Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: Not mine. I'm just playing. I'll put'em back when I'm done.

Rating: PG-13

Note: I've been told that some of the characters are out of character in this one. Even though I agree to some extent, it is actually part of the story. :) I have thought about and even attempted to rewrite it, but I always come back to this. Though it's not the only Herc-story I've written, it's the only one I ever finished. Let's see what you guys think. :)

I should probably add that this is a very old story, so there may be severe touches of not-too-good English in this. Feel free to point it out. I don't learn otherwise. :)


Darkness had filled the tent a while ago, shadows cast from the torches outside dancing over the tent walls. In the twilight, the soft sound of someone crying was interrupted occasionally by shouts of encouragement from outside. The mourner would be still for a while, listening in tense silence to the muffled sounds from outside.

Gabrielle had lost all faith in the world. It had come like a blow to the face, like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. The shackles around her wrists were lose enough for her to avoid the chaffing these usually caused, but not wide enough for her to slip her hands through them. The chains that bound the shackles together clanged whenever she moved, although her movements were currently restricted to a slight rocking motion. She was sitting on the ground near the rear of the large tent, her knees pulled up to her chest, her arms wrapped around them, her eyes staring widely at the tent flap that moved occasionally when someone walked by or when the wind stirred it.

Another bout of shouts from outside made her moan fearfully and stilled her rocking for a moment. The sounds were the worst. They sparked her imagination, raised her fear of what those men were doing out there. She heard muffled cries of pain, the thuds when something landed heavily on the ground. The worst were the cheers that rose after every one of those sounds. Those men out there, enjoying what they saw. It made her flesh crawl. More so because she knew what was happening without having to see it.

That again brought back the memory of how she had come to be here...


She had been traveling alone, on her way to meet up with Xena a ways from where she had settled down for the night. Unfortunately, she had run into some rather rough elements, which were intent on not only robbing her of her belongings but on stealing anything they could get from her. She had fought them off as best she could, using her staff to hand out severe injuries to some of them, but eventually had to realize that they were too many.

Two of them finally got a hold on her and pinned her down while a third was ogling her with lust written all over his face. But he never got any further than that. A rock hit him square in the face, knocking him off his feet and into oblivion. Within seconds, the last remaining attackers ran off, bruised and humiliated by Gabrielle's rescuers.

Hercules shook his head in annoyance at the events which had almost taken place, then turned to where Iolaus was helping Gabrielle back to her feet. She put on a grateful grin, but he could tell that she was cracking up underneath.

Iolaus wrapped an arm around her shoulders, for once laying off his usual wisecracks, and asked her with concern if she was all right. The tone of his voice as much as the recent events broke the barrier and within moments she was crying in his arms, sobbing with relief and fear.

Holding her close, Iolaus met Hercules' eyes over her head. "I'll go after them," Hercules said. "To make sure they don't do this to anybody else." There was anger in his voice, resentment. "Take Gabrielle to Xena. I'll catch up with you later," he added, nodded once to his friend and took off.

Iolaus eased them both down on the trunk of a fallen tree, still holding her close. He could say nothing to her which would ease her fears. All he could do was let her know she wasn't alone and that he would look out for her.

After a while, she finally managed to regain her composure and leaned back, smiling a little sheepishly. "I'm sorry," she sniffed. "I just got scared."

"I don't blame you," Iolaus assured her with a smile. "But they're gone now and they won't do this to anybody else. Herc will see to that," he added and gently dried the remaining tears off her face. "Are you feeling better now?"

She nodded, embarrassed that she had broken down like a little kid. But she also knew that she needed to do that in order to go on. To get the fear out was important to her. Just then, she realized the somewhat scrutinizing look Iolaus was giving her. "What?" she asked, a little concerned about that look.

Slightly apprehensive about asking that question, he nearly regarded her sideways. "They didn't..." he started, but trailed off.

Gabrielle stared at him for a second, not really sure what he was trying to say, then she realized it and shook her head with a smile. "No, no they didn't. You came just in time," she assured him.

Relieved, he smiled again. "Good. I'm glad to hear that," he told her. "You wanna get some sleep or should we set out at once?" he then asked, glancing around the rather trashed-looking campsite.

With a sigh, Gabrielle did the same. "Well," she said, "I'm actually rather tired. This has been a draining encounter. So, if you don't mind, I'd like to sleep for a bit."

"Sure, no problem. I could use some sleep, too," he told her and fought to suppress a yawn.

Gabrielle smiled weakly. Knowing what a light sleeper he was, she felt safe with him. And Hercules was chasing those rogues and would probably not stop until he'd caught them all. Somehow, she knew that she would not have any nightmares despite the near-severity of her ordeal...


With a gasp, she returned to the present, listening pale-faced to the sounds from out there. The fight went on outside, the sounds of abuse raised the small hairs on her neck and made her cling ever tighter to her own knees. "Oh Gods, please don't hurt him anymore," she whispered hoarsely, tears streaking down her face.

Even if she could have, she would not have gone to the front of the tent to see what was going on. She didn't need to see it. Her heart bled when the crowd out there cheered again, their voices ever more drunken.

A sound like snapping twigs made her hiss and pull back even more. That sound was accompanied by a cry of pain and it made her wince. If only she could do something. To divert her attention away from the inevitable happening outside, she thought back to that joyful day, traveling toward her destination with a good friend by her side.


The sun was just beginning to rise when they set out. Walking briskly for the first half hour, they made good time, but Gabrielle started to slow down a little, finding that she was not too anxious to finish this part of her trip. Her present company had a lot to do with that. She didn't want them to have to part ways too quickly.

Iolaus slowed down to accommodate her slower pace and for the first time in a long while took some time to study his surroundings. With Hercules, the pace was always set. Being so much taller than Iolaus, he walked a lot faster without trying too hard and over the years, Iolaus had become accustomed to the speed. "So, did you sleep okay?" he asked after a while. Being silent for too long wasn't his thing. He liked to talk. A lot.

Gabrielle smiled. "Yes, I slept just fine. How about you?" she asked back. Whenever he turned away, she couldn't help looking at him. Now and again, she wondered if he felt it and didn't mind it. The Gods knew he was used to female company. She had just never considered the fact that he was ready to do more than just have fun. She could still feel his arms around her while he held her and let her cry. It had done wonders for her. She would never have allowed herself to break down like this around Xena. Mainly because such frank emotions usually seemed to embarrass Xena. She didn't seem to know what to do with herself if someone broke down.

"I always sleep fine," Iolaus interrupted her train of thought. "What have you been doing with yourself since we last met?" he then wanted to know.

Gabrielle frowned thoughtfully. "Not much, really. Xena always seems to manage to run into some kind of trouble, so we've had a few adventures along the way, but nothing too exciting. What about you? Any groundbreaking changes?" she asked back, smiling.

"Nah, you know us. We run into trouble and then Herc gets us out of it again. Not much new in that, is there?" Iolaus replied, smiling to himself. He knew how Gabrielle would respond to that one.

"Oh, come on. It's not always Hercules who does all the good deeds," she said immediately. "The tales are not just about him. They're about you, too," she went on. "Actually, I wrote one down."

"About me?" he asked, astonished. "Wow. Can I read it sometime?"

Gabrielle smiled wistfully. "Sure," she agreed. "And yes, it's about you."

"Thanks," he said with a grin. "Anyway, why'd you two split up? What's Xena up to now?" he asked on.

"Oh, you know Xena," she said. "She's always up to something. Although she's been rather secretive about this, I must say. She just told me where to meet her and then took off on Argo like a restless spirit." Frowning at the memory of the haunted look in her friend's eyes, she couldn't quite shake the feeling that something bad was brewing and that Xena was somehow caught in the middle of it. "She's hard to understand sometimes," she added quietly.

