THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES

(or what happened between the episodes)

by Texbard

 

For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"

 

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2.4 Reality Bites

(post Girls Just Wanna Have Fun)

 

Xena:† "Gabrielle -- do it."

 

- Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

 

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The village is busy, full of shoppers eager to take advantage of a trading caravan that came through during the night.† Even the hot afternoon sun, beating down on them, doesn't deter their frenzy. It's just another village, and for now, it's my safe haven.† I take another sip of ale, and study the people scurrying around the carts set up across the square.† The ale tastes good -- nice and cold, and it slides down my throat, hitting my belly and seeping into my blood.† Gods, I hope it takes the edge off.

 

Gabrielle has disappeared in the throng. She's on a mission to find fresh herbs, to take care of the bite on my neck.† I'm ashamed to admit it, but I tossed the herbs we had when she wasn't looking, leading her to believe we'd run out.† Otherwise, we would have made camp somewhere in the private peace of the woods, and she would have taken care of me there.† And that . . . that just isn't a very good idea right now.

 

Did I mention this village is a safe haven?† I usually hate places like this.† Crowds bother me.† Too many people to keep an eye on.† Too many chances for some bounty hunter to finally get lucky.† And too many chances for good people to recognize me, and be afraid.† I wonder if a day will ever come when no one will remember the stories of that Xena.† I hate that fear, and so I avoid crowds.† But here, on the open and very public terrace of this tavern, she can take care of me, and no matter what I'm feeling, I won't be tempted to act on it.

 

Everything has changed.

 

I know I'm the one that asked her to do it -- bite me, that is.† It had to be done, to save her and those other girls.† There was no other way, and frankly, after that first touch, I don't know that I would or could have chosen another way.† I didn't expect it to be the way it was.† It was supposed to be a simple bite - something we had to do to achieve our goal, right?

 

Wrong.

 

It was easily the most sensual experience of my life.† I'd like to blame it on heightened Bacchae awareness.† The only problem with that is, I wasn't a Bacchae yet.† What I felt was real, and it touched every part of me.† It was both warm and cool, and I'm dizzy from it still.† Bad enough for those nails to drag down my neck as she pulled my hair aside. Worse, feeling her warm breath and her very warm presence against me, sending most pleasant chills skittering across my skin.† The flick of her tongue almost undid me, her hand cradling my face, commanding me to stay in place.† That second of anticipation seemed like hours.

 

And then she bit me.

 

Gods.

 

I've had gentle and I've had rough.† And I've given as good as I've gotten.†† Or at least I like to think I have.† But this was something completely new.† Her warm lips against my neck, her teeth in my flesh . . . I've got to stop thinking about it, but it took me places I had no right to go with her.† Places I haven't been in a very long time.

 

And that's the problem.† I can't stop thinking about it.† Gods, I can barely look at her, for fear she'll see the desire in my eyes.† With one, simple bite, I felt all the things I've been avoiding, and now I want to take her into my arms, and lay her down, and make her feel all those same things.† This level of desire frightens me.† It would be her first time, and right now, my blood is boiling.

 

I set the empty mug on the table and place my head in my hands.† Sweet Artemis, she's my best friend, and more importantly, she trusts me.† She's innocent of all this.† Iím barely hanging onto my control, and I have got to . . . no, I must . . . push all of this down as far as I can, and lock it away tightly and throw away the key.† Making a lover of her would make her even more a target than she already is.

 

Who am I kidding?† It's more than making her a target.† As I said, she is already a target.† Anyone who knows me at all these days, knows all they have to do is merely think of hurting her, and they will live to regret it, if they're lucky.

 

It's this life.† I'm a vagabond warrior.† I have no goal.† No plan, other than to keep traveling.† It's my reality.† I can't settle down.† No village would be safe with me as a permanent resident.† Much as I like to tease Gabrielle about being a trouble magnet, I think we both know the truth.† I attract the trouble, and it's a lot more difficult for it to catch up with me if I am constantly on the move.

