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i

Thing was, Gideon had never played D&D before. It was what her nerd friends did while she was out breaking ankles on the rugby field, picking up chicks and being, generally, a sexy badass.

But: she’d torn her Achilles tendon and she was strictly forbidden from having any fun until it healed. After an interminably long time (three days), Cam had gotten sick of her shit and wrangled her an invitation to join her D&D group. Gideon still wasn’t sure if this was mercy or punishment, honestly. She’d asked, but Cam had declined to answer.

That was how she wound up in Harrow’s lair with the malign spirit herself glowering at her.

“I argued against this,” was the first thing Harrow said to her which, hey, at least Gideon could enjoy the fact that Harrow was even more upset about this situation than she was.

“What, are you worried you won’t be able to control yourself in front of all your friends?”

My control is definitely not the issue here,” Harrow said, her pointy little nose up in the air. “But you, Griddle, are a hog.”

“Don’t worry, Harrow. No one will ever know you aren’t quite as much of a prude as you act, I promise. I have a reputation to protect, too.” She punctuated this statement with a pat to Harrow’s head, because she knew it would make Harrow bubble over in indignation.

“Get your paws off of me, you oaf,” she said, even as she flinched away. “This is exactly the sort of thing I am talking about! You are incapable of taking anything seriously, especially when it’s something important to me!”

“Harrow. Harrow, chill. It’s just nerd battle, it’s really not a big deal.”

Harrow shrieked and stormed off out into the narrow corridor. Gideon took the opportunity to stretch herself out on Harrow’s bed and take in her surrounds. Gideon hadn’t been allowed in any of Harrow’s rooms since they were kids. In truth, she hadn’t, strictly speaking, been allowed in Harrow’s rooms when they were kids, either (Harrow’s parents always said that they could sense the devil in her, which was a terrible thing to say to and about a six year old, but also, in hindsight, kind of hilarious), but she’d snuck in in the brief sliver of time when they’d almost maybe been friends.

It wasn’t what she’d been expecting, honestly. She’d assumed that Harrow would have somehow turned the shitty room into a cave of some description. Black painted walls with some of those awful black-on-black tapestries that her parents had hanging all over the house for flavour. Perhaps larger than life portraits of her—frankly terrible—great aunts on the walls for the culture. A full on four poster bed that several generations of Nonagesimus wraiths had died in. There was none of that. The bed, upon which Gideon was lying, had been hastily and poorly made, a badly-folded mound of blankets at the foot. Black sheets, naturally, but of the kind that looked like they came from IKEA, not the kind that hand been handed down for seven generations. The walls were the same, plain, stuccoed white as the walls in Gideon’s building, with not a single picture or poster in sight. The desk was overflowing in terrible-looking books and notebooks, and Gideon had caught sight of some life-growing experiment festering under Harrow’s bed.

The only thing that hinted at Harrow having a personality beyond ‘overworked student’ was the bookshelf. It was crammed with yet more books, but the lowest shelf held a grotesque shrine to all things macabre. Tiny bird skulls, black candles that looked distinctly handmade, and Harrow’s extensive collection of unsavoury jewellery. Harrow’s parents would have hated it, which meant that Gideon was obliged to love it, even though it screamed ‘Harrow.’

She was debating getting up to mess with the display when Harrow came back in. Her lips were tight and pinched, but the murder had mostly left her eyes, and so Gideon didn’t bother to swing her shit-kicking boots of the bed. Harrow lips pursed tighter when she saw, but she sat down in the desk chair and took several deep breaths before speaking.

“Griddle. Camilla has asked us to work on our backstory and strategy. If you won’t take this seriously, I have permission from Camilla to take matters into my own hands.”

“But your hands are so teeny, Harrow! You won’t be able to hold the reins and your dice.”

The look on Harrow’s face said ‘I will kill you, and it will not be fast,’ which unfortunately happened to be one of Gideon’s favourite Harrow expressions. Gideon patted herself discreetly on the back while Harrow closed her eyes and gathered her strength. And then her triumph drained away as Harrow stood up and made her way over to Gideon.

Gideon was not so proud that she couldn’t admit that Harrow was intimidating even with her height deficit. Now, with Harrow’s sharply pointed, immaculately made-up face hovering over own? Gideon stood no chance.

“Griddle,” she said. Her voice was a low and sleek thing: Harrowhark out to hunt. “Gideon.”

