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"After 25 years youíd think that this place would have changed," Gabrielle commented to the group as they walked through Athens.

"Now thatís not true," Xena answered. "Itís dirtier, smellier and a lot more crowded than before."

Gabrielle grinned at the warrior as they walked through the merchant section of town. A small commotion began just outside the marketplace and the group all looked at each other. Perhaps we should check this out, Gabrielle thought as she looked to Xena.

"Right behind you," the warrior answered, reading the bardís mind.

The group went over to the scuffle to see that it wasnít a scuffle at all. In fact it was a friendly competition. It appears people were betting and cheering on two warriors in the ring.

"Tell me itís not a fight to the death," Gabrielle asked one of the patrons who took a momentary break from urging his warrior on.

"Good gracious no!" he chuckled. "The first one to end up off their feet loses. Iíve got the red one," he answered, as he pointed to the man with a red scarf tied around his biceps. The other man in the Ďringí had on a blue scarf. "Come on RED!!!" he shouted getting back into the action again.

Slowly a smile crept to the bardís face. "That looks like fun," she told Xena. "Letís enter!"

"What?!" Has she totally lost her mind?

"Oh come on," Gabrielle jabbed. "Whatís the matter warrior princess . . . chicken?" Gabrielle proceeded to make a clucking noise until her laughter prevented her from doing it any longer.

"You could get hurt," Xena answered.

"Itís just a little competition," Gabrielle argued. "What could happen?"

Xena sighed. "Why do the phrases, ĎJust one more flipí and ĎIt wonít kill me í keep ringing in my ears?"

Gabrielle laughed heartily and Eve found herself smiling as well. She had read her momís scroll about the Persian attack and how Gabrielle ended up gimp for the battle - all because she started Ďon the wrongí foot while practicing leaps.

"Weíll fight each other," Gabrielle answered. "Itíll be fun."

"Itíll be fun," Xena mimicked. "Beating each other to a meaty pulp?"

"Noooo," Gabrielle replied. "Beating each other into submission. Thereís a difference," she winked playfully.

Xena had to chuckle now. It was obvious there was no getting out of it. The bard seemed to have made up her mind. Xena knew there was only one way out of this and it was through that fighting ring. "Okay," Xena reluctantly agreed. "But we have to spar with each other. No one else. And if they say we canít pick a challenger we both walk away. Agreed?"

Gabrielle spat in her hand and offered it to the warrior. "Agreed!" she said optimistically. Reluctantly, Xena took it. As the match between the two men came to a close, with the blue warrior firmly on his behind, the speaker called for two more combatants.

Xena and Gabrielle both stepped forward.

"Weíll compete," Gabrielle told him.

"WoooHooo gentlemen," the announcer shouted getting the crowd worked up, "Two lovely warriors to place your bets on. Letís hear it," he yelled. "Blue goes to the lovely lady with blue eyes and red to petite but powerful blonde. What do you say gentleman? Place your bets! Place your bets!"

Xena and Gabrielle took the scarves they were given and tied them around each otherís arms.

"Listen to this," Xena said shaking her head. "Listen to them hooting. Have you no shame?" Xena chuckled.

"Nope," Gabrielle laughed. "Relax. Have fun. And try not to hit me in the face. I might need my lips later tonight," she added wiggling her eyebrows.

Xena felt herself blush slightly. "Better watch those eyebrows Gabrielle," she warned. "This better be a fair fight. No pulling any ĎTatakaísí on me."

"Why what ever do you mean Xena?" Gabrielle teased, batting her eyelashes innocently.

"What do I mean?" Xena smiled. "No face licking, no feeling yourself up in front of me, no feeling me up in front of the crowd-" she growled in the bardís ear.

She would have continued but Gabrielle stopped her. "Okay, okay. No using. . . ahem . . . sex as a weapon. Got it," she grinned. "May the best warrior win," she replied offering her forearm to Xena.

Lord how Iíve missed having that spirit of hers around. Xena took the arm offered her and gave a nod to her challenger.

