Gideon’s eyes bravely, brazenly, and raised her eyebrows.

Do it, she mouthed.

“You sure?” murmured Gideon.

Harrow gave her a quick, fractional nod — so subtle it wouldn’t have been noticed by anyone who hadn’t been looking for it — and reached up to rest a hand on Gideon’s face.

The most surprising thing about Harrow was that she was warm. Hot, even. Gideon had always assumed she would be cool or cold to the touch, something akin to one of the skeletal figures her company loved so much. Every time they touched, the near-feverish warmth she was met with jolted her like a bolt of lightning.

Gideon cleared her throat, blinked, and nodded a few times. She let her hands rest on Harrow’s waist, desperately trying not to think about how big they looked on her body, and let Harrow’s hand guide her down.

When they kissed for the first time, it was— clumsy.

Gideon had leaned too far to one side, and Harrow hadn’t leaned enough, so their noses bumped together. Gideon leaned back, unable to keep a nervous chuckle from escaping, and readjusted her angle. Then their lips met again, properly this time, and— oh.

Oh.

This time, it was better. Harrow’s lips were soft, though the cold and the humidity rendered them chapped already, and she tasted like spearmint gum and Harrow.

Gideon’s hands tightened gently at her waist, feeling Harrow’s hand inch towards her hair, and when blunt, black-painted nails scratched timidly at her scalp she couldn’t keep back a low noise of satisfaction. There was a whoop from the crowd.

Then, Gideon remembered where she was, what she was doing, and who she was doing it with, and her eyes shot open.

She pulled away like she had been burned, eyes wide and pulse hammering, and saw Harrow’s pupils a bit more dilated than they had been seconds before.

Harrow blinked once, and Gideon swore she saw her eyes dip down to her lips before she looked away.

“Well!” Magnus called, drawing attention blessedly away from them. “The crowd has been appeased, I take it.” He raised a glass of champagne. “Congratulations!” A cheer arose from the assembled guests, which, at the very least, meant their performance was over.

Harrow was staring resolutely over her shoulder when Gideon turned to glance at her, which made her groan inside. Trust Nonagesimus to be awkward about a kiss.

Gideon reached up, tapped her lightly on the nose, and stuck out her tongue in an effort to reassure. Harrow looked affronted, which was, at least, an emotion Gideon knew how to handle. Soon, though, their attention drew again to Magnus.

“Now! If you’ll all follow me outside,” He was saying, “Abigail is setting up the grill as we speak.” To the two of them, he leaned in with a low, furtive murmur. “Take some time if you need to; your room is down the hall. Everything should be set up.”

And thank God, because Gideon had never wanted a cold shower more badly in her life. “Sounds good,” She said, giving him a friendly thump on the shoulder. “Save us a plate, yeah?”

Harrow gave him a small wave as he left, which he returned with enthusiasm. “He said it was down the hall,” She muttered, joining Gideon. “Unfortunately for us, this place is—at best, labyrinthine. But I take it you know which room he’s referring to.” She looked over to see Gideon examining her cuticles with halfhearted interest.

Alright, fine: maybe eye contact with Harrow was a little harder than normal right now. Gideon cleared her throat, nodded, and did not move her gaze. “Yep,” She said, hoping it sounded less awkward than it felt. “My guess is they put us up in my old room.”

“Griddle,” Harrow began, ignoring her, “are you going to avoid looking at me for the rest of the trip?” She was almost nonchalant, but the key word was almost— her voice came out far too tight to be confused for any kind of inner peace.

Gideon forced her eyes up to meet Harrow’s. She found the same black-rose eyes as before, though there was something cloudy in them now that she had never seen before. Christ on a bike. She needed a lie-down.

“Hi,” Gideon said, clearing her throat again. “Um. That happened.”

“It did,” Harrow said matter-of-factly. “We are engaged. People who are engaged do — on occasion — have to kiss one another.” Her cheeks were dark, but she met Gideon’s gaze almost in defiance. “We can be adults about it, I’m sure.”

This was more like it. “Oh, natch.” Gideon turned, leading her down the hallway. “Total adults. Absolute prize-winning adults. We for sure can—”

“Griddle.”

“Yep.”

She turned to see Harrow fixing her with an inscrutable expression. It was somewhere between curious and accusatory, but there was a surprising vulnerability behind the ferocity of her stare. “Why on Earth are you acting like this?”

Gideon paused with a hand on a familiar doorknob and chanced a look back. “That’s the first kiss I’ve had in almost three years,” She said, not quite letting herself make a joke of it. “And it was with you.”

She didn’t have to explain what the statement meant. Both of them knew: the job demanded totality. Harrow put all of herself in, so Gideon had to do the same. In that, they were equals.

Gideon remembered her first few months of twelve-hour shifts, breakdowns in conference rooms, missed appointments and canceled plans. It had taken adjusting— so she adjusted.

To say she was happy with it would be an exaggeration, but she had faced every day since with a grudging acceptance that she had lacked at the beginning of the job.

That was just the way things were: and now, it seemed, the way things were was changing.

Except instead of turning outward, both of them were looking inward. They found each other instead of literally anyone else.

Great. Phenomenal. Absolutely fucking wonderful.

Gideon cleared her throat for the third time in two minutes as the door opened. “Anyway. You know, for all the shit I give you, you’re not actually that bad of a bad kisser. You almost made me moan, you randy little witch.”

“Griddle,” Harrow started, eyes locking on something in the center of the room.

Gideon either didn’t hear her or didn’t care. “I mean, not that I would have. Especially not in front of all those people, but, hey. Maybe next week. Who knows what—”

“Nav,” Harrow said, slightly louder. This got her attention. When Gideon turned to look at her, she raised a hand and pointed towards the bed. “Is that— for both of us?”

Gideon blinked, then looked at her bed.

Her bed.

As in: singular.

It was a sizable bed, to be sure. Magnus and Abigail had always made things comfortable: they had started her with a full, but once she’d hit her growth spurt, she outgrew it in favor of the firm, high-quality queen that now sat with its back against the side wall.

It was freshly made, with four or five pillows arranged neatly (Gideon had never understood why, given she only ever slept with one) and a quilt folded at the edge.

And it was, eminently, for them to share.

Because that, reminded a snarky little voice in Gideon’s head, is how couples sleep: together.

“Ah,” Gideon said, with some difficulty. For fuck’s sake, why was her mouth dry? “Well.” She turned towards Harrow. “It sure fuckin’ looks like it.” Their luggage was in there already, and Gideon moved her backpack to one side of the floor before reaching for the quilt. She dropped it down without fanfare, then knelt to arrange it in a makeshift cushion.

“What are you doing,” said Harrow.

“I’m taking the floor,” said Gideon.

Harrow shook her head firmly. “You most certainly are not.”

Gideon let out an exasperated sigh. “Harrow—”

“Nav,” said her fiancée. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and her tone took the exasperation in Gideon’s body language and reflected it as forceful stubbornness. “No weakness. No cracks. Do you remember?”

“We had that conversation, like, ten minutes ago. Obviously I remember.”

“Then you know as well as I do that we can’t let any discomfort show,” Harrow said. She was compensating for the nervousness in her face with a flat, prim tone of voice. “We are adults. Are we not?”

Gideon pushed herself to her feet with a pout and kicked lightly at the edge of Harrow’s suitcase. “I guess.”

“And as adults, we can share a bed.” The fingers of one of Harrow’s hands was tapping an inconsistent staccato rhythm against her other arm. “As long as you don’t touch me with those big, meaty claws you call hands, I see no issue.”

“First of all, my hands are very nimble, thank you very much,” said Gideon, only mildly offended by the accusation. “Second— fine. Whatever. We’ll do a pillow wall or something.” She let out a short sigh. “And we’ll share.”

“And we’ll share,” Harrow agreed. A brief silence settled, thick and stifling in the tension that pervaded the space between them. After a few moments, Harrow cleared her throat. “And— for the record,” She said, meticulously avoiding eye contact, “that was the first kiss I’ve had in years, too.” She paused. Gruffly, she said: “You weren’t half bad.”

“Never mind,” Gideon said immediately. “Nope. We are absolutely not having this conversation.”

“You started it,” said Harrow, dropping her knapsack on the bed and rifling through it. She took the side of the bed closest to the door, which left Gideon with the window side. “And, as I recall, you said I almost made you—”

“I’m going to shower,” Gideon said brightly, interrupting whatever the fuck this conversation had become. “And when I come back, I do not want to hear another word about what happened.”

She drew her shirt over her back and shoulders, tossed it expertly into the corner — where, she realized a second too late, her laundry basket no longer sat — and turned to see Harrow making a doomed effort not to stare at the newly exposed skin of her torso.

“Corona almost caught you with the surgery thing,” Gideon said, almost pleased with the way Harrow’s throat bobbed. “Don’t let it happen again.”

She watched black eyes linger on the smooth, strong planes of umber skin, dragging down the veins and tendons at her neck, the stark lines of her collarbone and the powerful curves of her trapezius muscles; they followed the curves and veins of her biceps, flicked over powerful forearms and strong hands where they rested at Gideon’s hips.

Then Harrow’s eyes flicked up to the jagged, shiny ripples of scar tissue below her major pectoralis. She ghosted over them, eyeing the faded lines, before her gaze landed on the faint dusting of fuzzy, red-brown hair that began over her belly button and continued down past the waistband of her boxers.

Gideon swore she saw Harrow glance at the V of her hips, too, but that might have just been wishful thinking.

Harrowhark cleared her throat and met Gideon’s gaze again. “You have a freckle by your hip,” She said, with an impressively neutral tone of voice. “And you buy your underwear at Target. I trust that will be more than satisfactory for future conversations.”

“Target makes good underwear,” Gideon said, turning towards the bathroom. “But I’d have a few other facts lined up before you get to the freckle, babe. A secret isn’t a secret if the whole town knows.”

She didn’t have to look at Harrow to see her roll her eyes. “Take your shower. I’m hungry.”

Gideon’s mouth quirked up at the corners, and she turned at the door to give Harrow an exaggerated wink. “After the way you stared at me, I would’ve thought you’d be thirsty. Heyo.” Harrow flipping her the bird told her to shut up, but the faint blush at her neck told a different story.

And as Gideon got into the old, familiar shower, she found — almost against her will — that the only thing she could think of was the way Harrow’s hand fit in hers like a puzzle piece.

Chapter Text

By the time the sun began to dip down below the water line, Gideon was almost starting to settle in.

Almost, of course, being the key word. The events of the last 24 hours ran through her mind in snapshots— the plane ride and its prayers; her long-overdue reunion with Magnus and Abigail, as well as the following introduction to Harrow; and, finally (and most commonly replayed), the kiss.

Gideon was almost impressed that they had managed to do it; Harrow didn’t strike her as the type to play off physical affection well. But they had done it. And, for better or for worse, they had the town fooled.

The shower had helped. Before it, she’d felt weird and grimy. At least now she just felt weird.

Harrowhark had politely declined a turn in the shower, opting to take one after everyone had left the house (“What if someone sees me, Griddle?” She had said, affronted,) which Gideon thought was a fair compromise.

Then again, after everyone left, it would mean—

Well. After that, they’d start getting ready for bed.

As in: getting ready for their shared bed, where they were both going to sleep. Next to each other. For three weeks. This was the part Gideon was still a teensy bit stuck on.

And if her hunch was right, she wasn’t the only one struggling with it. Gideon had come out of the shower to an empty room, and had found a hastily-scribbled post-it note left on the side table.

Went down for food, read Harrow’s rushed, scratchy handwriting. Meet me when you come.

It was signed with a trademark HN, which felt somewhat redundant, but whatever. Gideon had thrown on a button-down and a sweater, said fuck it to blow-drying her hair, and rejoined the party just in time to see her foster siblings back from the dead.

Well, okay. Not the dead in the literal sense— but Isaac, as it turned out, had been trying very hard to commit to a goth aesthetic, and as such had been insisting that the local cemetery become their go-to hangout spot. Jeannemary, standing next to him with her hands in her pockets, was wearing joggers and a dark blue varsity jacket.

It was odd seeing them so big. When Gideon had left for college, they had just turned 10. The last time she had seen them in person, they were 14.

And now here they stood at 17, coming out on the other side of puberty having finally won a hard-fought battle.

Jeannemary was taller than Isaac — and, much to her displeasure, nearly taller than Gideon — and had finally grown into the lanky limbs that had plagued her for years. She stood straight-backed and alert, with thick, shiny black hair wrestled into a sleek ponytail behind her. Black, almond-shaped eyes were nearly closed in a soundless laugh, and as Gideon watched she reached over to punch Isaac in the shoulder.

Her arms had filled out, too— she’d been bugging Gideon for workout tips for years now, and they seemed to finally be (no pun intended) working out for her. She was no longer the hunched preteen Gideon remembered: a few vestiges of baby fat still clung to her cheeks, but age was already beginning to sharpen her features.

And Isaac was no different. His eyes, warm and black and familiar, were made stark by the eyeliner that ringed them, but they gave Jeanne the same unimpressed look that had echoed throughout their childhood. His hair, curly and thick, was neatly piled on top of his head— and holy hell, there was black stubble poking at his cheeks.

Nearly every inch of his skin, warm and brown, was covered in black, white, spikes, or some combination of the above. His fingernails were painted black; silver bangles and chains were layered around his neck and wrists.

This reminded her of Harrow— and for some reason the thought made her smile.

Gideon was glad she had brought their gifts down with her. “Uh oh,” She called, loud enough to turn their heads. “Here comes trouble.”

Jeannemary’s eyes shot wide. Then, in a failed attempt to quell her excitement into cool teenage ambivalence, they narrowed into a pleased half-smile. “I wondered where you were,” Jeanne said, crossing her arms over her chest.

Isaac frowned. “Magnus told us, like, two hours ago that she was home?”

Jeannemary smacked him on the shoulder again. “Whatever. Sorry we’re late,” She said, and a hint of chagrin leaked into her voice. “Isaac took a bunch of wrong turns getting us to the docks again.”

“You can drive?” Gideon burst, unable to keep it in. “Holy fuck. You guys are gonna make me feel old.”

“Aren’t you, like, 30?”

“Okay, I’m twenty-five,” Gideon said, wounded. “God, teenagers are mean. You know we’re on the same side, right?” She raised an eyebrow and leaned in. “And, because I’m not a child, I can do cool shit like this whenever I want.”

Out of her pocket, she produced two neatly-wrapped parcels. She had drawn a little skull on Isaac’s on the plane, and had doodled flames onto Jeannemary’s.

To say they looked delighted would have been a gross understatement. Jeanne’s eyes nearly bugged out of her skull when she opened hers, and she punched the air abruptly. Isaac’s mouth dropped open, and he flicked the first lighter (with a skull-and-bones motif) open with eyes that reflected the flame.

In a whisper-yell — likely so as not to alert Magnus and Abigail, who had both been informed of the gifts ahead of time — she said, “Brass knuckles? Dude, Gideon, this is—” She nodded furiously to herself. “Nice. Nice. I’ve always wanted a set of these.”

There was a pause, and then she leapt at Gideon, who was completely unprepared for nearly six feet of an athletic, overeager teenager to come at her.

She staggered back, only barely managing not to lose her balance. “Anytime,” Gideon said, only wincing a little. Jeanne released her, almost vibrating with excitement in place. “What kind of older sibling am I if I don’t peer pressure you guys into doing stupid shit?”

Isaac and Jeannemary made eye contact, shared an entire conversation in the span of a few eyebrow movements, and turned back to Gideon. “Speaking of peer pressure,” said Isaac, which could only mean disaster, “we heard you kissed someone earlier.”

Ah. That.

“Haha,” Gideon said weakly. “Yep.”

When she fell silent without elaboration, Jeanne’s eyebrows rose. “Okay, so who?”

“I’m convinced you two inherited Dulcie’s gossip gene,” said Gideon, completely aware that none of them were related. “Fine.” She looked around for a moment, scanning the dwindling crowd for a figure clad in black. Her gaze softened as she found her target. “Come with me.”

Gideon led them through throngs of people, giving customary hellos and how-are-yous to the ones she recognized best, until they reached where Harrowhark was sitting, alone, at the water’s edge.

“Hey, you,” called Gideon, loud enough for Harrow to turn her head halfway. There was a picked-over plate of food sitting next to her. Magnus had made a smiley face with peas and mashed potatoes on it, and Harrow had been careful not to disturb it. “Got a second?”

Harrow turned completely now, facing her with an expression torn between guarded and quizzical. “I wondered when you’d come down,” She said, watching Gideon plop down beside her. “How was your shower?”

“Oh, it was great,” Gideon said. “Very wet.”

Harrow’s nose wrinkled. “Lovely.” Isaac and Jeannemary joined them a moment later, and she nodded towards them. “You brought company,” She said. “Are you going to introduce us?”

Gideon nodded. “For sure. This is Isaac and Jeannemary.” To Isaac and Jeanne, she said: “And, guys, this is my fiancée. Her name is Harrowhark Nonagesimus. She’s from New Zealand.” She leaned in conspiratorially, adding, “And she was my boss before this.”

Next to her, Harrow put her head in her hands. “Why must you insist on sharing that with people?” She asked, with the barest hint of a groan. “Word is going to go around that I’m some kind of animal that only kept you around for— well, purposes that are completely inappropriate to discuss in public.”

Gideon ignored this and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s true. I was her sexy little secretary. Her sexy-tary,” She said, winking at Isaac and Jeanne, who, for their part, looked torn between being delighted and absolutely horrified. “Seriously. I was a tight little piece and she was on the hunt for a boytoy. That’s why she hired me, you know.”

That is absolutely not why I hired you,” said Harrow, now utterly mortified. Her voice had a wheedling quality when she got worked up like this. “I hired you because I read your manuscript and I thought you had the strongest, wittiest use of voice I’d ever encountered. And then I sat in on your interview and watched you talk circles around my HR representative.” She shrugged. “You were the obvious choice.”

Gideon’s entire body went cold at this. It was, perhaps, the only piece of genuine praise Harrow had ever given her, and she had zero idea of how to respond to it. “Oh,” She said, intelligently.

And,” continued Harrow, though it was surely just for the sake of the lie, “I only started falling for you after you kissed me.”

“Okay, gross,” Isaac said, seemingly unaware of Gideon blue-screening next to him. “I mean, we’re happy for you? I guess? But that’s gross. Both of you are gross."

“If I ever fall in love, shoot me,” Jeanne said firmly, nodding in solidarity with her foster brother. “Disgusting. I’m leaving.” A pause. “No offense, H—” She seemed to think better of it, and cleared her throat. “Ms. Nonagesimus.”

Ms. Nonagesimus?” repeated Harrow incredulously. “God, that’s depressing. I’m marrying your sibling, not giving you an exam. It’s Harrowhark. Or Harrow, I suppose.”

“Oh. Okay,” said Isaac, who was visibly unused to calling adults by their first names. To Harrow, he said, “Well, it was nice to meet you. Let us know if you ever want to play Mario Kart.”

They stood and walked back in quiet, rushed tones, which left Gideon still completely frozen in place. “Please never compliment me like that again,” She said after a beat. “That was a lie. Right? You were doing a bit for the kids, right?”

The kids is, perhaps, a bold term for them,” said Harrow, confirming Gideon’s suspicion that she was an only child. “But— no.” Gideon’s eyes bulged out of her sockets, and Harrow let out an impatient sigh. Her voice turned gruff, but she met Gideon’s eyes all the same. “I’m merely saying you’re an incredible writer. You’re still a dreadful person.”

“I thought you hated my writing,” Gideon said, choosing to focus on this instead of the other. “You called my voice horrid, like, two days ago..”

Harrow looked away from her then. A silence settled between them, long enough that Gideon almost jumped when Harrow spoke again. “What was it your story was about? It’s— vampires, isn’t it?”

Gideon thought that was a gross oversimplification, but— “More or less, yeah,” She said. “I mean, it’s about love and grief and horror and the beauty of where they intersect, but sure. Fuck the themes. It’s about vampires.”

This seemed to be enough for Harrow, who nodded in satisfaction. “There was something the two protagonists said to each other at the end,” She said, still staring out at the sea. The sun was beginning to set, casting a gold-red glow over the glassy surface of the water. “When the human is trying to convince the vampire to turn her. What was it?”

One flesh, one end,” Gideon said, now thoroughly confused. After a moment, she continued, “It’s because— the human, she’s bleeding out, and the vampire is holding her and crying. Big-time dramatic shit, you know?”

Harrow’s mouth quirked up at the edges. “Naturally.”

“Well, the human gives her this smile and says the words to her, because creating a new vamp makes, like— a spiritual link between them and the old one. They become connected by soul, not just by body. She says it to give the vampire permission. To bring them together, I mean.” Harrow’s eyelashes fluttered, and in the golden light of the setting sun it made her appear almost holy. Gideon looked away.

“One flesh, one end,” Harrow repeated, more to herself than anything else. She nodded a few times, then said, “I couldn’t remember it. I only read your work the once, I’m afraid.” There was a brief pause. Then, she turned towards Gideon again. “But, then, I suppose I’ll have to get reacquainted with it soon.”

“Yeah,” said Gideon, who was completely unsure where this conversation had led them. “I guess you will.”

Harrow nodded then, as if something had been settled between them, and turned back to the surface of the water. “Magnus has your plate,” She said. “He told me to tell you. It’s wrapped in foil next to the grill.”

It was a polite, endlessly graceful way to say please leave. Gideon couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief. “Dope. Thanks,” She said, pushing herself to her feet. And then, unexpectedly: “If you’re still hungry, I can bring you some more of the salad. I told Magnus not to put any dairy in it.”

Something flickered over Harrow’s face then, something that twisted through her mouth and rippled up to her eyes. “No, thank you,” She said, turning back away from the water for just a moment. “I think I’ll be alright here.”

And it was only when she was already half a lawn away from her fiancée that Gideon realized— what had come over Harrow’s face was a smile.

* * *

Night came faster than Gideon was used to. With exhaustion and a time difference conspiring against her, she was ready to go to sleep by the time the clock struck 8pm.

She still wasn’t entirely convinced that Harrow slept at all, but she walked with Gideon to their bedroom regardless. Another silence settled between them— with Gideon walking half a step behind Harrow taking in the sights of her childhood and early adulthood and, if her expression was any indication, with Harrow buried deep in her own head.

Once they made it to their room, Gideon closed the door and crossed her arms over her chest. “Nonagesimus,” She said, which made Harrow jump. “You’re thinking hard enough that I’m surprised there’s not, like, a lightbulb over your head. Spill.”

Harrow blinked, then scowled. “My thoughts are my business, and I owe them to no one,” She said flatly, pushing past Gideon to the bathroom. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to shower. I can smell your stink on me.”

“Babe, if you want my stink on you, all you have to do is ask.”

Nav,” said Harrow, in tones of the grave. “I’m serious. Talk to me again and I’ll pour clam juice on your side of the bed.”

Someone’s touchy, thought Gideon with a sigh. “Alright, fine. Just— trying to lighten the mood.” She nodded towards the bathroom. “I put your travel kit in there.”

This earned another owlish blink from Harrowhark. “Oh,” She said. The sepulchral, serious tone of her voice cracked through with surprise. “Thank you. That— was kind of you to do.”

“Yeah. I’m a great fiancée. It rules,” Gideon said, shrugging off her sweater. She began to undo the buttons of her shirt, going from the top down, and looked back at Harrow to find her eyes lingering at her hands.

Harrow’s gaze snapped away from her body instantly, aiming anywhere else. “I’m going to shower,” She said again. The bathroom door closed with just the hint of a slam, and the sound of pressurized water hitting the tile floor sounded within the second.

Gideon pulled on an oversized shirt from her college days — it was a novelty shirt, in actuality, that read BONER and nothing else — and shucked her pants off, sliding into fresh sheets with a sigh of clean, comfortable satisfaction.

After the first two minutes of relaxation, she got unfathomably bored of being so still. Her fingers tapped lightly against her stomach for a moment, drumming a quick, rhythmless beat, and she let out a thin whistle. Then, decisively, she reached down for the book in her bag, put her glasses on, and began to read.

She had only made it through a few pages when the door opened again, abrupt as ever.

Golden eyes flicked up over plastic rims, eyeing Harrow where she stood in a loose, long-sleeved black shirt and a face free of makeup.

Gideon had seen Harrow’s naked face before, of course, but rarely like this. Without makeup, she looked both younger and older— the sharp edges Gideon was used to were gone, lost in favor of gentle curves at her jaw and her cheeks, but her eyes spoke of age and weariness.

Frown lines had already begun to wear into the corners of her mouth, but there were no crows’ feet at the edges of her eyes to balance them.

And, actually, now that she looked closer, the eyes in question were staring openly at her. “What?” Gideon said, raising her eyebrows. “Do you like the shirt?”

“Absolutely not. The shirt is atrocious,” said Harrowhark immediately. “No, I—” Her words died in her throat, and she blinked before continuing, “I just didn’t know you needed glasses.”

“Only for reading,” Gideon said, half-defensively. “And only really at night. Normally with, like, computers and shit I’m fine.”

She took her frames off for a moment and held them up. They were simple: nondescript, black, and an interesting middle ground between square and circular that — in Gideon’s opinion — made her look like a college professor.

Harrow’s eyes tracked the movement of her hands. “Right,” She said, with about half the force her voice usually possessed. “What are you reading?”

“Porn,” said Gideon, knowing full well it was a lie. She had been aiming for a spit-take or a nice, solid choke, but all Harrow did was roll her eyes. Boring.

“Charming.”

“Right? But, no. I’m kidding.” Gideon nodded down to the book in her hands. “It’s called Arthur in Jerusalem: A Comparison of Legend and Religion,” She rattled off. Then, with a meaningful look: “By Dr. Abigail Pent in collaboration with the University of Alaska.”

Harrow’s confusion smoothed over into understanding. “She’s a professor, then. That makes sense,” She said, nodding. “And this is her most recent publication?”

“You’re two for two,” Gideon said. “Yeah. I mean, I only understand about every other word, but the basic gist of it has something to do with her comparing Christianity to early Welsh folklore. Hence: Arthur in Jerusalem.”

Harrow’s eyebrows raised in what almost looked like genuine interest. “If you don’t end up getting through it, I would ask you to leave it with me,” She said, unexpectedly.

Gideon had full faith in Harrow’s weird, accelerated literature degree, but the book was as thick as her fist and about four times denser. Intelligence was one of Abigail’s strong suits. Clarity and broad accessibility, on the other hand, were not.

“Are you sure?” She asked. “Like. Absolutely sure? Because, look, I love Abigail, but she can be—” She paused, thinking. “Wordy.”

“I enjoy words,” Harrow said, like a total dweeb. “And one of us needs to talk with her about it. Far be it from me to make a bad impression on my future mother-in-law.”

The words were stated in a resolute, matter-of-fact tone, but they hit Gideon with the force of a scream.

There were times where she remembered, all at once, that this was what they were doing. She was going to marry Harrowhark. The concept of having a mother-in-law, or of— what was the right word here? Donating one? was terrifying.

“Right. Yeah,” Gideon said, hopelessly awkward. “I’m going to sleep.”

Harrow was scrolling idly through her email, frowning every so often at things she wasn’t allowed to respond to. “Be my guest.”

Gideon nodded curtly. She slid a bookmark in place, put her glasses on the nightstand, and clicked off the light.

She swore her body had never been so tense as it was then. Every muscle in her body was clenched, from her neck and her shoulders all the way down to her calves.

This is fine, Gideon thought, trying more to convince herself than anything else. As long as she didn’t move, didn’t spread out, and didn’t talk in her sleep, it would all be fine. It was fine. Everything was fine.

It was only after the first five minutes of her doomed attempt at sleeping that Harrow’s voice, mildly annoyed and more than mildly exasperated, came from beside her. “Griddle, for heaven’s sake, relax. I don’t need the light to feel how damn stiff you are.”

Gideon relaxed fractionally. “Why do you care?” She asked.

“I need you well-rested,” Harrow said, as if it were obvious. “No weakness. No—”

“No cracks,” Gideon finished, already tired of hearing it. “Fine. Okay.” She took a breath and released it, trying to ease the tension in her muscles. She closed her eyes again— and this time, whether by the grace of God or a day and change of exhaustion, she fell asleep within a few minutes.

The night passed in fits of sleep; perhaps it was the presence of the pointed figure next to her, perhaps it was the strange, familiar feeling of comfort set in such an unfamiliar context. At one point, Gideon woke up to see Harrow looking at her with a strange expression on her face.

It was pinched and tight. If Gideon didn’t know her better, she would have said it was guilt. She marked it down as a dream the second Harrow’s mouth had quirked up in a strange, sad half-smile. “Go back to sleep,” She murmured, voice rough from disuse.

Well, dream or not, it sounded like a wonderful idea. Sleep washed over her like the tide, pushing and pulling in a rhythm unfamiliar to her.

It was still dark when she woke up. Gideon blinked owlishly. Her eyes needed only a moment to adjust, but her brain took a few minutes longer to remember the issue of Alaskan sunlight in the later parts of the year.

With realization returned feeling— something was digging into her back. She straightened, turned halfway, and saw a single bony elbow protruding from a mass of blankets and pillows.

Gideon blinked again, frowning, and craned her neck over to get a closer look. Harrow was in a cocoon of her own design beside her, and in the eye of a hurricane of cotton, a few tufts of black hair could be seen. The sound of gentle snoring could be heard over the whir of the fan overhead.

So Harrow did sleep. Interesting.

Gideon pushed the covers off herself slowly, careful not to disrupt her partner, and thought briefly on what to do next. Her eyes landed on an old pair of running shoes in the corner. A smile curled over her lips.

Magnus was in the kitchen sipping a mug of coffee when she walked in a few minutes later. She had shed her t-shirt for a lightweight jacket and shorts, and her shoes were laced snug on her feet. “Morning,” Gideon said, yawning. “Pass me a banana?”

Magnus raised his eyebrows in greeting, and nodded. He tossed a piece of fruit her way. Gideon caught it easily. Opening it was difficult enough that Magnus looked away, trying to spare her ego, and only looked back when she began to chew.

“So, erm,” He said, clearing his throat. “Going for a run?”

“I might, yeah,” said Gideon, in between bites. “You know I like catching the sunrise. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to.”

Across from her, Magnus nodded. He hadn’t brushed his hair yet, which felt like a distinctly un-Magnus oversight. He was wearing a soft-looking shirt that read a tour date from thirty years before in faded letters. “Take a few pictures for me,” He said with a smile. “Abigail will want to see them, and mine never quite seem to capture it.”

Gideon nodded in sympathy. “Rough.”

He shrugged. “You’ve always had a better eye than me.”

“I think I just have a better camera,” Gideon said, raising an eyebrow. “You’ve had that phone for— what, seven years now?”

“It still works,” said Magnus, with only a twinge of chagrin. “And besides, I think it would be good for you and Abby to— bond.”

This made her stop in place, one hand still poised to carry the last few bites of banana to her mouth. Gideon narrowed her eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing serious.” Magnus let out a quiet sigh. “But the more I think about it, the more I think that— well, what with you being gone for so long, she missed you. Probably more than she’d care to admit.”

Guilt pricked at her palms, and a pang of shame lodged firmly in her chest. “I was working,” said Gideon defensively, knowing all the while that it was a shit excuse. “If I could have come sooner, I would have.”

Magnus gave her a smile at this, but it wasn’t the broad, satisfied grin she was used to. It was a smile that saw memory pull down the corners of his mouth, and one that didn’t quite reach his eyes. All he said was, “We know.” A moment of silence. Then: “You should get going. I checked the weather; the sunrise starts in thirty minutes. If you leave now, you’ll catch it right as you reach the top of the hill.”

This neither reassured nor soothed her, but it would have to do. Gideon aimed for a smile, though she was sure it resembled a grimace more closely. She found that all she could say was, “Thanks,” and decided it would have to be enough.

* * *

Harrowhark woke up alone in an unfamiliar bed, with a hint of Gideon’s deodorant in the air that surrounded her, and still found that it was not the most surprising thing about her current situation.

No: the most surprising thing was that there was a note left on her nightstand. She was used to being the one to leave notes, not the other way around.

WENT FOR A RUN, read Gideon’s inexplicably tidy writing. BACK SOON.

It was simple and to the point, which part of her thought was in stark contrast to the personality of its writer. Harrow blinked the vestiges of sleep from her eyes and saw a few faint strands of sunlight past the curtains.

Her phone told her it was just past 8 in the morning, which explained both Gideon’s wakefulness and the dawning, nubile nature of the sun in the sky. She remembered, vaguely, Gideon explaining the difference in sunlight at polar latitudes, and did her best to resist the urge to go back to sleep.

Harrow cast her gaze around the room idly, memorizing to the best of her ability the shapes and shadows of Gideon’s childhood. Her eyes landed on a small, folded piece of paper under the door. She frowned.

The journey from the bed to the door was horrible; her ankles hurt so early in the morning, and her wrists were stiff with disuse and chronic arthritis. She winced when her fingers bent to retrieve the letter.

It was written on smooth, creamy paper. Gorgeous, neat cursive read: Hope sleep is treating you well; G never quite got the hang of it. Am making breakfast for you + Abby (kids won’t be up for hours). Would love it if you came down. Coffee is made and ready.— M.

Receiving an invitation for breakfast seemed like standard procedure for a guest of Magnus Quinn, but the last sentence was what truly sealed the deal for her.

As if on cue, chill ran through her, trying to tempt her back into the warm embrace of her— of Gideon’s bed. That wouldn’t do.

Without thinking, Harrow reached into the closet at her side and pulled out the first sweater she could find, pulled it over herself, and felt instantly warmed by the knit wool sitting thick and soft over the thin shirt she had slept in. Some vague recognition pinged in her mind, but it was too scattered to make sense of in the moment. So Harrow gathered her spirits and left.

The labyrinthine hallways of Canaan House were becoming less and less labyrinthine to her by the second; Harrow no longer needed a ball of enchanted wool in the form of her fiancée to navigate them. Magnus and Abigail were in the kitchen when she arrived.

Magnus was hovering over the stove with a spatula in hand and the sleeves of his sweater rolled to the elbows, and Abigail was leaning against the counter typing something on a sleek-looking computer. There were two clean, empty mugs set neatly on a towel next to a carafe of coffee. One of them bore a G in neat, archaic lettering. The other had a pun about commas printed on it.

For a moment Harrow stood in the doorway, completely unsure of what to say. Pure chance had Magnus notice her. He was too well-bred to jump or visibly startle, but his eyes flew wide.

He pressed a hand to his chest. “Goodness. I didn’t hear you walk in,” He said, surprise turning to friendliness before her eyes. “Please, have a seat. How do you take your coffee?”

“Without dairy, if possible,” said Harrow, taking a few careful steps over. There were two empty seats at the breakfast bar, and she debated for a moment whether or not she should sit next to Abigail. Then, as she walked by, the professor looked up at her and patted the chair beside her, which solved that puzzle for her.

To say Harrow felt intimidated would have been a lie. There were some things she flatly refused to feel; intimidated was one (though she was sure her assistant would say relaxed and normal were two more).

But— well, there was a definite unease that crept over her. Abigail Pent had a quiet, unassuming air of intelligence that pervaded every room she was in. And for Harrowhark, who was used to being the smartest person in the room, it took some getting used to.

It was interesting: the energy she inspired in other people was different from the commanding, tightly-clenched respect Harrow’s presence demanded. Abigail didn’t need to demand respect, because everyone around her loved her, and that was—

Well. That was difficult to wrap her head around. That was borderline incomprehensible.

The silence between the three of them was starting to make her uncomfortable, which was another surprise. Normally, Harrow would have been completely at ease in a silent room, but something about this room changed her mind.

“I started reading your book last night,” Harrow began, not exactly sure where she was going with it. It was as good a conversation starter as any, she supposed.

“Did you really?” Abigail paused with her coffee in hands and turned to face her. Quiet, warm brown eyes lit up at Harrow’s words. “What did you think? I would love to hear your take.”

“I did,” Harrow said, perhaps more carefully than the questions warranted. “Although I regret that I didn’t get too far in— Gideon’s snoring distracted me,” She explained, watching Abigail hide a smile. “But already I find myself intrigued by the comparison you’re making. I can think of very few people that would find a connection between Arthur’s knights and Jesus’ disciples.”

“Then perhaps you think too little of your audience,” said Abigail pleasantly. Magnus turned and presented them with a bowl of sliced fruit, which she slid towards Harrow. In between bites, she said, “I am not the first to explore it, but I do like to think that I’m— what’s the expression?”

“Charting a new course,” piped up Magnus from the stove. Until this, he had been steadfastly pretending not to listen. “Exploring uncharted waters. Something to do with charts.”

It was perhaps an understatement to say that Harrowhark was not used to being challenged, but still she couldn’t find it in her to view it as a threat. It reminded her of being back in university, sitting around a table debating the merits of various scholars.

“I see.” She shifted in her seat. “When I was at Oxford, I remember taking a religious communication class, and—”

“Oxford?” Magnus turned towards them with his nose scrunched. “Oh, that won’t do,” He said, tsking lightly.

Harrowhark blinked. She tried — really, she did — to control the ice in her voice, but some of it slipped through. “Excuse me?”

“I’m afraid this is a staunchly pro-Cambridge household.” Magnus nodded towards his wife. “It’s her alma mater.” He passed her a mug of coffee. It was a neat tan color— and, to her surprise, tasted faintly of hazelnut. Harrow looked up with a confused expression, which prompted: “Ah, er— Gideon mentioned you liked the taste, so I picked up some syrup from the store yesterday morning.”

“Thank you,” Harrow said, unsure of what else to say. Then, after a moment, she cleared her throat. “A colleague—” She paused. “A friend of mine went to Cambridge to do doctoral studies after university, though I don’t know that the two of you would have overlapped. He teaches Medieval Studies at Trinity now.”

“What’s his name?” asked Abigail, eyebrows raising lightly. “There aren’t many of us. It’s a small world.”

“Sextus,” Harrow said. “Palamedes Sextus.”

Abigail nodded in recognition. “I met him once or twice at events,” She said. “He’s written books for the Ninth, hasn’t he?”

Harrow nodded. “Most of his academic work has been with the Sixth, but lately he’s been venturing into fiction.”

“I have his book,” said Abigail unexpectedly. Then: “In fact, I have all of his books. And more than a few of— what was the poet’s name? The one that released the translation of the Iliad?”

The mention made Harrow roll her eyes. “Ortus Nigenad,” She said, with no small amount of residual irritation. He had argued with her for weeks about the definition — and, later, the application — of hexameter. “Yes. According to him, it was a gothic reimagining, but I think that was just his way of catering to our theme.”

Magnus turned around for the final time then, holding two plates in his hands. One was piled high with eggs; the other held several pieces of neatly-cut toast and what appeared to be vegetarian sausage.

“We have every book the Ninth has published in the last three years,” He said with a deceptive lightness, setting the plates down in front of them. “And I admit, I do love the cookbooks the Fifth puts out. The bread book alone made me cancel my Masterclass subscription.”

He passed them a few empty plates and laid some serving spoons out. Abigail served herself a good-sized portion; Harrow opted for a piece of toast and, bravely, a link of sausage. She nibbled on it for a moment. “And? What do you think?” She asked, with an uncharacteristic feeling of nervousness.

“About the books?” Abigail asked. At Harrow’s nod, she paused, thinking to herself for a moment. “I think that I would like them better,” She began softly, “if I didn’t know that someone I loved was running herself ragged to get them printed.” A sad smile crept over her face. “Ignorance is bliss, I’m afraid.”

There it is, Harrow thought, an icy chill running through her.

She found it suddenly very difficult to meet the other woman’s eyes. Her own gaze dropped from her plate of food to the edge of the granite countertop, and for a moment she entertained the idea of slamming her head down against it rather than stew in the growing, nauseous guilt that had been eating at her for the last day.

And then she felt something touch her. Even through the thick wool of the sleeve, she could feel the gentle warmth of Abigail’s hand against her arm.

Harrow’s eyes flicked over, running over smooth skin and well-manicured nails. “I don’t mean to guilt you,” the professor said, impossibly gently. She gave a reassuring squeeze to Harrow’s arm and gave her a small smile, searching for something inscrutable in Harrow’s eyes. “Truly, I don’t. You have a company to run. I understand that.” She squeezed gently. “None of us are going to hold it against you, Harrowhark.”

Damn Abigail Pent and her kindness, thought Harrow desperately. She could feel her mouth doing something pathetic as tears pricked at her eyes. Years without sleep, years without release, years of tormenting her assistant— she should have been hated. She should have been screamed at; she should have been eaten alive by this place.

Instead her throat was burning. Instead, two people that should have despised her had made a place for her in their home. Instead, she was being shown forgiveness.

And holy hell, she absolutely could not deal with it.

“I think,” Harrowhark said, with an unsteady wobble in her voice, “that I would understand if you did.

Magnus and Abigail shared a look that she couldn’t parse. Whatever they shared, it was silent; they carried out an entire conversation with little more than a few twitches of their facial muscles.

When it ended, they turned back to her with smiles that complemented each other: Magnus with a warm, easy grin, and Abigail with a small, lopsided smile that reminded her hopelessly of Gideon. And it was Magnus who said, in a soothing, warm tone that matched his expression, “Then understanding is all we ask.”

He finished it with a hand on her shoulder, and Harrow had to fight the urge to cry.

This, at least, they both seemed to be aware of. She wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse. “Thank you for the breakfast, dear,” said Abigail lightly to her husband. “I think I’ll finish up in the library.” After a moment, she turned to Harrowhark. “If you cared to join me, I would be happy to show you to it.”

“Sure,” said Harrow, ignoring the hoarse underside of her voice. “I’ve been looking for a good place to get some work done. It would do me well to have a library’s resources.”

“Then it’s settled,” Abigail said briskly. She picked up her plate, leaned down to kiss her husband on the cheek, and nodded her head slightly towards the doorway. “This way.”

The hallways Abigail led her through were, inexplicably, completely foreign to her. At this rate, she was going to need to map the place.

After a few minutes of wandering with purpose through door frames and halls and archways, they came to a stop outside a set of double doors.

It sat at the end of a long hallway. A shiny golden plate over the entrance read, helpfully, Library. The doors were large and sturdy; the handles were polished brass. And when Abigail pushed the doors open, the room beyond was stunning.

Harrow’s eyebrows rose. Years of working behind the scenes of publishing books had somewhat diminished their magic for her, but this was nearly enough to see it returned in a second.

It was a deceptively small room. It couldn’t have been larger than the kitchen, and yet it felt both massive and deeply internal all at once. It was as though the walls were a ribcage protecting the fragile heart within.

Shelves upon shelves of leather-bound books stretched out in front of her, labeled with notecards of neat handwriting. Some had sticky notes poking out of the top — they appeared to be color-coded — and some still had a bookmark sticking out of them.

What stood out to Harrow most was the simple fact that there was no dust on any of the shelves she saw. It spoke to care; it spoke to love.

Abigail Pent smiled when she saw the look on Harrowhark’s face. “It isn’t much,” She said, shrugging. “Not as big as the ones at Oxford, I’m sure.”

“And probably not as big as the ones at Cambridge, either,” said Harrowhark, “but infinitely better-kept.” She nodded, casting her eyes up at the shelves that sat above her. There was a well-used set of Encyclopedia Britannica above a smooth, mahogany desk that sat against one wall. Next to it was a smaller, significantly emptier desk. “The larger one is your desk, I take it.”

“It is.” Abigail nodded. “Come. Magnus won’t mind if you use his.”

As they neared, Harrow got a better view of Abigail’s workspace. The professor had arranged her work and her life neatly on her desk. Papers and a laptop were in somewhat haphazard piles, though they were carefully labeled in neat script. A framed picture of her and Magnus sat firmly in one of the back corners, while one of a younger Gideon with a much-younger Jeannemary and Isaac sat in the other.

And Harrowhark found herself looking at it.

It was a simple, almost laughable pose— Gideon in the middle flexing her biceps, Isaac and Jeanne held in the air, clinging to one each.

Gideon couldn’t have been older than 18 when it was taken— teenage skincare could only do so much for pizza face, and the familiar definition of her cheeks and jaw was only just beginning to show.

