View of Mount Vesuvius - Pompeii

Chapter 21

First, Xena opened her eyes. Next, she tried to move. Both of these actions were a big mistake. The room took an unexpected twirl, so Xena laid her face back into the pillow of golden locks where it had been in the first place.

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to regain her equilibrium. This was going to be one Hades of a bad hangover, the warrior thought to herself. She opened her eyes slowly this time, giving her brain a chance to grow accustomed to the light, then rolled rather than rose from her partner.

Now on her back, the warrior turned her head to look at Gabrielle. The bard was sleeping peacefully, her face glowing in its repose. Xena watched her lover's nose twitch and a small hand popped up to scratch it. The bard frowned as though missing something, then felt around until her hands found her partner. She rolled over and snuggled into the warmth of Xena's shoulder with a contented sigh.

Xena smiled and kissed the top of Gabrielle’s head, petting the golden strands absently. A thought occurred to her and she glanced down at the lower part of her body. It must be dawn, she thought, because Ceres' gift was gone. She kissed the bard again and slipped out from her lover’s arms to rise.

The warrior stood and looked around the room. There were bodies everywhere; entangled couples scattered throughout the ceremonial chamber. Xena stared at the statue of the Golden Ceres and frowned.

"I hope you're happy," she said aloud. No one in the room stirred, not even the statue.

Her eyes scanned the chamber and found Sappho lying alone on a sofa. She walked over and stood at the edge of the couch, looking down on the poet. Sappho had a lyre wrapped up in her arms as though she were holding as a lover. Xena raised an eyebrow. Strange, she thought. Then she noticed Phaon and Vettii passed out together on a divan nearby and Xena shook her head.

"I guess you're not so happy," Xena commented. She studied Sappho quietly, surprised at herself for feeling a little bit of sympathy toward the Tenth Muse.

Xena bent down and gently picked up Sappho. The poet was so small and light, she felt like a child in her arms. She had such a peaceful expression on her face, she even looked innocent. Xena chuckled, knowing better.

The warrior turned around with the small bundle of trouble secure in her arms and strode out of the chamber in search of a room.

She found one not far from the main chamber. There was a hall with a row of unoccupied bedrooms, sparse in their decoration but useful in purpose. Xena used her leg to push open the door and lowered the still sleeping Tenth Muse onto the mattress of a small bed. Sappho mumbled something and clutched the lyre closer to her chest. The warrior pulled the covers over the poet, lyre and all, and left the room.

Xena retrieved their clothes next, finding all the items scattered about their sofa. She sighed in relief when she found her sword and chakram, safe and sound at the side of the divan where the acolyte had put them. The warrior brought those items to a room next to the poet's.

Her last chore was to retrieve the bard. Xena gathered her lover into her arms, smiling when Gabrielle wrapped trustful arms around the warrior's neck and planted a soft kiss on her breast. She carried Gabrielle through the chamber, stepping over sleeping bodies, trying very hard not to wake anyone. All Xena wanted to do was retreat to a room and sleep, undisturbed, for a few more hours with her bard in her arms.

Mission accomplished, Xena smiled to herself with satisfaction as she laid Gabrielle down onto the nice, soft bed. The bard snuggled into a pillow as if she had been there all along. Xena slipped into bed next to her and pulled the covers over them both. With a contented sigh, the warrior pulled the bard in, wrapping her in a safe cocoon of arms and body. Xena closed her eyes and smiled. She had forgotten how much she loved the little sounds that Gabrielle made whenever she held her this way.

Xena fell asleep with a softly snoring bard snuggled in her arms and the rising sun creeping in through the window, warming her back.

She was being kissed. She could feel a trail of soft, moist lips covering her eyelids, her nose, her lips, her neck.

"Mmmm," Xena mumbled as her eyelids fluttered open. "That's a nice way to wake up."

Gabrielle slid her body completely on top of Xena's, gently nudging her partner the rest of the way awake with a big, wet kiss.

"Mmmm, mmmm," Xena mumbled, responding to the bard's playful tongue. Her hands glided down Gabrielle's back and grabbed onto a set of deliciously smooth buttocks. She gave them a squeeze and shifted the bard into a better position.

Gabrielle pulled away from the kiss, smiling down at her partner. "Now THAT's what I call the breakfast of champions!"

Xena smiled, pleased that Gabrielle appeared to be so bright and cheery after a full night of debauchery. "Well, you seem to be able to handle your orgies quite well."

Gabrielle laughed and wiggled her hips suggestively. "Is that what that was?"

"You betcha. A full-fledged Roman orgy." Memories of the night before flooded through Xena. If Gabrielle kept it up, she was going to be ready to go another round. "So, you gonna write about it?"

Gabrielle pursed her lips and thought about that for a moment. "Hmm. Yes, but that particular story will have to go in my X-files."

Xena raised her eyebrows. "Your X-files?"

