SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Having reached the end of another scroll, Xena rolled the parchment carefully and placed it on the empty bedroll beside her. She leaned over and shuffled through a few of the others until she found the next one.
She didn't open the scroll right away. Instead, she stared at the flames, watching them flicker for awhile before she reached to grab more wood to feed the fire.
"Ya know, I was pretty mad at you for that, my bard," she said, pointing the stick in her hand at the flame, then tossing it into the center. The fire said nothing in Gabrielle's defense, merely crackling as it consumed the wood.
"Though I must say, you are very beautiful when you're angry." Xena smirked, then settled back against the log.
The warrior lifted her hands in exasperation. "Why in the world would you think that I would be interested in going to a brothel?"
Argo neighed loudly in the background, voicing a definite opinion.
"Be quiet, you!" Xena scolded the mare. "Those days are over and you know it!"
If the warrior hadn't known better, she could have sworn Argo had just thrown her a raspberry.
Xena fixed the blanket covering her legs and laughed. Her thoughts carried her away, back to that day in Pompeii. Closing her eyes, she brought the memories into clear focus so that her bard could see them and remember the day right along with her.
The warrior grinned, chuckling at herself as she remembered how angry she was as she stomped along the streets of the city heading back to the House of Vettii, mumbling the entire time.
"Oooh Paris, weren't you going to give me a tour of the theater?" Xena said, mocking the bard's sweet voice as she stomped away from the House of Julia Felix. "I'll give him a tour all right. An up close and personal tour of the pointy end of my sword!"
She was so busy talking to herself, she walked right by the two small figures who were huddled in an alcove of a building.
"What did she think I was there for? A little afternoon snack?"
The warrior stopped short.
"Ares' balls, that's exactly what she thought!" The sudden realization brought a look of dismay to the warrior's face. Stupid ... stupid ... stupid.
The colorful reference to Ares' anatomy brought a muffled snicker from the shadow of the alcove. Xena whirled around to find Alessandro and Hermia trying to stifle their laughter behind small hands.
They froze, eyes round, caught in the act by the Warrior Princess.
"What are you two doing here? I thought I told you to go home?"
And she had. When she was done at the Forum (and what a waste of time that was), she had found Alessandro and Hermia waiting for her at the entrance. She thought it fortuitous that they should be there and hoped that the children had seen her partner somewhere in the area. Not only had they seen Gabrielle, but they had led Xena right to the House of Julia.
The warrior paid them two dinars each for the information and then ordered them to go home immediately. Who knew what kind of clientele the brothel attracted?
"Well?" Xena arched an eyebrow at the pair.
Alessandro stood tall. "We ARE home."
Xena's eyebrow rose two notches higher.
"We live here."
The blue eyes narrowed to slits. "Right."
These two beautiful children, clean as shiny dinars, dressed in silk togas and leather sandals, did not live in this part of town - let alone at the House of Julia.
She grabbed the children by the scruffs of their necks and pulled them out of the alcove.
"All right. Come on." She dragged them along, refusing to release them no matter how much they wiggled, until the pair settled down and was keeping pace along side her.
Xena looked down to her right at the boy, who was rubbing the back of his neck and staring up in defiance. On her left, still holding her hand, his sister skipped happily along.
"This is not a safe area," she stated firmly.
"How would you know?" the boy replied, "I know this city better than you!"
"Ya do, huh?"
Alessandro nodded. Xena thought about this for a moment and then an idea sprang into her head.
"Tell me what you know about the Golden Ceres."
"The Golden Ceres?" the boy repeated, looking up at Xena in surprise. Forgotten was his anger, now that the warrior had brought up such an interesting topic.
"Yeah. Ever hear of it?"
Alessandro snorted. Of course he had heard of it. He also had heard that the Ceres had been stolen. He looked up at the warrior in speculation. Now, I wonder what she knows about that?
"The Golden Ceres was stolen," he informed her.
Xena rolled her eyes. "I know that. Tell me something I DON'T know. Something about the statue. Ya know, where it came from. Why it's so important. That kind of thing."
