Lina sat next to Gourry in the semi-gloom. They were supposed to be doing guard duty for the local lord, and it was turning out to be extremely boring. Lina wasn't sure why Deremar thought somebody would break into his mansion this week. Supposedly he had received some threatening letters. Regardless, it certainly made him more than willing to meet their price. Lina paused to consider that angle for a moment. It was true that she was bored out of her skull, but they were making quite a bit of money for relatively little work. She wondered if she could use that trick in the future when they were short on cash. Just find a place with a skittish noble, send him a couple of death-threats, and then offer their services as body-guards. The beauty of the plan was that since they were the source of the threat, they wouldn't even have to pay attention, and it would be easy money. Lina sighed. Somehow, she didn't think Gourry would go for something like that.
"Why the sigh?" Gourry was leaning against the wall, his arms folded over his chest, and his long legs crossed at the ankles.
"Oh, nothing. Just bored." They had been sitting there for several hours, with no indication that anything was going to happen. Lina stood up and lifted her arms over her head, stretching. Then she put her hands on the small of her back and arched backwards, trying to work out the kink that settled in from several hours of sitting against a stone wall. In the middle of her stretch, Lina heard a sudden hiss from Gourry's general vicinity, as if someone had just taken a deep breath. She reacted without hesitation. "Lighting," she cried out as she lunged forward in Gourry's direction, already preparing to follow up with a Mono Volt.
Gourry was caught completely off guard, and he scrabbled awkwardly out of her way. "Geez, Lina," he complained as he shaded his eyes against the sudden brightness and blinked repeatedly. "I know you're bored, but you don't have to take it out on me!"
Lina didn't bother to reply as she scanned the area for her quarry. "I know you're back there," she stated through gritted teeth.
"Lina," Gourry started.
"Shut up, Gourry," she hissed, straining her ears for any other sound. The fact that she couldn't see anyone had her rather concerned, but also confused. As far as she knew, the only creatures that could render themselves invisible were monsters. Xellos, for example, had been quite fond of the "disembodied voice" thing. However, monsters also didn't need to breathe, so she should not have heard anything. And what monster would be clumsy enough to tip them off so obviously? Unless it was toying with them . . . Lina's blood began to boil. She ground her teeth together and began to cast an Elmekia Lance. She knew she probably wouldn't hit, but she hoped it would goad whatever was back there into revealing its location.
"Lina!" Gourry restrained her with a hand on her shoulder. "What the hell are you doing? You're gonna wake everyone up!"
"I heard something back there!" Lina gestured to the area where Gourry had only moments before been sitting. It briefly crossed her mind that Gourry was being unusually thick, but the rest of her attention was focused on their surroundings, waiting for the unseen to reveal itself. "Check on Deremar and make sure he's okay," she ordered tersely.
Gourry started to protest, but Lina hissed at him, so he shrugged and went over to the door leading to Deremar's rooms. Once there, he hesitated briefly, then taking a deep breath, he opened the door just a bit. Almost immediately, he closed the door quietly. The silence stretched out.
"Well?" Lina demanded, once her curiosity got the best of her.
"He's fine," Gourry replied in a strangled voice.
Something about the way Gourry sounded caught Lina's attention more firmly than his unusual behavior in their current situation. She risked a quick glance at him, and was shocked to see that he was blushing.
"What the . . . Gourry what's got into you?" Lina marched over to the swordsman, ready to deck him to get him to pay attention. His reactions were decidedly off. If she couldn't count on his instincts, their current situation would be a great deal more dangerous, rather than the easy and boring job she had been contemplating moments before.
"Into me? What's gotten into you?" Gourry shot back. He grabbed her elbow and tried to steer her away from the door to Deremar's room.
Lina shrugged him off, her concerns about an unseen enemy in the room almost forgotten. His reactions were not just off, they were wrong, and it scared her. About the only thing she had trouble about predicting with Gourry was what stupid thing he would say next. But right now . . . Lina ticked off each point in her mind: he hadn't heard or been aware of the presence of an enemy, he barely even checked on Deremar, he was blushing, and now he was trying to distract her from the job they were supposed to be doing by picking a fight. It didn't add up. No matter how she looked at it, something, some crucial piece of the puzzle, was missing. And the missing piece was most likely in Deremar's room. She took a deep breath, and turned to open the door.
Gourry stopped her by placing a hand on her shoulder. "I told you, he's fine." There was just the faintest hint of strain in his voice this time.
"I know," Lina replied as she glanced at him over her shoulder, trying with an effort to keep her tone light. "I just want to see for myself." She tried to gauge his reaction. If anything, his blush intensified, and he seemed to be fighting an internal battle of some sort. Then he let his breath out and released her shoulder. With a shrug, he went back over to the bench and sat down, folding his arms.
Rather than providing her with any clues to what was going on, Gourry's reaction left her even more confused than before. She thought she heard him mutter something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like, "Don't say I didn't warn you," just as she pushed the door to Deremar's room open. After a brief glance, she closed it again, but that one glance had been enough. Right now the image was burned into her brain.
Gourry was right. Deremar was fine. In fact, he was probably more than fine. He was sitting in bed, leaning against an elaborately carved headboard, and his hand was tangled in a thick head of blond hair that was enthusiastically bobbing up and down in his lap. His groans were quite expressive, a counterpoint to the distinct slurping sounds Lina heard.