"I'll say," Iolaus agreed, raising an eyebrow in surprise. "So, what do you think she's up to?"

Gabrielle glanced at him, wondering if his feelings for Xena would ever die completely. She doubted it. As long as Xena was around, he would still fall for her every time he saw her. It was a strange attraction, which Gabrielle didn't fully understand. She knew something had happened between them before Xena had turned to the light, but Xena had never told her what it was and she wasn't about to ask Iolaus. It was obvious to her that the memory did not sit well with him. "I don't know, but she's got me slightly worried. I'll tell you that," she finally said.

"Gabby." Iolaus took her arm, stopping her in her tracks and turned her toward him. "Do you think she may be in danger?" he asked. "I mean, maybe we should hurry."

Gabrielle stared into his eyes for a moment, then shook her head. "No, I'm quite certain she's not in danger. Whatever it is she's doing, she can handle it on her own."

"Are you sure?" he pressed, looking almost worried.

Deciding that she wanted the truth about this relationship between Xena and Iolaus sometime soon, she nodded, smiling to quell his suspicion. "Yes, I'm sure," she said. What she saw in his eyes was more than just worry for a friend. Whatever Xena had done to him back then, it was still very much a part of him and would probably never let him go. Xena had a way with men that Gabrielle didn't really understand. She seemed to be able to draw them in, make them dependent on her and then she could laugh at how foolish they were. For Xena herself hardly ever seemed to feel anything for any man. Except of course Hercules. There was no doubt in Gabrielle's mind that the warrior princess was hopelessly taken with him.

Iolaus let go of her arm again, not looking too certain. "Well..." he said, then shook his head. "Okay, let's move. Despite what you think she may need help."

Gabrielle nodded. She would not argue with him on this point. First off, he could be right and secondly, she knew how headstrong he could be.


They reached the agreed-on meeting spot late in the afternoon, but there was no sign of Xena anywhere. Nor were there any signs of Argo, which in Gabrielle's book meant she wasn't there yet. Settling down on a big rock, she positioned her staff between her feet and held onto it with both hands. "Let's rest for a bit. Once Xena turns up, things can very quickly become hectic," she suggested.

Iolaus nodded and settled down next to her. "You're right there," he said.

They sat like that for a while, neither of them talking, both submerged in their own thoughts, until Iolaus glanced at her, intent on starting a conversation. Frowning, he stared at her, suddenly unable to get the words out. The way she sat there, back straight, her hands wrapped around that staff of hers, the look in her eyes far away, he suddenly felt a pang of attraction he'd never had as strongly around her before. Mainly because he had always considered her a child. But she wasn't, was she? She was a woman in every respect. And a beautiful one at that. The way the sun filtering through the branches above lit fire in her hair, the red streaks in her blonde hair coming out more clearly. Her profile intrigued him and he felt himself growing breathless just by looking at her. The kid he had met the first time had grown into a very resourceful woman and he couldn't for the life of him understand how he could have overlooked her beauty before.

Gabrielle slowly became aware that Iolaus was staring at her. Turning her head, she met his eyes, her expression still placid. There was something in his eyes, in the way that he regarded her without drawing breath that got under her skin immediately. By Jove, he did have beautiful eyes. She stared into them, finding herself swallowed whole. Slowly letting her hands slide further down her staff, she thought of the first time they had met, of how she had been attracted to him already then, but his response to her had been the same as with every woman he met. In other words, nothing special. Her feelings hurt, she had instantly closed them down, telling herself how ridiculous she was to assume that a man like him would ever take a second look at a girl like her.

Yet here they were and he was looking at her in that way. That special way which she had noticed he reserved for Xena alone at those times when he apparently allowed himself to hope for something more than the occasional banter they engaged in whenever they met. There was yearning in that look, a longing to be with her on a more profound level than just as friends. It took her by surprise that he would look at her like that. That she would read affection in his eyes that she had never dared to hope she could find there.

Without thinking of any consequences, he leaned forward, wanting to be closer to her. He wanted a part of her beauty if only for a moment, knowing full well that they were not destined to be together. Not yet, at least.

Gabrielle found herself wrapped in a fairytale as she felt herself attracted to him in the most profound way possible. As he leaned toward her, so did she lean toward him and their lips met without a word spoken between them.

His left hand slipped behind her head, applying the lightest of pressure there. Not that it was necessary. She wasn't going to pull away. He had seen that in her eyes. She wanted this as much as he did.

The staff dropped out of her hands when she released it to slip her arms around his neck and pull herself closer to him. He, in turn, slipped both arms around her, pulling her as close as she could get. He wanted to feel her against him, wanted to hold her like this forever.

Entangled in each other that way, it took two breaking twigs in the underbrush to startle them both into the realization that they were no longer alone. Both rose as if they'd been sitting on an anthill, facing the noisemaker with guilty shame on their faces although neither had a reason to feel shame for what they had done.

Xena stood at the edge of the clearing, her eyes on both of them, her expression dark. She said nothing for a moment, just stared at them. Then she made a face as if she had discovered her lover in the arms of another woman and turned her attention fully toward Gabrielle. "Where were you? I said to meet me here at sunrise," she said harshly.

Gabrielle didn't really know where to look. Meeting Xena's eyes was too hard a job right now.  "Well, I ran into some trouble on the way and was delayed," she tried to explain. "But fortunately Iolaus and Hercules turned up in time to help me," she added, wanting to appease the concern she knew Xena would feel at that. To her instant surprise, Xena's expression didn't change the least bit at that.

"Yeah, well, let's go. I've made camp further up the trail," Xena said, her voice sounding strained. She turned around and returned to the forest, not stopping to make sure they followed her.

Gabrielle grabbed her staff and leaned closer to Iolaus. "She must be having a bad day," she said with a vague smile.

"Ah," he said, not sounding too sure. "Is that what it was?"

They followed Xena, who was striding through the forest fast enough for them to have to run to catch up to her. Up ahead was another clearing and there were several tents laid out in it. Both of them came to a stop at the edge of the clearing, Iolaus because he was suspicious and Gabrielle because she was confused.

"Looks like she's hooked up with other travelers," Iolaus said, not sounding too sure. There was something about the layout of the camp which made him worry a little more than he felt he had to.

"Xena never hooks up with others," Gabrielle said, voicing her confusion. "Unless this is part of what she's been doing," she added, finding that the explanation made a whole lot of sense. What didn't make sense was that she couldn't figure out what was going on.

"Yeah, must be," Iolaus replied, still not certain.

Together, they walked into the clearing and first came to a stop in the center of the ring of tents. Xena had stopped there, too, her back to them. Finally, she turned around, her expression still dark.

"You know, Iolaus, I don't like it when men take advantage of Gabrielle," she said darkly.

"He wasn't taking advantage of me," Gabrielle instantly replied and took a step forward. "This is my life, Xena. I can do with it what I like, okay? So, stay out of it."

Xena's reaction was rather forceful and startled Gabrielle into silence. She grabbed Gabrielle's arm harshly and yanked her closer, her face a mask of anger. "Are you going to tell me what I can and can't do? You sniveling little wimp," she snarled hatefully, then basically flung Gabrielle into the arms of a soldier, who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. "Put her in chains," Xena snapped.

"Hey, wait a minute," Iolaus exploded, taking a step toward Xena. The whole situation reminded him of a bad dream.

Before he could say any more, though, Xena lashed out, stabbing his throat with two well-placed fingers, cutting off his air supply. He was down for the count, gagging, clutching at his throat while he faintly heard Gabrielle screaming at Xena to stop it.

Xena stood over him for a second, letting him writhe in agony, before she brought one knee down on his chest and stabbed him again, releasing the nerve-pinch which had closed off his throat.

