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Watch Your Colonial Tongue, I'll Watch You Tighten The Noose

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Gideon had always insisted that she was never scared of Harrowhark. Throughout all of their years at each others’ throats, Gideon maintained that it would have been laughably simple to break her spindly necromancer’s bird-boned body over one knee. But despite her determined bravado and her habit of laughing in the face of death (or in the face of the Reverend Daughter, which was about the same thing), some unshakeable part of Gideon couldn’t help but feel the cold knife of fear press into her lungs whenever she was reminded of Harrowhark’s ire. Gideon constantly struggled to lock that scared part of herself away, and felt a rush of anger whenever it fought its way to the forefront of her mind. It was the same part of her that had whined and whimpered like a needy animal when she lay shivering alone in her cell on Drearburh, silently, desperately hoping that someday someone would care about her.

Of course, someone did care about her (and apparently had all along, though she had quite a funny way of showing it) and after they had been returned to their own bodies, that someone more often than not had their golden eyes trained intently on Gideon. Harrowhark’s gaze had always contained multitudes. Sometimes she wore the shuttered, closed-off visage of the Reverend Daughter, and sometimes she had the dead-eyed, glassy look of someone who had gone years without respite and was resigned to a life of exhaustion. Lately, though, Gideon had been struggling to place the source of the unusual intensity behind Harrow’s eyes. The new splash of color (Harrow really did owe Gideon for that) had only served to intensify the feeling conveyed by Harrow’s unwavering stare. Whenever Gideon noticed Harrow’s gaze trained on her, she felt hunted. It made Gideon feel like she was some sort of hapless prey animal, and Harrow was either toying with her or waiting for the right moment to snap Gideon up in her jaws. Gideon wasn’t sure how to feel about that, considering that this look was coming from someone who had categorically refused to eat her alive.

It was a strange thing that Gideon now truly enjoyed Harrow’s company. She has spent her entire life trying to convince herself otherwise, but aside from scant moments during their time at Canaan house, they had never had a chance to spend leisure time together outside of the skeletal grip of the Ninth. Gideon was learning all sorts of things about herself. She liked cooking food in addition to eating it. She liked sunlight, and took every clear sky as an opportunity to soak up the bright, lazy warmth to make up for lost time in the chilled dark of Drearburh. And, the most important thing in Gideon’s orbit: she liked Harrow.

Their time together immediately after extricating their souls from each other had not been easy, to say the least. In addition to the vastly uncomfortable sensations that came with re-entering and relearning her old meat, Gideon was weighed down by feelings of ice-cold betrayal and rejection. Often, her mind and body screamed for Harrow’s presence, wanting nothing more than to hold her tiny necromancer close and ensure that she was safe and unharmed. Other times, her heart pumped cold, mind-numbing sadness through her veins, filling Gideon with the urge to leave on the nearest shuttle and finally leave this whole tangled mess of emotions, and the spindly nunlet causing them, behind.

As it turned out, Gideon didn’t really get the opportunity to make that second choice. The moment Harrow was awake and well enough to move about the proverbial cabin, she had appointed herself to be Gideon’s tiny, quiet shadow. During all hours of every day, Harrow had trailed behind Gideon, barely getting within arms length but always in her sightline. Gideon had caught glimpses of that starving stare, but the moment Harrow’s eyes met hers she had always looked away as though Gideon’s gaze would burn her.

It didn’t take very long for that strange stalemate to come crashing down around them. Gideon had shot awake in the middle of the night in a pulse-pounding panic (one of the many perks of dying and being resurrected in the most traumatic way possible was frequent, horrifically graphic nightmares) to find Harrow seated by her bedside, hunched over as though in prayer. Instead of reading funeral rites or counting rosary beads, Harrow’s attention was entirely focused on Gideon.

Gideon, with adrenaline coursing through her veins and the raw, white-hot pain of her very existence flaring through her mind, had not taken it well. She had exploded, shouting at Harrow for all she was worth, tearing open her heart and pouring all of the hurt she had suffered into Harrow’s hands. Gideon regretted some of the things she had said that night, but to Harrow’s immense credit, she hadn’t run away. Harrow had sat and taken each verbal blow Gideon laid into her with all the grace and piety of a Ninth house nun. After Gideon had screamed and stomped and shouted herself out, Harrow had quietly asked her if she was done yet. Gideon had nodded through a haze of sorrow, and Harrow nodded in return, stood up to leave, and promptly crumbled into a heap of her own sobs. Gideon had been at a complete loss at what to do, and had settled for gathering Harrow up in her arms.

They had a long talk after that, laying bare their hurt in the dead of night and hoping that somehow the darkness would help them pick up the pieces. It hadn’t fixed all of their problems, of course, but it had been a good first step. Gideon still couldn’t help but smile every time she was reminded of how far they’d come. Every set of finger guns met with an exasperated eye roll, every sarcastic quip tinged with fondness, and every quiet evening spent simply holding one another filled Gideon’s chest with a warmth that was hard to extinguish.

Unfortunately for the both of them, as Harrow had so eloquently put it, Gideon had spent her life at Harrow’s mercy. It was an unfortunate fact that cast an inescapable shadow over them. As much as Gideon didn’t want to admit it, old habits died harder than she had.

 

  1. Contact

Gideon had always been a tactile person, despite how much the Ninth had tried to pray, berate, and isolate it out of her. Unlike certain other aspects of day-to-day life outside of the bone cult, she adjusted to casual, friendly touches easily. Gideon found herself surprisingly delighted by the simplest gestures. High fives? Stunning. Handshakes? You got it. Fist bumps? Absolutely. It was a whole new world of communication, and it came surprisingly easy to her.

The same was not true of Harrow. Aside from the general foreboding aura of “stay the fuck away from me” that Harrow exuded during every hour of every day, Harrow generally regarded any attempt at casual touching with distrust at best, outright hostility at worst. The only exceptions seemed to be Cam, who Gideon had observed sharing a friendly handshake with Harrow from time to time, and, much to Gideon’s delight, Gideon herself. Once they had sorted out their issues (or, at least, were no longer walking on emotional broken glass around each other), Gideon wasted no time in testing out her newfound physical expressions of familiarity on Harrow. Harrow spluttered and protested every time Gideon’s bear hugs quite literally lifted her off her feet, but she always returned the hugs when she thought nobody else was looking. Every time Gideon leaned against her and flopped her head on Harrow’s shoulder when they were sitting next to each other, despite how much Harrow rolled her eyes, she always leaned back. If they were alone and Gideon was extraordinarily lucky, Harrow would reach up a hand and gently run her spindly fingers through Gideon’s hair.