Oh. Lina felt her face go flaming hot. Well, that explained a lot: why Gourry had been blushing, why his voice sounded strangled, why he didn't want her to look. She leaned on the door, struggling to compose herself. Then another thought occurred to her, one she eagerly seized upon: it also might explain why she couldn't find whatever it was that had made that sound. If it had been a monster, the activities in the next room might have scared it off. Monsters fed on negative energy, and were weakened by positive energy, which is why Amelia would always sing songs about how wonderful life was whenever they wanted to get the upper-hand with Xellos. Another way of looking at it, though, was that monsters fed on destructive energy and were weakened by creative energy, like holy magic. Although Lina was sure monsters would enjoy rape, she wondered if consensual sex, which always had the potential to create life, would be painful to them. But then again, what Deremar and the girl were doing certainly wasn't going to get her pregnant . . .
Lina shook her head trying to get the memory out of her mind, and focused on the task at hand. Although she was pretty sure whatever it had been was gone, she went through the motions of double-checking the room. Her light spell was still floating obediently in the center of the room, but the bright lighting made Lina realize that the room was actually better suited to semi-gloom. Deremar might be the lord of this town, but it was a pretty small town, and Deremar's tastes ran to garish rather than elegant.
The walls of the room were painted in a coral color, which was quite pretty. Unfortunately it clashed horribly with the furniture, which was carved out of heavy mahogany wood and upholstered in deep violet velvet that had seen better days. In the bright light shed by her spell, the wood looked scratched and cracked, and the fabric looked threadbare and moth-eaten. The bench that Gourry was sitting on, in contrast, was hewn out of white marble. At some point in the bench's history, it had been painted with red, green, and yellow. Most of the paint had worn off over time, but flecks of the paint were still ingrained in the cracks and crevices. The long cushion was very lumpy, although admittedly an improvement over sitting on bare marble.
The furnishings were nothing, however compared to the way the alcoves were decorated. There were four alcoves, one on each wall. Inside each, a piece of sculpture sat proudly displayed on a fluted marble pedestal (which like the bench, still had bright flecks of paint embedded within its grooves). The sculpture pieces were well executed and realistic, a tribute to the skills of the artist who had carved them. Whoever commissioned the pieces, though, had absolutely no taste. There was a jellyfish, with its tentacles artfully carved so that they draped over the pedestal. There was a bed of barnacles in another alcove, some sea urchins in another, and the final alcove boasted a frog that bore a strong resemblance to Joyrock in his "small" form. The overall effect suggested that the interior decorator had sacrificed taste in a misguided pursuit of grandeur. Lina sniffed to herself. If she ever got her own castle, she was going to make sure there was enough in the decorating budget to be tastefully opulent.
The room was not all that large, and Lina finished her inspection in just a few minutes. She let her spell dissipate, mercifully plunging the room back into semi-gloom, which made the garishness of the decor much less noticeable, and sat down next to Gourry on the bench. He refused to meet her eye, and she was forcefully reminded of his odd behavior earlier.
"You knew, didn't you?" she asked abruptly.
"What was going on in there." Lina jerked her head at the door leading to Deremar's bed chamber.
"Yeah," he mumbled, without meeting her eyes.
Lina was struck again at how oddly he was acting. Almost like he was preoccupied with something. Considering how difficult it was at times to get things into his thick skull, Lina sometimes wondered if anything remotely resembling thought went on behind those crystal blue eyes. Gourry's typical easy-going nature seemed to enhance the impression that he was missing some of his faculties. Lina knew that Gourry wasn't an idiot, but his ability to quickly analyze a situation still caught her off guard on those rare occasions. Her reflections were interrupted by the unmistakable sound of an exhalation, exactly like what she had heard before. Only this time, she recognized the source. It wasn't somebody or something trying to sneak up on Deremar. It was Gourry.
Lina turned her head just slightly so she could see Gourry without being obvious that she was looking at him. He was sitting like he normally did, with his legs stretched out in front of him, and his arms crossed over his chest. There was a slight difference, though. Usually, Gourry seemed relaxed, but also alert and aware, ready to spring to action in a heartbeat, should the situation require it. But there was nothing relaxed about his pose this evening. His whole body was tense, and now that she was listening for it, his breathing seemed to be tightly controlled: a deep inhalation, held for a brief moment, followed by a slow exhalation and a brief pause before the cycle repeated.
As Lina sat listening to Gourry breathe, she started to feel tense herself. The feeling started in the center of her chest and reached down through the center of her abdomen to her loins. Strangely enough, though, the feeling was not unpleasant. Instead, it was accompanied by a strong sense of anticipation. Lina felt her senses expand. Gourry's breathing was not louder, but it seemed to demand something from her. She felt Gourry sitting next to her, but not because they were touching. She felt the heat coming off of him. And she noticed a scent she was unfamiliar with. It was spice and leather and sweat, slightly acrid, but definitely male. Definitely Gourry. Definitely arousing. Lina found herself assessing Gourry differently than she ever had allowed herself before: not as a jellyfish sidekick, not as a big-brother type, not even as a sweet guy she sometimes thought she had a crush on, but as a man, a heart-stopping, drool-inducing specimen. She realized that she was crossing her legs, pressing them together against the tight feeling there, and her breath was starting to come faster.
