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Like Songbirds in the City Air

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Harrowhark did not believe in “luck” as a force that came and went from its chosen few among humanity, for good or ill. She believed in chance, vast and blank and indifferent, felling hundreds blindly with an avalanche or hurricane, turning gigantic fate on the dumb twitch of a chromosome. But mostly she believed in herself, her own cunning and instinct; so it was on her own head that the blame must lay, in the end. It was her own unceasing failure to comprehend that made her thrice-damned accursed cell cultures wither. It was her own stupidity that made her theorems tangle like the root-systems of an invasive tree species, choke themselves, and die.

She flung a marker at the whiteboard, mostly as a weary experiment in theatricality. It fell to the floor halfway short of its mark and left her still feeling every bit as abraded, bitter, spent and sour as she had all day. She was a worthless mannequin aping necromancy. Her brain had been scooped out of her cranial vault and replaced by the sticky, fragmented ashes of some diseased corpse dragged too early from its pyre. The buzzing of the harsh laboratory lights were giving her a headache all the way down to her teeth.

And of course it was at that moment, precisely when she was least wanted, that Ianthe drawled from the door, "It's your transference co-ordinates. You never could get a handle on them."

"Get out of my lab," Harrow snapped. She did not turn around. She didn’t need to turn around to imagine Ianthe's lascivious lounge against the doorframe, the human equivalent of a lumpy gilded pomegranate, all bloodless gold and overripe violet. Harrow would not have believed that anyone could be lascivious against the dead concrete and flat clinical linoleum of the Lyctor labs, but somehow Ianthe always managed it. Ianthe needed no help from her surroundings; she could be lascivious in the vacuum of deep space. And Harrow's stomach was already uneasy.

Only at the alarming clink of glass did she look, and by then Ianthe had breached the threshold and was rattling the fingers of her bone prosthesis among Harrow's clean beakers and pipettes like a child playing a musical instrument, with great enthusiasm and a deliberate lack of skill.

"Get out!" This time Harrow reached for the string of molars on her wrist, but Harrow was sluggish, overtired, and Ianthe was faster. She turned like a duelist into an opening she’d known was coming and closed her bone hand over Harrow's flesh one, keeping Harrow's fingers folded safely around her would-be weaponry.

"Oh, relax, Harry. Not like I'll break anything." She was very close, closer than Harrow allowed people to get, and if she were almost anyone else on the planet she would have been staggering back with a neatly sharpened phalange speared through each eye.

But Ianthe was a walking conflict of signals. Her proximity set off every danger alarm in Harrow's brain, and at the same time Harrow's body always remembered the warmth of her, so surprising juxtaposed with her skin the color of something pale and wriggling birthed in a lightless cave. Part of Harrow, the idiot nerves-and-muscles part, never stopped remembering when that warmth had been the only candleflame flicker offered to her in a world utterly cold and cruel and hateful. When she'd been as wretched and terrified as she'd ever been in her life, and ready to crawl in debasement for any hint of absolution. Part of her remembered how it had felt to draw out and squeeze and shape the bones of the arm that touched her now, the ulna coyly resisting, the radius like a surrender, the carpals and metacarpals each with a seductive character of their own. It had been more than six months, but bone remembered. Bone was memory.

Ianthe took advantage of Harrow's hesitation and lifted her flesh hand to Harrow's cheek, digging with her thumbnail at a flaking crust of dried blood sweat lateral to the joint of the mandible. "Poor Harry. So worried about your equipment and your theorems, when the most fragile thing in here is you."

The touch was a mistake. Harrow found Ianthe confusing, but no amount of confusion would make her submit to the touch of a flesh magician with unclear motives, without the safe buffer of controllable bone between. She instantly expanded the molars in her hand, opened her fingers to let them extrude great blunt crossbars of calcium, knocked Ianthe's prosthetic grip away and pushed her back a few steps. The room itself was tiny, just a working counter with a rack of glassware and a whiteboard, but a little breathing space was all she needed. "Get. Out," she said, for the third time.