Gasping for breath, he pressed both hands against her knee and met her angry eyes. "What in the name of Hades is wrong with you?" he gasped.

"Wrong with me?" Xena replied as if the term made no sense to her. Then she threw her head back and laughed. It was an evil laugh, full of ominous foreboding. "There's nothing wrong with me," she then said. "I've just realized that you lot have tried to turn me into a sniveling wimp. And I will have nothing of that," she added, grabbed his vest and hauled him to his feet. Glancing over her shoulder at the soldier still holding a terrified Gabrielle, she sneered hatefully. "I told you to put her in chains. And shut her up," she snapped.

The solider grinned and clapped a broad hand over Gabrielle's mouth. "As you wish, Xena," he said, bowing his head.

Other soldiers had turned up to form a ring around them and they started cheering when Xena returned her attention to a very startled and still out of breath Iolaus. "As for you," she said and pushed him away from her. Sneering like an angry animal, she raised her shoulders a little.

"How can you do this to Gabrielle?" he wanted to know, not too sure that antagonizing her was the right thing to do. But he was angry at her for her behavior. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Xena had returned to her old ways and let the hatred and anger take over again.

"Shut up," Xena snapped and lashed out at him again. The heel of her right hand connected squarely with his brow, knocking him back down onto the ground. "You two are going to be my bait. I'll get Hercules as I intended the first time we met. After that, I'll deal with you," she told him.

Iolaus, dazed by the impact, blinked heavily and propped himself up on his elbows. "You're no match for Hercules, Xena. You know that," he tried.

"Oh, do I?" she asked back and kicked him in the chest.

"XENA, NO," Gabrielle screamed while she was being dragged into the largest tent in the clearing. "XENA, STOP IT. DON'T HURT HIM," she tried, but the guard once again clapped his hand over her mouth before throwing her onto the ground...


That had been several hours before. Now, cowering in darkness, she still felt the lingering shock of seeing Xena attacking Iolaus like that. Why? What had gone wrong? Had Ares finally convinced Xena to return to her darker side? Shaking her head in sadness and fear, she tried not to listen to the sounds of the ongoing fight out there. Xena had been kicking the shit out of Iolaus for several hours and she couldn't stand to think of the consequences.

"Xena, no, please."

She heard him begging, his voice broken, and full of fear of whatever Xena had in mind for him.

"No, please. I'm begging you. Don't do this."

Whimpering under her breath, Gabrielle lowered her head, her eyes wide with fear.

"No. Please, Xena. Ple...."

He screamed then, every ounce of agony he felt coming through in that scream. Gabrielle ripped both hands up to cover her ears, not wanting to hear. Yet it tore through her with the strength of a giant tearing down a puny brick wall. She would remember that scream in her nightmares. And all she could keep chanting to herself in a quiet, tear-filled whisper was, "This isn't happening. This can't be happening."


Outside, Xena stepped back, the red-hot poker smoking in her hand. She regarded her handiwork with a hateful glare for a moment, then shoved the poker back into the fire to reheat it.

After having trashed her victim good and thoroughly, she'd had her men tie him down. He was lying on his back, arms and legs spread out and tied to pegs hammered into the ground. There was no way he could bring up enough strength to free himself. Not after the beating he'd gone through. Glaring at him, she had considered what other atrocities she could subject him to. It had taken her a moment or two to come up with this heinous act which had made him beg for her mercy.

Right now, he was gasping for the breath the pain had taken from him, the still sizzling burn on his flesh depriving him of the ability to draw in a proper breath. She had touched the red-hot poker to the sensitive skin of his right side just below the ribs, making him scream in agony. But she had not merely burned him. Oh no. She had left it there to burn away the skin and not just blister it. Blood was oozing thickly from the wound and his battered face was covered with sweat, his breath coming in labored, anguished gasps.

Laboriously raising his head after a moment, he stared at her with pain-filled eyes. "Why?" he gasped.

"Why what?" Xena snapped back, staring at him without the slightest sign of remorse.

"Why are you doing this?" He could barely press the words out. "Because I kissed her?"

Her expression didn't change the least bit. "I don't care what you do with her," she snarled. "I just don't like you," she added almost as if on second thought, then reached for the poker again.

His eyes widened with fear. "No, please, Xena. No more. I can't take it," he begged, pleading with her to not hurt him any further. The beatings he could take. But not that. The branding was too much for him. But he was slowly beginning to realize that the more he begged, the more inclined she was to hurt him worse.

Xena stared at the glowing tip of the poker for a moment, then grinned viciously and took a step closer. Lowering it, she held it just above his left side, ready to give him another burn.

With fear in his eyes, he tried to twist away from her, to break free so he could defend himself, but no amount of twisting got him away from the glowing tip of the poker. Biting the inside of his cheek, he tried hard to not start begging again, but found he couldn't. "Please don't," he whispered harshly, at the same time praying that Hercules would turn up soon. He didn't want to die like this.

Xena lowered the poker a little more, expectancy in her eyes. He could feel the radiating heat on his sweat-covered skin and continued to try and get away from her cruelness. But to no avail. "Please, no," he begged. "Don't..." Again, his plea ended in a scream when Xena pressed the tip of the glowing poker against his skin. The smell of burnt flesh rose nauseatingly from the wound while he thrashed and twisted to get away from the searing pain ripping through him.


Inside the tent, Gabrielle winced in sympathy. Trying to shrink further back into the rear of the tent, she couldn't help thinking that she should try and do something. Xena had obviously lost her mind. All the good work she had done had been for nothing. Nothing could redeem what she was doing now. Gabrielle had already decided that she could never forgive her former friend for her treatment of Iolaus, no matter what the reason for it was.

Leaning her head back a little, she gazed up at the roof of the tent. "Hercules," she whispered, afraid to raise her voice. "Please hurry." She knew full well that there was only person in the whole wide world who could help them now and that was the demigod.

Wringing her hands together, she again wished she could do something. But the chains binding her would not allow her to go near the opening of the tent. She scrubbed both hands over her face, trying to think clearly, to subdue the panic in her mind, the dread and the anguish at hearing a much treasured friend in such pain. She could barely stand it. "By the Gods, what happened to you, Xena?" she then whispered, her voice breaking with fear.


Xena shoved the poker back into the fire, her eyes never leaving her writhing victim. A smile played over her lips, indicating her pleasure in what she was doing. And the cheering of her men only raised her need to prove herself to them.

Raising her arms over her head, she grinned viciously. "Xena, the Warrior Princess is back. Beware, world," she yelled, then threw her head back and laughed while her men whistled and clapped, then went into chanting her name over and over.

Iolaus could barely stay conscious throughout it all. She certainly had changed for the worse. She was meaner than she had been before she turned to the light. A lot meaner. Back then, all she had done was to use her femininity to win men over she could use in her plans. But, as far as he knew, she had never tortured people before. She did now.

He could barely draw breath without sending waves of pain through his body. The burns on his stomach hurt like nothing he had ever tried before. And he knew they would leave ugly scars if he survived this one. That, however, was something he was beginning to doubt severely. His main concern was that they didn't hurt Gabrielle, though. How he was going to prevent that he didn't know, but he would have to try.

Submerged in thoughts and pain, he took a moment too long to notice that the soldiers surrounding him had gone quite. Blinking heavily up at the warrior princess, he saw her holding the poker again, the hatred and delight in what she was doing to him shining in her eyes. Swallowing hard, he shook his head, unable at first to find words. He couldn't take more of this. It would drive him insane if she kept this up.

"No more. Please," he begged, his voice ragged and hoarse from screaming so much. If only he could get through to her. But he could tell by the look in her eyes that he would have to be damned near Devine to do that. And there was no way that any of the Gods would intervene here. All he could do was hope and pray that Hercules made it here before she decided to stab him through the heart or cut his throat.