Abruptly, Lina stood up, scrubbing her clenched fists against her thighs. "Stop," she whispered, but it came out too soft. "Please, stop," she repeated, a bit louder.
Gourry jerked as if she had splashed him with cold water. "Stop what?" His tone was low, but his blue eyes were very clear and bright, and they bored into her.
Lina felt her heart tighten again as she stood under his gaze. Unconsciously, she crossed her arms over her chest. Was she really about to ask him to stop breathing like that? Just imagining the words in her mind made her realize how inane they sounded. And even if she did ask, he'd probably be confused and ask for an explanation.
"Stop what," Gourry repeated a bit louder when she didn't answer.
"Never mind," Lina pasted a façade of indifference on her face, while she scrambled for something that would sound plausible. "I was just thinking about something, and I must have said it aloud." She turned and started pacing the room again before he could answer, so she didn't see the look of flat disbelief on Gourry's face.
/Damn that Deremar, anyways/ Lina thought to herself in annoyance. It was his fault for hiring them for a mind-numbingly boring job, and then entertaining himself while they had to sit out here in this utterly tasteless room. And why did the image of him and the blonde keep coming to mind? It wasn't like her to obsess over what other people did in private . . . unless it involved magic or money.
Lina knew exactly what was going on in Deremar's chambers. It was difficult grow up in a normal village without encountering couples who had slipped into a barn for a quick fling, and the village boys started experimenting with the young girls as soon as they showed signs of developing. It was everywhere. Lina just ignored it as best she could. Somehow she had escaped the attentions of the boys who wanted to play "I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours," a game that usually involved very little showing, and a whole lot of doing. She wanted to believe that she had been too smart to fall for their tricks and antics, but a voice inside whispered that they just didn't try that hard because she was a skinny flat-chested unattractive runt. Lina stamped down hard on that particular train of thought, but that opened the door for the image of Deremar and the blonde to come rushing back in. Only this time, Deremar was starting to look more like Gourry. No, it wasn't that she was unaware of sex. She knew how it worked, and she had been vaguely disgusted by the whole process, and slightly disdainful of the girls who cried miserably after their first experience, and then kept going back for more. But now, for the first time, she found herself wondering if maybe she had been missing something.
Lina kept pacing back and forth, her thoughts whirling chaotically. If she happened to look over at Gourry, in spite of herself she ended up thinking about the last time she had seen him with his shirt off, or that time he had burst out of his drag outfit in Sandoria. If he happened to return her glance, she felt it lance through her body, making her yearn for something she couldn't quite name. The feeling was seductive, like a drug, or the promise of magic. If she tried to distract herself from Gourry, she ended up thinking about Deremar and the blonde. There was something about a blonde that was just at the edge of her awareness, something significant, but she couldn't seem to pin it down. Every time she got close to figuring it out, she would remember exactly what the blonde was doing. And how much Deremar seemed to be enjoying it. (Would Gourry enjoy it? And why would she think such a thing?) And who was that blonde?
No clear answers came to her as she paced back and forth. She was deep within her mind, with almost no awareness of what was going on around her, so much so that she was surprised to realize that Gourry was standing in front of her with both hands on her shoulders, calling her name.
"What?" she responded dully.
"I said," Gourry flexed his fingers on her shoulders for emphasis, "that you should get some sleep." He gestured with his head towards the bench. "I'll keep watch for a while."
Lina realized that her legs were aching and her head was throbbing. And she felt decidedly askew, as if the world had tilted at an angle, but left her behind. Or maybe she was tilted. Lina nodded, and allowed Gourry to lead her towards the bench, where she curled up and closed her eyes, half in relief, half in trepidation about what she would see. It felt good to be off of her feet, but she had been tensed up for so long that she couldn't force herself to relax.
She heard Gourry move to sit next to her, and she soon felt his fingers moving soothingly in her hair. "Mmm . . ." Lina murmured appreciatively. After a moment she lifted her head and pillowed it on Gourry's leg. His fingers continued to stroke through her hair, and she felt the tension melt away with each gentle tug on her hair.
Gourry continued to stroke Lina's hair until her breathing eased into the steady pattern of sleep. This was turning out to be one of the strangest merc jobs they had ever taken. It had started off simply enough, just guard duty. Gourry kept his senses alert, just in case, but he really wasn't too concerned, especially since the bench he had chosen was facing the only door into the antechamber. Because he was alert, however, he had heard the sounds of activity in Deremar's room. The occasional giggle and the more frequent moans told him quite clearly exactly what kind of activity was going on in there. It was just their luck that they ended up guarding a randy old goat. Gourry grit his teeth and tried not to listen. It wasn't like this was the first time he'd been in this kind of situation, after all. It didn't make it any more enjoyable, however. To make matters worse, the sounds of lustful activity in the next room awakened certain impulses that he had been restraining for quite some time. Probably too long, judging from the force of his reaction. Gourry found himself cursing the fact that Lina seemed to have placed him firmly into the "big-brother" category, although it was probably his own fault for treating her like a little girl when they had first met.
