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Between the lines

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I like power. I enjoy taking control of a situation and forcing things to go my way.

Present me with a problem, a challenge and I will take charge and set things right. Throughout my time on this earth, this is how I’ve handled whatever life’s thrown at me. It’s the one thing that hasn’t changed on my road to redemption. But not all problems can be solved. Not every question has an answer. The issue I’m facing now is not of the sort that can be fixed with my chakram. The way of the warrior, my way, has very little to do with the question that is love.

Warrior princess in love. I know it sounds ridiculous and honestly, I never saw it coming. I guess being dead for a while changes things. On second thought, it wasn’t being dead that changed the status quo, not exactly. What turned everything upside down for me was watching you die on that cross.

Before that day you were my partner, my friend, my rock, literally the light of my life. The one person who was always there for me, keeping me in check. The one to show me the way of love in a world so torn apart by violence that it’s easy for someone like me to give into the call of darkness.

For years I haven’t known love. There were the thrill of the battle, the heat of revenge, the allure of power, strength, passion, blood-lust and there has been just the regular old lust, which of course can be easily mistaken for love. But there was never anything like this.

I guess I’m an idiot. It took watching you die to realize what’s been right here all along, buried just below the surface. I knew I loved you. You’re my friend, my family, all I have in this world and apparently the next, but I didn’t know how I loved you. We’d already been through so much together and it still took losing you to discover the truth. It took watching your life drain from your petite body to open my eyes to how I want you.

I’ve always needed you, even before I knew I did. I needed you when you were just a girl, a stranger that followed me uninvited. A girl with more words than sense. I thought you’d be a burden, a responsibility I was far from eager to take on. I was wrong. True, I have rescued your cute butt quite a lot of times, but you were never a burden. I’ve come close to losing you forever more than once and every time I almost did, I learned how much I needed you.

This time what I’ve learned baffles me.

It’s a problem. One I keep turning over and over in my mind.

I’ve never been in a situation like this before. There have been many conquests of course, but none of them have ever touched me in any other way than physically and I didn’t need any of them. I might have needed things they had, possessions they offered to share with me in the name of their love, but I wouldn’t call that needing them. My encounters were short lived and once the sharp edges had worn off the passion I could move on. No one ever touched my heart, in fact, I wasn’t sure I had a heart, not until I met you.

I’ve never looked at you the way I do now. I mean I could see you’re beautiful, I’m not blind. Anyone who met you noticed. I observed many people fall for you over the years. It amused me. To me, you were someone who needed protection, someone who had a lot left to learn. A progeny of sorts. Pretty, yes, pleasing to the eyes. Equal parts annoying and adorable. Someone I could share my life with, a home. But never someone I could long for.

I was blind.

I’ve watched you grow. Listened to your incessant babbling until I heard the wisdom in it. You are wise, as long as you’re not trying too hard to prove that you are. You are warm and you shine brighter than the sun. You changed me by always believing in me, and by sharing your thoughts even when I thought I didn’t want to hear them. People see you as my sidekick, they are mistaken. We are a team. You are the yin to my yang and without you I wouldn’t be much of a warrior. Without you I wouldn’t be much of anything. I’d still be lost, like I was when you found me.

It happened slowly, maybe that’s why it took me so long to come to this. I have learned. You are everything I need and want.

That is the problem.

With you I have everything to lose. If I were to tell you how I’ve come to think of you everything could fall apart and I’d be left with nothing. I’ll have lost my friend, my family, my home. Of all the things I’ve lived and died through I’m not convinced I would survive such a loss. That’s why you can never know, never discover just how much I long for you.

I turn around in my bedroll, too restless to sleep. There are too many thoughts clouding my mind. It’s not typical. I’m not one to lose sleep over anything. Usually by the time I lay my head down, my thoughts vanish and the sounds of the night lull me to sleep in no time. Not lately. Sleep has become elusive and whenever I do manage to drift off I’m shaken up by dreams. The type of dreams that make it difficult to look your friend in the eye the next morning. I’m starting to think I prefer nightmares.

