DISCLAIMER: You all know by now that Xena/Gabrielle/Argo are copyright MCA etc.

NO infringement intended. This is a 'subtext friendly' tale. If you do not think X+G are deeply in love are you watching the same programme as me? Sorry folks, no sex in this one, but what goes on after the end of the story is anyone's guess.

I would appreciate ANY comments nice or otherwise, if we don't get feedback how can we learn?

Rab@xgrd.freeserve.co.uk Enjoy.


As they entered the tavern, the low hum of conversation diminished to near silence. Heads turned, then quickly looked away. By the time the two women reached the bar, conversations had resumed and the general noise returned to it's original level. Almost.

"Same old, same old" Gabrielle said softly, she could never *quite* get used to this now commonplace occurrence. She chuckled to herself. 'I must try entering a tavern *alone* one day. Would the reaction be different?' she mused, knowing full well the answer.

"What ya having? My treat" smiled the tall, perfectly toned warrior.

"Ha! Your treat!?" the bard scoffed. "You mean the 10 dinars you keep down your cleavage is *your* money. The 40 I have in my pouch is *ours*!"

Xena's smile bared white teeth and warm love. There was so much to love about Gabrielle, one of the unexpected things was the way she stood her corner. Xena knew many battle-hardened soldiers and warlords who had never questioned a single word she ever said. Yet this young woman never let her get away with anything.

'You are tougher than any of them' Xena thought, admiringly.

"You are right of course. You have *way* more than I do. The drinks are on you, I'll have a port" the warrior grinned and winked at her friend.

Gabrielle could only smile too, and pull a coin from her pouch.

"You know reserves are running low. Maybe I should try an impromptu performance? The story of The Titans is always a crowd-pleaser"

Gabrielle was scanning the room, it was certainly busy.

The warrior also surveyed the crowd. Something was not quite right she felt. More than ever, people were unwilling to meet her gaze, there was still a tension in the air.

"I'm not sure this would be an appreciative enough audience. We still have plenty for now, let's just try to get supper. Worry about dinars some other time" said Xena

The bard was quite pleased, she agreed they did look like a rough crowd.

However she did not feel in the least threatened. How lucky she was to be standing with Xena. Her protector. Her soulmate.

A very tall, unkempt and drunk looking man came lurching toward them.

The warrior stood straight. "Caderus, how are you?" she said simply.

"Xena! I wasn't expecting you to be here, I don't think anyone was. This puts a completely different complexion on things"

"You could use a new complexion, Caderus" Xena smiled.

The man leaned closer "you are here to compete, aren't you?"

The warrior exchanged a look with her friend, both were puzzled.

"That very much depends" Gabrielle interjected "we haven't yet checked out the competition" She gave Xena a shrug.

"Why don't *you* give it a try, little girl" Caderus laughed then he simply walked away.

The bard grabbed her companion by the arm. "Competition. That could mean prizes, that could mean dinars. We need money"

"Yes. But what sort of competition. Caderus is an unsavoury character, in case you couldn't tell. Though he is always on the look out for a fast dinar"

"Listen Xena, I'm better at talking than you. Why don't I ask around, see what I can find out" suggested the bard.

"And I just stand here drinking?" Xena didn't seem too unhappy at the idea.

"I was kinda hoping you would watch my back. You know with unsavoury characters around" suggested Gabrielle.

The raven-haired warrior stood casually, her back leaning against the bar.

Gabrielle had no worries about Xena watching out for her. Her instincts, the sixth sense she had developed in battle, were now used almost exclusively for the protection of Gabrielle. 'My bard. My life.'

The woman in question was in conversation with one of the serving girls.

Xena marvelled at how easily her friend could so readily communicate with total strangers. Sometimes the warrior wished that she herself had such a gift for words. She really wanted to tell the young woman with the red-blonde hair just how much she had influenced her life.

'Influenced your life?!' Xena thought.

'Nonsense! You *did not have a life* until that wondrous day you stumbled across Draco's men at Potidaea. And you warned her not to follow. And yet *somehow* you knew she would. And thank the Gods she did'

The warrior's musings were interrupted by the sweetest sound ever.

Gabrielle's voice.