But her smile was the same. It was big and rancorous and lopsided as ever. Jeanne and Isaac were — at Harrow’s estimate — at the oldest, eleven or twelve, and were only just beginning to look like the versions of themselves that she recognized.

Abigail caught her looking. “We took that on— well, that was Isaac’s birthday, so it would have been April 12th during her senior year of high school.” She nodded to it. “She left a few months early for college, you know.”

“I didn’t,” said Harrow, looking at the picture.

Abigail nodded. “She said she wanted to get familiar with the area. Figure out the bus system, determine all the best spots. You know how she is— she makes friends everywhere she goes.”

“Understatement,” said Harrowhark. “I swear, every time we go somewhere for a conference, we end up eating at a local’s house for dinner. I will never understand how she does it.”

“You have Magnus to thank for that. He’s always been better at encouraging that instinct than I am, I’m afraid.” Abigail nodded at the picture again, and her smile twinged. “She couldn’t come home for spring break that year because of weather conditions, and every year after that her hockey team had too many games to make a trip work. That was the last time she’s been here for a birthday before— well, now.”

Guilt pricked at Harrow’s skin, and she shifted uncomfortably where she stood. “Then you must be happy to have her home.”

Abigail regarded her then with a calm, careful air of study that she was thoroughly unused to receiving. Sometimes, in Harrow’s experience, professors that spent more time in labs or libraries than they did interacting with people developed a certain eerie quality to their stares. They lost the kind of self-awareness that accompanied social interactions in favor of the analytical stare of the researcher.

Or maybe her eyes just looked different in the light. Whatever it was, it ran through Harrow like a bolt of lightning and came out the other side with a conclusion she couldn’t see.

“I am,” said Abigail. And then, unexpectedly: “I’m happy to have both of you home.” She nodded towards her desk. “Now! I’m afraid I really must get to work. Raising three teenagers has, unfortunately, made me quite the procrastinator.”

She settled into her desk, pulled out a laptop and headphones, and began to click idly at the keys, which left Harrow alone in a library.

This, historically, was one of her favorite places to be. As a child, she had been so attached to the library of her hometown that leaving it was the only time she had cried. And back in university, when she wasn’t sleeping, eating, or in class, Harrow found herself parked firmly among the towering bookshelves of the Bodleian library.

She was thousands of miles away from both, of course, but it was difficult not to feel at home among the quiet, peaceful lines of paper. And so Harrowhark began to wander.

Her hands trailed lightly over the worn leather, and her eyes tracked over the embossed gold of the labels until both landed on a familiar set of letters.

Wuthering Heights, read the label. A smile played at her lips.

It had been her mother’s favorite book, and Pelleamena Novenarius had never quite ascribed to the idea that children had to reach a certain age to be introduced to various concepts. Harrow’s earliest memory was of her mother’s voice: clipped and cold, but engaged in the words she read aloud to her.

Harrow slid it out of the shelf, feeling the weight in her hands for a moment. The one she remembered from her childhood was smaller: a paperback made heavy with ink blots and annotations in the margins. This edition was hardback, and had a heft to it that almost surprised her.

But the first page was the same as ever. And for the first time all day, Harrow smiled.

She wasn’t sure how much time passed before the doors of the library creaked open, but she knew had moved from the aisles to the chair at Magnus’ desk.

“Hey, Abby,” came a familiar voice from the doorway. “Magnus said you— oh.” Harrow looked up, blinking away rain and ghosts and foggy moors, to see Gideon staring at her. Sweat plastered a few strands of red hair to her forehead, and the cold had brought blood to her now-darkened cheeks.

“Hello, Griddle,” said Harrow, not knowing what else to say.

“Hi,” came the response. A beat. Then: “That’s— my sweater.”

Harrow looked down at herself for the first time all morning, and truly beheld the sweater, thick and warm, that she had pulled from the closet. It was a dark grey color, hand-knit and softened by time, and it bore a maroon G stitched into the fabric at the chest. Without really meaning to, Harrow took in a breath— and smelled, under the clean smell of laundry detergent, the brand of deodorant that Gideon still used.

“It is,” said Harrow, trying not to sound as though the realization had just dawned on her. Gideon was staring at her as though she’d grown an extra head. “I woke up cold.”

Gideon blinked. Her eyes — which even now, even after years of meeting them, still held a color that surprised Harrow — flicked over her body, taking in the hastily-arranged hair, the sweater, the bags under her eyes that makeup wasn’t present to hide.

All she said was: “Oh.”

Abigail had been watching the exchange with some measure of polite interest, but interrupted them here. “You were looking for me?” She asked, prompting Gideon to blink whatever spell had overtaken her from her eyes.

“Oh! Yeah. I took a few pictures of the sunrise,” said Gideon, pulling out her phone. “Magnus said you’d want to see.”

Abigail’s smile rippled out like the surface of a lake as delight broke out on her face. “I would love to.”

Harrow, thinking this was a ritual she was not privy to, tried very, very hard to focus on her book. But the words filtered together, interrupted by the gentle, wondrous gasps of the professor sitting beside her. “Gorgeous,” murmured Abigail. “Absolutely stunning.” And then, unexpectedly: “Show Harrow, too.”

Both of them paused. The intensity of Harrow’s stare could have — and, perhaps, should have — burned a hole through her book. She half-expected her assistant to make up an excuse— she’s not into nature, maybe, or nah, I don’t think she’d want to see it. Both untrue, of course, but reasonable claims given their past.

But Gideon defied her expectations for what felt like the millionth time. “Alright,” She said, after a second’s pause. “C’mere, honey.”

Harrow turned in her seat, trying not to let surprise show on her face, and leaned forward to see. Walking over to her, Gideon hesitated to turn her phone. Her eyes flicked down to the screen, up to Harrow’s face, and down again, like there was something she was debating in her head.

Aware of Abigail’s eyes on them, Harrow lifted her hand and rested it, ghostlike and tentative, on Gideon’s thigh. “Show me,” She said, barely louder than a whisper.

And Gideon did.

It was a deceptively simple shot at first glance, but details came with time— the leaves of the trees illuminated in bright dawn, the cloud cover shot through with fire and gold, the barely-there sun peeking through the line of the horizon.

The air left Harrow’s lungs all at once, and in her periphery she could see Gideon’s throat bob in response. “Gideon, this is—” For once in her life, she was speechless. She looked up to see surprise written plainly on her fiancée’s face. “I didn’t know you could do this.” Admiration crept, unbidden, into her voice. “You have an incredible eye.” Her gaze dropped again to the picture. “This is beautiful.”

“On that, we agree,” said Gideon, whose eyes hadn’t strayed from her face. She was chewing lightly at the inside of her cheeks, but stopped after a moment and turned the phone off. “Anyway. That was my morning.” She nodded to the book in Harrow’s hands. “Doing a little bit of light reading, huh?”

Harrow looked at the book, bookmarked haphazardly by a spare slip of paper. She had only entertained the idea of dog-earing the pages for a second; it was too great a sin to do it to a book that wasn’t hers. “It isn’t my first time reading it.”

“Yeah, Brit Lit, I figured,” Gideon said, raising an eyebrow. “I would have pegged you as a Jane Eyre fan.”

“When it comes to the Brontë sisters, I pick favorites,” said Harrow. “Have you read it?”

Gideon leaned over her, running her hands along the cover, and quoted, “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Harrow told herself the pang that ran through her was of hunger, and that the reason her heart rate ticked up at their proximity was because of the light scent of sweat coming off of Gideon’s body. Disgust and desire were two sides of the same coin; it should have been easy to convince herself.

But then, neither of those explained why her mouth went dry at hearing the words fall from Gideon’s lips. “Show-off. A yes would have sufficed,” She said, hoping the collar of the sweater was high enough to hide the blush creeping up her chest. “Now go take a shower, Nav. I smelled you before I saw you.”

“You’re wearing my sweater, and you have the audacity to make fun of the way I smell.” Gideon shook her head in mock offense. “I’m hurt.”

“You are a big baby,” said Harrow, relieved to have some normalcy in their conversation. “Do you know that?”

Gideon rolled her eyes, turning for the door. “Love you too, babe,” She said, missing the way Harrow froze in her seat. “Tell Brontë I say hi.” To Abigail, she gave a wave, and saw it returned before she left.

Two things became clear then in Harrow’s mind. The first was thus: for all she thought she knew about her assistant, Gideon had been right. Harrow had only really scratched the surface of Gideon’s life.

As much as she detested the idea, if she was going to stay in her position— well, that would need to change.

The second was that for whatever godawful reason, her body kept reacting against her will to Gideon’s presence. That would need to be analyzed. And, depending on the extent, it would need to be quashed.

Memory hit Harrowhark unbidden.

Eighteen months ago, in a hotel bar in Austin, she remembered a lopsided smile with a twinge of sadness. She remembered Gideon taking the final sips of her drink. She remembered a phrase fall from drunken lips: one flesh, one end.

Harrow took her memory, she took her discomfort, and she took her guilt— and she began to form a plan.

* * *

The days that followed passed in relative ease.

Harrow had always been prone to observation, and though she had — admittedly — let it lapse in favor of pure, unrelenting force in the last few years, it was a skill that lingered.

So she let herself utilize it now. She sat in the living room with a mug — which, for the sake of her stomach, was usually full of water — and watched Jeannemary and Isaac argue with each other over their chemistry homework.

She watched Magnus drop off cups of tea to his wife, pressing kisses to her forehead and accepting a grateful smile. She watched Abigail insist on making dinner, telling him he had done more than enough for us today, honey.

She watched the sunset; she watched the rise of the moon. And for the first time in years, she felt herself slowing down.

Harrow had been making small notes in her journal, tracking pieces of information that seemed important enough to keep a reminder of. More out of habit than out of secrecy, she had been writing in cipher.

JM seeking intern position with tribal government, read one hasty note. Further research required— matrilineality?

Another, below it, read GN adopted age 12 — JM/I foster? MQ/AP reason for adoption?

And the most recent read just read information needed about GN’s past.

This was a somewhat academic way of referring to what was, in actuality, a gaping lack in Harrowhark’s knowledge of her fiancée’s life. Harrow didn’t like being in the dark— and yet here she was, with a blindfold of her own design tied tightly around her eyes.

She had written it off as indigestion at first, but she had to admit that the guilt was starting to build up in her stomach. It was a gnawing, acuminate feeling that seemed to swell every time she looked Gideon in the eyes.

And — unfortunately — it was starting to sneak between the two of them. When Gideon walked into a room, Harrow left it. When Gideon went to bed, Harrow went to the library. She knew it was counter to the mantra she had been repeating, but fuck, it was hard not to do.

As if it wasn’t already enough to be surrounded by so much of Gideon’s life, she was stewing in her own complex soup of emotions. It was infuriating— it removed Harrow in a way that work and travel never had. It took her concentration, it stole her focus, it ripped her logic to shreds.

Because everywhere she looked, there were remnants of a life she had stolen from her assistant.

The bedroom they shared was sparsely decorated, but the photos that were there were of Gideon in high school.

On the desk sat a picture of her, Corona, Ianthe, and a man Harrow didn’t recognize. He had blue eyes flecked with brown and curly hair that dripped with self-importance and pomade. All four were dressed formally — Gideon was in a simple black tuxedo, while Ianthe and Coronabeth were in purple — and smiling at the camera.

Harrowhark had never had a prom of her own, but she had seen enough movies to get the idea.

In the picture, Gideon was holding Coronabeth from behind. Both had wide, playful smiles. Something in their eyes gave Harrow the impression that there was a joke she wasn’t privy to. She looked away.

Next to it, pinned to a corkboard on the wall, sat Gideon’s graduation caps. The smaller of the two was dark blue; the top was decorated with a hockey stick and a dark red H.

And so another note joined the growing list in Harrow’s journal— ask GN about Harvard.

All of it— all of what she knew, all of what she didn’t know, it made her head spin.

Being editor-in-chief was demanding enough that she could turn off her empathy when she needed to, and now that she was separated from it, she could see herself clearly: her humanity had become variable. Objective judgement clouded subjective thinking, and always had.

And now it couldn’t. Years of repressed guilt, years of anger, years of fear and grief and pain were bubbling up.

It was easier, Harrow thought, to face it alone than to risk being seen. And so she continued her routine of avoidance and prayed it wouldn’t be enough to draw suspicion.

Gideon, for her part, seemed to be doing the same. Their excuse, moreso cobbled-together than previously-discussed, was Gideon wanting to play catch-up with all the people she’d missed for years. To call it a good excuse would have been an exaggeration, but at least for now it was working.

Harrow tried to eat up what remained of her free time by doing what she did best: working. Or, at least, doing as much work as she could with her suspension from the Ninth House.

Mostly, she sat in the library and read. But a brief surprise had come after the first two days, when she received a text from an unknown number that just read:

unknown (12:22pm): Hey. It’s Hect.

And then, a few moments later:

unknown (12:23pm): Heard you got suspended. Sounds like a real bummer.

Harrow had rolled her eyes, but curiosity had won over. She wondered, briefly, how Camilla had gotten her number — Palamedes didn’t even have it — and then figured ignorance was bliss.

HN (12:23pm): Your endless well of sympathy is appreciated.

HN (12:23pm): Can I help you with something, Camilla?

Hect (12:24pm): Palamedes wants your opinion on his next chapter, but he doesn’t want the First to see a record of him sending it over. Can I text you a PDF?

HN (12:24pm): Hect, being suspended implies I am forbidden from working.

There was a pregnant pause between the read receipt of the message and the next one that came in.

Hect (12:26pm) : Yeah. I know.

Hect (12:27pm) : So can I send the PDF or not?

Admittedly, it was a relief to know that she had a few friendly faces in the Ninth. And working, at least, gave her something to focus on that wasn’t a domineering sense of guilt.

But it was on the fourth night, sitting at the dinner table, that Harrow understood that something had to give.

It was the six of them— Gideon and Harrow, sitting in silence next to each other; Isaac and Jeannemary, bickering under their breaths about something no one else understood; and Abigail and Magnus, stealing bites off of each other’s plates and exchanging sips of wine.

At some point — as far as Harrow could understand it — the conversation had turned to a teacher at Isaac and Jeannemary’s high school. She had been thinking idly about what the weather would be like the next day, and tuned in again when, to her left, Gideon joined in.

“Wait,” said Gideon, swallowing down a bite of food. “Who’s that?”

“Who?” asked Jeannemary, turning to look at Gideon.

“The— the name you said.” Gideon had a frown on her face. “The name of your wrestling coach. I don’t know them.”

“You mean Johnson?” At Gideon’s nod, Jeannemary said, “Yeah. He took over a few years ago.”

Gideon let out a confused burst of laughter. “Wait, are you saying Aiglamene retired? There’s no fuckin’ way. I’m pretty sure if the town got swallowed up by the sea she’d put on her scuba gear and swim if it meant she could keep coaching the team.” She took a sip of water. “How is she, by the way? I always told her I’d call, but I never really had the time once I moved to school.”

At this, Isaac and Jeannemary exchanged a look. There was something in the desperate, hesitant gleam in Isaac’s eyes that made Harrow pause. It was written over Jeannemary’s, too— there was something with weight behind her gaze.

And, even worse, Magnus and Abigail paused. Under the table, Abigail put a hand on her husband’s arm. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

“Um,” said Jeanne, looking suddenly very, very young. It took her a second to find the words. “Gideon, she—” A grimace spread over her face. “She died a few years ago.”

Gideon stiffened beside her. Harrow’s eyes flicked down to her hands— she had a white-knuckle grip on her fork, and her left hand was frozen on its way to her glass of water.

And all Gideon managed to say was, “Oh.”

Harrow felt something inside of her crack then. Without knowing why, she lifted a hand and rested it on Gideon’s wrist. Her fiancée looked at her with unseeing, distantly surprised eyes, and Harrow cleared her throat.

“I left something in our room,” She said, realizing after the fact that it was only the second time she’d spoken all night. “I would ask for your help in locating it.”

Magnus and Abigail were kind enough to let them go, and Isaac and Jeanne continued the conversation — argument? discussion? debate? it was hard to tell — they had been having as the two of them left the room.

When they made it inside, Harrow pushed Gideon gently toward the bed. “Sit down,” She said. She had been aiming for something soft in her voice, but snapping seemed to be second nature to her.

“What do you want?” asked Gideon, sounding clearer than Harrow was expecting. But her voice couldn’t hide all of her emotions— she had the look of someone who had been slapped a few minutes prior and was still deciding how to react.

“Who was Aiglamene to you?” Harrow asked. She crossed her arms over her chest. “You’ve never mentioned her name before tonight.”

“What is this, a fucking interrogation?” Gideon’s mouth worked for a moment. Then she said, “She got me into Harvard.”

Harrow ticked off a mental note. “Expand.”

“I wrestled in high school,” said Gideon, not arguing for once in her life. “And I played hockey for her on the side. She always said I was a dogshit wrestler, but I had a hell of a wrist shot.” She blinked once, twice, then four more times. “And— for a while, I wasn’t really thinking of doing anything other than joining, like, the Marines or something. She’s the one that convinced me to reach out to the Harvard hockey rep for a sports scholarship.”

Gideon paused. “And she was good to me,” She said, as if it had just occurred to her. “Not, like, nice or anything, but good. Kind. Under all the scar tissue and the age and the rest of her bullshit, y’know?” A pause. “She helped me with math a few times. Brought me coffee in the mornings if I was having a bad night. Stuff like that.”

“Did you interact with her much outside of that?” asked Harrow. She forced herself to look at Gideon’s face. “Or was she— unfamiliar to you?”

“If you’re asking if I really knew her, I didn’t, but that doesn’t matter,” said Gideon. For the first time all day, she met Harrow’s eyes. “For fuck’s sake, Harrowhark, you treat me like more of a stranger than she did, and I’ve been working day and night for you for three years.”

There it was.

Harrow’s mouth puckered then into something Gideon had never seen before. Her lips went nearly ashen from the force at which they were pressed together. “I think,” She said, very slowly, and with some effort, “that I can no longer accept being a stranger to you.”

Sweat and alarm pricked at Gideon’s hands. Her eyes widened a fraction. “Okay, not the point. Also, yes you can,” She said, raising a hand. “Fuck. You couldn’t just say I’m sorry for your loss like everyone else?”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Harrow.

“Not the point! Listen. I know this is weird,” Gideon said, pushing herself to her feet. “But I think we’ve been handling it pretty well up to this point.”

“By avoiding each other and making excuses?” Harrow’s voice held an edge of tempered steel, and for a moment Gideon felt very much as though she had just walked into a board room. “By— by pretending we don’t see each other when we pass in the halls?”

“Yes!” said Gideon, raising her eyebrows.

Harrow shook her head. “I can’t accept that either.” She took a step closer, pushing into Gideon’s personal space in a way neither of them were used to. She chewed furiously at the inside of her cheeks for a moment before saying, gruffly: “Jonah Lomu.”

Well, if her goal was to confuse the fuck out of her assistant, it was working. Gideon felt like a human question mark. “Cool. What?”

“Jonah Lomu,” repeated Harrow, “was my father’s favorite player on the All Blacks, and he died before he ever got to see him play a game.” There was a terrible vulnerability in her eyes. It was difficult to look away from. “That is the player whose jersey I have hanging in my apartment.” She chewed at the inside of her cheeks. “I got to meet him once in London for a fundraiser, and afterwards I went home and cried.”

Gideon went very still at the edge, knife-thin and wavering, in Harrow’s voice. She wasn’t sure what to say to that except, “Oh.”

“Wuthering Heights was my mother’s favorite book,” continued her fiancée. “She used to read it aloud to me—” (“Weird choice for a kids’ book, but okay,” muttered Gideon,) “—and the first time I ever read it alone was the night of her funeral.” A bead of sweat was forming at Harrow’s temple. “And now I read it once a year.”

Gideon watched it trickle down her face, because that was easier than making eye contact. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because we are all that the Ninth has,” said Harrow in a burst of desperation. She took another step forward, pressing her pointer finger lightly into Gideon’s chest. “We are all of it. You and I, it— it stops with us.”

“You and I,” said Gideon, with no small amount of panic at the fervor in her fiancée’s voice, “are two of, like, five hundred employees.”

“True, but a deflection.” Harrow shook her head. Her mouth was a thin line of desperation now. “I need you to trust me.”

“I need you to be trustworthy.”

This simple admission seemed to stop her in her tracks. Harrow still had her finger against Gideon’s chest, but most of the fight drained from her body. Her hand dropped until it rested, feather-light and impossibly heavy, against the soft cotton of Gideon’s shirt.

“I’m trying,” said Harrow, very quietly. Her voice broke on the last syllable, but she refused to look away. There was a fierceness in her gaze that almost surprised Gideon. “I promise you that. I am trying.”

A silence, as thick and as wide as the ocean, settled between them. But Harrow broke it resolutely. “In what way,” She asked, steadying her voice as best she could, “can I earn your trust?” She was refusing to meet Gideon’s eyes, and was instead staring blankly at where her hand was resting.

Gideon realized, for the first time, the proximity of their faces. She cleared her throat, looked away, and said, “If you want us to be closer, then quit running away and hang out with me, loser. That’s how people get to know each other in real life.”

Harrow’s body went very still as she considered this. “Alright,” She said after a moment. She met Gideon’s eyes. “Tomorrow, we’re going to Aiglamene’s grave. We’ll bring flowers. You two can catch up.”

“You don’t have to do this,” said Gideon, now completely unsure of how to react. “Seriously. Do you know who else love-bombs? Cult leaders.”

Harrow rolled her eyes— which, admittedly, did help restore some normalcy to the conversation. “Suggesting a visit to a cemetery is hardly love-bombing, you moron. I’m merely trying to be respectful.

“Harrowhark Nonagesimus making an effort to be respectful to me. I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Mark your calendar,” said Harrow, with the barest hint of humor in her inscrutable black-rose eyes. Then, after a moment: “Are you ready to go back to dinner?”

Gideon looked at the clock, looked at the book on her bedside table, and looked at Harrow. “Nah,” She said. “I think I’m gonna stay in here and— I dunno, do nerd shit. Read. Listen to a podcast. Something like that.”

“Oh,” said Harrow. She clenched and unclenched her hands, then started chewing at her cheeks. She looked at the door, then back at Gideon.

Gideon let out a sigh. “Would you like to join me, Nonagesimus?”

The editor relaxed minutely. “If you’re offering,” said Harrow imperiously, “I would be happy to. Let me get my book from the library.”

Gideon was in bed when Harrow returned. She was making a good faith effort at Abigail’s book — really, she was — and she was hoping she’d be able to put another chunk of it away by the morning. If all went well, she’d finish in time to actually have a conversation about it.

Harrow didn’t say a word, but she gave Gideon a firm nod of greeting. Privately, this seemed closer to something a soldier would do than a fiancée, but she was willing to let it slide. Progress was progress.

She settled in next to Gideon, all elbows and knees, and curled up around the hardcover copy of her book. Her eyes ran, practiced, over the lines, and her breathing evened out as Gideon watched.

A few seconds passed. Then, without moving her eyes from the page, Harrowhark asked, “Are you going to stare at me all night, Nav?”

“You get a little crease in your forehead when you read,” said Gideon, turning back to her book.

For whatever reason, when she turned her gaze on the lines and letters of Abigail’s research, her brain decided — rather rudely — to avoid comprehension entirely. Gideon frowned, blinked, rubbed her eyes, and tried again, but to no avail.

And her mind wandered to high school.

Back then, when she hadn’t been able to focus, she had gone to the shitty little shed Aiglamene called an office. It had a shitty little radiator, a shitty little fan, and two hopelessly shitty little chairs— and it had been absolutely perfect.

She had gotten her first college acceptance sitting in that shed. She had gone through every emotion under the sun in that place. She had done it all sitting across from an old, grizzled woman with one working leg, and when she left for school she hadn’t even bothered to fucking call.

Gideon didn’t realize she was crying until her vision blurred with tears.

“Oh, shit,” She said weakly, lifting a hand to her face. She let out a broken laugh when her hands came away wet. “Fuck.”

Harrow turned to face her with a shocked expression that would have been comical if it hadn’t been so damn sad. “What is it?”

“I never called her,” said Gideon, staring blankly out ahead of her. “She was— she did everything for me, and I never fucking called her. I— I mean, for fuck’s sake, she died years ago, and I—”

Her voice gave out then, and somehow it seemed more dignified to stop there than to risk hearing her voice crack with grief.

She expected silence to stretch out between them the way it always did— so hearing Harrow sigh and shift next to her came as a surprise. “Listen to me, Nav,” murmured Harrow, scooting a fraction closer. Against her better judgement, Gideon did. “Everything she did for you, she did without expectation.”

“That’s worse,” croaked Gideon. “She had zero expectations for me and I still let her down.”

“You’re misconstruing what I said and you know it.” Harrow shook her head. “No— she helped you because she saw something in you. If all you can do now is honor her memory, then—” Harrow’s voice died, and she shrugged helplessly. “Then that has to be enough.”

Gideon nodded soundlessly. Her fists were in tight balls by her sides, and her entire body felt like a bowstring pulled taut.

Harrow let out another half-irritated, half-concerned sigh and did something then that neither were expecting.

She put a hand on Gideon’s shoulder, opened her posture, and said, “Come here.”

And for some reason, Gideon did. She let herself be pulled down into the bony, mildly uncomfortable embrace of her fiancée, and found her arms winding, solid, around the body below her. Harrow’s warmth surprised her, as it always did.

The position put a strange strain on her neck, so she shifted until she could rest her head comfortably on Harrow’s clavicle. Gideon could hear, distantly, the sound of her heartbeat in her chest. It was faster than she was expecting, though she figured it was probably for the same reason a hummingbird had a fast heartbeat. Little bodies, big movements, and whatnot.

Harrow cleared her throat and shifted so her book was over Gideon’s head. Then she adopted a faint air of gravity and said, “Mrs. Linton, on the third day, unbarred her door, and having finished the water in her pitcher and decanter, desired a renewed supply—

“What are you doing,” mumbled Gideon, muffled into Harrow’s shoulder.

“Shush. You’re interrupting,” said Harrow, eyes scanning the page above her. “Keep it up, and you’ll make me lose my place.”

She picked up again, reciting the words with a kind of practiced elegance, and Gideon found herself quieting down. The seconds that ticked by turned into minutes, and before she knew it Harrow had finished the chapter and begun the next.

At some point, her eyes slid closed. At another, her arms lost their tension. And at some other one, her face came to rest at the crook of Harrow’s neck, with her forehead pressed gently against the column of her throat.

Gideon was half-asleep and dead tired by the time the lamp turned off, but through the haze of sleep that clouded her mind, she felt Harrow move to set the book back on the nightstand. Her motions were slow, deliberate, and done so as not to disturb the person nearly passed out on top of her.

At this point, Gideon expected her to turn away and curl back into her little blanket cocoon. But Harrow, who was becoming a perpetual surprise, returned to the same position and wrapped her arms in earnest around Gideon’s shoulders.

Huh, thought Gideon, with surprising clarity. Didn’t take her for a big spoon. She shifted a few times, getting comfortable again, and let herself sleep.

It was a dreamless sleep; it was an uninterrupted sleep. Gideon hadn’t had one of those in months. And perhaps that was why, when she woke up in the night to find their bodies tucked into each other — Gideon’s arm slung over Harrow’s waist, Harrow’s back pressed against her chest — all she did was scoot herself closer and let her eyes slide shut once more.

Chapter Text

Waking up with Harrow in her arms was, to say the least, a new experience.

Ever since that first night, it had begun to happen with alarming regularity. They rarely started their nights touching — at most a stray hand would graze an arm, or their legs might brush together — but it seemed that every morning they woke up entangled.

At first, Gideon wondered if Harrow was doing it on purpose. But that idea lost its footing quickly: the first time it happened, she couldn’t look Gideon in the eye all morning. When she did, though, it was unapologetic.

All Harrow said to her was: You are a human space heater, and I am perpetually cold. Far be it from me to fight nature.

Speaking of fighting— they were still trying to figure out a way to the cemetery.

They hadn’t been able to get the boat to start on the first day they’d tried, which Gideon found herself desperately grateful for. She still wasn’t used to grieving, and thought that the more time she had to get herself ready, the better she would react.

It was still on their to-do list when, a few days later, a pair of deceptively simple text messages came in from an old friend. It should have been simple, and it should have been easy, but Gideon knew the Tridentarii too well to think them wholly innocent.

Corona (9:12am) : gideon nav! it’s me

Corona (9:12am) : we’re going downtown at 11 for brunch with babs & if you bring your fiancée i’ll pay

Harrow — who was reading over her shoulder, because she was an incorrigible snoop — said, “No.”

“It’ll be fun,” said Gideon. “We’ll get drunk before noon and then crash the boat on the way home. Just another Saturday.”

Harrow looked up at her with an expression torn between flat disinterest and fearful hesitation. “No.”

Gideon’s phone dinged again.

Corona (9:13am) : they have bottomless mimosas today ;)

“They have bottomless mimosas today,” said Gideon, holding up the phone as proof. “You love those.”

Harrowhark gave her a look that made her feel like a decomposing flower. “You love them because you are a hog who hates paying for alcohol.” A pause. “I don’t like her sister. She— knows more than she lets on.”

“Yeah, nobody likes Ianthe. Corona loves her, but that’s not the same thing,” said Gideon. “She’s weird and slimy and— weirdly threatening. Like, it’s weird.” A pause. “She is funny, though. I hate to say it. Anyway, I think she’s just trying to be a dick and, like, establish dominance. She doesn’t know jack shit.”

Harrow’s lips pressed together. “I don’t want to get on the boat,” She complained finally, resolve cracking through with the barest hint of a whine. “You know I get seasick.”

“If you want to sell the ruse,” said Gideon, more cunningly, “what better way than having brunch with some of the most well-known people in town? It’ll be good publicity. And I’m sure Magnus and Abigail have Dramamine aplenty.”

Harrow chewed at her cheeks. After a moment, she said: “Fine. One hour, and then we go to the cemetery.”

“Great,” said Gideon. “Fine. Sure. I’ll text JM and Isaac and ask if they want to join us. We can— I dunno, have a beer with Aiglamene or something.”

“Acceptable,” said Harrow with a brusque nod. She whipped toward her suitcase as if something had just occurred to her, then moved faster than Gideon had thought possible towards it. “We only have— what, ninety minutes at most?”

Gideon did some mental math. “It’ll probably take us, like, fifteen or twenty to get there.”

“So I have an hour?” She said, with more than a hint of alarm. “Christ. I have to get ready. Griddle, can you pass me—”

Harrow’s words died in her throat as Gideon picked up the bag of makeup from her bedside table. She held it up, offering it to her, and Harrow took it after a moment’s pause. When she spoke, it came out tight. “How did you know?”

“Years of practice and process of elimination,” said Gideon, leaning back against the headboard. “Go get ready.”

Harrow stood at the bathroom door with a bundle of black clothes and her makeup bag, looking somewhat lost. With her face unadorned, the youth in her face was more pronounced; she had a hint of Jeannemary’s teenage desperation at her mouth. “What about you?”

Gideon pushed herself out of bed with a yawn, stretching idly.“My getting ready process takes about five minutes, a hairbrush, and a good tooth-brushing. I’ll squeeze in around you.”

Harrow seemed to think that was acceptable, because the door slid closed a second later.

And Gideon had to admit: it was funny to see Harrow fuss. For all the events and black-clad galas they had been to before, she had never seen the kind of pure, unrelenting anxiety that manifested in Harrow now.

Harrowhark did, re-did, and re-re-did her makeup. As time wore on, she went from a straight-backed, proud posture to being hunched over her compact. She fiddled ceaselessly with the studs of bone and silver that lined her ears. She tied the laces of her boots four different times before finally standing up with a huff.

“I’m ready to leave,” announced Harrow finally. She was staring unblinking at her reflection in the mirror, and crossed her arms tightly over her chest. One cluster of fingers was tapping a rhythmless, frantic beat against the bicep below.

Gideon, meanwhile, had been scrolling through social media for the last ten minutes. She didn’t look up when she spoke. “If we leave now, we’ll get there thirty minutes early. Corona and Ianthe are chronically late as it is.”

Harrow let out a huff and turned toward her. One of her eyes twitched at the sight of her fiancee— who was, inexplicably, in a flannel and jeans. “Tell me, Griddle, are you planning on getting dressed in the next millennium, or should I bring a corpse to brunch?”

“Okay, take a breath,” Gideon said, pushing herself up to a standing position. “It’s brunch, Harrow. Not the Met Gala. I am dressed.”

“You—” Harrow closed her eyes, took a breath, and refixed her gaze on Gideon’s face. “Impressions are important. We barely spoke the first time, and—” Harrow broke off, then cleared her throat. “It is important to me that they approve of our relationship.”

Gideon’s heart wobbled in her chest. She blinked. “Why?”

Harrow looked as if Gideon had asked her whether or not the sky was blue. “Because they know you.” Harrow took a step forward and began laying out every word as if it should have been obvious. “And if they don’t approve of me— of us,” She corrected, swallowing, “we present a cunning third party with a weakness.”

Privately, Gideon thought calling Ianthe a cunning third party made her sound like a Disney villain, but Harrow wouldn’t be stopped once she had a bee in her bonnet. And this seemed to be a very large, very round bee in a too-small bonnet, so whatever.

“Okay,” Gideon shrugged. She put her hands in her pockets. “How about this: take a damn breath, try and relax, and trust me.” A pause. “And fuck, dude, trust yourself. You run a publishing company, and the thing freaking you out is brunch?”

Harrow chewed at the inside of her cheeks. “I know,” She said after a moment. She opened her mouth, closed it, and then said: “I’ve never done this.”

“Done what? Had a mimosa?” said Gideon, suddenly worried they were about to talk about feelings again. “I can think of, like, four occasions that contradict that. There was that time with your aunt a few years ago, and then—”

“Had friends,” said Harrow, suddenly very quiet. She shifted the position of her arms; it made her look like she was giving herself a hug, except it was much sadder to look at. “Gotten— brunch out of the blue. Had amicable exes, had parents, I don’t—” Her mouth moved wordlessly for a moment. “I don’t know how to do this.”

Something clicked from one setting to another in Gideon’s mind. At first, she thought it was pity that moved her closer to Harrowhark’s tiny, self-contained frame, but pity wouldn’t have made her smile. Pity didn’t ease out the sigh from her lips— but compassion brought her hand to Harrow’s shoulder.

“I know,” said Gideon, with a gentleness that surprised them both. “It’s been a while for me, too.” She shrugged. “Here’s the thing: you don’t have to know how to do it. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to walk on your knees through—”

Harrow gave her a look. “If you quote Mary Oliver at me, I’ll bite you.”

“Fine. But I’m right,” said Gideon. “You don’t have to be good at it. You just have to be yourself around them. That’s all anyone needs from you.”

Harrow looked as if there was something she wanted to say to that, but nothing left her mouth for a very long time. They stood like that for a long, still, uninterrupted second that emasculated minutes, hours, years.

And then she looked up. “If they ask about you, what do I say?”

“Tell them what you know,” said Gideon. “Tell them the truth.”

This seemed to settle somewhere deep in Harrow’s palatial brain. Her eyes flicked over to where Gideon’s hand rested on her shoulder, lingered there a moment, then met Gideon’s with some new resolve. “Fine.”

“Great,” said Gideon. She realized a second too late that her hand was still on Harrow’s shoulder, and when she yanked it away it was as though she had been burned. “I’m gonna find the kids. Wheels up in fifteen.”

“Do boats have wheels now?” asked Harrowhark, to no one in particular. “Another fascinating discovery. You are full of surprises, Nav.”

Gideon gave her the middle finger as she turned towards the door. “I try to switch it up. Keeps things interesting.” She looked back at Harrow with a raised eyebrow. “Oh, hey. If Corona starts talking about sex, stay strong. She can smell fear.”

Harrow’s eyebrows rose a fraction. “Is that— a possibility?”

“It’s inevitable,” said Gideon. “She likes seeing people’s reactions to vulgar shit because no one expects it from her.”

“Then I will brace and move forward,” said Harrow bravely. “Thank you for the advance warning.”

Gideon smacked the top of the door frame as she left. “Anything for my future wife.”

And as her footsteps echoed down the hall, she missed the way Harrow blushed all the way down to her chest.

* * *

Gideon had to hand it to her fiancée— Harrowhark braved the boat with surprising grace. She sat, bundled in a life jacket that dwarfed her, with her arms crossed over her chest and her eyes squeezed closed. She didn’t even complain: all she said when they docked was, “At least it was calm today.”

It was a composure more or less matched by the other passengers. Isaac and Jeannemary had begun trying to push each other over the side — halfheartedly, of course, but enough to warrant a stern look — and Magnus and Abigail had joined them. They had made plans with Dulcinea, it seemed.

They made it to the restaurant — a little, mom-and-pop diner called Ida’s — unscathed and only mildly damp.

As expected, neither twin was present when they got there. Gideon resisted the urge to tell Harrow I told you so and, instead, got the five of them a table outside.

A waiter came by and dropped a few menus off, but Gideon made no moves for it— she knew its contents by heart.

Harrow, meanwhile, did not. She was studying it intently when a shiver ran through her.

Gideon raised an eyebrow. “Cold?”

“The temperature I can handle. But I find myself unused to the wind,” said Harrow, not looking up. “And the water seems to have a personal vendetta against me.” At Gideon’s puzzled look, she glanced up. “I got splashed on the way over.”

Gideon nodded in sympathy. “You want my jacket?”

Movement from across the parking lot drew Harrow’s attention. “Not yet,” She murmured, pretending not to watch the twins and their impeccably-coiffed, impossibly self-important best friend emerge from Coronabeth’s pickup truck. “Wait until they can see you.”

They were, at present, bickering amongst themselves over something Gideon could not care less about.

“—can’t pretend as though you’re suddenly not interested,” Coronabeth was saying to Naberius. Her voice held a curious mix of a plaintive whine and exasperation. “You changed your whole diet for him.”

“I changed my diet because of— certain activities we were partaking in together,” He replied, raising a finger. “And I’m a new man. He means nothing to me anymore.”

“I’ll make sure to keep that in mind when I check your location tonight,” muttered Ianthe on his other side. She flicked him in the ear lightly, earning an affronted noise. “Put your—” And here she nodded downwards, “—little friend where your mouth is. Or, actually, don’t. God, now I’m never getting that image out of my head.”

Harrow gave her a near-imperceptible nod, and on cue Gideon shrugged her jacket off and draped it around her shoulders. Then she waved. “Hey, assholes. Come on over.”

Naberius’ mouth pressed into a snotty little line at the sight of her. “Christ. When Corona said you came home, I thought she was joking. This isn’t a surprise party, I take it?”

“If the surprise you’re looking for is a punch to the gut, I can check my schedule,” said Gideon, who remembered all at once how much she disliked him. “Otherwise, you’re shit outta luck.”

“Charming.”

Gideon smirked. “Endlessly.”

Ianthe shrugged the jacket off of her shoulders, letting it rest expensively on the back of her chair— and stretched out a new, unfamiliar limb out towards the menu. Gideon’s eyebrows rose. “Did you get a gold-plated arm?”

This drew Harrow’s attention. Her eyes widened, tracking the movement of the prosthetic across the paper. Ianthe’s shirt was a flimsy, transparent pink. Through it, Harrow could see where metal met flesh at her shoulder.

She wondered how in the hell she had missed it at the welcome party, then remembered that Ianthe had come in from outside— either she was wearing gloves, or Harrow’s observation skills were severely lacking, and only one of those was worth considering.

Now, Harrow took the chance to get a closer look at the skeletal, shimmering arm that rested on the table.

The structure itself was deceptively fragile in appearance, but Harrow knew better than to believe that. Whoever had designed it had taken all the care in the world and then some. The sculpted lines of humerus, radius, and ulna matched those of her flesh arm perfectly; the cluster of carpal bones was connected to its phalanges with wires and cords that snaked through the joints.

“I did,” said Ianthe, startling her out of her reverie with a smug expression. “Do you like it?”

“It’s obnoxious as hell,” said Gideon in shameless excitement. She peered over the table at it with wide eyes. “So is it a new cover, or did you have the whole arm redesigned?”

Now Coronabeth piped up. “Well, you remember the limitations of the first one,” She said. “It could barely lift a glass of water.” She met Harrow’s eyes across the table, and there was something strange about the look in those lavender eyes. It was a calculating expression, but not a malicious one: it reminded Harrow of someone surveying a lab before an experiment, or a kitchen before cooking.

She was going to make something of her— but what exactly was a mystery.

Next to her, Gideon turned to Ianthe. “Is that why you spilled your shit on me so often senior year?”

Ianthe shook her head. “I did that for fun. I wanted to make it look like you pissed your pants.”

“Die in a fire,” said Gideon sweetly.

“Oh, be civil.” Coronabeth nodded to Harrowhark. “Look at us talking over your fiancée. Have you shown Harrow the pictures of that night?”

Harrow resisted the urge to narrow her eyes. “What night?”

“The night I lost my arm,” Ianthe said, grinning sharply. She cleared her throat with gravity. “It was during our senior year of high school.” She nodded towards Gideon as if she and Harrowhark were sharing a secret. “And, if I recall correctly, your fiancée was the one driving.”

Black eyes flicked over to golden ones, then landed back on pale lavender. “And what happened?” asked Harrow, with only the barest hint of hesitation.

Ianthe looked at Gideon. Gideon crossed her arms over her chest and let out a huff. “You always make me do it.”

“I find that it’s more fun to heckle you than to expose myself to the same risk.”

Gideon rolled her eyes, but acquiesced. “We were coming home late from a party,” She said, not quite looking at Harrow. “I was sober, so don’t get anything twisted, but—” She nodded towards Ianthe. “Tridentarius was riding shotgun, and some douche in a pickup truck came out of nowhere and T-boned us. I ended up with a concussion, and since Coronabeth was on my side she made it out okay.”

“I have a scar,” Coronabeth said defensively. “And I had a sprained knee.”

Naberius’ eyes flicked up at her from the screen of his phone. “The sprained knee was from basketball.”

“All of you are terrible,” Ianthe complained. “You make it sound so boring. Where’s the blood trickling down, running red over the jagged glass of a broken window? Where’s the arm torn asunder, ripped from its origin with violence never before imagined by its bystanders? Where, Nav, is the flavor?”

Gideon leaned over to Harrow and said, “She just finished a Master’s in Creative Writing.”

“I think it’s sweet that you remember these things about me,” said Ianthe with a sigh. “Perhaps Corona wasn’t the right sister for you after all.”

The tips of Coronabeth’s ears went red, and Gideon’s nose wrinkled. “Gross.”

Harrow felt some ugly twist of jealousy run through her. She tried not to let it show, which — judging by the smug expression in Ianthe’s eyes — only half-worked. Instead of lingering on it, she tried to steer the subject back to something manageable. “Why in hell did you take videos of that night?”

“Because it was funny,” said Ianthe, as if it were obvious. “How else am I to cope?”

Coronabeth had returned to scrolling through pictures on her phone, and handed it over to Harrow. It showed a Snapchat of Ianthe in a hospital gown. There was a black eye forming on one side, which made her skin appear even more sallow than it did at present, and bruising ran purple-red up and down her neck.

Blood pricked lightly at one side of her gown — which was folded over and stapled neatly, given that an arm no longer sat there — and she had an oxygen tube running under her nose. She was giving the camera a middle finger with her remaining arm.

Coronabeth swiped a finger to one side, and a video appeared. It was clearly taken after the photo — the setting hadn’t changed in the slightest — but this time, the camera started facing Coronabeth, who had a butterfly bandage on a cut that ran through her eyebrow.

Harrow looked up; sure enough, it had scarred over, and a narrow, rippling-white slit rested tastefully above her eye.

The video began to play. Coronabeth — who looked somehow much younger, and bore an expression torn between hopelessly worried and absolutely delighted — said to someone off-camera, “Can— can you say that again?”

The camera flipped to Ianthe, who was giving her a sluggish, toothy grin. “I said,” She slurred, through what Harrow assumed was a healthy dose of pain medication, “that you were supposed to be watching the door, Ashley Katchadorian.”

The video ended. Corona was shaking with badly-restrained laughter, which was making the phone tremble just a hair, and even Gideon cracked a smile. “I don’t get it,” said Harrow, leaning back in her seat.

