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It’s not that Gideon was getting used to the trials and terrors of Canaan House. The place was still crawling with threats, both living and unliving. Their fellow scions and cavs were dropping like fucking flies. Harrow still would barely tell her anything about her Grand Unified Theory of What All This Bullshit Was About, and the few words she did deign to spew Gideon’s way on that subject were absolute gibberish. Most likely that’s the only reason she could bring herself to say them: she knew they’d fly right over Gideon’s statuesque head.

But when you’ve been dealing with All This Bullshit for a certain amount of time, it ceases to be so surprising. So when the apparently rusted-open door of Lab 12 spontaneously unrusted itself and slammed shut with a resounding, ominous BOOM the moment Harrow and Gideon had both stepped through it, Gideon’s reaction was: Yeah, okay. Figures.

Harrow whirled, scrabbling at the door with her feeble fingers for a moment before she remembered herself and produced a couple of bone chips out of her sleeves. The chips unfolded into skeletons, shorter and with much thicker bones than your average human, and the skeletons began banging on the smooth surface of the door, their newly-created fingertips making truly horrendous noises on its rust-flecked but otherwise featureless surface.

“Would you do something, Nav?” Harrow snapped.

“Like what, exactly?” Gideon gestured at her stupid whisper-thin rapier, her ridiculous knuckle-knives. “Looks like I left my welding torch in my other robes.”

Harrow growled wordlessly and stalked past Gideon, further into the room. As she walked, lights flickered on in the ceiling. Unlike the harsh white lights elsewhere in the complex, these bulbs glowed a soft amber. The chonky skeletons were making no progress; all they’d managed to do was scrape some of the rust off the door. Little red flakes of it were drifting through the air, buffeted along by a whisper of a breeze from the vents. Gideon coughed as some of it landed on her face, sticking to her stupid greasepaint. It smelled faintly of some strange spice, not like rust at all.

From behind her, a stifled gasp — Harrow’s equivalent of a fall-to-your-knees scream of anguish — and the sharp words, “Get us out of here now, Griddle.” Gideon wasn’t listening, though. She was a little more focused on the way the temperature in the room had suddenly risen about ten degrees. The air felt sticky and cloying, like the air outside by the ocean. Or — was it the air, or Gideon’s skin? She was drenched in sweat, her sacramental robes even more intolerably stifling than usual. She grimaced and shrugged them off, happy to stay in her undershirt and trousers until they were out of this strange rusty sauna.

“Griddle,” Harrow said again from behind her, her voice actually shaking. “Gideon. Put your clothes back on.”

Gideon turned. She could finally see the whole room now, bathed in soft amber light. The walls were the same steel as the door, and they too were coated in patches of red rust. There was a desk, of sorts, with something etched into the stone surface, probably some theorem or other necromantic tidbit Gideon thoroughly did not feel like dealing with right now. On the desk was a vase, ancient and dusty, filled with equally ancient flowers, black poppies with rusty-red stamens. And further into the room was—

No constructs. No spikes swinging down from the ceiling, no fields of pure flesh-melting energy. Just a bed. Big, fluffy, strangely not covered in dust or rust or mold. Inviting.

And standing by the desk, her pale fingers coated in rust-red pollen from the ancient flower she’d just touched, was Harrow.

“Harrow,” Gideon croaked, mouth dry. God, she looked so tiny. Petite. Like Gideon could pick her up with one arm. Why had Gideon never tried that before? Why was she actually considering trying it now? “I don’t think that’s rust on the door.”

“It’s not,” Harrow said. She was sweating too, her precisely detailed skull paint blurring around the edges. Her black eyes were huge in her pale face, and her cheeks were starting to turn pink, the flush visible even through the layer of white over the top.

“Poison?” Gideon’s heart was beating out of control.

“Worse.” Harrow took a step towards her, staggering weirdly like she hadn’t actually meant to do it. She reached into her robe and took out a full handful of bone chips, and as they scattered on the floor in front of her they blossomed into a solid wall of bone. The bone grew around Harrow in a cocoon, sealing her in.

“Harrow!” Gideon shouted, louder than she’d meant to, and sprinted towards the big cylinder of bone that now fully hid her necromancer.

“Go away!” Harrow’s muffled voice shouted back. “We may still be able to weather it separately, if I stay in here.”