 

What kind of life would that be for her?† She's meant for something better than this temporary existence.† I know she's having fun, and I'd be a fool not to see the crush she has on me at this point.† But someday, she deserves to be in a better place.† She's an Amazon princess, and a talented bard, and a beautiful woman.† Yes, I know she's a woman now.† She could have the world, and she should.† Being with me is only holding her back.

 

"You alright, missy?"† Slowly, I raise my head, to see a rather plump gray-haired woman, presumably the tavern-keeper, judging by the apron around her waist.† She retrieves my empty mug and promptly replaces it with a full one, the foam spilling over the rim.† "Here.† Ya look like ya could use this."

 

"Thanks."† I start to fumble around for a dinar, and she places a hand on my shoulder.

 

"This one's on the house."† Her hand lingers for a moment, before she removes it.† "That's a nasty bite there."† She tisks at me, obviously studying my neck.† "Man trouble?"

 

Despite everything I've done in my life, I feel the flush on my cheeks at her words.† "No," I mumble, and glance past her, spotting Gabrielle on the edge of the crowd, haggling with a merchant.† At that moment she turns, and sees me, and waves, flashing that cute little smile that means she's worn him down, and is about to get what she wants.† I realize, ruefully, that she's pretty good at that in most areas of her life.

 

The tavern keeper sees all of this.† "Oh."† She nods knowingly.† "I see."† She chuckles.† "Never would've figured a bitty thing like her could do that much damage."

 

Me neither, lady, me neither.† I glare at her instead of speaking aloud, and she finally takes the hint, but not before one parting shot.† "Easy on the eyes, that one is.† Maybe you'd best get over yourself, warrior."

 

If only it were that simple.† I see Gabrielle coming, her arms full of packages, and I hastily guzzle down half the mug.† For some reason, I notice the sway of her hips more than usual, and her stomach muscles moving around in interesting ways, as she walks.† Give me strength.

 

"Hey."† She reaches the table and unloads her haul.† "I got some good stuff."† She rummages around.† "A new whetstone for your sword, see?" She holds it up.† "And a tiny knife I can use to sharpen my quills, and a vial of blue ink.† I didn't even know they made blue ink.† The man said it comes from Chin.† Have you ever been to Chin, Xena?"

"Yeah."† I nurse the mug.

 

"Oh, wow!† Really?† Can you tell me all about it?"† She continues to arrange her purchases, sorting out cooking herbs from healing herbs, and making neat piles on the table.

 

"Not much to tell." I catch her eyes briefly over the top of the mug.† "It was a long time ago, Gabrielle."

 

"But surely it must be a wonderful place.† He had things I've never seen before."† She holds up the vial of ink.† "He had blue, and red, and green, and all these lovely bolts of bright colored silk, and all different kinds of hair combs."† She holds up an ivory comb.† "I couldn't resist.† I thought it might look nice in your hair."

 

"I don't wear hair combs."† Not since Lao Ma, which seems like a lifetime ago.† I am sulking, and I know it, and I see the flicker of hurt in her eyes, before she hides it with a smile.

 

"Oh, well, maybe it will look good in mine."† She reaches up, lifting a lock of her hair, and pushing it back, tucking the ornament in place. The movement of both arms squeezes her breasts together, exposing just a hint of cleavage above the edge of her shirt, before she lowers her arms.† "What do you think?"† She moves a step closer.

 

I can smell her, her skin all clean and sun-kissed, and I feel my blood simmering all over again.† "Nice."† I hastily drink more ale, inhaling deeply of barley and hops, but it doesn't help.† After all this time together, her essence is imprinted on my brain.† For a long time now, I've been able to pick her out in a crowd, even with my eyes closed.

 

She frowns, and I know she hoped for more comment than I offered.† I want so badly to tell her how beautiful she is, but I can't.† "You're not feeling well, are you, Xena?"† She picks up a clean rag and dips it into a cup of cool water on the table.† "I need to take care of you."

