Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Additional disclaimer: All song lyrics quoted herein belong to Sade and are, of course, used without permission.
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Three: No politically-incorrect cultural stereotypes were abused in the production of this fanfic.
Random heavy-metal music blared from the Honda's stereo like the screams and clashes of battle as the car flew down the dark and mostly deserted highway. It might as well have been static for all the attention Xena paid; although a certain portion of her brain was concentrating on steering the little vehicle, watching I-80 slide by in a hypnotic trail under the wheels, the majority of her mind was thinking instead about events of the past and future. Despite her fierce words about focus to Gabrielle, she was unable to keep from brooding over the memories.
In her head, the first time she had laid eyes on her mentor blurred together with her first encounter with Gabrielle. The two women were very different, the circumstances more so -- on the surface anyway -- but they shared a crucial similarity: the way Xena felt about them ... and the way they made her feel about herself.
The car moved beyond city limits, and the rock station gave way to an easy-listening channel. A gentle beat heralded words that made Xena cringe slightly, words that seemed to go right to her guilty soul.
I gave you all the love I got, I gave you more than I could give Gave you love I gave you all that I have inside and you took my love You took my love
Xena grimaced, reaching for the dial, but then she paused; pulled her hand back and let the song continue.
When you came my way Brightened every day With your sweet smile
Her lips curved involuntarily as she remembered the distressed look of desperate politeness on Gabrielle's young face that first day back in October, a few years ago. On her first foray into Harvard Square, seeking class supplies and textbooks at the Coop, Gabrielle had been buttonholed by the energetic black guy who stood out there, every hour of every day (or so it seemed), handing out copies of the Square Deal coupon book. As politely as she tried to refuse, Gabrielle was no match for the seasoned veteran's sales pitch.
"Come on, little lady, give it a try, you know you wanna," he urged effusively, while Gabrielle, caught halfway between laughter and annoyance, shook her head and attempted to extract herself.
"No, really, thank you-"
"Thanks, she'd love one," Xena had interrupted, snatching the Square Deal from him with one hand. Meanwhile, the other fell commandingly on Gabrielle's shoulder, steering her away toward the Pit.
"But - you didn't give him any money," Gabrielle protested weakly as Xena hustled her across Dunster Street.
"It's free, see?" Xena explained, turning the booklet over. Gabrielle blushed and shook her head in self-reproach.
"I feel so dumb," she commented, taking it from Xena's hand. "Thanks."
"No problem," Xena agreed, pulling her hand back from the redhead's shoulder. "You gotta make up your mind before you pass him: either just nod and take it, or move on and ignore him. You can't stand there like a moron trying to make up your mind. Get it?"
"Sure, I get it," Gabrielle agreed, looking up at her, and in retrospect Xena could see the beginnings of admiration, almost hero-worship, shining in that wide-open freckled face. At the time, though, all she'd seen was gratitude, which made her uncomfortable, so she just nodded and turned away.
"Wait!" Gabrielle had exclaimed, hurrying after her. "You - I mean, I didn't even get your name. Do you go to Harvard? Mine's Gabrielle. I'm a freshman."
"You don't say," Xena had murmured dryly. And, aloud, "Name's Xena. Junior. Nice meetin' ya."
"Zina? That's really interesting. How do you spell that? Is it Greek?" The redhead had continued to chatter, following her like an eager puppy, and Xena had quickly found her accustomed sternness, which she had worked so carefully to develop, chipped away by the bubbling enthusiasm of this irritating kid. It seemed like she had encountered dozens of these fresh-faced first-years in the past month or so, yet somehow she couldn't bring herself to blow this one off the way she had all the others. At the time, she hadn't understood what made Gabrielle different, but she also hadn't cared to analyze it too carefully anyway. Later, she had told herself it was because she recognized in Gabrielle a complementary tendency, the perfect sub to her domme, a girl she could own. But now, with her self-induced blinders removed, she knew better. She wasn't sure she liked it, but she had to admit it. Gabrielle was her other half. Her completion. The part of her soul that had been missing.