Xena laughed, evil and twisted as she had become over the course of only one or two days. "No more. Please," she sneered at him, making fun of his plea. Going down on one knee next to him, she stared him in the face. "You know what I should do to you?" she asked secretively. Her eyes shifted, trailing down over his body and he instantly knew what she had in mind.

"Oh no," he gasped in horror. "Please, no. Anything else, but not that. Please, Xena. If you ever cared for me, don't do that to me." He hated himself for displaying such fear, but that was beyond what he could physically and mentally handle. He would do anything to get out of that one.

Xena's eyes snapped back to stare into his, then she grinned and rose again. "I'll consider your plea," she said, then quickly brought the blistering-hot tip of the poker down on the center of his stomach.

He screamed in agony, unable not to, but at the same time he was grateful that she hadn't done what she had threatened. That would really have sent him straight to Tartarus for the rest of his life.


Gabrielle's head snapped up when Xena entered the tent. Stretching noisily, the warrior princess started to peal her armor off, then suddenly came to a halt. "Oh," she said, sounding utterly annoyed. "I forgot about you. Guard," she then yelled. The brute that had put Gabrielle in the tent in the first place stepped in. "Put her in one of the other tents. Make sure she doesn't escape. And don't touch her," Xena snarled.

"As you wish, Xena," the brute replied with a grin.

Xena grabbed the neckline of his tunic and yanked him in real close. "I mean it," she hissed through clenched teeth. "You take her to another tent, tie her down and leave her there. She's not for your pleasure," she went on and released him again. Meeting the wide, frightened stare of the younger woman, she smiled viciously. "Not yet," she added and turned away.

The brute hauled Gabrielle to her feet and released the end of the chain from the peg imbedded in the ground. But Gabrielle paid little attention to what he was doing. She kept staring at Xena with fear and disgust. "Why are you doing this, Xena? What has he ever done to you?" she asked in a weak voice.

Xena grabbed a handful of Gabrielle's bodice and pulled her in close, staring into her eyes hatefully. "I don't need a reason for doing that," she hissed. "Be careful what you say to me, little girl. I may decide that you're good enough for my men after all." Pushing her away back into the arms of the brute, she waved a hand at him. "Take her away," she demanded.

He grabbed a solid hold on Gabrielle and virtually carried her out of the tent, not paying much attention to whether he was hurting her. Once outside, Gabrielle's eyes immediately slipped toward the area where she knew Xena had tortured her friend and gasped in fear when she saw him still lying there. "Iolaus?" she called out to him. "Iolaus, can you hear me?"

He moved his head a little and gave her a pained glance. He even tried to smile at her, but didn't get it right. "Gabby," he whispered. "Are you... okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine," she told him, tears already streaming down her face again. Although the light wasn't the best, she could still see his injuries and she heard the pain in his voice. "Hold on, Iolaus. Hercules is coming," she called out.

Before he could answer her, she was dragged into another tent. Worried sick about what they would do to her, he tried weakly to struggle against his ties, but had neither the strength nor the stamina to keep it up. Listening intently for a moment, he tried to estimate if she was in any imminent danger, but then the brute that had dragged her into the tent came out again, a sour look on his face. Content that she was safe for now, he allowed himself to slip into unconsciousness.


Hercules had caught all of the ruffians who had attacked Gabrielle and brought them to justice. They would face a sentence of several years in prison and that suited him just fine. Content that he had done his job well, he set out to meet up with Iolaus and Gabrielle and Xena if they had found her already. Halfway back to where they had split up, he suddenly realized that he had no idea where Gabrielle had been heading.

Frowning, he stopped dead at the campsite where he had left them and wondered if it was too late to retrace their steps. Glancing around him, he tried to come up with a solution when he was rather rudely interrupted by impetuous laughter. Turning around, he faced his beautiful half-sister Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.

"Herky," she said in a purring tone of voice. "What brings you to this place?"

"I might ask you the same thing. You're a fair way from the ocean, Aphrodite. What are you doing here?" he asked back, never quite at ease when she was around. One never knew what she could come up with.

"Oh, I'm just trying to find something interesting to do. That's not easy in this day and age, though," she claimed. "So, what are you doing here?" she asked.

"I'm trying to figure out which way Iolaus and Gabrielle went. You wouldn't know, would you?" he said, not expecting her to help him.

"Hmm," she said, giving him an innocent look. But there was something underneath which he couldn't quite get a grasp at. She wasn't as carefree as usual. "They went that way. North-east," she added, pointing a finger in the proper direction.

Hercules frowned at how easily she had let that information go. That again made him fear that something was wrong. "What's going on?" he asked, hands on hips and a scowl on his face.

"What do you mean?" she asked back, fiddling almost nervously with the hem of her all too short gown.

"You never give information for nothing, Aphrodite. I know you. What's wrong? Has something happened to them? Was it Hera?" he demanded, getting tired of this game already.

"No, believe it or not, Hera has nothing to do with this, Herky," she told him, her expression sinister all of a sudden. "But I do suggest that you hurry up. They could use a hand, you know," she added and dissolved into sparkling dust.

The fact that she had not thought it rather amusing made him feel cold all over. It had to be pretty damned severe for Aphrodite to grow serious about it. Without further thought for what lay ahead, he took off in the pointed-out direction at a run.


Dawn came relentlessly, bringing an awakening with it which Iolaus really could have done without. Sore to the point of being in pain, he woke up to the sound of buzzing flies and the distinct smell of infection. Groaning in pain, he slowly raised his head, his neck stiff and his shoulders close to cramping up because he had spent the night on the cold ground and had been beaten within an inch of his life, too. Those two things were never a good combination.

Flies were buzzing hungrily around the still bleeding wounds on his stomach, but he found himself unable to do anything about it until Xena turned up with a bucket of water. Making a face at the sight, she preceded to empty the bucket out over him, splashing away the flies but also causing him considerable pain. He yelped.

"There, that should take care of the flies for now," Xena said indifferently, then pulled out a knife. "I'm going to cut you lose now," she added and went down on one knee next to his right leg. "If you try anything, you're dead. Do you understand me?" she warned. He nodded wearily, too exhausted to speak. Cutting the ropes holding him, she then grabbed the front of his vest and hauled him mercilessly to his feet, causing him to let out another ragged cry of pain.

She was aware that he could not walk by himself, not after what she had put him through the day before, so she dragged him across the compound to the tent where Gabrielle was being held and virtually threw him inside. Unable to brace himself, he hit the ground full force and nearly passed out from the pain ripping through him. A broken arm and some broken ribs made life increasingly painful for him. But the burns on his stomach were the worst.

Gabrielle was on her feet at once and knelt down beside him, reaching out to touch him carefully. "Iolaus?" she whispered.

Groaning, he tried to move, tried to roll over on his back, but every move he made sent a scream through him, nearly making him black out. "Gabby," he rasped. "Did they hurt you?"

Touched by his concern even in this his most dire moment, she fought to retain her tears and lost. They started cruising down her cheeks as she gently helped him turn over on his back. "No, I'm fine," she whispered in a teary voice and gently stroked his hair. "What have they done to you?" It was a rhetorical question and he made no move to answer it. Instead he allowed her to place his head in her lap.

Gabrielle took in every single of his injuries she could see and she was horrified by the extent of his wounds. "By the Gods," she whispered, pale and wide-eyed. It was beyond her how anybody could do this to anyone. But the proof of such horrible crimes was right there in front of her eyes and all she could do was try to comfort him with words.

Looking up suddenly because she had the feeling they were being watched, Gabrielle faced Xena, who stood in the tent opening, her expression cold and calculating. "I don't know who you are, but you're not Xena. Xena would never have done this," Gabrielle said, her tone of voice cold.

