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The Crazed Ramblings Of A Madwoman

- Part 5 -

by Verrath
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 (conclusion)

The warrior speaks...

My poor little bard. Here she is, her hands covered in blood. Blood that she's shed, taking a life. She should never have had to live through this, not her. I told her once that everything changes the moment you deliberately take your first life, and I meant it. It's hard to put into words the bottomless pit this act opens up under your soul. I've lived with this, and I've learned to ride the currents of this perpetual fall.

But she shouldn't have to. And now it's marred her, I'm ashamed to say, even in my eyes. She's no longer the pure, innocent little thing that I've come to rely on as my conscience and counterpart.

We'll get through this - we always have. But oh, I ache for her!

If only I had been more adamant about sending her away that day outside Poteidaia. She would have been better off for it. I don't know where I would be now if not for her, but sparing her this moment would have been worth the price.


I'm doing it all over again, Xena thought to herself, perching on a branch high up in one of the park's trees overlooking the dignified but age-worn building that held the institution. It had been hours since Isabelle and Corina had been led away, and the warrior had not moved except place herself at this excellent vantage point. With all I know I still can't stop meddling with her fate. Why can't I just leave her be? If my life is any indication, she'll be better off that way. But there has to be a reason for me to be here! What, if not to meddle? Or is this all some crazy vision inside my head? I hardly know anything anymore.


Meanwhile, in the Hospital Wing...

Isabelle's teeth were clenched as the nurse cleaned and disinfected her earlobe - it seemed Tara had quite literally taken a bite out of it! Luckily though, the doctor had decided that she did not need stitches.

"Ow! Dammit!"

"Sorry!" Despite the apology, the nurse continued to work on the wound. "It's the disinfectant, 'fraid it'll sting for a bit. No helping that. I'll put some band aid over it and we're done." Her voice was brisk and businesslike.

Isabelle gritted her teeth and nodded. "What's going to happen with Tara?" she asked, to get her mind off the pain. "Is she going to stay my room mate?"

The nurse barely paused. "Not for now," was all she said. Isabelle sighed. Her thoughts wandered on to Corina Walker. The terrorist. She had never suspected the woman would be held here, of all places. And that resemblance! How was this possible? And was Xena aware of this? Surely not, she would have said.

Wouldn't she? After all this time, all of a sudden Isabelle felt like she didn't know the ghostly warrior at all anymore.

Either way, she was going to do her damnedest to stay the hell away from that terrorist. The woman scared the living daylights out of her!


High Security Wing, the next morning...

I must be mad, Isabelle thought to herself, the irony of the thought, given her current surroundings, completely escaping her. And yet, here she was. She did not really know why.

As the ward door thumped shut behind her, and Isabelle heard the key turn in the lock, she suddenly felt very much alone, despite the orderly on duty walking quietly beside her, the soft clink of his keyring seeming impossibly loud. The hall with its numerous cell doors on both sides seemed empty, and huge, and very oppressing. Her shoes made a hollow echo on the hard floor tiles.

The orderly guided Isabelle to the room she sought, and for a while she just stood looking through the little square barred hole in the heavy door.

Corina was standing by the window staring unseeingly out into the yard, her profile outlined clearly against the backdrop of afternoon sky through the barred pane. She seemed to be speaking quietly to herself.

Isabelle took a breath. Then another. She very nearly turned to leave again, but at that moment, Corina seemed to sense her watching and spun around, looking directly at her through the door's glassless window. It was an effort for Isabelle not to take a step back.

"What?" Corina said in a flat voice.

Isabelle cleared her throat. Don't show weakness, she told herself, she can probably smell weakness. She felt a little hysterical.

"I came to thank you," she said, proud of how steady her voice sounded. Except for that squeak she could not seem to control.

"Thank me." Corina stood looking at her. The woman's face was in partial darkness, highlighted from one side by the small window, but those incredible eyes shone like two icy beacons in the dark.

"I'm sorry," Isabelle said quickly, wilting under that stare, "I didn't mean to... intrude. I... Do... do you mind if I come in?" Now what the hell had made her say that? She wanted nothing less than to be alone in a room with the woman.

Corina gave her a long, unreadable stare, then she motioned her in with a curt flick of her head.

Holy crap, was all Isabelle could think as she stepped inside, keenly aware of the heavy door thudding into its lock behind her. The knowledge that an orderly was waiting just outside did little to ease the knot between her shoulder blades.

"So!" Isabelle said, looking around the small room so she did not have to look at Corina (though she wanted to!). This place was even more spartan than her own room, containing a table, a chair, a TV on a stand much like hers - she noticed the plug was pulled - a metal frame pallet, a shelf against the wall with some personal items and clothing stacked haphazardly, a washbasin that was barely large enough to deserve the name. The floor was unadorned gray linoleum, and a cobwebbed lamp hung from the ceiling. "This is ni- I mean... why... er..". She felt herself blushing.

Corina snorted. "Yeah, very nice. Amazing what I've done with the place, I know."

Isabelle giggled. Why did her voice sound so high-pitched? She risked a glance at the other woman.

Corina had not moved from the window, and it was hard to tell much about her facial expression. "I'd offer you a cold drink, but I am told my manners are worse than a badger's. Also, I'm fresh out of ice."

"Yeah thanks," Isabelle managed. "I'm good."

"So you are."

And that made Isabelle's cheeks feel even hotter. There was no way she could blame this flush on the feeble rays of the afternoon sun that shone through the small window.

Now that she was sitting here, Isabelle felt an utter fool for having come. She had no clue what to say to this woman, who by all accounts had more than a few lives on her conscience. Seeing her loom there, dark form outlined by the fading light like a creature out of hell, Isabelle could believe it.

Corina, on the other hand, appeared completely unfazed by the invasion of her private space (or what passed for it in a place like this).

"Looks like the little shit actually managed to take a bite out of you," the tall woman noted.

"What?" Isabelle's hand went up to her bandaged ear. "Oh! Yeah, that she did." She inhaled sharply when the taller woman suddenly came towards her and, before Isabelle could react, jabbed middle and ring fingers into a spot below Isabelle's clavicle, then again nearer her shoulder, in rapid succession.

Isabelle felt a weird sort of tingling for a moment, then it was gone. She looked up into Corina's eyes, too startled to remember that she really did not want to look into Corina's eyes.

"Pressure points," the other woman explained. "Will help with the healing."

"Th-thanks," Isabelle managed, her hand moving to the spots where she had been jabbed. She could feel a dull pressure there, as if Corina's fingers were still touching her. She found it quite impossible to look away from those blue eyes - the eyes of a stranger and yet so hauntingly familiar.

Corina did not look away either. After a few moments, one corner of her mouth began to draw back, and one of her lower eyelids to twitch.

Uh oh... that can't be good, Isabelle thought. Aloud she said, "Uh... I should get going." She had to make herself look away.

"Yeah, maybe you should." Corina turned away and walked back to the window.

"Thanks again. I mean, for earlier."

"Don't mention it."

Heart pounding, Isabelle knocked on the cell door for the orderly to let her out. She looked back over her shoulder, calling herself nine kinds of fool.

A soon as the door opened for her, she fled.


"So, how'd it go?" Xena drawled.

Isabelle jumped - the ghostly warrior was just suddenly there as the young woman was walking back to her own wing, mind still whirling.

"Don't do that," she muttered.

"Sorry," Xena said insincerely.

Isabelle drew a breath. "How did what go?"

"Your visit to Miss Stone-Face."

Isabelle stopped in her tracks, staring at Xena, who walked another few steps before realizing Isabelle was no longer beside her.

"You know about her?"

"Well, sort of." Xena scratched her neck.

