by JayBird (Jay Markle)

"Com'n, Herc! Hurry up!"

Hercules grinned as his best friend Iolaus ran ahead of him down the long country road. It was late on a warm summer afternoon, and for Hercules it was much too nice a day to be rushing about.

"'S funny, I don't remember you being in such a hurry until we reached Sidaris," Hercules said, breaking into a jog to catch up. It had been in the village of Sidaris that they had gotten the message from Xena to rendezvous with her and Gabrielle at the Corinth Crossroads. "Why are you so anxious to see Xena? Or is it Gabrielle you're after?"

That brought Iolaus up short. "Alright, alright... I admit that I like Gabrielle. I like her a lot... and I'd be lying if I told you I don't think about her more than I should..." He sighed and looked up at Hercules. "But I think you and I both know she has someone else in her life."

"Yeah," Hercules nodded, clasping Iolaus on the shoulder. "Com'n, we're almost there. Race ya!"

Laughing, the two friends ran together down the long country road.


At the Corinth Crossroads there was no one there to greet them except a stone shrine to Artemis, which Hercules thought did not do her justice.

"Well this is a fine how-dee-do!" Iolaus said, turning in a slow circle."Where could..." He stopped suddenly and grinned, sniffing at the air."Hey, wait up! Somebody's got a fire going... and fish cooking on a spit!" He laughed as he honed in on the savory smell like a bloodhound."This way!"

He leaped into the woods, crashing headfirst through the brambles Shaking his head --but still grinning-- Hercules followed.

The two friends came to a small clearing in the heavy woods, where a campfire was blazing and two bedrolls were laid out. A half dozen large river trout were skewered on broken tree branches and were roasting over the fire. Hercules even spotted a still-saddled golden mare just beyond the camp, nibbling on some grass.

"Okay," Iolaus said. "So where are..."

A familiar keening warcry from above startled them both as Xena dropped down from the trees to land on their shoulders, gripping both men in a tight bear hug. She was laughing uproariously.

"Gotcha!" Xena shouted, reaching over and kissing Herc on the cheek and then Iolaus. "Hah! Good thing I'm a former warlord! Else you two would be tipping Charon a few dinars right about now!"

The three friends laughed and playfully punched at each other for a few moments before finally settling down.

"Xena!" Hercules looked her over, noticing she was as... robust, as ever. "You're sure a sight for sore eyes. It has been awhile."

"Sure has!" Iolaus said. "Where's Gabrielle?"

"Oh, I sent her down to the creek to get some fresh water," Xena said. "She'll be along. She's as slow as Solstice these days!" She indicated the camp. "Take a load off and start eating. These fish are ready!"

Herc and Iolaus eased themselves to the ground.

"Maybe we should wait for Gabrielle," Herc said.

"We should," Iolaus said, grabbing a big skewer of trout. "But I'm starved!"

Hercules looked to Xena. "So... why did you send for us? Business, or old times sake?"

"Business unfortunately," Xena replied as she squatted down and snagged a skewered fish for herself. "Word has it that a giant is terrorizing some villages in the north country near the ruins of Arcanae. His name is Neklos."

"Neklos!" Iolaus said with his mouth full.

"We... know of Neklos," Hercules said evenly. "He was an ally of the Argonauts on several of our missions. He was a good man then... and a good friend."

"I've heard the stories," Xena said. "I was hoping you and Iolaus would travel with us to the north country and maybe... persuade, Neklos to see the error of his ways."

"Sounds like a plan," Hercules grinned.

"I'm impressed, Xena!" Iolaus said as he finished off his dinner. "Not too long ago you would've just chopped poor Neklos off at the ankles! I guess Gabrielle's influence is finally rubbing off on you!"

"Yes," Xena nodded. "Gabrielle is part of me, and part of my life now. I need her... one way or the other."

Iolaus frowned and looked at Herc.

"Speaking of you and Gabrielle," Herc said gently. "There has been some... disquieting talk about a rift between the two of you."

"Probably wishful thinking among the local warlords, huh?" Ioalus grinned.

