Disclaimers are in Part 1
Language warning continues!
July 2, 2014
The warrior speaks...
She cannot die. She cannot! But oh, how pale she is. And how her face contorts with the pain. Any of my soldiers, I would have granted a swift stab to the heart long before this. How selfish have I become that I cannot bring myself to give her the same mercy? I've seen this poison at work enough times to be familiar with its excruciating effects.
But planting a dagger into that creamy-skinned chest is just completely beyond me.
This village was our last hope, and it's been put to the torch. The chance of finding the right antidote in the rubble are remote, if there is even any left that is usable. But I have to try. There is no alternative. She has to hold on. If anyone can, it is her. In many ways she is so much stronger than I have ever been.
But I'm her only chance, so I've got to get it done, and it doesn't matter that there is an army out there for me to fight. Well, I'm good at that. What I'm not at all good at is leaving her behind.
"Xena, if I can't make it, I want you to save yourself." Cold sweat glistens on her forehead. I'm shocked at how feeble her voice sounds, but there is determination in it.
I refuse to promise such a thing, and I tell her so.
"We're all gonna die eventually."
"Not today," I tell her as firmly as my voice will permit.
Gods, I hope not today. And if I have to stop an army for it, then I'll just have to put my back into it.
In the hospital room...
Her heart twisting, Xena watched her bard fight a losing battle for her life, helpless in her insubstantial form. When she could take it no longer, she screamed her battle cry and launched herself, feet first, at her bard's assailant. She of course sailed right through him. Again, she screamed, though this time, it was a cry of despair.
Desperately, Isabelle tried to breathe, but Marc's exquisitely muscled arm was like iron around her neck, and even her feeble scratching did nothing to dislodge it. She tried, as Xena had suggested, to find a finger on his hand to twist, but in her dazed state, she had trouble remembering enough of the human anatomy to have any success. She kicked again, but it was no use. She was going to die.
Suddenly there was a huge crash and clatter, and the vice-like hold around her throat loosened. With a jerk, Marc also let go of her arm that he had been twisting, but not before giving a painful wrench to her shoulder. Gasping for air (and in pain), Isabelle dropped to the floor.
Eyes swimming, she saw that the bed that had held Corina had slammed into Marc's side, toppling him. Right behind came a staggering Corina, delivering a fierce kick to the downed man. Or was it Xena? She thought she had heard that Battle Cry. It was hard to tell.
Marc scrambled to his feet, darting behind the bed in an attempt to keep it between himself and the drug-dazed Corina. The tall woman was blinking her eyes and did not look entirely stable on her feet, but seeing her loom there, muscular form outlined by a halo of sunlight from the window like an angel of vengeance, Isabelle thought she was seeing the most magnificent sight that she ever would.
Marc must have seen something there too, for rather than try to battle with the towering, half-drugged woman, he made a dash for the door. He was limping, Isabelle noted absently. They heard the bolt slam into place from the outside, trapping them. Then came the sound of running footsteps, receding quickly.
"Isabelle!" Xena hovered at the young woman's side, reaching out uselessly as the young woman struggled to her feet, throat burning and shoulder throbbing.
"Well, that could've gone better," Corina slurred, then staggered a few steps and caught herself against the sink. Isabelle tottered to her side, putting a hand to the other woman's back to support her.
"At least you're awake."
"Ugh.... wish I wasn't," Corina said fuzzily. "Head hurts. Need water."
Helpfully, Isabelle reached to turn on the faucet, but flinched in pain as her twisted shoulder protested. Before she could use her good arm, Corina had beaten her to it and was gulping water by the handfuls, slopping copious quantities onto her face and surroundings.
Her head came up, hair dripping. She still looked woozy, but Isabelle could see the alertness return to the woman's features as that blue-eyed gaze settled on her.
"I don't know why you're here, and what the hell you thought you were doing trying to take on that piece of trash, but... thank you." The tiniest of smiles curved Corina's lips.
Isabelle opted for not mentioning that her plans had gone along slightly different lines, that did not involve physical exertion or injury on her part. Instead, she returned the smile, feeling suddenly timid. "Thought you might need a hand."
Corina chuckled mirthlessly. "I suppose I did, at that."
"What did Marc wa- ow!" Unthinkingly, Isabelle had tried to scratch that itch on her cheek, and the movement met with disapproval from her injured shoulder. She hissed in pain and cradled her right arm.
"Let me see that," Corina offered. She made no move towards her until Isabelle nodded faintly. Then her strong hands began to gently run along the injured shoulder, fingers feeling for damage.
"Try and relax your muscles, I'm going to check mobility." Again, Isabelle nodded, drawing deep breaths.
Xena watched the procedure closely, hovering so near that she sometimes seemed to melt into Corina's form. It was a trifle disconcerting.
"She's done this sort of thing before," the warrior observed. It might hurt a bit, she has to see what exactly is wrong with it. Just try and do as she says.
Corina paused in her actions, and looked around, eyes narrowing. Xena flitted out of the tall woman's line of sight.
"And here I thought you didn't like- " she began, then cut off immediately. For some reason, she did not want this woman to think of her as insane. She shot a half-heartedly accusing look at the insubstantial warrior.
"I don't, really," said Xena. "But she's all you got, and she seems to know what she's doing," she added grudgingly.
It was difficult to make out Xena's words, for Corina spoke right on top of her. "In my line of work, you can't afford 'like'," she said without much emotion. "Puts people in danger."
"Well, whatever your line of work was... it's not, anymore, is it?" She hissed softly as a jab of pain shot through her shoulder. Corina immediately changed where she was moving the joint, and the pain eased.
"You never leave that particular line of work," said Corina. "Not really." She released Isabelle's arm - somewhat to Isabelle's regret. "Well, it's not dislocated. Seems just a bit of a strain. Don't move it around too much, and you'll be fine in a few days. Now, what happened to your cheek? You didn't get that from the scuffle."
"No... but it's not important."