Xena smiled at that claim, then started laughing. And her laughter sounded mad. "Take care of him. That's what you want to do, isn't it, little girl?" she asked, looking as if she couldn't care less what Gabrielle did. "I'll have one of my men bring you some water and some bandages.  Good enough?"

"No, it's not good enough. Why are you doing this?" Gabrielle snapped.

Iolaus managed to grab a weak hold of one of her hands. "Don't," he gasped. "She's mad."

"I'm doing it..." Xena said, then smiled, "... because I can." With those words, she turned and left them behind.

Gabrielle found it very hard to maintain a reasonably cool exterior. Mostly she just wanted to curl up in a corner and sob herself to sleep. But her main concern was Iolaus right now. If Evil Xena, as she had dubbed her, kept her word and provided water and bandages, she would be able to at least help him a little. Taking his left hand in hers, she squeezed it lightly. "We'll get out of this. I'm sure we will. Hercules is on the way," she whispered.

He swallowed a few times before being able to say anything. "I wish I could believe that," he whispered back hoarsely.

Brushing a hand through his hair, she smiled sadly at him. "Don't lose faith now. He'll come. I know he will," she whispered.


Hercules made good speed, but still felt that he should be going faster. There was something nagging at him, telling him that his friends were in danger. He couldn't quite understand what it was supposed to be, but the message was very clear. He had to hurry or he might lose them all.

After hours of traveling, he came to the first place where Gabrielle and Iolaus had waited for Xena. The place was deserted and everything was quite. Glancing around, he wondered briefly if he was heading in the right direction when he suddenly heard a horse approaching.

Turning around, he saw Argo trotting into the clearing with Xena holding his reins and walking beside him. "Xena," he said, sounding slightly surprised to see her on her own. "Where are Gabrielle and Iolaus."

Xena's expression darkened instantly. "What do you mean? I came here to meet Gabrielle. Where is she?" she demanded, sending a quick look around the clearing.

"I don't know," Hercules said, not at all happy about this.

"What are you doing here, by the way?" Xena asked after a moment. Argo stamped his hoof for a second, snorting as if he was nervous about something. Xena petted the horse gently, trying to calm him down.

"Iolaus and I ran into Gabrielle. She was having some trouble with a few men, so we chased them off. I left Iolaus to take her to you and went after those men myself. Took a little longer than anticipated," Hercules explained. "I'm trying to catch up to them. On the way here, I ran into Aphrodite. She more or less warned me that something was wrong."

"I get that sense, too," Xena agreed, looking troubled. "That's why I left Gabrielle behind. I didn't want her to get in trouble. -- What happened to Gabrielle? Did she get hurt?"

"No, only her pride. And I know none better than Iolaus to rebuild that sort of thing," Hercules said. "Let's see if we can't find them, shall we?"

"Good idea," Xena replied, sounding tense. "What happened to that riffraff who attacked her?" she wanted to know as they started walking.

"They're in prison, facing dire sentences. Don't worry about them," Hercules said.

"Oh, I'm not worried about them, Hercules," she assured him.


Nobody brought them water or bandages. Gabrielle tore pieces of her own dress to at least cover the three severe burn wounds on his stomach, but the fabric was dirty and not a good substitute for real bandages. Outside, there was a lot of commotion, but Gabrielle paid it no attention. Her attention was on the man burning up with fever in her arms. She held him close, cradled his head in her lap, one hand resting on his sweat-moistened chest, the other continuously stroking his hair.

Right there and then, she knew how badly he was faring. She knew that he would die soon if his wounds weren't cleaned and bandaged. And even then she feared that he would still die on her. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes and started trickling down her face again, while she watched him sadly.

"Hold on. Please, hold on," she whispered in a teary voice and started rocking gently back and forth again. "You can't die now. There's still so much to do, so many places we could go together. Please, don't leave me."

Her words broke through the fever-haze in his mind, startling him back to reality and the pain waiting for him there. Groaning, he blinked up at her and tried to smile a little. "I'm still here," he assured her in a broken voice.

That pulled a smile from her, but she could not stop crying. She knew her tears came because of what he had gone through, but also because she had lost her best friend. Because her former best friend had done this to him.

"I'm not going to die, Gabby," Iolaus whispered. "I just don't feel so good right now."

The smile on her lips became more genuine, more hopeful. "I'm so sorry," she whispered, then glanced toward the opening of the tent, her face twisting with more tears. "I don't understand why she's doing this. I don't understand it," she added hoarsely.

"Don't... apologize for her... Gabby. You're not... responsible... for her actions," he said and tried to move a little. With a jerk, he realized that was a bad idea. Pain laced through him from the wounds on his stomach and he had to clench his teeth to keep a yelp of pain in. Holding his breath, he tried to force the pain back, but found it almost impossible to do. Instead, he arched his back and pushed himself up against Gabrielle, who helped him by slipping her arms around him.

"Are you okay?" she whispered.

"Yeah," he gasped. "I'll be fine. It just... hurts pretty bad right now."

Gabrielle knew he had to be in severe pain to admit that, but she remained silent and merely held him close. "Hercules is coming," she whispered, clinging desperately to that hope. And the hope that when he arrived, he would actually be able to do something about it, too.

"I hope so," Iolaus intoned weakly.

Gabrielle frowned a little, her eyes still on the opening of the tent. "No, listen. I'm sure that's what's going on out there," she said, her voice a little louder now.


Hercules and Xena strode into the clearing with the tents, both of them ready for a fight if need be. And that seemed to be a necessity they could not avoid. They were instantly attacked by soldiers, who seemingly went for Hercules first. Finding him an impossible adversary, they turned their attentions toward Xena, but stopped dead.

The solider closest to her lowered his sword. "Oh, I'm sorry, Xena. I didn't know you'd gone out," he said.

Xena frowned deeply at him, then hammered a fist into his face, knocking him off his feet. "You must mistake me for someone who cares," she snarled, then glanced at Hercules. "They seem to know me," she added.

"Looks like it," he agreed. "Strange, isn't it?" he added.

"Yeah. Let's show them who's boss, then," she replied with a savage grin.

"I'm with you," Hercules said and together they took out the majority of the men assembled in the camp. Those they didn't knock out or kill, fled into the forest, all of them looking utterly stunned.

Finally, Xena stood in the center of the ring of tents, breathing hard, chakram in hand, while she scanned the area with angry eyes. "What in the name of Hades is going on here?" she demanded.

Hercules shrugged. He had no answer for her. It had concerned him a little that these men seemingly saw her as their leader and he knew that they had been beaten as easily as they had because they had been caught by surprise. Glancing around, he frowned. "There's no sign of either of them," he said after a moment.

Xena's eyes had caught on something and she dropped down on one knee to take a closer look at it. "Someone was tied up here," she said, touching the cut rope on one peck imbedded in the ground. Sniffing the air like an animal would, she could almost sense their two missing companions. "They're here. We just have to look for them."

Hercules stared at the ropes for a moment, that bad feeling taking on a new proportion. "What happened here?" he asked, not sure Xena could answer that.

"An atrocity," Xena replied darkly. "Warlords do that kind of thing to inspire awe in their followers and fear in their enemies."

Almost afraid to ask, Hercules frowned a little. "Do what kind of thing?"

Xena rose and looked around, then turned to face him. "Torture their victims. Usually they break their will first by beating them into a pulp. Then they brand them. I've seen it happen. It's not a pretty sight." she said, her expression sinister. "If they've touched Gabrielle, I'm going to rip them all apart," she added darkly.

"Let's just find out where they are first, okay?" Hercules suggested, feeling absolutely afraid at that moment. "Let's check the tents."