"It seems there is some sort of competition, warriors and ruffians have come from many parts to be here. I don't know exactly what is to happen, but there is a 100 dinar entry fee. Oh. And apparently Verdana is due any time soon"

Xena handed over a beaker of cider. "I bought this with *my* money" she grinned. "I had noticed one or two familiar looking faces. So who or what is Verdana?"

The bard took a large swallow of cider. She looked a little embarrassed.

"Verdana is a female warrior. The toughest, the most feared in all Greece.

Or so I have been told" Gabrielle could barely look at Xena's face.

The tall woman was smiling, slightly enjoying her friend's discomfort.

"Oh really?" she arched her eyebrows "Well I have never heard of her. Have you?"

Gabrielle studied the wooden floor. "I have heard some tales" she muttered.

Xena looked vaguely annoyed. "So how do you hear such things, and I do not? We go virtually everywhere together" she reasoned.

"I guess people talk to me. In taverns or markets. You are a bit more reserved, a bit more …. Intimidating" the bard finally looked up into sparkling blue eyes.

"The toughest ever eh? Maybe we should just leave right now" laughed Xena. To her surprise, Gabrielle looked more serious.

"It isn't a joke, Xena! Some say that Verdana looks upon you as a rival.

You have a bit of a reputation yourself, or didn't you know?"

The warrior put a reassuring hand on the smaller woman's shoulder.

"Don't worry. If this woman wants to be the most feared in all Greece, or wherever, why should I care? I thought you wanted to win money?"

"Xena I am serious! This woman is reputedly very dangerous. I think we *should* leave now. Before something silly happens"

Xena looked down into green, pleading eyes. She wanted to take this woman into her arms there and then, and never let her go.

"You are worried about me, aren't you? You think she could harm me"

Tears welled into the bard's eyes. "I am *not* doubting your abilities. But *what if* Verdana is better? How could I live with myself? 50 dinars can last a long time if we sleep outside and feed ourselves. Xena, the thought of losing you…… I just *can't* even think about it"

Despite their surroundings, the warrior pulled Gabrielle close. She gently kissed her forehead. "You are *not* going to lose me. Not anytime soon, anyway. I am not planning on going *anywhere* Tartarus or otherwise"

The bard took another long drink. "We don't have the 100 dinar entry fee anyway". Gabrielle sounded relieved.

"So let us just go, leave Verdana to her illusions"

"Order up another round of drinks Gabrielle. I'm just going outside to borrow some money from Argo" and the warrior left.

Xena had few qualms about leaving the bard alone. It would only be for a brief moment. She had her fighting-staff with her, and besides, the expression of pure rage that had suddenly adorned Gabrielle's face meant that Ares himself would not dare approach her…

When she returned soon after, the corrosive glare was still intact.

"You see Verdana as a challenge don't you? Deep down you still want to be the feared warrior, the destroyer of nations" the red-blonde was having trouble keeping her emotions in check. Xena was stung, hurt.

"Is that what you truly believe?" the warrior was now struggling to keep the tears from her own eyes. She felt sick to the stomach.

Gabrielle reached out a hand and gently held the warrior's arm.

"No. Of course it isn't. I'm sorry" she said softly.

Xena knew what the problem was, she tried to make light of it.

"I thought you knew Argo had her own savings. She knows I will pay her back!"

Gabrielle raised a faint smile. "That destroyer of nations thing…."

"Forgotten already. I *know* you did not mean that. As for the money I didn't want to tell you before, but I guess I do owe you an explanation. I have been putting aside the odd coin here and there"

"But for what? Why couldn't you tell me? I thought we had no secrets" the bard gently caressed Xena's forearm.

"I don't really know. For you. For *us*. We cannot travel the roads forever.

I just thought that one day we could…. Buy a little house together, or something" the warrior was looking directly into green eyes. She hoped her own eyes could transmit her message. 'I love you' It was a thought permanently in her mind, yet somehow she dared not give it voice.

Gabrielle could not help herself. She burst into tears and flung her arms around Xena's body, burying her face against the warrior's bosom.

Just then, an audible collective gasp caused both bard and warrior to look up.

