The Crazed Ramblings Of A Madwoman

- Part 2 -

by Verrath

Thanks, T.Novan, for letting me use the little reference to that lovely "Gremlins"-story!


The warrior speaks...

We have been traveling together for a few moons now. Every time we passed through a place that seemed perfect for Gabrielle to start trying to build a new life, she would somehow find a reason why it would not do. I cannot say I took great pains to convince her otherwise, either. I have gotten used to having her around. A compromising statement, from a declared loner, but there it is.

She says she wants to be a bard. I planned to humor her childish fancy, and let her play at storytelling. She is so adorable when she grows animated, and I have to admit to my chagrin that I never actually listened to her stories in the beginning. I was so captivated by the vibrant sound of her voice and that cute little face flushed with excitement that the actual words just didn't matter.

But now that I have started paying more attention to what she is saying instead of how, it is fast becoming clear to me that she has genuine talent. She has me roaring with laughter, silently contemplating, feeling the heat of long ago battles, anything she chooses. And she seems to have an unerring sense of when I need to be diverted from my brooding. Can it be that she sees through me that easily? I have never considered myself easy to read, and I hardly think others have either.

Just now she is telling a funny little story she is just idly making up to while away our evening. It is about a little gremlin getting into one of her bags, that only she can see and that's causing me all sorts of mischief. I do not appreciate being in the punchline of such things, but it has me grinning all the time in spite of myself. I can just see the little guy peeking out from among our provisions! I actually catch myself looking for his tiny footprints in the dirt, much to my embarrassment. Some fearsome warrior I am!

She has touched something inside me. I did not mean for that to happen. It bothers me. She is so beautiful. I do not think I want her to leave anymore now. No, I know I do not want her to.

For the first time since I can remember, light and hope have come into my life.

 

The writer's study, 10 a.m.:

Isabelle saved the file and looked to where the warrior was installed in her customary spot. Sunlight was streaming in through the small window at her left, throwing brilliant highlights on one side of Xena's face while leaving the other in darkness, and setting off the dazzling blue of her eyes nicely. The tall woman was gazing at her intently, a lazy smile playing around her lips.

"Hades' boots, Isabelle, but you are good," she said.

She was rewarded by a pleased smile from the young writer, who flushed a little at the praise. "I couldn't do it without you, you know." Xena just shrugged, still smiling.

Isabelle ran a spell checker over the text, and went over the lines again. The scene was beautiful, if she did say so herself. Only one thing nagged her, but she wasn't sure if she was right about it, so she held her peace for now. Could it be that Xena had a more than just friendly interest in the bard...? But no, she was probably jumping at shadows. Yet there was that look the woman gave her at times that made her shake in her boots with - what? Trepidation? Was it right for two women to feel that way about each other? No, she was probably mistaken. They were just really dear friends.

"You must miss her," she said quietly.

The warrior had been staring off into the distance. Now her eyes focused as she trained her gaze on Isabelle once more.

"I do. But it's funny..."

"What is?"

"I really don't feel like I'm very far from her at the moment. You are so very much like her." She paused, watching Isabelle's blush deepen with a quirk of her lips. "But I have to say that I do miss the life in the open, and my horse," Xena admitted, "These pent-up cubes give me the creeps."

"I guess you do," Isabelle said slowly. "Say, that gives me an idea. We have the whole day to ourselves, don't we? It doesn't look like it's going to rain, so why don't we drive out to the Redwoods today? It's about time that I saw something besides these walls and those of the office. And since I will be spending most of the weekend in a car headed for LA, I guess today's our chance. What do you say?"

"Well," Xena drawled, "I don't know what in the Nine Hells you mean by LA, but anything that has the word 'woods' in it sounds fine to me just now." She flashed a white-toothed grin.

The writer smiled. "I guess it's decided, then."

 

It took some persuasive efforts on Isabelle's side to convince the suspicious warrior that getting into a car was all right, and that there was no danger of you being choked or squashed inside. The young woman thought it a little funny, seeing that Xena really couldn't be harmed by anything in her present state. But, knowing how touchy the other woman was and realizing that the warrior was more concerned for Isabelle's safety than for her own, she held her peace.

Once inside however, Xena seemed to settle down and took her place in the passenger's seat with a certain studied nonchalance.

When Isabelle turned the key in the ignition and the engine reluctantly coughed into life, Xena started, gave her friend a probing look, and seeing her unconcerned and obviously in control, shrugged before she lounged back in the seat.

"Well," Isabelle said, smiling, "we're all set. Off we go."

The drive was uneventful, the traffic less heavy than Isabelle was used to. From time to time she shot a glance at her silent passenger, trying very hard not to let her lips quirk. Xena's face was a study. The normally completely composed and calm warrior was fighting with little success to keep the many new impressions from showing on her face - the fast movement of the car; houses, people and landscape hurtling by at a speed she must think unreal; other cars passing by at arm's length but somehow not colliding; horns honking impatiently; the cassette player sounding the irresistible rhythms of the 60's. Every now and then, Xena would send a tentative look the writer's way, as if to reassure herself that everything was as it should be. Then she would just shake her head slightly, shrug, and go back to gazing out the window.

Once Isabelle reached out to pat the warrior's arm reassuringly, and made contact before she could catch herself. The tingle that went through her as her hand passed through the warrior's arm sent her head spinning pleasantly, and she almost lost track of her driving. She heard Xena's sharp intake of breath at the contact, and found those blue eyes looking at her with a tinge of amusement, and something deeper, more intense that she couldn't pinpoint.

The writer smiled sheepishly. "I forgot... That's what you get for being so damned... real."

Xena grinned. "Yeah well... I've always been the solid type. Though a certain bard I could name would probably prefer the word 'dense'."

They looked at each other for a moment, and burst out laughing.

 

This late in the year, there were relatively few people coming to see the fabled giant trees. The parking lot by the entrance to the park was less than half full, with two school buses parked on the far end.

By the time Isabelle had gotten out of the car and locked the door, Xena was by her side, scanning the surroundings with a watchful eye.

Again, Isabelle had to hide her amusement at that rather touching display of protectiveness. Both herself and the warrior tended to forget all too easily that Xena wasn't the solid and tangible person she looked like.

"Well," the young writer said, and smiled, "shall we?"

Nodding, Xena followed her across the parking lot towards the entrance, where an elderly, spectacled woman was selling the tickets.

They had to wait in line because a school class was in the process of making its noisy way in. Xena leaned in close to Isabelle and asked quietly, "am I getting this right? You have to pay money to go see the woods? Tell me it ain't so!"

