The window pane is warm against Harrow’s palm, a taste of what was inside Cavalier Coffee House. Wooden tables and chairs lay scattered inside, occupants in less than half. Along the side wall were three booths, remnants of the neighborhood diner that used to occupy this space. Or maybe a restaurant. Cavalier Coffee House wasn’t a new feature in the neighborhood, but it was certainly new to Harrow. The people inside were calm, relaxed, familiar with the atmosphere and uncaring about the gothic goblin staring at them through the window. In the booth furthest from the door, Palamedes sat facing the rest of the coffee house, his eyes intent on his laptop. He had been coming here for years, which Harrow knew because he said as much when he invited her to study with him.
It was all exposed brick with wrought iron light fixtures and mirrors of all sizes and designs hanging on the walls above the barista counter. Over the booths was a string of art prints, each one for sale, most likely made by a student at Harrow’s university. In the corner by the big front window, near where Harrow stood, a bookshelf presented a mixture of tattered board games and mass market paperbacks that have seen better days. It was every hipster cliche from ten years ago somehow surviving through the ages in comfort and class.
Harrow paid no attention to any of that. Her eyes were on the barista behind the counter. The barista smiled at a customer with brown curls, the sort of smile Harrow had never seen on her before, open and uncaring and genuine. A smile from somewhere deep. Everything about her blended into the surroundings, from the brown tones of her skin to the gleaming redness in her hair to the golden glint of her eyes; Gideon Nav should not have called as much attention to herself as she did, especially since the rustic brown of her apron matched the brick on the walls. But there she was, an amalgamation of muted, warm colors in a sepia-toned environment. If happiness were a color palette, it was the color palette within Cavalier Coffee House, and Gideon Nav was the beating heart that kept the coffee pumping.
Outside, hand pressed against the front window, Harrowhark Nonagesimus knew she did not deserve that warmth. She would be the cold front that pushed away the late summer atmosphere, and she would deserve the complaints that came as a result. If she had a say, she would turn around right then and leave Gideon to her life. Debated on doing just that, but then she caught Palamedes’ eye. He smiled, waved her inside. Rumbled.
Harrow removed her hand from the window, gripped her messenger bag, and slumped inside. It was just as warm as it looked. The smell of coffee settled into the woodwork like campfire smoke; the susurrus of conversation brushed away rattled nerves like a breeze through fallen leaves. Harrow approached the counter, eyes on the bakery case and the sparse selection therein. Gideon finished up the drink for the curly-haired girl in front, handed it off with a wink which earned her a giggle from the customer, then turned her full attention to Harrow.
It was hard to tell what was worse: feeling the full warmth of those unguarded honey eyes fall on Harrow, or watching them narrow in recognition and contempt, their warmth now hotter with something else.
“What can I get you?” It has been at least four years since Harrow last heard the voice of Gideon Nav, but it was still as familiar as her right hand.
Harrow did not want a repeat of their old habits. She cowered beneath that gaze which burned as hot and bright as the sun. Eyes on the register, Harrow said, “I’ll have a grande half-shot latte, please.”
Gideon took the appropriate cup and started making the drink. No questions about type of milk or flavor shots or what she could mean by “half-shot.” Harrow watched, her insides twisting like bunched up newspaper in a pile of embers. She was the fuel to Gideon’s rage. In the four years since they’d last seen each other, since Gideon ran away and Harrow moved to attend college, Harrow had done some growing up. She knew what it meant to feel the sharp edge of her parents’ power. Had grown to admire Gideon’s endurance with a childhood stacked against her. Since Gideon left Drearburh, Harrow had sometimes wondered where Gideon had gone, and if she was happy where she was. It seemed Harrow finally had her answer. Gideon was happy where she was, as happy as she could be without the reminder of everything she ran away from.
Gideon set the latte next to the register. Harrow paid and slipped an extra dollar into the tip jar, as if her money could make up for a lifetime of torment. Harrow took her latte and sat down across from Palamedes. When she finally took a sip, she suppressed a shudder.
It was too strong, the steamed milk too weak to overpower the bitter taste of espresso. Any other cafe, she would have gone back and clarified what she meant by half-shot. But it was best to leave Gideon Nav well enough alone. She did not need Harrow wandering back into her life. Harrow did not want to cause further harm. So she powered through. Tried to. At least until Palamedes, with his glasses magnifying his grey, kind eyes to owlish effect, took notice.
Harrow was just a customer, Gideon repeated to herself. It was too early in the day to wrap up the contents of the bakery case, but it was never too early to give it a cleaning. Harrow was just a customer, she thought as she pulled out the cheesecake Danishes nobody ate and the savory scones that were too garlicky for Gideon’s tastes. She wrung out the towel of sanitizer and wiped down the bakery case shelves. Then sprayed a paper towel with Windex and wiped down the glass from inside. Harrow was just a customer, she thought again when the case burned with the familiar smell of cleaning chemicals.
Then she noticed a familiar, lanky customer at the register, one eyebrow raised as though concerned about something. His glasses sat at the edge of his nose, two seconds away from being removed and wiped clean on his thick, woolen sweater that dangled from his shoulders two sizes too big.
“What’s up?” Gideon asked, briefly forgetting Pal’s goddamn name. She quickly replaced the pastries before Pal could answer. He had the sensibility to wait until her attentions were fully on him.
“Nothing much,” Pal said. “Harrow is being stubborn, as usual, but she kept insisting on drinking something she obviously dislikes.”
The drink in question was on the counter, cover removed, only a quarter gone even though it had been almost an hour since she made it. Hella cold by now. Gideon leaned against the counter, hands on the rounded edge, forearms bulging from under her rolled up flannel sleeves.
“What’s wrong with it?” she asked.
Pal pushed his glasses up his nose, the lenses reflecting yellow with the artificial light. “Probably the same issue from earlier this week.” Gideon acted affronted when Pal admitted to visiting another coffee shop, something Pal ignored as he relayed the story of when, as soon as she realized her drink was made incorrectly, Harrow approached the barista and asked for it to be remade to her specifications. She even watched the barista the entire time, providing instruction like the demanding bitch she was.
Gideon rolled her eyes. “ Fine ,” she sighed. “I’ll remake her drink.” It did not require much prompting. The customer wasn’t always right, but a customer should still be happy. And that meant remaking things, even if the first attempt was exactly what the customer ordered.