The woman was tall, Xena-sized, with blonde hair streaked with dyes of red, green and blue. Her eyes were of the darkest brown. She wore a red and black tunic, black armour. She was also heavily armed.

She brushed past Xena and Gabrielle. "This is no place for whimpering young girls" she uttered, loudly enough so that most of the room could hear.

Xena gave her a withering stare, but said nothing. Instead she led the bard over to an empty table in the corner of the room. "Can I assume that is Verdana?" she said, her eyebrows raised comically.

Gabrielle's previous tears turned to laughter. "I thought her entrance was a bit understated myself"

The warrior happily sat with an arm casually draped over her friend's shoulder. "Don't worry my bard, I won't enter the competition. She looks *way* too scary for me"

"Did you just say *my bard*? Be careful Xena, you are beginning to sound romantic!"

Both woman were suddenly relaxed, totally happy.

"How long have you known I was in love with you?" asked Gabrielle.

"It is something I could dare not believe" the warrior replied. " but I know for sure now"

Xena drained her port glass empty. "My treat?" she asked.

"Promise me. You are *not* going to enter this stupid warrior competition"

"I *swear*. But there is still a way to make money here" she winked.

Xena deliberately walked to the end of the bar where Verdana stood.

She immediately noticed an almost imperceptible change in Verdana's demeanour. The woman with the streaked hair had attempted to adopt a fearless air, but Xena could tell that as she approached, a little of the woman's confidence drained away. Xena imagined that she would be the only person to have noticed such a minute change.

But it was useful information.

"No-one told me that you would be here Xena. This makes the contest a lot more interesting" Verdana did *sound* confident.

"Gosh! Verdana! I have heard *so* much about you" the warrior lied.

"I really didn't come here for any contest. Just some supper, but it would seem that food is off tonight" she added in neutral tones.

"Easy money, Xena. Look at these fools! Hegia, Lycaba, Caderus. Not a decent fighter amongst them."

The raven-haired warrior could not help but agree. She kept silent.

"Male pride. You must have come across that, Xena. They feel obliged to take me on. At 100 dinars a go, I'm laughing. I reckon the total pot will be over 1500 dinars tonight. How about it. Warrior Princess" Verdana *sneered* the last two words.

Xena adopted a thoughtful look. "You *are* going to win aren't you?"

"Whether *you* enter or not" Verdana smiled.

"Then I have a proposition for you" Xena moved closer.

"Gods, Xena yes! I had heard that you like women" Verdana looked lascivious "fighting always gets my juices going. I'm feeling hot for it already!"

"In your dreams!" Xena looked disgusted, though she had *intended* Verdana to interpret 'proposition' that way.

"I'm talking dinars. A wager. I will put up 100 dinars, against a half of what you win" she challenged.

"100 dinars against maybe 600 or more?! Doesn't sound fair"

"But you haven't heard the bet." Said Xena. "All you have to do, is to pick a fight with a person of my choosing. And I promise it won't be me"

The upstart warrior looked puzzled. "someone in this room? You don't have Hercules waiting outside do you?" she queried.

Xena smiled sweetly. "Someone in this room right now. Not me"

"And all I have to do is pick a fight with them?" It all sounded too easy, but erdana didn't like the idea of Xena tricking her. The fact that it *was* so easy could be the trick.

"I'll let you think about it" Xena sighed impatiently "but for someone so confident about winning the contest, you have gone all wimpish on me"

Verdana glared. "You are up to something, what is it?"

"Maybe I just don't think you will win. Lycaba is a hard man"

That was enough for Verdana. "You have a bet! You know you are getting old Xena, senile too, by the sound of it"

"Forgive me for not shaking hands" said Xena pulling herself up to her full height as she picked up her drinks from the bar. "By the way, do you want to know who it is I want you to pick on? *should* you win the contest?"

Verdana shrugged her shoulders "I should worry. But go on, point out the man I have to challenge. It isn't Paraxas is it?" she laughed

"No. It isn't even a man. It is a girl called Gabrielle. She is sitting over there"

The leather-clad warrior returned to her table. The bard looked concerned.

"You have been away a long time. I *saw* you talking to Verdana, don't try to deny it" Gabrielle sounded quite upset. "She is really beautiful looking, don't you think?" she tagged on.