Shit. Harrow meant business. Gideon very suddenly did not want to be lying down. Harrow was about to pull out some illegal moves, if Gideon wasn’t mistaken, and she wanted to meet them standing up. Unfortunately, even sitting up would bring Gideon dangerously close to Harrow’s severe and black-painted lips.

“Whaddup, Harrow?”

Harrow laid a gloved hand very lightly against Gideon’s trachea. “Will you shut up and listen to me for once in your pitiful, meaningless life?”

“Harrow, you know that I’m morally opposed—” Harrow’s hand pressed down. Gideon swallowed, with difficulty. Harrow was apparently not above murdering someone in her own bed which. Okay, Gideon should have seen that one coming.

“I’m not asking you to care about this, Griddle. I’m just asking you to shut up and let me do what I’m good at. And you can do whatever it is that you’re good at in turn.” Harrow’s nose wrinkled with these words, and her lip curled, in a way that suggested she didn’t think Gideon was good at anything much. Joke was on her, though, but Gideon wasn’t going to let the cat out of the bag on her just yet, not least because she was truly worried about passing out. “Can you do that for me, Gideon?”

“Yup!” Gideon’s voice came out a little higher than usual, which was a natural and normal side effect of being strangled by a tiny goth who weighed 50kg soaking wet.

“Perfect.” Harrow’s hand moved, from Gideon’s throat to her hair. Definitely illegal tactics. Gideon was pretty sure her windpipe was bruised, though, so she wasn’t about to say anything about this development. “This is how it’s going to happen. Your character—” a completely perceptible and unsuppressed sneer “—Jideon Nave, is the cavalier of my character, the Reverend Daughter of the ninth necromantic house, Hallowed Nova. Both she and I will expect your total obedience…”

 

ii

They were maybe ten minutes into the first session when it happened. The eight of them—Camilla, Harrow, Palamedes and Ianthe, of course, but also Dulcie, Coronabeth and, of all people, Babs—were crammed into Cam’s small dorm room, with Camilla and Palamedes taking the only actual chairs because Cam played favourites and she wasn’t afraid to show it.

(Camilla had informed Gideon that they always took turns hosting and, because Cam was DMing this one, they’d meet in their tiny two-room apartment first.

Wait, are you telling me you’ve been having geek parties in your room this entire time and I didn’t know about it? Gideon had asked. Cam confirmed that this was indeed the case. I am a terrible friend. Cam confirmed that Gideon was indeed a terrible friend. Why didn’t you tell me? Why do you even keep me around? Gideon had wailed. Camilla had brusquely informed Gideon it was because she was good eye-candy and also, more importantly, she always did the dishes. That seemed fair enough to Gideon, and so the conversation had moved on.)

“I regret to inform you all that my cavalier has taken a vow of silence,” Harrow said. Gideon wasn’t sure if she was even trying to keep the self-satisfied smirk off her face. If she was, she was doing a terrible job of it.

“I have—” not, Gideon was going to say, but Harrow’s smile turned very sharp before she could finish her sentence and she choked off. It was not subtle. Literally everyone around the table could tell what she was going to say.

“You have?” Camilla asked, her flavour of ‘neutral and unphased’ expressing strong doubt, as well as a promise to back Gideon if she decided to go against Harrow on this one. It was a powerful promise: as a rule, Cam much preferred laughing at Gideon to backing her.

“I have,” Gideon said, because she was a woman of her word, damnit. Especially when said word was enforced by the memory of Harrow’s bony fingers pressing against her jugular veins. Cam couldn’t protect Gideon always, and Harrow was a terrible witch from the depths of hell that powers Gideon really didn’t want to test.

“Well, then,” Camilla said, her flavour of ‘neutral and unphased’ now expressing the fact that she was going to be laughing at Gideon over this for at least the next three months. She shifted into her Teacher voice, which was her normal voice but with (somehow) exclamation marks. “Now that we’re all present! I invite you to follow me through to our reception room, where tea and comfortable seats await you…”

*

Gideon managed to capture Harrow before she could escape once the game was up. It had been a long and exhausting two hours, not least because Gideon was struck again and again by the realisation that she couldn’t actually communicate anything to anyone. It would have been bearable, if Dulcie’s character, ‘Cytherea Sept, but you can call me Cyth, darling,’ hadn’t been flirting shamelessly with her at every given opportunity.