“Do you two know each other?” Pal asked.
Gideon paused, a new empty cup in hand, and studied Pal with his lanky limbs in an oversized sweater and gaunt face and bright, grey eyes. He looked innocent, but she knew him well enough to know that the question was loaded somehow.
“We went to high school together.” Gideon left it at that, busying herself with making a . . . damn. “What’s her drink again?”
Day like this, filled with the inevitable promise of autumn, crowd like this, sparse and full of regulars, Gideon wouldn’t have needed a reminder. She’d been making coffee long enough that she could guess a person’s order almost as soon as they walked through the door. When Harrow first walked in, when Gideon just saw a black shadow, she assumed a palette for the super sweet. A caramel macchiato with extra caramel or a mocha with whipped cream. Harrow ordered something completely different. It threw Gideon off. Harrow Nonagesimus threw Gideon off.
So it pained the barista just to ask what the original order was, but Pal didn’t bat an eye when he said, “Half-shot latte.”
“Got it, half shot. Wait—half shot as in one half of a whole shot? Or half-shot as in half the normal amount of shots?”
Pal turned to Harrow, still at the booth but blocked from Gideon’s vision by the bulky espresso machine. Gideon didn’t bother craning her head over it to see the answer; she heard her pitchy, pinched voice well enough.
“Half of a whole,” was all the answer she needed. Gideon poured the milk and started it steaming. She pressed the espresso beans into its puck and started it up. These motions were familiar. Gideon dreamt about these motions for almost three years now, almost as long as she’s been a barista. She could do them in her sleep. Had once wanted to try them blindfolded but Aiglamene, who owned the shop, shot that down so hard Gideon didn’t even try it when she wasn’t around.
The latte was done in less than a minute. Gideon set it in front of Pal, rosette foam art on full display in the cup. It wasn’t much for art—the lack of espresso also meant a lack of contrast. Pal took it anyway and headed back to the gothic gremlin.
To distract herself from the knowledge that she just gave her childhood nemesis a free drink, Gideon cleaned some more. First the mess she made with the remade pseudo-latte. Then she started cleaning and wiping down the bottom cabinet shelves—emptying them out one at a time and wiping everything down. That, plus managing the other customers that came in, took up the rest of Gideon’s shift.
When Ortus came to take over, and Gideon could finally punch out, she lingered in the swinging doorway to the kitchen and back office. She eyed Harrow, hunched over a binder, a highlighter in one hand and the latte cup in the other. The last time Gideon saw Harrow was . . . high school? High school. They took the same bus out of necessity, but sat on opposite ends of it. Gideon didn’t watch the beloved princess of Drearburh leave the bus, but she watched Harrow walk up to the mansion she and her parents called home. Gideon remembered promising herself to make it big, to get a house just like theirs, and then do everything they didn’t with all that money. Harrow could do no wrong, and Gideon hated her with every fiber.
Or, used to hate her. Now, in college, Harrow had bags under her eyes and the beginning of frown lines at the corners of her mouth. It could be just her area of study and she may just be frowning at her homework. She looked tired, older, more mature. Still a bitch, but a bitch that clutched the to-go cup with her half-shot flavorless latte like it was her only reprieve in a life against her. She lifted the cup to her lips for a sip, but lowered it slowly, surprised by its emptiness. The latte was gone, and she was left holding an empty cup.
Harrow caught Gideon’s eye, black eyes same as they used to be, but somehow more vulnerable than Gideon had ever seen. Gideon didn’t bother studying them. She retreated to the back before Harrow could get any ideas.
Of course Cavalier Coffee House was busy when she walked in. Of course none of the booths were available when she could really use the solitude. Of course it was Gideon behind the counter, slinging coffee for the patrons with that damn crooked smile of hers as though she was exactly where she was supposed to be. As though her life away from Drearburh became as perfect as perfect can be, everything Harrow’s life was not. The rest of the day already worked against Harrow at every opportunity, might as well include Cavalier Coffee as well.
Harrow didn’t bother getting her drink right away—not with the current line at the counter. She had work to do. So she took the spot closest to the wall at the large community table, the one that encouraged strangers to sit together but was always the last one filled, and placed her messenger bag on the chair next to her so no one else could sit there. The single ounce of control in her current situation.
It was like the ringing of a singing bowl lulling a monk into meditation, the way sitting down at Cavalier Coffee House calmed her nerves. In the month since she first met with Palamedes, she’d been a regular, coming in to study at least a couple times a week. The coffee shops on campus were full of students, which meant school pride and loud conversations and absolutely nothing that suggested a world outside of school school school. Cavalier Coffee House, with its warm golden hues and diverse clientele, was refreshing. Adults came here, reminding Harrow of the potential for a life outside school where she could be independent and in control of herself. Here, people talked about more than the latest football game, or the awfulness of their professors, or misadventures with roommates. Harrow could recalibrate herself here, even when Gideon was behind the register.
She had a laundry list for homework. Her first task was highlighting the most important things to do right now or even two hours ago . That’s what she dedicated herself to. For over an hour, as business people and artists and others came and went, Harrow focused. The ringing of the cashier fell in rhythm to her breath. Across the room, someone loudly guffawed at a joke, his partner continuing the punchline with a louder voice. At the same time, Harrow no longer felt the tension in her shoulders. Her mind was on the archeological significance of artifacts found in ancient tombs. The scrape of chairs could have been the scrape of shovels in dirt, retreating footsteps the sound of a brush against stone. The comforting smell of coffee was indistinguishable from the smell of dust and dirt. Harrow daydreamed of excavations and—
Someone set a to-go cup by her textbook, startling Harrow out of her reverie. Two seats away, with Harrow’s messenger bag between them, Gideon sat down, eyes on her phone. Harrow looked between her and the to-go cup, suspicious.
“What’s this?” she demanded.
Gideon shrugged. “Your drink,” she said without looking up from her phone. “Courtesy of Ortus.”
If Gideon was sitting at a table, that meant her shift ended. Harrow glanced behind the counter and saw Ortus, the only other barista Harrow saw just as often as Gideon. Ortus she liked. He ran the open mic poetry nights, which Harrow caught once (and never will again), but was otherwise more agreeable to her than Gideon. Then again, she didn’t share a complicated history with Ortus.