Xena looked astonished. She leaned closer in against the bard. Under the table she took Gabrielle's hand and squeezed it.

"You really don't think… surely…." She smiled. "Let me tell you here and now, there is no-one, there never has been anyone, there never *will* be anyone more lovely than you"

Gabrielle glowed at these words. "I guess I am a little insecure. I don't really know what you see in me"

"It is I who doesn't know why you put up with me, Gabrielle"

"So what *were* you talking to Verdana about?"

"Nothing really" grinned the warrior, "I simply challenged her to a fight with you, is all"

Gabrielle nearly choked on her cider.

Xena looked back towards the bar, caught Verdana's eye and smiled.

"I'll teach you to call Gabrielle a 'whimpering little girl' said Xena to herself all the while smiling at the perplexed Verdana.

"You see it is a bit of a con" Xena explained "they begin with an archery contest, and anyone who hits the target at all gets to enter. The no-hopers think they are great by 'passing the test' so they happily part with their 100 dinar entrance fee"

"I counted around 20 hits, that's 2000 dinars" Gabrielle marvelled.

"One thousand for us, our future home" beamed Xena.

Gabrielle was still uncertain. "But I have to fight Verdana?!"

"Trust me" was all Xena would say.

The warrior and the bard were idle spectators of the 'great contest'

"A drinking round? They often put that one in first. It is dead easy, plus the drink gives the naive ill-founded confidence" said the warrior.

"I see what you mean. *I* would still be in the contest at this stage" said Gabrielle, "the proper warriors, the ones with a chance are just playing"

"Precisely. They may even ask for a further fee now. You see the tavern will probably keep 10% of all the money"

Gabrielle began to laugh. "You know this is like being on a 'date'. At the theatre or something"

"With my best girl by my side" the warrior added with a giggle.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. These fine warriors know how to use a bow *and* how to drink" said the tavern owner, now compere. "21 survived the archery round, and 18 are still standing after the drinking round. What a tough bunch they are!"

Xena raised her eyes to the ceiling as applause broke out. She noticed that Caderus did too. He was no fool. He had doubtless seen many such contests before. He looked remarkably calm, she thought.

"Caderus looks happy. But he is no warrior. Not really. If this Verdana is a tenth of what people say, she will slice him into pieces"

Gabrielle looked across and recognised the man from earlier.

"Maybe he is just drunk. He looked it when we came in" she said.

"No. Acting drunk is one of his tricks. I think he has cut a deal with someone" the warrior looked around.

Gabrielle suddenly became panicky. "there is nothing wrong is there? I can still relax can't I?"

"I said, trust me" Xena reassured her. "How about I get the drinks in?"

She went straight to the bar and 'accidentally' bumped into Caderus.

"You are looking *far* too confident. If there is something going down, some 'surprise' event planned for later, you had better tell me now!"

The tall ill-clothed man grinned with yellow teeth.

"Zeus! Xena you gave me a scare. Who do you think organised this thing?

I promised the tavern owner a good turnout, I get half the bar-takings. Look around, isn't it great!? Verdana was my trump card.

Look at all these peasant fools who think they can take her on. And pay for the privilege!! When you showed up I nearly died. No-one, not even these brain dead morons would take *you* on"

"I heard Verdana was pretty much feared by everyone. So Gabrielle said"

"Her *reputation* is. There is a difference. Verdana is a self-styled warrior, a self publicised figure of dread. I've heard she is pretty fierce too. The difference is I *know* what you are like, how good you are. A couple more large brandies, and I might consider testing myself against Verdana.

Neither Ares nor Zeus himself could force me to take *you* on".

Caderus was totally sincere.

"Well?" said Gabrielle as her warrior returned "I'm finding relaxation difficult to come by at the moment"

"Trust me!" Xena said laughing "and thank Caderus for the size of the kitty.

Though if I know him, this contest is going to drag on a very long time. You will have to wait for your big fight with Verdana"

"That is *not* funny" replied the bard.