"Cranky, aren't we? It's all these late nights, you know." Ianthe had fallen back to a more prudent position beside the door, but was still picking through the rack of fragile slides beside the microscope with the gold-plated, glass-scratching surfaces of her defleshed hand. Pretending, with very little success, to have diverted her unwholesome interest from Harrow's person to Harrow's work. "What are you doing here so late? I thought you'd be home with that slobbering moron of yours. Word around campus  is you’ve made up and the two of you are having a gay old time."

"That is none of your business." Gideon would have picked up Ianthe in one hand and tossed her out the window at the end of the hallway, into the dumpster filled with piles of bone chips and unsightly necromantic byproducts wrapped in red biohazard bags. The thought gave Harrow a brief moment of burning satisfaction.

Ianthe shrugged. "The whole school's talking about it. No trouble in paradise, I hope? Domestic spats can be so messy." She lingered over the word 'messy' as though it were the first bite of an astoundingly delicious meal. “How’d you convince her to stop hating you, anyway? Seems like a miracle. People don’t change, you know. Not deep down.”

Harrow advanced on her, as menacingly as she could. It probably wasn't her best showing, but the dried blood sweat usually helped. "If you do not leave --"

"You'll bone me, I get it. As fun as that sounds…" Ianthe grinned and waggled her eyebrows in a way that made Harrow's stomach turn over with a feeling she could not even begin to identify. "If this is what you’re like when you’re happy, I’ll hate to see what you’re like when she’s done with you. But don’t worry, I’ll be here to pick up the pieces.” To illustrate her point she plucked a slide Harrow had been working on all day and crushed it to powder between fleshless thumb and forefinger with a voyeuristic flex of naked tendon. “The nights are cold this time of year, you know. If you ever need somewhere to huddle for warmth --"

Harrow threw a molar, elongating it into a spearhead in midflight. Ianthe laughed and ducked back out into the hall, and didn't return. The enamel warhead clattered to the floor.

Irritated and unsettled, with sweating palms and a brackish taste in her throat, Harrow turned instinctively back to her theorems and lost herself in their soothing, multi-layered entanglements for another quarter hour. She was stirred at last by the familiar whunk of the motion-sensor lights in the corridor turning off. Which was odd, since it meant no one else had passed by since Ianthe's departure. 

Because the building was empty. Because it was -- she retrieved her phone out of the pocket of her coat where it had fallen under her desk -- three-thirty in the morning.

She had twenty-nine text messages. The first one was a screenshot of a weather report from earlier in the afternoon, predicting snow, with a crude skull drawn over the weatherman's head. The rest were all meaningless jumbles of bone emojis. The brightness of the screen made her eyes water and her head throb, but she realized her shoulders had relaxed a little from the rigor of terminal anxiety, and the muscles of her face were twitching in an unfamiliar way.

In a haze she gathered up coat, scarf, and sensitive papers, the latter tucked discreetly about her person so as not to give potential thieves as tempting a target as a bag or briefcase. The entire building was echoingly empty, a skeleton of itself lying in state among tracts of bleached linoleum, riddled with shadowy stairwells like maggot-trails, without a remnant of anything that moved or breathed. Harrow liked it this way. Last term she would have stayed. She would have taken advantage of the chill and quiet to pretend she was back in her shabby hereditary laboratory in Drearburh, where she had conquered dizzying heights of theory without the least inkling of how difficult they were supposed to be, and where none of her congregants had ever dared intrude upon her, on pain of a grim and messy death. Last term it had been her favorite way of passing a night; to stay in the Lyctor labs until her vision blurred beyond correction, until her fellow-candidates began trickling back in pairs, making inane chatter, tracking in their dirt and heat and sweat and cheer, abrading her peace. Then she would go home, cringing all the while from the brightness of the morning, and find whatever sleep there was to be had.

But now things were different. 