"Not really," Xena replied, her eyes now lost in the fire. "Not too long ago Gabrielle and I traveled to the Kingdom of Chin..."

"Chin!" Iolaus exclaimed. "But that journey takes over a year by way of the Silk Road!"

"There are other ways," Xena replied. "Aboard mysterious ships that travel seas that still don't exist on maps."

"Amazing," Iolaus said. "When I was fourteen I ran away with a caravan heading east on the Silk Road." He looked at Hercules. "Remember?"

"Do I?" Herc smiled ruefully. "Your mother had me looking for you for months!"

"Did you reach Chin?" Xena asked.

"I got very sick en route, and the others left me in a village on the western frontier of Chin. I stayed there a year... learned some of the language, and also learned their fighting skills and the ways of their martial arts. It took another whole year to make it back." Iolaus shook his head. "Boy, did I get it!"

"I'm impressed!" Hercules said. "Surrounded by such accomplished world travelers while I haven't been beyond the Great Sea!"

"Don't worry about it, Herc," Iolaus said. "The one thing I learned in my travels are that people are the same all over... wherever you go!"

"How true," Xena replied tonelessly. "Wherever you wander the earth you will find kindness, mercy and good... along with hate, betrayal and evil."

"And what did you find?" Hercules asked.

"I found an evil young man whose very existence was causing the oppression and suffering of hundreds of thousands of people. And I had created him." She looked away from the fire to Hercules. "And I also destroyed him. I... made him small."

"What does this have to do with a rift between you and Gabrielle?"

"Gabrielle betrayed me to this man," Xena replied matter-of-factly. "Oh, as always she had the best of intentions... but then again, the road to Tartarus is paved with good intentions. She very nearly caused my death and the continued enslavement of hundreds of thousands of innocents."

"Xena..." Iolaus whispered, reaching out to her.

"Have you forgiven her?" Hercules asked.

"Ask yourself that question," Xena said. "Both of you. Can a warrior ever truly forgive a betrayal? In our line of work you're too busy watching out for your enemies, without having to keep an eye out for your friends." Xena shook her head. "But to answer your question, I have indeed forgiven Gabrielle. But I could never again... trust her. Until now."

A sudden noise in the woods startled Herc and Iolaus, breaking the spell Xena had woven with her words. A beat later Gabrielle appeared in the camp carrying two full water skins, looking disheveled and covered in brambles and scratches from the woods.

"Gabrielle!" Hercules got to his feet and went to her. She ignored him and wordlessly dropped the water skins by Xena.

"Gabby?" Iolaus said, pulling her by the shoulders to face him. Her peaceful green eyes looked uncomprehendingly at Iolaus, as he noticed she was thinner, with none of the vibrance or vitality he knew so well from their past meetings. She was also wearing her reddish-blonde hair long and parted on the left, covering the right side of her face.

"Com'n, Gabrielle," Xena cooed. "Siddown!" She tugged gently at the hem of Gabrielle's skirt, and she unceremoniously dropped to the ground beside Xena.

"Xena?" Hercules stood on the other side of the fire with clenched fists, realizing that the last time he'd had a feeling this bad was when Hera had killed his family. "What have you done to her?"

"Nothing!" Xena exclaimed. "As I said before, I had reached a point where I could no longer trust her. But Gabrielle is also far too dear to me to ever let her go! I love her, Hercules, with all my heart and soul! I could never let go of that!" Xena grinned suddenly from ear to ear. "So I fixed things. I fixed...her. I've forgiven her betrayal and I can once again trust her, for now Gabrielle and I have... a perfect trust. Right, Gabrielle?" Xena grabbed the back of Gabrielle's head by the hair and made her nod up and down. "Yesssss, Xena!" the warrior mimicked.

Grasping for his own sanity now, Iolaus reached over and gently brushed back the wave of hair that covered the right side of Gabrielle's face. And that's when he saw it. That's when he felt his world fall away in deference to the most horrible sight he had ever witnessed in his life.

A small hairpin of lacquered black was embedded deep into the right side of Gabrielle's skull, about two finger widths from the curve of her eyebrow. There was still a little dried blood about the wound, but it seemed to be healing nicely.

