Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
WARNING: In addition to other profanity, the "other" F word (the three-letter one) appears in this chapter. Like many words of its kind, it is not necessarily a slur depending on the mouth that speaks it and the context in which it's spoken. Please don't take offense.
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Four: No large prestigious universities were unfairly stereotyped in the production of this fanfic.
Luther wasn't exactly sure what was going on, but no one seemed to question his presence, so he tagged along. The others seemed grimly silent as they strode across the campus toward the athletic buildings, but Gabrielle kept pace with Luther and after a while he felt comfortable speaking to her.
"So Xena fences?"
"Oh, yes," she replied easily, burrowing her chin into her scarf as a chill breeze swept through. "You name the sport, Xena probably plays it. But fencing is one of her oldest loves. Have you tried it?"
Luther shrugged. "I took lessons for a bit in high school. Mostly I play tennis and golf ... rich kids' sports."
Gabrielle watched the pavement rushing by under their feet. "I'm not really very athletic. Xena loves all sports. She and Hank are probably equally matched in most."
More questions were forming on Luther's lips, but they had arrived at the main athletic building. It was mostly deserted at this hour, but the fencing room when the five reached it was brightly lit. They all shed their coats and Luther followed Gabrielle directly to the bleachers, where she took a seat on the second row back. Xena and Hank went immediately to choose their weapons. Ian hung around at the edge of the sparring mat, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
Without much preamble, the two tall dark-haired athletes did a few warmup stretches and moved swiftly into preliminary footwork. Luther and Gabrielle watched, mesmerized by the graceful movement, almost like a dance, the rubber-tipped epees swirling through the air like liquid, the four feet caressing the mat, strong thighs balancing, strong arms swishing. Their technique was exquisite.
After a few minutes of this, Luther became aware that people were beginning to pour in. A scruffy young man in a huge overcoat gamboled over and plopped loudly on the bench in front of them.
"Hi Jax," Gabrielle said tolerantly. "I see word got out."
"Yeah, well, when people hear that Xena and Hank are sparring, there's practically no one on campus who doesn't want to come see for themselves," the wannabe replied. "Sal's outside trying to sell tickets." He made a show of noticing Luther for the first time. "Who's he?"
"Oh, just some guy," Gabrielle said, flippantly echoing Xena's words. Pressing her thighs together unbtrusively underneath her dress, she could feel Luther's semen still sticky between her legs.
"Oh." Jax gave Luther a lewd wink. "Hey, if you wanna know how to seduce Xena and Gabby, maybe I could give you some advice, if you know what I mean....?"
"No, actually, I don't," Luther told him. Jax frowned in momentary confusion and then shrugged.
"Okay, well, it's your funeral." He spotted someone across the way and leapt up again. "Hey! Yoo-hoo!"
"What is it between Xena and Hank?" Luther asked as Jax trotted off and the duel momentarily paused. "Is there a particular reason why she hates him, or was she just being generally bitchy?"
"No, Xena's still a little bitter toward Hank and Ian for getting together," Gabrielle replied calmly, still watching the action.
"You mean ... she was involved with one of them?" Luther realized aloud as Xena came over to where they sat, carrying her coat.
"Both of them," Gabrielle said. Luther blinked.
"The two butchest fags on campus?" Xena sniffed disdainfully. "Didn't used to be."
"I was going to say, they've always seemed hopelessly devoted to each other." Luther looked in wonder at the tall dark woman. "And you slept with both of them."
"There are worse things I could do," Xena shrugged, and dumping her coat beside Gabrielle she returned to the floor.
"When they first got here they were best friends, and Xena played them against each other," Gabrielle explained. "Nearly destroyed their friendship, but eventually they patched things up and became lovers."
"Was she in love with Hank?"
There were at least fifty people here now, a sparse-looking crowd given the size of the room, all mostly quiet as they watched the sparring heat up. Xena and Hank had finished their warmups and were now going at it with complete absorption, the dance moving more swiftly, the air peppered with little grunts as they thrust and parried and blocked.
Gabrielle shifted on the bench, pursing her lips. "It's complicated." Luther took the hint and fell silent, but after a moment she continued. "Xena got with Hank at a difficult time in her life. She had won the fencing nationals four years in a row and everyone called her unbeatable, but she was deciding to give it up and concentrate on her studies. Hank helped her see that it was the right thing to do. He supported her emotional transition and gave her validation." She sighed. "She doesn't fence any more, mostly. It's kind of like an addiction, I think. When she tastes it again, it's hard for her to go back. To remember why she quit. It's seductive." Her eyes were troubled as she watched her lover move like liquid flame across the floor.
"Hank knows that," Luther observed quietly.
"Yeah." Gabrielle nodded. "He must be pretty desperate, to ask this of her."
Out on the floor, another impasse was reached and another break taken. Xena came over to them again. Gabrielle produced a bottle of water from her coat pocket and gave it to her lover.
"Something's wrong," Xena said after she had quenched her thirst. "There's something else going on here that Hank's not telling me. He could kick any MIT brat's ass without my help, and he knows it."
"Did he say who the person is that challenged him?" Gabrielle asked. Xena shook her head.
"Says he can't remember the name, which is bullshit. I don't like it."