Corina grinned, startlingly. "Yeah it is. Wouldn't want that pretty face to be scarred." Isabelle could feel the blush creeping up her neck. By the way Corina's grin broadened into almost a leer, it must be a spectacular one.
"We really don't have a lot of time though. Why don't you clean it off with water. I'll see what I can do about the door." Xena followed behind, watching Corina's every move.
Obediently, Isabelle headed to the sink. "Think you can kick it down?"
Corina grunted. "It opens inward, so I can't break the bolt, and cracking a steel-enforced oak door without tools, just isn't done. I may be able to get it open with a bit of fiddling - or something to use as a crow bar." She glanced around, evidently dismissing the various pieces of furniture as unhelpful, until she spotted the wedge that was occasionally used to hold the door open. "But right now, what I need is time to regroup, and if we can't get out, I sure as hell am not going to let anyone in, either. Not until I'm ready for them."
She firmly shoved the wedge under the door, then jammed it in more tightly by lifting the door up as far as it would move on its hinges and pushing the wedge with her bare foot. She rattled at it experimentally. "That'll have to do. Shame they don't use door levers here."
Xena nodded in grudging approval. "Suppose it's the best she can do with what's here. At least we'll know if someone wants in." She walked back to Isabelle's side, leaving Corina to examine her handiwork.
"Make sure you wash that properly. We've no idea what it was, but it's already done enough damage."
"Yes, mother," Isabelle said softy as she gingerly dabbed at her cheek with a washcloth. Not softly enough, for Corina had turned to regard her curiously. Xena hastily popped out of sight.
"What's that?" said Corina, looking around suspiciously.
Isabelle gaped at her. Could it be that she could see Xena? Cautiously, she asked, "What is it?"
"Must be the drug," Corina muttered. "Don't worry about it." She rubbed a hand across her face. "How's the cheek?"
"Good. Let's try and find some salve to put on it." She began rummaging in a cabinet that sat against one wall.
"You seem to know a lot about treating injuries," Isabelle remarked.
Corina's jaw clenched. "Comes with the job. Here." She tossed her a tube of gel. "This will help with the itching."
The salve was cooling and felt good on Isabelle's tortured skin. "Thanks, much better. So... what do we do now? I wonder what's going on outside..."
"That's what I'd like to know." Corina went to stand next to the door and pressed an ear to it. "I expect our friend went to get some reinforcements."
Xena appeared again. In an almost soundless whisper, Isabelle asked, "why are you so jumpy around her? I've never seen you bothered if there's someone else with me."
Xena's eyes went to the tall ex-terrorist. "I think she can see me," she whispered just as quietly.
"And what if she can? Would that be so bad?"
"I... she's... I don't know. I don't like the idea."
"If I'm going to hear anything out there, I'll need you to stop talking to yourself," Corina turned, and Xena vanished again. Corina squinted, then shook her head in confusion.
"What?" Isabelle tried to look innocent.
Clearly, she failed, for Corina narrowed her eyes dangerously. "Okay, something is going on here. Something is off, I can feel it."
"I... well, this is a nut house, right? We're here because we see things in shadows and all that? It's not something we like to advertise."
"No games," Corina growled, making Isabelle shrink back. "If you know something I don't, then spill it. We're in a bit of a bind here, in case you hadn't noticed."
"Sorry, I... don't... "
The tall woman retreated, shaking her head. "We really don't have time for this."
Isabelle breathed deeply. "Right. It's a little complicated."
"Whatever." Corina headed to the faucet for another drink.
As soon as her back was turned, Xena appeared again. Isabelle wanted to scream.
She looked between the two near-identical women, and it occurred to her that, if Xena's bard friend Gabrielle really did look that much like Isabelle herself, as Xena so often pointed out, then this uncanny resemblance must mean something profound. The thought was ludicrous.... or was it? She couldn't deny her fascination with the ex-terrorist. But Corina was a killer! Then again, Xena had been, too, before Gabrielle. Her head began to swim with the ramifications.
"We really should find out what's going on," Isabelle said softly to Xena.
"I'll get on it," Xena said, and vanished.
Corina murmured, "I'm working on it." Her eyes scanned the room suspiciously, then settled on Isabelle.
"Are you feeling at all better?" the young woman asked, hoping to divert Corina's attention.
Corina nodded curtly. "Moving around helps get the drug out. I'll be ready when I need to be."
A commotion in the distance caught both their attention. There was a murmur of voices, both male and female, then the sound of the alarm bell. An orderly's voice blared through a megaphone. "All patients are to return to their rooms. This is a security drill. All patients are to return to their rooms."
"Security drill my ass," muttered Corina. She tipped over one of the beds, so that its top faced the door at an angle, then shoved it further away from the door.
Isabelle's heart skipped a couple of beats, before taking up a thunderous thumping. "What are you doing?"
"Getting ready for a siege. You're going to get down behind that and keep very quiet."
Xena reappeared, right in front of Corina's eyes. "Listen up, you don't have a lot of time. Our friend's brought the cavalry. Four orderlies with him, armed with one of those odd binding jackets and rubber clubs. He's told them Grumpy-Pants is out of control and has taken a hostage." She glanced at Corina, who once again was looking around the room. "I guess she can't see me after all. But she senses something"
Corina took a step forward, which placed her right inside Xena, whose form wavered and reformed disconcertingly.
"Stop that," Xena snapped. "I'm not that kinda woman."
"... the fuck?" Corina muttered, rubbing her arms.
Isabelle took a deep breath, thinking quickly. "Sounds like Mars's henchman Marc is bringing reinforcements," she said. "I'm sure they'll have their batons on them. If they manage to put you into a straightjacket...."
Corina started to turn back towards the door, but paused. "Wait, you know about Mars? Who the hell are you?" Her head whirled at the sound of footfalls approaching outside. "Someone with good hearing, it seems. Get down behind that bed. Now! And stay down." She gave Isabelle an appraising look.
"Do it!" Xena and Corina said simultaneously.
