THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
1.19 – About Nutbread
(post "Altared States")
G: "By the gods, you’re beautiful!"
"Xena!" The fish almost escapes my grasp, and I grip it like she taught me, not so tight it will slip from my hands, but just enough so it won't wriggle away either. "Look!" I scramble over toward a rock where she's sunning herself, and hold up my catch -- a rainbow trout, almost a foot long.
She rolls her head toward me and lazily opens one eye. Whether she's studying me or the fish, it's tough to tell. "Nice," she drawls. The eye closes, and I'm disappointed, hoping for more than one of her usual one-word monosyllabic responses. Almost as if she can read my mind, the eye opens again and she winks at me and grins, then closes it, and folds her hands over her stomach.
I am consoled, and splash my way toward a stringer of two more fish she caught earlier this afternoon. With the third fish, we have enough for dinner, and I smile as I add it to the collection. It's nice to have a new skill and to be able to help out with finding something other than berries and roots to round out our meal. It's a beautiful day, sunny with a light breeze, and just warm enough to make swimming pleasant.
It's pleasant for me in another way. Xena is sunning herself naked on this secluded side of the pond. It's across the way from where we were fishing when we met Icas and his brother, and the waterfall makes a lovely melody for us as it pours into the pool from high above us. Xena found a narrow path through the trees and coaxed Argo through the dense brush, and here we are in our own little clearing. No one can get to us without rustling the branches to warn us, and we're too far across the pond for anyone to see us. It means Xena can relax and not be constantly on her guard.
Privacy is a good thing, I've come to discover. Every time she gets up to talk to me or change positions or take a dip in the water, the light sparkles off her damp skin and I get that interesting fluttering sensation in my middle as I watch her. I'm feeling that more and more often, and have come to realize it's always associated with Xena. There are so many things I've discussed with her, but not this. For some reason, it makes me feel shy, so I've tucked it all away to ponder for a while.
It's a longing kind of emotion, and I don't know what to do about it, or what it all means. Lately I keep searching for excuses to talk to her, like that's silly, right? We're together nearly all the time, and I shouldn't need any excuses. She's right there beside me, but I keep wanting more -- to see that flashing smile like the one she just gave me, or to hear her laugh, or to get her to explain something to me. That's easy enough, because most of the time I have questions about the things we see and do.
We were having so much fun that day, with her teaching me to fish, when along came Icas. What a strange family he was from, and a strange way of worship. I don't think I want any part of his god, if he does indeed exist. We know that voice came from somewhere, because it wasn't me. Whether it was Icas' god, or one of our gods showing mercy to a mere mortal, we may never know, but someone spared Icas' life.
It's strange to think I've actually
met some gods and demi-gods now. Celesta, and the Titans, and Prometheus, and
Hercules. I didn't actually meet
Morpheus, but came close, and Xena says
Ares was hovering around when that village thought she had killed some of their people, and it was really him that killed them. Our gods are a strange lot, as strange, I suppose, as Icas' god is, if you really think about it. Maybe Aphrodite spared Icas. At any rate, he got lucky.
What I got was a whole new set of feelings to think about. Xena and I have been so close lately, and I can tell something has changed between us. She never looks annoyed with me anymore, and seems genuinely interested in answering my questions, or teaching me new things. I've thought about that, and I know I care about her, probably more than I've ever cared about anyone. It doesn't feel like a sister like Lila, or like a friend. All I know is it feels really nice to be getting along, and to have a best friend who seems to be trying to understand me for who I am, not what I'm supposed to be.
Like today -- my father would never have thought to teach me to fish with a fishing pole, much less with my bare hands. Fishing was a man's work in Potadeia. Mother and I were left to clean the catch and cook it. Xena and I, though, we seem to be sharing tasks, and more and more, to be able to cross over as to who does what, and that feels really, really good. I know she said I'm not useless, but hearing it from her and actually believing it in my own heart are two different things entirely. I am finally starting to believe we are partners and that I'm useful to her for more than practicing her rescuing skills.
Although she did have to rescue me after I ate that nutbread. Curses to the nutbread and curses to my sweet tooth. I don't remember everything that happened while I was under the influence of henbane, but some things, I do. I said I've been having some new feelings, but darned if that nutbread didn't make me open my mouth and say a few things I probably would never say if I had my wits about me.
Then again, maybe it gave me a shot of courage I've been needing. It's true, after all. I do think she's beautiful, and sometimes, she takes my breath away. I smile and make my way back to her rock. Her eyes are still closed, but I can tell she's awake. There's a tenseness to her body, a slight twitch in her facial features, and a bit of movement to her fingers against her stomach, that tell me she's awake.