You whimper in your sleep and I’m reminded of just how close you are to me. I don’t have to reach far to touch you, but I can’t think of that now. I’ve never been one for needless caresses. If I were to stroke your back now you’d immediately know something is up, which is about the last thing I want. So instead of reaching out I stare at your sleeping form.

All I see of you is your short blonde hair, that’s almost luminescent in the pale moonlight. You were pretty with your long hair, it was like a golden flag, a sign of your femininity, a reminder of the girl you were when you ran away from home to follow me. But I’ve grown to love your short hair just as much. It makes you look more like a woman and less like a girl.

I still don’t know what possessed you, why you felt like you didn’t belong in the village you were born in. At first I thought it was some sort of girl crush. I saved you and your sister from a life in slavery and you wouldn’t be the first person to be drawn to someone who is a hero in their eyes. Still. I can’t fathom why you chose me of all people. You’ve always been too good for me, especially at that point, when I had only just started to turn my life around. I was so flawed, so dark while you were so perfect, so innocent. I knew I would ruin that innocence and I have.

I have and I haven’t. Life has beaten you down, but you were never broken. Through it all you’ve held on to part of your innocence, your faith in humanity, your beliefs. That girl from Potidaea still lives inside of you. You held on to her the same way you’ve held on to me. I owe you everything because of that.

I turn my back to you. I don’t need to see you to be aware of your presence. I can’t forget.

I can’t forget how you told me you loved me when all had been lost and we were dying at the hand of Rome. I remember the softness in your eyes when you held my broken body to you in that Roman prison. I will always remember watching you fight off too many Roman soldiers after my own chakram broke my back. I can still see the desperate resolution to save me decorating your otherwise cute face. You looked like a lioness.

You didn’t lose hope then, when you strayed from your chosen path, killing everyone who tried to get to me. You refused to give up, although we both knew, in our heart of hearts that we’d already lost. Hell, if that’s not a declaration of love, what is?

I’d never seen you like that. It touched me. Witnessing proof of our bond in a way I never expected, not from you. For the first time I could see that you were no longer that naive girl I was still mistaking you for. You are all woman. Every bit as capable, as powerful and knowledgeable as I am. My equal in most ways and my better in some.
That is what has changed.
That is what’s keeping me up at night.

I open my eyes to find you’re already awake, heating up the remainder of the rabbit-stew you made last night. You look amazing even though it’s clear that you haven’t been up long yet. There are still traces of sleep on your face, your blonde locks messy.

”Good morning,” you smile at me and I feel a bit light-headed.

“Good morning,” I groan, my voice still hoarse from sleep.

“You’ve been sleeping in a lot ever since…,” your voice trails off, but you don’t have to finish your sentence for me to know what you mean. Since we came back from the dead.

“Some trouble sleeping,” I say as casually as possible. Images from my latest dream float back into my mind. The type of image that would make me blush if you were to look at me now, so I stare at your hands as they scoop up some stew and deposit it in a bowl that you hand to me.

“You?,” you sound surprised. “Trouble sleeping? What’s next, loss of appetite?”
I smile sheepishly cause that’s exactly what’s next. The stew in my hands smells good, but I’m so far from hungry that it might as well reek of horse manure.

“As a matter of fact…”
“You are kidding me! Is something wrong with my cooking?”
“No. No. It smells delicious, I’m just not very hungry.”

You stare at me like I just told you I’m signing up to become a Hestian Virgin, but you don’t say anything. You shrug.

The day unfolds like any other, albeit more peaceful than usual. No warlords, religious zealots, bandits, or any other sign of trouble. Uneventful.

Normally I would welcome such a day, but today is different. I’m antsy. My vivid dreams have left me on edge and all I want is something to take my mind of the distracting woman walking beside me. You. You’re unusually quiet and it’s immensely difficult to keep my eyes from wandering.