The boy scratched his head. "Well, it used to belong to the temple down near the tombs. The one the common folk worshipped at - it's not big or fancy like the nobles'. Merchants used to give tribute - wine, food and such to the statue in honor of Ceres. Then one year, Caesar came to Pompeii for the festival and took it from the temple so all the merchants would have to give their tribute to him." The boy shrugged. "The nobles have held on to it ever since."
The warrior's steps slowed until she had stopped completely.
"Are you saying that Caesar stole the statue from a temple?"
"Did I say steal?" Alessandro asked in all innocence and then looked around quickly to check for eavesdroppers. "You're not one of those Caesar-lovers, are you?" he whispered.
When the warrior's expression changed to a snarl, he grinned. "All right, all right. Neither am I. Yeah, he out and out stole it. But, now," the boy said, grinning wickedly, "the tables are turned because someone has stolen it from them!"
The way she was staring at him made the lad nervous. "Why are you looking at me like that? I didn't steal it!"
The corners of Xena's mouth lifted into a nefarious grin. "Oh, I know YOU didn't steal it."
She ran her tongue along the inside of her mouth, thinking.
Alessandro watched her eyes sparkle. He could almost see the thoughts whirling around in her head and he waited patiently, hoping upon hope that she would make him a part of her plan - whatever it was.
Finally, the warrior smiled and it seemed to Alessandro that the sun had just jumped out from behind a cloud.
"How would you like to make a lot more than two dinars?"
By the time Xena was done putting the first step of her plan into place, Gabrielle was already back at Vettii's home. Sappho had collected a small entourage of admirers and they were gathered in the triclinium drinking wine. The stood in the atrium, just under the painting of Vettii weighinghis pride, pondering which way to go: to her room or to Gabrielle. She could hear the bard in full story-telling mode and when Xena made her way quietly to peek in the dining room, she found a small group of friends gathered intimately around the table, enthralled by the bard's performance.
Xena watched for a while from outside the room, leaning against the edge of the doorway and listening to the story. The bard was obviously enjoying herself, telling her tale to an appreciative audience instead of to an audience of one, usually grumpy, listener. Again, Xena could not help but believe that Gabrielle would be much, much happier if she pursued the life of a bard and left the hardships of being on the road with an ex-warlord far behind.
Xena watched as Gabrielle's gaze drifted across the room and suddenly their eyes locked together. The bard continued to tell the story, not missing a beat, but her eyes were looking right at Xena as though she could read the warrior's mind.
She's probably thinking the same thing, Xena thought to herself and pushed away from where she was leaning to walk off.
Rather than join the party, she went to her room. It was not quite sunset and golden light filtered in through the window. Removing her sword from her back, she threw it on the bed and walked over to the window to look out. The opening faced the northwest side of the city and provided a clear view of Mount Vesuvius as it towered majestically in the background.
Xena wondered if she should join the bard and her friends for dinner, then decided against it. Gabrielle appeared to be having a wonderful time in Pompeii, surrounded by friends and admirers, being asked to perform almost daily. The presence of the Warrior Princess would only take the spotlight away from her partner, and Gabrielle certainly deserved being at the center of attention for once.
So, rather than join Gabrielle for dinner, she stood at the window, staring at the volcano. The swirling smoke that rose in a steady stream from the mountain's peak helped to distract her. Instead of worrying about her relationship with the bard, she found herself contemplating the path of the vapor as it twisted up and melded with the clouds in the sky.
She followed the trail of the smoke, its source filling her thoughts as she studied Vesuvius with a furrowed brow.
So intent on the volcano, Xena did not hear the door to her room oprn and Gabrielle stepped in. She didn't know how long the bard had stood there watching her watch the mountain before she spoke, but the sound of her name caused the warrior to jump a little before turning around.
"Xena?" the bard said softly and then raised her eyebrows in alarm, not expecting to have startled the warrior. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just thinking." Xena walked over to the bed and picked up her sword, pretending to fix a clasp on the sheath.
The bard, who knew better, was not buying the performance. Shaking her head a little, she stepped into the room and closed the door.
"Xena." "Gabrielle." Each said the other's name at the same time and then chuckled in unison.
"You go first," the bard said.
"Nah, g'wan. You first," Xena countered, turning around to face her partner.
