by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by soltian
Sebastian knew from the moment he threw his lance that it would find its target. He felt it radiating through his bones down from the tips of his fingers as it left his grasp. Even without the blessing that the old crone had placed upon it, he knew its path was true; her spell upon it just made it shimmer as it soared through the air, humming truth before striking hard in its new home: the heart of the Bandit King.
He fell to his knees first, his arms spread wide as though he was shocked, as though he was preparing to throw his arms down in surrender. When his sword and pistol fell from his hands, though, it was because his hands had gone still. The Bandit King would only surrender in death, Sebastian knew, and that was why it had to end like this. When he slumped backward he was held from falling fully prone by the end of the lance where it had passed fully through him. He died that way, pierced to the earth with palms bare and eyes open upwards to whatever gods would take him above.
The bandits that had come with him to battle were already dispersing, cowards now that their King had fallen. Sebastian raised a hand to hold his own retinue back and walked across the space between them, along the line his lance had sailed through the air. He stopped in front of the Bandit King’s body and laid a hand on the hilt of the lance. He tightened his grip upon the lance for a moment and then released it and turned back to his men.
“Let no one take him from this spot,” he called out, voice echoing loud enough that even the retreating bandits had to hear him. “Let him be covered with vine and leaf, let the elements take him until there is nothing left, and let this lance stay buried in the earth as a reminder to those who would attempt villainy against the barony, to those who would aim to sully the pure and noble,” he closed his eyes and put a hand over his heart, thinking of the princess and how her safety now was assured, “to those who would steal and rob and sow discord and fear among an innocent populace. Let those who would do ill here see what becomes of such: righteousness will finish you, and you will be swallowed up by the land that bore you.”
Silence hung in the air after he spoke, not even the birds willing to sing against him. Sebastian looked at the Bandit King, at how pale his face was now. He took the medal from his chest, the one he bore from when he still served in the Baron’s army, before he’d shown himself a traitor. Sebastian looked at it in his hand, saw it to be old and tarnished. “It could have been different for you,” he said, and shook his head sadly. “It could have been so different.” He held the medal tight in his palm, feeling its proud symbols press into his flesh, and turned on his heel to begin the journey home.
The Bandit King remained, blue eyes staring upward, unblinking forever more.
Robin let out a slow breath and stared at his laptop screen. “Well, that’s that,” he said to his empty apartment.
“…Shit,” he said, some five minutes of staring later, and made himself hit ‘save.’
Robin had left more crumbs of cinnamon scone on his napkin picking at it than he’d managed to get into his mouth, not even to speak of those that scattered his lap and the front of his shirt. So he was a mess, so what, what else was new? He was just fitting in with the rest of the scenery. The mild hump he had in his upper vertebrae was just something he’d developed to be like all the other creatures who lived in this Starbucks, curled over their laptops and snarling like animals over outlets as they “worked from home.”
He wasn’t working, though. Or really, he’d done his work, the real work that paid his rent and paid for his scones, sent off all his emails about websites and wireframes and all of the tedious bullshit that was technically his career. Now it was just him and his hunch and his laptop and his crumbs and the document he didn’t want to open.
GET_OVER_IT.TXT sat directly in the center of his desktop. It was a working title.
Robin had let it sit for a week, a weird, restless week where he’d filled the usual time he devoted to writing to the equally useless hobbies of reading internet comments and masturbating. One of those left him with more to show for it than the other.
GET_OVER_IT.TXT could be argued as one very long and very intricate act of self-abuse, a hundred thousand words of splatter after twenty years of being a complete wanker. Or maybe it was brilliant. Maybe it would be the one. He’d only know if he opened the damn thing.
He let his cursor hover over the file for a few seconds before taking his hands away from the computer, gathering up his napkin, folding it into a little paper taco, and dumping crumbs into his mouth like the proud grown adult man he was.
“You’re in public,” John said as his shadow fell over Robin’s table. “This is a public place of business.”
“I know,” Robin said through his mouth full of cinnamon detritus. “I’m a paying customer and this is one of the least gross things I’ve seen people do in here.”
John pulled out the other chair at the table and sat down, swinging one of his legs up to rest his ankle on his knee. Argyle socks. What a showoff. “Well, at least you’re out of the house,” he said.
He’d known John since college, back in the terrors of the early nineties when they’d both had regrettable hair and even more regrettable pants. John possessed the only photographic evidence that Robin had ever been in possession of or known how to use glow sticks, and for that reason they were locked in a death pact of friendship until the end. “I am,” Robin said, and brushed the remaining crumbs off his shirt to fall on his lap, and then on his lap onto the floor. “I showered, too.”
“Impressive,” John said. He had the kind of job that involved leaving the house and going to a place and being there for at least a third of the day, and sometimes he could get a little high and mighty about that. It was the kind of thing that drove a man to wearing argyle socks. Orange ones, fucker. But he’d come bother Robin in his Third Space while on his lunch break once a week or so, just to keep him properly socialized. “So, how is it?”
“Nnng,” Robin said. “It’s finished. It’s definitely finished. It remains finished.” He wadded up his napkin and threw it at his laptop, and then moved it off of the keyboard a few seconds later.
“Any good?” John asked. One of the things that had allowed the two of them to maintain a twenty-year friendship was how John had never read more than two paragraphs of anything Robin had written. He’d listen to ideas and summaries and be enough of a soundboard to let him know if something sounded idiotic, but his promise was that he would read Robin’s work as soon as he got something published. And, well.
“I think it is,” Robin said. “At some point my nuts will descend and I’ll look at it and I’ll edit it and I’ll try to get someone to buy it. I think this might be the one, really.” He sighed. “And if it isn’t, you know, at least I did the thing.”
“Yeah, the thing,” John said. “My condolences.”
Robin rolled his eyes and considered flipping him off, but there was sincerity in his voice, really. John may have never read a word, but he’d spent so many years listening to Robin get drunk and talk about his baby, his favorite, his albatross, Aubrey the Bandit King. He’d dreamed the bastard up somewhere around the time he was seventeen and hadn’t been able to let him go since.
“I gave him a good end,” he said. “I mean, yeah, I had to make him the villain, but that was fun, in its own way. But, you know… dramatic! Final! Spear in the ground, nail in the coffin. His story is over. I can do something else now.”
“Nothing was really stopping you before,” John said, and Robin gave him the icy eyes. “Right, right, what do I know, I don’t write.”
He’d started writing as a kid not out of any dreams to become the Great American Novelist of anything; he just had stories in him that he wanted to get out. Somewhere in the years between then and now, he still had the damn stories, but now that he was on the back end of his life, it was beyond time to do something with them. Even his parents had stopped asking about his writing more than ten years ago. Even if it was just to himself, he had to prove something, and if that involved growing the hell up and not writing about bandits and witches and evil barons anymore, that was just what he had to do. So what if it took some symbolic murder of someone precious to him? It was beyond past time.
Robin sighed again and John got up from the table. “I’ll buy you a coffee.” Robin mumbled a little thank you and poked his laptop again, twirling his finger around on the trackpad to make the cursor circle
GET_OVER_IT.TXT. He could just delete it and all the backups. That’d be a way to cut the cord. Not one that would work, but it would be a way.
He hadn’t managed a click when he heard the barista call out, “Quad venti latte for There There Robin!” He paused for a moment and repeated, “There There Robin!”
John came back to the table with his massive coffee and Robin flipped him the bird. He burned his tongue a little and felt less sorry for himself. “Reread the damn thing, do your edits, and then I’ll help you get someone to look at it. Buy it. Whatever. I’ll make some calls.”
“Calls?” Robin said. If John had connections in the publishing industry this was an ass of a time to bring it up.
John shrugged. “You call enough people and eventually someone’s going to know someone who knows someone. And it’ll give you a break from having to do it yourself.”
Robin let out a sigh into the tiny opening of his coffee cup. That was the most spirit-breaking part. “Thanks,” he said. “Really.”
He and John managed to talk about things other than his own self-pity over completely fictional people for a while before he had to return to his normal human job, leaving him alone again with his hunched back. He finished off the last dregs of his coffee. It really did say ‘THERE THERE ROBIN’ in Sharpie on the side of the cup.
He clicked on the file.
He liked John’s girlfriend Lita for a lot of reasons. She was fun to be around, she made John a very happy man, she’d been happy and gracious opening their home to Robin after his divorce, and, because she was a lovely and giving woman with a doctor with a lovely and giving prescribing hand, she totally hooked Robin up with ample amounts of Ambien. He didn’t take it all the time, but he was a guy who drank enough coffee and was pursued by enough furies that sometimes he needed a little white pill and a polite glass of whiskey to get his eyes to shut at night.
The editing process was not good for sleep, and a lack of sleep was not good for the editing process. Robin spent the days nearly tugging all of his hair out or pitching his computer out of the window, and by the end of working on it even a good hearty round of whacking off couldn’t get him to stop thinking about
JUST_DO_IT.TXT (the working title had changed), all the things that were wrong with it, all the things that were wrong with him, and all the things that were wrong with the decisions he was making in his creative life long enough to get any sleep. Dr. Lita and Dr. James Beam had to get him there, no matter how weird the dreams that came after might be.
Dreaming about the Bandit King was nothing new to him. Sometimes he couldn’t even quite remember how he’d come up with him in the first place; maybe the whole idea of him and everything around him had appeared in a dream back in his hazy teenage years. Robin preferred to think his creation had been a deliberate, waking choice of his, not just something bubbled out of his subconscious. It didn’t matter in the end, really: ideas where ideas, and they all came from his stupid brain no matter if he was awake or not when they were born. He dreamed of Aubrey, and then he’d wake up and make those dreams real. He’d fall asleep thinking of something that his King would have done or thought or said, and in dreams those thoughts would take different routes, some that he might even remember in the morning.
Writing his end hadn’t removed him from Robin’s dreams yet, not at all. He dreamed of Aubrey in front of the fire, the flames casting shadows on his face. In his book he was possessed by a mad passion, a dangerous desire for a princess who had no love for him. It was a curse and a madness that made him a villain for once, a wild force to be thwarted by goodness and law. In Robin’s dreams, though, the eyes that met his from across the fire weren’t burning for her. The fire made the pale blue of his eyes almost invisible as he looked into Robin, hot and harsh. He didn’t speak, but he didn’t need to. This is not me, his gaze said over crackling embers. This is not how I would go.
