Gabrielle had honestly been prepared for a lot more resistance from Xena than she actually got in the first few days. As it was, Xena had quietly stocked up on supplies for two and ceded all cooking duties into Gabrielle’s willing hands, and not said another word about taking Gabrielle home after that first night.
Which Gabrielle was relieved by - somewhat prematurely, because just because Xena wasn’t going to try to take her home didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try to warn her away.
About a week into their travelling together, Xena stopped on the road in the middle of a lull in Gabrielle’s chattering, and turned to face her. Gabrielle instinctively took a step back in surprise.
“Look, Gabrielle,” she started - never an auspicious beginning. “You don’t know me very well. And you’re very young.”
“I’m old enough to be married,” Gabrielle said defiantly.
Xena rolled her eyes. “You’re very young. None of my armies ever came through the Chalkidiki, so maybe in Poteidaia you didn’t hear… I mean, you don’t know…”
Gabrielle had never witnessed Xena actually struggling for words. Concerned, she stepped closer, and Xena sighed. “Gabrielle, there’s no easy way to say this. You can’t imagine the things I’ve done - the monster I used to be... “
Cautiously, Gabrielle laid a hand over Xena’s where she’d unconsciously placed it on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Xena,” she said, keenly aware of the pain Xena so rarely let into her voice or expression, “I know.”
Poteidaia had been a long way from anything, far off the beaten paths between the major cities or anything that could be of interest to kings or even a warlord like Xena. For all its many faults, Poteidaia was insulated from the threat of war mostly due to its location, and even as more and more bards and refugees came through with more and more unbelievable stories about this improbable woman called Xena, Gabrielle had known that it wasn’t likely that Xena would ever find her way to Poteidaia, and even less likely that Gabrielle would ever lay eyes on her at all.
“Stop fixating on that woman,” her father had told her gruffly more often than once, which Gabrielle had felt was unfair, because she wasn’t. “And stop listening to the bards. These aren’t just stories. You’ve never lived through war, and I pray to the gods that you don’t.”
With Xena standing before her now, very real and very dumbfounded, Gabrielle wanted to laugh at both her father and her younger self.
“You know?” she asked. “What do you mean, you know? You’ve heard the stories about me?”
Gabrielle wanted to roll her eyes, because who exactly did Xena think she was? It was only through great self-restraint that she didn’t, merely patting Xena’s hand and turning to resume their walk.
“Of course I’ve heard the stories,” she said very matter-of-factly, careful not to spook her further. “Everyone in Greece has heard the stories, possibly even further.”
“Oh, it’s further,” said Xena darkly. “Gabrielle - Gabrielle, stop. Please.”
Gabrielle obliged her, turning to face her. Gabrielle was surprised to see her face as open as she’d ever seen it, eyes wide, lips slightly parted. Xena, just a woman. Xena, her friend. Gabrielle reached for her elbow instinctively.
“What?” she questioned.
“Why are you here?” Xena asked. “If you knew all along what I’ve done, what I’m capable of - how could you have come after me?”
Gabrielle thought back to the first moment, turning it over and over as she often did absentmindedly, searching it for something she hadn’t yet quite discovered. The details were the same: Xena in a white shift and a braid over the crown of her head, barefoot and holding a sword on the last man standing. The easy control she’d had over her own movements, the power coiled in the muscles of her bare arms and legs, the wildness of her hair and expression, the freedom radiating outward from her soul.
She remembered too how Xena’s gaze had shifted to meet hers, and how her world had shifted in turn on its axis. She would have done anything to keep this woman’s eyes on her, to be burned up and changed under her stare.
Take me with you, Gabrielle had been ready to plead then and there. Teach me everything you know.
Gabrielle had never seen anything like her, had known she’d never see anything like her again if she was foolish enough to let this woman pass her by, that this vision was as fleeting and ephemeral as anything the gods ever sent to mortals. For Gabrielle, there had never been any choice but to go after her.
Now, Xena’s eyes were very blue and very earnest as she waited for Gabrielle’s response. But what could Gabrielle say? The gods sent you for me? No matter how earnest she was in her question, Xena wasn’t ready for that truth.
“I wanted to be like you,” she settled for, and Xena visibly balked. “Not like that, not the warlord-y stuff. But the way you moved. The ease, and the freedom of it. I wanted that.”
“You... want to move like a fighter? You want to be a fighter?” Xena asked as though she were certain she was mistaken.
“I guess,” Gabrielle said, because while it was true, it wasn’t the whole truth. Not that Gabrielle knew how to put the whole truth to words just yet.
But Xena was regarding her thoughtfully, her gaze sweeping over Gabrielle’s body critically in a way that made Gabrielle shiver for reasons she didn’t understand.
“I can work with that,” Xena said.
Another day, another adventure, and Xena had once again left her in a tavern to do her Xena-ing with the usual lecture about staying out of trouble that neither of them really believed would do any good - though Gabrielle tried! She always tried! Sort of, anyway. Gabrielle was bored to tears, stuck as she was listening to some traveling bard tell some old Perseus yarn in fits and starts.
No trouble, Xena had warned. I mean it.
Heckling wasn’t trouble, was it? Gabrielle wondered. Especially when it was more like… constructive criticism. She couldn’t let that poor bard wander around telling stories like that, not when it would affect his livelihood -
“Boo,” called Gabrielle.
- and who knew if he had a wife to support, probably nine, no, twelve children at home -
“Tell it like you mean it! Give us some emotion!”
- with their sad little faces, waiting for the meager income their father sent home -
“I’m falling asleep over here!”
- by the gods, she’d be doing them a favor -
“You people can’t actually tell me you like this rambling, do you?”
The patrons of the tavern seemed half and half on agreeing with her and wanting her to shut up, which wasn’t awful odds. Gabrielle tightened her lazy grip on her staff regardless.
Finally the bard stopped his drivel and looked at her. “If the young lady would be quiet,” he said stiffly.
“If the old bard would use some expression,” she retorted. “That’s no way to tell a story. You’ve got to live in it while you’re telling it, otherwise you’re just saying words.”
“I’d like to see you do better, missy!” he called.
“Fine, I will,” Gabrielle said, and stood up. “I sing of Perseus, slayer of gorgons - “
“Hey! That wasn’t an invitation!”
But it was too late. The snoozing patrons of the tavern were now well and fully engaged in the back and forth between the two of them, and exhilarated, Gabrielle stood taller and projected her voice until the old bard finally gave up and sat down.
There wasn’t time to be nervous when she was already halfway into the story and spelling people and landscapes with her words and hands. It wasn’t until she was finished nearly an hour later, amid applause and whooping (“Little girl knows how to tell a story!”) that it hit her on a delay.
“Easy,” came Xena’s amused voice from behind her, pulling out a chair. “Have a seat.”
Gabrielle did, just before her legs could give out from under her.
“Drink some water.”
Gabrielle took the mug Xena offered her and managed not to slop its contents all down her front, despite the way her hands were shaking. She leaned over and rested her forehead on the table once she’d put down the mug, and was thrilled to feel Xena’s hand briskly soothing its way up and down her back and giving her an awkward couple of little pats.
