My first attempt at exploring both the relationship between Robin and Djaq, and Robin's left over feelings from the war. I find both fascinating, and I hope I did them some sort of justice.
A brief silence followed the sound of hoofbeats as they faded into the heavy green of late afternoon Sherwood forest. The outlaws remained still in the positions they had assumed when first seeing Carter off, savoring the moment of quiet after such a hectic day. John leaned on his staff, sighing gustily. Much stood with his hands on hips, his head tilted back and his eyes closed as though in meditation, perhaps trying to erase the day from his memory or else fix it firmly there. Will turned a small piece of wood over and over in his hands, siphoning agitation and worries into plans for a new carving. Robin and Marian stood together, hands entwined and bodies pressing close. Djaq stood behind them; saw the shiver run through their leader's body, and decided she had better be the bad guy.
She cleared her throat, and took a step forward. The moment broke and fell, crunching beneath her feet. Much turned around; John straightened; Will tucked the piece of wood into a pocket of his tunic. Robin hugged Marian closer for a brief second, savoring the rare moment of easy companionship, then spun around with enough suddenness to make the lady squawk with surprise.
"Well lads," Robin practically shouted, his usual post-success grin beginning to spread across his face. His hand still held Marian's, but he swung them back forth with childlike exuberance. "Back to the camp, then!"
"Time to eat," Much replied happily, starting off at once. Robin laughed, short and loud.
"Time to cook!" he said, slapping Much jovially on the back as the servant passed him.
"Knew you'd say that," Much grumbled, exchanging a long-suffering look with Djaq that only made Robin laugh harder as he bounded forward to take the lead, dragging Marian with him. For her part, she looked rather bewildered at the sudden change in mood, a look that only increased as Djaq and John began baiting Much with talk of cooking squirrels and Will subtly egged them on as he scooped branches for firewood off their path. There was a brief moment when Will raised a branch as though preparing for a mock-swordfight, then glanced to the empty space on his right and lowered it again. A heavy hush fell on the group like rain. Then Djaq stepped forward to gently touch his arm, and Robin launched into a loud and embellished recount of his and Carter's experience with the Sheriff, and the rowdy light-heartedness returned.
In no time at all, the outlaws were seated around a crackling fire just outside the structure of their camp, a pot of water heating to a boil as Much cut meat from their store into strips and Djaq arranged and selected herbs. After a few moments, Robin reached the part in his narrative that reminded Djaq of why she'd wanted them all to hurry back here in the first place.
"And then to wake up just like that," Robin was saying, standing with one foot on a low stump, his arms spread wide to encompass his audience, which was mainly Marian, sitting near John and watching with amused indulgence. "Well, you should have seen the look on the Sheriff's face!" He laughed again, and again his body shook with disproportionate force.
"Robin," Djaq spoke up, gesturing for Will to take over shredding the herbs she had laid out. He tucked away his newly begun carving and did so without comment, brushing her hands with his as she passed him the knife. "Robin, I need to take a look at you. Make sure the draught has had no ill effects."
"He tried to protest too," Robin continued, waving a careless hand at Djaq that clearly said, 'In a moment, I'm busy.' "Tried to get out of giving the money to Carter as though he had a choice—"
"Robin, perhaps you should—" Marian tried to interject, but Robin overrode her easily, growing in volume and beginning to pace, to better illustrate his scene.
"But Carter held him steady as ever with those swords and I delivered a nice solid blow to knock some of that pompous wind out of him!" He laughed as he somewhat unsteadily circled Marian, ignoring her reproving look to mime punching against John's solid flank. "He went down, nice and hard like the vermin he is, and then we—"
"Robin!" Djaq snapped, loud enough to make Much and Marian jump. "Would you please sit down and sit still so I can examine you!"
Robin made a face at her, but stalked over and slumped at her feet nonetheless, settling into an exaggeratedly still position and obediently presenting his head. Djaq rolled her eyes at him as she reached forward to feel the pulse in his neck, but there was a small smile on her lips.
Over Robin's shoulder, she suddenly caught sight of Marian shooting her a quick, jealous glance. Djaq didn't know if it was because of the way her hands were holding Robin's head as she examined each of his eyes, or because of the way he had listened to her with such little prodding. Either way, it made Djaq uncomfortable, and her smile rapidly faded as she placed a hand with more force than she meant to on Robin's forehead.
"Is everything okay?" he asked, voice soft now that his story had been interrupted, his energetic momentum dissolved.
"I can't be sure yet," Djaq replied, flipping her hand over. "You are certainly a little warm, but that could just be from—"
"No," Robin shook his head, dislodging her touch but keeping eye contact. "I mean, is everything okay with you?"
Djaq blinked at him. Across the fire, Marian moved father away to sit next to John. Djaq watched her blankly, unsure of what answer to give.
"I did notice," Robin continued when she said nothing, a small smirk starting in the corner of his mouth. "Carter upset you."
Again Djaq stayed silent, unable to formulate a comprehensive response, but her gaze fell from Robin's and her hands began to fiddle with the tools in her lap.