In short, Gideon felt cheated.

“What the fuck was that, Harrow?” she asked in a low hiss. “Couldn’t you at least have told me beforehand?”

“I could have,” Harrow replied, her voice light and airy in a way that was definitely not natural. “But then I wouldn’t have gotten to see that precise look on your face.”

“God, you are such a bitch.”

Harrow shrugged. “And you are an imbecile. But at least, now, you are a slightly less insufferable one. If that’s all you have to say to me, Nav, then I really should be getting on my way.”

“Just that your lucky stars that you are so short, because I would be headbutting you right now otherwise,” Gideon replied, but she let Harrow go, as they both knew she would.

 

iii

It was the fifth session. Gideon still didn’t actually understand how D&D worked, and she was mostly stuck not knowing what she wanted to do or how she could do it. It was honestly pretty boring. If Corona hadn’t pulled out before their third session, she’d have ditched them to watch paint dry instead. But Corona had pulled out—something about her girlfriend breaking up with her, which was odd because up until that point no one knew she had a girlfriend—and Camilla had been wildly irritated all week. Gideon decided not to court or cause more slammed doors and stony silences while Camilla adjusted the lore a second time.

Today, they were at Dulcie’s. It was an excellent place for the game, really. She lived off-campus, with an uncle and his family. Except, that made it sound like she didn’t have an entire floor to herself, with a separate entrance, kitchen and bathroom. Her room was covered in vines and roses (Poor Uncle Tes, I haven’t the heart to tell him I loathe them), with a green wallpaper that looked like it had been stolen in a heist on a 19th century drawing room. In essence, it felt very much like the Canaan House that Camilla described, and there was actually space for them all to sit down on chairs like Civilised People. Gideon was very emphatically not Civilised People, so she was sprawled on a chair instead.

The game might have been a bust, but honestly, it wasn’t all bad. Gideon had spent most of this session being very pleasantly distracted by Dulcie, who had carried her flirting out into real life, and by Harrow’s rapidly petrifying face, caused by said flirting. It was good enough. Not as good as hitting the gym would have been, but good enough.

“Alright, Reverend Daughter,” Cam said. Gideon tried to pay a bit more attention as she was at least nominally at Harrow’s beck and call. Honestly, though, Harrow had left her before she’d woken up (again) and Bab’s was refusing to be goaded into another duel, so she was left wandering around trying to find something interesting. (She had so far found a secret door that she was taking great satisfaction in not telling Harrow about, as payback for the whole ‘vow of silence’ thing, and she’d sat and had tea with Teacher countless times. She playfought with some of the skeletons that hung about the place, but they weren’t very fun fights and Cam always made the skellies surrender before anything interesting could happen.) “You have attempted this trial,” Cam paused performatively to check her notes for something she very obviously remembered, “twenty-three times, with only very slight variations on each attempt. Are we going for attempt number twenty-four?”

(There was a collective groan about the table. Gideon caught Dulcie’s eye and made a ‘shitty goths, what’re you gonna do?’ face, and was rewarded with fluttering eyelashes and a barely-smothered giggle in response.)

“Well I don’t see what else I can do,” Harrow snapped. “You’ve given me very little to work with.”

Camilla did not respond or react in anyway. Harrow sighed the deep, put-upon sigh of someone who knows that they have disappointed Camilla Hect.

“Fine. I would like to find my cavalier.”

“Oh, thank fuck,” Ianthe muttered. Harrow shot her the dirtiest look she could muster which, considering she’d spent the first 18 years of her life reigning over the filth, grit and grime of Drearburh, was pretty goddamn dirty.

“Excellent choice, Reverend Daughter. I’ll leave you to it. Okay, Master Warden. We left you performing an examination on a statue you’d found…” Gideon tuned out in favour of looking at Harrow. She was looking more than usually sour, and so Gideon made sure to shoot a pair of finger guns her way.

It took an age for the action to roll back to them—maybe fifteen minutes of Babs and Ianthe arguing with Dulcie for a reason that Gideon had forgotten about sixteen minutes ago—but Gideon perked up when Cam returned her attention to them.

