Author's Notes: Carter made me write this. Blame him for the melodrama.
biting the bullet
For the weather:
He rolls over in his sleep, eyes squeezed shut and fingers fisted in his blankets. Robin can see the pain scrawled almost lazily across his features, eating at his skin and hallowing out his cheeks. With every jerk of his head Much flushes darker red, tears dripping from the corners of his eyes.
The servant whispers, "Please. Not Robin . . ." as he bites down on his lower lip so hard that he draws blood.
The sound of his name is like a physical pinch and Robin moves without thought, reaching down to touch his loyal friend's shoulder and shake him gently awake.
And Much—loyal, wonderful Much—cannot hide himself in those brief seconds before he manages a smile. Robin sees and recognizes what he knows is in himself—the thoughts and feelings, the bitter, burning nightmares, and the painful clear memories of hot sand and nearly liquid air.
"Did I wake you?" Much asks quietly, apologetically.
Robin hesitates before taking a seat beside his friend. "Must have been some dream," he says, instead of answering. Much casts him a side glance, not exactly sure how to answer; he wants to give whatever it is Robin needs, but the truth that is so heavy on his tongue gets tangled in his teeth.
He doesn't think that Robin is willing to hear what he has to say.
His master takes a deep breath and smiles haltingly. "I've always been a bit selfish," he says slowly. "It's an unavoidable side effect of being pampered and spoiled. I—I try to do what's good for others but sometimes I get . . . distracted, by what's good for me."
"Everyone is a little selfish," Much declares defensively, stiffening. "Look around at what you've done! Do you think others would have—"
"Much," he interrupts gently. "Let me finish."
Robin sighs, running a shaky hand through his hair. "The point is, Much . . . I . . . there's no point in try to pretend like the war didn't wreck us both."
Much laughs bitterly, shaking his head as he lay back against the earth, eyes firmly on the stars. "You aren't wrecked, Robin," he argues loyally, the sigh beneath his words so soft Robin almost misses it. "You've done great things—"
"Much! This is not about me!" Robin freezes, hoping his raised voice hasn't woken any of the others. But they sleep on, unaware of anything amiss. He groans, clasping his head in his hands as he tries to explain. "I am not trying to talk to you about me," he insists. "What I'm trying to say is that I—I know what's bothering you, my friend. I might not be ready to talk about what the Holy Land did to me, but do you think it's escaped my notice that you are practically dying of a readiness that pulls at your skin and bones until it's stretched too tight to even close your eyes?"
His servant starts, looking at him in the eyes for the first time in what seems like years. Thoughtlessly, Robin reaches out to clasp his friend's hand, seeking to give the same wordless comfort he'd lived off of during the war. "I don't understand," Much mumbles, staring down at their linked fingers.
"I'm trying to tell you. If you want to talk. We can."
Much hesitates, glancing over Robin's shoulders at the rest of the camp. He can feel the words bubbling over inside him, eager to escape. But he's grown so used to popping them, he isn't sure he remembers how to speak. "It was Carter," he manages finally, and the dam breaks.
"He does look like Thomas. Just like him. And I couldn't—I couldn't help but think of them all then, of Morgan Foster and all the others that died—that are still dying. All I can see when I close my eyes are those burning deserts, soaked through with blood—Saracen—English—it's all the same, Robin, all the same color and smell—"
Robin closes his eyes, fingers tightening on his servant's. Everything in him screams to make Much stop, to end the images that echo in his own body, but he won't, not today. His best friend—his best friend—asks nothing more of him than an ear, and he will give it. "It's over, friend," he whispers fiercely, face flushed. "You're home now." He feels a surge of violent protectiveness wash over him and he says the words with fervor that nears venom.
Much is shaking, his bones rattling inside his too-tight skin as he fails to hold back the tears that sting his eyes. "Do you remember, Master? Acre's sand? On the trip over I thought—I thought it would be like the sand at Locksley, dirty and cool, but it was . . ."
"Like solid fire," Robin supplies, not looking at him. "I remember."
Much's breathing goes ragged as the words pour out of him, splattering against their hands and pooling at Robin's knees. "Sometimes I look at my hands and all I see is blood. Terrible, shining blood that I'll never be able to wash off or outlive. Every day sounds trigger something and all of a sudden I'm back in Jerusalem, death around me and inside me, and I'm—I'm afraid that place is what my heart has grown to look like, Master; decayed and lifeless and endless, smelling so heavily of wasted life and murder."
"Your heart is too good to ever be that place," he promises, leaning back so that Much has to look at him in the eyes. He slumps into Robin's arms, shuddering, chest heaving as tears drip down his nose. His master holds him, just the way he held Carter, offering what little human comfort his can. "Much, that time is over. That place is far away. And you are never going back."
"If you go, I will follow," Much replies instantly, through the rough tears in his voice.
Robin's voice is strained and cracked. "I know, and that is why I love you." But he cannot give any more, tonight. There is more to be said—so much more, so many pages and volumes more—but not tonight. He cannot say them or hear them until tomorrow. And for friendship's sake, because he knows Much likes them, he drags his servant to his feet and hugs him once, firmly. "You are the kindest, most loyal human being I have ever known," he explains quietly.
Then he disentangles himself, unable to stand one second longer of this kind of talk. He knows he cannot avoid it forever—knows that he has only pulled loose one of the thorns that plagues Much's side. But he isn't sure he could survive any more reminders, tonight; isn't sure he could live to see tomorrow if he has to look much longer at what he has done to his best and trustworthy friend. Much's suffering is his fault; any pain the servant feels wraps around Robin's wrist like manacles. "You are my best friend," he hears himself say, and knows it is for the first time.
Much watches him crawl back to his sleeping mat, face pale but jaw set. There were words said tonight that cannot be taken back; he isn't sure he wants to. "I know," he murmurs into the dark, settling back down again. "And that is why Ilove you."
He settles back into his bed. Robin's uneven breathing is audible even from here, but he will not go to him. Robin will speak when he is ready, and until then all he can do is listen. And Much will talk until his master's dam breaks, until all that he keeps locked inside him bursts forth.
How can they heal if both keep picking at their wounds?
He dries his tears with his hand, drained and exhausted from speaking so many private words and thoughts. He knows what it cost Robin to speak tonight and he feels selfish taking the gift; his master has never been good at heart-to-hearts and has always hated them.
He looks at the stars through eyes that are falling slowly asleep. They are the same stars as the ones over Jerusalem but this thought doesn't bother him, for the first time.