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wish i could keep you in amber

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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. 

Fencing, then.

***

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?”

“That’s badass.”

“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.”

Gideon lingered.

“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.”

“The what?”

“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?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Whark, then.”

“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?”

“I--”

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.

***

Chapter Text

“Harry, you look like Death went on a heroin bender and shat in a trash bin.”

So it was going to be that kind of day.

Harrowhark had made the bold choice to sit at the front of the classroom, the only vantage from which she would be able to read the board after sleeping as little as she had the night prior. Her eyes weren’t quite getting the memo in regards to the whole focusing endeavor, and even from this seat, the letters seemed to be vibrating on the chalkboard. It was like each little piece of white dust had come alive, imitations of osseous fragments anxiously rattling against each other.

As soon as Harrowhark heard a textbook THUD onto the desk behind her, she braced herself for maximum unpleasantness, courtesy of her least favorite seniors in a sea of readily miserable options.

“Fuck off, Ianthe,” Harrowhark muttered.

If the teacher heard, they said nothing.

If Ianthe heard, she also said nothing, which was more surprising. Honestly, there was a fifty-fifty chance that Harrowhark had not actually spoken her jab aloud. In her mind she’d had to scream the thought just to drown out the thousand chafing chalk shards on the board.

Harrowhark turned around in her seat. Ianthe shouldn’t have been more imposing than her sister, given that Coronabeth was a notable number of inches taller, but size didn’t matter to Ianthe (Gideon would have said something inappropriate, probably). Coronabeth might have been a lioness rendered in radiant golds and violets, but Ianthe carried herself with all the slimy slink and intelligence of a blue-ringed octopus. She might appear a slight and stilted predator, especially next to a lion, but she was twice as deadly. The lion would never turn on its pride, but the octopus didn’t err when a kill was at stake.

“Have you punctured your eardrum scratching out wax with one of your talons?” Harrowhark spat. “I said fuck off.”

“Bold words for Death’s trash bin shit,” said Naberius Tern, whom Harrowhark would rank last in a contest of impressive man-children.

From his left, Coronabeth Tridentarius blessed the class with her loud, loud voice. “Babs, don’t be so crass.”

Naberius frowned. “But Ianthe just said--”

“It sounds so much worse coming out of your mouth. Ugh!” Ianthe said from her sister’s left. She and Naberius were always flanking Coronabeth. Decoy up front, real threat in the back line. “Do you even think before you speak, Babs?”

Coronabeth sealed her palm against the man-child’s as unromantically as anyone had ever held another person’s hand. “She’s right. We’re teammates now. It doesn’t feel right to be so unkind to each other. In fact, I think we should all make a point of spending more time together.”

“Are you suggesting we have a party, dear sister?” Ianthe posed.

“Well, now, that’s an idea,” Coronabeth grinned. “Harrowhark?”

“Pass,” Harrowhark said, clenching her jaw so hard she felt a bout of trigeminal neuralgia setting in. She suspected that this was perhaps the first time in history that a point-black insult had inspired a party invitation, and Harrowhark could think of no more sinister retaliation. Ianthe really was a monster.

The Tridentarii and their lap dog continued making noise with their mouths, but luckily the chalk was starting to shriek louder and louder.

This Advanced Placement Biology class, or “AP Bio” as it was colloquially bastardized, was widely considered to be the most challenging course a student could take at John Gaius. It was, in actuality, very easy. Harrowhark had predicted as much. She had already covered most of the first ten textbook chapters in her general anatomy independent study the previous year with the same teacher, whose last name was so difficult to pronounce that most students simply called them by their title.

When Teacher “surprised” the class with a pop quiz on the second day, Harrowhark was completely underwhelmed. It was the same quiz she’d taken on the second day of anatomy, and she hardly had to read the questions before circling her answers. She finished the forty-question quiz in seven minutes, which had to be a record worth documenting somewhere.

Ianthe was next to finish, and she took more than twice as long. Sixteen minutes. Not at all worth documenting. Harrowhark might have smiled if the thought of smiling at anything even obliquely related to Ianthe didn’t make her stomach threaten mutiny.

When class ended, Teacher was staring at Harrowhark curiously, which couldn’t have been good. No one stared at Harrowhark at all, usually, and she’d grown accustomed to prolonged interest leading trouble by its leash.

“I can’t believe you refused to join a group like that,” Coronabeth said, her disbelief as genuine as it was vapid. “Taking on such a big project on your own? That’s so brave, Harrowhark.”

Harrowhark didn’t understand, and she hated that. “What?”

“Oh, no. Has she done that thing she does again?” Ianthe said, tapping the skin right over Harrowhark’s prefrontal cortex.

“Don’t touch me,” Harrowhark seethed, slapping Ianthe’s hand away.

“Thought tapping on the glass might jump start whatever’s not on today. You’re welcome,” Ianthe said. “Really, did you sleep at all? Dead eyes, Harry. Just dead eyes.”

Harrowhark failed to see how her sleep schedule related to this conversation in any meaningful way. “Perhaps someday you’ll trick me into believing the sounds you make possess even a modicum of gravity,” she said. She started for the classroom door when Teacher cleared their throat.

“Select a group, please, Miss Nonagesimus,” they said.

Playing nice with others was not Harrowhark’s strong suit, and she would never pretend otherwise. She’d even managed to choose a team sport that was as far removed from the ‘team’ concept as possible. However, there was one arena in which she could rarely escape the dreaded necessity of working with others: group projects. Collaboration was the absolute bane of Harrowhark’s waking hours, next to Ianthe Tridentarius. Once, in Advanced Placement Physics the previous year, those two distinct horrors had been Frankensteined together in a strong contender for the third worst day of Harrowhark’s life.

“Why not let her work alone? It’s what she wants,” Ianthe argued. On Harrowhark’s behalf. Which was unsettling. Then she grabbed Harrowhark’s face under the chin and squished her cheeks together, inventing a whole new brand of evil. Ianthe added her own exaggerated pout, and Harrowhark nearly vomited.

Public speaking wasn’t Harrowhark’s favorite thing, but she could handle a simple presentation on her own. As much as she hated to agree...

“Besides, you’d have to find someone with as many unscrewed lobes as she has to willingly join her group,” Ianthe continued unnecessarily. “If anyone else so much as tried to get their hands on the wheel, she’d lop them clean off with a pair of garden shears. Well, if she could lift them with her brittle little bird-bone hands.”

Harrowhark tensed the allegedly hollow phalanges in question and cracked them over Ianthe’s wrist.

Ianthe kept her hand where it was, squeezing harder. “See? She doesn’t play nice with others, Teacher. For god’s sake, her own blood made a break for it last night.”

“And she doesn’t mean a sibling,” Naberius chimed in pointlessly.

“I heard she started bleeding internally,” Coronabeth added as if she, her sister, Teacher, and perhaps a third of Naberius were the only people in the room.

The bell rang to alert them of the next class beginning, and Harrowhark went into cardiac arrest for a brief moment before remembering that her next class block was free.

Coronabeth whispered close, and Harrowhark cursed the tiny hairs in her ear canal for standing at attention so dutifully. “I know they say that’s where the blood is supposed to be, but that’s not quite good enough. You want to try to keep it inside the veins, if you can.”

“Is that where the blood lives?” Harrowhark said, slowly and sardonically as she could muster. “Did you figure that out all by yourself, or did your sister slip you the answer?”

The broad smile on Coronabeth’s face morphed into something tight and pinched.

“Stop it,” Ianthe said, grabbing her sister’s shoulder. “You look like the petty dragon woman from the magic show.”

“Game of Thrones?” Naberius offered pointlessly.

“Why should I know?”

His shoulders slumped forward ever so slightly, and Harrowhark wondered how many times he’d tried to get her to watch this particular program. He probably loved it: swords, blood, copious breasts, rampant idiocy. Practically built for him. But then again, wasn’t most pop media intentionally targeted at exactly this brand of shallow?

Teacher looked about ready to remind the group of their impending academic engagements elsewhere, but Harrowhark’s dream that anyone would dare discipline a Tridentarius or an associate thereof was about as clever as reusing a pop quiz that one student has already taken.

“Harry, if you’re this useless and limp after one fencing practice, you might want to reconsider your decision to tether yourself to our team,” Ianthe suggested. “Especially now that you’ve got an entire term project to do all by yourself.”

“Would you care to elaborate?” Harrowhark knew perfectly well what Ianthe meant but would not, under any circumstances, indulge her. 

Coronabeth shook her head in half-inch-deep sympathy. “We’re just looking out for you.”

“Some people are just too weak to shoulder the grueling demands of such a demanding physical commitment,” Naberius went on pointlessly.

Weak? Bird-boned? Harrowhark might have been many kinds of pathetic, but she would not be called feeble.

“I don’t recall asking for your input,” Harrowhark snarled at Naberius. “In fact, allow me to be very clear: I will not, at any point, care about what any of you have to say, regardless of subject matter or present company.”

Ianthe stared into Harrowhark for a moment. Then she raised her hand.

“Teacher?” Ianthe asked, uncalled on. “Did you see her hit me a moment ago?”

“Seems like something the dean should be made aware of,” Coronabeth said.

“Can’t have people showing up to school sleep deprived and slap-happy.”

“Look, it’s already bruising. Poor thing.”

“Harrowhark, please visit the office,” Teacher said, utterly defeated.

Harrowhark saw Ianthe’s mouth screwing into open shapes again, but all she heard was chalk.

***

Being sent to the Dean of Students’ office was unflinchingly worse than whatever punishment the Dean prescribed as a result of the visit.

Harrowhark approached the office, she noticed that the lights were off, the door open just enough to make her unsure if the whole thing was an invitation or a trap. It was dead quiet inside the office, or at least it seemed so through her screeching headache.

She could push the door open. She could knock. There were an endless number of things she could do, in theory, but in reality she found herself incapable of executing a single one. So she stood and cast a shadow into a dark room. 

Then the door flung itself open. In the fresh gap stood the shrewd silhouette of the most horrible and severe adult woman Harrowhark had had the displeasure of encountering. She'd only ever seen the Dean from a distance during announcements, and though Harrowhark had never outright guessed that the woman would smell like lemon floor cleaner, she was not surprised in the least to learn as much. 

All the Dean did was sneer and close the door.

Another student might have taken this as an excuse to walk away free of disciplinary action, but Harrowhark couldn’t get her feet to move. All she could do was raise a hand and tap a knuckle against the wood (which was fake).

Nothing, not a sound.

Harrowhark wondered why the doorknob was damp, then realized that she never wanted any further insight into that situation.

The Dean sat behind her desk, ankles crossed atop a stack of folders. A tablet flashed in the mirror behind her, pausing on a single frame that looked a little too much like skin on skin. 

“Do you need something, or do you plan to shuffle outside my door for another hour?” The Dean asked it as if Harrowhark had barged in demanding a kidney.

“Teacher sent me,” Harrowhark said flatly.

The Dean sighed. “Have you stabbed someone with a pencil?”

In spite of the headache, Harrowhark’s brows reflexively pinched together. She rubbed at the spot on her forehead, ironing it out. She wasn’t supposed to touch the skin there or it would get oily, she’d been told (by Ianthe), but acne was a petty concern that couldn’t have commanded Harrowhark’s attention if it bedazzled her face with rhinestones while she slept. She was far too vigilant, even during REM, to ever allow such a thing to happen.

“What have you stabbed someone with, then? A pen? Plastic knife?”

“No--”

“Plastic fork?”

“N--”

“Plastic spoon?!”

“I haven't stabbed anyone,” Harrowhark muttered. It wasn’t true, technically, but she hadn’t stabbed anyone today, or in relevant memory.

She might not have made a point of engaging with gossip, but there was absolutely no way that someone could have been stabbed without the terrible trio talking about it non-stop for three days, minimum. 

“Another boring Wednesday!!” The Dean bolted out of her chair, sending it smashing into the wall behind her.

Before, Harrowhark had been fairly certain it was Thursday, but she wasn’t going to be able to argue that confidently.

“What have you done, then?” the Dean accused.

“I’ve upset Ianthe Tridentarius with my bird-bone hands,” Harrowhark answered. The sooner she admitted her vicious, unforgivable crimes, the sooner she could escape this room, where the lights were still off and none of the windows were open.

“Disgusting,” the Dean said. “I’ve told John a thousand times that I’ve no interest in dealing with the stupid mistakes made by hormonal teenagers. Just tell me you cleaned up after yourselves, please. Which bathroom should I avoid for the rest of the day?”

Harrowhark felt a pang in her right temple, doubling her gut’s roiling response to the implication and precluding her ability to defend herself with words.

“Are you so very sorry for this, and do you promise to never ever do it ever again?” the Dean asked.

“I’m not--I didn’t,” Harrowhark stumbled. “I resent the very idea.”

“You resent the idea of apologizing? Why must every fifteen-year-old pick the most barren hill to die on,” the Dean said, no hint of a question in her question. “Say you're sorry so I can write your name on a little piece of paper and show it to John, please. Then we’ll both be free of this.”

The Dean was sitting again, and she had been doing as such for some time, though Harrowhark wasn’t sure just how long. She was fairly sure of one thing, which was that her defense had been entirely misconstrued. 

“Now,” the Dean said, holding a pen over a pink slip. “How do you spell it?”

“T-r-i-d--”

The Dean let out an incisive, buzzer sound that rattled Harrowhark’s teeth. “Wrong! Yours.”

“Mine’s exactly how it sounds,” Harrowhark said, unsure if she’d be able to keep the letters in her own name from jumbling together with the chalk ones still knocking around in her head.

“And it’s spelled how? I’m not guessing!”

Harrowhark had a nagging suspicion that the Dean didn’t know who she was at all, but she didn’t have time to pursue that line of questioning before a blaze of fluorescent white light flashed over them. It hurt, so Harrowhark’s eyes squeezed shut, which also hurt.

“Mercy,” a man’s voice said from the doorway. “John needs us. Now.”

“Was someone stabbed?” The Dean of students asked with absolutely no effort to hide her enthusiasm for the prospect.

“Not yet,” he said cryptically. Based on his near total lack of inflection, the situation could have been life-or-death-or-dropped-sandwich.

The Dean stood to leave.

“I had a question, actually,” Harrowhark said, her voice scratchier than she recalled it being a few seconds ago.

The man in the door, the Dean of Academics, caught the Dean of Students by the shoulders and turned her around.

“What is it?” the Dean of Academics asked on his colleagues behalf.

“I find the athletics requirement to be an absurd waste of time. As the Dean of Academics, surely you understand that my studies come first, and being forced to partake in team sports is simply--”

The Dean of Students was laughing.

“Maybe you should make demands another time, when you haven’t been sent here for bathroom crimes,” the Dean of Academics suggested as gently as a velvet-wrapped rock hitting you right between the eyes.

“That’s not how it happened,” Harrowhark argued. How did he even know about that outlandish charge? 

The Dean of Academics tsked like a chicken clucking. “Trust me when I say neither of us wants to know how it happened.”

The Dean of Students was still laughing until she wasn’t, and then she was telling Harrowhark, “Play your sports. Twelve-year-olds love running around in the mud. I wouldn’t dream of taking that from you.”

And then they were both gone, and the lights were still on, and Harrowhark blinked so hard she passed out for a second.

***

Harrowhark’s ability to tolerate fencing practice turned out to be inversely proportional to how much sleep she’d gotten. At least this way she could blame her inability to dodge Ianthe’s strikes on inadequate rest instead of believing she was merely a piece of flank steak stapled down to the counter while someone needled it with a tenderizer.

One of the two perks of the ridiculous costumes they were forced to wear for this whole ordeal was that it was very difficult to speak clearly through the masks, and many people (besides the obvious idiot) were quiet during practice. Ianthe was, mercifully, one of them. Perhaps she expected her actions - poking Harrowhark repeatedly with a little metal stick and then doing it over and over again - would speak louder than her words. 

