The Crazed Ramblings Of A Madwoman

- Part 4 -

by Verrath

The warrior speaks...

Bloody Tartarus and all the freakin' Gods on Olymp, I guess I've done it now. I feel rotten. Lost her again, and by my own doing. I keep doing all those terrible things. Who am I without her? I can't even bloody speak right without her smoothing my words, sheesh. But I had to do it, didn't I? Gods, I hope it was what I had to do. If I was wrong...

Just goes to show again, nothing like not being with someone to show you how much more you are when they are with you.

Please, let this be the right thing!

 

A hospital room, some time later ...

Isabelle awoke squinting at a bright white ceiling. She smacked her lips drowsily; her tongue felt like a pelt-covered rock. A rotten taste in her mouth made her jerk to a sitting position, dry-heaving several times before she sank back into the cushions with a groan. Her head felt rather too large for her shoulders, throbbing insistently.

She had no clue where she was. Her last memory was of this Gail Branigan person asking questions about her childhood, and Xena being unusually obnoxious, even considering the past events.

She groaned softly when she realized she was in some sort of hospital. However, try as she might, memory would not return to her.

A wordless moan off to her side made her turn her head. There was another occupied bed, and beyond that several more that were empty, starched white sheets shining whitely.

The woman next to her moaned again, a throaty sound like gravel grinding against gravel. She was awfully pale. With dark rings under her closed eyes and sunken cheeks, she looked like death walking. Straggly, off-blonde hair completed the picture. She might have been a few years older than Isabelle; it was hard to say with her face quite obviously lined beyond her years. It seemed she was only half-conscious. All but her face was covered by a light, white sheet.

"Hello," Isabelle said after clearing her throat several times. Her voice sounded just like the inside of her mouth felt - like dry parchment. She saw the woman flinch at being spoken to, watched sunken eyes flicker open, large dark eyes with a look of hunted deer in them.

The woman did not return her greeting. Instead, she lay there muttering under her breath. Isabelle thought she caught the words "she's here, oh, fuckin' Christ, she's here", but she was not sure that was what the woman had actually said. Shortly after, the stranger sank back into a restless stupor.

"Good to see you, too," Isabelle muttered wryly, but the woman might have been a corpse for all the reaction she showed.

Isabelle scanned the room for any sign of where she might be. Carefully, she tried sitting up again, and this time it was only her head that protested, although she still felt nauseous.

Before she could twist around enough to swing her legs out of the bed, a nurse came bustling into the room, carrying a tray, looking for all the world as if she was just doing her round, although something on her face made Isabelle suspect she had come in here to check on her patients, seeing that one of them was trying to get up.

"What happened? Where am I?"

"You're safe," the nurse said, not unkindly. "No-one is going to hurt you here. No warriors allowed in this place, you see."

Isabelle groaned again, but not from pain. What had happened? And, more importantly, where was Xena? Why wasn't she here? Well, she might be afraid of the tongue-lashing Isabelle had ready for her. She knew all this was somehow the warrior's fault. She just could not remember how.

And yet, she desperately craved her ghostly companion's presence. It was a longing that somehow went deeper than her anger, deeper than life itself. But how could she explain that to anyone, even herself? If anything, the feeling was taking an even firmer hold on her.

"Xena never hurt me," she told the nurse, and for once she did not flinch and blush, even when she realized what she had said. It just did not seem to matter right now.

"I'm sure, dear." When she was certain Isabelle would not jump up and cause more trouble, the nurse's attention turned to Isabelle's bed neighbor, who had her eyes open and was staring sightlessly. Her chest twitched erratically with gasps of labored breath.

"What's with her?" Isabelle asked cautiously, and was half surprised when the nurse replied.

"Severe traumatic stress condition. She's been bad before, never like this until-" She never finished the sentence. "Poor thing lost her folks in a terrorist strike. They bombed the restaurant they were eating in. But I shouldn't be telling you this." She adjusted the other woman's blanket briskly, and muttered something to her that seemed to calm her down briefly.

She set the tray holding a covered plate and a small pitcher of tea onto the table next to Isabelle's bed. A little gruffly, she said, "You must be hungry. Eat, and then get some more sleep. You've had a rough time."

With that, she left them.

Oh my god, they've put me in a nuthouse, Isabelle thought, I can't believe it!

She closed her eyes briefly, wishing Xena was here. She must have said something out loud, because the strange, pale woman suddenly moaned loudly. Her eyes were wide, as if seeing the horrors of a thousand nightmares, her mouth moving wordlessly.

Isabelle suddenly remembered an incident a few years ago, when she had first moved to San Francisco. Some terror organization had bombed a restaurant just outside of Chinatown, a specialty place called the Cirra Buffet, if she remembered correctly. Many people had been injured, and more than ten, including the owner, had been killed. She wondered if that was the place the nurse had talked about.

But, since she could not hope to get a coherent response, she shrugged and reached for the tray, resigning herself to following the nurse's advice.

Where was Xena?

She wanted to go home.

 

Isabelle's living room, same time ...

A somewhat dejected but definitely frustrated warrior sat on Isabelle's living room couch, fingers almost caressing the remote control that was as insubstantial to her as Argo passing wind, and every bit as annoying with its tantalizing presence.

She sensed Isabelle's distress, wanted very much to go to her, even if it meant facing her friend's well-justified ire. Not that she hadn't tried. Something, some unseen force, prevented her from entering the room where they had put the bard.

If Xena could have kicked something at that moment, she would have. But it was useless kicking objects your foot passed right through, nor did it help vent her frustration in the slightest. While living in this insubstantial place did have its perks, there was no end to the pitfalls, either.

Just when she was making up her mind to go back to that place and just sort of hover about until a way in presented itself, a flicker on the TV screen caught her eye.

