The Crazed Ramblings Of A Madwoman

- Part 1 of 6 -

by Verrath

The warrior speaks...

I am writing this journal because I feel I have come to a big turning point in my life. In the past few weeks, not only has my life taken a new direction, no, my entire universe has been turned upside down. I feel lost and disoriented, and I hope to be able to set a new course for myself by trying to put my troubled thoughts down in writing. I am not a bard, and I fear my ability with words is sorely limited. I cannot but wonder if I can even begin to express all that which is tormenting me, let alone convey the depth of the emotion that has been assaulting me because of the latest events.

My name is Xena, and I am - no, I was, a warlord.

I have conquered half of Greece in my time. My name is whispered in terror far beyond her borders, and mothers use it to frighten their children into submission. I have been called many things - the 'old Battleaxe', the 'Beast', the 'Destroyer of Nations', and many I'd rather not put into script, but mostly I am known as the Warrior Princess.

The sequence of events that have led to my present dilemma have been laid down in scrolls by countless bards all over the known world, and I need not go into them in detail. What none of those storytellers can ever know is the sheer turmoil I have had to face at being confronted suddenly with the truth of my own terrible darkness. I cannot possibly hope to cleanse all that evil from my soul, but I have taken a sacred vow to spend the rest of my life trying. And yet, until three days ago, it seemed I was to fail in that in the end, as I have failed my true calling from the beginning of my time.

I was ready to give up, bury my weapons, to go somewhere and quietly do away with myself. I don't think there is anybody who would have been sorry to see me go. The latest incidents had led me to believe that there are forces in me that I cannot control any more than I can stop the sun setting at night. This dark side of me is like a primeval huntress, and she demands blood. I felt that the only way to bury her for good was to die and take her with me. How wrong I was then I can only now begin to suspect.

Then I came across the slavers pillaging the village of Poteidaia, just when I was throwing the last handful of dirt over my accursed battle gear.

I made quick work of the brutes.

I don't know what made me go back on my decision to end my troubles, afterwards. I think it may have been the memory of a young girl who offered herself to the pillagers in exchange for the life of her village, standing up to them with a vigor that belied her slight frame. Something in her stance spoke of more courage than I can ever hope to find in my own heart. But if this village girl was too brave to back down in the face of overwhelming odds, I found myself unable to do less. So I went on my way, after retrieving my battle gear. I will not run away from myself anymore.

What happened next is a painful memory that I feel unable to put down here, for I tried to go home, only to find that I no longer had a home. But underneath that hurt is a small bright sliver of hope forcing its way through my pain, in the form of a stranger speaking up for me where my own family would not.

She was the same young girl that had caught my attention in Poteidaia. It is not too much to say that she saved my life that day, on more than one level. And when I went on my way, she followed. She must have known I did not approve. She must have been aware of the fact that I have been known to kill for lesser annoyances. And still she persisted. In the face of the courage, the innocence, and the unconditional trust in those pleading green eyes, what could I have done but acquiesce?

So now it seems I have a companion. This is new to me, and I don't think I can come to terms with it. I will let her travel with me for the time being, until I find a place where she can start a better life.

She tells me her name is Gabrielle, and that she wants to become a bard. While she defers to me and acknowledges my superiority, she seems not in the least bit afraid of me. She nearly drives me crazy all day with her incessant chatter, and yet I can't find it in my heart to chastise her. Just one look into those melting pools of green, and I relent. Such open admiration, and not a trace of malice! She does not belong with me. I am dark. She is not. I must find a good place for her. I must.

We are spending the night out in the open once more, after my run-in with a particularly dense lot of young fools this afternoon. I just can't find any patience in me for dealing with such people. And so I prefer to be out here, where my dangerous temper will not get a chance to flare. Because when it does, I hurt people. Kill people. For her sake, I must not let that happen now.

I can still see the scene now:
The inn is not very crowded at this time of day. Travelers spending the night there have long since continued on their way, and the locals stopping by for an evening of relaxation are only just beginning to trickle in. It is nothing much as inns go, but it is reasonably neat and clean. Nicer and friendlier than most I have frequented with my men. The tables are battered and used but sound, the chairs sturdy, the pottery spotless, and there is even a little fireplace in the back of the common room, and beside it a small stage, for bards or other artists, though that has obviously not been used in some time. On the other side of the fireplace, a door opens to the foot of a stairway leading to the guest rooms. The counter is meticulously clean, as though the innkeeper has nothing much else to do but swipe it all day with the linen cloth he is carrying, which is what he is doing as we enter.

I order ale for myself, and for Gabrielle, a lightly spiced wine. She has told me that she never drinks alcohol, and her face is a study as she cautiously sips the fragrant beverage. I almost burst out laughing at her puzzled expression when she feels the potent liquid warm her throat, and the wine's rich flavor spread inside her mouth. For some reason, I suddenly feel better than I have in a long time, and let my face relax into a genuine smile.

"Hey, I think I like it," the girl says, and enthusiastically takes a bigger gulp. And splutters, choking. "Though I have to say it's a little strong," she croaks when she has caught her breath. I do laugh at that, and she soon joins me, a chiming, pearly giggle that warms my heart.

But being what I am, my warrior instincts never sleep, and I am well aware of the hostile glances sent my way by the innkeeper and the handful of patrons. Hate and prejudice flare when the Warrior Princess is about, that much, at least, has not changed, I notice bitterly. I feel the hair on my neck rise, an unfailing sign that there is trouble brewing.

Sure enough, one of the patrons soon rises and makes his way towards the table in the back of the room, where we are seated. I expect him to challenge me to a duel, or to provoke me with hateful taunts until my temper snaps and battle lust claims me, anything to bring his name into the stories about the mighty Warrior Princess. I have dealt with more of this foolishness than I care to keep track of, and if some of these poor idiots have indeed made a name for themselves in the bards' scrolls, most have not lived to brag about it.

I cannot help it, and neither am I proud of it. When the Huntress takes over, I fight, or I die. That primeval urge is strong in me. When my anger is kindled, it is very hard not to let go and give in, and let my dark instincts rule me. And once I do, I kill. The Huntress takes no prisoners.

To my surprise, instead of addressing me, the fellow approaches Gabrielle. He is still young. Most of them are, somehow. I don't think he has been shaving for very long. When he clears his throat, she turns towards him and gives him a cheerful smile. "Hello," she says, her face open and friendly. For a moment I dare to hope that my hunch was wrong as he returns her smile. But that hope is shattered as soon as he starts speaking, with a covert glance at me that I am sure my little naive companion never noticed.