The only other positive aspect of these suits was that Harrowhark could lean against the wall and nod off during huddles without anyone knowing.

By the end of the two hours, Harrowhark found herself facing the same conundrum as the previous day. She’d forgotten, amidst the poking, that taking the bus back to school meant no bus to take her back to her house. 

“You snore louder than I would’ve guessed,” the idiot said by their lockers. “Wild that you can sleep standing up, though. Can you teach me how to do that?”

“I’ve never snored,” Harrowhark insisted.

“Honestly, I would also believe you’ve never slept.”

“Have you all invested in the same abysmal joke book?”

“Hey, first of all, my fully original jokes are the opposite of abysmal.”

Harrowhark cast a sideways glance up at her neighbor, catching a flash of red hair in her periphery. The ocular exertion made her dizzy. “Were you listing things?”

“Oh, no. That was it.”

“You said ‘first of all,’” Harrowhark noted. “Usually that implies the imminent mention of a second or, on rare and special occasions, a third thing.”

Gideon flashed a smile and took something from her jacket pocket. “Careful. I might start to think you’re listening to what I say.” She unfolded a pair of black sunglasses and put them on.

“We’re indoors,” Harrowhark said bluntly. “Take those off.”

The idiot’s burnt eyebrows wiggled, peeking above the glasses frames and vanishing several times. “Take what off, now?”

Harrowhark slammed her locker shut. Unfortunately, the lockers didn’t close like that, and the door bounced against the latch with a clang.

Gideon very carefully shut both locker doors, hers first, Harrowhark’s second. By that time, Harrowhark was shouldering her bag and turning away.

Unable or unwilling to take a hint, Gideon followed. Even as Harrowhark tried to pick up her own pace, Gideon’s very long legs had no trouble keeping up.

“I’m parked over here,” Gideon pointed once they were outside. 

“Why,” Harrowhark asked the universe, cursing whatever cosmic forces and school-ordained requirements had placed Gideon in her path.

For at least the second time that day, she was completely misunderstood.

Gideon pointed again. “Uh, because it’s close to the gym?”

“Why are you informing me of your choice in parking?” Harrowhark elaborated.

“Don’t you need a ride?”

Harrowhark was torn. On the one hand, she did need a ride. On the other, she did not want one, especially not from someone who wore sunglasses (1) indoors and (2) outdoors after nightfall.

“Come along, my twilit mistress,” Gideon invited. “I can promise not to tell any jokes the whole way back to school. I won’t actually promise that, but I can. Theoretically speaking.”

“Why would we be returning to campus? If I were to accept your offer.” Harrowhark stood in the middle of the parking lot at a point that she imagined was exactly halfway between the fencing facility and Gideon’s car.

“Dinner?”

Harrowhark started towards the school bus. She would find her own way back to her house. The late evening air was brisk at worst. Better than being in a car with Gideon while she blasted the air conditioning - apparently she “ran hot,” which was not a real thing according to everything Harrowhark knew about anatomy. 

“Yes?” Gideon asked. “Or no? Decide soon, please. I don’t want Jeannemary to take all the good pieces of chicken. Not because she keeps them all. She saves them and give them to me, and I’m flattered, but I told her to stop. Now it’s a whole thing--”

The bus was pulling out of the parking lot behind Gideon, leaving no alternative. “Alright, let’s go,” Harrowhark conceded.

“Okay,” Gideon started, and Harrowhark dreaded that this conversation was somehow not over yet. “Here are my demands.” Harrowhark had never been more upset to be right. 

Harrowhark raised her eyebrows and glared. “You said nothing of negotiations.”

“If I’m going to drive you to your house every day after practice--”

“I don’t recall requesting that--”

“--Then I want something out of it.”

“I won’t do your homework for you. The sudden discrepancy in quality would be far too obvious.”

“I mean, you could do it gradually. Like get a few more questions right each week.”

Harrowhark scoffed. “Please. As if I would ever turn in an intentionally subpar assignment, even under someone else’s name.”

Gideon, strangely, laughed. “I wasn’t going to make you do my homework. You gotta come to team dinner once a week.”

“Absolutely not.”

“And,” Gideon raised a finger, “I get to ask you one question per drive.”

Harrowhark hesitated. Technically, she wouldn’t have to answer any of those questions. “Fine.”

“And you have to answer it. Honestly. Or like, semi-honestly.”

It was very possible that Gideon couldn’t make out the intensity of the stare through the sunglasses, but that wouldn’t stop Harrowhark from throwing her whole furious spiritual weight behind it.

“Why would you want to do that?” Harrowhark asked quietly.

“Well, that’s kind of how friendship works, Harrow.”

Gideon waited for a response, the black lenses in front of her eyes not quite opaque enough to block out the bright, gold irises behind them.

“I accept your terms,” Harrowhark muttered. She could easily ignore the conjecture of friendship, giving honest if vague answers to whatever Gideon wanted to know. For some reason. Probably something nefarious.

Once they were in the car, Gideon said, “You can ask me one question, too.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

A second later, a question popped up in Harrowhark’s mind, and she was very, very angry about it. Now it would bother her until she knew.

She made it a full eight and a half minutes before her curiosity - not about Gideon, but about the circumstance - grabbed her by the larynx.

“Why don’t you ride the bus?” Harrowhark half-blurted.

A slow smile spread on Gideon’s face as she kept her eyes on the road. “You know that’s a question, right?”

“You realize you’ve just wasted your own question?”

“That doesn’t count.”

“Why not?”

“Is that your new official question?”

“Is that yours?” Harrowhark turned to Gideon. It was frustrating to argue with someone who wasn’t looking at you.

Gideon stopped the car at a light but didn’t move, and Harrowhark wondered if she’d successfully beaten back the interrogation for the time being. When Gideon glanced at her over the top of the sunglasses, Harrowhark realized she should have been more vigilant.

The tires screeched as Gideon violently accelerated, cackling. Harrowhark’s spine glued itself to her seat back.

“I don’t ride the bus because this is way more fun,” Gideon finally said. “And also because I’m banned from being within 50 feet of school buses in this district.”

“What on earth did you do?” Even Harrowhark couldn’t fathom how someone would earn that particular restraining order.

“Ask me tomorrow.” Gideon nudged her glasses down and winked. The whole move was much more coordinated than it had any right to be.

Harrowhark ate her dinner alone at a table in the back of the cafeteria, except that Gideon was also there, and Harrowhark was starting to believe that Ianthe and group projects were not the only irritants vying for her negative attention.

***

Chapter Text

According to the songs that Gideon had not stopped playing for the entire drive to practice, today was Friday. This meant that Harrowhark had confirmed two suspicions: the previous day had been Thursday, and the Dean of Students did not know how to read a calendar.

Gideon’s taste in music was, in a word, criminal. She had an entire playlist dedicated to this particular day of the week, and it was composed of three whole songs. If Harrowhark were to be subjected to this auditory hell loop one more time, she would very likely rip the auxiliary connection cable right out of the console and strip it down to a naked copper with her incisors. She would feel no remorse.

Unlike the lyrics of these songs conjectured, Harrowhark was not dancing on tabletops. She most assuredly did not need a reminder that she was in love, and she was not having fun, fun, fun fun, looking forward to the weekend.

Despite the grating soundtrack, Harrowhark found herself devoting a significant portion of her typically more stingily rationed attention to these two hours and forty-four-ish minutes of her day. Being stuck in Gideon’s car, drowning inside of a parody beekeeper suit, and once again being stuck in Gideon’s car were anomalies in the schedule she’d always known, and she doubted that it would ever feel any sort of normal.

For much of her life, she’d ridden the morning bus and attended classes without significant issue, and those parts of her day remained unchanged, the same gray they’d always been. She still ate lunch alone, and the cafeteria was busy enough at dinnertime to mute Gideon’s inexplicable presence so that her offensively bright red hair and abhorrent jokes didn’t worsen Harrowhark’s headache. But for a reason whose intangibility tormented Harrowhark like a heated iron held millimeters away from her neck, tension shot through her the second she sat down in this car.

It must have been the questions. The threat of captive interrogation was enough to drive anyone to violent paranoia. Why did Gideon want to know things about her? What was she going to do with the information she ascertained? Who might she tell, and to what end? As far as Harrowhark could remember, she hadn’t noticed the idiot conspiring in hushed tones with any of their peers. It could mean that Gideon was very good at hiding her shady acquaintanceships, or it could mean that her true purpose was infinitely more insidious than simple high school gossipmongering.

Such inscrutability meant that Harrowhark would have to keep a closer eye on her chauffeur-slash-captor.

Gideon’s explanation for why she was banned from school buses turned out to be far less scandalous than she’d let on. Of course an unlicensed fourteen year old would get slapped with a district ban for stealing a public vehicle and taking it to a drive-through. In Gideon’s words, the look on the fast food employee’s face when she’d pulled up in a bus and demanded 200 chicken nuggets had been “absolutely McFucking worth it,” but Harrowhark had doubts. How Gideon managed not to get kicked out of the school district altogether was cause for additional suspicion. Whatever she was trying to impress upon others through this story was nebulous at best and moronic at its likely worst.

In Harrowhark’s limited scope of observation, she was able to draw one incontrovertible conclusion: Gideon did not make sense.

Her seeming incapacity to shut up and the outlandish stories she told were their own issue, and on top of that her appearance couldn’t have been more antithetical to her personality. Daredevil glasses, wardrobe as monotonously black as Harrowhark’s - she might be presumed to be cool by a passerby. Even so, few would look at Gideon and expect profound universal wisdom, surely, but Harrowhark could never have fathomed the depths of stupidity that presented themselves so plainly the moment Gideon opened her mouth. Eighteen year olds were infamous for being impulsive and myopic, but Gideon resided on a transcendent plane of inanity that was all her own.

The radio shut off, then the car did the same.

“Ready to fight?” Gideon asked, rubbing her palms together too excitedly before exiting the car. She slammed the door closed before Harrowhark could respond with an appropriately disinterested prolonged silence.

Partners would be randomly assigned today, and Harrowhark felt a pang in her solar plexus at the announcement. Magnus had been hovering close by during the last practice, offering Harrowhark constructive criticisms that she did not take to heart each time Ianthe landed a touch. (Harrowhark cringed inwardly at the reality that she’d used a proper fencing term without ever intending to learn it. Even she only had so much storage available in her hippocampus, and she was not going to waste valuable space on sword words.)

Whether Magnus had mentioned Ianthe’s viciousness to Abigail, Harrowhark did not know, but there was a nonzero chance that he’d been responsible for the shake-up in partnering protocol after watching Harrowhark get smacked around by the business end of a foil.

Naberius was watching Harrowhark with an expression that could only be described as “flatulent infant,” so he must have suspected that she’d tattled. Ianthe wore a slight snarl next to him, but that was really just her face.

Harrowhark was paired with someone whose face she’d not deigned relevant enough to file in memory. Once her opponent’s mask was on and the sparring began, though, she recognized that this was the person who had fought Gideon at the first practice. Quick and deadly accurate, she was much better at this than Ianthe, whose wiry frame did not accommodate her brutish offensive drive. (Again, Harrowhark loathed that she had somehow acquired the ability to analyze someone’s fighting style.)

“You’re the new one,” the girl said through her mask. “Camilla.”

For a moment, Harrowhark wondered if her partner had paid just as little attention during introductions and was simply guessing names. Then Harrowhark thought that her opponent might be saying the wrong name on purpose, pushing for a reaction, but the way she spoke made it clear that she’d never waste precious words on something as banal as a prank. Camilla was, most likely, her own name.

In a stroke of luck unlike any that had touched Harrowhark’s life thus far, Camilla made no further effort to converse. Altogether, Camilla might have been the only tolerable teammate so far, all thanks to her welcome taciturnity and proven ability to make Gideon look like a whole different subspecies of fool on the sparring mat. Unfortunately, she was now doing the same to Harrowhark, and that was a point against her.

“Don’t hold your arm so straight,” Camilla said. “You’ll get tired.”

Harrowhark was already very tired, but that wasn’t the point. “I’m fine,” she asserted.

“Guard your chest. You’re too easy to hit,” Camilla continued.

Whatever patience Harrowhark had briefly fostered towards this girl instantly dissipated.

Harrowhark lunged forward, sword arm saber-straight, and Camilla’s foil hit her in the left shoulder. Light as the touch was - Camilla put no Tridentarian venom behind her strikes - it was enough to knock Harrowhark off balance given the extremely wide stance she’d stepped into. Harrowhark fell back, the metal suit pulling towards her neighbor’s like they were magnetized, and they both crumpled in a heap. The back of Harrowhark’s head missed the mat by an inch and smacked instead into the concrete floor.

Camilla approached the body that Harrowhark had crashed into, asking if it was “Alright, Palamedes?”

“Fine, fine,” the boy said, his voice sounding more like that of a middle-aged man who might run the checkout counter at an archival library. His helmet hat mask thing had fallen off, and he muttered something about finding a way to secure it better as Camilla helped him up.

Palamedes’ partner took two bounding steps to Harrowhark’s side. Harrowhark sat up and immediately felt warmth pouring out of her nose, and she ripped her mask off and threw it. She wasn’t sure she heard it hit the ground, but she wasn’t paying attention at all.

“Harrow, you good?” Gideon. Why!

Harrowhark touched her fingers to her philtrum, and yes - that was blood.

Gideon’s helmet was off then, and Harrowhark’s head was hurting very much.

“So that’s a no on the whole being good thing,” Gideon answered herself. She reached out, but Harrowhark shoved her off. With the back of one hand pressed up against her nose, though, she had only one arm to fend off Gideon’s (very large) two, and soon she was being scooped up under her legs and waist and being carried - carried - to the edge of the sparring room.

Thumping her unoccupied fist against Gideon’s chest, Harrowhark ordered, “Put me down.”

“Okay. You’re a terrible fencer,” Gideon obliged, still carrying her.

“And you, Gideon, are a--”

“Great fencer? Thank you so much, Harrow!”

Harrowhark would have spat back menace, but there was a lot of blood in her mouth right now.

She was also very dizzy.

The cold metal bleachers should have been grounding, but something hot and less hard than metal pressed against her right side and confused things. She bit the inside of her cheek to try and dull the throbbing radiating from her nose.

Legs were moving in front of her, but it wasn’t Gideon leaving. No, that would have been too much to wish for. Instead, another person was approaching: Abigail Pent, the coach who was no doubt very worried about the prospect of finding a new fencing facility if Harrowhark kept bleeding all over this one.

“Let’s see,” Abigail said, kneeling and taking Harrowhark’s face in her hands to tilt her head back.

Harrowhark let out an indignant, displeased noise that should have sounded less gurgly than it did.

“Nothing’s broken,” Abigail diagnosed. She accepted a handful of stiff, brown paper towels from someone. “Do you use any sort of nasal steroid spray?” she asked. “They can cause frequent nosebleeds.”

“Steroids? Have you seen her arms?” the idiot’s japed at Harrowhark’s right side.

Given the opportunity, Harrowhark would show Gideon just how foolish it was to underestimate her arms. She would punch her. That’s what she’d do. She’d punch her right in the mouth.

For now, Harrowhark just shook her head. That turned out to be one of her less great ideas, seeing as it threw her field of vision into triplicate.

“Harrowhark,” Abigail began, thankfully declining to engage in the team’s habit of belligerent nicknaming, “As pleased as Magnus and I are to have a new upperclassman recruit, I think fencing disagrees with you.”

How right she was.

Harrowhark felt her torso pitch backwards, and then Gideon’s arm was around her shoulders.