All this to say, Gideon really liked touching Harrow. Even the most casual, innocent displays of physical affection were enough to bring a smile to her face.

The main issue arose when Harrow touched Gideon.

There were many situations where Gideon was completely fine with Harrow touching her. Whenever Gideon initiated the contact and Harrow reciprocated, Gideon was over the moon. Even when Harrow initiated, so long as she was within Gideon’s sight and Gideon had noticed all of the metaphorical signs that said “hey dumbass! Harrow’s about to touch you right now”, Gideon was more than pleased by it. The problem was usually when Harrow touched Gideon, and Gideon wasn’t expecting it.

The first time it had happened, Gideon had been sitting in her room, polishing her BOE-issued sword. It wasn’t as good as her old sword, but it did have the upside of not being possessed by her dead mom, so Gideon wasn’t going to complain too much. Still, getting used to a new weapon took some doing, so Gideon was determined to familiarize herself with her new sword every chance she got. She had been absolutely in the zone polishing her sword when she felt the cold fingers of the Reverend Daughter gently rest on her shoulder. Gideon was immediately blasted back through time and space, when a surprise touch from Harrow meant that someone was about to get hurt, and that someone was likely going to be Gideon.

Gideon jumped about a foot in the air and instinctively closed her fist around the blade of her sword. The force of her grasp made the sword bite through her polishing cloth and slice open her hand, causing Gideon to quickly drop the blade with a yelp. Mere moments later the cut was completely healed--one of the perks of sharing godlike power with Harrow--but when Gideon looked up from her hand, she saw Harrow standing stock-still behind her, eyes wide and expression slack with surprise.

“Whoops!” Gideon tried to play it off casually, picking up the blade from where it had been unceremoniously dropped and setting it down on the table next to her. “Sorry, my midnight marquess. I didn’t notice you come in.” Gideon’s words did not seem to have the desired effect on Harrow, whose eyes flicked between Gideon’s face, Gideon’s previously injured hand, and her own hand that had touched Gideon, the latter of which was still outstretched. Despite the fact that her heart was still racing, Gideon offered Harrow a placating smile.

“Hey. I’m okay.” Apparently that was the wrong thing to say. Harrow stiffened, shocked expression solidifying into her usual severe frown. Gideon could almost hear the door to the inner sanctum that held Harrow’s softer emotions slam shut.

“Your hand.” Harrow said the two words sharply, like they had personally offended her. Gideon held up her now unmarked hand, wiggling her fingers for good measure.

“All good! Nothing to be worried about.” Gideon tried to keep her tone light and cheerful. She could tell that Harrow was withdrawing into herself, and wanted to reassure Harrow before her necromancer spiraled herself out of her quarters and into the planet’s orbit. Harrow nodded stiffly, with all the decorum of someone attending their own funeral. “Did you want something, or were you just paying me a visit? Not that I’d ever complain about spending time with my favorite bone hag.” That, at least, got the side of Harrowhark’s mouth to quirk in what could almost be considered a smile.

“I was wondering if you would like to join me for dinner.” Harrow’s tone was still clipped, but she seemed a fraction less like a bowstring about to snap. Gideon flashed her a thumbs up, grinning widely. They ate dinner together just about every day, but Harrow still felt the need to formally ask her every time.

“You got it! Just give me a second to put my sword stuff away.” Gideon carefully sheathed her sword back in its scabbard and screwed the top back onto the jar of sword polish. Harrow watched her every move with that same strange glint in her eyes that Gideon couldn’t quite place. Once Gideon was finished, she turned to Harrow and held out a hand.

“Shall we?” Gideon offered with mock formality. Harrow gently took her hand and, after a moment, interlaced her fingers with Gideon’s. Gideon ran her thumb over Harrow’s knuckles, graciously choosing not to comment on how the small gesture brought a tint of color to Harrow’s cheeks.

Gideon had hoped that that would be the end of it, but unfortunately her skittish behavior had not been an isolated incident. It was always the same. Harrow touched Gideon when Gideon wasn’t expecting it, Gideon instinctively overreacted, and Harrow withdrew. Every time it happened, Gideon kicked herself. Trust her stupid lizard brain to ruin whatever gentle thing she was trying to nurture with Harrow. She had no idea how to explain to Harrow what was happening with her. “Hey, Harrow--turns out that our years of fighting actually had a profound impact on my response to you touching me by surprise. Can you maybe announce your presence every time you’re about to poke me?” No way. Harrow carried so much guilt with her that Gideon was astonished her back didn’t break under the strain. There was no way Gideon was going to add her weird jumpy bullshit to Harrow’s tally of sins.

Thankfully, she didn’t have to. For as much as Harrow was an evil witch with very few social skills, she could be astute as hell. Harrow began making her presence audibly known whenever she entered Gideon’s vicinity by clearing her throat, offering a greeting, or making some sort of motion that rustled her robes and loose bone chips in her pockets. Harrow had been such a silent shadow for Gideon’s entire life that the change had been immediately noticeable. And, to Harrow’s credit, incidences of Gideon flinching out of her skin at Harrow’s touch dwindled. Harrow never mentioned this change in her behavior, but Gideon knew that moving noisily was out of the ordinary for her favorite bone witch, and couldn’t help but feel a little giddy at the idea that Harrow was willing to make this concession for her.

  1. Constructs

One of the most unsettling things about the BOE compound was the sheer amount of life. Gideon had spent her entire life surrounded by the skeletons of the Ninth, and the few living residents had roughly the same level of vitality as their undead counterparts. It had taken several days for Gideon to get used to the sights and sounds of the camp’s activity, and she often found herself overstimulated by the mere presence of so much life. Luckily (or unluckily) for her, a certain bone cultist was doing her best to introduce a skeleton population to the BOE ecosystem. The BOE as an organization generally wasn’t quite sure what to do with Harrow and Gideon, and as such the duo were often left to their own devices. However, on occasion, they were shunted to whatever task was short on hands, which usually served as a stark reminder of how little practical knowledge the two of them possessed.

