Robin was pacing. He moved from inside the ship's cabins, to the stern of the deck, to the bow, and back again in less time than it took Much to untangle himself from the swinging hammock he'd slept in and remember just why he was on a ship in the middle of the ocean.
The inescapable truth rang in his head as he watched his master walk a complete parameter of the upper deck before again disappearing below, frustration straining in his every movement.
They were headed to the Holy Land, the one place Much had hoped— had even been reasonably sure— he would never have to see again. A place from his memories and his nightmares, it didn't seem real that he would soon be arriving there again, like another nightmare but one from which he couldn't wake up.
Much's eyes caught onto Robin as he reemerged from below deck, steadily following his progress to the rail of the ship. It was much smaller than the one they had taken on their first trip to the Holy Land, but it also wasn't transporting an entire regiment of soldiers. Still, it was sturdy and well-cared for, with more than enough room for the six outlaws, small crew, and the gruff but reliable captain McDougal. Much knew the white-knuckled grip Robin clenched on the rail had nothing to do with his doubt's of the vessel's seaworthiness.
The painful memory of Robin's confessions in the barn came back to Much, increasing his worry for his closest companion. He was sure if this trip was causing ihim/i to break out in cold sweats and loose both sleep and even some appetite, it was affecting Robin even more. Though of course in typical Robin fashion he didn't say anything aloud about it; he just spent the first day and a half of their two-week journey pacing.
Normally by this time Much would have confronted him in some way, demanded that he sit down or that he sleep or else told him honestly all the pacing was making Much even more nervous than he already was. However, his own outburst in the barn had left him with a slightly awkward aftertaste that made him unsure of how to approach Robin now.
The boat lurched and Much found his own hand catching in a vise-grip against the side, his stomach surging in time with the waters below. For a moment he was transported back to his first voyage across the ocean, swallowing hard as he mentally intoned Don't vomit, don't vomit, don't vomit. The ghost of Robin's hand touched his arm, warm and firm, a gesture of comfort and an offer of courage.
The boat lurched again and Much realized it wasn't just the memory of Robin's hand on his arm but the real thing, a flesh and blood echo from that journey that felt so incredibly long ago.
"I forgot," Robin admitted in a voice that sounded a little like a whisper even though it was normal volume. "You hate boats."
"Not as much as Little John." Much tried to make a joke out of it, shrugging at their burly companion who at that moment was barreling past them towards the cabins of the lower deck, cursing behind the hand clamped over his mouth. "He expects it to sink or throw us all overboard at any moment. He's never even been on one before. I doubt he's even seen one before. At least I—" He broke off, inadvertently drawing near to the subject he thought Robin least wanted to discuss.
"Yeah," was Robin's ambiguous answer, and Much thought he'd put his foot in his mouth like always and that would be the end of the conversation. Then Robin turned and matched Much's position with his own, facing the open water, legs slightly spread for balance and hands resting on the top of the deck's siding. Their littlest fingers and their thighs brushed ever so slightly in time with the rocking motion of the boat.
For once it was Robin who broke the silence after a long minute in which they both stared at the dark waves, seeing invisible reflections of the past on it's uneven surface.
"I didn't think it would be this hard," he said.
Much turned his head, trying to catch his leader's gaze, but Robin continued to stare resolutely ahead.
"I didn't think," he repeated, a hint of desperation in his tone.
"None of us did," Much replied, realizing with a burst of warmth a little like pride and little like something else in his stomach that Robin had come over here seeking comfort more than he had come to give it. "We heard the King was in danger— we heard Marian was in danger— and so we got on the ship and went. No thoughts required."
Robin's body had gone rigid at the mention of Marian, his hands clenching on the rail. From his profile Much could tell his face had twisted into its rarely seen, rather ugly in its intensity scowl.
"I hate to think of her on that ship, with ihim/i" Robin growled, and Much knew he wasn't referring to the Sheriff. He tried to keep his voice cheerful as he replied,
"Marian can take care of herself," he said, and then though it made him grimace at the name continued with, "And you heard Allan. She's been safe in the castle, because he won't hurt her. Even if she did try to kill the Sheriff and betray their whole organization for the sake of their enemy and all, you know G—"
Robin slammed his hands down on the rail. The scowl on his face was harsher than ever, his lips actually curling back from his teeth with a hiss. Much fell silent, momentarily cowed by the ferocity of Robin's emotions. He tried to think of something more comforting to say, but his mind was too filled with scattered memories of the past and he was drawing a blank. The boat dipped over another swell, knocking him against Robin, who looked at him expectantly.