Robin woke from the dream slowly, almost painfully, as though pulling his body out of syrup. He could still feel the heat of the fire on his face and his body ached like he’d been sleeping on rocks. He’d give the sleeping pills a rest for a night or so, he decided as he tried to shake the fog out of his mind before opening his eyes. The sleep wasn’t worth it if it was going to be so strange.
“Do you think he’s dead?” came a voice from somewhere below Robin. He’d fallen asleep with the window open, he remembered. There had to be people on the street below. “You think maybe something dropped him up there?”
“Nah, probably nothing dropped him,” came a second voice. “Look at him, he’s dressed all funny. Probably got magicked up there or something.”
“Is he dead, though?” said the first voice.
“I’m no doctor!” said the second. “Give him a poke and see what happens.”
Robin felt something sharp poke him in the ass cheek and he let out a little yelp as his eyes flew open. He saw a canopy of green leaves and dark branches above him. He was up a goddamn tree. Jesus, he’d known about sleep eating, but this was too much. Fucking Ambien, seriously.
“Oh, he’s alive,” said one of the men below him. Robin looked down to see that he was holding a very pointy stick. “How’d you get up there, then?”
Robin tried to sit up as best as he could without falling out of the branches he was splayed across. He didn’t have his glasses, so he couldn’t see the men below him too sharply from his position above. “I don’t… know?” he said.
“You want to get down?”
Robin rubbed his face. “Yes?”
“Right,” said one of them, and through some very impressive teamwork, they two of them gave him purchase to get out of the tree without breaking his neck or any limbs. It wasn’t the most graceful exit, though, and his final drop had him falling into the arms of one of his new friends.
This close, now, he could see his face clearly. He was ruddy-faced and dressed in heavy-fabricked clothes the color of the woods around them, save for the bright red kerchief tied around his neck. “Oh!” Robin said. “Brady!” He looked at the other man, who looked much the same, though his jacket was made of soft deer hide and had military insignia stitched to it. “And Clifton! Oh, hey, how are you guys.” It made perfect sense now: Robin was in one of his stories, because he was still asleep, and still dreaming. Prescription sleeping pills were amazing medicine!
Clifton and Brady looked at each other, suspicious and slow. Clifton had been with Aubrey’s band since the beginning, following the king after his false accusation of treason. Brady’d come later, after Aubrey had saved him and his young son from the fire that had ripped through Bainford Creek. “You know us?” Clifton said. “Because we’ve never seen you.”
Brady still had a good hold on his stick. “Seen a lot of things, but not anything like you.”
Robin took a glance down at himself. He was still wearing the boxer shorts and ratty old shirt with the Flash’s logo on it that he’d fallen asleep in. He had at least acted like a civilized ape and wiped the jizz off his hand and stomach before he’d passed out. “Oh, uh, you see, I’m…” He stopped before he spoke his name as he felt the strangest sensation cleave through his mind. In one part of him, he was very certain that he was Robin Dean, age forty-three, mildly pathetic failed writer and software douche from San Francisco. But in the other part of him, just as certain down into his bones, he was Robin of the West Wood, raised among the seers and mystics there to know how to read the warp and weft of the fabric of time and possibility. He remembered his middle school field trips to Alcatraz just as sharply as he remembered the ceremony that had marked him as a true seer, when he rose from his knees with saffron smudged across his forehead and new sight.
Brady and Clifton were watching him. Clifton’s hand slowly came to rest on the hilt of his sabre. “I’m Robin,” he said.
They looked at each other again, exchanging small nods. Brady put down his stick and put a firm hand under Robin’s bicep. “I think you’re going to come with us, Robin,” he said.
“Yeah,” Robin said. “That’s probably a good idea.”
“And what have you found in the trees for me?” The voice made Robin’s breath catch and his toes curl up into the dirt and twigs and pine needles. “Has a bird fallen out of its nest?”
“Not quite sure who he is.” Robin could hear Clifton’s voice through the thick cloth of the tent flap. They’d left him standing outside, quite the spectacle for all those in Aubrey’s camp to get a solid look-see at. He made a subconscious check to make sure his dick wasn’t hanging out of his boxers every minute or so. “Don’t think he’s one of the baron’s, but he’s not one of ours or one that anyone’s seen.”
“Dressed strange, too,” he heard Brady say. The sunlight was fading, and so Robin’s knobby knees were getting colder the longer he stayed out here. Hopefully someone would give him some pants eventually. “Looked like a madman, I thought. Maybe he escaped from somewhere.”
They’d asked him some more questions while nudging him towards the camp, but Robin hadn’t been able to get his dumb mouth working to say much. Even if he hadn’t been feeling muddled in the head about exactly which set of memories felt right, he had been too distracted by absorbing everything around him. He’d dreamed of Aubrey, yes, and he’d dreamed of the world he’d built for him, but it had never been this vivid. There were birds in the pines, and he could smell someone making chestnut soup in the camp. Maybe he was mad. Maybe he had escaped.
Robin heard a soft, low ‘hrm’ sound from within the tent. “Well, bring him in. I’ll have a look.”
Brady lifted up the flap and gave a nod inward. He’d given no resistance or attempt to flee on the way there, so they’d left him without guard. Robin tugged his t-shirt down, made sure nothing was hanging out of his shorts, and stepped inside the tent of the Bandit King.
He took two steps within, feeling the soft crush of a rug beneath his feet, and then couldn’t move another muscle. Aubrey was sitting in a broad wooden chair in front of a writing-desk turned to face the tent’s entrance. He gave Robin a glance from head to toe that he could almost feel, then rose to his feet to approach him. Aubrey nodded to Clifton and Brady, and the two left the tent, leaving them alone. Aubrey came into focus as he moved into the range of Robin’s functional un-bespectacled vision, and Robin stopped breathing. He’d sometimes wondered if he’d written Aubrey as an idealized version of what he himself would like to be, what teenage him wanted to grow up and be. There was an element to that in him, of course, but when it came down to it, Aubrey was never really who Robin wanted to be. He was a lot of other wants.
Robin wasn’t a short guy himself, but Aubrey towered over him, appraising him from a vantage point nearly a head taller than him. Robin was at the perfect eye level with Aubrey’s broad chest, right where he could look both at the military medal that was pinned to the breast of what had once been his uniform jacket, now altered with rough, woodland-shaded fabric and animal fur, and at the curls of reddish hair on Aubrey’s chest where the jacket’s throat gaped open to show skin. Robin swallowed hard and tilted his head up to look at the king, to really see the face that had lived behind his eyes for so long.
The side of Aubrey’s mouth was curved upwards, a seemingly amused smile half-hidden by his thick beard. His eyes were twinkling. God, of course they were twinkling, Robin had once done a ctrl+F on a discarded novel about Aubrey and found that he’d used the word ‘twinkling’ something like 72 times. But now those eyes were looking at him, and they were very blue, and they were seriously, seriously twinkling.
“Uh,” Robin said. “Hi.”
“I’d thought Brady might be exaggerating again, but you are a strange one, indeed,” Aubrey said in a voice that Robin was always looking for synonyms for “thunder” to describe. Soft thunder. Distant thunder. Low thunder. Heart-racing thunder. “What’s your name?”
“Robin,” he said, and the bandit king leaned his head back a little to let out a short laugh.
“Robin!” Aubrey said. “Oh, they have brought me a lost bird after all.” He reached out to pluck at the shoulder of Robin’s red t-shirt, and Robin did his best not to faint. “Red-breasted, even. How have you come to make your nest in my woods, little bird?”
Robin worked for a moment to get his paralyzed brain and dry mouth to work together to make words. “I…” He was a goddamn storyteller and he was going to tell a damn story. He could do this. “I’m one of the seers of the West Wood. My brothers and sisters and I performed the Rite of Many Eyes and I was given a vision of your future. As the West Wood is far from here and finding your camps can be a difficult task at times, the head of my order sent me here by other means.” Robin gave Aubrey a little smile. “Her aim was just slightly off.”
Aubrey was no longer smiling and his brows were furrowed. “A vision? What of?”
Robin opened his mouth but didn’t speak yet. He hadn’t thought that far ahead, and the strange, real memories that were filling his mind after he spoke his story hadn’t fleshed out enough to tell him anything. “I… I’m sorry, I’m disoriented from the journey, I can’t remember.”
Aubrey scowled down at him, and Robin felt like he should drop to his knees and beg forgiveness. “You can’t remember?”
“I’m, I’m very disoriented,” Robin said. “That form of travel isn’t very easy on you.” He laughed nervously and gestured down at himself. “I mean, look at how I’m dressed.”
Aubrey did look, all the way down to his curled up toes. His scowl lessened somewhat. “I haven’t met with one of the West Woods seers since I was a boy,” he said. “I did remember the uniform consisting of slightly more clothing, though.” He put a hand on Robin’s chest, over the lightning bolt of the Flash logo on his chest. It was good that he had large hands, since he’d be able to easily prevent Robin’s heart from exploding through his sternum like he suddenly felt it would. “The symbol of your order, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Robin said, because he was fairly certain a C&D from DC Comics wouldn’t reach him here. “Insight into the future comes like a strike of lightning, and sometimes the flash of it can leave you blinded.”
“Though you can still hear the thunder that follows,” Aubrey said in a low roll himself. He took his hand away from Robin’s chest. “Stay here while your eyes clear, then, and we’ll both listen for it.”
“A night’s rest should have me back in order,” he said. He had to assume that when he went to sleep again he’d wake up back in his bed in his apartment, disoriented in a different way. Or if he didn’t, he’d at least come up with something to tell Aubrey.
“You’ll have it, then,” Aubrey said, and the expression on his face was still heavy. “You’ve come at quite a time, little bird. I have great plans for the future, and your sight could change the map of those.”
“What plans?” Robin said. Aubrey gave him a suspicious look, and Robin put a hand to his temple. “It might jolt my memory to know.”
“Your memory will have to come first,” Aubrey said, but after a moment of thought, added, “but the treasure I seek is the princess.”
Shit. “The princess?”