Gardening proved to be one of the only things that came naturally to them. Gideon greatly enjoyed digging holes and carting around fertilizer, and Harrow’s perfectionist personality was excellently suited to memorizing the different conditions required for each plant to thrive. Gideon found it absolutely adorable that Harrow, who had been a murderous goblin her entire life, had an impressive knack for keeping things alive. She thought it was even more adorable how Harrow turned red from head to toe when Gideon voiced this observation to her.

In this case, Harrow and Gideon found themselves in front of a field of radishes ready to be harvested. Gideon wasted no time in getting on her hands and knees and pulling radishes out of the ground, humming to herself as she tossed them into the provided wheelbarrow. Harrow was distinctly less enthusiastic, and paced restlessly back and forth behind Gideon, wearing that pinched expression that meant she was deep in thought.

“Afraid to get down and dirty with me, my empress of the night?” Gideon’s voice was teasing as she glanced over at Harrow, who looked as though she was about to start scratching out radish theorems in the dirt any second.

“Of course not.” Harrow scoffed, though Gideon didn’t miss the slight blush that tinted her unpainted cheeks. “I’m considering our options. I’m certain that there’s a faster way to harvest these vegetables than getting “down and dirty”, as you so eloquently put it.” Harrow’s desire to avoid developing a single muscle never failed to amuse Gideon, who chuckled and returned to her radish pulling.

“Maybe if I...yes, of course.” Harrow’s muttered words drifted over to Gideon, as did the far less welcome sound of clicking and snapping that Gideon knew all too well. Gideon felt her shoulders tense, and she paused in her work to see a trio of skeletons marching towards her. Against her better judgment, Gideon felt her heart start to thunder in her throat.

“Uh...Harrow?” Gideon hated the way that her own voice sounded just a bit too high to be natural.

“I’ve been creating constructs for harvesting the Ninth’s crops since I was a child, Nav. You won’t have to worry about the quality of their work. Honestly, it’s embarrassing that I didn’t think of it sooner.” Harrow wasn’t even looking at her as she rooted around in her pockets for more bone chips. She sounded completely unbothered by the whole thing, which was how Gideon wished she herself felt. Gideon turned back to the radishes and forced herself to remain calm while the constructs crouched down near her and began harvesting the crops with slow, unnatural movements. They were so close that if Gideon didn’t keep her arms tucked in, her elbows brushed up against the smooth oss. Gideon felt anxiety buzzing in the back of her mind as she continued to work. Against her better judgment, Gideon couldn’t help but feel as though the constructs would turn on her in any second. If she paused in her movements for too long, she felt the phantom sensation of skeletal fingers on her arms, her wrists, around her neck, pinning her to the ground while Harrow dreamed up what sort of punishment to dole out to her new captive.

“Gideon?” Harrow’s voice cut through Gideon’s miasma of anxiety, and Gideon snapped back to herself to find that she had been doing an absolutely terrible job with the radishes. She had pulled the stalks entirely off of most of them, leaving their bulbs still buried in the ground. She looked over at Harrow to see her wearing an anxious expression of her own, her searching gaze piercing Gideon down to the bone. “Are you alright?” Harrow asked hesitantly, as though she already knew the answer to that question.

“Yeah, I--” Gideon was cut off by one of the constructs brushing against her shoulder. The construct’s touch was gentle and calm. Gideon’s reaction was not. She was immediately on her feet, stumbling backwards. Harrow followed her, reaching out her hands as though to touch her, before stopping halfway and bringing them back to her chest. “I’m going to go get some water.” Before Harrow could say anything, Gideon made a beeline for the nearby shed to retrieve her canteen.

Once she was in the privacy of the shed, Gideon took a deep, shuddering breath. The cold water and lack of clicking skeletons soothed her nerves until she was left with anger burning in the pit of her stomach. She had spent so much time around skeletons growing up that she was practically part skeleton herself. There was no reason that these constructs should throw her off so much. Gideon splashed some water on her face, growled “Get it together, Gideon,” and threw open the shed door, steeling herself to face the objects of her fear once more. To her surprise, there was only Harrowhark, crouched in the field and delicately pulling out radishes with gloved hands.

“Where did the skeletons go?” Gideon found herself instinctively scanning the area for them, as though they were lying in wait for the right chance to attack. Harrow looked up at her and shrugged.

“We don’t need them. We can do it ourselves.” Harrow said carefully, watching Gideon a bit too closely to be natural. Gideon was confused for a moment, then understood. She couldn’t suppress a smile as she knelt next to Harrow and began harvesting again, grateful that Harrow cared more about her comfort than her intense aversion to physical activity.

  1. Food

Gideon had never been more certain of the cruelties done to her from growing up in the Ninth House than when she had first discovered deep frying. The idea that she had gone so many years of her life without consuming the wonder that was fried potatoes, fried chicken, fried ice cream...it had fundamentally changed her as a human being. The first few weeks they had been on the BOE compound, Gideon found herself absolutely gorging herself at every meal just to experience the taste and texture of so much new food.

Conversely, the first few weeks at the compound, Harrow had barely eaten anything. She had picked at her food like an especially haggard and sorrowful bird, taking tiny bites and taking even longer to swallow whatever she put in her mouth. Even the most bland BOE food was more seasoned than the gruel they had been served growing up, and as such it had been difficult for Harrow to adjust. It had also been difficult to adjust to eating with Harrow.