"I'm sorry about what happened in the pool. I was ... that was ... stupid of me. I just ... it just took me a little by surprise to see you there, that's all."
Xena arched a brow. "How do you think I felt?"
"I know. I realized that later. You know, it wasn't what you think. I wasn't there to ... you know ... to do what people do when they go to a place like that. It's just that Sappho ..."
Xena held up her hands for the bard stop. "You don't have to say a thing, Gabrielle. I was the one who left you in Sappho's care. I should have known the two of you would end up getting into some sort of trouble."
Gabrielle seemed a little disappointed. "What about trusting me enough to know that I would have no reason to be in a place like that unless I was there for a perfectly good reason - like to help a friend?"
Xena let her hands drop and turned away, throwing her sword back on the bed. "That goes without saying."
"But it would have made me feel better if you had said it."
Xena whirled back around more than a little annoyed. "You weren't very big in the 'giving the benefit of the doubt' department either, you know. Jumped to some pretty quick conclusions about the reasons for my being in a brothel, didn't ya?"
The bard, who was about to point her finger and voice a sharp retort, decided otherwise. "You're right," she admitted, then rolled her accusing finger back into a fist before letting it drop to her side. "I jumped pretty quickly ..."
"Yeah, right into the water," Xena said, and they both laughed, relieving the tension. "I don't think I've ever seen you run that fast!"
"Not all of us enjoy parading across a crowded room in nothing but their birthday suits ... unlike SOME people I know," the bard replied, blushing.
"Oh, is THAT why you ran so fast across that slippery floor? Because you were naked?"
"Yeah, why did you think?"
"Oh, I dunno. I thought maybe Labia Majora was after you."
They shared a good laugh until Gabrielle took a step closer and placed a tentative hand against her partner's arm.
"Once again, you came to my rescue."
"Hey, that's my job."
Gabrielle let her palm slip along the length of Xena's arm until she had a hand caught within her own and played with Xena's fingertips. "You must be getting tired of it."
"Not possible," Xena answered, not bothering to pull her hand away.
"So," Gabrielle said, getting a firmer grip on a strong, calloused hand, "got any plans for tonight?"
Xena bit her lip, pretending to think. "Not sure. What are my options?"
Gabrielle lifted her eyebrows in speculation. "Well, personally," she said, pulling Xena forward and wrapping her other arm around the warrior's waist, "there is only one option I think that's even worth considering."
As though I would choose any other, Xena thought to herself. She was just about to lift the bard up into her arms and take her to bed when the sound of an urgent knock against the door filled the room.
"For the love of Zeus!" Xena said from behind clenched teeth. She pulled away from Gabrielle, but not by much. "Unless there's an army breaking down the door of Vettii's house, you better come back later," she yelled at whoever was risking their life by knocking on her door.
"How did you know?" Sappho's small voice croaked from the other side.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, one in irritation, the other in alarm. The irritated warrior growled and went to the door, swinging it wide open with an aggravated pull.
She found a small poet smiling sheepishly up at her.
"Well?" Xena's ever-expressive eyebrow arched.
"There's an army at the door. They’re demanding to search the house."
Gabrielle walked quickly up to stand beside Xena, worry written all over her face. Had Caesar found out about their presence in Pompeii after all? "Who are they searching for?"
The poet rolled her eyes.
"Why for that gods-be-damned, pain-in-the-arse, stupid statue, of course!"
The ‘army’ – a small group of guards, twelve by Xena's count - followed Menander down the hall with Vettii in hot pursuit, yelling the entire time.
Xena, Gabrielle and Sappho were not far behind, following more out of curiosity than because their presence was required.
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked, walking quickly beside her partner.
Xena shrugged. "Beats me."
They were marching to the far end of the dwelling, to a place where they hadn't been before.
"I think we're going to the trophy room," Sappho commented, bringing up the rear.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance and followed on in silence.
They came upon a double door at the end of a long hallway and Menander turned the latches, shoving both doors open to reveal the inner sanctum of the House of Vettii. His guards marched in and began to search the room.