The brief hope that she had somehow been able to manipulate that remote control after all died instantly when she saw a dull red glow appear in the center of the screen, throbbing lazily. She did not need to see the three small letters appear in the upper left corner to experience a quite unwelcome dejà vu.

Nor did she wait for the familiar face to materialize on screen before she grimaced and growled, "What do you want now, Ares?"

"That's 'Mars'," the War God's voice boomed fuzzily, his outline still a blur. Gaining clarity, he continued, "You realize you have angered me, don't you? I told you to keep out of my way, but you had to go and interfere. I am trying to keep my Chosen away from that irritating blonde and her influence."

"Oh, really?" Xena drawled, a slow smile spreading on her face despite the danger she knew herself to be in from this pseudo-Ares being. If he did not approve of what she was doing, it must be right.

Unfortunately, her grin did not exactly lighten the War God's mood.

"Why you arrogant little..."

An insane urge drove Xena to taunt Mars further, even though she was well aware of the fact that he could cause her intense pain at the very least, and quite possibly more permanent damage, too. She arched an eyebrow. "Amazing, how I, a mere mortal, can prove to be such a challenge for you and all your godly powers. But then I suppose you've always had that blind spot where tall, dark, female warriors are concerned, haven't you... Ares?"

Mars growled wordlessly. With a visible effort, he smoothed his features. "Don't be so sure," he said. "Consider this your final warning. If I find you've been meddling one more time, I'll make you sorry your mother ever laid eyes on your father." The hard glint in his eyes belied the mildness of his tone.

"Interesting you'd bring up my father," Xena murmured.

"What's that?"

"Never mind. You realize I have to do what I was sent here to do, right? It's the only way I can get back to my own life. And believe me, I can hardly wait to be out of here."

"Whatever," Mars said crossly.

"You know, this would have been so much easier if you'd just let things go the way they were destined to be. You didn't have much luck keeping us apart in my world, either.

"I don't know whether you think you can confuse me with your strange allusions, but it's not working. I am the God of War, strumpet, not some idiot mortal."

Realization struck. But of course! He doesn't know! He has no clue about me and my reality... I was wondering about that before. Not all-powerful after all.... Well, that might come in handy some time.

Xena smiled crookedly. "Just as well you're not the God of Brains," she murmured to herself, making sure he caught the words. "That would be the bane of civilization."

The warrior squared her shoulders. It was time to go back to the hospital and do some more hovering. She quickly slipped out of the room, leaving an irate god to hurl angry bolts of electricity through the screen at an empty living room.

He did not see her draw a relieved breath when it was clear that she was out of his range. For now, anyway.

 

The hospital room...

Relief was nowhere in sight for Isabelle, however. It was not long before she found out that the doors to the room were locked, and a surveillance camera mounted in a corner above their heads. No doubt about it - she was trapped. Her neighbor never stirred beyond an occasional burst of panic, but appeared too weak to do more than rise up briefly only to collapse again like an empty sack.

Thankfully, though, the nurse had let drop that she was to be released from sick ward later today. Not for home, but to wherever she would be staying. On second thought, that did not seem any more promising. At least it would get her away from the unnerving blonde and her gaunt, haunted eyes.

The drug they had given her was still effective, blurring her vision and filling her limbs with molasses. Because of this, and because she had nothing else to do, Isabelle slept.

 

She woke up with the nurse's face hovering over her. Opening her eyes was painful. The room still seemed too bright somehow, but maybe it was just from all that wool that her head seemed to be stuffed with. She smacked her lips experimentally; the rotten taste was less, but still there.

In the bed next to hers, the other woman was now moaning continuously. Was that what had woken her up?

"She's awake, Doctor."

Doctor? What doctor? What am I doing here. Xena?

"Ah, good." The voice was male.

"How are you feeling, Miss Barnes?" This was the nurse again.

We all die eventually.

Not today.

"Lousy," Isabelle croaked. "What did you give me, rat poison?"

The nurse giggled uneasily.

"As I understand, you made quite a spectacle of yourself in Mrs. Branigan's office," the doctor, a lean young man with tousled hair, told her as he approached her bed. A small label sewn to his lab coat proclaimed 'Dr. J. Nikolaidis, MD'. "It seems they had to give you enough tranquilizer to take out a rhino." He winked.

"When do I get out of here?" Isabelle did not respond to his attempted humor, even though her subconscious registered the fact that he appeared a nice enough guy.

Dr. Nikolaidis cleared his throat. "As a matter of fact, that's what we're here to find out." He proceeded to take her pulse, check her pupils, and test her reflexes, until finally he was satisfied that she could, indeed, leave the sick ward.

Not for home, though.

 

From just outside sick ward, Xena watched Isabelle being taken to the room she was to occupy for the time being.

For some reason, she was unable to enter the hospital room, or get near enough to make herself known to Isabelle. Every time she tried, she encountered some sort of intangible barrier that was nothing like a wall, but just as effective in its own way.

The dull, throbbing pain that seemed to suffuse every one of her ghostly nerves, she would have taken willingly. But, whenever she crossed that barrier, an unspeakable lethargy took hold of her. It began like a tingle in her limbs, and intensified until she seemed wrapped in solidifying water, cold and sluggish.

As much as she wanted to, she was simply unable to get any closer to Isabelle than about a hundred paces. Even Isabelle's accusing stare would not have kept her away. In fact, she would have welcomed seeing it.

The warrior did not understand exactly what was to happen to her friend, except that she was to remain in this place to be treated for a psychological condition only Xena knew she was not suffering from.

Of course, if she was correct, things were going as planned, but Xena did not have to like it.

 

"Well, I suppose I could have been worse off," Isabelle mumbled bitterly to herself as she flopped down on the squeaky bed that had been allotted to her along with a night table and a tall, gray, metal closet. The bag full of clothes and accessories, which her mother had thoughtfully packed for her in the meantime, sat on the floor in front of it. She hardly glanced at it.

