Even after all the time that had passed, it was hard for Gideon not to keep looking at the bold, angry brand on Carter’s chest.
After the first, what, day? First several hours? Time was meaningless in a cave that knew only cold and darkness, but it felt like they’d been walking forever. Either way, Gideon had forced Carter to take his shirt because it wasn’t dark enough not to notice how badly Carter would shiver at times. Carter tried to refuse but Gideon didn’t hear it. His shirt was about two sizes too small for Carter.
This was still his fault, wasn’t it? He shouldn’t have let Carter come. He should have gone with him under the Spire. It seemed Gideon’s sole purpose was the do the wrong thing. Too slow, too loud, too small, too merciful. Too cruel, too harsh, too blunt. He was never going to be just right.
Worse, he was starting to suspect Carter wasn’t calling rests for himself, but for Gideon. He noticed after then eighth time, that Carter’s gaze had been lingering on Gideon’s lower leg right before he asked to stop. Gideon was trying, he was. He tried to walk faster, grit his teeth against the pain. He could do that, he could.
Carter had been hurt worse than he had. Gideon had nothing to complain about. He’d been hit with a metal stick and it hadn’t even broken the skin. It hurt, but so did a lot of other things. It was just a little pain.
A lot of pain. It hurt a lot.
They’d been steadily climbing upwards for some time now, and Gideon was careful to keep his breathing quiet. Carter was starting to grow short on breath beside him, which made it easier, but he wasn’t about to let Carter try to suffer at his own expense. They were both dehydrated, but Carter hadn’t had any kind of sustenance likely, or at least very little. He needed to be out of the cave as soon as possible.
And then they had to find the others again. Somehow.
Gideon fought a groan. This was such a headache. He hated the coteries. Hated himself for allowing this to happen.
“Can we stop a minute?” Carter asked, voice soft. Gideon glanced over in time to see Carter’s gaze travelling up from his leg. Gideon scowled.
“No,” he said. It sounded more like a growl, and Gideon’s chest grew constricted when Carter drew away. He hunched his shoulders, as if trying to make himself smaller, and Gideon glanced away, trying to soften. “We have to be getting close to an entrance soon.” He wasn’t sure if he sounded any friendlier than he had a moment ago.
The cave arched into a bend to their right. There had been little divergence in the cave system, oddly enough, only variations of wide caverns leading them forward melding into small passageways they had to take one at a time.
They were walking in a moderate sized passage. Carter was close enough that Gideon could feel the heat rolling off his skin, and their arms brushed every so often. It set Gideon’s nerves on fire, and he tried not to flinch and startle Carter.
It was also close enough to feel Carter still shivering. Gideon’s stomach rolled. He couldn’t help. He’d once been one of the most coveted assassins and fighters for his respective coteries, and yet he could do nothing as Carter suffered beside him.
Then he realised Carter had been talking, and Gideon shook his head. “What?”
Carter ducked his head. He was playing with his hands, and Gideon could see that even in the lowlighting, there was a faint shimmer of sweat of his brow. “Um. Did you mean what you, um, said? That you should never have let- never should have let me come?”
Of all the things Carter could have said, Gideon hadn’t expected that one. Then again, there was a lot of things Carter had done that Gideon hadn’t expected. Kissing him, for one. He was drunk. “You won’t be hurt if I hadn’t,” Gideon pointed out, levelling his tone.
He heard an odd noise echo through the caves, and it took him a moment to realise that it had been Carter. A noise somewhere between a snort and a laugh. Gideon wrinkled his brow, and Carter avoided his gaze. He wrapped his arms around himself instead.
“What?” Gideon asked again. He could feel something unspoken emitting from Carter, something he didn’t know how to decipher. It also struck him that this was one of the most confrontational tones he’d ever heard from Carter despite the staggering.
“It’s just- you couldn’t have, um. You couldn’t have known that,” Carter said. Now he turned to meet Gideon’s gaze. His eyes seemed to glitter faintly, but it could easily have been Gideon’s eyes acting up after so long in the dark. “You found me. What’s to say the coteries wouldn’t have too?”
Gideon opened his mouth and- and shut it. He didn’t have an answer to that. He hadn’t considered it, honestly. But- but still-
“I could be dead now,” Carter said. He made it sound conversational, and Gideon’s heart palpitated. “I mean, um. Well, you and Isha and Whisper. Finn. It was probably the safest, um. Safest place for me.” Gideon could see the second his expression dropped. He tried to concentrate on the dirt smeared across Carter’s cheek, so he didn’t have to look at his crushed look. “You really don’t, um. You really dislike me with you, don’t you? Um, really dislike… um, me.”
Gideon stopped so abruptly he had to bite back a yelp of pain that tried to escape his throat. He gurgled, a strangled, strange noise that bounced off the cavern walls. Carter paused and turned to face him, and Gideon tried not to openly gape at him. “You think I don’t like you?” Gideon asked, blinking.