Aubrey’s eyes weren’t twinkling now; they were burning. “She is beautiful, and she is my love, and I will have her.”
Shit, shit, shit. Robin was not just in any story of his, he wasn’t just having a fun time in his happy little setting, he was in his novel, he was in his last novel, he was probably no more than a week away from Aubrey the Bandit King being pinned to the earth with a spear.
“That does make my vision start to get clearer,” Robin said, voice empty. His vision was too clear. But he wasn’t Robin the seer of the West Woods, no matter how easy it felt to think he was just that right now. He was Robin Dean, he was a writer, and he could change the ending of his own damn story. He’d worry about what it meant for his creative growth or authorial career later; he couldn’t stand here in front of Aubrey, his king, and watch him go to his death. He’d just have to figure out how to change it when he didn’t have a backspace key handy.
Aubrey put his hands on Robin’s shoulders and gave him a solid squeeze. “Good, good, keep it up.” He turned Robin around and gave him a thump between the shoulders before bellowing out, “Brady! Find some food and a bed for our lost bird.” Aubrey then swatted him on the ass, a nice firm thwap that sent Robin stumbling forward a foot. “And some proper trousers!” He spoke at normal volume again, saying, “Not that I mind the view, but we’re due for a chill tonight.”
Robin waited for Brady with his hands folded in front of his junk. He could certainly think of one way to change this story’s ending now, and in fact wished that that chill would come on faster so he might be able to think of anything else.
The pants Robin ended up in were thick-woven cotton and leather and, if he could say so himself, made his ass look fantastic. But the looks he was getting around the camp probably had very little to do with the status of his rump. This was the camp that Aubrey’s band tended to in the summer and early fall, while the trees were thick and before the weather turned too cold. Not much sun made it through the leaves, but if you looked up among the branches you would see some shelters and lookout posts in the bows. The perimeter was well guarded and scattered with traps; Robin had had a good day on Wikipedia reading about tripwires and snares thinking about those. There weren’t many people in the camp, but there were enough, and they were loyal. Aubrey welcomed men and women alike, though he tended to do his best to find other, safer places for any with young children. Robin had gotten halfway through a story once about a young girl growing up with the bandits and learning to be plucky and bold and resourceful before yelling THIS HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE at his computer and deleting the whole thing.
He wondered if she’d be here anyway. He wasn’t quite sure of what the rules of this dream were.
It’d be a few weeks yet before the bulk of the band moved to the mountain caves where they spent the colder months, tucked away from snow and wind in honeycombed paths in the rock kept warm by deep hot springs and other geothermal delights. For now as the nights got chillier and darkness came earlier, the fire was built a little stronger and a little wider. Robin took a seat near it and watched as people passed around him, people he could remember naming and ones he’d never thought of at all. Strangers in his own story, feeding wood to the fire and handing him a bowl of the soup he’d smelled earlier. He’d never even had chestnut soup before; it’d just seemed like the sort of thing you’d find in some time period-vague woodland camp. He drank it straight from the bowl and wondered how the hell you made this kind of thing without an immersion blender, anyway. It was delicious, though, and warmed him through.
He lost some time staring into the fire, thinking again of the dream he’d had, of seeing Aubrey’s eyes full of flame. Robin was lost in thought imagining ways that he could shift this story, new endings that he’d need to write, and he startled hard when he felt someone kick the repurposed log he’d been sitting on. He looked up and up some more to see Aubrey grinning down at him. He sat down next to Robin, pushing his furred cloak back to spread behind him on the grass. He radiated warmth, an envy of the fire.
“I’m no seer myself, of course,” he said, and Robin watched the flames reflect in Aubrey’s eyes. It wasn’t like his dream; not yet. “But enough cider and enough time staring into the fire and I can convince myself I’ve seen something meaningful.” He laughed and glanced sideways at Robin. “Of course, nothing I’d remember at all by morning, or if I did, the light of day would show how trifling my revelation had been. Here, have some of this.” Robin had been so fixated on the angle of Aubrey’s jaw and the braid of hair that trailed behind his ear that he’d entirely neglected to notice the man had a wooden plate with most of a roasted chicken on it. “Nothing like a full belly to get the mind back in order.”
“As long as it’s not too full,” Robin said before going for a chicken leg, biting into crisp skin and juicy flesh, all of it scented faintly with woodsmoke.
Aubrey laughed again, that warm rumble from the barrel of his chest that made all of the hairs on the back of Robin’s neck stand on end. “Is there even such a thing?”
“Well,” Robin said, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Maybe not for you.”
Aubrey leaned a little away, to crane his head and give Robin a proper look. His smile had turned sly and one of his thick eyebrows arched high. “Oh, not for me, is that so?”
“Well,” Robin said again, and took another bite of chicken to buy him a few moments. “Well, I’ve heard stories about you, of course.” He stopped himself from wiping his greasy fingers on borrowed pants. “Everyone’s heard about the Bandit King.”
“Have they?” Aubrey said. Robin couldn’t quite tell if the note in his voice was amusement or suspicion; probably a chord forming between the two. “Even in the West Wood?”
“Well, we have to keep ourselves entertained somehow,” Robin said, feeling more and more at ease with each word talking about this other life. “It’s not all just visions of the future and rituals.”
“Stories about me you’ve heard, then, and not seen,” Aubrey said, and outstretched one long, heavy finger to poke Robin right in the center of his forehead, in whatever mystical eye he might or might not have.
“I hear a lot of stories,” Robin said between bites. “I tell a few, too.” He smiled a little, feeling shy at first but a little cockier as a grin began to spread across Aubrey’s face. “Very prized skill among the seers, of course, you know. Being able to tell a proper story.” He gestured a little at Aubrey with his mostly de-meated chicken bone. “You have to have the right words to be able to explain the visions that come to you.”
“And once you’ve got those words, might as well use the ones left over for some horseshit to pass around the fire, hm?” Aubrey said, and Robin laughed with him, though without so much thunder. No, something other than thunder. He had to get his shit together and remember how to survive without a thesaurus app. Not like thunder–like the rumble in a pleased cat’s chest.
“Something like that, yeah.” He sucked the last bit of meat off the bone and tossed it into the fire, watching the heat blister the remaining fat. “I could tell you a story now and you could see.”
“One about the brave Bandit King?” Aubrey said, and took meat from Robin’s plate, licking his fingers after putting it into his mouth.
“One about him, if that’s the kind of horseshit you want to hear,” Robin said, and Aubrey laughed again, leaning his head back. He put his hand on Robin’s back, a solid connection that made him jerk forward a little. He left it resting there, warm and huge against Robin’s stupid bony shoulder.
Aubrey pressed his thumb against the nape of Robin’s neck with one hand as he stole more chicken from his plate with the other. Robin couldn’t find it in himself to object. “Well, you tell it, and the Bandit King will tell you how much of it is horseshit.”
Robin glanced around the fire; there were a few other people sitting nearby, but none near enough that it would be worth getting all high school drama class and trying to speak to the back row. If Aubrey wanted to hear him run his mouth, he’d get it as a very directed performance. He took a breath and turned his body inward to face Aubrey.
“There are a lot of stories, you know, about how the Bandit King became the Bandit King,” Robin began, and Aubrey’s hand settled somewhere in the middle of his back, keeping him warm and close. “Everyone knows about what happened with the Baron, of course, the way his betrayal brought such a fine and noble man low.” Robin tapped his fingers on the medal on Aubrey’s chest and Aubrey smiled, spreading his fingers out on Robin’s back. Robin found his breath again and continued. “But he didn’t just sprout fully grown as the King of the Bandits after his fruit fell from that tree; a seed had been planted much earlier, much deeper.”
Aubrey now looked as though he were trying to keep himself from grinning, failing to maintain any mask that showed he was listening impartially. Who didn’t like to hear their own origin story? Robin himself had enjoyed embellishing it and honing it over the years. “Before the Bandit King was the Bandit King, and before he was a soldier, and before he’d even moved to the capitol, he grew up in the hills in the northeast. His family kept an orchard, and I hear the cider they made was quite excellent.” Aubrey’s eyebrow twitched a little. “One year, after the harvest was complete, Aubrey — that was his name, before he was anything he became — left early in the morning to explore the woods as boys his age enjoyed. He returned after dark, dripping wet and entirely nude.”
Aubrey chuckled a little and squeezed Robin’s shoulders. “And in such a chilly time of the year, too. Not a noble look for any future hero.”
Robin shrugged, which had the pleasant effect of pressing more of his body into contact with Aubrey’s arm. “Well, the Bandit King was still quite a mountain of a man, even at that age…” Aubrey’s eyebrow arched up high at that, and Robin cleared his throat and continued. “He revealed that he had been waylaid by the local group of bandits who would stalk the woods. They’d stolen every item and stitch from his back and then tossed him into the river. He was lucky to be alive!”
Aubrey’s smile was still warm, so Robin continued. “This troupe of bandits had been causing quite a bit of trouble in those parts lately, and Aubrey’s father wouldn’t stand for this any longer. He told Aubrey, you and I are going to find the leader of those bandits and we’re going to have a word with him.”
“A sharp word,” Aubrey said.
“Oh, sorry, have you heard this story?” Robin said, feigning offense while he pursed his lips against a smile. “Should I tell another?”
“No, no, go on,” Aubrey said. “Every storyteller brings his own flair.”
“A sharp word, indeed, that was what the young Bandit King said,” Robin said. “He may or may not have put a hand on his knife, but the Bandit King even then was the sort of man to let his jokes speak for themselves without props.” Aubrey leaned his head back again for another laugh. “And though he wasn’t a bandit himself yet, he was a young man who knew the forest well, and he knew how to hunt, and how to track, and he and his father spent the better part of a week stalking down the bandits and finding their camp.”
Robin dropped his voice down softer, enough that Aubrey leaned in to hear him over the crackling of the fire. “The leader of the bandits was a bear of a man named Daly, all fur and hair and a beard down to his belt. When young Aubrey saw him, he didn’t wait for his father’s word. He was a rash youth then, and he marched into the camp, right in front of this man that towered over even him. His followers drew their weapons, but he held them back with a gesture, just a little raise of his fingers. Aubrey’s knife stayed sheathed. He didn’t say a word, sharp or otherwise. He just stared at this bandit, stared into him, and he stared right back.”
