Coughing up blood was not the worst way Harrow had ever awakened, but it was close. Blood coming out of places it shouldn’t was also involved in those other times, naturally. Stabbing pain was graciously and surprisingly absent. Instead, every muscle in Harrow’s body felt as though it had been secretly replaced with rocks, giving her a firsthand understanding of rigor mortis so rarely bequeathed unto the living.
She was living, wasn’t she?
Something was beeping, fast and loud. Harrow tried to find out what, but she might as well have been looking through a thick fog. Everything was moving at unnatural speeds and angles, including her own skull and brain, which felt as though they had just decided to pursue opposing career directions. Brains were not supposed to bounce around. Supposedly one could not feel any sensation in their gray matter due to an absence of pain receptors, but some other cranial component must have been doubling up on behalf of Harrow’s pain-mute brain in delusional empathy. Perhaps her brain had also been replaced with a large rock and it had taken to banging against its osseous trappings.
The incessant beeping grew to an alarm as she failed to inhale properly. All Harrow could think was that she could not accomplish something that fresh infants could handle just fine, and that inspired her to follow the infants’ lead and sob. Her lungs felt empty - or rather, she wished they felt empty, because a lack of air was preferable to the unmistakable presence of fluid.
It was challenging to cry without a functional respiratory cycle, but there was solace in the fact that babies would not have the ability to do this, and Harrow was managing, and so she was superior to them once more.
With her diaphragm spasming, her atrophied abdominal muscles were incapable of holding her up. She collapsed on her side, wet coughs rattling her ribs and straining intercostals. She wanted to scream, but she could not (damn, another thing infants could pull off better), and she doubted that anyone would hear her over the screeching alarm anyway. Either the room itself was red or the capillaries in her eyes had burst. She knew which was correct, given her luck.
She wondered how long it would take her to choke to death. Would she go back to the same place, that school? Would she remember that she’d been there before, or would her memories vanish again? Had she gone there only once, or had it been many times? Had she forgotten the others? What if she went somewhere else this time, and Gideon wasn’t there?
Had a ghost barged its way into Harrow’s afterlife just to torture her? What if it had lied about everything, and Harrow had come back to this world to find it just as desolate and colorless as she distantly recalled it being?
She tried to calm her diaphragm before she hacked herself in two, but she couldn’t go more than half a second without another violent seizure in her diaphragm. If she made an attempt at breathing, it was swiftly shut down by the exact same muscles whose job it was to facilitate the respiratory process. After a costly ritual conception and a lifetime of studying the art of controlling the body, Harrow was going to die from hypoxic cellular mutiny. How perfectly ironic.
Harrow should have been used to her flesh - and mind - betraying her at this point. What a fool she was to trust herself. Ever. She wasn’t a reliable source whatsoever, and she knew this. Yet every time she questioned something, she turned inward for answers. How many times had that hubris blown up in her face? The last time she remembered winning over her mind, she’d still been able to determine what was real even after staying up all night and planting teeth and bone bits just under the ground’s surface at the station. All the way back on The Ninth.
She remembered. Home. The closest thing she had left, anyway.
If she wasn’t approaching a full two minutes without steady oxygen, she would have been thrilled by the return of her memories.
She should have heard footsteps before the massive figure was at her bedside - maybe the fever had deep-fried her brain. That sounded like something that would happen to her. Euthanized by her own immune system.
The giant at her bedside (who was actually a very normal-sized person except that they were standing and Harrow was not) flipped a switch. Harrow’s lungs burned in a whole new way, more unpleasant save for the fact that caught sight of fluid rushing out through tubing between watery blinks. As her lungs drained, she forced herself to be still. Maybe if her body believed she was dead, it would stop attacking her. There was more blood in the tubing than there should have been, but Harrow could worry about that later. She’d stitch herself up like she always had. Once she could move again.
Her finger twitched, whether through sheer willpower or coincidence. If she could move a finger, surely she could lift her arm and--
A grunt came from the not-giant as Harrow’s limp fist collided with some part of their body.
Then Harrow felt like she was falling up. Maybe she’d been upside down the whole time, and gravity was just doing its thing.
Actually, the attendant was crouching down, which Harrow realized when she saw a pair of lambent gray eyes fix on her own. She would have flinched away if she could’ve - having someone that close to her face was completely uncalled for.
