They found the man standing with a woman beside him. Both had long spears, but they were both holding them idly, making no motions to use them. The man, Félix, pulled a waterskin off his belt and held it out to Gideon without taking a step forward, letting Gideon be the first to approach.
He shifted his hand backwards and offered his left blade to Carter, who did not take it at first. When Gideon glanced back, Carter stared at him with wide eyes. Gideon shifted it towards his hand and hope he got the message. He just wanted it to ready, wanted Carter to be ready, in case.
When Carter finally grabbed the blade from Gideon, Gideon turned back and shifted towards Félix and the woman. He pointedly made sure not to visibly limp, even though it sparked pain enough to see white. He took the waterskin and stepped back again. He pushed the waterskin at Carter. “But-” Carter started, and Gideon shoved it at his chest again.
Gideon didn’t wait to watch Carter drink. He allowed himself to relax, somewhat, and eyed Félix and the woman cautiously. “Isha and the others, they are okay then?” he asked.
“They are. Though one of them is ill, and the other girl, something happened to her,” Félix said. Gideon felt the waterskin against the back of his hand and gratefully took it from Carter. He tipped his head back and downed the rest of what Carter had not, the cool liquid easing the cracking of his throat and lips. He was breathing heavier when he finished, and Carter watched him with a slight frown.
“Let’s return to camp,” the woman said, eyeing them both with an unreadable expression. “I’m sure the others are anxious to see you both again.”
Glancing back at Carter, Gideon let out a sigh. It still could be a trap, but how would anyone else know that Isha called Carter Kitten? They weren’t associated with Vasile anyway, or they would have referred to her as Valérie.
He made it only a few strides forward with Carter when Félix insisted Gideon take his spear as a walking stick. Gideon was reluctantly grateful but took it less for himself and more because Carter had watched him with wide, hopeful eyes. And then there was the pleased little twitch of his lips.
He’d kissed those lips. It left Gideon with an odd sort of contentment- oh. The content quickly soured.
Shiloh was going to kill him.
* * *
Carter stayed behind Gideon the rest of the time and tried not to act too visibly giddy. Which, considering how miserable he felt generally and the fact that every time he blinked, he saw Adrienne’s slit throat behind his eyelids, was probably off.
But Gideon had kissed him back. Sure, he’d bitten him too, but Carter couldn’t bring himself to care about that. His mouth was fine now anyway – and the pain was a far cry from the rest of his wounds.
He was exhausted though, and he was sure his feet would fall off at any given moment. The blood had dried for the most part once they’d gotten out of the cave and they hadn’t been given a chance to cut themselves on the soft undergrowth. The pine needles and sticks weren’t necessarily nice, but they were feathers compared to the jagged stone.
That was all forgotten the moment he saw Shiloh sitting beside Whisper in front of a fire, petting Koshar on her lap. Isha was sitting nearby, pale and sickly looking, and Finn was hovering nearby with a… stick in his mouth?
He froze for a moment, and it meant that when Isha glanced up, she saw Gideon first. She let out a quiet cry and scrambled to her feet with some difficulty. Gideon made a step forward as if to help her, and nearly collapsed to the ground when he put too much weight on his injured leg.
Everyone was glancing over then, however, and it took mere seconds for Shiloh to spot him. Carter’s heart swelled in his chest and already, tears stung in his eyes.
“Carter!” she cried, already on her feet and knocking Koshar off. She was in front of him in the blink of an eye and tears were already rolling down her face.
He wrapped his arms around her, and Shiloh tilted her nose into his shoulder. They were both shaking, and Carter knew now he was crying. He squeezed her, maybe a little hard, but he hadn’t seen Shiloh in- in- months? Had it been months now? It was longest he’d been away from his sister and-
“Divines, Carter, you’re so hot.” Shiloh pulled away and put her hand on his face, tears staining her cheeks as he expression twisted in concern. “And your arm! What did they do to you?”