“I don’t want you to stay in there.” Gideon slashed at the bone obelisk with her knuckle-knives, making parallel gashes in the pearly surface. Why was her voice so whiny, all of a sudden? “I want you out here with me.”

Some detached part of her mind woke up and said, Wait a minute. Those kinds of thoughts are inside thoughts. Those aren’t say-out-loud thoughts.

From inside the bone spire, Gideon heard Harrow groan. It wasn’t a groan of pain, or of annoyance. It was— it—

Gideon shuddered. “Harrow,” she whispered, surely not loud enough for Harrow to hear her through her shield of bone. But Harrow groaned again.

“Stop talking to me,” she said, sounding desperate. Gideon’s resolve to get into Harrow’s bone palace only deepened, and she slashed at the thing again, wishing for the millionth time that she had her fucking two-hander. “That’s an order, Griddle. Nav. Gideon. Please.”

Gideon growled, which was not a sound she was in the habit of making, and redoubled her efforts. “Harrowhark,” she said, panting with the effort of not just throwing her entire body against the barrier. “Sorrowful Mistress. Dire Suzerain.”

“Shut up!”

“Osseous Princess.” Normally Gideon would only be using all these epithets if she wanted Harrow grinding her teeth and plotting ways to make Gideon grow extra toenails in places toenails should never grow, but they were spilling out of her unbidden. “Celestial Superintendent, please, let me in—”

“Gideon,” Harrow nearly shrieked, in a tone of voice Gideon had never in her life heard her use: anguished, terrified, manic. “Stop, you have to stop, go away, I can’t— If you don’t I’ll—”

“Please,” Gideon grunted, chips of bone flying past her face as she slammed her knuckle-knives into Harrow’s fortress.

With a wholly unfamiliar shriek from within, the walls of the cocoon collapsed into nothing, tiny fragments of bone scattering across the floor of the room. The skeletons hacking at the door, which Gideon had honestly forgotten were there, shattered and crumbled. And there was Harrow, melted paint streaming down her face, taking a huge lunging step towards Gideon from the midst of her demolished bone sanctuary and flinging her arms around Gideon’s neck to kiss her full on the lips.

Oh, said the detached part of Gideon’s mind. So this is what actually getting something you want feels like.

The rest of Gideon’s mind was so much boiling soup, as she grabbed Harrow around the waist, crushing their bodies together and kissing her back with every technique she could remember from every skin mag she’d ever read. Harrow tasted like porridge with an undertone of blood, which should have been gross, but Gideon licked into her mouth anyway. Harrow clutched at Gideon’s neck, tangled her spindly fingers into Gideon’s hair. Everywhere they touched, Gideon’s nerves were on fire, her muscles trembling, shivers of pure lust running up her spine.

With a sound like a champion weightlifter heaving an entire shuttle into the air with one hand, Harrow pulled away. Her fingers stayed in Gideon’s hair, keeping Gideon from chasing her mouth for just long enough that she could speak. “Why couldn’t you have just done what I said, you stupid— brainless— beautiful—”

Gideon kissed her again. Harrow moaned, actually moaned, into her mouth. That was jarring enough that Gideon could move their faces apart and say something. “Is this the poison?” she gasped.

“This is the test,” Harrow replied. “Here— move—” She batted at Gideon’s hands, locked tight around her waist. Gideon clung to her stubbornly until Harrow brought her hands up to the neckline of her own robes and started unfastening them.

At that point, letting go of Harrow suddenly aligned much better with Gideon’s goals, and she dropped her arms and went for her own remaining clothes. “God,” Harrow groaned as Gideon’s shirt hit the floor, followed quickly by her trousers and her bandeau. Instead of the abject horror that should have laced through that groan, it was riddled with desperate longing. “Why are you like this.”

“Why am I like what?” Gideon closed the gap between them again, cupping Harrow’s face in both hands to kiss her deeply, then pulling away to help Harrow shove her opened robe off her shoulders, start unfastening her ribcage breastplate.

“So big,” Harrow said. “It’s grotesque.” Her voice did not sound at all like grotesque was the word she really meant, and she trailed trembling fingers over Gideon’s biceps, across Gideon’s collarbone, tracing paths of explosive pleasure over Gideon’s bare skin.

