Gideon was moving towards the cave the moment he was sure it had been the allotted ten minutes that Isha needed in order to dispatch of the guards.
Well, no. That was not strictly true. He got up after what had likely been five minutes and Finn had grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him back down with a disappointed grunt.
The point was, after Finn finally let him go after what felt like an hour, Gideon sprung to his feet and was halfway towards the cavern mouth before Finn could raise a single finger.
He forced himself to go slow into the tunnel. The cave veered sharply left and Gideon paused next to the corner. He listened- nothing. Then he peered around the corner, squinting to see in the darkness.
On the ground, he could make out the figure of a body on the floor. He couldn’t see or hear anyone else, and so he made his way forward. He glanced down at the body as he passed it. Blood splattered across the floor from the gouge in the centre of the corpse’s throat. Gideon’s own tightened, and he swallowed, before he made his way deeper in.
Once he was far enough, Gideon could see the flicker of torches and the gradually rising din of low voices. The clink of armour. An open passage turned into a room, smoothed out likely when the coterie had first discovered it. There were still a few stalagmites and stalactites, rising out of the ground and stretching towards the icicle like stone hanging down from the ceiling.
There were only a few people in there. Gideon recognised some of them. There were four, three of them were Vasile’s men while the last had to have been a Fire Forger. On the far wall, in opposite corners, are two more tunnels.
He could take them. Gideon assessed them, frowning as he considered his options. But it won’t be a quick thing- he could take them, but it would take longer to get to Carter.
There were several crates of questionable material close to the entrance Gideon was standing in. It was a risky plan, but it was also the only one he had. He sent a glance towards the occupants of the room, and when nobody was looking his way, he darted forward and crouched behind the crates.
“Shouldn’t somebody be posted at the entrance?” one of the people asked. “The blonde only had François. What about Gaspard?”
“We haven’t been assigned,” another replied. “And nobody can get past us anyway if they’re coming through this entrance.”
Someone coughed. “You know that blonde is Vasile’s daughter, right?”
“Yeah, and how much trouble do you think we’ll get into if someone finds out we’ve just decided to stand around here, leaving the entrance completely defenceless? I mean- someone just broke in. I don’t care if she’s the Comtesse’s daughter. Shouldn’t we do something more than stand here? What if she brought friends? Shouldn’t someone at least check?”
They argue for several more minutes than Gideon had the patience for, but he forced himself to stay still until they finally concede to check out the entrance. The Fire Forger is the only one who doesn’t join them, claiming instead that she would go to find Corin and inform him of the situation at hand in case Vasile needed help with it.
He finally made it towards the tunnel on the right, the opposite of the one the Fire Forger had disappeared down and tried to make up for time lost by moving as fast as he could without making too much noise.
It got worse as he went further in. It wasn’t too complex of a cave system thankfully, which made Gideon wonder if the coteries were keeping the rest of their people somewhere else. That didn’t mean there weren’t members wandering the halls, filling the rooms, or generally existing and therefore being in Gideon’s way. It also didn’t help that his eyes were constantly adjusting to the darkness of the long passages without light to suddenly coming to a junction filled with lanterns.
But he wasn’t raised an assassin for nothing. He didn’t get where he was in the coteries by screwing up – well, that wasn’t strictly true. But he had grown out of that, of failure. It had stopped being an option for him early on. Slinking around the coteries’ nest was no different, and Gideon knew he couldn’t slip up. He couldn’t.
It was ironic, almost. He’d been trained to do this with someone’s life hanging in the balance- someone he would kill in the end. Now he was doing it because Carter’s life was on the tip of a knife, and Gideon had to save him. It wasn’t quite bitter in his mouth, but the familiarity flooding back through his veins, sinking into his bones, is enough to go sour.
He knew they’d hold Carter in a room. A small one, likely, if they were set on interrogating him. Gideon tried any door he came across except for the one he could hear a multitude of voices behind.
Hopelessness started to rise in his throat like bile and choke him. What if it was a trap? What if Carter was hidden away somewhere, or worse- with Adrienne or Jemima? What if Gideon was just chasing his tail around?
As it turned out, Gideon nearly overlooked the splintering door. He opened it and began to close it until his eyes caught the chair in the centre of the room. Strapped thoroughly to the chair was a figure, whimpering quietly with head lolling around.
Gideon slipped inside the room quickly and then shut the door behind him. The click of the door shutting made the person in the chair stiffen and fall silent. They’re tall, with dark, soft looking skin. There was a wool hood over their head, but Gideon knew it was Carter. It was hard not to know it was Carter.
He only got a moment for the blood to start rushing to his head and his heart to beat irritably hard against his chest before Gideon’s stomach twisted. Carter’s shirt was ripped in half. It lay uselessly at his sides.
It did nothing to cover up the swirling brand set square on the centre of Carter’s chest.
When he’d heard it- Gideon had been furious but he hadn’t seen it. He could pretend it didn’t exist. But now he was staring at it and- and-
“Please,” Carter whimpered. Gideon’s breath caught in his throat. He couldn’t move. “Please le-leave me… alone.” If there was any doubt that this was Carter, it was gone now.
A soft sob, muffled by the wool hood, kicked Gideon back into focus. He blinked quickly, his eyes stinging. He didn’t know why, not truly. He was moving though and didn’t stop until he was in front of Carter. There was a sickly-looking cut on his leg. Rémi. Truthfully, it wasn’t that deep, but it was festering and that was worse.
