The farther Gideon disappeared into the forest, the more bubbling rage threatened to overflow from Isha’s stomach.
Gideon could take care of himself after he’d cooled down. She didn’t have to monitor his every move, and there was nothing near enough that he could endanger himself on. Of course, with Carter in the coterie’s grasp, she didn’t think he’d try enough that would inhibit him from rescuing him.
She turned away from the thicket Gideon vanished into, keeping a lid on her anger as she glowered at Shiloh. She was distinctly aware Finn had abandoned his task to watch them in surprise. “That was uncalled for,” Isha said icily, never glancing away from Shiloh.
At least Shiloh had the decency to have ruddy cheeks and a grimace curling her lips. “But it’s the truth,” she replied. She was still playing defence – as if Gideon and Isha were actually attacking her – but she’d grown subdued after Gideon’s departure.
But guilt wasn’t enough atonement. Isha dug her heel into dry, forest floor, and it crackled. It smelled like must and fresh earth. “Then you’re not allowed to hide behind survival. You can’t shield yourself in the lie that you were ‘protecting’ Carter by lying to him, can’t ignore that you were letting your baby brother suffer abuse every day because you were too busy sticking your fingers into criminals’ honey pots. You’re not mightier than Gideon, not even equal to him, if you can’t own up to your own mistakes.”
It had been mere days, and Shiloh and Gideon were already at each other throats. Isha, for her part, was sick of playing mediator. Shiloh wasn’t a nasty person, wasn’t cruel, but she was hypocritical and always had been. Gideon wasn’t porcelain, but Shiloh was the one person who could take anything too far.
“I didn’t know!” Shiloh had bristled again, but the raw anger had been replaced by fear. Isha wasn’t about to soften for her though- let her be scared, for Carter, of Isha, did it matter? “I didn’t- If I had known-”
“Don’t put yourself on a high horse,” Isha interrupted. Fabella snorted softly, bowing her head and clacking her teeth together. “Carter flinches when anyone raises their hand too high. He has scars, on his back and his arms. You have to be blind or stupid not to notice, Shiloh, and you’re neither.” She narrowed her eyes, letting out a drawn breath. “Your lies are the reason he’s here in the first place, Gideon’s the reason he’s still alive. You're mixing it up.”
Shiloh glanced at Whisper, as if they might offer assistance. But Whisper only shook their head, expression betraying none of their feelings. Shiloh turned back to Isha, brow twisted miserably. “You’re the one who forced him to come!” she insisted.
It boiled Isha’s blood that Shiloh’s tone was desperate and not venomous. She would so willing attack Gideon but could refrain herself when arguing with Isha? “Shove that. Knowing both Carter, and how abrasive Gideon can be at first, look me dead in the eyes and tell me Carter would have come if he didn’t want to know why you lied to him. After Gideon emphatically told him not to.”
Villa tugged on her reins, attempting to forage through the forest floor for grass. Isha hadn’t noticed how stony her grip had become around both sets of leathers, and let out a long breath, slackening her fingers. She still did not look away from Shiloh, whose features had grown pained. She was looking for a counter, Isha knew. Just as she knew Shiloh wouldn’t find one, because it was the truth.
Before Shiloh could gather her wits together, Isha cleared her throat. “I don’t care what you have to tell yourself to sleep at night. But they’re good for each other, Carter and Gideon, and you should know at least that Gideon hasn’t been entreated to good things. Don’t mess this up for the two of them just because you can’t stand to loosen the collar you’ve put on Carter to control him. Sorry,” Isha quirked her lip drily, “I meant to protect him.”
Maybe it was unhealthy that a rush of triumph ran through Isha’s veins when Shiloh bowed her head, her jaw tight. Reese was snuffing around her shoulder, ears pricked forward, but Shiloh was paying her no mind.
Isha didn’t act on the victory, however. She put Villa’s reins in the hand she held Fabella’s and used her freed hand to rub her disquieted temple. The dull throbbing had only grown worse. Isha was no stranger to headaches – nothing like Gideon’s, however – but this one didn’t feel rooted from strain. It almost felt the kind that was born from an oncoming affliction.