Your sense of style has never bothered me before, but lately I’ve been wondering if it’s absolutely necessary for you to show off so much skin. I know your belly button exists and is surrounded by strong muscles that make your abdomen look like something I’d like to eat from. I know your legs are strong and shapely and looking at them now makes me wish you’d wrap them around me like you did in my dreams. I don’t need to be reminded of your arms that I want to lay in, or your bosom that I want to burrow my face in. Do you have to have so much smooth skin on display? I don’t need to be reminded of your body, nor of what I’d want to do to you.

I can’t look at you cause I’m scared you will see the hunger in my stare, but it’s hard not to when you are like a magnet to my eyes. It’s hard to keep my gaze off my friend. I have to remind myself, that’s what you are. My friend, my family, my rock. More than a body that I could use to satisfy these sudden and unwelcome urges.

What do I know about romantic love? I was always drawn to power, to lust-filled moments that I had something to gain from. My body was a tool. An instrument I used to seduce and conquer, a playground for my temporary lovers. I gave it freely and easily to anyone who was of interest to me for whatever reason, lust, power, entertainment, love was never an option, even when it was. I gave my body in order to take what I wanted.

I don’t think I possess the type of love that you deserve, even if that’s what you would want from me. I don’t think it is. I’m sure you are aware that this type of passion exists between women. It’s rare and not much talked about, but not unheard of. It’s quaint. There has never been any indication that you yourself could ever go down that path. There have been men, however temporary. Lately I’ve come to dread the moment some guy might catch your interest.
People have speculated about us, two women travelling the world together, fending for themselves without any male companions. I’ve always laughed at those insinuations because it seemed so far from what was between us. I’d laugh and say I loved you like family.

Somewhere down the road that has become a lie. I can’t look at your lips without the desire to kiss them. I can’t lie next to you, and not long to hold you in my arms.

This is my life now and I don’t know how to fix that.

That night we book a room in an inn because it’s raining and I’m too tired to look for another solution. Sometimes when you stumble upon a warm, dry place to stay it’s worth every dinar. Especially when your companion looks like she’s been submerged in the ocean and her breath is coming out of her mouth in clouds because the sudden downpour has caught us by surprise.

“There’s a bath house over there,” The elderly owner of the inn informs us once I’ve paid for our room. “It’s free for all my guests”
Perhaps the man is trying to tell us that we stink. It wouldn’t be the first time. When you’re out on the road a lot, making camp in the woods, hygiene isn’t always your first concern. Then again, the guy does have a pretty big gravy coat on his bushy gray mustache, so maybe he’s just being friendly.

“Warm water sounds divine,” you confess, a huge smile plastered on your face. The guy hands me the key to our room and the key to the bathhouse. I follow you up the stairs, up to our room and unlock the door. The room is small and sober with just one big bed in the middle.

It’s not like we’ve never shared a bed before, but suddenly the thought of sleeping so close together is a bit scary. I can’t complain, not that I want to. Sharing a bed with you at this point seems like a spectacularly bad idea, but booking an extra room would only raise suspicion.

I sigh and put my drenched pack on the ground, spreading its contents out on the floor so they can dry. Your pack is more waterproof than mine, it has to be because you carry around your scrolls and papyrus basically dissolves whenever it gets wet. You just put your pack on the floor and take off the long sleeved top you put on to help ward off the cold rain. I look away cause part of me wants to rip the rest of your clothes off.
“You coming?,” you ask as you spin around and leave the room.
“Sure,” I mumble, following you back down the stairs, and then outside, to the shed that’s supposed to be a bathhouse.

We’ve never been shy around each other. In our travels, there was never any room for modesty. It wasn’t necessary. We shared baths, beds, massages, tended to each other’s wounds. I know your body almost as well as my own. I know its weaknesses. Which spot on your back stores your stress, which ankle is the most likely to strain. When two people rely on one another the way we do intimacy is unavoidable. If I were to suggest we’d take separate baths, you’d know something is up, so I don’t.

It doesn’t matter anyway. Seeing you naked isn’t +going to make me do something stupid. Even if it’s hard to resist you fully clothed, I’m still in control here. I’ve never been unable to control myself when it comes to this particular brand of temptation.

The tub is square and large enough for about five people. There’s a hearth in one corner and a bench with a small pile of towels on top of it next to the door. The room is small and doused in warm yellow light. The scent of vanilla fills my nostrils.