"Okay!" the announcer boomed, "Rules are simple. Use any weapons you like but no deathblows allowed. Anyone who delivers one will be sentenced directly to jail for prosecution of murder. No hitting below the belt. If you leave the ring for any reason you forfeit. The first one to fall loses. The one left standing - the victor! Understand?!" Xena and Gabrielle both nodded. "Alright then ladies . . . FIIIIIGHT!!!!"

A cheer went up through the crowd as August, Eponin and Eve all watched Xena and Gabrielle face off in the ring. But even among the yells they heard one voice ring out, "Kick her ass Gabrielle!"

The warrior and the bard didnít break eye contact but both knew it was Eponinís voice that called out in the crowd. Despite themselves, both women grinned at the outburst as they circled each other looking for a weak spot to land the first strike.

Gabrielle knew Xenaís weak area - her back. She had witnessed it in countless battles. She could jab the warrior in the face or in the gut. She could kick the warrior in her shins. But none of these would make the warrior tumble. She would simple shrug it off. But a blow to the back would have Xena on her knees like a sack of potatoes.

Xena sized up her opponent as well. Gabrielle had no Ďweaknessí per say. She was graceful for the most part. But once she went off-balanced Xena knew any blow could bring the bard down. Getting Gabrielle off kilter was the hard part but if she could do it she knew she could win. It didnít have to be anything forceful just a slight leg sweep would set the amazon on her backside.

When Xena didnít make a move Gabrielle realized that she would have to strike first. She began by firing a round of punches and kicks that Xena easily deflected, in the hopes of working behind her. When Gabrielle paused just a moment to re-establish her footing, Xena took full advantage and began an offensive attack that step by step pushed the bard backward.

Xena stomped toward Gabrielleís shin but missed, leaving her legs spread wide, Gabrielle took the opportunity and slide between them. Now she was behind the warrior like she wanted and the crowd gave a hearty cheer for the maneuver. Even Xena had to admit she was impressed but she wasnít about to let Gabrielle win. She knew what Gabrielle was up to. As Gabrielle rose up behind her, Xena let out a powerful warcry and leaped backward over the bard.

Two paces, Gabrielleís mind called out. She knew after six years of watching her work, thatís how far Xena would land behind her. Without turning back Gabrielle took two steps back and without turning around drove her leg up, kicking Xena in the stomach before her feet could even touch the ground. The warrior flew backward and the crowd cheered again as they watched Xena land - both feet on the ground but teetering close to the end of the ring.

Gabrielle turned to face her and she could have rushed her to knock her out of the area but she knew that somehow, someway Xena would turn it around on her and manage to throw her from the ring. So instead Gabrielle watched, holding her breath, as Xenaís heels and toes teetered back and forth near the ring, hoping she would tumble out on her own.

Gabrielle released her breath as Xena got her footing and gave Gabrielle a playful grin. Soon however the grin vanished and the warrior charged. Gabrielle steadied her breathing and dug in getting her footing in place. A second later she too dashed toward the warrior. They both locked arms and in the same moment turned in opposite directions. Two seconds later, both women were lying in a cloud of dust, sprawled out on the ground.

The crowd grew a bit quiet until some spectators began to speak up. "Blue fell first!" someone yelled.

"No way! Red went down first!"

Gabrielle and Xena both looked at the announcer to see if he would call the match. "Sorry folks," he answered. "Itís a tie. Take back your biddings."

A collective sound of frustration and disgust went through the crowd at the news as the announcer apologized but quickly went to work in finding two more warriors for the ring.

Xena rose first and offered her hand to Gabrielle, which the bard took.

"Good match," Gabrielle grinned.

"Yeah. Good match," Xena replied. "We better find the academy before nightfall. Letís go."

Gabrielle watched as Xena walked away and she cocked her head at the warrior as she moved. Somethingís not right, Gabrielle considered silently.

"She get hurt?" Eve asked as she came up.

Gabrielleís eyes didnít leave Xena as she answered Eveís question with one of her own. "What makes you say that?"

"Iím not sure. It just seems like somethingís wrong with her," Eve answered.