"When were you going to tell me?"

"Technically you already knew about her..."

"Oh, don't give me that! You know what I mean."

Xena looked away. "It's complicated."

"I'm reasonably intelligent. Try me."

A young man passed them - Ned, Isabelle thought, looking rather oddly at her for speaking to what of course looked like empty air to him. Isabelle gave him a dark glare. The man jumped, and abruptly changed direction, dashing down a side corridor. Isabelle felt an irrational surge of satisfaction. When she turned back to Xena, the warrior was gone.

"Bloody wonderful. Just. Bloody. Wonderful."


The big, raven-haired woman lay flat on her belly in the center of her little cell, wearing a sleeveless black top and shorts, her body glistening with sweat, her breathing strained.

Okay, Corina, she silently commanded herself, up you go, one more time! Powerful shoulder muscles bunched as she pushed herself up for yet another round of fifty pushups, with a feeling of betrayal. So far, the exercise had not done its usual trick of stilling her mind. The solution, of course, was to keep on.

Push. One. Push. Two. Just yesterday, the ex-terrorist had been ready to go through with her final plan. The tranquilizing pills she had managed to secret away - they gave them to the more restive patients, and if nothing else, Corina knew how to fake being restive - those pills would be enough to put an elephant out of its misery. She knew they'd put her peacefully away, never to wake up. Push. Twelve. Push. Thirteen. It would have been the easy way out. She knew that, no matter what the outcome of her trial might be, she would never get the chance to redeem herself for all the terrible things she'd done.

Push. Nineteen. Push. Faster. Twenty. She was just so tired of fighting. Fighting herself, fighting to ignore the hate she saw in people's faces. Faster. And worse, the terror. As her body began to work up a sweat, she reflected on her sorry life. Her childhood dream of becoming a SEAL, pushing herself hard practicing in secret, long before she even applied for the training. Passing the gruelling test, barely, against everybody's expectations. Being turned down in the end because a woman had no business being a SEAL. Her subsequent embitterment and spiral out of control. Drugs, Alcohol, the works.

Still not fast enough.

Mars conscripting her into his world domination plan, saving her from becoming a complete physical wreck. Turning her into a monster.

Even looking back, it all seemed so logical; every one of her choices had made perfect sense at the time. And yet, here she was, stuck in an asylum - by her own design, admittedly - hoping that she was managing to keep under Mars' radar. Hiding away like a damned coward.

So why did a pair of green eyes continue to intrude upon her self pity? What was the deal with that? When Corina had stepped between the two girls to break up their fight the day before, that girl had looked as terrified as anyone aware of Corina's identity. Why the hell had she some to visit this morning? Wasn't she happy to have survived her encounter with the monster?

Most amazingly, whatever had been in the girl's face during her later visit - it had not been fear, or hatred, or disgust. She found herself admiring the courage it must have taken to show up here, all things considered. She silently thanked the fact that people had a hard time reading her. Her emotions had been a nervous mess, but she doubted the girl had noticed. That was all she needed, the little thing trying to become her friend, of all things!

She wondered what the strawberry blonde was doing in this institution. She seemed a very intelligent, spirited, and quite normal young woman. This certainly was no place for her. But of course, mental illness took many forms, some of them not at all obvious. She should know. She had seen insanity come to more people than she cared to count, and not a few of them by her own doing. Hell, she wasn't sure her own "pretend" mental condition was all that fake.

She also realized she didn't know the young woman's name. It surprised her to feel regret at this.

All of a sudden, though, the thought of taking those pills did not seem so attractive anymore. She liked living!

The pushups done, she flopped onto her back, bent her knees a little, laced her hands behind her head, and launched into a series of one hundred situps. And another. No rest for her yet. Still too much thinking going on in her head.

She was quite unaware of the ghostly leather-clad shape standing in the corner of the little room, watching her, a compassionate fire burning in luminous, steel blue eyes.


Back at Isabelle's home...

When Xena phased into Isabelle's apartment a short time later - it really felt quite like home now, even without the young writer there - she found Isabelle's mother in the living room, watching TV. The woman had stayed around, minding the apartment and wanting to be close to her daughter for the time being, something that Xena could have done without.

The program running on TV was something Xena could only describe as some sort of bazaar, where a sleazy looking presenter (in fact, he looked a lot like Salmoneus) was rhapsodizing about a strange looking implement, that supposedly would make one fit and trim simply by applying it to one's rump. To Xena, the thing looked more like one of the many instruments she had used to extract information from her prisoners during her time as warlord.

It was so ludicrous that at first Xena took it to be some sort of farce, a comedic play, but Isabelle's mother was not laughing. Instead the woman picked up the telephone - amazing how commonplace the device felt to Xena now - and dialled a number.

Frowning in confusion, Xena continued to watch the screen.

"And we have a caller!" the presenter was saying. "Why don't you tell us your name and where you're from?"

In the living room, Isabelle's mother gasped. "Oh dear! I got through! I actually got through!!" Her face was flushed, and sweat sprang out on her forehead. Clearly, the woman was in distress.

And then something very strange happened.

"I'm Cecilia Barnes, calling from the Bay area," the older woman said hoarsely into the telephone receiver. But the strange thing was, Xena could hear the words coming both from the woman herself and the TV screen, with a slight delay in between. What madness was this?

"Hello Cecilia, great of you to join us," the presenter said. His voice did not echo.

A sense of foreboding grabbed Xena - having that box talk back to you, in her experience, was never a good sign. It might not be the God of War they were facing, but she wasn't willing to take any chances. This was Isabelle's mother, after all.

Luckily, she knew something that would disrupt the box so much that Isabelle had to go out onto her balcony and do something to a wire there to get it to work again. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable to Xena and she never did it on purpose, but if that was what it took... Taking a breath to steel herself, she deliberately stepped forward until she stood right inside the TV set.

The static crackle jolted her enough to make her teeth rattle. Despite jerking uncontrollably, she stood firm, watching the signal first distort, then go to white noise. She gave it another few seconds just to be sure, before lurching back out of harm's way, hair charged and standing on end.

"What? Oh bother," Isabelle's mother exclaimed, still speaking to the telephone, but walking through Xena (which gave her another jolt) to slap the TV a few times. It had no effect. "I'm sorry, my screen just went dead." The woman got up and walked into the kitchen with its door to the balcony, still talking. "But I have to tell you how amazing I found the Thighbuster 2020. I can't wait to get my hands on the Gut-B-Gone, I've already..." her voice faded to an indistinct murmur as she left the room.

Xena gaped. What the Hells had that been about? Had the woman's mind been snared somehow? She hoped she had not been too late, but there was very little else she could do now. She had to hope for the best. She waited for the program to come back on, which it invariably did as soon said wire outside was fiddled with.

Instead, the screen went dark except for a quite familiar red dot pulsing in its center.

"Hades' Nuts, just who I need," Xena grumbled.

"You rang?" The God of War's voice was accompanied by a catchy jingle that Xena was coming to really, really dislike.

"You wish."

"You're beginning to seriously annoy me, wench."

"It's one of my many skills, Ares." Xena began preening her fingernails.

Ares' face reddened. "You will call me by my proper name!"

"Or you'll do what, Ares? I'm insubstantial, you know."

He growled. "I can still hurt you, and you know it."

Xena made herself shrug and look bored. "Been there, done that." She yawned ostentatiously.

"Really." A twitch of his eyelid was all the warning Xena had. Instinctively, she flung herself to the side, but the shock wave that fanned out from the screen, causing the air to waver and swirl, still shoved her violently to the ground. Annoyingly, all it did to her surroundings was a faint stirring of leaves on Isabelle's potted benjamin tree, while Xena's entire insubstantial form burned with pain.

