It was a beautiful sunny afternoon when they arrived at the Crowe’s Point. The yard in front of the Tavern was full of cars and they had problems finding a spot to park their rented car.
“It seems a lot of guests are visiting today,” said Massimo, opening the car door and taking their luggage.
“Well, with Tina’s wedding scheduled for October 1st and all the related parties organized by the girls and Boys, it is not surprising the place is so full. Also Laura told me there are a lot of new faces in the place, people we had yet to meet, that came here in the past months,” replied Ilaria, and then pointed to the back seat. “Did you take it all?”
Massimo looked at their suitcases and said, “I think so.”
“Good. Let’s go inside. I don’t know about you but I need a bath.”
They walked up the little hill and entered the Crowe’s Hotel lobby. Inside the air was cool and it dried immediately the sweat on their necks.
“Anybody here?” called Ilaria, stopping speaking in Italian and switching to English.
Michelle, the hotel’s owner/clerk arrived from behind the reception room and stopped cold when saw the newcomers, “Ilaria, Massimo, what are you doing here so soon? We weren’t expecting you until next week,” she asked, approaching them.
“We decided to leave early — I hope we are not causing problems..”
“Problems? Of course not! You know your room is always ready,” replied Michelle, exchanging kisses with Ilaria and receiving a slight bow and a kiss on the hand from Massimo. “It is a pleasure to see you two again. Now let me help you with your bags,” She picked up what seemed to be a golf-bag and asked, “Do you play golf?”
Massimo and Ilaria looked at each other then he said, “No, that bag does not contain golf clubs…”
“We use it to transport his swords and gladiuses,” said Ilaria with a wink.
While they walked to their room, Ilaria asked, “Where is everybody? The parking lot is full of cars but we have not seen anybody.”
“Colin and Alex went out with Annabella – our new chef – to buy some food provisions while the others are out for a trek in the forest…. I don’t know then they will be back, maybe late this evening.”
They reached the room door and Michelle opened it before giving the keys to Ilaria, “Et voilà, make yourself at home,”
Massimo and Ilaria entered and looked around: the room was as they remembered it, a tasteful – albeit strange – combination between a Roman military tent and a Tudor age bedroom. Dark wood panels covered the walls along with heavy fabrics and torch-like lamps. The furniture was simple and robust and a gray- stoned chimney completed the place. Over the chimney were fixed two crossed swords and a shield on which was painted a bear and a ragged staff, the emblem of Dudley family, along with their motto, ‘Droit Et Loyal.’ Of course Ilaria did not have any kind of relationship with that ancient and noble English family but Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester under Queen Elizabeth I, had always been one of her favorite historical characters and she liked that motto so much she had adopted it as her e-mail address. She thought that those words were similar, in their deep meaning to Massimo’s own motto, ‘Strength and Honour’, since all of them spoke of honesty, loyalty and honour, moral values in which she and Massimo believed very strongly.
Michelle saluted them and returned to her desk while they threw their suitcases on the bed and opened them, beginning to take out their clothes.
Annabella looked with satisfaction at the wonderful-smelling and appetizing-looking meals she had just finished cooking and decided she wanted to serve them by herself to the only two costumers of the restaurant. It was strange to have only two people for dinner but she knew that almost all the Hotel guests and the Tavern residents had gone out for a trip in the mountains and were not expected to be back until late in the evening. She did not know what to do to occupy her time till she could join Alex in the Tavern so she decided to go out and greet the new guests.
She picked up the plates, opened the kitchen doors with a foot and stepped in the dining room. What she saw almost made her drop the plates to the ground. The room was deserted except for a man and a young woman sitting at a table near the window. The two of them were involved in what looked like an intimate conversation, their heads bent together and his fingers tracing figures on the back of her hand. There was nothing strange in the scene – the restaurant costumers were almost always very affectionate couples – but she was shocked because she was looking at Maximus being intimate with a woman whom was not Laura. She did not know what to think– she had always believed there were few things certain in life: the sky was blue, the sun was yellow and Maximus was in love with Laura. But now she did not what to do — she was Laura’s friend… How could she approach the couple without betraying her shock?