“You did good,” Xena’s voice drawled, and Gabrielle thought she detected some pride under the amusement.
“Does this count as trouble?” Gabrielle asked, muffled.
Xena chuckled. “I’ll give you a pass on this one since you came out on top and no punches were thrown,” she said, and then paused. “No punches were thrown, right?”
“No,” Gabrielle affirmed, groaning. “Gods, that was stupid.”
“It was great, was what it was,” Xena said.
Gabrielle groaned again with more feeling. “You were listening?”
“Came in about halfway through. Coulda heard a pin drop, you had everyone so engrossed.”
“Including you?” Gabrielle asked impishly, raising her head.
Surprisingly, Xena humored her. “Including me. Gabrielle, you’re good. Is this what you’ve been doing this entire time?”
“Uh, no,” Gabrielle said, perplexed. “I mean, I’ve wanted to, you should hear the drivel some of these bards peddle. Not that I would have known the difference back in Poteidaia, but now I’ve travelled enough to know what’s good.”
“Uh huh,” Xena said, definitely humoring her this time if that tiny fond smirk at the corner of her lips was anything to go by. “So now that you know what’s good, and you know you can do it, why not try your hand at it?”
“Really?” Gabrielle asked, brightening, but just as suddenly a suspicion struck her. “Wait, this isn’t your way of trying to get me out of the way while you do your Xena-ing, is it?”
“Xena-ing?” Xena repeated, eyebrow raised. Impatiently, Gabrielle waved a you know what I’m talking about hand at her, and Xena smiled, shook her head. “No. I just thought - you said you wanted to study at the Academy.”
“Only if I’m not with you,” Gabrielle pointed out. “And you’re not dying any time soon.”
Xena didn’t comment on that - she never did - but she did continue. “I just don’t want you to miss out on your dreams. Maybe you don’t want to go to the Academy right now, but you can do this right now.”
Unsurprisingly, it appealed. “Huh,” said Gabrielle. “Maybe I will.”
Predictably, Xena hated it once Gabrielle inevitably started telling stories about her. “That isn’t me,” she told Gabrielle the first few times she heard Gabrielle barding.
“Of course it’s you,” Gabrielle said, counting the coins she’d earned. “Oh, nice. Enough for a room and dinner for us.”
“Never mind a room and dinner,” Xena said, folding her hand over Gabrielle’s and pushing it down. “Gabrielle, can’t you tell anything else? Anything coming out of Troy right now is popular, or if you want some stories from further away, I can - “
“Xena, they don’t want stories out of Troy. They want you,” Gabrielle said. “Why does this make you so uncomfortable?”
“It just does, alright?” Xena said testily. “I’m no hero.”
Ah. Was that all? “Of course you are,” Gabrielle said, reaching out for her. “You don’t see yourself that way, maybe, but everyone else does.”
“You do,” Xena said significantly, and Gabrielle felt that maybe she’d lost Xena’s train of thought again.
“Of course I do,” Gabrielle agreed. “It’s what you are. Of course I want other people to see it too.”
Xena visibly restrained herself from responding, and kept herself at something of a distance for the rest of the night.
The day had been hot and dry but the air was cooling nicely, and so Gabrielle suggested they save their dinars and make camp as usual. Still, they both kept their distance from the fire, Xena getting up periodically to turn the spit Gabrielle had rigged up while Gabrielle scribbled over her latest scroll.
“That wasn’t how it happened,” Xena said when she was muttering to herself, as always refusing to get close enough to read her writing. “You talked those two bandits away before we even had to fight.”
“That’s not dramatic, Xena,” Gabrielle schooled her patiently. “People don’t want to hear about diplomacy. They want to hear about an action hero.”
Xena had snorted both on the word “diplomacy” and on the phrase “action hero”. “I just don’t want to see you talking yourself down,” she said. “You hold your own now, even when we do have to fight.”
“Sometimes,” Gabrielle muttered. Xena, determinedly repairing a loose thread on one of her bracers, looked over at that.
“Gabrielle, you do,” she said.
But Gabrielle was already back in the thick of it. “Shh,” she said, and with a huff, Xena returned to her own task.
“Gabrielle,” called Xena. “Come look at this.”
They’d detoured through a village market to replenish the necessities, and at Gabrielle’s request had lingered, Gabrielle haggling her way through shops and stalls, Xena hanging mostly behind. Gabrielle suspected it had about equally as much to do with her trying not to let the intimidating influence of the Warrior Princess overshadow Gabrielle’s fun as it did with the fact that Xena was the most disinterested haggler Gabrielle had ever seen in her life.
It was a little rare for Xena to be the one calling Gabrielle to look at something; and so, curious as to what had put that look on Xena’s face, Gabrielle wandered over and took the scroll she was holding from her.
“... and the bacchae fell on their victims like hungry wolves... Wait, this is mine!” Gabrielle said, astonished. While the hand wasn’t hers, it had clearly been copied for the purposes of resale.
“It’s got your name on it, though,” Xena observed, pointing to the top of the scroll. “Don’t suppose you’re making money off these things?”
“No. You would know about it if I were,” said Gabrielle, unsure if she should be upset or not. She might not really have started writing or telling stories for the purposes of making money, especially when her goal along the way had subtly shifted to reclaiming Xena’s image for her since Xena wasn’t keen on doing it herself - but these were hers.
Xena had gotten the attention of the shopkeeper. “Do you know who copied these?” she was asking him.
“I get them from a fellow called Salmoneus,” he said, and Xena cursed under her breath as Gabrielle’s eye widened in outrage. “He does some fine work, doesn’t he? The Xena scrolls are very popular, still pretty rare unless you can get your hands on an original, but I’m assured that they’ll be the next big thing. Can I interest you in - “
“Considering it’s my friend here who writes the originals, I really don’t have a need,” Xena said sweetly, watching the shopkeeper’s face blanch as the implication of just who exactly she was sank in. “Listen, I’m not here for trouble. I just don’t want her work being stolen. Is Salmoneus here?”
“Uhh - “
“Xena,” Gabrielle said quietly, and Xena cocked her head, catching the same thing Gabrielle had: the distinctive sound of Salmoneus’ voice. Xena smiled insincerely at the shopkeeper.
“Thanks for your help. Come on, Gabrielle, we’ve got a rat to catch.”
Salmoneus wasn’t difficult to track down, but then, he never was. Gabrielle trailed in Xena’s wake until they spotted him, his back to them as he babbled away a mildly engaged audience with scrolls in hand.
“ - now, these aren’t the originals, but you understand that the originals are very hard to come by, with the bard Gabrielle as reclusive as she is, performing only at her leisure. Bards, am I right? The more in demand they are - “ Salmoneus turned around then, and immediately caught sight of Xena: arms folded, foot tapping, eyebrow raised.
“Xena!” he exclaimed. “Fancy meeting you here, and oh, with Gabrielle too - hey!” He broke off abruptly as Xena pushed him six inches off the ground and against a wall.
“Xena, be nice,” Gabrielle said, sighing.