Harrow opened her mouth to say something, but then her phone rang. Loudly. Jarringly. In the exact ringtone that made her skin crawl. Quicker than a pistol, Harrow sent it to voicemail then placed it face down on her notebook. She turned back to Gideon as though they had been in the middle of a conversation, and was caught off guard by Gideon’s honey gaze.
“Did—Did you just hang up on your mom ?” Gideon asked.
Harrow felt the day coming to its climax. Of all the awful things to happen today, talking to Gideon Nav of all people about the most recent events of the family drama might as well happen too. Why the fuck not?
“I can’t hang up if I don’t even answer,” Harrow said, knowing it was a trite thing to say.
“Whatever, night princess, last I checked you and your mom were tighter than the rod up your butler’s ass.”
Harrow’s phone was no longer the latest model, and on a different phone plan than her parents with a new sim card. So she couldn’t even call any of her old friends in Drearburh because she no longer had their numbers. Not like she had been speaking with them during her college education. Everyone scattered then became strangers overnight.
“I’m no longer speaking with my family,” Harrow said. “Or anyone else in Drearburh.”
She wasn’t watching Gideon, but she felt that unnaturally golden stare bore into the side of her head. All the warmth and atmosphere of Cavalier Coffee lasered into Harrow’s temple.
“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” Gideon said. “That’s rough and . . . confusing? Look, it’s none of my business, so whatever, you don’t have to tell me—”
“I came out.”
At the register, Ortus and Protesilaus, one of the other regulars, were attempting to rhyme couplets against each other now that the line to the register was nonexistent. In her usual table by the game shelf, Dulcie shuffled a deck of cards. The Terrible Teens, annoyingly occupying the best booth in the place, giggled at something on their phones. All this felt like silence, because two seats away, Gideon leaned against her chair back with a creak as loud as a thunderclap.
“Mazel tov, gloom empress.”
“Don’t call me that.” Harrow wiped at her cheeks, mysteriously damp. “It . . . I didn’t mean to. We were fighting about me changing my major at the beginning of the semester and then I mentioned my now ex and it . . . it fell out. And that was the final straw, I guess. I wasn’t worth keeping around as—as a . . . “ She couldn’t finish the thought. Her mind was on her mother’s last words, the current time of the year, and the reason why her phone started buzzing against her notebook in another attempt to reach Harrow. One more attempt to placate the daughter with platitudes that weren’t even trying to be compromises.
“Come to the gym with me.”
Gideon could always throw Harrow off her game. Four years apart didn’t change that. The redhead looked hopeful, conflicted, and pitying all at once. Her open face, with its dark brown freckles and strong jawline and sharp cheekbones, was the most infuriating thing in the coffee house. But—
“I mean it,” Gideon continued. “I have a guest pass. You look like you could blow off some steam. I’ll teach you how to hit a punching bag. Maybe you’ll gain one whole muscle.” Gideon shoved her phone in her jacket pocket, the same leather jacket she wore in high school during the winter months, still covered in patches kept in place by a series of safety pins. Everything Harrow did with and to Gideon all those years ago, and Gideon sat angled toward Harrow, her shoulders relaxed but her hands on the table, tense with anticipation. Her face was slack, eyes bright as they reflected the artificial light from the wrought-iron chandeliers overhead. And Harrow—oh John she wasn’t over her was she?—Harrow felt her pulse in her neck and the feeling drain from her face.
Harrow’s advisor was on her case about a topic for her senior thesis, which she didn’t have yet despite it being almost halfway through the semester. She failed the biggest quiz in the “slacker class” she rarely attended, tanking her chance for a comfortable bump in her GPA. Another professor assigned a research paper due in less than a week (it was definitely not on the syllabus). Now her mom kept calling for John knows why. To make things worse, she wasn’t even being productive at her favorite place to study.
“Fine,” Harrow said. She felt the mess that was her life crumble around her. It will still be there later. Maybe it would be easier to pick up the pieces after they’ve all toppled, rather than attempt to keep everything upright on a flimsy foundation. “I’ll go punch a bag with you.”
When it came to punching bags, Gideon was a pro at both being one and punching one. As a new member of Colum’s Calisthenics three years ago, one of the first things Gideon learned was how to throw a punch, how to take a punch, and how to properly fall without injury. The punching bags at the gym, worn with the aggression of its patrons, were familiar and soothing. With them, Gideon didn’t need therapy. She worked off her stress until she was too tired to deal.
Which is why she invited Harrow along to the gym with her. Harrow had sat down without buying a drink and she always bought a drink. Her hair was unbrushed and her eyes were wild and heavy with bags underneath. Something about the set of her shoulders suggested she was two threads away from snapping outright. She looked like she came to the bottom of a cliff with no climbing equipment and no faith in her ability to scale it without. Harrow looked like she needed the distraction.
Gideon held the bag and provided instruction and encouragement in equal measure. One of the personal trainers stood nearby, keeping an eye on things between them but not interfering. Gideon knew what she was doing; she wasn’t worried.
Harrow, for all her enthusiasm and rage and focus, could barely hit the bag. The punches themselves were pathetic with no weight or power behind them. They flopped against the bag with the force of a piece of paper in freefall, but the attitude behind the punches was admirable. Her black eyes zeroed in on the punching bag so nothing mattered besides her, the bag, and making contact as quickly and aggressively as she could, which wasn’t very. Behind each punch was a scream, a primal yell of rage and pain that felt familiar to a younger Gideon. Harrow punched like she was the only one fighting in her corner and lost ground with every swing. Each yell so intense as to frighten the pigeons on the roof of the gym two floors above.
Gideon thought of Harrow in high school, the stoicism and aloofness curated to present herself as confident and secure. A mask enforced by her parents, the richest people in Drearburh, the resident philanthropists who invested all their spare money into the town. Harrow used to walk the town like she owned it, and maybe she would have one day.
I came out , she had said.
When Gideon was sixteen, she came home from a night out to find her mom at the kitchen table, head bent over her latest political project against Harrow’s family, attention to her daughter only a courtesy because they happened to cross paths on this particular night. “Why do you have to be so loud?” her mother had asked after their usual back-and-forth yielded the same indifferent grunts. She wasn’t talking about the noise Gideon made as she moved about the kitchen.
