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"I'm not!"

"You are, too!"

"Gabrielle." Xena stood up, swaying slightly as she waited for the dizziness to pass. "I am not sick. I am never sick."

"Never?" Gabrielle asked, walking over to her companion.

"No! Not..." A fit of coughing stopped Xena mid sentence. "...ever."

"Uh huh," replied the bard knowingly. "If you're not sick then you shouldn't have any trouble staying on your feet when I do this..." She pushed against Xena's chest and watched the startled warrior collapse onto the pallet.

She might have managed the dizziness, but combined with the pounding headache, raspy breathing, stuffy nose and all over body ache, it was all she could do just to sit up. With her head in her hands, she moaned, "I'm sick."

Nimble fingers quickly relieved the warrior of weapons, armor, leathers, and boots. "Raise your arms," Gabrielle ordered.

Xena glanced down at her naked fevered body and asked in wonder, "How'd you get so good at undressing me?" She began to shiver. "I'm cold."

Gabrielle slid the shift over one hot arm and then the other and then over Xena's head. Pulling it over her companion's body, she smiled. "Practice makes perfect, I guess." Gently she pushed the unresisting warrior down on the pallet. Throwing a blanket over her, the bard headed for the door.

"Where are you going?"

"To heat some water for tea, Xena," Gabrielle said. "I'll be right back. You stay put." She headed out the door to gather firewood, pondering their situation. Xena had started getting sick a couple of days before, but nothing the bard said could persuade the warrior to stop or even admit she wasn't feeling well. The spring morning had dawned cool and damp, so when they had stumbled on a crumbling abandoned hut, Gabrielle put her foot down and insisted they rest even though it was only midmorning. That Xena made only token objections told her companion just how miserable she really felt. The hut offered a modicum of shelter, a few broken pieces of furniture, and a musty pallet.

She made a small fire in the clearing and set a pot of water on to boil, then went back into the ramshackle hut and cleaned it up as best she could while Xena watched fitfully, still shivering. "It's too cold in here," she complained, "I'm going outside." She struggled to sit up, pulling the blanket around her shoulders.

"Oh, no you don't. It's colder out there," Gabrielle exclaimed, rushing over to push the warrior back down. They tussled for a few minutes before Xena collapsed with the bard sprawled out on top of her.

"Any other time I'd enjoy this immensely," Xena grumbled. She looked up pathetically. "I'm sick, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle stroked her cheek. "I know, Xena. But I can't build the fire in here. The chimney is ruined and I'd end up burning the whole hut down. I'm going to get you some tea. Stay here, please."

Xena nodded reluctantly. Gabrielle got up and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?"

Gabrielle counted to five and slowly turned around. "To get the tea, Xena, I'll be right back." She hurried outside. "This is a test," she grumbled softly. "I don't know why or what for, but this has to be test."

She made the tea and returned to find Xena attempting to get off the pallet yet again. At her exclamation, the warrior looked up,

"Argo, I have to take care of Argo. Let me go, Gabrielle." The bard released her and Xena promptly fell back onto the bed. "Great Zeus," she sighed, wishing her body just didn't ache so much.

"Drink this," Gabrielle ordered, propping her companion against the wall. Xena took a cautious sip and frowned.

"Too much feverfew," she grumbled. "And what else is in here?" She sniffed. "White willow? Geez, Gabrielle, what are you trying to do, make me sick?"

"It'll make you feel better. Here, use it to swallow these down." She placed two small lumps on Xena's tongue.

"Roasted garlic?" Xena grimaced. "If your aim is to stink the sickness out of me, I think this just might do it, but even I won't be able to stand the smell of me once the garlic works through my system."

Gabrielle tipped the cup to Xena's mouth, making sure the warrior took a couple of healthy gulps. "Drink it, Xena," she commanded and started to leave the room.

"Where ya going?"