"I know it was hard for everyone to trust him, after he attacked us like he did," Robin said in a manner that bordered so closely on condescending it made Djaq look up again, "But it worked out just fine in the end, eh?"
"Robin." Incredulity made her speak slowly and deliberately. "Carter did not upset me because he attacked us. You said to trust him, so I trusted him."
A brief spark of affection and pride bloomed on Robin's face as those words, but then quickly faded back to confusion. "Then why—"
"Do you not remember what he is?" Her leader's blank face didn't change. Djaq sighed, looking over his shoulder with a hope of catching Will's eye, but the carpenter had moved next to Much, now cutting vegetables. "He is a Crusader, Robin. He killed in your Holy Land without morals or mercy. I lost everything of my life before England to people just like him."
She looked back to Robin to find his eyes wide and his mouth slightly open, horror and guilt beginning to twist his face. His expression made her even more uncomfortable than Marian's brief look of jealousy, and she found herself admitting quietly,
"But that's not why he upset me."
"It's not?" Robin turned around at a gesture from her, but cranked his head over his shoulder to continue staring unfalteringly at her face.
"No," she answered, trying to keep her tone as cooly professional as her hands, pressed against Robin's back and chest, measuring his breathing. "It was the story of his brother. A brother he loved so much. When Carter talked about him. . . about the way he died. . ." Her neutral tone slipping, she trailed off, hand flexing against Robin's back.
"Djaq," he stated, still looking at but no longer really addressing her. She could hear a touch of the heavy pain that gripped her chest reflected in his voice. "I'm sorry."
She half-nodded, not wanting to acknowledge his pity but unable to brush off his understanding. She withdrew her arms and he turned to face her again.
"I'm not the only one for whom Carter brought back memories," she said softly, taking one of his arms and pressing her thumb against the thick vein visible near the joint. She flicked her gaze up to Robin's, then away again. "You weren't holding him like that in the barn for his comfort alone."
Another glance revealed Robin had turned his head from her and was staring without seeing into the forest, his expression motionless and withdrawn, the sudden depth in his eyes one Djaq had seen only a few times before. Suddenly reminded of when she had first met Robin, when he had spoken to her in her native tongue and displayed the sort of kindness she had believed no longer existed in the world, Djaq spoke without thinking,
"Tell me about it."
"About the war?" Robin spoke to the trees, but at Djaq's small nod he shot her what would have been a decent imitation of his normal cheeky smile if not for the lingering darkness in his eyes. "To check my memory?"
"Yes," Djaq said, even though it was very unlikely that the drought would have had quite that strong of an effect on his brain when he'd used such a small dose for such a short amount of time. As Robin turned his gaze back to the forest, Djaq knew he was aware of this too, but he kept his arm turned outward towards her and she didn't remove her hand, each allowing the other to pretend.
"Well it's always hard to remember things from the war," Robin began quietly. "It seems like a bad dream most of the time, an impossibility. . . it's the only way you can justify the things you saw, the things you did."
"Like Carter." Djaq found herself staring off into the trees as well, Robin's words echoing with as much erie familiarity as the other Crusader's had. "Never looking back."
"It was so easy at first." Robin's voice took on a tone of wistful reminiscence. "When we first arrived, everything seemed so clear, so simple. It was Much and I there together, and we were fighting for something good, something right." He half-laughed, a bitter sound that erased all softness from his voice. "But three weeks in and we couldn't have told you what it was anymore. It got lost, like so many things, in the battlefields and the graves. . ."
He trailed off, and while Djaq brushed her thumb briefly across the soft skin inside his elbow in a small gesture of comfort she said nothing. Her own throat had grown a little tight with suppressed emotion, and she didn't think Robin needed to be pressed any further. She was about to pull back and conclude her examination when the outlaw leader suddenly spoke again.
"It was almost worse when we got back." His voice was hushed and raw, as though to use it for those words was unnatural and painful. "When you're there, in the middle of it, it's awful but. . . you know it will end, one way or another." A small shiver went through his body that Djaq knew had nothing to do with the draught. "But then when you return. . . You think the trees should seem so much greener after you've been surrounded for so long by nothing but brown sand. You expect the water to taste so much clearer because what you've been drinking has been stale and muddy at best. You hope everything will be so much brighter now that you are no longer perpetually immersed in dust and blood. . ." He drew in a ragged breath, no longer speaking to Djaq but to whatever was inside him that he thought needed to listen. "But it's like a taste you can't seem to get out of your mouth and it starts to invade your whole life until you're not sure of the difference anymore, between the battle you fought there and the one you're fighting now, just to stay above the surface, keep breathing, when everything around you is so thick and dragging you down."
He withdrew his arm suddenly from Djaq's hold, but caught her eyes with his gaze; a mixture of despair, horror, and a desperate sense of pleading. "They call the war a Holy war," he said, "They say we're fighting in a Holy Land, as though destruction and murder. . . severed limbs and the screams of dying men. . . as though it's all approved and applauded by the Lord. They call it a Holy war as though it can bring us closer to Heaven, but war, no matter where or why or with whom, is. . ."