Aubrey was listening intently now, focused in tight on the sound of Robin’s voice. “None of the other bandits moved while they stared each other down. They stood like statues until the campfire went cold. The last light to go dim was the one in Daly’s eyes, before he gave Aubrey a single nod and then turned away. Pack up! he told his men. There’s no place for us here anymore. And the bandits left that night, never to trouble Aubrey’s family or any of the others near anymore.”
Robin tapped on the center of his forehead. “I can see the future, and I can tell you what future Aubrey saw in that bandit’s eyes that night. They had that kind of battle that strong men can have without a word or a motion, just with wills. And Aubrey won because he could see himself so clearly in that man’s place, only stronger, fiercer, a better leader of men. It would be what made him a leader of soldiers, and then when he was betrayed, a protector of those who needed him.”
Robin let the last words settle for a moment, and Aubrey let out a heavy breath. Had he been holding it? “Well, little bird, you must keep the West Wood very entertained,” he said, softly. His hand had drifted to the small of Robin’s back.
Robin laughed a little, feeling damn and proper cocky. “Here’s the thing about that story: a lot of people tell it, but they leave out the kicker. When Aubrey the Bandit King came home naked and wet, it wasn’t because of bandits. He didn’t see that bandit leader at all until the first time he marched in the camp. He’d gotten himself into that situation all on his own, by diving off the top of a waterfall into the pool underneath. And somewhere after the third time he’d taken a jump, he came back to find that a bear had gone tearing through his clothes looking for remnants of the dried apricots he’d been eating before taking a dip. Nothing but shreds were left, he was wet, and he had to go home… and the real story was too embarrassing, so he came up with a better one.”
He looked up at Aubrey with a grin, happy to get to the punchline of his story, but his face fell when he saw the stormy expression on the Bandit King’s face. “No one knows that,” Aubrey said, and this wasn’t the sound of thunder, this was the sound of stone moving over a tomb. “No one was there to see it. I’ve never told that story.” Aubrey’s hand was around his waist now, but no longer as fond; he was making sure Robin stayed where he wanted him. “Unless you happen to be a bear, I think you’d best explain.”
“I, uh.” Well, that had not occurred to Robin at all. He’d written that story, sure, but he supposed he had never written Aubrey’s telling anyone about it. It seemed like something that a guy would tell someone, right? A funny story to make the fellows laugh around the fire, put some humanity into their leader. He was thinking of plenty of reasons why this shouldn’t have been a secret and no good explanations for why he knew it. “I am a seer…”
Aubrey stood up and pulled Robin to his feet. “I wonder how much you’ve seen,” he said, and pulled Robin away from the fire. “We’re having the rest of this discussion in private.” And with that, Robin found himself in the Bandit King’s tent a second time.
Robin could still feel the lingering heat of the fire on his skin as he stood in Aubrey’s tent. Aubrey sat in his broad chair again and stared down Robin for a long time before speaking. If Robin were a bandit leader, or a king, or anyone at all more important than he was, he’d still quail under that gaze. “I have heard that story before,” Aubrey said, and his voice was level and calm. He didn’t seem angry, but he also clearly wasn’t pleased. “I have told that story before. No one would know that story had I never told it. But you know things that I’ve never spoken of. Daly’s name, the waterfall, the apricots.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I’ve known seers before, of the West Wood and elsewhere, and I have never known one who sees things like that.”
“I…” Robin swallowed. His throat was dry, but he suspected asking for something to drink right at the moment wouldn’t go well. “I’m special.”
Aubrey let out a short laugh. “I won’t deny that,” he said. “The seers I’ve known, they’ve had eyes pointed to the future, not the past. That day was nearly thirty years ago, and unless you were both an untold prodigy as a child and one with a razor-sharp memory, I doubt you saw it as a vision of events yet undone.”
Robin closed his eyes. There was nothing in his gut to give him an answer from the West Wood; he had always written those guys as prognosticators only. He cursed himself for not adding an extra few lines of exposition on a story he’d written ten years ago. He wasn’t going to get an answer or explanation from this side. Suddenly the worry drained from him; none of this could be real, of course. It mattered, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t need to fear repercussions. “No, I didn’t see it as the future,” he said. “I saw it as it happened.”
He opened his eyes to see Aubrey frowning. “When you were a child?”
Robin shook his head. “No, when I was an adult. I’ve seen a lot of things that were happening to you.” He let out a nervous little laugh and his throat clicked a little. “I’ve probably seen most of them, actually.”
Aubrey leaned back in his chair and tilted his head, taking a long look over Robin. “I think I’d like you to have a seat, little bird,” he said, gesturing to his bed. “And you tell me what you’ve seen.”
Robin sat down on the bed, feeling the soft crush of feathers and the tickle of furs under his palms. “All of it?”
“All of it,” Aubrey said.
Robin took a deep breath. It couldn’t be worse than fiction workshops in college. “To begin with, you were born on the first day of spring, although it snowed that day, and you came out with a full head of red hair and wailing loud enough to scare the birds out of the trees.”
Robin couldn’t keep track of how long he talked. Eventually he was able to make a plea for his dry mouth, and Aubrey provided him with cider, which got his throat and his brain wet and made his tongue even looser. He told stories of Aubrey’s youth, of friends he’d found and lost, of his battles and betrayal, and Aubrey just leaned in and listened. It was a strange relief, somehow, to tell all these stories to someone who would listen, who wanted to hear them, who hung on his every word. It had to be strange and unsettling for Aubrey, but after a while it was almost euphoric to Robin. Well, the cider helped with that.
“The redhead, though,” he said, pointing his finger at Aubrey and grinning. “The redhead, she… shit, what did I name her. Kilie? No, that was the other redhead, the one with the spear. God, I have a thing. Lark! That’s right, I called her Lark. Ha, little birds. Lark, she said that she could hide you in the belly of the ship until the next stop on the river.”
Aubrey shook his head and stopped Robin from speaking. “You’ve started to speak strangely,” he said. “More strange than seems normal.”
Robin’s vision was cloudier than it even usually was without his glasses, and his cheeks felt hot. “Am I? Have I?”
“You named these women?”
“I…” Robin tilted his head back, looking up at the top of the tent. Being a seer of the West Wood hadn’t gotten him very far. What actual harm could he do by being himself? How much could even he fuck up a dream? “I did, actually. I named them, and I named you, as a matter of fact.”
Aubrey let out a surprised snort. “You named me?”
“Actually, you were originally going to be called Adair, but I decided Aubrey sounded better,” Robin said, leaning back a little on Aubrey’s bed.
“Are you now my father somehow, little bird?” Aubrey said, now clearly amused.
“I am!” Robin said. “Your father and mother. I created you! I created all of this.” He held his arms up above him, gesticulating in a way that was surely meaningful. “Every thing that happened here and everyone, all came out of this head right here.”
Robin’s vision was blurry, but he could still tell Aubrey was arching a dubious eyebrow. “You’re a god, then?” he said, sounding unimpressed by the prospect.
“Yes!” Robin said, and slipped back to fall on his back, spread on the furs and covers over Aubrey’s bed. Good night, they smelled good. “I’m a writer. It’s the same thing.”
“A writer of my destiny,” Aubrey said, and Robin heard the chair he was in squeak before he felt Aubrey’s weight press down beside him as he sat on the bed.
“I made you,” Robin said. “You’re welcome.”
“You are clever, be you seer or liar or spy or little bird god, and you are surely the strangest man I’ve ever met,” Aubrey said, and Robin smiled to just listen to the warmth of it, making him warmer than cider in his belly. How much of it had he had? How strong had he written it to be? He wasn’t sure he’d ever specified, really. “If you are truly my maker, and the weaver of my fate, why have you made me who I am? What has been the benefit for you?”
“I got to think about you all day,” Robin said.
“That was a benefit to you?” Aubrey said, soft. “Why?”
Robin rolled over a little onto his side, putting his face in some pelt that smelled like good sweat. “Well, because you’re everything I could ever want to be. Everything I’d ever want in a friend. Everything I’d ever want in someone I’d follow.” He turned his face a little more into the bedclothes and laughed at himself. “Everything I’d ever want in someone who’d take me to bed.” If he couldn’t be honest about it here, where could he?
Aubrey was quiet for a moment, then laughed softly. “Did you make me to be someone who’d want to take you to bed?”
Robin shook his head, brushing his face into fur. “Oh, no. You have the same tastes I do. The thing. The redhead thing. And big beardy guys.” He’d written some fairly filthy stories about Aubrey now and then, when he was in strange frustrated states. Aubrey tangled in the sheets with buxom lasses or rolling on furs with men as thick and strong as he was. He never even remotely thought about publishing those.
“You’re neither of those things,” Aubrey said.
Robin laughed. “No, no I am not.” He curled his fingers into the blankets. “I’m small, and weasely, and would inspire no one, and all of my beards are patchy and weird.”
“You remind me of Edwin,” Aubrey said.
“Edwin?” Robin said, lifting his head up for a moment. “Oh, Edwin, right.” Edwin had been a right hand of Aubrey’s once, clever but lacking in confidence and general ability. He’d sold him out to the baron for a chance at glory that he never got. “Yeah, I’m probably a lot like Edwin.” Robin had never deliberately written himself into any of his stories, but no writer was innocent of the crime of putting parts of themselves into their work.
He felt Aubrey’s hand brush against his temple, pushing some hair back from his face. “You know then, of course, that he and I were once lovers.”
Robin’s brow furrowed. “No,” he said. He lifted his head. “Wait, no you weren’t. When? I never wrote that.”
Aubrey was smiling at him, lazy and pleased. There was that twinkle. “I assure you we were. Before he turned against me, he came to my tent. He was distraught, and worried, and full of something intense he couldn’t say. I assumed it was a confession of the attraction we felt for another, but truly it was an admittance to the crimes he’d committed against me.” He brushed his fingers against Robin’s ear again. “Of course, he was happy to allow me to assume the former until the latter came to light. It did keep me very distracted.”