“Okay, Jideon,” Cam said. (Half the reason Gideon picked this as her name was because she knew she’d get at least a few moments of joy from each game whenever Cam said it, all po-faced and inflectionless. She had yet to be disappointed.) “You’ve followed the Reverend Daughter through Canaan house and down a hatch that leads into a basement.” (“Doesn’t sound like something I’d do,” Gideon said. Camilla ignored her, because she was a traitor.) “The Reverend Daughter takes you into a room labelled transference-slash-winnowing.”

“I would like to ward the door,” Harrow interrupted.

“Hallowed Nova wards the door, and then takes you into the room. The room is mostly empty. One wall is dominated by a window, but it also has a door with a sign that reads ‘response’. There is another door, this one with a sign that reads ‘imaging’. The door to imaging is covered in bloody handprints.” This last said with a sly look to Harrow, who did her best to pretend she wasn’t offended by Camilla pointing out that her character was miraculously even weaker in-game than she herself was in real life. “What do the two of you want to do?”

“Why are there bloody handprints on the door?” Gideon asked, because she felt like being a shit.

“One of my failed attempts included draining some of my arterial blood,” Harrow replied in her ‘Hallowed Daughter’ voice, or whatever it was she was calling herself. It was a lower voice than her natural voice, which was unfortunate as it tended to distract Gideon while she was tastefully and discreetly swapping obscene gestures with Ianthe.

“Harrow,” Gideon said.

“Reverend Daughter,” Harrow corrected.

“Yeah, that. Jideon is not going to be spilling her arterial blood for you. It’s her blood, and she likes it where it is.”

“You will spill your blood for me if I demand it of you,” Harrow replied and damn it, yeah, Gideon—Jideon—probably would. Contractual obligations and so on. “Luckily for you, Nave, I don’t demand it of you. It’s your eyes I have need of.”

“Oh, hell no.”

“Still attached, you idiot. Nova needs Nave to look through the window into response while she operates the thanergetic—if you don’t know what that means by now, that’s your own fault—lock in imaging. I can’t see into the room; I can only see the door. And something in there is pulverising everything I send through.”

“Oh,” said Gideon. “Okay. I guess Jideon can do that.” (It still felt incredibly weird to her to act the part of Jideon, unless she was acting it against Dulcie’s winks and sly smiles. Then it was only too easy to play the part of blushing, overwhelmed, under-socialised virgin.)

“We would like to start the trial now, then,” Harrow said, turning to Cam. Cam nodded, and pulled out a new sheet of notes. Beside her, Harrow gave a little gasp of anticipation, because she led a sad and miserable life.

“How would you like to do it?”

“Same as the last times,” Harrow replied.

“Fine. Jideon, you watch as the Reverend Daughter creates a skeletal construct from a chip of bone concealed in her robes. She enters the room marked ‘imaging,’ leaving you in front of the window to ‘response.’ Shortly afterwards, the door to response opens.”

“I want to go in,” Gideon said.

“You can’t go in, Griddle,” Harrow said, voice sharp.

“The Reverend Daughter Hallowed Nova is not actually in the room and therefore can’t comment,” Camilla replied. People who didn’t know her might think she wasn’t irritated.

“I’ll watch. For now,” Gideon sighed. Cam Looked at Harrow for a second longer than was usual or necessary, then continued her narration.

“You can see through the window that response is already filled with piles of broken-up bones from the Reverend Daughter’s previous unsuccessful attempts at completing the trial. As you watch, the door into response opens, and the skeletal construct enters the room. The room begins to fill with a foggy substance, which coalesces into a bone construct that is much, much larger than the one that Hallowed Nova made. It’s centre of gravity is low, despite it being made mostly of vertebrae. It has at least two sets of arms, but it’s forced to put weight on the lower set, whether by the size of its body or the height of the room, you are not sure. The upper set of arms are tapered and flat, almost blade-like, and it uses them to destroy the skeleton the Reverend Daughter sends in with two blows. Once its foe is destroyed, the construct appears to catch sight of you and begins making its way over to the window. Reverend Daughter. As usual, you sense the destruction of your construct. What would you like to do?”

“I would like to speak with Nave about what she’s seen.”

Cam gave a sharp nod. “As you watch, Jideon, the construct collapses back into fog and is sucked away through the vents in the room. The door to ‘imaging’ opens once the last signs of the construct are gone, and Harrow comes stumbling out.”

“Nave! What did you see?”

