Title: Among the Tigers
Rating: R
Pairing: Lao Ma/Xena
Setting: AR after the Debt I & II.
Summary: Lao Ma couldn't help but smile as she thought about how wondrous and ludicrous the world could be when the daughter of a courtesan could become the supreme master of all Chin.
Notes: Religion and culture have been Xena-nized, dark themes, etc, etc.

The sea breeze tousled her hair as she forced her horse into a gallop. Lao Ma laughed, pulling her hair ornaments off, as she left her victorious army behind. Her dark locks fell and she threw the jewels into the saddlebag before urging her horse to greater speed. The warrior princess awaited her by the cliffs overlooking the sea of Chin. Lao Ma could imagine the grin that plucked at Xena's mouth and the twinkle in her eyes. In this golden moment, the yoke of burdens that had hung around her neck for so long seemed gone. They had done the impossible together.

She never could have imagined such a destiny for herself even with her visions. Once she had thought she knew her fate, but somewhere along her path, she forged a new one. Moments, more like grains of sand than pearls, shaped her future and though many were bitter, she accepted them now much like the swimmer accepts the salt of the sea for the delight of stretching their limbs in the sun.

Lao Ma couldn't help but smile as she thought about how wondrous and ludicrous the world could be when the daughter of a courtesan could become the supreme master of all Chin.

1.

The harsh artificial laughter of the courtesans and patrons echoed through the compound. Ma didn't look as a gaggle of gaily painted women, surrounding a general, burst from the chamber of flutes in a flurry of lust and calculation to step across the courtyard to the more private rooms. Even in the heavily falling snow, passions were hotter than ever.

As only an apprentice and a virgin, she kept the patrons' weapons in an ornamental hut by the gate. Ma shivered but didn't falter in her study. Most of Ma's focus was on the scroll on the wood floor in front of her. She kept her wits in case a patron came looking for his sword, but it was the words of Buddhist wisdom that concerned her. A priest had dropped it off along with a dagger before he went to be entertained. It was more valuable than the gold the priest had in his pocket to Ma. She had found and bought scraps of knowledge before but nothing compared to the weighty scroll. Ma tried to read both fast and slow to capture and absorb the words as she hoped that the priest was a man of stamina so she could read as much as she could.

So entranced by the wisdom of the ages, Ma had forgotten about the emperor's declared holiday to celebrate the birth of a new child. The fireworks shot up and bombarded the sky with their fiery glory in red, yellow, and green. She jumped as the first blast. Loud and garish, they lit up the sky and stole glory from the stars. Half dressed men and women filtered out of the rooms to look up. The barraged of fireworks lasted for mere moments before the last sputtered and the red flames dissolved in the snowy sky.

"Huh, either Lord Ming is cheap or his lady gave him a girl," the general commented loudly before belching and returning to his rented harem.

Ma looked to the illuminated castle on the hill before turning her eyes to the starry sky as she reflected on the Buddha's words, "to conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others." A star brighter than the fireworks, pristine and breathtakingly white against the milky way, shot towards the direction of the courtesan house. Like a dry well during a monsoon, Ma felt herself fill. Light and a bone deep knowledge came to her as she stared at the shooting star. She took a deep breath as the star faded overhead and the visions came.

She saw herself as glamorous and beautiful in the finest silks, walking through a gilded hallway, into a throne room lined with prostrate black-clad scholars. The Ma of the visions smiled and swelled with joy as she looked upon the woman leaning against the red throne.

An exotic westerner, dressed like a warrior with long dark hair covered by a cap jingling with coins, she grinned at the sight of Ma and bowed before the courtly scene faded to that of the seaside in the damp end of fall. The warrior woman. No, Lao Ma instinctively knew she was a warrior princess from a far off land and a dear friend. The warrior princess grinned and gestured her closer to look at the sea.

Ma could taste the salty air and emerged slowly from the trance as she heard the jingle of marching soldiers and the words, "Lord Ming demands the only virgin of this house on the advice of the royal astrologer. Make way for the men of Ming!"

2.