“You’re one to talk about grotesque,” Gideon said. “You’re wearing a whole extra ribcage. Most decent people are happy with just one.” The garment in question fell on top of Harrow’s discarded robe with a thunk, and Gideon’s hands met Harrow’s at the hem of Harrow’s shirt. Gideon swore she heard a choir of angels singing as they took it off her, revealing pale skin, small breasts, light pink nipples gone stiff with desire.

Gideon grabbed Harrow around the waist again and found out she could, in fact, pick her up. Harrow wrapped her legs around Gideon’s hips, making a noise that Gideon was totally going to tease her about later if she made it out of this challenge without actually dying of sexual ecstasy. She couldn’t tease her right now, because it was vastly more important to duck her head down, kiss along Harrow’s sternum and over to take one hard nipple into her mouth.

“Gideon,” Harrow moaned, arching into her touch. “Please.”

Gideon made it to the bed in a handful of strides, only slightly hampered by keeping her head down to keep licking at Harrow’s tits. She tossed Harrow onto it and crawled over her.

“So I think I get the gist of what this challenge wants from us,” Gideon said, laving her tongue over Harrow’s nipple. Harrow twisted a hand into Gideon’s hair and held her mouth in place for a moment, making it impossible to talk, but that was fine because Harrow’s hot skin against her lips was probably the best thing Gideon had ever felt, ever. When Harrow released her, Gideon kept kissing her way downward. From the sounds Harrow was making, the shocks of pleasure Gideon felt every time their skin touched were very much happening to her as well. “We need to fuck, right?”

“No, we need to cook a seven-course meal,” Harrow snapped, a little bit of her normal self cutting through the fog of lust. “Oh—” Gideon had reached the waistband of her pants, and was starting to peel them down, trailing her tongue in their wake. “Yes. Gideon, please, yes—”

“And you’re okay with it?” Gideon pressed a kiss to Harrow’s mound. She was wet already, fuck, the dark curls between her legs soaked and glossy. “I don’t think I can actually stop, but if you’re not okay with it, you could always kill me and see if that helps.”

“I’d never kill you,” Harrow said. Her fingers raked through Gideon’s hair as she got a firm grip again. Even the slight pain of her desperate tugging transmuted to jabs of pleasure all over Gideon’s scalp. “Never, fuck, please.”

“But if we weren’t poisoned, or whatever,” Gideon said. The effort of keeping her tongue inside her mouth instead of buried in Harrow’s folds was maybe the most difficult thing she’d endured in this whole batshit process so far. “And we somehow ended up like this. You would say yes? Deep down?”

“Why does it matter?” Harrow asked through gritted teeth. “This is the test.” She tried to shove herself up into Gideon’s face, but Gideon curled her fingers over Harrow’s slim hips and held her in place easily.

“It just does,” Gideon said. She was pouring sweat, now, her paint must be mostly gone. Half of it seemed to be smeared across Harrow’s tits, down her stomach.

“Fuck,” Harrow bit out. “Yes. I fucking would, Gideon, now please—” She broke off in a yell as Gideon stopped resisting and dove face-first into the test.

So technically Gideon hadn’t done this before, but if every time you imagined doing something was, say, a thousandth part of actually doing it — she’d maybe done it four or five times. There had even been helpful diagrams, with arrows and everything, in one issue of Spirit Sluts in the Bone Zone. And with the help of the rust-red pollen, or whatever it was, Harrow certainly wasn’t fucking complaining about her lack of experience. Gideon licked between her folds, teasing her tongue around her entrance, dipping inside. The taste of her— it was like nothing else, earthy and sharp. When she finally made her way up to Harrow’s clit, chivvied along by Harrow yanking on her hair, Gideon’s heart pounded like her tongue had been on a long journey away from home and had finally found its way back again. She sucked and teased and swiped her tongue until she found a pattern Harrow seemed to like, and then stuck with it. Getting into the rhythm of this was vastly easier than figuring out the fucking footwork for her rapier, at any rate. Why couldn’t cavaliers defend their house’s honor via cunnilingus? Gideon would be top rate, if that were the case.