“A big old bone monster smashing your much less impressive boner to pieces before turning back into soup.”

Harrow pursed her lips like she’d been expecting to hear something more helpful, even though she had blatantly heard exactly the same description of the monster that Gideon had.

“Well, this was a more or less pointless exercise,” she said, finally. “I could have inferred that myself.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t,” Gideon said. She had the image of the construct in her mind’s eye: knobbly clusters of bone, too heavy to be of any use outside of the room. But.

Gideon had asked for one thing when Cam sat her down and made her roll her character. Or, rather: Gideon had asked for two things, but only one of them was turning out to be a little bit important, and that was this: she’d wanted to be a very big, strong and sexy swordswoman with a big, strong and sexy sword, because if she was going to be stuck playing D&D, she wanted to do it with some style.

(The other thing she’d wanted was to be someone very important and powerful. Cam had said, eventually, ‘sure, fine, if you’ll shut up about it!’ and then never mentioned it again.)

So there was Gideon, with her pretend big, strong, sexy sword and it meant absolute dick because, up until that very moment, there’d been no one but Babs to fight. She decided in that moment that being murdered in her bed by her childhood nemesis was an infinitely better way to go then dying of boredom in Dulcie’s well-appointed salon.

So, “Put me in there,” she said to Harrow.

“What?” Harrow asked, and then slightly more intelligently, “Why?”

“Well, because it’s arms kind of look like swords, right Cam?” Can confirmed that the arms did indeed kind of look like swords. “I’ve got swords. I want to fight it.”

What?” Harrow asked, sounding even more dumbly affronted than last time. “That—what? Don’t be ridiculous! You can’t do that. It’s a necromantic trial, Griddle, What use would you be? You can’t do that!”

“It’s Jideon, Harrow,” Gideon said, shaking her head in a very good approximation of ‘I’m not just disappointed in you; I’m disappointed in your entire line.’

“You can’t do that, Jideon,” Harrow hissed through gritted teeth.

“Cam, can I do that?”

“You absolutely can.”

“But! But! This is a necromantic trial! For necromancers!”

Cam shrugged. It was an incredibly smug shrug. This was why Cam was Gideon’s best friend, even if Gideon knew she wasn’t Cam’s.

“I didn’t even want a cavalier! No one else has to have a cavalier played by another actual player character!”

“Bab’s is a cavalier,” Palamedes pointed out. The look of disgust this prompted on Harrow’s face was a mirror to the disgust on Ianthe’s face, which Gideon thought was hilarious. Bab’s had presumably only deigned to bless them all with his stupid amounts of hairspray and aftershave because Corona was also going to be there. Except Corona had ditched him, and Ianthe had smiled a horrible, malevolent smile when Babs hinted at the fact that he might not come back either, and so now they were all stuck with him. The only positive in the situation was that literally no-one was happy about it, which was shitty, but also the only type of positive Gideon had growing up.

“If I don’t let you do this, you are going to plague me, aren’t you?” Harrow asked.

“Oh, absolutely, my midnight haggette. But if you let me do this, I will never annoy you ever again for the entire rest of this session.”

“Ugh. Disgusting. Fine.”

“Yes! Great, Cam. We’re ready. Let’s fuck some shit up.”

What followed was an entirely new experience. Her duel with Naberius had been okay, but it was painfully obvious that only one of them knew the way the game was played and that person wasn’t Gideon. She’d had a bout with Camilla playing as Pal’s NPC cavalier (that seems like cheating, Harrow had grumbled) in which she was so thoroughly outclassed that it wasn’t even worth mentioning. But this? This worked. Even though Camilla changed the setup so that she’d have to fight with Harrow, it worked. It was the first time that Gideon felt like she understood the game. It was the first time that Gideon stopped thinking of it as a game.

Dulcie murmuring ‘That was incredible,’ in a breathy, awed voice once they’d defeated the construct didn’t hurt.

“Camilla,” Harrow said, while Gideon was still basking in the adrenaline and the joy of becoming one with Jideon (and Hallowed Nova). “Camilla, did you intend for this to happen?”

Camilla arched an eyebrow.

“But how was I—how were we supposed to know!”

“The set-up, Nonagesimus,” Pal said. “Necromancers and cavaliers pursuing the secrets of sainthood. The fact that you’re meant to be together?”

“But that’s not fair! You and Dulcie have more control over your cavaliers. How would that even work?”