Isabelle had to chuckle. "Well, usually, you get to see all the woods you like, for free, whenever you want. But these aren't ordinary trees." She pointed. "Look, over there. They don't only seem big from here. But you'll see."

When it was their turn, Isabelle put a bill on the counter and said without thinking, "two adults, please."

One of the school kids bumped into her just then, and she turned to give him the evil eye, so that she missed seeing the woman's brows knit together in puzzlement as she looked past her to see who else was coming, and Xena's incredulous and very amused grin. Isabelle put the two tickets in her coat pocket with the change, and motioned for the warrior to follow her. The woman at the counter stared after her, shaking her head and muttering under her breath.

Making their way across the open area past the little snack bar and souvenir shop, the two friends entered the park proper. Isabelle had been here before, but the sheer size and quiet majesty of the great trees never failed to fill her with awe. Looming sky-high as tall as two hundred feet, some as big as ten feet or more in diameter, the red color of the stringy bark that gave them their name set off nicely by the slant of the early afternoon sun, they were a neck-wrenching, dizzying sight.

Her eyes found the warrior's who, while gazing in ill-disguised wonder at the huge redwood trees, seemed more at ease here than Isabelle had seen her so far. Still, ever the alert warrior, she divided her attention between the giant trees, the people moving around them, and the sparse growth covering the ground off the walkways, in case some threat might be lurking there.

"Well," Isabelle said softly, "they're awesome, aren't they?"

"They are," Xena agreed. "Can't say I've ever seen the like."

"Yeah, makes you feel like an insect doesn't it? Hey, I think some of these trees were around in your time. They put up a slice from the trunk of one to serve as a timetable. Want to go have a look?"

"Sure. Let's."

Being out in the open and actually in touch with nature awakened Isabelle profoundly. Having grown up in a small village in the foothills, she never ceased to feel cooped up and locked in living in the big city. Now, with the autumn sun throwing dappled highlights on the ground and the air fresh and clean after last night's rain, she found herself feeling high-spirited and chatty.

So while they walked, she prattled on to the silently grinning warrior about anything and everything she could think of, attributing the strange looks she got from passers-by to the still vivid bruise over her eye.

If she had taken more time to look at her tall companion, she would have seen Xena's shoulders shake with barely controlled mirth, fighting to keep her laughter down while watching the people watch her little friend seemingly talk to thin air.

The huge cutting from an ancient redwood could be seen from afar, little colored pins with tags attached to the growth rings marking big events in history.

Xena's face was now carefully blank as Isabelle pointed out a few of the dates - Boston Tea Party; Columbus discovering America; the birth of Christ...

"Christ? Who's he?"

Isabelle smiled. "Big important character in our religious history. In your future though. Never mind. Here's the supposed birth of Cesar..."

At the mention of that name, Xena growled deep in her chest. "The bastard... And does it state the year of his death?"

Isabelle looked at the wood, then at Xena. "No, it doesn't... are you saying you know him? Cesar himself?"

A cold, hard smile appeared on the warrior's face. "Oh yes, we know each other... though I'm sure we both wish we didn't!" Her expression softened, and she traced the wood with her finger, coming to rest on a section of rings including the one marking Cesar's birth, close to the center of the trunk. "So this would be the time I live in...that tree must have been very small then..."

Isabelle's hand went to the wood as well, and she smiled. "Yeah see, and I was born around here... just underneath the bark it seems... isn't this fascinating? I wish..."

She broke off suddenly, paling as something hit home to her in full force. "Xena... I can't believe I've been talking with you all this time... God and all the people..." She glanced at a woman standing close by with a boy of about five holding on to her hand, who was gawking at her with her jaw hanging open. Isabelle flashed her an apologetic grin while she felt a furious blush creeping up her neck. "Drama rehearsal..." she said quickly, eyes wide, before she shot a mortified look at the warrior who was biting her lip to keep from laughing. She gave her a very dark look and hurried on, trying not to actually run. Her face felt like it must shine with a bright light of its own.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Isabelle rounded on a grinning warrior.

"You know, you really should have said something..."

Xena's grin broadened as she shrugged. "Yeah I should have. I'm sorry. But it was too cute! You should have seen that woman's face. It was precious!" She leaned against the trunk of a tree and started laughing silently, shoulders shaking with mirth.

"Oh very funny,"

Still laughing, Xena said, "I'm sorry. You're right, I should have said something."

"You've made me look like a complete idiot." Feeling her throat constrict, Isabelle looked away, scowling. "That was mean," she mumbled.

Sobering, the warrior stepped in behind her, lifting a hand and letting it drop again.

"I... I... didn't mean..."

Furious, Isabelle whirled to face her. "Oh you didn't, huh?" she flared. "You looked like you were enjoying yourself well enough." She felt tears of anger rise, and fought vainly to keep them down.

She heard Xena draw and release a breath before speaking. "I didn't mean to embarrass you. I was just having a little fun. I'm sorry. Don't cry." The warrior reached out to graze Isabelle's cheek with her knuckles. "Please don't cry."

Isabelle shuddered at the by now familiar tingle. Not trusting herself to speak, however, she just gave the other woman an accusing stare.

"Please don't cry," Xena said softly. "Look I just...just... Aww Tartarus. Gabrielle always did say that my rotten sense of humor chose to show itself at the worst possible moment."

Swallowing against the lump in her throat, Isabelle looked away and murmured tonelessly, "I can't believe I did that! I must be going crazy... I never stopped to think about it... Oh god! And to think you were aware of it, and never warned me..."

"I didn't mean for it to happen. I just enjoy hearing the sound of your voice. It's so much like Gabrielle's..."

Isabelle stood silently for a few moments, trying to get a grip on the hurt she felt at Xena's trick, trying to put herself in Xena's shoes. Finally, she looked up at the warrior, sniffling.

"I guess it WAS rather funny huh?" she said with a weak smile, wiping her eyes.

"Well... you know," the warrior said, fidgeting a little, "it was just..." she was trying to fight a smile, but failing, and she finally let it come to her face. "Yeah it was. But I really am sorry. I just miss her so much sometimes." Isabelle found herself captured and held once again by that intense but gentle blue gaze. "And you're so much like her..."

The writer swallowed against the fluttery feeling that suddenly seemed to rise in her stomach as she took in the warrior's face and that gentle smile. She wondered for the thousandth time what it was that this woman was doing to her.

"Hey, let's go home okay? I don't feel like seeing any more people just now."