Xena ignored her. “What was that you’re trying to sell, now, Salmoneus?”
“Now, Xena, it’s all perfectly legal, it’s been helping your friend, getting her name out and demand for her barding and her scrolls up, it’s - “
Gabrielle got her hands on one of the scrolls he’d dropped, spotting something she’d missed in the first shop. “Does this say “certificate of authenticity’?” she asked, fascinated.
“It’s authentic!” Salmoneus squeaked. Gabrielle could feel Xena’s eyeroll from where she was standing, but she let him down to his feet, and with a huff, he dusted himself off.
“Why don’t you tell us why you’re ripping off Gabrielle?” Xena said. “Because I’ve got it on pretty good authority that she didn’t exactly give you permission to copy and sell her work without even cutting her part of the profits.”
It was Gabrielle’s turn to roll her eyes. “Xena, please. You don’t even like them.”
Salmoneus looked actually, genuinely offended on her behalf, and Gabrielle felt herself softening toward him. He wasn’t a bad man, just... an entrepreneurial one. And he was their friend, at that.
“Don’t like them?” he gasped. “Xena, my proud warrioress, I know I’m saying this at risk to my own health, but you are wrong about this.”
“Stop that,” Xena ordered both of them. “I think it should be up to Gabrielle what she wants you to do from here - and you’ll do it. Won’t you, my friend?”
“Uh, sure. Of course,” Salmoneus said, nodding furiously at the dangerous smile on her face. “Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle sighed, and leaned against her staff. “I don’t mind that you’re selling them. I mind that you did it without asking me.”
“How did you ever end up with a friend like her?” Salmoneus asked Xena in a low tone. “She’s better at that than my mother.” More loudly, he said, “Gabrielle, I’m sorry. What can I do to make up for it? Ten percent of the profits? Fifteen?”
“I don’t want your money, Salmoneus,” Gabrielle said, exasperated. “Just… I don’t know. Don’t steal anybody else’s work? And maybe ask me before you start copying a new scroll? I know we’re all over the place, but it’s not usually that hard to track down me and Xena.”
Xena was looking at her oddly, and Gabrielle conceded that maybe she’d sold the idea of her writing from the money angle a little too well. In any case, Salmoneus hurriedly agreed to her terms, offered her a lump sum that Gabrielle rejected but Xena pocketed on her behalf, and let her know which scrolls he’d already copied - mostly very early ones. Gabrielle did him the favor of giving him two newer scrolls straight from her bag which she’d already copied for herself with the intent of selling. She shrugged at Xena’s exasperated look. The amount she’d taken off of Salmoneus was already more than she’d intended to ask for both of those scrolls together, anyway.
“What was all that about?” Xena muttered as soon as they’d bid their farewells, seizing Gabrielle’s elbow as they walked away. “I thought you’d be more upset that somebody was stealing your work.”
“Well, he did leave my name on it,” Gabrielle said reasonably. Xena gave her a look. “What? He’s cut me in on the process now, you took his money, and my name actually is getting out there. I’d been wondering about that, actually.”
“I took your money that you were owed,” Xena pointed out. “Gabrielle, we both know he offered that up way too easily for that to have been any more than a fraction of what he’s made off your scrolls.”
Gabrielle shrugged, unconcerned. “Maybe. It doesn’t really matter to me, I guess.”
“What? Wasn’t that part of the whole idea?”
“Part of it, yeah, but you know I do this because it’s something I love to do,” Gabrielle said. If possible, Xena looked even more frustrated, and Gabrielle tilted her head. “Xena, why is this such an issue for you?”
“Because this is your life, Gabrielle. Look at how much more you could be doing!”
“You mean, look at what a comfortable and boring life I could live,” Gabrielle corrected her. “Xena, we talked about this when I left the Academy. I can’t write about life when I haven’t seen or lived it. And more importantly, I don’t want to.”
She waited for Xena to point out that she wasn’t writing the great mysteries of life - she was writing a chronicle of Xena’s life. She waited to point out that to her, they were the same thing. Leaving Xena was impossible for so many reasons, but the greatest reason of all would always be that Gabrielle was quite sure that Xena was the key to everything Gabrielle didn’t understand but yearned to with all her heart, body, mind, and soul.
Gabrielle knew that it was a quick jump from understanding that to questioning just what Gabrielle’s motivations were for writing a chronicle of Xena’s life. In a way, Gabrielle was glad that Xena never had read her writing, because the idea of answering those questions, even in her own mind, was making Gabrielle increasingly uncomfortable.
Because Gabrielle had finally come to understand this much: she wasn’t just writing a chronicle of Xena’s life. She was writing a chronicle of Xena’s life with her. And that made a world of difference.
But Xena didn’t pursue the topic, and didn’t ask questions, though Gabrielle thought she could see them starting to burn behind her eyes, and shivered at the sight.
“Alright,” Xena acceded, and dropped the subject, her eyes still watching Gabrielle carefully.
The day had been long, but the days that had come before it had been longer, and Gabrielle wasn’t actually entirely sure that she wasn’t hallucinating out of some combination of grief, stress, and exhaustion.
Because by some trick of her mind, Xena was alive - alive and sitting on a log right in front of her, sharpening her sword lazily in that familiar way she did when she was waiting Gabrielle out.
Gabrielle had had enough of waiting. Xena looked up at her quiet approach, a faint smile crossing her face. Gabrielle couldn’t stop herself from reaching out for her arm, the need for constant contact still strong so soon after Xena’s return to life.
“What?” Xena prompted.
Gabrielle bit her lip and took her in: whole and well, and as effortlessly strong and healthy and beautiful as she ever was. As if nothing had happened at all and this were any other evening around their campfire, where she still glowed with a kind of immortality that Gabrielle would never be able to touch, limited to trying to set it down in ink.
Of course, everything was different now. Gabrielle had watched Xena die. Every day she’d woken up to the sight of Xena’s coffin had hammered in the truth that whatever else Xena had been, she was mortal.
“I can’t believe this isn’t all a dream, too,” Gabrielle finally said.
Xena didn’t ask what else had been a dream. Her fingers came up to cover Gabrielle’s on her shoulder, but all Gabrielle could focus on was the incredible blue of her eyes in the moonlight and the incredible softness of her parted lips.
“Don’t be afraid of me,” Xena said, and Gabrielle was surprised to hear something like pleading under her words. In response, Gabrielle brought her other hand to rest just below Xena’s jaw, feeling the way her pulse jumped and raced under her fingertips.
Xena, just a woman.
“I’m not,” said Gabrielle, feeling the truth of it roll through her as she leaned down and kissed her.
Her too-fast heart beat even faster at the feeling of both of Xena’s lips exerting pressure around her bottom one, just enough to reassure Gabrielle that she wasn’t making a mistake, that that first kiss hadn’t been a dream at all, that Xena possibly wanted this as much as she did. Xena had heard her thoughts; Xena knew how much she loved her, how much she longed for her.
And Xena was still here, her long fingers trailing up Gabrielle’s arm and her breath sighing into Gabrielle’s mouth, just before she chased it and claimed Gabrielle’s lips in another, more insistent kiss.