Like a river flowing inexorably to its source, this line of thinking brought Xena back around to Lao Ma. Her mentor; her teacher; the first woman she had loved, and the first she had betrayed.
Luther attempted to study, turning his stereo on low, but after he had reread the same paragraph three times and still not absorbed it, he shoved the book aside in exasperation and got up to pace the length of his small room. It was amazing, in a way, how quiet his life seemed to have been, both before he met Xena and Gabrielle, and in the few months since they had parted ways. Now that they had reconnected, it was alarming and undeniably intriguing how quickly he felt himself sinking back into their alien sphere. He did not normally think of himself as the submissive type; but Xena and Gabrielle had taught him things about himself, uncomfortable things sometimes, which he had managed to avoid examining too closely ... until now.
Shying away from that topic, he found himself thinking instead about Hank and Ian. The two men were, in their way, easier to understand than the two women; their relationship seemed more straightforward, based on simple things like longtime friendship, mutual interests, sexual attraction and honest affection. They didn't confuse and alarm him like the women did, especially since the night Luther had spent with them. He felt his skin flush, he wasn't sure whether with embarrassment or arousal, at the memory of that night. It had certainly been an eye-opener -- and he had previously considered himself a reasonably cosmopolitan person.
This was as far as he cared to go with that, too, and he grunted in annoyance, casting about for a more innocent topic to think about, trying to distract himself from the way his jeans had suddenly gotten much too tight. He held his hands out away from his body and shook them slightly, looking around the room.
To his delight, a light knock on the door interrupted his reverie and spared him any more introspection. He leapt for the knob and pulled the door open to discover Gabrielle, her hand still upraised from knocking, blinking in some surprise at how quickly he had responded.
"Hi," Luther said, somewhat breathlessly. Gabrielle quickly put her hand down by her side.
"Hi ... am I interrupting something?"
"Oh, no, no," he said quickly, glancing over his shoulder as if to make sure the room was still empty. "I was just ... trying to avoid studying. Not having much success."
"Mm." She gave him a small 'I know that feeling' grin. "So you're probably really glad I showed up, huh?"
"I'm happy for any distraction," he said, stepping back to pull the door open wider, sweeping his arm around to invite her in. Her smile widened a bit as well, and she accepted the invitation, walking past him into the room.
"Why are men's rooms always so ... male?" she asked rhetorically. Luther raised his eyebrows.
"I don't know. I guess we lack the decorating gene or something."
"It doesn't...." But she trailed off, wandering around the perimeter of the room, glancing at his shelves of books, his pictures of family, his various personal effects. Luther returned to his desk and sat in its chair, watching her.
After a few moments, Gabrielle seemed to emerge from her reverie and looked over at him. "Oh, god, I'm sorry," she said, giving him an abashed smile. "I kind of zoned out, didn't I?"
"It's okay," he replied.
"No, I - I came to talk, not to ... I mean, if you don't mind. It's been - I haven't had much of anyone to talk to. Hank and Ian are too ... I don't know. Too close to it, I guess. They knew Xena before I did."
"So you think they'd take her side over yours?" he prompted. Gabrielle looked as if the idea hadn't occurred to her.
"No ... I don't know." She rolled her eyes and made an impatient gesture. "I don't know anything. This must be so frustrating for you to listen to. It doesn't really make any sense."
"Well, hey," he said with a little shrug, "that's emotions for ya."
"Yeah." Gabrielle sat on his bed, looking pensive. There was silence for a while.
In the quiet, Luther heard the music emanating from his stereo like a message in code. He cocked his head, listening.
Help them to live long Help them to live life Help them to smile... Don' let them stay home and listen to the blues....
"You know," he was about to say, when Gabrielle began to speak. Luther subsided, letting her talk.
