Even Much agreed that they should wash up before eating. It was a mark of just how dirty and bedraggled the outlaws were.
The beginning of the walk back to their camp in the forest had them in high spirits. Djaq had returned to them from the Sheriff's clutches unharmed, Little John had seen and Allan had killed a buck for their supper, and Robin hadn't murdered Guy of Gisbourne. Yet. Of all the outlaws, he remained the darkest mood, stomping sullenly ahead and whacking tree branches with the flat side of his sword.
By the time they reached their camp, the smiles and jokes of the group had died off, and they thought only of cool water, warm foods and soft beds. Allan himself put forth the suggestion of washing, and once Much had voiced his approval there was no question. Robin asked them to split up and do a perimeter sweep, three towards the large creek and two towards the smaller stream near the caves. He himself simply walked over to their belongings, drew out a waterskin and upended it over his head.
Shaking his head at his master, Much set off towards the creek with Little John. Djaq offered to go to the stream. Will and Allan looked at one another.
"You go," Allan said to Will at once, and began to chuckle. "Go with Djaq to the stream."
Will continued to study his friend for a moment longer, and something swift and silent passed between them. Djaq, standing near, couldn't discern what it meant, but that did not surprise her. Will and Allen had developed a bond with one another in the earliest days of Robin's gang. It was present before Djaq had found her way into the group, and as tragedy and circumstance raged around them it only grew stronger, each man filling the place of the brother the other had lost. Will provided Allan with stability, offering levelheaded advice and subdued but stern reminders of a thing called honor. Allan gave Will a leader, someone not necessarily to follow but at least to watch, a life-worn traveler with all kinds of experience. The strength of their relationship was a great help to the group, especially when it came to strategies or battle. Separate, each man could be outshone, but together they were a finely honed tool. They were as two parts of a sword-- Will, the sturdy hilt; Allan, the wild blade.
After another moment of silent communication, Will turned from Allan with one of his rare, soft smiles gently lighting his face. He scooped his axe from the ground and moved toward Djaq, ready to accompany her. She felt as though she were missing something significant in the exchange between the two men, but she knew better than to ask. Will spoke when necessary; if there was something she needed to know, he would tell her. In that moment he kept silent, and so Djaq waved to Allan and Much and John, then set off for the stream.
Will's silence continued through their short walk, but Djaq was so accustomed to it she hardly noticed. Her attention was on the birds and the flowers and the trees, noting the slant of the sunlight through the leaves, the agitated shifting of wings, the low hum of insects. The forest changed every day, a process now accelerated by the time of year. Autumn was coming.
As she and Will reached the stream, Djaq broadened her observation from the nature that surrounded them to anything else that might be thinking of doing the same. Beside her, she could feel Will matching her actions with his own. Spotting no evidence to suggest that the sheriff's men might be lurking somewhere near by, Djaq soon turned to the water, eager to be cleansed. She could still feel the dungeon clinging to her, the fear and neglect and despair of that dank, dirty place coating her like a layer of grit. Not to mention the smell, which Djaq felt was permanently lodged in her nostrils.
An involuntary shiver ran through Djaq as her thoughts took her back to her time spent in the cell that was sagged and molding like a tomb. Her solitary imprisonment had been brief and-- compared to what many others faced in those haunted depths-- relatively painless. She had quickly found her center, breathing deep and saying nothing, waiting for the moment when she could make a move. Though she didn't doubt a rescue attempt from her friends, Djaq was unwilling to sit and do nothing until they arrived. Plotting her escape had given her confidence and allowed her to force her fear away to a place where she could almost believe it didn't exist. However, there had been a second, one mind-numbingly horrible second, when she was kneeling in the dark with the sheriff leering over her that her enforced calm had momentarily shattered. In that second she had been a slave again, worthless and exploited and beaten within an inch of her humanity.
A loose rock slid under Djaq's foot and she slipped, her ankle twisting her painfully back into the present. Will was there instantly and without hesitation, his warm hand closing firmly over her elbow.
"The rocks," Djaq murmured by way of explanation. "They are slippery."