"Be careful in there!" Vettii yelled, running after them. "These are priceless collectibles!" He fluttered about from man to man, trying to protect his collectibles from being touched or, godsforbid, knocked over.
The rest of the group entered the chamber, looking around in amazement. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with the fruits of Vettii's obsession.
Xena smirked as she looked around. "Hmmpf! I thought he said he collected art and military artifacts."
Gabrielle picked up a small golden statue of two women engaged in a very erotic activity, in a very unusual position. "I guess this qualifies as art."
Xena snorted. "Is that what you call this?" She waved her hand around the room. Every spot on floor or wall was filled with erotic carvings, or statues, sex toys and fetishes of all shapes and sizes.
Xena picked up a string of golden ben wa balls and arched an eyebrow. "Solid gold? Gotta be cold."
"But expensive," Sappho commented from behind the warrior. When Xena turned around to smile, the poet had taken the stance of a swordsman armed with a weapon of a very phallic nature.
"I do believe my sword is bigger than yours, " the poet announced, whipping her 'weapon' from side to side with glee.
"Wanna bet?" Gabrielle deadpanned. Their laughter attracted the nobleman's attention.
"Put that down!" Vettii yelled at the three of them, running carefully around a set of hand-blown glass leeching cups and a set of silver lancets to grab the dildo away from Sappho. "This is a very rare item!"
"Rare?" Xena said with a snort as the item was grabbed out of Sappho hands. "I've seen a million of 'em."
"I bet you have!" Sappho quipped, then let out a cry of protest as Gabrielle poked her in the butt with her staff.
The guards were finishing their inspection of the room, predictably having found nothing. Menander was turning red and Vettii had placed himself in the center of the room, looking as smug as a fetish bug in a rug.
"It's not here, Menander," the nobleman stated. "I did not steal the statue!"
"I'll tear this place down stone by stone if I have to!" Menander sputtered as he picked up a marble statue rendition of a hermaphrodite and looked underneath to search for clues. Vettii stomped over to the man and pulled the statue out of his hand.
"I said I did not steal it!" Vettii caressed the breasts and penis of the statue with loving care, staring at it affectionately. "Why in Jupiter's name would I steal it when I was going to win it anyway?"
Xena was watching the interaction with a smug expression - too smug for Gabrielle to miss. The bard stepped up beside her partner and leaned against her arm. "Xena, do you know something I don't know?" she asked in a whisper.
"Usually." Xena gently pushed a fuming Gabrielle aside by the shoulder and sauntered over to the arguing men.
"That's quite a tradition you've got going here, isn't it?" Xena commented to the two men. "Figures that Caesar would start such a thing."
They both turned to face her, insulted by the tone of voice.
"What do you mean?" Vettii asked defensively.
"Steal an effigy of Ceres from her own temple, then keep the tributes that ago along with it for yourselves."
"Does it matter where the tribute is given? It's still done in the name of the goddess," Menander explained. "And we didn't steal it. We're just borrowing it."
"Then give it back."
"Why would we do that? Besides, the contest is fun! A bit of competition! Surely, you can appreciate a battle of wits?"
"Oh yeah, I can appreciate it, all right. But if you ask me, if it were a battle of wits, ya'd both lose." The corner of Xena's mouth curved into a half-grin, matching the arch of her eyebrow. "Personally, I'm not betting on either of you this year."
And with that, Xena turned away taking several long, slow strides in the direction of the door.
"I know where you're hiding it!" Menander exclaimed, turning to sneer at his rival. "You have it in that secret room!"
The fat nobleman took off bouncing toward the back of the large trophy chamber, heading for a door barely visible amongst the clutter of Vettii's collection.
Reacting in panic, Vettii rushed off after his peer.
"No, by Jupiter, Menander, wait! It's not in there, I swear. Don't open that door."
Xena pushed passed Sappho and Gabrielle, following the two Pompeians with a perplexed look on her face.
Menander opened the small door and disappeared within. Vettii twirled around and put up his hands to stop Xena's approach.
"Now trust me, Xena, you don't need to go in there. The statue is not there. It's just a closet."
The warrior brushed the nobleman aside and disappeared within, followed immediately by Gabrielle and then Sappho.