Gabrielle counted to ten. "I'm going to take care of Argo. That tea better be gone by the time I get back, Xena." Shivering from the cool, dreary air, she pulled her cloak around herself and wandered over to take care of Argo. Picking up a brush, she began to groom the war-horse. "I don't know what's gotten into our friend. I've seen her wounded, near dead, and dead, and she never even whimpered, and here she is with a little fever, and she's suddenly gone petulant wuss on me. What's going on?" But Argo had no answers.

When she returned to the hut, Gabrielle noticed that Xena had thrown off not only the blankets, but her shift as well and was laying naked on the pallet. A red flush had crept up her neck and into her cheeks, and she was moaning softly. An empty cup lay at her side. Feeling her hot forehead, Gabrielle exclaimed, "By the gods Xena, you're burning up!"

"I'm sick," Xena mumbled, not bothering to open her eyes.

"I know that, but why?" But the warrior couldn't answer her. For the rest of the evening Gabrielle fought to keep Xena's temperature down. She bathed her companion with tepid water, forced her to drink cup after cup of fluid which necessitated repeated trips to a makeshift chamber pot by the side of the bed, and applied mustard plasters to clear her chest. Finally in the middle of the night Xena drifted into a fitful fevered sleep. Exhausted, Gabrielle sat by the side of the bed and laid her head down on the pallet.

She was awakened during the night by a pain in her arm. Startled, she rose up to find Xena grabbing her, growling, "You ever do that again, Hyphonius, and I'll break your neck." The pain in her arm became excruciating as Xena tightened her grip. Realizing her companion was delirious, Gabrielle didn't try to pull away, but started talking as calmly as she could while stroking Xena's body with her free hand.

"Xena, wake up. It's me, Gabrielle. Come on, Xena, please, let go. It's all right. Nothing's going to hurt us. Wake up now." She ran her hand down Xena's face, across her chest and down her side, all the while talking gently to her and trying not to cry out from the pain in her arm, knowing if her companion broke it they would be in serious trouble.

Xena responded to the touch she knew as well as her own and blinked, relaxing her iron grip. Gabrielle reached up and kissed her, wiping the sweat from her face. Gradually recognition came into the fever clouded eyes. "Gabrielle?" she asked uncertainly.

'Yeah, it's me. Everything's all right, Xena." Gabrielle gently pushed her partner back down on the pallet. "Go back to sleep now." She dipped a cloth in water and sponged the sweat from Xena's body. The warrior's eyes closed, and she slept once again.

Gabrielle looked at her arm and smiled wryly. Well, what's one more bruise, she thought. At least she didn't break it. She stretched and settled back into the chair to wait for dawn. Somehow she must have managed to doze because she was again awakened by Xena's muttering. She bolted up to find her companion sitting, reaching for something only she could see. "Oh, Myrna," Xena said, then giggled. "Give me some more, please, that was sooo good." She made smacking noises with her lips.

The bard's eyebrows rose. Xena didn't giggle. And who in Tartarus was Myrna. And what ever she was getting from her sounded awfully good. She shook her head, murmuring, "Oh Xena, do you ever dream of me?" But her companion was enjoying herself to much to respond. Sighing, Gabrielle wet the cloth and wiped the warrior's face.

As she bent forward, Xena's lips found hers and kissed her tenderly. "Thanks, Myrna," the warrior said, then lay back down and slept quietly.

Gabrielle stared at her for a minute. "Anytime, Xena, anytime," she said, stroking her companion's face. She slipped off the pallet and sat on the rough floor, laying her head on the bed by Xena's side.

The sun was just rising over the eastern horizon when she was awakened once more by a hand gently caressing her hair. Bleary green eyes looked up to meet weary blue ones. "Marry me, Gabrielle," Xena said softly.

Gabrielle was too exhausted to be surprised, but she couldn't help wondering if the warrior was still hallucinating. She thought of all the demands, the laughter, the fussing, the arguing, the making up, the pain, the comfort, the loving, and the commitment they shared. She wasn't sure she wanted to be any more married than that. Gabrielle patted her companion's hand. "I hate to be the bearer of old news love, but we're joined for all eternity and not even your being sick is going to change that."