Corina glanced in Xena's general direction with a frown, before she added. "This may get ugly. And we can't be sure what he's told those orderlies to get them to come along, or if they're also on Mars' payroll. Either way, they'll be trouble." She stepped close - very close - her eyes holding Isabelle's gaze like a magnet. Light as a feather, she touched Isabelle's cheek with a forefinger. "I'm not sure what your deal is, but you're the first person in god knows how long who has looked at me and not seen a monster. I don't know that I deserve that, but I sure as hell won't let anything happen to you. Now go hide behind that bed."
Isabelle stood electrified. For so long, she had wished that Xena was this real, was able to touch her in this way. But perhaps it was just as well. She suddenly realized that Xena was not for her, for Xena had Gabrielle. And Isabelle had-
Corina gave her a firm nudge towards the toppled bed, shaking her out of her thoughts. "Go! When all this is over and I'm still alive, I may even ask your name some time." She turned and headed towards the door on silent, bare feet.
Isabelle found herself grinning despite the dire situation. "I'm Isabelle."
Corina smirked over her shoulder. "Corina."
There was a scrape and a click as the bolt was thrown back from the outside. Corina pressed herself against the wall next to the door handle, and spoke softly. "Thought you might. Now, down!"
"Do it," Xena said again. "She's going to need to focus, and doesn't want to worry about you getting in the way."
"I'm not a child," Isabelle muttered, but she got down behind the bed, peeking out past one side.
"Hush." Again, it was Corina speaking at the same time as Xena. Xena narrowed her eyes at the tall ex-terrorist.
"Be careful," Isabelle said softly.
Corina looked back at her with a half-smile, and winked. A feral light entered the tall woman's eyes when she turned her attention back to the door. The handle rattled as someone attempted to open it. The wedge trembled, but held. Corina readied herself, flexing her muscular arms, and putting her weight on the balls of her feet.
"I'll go check what's going on outside," Xena announced, strolled over to the door and walked right through it.
"Open the door, Miss Walker." The voice came from outside. It wasn't Marc's. "Let's end this before someone gets hurt."
"Why don't you ask your friend Marc to tell you what really happened in here?" Corina replied.
There was a brief silence outside. "At least let Miss Barnes go. You'd better not have harmed her."
"I think I'll keep her around for a bit. It's going to keep you boys from getting too frisky."
The door rattled again, and the wedge moved a fraction of an inch. "Come on, Corina, you know it's no use. We'll get this open eventually." The dark, rich voice clearly belonged to Marc. It was not fair for a villain to have such a compelling voice. Corina, obviously, was not that impressed.
"Can't wait," the tall woman drawled. "We can all have a party."
Xena returned through the door. "Okay, Marc and two others have small firearms hidden under their coats. I'm guessing those two are with Mars. The others seem clean."
"Corina!" Isabelle whispered urgently. "Some of them have guns. Please be careful."
"And how the hell would you know that?"
"You don't want to know," said Xena, grimacing.
"I think I saw one on Marc earlier," Isabelle lied. "You have to believe me!"
Corina gave her a long, probing look, then shrugged. "Can't hurt to be prepared."
A heavy weight thudded against the door, and the door groaned open for about a foot, wedge and all.
Corina's arm snaked through the opening, grabbing the arm of the man outside and pulled, slamming him brutally against the door. The arm - all that Isabelle saw from her vantage point - slowly slid down and lay flaccid. Corina had already released it and peered through the gap. Abruptly, she threw herself to one side, and a gunshot sounded, the bullet thunking into the far wall. "Shit!"
Isabelle crouched down behind the bed as a second gunshot cracked. Corina grunted in pain, and threw her body against the door. The extra weight of the senseless man on the other side made it hard to budge it, and in addition, his one arm still lay inside the room. Corina shoved it back outside and continued to push at the door in an attempt to close it. The sleeve of her pajama top was growing a red stain.
"Don't do it, Isabelle!" Xena warned.
For, throwing caution into the wind, Isabelle had left her cover and was hurrying to Corina's side to help with the door. There was a third shot, and one of the steel bands on the door bulged outward right by Isabelle's face, just as the two women managed to force the door shut again. Blood draining from her face, Isabelle fumbled for the wedge, her shoulder making its protest known, and together they shoved it under the door.
"Thought I told you to stay down," Corina growled.
"You've been hit," Isabelle countered.
"Just grazed. I've had worse cutting up vegetables," the tall woman snapped.
"But the blood..."
"Shh!" They went still, both leaning against the door, listening.
There were raised voices outside. "What the hell do you think you're doing shooting around here? And where did you get that gun?" "She's a danger, she has to be stopped." "She is an inmate! And she has a hostage. Do you want to shoot her too?" "Shut up." "We'll have to take that, and you're going to have to answer to-" The last voice was cut off by another gun shot. Isabelle flinched as a heavy weight dropped to the floor.
"I guess that means we start plan B," said another voice. "Yes." This was Marc. "Round up everybody in the mess hall." The bolt slid shut again. "The women aren't going anywhere, and these guys are no threat anymore. Let's go." Footsteps retreated. Then all was silent outside.
Corina got to her feet, holding her bleeding arm. "Get some gauze from that cabinet," she ordered through clenched teeth. After a moment, she added, "please." But Isabelle was already on her way, trying not to think about what had just happened on the other side of that door.
"I'll go see what they are up to," Xena announced, and disappeared.
"Come here," said Isabelle, motioning the tall woman to the sink. She rolled up the sleeve of Corina's pajama top. The bullet had sliced through the skin just above the woman's left elbow. "Doesn't look too bad, I guess," said Isabelle.
Isabelle very carefully cleaned the wound, flinching in sympathy every time she had to touch the bleeding flesh. Corina, however, stood stoically without twitching an eye lash, until the arm was firmly bandaged, the bleeding stopped. She looked at Isabelle's work appraisingly. "That's nicely done," she said.
"Mandatory first aid course at work," said Isabelle. "You'll still have to get it looked at, or it might get infected."
A soft groan outside the door caught their attention. "Guess I didn't knock him out as bad as they thought," murmured Corina.