She fought hard to regain her footing, embarrassed and annoyed to have exhibited a moment of weakness, no matter how brief. Will shifted gently and slid his other hand to her arm, fingers ghosting over her skin before closing securely, supporting her. His touch burned and she pulled away with a hiss of pain.
"You said they didn't hurt you." Will's reaction was immediate. His body tensed and he withdrew his hands, but fixed Djaq with the kind of penetrating look only his dark eyes could deliver.
"It is nothing," Djaq muttered, finding herself strangely unable to meet his intense gaze for long and attempting to tug her sleeve down over the wound left by her own acid. Will reached forward and took her arm again, turning it over to expose the red, angry burn.
"This wasn't an accident." Will stretched out one long, browned finger and carefully traced around the wound, examining it with craftsman's care. Djaq winced in spite of herself, and Will's eyes flicked back to her face. Emotions smoldered deep within them; worry, fear, anger. "They tortured you."
"It is just one mark," Djaq said with an attempt at breezy indifference. Suddenly feeling Will's tender hold more acutely than the burn, she withdrew her arm. "It will heal."
"Did they hurt you anywhere else?" Will wasn't going to give up easily. He had given her a quick visual examination each time they'd met up during the ordeal, first in the dungeons, then again in the cave. Now his eyes raked her body once more, searching almost frantically for any signs of further abuse.
"No," Djaq answered firmly, wanting him to end his blazing scrutinization. "No where else. I am fine."
Another brief moment was all the time Will would allow for an action that not only directly challenged Djaq, but that also bordered on improprietous. He was nothing if not the picture of chivalry at all times, and thankfully removed his gaze from her figure. However, it flashed right back to her face. "Are you sure?" he asked, low and soft.
Djaq's recognized his tone of voice as his most serious, the one he reserved for his fiercest arguments or his sincerest confessions. It sent an unidentifiable shiver through her that she was entirely unprepared to handle in her current strange and annoyingly vulnerable state. She turned away.
"What?" she demanded, addressing the forest and snapping out the words with more indignation than she felt. "Do you think I am not as strong as the others? Because I am a girl?"
"No." Djaq didn't need to hear the quiet passion behind his voice to know that Will meant what he said. His sincerity made her feel bad for her irrational question. She hadn't meant it. From the moment they had met, Will had respected her. She could still see his face in her mind as he stared through the bars of the cage that held her and her fellow prisoners. His eyes had caught her attention even then, deep and dark and flickering with fear. And yet it wasn't the kind of fear she had been used to seeing from Englishmen when they faced Saracen slaves. Unlike most of his race, Will didn't fear the Saracens because he thought them animals; he feared them because he knew they weren't.
By the time Djaq was helping Will to light the fire that would put the mines out of commission, all traces of his fear were gone and only his respect remained. Without realizing it, the young and reserved peasant had taken everything Djaq thought she knew about the English and men in general and set it alight as easily as she did the pile of dry sticks. While Robin and his gang had accepted her into their ranks with little trepidation, and soon grew to treat her as one of their own, Will had recognized her as a person from the very beginning, and nothing, not her being a slave or a Saracen or a woman, ever changed that.
"I think you're stronger." Will's quiet declaration broke into her thoughts. His voice was as deep and warm as it had ever been, surrounding Djaq like the thickest velvet. She found herself turning to face him once more, compelled by things she didn't understand but knowing that she needed to see the look in his eyes. It was a look that he'd given her a thousand times before, a look that said a thousand things, and right then Djaq wanted to absorb of all them.
I respect you. That was there, constant as ever. I trust you. I believe in you. All simple emotions, written clearly in Will's eyes and on his face. But Djaq wanted to go deeper, wanted to explore those depths for the things she rarely let herself see. I don't think of you as a man but I try not to treat you as the woman you don't want to be. I want to protect you, not because you can't do it yourself, but because you shouldn't have to. I want to make the world a better place so at the end of the day I can give it you and you can be safe and happy.
Will took a step forward, the fire in his eyes flaring to an inferno. Djaq knew him so well that his thoughts were almost as familiar as her own. Many weren't reserved just for her. He respected Robin. He trusted Much. He believed in Allan, he wanted to give a safe and happy world to his brother and his father and his village. Yet when all those thoughts mashed together they made something quite different, something bright and burning and beautiful that Djaq knew was just for her. Will stretched out a hand, and Djaq went to him without question.
