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#i mean we’ve hardly properly begun and there are so many stories left to tell
guardians-of-exo · 2 years ago
Chapter XIV: Bathed In Red
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The sun had just begun to peek up over the horizon when the knights woke and started getting ready for the rest of the travel to Ethis. It wasn’t far, Minseok had said as they got on their horses, just an hour or two depending on the road.
Jongdae honestly didn’t really care. He was in a foul mood and kept mostly to himself so he wouldn’t accidentally snap at anyone. He had hardly gotten any sleep between the horrible nightmares about getting dragged into the swamp and drowned by the will-o’-the-wisps, and the thinking about what the evil Sprites had shown him and why.
He was exhausted, his head was pounding and his body still felt weirdly empty. He found it hard to collect any coherent thoughts and often found himself zoning out.
Unfortunately, it seemed the knights thought his brooding was because he blamed them for what happened to him, when he truly, honestly didn’t. Someone was always close to him to get him whatever he wanted, and they kept sending him sad looks. He tried to reassure them that it really wasn’t their fault, but his mind felt like porridge and he couldn’t get his mouth to work.
Not being able to express himself properly only made his mood even worse and it almost felt like he had a personal black cloud hanging over his head.
Even Minseok seemed worried as he kept glancing back at Jongdae with concerned eyes.
Jongdae hoped he would be able to gain full control of his mind again soon. He felt so bad seeing them all feel guilty and dejected.
A shabby-looking building appeared over the horizon and Jongdae focused on that as they moved closer and closer. Once they reached it, Jongdae saw that there were multiple buildings just like that one. They were all made of bulky, rotting, uneven logs and the houses were all crooked and rickety, some of them having gaping holes in the roof or the walls. There was no glass in the windows – if the house even had windows.
This was Ethis?
Compared to the grand capitals of Inaenamelle and Aereithel this was… disappointing. No one even lived in Ethis, the city being completely deserted. It was only for greeting visitors, so the Nymphs apparently didn’t care for keeping up appearances. There weren’t even any roads, just long grass.
Minseok led them towards a bigger building and Jongdae was surprised to see a fully functioning horse stable filled with hay, water and food for the horses. The Nymphs must have stocked up before they arrived, meaning the knights’ owl had reached them in plenty time for them to prepare.
As they moved further into the surprisingly large city, they saw the first signs of life since entering the kingdom. Two guards were stationed outside a large dome-shaped building that was less crooked and with actual glass in the windows. The guards were wearing some kind of green fabric draped over their bodies, silver armour covering the most vital parts. Both were holding razor-sharp spears.
The knights were let through without any trouble and they walked into a huge room furnished only with a simple, wooden throne. On the throne sat the most beautiful woman Jongdae had ever seen. Pale, shimmering skin, a slim face with shining green eyes and long, violet hair. She too was wearing some fabric, hers the colour white, draped over her body like a dress, fastened with silver jewellery.
Minseok, Baekhyun, and Jongin immediately kneeled and the rest of the knights quickly followed suit. Only when she spoke up, did they stand again. Like the times before, Minseok started telling their story. Hearing the leader speak his native language was almost hypnotizing. The language was soft and smooth, but also oddly gurgly like a bubbling brook. It was hard to describe but it was beautiful.
The more Minseok explained, the more troubled the Queen looked and she was quiet long after the leader stopped talking. Finally, she spoke up with a heavily accented Common Tongue. “I cannot read the tongue of Humans so your papers will be of no use to me. I will travel to Inaenamelle and lend my strength. You have fulfilled your duty, you are dismissed for now.”
With a nod she stood up and left, walking so gracefully it looked like she was floating. And just like that, they were alone.
Now what? They had no orders left to carry out. Did Jongdae and Junmyeon go back home to Paneia now? Jongdae felt a little nervous at the thought. They couldn’t go back to Dorwall, so where should they go if the knights decided to dismiss them? He glanced at Junmyeon and found the older boy looking down at his feet, biting his lip nervously.
Deciding it was best to just wait and see what happened, Jongdae kept quiet and hoped someone else would say something first. It didn’t take long for Minseok to break the silence.
  “Alright, let’s go make camp somewhere for today. I think we could all use some rest before we travel further. Then tomorrow we’ll travel for Eirior and find a proper inn to stay at.”
Everyone heartedly agreed and they exited the decaying building. Just as Jongdae stepped outside something huge came swooping out of the sky and he honestly nearly shit his pants only to realize it was their owl. He swore under his breath and tried to calm his breathing. Honestly, anymore scares and we would die of a heart attack. The large bird settled itself on Yixing’s shoulder as Jongdae glared at it.
As they made their way back towards the stables, small drops of water started falling from the sky. It started out slow but quickly picked up in intensity and they quickly sought shelter in a nearby house.
  “Let’s just stay here for now. At least we’ve got a roof,” Minseok sighed as he looked out at the wall of rain outside the gaping doorway.
Luckily it seemed they had chosen a house that didn’t have too many holes in the roof and it was just spacious enough for them all to fit. Junmyeon, Minseok, and Yixing ran to the stables to get their belongings.
They were soaked to the bone when they eventually returned but with some swift movements of his hands, Junmyeon pulled the water from their clothes and threw it outside.
To avoid sitting on the damp, dirty floor, they all spread out and settled in their sleeping bags.
Chanyeol had found some scrap wood close to the house and was about to start a fire when Kyungsoo stopped him.
  “No fire. We don’t want to burn the place down,” the Faery said sternly.
  “But it won’t when I’m here,” Chanyeol whined. “It’s cold.”
  “Yeah well, we don’t trust you not to get distracted,” Sehun said, eyeing Baekhyun, who was sniggering at his whiny boyfriend. “Besides, I don’t want to die of smoke poisoning.”
Pouting like a child, Chanyeol huffed and retreated to a corner of the house to sulk. Baekhyun cooed and was quick to follow the Elf, cuddling up to the taller boy to try and cheer him up. The Nymph was biting his lip, clearly trying not to laugh.
Jongin and Sehun curled up with each other in their sleeping bags and promptly fell asleep, while Yixing pulled out some playing cards from nowhere, and the rest of the knights huddled up to play some card games.
Jongdae sat a little away from them all, leaning against the wall. He wanted to join them, he really did, but his head still hurt so badly and the thought of having to concentrate made his temples throb. He prayed it would end soon so he could start functioning like a normal Human being again. He still felt really guilty for making the knights feel responsible for what happened to him, and he wanted to clear the air.
He was about to doze off when someone joined him, letting out a quiet sigh as they leaned against the wall as well. A glance over revealed that it was Minseok.
The Nymph cleared his throat awkwardly. “How are you?”
  “Okay, I guess,” Jongdae mumbled, voice slightly slurred but he couldn’t hide a slight wince as he shrugged.
Minseok pulled out a small pouch from his pocket and shook a couple of very dry looking leaves into his palm. He held a couple out to Jongdae, who accepted one though he was confused as to what he was supposed to do with it.
  “You chew on it,” Minseok explained after a couple of seconds of Jongdae just staring at the leaf. “It should help with your headache. Your head still hurts, right?”
Mutely, Jongdae nodded then carefully put the leaf into his mouth and started chewing. It was quite dry and tasted very bitter, but he kept chewing as Minseok stared insistently at him. And slowly, like a fog clearing, his headache lifted the more he chewed on the bitter leaf. He looked at Minseok with wide eyes and the Nymph smiled back widely.
  “They’re amazing, right? I always carry some with me.”
  “Yeah, thank you,” Jongdae smiled back. It was a little unnerving having the leader smile so happily at him. Jongdae was a lot more used to the glares.
  “I’m sorry by the way,” Minseok suddenly said, Jongdae looking back up at him in surprise as the Nymph kept talking. “I haven’t been very considerate since… well, since we met. I’m not very good with strangers or... you know, Humans.”
Jongdae chuckled and shook his head. “Yeah, I realize we don’t have to best reputation out here. I get it though, we seem to cause a lot of problems.”
   “It’s still no excuse though,” Minseok insisted, now looking Jongdae right in the eyes. “My knights trusted you and that should have been enough.”
Surprised by the apology and the sudden intensity from the leader, Jongdae was left a little speechless. There was a lot more to the Nymph than he had first thought, and he thought back to how both Chanyeol and Yixing had spoken highly of their leader. This was a chance to clear the air and start fresh.
  “I haven’t exactly made it easy for you either,” Jongdae admitted, scratching the back of his head. “I might have some problems with authority.”
Minseok laughed loudly, teeth pulling back to show his gums as he smiled. “I think I can work with that.” He held his right hand out for Jongdae to shake. “Truce?”
  “Truce,” Jongdae grinned and shook the hand firmly. He had a feeling they would get along great.
  “Now,” Minseok smirked mischievously. “You know how to play cards?”
Jongdae returned the smirk with one of his own as he cracked his knuckles. “Let’s go kick their asses.”
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That was how they spent the rest of the day. It kept raining, the rain coming down like a waterfall so they were stuck in the slightly leaky house. They played cards, ate, napped, played some more cards, ate again without worrying about rations and just relaxed. The foul mood between them all was cleared and Jongdae felt so much better.
Once it got colder because of the rain, Chanyeol finally convinced the others to start a fire and they all formed a circle around it with their sleeping bags.
It felt weird not having a fixed destination, not having a mission to complete. Jongdae knew the knights usually just travelled around aimlessly as they pleased and helped whoever they could on their way, so he supposed that it was what they were going to do now. He was excited at the thought of getting to travel around more. It didn’t seem like the knights were going to send him away and he really enjoyed travelling with them.
It was well into the evening before it stopped raining, leaving the air cool and damp. They were in the middle of yet another card game when Jongin perked up from where he had snoozed a bit on Kyungsoo’s shoulder.
  “If there’s no wind we should be able to see a real Aupherisean sunset,” he said excitedly as he stood up. “Come on, we have to hurry before the sun sets.”
He dragged and ushered them all outside into the chilly evening air and started leading them confidently out of the city. The long grass soaked through Jongdae’s shoes and pants in no time, but he was excited to see this sunset Jongin had talked about so he ignored how his feet squelched in his shoes every time he took a step. At least the bugs hadn’t started crawling out of their holes yet.
As they walked the sun got lower and lower on the sky, the shadows growing longer and darker. The decaying city looked even eerier at dusk and Jongdae shivered. It looked haunted.
They continued for a while after leaving the city, Jongin apparently looking for the perfect spot.
Jongdae suddenly stepped in a deeper puddle despite having been looking at the ground to avoid falling, and for a second it was like he was back in the dark swamp with the will-o’-the-wisps, his heart nearly hopping out of his chest. He closed his eyes and took a few calming breaths.
When he opened his eyes again and looked up for the first time in a while, his jaw dropped. They were standing on the edge of a completely flooded marsh that stretched as far as the eye could see. There was not even a slight breeze so the water was completely still. It was like they were standing on a mirror. The sky was covered in a thin, even layer of white clouds that reflected perfectly in the water.
Jongin was right, it really did feel like you were standing in the middle of the sky.
As they stood in silent awe and waited, the sun got low enough to break through the clouds. It had a reddish tint to it and the lower it got, the redder it became, the colour reflecting in the water. It was as if blood slowly seeped into the flooded marsh, colouring it red as the sun cast its red light onto the white clouds.
None of them spoke, but Jongdae felt the atmosphere around them getting heavier. Sunsets were normally an array of pink, orange, purple and red colours but this was just… red. It was odd.
