by Purple Pen
Sunset had come and gone. The forest was full of twilight, making the lines of the trees seem to fade into one another, no longer individual entities, but part of the approaching night. Xena crouched behind one cluster, listening to the stillness in the woods; all was quiet, caught in that lull between night and day. For the last several months Xena had been a creature of the night as well as or more than one of day; she'd given up her pattern of making camp at sunset, using the dark as readily as the light to travel and sleeping only when her body demanded rest. Now, of course, everything would be different. But Xena still held still for a moment, honoring the change.
The thickly clustered trees before her concealed a fire, and a camp-- and a woman, a woman whose light glowed brighter for Xena than the firelight shining around the tree. Was it only three days since Gabrielle had come back to her? It still seemed so impossible. They'd spent the last several nights in her parent's house-- it had been hard, sleeping in the room across the hall, but Xena had know that Gabrielle's parents weren't ready to cope with the truth of their relationship, and so had kept quiet about her feelings. Tonight was the first time since they'd found each other that Xena would be able to fully reveal her love. She should have been hurrying, rushing into the camp to take Gabrielle in her arms. Instead she was hesitating. And deep in her heart she knew the reason why.
She didn't want to know whether Gabrielle had set out one bedroll or two.
It wasn't such an unreasonable thing to wonder. Once upon a time they'd spent every night in each other's arms, sometimes a night and a day and a night all in a row-- Xena smiled suddenly as she remembered her innocent bard's sweet eagerness. But that hadn't been true for a long time now. Xena remembered the first time she'd come back to camp to find Gabrielle removing the long unused spare bedding from Argo's saddle bag; it had been right after Gabrielle's first kill. She'd been shocked, surprised and hurt, but thought she'd understood: the bard needed time by herself, time to toss and turn and look up at the stars and cry if she needed to, without the warrior's interference. There was no doubt in Xena's mind that Gabrielle would eventually come to terms with her loss, and everything would be as it was. So she did her best to be supportive, listening to the bard and rubbing her shoulders during the day and leaving her alone at night.
Then after Hope was born-- Gabrielle had slipped into her bedroll one night, cuddling close for warmth and comfort, but when Xena had moved to caress her thigh she'd slapped her hand away. She didn't say anything-- Xena didn't say anything, but shame and pain had filled her. After that she had made sure that she was out of the camp or that she at least turned her back when Gabrielle took the bedding out, determined that the bard would decide for herself whether she wanted to sleep with her. And sometimes she did and sometimes she didn't. For a long time after Illusia everything was okay again, but then they'd run across the Dahak cultists and learned of Hope's rebirth and once again the bard had retreated to her own bunk. All except for that last night. Xena hadn't known then what Aries had told Gabrielle about her lifeline; she hadn't known what the bard knew, that that night was a good-bye. She hadn't known until she saw Gabrielle looking at her as she fell with Hope into the pit...
Xena crouched in the darkness for a long time, haunted by her thoughts. Finally she stirred. They'd traveled long and hard that day, and she knew Gabrielle was tired; she'd waited long enough. The bard would be asleep. Whatever her decision, she would not be awake to see Xena's reaction to it. Xena pulled up out of her crouch, ignoring the achy muscles in her thighs, and made her way through the trees to the firelight.
There was just one bedroll on the forest floor, and the bard was in it, the firelight making little dancing glints in her fair hair as she breathed softly in and out.
Xena's relief was so strong she almost slumped to the ground.
She waited a moment to get herself under control, then climbed in at her
She'd thought she'd managed to do it with her usual skill, not waking her beloved up; but Gabrielle yawned and stirred, rolling sleepily over to face her. "Took you long enough," she said drowsily.
Xena smiled. She lifted a hand to caress Gabrielle's hair. "Didn't want to wake you up."
The bard managed to make her opinion of that idea clear, even with her eyes still closed and most of her facial muscles still slack with sleep. "Uh-huh," she said through a yawn. "Our first night together since you found out I wasn't dead. Naturally you'd want to let me *sleep* all night."