"Tony? Tony, what the... oh crap," said a man's voice.
Isabelle went to the door, and knocked softly. "Hello? Can you hear me?"
"The hell do you think you're doing?" Corina hissed.
"Maybe he will help us. It's worth a try," Isabelle whispered back.
There was a brief silence. "Who is this?" The voice sounded groggy.
"It's Isabelle Barnes. Are you all right?"
"Tony... someone shot Tony. He's bleeding like crazy!"
Isabelle drew a deep breath. "That was Marc. Listen, I'm not a hostage. Nobody was harmed in here except Miss Walker herself. Marc is the one you should be worried about. He and his buddies are up to something."
"Oh yeah? I got a lump on my head that says otherwise."
"Yeah, sorry about that. Look, why don't you open the door and come in? I promise we won't attack you. And your friend needs help. There are bandages in here."
Corina snarled. "Are you nuts?"
The silence on the other side was long enough to make Isabelle think the man had left. "All right," he finally said. Shortly after, the bolt was thrown back. Isabelle pried the wedge out from under the door and opened it wide enough to allow the orderly to drag in his bleeding, unconscious colleague.
As soon as he was inside, Isabelle shut and wedged the door again. Then she looked pleadingly at Corina. She had a feeling the other woman knew much more about this sort of thing than she herself.
"Oh, what the hell," Corina growled. "Help me stretch him out here, on the ground. Not sure I can do much for him though."
"You a doctor?" the man asked.
"Nope, but I've been shot a few times. Chest wound and he's lost a lot of blood. Bullet probably went right through. I can stop some of the bleeding, but he needs a hospital, and fast." She got to work - there was too much blood for Isabelle's taste, so she turned away. At that moment, Xena returned.
"I see you've already found the two outside. Surprised the one still lives. Guess I don't have to tell you they were the ones without the fire weapons." Before Isabelle could reply, the warrior continued. "They've made everybody, except a handful who are tied to beds here, staff and patients, head to the mess hall, and have locked up the entrances. There must be at least four that work with Marc, and they seem awfully eager to use those firearms. I think he means to force Corina out in some way, but he hasn't said how. This is bad, really bad."
"We need to get out of here," Isabelle said. "Marc is up to something bad to get at you, Corina."
"How do you- oh, never mind." She straightened from the motionless man on the ground. "That's all I can do. With luck he'll pull through. Now, about you." She eyed the orderly, who looked alarmed. "Vince." Corina said, reading the name tag that every staff member had sewn onto his or her uniform.
"I'm going to need that baton you're carrying." Vince blinked at her, but handed her the weapon without comment. "Do you have any training with hostage situations?"
He nodded. "Only basic though, in case one of our more dangerous patients-" he gulped, looking at Corina, who certainly qualified as 'more dangerous'. "Well, only basic."
Corina smiled a dangerous smile. "And are there any more effective weapons in your staff room?"
"You know I can't let you have those," he said bravely.
Isabelle decided to step in, because Corina was getting a particularly dangerous look. "Listen... we're not the bad guys here. Marc is the one who started with the shooting, and he brought friends. It looks like they're going to take this entire institution hostage. He nearly killed that man over there. This woman here was kept under drugs by him for days, and nobody wondered about it. She's done everything she could to keep me safe when this all started. You know she's a trained fighter. And it has to mean something that she came here of her own free will after all she's done in the past. She's our best chance of getting through this, so I think you should trust her. It's not like things could get any worse, right?"
Both the orderly and Corina were gaping at her. Even Xena looked impressed at the flood of words. At last, the man nodded. "Come with me," he told Corina. Isabelle started to follow.
"Not you," said Corina. Of course, she was once again echoed by Xena.
"Please." Corina said.
Isabelle sighed, and bit her lip. "All right. Please don't get killed."
Corina pressed her lips together, and turned to follow the orderly. "Close up behind us," she said.
Isabelle sat down heavily on the upright bed after she had secured the door behind them. "She's going to her death, isn't she," she said dispiritedly.
Xena sighed. "'Fraid so. At least she thinks so."
Isabelle buried her face in her hands.
Xena stepped close to her, reaching out a hand. "Hey. It doesn't mean it has to happen the way she imagines. She's not gone yet, and she doesn't strike me as someone easy to kill." She smiled half-heartedly. "I should know."
"You think I did the right thing in involving that orderly? He won't turn on her, will he?"
Xena chuckled. "Don't worry. Even if you didn't convince him with your little speech, I'm sure he's too afraid of her to try and cross her. His help may make the difference in this. You did great."
Isabelle smiled weakly. "Thanks."
She glanced at the man on the ground - Tony, she reminded herself - but she saw nothing else that could be done for him, short of getting him an ambulance. She strained to hear anything beyond the door, but there was dead silence.
Getting an ambulance... getting help... Isabelle kneaded her lower lip thoughtfully.
Xena peered at her. "I know that look. I'm not going to like what you're up to."
"Somebody should try calling for help," Isabelle said slowly. "And since everybody but me is locked up in the mess hall..." She knelt beside the injured man, and removed his key ring and baton. "I don't think you'll be needing those."
Xena threw up her hands. "I knew it. I guess it's no use trying to convince you to stay put like Corina asked you to?"
"She said I couldn't come with her. She never told me to stay here," Isabelle said smugly. "I just have to get to a telephone. There's one in the nurse station."
"At least let me check if the coast is clear." At Isabelle's nod, the warrior stuck her head through the door - it still gave Isabelle the creeps - then disappeared altogether. She returned moments later.
"All clear here - just don't exit this wing. And for Zeus' sake, move quietly."
Isabelle nodded, and slipped off her shoes. Her heart was thundering in her throat as she slowly opened the door and stepped into the corridor in her socks. As quietly as she could, followed by the ghostly warrior, she padded to the nurse station at the far end of the corridor. It was deserted. Gratefully, she slipped inside, and lifted the station phone's receiver.
The line was dead. She cursed softly, causing Xena to raise an eyebrow in interest.
