Twist Of Destiny
We stared at each other in silence for a long time, just basking in the happiness of our reunion, then Maximus looked like he had suddenly remembered his manners and, with a contrite glance, offered me to sit down at his table. I appreciated his courtesy, but this was not really the place where I wanted to be. I wished to be alone with Maximus and let the warmth of his friendship seep into me and push away the chill that had pervaded my heart since I had learnt about his death.
When I did not move, he glanced at me and seemed to read my mood and my need to be away from prying eyes, because he murmured, "We can go to talk outside, if you wish."
"Yes," I nodded energetically, "Let's go out for a walk." By then I had totally forgotten my appointment, but luckily my secretary was smart enough to go on with the inspection of the house without me having to tell him so. Maximus told his men to finish their lunch and then wait for him near the public stables, then he offered me his arm and we walked away, followed by curious eyes.
Once outside, I felt as if I could breathe more easily and I smiled at Maximus, as we slowly walked along the road, our arms linked. "I am so glad to be out of there, I could almost sense them staring holes in our backs."
"Yes, that's true." He grinned, and in the early afternoon sun I could really examine him, which had been impossible in the dimly lit tavern, and see how well he looked. He was tanned and fit, and I could swear there were fewer lines around his bright eyes and sensual mouth... Sensual? From where had that come? I wondered with a hint of panic. In the last fifteen months, I had finally come to the conclusion that I had simply helped him that faraway night, and that our relationship would not have been changed by it, that he would have been still like a brother for me, if he were still alive.
But now that he was in front of me, a single word had been more than enough to show me I had lied to myself for all that time. I no longer saw Maximus like a brother... I saw him like a man, a beautiful, handsome man I hoped would crush me against his chest passionately, just like he had done in Zucchabar...
"Are you still with me?" His soft voice snapped me out of my daydreams.
"Yes…yes," I stammered, realizing I had been staring at him, "I was thinking again about how happy I am you are still alive."
Maximus grinned, flashing his strong, white teeth. "I too am happy to be alive." Then he stopped walking and sobered, "And I am relieved to see you are still comfortable to be alone with me; I was concerned that you might no longer like it...I was afraid that...unfortunate incident might have ruined your trust..."
His words caught me by surprise, but it pleased me to learn he too had been thinking about that night. A contented smile threatened to escape me, but his eyes were so apologetic I decided he needed another kind of answer, so I shook my head and said, softly but firmly, "I thought we settled it long ago. It was not your fault and you must not feel responsible for it. As for the "incident"," I took a deep breath, actually wondering about the wisdom of telling him everything there, as we stood in the middle of a street, "As hard as I may try, I cannot bring myself to call it "unfortunate". True, I am still furious with Proximo because he took the right to choose away from us, but that night was very pleasurable and beautiful for me and-" I stopped, but it was too late.
"And something even more wonderful resulted from it..." Here, I was now committed to tell him everything, but I thought it was for the best. Maximus deserved to know and I was looking forward to see his reaction, because it never crossed my mind he could have been displeased.
"Oh?" He said, looking intently at me, and I thought I caught a glimpse of hope in his glance.
"I got pregnant that night, Maximus, and I gave birth to a baby boy."
His pupils widened in stunned surprise. "You- you had a son?"
"WE had a son. I named him after you, and you cannot know how happy I am I may now change his fourth name from Postumus to Iunior..." I almost babbled as I saw his blue-green eyes water with joy.
"I have a son." He said slowly, as if he was savouring those words or was trying to convince himself it was really true. He was shocked and despite his armour and cloak, I could see his muscular frame tremble.
Almost by its own will, my hand ran to his cheek, and I caressed his beard as he kept staring at me with those incredible eyes of his. "Do you want to see him?" I whispered, and he nodded eagerly, like a child at the prospect of a new toy. "Then come with me, my cart is stabled near here."
Maximus nodded again, then let me take his hand and followed me through the roads of Emerita Augusta.
Maximus spent the entire trip to Claudia’s villa in silence, almost not noticing the landscape as his mind kept on chanting, "I have a son, I have a son", just like the crowd in the Colosseum had chanted his name. But what a joy those simple four words brought to his heart! Now he was finally sure life was worth living. Now he could really thank Lucilla's surgeons for saving him. He had a son, a boy bearing his own name...
"We have arrived, Maximus." Claudia's voice intruded on his thoughts and he blushed when, blinking his eyes, he realized the cart had stopped and that was not the first time she had called for him.
"I am sorry," he murmured, "I was daydreaming."
"There is no need to apologize, I can only imagine what you are feeling, and I can tell you I am pretty excited too. I believed this moment would never come, but now you are here."