 

She closes the distance and moves in behind me, and lifts my hair, just like she did back in Bacchus' cave.† I feel her fingers sifting through it, making my scalp tingle, and then she moves it all to the other side, dropping it over my shoulder.† "We need to trim the ends sometime soon," she comments idly, and then I feel the cloth, as she dabs at the wound, the fingertips of her other hand resting lightly against my skin, almost burning, I am so sensitized to her.

 

I close my eyes in resignation, just listening to her chit-chat drift over me.† I feel so much -- her movement, her body pressed against my back, her hands working gently as she mixes the herbs and packs them into the two punctures, before she covers it with a bandage.† "It's still hard to believe I did this to you."

 

"Yeah."† I open my eyes and glance to the side.† Big mistake.† Big, big mistake, as my entire view is a close-up of her mid-section, belly button and cute mole included at no extra charge.† I can see those stomach muscles now at close range, shifting under skin that is tanned, and I know is soft and smooth to the touch.† My fingers itch to reach out and confirm my memories, and I clamp them firmly around my mug.† I slam my eyes close, lest I do something completely embarrassing, like drool.

 

"What was that like for you?"† She finishes up and I feel the air shift as she moves aside.† Cautiously, I open my eyes and breathe a sigh of relief, as she takes a seat across the table from me.† "Me biting you, I mean."† She nibbles her lower lip.† "You're so careful not to let people get in your space, Xena.† It must have been torture to stand there and just let someone hurt you, especially knowing it was going to turn you into a Bacchae."

 

"Torture is a pretty good word for it," I acknowledge.† "But it had to be done."

 

"Yeah, I guess it did."† She frowns, pushing her hair back behind her ear, dislodging the comb.† She reaches up and puts it back in place, and I stifle a groan at my second eyeful of her lovely assets.† "How did you know it would work?† That we wouldn't fail? That was a pretty big risk to take."

 

That's an understatement.† I chuckle, knowing she's confused at my mirth.† "I knew it would work, partly because Bacchus told us it would take a Bacchae to kill him, and I knew it would work because we're a team.† Because . . . it just had to work.† That's all."† I look down, swirling my ale around.† "Failure wasn't an option."† And it wasn't.† Not where she's concerned.† Leaving her to live out her life as a Bacchae . . . that just wasn't going to happen, no matter how much I'm suffering for it now.

 

"Anyway, I'm sorry I had to hurt you.† I know it must have been strange for you, being fully conscious of who you were at the time. †Me, I was already a Bacchae.† I don't remember much of it."† She licks her lips once, just the tip of a pink tongue poking out, and her eyes lock with mine for only an instant.† She's lying.† I can see it there, the memory in her eyes, and worse, I see the desire I'm working so hard to mask in my own.† It's there, an invitation she's extending.† All I have to do is reach out and take it.

 

I gulp down the rest of the ale, swallowing so hard it hurts my chest as it goes down.† Abruptly, I get up from the table.† "Let's pack up this stuff and find a place to stay for the night."† I reach around and find the saddlebag I'd slung over a chair back.

 

She looks down, her shoulders slumped.† "Alright.† They have rooms here.† I'll go get us one, while you stable Argo."† She looks over at a post, where Argo waits patiently, munching at a bag of mixed grains.

 

"Rooms," I correct her.† She looks up in hurt surprise.† "Look, Gabrielle."† I fumble for an excuse.† "I'm hurting more than I let on.† I think being a Bacchae, and the bite, it's not all out of my system yet.† I'm afraid I'll toss and turn and keep you awake.† I . . . I just need a little space for the night.† Okay?"

 

"Okay.† Rooms."† She annunciates the word very succinctly, and stands, brushing past me, then pauses in the doorway of the tavern, her gaze penetrating.† "Funny."† She blows out a deep agitated breath.† "I was bitten, by a stranger no less, and I was a Bacchae, too, but I feel fine now.† And here, I thought you were the tough warrior of the two of us."

 

As I watch her disappear, I recall Joxer's tale, of how he found her, dancing with two women 'from Lesbos,' as he described them.† Gods bless him, he was blushing, but he managed to spit out the entire scene for me -- the dancing, the mesmerizing music, and all the warm sweaty bodies packed together in there, most of them women.† The wine was flowing and it was a festival during a full moon. That's where she was bitten, he was fairly certain.