"For someone who claims pain means nothing, you certainly put up a good show of avoiding it," Ares noted.

"Force of habit," Xena said against gritted teeth.

Ares chortled. "Obviously."

Xena shoved the pain aside and took up the battle again. "I bet you have a harder time shoving around my look-alike," she sneered, "she may not have my class, but that's one solid bitch."

The god's eyes narrowed. "Funny you would mention that, but I have her well enough in hand."

"So you have a way to get to her in the crazy place," she half said to herself. "Strange, since her TV is never plugged into the wall. I understand that's needed to make it work."

"Ahhh, so that is the problem. " Ares' eyes glinted. "Interesting."

Xena cursed under her breath. "Hera's tits... you didn't know that, did you."

Ares sniggered in that aggravating way he had. He'd played this well, she grudgingly admitted. But that didn't exactly ease her sudden anger. Without thinking, she reached for a nearby chair, meaning to fling it at the War God in the hopes of delaying whatever he was going to do next.

Her hands, of course, passed right through. Ares cackled as he faded out, accompanied by a sweet female voice.

"This broadcast of TV Olymp was brought to you by 'Ambrosia - the snack that really lifts you up'. And now back to our regular program."

Growling in frustration, Xena turned to deliver a kick to the offending piece of furniture. Again, of course, her foot passed through, the sudden imbalance dropping her unceremoniously onto her backside.

To add insult to injury, Cecilia picked that moment to return to the living room, phone still in hand, walking right through her and giving her another jolt.

The TV screen flickered; but Xena only glanced at it long enough to see it wasn't red on black. Growling, she phased out and fled.


The High Security Wing, a few hours later...

Corina had lost track of time, but the sun had already set by the time her body finally started to give in to exhaustion. Brain pleasantly fuzzy with fatigue, she forced herself through another thirty pushups - just to be sure - before flopping onto her back, panting.

She lay there, enjoying the feeling of a blank mind and fatigued muscles, until the breeze wafting through the open window pebbled her sweat-covered skin with goose bumps and made her shiver. With a grunt, she pushed herself up and headed to her clothes shelf to grab a towel.

She took off her T-shirt, she wiped sweat off her chest and arms, then laid it over her shoulders for warmth as she turned towards the door to get an orderly's attention for an escort to the showers.

That was when she heard the static crackle behind her. With a strangled oath, she whirled towards the old TV set.

An image flickered to life there, a red dot of light pulsing in the center, expanding.

Shit, shit, shit... But how?

Her first instinct was to turn around and pummel on the door until someone came for her, but a stubborn streak inside her made her stay and watch as the red dot wobbled and finally expanded into the face of the War God, Mars.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to make this thing work when it's unplugged?" Mars looked oddly transparent, and static repeatedly obscured his outline. His voice, however, came through loud and clear.

"That was the idea." Corina took a step back. She was now as far away from the TV as she could be while still inside the room. She had no intention of letting Mars touch her with his powers. Her hands clenched involuntarily; she wished she had some kind of weapon, even though she knew it would be utterly useless in this situation. It was just that the feel of one in her hands was... a comfort.

"You have no idea what you're throwing away. You disappoint me, Corina."

"I try." Breathing slowly, Corina performed the concentration exercise that would calm her nerves and keep her voice from trembling. She was a tranquil forest pond, surface reflecting the leaves above, her breath the soft waves lapping against the bank.

"What's happened between us, Corina? You have such promise. You're destined to be one of my greatest too- my greatest warriors."

In spite of herself, Corina could feel the allure of his words. She found herself wanting nothing more than to please this wonderful, powerful, majestic creature. Before she knew it, she had taken a step towards the TV, fists no longer balled but raised palm up in a placating gesture.

Mars smiled confidently. It was not a pretty smile.

The hell! You can't be pulled into this again, a tiny voice inside Corina's mind warned. Growling, she snatched her hands to her sides and stopped herself from advancing further.

"You know you can't resist me, precious."

"Precious, my ass," Corina said through clenched teeth. She was the pond. Calm. Unruffled.

Mars' eyes glinted dangerously, though the effect was somewhat spoiled by an ill-timed static flare that made his image ripple.

"Oh, how you wound me, " he said dramatically. "It's that trull in the leather, isn't it? She put this flea in your ear."

"The what in the what now?"

"Oh, don't play dumb with me. Ever since she appeared, you've been..." His eyes narrowed. "Or is it the other way round? You made her? How the hell..."

"You're insane," Corina told him. Breathe deeply. You are the pond.

The War God, meanwhile, was focusing on a spot behind Corina. "Speak of the devil," he growled. "You again!"

"Oh, please, that has got to be the oldest trick in the boo- ack!"

Corina jerked as a mild static shock shot through her. It did no damage apart from a few raised hairs, but for a moment she thought she heard a curse from behind, almost like an echo of her own frustration. She whirled.

She was just in time to catch an instant's flare of static, as one might get from pulling off a synthetic sweater in darkness. The tiny blue flashes described the outline of a human figure, about Corina's height. There was no-one there, of course, so Corina assumed it was an aftereffect of her own body having been in the way of whatever Mars had hurled at her.

"You. Are. Mad." Calm eroded; the pond was suffering the impact of a fierce thunderstorm. She didn't care. What the hell did he still want with her?

"Just go away. You can't do shit to me from an unplugged TV."

"Obviously I can." He gave Corina what must be the most insufferable grin in his considerable repertoire. It made her fingers itch to close around a throat. His, preferably.

"Oh.. oh yeah?" Corina balled her fist. The small voice inside her whispered. Really? That's your comeback? Corina firmly told it to shut up.

"Ohh yeah." Mars drew out the words and leered.

"How's this for a comeback?" Corina flung herself at the TV, hands outstretched.

"What the hell are you-?"

Mars got no further, before Corina's hands closed on the old TV set's antenna and began to twist. It jolted her with electricity at first, but much weaker than what she had already experienced.

"Really?" Mars sneered. "You think that will make-"

With a loud snap, the thin metal gave way, and she tossed it aside. The image flickered in and out a few times, then, annoyingly, it steadied, if not quite as strong as before.

"... a difference?" Mars chuckled. "The signal here is rotten to begin with."

Corina growled wordlessly.

"Yeees, let it go, give in to your dark side," Mars crooned. "Release your anger, only your hatred can destroy me."

Corina froze for a moment, then a feral grin split her face. With a high-pitched cry, she administered a well-aimed kick right at Mars' face at the center of the screen. The last she saw of him was the widening of his eyes as the screen caved in and the device crashed first into the wall, then to the ground, where the tube imploded with a dull boom.

"You watch too many movies," she told the heap of trash at her feet. She could feel the sting from several cuts and bruises where debris from the implosion had hit her, but the pain was nothing compared to the grim satisfaction that the kick had given her.

A key rattled in the lock, and it opened to three orderlies rushing inside, one with a syringe at the ready.

They stopped, gaping, at the sight before them; the tall woman in a sweat-drenched sports bra and linen slacks, her short hair a tousled mess, one bare foot resting on the blackened husk of the old TV set, the other standing in a sea of shards, a cut above her right eyebrow dripping blood down her cheek.

"I really don't like talk shows," she told them mildly.


Xena floated in that strange place outside worlds, panting. Well, not really panting, seeing how she had no form here, not even and insubstantial one. But it felt like panting.

That had been entirely too close! Not only had Ares - or Mars, however he wanted to call himself - completely caught her off guard with his capability to attack in his weakened state, but Corina Walker had nearly seen her. She was certain the woman had reacted to her cursing.