Xena flashed her a grin. "Okay. Another trip in that...car...of yours huh?"

"Yup. Unless of course you want to walk... or whatever it is that you do to go places."

For a moment it looked as if that was exactly what Xena wanted to do, but she said, "um, no I'll be okay. Hey..."

"Yes?"

"Thanks for bringing me to the woods."

"You're welcome."

"You know there are just never that many people around in my woods," Xena said as she followed the writer back towards the parking lot.

"Oh really? Hey, tell me what it's like there... "

"Well, this happened a long time after the last bit you wrote, but anyhow...."

Their voices trailed off into the distance as the warrior and the writer made their way along the walkways, the writer not talking much for once but listening intently to her unseen companion, grinning occasionally and nodding her head.

 

The warrior speaks...

It seems we share a great fondness for forests. There are more than enough roads running through open country, but somehow we always find ourselves traveling some path or other through the woods. I never realized it until now, but it seems I have been doing this even before I met her. I guess I just needed for her to point out to me how strange and beautiful this tree has grown, how amazingly delicate that little forest flower looks, or how soothing the sound of the wind rushing through the leaves can be. It looks like this little bard has woken me up on more than one level. I do not know that I ever looked around me not out of caution and watchfulness, but simply for the sake of appreciating the surroundings.

We have been through many things. More moons have passed, in fact, it must be over a season now since I met her. She has become an Amazon Queen, and quite good with her new weapon, a staff. It still amazes me that my innocent little bard would be able to find her way into as tight a community as theirs. That bunch tends to be more than a little suspicious of outsiders. And now she is their Queen. It seems she just has this talent to capture everyone's heart. And she has proven herself to be more than worthy of that honor.

There have been troubled times as well. I thought I had lost her for good when she went and got married. By a freak and cruel twist of fate, her marriage only grew a few hours old before her husband was killed. The relief I felt when I realized she would not be leaving me is something I cannot be entirely proud of.

All this has been written down in countless scrolls, and I do not feel inclined now to go into those events again. Just let it be said that overall the good outweighed the bad, and the hard times have only made our bond stronger.

Today we have unexpectedly come across a caravan of traders camping in a large clearing by a stream. They seem sent by the gods, since some of our supplies are running low and I still do not feel entirely comfortable staying in a town. Gabrielle is delighted. She does so enjoy shopping.

Something seems out of place here, but try as I might, I can find nothing wrong with the woman and the four men, or the teams of mules still hitched to the four canvas-covered carts. I force myself to relax. I have been jumping at shadows lately.

There is little time to be surprised as the seemingly peaceful traders suddenly sprout swords, axes and all kinds of weapons, and attack without warning. Canvas lifts from some of the wagons to show more men emerging from their hiding places. A trap!

I am losing my edge. I should have listened to that little nagging feeling in the back of my mind. But upon seeing my little bard's face light up with the prospect of browsing through the wares in those carts, I just shoved it aside. A very stupid mistake, and one that might well get her killed. Myself too, but with her gone, that would not matter. My life is nothing without her. I know that now. Although I do not know if she knows, or if I will ever be able to tell her after this is over.

I cannot be sure when that realization came to me. Perhaps it was the way she faced those slavers in Poteidaia, or when she, a perfect stranger, stepped in for me in Amphipolis, when people I have known since I was a child would not lift a finger on my behalf. Or perhaps it was the way she stood by me when facing that young man at the tavern a few days later. I do not know. But neither can I deny it. I love her. I have for a long time.

 

"Is that how I should write it?" Isabelle asked a little uncertainly. Love her, like a sister. Of course that's it...

They were back in the writer's study, working out the details of the episode the warrior had related during the drive back and had not quite gotten through telling. It seemed car rides had a devastating effect on the ghostly woman's focus!

Xena flashed her one of those wide, bright-eyed grins. "Yeah, it's perfect. You're doing great, Isabelle, really. Now, shall we get on with the action? This is where it gets good..." Her grin turned into wolfish leer.

"Um... yeah. Sure."

 

These thoughts flash through my head in the time it takes me to whip my sword out of its sheath and send my chakram flying on its first round, taking out three of those further in the back wielding slings and bows, before it returns to my hand with its shrill whine.

I glance at my little companion, who has taken a stance beside me, weapon at the ready. I am glad she has learned to use that staff so well. She is a quick study, and has decent control over her movements, I have seen her do some serious damage to many who dared attack her. It makes me proud, though I feel I have marred her innocence by teaching her how to fight. But, traveling with the likes of me, she has need of that skill more often than I would like.

The spirit of the battle claims me before I get the chance to dwell on such thoughts. The Huntress is out, and the shrill, ululating battle cry has left my throat before I have wrestled the beast in me under some semblance of control. I will have to try and keep at least one alive. I want to know who set this trap, and why.

When I throw myself into the fray, I know I will not only be battling against a bunch of marauders, but also for that tiny sliver of control that will keep me from becoming a mindless killer. As I feel myself slowly losing the second battle, the first one turns quickly in my favor - in our favor, I remind myself, sparing a quick glance at my companion, who is holding her own well enough for the moment. I will have to trust in her abilities, for my shaky hold over myself is about to give way to pure battle rage.

A whirl and a kick, I hear the crunch of cartilage as my boot connects with a face, then a pained "oof!" as the second kick sends the air whooshing out of the lungs of another. Finishing off the motion, my trusted chakram once again leaves my hand in a whining arc. A swipe and a stab from my sword, and the first two attackers go down. The chakram's whine cuts off as I hear it thud into the ground. I know without looking that it has taken out two more men.

Once more loosing my battle cry, I launch myself into a flip that clears the last three attackers who are now advancing on me, landing lightly behind them. There is hardly enough time for the surprise and confusion to register on their faces before a kick and a double punch sends all three of them staggering backwards.

The Huntress is beginning to enjoy herself. The wild leer spreads across my face as I give the men time to regain their balance and regroup. "Time to play, boys," I hear myself say.

They come at me as a team, two swords and a staff. The staff-wielder takes a low swing designed to knock my legs out from under me, which I jump easily while dealing a blow with the butt of my sword. Using my downward momentum, I curl up and roll to the side, stabbing up into the staff wielder's groin before gliding to my feet. He sinks noiselessly to the ground. "Bet that hurt," says the Huntress.