And Harrow — Harrow would be top rate in receiving. It was unreal, the way this uptight prig unfolded under Gideon’s touch, melting into the bed, legs splaying wide and back arching sinuously. Sinuously, yes, which was not a word Gideon had ever thought she’d be able to apply to the Reverend Daughter, who usually held herself so stiff-backed it was like she wished she could be one of her own skeleton constructs. She was never going to be able to unsee this, unknow what Harrow tasted like; how her moans got breathier and breathier until they tapered off into gasps; what it felt like to have one of her slim legs hooked over Gideon’s shoulder, pulling her even closer.

She found herself musing, somewhere under the roiling hormone stew that was her brain on sex pollen, that she didn’t actually want to unknow it.

Harrow clutched at her hair and dug her heel into Gideon’s trapezius and said, strangled, “Gideon— fuck— oh—” and Gideon just kept going, the magazines had been very clear about that, don’t try and get fucking fancy at the end. Harrow’s thighs tensed and her abs tensed and her ass tensed and her shoulders curled up off the bed and Gideon kept mercilessly working her swollen clit, licking in those firm strokes until Harrow shrieked, catapulting her head back into the pillows, and came, shaking apart under Gideon’s mouth. Gideon gripped Harrow’s bony hip tight in one hand, stroked her belly soothingly with the other as she shuddered her way through it.

Then it was over, and Harrow was panting, a mess of sweat and smeared paint. Except— Gideon’s skin was still tingling, not any less than it had been a minute ago, before Harrow came. And Harrow was still panting, not really seeming to come down from it, certainly not looking as sated and boneless as Gideon expected her to after that big an orgasm. Instead, she looked hungry. She pushed up on her elbows and looked at Gideon like she wanted to devour her. It was a subtle difference from looking like she wanted to murder her, but the difference was definitely there, and it made Gideon’s breath come faster.

“I think we’re not done,” Gideon said. She could feel her pulse pounding everywhere, in her throat, between her legs.

“We’re certainly not,” Harrow said, and lunged forward. She didn’t actually have the mass to push Gideon, but Gideon saw her coming and rolled with it, reorienting them so she was on her back with her head towards the foot of the bed. Harrow loomed over her as menacingly as a tiny naked woman could loom, which was to say not very menacingly — but Gideon was fucking shivering at the sight of it, at all of Harrow’s brainpower and vicious energy focusing on likely the easiest problem she’d ever confronted: how to get Gideon Nav off.

Before heading downstairs, though, Harrow leaned down to kiss her. And kiss her, and kiss her, and keep kissing her until Gideon’s lips felt almost raw with it and she wasn’t sure how much of the spit in her mouth had been hers originally. Finally Harrow moved on, kissing Gideon’s jaw, under her ear, down and down until she made her first stop at Gideon’s tits.

“Oh fuck,” Gideon gasped, as Harrow’s mouth closed around one of her nipples and a small hand squeezed and massaged her other tit. Gideon wasn’t what any of her magazines would call busty, but she had more of a handful than Harrow did, and Harrow seemed to like that. Like, really like it. She was absolutely going to town, thumbing over Gideon’s nipple and sucking the other and Gideon wasn’t sure if having one’s tits played with was always this good or it was the influence of this weirdass test but damn. She slid a hand down between her legs, finding her clit just as sensitive and wet as she’d been expecting, and moaned as she rubbed herself.

Harrow looked up. Her paint was all but gone, just a smudged ring of white and grey around the edges of her face, and seeing her without it was maybe even more shockingly intimate than eating her pussy had been. “Get yourself close,” she ordered. “But I need to be the one to finish you. Otherwise we’ll be at this all day.”

“Not seeing the problem with that at the moment,” Gideon said as Harrow went back to her thorough exploration of the taste of Gideon’s nipples. “Although I notice that I did all the fucking work for you, and now you’re making me do the work for me, too.”

“I could do it,” Harrow said, clearly bristling. “I just thought you’d prefer I touch you as little as possible.”

Gideon stared at her, still working her clit but now with confusion coloring her arousal. “Why the absolute bleeding fuck would I prefer that?”

Harrow grabbed Gideon’s wrist, stilling her hand. “Griddle,” she asked in the weirdest tone of voice Gideon had ever heard her use, and that was saying something after the last twenty minutes. “Gideon. If this weren’t the test — would you say yes?”

