Cinder couldn't sleep.
It was the middle of the night, and he lay awake in an unfamiliar bed, tossing and turning and searching in vain for a comfortable position. The worn-out inn bed would be hard to most people, but to him it was almost irritatingly soft. It had only been some hours, and he already missed his bed with a mattress and pillow that didn't give way beneath him.
They hadn't gone to this town's shoemaker today after all. It had taken him and Gem the better part of the afternoon to fully warm up, and Olive had forbidden them from setting foot outside again today. Gem had complained, of course. Cinder, meanwhile, had been happy to retire to his room and be left alone after dinner.
He rolled over. This room was too spacious for him. It was still just a small inn bedroom, of course; but compared to his chamber at home it was huge. The moonlight fell into it in a way that couldn't be right. It was impossible to sleep with that patch of light glaring at him from the middle of the floor.
Sighing, Cinder stood up and closed the shutters, feeling his way back to the bed in absolute darkness. That was better. Now maybe he could block out the size of the room, close his eyes and sleep at last.
How long had it been since the last time he hadn't slept in his room? Cinder tried to remember, but he couldn't recall. Had he ever? If so, then he must have been so small that it escaped his memory. Maybe that was why he was so restless now. He wasn't used to falling asleep in unfamiliar surroundings.
Guess I'll have to get used to that now, huh.
He rolled over again. Now he was facing the wall, a simple wooden thing covered in outdated patterns. Cinder felt for the structure in the dark, tracing it with his finger. He wondered how things at home were going. Not out of any concern for Hestia and her daughters. He was simply worried about the mess he might find after coming back home.
What he did miss was his workshop.
And his books.
And…many things, really.
Cinder sighed and closed his eyes, trying to block out the thoughts. It had been a long day, he told himself. He needed the rest.
But now that he had closed his eyes, he couldn't help but notice a noise he had successfully ignored so far.
Gem's room was right on the other side of this wall. And so, it seemed, was his bed. Either that, or he was snoring very, very loudly.
Cinder gritted his teeth. That lucky bastard. He could simply crawl into his bed and fall asleep on the spot, without being kept up by discomfort or all the worries going around in Cinder's head. Must be nice, Cinder thought, being so stupid. Or maybe he just didn't worry because he was a prince, and princes never needed to worry about anything.
Rolling over, he covered his ears, trying and failing to block out the snores. So loud. He'd definitely have to tell him off tomorrow morning. Not that Gem would care; he'd probably just complain right back or throw a childish tantrum…
Cinder paused in his thoughts. When, exactly, had he started calling him Gem in his head?
All reason and common sense told him it was a stupid idea, calling him that. Gemstone Crystalline, stupid as he was, was still the prince of the kingdom. He shouldn't be getting away with even a fraction of the things he said to him; there was no need to stretch the limits even further. They were temporarily stuck together to search for a person that didn't exist. Sooner or later their ways would part, and then they'd never see each other again. What was the point of addressing him by a nickname?
Although…he did feel more like Gem than Prince Gemstone, right now.
It was the way he acted, Cinder mused. He didn't act in a way that inspired the awe usually expected from a prince. The way he had been today, spoiled attitude, brattiness and childish fits included, had been much more like…like a regular teenager.
Cinder didn't know a lot of those. He especially didn't tend to spend a lot of time with them.
And now here he was. One day of traveling with Gem, and they had already run away from geese together and started a snowball fight. Cinder still couldn't believe he had actually taken part in the latter. He didn't have time for playing around; he didn't play. He had to be an adult, and adults didn't bother with childish activities.
Most adults, anyway.
His father's face flickered before his eyes, younger then, unburdened by age and hard work, teaching him how to make snowballs and how to hit every target. Even as an adult he had never let anyone take these childlike enjoyments from him. At least, not until he no longer had a choice about it.
Cinder scoffed. Useless and pointless. Had playing with snowballs saved his father? Of course not, and it wouldn't save him either. It wouldn't feed hungry mouths or pay for clothes and heating.
Besides, getting into snowball fights without him…having fun, almost…it felt like a betrayal.
No more of that, Cinder told himself. He would finish this trip and then cut the prince out of his life for good. He just needed to figure out a way to make him let go of his supposed crush, sooner or later. How he was supposed to do that, he still had no idea.
Oh well, he thought, he'd figure something out. He always did.
On the other side of the door Gem was still snoring. It was a loud noise, but now that he listened to it more closely, it was a peaceful, repetitive sound. Almost calming, now that he didn't try to resist it anymore.
Slowly, heavily, Cinder drifted off into uneasy dreams.
~ ~ ~
The next morning he woke up to a knock on his door and instantly sat up bolt-upright.
"Come in," he spluttered, frantically searching for anything presentable to throw on. One glance at the line of bright light in the crack of the window-shutters told him beyond doubt that he had overslept.
The door opened, and in came a young knight. Not Olive, Cinder noted in surprise; at least he didn't think it was Olive. This knight was male, for a start, even if his features strongly resembled those of Gem's bodyguard.
"Who are you?" he asked, realizing as he spoke how rude he had to sound.
"I'm Sir Oliver," said the knight. "I'm the same person as Olive, but sometimes I'm Oliver."