It was when a hand touched her shoulder, “What happened to you, Annabella? Someone transformed you in a statue?” Colin was looking at her with a smile but she could see he was a little worried.
Annabella gestured towards the couple with her head and said, “Do you see them? What should we do? I thought he was out with Laura and the others.”
Colin frowned, “Who?”
“How ‘who’? Maximus, of course! Who do you think I’m talking about?”
Colin watched again the two customers and then smiled, finally understanding why she looked so upset.
“Honey, put those plates down and come with me, I have some introductions to do.”
Annabella did as he said, and Colin took her by the elbow, steering her in the dining room, walking to the couple, “Her name is Ilaria and he is not Maximus, he is Massimo.”
“It’s a long story but Massimo is sort of a PC-generated duplicate of Maximus. He lives in Italy with Ilaria but sometimes they come here to spend time with us. I knew they were coming her for the wedding, but I guess that with all this excitement in the air, everyone forgot the last time they stayed here you had yet to arrive and thus nobody informed you.”
As they approached the table Massimo raised his head and smiled in greeting. Ilaria turned around and said, “Colin!” She stood up and went to him, giving him a kiss on the cheek, “How are you, mate?”
“Oh, I am fine and very happy to see you two. Now I want to introduce to you Annabella, the new restaurant chef.”
“Pleased to met you, Annabella.” said Ilaria, shaking her head while Massimo bowed to her, “We are Ilaria and Massimo.”
Annabella was still amazed but replied in kind, “I can’t say I have heard a lot of talking about you, but I am happy to meet you. Will you stay here for many days?”
“Oh, surely till the wedding, maybe longer,” answered the Roman.
“So you are the new chef…Well, I have to do my compliments to you, the first course was delicious,” Commented Ilaria.
“Why, thank you, you are very kind.”
“It is the truth. Last time we were here we ate only pre-cooked food — It was time Michelle decided to hire a real cook!”
Annabella opened her mouth to say something then suddenly remembered the two dishes she left in the kitchen and rushed away to fetch them hoping they are not become too cold. Luckily her two culinary masterpieces were still warm enough so she picked up them and returned to the dining room, “Here we go, I hope you will like them.”
“Thank you,” said Massimo, “but please you two don’t stand here, sit with us.”
Annabella accepted the invitation but Colin declined, “I must go to see if Michelle needs something, since we are so short handed today. I will see you later.”
“All right. See you soon.”
Colin walked away while the other three sat at the table, eating and talking.
Around 10.00PM the restaurant closed and Annabella, Ilaria and Massimo walked together to the Crowe’s Tavern, waiting for the arrival of the guys and the gals. Ilaria and Massimo were pretty tired due to their travel but wanted to at least say ‘hello’ to their friends. They sat at the counter, and Alex served them a beer and a Coke.
Massimo took his glass of beer but instead of drinking it he fixed his gaze on the yellow-light brown liquid. Alex watched him for some time then bent his head near Massimo’s, and he too looked inside the glass. “Hey, Massimo, there is something wrong, pal? The glass is dirty? There is a fly swimming in your beer?”
Massimo raised his head and smiled, “There is nothing wrong Alex, I was simply remembering the first time I drank beer.”
“When it was? Tell us.”
“Oh, I was sixteen and I was spending my second year in the army. My legion was camped near Colonia, in Germania, and the wine provisions were scarce due to an attack. So the officers decided we subordinates must find something different to drink and leave the wine for their consumption. We did not have many choices in the matter. We could choose between water of the river – muddy and tasting of earth – and a beverage considered good only for the barbarians called cervesia, which the officers avoided like plague. After the first taste of water I decided to try the cervesia, and I found it good, so good in fact I continued to drink it even when the wine was again plentiful. As you have already guessed cervesia is the Latin name for beer.” Massimo raised his glass and drank a long sip.
“Why beer was considered a barbarian drink?”