Just before the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, it flashed brightly, bathing everything in red and Jongdae felt like the air was sucked from his lungs. It was terrifyingly beautiful. And then, like it had never even happened, all traces of red vanished, leaving only blue in its wake.
Jongdae couldn’t help but feel it was an omen of some kind. Good or bad, he didn’t know, but he wondered what was to come.
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ninzied · 4 years ago
Impulse [Bandit OQ]
When Regina double-crosses him on a job, Robin is forced to reconsider what she might mean to him, and how he plans to return the favor – after he escapes from the Queen’s Guard, that is. (Based on the prompt: “This is without a doubt the stupidest plan you’ve ever had. Of course I’m in.”) ~15k. [ffn | ao3]
Happy birthday to my dear friend @loveexpelrevolt. I’m so thankful fandom brought me to you, with your spunk and talent and your generous heart. You are truly one of the most inspiring people I have ever met (which we can finally say we’ve done in person!). Anyway, you gave me this word prompt many moons ago, and it was actually intended as last year’s birthday fic, but by the time I finished it there were only so many months until this one, so I figured I’d wait :)
(I would like to thank @starscythe​, @sometimesangryblackwoman​ and @revolutionsoftheheart​ for all their help in shaping this fic, and to @starscythe especially for inspiring me with her amazing manip.)
They’ve been marching for days, it seems.
Robin gives the rope around his wrists another vigorous tug, but the knots there are as damnably stiff as they had been five minutes previously, stubbornly refusing to loosen. The guards have already confiscated his satchel of lock picks, and of course it would be just his luck to reach for the dagger in his boot – bending himself awkwardly as he feels for the handle, hop-stepping so as not to break his stride – only to find that it’s mysteriously vanished.
Well that's just bloody wonderful.
“Whatever it is you're doing back there, d’you mind maybe not doing it for a while?” grumbles the man in front of him – a lumbering, overgrown sort of individual, filling out the edges of a rich red tunic that looks as though it’s seen better days – and then there’s a pointed yank at the rope where they’ve been tethered together. The man tips a hairy chin sideways to prevent his words from carrying toward the head of the line. “The last thing we need is for them to think you’re up to something.”
“Right. My apologies.”
“No harm done,” the man – giant, really – grunts good-naturedly, shrugging one large boulder-like shoulder. “But, you know, if it’s all the same to you, I’d really like to avoid getting tossed in those shackles again.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Feeling properly chastised, Robin drops his arms back down behind him and struggles to contain his rising frustration. Some quarter-hour that already feels like an eternity earlier, while plodding along single-file and chained at the ankles through some particularly perilous terrain, a fellow prisoner had stepped most inopportunely into quicksand, dragging several others down with him before the guards had managed to react in time.
It had been an ordeal, to say the least, to dismantle the remaining restraints before any more casualities occurred; the Evil Queen had, after all, promised her men considerable amounts of money in exchange for the realm’s most wanted, and what use was a heart that was no longer beating?
One of the guards, with a face that might have been handsome if not for the cruelty hardening its features, had given Robin a sound beating after he squandered his sole chance at escape in favor of extending a tree branch toward one of the men as the earth began to swallow him whole.
“That one was hardly worth a sack of gold anyway” had been the guard’s only comment, and while Robin staggered back to his feet, the man turned away to consult a pocket mirror, ensuring that not a lock of his golden hair had fallen out of place in all the commotion.
Robin sincerely doubted he could say the same for the state of his own hair – or the rest of his body, for that matter.
Wincing around the throbbing eye and an uncomfortably swollen nose – broken now, surely – that he’d gotten for his troubles, he forces one foot in front of the other, feeling useless in his anger and wishing, above all else, for open skies (for freedom) above a campfire pit, and for the company of John and his men, likely kilometers behind him now and at an utter loss as to what’s become of their leader.
He should have known better than to trust that woman.
“What I wouldn’t give for a pint right now,” the giant speaks up again then, sounding wistful, and Robin musters a rather humorless chuckle for his benefit.
“Something stronger, perhaps.”
“We’ll drink our way through Sherwood Forest after we’ve escaped,” his companion decides, in a firm tone that Robin doesn’t have the heart to dispute, though his thoughts have already begun to turn on him, chasing some thread of desperation brought on by a growing sense of hopelessness at their predicament.
If he manages to scrape his way out of this one intact, he vows to be done with it all. With the thieving, and the crime, and the at-times thankless job of living with a target on his back just so the poor may never know hunger. He’s going to retire from the business, he is – something he’s been meaning to do for years, though he’d never quite found the right time for it, as is the way of kicking old habits.
This time, however, he’s certain (he must be) that things will turn out differently. This path he's on can only end one way – with his reckoning, at the hands, if not the mercy, of the Queen – and he's no intention of dying such a thankless death today.
After he's broken free – after he’s put no less than half a kingdom between him and her army – he’s going to go make an honest man of himself, whatever that means. He’ll put down roots in some remote town, someplace so ordinary, so easily overlooked that even an outlaw could lose himself there. Perhaps he’ll find a proper woman to fall for while he’s at it, if the fates are permissive and she not so quick to judge a man for his past and his dubious codes of honor.
Once upon a time, he might have thought to look closer to home (to his heart) and hope, but the instability of his profession has hardly afforded him such luxuries, and the only woman he’s ever found himself thinking of, caring for of all damnable things, is the very woman responsible for landing him in this mess to begin with, without so much as a second thought.
And as soon as time draws them together again – it’s always but a matter of time, whenever they’re concerned – he’s going to settle the score between them, once and for all.
He owes her a reckoning too, that Regina.
It’s an easy job, she’d told him. A two-man job, one she’d have clearly preferred to do alone if reason hadn’t won out over pride, and here she’d looked him over, sharply appraising, before announcing that she supposed one of him would simply have to do.
We’ll be in and out by first light, she’d told him (that is, if you’re half as useful as they say you are), and then she’d named their target – a traveling dignitary in possession of several ancient scrolls, worth quite a lot to the nobility in some neighboring kingdom – and asked to borrow his horse, in a way that made Robin wonder whether he had any true say in the matter.
He scowls now to think on how little he had said by way of objection – how unreservedly he’d relinquished the reins to her and let things fall as she’d planned them. He’d been more than satisfied with the opportunity to observe Regina in as natural a habitat as she would allow him, something inside him stirring to wonder at what he might learn of her with or without her permission.
But she’d revealed her true colors to him today, she had, and putting his faith in places he shouldn’t – staking his life on some illusion of friendship with a woman who can hardly spare him a smile on most days – is not a mistake he intends to make a second time.
Robin’s distracted enough by his recollections that it takes a moment to realize the fellow walking ahead of him has taken to stealing furtive glances in his direction, jaws unsticking before clamping back shut as if chewing carefully over the things he's about to say.
“I'm a, uh, big fan, by the way.” He mumbles his way around the words in a rather bashful manner, but then the moment is fairly ruined when he asks next, sounding desperately curious, “How the hell did they finally manage to pin down someone like you?”
Robin attempts a smile that comes out feeling more like a grimace.
Clearly aware that he’s touched on a sore spot, the man continues, “Not that it didn’t, you know, require a whole army to put their backs into it.” And he’s not wrong about that, though it had taken the work of a single woman to drop Robin’s guard long enough to find himself hopelessly surrounded by a squadron of soldiers who barely know left from right without their Queen to tell them so. “I'm just…surprised, is all.”
“As am I,” says Robin, endeavoring not to dwell on those dark, inscrutable eyes he’d been less than wise to trust, and how she’d winked his way before all but shoving him into the path of the oncoming cavalry, leaving him stranded in the woods without a horse or his share of the treasure.
Her duplicity had, much to his chagrin, thrown him so thoroughly he could do more than stand there while she flew between trees to save her own skin, never once glancing back as he shouldered the humiliation of getting caught, which – judging from the sheer turnout of massively armed forces – had more than likely been intended for her.
As innumerable as the notorious Robin Hood’s own impressive undertakings of lawless misconduct have been, not a living soul in the Enchanted Forest is clueless to the legend that is one Regina Mills, as deadly as she is rumored to be beautiful, wanted above all else for her unspeakable crimes against the crown.
“Sounds like there’s a story there.” The giant is looking at him with such an earnest, hopeful expression now that Robin feels almost genuinely apologetic for letting him down.
But he’s reluctant to delve into the details of Regina’s treachery – the tight spaces and dark corners, warmth and breath unwillingly shared, hands fumbling too-close (or so he told himself) – and then the sudden chasm that had opened and stretched and stretched from her eyes to his, separating them in a way that felt startlingly permanent even before she mounted his horse and rode away from him.
No, Robin thinks, he’d rather not relive those less-than-favorable moments, the itch of displeasure he can’t quite get rid of, and so he carefully deflects with a polite “Indeed,” followed by, “Please forgive my ignorance, but I don’t believe I’m as familiar with your work.”
“Oh,” says the giant with an awkward, embarrassed sort of chuckle, “the name’s Anton, but – err, my friends call me Tiny.” He mumbles something sheepish about harps and magic beans, a collection of pastimes that sit rather oddly on this rather large man, and Robin is wondering if he hasn’t simply misunderstood him when his thoughts are sidetracked by a rippling disquiet that’s just reached the end of the line.
He peers around Tiny’s colossal frame, somewhere near the level of his elbow, to find a guard up ahead extending an imperious hand, signaling for their party to stop. This particular man, by Robin’s estimation from his current distance, would hardly come up to his own elbow, squatly built as though the gods had taken a regular-sized person and pressed him down from head to toe rather than shrinking him into something more properly proportioned.
A bulbous nose protrudes from between two narrowed eyes, and a snarl involving all of his teeth has started to show through his beard as he points a gloved finger just off the road, into a thick patch of forest that has suddenly gone far too still to escape anyone’s notice.
The guard previously so preoccupied with his hair nods meaningfully to the dwarf before advancing on the bramble, sword at the ready for whatever might have endeavored to hide on the other side. He slides the blade between branches, slipping through the undergrowth until all Robin can make out of him is a swish of black cape, then nothing.
Five heavy seconds of silence follow, then the sound of many things happening, suddenly and all at once – an agitated horse’s whinny, the dull thud of things landing where they probably shouldn’t – and Tiny is startled backwards, nearly trodding over Robin’s boots.
The guards are wearing matching baffled expressions, rooted there with indecision as to how they ought to proceed, while Robin’s fellow inmates begin clamoring loudly, cheering on their invisible champion as the noise beyond the bushes escalates to an alarming degree.
Robin seizes his opportunity in the face of everyone else’s distraction, and he’s digging into the rope with fingers and nails and renewed determination when the thicket just beside him gives a great rustling twitch.
He barely has the time to react when out canters a wild-maned, riderless horse, which Robin might have thought to recognize had he not been so concerned with avoiding getting trampled underfoot when the mare kicks onto her hind legs and takes off into a gallop across the road, scattering the Queen’s men and prisoners in various directions.
Robin is awkwardly attempting to help Tiny back onto his feet when he hears the guard call out, victorious and gleefully sinister, “Going somewhere, princess?”
He stills, and a dreadful sense of foreboding begins to prickle up his spine and spread.
“I don’t see anyone coming to your rescue this time,” continues the guard, his taunting merciless despite how winded he sounds, and the renewed signs of a struggle – a disturbance in the leaves, the pained cry that soon follows – seize Robin around the middle, squeezing at something there. “Looks like you won’t be smuggling your way out of this one.”