Gabrielle thought she made a noise. Certainly her knees went weak, and Xena wasted no time in gathering her up in her arms so that Gabrielle felt that she must be drowning in her.
Somehow, she ended up half on Xena’s lap, both hands on Xena’s cheeks as she angled her head back. Gabrielle drew back to see her eyes closed, her face rapturous, and felt a slow, heady wonder roll through her soul. Xena’s eyes opened after a moment, but her lids were heavy, and Gabrielle felt a stab of something hot and primal, too.
Gabrielle, what are you doing, one part of her was saying. You’re barely done being a teenager. What could this full-fledged woman possibly do with you?
She didn’t know if Xena had read something in her face - highly probable, knowing Xena - but the next thing she knew, Xena had raised Gabrielle’s hand to her mouth and was tenderly brushing her lips over the pad of each finger, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle’s.
Oh, the same part of her said. She could do that with you, I guess.
Gabrielle was busily melting into a puddle, every nerve in her body raw for Xena’s touch. It was impossible not to kiss her again, or relish all ten of her fingerprints pressing into the exposed skin of her back and stomach.
Eventually they slowed, forehead to forehead, Gabrielle’s heart thundering in her chest at the improbability that her life would have led her here, to this moment, with this woman.
“Did you hear me?” Gabrielle asked when she was able.
Xena didn’t need to ask what she meant. “Every word,” she said.
Three long days with the Amazons, and Gabrielle hadn’t cried. Now, with the very woman her soul had been crying out for impossibly safe in her arms, tears leaked out of her eyes and streamed down her cheeks. As if in a delayed reaction, her throat was tight, her eyes and cheeks were red and swollen. Tenderly, Xena brushed them away from her face and where they had already curved down her neck and chest, kissing her lips softly.
“I love you,” Gabrielle choked out. “I wanted you to know that. So badly.”
“I know,” Xena said, and hid her face against Gabrielle’s neck - not to hide her own tears, but to answer some call she must have seen on Gabrielle’s face. Gabrielle didn’t care how she’d known, simply letting her fingers card through Xena’s glorious thick hair, holding her just where she was, at complete peace for the first time in a month.
“Gabrielle,” Xena’s voice drawled over to her.
“What?” Gabrielle called back, distracted and frankly a little irritated and absolutely not looking up from her scroll. Xena could give her this time, dammit, she never asked for it, and the last few weeks had been a nightmare of mud and rain and constant movement -
“It’s a beautiful day,” Xena said. “Why don’t you come join me?”
Something was wrong with her voice, like she was doing that weird affectation thing she did with stupid men who wanted her body, and it was spurring a surge of almost reflexive jealousy deep in Gabrielle’s gut. Thoroughly unable to concentrate, Gabrielle looked up with a scowl.
Her mouth promptly fell open.
There, sauntering towards her, was a naked Xena. Now, a naked Xena wasn’t really out of the ordinary. They’d been bathing and dressing and swimming in front of each other for over a year without any self-consciousness even before they’d started having sex. And they’d been having sex for long enough that the sight of a naked Xena even in more blatantly suggestive contexts didn’t usually strike Gabrielle dumb and unable to move.
It was one thing to see Xena turn on the sultry charm with stupid men she needed something from when she was clothed and had no intention of going through with anything, and quite another to have the entirety of it focused on her when Xena was naked and absolutely did intend on following through.
Her hair was had grown longer than usual and was completely unbound, hanging dark and shining over her breasts so that her nipples peeked through. Her eyes were hooded, and she wore a smirk that turned Gabrielle’s insides to mush. Her height and strength and beauty seemed magnified and perfected in the late afternoon light, and for a moment Gabrielle couldn’t be sure, even after everything, that she wasn’t actually a goddess.
She was glad of one thing, though - that Xena hadn’t tried this before now, because Gabrielle was pretty sure that she would have died on the spot if she had.
As it was, when Xena finally reached her and dropped down before her in a crouch, she said, “Breathe,” before she kissed her. Gabrielle gasped for air when she pulled away.
“Those two things don’t work at the same time,” she said. Xena smirked again, and Gabrielle took delight in wiping that smirk off her face with a kiss of her own.
“Well?” Xena said, kissing the underside of Gabrielle’s jaw when they broke apart again. “Do you think I could maybe - take you - away from those scrolls after all?” she asked, punctuating her words with kisses that left Gabrielle shivering in the warm air.
Despite herself, Gabrielle couldn’t help glancing to the side where her scroll and quill and ink lay abandoned. Xena looked smugly sure of herself when Gabrielle turned back to face her, but admittedly for good reason.
“I am a stupid man,” Gabrielle muttered to herself.
It was enough to make Xena break character in a surprised laugh, just enough so that the woman Gabrielle loved shone suddenly through, clear and irrepressible.
“What?” Xena asked, fondly stroking Gabrielle’s cheek in that familiar way. It was enough to tame the hot, wild, unstable thing in her gut, just enough that she didn’t feel like she was reeling out of control anymore, and Gabrielle was grateful for it.
“Never mind,” she said, brushing through Xena’s hair to palm her breasts as she kissed her, and reveling in Xena’s moan of approval.
“What in Hades name,” grumbled Xena. “At least it’s better than the last town.”
They’d taken refuge for the night inside a temple to Aphrodite and discovered that the walls were littered with graffiti about Xena. Gabrielle frankly couldn’t believe they hadn’t heard about this from Aphrodite herself, but Xena reasonably pointed out that she had a lot of temples, and maybe hadn’t caught up to this one yet.
Now, Gabrielle blushed at Xena’s words, because the last town had written some pretty salacious things about Xena in the back alleys that they’d found quite by accident. To make it worse, the town’s denizens had practically mobbed her, boys and girls together, when they’d realized who they had in their midst.
“Oh, here’s another one,” Xena said, and wincing, Gabrielle came to look at it.
There are many things said of the raven-haired Xena
But what I like best is to think of the cloud of your hair
And the blue of your eyes a light in the midst of it
One look, and you struck me dumb.
You saw me for a minute, no longer, and I’m sure you have forgotten me
I am forgettable. But you - who can forget?
It was along the lines of something Gabrielle might once have written and kept for herself, far away from even Xena’s eyes - not, Gabrielle knew, that it mattered if she tried to keep her writing from Xena’s eyes. Xena was staring slack-jawed at it when Gabrielle dared to look at her.
“It’s… nice,” Xena finally said in a tone of voice that Gabrielle, even after three and a half years, couldn’t quite place.
“Nice?” Gabrielle prodded.
“Yeah,” Xena said distantly. “I never… I never expected to have anything nice written…” Her voice trailed off, and suddenly the problem crystallized for Gabrielle. This was Xena, Destroyer of Nations, the warlord who had almost taken Corinth and then all of Greece, and here she was - the subject of a love poem.
“What have you been writing about me, Gabrielle?” she asked in something close to awe.
The question made Gabrielle blush again. She must have tried too hard to hide it, because Xena snapped out of her trance and focused on Gabrielle where she was passing the fingers of one hand over the rest of the graffiti on the temple wall, and innocently scratching her chin with the other.