When she bore him, Ming Ma felt nothing but joy. All the pain of childbirth seemed to fade when the midwife put her son in her arms.

Ming Ma dismissed all but the mute wet nurse. She looked into her son's innocent face and forgot all about the anxieties, pain, and pressures to give birth to a male heir. Smiling, she brushed his tiny cheek and rejoiced in his health. Then the vision of his fate appeared.

She saw her heart on his knife as he raised it for the court to see. The piles of bodies outside a burning village as he rode pass triumphant. Screams echoed in the misty vision. Crops died in the fields as the farmers were forced to fight in needless and unsuccessful wars. He would kill friend and foe alike. She saw him bring the kingdom to ruin.

Composing herself for her lord's entrance, she felt her hard-sought inner peace crack. A son was all she had prayed for during the lonely nights in the woman's quarters. It was the only way to secure her place and ensure that she would not be put out on the streets when she passed out of the flower of her youth. The dowager empress told her as much with a smack or two thrown in. Ming Tzu, himself, threatened to send her back to the house of courtesans where he found her if her womb bore a girl or, even worse, no fruit.

Ming Tzu gave her a nod of respect when he came in with his councilors behind him to boast of his new heir. He bide one of his servants to hand her a jeweled brooch for her service to the kingdom before he left the room amid his minions' congratulatory flattery. His voice drifted in from the hall before the door was closed. "We shall name him Ming Tien after our most illustrious father."

It was only once she had handed the child over to the wet nurse that she let the mask fall. Only once alone would she let the tears fall.

3.

Much later, deep into the night when Xena was far from her in sleep, she wondered when she lost the inner light. It happened before she married Lao Tzu and after she retired from Ming Tzu's bed. The loss was subtle, so much that the moral decay eluded her awareness long after the rot began, and it was long after she became empress of Chin that she realized.

It was when her son was five.

Lonely in the family quarters, she had escaped the eunuchs to find her son. Ming Ma crept down the elaborately painted hallway into the Autumn Snow pavilion, the summer heat made the winter theme of the chamber seem ironic, when she heard a child's laughter. She hid her smile as she passed black-clad scholars in her search.

He was in the garden.

She saw his exuberant grin before she heard his words as she turned the corner into the archway of the Blue Lotus courtyard. Ming Ma had a sweet treat and a hug for him before she had to sneak back.

Ming Tien put his hands on his hips as he ordered the vicious beating of a playmate, with a stomp and a laugh. His chubby face twisted in child's delight and an adult's cruelty.

The whipping boy yelped and cried without evoking a shred of mercy from Ming Tien as the stone faced guard brought the wooden switch down upon him again and again.

She lost hope at that moment.

4.

Sometimes she wondered if she encouraged Lao Tzu's desire or if he decided to make her his favored concubine and then queen on his own. Lao Ma could later admit to herself that their was little reason for her to have lingered in windows when she knew he would pass by on his horse and have moved with more grace when in his presence. Watching Ming Tien grow more cruel was more than she wanted to bear. She threw herself into her meditations and quest for enlightenment with more success than she could have imagined. Perhaps the knowledge of her new found power shone in her gaze and radiated from her touch because Ming Tzu visited her bed less and less. She was careless in the beginning and rumors spread of her skills among the women of the court. Lao Ma didn't know who was more relieved, her or Ming Tzu, when Lao Tzu listed her bed as one of his stipulations in peace negotiations.

He loved her in his own way, made her his empress, but Lao Ma never enjoyed his visits in the night. Too old to sire an heir, Lao Tzu took it out on her until the stroke. The first time she had him laid out vulnerable before her, she stared at him, suddenly seeing the old man instead of the old tyrant: his wrinkled skin, reddened nose, wheezing breath. Lao Ma imagined killing him than for less than the flap of a hummingbird's wing before shame set in and she pressed the right pressure points to save him. Calling for help, she backed away while he looked at her with gratitude in his eyes as courtiers scurried around them. She didn't know if it was compassion or ambition that made her save him. He made her queen the next day.