“Tragedy,” Ianthe sighed. “My genius is perpetually underappreciated. How will I survive?”

Naberius had been scrolling through something on his phone for the last five minutes, and looked up now with a disinterested expression. “I think that genius is a rather complimentary way of describing an ugly, terrible sense of humor— ow!”

Coronabeth, who had kicked him under the table, crossed her arms over her chest. “Don’t be rude, Babs. We’re in front of guests.”

“Seven years away from home, and absolutely nothing has changed,” said Gideon. “It’s inspiring. Really.” To Harrowhark — still looking over the menu, though now it was more of a crutch than anything else — she said: “If you’re still trying to figure out what to get, their soup is always a winner.”

A man in a flannel and a half-apron approached them, which prompted Harrow into making a decision. To the Tridentarii, he said, “Good to see you, ladies.” To Gideon and Harrow, he gave a warm smile. “And good to have you home.” To Naberius, he gave a flat, disapproving look. “Tern.”

“Hello, Matthew,” said Naberius, not looking up. “Something wrong?”

“Well, maybe when you start paying for wifi instead of stealing it, I’ll feel more inclined to tell you,” said the waiter — Matthew, Harrow supposed — stiffly. Turning to everyone else, he smiled. “What can I get started for you?”

They ordered a round of mimosas — which, Harrow had to admit, would help her nerves — and an almost comically variable amount of food. Naberius asked for a black coffee and was met with a death stare. Gideon ordered a full breakfast and a side of eggs for good measure. Corona and Ianthe decided to split a plate of pancakes, and Harrow got a bowl of soup.

After the waiter left, Coronabeth cleared her throat. “Well, now that that’s done, I’m afraid I need to freshen up. I know you’ll all miss me terribly, but I really must insist,” She said, with a winning smile. On anyone else it would have been tinged with a sickly, cloying sweetness; on her it just radiated charm. “If I don’t come back in five minutes, remember me fondly.”

Babs watched her go. “If we’re taking a break, I’m going to find somewhere with better reception. This whole block is a dead zone.”

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” said Gideon, electing to ignore that they were outside.

Naberius pushed his chair out, pushed it back in neatly, and gave her a neat, elegant middle finger before leaving in self-important silence.

Unfortunately, this left Ianthe, Gideon, and Harrow at the table. A brief silence settled among them; none of them seemed quite sure where to pick up the threads of conversation.

So Harrow, bravely, looked at Ianthe and asked: “What do you hope to do in creative writing?”

Ianthe’s eyes flicked over. “Why do you ask?”

“At the risk of appearing pretentious—” (“You? Pretentious? Never,” muttered Gideon,) “—I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that you are, in fact, sitting across from the head of a publishing company.”

“Indeed I am,” said Ianthe, with a note of amusement in the grating melody of her voice. “Well, to answer your question, it was more of a formality than anything; learning how the other half lives, and all that nonsense.” She regarded Harrow tepidly. “I’ve always been more interested in the back end of things.”

“Is that so.”

“Quite.” Ianthe raised an eyebrow minutely. “In fact, assuming my ten-year-plan comes to blessed fruition, you are sitting with a future head.”

Harrow brought Gideon’s jacket a little tighter around herself. It was doing a masterful job at keeping out the wind, which meant the shiver that ran through her was at the gleam in Ianthe’s eyes. “I would have thought a program in business or marketing would suit that pursuit better than an advanced writing degree.”

“Then it’s awfully lucky that I have four years of business school under my belt, isn’t it?” Ianthe cocked her head to one side. “I worked on Wall Street for exactly seven months before deciding that the private sector was full of idiots. As it turns out, my experience left me wanting something a little more— freeform.”

“I see.” There was something in her voice that made Harrow’s eyebrows raise. Her fingers rubbed at the soft, worn fabric of the jacket; it was canvas lined with wool. She could smell Gideon’s cologne wafting off of it faintly. “And do you have a company in mind, or are you just going to manifest one out of thin air?”

Ianthe’s gaze leveled on Harrow like someone setting the sights of a missile, but a smile gleamed all the way up to her eyes. “The Ninth is a little too bones-death-and-darkness for me to have any interest in, so you’re safe. For now,” She said, with a wink that echoed her sister’s mannerisms. “Actually, the Vancouver branch of your Third House and I are in the process of making an arrangement.”

This got Harrow’s attention— the head of the Third House had retired recently, and John had been searching for years for younger replacements for his branches. “Are you,” Harrowhark asked carefully. “Dare I ask what kind?”

Lavender eyes were surveying her, and Harrow was grateful once more for the jacket wrapped around her shoulders. “I’m not sure yet,” said Ianthe Tridentarius. “But I expect great things to come of it.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you do,” said Gideon, who had long since understood that Ianthe’s expectations usually paled in comparison to the reality she would strangle out of them.

Purple eyes swiveled towards golden ones. “How rude of me,” She said lightly, with a strange, sing-song melody in the rasp of her voice. “I had forgotten I’m not the only one setting up success.” She nodded towards Gideon. “In fact, I hear I’m sitting with a soon-to-be published author— and isn’t that a fascinating coincidence?”

Her voice was barbed with steel, and Gideon stiffened at the sound. Something touched her hand; she looked down to see Harrow’s hand resting lightly against hers. Their pinkies were touching at the knuckle.

“And what, exactly,” asked Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the words pistoning out of her one by one, “do you mean by that?”

“Well, when I heard the news I couldn’t help but think to myself,” said Ianthe slowly. “It must be a perk of the job that your fiancée runs the publishing house you’re about to sign a contract with. I would have thought that was a conflict of interest, but what do I know?” Another smile crept over her face, but this one didn’t reach her eyes. “I’m sure my four years at Wharton left me tragically in the dark about the finer points of legality in business.”

Harrow was spared a response by Coronabeth’s return, and just for a moment the knot of unearned resentment she harbored towards the other woman detangled into pure, unrelenting gratitude.

So sorry about that, beloveds,” Corona said, eyes lingering on her sister’s expression. She followed Ianthe’s gaze to Harrow’s face, saw steel meet ice in their eyes, and raised her eyebrows lightly. “What are we talking about?”

“Oh, something tragically boring, I’m afraid,” said Ianthe, gaze unmoving. After a beat, she broke eye contact; Harrow wasn’t sure if she should feel triumph or relief. “Babs left.”

“Of course he did. It’s a miracle we could wrangle him for this long. But, now that we have you two here,” Coronabeth said, her smile turning roguish, “I expect details. Copious details, ideally.”

“Details.” Hesitation — and a dose of lingering repression — scrunched Harrow’s face into something pinched. “What about?”

Corona leaned over the table. “Oh, I think we all know what about.” She finished with an exaggerated wink, and Harrow tried not to let her stomach turn. She steeled herself, trying her best to ignore the fact that anything she fabricated could never — and would never — compare to Coronabeth’s lived experience.

Harrow had never considered herself a jealous person, but she couldn’t help but feel impossibly inadequate compared to Coronabeth Tridentarius. In every area — with the exception of her mind — she found herself lacking.

And when it came to Gideon, well. Coronabeth had grown up with her. Harrow had made her life a living hell for the last three years. It didn’t take a genius to do the math on what Gideon’s preference would likely be.

The idea of lying — and, more specifically, lying to Coronabeth about this — made her nauseous. But it was necessary. Harrowhark knew that.

Sell the ruse, she told herself, though it lacked the force it usually did. She could feel Gideon’s eyes on her, and said, bracingly, “What do you want to know?”

Coronabeth clapped her hands together. “I haven’t heard anything juicy about Gideon in years, and as an incorrigible gossip I’m afraid I have to make sure she’s treating her lady right,” She said. “Now. Where to begin?” Amethyst eyes ran with a strange, newfound fierceness up and down both of them. If anyone noticed the way Harrow shivered under her gaze, they were kind enough not to acknowledge it.

Gideon rolled her eyes at Coronabeth’s words. Harrow felt the pressure against her hand increase; she looked down to see Gideon’s pinky and ring finger resting over her. It was a small gesture. It shouldn’t have been as comforting as it was. “I swear, you’re just as bad as Dulcie. She’d be very proud.”

“I take that as a compliment,” said Coronabeth generously. “But deflecting won’t stop me!” She seemed to make a decision, and focused on Harrow with renewed energy. “Now, tell me, has she asked you to call her—”

“And here are your drinks,” interrupted their waiter, appearing like a flannel-clad fairy godmother to spare Harrow from losing her composure. As soon as her mimosa hit the table, Harrow wrapped her hand around the flute and took a gulp. If she was going to do this, she needed to be much less sober than she was.

“I still don’t understand what you saw in her,” Ianthe drawled, looking at Gideon with poorly-hidden distaste. “If you really want a jock with a heart of gold, go watch a Disney movie.”

Coronabeth didn’t miss a beat. “Disney movies can’t give strap.”

Gideon choked on her drink, and Ianthe made a face like she had just eaten something sour. Coronabeth looked endlessly pleased with herself. Harrow took another sip of her drink and pretended she hadn’t heard it.

The bubbles helped to cool her down. It wasn’t like she had any actual reason to be upset — that would be ridiculous, considering she and Gideon were, in fact, not sexually involved — but the current of jealousy running through her had thickened into a river.

She found herself looking across from her at the Tridentarii. It was strange— Harrow knew, logically, that they were the same height, but you wouldn’t have known it looking at them. Ianthe slumped and lounged in her seat; Coronabeth sat straight-backed and radiant.

Once Gideon had recovered — Harrow thumped lightly at her back, not quite sure how else to help — she let out a cold, surprised laugh. “Please, Tridentarius, don’t act like you wouldn’t marry me in a heartbeat.”

Ianthe let out a girlish, dreamy sigh. “I’d rather have my other arm ripped off.”

“Kinky,” said Gideon. “Save something for the wedding night, babe.”

This was answered with another middle finger, and Coronabeth smacked lightly at her sister’s shoulder. “You’re distracting them,” She chastised. Across the table, she met Harrow’s eyes, and her expression softened. “Gideon is used to me, I’m afraid, but I realize you and I have only just met. If it’s too much, I am more than happy to change the subject.”

Why was everyone in this godawful town so damn considerate? Harrow took another sip of her mimosa— and then, finding she had finished it, took a sip of Gideon’s.

And then Harrow shook her head. She wasn’t sure if it was a perverse desire to prove herself or just a response to the jealousy codifying in her veins, but she met Coronabeth’s eyes with renewed resolve.

“It’s more than I’m used to, perhaps,” She said, cracking a rare smile. “But not too much. Ask away.” Without looking, she laced her fingers with Gideon’s on the table. “I’m sure we can handle it.”

Coronabeth’s eyes widened, and delight began to creep across her face. “Oh, I sincerely hope I make you regret that,” She said, endlessly charming. “So, tell me. Are you a squirter?” Harrow choked on her drink, and the radiant twin covered her mouth as Gideon’s eyes bulged out of their sockets.

“That’s— quite a way to start,” coughed Harrow, swearing to herself that the dark glow on her cheeks was from the alcohol.

“I’m joking! I’m joking. I swear. Scout’s honor.” Corona let out a bright, full-bodied laugh, then settled into quiet contemplation across from them. Lavender eyes ran over Gideon’s hands as they guided a glass of water towards Harrow.

“To be honest,” Coronabeth said slowly, “all I really want to know is that you two are happy together.”

The words were spoken softly, and held a certain kind of hesitation that Harrowhark didn’t know to expect. The bluster and brilliance on Coronabeth’s face didn’t crack — she seemed incapable of that, through no fault of her own — but it was like someone hit a dimmer switch. For a moment, the bright light of the sun turned to golden hour.

Harrow looked to Gideon; Gideon looked to Harrow.

“Are we happy,” repeated Gideon, eyes running over the familiar lines and cracks and blemishes on Harrow’s face. Her gaze lingered on a small scar at Harrow’s nose where, as her editor had told her once, she had run into a table as a child.

She lifted a finger, and, for the first time, touched it.

Harrow’s eyes widened in surprise, but Gideon’s crinkled in a smile. “I think so,” She said, and meant it. “What do you think, babe?”

There was a pause. “Yes,” answered Harrow, eyes following the movement of Gideon’s hand back down to the table. She felt a wry smile curl over her lips. “I think so too.”

“Puke,” muttered Ianthe.

Coronabeth elbowed her, then beamed across at them. “Then I am satisfied.” Something seemed to occur to her then. “Ah! And while I have you two captive here,” She said, leaning forward, “I meant to ask. I’m going to be working in the city— in your city, that is— starting in the spring.”

Gideon’s eyebrows shot up, and Harrow’s heart sank a few centimeters in her chest. “Doing what?”

“Fetching coffee and making spreadsheets,” said Ianthe, reaching for her drink.

Coronabeth gave her sister a look that could have boiled water. “Working for the United Nations,” She corrected, with just the slightest touch of hauteur. “Unfortunately, I don’t know the first thing about where to look for an apartment.”

“Don’t ask me,” said Gideon. “I’ve been living in a shoebox for, like, three and a half years now. Trust me, if I knew where to find good housing, I’d be there.” And then, for some unknown reason, she turned to Harrow. “But you’d love Harrow’s place. Full penthouse, gorgeous windows, all of it.”

Coronabeth turned her gaze on Harrowhark with an expression of delight. “Tell me everything.”

“Another time,” said Harrow, shifting in her seat. Tragedy broke through on the brilliant face across from her, and Harrow found that even she was not immune to a sad Coronabeth Tridentarius. She amended: “I have pictures on my laptop. If a crash course is what you’re looking for, I’ll compile some of what I know for you.”

Ianthe’s eyebrows raised in what appeared to be interest, but Coronabeth’s rose in delight. “Would you really?” She asked eagerly, leaning in. “I truly cannot tell you how grateful I am, Harrowhark.” To Gideon, she said: “You have a good one in her, Nav.”

Gideon looked sidelong at her then. “Yeah,” She said, giving Harrow a once-over. She smiled. “I think so, too.”

* * *

One mimosa had turned into four, and conversation had nearly become performance art by the time Gideon and Harrow stumbled out of Ida’s an hour later.

“That,” Harrowhark said, clearing her throat, “was one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me.”

Gideon looked at her. In the afternoon light, she could just barely see a faint darkening at her editor’s cheeks. “You and me both,” She said, looking out ahead of them. “So, hey. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say I probably shouldn’t boat us home just yet.”

Harrow nodded briskly. Even day-drunk, she retained the pointed, intense set of her face. “Very responsible,” She said. “Especially given that — for all my time spent near the water — I never actually learned to swim.”

“You’re joking,” said Gideon. “You’re joking. You don’t—” She stopped in her tracks. “Harrowhark, if I had known you couldn’t swim, I wouldn’t have jerked the boat around so much on the way here.”

Harrow paused, then turned to her with a jolt. “That was on purpose?”

“Did you think I was just bad at driving it?” Harrow opened her mouth — inevitably to say yes, Griddle, I did — but Gideon’s attention was drawn elsewhere as her phone buzzed with a text. “Hold that thought.” She frowned down at it for a moment, bringing it closer to her face.

Gideon was seasoned enough in the realm of alcohol that her steps were sure and her hands were more or less steady— being a hockey player in college had made damn sure of that.

She was not, however, quite sober enough to keep the words on her phone from blurring together.

Her vision didn’t help, either. Gideon squinted, widened her eyes, and squinted again, trying her damnedest to focus on the words ahead of her. It was to no avail— the letters were blurry and her mind wandered too much to keep them straight. “Fuck,” She muttered. “Am I getting old?”

“You’re twenty-five and hopelessly dramatic.” Gideon gave another futile attempt before Harrow rolled her eyes. She made a grabbing motion with one of her hands. “Give it.”

“What are you, five?” Gideon handed the phone to her. “Would a please kill you?”

Harrow scanned it quickly, though Gideon took some small solace in the fact that she had to read it a few times. At least they were in it together. “The children asked if we wanted to go ice skating,” She said, mouth twisting in surprise. “I’m telling them no.”

It was too late; Gideon’s eyes had widened in delight. “Why the hell would you do that?” Before Harrow could react, she plucked the phone from her grasp, typing out a quick response to Isaac. “Come on. The rink’s only a few blocks away.”

“Griddle,” said Harrow, with only the barest hint of desperation, “I think it’s a bad idea.”

Gideon shook her head, walking decidedly in the direction of the rink. “You think that any idea that isn’t yours is a bad idea.”

“And I’m usually right.” Harrow shifted in place, crossing her arms over her chest in a rare show of self-consciousness that made Gideon pause for a second. “In this case,” She said, as if each word came with great cost, “I think it might be pertinent to make an admission.”

“I still can’t believe you talk like this normally. I bet English teachers loved you,” said Gideon. “C’mon. Spill.”

“I don’t know how to skate.” Harrowhark crossed her arms over her chest. “And with my current state of— inebriation, I think it would be unwise to try and learn now.”

Gideon considered this, then shook her head. “Nah. It’s not too hard.”

Desperation crept into her voice once more. “Nav, I really think—

“You think? Oh, well, there’s your problem,” said Gideon. “If you think too much, you’ll end up in an early grave.” Harrow didn’t seem convinced by this, which brought a plaintive, cajoling edge into her voice. “Come on, it’ll be fun. I’ll teach you. I’ll catch you with my big, strong biceps if you fall.”

Harrow’s eyes dipped down to her arms, then back up to her face. Internally, Gideon counted that as a win. “I cannot imagine why you wouldn’t just use your hands,” She sniffed. “But—” A brief, short sigh left her. “Fine. If I fall, I’m going home.”

Gideon cocked her head. “Oh, are you going to swim there?”

“I knew you were going to bring that up,” sighed Harrow. “I don’t know why I tell you these things about myself. Truly, I don’t.”

Gideon started walking, and didn’t bother to look back this time. “Because you like hearing my opinion. Why else would you keep me around for so long?” She could hear Harrow accelerate, slow down, and accelerate again as she tried to match Gideon’s stride, and couldn’t keep the amusement off her face. Engagement or not, she figured she was allowed a bit of fun.

“You’re the only one I trust to be honest with me,” muttered Harrow. “Not including Palamedes and Camilla— for fuck’s sake, Griddle, can you slow down?”

Gideon had had her fun, and slowed her pace out of the goodness of her heart. “I don’t think that’s true.”

“It is,” Harrow said simply. “Everyone else just tells me what they think I want to hear. You give me advice and, more often than not, I take it.”

“Name one time you’ve taken my advice,” said Gideon, who thought that hearing it might send her into shock.

Harrow thought for half a second. “The author that writes those inane children’s horror books. You suggested we reach out to him about a potential partnership once.”

Gideon blinked. “Are you talking about R. L. Stine?” She let out a groan. “Harrow, is this about that time I told you to talk to him if you really wanted new talent?”

“That was his name, yes. Him,” Harrow said. “I had lunch with him recently.”

“You had lunch with the Goosebumps guy,” Gideon said, slowly, “because I made an offhand joke about it?”

Harrow paused for a moment to take a face journey. “Well, if I had known it was a joke, I probably wouldn’t have done as much research as I did. But— yes.”

“Was it— productive?”

“Very,” said Harrow unexpectedly. “He said he had been considering doing a more adult series with the Ninth for years. I told him I didn’t think Scholastic would be happy to hear about that, and he told me he was too old to care.”

Gideon hid a smile. “Classic Goosebumps guy.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” She shrugged. “He sent me the name of a few authors he’s been watching, and we signed one of them to a four-book deal last week.” Harrow looked ahead, keeping her sights resolutely on the horizon. “If you hadn’t brought it up, we never would have been in contact. I’ve been meaning to thank you for it.”

Gideon was suddenly grateful that she wasn’t facing her fiancée; if she had been, Harrow would have seen the dark blush that crept up the side of her neck. “Well. You’re welcome,” She said, trying to keep her voice under control. “For all the bullshit and nonsense I spout, I’m not a total idiot.”

“On that, I remain unconvinced.”

Gideon shot her a look. “Harsh.”

Harrow relented the fastest she ever had. “No, you’re right. You aren’t.” She paused, and through the hair curtained around her face Gideon could see her mind working overtime on how to phrase her words. “I know, at least, that you’ll tell me what you really think. I don’t get much of that anymore.” Another pause. “I think the last person to be honest with me — and I mean truly honest, where cruelty becomes nearly indistinguishable — was my father.”

This time, Gideon did look back. “I don’t think cruelty should ever be indistinguishable from honesty,” She said, raising an eyebrow. And it was true, of course, but mostly Gideon was relieved that she was able to say the word in one go. “If you can’t tell when someone is being cruel or just being honest, they’re probably kind of a shitty friend.”

Harrow scoffed. “My father and I weren’t friends.”

And who else could Gideon think of but Magnus?

She thought of bananas and early morning conversations; she thought of FaceTime calls and pictures and emails with articles he had read in the Times that morning; she thought of free-flowing tears at her high school — and, later, college — graduation. She thought of family. She thought of comfort.

Gideon remembered seeing the old, familiar red truck of his arriving at her practices, knowing that he would greet her with a snack and a smile. It was a practiced routine they had been doing for years. She would get in, say hello, and thank him for the snack; he would give her a smile, tap her on the shoulder, and say, What are friends for?

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Gideon, turning back to face the way ahead. She heard Harrow stop walking for a moment, but kept her gaze steady. Looking back wouldn’t help either of them now.

A silence stretched out between them. They passed through town, walking under awnings and past storefronts and through throngs of people going about their lives.

After a long, long time, Harrow spoke. It took her a few tries to clear her throat, but she did. In a quiet voice that held an uncharacteristic rasp, she said, “You’re lucky to have them.”

Gideon smiled to herself. “I know.” And then— she wasn’t sure what possessed her to do it, but she turned back. It would be easy to blame it on the alcohol, and it would certainly be easier than admitting to herself that something had changed. She met Harrow’s eyes, and found grief laid bare in their inscrutable depths. “But you have them too. You know that, right?”

Black eyes widened. Harrow blinked once, then twice, then two more times before she looked away. What passed between them then was a hazy, foggy sort of understanding; Gideon knew without knowing that Harrow needed time, but she couldn’t say why or for what. She cleared her throat.

“Anyway,” Gideon said, trying to inject some levity into her voice. “The rink is just down the street.”

Harrow didn’t meet her eyes, but she gave a stiff nod. “Wonderful.”

It wasn’t usually very busy in the daytime, and today was no different. In fact, the only people Gideon could see beyond the ticketing counter were Jeannemary, Isaac, and three— no, four adults lounging in the bleachers.

“I’ll get our skates,” said Gideon, turning halfway to Harrow. She slid her wallet out, thumbing lightly through a few errant bills of cash. “What size do you wear?”

Harrow shook her head, which didn’t tell her anything. “I’ll pay.”

“Harrow—”

“Griddle,” came the razor-sharp response. “Do you honestly mean to tell me that you, who lives in a self-proclaimed shoebox, would rather pay for the head of a multimillion-dollar publishing company instead of the reverse?”

Gideon put her wallet back in her pocket. “Adding the multimillion was overkill,” She muttered, stepping away from the counter. “Also, I’m not broke. I can afford to cover two ten-dollar skate rentals.”

“Ah, but the beauty of our arrangement,” Harrowhark said, sliding a black credit card across the counter, “is that you don’t have to.”

For whatever reason, the feeling that registered in Gideon’s mind at those words — coupled with the simple, quiet power of the act that followed — was not irritation.

In fact— well, she wasn’t sure what it was, but it had sweat prickling at her hands. It had heat traveling up her neck, up her chest, up to the tips of her ears; it had her throat going, suddenly, very dry.

Then, when the cashier handed the black card back, Harrow looked over and winked at her. Had her eyelashes always been that long?

The light of the lamps overhead glinted off of the silver that lined her hands, giving them a ghostly sort of definition. The tendons at the back of her hands worked quickly, efficiently, as the card slid back into her wallet; a few prominent veins traveled up the side of her arm.

Gideon’s eyes tracked, unbidden, up to Harrow’s lips. She was working her teeth against her bottom lip, which made her jaw tick every so often. Her throat bobbed with a brief swallow as Gideon watched— and it was at this point that she had to turn away and figure out what the fuck was happening.

Hell, thought Gideon, desperately trying to focus her attention on absolutely anything else. Hell!

So— okay, fine. Harrow had always had a weird, goth, vampire-y kind of beauty about her, and Gideon had managed to ignore that for the last three years, so why the fuck it was hitting her so hard now was a complete mystery.

The more she noticed, the more she couldn’t stop noticing— the way Harrow’s hands cast through the air as if manipulating some force beyond it; the way her lips puckered and curled into an expression of disgust when her skates were handed to her; the way the fabric of her shirt clung to her frame like a ceremonial robe, a shroud, and a cloak all at once.

Gideon looked away. She laced up one of her skates, feeling muscle memory kick in after a few years’ disuse. Then she dropped to one knee and began to lace up the other one.

And then, suddenly, something was touching her. There was a gentle pressure at her chin guiding her head up, and Gideon followed it without bothering to question why it was there.

Harrow’s hand only rested under her chin for half a second, but it was enough to make her gulp. The makeup on her face sharpened her somehow, and with her fist clenched by her side she looked— mean.

The position — the kneeling, the guiding of her head, all of it— sent a mental picture through Gideon’s mind that made her glad she was already seated, because otherwise she didn’t know if her knees could take it.

Not helpful, Gideon thought, beating the traitorous, horny part of her brain with a bat. Pull yourself together, dickhead.

“I asked if you were ready,” said Harrow, suddenly unsure what to do with herself. “I— I don’t think you heard me.”

“Alas, I did not.” Gideon found something very interesting on the floor to look at instead of her fiancée’s face. She cleared her throat, nodding towards the skates in front of her. “If you step on the ice with those, you’re going to eat shit.”

Harrow looked down with a frown on her face. “Why? They’re perfectly comfortable.”

“Yeah, they’re not supposed to be comfortable,” said Gideon, smacking the side of her own skate for good measure. “They’re supposed to be, like— part of your feet. Lace ‘em a little tighter and you’ll be safe.”

Harrow made a half-hearted effort, but it was better than it was moments earlier. “Good enough?”

Gideon shrugged. “Dunno. Let’s go find out.”

She pushed open the door to the rink, letting the familiar rocking of skate blades on carpet guide her towards the ice.

The cold — mild compared to the outside, but endlessly familiar — hit her like a tidal wave of memory. If she closed her eyes, she was back in college skating laps around the arena in her spare time, doing drills in crimson, praying with every shot that the puck would hit twine.

She was going through playoffs, making a name for herself, hearing Gideon Nav coming from the lips of newscasters, scouts, coaches, and mock drafts.

If she just closed her eyes, Gideon was in an unfamiliar arena in her school’s colors. She was standing before a rink she’d never played on before the biggest game of her life—

And memory cast her back even farther.

Before that, Gideon was back in Aiglamene’s backyard rink. A smile crept over her face unbidden, quirking the corners of her mouth up.

She could hear the old woman telling her to work her edges; she could feel the bitter cold running through the layers of her jacket; she could feel the elation of finally getting a smile and nod out of her coach.

Gideon was sixteen, doing the same drill fifty, seventy, a hundred times until she had it down. She was twenty-one, standing at the precipice of winning a national championship and hopelessly unaware that she was going to fuck it all up. She was twenty-five, standing next to the woman she was going to marry and the family she was lying to.

She turned to Harrow. “Are you ready?”

Harrow’s gaze was flicking around the room, taking in the beams and rafters and years’ worth of tournament posters. Gideon could see the gears turning in her mind, writing up a full report of the place they had entered.

“Yes,” She said, eyes landing on the group of figures at one side of the rink. “Is that— Dulcinea?”

Gideon turned, frowning, and saw that it was.

A few things clicked into place. The four unidentifiable figures she had seen earlier were now in her field of vision. Magnus and Abigail were sitting next to each other, hands linked in Magnus’ lap, while Dulcinea was lounging against Protesilaus’ shoulder. Jeannemary and Isaac had lined up against one side’s back line, and were poised to race.

Isaac saw them first and waved, huge and eager, towards them. Jeannemary whipped around, and in doing so failed to see Isaac start until half a second too late.

Magnus and Abigail waved them over. “I wondered if we’d see you two again! How was brunch?” asked Magnus, giving them a smile.

Gideon opened her mouth to answer, but it was Harrow that responded: “Good. Entertaining, at the least.”

“Such is the nature of the Tridentarii,” sighed Dulcinea. She glanced down towards their feet. “Are you two going to skate?”

Gideon nodded. “Harrow’s never done it, so I’m gonna run her through the basics.”

“Best of luck,” said Abigail, giving her a bracing nod. “I never quite got the hang of it, I’m afraid. Magnus is the skater between the two of us.”

Magnus smiled. To Harrow, he said, “Keep your feet under you and you’ll be right as rain.”

Gideon kept stealing looks at the rink. There was a surprising itch that overtook her; she wanted nothing more than to have her stick back in her hands and her pads back on. At the very least, she wanted to feel the rasp of steel on ice again.

Next to her, Harrow rolled her eyes. “Let’s go, then,” She said, nodding towards the glassy surface. “I can tell you want to.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Gideon, who was beginning to vibrate with excitement.

“If you move any faster, you’ll start emitting light.” Harrow nodded towards the rink. “I accept my fate.”

That was all Gideon needed to hear. She broke out towards the ice without restraint, and as the blade of her skate hit the familiar, slippery surface she felt like crying. Every movement was familiar; every step was practiced. Her legs moved at the ankle, at the knee, at the hip in a stride she could feel as deep as her bones.

She did a lap around the rink for fun, driving her legs against the ice just to prove she still could, and came to an icy, powdery stop in front of Harrowhark.

Her heart was racing, but that was alright. Gideon hadn’t expected her college conditioning to carry through the last three years.

Her breath came hard; blood rushed to her cheeks. Harrow was watching her with widened eyes, though she hadn’t yet ventured beyond the gate.

Gideon broke out in a grin. “Come on in. The water’s great.”

Harrow looked unsure. “Will I fall?”

“One way to find out,” said Gideon. She offered a hand. “Come on, Nonagesimus. I’ve got you.”

“If you ever tell anyone about this,” said Harrow, taking her hand cautiously, “I will deny it profusely.”

“I would expect nothing less.” Gideon raised her eyebrows, gesturing towards the ice. “Keep your balance and you’ll be fine.”

Harrow took a cautious step onto the ice, expression turning tight at the movement of her skate on the slippery surface. “This is— odd,” She said, letting her weight rest on it for a moment. She nodded to herself, steeled her nerves, and finally let her other foot join the first.

She wobbled like a baby bird emerging from its shell, and for some reason Gideon found it hopelessly endearing. She smiled. “See? It’s not so bad.”

“That remains to be seen,” said Harrow tightly. She was squeezing Gideon’s hand so hard it was starting to hurt. “How do I— move?”

“Give it a shot before you ask,” said Gideon. “Quit thinking, Harrow. Trust your body to do what it needs to.” She leaned down, tapping lightly at Harrow’s knees. They parted a little wider, and she settled into a more natural stance. “Square your hips and keep your chest up.” Harrow gave it her best shot, though her expression made her look like a kicked puppy. “You’re already doing better.”

“I feel ridiculous,” said Harrowhark pitifully.

Gideon shrugged. “At least we’re the only ones here to see it.” She skated a few feet backwards, letting muscle memory take over. “Try and make it over to me.”

Harrow’s eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to protest. Before she could, Gideon moved a foot closer. From here, she could catch Harrow if she fell. “There,” She compromised, stretching her arms out. “I’ve got you. Take a few steps forward.”

“What if I fall?”

“That’s why I’m here,” said Gideon, not unkindly.

Harrow chewed at the inside of her lips for a moment. Then, with all the gravity of a moon landing, she took her first step.

It was more of a slide than anything, really, but it had her jaw clenching tightly and her hands flying to Gideon’s arms. “Easy,” soothed Gideon. “Try and pick your other foot up.”

She did, taking another step forward. On this, she nearly lost her balance, but Gideon’s arms beneath her kept her upright.

Harrow’s hands dug through the layers of Gideon’s jacket, and her gaze was firmly fixed on the ground. That wouldn’t do. “Look at me.” No response. “Come on, asshole. Look at me.” At this, black eyes flicked up. “Keep your head up. It’ll be easier to keep your balance. Take a few more steps.”

Fear and hesitation battled with resolve in Harrow’s gaze. “A few steps,” She repeated, more to herself than to Gideon. She picked up one foot, keeping her eyes locked onto Gideon’s, and put it down again. The other foot followed suit. She repeated it once more, then twice more— and then she was moving.

“Nav,” said Harrow, with some alarm. “Nav, how do I stop?”

Gideon hid a smile. “Use your knees and push out.”

Harrow did, with all the force of a whisper, and brought herself to a stop. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and nodded. “That wasn’t terrible,” She said, trying to keep herself under control. “Though it’s— different than I was expecting.”

“You get used to it,” said Gideon. “Wanna try a lap?”

Harrow looked around the rink, surveying the distance in her mind. Her brain was working overtime, trying to calculate something, and Gideon felt the hand still on her arm tighten. “If I can keep my hand here,” Harrow said slowly, “then yes.”

Gideon made a slow stride forward, feeling Harrow’s hand clamp down in response. “Whatever you want, gloom mistress.” Another stride earned a tentative, shaky exhale from her fiancée. “This is fun. I’m having fun.”

Harrow made a meager attempt at skating forward. “I’m glad one of us is,” She muttered gruffly. “Some of us find this a very humbling experience. Tell me, Griddle, is it always this difficult to balance, or am I just playing court jester for a cruel pantheon of gods?”

Gideon looked over to see Harrow’s gaze fixed, firm and fearful, on her skates. “Quit looking at your feet. You’re going to fall.”

“I fail to see how those two correlate.”

That is because you fail to see anything but your fuckin’ laces. Keep your head up.”

Harrow met her eyes grudgingly. “Happy?”

“Overjoyed.” Gideon led them forward, pushing the dogshit edge of her rental skates firm against the ice below. “It’s easier when you’re moving faster, you know.”

“And here I was thinking the worst had passed,” said Harrow, to no one in particular. “Wonderful. Absolutely thrilling.”

Gideon hid a smile. “I’m going to speed us up. All you have to do is hold on.”

Harrow let out a shaky breath through her teeth, then nodded. Bravely, she said, “Fine. Whenever you’re ready.”

Slow, controlled pushes turned to middling, controlled pushes. Gideon pushed with more purpose against the ice, letting Harrow’s weight act as an anchor as she did. Harrow sucked in a sharp breath through her teeth as they picked up speed, but she didn’t flinch.

God, she had fucking missed this. She was sure that the chill of the air would have her toes numb within the first ten minutes, and if she fell there wouldn’t be any of the familiar pads or gear to protect her, but none of that mattered— she was home.

Gideon took them behind the goal at one end of the rink, not quite trusting either of them to manage a crossover, and followed the familiar curve to the bench at the other side. Then, slowly, she drew them to a stop.

Harrow’s hand was still on her arm, though her grip felt less panicked than it had moments earlier. She let out a breath, nodded, and took her hand off. From the bench, Magnus let out a whoop. “Oh, you’re doing wonderfully!”

Gideon saw Harrow’s mouth quirk up at the corners. She seemed unsure of what to say, and without knowing what else to do she waved to him with the ghost of a smile in her eyes.

“Try another lap, or take a break?” asked Gideon. “It’s up to you.”

Unexpectedly, Harrow said, “I think I’m going to try a lap on my own.” A pause. Then: “If I fall, I don’t want to hear anything about it.”

Gideon nodded. “Ten-four. I’m gonna re-tie my laces and meet you back out.” She hopped through the gate and plopped onto the bench, focusing her attention on the skates, and was so engrossed in the action of tightening them that she nearly missed Dulcinea float over to her.

“You seem to work well together,” said Dulcie, eyes tracking Harrow’s movement across the ice. “Though I must say, given Magnus and Abigail’s reaction to her touching you for so long, it surprises me how little you two interact physically.”

Gideon’s hands stilled. A defensive edge crept into her voice, unable to mask in its entirety the fear below. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Merely an observation,” Dulcinea said, hands raising in surrender. “I was talking with them about your relationship with the Tridentarius girl, and— well, it’s interesting. Back then, they could never get you two off of each other, and that was just a high school fling.”

Sweat pricked at Gideon’s palms. “Well, I wasn’t going to marry Coronabeth.”

“My point exactly. It just strikes me as— well, not odd, but different that you would be so reserved with your dear lady of the night. Especially when she is, in fact, the woman you plan on marrying.”

Shit. Gideon’s brain scrambled for an excuse, and all she landed on was, “Harrow’s— not super into PDA. Super Catholic upbringing, and— all that shit.”

“Catholic?” Dulcinea’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, but surely you’ve—” And here she lowered her voice, “—consummated your relationship?”

“Um,” said Gideon, blinking. “Yes?”

Uncertainty was, it seemed, the wrong tone to adopt. Dulcinea’s eyes went wide. “Gideon Nav—

“Yes! Yes,” She said, more confidently. “All the time. Consummated like— bunnies.” Gideon resisted the urge to smash her head against the ice. “Yep. We’re— all good in that department.”

Dulcinea’s eyebrows rose. “I don’t know if that’s reassuring or worrisome.” She nodded towards the ice again, where Harrow was trying to rebuff Jeannemary from helping her. “Well, whatever you’re doing to ease her into it here is working. She seems to be settling in nicely.” She turned back to Gideon. “How long did you say you two had been together?”

Gideon thought of words murmured by lamplight, and pages turned in the dead of night. She thought of towering buildings and board meetings, of spilled coffee and tightly-held deadlines. Against her will, she smiled. “It feels like forever,” She said honestly.

Dulcinea watched her with a small, radiant smile. After a brief moment of silence, broken only by the sound of Gideon tightening her laces, she asked, “Are you going to go back out there?”

Her skates sat tighter against her ankles now. Gideon looked up; Harrow was making her way — very slowly, and flanked by Jeanne and Isaac — along the side of the rink. It was unclear whether they were egging her on or just there in case she fell, but Harrow was plodding along in stony silence.

“Yep,” Gideon said, popping the p. “I’m gonna see if I can get her to do a few more laps with me before she falls.”

Dulcinea nodded. “An admirable goal,” She said, with a twinkle in her eyes. “Very cavalier of you.”

“I do my best,” Gideon said, hopping to her feet. She tested her weight on her skates, bending her knees lightly, and approached the gate with a wave to Dulcie.

Her knee — the knee, the bad one — gave an old, familiar twinge when she started to put pressure on it in earnest, and memory flooded her unbidden.

The last time she had skated — really, truly skated — had been the day she’d given up on any future in sports.

She hadn’t expected it— but then, you never expect it. It hadn’t been motivated by any spin of fate, it hadn’t been predetermined: it just was. One second she was a well-placed wrist shot from winning a national championship and a first-round draft position, and the next she was being carried off the ice in a stretcher.

Prior to that, well. Academics had been secondary, and relationships had been tertiary at best. Her degree was a formality; everyone who knew her knew of her ambition. In her mind, she was destined for glory; for the Hall of Fame, for the Olympics, for her name engraved on the Stanley Cup. Anything less would have been an insult.

But injury didn’t discriminate, and neither, it seemed, did illegal checks— and no amount of suspensions or penalty shots could make up for losing a future.

Gideon shook her head as if to clear it, and came to a stop next to Harrow and the kids. “Hey, losers,” She said, winking at Harrowhark. “I can take it from here.”

“I am doing perfectly well on my own,” said Harrow, after the children had left. Gideon beheld her— her knees were trembling, and her ankles were turned inward, but she was staying bravely upright. Determination boiled fierce in her eyes. “What were you and Septimus discussing?”

“You, obviously,” said Gideon. She slowed, matching Harrow’s reluctant pace, before lowering her voice. “I told her we fuck a lot, so if she asks, y’know, just— pretend it’s true.”

At this, Harrow tripped on air. Her upper body was flung forward, arms flying akimbo— and if it hadn’t been for Gideon’s quick reflexes, she would have hit the ground.

Instead, strong hands landed around her waist and one arm, keeping her from falling forward, and a well-timed twist had Harrow landing against a broad chest with an arm wrapped firmly around her back. Her hands tightened against the fabric they landed on.

She found herself face to face with the buttons of Gideon’s shirt and looked up to see concern in those warm amber eyes. Harrow could feel her own lips parted slightly, as if they had been forming a noise of pain and weren’t quite sure where to go in its absence.

“Hi,” breathed Gideon, as if unsure what else to say.

Harrow blinked once, then twice. Their faces were the closest they had been since— well, since the welcoming party. “Hi.”

The hand against her back flexed. Gideon’s eyes dropped briefly to her mouth as if considering something. Her eyes flicked halfway towards the benches before landing on Harrow’s again.

“Harrow,” She said slowly. A pause— then, Gideon began to lean forward. A hand rose, slow and hesitant, to rest at her jaw, and Harrow’s pulse leapt to her throat. “If I—” Whatever she was going to say died in her throat, and her gaze dropped to the floor again. “No, forget it.”

Harrow blinked. It took her mind a moment to adjust to— whatever the hell had almost just happened, and when it did, all she could manage was, “Wh—”

Gideon took her hand away from her face. “No, it— don’t worry about it,” She said, stepping away. “It’s— we’ll talk about it later.” Harrow realized too late that the desperate, starved expression on her face must have come off as concerning, because Gideon brought one of her hands up to squeeze Harrow’s where it rested against her chest. “Honey, it’s all good. I promise.”

Harrow cleared her throat. “Alright,” She said, not sure of what else to say. As if on cue, pain spiked up her ankle. She couldn’t hide the wince that overtook her. Another thing she remembered too late: alcohol had the tendency to interact with her meds.

“What’s wrong?” Gideon frowned, looking her up and down.

“Rheumatoid arthritis, day drinking, and rental skates are a poor match,” said Harrowhark. She aimed for levity, but failed somewhere around a middling grimace. Taking a breath, she began to push slowly for the benches, feeling every movement like knives in her stride.

After a few steps, she turned to see a puzzled frown on Gideon’s face. “What?” Harrow asked, not as patient as she would have liked.

“I didn’t know you were arthritic,” said Gideon simply. She blinked. “Three years, and that’s never something I heard you talk about.”

Stiff, uncomfortable pain shot up her leg, coiling itself tightly around her talus and up her tibia, and Harrow tried not to let it show as she turned her head to the side. “Griddle, I have shown up with braces on my wrists more times than either of us can count.”

“I just— assumed you had carpal tunnel or something. You’re a writer. It’s not out of the question,” Gideon said, with the barest hint of self-consciousness. She skated over, stopping with such a lack of effort that Harrow had to resist an eyeroll.

“I am an editor, and no. I avoided that one narrowly,” Harrowhark said, turning back towards the benches. After a moment, she continued: “I thought years in New York had rendered me accustomed to the cold, but since being here it’s been flaring up more than I had expected.”

And Gideon couldn’t tell if it was the drinking, the rush of the ice, or something else — something new — that brought the concern to her heart, but she found it there regardless. A hand closed like a vice around her heart and began to squeeze at the sight of pain knitting across Harrow’s brow.

“Okay, well, there’s no reason to push yourself,” Gideon said, reaching out a hand. “I’ll take us back over.”

“Nav, I am a grown woman. I can deal with discomfort.”

“Oh, I know. I’ve felt your mattress—” (“When in God’s name did you do that?” asked Harrow, more in surprise than confusion,) “—and I think you’d get better sleep on a pile of bricks,” said Gideon. “Here’s the thing: you don’t have to deal with discomfort, because you have a certified big strong fiancée to help take some of the weight off of your ankle.”

Harrow blinked. She looked at Gideon, looked at Gideon’s arms, and looked back at Gideon. “True,” She said, after a beat. Then, unexpectedly: “Very well.”

This did, admittedly, soothe the worry knotted in Gideon’s ribs. She gave a brisk nod, then skated a few feet closer. She slung one of Harrow’s arms across her shoulders gently, bending over as much as either of them could take, and stood so that her ankle — and, as a consequence, the foot it was attached to — was lifted off the ice.

Harrow winced again at the change in pressure, and without quite meaning to Gideon murmured, “Sorry, sweetheart.” She brought them forward a few feet, feeling the ice move under her skates.

