Harrowhark Nonagesimus was in love.
It was an inconvenience, really.
Between four senior-level classes and two independent studies on anatomy, she simply didn’t have time to wistfully moon over anyone - not that she would ever indulge in such an inane pursuit if she did. Yet it scratched persistently at the back of her mind, a louse burrowed in a hair follicle, refusing extraction.
Her parents, on the rare occasion they deigned to strike up a conversation with their daughter, expressed something approaching concern that she might be “stressed” or “unusually hermitical” for a sixteen year old. She hadn’t always been this way, they liked to pretend.
Regardless, she always reassured them that she was handling things absolutely splendidly, thank you very much, and the talk would end with an abrupt, lukewarm pat on the head. It was what they wished to hear, and by broaching the subject at all they could truthfully check the daily to-do box next to fulfill parental duties.
Harrowhark despised school, but for reasons opposite to the rest of her peers. Homework was straightforward, and if she stared at a blank page long enough, eventually the answers would come and fill the space. She would turn it in to her teachers the next day, and it would be gone. It was the aforementioned peers that she despised. Unfortunately, no matter how often she stared dagger-shaped holes through the noses of the blonde senior twins or the awful freshmen in the lunchroom, they continued to manifest in her periphery - or, as was often the case with the sharp-collarboned, meaner twin, directly in front of Harrowhark’s face.
Ianthe Tridentarius had the uniquely terrible ability to dress an insult up as if it were simply passing by its victim on its way to the funeral of some very rich, much more important person. Her thin remorse at subjecting people to conversation was as plausible as that of a banshee in red lipstick wailing next to an open coffin, body thrown over the corpse’s face. Obnoxious, attention slurping, and morbidly aware of the emotional nausea she induced.
Every other day, Harrowhark considered reminding Ianthe that she got away with half of what she said to people because her sister, Coronabeth, was widely considered the most attractive, magnetic, beautiful girl in school (Harrowhark’s own opinions rarely aligned with those of the greater populace). With her broad shoulders, wide hips, and perfectly sculpted muscles, Coronabeth might have been the captain of any varsity team, but Harrowhark would be hard pressed to recall significant details about the activities that engaged any of her classmates, let alone one as shallow and perpetually vapid as a Tridentarius.
Because Ianthe Tridentarius was physically incapable of not talking about herself for more than five minutes, Harrowhark knew for a fact that she did most of her sister’s classwork, right up to slipping her test answers. Once, Harrowhark watched her get up, stride across the classroom, and place her paper right smack down in front of her sister. Few, if any, of the instructors dared speak out for fear of retaliation. Every faculty member that had quit in the past three years had done so within a week of publicly reprimanding a twin, and one teacher had gone missing altogether.
No. He was not found.
Perhaps the twins' relationship was less dysfunctionally parasitic and more in the vein of codependent. Either way, certainly an invasive species.
Harrowhark spent the last day of summer dreading the prospect that she would likely be trapped in classes with the Tridentarii for yet another year, cursing her advanced intellect and her school’s limited capacity to accommodate it.
She was in love with neither Ianthe nor Coronabeth, and the mere rumor that so many people were infatuated with one, the other, or both at once made her stomach roll violently. Especially that last thought. All high schoolers were vile, but some were more vile than others.
Aside from the teachers' individual failings and the foolish rule that students could only receive credit for two independent study courses a term and must otherwise engage in classes with other students around, Harrowhark largely considered her educational institution to be trustworthy. The teachers she selected when given the opportunity were competent, if not always inspiring, and the campus resources were adequate.
Then, for the first time in her two years as a student, Harrowhark was betrayed by John Gaius Preparatory School.
A letter arrived at her house on that last day of summer informing her that she had not yet met the Physical Education requirement for graduation. She’d crammed so many academic credits into four semesters that she could have graduated at the end of her fifth, but apparently some buffoon on the education board thought it necessary to subject her to sweating in shorts. Around other people, no less.
The letter specified that she would have to enroll in a gym class or take up an after-school team sport, both of which seemed like worse options than the other. A pro-con list of either possibility would be made up of an entirely empty column coupled with an infinite litany of reasons why it would be a colossal waste of time and energy.