“Gabrielle?” Xena asked suspiciously. “What have you been writing about me?”
It wasn’t even anything to be embarrassed about, not compared with whatever salacious things Xena was surely thinking Gabrielle had written at any rate. It was just that it was so soon after things had settled into a new kind of normal, and Xena was so sensitive about this -
“It’s nothing bad,” she burst out, which was a mistake, as it only made Xena look even more suspicious and advance toward her. “You remember when Aphrodite enchanted my scroll?”
“And you sent me fishing for four days straight? Yes, how could I forget. What about it?”
“When I was trying to write you back to me, everybody was asking me how I normally wrote you in, and I said, well, I like metaphors, I usually say something like ‘Xena entered in a blaze of glory’ - “
“Sounds dangerous,” Xena muttered.
“ - and it was… suggested… that maybe I tone that down a bit if we were ever actually going to get you back, and in once piece,” Gabrielle finished.
“So you switched to this?” Xena asked dryly, gesturing to the walls around them and honing in on one at random. “Your breasts are like - “
“No,” Gabrielle said, scowling, judiciously deciding not to mention her scrolls full of poetry that wasn’t all that different from this - just far, far more personal. “I’ve just been trying a different approach. Losing a couple of the metaphors. Or, well - most of the metaphors. Trying to be more vulnerable. More truthful.”
“More truthful?” Xena said. “About what?”
Gabrielle smiled bittersweetly, because wasn’t the answer obvious? You, she wanted to yell. Me. Everything I write about, and the way it always comes back to this in the end.
She wondered sometimes if Xena would ever truly understand how very in love with her Gabrielle was, or what a seismic shift the last year had wrought in her ability to see that love, the ugly and the painful and the incandescently pure altogether, and understand it for exactly what it was. Gabrielle knew the lights and the darks of it, now; the indescribable highs and unfathomable lows. At the heart of it, though, would always be Xena: struggling with the magnitude of her own love for Gabrielle, and all the ways her past would always shape the way she was able to let it into the world.
And that was a gift of its own. Gabrielle would no more take back that understanding than cut off her right arm.
You were right, she’d prayed recently as she rarely did these days, quill in hand, her still-weak body propped up against a tree while Xena slept off her own exhaustion from fighting off the Persian army. It had been months since she’d felt so much comfort and tenderness at the sight of her, and she’d wondered how much was due to the rawness of the scroll she’d just finished penning. She’d also wondered then if Ares and Aphrodite were laughing at her - always likely - but at the same time, sincerely doubted they were paying much attention to her at all.
Xena was still looking at her bemusedly, clearly having sensed the shift in her mood, waiting seriously for a serious answer about what it was that Gabrielle had to be more truthful about.
“Life,” she answered more vaguely than she wanted to, because it wasn’t a lie, but Xena still wasn’t ready to read her scrolls and face the evolution of Gabrielle’s truths. “This year has been hard. It’s changed me a lot.”
“Yes, it has,” Xena agreed, and her eyes became very soft. “It’s changed both of us.”
Gabrielle nodded. “So of course that’s affected how I write.”
“Especially since you’re writing about me?” Xena asked, but Gabrielle was pleased to hear a note of gentle teasing under it. “I’m still missing the reason for all this, though,” she continued, gesturing all around them again.
“People love you, Xena,” Gabrielle said, sighing as she picked her way through more of the graffiti, mostly one-off lines, but a few more poems in between. “Someday, you’ll learn to accept it.”
“Yeah,” Xena said, flashing her a quick grin that Gabrielle wasn’t fast enough to read the complexity of. “Someday.”
“Gabrielle?” asked a voice when she’d finished a night of barding in the local tavern. It was familiar, but Gabrielle wasn’t quite able to place it until she turned and came face to face with an old friend.
“Orion?” Gabrielle said, and immediately made a face and corrected herself. “I mean, Homer!” She threw herself forward into a hug and he actually lifted her a little off the ground, laughing with her. “How’s the Academy? You must be nearly through, by now. Oh, I didn’t even think that we’re so close to Athens.”
“Fine, fine,” he said, letting her down on her own two feet. “You seem to have done quite well for yourself even without having stayed!”
“Well, I think so,” Gabrielle said, slightly confused. “It wouldn’t have been the right choice to stay, you know? I’m much happier on the road.”
He laughed again. “That’s great, but I meant with your stories. You’ve got everyone enthralled from here to Thessaloniki. You’re something of a legend at the Academy now - they can’t believe they let you get away.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle’s face flushed with self-satisfaction despite herself. “Really?”
“Really,” Orion - no, Homer, Homer! - said, knowingly. “Hey, you’ll get a kick out of this. Hey guys!” he called toward the back of the tavern, and out of the shadows emerged -
“Euripides! Stallonus!” Gabrielle exclaimed, moving to hug each of them, and quickly found herself buried in the middle of a group hug. “Okay, okay, short person here, I need to breathe,” she said eventually, and obligingly they broke up enough for her to see the rest of the tavern again.
“My heart rejoices like the earth to see the sun in the last days of winter,” Euripides told her seriously. “For so has your presence been missed.”
“I missed you, too,” Gabrielle assured him. “I’ve missed all of you.”
“You look well, Gabrielle,” Homer said, looking her over. “Different, but well.”
Self-consciously, Gabrielle shrugged, very aware of her shorter skirt and cropped blouse and the muscles they displayed. She’d been eighteen when she’d last seen them. The worst thing that had ever happened to her was being kidnapped for fifteen minutes and subsequently saved by Xena.
“Hang around Xena and it’ll change anybody,” she said mildly. “I’ve gotten pretty handy with a staff, though.”
“So what’s it like being on the road?” Stallonus asked. “I mean, we hear your stories, but what’s it really like?”
“What do you want to know?” Gabrielle asked, curious for feedback.
“Everything,” Homer said, laughing. “We’re stuck here in the city. It must be nice, all that freedom.”
Freedom. An image of the road hit her so keenly she could feel the sun warming her skin and the breeze stealing it away, the grit of dust on her legs, the itch of sweat in her hair, the road stretching aimlessly toward the horizon before them - and Xena, grinning over at her more brightly than the sun.
“Yeah, it really is,” Gabrielle said, well aware she was smiling dopily. “Then again, it’s hard not to feel free when you’re with Xena.”
The boys exchanged a look. “Yeah,” said Homer. “Xena.”
Gabrielle got the sense that she was being placated, but couldn’t quite figure out why. “She’s around here somewhere,” she offered, craning her neck around to find one tall, surly warrior who usually stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Maybe somebody asked for her help,” suggested Stallonus. “That’s usually how your adventures start, right?”
Oh. They thought she was making Xena up. She huffed a disbelieving laugh, because she hadn’t thought she was that good.
“Sure,” she said, deciding to let it go after a moment over the part of her that wanted to insist until she was blue in the face that Xena was a real woman, that she had been a vicious warlord, and that she was now a defender of the innocent. Xena herself would return from wherever she was soon enough and they would see for themselves.