“Why do you have to be so political?” Gideon retorted before retreating to her bedroom. They shared a small flat, so it was hard to hide from her mom. It was why she spent so much time away from home back then. Mom was always bad at conversation and being an actual parent.
Harrow was bad at conversation too, but while Gideon never got attention from her mother, she got the full attention of Harrow. And while Harrow may have used Gideon as her own personal, emotional punching bag, Gideon welcomed every punch that came her way. In animal skeletons stuffed into Gideon’s locker, so her textbooks were covered in dust and dirt and other nasty things. In mean girl rumors whispered in the gym locker room, adding to the black marks against Gideon’s name no matter how untrue. In stolen kisses underneath the bleachers at football games, data points in little “experiments” Harrow “conducted” about who was the best kisser in the school.
Harrow was never one to show her true emotions. So watching them make an appearance at the punching bag, Gideon felt something in her gut. Something best left alone, so she ignored it as Harrow increased the pace, her screams getting louder. She was feral, a fox with an agenda, a wolf out for revenge. Harrow was raw and angry and everything else her parents would never allow her to be. She used to take it out on Gideon, but now she took it out on a literal punching bag. In her focus, she forgot the technique. Her fist slipped and she accidentally hit Gideon if anyone could call that hitting. Gideon barely shifted her weight, but the sound of Harrow’s fist against her sternum was a singular drumbeat as forbidden as a marching band in a library. With a gasp, Harrow resurfaced from whatever deep emotional pool she had been punching from.
“Oh my John, are you okay?” Harrow asked with more concern than she ever dared show in high school.
Gideon shrugged. “I’ve gotten worse.” And it was true. Gideon liked boxing at the gym. It was only the inadequate health insurance through the state that prevented her from fighting in the local boxing rounds for money. (Unless she was guaranteed at least a couple thousand and nothing but flesh wounds, but nothing that sweet had come around . . . yet).
Harrow fussed over Gideon’s sternum as though her weak ass slip would leave a bruise. The touch was gentle. Gideon stilled as Harrow unbuttoned her flannel to peak at the skin underneath, her eyes on Harrow’s pointed painted face, refocused on Gideon’s chest. A thin black eyebrow arched at the sight of Gideon’s tank top, calculating, or debating. Harrow’s hands stilled, contemplative. A single finger went to pull down the tank top, and Gideon inhaled for the first time in thirty seconds.
The sound snatched Harrow from an altogether different reverie than the one she had with the punching bag.
“I think I should go,” she said. “This was . . . surprisingly fun.” Harrow’s face was unguarded when she looked at Gideon, her eyes soft and relaxed, as though she had taken a luxurious bath at a spa, or gotten a massage. “You always knew how to cheer me up. Thank you.”
Gideon felt the color drain from her face and neck. She buttoned her shirt so she had something to do with her hands. Harrow’s hand lowered and Gideon felt their lack like a lost limb. “I should really get dressed for my workout. You should probably go study or whatever.”
“Yeah.” Harrow didn’t look excited at the idea, but she retrieved her backpack from the wall and left the gym, waving at Gideon at the door.
Gideon’s stomach was weightless at the realization that Harrow still had a really nice ass.
Every year, Pal expected a quiet get-together among friends for Camilla’s birthday party, and every year he incorrectly interpreted that phrase. Or maybe others incorrectly interpreted it. Gideon always assumed “a quiet get-together among friends” was a college code phrase for “a fucking rager” and so expected to go all-out whenever that phrase as uttered. They had the perfect house for it too: off campus and slightly dilapidated so no one felt bad for breaking anything and filled with students still learning the meaning of the phrase “study hard, drink hard.”
So far, at barely ten o’clock, Gideon had three shots, two cups of beer (one of which she lost before finishing), and was debating on trying Cam’s mystery punch despite Pal’s recommendation that people sign a waiver before consuming.
That’s about when she saw Harrow, legs tucked under her on the couch in the middle of what passed for the living room, a red SOLO cup in hand, looking like a mouse who found pitiful refuge in a forest of predators. Opposite Harrow on the couch was Dulcie, reclined and passed out, an empty punch cup upturned on her exposed stomach. Even unconscious, Dulcie looked as though she lacked substance (and responsibility, apparently. Does punch go with her meds?)
Gideon bent over the back of the couch until Harrow jumped. “Hey, it’s the night boss!” she greeted with much more enthusiasm than she intended.
“What are you doing here?” Harrow wouldn’t meet Gideon’s eyes. Her cheeks, somehow, managed to gain some color even through the thick layer of foundation.
“Having fun,” Gideon said (or slurred). “Which you don’t seem to be having.”
Harrow looked at her drink, still full from whenever she filled it last, which could have been more than fifteen minutes ago. Now that just wouldn’t do.
“You might have more if you imbibe more. Fun, that is.” Gideon tapped the SOLO cup. Harrow jerked it away as if Gideon would do something as stupid as spill a perfectly mediocre crap beer.
“I’ve never been a drinker,” Harrow said.
“Shut up. All those high school parties?” Gideon only heard people talk about them; she was never invited. Nor could she find a way to attend if she wanted to. (She was drunk enough to admit she wished she crashed at least one—she was more of a play-video-games-with-some-other-outcasts-until-dawn type of high schooler).
Harrow scrunched her face. “I am much more prudish than you give me credit for.”
Gideon blew a raspberry. It was big and wet and Harrow leaned away from her, a hand over the beer she obviously didn’t want to drink, so what did it matter if Gideon’s saliva got in it. “We need to get you drunk, O tenebrous overlord,” she said. “Loosen you up a bit. Hey! I have an idea! Let’s play a game.”
The pinch of Harrow’s mouth meant she actually, seriously considered this option. That meant Harrow was willing to spend more time with Gideon. Gideon ignored whatever backflip her stomach wanted to do at the idea. It was probably from balancing like a teeter totter anyway.
“What do you propose for our game?” Harrow asked.
“Those words are too fancy for this kind of party. Umm . . .” Gideon looked around for ideas. She noted Dulcie, lightly snoring and one roll away from crashing on the floor. Cam and Pal were in the kitchen. Them plus Harrow included everyone Gideon recognized. But she’s been a barista for almost four years, and if she couldn’t drunkenly use her skills for good, then what the hell was she doing with her life?