Harrowhark had things to do. She did not have time to frolic in a field. In shorts.
Gym class was not an option at all, really. It would require that she drop one of her other courses, which would leave her exactly one academic credit short and force her into an additional semester of high school.
That left team sports.
As the letter fluttered to the floor, Harrowhark ran to her bathroom, fell to her knees, and retched in the toilet.
She rinsed her mouth and returned to her room, plucking the letter from the carpet as if it were coated in a deadly poison everywhere but the top left corner. Underneath the offending summons, John Gaius Prep had kindly included a list of sports that accepted participants of any skill level, as if the school was prudently aware that Harrowhark was not suited to anything that might involve an athletic audition. It was as reassuring as a soothing slap to the face.
Soccer required running, and cross country required even more running. Shorts would likely be party to both. Volleyball would be worst of all in the uniform department, considering it operated on the pretense that spandex was an appropriate and not at all problematic fabric to foist on teenage girls.
There was one other prospect: fencing. No running. No shorts. Certainly no spandex. She would be completely covered head to toe.
As far as she’d heard from unwilling eavesdropping on her classmates’ conversations, the fencing team was far from extraordinary. Expectations would be nonexistent for a first-time - duelist? Cavalier? Stab artist? She’d never be good enough to compete in tournaments, so maybe she’d be able to use that time to study on the sidelines instead. She could easily stack any game or match or whatever they called it against herself, losing efficiently and returning to the bench. It was very easy to stand there and let someone stab you.
It turned out to be a completely horrible idea, actually.
For starters, being trapped inside a massive metal exoskeleton was hell on earth.
Worse, the suspiciously welcoming coach and her disturbingly jovial husband-assistant had dragged the entire team to an off-campus facility, citing the school’s strict no weapons policy as necessitating the change in location.
(The no weapons policy should have prohibited Ianthe Tridentarius from bringing her larynx along when she blighted campus with her presence, but Harrowhark had yet to construct a PowerPoint on the subject that she felt was airtight enough to present to the Deans.)
The very slight silver lining of fencing practice was that Harrowhark could review muscle groups by cataloguing each new and unwelcome ache that came on. Her right brachioradialis burned relentlessly, practice foil raised with negligible poise, dominant arm stuck in full extension for what felt like sixteen consecutive hours. No normal person spent so much time standing with their legs so far apart - her piriformis had started seizing up every time she tried to retreat from an opponent’s blow. And she had developed what she feared might be a permanent cramp in her right trapezius from snapping to look at the clock every three seconds.
Practice was supposed to last for two hours, but that didn’t factor in van travel time. The half-hour drive both ways almost guaranteed that Harrowhark would miss the late bus home, and how was she supposed to explain to her parents that she would need to be fetched from a strange facility every day for the rest of the semester because she’d joined a sports team? They were busy people who certainly didn’t have time to shuttle their daughter back and forth, not when she was wasting one-twelfth if every weekday poking other people with metal sticks. Or, more accurately, getting poked by others with metal sticks.
For the first time, Harrowhark regretted not dedicating 50 hours of her past to driver’s education. It had seemed like yet another useless investment, but the decision was certainly biting her in the gluteus maximus.
As if the entire situation didn’t have enough rotten layers to it already, Harrowhark was repeatedly discovering that the only thing worse than Ianthe Tridentarius with her weaponized words was Ianthe Tridentarius with a weaponized weapon.
Ianthe insisted on showing their newest team member the ropes, abandoning her sister to partner up with some other metal-clad beekeeper imposter that Harrowhark didn’t recognize through the vague, padded silhouette.
Harrowhark noticed that Coronabeth’s new partner had irksomely flawless posture. And then Ianthe’s foil stabbed her in the chest.
“Ooh. Right in the tit!” shouted the idiot sparring in the next lane over.
The idiot’s shorter, quicker opponent swatted their blade across the idiot’s head.
“Ow,” the idiot whined, wrongly assuming that anyone would care.
“Focus,” the opponent said, her voice stern.
