"Alright, enough! I give! I give!" Chrom stopped resisting and allowed his body to go limp. He didn't exactly have too much of a choice. After dueling with Robin for an over an hour and essentially demolishing the surrounding area, she had finally managed to disarm and pin him down in a single move. He wasn't even entirely sure how she pulled it off. One moment they were trading sword strikes (although hers had long since snapped and she had resorted to using a tree branch), and the next he was lying on the ground with her sitting on his abdomen, Falchion well beyond his reach and the sharpened edge of her arm band dangerously close to his neck.
"Right." She promptly released him and rolled off, but stayed seated on the ground beside him. Robin didn't gloat over her victory, she rarely did in fact. She merely wiped the sweat from her brow and took a few deep breaths. Satisfied that her heart rate had settled, she slowly began stretching her back and neck.
He remained lying on the ground next to her, discreetly watching as she rubbed the aches from her upper traps. But when she positioned her arms and interlaced her fingers behind her back to stretch out her chest, he blushed and quickly turned his head to look up at the ever darkening sky.
Stars were starting to shine brightly above, even piercing the few black clouds drifting lazily by. He and Robin fell into a comfortable silence as they rested, basking in the serene atmosphere and adjusting to the rapidly falling temperature in and around them. The cold didn't bother him too much, but it seemed to get the better of her after a short period.
The tactician-Assassin shivered and rubbed her arms. "I'd forgotten how chilly it was. Now that we're not moving, it feels even worse."
Chrom quietly laughed. "Of course it does. We weren't exactly dressed for the weather to begin with, and now we're both covered in sweat and blood. I don't know if this'll help much since it's a bit damp, but…"
He sat up cross-legged and unbuttoned the cape from his shirt. Without really thinking about it, he scooted closer and tenderly draped it around Robin's shoulders. "There. Better?" He placed his hands on the ground slightly behind him and leaned back in a more reclined position. It was difficult to tell as it was dark and she made a point to look away from him, but he could swear his actions induced a bright flush on her pale cheeks.
"Y-yes. Thank you." She reached up and pulled the folds of the garment tighter around her form like a cocoon and unconsciously rested against him. "You don't mind?"
The prince looked away also and swallowed softly. "Not at all. I'm good."
They stayed that way for a few minutes, a strange and sudden awkwardness descending heavily around them, but neither moved for some time. Eventually, the loud crack of a breaking branch resounded from somewhere behind them, shattering the unusual stillness.
Chrom flinched and sat up straighter, forcing Robin to do the same, and looked over his shoulder. "Did you hear that?" he asked his partner softly.
She followed his gaze and peered hard into the darkness, scanning the area for the source of the noise. After a few seconds, she turned back and relaxed. "Don't worry. It's just Tharja."
"Tharja? Are you sure?" He continued to stare through the forest, attempting to find the supposed source of the interruption.
"Probably. This area is secure and if you listen closely, you can still hear the guys working out over there." She nodded in the opposite direction of the snapped branch, and indeed the faint sounds of the fight between Gauis and Lon'qu continued to echo in the distance. "And I can tell when she's nearby. She's been stalking me since we first met."
One of Chrom's cerulean eyebrows arched in concern. "Really? Does it bother you? Do you want me to talk to her about it?"
Robin shook her head. "It's alright. I will admit that it was a bit unsettling at first, but I've gotten used to it. In fact, it's become rather comforting to know that someone's always watching my back. Although there are times when it creeps me out." She shivered again, but this time was not as a result of the cold.
"If you say so," the prince mumbled, hardly convinced but calming down a little anyway.
"In any case, I don't think she'll be spending too much time on me anymore. I think she's acquired a stalker of her own." She snickered in a very girly, un-Robin-like way.
He glanced over his shoulder again, and then leaned in close to his companion. "Really? Who is it?" he whispered. He didn't normally involve himself with rumors of that sort, but the idea that someone would take a romantic interest in the Plegian Dark Mage was intriguing. That's not to say Tharja wasn't attractive, because she most definitely was, but most found her gloomy disposition disheartening.
Robin elbowed him gently in the ribs. "Hey, I may be a little nosy but I'm certainly not a gossip. Figure it out for yourself."
