THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
1.23 – What Matters Most
(post "Death Mask")
Toris: "What are you doing?"
G: "I'm listening with my body. See, Xena says that you have to listen for the attack before you see it. She's just -- she's amazing. I mean -- I've learned so much about inner strength just from watching her. When we first met, I was this little girl from Poteidaia."
Toris: "She's doing to you what she did to our village."
G: "Excuse me?"
Toris: "She turned our simple villagers into warriors and got them killed. She's doing the same thing to you. She hasn't changed. I can't believe we share blood."
. . .
T: "How do you put up with that girl?"
X: "Why? She knows more about wisdom and justice than you'll ever know."
T: "At first, I thought she was just blindly following your lead -- and that you were gonna do the same thing to her that you did to our village -- use their fear to manipulate them -- but that's not it! She's brave because that's the way she is! I was so sure that I had you figured out-- that I never bothered to figure myself out."
- Death Mask
We are lying on our sleeping furs, looking up at the stars. Okay, she's looking up at the stars. I'm just concentrating on breathing. It's getting harder and harder to remember who I am. What I am. What I was.
And who she is.
Toris saw a lot, but he didn't see the half of it. Typical for him. How do I put up with her? I snort softly, and quickly turn it to a cough when she turns her head to look at me. How would I live without her? That's the question he missed. Anything good in me -- it's grown because she nurtured it.
A year ago, I would have run rough-shod over Toris and killed Cortese. All my fancy speeches about revenge and pre-meditated murder -- I am such a fraud. The only reason Cortese met with justice instead of the end of my sword, is because of her.
It's a nice night. I wonder how Toris is doing, and if he made it to Amphipolis, and what he and mother are talking about now. I know she'll be glad to see him. A lot more glad than she was to see me last time, that's for certain. That mother and I parted on good terms is more than I could ever have hoped for. I can give Gabrielle credit for that, too.
"Hey." I jump a little, as a pair of green eyes peer at me from very close range. "Xena, are you okay?" She pushes my bangs back and studies my face earnestly.
"Yeah. Fine." I ruffle her head and start to pull it down against my shoulder. We sleep like that more and more often. Okay, she sleeps like that more and more often, while I spend half the night practicing that whole breathing thing again. And I wake up each morning with her in my arms, and wonder how in Tartarus all this happened. And how much longer I can hold things at the level they are.
She resists my hand and inches closer, and brushes her lips against mine. That's been happening more and more often, too, and we need to talk about it sometime soon. I don't know exactly where she's coming from, and I'm terrified to ask. If she's experimenting, that's fine -- at least only one of us will end up with a broken heart. "You sure you're okay?" She pulls back and looks into my eyes, and there's no mistaking the gentle, innocent passion in that lost puppy expression she's wearing.
"Yes." Talking becomes irrelevant, as I forget all resolve and return kiss for kiss. She opens up to me, and it makes my head spin. Everything fades away -- my brother -- Cortese -- ten winters of mistakes -- and my whole world spirals down into focus on this very real person in my arms. Her warmth and gods, her scent -- her body pressing against mine. It feels so good to hold her. There's not much mistaking where this will eventually lead sometime soon, and right now, it's difficult to care.
I pull her closer, and continue to kiss her. Slow, deep kisses, and her hands begin to wander, up and down my back, along my arms, and through my hair. I suppress a growl, right before it escapes my throat. This is Gabrielle, and I don't want to scare her. I pull her closer and my own hands begin to explore. Her tunic is thin, and I can feel her muscles shifting under my touch, my fingers coming dangerously close to tempting breasts, and a cute backside I've been studying way too often when she walks ahead of Argo and me on the road.
We get lost in each other and time stands still. I forget myself, and my hand slides down the back of her leg, and I press a knee between her thighs. She goes completely rigid and I hear this little perplexed noise in my ear, as I nip at the baby-soft skin of her neck. And then she relaxes completely, going limp in my arms and pressing herself fully against me.
It doesn't matter. That one moment of fear, and the stillness, was the one moment I needed to recover my senses. I pull back, and close my eyes, and press my forehead against hers. She's breathing hard, and I can feel her heartbeat pounding against the ribs my hand is curled around. My own matches it, and I go very still, gathering myself together.
I am who I am, and she is who she is, and I'm terrified at what I almost took from her. It's not mine to take, and I don't deserve it. Moreover, I don't want her to hate me for it someday. I couldn't live with myself if I ever see hate in those eyes.
"I'm sorry." I kiss her softly, chastely. "So, so sorry." I sit up and hug her, holding her close as we rock back and forth in silence. Gabrielle deserves to love and be loved. But not by me. I've done some despicable things in my lifetime, and this is one thing I don't intend to add to that list. I know someday, she's going to fall head over heels for someone, and it will shatter my soul into a thousand pieces when it happens. But if it's a decent person with a kind heart, who truly loves her, I'll never, ever stand in her way.