"It'll be all right," Gabrielle assured her. "Whatever's going on, we can handle it." Luther watched her, somewhat taken aback. The cognitive dissonance between this cool, self-assured woman and the submissive, almost timid girl who had not an hour ago writhed in furious passion underneath him was almost too much to handle.
Xena glanced at him, seeming almost to have forgotten who he was for a moment. "He behaving himself?"
"Oh, yes," Gabrielle said. "Don't worry about him."
"I-" Suddenly, both women stiffened as one, eyes widening. Luther felt his pulse quicken in clueless response. Bemused, he followed their gaze to the entrance, where a slim gorgeous blonde had just entered, surrounded by a small crowd of MIT students.
Gabrielle was on her feet, clutching Xena's forearm with an emotion Luther almost didn't recognize: tightly suppressed rage. "Xena...."
"Oh, no," Xena growled murderously. "I think not." Across the room, the blonde had noticed them and a small cruel smile curved her pouty mouth.
In a single swift bound Xena was back on the mat, knocking Hank on his ass with a powerful shove, towering over him in a bristling anger that crackled the air. The crowd, now swelled to at least a hundred observers, gasped. Ian and Gabrielle rushed forward but didn't intervene.
"You fucking coward!" Xena raged at the man on the floor. "You knew I wouldn't come if you said it was her!"
"I told you the truth. I needed you for this!" Hank gritted back, making no effort to stand back up. The entire room seemed to hold its breath.
"Ahh, Xena," the blonde cooed sweetly, moving forward. Xena turned on her a glare that might have withered most victims to jelly, but she withstood it as if oblivious. "It's so good to see you again, my sweet. I so hoped you would be here!"
"Don't tempt me, Cally," Xena warned dangerously. Her hands were clenched. Gabrielle stepped quickly in front of her.
"Why don't you just get out while you still can, Cally," the young poet said harshly. "This isn't your turf. Just leave."
The blonde rolled her eyes contemptuously. "Still letting the annoying redhead tag along, Xena?" She tsk'ed gently. "You and I could have so much more ..." licking her lips coquettishly, "rapport ... without her." She turned her gaze on Gabrielle and spoke as if addressing a retarded child. "Hank promised me a duel, my dear, and I'm here to collect. Now run along, why don't you, and leave the grownups to their sport." On the last word she looked directly into Xena's eyes, and tossed her head in unmistakable suggestion.
Xena looked as if she would have jumped the girl right there -- ripping her to shreds, most likely -- but both Hank and Ian stepped between them. Ian held Xena back, pushing the weight of his entire body against her angry surge forward, while Hank moved to block her view of the antagonist.
"Let's not make this any more complicated than it needs to be, Cally," Hank cautioned. "Fight the match and get out. You make trouble, and winning the fencing national will be the least of your worries."
"Ooh, Hank." She smiled ingenuously up at him, running her fingertips lightly along the bulge of his bicep. "Do I look worried?"
"Cally, let's warm up," said one of her classmates, a short stocky woman with a single braid to her waist. "Come on, you take the first round with Ahmed."
"Lovely," Cally said lightly, dropping her purse and fur coat where she stood. Her black bodysuit left nothing to the imagination. Someone handed her a foil, and she stepped onto the mat to begin her stretches.
Xena and Gabrielle subsided, but the tension was still evident. Prudently, Ian hustled the lot of them back over to the bleachers, where Luther sat watching in astonishment. He wouldn't have thought it possible to see Xena so rattled.
"Look, I'm sorry," Hank was saying, his voice low and urgent. "You can see why I need you here, Xena. If I go down, you have to step in. We have to take her out."
"This was wrong of you, Hank," Gabrielle said angrily. "You should have prepared us."
"I'm sorry," he repeated. Xena sighed.
"Well, you were right about that, you goddamn prick."
"I know." Hank looked her in the eye. "Xena, we both know -- we all know -- how she works. If I beat her, she'll disappear and lick her wounds. If she beat me alone, she'd crow about it forever ... and she just might beat me. But if she does, and you're here ... and you challenge her ... she'll forego the terms of the agreement. She'll give up anything for the chance to go against you. We all know it."
Xena was nodding, reluctantly. "Yeah, I know it. So we'll stay-" Gabrielle made a little noise of displeasure, and Xena gave her a steely look, "-we'll stay, but you better fucking not lose."
"Believe me, I don't want to."
Still uneasy, but with new resolve, the little group broke up. Ian took a nervous seat on the edge of the first bench. Gabrielle returned to her place beside Luther, but she rested her feet on the bench in front of her in a manner that suggested she was ready to leap onto the floor at a moment's notice. Xena and Hank paced the edge of the mat, waiting.
Luther could feel the tension still sitting heavily on the air, like gasoline awaiting a match. He watched the sparring area uneasily, shooting frequent glances at Gabrielle. Her anxiety seemed to engulf him in waves.
In another moment, some sort of unspoken signal seemed to pass and someone closed the door. The room hushed as Hank hefted his epee and stepped onto the mat. Cally's sparring partner moved away, and she faced Hank from a distance of twenty or thirty feet, smiling slightly.
"Whenever you're ready," he said levelly, displaying nothing but confidence. They planted their feet, lifted their arms, locked their eyes, and the sparring began.
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