Gideon took the paper towels from Abigail, and it became clear that she intended to do something with them. Harrowhark snatched them preemptively. She would not allow someone - especially not Gideon - to clean her up as if she were a fetus unable to keep from dribbling its food.

Harrowhark pressed the dampening, reddening clump of paper towels into her nose. “What would the school have me do instead? Become a parasite to the cheerleaders? Affix myself to the football team like some malignant bone spur?”

Gideon had yet to move her arm, and Harrowhark had yet to muster the energy to shrug it off. “Harrow, to thank me for helping you, will you please say the word ‘touchdown’ in the deepest voice you can do?” Gideon asked.

“I will not.”

“How about ‘sack him in the endzone?’”

If Harrowhark had been able to get the blood to her hands fast enough, she would have slapped Gideon. A sharp silence would have to suffice.

Gideon’s shit-eating smile would haunt Harrowhark forever. “Worth a shot.”

Abigail took the tumorous paper towel ball away and passed Harrowhark another handful. The nosebleed wasn’t slowing down yet, and there were a number of feet and legs gathered around where Abigail knelt. Harrowhark expected the mortification of this ordeal to set in shortly.

“You’ve never fenced before. Is that accurate?” Abigail asked.

“Not before two days ago,” Harrowhark said. It had been two days since Wednesday, right? And that had been the first day? Was that how it happened? Her words felt too big inside her mouth. “The school holds some binding conviction that I must participate in a team activity before I will be allowed to graduate.”

Abigail nodded, scrutinizing Harrowhark’s face as if she were a surgeon planning how she might reconstruct her bones. “I’ll speak to the Deans and see if we can’t work something out.”

With an uninvited pat on the shoulder and a suspiciously sympathetic look, Abigail left Harrowhark to continue bleeding.

Once she was gone, Gideon spoke just behind the shell of Harrowhark’s right ear. “Shouldn’t she want to see if she can work something out?”

“What are you talking about?” Harrowhark regretted the question as soon as she asked it.

“She said she’ll see if she can’t work something out. That feels like the wrong goal in this situation.”

Harrowhark pulled the paper towel away from her nose, and mercifully nothing gushed out. “Normally I’d appreciate such pedantry, but you’ve made it annoying.”

“Do you think pedantry is normally not annoying?” Gideon asked, palm up to accept the used paper towels. “You should talk to Palamedes.”

Harrowhark sighed and clutched the bloody clump tighter. “Perhaps.”

“Oh, no, he’s fine. Sure, he looks like he’s made of toothpicks, but they’re very sturdy toothpicks. I just meant that he’s the most pedantic person I know - sorry - so you two might get along. Or maybe you’ll hate each other. Could go either way.”

It was very obvious to Harrowhark which way it would go. She hated everybody, especially spindly men who sounded like they thought they knew everything.

Abigail came back and shined a light directly into each of Harrohwark’s eyes. Once she was reasonably convinced that an emergency room visit was not necessary (partially due to Harrowhark’s staunch refusal to go), she ordered the rest of the students onto the bus.

Harrowhark tried to stand up, but her body did not agree with that direction and started to fall to one side. Gideon’s arm secured her to the bench.

“Listen, I love to make a girl swoon, but this is a little ridiculous,” she taunted.

The feet and legs were no longer circling around them. “Has everybody gone?” Harrowhark asked.

Gideon hummed an affirmative response.

“Then why are we still here, Griddle?”

“What did you call me?” Gideon asked, the edge of confidence that usually dressed her words dulled just perceptibly.

Surely Abigail was wrong and Harrowhark did actually have a concussion.

“Are you sure your brain’s not bruised?” Gideon added, too close to a whisper.

Harrowhark tried to bolt from her seat again, but it had become a Sisyphyian endeavor. Her remaining blood rushed from her face to her feet, sprinting to support her efforts and inadvertently betraying her.

“Hey! How about we stop doing that for a second?” Gideon suggested.

Harrowhark grumbled.

“I guess the good news is that you’re probably not brainbusted, according to Abigail. You know she used to be a doctor? She said you don’t have to worry about staying awake, but I’m guessing there wasn’t a high chance of the whole sleep thing happening anyway.” Gideon was offering information that Harrowhark already knew, and apparently she wasn’t done yet. “You could probably still come to the team party later if you feel like it. Don’t worry, it won’t be too loud. Ianthe’s very particular about the volume of the music, though Coronabeth usually ignores that rule and then they spend all night arguing over DJ privileges. One time Ianthe got so mad about it that she punched Naberius right in the d--”

“Please. For once. Be silent,” Harrowhark said, hoping that her clipped sentences would come off as deliberate and intimidating instead of breathless and useless.

Gideon was quiet.

It was so much worse than the talking.

Every inhale and its slightly harsher partner exhale was audible with Gideon’s nose practically inside of Harrowhark’s ear. Every time Harrowhark’s frame so much as shifted with a breath, the arm around her shoulders tensed, braced to stop her from toppling.

One of Gideon’s legs started bouncing up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and--

Harrowhark’s hand clamped down over Gideon’s knee. “Enough,” she snapped. Her vice grip tightened, less pressing the leg down and more digging her thumb and second metacarpal into Gideon’s quadriceps tendons in two spots that she knew would cause distinct discomfort.

Gideon could have shaken the hand off easily, but she didn’t. She wasn’t even flinching - maybe she had too much muscle padding blocking the stinging grasp. Now Harrowhark could only locate the painful spots by feeling around with more intent, and that wasn’t going to happen.

“Damn. With a grip like that, how come you drop your foil so much?”

Harrowhark considered squeezing harder, but her adductor policis was cramping. She withdrew and rolled her shoulders back to shove Gideon’s arm off. “You’ll be late to your party if we loiter here,” she said.

“That’s very considerate of you, but it can be your party, too,” Gideon said, standing and offering a hand to Harrowhark.

She declined the assistance. Ignored it fully, rather.

“I can drop you off, head home, shower, get a few RAM cycles in, pick you up, then we head over to the main event.”

Harrowhark stood. “It’s REM cycles, you imbecile.”

“Not that you’d know. And for your information, I did mean RAM cycles. Rapid Arm Movement. Pull-ups, push-ups, maybe a couple of curls.”

“I cannot fathom how one could be prepared for additional upper body exercise immediately after two hours of fencing.”

“So there’s this thing called food, Harrow. When you eat it with your mouth, it makes energy - just for you! - that you can use to do things with your body.”

It was probably the blood loss, but Gideon’s car felt colder than usual. Harrowhark’s teeth chattered.

A minute or so later, the temperature was warming, and Harrowhark noticed that the air conditioning knob was turned all the way to the red side.

Gideon seemed to have already forgotten their arrangement until halfway through the ride.

“Question time: will you come to the team party?”

“Honestly?”

“Is that your question?”

“I’m not doing this again.”

“Fine. Yes, honestly.”

“No, I will not.”

“Why?”

“Ah,” Harrowhark cut in. “You’ve asked and I’ve answered. Deal fulfilled.”

Gideon turned to look at her for the briefest moment. “I threw away your gross, bloody, snotty paper towel ball earlier. Like, it touched my hands.”

Harrowhark might have felt bad if Gideon hadn’t made that choice all on her own.

“Please?” Gideon pushed. “It’ll be fun. And if it’s not, you can blame Ianthe.”

Almost tempting.

Harrowhark neglected to speak anymore for the rest of the ride to her house. Upon arrival, she tried to open the door so abruptly that it was not yet unlocked.

“Let me out,” Harrowhark insisted.

“It’s not like I’m holding you hostage,” Gideon argued. “Give me two seconds.”

The locks clicked open.

“You wanna text me if you change your mind about the party?” Gideon offered, taking her phone out of the cupholder.

“I couldn’t if I wanted to. Which, to be clear, I would never want to,” Harrowhark answered.

“What?”

“I haven’t got a phone.”

Gideon burst out laughing. Once she was wiping tears from her eyes, she exclaimed, “Of course you don’t! Why would you do anything even remotely normal?”

Harrowhark’s face grow warm, and she had to check that her nosebleed hadn’t started up again.

“Alright. I’ll tell you what. I can just swing by here in like, an hour, and if you do change your mind, you can send me a morse code flashlight signal from your window.” Gideon paused. “Tell me you have a flashlight.”

“Of course we have flashlights,” Harrowhark said. “What kind of question is that?”

“A pretty reasonable one when you know somebody has no phone. Wait, does this mean you’ve never played Angry Birds? Doodlejump? Jetpack Joyride? Come on, Harrow. These are classics.”

Harrowhark shook her head. Mercifully, her vision remained firmly grounded in its usual dimensions. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“That’s the most human sentence you’ve ever said to me.”

“Goodbye, Gideon,” Harrowhark said, finally opening the door. She slammed it behind her with all the force her bloodless arms could manage.

“It’s Griddle, actually,” the idiot shouted after her.

***

Long showers were not something that Harrowhark indulged in. Not directly, anyway. On occasion, she would do everything shower-related very efficiently, leave the water running, draw the curtain, and sit with her back against the outside of the tub. She’d wait for the steam to obscure her vision so far that she could no longer make out the edges of the drawers and cabinets, and then she would turn the water off and wait until the steam had dissipated enough that the corners came back into focus. The whole practice could have been considered meditative, but she knew it was wasteful.

Harrowhark traded her towel for a set of gray-black sweats that was deceptively uncomfortable. The clothes didn’t hold heat as well as they should, and the fabric itched a bit if it rubbed against skin the wrong way.

The clock on the desk read 7:22, and though there was very probably nothing of import happening at this hour on a Friday night, Harrowhark checked her school email. There was one announcement for a freshman ice cream social that had mistakenly been sent to the entire student body, but a second email from the Dean of Students looked like it had found its way to her inbox on purpose.

Dear [Student],

It has come to my attention that you are very bad at fencing. Because I do not wish to speak with your blandsome coaches or obnoxiously concerned former teammate ever again, I have taken the liberty of removing you from the team roster. The window for this semester’s team signups is closed as of today, and because I’m dreadfully certain you’ll ask and I won’t want to answer - there are no exceptions. You may select a new athletic activity next semester, preferably one where you have a lower chance of being hit in the face. If you need any assistance in this matter, be advised that I have very little (none) interest in children’s sports and ask someone else.

Sent from my iPhone 11

Harrowhark closed her laptop.

Her knuckles pushed all of their blood out, turning bone-white as she tried to crush her computer like a scrap of aluminum.

At the worst possible moment it could have happened, Gideon’s Friday playlist crashed into Harrowhark consciousness. She tried to shove away the horrible memory, but this was no memory at all. Gideon’s playlist was happening again, right outside of Harrowhark’s house. Sure enough, when Harrowhark peeked out the window, Gideon was leaning against her car door, window down, sunglasses on, music blasting.

Harrowhark was charging across the street to kill Gideon.

Gideon said her last words: “Cool sweatpants. I respect the casual look.”

Harrowhark shoved Gideon back against the car she was already leaning on. “What have you done?!”

“Whoa. To be clear, I lost my balance because I was surprised at the sudden violence, not because that was a good shove.”

“I will not waste another half a year in this cesspool of hormones and stupidity because of you!”

Gideon put her hands on Harrowhark’s shoulders and got her wrist slapped for it. “Okay, that one hurt a little. Harrow, what are you talking about?”

“I am stuck here because someone brought the Dean of Students into things.” Harrowhark pushed Gideon’s chest again.

“No, you’re stuck here because you don’t drive, and also, you’re not stuck here, because I drive, and I just so happen to be here with a car.”

Harrowhark did all she could not to shriek. She evened her breathing, still harsh, and explained the crime to the perpetrator. “I have been removed from the fencing team.”

To Harrowhark’s surprise, Gideon looked...surprised. “What do you mean, removed? Can't you tell them it was a mistake?”

“The Dean has personally assured that I should never hold a foil again.”

“Oh, shit. You know what they’re called?”

Harrowhark remembered her anger. “This is your fault.”

“I’m not the Dean, so, no. Abigail probably talked to her.”

Gideon was too tall, so Harrowhark got as close to her face as possible and angled her glare directly into that empty brain. “The email explicitly mentions an ‘obnoxiously concerned former teammate.’”

“Harrow, it wasn’t me.”

“The epithet is apt.”

Gideon puffed her chest out a little and Harrowhark had to step back. “Look, the amount of time you spent bleeding this week is definitely a little concerning, yes, but I know you can handle yourself. Plus, I was with you the whole time after practice, so I couldn’t have said anything to Abigail and Magnus.”

“That’s hardly proof. You could have sent an email.”

Gideon pulled out her phone. “Check my outbox.”

Harrowhark was not going to do that, mostly because she did not know how to do so. The fact that she was inclined to believe Gideon anyway was gasoline to her fury. “Then who in the hell is responsible?”

Gideon’s massive shoulders shrugged. “I don’t know. But I have a fun idea that you’re going to love.”

“Doubtful.”

“Come to the party.”

Harrowhark turned to go back to her house when Gideon grabbed her arm.

“Stop doing that,” Harrowhark bit.

“Sorry.” Gideon withdrew her hand. “If you come to the party, you can use it as a chance to investigate. People will have their guards down.”

It wasn’t a terrible idea, somehow. “They’ll be more relaxed outside of school hours.”

“Right. Also, booze.”

Harrowhark was even more uncomfortable with the idea of attending this party than before, but she couldn’t pretend it wasn’t a perfect opportunity. By the end of the night, she’d know exactly who thought she was so pathetic that she needed someone to seize control of her extracurriculars.

She was not weak, and she would make sure that nobody had even the slightest reason to think as much ever again.

***

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, some grand idiot had found it prudent to combine all of Harrowhark’s least favorite things: loudness, sweat, more idiots, and substances that made said idiots act like even bigger idiots. Now, Harrowhark had the scintillating misfortune of attending this loud, sweaty event with her own personal idiot, who was also a loud, sweaty event.

Normally, her vocabulary was richer and more diverse in its range of insults, but she was having trouble remembering subtlety through all of the red in her vision. Reminding herself that the red was a metaphor and not, once again, her own blood was the only thing keeping her from screaming every five seconds. Admitting that she’d never attended a party before was a cutting error in judgment, one for which she could convincingly blame her current state of rage.

The Tridentarius household was as gaudy as Harrowhark would have predicted if she’d spent any amount of time thinking about the twins outside of her well-informed hatred. The loud decor was at war with the loud guests and the loud music, and all of it was working in perfect synchronicity to bestow upon Harrowhark a cranium-splitting migriane. Gideon had essentially duct taped herself to Harrowhark’s side and refused to leave for longer than it took to find something to eat or drink. No matter how well Harrowhark had honed her own ability to dissolve into shadows, Gideon kept finding her and dragging her out into the noise.

How dare she assume that Harrowhark had even a modicum of interest in learning the rules of beer pong.

“Harrow, if you want to figure out who narced on your nosebleeds, you’re going to have to talk to people,” Gideon said, rudely correct.

This led to Harrowhark becoming trapped in game after game after game playing against different faces whilst Gideon made a feeble effort to make relevant conversation. None of her dreary questions about classes or music had anything to do with Harrowhark’s problem, and yet somehow only half an hour had passed. From what she’d gathered, every one of these competitions was an excuse to get drunk, and she didn’t understand why people took such a roundabout way to arriving at their desired state of incoherence. It would be vastly more efficient to just go for it.

She really didn’t think anything could be worse than the sticky, foolish socializing of drinking games, but then Coronabeth herself called for a fabled rendition of Truth or Dare. Half the guests at the party must have circled up in seconds.

It was silly. Obviously. But it was also the ideal chance for Harrowhark to ask questions and force answers. Most of the players were surely hoping to be dared to do something bold and hormone-driven, and she was quite content to subvert those expectations.

Harrowhark grabbed Gideon’s arm - she might have been surprised to find the muscle so solid and stubborn if those words weren’t perfect descriptors for Gideon herself - and tugged.