It was a cold night. Ianthe hadn't lied -- never a given -- and neither had the weather reports. Snow lay heaped in flat planes and rounded drifts, less thickly in places where boots had trod, but nowhere below the level of Harrow's knees. She summoned up a squat skeleton to clear a path for her. Even that exertion left her woozy for a minute, and a fresh bead of blood sweat froze at her temple. Foolish. Overexerting herself without cause would leave her defenseless one of these long nights, when Ianthe made a play more complex than mere annoyance, or Septimus tried one of her little tricks…

Only, whispered something new and frightful huddled in the back of her brain, she wasn't defenseless. Not now, not ever again. It was a warm, fragile ember of a thought, somewhere behind her solar plexus. She smothered it, as dispassionately and with the same faint disgust as she would grind out a cigarette stub with the heel of one boot. She would lull herself into complacency with thoughts like that, and she couldn't afford to let down her guard.

It was a long walk across campus, much of it uphill. On another night Harrow might have been able to let her mind go wearily blank, to trudge through the motions with the half-pleasant buzzing thoughtlessness of exhaustion that was probably as close she could ever get to her cavalier's baseline state of being. But she was too on edge tonight. She was nothing but edge, a clot of spines, a murder of needles. She was stressed, stymied. There was another round of exams in two weeks and she wasn't prepared, and yet here she was going home, leaving her tile-and-plexiglass cell with work unfinished. It was like leaving a skeleton half-raised, disjointed long bones askew, a mess of untidy fragments. She'd never have done such a thing before she’d come here. When in the last year had she gotten lax, gone soft?

The question was rhetorical; the answer was obvious. It was at times like this when she had trouble believing that it had really happened -- nights like tonight, when she was jittery, her skin ill-fitting, her mouth and eyes alike rimed with grit. The impression of Ianthe's hand still lingered on her cheek, the only prickle of sensation in the anaesthetic blast of the freezing wind. Sleeplessness turned the whole last month of awkward closeness with Gideon into a long dream. A temporary madness, a passing fit. Hah, there was the rub -- she and Gideon had never fit, not in all their long history of war and bloodshed. It had always been clash and battle, blood and revenge. Even at Canaan they had spent the first six months scraping against each other like a match-head on sandpaper in a locked room full of gasoline fumes, dying for the spark. And now -- Ianthe drawled in her head people don’t change, not deep down -- now they'd been kissing and playing nice for, what, a few weeks? They were deluding themselves. Harrow was deluding them both. 

Ianthe’s rumormongering sources -- probably Sextus, with his damnable allergy to secrets -- were right. Harrow and Gideon weren’t fighting. That was precisely the problem. Harrow knew how to fight with Gideon. What she didn’t know how to do was -- this. How long could Gideon possibly put up with pretending to be glad that she was tied to a necromancer who was probably constitutionally incapable of anything but scorn and neglect? How long would Harrow be able to hold her after her lust for attention was satisfied?

Ianthe had been right. It was the worst thing about her, that she often was right. Domestic affairs could not be relied upon, and domestic disputes were too messy to contemplate. Harrow had spent the whole first sixteen years of her life trying to bind Gideon with chains that could not be broken. She had failed, and Gideon's leaving Drearburh at sixteen had left Harrow a shattered and pitiable thing. How could she have let herself believe, in the face of all evidence, that she wasn’t setting herself up to be destroyed again?

The exertion of the climb up to the apartment made her breath come short. Her hands trembled in the pockets of her coat, each one mummified and isolated. The key turning in the lock was as loud as a gun going off. No wonder, then, that she was barely two steps inside before a slurred, drowsy voice called out, "Harrow?"

“Go back to sleep.” It wasn’t much warmer inside the apartment than outside. Harrow divested herself of her coat and scarf but lingered in their tiny postage-stamp-sized kitchen, stacking the vital papers she’d carried home and trying to decide if she could wring one more hour of coherence out of her sore and sodden brain.

A cold dread bubbled up under her heart like black oil at a soft scrape and heavy footfall behind her. She hunched her shoulders a little further, practically hearing the creak of her much-abused cervical vertebrae. “I still have work to do,” she said, uselessly. 

