Because…he's my friend!
The sentence rang in Cinder's ears long after Olive returned, saying something about sending away the search party with a bunch of excuses and arguments. It rang in his ears while leaving the inn, while saddling up his horse, while riding out of the village. Over and over.
He's my friend!
Most likely he shouldn't be thinking too much about this. Gem had seen the easiest excuse to stop the knight from having him executed, and he had taken it. In his situation Cinder would probably have done the same thing. That didn't mean there was any truth to it.
Except…why had Gem even seen a need to say it? He didn't need him beyond this brief job. He could easily have negotiated with the knight to put off the trial and possible execution until they were done asking around and he no longer needed an expert on shoes. Gem didn't like him that much after all. He just found him useful.
Or was that just what Cinder was telling himself?
No matter how often he turned the question in his mind, this wasn't something he knew how to answer.
~ ~ ~
It was a quiet ride.
Cinder was riding ahead again, leading the way. The road knew more twists and turns here, and it branched off every so often, and a guide became necessary again. Behind him Gem rode in silence. He didn't make any comments, didn't complain, didn't try to start another stupid competition. He was just completely, utterly silent.
Not that Cinder minded, of course. He had too many things to think about, too many questions circling round and round and round in his head, over and over, unresolved. Sometimes he felt like Gem was about to catch up to him, about to say something, but in the end nothing happened. They just rode on and on and on in silence.
Every so often Olive tried to start a conversation, but after a few sentences it died down. Cinder could see her growing frustrated. She didn't know what had happened, or at least only part of it, and was clearly confused by the sudden awkward silence.
Finally she sped up her horse to ride beside her brother. "Gem," she asked, "what did Hector say to you?"
Cinder glanced over his shoulder, but Gem only shrugged. "Nothing special."
"I know he doesn't approve of your mission," she said gently. "But he's not responsible for you anymore. Don't let it get to you."
Gem didn't answer. He just shrugged again.
"Oh, come on," Olive groaned. "What got into you?"
"Nothing," Gem answered. Not in his usual pouty, childish tone. Just quietly, as if he was only half listening.
"Worried Father will try to stop you again?"
Gem was silent.
"For crying out loud," Olive muttered, then rode up beside Cinder. "Do you have any idea what got into him?"
Cinder might or might not have a suspicion, but he didn't voice it. "Since when do I know what's going on in the idiot's head?"
"At least you still sound like yourself," Olive remarked. She gave a lopsided grin. "You don't, but didn't you see more of the scene than I did?"
Cinder avoided her eyes. "Guess so," he said.
"What did you talk about?"
From the part where I joined, mostly me.
Cinder didn't say that. Instead he went for something more vague. "Mostly Gem spending too much time around commoners."
Olive winced. "Ah."
Unwilling to say anything else, Cinder was just about to retreat into his thoughts again when his mind caught on something. "Wait," he said in an undertone. "The way I understood it, the king doesn't approve of him befriending commoners either. Is that right?"
Olive glanced hastily over her shoulder, but Gem didn't look like he was listening to them. "That's right," she said.
"Then why inviting them to the ball as marriage prospects?" Now it was Cinder who glanced back at Gem. "Did he do that without the king's approval?"
Grimacing, Olive turned aside, suddenly looking guilty. "That's…a long story," she said.
Cinder narrowed his eyes at her. There was something she was hiding, he realized—not from him, but from her brother.
Not that he should care. It wasn't like he had any deeper connection to Gem. They weren't friends.
No, most likely they weren't. Gem had only said that to protect him. And Cinder didn't believe in getting attached to people. Friendships, relationships…everything could turn out to be fake. Everything was setting him up for possible disappointment. When push came to shove, he would never rely on any human being except himself.
And yet, even knowing all that, when Gem had called him his friend he had felt…something. He didn't know what it was. But something inside him had stirred, a brief flicker of emotion he could neither name nor understand.
Probably nothing to be worried about. It had just been a moment, a brief flash of weakness. Maybe it was just because nobody else had ever called him that before. Yes, that had to be it.
And yet, if that was all…why had he supported Gem in the argument? Why had he displayed all his best manners to convince the knight that he wasn't that bad? And why in the world had he instinctively stood between Gem and the knight upon realizing the prince was scared?
No matter how much he tried to explain it, he didn't have an answer to that.
And neither did he have an answer to the question why it bothered him so much in the first place.
~ ~ ~
Around noon they arrived in the next town. Lunch was as quiet as the ride. Neither Cinder nor Gem ate much before seeking out the next shoemaker's workshop to ask about the shoe. To no avail, again. But if Gem was frustrated, he no longer let it show. He was just quiet.
Cinder didn't know why that bothered him. Shouldn't he be glad? Gem was usually so loud, so annoying. A bit of peace and quiet had been all that he wished for. And now here he was, feeling every second of silence like a lead burden weighing down on his shoulders.
They visited two more shoemakers. Also nothing. Still Gem didn't complain. He also didn't look at Cinder. Several times he took a step towards him, as if to start a conversation, then he turned away once more. Time crawled like a snail. The silence was deafening.
In the afternoon, another journey. Here the road was straight again, stretching out towards the horizon in a direct line. The perfect place to race each other again, Cinder thought. But they didn't. They rode the distance slowly, without speaking a word.
Another shoemaker in the evening. Nothing again. Another inn. This time they had enough rooms for the three of them. Cinder almost regretted it. Gem's insufferable snoring aside, at least sharing a room would have given him an easy way to talk to him alone.