“Whoa,” Gideon said, holding a ping pong ball more delicately than she should have been able to with her giant, meaty hands. “Don’t bunk my shot. We’re supposed to be teammates, remember?”

“Come. We’re playing this other stupid game,” Harrowhark said.

Gideon peered at her over the top of her sunglasses, which were, perhaps, fused to her ridiculous face. “Really? You actually want to try Truth or Dare?”

Harrowhark released the arm and turned away. She could do this alone, very easily, as she did most things.

“Okay, one sec,” Gideon said. She tossed the ping pong ball in an impressively calculated or very lucky arc and sank it into the last cup on her opponents’ side.

“Nooooo,” the boy groaned. Given his prepubescent vocal crackle and stick figure stature, he was either a freshman or unfortunate.

The freshman’s partner, who was slightly taller and whinier, had gone from overtly ogling Gideon’s arms to pouting during the last few rounds of their game. “That’s not fair,” she also groaned. It was probably good their game ended before she had a chance to progress to an outright tantrum.

“It was totally fair,” Gideon said plainly. “It’s like, impossible to cheat at beer pong.”

The freshman continued arguing, apparently with themselves.

(“Partner didn’t even play...”

“...Wouldn’t have won even if she had...”

“Not my fault.”

“What did I do?”)

Coronabeth’s Circle of Inevitable Embarrassment had migrated to another room, and Harrowhark went in after Gideon. Everyone was seated on the floor, and Harrowhark realized that it would likely have been much easier to interrogate and accuse people if she had any inkling of a suspect list. Unfounded suspicions, yes, but actual evidence? Thin to none.

“Harry,” the lesser hostess greeted, equal parts bubbly and unsettling. “Didn’t expect to see you skulking around our living room tonight.”

Harrowhark almost tripped over her upon entering and did not feel bad about it in the slightest. Surely, Ianthe was already planning something awful. She’d probably make each of her targets lick the floor or proclaim that she was the pretty twin while making direct eye contact with Coronabeth.

Naberius was there despite the fact that he’d likely been humiliated in this game a dozen times before. Then there was Camilla, almost tolerable, and Palamedes, less so. There were a number of people Harrowhark couldn’t place. She stayed close to Gideon, who did know names and had no qualms about talking at inappropriate times.

The irritating freshman tried to barge in and join, but Naberius shut the door in their faces. They tried knocking again, a most polite intrusion, but Ianthe reached back over her shoulder and locked the door. Their whining droned in.

(“Nooo, don’t lock us out.”

“We’ve played so many times before.”)

A few doorknob jiggles later, they gave up.

When the quiet in the room became suffocating, Ianthe looked dead at Palamedes. “Strange game to play with your cousin, don’t you think?”

“Your sister’s at your left, is she not?” Palamedes quipped.

Ianthe’s lip curled in a cruel imitation of a smile.

“Who wants to go first?” Coronabeth asked, already issuing the first dare with that question.

No one spoke up. Teenagers were smart about so few things, but even they knew not to upset a girl with a venomous sister.

“Alright, I’ll go,” Coronabeth said cheerfully. “Babs. Truth or dare?”

“Dare, always,” he replied.

“Do a handstand.”

“Easy.”

“Boring,” Ianthe cut in. “Make him do pushups until he passes out.”

Coronabeth considered the suggestion far more seriously than she should have. “Alright. Babs, do a handstand, and then do a pushup while doing the handstand.”

Gideon, forgotten for a moment, leaned in and whispered so close to Harrowhark’s ear that her cochlear cilia bristled. “I can do those,” Gideon said, pointlessly.

Harrowhark tried to glare at her, but Gideon was fixed on the stage across the circle.

Naberius looked between the sisters. Everyone else was merely an audience to their improvised opera of sick power plays. “Are you serious?” he asked. “A handstand pushup?”

“Too difficult?” Coronabeth asked sympathetically.

“You can chicken out if you need to,” Ianthe said.

“No,” he argued. “I can do it.”

Coronabeth brightened. “Let’s see then.”

Technically, he did it, even though he had to use the wall to keep himself upright and his feet dragged against it. His elbows flexed very slightly, and because no one had specified how deep the pushup had to be, he claimed he’d fulfilled the dare. Predictably, because he hadn’t fallen flat on his face, Ianthe was displeased.

“Your turn,” Coronabeth said to Naberius. She really was the blandest master of ceremonies imaginable, and yet Gideon was watching her with unblinking intent.

“Ianthe,” he started, looking as proud as a puppy who’d soiled the couch, “do a handstand pushup.”

“Fuck you, Babs,” Ianthe dismissed. “That’s not how the game works, you goldfish-shouldered imbecile.”

Gideon gave a low whistle at what was apparently a cutting insult. Was the only person present who knew that goldfish did not have shoulders, and Ianthe was spewing nonsense as usual?

“Truth or dare?” Naberius asked dutifully.

With no patience, Ianthe replied, “Truth.”

Naberius was not a fast thinker, and he’d not come up with an alternative to his terribly creative dare.

“...Can you do a handstand pushup?” he asked.

“Yes,” Ianthe lied.

Before he could argue, she stared murder at Harrowhark. “Let’s play, Harry.”

Harrowhark had not realized that participating in this game would entail answering questions as well as asking them, and she was woefully unprepared. There were no good options in this game, but she wasn’t sure which was a more dangerous implement in Ianthe’s hands. It was as if Harrowhark had been given a choice between a knife and a hammer. One could strip her flesh clean off, and the other could shatter bone.

Gideon’s voice was back in her ear. “Do dare. Those are always fun. Except when Corona gives them out, I guess.”

“Truth,” Harrowhark said, sacrificing her flesh to save her bones. In immediate retrospect, a foolish moment of contrarian panic.

Ianthe’s expression curdled again - she’d wanted the opposite. Seeing as she herself had just lied to the whole room to hurry the game along, she must have assumed Harrowhark would be inclined do the same. Lying took effort, though, and Harrowhark would only bother doing so if Ianthe managed to invent a question capable of lasting damage.

“Truth it is.” Ianthe scanned the room, lingering on everyone and no one in particular. “Given the option, who in here would you least hate to kiss?”

Harrowhark recoiled, her stomach working to clench her into a tiny ball while she resisted. “No one.”

“You’d least hate to kiss no one? So you’d like to kiss everyone?”

“I’d kiss no one,” Harrowhark corrected.

“That’s not what you said.”

“Have you no thoughts in your liquified brain beyond clichés and sadism?”

Ianthe’s eyes glittered in her bloodless face. “With bite like that, who’s to say you’re not the sadist?”

No one in the room was speaking, not even Gideon. Harrowhark found herself an unwitting star of the scene and realized she’d given Ianthe exactly what she wanted: not flesh, not bones, but attention. Hers and everyone else’s.

Harrowhark knew that exiting now would only put a spectacular curtain on the act, but she couldn’t be in this room any longer. She stood, accidentally stepped on Gideon’s hand, and wished that she’d stepped on Ianthe’s hand instead on her way out the door.

***

Four steps into the next room, Harrowhark realized she had no clue where she was stomping off to. She hadn’t been paying any attention to the winding hallways while following Gideon earlier, and it didn’t help that this house had at least three times more rooms than were necessary for a human living space. Then again, the Tridentarians were human only by the broadest of definitions.

If the music had been quieter, or if there had been less shouting, Harrowhark might have heard the footsteps that approached as she sank to sit against a richly stained wooden wall in the ninetieth hallway she’d passed through. Once she did hear, she had the briefest moment to make an incorrect assumption about the intruder’s identity.

“Harry,” Ianthe’s crooned, “Has the game upset your delicate sensibilities?”

Offering any kind of response would be a mistake, so Harrowhark merely dropped her head to her kneecaps and stared at the sliver of floor between her up-bent legs.

The wood creaked and groaned, as Harrowhark wished she could, as Ianthe dropped to a seat next to her. Out of the corner of her periphery, Harrowhark could see how poorly the hostess’ almost jaundiced shin matched the rich, healthy colors of her home. There was more sanguinity to the deep red wood around them than there was in Ianthe’s green, spindly veins.

“I don’t much care for parties either,” Ianthe said, unprompted. “Corona likes them, though.”

“You do everything your sister likes?” Harrowhark snapped.

“Far from it.” There was a glimmer of humor in Ianthe’s voice, as if she and Harrowhark were sharing a joke that only they understood. It was, in a word, revolting. “She’d be content if this was all there was.”

Harrowhark snorted. Thankfully, she hadn’t snuffled her sinusoid mucus around so much that it came loose. The last thing she needed was Ianthe witnessing such a mess.

Ianthe said again. “Harry--”

“That is not my name.”

“Why are you even here? I must admit, you surprised me. Walking in with that massive, slobbering oaf of a ginger and traipsing after her like a puppy craving bacon.”

Harrowhark felt her neck kink at how quickly she snapped to glare. “I am traipsing after no one.”

“Touchy.” Ianthe poked at Harrowhark’s arm and nearly got her finger ripped off. “Look. I’m just curious why you bothered crashing a party when every bit of the concept seems antithetical to your prudish values.”

Scanning Ianthe’s face made it clear that she had not yet realized her own mistake. “Crashing? ‘Team party’ implies universal invitations for the team, does it not?”

Ianthe’s teeth bit the inside of her thin lip, and Harrowhark had won. “Figure of speech. I only figured that since you hate people so much, you’d uninvite yourself.”

“I did not.”

“And so here you are.”

Harrowhark was prepared to test exactly how long she could go without blinking in the time it took for Ianthe to admit her crimes of her own volition. Of course, she did not do this immediately, and Harrowhark soon felt emotionless tears springing up to rescue her rapidly desiccating corneas.

“You’re not mad, are you?” Ianthe said in disbelief.

Harrowhark wanted to push her, but they were already sitting, so it wouldn’t have done much good. “Would you not be in my position?”

“No, I would not be mad if someone cared enough to make sure I didn’t get the shit kicked out of me after school every day. Why do you think I partnered up with you? Because you offer a challenge? Harry, I was trying to help.”

“Help whom?”

Ianthe chuckled awfully, teeth bared. “You’re like an angry little knife with a second, smaller knife tucked into the handle, aren’t you? Nasty. People don’t give you enough credit.” She may have been excluding herself from these ‘people,’ which was emotionally if not semantically correct.

“You’ve ruined everything,” Harrowhark seethed. Her jaw was clenching so tightly that all she saw was searing white, white and pale purple and sickly, washed out yellow.

The loathsome pout on Ianthe’s face made Harrowhark wish she’d run all the way out of the house when the chance presented itself, or better yet, not come in at all. “Now I think you’re giving me a bit too much credit. Nothing’s ruined except your chances of violently hemorrhaging in public. Perhaps the fencing team is better off for it, but don’t you agree that most extracurriculars are more enjoyable without the risk of bodily fluids getting everywhere?”

There were many words that Harrowhark wanted to call Ianthe. None of them seemed to appropriately encompass her marvelously rotten... everything.

A sneer worked its way into Harrowhark’s face. In a fleeting, panic-inducing moment, she could not remember how many minuscule muscles were involved in facial expressions, let alone which were contorting themselves into her strained grimace.

“Don’t look at me like that. I’ve done nothing wrong,” Ianthe insisted.

“You’re a bitch,” Harrowhark thought out loud.

“Haven't we got so much in common?”

“Do you only shut up when your sister’s around to spout louder nonsense?”

Ianthe did not reach out to grab Harrowhark by the throat, but she might as well have done so. “Do not speak of my sister in such terms. We both know what’s true. Isn’t that enough?”

At the same time, there was a stabbing pain in Harrowhark’s hand where it met the floor, straight through the palm, though she did not bleed. Nothing had touched her at all, but she felt as though arachnoid fingertips were already dancing across her skin. It should have been more unpleasant, so she told herself it was.

“The truth,” Harrowhark said, “is that you took the liberty of fucking me over.”

“Careful. That’s not quite the turn-off you think it is.”

“Now I’m stuck here because of you.”

“Has anyone, even once, made you do a thing that some tiny part of you did not already wish to do? You are stuck here because you want to be. Because it’s less frightening than whatever comes after.”

If Harrowhark could have stood up and left, she would have done so long ago, but her head felt very heavy whenever she considered moving. She could not physically think about an after, or a later, or an anything but now, which the worst moment she’d experienced since Truth or Dare. It felt as though she was being split in two by a set of brass knuckles straight to the crown of her skull.

“It’s alright. Everyone gets scared,” Ianthe said. Despite speaking a language that Harrowhark understood, it was fully incomprehensible. “How is it that you’re so brilliant, but you put all of it towards missing what’s right in front of you?” Ianthe asked.

“Have you ever, even once, delivered a compliment that was not an insult in the same breath?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I did.”

Harrowhark conceded a nod. “That may be the most honest thing you’ve said.”

“What would you rather hear? That you’re the least boring person at this party?”

“Backhanded.”

“Giving me another try?”

Perhaps Ianthe was just as incapable of silencing herself as Harrowhark was of deciphering the morbidly enticing tone laid over her words like a funereal veil, concealing just enough for curiosity to look closer into the coffin.

How Harrowhark wished her legs would listen when she told them to carry her off. 

“For what it’s worth, I’ve never lied to you. Not once,” Ianthe claimed.

“It’s worth very little.”

“But not nothing?”

“Less than nothing. You misconstrue me.”

Ianthe sighed, her arms draped over her lap like a woman on a fainting couch. “I do try.”

Harrowhark looked directly at the paler sun again, so prone to blinding herself.

“I’m doing you a favor, I think,” Ianthe added. 

The less Harrowhark said, the more space she left open to be filled. Either option left her tasting rusted iron.

“Have you gotten what you came for, then?” Ianthe asked, still grating.

Harrowhark wondered - had she? Or had this all been a Brobdingnagian waste of time? Had she known all along, and, as Ianthe said, refused to acknowledge what was just inches away from the vulnerable cartilage tip of her nose? If so, why had she done so? Enumerating the rather short list of possible reasons twisted Harrowhark's guts into bows. She was not used to not knowing things, and she was thus disinclined towards such lines of inquiry. She understood without questioning. That was efficient. Smart. Safe. This was foolish. 

“If you’re waiting for something big, pizza’s coming in an hour,” Ianthe went on, cleanly decimating the tracks upon which Harrowhark’s train of thought had been traveling. “After that, we’ll probably see if we can get Babs to do a keg stand. Last time he vomited all over his own shoes. And three other people’s. He didn’t remember, but we took loads of pictures--”

There was one way to ensure that Ianthe shut up, and it was to occupy her mouth with something else. The execution of idea left Ianthe so stunned that she didn’t even pick up her story after Harrowhark’s tongue had withdrawn from her mouth.

It had the desired effect, along with clearing Harrowhark's head long enough that she was able to send a signal to her legs. Ignoring the strange, stabbing pain in her hand, Harrowhark rose from the floor and left the hostess behind. She only paused long enough to say, “You throw awful parties,” and then continued back through the maze of hallways she’d come through. Her head was clearer now, and she followed the sound of the music back to where she hoped she’d find the one person who would be able to drag her out of this hell.

As Gideon had no issue making a fool of herself, Harrowhark had no qualms with interrupting yet another mindless game involving alcohol.

“Take me home,” she said, wondering why her words felt small in her mouth.

“What?” Gideon yelled over the music and her own attitude. “You want to leave already?”

“Take me home, Gideon,” Harrowhark repeated, and this time her voice roared too big in her throat.

A number of people looked at her, and she didn’t care.

“Okay, yeah, no problem,” Gideon said.

Harrowhark wasn’t sure if she was carried out of the party or if she simply wished it had been true, but either way she was back in Gideon’s car.