Gideon and Harrow’s relationship had improved significantly since their first bout of soul-searching, but they were still prone to miscommunications that led to vehement arguments and hurt feelings. One such occasion, Gideon had misstepped during a training bout with some BOE soldiers (she was still getting used to her body) and had taken an especially brutal whack to the knee, the same knee that had been shattered at Canaan house. Gideon’s lyctoral powers had healed it quickly enough, but once she broke free from the haze of pain, she had found Harrow chewing out the soldiers in a surprisingly vitriolic frenzy. Gideon had pleaded with her to calm down, as Harrow looked about five seconds from sprouting bones from her hands and slicing the soldiers to ribbons. Gideon had said that it didn’t really matter if she got hurt, since she could heal any wound instantly anyways, but that had apparently been the very wrong thing to say, because Harrow’s words had immediately turned cold and venomous. They had both said a lot in the heat of the moment--Harrow about how Gideon’s lack of self-preservation skills would get her killed again , and Gideon, still in a bit of a daze from the pain and on edge from dealing with a near hysterical Harrow, had told Harrow that she hadn’t minded that much the first time Gideon died, since Harrow scooped her out of her head so easily. Gideon might as well have slapped Harrow with how hard she recoiled, and Harrow had snapped her mouth shut, eyes bright with unshed tears, and stormed off.

Gideon had felt absolutely terrible about the whole thing, but wasn’t quite ready to go back and apologize. So, instead, she found a secluded area of the compound and exercised until her muscles were absolutely screaming at her. Unfortunately for her, that took quite a while, and by the time she was done, she had completely missed dinner. Hungry, tired, guilty, and still a bit angry, Gideon returned to her room and slumped on her bed with a groan. She wasn’t sure how long she had been there--a minute? Ten? An hour?--before she heard a knock at the door. She grumbled in annoyance, rolled off of her bed, and opened the door to find the contrite form of Harrowhark Nonagesimus, bearing a plate of cold fried potatoes and chicken.

Gideon was stock still, staring at Harrow as she shifted awkwardly from foot to foot.

“You missed dinner.” Harrow said, trying (and failing) to sound authoritative. She thrust the plate at Gideon, who took it instinctively. “May I come in?” Harrow asked, the tremble in her voice giving her nerves away.

“Yeah, knock yourself out.” Gideon ushered Harrow into the room and shut the door behind them. As Harrow sat herself on Gideon’s bed, Gideon set the plate on her nightstand. Harrow watched her closely.

“You aren’t going to eat?” Harrow sounded both surprised and suspicious. Gideon shrugged.

“I thought we were going to talk?”

“Eat first. We can talk after.” The careful way that Harrow was watching her, combined with her strange behavior and the completely out of character way that Harrow had brought her food, set off a chorus of alarm bells in Gideon’s head. The distinct memory of the aftermath of one of her more ill-fated escape attempts rose hot in her throat, the memory of poisoned food and the piercing stomach pains that she had suffered through alone in her room. Suddenly, the food on the nightstand looked far less appealing.

“I can wait.” Gideon said stiffly. Harrow rolled her eyes.

“Please, Griddle. I know how much you love your food.” Harrow was right about that, but her insistence only made Gideon more suspicious. At Gideon’s clear hesitance, Harrow narrowed her eyes and pressed further.

“Come on, Griddle. It’s not as though I’ve poisoned it.” Harrow sounded as though the idea were a joke. Gideon met her eyes with complete seriousness. The idea of her guts trying to tear her apart from the inside out wasn’t particularly funny to her.

“You haven’t?” Gideon asked cautiously. There wasn’t a trace of mirth in Gideon’s tone, but Harrow let out a hollow laugh nonetheless.

“Very funny.” She said, though she didn’t sound as though it were very funny. She almost sounded a little hurt, which was strange, considering that poisoning was not off the table when it came to Harrowhark Nonagesimus.

‘You’ve done it before.” Gideon said, a little defensively. Harrow’s expression of frustration morphed into one of abject alarm.

“What? No, I haven’t.” Harrow said, and Gideon was struck by the seemingly genuine surprise in her tone. Gideon pressed on.

“On Drearburh. After one of my escape attempts. You poisoned my food.” The memory once again rose white-hot in Gideon’s throat as she recited it. “I was sick for days.” Gideon decided to spare Harrow the details of the horrible illness that had followed, including the repeated evacuation of her stomach fluids from both ends and how she’d dealt with it all in the isolation of her cell. Even without sharing these details, though, Harrow seemed distraught. Her eyes had a wild, faraway look to them, and when she finally gained enough composure to speak, her voice had an unusual tremble to it.

“I didn’t...I wouldn’t have…” Harrow paused, then let out a shuddering sigh. “Crux.” She said, the name drenched in bitterness. Gideon had never heard her say his name with that much contempt (or really, much contempt at all). “We both know that he valued loyalty to the Ninth above all else.” Harrow’s words suddenly made the world shift into place as she strode over to Gideon and looked her dead in the eyes. The movement was confident. The tremble in the words that followed were not.

“Gideon, you must believe me. I have exacted terrible, undeserved cruelties towards you, but I have not and would not ever make an attempt on your life.” Her expression crumbled a little, and she looked away from Gideon before continuing. “Except for the avulsion trial...which I fully intended to stop before you died, and had I known how much it would take from you, I would never have agreed to it in the first place. And except for the following events at Canaan House, which were inexcusable.” That last part of Harrow’s speech didn’t sound right to Gideon.

“Hold up, ‘the following events at Canaan House?’ You mean when I threw myself on a rail? Because I don’t remember you shoving me, Harrow. That was all me. It was my choice.” Gideon has explained this choice to Harrow before, but it seemed the deep river of Harrow’s guilt had yet to run dry. Gideon saw the harsh glint of unshed tears in Harrow’s eyes and the slight tremble of her bottom lip, and decided to quite literally take matters into her own hands. Gideon slowly, gently reached out to Harrow and gathered her up in her arms. After a moment of stillness, Harrow reached up and brought her thin arms around Gideon to return the embrace. Gideon gently ran a hand up and down Harrow’s spine, and felt some of the tension in Harrow’s shoulders melt away. Gideon very kindly did not mention the fact that the place where Harrow’s face was buried in Gideon’s shirt was suddenly quite damp.

“How little you must have thought of me, that I would attempt to kill you.” Harrow said miserably, her words muffled by Gideon’s shirt. Harrow had said them so quietly that Gideon wasn’t even sure if she was meant to have heard it.

“Well, to be fair, I thought I deserved it. For killing your parents and all.” Gideon didn’t feel that way anymore, but she certainly had at the time. It only made sense that Harrow would want to take her life as revenge for the two she had lost. Harrow shook her head doggedly, grip tightening around Gideon.

