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before we go any further

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They’ve been sort of dozing for hours, all plans of studying abandoned after they picked their way through enough Indian takeout to feed the entire block and Gideon had declared that it wasn’t healthy to think on a full stomach. Harrow, who had persevered through three different kinds of naan and is still vaguely astonished at herself, cannot entirely fault that conclusion, although she questions the science. Her body feels warm and heavy, sort of boneless, and she thinks she would be content to just lie here for another week or so. The thin duvet covering the scratchy sofa that is an uncomfortable, hair-collecting staple in student halls has just enough give to draw Harrow in, whispering in her ear that she totally wouldn’t wake up with a splitting headache and six different cricks in her spine if she fell asleep like this. One the other sofa, Camilla is asleep, curled up with her head in Palamedes’ lap, who idly runs his fingers through her hair while he solves yet another crossword puzzle.

Harrow yawns. She’s lost track of time entirely; the last time she checked it was around nine o’clock, but the orange glow cast by the streetlight right outside the window could mean anything from ten at night to four in the morning. At some point, she should go back to her own flat. Probably.

Gideon puts her phone away and drops her feet from the table. “Come on then,” she says, squeezing Harrow’s knee, “let’s get you to bed.”

Harrow thought she’d just walk her to the elevator; she only has to go up three floors. Instead, Gideon-who-is-maybe-her-girlfriend?? pushes open the door to her own bedroom and draws Harrow in behind her. It’s dark in here, and smells a little bit dank because the window only opens the Health & Safety compliant barest of cracks, but the room is the exact twin of Harrow’s upstairs, except for the pile of laundry by the door and the collection of appalling posters on the pinboard (that she can’t make out in the dark, thank God), so she doesn’t lose her bearings.

Even as Gideon’s hand slips from hers, brushes up along her forearm, past her elbow and to her shoulder, and then she’s cupping the back of Harrow’s neck and tilting Harrow’s face up and fuck shit fuck they’re kissing, Gideon is kissing her and tangling her fingers in Harrow’s hair and fuck—

“I can’t,” Harrow says as she pulls away, not quite a gasp, not quite a scream, but somehow both at the same time. Her heart is hammering in the back of her throat, the air harsh in her lungs as she gasps for breath. “Please stop.”

Gideon stops. Immediately. She pulls back enough that Harrow can’t feel the heat of her anymore, which feels like a loss despite herself. There’s a brief commotion, Gideon swears; the harsh light of the desk lamp almost blinds them both. “Fuck, Harrow, are you okay?”

Harrow realises, from a great distance, that she’s trembling like a leaf in a hurricane. She shakes her head. “I can’t do this,” she manages, trying not to bite her tongue in half.

Gideon spreads her hands in a placating gesture. “We don’t have to—if you want to wait, that’s totally cool. No rush.”

“That’s not… I don’t want to wait.” What she wants is to run away and never look at Gideon again, except that’s the opposite of what she wants, because this ginger idiot has wormed her way firmly into her life and (good God) her heart, and Harrow hates this; she hates everything about it and she hates that she can’t seem to open her mouth because if she does she might throw up all over the disgusting carpet that hasn’t been properly cleaned in fifteen years of student habitation, and she can’t bring herself to move.

“Talk to me, love,” Gideon says from a million miles away, and Harrow snaps back to herself. “I want to help.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re definitely not, but fine, sure. Come sit down for a sec, though? You look like you’re about to keel over.” She moves out of the way and firmly plonks herself down in her desk chair, leaving only the bed.

Harrow does not want to sit on the bed, but she does anyway, because the carpet is the worse option every time, and her knees feel like overcooked fettuccine. She sinks into the three inches of foam laid on top of the mattress, because Gideon is a hedonist, and twists her hands in her lap until it hurts.

“Do you want some water?”

She shakes her head. “I should go.”

“Not before you explain what’s going on,” Gideon says, but there’s no bite to it. Her pound-coin eyes glow in her broad, open face, wide with concern. “Did I hurt you?”

Harrow shakes her head again. The garlic naan does a backflip in her stomach. “You want to have sex with me,” she says, between clenched teeth.

With a creak of the rickety chair, Gideon cocks her head. “I mean, yeah,” she admits, scratching at her hairline. Colour rises in her cheeks. “Would be pretty fantastic, if you ask me. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m like, really into you.”

“Right. Well, you can’t. I mean, I can’t.” She’s still shivering and she wishes she hadn’t left her cardigan upstairs. She wishes she’d never come down at all.  She takes a deep breath. It all comes out in one mad rush of exhale: “The thought if having sex with you makes me want to puke.”

She sees Gideon wince, sees the shutters coming down over her easy, unguarded expression. “Harsh,” Gideon says. She shifts minutely away from Harrow, like she suddenly can’t bear to be near her, and she hadn’t expected it to hurt so much; Harrow is used to rejection, but this one small movement finds the cracks in her armour and spears right through into the vulnerable softness of her idiot meat.

Harrow says, “I mean,” and stops, because she doesn’t quite know what she means. She screws her eyes shut. “It’s always been like this.”

“Just to avoid, uh, misunderstandings,” Gideon says, amid a rustle of fabric, “sex with me or sex, period?”

“The latter?” It’s more of a squeak than a response, more a question than an answer.

“Right, okay.” The chair creaks again. “That’s, like, an entirely different thing.”

When she cracks one eye open, Gideon is leaning towards her, hands on her knees. “It’s alright if you’re mad,” Harrow says, even though she kind of wants to shrivel up and die. “I get it.”

Gideon cocks her head again. “Of course I’m not mad, babes. That’d be well fucked up.”

“You’re not?”

“I mean, I’m a bit disappointed, sure, but that’s not like, your fault. I didn’t check the menu before sitting down but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the meal, you know?”

“Nav,” Harrow says, astonished to find the corners of her mouth twitching upwards, “that makes no sense at all.”

“Sure it does. You’re still Harrow, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but…” She trails off. This isn’t how it happens. There isn’t a script for this; she doesn’t know what to say. “But you’re you,” she says lamely. “You have pinup posters on your wall and you buy dirty magazines and Dulcinea had to make a chart to keep track of who you made out with during Freshers.”

With a shrug, Gideon rakes her hair back from her forehead. “I like sex,” she says, and Harrow makes a face. “I like sex a lot. But I also like you, Harrow, I like you so much, and if you don’t want to have sex with me, I still win, because you’re worth more. You get that? I can take care of myself. I’m not dumping you just because you won’t sleep with me, I’d be a right idiot.”

Harrow’s shoulders shake with something rather like a sob. She squashes that down immediately; she’s not going to bawl her eyes out in Gideon Nav’s bedroom like a child. “You don’t have to stick around. I won’t be offended.”

“Harrow. Look at me. I want to stick around.” Her eyes are luminous in the half-dark room; they both smell like Indian food and a little bit like sweat. “You’re worth more than getting laid, okay? If that’s all I was after, I wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble with you. I’m too hot for that.”

A shaky laugh escapes her; she’s got a point. There’s probably dozens of girls on campus who would commit serious crimes for a chance to get into Gideon’s boxers. “If you’re sure,” she concedes, and Gideon beams at her.

“Sure as a compass, love. You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”