“Oh,” Robin said, and his eyes were open now, as he breathed slowly. He’d never written that backstory. He’d never even thought it. If there had ever been anyone that he could see himself in in the pages of what he’d written, it was Edwin, and he’d made him a villain, not the lover of his hero. He lifted his head up. “Are you fucking with me?”
Aubrey laughed. “I don’t know, is that what you’ve written, little bird?”
“No,” he said. “I’ve never written anything like this.” For all he’d jerked off to weird hazy fantasies of Aubrey, he’d never put it to paper. It was just embarrassing, shameful, like it meant that all Aubrey was to him was some beat-off dream. He was one, but he was more than that. Aubrey’s hand was in his hair and he was looking down at him.
“If you’ve made all of this, don’t you know what will happen next?” Aubrey asked.
“No,” Robin said, although that was only half true. If this was still the story he’d already written, he knew how this ended. Maybe this was how he’d change it, how he’d fix the ending. “Blank pages.”
Aubrey brushed the strands of hair that curled on his forehead back. “So, that vision of my future you had?”
“It’s very cloudy,” Robin said. “It could be getting altered right now.”
Aubrey put one of those large, hot, fantastic hands on Robin’s shoulders and rolled him onto his back. “Is this what you created me to do, little bird?” he said as he brushed a thumb over Robin’s stubbly chin.
“No,” Robin said. “But do it anyway.”
Aubrey tilted his head back to laugh, and then leaned down to kiss Robin, warm and hard and absolutely like thunder.
Robin clutched at Aubrey’s shoulders as he gasped into his mouth. His tongue was still shocked from all of the tart cider, but Aubrey still tasted so good, dark and strong, like… like… he’d left all of his good metaphors on a laptop somewhere a waking world away. Aubrey was kissing him, and all of his dreams before had never felt so good. He grabbed at Aubrey’s hair, wrapping fingers around one of the braids twined into it.
Aubrey drew away from the kiss with one tug of Robin’s lower lip his teeth and chuckled, so low and soft that Robin felt it vibrating against his skin more than he heard it. “Let’s do this proper,” he said, and put his hands under both of Robin’s armpits, hoisting him up and putting him on the bed in the right direction, moving him around with the ease of picking up a ragdoll. If Robin were twenty or even ten years younger, it’d have been the kind of thing to make him jizz his borrowed pants right there.
Aubrey loomed over him, knees on either side of his thighs, and kissed him hard enough that there was probably going to be a permanent imprint in the shape of Robin’s body in the bed. Robin had had girlfriends, and a wife, and a couple of boyfriends back in college (that he’d never mentioned to the girlfriends or the wife), and sex had always been good, but it hadn’t been this, this thing he wanted most, to have all of that heat and strength and smell of sweat pushing down on him, keeping him perfectly, happily trapped. The beard was also a thing. The feel of Aubrey’s beard on his throat as he sucked on his ear, that was a thing that had him biting his lip and whining like a hungry dog.
Aubrey gathered up both of Robin’s hands, holding his bony wrists together before pinning them up over Robin’s head. Robin laughed breathlessly as Aubrey pushed a hand under his shirt, square-tipped fingers moving over his ribs; of course Aubrey was going to do this perfectly, to do all the things he wanted and rarely had the balls to ask for. Aubrey thumbed at one of Robin’s nipples and he yelped, the thrill of that touch shooting down straight to his dick. He arched up from the bed, hips aiming to grind on whatever of Aubrey he could reach.
Aubrey drew back from him before he could make contact, and laughed gently at the pathetic whine that came out of Robin’s throat. “Stay put,” he said, before tugging Robin’s t-shirt off over his head and tossing it to the floor. He pushed Robin’s hands back down where they’d been held over his head, and they were absolutely going to stay right there without another ounce of pressure. Robin’s borrowed pants came off next, and then Robin held his breath as he watched Aubrey undress, revealing muscle and skin and red-gold hair and scars from exploits Robin could have talked about in detail if he could remember how to speak.
No, he did remember how to say a few words. “Anything, yes, anything,” he said when Aubrey pressed down atop him. “I’ll do anything, whatever you want, yes.” Aubrey’s cock was right there, thick and red and perfect. It’d fit so perfect.
Aubrey nuzzled his ear, tugging at it a little with his teeth. Robin could hear his smile. “This isn’t an interrogation, little bird.” He gripped Robin’s thigh, pressing his fingers into the meat of it. “What is it that you want?”
“Anything,” Robin said, and in that moment what he wanted most of all was to never wake up from this. In the next moment, though, when Aubrey’s hand wrapped around his cock and stroked him slow, he wanted to come, hard and excessively and repeatedly. He bit his lip to hold from the edge, and then Aubrey bit it for him as he started to grind down against him, cocks together, Aubrey’s fingers tight around both of them.
He broke free of the absolutely nothing that was holding his hands down and grabbed at Aubrey’s hair, pawed at his chest. His kisses were clumsy and wild, sometimes landing him a mouthful of more beard than anything else. He did not mind that at all. Aubrey growled against his skin and rutted against him hard, pinning him down into the furs on the bed. Fur above, fur beneath, sweat and spit, and Robin came with a shout that he hoped everyone in the camp would hear. He reached down to twine his fingers with Aubrey’s around his cock, and nothing in his life had ever been or likely would ever be as gratifying as the shaky gasp that came from him at the touch, or how Aubrey came seconds later, adding to the already prodigious splatter on Robin’s stomach.
Aubrey rolled off to the side with a satisfied sigh and a heavy thump. After some long hazy moments of the two of them breathing heavily together, Aubrey stood up, retrieved some bit of cloth to wipe Robin’s stomach clean, doused the lamps, and maneuvered Robin under the covers. He curled in behind him, smelling like sex and woodsmoke.
“Had you written any of this?” he said, quiet and sleepy.
“No,” Robin said. “I probably should have.”
“Not all is written,” Aubrey said, mouth resting against Robin’s temple. Robin could not find a response to that.
Robin watched Aubrey, eyes straining through the dim. He listened to him breathe, each intake getting slower, more peaceful, marked by soft snores. Even though he was clearly asleep, Aubrey wrapped a hand around Robin’s waist and held him tight, tucked against his chest. Robin spent a little while with his head tucked just against Aubrey’s collarbone, smelling his skin as he traced little whorls through Aubrey’s chest hair with his fingers.
Then, he stretched himself up to whisper into Aubrey’s ear. “When you wake up and I’m not here, you forget about that princess. Forget about her and find a better fate. I’ll…” It didn’t matter how real this was or wasn’t; Robin knew whatever he swore to would stick when he was himself again. “I’ll write you a new one. I’ll make it change. It’ll be good for you, even if I never come back. I promise.”
Aubrey just huffed out breath and wrapped his other arm around Robin, keeping him tight against his chest. Robin put his hand over the Bandit King’s heart, feeling the gentle rhythm of it, and closed his eyes to sleep, and to surely wake alone in his own bed again.
He dreamed again, dreaming within a dream, he supposed. He was in front of the fire again, but this time it had gone out to just embers, dark orange pinpricks like ill-set eyes in the darkness. His own eyes adjusted, and he saw Aubrey across the last rising wisps of smoke. His eyes were closed and his head tilted downward, as though he’d fallen asleep sitting up. Robin watched him as the coals died, neither of them moving.
The first he saw of the spear was when its tip pierced through Aubrey’s chest, white end of it coming out streaked with red before impaling sticking hard in the dirt. Aubrey’s eyes opened then, and even in the dark they were the brightest blue, looking straight into Robin’s own as all firelight died in them.
Robin woke up with a hard breath, and then a cough as he realized he had sucked hair into his mouth, long, red-blonde hair that most certainly did not belong to him. Aubrey laughed a little and brushed a hand through Robin’s hair, mussing what already had to be a sleep-disaster. “Much of an early riser, little bird?” he said, his voice rough and crackling from sleep. “Get the worm?”
This was a dream and it wasn’t a dream. This was real enough. “Is that, uh, an invitation?” Robin said, reaching his hand under the covers to cup Aubrey’s cock. It was just a natural instinct. Aubrey laughed, loud and hearty, and grabbed Robin by the back of the neck to kiss him hard.
“I do like how you think,” he said, but then he was sitting up. “But it will have to wait. Much needs to be done today.”
“Does it?” Robin said, sitting up himself, his own gangly knees hanging off the bed.
“Surely you’ve already seen it, haven’t you, seer, creator?” Aubrey said, standing up to stretch, quite an impressive sight when he was completely nude.
Robin swallowed hard. “I guess I have,” he said, seeing the point of that spear come through Aubrey’s chest again and again.
Robin cursed himself very seriously for never integrating coffee into his worldbuilding as he drank from a cup of tea that someone had clearly been asked to give him. Tea and coffee were equally colonialist, so why did he have to write in the one that sucked? He drank it anyway, because the morning was cold, and he had a mild hangover from the cider and a throb in his head from caffeine deprivation. Hell of a dream this was.
He managed to get some bacon and eggs — bandits were big on protein — and from the various looks he was getting as he aimlessly shuffled around the camp, yes, people had definitely heard him last night. Of course, the fact that Aubrey had given him one of his cloaks, too large for him and warm with beaver fur around the ears, was also a bit of an indication that Robin of the West Wood had received a hearty welcome. No one was sneering or judging, but he was an object of attention.
He’d gotten pants and boots and a cloak, but no one had anything resembling the pair of asshole designer glasses that he had left on his bedside table at home, so he was still squinting to make out anything further than six feet away. It was easy to keep feeling like everything was a dream when most of the world out of immediate arm stretch looked like it’d been hit with a soap-opera vaseline lens.
Robin couldn’t see clearly, but he could see enough to recognize a familiar shape that wasn’t Aubrey. Tall and blond and striding across the camp like he was off to conquer Persia, he’d recognize him anywhere without any proper vision magnification. “John!” he called out. Hell, if he was here himself, what was to stop other people from his real life bleeding in? The man stopped, stayed still for a long moment, then turned to approach Robin.
It wasn’t John. Well, it was John, but it was John from fifteen years ago, with fewer lines on his face and that ridiculous moustache he’d rocked for a while. This man gave Robin a long, serious look. “Jack,” he said. “No one but my mother has ever called me John, and she’s been gone ten years.”
