SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
‘The Marriage of Venus and Mars’
House of M. Lucretius Fronto, Pompeii
Gabrielle headed for Xena's room, halting when she came to a junction at two hallways. Her instincts told her Xena would not be in her room, but somewhere else. The bard changed direction and walking through the smaller atrium to the foyer, out of the entrance to Vettii's home and back onto the Pompeian street.
It was dark and the street was deserted. Looking first one direction and then the other, she shrugged and decided to turn right following the street to the next corner before turning right again. She had guessed correctly for she could now see, as well as smell, the entrance to Vettii's stable a short distance down the block.
Gabrielle walked at a quick pace along the quiet street, her steps echoing a lonely rhythm off the walls of the neighboring homes. It was a hot night and humid as well. The bard could hear the sounds of a happy repast coming through the candle lit window of the house across the street. The banter of a family at dinner made the bard wonder why everything always seemed so difficult for her and Xena. Why couldn't they just come to a city and enjoy a festival like the rest of the world? She stopped at the entrance to the stable and leaned on the wooden door wearily before pushing it open. By the gods, she was tired of the constant struggle.
The bard entered the stable, scratching her nose against the sudden scent of hay, straw and horses. She walked across the floor quietly, listening for a sign of her partner. Sure enough, a few stalls down, came the steady sound of brush against hide and the soft, contented whinny of a very happy mare.
Gabrielle walked quietly over to the stall and leaned against the wooden post. She didn't have to announce her presence; she knew Xena had probably heard her approaching from halfway down the street. She waited, leaning against the post with crossed arms, for the warrior to say something. But her partner merely continued to curry, so Gabrielle spoke first.
"Now, I know why you hate Romans."
The brush stopped and Xena chuckled. She turned around, smiling warmly at her friend. Gabrielle pushed away from the post and took a step forward.
"I'm sorry, Xena ..."
"What are you sorry about? It's not your fault that they're all silly, pompous, despicable, disgusting, ridiculous people who are only concerned with their own enjoyment." Xena turned back to Argo and continued brushing her mare. "Argo has more sense and sensitivity than the lot of them."
"Don't like them much, do you?"
Xena snorted, "'Bout as much as I like blood-sucking bacchae," she turned halfway to give Gabrielle a mischievous grin. "Well, that's not completely true. Not all bacchae are that bad."
"Thanks a lot." Gabrielle quipped, walking up to stand right behind her friend. "I was hoping you wouldn't hold that blood sucking thing against me."
Xena turned around, sporting a full smile. "Well, I did enjoy the bite. Didn’t I ever thank you for that?"
Gabrielle grinned crookedly, "Not that I can recall. But ... you're quite welcome. It was my pleasure." Her grin transformed into a full smile. They shared a quiet laugh before Gabrielle became serious.
"I feel really bad about what happened, Xena. After all, it was my idea to stay here. And Sappho feels pretty bad about it, too. They all do, I think."
Xena lost her grin, turned back around and continued brushing Argo.
"You have nothing to feel sorry about. And Sappho ... well, I would hope that Sappho feels guilty. She should. The rest are incapable of any feelings at all."
"Can I assume you don't want to stay here anymore?"
Both Xena and Argo snorted at the same time. "You got that right."
"Would you be angry with me if I asked you to change your mind?"
Xena whirled around to face her partner, a little surprised at her request.
"You don't seriously expect me to stay here after what happened, do you?"
"Look Xena," Gabrielle said, placing a hand gently on Xena's forearm. The warrior looked down at the touch but resisted pulling away and let the bard continue. "I know you're very angry and I don't blame you, but let's think about this for a minute."
Xena shifted impatiently to one leg and raised an eyebrow, but allowed the bard to continue.
"So, they have this strange custom about some fancy statue and they used your name to win it. What difference does it make? If anything, I would think you would be a little amused that your presence as a guest in a Roman house could win out over everyone, including Julius Caesar."
Gabrielle paused, waiting for the warrior to comment. Xena merely shifted impatiently to the other leg and raised her other eyebrow. The bard was taken by surprise for a second; she never noticed that Xena could lift each eyebrow separately in exactly the same manner.
"I don't like the idea of being the winning card in anybody's game."
"I realize that," the bard agreed, nodding. "And I feel the same way. But it's not that big of a deal. It's just a Pompeian custom that means nothing to us. Besides, where else could we stay?"
"I'd rather leave the city and camp outside the walls, if you ask me."
"What? Camp in the woods, right under the nose of that huge volcano? No thank you, Xena. I don't know about you, but that thing gives me the creeps. I'd rather be inside, under a roof, where at least there's a little shelter - just in case."
"In case of what?"
"Come on, Xena. Don't tell me you don't feel the tiniest bit nervous about that thing looming over us, spouting smoke all the time?"
Xena might have answered that the bard was overreacting, that the volcano had been dormant for thousand of years, but she remained silent, losing the smirk and considering her partner's words.
Gabrielle could sense the change in mood immediately.
