A/N: Well, after a range of crazy problems I've had this past month or so (including computer issues), everything seems to be somewhat settling in real life and I now finally have a chance to update this story. My sincere apologies for the wait.
Thank you to a few readers who offered some concrit regarding a phrase in the last chapter. It's been fixed in a way that I think retains the original feeling and information I wanted to convey, without altering it too much stylistically. I edited that chapter with the full intention of posting the next chapter right away...but then my internet (and everything else) went straight down the toilet for a bit. Plus, this chapter needed some heavy editing itself, further delaying an update.
I have added quite a bit to Djaq's part in this chapter. Although I wrote at length about Guy's feelings regarding Marian, I felt that the early draft of this story didn't fully explore Djaq's feelings on the matter. I'm hoping that this revised version will go some ways toward resolving that.
Constructive criticism is always welcome, especially since it's been so long since I've had the time to look at this story again.
To all who are reading and who take the time to leave feedback: Thank you!
After rain the empty mountain
Stands autumnal in the evening,
Moonlight in its groves of pine,
Stones of crystal in its brooks.
Bamboos whisper of washer-girls bound home,
Lotus-leaves yield before a fisher-boat -
And what does it matter that springtime has gone,
While you are here, O Prince of Friends?
-Wang Wei, An Autumn Evening in the Mountains
He does not feel any uncertainty in going to her. If nothing else, they have been remarkably honest with one another, and now they are approaching something like friendship. It soothes him, being in her presence, because of that honesty – there is nothing to hide. She resented him a little at first, he knows, because she is an independent person and does not like to be thought of as needing companionship. He understands that part of her - it used to be a part of him. But he learned long ago to let go of such pretenses. He is weak, and in coming to know that weakness, he gained the strength to change. He cannot be afraid of truth anymore.
He thinks perhaps the reason he came back to this city was to conquer that fear once and for all.
And now, beyond that feat, he is finding contentment in showing what kindness he can to Saffiya. Since arriving in Acre, he has missed being useful. With Robin and Archer, he did things that had real impact, and lasting consequences. Now, he idles away his time acquainting himself with the city and teaching a young noble how to conjugate verbs in French. It is a vast difference, but befriending Saffiya has filled some of the space left empty by lack of industry.
Thinking on his life now versus the life he led in England brings a wry smile to his face, and that smile is still on his lips when Saffiya answers the door. She cocks an eyebrow at him, curious at his good mood, maybe still annoyed that he thinks she needs the company. "I have a patient." And then she closes the door.
Yes, Guy thinks as he is jostled by the crowd of passersby - still annoyed.
But instead of letting himself boil into indignation at being so quickly dismissed, as he perhaps would have once done, he lingers at the market stalls near her door and waits patiently. He knows her frank manner now, her sharp edges and pointed words, and cannot take offense at them. Where another man might get his back up, he knows her well enough now to translate her moods and ways. He waits because he is confident she will welcome him later.
She never truly rebuffs his efforts to be a friend to her. She has never been open with him again like she was that day at the grave site, but she is always happy to talk about their mutual friends back in Nottingham, and she listens with rapt attention when he tells her about his escapades with Hood's men. "Yes," she will often say after he describes some astonishing act of bravery (or, in his personal opinion, lunacy) committed by Robin - "Yes, that sounds like him."
He has come to see that she is a thinking woman, a woman of method and practicality, and Guy believes she must have suffered Robin's impetuousness about as well as he himself did. He often asks her what role she played in some of Robin's more memorable schemes. Sometimes she tells him, relating the story with a fantastic gleam in her eye. Other times she just looks away with an arched brow and acquits herself of any involvement. "Robin could be too brash for his own good," she would say, and he would nod in perfect agreement.
And even though she usually sighs at first sight of him at her door, and is reluctant to let him in – even though she watches him from the corner of her eye, as if wary that he will, at any moment, revert back to the enemy she once knew - she always bids him farewell with a smile on her lips and warmth in her eyes. And so he keeps coming back. He knows she needs someone who will understand her, who has traveled the same roads and slept under the same trees and fought the same battles.
And he has no trouble admitting he needs that, too.
He wonders about going back to England now that he has faced his past here. He is sure Robin would find him some manner of work – or perhaps he would join his brother in whatever adventures the boy is getting himself into. But he cannot leave just yet, not while Saffiya's eyes are still shadowed and her smiles never really brighten her face. He feels he owes something to her. He owes something to Robin, too, and Robin - his comrade-in-arms, the man who has been a guide for Guy as he stumbled back up the rocky path to his boyhood goodness - would probably want him to stay and watch over his old friend. It would be the noble thing to do, and Guy remembers a time when noble was all he ever wanted to be.
He waits an hour, drifting through the market, greeting a few men who recognize him for his connection to the young prince or Aalim. And then he goes back to her door. He Knocks. And while he is expecting her to scowl and resist for at least a moment, as is her way, this time when she opens the door she does not hesitate to let him in.
She is not a weak woman. She has lost a mother to illness, a father and brother to war. She has been kidnapped, shackled, and sent halfway across the world to slave for foreign men. She has lived as an outlaw, with only the trees and the sky to shelter her. She has survived imprisonment and more brushes with death than she can count.
