The world slowed to a halt for what felt like a lifetime but was probably, in reality, a few moments.
Carter was aware that his mouth has fallen open and he was gawking openly at Gideon, who had narrowed his eyes and was giving Carter a wary look.
“Sh-Shiloh?” Carter finally asked, glancing between the two of them, searching for…what? What? Maybe they can explain the note? “Why do- um, why do you- why are you looking for, um. For Shiloh? I-I-” Carter closed his mouth, a hot flush rising over his cheeks.
His stomach squirmed unhappily and Carter wished he could just be normal for once. Not have to trip over his own words and just…
“Do you know Shiloh?” Isha asked him, stepping over without making a noise on the cement and offered her hand. Carter stared at it for a moment too long, before realising she was giving him a hand to help him up. The heat spread down his neck, but he took the hand and let her help him to his feet.
The second he stood up he almost pitched sideways again. He caught himself on Villa’s stall, however, and Isha watched him carefully, ready to leap forward and catch him if he took another spill.
“Um,” he said, realising how badly he was shaking as he gripped the bars of Villa’s stall to keep himself upright. He felt Villa’s breath hot as she snuffed at his back. “Um, I- um. Why?” he asked, his shoulders hunched so tightly they started to ache.
The two bandits – they couldn’t be bandits. Why would bandits be looking for his sister? – exchanged a glance. “Do you know her?” Gideon asked, repeating Isha’s question, his tone considerably harsher than hers had been.
A knot pulled in Carter’s chest and he clenched and unclenched his fist around the bars. “I, um. I just want to know why you are- why you’re looking for her,” Carter murmured, glancing down at the seal-grey floor. Even looking at it sent chills up his whole body, starting from his feet.
There was a beat of silence before Gideon scoffed, his russet hair falling into a mess around his forehead. “This is a dead end. We’re getting nowhere, and we need to find her before someone else does,” he said, turning on his heel towards the back door.
A jolt shot through Carter as Isha took a step away from him and he let go of the bars. “Looking-looking for her?” When neither of them responded, he took a wobbly step forward. “Wait-wait, please! Is she- is she in trouble? I need, um. Please.” Gideon glanced back as Carter’s voice grew softer in his pleading. “Please. She’s, um, she’s my sister.”
That stopped both Gideon and Isha in their tracks. Gideon’s expression split into one of complete surprise, shattering the scowl on his face that had been there ever since he walked in. Isha looked slightly more composed, but even her eyes were wide after she blinked.
Gideon stepped towards him slowly, as if expecting Carter to pull some other trick out of his sleeve, quickly replacing the surprise with his mighty frown again. “Shiloh never said anything about having any siblings,” he said, but his voice was hesitant now. Carter had caught his attention.
Carter shrugged nervously, rubbing his arm. “Can you, um. Can you just please- please tell me what’s, um. Where is she? What’s- what’s going on?”
They stood in silence for a long few moments, Gideon and Isha giving each other looks that made Carter feel more invisible then he usually did. Or, he supposed, it wasn’t that he felt more invisible, it was just that he was more aware of it. And it bothered him.
That was a new one. Being invisible was something Carter craved like air to breathe. It felt like a necessity. It had never bothered him before.
“You’re not Shiloh’s brother,” Gideon said decisively, but he continued to stare at Carter. “Unless you have some way to prove it, we’re done.”
Pausing, Carter blinked a few times. Prove…? He had to prove that his sister was really his sister? He tried to ignore the niggling at the back of his mind that wondered why Shiloh had never mentioned him, wondered if she was too embarrassed to tell anyone about her sad little brother who couldn’t function on his own or-
“Gideon, don’t be a jerk,” Isha said, her tone both sweet and commanding. It made Carter straighten his spine a little, glancing over at her. She was holding herself high, not that she wasn’t already tall – nearly as tall as Carter and boy, did that make her all the more intimidating – but there was something sharp in the way she carried herself. Confident.
Must’ve been nice.
Isha’s comment made Gideon’s nostrils flare. “This is a waste of time. Look at him, he looks like he might pass out if a moth startled him at any moment moment. Does that seem like Shiloh’s brother to you?”
Reese pawed at the ground in her stall, and Carter nearly walked over. He felt a suddenly impulse to simply squeeze into her stall, lock himself in there, and pretend nothing had happened and Shiloh would be back soon.
“Clearly,” Isha raised at eyebrow, drawing her eyes over Gideon’s darkened clothes that had ceased dripping onto the ground. “He…actually looks quite a bit like Shiloh to me. Don’t tell me you don’t see the resemblance there.”
“I’m going to need more than the two sharing the same hair colour,” Gideon snapped, turning to meet Isha’s challenging gaze.
It was then that Carter saw the thick, black lines that snaked upwards from underneath Gideon’s shirt. The lines curled into sharp points, three of them Carter can see and who knew how many more. They didn’t quite look like tattoos, the skin was a little too distorted to-
Burns. But they were too specific, they were too precise. What could’ve…brands.
He took a step backwards, a soft noise of alarm wiggling out of his throat. It drew Gideon’s gaze away from Isha, where he instead scrutinised Carter through narrowed eyes. “He can’t be Shiloh’s brother. We’re moving on,” Gideon said with finality.
The barn lights flickered overhead, and Reese whinnied softly from somewhere to Carter’s right. He opened his mouth to speak, heart clenching in his chest as he thought of the note again, but Isha beat him to it.
“Wait,” she said, watching Carter for a moment. “Shiloh said we were going to stop to pick something up. What if she meant him?”