“For first it had a bitter taste and for second….well..”
“They said it looked like horse piss.”
Alex peered again in Massimo’s glass, “Well, they were right!”
He grinned when Annabella swatted his arm lightly, “Alex! Don’t be so bad!”
“Me? I simply told the truth!”
The group started to laugh aloud but stopped when the tavern doors opened and a little army marched in.
“We are back!” announced John, keeping the door open for Tina and the others. Suddenly the room – until then practically empty – was filled by about thirty laughing and talking people. Their voices blended together creating a happy cacophony.
“My poor feet…My shoes were too tight.”
“Don’t speak to me about your feet, I have already too many problems with mine.”
“Home, sweet home, finally we are back.”
“Hey, does anybody want something to eat?”
“Move aside, that chair is mine!”
Annabella, Alex, Ilaria and Massimo watched amused as the party made themselves at home, chasing for the nearest chair where they dropped exhausted.
“I gather the hiking trip wasn’t very relaxing,” whispered Alex, “I am happy I had to stay behind.”
Finally everybody settled down and Maximus, who seemed to be the less tired of the group, left Laura, Tina and John sitting at their favorite table in the corner, walked to the counter and beamed when he saw who was waiting there, “Massimo! Ilaria!”
Massimo saluted him holding his right fist to his heart, a gesture Maximus promptly repeated. The generals then embraced warmly and Maximus said, “We did not know you were coming today! I expected you next week!”
“We wanted to make a surprise,” replied Ilaria hugging him, “How are you Maximus?”
“Fine, thank you.”
“She is well, only a bit tired. The trip was harder than we predicted because one road was blocked by fallen trees and stones – we had a bad storm about ten days ago- so we had to find another way to come back and it was much longer.”
“You don’t seem to be very tired.”
“I am still used to the marches I did when I was in the army– Do you remember Massimo?”
“Of course: twenty miles a day, every day for months, transporting your food, your weapons, with every kind of weather. Oh yes, I remember it and truth to tell, it is one of the things I don’t regret leaving behind!”
“Me too. Now come with me, the others will be happy to see you.”
Maximus gestured to Laura and the others and Massimo and Ilaria nodded.
Laura looked up to Maximus and frowned when she saw he was not carrying the drinks she, Tina and John were waiting for.
“Max, dear, I thought you were supposed to bring us something to drink.”
“I forgot to take them–you see, I was distracted.”
“Yes, but I will make amends, I promise. Now look who I found at the counter.”
Massimo and Ilaria appeared behind him and the trio sitting at the table forgot everything about the drinks, while the entire group lost itself in greeting and catching up with news.
A few minutes before, one floor above their heads, Sid 6.7 had been putting the finishing touches to his evening attire, coaxing his hair into perfect order with gel. He had looked in the mirror and smiled at his reflection, “God, I am beautiful!” Then he arranged his tie and marched to the door, ready for an entertaining evening. Sid had seen the group returning from the trip and watching the tired faces by his bedroom window he had decided that was the right evening to raise hell and have some fun. They did not asked him to join the group for the trip; not that he wanted to go with them — a trek in the woods, what a boring way to spend a day — and now it was time for him to ‘thank’ them for their ‘kindness’. Sid had giggled and gone down the stairs. Before stepping in the Tavern he had looked around to choose the right subject for his attentions and found it in Wendy, who was drinking at the counter. Sid knew Jeffrey had left for few days, ‘returning’ to his movie because he wanted to spend some time with his daughters. “Surely Wigand wouldn’t intend for such a young beautiful thing to stay all alone while he plays daddy.” he had said to himself. He looked around again and scanned the room for possible problems. Uhm, good, he thought, White is busy with Trisha, Zack and Cort, Terry are nowhere in sight and the soldier boy and the sheriff are speaking so animatedly at their table that they won’t see me. Good.
Sid stepped in the room and pointed directly to Wendy whom was now speaking with Andy.