"We'll never find another room, not at this late date. And once we leave here, we'll have every Roman nobleman in the city trying to get us to stay with them, if only to win this silly Ceres contest. Think about it, Xena. We're better off right here. As you said before, we'll be safe and everyone will leave us alone. Besides, I'm sure after tonight, they'll be no more dinners like this one, I can promise you that."
"What about that big party, then?"
"I, personally, would like to go to that. But if you don't want to go, then we won't."
Xena dropped her eyes and played with the brush in her hand.
"There's something else, Xena." Gabrielle stated solemnly, causing the warrior to look up. "There's something going on with Sappho and I want to find out what it is."
"Whadda ya mean, there's something going on with Sappho? The woman is just looking for free wine and a big party, you know that."
"Now, you know that's not true. She was unusually quiet tonight at dinner and she hardly drank …"
Xena grunted, having lost count herself of the number of goblets finished off by the poet.
"… Well, At least, not as much as she usually does. I really believe there's another reason why she wanted us here so badly. I want to find out what's going on. Besides, I'm kinda glad to see her." Gabrielle dropped her eyes to stare at the ground, a little surprised at herself for having revealed that particular fact.
Xena studied her friend quietly, saying nothing for several long moments.
Gabrielle waited patiently, knowing her partner was pondering over all of the possibilities, weighing the pros and cons, looking at the situation from many different strategic angles. And though Xena’s conclusions usually ended up diametrically opposed to her own, Gabrielle knew the warrior always trusted her partner’s instincts.
The warrior played with the curry brush for a few moments, flipping it back and forth between hands, until finally letting out a great, big sigh.
"All right," Xena agreed, with great reluctance and turned away to continue grooming the mare.
"Thank you, Xena," Gabrielle said warmly. She placed her hand on top of the warrior's to stop the moving brush. "Aren't you coming to bed?"
Xena looked at the bard for a moment in silence.
The brush continued its path along the mare's hindquarter. Gabrielle stepped back. A good amazon knows when it's time to retreat. She turned to leave the stall, only to be stopped by the warrior's soft voice.
"Yeah?" The bard turned back around.
"Don't let me stop you from having a good time. If we have to stay here, I want you to at least enjoy yourself."
"The same goes for you, you know. There's nothing written that says the Warrior Princess can't enjoy herself now and again."
"You sound like Sappho." Xena mumbled, turning away.
"In this instance, I think Sappho has a point. We both need a little rest and relaxation. The gods know, I really do. Will you at least try? For me?"
"Sure. There must be something in this city I can do to keep my mind off of putting the pinch on half the population."
Gabrielle chuckled and then remembered something Vettii told her. "Vettii says the hunting is great around here. Lots of game up on the mountain slope. We can get out of the city for a day and see what the hunting is like in these parts. That sounds like fun, right?"
Xena stopped brushing.
"Gabrielle. You hate to hunt."
"I know. But I wouldn't mind doing it if it's something you would like to do."
Xena gave the bard's shoulder a squeeze and returned to the horse.
"I appreciate that, Gabrielle. Why don't you go get some sleep. We'll talk about what we'd like to do in the morning, all right?"
"Sure." Gabrielle said, grinning at Xena's back as she resumed grooming her horse.
"Good night, Xena," the bard said softly.
"Good night, Argo."
Gabrielle left the stall, leaving the warrior and the horse alone in the musty quiet. Argo stamped her foot and let out a condescending snort.
"Yeah. You're right, Argo. I'm a real push-over, aren't I?"
The horse turned her head and nibbled at the warrior's hair.
"Hey! I told you, no munching on my hair." Xena gently swatted and then scratched the wet nose affectionately, before pushing the horse away.
"All right. All right. So it's a nice stall and you'd rather stay here, too. I guess I'm outnumbered. A good warrior knows when to surrender."
Xena chuckled and patted her mare, then continued the gentle grooming. She thought about Gabrielle's suggestion to investigate the lush, green slopes of Mount Vesuvius. It wasn’t a half-bad idea, but it was not, however, the local game which had piqued her interest.
No sooner had Gabrielle returned to her room and laid her weary body onto the very comfortable bed then came a soft knock upon the wooden door. The bard lifted her head up from the pillow and stared at it in surprise.
The soft knock came again and Gabrielle rose quickly from the bed, hoping Xena had followed her up after all. She opened the door a crack to peek outside.
The poet shrugged her shoulders and smiled shyly. "Nope, sorry. Just me."
Gabrielle grinned and opened the door widely, welcoming her friend inside. "That's OK, Sappho. I'm glad it's you. Come on in here."
Sappho walked into room, inspecting the barren décor of the small chamber as she waited patiently for the door to close.
"Just like mine. One step up from a prison cell."
"I guess the Pompeians don't spend much time in their bedrooms."
"One would think just the opposite, judging from the size of their artwork." Sappho smiled, her smirk disappearing as she watched only the tiniest flicker of a grin pass across the bard's face.