Gabrielle looked to Eve briefly. "Iím glad you said that," Gabrielle replied. "I thought maybe I was over-reacting." Iíve gotta get her alone. "Look, why donít you three head to the academy. Itís two streets up and then two blocks south, okay? Weíll meet you there."

"Alright," Eve answered, as she motioned Ep and August to follow her.

Gabrielle followed Xena and jogged a bit to catch up to her. "Hey," she said getting the warriorís attention. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah Iím fine."

Gabrielle pursed her lips together for a moment. "Okay . . . Now give me the real answer. Whatís the matter?"

"Itís nothing."

"Did I hurt you Xena?"

"No I told you. Iím okay. Really. Itís nothing."

"Okay," Gabrielle answered with a nod. "We agreed to be honest with each other so Iíll believe you. Of course if youíre not okay then this would be the time to work on that Ďopening upí thing that weíve discussed," she grinned.

Xena saw the grin and gave a small one herself. "Okay," Xena sighed. "Maybe something is wrong. But itís pretty damn petty and I feel stupid for even feeling like this."

"Like what?" Gabrielle asked, trying to look into Xenaís eyes that were looking everywhere but to her.

Finally Xena willed herself to look at Gabrielle. "I got my ass kicked by a bard," she answered. "I think Iím losing it."

Gabrielle didnít know whether to be flattered or angry. Could she find humor in this situation or was it truly sad? She cleared her throat as she wondered how to reply.

"Instead of thinking that youíre Ďlosing ití as you say, perhaps you could see this as a testament to the fact that ĎIíveí gotten better."

"Yeah, better than me," Xena answered.

"Okay," Gabrielle began. "Iím starting to have a real hard time right now. I donít want to argue with you and I donít want to get upset. But Iím not sure how to put your Ďfearsí to rest without making myself look cheep in the process . . . Iím not going to tell you that youíre a better warrior than me. Iím not going to say that Iím a better warrior than you are. Neither of those points are true nor do they reflect anything in Ďreal lifeí."

"Alright," Xena sighed, "Explain this to the warrior because Iím just not following you," she added.

Stay calm Gabrielle, the bard warned herself. Donít get upset. Just explain. Calmly. Rationally.

"Xena," Gabrielle started. "I have strengths in battle. You have strengths in battle. What happened here today was NOT a battle. You didnít Ďgive it your allí and neither did I. I mean letís face it. If it was anyone else in that ring either one of us would have wiped the floor with our opponent or at least ended it long before we did. So donít think the Ďdrawí means that youíre any less of a warrior because thatís not true."

Xena nodded and felt a small grin to her face.

"But in the same token please donít think that Iím any less of a warrior. I put up a good fight like you did. I hope you can recognize that without feeling threatened by it. . . I did what I set out to do all those years ago - I became a warrior - like Xena. Not EXACTLY like her . . . but Ďlikeí her. I fight for the same things. I believe in the same things. I realize I might not every have the number of skills that she has," Gabrielle grinned as she played with the word Ďskillsí. "But Iím pretty damn good because I learned from the best . . . I just wish sheíd see that," she added in more of a sober tone.

Xena grinned and shook her head. "Gabrielle I do see that. In fact Iíd venture to say thatís part of the problem. Looks like the student has surpassed the teacher."

"No," Gabrielle answered. "I think the student and the teacher can learn things from each other . . if they are both willing . . . Are you? Are you prepared to truly see me as a warrior in my own right? I ask because I think you need to if weíre going to keep moving forward. Thatís not an ultimatum Xena. Itís a fact. You have to SEE ME if you want to be WITH ME."

"I want to be with you," Xena answered. "But just keep in mind that sometimes when I DO see you like today . . . well . . . it knocks me a little off balanced. . . But Iím more than willing to get back on track . . . as long as you have patience with me," Xena grinned.

"Itís gonna be a tough road."

"Yes it will."

"Itís not going to be easy in the slightest."

"No it isnít."

Gabrielle grinned. "Iím always up for a challenge. How Ďbout you?"

"Always," Xena grinned as she took Gabrielleís hand to catch up to their traveling party. "Always."