“You never deserved it. You always deserved so much better.” Harrow said, more loudly this time. Her words caused a strange, warm feeling to bubble up in Gideon’s chest, but she filed that away to examine at a later date. For now, she was content to hold her tiny necromancer in her arms.

  1. Letting go

Despite all that had changed between them, it was all too easy to fall back into old habits. They had always been Gideon-and-Harrowhark, Harrowhark-and-Gideon, and they were particularly inseparable after all that had happened to them. They were once again attached at the hip, incapable of functioning without each other, once again entertaining a delicate but deliberate orbit around each other.

Harrow seemed to insist on following Gideon everywhere, which was flattering, but at the same time, Gideon knew the signs of a stressed out Harrow. Gideon was far more active than Harrow, who would have gladly shut herself up in her quarters with her theorems for all eternity if given the option. However, Gideon often found herself with the wraithlike necromancer as her shadow, doggedly tailing Gideon as she chatted with Cam and Coronabeth and watching from the sidelines as she practiced swordfighting, all with an intense stare that bordered on concerning. After too much time in the sun or around other people, Harrow would regress into her prickly, pre-Canaan state, taking verbal potshots at anyone who dared approach her. Occasionally, if she was especially overexerted, she would start to take it out on Gideon, though all it took was for Gideon to clear her throat at one of Harrow’s pointed comments for Harrow’s expression to immediately crumple with guilt.

As such, Gideon tried to follow instead of lead, letting Harrow set the pace for their social interaction quota for the day and usually returning to her quarters or heading off to an isolated area when she noticed Harrow getting particularly twitchy. If Harrow noticed Gideon doing this, she didn’t say anything, but a happy Harrow was reward enough. As prickly as Harrow could be, after all that they had been through Gideon was just happy that they were both alive together. Harrow seemed to share the sentiment. While she still had the same jagged, spiky personality, Harrow had softened around the edges, at least where Gideon was concerned.

Gideon was all too happy to stay around Harrowhark, though it became a bit more difficult when Gideon started getting invited to BOE troop meetings. She and Harrowhark weren’t expected to fight, but as Gideon had impressive sword prowess, she had been invited to battle meetings on the off chance they would need her as a soldier someday. That day had come sooner than either of them would have liked.

The BOE had been planning a reconnaissance mission, and were low on troops. Before she knew what was happening, Gideon had been volunteered, and, put on the spot in front of the whole meeting, had said yes. Harrow had been furious, and all but dragged Gideon back to their quarters the moment the meeting concluded. As soon as Harrow slammed the door behind her, she rounded on Gideon with vicious, pointed intensity.

“What were you thinking ?” Harrow was clearly trying to make her voice sharp and severe, but she sounded a bit too strangled to pull it off. Still, Harrow’s anger combined with the scrutiny of her burning glare made Gideon feel a bit like a bug under a magnifying glass.

“What?” Gideon said, a bit defensively. “You must have known something like this was coming. We’re not on a military compound for no reason.” Gideon’s words did nothing to calm Harrow, who looked to be about five seconds from screaming. Instead, Harrow settled for raking a hand roughly through her own already tousled dark hair, letting out a sound that was somewhere between a sigh and a sob.

“We have paid our dues, Griddle. We— you —have already put life and limb at risk to take down one of the emperor’s Lyctors. The emperor’s soldiers will be no better.” Harrow paused, meeting Gideon’s eyes with a surprisingly watery stare. “You died , Gideon.” The way Harrow’s voice broke on the offending word did strange things to Gideon’s heartstrings. She felt like her emotions were being twisted and wrung out onto the floor. Harrow was taking deep, stuttering breaths now, looking more and more like she was going to burst into tears.

“And now you would throw your life away again so soon? You—I— fuck !” Harrow turned away, seemingly rendered incoherent by sheer emotion. Gideon found herself surprisingly at a loss for words as well, a thick feeling in her throat as she struggled to piece together any coherent thoughts that might make Harrow feel better. Gideon reached out a hand for Harrow, who was still hunched over and shuddering, but as Gideon watched, a strange transformation overtook her necromancer. Her shaking suddenly stilled, her back straightened as she drew herself up to her full (still not very tall) height, and when she turned back to Gideon, her countenance and affect was cold and aloof.

“You will not be going on that mission. I forbid it.” Harrow’s words had the same effect on Gideon as pouring a bucket of ice water over her head. Despite how far they’d progressed, it seems the reverend daughter hadn’t loosened her cold fingers from their grip on Gideon’s future.

“What?” Gideon’s voice came out a bit harsher than she had intended, but her conditioned response to this authoritative side of Harrowhark was either biting sarcasm or bitter anger, and it seemed that this time she had landed on the latter. Harrow’s imperious expression slipped a little, but her back remained ramrod straight, her thin mouth set in a determined, firm line.

“You will not be going on this mission, Gideon Nav. I will make sure of it. I will do whatever it takes.” Harrow’s voice was flat, cold, and expressionless. It was the kind of voice that rang like a death knell through the Drearburh dark. It was a voice that brought an instinctive and involuntary reaction to the front of Gideon’s throat, and when she opened her mouth, she let out a strangled, barklike laugh.

“So that’s it? Back to old times?” Gideon’s words seemed to crack the mask of Harrow’s countenance, as her calculated coolness gave way to confusion.

“Gideon, what—“

“You just tell me what to do, and I do it? No choice, no discussion, no anything?” Gideon couldn’t help the bitterness that seeped into her voice. Harrow’s eyes widened, an emotion that Gideon couldn’t quite recognize flashing across her face.

“What do you mean? Do you want to join this mission?” Harrow’s voice was no longer authoritative. She almost sounded scared. Gideon suddenly found herself struggling to meet Harrow’s gaze.

“No, not really. I just...I dunno. I wanted the option. You know I want to spend the rest of my dumb, stupid lyctorhood with you, Harrow. But also, I need to know that if I asked you to let me go, you would.” Gideon felt childish admitting it, but when she raised her eyes to meet Harrow’s again, she found the reverend daughter looking at her with a grave expression.