Hers wasn't the only bed. It appeared she was sharing the room with more people, although she suspected that one of the two other beds was unoccupied, being stripped to the worn gray and white mattress. A couple of linen sheets and a pillow were stacked neatly at one end. The closet next to it was open, and empty. Just as well. A plain table, two chairs and a wooden stand holding an ancient-looking TV-set completed the furnishings.

Still in a kind of numb stupor, she got up and walked to the window at the far end of the longish room. Barred. For the protection of the patients, she surmised. At least they had put some curtains on it, making the room look a little less like a cell. Of course, it was not a cell, she had been told. Nothing like the single rooms in the high security wing. In this section, she was free to walk about the entire floor, visit with people, watch TV, that sort of thing.

With a slight shudder, Isabelle tried to picture what type of people would be kept in a 'high security wing'. Slavering lunatics rattling the bars of their rickety cages? Maniacs having to be chained to their beds and kept under heavy sedation? An old movie came to mind - "A Nun's Story" starring Audrey Hepburn. Surely they kept their "arch angels" safely secluded?

Her giggle had a hysterical tinge. "Well, isn't that great," she said aloud, "I've barely arrived here and already my mind is running amuck. Sheesh, chains and rattling bars... I really am nuts." She shook her head, noting with passing satisfaction that the slush that was her brain seemed firmer now; the sedative they had given her must be wearing off at last.

"Who are you talking to?"

The voice, so close behind her, nearly startled Isabelle out of her skin, and she whirled to look into a familiar set of eyes. "You."

"Hey," said Xena. Her outline seemed to waver, a little like a bad TV transmission. Once, she even winked out for the blink of an eye.

"You've got a lot of nerve to show up now." Isabelle crossed her arms and looked away.

"Well, I-"

"What took you so long?"

"I couldn't-"

"And how could you?"

"I had to-"

"Do you have any idea what it means to be in here?" For emphasis, Isabelle gave the bars on the window a rattle. "I'm a goddamn prisoner here!"

Xena growled. "Will you let me finish what I'm trying to say, for Tartarus' sake?"

"Okay, fine, go on."

Xena chewed the inside of her cheek.

"Well?"

"It's... complicated."

"Oh really? As far as I see it, you made a fool of me several times even after promising you wouldn't anymore, which ended up getting me here, and then you just went away and left me on my own in this... place! Doesn't sound all that complicated to me."

"I'm sorry." Xena's voice was almost too soft to hear. "Besides, I sort of figured you wouldn't be terribly pleased to see me."

"I wish I could say that," Isabelle said, sighing. "But, I am glad to see you. It must be that drug messing with my brain." She smiled wryly.

Xena's face lit up in a surprised half-grin. "I missed you, too, you know."

"But still..." said Isabelle.

"Yeah, I know." The warrior sounded pained. "I wish I could make you understand."

"What's there to understand? You have the most awful sense of humor I've ever seen."

"It's not funny."

"No, it's not," Isabelle agreed and turned to look out of the window. An awkward silence followed.

When Xena spoke, her voice was strangely harsh. "I hope some day you'll understand why I did what I did."

"Why don't you tell me, then?" Isabelle did not turn around.

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"It's forbidden."

"Forbidden?"

"Yes. And I'm not even supposed to say that much."

"Oh great, now you're going to go all secretive on me?"

"I'm sorry. I don't have a choice." She walked closer to the smaller woman, until their arms were almost touching. "And hey..."

"What?"

"You know, one good thing about being here..."

Isabelle scowled. "And that would be what?"

Xena grinned crookedly. "No-one around here will think anything of it if you talk out loud to me."

Isabelle threw up her hands. "Just what I've always wanted," she exclaimed.

"Yeah well.." The warrior flickered in and out again.

"What's wrong with you? You seem... unstable."

Xena grimaced. "I don't know. But it's still hard for me to even be here. I couldn't come near you at all for a while. There was some sort of barrier..."

"That's weird."

Xena nodded. "At first I thought it was something about this place... maybe I'm getting used to whatever it is." She shrugged. "Well, I'm here now."

Isabelle frowned, concerned. "You're sure you're okay, though?"

Xena nodded. "Nothing like a few obstacles and a little pain to make a warrior's life interesting, right?"

"Uh huh," Isabelle was doubtful.

"Now... I believe your mother put some scro- some paper into that bag over there... do we still have a story to write...?"

Isabelle considered for a long time, her simmering anger clearly warring with her love for the warrior and the desire to tell a good story. Xena's face was carefully blank while she waited for the other woman to reply.

"I guess we do," said Isabelle finally.

 

The warrior speaks...

Of all the bad things that can happen to a warlord on her way to redemption, easily the worst is having an angry bard to deal with. And when she is justifiably angry, then fighting all the demons in the Underworld at once would be a welcome reprieve.

Unfortunately, at the moment, she has every right to be angry.

The week has started out fairly well, really, despite a slight drizzle that seems to have a habit of appearing whenever our spirits are in danger of rising during this dreary sea voyage back from Chin.

Gabrielle, of course, would have preferred to make the journey by land. But I, being my pragmatic and insensitive self, quickly overruled her and got us on a boat. I have always found travel by sea to be a lot less strenuous, not to mention faster and more convenient, than going by cart or horseback, let alone on foot. Even a warrior likes a few comforts every now and then.

As I so often seem to do when it comes to her, I was not thinking. My bard sees things differently. I suppose that is understandable, considering she has spent the better part of a mostly calm trip - surprisingly calm, actually - bent double at the railing with green face and pallid lips. The sight brings back uncomfortably why she protested in the first place.

Once this morning, I walked up to her and took her flaccid little hand, meaning to tell her I was sorry, but no words would come. She stared me down with bloodshot eyes and yanked her hand away with more force than I would have thought possible, considering her condition. She never even gave me a chance to offer using Pressure Points to relieve her misery. Yes, this is me, the Destroyer of Nations, unable yet again to prevail against the silent reproach of one little girl. Woman, I should say. I still catch myself tripping over that, strangely enough.