“Palamedes and Dulcie both have solutions that you’re not entitled to know,” Camilla said. “Now, I’d like to wrap this session up while I’m still young.”

*

“You know, you could thank me,” Gideon said to Harrow, as they were putting their things away and tidying up after themselves.

“Thank you for what?” Harrow spat in reply.

“Me and my guns got you out of your slump.” Gideon flexed for Harrow, knowing it would make Harrow’s eyes bulge even as her mouth pressed into an impossibly thin line.

“You put literally no logical thought into your actions. You were just—dicking about!”

“Yop.” And then, because Harrow was clearly too outraged to speak, she added, “and it worked.”

“Ugh!” Harrow said again. “Why did Camilla lump me with you?”

“Hey now,” Gideon said, draping herself over Harrow’s shoulders. “It could be worse. I could be Babs.”

Harrow’s hand flew up to hit Gideon, which only served as confirmation of Gideon’s win.

 

iv

It got easier, after that. They didn’t have another moment quite like it, where they worked together against a common foe (although Gideon kept on trying to make it happen. At least she got Harrow to unbend enough to work with Pal’s character every now and again), but Gideon didn’t find it impossible to sink into the roleplay anymore. She could say something as Jideon without feeling unendingly silly. And, miracle of miracles, every now and again Harrow would ask Gideon’s opinion on what to do next.

They were in Pal’s room. Camilla sat in the only orderly place, and that because she’d been absent-mindedly organising from the second she’d walked in through the door. Every other vaguely-flat surface in the room looked like a stationery factory had exploded over it. Harrow spent every moment she could spare from the game trying to read one or other of the notes scattered about.

As for the game… well. The game. There had been some deaths, although only NPC characters. Gideon wasn’t overly worried about it, though. She had the feeling that she should be, or, at the very least, that she should be thinking critically about the whole thing. But thinking critically about NPC deaths was hard when Dulcie was laying her head on your shoulder (and not bursting into flames from the glare Harrow shot her) and saying in her breathy Cytherea-voice, “Reverend Daughter! I would like to collaborate with you and your cavalier!”

“No,” Harrow said, because she was the worst. Gideon levelled her best puppy-dog eyes on her, which had exactly no effect.

“It will be in your interests!” Dulcie-as-Cytherea replied brightly. “I’ve figured out how one of the trials works, and it’s a difficult one!”

That worked. Harrow narrowed her eyes at Dulcie, turned to face Cam, then returned her gaze to Dulcie. “How?”

“That’s a secret!” Dulcie said, just as brightly. This meant that Harrow wasn’t allowed to ask about it. Camilla had explained the concept to Gideon. She’d talked about how each playable character got to perform one secret action each in-game day, but Gideon had honestly tuned out after the word ‘homebrew’ had turned out not to refer to moonshine. (‘Homebrew’ had been six words into the explanation, but Gideon had no regrets. She didn’t actually want to know anything about D&D, for one, and she barely knew what to do for her normal actions for another.) Every now and again, she’d note a player entering into whispered conference with Camilla, but she mostly tuned out until it was over and then forgot all about it.

Harrow harrumphed, but she dropped the line of inquiry.

“Fine,” she said, lips pressed tightly together. “What room is it?”

“Number eight.”

Harrow swore. Gideon had vague memories of trying this room before, and failing bloodily and messily. That meant Duclie-as-Cytherea had her. Harrow hated unsolved puzzles.

Fine. What are your terms?”

“I tell you how it works, and you share the knowledge you learn from it with me.”

“Why not just do it yourself?”

Dulcie slipped back into her normal voice and said, “Cyth has blood cancer, remember? It’s something of a power limiter.” She laughed as she said this, as though her character’s cancer, and hers with it, were all actually just a really silly joke.

“We’ll take the deal,” she said finally. How is it done?

Dulcie explained the process, but her explanation was full of those made-up words that she still hadn’t quite got a handle on. Still, Gideon managed to glean something for it.

“So basically, I’ll be a battery pack?”

“More or less,” Dulcie agreed.

“Cam, can you tell me how this will affect Gideon?” Harrow asked.

Jideon will be in pain. The worst case scenario is that you both fail your rolls and die. There’s also the chance that only one of you dies.”

“Wait, we can die in this game?” Babs said, looking up from his phone.