"You seem a nice girl," he says, "what I can't understand is why you keep such distasteful company."

The girl seems taken aback, but that smile never leaves her face as she answers him. "Why, what do you mean?"

His eyes flicker towards me, and his smile vanishes to be replaced by a mask of hate. "I'm sure there are more... adequate... traveling companions for a beautiful woman than...the likes of her ." His eyes dare me to react, but this mild provocation is hardly enough to stir my anger. And I admit to myself I am curious about Gabrielle's reaction.

She looks at me, and gives me a tiny smile. "I can't find anything wrong with my company," she says without taking her eyes off me. Then she looks back up at the young man, who somehow does not seem so cocksure anymore. "As a matter of fact, I'm quite comfortable where I am now, thank you."

Something does snap inside me at that, and it is not my temper. I realize I am staring at her, and quickly pull myself together. When she turns back towards me, I am outwardly composed.

The young man seems at a loss, but his friends soon come to his rescue. Together, they continue prodding the girl, trying to make me react by utterly ignoring me, and commenting to her about me in crude jokes. I've heard each one of these gibes a thousand times, but made in front of her... they cut deeper than they should. Gabrielle is beginning to look a little distressed. I am on the brink now, the heat that is the Huntress boiling just under the surface, but a pair of trusting green eyes keeps her at bay. Just.

When they haul her roughly from her chair and start fondling her, I decide this farce has gone on long enough. I flow to my feet, and draw myself up to my full height - I top the tallest of the men here by half a foot - to tower over them menacingly. My glower alone is enough to make them back away, their hands going nervously to dagger or sword at their waists. They begin to see that they may have made a mistake. I have always enjoyed that look of dawning horror, when the predator suddenly realizes he is about to become the prey. I never fails to bring a feral grin to my face. I know that I look like the Bacchae in heat when I let that leer come, and I realize that it strikes terror in their hearts. I make no move to draw my weapon. I will make them sweat, and tremble, and run squeaking to their mothers.

For, all of a sudden, as never before in my life, I have the Huntress firmly under my conscious control.


San Francisco, 1998, after midnight:

"Hey, I think that's pretty good," Isabelle said as she hit the "save" button on her word processor. "I love the part where you stare down those silly oafs. I wouldn't want to be in their shoes." She sighed happily. "I think this might finally be something I could bring myself to send to a publisher!"

The tall, dark figure seated against the far wall of the strawberry blonde woman's little study stirred and got to her feet. The light of the small lamp by the computer did not extend far beyond Isabelle's desk, which left her mysterious companion shrouded in partial darkness. Moving noiselessly to the edge of the illuminated sphere, blue eyes glinting dangerously with a light of their own, the raven-haired woman gave the distinct impression of a black cat in a dark alleyway, crouched and ready to leap. Even after almost a week in Xena's company, Isabelle still found her breath catching at the sight.

And she still struggled with the insanity of it all. Here was a warrior from ancient Greece, by her own words a reformed warlord who traveled the known world in an attempt to redeem herself, together with a young and spirited bard named Gabrielle. And this so-called Warrior Princess had just appeared one night by this very desk, where Isabelle had been sitting after a particularly hard day at work, trying to type up some sort of coherent story, perhaps one day to be published. Writing was a hobby of hers, but one she never seriously hoped to make into a profession. She enjoyed it, but felt she just didn't have what it takes.

So this warrior woman had popped up, and rattled on about story line and continuity, and bringing events to life, and had basically taken the young woman's budding story - about the misadventures of a clumsy magician - apart bit by bit. And had offered the crestfallen writer to give some pointers by telling tales from her own life.

Thus Isabelle had ended up writing about Xena, the Warrior Princess, and her faithful sidekick, Gabrielle. With the warrior's unique perspective, and Isabelle's ability to render the warrior's somewhat crude speech into expressive prose, they made a decent team. Somehow she had never thought to question the fact that Xena had just...appeared. Or that she couldn't be touched. Or, for that matter, that no one else seemed to be able to see or hear her.

"Yeah, well," the dark warrior replied, "but I still think you should elaborate more on the part where I kick those slaver's butts. Your skimming over that takes all the... spice... out of the scene." A quick, wolfish smile flashed across her face.

Isabelle lit another cigarette. "Xena, you didn't just kick their butts. You made one big bloody mess out of them. I'm not going into detail about that, and that's final. This is supposed to be PG13, remember?"

"Yeah, whatever," Xena agreed crossly, obviously still not sure what PG13 meant exactly. "Anyway," she continued after a while, "That Huntress metaphor is brilliant. You sure have a way with words." She looked wistful. "Just like her."

Isabelle flushed at the compliment. "And has Gabrielle ever written about that?"

"She has, but only in her private journals. I used to corner her about it, but she always said she wanted people to see the noble spirit I have become, not the dark monster I was before. I suppose I can't argue with that, even though we both know the monster is as much part of me now as it was then. As a matter of fact, the allusion she used was not so very different from yours."

The writer looked at the clock on her desk, and sighed. "I should be getting to bed. It's way past midnight, and I have to go to work tomorrow. But, oh what the heck! Come on, tell me more! About her. What happened after you left the inn?"

Xena's eyes shone brightly in the back-light of the monitor as she spoke. "The whole thing rattled her good, I can tell ya. I don't think she'd been confronted with much violence in her life..."


The warrior speaks...

I can see she is still distraught by what happened in the past few days. As we relax by the fire, she just sits there, arms wrapped around her legs, chin resting on her knees, and stares glumly into the flames. The flickering light of our campfire sends flitting shadows across her almost childlike face and makes fiery highlights in her strawberry blonde hair. She is a beautiful young woman.

But I cannot tell which bothers her more - the brutality she herself has had to face, or the darkness she has seen surface in me. She hardly knows me, but she has shown me a trust that I have never before received, and most certainly do not deserve. I am not much for conversation or comforting, so I just leave her to her thoughts and go about mending my sadly neglected armor. It gives me time to ponder my own predicament.

I suddenly feel a familiar prickle on my skin, and look up to find Gabrielle gazing at me across the campfire. She does not look away upon meeting my eyes, and I am startled by the intensity written on her face.

"What?" I finally rasp.

"Thanks for... what you did at the inn." I just shrug. I cannot really trust myself to speak at the moment.

She studies her hands for a moment, then continues, "you're not what I thought."

I raise an eyebrow in question. She seems a little flustered at her own boldness, and drops her gaze, but she goes on to explain, "There are so many stories about you, I guess I really couldn't fit you into any mold at all. I somehow thought you'd be more..." She looks at me apprehensively. "horrible. Uglier." I will my face to be impassive, but she must have seen my eyes narrow, for she prattles on hurriedly. "Of course, there are tales that picture you as a seductress of kings and queens, and that would imply... uh... you..." She lets that trail off, biting her lip. "Oh, Zeus, I don't know."