Then, she had stood up. And stretched. The way she arched her body made him very aware of the fact that although she was tiny, she was undeniably a woman. The woman he had pledged to protect. The woman he wanted desperately to make his own.
Her attack caught him completely off-guard. At first he thought she was attacking him, like she had realized that he was imagining doing all sorts of very un-chaste and un-brother-like things with her. It took him a while to realize that she had mistaken his sigh for someone else, but it seemed easier to go along with her than to explain that she had heard him. At least, it was easier until she asked him to check on Deremar. It was bad enough having to listen to them. He couldn't figure out how to get out of actually seeing them doing what he heard them doing. And of course, Lina wasn't content with him checking, she had to see for herself. He had almost just picked her up and carried her away from the door, for her own good of course. But he was pretty sure she would have made a huge racket, and in his current mood, he just didn't feel up to one of Lina's temper tantrums.
Lina's reaction also caught him completely off-guard. She was usually so uptight about privacy and kissing and things of that nature that he honestly expected her to go ballistic. Not to just blush, and then come sit down next to him as if it were the most natural thing in the world to catch two people in the middle of hot, sweaty sex, no big deal. He started wondering how much she actually knew, which kicked his imagination into overdrive. He could feel her sitting so close to him, her warmth, her scent. Gourry yearned to take her into his arms and make his thoughts real. Two things held him back: most importantly, the fear of pushing her away forever, but also to a much lesser degree, the fact that they were supposed to be doing a job.
And then she had asked him to stop. It was as if she had dropped a bucket of ice water on his head. Again, his first thought was that she could somehow read his mind, but this time she wasn't attacking, she was defending. Something had scared her, although she tried to deny it with some feeble excuse. He watched her pace back and forth like a caged animal, retreating deep into herself so that she was hardly aware of her surroundings, unaware of the occasional snarls or whimpers that she let out. It scared him to watch her go someplace so far away from him. It scared him that she was obviously tortured by something and he didn't know how to help her.
Finally, he couldn't take watching her anymore. It was pretty clear to him that she was wearing herself out, but she showed no signs of stopping, or even of slowing, so he had forced her to stop, encouraged her to rest, and now he sat here, with her head on his lap and his hand in her hair, listening to the regular rhythm of her breathing.
Gourry allowed his eyes to close as he drifted halfway between sleep and wakefulness.
His eyes snapped open some time later. The room had lightened from semi-gloom to pre-dawn, although it wasn't the change in the lighting that had awakened him. It was the feel of a gentle caress running up the inside of his leg from his knee to midway up his inner thigh. Gourry wasn't sure if he was really awake, or if he was just dreaming. His eyes told him that Lina's head was still resting on his leg, and that it was her hand lazily moving back and forth. But his brain refused to accept the information his eyes were sending. For a moment he hesitated, wavering between closing his eyes and enjoying the dream, and pinching himself to see if he was awake. While he debated, the caress continued, if anything it grew bolder, moving higher up his leg.
Gourry sighed. "Lina?" He asked softly.
"Hmm?" She shifted her stroke from a straight back-and-forth motion to making lazy little circles.
Gourry suppressed the urge to groan. If this was a dream, he didn't want to wake up. But if it wasn't a dream . . . His hand tangled in her thick red hair, moving it out of her face so that he could see her. Her eyes were closed, but her lips were quirked in a tiny little smile. And her hand continued to advance. This time, he couldn't stop the groan from escaping.
Lina lifted her head, and he could see the smug self-satisfied look she wore. He could see her eyes, which were usually hard and closed to him, moist and glassy looking, slightly unfocussed, but very aware. "Gourry?" Her voice was low and husky.
She only spoke his name, nothing else, but he heard the invitation. He felt it in her gaze, which went straight through him and evoked a very basic response, one that redirected the blood supply away from his head to other portions of his anatomy. /I must be dreaming./
"Is it a good dream or a bad dream?" Lina asked quietly.
Her question convinced him it must be a dream. Otherwise, how would she know what he was thinking? "The best," he sighed.
Lina didn't respond. She just laid her head back down on his leg and continued moving her hand up and down his inner thigh. Then after a while, she whispered his name. "Gourry?"
"I promise you, this isn't a dream."
Her response nagged at him for some reason. If it wasn't a dream, there was something that he was supposed to be doing right now. He opened his eyes and looked around, and then he realized what it was that was bothering him. "If this isn't a dream," he said softly as he placed his hand over hers, "then you should stop doing that."
"Why?" She flipped her hand over so that she was clasping his hand.
"Because . . ." He looked out the window and saw the sky changing from pale gray to the blue of early morning. "Because Deremar's staff is going to be in here soon."
Lina sighed and sat up. While he watched, her entire demeanor shifted from being lazily sultry to closed and business-like. Gourry felt cold in the pit of his stomach, and tried not to echo her sigh. Then she stood up, and clasping her hands behind her head, she arched her back, leaning first to one side and then the other. Gourry felt his breath catch in the back of his throat. He wanted to grasp her with both arms and crush her to him, kissing her soundly, but instead he whispered, "Don't do that."
"Do what?" Lina asked in a normal tone of voice, pausing in mid-stretch.
"That," he reached out and pulled her arms down, gently tugging her onto his lap. "It makes me crazy for you," he whispered into her ear.