The future exalt laughed. "Aww, come on! At least give me a hint."
"Not a chance. But since we're on the subject, what about you? Isn't your advisory board pressuring you to choose a wife and produce an heir?"
His face turned a considerable shade of red. "W-what? H-how did you know that?"
She rolled her eyes, assuming the answer should have been obvious. "I just told you, I'm nosy. Plus, it's my job really. I try to take things like into consideration when I plan our strategies."
Chrom was genuinely surprised at that nugget of information. "Really? How so?"
Robin rubbed her neck absently while she tried to come up with a few examples. "Well, if I know a married couple is having personal problems, I'm not about to pair them together in a decisive battle where such things could be a distraction. On the other hand, if they work well together and their skills complement one another, I would probably take advantage of the situation."
He nodded in understanding. "Makes sense, I guess. But it sounds cold when you put it that way."
She glared at him, mildly offended at that statement, even if it was true. "It also inspires me to be extra careful in my tactical scenarios," she continued. "I don't want to lose any of my precious friends, but I especially don't want to watch someone lose a husband or wife. The pain would be unbearable for everyone." She said no more for some time, allowing her words to sink in.
Chrom stared at her wide-eyed, astounded once more not only by her genius, but also her kindness and consideration for others. "Wow. I had no idea." He was at a loss for further words after that.
Robin's expression softened as she shifted her body so she could see his face better. "Yeah. So, if there's someone in this army you're thinking of marrying, I'd like to know so I can take further precautions to keep them safe."
He avoided her gaze while he considered her query. "I guess I haven't given it much thought," he answered truthfully. "With the war and… well, I… I've just had other things on my mind."
His friend wordlessly agreed. She knew full well what he left unsaid. The death of his beloved elder sister was still so fresh, a raw wound that was slow to heal, if indeed it ever truly would. The same could be said of her as well. He was one of the few people who knew that deep down inside, Robin blamed herself for being unable to come up with a strategy to save Emmeryn. He had assured her multiple times that nothing could have prevented it, since the Exalt had made her own decision, but he felt certain that she hadn't fully forgiven herself just yet.
The Assassin graciously allowed the both of them a few moments of silence. Again, he found himself amazed and appreciative of her ability to know when to talk and when to wait quietly, allowing simple companionship to speak for her.
"Maybe so, " she finally continued after a while. "But I find it hard to believe that the idea hasn't crossed your mind at all. Especially considering that quite a few beautiful women are clearly interested in you." She playfully poked him in the side and chuckled, seemingly amused by his discomfort.
"Really? You think so?" Chrom laughed nervously as well. He wasn't entirely sure how to handle that statement. He wasn't completely oblivious when it came to the wiles of women. Growing up with two sisters and being cared for by mostly female servants had taught him a thing or two about treading the murky waters of court politics, romantic or otherwise. He still made some boneheaded mistakes, like telling Robin he didn't consider her a lady, but he could be perceptive when he put his mind to it. He was aware of at least one subordinate that seemed to view him as more than simply her commanding officer. Was the tactician accurate in her assumption that more than a single woman was attracted to him?
Speaking of, what about Robin? He couldn't be sure, but that last laugh sounded almost forced. And was that resignation he detected in her tone when this particular conversation started?
"And you? You've been spending quite a bit of time with the men. Any prospects?" At least he had managed to incorporate the age-old art of redirection. He felt somehow both curious and dreading the answer. But why should he care if she was seeing someone? She was always professional in her battle calculations, and she'd made it very clear that her loyalty and first priorities were to the troops, so nothing would change in that regard. And surely the both of them would always be good friends.
So why did it hurt to think of her engaging in a relationship apart from him? Could it be the same reason he didn't want her to embark on tomorrow's mission?
"Way to dodge the question." Robin sighed and shrugged. "I won't say I haven't considered it. But for the most part, I've disregarded the idea. I feel that it is in everyone's best interest that no one engage in a relationship like that with me."
A wide grin spread across her face, but he immediately recognized the phony mask. "Because I'm the tactician, of course! I can't afford to be distracted or compromised. The Shepherds come first. That is how it must be."