Fool! Running off like a startled goose! Who knew, perhaps it would have been a good thing for Corina to see her. But the thought of someone else besides Isabelle laying eyes on her made her feel incredibly skittish.

And, speaking of Isabelle... Xena concentrated for a moment, picturing that beloved face, and an instant later, she materialized near the young writer.

Well, tried to.

It was like swimming in honey, with Isabelle a blurred shape in the distance, near and yet far as if one was peering into the wrong end of a spy glass.

"Zeus' unwashed britches, but this is getting annoying," she growled as she struggled forward, straining to take that last step that would allow her to appear to Isabelle.

It looked like the young woman was on her way to the common room, presumably to take her evening meal with the other inmates of the wing, as she usually did.

Gritting her teeth, Xena took a steadying breath, then pushed with all her willpower. There was a feel of something tearing, then she was out, managing not to gasp and stumble as she materialized beside her corporeal friend.

Isabelle, intent on reaching her destination (she did love her meals, no matter in which incarnation), did not immediately notice Xena at her side. The warrior knew she shouldn't, but now as then, it seemed Gabrielle would always bring out the Prankster in her (much to Gabrielle's inevitable dismay). Staying outside the other woman's field of vision, Xena approached very closely, bent down towards Isabelle's ear, and murmured, "Boo".

She was rewarded with a startled yelp and a jump that would have done Icarus proud, then a glare that made her clear her throat and put on her most angelic face.

"Goddammit, don't do that!" Isabelle's growl startled a lanky girl who was heading the same direction, walking a few paces ahead. The girl gave her a probing look, then shook her head and increased her pace.

"Sorry," said Xena insincerely. The corners of her mouth threatened to betray her by twitching.

"No, you're not."

Xena let out a breath that turned into a chortle. "Well, maybe not. But you should see your face. It's priceless." She attempted a grin.

Isabelle did not look amused.

"Sorry?" She tried again, this time she didn't have to fake the pleading look. It had taken Gabrielle years to come to terms with Xena's brand of humor - if she ever had - and she could hardly expect Isabelle to get it in the short time they had known one another in this existence.

Besides, she had to admit to herself, such pranks hardly helped Isabelle's situation as a perceived basket case. Then again... that was sort of the idea. Hera's tits, but she hated this!

"Whatever," Isabelle said crossly. "I'm late for supper. And after that, I'm off to see Corina Walk-" she cut off, looking stubborn.

Xena felt a flare of jealousy at the comment. But, this was good, she tried to tell herself. Except that she knew the ex-terrorist probably was in no mood, or position, to receive guests just now. "Well, about that-" she began.

Isabelle rounded on her, oblivious to the odd looks she was once again collecting from passersby.

"What about it? You got something else you should have told me long ago?" She made a frustrated sound. "Why am I even still talking to you? All you ever seem to do these days is get me into deeper trouble."

Xena spoke quietly. She did not even try to keep trepidation out of her voice. "You talk to me because I'm your friend?" The friend who got you into all of this, no less. Why, indeed.

Isabelle took an irritated breath, no doubt with a withering reply on her tongue. But then their eyes met, and the breath came out in a sigh.

"Yeah, well, I- what now, are you fading again? That figures!"

"What? Aww, not again," Xena tried to say, but she could tell her words were swallowed as that strange wall of thick-honey-force swelled in strength, shoving her insubstantial form back into that dark place.


"Well, duh," Isabelle grumbled. "I swear, sometimes I think she does that on purp- Oh! Hi, Ms. Branigan!"

The therapist had appeared from a side corridor, presumably on her evening rounds. Isabelle felt a flush creep up her neck. Of all people to witness her arguments with Xena, this one bothered her the most. She needed to appear to improve after all, or she'd never be allowed out of this place.

"Hello, Isabelle," Gail said in that annoyingly pleasant voice she adopted when speaking with her patients."How are you this evening?"

Isabelle shrugged uncomfortably. "All right."

"And you took the pills this time, like you promised?"

"Yep, about twenty minutes ago." It was that or have them shoved down my throat by Nell, she thought bitterly.

"Excellent. They should be kicking in right about now. You'll have a warrior-free evening."

"Awesome," Isabelle said.

"Well, dear, I have to get going. I will see you tomorrow!" Gail gave her a pat on the shoulder and continued on her way.

Supper was nondescript as usual, but Isabelle had never been a picky eater, so she ate the steamed vegetables, potatoes and meat loaf with enthusiasm. This earned her some disbelieving looks which she ignored. Instead, she idly cast around for anything interesting in the way of ward gossip.

"... managed to hold my temper all day! I bet Ms. Branigan will be pleased."

"Yeah, I bet you'd like that..."

"... say she was raging and screaming so much it took five men to hold her down!"

"Lennie was sent home this morning. Wonder how long I've still got..."

"Are you gonna eat that?"

Her attention snapped back to one of the conversations when she heard a familiar name.

"She's one scary lady, that Walker woman. Did you see how she handled that fight the other day? Wouldn't wanna be one of them girls." The speaker was male. "Just picked them up by the scruff of the neck like they were kittens!"

"Well, nothing compared to those wardens she took on today. They say she threw a TV out the window!" This second voice was female.

"The windows are barred, dummy."

"Just what I heard." The female voice sounded sullen. "Anyway, apparently she's been knocked out and is now in sick ward under chains. I hope I don't get sick..."

Isabelle stopped listening, dropping her meat-filled fork carelessly by her half-eaten plate. Could this be true? It sounded absolutely crazy! She snorted a laugh as the irony of that thought struck her.

"Something funny, bitch?" a man sitting a few yards across from her asked, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

Isabelle said quickly, "what? No! No, not you!" She dimly remembered the man. Jake had a spectacularly short fuse, coupled with the firm belief that everything was about him.

"Easy, Jake," his seat neighbor said, even as Jake began scraping back his chair. "Remember how you want to please Ms. Branigan?"

Isabelle decided it was better not to wait for Jake's response. She fled the dining hall.


She walked without a particular goal, aware of her surroundings only once when she passed an open window and the blare of a siren passing close by outside startled her. She was not really surprised when she eventually wound up at the doors to the sick ward. "Probably a wild rumor anyway," she murmured to herself as she entered.


It turned out it wasn't quite the wild rumor she had surmised, but even so, her visit was somewhat anticlimactic. Corina lay in a drug-induced stupor, her eyes closed and her face unflatteringly slack, completely still except for the occasional flutter of an eyelid. It came as a mild shock to see the woman's wrists were bound to the bed at her sides.

"Isn't as dramatic as it looks," the nurse on duty said placidly when she noticed Isabelle's start. The stout, middle-aged woman was fluffing the pillow on the other, unoccupied bed in the room. "She actually asked to be put under. Came as quietly as a lamb, the orderlies said."

"But the-"

"The bonds? Ah, for her own safety more than anything else. She'll be right disoriented when she comes out of that sleep. Don't want her to hurt herself now, do we?" Isabelle was mildly irritated at the nurse's patronizing tone, but she just murmured agreement, her eyes on the slumbering woman. She felt a wild urge to trace a finger along that chiseled face. How could someone be so comfortably familiar and at the same time so frightening? Right now though, Corina just looked incredibly vulnerable, and Isabelle's heart went out to her.

"Better run along, Missie," the nurse told her, "this one isn't going anywhere for some time."

There seemed to be nothing to do but comply, so Isabelle left.


Outside the ward, she immediately sensed a dramatic change in the mood. It was less evident in the patients, but she saw staff faces that were pale with shock, and others with their heads together in subdued but urgent murmurs. She stood for a moment, wavering, before approaching a nurse she knew vaguely, who was dabbing at her eyes with a paper tissue.