"Hell," they whispered together.
For a moment they stared at one another, the same unexpected mutual understanding Djaq had felt in their first meeting flowing gently between them, draining the tension that had built up until Robin was able to crack a small but genuine smile.
"So," he said, deliberately cheerful. "Do you reckon my memory is okay?"
"Yes," Djaq replied with her own smile. "I think it's fine."
"Normally I only talk about this with Much," Robin admitted, still light and casual as though they were discussing weapons or weather. They both glanced across the fire where Much was stirring the stew and cheerfully relating a long-winded tale to a quietly carving Will.
"Maybe I should examine him too," Djaq suggested, matching Robin's breeziness to combat the seriousness of her statement. Robin nonetheless acknowledged it with an infinitesimal yet assured shake of his head, then feigned ignorance.
"Who, Will?" he asked with a smirk. "And do you. . . examine him often?"
Djaq turned to stare at Robin, blinked once, then reached out delivered him a blow on the side of the head.
"Ow!" he shouted with a volume that far out-matched any pain he could have been feeling from Djaq's tightly control hit. The other outlaws glanced over in mild surprise as he demanded without any real anger, "What was that for?"
"Testing your reaction time," Djaq replied, mimicking Robin's pretend-innocence with a smile of her own. There was only a brief pause before he laughed and reached forward, perhaps to ruffle her hair or else cuff her back, but she caught his hand before he got the chance and flipped it over, pulling out one of the slim wooden needles Will made for the rare occasions she needed to do stitches and proceeding to poke the tip of each of his fingers.
"And this is. . .?" Robin asked as the other outlaws returned to their respective activities, seeing nothing was out of the ordinary.
"Checking for nerve damage," Djaq replied, pointedly ignoring his grimace as she prodded his thumb. They passed a few moments in silence, then as she moved over to his other hand she asked, "What about Marian?"
This time, Robin's confusion was genuine. "Why would you need to examine her?"
Djaq resisted the urge to hit him again, shooting him a quick look as she poked his finger with slightly more vehemence than necessary, waiting for his twitch before answering. "I meant do you ever speak to her? About. . . the Holy Land?"
Some of Robin's previous solemnity returned as he looked over towards Marian, though it was considerably softened and warm. "She knows, some of it," he said quietly, eyes still on Marian, tracing her every movement. "She was here when I returned, and there have been times when I—" He broke off, looking back to Djaq. "And the rest, she doesn't need to know. The things I've done. . . Not that I want to be dishonest, but. . . what desperation drives you—"
"It's difficult having her here in the forest, isn't?" Djaq cut in gently when Robin continued to struggle for words.
He nodded, sighing heavily. "I love her," he admitted.
Djaq went still for a moment, something about those words touching a part inside her chest and making her breath short. Involuntarily, she looked across the camp, eyes falling on dark hair and pale skin, strong shoulders and dexterous, long-fingered hands.
"I love her," Robin was saying again with another sigh. "And I want to be near her. I've asked her to come to the forest a dozen times—"
"Mixing two completely separate lives is never easy," Djaq interrupted as Robin's hand clenched independently of the needle which had fallen slack in her hand. "It takes time."
"Yeah." A smile broke across Robin's face as he followed Djaq's gaze, looking past Will until he settled on Marian once more. "I think it will work out, in the end. For both of us."
The tightness in Djaq's chest expanded and warmed, spreading to the rest of her body and flushing her cheeks. When she and Robin finally drew their gazes back to each other, they were both smiling.
"So is everything okay?" Robin asked, a small chuckle announcing the return of his customary energetic good humor.
"I would say so," Djaq replied with a smile.
"I would too." Quick as one of his arrows fired hard from his bow, Robin leaned forward and kissed Djaq lightly in the middle of her forehead. Then he jumped to his feet and charged over to throw himself down at Marian's side, draping an arm across her shoulders and answering her half-formed inquiry with a low whisper that made her laugh and slide closer. Djaq's movements were slower as she packed her medicines carefully away before making her way to Will's side. Much had just finished the stew and was ladling it into their hand-carved bowls. Will silently passed one to Djaq; she slid her hand over his as she took it, meeting his eyes with a soft smile.
An easy sense of peace fell over the camp as the outlaws settled in for the night. Little John ate with gusto next to a contentedly smiling Much, proud as always of a good meal served. Robin, wrapped tighter and tighter around Marian as the night wore on, beamed at his servant's happiness and, suddenly in a rather nostalgic mood, proceeded to prod him physically and verbally to tell some stories from their childhood. Marian, a main character in many of them, began to laugh as the outlaws hadn't heard her do for a long time, her eyes sparkling every time she looked at Robin. Will and Djaq sat a little apart, a part of the group while at the same time a separate unit, their bodies just barely touching, hands brushing occasionally as they swept sawdust from Will's progressing carving off their clothes.
Darkness fell, wrapping itself securely around the happygroup like an embrace; quiet, warm, and— if only for this one night— completely free of nightmares.