They really aren't much, as far as fighters go, and the fight is routine. Within seconds, they are lying at my feet. One has managed to slip past my defenses, and I have a gash on the inside of my arm, not very deep but painful. Well, one cut in exchange for both our lives is not a bad deal. I look across to Gabrielle. She seems unhurt. Thank the gods. I will go and have a look through the wagons. For now, I am ignoring the insistent thrumming inside me that comes from battles finished too quickly. That will have to be dealt with later.

Something clicks in my mind. A quick count reveals that there is still one man unaccounted for. My head whips around to Gabrielle, who is standing over the man she has just knocked senseless. The woman is lying close by, and there are ten piled around me. Before I can finish the thought, I hear the telltale creak as a crossbow is loaded several paces behind me. I whirl to see the missing man standing behind a wagon, crossbow raised.

Aiming not at me, but at Gabrielle.

Things become a blur. The twang of the string. She is far away, and the angle is bad. I dive forward desperately. Artemis herself must have given me a shove, for my fingers close on the shaft as it hurtles past me. Gabrielle looks around, our eyes meet for a timeless moment. I hold up the crossbow quarrel to her, before I turn back towards the wielder of the crossbow, cold fury in my heart. White-hot rage makes me hurl his shaft at him with devastating force. It thuds into his chest and he stares at it uncomprehending, then back at me, before he sinks to the ground. Slowly, I cross the battlefield to retrieve my chakram.

We look around to take stock. Not one of those who crossed blades with me lives, neither do any of the archers and crossbow-wielders, but Gabrielle has taken out the woman and one of the men, and they lie unconscious.

The fight was over before I could really exert myself, and all the energy I've built up without being able to release it is now giving me a different sort of craving. I look over at my companion, notice the athletic curve of her body and the creamy smoothness of her skin. I cannot bear the sight, and drop my gaze. The urge to possess her this instant, violently, has nothing to do with love, and it shames me. I have to take a few very deep breaths to wrestle that side of the Huntress under some sort control. The beast's power over me is strong at such moments.

She can tell, of course, that something is bothering me, and I feel her soft touch on my arm. I have told her a thousand times not to go near me right after a fight until I've had time to regain my composure, but she never listens. The gods know it does not make it easier for me. If only I could make her understand this need! But I cannot bring myself to explain to her this particular side of the Huntress. She is so innocent. I fear I will lose her if I do.

"Don't touch me," I growl angrily as I jerk my arm away. I can feel her pain at my harshness as if it was my own, and I long to make her understand. Only at this moment I cannot trust myself, so I let her wordlessly draw back from me. I turn slowly and walk into the forest. I must be away from her for a while. I do not want to hurt her.

 

Isabelle looked up. "Xena..."

The warrior had spoken these last few sentences in a low, monotonous voice that was so unlike her that it gave the young writer pause. That, and the fact that she had no idea what the dark woman was talking about.

Xena heard the unspoken question in the smaller woman's voice. She shifted position, and her gaze that had been turned inward as she spoke now focused once more on the here and now, and on the young woman looking at her with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. She grinned a little.

"It's a warrior thing, Isabelle. I can't explain it any better. Gabrielle didn't begin to understand it until much later, and even then I don't know if she was aware of the true depth of it. Hades, sometimes even I don't know if I understand it at all." The warrior dropped her gaze and found a spot in front of her feet that required her intense scrutiny.

"Hey, are you okay?" Isabelle said softly.

Xena flashed her a smile. "Yeah. Don't worry about it, okay? Let's go on."

Though still a little troubled, Isabelle could not help but be reassured by that irresistible smile and those blue eyes gazing at her with calm confidence. She took a breath, and lit a cigarette, which drew a disapproving frown from the warrior that the writer tried hard to ignore.

"Okay, let's. So you went off and hid away in the forest..."

"Yeah, see, when I'm like this, I need some time by myself so I can do something about it..."

 

It is not until much later that I find myself able to go back to the camp she has set up in the meantime, a good distance away from the scene of the fight. The beast has subsided, but not after I gave in to it and let it have some of what it craved. I have never been able to understand completely why touching, pleasuring myself seems to be able to diffuse the tension that is the frustrated Huntress, but I suppose they do not call it battle lust for nothing.

 

Xena watched as the blush crept up Isabelle's neck when the young woman realized what the warrior was talking about. Pale blue eyes glinted with ill-hidden amusement. The writer did not look up from the screen however, and so Xena continued her narrative with a shrug and a grin.

Well, I felt easier, after, but still strung up like a Centaur bow, and Hades kiss me if I was going to give her any of that..."

 

Still on edge, I spend some more time hidden from her sight and hearing, doing sword drills, before going to check on the fight scene. I have hurt her already with my outburst, and I will not face her again until I am confident that I can keep my emotions in check.

The two survivors are still out cold, and I notice with pride that my little bard has already bound them securely. There is no need for me to check the ties, such has become my confidence in her. Of course she has not touched any of the dead, so I take a few minutes to drag them closer together and throw some canvas over them. I will dig a pit to bury them in, later.

She does not look up right away when I enter the campsite, but when she does, I can see she has been crying. She smiles upon seeing me. "I roasted that fowl you caught this afternoon. Should be just about done now. And we've got some Amazon wine left.

"Sounds great," I tell her with a smile, and I watch her perk up a little.

"I took care of... them... while you..." she stammers. "You may want to check..."

"No need," I say, "I've covered up the dead. I'll bury them in the morning. We can see about those two in a little bit." I feel suddenly very awkward. I want to tell her I am sorry, but I can't. She has witnessed this so many times, and it has always been like this. Never once has she tried to talk to me about it. I wonder is she trying to spare my feelings, or is she just afraid to ask? "So... how about dinner?"

She nods and goes about preparing our plates, while I sit down with my medical kit to take care of that little gash I received on my arm. It is not serious, but it requires stitching. The spot is not easy to reach, just on the underside of my right arm. I find myself fumbling with the needle and cursing softly under my breath, until I notice that the clatter of pottery from across the camp has stopped. I look up to see her standing close, watching me with one corner of her mouth turned up.

"Here, let me," she says softly as she kneels by my side and holds her hand out for the threaded needle. Lost in a sea of green eyes, I comply wordlessly.

I close my eyes and clench my teeth as she begins the task of stitching the cut. Her touch is gentle, her fingers cool and soothing. I know she hates doing this, but she has sewn me up more times than I can count. Without looking I know she is flinching in sympathy every time she passes the needle through my skin.

"Xena?"

"Hmm..." I answer without opening my eyes.

She speaks softly. "Did you have to kill them all?"

I open my eyes and look at her when I hear the slight tremor in her voice. It's the question I dread, because I never really know how to answer it. I take a deep breath. "Gabrielle..."