It nagged at her though - because if people didn’t believe that Xena was even real, the bad and the good together, then what was the point? Xena didn’t do what she did for fame, and actually seemed to think that her newfound notoriety as a vigilante negated her attempts to redeem herself - though Gabrielle knew she’d never get a confirmation of that out of her. But at the same time, Gabrielle had always believed that her story was important, too important not to share. Just being in Xena’s presence had transformed Gabrielle. How much could her story transform others?
Nevertheless, Gabrielle settled into telling them what being on the road was really like past the romance of it, letting them coax her into sitting on one of the tall chairs so that she could rest and still be at their eye level while they clustered around her. Predictably, it wasn’t long before a familiar shadow loomed over them.
“Who are your friends?” Xena asked, and Gabrielle may have taken a little delight in how the boys jumped, spun around, and gaped. They were all as tall or taller than Xena, but that really didn’t matter against the sheer physical presence of her in her armor.
“Xena!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “Remember when I went to the Academy? These are my friends from there, Homer and Euripides and Stallonus!”
“I remember,” Xena said, a hint of a smile in the corners of her mouth - if you knew where to look for it. “Fellas,” she drawled, by way of introduction.
They seemed a little too starstruck to really respond. Gabrielle, very used to this, rolled her eyes.
“Listen,” Xena eventually said, seeming to take pity on them. “Why don’t you all catch up, have some dinner? I’ll take a run around town.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Gabrielle said, hopping off her chair and grabbing Xena’s arm before she could back away. “Stay. I want all my friends with me tonight.”
Gabrielle stopped thinking entirely clearly the later into the night it got. To her surprise, Xena didn’t try to stop her from drinking from where she was slouched with one leg lazily resting on the table - but then, Gabrielle wasn’t too far gone to see the way her eyes had sharpened over their surroundings, either.
It was a good thing, too. By the time she and the boys had bid each other goodbye (with some tears on her part she’d later concede were a little overdramatic, but that wasn’t her fault), Xena had an arm slung around her waist to keep her upright while she leaned determinedly on her staff with every step in an effort to maintain some level of independence. The journey to the place they’d decided to make camp earlier in the day was made a little harder because Gabrielle kept getting tired and closing her eyes and forgetting that they weren’t there yet.
“Gabrielle!” Xena barked in her ear, and Gabrielle winced, groaned, opened her eyes, and dutifully took another step, listing precariously to one side. “We should have just gotten a room at the inn. This is worse than the time you were high on henbane,” Xena muttered, hauling her upright.
Gabrielle felt a brief pang of guilt - she’d been feeling steadier when she’d insisted that she wanted to camp outdoors tonight. Xena had briefly gotten her up on Argo, but while Argo and Gabrielle had made strides in their relationship over the years, Gabrielle couldn’t contain her terror of horses and heights in her current state. Two minutes into muttering prayers and clutching desperately around Argo’s neck, Xena had taken pity on her and helped her slide to her feet.
“Nothing’s worse than the time I was high on henbane,” Gabrielle said as her head fought for balance, already queasy at the thought of that hangover.
“Yeah, well, I think you’re in for an equally rough morning tomorrow,” Xena said.
“Ugh,” Gabrielle groaned at the thought, stumbling. “Why didn’t you stop me?”
“Because you were having a good time, and you knew what you were getting yourself into,” Xena said easily and without pity.
“I’m not having a good time now,” Gabrielle said, which wasn’t entirely true. Xena’s warmth against her side was wonderful, and her head was still pleasantly floaty. She would just be enjoying herself more if she could enjoy both things with her eyes closed and their furs tucked around them, the fire crackling cozily to their left, the heavens spread out above -
Xena nudged her again. Again, she opened her eyes and sighed, trudging forward until she suddenly remembered something and whipped her head around to look at Xena, who drew back with a look of mild surprise at her sudden energy.
“Did you know they thought I was making you up?” Gabrielle asked her indignantly. “And I mean - not just now, but - the whole time?”
Xena was quiet a minute - not the reaction Gabrielle had expected, though she couldn’t quite pin down what exactly it was she had expected - and eventually said, “Well sweetheart, in a way, you kind of are. With your scrolls, and everything.”
Blearily, Gabrielle thought she caught her meaning, thinking of the Xena of her scrolls: heroic, impossible, indefatigable, larger than life, sword across her back and chakram on her hip.
Had Homer and the rest thought she’d never existed at all? Xena had been very famous as a real person long before Gabrielle, so that didn’t make sense. Had they thought it was only Xena the warlord who was real, and that Gabrielle had seized a convenient name to built a myth around at the precise moment that the real woman had slunk off into the unknown? Because Gabrielle just told the stories, the rest was all Xena, and surely Xena knew this.
“No,” Gabrielle insisted, head spinning. “You’re making yourself up.”
Xena looked for a minute like she might actually respond with a serious answer, but stopped when she looked at Gabrielle and seemed to change her mind. “You’re drunk,” she said, a current of fondness running through the words. “You probably won’t even remember this in the morning.”
“Noooo,” Gabrielle whined, able to spot Xena deflecting even through inebriation.
Xena chuckled. “Gabrielle, if you remember this is the morning - and that’s a big if - you make up the best parts of me, and that’s all I have to say about that.”
Gabrielle was pleased enough at the compliment that she flushed warm and delighted in a way that hadn’t lost its potency in all the time they’d been together, and actually meant more now because of everything they’d been through recently. She was struck with a sudden clarity that it surely must always be this way - her and Xena, just as they were now. There was more of the feeling she wanted to uncover when her thoughts were working properly, but for now, she held the moment close to her: their arms around each other, the road before them, moving each other forward step by step.
They arrived at the place Xena had scouted for camp not long after. Xena made her drink water before she helped her lay down and take off her boots, drawing the furs close around her in the chilly night air. The night sky was clear and cloudless, the stars twinkling infinitely across the universe. Nearer to home, the fire Xena had built was growing, and the reflections of it caught in Xena’s dark hair and light eyes. Gabrielle dreamily raised a hand toward her face, which Xena patiently caught in her own, one eyebrow raised.
Gabrielle smiled. Home.
“You’re beautiful,” she said, slurring even to her own ears.
Xena snorted, unimpressed, and Gabrielle pouted. “Oh yeah? You said that when you were on henbane, too,” Xena said, but she brushed back Gabrielle’s hair and kissed her forehead. She was near enough that Gabrielle could grab for her cheek and redirect her lips, even with her limited coordination, and so she did. Xena’s lips were smiling against hers for the brief moment they were there, and that was all Gabrielle wanted.
Satisfied, she snuggled into the furs. “I didn’t do that while I was on henbane,” she said triumphantly.
Snickering, Xena pressed a hand to her cheek. “Sleep,” she commanded, and stood up, presumably to finish making camp.
“Xena?” Gabrielle called.
“I’m really glad you’re real.”
“Right back atcha,” Xena said. She was smiling. Gabrielle’s eyes were closed, but she could see it in her mind, set there with the stars and the freedom of the night sky.