"We have to find another phone. Maybe they aren't all dead." It was a scant hope, but all she had. She headed towards the wing exit.
"Careful," Xena warned, "Mars' people are patrolling out there."
Isabelle paused, thinking through her options. "Therapy rooms are close to the mess hall, then patients' quarters. High Security and staff quarters are on the first floor, administration at the top. Tell me when it's safe!"
Xena looked about to protest, then shook her head in defeat and went through the door. After what seemed an eternity, she heard the warrior's voice. "You've got about a minute. That door had better not squeal".
Isabelle tried the door - it was locked. With trembling fingers, she fumbled for the key ring she had pocketed, and tried one after the other. Finally, one fit, and the lock clicked softly.
"Hold!" Xena called, and Isabelle froze. After another eternity, Xena gave the all clear again, and Isabelle slipped through the door as quietly as she could, then hurried towards the stairs. There was a tense moment when one of the steps creaked softly.
"Hurry," Xena called urgently, and Isabelle didn't question her.
She made it to the landing of first floor just as a Marc, carrying a shotgun, stepped into the entry hall. Holding her breath, she peered over the edge of the landing, watched him walk the length of the hall with measured steps, right past Xena, and into the hospital wing. When he disappeared from view, she nearly fainted with relief. She hoped he hadn't realized the door was no longer locked.
"Come on, no time," Xena urged. "In a moment, he'll discover that you and Corina have left."
Isabelle quickly headed up the second flight of stairs and entered the administrative wing. It wasn't locked, and it appeared quite deserted. She froze as she heard Marc's muffled cursing. Then she ran along the corridor of the admin wing, bypassing printer rooms and offices. On impulse, she made straight for the director's office. This too, was unlocked and empty. She lifted the phone's receiver, and almost wept with relief when she heard the buzz of the line. Quickly, she dialled 9-1-1.
When the operator answered, she blurted. "There is a hostage situation at the mental hospital. There has been shooting, and at least one person is badly wounded."
"Who is speaking, please?"
"I'm Gail Branigan. I'm a therapist here, I managed to hide away in a closet when they rounded everybody up. There are at least five of them, and they all have guns. Please send someone!"
"Good thinking." Xena remarked.
"Are you sure you're not another patient? Last time it was fire in the mess hall. We also had a UFO invasion, once."
"I'm not a patient! If you want lives on your conscience, then fine, ignore me."
Just then, they heard Marc's voice through that megaphone. Acoustics carried the voice up the stairs clearly. "Come on out, Corina, wherever you are. You know I'll find you eventually." Quickly, Isabelle held out the receiver, just in time to catch the sound of a gun shot and a bullet ricocheting off a wall. "Don't make me get impatient."
Isabelle put the receiver back to her ear. "Did you catch that?"
"Was that... gunfire?"
"Okay, okay, I'll send police and an ambulance. You'd best stay where you are, ma'am."
"Right," Isabelle said, dropping the receiver and heading back outside.
"Isabelle! Stay put, you've done all you can."
"I won't let them see me. I just want to see what's going on down there!"
She crept back to the second floor landing. "Can you check on the mess hall for me? Please? And find out where Corina is?"
Xena sighed, and vanished.
Scouting really was not something Xena enjoyed. As a warlord, she had had her people for it, while she herself preferred the more direct approach. She appreciated the usefulness, however, and had done enough sneaking around while travelling with Gabrielle. But she really was more of a hands-on type person. Of course, "hands-on" was out of the question here and now, and by the same token, she was uniquely qualified for gathering information unseen.
She would just have to trust that Isabelle could stay out of trouble long enough. Not that she could be of much help to her against physical violence, anyway.
She materialized in the mess hall, looking around. The place was crammed with pretty much everybody that had been in the building. She recognized a few nurses and Gail Branigan, the therapist. They all looked cowed, some where hugging one another and some were weeping silently. The door to the hallway stood open; two of Mars' men stood there, while two more were walking among the hostages, their guns pointing this way and that. Marc was not in sight; he was probably out in the hallway looking for Corina.
There was blood on the floor near the closed back door. She followed the trail, and was shocked when it led to Isabelle's former roommate, Tara. The girl was bleeding from a gunshot wound to her foot, but her sullen stare at her captors showed no pain. "She's going to kick your asses," Tara murmured under her breath. "I'm telling you, she is going to make you regret your mothers ever laid eyes on your fathers."
"Please be quiet," Xena muttered. To her stunned surprise, Tara stopped her muttering instantly. Instead she hugged her knees and started rocking back and forth.
"Well, guess I'm off to find Lady Grumpy-Pants," Xena murmured, and moved back into the Other Place to regroup. From there, she checked out the various wings - found Marc pacing in the hallway as expected, muttering to himself, Isabelle, who had prudently retreated somewhat from the landing's edge - breezed through the staff quarters but found no trace of Corina. The orderly, Vince, was crouched on the landing almost below Isabelle, licking his lips nervously and carrying a blow gun, of all things. Xena squatted beside him, peering down at the ground floor.
Marc raised his megaphone again. "Come on, doll. If you don't come out, I'll have to start shooting people." He paused for effect. "And I'll start with your little blonde friend." He fired a shot at the ceiling to emphasize his words. "You know all we're here for is you."
There was a soft gasp from the second landing. Isabelle, still safe up there, thank the Gods. So the man was bluffing. But where was Corina? She watched him set down he megaphone, and continue to pace.
"Why do you think I care?" Corina's quiet voice came from somewhere on the ground floor. "You seem to forget who I am."
"Were," Marc said gleefully. "You were great once, but now you're less than nothing. And you're at the top His shitlist." He cast around for the origin of the voice, and finally approached the therapy wing with a predatory gleam in his eyes.
"I'm honored," Corina drawled.
Several things then happened at once. Outside, sirens blared, Isabelle was rushing down the stairs, and there was a 'fwoomph'-sound next to Xena's ear as Vince fired the blow gun. It turned out he was a fair shot with it. A small, feathered dart lodged firmly in Marc's rear. Marc whirled to see where the shot had come from, pulling out the dart and throwing it to the floor.