Lina turned her head so she could whisper back into his ear, "I'll keep that in mind." With a smile, she stood up. "I hope they show up soon," she announced. "I'm starving!"
Lina paced the room a few times, trying to work out the kinks from falling asleep on a stone bench. She trusted Gourry, even if he had been half asleep, but just to be sure, she peeked in on Deremar. He and his blonde paramour were sprawled out on the bed, snoring in counterpoint to each other, and now that she got a clear view of the blonde's face, she remembered where she had seen her before. Considering how much of a turmoil she had been in when she fell asleep, she was surprisingly happy now. In fact, she was verging on giddy, although she was doing her best to hide it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gourry shift about, as if his pants were too tight, then he stood up and went to stand by the window. Lina suppressed a grin.
She had awoken to find her head still on Gourry's lap. His hand resting on her shoulder, and one of her hands was resting on his knee. She had been about to go back to sleep when she heard him murmur her name. At first she thought he had noticed that she was awake, but then she realized that his breathing was still and regular, which indicated that he was asleep. The way he had said her name tugged at her heart in a way that surprised her, but also made several pieces of the puzzle fall together: how comfortable and safe she felt being so close to him, how much she counted on him as a constant presence in her life, and how much she had been a sea of raging hormones the previous night all because of the way he had been breathing. With the clarity that often comes after an emotional storm and a night of sleep deprivation, she realized exactly what it was that she felt for the big blond swordsman. And she wondered if maybe, just maybe, he might feel the same. She had started stroking her fingers absently along his leg, enjoying the closeness and treasuring the realizations the morning had brought. Of course, once she realized the effect her fingers were having on him, bringing on a repeat performance of the previous night's breathing exercises, her movements had become a great deal more deliberate.
Lina heard the sound of keys rattling in a lock, and she turned expectantly toward the door. "Finally," she announced with a theatrical sigh. Gourry turned away from the window and leaned against the wall. "Remember," she reminded him, "let me do all the talking!"
Gourry shrugged, and then the door to the room opened, and Deremar's steward, a greasy looking man with lank brown hair entered the room. "Any problems?" He asked in a business-like tone of voice.
"See for yourself." Lina gestured towards the door leading to Deremar's chamber.
The steward smirked at Lina, and sauntered over to waken his master. He opened the door just wide enough to squeeze through and then closed the door firmly behind him. After a few moments, the steward emerged, holding a small sack that jingled as he walked.
Before he could give the money to Lina, she held up her hand. "I have to warn you," she stated calmly, "that our contract was only to protect Deremar."
"Yes," the steward replied, "and that's what I'm paying you for. Twenty gold coins, as we agreed."
Lina wagged her finger at him. "Our contract stated nothing about protecting any of Deremar's lady-companions. That will double our price. You owe us forty gold coins."
"Forty?" The steward sneered at Lina. "Do you realize who you are dealing with?"
Lina extended herself to her full height, a move she wished was more impressive. "Forty." She repeated calmly. "Unless Deremar doesn't care that everyone knows what he's doing with his sister's daughter in the wee hours of the night."
The sneer evaporated off of the steward's face, and he started to look a little green.
"You wouldn't dare!" He declared. He sounded decidedly unsure of himself, however.
Lina arched one eyebrow and stared him down.
The steward started to sweat. Finally, he broke. "Okay, okay, forty." With a sick expression, he pulled a small key out of his doublet and unlocked a small box concealed under one of the tasteless sea-creature statues.
Lina carefully counted out the gold coins he gave her, biting a couple of them to test their authenticity. Once she was content, she bundled up the coins and dropped them into a hidden compartment in her cloak. "It was a pleasure doing business with you," she said in her "little girl" voice as she smiled innocently at the steward. "Gourry and I will see ourselves out." Without a backward glance, and without waiting to see if Gourry was following her, Lina sauntered insolently out of the room.
Gourry caught up with her at the head of the stairs leading into the main hall. Lina flashed him a victory sign.
"Wasn't that a little harsh?" Gourry's tone was stern, but his eyes were dancing.
Lina turned on him. "How many times have I told you that information is valuable? We doubled our take with minimal effort. Now, let's go eat, I'm starving!"
One rather large meal later, Lina leaned back in her chair and sighed with contentment. "I feel almost human again . . . Now all I need is a bath and some sleep."
Gourry nodded, as he looked over the remains of their breakfast. He pushed a stack of dishes to the side so he could see Lina better. "You want me to go see about getting us rooms?"
"No," Lina shook her head. "I'll take care of it." She stood up and tossed a handful of coins on the table to cover their meal.
Gourry twirled a bamboo skewer through his fingers and checked out the room while waiting for Lina to return. The room was large, but it looked like it had seen hard use. The floor was covered with fresh rushes and most of the tables were rough-hewn boards placed over trestles. In fact, he and Lina had claimed one of the few tables that looked more permanent, and also had chairs instead of simple benches. Their table was close to a raised wooden dais. Gourry figured that the room served several functions, ranging from meeting hall to banquet hall, and based on the dais, probably also local court. There was a small stack of kegs in one corner, right next to a short bar.