“Get lost Andy, I am sure Wendy would rather prefer to have an intelligent conversation with a clever man instead of talking with a simpleton who is not even able to see if a cat is dead or alive!” Sid pushed Andy away and leaned on the counter near Wendy, “So cherié, what are you doing here all alone? Are you sad because good OLD Jeffrey is not here? Don’t worry, I will cheer you up!”
“I don’t think so Sid.” A soft growl came from behind the counter as Maximus’ head appeared. He had been kneeling behind the bar searching the refrigerators for a bottle of Spanish wine he wanted to share with his friends and had listened to the whole conversation.
Sid’s opened his mouth to say something but changed his mind, looking instead to Maximus and then turning his head quickly to give another glance in the direction of the table where the Spaniard was sitting before……where he was STILL sitting! His eyes bulged when he finally understood and he said, “Oh no, oh no, not another time!! It is not enough I have to endure you — Now I have to tolerate your clone too!”
“Oh, poor baby!” said Wendy sarcastically, then she turned to Maximus, “Thanks for your help, Max, but I am not in danger. I think this EXTREMELY CLEVER man remembers what happened to him the last time he joked about Jeffrey’s age…. Am I right, Sid, or I must refresh your memory? Do you remember last year beach party? Do you remember my nails? Yes, I see your memory works, but maybe you are not well — you are so pale. It is best for you to return in your room.” Wendy smiled and tapped the counter with her long nails. Sid watched her fingers move, caught her drift and decided for a strategic retreat, walking away and quickly disappearing from the room. Wendy and Maximus watched him go then burst out in laughter.
“Good work Wendy! Do you want to join us? You too, Andy. Massimo and Ilaria are just arrived and they will be happy to see you again.” said Maximus picking up the bottle he was looking for and putting some glasses on a tray.
“Why, thank you Max!” the youngsters said as one and followed him to the table.
A couple of days later Ilaria awoke when her warm pillow moved. She opened a sleepy eye and said, “What are you doing?”
Massimo smiled, kissed her temple and murmured, “Shh, go back to sleep, darling, I just want something to drink.”
“Oh,” her eyes closed again and soon she was asleep again. Massimo watched her tenderly for a couple of minutes before he got up, put on his light blue gladiator tunica, his black leather armor and sandals. He then extracted his gladius out of the golf bag, took his rounded shield that was lying against the wall and without making any noise he opened the door and exited in the hallway. Maximus was waiting for him just outside of Laura’s room, “Are you ready?” he asked in Latin. Massimo nodded and the two men stepped down the stairs.
A loud pounding on the door dragged Ilaria away from the dreamland.
“Go away,” She grumbled, wanting to sleep some more time. Massimo and she had spent the previous evening engaged in private ‘entertainment’, but the lack of sleep — no matter how pleasing and satisfactory was the reason behind it — had bad effects on Ilaria’s mood.
The pounding didn’t stop and Laura’s voice joined it, “Ilaria, Massimo, are you awake? I need to talk with you!” Laura’s voice dispelled the fog in her brain, and Ilaria got up, put on her pajamas and went to open the door.
“Good morning my friend, what I can do for you?”
“Hi, Ilaria. Have you seen Maximus this morning?”
“Laura, I was sleeping until two minutes ago…How can I have seen him?”
Laura peered in the room and asked, “Where is Massimo?”
Ilaria looked around surprised, realizing for the first time she was alone in the room. She frowned and went to bathroom door, lightly knocking it. “Darling, are you in there?” No reply. She pushed the door and it opened: the room was empty.
The two women looked at each other and said as one, “What’s going on? Where have they gone?”
Ilaria invited Laura in the room and went in the bathroom to wash and dress. While she rummaged in the shelves looking for a clean shirt, she saw that Massimo’s blue tunic was missing. A rapid search revealed his belt and sandals were gone too as were his black leather armor, sword and shield. “Oh, oh,” she muttered aloud.
Laura was near her in a second, “‘Oh, oh’ what?”
“Massimo’s armor, sword and shield are missing.”
“You heard me.”