Carter shrunk farther back into his shoulders and shrugged awkwardly. There was a distant dripping noise from somewhere else in the cave. “I mean- um, yeah? I’m really inconvenient, I don’t know how to, um, fight. You don’t like horses.” His brow was so deeply furrowed Gideon worried it might get stuck there. “You haven’t- um well, given me reason to think otherwise.”
Thinking back- oh. Gideon hadn’t, had he? Had he always been so abrasive to Carter? Yes. Too cruel, too harsh, too blunt. A weapon.
“Carter, I-” Gideon’s stomach turned, nausea crawling in his gut and in his throat. He tried to force himself not to look down, at the ground or at the place the brand was on Carter’s chest. “No? No, it’s- the opposite. I like you, I do, I’m just… rotten at this, I guess. Isha’s the only friend I’ve ever had? I don’t- I wasn’t raised to for this, I don’t know… I love that you love the horses so much, that you don’t know how to fight. You’re so gentle with them. I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know how to be gentle. I don’t know how-” Carter was watching him with an expression Gideon had never seen on him before and he had to swallow around a thickness in his throat. “I don’t know how to brave like you.”
For a moment, Carter only watched him, and Gideon suddenly felt dumb for saying all that. That’s what he got for trying to be sentimental, trying to be gentle. He was no good at it- and why had he said that he loved the things about Carter?
Then Carter blinked at him, several times, and tilted his head. Gideon did not think about stretching up to kiss him now that he was sober. He did not.
“Brave?” Carter asked, and then laughed breathily. “Gideon- I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but um. I’m not brave? I’m terrified- um. All the time. Everything terrifies me. I’m the opposite of brave. Why-?”
“But you do everything anyway,” Gideon said. He swallowed again. “You’re scared and you do it all anyway. I couldn’t do half the things you could.”
Carter’s mouth pinched. Gideon tried not to stare. “What? Yes, you could-”
He was impulsive. He was stupidly impulsive. Gideon wouldn’t be able to answer why he had done it later, only that his mind had gotten hazy and his leg hurt, and he couldn’t get the image of Carter leaning down to press gently against Gideon out of his mind.
Except when he stepped forward and leaned up to kiss Carter, he ended up practically headbutting him and smashed their noses together. Carter flinched, and Gideon was immediately drawing away.
“See? See, I don’t know how to be gentle-” Gideon was maybe breathing a little too hard. “Oh God, I’m sorry, Carter. I didn’t-”
And then Carter had bent down, carefully taking Gideon’s wrist in his hand, and pressed into Gideon’s mouth.
What- oh. What was he supposed to do? Where did his hands go? His nose was throbbing, and his leg had begun to burn when he’d tried to stretch on it. But Carter was warm – warmer than he should be, but it was so icy down here that Gideon had to stop caring in that moment. His lips were dry and cracking but so were Gideon. He tasted a bit foul, like copper and bile and old socks, but Gideon didn’t care. He probably did too.
His hands had found their way up to the back of Carter’s neck and he’d twisted away from having another nose collision.
And he was kissing Carter.
A shriek suddenly echoed through the cave around them and they sprang apart. Carter raised his hand to touch his mouth and Gideon was pretty sure he had just bit Carter’s mouth and hurt him and he was the worst-
Carter was laughing. Carter had dropped his hand again. His eyes were crinkled, and Gideon could see the off-white of his teeth. And he was laughing, bright and lovely and beautiful. And Gideon found that he was too. A small band of bats flew by then, and Carter followed them with his eyes still sparkling.
If someone had told him years ago that he’d actually kiss someone, a beautiful boy in a dank and musty cave no less, Gideon would have scoffed. He didn’t do this, the soft or the romantic. Or any of it.
And just like that, the moment was shattered. Gideon grabbed Carter to pull behind him and yanked his short swords out, muscles aching at how quickly he grew tense. Carter grabbed his arm, and Gideon forced himself to allow it despite how impractical it was.
“Who’s asking?” Gideon called back. His knuckles turned white around the hilts of his blades, and his leg killed as he put weight on it to go into a defensive stance.
“My name is Félix. Your turn.”
He could feel a shiver from Carter behind him, and Gideon set his jaw together. It could easily be another coterie trap. Out of one danger and into another, or something like that. “Gideon.”
There was a pause. Then- “You don’t happen to have a Carter with you, do you?” Gideon felt his fingers twitch on the hilts of his blade. He frowned and glanced over his shoulder at Carter’s widened eyes. There were dark smudges beneath them, and Gideon was made once again uncomfortably aware of their situation. “The two of you are expected by your companions. Isha, Whisper, Finn, and Shiloh. Isha said that you wouldn’t trust it wasn’t a trap. She told me that a kitten was with you?”
Carter’s hand squeezed Gideon’s arm, and Gideon felt some of the tension drained through his fingers. He still held on to his blades, but pulled Carter forward with him as he made his way towards the voice.
word count: 1,981