“Gideon Nav,” Harrowhark said carefully, “if it meant your happiness, I would let you go to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. If you told me what you truly wanted--going on this mission, enlisting in the cohort, anything--I would do my damnedest to make it happen. It’s the very least that you deserve. But I’m a selfish creature, one of the most selfish to ever live.” Harrow’s eyes shone out of her face a bit too brightly. As Gideon watched, the reverend daughter took a deep breath and reached up to wipe away a stray tear with shaky hands.

”I don’t want to take away your choice, your autonomy. I’ve crushed you in my fist for far too long already.” Harrow brought up those offending hands to clutch nervously at her robe, tearing her gaze away from Gideon.

“But I need you safe, Gideon.” Gideon had heard this voice give booming sermons to the deepest, most cavernous halls of Drearburh, and yet in this moment Harrow sounded small, hesitant, and scared. Gideon recognized the well-oiled cogs of self loathing turning in Harrow’s head, and despite Gideon’s initial frustration, she knew she had to stop that machine before it ground itself into dust. Gently as a prayer, she put one hand on Harrow’s shoulder and brought the other one to rest on Harrow’s cheek, directing her to meet Gideon’s eyes. Consciously or unconsciously (Gideon wasn’t sure), Harrow leaned into her touch.

“Thank you, Harrow.” Gideon’s words drew a watery chuckle out of Harrow, though it was devoid of genuine mirth.

“What are you thanking me for? I haven’t done anything to deserve your gratitude.” The not ever hung unspoken in the air, carried only by the dull dejection in Harrow’s tone. Gideon, struck by a sudden spark of confidence (and wanting to quell the flow of self-flagellation), leaned forward and gave Harrow a quick, gentle kiss on her forehead.

“I don’t know. Letting me go? Or, well, not actually letting me go. You can’t get rid of me that easily. But telling me you would, at least.” Even though the iron shackles of Drearburh hadn’t quite been shrugged off of Gideon’s shoulders, thinking about Harrow’s words made them feel a little lighter. Harrow sighed, closing her eyes and turning her hand more into Gideon’s palm.

“I should have done it a long time ago.” Harrow said mournfully, her voice a dejected mumble. Gideon softly ran her thumb over Harrow’s cheekbone, thinking over her next words.

“Yeah, you should have. I’m not going to lie about that. But we’re here now, and we’re both together and alive and not being shitty and terrible to each other. And really, that’s all I ever wanted.” Maybe Gideon wanted a bit more than that as well, but she tucked those thoughts away for another time. After a few beats of comfortable silence, Harrow spoke up again.

“Are you going to go on the mission?” Her voice was carefully measured, a picture of neutrality to those not well versed in the Nonagesimus language. But Gideon could hear the veiled desperation there, the silent plea of please don’t . For the first time, it felt like a question, and not an order. Gideon thought for a moment, but she already had her answer.

“Nah. I’ll go find the officers and tell them I can’t do it. I’ll say I’ve got hot girl shit or something.” Gideon’s words drew out a short puff of laughter from Harrow, and Gideon felt some of the tension drain out of her tiny necromancer.

“I’m certain that won’t be a valid excuse. But we’ll think of something.” Harrow didn’t sound particularly urgent anymore. Which was good, because for now, in this moment, Gideon was perfectly content.

  1. Crying

Gideon was awfully proud of her jagged little bone witch for being able to experience an emotion every once in a while. While Harrow still made efforts to maintain her aloof, austere facade in front of the general public, Gideon occasionally found herself privy to surprising moments of genuine feelings from the Reverend Daughter. Harrowhark was much better now at expressing what she wanted, through both words and actions. She still stumbled on occasion, but made it explicitly clear even to Gideon’s dumb brain when she wanted Gideon around and when she didn’t, though the latter was very rare.

Even more astonishing was how vulnerable Harrow let herself be around Gideon. It was a side of her that Gideon had very rarely been privy to before, and at times, it still felt wrong to see. Gently holding Harrow as she cried into Gideon’s shoulder in the dead of night, mourning all that had happened to them, felt like peeking behind the curtain of a particularly elaborate theater production. She felt like she wasn’t meant to ever see the strings and wires holding everything together.

Gideon was often quite frustrated that Harrow had, somehow, become less emotionally constipated than her. Sure, Gideon was much better at displaying positive emotions--she loved spending time with Harrow, and wasn’t about to hide it. But anytime she felt the sharp sting of tears prickling at her eyes, she fled Harrowhark’s presence as fast as possible, or tamped down the emotions until they were unrecognizable.

Gideon had made the mistake of crying very few times on Drearburh, when she learned that, at best, everyone would ignore her distress, and at worst, they would actively punish her for it. Harrow, unfortunately, was not excluded from this category. As a result, Gideon had cried in front of Harrow in recent memory exactly once: when they had been returned to their proper bodies. It had been quite a tearful reunion, with quite a bit of embarrassing words and even more embarrassing blubbering. Thankfully, Harrow had been just about as emotionally devastated, so they had been equal levels of incomprehensible and laden with snot. After that great collision, Gideon had been astonished that Harrow hadn’t flayed her alive for both showing weakness and bearing witness to Harrow showing weakness, but she had quickly learned that (despite the conclusions she had drawn from all of her previous Harrow knowledge) that flaying Gideon was not something she was interested in

So yeah, Harrow was at least half decent at expressing a sad emotion. Cool. Great. Gideon could add that to her list of things Harrow was better at than her, including “weird creepy bone shit” and “self-lobotomy, I guess”. The thing was, Gideon felt plenty of sad emotions. Some days she felt like the yawning chasm of all the traumatic garbage she had been through would swallow her whole. Those days, it was a lot harder to keep up her usual flippant and hilarious attitude, but she soldiered on. Unfortunately for her, Harrow noticed those days. On those days, Harrow escalated from being Gideon’s shadow to practically gluing to Gideon’s side. Despite her inability to show sadness around the reverend daughter, Gideon appreciated it. It was funny and kind of endearing how, on those days, Harrow would snap at anyone who dared to even mildly inconvenience Gideon, how she would quietly do things that Gideon didn’t even know she paid attention to--setting out her sword and polishing gear when Gideon got fidgety, and offering to take dinner in Gideon’s room if she saw Gideon was getting overwhelmed by the presence of people.