“That looks like a dream come true!,”you exclaim while I lock the door behind us.
When I turn around I’m looking at my own dream.

You’ve shed yourself off all your clothes. Your back turned to me as you’re standing in front of the tub. Your tanned skin looks even smoother in the glow of the fire. Sometime, when I wasn’t paying attention your soft, girly body turned into this toned, sculpted homage to what it used to be. You’re not overly muscled the way some of the Amazons are, but there is definitely a lot of definition. Your body is tough, strong, beautiful and unmistakably female just like the woman it houses. I loved your long hair, but seeing the curve of your neck everyday is doing something to me.
You are doing something to me.

Just when I think I can’t keep myself from wrapping my arms around you and pressing myself against your back you climb into the tub and rob me of my view. I’m relieved and disappointed at the same time.

“By the gods, this is good,” you moan.“Aren’t you coming?”
“I am.”

I start to unlace my boots and when I’m finally as nude as you I step into the water myself. Making sure I’m far enough from you to avoid any touching. The water is good, warm and soothing. For the first time this day I can feel myself relax. Maybe a bath wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“So what’s wrong?,” you suddenly break the comfortable silence between us.
For a second or two I’m so caught off guard I don’t know what to say.
“Well?”
“It’s nothing.”
“Let’s see. You can’t sleep, you barely speak,” you’re counting the reasons on your fingers as you speak. “You won’t look me in the eye and your appetite is gone. Something has to be wrong. Just tell me what it is.”

No one can say you’re not observant.

“It’s stupid,” I say to buy myself some time. I know you’re not going to let this go. You can be quite insistent when it comes to things like this.
“You can still tell me. I don’t care if it’s stupid,” you scoot over to me and take my hand, making it harder to breathe.
“Xena, you know that you can tell me anything. Come on, tell me what’s eating you.”
Part of me is tempted to tell you that the problem is that no one is eating me. That would be random and uncalled for and might throw you off for a few seconds at least. I dismiss the thought even if I can’t think of a passable explanation.

“It’s what happened, isn’t it?” I swear I can feel your eyes on my face but I still don’t look back. I stare at one spot of the water without really seeing anything.

“Are you having nightmares about the crucifixion?”
That’s one way of putting it.
“You never should have been in that situation,” I say cause I know that even if you won’t accept it as an explanation at the very least it will distract you.
“Neither should you have,” you squeeze my hand. “What’s your point?”
“I put you there.”
“That’s ridiculous.”
“You know what I mean. If it wasn’t for me, you would have never ended up on that cross and you know it.”
“Maybe. That doesn’t make you responsible.”
“Doesn’t it? You were as innocent as a lamb when I met you. No one would have crucified you then.”
“Yes and if I hadn’t met you I would be a slave right now.”
“You wouldn’t have died that horrible death.”
“You don’t know that. Slaves die all the time.”
“True, but…”
“But what Xena? I chose my path, it was a conscious decision. My path is with you.”
I wish I knew exactly what you mean when you say that. My path is with you. That could mean anything.
“I knew what was coming. I’d been having visions of your death for months. I should have protected you. I failed.”
“You couldn’t have known.”
“I should have. And because of my failure to protect you I had to watch you suffer. I had to watch you abandon your beliefs in vain trying to save me. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.”
“None of that was your fault and if I had to I’d do it again. I don’t regret anything. You are not to blame so don’t blame yourself.”

You press your body closer into mine, trying to comfort me the way you often do. This time my body responds in a new way. Tension crawls up my spine, bolting me in place while my heart starts pounding away in my chest so violently I’m afraid you will notice it.

“Gods, you’re so tense,” you say, and before I can protest your hands find my shoulders and start rubbing. I’m at a loss for words once again and you let your hands do the talking. They’re skilled, I’ll give you that, but in this moment I doubt that there’s any way you could touch me that wouldn’t be pleasurable to me. It’s hopeless.

Hopeless because even if you wanted me in all the right ways I still wouldn’t risk it.