"Are you feeling sick?" he asked after a long moment in which Much still could find nothing to say.
"Oh. Okay." This time it was Robin who bumped into Much, but he seemed to take his time in pulling away. "Good."
Are you feeling sick?Much could remember a similar question being asked on their first journey to the Holy Land, except he had been the one doing the asking. Because I can make you something Master, something for seasickness. I brought along ginger roots just for that purpose, Sherwood's finest. And I've used less than half of them so far—
Robin knocked against him again, though Much hadn't felt the boat move. He could feel a slight trembling in his leader's body that didn't match his firmness of his next declaration, "I'm worried about Marian."
Much stared into the deepening hues of the evening sky, remembering his first real sunset at sea, how he had found it so beautiful tears had sprung to his eyes. And then when he'd seen an almost identical one on the way back home, how he had cried without shame because it seemed even the sky had become smeared and tainted with blood.
"Much." Robin's voice was equal parts frustration and wheedling. "You told me I never talk to you, and now here I am, trying to talk and you're—"
"Wondering if this is the last time we're going to do this." Much didn't realize he'd spoken out-loud until Robin went rigid next to him.
"What do you mean?" he asked in a very quiet voice.
Much shifted uncomfortably, bumping thighs with Robin. "This is the third time we've made this journey," he mumbled, disliking hearing the words out-loud even though they were exactly what he was thinking. "I can't help but wonder if God is really going to allow us a fourth one."
"Much." In addition to the exasperation common when Robin was answering Much's worries there was a hint of barely-concealed panic in his voice. "You. . . you shouldn't think that."
"It's not blasphemy!" Much said, bristling slightly. "I know about His Divine Plan and everything, and I'm not suggesting He would do it out spite or anything like that. It's just—" He turned his gaze from the ocean and sought Robin's, suddenly desperate to make sure his leader understood. "Going to the Holy Land from England," he said haltingly when he made contact with the shadowy eyes he knew better than any others in the world, "Or the other way around. . . they're so different. It's like crossing worlds. I can't imagine there's an unlimited number of times a person can do that."
Robin's gaze flickered under Much's, dark and heavy. The rapidly fading light made it difficult to tell, but Much thought he detected a trace of fear.
"Much," Robin said for the third time that night, his voice dropping to a whisper that definitely held more begging than anything else. "I can't think about this right now."
"Right, because of your bow thing." Much nodded, trying to be supportive because Robin was his closest companion and former-master, but turning back to the sea with a sigh nonetheless. He stopped when Robin grabbed his arm.
"If I start thinking about that," Robin said, the words tumbling out in a frantic, pleading rush. "Then I'll start thinking about all of it. I'll start thinking about how last time I was the King's best solider, a killer without mercy or mistakes, and how the thought of killing now makes me feel sick. I'll start thinking about how the Saracens are the enemy there and how we all know it isn't true, but not everyone there is going to understand that and they certainly won't understand Djaq and some of them may even try to hurt her. I'll start thinking about how my last trip to the Holy Land made me loose everything, my lands and my home and Marian; everything except you, and I can't start thinking that it might repeat or even be worse. I can't think about loosing anyone else, particularly not you, not when we've made it through the war and going home and living in Sherwood and fighting the Sheriff all this way."
His grip on Much's arm was tight enough to bruise, another echo of the past, painful but somehow reassuring. Robin leaned into him, pushing with his body as though to add more weight to his words.
"I can't Much," he breathed, bitter with regret and shame. "I can't." He leaned in further until his head was resting against Much's, forehead to temple, both of their eyes sliding closed, drawing breaths as quick and uneven as the moment. "I'm sorry."
They stayed leaning together long enough for some of the low evening clouds to spread apart, allowing the last rays of the sun to light the side of the boat in pale, warm gold. The brief relief from darkness seemed to serve as a signal for both of them and they pulled slowly away from each other. Robin peeled his fingers from Much's arm and they both turned back to the rail, moist eyes reflecting the sun-streaked sky.
"It's my job to think about those things, you know," Much said, soft but matter-of-fact. "So you don't have to."
Robin said nothing, but his hand slid over to cover Much's on the rail, and together they watched the waves pass beneath the ship carrying them through the quiet night.