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"You're a bigger man than I thought," he says, insolent nobleman's drawl, but in fact he's not surprised. Pain and loss give a man's thinking new flexibility; Robin's seen it before -- used it, strategically, and Gisborne's ripe for a change. He looks at the haunted face opposite and thinks: Marian was here.

If England were a chessboard Gisborne would be a rook, clearing the path for his traitor prince; and Marian the opposing knight skipping sidelong to knock him off the board. The fact that she was on her way to somewhere else entirely doesn't matter; nor that in dreams Robin stands with her, defending their people, uncaring which Plantagenet wears the crown this year.

The truth is, Robin of Locksley's gone. He fell into the bottomless gulf between honor and slaughter and disappeared. The Earl of Huntingdon's still Richard's man, and Hood, with his gang, still looks after the folk when he can; but all that's left of the old Robin is the easy, lazy manner that's now as thin and brittle as rotten ice. Especially when he's with her.

As now. He trades taunts with Gisborne while she looks at him with amazed contempt, standing so far away he can barely see the color of her eyes. "Go on, then," he says, and misses by a mile the indifference he'd been aiming for. "Ask."

It's meant for Gisborne: a test of sorts to see how far the man will go. But she opens her mouth to answer and suddenly he can't bear to hear her voice. The cool scorn is no sham. She's still angry with him, or angry again; he doesn't think she herself understands how deep it goes, or how truly just it is.

"Him." His voice cuts into hers with all the finesse of a dull knife, and for a long breath there's silence.

Then Gisborne uncoils with the violence that never seems to leave him, and Robin watches Marian's lightning reach for the man, how her touch stops him cold, makes him turn, urgent as the veer of a circling hawk toward its mate. Her hand presses on the armored shoulder and Robin feels the command in it, and the plea, from across the room.

The sight of her's like a cut that never stops bleeding. He knows what she risked to get them here, facing each other, and the fact that it's worked so far only means she'll push harder next time.

She'll never stop, he thinks. If she loses she'll hang, or worse.

Five years on the battlefield and it's effortless: a battalion is not a collection of men but a war-engine. The commander knows how the parts move, what care each requires, and how to replace it when it fails. Two years in Sherwood and he sees as clearly as the outlaw spy he's become what stresses will make a man bend to his purpose, like a bow-stave, or break. Losing Marian won't kill him, but he'll wish it had.

He thinks: Gisborne's hers now: look at him. If she can keep him -- turn him, if he loves her enough -- she might win this thing. For all of us.

It's instinct, by now, and Robin of Locksley's gone. The man who's wearing his boots smiles carelessly down the table at the woman he'd die for, and sees a weapon made for his hand, and hopes it's true.



December 24, 2007