"Harrow," said a voice, quite close by. "It's time to wake up."
She had been asleep, or possibly dead. It seemed likely that she had been dead for a very long time, though she could not quite remember.
The voice added, "You absolute dick. Classic Nonagesimus, laying around in your decaying girlfriend's weird-ass ice coffin while the rest of us are out here trying to keep the universe from going to shit. I've met your girlfriend, by the way, she seems like an absolute pi --"
Harrow's hands shot out before her eyes had fully opened. She didn't need her eyes. She knew what she would find; knew the meat of the shoulder, the corded tendons of the neck, the ridiculous biceps, and underneath it all the left clavicle that still bore a burr of hypercalcification on the distal third where she'd broken it with a construct's fist when she was twelve. The manubrium ached liked a poem; the coracoid process startled her like a shout. She had known each one, known them intimately from periosteum to marrow, since she'd gnawed on her first femur.
In a voice that wavered and wobbled like some fragile newborn animal taking its first halting steps, in an absolutely pathetic breathy whimper, she said, "Gideon?"
"Fuck," said Gideon. She was on her knees on the hard stone, and somehow still towered over Harrow. Her face was bare, the spate of freckles across her nose as wondrous as a galaxy. Her eyes were so soft that Harrow felt them like a scourge. "Fuck, Harrow, do not cry, or I'll cry, and we'll never get back."
"Gideon Nav," Harrow said again, marvelling. It was the perfection and the antidote to the Eightfold Word. "I did it. I mean -- it worked. You're -- here."
Gideon rolled her eyes, but sudden horror trailed cold defleshed digits down Harrow's spine, immeasurably colder than the ice at her back. She dug her nails into Gideon's shoulders until she drew blood. Gideon didn't flinch, just looked at her in puzzled alarm and said, "Harrow?"
"Quickly. Tell me --" she tried to think of something to ask and came up empty-handed. "Tell me something I don’t know about you. Or about -- anything. Something I couldn't make up."
"This is a really shitty icebreaker," Gideon said, and then, "Get it? Because you're in a --"
"Griddle!" she cried. Her agony was genuine and absolute. Gideon shut her mouth in the middle of another wiseass quip. Measured, restrained, with the iron control required to attempt walking on shattered legs, Harrow said, "I could be dreaming this. I know you well enough to -- recreate you, in hallucination. Tell me something I don't know, that couldn't come from my mind. I need to know you’re real."
"God's my dad," Gideon said without missing a beat. "Yeah. Long-lost kid of the King Undying, that's me. Born via jizz heist, which would have made the world's worst bedtime story, so I'm kind of okay that I never knew about it. Don't worry, I told Pops not to kick your ass for all the times you kicked my ass when we were kids, so. You're welcome."
It was a difficult thought to process, especially just out of a coma that blurred the line between death and dream. Harrow said, very uncertainly, "No, he's not. You're lying."
"Harrow, I don't know if you missed the memo while you've been chilling here waiting for your maggoty mistress, but it is the goddamn apocalypse out there. I have been dealing with sun-exploding, planet-murdering, Lyctor-disintegrating levels of absolute horseshit, and that's not even counting Ianthe fucking Tridentarius! I cannot even describe it to you! Pretty sure everyone is dead, and God's kind of an asshole, so no more Resurrections! This is it. One flesh, one end, and the end is now, Harrow. I do not have a single reason to lie to you." She paused for a second. "And you asked!"
"I asked," Harrow said, "and you answered. Well done, Griddle. I definitely could not have made that up."
She found, with some surprise, that her arms had some strength in them, and she pushed herself up. She still wasn't entirely steady, but she could hold her spine straight. The ice under her palms and forearms was less cold than the loss of contact with Gideon's skin. She said, "And you're wrong."
"You're so full of shit," Gideon said. She looked -- tired. And elated, and relieved. She looked like someone who had been laboring under a crushing weight, had been suffering an eviscerating agony, for longer than anyone could have possibly expected her to endure; and now, at the last, she could set it down. It was a look of homecoming and release. Harrow had seen it once before, on the stony face of Camilla Hect, returned from the dead, when she heard he's in there. Gideon had that same momentary slackness in her muscles. She was letting out that same long breath.
She was starting to smile.