“Why wouldn’t she just tell us that then?” Gideon grumbled. He sent Carter another sharp look, but it was clear he wasn’t talking to him.
Isha was the one to fold her arms across her chest now. “What if she was protecting him? C’mon, Gideon. If you were in the coterie and had a sibling on the outside, would you go around advertising it to anyone? What if that were me?”
Her words started to blur together sometime after she had said coterie, and Carter’s stomach plummeted. He felt like he’d just taken a punch to the gut, had cold water dumped on him like he’d just done to Gideon. Carter whimpered involuntarily.
“C-coterie?” he squeaked, his voice trembling now more then before. Gideon and Isha seemed to finally notice his presence again. Isha’s expression softened.
Before she had a chance to respond, Gideon let out a heavy sigh. “We’re talking about the same Shiloh, right? Shiloh Liv?”
Carter slumped his shoulders, his muscles aching now as he released the tension in them. He hadn’t realised how tense he’d been. “Liv’s her-her middle name. I-um.” Carter reached up to scratch at his face, as if trying to wake up from a dream.
In fact, maybe he really did fall off Villa and he hit his head. Maybe this was all some elaborate concussion-induced dream. Maybe there really was no note and Shiloh would be back any-
“Wait, um.” Carter stuffed his hand into his pocket and felt the brush of the parchment run against his fingers. He clasped it in his hand and pulled it out. Gideon’s eyes honed on Carter’s hand with interest, approaching him. “She didn’t- it doesn’t say, um, who-who wrote it but,” Carter wet his lips, “if you, um, if you know Shiloh, you-you should be able to, um. Identify her handwriting. Because-”
“-she has that dumb swirly writing,” Gideon finished, stepping into Carter’s personal space. Carter swallowed and hesitated, before handing Gideon the note, all crumpled now. He blinked in surprise at how hot Gideon’s hands were after getting the freezing water dumped on him.
As Gideon started reading the note, a bubble rose in Carter’s chest and his fidgeted. “Do- do you want a towel?” he blurted, wincing the second it came from his mouth.
When Gideon’s hazel eyes rose to give Carter a funny look, Carter flinched back, wincing again. Gideon’s eyes narrowed but returned to the note. Carter felt his cheeks burn.
Bazzoli hated Carter’s timing as, more often than not, he said things – even polite offers of service – out of turn. Carter felt silly for flinching away from Gideon when he’d done nothing but look at Carter, but Bazzoli always moved faster than Carter could ever duck away.
When Gideon remained silent for too long, Isha walked over to lean over his shoulder. Carter took a few shuffling steps back, the soft scuffing noise ringing out far too loud in the stable. As if to compensate for his noise, Reese whinnied.
“Hey, kitten,” Isha glanced up, “what’d you say your name was?”
He shook his head, ducking his head again. “I-I didn’t,” he murmured. A sharp silence followed that made Gideon look up at him. Carter sucked in a breath so fast he almost choked on it. “O-oh. I’m, um. Carter. It’s Carter.”
“C?” Isha suggested, pointing at the note. “That’s Shiloh’s handwriting. Even you can’t deny that, grumps.” Her mouth twitched upwards. “Might want to take that towel. Better yet, you have a change of clothes?” She glanced at Carter.
He opened his mouth to reply but Gideon folded the note and stuffed it in a side pouch instead. “No. We’re leaving,” he said, stepping away from the two.
“What?” Isha turned to Gideon but held her ground. “Gideon! If he’s telling the truth, doesn’t he deserve the same? Or maybe he’d like to, man, I don’t know. Come with us. It’s his sister, after all.”
“If he’s telling the truth,” Gideon shot back, his brow set. “Let’s say he is telling the truth and he really is Shiloh’s brother. Look at him,” he gestured to Carter, “do you think he could survive a day out in the wilds? And say he can, just to stack the positives because you like that so much. Do you want to be the one responsible when Corin’s thugs catch up with us for what happens to him?”
Carter wished the ground with swallow him whole. He had never felt so much like there were bugs crawling under his skin as he did in this moment.
He supposed it wasn’t being invisible after all, it was being noticed. It was being discussed like he wasn’t standing right there.
Isha’s lips pursed, but she ducked her head. Gideon sent Carter an unreadable look, before he huffed and set off, leaving the two of them behind. “Come on, Isha,” he called without turning back.
The thud of the side door slamming shut made Carter flinch backwards, as if to prove Gideon’s point. He hung his head, shuffling his feet awkward. His chest tightened when Isha lingered.
A warm hand grasped his shoulder. Carter jerked his head up in surprise to find Isha watching him with something glittering in her pale brown eyes.
“The inn in Midvale, Greenwich? We’re leaving tomorrow morning, around ten,” she said, her smile growing softer now. “Gideon’s really wired. He might be cooled off tomorrow.”
He frowned, his nose wrinkling slightly as he did so. “Why-why are you, um. Why are you telling-telling me this?”
She shrugged, pulling away from him and sauntering towards where Gideon had disappeared. “You want answers, don’t you?” Her smirk returned. “You’re not the only one.”
Without another word, Isha disappeared like a shadow. Carter couldn’t even hear the side door open or shut, almost making him wonder if she had left. But what purpose would she have for staying anyway?
Carter stayed still for several drawn out moments before he eased himself over to a bag of shaving and gently sat down, thoughts running through his mind and scalding it in their path.
Coterie? Shiloh could never- would never get tangled up with one of the coteries. They needed the pay, but she’d never do something like that. It was dangerous, not to mention criminal, and Shiloh wasn’t a criminal.
His stomach dropped again and he put his face in his hands. The only problem with it: she would.
word count: 2,176