"And are you disappointed?" I ask, intrigued now in spite of myself. I do not think anyone has ever said anything like that to me before. They would have had to be suicidal to even think about it.

Gabrielle shakes her head, looking at me again. "You are more than all the stories combined. More formidable, more deadly, more... beautiful." She watches for a reaction in me, and almost gets one, as I firmly push down a new emotion I suddenly find surfacing. This young woman seems to know instinctively where all my triggers are.

"And you hurt inside," she adds in a whisper that I do not think I'm supposed to hear.


W&B Software office, San Francisco, early morning:

"Yes, Mr. Cleaver, of course we'll get that update to you as soon as we have it ready. But it will be at least two more days. ... Of course... Well, you see, these things take time. And we need to get clearance from the Information Center before... uh huh. Yes. Mr. Berringer? Yes, he's in. Hold the line, please, I'll put you through.... Ron? Howdy. I've got our friend Cleaver on hold. Wants to talk to you about that contract, again. He just made quite a stink... Okay, here you go!" Isabelle heaved a sigh as she put down the receiver. "I wish I could tell him just once what he can do with his stupid update," she murmured darkly.

Hank Miller, who shared an office with her, gave her a grin. "That would not be very ladylike, Isa."

"Who's a lady?" Isabelle countered with a pout.

The young woman returned to the unfinished business piling on her desk, and sighed. Customers like Cleaver could be more than unpleasant. He had bought their product, offered loads and loads of suggestions for improvements, and when gently explained that they weren't improvements at all, or had nothing to do with what the product was originally intended for, he would turn distinctly unfriendly. Of course, he  expected everything to be done yesterday, and considered himself a much better software engineer than those who had actually learned the trade.

Cleaver seemed to feel that W&B was there to please him and him alone, and that there weren't dozens of other customers to be served. And he had not even paid his bill yet. Wouldn't it be just great if Xena were there! She could just pummel him a little and make him whine, and then maybe pick him up by the scruff of his neck and stuff him head first into a toilet, or feed his tie to the shredder. She put her hand over her mouth to hide the sudden hysterical giggle at the mental image.

She turned to find Hank looking oddly at her.

"What?" she said, still fighting for composure.

"You just had a very unpleasant phone call, and you sit here cackling like an old hag. Is there something I should be worried about?"

"Oh, no, not at all. I'm just... visualizing."

"Excuse me?"

"Trying to imagine Cleaver's face when he gets his tie caught in a shredder."

Hank chuckled. "You're bad, Miss Barnes."

Isabelle gave him a grin. "Yeah, maybe. But it feels goood."


The day progressed rapidly from bad to worse. Deadlines virtually stumbled over one another, and at this time, there just weren't enough people working here to help meet them all. A lot of the work lay on the shoulders of Isabelle and two of her colleagues, Tim and George.

The situation wasn't helped by Isabelle's new inability to concentrate. Her mind kept wandering to her writing of Xena's story, as she kept turning over new possibilities in her mind. She just could not wait to get back to it, and she admitted to herself that she missed Xena's company. The warrior's tale was truly compelling, and it was fun to have the mysterious woman around. Even if the dark-haired beauty was a bit gruff sometimes, she had a wry sense of humor and very quick wit. If only Isabelle knew more about the mystery of why she was here at all. Even the Warrior Princess herself didn't seem sure about that. Oh, but the young writer would enjoy it while it lasted! Never in her life had she been caught up in anything so completely. Well, it seemed Xena had that effect on people.

In any case, it had her sitting for long stretches staring unseeing at the screen, happily traveling the meadows and forests of ancient Greece, utterly unconcerned by the steady passing of time. Then the ring of the phone would make her start, and jolt her right back to present day San Francisco. For a while.

Worse yet, a phone call just before 5pm announced some serious problems a customer had with one of their products. It seemed there had been a power loss, and the software had failed to start properly afterwards. So, chafing at the delay, she had had to go into overtime, helping Tim fix the problem.

Thus it was after dark when Isabelle finally left the company's building, carrying her purse and umbrella. In late September, despite winter still being a ways off, darkness came fairly early. She only had a few blocks to walk, so she hardly ever went through the trouble to take the bus, or her little-used and battered old Plymouth.

She made her way along the lighted street that was wet from recent rain, and reflecting the lights like a dull and warped mirror. The main streets were thoroughly clogged at this hour, motors buzzing, horns blasting, and the fumes that wafted from the cars' exhausts stinging in Isabelle's nose.

She crossed another traffic light and turned a corner into a narrower, darker and less frequented street that would eventually lead her to the huge apartment building where her flat was. She passed a group of mean-looking young men leaning casually against one of the buildings. Even with the cold, they wore leather vests over bare, generously tattooed skin. Isabelle noticed them exchange quick glances, then lazily put themselves into motion, following her. Suddenly nervous, she ran a hand through her hair, pulled her coat closer about her and quickened her pace. Oh my God, please don't let this be what I'm afraid it is!

A rough hand descended heavily on her shoulder. "Where ya hurryin' ta, luv?" Rasping breath by her ear, a stubble of beard scratching her cheek, and the reek of stale alcohol and old sweat wafting to her, sent her heart way up into her throat and effectively rendered her bones into jelly.

Frantically, she searched her brain for any scrap of knowledge she might have retained from the class in self-defense she had taken in the spring. But her mind was twirling so badly that all she could come up with, somehow, was the picture of a young bard in an inn being molested by a group of young men. Only now there was no warrior here to dissuade them.

The man's other hand went roughly around her waist, and she was dragged, stunned and unresisting, into a nearby dead-end alleyway. And now, it ends. It was just a stray, oddly detached thought that suddenly popped into her head. Just like that. Like the little articles in the newspaper, down on the bottom of page four, the ones you just sort of skim over and shake your head a little, thinking 'What is this world coming to?' I wonder if they'll rape me first, or if they just want my purse...

She felt her throat constrict with fear as one of the men stepped in front of her. He carried a long knife that he guided slowly towards her neckline. Wide green eyes followed the weapon's progress in terrified fascination. This assailant looked rather young, and under normal circumstances Isabelle might even have found him attractive. But now, with a greedy leer on his face, and that blade slowly approaching her neck.... The knife descended to her collar and neatly cut away the topmost button of her coat, making it fly off with a little popping sound. The thug proceeded to open the whole of her coat in this way, and pulled it apart to reveal the gray tweed suit she wore underneath. The leer became a grin, as his free hand came up to fondle her breast, then ran down her body. Today, of all days, she had had to put on a skirt!