Even as I observe this, she senses me drawing near, and I watch the corners of her mouth curl up into a tiny smile. Slowly, she rolls her head in my direction and opens both eyes. The sun is at my back, painting her eyes a vivid sparkling blue, and making that smile even more dazzling than usual. "By the gods, you're beautiful," I whisper teasingly, just loud enough for her to hear me. She must remember that from the cave. She seems to remember just about everything.
The smile widens and then she grows serious, her eyes still shining, but her expression earnest. "That goes both ways, Gabrielle." She reaches across and traces my shoulder, and then my face. "You're getting sunburned."
"Am I?" At her touch, my thoughts go skittering across the pond like a tossed stone. That has been happening more and more often as well. All she has to do is look at me, or speak my name, and I lose all track of whatever I am thinking or doing. Maybe I have gotten too much sun.
"Yes." She smiles and withdraws her hand, but not before she tweaks my nose. "I can make a salve to take some of the sting away. I have the herbs in my healer's kit." Suddenly, she breaks eye contact, and dives into the water, then comes up and tosses her head back to get it out of her eyes. "How about I clean those fish and you get the fire started for cooking?"
"Sounds like a plan." I watch her swim back to shore, her movements at once powerful and graceful. It takes a few minutes for my own arms and legs to remember to follow.
We find our clothes and set about making dinner, and afterward she mixes up the promised salve, while I pack away our cooking utensils. "Come'ere." She pats the space in front of her on our sleeping furs, and I sit down with my back to her, and feel her pull my sleep shirt aside. The salve is cool as she spreads it across my neck and shoulders, but her fingers quickly warm it, and I close my eyes in idle pleasure.
"Didn't think you remembered much about what happened after you ate that nutbread." Her words are casual, but I detect a note of uncertainty behind them.
"I don't." I can't turn around and face her, and I'm grateful for the excuse not to. "Just that first little bit when you found me. The rest is a blur."
"Probably a good thing," she murmurs.
"What was that?"
"Oh, nothing." She laughs lightly and finishes with the salve, and tugs my shirt back into place.
I look down and run the palm of my hand across the fur surface next to me. "I'm feeling all shy again, and those silly butterflies are dancing around in my stomach. "Xena?"
"Yeah?" She's over by the tree where we hung up our saddlebags, putting away the healer's kit.
"Do you really think I'm beautiful?"
Without a word, she takes my hand and leads me back to the water's edge. The sun is setting across the pond, lighting both of us up and casting bright reflections on the surface. "Take a look." She points at my reflection. "I don't see that kid from Potadeia anymore."
"You don't?" I'm busy noticing the beauty of the reflection next to mine.
"No." Her hands come to rest on my shoulders, and her face peers from behind me. "I see a beautiful young woman, and I guarantee you that's what everyone else sees as well. It's no wonder every young man in every village we pass is smitten with you."
"Funny that." I turn and look up at her. "I don't notice them as much as I used to."
"No more hunting for that tree in the forest?" Her voice would be completely casual, if not for that little rise in her pitch.
"No." I lead her back to the fireside. "I decided I was trying too hard. I think it's better if I just live my life on the road with you, and if the right tree is out there, I believe I'll run into it, eventually, without having to hunt for it."
"Oh." She goes back to the saddlebags and digs out our two tin mugs, and the tea container. "Well, I guess that's a sensible way to go about things."
"I think so. Besides, I still have a lot to learn from you, before I'd be ready to settle down. Here." I laugh and playfully slap her on the arm. "Give me those. Making tea is my job. Shouldn't you be sharpening your sword or something?"
"Didn't use it today." Her humor returns, and she smiles. "Just lazed around here with you the whole time, sunning myself and catching fish."
"Yeah." I shake my head. "I guess you did."
A while later, after we've finished the tea, and the sun has set, and the first stars have come out, we lay side by side, listening to the crackling of the fire as it burns down. I tried telling her a story, but my mind kept wandering, and we kept talking, about anything and everything. Now we're just quiet. Down in the rushes the bullfrogs croak, and back in the trees, crickets are chirping. Argo is nearby, and I hear her stomp a hoof, and the tearing and crunching as she munches on the tall sweet green grass growing beside the pond.
"There's that bear." I point at a familiar star pattern.
"Dipper." She chuckles and lightly touches my arm with the backs of her fingers.
I capture them and give her a squeeze. "Xena?"
"Yeah?" She squeezes back.
"It was a good day, wasn't it?"
"One of the best." I feel her lips brush across my hand, and before I can think, I curl up against her, and feel her fingers at the back of my head, combing through my hair.
"Yeah, it was."
And there are no more words we need to speak after that. It's nice to just lay here and be close, even if those butterflies are still dancing in my stomach.
NEXT in the BTL Series - "Brick by Brick" (post "Ties That Bind")