"Yes," Gabrielle replied, wiggling her own. "The very private, super-secret Xena files. Written for mature audiences only."

"X-files, huh?" Xena shifted slightly and pulled the bard up so she could nibble on her neck. "And just how many stories do you have in this X-file?"

"Quite a few now." Gabrielle stretched her neck, giving Xena better access and closed her eyes.

Xena froze, her eyes popping open.

"Quite a few? What else have you written about?"

Gabrielle laughed and took over where Xena left off, kissing the warrior's neck and touching some very nice spots on Xena's body.

"You remember that time in Thebes in the back of that stable?"

Xena relaxed a little, recalling the night, the smell of hay and the smell of ...

"It was the first time you ever ..." Gabrielle's warm breath tickled against her skin.

"Mmmm, I remember," Xena answered, closing her eyes and smiling at the recollection. "That was a long time ago."

"Too long," Gabrielle answered. "I've almost forgotten what it feels like."

"I can remind you," Xena said hoarsely and flipped the bard over on her back to lean in for a long, slow kiss.

"You know," Gabrielle said as Xena was nibbling her way to a breast, "when I woke up this morning, I almost thought last night had been a dream."

"A good dream, I hope," Xena replied, pausing just long enough to make the comment.

"Yessss," Gabrielle answered and she lost her train of thought for a moment when Xena's lips drifted across her breast. "But it felt so surreal, I was afraid that it had been ... a dream, I mean."

"That was the drug," Xena replied as she planted soft kisses on the tip of a nipple.

"But, was it real, Xena?" Gabrielle asked with such worry in her voice that it caused Xena to stop what she was doing and raise herself up to look at the bard.

"What do you mean?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle caressed her cheek and thought carefully before she spoke. Xena waited patiently, trying to read Gabrielle's thoughts in her eyes.

"Did you mean what you said, Xena, or was it just the drug?" Gabrielle asked softly, watching the warrior's expression carefully.

"I don't understand. What did I say?"

"You told me you loved me," Gabrielle replied, taking her hand away from Xena's face.

Xena still didn't understand. "Gabrielle, I've told you I love you before."

Gabrielle smiled sadly. "Yes, you have. But never like that."

"I don't understand."

Gabrielle touched Xena's cheek again, smiling at the serious scowl of her partner. "You've said you love me, but only in life-and-death situations or when you're sorry for something." Xena turned her face away, but Gabrielle brought it back with a touch. "You've never said you loved me when we were ... you know." The bard blushed.

Xena smiled at the pink color spreading across her lover's cheeks, suddenly understanding. "You mean, I've never said I love you while we were making love ... in the throes of passion, you mean."

Xena's smile made the bard look away in embarrassment. This time it was Xena's turn to bring her back with a gentle touch.

"And now you're wondering if it was just the drug that made me say it."

Gabrielle nodded shyly. Xena studied her face carefully.

"You don't think I love you, do you?"

The bard shrugged meekly, knowing she was about to voice one of her biggest fears.

"I think you did once, but not any more."

"Why? Because of Solon?" Xena asked, barely able to choke the question out.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Not just Solon, but because of everything. Because I've changed so much."

Xena couldn't believe it. The irony of the bard's statement was too much. Gabrielle's eyes widened in surprise when Xena started to chuckle.

"What ... what are you laughing at?"

Xena bit her lip and got control of herself. She shook her head and then leaned down to give Gabrielle a soft kiss, but the bard pushed her away.

"Xena, this isn't funny."

"Oh, Gabrielle, but it is, when you stop to think about it. All this time, you've been worried that I don't love you any more because you've changed so much ... and I've been worried that you don't love me any more because I haven't changed at all."

Xena watched Gabrielle's frown turned into a crooked grin as the bard thought about what she had just said.

"Do you see what I mean? We've both been behaving like we've been smacked in the head with Aphrodite's left foot."

The crooked grin turned into a full-fledged smile and Gabrielle laughed. Xena thought she had never seen anyone more beautiful in all her life.

"Gabrielle, I'm not the world's foremost expert on love, but I do know this: what we have, it's worth fighting for. Hades, I think it's worth dying for. I don't think our problem is whether we love each other. I think the problem we are going to have is finding a middle ground to walk on -- a place for both bard and warrior. I don't know where that path lies -- somewhere between peace and war, I guess -- but I'm willing to look for it. Are you willing to look for it with me?"

Gabrielle nodded quickly, tears filling up in her eyes. Xena kissed her then, wrapping her up in her arms and kissing her until no air was left in the room to breath.

"And as for the other," Xena whispered as she let her fingers walk a lazy path along Gabrielle's body, "let me assure you, it was not the drug."

Xena gently parted her legs and touched Gabrielle in the sweetest of places.

"I love you," she whispered.

Not much later, Gabrielle cried out the same.