Ianthe wasn’t a good fencer, but she was better than Harrowhark, and that was unacceptable. It didn't hurt, physically, but Harrowhark's pride was bruised to the marrow. Although she'd come into this with the intention of learning absolutely nothing about this alleged sport, she had even less intention of allowing Ianthe to show her up, day after day, week after week, swathing her last memories of high school in fresh tar. She wasn’t sentimental, by any means, but she did not wish to look back in some indeterminate amount of time and remember herself as a failure. Not again.
Practice ended, mercifully, but unless the coaches sent the van careening out of the facility’s parking lot in the next two minutes, Harrowhark was going to miss the bus home. A spectacularly bad culmination of a spectacularly bad twenty-four hours.
She stowed her gear exactly where she’d found it, unwilling to pretend that this sad excuse for a sword did or ever would belong to her. She was simply borrowing it from the next person who would take up this mantle, and they would almost certainly do so with more fencing passion in their left thumb than Harrowhark had in her entire being.
“You look like you had literally so much fun,” said the body standing at the adjacent locker.
Ah, the idiot.
If there was one form of bladeplay at which Harrowhark could best anyone and everyone, it was the art of staring daggers. She was so well-practiced that it didn’t matter if the person on the sharp end of her glare was a full head taller. It didn’t matter if that person ran a hand back through short, sweat-drenched, bright red hair to keep it from falling in front of alarmingly intense golden eyes.
It most definitely shouldn’t have mattered if that person put on a deafeningly smug mask, leaned down, and came further into Harrowhark’s space than even Ianthe had ever dared.
“If it makes you feel any better, I’d probably be wearing that same pissed off, scrunchy face if I got hit in the boob that many times.”
A stupid face to match a stupid personality, Harrowhark thought.
“Gideon Nav. I don’t think we’ve officially met,” the idiot said, extending her hand just barely. Rather than going for a standard shake, her lifeline faced up toward the ceiling as if she were waiting to have the whole world placed in her palm. There was little doubt she could carry it given the considerable combined circumference of her biceps and triceps, but surely no one would be desperate enough to entrust this “Gideon” with anything of such import.
The slight space between them meant that Gideon’s attention-grabbing arm stayed quite flexed, and Harrowhark made the fatal and unforgivable mistake of glancing down.
She broke her stare, and for what? To observe the spot where a prominent cephalic vein disappeared under the seam of a black undershirt sleeve? Anatomical fascination be damned.
Harrowhark felt warmth starting to trickle out of her left nostril.
“Whoa, hey, are you bleeding?” Gideon asked.
Before the blood dripping onto her lip could oxygenate, Harrowhark lashed out and smacked Gideon. Right in the tit.
“It appears you were correct,” Harrowhark said. “You did make the same face.”
She slung her bag across her shoulder and stormed out.
There had to be a restroom in the building somewhere. Did people who were bored enough to attend fencing events for fun not live by the same biological mandates as those with more interesting lives? Or did they derive some pathetic sense of excitement from pushing their bladders to the brink of desperation?
Once Harrowhark finally found the bathroom in question, she added another inquiry to her list: why did fencing arenas not believe in restocking toilet paper in a timely manner?
With no alternatives, she had to twist the scratchy, stiff, brown paper towels from the dispenser into little plugs. Normally, she would just block the blood from streaming out, let things dry up, and then pull the plugs out hours later, dried clots and all. But because today was the second worst day of Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s life, the paper towels did not want to stop her nosebleed, and pushing the rough-cornered plugs into her nostrils only encouraged the fragile nasal mucosa tissue to tear anew.
Harrowhark wanted to swear, but there was no one around to listen to it, and if someone had been around, then she certainly would not have considered swearing in the first place.
Except then, suddenly, someone was there, and the idiot’s face reignited the urge.
To swear, that is.
“Shit,” Gideon said. “You are bleeding.”
“How incisive,” Harrowhark bit, mostly hoping that it would resemble the sound a snake made when it spat venom.
The persistent idiot dropped her own gym bag, much heavier than Harrowhark’s nearly empty one. She rummaged through one side pocket, then the other, and pulled out a roll of gauze with a triumphant grin. She stood and held the little white roll out.
Harrowhark just stared.