The hand against her shoulder tensed briefly, then relaxed tentatively against her. “It’s alright,” came the response. “It’s— better now.”

A silence settled between them — one with none of the harsh, choking tension of those that had come before it — and stretched out comfortably in the time that it took them to reach the bench. When they did, Gideon slowed them to a stop, bumping her hip lightly against the boards. “After you, my lady,” She said, nodding towards it.

Harrow rolled her eyes, but took the offered step. Then she stopped rather abruptly, turned, and said, “We never went to the cemetery.”

Damn. Gideon had, perhaps foolishly, hoped that she would forget. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see Aiglamene— really, truly, it wasn’t.

It was just that— well, after so many years of seeing her in the flesh, after so long seeing her as the living, breathing (albeit old as all fuck) sucker punch of a person that she was, Gideon couldn’t imagine seeing her name engraved into a marker of granite.

In Gideon’s mind, she was no more dead than the ocean was. How could she be? Forces of nature couldn’t die; all they could do was change shape. It didn’t make sense for her to be gone. It wasn’t right. It was true, but it wasn’t right.

Here she was, reduced to visiting one of the most important people in her life at a cemetery. It read like a bad joke: if an old woman dies in Alaska without anyone around to hear, does she still tell Death to fuck off?

“Oh,” said Gideon, forcing lightness into her tone. “I don’t think she’ll mind.” Harrow’s eyes searched her face with an uncomfortable urgency, which gave her the feeling of being penetrated. This was a no-go for several reasons, and she wanted to explore exactly none of them in this context. “Quit looking at me like that, asshole.”

“You can’t ignore it forever,” said Harrow, eyebrows knitting together in vague disappointment. “These things have a way of sneaking up on you.”

But at least that meant she would drop it. Gideon shrugged, easing the conversation back into levity. “Let them try.”

* * *

When they got home — with Harrow trembling like a leaf in the boat and Gideon’s arm resting on the seat behind her just in case — Magnus and Abigail went to work in the kitchen.

It was astounding, Gideon thought, how dedicated they were to feeding everyone. Back in the later parts of high school, when she had first started bulking in earnest, Magnus had taken her newfound hunger in stride. He had always bought extra chicken breasts, always gotten a few extra protein shakes from the store, always tried to have a snack ready when she was finished with practice or weights.

And it seemed, with Jeannemary bearing a patch on the sleeve of her varsity jacket that said Captain, it was something he was planning on continuing. Gideon couldn’t help but smile seeing him hand her a protein shake from the fridge.

She had helped Harrow up the stairs when they got back, watching the other woman try not to let her pain show on her face, and had been grateful for Abigail’s help in administering bed rest until dinner.

Now, though, it meant it was just the two of them sitting, alone, in the room they shared.

And Gideon had something to say.

“Hey, so, weird question,” She said, breaking the silence that had grown between them. Harrow was lying in their bed, and she wasn’t sure if it would be better to stand or sit. She opted for standing, and put her hands on her hips to give herself a confidence boost. “Remember earlier, when I, like, touched your face a little?”

Harrow had been flipping through Abigail’s book, and didn’t look up to answer. “I do.”

“So,” Gideon said, clearing her throat. She wasn’t sure why her heart was flip-flopping so damn much. Sure, it had been years since she’d really had something like this to ask, but still. It should’ve been easier. “What I was going to ask there was if I could kiss you.”

Harrow froze. She went so still, so completely solid that Gideon was surprised she didn’t see ice forming on the surface of her face.

After a long moment, she creaked, “Oh?”

“I have a reason,” Gideon said, hasty. “I wasn’t just, like— going to jump your bones.” She cleared her throat. “When I was talking to Dulcinea, she mentioned that we weren’t very touchy. Which, you know, makes sense given that we’re not actually together, but I figured you’d want to know.” A pause. Then, awkwardly: “Since, y’know. No cracks, no weakness, et cetera.”

Harrow blinked rapidly, still not quite meeting Gideon’s eyes. “And what, exactly, are you proposing we do about it?”

“Well,” said Gideon, drawing the word out in a high, wheedling register, “I mean, we can do a couple things. We can ignore it, which I’m, like, totally super cool with. That’s dope. Great.” She paused. “Or.”

“Or?” Harrow asked, finally looking up at her.

Or,” said Gideon, “we could— practice.”

“Practice.”

“Yes, you dick. Practice.”

Harrow didn’t look like she had taken a breath in over a minute. “Practice what, Griddle?”

“Well, like. You know,” said Gideon to a person who very clearly did not know. “Kissing. Holding hands, maybe. PDA and other adjacent shit.”

“You want us to do kissing practice.”

Gideon shifted where she stood, and crossed her arms over her chest. It was difficult not to sound defensive. “Well, I don’t think it would be the worst idea in the world.”

Harrow set her book down and chewed furiously at the inside of her mouth. She watched Gideon with a stare intense enough to set fire to her clothes— and then said, with gravity, “I think you might be right.”

That was interesting. A few weeks ago, Harrow would have had her burned at the stake for even suggesting it. “You do?” Gideon asked.

“It’s a crude solution, but an apt one. The only time your family has ever seen us be truly affectionate is— well, never,” admitted Harrowhark, “but we came close at the engagement party, and even that was — I will admit — awkward at best.”

“Right.”

“So,” continued Harrow, with a blush darkening the tips of her ears, “perhaps you’re onto something.”

“Okay,” said Gideon, nodding along with the very soul of professionalism. “I’m glad you agree.” A brief, tense silence settled between them, but it was a different quality of tension than had been present before. It was— tight. It was expectant.

“So,” said Harrow, breaking it abruptly. “Are you going to kiss me, or am I going to spend the night withering away in bed?”

Gideon blinked, swallowing a few butterflies that had crept into her mouth back down into her stomach. “I mean, I don’t see why I should kiss you, when my lips are also perfectly kissable.”

“Unbelievable,” Harrow said, in mock offense. “I am lying here crippled by chronic illness, and you ask me to move. The movement for disability rights will never recover.”

Gideon took a few steps over, plopping graciously onto her side of the bed. “I carried you up two flights of stairs today.”

“And yet here you are, demanding action from me,” sighed Harrow, leaning back against the headboard.

For a long moment, they looked at each other. Gideon propped herself up on one elbow, feeling her heart wobble in her chest at the proximity. Harrow’s breath hitched— she blinked twice, eyes dropping briefly to Gideon’s lips. “Are you going to do it?”

Gideon moved, slowly, until her upper body was propped up over Harrow’s. Their faces were centimeters apart. “Haven’t decided yet,” She murmured, feeling her heartbeat at the tips of her fingers. She brought a hand up to ghost across Harrow’s jaw. “Hi.”

“Hi yourself,” whispered Harrow, matching her volume. She swallowed hard— Gideon saw her throat working. Her chest fluttered as Gideon watched, trembling just a little. And still she raised an eyebrow in a challenge. “Well?”

And— well. Never let it be said that Gideon Nav backed down from a challenge.

She let her hand rest against Harrow’s jaw in earnest, tilting her face up gently. Black eyes were blacker now— her pupils were dilated.

Gideon met her eyes, and just for a moment saw the whole of Harrowhark laid bare beneath her.

And then she leaned forward and, with a sureness that surprised them both, kissed her.

The first time they had done it was messy; it was staged, awkward, both far too vulnerable and not vulnerable enough. The second time was better, but impersonal— it wasn’t for them.

But this time was different. This time, it was only them.

This time, Harrow’s mouth melted into hers, and one of her hands came up to card lightly through the hair at the back of Gideon’s head. Blunt nails scratched lightly at the nape of her neck, and Gideon tried very hard to convince herself that the shiver that ran through her was from the cold.

Gideon’s eyes slid closed— and just for a moment, the place around her fell away. The space where her lips met Harrow’s was all the universe there was. Without realizing, she deepened the kiss. Muscle memory kicked in unbidden; she sucked Harrow’s bottom lip into her mouth and bit gently at it—

And then, as a strangled noise of want fell from Harrow’s lips, Gideon remembered abruptly exactly where she was, what she was doing, and who she was doing it with.

She broke away suddenly, feeling her heart stutter, stumble, trip and fall, and opened her eyes to see Harrow’s chest heaving in shaky breaths.

Fingers pressed against her neck, toying lightly with the collar of her shirt. Harrow’s eyes opened in an expression torn between surprise and something else — interest? disgust? greed? it was hard to say — and a slow, awed look crept over her.

“So,” She breathed. “Is that all you’ve got?”

Gideon blinked. “That— what, was that the warm-up?”

Harrow raised an eyebrow. “You were the one who suggested it. Are you a one-kiss wonder?”

“No,” Gideon said, stubbornly. And then, after a moment: “If this is your way of telling me you want to make out, there are easier ways to do it.”

And rather than find any of them, Harrow rolled her eyes and pulled her in again.

For a moment, Gideon didn’t have the weight of a prison sentence, a scheme of lies, or Harrow’s citizenship resting heavy on her shoulders. The world melted away again, and all that existed was them.

Gideon-and-Harrowhark, Harrowhark-and-Gideon, connected at the lips for an infinity of first times.

Every kiss felt different; with each one they grew more and more attuned. Gideon learned the way Harrow’s breath hitched when her lips were bitten, and felt herself teach Harrow to scratch at her scalp.

As if on cue, Harrow tugged lightly against her, fisting a hand in the hair at the back of her head, and Gideon heard a low, quiet noise of approval come out of her own throat.

They were standing together, but it was on the edge of a cliff. Gideon had to fight hard to remind herself that it was practice— every few seconds she caught it slipping from her mind, and anything that forgot their situation was out of the question.

And still her hand drifted to Harrow’s hips.

Gideon had known since her first day at the Ninth that Harrow was small in stature, but feeling her hands dwarf the other woman’s waist was something else. Her hand squeezed reflexively — possessively, corrected an irritating little voice in her head — and Harrow let out a soft moan into her mouth.

Harrowhark fisted her hands in the front of Gideon’s flannel shirt and tugged her down, tugged her closer, drowning them both in whatever sea they were falling into.

And Gideon felt herself move. Suddenly, and with little input from the coherent part of her mind, she was moving Harrow around as if she were weightless. She readjusted them quickly, settling Harrow on her lap. Her hands rested, strong and sure, on Harrow’s thighs—

—And a second too late, Gideon realized she hadn’t asked first. “Wait, shit, is—is this cool? We can move if—”

“It’s more than cool. This is— very adequate,” said Harrowhark, swallowing thickly. She adjusted herself, positioning her knees on either side of Gideon’s thighs.

“I’m putting that on my resumé,” Gideon said, hiding relief with humor. “Very adequate kisser.”

Harrow rolled her eyes again, which had begun to correlate itself in Gideon’s mind with steamy makeout sessions. She was going to have to break that habit.

“I never said you were an adequate kisser,” said Harrow airily. “Credit where credit is due: you’re an excellent kisser.”

Gideon felt her heart squeeze in her chest, and hoped to God she was dying— a heart attack would be less terrifying than the alternative. “Even better,” She said. “Gideon Nav, certified excellent.” She squeezed lightly at the tops of Harrow’s thighs as a wave of sudden, self-conscious anxiety swept over her. “Does this hurt at all? Because I can move if—”

“Nav,” murmured Harrow, gentler than either of them expected. “Take a breath. I’ll tell you if I need anything to change.”

Harrow’s eyes dropped to look at the hands resting on her thighs. She let out a shaky breath.

Her mind was, unfortunately, buzzing from being touched properly for the first time in years. Touch was never something she had prioritized; she couldn’t remember the last person to do it properly.

And here she was, in a bedroom in Alaska, trying desperately to stop her mind from conjuring up what else the hands on her thighs were capable of.

“Um. So,” Gideon said, trying admirably not to flounder in the thick, choking silence. “What’s— what do you want to do now?”

“Well.” Harrow cleared her throat. “Considering you’ve gone to the trouble of putting us in a new position, I see no reason why we shouldn’t—” She cleared her throat again. “Perhaps— try it out for a moment.”

“Take it for a spin,” Gideon agreed, leaning up a fraction.

“A test drive, if you will,” said Harrow, eyes dropping to her lips. “I’m glad you understand.”

And if the door hadn’t swung open at that instant, Harrow wasn’t sure how far they would have gone in the name of practice.

“Hello, you two,” came Magnus’ light, jovial voice. Gideon’s hands froze against her thighs, and Harrow felt herself stiffen. “Just wanted to— oh, Christ, I—” He blinked from the doorway. “Erm. Right! Well! Come join us when—” He cleared his throat, averting his eyes. “Just— yep.”

The door clicked shut a second later, and Harrowhark resisted the urge to combust. It would be easier, she thought, to change her name and adopt a new identity than to ever look Magnus in the eye again.

Gideon was blushing — the skin at her chest and neck was a few shades darker than usual — and put her head in her hands. “Well,” She said, letting out an abrupt chuckle. “That’s one way to show them we do PDA.”

“Normally the p stands for public, not private,” muttered Harrow, dragging a hand down her face. Clarity rang through her like a bell, and she blinked a few times before pushing herself off of Gideon’s lap. There was a heat in her lower stomach that she hadn’t felt in earnest in years, and the thought of examining it terrified her. “Well. That seems more than sufficient for practice. Don’t you think?”

Gideon blinked. “Oh,” She said, with a note of disappointment that surprised them both. “Yeah! Yeah. Totally.” She gave a thumbs-up. “Yep. Thanks for humoring me. At least now, y’know, if I plant one on you in public, it won’t be as out of the blue.”

The idea of Gideon planting one on her in public sent a shiver down Harrow’s spine. She needed to be alone; she needed to be anywhere but here.

It wouldn’t even be accurate to say she was fucked— because if she was fucked, at least then she might get some relief. “Right,” Harrow said weakly. “Excuse me for a moment. I— need to take care of something.”

Gideon nodded. “I’ll go out and set the table,” She said, grateful for something to do. “Take your time, babe.”

The door closed, and two options presented themselves to Harrowhark.

The first was the high road. She would splash some water on her face. She would take a deep breath. She would pretend like her skin wasn’t on fire.

Harrow would sit next to Gideon through dinner and avoid making eye contact with Magnus; she would tell Abigail her cooking was excellent and would ask for a second plate that would go untouched. She would go to bed, she would wake up, and she would move on without discussing the matter further.

And then there was the second— which was to say, the vibrator tucked neatly into the pocket of her travel kit.

Harrow looked at the door for a long moment, willing her feet to carry her to the kitchen— and then, with a muttered curse, turned towards the bathroom.

She locked the door to the bedroom before she settled against the bed. The vibrator was nothing special in itself — a simple silicone tool barely longer than her hand — but it was reliable, and that was all she needed right now.

Harrow didn’t bother with taking her pants all the way off— she had precious little time, and she wouldn’t waste it.

She closed her eyes, slid the vibrator down the front of her boxers, and clicked it onto its first setting.

It came to life against her with a vengeance, and she had to fight to keep a harsh gasp from slipping out of her mouth.

As conflicted as she felt about it, it didn’t come as a surprise that she was wet; she hadn’t been lying about her fiancée’s ability to kiss. The toy encountered no resistance and gave no discomfort— which only served to remind her of the reason she was so ready.

Strong hands filled her mind, followed by thick lines of muscle and defined hips, and Harrow willed each of them away. She tried to force her mind into something general — some fantasy that, when she had time to indulge herself, was proven to work — and landed on one of her favorites.

It wasn’t anything special, really. Here, she found herself — a fantasy-tinted version of herself, in an elegant black dress and makeup like ceremonial paint — being fucked in the bathroom of the year’s most important gala.

Her dress would be hiked up to the waist, her makeup smudged, her hair debauched; it was cliche, perhaps, but it was as good a way as any to give up control and give in to some of her more base desires.

Harrow opened her eyes for a moment, biting her lip to keep back a low moan— and saw, in the corner of her vision, Gideon’s reading glasses on the bed.

She thought against her will of Gideon reading— eyebrows coming up over the rims, golden eyes bearing only the mildest hint of surprise at being noticed, a quizzical expression written across an intelligent face.

And then— well, to say her mind wandered would have implied it stayed close to the starting subject matter.

Harrow’s mind bounded, leapt into the image of Gideon in a neatly pressed dress shirt and pants; sleeves rolled to the elbow, shirt undone to the first few buttons, glasses perched on her nose.

She imagined the veins and tendons in her forearms flexing as strong, sure fingers pumped in and out of her; she imagined a thumb expertly rubbing at her clit; she imagined that stupid lopsided smirk widening every time those stupid three syllables fell from her mouth— and fuck.

Harrow turned her vibrator to the next setting up.

It shouldn’t have surprised her that she was about to cum already, but it did. And still she couldn’t quite bring herself to be ashamed.

In her mind, the glasses-wearing, half-debauched Gideon fucking her would grin and say, I didn’t know you wanted it this bad. Who would’ve thought?

And Harrow — in this, she would be a braver Harrow, a kinder Harrow, an honest Harrow — would pull her in by the tie. I’ve always wanted you.

The fantasy wrapped a hand, light and possessive, around her throat. Then say my name.

Harrow’s eyes rolled back in her head as her orgasm hit like a prayer. Ahe felt rather than heard the word fall from her lips: “Gideon.”

Her hips jerked up uncontrollably, both overstimulated and desperate for more, and Harrow only barely remembered to turn the toy off before she collapsed against the headboard.

The realization of what had happened — of what she had done — hit her half a second too late. The vibrator slipped out of her hands, and she could see wetness on it glistening in the light.

“Fuck,” Harrow muttered, blinking sluggishly. She put her head in her hands. A second later, it came out as a groan: “Fuck.”

Chapter Text

AUSTIN. A YEAR AND A HALF AGO.

To say that Harrowhark Nonagesimus had had one hell of a day would have been an understatement.

It would have been stressful enough to deal with driving herself in traffic. It would have been uncomfortable enough to survive the unfamiliar humidity and sticky heat — which, apparently, didn’t let up even in the colder months of the year — without a working A/C system.

And it would have been grueling enough to deal with the logistics of a weekend book fair without trying to chase down her biggest author.

Instead, she was handling the triple threat with as much grace as she could muster— which, at present, was next to none. It was hard to handle anything with grace when your clothes were damp with sweat and your forehead was starting to hurt from frowning so hard.

Harrow had been up for nearly eight hours already; her head was starting to pound, though whether it was from anger or caffeine withdrawal she wasn’t sure.

Around her, people were manning booths and passing out buttons, stickers, and meaningless little fliers that would inevitably end up on the ground. Her watch read 12:03— which was to say, two hours and three minutes past when she was supposed to introduce the Ninth’s biggest upcoming release in years.

The event staff had gotten progressively more and more irritated with her, which she figured was warranted given the whole thing had become a complete fucking trainwreck. She was just grateful they had been able to reschedule for half past noon.

Unfortunately, that meant she had to produce an author, a book, or a plan sometime in the next twenty minutes. So far, she was zero for three.

“Anything?” Harrowhark asked, tight-lipped. Her arms were crossed over her chest. She could feel her nails digging hard into her biceps.

Her assistant let out a sharp, frustrated breath, shaking her head. “Nope,” said Gideon, popping the p. “I’ll try her cell—”

“You have tried her cell. I have tried her cell.” Harrow put her head in her hands for a moment, sucking a quick, furious breath in and out. “Wonderful. Trust that monster to cancel on us last-minute.”

Gideon raised an eyebrow, sliding her phone back into her pocket. “Monster is a little much.” Harrow wasn’t sure how her assistant was managing to survive in a three-piece suit; she was in a blouse and blazer and was three seconds from locking herself in a walk-in freezer. “Alecto isn’t, like, awesome, but she probably just forgot to tell us. I mean, what is she going to say? I’m not going, fuck you?”

As if on cue, an email dinged on Harrow’s phone. The subject line was five words long: I’m not going. Fuck you.

Harrow lifted her phone up to Gideon’s face, and her expression rippled between poorly-timed laughter and a grimace. “Think very carefully about what you say next,” Harrow said, voice carefully neutral.

“In my defense,” Gideon said, raising a finger, “we both know the chances of her saying that were minuscule. I got unlucky.”

“And trust your luck to run out now.” Harrow blinked and shook her head as an awed sort of despair grew on her face. “We’re fucked.”

Gideon looked around for a moment, then leaned in conspiratorially. “Not yet,” She said, raising her eyebrows. “Forget Alecto. She didn’t show— whatever. Big deal.” Harrow opened her mouth to interject, but Gideon stopped her with a look. “Just— for now, go back to basics. If your big-name talent is snubbing you, then fuck her. Look for people that want to be here and talk to them instead.”

Harrow closed her mouth. Her brow furrowed, and the center of her forehead grew lined with wrinkles. “And what will that accomplish?”

“Out with the old,” said Gideon, with a curious smile. “In with the new. That’s what you’re all about, right?” Harrow remained unconvinced. “Look, it’s not a perfect solution, obviously, but it’s better than walking around with a fuckin’ thundercloud over your head.”

“I have nothing of the sort,” Harrow said. “Do not concern yourself with my weather patterns, Griddle.”

“Well, something is raining. Unless the humidity made me grosser than I thought,” Gideon said. “Are you sticky? I’m sticky.”

“Nav,” Harrow warned.

“Fine. Tough crowd,” Gideon said. “Look, I’ll go give the event staff some bullshit about flight delays, and once that’s done we can get a team out to find new people.”

Harrow considered this for a moment, chewing thoughtfully — and with a fair bent of anger — at the inside of her cheek. “Fine,” She said, after a long moment. “But don’t bother with a team.” She nodded towards the floor of the convention center, steeling herself. “I will do it myself. I work best alone anyway.”

Gideon tilted her head to the side. “Sure. Okay,” She said, in a tone of voice that told Harrow she was going to get one together anyway. “Have fun with that. Let me know if you need anything.”

“I need a coffee,” said Harrowhark, rubbing at her temple with one hand. “And I need an aspirin.”

Gideon gave her a two-fingered salute. “Breakfast of champions.”

A cruel, bitter expression twisted at Harrow’s lips, but her eyes were fixed in the distance. Champions, She thought. What a joke. What a fucking embarrassment. The words started in her voice, but in them echoed the voice of her father, then her mother.

Harrow’s jaw tightened. She cleared her throat. “Go talk to the event staff, Nav. I don’t pay you to patronize me.”

She didn’t have to turn towards her assistant to see her roll her eyes. “I wasn’t— fine,” came the mutter from behind her. “What are you going to do in the meantime?”

Curl into a ball in a corner, Harrow thought. Hyperventilate. Find something to break. Drink myself to death.

Harrowhark cleared her throat. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.” This was met with another badly-concealed eye-roll. “Once you’re done, I will excuse myself from whatever far corner of the universe I have drifted off to and meet you back here.”

“Great. I’ll see you then,” said Gideon. She gave another mock salute. “Until then, boss.”

She turned, preparing to weave through the crowd that had coalesced around them, and found that Harrow stopped her before she could. “Nav,” She called. “What exactly are you going to tell them?”

Gideon blinked. Then, a wondrous, dizzying smile appeared on her face. “Fuck if I know. Something that will keep them off your back,” She shrugged, and Harrow wasn’t sure if she wanted to throttle her or kiss her for it. “Don’t worry about me, Nonagesimus. I’m all set.”

I hope so, thought Harrow despite herself. She watched Gideon turn away. I hope so.

* * *

ALASKA. NOW.

Harrowhark, for her part, had been making a very good effort at not thinking about it.

It was easier said than done— but then, she had done it to herself. Most people wouldn’t masturbate to their assistant-turned-fake-fiancée, but most people wouldn’t have one of those, so maybe she was the problem.

And she made an effort to be normal about it— really, truly, she did.

Harrow banished her vibrator back to her travel kit, zipping it firmly away into a pocket she pretended she didn’t remember about. She sat next to Gideon at dinner, picking bravely at the food in front of her for the full twenty-four minutes it took for everyone to talk about their days. She answered questions politely; she sipped her wine until the burn of it faded; she made an attempt at the plate Abigail made her (if Gideon finished it, that was her business).

Harrowhark was not, however, quite able to banish the memories.

At one point during dinner, Gideon had been trying to look at something far away and had made a pushing motion at the bridge of her nose. It had nowhere to go, of course, but that wasn’t the point.

Glasses, Harrow’s brain had supplied unhelpfully.

This led her quickly to: undone shirt. Her eyes flicked down to the table. Fingers. Two of them— three, maybe, with a thumb rubbing circles on—

And then Harrow cleared her throat, briefly considered a lobotomy, and excused herself from the table. She didn’t see Gideon again until about half an hour later, when a short, gentle knock came at the door. Her eyes were trained firmly on the pages of Abigail’s book.

“Come in,” Harrow said, scanning the line.

“Hey,” came the familiar voice— though it was with a hint of trepidation. Harrow’s eyes flicked up to see Gideon standing with her hands clasped. One of her thumbs was rubbing circles into her opposite hand’s palm.

Telltale nervousness, analyzed Harrow’s brain automatically. She clocked the stance, clocked the hesitation in Gideon’s eyes. A note of discordant alarm sounded briefly in her brain, and she tried not to let the tight ball of anxiety in her stomach blossom too far.

“Hello,” Harrow said, turning back to her book. She kept her voice carefully neutral. If it wavered, she was done for. “You’re tense.”

“Yeah.” Gideon paused her motion for a second. “Hey, is— everything okay?”

“Yes,” Harrow said evenly, still not looking at her. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, at dinner, you were— I dunno. Quiet,” Gideon said. It was strange seeing someone a head taller than her look so suddenly, hopelessly small. “Look, I— I know I made a weird offer earlier, but I swear I didn’t mean anything, like, gross by it. I really don’t want to make things weird or uncomfortable between us— Harrow, I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

Harrow’s eyes flicked briefly to the bathroom, and beneath the covers her legs pressed briefly together. “That isn’t an issue,” She said, not unkindly. In front of her, Gideon was still rubbing circles into her hand. She was unconvinced, then.

Harrow let out a sigh and closed her book. “Griddle,” She said, finally looking her in the eyes. “You asked before, during, and after our— practice if it was alright, and I should hope you know that I am more than aware enough of my feelings to respond accurately.”

“I know,” said Gideon unconvincingly. Harrow narrowed her eyes. “Okay, easy, tiger. Yes. I know that.” She made her mouth into an O and let out a long, measured breath. “Sorry.”

“No reason to apologize,” Harrow said, leaning back against the headboard. “Apologies are customarily given when a person has done something wrong. You have done nothing of the sort.”

“Well— yeah, okay. After you bolted at dinner, I just—” Gideon shrugged, crossing her arms over her chest. “Got worried, I guess.”

A braver Harrow, a kinder Harrow, an honest Harrow would have comforted her more thoroughly— but, then, that version of her was only ever a fantasy anyway.

That Harrow had nothing weighing on her; that Harrow saw no ghosts, felt no guilt, held back no emotion.

This Harrow felt a twist at her lips. She let her eyes land on her book again. “No need to worry,” She said simply. “I can take care of myself.”

“Right,” said Gideon, with an odd, hollow note in her voice. “I mean— yeah. You’re good at that.” A beat. “So. Any plans for tomorrow?”

“None that I’m aware of,” said Harrow blandly.

Another silence settled between them. This one was thicker; it was all Gideon could do not to suffocate in it. “Great,” She said, trying to mean it. “Well, um. Dulcinea texted me.” Gideon watched Harrow’s focus break for a moment— she would have gotten away without a reaction if her eyebrows hadn’t twitched. “She asked if you wanted to have tea with her and Coronabeth.”

“Tea,” Harrow repeated.

“She likes it,” said Gideon, hearing the defensiveness in her voice a second too late. “Picked up a taste for it on a trip to the UK, I think. She and Abigail swap varieties sometimes.”

Harrow paused. Then she shook her head. “I’ll pass.”

“Why?” Gideon frowned. “It sounds like fun. They want to— y’know, get to know you and shit.”

Harrow shook her head. “I don’t like tea,” She said, still locked firmly onto her book.

Gideon’s frown deepened, and a hint of irritation crept unbidden into her voice. “An accelerated Oxford degree in traditional English literature and modern literary analysis, and all you can give me is I don’t like tea?”

Black eyes flicked up to stare, deadpan, into golden ones. “I don’t,” said Harrow icily. “And I am not a child, Griddle. I don’t need you to arrange playdates for me.”

“It’s not a playdate, Harrow, it— for fuck’s sake, they just want to hang out with you,” Gideon said, frowning. “They only had to go through me because you never gave either of them your number.”

“Well, you’re free to give it to them on my behalf. I can plan my own appointments, thank you.” As if on cue, her phone chimed on the nightstand. Harrow looked at it out of the corner of her eye, then looked up at Gideon, standing with her arms crossed over her chest and a stormy, unreadable expression on her face.

“One step ahead of you,” Gideon said, with only the barest edge to her voice. She brought a hand to her shirt, undoing the first few buttons. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Did I thank you?” asked Harrow lightly. Her eyes lingered on the fingers at Gideon’s collar for a few seconds too long. “I don’t recall doing that.”

That was the breaking point. “Okay, what is your problem?” Gideon turned towards her. “Seriously. Did I overstep? Is that what happened? Because you said everything was okay, and now you’re trying to pick a fight, and I don’t get it.”

Harrow opened her mouth, and then closed it. She seemed to consider something. Gideon could see the wheels spinning in her head. “No,” She said, quietly. “You didn’t overstep. I don’t want you to doubt that.”

“Okay,” said Gideon, more out of confusion than frustration now. Her hands were still planted firmly on her hips, which did, admittedly, help with her confidence. “So if that was okay, then why—”

Harrow looked back down at her book. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s fine. But don’t try and goad me into a fight if you’re not going to talk about why. It’s immature,” Gideon said, crossing her arms over her chest, “and I’m not gonna fall for it.”

Harrow’s mouth twisted again. This time, looking over the top of her book, Gideon nearly thought she was going to argue, which, to be fair, would have been a supremely Harrowhark move.

Trust her fiancée to put all of her eggs in the wrong basket while swearing up and down it was the right one— except in this case, the eggs were coping mechanisms, and the baskets were labeled healthy and unhealthy.

But Harrow just looked at her. She looked at her with a stare long and hard enough to wilt a flower, cold enough to crack a windshield, bare enough to send a chill down Gideon’s spine.

“Fine,” She said, simply. Then, after a moment: “Are you going to come to bed, or am I going to have to sleep with you standing over me?”

At least neither of them were foolish enough to try and touch.

As soon as Gideon slid under the sheets with her book — glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, pants off, and shirt tossed to the pile of clothes accumulating neatly in one corner — Harrow reached over, turned her lamp off, and turned on her side away from her.

The message was clear: not tonight.

Privately, Gideon thought this was overkill, but she wasn’t about to go crawling over begging forgiveness. If Harrow wasn’t going to be normal about her issues, Gideon wasn’t going to chase her down to work through them. Fuck that.

Gideon turned her lamp off, too. She left her glasses to rest on the table. She turned on the side that wasn’t facing Harrow, let her legs stretch out as far as she could without brushing her fiancée’s bony frame, and closed her eyes.

She tried very, very hard not to let it bother her. It wasn’t like they were actually together, after all. That would be one thing; that would be its own flavor of shit. This was different— and somehow, the disappointment and the tension and the nerves that ran through her now hurt so much more.

Gideon wasn’t sure why the hell it needled at her so much. Until, like, two weeks ago, all they had been was a boss and an assistant. Cuddling wasn’t exactly in her job description. It shouldn’t have bothered her—

But it did.

It weighed on her like a ton of cement, encasing her in a terrible kind of solitary hell. If she opened her mouth, she would drown in it. It would fill her lungs; it would turn her blood to stone and her sinew to rebar and her bones to carved, osseous marble.

Gideon pulled the sheets tighter around herself, stifling a shiver at the root. Fuck Harrow and her refusal to communicate— but the night was cold, and loneliness was colder.

* * *

THEN.

At least the event wasn’t a total bust. It wasn’t a success by any means, but Harrow had to admit that it could have been worse. Quick thinking had kept her feet under her, and quick action had gotten her a list of names to reach out to.

And still Harrowhark found herself at the bar.

It was not, perhaps, her healthiest coping mechanism, but it was better than wallowing in solitary hatred and depriving herself of sleep.

The first sip of vodka was cold enough to make her teeth hurt. The second was enough to make her eyes twitch. The third and fourth, at least, were dulled by their predecessors.

Harrow lifted a finger, gesturing vaguely to her drink, and was endlessly grateful for the bartender’s speed in delivering the next to her. A simple glass was placed in front of her, and was downed within the second.

She slumped over the bar, resting on one elbow as she lifted the glass to her lips. Alcohol was an imperfect solution, but it would drown out the disapproving stares of her parents from the other end of the room.

Harrowhark had always seen ghosts. She had always held memories and wishes close to her heart. She still remembered being nine years old, clad in black and shivering on a New Zealand winter's day, seeing her parents look at her from over their gravestones.

It had gotten easier to ignore them as she had gotten older, and they had faded with time, but it was always them. She wasn’t sure how to drive them away— but then, she rarely knew if she wanted them away.

They were a familiar comfort; they were a familiar burden. Grief was a weight she had never quite understood how to bear.

Harrowhark looked over at them for a moment, still in the last clothes she had seen them in, before raising her glass to them— whether in defiance or in solemnity, she didn’t know.

And then someone was talking to her. “‘Sup, boss,” came a voice behind her. She could hear the surprise, mild as it was, in Gideon’s voice. “Rough night?”

The corner of the room was empty now, but Harrow didn’t quite look away from it. Her lips twisted into something that could nearly be called a smile, though they gave up somewhere around bitterness. “Something like that,” She said. “Not my best.”

“Happens to the best of us,” Gideon said, sounding hopelessly out of her depth and aiming for levity regardless. She cleared her throat. “So. Are you—” She gestured with a finger to Harrow as a whole, “—is this something I need to worry about, or should I leave you to it?”

“For Christ’s sake, Griddle,” muttered Harrowhark, hearing the barest hint of a slur in her words. “You’re my assistant, not my therapist. Relax.” She looked over to see Gideon in an undershirt tucked into her slacks. “You look ridiculous.”

“The heat was a little much for me,” Gideon said, with only the barest hint of defensiveness. “I’m a cold weather kind of person.”

Harrow took another sip of her second— oh, no, this was her third drink. There were two empty glasses next to her. When had that happened? “Well, are you going to join me or not?”

Gideon blinked, looked towards the elevators, and blinked again. After a second, she said, tentatively, “Okay.”

“Start drinking,” said Harrow. After a moment, she added, “Or don’t. Far be it from me to peer pressure you.”

Gideon flagged down the bartender, not taking her eyes off of him as she spoke. “You know, this really isn’t how I thought my night would go.”

Harrow let out a chuckle around an ice cube. “And how did you think it would go?”

Gideon took a curious sip from a copper mug, then nodded in approval. “Oh, you know. Same as usual— watching reruns of Gilmore Girls, going over the schedule for tomorrow, writing my will in case someone else cancels on us.”

“Please,” Harrow heard herself say. “It’s hardly your fault.”

Gideon shrugged, taking another sip. “I won’t lie, I was a little surprised that I kept my job after what happened today.”

“Why in God’s name would I fire you over something as—” Harrow searched for the word, “—frivolous as an author’s whims? You didn’t force her hand.”

“Life moves in mysterious ways,” said Gideon. “I dunno. I thought it was a possibility.”

“You will remove it from your mind at once,” Harrow said, swaying gently through the words. “You’re the best assistant I’ve ever had.”

“Didn’t Ortus set fire to a manuscript once?” Gideon raised an eyebrow. “Low bar.”

Harrowhark rolled her eyes. “It was a good idea,” She said, after a long moment of silence. “Finding new talent.”

Gideon paused with her mug halfway to her mouth. “Thanks,” She said after a beat. “I thought it would be.”

Harrow nodded, and her eyes dropped for a moment to the arms revealed by the short, tight sleeves of the undershirt. Her face felt suddenly hot, and she wondered for a moment if it was vodka bringing the blood to her cheeks or something else. “What made you choose this field, Nav?”

Gideon made a face. “Long story,” She said. “And not a very interesting one.” A beat. And then: “I actually wanted to be an author, you know.”

Harrow did not know. She frowned lightly. “Did you?”

“Still do,” said Gideon, with a dark, self-deprecating laugh that followed it. “Can you believe that? A year and a half doing grunt work in this industry, and I still have dreams of making it big. I’m like some fuckin’ DIsney protagonist.”

Boldness overtook Harrow then like it never had before. “Do you have a manuscript?” She heard herself ask.

Gideon went very, very still next to her. “Part of one,” She said after a beat. “Why?”

“Tell me about it,” said Harrowhark. “Give me your best elevator pitch, and if you do well enough I’ll consider reading it.” Gideon adopted the body language of a caged animal being offered food by a stranger. Harrow rolled her eyes. “It is the least I can do after today.”

“If I’m going to do that, I need to be, like, way more drunk.” Gideon finished her drink and asked for another. “Look, it’s— you don’t have to do this out of pity, Nonagesimus.”

“It isn’t pity. It’s gratitude,” said Harrow.

“I’m not a charity case,” repeated Gideon carefully, searching her face intently. “I’m more than happy to claw my way to a book deal.”

“I said I would read it, not sign you. Consider it a provisional read.” This time, the smile that played at Harrow’s lips was more easily recognizable. “I can’t quite bring myself to part with my assistant yet, anyway. You’re safe.”

Gideon let out a laugh almost against her will. “You know, it’s not that bad of a job. I mean, it sucks sometimes, but I get to do cool shit and meet cool people.” She shrugged. “There’s worse I could be doing. The pay is dogshit, and I’ve been living in a closet for years, but sometimes it’s worth it.”

Harrow made a mental note to give her a raise. “I’m glad you find it fulfilling.” And then, without quite realizing it, she said, “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it to do this for the rest of my life.”

Gideon, again, went very still next to her. “I thought you said you didn’t want me to play therapist,” She said, carefully. “Do you want advice, or do you want me to say damn, that’s crazy?”

“The latter will suffice,” said Harrow.

Gideon nodded. “Damn,” She said. “That’s crazy.”

“Perfect,” Harrow said, raising her glass in a toast. “See? I told you you were a good assistant.”

Gideon let their glasses clink together, then downed the rest of hers. She regarded Harrow openly then, letting her brewed-amber eyes lose a portion of their inscrutability. For a moment, Harrow saw interest flash through them. “I’ve never seen you like this,” said Gideon, letting her head fall to the side. “This— open. I think this is the first real conversation I’ve had with you.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” said Harrow.

“Top five, at least.”

Harrow considered this. “Top five,” She agreed. Two shot glasses appeared in front of them, and before she could reach for them Gideon downed them both. “What—”

“I told you I needed to be drunker,” said Gideon, wincing only a little at the taste. She shook her head a few times, eyes widening and narrowing in turn. “Alright. You ready for the pitch?”

Her hair was messy; her eyes were lit up in a bright grin. Harrow felt her heart turn over in her chest— and, half a second later, realized that this was some point of no return for her. “I’m ready,” She said. “Hit me with your best shot, Nav.”

* * *

NOW.

It was damn near impossible to say no to Dulcinea. Harrow tried, failed, and licked her wounds within the span of twenty minutes.

It was rare that someone was able to convince her so readily, but in the end all it took was a simple text reading it might be nice to have a break from Canaan to sway her.

When Harrow arrived at the house — which was, blessedly, only a few streets away from Magnus and Abigail, and negated the use of a boat — she couldn’t help but be impressed.

It was a gorgeous, Daedalic structure, with hand-carved shingles laid nearly labyrinthine in the spirals and curves they made along the rooftop. Something about the wood, the cobblestone chimney, and the swirling, fantastical architecture reminded her of an old fairytale.

But the deck was the color of an old bloodstain. With the pale, creamy struts that supported it, Harrow couldn’t help but feel as though she was looking at a corpse. It should have been out of place on the green, wooded island, but it wasn’t. It blended into the landscape the same way any decaying corpse would; it returned itself to the earth.

A large, ovular window overlooked the sea, with curtains the color of a stormy sky flanking it on either side. Through it, Harrowhark could see the golden head of Coronabeth Tridentarius.

Harrow let out a quiet sigh. She had, as promised, made a brief set of pointers to give to Coronabeth on finding an apartment, though she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why. Ianthe was easy to pin down: she was motivated by her career and her sister and little else, which made for a clear profile if not a clear motive for the way she had been acting. But Coronabeth had something more implied in the way she looked at Harrow, and she couldn’t parse it.

It could have been jealousy, but she didn’t seem like the type. It could have been calculation, but for what Harrow didn’t know. It seemed unlikely that it would be without an ulterior motive— Coronabeth didn’t seem like the type to do anything without a reason.

Maybe the reason was pure curiosity. Maybe it was something else. For all her literary skew, Harrow had always had a scientific mind, and there was little she hated more than incomplete data.

The door stood tall ahead of her. Time and weathering had rendered it a pale brown color, different in size and stature than the smooth oak of Magnus and Abigail’s doors. Harrow raised a hand to knock three times at it, hearing the sharp sounds echo out around her.

Protesilaus opened the door. Harrow had never quite gotten a good look at him, but she took the opportunity to do so now: he had a statuesque face, but it seemed perpetually frozen in a morose expression. If the house was a cottage out of a fairytale, he was the lone watcher that kept it preserved.

“Hello, Harrowhark,” He intoned, his voice rumbling out of him like water from a stream. “They’re waiting for you in the drawing room.”

Harrow tried not to let her shock at hearing the words drawing room show visibly, and nodded her head once. “Thank you,” She said, straightening her spine with intent. “A question, Ebdoma. How long does— tea usually take?”

“Anywhere from ten minutes to six hours,” said Protesilaus with a sigh. “With her family, the former. With her friends, the latter.”

“And where do you expect this will fall?”

Protesilaus looked at her as if studying her. “She likes you,” He said finally. “I expect that she’ll use this to figure out how much.” He cleared his throat and, half under his breath, said, “Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end.

Harrow frowned. “Shakespeare,” She said, after a moment’s recollection. “I didn’t take you for a student of poetry.”

Protesilaus said, “I dabble,” and Harrow could tell by his tone that he wrote sonnets for fun. “Right this way.”

The drawing room overlooked the deck, and Dulcinea was draped elegantly over a chaise in front of a wall lined with bookshelves, trinkets, and decor from no fewer than forty different places. One snowglobe read Pittsburgh; another read Sydney. A third had an inscription in a Cyrillic language. The one next to it was in Arabic, and had sand instead of snow in it, which Harrowhark thought was a nice touch.

Coronabeth was leaning against an armchair with a cup of tea held boldly in one hand, and sounded as though she was in the middle of telling a story. She was using her other hand to gesture.

Harrow walked in to hear: “—and I told her that if she needed someone to help her get around and help around the house, I would be happy to. Lord knows I helped my sister for long enough. I know what it would mean.”

“I think Judith just needs some time to recover,” said Dulcinea sagely, nodding to herself. “You know how she is— she isn’t used to needing care.” She leaned forward, putting a hand on Coronabeth’s knee. “Sometimes being present is all we can do.”

Coronabeth’s eyes flicked over to Harrow, sensing movement, and narrowed in a smile. “Wise words,” She said. “But, perhaps, a conversation for another time. Hello, Harrowhark.”

Harrow nodded primly. “Good morning to you both.”

Dulcinea caught Protesilaus’ eye over her head and gestured subtly towards the door. “Thank you, Pro. I believe we’ll be alright for now,” She said, glancing over to Coronabeth. “I’ll let you know if anything changes. Tell your wife we say hello.”

“Of course,” He said, bowing his head. “I believe she’s making cookies, if you’d like me to bring some back.”

“Do you even need to ask?” Dulcie smiled. “I would love that. Drive safely.” The door clicked shut behind him, and as the other women’s gazes rounded on Harrowhark unease overtook her. She had an underlying sense of suspicion growing; it was as though she was an animal that was on the verge of being trapped, except that she had absolutely no idea where it would come from.

“So,” began Dulcinea, which made Harrow’s heart stop for a second in her chest. Her heart rate — once recovered — ticked up about ten extra beats per minute. “I’m afraid I wasn’t entirely truthful with you in the invitation.”