"Gotcha," Vince muttered. "That one's for Tony." He fitted a second dart as he spoke.
Meanwhile, despite her efforts to duck out of sight, Marc had spotted Isabelle and started for the stairs.
"Attention, we have the premises surrounded," blared a voice from outside. "Come out with your hands up, and nobody will get hurt."
"Well then, it seems someone called in the cops," Marc sneered. "See, that's not good." He flinched as dart number two lodged in his thigh. He pulled that out, too. He frowned, as if trying to remember what he had been about to do.
"That's enough to bring down an elephant," Vince muttered in satisfaction.
"Boss?" One of Marc's men looked around the corner from the door he was guarding. Marc waved at him, and the man disappeared out of sight again, gun drawn.
The orderly retreated inside the staff quarters while Marc was staring somewhat dumbly at the dart. "You think that's going to stop me? You know these things thake thime... " his speech slurred and he began to totter. Stubbornly, he shook his head, then raised his gun towards Isabelle. "So now, you die, blondie. Tolchoo, Corina."
"I'm here." Corina stood at the entrance to the therapy wing. She had exchanged her pajamas for an orderly uniform, too short and somewhat wide for her, and wore black sneakers. Marc grinned, and turned. Without another word, he raised his gun and fired several shots towards Corina. The tall woman jerked, and staggered, catching herself against the door frame. Crimson stains bloomed on her chest and leg.
Isabelle screamed in wordless agony, and hurtled down the stairs two at a time, but Marc ignored her. He continued to pull the trigger, even when after the fourth time, it merely clicked, the clip spent.
Without slowing, she barelled into the man from behind and he crashed to the ground, where he lay twitching and struggling against the tranquilizer that was now kicking in. That's my girl, Xena silently cheered.
Just then, all hell broke loose as policemen were storming the building. Voices shouted, a few shots were fired, Isabelle struggled to reach Corina, but Marc's hand clamped around her ankle, tripping her. With her injured shoulder, Isabelle could not get up her hands in time to break the fall. Xena flinched as the young woman's head crashed hard into the floor tiles, and she lay still. "You... bitch," Marc gasped. "All... your... fault." Then he, also, fell limp.
Isabelle's vision was blurry as she regained her senses. The commotion around her was dizzying, but she had only one thought. Corina. Frantically, she staggered to her feet, ignoring the screeching headache that wanted to pull her back to the ground, and tottered to where she had seen the tall woman. She saw a motionless shape on the ground, surrounded by a team of paramedics. Fleetingly, she thought there was something odd about that, but she continued towards them. "She'll be okay, right?"
One of the women gathered around Corina's lifeless form rose and turned towards her with a sober expression. "I am sorry, Miss. Was she a friend of yours?"
"What?" Isabelle felt weak. "No... there must be some mistake. She's been shot before... it was only... she can't be dead!" With horror, she saw two of the paramedics gently zip up a rose-colored body-bag around Corina's still face. This had to be a bad dream. "Please... there has to be something..."
The woman gently patted Isabelle's shoulder. "I am very sorry. But I hear that it's her sacrifice that saved everybody else here. She died a hero."
With dumb incomprehension, she watched four of the paramedics - all women - bear the bag outside. She stumbled after them as they carefully loaded the body into a waiting rescue vehicle and drove off, unnoticed in the pandemonium around them.
Isabelle was discharged from the hospital a few days later, where they had treated her for a mild concussion, and stabilized her shoulder. They couldn't treat the lasting shock, and the bottomless emptiness inside her.
She had barely even known this woman, really, she kept telling herself, and it made no sense that a virtual stranger's death would hit her so hard. Corina had not even been a very nice person by all accounts - and that was putting it mildly. But she had let Isabelle glimpse a different side to her, however fleetingly. Isabelle felt special for it. And then of course there was that strange juxtaposition with a certain ghostly warrior - it made her feel like she had known the tall, dangerous woman all that more intimately. Isabelle had probably been the closest thing to a friend the woman had known in quite some time. For some reason, that only added to Isabelle's grief.
Xena was there for her, of course, offering what comfort she could in that grumpy, clumsy way of hers. It did help, though, oddly enough.
Through nurses' gossip, and Xena's account, she had learned that, apart from 'that one woman', nobody had died that day. Even Tony, the orderly, and that scumbag Marc hap pulled through, though apparently Marc had suffered some lasting damage from the generous dose of tranquilizer that Vince had managed to empty into him. The police squad had been efficient in suppressing Mars' men, and soon after, the paramedics had arrived to treat the injured.
The incident had been attributed to the same terrorist organization that Corina had recently turned her back on.
She had also received a visit from Gail Branigan, during which, for the first time ever, Xena had left her alone. They had talked for a bit, mostly Gail seemed to try to determine how she was coping with the trauma. Isabelle also learned that the institution would be closed down for the time being, the more severely affected patients transferred elsewhere, while the milder cases, like Isabelle herself, were allowed to return home.
Home, of course, was where her mother was. She woman refused to return to her own home, and insisted on keeping Isabelle company through this trying time. She loved her mom, and knew she meant well, but mostly she wanted to be alone. But neither her mother, nor her over-protective little sister Lilli, would have any of it. They dragged her to museums, to musicals and movies, they even went to bars with her. She had to admit, reluctantly, that their efforts were having some effect.
After a few weeks, she resumed her old job, and that also helped. In the time she had been gone, a lot had changed there, but she found she was able to slide right back into a mind-numbing routine, broken occasionally by Xena's visits. The warrior now only spoke when they were alone, a fact that Isabelle appreciated very much.
She completed her book during her first fortnight at home - it only needed a few more chapters - and to her surprise, found a publisher who agreed to print it.
She took comfort in Xena's presence, for the warrior was steadfastly at her side, a solid friend despite her insubstantial shape. She could not help but think that Xena didn't feel entirely happy, but the warrior appeared to stick around for her sake, and she was grateful.