Xena opened her eyes. It was the sound of a horse's whinny that woke her. Gabrielle was still sleeping, lying completely on top of Xena, head pillowed by a soft breast. Xena hugged her close and smiled, enjoying the feeling of warm, naked bard against her skin.

The sound of a whip and another horse cry rattled her nerves. Xena kissed a golden head, then slipped out from under. A few quick steps and she was looking out the window, stretching in the warm light of the morning sun.

She paused in her stretch, scowling when her eyes found the reason for all the commotion. Not far down the road, a merchant was trying to lead his horse and cart into the city. The horse, for some reason, did not seem to want to go. It was whinnying and rising up on its hind legs, backing the cart up against some loose rocks in its effort to retreat. The owner was shouting out commands and snapping a whip in the air in frustration.

Xena watched as the owner reached out and grabbed at the reins, trying to pull the stubborn animal forward. At least he wasn't whipping the horse, Xena thought, then she would have to go out there.

The sound of a wheel snapping echoed in the street. Looks like the man wouldn't be going to market this morning, the warrior thought to herself with a smirk.

A large shadow passing over the road brought Xena's eyes to the sky. A flock of birds were flying by. Their cries filled the air and then faded as they passed overhead. She followed their flight until they disappeared over the top of a sleepy villa, heading toward the sea.

She looked out to the horizon, following the misty line where sky meets earth, appreciating the view. Xena could see over the tops of the villas all the way to Mt. Vesuvius and let her gaze wander until her eyes found the mountain. As always, it stood as a silent sentinel over everything below.

Xena yawned as she studied the volcano. It seemed to stare back at her, a distant purple shimmering against the blue of the sky.

She paused and squinted. Something about it looked different. She dropped her hand from her mouth and stared at the mountain.

Another flock of birds flew by.

Xena narrowed her eyes, focusing on the slopes and trying to determine what had changed. Her eyes followed the line of the trees, searching beyond the leaves, studying the boulders, examining all that could be seen all the way up to the top of the mountain

She stared at the peak of Mt. Vesuvius. Every detail was so clear, so vivid -- the summit stood out in sharp contrast against clear blue, for there was not a cloud in the sky.

The hairs on the back of Xena's neck stood up and her eyes widened in fear.

Not a cloud in the sky? Where was the steady stream of smoke that Xena had been studying for days?

A dog howled.

The sound of a cart crashing and a whinny caught Xena's attention. The wagon had overturned and the horse had broken free. She watched it gallop in the opposite direction, away from the city, as fast as it could.

A second howl joined the first. And then a third.

Xena listened to the howls and stared at the volcano's peak, her mind racing. Dried up wells, no game, migrating birds and the smoke ... the volcano had reminded her of a smith's forge, hadn't it - the smoke evidence of releasing pressure.

But there was no smoke rising out of the volcano now.

Her heart began to pound as every warrior sense in her body screamed out a warning.

"By the gods!" Xena choked out. She could feel the danger rushing at her like an attacking army, surging toward her through the window. Xena backed away so quickly, she banged into a table, knocking it over.

The crash woke up the bard. Gabrielle sat up in alarm and looked around the room.

"What was that?"

Xena was grabbing for their clothes in a panic.

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle, get up!"

The bard was completely taken aback by the look of fear on her partner's face. Xena found the skirt and threw it at the bard.

"Gabrielle, get up and get dressed."

Gabrielle caught the skirt, fumbling with it in her hands. "Xena, what is it? What's the matter?"

Xena tossed the green top at her. "I said GET DRESSED NOW!"

"Xena, what in Hades is going on?" Gabrielle had never seen her partner in such a state of panic.

Xena was pulling on her leathers, pushing herself into them as fast as she could.

"By the gods, Gabrielle, just listen to me. Get dressed. We've got to get out of here!" She ran over to Gabrielle and started putting the top on the bard for her.

Gabrielle batted her away with her hands. "Would you .... would you just ... STOP THAT!" She grabbed Xena's hands and forced the warrior to be still. "Xena, just stop a minute and tell me what is going on!!"

"Gabrielle ... Gabrielle, please listen to me," Xena said, trying to calm herself. She took deep breaths, realizing she had to get herself under control or she would never get them out of this. Finally, she calmed herself enough to make sense. She grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders and looked in her eyes.

"Gabrielle, do you trust me?"

Gabrielle looked closely at Xena, still seeing panic. She cupped the warrior's face in the palms of her hands. "Xena, please tell me. What's wrong?"

Xena's agitation grew. They were wasting time. She shook the bard by the shoulders. "Answer the question. Do you trust me?"

The bard sighed and dropped her hands. "With my life, Xena. You know that."

Xena took another calming breath. "Then listen to me and believe me."

"Believe what?"

"Vesuvius, Gabrielle. The volcano."

A dark foreboding wrapped itself around the bard's heart and gripped it so tightly that she could hardly breathe.

"The volcano? What about it?"

"Mt. Vesuvius, Gabrielle ... by the gods, it's about to erupt."

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