"Yes, I know." The Shepherds come first. Duty comes first. The soon-to-be-king knew that all too well. He also knew his comrade enough to identify the often subtle changes in her mood and tone that indicated deception, however minor. He leaned in close and tried to initiate eye contact, but she continually looked away. "There's more to it than that, isn't there? What is it?" She shook her head, but he pressed her to open up. "It's alright. You can tell me anything. You know that."
"I know. I just…" She swallowed heavily and finally faced him, though not without great effort. "Chrom, I don't know who I am. I have no memory of who I was or where I came from before I met you. Most of the time, it doesn't really bother me." She offered a genuine smile then. "As far as I'm concerned, my life began that day you found me in the field. And no matter what's in my past, my loyalty is to you and Ylisse, now and always. But…"
"But?" he whispered softly, tentatively prodding her to continue.
Robin began to tremble, soft and rare tears welling in her expressive eyes. Beneath the folds of his cloak, she shifted to hug her knees. "But what if that's not good enough? No matter how much I try not to think about it or swear fealty, the fact remains that I could be an enemy! What if I was on my way to Ylisse to assassinate you when I lost my memory? What if I'm a wanted war criminal fleeing from another country? Maybe Frederick was right. Why should anyone trust me? And if I can't be trusted, how I can expect someone to care about me? What future can there be for someone with no past?" She reached up with one hand and angrily rubbed her eyes. Then she took a single deep breath and her features hardened. "No. I will not place the burden of that question on another. I will continue to serve the Shepherds until peace finally returns. Even though the war is essentially over, the fighting continues, and so I must stay focused."
She brushed an errant hair from her face and looked up at him pleadingly. "I will protect you and all those you love with my life. And if you ever need your tactician, I will be there. But after you've taken a wife and become king, I would like permission to leave."
Chrom's blue eyes widened at this sudden turn of events. "Leave?"
She nodded soberly. "Yes. Not for good, I assure you." She stood slowly, still wrapped in his regal garb. "And like I said, if something happens I will resume my duties. But I've no alternative. I will never fully belong anywhere or with anyone until I know the truth. I'm asking for permission to go and find that truth."
The prince was overcome with indescribable panic. With no forethought and no regard for consequences, he jumped up and grabbed Robin by the shoulders, nearly shaking her. "No! No, you can't go! I won't let you!"
"Chrom? What's gotten into you?" She dropped his cloak in surprise.
He let go of her shoulders and gently took her face in his hands. He stared hard into her eyes. "Robin, listen to me, and listen well. It does not matter who used to be or where you came from. You are an Ylissian citizen. That is who you are and that is where you belong. We need you. You cannot leave."
A single tear rolled down her cheek. "I know, Chrom. I know the Shepherds need their tactician. I told you, I will continue to serve…"
He growled in frustration. "Forget the Shepherds! Forget the whole tactician thing!" He brushed away the tear and pulled her into a tight embrace, one arm around her waist and the other cradling the back of her head to rest on his shoulder. "You are not just a tactician. You're so much more than that."
"I am?" She stood still and stiff in his arms, unable to grasp what she'd done to incur such unusual behavior from her superior.
He rattled on, the mental and emotional filter somehow switched off. "Of course. Don't you know how many people value your friendship? Don't you see that you are the source of their strength, the only reason they can continue on? Don't you know how much everyone loves you?"
He froze, realization dawning on him. With that last statement, the answer to his initial dilemma presented itself, reminiscent of a glowing ember erupting into flame. He now understood the peaceful content he felt in her presence and the awful yearning he experienced when they were apart. He recognized the ire towards his male allies as jealousy, and he comprehended the fear of her absence. He knew why her features, habits, and quirks were etched in his mind, and the reason his thoughts always drifted back to her.
His voice dropped to a whisper as he timidly resumed his protest to her request with trepidation. "You can't go. I… we need you. If you leave… we… I…"
Without warning, something tumbled out of the nearby brush, obliterating the tender moment along with Chrom's already weakened resolve. Both of them jumped, startled out of their conversation and one another's arms and backed away from each other, faces burning crimson.