Slowly, the realization came that Gideon was offering the gauze to her, on purpose, to help. Expecting the hand that could hold worlds to pull back, Harrowhark slowly reached for it.
Gideon did exactly that, snatching the gauze away at the last second. “Wait. Question first.”
Harrowhark ground her teeth together. If this was stupid, she’d tear off Gideon’s shirt and use it to staunch the bleeding. Not that she had any interest in tearing Gideon’s shirt off, it was just there and probably softer than the paper towels. Sweatier, though, no doubt.
“Is your name really Harrowhark?” Gideon asked.
“Does it matter?”
“What?” Harrowhark blurted, confusion overriding the indignant, caustic anger that had settled squarely behind her eardrums.
Gideon nodded. “I’ll bet nobody messes with you with a name like that.”
“You’d be surprised,” Harrowhark muttered. She held out her hand, metacarpals twitching due to greed or blood loss. “Now give it.”
By the look on her stupid, golden-eyed face, Gideon was going to say more words. Then, wonder of all wonders, her mouth clamped shut.
Harrowhark snatched the gauze and clutched it to her chest. Glacing back over at the baffling intruder a few too many times, she tore strips from the roll (with some difficulty). She discarded the useless, soaked paper towel plugs and stuffed her nostrils with the soft gauze instead.
The miracle of silence was temporary, and Gideon was once again speaking. “Got a real gusher there, huh?”
Harrowhark kept her eyes on the bandage.
“How come I’ve never seen you around at school?” Gideon asked. “I’m pretty sure I’d remember if a real live skeleton sat behind me in geometry.”
“My nose will be fine soon enough,” Harrowhark said curtly. With any luck, Gideon would take the hint and leave, but apparently Harrowhark had no luck left at all.
“You should tilt your head back.”
“I’ve dealt with this sort of thing once or twice, thank you.” Still, Harrowhark did exactly that, and absolutely not because Gideon had reminded her that it helped.
Gideon crossed her arms and leaned her shoulder into the wall. “So do you get punched in the face a lot, or do you get instant nosebleeds when you meet extremely attractive people?”
Harrowhark narrowed her eyes at her reflection, adjusting the left plug. It was threatening to slip loose.
“I meant me, obviously,” Gideon specified, though no one asked her to.
“Fuck you,” Harrowhark snarled.
“You’re very forward. I respect that.”
“Are you physically capable of shutting up?”
“I am, Harrowhark. I am. Saying words all the time is a choice I make on purpose.”
Between the glaring and bleeding, Harrowhark’s skull felt like it had been split with a pickax. She turned back to the mirror and dabbed at the ring of red circling her right nostril. This side usually bled less, and by the time she finished cleaning it up, the left would be through as well.
Then Gideon sidled into the reflection.
“Are you okay?” the idiot asked.
“Perfectly. I do not make a point of overexerting myself often seeing as this is the inevitable result,” Harrowhark answered, hoping that an iota more information might shake this company. “You may go now. In fact, you may go two minutes ago.”
“Was that too much mathematics for you? Get out.”
“I could, but then you’d be stuck here by yourself.”
“Whether my nasal cavity is committing poor fraud of an artery is none of your concern.”
“Coach Magnus took the van already.” Gideon made a face like the corners of her mouth were being pulled apart from each other by fish hooks.
“What?!” Harrowhark exclaimed, reminding herself too late that such an action carried a strong likelihood of displacing the still-cementing clots in her nose. A wave of heat and lightheadedness washed over her. She pressed her thumb firmly against her left upper-lateral cartilage and squeezed her eyes shut. Her ears were ringing, and it was just very annoying.
Another irritating sound joined the rage-induced cacophony: Gideon’s voice. “So yeah, unless you really want to walk home, I’m your ride.”
Harrowhark loaded her best disgusted look and shot it clean through Gideon’s right eye socket.
“I didn’t mean that in a gross way, seriously,” Gideon said. “Although usually people find my amazing-slash-inappropriate sense of humor endearing. This is new territory for me, okay?”
“Perhaps Ianthe hit me in the ulnar nerve.”
“More commonly referred to by its misnomer, the funny bone.”