Gideon reached for the dashboard, and Harrowhark did something she would never have done sober, except that she hadn’t drank a single drop of alcohol at the party. She caught Gideon’s wrist. 

“You turn on that mind-numbing Friday music, I make you eat this vehicle, piece by piece, starting with the engine,” Harrowhark said. For a fleeting moment, as her headache returned, Harrowhark thought that mind-numbing of any kind sounded rather nice, actually, but that sentiment would certainly undermine the threat.

“Harrow, I wouldn’t do that. It’s technically Saturday.” Gideon said with too much tenderness. “Plus, the car is off.”

“Yes,” Harrowhark said blankly. “Fix that, then.”

Gideon started the car. Warm air blew out of the vents, and it was bad and uncomfortable all over again.

“Did you figure out who talked to the Dean?” Gideon asked, pulling away from the curb.

Harrowhark nearly snapped that it was none of your business, but she’d made it Gideon’s business, and at the very least she owed her an answer. “Yes.” That should have been all the closure Gideon needed.

“Who?” 

“This was a waste of time,” Harrowhark said.

“So you didn’t figure it out?”

“I did. And I would have done so much sooner if you hadn’t roped me into pointless socializing.”

Gideon turned to look at her, which Harrowhark really wished she would stop doing while driving, even if they were at a stoplight. “I’m not going to apologize for getting you out of your house for all of three hours.”

Surely it hadn’t been that long, or that short, considering it felt like a blink and an eternity.

“You don’t have to be scared of people, Harrow,” Gideon continued. “They don’t bite. Except maybe Ianthe.”

Harrowhark felt her blood pressure surge dangerously. “Why have you invested yourself in all this?” 

“How many times do I have to explain this whole friendship thing to you? You’re stuck with me now. Ride or die, baby.” Gideon winked, pushed her glasses up her nose, and returned her eyes to the road. It was all incredibly offensive. “You know what? I’m gonna prove it.”

“I hate to preempt the novel instance of you forming a complete thought, but don’t you dare.”

“I haven’t finished said thought yet. But I’ll come up with something, my mysterious midnight maven.”

Harrowhark stared at her, knowing it was sharp enough to cut through the darkness and sunglass lenses alike. “What the hell did you just say?”

“Not that one?

“Not any of them.”

“How about crepuscular queen? Brooding bone-maven? You make anatomy books like as appetizing as a fresh panini. I’ve seen it. Not Safe For Lunch, Harrow.”

Harrowhark must have fallen asleep to the sound of Gideon’s idiocy. When she woke up, she was in front of the place she lived, and Gideon was leaning towards her. Harrowhark jerked away so quickly that she smashed the back of her head against something blunt and pointy. She would have a headache tomorrow, but that was hardly new.

“I was unbuckling your seatbelt, weirdo,” Gideon said.

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I’m so nice and so strong, I was going to carry you in.”

“And what? Break down the front door?”

“Or ring the bell. Like a normal person.”

“Nobody’s home,” Harrowhark said distantly. “Except now I am here, so someone is home, which means you shouldn’t get any ideas about breaking in.”

“Do you think I commit crimes on a regular basis?”

“I have no evidence to the contrary.”

“So your parents like to party late?”

“Disgusting. They’re traveling.”

Gideon’s eyes brightened impossibly behind her glasses. Why was she still wearing them? How did she see anything at night? “Consider my thought completed.”

Harrowhark shook her head violently. “No.”

“Yes. Come over for dinner tomorrow. I can confidently say you don’t eat enough when you’re home alone. Plus, you can talk to my dad.”

“Why would I want to do such a thing?”

“He’s the principal,” Gideon said as if it was the most obvious thing in the universe. “You can talk to him about your issues. With fencing, I mean.”

Harrowhark’s brain was usually very quick when it came to processing new information, but something about this simply refused to click.

“Your father runs the school?”

Suddenly, Gideon’s voice sounded like it was coming from behind, left, right, anywhere but in front, even though she was back where she’d been when she was unbuckling the seatbelt, staring dead at through her, eyes burning a preternatural amber, a wildfire burning in two brilliant rings. “How did you know that, Harrowhark?”

“How could I have known?” Harrowhark thought. “I didn’t. I hardly know you.”

A smirk shouldn’t have been able to be just as sad as it was cocky, but Gideon made no sense. 

Harrowhark blinked, and Gideon was back on her side of the car. “That’s a very weird way of saying it, but yes.”

“What?”

“That my dad runs the school,” she said, putting casual air quotes around Harrowhark’s words. “I mean, he’s not an emperor.”

“I’m going to leave now,” Harrowhark said, the pressure building behind her eyes to an insurmountable degree.

“Think about dinner, okay? Goodnight, Harrow,” Gideon said, gesturing towards the passenger’s side door. “Sweet dreams.”

Harrowhark got out of the car without another word, knowing she would not have sweet dreams, and praying she did not have any dreams at all.

***

Chapter Text

Gideon’s house was nothing like her. Whereas the living room was spacious and crammed full of furniture and art, Gideon’s head was just a little too small for her broad shoulders and largely empty. The couch was uncomfortable, overstuffed, the sort of piece that was best left to a decorative lack of function. The artwork, on second look, was crude and immodest. The biggest painting in the room hung over the fireplace, and it depicted a completely nude woman astride a horse. Why anyone would ride naked was beyond Harrowhark, but it was even more baffling to consider the thought process behind selecting such an item for semi-public display. Despite the graphic nature of the portrait, Harrowhark was struck with the lopsided thought that Gideon and her sense of lasciviousness had played no part in choosing it.

As the consideration dizzied her, Harrowhark looked below the painting. The fireplace should have been barren, at worst coated with a thin coat of char. Even if no one bothered cleaning it, there should have been no more than one pile of gray ash in the center. Yet there were two. Two little mountains, one slightly more rounded than the other.

She blinked, and the ashes were gone. The woman on the horse was gone, replaced with a man, fully clothed, riding a more muscular stallion and chasing a bear, bow loaded to fire. The painting was more dynamic in every way, but it stirred less. Nothing.

Harrowhark would have had more time to think how strange it all was had Gideon not entered the room and scrambled her back to her present.

“Hope you’re hungry,” Gideon said. “We ordered way too much pizza for two people, so we’re really gonna need you to pull your weight here.”

Harrowhark’s nose scrunched up at the mention of pizza - she was not partial to anything that involved a significant amount of cheese. Or flavor.

“Not your literal weight of approximately five and a half pounds. Your metaphorical weight of eating as much pizza as you can possibly fit in your body,” Gideon clarified.

She sat across from Harrowhark and looked more comfortable on the couch than she should have. How could anyone feel at home here, in a room that felt like a museum tribute to an era long forgotten and even longer past?

“I know you probably observe old timey manners about talking with your mouth full of food and what not,” Gideon began, proving that she would likely be able to make conversation with a wall, “but you are allowed to talk before the eating starts.”

“Obviously,” Harrowhark snapped. She said nothing else, and instead wished for a mask to hide the visible warmth crawling up into her face.

“Heads up, my dad says weird things sometimes,” Gideon said. “Not like, creepy-weird. Just obnoxious-weird. He's a dad.”

Harrowhark couldn’t imagine saying something so crass about her own parents. When were they coming back, again?

“It’s just you and your father?” Harrowhark asked for some reason. Usually, creating one person required two other people to be involved in some capacity.

Gideon leaned forward, her head cocking just like her ego. “Did you just ask me a genuine question? No snark?”

“I’d prefer to know what I’m walking into. Such information is relevant to my current circumstances, nothing more.”

“Hot.”

Harrowhark felt her facial features pinch together, and she knew Gideon was laughing at her for it.

“Just me and the big man,” Gideon explained. “Mom was a surrogate, so you know as much about her as I do. Honestly, you could probably guess and know more than I do. But I choose to believe that she’s a professional BASE jumper, baritone saxophonist, and a founding mother of the Juggalos.”

Harrowhark nodded along thoughtfully. “Because you yourself are an insane clown?”

Gideon beamed, mouth wide open. “Did you just understand a pop culture reference?”

The vivid, painful thought of Gideon getting on a soapbox about clowns in pop culture flashed in Harrohwark’s mind, and it frightened her viscerally. Pivoting away from that entire line of questioning was essential. “What time is this dinner supposed to begin?” 

“Harrow,” Gideon said, her voice dropping low as she leaned into the vast, insurmountable space separating their couches. “Be honest. Are you nervous about meeting my dad? It’s a big step, I know.”

The only response Harrowhark would deign to offer was a brash sneer.

Gideon’s shit-eating grin only broadened, but it could not begin to bridge the chasm between them.

“If I am at all disquieted, it is because a man whom I have never once met holds the power to shape my immediate and distant futures,” Harrowhark replied. Perhaps that would shut down this inane artery of discussion.

“Heads up: he likes jokes. Make a joke or two and maybe he’ll consider putting you back on the fencing team.”

“As usual, you have made an assumption that could not be more wrong. I do not wish to return to fencing.”

“I thought you wanted to do way too many things this semester so you could leave as soon as possible. Have you changed your mind about hating literally everything about high school?” The pang of hopefulness in her voice, far from bitter, made Harrowhark more uncomfortable than the couch.

“On the contrary,” Harrowhark corrected. “The extent to which I despise it all has only grown in my inconsequential tenure on this team. I intend to make a case for waiving the requirement on the grounds that it’s a waste of my time.”

“Oh. Well, I wouldn’t call several bleeding incidents inconsequential.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. That word contains so many syllables.”

“Ha ha,” Gideon said, her baseline mischief belying her attempt at humorlessness. “I know words, Harrow. More than you, probably.”

“I sincerely doubt it.”

“I don’t.”

Harrowhark had no patience for egos inflated with nothing but hot air, and Gideon’s was the hottest ego she’d ever encountered.

As in, it was intolerable.

“Alright,” Harrowhark said. “Name a word, one single word, that I do not know.”

Gideon thought for a moment. Either she hadn’t considered the challenge would go this far, or her vocabulary was genuinely already at a loss. “Okay,” she finally said. Then, “Pepperoncini.”

“Are you completely daft?”

“You’re right. That was a bad one. I was thinking about pizza. Second try.” Gideon rubbed her hands together. “How about... G.O.A.T.?”

Harrowhark stared at her. Surely this was all a massive joke, and she was being watched through a one-way mirror by someone who was having a hearty belly laugh at her expense. “Is that a fucking joke?” she asked.

“No, that’s not the definition.”

“Do you think I’ve never seen a goat, Gideon?”

“Not goat. G.O.A.T.,” Gideon said, listing out each of the letters.

“You’ve just spelled the word. Correctly, which was a shock to my expectations.”

“Hey. You’ve got pizza riding on this. What’s a G.O.A.T., Harrow?”

Harrowhark sighed. She answered, not for the promise of pizza, but in the hope that this game would come to its end soon. “A two-horned, cloven-hoofed creature that possesses the ability to scale nearly 90 degree slopes.”

“Cool, that was super boring. But no, you’re wrong.” Gideon shrugged broadly in a farce of gracious victory. “It means Greatest Of All Time. Which, according to the results of this short-lived game, would be me.”

“You can’t count that,” Harrowhark argued. “You claimed you could find a word I didn’t know. G.O.A.T. is an acronym.” She knew a thousand words Gideon would never hear in her life. It would be possible to stun her a hundred times over with pelvic anatomy alone - ischial, tuberosity, and promontory came to mind without so much as an ounce of effort.

“Fine,” Gideon conceded. “I’ve got one that doesn’t break any of your weird rules.”

“No, you don’t.”

Gideon spoke again, but all Harrowhark heard was static. It was as if Gideon’s voice had been sucked into a black hole and tried to climb its way out, but on its way back it had lost a fight with a cheese grater.

Harrowhark blinked. “One more time?” she asked quickly and quietly.

Gideon should have laughed, but she did no such thing. Instead, she was there, right there, grasping the arms of Harrow’s couch, directly in front of Harrow’s face, eyes burning, always burning, as she spoke the word again with a desperate and unintelligible volume. She said it again and again: first, her mouth was a humming line, then her teeth pinched the tip of her tongue.

Myth? Harrowhark knew myths. Stories whose substance came from emotional truth rather than reality. Not something Harrowhark had time to entertain--

But Gideon’s mouth didn’t stop at myth. Her lips rounded and pressed forward into irascible fact - the top one curling up in a sneer too dire to be arrogant, bloody cracks pulled the mouth wide. More humming. Those burning eyes demanding comprehension, as furious as Harrow herself that she could not give it.

Harrow’s vision went spotty, a vacuum of unknowable stars. Her back and the couch collided, and it was hard and cold as ice.

The voice came, clearer and stronger than in the moments before. Close, so close. Gideon. Griddle. Griddle. “Harrow, don’t you dare--”

And then it was gone, but back, and further away all at once.

“Wow.” Gideon was on her own couch. Her arm was stretched across the back of it. One of her ankles was crossed over the top of her opposite knee, and she looked utterly unperturbed. “You could just say you don’t know instead of collapsing dramatically.”

Harrowhark did not move right away. She could not. Her head would not turn, and so her eyeballs strained to watch Gideon out of their periphery.

Had Gideon been wearing her sunglasses before? No? What was true? What was myth?

“You okay?” Gideon asked, eyes shaded, dimmed.

Answering was a chore, and Harrowhark realized that she would either have to commit to that effort or relinquish victory completely.

Or her curiosity would get the better of her. “Say it again,” she demanded. Surely she’d be able to figure it out this time.

“Nope. None of that ‘use it in a sentence’ bullshit. Either you know it or you don’t,” Gideon said. Her armed were crossed now. Didn’t she have a scar on one of them?

Harrowhark considered sitting up, but no. Not that. Not when Gideon had suddenly developed the ability to knock her out cold with one word. This dinner had gone from uncomfortable to hostile with a single incomprehensible utterance, and Harrowhark wanted to run. She wanted to leave. She wanted out of all of it - but fear had no rule over morbid, consuming intrigue.

She would learn what this word meant. Gideon’s myth-- would make itself known.

The dinner table was a rectangle, which was not unusual, and there were three plates set out.

Gideon slapped two pieces of pizza together and ate it like a structurally wrecked calzone. John Gaius, principal and alleged father of Gideon, prepared to eat his pizza the exact same way. Gideon took a massive bite, and Harrowhark could not tear her eyes away from the brutal carnage of sauce and pepperoni grease spattering everywhere. Quite violent, really.

John Gaius sat across from Harrowhark, and Gideon was at her right. The seat to the left remained empty.

“So, I hear you two know each other,” John Gaius said.

There should have been more to the sentence, perhaps an assertion of an activity, or even the more general commonality of attending the same school. His school.

“Fencing, remember?” Gideon said. Her inflection was flatter than Harrowhark had ever noticed, and at this point, she had to admit that she spent a nonzero amount of time noticing the way Gideon spoke. Her tongue-in-cheek cadence had become familiar, or perhaps it had always been that way. Maybe Harrowhark had mistaken the initial discomfort at hearing it for unfamiliarity and strange word choices (which persisted nonetheless). There was a chance that she’d always listened to what Gideon was saying to her, but something beyond either of their control was making it impossible to understand just what she meant.

“Tell me, Harrowhark,” John Gaius said, “do you like fencing?”

The question was likely a trap, but Harrowhark could not figure out how or why. No, she did not. It made her feel like her arms were going to fall off and her pride was going to hang itself from the gym rafters. What did the principal have to gain from keeping her stuck on a team she hated? Why should she pretend to enjoy it? Just to go along with John Gaius’ athletic decree? She’d always thought that people worshipped sports too much.

Gideon should have had more words to spew out. The pizza was keeping her busy, though, and Harrowhark had to fend for herself against a man whose tricks she did not know.

“I’m not sure I’ve had the friendliest introduction to it,” Harrowhark said.