“Charming, as always,” comes a second voice then, biting, scornful, and Robin’s heart quickens at the familiarity of it – so often directed towards him, with a dark roll of her eyes to match (and a refusal to stay for that drink she’d once promised him when he caught her in one of her better moods) – but no.
It can’t be. Not her.
The guard eventually emerges from the tree line, looking disheveled but terribly triumphant as he hauls a struggling Regina behind him, wrists bound behind her back, stubborn heels digging into the dirt.
“Still has a dog do all her dirty work, then,” she remarks contemptuously, with a futile jerk of the rope as it pulls her forward, forcing her footsteps into an echo of his.
Her captor freezes for a split second, his expression severely unpleasant, but it edges into something dangerously close to delight as he turns to smirk at the look of her, captured all the same despite the sharpness held in her words, her gaze, though she even now manages to stare down her nose at him.
For all Robin’s bitterness regarding her betrayal, this is not a fate he’d ever wish for her, and it takes a monumental effort – plus a quelling flick of Regina’s eyes in his direction, so swift he might have imagined the contact – not to launch himself forward when the guard levels his sword point to the pale white of her throat.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” he tells her, his tone disturbingly casual.
“I’m sure Snow White would prefer to do the honors,” Regina speaks around the blade, with a carelessness that has Robin clenching every part of his body.
“That’s Her Majesty to you,” corrects the guard, almost sternly, like a teacher scolding a schoolgirl. “Besides, I can still deliver you to her without hands, or a tongue. Your heart is what she’s after, and there are ways to ensure that it still beats even if the rest of you is in pieces.”
“Considerate of you,” says Regina, unfazed (foolish, Robin thinks, so foolish, and he is so desperately angry with her), even as her words take on a hoarse, strangled quality. “Tell me, Charming, when do you think Her Majesty—” she curls a lip, less than subtle in her mocking “—will finally see you as more than just an errand boy?”
A titter towards the front, poorly concealed, sets off a chain of gleeful reactions that the other guards can’t seem to contain, despite their warnings and the threatening way they step forward with their weapons half-drawn. The dwarf, currently installed some distance away and looking rather surly about the delay in their travels, makes no indication that he’d heard the dig apart from a single crack in his expression, frighteningly smile-like, that’s gone too quickly for Robin to guess at its meaning.
Tiny, meanwhile, is muttering unintelligible things to himself, slack-jawed with some revelation, and then he’s jamming a large elbow into Robin’s ribs with such enthusiasm that Robin nearly loses both his breath and his footing. He glances upward to find the giant looking intently sideways at him, eyes wide and almost comically awestruck as he whispers very carefully out of one corner of his mouth, “Is that…is she who I think she…?”
Personally, Robin never has been able to find much of a likeness in the posters depicting a face with her name (wanted, in black and bold letters, for murder, treason, and treachery); they lack the fire, the spark to her scowl that he’s been known to burn himself on whenever he’s not careful.
They will not reduce her to something so colorless, so flat.
No. No, they will not.
Tiny continues to gape at Regina in an openly stunned fashion while Robin weighs his options and quickly settles on the only way he will allow this to end, already grimacing at the prospect of another blackened eye or perhaps breaking something more vital than a nose this time when he creates the diversion to help her escape.
Now all he needs is an excuse to—
“She’s something to look at, she is,” Tiny is still carrying on under his breath, starstruck in his admiration, and he suddenly seems to be standing a good deal straighter than before. “The sketches do her absolutely no justice. Say, you don’t suppose she’s…y’know…taken?”
Robin utters a silent apology for his new friend as he tightens his hands to fists and braces himself for impact, preparing to drive his head into the underside of the man’s gobsmacked jaw.
The guard has pressed his blade with enough force to crease Regina’s skin now, though he’s yet to draw blood (time is of the essence, and Robin tenses, turning, ready to stir up some trouble). The dwarf speaks up then, growling out an irritated “Quit messing around so we can get on with it,” and the guard obligingly lowers his sword and raises an arm, backhanding Regina across the face instead.
Robin becomes vaguely aware of something large and hairy stepping into his sightline, the sensation of hitting nothing but wall when all he longs for is to move, to break through worlds if that's what it takes – oh but how he needs to destroy that bastard for what he’s just done—
There’s a murmur of “Easy there, Robin Hood” somewhere above his ear, barely heard over the pounding rush of blood there, seeping to touch his vision until he’s seeing red.
“You’ll only do her more harm than good,” Tiny is whispering urgently, and he doesn’t ease back until Robin gives him a tight-lipped jerk of a nod in understanding.
His muscles are still singing with the desire to tear the guard apart by the limbs as the man wrenches at the rope and shoves Regina roughly forward, a glove buried in her hair, yanking, twisting, smirking like the sick son of a bitch he is, until her jaws clench from the effort of not crying out. A stream of scarlet has blossomed just above her upper lip, and Robin’s fury finds a new target as he fights the compulsion to reach for her, shake her, demand of her just how she’d let herself finally fall into enemy hands.
Looking too pleased with himself, the guard eventually releases her hair and steps ahead to take the lead, leaving Regina to trip and stumble after him. She waits until he’s turned fully before swiping her mouth against her tunic, wincing when the motion aggravates something in her shoulder, and she rolls it gingerly back and forth, testing the extent of the injury.
Robin has become well-acquainted with the guard’s savagery these past many hours, the aching soreness where brass-covered knuckles have no doubt painted his face in lurid shades of purples and greens. Still, he knows Regina to be equally deadly, if not more so – light on her feet, exceptionally clever in tight situations, armed with a sharpness that cuts deeper than any blade – and by all accounts it makes no damn sense that she would’ve been caught so easily.
What had she been thinking, to linger so close (so recklessly) to the roads, while men who would gladly see her hang for her crimes seek passage to the castle – to the Queen – that she’s spent a lifetime outrunning?
He’ll have words with her on the matter soon enough, Robin decides with grim determination as he watches them draw near the end of the line. Regina, clearly guessing the path of his thoughts, looks pointedly elsewhere when the guard stations her just behind him.
It occurs to Robin that seeing the two of them side by side may trigger certain unwelcome memories as far as the guard is concerned – a heist interrupted, a trap lain in a hijacked carriage, an arrow landing shy of the Queen’s head (but only just) – and it won’t improve their already dismal odds of survival if the guard comes to recognize him as the one who’d helped Regina escape that first time, so many summers ago.
Robin is carefully dropping his gaze to his boots when the guard grabs at his own bound hands, moving for the loose end of rope dangling there. Chuckling quietly, the man loops it noose-like around Regina’s neck, tightening, tightening (something deep inside Robin’s chest straining in answer), until she’s all but hissing in pain.
The ground goes unfocused beneath his feet, seeming to shift away from him with increasing unsteadiness as though the two have been separated in some irrevocable way, but something else has weighed him down, resisting his every urge to act, to unleash whatever form of hell he can, to do something other than simply go on standing there.
The guard is just within reach and just distracted enough that Robin could aim a devastating if not fatal blow to some of his more vulnerable body parts (he’d so like to see the man try to smirk with a fist in his throat), if not for even the off-chance that any sudden movement on his part might end disastrously for Regina.
And so he stays motionless, unable to so much as scowl when the guard begins patting his palms up and down Regina’s backside, dallying too long near her hips before roughly working his way toward her front. The rucksack she’d secured to her belt earlier with their hard-won scrolls is gone, Robin notices, must have been surrendered to the woods in the heat of her capture, but its loss is nothing in the face of all else he’s too close to losing, now.
A more-than-thorough survey of her legs, a thin blade confiscated from the lacings of her boots, and the guard is leering over Regina again, with a grin vile enough to turn any stomach playing across his features. “Better keep up, if you want to keep your own head,” he murmurs to her, almost in the cadence of a lover, before sauntering off to rejoin the front of the group.
Robin closes his hands and wills the shaking to stop.
For a long, miserable moment there’s nothing to take note of but the slow restoration of order to their party, the quiet, shuffling defeat in their steps and the occasional word, testily exchanged, between guard and dwarf up ahead. Tiny offers Robin a brief, rueful attempt at a smile before facing forward and shuffling on, and though his generous size has them rather effectively hidden from view, Robin doesn’t look back. He holds himself stiffly, quietly, willing the guards to forget Regina briefly enough for him to work his mind around their current dilemma.
It would have been a fairly easy thing, gambling with his safety alone on some half-baked plan of escape, but he’s her to think of now – her head, that heart so long sought after by the Queen, all things too valuable for him to risk the way he might have his own life – particularly when she can’t appear to be bothered about attending to such matters herself.
He won’t allow his sacrifice, involuntary as it was, to be entirely for naught now that she’s marching to near-certain death with him.
Robin’s shoulders soon begin to protest from the effort of extending his wrists as far back as he’s physically able, lending what slack he can to the rope around her neck, and it burns away at him, more than being double-crossed or cheated out of some trivial fortune, to find that his hands are tied, and her life along with them.
They are thieves, after all, meant for only fools to trust (he’d been the fool to believe anything more than that lay between them), but this, this he’d never asked for, when all he’d truly desired to steal from her someday remains well-guarded and untouchable as ever to him.
Midday slides into early afternoon as they near the mouth of a stream, its babbling current providing them something of a cover when Robin’s failure to acknowledge her in any way seems to provoke Regina enough to break the silence first.
“You look terrible.”
Her nonchalance, maddeningly ill-timed, stirs Robin’s temper, and he replies, as evenly as he can manage, “No bloody thanks to you.”
A beat, then she remarks, “You sound upset.”
“You don’t miss a thing.”
She doesn’t seem to have a response to that, and he carries on, curious to see what it will take to force a confession out of her. “I should’ve known you had some ulterior motive when you invited me along on that job.” His tone grows dry. “And here I thought you’d grown genuinely fond of my company.”
“Still can’t get over that, can you,” sighs Regina, and she actually has the audacity to sound bored with him. “I needed a ride, and something to distract them with in case we were found out—”
“It’s nice to know that’s all I’m good for,” Robin deadpans, though he can’t help but feel somewhat offended. He hadn’t earned his reputation – or the substantial bounty on his head – by being no better than a distraction. “I’m flattered, truly.”
“Besides. You weren’t supposed to…” She trails off, and for a moment he wonders if the forest hasn’t simply claimed the last of her words when they eventually reach him again, tight and evenly controlled. “You were the one actually stupid enough to get caught.”
He recognizes the slight for what it is – the closest thing resembling an apology he’s ever likely to get from this woman – but still he can’t help needling her, can’t resist the image of her scowling at his backside the instant she finds her own words being used against her. “Still can’t say sorry, can you?”
She falls silent again, and he’s satisfied.
The men up front have not let up on their squabbling, irritated snatches of “But I found her first” and “Yeah? Who do you think Her Majesty’s going to believe?” rising to filter through the trees, and in their preoccupation Robin finally ducks his head back for a glimpse at Regina. It won’t be much longer, he reckons, before the guards tire of arguing, and the nearby source of fresh water tempts them into stopping for a drink; once they’re stationary, he’ll have better luck at securing their means of escape, the jagged edge of some stone, perhaps a thin-pointed branch he can wedge into the rope and loosen its knotting.
Regina is twisting around in her makeshift noose while he watches her, but at the feel of his gaze on her she stops, looking stonily askance. Her cheek is still smarting from the blow she’d received, a thin trace of blood staining her upper lip in a gash that will surely scar, and Robin feels a twinge in his chest at the thought.
“At any rate,” he tells her, softening, “I think we can both agree that neither of us have been particularly perceptive in our choices today.”