 

It occurs to me that Gabrielle may have had her own taste of this side of things, there on that dance floor.† I realize that not only is the girl from Potadeia a grown woman, she's a grown woman now fully aware of her own body, and all the physical sensations that come with such knowledge.† What it means for us, I don't know.† For me, it's going to mean a lot more sit-ups in the future.† And† a lot more trips to the woods.

 

I was her age once, and I remember.† Once you're aware of your capability for desire, the next logical step is finding a way to satisfy it.† I suspect that if we continue to travel together, I'm bound to know torture on a different level.† She's too curious a girl not to solve a mystery if she can, especially one so easily solved.† She may not solve it with me, but it's only a matter of time until she does with someone else.† I should have seen this day coming, back when we were fighting the Titans.

 

I shake my head and turn to my task, leading Argo to the stables behind the tavern, where I spend a long time brushing her down and filling the troughs with clean water and fresh hay.† Not until I've cleaned every strap and fastener on her saddle and bridle, polished her hooves, and taken care of all my armor and weapons, ever last piece of it, do I finally, grudgingly, make my way back to the tavern itself.

 

The sun is starting to set, and I smell food cooking, the scent of a lamb stew wafting on the air to greet my nostrils.† Dinner will be good, and maybe we can just talk, and get back to normal.† Better yet, maybe she's offered to tell stories.† She's always in a better mood after that.† I can see the confidence on her face, the joy in her eyes as she weaves her tales, the crowd usually completely mesmerized by her.† Who wouldn't be?† I'd be enthralled if she simply sat there in a burlap sack, peeling potatoes.† Stories are extra.

 

As I enter the tavern, I blink, adjusting to the low lantern light, and look around, but I don't see her anywhere.† I feel a tap on my shoulder and I turn, to see the tavern keeper, her entire stance admonishing me.† "She's already upstairs in her room."† She emphasizes the word 'her.'† "Said to tell you she's not hungry, and she's turning in early.† She's in the last one, end of the hall to the right.†† Yours is next to hers.† You want your dinner?† It comes with the room."

 

Suddenly, Iím not hungry either.† "No.† I'll just go on up."

 

"You pig-headed warriors.† You're all the same.† Me own father, a damned stupid warrior.† Broke me mother's heart, he did."† She grabs my arm, not letting me go, and I resist the urge to backhand her across the room.† "What in Tartarus did you do to her, anyway?"

 

"Not a thing.† I'd never lay a hand on her." I jerk my arm free, my blood boiling for a different reason, now.† "And it's none of your gods-be-damned business."† I storm away, stomping up the steps, and stop at the top landing.† "I'd never lay a hand on her," I whisper.† "And that's the whole problem."

 

I quietly enter my room, closing the door carefully, and creeping across the floor, lest she hear me through the thin walls these places always have.† I remove my armor and boots, not bothering to light a candle or wash my face, and flop into bed.† It's quiet here, save just the faintest buzz I can hear from the room below where dinner is being served.† Then I hear it, another sound closer by, and I realize it's coming from Gabrielle's room, just on the other side of the wall.

 

I press my ear to the wall, and I can hear her crying.† Every fiber of me wants to go to her and comfort her, and tell her it will be alright.† The thing is, it won't be.† Not for what I know she wants.† I sigh and roll over, and shove the pillow over my head, but I can still hear her, and I silently curse my keen ears.

 

I reach up and trace the lovingly-placed bandage at my neck.† I lied to her, and we both know it.† There is no ache there.† Hades, I heal so quickly, it may be nothing more than a couple of scars by morning.† No, no pain there at all, but a much deeper one has settled in, and I fear it is here to stay for a while.† I want so badly to get past this bump in the road, and go back to being best friends.

 

But everything has changed.† I know it, and it's obvious she knows it, too.† No matter what we do, there is no going back.† This thing will always be between us.† Sleep is going to be a long time coming on this night.

 

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Next in the BTL series - "Fall Into Grace" (post "Return of Callisto")

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