“Nonsense! Abigail is the friendliest person I know,” John Gaius said. Should she call him John? Mr. Gaius? Principal John Gaius, Head of School, Recessive Redhead? None of those felt right. She was missing something - perhaps he had a middle name.

“She doesn’t like fencing, fencing doesn’t like her,” Gideon explained. It wasn’t tactful in the least, but Harrowhark had never been much better with that sort of thing. What was the point of having thoughts and opinions if you only expressed them through a prism?

“Ahhhh. You’re the bleeder.”

Harrowhark frowned.

At least Gideon’s lack of verbal artistry had a clear origin story.

“Dean Mercymorn mentioned something about a student who wouldn’t stop bleeding everywhere. Seemed very disappointed that there was no actual stabbing involved in any of the incidents. Ironic, considering where it happened, huh?” He hummed a little tune to himself as he out-crimed Gideon by cutting his stacked pizza slices with a fork and knife.

Harrowhark wanted to shout that it was not ironic - she had not gone into fencing practice thinking that she might be stabbed to the point of blood loss, and so no expectations had been subverted in a surprising but inevitable manner by the lack of stabbings. Nothing about it was ironic, but John Gaius was still humming.

He burst into a bizarre falsetto, singing: “It’s like ra-i-aiiiiin on your wedding day...”

Gideon did the worst possible thing and harmonized with him on the next line. And the one after that. And the one after that.

Harrowhark stared directly into her plate. The single slice of pizza offered no respite, no solace.

Supposed comfort food doing quite the opposite - now that was ironic.

Neither of the dinner performers acknowledged what had happened after the fact. Their eyes stayed on their plates the whole time. John Gaius cut another bite off of his pizza stack, and Gideon shoved hers into her mouth.

“Harrowhark,” John Gaius said through a mouth full of bread and cheese and sauce, “why stick with fencing at all?”

“I have no choice. Unless my athletic requirement can be waived, I must commit to participating,” she said. “And yet I was removed from the team against my will.”

“I admire the loyalty, I do. But it sounds like you just got cut, kiddo.”

He gave the distinct sense that he would be patting Harrowhark on the shoulder at that very moment if it would not inconvenience him to do so. Gideon was right to warn about her father’s way of engaging. Harrowhark did not like him, which struck her as a thought she shouldn’t have. It was scandalous to think so poorly of the principal. Almost blasphemous. He was the most important person in her life at this moment, the one who controlled whether or not her life would be forced to stand still. As far as she was concerned, he might as well have been God, and demanding things from God was not easy. 

Harrowhark blinked hard and willed the rising bile in her throat to neutralize itself. It didn’t.

When she looked up from her plate and into Principal God’s eyes, they shifted. White to black, human to something so much more and pitifully less.

There was no longer an empty chair in Harrowhark’s peripheral view. To her left, someone sat.

Harrowhark dared not look to see who had filled that fourth seat. For all she knew, they had been present for the entire meal, and it would be rude to only now acknowledge their presence. She may have noticed them already, acknowledged it, and forgotten - the headaches made that a distinct possibility.

The body in the fourth chair did not reach for the pizza. They did not move at all, and their presence was as comforting as a corpse’s pulse.

A fly flew across Harrowhark’s vision, left to right, and dropped dead when it crossed in front of John Gaius’ forehead. His eyes shifted back, like at an oil spill one moment and the ordinary man who caused it the next.

“Alright,” John Gaius sighed. He caught the fly between two fingers before it could land on the remaining slices of pizza in the middle of the table. “Tell you what, Harrowhark. You’re a friend of Gideon’s, which means I can’t give you special treatment. In fact, if anything, I should be twice as hard on you.”

Until he spoke again, she feared that his words might be literal. She would rather kiss Ianthe Tridentarius again than join a second sports team.

Perhaps Harrowhark had been too swift to judge the fourth diner at the table for their silence. In John Gaius’ company, speaking felt closer to suffocating, even when directly asked to answer a question.

“How would you like... to rejoin the fencing team?”

He presented the option as if he were presenting her a check for millions of dollars, and only she knew that the bank cashed out in Monopoly money.

“With all due respect,” Harrowhark began, “I do not think that is in the best interests of myself or the team. Forcing me to remain at your institution simply to fulfill an athletic requirement would be a waste of the school’s resources.”

“That’s true. You did get cut. Hmm...” His eyebrows furrowed together just like Gideon’s when she stared at the sunset for too long at a red light. Unlike her, he tapped his chin, a gesture too contrived to be meaningful. “Well, I can’t just pretend you don’t have to follow the rules, so I guess we’ll just have to try again next semester. I can pull a few strings and make sure you don’t get cut loose again next time. How does lacrosse sound?”

“It sounds like a waking nightmare.”

His laugh blared like a tuneless trumpet. “Gideon, you should bring your pals around more often. But only if they’re as funny as this one. I like her.” He turned to Harrowhark. “I like you, Harrowhark. You’re welcome here anytime.”

Gideon glared at him, and Harrowhark wondered why. Another question whose answer she feared. Maybe Gideon resented his use of the term friend to describe someone who could remain unflinchingly brusque and detached even in the presence of pizza. Harrowhark wouldn’t have blamed Gideon for the disdain, nor would she have argued in her own defense. She was not someone who others wanted as a friend, and it was long past time that Gideon gave up the ruse. What did she get out of it, anyway?

An elaborate joke. That’s all it was. A laugh.

The floor was carpeted, so Harrowhark must have imagine the metallic screeeech the chair made when Gideon backed away from the table abruptly.

“Where are you going?” Harrowhark asked.

Wordlessly, Gideon left Harrowhark alone with Principal God and another body that Harrowhark refused to look at. Her skin felt as if it were trying to crawl off of her and follow Gideon into the kitchen. Still, she would not look left. She remembered the last time she refused to look at a body, which led to remember the moment when she finally did look at it, and that was something she was not inclined to relive.

It was all a trick.

No one was there.

She was imagining it.

Gideon came back. She held a bowl in her hands, cradling it as if it held pieces of the universe.

Harrowhark’s eyes stayed fixed on the bright red hair, the sunglasses, the flashing golden eyes melting the plastic lenses clean off.

Gideon stood there, at her right side, warm and present.

The body stood there, at her left side, cold and wretched.

Harrowhark knew what she would see if she turned now. The same face she’d seen at the beach on the day that she learned what salt water oceans did to flesh. Wet, dark hair. Blue lips. Ruined smile. What a brilliant job Harrowhark had done keeping her friend from that fate. 

“You’ve never had pizza, but you don’t like it,” burning-eyed Gideon said. “Do you remember when you told me that?”

Harrowhark did not remember. Why was it that she could only recall the things that made her throat close up?

Gideon placed the bowl on the table.

Soup.

Harrowhark’s vision went black.

***

Chapter Text

Two people argued in front of a chalk-dusted blackboard. By the amplitudes of their voices, they’d been at it for a while, volume rising steadily until it reached a point where both participants inevitably forgot their ideological centers and became obsessed with tearing the other apart at any cost. Debates were for those who didn’t hold enough conviction in their own beliefs to know them and hold to them without direct challenge.

The debaters were loud enough to wake Harrowhark, and she wondered when she’d started falling asleep in classes. Had it always happened this way?

One thing that was certainly new was the fact that the seat next to her was not, as it usually was, empty.

None other than Ianthe Tridentarius sat in it, her silent presence more shrill than both of the debaters combined. She sketched on an otherwise blank page, making the smallest pencil strokes with a dexterity that betrayed a shocking level of investment in what she was creating. Sadly for her, the flower she was drawing had too few petals and too many wrinkles in those petals, and the stigma was outlandishly off-center, quite near the top of the drawing. Perhaps Ianthe had never seen a flower and that was why she was the way she was.

The two squabblers at the front of the class continued - Harrowhark realized they were not fighting for fun, but for academic exercise - but Teacher was not there. How were these students going to be graded? Hopefully not by their peers. Considering she’d been absent for the majority of their discussion, Harrowhark did not trust herself to accurately report on their performance. She could guess (poorly) how it was going (probably also poorly, but beyond that, she knew nothing). Was she going to have to argue with someone next? If Ianthe was not sitting next to her sister, then who was?

Surely Coronabeth Tridentarius wouldn’t allow herself to be seen alone with Naberius Tern. The rumors that would arise from such a sighting would be enough to make a dent even in her bluster-forged exoskeleton.

Instead of Naberius at Corona’s side, Harrowhark saw Camilla Hect - had she known her last name before? Why did the knowledge feel like it was shaking her by the shoulders, insisting that it mattered? On Coronabeth’s other side sat a young woman in a red button-up shirt. She looked too old to be in high school, and too smart to have failed back in. There was a chance she just enjoyed structured assignments too much to graduate. Regardless, Harrowhark had never taken note of her before, but her presence felt as important as Camilla Hect’s screaming name.

Naberius - Naberius was nowhere to be seen. Skipping, maybe. That was something he would do.

Behind them on the wall of the classroom, among the portraits of historical world leaders, something was even more wrong. As far as Harrowhark knew, she had never studied a national leader with such bright red hair and a deep scowl worth immortalizing in acrylic. Pain shot through Harrowhark’s head along the length on her temporal artery, leaving behind a dull throbbing. Nausea rolled from her brain down to her stomach, and she turned away.

The debaters were still arguing. Over what could not possibly have been more unimportant.

Harrowhark made the critical error of grunting very quietly when her stomach caught up to the rest of her body as she turned in her seat.

“What’s wrong?” Ianthe inquired under the debaters’ yelling. She could have had the decency to sound inconvenienced or at least bored when she asked, but she didn’t, and that made Harrowhark feel even sicker.

Harrowhark didn’t look at her. “Have you and your sister finally cut your shared umbilical cord?”

“Oh, no. We’re as violently codependent as ever. I just thought I’d shake things up a bit.”

She was watching, watching, watching--Harrowhark would not look. Her eyes stayed fixed on the chalkboards behind the noise. “I’m not going to ask why, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

Ianthe put her pencil down with a wooden slap that should have interrupted the debaters, but they didn’t seem fazed. They just kept yelling. Louder and louder. Behind them, the chalk dust swirled and dripped, liquifying against the vacuum-black board.

“You haven’t got a monopoly on being unpredictable,” Ianthe scoffed.

“I don’t care to,” Harrowhark said.

“So what you’re saying is... there’s another reason you did what you did at my soirée on Friday?”

Oh. It had been a trap the whole time.

Ianthe’s eyes sparkled, beady and unblinking like a python encroaching on its prey.

Though she’d just broken her vow not to look, Harrowhark wasn’t going to play into this any longer. “I prefer to have a table to myself. I have notes to spread out.”

“There’s no lecture today.”

“I have no inclination to halt my own education just because our dear, sniveling Teacher decided they'd had enough of being pushed around by a couple of life-sized props from a horror production about evil dolls.”

“If you didn’t want company, you might have said something twenty minutes ago,” Ianthe said, sounding less acerbic and more actively displeased.

Harrowhark might have, that was true. Except she’d been asleep, or somehow absent, or so deep in own misunderstanding of everything that was happening around her that she had not been able to voice her discontent.

Where had Sunday gone? How had she arrived at school Monday morning? Her parents? Where were they? Gideon must have--no. Stupid. Not everything was Gideon. The bus. It still ran in the mornings. But had Harrowhark ridden it? Had anyone? Where had the girl in the red shirt come from? Why did Gideon’s eyes - the ones that burned - feel like they hid answers?

There was a theory. If someone looked out from deep inside a black hole, they wouldn’t know where they were looking. They would see nothing. Oblivions consumed light. But there had to be a boundary, a definite line where that light snuffed out - and Harrowhark believed she was poised - through no intention of her own - perfectly toeing that line. She could look one way and see into nothing, and look the other direction and see all the light left in her universe in Gideon’s eyes. They made no sense, and yet they were the only thing Harrowhark understood.

The discovery was nothing short of divine connection. Harrowhark felt that she possessed some great and heretofore untouched secret. She could just as easily be coming off of discovering gravity or inventing calculus, or drilling into bone marrow and making the first successful transfusion in history, saving a life with her bare hands. It was a raw, unbridled, and consuming rush, adrenaline and oxytocin and dopamine shot straight into her veins.

She did not deserve to feel it.

“Don’t tell me you were drunk.” Ianthe’s stridence cut into Harrowhark’s pocket between universes and dug its hooks in, pulling her back.

“As if I would ever do something so stupid,” Harrowhark retorted. Then she realized what Ianthe was referring to, and remembered that yes, actually, she had done something quite stupid. She’d put her mouth somewhere without thinking. Very bad.

“If it was genuinely so awful that you’d rather bash your forehead against a wall and forget, don’t blame me,” Ianthe hissed. Her face sneered, but it did that a lot. “You’re the one who went in tongues blazing.”

Harrowhark flinched, hopefully only inwardly.

The melted stars on the chalkboard swam past each other in an undecipherable current.

Ianthe continued, never stopping, always horrible. “Honestly, Harry, sitting there in silence like a taxidermied house cat is really the cruelest thing you could do to a girl. Keep it up and I’ll take back my offer.”

Her...? An offer sounded like a deal, and Harrowhark was suddenly very concerned that her past self had agreed to give something up. Had some part of her really thought this half-decomposed fish of a woman next to her could be trusted? “What offer?”

“I hate to admit it under the circumstances in which I currently find myself, but I do admire your commitment to this whole ‘too callous to listen to even one single word’ bit. For the sake of your own safety - which, as you’ll recall, I have been bothered to give at least one fuck about - let’s leave the barbed edges to the arrows whose shafts aren’t quite so brittle, hm?”

Harrowhark’s head might have been swimming less if Ianthe would shut up for five whole seconds and stop using words like shaft. After the past few days - how many had it been? - she’d resigned herself to the reality that she had no idea what was going on. Interactions of almost any kind - particularly those with Ianthe - seemed to drag her further into the black hole. 

The worst part, which she acknowledged like an infant she was holding below the surface of a full bathtub, was that part of her wanted to stay. It would be uncomfortable and painful and all kinds of mortifying to let Ianthe Tridentarius continue to share this table, but it was an option. If she was doomed to spend another semester here, at least she wouldn’t be completely alone. Whether or not she wanted tongues to be involved any further was not a consideration she could bear to entertain at the moment - especially now that she was noticing: the little bud in Ianthe’s drawing was not nestled too high in the scant, fleshy petals because it was not, not, not a flower.

Anyways.

Harrowhark had never made a point of trusting anyone, so why should she start now?

If she stayed here, exactly where she was, and pretended that Gideon’s eyes didn’t scare the life into her, maybe she would forget everything. The smell of salt water mixed with bloody iron would fade into the recesses of memory until it was as faint as the dust left on a chalkboard (which was becoming ever more pronounced the more she looked at it). Having a friend - again - was too dangerous, because having someone meant losing them. Having someone always meant losing them. There had been no exceptions. It didn’t matter whether Ianthe stayed or went, and that made her the only kind of person who was allowed to stay at all (again, the separate issue of tongues was still up in the air, and thus not a deciding factor either way).

Up until this exact moment, Harrowhark had made it her life’s work to understand formulas, anatomy, herself, everything. If she knew how and why things happened, she could figure out how to control them. Unpredictability was not welcome in any form, especially within herself.

And then its very essence manifested in a red-haired, tight-shirted, muscle-strapped, hold-your-universe-in-my-hand-like-it’s-no-big-thing form, and Harrowhark felt as though her house had been burgled in the night. One day she’d awakened and everything was in the wrong place.

It should have rattled her more, but the thing that upset her most was how that collection of bizarre antics known as Gideon was the one thing that felt normal.