"Don't make a noise honey," a voice hissed, "or it's gonna hurt ya!"

It hurt anyway, because they were none too gentle with her. After having relieved her of her coat, they flung her against the wall, her head connecting with a painful thump, leaving her dizzy for a few seconds. When her vision cleared, she saw a familiar shape pad silently up behind her tormentors. Time slowed. Isabelle's heart lurched. Hope! Xena stepped up to her, frustration showing clearly in her glinting eyes. None of the men showed the slightest reaction. They didn't see her, of course. And there would certainly be no pummeling, slashing or intimidating from the warrior ghost. Isabelle was still on her own.

"Isabelle, get a grip," Xena's voice was insistent. "You'll do yourself no good if you just let this happen. Come on, fight!"

"I can't, Xena," Isabelle replied in a whisper, "they'll hurt me! I'm scared."

"Who's the slut talkin' to?" one of the street toughs asked. "She crazy or somet'n'?"

"Does it matter?" another replied. "C'mon, guys, let's get on with this."

"Isabelle," that was the warrior, "they won't just hurt you. They'll hurt you real bad. And then they'll kill you. I know the type. You've got to fight them. I know you have the spirit in you. You can do it!"

"But how...?"

"Anything goes, Gabrielle. Kick, bite, scratch, scream, I don't care. And for the love of the gods, use that thing you're carrying!" Meaning the umbrella that the young woman still clutched uselessly in her right hand.

"I can't! I can't..." Isabelle whimpered.

"Hey, Fred, she's a real weirdo. Like, talkin' to 'erself an' all," the man who was holding Isabelle muttered. "Shut up, bitch," he yelled, and backhanded her across the face. She felt a dull pain in her nose, and warm liquid running into her mouth. One eye suddenly felt swollen, its vision blurred.

"Gabrielle! Act, don't react!" The warrior said the words with a peculiar emphasis.

Act, don't react. There was something vaguely familiar about that line. It stirred some very, very deep part of Isabelle's being. Xena must have seen something dawning on the young woman's face, because she spoke once more.

"Act, don't react. Yes, that's it! You remember. Come on, my bard, fight!"

As if some wilder, hidden part had suddenly taken control, the still dazed Isabelle suddenly exploded into action. She yanked her knee up with all her strength and was rewarded by a startled grunt and a painful widening of eyes of the man in front of her. The guy sank down with a groan and curled up into a ball, hands pressed over his private parts. His knife clattered harmlessly to the ground. Before he was halfway down, Isabelle had whirled and rammed her elbow into the second one's gut. In one fluid motion, the fist of that same arm snapped upward and connected squarely on the ruffian's nose, slamming his head back into the wall. He fell like a sack, slumping against the wall.

"Gabrielle, look out, he's going for the knife!"

Isabelle gave a wild yell and aimed a high kick, but missed, her momentum carrying her past her target and throwing her off balance. Those precious seconds were enough to allow her assailant to reach the knife. Knees bent, arms spread, he took a fighting stance before her, blocking the exit of the alleyway, and her escape.

"So, you like fightin' rough, little bitch? Well I'll show ya!"

"Behind you!" Xena yelled, "use that stick-thing!"

Without looking, Isabelle quickly stabbed backward with her umbrella and felt it bury into soft flesh. She had no time to be amazed, however, because there was still the one with the knife, and he was slowly advancing on her. Surrendering completely to that other self, the young woman let a wild and dangerous look come over her face.

"Good job, Gabrielle, you're scaring him. He doesn't know what to do."

"Well, neither do I, really," Isabelle hissed through clenched teeth.

"Improvise. All you need is an opening, and then you run for it."

Improvise. Act, don't react. With a blood-curdling scream, Isabelle hurled herself forward, umbrella poised before her like a medieval lance. And then she was past him, and out on the street, where she broke into a dead run, hardly noticing the uneasy glances people sent her way, a mother pulling her child close and quickly crossing to the far side of the street. Only when she saw the elevator door in her apartment building slide shut behind her did she stop her frenzied flight.

Entering her flat, she closed the door, leaned next to it against the wall and let herself sink slowly to the ground, sobbing hysterically.


It took the young woman a while to realize that somebody was talking to her in a soft voice. "Isabelle, calm down! Shhh. Hey. Calm down. It's over. You did great." Xena's leather-clad form crouched next to her, blue eyes looking at her with concern. "Come on, we'd better go have a look at your nose, and your eye. I sure hope those bastards didn't break anything..." She scowled furiously. "Oh, how I wish I could have..." A sudden grin. "You were good."

The soothing words helped Isabelle to get a grip on herself. She looked up at her new friend.

"I was?"

"Yeah. Pretty darn good, I'd say. That look you had on would have given a Bacchae credit." The warrior smiled at her. "C'mon, let's get that blood off your face."

Isabelle laughed weakly. "I must look a sight. Oh god, I still can't believe I did that! It's like... I don't know, something inside me just... knew what to do. But I swear to God I've never learned any of these moves." She paused and looked intently at the warrior, considering. "You saved my life out there. Thanks."

Xena smiled gently. "Nah, you were the one doing the fighting. I just... reminded you that you could."

Isabelle just looked at her. She got to her feet, but had to grip the wall for support, suddenly dizzy.

"How'd you know I was in trouble, anyway?" she asked when she had recovered a little.

Xena shrugged. "I have many skills," she said with a secretive wink.

They went into the bathroom, where Isabelle, under Xena's watchful eye, proceeded to clean her face and check for any serious injury. It turned out that her nose was not broken after all, but a little sensitive to the touch, and the blow had burst the skin of her upper lip. Her eye was badly swollen, and already a dark, ugly bruise was starting to show.

"So much for keeping this secret," the red-blonde woman muttered wryly.

Following the warrior's competent advice, she covered the area around her eye with a soothing lotion, and then pressed a damp, cold cloth to it, before she went to the kitchen to prepare a mug of hot cocoa. For her nerves. While she waited for the milk to heat, she flopped down on the sofa in her small living room. The phone sat on a little round table just beside it, and she noticed that there was a message on the answering machine. She also noticed that Xena was eyeing the device rather warily.

"I've been wondering what that thing is for," the warrior said, watching her closely, "and I have to admit it kind of made me jump out of my skin when it suddenly came to life. There was a ringing noise, and then a voice spoke. Is that somehow related to this radio thing you have?"