What was taking Lina so long? Like Lina, he also wanted a bath and some sleep, and judging from the deep creases in his shirt, he'd need to do some laundry sooner rather than later. At least they wouldn't need to take on another merc job any time soon. Just to pass the time, he ordered a pint of ale. The waitress gave him an odd look, but didn't say anything.
He had finished off half his glass when Lina finally showed up. "What took so long?"
Lina growled and flung herself into her chair. "There's only one room," she spat out through clenched teeth.
"So, it's not like we've never shared a room before," he pointed out calmly. At least he hoped he said it calmly. The thought of sharing a room with her now, after having her so close to him this morning, meant that there were all kinds of possibilities, assuming of course, that he could weather her current mood.
"I know that, Jellyfish, that's not the point." She leaned on the table, burying her face in her hands a moment. Then she looked up. "The room's currently occupied."
Oh. Gourry's shoulders slumped. The thought of slogging over to the next village right now made him feel twice as tired.
"But," Lina held up her hand, "there is a room we can use . . . at least until this evening when they'll need it for business again."
"They?" Gourry asked. Then he noticed that Lina was blushing furiously and avoiding his eyes. Oh. It figured. This town was so small, they were lucky there were any rooms for them at all. Considering all the other functions the common room served, he wasn't surprised that the local whore worked here as well. "Well, that's better than nothing isn't it?"
Lina sighed. "Yeah, it's better than nothing, but it's less than ideal. It means that we have no place to stay tonight." Then she brightened. "The good news is, though, that we get the room for free, but we still have to pay for them to lug up the bath cask and the hot water."
"They're actually going to bring up hot water?"
"Yeah. I had to pay extra for it, but the thought of a cold bath on top of having to clear out early was just too much." Lina stood up. "I'm going up. It's the first door at the top of the stairs."
Gourry nodded. "I'll be up once I finish this." He held up his tankard.
Lina wrinkled her nose. "How you can drink that stuff this early in the day is beyond me." Then she turned and walked out of the common room.
Gourry watched her go up the stairs. He wondered what was really bothering her. He didn't doubt that she was annoyed about the room. It certainly was less than ideal. On the other hand, she seemed pretty pleased about getting it for free. He swigged the rest of his ale while he glanced about the room. His eyes narrowed slightly when he noticed Deremar's greasy steward slink in. He was obviously trying to look casual as he sauntered over to the bar, where the sole waitress sat. Once there, he started talking to her urgently in an undertone. Gourry stood up, pushing back his chair noisily, then walked over and clapped the man on the shoulder.
Deremar's steward flinched in panic before he pasted an oily smile onto his face. "Ah, I was just asking Anika here if she knew where you and the lovely Miss Inverse were."
"Well, I suppose this is your lucky day, then," Gourry replied casually.
"Yes," the other man replied quickly, his eyes darting about nervously. "You see, Lord Deremar was well-pleased with your services this night past, and he would like to discuss more permanent arrangements."
Gourry grunted. He thought that it was much more likely that Deremar wanted his money back. "You'll have to give Deremar our apologies," he said shortly. "We're not for hire right now."
As he turned and headed up the stairs, he caught the nasty look that flitted across the steward's face. He rubbed his hand against his pant leg, trying to get rid of the greasy feeling he had from touching the steward.
When he got up to the room, Lina was busy overseeing the placement of the bath cask and the two maids who were bringing up water through the window. She seemed to have things under control, so he sank into one of the chairs until she was finished. The room they were staying in could only be described as sumptuous. It was remarkably tasteful for a room devoted to whoring. The walls were covered with peacock blue damask that matched the overstuffed chairs facing the fireplace. The pale wood floor had been polished to a sheen and there were small throw rugs scattered about. Of course, the thing that demanded the most attention in the room was the bed. It was a giant four-poster bed with an emerald green velvet canopy and matching curtains. It was covered with small cushions that matched the walls in color. And it looked incredibly comfortable and welcoming. Somebody had obviously spent a great deal of money on this room, quite the contrast to the typical whore's room that reeked of stale sex and was tastelessly decorated, if at all.
Gourry leaned his head back and closed his eyes, trusting Lina to take care of things. Finally, he heard the click of the door closing. He opened his eyes to see Lina leaning against the door to the room. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be concentrating. Then she opened her eyes and looked at him.
"Deremar's steward was asking about us."
"I know," she replied with a sigh. "I saw him sniffing around the edges of the common room when I went to go see about a room."
"You think Deremar wants his money back?"
Lina shrugged. "Maybe. It's more likely that he doesn't want to take the chance that we'll talk about his nighttime activities. That could harm him considerably more than the loss of an extra twenty gold." She walked over to the window, closed her eyes and concentrated again.
"Nah, not really." Lina shrugged again. "If he had access to magic, he wouldn't have hired us yesterday." She sat down on the windowsill. "Still, it doesn't hurt to take simple precautions. I don't think he'll try anything today, but we might want to try sneaking out tonight." Then Lina grinned with a feral look. "If that fails, we'll take him out and all his treasure will be mine!"
Gourry had no reply for that. He closed his eyes again and listened to Lina move about the room. When he heard the swish of water, he remembered about the bath. He didn't open his eyes again, though, until he sensed Lina standing in front of him. "What?"
Lina looked over him critically. "Why don't you bathe first?" He noticed that she had taken off her cloak, and left it laying in a rumpled heap on the floor next to a low stool and a wooden wash basin.