"I know, I know. They would have killed us, and we only defended ourselves. It's just..." She takes some time to place the last stitch, and dust the wound with powdered herbs to prevent infection. "I don't know, Xena, sometimes... you're like a different person when you're fighting. It's a little... I mean... oh crumbs, I don't know what I mean!"

"But I do, Gabrielle. It's scaring you isn't it?" She answers with a little nod and averts her eyes, focuses on the wound she is dressing. I reach out and touch my fingertips to her cheek, gently coaxing her into looking at me again. "I do what I must to keep us safe. You don't have to like it. But you have to know that I would never, ever want you hurt." I did not know I was going to say that, but I am glad I did, somehow.

She smiles and gives my hand a quick squeeze. "I know, Xena."

Dinner is a quiet affair, my talkative bard uncharacteristically subdued. I cannot bear to look at her and find the contents of my plate infinitely more interesting. When I do glance at her, I find her staring at the ground, brooding. I know I should say something, anything, but I am certain that all that I'll manage will be some lame comment on something inconsequential, so I keep quiet until well after the meal. Now all that is breaking the silence is the rhythmic, soothing whisk of the whetstone against my blade, and the occasional snap and crackle of the campfire.

Finally, I am unable to stand it any longer. I know this sounds ridiculous from someone as reluctant to talk as myself. But I just know that for my bard being quiet is not natural. And as much as her incessant chatter grates on my nerves sometimes, her silence now tears at my heart.

I know I should go to check on our prisoners, and for one as unequipped to deal with emotional tension as myself, it would be the natural thing to do, if only to get away for a while. It is not as if I have never done it before, quite the contrary. I was ever quick to come up with an excuse to flee camp whenever things became too much for me to handle. I can take any battle wound without turning a hair, but where feelings are concerned, I am a pitiful coward.

Absently I run my fingers over the neatly bandaged wound. She has done a good job. There is no sign of infection, and with her tiny, neat stitches I know there will be no scarring.

No, I will not run from her today. Gathering my courage, I rise to my feet.

I walk over to where she is sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees and staring into the fire, her scrolls and quill lying forgotten by her side.

I crouch down beside her, rest one hand on her shoulder and gently brush a strand of hair from her face with the other. I feel her stiffen, and I start to pull back, afraid I may have scared her and silently cursing myself for approaching her at all.

Her hand closes over mine and she pulls it to her mouth. A jolt runs through me as I feel her lips press against my palm. She looks up at me, and in her eyes there is something I had never hoped to see there. She is trembling. So am I, suddenly. I am certain it is not from fear, nor from being cold.

 

Unaware that the clatter of the keyboard had stopped, Xena continued her tale. "The thing I had dreamed about for so long, and never dared to speak of for fear of losing her... To find that suddenly mirrored in her eyes was... pure bliss. So I kissed her."

Isabelle was looking over her monitor at the warrior. "Hold it! You mean you kissed her, like, on the cheek."

Xena gave her a quizzical look. "No, I mean kiss, as in tender, searing, mouth-to-mouth, full-of-passion, no-holds-barred take-your-breath-away kind of kiss." She grinned at the memory. "Boy, was I weak in the knees afterwards!"

Isabelle stared at her, unable to find words.

Xena shrugged. "I won't say I'd planned this, but it seemed we both weren't able to keep back our true feelings any longer. We'd been in love with each other for so long, afraid to admit it..." She trailed off, and stared out the window, an unwarriorlike dreamy expression on her face.

"And... and then... after that... you...?"

Xena nodded, and grinned. "We became lovers. But it took time. We both needed to adjust."

"You mean you've actually... you... and Gabrielle...???"

"Uh huh."

"You were... together...? I mean, you've ... done... it? With her?"

Xena smirked. "Yes, we certainly have. She's very sweet and... imaginative"

"Oh, my god! But that's..."

"What?" An eyebrow raised in inquiry.

"That's not... I mean it... shouldn't be!"

The second eyebrow joined the first. "What would make you think that?"

"I mean, it's not natural, is it? It's ... weird! All my life I was taught...", he stammered and trailed off.

Blue eyes found Isabelle's green ones, and held them. "Isabelle, I love her, and she loves me. What can there be wrong with that?"

"I just can't imagine... Oh, Xena, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to anger or hurt you. It's just, I mean, I've seen couples... there are quite a few around here... but I've never... I mean, I've always... I've always been told it's wrong, wrong, wrong to... to feel that way about another woman. And I really can't imagine myself and... I mean..." She blushed and did not continue. "I am sorry," she finished lamely.

Xena had risen to her feet and was now standing by Isabelle's chair. She looked at the writer sadly. You really don't remember, do you," she asked so softly that Isabelle wasn't sure if the question was meant for her at all.

Isabelle met the tall woman's gaze. Drowned in a pool of pale blue. And suddenly realized that maybe, just maybe, all the truths that she had been carefully fed all her life might not be the only truths. What could there be wrong about love? "I don't know," she whispered.

After a few moments, Xena drew a breath and squared her shoulders. She gave Isabelle a lopsided grin. "Well? Are you gonna write that?"

Isabelle smiled and turned back to the screen. Soon the clacking of the keyboard once more filled the little study.

 

Later that evening, they lounged on the couch in the living room, in front of the TV, watching sitcoms. Some of the humor was lost on Xena, and sometimes she guffawed - Isabelle thought - in the wrong places. Obviously the humor of ancient Greece was quite different from that of modern day San Francisco. But all in all they both enjoyed themselves immensely.

The closing credits of Growing Pains were flickering across the screen, and Xena was trying to explain between fits of laughter why she thought Maggie yelling at her husband for denting a frying pan on a burglar's head was so damned funny, when the phone rang. Isabelle made no move to get up, which earned her a raised eyebrow from a still chuckling warrior.

The writer shrugged. It's Lilli. I don't want to talk to anyone now.

"How do you-"

The answering machine came to life, relaying Isabelle's message that she couldn't come to the phone, and would the caller please leave name and number. And sure enough, it was Lilli's voice that was on the other end. Xena's eyes widened and then narrowed suspiciously as she stared at the writer. Isabelle gave her another shrug and rolled her eyes at Lilli's message.

"Isa, where the hell are you? I called you at the office and they said you'd taken the day off. I tried to call you all morning. Call me soon, we need to plan for tomorrow. Call me, okay?" There was a click, and a beep as the machine subsided.

"How did you know it was her?" Xena asked.