"Sometimes I feel like Xena thinks I'm just a kid," she said reflectively. "She's been through so much in her life, and I guess I seem awfully sheltered by comparison. But it seems like she likes it that way. She needs me to be innocent and sheltered -- she tries to protect me from things. It's like, as long as she can keep me on that pedestal, she can keep thinking of herself as bad ... worthless even. And she needs that."
"Why?" Luther prompted softly, hesitant to interrupt the musings of which he was really only a peripheral part.
But Gabrielle didn't seem to mind, or notice. She stared at the ceiling, sighing sadly. "I don't know. I guess she's still looking for ... whatever it is that she hasn't found yet. Whatever she needs to fill up the void inside her."
Xena had never been an easy child, and she had taken pride in it. With typical adolescent arrogance, she had regarded her mother with contempt, never realizing how difficult it was, how hard the dedicated waitress had worked to support her three children after their father left. By the time she was fifteen, with her brother Tom in prison for auto theft as a shining example, Xena was the leader of one of the most ruthless gangs in all of New York City. She ruled with an iron fist, her fighting skills legendary, the loyalty she demanded complete.
Things began to go wrong when she fell in with the leader of a rival gang. She succeeded in seducing him, but not in taking over his command; her own gang fell apart while she was in hiding after the attempt. Hearing that her erstwhile lover was looking for her, riding with his fellows, out for blood, she had stolen her mother's ATM card, withdrawn several hundred dollars of hard-earned tips, and struck out for California in search of virgin territory to conquer. Reluctant to use the money for transportation, she had hitchhiked most of the way, using her body as barter instead, opening her legs for any truck driver or student or roadtripper who was headed in the right direction.
Within two hours of her arrival in Los Angeles, she had made her way to the roughest part of town and picked a fight with the first bunch of youths she encountered. It was a spectacular melee, drawing people to their windows and out the doors of secondhand shops to watch the dark-haired, dark-hearted girl spin, kick and punch.
But just as the fight was getting good, an Asian woman in a kimono appeared and shouted something, and the other combatants vanished, melting into the shadows, leaving Xena panting and staring furiously from doorway to doorway.
"What the-" she gasped, bemused, watching the woman, who came forward now with her hands held up and out, walking slowly, as one might approach a wild beast.
"You must be Xena," the woman said when she was close enough to speak comfortably. Xena blinked.
"Oh, you've heard of me," she said boastfully, feeling her heart swell with pride. She hadn't realized her reputation extended this far!
"They say you're a dangerous young woman," the woman said, letting her hands fall slowly to her sides. Xena straightened up and smirked.
"Well, they're right." She looked her new opponent up and down. "So who are you, anyway? Mrs. Miyagi?"
The woman smiled gently. "My name is Lao Ma. I've come to help you, Xena, but you have to want it."
"Help me?" Xena looked confused for a moment, then sneered. "I don't need anyone's help. I can take this whole damn city if I feel like it."
"I'm sure," Lao Ma agreed wryly. "But why would you feel like it?"
"Why?" Xena shook her head at the density of this person. "To be in control, why else?"
"The ability to control others means nothing, if you cannot control yourself. Perhaps this, then, is why they call you dangerous."
"I can control myself," Xena avowed, but her tone was uncertain because she didn't understand what this strange woman was saying. "They call me dangerous because I am danger. Danger follows me everywhere, get it?"
"No," Lao Ma denied. "Danger, like the universe of which it is an element, follows no one. You follow it, and this is why you do not know yourself." She pressed her palms together and bowed slightly. "When you are ready for your first lesson, you will find me." And she turned and walked away, leaving Xena staring after her.
Years later, Xena still found mystery in the words. She cherished the memory of her first encounter with Lao Ma, but it was tainted by the pain of what had come later.
Breaking out of her reverie, she glanced down and noticed with a start that she was almost out of gas. She was also almost to the Pennsylvania-Ohio border; the forests were dark and silent on either side. She shifted her butt in the seat, sliding into the right lane to take the next exit.
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