Gourry reluctantly pulled himself up from the comfort of the chair and started taking off his armor, inspecting each piece as he did so, mostly out of habit. Lina sat down on the stool near her cloak and started going through all the hidden pockets it contained. She glanced over at him. "Toss me your clothes before you get in the tub, and I'll wash 'em."
"Thanks. I was just thinking at breakfast that we should do laundry soon." He undressed and tossed his clothes in her general direction before he eased himself into the tub, facing away from her. The hot water felt so good that he found himself just wanting to soak for a while. He could hear Lina scrubbing clothes against the washboard. She seemed to be throwing a lot of energy into it, but she was also quietly humming a little tune. After a bit, he heard her stand up, and he turned so he could see what she was doing. She had finished washing his clothes and was in the process of hanging them up on the valet to dry.
As he turned back, he noticed the bath supplies sitting on a stool next to the tub. There was the standard array of small washing cloths, soap, and containers with shampoo. What caught his attention, however, was a blue long-handled brush. He had never seen anything like it before, so he picked it up to examine it more closely. The bristles were closely packed, a lot like a grooming brush for a horse, but they weren't quite as stiff. His brow furrowed for a moment, then he smiled as an idea occurred to him. He picked up the soap, and worked up a generous lather onto the bristles. Then he reached over his shoulder and started scrubbing his back. He whistled through his teeth in pleasure. If there was one part of the body that was hard to wash, it was the back. This brush made it easy, and it also felt really good.
"What's that?" Lina asked, looking up from the clothes she was washing.
"Dunno," Gourry replied. "It was with the other bath things, so I guess it's for washing." He continued scrubbing at his back. "Works good on backs, though."
He heard her sniff. "And here I was going to offer to do your back once I finished with the clothes. Guess you won't need any help now." She wrung the water out of her spare leggings and then shook them out.
Gourry paused in mid-stroke. She was going to offer to do his back? That was a new one. Usually Lina wouldn't come anywhere near him while he was taking a bath. He struggled to come up the right reply. "Well, there's a spot right between my shoulder blades that I can't reach properly," he suggested, looking over his shoulder.
"Oh, really?" Lina looked at him from under raised eyebrows.
"Really, see?" Gourry made a show of being able to reach the area below his shoulder blades and above, but not between, comically exaggerating his difficulties.
Lina started to laugh. "In that case, I guess I can still offer to help. We wouldn't want that part of your back to feel neglected, would we?" He heard her drag the stool over to the tub. "Hand me a washcloth," she ordered.
"Yes'm." Gourry leaned forward a bit, his hands gripping the sides of the tub as Lina dipped the washcloth into the water behind him. Time seemed to slow down as he heard the sound of soap scraping against the cloth, the sound of water dripping from the cloth, the sound of Lina's slow breathing, very close to him. After an eternity, he felt her bring the cloth up to his back. As she scrubbed, he felt water drip down his back. He closed his eyes in pleasure. "Better than the brush," he murmured.
Lina stared at the broad expanse of Gourry's back, wondering if she was sure about this. The few times in the past when they'd had to share a room and were really in need of a bath, she'd usually sit on the other side of the bed, staring at the wall. Of course, she always made Gourry leave the room when she took hers. The situation was slightly different this time, though, for several reasons. First of all, they usually weren't magically locked in. Locking the doors and windows like that probably wasn't necessary, but was still a sensible precaution. And then, there was the fact that she had discovered a new power that she had over Gourry, and Lina Inverse had never been one to shy away from trying out new abilities. Just remembering the way he had whispered in her ear, how he had said that the simple act of her stretching made him crazy for her, made chills run up and down her spine. She knew that her actions were not without risk. Gourry had demonstrated that he could influence her just as much. But Lina had also never backed down from a challenge.
Not that she was doing this purely because she felt challenged, or for the thrill. She was also doing it because she knew in her heart that she and Gourry could continue to dance around each other, the situation, and their feelings for each other. Or they could cut to the chase, get everything out in the open, deal with it, and move on.
Oh, but she had power over him! Gourry's head was hanging down, and an occasional sigh escaped his lips. Lina let the washcloth fall into the water, and then lathered her hands with the soap. She spread the suds over his back, and then started to massage his shoulders, working her fingers through the knots up the column of his neck and down along his arms. Then, feeling more than a bit mischievous, she ran her hands over his chest, just under his collarbone. He initially stiffened, but once he relaxed again, she leaned forward to whisper in his ear, "Hand me the shampoo and I'll wash your hair, too." She bit her lip to prevent herself from laughing in his ear as she watched his reaction.
His shoulders slumped down, and he sighed resignedly before handing her the shampoo. When she reached out her hand to take it, he burst into action, dropping the shampoo to grab her arm. Before Lina could react, he hauled her into the tub so that she was cradled in his arms. Water sloshed over the sides of the tub, spilling onto the floor.
"Gourry!" Lina screeched as she struggled to free herself. "Look at me! Now I'm all wet!"
"Hmm, it appears that way, doesn't it?" He seemed impervious to her struggles.
