Olive had hoped that the boys would get along better from now, but apparently she had hoped too early.
They had been civil—dare she say it, almost friendly—for exactly one moment after escaping the geese, and then they had quickly returned back to normal. Gem was sulking, Cinder was grumbling, and the only things exchanged between them were snarks and insults. Neither of them seemed to acknowledge, or want to acknowledge, their brief instant of getting along.
It was a shame, really. Walking behind them, scanning their surroundings for potential threats (and making sure the hidden guards were still there), Olive could see how their strides matched as they strode through the landscape side by side. She couldn't even tell who was matching his strides to the other; or maybe neither did, and they were simply prone to walking at exactly the same pace.
They made for a nice picture, walking like that. On the one side there was Gem, bright and radiant and dressed in vibrant colors; on the other side, Cinder, dark and silent as a shadow and no less intense. Olive wondered if they ever realized how they looked together—a contrasting pair in quiet sync, standing out from the landscape even from a distance.
She just wished they'd get along when they were talking, too. This Cinder seemed like a decent person, grumpiness notwithstanding. And Gem didn't have any real friends his age. His status had always kept people at a distance, intimidated, afraid of disrespecting him or his father by trying to make friends. His closest friend had always been Olive. Olive, who, being a bastard child, had never had trouble being approached and making friends—or even finding a lover.
You realize that, don't you, baby brother? That's why you keep him around even if he annoys you.
Because Cinder hadn't cared for one moment that the boy in front of him was the crown prince. He had simply treated him like any other customer, like he didn't see or care about Gem's status at all. He had treated him like a normal boy his age…like an equal.
Olive smiled to herself.
Maybe in due time, these two could actually become friends.
~ ~ ~
Gem was getting tired.
For an hour or two, a walk in the snow had seemed like the best idea in the world. The sun was shining, the landscape was glistening, and the air was crystal-clear on his tongue and in his lungs. The perfect weather to go out and enjoy the winter wonderland.
That had been a few hours ago. Now, however, things were looking different.
The landscape was still pretty, but it looked the same everywhere. Trees, fields, the occasional cattle, a few houses, more fields. And, of course, the neverending road. How long had it been since the escape from the geese? Stupid geese. Cinder had said the field was a shortcut. And now they couldn't even use it because geese had taken it over.
His legs were heavy. Stomping through the snow was fun for some time, but eventually it became a chore. The snow kept resisting his every footstep. Water was slowly but surely seeping through his boots, unfit for long walks in the snow, and he was getting cold. Why, oh, why hadn't they taken the stupid carriage? Or at least some horses! Cinder had said they couldn't take them on the shortcut, but now they couldn't do the stupid shortcut anyway, so what the hell was the point of walking?
"I'm tired," he said, glaring at Cinder like the whole situation was his fault. "When are we taking a break?"
Cinder glared at him, irritated. "We just took a break," he said. "What do you want?"
"That was one second! After getting chased by geese!" Gem gave a huff. "I need a real break already!"
"Stop whining, we haven't walked that far." Cinder picked up his pace as if to spite Gem and his tired legs. "You're just tired because you're a spoiled brat who's not used to walking."
Gem stopped in his tracks. "Did you just call me weak?"
"I called you a royal wimp!" Cinder answered. "Your Royal Wimpiness!"
"I'm not wimpy!" Gem burst out, his face heating up. "I'm just not so poor I need to walk for hours all the time! That's right!" He pointed a triumphant finger. "I bet you've never even ridden in a carriage before, you stupid, stupid peasant!"
Cinder's face underwent a variety of emotions before finally settling on triumph.
"Actually," he declared, "my stepmother does use a carriage."
"Have you ridden in it?"
"Of course I have, I wasn't born yesterday!" Cinder clicked his tongue. "Unlike certain other people, I just don't use it unless it's absolutely necessary!"
"It's necessary for a trip like this," Gem answered, sulking.
"I told you it's no weather for a carriage ride. It would've broken down somewhere on the road and then what, huh? Carry it as well as yourself? Wait for the off chance that another carriage passes by when anyone with an ounce of sense is leaving it at home?"
Gem gave a huff. He couldn't believe he had almost thought this guy might be kind of nice for a moment earlier. Cinder was awful, horrible and all kinds of insufferable. Him and all his talk about common sense and this and that. Gem had never liked know-it-alls, so what was that bastard thinking!
"Oh yeah?" he shouted. "Well, I'm about to break down somewhere on the road too!"
"Great! What do you want me to do about it?"