So, what to do to make up? After all, going by sea will shave off several weeks of our journey home. I felt that it was the right thing to do. At this time, however, I am not so sure. Not when she looks at me that way.

 

Isabelle looked up from her writing and raised an eyebrow at the warrior. "This is not related to recent events, by any chance?"

"Yep," said Xena sheepishly, pointing "That would be the kind of look I'm talking about."

Isabelle rolled her eyes and went back to writing.

 

I very much fear that this time, it is going to take a while until she will speak with me again. I suppose I deserve it.

 

Gail Branigan's consultation room, the next morning...

"All right then, Isabelle. Tell me how you first met your 'warrior'"

The way Gail Branigan said the word 'warrior' made Isabelle bristle. She leaned back in her armchair with a flat stare. "You're mocking me."

Gail smiled benignly, but the knuckles on the hand that gripped her pen looked white. This had been going on for some time.

"I know she is real to you, Isabelle."

"You have no idea," Isabelle mumbled, glancing at the tall figure that stood poised behind the other woman's chair.

"I am not mocking you, Isabelle." Gail Branigan followed her patient's gaze. "You are looking at her right now, right? She is standing here beside me, isn't she?"

"Damn right I am, woman." Xena drew her Chakram.

"Yes," said Isabelle, flinching.

"And what is she doing?"

Xena growled.

Isabelle giggled hysterically. "You don't wanna know."

"Tell me. Is she talking to you?"

"Not really."

"Then what?" said Gail. "You aren't very cooperative, you know."

Isabelle's jaw dropped as she watched the ghostly warrior draw the Chakram through Gail's throat. It left no mark, of course.

"What did you do that for?" She asked Xena, before she could catch herself.

"Do what?" Gail asked, scratching her throat where the insubstantial blade had just touched it. Isabelle shuddered.

"Never mind."

"Isabelle, what did she do? You'll have to tell me, or we will be here for a very long time."

"She just slit your throat, if you must know," Isabelle said a touch sullenly.

Gail leaned back and twiddled the pen between her fingers. "So, you want to be rid of me?"

"No, woman, I want to be rid of you," Xena snarled.

"I don't," Isabelle said, trying not to notice that Xena had put her Chakram away and was now honing her sword. The screeching noise of the metal against the whetstone grated one's nerves. Isabelle rubbed her arms briskly; goose bumps were rising on her skin.

Gail raised an eyebrow.

"Xena wants to be rid of you," Isabelle said. "But then, maybe she's just doing it because she knows it freaks me out," she added with a dangerous glare at her invisible companion.

Xena gave her an apologetic grin, but continued sharpening her sword.

"Honestly, Miss Branigan-"

"Gail. Call me Gail."

"Gail. Honestly, you should see her, she is the one who is behaving like a complete nut, not me."

Gail nodded thoughtfully, and made some notes in a folder on her desk. Isabelle would have loved to know what those notes were; what did these people think her problem was? For God's sake, what was her problem anyway?

Xena craned her neck and peered over the therapist's shoulder. "I thought your writing was bad," she remarked to Isabelle, and got a scowl in response. "Let's see now... 'patient calm, if uncooperative' - she means you," Xena looked up briefly and grinned. "'projecting own emotions and aggressions onto imaginary companion. Apparently way to keep own emotions in check, as appears mellow and mildly indignant with said companion. No imminent violence.'"

"What utter rubbish," Isabelle replied. "I'm not projecting anything. I'm not even feeling aggressive - well, I'm getting there, and I'm certainly 'indignant', but-" She broke off.

Gail did a double take and slammed the folder shut. The force of the movement sent the pen clattering to the wooden floor, where it spun around noisily a few times before coming to rest at the therapist's feet.

The warrior was irate. "I don't need 'projections' to know a nuisance when I see one!"

The therapist looked slightly pale. Eyeing the pen on the floor but not bending down to pick it up, she said, "How did you -" she looked over her shoulder, then back at Isabelle, who tried to keep her face as blank as she could make it.

Gail cleared her throat. Opening the folder with one hand, she took a spare pen from her drawer and scribbled some more, every now and then shooting a glance at Isabelle, who looked back at her innocently. Her left arm was shielding the paper from her patient's view.

The invisible warrior behind her was another matter, though.

"Oooh," said Xena, "she wants to get you tested... she thinks you may be a psychic."

Isabelle snorted, causing Gail to look up at her with a mix of apprehension and professional curiosity.

"Lady, I am no more a psychic than you are. She is reading out loud to me, that's how I know."

Gail looked around again, shaken.

"Although it surprises me sometimes that she can read at all," Isabelle murmured, getting an indignant "hmpf" from the warrior in reply.

"I think we're going to call it a day, Isabelle," Gail said, looking at her watch. "I want you to take the pills the nurse gave you, three times a day, and I will see you again in two days." She cleared her throat and smoothed her trousers.

Isabelle checked the time on the large clock on the wall behind Gail's desk. "We've got fifteen minutes left," she said, and leaned back in her chair, draping an arm lazily over the armrest.

"Yes, I realize that, " said Gail. She leaned back in her chair and drew a shaky breath. "However," she added (with a little too much force, Isabelle thought) "I think this has been a rather... difficult session, and you could use a reprieve. Take that medication, it will do you good. I hear you like writing? Why don't you write down your feelings about all this, and we can talk about what you've written next time?" Her eyes flicked to the phone; she would be calling a few people about this session, Isabelle thought.

"I'll think about it." Isabelle grinned inwardly. Her stay in this place might yet prove to be a bit more interesting than she had thought.

 

A few days later...

"Isabelle, it seems you have not been taking your medication." The nurse in charge of her looked at her sternly.