She has survived the loss of her dearest friend, the other half of her heart and mind.
But she is strong. She has forged on through all the dark days. She stands tall, and while she at times cannot help but look behind at all she has lost, she has never stumbled. For the sake of her father's name and of Will's, she has never let herself be weak.
But tonight, a certain kind of frailty has set in. The shadows in her room are deep. The night is only just approaching, but already it seems it will be long and cold. When Gisborne knocks again at her door, she cannot muster the effort needed to keep him on guard - she lets the door swing wide and lets him in with neither wariness nor pleasure, nor any greeting at all.
She is filled with gratitude when he shows himself to be aware of her fragile state. He smiles at first, and then looks her over for a second or two before putting the lightest touch of his fingers to her shoulder and guiding her to the table.
"Sit," he says. "You've had a tiring day?"
She makes a noncommittal noise. There has been a long succession of tiring days ever since Will's death - this evening hardly seems different. But he continues to search her out, asking questions until she sighs into her cup of tea and admits that yes, today has been especially difficult. He doesn't pretend to wonder about her patients or her work in an awkward effort to skirt around what he must know is the true cause of her low spirits. He just looks at her while she gazes at nothing, no doubt taking measure of her dull eyes and of her careless hands. (She spilled tea when she filled his cup, and gave the table only a weak swipe with her sleeve. She felt his stare, and avoided it.)
They drink and listen to the fading noise of the streets. The stalls are closing. People are returning to their homes. Just as they finish their first round of tea, the call for maghrib echoes faintly beyond her door. Gisborne leans over his empty cup, stretching over the small table until his elbows rest close to hers. She slowly lifts her eyes to his. He smiles with one side of his mouth, and asks her, "When did you realize you were in love with Will Scarlet?"
She blinks in stupefaction. His smile widens.
And when she finds her lips turning up as well, she begins to tell her story.
He laughs and frowns and shakes his head at all the right times. He leads her with questions that come from real curiosity, and not just an obvious desire to distract her or lift her mood, and pulls memories from her that she'd thought long forgotten. She ends her telling where she feels she ought to: at her and her husband's victory in this city, bidding farewell to their friends and looking forward to a new life together. She can still remember that day in perfect detail: the warmth of the sun on her face as she waved goodbye; the jaunty laugh Allan gave that echoed across the vaulted ceiling; and Will's arm around her shoulders - his eyes, dark and warm; and his smile, easy and free and brighter than the new day.
She sighs, and lifts her gaze to Gisborne's.
"Amazing," he says. His eyes are alight with something like fascination. She presses her hands to her cheeks and feels the curves of her smile.
"He was," she replies, and then laughs. "Telling you all this - I feel as if I have fallen in love with him all over again."
He laughs with her, but whatever joy those old memories bestowed proves to be temporary. She may have only told Gisborne of triumph and happiness, but the trail leading to more painful memories is well-worn and far too easy to follow. When her laughter dies and she bows her head to hide her trembling mouth, he reaches out and grips her hand tightly. He doesn't say another word until her last tear has fallen, until she wipes at her eyes with a sleeve that smells like black tea and gives him a weak smile.
"I don't know that I have ever loved like that," he says.
She stares, and then looks away, feeling a sudden uneasiness. She is reminded of what his story is, and her memory of that day in Acre, saying goodbye to her friends, fades to another memory - one of scorching heat and terror.
His touch loses some of its warmth as her gratitude for his presence fades into distinct aversion. She barely resists the urge to pull back her hand, but the twitch of her wrist gives her away.
"It's alright," he says, releasing her. He leans back. "We both know what I am - what I've done. I'm sorry..."
The memory of Marian lying in the sand, curled into herself, white dress stained brightly with her blood, stirs up an old, familiar horror. It settles in her stomach like a cold stone. Her voice yet hoarse from shed tears, she says, "The things you told me about her - I cannot understand. I cannot." Despite her best efforts, revulsion creeps up her spine and into her voice. She jerks her chin in his direction. "These hands of yours were once bathed in her blood. Yet you can sit there so quietly..."
His stare is steady and unblinking. She looks away and says again, "I do not understand."
"You aren't meant to," he replies. "My passion - the violence - there was no reason to it."
The room is silent but for their breathing. He kneads his brow where a deep frown has set in. The weak yellow light of her oil lamps turns his blue eyes nearly black.
"I tried to do what was right," he eventually continues. "I tried to love, to give her things that would make her happy. But...I didn't know what I was doing. The bards would have you believe that love is the most natural thing in the world, but for some people, that... that simply isn't true." He shakes his head, and lets out a low, hollow laugh. "She tried to change me - she was convinced there was something in me worth fighting for. But she didn't fight hard enough. There was too much hate in me. Too much of Vasey's poisonous philosophies. I was such a willing pupil - and for all the wrong lessons."
She feels a spark of anger that cuts through her deep weariness and stiffens her bones. "Why?" she asks. "Why would you listen to a man like that? A man who used you, who used people like they were nothing and took and stole and cheated and killed - What could have possibly convinced you to throw your lot in with such a black-hearted creature?"
