It was easy for Gabrielle to follow Xena’s trail away from their camp, which meant that she didn’t mind being found, but she was still surprised by what she found at the end of it.
“Are you… stargazing?” she asked Xena's back.
Xena didn’t startle at the question - of course she’d heard Gabrielle coming, maybe even with enough accuracy to correctly identify that it was her. “Yeah,” she replied. “I guess I am.”
The simple honesty of the answer was as charming as the notion of Xena doing something as sentimental as stargazing at all, and Gabrielle found herself taken aback enough that she physically held a hand to her heart, as if it were in danger of spilling forth everything it contained without the precaution.
“I’ve never seen you do that,” Gabrielle offered tentatively.
“Hmm. I guess not. It’s been a while… a long time… but you miss some things in the other world.”
Gabrielle didn’t reply, because she couldn’t. If she’d thought she’d been overwhelmed by everything she was feeling before, it was nothing compared to when Xena finally turned around, dreamlike, and smiled.
Everything about Xena was new, now; everything was different. Yet she was the same in all the ways that mattered. Gabrielle stole nearer, entranced by the foreign lightness on her friend’s face. “I’ve never seen you do that, either," she said.
“What, smile?” Xena laughed. She laughed. Gabrielle stared. “Come on, Gabrielle, I haven’t been that bad, have I?”
The only options available were laughing or crying, and Gabrielle had done enough crying to last her a year. “No,” she assured Xena, whose eyes seemed delighted by her smile. “Gods, no. You haven’t been bad at all.”
“Now I know you’re lying."
“Even if I were, I’d do it a thousand times over if it brought you back to me.”
Xena’s smile turned private, but no less genuine. “Well, you don’t need to go to those lengths. You didn’t, as I recall.”
No, Gabrielle hadn’t. She’d been stripped too raw, and too unexpectedly. How could she have even considered deception and trickery when there was so much truth to contend with? I love you, how could you leave me? A constant refrain, and she’d turned the words over and over in her mind, waiting for the core of their meaning to tumble forth, for some hidden piece to fit itself to them and make everything clear. How could you leave me? I love you, I love you.
But of course, here was the missing piece. Gabrielle couldn’t help the way her fingers rose to trace Xena’s smile, searching for truth and finding it pressed, at long last, into her fingerprints.
“Did you know?” Gabrielle asked her simply.
Xena took her hand from her mouth, but kissed the fingertips before encasing it in her own strong hands. Gabrielle was so captivated that she nearly missed Xena’s reply. “I gathered part of it from what I heard of your thoughts.”
“Enough to know you hadn’t totally figured it out, either,” Xena said, and her voice was teasing now. “But also enough to know that if I did this, it might clear some things up.”
That smile on her own lips was its own revelation. Gabrielle wanted to melt under the warmth of it, and very nearly did. How was it possible that a touch so simple could rearrange her from within, take all her newfound wayward truths and crystallize them into something so blinding it felt eternal?
“I love you,” Gabrielle whispered against Xena’s lips, only for Xena to lean in again and catch her words from their source.
“Yeah,” Xena said, laughing again in that new way. Gabrielle, still mesmerized, wondered how long it would be before enough of the world beat her down again that she picked up her burden again and became remote. “I felt it, you know.”
Gabrielle knew - Xena must know that she’d had the same access to her as Xena had had to her - but sensed that Xena had more to say. Xena’s eyes drifted up to the stars again, but Gabrielle had long ago learned how to wait for her. It had become easier when Xena had started permitting her touch. For now, Gabrielle stuck with simple and unobtrusive, her two hands around Xena's one. The only sign that Xena was aware was another hint of a smile on her lips.
“I didn’t know,” she said simply when she was ready. Her expression was open, and then Gabrielle did give in to the urge to touch her cheek, Xena’s eyes holding hers all the while.
“I didn’t know, either,” Gabrielle said, and then grinned. “You already said you’d figured that much out.”
But this time Xena didn’t mirror her grin, and Gabrielle wondered if she’d already begun to lose her. “No,” she said. “I mean - I didn’t know. I don’t - “ And here she did laugh, but it was a frustrated thing. “I’m not like you, Gabrielle.”
“I knew that much already,” Gabrielle assured her, which made Xena’s look turn wry and familiar, so missed that it did finally make tears spring to Gabrielle’s eyes. “No, no, I’m fine,” she hurried to assure her when Xena made stunted little alarmed motions toward her, still not accustomed to comforting others, especially in the middle of negotiating a force as uncontrollable as love. She pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes until she'd regained part of her composure, looked up to see Xena gazing worriedly back, and determinedly carried on.
“All I know is that when I’m with you, you make my life make sense. I’m not saying I have any answers, just more than I did before.” Gabrielle wasn’t sure if she was saying this very well, but Xena wasn’t looking away. Just a little more. “I think this is something - something that we’ll be learning together,” she said. “And I want to learn it with you.”
Her hand had come up to rest on Xena’s sternum, palm to skin. She could still feel it in the steady beating of Xena’s heart: the way she herself had been there at the core of Xena, bound up so tightly in her that it had taken her breath away. When had Xena woven her there, and how had she done it without Gabrielle knowing? And how could the unordered depth of Gabrielle’s feelings for her have been anywhere near as astonishing in comparison?
Xena’s lips parted, but no words emerged. Whether it was because she hadn’t found them yet or because she never would, Gabrielle didn’t know; but words were her trade, and she would do her best to shape them from the enormity looming before them.
“I want - " she began, and faltered; but that start was enough for Xena’s eyes to turn.
“What do you want?” she asked, so tenderly Gabrielle almost, almost would have doubted her to be Xena at all if she hadn’t seen, hadn’t known.
“So many things,” Gabrielle confessed, breathless; and whatever Xena saw in her face or heard in her voice made her smile, light, open, tender, Xena.
“Well,” she said, cradling Gabrielle’s face in her hands. “Let’s get started.”