“You’re coming to bed?” she mumbled.
“I’ll be right there,” Xena assured her.
Gabrielle was pretty sure she fell asleep before Xena made it to bed, but she awoke in the morning curled around her body… and with a hangover.
“Shhh,” Xena said, hand in her hair as soon as she stirred. “Go back to sleep.”
“Travelling?” Gabrielle whimpered.
Xena’s chuckle rumbled in her chest under Gabrielle’s ear. “Not for a while. Go on, sweetheart.”
Two ‘sweethearts’ in less than a day, Gabrielle thought just before succumbing. Maybe I should get drunk more often.
Gabrielle was nearly out the door of her family home when her sister’s voice stopped her.
“You’re going to leave again.”
Gabrielle turned to find Lila standing quietly against the wall, hands folded against her belly as if to ward off the pain of discovering her older sister stealing away by night once again.
“Of course I am,” Gabrielle said as kindly as she could. “Lila, my life is with Xena. I can’t pretend that that’s not true. I won’t.”
Lila nodded, because she’d been the first of Gabrielle’s family to understand this all those years ago when Gabrielle had made her first return to Poteidaia. “You love her,” she said, and again, it wasn’t a question.
“Lila, yes,” Gabrielle said, crossing to her and taking her hands. Lila’s eyes were searching her face for something she didn’t quite understand. “I love her. It doesn’t mean I love you less, or need you less.”
“Does she love you?”
Again, Lila nodded. “I thought so,” she whispered, and suddenly engulfed her in a hug. “You make sure she takes care of you, alright?”
We’ll take care of each other, Gabrielle thought, and hugged her back fiercely. “I will. I’ll miss you. I always do.”
After a long moment, Gabrielle withdrew, but kissed Lila’s cheek. “I’d better go. She’s waiting for me outside.”
“Can I come see you off this time?” Lila asked, and Gabrielle nodded, smiling.
Xena was already mounted on her horse - not Argo, which Gabrielle had questions about - when they stepped outside, and she raised an eyebrow as if to ask if Gabrielle intended on taking Lila with them. Gabrielle shook her head and went to affix her saddlebag with Xena’s, surprised almost to sudden, ridiculous tears to see that there wasn’t any need: all the bags they’d held in common for years were all still there, down to the one Gabrielle had long ago claimed for her scrolls and writing implements. Xena was looking down at her inscrutably in the dark, and silently, efficiently, Gabrielle unpacked the few things she wanted to keep from the bag she’d brought out and handed it over to Lila.
“You don’t need anything else?” Lila whispered. Gabrielle looked up to Xena, who shook her head.
“I think we’re fine,” she said, leaning over to give her sister one last hug. “I won’t wait so long for a visit next time. I promise.”
“You better not,” Lila whispered back, and playfully hit her arm. “Go on.”
With a final kiss to Lila’s cheek and a smile, Gabrielle took Xena’s arm and mounted behind her. Gabrielle’s last view of Lila was of her smiling through her tears, hugging herself as she watched them disappear into the night.
They mutually agreed to camp not far outside of Poteidaia, neither wanting to travel by night. Gabrielle wondered as they set up camp on the shores of a lake if Xena was feeling the same awkwardness as she was. They’d fallen into their usual division of labor by rote, Xena’s movements silent and sure, and it gave Gabrielle the odd sense that the time that had passed was both insurmountable and nothing at all.
“So what now?”
Gabrielle startled at the sound of Xena’s voice. Xena herself was still coaxing the fire into something larger, her back to Gabrielle, so that Gabrielle might have been able to convince herself that Xena hadn’t spoken at all.
“What do you mean?” Gabrielle asked. “Won’t things be back to normal, now? Or I guess, as normal as they ever are.”
“I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘normal’,” Xena said, and didn’t elaborate further. Her body was very stiff, but she was holding it in a way that was calculated to project nonchalance. If Gabrielle didn’t know her as well as she did, she might have fallen for it.
As it was, she went to her, kneeling behind her and soothing her hands up and down her arms. “Xena, I am in this until the end, no matter what shape the journey takes. As long as I’m on it with you, that’s all that matters to me.”
The words didn’t seem to do anything to relax Xena as Gabrielle had hoped. Her gaze stayed fixed straight ahead, her muscles still tight under Gabrielle’s hands. Doubt crept into a dark corner of Gabrielle’s heart as she considered that after their months of separation, Xena might well have a different path in mind for herself by now. It had been a long time. Anything could have happened. And Xena hadn’t told her anything about what had happened to her in that time.
“Xena?” Gabrielle prodded cautiously. “Is there something you’re not telling me? Do you not want…” Her voice trailed off uncertainly, unsure of how to voice the anxiety rising up in her.
“No,” Xena said, coming to life in Gabrielle’s arms, and the word might have struck fear like an arrow through Gabrielle’s heart except for the way Xena immediately turned and gathered her into her arms and held her tightly, trembling almost imperceptibly. Gabrielle clung back gratefully. “Of course I want. I just don’t know what you want. Gabrielle, nothing is normal anymore. Nothing. Can’t you feel it?”
“I…” Gabrielle started, floundering at the ferocity and despair in her voice. “I don’t know what you mean. Xena, what happened to you while I was gone?”
Xena’s head shook against her shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. I want so much for you to be happy. I want you to live a full life. I want you to write, or find your life’s purpose, something that fulfills you.”
There was an urgency to her words that troubled Gabrielle, but after all, the sentiment behind it wasn’t exactly new. “Xena,” she said, “I can only do all that with you. You tell me I’m your source, your way. Don’t you know you’re my inspiration? Haven’t you figured out yet that I can only find what I’m meant to be if it’s by your side?” Gabrielle pulled back a little, just enough to see Xena’s face and brush back her bangs, cup her face, stroke her cheeks. “Whatever we’re meant to do in this life, we’re meant to be together while we do it. I knew it from the first moment I saw you.”
Finally, Xena laughed at that and took one of her hands in both of hers, kissing it and holding it close to her chest. “I was a little slower on the uptake,” she confessed.
Gabrielle grinned, thumbing over the beautiful line of Xena’s cheekbone. “I know,” she said, cheekily. “But you figured it out… even if you keep forgetting from time to time.”
“I just want…”
“I know,” Gabrielle assured her. “But I’ll be happy - with you. I’ll keep writing - with you. I’ll be fulfilled - with you.”
Her mind drifted to the saddlebag full of her writing, and she wondered just for a moment if Xena had ever opened it while they’d been separated and surrounded herself with totems of Gabrielle, the way Gabrielle knew she would have if the situations had been reversed. But even so, Gabrielle knew better than to wonder if Xena had actually read her scrolls, even as a way of keeping close to her, too afraid to find a version of herself she didn’t recognize, too afraid to find the love that saturated that figure in Gabrielle’s handwriting and discover it wasn’t meant for her at all.
Gabrielle didn’t know if Xena would ever be able to bring herself to confront herself as Gabrielle saw her, but she would wait patiently for that day as long as she needed to.
“Can I ask you something?” Xena asked, looking strangely vulnerable.