In any case, she patiently waited years as his health suffered before making a move. From virtue or hesitation, she never could decide. What was never in question was her statesmanship. Once her husband fell into the coma, she reversed his harshest laws and directed his soldiers to protect the farmers. She built hospitals, temples, and orphanages. She grew more powerful but it never eased the pain of her son's indifference.

5

The brash foreigners looked more like warlords than traders as they claimed. In fur and leather, they both had far westerner features and dishonest expressions. Never forgetting the first vision of so long ago, her heart jumped at the sight of the mysterious woman. The woman, hobbling with a crutch and wearing a glittering cap, shone bright with destiny and Lao Ma felt like she would have known her anywhere. She also knew that Ming Tzu failed at destroying them and Shang Ren across the river ignored them.

They couldn't be ignored or squashed. Crude Xena was hard to miss and there was no doubt by their well-used and practical weapons that either were pacifists.

A hundred men waited at her word, but Lao Ma would try diplomacy first. She could tell that the man, Borias, secretly yearned for civilization. And in Xena, she saw the raw potential of a champion of light. She saw her loyalty, her skill, and her greatness hidden underneath the darkness. A hero that could change the world. Xena only needed guidance to become the warrior princess.

Lao Ma smiled and bowed as she couldn't help but want to mold that destiny for herself.

6.

Xena twirled from sheer pleasure as she relished her strength. A fragile light shined within the dark warrior. A glimpse into her aura showed a glimmer of hope. The crippling had wounded her far deeper than bone and only now began to heal. Daily, the seething hate retreated and calm entered her gaze. Xena was much like a wounded and wild animal and only the gentlest touch could coax her to health. The wariness left her eyes as Xena shrugged off the last of her pain.

Lao Ma clapped her hands, letting herself levitate from joy. Fond feelings of friendship for the woman had blossomed as she tended to her. A lightness borne by forgiveness seemed to cleanse her spirit as she rose higher. Loneliness had been settling into her mind but the warrior had banished it with her rough ways and fierce attitude. Xena was a refreshing change from the duplicitous nature of her courtiers.

"How do ya just do it? I gotta be in the mood to float." Xena asked, slowing to a stop, crooked smile on her exotic features.

"Controlling your emotions is the path to victory. Feel them, be aware, but never surrender." Lao Ma stepped down in a flutter of silk before she caressed Xena's cheek. "Only then you will conquer the world."

7.

Lao Ma hoped that Ming Tzu would accept the treaty, but she knew him far too well and for once, she didn't consider his feelings. She ordered his people to take her son to the distant city library for his own safety. Lao Ma tried to kiss his cheek before he went.

He squirmed away from her before allowing the manservant to lift him onto the horse. Ming Tien never looked back as the procession sped away from the stronghold.

It only strengthened her resolve for peace. Unfortunately, diplomacy could fail.

The barbaric game ended in predictable violence. Betting limbs in a game of chance, she had never heard of such a thing but she didn't stop Xena.

The warrior princess had the wildness back into her eyes as she pressed Ming Tzu with taunts and the point of a sword.

Still, she said nothing. Lao Ma watched in horror at the brutality and her thoughts. She and Ming Tzu shared no lost love and his every display of callousness came to mind as the swords flashed and the warriors clashed together. The proper, peaceful, reproachful words refused to leave her lips. Once Ming Tzu fell dead, she backed away and let Xena butcher his men.

Xena and Borias fought like demons and ripped through Ming Tzu's guard like the highly trained warriors were little more than wet rice paper. Xena's moves were triumphant as her newly healed body took down man after man. Black hair whipped around her face, Xena made the battle a dance after she ripped her silk robe down the side.

"Borias, take the Ming stronghold." Lao Ma ordered, finding her voice. "Declare me empress and you shall be my general." She turned to the panting and bloody Xena. "And, you will be my warrior princess."

8.

After the murder of Ming Tzu, Lao Ma worked furiously with Xena and Borias at her side to integrate the new territory into the kingdom of Lao. Laws had to be written, the former nobility had to be fought, and she had to organized the supplies and fund for the army. Riding from sunrise to sunset for months, Lao Ma saw all of her former country's land fall to her rule.