“We had this conversation last week, Tern. Yes, your character can die in this game. Depending on how you die, there is a chance your character will come back as a revenant with limited ability to act on the physical world.”

“The hell, Hect?” Babs sounded deeply affronted, as though his dying in-game would have any effect on his life. “What kind of crapsack game is this?”

Camilla leant a chin on her palm, tilted her head, and Looked at Babs until he turned away.

“Don’t be scared, Babsy,” Ianthe said. “I’ll think really hard about protecting you.”

“The person acting as a battery would be at a higher risk of dying, right?” Harrow asked, ignoring Babs and Ianthe as effectively as ever.

“They take more damage than the necro, yes. So. Jideon, Hallowed Nova. What do you want to do?”

 “Well, we can’t do it,” Harrow said. She looked odd, Gideon thought, and it took a second for her to realise that was because she was dejected.

“Why not?”

“Were you listening at all in the past five minutes?”

“I was listening very hard. I still don’t get why we shouldn’t do it.”

“Because it could literally mean game over for us, Griddle.”

“Okay, yeah, I got that bit. But we might also succeed.”

“You aren’t taking this seriously!”

“Actually, I am,” Gideon said. “You wanted me to take it seriously, and so I am. Our characters might die, but that’s the game, Harrow. You won’t get the answers you need to win, or whatever, if you don’t play.”

Harrow bit her black-painted lip. Gideon made herself look away.

“We are literally all aging here,” Camilla said.

“Hear, hear!” Ianthe said.

“Come on, Harrow. Let’s have some fun.”

Harrow released her lip (when had Gideon started looking again?) and sighed.

“Fine. Although I seriously question your definition of ‘fun.’

*

“Nav, I’m going to stay here tonight. Go home without me,” Cam said. At the start of their friendship, Gideon might have misinterpreted the glint in Cam’s eye. She knew better, now. Cam was probably already mentally drafting the spreadsheet she would catalogue Pal’s socks with.

This left Gideon and Harrow to walk home alone—Dulcie’s uncle always picked her up, and Ianthe and Babs were getting a cab. Gideon didn’t think twice about walking Harrow to her dorm without Cam there to lecture her about agitating her injuries. Not until they actually reached the building, at any rate. And then, as they hovered at the door, Gideon saw flashes of a thousand teens from a thousand teen movies hovering at the door with her, dithering over whether this was a date, whether they should be leaning in for a kiss.

Which was stupid. This was absolutely not a date, because Harrow didn’t do dates, and she definitely didn’t do kisses where other people could see.

“Did you mean what you said?” Harrow asked, completely oblivious to Gideon’s sudden turmoil. “About taking the campaign seriously?”

“Yeah? Why would I lie about that?”

“You said you were taking it seriously because I wanted you to. But you were just playing around at the start.”

“Duh, Harrow. It’s a game,” Gideon said. She was definitely not comfortable with the turn this conversation was taking, she decided, but she didn’t know how to get herself out of it.

 “Yes, but it’s different, now, isn’t it?”

Gideon rolled her shoulders back and down, clicked her neck. “Yeah. I guess.”

“Why?”

“You’ve been playing with me. We’ve been doing it together. So it’s… fun, I guess.”

“Oh.” Harrow said. Gideon didn’t notice the way that Harrow studiously avoided her gaze because she was too busy studiously avoiding Harrow’s.

“Well,” Gideon said, when the silence felt like it was jabbing its elbows into her ribs.

“Yes,” Harrow agreed.

“Goodnight, I guess.”

Gideon couldn’t tell in the inky darkness outside of Harrow’s dorm, but for a moment she got the distinct impression that Harrow was leaning in.

“Goodnight, Griddle.”

 

v

“How did you even know that Cyth’s cavalier was a fake?” Gideon asked. “Literally how?”

“If you’d listened when I went over our backstory, you’d have known. Pass me those packets. Please.”

“The backstory talked about how another player’s NPC cavalier who doesn’t even get any screentime is in fact dead?”

“Reverend Daughter Hallowed Nova is an orphan.” Harrow said, after a pause that felt longer than it was. “She has been keeping the illusion that her parents are alive through magic. Through sheer luck, it was a similar type of spell to the one Cytherea was using, and so I was able to notice that something was wrong.”

Gideon wondered, suddenly, if baby Harrow wished she could keep her parents alive longer, even if it was only pretend.