Every once in a while, Harrow had tried to get Gideon to talk about her emotions on those bad days. At one point, after a particularly rough day where Gideon had been uncharacteristically quiet and dejected from sunup to sundown, Harrow had sat down next to her on Gideon’s bed, worrying the sheets in between her fingers.

“Do you want to talk about it?” She had offered hesitantly. Gideon, who at the time had felt like lead had been injected into her veins and was slowly weighing down every part of her body and brain, had sluggishly blinked at Harrow, trying to comprehend her words through the mental fog.

“Talk about what?” Gideon’s response had seemed peeve Harrow, whose face pinched in a frown. She had opened and closed her mouth a few times, and, evidently not finding the words she was looking for, crossed her arms with a sigh.

“Never mind.”

Harrow had brought it up a few times since, but every time Gideon’s response was the same. It wasn’t necessarily that she didn’t want to talk, but when she thought too hard about all that had happened to them, she began to feel more like a sloppily crafted ceramic statue than a person. It would only take one false step, one wrong move, and she’d shatter all over the floor like so many shards of the world’s hottest mess. She could only pray it wouldn’t happen in front of Harrowhark.

Unfortunately, her prayers went unanswered. As she had suspected, in the end it didn’t take much to send Gideon’s composure crashing down. During one of the rare occasions that Harrow was summoned to a meeting and Gideon wasn’t, Gideon found herself strolling around the outskirts of the compound. It had been a bit of a rough day, but getting out and about usually helped lift her spirits. The walk had seemed to have an auspicious start after Gideon encountered a kindly old BOE official who was looking for a pair of lost glasses in a particularly isolated part of the compound. Eager for the distraction of a task, Gideon assisted her for the better part of an hour, and when they finally found what they were looking for, the woman gave Gideon a firm pat on the shoulder and said, with a warm smile, that she appreciated Gideon and was grateful for her help. Somehow, after everything, that was what did it.

Gideon had been struck dumb by this statement, nodding and mumbling responses to the woman’s further talking points before the old woman was eventually called away to a meeting. Gideon had been trembling head to toe with the effort of holding herself together, but once the official was out of eye and earshot, Gideon collapsed to the ground and began weeping openly in big, ugly, heaving sobs. She wasn’t sure what exactly she was crying for, but that old woman’s praise had unlocked the sad part of her that had always been sensitive to the horrible injustice of having a life so fraught with neglect, abuse, and misery, despite how much Gideon had tried to harden herself. Gideon didn’t know how long she stayed there, alternating between quiet crying and full-blown blubbering, but after what felt like a few minutes, she heard a familiar voice cut through her despair.

“Griddle?” Harrowhark’s sharp voice sounded far away, causing a strange cocktail of emotions to light up in Gideon’s brian. She felt relief, as she often felt nowadays at hearing Harrowhark alive and safe, but she also felt fear at Harrowhark’s proximity to this extreme (and embarrassing) show of emotion. Gideon buried her face in her hands and took deep, shuddering breaths to try and calm herself down, but she wasn’t quite fast enough. She had just barely begun when she heard a startled “Gideon?” and the fast-moving pitter-patter of her necromancer’s boots on dirt as she made a beeline for her distraught cavalier. The clack of bone and shuffle of robes made Gideon tear her hands away from her face, eyes darting around wildly, her heart pounding at the vision her mind conjured up of constructs and whips. But instead, all she saw was Harrowhark crouched next to her, anxiously surveying the scene with bone chips in hand.

“Are you alright?” Harrowhark asked urgently, reaching out a hand for Gideon with what a more levelheaded Gideon would have recognized as worry and desperation. Instead, Gideon received an unwelcome memory in the form of the persistent sting of burning fingernails on her face. Gideon involuntarily performed a full body flinch, scrabbling backwards away from Harrow as tears pricked at the corner of her eyes again. Harrow instantly froze, and Gideon saw a flash of fear spark across her face. They sat in a careful stalemate, Gideon’s lungs heaving in her chest and Harrow stock-still, barely moving a muscle. After an eternity of silence, Harrow spoke in a quiet but urgent voice.

“Are you hurt?” Gideon shook her head in response, her breath still drawing in hiccups. Harrow nodded resolutely, her face relaxing slightly in what Gideon recognized as relief. “What is it, then?” She asked, with uncharacteristic gentleness. Gideon couldn’t even begin to articulate her cavernous sorrow, especially not when its instigator had been so innocuous. Instead, she simply shook her head and buried her face in her hands again, unable to look Harrow in the eyes. She would never be able to live it down, being brought to an inconsolable mess by the simplest of words. The part of her brain that was sharpened by years of brutal rivalry said that if Harrow wanted prime cannon fodder, this was it. She was briefly interrupted from her misery by the rustle of robes, which caused Gideon to look up at its source once more. To her surprise, Harrow had sat down in the dirt next to Gideon. She was looking at Gideon with an odd sort of intensity, but, upon catching Gideon’s gaze, quickly looked away.

“Take your time. I’ll be here.” She said, and that simple affirmation rang like a bell in Gideon’s chest, sending waves of ease through her body. She still felt like she was being set aflame with misery, but the fear had eased slightly. It was no longer quite so much of an unspeakable violation to have Harrowhark witness this side of her. And maybe, she thought, after she had calmed, Harrow had helped her to her feet, and Gideon had wrapped her in a hug, maybe Harrow was the only other one who could really understand the shape of her sorrow.

  1. Harrowhark

On the day it all came to a head, Harrow was a pillar of carefully crafted composure. Harrow had formally requested to join Gideon in her quarters, which was the Harrowhark way of asking if she wanted to hang out. It was only Gideon’s finely attuned sixth sense for Nonagesimus-related bullshit that gave her a hint that something was wrong. Her eyes, so often burning into Gideon’s skin, were determinedly fixed somewhere just beyond her left shoulder. Her shoulders were just a bit too tight, her mouth in a bit too thin of a line. Gideon took a tentative step towards her, and Harrowhark’s eyes snapped over to Gideon before pointedly looking away again. Gideon stopped. The gears in her head stuttered, then whirred into place.