 “Nope. C’mere.” Harrow had braced for a physical assault, but instead a blanket draped itself over her shoulders. One of her favorite ones, light enough not to feel like it was drowning her, with an unobtrusive texture. While she was sorting out the folds of it, Gideon somehow pulled it taut like a straightjacket and bundled her half-immobilized necromancer out of the room, around the corner and onto her ridiculously overlarge bed. Half the mattress was a nest of blankets in sepulchral colors, warm already where Gideon had been curled up in the center of it. So warm that the rush of pure physical relief robbed Harrow of the energy to do anything but snarl wordlessly at the indignity.

Gideon laughed, climbed in behind her and pulled the blankets over them both. She was even more of a furnace than usual, her skin hot in the dark. Sensing no possibility of immediate escape, Harrow settled for revenge. She groped blindly through the covers until she found the soft cotton of Gideon’s tank top and slid her hands underneath it as swift as plunging a dagger into flesh. She was rewarded with a yelp.

"Fucking shit on a stick ," her cavalier said in a voice rough with sleep and deeply pained. "How's the weather on Hoth, my frozen overlord? Did you have to run the perimeter real quick and needed a Taunton?"

"What are you talking about?" Harrow demanded. 

Any sane human being would have pulled away from the snippy sentient icicle in their bed. Gideon curled in closer and even rested one of her own hands over Harrow’s, pressing them into the warm skin over her abdominal muscles. This was clearly a calculated move, as it forced Harrow to notice how defined they were, yet too flexible and generously sheathed in flesh to be described as ‘sculpted’. In retaliation for the flush rising up her neck, Harrow stuck her feet between Gideon’s calves.

This time Gideon only sucked in a breath through her teeth and said, "Oh shit, you don't know about Tauntons? They’re part of a super secret necromantic theorem. Sex Pal showed it to me."

“You're too dim to understand necromantic theorems." 

"Just for that, I'm not letting you slice me open and roll around in my nice warm entrails."

It was a joke, clearly. But Harrow knew with a blind certainty that it also wasn’t. She’d always held Gideon Nav’s life in her hands, but only in the last few months had she even begun to imagine the allure and danger of holding Gideon’s heart. 

A heart was a horribly fragile thing, when you got down to it. Squishy and easily interfered with, defenseless without its surrounding cage of bone. Harrow splayed her fingers across Gideon’s abdomen, over the entrails and soft vulnerabilities that were hers for the asking, and didn’t even know which one of them she was afraid for anymore.

Gideon nuzzled her temple. Exactly like a wild animal too stupid to know that the hunter offering tidbits of meat was in reality its greatest enemy. Wearily, Harrow shifted to get one hand around the back of her neck and kissed her, then buried her face in the hollow of Gideon’s neck. The gaping foramen magnum at the base of her skull, where brain matter became spinal column, felt like a whirlpool in a plastic-polluted sea, a sucking swirl of toxic murk. She was so tired. Gideon -- the realest thing in the universe just then, prey and refuge all in one -- said “Go to sleep. These are not the bones you’re looking for.”

The frozen marrow of her own axial skeleton was beginning to thaw. Harrow tried to calculate the equilibration of thermal and thalergetic energy between two living bodies in close proximity, but couldn’t. Her eyes were drifting closed seemingly of their own accord. She fought them with every rusting inch of iron willpower she could muster. 

“Griddle,” she said. If she’d been braver, if she’d retained the mettle of the Reverend Daughter, she would have said what she was thinking: get out, get away from me, or else explain yourself. For God’s sake, the door isn’t even locked.

Instead  she complained, "Everything that comes out of your mouth is incomprehensible garbage.”

Smug and content as though she’d just won a swordfight, Gideon said, "That's why you love me."

Harrow couldn’t ask the reciprocal question; she was too afraid of the answer. 

Then again, she was accustomed to living in a world founded on deep and unfathomable mystery. She had been granted her whole life, her decades-long stay of execution, by a word unrevealed. Gideon’s heart beat, precious and palpable, safe behind bone. Perhaps neither of them were as fragile as she’d feared. 

Harrow sighed, surrendered to an enigma greater than any necromantic theorem, and fell asleep without needing to understand.