Lao Ma fought against another enemy – destiny. Surrounding her son with the wisest of tutors, hoping that her love would defeat fate, she tried to cultivate the compassion and purity she always hoped Ming Tien could possess.

The murder of Ming Tzu pushed her to greater acts of charity. She founded a university and rebuilt the old district of the city. The capital had been dirty, unwholesome with slums ringing the outskirts in Lao Tzu's day but Lao Ma rebuilt it as a city without peer in Chin. Temples and bath houses along with theaters and trade improved the economy while attracting the finest craftsmen. Lao Ma felt closer to ushering in a new era of peace than ever before.

Xena was her weapon. Along with Borias, she led the Chin forces to victory against the raiding Mongols with little injury to the refugees left in the invader's wake. They crushed resistance from Ming loyalists. Xena even rallied her men to repair the Great Wall.

The two women continued to exercise their wills as their friendship deepened. Lao Mas moved Xena's chambers closer and closer to her own in the castle until the night when Xena came to her as a lover and made Lao Ma feel as though the stars themselves were falling as they had so many years ago. Lao Ma had been a courtesan but never had she made love before Xena.

Lao Ma grew happy and willful with Xena by her side.

9.

Borias believed in Lao Ma as much as Xena. The man found comfort in her poise and civility. They would meditate on the beauty of a single flower for many an hour together in pleasant companionship. Her genteel nature was a balm after the roughness of war. Her presence soothed and quelled his wildness. Lao Ma felt certain of his devotion until the day that Xena brought in the lost heir of Ming.

Kicking him onto his knees, Xena raised a severed head in her glove-clad grip.

Scared, the bound teenage boy did little but scream at the sight of his guardian's severed head. The boy was feeble minded from birth and could only beg for mercy between sobs.

Lao Ma knew he was an innocent, but his existence threatened her son and sovereignty. She had managed to do so much good since she came into power and his boy would only be used by her enemies. The fragile peace would be destroyed and the peasants would suffer worse than before.

Borias suggested adopting the boy while Xena made the case for death.

Lao Ma stared at the boy before making a decision that would keep her up at night for weeks. She ordered his death.

Borias stomped away in disgust.

She knew that she lost him then. That night she would dream of a green dragon that devoured the world.

10.

Soon Lao Ma was invulnerable. Her good works had made her beloved among the people while Xena had cowed all the nobles and advisers. She no longer needed Borias or Lao Tzu.

She sat sorrowfully at Lao Tzu's bedside with his hand in hers when Xena swaggered in. "Borias has been corresponding with Shang kingdom," she said the words with only a fraction of the despair she felt. The blood would never wash off her hands.

Xena's expression stiffened as she put her hand over her rounded stomach filled with life. The lust between the two warriors had born more than conquest.

Lao Ma had ignored the jealousy that had flickered to life when Xena broke the news more than a month past. It was the last snowfall of winter and even the capitol seemed to be hushed as the peasants braced themselves for a long cold night. Or so she assumed until the morrow she heard about Xena's men dragging the last Ming heir to her castle.

Xena had slipped into her room as Lao Ma sat by the fire and brushed her hair. A uncommon expression of worry crossed the warrior princess's face. Her footsteps were slow and hesitant belying her rough soldier's boots. "Lao Ma, I have news."

"From the front?" Lao Ma smiled and gestured to empty space on the fur beside her. "Wine?"

"I couldn't." Xena sat down, a foot away, frowning. "I carry Borias' child and the midwife says I am more than six months along."

Lao Ma lowered her eyes as she tried to make sense of her emotions. It hurt but she couldn't understand why as she had never cared if Ming Tzu or Lao Tzu had other concubines. "I see. I offer up my congratulations."

Xena grabbed Lao Ma's hands with a cry. "No, don't play benevolent empress with me. We both know what we feel for another. You should know that nothing is between me and Borias." She followed Lao Ma's gaze to her stomach and closed her eyes with a sigh. "I don't want this child to be brought by him, but by you. I wouldn't be a fit mother." She rubbed her thumbs along Lao Ma's palm as she looked down. "Someone needs to teach this child about love and its not me."