Harrow’s eyes darted between her and Coronabeth, who was regarding her with interest from the ottoman across the room. “Alright,” She said cautiously. “How so?”

Dulcinea and Coronabeth made eye contact again, and this time it was Coronabeth who spoke. “I believe Dulcie asked you over for tea,” She said, choosing every word like she was loading bullets into a gun. “That’s true, certainly—” She gestured to the teapot on the table, “—but it was more of a cover than anything else. You’re here because we have some questions we want to ask.”

Harrow stiffened in her seat. Instantly, her mind flew to the worst case scenario.

This was what had been keeping her up at night. In it, Ianthe had figured out their ruse, with Coronabeth and Dulcinea only there to confirm it for themselves. Perhaps Harrow would confess; perhaps she would go to her bitter end swearing up and down it was real. Regardless, Magnus and Abigail would be the next to know.

When she imagined it, this was where she usually began to pray for mercy— whether from God or from the two of them, she wasn’t sure.

The broad, friendly smiles would fall from their faces when they heard what she had done; the warmth would drain from their eyes. They would turn her away. They would tell her never to return. Jeannemary and Isaac would glare daggers from beside them.

And then there was Gideon.

Gideon, who would give her a rueful, tragic smile even as the handcuffs closed around her wrists; Gideon, who would shrug and say something stupid like we gave it our best shot just to make her feel better; Gideon, who would be carried off in chains while her family swore vengeance on the woman who had made it all happen.

And after it all — after every last knife to the back, every self-directed spear to the heart — Harrow would be sent ten thousand miles across the world, and she would be alone again.

“Questions,” Harrowhark said tightly, hearing her words ring hollow. “What about?”

“Consider it— what’s the phrase?” Dulcie asked, more to herself than to anyone in the room. “Ah! A shovel talk.”

There was a pause.

Then, Harrow said, somewhat distractedly: “A what?”

“A shovel talk,” repeated Coronabeth. “I’m sure you’re familiar.”

“Gardening has never been my strong suit.”

“No, it’s—” Dulcinea let out a chuckle. “It’s about your relationship. Consider this your official warning. If you do anything to hurt Gideon Nav, we will be the ones you have to reckon with.”

Harrow swallowed, eyeing the door. “Magnus and Abigail—”

“—are far too polite to say anything rude to you,” Coronabeth finished. “But hurrah! I am not.” She stood, walked forward, and tilted Harrowhark’s face up towards her. Her fingers dug gently into the underside of her chin.

Corona’s voice came out measured. “If you hurt her in any way that lasts, you will deal with us for the remainder of your life,” She murmured, watching black eyes widen, narrow, and flick between hers. “We will be everywhere. We will make your life hell.”

“That’s, perhaps, a little extreme,” said Dulcinea pleasantly. To Harrowhark, she said confidentially: “I was just going to ask you not to hurt her. It seemed reasonable.”

Coronabeth rolled her eyes. “Allow me my flair for the dramatic,” She said, releasing Harrow’s face. “Obviously the details of their relationship are more complex than outsiders can grasp, and obviously, if they’re planning to be married, they’re smart enough to work through issues. It’s the principle of the thing, Septimus.”

Harrowhark — who was now struggling between total confusion and a tidal wave of guilt — cleared her throat. “Was that— it?”

Dulcinea sent Coronabeth a reproachful look, and the other woman let out an affected groan. “Apparently so. I had a whole speech planned, too.”

“I’m sorry to have missed it,” said Harrow, who was not sorry in the slightest. She paused, then cleared her throat. “For what it’s worth,” She said carefully, “I have no plans to hurt Gideon. The opposite, in fact. She’s doing me a great—” Harrow cleared her throat. “I’m— very happy in our relationship. I want her to be happy, too.”

And as soon as the sentence left her mouth, Harrowhark realized it was true.

Somehow, over the course of three years spent working together and a week and a half in a place so completely foreign and wild to her, she found that all she really wanted — when all the confounding factors were removed and the guilt taken away — was to see Gideon happy.

Which meant— well, Harrowhark had, in the simplest of terms, royally fucked herself over.

The only thing she wanted was to make her assistant— her fiancée— Gideon happy, and everything she had done up until now nearly guaranteed the opposite.

She had created the world’s stupidest, most disastrous paradox, and had done so out of the pure selfish desire not to lose what she had. She fucked herself over; but worse, she had ruined Gideon’s life.

Her heart listed sharply to one side, skipping more beats than strictly necessary in its awful realization. Her hands began to tremble at her sides; she flexed them hard, trying her damnedest to stay focused.

Coronabeth was saying something— Harrow could hear the sounds, but she couldn’t understand them. Her eyes had begun to glaze over. Noise from outside faded in as the volume inside of her mind cranked itself up to 11.

Christ, she really was an idiot, wasn’t she? The guilt was back— it hit her now like a ton of bricks falling on her, scattering her brains on the pavement and breaking every bone in her body in its effort to punish her.

Memories flashed through her mind— every cup of coffee or lunch order sent back over nothing; every late night she had insisted upon; every last-minute change or abrupt shift she had forced on Gideon.

And where had it all led her? Where was the final destination she had been searching for? Fame, success, publicity— none of it mattered if it came at the cost of someone’s life.

It wasn’t fair. She was so damn used to being alone, and here she was coming apart at the seams at the thought of being parted from her fiancée.

Harrowhark asked herself, somewhere in the clamor and the chaos, if she was ready to be alone again, and found herself screaming back with every part of her being: no.

And then someone was saying, “Help her onto the ground, Corona, she can’t— Harrow? Harrow, can— can you hear me?”

Her body was convulsing beyond her control. She couldn’t speak; she could barely move. Someone guided her to the floor, and reflexively she curled herself into a ball. A litany of idiot and manipulator and you ruined her life pounded in her head.

And Harrow realized — distantly, and only after the first teardrop hit her hand — that she was crying.

Perhaps weeping would have been more accurate— her body convulsed with sobs; tears ran freely from her eyes; her hands trembled and flexed and dug into the hardwood below.

There was a hand on her rear deltoid, guiding her into someone’s lap and giving a faint feeling of pressure. “Corona, get her some water,” came a command from overhead. “Call Abigail. She’ll know what to do. She has to.”

There went the sound of footsteps rushing into the kitchen. Then: “Listen to me. Listen, darling.” It was difficult to steel her focus, but she tried. “Listen. Your name is Harrowhark Nonagesimus. You are twenty-five years old. You’re at Rhodes in Sitka, Alaska. Can you breathe?”

Harrow blinked, realizing for the first time that her eyes had been closed. Her tongue felt leaden. She tried to suck in a breath, but the inhale wheezed, stopping somewhere around her ribcage. The voice— Dulcinea continued, “That’s alright. Here. Follow me— four counts in, four holding, four counts out.”

Above her, she saw the faint rise and fall of a chest. The first pattern was a foolish endeavor; the second, at least, let her lungs expand. By the third, she was starting to even out. Dulcinea patted her shoulder encouragingly. “Your fiancée’s name is Gideon Nav. What color is her hair?”

Harrow squeezed her eyes shut, willing the noise in her mind to go away. Visions of Gideon flashed through her mind, one after the other. It was difficult to say whether this helped or hindered her— but regardless, after a moment, she croaked, “Red.”

“Good,” said Dulcinea, with palpable relief. “Good. Yes. It is. She’s a ginger. What color are her eyes?”

“Gold,” came the weak response. It was followed by a rattling breath. “Like— like tea.”

Dulcinea rubbed at her shoulder gently. “Wonderful comparison,” She said, nodding encouragingly. “Take a breath, darling.”

Harrow did— it only half-worked, but with each exhale she felt the noise die down. Coronabeth was at her shoulder suddenly, offering her water, and she accepted it gratefully. She figured drinking was easier than having to speak. After a moment, she creaked, “I— I’m sorry, I don’t—”

“You had a panic attack,” Dulcinea said, impossibly gently. “It’s alright. It happens to everyone.”

Not to me, Harrow thought, taking another sip of water. “Right,” She said, after a long moment. “Right. Well. I— I apologize. I don’t know why—”

“You hit a breaking point after a long-running buildup of stress,” Corona said matter-of-factly, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Wedding planning, running a publishing house, et cetera— whatever it is, I don’t blame you.” At the disbelieving stare Harrow gave her, she shrugged. “I went to an Ivy League, Harrow. Yours is not the first panic attack I’ve seen.”

“Still,” Harrow said unsteadily, swallowing the last dregs of water. “Thank you. I— I would ask for your discretion about this.” She looked between them and prayed for understanding. “This is not something I would enjoy being asked about.”

“Oh, of course,” said Dulcinea. “Idle gossip is one thing. This is another. Your business will remain your own.”

Harrow attempted a prim nod, and assumed by the worry in Dulcinea’s eyes that it came out somewhere closer to broken. “Could—” Her voice cracked on the word, and she took a breath before trying again. “If you don’t mind, I believe I need a moment alone.”

Dulcinea gave her a smile and a nod. “Of course,” She said, squeezing lightly at her shoulder. “I’ve been meaning to get Corona to help me with lunch anyway. Come find us in the kitchen when you’re done.”

The door clicked softly shut behind her, leaving Harrow alone on the floor of an unfamiliar house. She put her head in her hands for a moment, squeezing her eyes shut. Her nails dug into the back of her neck, and the bright spot of pain was enough to keep her grounded.

She didn’t know how much time passed like that— head between her knees, nails carving half-moons into whatever skin she could find. But its infinity was broken by a quiet bzzt from her pocket.

Harrow’s eyes opened — when had she closed them? — to see a text from Gideon.

Gideon Nav (11:31am) : all good?

And then, a moment later:

Gideon Nav (11:32am) : dulcie said you were having a moment. thought i’d check in

Gideon Nav (11:32am) : fiancée duties n shit

It was unfair, unjust, and completely unwarranted that something as simple as three text messages could bring her as much relief and comfort as they did.

Harrow took a deep, shuddering breath, and brought her hand away from her body.

HN (11:34am): I’m fine. Nothing out of the ordinary.

This, of course, neglected to tell her that it was the first panic attack she had had in nearly two years. Harrow figured the lack of knowledge wouldn’t hurt her.

Gideon Nav (11:35am) : you sure? she sounded pretty worried

Harrow wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. Her mind was still a few notches slower than it usually was — an unfortunate consequence of being in such an alarmed state for a prolonged period of time — and exhaustion made her fumble her steps.

So when her phone began to ring with a call from Gideon after nearly ten minutes of radio silence, Harrow wished very badly that she had been present enough to just text back.

“Hello?” She croaked, bringing the phone to her ear.

“Oh, thank God,” Gideon said on the other end, sighing with relief. “I thought you died.”

Harrow fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I’m fine, Griddle,” She said, though with a fraction of her usual confidence.

“You don’t sound fine,” said Gideon matter-of-factly. “You sound like someone put you in a spin cycle. What the fuck happened?”

If Harrow’s heart squeezed in her chest, she wouldn’t acknowledge it. Memories assaulted her once more— pounding against the walls of her mind with a venom she had never felt before. “Nothing,” She attempted, hearing her voice creak and waver. “I— I’m alright.”

“Like hell,” Gideon said firmly. “Let me come pick you up. You walked, right? I can be over in ten minutes to bring you home.”

“No,” Harrow said, before she could stop herself. “That—” would be wonderful, her mind filled in. That would be perfect. That’s what I need. “That won’t be necessary,” She finished. A pause. Then: “We’re going to have lunch.”

There was a beat of silence on the other end of the line. “Are you ever going to tell me when something is wrong?” Gideon asked, voice like a knife. “Or are you going to try and keep it all zipped up inside?”

Harrow stiffened. “Nothing is wrong,” She said, hearing only the slightest tremor in her voice. “I thought I told you that already.”

“Great. First that— thing last night, and now this, I—” She let out a humorless bark of laughter. “Look, Harrow, I want to be there for you, but I’m not going to chase you down.”

“I don’t recall asking you to be there for me at all,” Harrowhark said, unable to stop the ice from creeping into her voice. “I can—”

“—take care of yourself,” Gideon finished. “Sure. And, quick question, how’s that working out for you so far?”

Irritation mingled with guilt mingled with anger inside her.

“Fine,” Harrow gritted. “I’m having a wonderful time here in the middle of nowhere, Griddle, thank you so much for asking. In fact, sometimes when I manage to forget the overwhelming hopelessness of my situation, I’m doubly grateful for things like a fiancée with no concept of sympathy and the emotional range of a slab of butter.”

“No concept of sympathy,” Gideon repeated, letting out another high, humorless laugh. “You’re fucking kidding me. I’m risking—” Here she lowered her voice, “—years in prison and a fine that is, by the way, miles above my fucking pay grade so you can keep your little passion project, but I’m the one without sympathy.”

Passion project?” Harrow’s voice took on a wild, primal pitch. “Everything I have I owe to the Ninth, and everything you have you owe to the Ninth. Sympathy implies emotional intelligence, which implies regular intelligence,” said Harrow, hating herself more and more with every word, “and both of us know where you stand there. Tell me, Griddle, were you born an imbecile, or did your mother drop you on your head before she left you behind?”

The other side of the line went quiet for a long moment. “Fuck you,” said Gideon, her voice like a loaded gun. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, at least I’m trying—

“Trying what?” Harrow asked. Half of her screamed to stop, to communicate; the other half was rebuilding the walls she had been painstakingly trying to tear down. “Trying to get us caught? Trying to get me deported and yourself landed in prison? Oh, you’re doing a phenomenal job there. All the kissing practice in the world couldn’t help us now.”

Another long moment of quiet. The tension between them, even over the phone, felt like a boil that wouldn’t quite deflate. Instead, as though it had been egged on, it grew full and shiny, blistering in the heat.

“Yeah, fuck this,” Gideon said, as if it had just occurred to her. “Fuck you. I’m done with— whatever this is. I’m done.”

The line clicked dead.

Harrow let her phone slip onto the hardwood floor. Tears were welling at her eyes.

On the other side of the island, a mile and a quarter away, Gideon set her phone on the table with shaking hands and decided, then and there, her betrayal.

* * *

THEN.

“So,” started Gideon, drawing out the syllable. “Your family died when you were a kid, right?”

Harrow nodded, making her lips into a straight line. “Affirmative.”

“So you’ve never, like—” She interrupted herself with a burp. “‘Scuse me. So you never had people at your, like, graduation— things?”

“Ceremonies,” Harrow supplied.

Gideon snapped her fingers drunkenly. “That’s the bitch.”

Harrow thought for a moment, then shrugged. “I had a caretaker after my parents passed. Crux. He—” She thought for a moment. “He came when I finished high school, but he couldn’t make it to London for my graduation from Oxford. Although,” She said, tilting her head, “If memory serves, he flew with me after I first matriculated.”

Matriculated,” Gideon repeated, in a passable imitation of Harrow’s accent. “I will never understand why Brits do so much. Just, like, call it orientation like the rest of us.”

A sober Harrow would have rolled her eyes and explained the differences in regional vernacular. This Harrow had to fight to keep from smiling. “And you?” She asked, raising her eyebrows. “When was the last time you saw your parents?”

Gideon laughed loudly, as if Harrow had made a joke. “Depends on which set you mean,” She said, wiping a tear from her eye. “Uh. Magnus and Abigail I saw, like— what, a year and a half ago? They flew to Boston after I fucked my knee and then came back a year or so later for graduation.”

Harrow frowned. “What happened to your knee?”

“Oh, I haven’t told you that story?” Gideon nodded, taking a sip of her drink. “I played hockey in college. And I was— I mean, I don’t want to brag, but I was really goddamn good. Like first-round draft pick, future professional career good.”

“Until you were injured,” Harrow said, following the threads.

“I’m getting there,” Gideon said, frowning. “Let me set the scene.”

“Junior year — third year, for your Kiwi reckoning — we make it all the way through playoffs to the finals,” Gideon said. “Huge deal. Huuuuge deal. I’m the captain that year, so it’s, like, major for me, you know?”

Harrow nodded, taking a sip from her drink. “Naturally.”

“Yeah. So, anyway, we’re three minutes into the second period, I’m on a breakaway—” (Harrow wasn’t sure what this meant, but nodded along anyway,) “—and some jackass on the other team comes up from behind and checks the absolute shit out of me.” She shrugged. “When I went down, their stick got caught on my skate and they pulled, and— long story short, I tore my MCL and we ended up losing.”

“ACL,” Harrow corrected.

Gideon shook her head. “MCL,” She repeated. “Medial— whatever the fuck. I would know it sober.” She made a vague flapping motion with one of her hands. “It’s the one that keeps your knee from moving side to side.”

Gory realization hit her all at once, and Harrow winced in sympathy. “That sounds— deeply unpleasant.”

“Understatement,” Gideon said, with only a hint of perverse enjoyment at the way Harrow’s face scrunched up in disgust. “I was out for the rest of the season.”

“And now you’re here,” Harrow said. “In a bar in Austin drinking with your boss.”

“And now I’m here,” agreed Gideon. “Could be worse, though.” She paused. “That’s actually where I first started writing.”

“What an origin story,” Harrowhark said. “I can picture you now: high off of pain meds, completely immobilized, and typing furiously at a computer.”

She worried for half a second after saying it that it would cause offense, but Gideon just laughed. It was a full-belly laugh, too; tears welled at her eyes after it. “You’re not that far off. Some of my first writing reads like a Riverdale episode.”

Harrow tilted her head to one side. “I don’t follow.”

“That’s probably for the best,” Gideon said, shaking her head solemnly. “Anyway, I got better. Obviously. My knee still gives me trouble sometimes, but nothing terrible. I think I got a pretty good gig out of it in the end.”

“Do you think so?” Harrow asked before she could stop herself. “Sometimes—” The words died in her mouth, and she had to take a long pull from her drink before she could speak again. “Sometimes I think it would be best to forget the whole damn thing and— go to medical school, or—or work at a shelter. Something that helps people.”

Gideon cocked her head to one side. “Who says you don’t help people?”

“You, mostly,” Harrow muttered, ignoring the noise of protest from the other stool. “And Silas Octakiseron.”

“Well, fuck Silas,” Gideon said. “And fuck me, I guess. I think you’re doing pretty great.” A pause. “Don’t tell anyone I said that. The group chat would burn me at the stake.”

“Never,” Harrow said primly. “Your reputation will be kept perfectly intact. As will mine, I take it.”

Gideon made a zipping motion with her fingers, turned an imaginary key in a lock, and flicked it away. “Tonight never happened.”

Harrow raised her glass, letting Gideon’s clink softly against it. “I’m glad we agree.”

They sat in silence for a moment, letting the space between them echo with peace, before Gideon let out a quiet groan. “Shit. We have to be at the convention center by 8am tomorrow, right?”

“Don’t remind me,” said Harrowhark. “What time is it now?”

Gideon checked her watch and let out a low whistle. “Yikes. Half past one.”

A sigh. “Well, you’re free to leave,” said the editor, turning to her assistant. “Unfortunately, I have some unfinished business with our dearest Alecto that needs attending to, but— why are you looking at me like that?”

Gideon blinked, raising her eyebrows. She put her hands up in surrender. “I was just going to say, I have all the fixings for a quick nightcap in my room. You know, if— if that’s something you’d be into.” She cleared her throat. A blush was creeping up her neck, turning the skin at her collar a darker, vaguely reddish shade of brown. “If not, y’know, no biggie. I get it. It’s been a long night.”

Harrow should have said no. She should have said: if you’re asking what I think you’re asking, that is completely inappropriate. She should have said: and even if you aren’t asking what I think you’re asking, I’ve already had far too much to drink tonight.

What she actually said was: “To hell with long nights. We’re already up past our bedtimes, aren’t we?” Harrow finished her drink and nodded towards the elevators. “Give me your best nightcap, Griddle.”

* * *

NOW.

Gideon was pissed out of her mind.

She had tried not to let it get to her. Really, she had. She had gone for a run — a proper run, too, where her legs ached and her lungs heaved for nearly twenty minutes after — she had made breakfast for herself, for Magnus, for Abigail, and she had even resorted to chopping firewood.

None of it helped— though, she had to admit, heaving a splitting maul was good for getting out aggression.

The only thing that was keeping her from throwing herself onto a spike was — somehow — Silas Octakiseron.

He had responded to Gideon’s email with a haste that surprised her even now. Then again, she suspected he had fuck-all else going on, given that he was terrible at running his company and he was way too shitty to have any friends.

To Nav, read the subject line. Regarding a position at the Eighth.

Maybe it was too big an overreaction, too significant of a leap to go from Harrowhark’s fiancée to working for her biggest industry rival; maybe it wasn’t significant enough. She wasn’t sure. Right now, all she could think of was that Harrow had hurt her, and she wanted to hurt her back.

It did occur to her that this was not the healthiest reaction.

Luckily, there was no real downside to it: the email was little more than a rod cast out into an ocean of opportunity. The backdoor was still wide open in case Silas tried to fuck her over.

As Gideon opened the email, scrolling lightly through it, she couldn’t help but think that the possibility was growing more and more likely.

The email, as it turned out, was only two sentences long.

There’s a phone number listed below. Call me.

There was. Gideon did.

Silas picked up on the second ring. “Hello, Nav.” His strange, sonorous voice had a deeply unpleasant ring to it, but then maybe that was how he normally sounded. Gideon wasn’t sure. “I must say, this is a surprise. I had thought you were beholden to the Ninth.”

Gideon rolled her eyes. “I’m not beholden to anyone. I worked for Harrow for three years, and I’m fuckin’ sick of it. I’m only reaching out to you because I thought you’d understand.”

“Ah, another curiosity. Trying to quit working for your own fiancée,” came the response. “Trouble in paradise, I suppose.”

Fuck. Gideon squeezed her eyes shut. “Yeah, it’s none of your damn business if our paradise has trouble,” She said carefully. Despite herself, she wasn’t quite ready to release the truth. “Look, are you going to help me or not? Because I’m on a tight schedule here, and—”

“Be patient.” Silas took a measured breath. “I’ve heard of an opening at the Seventh that I’m happy to refer you to. And I’ve heard the First has a few upper-level positions opening soon.” And then there was a terrible pause. “You understand, of course, that your ruse will never work.”

Gideon went very still. “What ruse?”

“You can convince the rest of them that you’re a lovesick fool, but not me,” said Silas with a particular, careful sort of precision. “I have seen the way you interact with her. I have seen the way she treats you. I have seen the way she treats her staff. Whatever is between you, Nav, it is not love.”

Gideon opened her mouth to give a retort along the lines of go fuck yourself, and found that she was cut off. “I do not mean to offend,” said Silas unconvincingly. “But as it seems that no one else will tell you the truth about her, I will.”

Unfortunately, this piqued Gideon’s curiosity. “What truth, Octakiseron? She’s an arthritic New Zealander with a bad attitude and a Virgo moon, and I’m marrying her. That’s all you need to know.”

“Did you meet Ortus Nigenad before he left the Ninth?” asked Silas, pretending as though she hadn’t spoken.

The answer was yes, twice— once, when she was being interviewed, and again when she was moving her things into the office. “A few times, yeah.” Gideon pursed her lips. “I don’t see what—”

“Your Harrowhark made him interview you knowing you would get his job,” Silas said. “Did you know she told him when she put up the listing?” Gideon was quiet. “He made one mistake too many, and I suppose that was it. She forced him to sit through hours and hours of candidates until she found you.”

“Okay,” Gideon said, sucking a quick breath in through her teeth. “Well, that was years ago—”

“She made him watch as he lost his job,” Silas repeated, hammering in every word like it was a nail in a coffin lid. “Do you understand?” Over the other side of the line, she could hear rustling; he was leaning forward in his seat. “That is what the Ninth House is, Gideon Nav. It is perversely cruel. It is wickedly cold. Do you think, when she finds out what you’ve done, that she won’t do the same to you?”

The fog of anger that had clouded her since the earlier call was clearing, and Gideon was beginning to regret this whole endeavor in a major way. The first tendrils of guilt stung lightly at her for reaching out in the first place, but she kept them at bay. She would deal with them later; she would make it right later.

“You know what I think?” Gideon said, keeping her voice as calm as possible. “I think I made a mistake calling you.” She took a breath. “I think you’re crossing a metric fuckton of lines. I think this is the last time I go to you for any kind of advice. And I think you know approximately jack shit about my fiancée.” And then, for good measure: “Don’t put my name on any lists. In fact, don’t put my name anywhere.”

“Very well,” sighed Octakiseron. “I must say, I’m disappointed. I had hoped you would see this to completion”

Gideon wished very badly that he was there, if only so that she could spit in his face. “Yeah, boo-fucking-hoo. The only thing I plan on seeing to completion is your mom.”

“Charming as always,” He said icily. “Well, I’ve done all I could.” The other side of the phone went quiet for a moment. “And Nav,” Silas began, “when you’re justifying this whole ordeal to yourself later, just remember— you were the one who called.”

And the line went dead.

Gideon let out a harsh hiss of air through her teeth. “Fuck,” She muttered, rubbing at her forehead. “Fuck.”

She leaned against the side of the house, letting her head rest against the siding, and closed her eyes for a second— and then, to her surprise, heard the door to the outside of the house open and close.

Gideon’s eyes opened. Magnus and Abigail were out, the kids were at school, and the only person who would be home would be—

A cold, sharp feeling ran through her. Gideon barely had time to think fuck before her fiancée emerged from the stairwell.

“There you are,” said Harrowhark, looking tenser than a tightrope. “We need to talk.”

Gideon had prepared a whole speech for this moment. She had written a string of fuck-yous and go-fuck-yourselves so long and so powerful Harrow would never recover— but then she added, “Please,” and Gideon faltered.

Her anger paused in its march towards oblivion, and she looked at Harrow truly.

Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. Her face held an expression of weariness that Gideon, in all her years of late nights and deadlines, had never seen. Her arms were held tightly around herself, and the late-afternoon chill sent a shiver through her as Gideon watched.

Without realizing it, Gideon began to unzip her jacket. “Fine,” She said, passing it over. “Here.”

Harrow looked at it the same way she might if there was a snake hiding inside it. “What is this for?” She asked, voice thick with suspicion.

Gideon rolled her eyes. “Just take it. You’re gonna freeze to death without something to keep you warm out here.”

“Are you ever going to stop trying to take care of me?” asked Harrow, more tired than anything else.

“Dunno,” Gideon said. “Maybe if you keep being a little baby about communication.”

Harrow gave her a watered-down glare, but grumbled, “Deserved.” She slid Gideon’s jacket on, dwarfed by it, and let out a sigh. “I’ve been thinking. The time has come,” She said, half in defeat and half in gravity, “to tell you everything.”

Gideon paused, then blinked. “Oh, shit,” She said. “This is go time.”

“This is go time,” Harrow agreed. She looked out toward the water. “Walk with me.”

Gideon frowned. “Why? You gonna drown me? That’s not a great way of saying you’re sorry.”

Harrow shot her another watered-down expression of irritation. “A custom from home,” She explained quietly. Then, after a beat: “Whenever my mother had something she needed to talk about, she brought us to the ocean. She used to tell me that the salt water helped purge the truth.”

“Oh,” said Gideon, unsure of how else to respond. “Um. Alright.”

They walked in silence down the hill, and after a moment of looking for a spot Harrow sat down gingerly by the water’s edge. She brought her knees up to her chin, wrapping her arms around her legs, and let out a sigh.

And silence filled in the space between them again. Gideon was starting to sweat by the time Harrow broke it; despite the cold, her heart was racing, and her hands were clammy already. She wiped them on the grass.

“I want—” Harrow paused. “No. I need to start by apologizing.”

“Oh.” Gideon blinked. As far as un-Harrow moves went, this was at the top of the list. “Okay.”

“I shouldn’t have said what I said to you earlier,” Harrow said, quietly. “It was awful. It was— borderline unforgivable. I said it because I knew it would hurt you, and I—” She blinked, went quiet, and swallowed thickly, and Gideon realized half a second later that she was trying not to cry. “I’m so sorry, Gideon.”

“Oh,” Gideon said again, somewhat awkwardly. She wasn’t sure what the protocol was here. She was completely out of her fucking depth. “Um. Yeah. Thanks for saying that.” Harrow was looking at her like there was something else she was expecting, so she cleared her throat. “I accept your apology and agree that it was a big, steaming pile of bullshit to throw that in my face.”

Harrow nodded, her jaw working like she was grinding her teeth. “It was,” She said simply. “I don’t deny it.”

“And you aren’t going to do it again?”

Harrow looked affronted. “Never,” She said, firmly. “No. I will not.”

Gideon looked at her; she saw Harrow in her entirety. She took a deep breath in— and with the exhale, let go of her anger. “Then we’re good,” She said. “Thanks for apologizing.”

Harrow blinked like she hadn’t been expecting this outcome. “Of course,” She said, sounding small again.

Silence settled between them; Gideon broke it after a few seconds. “Okay, if we’re talking now—”

“We are,” Harrowhark confirmed.

“—Harrow, for fuck’s sake, what’s been going on with you?”

This question seemed anticipated. “Ah,” Harrow said after a moment, voice heavy. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she was miles away. “It’s— complicated.” She let out a brief exhale through her teeth with a hiss. “Let me begin with my parents.”

“Oh, there’s lore?” Gideon asked.

Harrow gave her a look. “So to speak,” She said. “There’s no easy way to say this, so I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to just say it: the day after Mithraeum bought the Ninth, my parents hung themselves in their bedroom.” Gideon’s eyes went wide. Sensing accurately that she had zero idea what to say in response, Harrow continued, “My mother couldn’t bear to see what she considered a failing of her family’s legacy. My father couldn’t bear to lose her.”

“Jesus,” murmured Gideon. “I wouldn’t usually consider getting bought by a megacorporation a negative thing.”

“It was bought after years of decline and eventual bankruptcy,” Harrowhark said. “In that sense, it was the ultimate failure. My grandmother founded it. My mother was supposed to keep it running, and she couldn’t. After years of fighting for it, she— couldn’t bear it any longer. It was a failure to herself and to her family.” Her eyes lost their focus. “But— they wanted me to do it with them.”

“They did not.” Gideon’s blood turned to ice. “Harrow, they did not.”

Harrow nodded mutely. “They offered me a noose next to them. My father tied it the same way he tied his fishing knots.”

Gideon thought that if she lingered on how fucking tragic that was, she would never stop. “And no one thought, hey, maybe asking our nine-year-old daughter to kill herself is a bad idea?”

“If you want me to ask them, Griddle, it’s a bit too late for that.” Harrow snapped. Gideon raised her eyebrows. After the words left her mouth, Harrowhark deflated. She folded into herself, bringing her head to her knees. “I’m— sorry, I— I didn’t mean to snap. I’m not used to talking about them.” She let out a harsh sigh, looking over the tops of her knees towards the water.

“But it was important that you know that, because— that’s my experience with family,” Harrowhark continued. “I am not telling you this to make excuses for my behavior. It’s important that you know that, too.”

“Appreciated,” said Gideon.

“I—” Here, Harrowhark faltered. “Gideon, I have no idea how to do this,” She said, barely above a whisper. “Any of it. How can I—” Her voice went awful then. It clotted with tears and stuck in her throat. “Everything I have done is for them. Everything I have worked for is to make them proud and— and to prove to somebody that I deserve to be alive. Being here, seeing that there was always another way—” She faltered, looked down. “That is what has been going on.”

Gideon felt her heart crack into two. “Oh, Harrow,” She said, hearing a waver in her own voice. “Harrow, I’m so fucking sorry.”

Harrowhark rounded on her then with renewed energy. “You’re sorry?” She said, disbelieving. “You— for three years, Gideon Nav, I have treated you like dirt and paid you in kind. I have used you. I have taken advantage of everything you have given me. I brought you here with a noose around your neck, asking you to give up your life for someone you have proclaimed to hate, and you apologize to me?”

“Harrowhark—”

“I have tried to dismantle you,” said Harrow, barely above a whisper. “You are risking jail for me. You are risking everything for me. And you—” She blinked once, twice, and her eyes filled with tears. “I didn’t know before. I didn’t— finally seeing that—” Her voice broke suddenly.

Gideon shifted uncomfortably where she sat. Her hands itched to reach out, but something kept them in her lap, twisting and picking at each other. “Seeing what?”

“What I have stolen from you. Everything you have lost in my service,” Harrow croaked, barely above a whisper. “I was blind. I was— I was ignorant. I have taken it like a knife to the heart, and I have no idea how to fix it.

Gideon couldn’t help it; she reached over and pulled Harrow into her chest. She pressed a firm kiss to her forehead, and the noise Harrowhark made embarrassed them both.

“And you call me an idiot,” Gideon murmured, pressing her face into the hair at the top of Harrow’s head.

“What—”

Gideon silenced her with a shake of her head. “You keep telling me you can take care of yourself. I keep trying to tell you, Nonagesimus, you don’t have to.”

Harrow wriggled weakly in her arms before falling, limply, into the embrace. “Gideon—”

“Nope. You said your piece. My turn,” Gideon said. “Harrow, you didn’t steal anything from me.”

“But—”

“No buts. My turn,” Gideon said, more firmly. “I could have quit at any point, and I didn’t. Yes, there were things I missed, and, yes, it kills me that I won’t get some of those back, but I made that choice for myself. You have a whole city of people who would kill to have my job. I stayed because I got something out of it.”

This was met with silence. Gideon continued, “And all I’ve ever needed from you was honesty. You want to know how to fix it?” The words were in air quotes. “All you have to do is prove you want to try.” She paused for a moment, keeping Harrow in her arms, and then said: “One flesh, one end.”

Harrow stilled. “What?”

“Say it, loser,” said Gideon.

“One flesh,” said Harrow, half in surprise and half in confusion. “One end.”

Gideon smiled to herself, tightening her embrace ever so slightly. This time, she felt Harrow lean into it; she rested her head against the strap of Gideon’s overalls and let her hands tighten against her back. “Do you remember what it means?”

If she had looked down, she would have seen recollection creep slowly over her fiancée’s face. “From your story.”

“It means I give you permission,” Gideon said, nodding. “To bring us together. Unite our souls and— what have you.”

Harrow went very, very still against her. Her breathing turned shallow. “I didn’t take you for a romantic,” She said, less than steadily.

“Well, we’re already getting married. May as well, right?” The corners of her mouth quirked up in a smile. “Told you it was big-time dramatic shit.”

A silence lingered between them then, one filled by the sound of Harrow’s breathing against her and the waves brushing the shore. For the first time all day, Gideon felt peace wash over her.

Or she would have, had the words not sparked a memory. This prompted the smile off her face. “Oh. Um. Also,” Gideon continued, lifting a hand to scratch at the back of her head. “Telling you now, just in case it comes back to haunt us, I may have overreacted earlier.”

Harrow shifted against her. “Overreacted how?” She asked, voice muffled by Gideon’s shirt.

“Um,” Gideon started, hearing her voice go up in pitch, “well, I may have called Silas.”

There was a deafening silence. “You called the Eighth.” Harrow pulled her face away to make eye contact. “You called. The Eighth.”

Gideon’s eyes narrowed lightly. “I’m sensing this was a bad time to bring this up.”

“Why?” Harrow asked, a curious panic filling her voice. “What did you— what—”

“Well, I was talking to Silas about transferring there— which I no longer plan to do,” Gideon rushed, seeing Harrow’s eyes bulge out of their sockets. “I just— I was mad. I didn’t know how else to react. And I’m sorry,” She added. “It was a terrible call, though. He sucks. I told him to fuck off.”

“You are going to send me into an early grave,” Harrow muttered after a long moment. She settled back down into Gideon’s arms. “I thought—” She let out a shaky sigh. “Christ. I thought you told him.”

“Didn’t have to,” Gideon said without thinking. Approximately one second passed before her eyes went wide. “Uh. I mean—”

Nav.” Harrow was staring at her again. “What,” She started, voice dripping with thick, careful fury, “does that mean.”

“Um.” Gideon swallowed. “He knows.”

How does he know.”

“That one isn’t actually my fault,” Gideon said, protesting lightly. “I swear. He was the one that brought it up, and I told him that he was out of line for it. And also, y’know, that he was wrong.”

This seemed to relax her minutely; the tension at Harrow’s neck went from bridge support to piano lifted by crane. Her teeth worked at the inside of her mouth. “Alright,” She said after a moment. “Well, he’s free to think what he wants.”

Gideon watched her worry at her lip, taking it between her teeth and rubbing it near-raw. “He doesn’t know anything about us,” She found herself saying. “Not really.”

“He suspects,” Harrow said, not quite meeting her eyes. Her own expression was transfixed in thought; she had the look of someone working through a nasty math problem. Gideon half-expected her to whip out a graphing calculator. “Suspicion is nearly as bad. Suspicion leads to questions. Questions will lead him to the truth.”

Gideon hummed. Her hands itched for Harrow; that was all the truth she cared about. “We’ll take care of it,” She said simply. “Whatever happens, we’ll figure it out together.”

Harrow looked at her then like she never had before. The windows of her eyes opened in full now, laying her thoughts bare for Gideon to read. In them, caution warred with tremulous wonder, and disbelief barred her from fully accepting it. Emotion threatened to overwhelm her with its magnitude. As Gideon watched, Harrow tightened her grip.

“Promise me, Nav,” Harrowhark said quietly. “You and I, together. Promise me.”

That was all she asked— and really, what more needed asking?

Gideon took Harrow’s hands in her own. She beheld them: when their palms were laid flat together, her fingers were nearly a knuckle and a half longer than Harrow’s. Her fiancée was feverishly warm, as always. She half-turned her hand and laced their fingers together, running her other hand over the backs of Harrow’s knuckles.

“I promise,” Gideon said, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. “You’re stuck with me now. Where you go, I go, baby.”

“Nav, there’s no one watching,” Harrow said, rolling her eyes with unmistakable fondness. “Are pet names a new component of your practice, or are you just warming up?”

It was Gideon’s turn to roll her eyes. “Maybe I just want to see you smile, honey bear.”

“Oh, stop. If I had known you were going to be so unbearable after receiving an apology, I would have asked Camilla to marry me. She’s far more stoic.”

Gideon pouted. “Would she have taken you to Alaska?”

“No,” Harrow said, and found herself smiling helplessly. “I don’t think she would have.”

“Exactly,” Gideon said proudly. She had just opened her mouth to say and aren’t you glad you came? when someone called to them from the deck.

Magnus’ voice echoed down. “Hey, lovebirds,” He called. “Come up! We have a surprise for dinner.”

A small wrinkle appeared in Gideon’s brow. “A surprise,” She repeated, frowning lightly. “Huh. Okay. Place your bets on who we’re about to be ambushed by.” She pushed herself to her feet, offering Harrow a hand up.

“Maybe it’s a cake,” Harrow said lightly.

Gideon shook her head. “Nothing surprising about cake.” She narrowed her eyes, pointing up towards the house. “That’s bait.”

“If I were a gambling man— which, I will remind you, I am not,” Harrow said, taking the offered hand and pulling herself to her feet, “I would say Coronabeth. One of the Tridentarius twins, at the least.”

“Bold,” Gideon said. After a beat, she said, conspiratorially, “Can I tell you mine?”

Harrow’s heart flip-flopped in her chest. She hid a smile. “Of course.”

“Dulcinea,” Gideon said. “Ten to one, it’s her.” Gideon did wonder briefly what on Earth Dulcinea was doing coming over unannounced — she was never one to break propriety, even for something so casual as a neighborly dinner — but that was an issue for later.

Right now, Harrow’s eyes were softening in the late afternoon sun, light was glinting off of the water, and her heart was thoroughly soothed.

“Well, I suppose we’ll find out,” said Harrow, wrapping Gideon’s jacket tighter around her. “Shall we?”

Gideon smiled. “After you.”

* * *

THEN.

Gideon’s room was nearly identical in shape and construction to Harrow’s own, except that it was about half as big and had a full-sized bed where Harrow had a suite and a California King.

She looked around idly. The paintings on the wall were expectedly atrocious in the way only a hotel’s artwork can be, but she found her attention drawn to the pieces of Gideon scattered around the room.

Her suit jacket was hung up in the closet. The ironing board was out, with a shirt resting — seemingly forgotten — on top of it. A laptop was plugged in at the desk, and next to it on the floor sat a duffel bag. It was half-open: inside, Harrow could see a crimson sweater and a pair of blue flannel pants.

A toothbrush was laid neatly on a hand towel in the bathroom, and next to it sat a prescription, a bottle of supplements, and a handful of skincare products. Everything was meticulously arranged.

Harrowhark was used to leaving her own room in something of a state of chaos— but, then, she had more space to work with. Smaller spaces required tighter control.

Gideon walked in, set her wallet on the desk, and strode over to the minibar. She pulled out one, then two miniature bottles of vodka. She broke the seal on one, then reached for one of the paper cups next to the coffee maker.

“One nip for you,” Gideon said, pouring it out, “and one nip for me.”

“I find it fascinating that your idea of a cocktail stops at a shot of vodka,” Harrow said, following the movement of Gideon’s hands.

Gideon rolled her eyes, reached into the minibar again, and produced a can of ginger ale. “Happy?”

Harrow accepted the paper cup once Gideon had finished pouring the liquid in. “Satisfied, at the least.”

“I’ll take it,” Gideon said, taking a sip of her own. “So. We’ve had a juicy little night, the two of us.”

Something about the way she said it implied a direction. Harrow narrowed her eyes and let out a quiet hum. “Indeed,” She said into her drink, taking a cautious sip. It tasted like ginger beer and vodka. She supposed was about as much as she could hope for.

“I think it’s fun,” Gideon said, plopping down next to her on the couch. “I haven’t had a conversation like that with anyone in years. Probably since I started working for you, to be honest.”

Guilt stung lightly at Harrow’s heart. She took another sip of vodka to banish it. “Well, I would imagine conversations at bars normally end differently for you,” She said without meaning to. Her eyes widened. “I— forgive me, that wasn’t—”

Gideon’s eyebrows rose. “My own boss calling me a slut,” She said mournfully, shaking her head in mock offense. “I’ll never recover.” She relented after a moment. “But nah. I’m not into one-night stands. It takes all the fun out of sex for me. I like the emotional connection, y’know?”

Harrow shrugged. She wasn’t sure where the sudden truth emerged from, but she found herself saying, “Then we are opposites.” Gideon’s eyebrows raised further, and Harrow felt the need to explain herself.

“Relationships are— difficult for someone in my position,” Harrow said after a moment. “You know what the job requires. Full commitment. Full devotion. No cracks, no weakness.” She took another sip of her drink, trying to slow her racing heart. “You may find the lack of an emotional connection a detriment, but to me it is a godsend.”

Gideon hummed. “Is that why so many people fall for their secretaries?”

“I would imagine so,” Harrow said. And then: “Don’t go getting any ideas, Nav.”

Gideon made a face. “Harrow, you know I would do anything you asked me to, but— gotta be honest, I don’t think I would do that.”

For some reason, this made Harrow’s chest hurt. “Then you’re lucky,” She said. “That is one thing I will never ask of you.” She cleared her throat, trying to change the subject. “For me, one-night stands, as you call them, are a way to—” It was difficult, suddenly, to look Gideon in the eyes. “Relieve some stress without the pressure of maintaining a relationship.”

She neglected to mention that it had been years since she had actually been able to go through with having one.

“That’s fair,” Gideon said, nodding along. “I’ve never actually had one, you know.” She took another sip; this time, she met Harrow’s eyes over the rim of the cup. “None of my data is experiential.”

Harrow swallowed. A sudden heat grew at her chest, creeping lightly up the sides of her neck until the tips of her ears were burning hot. Those damn eyes, she thought, keeping her gaze steady.

“No?” She heard herself ask. Gideon swallowed her sip. Her lips were wet; they shone in the lamplight. Harrow’s eyes landed on them. “Perhaps you haven’t found the right person to conduct your experiment with.”

Gideon’s expression shifted at this. Her eyes darkened visibly, with black beginning to edge out gold. Her gaze fell to Harrow’s lips and lingered there. One of her hands twitched by her sides as if it wanted to reach for her. “You think?” She asked, voice low.

“It’s not out of the question,” Harrow murmured. Her chest moved forward half an inch, and one of her hands came up to rest at Gideon’s wrist where it sat between them.

Gideon let out a shaky breath and began to lean forward to meet her in the space between them— and it was then that Harrow remembered where she was, what she was doing, and who she was doing it with.

