Cinder woke up with a feeling of comfort, but also a growing edge of apprehension.
So he and Gem were officially friends now. Agreeing to it had seemed like a good idea last night, but ideas that shone brightly at night often looked less inviting in the morning. He wondered what would happen from now on. Would things change between them? And if so, in which direction?
What was he even supposed to do as a friend, anyway?
He had never learned about that, he realized as he got ready and headed to breakfast. Why should he have? As a child he had always seen other children as loud and annoying, not as potential companions. And as a teenager…well, he had found that solitude truly was better than putting up with false friendliness.
Maybe Gem knew what to do, he mused, waiting awkwardly at one of the tables. He certainly didn't. Especially not…in the longer run.
If their friendship even lasted that long. If they didn't just drift apart or fall out over something stupid. They cared about each other now, and maybe they even got along somehow, sure, but that could change. People were prone to changing all the time.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and his heart skipped a beat. But it was only Olive who came around the corner—no, not Olive; Oliver again today. Cinder eyed him closely to try and see the magic behind his appearance, but neither makeup nor clothing tricks were visible even to an attentive eye.
"Good morning!" he said, sitting down across from him. With a glance at the clock he added, "Gem's late today, huh?"
Cinder almost jumped at the name. "I—I guess," he managed out, hoping he wasn't blushing. Which was really stupid if he thought about it. It wasn't like there was anything embarrassing about deciding he and Gem were friends.
Well, not to most people. To him it meant declaring that he cared about another person, as a person, not just out of duty or basic human decency. It was something he had completely sworn off of until yesterday.
The more he looked back on it, really, the more he wondered what on earth had possessed him to make this choice last night. It was nothing like him. What in the world had he been thinking?
Before he could answer that question, there was another footfall, then Gem appeared around the corner. Cinder's heart stood still. Holding his breath, he waited for a reaction, any sign from Gem to show how they were supposed to be now.
"You're late," Oliver greeted him, and Gem gave a yawn.
"It's early," he muttered, sitting down. "Give me a break."
Oliver pointed smugly at Cinder. "This guy was awake way before you!"
Cinder's entire body was tense with apprehension.
Gem, however, only yawned again. "Maybe that's 'cause he's a machine who doesn't need any sleep."
Cinder relaxed inwardly. So they were still on their banter, even as friends.
"Pretty big words," he said, taking a seat, "for a guy who kept me from sleeping the other night."
"I bet you didn't sleep anyway," Gem answered, reaching for the basket of fresh bread on the table and helping himself to a slice. "You were just bored, and that's why you threw a pillow at me."
"Don't think everyone's on your level, stupid."
"You're right," Gem shot back, looking self-satisfied. "I'm way better than you."
But even as he spoke, he took the bread basket and held it out towards Cinder, who gave a snort to mask his surprise. "Says the idiot who's currently offering me bread?"
"You look hungry. I can't have my sidekick starving," Gem replied. "I need your brains."
"That's right, because you don't have any."
"Oh yeah? Then I'm keeping my bread!"
"It's not your bread anyway! It's for all of us!"
"It's my bread now!" Gem hugged the basket against his chest. "Don't touch it!"
Cinder shook his head, but deep down, something inside him laughed. This banter was ridiculous. Especially now that they had established there was no real animosity to it anymore.
It was also too much fun to stop.
The innkeeper had already noticed them and hurried over with a plate of food each. Gem got the best one, of course; Cinder the simplest. For the most part their breakfast passed normally. The only unusual thing was that every so often Gem would give Cinder bits of his food—claiming he didn't like them—and Cinder would try to give him something in return.
Oliver eyed them both with growing interest.
"What's that look for?" Cinder asked, getting impatient.
"Oh, nothing," the knight answered. "It's just, you seem to be getting along so well today."
Cinder didn't comment on that. And neither, to his relief, did Gem.
"Honestly, you're both weird." Oliver helped himself to more bread despite Gem's protests. "Yesterday you didn't talk to each other at all, and today you're trading food."
"You're imagining things," said Cinder.
"We're totally normal," Gem added between mouthfuls of breakfast.
Oliver looked from one to the other, then he sighed and shook his head. "If you say so."
The knight was the first to finish his plate, and he took his leave to pay off the innkeeper and prepare for the next part of the journey. Cinder and Gem remained behind, still munching away without a care in the world.
Finally Gem put aside his empty plate, propping his head up on his hand and staring at Cinder with a smile on his face. And staring. And staring. And staring.
"What?" Cinder snapped at last, squirming under the gaze.
Gem smiled like a child in a cake shop.
"Friend," he said.
Cinder clicked his tongue. "Shut up."
Thankfully at that moment Oliver came back, and Gem leaped up to talk to him and return his plate. Cinder was just about to follow, but Gem beat him to it, snatching the empty plate from before him and waltzing off to meet the innkeeper. Cinder shook his head as he stared after him. No prince should be returning his plates at an inn himself. Not even a nobleman would have done that. But Gemstone Crystalline didn't care what a normal person of his rank would do; he just did whatever he felt like doing.
Friend, he thought.
Despite everything, the word did feel nice.
~ ~ ~
"So the king doesn't want him back at the palace yet?" Cinder asked Oliver as they resumed their ride. "The mission's safe?"