Carter suddenly felt a childish fear rise in his chest and drew away from Shiloh’s wandering hands. She looked a little startled. “It’s okay, I’m okay,” he assured her, but his voice hardly worked. He swallowed back the sobs rising in his throat. Then, breathing shallowly, he murmured, “I missed you.”
A sob tore itself from his throat, and he buried his face in his hands. He had missed her, and he wasn’t sure she was what he remembered at all. Her hair was short, there was something dark in her eyes, and there was the brains behind it all, behind all the years of lying.
“Shiloh,” he heard Winnie’s soothing voice, and then a noise of protest. A moment later, cool fingers were wrapping around his wrists and easing his hands away from his face. He found Winnie in front of him and allowed them to pull him in a hug that allowed him a moment to regain his breath and his mind.
He had so many questions, there was so much racing through his mind. It had been easy, in the cave, despite everything. It had been quiet and normally that was grounds for his mind making a cacophony to fill the silence, but it had settled into him. He’d been too tired, maybe, he wasn’t sure. But now it was all back, and it tore at his stomach and chewed on his mind and he was swimming and he hated how fast everything was spinning.
And the fear- it was back. There were so many people and what if one of them got it into their head to hurt him, to hurt them. Everything was so loud, and so bright, and his nose ached. He could imagine the wool again, back over his head and diluting his senses, stealing away his means of-
“Carter,” Winnie murmured, drawing away. “You’re here with us, you’re safe.”
Something in the way they said it made Carter take a moment to catch his breath, made him believe them. He shivered, Gideon’s shirt too small and too thin to give him any protection from the nip of the wind sifting through the trees. It was more than that however, and he knew it.
He wiped at his cheeks and took deep breaths. Winnie smiled at him as he calmed down, and from the corner of his eyes, he could see Shiloh watching him with a despondent expression. His heart twisted.
Winnie stepped away and Isha had extracted herself from a hug for Gideon to do the same to Carter. Carter wrapped his arms around her. “It’s good to have you back, Kitten,” she murmured. Carter found he was chuckling, and it was wet, but he meant it.
“Yeah, um-” he took another deep breath. “It’s um, it’s really good to be back.”
And then he began to sob again, the burn of the absinthe at the back of his throat returning like he’d never left.
Finn did not hug him in the end but did offer him a soft smile and a dip of his hat and said, “Horses missed you.” Which, of course, made Carter feel instantly ten times better and he insisted to be led to them.
The group followed him, Shiloh hovering back at his side and Carter allowing her with a smile that he wasn’t sure whether he could really mean right now or not. It was too much, too fast, and he just- needed time.
Reese nuzzled him affectionately when he hugged her neck, and even Villa offered a sweet lick to his hand – even though he was sure she only was looking for treating when he held out his palm. Fabella nicked excitedly and he rubbed her nose. Achille sniffed him. Napoleon pricked his ears forward and breathed heavily onto his face.
He glanced over to see Gideon, still standing for goodness knew what reason, and looking incredibly put out and in pain that Carter turned to make the suggestion they sit down.
And then a tall woman, almost as tall as Isha, approached them with a much shorter woman, and approached Carter with a bright smile. Carter eyed her dubiously and shifted closer to Shiloh who allowed him to grab her wrist.
“You must be Carter,” the woman said. Gideon shuffled closer at Isha prompting and the woman glanced at him. “And you must be Gideon. I’ve heard about you both from your friends here. My name is Malika, and this is my right hand, Sauda.”
“Malika as in Malika Okorie?” Gideon asked, a half-scowl forming on his expression. “You found another coterie, Isha?”
Sauda snorted and grinned unabashedly. Malika’s eyes glittered as her smile widened. “You two are in need of healers and sustenance,” she declared, “and there are some matters to catch you up on, I’m sure. Let us attend to such matters, and I will explain everything you missed escaping one of your coteries.”
And because Villa couldn’t be mistaken for a sweet mare, she leaned forward, and nipped Carter’s shoulder. When he yelped, she reeled back in surprise, and then whinnied as if in triumph.
Yeah. He was safe with them.
word count: 1,671