Isabelle barked a laugh. "There were three messages from her on the machine when we got back from the Redwoods. Besides, who else is going to call me? It's not as if I have tons of friends around here. And mom only calls on Sundays."

"Well, aren't you going to talk to her?"

"Oh, not now. I don't know... I just can't be bothered now. But you know what? I'm starving. I think I'm gonna run down to Wong's real quick and grab some Chinese food to go." She got up and picked up her coat. "Will you be okay here, Xena?"

That got her a lazy smile. "Sure. Why don't you leave that TV thing running, and I'll see if I can figure out some more of that weird humor of yours." She rose smoothly to her feet and approached Isabelle. "But you be careful, okay? It's dark out."

"Don't worry. Wong's place is just next door. I'll be fine. I may be gone for a half hour or so. Wong is such a chatterbox, and I really don't have the heart to cut him off once he gets started."

"I wish you'd just stay here and take something out of that ice box of yours."

"Oh, Xena I'm sick of pizza. I'll be fine, I promise. I just need to get out of here for a few minutes. Okay?"

"Stubborn. Just like her," the warrior muttered. Aloud she said. "Please be careful. You know I can't pummel anyone to help you if you get in trouble. But if you're not back in half a mark, I'll come looking for you."

Isabelle smiled at her. "You do that. See you in a bit."

 

After the door had closed behind the writer, Xena flopped down on the couch and looked at the TV screen. To her faint disappointment, there was no comedy show on now, but the eight o'clock news. Slightly bored, she watched the commentator rattle off the latest occurrences. The woman might as well have spoken Germanic, for all the surly warrior could understand.

She gasped when the scene changed to show a woman that looked strikingly familiar. Tall, clad in black, striking blue eyes and a mane of jet black hair, the woman was the spitting image of herself. She was being led out of a big building by two burly men in uniform, and she was wearing handcuffs. Her finely chiseled face was a mask of cold pride.

"... been released into the custody of a mental institution this morning," the commentator was saying. "Corina Walker turned herself in on Tuesday. Apparently Walker is suffering from a severe mental disturbance, stating that the God of War is trying to take over the world, using her as a tool."

"Ares," Xena breathed. "So he's in this, too. I could have known."

The report continued to state that Corina Walker had been deemed insane, and would be put away and kept heavily medicated until the time of her trial.

Thoughts whirled in the warrior's head. Being convinced that the young woman she was with was none other than her beloved bard reborn, this left Xena with only one conclusion. This woman that was being put away somewhere and drugged must then be an incarnation of herself. Xena had heard Isabelle mention the terrorist. Obviously, though, the writer had not yet seen any pictures of the woman, or the resemblance between Corina and the warrior would have hit her like a hammer.

Xena's own place in this story was finally starting to come clear. And she did not like it at all.

"Gods no! Don't make me do that to her," the warrior whispered, horrified. But her strategic mind set to work even as her heart hoped fervently that she was wrong. Quickly she considered her options. First, she would have to find out where Corina Walker was being held. And then she'd have to try and find a way... She did not want to continue that line of thought right now. "I'm so sorry, Isabelle," she said softly.

Her mind turned inward, she did not notice right away that the screen had gone dark. Thinking the news were over, and hoping that another comedy was coming on, she focused her attention on the TV. She needed to lighten her mood before Isabelle got back. No sense in upsetting the young woman unnecessarily. There would be more than enough of that if Xena was to succeed, she mused bitterly.

Instead of going on to the next show, however, the screen stayed dark, except for three tiny letters written in golden print in the upper left corner, and a lazy swirl of red close to the center that gradually grew in intensity. Damn thing must be broken, she thought. She hoped Isabelle would be back soon to fix it. She was starting to get used to all the weird gadgets of this strange new world, but she still did not trust them completely.

"What the..." she exclaimed as a figure materialized from the red swirl. A painfully familiar figure, glaring at her from behind the glass of the TV set. He was darkly handsome, all dressed in black leather, dark hair falling in waves around his bearded face.

"I don't know who or what you are, woman, or how you got here, but you'd better stay out of my plans."

"Ares!" The warrior's eyes narrowed. "It figures."

The figure on the screen bristled. "Who are you calling a ram, woman? The name's Mars."

"Whatever," Xena agreed dryly. "I have to say that was a nice touch, appearing in the middle of a TV show. Really imaginative. Wouldn't have thought it of you."

"Do you have any idea who you're talking to?"

Xena was taken aback. He gave every indication of having no memory of her, something that she could not quite believe. She remembered the divine troublemaker well enough, after all! "Well," the warrior replied slowly. "Do you have any idea who you're talking to, Ares? You can't go around thinking of using my alter ego for your wicked machinations and not consider the fact that I just might have something against that."

"That's 'Mars'." A God of War does not pout, but this one came close.

"Mars, huh? Why, I believe they have a... whaddya call'em... a candy bar here by that name. How cute," Xena drawled.

Mars glared at her from the TV screen. His face was filling the picture now, larger than life. A vein stood out on his right temple, showing clearly that, despite the relative calm of his features, the God of War was not amused. "You don't only look like her, you're every bit as annoying, too, with some to spare," he growled. And then he muttered something she did not quite get, involving "delicious" and "sexy", while his face took on a lusty leer.

"Yeah well, even considering she's cuckoo, she has a long way to go until she's anywhere in my league. Isn't that right, Ares?"

His eyes narrowed dangerously as he advanced yet further, until it seemed the his nose must be touching the inside of the television screen. And indeed, a little flattened spot appeared on the tip of the divine nose. This close up, Xena could have counted the pores on his face, had she had a mind to. The letters in the upper corner changed to a dark red.

"Well, her state of mind need not concern you. But if I see that irritating blonde you're such friends with anywhere near her, I swear on My sword you are going to regret it. Both of you."

"Oh, so that's it Ares, huh? Afraid Gabrielle is going to take your precious toy from you yet again? The way she did with me? Great Zeus, that must have chafed, huh? The mighty God of War, beaten by a girl bard. Very bad form, Ares."

Xena's eyes flashed daggers at the TV set. Inside, her stomach was churning something awful. While she wasn't afraid for herself - what could he possibly do to her in her present form? - the threat to Isabelle was very real. She only hoped she would be able to bluff her way through, and keep Isabelle out of trouble. There was now no longer a question about why she was here - she had to get Corina out of Ares' clutches, and Isabelle was the key. That meant she had to put the young writer into considerable danger, while she herself would be unable to protect her, being a ghost. Well, Corina Walker, you had better be the warrior I believe you to be, she thought fervently.

