“They’ll be taken good care of,” Shiloh said for the eighth time in the last three days. She ran a finger through Carter’s curls as he trembled beside her. “It’ll be okay. They will be okay.”
He opened his mouth to reply, and a sob came out instead. He knew that, he knew it, but the fact of the matter was still the same and someone might as well have put a dagger through his chest.
Gideon sat beside him. They were in such a crowded place, he didn’t reach out to comfort Carter, but he was close enough that their hips and thighs pressed together on the bench the three of them were crammed on. Not to mention he’d been getting like this as of late- staring off, something dull in his eyes, or staying quiet for prolonged periods of time. Or, as of the night he’d come back after disappearing the night they’d escaped the Capital.
He’d gone off after Malika’s rescue with a dagger and come back with no dagger but a vial that Isha had said “looked a lot like blood”. Gideon had grimaced and told her to just use it. Drink it, pour it over her wound, he wasn’t sure. She did both, pouring most of it over her hip wound and drinking the rest. “It is blood,” she’d said. Gideon hadn’t said anything. Carter hadn’t said anything, Isha had only given him a look.
Carter buried his face into Shiloh’s neck as she continued to run her fingers through the curls at the back of his neck. He kept his left hand on his leg, where he could still touch Gideon with the side of his hand.
The cold wind that swept over them did nothing for the tears coating his cheeks. He was already freezing, and the wind made it all the worse. It was autumn now, and the sky was grey and bleary. Carter wished he were somewhere dry, because he could feel the mist off the ocean in the wind, could taste and smell the saltwater.
Even the waves, rolling and spitting as they were, looked dark and dreary. It felt like an echo of Carter’s soul.
He glanced up, eyes puffy and hot, to find Isha approaching with a tight smile. She glanced between all of them, and he could see her sigh, but he couldn’t hear it with the noises of the harbour filling the air. The scream of the gulls, the ocean, the crowds passing by.
It had worked. Whatever Gideon had done – Carter knew, deep down. Gideon didn’t come back with a magic vial of blood that had nothing to do with the sudden announcement that the Comtesse was dead – worked. The scar on Isha’s hip was ugly and marred now, but the magic had cleared the infection and closed the wound better than sutures.
Beside her, Finn peered down at them. He was quiet too, just like Gideon, and looked constantly tired. He still pestered them all at times, but it was clear he was suffering after the… God, everything. He also hadn’t gotten his hat back. His flaxen hair was tousled from the wind, and he was near-constantly touching it as if to adjust the hat that wasn’t there.
“The ship leaves harbour tomorrow morning,” Isha announced. Her hair was back in a tight braid to keep it from the throes of the wind.
“We should buy peppermint and ginger root,” Whisper said. They stood by the bench the other three sat on, with Koshar laying over one foot curled up. As if he could wrap himself up small enough to fit on their shoe. “It’ll help with the nausea.” They met Carter’s gaze a little pointedly.
He was steadying out his breathing, trying to allow Shiloh’s words to wash over him. They’ll be taken good care of. They’re safe. There’s no place for them on the ship. He sniffled, and his cheeks grew warmer again. Tears made his vision cloudy again, and Carter tried to swallow them back once again.
“You saw how much those little girls adored all the horses,” Whisper told him. “I know you don’t want to leave them behind, but they’ll be happy.”
He nodded and offered Winnie a small smile. More tears slipped down his cheeks and this time he sniffled and brought his right hand to wipe them away. “Yeah,” he croaked. “Yeah. I know.”
Something tickled the back of his hand. He glanced down to see Gideon wiggling his smallest finger over Carter’s hand, tapping his gently. Carter chuckled in spite of himself and glanced up to find Gideon offering him a smile.
When Gideon looked at him like that, Carter could still remember the night they’d escaped. How Gideon had pulled him aside after Isha was taken care of.
“I’m sorry,” Gideon said. The night drew shadows across his face, and he looked gaunt. The crescents beneath his eyes looked darker under the moonlight. Gideon had pulled him outside, to the side of the house. He was staring at Carter and it looked, just for a moment, as though his eyes were glistening. “I’m sorry.”
