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The Hero's Brother (34)

by mellifera

When Gideon woke up, he was definitely not in the place he last remembered.

He sat up, stiff, and swung his legs over the side of a rickety cot. The first thing he noticed was the cell bars. Then the uneven, cave-like floor with questionable looking water and patches of moss.

Wakey wakey.” He glanced over to see Finn sitting in the cell to his right. He was watching Gideon idly, before he picked a stone off the ground and threw it half-heartedly away from him. His hat was gone, and Gideon wrinkled his nose at the sight. It was viscerally wrong to see Finn without his hat.

Finn woke up right before you did,” Shiloh said to his left. He glanced over to see her leaning on the bars that separated their conjoined cell. “I’ve been awake the whole time. Whatever magic Aelina used only affected the two of you.” Her mouth was twisted downwards unhappily.

Gideon stood up, bracing himself for the bursts of pain in his lower leg. But he was on his feet and- nothing. There was no pain, not even a stinging or any kind of throbbing. He frowned down at his leg.

Gideon,” Shiloh murmured, “your leg.”

I noticed,” Gideon said. His voice was raspy, and it made him wonder how long they’d been out for. He lifted the bottom of his shirt up to check for the place Adrienne had caught him with her sword. Nothing, not even a scar. He glanced at his hands, narrowing his eyes.

He glanced up at Shiloh to see her chewing on her lips. “She did something to you before she left. She must have healed you then, I suppose.” She was watching him with something unsettled in her expression, and Gideon had to glance away from that look.

It was cold enough in the cell to warrant goose flesh prickling at his arms, and to make him wish for a jacket. He crossed his arms over his chest and approached the door of the cell, that led to a hallway split between another row of cells pressed into the opposite wall.

Posts lining the hallway carried torches that flickered and cast the corridor in flickering orange light. Gideon glanced both directions in an attempt to figure out where they were, but it was no use. They could have been above ground in the middle of Grand Verterre, and Gideon wouldn’t have been able to navigate.

Gideon,” Shiloh said again, her voice quiet and uncertain. He forced himself to glance over at her, only to find her looking mournfully down at her hands. “Did you mean- um, well. I mean, do you really love Carter?”

His throat went dry, and Gideon tightened his grip on the bars he’d reached up toe grab. He set his jaw. It was just Shiloh, it was just one of his best friends. It was just feelings he wasn’t ready to confront, it was just he hadn’t meant to say that even if it was true, it was just that he didn’t know what in God’s name he was doing.

Shiloh glanced up at him and pinned with those now-soft eyes, dark in the low light, Gideon sighed and swallowed hard enough to hurt. “I- I- well, it’s- Carter’s-” he frowned, face growing hot. He finally dropped Shiloh’s gaze, and realised he was trembling. “I don’t know,” he murmured. He hoped he’d said it quiet enough not for Shiloh to hear so he could pretend he hadn’t said it at all. He wasn’t under anyone’s thrall, he couldn’t work around it anymore.

There was a momentary silence, broken only by the sound of Finn’s rocks hitting the ground every time he threw another one. He was blessedly silent, however, leaving them alone to talk about their feelings. Or maybe it was cursedly silent. If Finn spoke, it meant that Gideon could focus on him and not on what Shiloh was trying to wheedle out of him.

I-” Shiloh began. Gideon recoiled his chin back with surprise when he heard the break in her voice. Her head was bent, and she looked- unhappy. Just really unhappy. “I’m sorry. I mean- about everything. Not just about recently, but about all the times I’ve blamed you for things you didn’t have control over. Carter was right and I just- God, we’re supposed to be friends.” She laughed, and it sounded choked. “And I haven’t once tried to take your side or supported you when you were having a hard time or… I was scared, when I found out you and Carter might be-” she made a noncommittal noise. “I’ve always had to take care of him, and I- I don’t know how to give that up. Isha was right, I’m controlling him, I’m trying to put a collar on him and it’s- it’s not fair to either of you. I don’t actually hate that he chose you of all people. I know you, and you take care of people you care about.”

Gideon was left vaguely uncomfortable by the time Shiloh was done, but his chest felt unusually unburdened. Shiloh glanced up at him, and offered him a wobbly smile, and Gideon let out a deep breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.

He didn’t know what he could say in response to her, but it didn’t matter, because the sound of approaching footsteps halted his mind. Gideon leaned against the front of the cell, and he could see Shiloh stand off the bars, alerted. As he turned to the right, where the distinct tap was coming from, he watched Finn cease to throw rocks and watch down the hallway instead with narrowed eyes.