"The..."

Mars retreated into the screen until his whole shapely body was visible. He was positively steaming. The letters in the top corner pulsed angrily.

"...name..."

The blackness behind him took on an eerie glow, outlining his dark form clearly as he drew himself up, looking very godly.

"...is..."

His rage was almost palpable as he raised his arm and pointed a finger in Xena's direction.

"MAAAARSSS," he roared, just as a flash of white-hot energy shot forth from his fingertip, passing unhindered through the glass of the screen and hitting the ghostly warrior squarely in the chest. Electricity crackled as a powerful jolt made her limbs go stiff.

The pain was excruciating. Xena felt herself lift into the air and fly backwards, slamming full force against a wall that should have been insubstantial to her, and sliding to the floor in a crumpled heap. But she knew she had gotten the better of him in this discussion, and it brought a small, self-satisfied smile to her lips despite the painful tingles that shot through her.

Unable to move from the shock to her system, she could only stare as the figure in the TV set faded, and the letters in the top corner expanded to cover the screen, golden in color once more and rotating prettily, while a sweet female voice announced, "This broadcast of TV Olymp was brought to you by 'Ambrosia - the snack that really lifts you up'. And now back to our regular program."

The letters rotated into blackness, and then the opening credits of Seinfeld flashed across the screen. Just then the sound of a key in the door alerted Xena to the writer coming back. She picked herself up awkwardly, trying to work the stiffness out of her body. Her hair was sticking up around her head like a black halo, charged with electricity. Every movement was pure white-hot agony, but she gritted her teeth and forced her protesting ethereal body to cooperate.

 

Thus Isabelle found her walking stiffly from the wall back to the couch, her face a rigid mask, jaw clenched tightly. Belatedly it occurred to the ghost warrior that she could have faded out until she recovered, but already Isabelle was by her side, concern in her gentle green eyes.

"Goodness, Xena, what happened to you?" She sat the cardboard box containing the food on the table and examined the dark woman with her eyes.

Thinking quickly, the warrior decided to stick as close to the truth as possible. "I don't know... I must have gotten too close to that TV thing. Something shocked me."

Isabelle nodded. "That happens. The screen's got some static, and when you touch it, you get charged." She smirked suddenly. "And I guess it has a lot more effect on you when you're insubstantial." The writer bit her lip, taking in the hair snaking up from the warrior's head, and the rigidity of her movements. "You know, you're quite a sight," she said fighting the giggles.

"Oh very funny," Xena muttered darkly.

Isabelle sobered a little. "I'm sorry. It's just... does it hurt?"

"Not really," the warrior lied, forcing a smile. "Tingles a little."

"Okay." Isabelle's face twitched madly, amusement battling with concern. Xena's grin was a little too wooden for her words to be entirely true. "I'm going to touch you - to discharge the electricity. This might be uncomfortable for a sec. Ready?" When Xena nodded, Isabelle reached out and touched a fingertip to the warrior's forearm. The jolt that shot through them was a lot stronger than she had anticipated, and the young woman gasped as she staggered backward.

Xena was similarly affected, and now it was her turn to be concerned as she looked over at the young woman. Isabelle, however, recovered quickly. She shook her head to clear it and wriggled her fingers to get rid of the tingles. "Wow," she breathed, "that was a sizzler. Feel better now?"

The warrior's hair settled down slowly, and an experimental flexing of her muscles revealed only a slight stiffness and a tremor that was rapidly fading. She looked at Isabelle in wonder. "Yeah. You must have a healer's touch."

"Nah," Isabelle said smugly, "just elementary physics. You've been grounded."

"Whatever," Xena agreed, the pun lost on her.

"Xena?"

"What?"

"Keep away from the TV screen from now on, okay?"

The warrior barked a laugh. "No problem there, bard!"

Despite Isabelle's reservations, Xena insisted that she would be fine as long as she stayed at a safe distance from the TV set, and so they sat watching shows while Isabelle consumed an incredible amount of chicken chop suey.

Xena watched her as she ate. She chuckled and shook her head. "Two thousand years have done nothing to lessen your appetite, my friend," she said with a smile. Isabelle gave her a puzzled look. Xena just shrugged and flashed those white teeth at her.

"Well, Wong seems to be convinced that I'm too skinny, and he takes every opportunity to fatten me up," she said around a mouthful. "Can't say I mind him slipping me all those extras, though."

After finishing her food, Isabelle took the empty plate into the kitchen, just as another news flash came on. It took a supreme effort of will on Xena's part not to gasp aloud as the pictures of Corina Walker were shown once more. Holding her breath, she listened to the writer bustle in the kitchen. If only she were solid enough to manipulate that control thingy, and do that 'zap' stuff! It would never do for Isabelle to see the terrorist's face now!

When she heard Walker's name mentioned, Isabelle's honey-haired head poked out from the doorframe, just in time to see the rather shapely jeans-clad posterior of the infamous terrorist disappear into a squad car.

Unaware of one warrior sinking back onto the couch in weak relief, Isabelle said, "I wonder what kind of a person she is. I mean, do you really think she's mad? But if she isn't, what would make her turn herself in?"

Xena sighed. "I'm sure she's not nearly as mad as they think she is," she said quietly.

"Even though she says she's talked to the Wargod, Mars?"

"Yup. Even so."

Isabelle sighed. "Well, I'm sure we'll be seeing more of her. Anyway, I suppose I'd better go see what Lilli has to say."

The reluctance in the young writer's voice did not go unnoticed by a certain ghostly Warrior Princess. She sauntered over to the little study's door and sprawled on her favorite chair as she watched Isabelle punch Lilli's number into the cordless phone. Then Isabelle held the device to her ear, and waited.

And waited.

"Oh well. Got your machine on, do you," she murmured into the device. "...you can leave me a message after the beep," she mimicked her sister's voice with rolled eyes, "BEEP!" She put down the receiver.

"You know, it's strange," Xena remarked wryly, "people look at you funny for talking to invisible friends, but nobody turns a hair when you speak gibberish into a little hand-held 'phone'. What was that about?"

"Nothing. It's just that she turned on her answering machine. I don't like talking to the thing. I don't like the thought that she might be home and just listening in to see who's calling before she decides to answer."

The warrior cocked an eyebrow.

"Whaat?"

She was answered by a meaningful look at Isabelle's own answering machine that was still blinking with Lilli's last message, and a wiggle of said eyebrow.

"Um, well," Isabelle said defensively, "that was different."