Harrow was scared.

Gideon wasn’t sure what to make of this information. In their everlasting exchange of blows, Harrow had always had the upper hand. Whether it was crushing Gideon beneath her heel, bossing Gideon around, or locking her away in some deep recess in her mind, Harrow had always embodied power and control. Now that the shoe was on the other foot, Gideon wasn’t sure if she liked it.

“What’s wrong, my duchess of darkness?” Gideon wasn’t sure what she was hoping for. If there was any place locked tighter than the Tomb, it was the inner sanctum of Harrowhark articulating her emotions. Harrow opened her mouth, then closed it without saying anything. Her ferrety face was screwed up in thought. In any other situation, Gideon would have found it cute, but now she found that Harrow’s hesitation weighed down on her stomach like a ball of lead.

“I am...attempting to make my presence nonthreatening.” When she finally did speak, Harrowhark’s words had the flat cadence of someone reading out a list of ingredients on a crate of nutrient paste. Gideon had to suppress a nervous laugh, uncertain of what to do with this information.

“Harrow, we’ve been through a lot together. You literally lobotomized yourself to keep me alive. I know that you’re not going to tear me apart with your spooky bones.” Gideon wasn’t sure who exactly she was trying to convince, herself or Harrow. Unfortunately for Gideon, based on the way that Harrow’s brow furrowed and the severe line of her mouth grew even thinner, it seemed that Harrow had picked up on this uncertainty.

Do you know that?” Harrow’s question had the same effect as tilting the room at a 45 degree angle. Gideon’s train of thought was thrown off balance, and she found herself scrambling to regain her mental footing.

“Of course!” Gideon insisted, with a bit too much bravado. Harrow suddenly took a step towards her, and Gideon fought against the scared animal in her that wanted nothing more than to back away and run, run, before she catches you, you’re feeling emotions right now, and she will find those and use them to crush you into a fine powder . This feeling was exacerbated by the look on Harrow’s face. She hadn’t seen it often, which was probably for the best. She had last seen it when she confronted Harrow about carving Gideon out of her brain, and previously on that fateful night in the pool.

“Gideon. Let me speak in no uncertain terms. I have been truly deplorable to you.” Harrow paused for a moment, taking a shuddering breath. Her eyes, which had been avoiding Gideon during the entire conversation, were now locked on her with a fierce intensity. “I have leveled immeasurably cruelties towards you and dealt you countless instances of physical, mental, and emotional harm, all for my own stupidly selfish reasons. I could spend a thousand lifetimes performing the harshest penance the Ninth has to offer for the things I’ve done to you, and it would not be enough.” Harrow’s voice shook, and she paused with a slight huff. “It would be foolish for me to assume that you would trust my intentions so quickly." The Reverend Daughter reached up a spindly hand to scrub aggressively at her unruly eyes, which had begun to tear up. Harrow’s face screwed up even more, and she tried to turn away from Gideon. Before Gideon was fully cognizant of what she was doing, she had approached Harrowhark and taken her hands.

Talking to Harrow and getting used to her presence was a frightening unknown, but for some reason, comforting her came as easy as breathing.

“Hey. Look at me.” When Harrowhark’s gaze remained resolutely on the ground, Gideon reached up with one hand and, with practiced care and precision, gently placed her palm on her cheek, absentmindedly swiping a thumb over Harrow’s sharp cheekbones. Harrow leaned into Gideon’s touch, closing her eyes for a moment. When she blinked them open again, she was looking right at Gideon.

“You know I trust you, right?” Gideon’s words held none of their forced bravado from earlier, now steady and unwavering as steel. Despite the firmness behind her inflection, her words seemingly did not convince Harrowhark, who closed her eyes again and shook her head doggedly.

“Griddle, I know that’s not true.” Harrow’s finely crafted mask of composure was starting to slough off as her voice started to shake. “I am not the most…finely attuned when it comes to living lifeforms. Or emotions.” Harrow paused, as though expecting Gideon to make a joke. Normally, Gideon would have demanded a medal for holding back on such an obvious opportunity to poke fun at Harrow’s abysmal social skills, but the lead ball still present in her stomach made it difficult to conjure up her usual levity.

“Only a fool wouldn’t notice how you look at me.” Harrow opened her eyes again, shining with unshed tears, and met Gideon’s gaze. “I know that you’re scared of me, Gideon.” Harrow’s words once again set the world tilting on its axis. Fine, so Gideon wasn’t the best at hiding her emotions. But the idea that Harrow had picked up on her internal turmoil was distressing, to say the least. Emotions roiled and clashed within Gideon—fear, that Harrow was going to take this and use it against her, shock, that Harrow had picked up on the cause of her behavior so quickly, and most strongly, burning white hot within her chest, shame, shame that she had clearly upset Harrow with her stupid fight or flight instincts.

Gideon didn’t realize that she had been still for a long while until Harrow started to pull away.

“I can leave. I will not make you suffer my presence any longer.” Harrow said, the misery in her voice palpable. Gideon’s cognitive faculties returned to her just in time to catch Harrow’s hand in her own before Harrow managed to extricate herself entirely from Gideon’s grasp.

“No, don’t go.” Harrow froze, her eyes darting from their joined hands to Gideon’s face, uncertainty painted across her face like so much vestal paint.

“Please. I want you here.” Saying this to Harrow felt like exposing her soft underbelly to a ravenous wolf. Part of Gideon expected Harrow to wrench her hand away and storm out of the room, just to spite her. Instead, Harrow nodded slowly. She didn’t move any closer, but she didn’t run, either.

“You always were a fool, Nav,” Harrow said, and the light, fond tone of her voice and the smile pressing into her chest made warmth bubble up inside Gideon’s ribcage.

“Yep. But I’m a fool that you’re stuck with forever, so you’d better get used to it.” Gideon meant for the words to come out teasing, but they sounded a lot softer than she had expected. Harrow met her softness with some of her own, offering Gideon a rare, unguarded smile that gave Gideon’s lungs a strange sort of stutter. Harrow was quiet as Gideon gently pulled her back into an embrace, and Gideon could feel Harrow’s smile against her chest.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way.”