He couldn't believe himself. Only days ago he would have rejoiced at the thought of the trip being cut short, the thought of never seeing Gem again and never having to worry about his masked alter ego. And now here he was, glad it wasn't over yet, glad that he could still spend some time with this weird, childish oddball of a prince.
Even if, a voice inside him whispered, he still didn't have a plan for when they inevitably couldn't find Gem's beloved.
He'd figure something out, he kept telling himself. Maybe, sooner or later, Gem really would forget about it. Or else…well, that would be someone else's problem. Gem wouldn't need a shoemaker for the rest of his search.
Which meant Cinder would have to return to his workshop, his stepmother and stepsisters, and…
…and it would be so empty.
Nonsense, he thought. He liked empty. He liked quiet.
"We're safe for now," Oliver answered, frowning slightly. "I told Hector that Gem didn't do anything his father didn't allow him to do, and that making him drop this person and choose someone else would just make sure he stays single forever." He sighed. "I don't think it'll work in the long run, but I hope I've bought us a bit of time."
Cinder furrowed his brow. "And what happens if you don't find the person in that time?"
"Honestly, I don't know either." Oliver tightened the reins on his horse. "I'll deal with it when the time comes. If it comes—this person can't have gone that far, right?"
If only you knew, Cinder thought, but said nothing.
"I'm sure we'll find him," Gem said from behind. "Only death itself can keep me from finding my one true love!"
Cinder sighed. That attitude was beginning to frustrate him for reasons that had nothing to do with his own masquerade.
"Keep saying that," he remarked, "and you'll end up dead for sure."
Gem shrugged. "Dying for love doesn't sound so bad."
Cinder's heart froze up.
"What are you—"
"It's so romantic," Gem continued, looking all caught up in his dream world again. "The most romantic way to die is for love."
"Don't ever say that again."
Cinder had fallen back, grabbing Gem by the shoulder and yanking him around. "Stop taking it so lightly," he hissed. "Death is not romantic. No matter how you die, death is never romantic."
Pulling himself free, Gem shook his arm, staring at Cinder in incomprehension. "What's gotten into you?"
"Your stupidity, idiot!" Cinder snapped. "Get this! Once a person dies, they're gone. Dead. Forever. And nothing brings them back no matter how much you wish for it!" His hands clenched around the reins, knuckles whitening. "It's irreversible, so don't ever go around talking about dying like it's no big deal!"
"…Are you okay?"
Gem's voice was quiet, quiet enough for Oliver not to catch the words, but his response was immediate. Cinder looked up into his face and found that look of understanding again. That expression that almost suggested that if he told him his reasons…Gem might care.
Cinder dismissed it. A stupid delusion. Gem wouldn't care. Nobody had cared about it, not even the people who should. He was probably just too sensitive and that was why he wasn't getting over it.
Gem was his friend now, but he shouldn't let his guard down. He had almost slipped up just a moment ago, almost said too much. No more of that.
"What was that?" he asked, trying to ignore the kindness in Gem's eyes, the treacherous concern.
Gem shook himself, the gentle expression disappearing. "I mean," he said, putting on a smug face, "are you worried about me?"
His smug smile was obviously fake, but for both their sakes Cinder pretended not to notice. "Like I'd ever be worried about your life," he answered. "You have the luck of idiots on your side."
That was right, Cinder thought as they began to squabble once more. Stick to banter. It was familiar. It was safe. There was no need to open any more doors that he wouldn't be able to close in time when the inevitable disappointment came.
It wasn't like they would stay together that much longer, anyway.
~ ~ ~
The doors of the palace flew open one after another. The figure passing through them didn't wait for servants, nor for guards. He was just back from a mission, and he was in a hurry.
"Your Majesty," he said, barging into the office instead of knocking. "I have come back from trying to retrieve your son."
King Emerald Crystalline, a tall, looming figure, looked up from his work. "What news, Hector?" he asked. "Is he resisting arrest?"
"Yes, sire," Sir Hector replied. "Sir Olive is on his side too, but what's more…he seems to have fallen in with a commoner."
King Emerald lifted his eyebrows. "Has he found his beloved, then?"
"No, I don't think so. He was referring to this individual as his friend." Hector narrowed his eyes. "However, our guards report that the young man in question has treated him with the utmost disrespect, including making him fall ill on one occasion."
The king straightened. "Poison?"
"No, lord." Hector's eye twitched. "From what I gathered…it appears to have been a snowball fight."
"Harmless," said the king, "but disgraceful."
"I agree, my lord." Hector lowered his head. "However, His Highness would suffer no harm to be done to him, not even what he doubtlessly deserves." His voice took a cold, distasteful edge. "They are currently continuing on their quest for the strange masked visitor…together."
King Emerald leaned back in his chair, his hands lying heavily on the armrests.
"Let me guess," he said. "You are here to request reinforcements…is that right?"
Hector nodded and bowed. "If you'll grant them, Your Majesty."
Pushing himself up, King Emerald rose from his chair, his figure casting an overlong shadow into the narrow space of the office. "You shall have everything you want," he declared. "I will take back my wayward son, no matter what it costs me."