“Oh,” Robin said, and right, there had been a time when he had decided to put John into his writing, just as a goof, as a little treat for the day that he actually read any of his work. He needed to keep better track of his damn characters. “Right, Jack.”
Jack tilted his chin up and looked down at Robin for a while, his expression wary but not quite suspicious. “You’re the seer,” he said.
“I am,” Robin said, because he supposed he was.
“And have you seen what’s to come of his current plans?” he asked, speaking softly.
Robin swallowed. “I have,” he said. “It ends in his death.”
Jack hissed breath out through his teeth. “I knew it would,” he said. “I’ve had an ill feeling about it ever since this strange obsession with the princess overtook him.” His eyebrow quirked up a little. “Although perhaps that obsession has waned as of late.”
Robin did not have the stones to keep eye contact after that. “Perhaps it has,” he said, and rubbed his hand nervously over his increasingly stubblier jaw. “He’s planning to move against the baronet soon, isn’t he? Within the next few days?”
Jack nodded. “Two days time,” he said. Shit, closer than Robin had thought. “I will follow him, of course, but I can’t help thinking this is all folly. Seer, has he been bewitched? None of this is true to the character of the man I know.”
Robin winced. Yes, god damn it, it was out of character. “A form of bewitchment, yes,” he said. The bewitchment of desperate hack writing, certainly. “I think the ink his fate was written in hasn’t set yet, though.” Even if he could continue to fuck Aubrey to distraction — a plan that was very, very appealing to him — it wouldn’t change that they were in the last third of a book whose first two acts had involved Aubrey’s pissing Baronet Sebastian the hell off. There were plotlines to close up and spears to dodge. He could fix this.
“I will continue to speak to Aubrey privately,” he said, and managed to not have his voice crack under all the implications sitting on that sentence. “But the baronet must be calmed.”
“Calmed?” Jack said in a tone of disdain. “And not killed?” Jack turned inward to Robin, putting a hand on his shoulder as he spoke in a whisper. “Aubrey does not approve of it, but I know assassins. The baronet could be eliminated before his breakfast tomorrow if we act quickly.”
“No,” Robin said, shaking his head. “No, no, no. Haven’t you ever read anything? Midnight assassinations never fix a damn thing; they just start wars and the next thing you know these whole woods will be in flames.” It was, admittedly, a plotline Robin had considered before. “The baronet… he doesn’t deserve to die. He’s really not to blame in this.”
Jack snorted. “Isn’t he?”
“His father, the baron, now he’s the asshole,” Robin said. “Sebastian is just trying to protect the woman he loves from… an apparent madman.” He’d never even settled on an actual name for the princess. He’d been bouncing around between Melisandre and Lynna and Ottoline and he was even briefly considering naming her after his ex-wife Catherine, but he’d decided to work that out in the second draft. So she was just the princess. Lita would kick his ass for shitty female character writing if she knew. “Wait,” he said, and pressed two fingers to the center of his forehead. “I’m beginning to see something.”
He had no idea if this would work, no idea how much he could control or change or create while on the ground, as it were. But, god damn it, the editing process wasn’t supposed to be an easy one. “The baronet plans to take his spear to the Crone Euphemia and have it blessed by her at dawn, the same day Aubrey plans his attack. Once it has been, its point will find Aubrey’s heart, no matter if he and Sebastian settle the matter peacefully. It will be what kills him, someday, somehow.”
“Euphemia?” Jack said. “But she’s been our ally! When half of us nearly died of red fever she healed us!”
“I know,” Robin said, and he was glad his eyes were already closed to hide any further wincing. “But she acts to aid those who are just, and right now… Aubrey is not on the right side of justice.” He pushed his fingers a little harder into the center of his forehead. The best plot ideas were never the ones you forced, but thinking under a deadline could also do marvels. “Jack, I know you are one of Aubrey’s strongest and most loyal men and I know you can accomplish this task. If you go into the swamps to the southeast, you will find a house deep within it, and in there you will find a woman.” He took a deep, slow breath. This felt like it was working. “Her name is Melita, and she is an illusionist. She is very beautiful, and you must try hard not to become bewitched yourself and end up forever in the swamp yourself. But she is good of heart, and knows of Aubrey.” Robin thought of backstory as quickly as he could. Young Aubrey, lost in the swamps; Aubrey, dazed by will-o-the-wisps; Aubrey, rescued by Melita to spend companionable days while he recovered. He didn’t try to fuck her, Robin decided, and she’d always respected him for that.
“She knows Aubrey, and she knows his true heart,” he continued. “You tell her that I am removing the madness that’s possessed him to pursue the princess, and that I will set him back on the right path. And she will trust you with an illusion that will placate the baronet.”
Jack took in a slow breath, taking all this in. “What sort of an illusion?”
Robin’s mouth twitched. He had to be careful, because he was feeling awful clever. “I’m thinking Aubrey’s head. Toss it past the gates to his keep and I think it will keep him from seeking his death.”
“That can’t last forever, though,” Jack said. “It’s not as though Aubrey will disappear from these lands. He’ll know he’s not dead eventually.”
“Maybe a new legend will begin. The Bandit King is not just one man but many men, all Aubrey across the years.” He’d deal with any lawsuits from William Goldman later. “And I think the baronet will be otherwise distracted, as well.” Since the princess, of course, was carrying his child, a surprise for the epilogue when the villain seemed dealt with.
Robin opened his eyes. “Can you do this, Jack? If you don’t think you can I’m sure some other in this band will rise to the challenge….”
Jack reacted just like John did when it was suggested he didn’t have the balls for something: he puffed up and marched into the problem crotch-first. “I can do it,” he said. “You fix his mind, seer, and I will fix the rest.”
Robin reached up and squeezed his biceps. Jack would get to fall in love with Melita, he decided, but only when he came back to tell her of the success of her illusion. “I know you can. I will make you a map to find the illusionist.”
Soon Jack was headed out of the camp with a parchment map full of directions that Robin had completely pulled out of his ass. If it didn’t work, he deserved to stay in his shittily-plotted novel and see someone he loved die for no good reason, for no noble cause.
Robin thought about the brave and heroic path that Jack would travel through the swamp and went searching the camp for Aubrey. It was just the worst when a writer had a character fall in love for no clear reason other than to justify the plot; it was time for him to edit that bullshit.
Robin found Aubrey in deep discussion with the band’s fletcher, frowning seriously over feathers. He clutched him by the arm and pulled him away; dramatics couldn’t hurt. “I need to speak with you immediately,” he said. “In private.”
Aubrey’s eyebrow slowly raised. “Oh, again?” He reached a hand around, under Robin’s borrowed cloak, to give his ass a squeeze. “Barely past breakfast and already you miss the bed.”
“No, no, it’s not that,” Robin said, after briefly considering taking exactly that tactic in this. “It’s my vision. I’ve remembered what it was I came here to tell you. It’s all very clear now.”
Aubrey’s lips went to a thin line. “And so you’re a seer again, little bird? No longer the writer of my fate?”
Robin put a hand to his brow. “I’m both,” he said. “Please, let me just explain it to you. I’ll explain it all to you.”
Aubrey gave a nod to the fletcher and walked back to his tent, once more taking the place in his oaken chair. He leaned back on it, knees spread wide. Robin had to focus. He took a long breath.
“In two days time, what are you going to do?” he asked.
“You know this, surely,” Aubrey said. “I am going to attack the baronet, and I am going to take the princess as my bride.”
“But why?” Robin said.
Aubrey’s brow furrowed. “Because he is black-hearted, and because I love her.”
“But why?” Robin asked again. Workshopping sucked.
“Because I love her!” Aubrey said, sitting up sharply. “She is beautiful, and pure-hearted, and all that is good.”
“Have you ever spoken to her?” Robin asked.
Aubrey waved a hand. “A few words. That’s all that I needed. She is the one, and I will have her.”
“But she doesn’t love you,” Robin said. “You realize that, don’t you? She doesn’t love you.”
Aubrey shifted in his seat, tense and caged. “That’s nonsense,” he said, and grumbled. “Even if she doesn’t now, she will. We’re fated for one another.”
“But why?” Robin said.
“We…” Aubrey frowned at Robin, then at the floor, then glared back up at him. “We simply are!”
Robin didn’t deserve to write the copy on the back of artificial sweetener packets. He drew in a very slow breath. “Aubrey,” he said. “I want you to tell me about the first time you fell in love.”
“The first time?” Aubrey said. “You know everything about me, it seems. Surely you know that perfectly well.”
“I named her,” Robin said. “Amaryllis. But I never wrote the story. I don’t have any idea what it is.” He sat down on the bed, closer to Aubrey. “Tell me your story.”
“Well … we were young,” Aubrey said, his mood softening. “She was a goatherd. We’d meet down by the river, when she brought her goats to drink, but on opposite sides, so we could see one another and speak, but not touch. ….Why don’t you know this?”
Robin shook his head. “I never thought it out. Distracted by other things,” he said. “What did she look like?”
“She was slight. Built not so differently from how I was, at that age,” Aubrey said. He must have truly been young, since Robin had always written him as sturdy and an early sprouter. “She had long black hair she kept braided in one long plait down the middle of her back.”
Not red-headed or buxom at all. Not like anyone Robin had thought up for Aubrey to fall for. Even the princess, as poorly developed as she was, was strawberry-blonde. “How old were you? A boy?”
Aubrey inclined his head. “Not quite thirteen,” he said. “She was a few years older.”
Robin smiled a little. “Bet you didn’t even have a beard yet.”
Aubrey laughed a little. “Nothing close,” he said. “I was scrawny.”
“I can hardly imagine it,” Robin said, and it was true. Aubrey had always been powerful in his thoughts; it awed him to think — to see that there was more to him. “Tell me more about her.”
“She brought her goats to drink every time I went to fetch water from the river, and we’d talk there. She taught me songs.” Aubrey smiled at the memory, his cheeks going faintly pink.”The river was still enough on her side that animals would drink, but my side had only rock faces over which I had to lower the buckets.”
“Did you ever cross that river?” Robin asked.