Something was missing. Harrowhark’s dire need to comprehend remained strong enough outside of the Gideon anomaly, but she wasn’t sure where to begin. Fire and water were the only clues she had to work with, and they would destroy each other before she could make them talk.

“Fine. Do your own term project, then,” Ianthe spat. “Invitation officially rescinded. Oh, and fuck you, Harry.” She was grabbing her books, and Harrowhark did not stop her. Ianthe Tridentarius walked out of that classroom like an arsonist, but Harrowhark had already been burned to a crisp by a separate blaze. There was nothing left to fuel this one.

***

Harrowhark didn’t have a class to get to - or maybe she did and she didn’t care - so she went to find the only remaining person who might have the ability to resolve one of her many pressing issues. Staying on the fencing team was her ticket out of this school, and neither the Dean of Students nor the Almighty Principal Himself had done jack shit to support that goal. There was one last teacher figure who might have a hand to play.

So Harrowhark marched to the language wing and knocked on Abigail Pent’s door.

The wispy latin teacher answered so immediately that she must have been on her way out. Except when she opened the door she said, “I’m teaching.”

Harrowhark could see past her into the classroom, and it was empty. “No, you’re not.” She shoved her way into the room, though Abigail Pent did not exert any effort to stop her and so it was less of a shove and more of a standard, normal entrance.

“I am,” Abigail Pent said. She sat down at a table as if she were a student in her own class. “Sit.”

Her words spun into themselves like a dog chasing its own tail, but Harrowhark wasn’t here to solve riddles. She remained standing. “I want you to put me back on the fencing team. I don’t care if the Deans won’t allow it. If I continue attending practices and participating at whatever minimum level is required, they’ll have no choice but to give me credit for the term.”

The crow’s feet around Abigail Pent’s eyes cried pity despite her smile. “You really think so,” she said, less a question and more a condescending observation.

“Yes.”

“Is that what you really want, Harrow?”

Wasn’t it?

“Yes,” Harrowhark stuttered. “If you don’t do it, I’ll be stuck here for another term.”

“I’m hardly the one keeping you here.”

Harrowhark rolled her eyes. This sphinx of a woman was going to make this as difficult as possible, wasn’t she? “Yes, I understand. You’re not the one who instated the athletic requirement, and thus your are exempt from blame. I don’t care.”

“Is that what I meant?” Abigail Pent sounded genuinely confused, which was infuriating. Had she always been this insufferable? When Harrowhark was a student in her class - when was that? A year ago? A year from now?

“You can fix it,” Harrowhark enunciated. It sounded like a threat when it slipped between her teeth.

“Once, a squirrel broke our bird feeder. Well, one of them. We have three in the backyard and one in front,” Abigail said.

Harrowhark would have something snippy, but she was momentarily stunned into muteness by the randomness of the comment.

“My husband tried to glue the broken perch back on, but it didn’t stick. The second time, he tried duct tape. That worked for a while, but it made it easier for the squirrels to get their footing, and soon no more birds came to eat because the squirrels scared them all off. Do you see what he should have done differently?”

“Eaten the squirrels?” Harrowhark suggested.

Abigail’s lip curled. “You’ve been spending too much time with a certain blonde twin.”

Harrowhark’s lip curled the other direction. “I don’t give a damn about your inane, ongoing rivalry with backyard pests.”

“It was the front yard feeder, actually.”

“I care even less.”

“I’m teaching,” Abigail insisted.

“You’re not!” Harrowhark exploded. “You are doing nothing remotely close to teaching, just like everyone else in this farce of an educational institution. I’ve taught myself half my classes. Teacher didn’t even show up for our class today, and it was the most I’ve learned all year. The Dean of Students spends her whole day watching pornography in her office, for fuck’s sake!”

“I imagine that is exactly the sake for which she watches such videos,” Abigail mumbled.

Harrowhark swooped down close to her, glaring through the reflective glasses perched on Abigail’s nose. “I’ve got left to nothing to prove to you people,” she snarled. “Let me go.”

“What would you do? If you left?” Abigail asked, unfazed and intrigued, almost as if she’d been expecting the outburst. “College? Graduate school? Would you get a PhD and teach another generation of young people how to hide how much they hate themselves under careless haircuts and a thick vocabulary?”

Harrowhark hadn’t thought that far ahead. But hadn’t she? She must have - somewhere - sometime. Surely she, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, would not go to so much effort to advance herself to the next stage of her life without having a detailed, exhausting plan for how it would go. That was not how things happened in her life - if nothing else, of this she was certain.

What if she hadn’t planned it all out? She had opened her eyes one morning with nothing but an insatiable drive to accomplish her one goal of leaving this place and assumed it had been there all along. Before that day, the first day of the school year, she remembered next to nothing. Teacher’s lessons were there, useless and limp. But what of her other classes? They must have happened for her to get to this point, but when she tried to recall them, all that came were gaps. Trying to rustle up a memory prior to a week ago was like poking her finger into a wedge of Swiss cheese.

Headaches. Blood. Dancing chalk. The portrait. Camilla Hect. Gideon. Griddle. Her friend. Her parents--

Harrow had never eaten cheese.

“What is this?” she asked.

“I can’t tell you that,” Abigail said sadly. “I wish I could, Harrow, but you won’t let me.”

“No,” Harrowhark protested weakly. “Tell me. You have to tell me.”

“You already know.”

“None of this makes any sense,” Harrowhark pleaded.

Abigail shrugged mercilessly. “When you think about it, almost everything can be distilled down to chemicals or nonsense.”

“Enough. Platitudes are a distraction and a nuisance,” Harrowhark said. She could hear the desperation in her own voice even as every sound drowned in rushing blood.

“This isn’t how it happens,” Abigail said without moving her mouth.

Molten pain spread through each capillary in Harrowhark’s head, and all she felt was rupture.

***

When she opened Gideon’s car door to go to practice, she did not look at the driver.

She slammed the door shut, trapped the edge of her jacket in it, and stared into the dashboard.

Gideon said, “Good afternoon, my macabre maiden fair. You’re looking more bereaved than usual.” It was the same tone someone might use to deliver a compliment. Maybe it was one. Maybe that knowledge was one of the many things lost.

No hot iron quips today. No space for them.

Gideon was probably peering over the edge of her sunglasses. “I can’t tell if you’re in a super you mood or if you got kicked off the team for good this time.”

There was only one sentence, and it left no room for any other thoughts, responses, or witty comebacks.

“Seriously, you look kind of pale. Are you okay?” Gideon added. “You didn’t bleed out again, did you?”

Harrow looked at her, straight in the eyes, said: “Take me to the ocean, Griddle.”

***

Chapter Text

Gideon snorted - an ugly, obtrusive, and offensively unguarded emission.

“Sorry, take you where?” the idiot asked.

“My mistake. Should I have procured an atlas with which to lecture you on basic geography first?” Harrow said.

Thick and unfazed as a limestone statue, Gideon smiled.

“What?” Harrow snapped. She had no patience for this. Not today, not now.

“You’d be a terrible fucking teacher.”

Part of Harrow wanted to be upset by the assertion that she was capable of performing poorly in anything related to academia, but she was wise enough to know that Gideon was absolutely right. She’d often considered her intellect to be both a blessing and a curse, a gift that removed her so far from her peers that none of them could reach her. Not even the ones whose touch she might not reject outright. Intelligence and disillusionment were two sides of the same coin, a double-edged--

“The ocean, Griddle,” Harrow repeated. “I know it’s nearby. I can feel it.”

“In your booOoOoOones?” Gideon said, wiggling her fingers in the air and offending any ghosts that might be in their immediate proximity.

Harrow had hoped that a vehicle would get her to the water faster than her own feet, but Gideon was proving that roadblocks had evolved the ability to camouflage themselves as human beings.

When Harrow was out of the car and six steps into the parking lot, the driver’s door opened.

Gideon stayed there, leaning against the sun-soaked black paint. She took off her sunglasses and wiped them on the hem on her sleeveless, sleeveless shirt. She called out to Harrow, and Harrow stilled. It was so strange to hear that voice without seeing her face - but all this time, hadn’t that been true? “While I agree that the sun would do you some good, why are you bringing this up right now?”

The real Gideon - she was somewhere else, speaking to Harrow in fragments and static, through irises that flared like sirens.

Harrow turned as gracefully as a mule carrying its weight in shame and trudged back towards the car, unsure whether she wanted to stay an arm’s length from Gideon or do something rash. Just to see how real this iteration of Gideon might be.

This perfect reflection wasn’t Harrow’s - although perhaps it was, if her suspicions were true, in that ideas are possessed by those who create them.

With any problem Harrow tried to solve, there was a slim margin for error, and that reality (ha) ruled her. Caution won out, as it too often did, and Harrow replied:

“Now is all I have.”

“Okay, yikes,” Gideon said. “We can just go this weekend. You know, not skip the practice for the team you spited your way back onto.”

Harrow wasn’t sure whether she was on the team or not at this point, and it frankly couldn’t have mattered less. She knew she didn’t belong here - at this school - with these teenagers and books and cafeteria sandwiches - these people felt so familiar, so real, and yet none of them were. They could be felt and heard and hated - easily - yet they were not hers. Not in any way beyond the immediately tangible.

Gideon held her glasses up to block the sun, examining the lenses with a scrunch in the bridge of her nose. “Plus, the beach is two hours away. Won’t your parents be worried if you get home so late? Are you sure you want to--”

“Gideon!” Harrow whirled, grabbed her by the shirtfront, and shoved against hard muscle, pulling closer and pushing away all at once.

The sunglasses fell from Gideon’s hand and shattered against the asphalt.

“Damn,” Gideon said. “You owe me a new pair.”

Harrow tried to release the shirt lest she claw through it, but her fingers would not unfurl. They grasped relentlessly, as if they knew something she did not. Harrow felt as thought she’d conducted an experiment, recorded observations, and now she was stuck with a blank page for a conclusion.

“I am sure I owe you so much more than that,” she whispered.

Gideon rose to her, a hand pressing out of a fresh grave. The sun, which threatened to drown itself in the horizon, sparked against the flint of Gideon’s pupil. Embers smoldered in her eyes. “Why do you want to go to the ocean, Harrow?”

Because I left someone there, Harrow thought. Because I must drown, too. Like her. Like the sun.

***

Harrow’s shoes were gone. Wet sand squished between her toes, which would have been annoying if she’d been paying any attention to it. Rushing waves crashed against against her eardrums and tickled her ankles, her knees, her waist through the thin fabric of her shirt. Saline flavored the air and eroded the world outside of this, outside of Gideon guiding her further away from the shore, palm burning warmer than anyone’s should. The sun dripped into the ocean, golden-amber paint on an infinite, glassy palette.

Anything worth saying then was better said with silence, and Gideon was unusually eloquent.

Harrow wished to be a shipwreck. If the cowardly undertow would just grab her by the ankle and pulled her into oblivion, water would fill her lungs and purge the swarming, buzzing heat in the back of her throat.

What could she say that was not already known? If not here, then somewhere else.

Where the undertow lacked resolve, Gideon was brave. The ocean’s surface crawled up to Harrow’s shoulders, barely cresting over Gideon’s chest.

Gideon tried to separate their hands, but Harrow dug her nails into the broad underside of Gideon’s forearm. The fleeting fear that she’d be carried off by some awful creature of scale and bone was quickly replaced with the scathing reality (HA) that there would be no beast from the deep come to end her with a burial under salt and silt. No shipwrecks.

There was a strange and secret freedom in having the world stripped away - some things only shone against a background of darkness - and as before - as elsewhere - that insistent light demanded to be seen, no matter how Harrow tried to blind herself.

Gideon nodded only so far as it took their foreheads to collide. “We’re here.”

Harrow had never been struck by lightning, but the disproportionately searing pain that shot from her prefrontal cortex made her toes curl into wet sand. “Are we?”

“You tell me.”

“How did we get here?” 

“You know how.”

A devastatingly familiar twinge of irritation prodded at Harrow’s procerus. Even so, she didn’t dare push Gideon back. “Why won’t you answer forthrightly?”

Gideon said: “Why won’t you let me?”

Harrow’s eyes had to remain closed, not because she was afraid to look at the light - but because if she did, all of the resolve put towards holding her affection inside would spill out and dissolve as minerals in the surf. “Everything is a lie,” she said.

“Everything?” Some note of pleading entered Gideon’s voice, and it rent the cartilage from between Harrow’s ribs.

“This world does not exist outside of my mind, but I cannot see what’s real.”

“If you don’t trust what you see, then let’s start with what you feel. You have to know what’s going on there, at least.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Would I?”

“I know many things, Griddle. More than most.”

“Showoff. Nerd.”

Harrow’s fingers crawled like an insect over a crypt door until they brushed the bare skin of Gideon’s face. “The things I know are all that I have. And I would burn them all from my own mind them all to forget--to forget what I have lost.”

“What have you lost, Harrow?”

“Something... too massive to see. I can’t remember--”

“Tell me.” Gideon was watching her - she must have been, mustn’t she? - with the desperation of a billion cells starved for water. “Just tell me.”

“I lost my only friend,” Harrow said plainly, not expecting it to wrench her organs out of place inside her.

It was the most certain thing she could think to say - though there was more, surely, wherever she’d left it. She’d found another universe in Gideon’s eyes, and that couldn’t have been nothing. Whether it was fully something - in that other place - she couldn’t know. She couldn’t have trusted her other self to understand, let alone act with confidence. How arrogant she thought herself, to have so fervently denied the sun its rightful place in the center of her system. Now it was too late, and the universe had gone cold.

All that was left in this hollow void, under the taunting, halcyon colors, was what she knew she did not know. Why a school with 200 background students she never met and a mundanely bloodthirsty faculty, an institution to which she’d been sent by her parents, who did not exist, where the few peers who could speak hated and loved her in the same breath as if they knew every detestable corner already?

“I should have told you so many things, and I cannot apologize for my negligence,” Harrow said. “I will not beg for mercy to which I hold no claim. Perhaps you cannot hear me, and if so I have truly lost my only friend. For good. But you must know that I loved you, somewhere, and when I lost you there, I lost myself. If I am gone, which I suspect I am, know that I have not been and will never be freed from that sorrow. It lives inside of me, where you once were, where you shall never be again.” Some distant and wispy part of her soul wanted to add another word, one she didn’t understand, but its two syllables felt like closure.

Suddenly, Gideon clasped Harrow’s arm back, vice-gripping as if she were fending off a deadly strike.

“I hear you, Harrow. I hear every single goddamn word. Do you have any idea what that’s like? Hearing your voice, seeing you again, after everything, and you’re still not even here? What kind of sick fucking joke is that?”

Then Gideon whispered, quieter than one would ever suppose her capable. “Come back. Cut it out with all this past tense bullshit and just come back.”

Whatever façade had been there was stripped away, banished by the ocean, and Harrow saw only the wild, desperate face that had called out to her in static. Wherever Abigail Pent was, she must have found it all terribly amusing.

Between the molten sky, Gideon’s wildfire eyes, and sea salt on her tongue, Harrow watched her missing conclusion write itself out in blood and liquid light. The ocean was not an ocean, but a river--

Flashes - iron, blood - the insides of things that should never be outside - finality--

She remembered. Every cursed memory that she’d failed to cut out rushed back, inundating, filling her bronchioles and choking her. Cruelly, it yielded and left her standing, or maybe Gideon just caught her before she crumbled into sand.

Harrow’s mind was playing one last cosmic joke on her: remembering Gideon, bold and vivid, and so beautiful.

“Please, please,” Gideon was saying in a voice like a star exploding in a vacuum.

Her voice would break, Harrow knew, but she was too righteously furious to stop it. “How dare you ask that of me, Gideon?”

“I’ve never asked you for anything else,” Gideon pleaded - had there been blood at the corner of her mouth before?