"Why are you sorry?" She finally asks, the confusion in her voice reinforcing my decision. "Xena, I don't understand."
"Good." I let go and flop back on my back, covering my eyes with one arm. I need a trip to the woods in the worst way, but on this night, I'm just going to lie her and suffer because there's no way I'll risk her coming after me if I'm gone too long. There are some things she just doesn't ever need to know about.
I can feel her hovering over me and I slowly remove my arm. "Xena, did I do something wrong?" She bites her lower lip and looks almost like she's going to cry. "I . . ." She looks down, breaking our eye contact. "I thought that was kind of nice." She looks up again. "Wasn't it?" Her voice is so hopeful, it breaks my heart all over again.
Gods. How do I answer that? Those eyes -- they cut right through my defenses. I know, in this moment, if she ever asks me directly for what almost happened on this night, I may not be able to deny her. "Yeah." I kiss her again and cup her face in my hand. "It was really nice." I push her hair back behind her ear. "Just a little tired tonight, okay?"
"Okay." She smiles, and I think my answer is good enough. Okay, I hope my answer is good enough. I'm not ready to have that talk. The selfish part of me really doesn't want to watch her walk out of my life, just yet. I know I need her. I just have to quit needing her in that way. I don't want to be the biggest mistake she ever makes. And if I were to hurt her -- of all the things I've done, that just might be my biggest mistake. It's not right to hurt someone who saves your soul on a daily basis.
She curls up against me and lays her head on my shoulder, and this time I manage to keep my hormones from running away with me. I stroke her head and she wraps her arm around my middle, and finally, I pull the top fur over us.
She's changed so much since we met. So have I. I think about Toris' words, and I ponder, for one horrified moment, the possibility that I am molding Gabrielle, and that she is blindly following me, trying to be something that a person like her was never meant to be.
"Gabrielle?" I whisper her name, hoping she might be asleep, but knowing she isn't.
"Hmmm?" She rubs my belly and I stop myself from stopping her. I know she's feeling a little unsure of herself, and I don't want to add to it. The state I'm in, though, all the tummy-rub does is make those hormones stand right up at attention again, but I slap them back down into submission and force myself to concentrate.
"You've been doing a really great job with your staff." I feel my way, unsure of where, exactly, I'm going.
"Really?" I can almost hear her smiling into the darkness. "Thank you. That means a lot."
"Yeah, really. I meant it when we first ran into Cortese's men. You did a fine job of holding your own. You really could have handled them without me." I pause, and lick suddenly-dry lips. "I remember when you used to play with my sword and have pretend fights with rocks and trees."
She laughs, a soft, musical sound that I can feel, and it does my heart good. "I was such a kid." You still are a kid, my bard. I'll never say it out loud, but I can't help it. It's how I feel sometimes. "No," she continues. "I'm liking my staff, Xena. You've really helped me a lot with that, and if I haven't thanked you enough for it, I should. I feel really good with it in my hands, and feel pretty confident using it. It's almost second nature to me now, just like your sword is to you. You're amazing with your sword."
She sits up a little and looks at me. "So I'm leaving the sword-work to you, if you don't mind." She smiles. "There's so much I still want to learn from you, Xena. But that's one place I don't want to go anymore." She hesitates. "Not that I don't think you using it is necessary, because I do. I . . . just . . . it's not right for me. I hope that doesn't make you feel badly."
Oh, gods. I grasp her head and pull it down, and kiss it, pressing my lips there for a long moment, inhaling the sweet scent of the soap we used earlier this evening. "Not at all," I whisper. "Not at all."
"Good." She lies back down with a contented sigh. "I'm so proud of you, Xena."
"For what?" Proud of me? If she only knew how very little there is about my life to be proud of.
"You kept your promise to me." She sits up again, one hand pressed firmly against my stomach. "Back by that campfire when we were hunting for Callisto."
I merely raise an eyebrow at her, and let her continue.
"I know Cortese got your brother Lyceus killed, and in a way, he took your family away from you." She tilts her head, her eyes sad. "The person you describe yourself to be, the person you were in the past -- that person would've just killed Cortese. Am I right?"
I lower my eyes and nod in agreement. Not much I can say to that.
"You have changed." She smiles outright, and it makes me really want to believe her. "You aren't that person anymore, Xena. You did right, by Cortese, and by your brother."
She curls back up against me, and I begin stroking her head again, soothing her to sleep. Works every time. I hope and pray, that of everyone, I manage to do right by her. If I don't, nothing else really matters anymore.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~NEXT in the BTL Series - post "Is There a Doctor in the House"
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