Xena blinked so she could adjust to the light. The interior was dimly lit, like a shrine, and the room was a lot larger than she had expected for such a small door. This inner chamber contained Vettii's most private collection and it was obvious how much he valued it by the care taken in the presentation of its displays.
The warrior walked up to a collection of four swords and four knives, arranged symmetrically on the wall, and instantly recognized them as her own. The saber belonged to Xena when she led her first army, mostly young men from Amphipolis, conquering the villages surrounding her homeland and attacking mostly by the sea. It had, no doubt, been commandeered by Caesar after his betrayal. Now it was a trophy hanging on a Roman nobleman's wall. The warrior's expression darkened.
She moved to the next display, inspecting a series of standards and banners, all her own, in their many incarnations. There was the red one with her purple X. Then the black one with the silver sword dripping blood, from her days with Borias. And there were several of her most well-known banners; two simple flags, one atop the other on a pole - different shades of purple. There had been no need for symbols by that time. The world knew her flag and the color was bright enough to be seen for leagues. The collection brought distinct memories flooding back to the warrior. Her army charging, her standard flapping violently in the wind - the same wind that had whipped through her hair. Some of the poles still had dirt on them from when they had been plunged victoriously into the earth, the signal of success, a symbol of her strength, the banner of the Destroyer of Nations.
There were several outfits of armor displayed as well, spread out in perfect presentation as though suspended by an invisible body. Rough skins and a beaded vest, a long cape, torn and ripped all along the bottom, a hand-hammered chestplate too primitive to be decorated with lavish engravings. There were other chestplates from a time of greater wealth; those were jeweled and intricately designed, befitting a warlord of her stature. It was armor once worn by a woman who might have, one day, ruled the world. Xena stared at each display, thinking she could just step into them, right at this moment, and they would still fit perfectly.
The next wall presented Xena with a row of tall spears - tall enough to plant in the earth while riding a horse - with spikes long and sharp enough to hold the severed head of a man, a warning for the world to see and heed. Some of the spears still had blood crusted on the tips.
Xena's head reeled and she stepped away from the sight, bumping into Gabrielle, who was following behind her partner, staring at the displays in awe. The warrior blanched when she saw the bard.
She whirled away, trying to not see the expression on Gabrielle's face as the bard looked at the blood-covered spikes, only to find herself staring at yet another display. This one a map, one of many she used for her attack plans against Corinth. Xena stared at the map, reading the side notes and scribblings, instantly recognizing her own bold handwriting. Next to it was a missive, also written by her hand. It was a typical ultimatum, written often and without any feeling at all, and one that Xena clearly remembered: Surrender or pay a terrible price.
She reached out with a shaking hand to touch the wax that was still hanging off the end of the note. Although it couldn't be seen clearly, Xena was more than positive that it would carry her seal, a seal she still had with her to this very day. She jumped when she felt Gabrielle brush against her side, walking up to read the note.
Xena didn't think there was anymore air left in the room. The walls began to close around her. She looked at the bard with such a tortured expression that Gabrielle instinctively reached out to touch her arm, trying to calm her.
Xena jumped away, recoiling from the touch. She turned her back on her friend and faced the opposite wall, not wanting to watch as her partner got to see, first hand, the proof of her many atrocities. Here on display was her entire life as a warlord.
Closing her eyes, she took deep breaths, trying not to lose control and smash everything in sight. After a moment, she reopened them and found herself staring impossibly at the one thing she had never wanted to see again as long as she lived.
Her eyes widened in horror as she was confronted with a single item, set off from the others, on display under a special soft light in the center of the wall. It would have meant nothing if it had not meant so much. It was just a simple wooden crutch - hip high and well worn, hanging on the wall.
Xena took a stumbling step back, bumping into Vettii and practically knocking down Sappho.
The man smiled proudly as she turned to face him. She had to force herself not to lift the man over her head and impale him on one of those spears.
"Well, as you can see, I have quite the collection in your honor." Vettii lifted his arms and motioned around the room with pride. "It's taken me years to collect many of these things, some at great price, let me tell you."