It was Gaius, unarmed and thoroughly beaten. He appeared to be attempting to run away from something, but a significant injury to his right ankle had him limping pathetically. He fell to his knees at their feet.
"Oh thank the gods." He grabbed Robin at the waist, clawing at her like a desperate child. "I went too far. You've gotta hide me, Bubbles! I think Blade wants to kill me! For real! Please! You gotta save me!"
Chrom groaned in extreme frustration and annoyance. He was dangerously close to killing the thief himself for interrupting them, but luckily his equally irritated companion decided to take matters into her own hands, or fists as it were.
With an angry snarl, she punched Gaius directly on top of his head, effectively forcing him to release her. He fell to the ground on his back and gripped his now aching skull. "OW! What the hell was that for?"
"For nearly giving me a heart attack! Believe me; it's far more merciful than what Lon'qu probably has in store for you."
"Ah, point taken," he mumbled, rubbing his head.
"GAIUS! GET BACK HERE, YOU SON OF A…."
As if on cue, Lon'qu came hurling through the trees, haggard and enraged. He either completely ignored Robin and Chrom or was so focused on his quarry that he didn't see them at all. "ARGH!" He lunged at his sparring partner, fully intent on throttling him.
"AHH! I'M SORRY, ALRIGHT? I'M SORRY!" Gaius attempted to shield his face with his arms as the Feroxian tackled him. He was able to clock him in the face and chest a few times before his commanding officers reluctantly decided to intervene.
Chrom looped his arms under Lon'qu's from behind to put him in a type of submission hold and hauled him off of his prey. "Whoa! Settle down. No need for bloodshed. Well, not anymore anyway."
Lon'qu struggled against his lord's iron grip. "LET ME GO!" he screamed, thrashing wildly.
The prince looked pleadingly over at his strategist, silently asking for assistance. As always, she caught on right away, and after extracting herself from Gaius, who had scrambled to cower behind her, she sauntered over and scowled at her irate teammate.
"Hey, hey! Enough already!" she reprimanded. Robin ducked under an uncontrolled swing from the swordsman-turned-Thief, and took advantage of his gynophobia by violating his personal bubble. She got right up in his face and cowed his rage without a further word, merely employing close proximity to change his mood.
Lon'qu had made considerable progress with his fear of women since joining the Shepherds, especially and in great part thanks to Robin and his combat partner, Cordelia, but not enough to allow her so close. His original "fight" impulse rapidly converted to the "flight" reflex with his female leader staring up at him mere inches away.
"G-get back!" he stammered, squirming desperately to back away with Chrom still holding him steady.
"I will, if you calm down," she replied, her hands planted firmly on her hips. "Look, I don't know what Gaius did to provoke you, and I'm sure he probably deserves a good thrashing." The person in question halfheartedly protested, still seeking refuge in her shadow. "But I need you both strong and healthy for our mission tomorrow. So both of you..." she glanced over her shoulder at the strawberry-blonde outlaw, "...let it go. When we get back to Ylisse, you have my express permission to beat each other senseless. But for now, return to camp and get some rest. Alright?"
Robin continued to glare at him a moment more while Lon'qu avoided contact of any sort. When she was satisfied that his wrath had sufficiently cooled, she nodded to their commander, who released him.
The brunet swordsman brushed himself off and then walked in a wide circle around Robin, staring at the ground with only the occasional sheepish glimpse up at her. He aimed a single fierce scowl at Gaius in passing, and headed off in the direction of the army encampment.
Once he was out of sight, the beaten bandit breathed a loud sigh of relief and fell back to the ground. "Thanks, Bubbles. I owe you, big time."
She turned and nudged him with her boot. "Yes. Yes you do."
Chrom walked over to stand beside her, doing his best to remain casual in light of recent events, and glanced at them both. "We should be getting back as well." He tried to meet Robin's gaze, but found himself unable to do so without blushing uncontrollably. Luckily, it had grown too dark for her to notice. He stooped briefly to pick up Falchion and the both of them turned to follow Lon'qu, giving no further thought to the altercation or the state of the thief as a result of it.
"Um, hello? I could use a little help over here!" Gaius called to them, a little miffed that they were ignoring his wounds.