Isabelle, although feeling as if she had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, tried to look scandalized. "But I have!"

"You're getting pretty good at acting," Xena, standing by the window in Isabelle's room, said wryly. "I almost bought it."

Meanwhile, Isabelle's roommate, Tara, sniffed and pointed a finger at her. "Down the sink is where she poured them! I saw!"

"Quiet you," Isabelle muttered grumpily. It was not entirely clear who she meant, but Tara stuck out her tongue.

A comely girl in her late teens, Tara had been classified as a schizophrenic. Many times, she would just sit or stand there speaking gibberish - she had called Isabelle "Mavis" on their first meeting. However, during those moments when she was more or less firmly grounded in this world, she was positively insufferable. Like right now.

The nurse, a plump young woman named Nell with a no-nonsense look about her, quirked an eyebrow. "Well?"

Isabelle said nothing.

"Listen, dearie," said Nell, not unkindly "if you want to go home soon, you will have to cooperate. This medication will help you get back on track in no time." The motherly smile she gave Isabelle looked odd in a face that was about the same age as Isabelle herself. "Send that warrior woman back where she came from, and make your life get back to normal, it will be a breeze. Just you be good. Right?"

"Now wait a minute... " Xena said, drawing herself up to full warrior posture.

Isabelle, holding out her hand to her friend in a placating gesture, gave the nurse a nod. "Right," she said without enthusiasm, and was relieved to see the Warrior Princess relax her stance. Marginally.

The nurse gave her a box with a new dose of the drug, two nondescript white pills the size of a Tic Tac. "Here you go, then."

To Isabelle's utter dismay, the nurse would not leave until she was convinced that this time the drug had been taken; she even went so far as to make Isabelle open her mouth and lift her tongue to make sure the pills hadn't been stowed away somewhere.

Xena stood by, watching with a half-puzzled, half-amused look that she tried very hard to hide.

"Happy now?" Isabelle mumbled, washing down the filthy taste of the drug with more water.

"Yes, dearie," the woman said, and actually patted her cheek before leaving!

"That's one tough broad," Xena said appreciatively. "She would've made a good tavern keeper."

"Yes, but unfortunately, she is not," Isabelle growled at the door where the nurse had just left. "I hate taking this stuff. I don't want to know what it does to me. I feel woozy already."

Xena's lack of response made her look up, just in time to see the tall ghost fade out.

"Great," she murmured. "Good to know you're there for me always, Xena."

 

Later that day, Isabelle's mother came to visit. Isabelle, who was allowed to move freely inside the institution, met her in the cafeteria at the far end of the wing. She had mixed feelings about seeing her, but any break from her routine was welcome.

"Hello, baby," her mother greeted her warmly. She looked drawn and genuinely worried, but try as she might, Isabelle could find little sympathy. After all, her mom wasn't the one the one who had to be in here.

"Hi mom." After they hugged briefly, they each ordered a latte, and proceeded to sit in awkward silence. Isabelle glanced furtively around, but she could see no sign of Xena anywhere. She was not sure if that was a good or a bad thing.

"So." Finally, her mother could stand the silence no longer. "I hear they have run some... paranormal... tests on you?"

Isabelle chuckled mirthlessly. "They think I may be a psychic, yes."

Seeing her mother lean forward attentively, she decided to volunteer some more.

"It was funny, actually. They had all these specialists come in and show me cards face down, made me guess what's on them."

"And did you get it right?"

Isabelle giggled. "Not once, but I could always tell them what they were scribbling on their notepads, no matter how sure they made I could not peek. Unnerved them no end."

"And how did you do that? You read their minds?"

"Mom, I can't read minds anymore than I can see what's hidden from view. I'm no psychic, and I'm not crazy. Xena read it to me."

Her mother buried her face in her hands. "Oh, baby..."

"Why can't you believe me? Is it that much more difficult to believe I have a ghost for company than it is for me to be able to look into someone else's head? Think about that, mom!"

"Honey, this is all so confusing for me. I don't know what to believe anymore."

"And how do you think I feel?" Isabelle said softly.

The waiter brought their coffee, giving them a temporary reprieve.

"Did they tell you how long they mean to keep you here?" Her mother dropped four sugar cubes into her cup, added a few drops of cream and stirred noisily.

"Don't stir, or it'll get too sweet," Isabelle murmured dryly, receiving a chuckle in reply at the old joke.

"So, how long?"

Isabelle shrugged. "I think they don't know what to make of me. They want very much to prove I'm a true psychic, but can't. At the same time, they want me to let Xena go. Without Xena, I won't even know what they're jotting down on their notepads, and that will take care of that." She smiled bitterly.

"Well that's the solution then, honey. Let that specter go. What good has it done you anyway?"

"More than you can ever know," Isabelle said quietly.

"Oh child, have we failed you so badly? Have we neglected you so much you need an imaginary friend to cope?" Her mother sniffled, agitated.

"Of course not! Mom, I may have had imaginary friends as a kid. I think just about every kid has, at some point. It's got nothing to do with being neglected, and you know it. And if you think Xena is imaginary, after what I've just told you, then I don't know what else I can do to convince you." She added a generous amount of cream to her own cup.

The older woman made no reply. She was still stirring her coffee, violently.

"I don't think they'd keep me here if you'd tell them you wanted me out of here," Isabelle said casually, taking a sip from her coffee and making a face at how strong it was.

Her mother sighed. "You know I can't do that. I want you to get better."

Isabelle opened her mouth for an indignant retort, but was forestalled by a raised hand. "I don't care what caused it, but you've changed, and you know it. I just want my baby back. Is that so very hard to understand?"

"And is it so hard to understand that I have not gone out of my mind? If anything, my stay here has convinced me more than ever that Xena is for real. I was starting to think I'd lost it, but with the way she's been reading those notes to me..."

Her mother looked at her sharply, as if a thought had just hit her. "You say this... Xena is Greek?"