She turned her head. “Christ,” Harrowhark blurted, loud enough that it surprised both of them. “It’s— it’s late. I need—” She stood abruptly, brushing off imaginary dust from herself. “I’ve kept us both up long enough,” She said, making for the door as fast as she could stand. “Thank you for the drink, Griddle. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Oh,” Gideon said, as if unsure of what else to say. “Yeah! Yeah. No, of— of course. Um.” She blinked, hurt fading into understanding. “Have a good night.”

Harrow gave her a brisk nod before she threw the door open, stepping through it as quickly as she could. Once it closed behind her, she leaned against it for a moment with her eyes closed.

Her heart was still pounding from the proximity she’d stolen from herself. That— was dangerous. That was a dangerous, dangerous pathway she had nearly started for them. Better to avoid it; better to ignore it. Better to quash it now and snuff it out for good than ever risk it again.

And still Harrowhark went to sleep dreaming of gentle hands and simmering golden eyes.

When 8am rolled around the next day, she found herself searching for her assistant’s trademark head of fiery hair. She found it strolling in ten minutes later bearing a pair of sunglasses, a large cup of coffee, and a weary expression.

“You’re late,” Harrow said, by way of hello.

“Yeah,” Gideon sighed. “Sorry, I— I have a killer hangover. And a pretty significant gap in memory, now that I think about it.” She slid her sunglasses off, wincing in the lights. “What happened after we went back upstairs?”

Relief and disappointment flooded her all at once. “I wish I could tell you,” Harrow said, after only a moment’s pause. “I’m afraid I don’t quite remember either.”

It was a lie, but perhaps that was for the best. Gideon frowned; her expression took on the look of someone grasping for a faint strand of memory and coming up empty-handed— which, Harrow supposed, was exactly what she was doing.

“Shame,” Gideon said after a moment. “If you remember any of it, let me know.”

She wouldn’t, of course. There was too much risk of embarrassment, too much risk of loss. Harrow put on a tight expression, pressing her lips together so hard they turned nearly white.

“Of course,” Harrow attempted. “But banish it for now. We have work to do.”

* * *

NOW.

Abigail was in the kitchen making crudites when the two of them came up, clutching each other as though the world would end if they broke contact.

Magnus was lingering a few feet away, craning his neck over her shoulder in a futile attempt to see if he could steal a bite, and raised his eyebrows lightly when he saw them: Gideon, with an arm around Harrow’s waist; Harrow, tucked into Gideon’s side.

He cleared his throat, willing Abigail to look over and see what he was seeing. “Well! Welcome back, you two! Er— apologies for not telling you sooner, but we do have someone coming over, just— in case there are any actions either of you need to take in advance.”

Gideon looked at Harrow; Harrow looked at Gideon. Some understanding passed, wordless, between them. Gideon shook her head. “Nah,” She said, shrugging. “I think we’re good.”

Magnus blinked. “Alright,” He said, seemingly unsure of how to respond. The pause was only momentary; he recovered with a kind of speed and grace only he could have mustered. “Well! I would put you to work, but I believe Abby and I have it covered.”

From the kitchen, Abigail piped up, “I believe company in the kitchen would be a detriment at this stage.”

Gideon gave a salute. “Heard,” She said, watching Abigail’s mouth quirk up at the corners. “Sure there’s nothing we can do?”

“Positive.” Abigail paused with her knife poised above the onion she was slicing. “Actually,” She said, looking over, “Harrowhark, if you wouldn’t mind chopping those brussels sprouts, I would appreciate the help in preparation.”

Harrow’s eyebrows rose. “Of course,” She said. Gideon made a quiet noise of indignation at not being chosen, and Harrow swatted lightly at her stomach for it. “Do you want a rough chop or something smaller?”

“Gideon, why don’t you help me set the table?” Magnus suggested, grateful to draw her attention. “It’ll just be the four of us and our guest tonight, since the children are still in town.”

“Okay, who’s coming over?” Gideon asked, following him to the silverware drawer. “You’re being all mysterious about it. I don’t like it.”

Magnus hid a smile. “Our guest,” He said, counting out five— no, six forks, knives, and spoons, “has requested that their presence, er— remain a surprise, so to speak.” He handed them to her and, at the constipated look on her face, relented. “Oh, come now, there’s no need for all that. It’s no one you haven’t met a thousand times before.”

Gideon thrust her bottom lip out further. “Can you at least give me a hint?” This was a line of questioning that had worked with diminishing success as she grew older. She figured it was worth a try anyway.

Magnus raised an eyebrow and looked her in the eyes. “No,” He said, not unkindly. “But maybe I will if you tell me what happened between you and your girl earlier.”

Your girl, Gideon repeated internally. For some reason, thinking about it made the tips of her ears burn. She rubbed at her hand. “Oh,” She said lamely. “Just— your annual lovers’ quarrel. Typical stuff.”

Magnus let out a noncommittal hum and handed her a stack of napkins to fold. “Did you know,” He said, in a tone as casual as one talking about the weather, “that in nearly twenty-five years of marriage, Abigail and I have only had three fights?”

Three?” Gideon repeated, loud enough that Harrow turned towards her with a confused frown. “How?”

“Because when you marry someone— or when you’re with someone for any long period of time, really,” He corrected, nodding vaguely towards where Harrow was chopping brussels sprouts, “you don’t think of disagreements or arguments as fights, because you aren’t enemies. You’re never enemies. Every argument has a layer of safety beneath it.”

Gideon thought of light reflecting off of water; she thought of the inscrutable depth of black eyes finally revealed in their entirety. She watched Harrow’s hand guide the knife down, then watched her scoop up a handful of chopped sprouts and put them into the bowl Abigail offered her.

Magnus continued in a low voice, “Abigail and I disagree all the time— earlier today, I suggested a grilled halloumi appetizer, and she nearly crashed the car trying to convince me otherwise.” He watched Gideon fold a napkin for a moment. “When you love someone, you have to trust them to see you at your most vulnerable and come back anyway. Once you have that, you can work through anything.”

“Wuthering Heights,” Gideon murmured.

Magnus blinked. “Pardon?”

Gideon’s lips quirked up in a smile. “Nothing,” She said. “Sorry. Keep going.”

“Well, all this to say,” Magnus began, “I’m proud of you two for resolving whatever you had going on. I must say, you look stronger for it already.”

There was so much Gideon wanted to say. She wanted to tell him everything; she wanted to tell him the whole river of truth, with all of its meanders and bends and oxbows.

She wanted to ask him where to go from here— she wanted to ask: what do I do when it stops being a ruse?

Instead, all Gideon said was, “Thanks, Magnus.” And then: “Seriously. Thank you.”

He gave her a warm smile and kissed her forehead lightly as he stood. “Always.” And then, to his wife: “I maintain that grilled halloumi would have been a perfectly reasonable appetizer.”

“No one wants their food to squeak during dinner, my love,” Abigail replied smoothly. She pushed the tray of brussels sprouts into the oven. “Charcuterie will be a fine replacement.” Harrow was standing with her hands interlocked at her chest, looking thoroughly in need of direction. “Thank you for your help, dear. I release you from my service,” She said, letting her voice take on a lofty air.

Harrow strode out of the kitchen with her head held high and walked towards Gideon. She let her hand rest lightly at Gideon’s back, coming up at her side. “Is there anything here that requires my attention?” She asked.

If she had been looking, she would have seen Gideon’s eyes widen at the touch. “Uh,” She said intelligently.

Magnus shook his head, sparing her from responding. “You two are free,” He said, smiling warmly. “The table is set, dinner is in progress, and the night is young. Sit back! Relax! Enjoy yourselves.”

Gideon relaxed minutely into Harrow’s touch. “Alright,” She said. She turned to Harrowhark. “He won’t tell me who the guest is.”

Magnus gave her a fond attempt at disapproval, shaking his head lightly. “Fair is fair,” He said. “It’s Dulcinea. She asked to join us tonight.” He leaned in as if to share a secret. “Apparently, she wants to discuss her birthday party plans, and without ruining the surprise—" Here, worry fragmented his expression for half a second, "—they involve you two.”

That couldn’t be good. Gideon raised an eyebrow, resisting the urge to glance at Harrow from the corner of her eye.

Harrowhark let out a noncommittal, “Hm,” which let Gideon know, at least, that they were on the same confused, mildly suspicious page.

“If I could tell you more, I would,” said Magnus, letting out a long-suffering sigh as he walked towards the kitchen. “I gave up trying to convince her of things years ago. Dulcinea acts according to her own whims.”

Gideon found it difficult to argue with that. She slid into a seat at the table with a hum, and felt Harrow’s hand migrate to her shoulder. Her thumb was stroking lightly — soothingly — at the soft fabric of her sweater.

And then it was just the two of them alone. Harrow was still half-beside, half-behind her. “What did you two talk about?” Harrow asked in a low murmur. “I only caught bits and pieces.”

In the kitchen, Gideon could see Magnus come up behind his wife, wrapping his arms around her waist. He pressed a kiss to the back of her neck.

Her mind filled, unhelpfully, with the thought of mirroring his position with her own wife. Gideon looked away. “I think he caught onto our fight. He was asking me about it.”

Harrow let out a hum. “What did you tell him?”

“I thought about telling him all of it,” admitted Gideon. The thumb at her shoulder paused, then continued stroking. “I didn’t. Obviously. But I considered it. Other than that, I told him the truth. We had an issue, we resolved it.” She looked up at Harrow and, after a moment of studying her face, smiled. “He told me he was proud of us.”

There was a twinge at Harrowhark’s heart then that she had not known to expect. “I’ll never understand why he’s so kind to me,” She said, unexpectedly. “Him and Abigail both. They should hate me for what I did.”

Gideon shrugged. “It’s harder than you’d think to hate you.”

Whatever Harrow could have said to that was shelved as Magnus approached them again. “Our guest just wrote to me,” He said. “She’s here.”

There was a knock at the door. Then, two sets of footsteps shuffled inside. One was heavy, as if each step was an effort; the other was deceptively light.

Gideon looked at Harrow. “See? Told you it would be Dulcie.”

“Your powers of prediction never cease to amaze,” said Harrowhark, eyeing the entrance to the foyer. To Magnus, she asked: “Be honest with me. Did she tell you why she was coming?”

And there, Magnus did something neither expected. His expression broke for a moment, and a feverish sort of anxiety shone through the cracks.

“She has an idea she wants to offer you,” He said in a rush under his breath. “And— er, how to put this. It’s— different from what your plans are. Not that I know your plans, of course, but—” He glanced back at the door. “If it’s too much to ask, you don’t have to do it. Please remember that.”

This was about a billion miles to the left of reassuring. Gideon blinked. “Magnus, what the hell does—”

“Surprise!” came an airy, lilting voice from the foyer. “It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other, I know, I know. Do forgive the intrusion.” Dulcinea came through the entrance on her crutches, flanked by Protesilaus behind her.

As they walked into the kitchen, Abigail passed him a plate wrapped in foil. “For your wife,” She said. “How is she?”

“Doing well,” Protesilaus said. “She’ll appreciate this. Thank you, Ms. Pent.”

“Gideon! Harrowhark! Oh, how lovely. Just the two I wanted to see,” called Dulcinea in delight. “Come over, you two, and spare an old woman the extra distance. I was going to wait until after dinner, but I think that if I try to contain the bounds of my excitement I’ll keel over and die.” (“Not funny,” muttered Protesilaus beside her.) “So! Please, have a seat.”

Abigail passed them each a serving dish. “Put these on the table, please,” She said. “I’ll be over in a moment with the rolls.”

Once the table was assembled in full, they were seated. Dulcinea had a strange glint in her eyes, as if she knew something dreadfully important that neither of them had been told. That didn’t bode well.

“So,” She began, once everyone had settled in. “As I’m sure you know, my birthday party is next week. I’ve been searching for months now for something suitably spectacular to celebrate with, and I had been coming up empty— until,” She said, turning towards Gideon and Harrow, “you two showed up.”

Gideon felt a pressure against her wrist on the table. She turned to see Harrow’s hand resting on it. She was beginning to squeeze, but her eyes were still firmly locked on Dulcinea. Gideon turned her hand so their fingers could lace together.

“I wondered what the perfect way to celebrate both a birthday and an engagement were,” Dulcinea continued. “And the solution popped into my head instantly.” She leaned forward, eyes darting excitedly between them. “Have your wedding here.”

Gideon had chosen the wrong moment to take a sip of water, and choked on it loudly and wetly. Harrow’s eyes went wide next to her. “As in, next week,” Harrow said. White was fully visible around the black irises of her eyes. “Have our wedding in seven days.”

“Dulcie,” coughed Gideon, trying not to let her eyes water from the force of it. Harrow patted half-heartedly at her back. “That’s— kind of short notice for a wedding.”

“Please. I’ll take care of all the decorations,” Dulcinea said, waving away their concerns. “All of your family is up here, and a week should be plenty of notice for any friends to come up.”

Gideon had zero fucking idea of what to say, and turned to Harrowhark with palpable desperation. “Sidebar,” She said, half-begging.

“Agreed,” Harrow muttered. To the table, she said: “Do you mind if we take a moment to talk it over?”

Dulcinea’s face softened. “Be my guest. I understand that it’s a rather abrupt change of plans. Take all the time you need.”

Harrow gave a curt nod. “Of course,” She said. She turned to Gideon, squeezing lightly at her hand. She didn’t have to say a word to get them both moving, and didn’t need to specify a direction for them to end up in their room.

Gideon closed the door behind them, dragging a hand down her face for a moment. “Tell me you’re not actually considering it.”

“It might not be the worst idea in the world,” Harrow said, steepling her hands in front of her. “It solves both your issue of residual guilt and my issue of imminent deportation.” A beat. “And, since Silas is already suspecting us, it might not be a terrible idea to prove we’re serious.”

“So you are considering it.”

“Was I not clear enough?” Harrow wondered aloud. “Yes. I am.” She searched Gideon’s face for a moment. “But none of it means anything if you don’t agree. If you say no, I will not argue, and I will not push.”

For the first time, Gideon realized she believed her.

She let out a brief exhale. Having Harrowhark on her side was a new experience to say the least— for everything it created in companionship, it meant Gideon now had a say in what happened to her. It was both rewarding and deeply irritating having to make decisions for herself.

She thought of everything that had happened in the last two weeks. She thought of words read aloud under lamplight, of hushed tones next to a shimmering lake, of warmth and coldness and grief and love.

And Gideon made her decision. “Fuck it,” She said, after a beat. She reached forward and took Harrow’s hands in her own. “Happy birthday, Dulcinea.”

At the new proximity they shared, a sharp exhale left Harrow’s lips. Her eyes dropped, briefly, to Gideon’s mouth before they fell to the floor. “Do you mean it?” She murmured, barely above a whisper.

Gideon found herself nodding. She imagined an audience; she imagined cake and flowers. She imagined Harrowhark in a white dress. But, then, black had always been her color; maybe she would do that instead.

Gideon smiled. “I do.”

When they returned to the dining room, it was with their hands linked. Harrow’s palm against hers felt like a lifeline. If she concentrated hard enough, she could feel her fiancée’s heartbeat wrapping around her own, twisting and braiding and weaving into her ribcage like a melody.

Dulcinea looked up as they walked in, eyebrows raising in clear anticipation. “I don’t mean to make any assumptions,” She said, eyes flicking between them, “but I must say, you look as though you’ve come to a conclusion.”

Gideon looked at Harrowhark; Harrowhark looked at Gideon. “We have,” Harrow said, turning to Dulcinea.

Magnus met Gideon’s eyes across the table. He covered his mouth with the heel of his hand as worry mixed with anticipation in his face. “And?” He asked, trying audibly to keep his concern from spilling out.

“And— yeah. Fuck it,” Gideon said, breaking out into a grin. Something overtook her then: she brought Harrow’s knuckles to her face and pressed a kiss to the bones at her lips. The cool metal of Harrow’s rings sent a shiver down her spine. “We are certifiably in.”

Dulcinea’s face erupted into glee; Magnus looked as though he was on the verge of collapsing from relief. Abigail took a sip of wine and gave Gideon a warm smile. “Congratulations,” She said, being the first of the three of them to recover. “To both of you.”

“It’ll be a dreadful amount of work,” Dulcinea said, looking between them with a hint of frenetic anxiety. “We’ll need catering, flowers— and, Christ, what are you going to wear?”

“We can manage all of that starting in the morning,” Magnus said, reaching for his wife’s hand. Their fingers brushed together, and a smile flitted across Abigail’s face. “Right now, I believe a celebration is in order.”

Magnus stood, saying something vague about a bottle of champagne in the cellar, and Abigail went to put a record on. Harrowhark squeezed at her hand, and Gideon turned to see a soft look in her eyes.

Thank you, she mouthed. There was a universe of meaning behind it, and none of it needed explaining. Gideon knew exactly what she meant.

She smiled, winked, and mouthed back, Anytime.

Chapter Text

When Harrowhark woke up the next morning, the first thing she noticed was the arm curled around her waist.

She came back to her body slowly, blinking away the sleep as best she could. The arm around her was heavy, warm, and protective, and there was a hand curled in a gentle fist at her chest. It only clicked in her head that it was Gideon’s when she felt the bed behind her shift.

That was the next thing she noticed: the weight of the arm over her was matched by a pressure — warm, solid, and gentle — at her back.

Her senses were slow to return. Touch and sight were the first to come back, followed by an awareness of the taste of alcohol still sitting stale in her mouth.

Then she heard the sound of gentle snoring from behind her, and, before she could stop herself, felt her mouth quirk up in a smile.

The sheets rustled as Gideon shifted again. A quiet noise left her, and she pressed her face into Harrow’s hair before letting out a low, satisfied hum. Harrow thought halfheartedly about reaching for her phone, but that thought was abandoned as Gideon let out a groan of wakefulness.

She turned her head as far as she could without straining it. “Nav, are you awake?” Harrow creaked, her voice still rough from sleep.

“Not for long. What time is it?” Gideon yawned.

Harrow leaned forward to check her phone. It was just past seven in the morning, which meant no one in the house would be awake for another hour at minimum. “Far too early,” She said, fighting back a yawn herself. “Why?”

Gideon, rendered glum by the lack of contact, stretched out her arms plaintively. “Come back.”

She pulled insistently towards herself, making little grabbing motions with her hands. A current of wanting and peace and awful, awful hope swirled through her at the sight— and just for a moment, Harrow thought there were far worse places to drown.

“You are a big baby,” She said with unmistakable fondness. Gideon smiled against her head, and her chuckle shook them both. “Do you know that?”

She pressed a soft kiss to the back of Harrow’s shoulder, exposed by the tank top she had donned the night before. “If I say yes, will you go back to sleep?” Gideon mumbled against her.

Her current of emotions eased resolutely into peace, and warmth meandered through her body like a river. It pulled her eyes closed again, and as she felt sleep begin to creep towards her again, Harrow smiled. “I suppose it’s only fair.”

When she woke up the second time, it was because of a knock at the door.

Harrow stirred first, feeling Gideon’s head between her shoulder blades. She wasn’t quite sure how she’d managed it, given she’d fallen asleep with her head about eight inches higher, but figured in her sleep-addled brain that it wasn’t the strangest thing that had happened to them.

Their legs were tangled together, which made extracting herself from the sheets doubly hard.

“Coming,” Harrow said, trying to keep her voice low. She shot a glance towards her sleeping fiancée, praying idly that she wouldn’t wake Gideon up. She pulled on something warm from the ground — which, today, was a large, red sweater bearing an H on the front — and opened the door to see Magnus standing in front of her.

His hair was unbrushed and sleep pulled at the corners of his eyes. “Morning,” He yawned. “Apologies for my lateness. The wine last night got to me, I’m afraid.”

Harrow remembered vaguely that he and Abigail had finished a bottle and a half between them, and grimaced in sympathy. “No need to apologize,” She said, stifling a yawn. She pulled the door half-closed behind her, gesturing vaguely towards the bed. “Gideon is still asleep, but I can wake her.”

Magnus nodded as if he had expected this. “No need,” He said. “Dulcinea is in the guest room getting ready, Abigail is in the bathroom— and will be for the next hour, if her past gives any indication.” (Harrow’s nose wrinkled at this.) “And the children came back, but they’re asleep as well.”

“A bit of a rogue’s gallery this morning, aren’t we?” Harrow muttered. “Give my sympathy to Abigail. I do not envy her.”

Magnus nodded again, the hint of a smile curling at his lips. “Nor do I,” He said. “I’ll be in the kitchen whenever you’re ready.” He paused for a moment, glancing towards the other end of the hallway. “You know,” He began, clearing his throat, “if you wanted to help me start the coffee, I could use the extra set of hands.”

This brought Harrow to a halt. She glanced back towards Gideon; the rise and fall of her chest was visible through the layers of sheets and blankets. It was steady and even, which afforded her a brief measure of peace.

“I would be happy to,” Harrow said, still watching Gideon’s chest move gently under the sheets. Magnus gestured for her to lead, and she closed the door as quietly as possible before starting toward the kitchen.

It wasn’t particularly early in the day, but Harrow thought the house had an quality of the dawn as she walked through its halls. Light filtered timidly through the windows; the chill of the night hadn’t quite faded. She was grateful for the woolen socks she had borrowed, as the floorboards were cold even with the carpets laid on top of them.

“I admit, I had hoped to talk privately with you and Abigail more than I have,” Harrow said, breaking the silence between her and Magnus. “I apologize for that.”

Magnus looked sidelong at her, taking notes on something she couldn’t place. “Perhaps when we see you during the holidays, we’ll be able to find more time,” He said lightly, giving her a knowing smile.

Harrow supposed, briefly, that Gideon had a veritable lifetime of holidays she had missed out on. It was only fair that they begin catching up now.

“Of course,” Harrowhark said, more stiffly than she had intended. She cleared her throat. “Yes, that— sounds wonderful.” She reached reflexively towards her pocket for her rosary before remembering it was on her bedside table. Lacking the familiar comfort of the wood, she rubbed her fingertips lightly on the counter. “Would you prefer that we come up here?”

“We’re happy to make the trip down to you,” Magnus said, flicking the kitchen lights on. “Abigail and I have been talking it over, and we’ve been meaning to travel more anyway. What better place to start than New York City?”

Harrow nodded to herself. “I’ll put together an itinerary,” She said, more to herself than to him. “Is there anything in particular you’d like to see? I’m happy to cover any expenses.”

Magnus gave her another look. “Harrowhark, you are strictly forbidden from paying for us,” He warned. “I mean it. If we’re going to be your parents, it’ll be our job to take care of you, not the other way around.”

“It’ll be my treat,” Harrow insisted. “Please. After all your kindness these past weeks, it is the least I can do.”

He fiddled with the dials on the coffee machine. “Absolutely not. I won’t hear of it.”

“I can get you box seats on Broadway with one phone call,” said Harrowhark cunningly.

Magnus paused with his hand in the air. It twitched. “I’ve always wanted to see Wicked,” He admitted after a moment. “Well— alright, fine. But nothing else! I mean it.”

“We have a deal, then,” Harrow said. She offered a hand. “I look forward to seeing you again.”

The look Magnus gave her then was one she had seen him reserve for Gideon. There was a tangible fondness to it, and exasperation was woven in with gentle care.

“You don’t need to treat this like a business deal,” He said lightly. “I think of us as family, Harrowhark, and if it isn’t true now, it will be in a few days’ time. I’m afraid you’re going to see us whether you want to or not.”

There was something too-big about the emotion that stirred in her at the words. Harrow felt her heart turn over in her chest, felt her blood turn cold and then hot and then cold again, felt her eyes water.

And thank God for Gideon’s timing, because she was spared a response by her fiancee stumbling into the kitchen.

“Morning,” Gideon yawned, reaching her arms over her head to stretch. The movement brought her shirt with it, exposing a few inches of skin above the line of her flannel pants.

Harrow’s eyes dropped to it, and took in the faint dusting of hair and the strong, defined V-line at her hips before she could stop herself. She pushed her gaze solidly up and away, trying to focus on the cabinets. “Good morning, Griddle.”

Gideon seemed not to notice her reaction. “Morning, sugar.” She leaned over, pressing a kiss to Harrow’s temple. “You want me to make you a cup of coffee?”

Harrow’s skin burned where Gideon’s lips had touched it. She wished again for her rosary, and warred briefly with the idea of going back to her room for it. “Please,” She managed. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Comin’ up.” Gideon sent her a wink, walking over to grab a mug for her. To Magnus, she said, “Hey, did you and Abigail sing karaoke on the table last night, or did I make that up?”

Magnus paused with a mug of coffee on the way to his lips. His eyes widened a fraction in amazement, and he set his cup back on the counter. “My God. We did,” He said, looking at Gideon in surprise. “I had forgotten. We sang— what’s the name of that song?”

Gideon pulled out two mugs from the cabinet. “You did an ABBA one together. Abigail said she’d do another one, but she fell asleep, like, ten minutes later.”

“I think it was Lay All Your Love On Me,” Harrow mused, watching Gideon’s hands work at the coffee machine. “Dulcinea wanted to hear Does Your Mother Know, but as I recall, you vetoed it.”

Magnus hummed, swallowing his sip of coffee. “That is because it doesn’t apply to our situation,” He said in the tones of someone who had said this exact thing many times. He paused, then said: “She has a lovely voice, you know.”

His eyes crinkled at the edges, and Harrow felt it would be rude to remind him that they had all been present to hear her. “If we play it at the reception, she’ll be the first to know,” Harrow said lightly, gratefully accepting a steaming mug from her fiancée.

At this, Gideon froze. “Oh, shit,” She said, letting out a surprised laugh. “We’re getting married. In, like, a week.”

Magnus nodded seriously. “We have a lot to do.” He grasped them both by the shoulder, looking between them with all the solemnity of a soldier. “It will be difficult work. But we’ll be with you every step of the way, and if you do it I think you will come out the stronger.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Wonderful,” said Harrowhark, not quite sure what else to say.

“Um. Ditto,” Gideon said, giving her a sideways glance. “Where do we start?”

* * *

Dulcinea and Magnus had been right: wedding planning was a veritable mountain of work.

By the afternoon, they had managed to scrounge together catering — though only barely, by the aggreived edge in Magnus’ voice describing his phone call — and the florists were able to accommodate the required extras.

Dealing with the specifics wasn’t particularly difficult, Gideon thought— but dealing with everyone else was.

“Abigail,” She was saying, trying to keep herself measured, “I don’t care what color the napkins are. As long as we have napkins, I’m fine.”

Abigail’s lips pressed in a thin line. “Nonsense. We raised you better than this,” She said testily, holding up the same two swaths of identical fabric. “Cream or ivory?”

“They’re the same color,” said Gideon with increasing desperation.

“They most certainly are not.” Abigail shook the fabrics lightly, emphasizing her point. “Cream has warm undertones, and ivory is a cool shade. I ask again: cream or ivory?”

Harrowhark appeared in the doorway like an evening star. “Ivory,” She decided, eyes flicking between them for half a second. “It’ll match the tablecloths.”

Gideon wondered briefly when they had decided on the hue of the tablecloths, and then decided she would rather die than relive the discussion. “Great. Glad that’s sorted. Good job, team.”

Abigail sent her a look, but set the napkins down regardless. She reached for her clipboard; it was organized into labeled sections with a minimum of seven bullet points apiece. “That takes care of that,” She said, crossing something off. “Right. Next up on the list is the flowers for the aisle.”

“Harrow is allergic to daffodils,” Gideon said, leaning her head back in her seat until she could see her fiancée in the doorway behind her. “I think. Is it daisies or daffodils, honey?”

“Daffodils,” Harrow confirmed, looking at her for a second too long. “And carnations, as it happens.”

“No daffodils, no carnations,” Abigail said, making two quick, sharp notes on her clipboard. “Wonderful. To match your dress, we’ll get a bouquet of— I don’t know, something white.” A pause. “Are either of you planning on wearing a dress?”

Harrow nodded. Gideon shook her head. Abigail nodded, looking as though this was what she had expected. “Wonderful. Then once we have Harrow’s bouquet sorted, we’ll find Gideon a boutonniere to match—”

“Never thought I’d hear that word again after senior prom,” Gideon said under her breath.

“—Which brings us,” continued Abigail, “to the matter of your respective bridal parties. Or perhaps your— well, to be quite honest, I’m not sure of the terminology here.” She paused for a second, then shrugged. “I suppose it doesn’t matter— at any rate, we need to find the people you want up by your side. We’ll start with you, Harrowhark. Do you have someone in mind for a maid of honor?”

“You,” Harrow said, without quite realizing her haste. A self-conscious blush darkened on her cheeks. “If— that’s something you would be alright with.”

Abigail looked at her then like no one ever had. And then — terribly — her eyes welled with tears. “Oh, Harrowhark,” She said quietly, reaching across the table to grasp her hand. “I would be honored.”

Her voice was thick with emotion, and it was all Harrow could do not to let her embarrassment show visibly on her face. “Wonderful,” Harrow said awkwardly. “Well. That’s sorted.” She turned to Gideon, who was watching them with a mix of surprise and concern on her face. “Your turn. Pick a best man.”

“Oh,” Gideon said, blinking. She thought for a moment. Then: “Jeannemary. Isaac too, if he’s cool to split the duties with her.”

Abigail dabbed at her face lightly with a tissue. “Oh, they’ll be thrilled,” She said, smiling. “And Magnus will walk Harrow down the aisle, of course.”

“Actually,” Harrow said, drawing the attention of the table, “I was hoping he would officiate.”

Abigail paused with her pen in midair. “Come again?”

Shifting in her seat, Harrow continued, “I did some research. Alaska doesn’t require an officiant to be ordained, and though I’m fighting the urge to have a more traditional wedding, I can’t imagine that the whole town wants to sit through Mass. And we’re already— less than traditional.” She looked at Gideon. “It only seems fitting.”

Magnus was in the kitchen, and poked his head into the dining room. “Did I hear my name?”

Abigail had been nodding lightly along with Harrow’s words, and turned to her husband. “You did. I believe you’re going to officiate, dear.”

Magnus blinked. He looked between the three of them, from Abigail’s expectant face to Gideon’s half-confused smile to Harrow’s mild surprise. “Officiate?” He repeated. “You want me—”

“To marry us,” Harrow confirmed. “To each other, that is. It only seemed right.”

A strange expression overtook Magnus then. His face trembled for a moment as though it was a pond disturbed by a ripple; his lips began to tremble. Harrow realized a second before his eyes began to water that he was going to cry.

He turned to Gideon with a terrible tightness in his voice. “And you agree to this?”

Gideon’s eyes widened a fraction. “Of course I do. I would have preferred, like, a little bit of advance notice—” (“Fair,” muttered Harrow beside her,) “—but I think it’s a good idea. A great idea, actually,” She said. Then her brow furrowed in concern. “Magnus, are you okay?”

“Peachy,” Magnus said thickly. “I’ve never been better.” And then he took a few steps forward and drew them both into the tightest, kindest hug of Harrow’s life. “You honor me with this,” He murmured, sniffling every so often. “Truly. Thank you for trusting me.”

Harrow thought, at this point, that she would feel some of the residual anxiety that had festered since her arrival at Canaan House, but all she felt was a sense of calm stillness. She realized an instant later that she did trust him, and somehow this was the greatest surprise of all.

“There’s no need to thank us,” Harrow found herself saying. “It was the easiest decision in the world.”

She could feel Gideon watching her. She looked over, expecting to see the characteristic gleam in her golden eyes, but all she saw was a peaceful curiosity. It mingled with another, more indescribable emotion, and softened the gaze Gideon fixed her with until it was almost too tender for her to bear.

Harrow’s traitorous heart leapt in her chest, and she looked away. “Speaking of decisions,” She said, clearing her throat, “should I book an appointment at a local wedding parlor? I’m afraid my taste in dresses is— somewhat unusual.”

A look passed between Abigail and Magnus that was too simple and too endlessly complex to place. “No need,” Abigail said. Her lips barely twitched, but the crinkle at her eyes gave away her smile. “I have a surprise for you.”

“A surprise,” repeated Harrow, looking between her, Magnus, and Gideon. Gideon shrugged. Magnus wiped away the remainder of his tears and pressed a kiss to his wife’s knuckles.

Abigail’s smile reached her lips and widened. “A good surprise,” She promised. “Come with me, and we’ll leave the matter of coming up with a seating chart to these two.”

Harrow stood, unsure of what else to do. Something touched her hand; she looked down to see Gideon’s fingers brush against her palm. “I’m gonna seat Camilla next to Coronabeth,” Gideon piped up. “I think they’d be fun together.” She winked, but the concern in her eyes told Harrow she was aiming for reassurance. Harrow squeezed lightly at her hand, hoping it was a good enough thank-you.

“This way, dear,” Abigail said, nodding towards the door. “Oh, don’t look so nervous. I’m not going to push you down the stairs.”

Harrow gave her a sidelong glance. “You know, that wasn’t a possibility I had entertained until you said it.”

“Ah, then it’s my own fault. Well! It remains true.” Abigail let out an airy sigh. “Dulcinea told me a few days ago about her plan,” She confessed after a moment. “I didn’t tell Magnus until just beforehand because— well, you’ve met him. Secrets are not kind to him.”

Harrow found it difficult to be surprised by that. “I can imagine,” She said lightly. A silence settled between them again, ringing gently in the once-labyrinthine hallways of the house, until they reached a door she had never seen before.

Abigail turned the knob easily, pushing the door open, and with a start Harrowhark realized that it was her bedroom. “Alright, I believe it’s just in here,” She said, more to herself than to Harrow. “Please, come in. Have a seat.”

Black eyes flicked around the room. Harrow fidgeted in the doorway for a moment before taking a step inside, and took a seat on the cushion of an armchair by the window. “Ms. Pent—”

This earned her a stern, fond look before Abigail disappeared into a door along one wall. Through it, Harrow could vaguely make out the shape of hangers, jackets, and a few neatly-organized pairs of shoes. “We’re well past that, darling. It’s Abigail.”

“Very well. Abigail,” Harrowhark corrected herself. She shifted in her seat. “I wanted to thank you for your kindness. I— recognize that, perhaps, I am not the person you were expecting Gideon to marry.”

“I have found expectation to be a very unreliable tool,” called Abigail from deep within her closet. She poked her head out a moment later. “If Gideon did everything I expected her to, I imagine that she would be very boring, and that I would have a spot on network television as a paid psychic. And besides— ah!”

Harrow frowned. “What is it?”

Abigail emerged a moment later holding a long bag on a hangar. It was black, thin, and had the shape one would expect of something meant to preserve an expensive dress. She looked at it with a kind of nostalgic fondness Harrow hadn’t known to anticipate. “Open this,” Abigail said, impossibly gently.

Harrow did. Helpfully, there was a zipper on one side. She pulled it down carefully, refusing to let her curiosity bring her to haste, until she could see white lace poking out.

Realization hit her with the force of a truck. “Abigail,” Harrow said, taking a step back. “This is—”

“My wedding dress,” finished Abigail Pent. “Yes. I’m taller than you, so it’ll be a tad too long, but I think we have enough time for a tailor to bring up the hem.”

Harrow’s eyes were locked on the bag. “I can’t accept this. I—” She shook her head. Her voice came out ragged. “Abigail, this is too much.”

Abigail’s face softened. She set the bag on her bed and smoothed out a few of the creases in it before she approached the editor.

“Harrow, you’re a week away from being married in my house. This is not an imposition,” She said, not unkindly. She let out a quiet sigh. “Can I tell you something?”

Black eyes narrowed a fraction. Harrow nodded.

“Magnus and I— we adopted because we couldn’t have children of our own.” An old, deep hurt flickered over her face, but Abigail shrugged it away a moment later. “And I have made peace with that. I love our family,” She said, smiling. She reached for Harrow’s hands. “But my mother gave me this dress when I was married, and she asked me to promise that I would pass it down when the time came for my daughter to be married.”

“Abigail,” Harrowhark breathed.

“So I’m afraid I have to insist,” Abigail finished. Her smile widened, and she leaned in conspiratorially. “Besides, something tells me that I wouldn’t have had much luck offering it to Gideon or Jeannemary.”

A wet laugh erupted from Harrow, and she found her eyes welling with tears. “No, I can’t imagine you would have,” She said, reaching up to wipe at her cheeks. “I apologize for— all this.” She gestured to her face. “My mother died when I was very young, and I admit that I am thoroughly unused to having one in my life.”

At this, Abigail pulled her in for a hug. “Then let this be a new beginning,” She murmured, closing her eyes. Harrow let herself relax, winding her arms around Abigail in truth for the first time. She smelled like vanilla and mulled wine, and the simple comfort of it nearly reduced Harrowhark to tears for the second time in as many minutes.

They pulled apart a moment later, and this time it was Abigail who wiped the tears from her eyes. “Well,” She said. “Now that we’ve gotten through that, let’s see you try it on.”

* * *

“What do you think they’re doing?” Gideon asked out of the blue. “They’ve been gone for, like, thirty minutes.”

Magnus didn’t look up from the sketch he had drawn. “I’m sure they’re alright,” He said idly, leaning in to pencil in another name. “I think I’ll put Abigail’s brother next to Protesilaus and his wife. That should make for an interesting dynamic.”

Gideon slumped back in her chair. The process of wedding planning was, unfortunately, hopelessly fucking boring. She watched the ceiling fan spin around a few times before her eyes landed on Jeannemary’s jacket on the back of a chair.

“Hey, are Jeanne and Isaac going to be up at the big table with us?”

Magnus made a note on his pad. “Of course.”

“And are you going to pretend not to notice when they take advantage of the open bar?”

He looked up at her over the rims of his glasses. “Of course,” He said again, raising an eyebrow. “Weddings are meant to be enjoyed. Better that they do it somewhere we can keep an eye on them.”

Gideon crossed her arms over her chest. “When we went to Pro’s wedding, you guys watched me like a hawk the whole time.”

“You were our first,” said Magnus simply. “We didn’t know everything then that we do now. We didn’t know at all what to expect when you came to us. With them, at least, we have the gift of hindsight.” Something in his eyes softened. “I won’t pretend it’s fair to you. But we’ve done the best we can with all three of you. When you have children of your own, I think you’ll understand.”

Gideon forced a smile onto her face. “Right,” She said, hearing the hollow note in her voice. She blinked and, in the instant that her eyes were closed, saw herself at PTA meetings, plays, and graduations. She saw herself cradling a baby boy— and saw Harrowhark holding the hand of a little girl with her smile and Gideon’s eyes as they crossed the street.

If Magnus notice the ache that punctured her, he didn’t comment. He took his glasses off, folded them neatly, and set them on the table. “And,” He continued lightly, raising an eyebrow, “let us not forget that your, er— experience with underage drinking contained a great deal more accidents.”

“None of which were my fault, lest we forget,” Gideon said, raising a defensive finger.

Magnus hid a smile. “I never said they were.”

Gideon shook her head in mock disappointment. “Unbelievable. I had a curfew and rules, and these two knuckleheads get free reign over town and open bars at weddings. Kids these days.”

“You’re starting to sound like me,” Magnus said lightly, sliding his glasses back on. “Now. You said you wanted your friends from work— remind me of their names?”

“Palamedes and Camilla,” Gideon said.

“Right. You wanted them with the Tridentarii?”

Gideon opened her mouth to respond, but found herself interrupted by her fiancée’s re-entry. Harrow’s eyes were rimmed with red, but there was a lingering smile on her face.

“If we sit Sextus next to Coronabeth, either one of them is going to leave embarrassed or they’ll leave as best friends. I’m not sure which option unnerves me more,” Harrow said, sitting down next to Gideon again. “Put him next to Dulcinea, and put Camilla on his other side. The three of them should balance each other out.”

Gideon caught her eye and mouthed, You okay?

Harrow nodded, giving her the barest hint of a smile. She reached for Gideon’s hand and squeezed it once.

Magnus nodded, made a few notes, and tilted his face up as his wife came back into the room. She planted a brief kiss on his cheek, the motion as smooth and practiced as if they were a pair of ballet dancers, before sitting down at his side. “How was it?” Magnus murmured to her.

“It went wonderfully,” Abigail said, at the same volume. She squeezed his hand. Then, to Gideon, she asked: “Was there any follow-up from the tuxedo rental place?”

Gideon nodded. “I’m going later today for a fitting.”

“Wonderful. Oh, I meant to tell you, I think Coronabeth is going to stop by tonight.”

“Okay,” She said. A moment later, she frowned. “Why?”

“I believe she mentioned she was going to plan your bachelorette party. She asked for a list of things she wasn’t allowed to do,” Abigail said. “I think she’s just going to do one this weekend for the both of you, since— well, neither of you are quite bachelors, are you?”

Gideon thought for a second. “I don’t think so,” She said. “So, one big party for both of us, huh?” She met Harrow’s eyes and winked. “Sounds like fun. Think she’ll take us to a strip club?”

“I hope not,” said Harrow, ignoring the dark flush creeping up the sides of her neck. “The nearest one is miles away—” (“You checked?” Gideon said,) “—and I get carsick when I’m inebriated.” She shifted in her seat. “Not to mention that I get a terrible blush at the first sip.”

“Right, because that’s the only reason you’d be blushing.” Harrow delivered a swift kick to her shins under the table, which earned a pained wheeze from her fiancee. “That,” Gideon said, trying to breathe through it, “was uncalled for.”

Harrow shrugged. “If you knock at the devil’s door for long enough, eventually, he will answer.”

“Save the devil for your party this weekend,” Magnus said. “If Coronabeth is in charge, I expect the devil will be out in full force.”

Conversation faded as Magnus and Abigail leaned in to talk about something, keeping their voices low. Something pressed insistently at her thigh, and Gideon looked down in confusion to see Harrow’s knuckle jabbing into her.

She gave a sidelong glance to Magnus and Abigail, still enmeshed in conversation. “What’s up?”

“I need to talk to you,” Harrow muttered, matching her volume. “Alone.”

“Hot,” Gideon said. “I’m in.” To Magnus and Abigail, she said, “Hey, guys, we’re gonna take a breather for a bit. Couple shit. You know.” She stood, and Harrow bolted upright next to her in an instant. “Back in a few.”

Magnus gave them a quick nod. “We’ll finish the seating chart and send it to Dulcinea for final approval,” He said. “Get some rest.”

Harrow waited until the door to their shared bedroom was closed to say, “Abigail is giving me her wedding dress for the ceremony.”

Gideon’s eyes flicked down; her hands were trembling by her sides. “Okay,” She said, carefully. “And that’s a bad thing?”

“I don’t know.” Harrow blinked once, then twice. “She— called me her daughter.”

Gideon took a slow step forward, taking Harrow’s hands in her own. “You’re about to be,” She said. “Legally, I mean. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to.”

“I do want it to,” Harrowhark admitted, with all the gravity of a collapsing star. “I— I was surprised by how badly, in fact.” A pause. “Gideon, I—” She swallowed. Then she searched Gideon’s face, though this time neither of them were sure for what. Any remaining traces of anger, maybe, or worse— forgiveness. “I didn’t think. When I first proposed this, I— I had no idea it would lead us here.”

“Neither did I,” Gideon said honestly, “but it did. And, honestly, I think we’re kinda making the best of it.”

Harrow nodded, but worry lingered in her eyes. “And you still— consent? To all of this?”

Gideon squeezed her hands with a smile and resisted powerfully the urge to make a joke. “I do. I’m all in, Harrow.” A beat. “Plus, now we get to see Cam drink Palamedes under the table. How much do you want to bet he ends up pulling trig?”

“If he does, it won’t be in this house,” Harrow muttered. She let out a sigh, pressing their joined hands to her forehead. “God. I— I had no idea it would be this stressful.”

Gideon brought them gently backwards until she could sit on the edge of the bed. “Planning a wedding, or thinking about a drunk Palamedes ruining it?”

Harrow gave her a fond, exasperated look. “The former,” She said, stepping closer. Gideon spread her legs wider, creating a space for Harrow to fill in, and she did. “I keep finding myself wishing there was something to be done to make it easier, and then I remember that the only way to make it easier—”

“—is to do it,” Gideon finished. “Yeah. Well, come lie down for a second. I’ll put a tie on the door if you want. I bet if we pretend like we’re fucking, neither of them will knock.”