Gabrielle heard two voices. One was the one she had hoped to hear. The other belonged to Xena and it made her blood run cold. She could not hear what they were talking about, but she was afraid that Hercules was walking into a trap. Going to the front of the tent to call out for him was out of the question, though. The chains holding her were not long enough and she didn't want to leave Iolaus, who had still not managed to regain his breath, which came in ragged, little gasps.

Looking around frantically, Gabrielle searched for something to defend herself with, but the tent was virtually empty. It contained nothing which could be used as a weapon. Holding her breath, she looked back toward the opening and gasped when she saw Xena there.

Xena blinked briefly to get her eyes to adjust to the dark tent, then caught sight of Gabrielle and Iolaus. Her eyes widened in shock at what she saw and she started to move closer when Gabrielle raised a hand.

"Stay away from us," she snapped, anger and fear playing on her expression in a strange combination.

Xena stopped dead, her eyes shifting from the wounded Iolaus to the shackled Gabrielle. She had no idea what was going on, but it didn't look good. "Gabrielle, it's me, Xena," she said, convinced that Gabrielle couldn't recognize her for one reason or another.

"I know who you are," Gabrielle spat. "And you're not going to hurt him again," she added forcefully, her arms closing tighter around her injured companion.

"Hurt him? Why would I want to hurt him?" Xena demanded, already becoming a little fed up with this. Her patience had a very short fuse.

Iolaus' eyes snapped open and when he caught sight of her, he groaned and pushed back against Gabrielle, obviously hurting himself in the process. "No, no more, please," he begged weakly.

Xena was very close to losing her patience right there and then. She didn't understand the situation, wasn't able to understand why they reacted to her this way. "Damn it, I'm not going to hurt anybody," she snapped. "What is going on here? What happened to you, Iolaus?"

Iolaus stared at her in complete confusion, his expression revealing both pain and bewilderment.

Gabrielle's expression held much of the same, though her pain was more mental than physical. "What do you mean, what happened? You did this to him," she yelled, waving a hand toward his visible injuries.

"No, I did not. I just arrived," Xena snapped back. She felt very confused by the situation and it made her temper rise. Glancing over her shoulder, she decided it was time for some reinforcements. "HERCULES. I FOUND THEM," she yelled, then returned her attention to the two of them. "Would you both please calm down? I'm not going to hurt anybody and I haven't hurt anybody, okay?" she then demanded.

Hercules entered the tent behind her and stopped short at the sight which met him. "Oh no," he breathed and quickly covered the distance to the three of them. "Iolaus."

"I'm fine," the other man wheezed, instantly convincing his friend that he was anything but fine. "I'll live," he added.

"Not from where I'm standing," Xena said with a dark expression. "Let's get them out of here. Right now. The rest of those marauders may come back," she added, directing this to Hercules.

"If they do, we'll deal with them," Hercules said. "But you're right. We do need to get them both out of here," he added, grabbed the chains holding Gabrielle and tore them like wet paper. "We'll remove the shackles once we've gotten both of you to safety."

Gabrielle stared past him at Xena, her eyes filled with tears. "I'm not going anywhere with her," she whispered.

Hercules was stunned by her words and glanced back at Xena, who looked about ready to explode. "What in Tartarus is going on here?" he wanted to know, then shook his head. "Whatever it is, it can wait. We need to get you out of here, my friend," he added to Iolaus, who was on the verge of passing out again.

"I'll rig a stretcher," Xena said darkly. "Argo can carry him," she added, turned around and strode out of the tent, angry and confused.

"I mean it, Hercules," Gabrielle said, still holding onto Iolaus as if her life depended on it. "She did this to him. She tortured him. She had me put in chains. She's insane."

Hercules stared at her for a moment, not certain what to say. "Gabrielle, I met up with Xena a little while ago. She was as concerned about you two as I am. She still is. Why would she do this to you and then pretend to not know about it afterward?"

"I don't know," Gabrielle sobbed, her barriers once again breaking down. "I just don't know. I thought I knew her. Why is she doing this?"

Hercules opened his mouth to answer her, but stopped short at an enraged scream from outside. The sound of a clash of metal brought him to his feet. "Wait here," he said as if they had a choice and ran back outside. The sight that met him there had him stumped for a moment. There was Xena, fighting against herself or rather what seemed to be an exact duplicate of her.

The two women fought with equal strength, broadsword against broadsword, chakrams ready for use. They circled each other, both with blazing eyes, both with enough hatred to destroy the other.

Hercules knew that interfering would get him in dire problems. Mainly because he couldn't tell them apart. He didn't know which one was the real Xena and which was the evil twin. Set on clearing things up for Gabrielle and Iolaus, he returned to the tent.

"What's going on out there?" Gabrielle asked, looking very afraid.

"That's what I'm going to show you," Hercules said and carefully helped Iolaus to his feet. Holding onto him in such a manner that his friend would have to rely very little on his own strength, he helped him, followed closely by Gabrielle, outside, where the clash between the two copies of the warrior princess went on without any change in the situation.

Gabrielle gapped openmouthed at the scene unfolding before her and even Iolaus was able to forget about his pain for a moment while he wearily watched the two women fight.

Xena circled her reflection, thanking the Gods for her ability to distract herself from the fact that she was seemingly facing her evil self. All she was intent on was to destroy the imposter and get things back to normal. But this copy of herself seemed to have all of her strengths and that made fighting her so much more difficult. As she could foresee the imposter's lunges, so could the imposter foresee hers. And that made for a very equal and seemingly unwinnable battle. Their swords clashed together again and they pushed against each other, staring into each other's eyes.

"You can never win. You don't have what it takes anymore," the imposter snarled.

"Is that so?" the real Xena snapped back, her eyes sparking fire. "I have something you could never gain," she added and pushed her adversary away from her.

"And what would that be?" the imposter demanded and lunged again, bringing her sword down in an arch, which Xena easily blocked.

"I'm capable of love. You're not," Xena replied, taking a quick stab at the imposter, who blocked it with no trouble.

That made the imposter laugh out loud. "Love?" she then spat. "Who needs such an outdated, ineffective emotion?"

"I do. It makes my hatred toward you grow because you have hurt those I love," Xena roared and ripped the sword up. The tip of it caught the imposter across the chest, leaving behind a deep wound.

She roared in anger and pain and stumbled back a few steps. Touching the blood oozing from the wound, she kept staring at Xena. "You had potential once. But Ares wants more than a sniveling fool." Her eyes burned with madness. "We'll meet again. And when we do, I will take over your identity, Xena. So long." With those words, she swirled around and took off into the forest.

Hercules would have loved to go after her and break her neck, but he couldn't release Iolaus, who was leaning ever more heavily on him. Glancing down at his friend, he noticed how he was shivering. Returning his attention to Xena, who was breathing hard and looking angrier than Tartarus, he frowned a little. "Are you okay?" he wanted to know.

Xena glanced at him, then slowly released herself from her attack-stance and re-sheathed her sword. "Yes," she said and exhaled loudly. "I'm fine. Let's get out of here before we run into more trouble."


Their new campsite was far from the previous one. They had traveled most of the day and well into the night, trying to put as much distance between themselves and that  place. Gabrielle was silent and pale for the majority of the trip and Iolaus was in and out of consciousness all the time. When he was lucid, he was in severe pain from his wounds. The infection, which had attracted the flies, had increased and he fever was unbearably high.

Hercules was worried about him and was eventually the one to suggest they stop for the night. Xena had silently agreed and had once again glanced at Gabrielle, who seemed to be caught in a nightmare of her own. Whenever she caught Xena looking at her, she shuddered involuntarily. She knew by now that Xena had not done those things to Iolaus, but she still could not shake the image of it happening. Wincing, she realized that being attacked by brutes who intended to rape her was not as upsetting as having to stand by and do nothing while a good friend was being mauled like that.