"You're wrong," Harrow repeated, and laid a hand on Gideon's shoulder again, this time less desperate and more purposeful, feeling the valley that slid softly down from the ridge of her clavicle. "I didn't come here to wait for her. I was waiting for you."
"Don't," Gideon started to say, but Harrow didn't wait for her protestations. Too many words. She slid forward on the shelf of the frozen coffin and pulled herself up on Gideon's arms until she could get one hand around the back of her neck, digging into the soft place where the red shaved-down stubble of hair ended, at the nape where the cervical atlas and axis met. She pressed hard to tilt Gideon's head down, and tried to devour her.
For the first long second Gideon froze. Then Harrow bit at her bottom lip, impatient, and she made a noise that stopped Harrow cold, that distorted her internal viscera in a spasm of guilt. If she had hurt Gideon again, if she had twisted the knife one more time into her cavalier's eternally, idiotically unprotected heart --
Then Gideon's big hot hands were on her, one sliding around to the small of her back, supporting her, while the other rested gingerly along the line of her jaw, fingers tracing the slash of the mandible, ramus to chin, as though she was afraid of cutting herself on the angles of Harrow's face. This time when Harrow's teeth scraped across her lip, her mouth opened. All you ever had to do was ask.
Harrow asked; Gideon answered.
They were neither of them good kissers. Harrow had only ever kissed Ianthe, and she wasn't sure if Gideon had kissed anyone, and she found that it didn't matter. She tasted salt, then iron, and didn't know who had bitten whose lip, whose scabbed skin had peeled and cracked. Gideon's body blazed under her hands, every nerve a solar thread, every blood vessel a riptide. She pushed for a better angle, made a soft frustrated sound, then a louder sound of approval as Gideon lifted her up, both hands on her hips now, holding her in place as irresistibly as a gravity well. It had always been like this, the pull, the fall, Gideon there waiting for her, Gideon at the center. She had been such a fool not to see it.
They surfaced, slowly. Gideon was nearly trembling; Harrow could feel the stilled movement in her actin and myosin, the coarse tangles of muscle fiber. Her voice hoarse and roughened, Gideon said, "Shit. Harrow. When I said I wanted you to eat me --"
"Shut up," Harrow growled. "Shut up, Nav. One flesh, one end. And if this is the end…" she rested her palm flat on the side of Gideon's neck, where the pulse bounded under the skin. They were still in the River; the pulse was a metaphor. She didn't care. "If I forget you, let my right hand be forgotten," she heard herself saying, and with her free hand she captured one of Gideon's and brought it to her lips. "Let my ribs and lungs be forgotten, bronchi and alveoli, and my breath with them," she said, and trailed her fingertips from Gideon's neck down to her chest, that heaved as it never had even in the minutes before she died. "Let my heart be forgotten," Harrow said, "my atria and my ventricles, and my brain, and my spirit. If aught again part thee and me."
"Don't," Gideon said again, and this time she sounded as though she really might die. "Don't, Harrow. Not if you don't -- mean it."
"Do you think," Harrow intoned, with the voice of the tomb, "that I don't mean it."
Gideon stared. The tip of her tongue wet her lips, passed over a smear of blood, no telling whose. Harrow wiped it away with her thumb. "I seal it in vow and in blood," she said. "In death and in dying. You're mine, Gideon Nav. And I'm --"
"Shut up," Gideon said hastily. "You don't have to -- look. Stop with the bloody pronouncements. I know what you did, after I died -- some of it, anyway -- and we’re not doing that anymore, all right? No more brain surgery, no more ice-naps, no more dying -- at least, don't die at me." She tucked Harrow in against her chest and held her. That was almost stranger than the kiss; no sound, no movement but the cold whisper of the waves on the rock, and the beat of Gideon's heart. And somewhere behind her, a rustle that was probably Frontline Titties of the Fifth, sliding down from where it had been pinned by Harrow's elbow for the last God knew how long.
"We'll do it right this time," Gideon said. Her voice sounded different, with Harrow's ear against her chest. Her hand left a hot trail down the length of Harrow's spine, from scapula to sacrum. "Thee and me."
Then she said, "Buckle up, babe. It's gonna be a hell of a ride."
The waters parted. Gideon took her hand.