Xena's nostrils flared. Gabrielle stepped forward and placed a comforting hand on her arm. "Xena," she said softly. It seemed to have an effect - a little, just enough to prevent the nobleman from being beheaded.
"I'm sorry, but I don't have much after you changed your ... focus," Vettii said, smiling apologetically. "I have a handle from a broken sword ... I think it's yours. Oh, and I managed to get a harp with broken strings. The man I bought it from told me you broke them yourself trying to play it. Is that true?"
There was no response from Xena. Only labored breathing.
"I'm trying, though. I do want my collection to be well-rounded, after all."
Sappho was staring at the man incredulously, shaking her head at his out-and-out stupidity.
"I'm a little unsure of some of the items," Vettii continued while stepping over to a table. He unrolled a map and looked at it under the light. "For example, I've been having trouble authenticating this one." He turned it toward Xena and her eyes drifted down to look at the parchment. "There's only a circle around a village and one word. I couldn't tell if it was your writing. I thought maybe you might recognize it. Perhaps, you would sign it for me. It would mean so much to me if I could add your autograph to my collection."
Xena immediately recognized the handwriting as her own. There was a circle drawn around a small, unnamed village. She had scribbled its name by her own hand as a potential target. 'Poteidaia.'
She slammed her fist down, tearing the map out of Vettii's grip and smashing it onto the table with such force that Gabrielle thought the table was going to shatter under the impact.
"I don't do autographs," Xena said, choking out the words in an angry growl. Then she pushed the table and all of its contents over onto the floor. She had to restrain herself from breaking Vettii's shoulder as she pushed by him and marched out of the room.
Gabrielle took one look at Sappho then rushed out of the chamber, ignoring the toppled table and its scattered contents.
"Vettii," the poet said, hands on hips, her silver eyes flashing anger, "you have GOT to be the biggest asshole in the known world!"
And with that the poet hurried out of the room in pursuit of her friends.
The nobleman stood alone in his shrine to the Warrior Princess, shaking his head, barely understanding Xena's reaction. He looked down at the table and the map, wondering at the anger he had seen in the warrior's eyes.
"Well, it's not my fault if she wrote it. It's not my fault if these are her things," he said to himself in his own defense and kneeled to pick up the items that were strewn across the floor.
Vettii nodded to himself, thinking back on Xena's reaction. He looked up at a shadowed archway that led to another small room, just to the left of the crutch. Barely visible in the scant light was the base of something big leaning against the wall.
It was a good thing he had decided to move that cross out of the room after all.
Dawn invaded the darkness shrouding Pompeii, turning the sky from empty black to a wash of colors that bathed the city in translucent hues. The city shimmered in the coming light; walls shifted as clouds drifted in front of the rising sun, sending flickering shadows against pale pink stone.
Vesuvius towered over all, its thin line of smoke snaked up through golden rays, a stairway to the gods. A flock of birds arched sharply in flight to avoid the column of vapor. It sent them flying in a path across the sun, their numbers creating a shadow that moved over the streets of Pompeii as they flew through the sky heading west, toward the sea.
Xena watched the flock fly by from her perch atop the roof of the House of Vettii. She had climbed up there, her only desire to avoid everyone, even Gabrielle. Most of all, Gabrielle.
She had spent the rest of the night sitting on the roof, first studying the stars, then watching Vesuvius. The mountain loomed in the background, standing in silent judgment over them all.
Xena tried to imagine life without Gabrielle, for surely the bard would leave her now. Her time as a warlord was no longer a ghostly memory, but solid and real, resurrected into the present by a roomful of relics from the past.
The shades of night were gone and the day was at hand. Time for Xena to face her future and acknowledge, once and for all, that no matter how hard she tried, she would never be able to escape her gruesome heritage.
She made an easy flip from the roof, landing on the stones of the street with a thud that echoed down the empty boulevard. Shifting shoulders to strengthen her resolve, she strode to the gate and entered the house.
It was quiet; everyone apparently still asleep. Xena walked down the empty hallway, pausing before the bard's bedroom door then deciding against entering. She walked the rest of the way down the hall to return to her own room.
When she opened the door to her room, she found Gabrielle inside, sleeping in a chair, their bags packed and ready, sitting on the bed. Xena stared, first at the bard and then at the bags, wondering at their significance. Was Gabrielle waiting to tell her good-bye?