Suddenly, the attendant was standing again, and then they were gone, completely removed from Harrow’s view and earshot.
Harrow might have passed out again briefly, or she might have blinked for a very long time.
A voice reached her, as it had before, and as it always would: “Harrow? Harrow!”
She was being shaken, and it jostled her eyelids open.
By a grace of which she never imagined herself worthy, her gaze met with a gold too bright to be conjured in any imagination. Harrow’s dead subconscious did no justice to those eyes.
Fortunately, the full-body hernia that had taken over Harrow’s musculoskeletal system did not excruciate when Gideon crushed her in an embrace. It was soothing, more than anything, even the smell of salt water that rushed into Harrow’s memory. It meant that Gideon shouldn’t be here. Couldn’t. She was another illusion put forth by Harrow’s burning brain.
Lacking the strength to sit rigid as a sword hilt in the ghost’s grasp, Harrow slumped into the cradle around her head and back. As her breath returned to her body, probably coming in through some tube or another, she sensed something unexpected. Her forehead was pressed against warm muscle, and it was beating with lifeblood. Gideon was fully, really, truly alive.
Someone had committed an unforgivable sin.
Really, though, what constituted sin when God himself was a blasphemy?
Harrow cursed her mind for staying intact the one time she wished it would turn to sponge. She couldn’t remember what reality was, but she could remember the single most viscerally ruinous moment of her catastrophic existence. All of her carefully honed control, powerless to stop one body from throwing itself on a fucking metal fence. What a joke.
The thought that someone else might share her reasons to bring Gideon back tased Harrow’s gut. Then she remembered that Gideon was very good at swords, and that was an asset during wars, and people often had their own reasons for doing things outside of Harrow’s assumptions. How much had she ruined by failing to grasp that most people were neither with her nor against her? That everyone outside one pocket of the universe had no interest whatsoever in what she did?
The pressing question of how exactly Gideon was there and actively trying to squeeze Harrow back into a coma remained.
A vindictive and frightened part of Harrow wanted to latch onto some ossicle in the room and build a small army of skeletons to tear Gideon off. Some incongruous punishment for Gideon’s choice to leave: forcing her to stay at arm’s length. But what revenge had Gideon ever sought beyond petty, idiosyncratic annoyances? She’d had the chance to drown Harrow before and hadn’t done so.
“You think it’s funny to die right when I un-die?” Gideon whispered. Her warm breath hit Harrow’s ear, and the taste of salt water coated Harrow’s tongue.
Harrow’s voice was dormant. It had not awakened with her. A voice was the kind of thing that could get lost forever without attention and caution. A voice was the soul’s way of making itself known, and hadn’t Harrow been born with a soul torn into two hundred and one pieces? She could have lost any one of them in the River on her way to death, or on her way back. The soul was the key to a being, and just as easy to misplace.
Her throat was dry and phlegm-ridden at the same time, as if a colony of mushrooms had made themselves at home their and their caps rattled around whenever she took a breath. “What happened?” she finally croaked.
“You died, you bitch,” Gideon said. She had to let up on the hug. “Now say you’re sorry.”
Harrow lungs revolted and she certainly coughed blood up onto Gideon’s shirt. “You first.”
“I apologized plenty of times. You were just too busy being lobotomized and pretending I never existed to hear me.”
“Uh, it is though?”
Harrow would have had more stamina on literally any other day. Dying and then actually not doing that took a lot of energy. Instead of arguing further, she simply said, in her most sorrowfully repentant confessional tone, “Griddle.”
For all her bluster, Gideon apparently possessed the same hollow drive towards banter. She simply held Harrow right where she was.
“What happened?” Harrow managed to repeat.
“Don’t worry about all that right now, okay?” Gideon said, too gently for someone who had a favorite stabbing technique.
“I wish to know how I ended up--”
“You’ve been awake for two whole minutes. You don’t have to know everything that’s going on right now immediately.”
She could just let Gideon be there with her, but answers were paramount, and silence was frightening. “How are you alive?”
“I’m not sure I ever died right in the first place. Count on me to screw up the simplest recipe in the book, huh?”
Harrow would probably never reveal how miserably she herself screwed up putting salt into hot water.