“There are tracks here,” Finn called. Isha glanced over to where he was standing, pulling a fallen leaf off of his hat. He was just beside some kind of thorn bush, gesturing down at the ground. “The ground is damp here. Good for imprints.”
He was searching between the remaining three of them, carefully neutral as he approached Whisper to take back Napoleon.
“We can rest for a moment,” Whisper said, catching Isha’s eyes. Isha let the tension ease from her shoulders and now paused to wonder if that was also Whisper’s doing. Still, she wasn’t about to complain – she wasn’t sure how much of this magic she truly believed in, wasn’t sure what to think of it quite yet, but Whisper dipped their chin ever so slightly and Isha offered them her best smile. It was tight, but not dishonest.
She had to wonder what all this would lead into. Would they still be making to leave the island? Where would they all find themselves after all was said and done? Isha didn’t want to kindle the flames of hope that maybe, maybe they’d just to settle down after everything. Besides, what would they do? There was an uncountable amount of improbabilities for them getting something gentler than all this.
Still… Isha wondered if any of this could be what it felt like to have a proper family. She knew she was luckier than most in the coteries – her parents had raised her, she’d grown up with two siblings – but that didn’t stop the fester they had left in her. She still scorned her father, detested her mother, was endlessly irked by Rémi. She had little faith that Alban would turn out any different than any of them, but he had been the softest of the siblings, and her mother had allowed it only because he was the youngest.
But at least she’d had Gideon. Which was why she approached Whisper after they’d spoken, and she didn’t even have to ask. Winnie held out their hand and took the two sets of reins from Isha’s grasp, nodding gently in her direction. Koshar, as if agreeing with his keeper, weaved against Isha’s feet and meowed up at her. His eyes shimmered in the muted sunlight that split through the parted canopies.
Isha offered him a rub over his ear, which produced a low purr, before she turned from them to follow after where Gideon had disappeared into the forest. Even if she couldn’t get him to talk – which was the most likely outcome, Gideon wasn’t the type to talk through his feelings – she could at least press the Carter tender spot. That’d get him back on the right track.
She pulled the jacket she’d thrown on that morning tighter around her torso. Nobody else gave any notions they were bothered by the chill in the air at all, but Isha had been feeling icy all day. Finn had made a jab about it, to which Isha had given him a withering glare. It’s really not that cold, he’d said as if to make amends. She had ignored him, but even Gideon had given her a side glance.
The grass and foliage that sprouted through the leaves and dead undergrowth grew progressively thicker as she stayed the course Gideon had routed. There were more young trees in the midst of the thick, elder trunks, and more of the same thorn bushes that Finn had been standing next to while he was inspecting the tracks.
It was darker this way, but at least it wasn’t growing colder. Everyone had, unspoken, reacted defensively against the forest they’d been in after the Fire Forger ambush. The one they’d been in the second ambush.
The one where Gideon had first started nattering on about Carter and he’s confusing, Isha. Why is he so confusing? which hadn’t been any kind of surprise. He was entirely terrible when it came to understanding anyone unless their motives were stabby or immoral. Shiloh had been a puzzle to him, but Carter was a downright enigma.
That, and Carter was quite possibly the personification of the only thing Gideon had ever wanted and could never have. Innocence.
She couldn’t honestly be sure what was going on with the two of them yet, couldn’t be sure if her suspicions or helpful suggestions to say nice things to him were solidly founded. But she knew that they balanced each other, could be good for each other just like she’d told Shiloh if they got past their scars; were they really that different, in so many ways? They expressed in different ways, sure, but the core of it…
Well. Perhaps they should go about freeing Carter and figuring out the rest later.
Was she studiously not thinking about her own role, of confronting her parents but specifically her mother again? If so, it was hardly anyone’s business but her own. She wasn’t about to let her mother cow her into submission, never again.
Still. Gideon needed her attention now. Carter needed his entire focus if they wanted to pull this off without a hitch.
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