"What happened?" she asked quietly. A reassuring lie clearly on her tongue, the nurse gave Isabelle another look, then appeared to change her mind. "It's nurse Nell. Her car was hit by a speeding truck as she pulled out of the rear parking lot."

Isabelle felt the blood drain from her face. "Nell? But I saw her just before lunch? Oh my god, is she okay?"

"She was rushed to the emergency room. We don't know yet. She's badly hurt I think." The last came in a strangled voice. "She has two little boys... those poor kids." She took a shuddering breath. "Well, nothing for it but to keep her in our prayers, dear. And I suppose we'll be needing to hire a temp. We're understaffed as it is." She blinked her eyes a few times and dabbed at them again before turning and walking away, leaving Isabelle to stare after her dumbly.


Less than a day later, a new temp was in place. His name was Marc, and he looked like he had escaped from a fashion model shoot. Blue eyes looked out beneath long lashes that nevertheless had nothing feminine about them, sandy hair and a carefully trimmed stubble of beard growth framed his lightly tanned face. The picture was completed by an athletic build sporting wide shoulders and unmistakably strong hands... it should not be legal for one single person to look so attractive.

And that was before he smiled at you.

Needless to say, the entire female staff - and a good portion of the males as well - were staring doe-eyed at the man, who seemed utterly unaware of the fact.

His looks not enough, it was evident early on that Marc also knew his job, going about the new tasks handed to him with friendly efficiency, always with a ready smile, quip, or pat on the back both for his colleagues and the patients.

In short, everybody agreed that this guy must have fallen from heaven.

Except for Xena, of course.

"Look at that popinjay", she sneered when a somewhat dreamy-eyed Isabelle pointed him out, "strutting about like he was Zeus' gift to humanity. Hades, if not for the hair color, he'd be just like A- ah, someone I know back in my world." She chewed the inside of her cheek, watching Marc with narrowed eyes.

Isabelle ignored the slip. She found she missed the moments such as this one, which had been filled with a perfect mix of friendly banter and companionable silence. She did not want to ruin it now. Too much was interfering with them these days, not least the fact that logically, considering the nature of her companion, these moments ought not to be happening in the first place.

"Well," said Isabelle defensively, "he's doing a great job at any rate. Such a lucky break that he happened to be in the market for a job just now."

"Isn't it just," muttered Xena.

"Oh, don't be this way!" Quickly, Isabelle groped for a new subject. "Anyway, they say Nell was really, really lucky. She has a few broken ribs, a strained shoulder and a concussion, but she'll be going home very soon."

"That's nice."

"And then some rehab. I guess that means M- I guess that means she won't be coming back for some time."

"And godly Marc gets to stay a while."

Isabelle colored.

"You sound like you plan on sticking around here," said Xena. "What changed?"

"What? No!" Quickly Isabelle looked around to see if anyone had heard her rather indignant exclamation, but nobody seemed near enough. "And also, I shouldn't be seen talking to you."

"Quite fond of you too," Xena grunted.

Isabelle sighed, turning a corner that would take her to the park. "I know, I'm sorry."

They walked along in awkward silence until Isabelle pushed open the heavy oak door leading outside.

"So, been to see Miss Grumpy-Pants lately?" Xena finally asked.

"Don't call her that." Isabelle smirked. "She's so much like you, you may as well call yourself names."

"I'm not grumpy", said Xena, grumpily.

Isabelle snorted.

"If you must know, yes, I've been to the sick ward two more times. She was asleep each time. I wonder what's up with that - could they have drugged her so heavily? I mean, it's been almost two days.

Xena shrugged. "Probably faking it."

"Why would she do that?"

"Who knows what her agenda is? A good way to get your enemies to underestimate you is to make them think you're helpless."

"Enemies? She has no enemies here, she came for help."

"Trust me. A woman like her's always got enemies."

Isabelle supposed Xena would know such things. But she still had a bad feeling about it.


Meanwhile, in the Hospital Wing...

Corina stirred and smacked her lips, trying to rid her mouth of the foul dryness that lay like a rotting pelt on her tongue. Blinking, she looked around. It took her fuzzy senses a while to realize where she was.

Not in her room. Right. Mars in the TV and her outburst. Orderlies giving her a shot to calm her down, before taking her here to sleep it off. How long had she slept? She had the sense of having been deeply under, and the angle of light from outside the window indicated it was earlier in the day than when she had been taken. So, at least a day had passed.

They'd be needing this bed again soon, so she was bound to be allowed back to her room soon.

She made a mental note to request a radio in place o the ruined TV set.

She tried to sit up, meaning to swing her feet out of bed, and immediately the room began to swim and tilt alarmingly.

She also found she could not lift her arms very far. Nauseated, she sank back, muscles burning from the brief exhaustion. Her head felt about to explode.

What the hell? That's not caused by any drug they use here. The fuck is going on?

"Easy, Miss Walker", said a whispered voice. "You had a reaction to the tranquilizer we gave you. You'll feel weak for a while."

Corina strained to hear, to see who had spoken - why the whisper? She could barely hear - but all she could make out was a dark shape framed by the light streaming through the window. In fact, the light was so bright it hurt her head, so she closed her eyes again.

"Here now, this will make everything better."

Why wasn't the person speaking up? She tried to ask, but all that came out of her throat was a hoarse croak. A nagging sense of alarm began to take hold, and the made use of the surge of adrenaline to try and sit up again.

Just then a calloused hand reached for her wrist, and she felt a needle being plunged into her flesh, followed by a searing hotness that shot up her arm. Before she could howl in pain, a latex-gloved hand clapped over her mouth. Moments later, everything went dark.


Xena hovered in her weird place, pondering the situation. All her years of experience as warlord and tactician were absolutely no help, and it annoyed her incredibly.

You'd think that something good should have come from all of that.

She'd discovered that she could watch a number of people more or less simultaneously by hopping back and forth between places. So she spent much of her idle time "zapping" through various wards, Isabelle's home where Isabelle's mother was still staying, Isabelle in her room here at the institution - Isabelle was grumbling over a still empty piece of writing paper, so the warrior did not even try to materialize - a shadowy figure walking along a darkened ward corridor, and finally the Walker woman sleeping in the waning light.

The woman's pale, drawn face made her look extremely vulnerable. It felt like looking into a skewed mirror. Xena did not particularly like what it showed her, but she made herself study that face closely. Corina's stupor seemed absolute as she lay on her back with her head tilted to one side and her mouth open. The covers around her form were a crumpled mess, leaving both legs visible. One pajama leg had ridden up to above the knee where it bunched in untidy folds.

"Creepy," Xena mumbled, and was about to head on, but hesitated. Something about the picture bothered her. She turned back to study the scene once more, carefully. When she could not put a finger on it, she eventually headed on.

I wonder how many nights I had like that, tossing and turning, not a wink of sleep...

And yet, Corina's slumber seemed so peaceful. Also, if the woman truly was faking her weakness, the clear signs of having struggled violently against her restraints did not quite seem to fit the picture. Perhaps Isabelle was correct, and they were keeping the woman under drugs. But why?

She willed herself back to Corina's bedside for yet another, closer look.

That was when she noticed the puncture marks on the woman's arms. There was no evidence on the contraption called an IV (she had watched hospital shows with Isabelle's mother), and so they struck her as out of place.

Her eyes suddenly narrowed as a thought came to her.

"Wait a minute," she murmured aloud. "What in Tartarus was that person doing skulking about in the darkness all hooded and secretive?" Concentrating briefly, she returned to the corridor where she had seen the shadowy figure earlier. Realized the spot was just outside the door behind which lay Corina. Night lights barely outlined the walls and darker recesses where there were more doors. She zoomed along it in both directions, but the only person there was the nurse on duty, spectacularly un-hooded, sitting at her post at the far end where this corridor met another at right angles.