“Why?” Carter asked. He wanted to touch Gideon but was overcome with such a shyness. Was he allowed that? He looked… unbearably fragile. Gideon had never looked fragile before, but he did now. Carter was worried that if he reached out to touch him, he would shatter.
Gideon raised his hands, both trembling, and set them at the division of Carter’s neck and jaw. His thread his fingers into Carter’s curls, and gently pulled him down so their foreheads were touching. “I don’t want to be a weapon,” he whispered. His breath ghosted over Carter’s lips. “I can’t- I don’t-”
His voice cracked and a sudden, sharp breath blew across Carter’s mouth and cheeks. It took him a moment to realise Gideon was shaking beneath him, and there were tears filling his eyes.
Carter stepped closer until he could feel the tremors through Gideon’s whole body against his. “You’re not. You’re Gideon, you protect your- your family. And I-” The words stuck in his throat. Of course, now of all times. His throat seized and he forgot how to speak, his tongue was dry and-
“I love you,” Gideon whispered. “I don’t- I’ve never… done that. I’m- God, Carter, I’m terrified. I don’t know how to love anyone.”
“You, um,” Carter was shaking now too, “you love Isha. You know how- how to do that. I don’t- um, I don’t think it’s something you- well, know, but I-” Gideon shifted away slightly to look at up him. Carter didn’t know when his hands hand come to rest against Gideon’s wrists, still gripping the sides of his face. And Carter didn’t know how to say what he wanted to, what he needed to.
He dipped forward instead to press his mouth to Gideon’s. Instead of responding, Gideon stiffened and immediately let go of Carter’s face. Carter pulled away with a furrow to his brow, and Gideon quickly shook his head.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you’re fine. I just- let me-” Gideon his hands on Carter’s arms instead. His eyes were wide but didn’t look so glassy anymore. “Okay,” he said. It sounded like permission.
Carter peered at him a moment longer, before leaning down again to kiss him. It was not like the kisses they’d shared down in the cave. It was not perfect, but it was gentle. And Carter tried to pour his affection into it as he collected his words against his tongue.
He didn’t open his eyes when he pulled away. He didn’t go far, just enough to have a little space for air.
“I love you too,” he murmured, and allowed the knot in his chest to start untangling as he released a soft breath again Gideon’s mouth.
He still did not open his eyes, but he could feel Gideon’s smile against him. Between the tears and the pain, there was a smile, and there was love. That was good.
“Not gentle,” Carter scoffed. “Yeah, right.”
“I can’t believe I’m about to get on a ship,” Gideon muttered beside him. He looked more alert more, glancing between Whisper and Isha. “I hate ships.”
“So does Carter,” Shiloh chimed in. Carter swallowed thickly, throat opening up a little. He wiped at his cheeks again, and nudged Shiloh’s foot. He didn’t really want to talk, but he knew closing himself up wouldn’t do anyone any good.
Finn crossed his arms over his chest. “Guess you’ll have to keep each other safe from the dangerous ship then.”
Carter smiled, a little wobbly but warm. Finn’s own mouth curled.
Shiloh had told him what had happened, how she’d pulled him from the same golden pool she’d pulled Gideon from. That had delighted Gideon, who gleefully informed Carter that Finn had mocked him about it after he’d almost drowned and then down the same. Finn had rolled his eyes, but he’d looked more alive than he had before.
He hadn’t said anything about his memories. That, alone, was enough to tell Carter whether he’d gotten them back or not.
“I’m the only one of us who has been on a ship,” Gideon pointed out. “You’ll be eating your words when your legs feel like water and you can’t keep food down.”
“Then I hope my words are filling,” Finn snorted.
The saltwater tickled Carter’s nose and he sneezed. Shiloh’s hand slid down his back until she was running her hands in soothing circles. But she was smiling, eyes crinkled at the corners and tempered.
He was going to miss the horses. He already missed the horses like mad. But he still had his family- Carter wasn’t going to call them anything else. He’d never had anyone but Shiloh and Winnie, and now he had all of them. Blood didn’t matter so much to Carter. His parents were gone. The rest of them weren’t.
It would be okay. They would be okay.
word count: 1,668