Gabrielle's voice wasn't accusatory; instead it held the amused patience of one who has lived with her lover's foibles for many, many years. Xena chuckled to herself. "I didn't *want* to," she said. "It just worked out that way."
"Uh-huh?" Gabrielle shifted and opened her eyes, looking into Xena's. "Where *were* you?"
Xena sighed. Might was well tell the truth. "In the woods, waiting. I was afraid."
"What?" Gabrielle's eyes widened and she struggled to sit up. She was wide awake now. "What of?"
"Of you," Xena admitted. "I didn't want to know how many bedrolls you laid out. I didn't want you to know how hurt I'd be if you set out more than one."
Gabrielle stared at her in disbelief. "Why would you think I'd do that?"
Xena shrugged, and looked away uncomfortably. "Well, it wouldn't be the first time you didn't want to sleep with me," she said lightly, hoping that the bard wouldn't catch on to just how difficult this was for her to say. "I wasn't sure how you'd feel... it's been such a long time..."
"And you didn't want to make me feel bad if I chose the other way?" Gabrielle shook her head, disbelief starting to mix with understanding. "Oh, Xena," she said. "How could you doubt that I'd want to be with you tonight? How could you even question it?"
Xena shrugged. She picked lightly at the blanket. "Well, I wasn't *sure*," she said. "You didn't say anything at you mom and dad's..."
"Oh." Gabrielle bit down on her lip. "Xena, I had some thinking to do. And, well, with Mom and Dad..."
Xena nodded quickly. Gabrielle didn't have to finish. Unlike Cyrene, who accepted Gabrielle as a second daughter, Heroditas and Hecuba were understandably hostile toward the dark woman who'd taken their daughter so far away. *And they don't even know she's sleeping with me yet.* Xena shuddered as a memory rose up, the memory of walking into Gabrielle's house, and seeing the beautiful face battered and bloody-- it didn't matter that it was really Hope and that Xena hadn't laid a hand on her, because she knew she'd done worse, much worse. Heroditas and Hecuba had good reason to hate her.
And would have more, if Alti's visions proved correct... but she wasn't going to let herself think about that. Not yet. Not tonight...
Gabrielle was still talking. "I love them, Xena, but they aren't ready to know the truth about us. They can barely handle the thought of me having been married to Perdicus. I had to keep quiet." A thought struck the bard, a thought that was startling and new. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"
Xena shrugged again. She didn't answer.
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle flopped back down, snuggled close. "Well, I'm here now, and there's no way you can question my intentions. I was waiting for you. Can you forgive me?"
Forgive her? Xena shook her head. When she'd hurt Gabrielle far more than the bard could ever hurt anyone? "There's nothing to forgive," she said softly. "I was wrong. I'm sorry and I'm glad."
It wasn't the clearest sentence she'd ever spoken, but fortunately Gabrielle understood. "Me too," she said, and kissed her. Xena shoved all her doubts and worries aside and let herself melt into it-- oh, it was good to be lying in the bard's arms again, feeling the touch of her hair and smelling her scent and watching her skin turn flushed and warm under her caress. Gabrielle gave a contented murmur and laid back, giving Xena a chance to bury her face into the bard's middle, tracing the lines of muscle with her mouth and trying to memorize the exact way the soft skin glided from ribs to hips. The bard had gotten a little thinner during their separation and Xena wanted to reacquaint herself, cherishing every change. She thought Gabrielle approved of the project: her small fingers twined in Xena's hair, bringing back memories of countless similar occasions. But Xena had barely gotten down to her navel when she spoke up, her voice quiet and lost. "Xena?"
"Those other times, when I slept across the fire... it wasn't because I didn't want to be with you. It was because I thought I didn't deserve you."