Gem paused. Cinder, as much as he hated to admit it, had a point. It wasn't like either he or Olive could carry him or anything. There was no place to really sit down on either, except for the ground, in the snow, which would quickly soak through all his clothes.
"How far is the next town?" he asked.
Cinder looked around, somehow figuring out their location from a landscape that looked identical for miles and miles. "Maybe half an hour," he said. "Faster if we hurry."
"That's so long."
"How is that my fault? If you want the towns closer together, maybe Your Royal Highness should do something to raise the population density." Cinder picked up his pace again. Gem suppressed a curse, but forced himself to keep up. Like hell he was losing to this uppity bastard. "I'm just the guide. I can't change the distances."
Gem hated him, hated him, but still made a mental note to make more people settle here. These distances were completely unbearable on foot.
"I'm still tired," he said after a while.
"Wimp," said Cinder.
"I'm also hungry," Gem continued, fully out of spite. If this guy was refusing to pity him, then he'd be damned if he wouldn't make this walk a living hell for him too. "It's already way past lunchtime."
"You can hold out a little longer," Cinder answered, though his eye twitched. Gem's tactic was working.
"My shoes are wet. My toes are freezing."
"Your own fault for not wearing proper ones."
"And my pack's so heavy."
Cinder gritted his teeth. He seemed threateningly close to an explosion.
"How much further?"
"I don't know!" Cinder snapped. "Shut up already!"
"What about now?"
Cinder stopped walking. He looked about ready to commit homicide.
"Listen," he growled. "If you don't shut your stupid, obnoxious mouth right this instant, I'm tying you to a tree and leaving you here to freeze. Do you understand?"
For a moment Gem paused, wondering if he had gone too far. Then his own annoyance took over. "You cruel jerk!" he burst out. "Heartless bastard! I bet you'd like to see that, you mean, sadistic little—"
That was as far as he got before a handful of snow landed smack in his mouth.
Spluttering and coughing, he spat out the snow and gestured furiously at Cinder. "You!" he yelled. "What the hell was that for?"
Cinder patted off his hands, as if proud of his work. "Just something to cool your head."
"Just you wait!"
Crouching down, Gem grabbed a heaping helping of snow, shaping it into a ball and flinging it at his back. Cinder, who had resumed walking by now, spun around with a yelp and a curse.
"Got you!" Gem said triumphantly.
Cinder glowered at him. His black eyes lit up with a competitive gleam.
"So you think this is funny, huh?" he said, crouching down in his turn. "You think this is a game?"
Gem barely had time to react before another snowball hit him in the face.
What had happened next, both of them would later describe as an all-out war. Cinder's throws were precise, but Gem's snowballs were larger. They both threw and ducked and dodged, playing dirty, each trying to hit the other while he was making new snowballs, using arms and packs (and occasionally Olive) as shields as they went. Gem tripped up Cinder to make him fall face-first in the snow. Cinder shook snow from the trees onto Gem's head as he passed. Neither was winning and neither was losing, but both tried to inflict as much damage on the other as possible.
It was the most fun Gem had had in a long, long time.
Not that he'd ever admit to it, obviously. This wasn't some silly game. This was war. He was trying to prove to this insufferable human being that he was better, even at something as silly as snowball fights.
The result was that when they finally reached their destination, it was the shortest half-hour Gem had ever spent traveling.
"You're both idiots," Olive told them later as they sat, soaked and shivering, in a pile of blankets in front of the fireplace. "If you end up getting sick, don't say I didn't warn you."
"I've handled worse," Cinder muttered, sipping his hot herbal tea.
"And I'm not gonna get sick on this mission," Gem added, refusing to be weaker than Cinder. "The power of my love will keep me warm and healthy."
"Big words for a shivering blanket pile."
"Like you're that much better!"
Cinder took another sip of his tea. The innkeeper had promised them a hot meal too, but it wasn't ready yet. They had both changed out of their snow-soaked clothes; their old ones were hung up nearby to dry, dripping slowly onto the floor.
Olive shook her head, then left the room, muttering something about finding the innkeeper. Gem and Cinder were left alone in a silence that couldn't seem to decide if it was awkward or companionable.
"You're not bad at snowballs," Gem said into the quiet. "For a jerk, anyway."
Cinder snorted. "And you're not so bad yourself. For a spoiled brat," he added.
"Next time I'm defeating you."
"I hope you remember those words when I have you crushed in the snow."
Gem turned towards him, smirking. "I'd like to see you try."
Cinder returned the gaze. His eyes twinkled with mockery. He didn't quite smile, but his expression was one that, with a little more effort, might easily have turned into one.