Harrow looked away, eyes also cast anywhere but at Gideon. Was she feeling guilty about something? It’s been almost five years since high school; time to get over old grudges. When Harrow first came to Cavalier Coffee House, Gideon felt all her old feelings bubble up like a volcano slowly erupting. Now the volcano was mostly empty, the emotions processed with the help of the trusty punching bag at the gym and a couple conversations with Abigail Pent, one of the daytime regulars. Harrow could use a conversation or two with Abigail too. But besides that, when Harrow first walked in, Gideon guessed a super sweet coffee drink for her. She was wrong, despite usually being right about these things.
“Oh! I have a game! I guess everyone’s coffee drink at Starbucks.” The place where Gideon started her coffee slinging career. “For every one I get right, you have to drink. For every one I get wrong, I get a drink. We’ll start with Dulcie here.” Gideon tapped Dulcie’s shin which, despite the thrumming music and Gideon practically shouting right above her, was the thing that roused her.
Dulcie blinked bleary eyes like she was surprised to be awake. “What?” she slurred.
“You drink a grande hot chocolate with skim milk and whipped cream,” Gideon said. “Except at Christmas, when you get a peppermint hot chocolate. And when Pro isn’t breathing down your back or you’re having a good day, you get a grande mocha.”
Dulcie placed a hand on top of Gideon’s head, her fingers curling into Gideon’s red locks. “Are you making coffee right here?”
“Oh.” Dulcie removed her hand and straightened up on the couch, disappointed.
“Is that your order?” Harrow asked.
Dulcie thought about it. “I resent that I am predictable, but yes. That is what I get.”
Gideon, still doubled over the couch, rounded on Harrow. “Drink, bitch.”
Harrow drank. Gideon felt a flutter of victory in her stomach, and it threatened to send her ass over tits onto the cushions between Harrow and Dulcie. Her feet kicked up then back down to the floor. Someone behind her loudly protested the motion, so Gideon straightened up and rounded on that person. They were blonde, gorgeously so, and haloed by giant golden locks with more volume than they had any right to be. Her skin glowed like the goddamn sunset on a beach, and her eyes were bright violet like the twilight sky.
“Hey, gorgeous, can I guess your coffee order for a game?” Gideon asked.
Gorgeous looked Gideon up and down with a smirk that did things to Gideon’s nethers. Her lip gloss shone on kissable lips in the horrible incandescent light. “Only if it’s for a game.”
Gideon looked at those twilight eyes and imagined the tall glass of water they were attached to walk into Cavalier Coffee. She would come in to meet a friend, or maybe for a date, but never by herself. Which means her coffee drink would be something she got as a way to show off. She probably started drinking coffee as a way to fit in, and then it became a habit, which meant she wouldn’t like a super expensive drink or anything with fancy customizations. Or anything high in calories, according to that physique.
“Skinny vanilla latte,” Gideon said. She narrowed her eyes. “Venti.”
“Read me like a book, darling.” And then Gorgeous kissed Gideon on the cheek before walking away with a wink. The sight of Gorgeous’s ass reminded Gideon that she forgot to look at her tits. Harrow stared at the encounter with wide, dark eyes like a moonless night.
Gideon pointed to Harrow. “Drink,” she commanded.
“I did,” Harrow said.
“No she didn’t,” Dulcie tattled from across the couch like the mischievous elf she was.
“Drink,” Gideon repeated.
When it came to teenage romance, Gideon was the only option. Rather, the only obvious option. Drearburh was a conservative town, and according to statistics, Harrow wasn’t the only one in the closet. Harrow had always assumed Gideon was out and proud as an act of rebellion, just like the rest of her existence. Rebellion ran in the family for Gideon, who never got along with anybody in authority, even her own mother. But Gideon was always easy to control for Harrow. She knew the buttons to push to get Gideon under the bleachers at football games, to meet up in the forest behind the high school after class. They would make out and Harrow would go home and daydream about holding hands or treating Gideon to a nice dinner at the nice restaurant two towns away. She would look at all the boys in high school and not want to get to know them. They were gross with their farts and overbearing personalities. Gideon, despite embodying the exact same sense of humor, was the only desirable romantic option. Or at least the only option Harrow could allow herself. The trick was hiding it from others, and that meant Harrow did things she wasn’t proud of. Things that hurt Gideon. Things that, in hindsight, probably made things so much worse.
Harrow’s memory of Gideon’s kisses were wet with too much tongue and hard bites that left Harrow’s mouth uncomfortably throbbing. She never felt satisfied, and it was only now, as an adult, that Harrow realized it was because of inexperience and outside influence.
Gideon Nav, four years later and sitting under Harrow, now using the couch for its intended purpose, was a wonder. She had one hand in the middle of Harrow’s back, the other tracing the curve of Harrow’s hip and thigh. Harrow cupped her hands against Gideon’s cheeks, fingers tracing the strong lines of her jaw and cheekbones. She felt Gideon grope her ass and welcomed it.
Their lips pressed with a familiarity not forgotten by time and distance. Harrow felt Gideon’s heartbeat against her own, pressed her tongue to Gideon’s, licked her teeth. Harrow wasn’t drunk enough for this, but she savored the moment regardless. Savored Gideon, who had aged like the bottles of Scotch in her father’s medicine cabinet, whose hands pleasantly burned over Harrow’s clothes. Gideon did not deserve Harrow, but Harrow was too busy with other matters to let herself take the thought further.
They parted for air, and Harrow started kissing Gideon’s jawline, up to her ear where she nipped at the piercings there, then started sucking at the dark nook underneath her earlobe. Her hair was so red, so beautiful; her skin had the faint taste of coconut oil and coffee. Harrow trembled when Gideon groaned.
Gideon’s head relaxed against the back of the couch. Her hands fell from Harrow’s back. Harrow removed herself to check in, and the world seemed to freeze around her. If Harrow wasn’t drunk enough, Gideon was entirely too drunk, because Gideon Nav fucking fell asleep.
Beside them on the couch, having watched the entire show, Dulcie laughed so hard she started coughing.
Though she didn’t understand why or how, Gideon got off easy. She came in to work the next couple days expecting an icy demeanor from Harrow and incessant teasing from everyone else. Either Dulcie didn’t remember that Gideon fell asleep while making out with fucking Harrow Nonagesimus, or the Lyctors—may they smile upon this societal outcast in perpetuity—decided Gideon had dealt with enough shit in her life. This affected her ability to manage the coffee house by herself, as displayed by less tips than usual. When Harrow finally did show up, her mind was not on Gideon drunkenly passing out while under her.