Laura frowned then said, “Let me check something….” She bolted from the room and down the stairs, followed by Ilaria. They ran down the hill and across the yard between the hotel and the tavern, into the other building, up to the stairs, stopping in front of Maximus’ room door. Laura used the key Max gave her and opened it, marching straight to his closet. A rapid search confirmed her suspicions: his armor, sword and shield were missing too.
The two friends looked at each other, not understanding what was going on. Why had Massimo and Maximus taken their real weapons?
“What do we do now?” asked Laura.
“I don’t know — No wait, we can ask if someone had seen them.”
“Good idea. Let’s go to the stables: East is the earliest riser of the place and maybe he can help us. We can also see if Argento and Scarto are there.”
When they arrived at the stables, East was just finishing putting fresh straw in Nero’s stable, while the chestnut stallion nuzzled at his backside, trying to nibble at his belt. The handsome horse-breaker raised his head hearing them approach and smiled in greeting with a full Russell Crowe patented smile, guaranteed to have women’s knees tremble.
Laura and Ilaria gulped then greeted him. He replied in kind then asked, “What can I do for you, ladies?”
“East, have you seen Max and Massimo this morning?”
“Yes, I saw them while I was arriving here. It was very early. They were walking in the direction of the forest, you know Laura, where Max has his training compound.”
The two women nodded, “Thank you East!” then walked away and went to the forest.
The forest was thick and beautiful with tall, majestic trees and bushes everywhere. Ilaria had always enjoyed walking in the woods, especially on horse-back but that morning she barely registered the fir-tree smelling air or the birds singing. Her attention – and Laura’s – was riveted on the metallic clanging and snarls she could hear very near. The two friends knelt down and approached the training place hidden behind the bushes. When finally they got near enough they raised their heads and threw a look over the leaves. What they saw left them frozen on the spot.
Massimo and Maximus were fighting against each other, hitting each other’s shield with vicious blows that made sparks fly when metal hit metal. Clad in their blue tunics and black armor, they slashed, deflected and charged in sort of a dangerous dance that left their hidden onlookers without breath, both for fear and excitement. The two warriors were magnificent, with muscles ripping behind bronzed, sweat-covered skin; their faces were a picture of absolute concentration, and ferocious growls rose from their throats. Laura and Ilaria watched mesmerized, their hearts beating wildly, while they tried to reconcile those two fighting machines with the gentle men they knew. Oh, the two women had seen ‘Gladiator’ many times but those fights had not bothered them because they knew that was only a movie…But this was not a movie and they were afraid their loved ones could be wounded or worst –a slight miscalculation could do enormous damages. Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Ilaria and Laura, the two men jumped away from each other and let their weapons drop to the ground. They bent their backs forward, putting their hands on their knees as they struggled for breath.
“Gods, I really needed this!”
“Me too,” They had both spoken in Latin and Ilaria and Laura looked at each other because they could not discern who was Massimo and who was Maximus.
Laura gritted her teeth and said, “Now I will say to them what I think about this stupid macho-man stunt.”
Ilaria’s hand on her arm stopped her, “No, you won’t do anything except follow me back to the hotel.”
Laura looked at her, surprised by the determination in her friend’s voice. She tried to speak again but Ilaria added, “NOW.”
Laura followed her and they slowly retreated, leaving Massimo and Maximus lying down on the soft grass.
As the two women reached the gravel covered yard in front of the Hotel, Laura asked, “Why didn’t you let me speak to them? Don’t tell me you approve of what they were doing?!”
“No, I don’t approve what they were doing but I think I can understand them. Laura, even if they had adapted so well in this new world, Massimo and Maximus are still Romans in their deeper selves and a public reprimand would have done no good to their spirits. They need to be true to their upbringing and they don’t have many occasions to do so. Moreover, now that my fear has disappeared I begin to think they never risked wounding each other.” Laura cocked an eyebrow and she went on, “Think about it: Maximus and Massimo are basically the same person, with the same training and the same experience as soldiers and as gladiators…. I believe they can almost read each other’s mind and anticipate each other’s moves, because those are the moves each one would do in that particular situation. To me that fight seemed like a dance, sort of a elaborate… pas- a -deux.”