“No,” Aubrey said. “I thought about it, but … I was never dressed for it, or I had to get back soon, or the snowmelt made it just this side of ice.” He turned his head away, lamplight casting shadows on his face. “And one day she wasn’t there, and then the next week she was still not there, and then it was autumn, and then it was winter, and come spring I did cross the river.” Robin didn’t cue him for more. This could come its own way. “I learned from those who remained in her village that blight had struck most of their crops that year. Amaryllis and her family had gone to live somewhere else, with her uncle to the south.”
“Did you ever see her again?” Robin asked.
“No,” Aubrey said, softly. “I would see a woman who resembled her from afar, some image of what she might have been grown, but it was never her.”
“I’m sorry,” Robin said. He folded his hands on his lap and thought for a moment. “Aubrey, think about how you felt for Amaryllis. Think about falling in love with her.” Aubrey looked at the floor, his expression regretful, but still sweet. “Now think about how you feel about the princess, and falling in love with her.” All sweetness faded from his face as he scowled, though not at Robin. “Think about how you think you love her enough to go charging into death for her, but you still tumbled into bed with me with barely a shove.” That got some of the scowl pointed at him. “You love her because I wrote that you should love her. It’s a plot device, and not even a good one.”
Aubrey tilted his head to Robin slowly. Last night he had been humoring Robin, it was clear now, no actual belief in any of his claims. A seer, a liar, a spy. Now there was a true wariness in his eyes, small and cautious. “But why?”
God damn the turning of tables. Robin put a hand across his brow. “Because… I needed to end your story,” he said and a knot formed in his throat as the words went past it. “I needed to find a way to stop myself from writing about you.” He put his hand flat over his eyes, blocking out all light. “So my vision, the way this story ends, is that you go to take the princess from the baronet, and he kills you.”
“What?” Aubrey said, and while that word was soft like the hiss of a blown-out candle, the next was less the early roll of thunder and more the rumble of a mountain shoved by the gods. “Why?”
“I just…” Robin let out a tiny, frustrated, dickless sigh. “I’m forty-three years old. I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life. And in my world, where I’m really from, where I’m not a seer at all, you can write all you want, but to really be a writer you have to make something someone’s going to want to sell and someone’s going to want to buy. I’ve been writing about you and this place for half my life and no one wants it but me. I’m pretty sure I don’t just suck…” Robin took his hand off his eyes and looked around the room, at the colors of the rug, heard the sound of the camp outside, smelled the sweat and sex lingering on the bed beneath him. “Actually, now that I’ve been here I’m pretty convinced I don’t suck, but I just needed to grow the hell up and either write something adults want to read or just throw in the towel.” It didn’t look like this was all making much sense to Aubrey, but it was coming out of him anyway, gushing like blood from a gut wound.
“And I’ve tried to move on to something else,” he said, breathless and voice shaking, “to write anything else than bandits and witches and evil lords, but it never works. I get a third of the way into a book about spaceships before I realize that, oh, I’m writing a story about an oddly familiar space pirate. Or rumrunner. Or… rogue archaeologist, that one I didn’t get far with, thank god.” He pressed his thumb and forefinger over his eyes, stopping them up where they were starting to get wet. “I always end up writing about you. Every time, it’s always you. And I thought that maybe the way to get myself past it would be to make you the villain and to kill you off.”
Robin didn’t want to, wanted anything other to, but he made himself take his hand from his face and look at Aubrey so he could get the anger and scorn he deserved. But while Aubrey did not look pleased, he also didn’t look enraged. “Why, then, do you try to change my fate now?” he asked, voice taut but quiet. “If you wish to be free of me so much, why not let me go to my death?”
Robin laughed, stupid and wet and choked. “Because I met you,” he said, looking right into those blue eyes, not twinkling at all. “I don’t know what brought me here, I don’t know who wrote that, because it wasn’t me, but the minute I heard your voice I knew I couldn’t ever let you die.” He smiled a little, even though it ached. “I just love you. I love you too much to let you have such a worthless ending.”
Aubrey leaned back in his chair and looked at Robin for a very long time. Robin tried to keep his head up, keep his breathing calm. He listened to the sounds of people outside, Clifton and Brady and Terrence the fletcher and all the others who existed even without his thoughts. “Do I love the princess?” Aubrey asked, steady and serious.
“No,” Robin said. “No, you don’t.”
Aubrey nodded solemnly. “Do I love you?”
Robin laughed, rough and startled. “You don’t anything me,” he said. “I don’t exist here.”
“You do,” Aubrey said. “You’re Robin, a seer from the West Wood.”
Robin shook his head. “I’m not,” he said. “I’m Robin Dean. From the Richmond District.”
Aubrey looked upwards for a moment, then back to Robin. “If I don’t go to face the baronet, what will happen? If I give up on the princess, what then?”
“I sent Jack with a plan to calm him down,” he said. “I think it will work. I think you’re going to be safe now, if you stop pursuing her.”
“So, I won’t die?”
Robin let out a sigh. “You won’t,” he said. “At least not from anything that’s my causing.”
Aubrey nodded and steepled his fingers in front of his lips for a moment, deep in thought. “And what of you? What happens to you when my story does not end?”
“I don’t know,” Robin said, and shrugged. “I’ll figure out something when I go back. Maybe get a real job.” He let out one puff of a laugh. “If I go back. I don’t know how any of this works.”
“You could stay here,” Aubrey said, and then he was rising from his chair, coming to sit next to Robin on the bed again, just like the night before. “I could use a seer in my employ.”
Robin closed his eyes. “It would be nice. I’ve been dreaming of this place for more than half my life.” He shook his head. “I don’t think I’m going to be that lucky.”
Suddenly Robin felt Aubrey’s hand on his cheek, broad palm spanning all of it and turning his head to face him. “Do I love you, little bird? Is that how this story of mine has been changed?”
Robin swallowed hard. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think you’re writing your own part now.” He smiled weakly. “If you do, you need to have really good reasons or the audience is just never going to buy it.”
Aubrey brushed small wisps of hair from Robin’s forehead. “You are handsome and a good lover,” he said.
Robin’s eyes went heavy. “No, not good enough.”
“You know me deeper and more truly than any other,” Aubrey said, moving his fingers down the column of Robin’s throat. “You say you have made me, but I still surprise you, I still have secrets from you.”
“Many, apparently,” Robin said, and swallowed hard.
“You perplex me, and you amuse me, and I want to hear all of your stories, not just the ones of me,” Aubrey said.
“You could hear them,” Robin said, and gasped when Aubrey brushed his thumb over his lips. “These are better reasons.”
“Do I love you?” Aubrey said, and then tilted Robin’s face up so he could see him smile. “I could.”
“If I’m not to die I can do anything I like, can I not?” Aubrey said. He cupped the other side of Robin’s face with his other hand. “I think I would rather try reaching across the river to you than dying for a princess.”
“She doesn’t even have a name,” Robin said, barely audible, barely aware he was speaking.
“Hm. She doesn’t, does she?”
“First draft,” Robin said. “Badly written.”
“Little bird, I have taken your pen and spilt your ink,” Aubrey said, and bent in to kiss him again.
That was a good line. Robin would have to remember that. For now, though, he thrust his hands into Aubrey’s hair to kiss him back, hard and hungry. He tasted better without cider dulling his tongue and his brain. His teeth bumped against Aubrey’s when he grabbed Robin by the hip and lifted him until he was settled on his lap.
“Better perch?” Aubrey said into his mouth. He grabbed Robin’s ass with both hands and squeezed. Not enough of Robin’s sexual partners had had proper appreciation of what a great goddamn ass he had. And here he’d never even written Aubrey to be a butt man.
“It’s very good,” Robin said, resting his hands on Aubrey’s shoulders as he scooted forward a little more, enough to rub his erection against Aubrey’s stomach. The owner of these borrowed pants wasn’t going to want them back. Aubrey unfastened the cloak Robin still wore and let it pool to the floor. A hand settled at Robin’s back, beneath his shirt, thumb trailing his spine down to the base to make him shiver; it kept Robin in place when Aubrey leaned him back to kiss his neck. Robin didn’t bother to keep himself from making noise; it’d probably raise morale for the rest of the camp, anyhow.
“You’ve got a good song,” Aubrey said against his collarbone. “Keep it up.” That was easy enough to do as Aubrey’s other hand stroked up his stomach, short nails skimming through the sparse hair he had there. Robin made stupid little girly gasping noises when Aubrey flicked his fingertips over his nipples, and then just made them even louder when Aubrey seemed to like them.
“Do you still want anything?” Aubrey said as Robin squirmed in his lap. “Anything at all? Or have you decided on something more specific?”
Robin panted against Aubrey’s cheek as he tried to think. Of course he still wanted anything and everything, but he had a feeling in his gut that he wasn’t going to get to have this many times more, if any. “Fuck me,” he said, looking into Aubrey’s eyes, electrified down into his guts just from that contact. The slow, hungry grin that grew on Aubrey’s face made him feel the jolt all the way down to his toes.
“My pleasure,” he said, and with a bit of a whoop, stood up and tossed Robin on his back onto the bed in one whirling motion. Aubrey began to undress as he raked his eyes over Robin’s body; he’d never felt so desirable in his life. “I’d have liked to last night,” he said as his chest was bared and his belt undone, the top of his cock peeking from where the fastenings of his pants were coming loose. “You seemed too drunk for it, though.” The pants came off and Aubrey gave his dick a lazy fist. “All you could tell me was yes.” He settled back on the bed astride Robin and grinned down at him. “I’d rather you tell me just how you want it.”
Robin looked up at him, mouth hanging open, momentarily mute. “Now? I’d like it now,” he squeaked out, and Aubrey laughed. “Wait, first, come up here a second,” he said, reaching his arms towards Aubrey’s hips. He scooted forward on the bed and as soon as he was enough in range, Robin lifted his head to suck the tip of his cock into his mouth. He slid his tongue around its broad head, teasing a bit beneath his foreskin, then took him as deep as he could just once. It wasn’t far, since he was beyond out of practice. He suckled a little at the tip before drawing his mouth away, just to get a good taste, just to have that to remember in lonely nights to come.
Aubrey’s eyes were heavy, reddish lashes covering his eyes. “You tease me, little bird,” he said, rough and pleased.