Xena and Hercules took care of creating a campsite and eventually, Xena stopped beside the makeshift stretcher on which Iolaus was lying and stared down at him. "We need to clean his wounds," she said to nobody in particular.

Hercules came over to stand beside her, looking down at his friend with deep concern. "Yes," he agreed. "And soon. He's burning up with fever." Going down on one knee, he leaned a little closer to his friend. "Iolaus?" he asked. "Can you hear me?"

Iolaus blinked a few times, then turned his head a little. "Yeah," he agreed weakly through clenched teeth. He was in constant agony.

"We need to do something about your injuries," Hercules said, wanting to prepare him for what lay ahead. He knew that was impossible. And he could tell by his friend's expression that the idea of having his wounds cleaned did not sit well with him. "I know that's the last thing you want us to do right now, but it's necessary," he added.

"Can't it wait... 'til morning?" Iolaus asked, looking very unhappy about the idea.

Hercules glanced up at Xena, who shook her head lightly, before returning his attention to Iolaus. "Not a good idea. Some of the wounds are already infected. We need to clean them now," he replied, grabbing the other man's shoulder. "You'll get through this."

Iolaus grabbed his arm tightly. "I'm... not so sure," he gasped.

Xena took the chance to get some of the things she needed from her saddlebag and started preparing disinfectant remedies. Hercules stayed by Iolaus' side, talking quietly to him. She watched the two men for a moment, then returned to what she was doing with a dark scowl. No matter how she turned it, it would still hurt Iolaus severely to have those wounds cleaned out. Using herbs she hadn't found use for in years, she mixed a tea together which would quell the pain at least a little. But she knew it wouldn't be enough to spare him the agony. From what she had seen of the burns on his stomach, they would have to be cut open to release the infection under the skin. Stopping short, she glanced over at the two of them again. It was obvious to her that she would be the one doing the cleaning and that would only increase Iolaus' obvious fear of her. It angered her beyond reason that the imposter had done this to him. That she had killed his faith in her. All right, she had done a lot to make sure of that one herself a long time ago. But she had been working on earning his forgiveness. She had tried to redeem herself. Now she would have to start from scratch. Now he was not merely angered by what she had done to him back then. Now he was scared of her, too. And that really set her blood on fire.

Sneering helplessly, she finished the remedies and rose slowly, aware that Iolaus was watching her, dread in his eyes. She didn't blame him. He knew what lay ahead and was obviously not up to the challenge.

She closed the distance between them and motioned for Hercules to move out of the way, where after she knelt down next to the stretcher. "I've made this tea which is supposed to take the pain away. I'm just not sure how much it will do for you," she said, holding a cup of the brew out to Iolaus. Realizing that he wouldn't be able to take it on his own, she leaned closer, put a hand behind his head and helped him drink it. He made a face at the taste, but said nothing. "Let's just give it some time to work," she added and sat back onto the ground. "How are you feeling?"

"To be honest... I've felt... better," he whispered.

Xena's expression mellowed and she actually managed to smile weakly. "You've looked a lot better, too," she said. "The tea is good against infections, too. I figured we better try and fight this both inside and out," she added, then glanced at Gabrielle, who was sitting on a tree stump not too far away. She was watching them, but made no move to participate. And her complexion was still pale, her eyes wide.

"Don't... worry about... her," Iolaus said after a moment. "She'll... come around."

Hercules glanced back at the younger woman, too, and felt very sorry for her. It was obvious that something inside her had broken and it would take both time and effort to heal it again. With a sigh, he returned his attention to Iolaus, who started to look a little more relaxed. "Whatever that tea is, Xena, it seems to be working," he said, glancing sideways at the warrior princess.

Xena nodded. "For now," she mumbled. "Let's have a look at that, then," she added louder. Pulling her knife, she cut through the makeshift bandages covering Iolaus' stomach and carefully peeled the puss-filled cloth off him. He hissed and tensed up. "That's infected, all right," she said with a grimace. "First thing we have to do is rinse the wounds out," she added. Somehow she had the feeling that he would be more at ease if he knew what she was doing. Hence she was talking more than she had in a lifetime, trying to make him understand that she meant him no harm and was only trying to help.

Before Xena could lay another hand on him, though, a smaller hand grabbed her wrist in a steel grip. "I'll do that," Gabrielle said, taking the cloth away from her friend. Xena stared at her for a moment, then nodded and pulled back. Gabrielle knelt down beside Iolaus and gave him a weak smile. "I'll be careful," she promised.

He merely nodded in response, believing he was ready for what came next. But no matter how gentle Gabrielle was, he was unable to lie still for the procedure. It just hurt too damned much. His teeth were clenched so tight, he thought they would break. Eventually, his left hand snapped out, grabbing her wrist and forcing her hand away from the wound on his right side. "No... more," he gasped through clenched teeth.

Gabrielle settled back, looking very sorry about the whole thing. "I'm sorry," she whispered with tears in her eyes.

"Gabrielle," Xena said, putting a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Let me do that."

Gabrielle instantly started shaking her head. "No, you're never careful," she said.

"Gabby," Xena interrupted her. "This is not a question about being careful. This is a question of cleaning those wounds out before they poison his blood and kill him. You know that," she went on, her tone harsh. She knew she had to be strict right now. Gabrielle was in no condition to make any decisions.

Iolaus had released Gabrielle's wrist and when Xena reached out to continue her work, he grabbed hers instead, staring at her with pleading eyes. "Please. Not now," he begged in a ragged tone of voice. Xena met his eyes and first then was he really convinced that this wasn't the same women who had hurt him so badly. What he saw in her eyes was compassion and a feeling of guilt because she knew she would hurt him by cleaning the wounds out.

Xena in turn grabbed his wrist in a steel grip. "Iolaus, I don't think I need to tell you how important it is that we clean those wounds out. You don't want to die, do you?" she asked him. He merely shook his head lightly. "Good. Now, I know this is going to hurt and there's nothing I would rather do than avoid hurting you like this right now. But there's nothing to be done about it. It's either that or blood poising." Leaning a little closer, she smiled. "You're a tough guy. You can stand more abuse than anyone I've known. You're gonna make it through this one alive. Do you hear me? Huh?"

Inspired by her words, he nodded. But he just couldn't face the pain. Not after what he had been through the day before.

Xena could see that in his eyes and turned her attention to Hercules. "I think I may need some help here," she said.

Hercules nodded and took a solid hold on his friend's arms. The panic in Iolaus' eyes was evident at once. "You know it has to be done," he said quietly. "You've been there before."

"Yeah, but... never... this bad," Iolaus ground out, the fingers of his left hand locking hard around Hercules' arm. Closing his eyes, he breathed as deeply as his injured chest would let him, and then nodded. "Okay. Go for it," he whispered.

Xena nodded after having assured herself that Hercules was holding onto him. Taking a deep breath, she set about to clean Iolaus' wounds out as fast as she could. He writhed, holding back on his agony for as long as he could, but eventually, he started screaming in pain. Xena started sweating with frustration and worked harder at finishing the job. She had to sit on his legs to keep him from moving too much.

Eventually, she leaned back and stared at her handiwork, only too aware that the subject of her attention hand gone very quiet. Wiping the back of one bloodied hand over her brow, brushing hair out of her eyes in one go, she finally focused on Hercules for a second, then looked down at Iolaus, who was out cold. "That should do it," she said tensely.

Hercules nodded silently and released his friend's arms. It hadn't been necessary to hold onto him for the past few moments, but he had done it anyway. If for nothing else than to feel the pulse in his friend's arm. "Is he going to... be all right?" he finally asked.