Xena gave a small, relieved smile and closed her eyes. "I knew that," she said before descending back into her dreams. Gabrielle staggered to her feet and stretched out her tired aching muscles. Looking around, she realized they were running short on provisions and it was up to her to... hunt. Horse droppings. First things first though. She gathered up the water skins and headed for the stream.

The morning mist swirled around the trees and the air was cool and clean. She drew in a deep breath and went fill the skins, then checked on Argo. After seeing to her needs, she scrounged around the area by the hut and came up with edible tubers, greens, berries, and mushrooms, and set snares while she foraged. Carrying her bounty back to the hut, she started a fire and set water to boil. She ducked her head back into the hut to check on her companion and found her sitting on the floor by the pallet. Xena looked up, saying crossly, "Where did you go? I called but you didn't answer."

Gabrielle let out a tired sigh. Crossing the room, she stood over the warrior. "Nice to see you're feeling better. Just where did you think you were going?" she asked.

Xena grimaced and pointed to the makeshift chamber pot. "I have to go. Almost made it, too. Just couldn't quite match the rotation of the room. If it would spin a little slower I know I could handle it." She made a whirling motion with her finger. "Some things can't wait for you to show up, you know."

Biting back a retort, Gabrielle saw her companion was again flushed and warm to touch. She reached down helped Xena navigate drunkenly to the commode. Just the effort of relieving herself was all the exhausted warrior could manage. "For the love of Zeus, have you gained weight?" asked the bard as the pair struggled back to the pallet.

Xena sat down with a sigh. "I'm just weak. Once we get on the road, I'll feel better. Go saddle up Argo and we'll be on our way."

"You can't make it to the chamber pot. How are you going to make it to Argo and ride all day?" Gabrielle asked reasonably.

"I can do it," Xena replied stubbornly.

"No."

"No?" Xena's eyebrow rose.

"Look, I know you feel better, but you're still sick. Give it one more day, Xena, please. I'm too tired to travel today."

Xena studied her. Gabrielle did look tired. "All right," she agreed reluctantly. "If you don't think you can make it, we'll stay." With an effort she raised her legs and lay back. At least the room stopped spinning when she was supine.

Gabrielle hurried back out to fire and prepared a broth with the last of their dried beef. She thought for a moment, then took a root out of their supplies, adding a few shavings along with a clove of garlic and allowed the liquid to simmer. Taking the broth back in to the warrior, she noted Xena was picking lint off the blankets. Oh, oh, she thought. The only thing worse than a sick warrior princess was a sick, bored one. "Here, Xena. I made you some broth."

Xena glanced at the bowl. "I'm not hungry," she sulked, picking off more lint.

Gabrielle counted to fifteen. "It will make you stronger. Now drink it," she ordered. Xena drained the bowl in great gulps. And came up sputtering. "How much horseradish did you put in this?" she gasped, tears pouring out of her eyes.

"Just wanted to clean out your system a little," said the bard briskly. She took a cloth and wiped the snot off of Xena's face. "Blow," she commanded, holding the cloth over her companion's nose. Two healthy honks, later the rag was full and Gabrielle dropped it on the floor. "I think we'll burn that one," she said, wiping her hand on her skirt. "Didn't even taste the garlic, did you?" the bard chortled as she headed back outside.

"Where are you going?"

"To check the snares and make you some tea," Gabrielle called out as she left.

"Not so much feverfew this time," she heard Xena call as she hurried away

A quick check of her snares revealed a nice fat bunny thrashing about. It stopped its frantic efforts to free itself long enough to exchange a long stare with the bard. "I really don't want to do this," Gabrielle told it. "But we have to eat and you're our best prospect." Gabrielle's staff flashed and the rabbit lay unconscious on the ground. Quickly she strung it up, slit its throat, then skinned and dressed it, fighting the queasiness in her stomach the whole time. "You can have this job, Xena," the bard muttered grimly, as she carried their dinner back to camp.