Isabelle smiled. She did not get many phone calls these days, except from Lilli, her younger sister. But Lilli had been on a business trip the last few days, so Xena had no way of knowing about telephones.

"Well, close enough," the young woman explained. "It allows you to talk to somebody who's actually far away. They might be next door, or on the other end of the world."

Xena clearly didn't believe her, just as she had trouble coming to terms with the TV set or the radio, or all the other electric devices in her household. To the warrior, these things were pure magic, and she didn't trust magic.

The message was brief, telling Isabelle that Lilli was back, and she was having so much fun in this new job, and wouldn't she, Isabelle, call back soon!

Somehow, she could not bring herself to call her sister just now. The events were still fresh, and she did not want to ruin Lilli's enthusiasm about this job of hers. Besides, she was sure that she'd go to pieces if she allowed herself to be shown sympathy and commiseration now. So she finished preparing her cocoa, and went to her study, where she turned on her computer, hoping that Xena would provide her with some tales to keep her mind occupied. The warrior's presence was somehow very reassuring, and the young woman found herself wishing her ethereal friend were more solid. Here was a strong shoulder to lean on, if ever she saw one!

Just when she was getting ready to type, the phone rang. Startled, Xena whirled, drew her sword in a fluid, graceful motion, and crouched immediately into a fighting stance. Isabelle fought to hide her grin, but knew she hadn't succeeded, by the sullenly sheepish look on the warrior's face as she relaxed and put her sword away. Xena shot the shorter woman a dark look.

"I'm sorry, Xena," Isabelle said, knowing how touchy the warrior could be. "I don't mean to embarrass you. Honest. I can't imagine what it would be like if I were suddenly stranded in your world. It's just..." Blue eyes pierced her coldly.

"Hey," the young woman said softly, "Sorry, okay?" The phone rang again. "I have to get that. Don't be mad, please!"

It was Lilli.

"Hi, Lovey!"

"Oh, hi, Lil."

"What's up? I've missed you. Why didn't you call back!?" Lilli sounded, as usual, almost annoyingly chipper. Despite everything, it brought a small, fond smile to Isabelle's lips.

"I'm sorry, but I- I only just got home from work. Had some trouble with one of our projects, so I had to go overtime."

"Is everything okay? You sound funny."

As well she might, with her nose swollen and sill clogged with blood, and her nerves on edge! "I'm fine, really. So, how was your trip?"

A short silence. Then: "It was great! The presentation was a success, and I think my boss is really happy with me. And there's sooo much to see in DC, I'm glad I decided to stay for the weekend. Hey, what do you say we go out to grab a bite of dinner out by the Pier? I brought you something."

Isabelle sighed inwardly. That was just about the last thing she felt like doing right now. But, she knew her sister well enough to be sure there was no putting her off completely. "I don't know. Do you think I could interest you in some pizza, here at my place? There are a couple in the freezer. I really don't feel like going out just now."

Another slight hesitation. "Sounds fine. But.. are you sure you're okay, Is?"

The young woman took a breath. "I'll tell you more when you're here. Nine o'clock sound good?"

"Whatever you say, Lovey. I'll be there."

She heaved a sigh as she put down the receiver, and turned to find Xena standing right behind her, arching an expressive eyebrow in question. That woman could convey more with a quirk of that eyebrow than most others in an hour of talking!

"That was Lilli. She's coming over to dinner. I need to put the pizza in the oven, and then try to get...this...," touching her swollen eye, "covered up a little. I wish I could avoid her seeing me like that."

"Lilli? Who's she?"

"My sister. And my best friend. I told you about her. You haven't met her, because she was away on business the last week or so. I think you'll like her. She's very nice."

"I see." Isabelle could not quite place the sudden flash of fierce emotion on the warrior's eyes.


All of her efforts had only succeeded in making the bruise stand out more clearly, Isabelle thought. But after half an hour of carefully painting her face with make-up, with a taciturn warrior looking on, she lost patience. Xena had not talked much at all, and the young woman feared the phone incident had alienated her tall companion. They had only just met, but it seemed like they had been friends forever. Xena understood her, and Isabelle found she had a remarkable grasp of the warrior's sometimes dour and withdrawn character. And she thoroughly enjoyed the ethereal woman's company.

Needless to say, Lilli was shocked when she learned what had happened. She seemed every bit as distraught over the matter as Isabelle herself was. So it was that after a while Isabelle found herself trying to calm Lilli.

"It's okay, sis, I fought them off, didn't I? They won't be trying that again soon. Come now, pizza's getting cold."

They were sitting over their dinner, the radio playing softly in the background. Candlelight flickered with the draft that came through the from the tilted balcony door. The hum and murmur of the city night, way below, drifted faintly to them. It was nice enough once both women's nerves were beginning to settle, but Isabelle's eyes kept flicking to the corner of the living room, where Xena was casually leaning on a chair by the door to the study, watching them with an unreadable expression.

It was amazing to see the uses the warrior found for that particular piece of furniture. Xena never did anything as conventional as sitting on a chair. Sprawling, lounging, straddling, yes, but never just sitting. Mostly, though, she preferred to just stand with one arm resting casually on the chair's back and one foot propped up on the seat. From time to time the dark-haired woman would leave her place, walk to the window or the balcony, and look out, a mystified and wondering expression on her face. Only for a few moments, then she would resume her vigil by the study's door.

Isabelle found herself slowly shedding the horror of the incident as she listened to Lilli recounting in animated detail all that had happened on her trip, and how they would both have to go there some day. But, Isabelle's attention kept drifting, head still twirling with too many thoughts. One time, a piece of news on the radio caught her attention.

Corina Walker, prime suspect in a number of terrorist activities and one of America's most wanted, had apparently turned herself in pleading mental instability, and after an assessment by several doctors had been admitted into a mental institution an hour or so outside of San Francisco.

Bemused, Isabelle wondered what was going on in the mind of somebody who had allegedly committed more violent crimes than one cared to think about, and who certainly faced a life-long confinement, or worse. Why on earth would she just walk up and ask to be incarcerated? Some people were just plain crazy.

Then she realized Lilli had changed the subject, and was now excitedly talking about the Annie Lennox concert they had bought tickets for, the following weekend. They were both 80's fans, and both women were looking forward to the event and the trip down to L.A. as well. Lilli stopped in mid-sentence, and was watching her intently, having noticed her distracted look.

"Is, are you sure you're all right? Listen, I really think you should see the police about this."

"Lil, I'm not even sure I could recognize them. And I beat them up good. I don't know how badly I've hurt these guys. What if they turn the tables on me? It's their word against mine."