This, against Harrow’s better judgment, earned a laugh. “You are incorrigible,” She said, resting her hands lightly on Gideon’s arms. She let out a breath. “But— fine. A nap might do me well.”

Gideon scooted backwards, making a space for Harrow on the bed. Once they settled in — Gideon’s arm rubbing gently at Harrow’s back, Harrow’s hands fisted lightly in her shirt — Gideon found herself saying, “Hey, Silas mentioned something weird on the phone.”

Harrow made a quiet, half-asleep noise, and Gideon took this as a sign to continue. “He said you made Ortus sit in on interviews for his replacement out of, like, cruelty. Like you forced him to watch.”

The hands in her shirt went still. “What?” Harrow said, more confused than anything else. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Feel free to explain why,” said Gideon, who had no idea what was happening.

“Ortus was in those interviews because he was pursuing a contract with us,” Harrow explained. “He wanted to make sure his position would be filled once he was published. His father and my father were— close. I’ve known him all my life, and I think he felt an obligation to make sure I was taken care of.”

That, admittedly, made much more sense than what Silas had said. “I didn’t know Ortus was published,” said Gideon.

“He wrote under a pen name.” Harrow let out a yawn. “Abigail has a copy of his work in the library. He had been working on his translation of the Iliad for years before he told me about it. I didn’t read the finished piece, but I helped edit it from time to time.”

“But—” She blinked, trying to process it. “It never got any press.”

“Of course it did,” Harrow said, shifting closer. “It was just covered by a different department. At the time, it seemed improper for Ortus’ former boss to handle the details of his release. Nepotism, et cetera.” She cracked open an eyelid, meeting Gideon’s stare.

“Silas has been gifted with a sense of conviction in himself, but his stories are rarely complete,” Harrow said, eyeing her face. “He deals in half-truths and extrapolation. I have found that facts rarely make the impact on him that stories do.”

Something in Gideon’s heart was soothed by this. She pulled Harrow a fraction closer, holding her tighter. “Thank you,” She said, muffled by Harrow’s hair. “It didn’t sound right when he said it, but— I don’t know, it freaked me out a little.”

Harrow rested her forehead against Gideon’s sternum. “Thank you for trusting me, then.”

Gideon smiled into the top of Harrow’s head, and found herself murmuring back, “You make it easy, sweetheart.”

“Did you say something?” Harrow mumbled, sleep taking over her voice.

Gideon’s smile widened. “Nah,” She said, closing her eyes. “Go to sleep, honey. Don’t worry about me.”

* * *

The next few days passed in glimpses of phone calls, invoices, and last-minute fittings.

By the time they made it to the weekend, Gideon was nearing the end of her rope. Actually, she had reached the end of her rope about two days before, and had been tiptoeing forward ever since on what had become a frayed bit of twine.

She was handling it better than Harrowhark, at least. Music and a venue were long since taken care of — Gideon blessed Dulcinea’s foresight — which meant that the two of them had been given the task of— well, everything else.

At least they’d sorted out the logistics. Now all that was left was the bachelor party, the finishing touches, and the ceremony, and wrangling together a pack of bridesmaids — bridesmen? groomsmaids? a wedding party — on such short notice had been a disaster all on its own.

And yet here they were, sleep-deprived as all hell, waiting in the brisk October air for an anemic professor and his second cousin.

“I still can’t believe you managed to get Palamedes here so fast,” Gideon remarked. “Seriously. Props to you for that. It’s— what, like, a twelve-hour flight from Dublin?”

Harrow looked at her as though she had asked if the sky was purple. “He’s been traveling for almost two days,” She said. “The last I heard, he was somewhere in the Pacific Northwest for an overnight layover. Camilla met him in Boston nearly twenty hours ago.”

“Okay, so I made a tiny underestimation,” Gideon said. She tilted her head, frowning lightly at her fiancée. “You alright?”

“Fine,” Harrow said curtly. “Peachy.”

“You sound like Magnus.”

This earned her another withering look. But, to her credit, Harrow didn’t hold herself back like the Harrowhark of the past would have. Instead, she steeled herself, released a loaded breath, and admitted, “It’s begun to sink in that this is— real. That it’s happening. I’ve never liked big events like this.”

Gideon had seen Harrow work a room full of investors like she was a preacher giving a sermon. Her frown deepened. “You could’ve fooled me.”

“Work is one thing,” Harrow said, briefly making Gideon panic about having her mind read. “But— I mean, Christ, Nav, we’re getting married.

“Are you still going to call me Nav when I’m your wife?” Gideon asked. “I’m not being facetious, I just want to know. I’ll still call you Nonagesimus— unless you want to be a Nav, too.”

“Gideon,” Harrow said, her voice strained.

“Sorry. Tangent.” Gideon checked the window behind Harrow; Palamedes and Camilla’s flight was landing as they spoke. Not much time, then. She took Harrow’s hands in her own, wondered briefly if she should drop to one knee, and said, “Harrow. Harrowhark.”

“That is my name, yes,” said Harrow, about as tightly as a coiled spring. “Thank you for the reminder.”

Gideon ignored this. “Marriage is big and scary, but the only things it changes for us are a few tax laws and a citizenship issue. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to.” A thread of guilt and self-consciousness wove through her. “And— look, I know it’s not exactly the wedding you were hoping for. I’m sorry to take that from you.”

Confusion flickered briefly across Harrow’s face, but Gideon was too busy looking at their hands to see it pass. “Nav, what on Earth are you talking about?”

“You know,” Gideon said, casting her eyes around shiftily. “The fact that we’re going to all this effort when it’s—” She leaned in a few inches, “—not real.”

Not real, repeated Gideon hollowly to herself. What a joke. A sick sort of wanting had settled heavy in her stomach, and even as she tried to deny it it roiled against her.

“Ah,” Harrowhark said, with a tone that almost suggested disappointment. A beat. “That isn’t an issue.”

“You sure?” Gideon searched her face. “All you have to do is say the word, and we can call the whole thing off.”

“If I do that, I’ll be deported,” Harrow reminded her.

“Oh,” Gideon said. “Right.”

“And besides,” Harrow said, clearing her throat. “There are worse people to be married to — even for a brief time, and even for an unconventional reason — than you.” The last words were hesitant, and Harrow refused to look her in the eyes when she spoke.

It was unfair, Gideon thought helplessly, that even the most stilted, awkward admission from Harrow could make her heart pound the way it was now. Gideon found that she was smiling, and leaned in to kiss Harrow’s forehead. “If this is a preview of what your vows are gonna be, I can’t wait.”

Movement from the tarmac drew her attention— passengers from the flight they were waiting for were beginning to deplane. Harrow followed her gaze to the plane and, for the first time, she seemed to relax marginally. “I see Sextus,” She said.

Gideon squinted until her eyes landed on two figures clad in gray. “Oh, yeah. There they are.” She turned to Harrow. “You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Harrow muttered. She squeezed Gideon’s hand. “Are you?”

Gideon looked at their friends, arriving in Alaska shouldering a suit bag apiece, and smiled. “Seems a bit late to back out now.” They entered the building, and suddenly things became real.

Gideon hadn’t seen Palamedes Sextus in the flesh in nearly a year, and she assumed from the weary, battered expression on his face that this was something of a low point for him. He had the general look of a kitten that had just been bathed in the sink, given the circles under his eyes.

His eyes were the same curious, lambent gray Gideon remembered. His face was the same shade of warm brown rendered pale from too long spent in the archives of a library rather than the sun. His hands seemed too delicate around the handle of the ratty, patchwork briefcase he held, and his hair seemed to fall limply in his face without design or forethought.

And half a step behind him walked Camilla Hect.

She, at least, was more familiar— the sharp lines of her face were matched by the knife-point of her hair, cut to her jaw without any semblance of deviation. Her eyes were darker, slate-gray and flecked with brown, but no less striking. She moved like a fire waiting to be put out. She bore — and always had — the look of someone that memorized the exit routes of every room she walked into.

But she smiled when she saw Gideon, and that was all that really mattered. “Nav,” She said, by way of greeting. She reached out a hand. “I got your shirt dry cleaned.”

“I didn’t get your Knicks tickets,” Gideon said, walking forward to clap their hands together. “It’s a work in progress.”

Harrowhark, meanwhile, accepted a warm hug from Palamedes, and tried her best not to look uncomfortable. “Wonderful to see you again, dear,” He murmured, pulling away and taking a look at her. “You look tired. I imagine it’s been an awful lot of work planning everything.”

“More than I expected,” Harrow admitted. “I suppose there’s a reason most people don’t get married after a week of planning.”

Most people also don’t hide a years-long relationship from their best friend.” Palamedes raised an eyebrow. “I expect an explanation for that, by the way.”

“Are we friends?” Harrow asked, cocking her head to one side. “Colleagues and acquaintances, surely.”

“Surely.” Palamedes remained unperturbed. “And I assume that’s why you flew me out to your wedding in First Class?”

Harrow ground her teeth lightly, but her eyes betrayed her relief. “Touche.”

“Well, I, for one, am ready to let loose after a hard week,” said Gideon, winding an arm around Harrow’s waist without thinking. Camilla’s eyebrows raised, and she shot a glance over to Palamedes. “Who’s ready to party?”

“So this is— real?” Camilla said, ignoring her. “It wasn’t some elaborate prank?”

Gideon looked at Harrow; Harrow looked at Gideon. “It’s real,” Harrowhark said, surprising them both. “Unexpected, to be sure, but real.”

“I see,” said Palamedes. After a moment, he smiled, and it seemed to unite the disparate features of his face into beauty. “In that case, let me be the latest to offer my congratulations.”

Harrow relaxed visibly. “Thank you.” She turned towards Gideon, stood on her tiptoes, and kissed her cheek. Her lips lingered there for a moment — probably for the best, considering Gideon had frozen solid — before she lowered herself back down to her heels. “Stunned speechless, Nav? I thought we were past that.”

“Speechless? Me? Never,” Gideon said, hoping her blush wasn’t visible. She was pretty sure she had a brand in the shape of Harrow’s lips, if the burning sensation on her cheek was any indication, but now wasn’t the time to check. “Just surprised, honey bear.”

“Gross,” Camilla muttered.

“Well, Gideon is right,” Harrow said, further surprising everyone present. “We should begin our return to the house soon. The party is set to start once the sun goes down, which means our time is increasingly precious.”

Gideon nodded. “I’ll bring the car around.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Camilla unexpectedly.

“Oh.” Gideon blinked. She looked at Harrow; Harrow looked at her. “I mean, it’s not a huge deal. You don’t—”

“Nope.” She turned to Palamedes with an open hand, and he placed his briefcase into it as though they had done it a thousand times. “I’m coming.”

“It’s not even that big of a truck,” Gideon said halfheartedly. This was met with an unimpressed stare. It was easier to cheat death, she thought briefly, than to say no to Camilla Hect. She let out a defeated sigh. “Alright, fine. Let’s go.”

As soon as they were out the door, Camilla said— in the light, casual tones of someone asking about the weather— “So, is she blackmailing you, or are you the one extorting her? I haven’t been able to figure that part out.”

Gideon sent her a look. “Cam.”

“You can’t tell me it isn’t a fair question,” said Camilla, dropping all pretense. She lowered her voice. “Gideon, three years and change of working for her, and now you’re getting married?” She gave Gideon a sideways look. “I couldn’t help but notice it was right as her visa expired, too. I don’t suppose that had anything to do with it.”

Gideon went rigid. Her hands tightened on the keys. She let out a sharp breath, and saw it condense like a fog in the air. “I don’t know what you’re implying.”

“Yes, you do. You’re not an idiot, Nav. You do know it’s illegal to do this, right?” At this, Gideon tried walking faster. Camilla let out a sigh, grabbed her arm, and brought them both to a halt. “Listen, if you don’t want this arrangement, that’s one thing. If you do, that’s another. I just want to know— which is it?”

A shock of cold ran down Gideon’s spine. She turned towards Camilla fully, recognized concern in her sharp eyes, and realized two things in the span of half a second.

The first should have been obvious, really: Gideon could not, with any semblance of success, lie to her.

The second was infinitely more terrifying— not only did she want this, she wanted it enormously. It was a horrible, desperate kind of desire, and it was one she had absolutely no idea how to handle.

“I hate how good you are at that,” Gideon grumbled after a moment. “I can’t keep anything to myself, can I?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” said Camilla, who was a pill.

She cast a glance back towards the terminal and lowered her voice out of habit. “Look— you’re right. That’s how it started. Whatever. Hect, you cannot tell anyone.

“Gideon,” said Camilla firmly. She fixed her with a disarming stare, the kind that made Gideon feel like she was being fileted. “Do you want this?”

This question, Gideon thought, was not entirely accurate. What Camilla was really asking was do you want her, and that was a question that she could only answer with—

“Yes,” Gideon said, barely above a whisper. She opened her mouth, then closed it, and somehow the confused, half-concerned look on Camilla’s face was all it took for the dam to crumble.

All of the guilt and shame from the last few weeks bubbled to the surface; all of the fear she had managed to suppress stabbed into her like the sting of a wasp.

“Cam, I— I don’t know what happened.” Her voice cracked on the last word. “It was fake, and that was fine, but then we came here, and then—” She made a helpless gesture towards the terminal. “And now we’re getting married, and I should hate that, and I should want to get out of it, but—”

The words died in her throat, but it didn’t matter. Camilla had always had a particular skill for deductive reasoning. Gideon watched in real time as her friend’s mind filled in the blanks she hadn’t been able to verbalize, and watched her eyes widen a quarter of a second later.

“Oh.” It was loaded with terrible understanding.

There was a lump forming in Gideon’s throat. She tried to swallow it, but she only managed to choke down about half. She didn’t say anything— it would have come out wrong and wavery, and she didn’t want to subject either of them to that.

Camilla cleared her throat and adopted a stance that could — charitably — be called awkward. And then, God bless her, she didn’t press. “So— it’s not fake.”

Gideon took a deep breath and released it in a thin whoosh of air, regaining the ability to speak.“Sort of.” She groaned, dragging her hands down her face. “It is, and it isn’t. It’s all very confusing.”

“I’m following along,” Camilla said. “Do your parents know? Does anyone know?”

Guilt sparked in Gideon’s chest. “No,” She admitted. “Not yet, anyway. I don’t know if telling them would do any good now.”

Camilla frowned. “Why not?”

Here it was. This was her chance. It had been looming in her mind for a few days now, but she hadn’t been able to say it out loud yet.

“Because I’m in love with her. I think, anyway,” Gideon said, trying to sound as natural as possible. “And since that’s true, I don’t know if they’re going to care as much about how it started.”

“Ah,” said Camilla, letting out a low whistle. “Well, that— changes things.” There was a brief silence, and then she punched Gideon in the shoulder. “Congrats, though.”

“Thanks.” Gideon let out a sigh. “I don’t know what to do about it.”

Camilla shrugged and began walking again, prompting Gideon to release her grip on the keys by a fraction. “Who says you have to do anything? You’re already marrying her. Isn’t that the end goal anyway?”

“Yeah, but I have no idea what the protocol here is. Like, do we kiss when we get to the altar?”

Camilla looked at her as though she’d asked what color the sky was. “Obviously. That’s standard wedding procedure.”

Alright, maybe that had been an easy question. “Okay, well, what about after?” Gideon persisted, unlocking the doors as they drew closer. She hefted Camilla’s suitcase into the bed of the truck. “Do we—” She let out a huff. “Do we have sex? Is that off-limits?”

Camilla’s nose wrinkled in mild disgust. “That’s your business, not mine,” She said, sliding Palamedes’ briefcase into the backseat. “But you know what might help?”

Gideon slid into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition key, feeling the truck roar to life under her hands. “What?”

“Talking to her instead of me,” said Camilla, not unkindly. “No offense.”

“None taken.” After a moment, Gideon said: “It’s good to have you here.”

A ghost of a smile flitted across Camilla’s face. “Good to be here,” She said. “Come on. If we’re gone any longer, Palamedes is going to send out a search party.”

When the truck pulled around in front of the terminal, Camilla slid out of shotgun and into the backseat.

“You were gone longer than I anticipated,” Harrowhark said, sliding into the front seat. Her voice was gruff and unyielding, but the relief on her face belied the truth of what she felt. “I was— worried about you.”

Her hands were fisted in her lap, and she wouldn’t quite make eye contact. Even now, even with the protective expression she kept fixing Gideon with, she was afraid of vulnerability.

Gideon reached out to rest her hand over Harrow’s. “Your hands are cold,” She murmured. She met Harrow’s eyes as she brought her knuckles to her lips, pressing a kiss there. Harrow’s eyelashes fluttered, and her mouth dropped open a fraction. “There’s no need to worry. We just—” Gideon met Camilla’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Got to talking,” She said. “That’s all.”

Then she cleared her throat. To the rest of the car, Gideon asked, “Now who’s ready to fucking party?”

* * *

It should’ve been obvious from the moment the party started that it was going to be a long night for everyone.

This was to say: a knock came twenty minutes before sunset, and Gideon opened the door to see Coronabeth in what could only be described as splendor — jewels, jewel tones, and more jewels — with two bottles of liquor in her hands.

Gideon frowned. “I thought we weren’t starting until after the sun was down?”

“Hold onto your asscheeks,” Coronabeth Tridentarius said roguishly, striding into Canaan House like she owned it. “And welcome to the pregame. If any of us remember this night, it will be a failure,”

Ianthe slinked in behind her holding a case of cider. “She got started early,” She said succinctly, handing a bottle to Gideon.

Gideon peered out the door around her before closing it. “Where’s Babs?”

“Naberius is with our dear Lady Septimus helping her set up speakers for later,” Corona called from the kitchen. “He’s been very dedicated to tonight, you know. I think he likes you more than he lets on— oh, Christ, you scared me!”

Gideon looked up to see Camilla standing perfectly still and completely silent in the hallway. She let out a long-suffering sigh. “Corona, meet Camilla Hect,” She said, gesturing vaguely. “Cam, this is Coronabeth Tridentarius and her sister Ianthe.”

Corona offered a hand. Ianthe raised an eyebrow.

Camilla took the hand and stoutly ignored the eyebrow. “Camilla Hect, in partnership with Trinity College to oversee publication at the Ninth House,” She said in a smooth, practiced manner. To Gideon, she said, much less smooth and much less practiced: “Your fiancée wants your opinion on something. I told her I’d find you.”

“On it,” Gideon said. She gestured between the three of them. “Don’t kill each other while I’m gone.”

“No promises,” Corona said with an exaggerated wink. She was eyeing Camilla with interest, which Camilla didn’t seem to notice. She was eyeing carefully the wood of the countertop, though for what end Gideon couldn’t begin to guess.

Leaving the kitchen to its own devices, she made her way back to her room to find Harrow glaring at her reflection in the mirror.

“I have a dilemma,” She said, barely waiting for Gideon to close the door behind her. The back of her dress was open and— slightly wrong. One side seemed abruptly higher than the other.

“Hello to you, too,” replied Gideon, plopping herself down on the corner of the bed. “What’s going on?”

Harrow let out a sharp exhale. “I have one— no. I have two issues. The first is that I seem to have misplaced the jacket I was going to wear.”

Gideon glanced over to the pile of laundry that had accumulated in the corner. “If it’s in there, we can probably throw it in the dryer.”

“I looked already,” Harrow said glumly. “And my dress is refusing to cooperate, which makes it infinitely more difficult to focus on.” She rubbed at her forehead. “This evening is conspiring against me.”

“Take a breath,” said Gideon, not unkindly. “Turn around and I’ll zip you up.”

Harrow did as she was told. Her hair had grown out a fraction since being there, and she moved it away from her neck as Gideon stepped in behind her. She tilted her head down.

This meant, at least, she didn’t see Gideon stumble at the sight of her exposed back.

She had seen Harrow in less and handled it normally, and yet seeing her now sent her spinning in a way she was thoroughly unaccustomed to. The bones of Harrowhark’s spine stood out under the skin in a straight line — she never sacrificed posture for anything — and an unblemished expanse of brown surrounded them.

She had a faint dusting of black hair near the nape of her neck and another near her lower back, and below them (though it was hidden beneath the fabric of her dress) sat the curve of her ass. This last thing was, perhaps, what Gideon was struggling with most, given that it was dangerously close to where her hips sat behind Harrow.

Her eyes dipped down for a second too long before she shot her gaze towards the sky. Her hands hovered in midair for a moment, unsure, before they found purchase on the snag.

“Found the issue,” said Gideon, with some difficulty. She cleared her throat, meeting Harrow’s eyes in the mirror. “Your zipper’s caught.”

Harrow met her eyes in the mirror. “Thank you for the diagnosis,” She said, unimpressed. “Are you going to fix it?”

Gideon rolled her eyes. She pressed a hand firm against Harrow’s lower back to brace with, and heard a sharp, surprised intake of breath from the other woman. The other hand pulled — gently, she reminded herself, gently — at the zipper until, finally, it came loose.

Gideon let out a breath of triumph and moved her bracing hand towards the bottom of Harrow’s zipper— which, coincidentally, meant her thumb was pressing right above her ass.

Gideon tried, she really did, but it was difficult not to steal a glance. For someone whose diet in recent years had consisted of coffee, meal replacement smoothies, and lemon water, she had always had — in Gideon’s respectful opinion — a damn good ass.

In the mirror, she saw Harrow’s eyebrows raise as Gideon’s hand pressed at her lower back, and she tried to keep her eyes pointed straight at the zipper as she drew it up neatly.

“All done,” Gideon said, half a second too late. Her hand lingered at Harrow’s back for a moment before she drew it back; she had to fight the urge to touch her again.

Harrow was watching her in the mirror with a strange expression. “Thank you,” She said, swallowing down whatever emotion it was that had run through her. She nodded to Gideon’s ensemble, which was, perhaps, a bit more casual than her own. “I can’t tell if I’m overdressed or you’re underdressed.”

Gideon looked at herself. She was in a dress shirt with its sleeves rolled up, which was already a step above what she had planned for. “If I add a tie, it’ll dress it up a little,” She offered.

Harrow gave a nod as though this would satisfy her, which sent Gideon digging through her suitcase for a moment.

She popped her collar and looped the tie around her neck, stepping in view of the mirror for a moment to get a better view, but Harrow stopped her before she could begin the knot.

“Let me,” Harrow said, putting a hesitant hand on her chest. A second too late, she added: “Your knots always come out lopsided.”

Gideon swallowed a lump of butterflies back into her stomach. “Oh,” She managed. “Good point.” Her tie felt limp and useless in her hands, and it was a relief when Harrowhark took the ends from her. “Do you need me to sit, or—”

“No. I want you here,” She said, and something in her voice made Gideon’s knees go weak.

“Cool,” Gideon managed. “Cool.” Harrow’s fingers worked in expert silence for a moment. Her eyes were fixed on her work; Gideon’s eyes were fixed on her.

Eventually, she drew the ends into a knot and began to pull it, drawing it snugly towards Gideon’s throat. “All done,” Harrow murmured, stepping back. “What do you think?”

“Better than most of mine,” said Gideon approvingly, “and I do it every morning.” She glanced towards Harrow. “Where did you learn to do this?”

“Watching my mother,” Harrow answered. A beat. “And YouTube.”

“And therein contains the breadth of human knowledge,” said Gideon. She looked at them in the mirror for a moment. “My outfit is so— boring compared to yours.”

Harrow made eye contact with her in the mirror. “You fill yours out well enough to compensate,” She said lightly. “And knowing the company we keep, neither of us will end the night as dressed up as we’re beginning it.”

As if on cue, a noise came from the kitchen. It sounded like a crash, but the chatter that followed it sounded resoundingly positive.

Gideon looked towards the door and realized that, to her surprise, the only place she wanted to be was in that room with Harrow. “We should go out there,” She said, with a note of disappointment in her voice.

Harrow followed her eyes and let out a sigh. “We should,” She agreed. Neither of them moved. She swallowed.

“Nav— Gideon,” Harrow began hesitantly, “it is important to me that you know you can still get out of this.”

“Of course I know that,” Gideon said.

This did not reassure her. “I do not wish to force you to stay with me.”

“You aren’t.” Gideon frowned and took a step toward her. Her hand betrayed her mind and came to rest gently on Harrow’s cheek. “Where’s this coming from?”

“Physically speaking, I believe it started in the pit of my stomach.” Harrow let out a brief sigh and leaned, just for a moment, into Gideon’s touch. “Something Palamedes said earlier,” She admitted. “He told me that when they first found out, he and Camilla were— worried for you. I don’t blame them.”

“Camilla mentioned that to me, too,” Gideon said.

Harrow’s head snapped up. “What?”

“Oh, yeah. She cornered me outside and asked if I was being blackmailed.” Harrow’s eyes widened, and Gideon rushed to say, “I told her I wasn’t, obviously.” She paused. “But she— knows. She knows,” She said, for emphasis. Preemptively, she continued, “I didn’t tell her. She figured it out, same as Silas.”

Panic filled Harrow’s expression for a moment, and her jaw went tight. “And yet she and Sextus are still here,” Harrow said slowly. “What happened after?”

“I mean, she told me it was illegal,” Gideon shrugged. “Same old, same old. Um. And then she asked if—” Her words died in her throat.

Harrow didn’t blink, but her stare intensified. “What?”

Here, Gideon thought it would be pertinent to make a few omissions. She cleared her throat. “Well, she asked if I wanted to go through with it, which I confirmed that I did.” At this, Harrow relaxed visibly. “And then she said congratulations, and that was kinda the end of it.”

Harrow’s breath left her in a sigh of relief. “She did?”

Gideon stroked her thumb against Harrow’s cheek. “Yes, Nonagesimus, she did. We’re sorted there, I promise.”

Harrow worked her bottom lip between her teeth. “Alright,” She said, after a moment. And then: “I trust you.”

Gideon smiled. “I know you do.” She moved her hand down to squeeze at Harrow’s shoulder. “Come on, sweetheart. We have a party to get to.”

Harrow let out a brief sigh. “If someone makes me do shots, I’m going to throw up,” She said warily.

Gideon made her way towards the door, holding it open for her fiancée. “Unfortunately, I believe our gracious hosts are pouring them as we speak. Want me to block for you?”

“No. I’m going to do them,” Harrow sighed. “I just wanted you to know beforehand.”

Sure enough, Coronabeth Tridentarius had a bottle of liquor in her hand when they re-entered the kitchen. “Ah!” She exclaimed. “Wonderful! I was just about to call you.” She pushed two glasses towards them. “We’re pregaming, and I’m afraid I have to insist that you join us.”

Camilla was sipping lightly on a bottle of cider. “Seconded,” She said, making eye contact with Gideon, who looked at her as though she had driven a knife into her back. “I did one, and I’m not even the one getting married.”

Gideon made a weak attempt at protesting, which was roundly shut down by Coronabeth. “It’s your bachelor party,” She said firmly. “Assuming all goes to plan, this is the last time you’ll get to live deliciously before your attention inevitably turns to children and the housing market and— I don’t know, retirement funds. Live a little, my friends.”

Harrow let out a quiet groan next to her, but Gideon was once again stuck on children.

It was embarrassing how often she had returned to the thought since her conversation with Magnus. It seemed that her mind moved faster than she could tame it— she kept coming back to the mental image of a little girl with golden eyes and Harrow’s smile, and every time it made her heart so full it ached.

Christ. She was deep in it, wasn’t she?

Gideon was beginning to realize that she had erred in the last few years in one major way: during her time with the Ninth, she had viewed devotion as a sacrifice. Every late night, every overtime shift, every business trip was something she had to do rather than something she wanted to do.

And she had, thus, seen her commitment to Harrowhark as a burden— but it wasn’t. Not anymore. Maybe not ever. Now her devotion was a choice, made with full knowledge and full awareness. And where it forged ahead, love followed like a reaper.

“On second thought, I’m in,” said Gideon, trying not to look at Harrowhark. “Pass me a shot.”

Coronabeth let a satisfied smile curl over her lips as she slid a glass over. “That’s more like it.” She passed Harrow one, too, which she accepted wearily. Corona raised her own in the air. “Cheers to the happy couple. May your days be peaceful and your nights anything but.”

She finished with a wink and threw her glass back, which prompted Gideon and Harrow to do the same.

She had been expecting something familiar — vodka, or tequila maybe — and was instead greeted with the feeling of drinking gasoline. She heard a sound of disgust rip through her as, next to her, Harrow made a noise like a punctured tire.

Gideon’s eyes were watering as she grimaced, swallowing her mouthful down with a cough. “Jesus, that was terrible. What was that?”

“Everclear,” Coronabeth said sweetly. She would have sold her own indifference to it better if it weren’t for the twitching of her eyes. “Care for another?”

Next to her, Harrow was bent over at the waist with her hands on her knees. She took a deep breath through her nose, shaking her head weakly. “No, thank you,” She wheezed. “That will be— more than sufficient.”

“Wonderful! In that case,” began Coronabeth, with a daring twinkle in her eyes, “this is where the best night of your life begins.”

* * *

Two things became apparent within the next few hours.

The first was that the Everclear had been a mistake. That, at least, Harrowhark had known from the beginning. She was starting to see a pattern of poor decisions emanating from tonight, but at least that had prompted her to balance them out with a good one: not drinking any more.

Well— not much more, anyway. She was sipping on something Palamedes had made for her, but he had told her at the time that it wouldn’t be strong and his own tolerance was, charitably speaking, pretty terrible. She figured it wouldn’t be too bad.

The second thing was that she was, more or less against her will, having a very good time.

She had to admit, Coronabeth knew how to throw a goddamn party. She and Dulcinea must have paid a fortune for the music setup — or maybe Naberius had a secret background in being a techie — which was to say nothing of the food, the alcohol, and the decor.

And there was Gideon.

Gideon, as she always did, surprised her. The shot had taken its toll slowly but surely. Gideon seemed to have followed her lead in taking a pause, but even now she was swaying gently to the music as she and Camilla shared a conversation across the room.

This showed a marked improvement in sobriety from earlier, when Gideon — who Harrow knew didn’t speak even a lick of Spanish — had danced on a table to Selena for nearly twenty minutes straight.

Harrow had taken up residence on a couch near the corner of the room when Coronabeth found her.

“There you are! Scoot over,” She said, sliding in next to her. “What do you think?”

“Of the party?” Harrow asked.

Corona nodded. “We can start there, yes.”

Harrow looked around with a nod of approval. “You have outdone yourself,” She admitted, only half-grudgingly. “Truly. It outranks most of the professional functions I’ve attended, and I have attended enough of those to last a lifetime.”

“That is an incredible compliment. You flatter me,” said Coronabeth with no small measure of pride. “Thank you, Harrowhark.” She tilted her head to one side. “I find myself dissatisfied, though. You tell me it’s a wonderful party, yet I’ve found you tucked away on a couch. May I ask why?”

“I’ve always preferred being on the outskirts of parties,” said Harrowhark, raising her voice to be heard above the music. “I have found that more can be learned by simply observing than in most conversations.”

“Fascinating,” Coronabeth said, narrowing her eyes interest. She tilted her head to one side, regarding Harrow as though she were a character in a play. “I think of myself as terribly self-important, so I’m afraid I have to ask— is there anything you’ve observed about me?”

Perhaps her drink was stronger than she thought, or perhaps she was just in a talkative mood. It was difficult to say. Whichever it was, the familiar trepidation Harrow felt in conversation vanished as turned she towards the golden twin, looking her up and down for a moment.

“I don’t know if this counts as observation,” She began, “but I was threatened by you when we first met. And I feel as though it would be difficult not to be— you had an advantage over me in both knowledge of my fiancée and shared history, and especially in the beginning— in a new place, with unfamiliar people— I found it very difficult to get over that.”

It was easier than she had ever expected to say it. And she had to admit— it was a little satisfying to see Coronabeth Tridentarius at a complete loss for words. Harrow got the feeling it didn’t happen often.

“Oh,” Corona said after a moment. She blinked. “Wow.”

“That is no longer how I feel,” Harrow said, injecting the barest hint of reassurance into her voice. The corner of her mouth quirked up in a half-smile. “It came from my own perception of my inferiority, and was not your fault in the slightest. In truth, I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have met you.”

“Can I ask why?” Coronabeth’s voice was uncharacteristically vulnerable.

Harrow paused for a moment, searching for the words. “You make Gideon happy,” She said simply. “You were a large part of her life once, and you have continued to be. You loved her, and—” Harrow faltered, but only for a moment. She said: “And I love her.”

A beat. “I love her,” said Harrow again, smiling in the dim, warm light of the party. “And to have someone else in my life that understands the complexities of that feeling is— comforting.”

Something in Corona’s golden face softened. She reached a hand over to Harrow, resting it on her wrist. “It makes me happy to hear you say that.” There was a soft, shy smile on her face. “And— I’m sure you know this, but I will repeat it just in case. What Gideon and I had was wonderful, but it was years ago,” Coronabeth said, making a firm gesture with her hand for emphasis. “She has moved on, and so have I. All I want to give to you both is friendship.”

“I know,” said Harrow, and meant it. “I appreciate it.” And then, after a beat of companionable silence passed between them: “Do you have an email I can send my thoughts on housing in New York to?”

Coronabeth’s smile widened, and she gave Harrow a roguish wink. “Oh, stop it, you flirt.” She pulled out her phone. “If you have it handy, AirDrop will be fine.”

“Wonderful. In that case—” Movement from ahead of them drew Harrow’s attention for a moment, interrupting her. She looked up from her phone to see a slowly-growing crowd of people cheering on Gideon as she unbuttoned her shirt and let it fall to the ground.

The movement exposed her undershirt, which, in this case, was a thin white tank top tucked into her slacks. Harrow’s breath left her in a whoosh. Fuck me,” She breathed, barely noticing that she had spoken.

Coronabeth’s eyebrows raised. “Well, that took a turn.” She followed Harrow’s eyes over to the other side of the room, where surprise smoothed into understanding. She fanned herself gently with a hand. “Ah, that would do it. I don’t know what you’ve been feeding her in New York, but for all of our sake, please keep doing it.”

“The first time I saw her outside of work clothes, I spilled an entire coffee on myself,” said Harrow, ignoring the mortified protests of sober privacy in her head. “She didn’t see it happen, thank God. She was in shorts and a shirt that read sex, weights, and protein shakes or something equally inane.”

Corona’s expression was battling between a grimace and a fond smile. “That sounds about right. I don’t know where she even finds the time to keep it up, but— well, thank God she does,” She said, leaning back against the couch to get a better view.

Ahead of them, Gideon stretched her arms above her head as if preparing herself for something, then fiddled with something in her pocket for a moment. It sent her muscles rippling in the low light, and Harrow’s breath left her again.

It shouldn’t have surprised her to feel her heart racing. Harrow wasn’t immune to more traditional forms of beauty, but she had always had something of a preference for strength and musculature in her partners.

This was something that had annoyed her for most of her life simply on the basis of her own intelligence— she loved the vivacity of athletes, and dreaded nothing more than holding a conversation with one.

And then there was Gideon.

Gideon, who could talk for hours about hockey statistics and quote Dickinson in the same breath. Gideon, who spent half her time in the hotel gym when they went on business trips and the other half annotating manuscripts. Gideon, who had a mind as fast as lightning and a body that Zeus himself would have envied.

Harrow had always had a type, and no one had ever fit it so perfectly.

Presently, she had a ping pong ball in her hand, which snapped Harrow back into the present. She threw it forward in a practiced, graceful arc, and watched as it fell neatly into a plastic cup at the other end of the table. The crowd was half cheers and half groans, and Gideon did an exaggerated bow before accepting her shirt from Camilla again.

The light was too dim for her to see perfectly, but there was something different about the shadows on her face. Harrow couldn’t for the life of her figure out what— and then Gideon turned towards her and Coronabeth, winking across the room, and realization struck her with full force.

She was, for some godforsaken reason, wearing her glasses.

And a button-down. And slacks. And a rumpled undershirt, and a tie, and— Harrow needed to be somewhere else right now.

Memory crashed over her the same way her orgasm had, and in its wake came a fiery heat that started in her chest and dripped down into her lower stomach.

Harrow couldn’t begin to guess at the expression she was making, but whatever it was prompted Coronabeth to ask, “Are you alright?”

“Fine,” Harrow breathed. She scanned the room for its exits and saw the refuge of a bathroom on one side. “I’ll— be right back. Excuse me.” She didn’t stick around to hear Coronabeth’s confused reply, and kept her eyes too focused on her path to see Gideon’s face crumple in concern.

Harrow pushed her way into the bathroom, closing the door as fast as she could, and braced on the counter with her hands. She made eye contact with her reflection and found a horrible need staring back at her.

Her lips were parted slightly, and they glistened in the bathroom light. Her hands were trembling a little. Her eyes were the size of dinner plates, blown even darker than their usual shade with the widening of her pupils, and she could nearly see the desperation in them.

This was— bad.

Bad enough, of course, that it had been nearly two years since she started noticing things about her assistant that were deeply inappropriate for someone in her position to notice. Bad enough that she had tried and failed to rid herself of any attraction and repeated the process in a terrible cycle for the entire time.

Bad enough that she had already touched herself about it once on this trip, and the traitorous heat in her lower stomach was pushing her rapidly towards a second time— and bad enough that, on top of all of that, she had managed to fall in love.

Harrow closed her eyes and leaned forward, touching her forehead to her reflection, and took a deep, shaky breath in. “Pull yourself together,” She muttered, squeezing her eyes — and legs — shut. “Focus on—”

She was interrupted by a knock at the door. And then, muffled, a voice came through it. “Hey, Harrow, are you in there?”

Fuck.

“Nav?” She called, hoping against hope to be wrong. She wasn’t, of course. She would know Gideon dumb, deaf, and blind, and thought she would hear her voice in dreams for the rest of her life.

“Yeah,” came the reply, muffled through the door. “I saw you run in here, and— I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” There was a pause. “Do you want me to come in?”

Harrow opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came out. She could feel her mouth forming the word no, and she could feel her mind responding in a litany of yes, yes, yes, please, yes.

And then the handle turned, and Gideon came inside.

She had only made a halfhearted attempt at putting her shirt back on; the end was tucked in, but most of it hung open in a low V, exposing the tank top below. Her tie was loose around her neck, and her sleeves were rolled up to the elbow. Her glasses were still on her face.

Harrow let out a shaky breath. The mirror in her periphery told her she was staring at Gideon like she was planning on devouring her whole. Too late to change it now, she supposed.

“Hi,” Gideon said, seemingly at a loss for words now that she had come in. “Sorry. I got worried, so…” She trailed off, gesturing vaguely towards the door. “I can leave if you—”

“No,” interrupted Harrow, surprising them both. “No. It’s alright.”

“I didn’t want to just barge in,” said Gideon with a tone that came suspiciously close to nervousness. “I mean, I did, but— you know what I mean.” She paused to search Harrow’s expression. “Are you okay?”

“When will people stop asking me that?” Harrow breathed, trying not to let her eyes linger on Gideon’s lips. She wrestled her gaze away from her face, staring somewhere over her shoulder. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.” A beat. “Well— you do, like, physically. This dress is incredible, and you look great. I just mean—”

Harrow meant to stop her with a hand, but she misjudged the distance. It ended up thudding lightly against Gideon’s chest. “I know what you meant,” She said, staring at one of the buttons on her shirt. Gideon’s face was the issue. That was what sent her neurons into a spin. If she avoided that, everything would be fine.

Gideon opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again. “Okay,” She said, confusion audible in her voice. “What’s going on?”

Harrow chewed at the inside of her mouth for a moment. “Close the door.” Gideon did. “I’m afraid I need to ask your forgiveness in advance for what I’m about to say.”

“Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ve heard me say way worse,” Gideon said, taking half a step closer to her.

In time with it, Harrow took half a step backwards, lifting one of her hands up as if to ward her away.

“I masturbated to the thought of you wearing this exact outfit,” She said, briefly grateful for the ease her drink provided her, “and seeing you in it now is doing— dangerous things to me.”

There was a moment of silence. And then Gideon said, with some difficulty: “Gotta admit, I haven’t said that one before.”

“No, you haven’t,” said Harrow quietly. Embarrassment crushed her harder and harder the longer Gideon was quiet, spreading painfully through her entire being. “I’m sorry. Truly, I— never wanted to complicate things between us, and I can’t begin to apologize enough.”

Gideon’s expression was, for once, completely unreadable. But what she said was, “Why would this complicate things?”

Harrow blinked. “Nav,” She said, slowly, “are you asking me to repeat myself, or do you truly not understand?”

“Say it one more time,” said Gideon. “Just to make sure.”

Harrow shifted uncomfortably. Modesty wouldn’t help her now, she supposed. “I touched myself to the thought of you,” She said, still not quite able to look her in the eyes. “If I remember right, I even said your name when I—” She faltered, her throat closing up in embarrassment. “Is that clear enough for you?”

Gideon nodded a few times, more to herself than anything else. She turned towards the door wordlessly, and Harrow’s heart listed sharply at the thought of being left alone—

And then Gideon reached forward and locked the door.

“Get on the counter,” Gideon said, turning back around. Her face was a curious mix of anticipation and vulnerability.

Harrow blinked. Her heart skipped a beat. “What?” And then, slightly louder, “What?”

“I saw a line forming outside, so if we’re going to do this we should do it kinda fast,” said Gideon, as if it were obvious. “Unless you’d rather just go home. I’m fine with that. More than fine, actually.”

Harrow leaned back in a mix of surprise and disbelief. “But— Gideon—”

“Harrowhark,” said Gideon. “Do you seriously think you’re the only one that’s been pining like that?”

“I do not pine,” Harrow said, bewildered.

“Says the one that flicked it thinking about me.”

Harrow resisted the urge to put her head in her hands. “I already regret telling you that.”

Gideon took another step closer. “Sucks,” She said. She put her hands on Harrow’s shoulders, sliding them down until their hands linked. “Listen. I’ve been thinking about going down on you for way longer than I’d like to admit, and I haven’t said anything because I didn’t want to make things weird.”

She was fully in Harrow’s space now. Harrow’s breath caught.

“Oh,” She breathed.

“Yeah, oh,” murmured Gideon. She brought a hand slowly — tentatively, as though she were touching something priceless — to Harrow’s cheek. “So. We’re on the same page.”

“That’s reassuring,” said Harrow faintly. Her mind was stuck on the idea of Gideon’s head between her thighs, and wrestling her attention back to the present was proving more difficult than she had anticipated.

Gideon nodded, waggling her eyebrows. “When did it happen? Masturbating, I mean?”

“After we kissed,” Harrow admitted quietly. “Just after Magnus interrupted us.”

Gideon nodded in understanding. “If you don’t mind me being a little forward,” She began slowly, “I would love to see if reality lives up to expectation.”

Harrow made a sound that might have embarrassed her weeks before, but now all she could focus on was the ache forming between her legs. She wanted— needed— to be touched. “Please,” She breathed, suddenly unable to say anything else.

And Gideon kissed her.

They had had so many first kisses now that Harrow was beginning to lose count. This one was gentle, but unyielding. Gideon’s mouth fit against hers like a puzzle piece, and Harrow was finally starting to see the finished picture.

Her hands fisted in Gideon’s shirt as she changed their angle, deepening the kiss. Gideon made a low, pleased noise against her mouth, and Harrow felt it go straight to the growing heat spreading through her.

“Gideon,” She breathed, breaking the kiss for a moment, “please.”

Gideon’s mouth quirked up in a half-smile. “Please what?”

And Harrow reached up to Gideon’s chin, put her fingers on either side of it, and tilted her face down gently. Gideon’s eyes widened in interest and in surprise, and her lips parted gently.

“Touch me,” Harrow said, and it was like the final barrier between them was shattered.

“How do you want me?” Gideon asked, her voice coming out raw. “My hands, or my mouth, or the strap, or—”

Harrow looked around, mindful of the people on the other side of the door. Speed would help them. “You said you wanted to go down on me, didn’t you?” She said. “And— when we get home, you can show me the others.”

“Do you want this?” Gideon asked, more serious than she had been a moment prior. “Like, if we were doing this tomorrow morning, would you want it then, too?”

Harrow put her hands on Gideon’s forearms and squeezed in reassurance. “Yes,” She said simply. “I’ve always wanted you.”

Gideon blinked, eyes widening. A smile spread across her face. “I’ve always wanted you too.” A beat. Then: “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t too drunk to consent.”