He caught her deftly by the wrist of her injured arm, taking care to place his longer fingers on his skin so they didn't touch her wound. Will was never cocky like Robin or Allan, but there was a quiet self-assurance to his movements that Djaq suddenly found much more powerful than the most drastic bravado. A corner of Will's mouth twisted up and he gently bent his head towards her. Staring up into his dark eyes, Djaq found herself both despising and reveling in the difference between their heights. Will lowered his head still further, and his curled lips parted.
"We should get this washed out," he said, and tugged Djaq towards the stream.
She stumbled along behind him, all will to resist-- to pull her hand back, to haughtily declare she could wash her own arm, to remind him pointedly of their purpose and act with such disdain as to put hurt in his eyes and make him turn away-- drained out of her. She was exhausted, physically and mentally, from the past day's events. Capture, attempted escape, punishment, escape, recapture, hate, anger, fear. . . If Will wanted to kneel next to her on the bank of the stream and gently lave water onto her wound, rubbing her skin with such a firm yet gentle touch, she wasn't going to stop him. She would allow herself this one moment of vulnerability, this one moment to let go of all her guards and pretenses and just be. Be with the man thatmade it possible.
"Thank you," Djaq murmured, her body and her eyes angled towards the sparkling stream flowing passed her crossed legs, but her arm resting easily in Will's lap.
"You're welcome," he replied, his voice velvety and meaningful like before, but meaningful simply in the way that everything Will Scarlett did or said was meaningful.
Silence stretched between them again, but it was a comforting, safe sort of silence. At the edge of Djaq's vision, Will's hand was pale against her skin, fingers sliding over her arm, elegant and unexpected, like flower petals drifting from trees. One of his thumbs, calloused from years of woodwork and hard labor, brushed too near a healing cut and Djaq winced.
"I'm sorry," Will said at once, lifting his hand to hover hesitantly over her skin, beads of water dripping from his fingers.
"It is alright," Djaq replied. Knowing what Will was thinking even without seeing his eyebrows knit together and his lips tighten, she added, "It is an old wound." His hand continued to linger just centimeters above her skin. Djaq allowed for a heartbeat of a pause before whispering, "Don't stop."
Will looked up just as Djaq did, and their eyes met. Losing a mother, having to separate from a father and brother, and dealing with the sheriff on a regular basis often gave the already serious Will little to smile about. The same could be said of Djaq, death and slavery and racism and sexism taking her gravely scientific manner to a whole new level. Yet then, as their gazes melded together, they both smiled, Will's quick and bright, Djaq's slow and soft.
Dipping his hand into the stream, Will reached for Djaq's other arm and began sliding his fingers across the skin. Both of them had dropped the pretense that he was doing anything more than exploring-- tracing over old scars, fingering the band of foreign material tied to her upper arm, brushing a small but intricate tattoo-- but neither said anything. Djaq felt her eyes flutter shut and a small sigh escaped her lips. A memory flashed through her head, vague and elusive like it had once belonged to someone else. She tried to grasp it, and found herself speaking aloud. "It reminds me of when someone used to do this. . ." That wasn't quite it and she thought harder. Fragments of an alien life flickered in her mind, confused and broken. "I had someone who did this for me every morning. A handmaiden."
Will's hand faltered and he grew very still, but Djaq didn't notice. She was trying to recall a name or a face to accompany the ghost feeling of small, soft hands washing her own, but all she could come up with were more faded images and emotions. A house with cool walls of stone-- was it her house? Dogs running in the street, chased by laughing children. Was she one of those children? Bright awnings stretched over the street filled with carts and people. Colorful fabrics, scorching sunshine. Dragging water from a well, tripping in the dust, soft-soled sandals catching in a long hem. A woman's scolding, then her understanding smile.
Djaq opened her eyes, suddenly afraid. The forest lay around her, reliable and indestructible. Green grass cushioned her legs, sunlight dripped through the leaves, small animals scattered the underbrush. Djaq took a long breath, inhaling the scent of the forest, trying to dispel the deep and heavy ache that had settled in her chest.