"Yes."

Suddenly animated, the older woman pressed on. "And she's reading English notes, speaking our language, even. Clever ghost."

"Yes..."

"And that doesn't bother you in any way? I mean, from what you tell me, English doesn't even exist in her time frame... Tell me, dear, has she ever, ever told you anything that you didn't know yourself, somehow?"

"What about the therapists notes? She read them to me."

"And you're sure there is no other way you might have known? Mirrors? Hand movements? I don't know... something...?"

Isabelle had no ready answer.

 

Days turned into weeks, and before long Isabelle would have lost track of time, if not for the sheet of notebook paper stuck to her closet, where she compulsively marked each day in black ink. Thirty-One marks, grouped by weeks made a depressing tally. And there was no end in sight.

Whenever she could get away with it, she avoided taking the pills they gave her. They made her tired and apathetic, and sometimes her stomach was a roiling mass of protest.

Her therapy did not go well, since she refused to give in and tell Gail what she wanted to hear, that there was no dark haired-blue-eyed warrior woman keeping her company.

And yet, her mind was troubled. Her mother's words, although only voicing thoughts she herself had had long before, had sparked enough doubt to make her question. Sometimes at night, she would lie awake and wonder, but whenever Xena was with her, she forgot her misgivings, thinking that not even her rampant imagination could come up with a character this detailed, and this deep.

In truth, the ghostly warrior was with her less and less; when asked, Xena said it must be the surroundings. She found it difficult to materialize close to Isabelle for any length of time, on some days.

During one of those rare times when Xena was there and Tara was not, they were lounging on Isabelle's bed going through their story for a final edit.

"So, they think you're only imagining me, do they?" Xena said, craning her neck to look over the smaller woman's shoulder at the text they were poring over.

"Apparently," said Isabelle absently as she scratched out a short passage and scribbled a rewrite on the margin, shaking her head at the clumsy wording.

"Well, I've been called many things, but imaginary was never one of them," the warrior said wryly.

Isabelle sat up and smiled dreamily, her thoughts turning inward. "You know, somehow I always used to have an imaginary friend. Only none of them have been as... interesting as you are."

Xena raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Yeah. When I was very little, there was a talking horse named Bell. I never went out to play much with the kids in the neighborhood - never liked to play house with the other girls, that really cracked me up. And the boys wouldn't have a girl playing with them. Well, not until after the incident with Miss Griswell's nutbread." She chuckled to herself, and found Xena's gentle gaze.

"Nutbread?" the warrior asked with a twinkle in her eyes.

"Long story," Isabelle said, grinning with the memory. "She never did find out who did it. Anyway, Bell was always there with me, and she'd comfort me when I was down, she'd give me courage when I needed it, help me with my math, and tell me stories that I would write down." She paused and quirked her lips. "Well, it seems she was a lot like you."

The warrior chuckled dryly. "I don't know, I think I may just have been insulted."

"Hey, she was very pretty," Isabelle took up the banter, "A Palomino with four white socks and a blaze."

"Palomino, huh? It just keeps getting better and better."

"Smart too," Isabelle quipped. "Smarter even than Harvey, the stuffed white hare toy I had as a baby."

"Wonderful. I've got more sense than a toy hare." Xena grinned.

Isabelle was silent for a long time, remembering how real she had made Bell seem back then. A thought came to her, and when she spoke, her voice was shaky.

"Xena, please tell me something."

"Yes?"

"Are you real? Please tell me you're not just something I've made up. Tell me I'm not crazy! I don't care what THEY say, but I need to know. I don't want to... be in love with... some crazed ranting of my own disturbed mind "

"You know", Xena said slowly, "I've been asking myself the same thing. This... your world is so different from what I know, and I have been trying and trying to explain to myself how it is that I am here... And not able to really do anything. I know I'm not part of this world, but maybe it's me who made it all up." She paused, groping for words.

"You've done a lot", Isabelle whispered, "boy, have you ever!"

Xena smiled wistfully at her. "Anyway. The gods know there is much insanity and darkness hidden away in me. What if YOU are just a dream I'm having?"

Isabelle stared at her, stricken. What if she was? Could she really say with certainty that she herself was real, and not a piece of Xena's mind? An interesting perspective. There was an expression on the warrior's face that told the blonde woman she was thinking much along the same lines.

She reached out a hand and let it hover by the ethereal cheek. Xena closed her eyes, and let the warm electricity suffuse them both.

"I'm real," she whispered. "I must be."

"And I am, too", was the warrior's reply, "I am more real now than I ever was before, Gabrielle." She said the name with a curious emphasis. Her own hand came up to mirror Isabelle's gesture.

"You know what?" the writer asked in a hoarse whisper, "I really love it when you call me that."

 

One week later ...

Isabelle sat on her bed, having just dutifully swallowed the cursed pills under Nell's watchful eye. She knew she'd feel fuzz-brained once they kicked in fully, but she had every intention of finishing another chapter of her story, with Xena.

The ghostly shape by the barred window looked more insubstantial than usual. She seemed to have trouble articulating, on top of her increasing tendency to phase out completely from time to time. It was enough to make Isabelle's brain hurt. This seemed to be getting worse lately, but why, neither of them had a clue. It was as inexplicable as Xena's inability to come near her on her first day here.

Notepad on her knees, biting her lip determinedly, Isabelle wrote.

 

The day is sunny. I walk along a path with my bard. It is windy and clouds hang in the sky.

 

Frowning, Isabelle reread what she'd written, then scratched it out and began again.

 

It is a bright day. We head towards Athens. My bard tells me stories and I listen. As I listen, I do a few backflips, because I can.

She laughs softly. "Show-off. How can you keep a lookout for trouble when you goof around like this?"

"I have many skills" I drawl.