Maximus nodded seriously, then jumped out of the cart, walked around it and proffered an arm, helping Claudia to step down. By the time they reached the porch of the yellow coloured house, the door had already been opened by her steward and they went inside without losing time. Maximus followed Claudia through a corridor and two small halls, noticing how servants seemed to pop out from every corner or from behind every column they met along the way. He saw curiosity on their faces, but in a couple of cases he also saw stunned recognition. But were they remembering the gladiator they had seen in Zucchabar, or did they remember him as Maximus Decimus Meridius, the "Saviour of Rome"? He did not have much time to wonder about it, because Claudia stopped and opened a door.
"He is here."
Maximus stepped inside the chamber with Claudia, slowly, cautious, looking around him with the same attention he had used in the arena. Blood pounded in his ears as he followed the woman across the room to a wooden crib surveyed by a maid. And then he stood there, his eyes resting on his son for the first time.
He looked down and his vision blurred as unchecked tears slid down his cheeks. Claudia was right, they could not consider that fateful night unfortunate, not when it had given them such a wonderful treasure. He drank in every detail of the sleeping baby: his tiny face, his perfect little hands and feet, the thick crown of dark hair. His features were relaxed and content and they brought a smile to Maximus' lips.
"He is beautiful," he whispered, his voice choked by emotion.
"Just like his father," Claudia commented, grinning. "He even has your eyes." Maximus felt himself flush and her smile widened at his reaction, making him believe she had been teasing him. Which was fine for him, he was so glad she was at ease with him, without the embarrassment one might expect after what had happened between them.
Feeling relieved, he grinned back and replied, "No, not like me. He is beautiful like his mother."
Claudia's cheeks reddened and she remarked, "Now we are even."
"Indeed." But Maximus knew his words had not been mere teasing, he truly thought them. Claudia was very attractive and he idly wondered how he could not have noticed it sooner... "Are you not forgetting something?" a little voice inside him pointed out. "You already knew how charming she is, and how voluptuous her body is under all those clothes. Do you remember how soft and warm she was when she writhed beneath you in Zucchabar and how-" Maximus resolutely blocked that thought, not knowing how to react to it. He did not remember everything that had happened during that endless, torrid, African night. His memory conserved only brief fragments of it; images that flashed before his eyes like in that moment or appeared in his dreams. Until that moment he had pushed them in a corner of his mind. At first he had been too furious with Proximo for his trick and then too busy planning his confrontation with Commodus to think about that experience and what it might have meant to him. He had felt guilty for forcing himself on Claudia like a rutting bull and for betraying Selene's memory, even if he had known it had not been his fault. And truth to tell, he had not believed he would see Claudia again and thus have a chance to apologize for his animal behaviour. So for him, that night had only meant guilt, shame, humiliation, and embarrassment. That night he had come closer to losing his dignity than when he had been thrown into slavery and the arena. But now she had shown him that she did not only look at what had happened in a positive way, but that she was also happy to have given him a son and her warm reaction to him had brushed away the negative feelings he had, causing him to look at the past with new eyes... and new emotions...
"Are you still here, Maximus?" Once again Claudia's soft voice called him back to the present.
"Forgive me, but it seems that today I cannot do anything but daydream." He apologized. "I was very far from here."
"I could see that." She smiled.
"I was wondering about why you left Zucchabar." It was not completely true, but he could not tell the rest of his musings.
Claudia shrugged. "I wished to return to Hispania. I was tired of desert and sand, and I wanted my children to play in the same places where we played. As for my trading company, I decided I had enough of doing the job of a man and that I wanted to be a mother, foremost. So... here I am."
"Wise decision. There is nothing more important and precious than family. Nothing." Maximus' voice almost broke as he thought back to Selene and his little Marcus and to the things he had wanted to do with them, but he always postponed because he had something else to do, until it was too late. He swallowed hard and looked away.
Claudia seemed to sense his sudden sadness, because her fingers brushed his hand. He grasped them blindly, grateful of her support. They stayed silent for a while, staring at the still-sleeping baby, until Maximus regained the control of his emotions. Then he sighed deeply and turned to look at her.
"Thank you for telling me about him," he said seriously. "You don't know what it means for me to discover I am still a father."
"You are right, I don't know," she replied with equal solemnity. "I can't even imagine what you are feeling. But I know that I am so happy for you and I hope you realize you are welcome to visit little Maximus any time you wish. Just like you deserve a son, he deserves a father. His father."
Maximus felt tears prick at his eyes. "Thank you Claudia. "With all my heart thank you."
"You are welcome, my friend. Now and always."
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