Whisper stood in the aisle, Achille lead by the reins from his bridle. His head was down, wide brown eyes filtering through the stable as he tried to identify his surroundings for any possible threats that might pop out.
“Winnie,” Carter said again, hurrying to compose himself. He wiped sweat-soaked hands off on his pants before wringing them together. “Um, I- what are you doing? Here, I mean. What are- what are you doing here?” He felt his cheeks and ears grow hot. “I-I mean not that I don’t- that wasn’t because I wanted to-”
They raised their hand that wasn’t holding Achille’s reins, and gave Carter one of their gentle smiles that drained some of the tension from his tightly wound nerves. “Relax,” they said, walking forward with Achille following close beside them. They put their hand on Carter’s shoulder. “I was looking for you. The new stablehand at Ironhill’s said you’d come in today with one of the Norman Cobs.”
“The Norman- oh!” Carter stepped back quickly, gripping the lead rope in his hand. “I need to grab Fabella!” he blurted, before realising what he had said and holding his mouth open in a panic.
The barn lights flickered, the bright, pale glow casting a sheen over Whisper’s dark skin. Carter really needed to change the bulbs. Except he wouldn’t be here, of course, that was silly. He was going to be rescuing Shiloh with Gideon and Isha.
And now he had just spoiled it all by sticking his foot in his mouth, with Gideon right around the corner.
To Carter’s dismay, Whisper tilted their head, grey eyes shimmering in the light. They looked almost as though they were glowing, but then again, Whisper always had a sort of glow about them.
“Why do you need Fabella?” Whisper asked, voice gentle with a slight rasp. It was then they glanced towards Reese and Villa, both tied to posts, ready to be brushed and tacked. “And Reese and Villa.” They turned back to Carter, a soft distorting their soft features. “Carter, what’s going on? Are you okay?”
No, Carter thought hysterically, trying desperately to back track in his mind, no I’m very not-okay. “Um,” he offered helpfully, taking several more steps away from Winnie as if he could run from them. “I just- um, well you see- um, I’m-I’m busy right now! It’s for- clients! Bazzoli wanted them out as a-a sample! For the stock! And, um, they’re the best mannered and look proper.”
He knew he had said the wrong thing the moment the words left his mouth and Whisper’s expression grew harder. “You’ve told me several times about Villa’s coronet band.” They looked over the two Mérens again. “You’ve never lied to me before.”
The musty, warm air seemed to grow hotter the longer Carter stood there. He felt like his lungs were being squeezed in his chest, right alongside his heart. They were right. Carter never lied to Whisper. He looked down at the lead rope in his hands, fighting to spit words out, but it felt like there was something clogging his throat.
He wrung the rope in his hands, twisting it over and over as though trying to dry it out. But it wasn't wet. Carter felt blood rushing in his ears, worried for a moment that they would simply start bleeding. Maybe that would get him out of this mess though.
"She's gone," Carter said without any thought. Suddenly, his eyes stung with tears and he felt like somebody else was in control. He tilted his head up to meet Winnie's eyes, his chest coiling like a tight wire. "Shiloh's gone, Winnie."
Whisper's expression softened. They turned, leading Achille away and quickly tying him next to Reese and Villa. Then, they walked back over to Carter and gently pushed him back until he sat down on a bucket.
"What do you mean, gone?" Whisper asked, ever patient and anchoring. Carter imagined her like a ship in a storm, that never cracked or faltered from its course.
Carter felt like an idiot. He hadn't meant to say that, but it felt like getting hit in the chest by a stone wall. Carter didn't realise how much he had been suppressing the situation, but now he'd gone and told Whisper, and he had the face the fact it was real, not to mention Gideon-
"Then let me help you find her," Whisper said, smiling ever-patiently at him. "You have Reese here already. Tell Bazzoli you had to run to town if he asks. I'll vouch for you."
He couldn't help but laugh, a tight and wet noise that hurt more than anything but everything felt a little ridiculous. "No I- that's not- you can't-" A tiny part of Carter wanted to shake Whisper but he knew that would solve nothing and would only hurt them unnecessarily. He buried his face in his hands instead. "It's not that simple," he mumbled, words muffled.
"Does it have something to do with whoever is crouching in Remy's stall?" they asked. Carter's head snapped up and he stared, wide-eyed, at Whisper.
Behind her, he watched Gideon stand up from the other side of the bars and lean against the side of the stall door. He was scowling. "You told her," he said to Carter accusingly, crossing his arms over his chest.
Carefully, Whisper turned where they crouched in front of Carter to silently observe Gideon.
Dust tickled in Carter’s nose at the most inopportune moment and he sneezed, before standing up too quickly and making his head spin. “I-I didn’t! You-you heard me talking the whole- you heard me to whole time!” Carter started ringing the lead rope through his hands again.
Gideon looked between them for a moment before his jaw tightened and he grunted. “Just get her out of here and go grab the other horse. We need to leave before someone finds us or we run out of time.”
“No need.” Whisper raised themselves to their feet and smiled brightly at Gideon, who only seemed to puff up further. Their short, wild curls haloed around their head as they brushed one side behind their ear. “I’ll come with you. I already have a horse.”
“Absolutely not,” Gideon snapped. “This is none of your business and there’s no space. Get lost.”
Carter frowned. He wanted to say something, spit back something at Gideon or scold him for talking to Winnie like that. They’re my friend. I should say something. That’s not fair.
He didn’t. His tongue seemed to take up all the room in his mouth to block out the words, so he settled for flushing a hot red and staring angrily at Gideon’s boots.
Whisper paused, studying Gideon carefully for a long time until he shifted uncomfortably under the weight of their calm, curious stare. Then, they tilted their head.
“I suppose you know how to tack up these horses then? You seem to be in a hurry. Shame if Carter was the only one around who could do so.” The lights flickered, more ominous and purposely then before. They seemed to glow brighter when they turned back on, but all the shadows in the barn appeared deeper.
He had to squint, but Carter could have sworn it made Gideon flush under the burn rolling from the lights overhead.
“Get the damn horse,” Gideon finally ordered Carter, stomping away.
Carter opened his mouth to ask Gideon where he was going but decided to hold his tongue instead. He didn’t want to make Gidoen more upset than he already was.
Before he turned to Whisper, he could feel their gaze resting on him. He shook his head before they could say anything. “Could you, um. Could you please start brushing them?” he asked quietly, turning towards the indoor arena. “I’m-I’m going to, um, grab Fabella.”
He hesitated for a moment, and Whisper put their hand on his shoulder. He glanced up, meeting their soft gaze and felt a slight release from his chest. He did his best to give them a smile to signify he was okay.
“You’re going to have to tell me what’s going on,” Winnie told him. Carter nodded quickly, dark curls falling into his eyes and bouncing around his head.
Then he turned away and started the trek out to grab Fabella. If he someone had told him last week that his sister had gone missing, and he would get tangled up with the coterie, and steal horses from his boss, he likely would have laughed. Nervously, maybe, but it might have even been genuine.
Now he just felt nauseous. Best not to think about it, he tried to convince himself, as he started crossing the sandy arena.
The idea of Shiloh lying to him…he couldn’t say that it didn’t make his heart compress enough to hurt without making himself more of a liar than he already was. What was she thinking, if she really had joined the coterie? Even Carter knew that was a stupid idea, and he often acted on spur of the moment impulses.
He didn’t know how this whole mess was going to turn out and he didn’t want to. It made him too dizzy.
But at least he had Whisper. Right?
word count: 1,543