"Do you miss it?" Will's quiet question cut into her thoughts. She turned to face him, uncomprehending.
"Do you miss it?" Will repeated, his face deeply sympathetic yet at the same time slightly sad. "Your home."
Djaq opened her mouth to answer, and the ache in her chest swelled. It used to be that the word 'home' brought thoughts of a war-torn country where blood ran with dirt and disease into rivers of pain that washed away all that once was beautiful or dignified. It used to bring images of her father and her brother, cut down by Englishmen with hard swords and harder eyes. Home used to mean the place that a once-curious yet naive girl had thrown aside her robes and veil, taken a blade to her hair and her life and decided that she would be the one to die, that Safiyah would be the one who was buried while Djaq would live on.
Yet the moment the word 'home' left Will's lips, Djaq realized it didn't mean that anymore. It didn't mean any of that, not death nor fear nor blood. Somewhere along the line it had changed, changed to warmth and laughter and happiness.
"This is my home," Djaq said.
Her simple statement seemed to ignite the world. A nearly beatific smile lit Will's face, making him look like the innocent and carefree young man he had never the chance to be. Everything was highlighted by a sudden ray of afternoon sunlight that flooded the small clearing, illuminating the trees and making the stream sparkle like gold. A bird burst into song somewhere above their heads, and Djaq felt herself being drawn into the moment and Will's smile. And yet the ache in her chest remained.
The answering smile on her own lips began to fade, and Djaq turned her eyes to the stream and her thoughts inside. Her memory was stuttering and skittering in reverse as she frantically tried to drag up some recollection of what she'd forgotten. Before days of brigand fun under leafy canopies and nights of cheerful banter around the campfire, before being ripped from her homeland and herded like an animal into a land of enemies, before promising her father she'd stay hidden then seeing the blood flow from his and her beloved brother's still-twitching bodies. . . Before that, there was nothing.
Djaq pushed her mind harder, searching for traces of her life before the war. She had been Safiyah then, a bright young girl with an inquisitive mind, encouraged by her father and doted on by her twin. She tried to remember what it had been like, being her. She knew her mother had died a few years after being weakened by the hard birth of twins, and then her father had raised both of them with only the help of a few trusted servants. She knew he had been a physician, and that he had imparted much of his knowledge to his children. She knew there had been a house, and cooking of rich foods, and communal prayers and family activities and happy times. She knew all this, but she couldn't remember it.
The hand still resting on Will's leg clenched unconsciously as Djaq tried to summon something definite from the life she had had as Safiyah before the war, some clear image or particular phrase or even a defined feeling. Some sort of memory, rather than just a fact.
The day her father had begun to teach her and her brother to speak English was clear in Djaq's mind. The day she saw the first body of an Englishman, hauled through town on a cart, was a vivid slash in her memory. The day her father had shuttered the twins from their home, her wrapped in her veils with all sorts of horrible images burning her eyes through the small slit, still loaded her inner eye with crystal clear images. The day she ran for her life down body-strewn streets wearing her dead brother's clothes would stay with her forever. Every aspect of her life as Djaq, from slave owners to outlaws, was filed away in the pockets of her mind.
And yet the life that had belonged to Safiyah had disappeared. It was only the facts and a few fragments that remained, broken and scattered like shattered glass, the sharp-edges pricking her heart every time she tried reaching for them.
Her thoughts, confused and strained, flashed back to the moment when she had crawled forward across a dirty, bloody floor to reach her brother's mangled body. She hadn't shed any tears then-- the shock and the danger were too great. Instead she had stretched out a shaking hand and gently closed the staring eyes. She had crouched next to him, unmoving, for maybe a whole minute. Her mind had been nearly blank, but oddly clear. Someone would return to the house, be it another English soldier or a Saracen villager. Someone would return to find three people, two dead and one alive. A lone Saracen girl was in danger no matter who discovered her, but a lone Saracen boy. . . Without taking another second of thought, Djaq had torn off her restricting veil and robes, wrapping them around her brother after taking his clothes for her own. They still held a bit of his warmth and a whiff of his scent, and a knife rested heavy against her thigh. Drawing it from the sheath, Djaq had put it to her scalp and cut away the last thing that remained of Safiyah. The villagers who came upon the house an hour later discovered a young boy named Djaq, sobbing his heart out as he buried his father and sister.