"See?" Xena said brightly. "Gabrielle had betrayed me and betrayed my trust... so I made her small!" She laughed, a dangerously off-kilter chuckle that made both Hercules and Iolaus think of Callisto. "There's a Chin proverb by a very wise woman named Lao Ma that says...

"Small piercing pain Brings permanent opacity And yields perfect trust!"

Iolaus reached for the embedded pin.

"Uh-ah!" Xena said, slapping his hand away. "That pin is now the only thing keeping her alive! Pull it out and she dies within two beats of her heart!" Xena's voiced shifted to a growl. "As you will die within two beats of yours!"

"Iolaus!" Hercules said. He motioned for his friend to back off. Unwillingly, Iolaus retreated to the other side of the fire beside Herc.

Xena stood up, and, in the growing darkness her eyes seemed to catch the glow of the fire, giving her the countenance of a feral animal.

"You boys have a problem?" she rasped.

"We can't let you do this, Xena." Hercules said tightly.

"Oh, really?" Xena snickered. "You're a day late and a dinar short for that, my friend!"

"That's right!" Iolaus shouted. "We are your friends! And Gabrielle's friends as well!"

"Don't talk to me about friendship," Xena snarled. "Yesterday that idiot boy Joxer had something to say about my Gabrielle! I thought he was a friend too... until he betrayed me and tried to take her away!" In an instant her chakram was in her right hand. Both men saw it was still dulled with dried blood. "I showed him the error of his ways. As I will the both of you!" Xena cocked her arm back, chakram poised. "Now get out of here. Both of you have worn out your welcome."

Iolaus took a step forward, only to be held back by Hercules. "We'll go... for now," Hercules said. "But this isn't over."

"That line may work on Ares," Xena growled. "But it doesn't do jack-squat for me. Now both of you make like the wind. Blow."

Hercules and Iolaus started back into the woods. In the gathering gloom of early evening, Iolaus looked back and saw that Xena was now sitting by the campfire next to Gabrielle, happily carrying on both sides of the conversation.

"By the Gods, Hercules!" Iolaus moaned with tears in his eyes. "This is a nightmare!"

"Yes it is," Hercules replied. "But remember, all nightmares eventually end..."


Xena woke up with a start, drenched in sweat and with her heart hammering against her chest. It was nearly dawn with the first rays of sunlight sifting through the trees.

Here, deep in a small forest clearing adjacent to the Corinth Crossroads, it was still dark, the dying embers of their campfire glowing before her.

Xena sat up, pulling her blanket off and hugging her knees, gently rocking back and forth as she tried to look at the sleeping form of Gabrielle, who was beside her.

What a nightmare, she thought, shivering with both fear and the feel of the cold night air drying the sweat on her body. How could I dream...how could I even conceive of doing something so horrible...

Xena comforted herself with the knowledge of her and Gabrielle's adventures since their journey back from Chin. Stopping an army of Persians from invasion, recovering the Urn of Apollo... and even besting the mighty Caesar on his own home turf... and even now they were waiting to be joined by Hercules and Iolaus to help stop a giant named Neklos...

Xena gasped in sudden horror, biting deep into her own hand to keep from screaming.

For all of us who are mortal, there will always be a terrible time between nightmare and reality, when we awaken and do not quite know what is real and what is not.

At that moment, Xena kept her eyes centered on the dying embers of the fire, looking at the blackened skewers that still held some burnt fish bones. She wanted more than anything to reach over and hold her Gabrielle, to whisper in her ear how much she loved her and to gently kiss her face.

But she couldn't, because Xena was also afraid that when she brushed Gabrielle's hair back, she would find a hairpin of lacquered black embedded obscenely into the side of her skull.

So for now Xena stared into the fire and wept, gently rocking back and forth as she hoped and prayed that her reality was something she could live with...

The End

******** Please send any comments to JayMarkle@webtv.net

Special thanks to Wishes for Lao Ma's proverb, and the encouragement to actually write this. So blame her if you have nightmares.

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