The warrior walked into the room and stood over her friend, watching her sleep in the chair. The sun chose that moment to slip a ray in through the window and tickle Gabrielle's soft cheek. Her eyes twitched briefly in the sunlight and then she shifted with annoyance in the chair.
Xena watched all this in silence, wondering how in the world she was ever going to live without her. Maybe she should get down on her knees and ask her forgiveness? Again.
The very presence of her partner seemed to work its way through Gabrielle's dreams, nudging her awake. Green eyes opened, sparkling in the ray of sunlight as she looked up at the woman who was quietly watching over her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's sleepy smile lifted the warrior's spirits. The bard sat up in the chair and rubbed her eyes. "Are you all right?"
Xena frowned at the question and turned away.
"I'm fine. What's all this?" she said, motioning toward the bags on the bed.
Gabrielle came fully awake and sat up in the chair. "It's our stuff. I packed while you were gone so we could get out of here as soon as possible."
"We?" Xena asked, turning around to face the bard.
Gabrielle's eyebrows knotted together. "Of course, 'we.' What did you think? I was gonna let you leave without me?"
"Gabrielle, how can you even look at me, let alone want to leave Pompeii with me?"
Gabrielle stared at Xena in confusion. "Xena, what are you talking about?"
"Last night. All those things you saw," Xena said in distressed tones. "That was all proof of the reality of my past, Gabrielle. Of who I am."
"Who you WERE," the bard stated clearly. "By the gods, Xena, after all we've been through." She shook her head and stood. "How could you think a few dusty old clothes and rusty old weapons were going to change the way I feel about you."
"NO, BUTS!" The bard pointed her finger up at her partner. "I mean it, Xena. The things in that room have nothing to do with who you are now. The woman who wore those clothes, killed with those weapons, leaned on that crutch ... she's dead. Dead and buried. I just wish you would leave her in the grave and STOP trying to resurrect her, 'cause if you're doing it to try to get rid of me, I have to tell you it's just not gonna work."
Xena watched the tirade in complete silence, thinking that she had, once again, underestimated her partner. By the gods, Gabrielle was beautiful when she was mad. The warrior found a smile growing on her lips as she watched the bard continue her tirade.
"Now lets GET our things, GET Argo, and GET the Hades out of this bacchae-infested, Caesar-loving, piss-house of a city before I do something I'm really going to regret, like ... what are you smiling at?"
"We're not going."
"We're not leaving."
"Why not? I thought you would want to get out of here."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Just what are you up to?"
"I have a plan."
The bard lowered her finger. "You have a plan. Of course, you have a plan. Why wouldn't you have a plan? You always have a plan. You're not going to burn Vettii's house down, are you?"
Xena narrowed her eyes at her partner. "Do you want to hear my plan or not?"
The bard put her hands on her hips and looked at the warrior with suspicion. "Does this have anything to do with the Golden Ceres?"
Xena's smile lit up her entire face. "Gabrielle, have you ever heard the expression, revenge is a dish best served at a festival?"
The bard's eyebrows disappeared into the bangs of her hair.
"I was forever underestimating you, wasn't I, Gabrielle?" Xena said to the stars, opening her eyes to gaze at the heavens and wondering again which one might be her bard shining back at her.
"The gods know, you had already gotten a good enough taste of the warlord over this last year. And you were still with me. I can't believe I thought you would leave me just because of a few old things hanging on a wall."
She thought back to Vettii's trophy room, to the shrine of the Destroyer of Nations and all of the souvenirs of a warlord hanging in places of honor on a rich man's wall. They were lost to the world now, sentenced by the judgment of a mountain god to an eternity buried deep within the bowels of the earth.
"Where they belong," Xena said, finishing the thought aloud.
"I'm so quick to blame everything on my past. If you had ever decided to leave me, chosen another path, it wouldn't have been because I was once a warlord, would it? I wonder how I would have dealt with that, or if I would have even admitted it to myself."
Xena shook her head to clear all the "what ifs" from her brain, then picked up the next scroll from her lap and began to read.
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