Xena cursed. Then, her Warrior-Senses tingling, she returned to Corina's bed and settled in to lurk.


The next morning...

"Good morning, Isabelle, I've got your morning medication." The male voice was accompanied by a brisk knock. Isabelle glanced into the mirror and adjusted a strand of her reddish-blonde hair, then inwardly called herself nine kinds of fool for it.

"Come in," she called, keenly aware of the utter drabness of her institution clothing, which no amount of tugging and straightening could render in any way attractive.

Xena's snort made her jump and squeak uncontrollably, just as the door opened and Marc stepped inside, bearing a box of multi-colored pills.

"Be carefu-" Xena began, but Isabelle spoke right over her.

"Marc! Ah, so nice of you to come by with those!" The instant she said it, the foolishness of her words struck her, but between her irritation at Xena's once again ill-timed appearance and... well... Marc being Marc, she could not seem to stop the words from coming out of her mouth. Throwing a withering look over her shoulder, she saw the warrior draw breath again, no doubt for another snide comment about the young man.

"Not another word," she snapped furiously. "Just go away."

"But I just got here," said Marc, sounding confused.

"Isabelle," Xena said urgently, "it's him, he's the one who-"

"I said. Go. Away." To Isabelle's mild surprise, the warrior popped out of sight. The look of utter alarm on Xena's face was disquieting - for normally the woman would just slowly fade. However, Isabelle was too mortified just then to give this much thought.

"Not you," she added quickly. turning to Marc, who was studying her.

"Seems the pills you've been taking aren't doing the trick for you," he said slowly.

Isabelle thought of all the times she'd managed to flush the hated pills down the toilet, and colored. "I suppose not."

"Well, I guess if had such a cool invisible friend, I'd have a hard time letting her go, too."

"You know about Xena?" Isabelle gasped. After a pause, she added, "of course you do. You're my caretaker now."

"You make that sound like such a bad thing."

"Well..." Isabelle scratched her neck.

"Well, she seems like a kick-ass person to have around."


Meanwhile, on the "other" side...

"Well, she seems like a kick-ass person to have around."

Xena seethed. Isabelle's dismissal had flung her out of the material world like a physical blow, leaving her head ringing and her spirits despairing with its sense of finality. Now she was forced to watch it all through an invisible, impenetrable wall. Sound, it seemed, travelled through from there to here, tauntingly, while no amount of her raging and cursing appeared to reach her substantial friend on the far side. Either that, or she's just ignoring me.

She'd spent most of the night on watch at Corina's bedside, and so had been witness when the cloaked figure had returned this morning, just as Corina was starting to come around. She'd watched from a shadowed corner as the figure jabbed a syringe into the feebly struggling woman's arm. The manner of the stranger's movement had been enough to identify him to the warrior, but at one point, he had turned and stared into her general direction, squinting, as if he had somehow sensed the incorporeal presence. That had removed any vestige of doubt about his identity.

"She is," Isabelle said. "But you know I'm not supposed to talk about her, or acknowledge her in any way." She eyed Marc. "And I doubt you're supposed to encourage me."

Marc gave her a conspiratorial wink. "It can be our little secret."

Xena ground her teeth.

Marc continued. "So... how do you feel about being here then? Seems you're not really ready to give up your friend. That's sort of counter-productive if you're looking to be 'cured' here."

Xena held her breath. Isabelle appeared to take an awfully long time to reply.

The young woman sighed. "Ever since she came into my life, I've had this feeling that there's so much more I can be. I mean, here I was, slaving away in a mediocre job going about my day and planning my life around the TV shows I like to watch... okay, I had some hopes of hitting it big with a book I was writing, but that was wishful thinking more than anything else." She paused. "And I can't believe I just told you about my writing."

"Neither can I," mumbled Xena.

"Why not? You're a woman of imagination. It's a good thing," Marc said.

Isabelle colored, and went on. "And Xena.... she just shook me out of that rut I was in. She shared the story of her life with me, she made me look at myself and want to change what I saw there. She inspired me." Quietly, she added, "I love her for that."

"Silly girl," Xena muttered, deeply touched.

"But then there are those moments when I just want to strangle her. I mean, she knows I'm the only one who sees her, and sometimes it seems she likes nothing better than to make me look a complete idiot by talking to empty air, with dozens of people watching. It's as if she meant for me to end up in a place like this."

"Then again, here in San Francisco, I'm surprised anyone thought your behavior all that remarkable," Marc put in dryly.

Isabelle laughed mirthlessly. "My overprotective mother and my sister, the Queen of Worry."

"Ah." There was a silence, in which Isabelle went to get a glass of water from the tap.

Eventually, Marc continued. "She sounds like the perfect mate for you." He was rewarded by a spray of water as Isabelle spewed forth the drink she'd just taken from her glass.

"I'm beginning to really hate that guy," Xena growled, balling her fists impotently.

Isabelle spluttered. "She's a ghost! I haven't heard of anyone, ever, who could make that work. Have you?"

He shrugged. "Not so long ago people were convinced that inter-racial relationships shouldn't be possible. And we're working on same-sex partnerships. Why not ghosts?" He eyed her.

"Now you're just messing with me," she accused. "You're trying to trick me into getting myself into High Security, aren't you?"

"Not bloody likely," Xena muttered. "But what by Ares' unwashed undies are you up to, you freak?"

"Naw, I just try to be open-minded," he said.

"Don't trust him!" Xena called out, uselessly.

"I mean, who are we to judge if all those people who claim to hear voices, or see things, are really crazy? Perhaps they're just the chosen ones, and we 'normal' people are the ones who miss out?"

"And what if she is all in my mind?"

"What if she is? You've said it yourself, she has given you new purpose. How is that a bad thing?"

"For one thing, it landed me here." Isabelle said bitterly.

"Well, that's true," Marc admitted. "But I may be able to help you there."

"Oh?" He definitely had Isabelle's attention now.

"Don't trust him!" Xena cried again, louder than before.

"Well, those meds you've been taking.... they are designed to limit the spirit. The way I see it they clamp down on your imagination - and that includes voices and images in your head, real or not. And... well, spirits. Like your friend."

"Ares' arse, that piece of shit may be on to something," Xena exclaimed. "That would explain so much..."

"That would explain so much," Isabelle echoed the warrior. "Are you sure of this?"

Marc shrugged. "No. It's just a theory. I haven't been here for very long, but I have seen some of your ward-mates. Their faces are empty - there's nothing there. As if all their imagination has been erased. When - if - they get out, they'll be perfect little sheep fitting nicely into a society of perfect little sheep."

"It makes sense." Isabelle hesitated a moment. Xena could tell she was debating whether or not to talk about something. Whatever it was, it looked like the young woman decided against it. "So, what do you suggest?"

"Well, for one thing, I suggest flushing as many of these - " he indicated the morning dose of pills - "down the toilet as you can get away with. If you aren't already doing that." He grinned at Isabelle's look of pure guilt. "Thought so."

He pulled a small vial out of his pocket. "This," he held it up before her, "will put you right back into Wonderland." The viscous liquid inside glowed a rich crimson color with the early morning sunlight shining through it from the window. There was no label on it, and it was stoppered with a small crystal plug.

"What is that?"

"It will strengthen your bond with... Xena, was it? At the same time, your frame of mind will enable you to convince your therapist that you're ready to be released."

Isabelle tilted her head. "That sounds a bit too good to be true."