Regina snorts out a laugh. “Speak for yourself.”
Irritation rattles him down to the bones, and he forgets his composure a moment. “Need I remind you how much your head is worth to these people?” he growls to her quietly, jerking his head toward the men who’ve been no doubt quarreling on that very same topic. “To the Queen?”
“Twice as much as yours, at least,” she’s quick to remind him (always), looking smug of all things, and it vexes him that even now she could reduce this to something as petty as a competition between the two of them.
“That’s hardly the point,” Robin mutters, returning to his careful scrutiny of their path ahead. He signals back to her as best as he’s able whenever the ground levels off unexpectedly or a protruding root upsets his footing, and he can only hope she’s not so proud as to ignore even these small warnings.
She makes an impatient sound in her throat when he doesn’t make the effort to lecture her any further. “So are you done, or…?”
He ducks beneath a low-lying branch that’s overgrown the width of the road, slowing his gait to allow Regina time to do the same without, quite literally, risking her neck. “We’ve still much to discuss, you and I.”
“Maybe later,” she tells him dismissively once their pace has found a regular rhythm again.
“Oh?” And in spite of everything, he finds himself battling a smile. “You’ve more important matters requiring your attention, I take it?”
“Now’s just not a great time.” She sounds increasingly distracted as they tread along, picking their way around cumbersome ferns, sidestepping hollowed bits of walnut shells that litter the soil. The stream has started bending eastward as the trail takes them further north, and too soon they’ll have reached the outermost corners of Sherwood Forest, of home.
“We’ve another day’s walk to the castle at least,” Robin argues for the sake of appearances, given that he’s no actual intention for either of them to see said walk to the end. “Tell me, then, when would be more convenient for you? After we’re comfortably settled into our prison cells? Or just before our beheading?”
He can practically hear Regina’s eyes rolling behind his back, every inch of her likely poised in retort, when Tiny swivels around to regard them both with a dour expression.
“Would you two knock it off for a while?” the giant wants to know, before adding a disgruntled “You’re kind of making my ears bleed.” He hazards a glance over Robin’s head then, and whatever he sees there has him beckoning Robin forward with a shifty-eyed twitch of his chin, dropping his voice so low that the words barely make it past the length of his beard. “Listen. I’ve given it some more thought, and she’s all y—”
Robin never quite catches that last bit, distracted as he is by a sudden, odd pulsing of light in his periphery, too bright, too deliberate to have come from the sun.
Before he has a chance to wonder if he’s seeing things, Regina closes in at his heels, forcing him to stagger-step in tandem with her strides (pressing, relentless) before she topples them both over, trapping his hands somewhere between the lambswool of her vest collar and the smooth belted leather at her waist.
“What the bloody – Regina, what are you—”
“Do me a favor.” Her request is even-toned, almost offhand in the way she lets it settle into his ear, but he doesn’t miss the restrained sense of urgency behind it, and his eyes instinctively dart back up to the front, where the guards are still negotiating the terms of their claim to the Queen’s most precious cargo.
He exchanges a look with Tiny, who appears to have caught on to the sudden shift, and the giant nods wordlessly to him before facing meaningfully forward again, straight-backed and vigilant.
Robin inclines his head toward Regina until he can feel stray wisps of her hair tickling his jawline. “What will you have me do?”
“There’s another dagger – there – in my vest. I need you to get it.”
Unbelievable. “And you didn't think to mention it earlier?” he says, aggravated, though given her track record (notoriously bad at sharing, for one) he supposes it’s hardly shocking that she would have thought to keep such crucial details to herself.
“I was waiting for the opportune moment,” she hisses, and it’s his turn to roll his eyes while he finagles his hands into a position better suited for (he sighs) more or less feeling her up, carefully laboring his way through her muttered guidance – to the right, down, then down more (pay attention), and do you feel it yet (well what’s taking you so long)?
“Watch it,” she warns in a rush when one hand strays farther right than either of them wanted, knuckles brushing against the unmistakable swell of a breast beneath her collar, and he curses, curses, curses this woman, thinking of how he’d rather perish at the hands of the Queen than a part of Regina’s anything, her razor-like gaze, those deceptively soft curves, that knife she’d stabbed into his back at least one time already.
“Got it.” He retrieves the dagger, gripping the hilt like a lifeline and feeling relieved in more ways than one as Regina finally steps away, giving him room to recover his balance and find that breath he’d quite forgotten to take.
His thumb catches on a groove in the handle, tracing over the engraved surface of a lion’s mane that he’s felt a hundred times before, could likely sketch out to minute detail from sheer memory alone.
“Hang on. This is my dagger.”
“You don’t miss a thing,” she drawls.
“You do realize this marks the second time, now, that you’ve more or less proved to harbor some death wish against me?”
“Well there’s no need to be dramatic about it,” sniffs Regina. “You’re lucky I got caught when I did. Unless you were waiting to reach the Queen’s doorstep before choosing to do something about it, you clearly needed someone’s help.”
“Because you stole my dagger.”
“You would’ve done the same thing,” she mutters exasperatedly, as though she’d had every expectation that he would be this difficult, and he manages to breathe through the height of his temper before turning to regard her again.
“No,” Robin tells her evenly, and he likes to imagine he’s more than unsettled her, that scowl of hers beginning to slip at the firm tone he’s taken, and she looks almost confused by his unwillingness to play by their usual rules. “I wouldn’t have.”
Regina seems to recover the next instant, and she stares mulishly up at him, her face inscrutable now.
He slides his gaze away and toward the ground, not wishing (not ready) to see her reaction as he goes on, matter-of-factly, “You and I both know I would never do a bloody thing that put you in harm’s way.”
Her answering silence cuts at him more than he’ll willingly admit, and then her voice is reaching to touch him again, half in challenge, half in entreaty. “So cut me loose.”
Robin obliges without another word, sawing swiftly through the rope, and the fibrous twining gives bit by bit until it’s falling away, freeing her from him.
She’s suddenly pressing herself along his backside again, with the distinct sound of a smirk against his ear as she whispers, all teasing warmth for having gotten in the last word with him, “Try to keep up this time.”
Not even a sodding thank you.
And then she’s gone.
“She’s something,” Tiny remarks, with wonder evident in every towering inch of his frame, and together they follow her flight through the trees as the forest, down to its very leaves, seems to part at her command, swallowing her safely out of sight.
Something doesn’t even begin to cover it.
At least she’d had the decency to leave him with more than just a blow to his pride this time around.
Robin turns the dagger point inward, working it deep into the knots binding his wrists together. It’s a far trickier task than simply slicing away at the rope, taking care not to cut himself too badly on the blade, but he soon finds a manageable rhythm and his mind begins to wander, inevitably it seems, to chase after Regina.
She’ll likely have found a more expedient form of transportation by now, absconded with another’s horse or charmed her way into someone else’s carriage, and Robin tells himself he’s glad for it. The greater the runaround she can give the guards the better, though it’s not that particular distance so much as the one growing and growing between the two of them that he finds he’s so preoccupied with at the moment.
Regina hadn’t given him that much of a head start, and he wonders what good it would do him –  how much a horse and his portion of the scrolls are actually worth (knowing full well the worth of other things) – even if he does choose to pursue her, once he’s made his escape. They’ve always been so terribly careful, so calculated in their space and their debts, their reservations and the risks they’re willing to take with one another.
What would they be without any of these things standing between them, Robin wonders, and it’s the hope of discovery, that thrill of what’s yet uncharted as far as Regina is concerned, that fuels every impulse he’s ever ignored in the past to simply go after her this time.
As absorbed in his thoughts as he is, he hardly pays attention to Tiny’s small-sounding “Uh oh,” nor the deafening stillness that’s overtaken their party, until it’s spread halfway down the line, and he nearly runs into the giant from behind before coming to an uneasy stop himself.
The guards, from the sound of it, have settled their differences for the time being and begun a routine sweep, taking stock of their prisoners and loudly debating which of their sad-looking lot will be fortunate enough to receive a sip of water once they’ve procured more from the stream.
The golden-haired guard is, naturally, the first to take note of Regina’s absence.
“Where is she?” he roars, raising hell as he stalks toward Robin, drawing his sword and shaking it outward in a blind sort of fury. “How the hell did she escape? Leroy! Search the woods! She won’t have made it far on foot!”
Nothing for it but to go down fighting, Robin thinks grimly as the rope finally begins to budge and loosen. And if he can take this bastard down with him, so much the better.
“You!” growls the guard, livid, sword point coming within rather uncomfortable proximity to Robin’s chest. “Which way did she go? You must have helped her do it!”
Robin leans in close enough for the blade tip to just nick the leather trim of his vest, confiding with a solemn, “Not for the first time, as it so happens,” and then he winks at him.
Not to be toyed with, the guard presses further, thundering, “Tell me where she went,” when the bushes beside them give a great, violent shudder. Robin backs away with hardly a second to spare before the mare is bursting back through, powerful legs lowering to tread the path where he’d just stood.
This time, she isn’t riding alone.
“Looking for me?” a voice above them wonders, and Regina reins the horse to a stop inches in front of the guard’s incredulous face.
In the brief moments since they’d been separated, Regina had worked herself completely free, with chafed-red skin in place of the rope around her wrists and neck, and Robin looks upward to find her gaze startlingly warm on his.
She turns to address the guard once more, tilting her head almost coquettishly as she clucks her tongue at him. “Honestly, Charming, did you really think I was going to leave without saying goodbye?”
“You should’ve run while you had the chance, Regina,” he sneers up at her, swinging his sword in a slow, lazy arc that has the mare prancing backward, tossing her head with a loud, wet snort. The sword advances with another wide sweep, more deliberately paced this time. “I’ll deliver you to Her Majesty in a coffin if I have to now.”
“I’m afraid I can’t allow that to happen,” Robin interrupts them gravely then, and he tosses the leftover pieces of rope aside. They flop to a useless pile on the ground, the remaining length of it still dangling from Tiny’s bound wrists.
The giant lets out a low, impressed whistle as Robin, fingering the hilt of his dagger, brings it casually into view.
The guard – Charming, Regina had called him, though Robin has every intention of questioning her peculiar choice of labels later – looks from one to the other, visibly weighing his odds.
Regina makes the decision for him then, urging the mare to canter forward and force the guard into a hasty, stumbling retreat, completely taken aback by the boldness of her move.
“Go release the others,” she orders Robin, and he opens his mouth to object (a cheeky Are you sure you don’t need me to distract him? on the tip of his tongue) when she expertly maneuvers the reins, rearing the horse back onto her hind legs, and Charming, cowed, nearly loses his balance.
Well, then.
On second thought, he’s quite certain she’s more than capable of handling herself.
Tiny is practically beaming at her, and Robin, shaking his head with something like admiration himself, turns to untie the man when a large palm the size of a salad plate clasps him firmly around the shoulder. Robin feels himself being hauled backward, coming face to face with a remarkably familiar, bushy-bearded grin.
“Miss me?” beams his oldest friend, thumping Robin soundly across the back before retrieving a set of blades from his boots. “Let me assist you with that.”
“Oi! Robin!” calls out another voice, originating from somewhere within the dense greenery several paces ahead of them. Seconds later, none other than Will Scarlet emerges from the underbrush, dragging behind him a gagged, bound and rather surly-looking dwarf. “What should I do with this one, d’you reckon?”
Robin has hardly recovered from his astonishment when, as if on cue, no fewer than a dozen of his men are bursting out of the woodworks, brandishing axes and crossbows and shouting spectacularly as they descend upon the flustered guards up front.