It was clear that Lilli did not quite believe that part of her story. Isabelle caught Xena rolling her eyes when she voiced doubts again, and, inexplicably, felt better all of a sudden. She flashed the warrior a grateful grin.

"What are you smiling at now?" her sister asked her.

Isabelle eyed Lilli seriously. "Sis, I know this sounds weird, but would you believe there's a dark-haired, blue-eyed warrior woman keeping me company? Like, right at this moment?"

"Huh?" Lilli looked at her, not following.

"Never mind," Isabelle said quickly, and they lapsed into an awkward silence.

After a while, Isabelle said, "hey, I've started on a new story. You wanna see? I think you'll like it!"

Lilli, always a fan of her big sister's writing and a grateful reader of anything Isabelle put out, was charmed. "Sure! So, did you finish 'Fool's Magic?'"

Isabelle shook her head. "No, and I don't think I will. It has no depth, no plot, and no characterization. It sucks." She shrugged and gave her sister a little smile. "C'mon, I have a feeling you're gonna like this."

While Xena didn't seem so enthusiastic about sharing her life's story with the young woman, Lilli was utterly entranced. she was standing behind her sister, elbows propped onto Isabelle's shoulders, chin resting on the strawberry blonde head, and was thoroughly captivated by the words on the computer screen. "Is, that's the best you've ever done. That first-person-narrative, that woman's character, and the innocent little girl with her, it's beautiful." Isabelle shared a pleased smile with her younger sister. When she turned back to give Xena a grin as well, the warrior was gone.


The warrior returned only after Lilli had left at Isabelle's insistence that she would be all right, and just needed a little sleep. Xena lounged against the door frame to the kitchen, watching while the blonde woman put the dishes in the dishwasher, and put on some water to make herself tea. Isabelle was exhausted, but she knew she would not be able to sleep. And she felt she had to say something to ease the tension that had suddenly built up between herself and the silent figure by the door.

"Are you going to tell me what's bothering you?" she asked finally, unable to keep quiet any longer. Not daring to look at the tall woman, she measured out a spoonful of tea, filled it in the teabag and poured boiling water over it into her cup, left it on the counter to steep. That done, she had no choice but to look up, having nothing left to do for the moment. She found the warrior intently studying the wooden door frame, tracing its outline with her index finger.

"Xena, look, I really am sorry I made fun of you about the telephone. I never meant to anger you."

At last, Xena looked at her. Her blue eyes sparkled like ice crystals in the dim artificial light. "I know," she said simply. Another long silence. Then an abrupt question. "Are you happy with... with your life?"

"Why, of course I... what makes you ask that?" She caught the pause in the other woman's words, but had no idea what to make of it.

"Bah, silly question. Forget I asked." Her attention went back to the task of inspecting the cracks in the door frame's paint.

Isabelle let it go, but the question bothered her. The warrior was frighteningly perceptive. In the last few months, the young woman had indeed found her life lacking, but she wasn't sure what that was.

Turning to take the teabag out of her cup, she sensed Xena coming closer. It was strange how the warrior's presence somehow seemed more tangible when she wasn't looking at her directly. Cup in hand, she turned to face the ethereal form.

"How's your eye?" the tall woman said softly, extending a hand to Isabelle's face. There was a strange, electric tingle when the ghostly fingers made contact with her skin. It was not unpleasant, but Xena seemed a little startled and drew back her hand quickly.

Isabelle sighed ruefully. "I'm afraid it'll be swollen shut tomorrow, and I'm sure it looks positively horrible. But it doesn't hurt too bad now. I think I'll take the day off tomorrow, anyway. It's Friday, so that'll give it three days to clear a little."

"Good," the warrior said, smiling.

They went to the study, where Xena took her by now customary place against the far wall of the little room, in partial darkness. Isabelle went suddenly still, and looked wide-eyed at the other woman. "Hey, wait, I just realized something. Back in that alley, you were calling me 'Gabrielle', weren't you?"

"Yes," came Xena's slow reply, "I suppose I was. I know that must have seemed strange to you. But it brought back a memory or the time when Gabrielle got... attacked, and I guess I just got carried away."

"A memory? Oh goody," Isabelle said, "that's what we need, isn't it?"

"Yeah, I suppose. But it happened a lot later in the story. We really haven't gotten anywhere near that point yet."

"Oh, that's no problem. I'll just put it in the scraps folder for when I need it."


The warrior speaks...

It is a stunningly beautiful late summer day. While Gabrielle is preparing breakfast, I decide to go out on an extensive morning round. We have been lazing around the past few days in this lovely spot, and I am getting restive. I shall do a swift run around the lake, perhaps a little swim and some sword drills to see if I'm still in shape. The sun is kissing my skin, and as I close my eyes, I can feel the shadows of the trees dappling my eyelids, and a light, warm breeze caress my skin. Drawing in the rich air, I break into an easy lope, giving Gabrielle a quick wave, and promising her I'll be back in a little while.

It feels wonderful to be exercising. I can feel the power in my body as I run, and I launch myself into a lazy flip just because I know I can. I make my way across the meadow towards the little lake in the valley, hurdling ditches and rocks rather than making my way around them, and feeling light-headed with the adrenaline rushing through my body after days of inactivity.

It is when I climb out of the water after an invigorating swim that I hear the noises from the direction of our camp. I am pretty far away, and can only hear anything because the wind has turned and I am now downwind. A man's rough voice, and distressed sounds from my friend. I waste no time dressing, I just grab my Chakram and take off towards the camp at a dead run.

I run like mad over the meadows.

I have never run so fast in my life.

It seems it is taking me forever to reach our camp.

I run...


Isabelle's study, after midnight:

"Well...," Isabelle prompted, "why are you stalling? You haven't been so fickle about telling me tales of slaughter so far."

"I don't know," Xena replied, "it just doesn't seem... This is different. I feel like I'm violating something. And I really don't want to go into how I felt that day."

"Come on, you want me to write this, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

"But you're not talking?"

"Maybe some other time."

"Come on, you know I won't break off in the middle of the scene. And if this relates to what happened to me today..." Isabelle knew she shouldn't pry. But the very fact that Xena seemed so reluctant to talk intrigued her beyond bearing. She looked at the warrior, a wicked idea forming in her mind.

"Well, then, I'll just have to wing it, won't I?"


Upon reaching the camp, I can see Gabrielle tied to the base of a tree, with a man about to rip her clothes off. I rush over there, and grab him by his hair.

"Listen," I tell him mildly, "that is a friend of mine you got there, and if you don't stop what you're doing right this instant, I shall have to do something drastic. Do you understand?" I give him my most intimidating stare and hold the Chakram to his throat. He swallows two or three times, then nods slowly. I let him be on his way, and bend down to untie the bard's bonds.