“Let me put those cups away for you,” she said, to distract herself from that terrible and terribly sad thought.

“I am capable of reaching high shelves,” Harrow snapped.

“Yeah. With your stepladder. But look. You don’t have to, because I am here, and I am tall and strong and can reach the high shelves on your behalf.”

 She took the cups from Harrow’s unresisting hands, and went to wash them and put them on the top shelf of the little shared kitchen.

“What next?” she asked when she returned, sweeping her eyes about the room for more rubbish or things to be put away. She was stopped short by the realisation that Harrow had apparently not moved in all that time. “You good?”

“Go out for dinner with me,” Harrow said. Gideon’s jaw dropped open and her vocal cords decided to vacate the building. “No, sorry. That should be please. Please will you go for dinner with me?”

“No, seriously, Harrow. You good? Like, did you hit your head or something? Or do you have a fever?”

“You said I can’t win the game if I’m not playing,” Harrow said. Her hands twisted at the hem of her jumper. “I am… attempting to play. But I don’t know the mechanics, or any of the rules.”

“Oh my god. Oh my actual god. You are such a geek!”

“There’s nothing wrong with that!” Harrow cried, outrage unfreezing her just enough that she could step closer to Gideon. She looked like the Harrow Gideon knew, the Harrow Gideon grew up with. But there was the faintest hint of a blush, manifesting as heat coming off her cheek, and that wasn’t anything like the Harrow Gideon had been butting heads with since they were five.

“No,” she agreed. “There isn’t. And yes. I will have dinner with you.”

 

vi

“Well,” said Cam. “That did not go even the slightest bit to plan.”

“I’ll say,” snorted Pal. He was looking intently at Dulcie, who was beaming.

“God, that was the most fun I’ve had in ages,” she said.

“What was the plan, then?” Babs asked. He was looking sulky and annoyed. Gideon didn’t blame him: she would have been upset too, if pretend-Ianthe had taken a bite out of pretend-her.

“There was a secret chamber off the ninth room that none of you noticed. If you’d gone in, you would have found the clues to a ‘perfect’ form of Lyctorhood where both necromancer and cavalier would have survived.”

What?” Babs asked, now completely outraged.

“God, I’m glad we didn’t find that. I did so enjoy getting to stab you in the back, Babs,” Ianthe drawled. Gideon didn’t blame her, either. There was something so satisfying about going for the cheap shots with Babs.

“I didn’t know about the secret room!” Dulcie exclaimed.

“You weren’t supposed to,” Camilla replied. “Although maybe if you had known, you’d have played things differently.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. You could have, for example, coached the others into perfect Lyctorhood and then assembled your band so you could go and kill God. For example.”

Dulcie thought that over for a moment, then said: “I could have, but I don’t think I would. I never get the chance to be completely wretched, you know darling.”

“No,” Cam agreed. “You’re usually just mostly wretched.”

Dulcie laughed. Gideon couldn’t help grinning in return, but the grin fell away when she saw the serious, dissatisfied look on Harrow’s face. She scooted closer to Harrow and asked: “Didn’t you have fun?”

“I did,” Harrow replied instantly, then sighed.

“Harrow, the but you just left hanging is not at all sexy and I don’t want to look at it.”

“What are you even saying half the time?”

“That’s not you dealing with the butt in this room” Naturally, that was the moment when everyone present decided to pause for breath, and so Gideon’s words were perfectly audible to all.

“I would like it to be noted that I am not asking what the hell is happening over there,” Ianthe said.

“Nothing is happening over here!” Gideon protested.

“Oh no, of course not. Come on, Babs. Let’s get out of here while that’s still true. Camilla, darling, it was as wonderful and unexpected as ever. To the rest of you… hm, no, I have nothing more to say.”

Pal, Dulcie and Cam all rose a short while later, lured by the promise of getting to see all of Cam’s prep for the game

“That was… very good,” Gideon said once they were alone, because all the things she wanted to say were so big that she couldn’t get them past her lips.

“Yes,” said Harrow. She scooted a little closer, because there was only a little ‘closer’ between them, and then she rested her head on Gideon’s shoulder. “It was. Thank you, Gideon.”

The little ‘but’ crease in her forehead had evened out. Gideon dropped a kiss where it had been anyway, for good measure. Just because she could.