“No. You never dreamed of it, did you? You gave and you gave, and not even at the end did you consider that I might not want everything you offered.”

“It was the only way.”

“Fuck that, Gideon!” It was difficult to shove someone while holding onto them, but Harrow’s bird-boned arms managed it just fine. “Fuck your pathetic excuse for an excuse. You left me! I asked - demanded - many things, too many, and you dare offer me forgiveness? Again?”

Gideon shrugged, a gesture so violently casual that it split Harrow in two. “I’m not offering. It’s yours whether you like it or not.” There was no breeze that could have spattered salt water across Gideon’s cheek, but under Harrow’s thumb it was damp and salty nonetheless.

“As am I,” Harrow said. “Whether I like it or not.” At this moment, she was sure she’d never hated anything more. Love was an inconvenience, and grief was a disease. It twisted her guts worse than any virus, and it didn’t even have the decency to be terminal. She’d live with this - die with it - forever, always hollow. Here, in the River, she would lose herself to time and ruin before she forgot grief.

But if Harrow was here, and this voice was calling to her from another shore--

Where was Gideon?

“Griddle,” Harrow began, “Am I dead?”

“Are you ready to hear the answer to that?”

“I wouldn’t have asked the question if--”

“Yes.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah. Sucks, huh?”

“Shouldn’t you be here?”

“Depends how you mean. Should I be here, as I am, trying to pull you back? Obviously. What else would I be doing? It’s not like they have a ton of activities on runaway spaceships.”

Sifting through Harrow’s newly returned memory, this was, in fact, the first time her mind had ever gone completely blank.

Gideon wasn’t dead?

Gideon wasn’t dead.

“How?” Harrow asked. She wanted to check, run her hands over deltoids and intercostals, but shock froze her own extremities.

“Feel free to come back and find out,” Gideon said, winking. It looked stupid with tears running out of her eyes, but it made Harrow’s heart clench.

“I don’t know if I can.”

Gideon held her around the waist now, so close there was no water between them. Together, they were a single unit amidst the waves, one--

“Of course you can. You’re the smartest bitch I ever knew,” Gideon said.

Harrow wasn’t sure she’d heard herself laugh before. It was unnatural and gurgling, and it made her stomach feel strange.

“But you have to want to,” Gideon added.

She could stay here. Maybe she could forget again. Gideon would give up eventually. 

Did Harrow want to remain in this place past the River? Hadn’t her whole life been a vicious cycle of wishing for death and knowing she didn’t deserve it? Now her wish had been granted. Why should she give that up? Everything worth living for she’d lose again, someday. That and more. She was not the sun, who could rise, and fall, and rise again, eternally watching the world go dark.

Behind Gideon, hanging in the blackened sky, was a slender reminder that the sun was not the only light. Crescent silver and burning gold did not shine the same, but they both shone nonetheless. Scattered around the reminder were stars, smaller to her now, but perhaps so much larger when she was where she was meant to be.

She was undone without Gideon, undone with her. Unraveled, every villum flattened and stretched permeable, cellular phospholipid stripped from phospholipid. 

“Come on, Harrow,” Gideon went on. “Do you need me to start a chant? Would that help? I’m not really sure what to go with, so if you have any suggestions, fire away. Penumbral mistress doesn’t really rhyme with--”

Gideon was not allowed to talk anymore. Harrow guaranteed it.

She kissed Gideon, and it felt so real.

And then they drowned.

Amen. 

***

Chapter Text

Coughing up blood was not the worst way Harrow had ever awakened, but it was close. Blood coming out of places it shouldn’t was also involved in those other times, naturally. Stabbing pain was graciously and surprisingly absent. Instead, every muscle in Harrow’s body felt as though it had been secretly replaced with rocks, giving her a firsthand understanding of rigor mortis so rarely bequeathed unto the living.

She was living, wasn’t she?

Something was beeping, fast and loud. Harrow tried to find out what, but she might as well have been looking through a thick fog. Everything was moving at unnatural speeds and angles, including her own skull and brain, which felt as though they had just decided to pursue opposing career directions. Brains were not supposed to bounce around. Supposedly one could not feel any sensation in their gray matter due to an absence of pain receptors, but some other cranial component must have been doubling up on behalf of Harrow’s pain-mute brain in delusional empathy. Perhaps her brain had also been replaced with a large rock and it had taken to banging against its osseous trappings.

The incessant beeping grew to an alarm as she failed to inhale properly. All Harrow could think was that she could not accomplish something that fresh infants could handle just fine, and that inspired her to follow the infants’ lead and sob. Her lungs felt empty - or rather, she wished they felt empty, because a lack of air was preferable to the unmistakable presence of fluid.

It was challenging to cry without a functional respiratory cycle, but there was solace in the fact that babies would not have the ability to do this, and Harrow was managing, and so she was superior to them once more.

With her diaphragm spasming, her atrophied abdominal muscles were incapable of holding her up. She collapsed on her side, wet coughs rattling her ribs and straining intercostals. She wanted to scream, but she could not (damn, another thing infants could pull off better), and she doubted that anyone would hear her over the screeching alarm anyway. Either the room itself was red or the capillaries in her eyes had burst. She knew which was correct, given her luck.

She wondered how long it would take her to choke to death. Would she go back to the same place, that school? Would she remember that she’d been there before, or would her memories vanish again? Had she gone there only once, or had it been many times? Had she forgotten the others? What if she went somewhere else this time, and Gideon wasn’t there?

Gideon--

Had a ghost barged its way into Harrow’s afterlife just to torture her? What if it had lied about everything, and Harrow had come back to this world to find it just as desolate and colorless as she distantly recalled it being?

She tried to calm her diaphragm before she hacked herself in two, but she couldn’t go more than half a second without another violent seizure in her diaphragm. If she made an attempt at breathing, it was swiftly shut down by the exact same muscles whose job it was to facilitate the respiratory process. After a costly ritual conception and a lifetime of studying the art of controlling the body, Harrow was going to die from hypoxic cellular mutiny. How perfectly ironic.

Harrow should have been used to her flesh - and mind - betraying her at this point. What a fool she was to trust herself. Ever. She wasn’t a reliable source whatsoever, and she knew this. Yet every time she questioned something, she turned inward for answers. How many times had that hubris blown up in her face? The last time she remembered winning over her mind, she’d still been able to determine what was real even after staying up all night and planting teeth and bone bits just under the ground’s surface at the station. All the way back on The Ninth.

She remembered. Home. The closest thing she had left, anyway.

If she wasn’t approaching a full two minutes without steady oxygen, she would have been thrilled by the return of her memories.

She should have heard footsteps before the massive figure was at her bedside - maybe the fever had deep-fried her brain. That sounded like something that would happen to her. Euthanized by her own immune system.

The giant at her bedside (who was actually a very normal-sized person except that they were standing and Harrow was not) flipped a switch. Harrow’s lungs burned in a whole new way, more unpleasant save for the fact that caught sight of fluid rushing out through tubing between watery blinks. As her lungs drained, she forced herself to be still. Maybe if her body believed she was dead, it would stop attacking her. There was more blood in the tubing than there should have been, but Harrow could worry about that later. She’d stitch herself up like she always had. Once she could move again.

Her finger twitched, whether through sheer willpower or coincidence. If she could move a finger, surely she could lift her arm and--

A grunt came from the not-giant as Harrow’s limp fist collided with some part of their body.

Then Harrow felt like she was falling up. Maybe she’d been upside down the whole time, and gravity was just doing its thing.

Actually, the attendant was crouching down, which Harrow realized when she saw a pair of lambent gray eyes fix on her own. She would have flinched away if she could’ve - having someone that close to her face was completely uncalled for.

Suddenly, the attendant was standing again, and then they were gone, completely removed from Harrow’s view and earshot.

Harrow might have passed out again briefly, or she might have blinked for a very long time.

A voice reached her, as it had before, and as it always would: “Harrow? Harrow!”

She was being shaken, and it jostled her eyelids open.

By a grace of which she never imagined herself worthy, her gaze met with a gold too bright to be conjured in any imagination. Harrow’s dead subconscious did no justice to those eyes.

Gideon’s eyes.

Fortunately, the full-body hernia that had taken over Harrow’s musculoskeletal system did not excruciate when Gideon crushed her in an embrace. It was soothing, more than anything, even the smell of salt water that rushed into Harrow’s memory. It meant that Gideon shouldn’t be here. Couldn’t. She was another illusion put forth by Harrow’s burning brain.

Lacking the strength to sit rigid as a sword hilt in the ghost’s grasp, Harrow slumped into the cradle around her head and back. As her breath returned to her body, probably coming in through some tube or another, she sensed something unexpected. Her forehead was pressed against warm muscle, and it was beating with lifeblood. Gideon was fully, really, truly alive.

Someone had committed an unforgivable sin.

Really, though, what constituted sin when God himself was a blasphemy?

Harrow cursed her mind for staying intact the one time she wished it would turn to sponge. She couldn’t remember what reality was, but she could remember the single most viscerally ruinous moment of her catastrophic existence. All of her carefully honed control, powerless to stop one body from throwing itself on a fucking metal fence. What a joke.

The thought that someone else might share her reasons to bring Gideon back tased Harrow’s gut. Then she remembered that Gideon was very good at swords, and that was an asset during wars, and people often had their own reasons for doing things outside of Harrow’s assumptions. How much had she ruined by failing to grasp that most people were neither with her nor against her? That everyone outside one pocket of the universe had no interest whatsoever in what she did?

The pressing question of how exactly Gideon was there and actively trying to squeeze Harrow back into a coma remained.

A vindictive and frightened part of Harrow wanted to latch onto some ossicle in the room and build a small army of skeletons to tear Gideon off. Some incongruous punishment for Gideon’s choice to leave: forcing her to stay at arm’s length. But what revenge had Gideon ever sought beyond petty, idiosyncratic annoyances? She’d had the chance to drown Harrow before and hadn’t done so.

“You think it’s funny to die right when I un-die?” Gideon whispered. Her warm breath hit Harrow’s ear, and the taste of salt water coated Harrow’s tongue.

Harrow’s voice was dormant. It had not awakened with her. A voice was the kind of thing that could get lost forever without attention and caution. A voice was the soul’s way of making itself known, and hadn’t Harrow been born with a soul torn into two hundred and one pieces? She could have lost any one of them in the River on her way to death, or on her way back. The soul was the key to a being, and just as easy to misplace.

Her throat was dry and phlegm-ridden at the same time, as if a colony of mushrooms had made themselves at home their and their caps rattled around whenever she took a breath. “What happened?” she finally croaked.

“You died, you bitch,” Gideon said. She had to let up on the hug. “Now say you’re sorry.”

Harrow lungs revolted and she certainly coughed blood up onto Gideon’s shirt. “You first.”

“I apologized plenty of times. You were just too busy being lobotomized and pretending I never existed to hear me.”

“Hardly...my fault.”

“Uh, it is though?”

Harrow would have had more stamina on literally any other day. Dying and then actually not doing that took a lot of energy. Instead of arguing further, she simply said, in her most sorrowfully repentant confessional tone, “Griddle.”

For all her bluster, Gideon apparently possessed the same hollow drive towards banter. She simply held Harrow right where she was.

“What happened?” Harrow managed to repeat.

“Don’t worry about all that right now, okay?” Gideon said, too gently for someone who had a favorite stabbing technique.

“I wish to know how I ended up--”

“You’ve been awake for two whole minutes. You don’t have to know everything that’s going on right now immediately.”

She could just let Gideon be there with her, but answers were paramount, and silence was frightening. “How are you alive?”

“I’m not sure I ever died right in the first place. Count on me to screw up the simplest recipe in the book, huh?”

Harrow would probably never reveal how miserably she herself screwed up putting salt into hot water.

“Where are we?” Harrow asked.

“Remember when you agreed to not worry about stuff and things for a hot second?”

Harrow did not concede, seeing as she had not actually agreed to that at any point, but she did stop pushing. She was very tired.

“I think I’d like to sleep,” she said, realizing only too late that that was probably a very foolish thing to say immediately upon emerging from a death coma.

Gideon’s grip finally loosened, and Harrow hated that she hated it. “Well then, my lugubrious lady, I shall let you rest.” Gideon started to leave. With all the strength left in her body, Harrow latched onto one muscle-bound forearm with her nails.

She almost hissed out a Don’t you dare, but it came out as much less tactful, “Don’t leave me.”

How long had she been in the River? People and spirits could go mad in there very easily. Harrow was now confident that her brain was literally on fire considering it was melting her into a puddled heap of useless flesh that said things like Don’t leave me.

“Yeah, okay,” Gideon said smartly. “Whatever you say, my penumbral--”

“Shut up,” Harrow groaned, mostly because there was a throbbing in her head that would not stop. Every other second there was some new pain introducing itself to her nerve endings.

Gideon must have been standing at the door. Harrow could picture her, awkward in her stillness as she’d been in silence. Some things were not meant to stop, or be quiet, or die.

Harrow tried to turn over and scowl at her, but that was asking a lot. She got her head to stare up at the ceiling.

“Gideon.”

In the exact same expectant tone: “Harrow.”

“I came back from the other side of the River because you asked. Can you not do me the courtesy... of coming to my side at my tacit behest?” She felt the strain of the lengthy sentences immediately, but no regret at speaking them.

Taking an action with a mood that had heretofore never been ascribed to her, Gideon shuffled back timidly.

Harrow barely caught a glint of fire out of the corner of her eye. Not close enough. “You sound like an anxious duck,” she taunted. She had never seen a duck, but an early chapter of Ortus’ cherished Noniad went on about them for an unscrupulously lengthy passage. World building, he’d said.

Gideon stopped her weird little steps. “What? I’m at your side. Always have been. Literally. Figuratively. At one point, hemispherically. I’m not really sure what you’re asking me here.”

Dying had not been frightening. Harrow didn’t even remember it. But at this moment, she knew she’d invented a whole knew most awful moment for herself, and this time it was entirely her own fault. She’d lobotomized herself once before to let go, and she would do it again, here, now, and relinquish the control that she treasured as she once had a sealed tomb door.

The immortal tomb had cracked open. So could she.

As if she were driving an iron spike through her own logical mind, she whispered, “Come hold me, Griddle.”

In an instant, Gideon was pressed against Harrow’s back. Faster than any reflex.

Harrow never wanted to lose sight of why she’d come back. She panicked at the thought that she would one day run out of time to look it in the eyes, loathe as she was to talk her muscles into moving again.

The pain only struck when she’d tangled the tubing around herself. Gideon’s cheek smushed a bit under Harrow’s palm, one of the few parts of her that wasn’t solid and stubborn.

All Harrow wanted to do was look. She had to examine every pore, every freckle, every follicle and every nose hair.

“Just so we’re clear, I also came back from the River,” Gideon said.

“You said you never really died.”

“I’m super not sure either way. So let’s just say we’re even.”

“That’s fine by me.”

“No argument? Are you sure you’re not dead, actually?”

Gideon rambled on after that, and Harrow was mortifyingly grateful for it. The sound kept her awake, it kept her blinking, which kept her seeing new features on Gideon’s face. Good thing they’d worn paint most of their lives, otherwise Harrow might have come to appreciate this sooner. She’d certainly have ruined it. In her childish and arrogant insecurity, she’d tried to ruin Gideon so many times. What a brilliant irony that Harrow had ultimately decided to ruin herself by drowning in the double memory of not drowning.

How tickling that she’d devoted her life before un-dying to a body with no soul, then rejected death for a soul that once had no body.

Perhaps she would have considered this a sin once, but there was no God left to punish her for the crime of autoresurrection. She’d live with this - die with it - forever, always empty. Empty of guilt at last - Harrowhark Nonagesimus would, for the first time in her costly, trembling existence, forgive herself for wanting to be alive.

Because the girl Harrow loved was alive, too.

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