Gabrielle is...


"Wait!" Xena protested, "you gotta be kidding! You should know me better by now. I'm not a meek little milk sop!" The Warrior Princess drew herself up to her full height and glowered at the writer. "I'm the Warrior Princess!" Isabelle was beginning to think that perhaps this had been a bad idea.

But then Xena turned suddenly pensive, and studied her hands. "When I saw what he was doing to Gabrielle, I went clear out of my mind with anger. And I pummeled him good, I can tell ya. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's somebody having their way with someone weaker. And this was Gabrielle, I couldn't..."

She suddenly noticed the younger woman's very smug expression, and broke of, scowling furiously. "You tricked me, you little creep," she snarled.

Isabelle felt suddenly very bad. "I'm sorry, Xena, I shouldn't have done that. I don't know what I was thinking. I... sorry. We can break off here, if you want."

The warrior looked about ready to chew rocks. "That was a sneaky thing to do. But...," she flashed a sheepish grin, "guess I walked right into that, didn't I?"

It was the writer's turn to grin, and with relief. "You sure did."

"Well, you win this one. But it's not easy remembering... It's just that today brought all this back in force. Then, I could have prevented it, if I hadn't been so stupid. Today, I just stood there, unable to do anything. It felt horrible."

"Xena, if it hadn't been for you, I would surely be lying forgotten in that alleyway now, hurt or worse. Until you came, I was too scared to do anything. I would have let them have their way with me." A probing look. "No, no, don't shrug it off. I owe you my life, and you know it."

The warrior looked about to protest, but then she acknowledged with a tiny nod.

"Now that's settled," Isabelle said briskly, "do you think we might rewrite that scene? Because, frankly, I think this sucks."


Upon reaching the camp, the first thing I see is my friend tied against the base of a tree, her hands firmly bound and fastened to a rope that has been slung over a protruding branch, so that they are pulled high above her head. Her eye is swollen shut, and blood is running freely from her nose and lips.

Her blouse has been ripped open, exposing her breasts, and her skirt has been pulled down. At the sight of the burly, big stranger leaning greedily over her, his callused hands fondling her, reason slips from me, and my vision turns red with anger. I never get a chance to force the Huntress back down. She is there in the blink of an eye, pushing my rage back into the depth of my consciousness, and I am now a cold, ruthless killer. I launch myself into the air with a wild cry and fling my Chakram, hearing with satisfaction its shrill whine as it arcs towards my friend's bonds and neatly severs the rope holding her hands up. I hit the ground running and throw myself immediately at Gabrielle's assailant. With grim amusement I notice that his movements are hampered by the pants he has pulled down to complete his dirty act. Some part of me hopes for Gabrielle's sake that I have come in time. I bunch my fist and extend my elbow and shoulder way back, feeling my arm go taut like a bowstring. My blow hits him in the face with the force of a war-hammer, and I can feel his nose crunch in a spray of warm blood.

"Xena..." Gabrielle's strained voice brings back some semblance of sanity. I promised her once I would not become a monster... I will not let her down. But it is a close call. I decide that just a little bit of Huntress is in order here.

The blow has flung the man against another tree, and he crumples against its trunk. I approach him, and haul him roughly to his feet by his collar.

"You filthy, shit-eating son of a Bacchae!" I growl, "you're lucky my friend has such a soft heart. For her sake, I will let you live, this time."

My hand goes to his throat, and I slam him against the tree-trunk, in the process lifting him clean off his feet. He makes a strangled sound, feet kicking convulsively. I let my grip tighten until his eyes threaten to pop. The fact that I can crush his windpipe with a flick of my wrist seems to dawn on him, because his eyes are widening in terror.

"I'll just make you hurt, a little," I tell him in my coldest voice. "Because I damn well don't have a soft heart. And if you even think about laying a finger on her again, I'll tie your horny balls into knots and throw them to the crows! Got that?" He gives me the barest hint of a nod, which is all he can manage just now. "And after that, I will stop being nice." That feral grin comes unbidden to my face. "Eventually." When I let go of him, not before I have rammed my knee into his groin for good measure, he drops to the ground like a sack of grain. The leer still on my face, I let him feel the pain for a while, and then I add, "got that?"

He nods frantically, and scrambles awkwardly on all fours to get out of my reach. My eyebrows draw into an even darker scowl. "Now, get outta here!"

I do not have to tell him twice.


"Yeah, that's more like it". Xena smirked suddenly, and waggled a finger at the writer. "But, Isabelle, what happened to that PG13 thing, hmm? Didn't you say you couldn't mention any bad language, or violence, or sexual parts?"

Isabelle shrugged. "I got over it. I don't think I can do that and still give people any idea of how you really are."

"Thanks a lot," the warrior replied dryly.

The blonde woman gave her an apologetic grin. "Well, it's true, we both know that." She gave Xena a cautious look. "Are you ready to go on? It's okay, if you're not, really."

The tall woman closed her eyes for a moment, and sighed. "I might as well..."


I feel a little uncertain what to do. She has not moved since the Chakram cut her bonds, and just sits there, curled into a little ball and biting down on her fist, eyes shut tight. She looks so very fragile, and vulnerable. I am glad her attacker is out of sight, for just now, seeing that terrible anguish, I am quite ready to go back on my promise.

I have never been very good in dealing with emotional distress, not with my own, and certainly not with that of other people.

"Gabrielle," I say softly, trying hard to keep my voice calm, and soothing, though anger is still the strongest emotion I feel. "Gabrielle, it's over. You're safe now. Come here."

She looks at me then, green eyes pleading silently.

"I'm so sorry," I say, "I shouldn't have left you here alone."

She says in a strangled voice. "Xena, he... hurt me."

Heart aching for her, I pull her into my arms and hold her tightly. She is trembling all over and clings to me, suddenly racked by sobs, and I just hug her to me, gently rubbing my hand across her back, wishing I could take all that pain on my own shoulders. I wanted so much to protect her, and I have failed.

I don't know how long we have been sitting there, with her crying and me whispering "I'm sorry" over and over again. She feels soft and vibrant against me, her breath hitting my chest in warm gusts. Tears fall freely now, tickling my skin with their moist heat. I bury my face in soft, silky hair that smells faintly of hay, and the honey-scented soap she uses.

Finally I feel her relax against me, exhausted. Then she straightens, wipes the back of her hand across her nose, and looks at me with a tiny smile.

"Thanks. I.." she swallows, "I think I'll be okay now. But you should get some clothes on. This really isn't the place to run around naked, you know."