And so, eventually, it was that Isabelle learned to cope. Corina Walker, the terrorist turned hero, was going to be the inspiration for her next novel. She would become immortal; Isabelle would see to it.
It would have to do.
Isabelle stole across the parking lot, her coat pulled up over her head against the driving rain, then squinted to find the correct door number in the dim light from the cloud-laden sky. Timidly, she knocked.
The door opened a crack, which widened just enough to admit the young woman. The room's occupant closed the door and helped Isabelle out of her coat, hanging it on a peg near the entrance.
"Did your mother give you trouble? I don't think she bought my disguise as the mail man."
Isabelle resisted the urge to throw her arms around the tall woman. Or to slap her. "I couldn't believe it when I got your message. I saw them wrap you up and carry you off in that body-bag..."
Corina chuckled mirthlessly. "Turns out I don't die that easily."
"They couldn't tell me anything, not where you were taken, not where you were buried. I couldn't even say good-bye."
"Now you know why."
Isabelle angrily wiped at her eyes. "It wasn't easy, moving on. What took you so long? It's been months."
Corina ran a hand through her hair. "I had little say in what went down after they carted me off. I contacted you as soon as I could." She smiled somewhat bitterly. "It's nice to know someone missed me. Not something I expected."
Corina studied her. "Hoped, maybe. Expected... no."
Isabelle found it hard to hold on to anger or hurt with those intent blue eyes on her. What did it matter, Corina lived. She lived! At last, she smiled slowly, though her eyes still burned. "So... what happens now?"
In reply, Corina picked up a wallet from the night stand, and pulled out an ID card and a driver's license. She handed both to Isabelle.
Isabelle snorted "Coralee Fitzgerald? Really?"
Corina made a face. "Someone has a sense of humor. But, it's all there, spotless background - except for a speeding ticket or two for realism - social security number, college and high school records. I was born in Ireland, and my parents moved back there while I was in college. My college performance was mediocre," she rolled her eyes at that, "which is why I worked at the harbor loading containers until the company went out of business a few months ago. I have a savings account that will tide me along for a few months. I have no idea who's behind it, though. Must be someone really powerful - and really secretive."
"Wow. That 'someone' pulled some serious strings." Isabelle found herself thinking of a certain woman appearing to her inside a TV. "Maybe Mars isn't the only one messing with the world," she offered.
Corina considered that. "It' possible. I can only assume that at some point, someone is going to call in a few favors, and I hope I'll be ready to deliver," said Corina. "But for now - it's a fresh start for me. Maybe I can work on opening that biker bar I've always dreamed about."
Impulsively, Isabelle reached for Corina's hand. "You deserve it."
Corina glanced out the grimy window. "I was specifically told I can't contact anyone from my old life. But I just couldn't let you keep thinking I was dead." She squeezed Isabelle's hand, and gently tugged her closer. "I owe you that much. You saved me."
"I didn't do anything," Isabelle protested, "You're the one who died." Her breath caught as Corina's free arm went around her.
"You did more than you think," Corina murmured. "Thank you, Isabelle."
"Any time." Isabelle hesitantly returned the embrace, and buried her face against the tall woman's shoulder. "I'm just so glad you're still alive."
The moment didn't last nearly long enough. Corina pulled back and regarded her seriously. She seemed to be struggling to speak, pressing her lips together. A muscle in her jaw twitched.
Isabelle found her throat constricting as comprehension dawned. "Uh oh. Is this good-bye, then? Again?"
Corina looked away. "Yes. It's safer that way. For you. I just wanted you to know the truth before heading out."
Isabelle squeezed her eyes shut.
"Safer, my ass." The young woman surprised herself with her vehemence. But she knew that she wanted nothing more than to keep this woman in her life. She wasn't just going to walk away from this.
"What gave you the crack-brained idea that you can't have anyone care about you? Well, I do! All that bull about keeping me safe, of all things? What could be safer than having someone as bad-ass as you around to protect me? You can't just die, then walk back into my life and say 'surprise, I'm not dead', and then tell me you're going to walk out of it again. I'm not letting you! Do you really think I can just return to the way things were before? I can't go back home and pretend this never hap-" She was cut off as Corina leaned in and kissed her, startlingly and quite thoroughly.
Afterwards, light-headed and breathless, Isabelle leaned against the tall woman's chest. "What was that for?"
"Seemed the best way to stop you talking," Corina grinned gently. "You had me at 'well, I do'." Tenderly, she brushed Isabelle's cheek, then her lips, with calloused fingertips. "To be honest, I don't think I'd care to leave you behind, either."
"I guess that means we're agreed." Isabelle was sure her suddenly hoarse voice belied the lightness of her words. But, she did not care. All she could think of was how good it felt to be resting against this woman.
"I guess it does." Corina hugged her closer. "So, you think I'm bad-ass, do you? Let me show you." The promise in that murmur sent giddy tingles all through Isabelle's body. The tall woman encountered no resistance when she slowly coaxed a weak-kneed Isabelle towards the shabby motel bed. That was the end of rational thought for quite some time.
She was gentle, her touches light, as if afraid she might shatter this freshly-woven bond. But the tender caresses certainly did not miss their mark; Corina knew what she was about. It made Isabelle feel inadequate for a while, until the responses of the other's body to her own touches completely dispersed her doubts.
When she awoke, it was pitch dark. Isabelle found Xena's form, softly glowing, looking down at her, a broad smile on her face. "That looks like it went well."
Isabelle colored. "You... saw? Heard, even?" She mouthed the words almost silently, though it was hard not squeal in mortification. Corina's deep, steady breathing close by said the other woman was still asleep. At least, Isabelle hoped so.
Isabelle noted that Xena had not denied anything, but a look at the stoic face before her let the response die on her lips. The warrior's eyes were glistening suspiciously. She suddenly knew that the Warrior Princess' stay was, at last, at an end, her mission here done. A look of silent understanding passed between ghost and woman.