“No, I don’t, really,” Robin said, and nudged him back so he could start taking off his own clothes. “I’m not doing that at all.” Aubrey gave him space to let Robin take off his shirt, and when wriggling out of his pants became awkward and frustrating, peeled them off himself. Robin was naked and harder than he’d ever been in his life. “Please fuck me.”
Aubrey placed his hand against Robin’s stomach, just close enough where if he lifted his hips a little the tip of his erect cock would rub Aubrey’s wrist. He got one little touch before Aubrey moved off the bed again for a moment, returning quickly with a vial of oil. “Do you like it on your front or your back?”
When Robin had last been regularly entangling with guys, twenty years ago, none of them had ever gotten to fucking. But he was an enlightened man who’d had a lot of enlightened San Francisco girlfriends. One of them had even actually been named Peggy. And even without that, he’d had enough experience with himself and his slightly embarrassing drawer full of sexy accessories to know exactly how he liked it. “On my back,” he said, and parted his thighs. “Slow and deep first.”
Aubrey smiled and poured oil over his fingertips. “I’d hoped you’d say that,” he said as he slipped his hand between Robin’s thighs, skimming damp little touches just beneath his balls that made Robin gasp. “You’re too good to kiss to flip on your belly.”
“Haa…” was as much as Robin could get out, some mushy shape of a word before Aubrey had one wonderfully thick finger slipping inside him, turning him into nothing but a writhing font of vowels. He slowly fucked him with his fingers, first one, then two, then three that would have had Robin howling if not for how Aubrey was kissing him, kissing him so much he couldn’t breathe.
Robin kept his hands to his sides, fingers clenched into the fabric and furs. He wasn’t sure he wouldn’t come so hard as to shoot a hole in the side of the tent at the first touch on his dick. “Ready, little bird?” Aubrey said against his lips, and Robin just nodded, kept nodding even when Aubrey had pulled away and drawn his fingers out of him to slick up his cock.
Aubrey was big enough to make Robin go mute and to make his eyes roll back in his head, but he went slow, perfectly, burningly slow. Aubrey himself was panting against Robin’s mouth as he slid into him, not able to kiss him anymore; all he could do was go deeper, fucking him to the root for the very first time. He was breathless when he raked a hand through Robin’s hair and made him look at him. “Yes?”
“Yes,” Robin said, and wrapped his legs around Aubrey’s hips and his arms around his shoulders. His fingers brushed against the ends of Aubrey’s hair but he couldn’t catch hold of anything. All he could do was paw at his broad back, over forgotten scars and freckled skin. The next ‘yes’ that his lips formed had no sound behind it. Aubrey’d fucked all the voice out of him for now.
Aubrey looped an arm around Robin’s hips to lift him up from the bed, leaving him with only upper back and shoulders still touching the mattress. He did just as Robin had asked, fucking him long and slow; he was empty and whimpering when Aubrey pulled out, and full and groaning when he went in deep. His cock brushed Aubrey’s belly on every other thrust or so, a skim enough to make the hair on his stomach damp.
But it was just a tease. He could have had this last forever but Robin needed more. He grabbed at the back of Aubrey’s neck and bit at his jaw, teeth scraping through whiskers. “Faster now,” he said, and then he laughed. “Do it how you like it.”
“Oh,” Aubrey said, his voice thick with breath but amused as he grabbed Robin’s hips, steading as he started to fuck him faster, a slow crescendo. “You know how I like it?”
“One… at least one way,” Robin said, letting his hands drop back to paw the bed. He wanted so badly to jerk himself off, but he wanted even more for Aubrey to run the show. His whole sexual history had involved him not getting to be a bottomy little bitch as much as he really, really wanted to be. Aubrey grabbed his hips hard; yes, this was perfect.
“This is one way,” Aubrey said and started fucking him faster, harder. The bed was shaking and Robin couldn’t even keep his legs wrapped around Aubrey anymore; they were pushed up nearly to his ears, feet wobbling in the air with every thrust. He didn’t want to close his eyes but they were drifting shut under sensation. This was perfect, this was just perfect. It was everything he’d never written but always wanted to. Maybe he’d never need to write another letter about Aubrey, now that he’d had this.
But he wasn’t thinking all about words or letters or anything at all once Aubrey wrapped his hand around his cock, squeezing and stroking him in counterpoint with the pounding of his hips. Robin yowled, and that would be a good lunchtime alert for the camp. He could feel him deep into his teeth, all into his heart, knew every line on his palm just from how it fisted over his dick.
“Love you,” he thought he said, but it was really more of a mush of sounds against Aubrey’s mouth when he pulled him in for a kiss in the moments before he came, absolutely assuredly harder than he’d ever come in his life. It seemed to make sense that he could suddenly bridge worlds if feeling like this was involved.
Aubrey had his hips gripped hard and drove him into a dent in the bed before lifting him up so only the tops of his shoulders still made contact. He roared when he came deep inside him, rough and half brutal and half a laugh. Robin wrapped his legs tighter around him when he fell back onto the bed on top of him, never wanting him to pull out, ever.
He did, though, slumping to the side of him and leaving Robin empty and aching and no doubt trickling jizz onto the fur underneath him, the thought of which made his exhausted dick try to twitch, because he had the strangest fetishes. Aubrey slung an arm around his waist and breathed against his shoulder, already sounding as though he were slipping into sleep.
“It’s midday,” Robin said, though he was feeling ready to doze himself. He fought it for now.
“Midday is hot,” Aubrey said into his shoulder. “Best time to nap.” He rubbed his beard against Robin’s neck, which made the hair on his arms prickle in the best way. “And besides, we no longer have any immediate plans. No raids or attacks in the future.”
Robin lifted a hand to brush hair away from Aubrey’s face, tucking it behind his ear. “You promise.”
“Absolutely,” he said, mouth mushed in half-sleep. “Already forgotten the princess’s name.”
Robin laughed and kissed Aubrey’s forehead. “Perfect,” he said, and let out a long sigh of relief. He wasn’t Robin of the West Wood, a seer, but he still felt secure in the vision of how the rest of this story would play out. Aubrey would not die a madman and a villain. He could keep being a hero, handsome and strong and noble and perhaps dying in his bed in another fifty years surrounded by all his many friends and followers and loved ones. Maybe he’d even be a true king, not just a bandit king.
Robin wouldn’t be the one to write any of it, though.
He lifted his head a little to look at Aubrey. He’d fallen asleep against Robin’s shoulder, fucked out and breathing slowly. Robin took a moment to stroke his hair into order, to trace the constellations in a few of the freckles on his shoulders. His body wanted him to sleep, but he had a feeling. He leaned in to whisper into Aubrey’s ear.
“When I’m gone, I want you to live your own story,” he said, the words thick in his throat. “Your destiny isn’t mine to control anymore. You can make your own adventures, and find your own loves, and be your own man.” He kissed Aubrey’s cheek. “I love you, and you don’t need me anymore. Write your own story.”
He settled down back against the bed, brought Aubrey’s arm tighter around him, and closed his eyes to drift into sleep.
Robin woke up looking at a digital clock readout that said 5:32 AM, with a stomach covered in dried spunk. He reached for his laptop, woke it up, and opened up
JUST_DO_IT.TXT. For a moment he thought about scrolling to the bottom, seeing how it ended now, but instead he closed the file, then deleted it.
“Thank you so much, it was great to meet you,” Robin said as he handed the signed book to the woman who’d introduced herself as Angela. She held out a hand for a handshake and he took it happily. It felt good to give fans whatever they wanted.
His last year had been strange. After a week of detached strangeness, barely leaving the house or eating, suddenly it snapped into him and he started writing The 9 Lives, a novel that had no bandits or witches or anything at all. It was set in modern day and was mostly about the malleable nature of reality in connection with a mid-life crisis, and also a little bit about the protagonist, Katherine (or Catherine or Cat or Katy or Kyle, depending), meeting with the same person again and again in different roles and in different ways. It had just enough sex to make it exciting without being sordid. Someone bought it. John read it. It sold. And after a slow enough burn, corners of the internet started talking about it, and suddenly Robin had a bit of a hit. At least enough of one for him to get a table at a Barnes & Noble to sign things after people had listened to him read about the time Katherine’s soulmate had shown up at her mother’s house without asking.
When the last book was signed and his hand was aching a little, he went to the attached Starbucks to get himself something full of whipped cream. He was waiting in line when he felt a tap on his shoulder. “Hm, sorry, am I…” he said, and then he turned to see who it was.
“Hi,” Aubrey said, and it was Aubrey, it was assuredly, definitely unmistakably Aubrey, but it wasn’t Aubrey the Bandit King. It was Aubrey, his beard neater and his hair back in a neat braid, wearing a three-piece suit and looking like the king of the civilized world.
“You….” Robin worked his mouth, unsure if he should breathe or swallow or speak more. The noise he made trying to decide was unpleasant. “It’s you?”
“How?” Robin said.
“I could have asked you the same thing,” Aubrey said. He lifted his hand up to brush along the side of Robin’s temple where his hair was starting to go grey. “I decided to write a different ending.”
“Here?” Robin said. “You’re here now?”
“Have been for a while,” Aubrey said. “You were Robin of the West Wood. I’m Aubrey Roderick, an attorney.”
“You’re a lawyer?” Robin said.
Aubrey laughed a little. Everything about him was a little quieter now, but Robin could still feel every ounce of his energy radiating from him, strong and fierce as ever. “I do a lot of pro bono work.”
Robin looked up at him for a while, into those sharp blue eyes, which were twinkling, completely, entirely twinkling. He swallowed past his dry throat. “Do you love me?” he asked, quiet and nervous.
Aubrey just grinned wider. His voice was still thunder, but that kind that was low and distant, the kind that you barely heard but still felt in your core. “That’s what I’m here to find out,” he said, and then grabbed Robin around the waist, yanking him toward him hard like a Bandit King would, and tilting him back to kiss him, long and sweet and perfect. He smiled warmly when he pulled back. “I’ve got a good feeling about it.”
Robin gazed up at him, awed and feeling more like he was in a dream than he had ever before. Aubrey had taken his pen and had spilt the ink in a way that told a new story, one he had never even begun to hope for. “So do I,” he said, and kissed Aubrey until one of the baristas asked them to stop holding up the line.