“Sounds serious,” Gabrielle said, smiling, but brushed a reassuring hand over Xena’s waist.
“When you write - why me?”
“You mean, why do I write about you?” Gabrielle asked, and Xena looked thrilled not to have to ask the question directly. “It’s not just about you,” she said slowly after thinking a moment. “It’s our life. It’s the things that matter, deeply and profoundly, about this life. It’s about the struggle, and the struggle to understand. Of course you’re a part of that for me. You always have been.” She looked up, smiling a little at Xena’s serious expression. “You always will be.”
Gabrielle thought she saw a glimmer of new understanding in Xena’s eyes - not enough to propel her all the way to full understanding or acceptance, but enough for the time being. She shuffled nearer, and Gabrielle reached out to draw her closer, settling both hands comfortably in the dip of her waist.
“Well, alright then,” Xena whispered, and kissed her.
Something in Gabrielle’s soul moaned in relief at the simple touch, demanding more until they were both gasping for air. Gabrielle hid her face against Xena’s chest, breathing heavily and feeling a little shy.
“Hey, you alright?” Xena asked.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle said, giggling a little at the way the rush of her blood was making her dizzy. “I just really want to be clean when we do this again.”
Xena glanced meaningfully at the lake behind them, and Gabrielle laughed, already reaching to unclasp her armor and unlace her leathers in all the familiar ways her fingers hadn’t forgotten. Xena shrugged both off until they lay carelessly around her feet.
And then she was left in nothing but her muslin shift, and Gabrielle was holding a vision in her hands: timeless, eternal, divine, hers.
She might just have stepped out the past, or Gabrielle’s memory of it, except the distance between that Xena and this Xena was immeasurable. That Xena Gabrielle wanted to share with the world until the world knew her and loved her: sword in one hand, chakram in the other, wild and good and strong and free. This Xena, in love and so thoughtlessly vulnerable before her - Gabrielle would never dare risk destroying the sacredness of it. Her breathing caught, and she stared until Xena kissed her again, undressing both of them the rest of the way, and leading her by the hand into the lake.
The water was still warm with the last heat of summer, and they lingered after they’d washed themselves, Gabrielle drifting without thought into Xena’s arms.
“Better?” Xena asked, but her hands and mouth were already moving on Gabrielle’s body.
Gabrielle gasped as she gently bit a sensitive spot on her neck. “Y-yes.”
“This is okay?”
“Xena,” Gabrielle groaned, twining her fingers into Xena’s wet dark hair and tightening them into fists, relishing the way it made her suck harder at the same spot. “Just don’t stop.”
Xena didn’t. Her hands and mouth were desperate on her body, in just the way Gabrielle had dreamt about in those hazy days struggling her way out of hell with the singular focus of finding her way back to this woman. Their legs twined about each other in the water until the very moment that Xena’s fingers circled her clit, and unbidden, Gabrielle’s legs jumped up to encircle her waist. Xena didn’t need much more of an invitation than that, easily slipping her fingers inside her and setting a rhythm that had Gabrielle keening, not letting up until Gabrielle had come once, twice, having lost any sense of who she beyond water, water, and this woman.
Slowly, Gabrielle descended back into herself, only to find herself face to face with a half-frantic Xena. Her hands had stilled on Gabrielle’s body, but her eyes were wide and far away and afraid in a way Gabrielle would never have believed she was capable of all those years ago.
“I’m here,” she said fervently. “Xena, I’m here.”
She meant it’s okay. She meant calm down. She meant please, it hurts to see you like this. She whispered, “Xena, Xena, Xena,” pressing their foreheads together and looking right into that blinding blue until it lost its glassiness, became something easy to drown in again.
“Hey,” she said, her breath brushing over Xena’s lips.
Xena swallowed, her hands tightening reflexively on the skin of Gabrielle’s lower back, and didn’t look away. “Hey,” she replied.
“Stay with me,” Gabrielle entreated her, letting her fingers trail down a path they knew by heart, recharting territory that was mercifully unchanged by the time they’d been apart. It was Xena’s turn to gasp when her fingers found her warm and wet, and Gabrielle learned her face infinitesimally closer, so that blue was all she could see, was her entire world.
When Xena’s eyes finally slipped closed, Gabrielle didn’t think to coax them back open. Xena’s body was already moving and moaning just as Gabrielle wanted it to, singularly focused on Gabrielle in a different kind of communion, and that suited Gabrielle just fine. She pressed a kiss to the corner of Xena’s eye, feeling the tiny creases there become more pronounced under her lips as Xena’s warm breaths came ragged against her neck.
“I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle whispered, unable to contain it any longer, and was shocked when it was somehow this that made Xena immediately convulse in her arms and cry out.
Distantly, Gabrielle was aware of the sharp sound skittering across the still water, but was preoccupied by the feel of Xena’s stomach and thighs tensing intimately against her body, and how the power in them contrasted just as sharply with the softness of her breasts.
It seemed to break something in Xena. When the tremors had finished wracking her body, she was weeping uncontrollably, and fell forward so that Gabrielle was holding her up.
Alarmed, Gabrielle held her tightly, sure that something beyond the obvious was wrong. She thought you were dead, said a voice in her mind, and slowly, she relaxed into the infinite well of tenderness she had for Xena when Xena would allow it, because Gabrielle remembered what it was like to see the one she loved resurrected from the grave of her mind. Xena knew that Gabrielle loved her - Gabrielle had told her so more than once, and had heard the words said in return - but she also knew it was a different thing for Xena to feel the reality of it through her touch, rather than her words.
And surely that was all. “I love you,” Gabrielle whispered again, and still weeping, Xena’s grip tightened. Doubt niggled at the back of her mind. Surely that was all.
In time, Xena’s grip became less desperate, and she could bring herself to draw back just enough that Gabrielle could see her face, brush her fingers over her cheek and paint it tenderly with water.
“I can’t believe,” Xena said, but was too choked to finish. Gabrielle hummed, nuzzled against her temple, waited. It wasn’t long before she was rewarded, Xena’s fingers touching over the bridge of Gabrielle’s nose, her closed eyelids, her temple as she said, “I can’t believe this is real.”
“Me either,” confessed Gabrielle. Here and now, Xena was so beautiful it almost physically hurt Gabrielle to look at her. “But it is.”
Xena nodded, smiling that beautiful, painful, radiant smile that it seemed she never could quite help in moments like this, a laugh tearing itself from the depths of her throat.
“Xena, are you alright?” Gabrielle asked when she couldn’t help herself anymore.
“Just fine,” was the response. Gabrielle watched her eyes carefully for any sign of a barrier going up, but found none. Xena was watching her in return like she was soaking in the sight of Gabrielle’s face, too transparent and too in need for anything like what Gabrielle was worried about. But it seemed to her there was something else there, too, something Gabrielle wouldn’t be able to name until Xena finally told her side of the story.
But Xena was taking her hand, and Gabrielle let her fingers flex around Xena’s as she held it to her heart.
“Oh, Gabrielle,” she said. “I’ve never been better.”
And Gabrielle believed her.