 

"Hrm, nope." She scratched that out, as well. Tara, her roommate, sat on the bed nearest the door, her back pressed into the corner, knees hugged close to her body. She was staring emptily, as she did often in between her lucid and annoying moments, withdrawn to whatever other world she lived in. Her lips moved soundlessly. Xena was eyeing the girl, tilting her head as if listening.

Isabelle rubbed her forehead before trying again.

 

A horse is a horse, of course, of course...

 

"Oh, bloody hell, this isn't getting anywhere!" With an angry sigh, Isabelle tore off the entire page and crumpled it in her fist, muttering under her breath. She tossed the balled paper towards the opposite wall, where it bounced off the rim of the trash can and rolled under the small table next to it, forcing her to get up and retrieve it.

"You're no help, either," she accused the wavering ghost-shape, as she threw the paper into the trash. Xena mouthed something containing a lot of 'O' sounds, gesticulating vaguely. Then, grimacing, the warrior faded out.

"Screw this, I'm going outside," Isabelle told Tara, who made a wordless sound in response as Isabelle flounced past. Isabelle rolled her eyes and left, closing the heavy door with somewhat more force than was strictly necessary.

 

Meanwhile, in the high security wing...

She sat on the floor, knees propped up, back resting against the rickety bunk. The sun shining through the bars of her cell cast shadowy stripes onto faded grey linen pants and a bare arm. The rest of her lay in shadow, her chiseled profile silhouetted against the glare of the window. She had not bothered to switch on the dingy lamp that was the only other light source in the room.

The darkness suited a certain ghostly warrior just fine. Hidden in shadows, she studied the tall, athletic form intently. At some point after that scene on TV, the woman must have cut her hair short, an unruly mop which by the looks of it defied all combs. The plain clothing the inmates of this place were given to wear did little to diminish her formidable appearance. In fact, the sleeveless dark blue top quite nicely showed off the woman's muscular arms. Xena flexed and squeezed her own biceps, comparing. Frowning, she flexed harder, until her face went red, while her eyes flicked back and forth a few times. A trick of the light, she told herself firmly, before resuming her study of the other woman.

Oddly enough, Xena had no difficulty being here, one story up from Isabelle's room, beyond a slight tingling in her fingers and toes, when being in a room with Isabelle made her insides want to tie themselves into knots and her body feel made of lead at the best of times. Well, perhaps not so oddly, given her theories on her presence in this strange world.

She stepped deeper into the shadow of a shelf stacked with clothes and belongings when Corina Walker stirred and gracefully flowed to her feet. Xena was not sure what made her stay out of sight, but instinct kept her from trying to reveal herself. Not that she was sure the woman would be able to see her. She watched - and winced inwardly - as Corina popped her neck, cracked her knuckles and walked over to the table, where her midday meal stood untouched, as far as Xena could tell. She picked up a slice of bread and plunked down onto the chair, where she began to pick it apart and form little doughy balls from it with her fingertips.

What a piece of work, Xena thought wryly. If I ever saw anyone fighting inner demons, it's that one. If she's anything like me, next she'll be trying to fix it with-

Abruptly, Corina scraped back the chair and rose again, a frustrated sound coming from her throat. The clothes that had been hung over the chair's backrest flew in an ungraceful arc towards the shelf, making Xena duck and wince as they passed through her before coming to rest half on top of a stack of towels.

For an instant, it looked like Corina was going to throw the chair at the massive - and solidly locked - wooden door, but then she just assumed a firm stance and began using the chair like a barbell, pumping weight.

... phyiscal exertion, Xena finished her thought. In spite of herself, she had to appreciate the way Corina's biceps rippled as the woman worked up a sweat. What in Tartarus am I supposed to do about her?

 

The recreational area, somewhat later...

The air was balmy, the leaves of tall oaks in the small park out back reducing the afternoon sun to a pleasant, tingling warmth that cast dappled shadows onto the ground. Pines and fir trees added the rich scent of their needles to the air. Isabelle walked idly along the path that led around the park's entire width, past a paved basketball court where a few men and women were playing a game.

She'd already made two circuits, and her nerves felt much soothed by the time she began her third. After a while she found herself stopping near the basketball court, watching. She had played basketball in high school, and had fond memories of the sport. Briefly, she was tempted to ask if she could join in, until she saw that one of the players was Bruno, a burly youth with a few anger management issues. He was deemed safe enough with whatever drugs they made him take, but Isabelle was wary of him. He just had a look about him.

There was no surprise in seeing his two friends playing on his team, a short, slender young man with wavy brown hair and a pinched face that everybody called Rat, and an unremarkable boy with the fuzz of a beginning beard and incredibly thick eyebrows, whose name she had not bothered to learn. As she watched, she thought she heard someone call him 'Fluffy'. But surely she had misheard.

A pine cone hit the back of her head, and she spun around to look at Tara, who had a second one in hand, already aiming another throw.

"Hey! What's your problem?" she called. Tara was often obnoxious, but this was new.

"Your face," said Tara.

"Then don't look at i- AAAH," she yelped as she barely ducked the second missile. "What the hell...?"

"You're with her!" Tara hissed as she came closer.

"Come again?"

Tara brought her face so close to Isabelle's that their noses nearly touched. "You're useless, Blondie!"

Isabelle blinked. Outwardly, the girl looked perfectly lucid, but what was that nonsense coming out of her mouth?

"I'm here to replace you. I'm better than you anyway. You don't even want to fight. You're a coward."

"Now listen here you little- ACK!" This time, Isabelle was too slow to evade as the full armed slap made her ears ring. The girl was slight, but she had a strong arm!

"Why you little-", Isabelle spluttered, holding her cheek.

She could only stare as her schizophrenic roommate danced on the balls of her feet, fists raised. "What kind of wimp are you?! I just threw stuff at on you, and all you do is stand there! You and I are gonna settle this right here."