Xena tossed the last piece of bloodied cloth away and reached for the clean ones to bandage the wounds with. "If he makes it through the night, he stands a good chance," she said. "Don't you think, Gabrielle?" she added, wanting to include Gabrielle in the conversation. But there was no reply. Turning her head, she nearly gasped at seeing her friend lying curled up on the ground on the other side of the campsite, her arms wrapped around her head. "Take care of this, would you?" she asked Hercules and handed him the bandages. "There's someone else who needs me now." Hercules nodded as Xena rose and strode across the campsite to kneel down next to Gabrielle.

Gathering the shivering, sobbing young woman into her arms, Xena pulled her close  and started rocking her gently back and forth, stroking her hair gently. "Hush," she whispered. "He's going to be fine, Gabby. He's going to be fine."


That night was a long one. The longest Xena had ever lived through. She stayed with Iolaus all the time, sitting at the head of his bedside with her back against a tree, keeping an eye on his condition. She kept telling herself that if he got worse, she would be able to do something, but she wasn't so sure she could. Not this time around. He was feverish, in and out of horrible nightmares, which Xena knew her evil twin had bestowed on him. Throughout that night, she swore to herself that she would find and kill the imposter. She would kill her slowly to make her pay for the pain she had caused her friend.

Reaching down, she placed a strong hand on Iolaus' shoulder, giving it a powerful squeeze. "You hold on, you hear me?" she whispered harshly. Despite what she had made herself believe back then, she still had feelings for him. She could not kill them, no matter how hard she tried. It was a bond knitted by the look in his eyes back then. He had truly loved her and she had used him, abused his feelings for her.

Closing her eyes tightly, she fought to banish those demons from her mind, knowing full well that they would not be chased off. She had tried too many times. Leaning her head back, she tried to concentrate on what she had done back then and to dig out the real feelings behind her choice to use him. When they had met for the first time on that road, she had felt the flicker of her heart at his smile, but had not allowed it to get in the way of her plan.

A sudden movement beneath her hand made her jerk back to the present time and she blinked down at Iolaus, who was awake and seemingly lucid. "Hi," he whispered with a weak smile.

Xena shifted her position so she could face him properly, a smile on her lips. "Hi yourself. How are you feeling?" she asked quietly.

He briefly closed his eyes, his face still flushed by the fever. "I've felt better," he whispered after a moment.

"But you're awake. Which means you'll make it," Xena told him, then leaned back a little. "I'm sorry," she then said, completely out of context.

He opened his eyes again and stared at her for a moment. "For what?" he asked weakly. "This wasn't your fault."

"Somehow I doubt that," Xena said with a shake of the head. "Why else would that... thing take on my shape?" she wanted to know and met his eyes again. "It must be an echo of who I was back then."

"Don't beat yourself up about it, Xena. I don't blame you. Why should you blame yourself?" he wanted to know, finding that he was already regaining his strength.

"I can't help it, Iolaus. It's a part of me forever. Although I'm not like that anymore, I used to be that way. That was me back then. However little I may like it, that was me. And it seems now that my past has come back to haunt me. I thought it had already been there through Callisto, but I was wrong. It wasn't Callisto who would bring it back to me. It was myself."

"You know, you're not making much sense, Xena." Hercules' voice interrupted her and she turned to face him with a dark scowl. "You've redeemed yourself more than once for what you did back then," he went on, rising from where he had been sleeping.

"Have I?" she asked, her left hand still on Iolaus' shoulder. "Can I ever redeem myself for killing innocent people, Hercules? How many good deeds does it take to undo the bad ones? One? A hundred? A thousand?"

"A change of heart, Xena. That's what it takes. Granted, it will not bring back the dead. It will not undo what has happened. But it goes a long way to apologize for it," Hercules said and sat down next to them. Giving Iolaus a smile, he grabbed his friend's hand. "How are you?" he wanted to know.

"I'll be okay," Iolaus said, not taking his eyes of Xena.

Xena in turn stared ahead of herself for a while, then turned her head to face Hercules again. "I've tried. But this imposter is going to send me back to square one, Hercules. I have to stop her. And there's nothing any of you can do to help me," she said and rose.

Hercules got up, too, grabbing her arms to hold her back. "No, Xena. Going after her alone is too dangerous," he said.

"For whom? One way or another, there will be an end to this craziness. I will not allow her to hurt anyone again," Xena snarled and pulled free of his grip. "You can't leave here. Gabrielle is in no condition to look after herself right now and neither is Iolaus. I'm going alone."

"Xena," Iolaus said, struggling against the pain this caused to prop himself up on one elbow.

She stopped short, her eyes locked on his.

"Be careful," he whispered.

That earned him a heartfelt smile from the warrior princess. "Don't worry. I will beat her. I have no intention of dying at the hands of a copy. That would be the ultimate disgrace," she told him, then turned toward Gabrielle, who was awake and watching them. "Take care of her, will you? Help her mend," she added, then took off without looking back.

Iolaus eased back down on his bedding and sighed. "That's got to make up for her past if she beats herself," he mumbled before literally passing out again.

Hercules nodded darkly. "That's exactly what's she's going to do." He just hoped the right side would win.


Xena slowed Argo down until he stopped. The area was deserted, yet she somehow knew her double would turn up here. How she knew that was beyond the point. Glancing around the clearing, she petted Argo's neck to keep him quiet while she listened to her surroundings. She was back where it had begun, where she'd had her first fight with her double and she was going to end it here. She would preferably drive her sword through that bitch right where she had tortured Iolaus.

Sliding off Argo, she kept looking around, listening for the small sounds she could hear in the undergrowth past the edges of the clearing. "Show yourself," she called. "I know you're here. I can feel you."

For a moment, all was quiet. Then she stepped out from behind a big tree, her hair tousled, her outfit torn and tattered. "I knew you'd come back," she snarled.

Xena slapped Argo's flank, letting him know it was time to get out of here, and pulled her sword after the horse had trotted away. "As I knew you would still be here. Who are you? An invention of Ares'?" she demanded.

"I'm you," the copy said, leaning her head to one side and regarding Xena with mad eyes.

"No, you're not," Xena replied instantly. "I don't know what you are, but you have no right to exist."

Evil Xena threw her head back and laughed, reminding Xena very much of Callisto. "I have every right to exist. Mainly because you'll be dust soon. When I'm done with you, I'm going to go after your friends. I'll take the fair-haired one first. He'll curse the day he laid eyes on you."

"He already does," Xena growled darkly. "Thanks to you." It had dawned on her who this imposter might be and it made her very afraid to think of it. "I will never let you defeat me. Never. You couldn't do it back then and you can't do it now."

"Can't I?" Evil Xena asked and laughed again, this time not taking her eyes off her reflection. "I am you and you are me. We're part of each other. Killing you will be like killing the good in me. A task I look forward to."

Xena pulled her chakram from her belt while watching her evil twin closely. "If that's so, then I'm once and for all going to kill the bad in me," she replied. "And that is a task I'm looking forward to, as well. I won't let you hurt my friends any more than you have already."

"You have a weak spot for the golden one," Evil Xena purred. "Shall I tell you what I have in store for him? It will raise your lust for battle, my dear. If you could find the evil inside you again, we could merge and once again become one. He could become ours once again. You like pushing them around. So do I. Men are worthless, sniveling fools. They can never make up their minds about what to do once there's a pretty woman in the room with them. They are so easy to bend, so easy to mold. Think about all the fun you've left behind."

"I don't consider it fun to toy with people's feelings. Iolaus is a good friend. I did him wrong, but I've redeemed myself. I will gain full absolution by killing you," Xena replied angrily.

"Then stop chattering and get on with it," Evil Xena leered, slashing out with her sword.

Within seconds they were engaged in combat once more, fighting each other with equal skills and wit. They managed to bruise and cut each other, but nothing worse than that. It was a fight to the death and any onlooker would not know for certain which of them could win.