The warrior had been right. The contest moved slowly from one round to the next. At least the 'tasks' were relatively harmless, Xena thought. No-one should be getting unnecessarily killed by arm wrestling. She also noticed that Caderus had 'retired with a sore stomach' when he was paired against Lycaba.

It was only the final two rounds where actual combat took place.

It really *had* been too easy for Verdana. She dispatched a burly man who Xena did not recognise with ill-concealed contempt. The man suffered a nasty looking gash to his arm, and he immediately threw down his sword and fled. Lycaba took much more time in seeing off his opponent, an ageing warrior who was past his prime.

"So if Verdana beats Lycaba, and it looks pretty certain she will, I have to fight her for half her winnings?" the unease had crept back into Gabrielle's voice.

"She has to pick a fight with you. There is a difference" the warrior said calmly. Gabrielle was not sure she could see what the difference was.

"So all she has to do is pick a fight with me, and we hand over 100 dinars?"

Xena looked serene.

The final dagger fight between Verdana and Lycaba was over within seconds. And it left Lycaba fatally wounded. Verdana went to the bar in triumph, grinning broadly she demanded her winnings. Gabrielle could not conceal the worry on her face. She *did* trust Xena, implicitly. But she still worried nonetheless. With a warm smile and a wink, Xena left the table.

"Verdana, congratulations, very impressive" said Xena as the brown eyed woman counted her prize.

"They were saps and you know it. Now where is that little girlie I have to fight? An extra 100 dinars would be nice"

"Over there" Xena helpfully pointed Gabrielle out.

Verdana was turning to march across the room when she felt a vice-like grip on her arm.

"Just before you go" smiled Xena "there is something I should tell you"

Verdana looked outraged, but found she could not free herself from Xena's grasp. "You said earlier that I liked women. Well I certainly like Gabrielle.

In fact, I love her. So if you do choose to go ahead and pick a fight with her, I will kill you" the utter certainty in Xena's voice was not lost on Verdana.

"But you said that I wouldn't have to fight you" Verdana complained.

"Nor you shall" said Xena.

The rainbow haired warrior was both angry and confused. She was also becoming nervous at the sight of Xena's piercing stare and the sheer strength she displayed in her fingers alone.

"But I go to fight the your little friend and your threatening to kill me? What kind of wager was that?" Verdana complained.

"One you should have considered more carefully" Xena replied.

She then took some of the menace from her smile. "Actually, Gabrielle looks small and harmless, but she is an accomplished fighter. I may just let you fight her after all, you may find yourself surprised at how tough she is"

Xena relinquished her grip.

Verdana looked very uncertain. "So you are going to let me fight her?"

The leather- clad warrior thought for a moment.

"OK I will" she decided "but if you look like you may actually be hurting her, I will kill you"

"This is not making sense Xena" Verdana complained "earlier you promised that I wouldn't have to fight you"

"I did not say I would *fight* you. It won't be a fight, it will be over before you know anything about it. I said I will *kill* you" Xena repeated.

Verdana simply did not know what to do or say.

"Listen" said Xena "If you were half the warrior you claim to be, you would simply accept my challenge. The fact is that you *know* I can hurt you" the warrior raised a hand to stop Verdana interrupting.

"In a one on one fight, you against me, I reckon I would win. However, when I am defending Gabrielle, and not just myself, I am a different person.

I am 100 times more dangerous.

Verdana, my dear, DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT"

"You've cheated me Xena" said Verdana, with no fight in her voice.

"Conned a little, maybe. But you brought it on yourself. Look at it this way, you will still have plenty money left once you have given me my share"

"I still don't think it is fair" said Verdana as she handed over the money.

"Earlier, you were full of big talk and bluster. Now you have taken the sensible way out. You are hopefully learning. I really don't know how good you are, as a warrior, but I suspect you know a bit more now than you did.

You are not in my league, so don't try to play there. And if you are still in any doubts about that, go on and take on Gabrielle. See what happens."

Verdana briefly flared.

"100 times more dangerous" Xena warned.

Verdana stormed out of the tavern.

"So, is everything alright?" asked Gabrielle as Xena returned with the money.

"Do you love me, Gabrielle?" asked the warrior.

"More than I can say" beamed the bard.

"Then everything is perfect. Just perfect"