Xena stopped dead. Slowly she pulled up until she was sitting cross-legged at Gabrielle's side, eyes filled with shock. "Oh, Gabrielle," she said in a tone that brought tears to the bard's eyes, there was so much concern and pain in it. "Why?"
It was Gabrielle's turn to look away, to admit a truth that hurt her. "Well, the first time was right after I killed Meridian," she said, staring down at her chest. "I-- Xena, right after we first met you told me that your first kill changes everything, and it did. I had taken a life. I didn't understand how I could have done such a thing, or how I was going to keep living knowing that I had. I--" She swallowed. "I couldn't let you touch me, let myself forget Meridian for even a second. The guilt wouldn't let me feel good about anything. Not even about being with you. Can you understand?"
Xena nodded slowly. "I think so," she said. Her lip twisted. "And there was me thinking all this time that is was because you were mad at me."
"Mad at you? Why?" The bard sounded honestly confused. Xena shook her head. There had been a time, during the evil blackness following Solan's death, when she had not seen Britannia from Gabrielle's point of view; she had blamed Gabrielle for everything, the whole tragic tide that led straight to her son's murder. But now her own role seemed so obvious she marveled that Gabrielle couldn't see it. "Mad at me for taking you where it could happen," she said out loud. "And mad about what happened later. With Hope."
"Oh." Gabrielle's voice was quiet. "Yes, there was some of that. Not about you taking me to Britannia: it was my decision to follow you there, just as it's been my decision to follow you everywhere we've gone. I never even thought to blame you for taking me to Britannia until... you know." Xena nodded. Gabrielle had told her a long time ago about how Callisto had visited her in the Amazon sweat lodge, taunting her and daring her to find some reason to hate her soul mate. "But about Hope-- yes, I hated you for a while. I couldn't understand how you could judge a baby-- *my* baby!-- so quickly. I couldn't understand why you wanted her dead." The bard shook her head. "I still don't know how you knew."
Xena shrugged wordlessly. She couldn't explain it either, any more than she could explain how she knew when a god was in the vicinity or when an arrow was about to hit her in the chest. She'd felt Hope's evil like a cold twist in her belly, and when she'd found the strangled knight she'd known she'd had to do everything in her power to keep that evil from spreading. There was no way she could have denied that need. She was a warrior, after all. "I don't know, Gabrielle," she said, groping for the right words. "I just knew, that's all."
The bard's smile was heartbreakingly sad. "I know," she said. "I know now that you knew immediately what she was, and you were doing what you had to. But I didn't know then. So I hated you."
*Doing what I had to do,* Xena thought. *Except it wasn't. If I'd just kept my doubts to myself... if I'd let Gabrielle keep her... Gabrielle would have found out sooner or later, and then we could have dealt with it and mourned together. Or maybe some of Gabrielle's goodness would have rubbed off, and everything would have been okay...* Her mind flashed back to the events of the last few days: part of her had rejoiced more than any human ever had when she discovered the real Gabrielle in the woods, but part of her had sunk into despair when she realized that, once again, she was going to have to demand that Gabrielle's child die. "Do you hate me now?"
"No!" The bard shook her head in exasperation. "I just told you that I understand now why you did it. That's all in the past. I love you, Xena. I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you. How many times am I going to have to tell you that before you believe me?"
Xena chuckled softly. It felt good to laugh again. "Oh, about a thousand times," she said, then sobered. "It's been such a long time since I've heard it. Maybe it'll take me that long before it seems real."
The bard's face softened, and she nodded to show her understanding. "I love you, Xena."
"I love you, Gabrielle." The warrior took the bard in her arms and stretched back out. "Do you still feel guilty about Meridian?"
"Yes." Gabrielle answered honestly. "I think I always will, Xena. I'm still trying to figure out a way to atone, a path to follow that will let me redeem myself." She smiled, and reached out to tenderly slip the leather straps off Xena's shoulders. "But I don't think denying myself your love will be a part of it."