They stopped and exchanged an exasperated roll of the eyes. With synchronized sighs, Chrom and Robin retraced their steps and took a position on either side of their comrade. They took hold of both his hands and hoisted him onto his feet, wrapping his arms around their shoulders and theirs around his waist. Taking the weight off of his injured ankle and onto themselves, they slowly began helping him walk back to the camp. As they marched, a fourth set of footsteps followed lightly at a distance. None gave heed to them.
"Thanks, ouch! Easy, Blue, easy!"
"Blue" barely heard him, his mind preoccupied with replaying the night's conversation as well as trying to pinpoint exactly when his affection for his friend and subordinate had become so much more. Of course, there was the gradual build of an unspoken knowledge that no matter the circumstance, he and Robin were always inexplicably in sync, able to greet each day and enter every battle with a single mind and soul. But perhaps it was a result of their shared secret: the semi-unfortunate instances that left them literally exposed with nothing further to hide. Or maybe it was the very recent revelation of her overlooked femininity, the little details that tend to get lost in the horrific shadows of war, unexpectedly unveiled by a simple class change.
"Hey, Chrom. Is everything okay? You're awfully quiet all of a sudden."
"Yeah, Blue. What gives?"
The young lord shook his head to reorient his focus and returned his attention to his companions. "Yes, I'm fine. Just thinking, that's all."
"Anything you want to share?" Gaius asked, curiosity and concern evident in his somewhat hoarse voice. He was losing his breath a little from struggling to hop on his one good foot.
Robin's eyes widened and she gasped faintly, an apologetic demeanor overtaking her as she remembered Chrom's request earlier in the evening. "Oh! We never did discuss whatever it was that was bothering you, did we?" she said.
He shrugged nonchalantly as best as he could with the thief's arm still around his shoulders. "It's no big deal. Don't worry about it."
The woman paused, forcing the three of them to stop to allow Gaius to rest momentarily. She peered around the Trickster so she could try to read her captain's nonverbal cues. "Are you sure? We can talk about it later after we drop him off at the medical tents."
"Speaking of, who's on duty tonight?" the injured outlaw interrupted.
"Libra. Anyway, I could use a quick snack, so if you want…"
Gaius groaned loudly. "Libra? I thought it was Lissa's turn. She was in there earlier."
Robin temporarily released the hand around her shoulder to smack him in the forehead, clearly annoyed at the disruptions. "She was probably there for treatment. She wanted to help in the kitchen, so she asked for permission to switch shifts. Why? What have you got against Libra?"
"And why the interest in my sister?" Chrom chimed in, growing suspicious of the criminal's knowledge of her whereabouts and the tone of his voice when he said her name.
His body twitched anxiously at the spontaneous interrogation and he started limping forward again, taking them with him. "Nothing, nothing! I like the padre just fine. Forget I asked."
Chrom dug his fingers hard into his sides. "Gaius…"
"Hey! Cut it out! Look, I just happen to appreciate her bedside manner. That's all, I swear!"
He didn't actually believe him, not entirely, but he decided to let it go for now. After all, he was leaving in the morning and would be gone for two weeks, allowing for plenty of time to ponder to truth of his claim.
"ANYWAY…" Robin interjected, "Getting back to my original suggestion, Chrom, we can talk about whatever you need over a light meal and some tea if you like."
The Ylissian royal considered the idea briefly, though obviously with a different set of questions in mind from his original intent, but in the end, he decided to hold off on a full confession. "I appreciate the offer, but it's actually not necessary anymore. I've already figured it out."
"Are you sure? I don't mind, you know."
He nodded. "I'm sure. Believe it or not, you actually did help me resolve it."
She seemed skeptical. "Really?"
"Mm-hmm." He said no more on the subject, for at last, the trees cleared and the lights of the camp came into view. Just the sight of it allowed Chrom to acknowledge to himself just how tired and sore he was, and no doubt the other two were feeling the same. This was confirmed when Gaius heaved a sigh and Robin stumbled from exhaustion.
When they reached the guarded entrance, they were greeted by both Frederick and Cordelia, who, despite their own workout wounds and fatigue, were diligently awaiting the return of their prince.