“...Was that a joke? A supremely awkward, super niche joke?”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Wasn’t it, though?” Gideon grinned, and Harrowhark wished that she could let herself drown in her own thick nose blood.
“It was not,” Harrowhark argued. As if she had time - or energy, after today - for jokes.
“So, am I driving you back, or are you into long walks at night along the highway?” Gideon asked, taking the roll of gauze from where Harrowhark had set it down on the edge of the sink. She successfully tossed it into the open pocket of her bag. “Nice.”
“I suppose I don’t have a choice,” Harrowhark begrudged. This nosebleed had wasted enough time, and she had a semester’s worth of new syllabi to highlight and organize.
“Awesome,” Gideon said. She picked up both of their bags, which Harrowhark might have argued against if she didn’t feel like her arms were about to pop right out of their sockets and wither into nothing right there on the linoleum. “Hey, can I call you Harrow?”
“Were you repeatedly jostled as an infant?”
Asking for favors was not something that Harrowhark Nonagesimus did often, if ever, which was why she hadn’t asked Gideon to drive her home instead of back to school. She despised the nagging weight on her chest reminding her that she owed someone something. It felt heavier when they didn’t ask for anything in return right away.
Harrowhark sat silently in the passenger’s seat of Gideon Nav’s car and picked at the skin around her fingernails. She’d learned that Gideon liked to ask questions regardless of how responsive her target was, and it was infringing on Harrowhark’s normal habit of using time in vehicles to organize her evening homework schedule. Unfortunately, she got very carsick very easily, so reading on drives was out of the question.
“What’s your deal?”
Thanks to the fact that Harrowhark had half as much blood in her body as usual, she was starting to feel ill despite the lack of words floating around in front of her eyes. So she fell back on the distraction that offered itself up like a rotten carrot on a stick. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“See, that’s what I’m talking about. You’re supposedly a junior, but I’ve never seen you skulking around at school. You talk like the lady in a haunted Victorian portrait. And I’m pretty sure you’ve never held a sword before two hours ago.”
“Is there a question buried in any of that nonsense?”
“The question, my lugubrious lady, remains: what in the crypt-keeping fuck is your deal?”
Gideon swung into a yellow left turn arrow much too late, and Harrowhark clutched the armrest. Or, at least, she’d thought she was grabbing the armrest. The instant tensing of muscle and sinew said otherwise.
Harrowhark withdrew her hand as if each of Gideon’s arm hairs were a tiny foil stabbing into her clammy palm.
“Does getting clawed by your talons earn me one answer to a question?” Gideon asked, shaking out her arm. “Seriously, have you heard of nail clippers? They’re like four dollars. Highly recommend it.”
“Yes, I have heard of nail clippers,” Harrow responded. “There’s your one answer.”
“Okay, I set you up too well. That one’s on me.” Gideon was like a timer that just kept beeping no matter how many times you pressed the off button. “So why fencing? We don’t get a lot of upperclassmen recruits.”
“I imagine few people enjoy being suffocated and stabbed on a regular basis,” Harrowhark grumbled.
“Well, if you hate it and start bleeding every time your fragile little bird heart catches a stiff breeze, why join the team in the first place?”
“If you really must know, I didn’t have much of a choice. Apparently I can’t graduate until I’ve expended a minimum amount of sweat in athletic scenarios.” Harrowhark cringed internally, hoping that Gideon didn’t take the phrase ‘athletic scenarios’ and run to the gutter with it.
They were stopped at a light. The sun was gone, the sky was lava, and Harrowhark felt like vomiting.
“For the sake of your atrocious leather interior, we’d best be arriving at the school soon,” she said.
“Please don’t bleed all over my dashboard.”
Harrowhark figured it was best not to tell Gideon that she should be more worried about a different bodily output.
The car pulled into the senior lot not two minutes later, and Harrowhark broke a fragile nail fumbling to get out.
She sat down on the curb and dropped her head between her knees.
“I’m guessing you’re not big on joyrides,” Gideon said, plopping down on the curb uninvited.
Harrowhark breathed through her mouth as deeply as she could. This would have been much easier if her nose wasn't plugged up with coagulated blood and snot.