Once there, she made more tea and carried it into the hut. Xena was staring morosely at the ceiling. "Do you know there's thirty three holes in this roof?" she asked.

Gabrielle glanced up. "I don't see any holes."

"They're up there"

"Whatever you say. Let's get you sitting up a little and drink this."

Xena sat up cautiously and sniffed the tea her companion held under her nose. "It's not strong enough," she announced.

Gabrielle counted to twenty. "You haven't even tasted it," she said calmly. "Come on, take a sip." She got Xena to drink most of it before her companion gave an impatient snort.

"It won't do any good," she said crossly. With a flip of her wrist the heavy metal mug went sailing. It bounced off a wall, hit the rim of a basin of water sending it crashing to the floor, ricocheted off the fireplace causing more bricks to fall and struck the chamber pot with a resounding clank. Gabrielle watched in horror as the nearly full vessel tipped slowly over, spilling its contents all over the floor.

Xena raised an eyebrow. "Damn. My aim's off. It should have ended up on the table." She glanced at the spreading yellow fluid. "Haven't you emptied that yet?" she asked.

Gabrielle watched the urine soak into the dry rotting floor. "You realize," she said, turning slowly back to Xena, "that Tartarus will smell better than this room when it begins to warm up."

Noting the rising color in her partner's face, Xena suspected she had gone too far. Struggling to get up, she muttered, "I'll clean it up."

In two quick strides, Gabrielle was at the bedside. Placing one finger against the warrior's chest, she gave a firm push and Xena collapsed back onto the bed. "Lie down!" the bard commanded. Shaking a finger under Xena's nose, she began to chastise her friend. "Xena, I've had enough. You stay still..."

Xena uncrossed her eyes and meekly kissed the finger waving in her face. "I love you, Gabrielle," she murmured, laying back down and closing her eyes, leaving her companion sputtering in unvented indignation.

"Xena! We need to talk!"

Xena snored softly in apparent peaceful slumber. Gabrielle stormed out of the hut and went to talk to Xena's next best friend. "I'm not mad," she said, striding back and forth before the placid war-horse. A bush suddenly lost all its leaves and half of its branches under a vicious assault from her staff. "No," she said, panting from the effort, "I'm not mad." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "She's sick, I know that. But she's always been so stoic! She'd have to be near death before she'd admit anything was wrong!" She stopped. "And sometimes even then she wouldn't admit it." she said ruefully. Leaning toward Argo, Gabrielle whispered, "She doesn't snore, you know." Argo continued to graze, unconcerned.

Gabrielle stared at the horse. "We're not in danger. There's no one to save. She's never even been sick to my knowledge." An idea began to form. "That's it, isn't it, Argo," she said slowly. "There's no need to be stoic, is there? She can act this way knowing I'll take it." Gabrielle smiled wryly. "So it is a test. But, Argo, it's not nice to take someone for granted." Her eyes narrowed. "It might be even dangerous. Gotta get that stew going." She was suddenly very hungry.

While Xena slept, Gabrielle made the rabbit stew and gathered more firewood and water. At midafternoon, she woke the warrior and made her drink more fluids, which Xena did without protest. Gathering up supplies, she added a little of their precious lavender oil to a basin of water and began to bathe her companion.

Xena sniffed the water, then herself. "Good idea," she noted dryly. "I'm beginning to sweat garlic."

"I noticed," Gabrielle said, smiling.

"You know, I'm feeling better," Xena said. "I can wash myself." The bard continued to wash her face and arms and turned her attention to her chest.

"I know, but I like to do this," the bard replied, giving loving care to each breast and watching with interest as nipples stood in rigid attention under her ministrations. Xena was indeed feeling better.