"Good girl," said Xena. "Don't trust him. I bet it's some sort of poison, with what he's been doing to Corina. Of course they'll release you when you're dead."

Marc gave that smile that Xena was sure never failed him. "But it is that good! It's brand new, not yet approved here, but I swear it's a miracle drug. Just five drops onto your tongue mornings and nights, and I guarantee you'll be out of here in no time. With your warrior friend by your side."


"Really! I mean, I'll leave it here and you can think about it. Just don't flush it down the toilet." He grinned, indicating the small vial. "There aren't a lot of these around."

She eyed him again. "And how does a temp get a hold of such a drug? Who are you really?"

"I wasn't always a temp. I'm just sort of between jobs at the moment," Marc said. "I worked for a research lab before this... let's just say they owe me."

"You stole this?"

"It's complicated. But does it really matter? It will help you." He let his eyes rest on Isabelle's until the young woman cleared her throat and looked down bashfully. Then he let his hand brush hers lightly. "I want you to get better, Isabelle."

"Get your filthy paws off her you freak!" Xena growled, reaching over her shoulder for her sword before she remembered her situation. "Damn it to all Hells!"

"I'll think about it," Isabelle promised.

Marc smiled. "That's my girl."

"No, she's not," Xena snapped.

"Well," he continued, "I have to get on with my rounds. Keep that out of sight. But do try it. I guarantee you it will change your life."

"I'll think about it," Isabelle said again, as Marc left, closing the door behind him. Then she sat down at her small table, turning the vial over in her hands.

"Don't do it..." Xena warned. Isabelle, of course, did not hear her. With horror, Xena watched as Isabelle unstoppered the vial and tilted it up to her face.


Unable to watch, and unable to do anything about it, Xena fled.


Meanwhile, in the sick ward...

Her brain felt like mouldy wool, matching the shocking taste in her mouth. It was a miracle that she could taste anything at all, as dry as her mouth was. Aside from that, only vague shreds of thought made their way into Corina's consciousness. Her body was once again fighting that battle against the drug that in the past had proved so futile. But giving up was not something Corina did, and so even without conscious thought, she battled.

With an unearthly effort, she made herself clench and unclench her fists, flex her muscles, wiggle her toes. Anything to get her blood circulating, so that the drug could get out of her system that much faster. She would probably fail again - she did not know how many times that needle had jabbed her just as hope was dawning that this time she would manage to wake herself up fully - but there was nothing else to do, so she kept at it doggedly.

Eventually, she was able to lift her head off the pillow for a few moments. She glanced around, her vision still blurry, and found the room in twilight. Was it dawn, or dusk? At least she could see no movement, which meant she probably still had time.

Slowly, her mind cleared enough to allow more coherent thinking. Mars had found her. That probably explained why she was being kept under. It probably explained that poor woman's accident and the timely arrival of a conveniently competent temp.

Her right foot rose up and strained against its bond

With her recent actions, she had betrayed the War God, and he certainly did not appreciate that. So this infiltrator had been put on her trail. But then why wasn't she already dead?

The foot plunked down heavily as her strength gave out. The left one went up instead.

It seemed unlike Mars to spare someone who had become a liability. She was sure she had been a favorite of his, but that must make her betrayal all the more infuriating to him. It was illogical for him to leave her alive.

Trembling with the effort, she let her left foot sink onto the mattress. She could feel her circulation pick up. She'd only need a few more moments to-

The door to her room creaked open. Corina wanted to cry.



Back in Isabelle's room...

"Sweetheart, you may want to reconsider that," said a dulcet voice from the back of the room. Isabelle nearly dropped the vial in shock. Fumbling, she caught it and managed to put the stopper back in place before more than a drop had splattered onto her cheek. She hastily slipped the small flask into her trouser pocket before looking around the room in search of the speaker.

"I'm over here, darlin'," the voice said.

Isabelle caught the flicker of her TV screen from the corner of her eye. The screen glowed darkly, a pink dot pulsing in the center. As she watched, it expanded into the shapely form of a pouty-mouthed blonde woman in front of a backdrop of dark rock and burning fires. "Oh, this won't do," the woman said, and waved her hands. The scene was replaced by pink-heart-shaped clouds with white doves fluttering about. "Much better." She breathed deeply, showing a fascinating amount of cleavage, although her gauzy dress - pink, of course - did very little to cover up the rest of her.

"What the- who? And how?" Isabelle stammered. She knew she'd switched the thing off!

"Venus," said the woman. "And don't waste time worrying about how and what. You're not crazy, I'm really here. And I don't have much time, so listen."

"But-" Isabelle protested.

"Listen, whatever that hunk gave you to drink, throw it away."

"But he said it would help me get out of here."

"Of course he did. And maybe it will. One way or another."

"One way or- you mean it's poison?" Isabelle rubbed at her cheek.

"How would I know? I'm just here to stop whatever my deranged sweetheart's trying to do." She said lightly.

"Your... what?"

"Mars? You know, God of War? What do they teach them these days? We had a thing for a while, but he's going a bit overboard with his schemes right now." When Isabelle just stood there slack-jawed, groping for a response (of course she knew who Venus and Mars where, who the hell did the woman think she was?), Venus went on. "He obviously wants you out of here, so I, obviously, don't."

"But... I haven't met any Mars. The new temp gave this to me! His name's Marc, and he's a very nice guy."

Venus sniffed and waved a hand. "His lackey - he has so many of them. They turn out to be not all that nice when you get to know them better."

"But, you're inside a TV." Isabelle scratched her cheek harder. "Talking to me. From inside the TV that nobody switched on."

"Thank you, Miss Obvious, I wouldn't have known. Listen, as I said, I don't have much time. Whatever you do, don't drink from that vial. There's something you need to do here before-" She looked over her shoulder, then turned back to Isabelle. "Listen, Toots, I gotta go."

"Wait, what were you saying?"

"No time!" said Venus, blowing her a kiss. "Toodles!" And she was gone. Isabelle could see the scenery go back from sickly-sweet pink bliss to dark red fires before the screen went black. A golden logo in the top corner expanded and rotated, and a strong male voice announced, "This broadcast of TV Olymp was brought to you by 'Ambrosia - the snack that really-'" There was a crackle, and a different male voice said angrily. "Who the Hells messed with my equipment? How many times do I have to tell you morons to keep the place locked?" Then there was a flicker, and the TV went dead.

Isabelle stood looking at the black screen a while longer, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Absently she scratched her cheek again. Something must have bitten her there, it itched like crazy.

"Okay, well, now I'm willing to believe them that I'm a nut case," she murmured quietly.


In darkness, Xena paused, hovering. What a coward she was, just running off like that. Giving up wasn't something she did! No, she must return, she must make herself watch. Perhaps there was a way that somehow, she could still stop this catastrophe from happening. Quick as a thought, she returned to the young woman's side. Experimentally, she tried pushing against that wall that had separated her from the material world and Isabelle earlier.

It was gone.

She found Isabelle staring at her little TV's blank screen, one hand to her face.

"Okay, well, now I'm willing to believe them that I'm a nut case," the young woman murmured quietly.

"I agree," said Xena. Making her voice light was an effort, when all she wanted was to make sure her bard was okay. "I've learned that it's more entertaining if it's turned on." The total lack of a jump and yelp at her sudden appearance was mildly disturbing.

"I wish you wouldn't do that," said Isabelle automatically.

"Sorry," said Xena, studying her. "So, what happened?"

Isabelle pointed. "It turned itself on. I swear, I wasn't seeing things."

Xena paled. "Ares?"


"Mars, I guess he calls himself here."

Isabelle eyed her. "Venus. You don't look surprised. You've had this happen before?"