Gideon reached out to undo the strap around Carter’s neck, mouth dry as parchment and throat tight, and froze when Carter flinched at his touch. “I don’t- I don’t know-” Carter broke off by another choked sob and a hiccup. In fact, the room smelled like-
Absinthe. Fire filled Gideon’s veins. They were giving him absinthe.
“Carter, it’s me,” Gideon murmured, kicking himself for staying silent when Carter couldn’t see him. “It’s Gideon, I’m here to get you out.”
Carter went still under him, and Gideon could hear the catch in his breath before he hiccupped again. Gideon took it as allowance and undid the strap around Carter’s throat, and then carefully pulled off the woollen hood.
There was a torch in the room, lit and flickering behind them with a soft crackling. Carter winced at the light, but he was soon squinting at Gideon. His eyes were dark and bloodshot, dark circles like soot shoved beneath his eyes, and lips pale and cracking. Tears glisten in his eyes and Gideon felt it like a knife twisting in his heart.
“Gideon?” Carter said his name with a trembling voice and blinked at him furiously. Another tear tracked down his face. “Gideon- you’re here?”
He sounded so in awe that Gideon’s eyes begin to sting for real. He didn’t try to rub them, only because he could barely even bring himself to blink. He couldn’t look away from Carter, he couldn’t.
“Of course, I am,” Gideon said. His own voice is gentler then he’s ever heard it. His hands found one of the clasps over Carter’s wrists.
“You came,” Carter whispered. He sounded reverent, and it was odd to hear him like that. His voice was thick, hoarse, but his eyes are suddenly bright, and he looked like he was trying to smile but lost the muscle memory to do so. He leaned forward until he was almost uncomfortably close the Gideon, still squinting as if unsure of his own vision. Gideon could feel Carter’s breath hot against his cheek and nose and mouth. “You came. For me?”
His intonation made it sound like a question, and Gideon had to glance down at the clasp on Carter’s hand because they’re practically touching foreheads now and it- it was odd. His stomach wriggled. “Of course,” he repeated. “For you.”
No sooner did he get the strap undone then Carter was awkwardly raising his hand, stiff from lack of movement, and brushing his fingertips against Gideon’s face. Gideon froze, absolutely unprepared with this situation and how to handle it. Carter’s eyes are glazed, and his face is still wet with tears. He giggled a little, and his curls tickled Gideon’s forehead. His fingers were still tickling Gideon’s cheek.
“You’re soft,” Carter observed. Gideon could feel every muscle in his body tense and found that he was, once more, rendered incapable of moving. Carter did not appear concerned at all. He sighed, and the warm breath fanned across Gideon’s face again.
“You’re softer.” Gideon didn’t know why he said it. He looked up in surprise, meeting Carter’s heavy, tired gaze, as if Carter had been the one to say it. But Carter just watched him, with half-lidded eyes and a stretched, tired smile.
A lot happened in the next moment. Gideon wasn’t sure what Carter intended to do, but somehow, he ended up with his lips pressed to the corner of Gideon’s mouth. He didn’t do anything, except to nuzzle Gideon’s cheek with his nose. His lips were chapped and they tasted of blood and bile and alcohol, but Gideon couldn’t help thinking about turning his head slightly to the side until he could press fully against Carter, push him back a little until he didn’t have to slump over and maybe feel that sigh in his mouth-
His cheeks were hot, but it took him a moment to realise there was something feverish about Carter. If Gideon was hot, Carter was burning. And oh God, he was drunk and exhausted and-
Gideon’s heart pounded, crawling into his throat as he jerked back a little too quickly. Carter made an unhappy noise from the back of his throat but did little more than slump forward as he suddenly lost the support Gideon had been providing him. His hand also fell away from Gideon’s face and rested limply in his lap.
Even though Gideon felt like he needed to scrub every inch of his skin with ice water, he still reached up to press his knuckles into Carter’s forehead. Carter leaned into the touch, eyes closed. His skin was like fire on Gideon’s hand. Gideon swore under his breath, and Carter opened his eyes to blink sluggishly at him. He made an inquisitive noise, as if that was the extent of his vocal abilities anymore.
“You’re burning,” Gideon murmured. He had a fever. As if the situation wasn’t already bad enough.
Carter lips twitched lazily, and Gideon fought not to watch the motions. “So’s this,” he slurred, and then reached up to touch the black, dead skin where the circular brand swirled on his chest. If it wasn’t so horrifying, it might even look like a flower. Of course.
“It’s not funny,” Gideon said, incredulous. Carter snorted, but his eyes were still closed, and the smile quickly evaporated from his face.
“Only because you’re grumpy,” Carter mumbled, nearly incoherent. Gideon stared at him. He refrained from saying unbelievable because it was the only thing that applied to this conversation. And the fact that Carter was, apparently, a lot bolder when intoxicated, which seemed counterintuitive.
Thankfully, Carter did not offer anymore surprises for Gideon as he began to undo the second clasp on Carter’s other wrist. He did have to gently push Carter to sit back on the chair, however, and was careful not to touch the red-rimmed brand still fresh on his chest.
It was as he got the second clasp undone, and Carter pulled his hand back – the skin was rubbed raw on both his wrists and Gideon needed to get him out of here because he was in terrible shape – then the tell-tale click of the door echoed from behind them.
Gideon was on his feet and already pulling out his short swords when the door opened. As he readied the blades by his sides, his heart dropped to his toes.
Adrienne hesitated only a moment when she saw him, and then shut the door behind her like she wasn’t surprised to see Gideon at all.
word count: 2,259