The poet grabbed one of Gabrielle's hands as she turned around.
"Gabrielle, please tell me you forgive me for what happened tonight."
"What happened tonight? Sappho, that dinner was no big deal. Xena and I have been through a lot worse lately, believe me. Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry? Don't worry? You think I want you and Xena to believe I'm happy to see you only because it means free wine? You know that's not true, right?"
"We know," Gabrielle grinned. "But that doesn't stop Xena from suspecting you had some ulterior motive for wanting us here."
Sappho did not respond, but found some spot on the floor to inspect instead.
Gabrielle studied her carefully. "I thought so. There is something going on with you, Sappho, isn't there? You want to tell me about it?"
Sappho pursed her lips and then pulled the bard over to the bed. She sat down on the mattress and patted next to her for the bard to do the same.
"I have to admit," Sappho began after Gabrielle was seated, "that I was really looking forward to Vettii's reaction when I brought Xena to his house. I mean, he's so obsessed with her - I couldn't wait to see his face, when she walked in. She does make quite an impression in person."
"Yes, she does. But she doesn't appreciate being used as the butt of someone's joke."
Sappho blushed, looking guiltily at her hands. "I know. Please apologize to her for me, will you?"
"Why don't you apologize to her yourself?" Gabrielle asked matter-of-factly.
"You're right, of course," the poet nodded solemnly. "I will. As soon as she gets back. Do you think she'll be mad that I'm here in the room with you?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Why would she be mad about that? But if you came here to apologize to her tonight, you'll have to go find her. She's probably still down in the stable."
"In the stable?" Sappho asked, surprised. "What's she doing there?"
"Taking care of Argo."
"She's not gonna stay there all night, is she?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Gabrielle," Sappho said, touching the bard's arm. "What's going on with you two?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, the last time I saw you, you guys were lip-locked and looking like you were going to float away happily ever after."
"Sappho," Gabrielle said, crossing her arms. "The last time you saw us, you were the one floating away … on a boat. WE were waving good-bye to you from a dock."
Sappho smiled, realizing she had been caught. "I have friends in high places."
The bard chuckled, shaking her head. "Spying on us, eh? Is nothing sacred?"
"Not where the gods are concerned."
They shared a smile, both recalling the beautiful moment, and then Sappho watched as the sadness returned to the bard's face.
"It's been a very hard year," Gabrielle whispered.
"I can see that. You wanna talk about it?"
Sappho took the bard's hand in one of her own. "Look, Gabrielle, you don't have to tell me the details of what happened to you, not if you don't want to. Why don't you just tell me what's bothering you now? Sometimes it helps to talk things over with somebody else. Get a different perspective on things."
Gabrielle studied Sappho's face intently for a moment. "It's late and you're probably tired."
"It's never late and I'm never tired. We have all night. Especially if you don't think Xena will be coming to your room tonight."
Gabrielle cast her eyes downward. "No, I don't think she will."
"It's just … it's just that …," the bard's eyes wandered around the room as if she could find the right words to explain written on the walls.
"A lot has happened to us over this past year to come between … that."
"I didn't think anything could come between you two," Sappho commented, watching as Gabrielle shrugged yet again.
"Yes, well things change. People change.
"Gabrielle, are you not in love with Xena anymore?"
"Oh, no. I love Xena, that's not the question."
"Then what's the problem?"
Gabrielle's eyes traveled across the poets face, wondering if she could possibly understand. "The problem is I don't think I love myself very much. At least, not at the moment."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I don't know who I am anymore. So much has happened to me over the years since I've met Xena. I've changed so much. I don't know if I like who I've become."
"And if YOU don't like who you are, how can Xena still love you?"
There was that shrug again. "I know that Xena still loves me. I just don't think she loves me … like that … anymore."
Sappho stood up from the bed and walked to stare out of the window.
"You know what I think, Gabrielle?" the poet said, turning around to lean against the window sill. "I think that you are no longer the innocent, naïve young girl from Poteidaia that I first met."
"I should hope not, Sappho. I've been through a lot. And I've grown up."
"You most certainly have," Sappho agreed, nodding slowly. "And you think it's that sweet, innocent girl that Xena wants and needs, don't you? Not the grown woman you've become?"
"I'm not sure," Gabrielle answered, in a small voice. She looked at Sappho, her questioning eyes lighting with that tiny bit of innocence she imagined long gone.
Sappho smiled broadly, recognizing the bard she used to know.
"Would you like to find out?" The poet asked, flashing a most wicked grin.
"Yes. I would," the bard answered firmly.
"Then, I'll make you a deal," the poet said pushing away from the window sill and standing before her friend. "You help me and I'll help you."
Gabrielle's head cocked to one side.
"You were right, Gabrielle. There WAS a reason why I was so happy to see you here in Pompeii. I need your help."
The bard's eyebrows lifted in surprise.
Sappho, the Tenth Muse, known the world over for her romantic sonnets hung her head in shame.
"I think I've fallen in love … and I don't know what to do."
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