"You've got me at an unfair advantage," Xena said softly, watching her in blissful contentment.

Gabrielle looked up and leered "I could do whatever I wanted, warrior. You're too weak to resist me right now." She leaned down and planted soft kisses on her companion's belly, then laid a cheek against her warm, soft stomach. Soft, yet firm, like the best feather pillow.

"That's always been true, Gabrielle," Xena said gently, running a hand down her partner's back. "Gabrielle?" She raised her head only to be met by the sounds of soft snoring. She smiled ruefully, tempted to let the bard sleep, but she smelled something cooking and knew Gabrielle would never forgive her if their supper burned. "Gabrielle!" she said urgently, shaking her companion's shoulder.

"Whaa..." Gabrielle looked up in confusion. "Ohhh..." She took the wet cloth and slapped it on her face. "Well," she said wearily, "so much for taking advantage of you in your weakest hour. I'll probably never get a chance like this again."

"Just hold that thought, Gabrielle," Xena said chuckling. "We'll have this conversation again. Soon." She raised an eyebrow. "Why don't you just lie down for a while..."

Gabrielle shook her head. "No, the stew is about ready. Let me finish this first." She began to wash her partner's legs. "Xena, who's Myrna?" she asked casually.

Xena thought for a moment, looking perplexed. Finally she gave a little shrug. "I don't know. Who is she?" The scrubbing suddenly became more businesslike. "Hey, save a little skin down there, will you?" Xena yelped.

Gabrielle moved to another area and gentled her touch. "Just someone you mentioned while you were dreaming last night. I couldn't remember her either." Gabrielle finished her legs and motioned Xena to turn on her side. "Let me get your back." The warrior readily complied. "Xena, you feel cooler, but I wonder if you're still running a temperature. A while back, I read a treatise by a physician that theorized you could get a more accurate temperature by taking a reading inside the body than just by touching the skin. Can I try it out?"

Her attention centered on the strong relaxing strokes her back was receiving, Xena murmured, "Sure Gabrielle, anything you want." Then her head slammed against the wall as a finger entered a place none had dared go before.

"I think that healer is on to something, Xena," Gabrielle mused, withdrawing her finger. "You're noticeably warmer inside than out."

Xena expelled a long, slow breath and willed her body to relax. "I dunno, Gabrielle." She shook her head doubtfully. "I don't think that method of checking temperature is going to catch on."

"Probably not," Gabrielle shrugged and finished up the bath, giving Xena a fresh shift to put on. "The stew should be done, Xena. I hope you're hungry this time."

"I could eat," she acknowledged.

Gabrielle brought in the pot of rabbit stew. She dished up a bowl and perched on the side of the pallet, offering a spoonful to her companion. "You're going to feed me?" Xena asked, eyebrow going skyward.

"This way you can save your strength for eating, instead of wasting it trying to feed yourself," Gabrielle explained, shoving a spoonful into Xena's open mouth. She then took a spoonful for herself, and ended up alternating a bite for her companion with two mouthfuls for herself.

"Hungry?" Xena asked, chewing slowly. Normally she would be chafing under this kind of attention, but for some reason she was enjoying it beyond all reason. She gave a mental shrug.

"Starved. I haven't eaten anything but berries since yesterday."

Xena caught her hand. "Why not?" she asked quietly.

Gabrielle smiled. "I've been a little busy." She brought the spoon up to Xena's mouth. "Eat," she ordered and her companion complied.

"This is very good, Gabrielle, but I think you can ease up on the garlic now. Where did you get the rabbit?"

"I killed it. All right? Just drop it, Xena."

Xena nodded. "Sorry."

"It's just not something I like to do." They ate silently for a few minutes before Gabrielle asked, "Who's Hyphonius, Xena, some warlord?"