“Nav,” Harrow said. “I had one shot and half a drink. I am perfectly in control. A little loose-lipped, maybe, but very much in the driver’s seat.” She raised her eyebrows. “Are you too drunk to consent?”

“Not even close,” Gideon said. She smiled, half-giddy. “Get on the counter.”

Harrow hopped up awkwardly. She opened her legs slightly, feeling herself breathing heavy as Gideon drew closer, and pulled her in by the tie. Black eyes met golden. “Now, are you going to fuck me,” Harrow asked, in a low breath, “or am I going to have to do it myself?”

“I thought you already had,” said Gideon. “Wasn’t that the whole point?”

Before Harrow could respond, Gideon leaned forward and kissed her, and this time everything was different.

It was— fierce. It was fiery. There was a needy desperation behind it, and Harrow found herself letting out a moan into Gideon’s mouth.

And then she felt a hand against her. Gideon’s fingers trailed feather-light at the outside of one of her thighs, just below the hem of her dress, and she broke the kiss to trail her lips down to Harrow’s neck.

Gideon bit down lightly where her neck met her shoulder, earning a jolt from Harrow. She let out a satisfied noise against her. “Couldn’t resist,” Gideon murmured, pressing a light kiss to where she had bitten. “Are you gonna be angry if I leave marks?”

“I think,” Harrow breathed, “that I would be angrier if you didn’t.”

She leaned her head back, exposing more of her neck to Gideon’s lips, and felt a dull pain that melted into pleasure as she started sucking a mark into the side of it. Her eyes slid closed, and her breathing turned shallow.

Harrow felt like she was on fire, and Gideon hadn’t even touched her yet. The feather-light brush of her fingers against her thigh moved forward, growing more insistent by the second. A brush of fingers turned to the touch of a hand, and the touch of a hand turned to a firm, yet gentle pressure against the inside of her thigh.

And then Gideon’s fingers curled forward, brushing gently against the fabric of her underwear, and Harrow’s hips bucked forward against her will.

“Fuck,” Gideon breathed, pausing with her forehead against her neck. “Fuck, Harrow, you’re soaked.”

“Shut up,” replied Harrow, leaning her head back against the mirror. “Do something about it.”

Trust Gideon never to back down from a challenge. She bit down sharply at the brown skin in front of her as her fingers pressed firm against Harrow’s cunt, earning a sharp, keening groan from her. She soothed the skin with her tongue, licking gently over it as her thumb found the already-stiff bud of Harrow’s clit through her— wait a second.

“Harrow,” Gideon said, with some difficulty. “Are you— wearing a thong?”

“Boxers and dresses don’t go together,” Harrow gritted out, eyes shut tightly. Her thighs were tensed under Gideon’s hands. “I adapted.”

Gideon thought for a moment that she had died, and that everything happening was the result of some heavenly apparition tailored just for her. “Cool,” She managed. “Nice.”

Harrow opened one eye warily. “What?”

“I’m a fan,” Gideon said. “A big fan.” A plan materialized in her head. “Hey, Harrow,” She began, slowly rubbing her thumb against Harrow’s clit.

“What,” Harrow breathed. Her eyes rolled back in her head as her breathing went uneven, chest barely beginning to heave with her breaths.

Gideon pressed one final kiss to the skin of Harrow’s neck before stepping back a few inches, which had Harrow’s eyes flying open at the loss of contact. “I want to take your thong off,” Gideon said matter-of-factly.

“Okay,” Harrow said, bewildered. She didn’t have to look in the mirror to know she looked a mess already.

Gideon was still rubbing tight, slow circles around Harrow’s clit, and she shook her head as if she hadn’t been understood. “I want to do it with my teeth.”

Harrow’s hips jumped up against her fingers hard enough that she nearly fell off the counter; Gideon steadied them with her spare hand. “Fuck,” Harrow managed with a whine. “Yes. Do it.” Gideon went to kneel, and Harrow said: “And— I can’t believe I’m saying this, but— keep the glasses on.”

She dropped to her knees, suddenly grateful for the bath mat in front of the counter, and used the hand not between Harrow’s legs to push her dress up further.

The thong was black, with a small hem of lace that extended around the edges. It looked expensive— not that Gideon knew how much it cost, but she had encountered many a thong in her day, and had developed something of an eye for quality.

A hand wound through her hair, brushing it lightly away from her face. She looked up to see Harrow staring intently at her. Gideon drew her hand away from Harrow’s cunt, earning a shiver and a whine at the loss, and gently pushed her thighs further apart.

“If it’s too much,” Gideon said, pressing a kiss to the skin of her inner thighs, “or if you want me to stop, just tell me. Alright?”

Harrow nodded impatiently. “I know,” She said, more gently than her desperation would suggest. “I will.”

Gideon nodded, satisfied. Then, resting her hands on Harrow’s waist, she leaned forward.

The smell of Harrow’s arousal struck her instantly. It was heady and thick, filling her senses with the sheer magnitude of her need. Gideon closed her eyes, navigating by touch, until she felt the fabric of Harrow’s thong against her.

Her glasses were only mildly bulky, and she was grateful that she didn’t need them for much in terms of seeing.

She opened her eyes, letting gold meet black for what felt like the first time, and bit gently at the lace hem. Harrow lifted her hips to help as she drew her head back, dragging the fabric down her legs, before removing it completely with her hands and letting it fall to the ground.

Gideon looked back up between her legs, and was greeted with what she considered the most beautiful pussy she had seen in her life. Harrow was wet, which meant Gideon could see her glisten in the bathroom light. There was wiry black hair surrounding it. Her thighs were trembling.

It was a sight that Gideon had seen, in some way or another, countless times— but this was different. This was new; this was glorious.

She let out a shaky exhale as she leaned forward, hands ghosting against Harrow’s thighs. The hand in her hair tightened as she drew closer, gripping hard in anticipation as Gideon’s breath hit her cunt.

Gideon leaned forward, pressed a kiss to Harrow’s clit, and waited for just a moment.

“Please,” Harrow managed, voice trembling.

And that was all Gideon needed.

She drew her tongue, broad and flat, over Harrow’s entrance, gathering her wetness on her tongue for a moment to get acclimated. The taste was mild and salty in her mouth, and Gideon thought at that moment that Harrow was the best thing she had ever tasted.

She licked long and slow up to her clit, feeling Harrow’s hand tighten in her hair, and let the tip of her tongue flick at it gently before she sucked it into her mouth.

Harrow let out a muffled noise of pleasure — she must have been covering her mouth, Gideon thought — and bucked her hips into her mouth. Gideon managed to keep them stable, alternating between sucking hard and flicking at Harrow’s clit with her tongue.

Gideon wasn’t sure how long she went like that, getting lost in the feeling and the taste and the need against her, but when the hand in her hair tugged her backwards, she felt her mouth fall open in a groan.

Harrow’s eyes were darker than she had ever seen them before. Her lips were parted, and the marks on her neck were already settling into bruises. With her chest heaving, she looked absolutely fucked.

“Fingers,” Harrow managed, breathing hard. “I— I want you inside.”

Gideon nodded as best as she could given the angle and the hand in her hair, and Harrow pushed her back into place between her legs.

She found Harrow’s clit again in an instant, sucked it into her mouth gently, and reached up with one hand to press a finger— and then another— against her entrance.

The sound Harrow made when she slid her fingers in was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever heard. Gideon fucked her slowly, curling her fingers in and out of her in time with the motions of her tongue, and heard a litany of swear words and Gideons falling from Harrow’s lips overhead.

And then Harrow went very quiet and very still for a second longer than normal, and Gideon realized she was about to cum.

Her hips jolted up against Gideon’s mouth a moment later, grinding down against her without form or rhythm, as her walls pulsed around the fingers still buried deep inside her.

Gideon kept her fingers in, curling them gently to work Harrow through her orgasm, and opted to press her tongue flat against her clit rather than sucking on it.

The hand in her hair tugged her backwards a moment later. “Fuck,” breathed Harrow, letting out a shaky laugh. “God. You’re good at that.”

“All part of my charm,” Gideon said, sliding her fingers out slowly to a quiet hiss from Harrow. Then, making eye contact, she took them in her mouth and began working her tongue over them, cleaning them off with a low groan.

Harrow’s eyes widened, and she let out a breathy laugh as her head leaned back against the mirror. “If you keep that up, we’re going to be in here all night.”

Gideon released her fingers with a pop. “Maybe that’s my goal.” She leaned her cheek against the skin of Harrow’s thigh, feeling a hand card gently through her hair. “Hi.”

“Hi yourself. Come up here,” murmured Harrow above her. Gideon realized, for the first time, that her glasses were askew. She got to her feet — her legs were shaky, which made it difficult — and adjusted them. She leaned forward against the counter, one arm on either side of Harrow, and leaned down to kiss her.

“I liked that,” Gideon said, resting her forehead against Harrow’s. The warmth she encountered no longer surprised her— it was a comfort now. “I really liked that.”

“So did I,” said Harrow. Her eyes slid comfortably closed. “We should—”

“Do you want to—” Gideon let out an awkward chuckle. “Sorry. You first.”

“We should go,” Harrow said. “Unless you’d like to stay for more of the party.”

Gideon shook her head gently. “I’m partied out. I was going to ask if you wanted to go home, so we’re on the same page.”

“Do you—” Harrow opened her eyes, and Gideon could see concern in them. “Can I do anything for you?” She made an awkward gesture with her hand. “To— pleasure you?”

“To pleasure me? What are you, eighty?”

“Nav,” Harrow chided, swatting gently at her chest.

Gideon relented and thought for a moment. “Nah. I’m good,” She said. “I prefer giving to receiving by a mile.”

“Are you sure?” Harrow asked, fingers toying gently with Gideon’s collar.

“Positive.”

Harrow seemed unconvinced. “You made me feel— very, very good. If I can give you the same feeling, I would like to.”

“And it’s very sweet of you to offer, but I’m clinically tight. Plus, I have a general aversion to being touched intimately. Nothing to worry about.” Gideon kissed her nose. “I’m alright, honey.” She nodded towards the door, stepping back. “Put your thong back on and let’s go home.”

“Always such a romantic,” Harrow quipped. She pushed herself back onto the ground with wobbly legs, letting out a narrow breath of air as she regained her footing. Gideon offered hands to support her, but she waved them away. She picked up her underwear from where it had been strewn on the ground, regarded it with a thin measure of distaste, and slid it into her purse. “After you.”

Gideon looked at her, looked down, and looked back up. “Commando is brave in winter,” She said.

“Then I will draw on my infinite reserves of courage for the ten-minute walk home,” said Harrow lightly.

Gideon paused with her hand on the doorknob. She looked back at Harrow with a curious smile on her face. “I love you,” She said simply. And then: “Sorry. I know this isn’t the best time to bring it up. I just—” She shrugged. “I was having trouble keeping it back.”

“It’s as good a time as any,” breathed Harrow, eyes widening. She smiled, long and sweet and beautiful. “I love you, too. In case it wasn’t clear.”

Gideon found herself smiling back so hard her face hurt. “I had a feeling, but hearing it is nice.” She unlocked the door.

Harrow put a hand on her arm, stopping her for a moment. “I love you,” She repeated, suddenly feeling as though she needed to get the words out. “You’re my best friend. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

“Crash and burn, probably.” Gideon leaned down to brush her lips against Harrow’s forehead, then pushed the door open with a smile. “Lucky for you, you don’t have to find out.”

Harrow closed her eyes briefly, leaning into the touch. “And thank God for that.”

* * *

It took nearly half an hour to make their goodbyes, but finally they managed to extricate themselves from Dulcinea’s house.

The walk back home, flanked by trees and stars glistening overhead, was one of the most peaceful moments Harrowhark had had in weeks. A thin undercurrent of electricity filled the space between her and Gideon, arcing up and winding gently through the air like a string of fate.

They walked with their hands linked and Gideon’s jacket around Harrow’s shoulders. The click of Gideon’s boots on the road harmonized with the gentle clang of the bracelets lining Harrow’s wrists.

When they arrived at Canaan House again, Gideon hesitated outside the door.

“We don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to,” She said with a hint of nervousness. It was the first time she had spoken since they’d left. “Like, seriously. Confession aside, I just— want you to know that I don’t expect anything of you.”

Harrow reached up to straighten her collar. “You have never done anything to suggest otherwise,” She said, smoothing it down. “With that said— we have an empty house and weeks’ worth of stress to relieve, and my thong is already in my purse.”

Gideon stared blankly at her.

Harrow rolled her eyes. “I want you to fuck me.”

She had to admit, it was satisfying to hear Gideon’s breath hitch. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to hearing you say that.” She reached forward to open the door, fighting — and losing — a battle with a dark blush.

Courage overtook Harrow then. She stepped into Gideon’s space, running a well-manicured hand lightly over her chest before taking her tie in her hands.

“Well,” Harrow murmured, tugging Gideon gently towards her. “Then I suppose I’ll have to keep telling you.” She leaned up, letting her breath ghost, hot, against Gideon’s face. In her ear, she said: “I want you to fuck me.”

Gideon let out a ragged breath, and her hands came to rest on Harrow’s waist. They were only half inside the foyer. “Harrow,” She said, unsteadily. “Fuck.”

Harrow tightened her grip on Gideon’s tie, letting her lips trail gently down her neck for a moment. She bit down at Gideon’s neck, hearing a soft, surprised grunt from the other person.

Her hands squeezed at Harrow’s waist, and one came back to knead at her ass. Not for the first time, Harrow remembered how damn big she was compared to her.

Harrow watched Gideon’s throat bob. Time and desperation conspired against her; she spoke with the hint of a whine in her voice. “God,” She breathed.

Gideon closed the door behind them and stepped forward, pressing Harrow lightly against it. The hand on Harrow’s ass moved to her thigh, sliding lightly up and down against it. “What is it?”

A dull fire spread under Harrow’s skin, following Gideon’s touch against her. “I want you to fuck me,” She said, for what felt like the thousandth time. And then: “Please.”

Gideon nodded. “With pleasure. With gusto, even.” She made a face a second later. “Did that ruin it?”

“A little,” said Harrow, very kindly.

Gideon sighed. “Well, as fun as it sounds to go to Pound Town right here—” (“Gross,” muttered Harrow,) “—I’d rather get you out of this dress somewhere we won’t run the risk of getting walked in on.” She offered a hand. “Come with me.”

The walk to their bedroom felt unbearably long for how short it was. Gideon’s hand was warm in hers, and Harrow could feel her heart rate ticking up with every step they took.

And still, between the nerves and the anticipation, she couldn’t find it in herself to be afraid.

In the past, there had been a healthy dose of trepidation entering into relationships. There were times she had been able to separate herself from it — during sex, for instance — but it was always there, always lingering in the back of her mind. She was guarded. She was locked.

And now she was completely open. She felt no vestiges of fear, she felt no trace of concern. All she felt was safety, and when Gideon turned to wink at her as they approached their door, it made her heart flip-flop in her chest.

“Do you want to grab a seat on the bed while I put on the strap?” Gideon asked.

Harrow nodded, then paused. “You brought one?”

Gideon had knelt over her suitcase, and looked up to Harrow with a vaguely self-conscious expression. “Well,” She said, “I wanted to be convincing. Like, if someone came in here, I didn’t want them to be like, why didn’t you bring a strap?

“Was that a legitimate concern?”

“You never know. Better safe than sorry,” Gideon said defensively. She produced a small, nondescript bag in one hand and a pair of black boxers in the other. “Are you complaining?”

Harrow’s eyes drifted towards the bag, which was bulging obviously in a way that suggested its contents. “No,” She admitted. Her hands were in her lap. She resisted the urge to fidget with them. “How— I can’t believe I’m asking this. How big is it?”

Gideon raised an eyebrow, undoing her belt. Harrow’s eyes snapped down to it, watching hungrily as Gideon pulled the leather through her belt loops with a snap. “Not huge,” She said. “A very respectable six inches, if I remember right.”

Harrow’s eyelashes fluttered as Gideon’s hands went to the buttons of her shirt, and she said, “Wait.”

Gideon paused immediately. “What is it?”

Harrow stood, closing the distance between them easily. She replaced Gideon’s hands with her own, watching them fall down to her sides. “Let me.”

Slowly, methodically, she took Gideon’s shirt off. She began with the buttons, undoing them with practiced precision, and when those were undone and the undershirt below peeked out, she pushed the fabric off of Gideon’s shoulders.

Her tie caught on the collar; Gideon moved to take it off, but Harrow stopped her. “This stays on,” She said, straightening it gently before looping it around her neck. The shirt fell to the floor, leaving Gideon in an undershirt that barely warranted the name.

It was the same tight, white tank top from earlier, but when she saw it in the light Harrow realized just how little it left to the imagination.

Gideon’s arms, as they always did, drew her eyes in an instant. Thick, blocky brown shoulders carved smoothly into the lines of her back, while her biceps were interrupted by a thick vein leading down past her elbow.

Looking at her, Harrow found it very difficult to think. Her hands paused near Gideon’s waist, settling hesitantly against her stomach. She could feel hard muscle beneath a soft layer of fat. Her hands drifted to the waistband of Gideon’s pants and stayed there, waiting for permission.

“This pair of boxers is the harness I use,” Gideon said, gesturing towards the pair in her hands. “Want me to put it on?”

“Yes,” said Harrow, only a little embarrassed at the spike of heat it sent through her. “Please.”

Gideon nodded and gave her a mock salute before reaching for the button of her pants. “Yes, ma’am. On my way.” She took her pants off — which was, admittedly, difficult to do in a sexy way — and stood before Harrow in just her boxers. Then, with only a moment’s hesitation, she pushed those down, too.

She was only exposed for a moment, and Harrow didn’t spend too long looking, but she saw strong thighs, dusty red-brown hair, and a hint of wetness.

Gideon slid the other pair of boxers — black, with an O-ring at the front — over her legs with only a hint of awkwardness. She had a somewhat more emasculating time trying to get the dildo through the ring, and Harrow had to fight the urge to make fun of her with everything she had.

Finally, Gideon won her battle with it. “There we go,” She said, more to herself than to Harrow. “Alright. Um. Should we—” She gestured to the bed. “Get going?”

Harrow considered it for a second. “Yes,” She said, with a slowness that made Gideon frown in concern. “Apologies. I’m trying to figure out if I want you to put your pants on over it.”

Gideon blinked, glancing down to the heap of fabric on the floor. With a gentle, confused expression, she said, “This seems unnecessarily complicated.”

“I like the way your bulge looks in them,” said Harrow with a deceptively casual tone in her voice. Gideon’s eyebrows shot up, and her mouth opened as if to ask when. By way of explanation she said, “I’ve seen you pack at work.”

Gideon’s eyes widened until they were the size of dinner plates, and her mouth dropped open. For some reason, all she could think to say was, “And you looked?”

“I’m not a saint,” She replied impishly. “And I’ve been thinking. You don’t want to be touched, which I assume has less to do with me than it has to do with you. Is that right?”

“Yeah,” Gideon said, still wide-eyed.

Harrow nodded briskly. “Does that aversion extend to any—” She nodded towards the bulge now present in Gideon’s pants, “—appendages you may have on?”

Gideon blinked, looked down at her pants again, and looked back at Harrow with poorly-contained arousal in her eyes. “It does not.”

“Wonderful,” Harrowhark said. “Then would it be alright with you if I—”

“Oh my God. You want to suck my dick,” Gideon said, covering her mouth. Her eyes gleamed half in shock and half in excitement. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“It’s fine.” Harrow sighed. “Well— yes. I want to suck your dick.”

“Yes, by the way. That’s more than okay.” Gideon nodded profusely. “Where should I sit? Or do you want me to stand, or—”

“On the edge of the bed will be fine,” said Harrowhark. “Do you want me on my knees?”

At this, Gideon let out a sharp exhale. “Yeah. Yes. Assuming that’s, y’know, something you’re comfortable with.”

“I wouldn’t have suggested it if it weren’t.” Harrow pushed lightly against Gideon’s chest, following each step she took backwards with a step forward of her own. “Sit.”

Gideon did, swallowing hard. Harrow slotted herself between Gideon’s legs, trailing one hand down the column of her neck.

“I always forget how strong you are,” She mused lightly, letting her nails run gently over Gideon’s throat. “How— visible it is.” Here, her hand moved to her chest. “Before now, I had to try not to look.”

Gideon’s hands were fisted tightly in the sheets. The gold in her eyes was a thin circle, edged out by the black of her pupils. “And now?” She managed, with some difficulty.

“Well, now,” continued Harrow, dropping slowly to her knees, “I want to see everything. I want to memorize you.” Gideon’s hips jolted slightly as she dragged her nails down her chest. The fabric of the undershirt was thin enough that Gideon felt every movement, every sharp burst of pain-turned-pleasure through it.

And then, as Harrow’s hand reached the waistband of her boxers, she leaned down to take the head of her cock in her mouth.

Gideon’s knuckles were white at her sides from how hard she was gripping the bed, and Harrow heard her let out a harsh breath as the silicone entered her mouth. “Fuck,” Gideon said, her voice shaky.

Harrow looked up and made eye contact. She raised an eyebrow, brought her hand around the base of Gideon’s cock, and took it slowly deeper.

Inch by inch she let the cock fill her mouth. She pushed her head down on it, pumping gently with the hand around the base, until it brushed against the back of her throat. Months without practice meant she gagged lightly on it, but if the sharp gasp Gideon let out was any indication, she could use that to her advantage.

Harrow pressed the base of Gideon’s cock firm against her, earning a surprised groan from above her, before moving her head slowly back. And then, in a smooth, practiced movement, she pushed her head down again as far as she could go.

She only managed to get three or four inches in her mouth, but it was more than enough. Gideon let out a shaky breath above her, and her hands twisted in the sheets— which meant they weren’t fisted in her hair. That wouldn’t do.

Harrow drew her mouth off of Gideon for a moment, careful not to break the thick string of spit connecting the head to her lips, and said, “Is there a reason you aren’t touching me?”

Gideon’s hand, granted permission, flew to the back of Harrow’s head. It fisted in her hair with the same oxymoronic, desperate caution that seemed to have overtaken her. “Better?” Gideon said, swallowing. Her voice came out raw, roughened by arousal.

“Do it harder,” said Harrow, surprising them both. “You won’t break me.”

The hand in her hair tightened. A sharp burst of pain ran through her before it faded into molten pleasure. Harrow closed her eyes in satisfaction.

She leaned forward, pressed a light kiss to the head of Gideon’s cock, and took it in her mouth again.

Gideon’s hand tightened even further in her hair as her hips jerked up, pushing her cock against the back of Harrow’s throat.

In Harrow’s long, decorated career of sucking off her partners, she had developed something of a taste for being manhandled. It was nothing serious — a particularly hard thrust here, perhaps someone holding her down on a cock for half a second longer than she might otherwise, et cetera — but it had, admittedly, been a while since she’d been able to indulge in it.

Correction: it had been a while since she had had someone to indulge her.

Now, with the desperate stutter of Gideon’s hips under her, she felt her pussy clench around nothing. She let out a strained groan around the cock in her mouth.

Unfortunately, Gideon read this as a noise of pain, and not a noise of being so turned on it was almost painful. She released her grip on Harrow’s head in an instant.

“Sorry,” Gideon stuttered, drawing her hips back. She searched Harrow’s face rapidly, checking for any signs of pain or damage. “Fuck. Are you—”

“I’m fine,” said Harrow hoarsely, waving off her concerns. “Do that again.”

Gideon blinked. “What?”

“Do that again,” Harrowhark repeated. One of her hands slid down Gideon’s stomach, scratching gently against her abs, while the one around her cock began to pump lazily. “I’m not made of glass. You don’t have to be so gentle.”

“Oh,” Gideon breathed. Her hands twitched at her sides. “Are you sure?”

Harrow nodded. She pushed down firm with the base of Gideon’s cock, feeling a low buzz of satisfaction as her hips jerked up. “Despite what my day-to-day behavior would suggest, I’ve found that I greatly enjoy not being in charge when in the bedroom.”

“I can work with that,” said Gideon, mildly unsteady. She let her hand rest on Harrow’s face, stroking gently at her lips. She pushed her thumb into Harrow’s mouth, watching her eyes close in satisfaction. Her tongue swirled around the pad, flicking lightly at it, as she bobbed her head back and forth on it.

Gideon slid her thumb out a few seconds later, wiping Harrow’s spit on her cheek before saying, “When you want to stop, tap my thigh.” Harrow nodded, and Gideon moved her hand once more to the back of her head. “Good. Open your mouth.”

Harrow did. Her eyes were half-lidded and dark, pupils blown huge in the heat of the moment, and something about seeing just how turned on she was sent a spike of heat through Gideon’s body. Her lips were wet, glistening in the faint lamplight.

Gideon nodded towards her cock, and Harrow resumed her work with a desperation that surprised both of them. She leaned forward, taking Gideon inch by inch in her mouth— and this time, felt a firm hand at the back of her head keeping her in place.

Harrow breathed through her nose, looking up for a moment to see Gideon’s eyes wide and dark, before deciding to take it a step further. She leaned forward, pushing past discomfort and a gag reflex to take all of Gideon’s cock in her mouth.

Her nose brushed lightly against the fabric of Gideon’s boxer harness, and the satisfaction she felt at hearing Gideon let out a low, surprised groan was enough to counter the discomfort growing in her jaw.

Harrow tapped lightly against Gideon’s thigh, feeling the hand at the back of her head release instantly as she leaned back to catch her breath.

“I didn’t know you could do that,” said Gideon, with some difficulty.

Harrow moved her jaw experimentally, electing to ignore the soreness in it. “I’m a woman of many talents.” There was an ache between her legs that had grown hard to ignore, and when she looked down at her thighs she could see the insides shining with wetness.

“Oh my God,” Gideon said, eyes widening. “Harrow, is that— from this?”

“Maybe,” said Harrow, taking a moment to wrestle with self-consciousness. Gideon’s eyes were locked on her thighs. “Listen. I told you already: I wouldn’t have offered to do this if I didn’t think I would get something out of it too.”

“Yeah, but—” Gideon cleared her throat, tearing her eyes away. “I didn’t think you’d get that much out of it.”

“Another reminder,” Harrow began, standing shakily to her feet, “that there’s still plenty you have yet to learn about me.” She scratched gently at the shirt on Gideon’s chest. “Take this off. I want to see you.”

Gideon didn’t need to be told twice. She practically tore it off, throwing it somewhere behind the bed. With just the tie around her neck and the boxers on, she looked a strange mix of endearing and unfairly hot.

“You know,” started Gideon, tilting her head to the side, “I can’t help but notice that I am minimally clothed and you are very clothed.” She put her hands up in mock surrender. “No judgement. I’m just saying— it seems a little unbalanced.”

Harrow raised an eyebrow. “Imbalanced indeed.” She ran the smooth silk of Gideon’s tie through her fingers, rubbing gently at it. “And how do you propose we fix that?”

Gideon stood, straightening her tie with a hint of self-aware humor in her eyes. “Turn around and I’ll show you.”

Harrow did. This time, when Gideon came up behind her, there was no pretense. She reached for Harrow’s waist and, guiding herself forward, pressed her cock against the curve of her ass.

Gideon leaned forward, and the near-unbearable warmth of her bare skin seared itself into Harrow’s mind forever.

Strong hands slid to rest on Harrow’s back. One dragged the zipper down slowly— Gideon was taking her time. The other sat firmly on Harrow’s waist. When she reached the bottom of the zipper, Gideon pushed the two halves of fabric gently off Harrow’s shoulders and pressed a kiss to the exposed skin.

“You looked beautiful tonight,” She murmured against Harrow’s back. “You’ve always been beautiful. I wish I’d told you sooner.”

Harrow let out a short breath, guiding the fabric of the dress down and off her body until it pooled at her feet. “You have plenty of time to make up for it,” She breathed, turning in Gideon’s arms. She leaned up and pressed a lingering kiss to the underside of Gideon’s jaw. “Now. Is this better?”

Gideon took a step back, keeping her hands on Harrow’s waist, and beheld her. Her thong was still in her purse, which meant all she was wearing was a black lace bra that matched it. “Can I take this off, too?” asked Gideon, hands brushing just under it.

Harrow nodded, reaching around to unclip it, and hesitated for only a moment before she let it fall down next to her.

Gideon sent a prayer of thanks to whatever was listening, because holy fuck, Harrow’s tits were gorgeous.

Nothing about her was particularly large, and they were no exception, but that couldn’t have mattered less. The skin was smooth and soft, and her brown nipples were already stiffening in the chill of the air— which — holy fuck — might have also been because of the stainless steel rods that pierced them.

“You—” Gideon’s mouth was suddenly very, very dry. It took her a few tries to speak. “Have you had those the whole time?”

“Breasts?” asked Harrow, because she was the worst.

Gideon gave her her best attempt at an admonishing look, and something about Harrow’s smug expression told her she hadn’t quite landed it. “The piercings, Harrowhark.”

“Ah,” said Harrow lightly, pretending to be surprised. “Yes. I got them when I was— nineteen, if I remember right.”

“Holy fuck.” Gideon took a deep breath. “I’m not strong enough for this, you know. This is—” She blinked. “Fuck.”

“You can touch,” said Harrow, barely above a whisper now. “I want you to touch.”

“I think if I start now, I won’t be able to stop,” said Gideon, eyes still fixed firmly on her chest.

Somewhere in her periphery, Harrow raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know what you mean.” And then: “I’m a tactile learner, by the way.”

“I’ve been told I’m a very good teacher,” Gideon said, leaning down until her face centimeters away from Harrow’s. Her hands moved up from her waist until she could feel the soft underside of Harrow’s breasts.

Harrow let out a shaky breath as Gideon swept a thumb across one nipple, running the pad lightly over the barbell. “Fuck,” She breathed, letting her eyes fall closed. Gideon repeated the motion on the other side, squeezing gently at her tits.

Just as Gideon lowered herself, ready to put her mouth on Harrow, a hand on her chest stopped her. “Plenty of time for that later,” Harrow said, not without a note of resolve. “Take me to bed.”

Gideon did. Her hands slid down to the backs of Harrow’s thighs, and then — as though she was as light as air — she lifted Harrow into the air. She made the brief walk to the bed with Harrow’s forehead pressed to hers, depositing her gently on her side.

“I want to be on top,” Gideon said, pausing with her knees on either side of Harrow’s hips. “For now, anyway.”

Harrow’s eyelashes fluttered at the idea. She nodded once, twice, ten times before saying, “Yes. That— yes.”

Gideon grinned, shifting herself a little. “Ha, ha,” She said, leaning down to kiss Harrow’s jaw. “Somebody wants to get fucked.”

Somebody is going to get her vibrator if you don’t get a move on,” replied Harrow breathily, closing her eyes.

Gideon raised an eyebrow, propping herself up on one arm. “Impatient.”

“We’ve been waiting for three years, and for another three weeks on top of it. Forgive me for not wanting to delay us any longer,” Harrowhark said. Her heart rate ticked up, pumping in short, shallow bursts now. She reached up, squeezing at Gideon’s shoulder. “Please.”

Gideon leaned down to kiss her. It was somehow deeper than the others they had shared— Harrow felt herself fall into it, and her perception of the world narrowed to Gideon’s lips on hers. Teeth scraped, blunt, against her bottom lip, and she couldn’t keep back the noise it drew from her.

And then the pressure, the presence at her lips was gone. Harrow’s eyes stumbled open in confusion to see Gideon leaning over to her bedside table, fumbling through the topmost drawer. They made eye contact; Harrow was pleased to see that Gideon’s expression held the same poorly-hidden desperation she felt.

“Looking for lube,” Gideon said, by way of explanation. She held up a little bottle, wiggling it. “Ta-da. Do you need prep?”

Harrow’s patience — which, already, was nearly an oxymoron — had worn down to the bone. She reached for Gideon’s hand and brought it to her cunt, watching her mouth fall open.

“You tell me,” Harrow breathed, hips canting up as Gideon’s fingers brushed against her. Gideon curled her fingers out of reflex, and as they rubbed against Harrow’s clit she let out a loud, strangled whine.

She pressed her pointer and middle finger against Harrow’s entrance and felt them slide in without resistance. Harrow’s back arched up off the bed with a low groan, and she covered her mouth with her arm in an attempt to muffle herself.

“Don’t do that,” Gideon said, stilling her fingers inside her. “I want to hear you.” She crooked her fingers lightly, brushing against the spongy pad just inside Harrow’s pussy, and was rewarded with a low groan as Harrow’s hands flew to her back.

The feeling of being filled after so long was indescribable.

Gideon pumped her fingers with purpose in and out of her, trying to get her accustomed to it again. With every thrust, her hands tightened at Gideon’s back, nails digging into the broad planes of muscle and skin there.

When Harrow felt a third finger pressing against the first two, she nearly came on the spot. Gideon’s fingers were long and skilled and thick, and the stretch of the third was glorious. It was a delicious, aching burn, and all Harrow wanted was—

“More,” She gasped. “Please.”

In response, Gideon moved to her thumb to her clit, rubbing tight circles around it expertly, which sent another electric spark of pleasure through her.

Harrowhark didn’t realize she had closed her eyes until she opened them to see Gideon hovering over her with an expression torn between awe and arousal. “What?” She managed, hips jerking at another movement of the fingers inside her.

“You look—” Gideon swallowed. “You look really fucking good like this.”

“If you keep— fuck,” Harrow interrupted, squeezing her eyes shut at another curl of Gideon’s fingers. “If you keep doing this, I’m going to cum.”

Gideon’s fingers paused inside her. “Do you want me to stop?”

Harrow squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself to hold out a while longer. “I want you to get the strap.”

Gideon’s eyes widened half in excitement, half in arousal. “You sure? We don’t—”

“Gideon, for fuck’s sake,” Harrow interrupted with a desperate edge in her voice. She reached up and fisted a hand in the tie that hung around Gideon’s neck, pulling her in close by it. “Do you want me to beg?”

“I wouldn’t be against it,” said Gideon faintly, swallowing hard. Harrow gave her an unimpressed look, and she cleared her throat unconvincingly. “Um. Yeah. Beg for it.”

Harrow put her head in her hands. “Nav.”

“I’m working on it,” Gideon said, mildly chagrined. She leaned back, kneeling between Harrow’s legs, and drew her fingers slowly out of Harrow’s cunt. She opened the bottle of lube, squirting some onto her strap.

And then, because Gideon was a shit, she made eye contact with Harrow before she started spreading it around her cock. She jerked herself off lazily, dragging her eyes up and down Harrow’s body.

“Feel free to start begging anytime,” Gideon said. “It’s all the same to me.” Her voice was deceptively light, but her eyes gave away her anticipation.

Every fiber of Harrow’s being screamed for Gideon to put her damn cock in, and she couldn’t help the groan that escaped her lips. “Please,” She croaked, hands clenching and unclenching by her sides. “Fuck, please.”

Gideon kept her hand on her cock, pumping up and down with a deceptive leisure. She leaned over Harrow, drawing her face down to Harrow’s ear, and murmured: “Say my name.”

“Gideon,” Harrow breathed. “Gideon, please, I—” The words died in her throat as Gideon tilted her hips down, rubbing the head of her cock lightly against Harrow’s clit.

Gideon’s smirk was evident in her voice. “You what?”

“I need you,” Harrow begged, losing whatever final shred of dignity was holding her back. “Please, just—”

“I dunno,” said Gideon, rubbing her cock lightly against Harrow’s cunt. She was letting out a litany of quiet, desperate noises into the pillow next to her. “I kind of like seeing you this desperate.”

“Fuck you,” Harrow gasped, hips canting up against Gideon’s cock. She heard voice rise in urgency until it was nearly a sob. “Please.

This, it seemed, was what made Gideon finally take pity on her. She pressed a quick kiss to Harrow’s lips before leaning back. She lined up the head of her cock with Harrow’s entrance and slowly, at a pace that nearly sent Harrow insane, pushed herself inside.

Harrow’s back arched off the bed as Gideon slid inside her inch by inch. Her fingers were thicker than her cock, which had prepared her well, but it was big enough to give her the same burning, delicious stretch.

And coupled with the fullness— “Fuck,” Harrow breathed, nails digging into Gideon’s back. “Fuck.

Gideon let out a muffled noise at the sharp, bright feeling of pain. Their hips met, with Gideon flush against Harrowhark, and she pressed their foreheads together.

And then she shifted, and the movement made Harrow’s eyes roll back in her head. Gideon drew her hips back, sliding a few inches out of her, before gently pushing herself back in. Harrow let out a sharp gasp.

Gideon kept a careful eye on her as she repeated the motion. This time, she drew her hips back a fraction further before fucking back into her. She finished with a brief roll of her hips, which had the intended effect of drawing a noise from Harrow that sent chills down her spine.

Harrow’s mouth fell open in an O, and she nodded unsteadily once, twice, five times. “Yes,” She breathed. “Fuck. Yes. Just like that.”

She leaned down, mouthing gently at Harrow’s neck as her hips ground down into her, picking up a rhythm. “How— how does this feel?” Gideon mumbled in between kisses.

“Harder,” Harrow gasped, bucking her hips up into Gideon. She took one of her hands away from her back to rub at her clit. Gideon pulled back for a moment and saw black eyes clouded over with arousal.

“Ask nicely,” Gideon heard herself ask. She wasn’t sure where the newfound confidence had come from, but she found it difficult to be anything but grateful for it.

Harrow’s mouth was slightly open, and as Gideon watched her tongue flicked out to lick her lips. “Please, Gideon.”

Gideon had never before heard the low, frantic desperation that took over Harrow’s voice, and hearing it made her hips twitch. She brought herself back all the way, nearly sliding her cock out of Harrow completely, before snapping her hips back against her hard.

Harrow had said earlier that she wasn’t a saint, and Gideon realized distantly that she wasn’t either— because after years of pining and devotion rebranded as work-related duty, she was ready to fuck her absolutely stupid.

Harrow’s reaction was instant. Her back arched up, the hand on Gideon’s back clawed desperately down her shoulder, and a stream of fuck and God left her mouth like prayers.

They settled into a new rhythm, alternating between deep, hard thrusts and faster, shallower ones. Gideon’s hips worked smoothly into her, and with every thrust she heard Harrow let out a sharp gasp.

“God,” Harrow groaned, arching up from the sheets. “You— fuck.”

“Can confirm,” Gideon said, with some effort. She shifted slightly overhead, leaning down to press their foreheads together, and felt Harrow’s hands tighten at her back.

Gideon’s pace was— fucking perfect. Every thrust was as hard or harder than the last, and with Harrow’s own hand at her clit, she could feel the heat in her stomach coiling tight.

“Fuck,” Harrow said abruptly, eyes rolling back in her head. “Fuck, I— I’m close.”

Gideon nodded. “Do it,” She grunted, leaning down to kiss Harrow’s neck. “Cum for me.” She sucked hard at the spot where Harrow’s neck met her shoulders, hearing her let out a quiet swear at the feeling. She soothed it with her tongue, leaning back to admire the patchwork of bruises forming at Harrow’s neck and chest.

“I need— more,” Harrow groaned, eyes sliding closed. “Fuck.”

Gideon’s eyes dipped down to her tits— and the steel barbells in them. Without a word, she bent her head down and took one of Harrow’s nipples in her mouth. She closed her eyes, swirling her tongue around the cold steel inside them, and was only half-aware of the sharp gasp Harrow let out.

A hand slipped into her hair and tightened. Harrow had gone very still under her tongue, and was — for what Gideon thought might be the first time in her life — rendered completely speechless.

Her hips stilled with their length pushed inside Harrow completely. Gideon’s gaze flicked up: Harrow’s fist was clenched tightly in her hair, and her back was arched up off the bed. Her mouth was trembling slightly, and as Gideon watched she could see her lips forming soundless words.

And then, with a gasp like a resurrection, she came.

Harrow’s orgasm hit her with the force of a train. Her hips jerked up without pattern, and she found herself grinding shamelessly against Gideon’s cock as her cunt pulsed around it.

Speaking of Gideon: with the hand fisted in her hair, Harrow pulled her head back, and somehow looking at those warm, honey-golden eyes made her groan even louder.

She was aware, on some level, that Gideon had stopped moving. Her hips were solid and warm against Harrow’s, which reminded her—

“G— Gideon,” Harrow gasped, suddenly overwhelmed by her own sensitivity. She tapped insistently at Gideon’s shoulder. “Pull out.”

Her fiancée nodded, bracing against the bed as she guided her hips back slowly. Harrow let out a shudder as the head slid out. “Better?” asked Gideon, scooting over Harrow’s body to lay next to her.

She nodded. “Much,” Harrow said, hearing her voice come out hoarse. She let out a deep sigh, feeling as though she could melt into the bed. “God, Nav. That was—” She blinked a few times, trying to push through the post-orgasm haze. She found it exceedingly difficult to speak, and settled for a weak thumbs-up.

“So you liked it,” Gideon said, watching her fondly.

Harrow thought this was an understatement, seeing as she felt like her settings had been restored to default. “Yes, I liked it.” Her arms felt leaden, but she picked one up to swat weakly at Gideon’s shoulder. “Can you—” She gestured to herself vaguely, hoping Gideon would get the message of come cuddle me without her having to say it.

And God bless her, Gideon did. She maneuevered her way out of her boxers, throwing them somewhere off the bed with her dick in tow, and settled in behind Harrow. “I liked it, too,” Gideon murmured, pressing a lingering kiss to the spot behind her ear.

Harrow shivered at the touch. “You are— exceptionally skilled at that,” She admitted, wiggling backwards into Gideon’s arms.

“I do my best,” Gideon said proudly. “You were incredible. Seriously.” She pressed another kiss to Harrow’s head, and Harrow could feel her lips widen in a smile against her. “I love you,” Gideon said. “I really like that I can say that now.”

Harrow smiled, turning for a moment to look her in the eyes. “I love you too,” She said, as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Gideon leaned in to press a gentle kiss to her forehead. She scooted into Harrow, tangling them together until it was hard to determine where one body ended and the other began.

They were quiet for a long time. Exhaustion and an orgasm conspired against her, and Harrow could feel sleep pushing hard against her eyelids when Gideon said, unprompted: “I think it’s sweet that you have a thing for the glasses.”

Harrow cracked an eye open. “What?”

“It’s sweet,” Gideon said. “I normally don’t wear them because I get— I dunno. They’re an old pair, and I can usually see fine without them, but it’s not something a lot of people know about me.” She shrugged, and Harrow wondered if she imagined the hint of self-conscious vulnerability in the action. “So it’s cool that you like it so much.”

Harrow tried to respond, but all that came out was a yawn. “I like the way they frame your face” She said, closing her eyes. “They make you look— intelligent. Not that you aren’t intelligent, of course, but— they make you look like you’re about to teach a college class on iambs or some such.”

Gideon made a mental note to wear more tweed. “Well, iamb very happy to hear it,” She said, unable to keep the grin off her face.

Harrow let out a quiet groan, but her smile gave her away. She checked her phone briefly, scrolling with half an eye on the time. “We should go to bed,” She said, sighing. “And Coronabeth texted me to ask where we went.”

“I thought we said goodbye to her.”

Harrow looked up at her. “I didn’t. Did you?”

“Nope. Oopsie,” Gideon yawned. “Tell her we went home to fuck.”

Harrow turned to face her fully. “Why— in God’s name— would I do that?”

“Because it’s true?”

“Nav,” Harrow reprimanded.

Gideon pouted. “It’s Coronabeth. If anyone would get it, it’s her.” She yawned again, and at the end of this one, she rested her forehead against the back of Harrow’s head. “Deal with it in the morning.”

That was a good point. Harrow considered the circumstances, and decided it was something to deal with in the morning. Right now, she had a bone-deep, satisfied feeling in her body and a gentle, familiar soreness between her legs.

And she had Gideon, which meant everything was worth it.

Harrowhark smiled and turned off the light. “You’re right,” She decided, settling back into Gideon’s arms. We can face it in the morning. Let’s go to bed.”

“Top five things you’ve ever said,” GIdeon said sleepily, shifting comfortably against her. Harrow closed her eyes as her fiancée made a noise of contentment behind her. And as the moonlight fell on both of them, Harrow fell into a dreamless, peaceful sleep for the first time in years.