"I'm glad to hear it." Xena held still while Gabrielle lovingly undressed her, tears coming to her eyes. It still seemed so unreal: learning that her love was still alive, meeting her in the village but knowing something was wrong, discovering that it wasn't Gabrielle after all, then finding her in the woods at last. She squelched her eyes shut as Gabrielle explored her, partly reacquainting herself but also running her fingers over every spot, using every touch that she remembered had once brought Xena pleasure. It was amazing to Xena that anyone could love her enough to remember so many little things so well. When Gabrielle's hand slipped between her thighs the amazement increased; Gabrielle gave so completely, doing all the right things at the right time, that Xena was blown away. She raised her knees in the air and squeezed the bard's hand and wrist tight, and heard herself cry out her name as she climaxed. The world seemed to explode around her and she let her body and soul go with it, losing herself to everything but the sensations and her love for the woman before her.
When she came back to herself she felt exhausted, muscles tired and trembling and emotions equally battered, worn and wearied from the strain of the last months and year. She could feel the sheen of sweat covering her skin and smell her scent mixing with the forest's fragrance and Gabrielle's. Gabrielle was kneeling at her side, hands gently stroking Xena's abdomen as she watched over her lover. She smiled brightly when she felt Xena's eyes on her. "Hello again," she whispered.
"Hello again," Xena repeated, and shook her head in wonder. "Oh, gods, Gabrielle. I don't know how I kept on living without you."
"You did it the same way I did," Gabrielle answered. "By hoping... and knowing... that we'd be together again. And so we are." Her hands went back to stroking Xena's belly, and Xena suddenly noticed the tears glistening in her eyes. "I use to wonder sometimes how my heart could keep on beating, when the pain was so bad all I wanted to do was die, but now I understand. It kept me alive so I could be here again with you."
Her fingers kept tracing the same repetitive pattern on Xena's belly, and suddenly Xena knew why-- she was tracing over her stretch marks, ghostly reminders of the son she'd once had. Xena's heart twisted. She didn't think about them often-- the marks were covered by her leathers during the day and were so faded she could ignore them when bathing or at night. But ignoring them didn't change the fact that they were there, permanently carved into her skin. She winced internally. Gabrielle's toned abs didn't bear any stretch marks: the magic surrounding Hope's miraculous conception and birth had seen to that, leaving no trace of the life she'd born. But Xena had that trace, and it was horrible, a constant memento of what she'd given up and lost. "We've been through a lot to get here," she said, and hoped that Gabrielle wouldn't notice the huskiness in her voice.
"You know, the Amazons have a ritual," Gabrielle said slowly. "A celebration of what they've survived as a tribe, and a celebration of what each woman's survived on her own. Each year every woman who's ever received a wound in battle paints over the scar with vegetable dye, and then she's honored and waited on by the women who've never been marked that way. The Queen blesses them and they have a feast and a dance. It's nice."
Xena nodded. She remembered watching such a ritual years ago in the steppes, sullenly hanging back in the woods while Cyane presided. Even then she'd had to grudgingly accept and respect the intention behind the ceremony, though of course she'd been too cocky to join in. "Maybe we should do that," she said, and was surprised to discover she was only half joking.
Gabrielle didn't think she was joking at all. "Could we?" she asked, eyes were wide and serious.
Xena looked up at the bard's earnest face. Maybe it was a good idea, she thought. The Amazon ritual helped the warriors come to terms with their past by accentuating their scars and honoring them; maybe it could help her and Gabrielle do the same. "We don't have any dye," she said, but it was only a half-hearted objection.
Gabrielle was instantly on her feet, rummaging through the saddlebags at the edge of the clearing. "Lila gave us a bowl full of berries for our breakfast on the road," she said. "If I crush them, it should work..." She stopped, looking at her lover. "Unless you don't want to..."
Xena shook her head, coming to her feet. She walked to her beloved and took her hand. "I do if you want to," she said. "I don't want to deny you anything tonight, Gabrielle."