It was a guard, with a helmet that seemed to jostle on his head and an odd limp to his gait. Gideon supposed he was only watching prisoners, and they probably didn’t except him to do any fighting. Though it was odd that Aelina would not heal the injuries of her own guards but would those of her prisoners.

And then, as the guard turned his head just so slightly towards them, Gideon could swear he saw something red between the slots in the glinting steel of his helmet. He frowned, keeping close to the front of the cell.

As the guard drifted closer, Gideon tried not to visibly clench his fists. The corridor, if walked in the centre, was too far out of range for him to do anything. But the guard was walking closer to their cells and craning his neck forward, as if having trouble seeing them.

The guard was about halfway past Gideon’s cell, right in front of him, when Gideon reached out to grab at his neck.

But the guard seemed to either have known Gideon’s intentions or saw him coming, because he began to stagger away. Instead of getting an arm around the guard’s neck, Gideon only grabbed it with his hand. The guard jerked away and-

And his neck ripped off in Gideon’s hand.

Gideon shouted and staggered backwards so quickly he nearly tripped over his own feet. The guard was snarling at him but made no audible noises of pain or distress or said anything. Gideon, the world spinning around him and the only thing he could focus on being the squishy, wet- thing in his hand, dropped it. Whatever “it” was.

The guard muttered something and either it was a collection of mumbles without words or it was in a foreign language. He bared his teeth at all thing of them, and there was no glint in the firelight. Just the faint stench of rot and the ivory of his teeth turned yellow.

And then he turned, and limped away, and Gideon didn’t know when, but he’d sat down on his cot and was breathing too hard to be normal.

He saw movement to his right and distantly registered that Finn had stood up and was staring into his cell. Gideon ignored him in favour of looking down at his hand. It was covered in blood and a thin, almost membrane-like white liquid. His stomach turned and he glanced up across at the other cells instead, trying to calm himself.

Did you just… rip a chunk of that guy’s neck of?” Finn asked. He sounded more discomforted than Gideon had ever heard him.

How was Gideon supposed to answer that? He wasn’t even sure what had just happened. Except that there was a chunk of something that resembled bloodied, sickly flesh to a horrifying degree. For everything Gideon had seen, had done, in his life, he probably shouldn’t have been so unsettled. But he’d never ripped someone’s skin clean off.

That’s really gross,” Shiloh said. “And definitely not physically possible.” She sounded calmer about the situation than Finn or Gideon did. He glanced up at her and found her looking down at the flesh-thing with a downward twist to her mouth. She met his gaze then, and her expression softened. “Gideon?”

He pursed his lips, and swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He’d seen so much worse; he wasn’t going to be made sick by a little chunk of flesh. He wasn’t.

When he was sure it was safe to talk, he winced. “I- I don’t know. I went to grab him, but-” Gideon swallowed again, hard. “It came right off. No resistance. It just…” He clenched his hands into fists and instantly regretted it at the squelching noise of his right hand. Without anything better to handle the situation with, he wiped his hand on his pants and pointedly did not look down to see the stains.

There was a long stretch of silence. Gideon looked back down at the flesh-thing. It sat on the floor of his cell, perfectly innocuous except for the fact Gideon had just ripped it from some guy’s neck. That should definitely not be a thing.

You notice his eyes glowed?” Finn finally asked, when nobody else said anything. Gideon nodded, a little numb, and didn’t bother to see if Shiloh confirmed it as well. “Right,” Finn said after a pause. “Well, nothing let getting thrown in jail for no apparent charges and having guards with skin like dough that you can rip off, right?”

This happen to you often?” Shiloh asked dryly. Gideon stood up and kicked the chunk of flesh under his cot so he wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. The smell of decay still filled the air, however, and Gideon approached the far corner of his cell and settled against the bars instead.

Gideon heard the rustle of Finn’s clothing as he sunk back down to the floor. “Can’t say I remember ever being arrested in the first place. I’m discreet.”

Shiloh sighed, and followed both their leads. “Carter’s going to freak out,” she said mournfully. Gideon’s chest grew tighter, and he nodded solemnly, before taking to staring up at the ceiling and trying to think of anything but their current situation.

word count: 1,832

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You cannot have an opponent if you keep saying yes.
— Richard Siken