Lina allowed herself to go limp. Two could play at this game. If he was going to use his strength against her, she'd use hers against him. But before she could gather her concentration, Gourry let go of her, and she was floundering for support. After a great deal of splashing and grasping, she finally pulled herself upright so that she was kneeling, straddling Gourry's legs. She glared at him. "I'm gonna get you for that," she promised from between clenched teeth.
Gourry smiled back at her threat, his blue eyes dancing. "That's what you get for teasing me."
"Teasing you? Who says I was teasing you?" Lina tried hard to maintain a pose of righteous indignation, but she found it increasingly difficult as his eyes stopped dancing and started staring at her lips.
"I did," he replied, but it was obvious that he wasn't really paying attention to what he said. He lifted his hand and stroked down the side of her cheek, then ran his thumb over her lips. "You've driven me . . ."
Lina forgot that she was sitting fully clothed in a tub full of water. She forgot that she was straddling Gourry, who was fully unclothed. She forgot everything under his intense gaze, everything except for his last words. "I've driven you?"
He shuddered. "You've driven me to places I've never been before. Through the dens of bandits and thieves, to the margin of terror . . ." He trailed off.
Lina didn't know how to respond. "I've . . ."
Gourry pulled her closer to him. "You've driven me to the edge of control," he growled just before he claimed her lips.
Despite the intensity of his gaze, and the accusations of his words, his kiss started out gentle, just brushing his lips against hers. Then his lips parted and he brought his tongue in to explore her mouth. Lina melted under him, as his kiss seemed to reach into the center of her being. It demanded a response, and as she felt heat flood through her, she found herself responding enthusiastically. Gourry began to kiss along the edge of her jaw and down her neck as she pressed herself close to him and gripped his legs with her thighs. One of her hands tangled in his hair while the other ran up and down his spine.
"It's my turn," Gourry whispered against her neck. Then he pulled back, although he kept his hands on her shoulders. He seemed to restrain himself with an effort of will, but he was breathing heavily.
"Your turn for what?" Lina tried not to sound breathless, but she was breathing just as heavily as he was. She felt incredibly tense, as if she had summoned a great deal of magical energy, but hadn't yet focused it into the channels of a spell.
"To drive you to the edge." His eyes held hers as one of his hands left her shoulders and ran down her side, just barely sweeping by the swell of her breast, down to her hip.
Lina felt her breath hitch in the back of her throat. This is what she wanted. She wanted to be swept off of her feet, like the princess in the storybook. In this particular matter, she didn't want to be the one calling all the shots, designing the strategy, choosing the paths, driving them on to meet whatever destiny had in store for them. She nodded. "It's your turn," she whispered.
Gourry's eyes widened. "Are you sure?" His voice was low and intense, and it made the heat that had flooded through her flare into an inferno.
"I'm sure," she sighed as he brought his hand back up along her side in a long slow caress. "Besides, you've already driven me to the edge of control."
"In that case," Gourry drawled, "why don't you wash my hair for me."
Lina started to sputter in indignation, but he continued speaking, cutting her off. "After that, I'll scrub your back. But then we'll have to get out of the water. I don't want to get all pruney. Besides, the water's getting cold."
As Gourry turned around so that his back was once more before her, Lina tried not to sigh. She found it highly incongruous that here she was, sitting in a tub with Gourry, washing his hair, while fully dressed. She picked up the bottle of shampoo floating in the tub and squeezed a generous portion out onto her hands. Then, ignoring the way her wet clothes clung and stuck to her in odd places, Lina started working the shampoo through his long blond hair.
After squeezing shampoo from the bottle for the third time, a thought occurred to Lina. "Why do you keep your hair so long? It's even longer than mine, and I thought I had long hair."
Gourry glanced at her over his shoulder. "Would you believe it's the source of my strength?"
Lina burst out laughing. "No, and are you implying that I'm Delilah?"
"Never mind. Lean back, I'm going to rinse." Lina picked up the small wooden bucket that had been holding the bath supplies and dunked it under the water, then poured it carefully over Gourry's hair to rinse out the shampoo. "Tell me something I will believe."
"Well," Gourry shrugged. "There's not really one reason. I used to have really short hair, but once I started working as a merc, I kept forgetting to get it cut."
"Is that all?" Lina thought there might be more, but she wasn't sure why.
"If you have long hair," Gourry replied after a moment, "you always have a weapon."
"Come on." Lina tugged at his hair in disbelief. "I thought you were going to tell me something I would believe."
"I'm serious Lina. D'you know why assassins often have long hair? A thin rope of hair kills just as effectively as a garrote. And it's a lot easier to conceal."
Lina sensed there was something there that he wasn't telling her. Under normal circumstances, her curiosity would have been driving her mad. But these were hardly normal circumstances, and she filed the information away for a later date. "Well, weapon or no, it's clean." She dropped the bucket back onto the stool.
"Good," Gourry announced as he turned around. "Now, let's get you out of those wet clothes before you catch cold."
For about half a second, Lina considered retorting that it was his fault she was soaked to the bone. Then she looked at his expression. Playtime was definitely over. "I thought you'd never ask," she murmured as the blaze in his eyes made her heart clench, and the tense feeling between her legs returned in full force.
Author's notes: Thanks to Pogo for beta reading! This story has been rolling around in my imagination since early May. It's kind of taken on a life of it's own, however.