"If you say so," Xena said with a shrug.

"Yeah well, anyway, I-"

She was cut off by the ringing of the doorbell. She sighed softly. "I guess that would be her," she surmised as she went to answer the door.

 

"Lilli, you are becoming obsessive," Isabelle told the young woman when she walked through he door.

Lilli was taken aback. "Obsessive? What's wrong with coming to see my big sister? Don't I at least get a hello?"

"Hi," Isabelle pouted. Xena stood leaning against the doorframe of the kitchen, watching them.

"Well, I'm sorry, but when you weren't at work, and I couldn't reach you here, I got worried. You know, the thugs and all..."

"Well, I decided to take the day off, because I needed a break. I went for a drive."

"A drive? All by yourself?"

"Well.. yes. You got a problem with that?"

"Of course not."

"So?"

"Well, but you could have left me a message or something. Jesus, Isabelle! We were supposed to meet up and plan our trip!"

Xena's voice came to her from the kitchen door. "She's treating you like a baby. Tell her to stop it. You're a grown woman."

"Stop treating me like a baby, Lilli. I'm a grown woman," Isabelle said heatedly. Her eyes flicked to the ghostly warrior, who was lounging in the doorway, studying her fingernails.

"Listen, I'm not... I mean of course you're a grown woman, Isa" Lilli said, sounding hurt. "I just wanted to make sure you're okay."

"Yeah, well, I am." Isabelle felt an unreasonable anger at her sister. Sure, she had a tendency to sulk when she thought she was being neglected, but then that was what little sisters did, wasn't it? She tried to soften a little. "Look, Lil, I've had a couple of hard days. I just need a break, okay?

Lilli sighed. "Did you at least call the police?"

Xena strolled over to where Lilli was standing. "She's doing it again, Isabelle," she said, studying the young woman with a certain detached arrogance. "Trying to mother you."

"Lilli," Isabelle said, with a lot more patience than she felt, "we already had that discussion. Stop telling me what to do."

"What is wrong with you, Isabelle? You're acting so strangely lately, I hardly know you anymore."

Xena started to circle Isabelle's sister, never taking her eyes off her. She made the writer think of a cat stalking a caged bird. Isabelle found it rather disturbing to watch, especially since Lilli was quite unaware of the predatory attention bestowed upon her.

"Well, lady" the warrior said in a silky tone, "It'S about time she showed you who's boss. You never dreamed she'd kick your sorry little ass this w-"

"Xena!" Isabelle exclaimed, shocked.

"What?" Xena and Lilli said together.

Isabelle looked from one to the other. The warrior ghost with that somewhat fixed smile on her face, her sister looking at her as if in doubt whether she still had all her marbles. The situation was so absurd it made her want to cry.

She took several deep, slow breaths before speaking. "Look, Lil, I'm sorry. Let's just drop it, okay? Why don't we go sit down and have some tea? I was just going to make me a cup."

Lilli gave her an odd look, and took a breath to speak. But instead she just shrugged, with Xena mirroring the gesture as they made their way into the living room.

 

Glad for the temporary respite, Isabelle went into the kitchen to put the kettle to boil. God, she had done it again! Spoken out loud to the warrior when there was someone there to hear. She could only hope Lilli hadn't caught on.

"What the hell were you thinking, Xena," she murmured to no-one in particular. "Are you trying t make me look like a loon?" She rummaged loudly in her cubboard to get the cups and saucers, banging doors and drawers with somewhat more force than strictly necessary. It was probably that rotten sense of humor again. And yet, the way the warrior kept looking at Lilli, one could almost think she was jealous. But that made no sense!

"Oh my God," she murmured, "tell me this ain't happening! I must be so off my rocker. An invisible woman warrior ghost wanting me all to herself..." She shook her head and chuckled mirthlessly. The funny thing was, the ghost had a pretty good chance of getting her wish if she kept this up. Because everybody else was just going to steer clear of her.

"You okay?" Xena's soft voice rumbled from the doorway.

Flushing, she turned to look at the warrior. "How long have you been standing there?"

"Long enough," Xena smirked. Then she sobered. Her jaw clenched and she was chewing her tongue as she groped for words. "Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... Hades, I was being a bitch out there." The warrior crossed the distance between them and leaned against the counter, while Isabelle arranged the cups and the tea on a tablet, and waited for the water to boil.

Isabelle kept her voice a low murmur as she replied. "She's my sister, Xena. And my best friend. I've never been closer to anyone, ever"

Xena attempted a smile, but it came out as a somewhat sickly grimace. "Well..."

"Yeah," Isabelle chided gently, "next time, don't make me yell at you in front of her! Or anyone else for that matter."

"All right," Xena agreed, the grin seeming forced on her angled features. "I'll try to behave when little Miss Perky's around."

"Xena," Isabelle hissed.

Xena shrugged and rolled her eyes.

Isabelle threw up her hands.

 

The evening went well enough once tea was served, with Xena keeping fairly quiet and even grinning at times in the right places. Though, truth be told, she looked ready to do mayhem any moment even so. Isabelle had regained her equilibrium, and Lilli was quick to forgive her her earlier outburst. Not one word was lost about the calling of Xena's name. Things slowly went back to normal.

And then Lilli asked if he could see how her story was coming along.

"Um... Lil, I don't know... I'm not sure it's ready." For some reason, the thought of her baby sister seeing the rather graphic description of Xena's and Gabrielle's 'first time' together made her stomach churn. She had been reluctant to write it, and had only done so at Xena's insistence. She fought a slight grin when she remembered how the surly warrior had described the scene, the tenderness she'd glimpsed hidden behind Xena's usual gruff, clipped speech. And Isabelle had to admit she'd found herself enjoying it in the end. Well, sort of. In a detached, purely artistic sort of way. No more.

"Why not, Isa? You've got a terrific start there. I'd really like to see where it's going.

"I know you would, it's just that... it's very... personal..."

"Isabelle, we are talking about a character you invented here. How can it be 'personal'?"

Isabelle blushed a little, her gaze going to the warrior once again seated on the chair by the study's door. "I know, but..."

"Aw, come on," Xena said, "let her read it. I don't mind. Much." Her eyes glittered.

Isabelle was about to reply, but caught herself before the first word left her lips. Instead, she turned to Lilli. "If you're sure..."

If Lilli had caught her questioning look to the chair by the door, she didn't let on.

"Sure I'm sure," Lilli and Xena said together. Isabelle bit her lip to keep from screaming hysterically.

 
Continued in Part 3...

 

 

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