Instead, Harrow simply approached the register and waited. This was part of a habit they had fallen into. Harrow’s drink never changed, no matter the time of day or her mood, and neither did her desire for silence. Gideon sometimes said something like “Coming right up, twilight princess,” or “As you wish, buttercup” if only for a sense of formality to the gesture.
Today, when Harrow approached, her eyes were entirely elsewhere, her mouth slightly agape as she concentrated on something on the far wall behind and beyond Gideon, the picked over bakery display, and the espresso counter. Her short hair, naturally adverse to laying flat, stood pointier than usual. Gideon made Harrow’s drink, but pulled it away when Harrow went to reach for it. It took a solid thirty seconds (Gideon counted) before Harrow came back to herself.
“Everything okay, my salacious siren?” Gideon asked.
Harrow blinked. “Finals,” was all she said.
That was all she needed to say. Gideon handed over the drink and let her to it.
A week later, their usual habit evolved. It started when Gideon and Ortus switched shifts, as they were wont to do every three to six months. Gideon liked the change in perspective with the change in schedule; the unpredictability of what she would be doing in six to nine months’ time was a thrilling adventure.
Besides, Gideon was shit at training newbies. Aiglamene hired one or two part-timers for the winter months to help with the downtown holiday shopping rush. Ortus was much more patient with them. He knew what to say to get them up to speed with support and encouragement, something Gideon never learned to do because no one bothered with that for her. The part-timers typically worked during the day. So when Gideon started in the late afternoons, the rush dwindled into a trickle.
The best thing about the shift change, however, was Gideon got to finally see how long Harrow hung around Cavalier Coffee.
The day after the schedule change, Harrow sat in her favorite booth, back to the rest of the coffee house, comfortable in the familiarity, face reflecting the gilded hues of the polished wood of the table. Harrow was a stark shadow against the gold, all angles and points. A mini eldritch monster that lived in shadow even when the light shown against it. A stranger would have assumed (correctly) that their presence would be unwelcome. Gideon, and perhaps some of the regulars too at this point, may have noted the downward slope of Harrow’s shoulders, the way she would occasionally straighten to stretch and massage her neck. When Gideon retrieved anything from the back room, she noted a small smile at Harrow’s lips. It wasn’t because whatever she read was happy—more like, Harrow didn’t realize she smiled as she studied.
“Last call,” Gideon announced fifteen minutes to eleven. The coffee house was sparse tonight: Harrow in her booth, Abigail and Magnus by the window with a card game between them, a stranger at the community table with a stack of textbooks to rival Harrow’s. The stranger jumped at Gideon’s announcement and packed everything into a little backpack. It somehow fit. He returned his mug with a friendly nod and left. Abigail and Magnus finished their game, to Abigail’s protests (she was always a sore loser). That did not deter Magnus’s joy. He walked around with hearts for eyes whenever his wife occupied the same room as him, and Gideon couldn’t decide if she wanted to melt or gag at the couple.
Harrow made motions to pack, but her eyes never left her binder. She stilled, obviously still wrapped in her studies. Whatever, she had fifteen minutes yet. Gideon assumed she had left quietly when, at eleven exactly, Gideon locked up the front door. But she turned around to see Harrow still at the booth.
“Harrow?” Gideon called.
The shadow didn’t react. Gideon shrugged, then started flipping chairs on tables. Harrow-the-shadow didn’t react to that either. Nor did she pay attention when Gideon swept the entire coffee house. In fact, Harrow-the-shadow didn’t do anything until Gideon started mopping. Gideon’t didn’t know what finally roused her—it certainly wasn’t the squeaky wheel on the mop bucket. But it could have been nothing.
“Fuck, what time is it?”
Gideon checked her phone, illicitly kept on silent in her pocket. “Eleven fifteen.”
“Shit, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you say something? Ortus always said something.”
“I said last call,” Gideon said, indifferent to Harrow’s rush. She made figure-eights with the wet mop across the floor. “You can leave with me out the back if you like. This is the last thing I have to do.” Gideon heard and did not watch Harrow scramble to pack away her things. When Gideon backed into the back room, the mopping done, Harrow was in the kitchen, dark eyes wide as they looked at the shelves of cleaning supplies, paper products, and a dishwasher (or as Aiglamene preferred to call it, dish sanitizer) running the final load. Gideon dumped the dirty mop water and put away the mop and bucket. The last thing she did was don her jacket and earmuffs. Then she punched out.
Gideon never closed with a friend before. She wasn’t sure how she felt that the friend was Harrow, but her presence felt illegal, thrilling, and natural all at once.
“I’m sorry,” Harrow said as Gideon locked the alley door.
Gideon tested the doorknob, satisfied with the way it didn’t budge when she tried to (weakly) bust through. “For what?” she asked.
Harrow shrugged. “I should have left when you said last call.”
She was a shadow amongst shadows, the being only perceived because the meager light from the street lamps dared to venture this far into the darkness. Harrow’s regular makeup, with heavy black eyeshadow and dark lips, made her face look like a skull in the low light. Gideon wanted to kiss her again, to hell with the past. In the past couple months, Harrow proved that she grew past Drearburh. The fact that Gideon wasn’t mocked for falling asleep while making out with her at a party was all the proof she needed.
Now Gideon shrugged. “I don’t mind,” she said with honesty. “Do you need a walk home? It’s late.”
“I live on the other side of campus,” Harrow said in a tone that suggested she would prefer to not be alone in the middle of the city in the middle of the night. Especially on campus, where rowdy students celebrated their newfound freedom and youth no matter the time of day or year. Joke’s on her, though.
“No way. I do too!”
“Yeah. I have a little studio in one of the new apartment buildings that way,” Gideon said. “I’ll walk you home.”
It was nice to have Gideon at her side. In the dark, in that jacket, with the shortness of her hair and the lilt of her gait, Gideon looked more masculine than usual. Attractively masculine. The hardness of her jawline and the bite of her smile were sharp enough to draw blood. Harrow loved that Gideon, whom she knew to be tender with Dulcie and patient with harried customers and on the same level as the terrible teens, whom Harrow knew to be one of the kindest people in her life right now, looked like a physical threat in the shadows cast by the streetlamps.