“Of course I fucking would, you fucking dunce,” Gideon said. Her hips rose off the bed unbidden to keep grinding her clit against her unmoving knuckles. “I’m the pervert, you’re the prude with the femur permanently up her ass, remember?”

“Everything I’ve done to you, though—”

“Per. Vert.” Gideon said again, over-enunciating each syllable. “You can offer to actually fuck me once for every time you metaphorically fucked me, if that makes your weird shriveled heart feel better, but if you could get going with it, like now—” she jerked her wrist free of Harrow’s pitiful grip and grabbed her by the back of the neck, dragging her stunned face back down to Gideon’s chest. Less gawping, more groping.

And Harrow sprang into action, shockingly, getting her mouth around Gideon’s nipple again and fucking biting, ow but damn that was good. Gideon shuddered under the assault of her tongue and teeth across Gideon’s chest, then gasped when she felt slim, precise fingers exploring tentatively around her entrance.

“Do it,” she said, her voice coming out rough. “Fuck, Harrow—” and Harrow slipped her fingers inside, thrusting experimentally. It was fucking weird, seeing Harrow approach a task without assuming she was going to immediately be spectacular at it, but Gideon wasn’t going to interrupt to make fun of her right at this moment. Anyway, infuriatingly, Harrow took all of thirty seconds to experiment before she realized she was spectacular at it, her fingers finding a rhythm and a spot to rub against that made Gideon cry out.

Harrow sat up, watching Gideon’s face. Gideon could barely focus on her through the haze of pleasure. “Tell me when—” Harrow began, then cut off, whimpering as Gideon clenched around her, just the sound of her voice enough to turn up the dial. “Tell me when to switch with you. It has to be me.”

“Yeah,” Gideon groaned, not quite sure if she was acknowledging the parameters of the test or making some broader, thoroughly humiliating admission. “Any time you want, really. Fuck.” She spasmed around Harrow’s fingers again, tiny precursors to the monumental orgasm she was building towards.

Harrow moaned and replaced Gideon’s fingers with her own, picking up instantly on the motion Gideon had been rolling with. Gideon clutched at the sheets, at her own hair, at Harrow’s shoulders, her tits. Everything was her heartbeat and her panting breath and the wave cresting inside her, pushing itself just that tiniest bit higher, then higher, before—

“Harrow,” Gideon mouthed, unable to really talk she was so close, and then she howled, everything coming crashing down as she came. Harrow kept going, fingers working even as Gideon tightened spasmodically and bucked against them. She kept going even when Gideon was done and oversensitive, and only stopped when Gideon yelped and shoved her hands away.

A muted clicking sound drew their attention to the featureless steel door, which was no longer featureless but had somehow sprouted a handle. Even after everything they’d just done, Gideon was really expecting Harrow to sprint for her clothes and get out of here as fast as her spindly little legs could carry her. But Harrow sighed — a little exasperated, because she was still Harrow — and draped herself over Gideon’s body, resting her head on Gideon’s shoulder.

“Um. Hi,” Gideon said.

“I’ll be recovered in a moment,” Harrow said. “Then we can get back to our rooms and clean up. I’ve got your juices all over my hands.”

Gideon gingerly wrapped her arms around Harrow, holding her like she might either crumble into dust or erupt into spikes. Harrow did neither of these things, which might have been the strangest thing that had happened yet. “Sure,” she said. “Um. Harrow—”

“It’s humiliating enough that we did it, Griddle, do we also need to talk about it?”

“Guess not,” Gideon said. She tightened her arms a little. Still no spikes. “One question, though—”

“God.”

“If I understood you right—”

“Unlikely.”

“—then being desperately hot for me is, like, a pretty normal state of being for you—”

“You arrogant, ridiculous—”

“—so how’d you figure out what the test was, if the poison stuff didn’t make you feel any different than usual?”

Harrow sighed in annoyance. She still hadn’t shoved her way out of Gideon’s grip. “The inscription on the desk is not exactly subtle,” she said.

Gideon craned her neck backwards like she’d be able to read the fucking thing upside down. Harrow sighed again and gently extricated herself from Gideon’s embrace. It was disappointing, but it meant Gideon could roll off the bed — her legs were working again by now, thankfully — and go over to the piece of furniture in question.

Engraved into the stone surface, in ornate letters, was the phrase:

One Flesh

...But The Fun Way ;)