But as it was, they ate dinner, and then they retreated to bed. Cinder tried not to think too hard about anything. If he just turned off his mind and slept, tomorrow the world would look much better. He simply needed to forget about everything for the moment. Especially about Gem.
But for some reason he couldn't force himself to go to sleep. He simply stood at the window, staring blankly into the night.
He's my friend!
Nonsense. Nonsense. Foolish nonsense. And yet…
He needed to know. He needed to understand. As long as he didn't, he could never hope to rest.
His common sense tried to scream at him as he pushed himself off the windowsill, marching towards the door. It tried to yell at him that he was being stupid, ridiculous, he should stop before he made a complete fool of himself. He paid it no heed. With quick, determined strides he stepped out into the corridor and made his way to the door to Gem's room.
There, suddenly, he hesitated.
Go back, his common sense whispered at him. Go back before it's too late!
He took a deep breath.
Gem was probably already sleeping, he thought. He'd be waking him up just to talk about this. Why would he go to such lengths? He should just ask him tomorrow or something. There was no need to do it here, now, out of all times and places.
Except something told him that he wouldn't wake Gem. Something told him that he, too, was still awake, unable to turn off his thoughts.
So he swallowed down his fears and knocked.
There was a long silence, so long that he thought Gem had indeed fallen asleep after all. Then, just when he was about to go back, footsteps sounded, then the door opened to reveal Gem's face.
His eyes widened.
"You," he said, his face turning visibly red even in the dim light of the room behind him. "Why are you—"
"Don't shut the door on me, idiot," Cinder replied, putting one foot in the doorframe. "I'm here to ask you a question."
For a moment Gem hesitated, then he stepped aside and let him in. Cinder entered the room. One quick glance around told him that Gem hadn't been sleeping yet—hadn't even been preparing for sleep, a quick glance at his day clothes told him.
"So," said Cinder, getting straight to the point. "This morning. What was all that about?"
Gem blushed even redder, averting his face. Then an idea flashed over his expression, and he steadied himself. "That was my educator," he said. "My father sent him to look for me."
"I don't mean that, and you know it."
Gem flinched. His face was red again. He looked down at the floor, the light of the fireplace reflecting dimly in his brown eyes.
"The bit about the…the f-friend." Cinder had to force himself to speak the word, his own face heating up as he did. "Why did you say that?"
Gem straightened abruptly. His eyes flashed with anger. "I had to defend you!" he burst out, suddenly sounding like himself again. "He would've had you killed!"
"And why do you care?"
With a start Gem turned to stare at him, startled and horrified. "What do you mean?" he said. "You would've died!"
"But that's my problem, not yours."
Staring at the fire, Cinder crossed his eyes, swallowing the anxious feeling gathering in his chest. "You could've easily made a deal with that man," he said quietly. "You keep me until the end of the mission, and then I get executed. Once this tour is done, you won't need me anymore."
"How dare you say that."
Stepping into his field of vision, Gem grabbed his shoulders, cutting off the light from the fireplace. His grip was tight, frantic, his fingers digging into his shoulders as if trying to hold onto him for dear life. His face was etched with horror and obvious pain.
"Who do you think I am?" he burst out, his hands trembling against Cinder's shoulders. "I'm not some soulless monster who uses people and then throws them away, you stupid jerk! You're a person! I'm not heartless enough to do that to a human being!"
Cinder didn't understand him, didn't understand why he was so upset. But…he didn't like it, seeing him like that. He didn't like the distress on his face, in his voice, the terrified grip of his hands. It was almost enough to make him want to comfort him, even if he had no idea how to do that.
"A lot of nobles don't think like you," he said quietly, placing a hand on Gem's desperately clutching fingers. "Royalty, too."
Gem loosened his grip. "I'm not like them."
"So that's why you lied for me?"
"…I didn't lie."
Cinder looked up. His eyes searched for Gem's, but the prince was no longer looking at him, lowering his head, turning away, letting his copper bangs obscure his face. The tips of his ears were red.
"…What did you say?"
"I said I didn't lie." Gem said the words forcefully, with an edge of frustration and spite. "You're a friend to me. Even if you don't see me as one. Deal with it, jerk-face!"
Something in Cinder's chest stirred again, more strongly than before. Gem hadn't been lying. He did see him as a friend. He…really did care.
It was all he could say, all he knew how to say. He didn't understand. It wasn't just that Cinder was far below his station. It was also that he hadn't been exactly nice to him. He couldn't remember a single thing he had done to warrant being called a friend.
Gem took a breath, looking ready to list off a large number of reasons. Then he exhaled. "Because you're you," he said.
Cinder snorted. "That doesn't make any sense."
Gem cracked a smile. "I know."
Cinder didn't understand it, couldn't understand it. He shouldn't, anyway. He didn't need any friends. He was happy alone.
At least that was what he had always thought.
But maybe, just maybe…even he could make an exception. Just this once.
His common sense was yelling at him again. Or at least he had always assumed it was his common sense. But maybe, in this case, it wasn't; they were his defenses.
Don't do it, they told him. You'll get hurt. You'll get disappointed. People are never as good as they seem.
He looked at Gem, his stupid face, so genuine and completely honest.
And he made a decision.
"Fine," he said. "In that case, I guess you're my friend too."
It was a risk. And he had no idea what it would mean moving forward.
But when he saw the way Gem's face lit up, he couldn't help feeling like he had made the right decision.