Harrow hated that they probably looked like a straight couple to the few strangers they passed. She also hated how she felt comforted by that—no one would harass a straight couple on the street.
That first night, after a slow walk across campus where they talked of nothing, they parted in front of Harrow’s building. Gideon left with an awkward nod of the head and a strut like she forgot what she was supposed to do with her limbs.
But then it happened again. And again. And again. Harrow would stay at Cavalier Coffee after close, used the extra half hour to finish up her homework for the night, and leave with Gideon when she finished sweeping and mopping.
In the weeks leading to finals week, Harrow got lost in her studies, throwing herself at them because it was the only thing that felt meaningful in her life. Her parents officially cut off all contact. Harrow, not one for social media, had logged on to see if she could re-connect with some high school friends.
“Everyone from high school blocked me,” Harrow announced one night when they were a block out from Cavalier Coffee. The cold air bit her eyes and cheeks more than usual.
Gideon didn’t answer right away. “I’m so sorry,” she finally said.
“You’re sorry?” Harrow didn’t know where this wrath came from, but she found she was not surprised by its presence, as if it had been a constant companion her whole life. “I made your youth a living hell and you’re sorry?”
They stopped under a street lamp, Gideon’s aurous eyes and tawny skin illuminated as though Gideon glowed from within. Her jacket gleamed white in the beams. Her face went slack, her eyes open and unguarded. She looked like she could open her jaw and swallow Harrow in a single gulp. She was a beacon of light and safety, everything Drearburh was not, and Harrow knew in the core of her being that Gideon was her port in the storm known as her life, even when Gideon had every right to reject their newfound friendship. More right than the high school friends Harrow could no longer reach. Then Harrow would be left blessedly alone, truly free from everything that helped define her.
Gideon wrapped her arms around Harrow’s shoulders and held her close. Harrow could not hear Gideon’s heartbeat through her scarf and jacket, but she heard her own echoing in her eardrums.
“I am,” Gideon said, her voice reverberating in her chest. “I know what it’s like, and I’m sorry.” She kissed the top of Harrow’s head; the warmth of her lips seeped through the knit hat there. Harrow wanted to feel this safe more often, but she wasn’t sure if she deserved it. So she breathed through a tidal wave of emotion, slowly in and slowly out, as Gideon kept her tight and close. Harrow’s heartbeat still beat in her ears, speeding up, then slowing down when she finally calmed.
Finally, they continued walking home. Harrow felt the chilly winter air like a chasm. Gideon held her hand the rest of the way home and did not ask questions about the tears that sent Harrow’s mascara streaking down her cheeks.
Not every night came with such revelations, but every night was meaningful. One night, during a snowfall, Gideon tramped through a pile of snow on the curbside instead of walking on the sidewalk. Her calves were cold and wet and Harrow couldn’t sleep until Gideon texted that she showered at home. On another night, in preparation for an exam the next day, Gideon had Harrow list everything she needed to learn before the next morning. On yet another, after Harrow finished her last final for the semester, Gideon and Harrow went window shopping instead of going straight home. They talked about what they wanted to become, what they wanted for Christmas, what they wanted to happen in the new year.
Those nights with Gideon was the first time in recent memory Harrow did not feel self-conscious or worry. She didn’t have to wear a carefully constructed mask to please Gideon, because Gideon could only be pleased with authenticity. She didn’t have to plan her future or budget the money in her dwindling bank account or what she was going to write for her senior thesis next semester. Harrow could just be. She loved the way Gideon reacted to her unfiltered thoughts, no matter how prickly they seemed outside the confines of Harrow’s head, and the way Gideon’s smile lit as golden as her eyes.
Halcyon, Harrow thought one night. The word called to mind the autumn-colored browns and golds of Cavalier Coffee House, the dewey sweat gleaming on brown forearms in yellow light, exposed brick, tattered board games missing half the pieces, the thick and bitter smell of coffee, the quiet mutterings of conversation.
On their last night, as they stopped in front of Harrow’s building, Gideon took Harrow’s hand. She looked at their touch, Harrow’s gloved hand in Gideon’s bare one, the winter air cracking the skin on brown knuckles. There was something Gideon wanted to say, and she waited with all the patience Gideon deserved. Which is to say, Harrow could wait a thousand years for Gideon to ask whatever she was going to ask, and Harrow wouldn’t even be mad if it was something stupid like “What are your thoughts on orange soda?”
Somewhere between then and the end of the world, Gideon asked, “Do you have Christmas plans?”
The cold reality of life beyond the two of them dripped on Harrow’s head like shower water. Harrow felt her shoulders tense and her knees lock. She forgot about Christmas, and New Year’s, and winter break. It would be the first year she wouldn’t spend the time in Drearburh. Harrow felt the cold air like a slap in the face.
“Because if you didn’t,” Gideon continued, still holding Harrow’s hand, “I was wondering if you wanted to spend the day with me? You don’t have to, and there’s no obligation to do so, of course. But—”
“Yes. I would love to spend Christmas with you.”
The light from Gideon’s face was enough to chase away reality. It was just the two of them again. Their refuge, their sanctuary, their safe harbor. Harrow felt grounded in that knowledge, and it was enough to keep her afloat as she walked inside to go to bed.
Gideon’s apartment building was newer than Harrow’s, the kind that is around campus with the intention of housing older students or young professors but captured some non-university community members by mistake. Fake pine boughs outlined the ceiling where it met the wall, and a box by the second entrance overflowed with junk mail and coupon books. Harrow looked at the wall of mailboxes and found Gideon’s in the middle, towards the right-hand side. She wondered what sort of mail Gideon received, and whether she automatically dumped it all in the recycling box. Then the door buzzed and Harrow entered.
Gideon lived on the fifth floor in a studio apartment. It was bigger than Harrow’s, with an island separating the kitchenette from the rest of the room. Gideon had a full size bed tucked into a corner opposite a television. She didn’t have a lot of furniture, but what she did have looked good quality, if eclectic. A fake Christmas tree no taller than Harrow stood next to the television, covered in the cheap colored ornaments Harrow recognized from Target. An obnoxious red bow presented itself like a peacock on display on the single gift wrapped present underneath the tree.