“Well we weren’t about to let Regina have all the fun, you know,” yells Little John, looking pleased with Robin’s expression – still cautiously suspended somewhere between delight and utter bewilderment – as he goes about freeing the rest of the prisoners.
“Are they with her?” Tiny wants to know, rubbing the soreness out of his wrists and blinking about in a state of absolute wonder. Robin’s men have already begun to make quick work of the Queen’s, if their exuberant shouting is any indication. Regina, on her part, has effectively trapped Sir Charming between her horse and a nest of prickly vines. “This is hands down the most amazing rescue mission I’ve ever seen.”
Robin would have scowled and set the record straight on who, exactly, his men answer to, had he not noticed one of the guards jostling loose from the ongoing skirmish and about to make a run for the trees. His overlarge helmet has been knocked comically askew, an empty scabbard clanking against his armor with each hurried step.
Politely excusing himself, Robin breaks into an easy jog after the runaway guard.
Incapacitating him ends up taking such little effort on Robin’s part that he’s fairly embarrassed by it, slipping behind the unsuspecting guard and applying but the slightest pressure with his blade to the softness beneath the man’s jaw before he’s throwing up his hands in surrender.
Robin tosses him in with the rest of his lot, now sat clumsily down on the dirt with their backs in a circle, shackled at the ankles and wrists and looking altogether worse for the wear while the Merry Men help themselves to their weapons and supplies.
“The Queen will see all of you burn for this,” the dwarf is snarling from where he’s been crammed between elbows, and Robin cheerfully bends down to twine a piece of cloth around his mouth and spare everyone else from the noise.
By the time he’s turned to seek her out again, Regina has already dismounted, carting the last of them behind her like a dog on a leash.
She’d certainly done a number on him, and Robin might have winced on the guard’s behalf if the sight of him weren’t so bloody satisfying.
Charming looks badly banged up, with his hair now severely deflated, a significant dent in his breastplate shaped curiously like a horseshoe, and somewhere in the thick of a struggle he’d somehow managed to misplace his sword.
Trying and failing to tuck back a smile, Robin strides forward to meet Regina halfway, and then they carefully trail to a pause once they’re at arm’s length away, something like shyness still holding the both of them back.
He’s known many things to stand between them before, but never an uncertainty quite like this, an unspoken wonder at what else they might prove capable of feeling, and it thrills and unsettles him in equal measure.
“You know, I had everything under control,” he tells her, teasing, an echo of the first words she’d ever spoken to him so many summers ago, and she purses her lips in a poor attempt at looking stern with him.
“You’re welcome.”
He inclines his head. “Thank you, milady.”
She rolls her eyes at him. “I brought you something.”
He tilts his head sideways and pretends to consider her offering, while Charming spits blood on the ground and glares daggers at Regina’s back.
“And I suppose you think this makes up for everything I’ve had to endure today?” Robin keeps his tone light, playful, his smile never leaving him, but it seems to throw her all the same. Her gaze shifts away from his as she fiddles with her braid, the action entirely self-conscious and entirely disarming to him.
He takes another step toward her.
“What’s all this?” Will is demanding suddenly, marching up to them with a reproachful eye for Robin. “You planning to help the lady out or go on standing there all damn day? It’s not like she hasn’t already done the hardest parts for you.”
Shaking his head, the lad relieves Regina of her burden, tutting at a petulant-looking Charming to “hurry along now” and yelling ahead for Friar Tuck to “add this bugger to the pile” before they pitch the keys into the river.
Several of the recently freed convicts have gathered to welcome the guard, massaging their fists with gleeful intent.
“All right, all right,” Robin hears Will conceding to them, “you can rough him up a bit more – just bear in mind that we still want our message to the Queen to be fairly recognizable by the time it’s delivered to her, yeah?”
Regina is biting back something suspiciously like a smile when Robin ruefully meets her eye again. Without anything to occupy her hands now, she shoves them under her arms, pulling a face when the movement reminds her of her injured shoulder.
“Let me have a look.” Unable to recall why space had seemed so crucial to keep between them earlier, he reaches for her, just grazing her elbow when she eases out of his grasp.
“Later,” she says, and he will hold her to her word, whether she’d meant it genuinely or not.
The horse, having grown fidgety from the recent lull in action, trots over to join them, nudging a nose into Regina’s arm and sniffing around for any apples she might have stowed there.
“Dapple,” Robin greets his longtime riding companion before muttering a half-hearted “Traitor” under his breath, earning a true, unrestrained smile from Regina this time, and the loveliness of it leaves him fairly out of breath.
“You have excellent taste, don’t you,” she hums to his mare, rubbing an affectionate hand over the muzzle, but there’s an unfocused look to her now, taking her far enough away from him that he feels the distance like a palpable thing.
He wonders if she hasn’t grown as restless as his horse, eager to move on – ready to forget whatever they’ve finally begun to uncover between them and go back to pretending they’re little more than sometimes-friendly rivals with a bad habit of accumulating debts with one another.
“We’ll have to be more careful from now on,” Regina says, pulling his gaze back to the front where his men have chained Charming to a tree, the guard beaten nearly beyond recognition but for the murderous eye he’s trained on them both. They may be walking free today, but at too steep a price, and he will come to collect with a vengeance, tomorrow and every day after until they’ve no place left to run.
As loath as Robin is to admit it, they can hardly call this a victory, knowing the Queen will not suffer the embarrassment in silence.
“We’d be better off getting rid of them in a more…permanent fashion,” he murmurs, already guessing Regina’s answer.
She shakes her head, toying with Dapple’s bridle while Robin’s men take one last turn around the heap of guards, finalizing arrangements and readying themselves for departure. “I won’t be the monster she is. Or the monster she thinks I am.”
Robin heaves a sigh of agreement, nodding to Little John when the man beckons, yelling earnestly about the ale that awaits them at Granny’s tavern.
The invitation had been all-inclusive, the crooks and thieves they’d liberated already exchanging the heartiest of chuckles and backslapping the Merry Men like old friends reunited, but Regina seems to have read it as her cue to take her leave instead.
“Until next time, then.” She extends the reins to Robin with a formality that he’s rather disinclined to accept from her, not now, after all they’ve been through together.
His hand closes around hers, sliding a gentle thumb over the bony part of her wrist. The ropes had scraped deep, leaving raw, angry welts on her skin, and he resolves to tend to those too, once he’s seen to her shoulder. “You really think I’m going to let you go that easily.”
She arches a brow in challenge, though she’s yet to shake him off, and he’ll take his victories wherever he can.
“At the very least you owe me that drink,” he bargains with her, feeling suddenly bold, reckless even, and he throws in a crooked sort of grin to tip her over one way or the other.
“One drink,” she allows, thinning her lips together, though whether to press back a scowl or a smile he’s not entirely certain.
He schools his expression into one of polite interest, shrugging at her in an indulgent manner, “If you insist,” and she rises to the bait with a single dirty look.
Relatively reassured that the chances of her taking off again are somewhat lessened now, at least until she’s found a way to settle the score, he loosens their fingers where they’ve come together, releasing the reins as he gestures for her to mount.
“After you, milady.”
Little John leads the party in the general direction of their encampment, detouring slightly west to pass through the alleyway behind Granny’s tavern. He and several of the other men disappear into the back bearing various accoutrements they’d acquired from the guards, emerging shortly thereafter with barrels of ale, cured meats and an assortment of cheeses fit for a feast.
“Courtesy of the Evil Queen!” crows Will, punching the air in triumph, and the men start up a round of song as they resume their journey, with the promises of celebration, starlight and cavorting round a campfire not far ahead of them.
The day’s events have worn Robin down more than he’d realized, and the exhaustion begins to make itself known as the sky fully darkens, filling his body from head to toe with a heaviness he hardly has the strength to fight. More than once he finds himself swaying sideways, his vision blackening, only to be jerked out of a creeping slumber as the ground beneath him lurches unpleasantly and Regina’s glowering face shifts into focus.
“Are you trying to break something else now too?” she wonders grouchily, throwing his arms more securely around her middle, and he curls instinctive fingers into her tunic, wondering if he’s imagined the slight hitch where he flattens his palms just below her ribcage.
“Are you suggesting you’d actually like me in one piece?” he teases into her ear, and she turns to stone in his arms, stiffly facing front again and scoffing under her breath about how she should’ve checked him for head injuries.
He smiles to the back of her hair, thoroughly enjoying her noise of protest when Dapple gives some thorny bramble a wide berth and the movement rocks Regina solidly into his chest.
Robin marvels at how he’d been able to fall asleep at all with her nestled into him as she is, warm against his thighs, firmly pressed between his palm and belly, the faintly floral scent of her tickling his nose every time she shakes a fallen lock of hair from her face.
Will trots past on his grey saddlebred, side-eyeing them while looking strangely smug about something. Only then does Robin become aware of his hands and where they ought to be or not, one of them already straying dangerously beyond the boundaries of what’s considered strictly decent.
His fingertips have just settled back into the notches between her ribs when Regina carefully slips the reins into his grasp, muttering something about making himself useful for a change, and he’s grateful to have another place to put his hands for a while, where they’re much less likely to get him in trouble.
He feels an odd amalgamation of relief and disappointment when an enthusiastic whooping sounds from the front, announcing their arrival home.
Robin dismounts first, extending a hand that Regina brushes impatiently aside, and the sight of her rigid back as she stalks off to join the others drops something dull and heavy into his chest.
He keeps himself busy for a while, thanking each of his men for their timely assistance and receiving more than a few good-natured quips in return. Will gleefully remarks on what a pretty damsel in distress Robin had made, with his bruised-up eye and the sorry state of his nose, and Friar Tuck reassures him between bouts of their laughter that he’s the necessary herbs and medicines to speed along his recovery.
“And Regina is far easier on the eyes than any knight I’ve ever seen,” continues Will, earning an emphatic nod of agreement from Tiny. “It’s a lucky thing she found us, really. You should’ve seen the look on her face when she—”
But Little John has chosen that moment to trundle by, distributing an armful of flagons amongst their circle, and Will, distracted by the prospect of a drink, never quite finishes the thought.
“How did you wind up so far north near the Queen’s roads?” Robin asks them curiously, wondering at the fortuitous timing of things between Regina’s hard-earned escape and her happening upon his men in the woods, recruiting them to ambush the royal guard and come to their leader’s rescue.
But for now they all appear too preoccupied with celebrating said victory to concern themselves with rehashing every detail leading up to it, and the question seems to fall entirely on deaf ears.
Frowning thoughtfully into his untouched ale, Robin ducks carefully out of the conversation and continues to make his rounds about the campfire. The strays they’d taken in that day are eager to make his acquaintance, and they express their profound gratitude to him, as if he had been the one to personally orchestrate their escape.
His protests are quickly written off as an unconvincing show of humility, and Robin, chagrined, can only smile and drink to their hearty toasts, hoping that the true mastermind behind the rescue mission won’t consider this as yet another one of his numerous offenses against her.
As for his own men, they continue to remain bafflingly mum on the part they’d played, and though there’s little room for paranoia when one lives and works amongst thieves, Robin is under the distinct impression that they’re avoiding something every time they respond to his questions with a longer than usual drag from their ale.
Regina, on the other hand, seems to have decided on ignoring him entirely for the remainder of the evening, always suddenly and mysteriously elsewhere whenever he approaches to exchange pleasantries with another cluster of men who swear to him they’d only just spoken with her.