And Safiyah had truly died that day. Caught up in everything that had happened to her, Djaq hadn't really grasped it until now, but the girl who had run laughing through her backyard playing tag, the girl who had had enough to eat every night and a father to sing her to sleep, the girl who had worn skirts and combed out her long hair. . . that girl was dead. The life of Safiyah had been as brutally ended as her twin brother's, and all that remained of her were the vague, broken pieces tucked deep inside Djaq's heart.
Djaq blinked, her vision shimmering from the moisture in her eyes. She was still in the forest, her friends were safe, the day was peaceful, her clothes and hands were free of blood. Will was still next to her, his fingers now laced through hers and holding tightly. Djaq caught his gaze, trying to think of some way to explain or make an excuse for her actions. And yet she found only implicit understanding radiating from Will's dark eyes. He too had once led a life entirely different from the one he led now, and though his circumstances were on a much smaller scale than Djaq's, he too had faced the special kind of hurt and heartbreak that tears at the very core of who you are. He slid his hand up her arm to her shoulder, telling her without words that he knew her pain, pleading with his eyes to let him shoulder some of her regrets. Djaq's own eyes fluttered shut with a gasping sigh and she slid forward into Will's embrace.
The tears came hot and fast as Will's arms encircled Djaq's shuddering body, one large hand coming to rest at her waist, the other gently stroking down her back. She clung to him with frantic need, face buried in the crook of his neck, hands fisting in his shirt, like she never wanted him to let go. He held her like there was never any question that he might. And she cried.
She cried for the girl she had buried along with her brother, the girl she hadn't truly mourned or missed until this young Englishmen had made her remember. She cried for being a woman amongst men, being so wonderfully accepted as one of the lads, yet not truly belonging to either gender. She cried for allowing herself to cry in the arms of the one man who treated her truly as a woman yet with none of the stigma, knowing that she could not allow such vulnerability to last and that her shields and defenses would have to return, taking the place of her femininity for the sake of safety and survival. She cried for the sake of feeling the tears burn streaks down her face and soak their way through Will's shirt, knowing that it would a very long time before she could or would cry again. She cried until she had no more tears, and Will held her, his steadfast strength burning like a flame, keeping the cold and the dark from getting too near to her heart.
Eventually they drew apart, peeling themselves from one another slowly like bark is peeled from a tree, the separation aching and unnatural. Djaq splashed water onto her face, cooling her heated cheeks and puffy eyes, erasing all traces of tears. Will threw water onto his hair and neck, dousing the top-half of his shirt and effectively hiding the wet patch on his left shoulder. Together they stood and gathered what few things they had brought with them, ready to head back to camp. Djaq knew that if the others noticed the pair's slightly longer than necessary absence, they would thinking nothing of it, their perceptions of Will as the shy peasant and Djaq as the toughened scientist ingrained too firmly for their minds to construct ideas of any compromising situation.
Like before, Djaq and Will walked in silence. There were no words equal to what they had just shared. Behind them, the stream glittered like glass in the afternoon sun, reflecting shards into the edges of Djaq's vision. She glanced down and saw Will's sturdy hand swinging near her own. She slid her fingers into his. Knowing he was watching her, she looked up into his soft dark eyes and smiled.
She did not look back.
A/N: Okay, so I realize this fic is just a little all over the place. It's my first fic for Robin Hood, and that's why I kind of explored a couple ideas. There was that teeniest bit on the Will/Allan relationship, then it starts heading firmly in the Will/Djaq direction which was the original plan, but then it ends up being quite a bit more of a focus on Djaq. That evolution actually turned nicely though. At the beginning she is cursing her vulnerability and at the end she is giving into it, and that turned out to be kind of the drive behind the whole fic. So, hopefully, it wasn't too long or weird for anyone. Please let know in the stunning and heartfelt review I just know you're about to write.