Gideon herself dressed for the holiday in an ugly green sweater and worn black jeans. She had tried to slick her hair back, but a few locks stood upright in defiance of her efforts. When Gideon led Harrow into her studio, Harrow noted a pink flush on Gideon’s cheeks. Her golden eyes looked everywhere except at Harrow until the door closed.
“You look good,” Gideon said as she hung up Harrow’s coat in a closet by the entryway. Next to the closet was the bathroom. Next to the bathroom was the bed.
“Same to you,” Harrow said, her own cheeks flushing. “Merry Christmas!” She held up her own gift, which she gift wrapped just yesterday. She purchased the bag and tissue paper the same time she purchased the gift, all with whatever leftover funds she had for the month, right after she purchased the booze for the evening (the cheapest bottle of decent hard liquor she could find at the liquor store).
Gideon took the gift and placed it under the tree as Harrow removed her shoes. The liquor Gideon set on the counter. Harrow looked around at a desk with a Chromebook, the stools at the island where Gideon probably ate, the posters of bikini clad women, some of which had paper Santa hats and elf ears taped on for some holiday spirit. The tree and poster decorations were the only indications that Gideon decorated for the holiday. It felt half-hearted, but Harrow found that she loved it.
“It’s not much,” Gideon said, self-conscious about the space. “But it’s home for now.”
“It’s bigger than my place,” Harrow said. “You can afford this on a barista salary?” The building’s first year in operation was Harrow’s freshman year. She had looked into living here and knew what rent cost just for a studio. It was more than her parents were willing to pay.
Gideon winced, scratching the back of her head, which in turn mussed up her hair further. “Nah. Well, mom chips in for most of it. We managed to reconnect two years ago and, I dunno, she’s decent, I guess, as a person? Comes to visit once in a while just to check in. I sometimes ask for money advice. She taught me how to start a line of credit. Turns out she’s a better parent to an adult than a teenager.”
Harrow ignored the hurt in that final statement. Her own parents weren’t any better. If anything, they may have been worse. Gideon grew up with a lot of freedom, staying over at friend’s houses on school nights and only said she had a curfew if she wanted to get out of something. Harrow, meanwhile, had to be home by 9pm when there wasn’t a football game and needed at least 24 hours notice before she could bring a friend over.
An egg timer by the oven rattled like it surprised itself. Gideon rushed over and pulled out a baking dish with two cornish hens laying on a bed of roasted vegetables. It was midday, but Gideon had insisted they share a big meal on the day. Harrow eyed the herbs on the vegetables with suspicion, but they weren’t overpowering. Once she was eating, the two of them elbow-to-elbow at the counter, Harrow couldn’t stop. The food was good , and Harrow was picky and adverse to strong flavors. The meal was more hearty than flavorful, better than anything her parents made at ho—at Drearburh.
They ate with mismatched plates and washed their meal down with hard liquor and soda to keep them warm and chatty. The meal gave them an excuse to talk about things that weren’t Drearburh, such as their lives since, or Gideon’s culinary skills.
Gideon was a distraction from other things, Harrow knew, but a distraction she welcomed with open arms. Without Gideon, Harrow wouldn’t have gotten out of bed for several days. Instead, Harrow spent Christmas Eve taking the bus to the far side of town to the mall, where she scoured Target and other stores looking for a decent gift under $10. She had brought a lunch. For Christmas, Harrow showered and dressed like she was attending a formal dinner. Harrow kept herself moving, and it was movement that kept her loneliness at bay.
If Gideon recognized the darkness behind Harrow’s eyes, or noticed a shadow pass over her expression when Gideon looked away, she said nothing. Harrow cleaned up after luncheon, following Gideon’s instructions about how the dishes fit best in the dishwasher.
They opened their presents at the same time. Harrow got Gideon a pair of black gloves. They weren’t anything Harrow would have considered, but she no longer had the funds to support the lifestyle she was used to. She had to make do where she could. And Gideon, with all her resourcefulness, didn’t seem to have any. Gideon loved them. She tried them on, amazed that they even fit (her hands were huge; Harrow got them from the mens section).
Harrow received a mug in the shape of a skeleton, the handle a spinal column curved in such a way that looked painful. The smiling skull thought it was the shit and its surprised grin was infectious. Harrow loved it on sight.
They finished the day with a movie marathon: Rise of the Guardians , then Klaus , then Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas . This last one because Harrow didn’t want to leave yet. Harrow curled into Gideon on her bed, their backs against the wall, the television as loud as they could make it and with subtitles (her sound system sucked, a welcome flaw in a life that looked otherwise perfect). For some reason, Harrow cried in the final twenty minutes of the Grinch. Openly bawled, with tears as thick as rivers running down her cheeks.
Gideon held her close, Harrow’s tears falling on her shoulder, her arm around Harrow as comforting as a warm blanket on a cold night. When the credits rolled, Gideon pulled Harrow onto her lap and just held her. Gideon’s even breathing was a comfort, and Harrow tried to match it.
When she managed to calm down, she said, “I don’t want to go home.”
“Then don’t,” Gideon said. “You can spend the night. I have extra PJs. You can have the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“I don’t deserve you.”
Gideon said, with a gravelly voice meant to imitate a movie Harrow didn’t know, “Not the friend you deserve, but the friend you need.”
It was earlier than it felt. The single window in Gideon’s apartment was black as pitch, not even a dusting of snow to indicate that they were indeed on Earth and not on some space station facing a black hole. Gideon’s body was warm and taut with muscle, her breath tickled Harrow’s neck, and before Harrow could think about what she was doing, she pressed her lips to Gideon’s forehead, then her temple, then her ear. Gideon rubbed a hand on Harrow’s back. Harrow pulled away to look at Gideon’s eyes, bright as a smelting pot.
“Just a friend?” Harrow asked.
Gideon waggled her eyebrows. “Harrow Nonagesimus, do you like like me?”
It was a stupid question, and Harrow laughed at it, a deep chuckle that stayed in her chest but shook her shoulders with more force than she expected. She cupped Gideon’s face and kissed her lips chastely, teasingly; a single action that said more than a thousand words could ever articulate.
“Do you like like me?” Harrow asked self-consciously, still close enough that their breaths mixed.
Gideon locked eyes with Harrow when she said, “Harrow, I don’t think I ever got over you. Yes. Yes, I like you.”
So they kissed. And Harrow, shunned from her family and exiled from her home, did not have a lonely Christmas after all.