The fact that she’s not actually left yet ought to reassure him to some degree, but still Robin finds himself half-worrying she’ll disappear on him completely before he’s a chance to – well – to be honest he hasn’t worked out what, exactly, but it feels important, somehow, that she’s chosen to stay while he does.
The crowds are beginning to thin a bit by the time he completes his circuit, some of their new compatriots electing to retire and find their respective ways home before night has crowded too close to the roads. Tiny is one of the last to grip Robin’s arm in farewell.
“Would you like an introduction before you go?” Robin teases him, nodding across the campfire toward the unmistakable silhouette of Regina (slight, hair wild in the growing winds), where she’s currently deposited on an overturned log and deep in conversation with Little John. “I can put in a good word, for whatever mine’s worth to her.”
A hearty chortle, then, “Nah, it’s all right. I know a losing battle when I see one.”
Robin looks quizzically at him.
“Anyone with eyes can tell she’s already spoken for,” shrugs the giant in an offhand fashion, as though it’s no big secret who could ever be so bold or so successful as to claim the heart of one Regina Mills. All Robin can do is stare at him, wondering what sort of conclusion he’d already come to in mere hours that Robin had been unable to see in all his time of knowing this woman.
“Wow. You’re a clueless one, aren’t you,” his friend remarks. “I suppose it hasn’t occurred to you that her capture was probably not an accident?”
Robin finds that he has no answer.
With a smile that pulls at his beard, the man hefts the bag Tuck had packed him, bulging with bread rolls and the like. Whistling a cheerful tune, he departs through the trees, leaving Robin to puzzle over the truly ludicrous thought that rescuing him might have been Regina’s plan all along, that she had…but no. She wouldn’t.
But had she?
Running short on excuses to distract himself from the inevitable now, he circles back around the campsite, weaving unnoticed through his liquor-soaked men and keeping close to the shadows until he’s nearly reached their log.
He loiters there longer than is strictly polite, telling himself that he’d rather not interrupt the very serious discussion they appear to be having between bites of dinner and sips of ale.
Their backs are to him, and Robin observes with some amusement that Regina’s head barely comes level with John’s shoulder, despite his friend’s slouching posture as she jerks a chin up toward his ear.
“Thank you,” Robin hears her say, words he’s never known her to be capable of, and they sound rough on her tongue but sincere all the same. “For your help.”
John is shaking his head with a chuckling sigh, talking around a mouthful of porridge. “That was, without a doubt, the stupidest plan you’ve ever had. Of course I was in.” His spoon scrapes the bottom of his bowl, and he nods his thanks when Regina relieves him of the cutlery and passes him a fresh pint of ale instead.
“However.” He waggles a stern, slightly tipsy-looking finger in her face. “You forgot the bit about how you were supposed to await my signal before making a scene. And I don’t recall that being a part of the plan either.” He makes a broad gesture, calling attention to her general air of dishevelment, the ginger way she’s still holding her shoulder, the rope burns she’d sustained.
The cut on her lip that should never have come to pass.
“Well what was I supposed to do when Charming stormed at me through the bushes?” Regina drawls, shrugging off her injuries, though even in this dim lighting Robin doesn’t miss the painful tick in her jaw at the movement. “I had to improvise.”
John harrumphs.
“Besides,” she says dismissively, “we got what we came for. Mission accomplished.”
“Suppose I can’t argue when you put it that way,” relents John gruffly, sounding like he’d very much love nothing better than to do exactly that. “Are you ever planning on telling him that part of the story?”
She’s suddenly fascinated by a bit of dirt on her shirtsleeve.
John smiles in a resigned sort of fashion. “I thought as much. Well, lass, your secret is safe with me, for as long as you wish it. By the by…” He rummages around for something in his tunic, retrieving a knapsack and handing it over to Regina. “I kept them safe for you, as promised.”
“Sorry,” Robin speaks up behind them then, unable to hold himself back any longer. He steps within the circle of firelight as they both start and fall silent. “Am I interrupting anything?”
Regina’s expression closes off as she turns to glance at him over one shoulder, while John’s eyes go comically wide, cheeks turned ruddy as though they’ve just been caught in some awfully compromising position.
Robin’s gaze never leaves Regina’s, searching there, waiting for her to reveal something of herself to him, but she’s as miserably inscrutable as ever.
“Right, then,” John announces loudly to no one in particular, “I’ll just go…refill…this.” He jerks at the near-full drink in his hand, liquid sloshing over the rim as he stands in a hurry and scarpers.
Robin advances with caution, approaching Regina as one might some creature in the wild, for fear of startling her into flight should he make any too-sudden movements. He indicates the spot John had just vacated. “May I join you?”
“I’m not stopping you.” She looks away as he takes a seat beside her, a near-imperceptible stiffening to her spine, and though he carefully gives her space, placing himself flush with the edge of the log, he’ll not let her off the hook so easily in other regards.
“You still owe me that drink,” he reminds her, gaze steady and unrelenting even as she dallies obstinately for several seconds before meeting it again.
Her mouth immediately opens on a scowl, as if by some instinctive need to make things difficult for him, but the words seem to fade as she looks him slowly up and down, cataloguing all that she sees until he begins to shift in discomfort, unsure what it is that she wants from him, what else she might be waiting to hear him say.
“Here,” she says at last, brusquely pushing her pint into his hands, “you can have mine,” and then she’s shoving herself from the log with such force it lurches backward, leaving him to find his balance again while she stalks purposefully away from him, clutching the scrolls John had just returned to her.
Well that was…not entirely unexpected, Robin supposes, given her track record thus far, though he takes very little comfort in the fact. Her abandoned drink weighs rather heavily on his spirits as he resigns himself to this distance she seems intent on keeping between them, now that their debts have been squared away and he’s no longer in need of her rescuing.
He’s raising the flagon to his lips when she returns, her arms laden with various cloth bags, a few precariously balanced bowls of noxious-smelling substances that couldn’t possibly be edible – unless, of course, her plan is to poison him.
Freezing, Robin can only stare as Regina reclaims her seat on the log, dumping the pile at his feet before turning to face him with a stern, business-like expression. He feels the flagon being pulled from his unresisting grip, and then she’s thunking it down on the ground with the rest of her things.
“Come here,” she orders him imperiously, a hint of her royal upbringing showing through, and what can he do but obey, musing all the while about how differently this story might have turned out had Regina been the one on the throne instead of the famed Snow White.
“You first,” he attempts to bargain with her when she reaches to address his wounds, and her surly expression earns a gently teasing smile from him, one she quickly casts aside with a firm grip on his chin.
“Hold still,” she mutters irritably, shifting forward and peering down at the state of his nose with a look of intense concentration, lips pursed, eyes narrowed as though his injuries might heal on their own if she simply glares at them hard enough.
“Just a scratch,” he can’t help but murmur, and she bristles in a predictable fashion as he struggles to better contain his smile this time.
There may as well have been a dragon perched on the log beside him at that moment instead, for all the smoldering ire just behind her eyes as she leans ever closer, breathing fire and bearing down on him with deadly intent, and Robin might even have feared less for his safety had that actually been the case.
He braces himself for imminent contact, but then Regina’s testing the length of his nose with a tenderness he hadn’t expected, pressing gingerly, quietly huffing her exasperation when he flinches on instinct away from her hand.
“Hold still,” she repeats, but kinder now, softening her scowl with every wince that he makes. He thinks it a rather difficult thing to ask of him when she’s sitting so close as she is, one knee pressed into his thigh, her face hovering just above his at a distance too tempting not to do something about, and he forces his eyes shut against the view.
She inspects his nose a minute longer as an easy silence falls between them, filling with the light, fitful cracklings of the campfire, pulling out snippets of conversation from the not-so-distant rumblings of his men as stories pass over clinking pitchers. John is bellowing something indistinct about which bones to break first in a fight, Will joining in soon thereafter, until the lot of them are nearly overflowing with laughter and ale.
Robin finds himself grateful for their distraction, his men entirely oblivious – or at least behaving that way – to the two of them on their remote little log, wrapped up in one another out of necessity, or perhaps something more, this time.
He eventually cracks his eyes open again when he feels Regina moving away from him. “Definitely broken,” she announces shortly, and he grimaces to have guessed as much while she swoops down to collect some of the supplies she’d brought with her, selecting several bags as well as a bowl with a particularly pungent odor before settling the lot into her lap.
She carefully measures out pinches of dried herbs, grinding them to dust between fingertips over the bowl and swirling a thumb into the mixture. “The good news is that your face is no more crooked than usual for it, so there’s no use in trying to set it back.”
“Lucky indeed,” Robin deadpans, and she gives him something vaguely resembling a smile before she bends over him, her lips pressing back together in a thin, focused line.
The touch of her fingers to his face is so light he might not have felt it but for a rapidly spreading sensation of coolness where the salve begins to work some kind of magic, chasing away the worst of the pain, clearing out his nasal passages. He breathes in, pleasantly surprised to discover that the herbs she’d added appear to have neutralized the scent, coaxing it toward something clean and mint-like, crisp as the air after an early morning drizzle.
A buzz of warmth has begun to fill him, reaching the farthest parts of his chest, and he knows it’s not just gratitude he feels for her, this woman who is so determined still to act as though he’s little more than a sometimes-rival to her.
He knows better now. He does.
He does.
Robin tries not to let his gaze wander too obviously down to her mouth while she works, wondering at what the consequences might be of such boldness – wondering whether he cares – but the gentle way she’s lifted a steadying hand to cup the side of his face lulls him into recklessness, loosening words from his tongue.
“So,” he says, “I have it on reasonably good authority that you allowed yourself to be captured by the Queen’s guard.”
He suspects for a moment that she will deny it – As if I’d do something that careless and stupid, he can already hear her say in scathing dismissal – but Regina doesn’t falter, fingers never breaking stride as she replies evenly, “Were you under the impression that they could ever catch me on purpose?”
Robin bites down on one corner of his smile. “Of course not. My mistake.”
She shrugs her good shoulder in a lofty sort of manner and tells him, primly, “Wouldn’t be your first.”
“No,” he agrees, then, because she’s made it all too easy for him, “And I’ve certainly made my fair share of those today. Trusting you not to sell me out after that job, for example.”
“Bandit,” she reminds him immediately, but she can’t seem to meet his eye, and her hands drop from his face to busy themselves with scraping restless little circles into the bottom of her bowl. Forgetting any need to exercise restraint with her, Robin eases a palm over her fidgeting fingers, and he understands how truly vulnerable he’s found her in this moment when she doesn’t bother pulling away from him.
“There is honor to be had amongst thieves, as you’ve well proven,” he argues kindly, running his thumb along her wrist with as light a touch as he can bear, careful not to frighten her off, poised for flight as she is, has always been, with him. “Besides, some mistakes are worth regretting, and that was hardly the gravest of the many I have made today.”
“No?” she asks tonelessly, intent as ever on avoiding his gaze, as though such a thing will do far more damage than any sort of physical contact between them.
“No.” Robin lets his eyes fall to touch her mouth at last, stumbling over her upper lip where the smoothness there had broken open, marked by little more now than a thin, dried splinter of blood.
There’s a sharp, audible hitch when he lifts a daring hand to stroke his thumb across the wound, her breath coming out in warm, shallow puffs against his skin. He splays his fingers over her jawline, trailing another finger down to the redness around her neck that the guard’s makeshift noose had left behind.
“I’m fine,” she tells him, quietly insistent.
“Perhaps.” His voice has dropped to a murmur, rough and low as it passes from somewhere deep in his throat. “Be that as it may, milady, I believe it’s your turn to hold still a moment.”