"Welcome back, milord," the Great Knight in blue greeted, holding a lit torch aloft to illuminate their path. "You were gone longer than I expected. I was beginning to worry." He nodded to the tactician and Trickster. "Good evening, Robin. Gaius. Are you alright?" His eyebrows furrowed with worry.
The threesome paused. "Chrom and I are fine, but Gaius needs to see a healer. Would you be willing to take him? I'm beat, and I have to make some last minute preparations for tomorrow."
"Certainly, milady." Frederick reluctantly handed off his torch to Cordelia and relieved them of their burden by picking him up and throwing him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
"What? Hey! Put me down!" Gaius futility protested. "I don't need this! Hey!" His voice faded as his carrier swiftly disappeared between the rows of tents towards the Healer's Station.
Cordelia and Robin both laughed jovially at their friend's expense, while Chrom subtly studied the weary Assassin, a small, dreamy smile on his lips. After the two women settled down, the later stretched her arms above her head and yawned.
"Well, if you're sure you don't want to talk, I'm going to retire to my tent for the night. I presume I'll see you in the morning before my team and I head out?"
He flushed and glanced away. "Uh, yeah. Of course."
"Okay then. Good night, Chrom." She turned and patted the Dark Flier on the shoulder as she passed. "Good night, Cordelia."
"Good night, Robin," the redhead replied.
Chrom stayed rooted on the spot, watching her leave as he mentally debated his options. Should he allow her to leave tomorrow without revealing what he'd learned? Could he take the chance that despite all her planning and the strength of her team and convictions that she may not return? If something did happen, could he bear the regret he'd no doubt endure for not being honest with her? Or would it be better to wait, so as not cause her any distractions? Should he take more time to thoroughly think this through and examine the depths of his heart, to solidify the truth of his feelings?
While he was pondering his choices, he was vaguely aware of Cordelia attempting to engage him in conversation. "Hmm? I'm sorry, did you say something?" he asked, barely granting her a fleeting look and minimal interest.
She stared at her feet. "I, um, I asked if there was anything I could do for you. Perhaps I could see to your wounds, or make you something to eat?"
"Uh, thanks, but I'm fine," he answered without facing her. "I think I'm just going to get some sleep." He offered no further dismissal to his subordinate and walked away.
A few soldiers tried to hail or converse with him along the way, but Chrom ignored them all, his mind and body switching to autopilot from weariness. When he reached his own tent, he first went over to the small travel chest to obtain a Concoction for his training injuries. He'd taken a decent enough pounding from Robin to warrant its use, but not so much that he'd risk wasting a healer's staff on it. Before consuming it, he carefully set aside Falchion and removed his boots and armor. It was only after he'd sat down on the bed that he finally popped it open and downed it in a single gulp.
A searing heat spread through his body like wildfire, essentially cauterizing the gashes and cuts from the inside out, then dimmed in intensity as the torn and damaged cells of his body magically repaired themselves. It was an uncomfortable sensation at first, but one became used to it after a time.
Satisfied that the worst of them had healed, he laid down and closed his eyes, but he did not fall asleep right away. Instead, he reached back into his memory, recalling an open field outside of a small town. In reality, he had been accompanied by his little sister and their guardian, but now he wandered alone in bliss.
The sun was pleasantly warm as a soft summer breeze carried the sweet scent of honeysuckle and lilac. The tall grass tickled his skin as he strolled leisurely, devoid of armor and sword and uninhibited by the weight of a crown. Here, he was not the future exalt, nor the leader of the militant shepherds. He was just a man.
And Robin was just a woman, not a mysterious amnesiac or soldier or tactician.
Just like the first time, he found her lying unconscious in the brush, and she stirred when he leaned over to examine her. She slowly blinked to clear the haze and focus in the glaring sun. She grinned when her eyes found his, and he finally understood what he had known from the very beginning.
He held out his hand and smiled back. "I see you're awake now. There are better places to take a nap than on the ground, you know. Give me your hand."
She complied, and he pulled her up and into his arms.
"I love you, Robin."
For those of you who have read this before and decided to take another look, I thank you for your support and patience.
For new readers, thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it!