"You're full of love, Xena," Lao Ma had breathed before she took her warrior into her arms and ran her hand through the other woman's dark hair. "I will help you raise this child."

"Betrayed us, has he?" Xena's voice became heartrendingly earnest. "I'll kill him for hurting you."

Lao Ma looked away, marveling that even now she could cry, as Xena left the sickroom. Kissing her aged husband on the forehead, she pressed the points that kept him in his coma.

He gasped and opened his eyes.

Ordering a servant, she had the former emperor placed on a bench, in the sun, by the small waterfall.

The water gurgled as it fell onto the koi pond below. Orange fish swam between the lily pads. Wind rustled in the trees.

Lao Tzu died peacefully in the garden amid the hummingbirds.

11.

Xena chased away the respectable nobleman shortly after Lao Ma began to show her pregnancy. Literally. The warrior princess chased him with a sword out of the royal bedchambers, The man had done his duty and Lao Ma paid him to mind his business without further thought. She was too excited by the life growing inside her to bother with a husband. Xena, of course, would suffer no rivals.

As she grew bigger and happier, Ming Tien only grew more withdrawn and sullen. Nothing could coax a smile onto his face or laughter from his throat. The vision of his destiny only darkened.

After screaming, sweating, and crying through birth, Lao Ma found herself with not only one, but two beautiful daughters. She pined for them while the midwives bathed them and only relaxed once they were in her arms.

Xena and Solan crowded around them and neither could wait to greet the new princesses while Ming Tien was absent.

Lao Ma nursed her daughters and read their destinies. One would be a far more pure woman than her mother, compassion stamped into her heart, while the other's fate was murky. This daughter would need more guidance and love. A lack of either would lead her to a dark place. Lao Ma saw this troubled daughter walking in the footsteps of the Green Dragon before it would lead to her death.

Ming Tien stepped inside the birthing chamber, glaring, in a huff.

She locked eyes with him and knew that she would finally have to give up.

12.

Lao Ma made sure that Xena and the children were gone to the summer palace when the time came. Most of the court had followed them to prepare for their Empress's arrival. Few servants even saw her walk into Ming Tien's room.

Scorn twisted his lips and his eyes cooled at her entrance. Ignoring protocol, he didn't stand from his desk where he wrote on a scroll. He asked her what she wanted in a callous tone.

She remembered him as a baby when he smelled so sweet and his chubby arms always reached for her first. It was easier to disbelieve her visions when he was younger. Now he was an adult and her fears were no longer so farfetched. Her spies had intercepted dozens of letters over the years where her first born conspired against her. Never had she done more than take care of the matter privately to Xena's increasing dismay. Now she couldn't ignored the man Ming Tien had become despite her every effort. Lao Ma would make sure it was painless for one of them. Lao Ma didn't give him a chance to struggle before she struck, fingers striking the most dangerous pressure points, with a small sob.

Ming Tien convulsed in his chair with a look of absolute hatred on his face as he stared into her eyes.

"I love you." Lao Ma finished it before her knees gave way.

Servants would have to carry both out.

Lao Ma got off her horse and walked the short distance to the cliff edge, waves breaking below, before smiling at Xena. The scent of the sea seemed to cleanse her soul as she breathed deep. Gulls called and circled above. A feeling more primal than satisfaction coiled inside her. She had been here before in her first vision that winter's day during her humble days in the third best courtesan house in the capitol. This was where she was meant to be all long with Xena by her side.

"You're now the empress of the entire middle kingdom. How does it feel?" Xena drew her in for a kiss and nuzzled her cheek.

"Like destiny." Lao Ma cupped Xena's face, caressing the apples of her cheeks with her thumb, and leaned her forehead against her warrior princess's. "Ever since we met, its felt like destiny."

Xena looked almost sweet and shy as she kissed her empress again. "Likewise."

"What's next, my general?" Lao Ma put her arm around Xena, silk to chain mail, her head resting on her warrior's shoulder.

Xena brought her in close and whispered, gleeful and confident, in her ear, "Japa."