Something warmed pressed against her sacral vertebrae, and Harrowhark swore her spine fused straight. The warmth started to move in slow circles.
It was Gideon’s hand.
“What are you doing?” Harrowhark asked, raising her head just enough to cast a sideways glance at Gideon - she’d moved closer.
Gideon shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought it might help. Seems like you had a pretty shitty day.”
The hand dropped away, and Harrowhark almost asked for a second favor.
“Are you sure you should be driving home if you’re still, like, bleeding and dying?” Gideon asked.
“I don’t drive,” Harrowhark mumbled, dropping her head back between her knees.
“You bike? No. Stupid question. You’d die. How are you getting home?”
“That remains to be seen.”
Gideon’s voice sounded very close and very far away all at once. “Need to enlist a chariot?”
Harrowhark did need that. She needed many things, but why should she start asking for them now?
“I can drive you. On one condition.”
A negotiation. Harrowhark could navigate that. She turned her head, resting her cheek on one protruding patella. She raised her eyebrows, hoping to appear coy but in reality unsure that she could manage many more words.
Gideon held up one finger. Was she wearing fingerless driving gloves? “Number one: you let me call you Harrow. Harrowhark is cool, but it’s a lot of syllables. Gets all stuck around your tongue. That's what she said.”
Harrowhark closed her eyes in sheer disdain. Her name was exactly the same number of syllable’s as Gideon’s, but arguing with God’s perfect idiot was clearly futile. This day could not, in any way, get worse.
“Number two: you come to team dinner first.”
Oh! Wrong again, Harrowhark!
Well, that clinched it. Harrowhark Nonagesimus was going to walk an hour and thirty-eight minutes home from school, and then she was going to do the same thing every day after fencing practice for the rest of the semester until her heart gave out. Hopefully that would happen before it got too cold out. She’d rather cardiac arrest than frostbite.
Gideon stood and offered a partially gloved hand.
Harrowhark gave a weak shake of her head against her knee, hardly disturbing the fabric of her pants. “I shall wait for you here,” she tried.
“Oops, no you won’t.”
“You think I’ll go wandering off?”
“Yes. With me. To the cafeteria. We’re gonna go make some new friends, Harrow.”
Harrowhark had tried having a friend before. It didn’t work out. High schoolers were awful, so this was bound to go even more poorly.
Without warning, Gideon stepped around, shoved her hands into Harrowhark’s armpits, and lifted her bodily from the curb.
“Get your hands off me, you oaf,” Harrowhark said, beating her fists against Gideon’s knuckles ineffectively.
“I see we’ve branched out from Victorian vocabulary to medieval. Fun,” Gideon commented. She dropped Harrowhark onto her feet. “Now come on. It’s salmon night. Naberius probably took all the good pieces by now.”
Gideon started sauntering off towards the cafeteria. Harrowhark, completely out of options and arguments, tried to trudge after, but her boot caught in the grass. She would have smashed her nose into the dirt and stayed there if Gideon hadn’t caught her by the shoulders.
“Okay, I get it. You’re tired and weird and sad and nervous about talking to the team, so I will be your cheat sheet.”
Harrowhark muttered something, and even she wasn’t sure what she’d been trying to ask.
“Just imagine you’re...I don’t know, at the beach or something,” Gideon continued. “The freshman are annoying, but they’re harmless. Except Jeannemary when she has a saber, do not mess with that. Obviously you know Ianthe, so you’re aware that she can go suck an absolutely massive bag of...”
The ringing in Harrowhark’s started came again, and this time it wouldn’t stop until she stopped thinking about fencing and classmates and hands and beaches.
Scheduling. Organizing. Things Harrowhark could focus on. She was hours behind on homework time by now, and she took little solace in it being the first day. Her teachers had handed out an entire semester’s worth of assignments in list form, and she’d be staring at the ceiling all night if she didn’t at least get a head start on that absolutely monstrous history textbook.
Socializing was a waste of time. All of it - acquaintances, friends, crushes, everything.
Friendship was a nuisance, and being in love could never be anything more than a massive fucking inconvenience.
Especially because the girl Harrowhark Nonagesimus loved was dead.