"We're doing no such thing." Isabelle was experiencing he strangest sense of déjà vu. She did not have time to dwell on it, because the next instant she found herself pressed hard to fend off a flurry of blows raining down on her from what seemed nineteen directions at once - the woman was fast! She tasted blood where one of those chops had scored on her lip, and dull aches in her left side and arm spoke of bruising in other places as well. What the hell had gotten into the girl?

She never realized that the sounds of the basketball game had stopped, until a high pitched male voice spoke up right behind her. "Oooooh, cat fight!" it crowed. The distraction was enough for Tara to get past Isabelle's frantic defenses.

"Ow! Not my ear!" Isabelle howled. Reflexively, she gave a shove with both arms, and yelped louder when the girl was flung back with her teeth still clamped shut firmly on Isabelle's earlobe. The onlookers gasped appreciatively.

Hissing like a cat, Tara closed in again. Isabelle could see what must be her own blood on the girl's lips, and she shuddered. This was surreal!

Their spectators oohed as Isabelle managed to fend off another onslaught. Then abruptly, they fell silent.

From out of nowhere it seemed, a hand grabbed the back of her shirt, and she found herself being yanked backward, away from the other girl with enough force to make her stagger. She could only stare, dumbfounded, at the shape looming over her, the afternoon sun a glowing halo around the form.

"Didn't anyone ever teach you to play nice?" The voice was so eerily familiar that the hair on Isabelle's neck wanted to stand up. Squinting, she tried to make out the tall figure against the backlight.

There stood roughly two hundred pounds of coiled power, all muscle and sinew, dark hair cut short and tousled-looking, blue eyes fixing her and Tara in turn with a feral stare.

It was not the evidence of the woman's obvious strength that made Isabelle's jaw go slack - despite the fact she felt about as helpless as a week-old kitten in that grasp. This, if one forgot about about what everyone here called the "prison garb", and the short hair, was the spitting image of her ghostly friend, Xena. Right down to that feral gleam in her glacier eyes.

"Well?" the stranger demanded, giving each of them a small shake.

Tara began to whimper, and struggled to free herself feebly. "No! No! I don't want to die! Please!"

Rapid footfalls in the distance announced a pair of male orderlies hurrying to the scene. It seemed the group of spectators the fight had attracted had suddenly found important things to be busy with elsewhere - they had scuttled away like roaches when the light comes on. The orderlies approached, slightly out of breath from running, but the woman made no move to release either one of her captives.

"Miss Walker," one of them said, sounding calm. "Please, let them go. They aren't going to hurt you."

Walker? Corina Walker? Holy crap, here?! Isabelle felt her knees go weak. A terrorist had her by the scruff of the neck. A terrorist.... who looked like her invisible warrior friend. Holy crap, indeed!

Corina snorted. "Hurt me? Of course not." She shook her head at the man, then turned back to Tara and Isabelle, giving them each a good, long once-over. Apparently she was satisfied that they would behave now, for she finally released her hold on the two. It was an effort not to sag with relief. Tara did sag, plopping to the ground and hugging her knees. She began rocking back and forth silently, once again lost in her own world.

"Miss Walker?" the orderly tried again. "We're going to have to-" Corina ignored him.

The terrorist stepped slowly towards a still stunned Isabelle, brushed an imaginary speck of dust off the smaller woman's blouse, and told her with a smile, "You can close your mouth now, girl. Otherwise I'm gonna start thinking I may have made an impression on you."

The poor man cleared his throat and tried again, louder. "- take you into custody for assaulting these two women," he finished anxiously.

"No!" Isabelle protested, "that's not how it was at all. She only-"

Corina's chuckle cut her off, a startling, throaty sound. "You and what army?" the woman drawled. The orderly and his colleague looked taken aback. At the looks on their faces, Corina snickered. "Very well then, do your thing. I'll come in peace." Her voice was mocking. From the ground, Tara gave a whimper.

Her eyes riveted on those glacier blue eyes, Isabelle found herself unable to speak. The resemblance was uncanny. She began to have an inkling of what Xena must have felt when she first saw her. Before she had a chance to say another word, the orderlies began to walk Corina back towards the building.

Isabelle was still staring after the woman and her escort when more attendants came rushing up to take care of Tara, taking her pulse and guiding the girl to her feet. She was like clay, not resisting but also not moving unless coaxed. Isabelle, in turn, was ordered to the medical wing to have her ear looked at - which she had to be told three times until it registered. Only then did she become aware of the smear of blood drying on the side of her neck, and the throbbing pain from the bite wound. Touching the wound gingerly, she winced. The coming days were going to be uncomfortable.

With a sigh, she headed back inside to see a doctor.

 

Had Isabelle looked over her shoulder, she might have seen a wavering shape, half-hidden in the shadow of the trees, watching as the orderlies somewhat nervously flanked Corina, even though the woman showed no sign of aggression. Well, except for that looming that seemed to be second nature. And the general sense of a panther ready to pounce. Well, perhaps she did look somewhat menacing at that, Xena amended her assessment.

"Right, come along now, Miss Walker, easy now," the orderly's voice sounded a little strained, perhaps due to the death-grip he had on Corina's arm (which the woman was enduring stoically). "How did you get that door open, anyway? I know I locked it."

"I have many skills," Corina said sardonically.

Sneering, Xena, shook her head. "Tch, what arrogance. You'd think she was a bloody warlord, or something."

Well, she'd orchestrated the first meeting - with the incidental help of Tara's sudden flare-up. It seemed unlikely that Tara was aware of her, but Xena thought part of that must have been some sort of reaction to her presence. The entire scene had been too eerily familiar for a complete coincidence. Hades, the kid even carries the same name!

Getting Corina out of that cell had been the greater challenge. She was quite proud of herself there. One of her more brilliant accomplishments, if she did say so herself.

Either way, it was done. She hoped it was enough.

 

Continued in Part 5...

 

 

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