I have to chuckle at that. So brave! And I've forgotten completely that I have left my clothes by the lake. I smirk belatedly at the picture I must have presented for that piece of dirt - stark naked and still wet from my swim, blue eyes blazing with the feral light that is the Huntress, popping up out of nowhere with that wild yell and lifting him effortlessly off his feet with just one hand - oh yes, I'm sure I have made quite an impression on him. Good.


Isabelle was silent for a long time. "Now I feel like I've violated something," she said finally. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pried. I feel like such a klutz."

Xena's blue eyes glinted in the darkness. "Don't be sorry. I think you had to know. Matter of fact, I'm beginning to think you have to know every little thing there is to know about Gabrielle and me."

"What makes you say that?"

"I've been sent here for a reason. I'm sure of it. I just don't know what it is yet. Maybe this writing thing will help me get to the bottom of this."

"Why... how do you know?"

Xena fixed her with an intent look. "Isabelle, you are the spitting image of my bard. You look just like Gabrielle would, with funny clothes on, and shorter hair. It's almost scary. There must be something to this."

The writer sat back in her chair, stunned. "Why didn't you ever tell me before?"

Xena arched an eyebrow, and shrugged. "It never came up."

"Yeah, right. And it's not that important, is it?" Isabelle said dryly, "you couldn't have just told me without being asked?" She pulled a cigarette out of the packet lying beside the keyboard, and lit it with trembling fingers.

Xena watched her with a mystified expression. "You know, these things smell awful. What's their purpose?"

The strawberry blonde looked a little sheepish. "They don't only smell awful, they taste awful. And they slowly destroy your lungs, and can cause cancer, which is a wasting, torturous, and mostly terminal disease."

She almost laughed at the warrior's puzzled frown. "Then why...?"

"And," Isabelle said pointedly, "they soothe the nerves. Which I sorely need right now."

"We have nutbread for that," Xena remarked, turning to the window and peering into the night

"You know," she went on after a while, "I used to think my world was dangerous, and sometimes a little strange. But compared to yours, it's just a stroll in your own back yard! I mean, just look out of the window. This thing is so high it makes you wonder it doesn't just collapse with the slightest breath of wind. Yet it remains standing, and people live in it, totally unconcerned. And then down there, these millions You'd think there was no pattern at all to their movement. It seems thousands should die down there every day, and yet, somehow, people survive in those streets. I don't want to know what all you haven't shown me yet. And here you are, willingly putting a smoldering stick in your mouth that you say might eventually kill you. I can't believe you are actually deliberately putting your health in danger with these... things. Sometimes I think this is just some very weird dream. But I don't think my mind could come up with anything remotely like this. Please tell me I'm not crazy!"

The young writer chuckled. This was the longest speech she had heard the warrior make yet! "Yeah, we've come quite a long way in the last two thousand years or so. This must all be a really surreal experience for you. But I'm sure you'll get used to it. And as to whether you're crazy, I don't think you should let me be the judge of that. I'm still trying to figure out how I can align your existence with my sanity." The point of the cigarette glowed and faded as Isabelle took a deep draw, and blew out the smoke with a long breath. "And, believe me, I am trying to cut down my smoking. But this stuff gets you addicted. Once you get into the habit, you need it all the time, or else you just feel lousy, and all strung up." She grinned dryly. "It's a battle."

"Sounds scary."

"Yeah. It is, in a way." Isabelle sat staring at her monitor for a long time, watching the screen saver draw intricate patterns on the screen. When she glanced at the warrior, Xena was watching her, blue eyes shining with an intense light. She met that vibrant gaze for a few moments, then went back to watching the computer screen.

"Xena?" The question was tentative, without looking at the warrior.


"Did Gabrielle... I mean, did she get... did he...?"

She heard Xena draw a deep breath. "No, he didn't. Thank the gods, I got there in time to prevent that. But I didn't really know until much later, when we got... closer."

Isabelle caught the tiny hesitation, and looked up at the warrior, whose eyes were still trained on her.

"I never asked her for details," Xena continued, "and she never talked about it much, at first." She shrugged. "I would have liked to be sure, but I'm not one to pry, so...."

"Ouch," Isabelle said with a droll grin.

Xena smiled back at her. "Yeah, ouch." A wicked glint came into her eyes. "Right then, let me tell you about the time she got herself high on nutbread..."


They were both laughing hard by the time Xena had finished relating that episode in that somewhat crude, but wryly humorous way she had.

"Oh, she's going to have fits if she ever learns I spilled that little story," the warrior said finally, wiping her eyes.

"And I bet she has a few up her sleeve to get back at you, doesn't she?" Isabelle asked wickedly.

That got her a mock glare. "Don't go there," the tall woman cautioned with a rumbling growl.

"Gotcha," Isabelle yelled triumphantly. "Okay, Warrior Princess, cough it up! I want to hear every little bit."

"Not on your life," Xena barked. She flowed to her feet and moved to stand behind the writer's chair. "I think you should get some sleep. It's getting late, and you've had a rough day."

The younger woman felt that strange tingle again as Xena put both hands on her shoulders. The sensation made her turn around to look at the tall form. Something in the warrior's calm, blue gaze made her heart lurch suddenly, and her throat go dry. That woman was just incredible! Isabelle swallowed against her suddenly constricting throat, and tried to recover her train of thought.

"You're changing the subject," she accused weakly.

"Yes." The blue eyes never wavered. "So?"

"I'm not tired."

"But I think you are. You're just really wound up. I can help you relax."

"And how would you do that?" Isabelle was not sure in which direction this conversation was going. But her stomach was fluttering something awful at the suggestive tone in Xena's voice. It made her feel uncomfortable.

"Trust me. I have many skills."


"There you go, my love," Xena whispered softly. "Sleep well! You can use it."

She took in the sleeping form of the shorter woman outlined under a thick, fluffy cover, red-gold hair spilling over the pillow, and thought for the thousandth time how very beautiful she was.

The ghostly warrior had sensed the woman's growing uneasiness, and it saddened and puzzled her. She herself had felt the age-old attraction the moment she had looked upon Isabelle, sitting there in her study and mumbling gibberish at the strange contraption she called a computer. Not even the absurdity of the situation or their weird surroundings could have done anything to dampen it.

Xena sighed and got up from where she had perched on the edge of the young writer's bed. It had not taken much to get the blonde woman to unwind, just a few pointers about breathing techniques and muscle relaxation, stuff she herself practiced without giving it much thought.

Nodding a little to herself, she took one last look at Isabelle's soft, relaxed face, and faded out.

» continued (Part 2)

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