Her eyes finally swing upward to land most unnervingly on his, unblinking as she stares at him, wary. She doesn’t move to stop him when he raises his other hand, still loosely joined with hers, and touches the raw-pink underside of her wrist to his lips.
“Robin…” His name escapes her on a sigh, in warning or exasperation, some half-made attempt to convince him that the sudden kick in her pulse has little to do with the kiss he’s just pressed there, or the second, or the third when he realizes he’s gotten away with the first two.
She never quite recovers her voice long enough to protest further, and he shifts forward on the log, bringing his mouth within centimeters of her own. He flattens her palm over his chest, willing her to sense the madness beneath it, the thundering, and know that she’s the one who has caused the storm there.
His thumb has drifted down to catch at her lower lip, gently tugging, and her mouth parts at his touch, gaze growing warm and heavy, the look of her utterly impossible for him to resist now.
The bowl tumbles forgotten from her lap, landing with a soft thump onto the earth at their feet as he snakes an arm around her middle, coaxing her close, closer. The rigid lines of her body seem to soften against her will, curving slowly into him until he’s certain he’ll never again feel quite whole without her pressed against him as she is.
He carefully brushes aside a lock of hair that’s come loose from her braid, twining it around his fingertips and cupping her cheek in his palm. She bumps the tip of her nose into his, as if to test how well the salve has settled, and Robin’s mouth slides sideways into a mischievous grin as he returns the favor with far less delicacy, smearing leafy bits of paste across her skin.
Her face scrunches in a captivating manner, her answering scowl only half-formed, out of habit, and the air between them goes hushed and still, as though they’d both in their teasing neglected to take a proper breath.
“Regina,” he murmurs.
She blinks, bewildered, as he leans further in, and then her lashes are fluttering closed.
Her lips touch his with an aching uncertainty, cautious and brief, pulling away almost as quickly as she’d brought them together. His eyes open to find hers in some state of turmoil, wild and borderline fearful, as if she’s just done a terrible thing and simply can’t fathom how he might respond.
It is ridiculous – she is ridiculous – and Robin might have thought to point out as much were he not so focused on how he longs to kiss her again.
So he does.
He eases his mouth over hers, gently, ever so aware of that cut he’d rather not reopen, but then her lips are parting, soft and full and oh so inviting, and he cannot help but slip his tongue out to meet hers halfway, sliding, and tangling, and gods.
He kisses her, kisses her, kisses her until they're both breathless from it, and still it isn't enough, that heady sensation each time their lips come back together, how she sighs into him whenever he dips in to taste her again just so.
Regina’s breaking contact once more, too soon, bending to reach something on the ground before he’s even fully recovered his senses, and then she’s closing his hand around a rucksack, several rolls of parchment taking some vague form at his fingertips.
He lifts a searching gaze to hers.
“Take them,” she says, voice gravelly-rough, scratched bare with some emotion he can’t quite identify, and he’s having trouble reading her now. “They’re yours. You should take them.”
Robin feels her watching him as he turns the scrolls over in his palm. He pauses, testing their weight, and then his grip tightens, lifting them up before carefully, deliberately, tossing them into the firepit some yards ahead. There’s a flare of light as the flames eagerly lick up the cloth and its contents, pounds of gold upon gold now gone to waste, and neither of them move to salvage what remains.
“Those scrolls were never what I was after,” he tells her simply while Regina stares and stares at him, speechless but for all the tenderness and something like wonder left unspoken in her eyes as as he presses his lips back to hers.
He’s lost to her again in an instant, gathering her hair to the nape of her neck, angling her slightly as he tilts his head in kind. He takes her lower lip between his teeth for a quick little nibble before slanting his mouth fully back over hers, deepening the kiss, relishing the feel of her, silky, warm, and still tasting vaguely of ale.
She’s humming soft things into his mouth, sighs and other sounds he’s never heard from her before – a throaty mmm that spreads heat low in his belly, a muffled squeak of surprise when he slides a palm down her back, the other locking under her knee to hoist her sideways into his lap.
The movement jostles their lips apart, just long enough for Robin to catch his breath and then thoroughly lose it again as he takes in the sight of her. With her back to the firelight, it’s difficult to make out more than shades and shadows, but there’s no mistaking the rosy flush to her cheeks, the look of swollen pink lips now well-seen-to – and the hint of a smile, alluring in its disbelief, as her fingers creep upward to dance almost tentatively along either side of his neck.
He holds her gaze steady with his own, trying to communicate to her the things that he thinks might scare her away, were he to say them aloud.
She drops her eyes away from his before too long, clearly not comfortable with whatever she’s seen in them, but she seems content to let him hold her in other ways for now, and he takes the opportunity to press a kiss to her injured shoulder, inquiring lowly, “How does it feel?”
“I’d forgotten about it,” she tells him, sounding perfectly sincere, but there’s a teasing turn to her tone when she mentions next, “I must have gotten distracted by something.”
“Oh,” says Robin with mock seriousness, “yes, I’ve been told that I can be a very…” He makes his way across her collarbone, threads of her fur collar catching in his stubble, “…very…” then up the column of her neck to find her pulse point, and she opens her throat to him, dragging fingertips into his scalp as he explores her skin with lips and tongue, “…good distraction.”
He noses slow, open-mouthed kisses up to her jawline, enjoying the way she arches into him, the content little noises that catch a bit before tumbling out of her, and then she’s stilling suddenly, sounding winded but stern all the same as she accuses him, “You’re rubbing everything into my hair.”
Robin leans guiltily back, pulling with him matted strands of her hair that have stubbornly clung to the remaining paste around his nose and eye. She carefully sweeps them aside, with a scowl she doesn’t quite sell, and then she’s sighing when he offers her a sheepish sort of grin in return, resigning herself to something as she bends over his good eye and dots a kiss to his brow.
“I gather a reapplication will be in order, then?” he wonders, playfully innocent, as she fusses irritably with her ruined handiwork. “And while you’re at it, my back is starting to feel a bit sore as well…” He trails off suggestively, winking up at her once she’s settled back enough to see it, feeling terribly tempted to kiss away each downturned corner of her frown.
“Keep it up and that won’t be the only place you’re hurting,” Regina grumbles, and he can’t quite suppress his smile – there are many things he simply can’t seem to help around her, as it turns out – while she looks increasingly flustered, unsure how to handle him flirting with her so outrageously still.
“I’m afraid I’ve a spot here that may also need tending to,” he carries on solemnly, shamelessly, relinquishing the hand he’s settled over her thigh to run a thumb along his lower lip, and she appears torn between blackening his other eye and kissing him again if only to shut him up for good.
Meaning to make the choice easier for her, Robin leans in to capture her mouth again when she shifts in his arms, finding a soft spot between his ribs with a wayward elbow, and his breath leaves him in an audible grunt. He winces dramatically and Regina looks stricken a moment, hands hovering at his hemline, prepared to untuck it from his breeches and investigate any injuries that may have escaped her notice when she catches the look on his face.
“If you wanted to remove my clothes, all you had to do was ask, milady.”
Irritation colors her cheeks. “Was this your plan all along?” she demands to know, with an obstinate glare at some point near his chin, just beyond the reach of his scrutiny. “Getting caught so I'd have to come save you?”
The memory of her bursting through trees and whatever else stood in her way – guards and queens and perhaps the walls around Regina’s own well-caged heart – flashes across his mind, again and again, and it both pains and warms him to an unbearable degree, that she would be so careless with herself, and for him.
He wonders at – and knows, without question – the lengths he’d have gone for her in his place, but it hardly comes out even, somehow, everything she had already risked over what he’d give up without hesitation. His pride, his freedom…his heart, of course, has long been off the table, tucked into her breast pocket alongside his dagger (hers, now, too) before either of them could be fully aware of the change, though it feels nothing like loss to him.
Wordlessly, selfishly, he nudges in another kiss just below her ear before murmuring there, “Admittedly, it has rather worked out in my favor.”
Regina huffs at him, but there’s little heat behind it, and her fingers splay on either side of his jaw, nails scraping gently over stubble, thumbs finding his dimples as they deepen into another crooked smile.
“That being said,” he continues while she gazes down at him, “how much longer are we going to pretend throwing me to the wolves wasn’t all just an elaborate excuse of yours to come chasing after me?”
“And I suppose this is your idea of payback?” she returns. “Discovering all these new injuries so that you might trick me into staying?”
“You wound me,” Robin tells her, swallowing carefully around the sudden sensation of his heart settling up in his throat. “And I do mean that quite literally.” He manages to keep his tone light, while the rest of him feels insupportably heavy all at once, sobering at the thought of them parting ways, now, when there’s so much yet to discover about this woman. The fit of her in his arms without all the usual bickering and glowering between them. The feel of her sharpest edges cautiously gentling for him alone.
What other sounds, soft or otherwise, he might be capable of stealing from her.
The indistinct clamor of his men and their merrymaking has finally begun to reach some conclusion, dispersing from the circle they’d formed to redistribute themselves amongst the camp. One passes close enough to the dwindling firelight that Robin can just make out Will’s profile, the lad glancing very obviously everywhere else but them, ducking his head almost shyly and hastening off toward his tent.
Stirred by the commotion – by the feel of so many trying not to look their way, though he knows she’d never admit it – Regina eases down from Robin’s lap, situating herself back onto the log beside him. She seems a lot less concerned with the matter of space and how much of it belongs between them this time, resting her forearm over his thigh, curling a hand above his knee, and the ease of it – of them, however just-formed they may be – feels so right, so familiar to him that he can hardly comprehend the days leading up to this one, the near-misses and the not-quites and how close they’d come to being nothing at all.
Still, there’s something like wistfulness in the sound of her sigh, the ginger way she leans a shoulder into his chest as he winds an arm around her back. He finds her waist and settles his hand there, needing to feel her – warm, whole and quite possibly his – and know that she has stayed, for him, for now.
But this night of so many beginnings will also come to some unavoidable end, and Robin doubts that she could be so willfully tamed – that they could come together without fumbling some first – when her one inclination has always been to run, no matter the direction, and his to catch up to her only when she’s stood still enough to let him.
He angles his body into hers, reaching for her other hand. She opens her palm to him, and he traces the lines there, wondering. “How else could I persuade you not to go? Tell me.”
Her smile is soft, secretive, and he knows her answer before she’s spoken. “I've already put you – put both of us – in enough danger today.”
It’s a difficult point to argue without downplaying all the bruised egos and broken noses and wounds that will surely scar, but he closes an arm tighter around her waist regardless, weaving their fingers firmly together as though she couldn’t just as easily pull them apart.
“It certainly was more eventful than most,” Robin finally allows, pressing a kiss to her temple, then a smile in her ear. “But I do so like when you come to my rescue.”
“Are you always this useless?” she asks him, fondly.
“Around you?” he murmurs, mouth falling sideways in that way he’s learning she likes so well, and his voice takes a turn for the very, very serious. “I’m afraid it can’t be helped, milady.”
Regina might have rolled her eyes, might have scoffed and made him out to be some kind of fool – she has a weakness for such things, when it comes to him – but then he’s kissing her again, most thoroughly, before she’s the chance to fall into old habits. Perhaps she’ll discover a way, still, perhaps he’ll blink and find her gone by morning, but she’s opened enough of her heart to him now that if she expects him not to follow…well.
Certain habits are harder to break than others, after all, and he never could resist the thrill of a hunt, of teasing a scowl – and perhaps something more – out of this woman, who may very well have been biding her time, running, and waiting, for the moment he finally caught up with her.