“Where are we?” Harrow asked.
“Remember when you agreed to not worry about stuff and things for a hot second?”
Harrow did not concede, seeing as she had not actually agreed to that at any point, but she did stop pushing. She was very tired.
“I think I’d like to sleep,” she said, realizing only too late that that was probably a very foolish thing to say immediately upon emerging from a death coma.
Gideon’s grip finally loosened, and Harrow hated that she hated it. “Well then, my lugubrious lady, I shall let you rest.” Gideon started to leave. With all the strength left in her body, Harrow latched onto one muscle-bound forearm with her nails.
She almost hissed out a Don’t you dare, but it came out as much less tactful, “Don’t leave me.”
How long had she been in the River? People and spirits could go mad in there very easily. Harrow was now confident that her brain was literally on fire considering it was melting her into a puddled heap of useless flesh that said things like Don’t leave me.
“Yeah, okay,” Gideon said smartly. “Whatever you say, my penumbral--”
“Shut up,” Harrow groaned, mostly because there was a throbbing in her head that would not stop. Every other second there was some new pain introducing itself to her nerve endings.
Gideon must have been standing at the door. Harrow could picture her, awkward in her stillness as she’d been in silence. Some things were not meant to stop, or be quiet, or die.
Harrow tried to turn over and scowl at her, but that was asking a lot. She got her head to stare up at the ceiling.
In the exact same expectant tone: “Harrow.”
“I came back from the other side of the River because you asked. Can you not do me the courtesy... of coming to my side at my tacit behest?” She felt the strain of the lengthy sentences immediately, but no regret at speaking them.
Taking an action with a mood that had heretofore never been ascribed to her, Gideon shuffled back timidly.
Harrow barely caught a glint of fire out of the corner of her eye. Not close enough. “You sound like an anxious duck,” she taunted. She had never seen a duck, but an early chapter of Ortus’ cherished Noniad went on about them for an unscrupulously lengthy passage. World building, he’d said.
Gideon stopped her weird little steps. “What? I’m at your side. Always have been. Literally. Figuratively. At one point, hemispherically. I’m not really sure what you’re asking me here.”
Dying had not been frightening. Harrow didn’t even remember it. But at this moment, she knew she’d invented a whole knew most awful moment for herself, and this time it was entirely her own fault. She’d lobotomized herself once before to let go, and she would do it again, here, now, and relinquish the control that she treasured as she once had a sealed tomb door.
The immortal tomb had cracked open. So could she.
As if she were driving an iron spike through her own logical mind, she whispered, “Come hold me, Griddle.”
In an instant, Gideon was pressed against Harrow’s back. Faster than any reflex.
Harrow never wanted to lose sight of why she’d come back. She panicked at the thought that she would one day run out of time to look it in the eyes, loathe as she was to talk her muscles into moving again.
The pain only struck when she’d tangled the tubing around herself. Gideon’s cheek smushed a bit under Harrow’s palm, one of the few parts of her that wasn’t solid and stubborn.
All Harrow wanted to do was look. She had to examine every pore, every freckle, every follicle and every nose hair.
“Just so we’re clear, I also came back from the River,” Gideon said.
“You said you never really died.”
“I’m super not sure either way. So let’s just say we’re even.”
“That’s fine by me.”
“No argument? Are you sure you’re not dead, actually?”
Gideon rambled on after that, and Harrow was mortifyingly grateful for it. The sound kept her awake, it kept her blinking, which kept her seeing new features on Gideon’s face. Good thing they’d worn paint most of their lives, otherwise Harrow might have come to appreciate this sooner. She’d certainly have ruined it. In her childish and arrogant insecurity, she’d tried to ruin Gideon so many times. What a brilliant irony that Harrow had ultimately decided to ruin herself by drowning in the double memory of not drowning.
How tickling that she’d devoted her life before un-dying to a body with no soul, then rejected death for a soul that once had no body.
Perhaps she would have considered this a sin once, but there was no God left to punish her for the crime of autoresurrection. She’d live with this - die with it - forever, always empty. Empty of guilt at last - Harrowhark Nonagesimus would, for the first time in her costly, trembling existence, forgive herself for wanting to be alive.
Because the girl Harrow loved was alive, too.