Xena snorted. "More like warlord in training. He was the neighborhood bully when I was growing up. When Toris was about ten, Hyphonius tried to beat the stuffing out of him." She smiled unpleasantly. "He retired when I broke his arm and threatened to break his neck if he ever beat up on anyone again." She laughed. "Toris has never forgiven me for butting in, and I knew mother would be angry, so I hid in the kitchen and Myrna..." She stopped. "I forgot about her. She was an old widow who helped mother in the tavern for a summer. She used to make these wonderful berry filled pastries. So anyway, Myrna hid me that day and rewarded me with pastries. All I could give her in return was a hug and a kiss." Xena thought for a moment. "It was all she wanted. Myrna died that winter." She roused herself from her recollections and looked at the bard. "Boy, I really went way down memory lane last night, didn't I?"

"Yeah, you did." Gabrielle gathered up the empty pot and dish and set them on the table. It was getting dark by that time, and the bard was bone tired. "Xena, I'll clean this stuff up in the morning. I'm going to check on Argo, and then I'm coming to bed."

Xena nodded and watched her companion go outside. Carefully she sat up on the side of the pallet and was relieved to find the room no longer spun. After a triumphant victory over the chamber pot, she snuggled down in the blankets and plotted their escape for the next morning. Gabrielle returned and quickly washed up, then lay down next to her companion, spooning up behind her back and wrapping her arm around Xena's waist.

"Gabrielle," Xena asked softly. "Do you still love me?"

The bard propped herself on one elbow and started to count. Then stopped as she caught sight of the chaotic room. A basin of dirty water and used rags sat on a rickety table. Every dish they owned had been used and were now strewn around the room along with most of their meager belongings. The hut had a definite pig sty odor and there were probably crawly things in the pallet they were laying on. She was so exhausted she could barely think, let alone move. If this wasn't love, she didn't know what was. It was exhilarating to love during the good times, impossible to let go in the bad, but it was the mundane that really tested the durability of passion. Yet, as she took in their squalid surroundings, she knew without a doubt that this was the person she wanted to be with. Gently she rubbed the warrior's back.

"You are the light in my sky," she said. "The spark that ignites my soul, my inspiration."

"That's nice," the warrior murmured. "But do you love me?"

Gabrielle touched her forehead to her companion's back not knowing how to articulate her unfathomable love to a woman who had so little use for words. "Yeah, I love you, Xena," she said finally, kissing the warrior's shoulder. "Now shut up and go to sleep."

Xena silently released the breath she'd been holding and took the hand that encircled her waist to examine it. She rubbed the rough, dry skin with her own callused fingertips and kissed each beloved, hard working finger before placing the bard's hand over her heart and holding it there. For a long while she lay reveling in the music of her partner's soft snoring, before finally surrendering herself to sleep.

"Wake up, Gabrielle. It's time to get going."

Gabrielle murmured a soft protest before turning over on her side and pulling the blanket over her head, secure in the belief that it couldn't possibly be daylight yet. Her cover was gently but firmly pulled down and the bard opened one bleary eye to find her worst fear realized. The sun shone cheerfully in the doorway, outlining the silhouette of her fully attired companion. Her eye wearily swept the room to find it cleaner than when they arrived, a few misplaced bricks the only evidence of their stay. On the table beside the bed sat a steaming cup of tea, a container of wildflowers, and breakfast consisting of the last of their cheese, olives and a blackened lump of indiscernible origin. Gabrielle sniffed. Fish.

Xena sat down on the pallet running a hand down her partner's back. "C'mon, up you go. Eat your breakfast, and let's get out of here."

Gabrielle turned the bleary eye on Xena. "All better already? How do you do that?"

"All that good care, I guess." Xena shrugged. "Or maybe it was the garlic." She grinned and kissed her companion's cheek. "Now get up!"

"Another hour and I'll be ready to go," muttered the bard, pulling the blanket up over her head.

Xena's brow knitted in concern. "You're not coming down with whatever I had, are you?" she asked, studying one impossibly long index finger. "I should take your temperature..."

End

5/98

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