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Gift for: @fragileradius​
Prompt: Getting drunk together for the first time [after/while (your choice)] having life hardships. “Everything in this world sucks except for you.”
Author’s Notes: I sort of stretched the requests of these prompts a bit much. So, fragileradius, if this doesn’t meet your expectations or you’re disappointed or what not, PLEASE let me know and I’ll give it a second go. 
Another note, this is a bit longer than I had anticipated, so… I guess I apologize for having to put it all here rather than publishing it on or elsewhere.
The thing about Mello was that no matter how hard he tried, he was never quite as unpredictable as he believes himself to be. No matter how many times he tried to show up unannounced to the SPK building… Near always seemed to know when to leave the doors unlocked. It was as though Near could smell the ash and burning cinders pulled in by the winds of his approach.
Yet this time wasn’t quite the same. This time Mello finally found a way to surprise him.
He entered the command room with an air that in itself said he owned the place, the dull thud of his boots against the smooth tile the only greeting he offered. Still Near’s heartbeat picked up speed in his chest. Mello was exciting. Mello was a hurricane. Destructive and terrifying to everyone in its path except to those like Near who purposefully placed themselves in his way as a means of charting his path. He was deadly, but predictable.
He was silent for a long minute, as though if left alone Near would merely forget his existence. As though it was ever quite so simple. Yet Near found himself daring to ponder, “If tomorrow the world was going to end and this was the last night we had together… What would you say?”
“Have a drink with me.”
Perhaps Near was not as unpredictable as he’d once thought himself. For the response was sent his way without the slightest pause for consideration, as though Mello had constructed it well before his entrance to the building.
Finally, the younger genius turned to him, gazing upon the form of one he’d known his entire life, feeling as though in some way he was seeing Mello for the first time. As though he was gazing not upon the opposing figure of their lifelong competition, but rather the humanity Near had always known Mello harbored within him. It felt like Mello was entrusting him with something beyond even Near’s comprehension. Near’s look shifted just a bit, “What’s going on?”
“The world’s ending.”
“Mello.” Gray eyes shoot him a look that pleads for him to be serious; that he can’t get to the bottom of whatever is troubling him, whatever brought him here, if the question is alluded. Though he knows he should hardly expect anything else.
“Have a drink with me.”
For a moment Near considered turning away from him, continuing with the card tower he’d only just begun to construct around himself until Mello inevitably grew bored and left. But on the other hand, even he had to admit… when had he not given Mello his full attention should he merely ask for it?
Near relents. He stands upon limbs that ache and protest at the sudden movement after being stagnant for longer than he cared to remember. Each creak of his joints sounded to him like the comments Mello had once thrown at him, that if he continued treating his body the way he did that it would eventually catch up with him. Eventually… Near was always waiting for that ‘eventually.’
He leads them down a few floors, to a rarely used living space designed not only for himself but for those that worked for him. “I know Rester keeps some kind of alcohol here,” Near says to fill the silence while he rummages through the cupboards. “Conventional social culture seems to suggest that he would use it to ‘put up’ with the ‘outlandish’ requests I make of him.” Whatever that meant.
Mello sighed a bit too dramatically and finally pushed the younger out of the way to see for himself what the selection available was. He eventually pulled out a short, rounded bottle consisting of a deep amber liquid. “At least you hire people with good tastes.”
They sit across from one another at a nearby table, one shot glass shared between them. Mello takes the first shot, throwing it back like it was nothing. For a moment Near considers asking about that… about his history with alcohol. But what good would it do? What would be the end goal? And beyond that, was that a story he necessarily wanted to be told? Were those times that he really wanted to know? Was that a side of Mello he wanted to become familiar with?
The shot glass was filled, then slid across the table to him. Near eyed it like he’d been handed a loaded gun. “Why are we doing this?” Near asked quietly, looking away from his own ominously looming fate back to azure eyes that pierced the darkness surrounding them.
“You’re the one who said-”
“No.” Near interrupted. “Really. Why are we doing this?” The question was left intentionally vague, allowing Mello read anything he chose into it. Why the two of them? What event brought this on? Why drinking? Why did he seek inebriation? Why did Mello keep showing up here?
“Who else?”
“Literally anybody.”
“Maybe I just like you.” Mello leaned forward on the table, his gaze never breaking from Near, yet his lithe form shifted its weight towards him as though at any second he would snap. Near had never felt quite so much like prey. But that too was strangely exhilarating, to be chased rather than the one chasing for a change.
“Even I need a drink to be able to start unpacking the meaning behind that comment.” Near retorted, picking up the shot glass and, not wanting to be outdone by his self-proclaimed rival, placing it to his lips and tipping it back to let the liquid slip down his throat.
The liquor was strong, burning his nose and his throat on the way down. But it warmed his center and he couldn’t help feeling how strangely appropriate this all felt. Still he found himself coughing, his stomach retching at the compounding of the awful scent and taste together on his senses.
Mello’s lips pulled back as he chuckled, the sudden lightheartedness seeming enough to light the room, or perhaps just Near’s world. What exactly was going on here, what was going through Mello’s mind, and why was he seeking any of this from him? The answers, much like everything with Mello, felt just beyond his grasp. Yet that didn’t mean Near wasn’t beyond searching for them. After all, finding answers and causes was what a detective was supposed to do.
The two continued in relative silence, each slide of the shot glass from one to the other acting as an unspoken dare to the other, to match what they’d done and build upon it. Of course, neither wanted to lose. Being the best, in all manners, was sewed into their veins.
Mello ultimately broke the silence, his normally bright and fierce eyes dulled a bit by the ingestion of alcohol. “Do you ever feel like… we’ve been cheated out of a real life?”
“Cheated?” Near asked, his head lolling a bit to the side as confusion overtook his expression.
“Yeah. Cheated. We’ve spent our entire lives fighting over a title. A title which has done nothing but lead anyone who dares chase it to utter ruin.”
“I don’t think we-”
“Really?” Mello interrupted incredulously, leaning forward on the table a bit, the gold tresses of his blonde hair losing its usual haloing effect around his face. “Do you really think either of us would be like this if we hadn’t been forced into that life?”
Near was quiet, because truthfully, he couldn’t say for certain as he’d never given it much thought. Coming out on top he’d assumed had given him a unique privilege that let him escape any sort of ‘ruin’ Mello spoke of. But thinking more on it now, Mello had a point…
But the blonde spoke before he could voice that. “I have hated you for as long as I’ve known you because of the culture bred by that place. If we both hadn’t been fighting for that…” His lips pulled together into a thin line, looking away from him before continuing. “You’ll never hear me say this when I’m sober, but if it hadn’t been for that fucking place, that competition… I probably would have liked you. Hell, I do like you.” He threw back another shot of the amber liquor, then slid it over to Near.
Near regarded the empty shot glass, wondering if his fingers would cooperate enough at this point to properly pour himself another shot. But at the same time, stopping at that point felt as though he would be putting a premature stop to the secrets Mello was daring to place out into the open. Still, his words broke from between his lips before he could stop himself, “It’s funny you say that because I absolutely cannot stand you.”
“What?” Mello’s entire disposition shifted in that moment, looking as though he wanted to get up, but the alcohol in his system kept him rooted in place and at the mercy of Near’s words. “You can’t… Why the hell didn’t you just fucking tell me that, then?!”
A smirk crossed Near’s lips, glancing up to Mello with what he could only hope was a mischievous look, “Well, it wouldn’t be any fun if I didn’t lead you on a little bit.”
Mello’s look narrowed on him, the silence persisting another moment before, “You know what, forget I said anything. I can’t fucking stand you. You are the worst kind of person.”
“That’s quite the insult coming from someone who worked so closely with the Mafia, dear Mello.”
Another silence passed over them, one which Near this time didn’t care to try and read, instead becoming aware of a new dizziness forming in his head. He felt himself sway back and forth, overcome in that moment by a sort of wonderment in his body’s inability to catch himself, or hold himself straight.
Through the fog he heard Mello say, “Why do you call me that?”
Near looked up to see the way Mello’s eyes watched him carefully, questioningly, his entire attention placed upon him and whatever his response would be to that question. And what was Near to say? How could he word it when he himself had never quite had the words for it? He swallowed, looking down to the table so he didn’t have to meet Mello’s stare. His words tumbled from his lips, “Because I like… I wanted you to…”
“Near?” His tone was different this time, Near noted. Concerned, rather than inquisitive.
The younger pushed himself to sit back in his seat, “I need to go. I need…” His hands shifted flat against the wood table to push himself up, “I don’t feel right.” He stood, but his legs felt numb, or perhaps he’d merely misjudged how much his head was spinning as the next thing he knew he felt himself falling to the floor.
The world swirled around him, somewhere in the distance he heard his name spoken followed shortly after by Mello appearing in front of his field of vision. “Hey, are you alright?” A warm hand was pressed to his cheek. “Near?”
He nodded, but his eyes closed, “Fine.” He said simply, the warmth of Mello’s hand seeming to transfer to his own form as he realized what had happened and immediately grew embarrassed for letting it happen in the first place. Why, he wasn’t sure. After all, Mello had been the one to instigate these actions. Therefore, this was clearly Mello’s fault. Yes, that seemed justifiable enough.
“Come on, let me help.” His tone was lower, almost begrudging, yet with a tinge of humor that made Near smile. For as much as Mello clearly disliked having his evening disrupted by this, obviously he was at least slightly humored by seeing Near out of his usual context.
“I’m fine.” Near protested as he was pulled up from the floor just enough for Mello to pick him up into his arms. He shifted, “Don’t. I’ll walk.”
“You idiot, would you just shut up, you’re light as a fucking feather. Besides, you’d just end up on the damn floor again anyway.”
Mello carried him into the bedroom, depositing him carefully onto the side of the bed. Only then did he lean forward a bit, looking him over seriously, “Are you going to be sick? Tell me now, otherwise I’ll just let you fucking drown in it later.”
A small smile creased Near’s features at Mello’s crude consideration, daring to reach out and push back the fine strands of Mello’s hair behind his ear he replied, “You wouldn’t. But no, I’ll be fine. I told you I was fine before.”
“Yeah, of course you are. Lay down before you fall again.”
Near complied, laying back and letting his eyes close, feeling the way the world spun around him. He felt the way his stomach churned at the motion and he considered redacting his previous statement.
He felt the bed beside him shift, and looked over momentarily to find Mello lying beside him. Mello shot him a look, “Shut up, I don’t want to hear it.”
So Near said nothing about it, instead turning to lay on his side facing him, his eyes closed to keep from potentially meeting that intense gaze. “I don’t dislike you, you know.” Near heard himself say.
Mello scoffed, “Convenient to say now.”
“And what I was saying before…” Near continued, “About using the phrase ‘dear Mello.’” He paused, again considering over his words as though they themselves were puzzle pieces that he couldn’t entirely figure out how to place in their right spot. “I needed a way to get your attention… a way for you to actually notice me.”
Mello was quiet again, and for a second Near considered maybe he hadn’t said any of that aloud. Perhaps he’d merely said it to himself. He was just about to repeat himself when he heard, “You’re such an idiot.”
“So you keep telling me.”
The space was silent between them again, and Near was content enough to lay beside his supposed rival, inhaling the musky scent of Mello mixed with the liquor they had shared while his entire world spun around him. He had just about drifted off into a dreamless sleep when he felt a pair of lips press a quick kiss to his forehead.
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