"Isabelle, nothing in this world really surprises me anymore," the warrior said airily.

"Xena," there was a warning tone in that, and Xena tried on her best disarming grin. "So... Venus. Who is he? And what did he want of you? Did he threaten you?"

Isabelle's giggle was startling. "She is supposed to be the Roman Goddess of Love. And no, she didn't threaten me. And now spill, warrior. How do you know my TV can do that? And what the hell are Roman gods doing inside it? And do you even realize how completely bonkers that sounds?"

"Goddess of Love... Aphrodite?"

"Nope, Venus. Roman, not Greek. And you're not answering my question."

"So wait... 'Mars' must be the Roman God of War? Interesting..."

Isabelle just looked at her.

"All right!" Xena threw up her hands. "Yeah, I may have had this Mars guy threaten me in your TV once or twice. And that one time in Corina's room. I'm sorry, I should have told you, but I didn't think I should worry you with it. Besides... I kinda thought I was going crazy." The warrior looked away.

Isabelle stared at the TV screen, which looked nothing out of the ordinary now, dark dray and dead as it should be. "I get that. I mean, I've had reason enough to question my sanity lately." She gave Xena a wry look, and got a sheepish grin in response. "But this is something else."

Xena snorted. "You got that right. So.. what did the Goddess say to you?"

Isabelle rubbed at her cheek again. "She warned me not to take that medication Marc gave me," she said. "She suggested that the way the stuff was going to get me out of here may not be the way I imagine." She sighed.

So did Xena, feeling weak-kneed with relief. "You didn't take it then?"

Isabelle shook her head, then scratched vigorously at her cheek again. "Not sure what it is and I guess I shouldn't take any chances."

"Holy Athena, Isabelle, what's wrong with your cheek? It's a mess!"

Isabelle stared at the fingers she had used to scratch. They were smeared with blood. "What the hell...?" She went to her little mirror and gasped when she saw the ugly red welts her fingernails had left over a patch of blistering skin. "I think some of that stuff splashed on me when that TV spooked me. Holy crap, Xena, I was going to put that down my throat." She walked to her bed and sat down heavily.

"Just as well you didn't," the warrior said quietly, hoping Isabelle wouldn't catch the tremor in her voice.

"I should have listened to you. I'm sorry."

"Forget it," said Xena gruffly. "I'm not the only one who has good hunches. You were right about Corina too. Our new best friend is keeping her drugged."

Isabelle jumped to her feet. "What?? I have to get there, we have to tell someone!"

"Wait!" said Xena. "I doubt anyone will believe you. I mean... you are a patient... who hears voices and all that..."

"Damnit, you're right. But at least I have to get to her. He won't try anything if she's not alone." And she was out the door before Xena could caution her again." Cursing softly (but potently), the warrior followed.


The hospital wing, moments later...

Corina took a deep breath, and experimentally strained against her bonds again. They were firm but not uncomfortable; without the drug in her system, they would hardly have slowed her down. She sighed, and turned her head towards the opening door. So close!

Silently, her tormentor came in, closing the door behind him after looking over his back once. During bright daylight, of course, he was not hooded, but wore a lab coat and blue pants like the rest of the hospital staff. Corina supposed he even had clearance to be here, which was why she could not expect anyone to come to her aid.

"I trust your stay here is pleasant, Miss Walker," said the whispering voice as the figure bent over her. She tried to spit, but her mouth was too dry. The man chuckled as he held up the syringe and pressed the plunger lightly to remove the air bubble inside. "Just a little prick, and you'll be back in wonderland. Can't have you running around until the boss decides what to do about you."

"Why not just kill me and be done with it?" It was terribly hard to form the words, with her tongue feeling like a foreign object.

She would never know how well she managed, for at that moment, running footfalls sounded outside, and her unwelcome visitor straightened hastily, and shoved the syringe into his lab coat pocket. "Damnit, " he snarled, moving to stand behind a patient screen with his hand inside the pocket that held the syringe. Heartbeats later, the door banged open, and the little blonde stormed in. Corina could only stare.

"Oh, thank goodness, you're awake," the young woman said, rushing to the bed and beginning to fumble with the bonds. "I'm gonna get you out of here."

They were, quite easily, the sweetest words Corina had heard in her entire life. But there was no time to enjoy them.

"No... you... have to go," she protested, feeling out of breath from even that much effort.

"Hold still," the blonde said, and it was only then that Corina realized that her body was struggling. She tried to relax, and repeated her warning while the other woman continued to worry at the straps.

"Look out, behind you!" Corina had the oddest feeling as if her words were magnified somehow, as if someone else was speaking them at the same time. And she thought she saw a flicker of shadowy movement from the corner of her eye, but it was gone when she looked. It must be the effects of coming out of her drug-stupor.

Most importantly though, it seemed her warning had gotten through, for the woman whirled, just in time to see the man with the syringe rush toward her. With a yelp, she dropped down and barely evaded the needle, but the man was quick to respond, grabbing the much smaller woman by the wrist and flinging her back against the wall.


Isabelle felt the breath go out of her as Marc shoved her back brutally. "You should have taken the drops," he told her, his grip iron-hard around her wrist, the other hand holding the syringe that was no doubt meant for Corina. "This will be less pleasant." He used his body to pin her against the wall, so hard that she could barely breathe. The smell of musk-scented after-shave assaulted her nostrils.

"Head-butt," Xena snapped.

Isabelle squeezed her eyes shut and steeled herself, then slammed her forehead into Marc's face with all her might. She heard the sickening crunch of cartilage as the man stumbled backwards, releasing her wrist to hold his suddenly bleeding nose. Her own head rang from the impact, and she blinked a few times to reorient herself.

"Shin!" Xena barked, and Isabelle kicked, but Marc's backward movement offset her aim, and she caught air instead. The man recovered, and now his face wasn't all that handsome anymore as rage (and not to forget a swollen, bleeding nose) disfigured it. "Bitch!" He growled, throwing away the syringe and coming at her with his bare hands.

"Crouch and roll right!"

Isabelle crouched, and rolled left. Her shoulder slammed into the second, empty bed in the room. "Oof!"

The other right, she chided herself silently as her momentum carried her and the bed a few feet further.

Xena cursed. "He's had training, Isabelle. He's not just some street tough. Quickly, on your feet."

Somewhat dazed, her shoulder smarting, Isabelle scrambled up, using the bed for support. Marc was there, and before she quite knew what was happening, he had her in a strangle hold, one of her arms twisted painfully behind her, one of his arms around her neck.

"Kick him again, go for the shin," Xena's call sounded desperate now. Isabelle kicked backward, and was rewarded with a flinch and a grunt of pain as the heel of her shoe connected. Marc's hold on her, however, did not lessen. "I'm going to hurt you so badly," Marc growled, his voice thick and nasal.

"No, no, no, you've got to mean it, Bard. Kick him again!"

"Ow!" Isabelle yelped as Marc twisted her arm some more, forcing her on tiptoe. "Kinda hard right now," she grunted. "Got anything else?"

"Shut up, bitch."

"Try and grab one of his fingers, bend it backward."

Feebly, Isabelle fumbled, but Marc's arm around her neck flexed, making it hard to breathe. She suddenly felt very weak.

"Gabrielle! You have to fight! Don't let him win. You have to stay with me!"

"Can't," Isabelle gurgled. She could feel the strength leave her legs, her consciousness slipping. So, is this how it's going to end? In a nut house, strangled by a crazy impostor? And I didn't even finish my book... White spots began to dance in front of her eyes as her brain was cut off from oxygen. "Sorry...." she tried to say, but she could only croak.


» continued (Part 6)

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