"I can't ever thank you enough, Xena. I'll never forget you."
"Of course you won't." Xena winked, dislodging a single tear that slid down her cheek. "Well, I'm off. Not much for good-byes. You take good care of Miss Grumpy-Pants - she needs it more than she'll ever be able to admit."
Isabelle grinned. Her eyes, too, were suddenly stinging. "I intend to. Say hi to Gabrielle for me."
But Xena was already gone.
Isabelle leaned against her car, letting the sea breeze tousle her hair and tug at her jacket as she looked around the weed-infested parking-lot and at the ramshackle building at its end. It had obviously once been a truck stop or something similar, but the windows had boards nailed across them, the front door was missing, and the paint was so flaky that it was hard to tell what the color had once been. The structure was flanked by a rickety shed on one side, and a rusted caravan missing its tires on the other.
She turned at the deep rumble of another approaching car, and watched Corina in her rented Lexus stop beside her in a spray of dust. The tall woman rolled down the window and removed her shades, tucking them into her shirt pocket.
"How's the job hunt?" asked Isabelle.
Corina shrugged. "Got a few leads. Nothing I'm crazy about, but I'll have to decide on something soon." She turned off the ignition, and got out of the car. "So this is it?"
"Yep. This is it."
They were about half an hour south of Pacifica, up on a cliff near Highway One with a spectacular view out onto the Pacific Ocean. It was a few weeks after their meeting at the motel, where Corina was still staying. Isabelle's mother had eventually been satisfied that her daughter would be okay, and returned back home.
"And your late aunt left you this place in her will?" Corina scanned the area with interest.
"That's what the letter said. The notary said it's all in order. I decided not to tell him that I don't know I even had an aunt."
"I see. Guess the Mysterious Benefactor strikes again. Let's have a closer look." Corina reached for Isabelle's hand, and they walked towards the building.
They dislodged a thick sheet of spider-webs as they stepped inside. The furniture was a jumble, most pieces rotted and broken. Isabelle picked up a chair that was missing a leg, and a second one dropped off it with a dry crack. A number of dust-covered beer glasses still sat in a crooked shelf behind the worn counter. The place smelled of dust and disuse. The walls, however, looked sturdy, and the stiff wind from the sea side did not reach inside.
"It needs lots of work," Isabelle remarked.
"It's beautiful," said Corina. "Come on, let's check out the shed." Isabelle followed, smiling at this unaccustomed enthusiasm.
"Holy shit," the tall woman exclaimed, as she tore the frayed linen cover off a motorcycle that stood inside the old shed, taking up most of the space inside. The tires were flat, and the entire machine covered in a thick layer of dust and bird droppings despite the covering. Isabelle knew little about motorcycles, but she could make out the writing on the dirt-encrusted tank.
"A Harley Davidson?"
"That's a Knucklehead. 1947, I think," Corina said reverently. "My dad used to drive one just like it. I think I could fix this up..." Her eyes shone as she looked at Isabelle. "Unless..."
Corina wiped some dirt off the mottled leather seat. "Well... it's your place now. You haven't said what you plan to do with it. And if I'm to be a part of it."
Isabelle shook her head. "Really? You have to ask?"
Corina smiled slowly. "I'm a jobless tramp. It's going to be a challenge to house-break me."
"I'll take you on as my bouncer. Besides, I'll need someone with some muscle to clear out all the rubble if I want to make this place presentable again."
"Bouncer, eh?" Corina advanced on the smaller woman.
Giggling, Isabelle retreated, until her back hit the brittle boards of the shed's wall. "Free room and board?"
Corina growled. "Cheap." She pinned the smaller woman against the wall. The unstable boards creaked alarmingly.
Isabelle went on blithely. "I'll throw in that bike. I can't drive it anyway."
"Mmh. Almost tempting."
"So, what do you think we should name the place? Biker's Retreat? Seaside Waystation? Or," the small woman grinned impishly. "Coralee's Diner?"
Corina brought her face close. "The Nut House," she murmured. She gave Isabelle no chance to reply.
The warrior's eyes fly open. Without moving a muscle, she scans the surroundings. She is inside what appears to be a small hut, a fire crackling in a hearth out of her line of sight. A smell of old cooking, mingled with the sharp sting of medicinal salve, hangs in the air.
Images flash through her mind. An ambush by some peculiarly dressed bandits. Her bard, at her side, fighting like a lioness. The sharp pain as one of their spears goes into her side - the realization that the weapon is poisoned. The attackers' inexplicable flight just as it seems they gained the upper hand. She had forgotten that entire episode until now. Then, finding herself in a strange, unreal place - Isabelle's study - upon waking.
"Gabrielle?" she whispers, trying to rise.
There is a gasp. "Xena! Finally! You recovered from that wound ages ago. But I just couldn't wake you. I tried and tried!"
Dazed, she lets Gabrielle help her to sit. Then the bard wraps her into a fierce hug.
"I thought for sure I'd lose you this time," Gabrielle says in a strangled voice.
"Turns out I don't die that easily," Xena murmurs. She returns she hug, smelling the sweet scent of her bard's hair, feeling strength slowly return to her limbs. She kisses the top of Gabrielle's head.
"I was right where I needed to be, Bard," she says softly. "And, Athena's Arse, do I have a crazy story for you!"
I began this piece over fifteen years ago, and for over ten, it was written into a corner and sitting unfinished. Two years ago, I finally decided to fix it by writing one of the characters out of the story. I think this helped, but the plot was still slow in developing, even though I was finally getting an idea of where I wanted it to go.
I can hardly believe that it is now well and truly finished (I'm sure I must have broken some record, right?), but here it is. Perhaps you can tell how my writing evolved over the years, for better or worse. I hope it does not distract too much from the story.
I have to thank Norsebard for agreeing to have a thorough read-through, making sure there are no glaring inconsistencies and spotting a host of pesky little typoes. Other than that, I thank Corina, Isabelle, and last but not least, Xena, for not giving up on me ;)
Comments? I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org