The bard looked down uncertainly. "I don't know," she said. "Sometimes it hurts so much to remember..."
"But sometimes you need to remember to forget." Xena touched the bard under her chin, looking deep into her eyes. "It can't hurt any worse than it already has."
Gabrielle nodded. Xena waited while she crushed the cool berries under her fingers. When she returned she slowly and ceremoniously began to paint over Xena's battle wounds, all those faint and not-so-faint lines on her shoulders and arms and back and thighs, most of them invisible to the casual eye but well know to Gabrielle from her countless explorations of her lover's skin. A few of them Xena had picked up during their time together but many had come from before-- Gabrielle didn't know all the stories but Xena did, and as the bard painted she remembered each one. The stab wound she'd received when she'd defended her mother against Cortese's masked men in that first, horrible attack on Amphipolis. The small bump on her finger where she'd broken the bone during her first counterattack. And dozens more, received during even darker times. Gabrielle saved her abdomen for last-- there weren't too many scars there, as any belly wounds bad enough to mark her would probably have killed. There were just those stretch marks, and Gabrielle knelt to anoint them, looking up into Xena's eyes. Then she stood and held out the bowl.
Xena took it. She didn't have many natural markings to follow but she created her own, remembering all the traumas that Gabrielle had endured. Teardrops running down her cheeks for all the unspoken pain. A slash mark over her heart for Perdicus's death. A jagged line around the wrist of the hand that had killed Meridian and administered the poison to Hope. And... yes, even a set of stretch marks, shocking red against that beautiful belly.
When she was finished the two women stood looking at each other, overwhelmed by the amount of juice covering each other's bodies. To Xena it seemed amazing that any two women could have endured so much and still keep living, able to laugh and love. She laid the bowl aside and knelt before her beloved, ready to continue the ritual. "Bless me, Gabrielle," she whispered.
Gabrielle nodded and laid her hands on Xena's head. "I bless you, Xena, in the name of Artemis," she said clearly, quoting the Amazon ritual, "and bless and honor the scars you bear, which we have gathered today to celebrate. Never hide them, never be ashamed: they do not disfigure but adorn. They are symbols of your strength. Sacred are your scars as sacred is your strength. In Her name, may it always be." She removed her hand and helped her lover rise. "Now it's your turn."
Xena nodded. Gabrielle knelt and Xena repeated the ritual, setting her hands on the soft golden hair. "In the name of Artemis I bless you, Gabrielle, and bless and honor the scars that you bear. Never hide them, never be ashamed: they do not disfigure but adorn. They are symbols of your strength. Sacred are your scars as sacred is your strength. In Her name, may it always be."
Gabrielle's eyes were glistening in the firelight when she stood, but no tear fell. "It's amazing that the two of us can still stand up," she said, and broke into a shaky laugh.
Xena nodded soberly. "I love you, Gabrielle."
"I love you, Xena." Gabrielle smiled, and to Xena it was like sunshine suddenly filled the clearing. She'd drunk in every smile that the bard had offered since their reunion but this one was different, unreserved and free from any pain or doubt. Gabrielle embraced her, and Xena started to gently guide her back to bed. But halfway there the bard stopped, picking up a cloth and moistening it with water from a water skin. As they crashed onto the bedroll, arms and legs gloriously tangled, she ran the cloth over Xena's skin, erasing in moments what had taken a lifetime to etch. Xena did the same, but she used her tongue instead. The taste of the berry juice mixed with the salty sweetness of Gabrielle's skin in Xena's mouth as her beloved bard moaned underneath her. The moans shortly ripened into heartfelt cries and then into a long scream as Gabrielle climaxed, just as the sky began to lighten and the birds began to chitter and sing in preparation for the new day. She lapsed into contented sleep just as the first ray of sunlight fell across her cheek.
Xena lay for a moment, looking at Gabrielle's face and enjoying the warmth of her body, before she closed her eyes too.