He licks his lips and drags his teeth over his bottom lip, biting and scraping at the tender flesh as he thinks. "I had nothing else," he answers after a heavy pause. He lifts his gaze to hers. "I had no family, no land, and hardly any money. My father's name had been dragged through the mud - his property stolen. He died in disgrace. I was...I was hot with vengeance. I wanted to make the ones responsible for it all pay. I wanted to grind my boot heel on their necks and show them that I was still surviving despite everything that had been done to me, that I could take back the honor that had been lost. I swore to myself that I would lift the Gisborne name. More than that, I wanted to be feared. No one would ever dare cross a Gisborne again. I was to make sure of that."
"Everyone was your enemy, then. Even the innocent. Even the people you and the sheriff were supposed to protect."
His mouth twists into a bitter smirk, and he says, "Oh, yes. Everyone. If they disobeyed - if they cheated me in even the smallest way -" He plants his fist on the table. "Betrayal was the ultimate sin to me, and Marian betrayed me again, and again, and again. For every step we took toward a better understanding of each other, we seemed to take three steps back. She lied - I lied. She manipulated me - I...terrorized her. We never...I never truly loved her. I never loved her more than I loved myself. I didn't know how."
He gazes off into nothing, and she sits in silence, watching him. A minute passes, and she sees his shoulders start to relax and his hand loosen from its tight fist. Another minute slides past them. He lets out a sigh and runs a hand through his hair. He looks at her. "You haven't thrown me out yet."
She takes him in with a slow study: shadowed eyes, rimmed red with some restrained emotion. Cheeks hollow, lips pressed thin, arms loose. His face is easy to read - he is consumed with self-disgust, in the weary, numbed manner of those who have been living with guilt for many years.
"No," she says, and drags in a deep breath and reaches for the copper pot. "We haven't finished the tea."
She feels his stare as she pours them both another cup. She takes a sip - the tea has turned lukewarm, the dregs are especially bitter - and waits for Gisborne to do the same.
"I am sorry," she adds once he moves to take his cup. "Sorry for the things you have had to endure and for the things you have done. Do you remember? I told you that day we went to the graves. I told you that only Allah can be our judge."
She glances up and sees Gisborne watching her through shuttered eyes. "I remember," he murmurs.
She nods. "He is a merciful judge."
Silence again falls between them. She feels the cold weight in her stomach fade. Gisborne has angled himself away from her, his face hidden behind a curtain of black hair. She hears the slow breath he draws in, and moves her head so as to meet his eyes when he starts to turn back toward her. "That you have now found your way," she says, "it is a gift. And I believe you are using it wisely."
He half-smiles, and she surprises herself with how familiar she has already become with this expression. She can predict precisely how his lips will pull only to one side - the left - because there is always a trace of sadness in it; how his lips will part just slightly, and he will glance down, as if always unsure if his brief happinesses are allowed.
"Thank you," he says quietly. "Though I wish I could dismiss my past as easily as your god does."
"He is one god. He is our maker. I think you have confused your lack of belief in him with your lack of faith in yourself."
He leans forward, bringing himself out of the shadows and into the glow of the oil lamp that sits on the table between them. His gaze is focused completely on her, so intense, so expressive, that she nearly has to look away. "I have never been spoken to in such a manner," he says, forming the words with great deliberateness and solemnity, so that she feels that she has somehow done something remarkable, something almost sacred.
"It is only the truth," she answers in a small voice, hushed by the raw emotion in his eyes. "And do not think that I know nothing of regret. I have wondered..." She bows her head. The words must be forced, but they are words she has been desperate to speak. "Many foreigners fall sick here. Diseases that my people can withstand often prove fatal to the white men, the soldiers and the pilgrims. If I had not asked Will to stay-"
She falls silent. He shakes his head. "Do not blame yourself. That way leads to madness."
He holds her gaze for only a moment more, and then looks away, shifting in his seat. She understands. He is to blame for all of his losses. And from what she can tell based on that night he was laid out on her table, his flesh as cold as the winter moon, he knows very well what that madness is.
She nods to acknowledge him, but now, having already visited painful memories, she struggles with the hollow burn of grief that has waxed and waned, but has never left.
Gisborne waits, so quiet that she could almost forget his presence.
She takes in a deep, full breath, and when she releases it, she raises her gaze to Gisborne's and says, "I am very tired."
He nods. His eyes are now clear, calm. "I know."
The lamp burns low. The floor cushions are no longer plush, and her body is aching.
"I will leave, if that is what you wish."
He is studying her again, no doubt noticing the heaviness of her lids, the limp angle of her shoulders. She nods. When he stands and moves past her, she reaches up and tangles her fingers with his. "Thank you."
He replies by covering her hand with both of his, lingering long enough for her to feel the warmth of his skin. And then he steps away, and she lets her arm fall back to her lap, and hears the sound of the door being opened and closed.
Outside, the muadhan cries out for the evening salat. His voice barely carries into her room, but she knows the words by heart: Rise up for prayer. Rise up for salvation. God is great.
There is no god except the one god.
She moves her tired bones to shift onto her knees, and lowers her head to the floor.