"Alright," said Cinder. He had no idea what that was supposed to mean, but it was probably the least unusual thing he had heard in the past few days.
"Anyway," Oliver asked, "how are you doing? Didn't get sick after the snowball fight?"
Cinder shook his head. "I'm fine," he said. "How's Gem—His Royal Highness?"
His face heated up. He couldn't believe he had accidentally called him by his nickname out loud.
Oliver frowned. "Less good," he said. "He's been sniffling all morning, and he's starting to cough. I don't think we can go anywhere today."
See? I told you nothing good could come from childish games.
Cinder tried to ignore the voice in his head and the twang of guilt it brought. All the same he bowed his head. "I'm sorry," he said.
Oliver, however, waved it off. "I could've stepped in and stopped you both at any time," he said. "So it's really my fault."
"Why didn't you?" Cinder asked. "Stop us, I mean."
"You looked like you were having so much fun."
Cinder took a step back. He didn't know how to feel.
"That's—" he stuttered out.
"You see, Gem doesn't really have any friends his age." Oliver closed the door behind him and leaned his back against it. "People keep their distance from him because he's the prince, so he doesn't have anyone to do these kinds of things with." He smiled. "So I thought it'd be better to let him have some fun, even if it ended with him catching a cold."
Cinder looked down. For some reason he felt strange. Not quite sorry for Gem; not quite like he understood him. He didn't. Cinder didn't need friends his age and never had. He wasn't too fond of people. Someone like him was happier alone.
But still…it wasn't like he didn't know what being alone felt like.
"He has you," he said, "doesn't he?"
"I'm six years older. It's not the same." Oliver stuck his hands into his pockets. "I can't keep being the only person he's close to, anyway. I have my own life to live."
"So you're dumping him off on me?" Cinder said, mostly joking.
Oliver laughed. "I wouldn't say that! I'm just glad he ran into you, that's all. Glad he can be a teenager with another teenager."
Cinder looked down again. Suddenly he felt guilty.
"I can't be his friend," he said, "if that's what you want."
Oliver's face fell. "Why not?"
"I don't have friends." Cinder turned aside. "I don't need friends. And if he does, he should look for someone who doesn't think friendship is a waste of time."
Oliver opened his mouth to respond, but before he could say a word, Cinder added, "Besides, we can't get along anyway. You've seen it."
The knight didn't answer. He just gave a small smile that could mean anything.
Turning, Cinder walked to the window-shutters, opening them fully at last. The sun was too bright in his eyes after the heavy darkness of the night. He squinted.
"How long?" he asked, still standing at the window. "Until he recovers."
"A few days, maybe less." Oliver turned to leave. "I already gave him some medicine, and it's not that bad in the first place. Just bad enough to make him complain all the time."
Cinder snorted. "Reason enough not to travel with him."
"Tell me about it."
Opening the door, Oliver paused in the doorframe, turning back over his shoulder. "By the way," he said, "you can get breakfast downstairs. I'll ask the innkeeper to heat it up for you again."
"That won't be—" Necessary, Cinder had wanted to say, but Oliver was gone.
Sighing, Cinder got fully dressed, tied back his hair, and made his way downstairs. The innkeeper, a rotund elderly lady who was almost never not smiling, expected him already and ushered him to a table with fresh bread, cheese, milk, and fried eggs.
Cinder began to eat in silence. It was so quiet, but somehow not the good kind. At home Hestia and his stepsisters would be chattering and twittering nonstop, and even if he had always found it annoying, now he realized that he missed it.
Pausing his meal, he straightened up and waved over the innkeeper. What exactly he was up to, he didn't know himself. Mostly he was following a sudden impulse and refusing to question it.
"Has the prince had breakfast yet?" he asked her.
The old lady's brow furrowed, and she shook her head. "His Highness is resting," she said. "I've prepared something for him, but he has yet to come down—oh! I should bring it to him, I almost forgot!"
"That won't be necessary."
Cinder had no idea what he was doing. No idea at all.
Mostly, he suspected, he was just doing this to ease his own guilt.
"I'll bring it to his room," he said.
She blinked at him in surprise, then nodded and handed him a tray. Cinder picked up his own breakfast, balancing both precariously on his forearms. She lifted a hand, as if to offer her help, but he shook his head. No need. He was already getting plenty of help through Oliver paying for his room and the food.
Slowly, carefully, he made his way upstairs, coming to stop at the room next to his. "Hey, idiot," he called into the room, "open up. I've got food."
No answer. Cinder sighed, then slowly pushed open the door.
Gem was fast asleep in his bed. He was still snoring, but quieter now; his nose was bright red, and his cheeks, too, seemed a shade pinker than usual. Cinder set both trays down on the table and stepped up to the sleeping prince. As if measuring the temperature of one of his stepsisters, he placed the back of his hand against his forehead. Then relaxed. Warmer than it should be, but not hot enough to be a reason for worry.
"And they say idiots don't catch colds," he muttered. "Go ahead and keep sleeping. I'll be eating here if you don't mind."
Gem didn't answer. Of course he didn't. He was still fast asleep.
Friends? Don't make me laugh.
In silence Cinder gulped down his breakfast, then stood up to leave. And hesitated. Suddenly he understood why he had felt the need to come up here, even eat here.
All those years, and he still couldn't leave a sick person alone.