Laura was silent for some time then nodded, “I believe you are right; thanks for stopping me.”
Ilaria smiled, “You are welcome and forgive me if I was too harsh.”
Her friend waved her hand, dismissing the apologize then added, “HOWEVER, you will not stop me from hiding Max’s sword and shield for the duration of your stay here…. If they want to fight each other they will do it with wooden swords!”
Ilaria approved, “Good thinking, mate! Now let’s go to eat breakfast: I am famished!”
While they were eating, sitting at a table by the window, and talking animatedly to each other, another woman came into the restaurant and crossed the room to the counter. She was tall, with waist long dark hair, dressed all in black, her eyes hidden by spectacle style sunglasses.
“Who is she?” whispered Ilaria, tilting her chin in her direction.
Laura raised her head from the plate and looked, “Oh that’s Kaz…Remember I told you about her.”
“Uhm, uhm. Ask her to join us, so you can introduce us. You know I am a bit shy to start conversations with strangers.”
“Sure.” Laura stood up and waved her hand to Kaz, who was walking with a tray, searching for a seat. “Hey, Kaz, come here and join us!”
Kaz smiled and approached them. Laura made the introductions and soon the ice was broken between Ilaria and Kaz.
“I have heard a lot of things about you, Kaz.”
“Good things, I hope!”
“Of course! Just like your passion for vampires!”
Kaz grinned, “Oh well, that’s true, I like them a lot.”
They were still grinning to each other when the door opened again and a tall man entered the Tavern. There was no doubt about who he was, the tattoos covering his neck were unmistakable. Ilaria shivered as it was the first time she had seen Hando in the flesh.
“He looks really scary,” she whispered, and her companions nodded before Kaz said, “Yes, he looks so, but he has improved a lot from how he was in ‘Romper Stomper’, all the time he spent alone here has changed him for the better. Of course, he still has a bad mouth and his manners can’t be described as ‘good’ but, deep inside he is gentler.”
Ilaria shook her head in amazement, “You make me wish to meet him. During my past visits I never saw him.”
“Oh, he is worth meeting now: Stef, Trisha and Syrena are doing a good job with him, but he too is doing a good job with himself. Do you know he trains every day with Max?” asked Laura. “He wants to train like a Roman soldier and Max loves to teach him.”
“No, you didn’t tell me.”
“Well, they train together every day, it does not matter the weather and Max tells me Hando is very dedicated, a good student.”
Ilaria smiled then, as she suddenly remembered something, she turned again to Laura, “Speaking of Max and his teaching around, I seem to remember that months ago something happened to him, when someone taught a lesson of –how did you call it? Tae – Tae..”
“Tae- kwon – do.” Laura came in her rescue, “Yes, I remember that episode very well. It was a girl that no longer comes here, but I bet Max will remember that lesson for a loooong time!” She smiled, remembering how the petite-looking girl had thrashed Maximus around, and even jokingly threatening to castrate him.
“I gather he was quite surprised by her skills.”
“Surprised?! He was shocked! You should have seen his face!” said Laura grinning.
“I believe you told me someone taped it…Do you think the tape still exists?”
“Yes, I believe it still exists. I will try to locate it and show it to you, Ilaria — Maybe we could show it to Massimo too, so he would not volunteer to give self defense lessons to anyone looking harmless and won’t risk damaging his — how do you call them? Oh yes, ‘family jewels’.” Laura and Kaz began to laugh but Ilaria simply shook his head.
“Massimo doesn’t need to be showed that, he would never offer self defense lessons to anybody.”
“Eh?” the two other women looked at her, not understanding.
“If he thought some of us girls needed to be protected from Sid or anybody else, Massimo would offer to act as bodyguard –he would be willing to wait hours under the rain, or guard a closed door or I don’t know whatever else, but he would never offer self defense lessons to a woman.”
“Because it is not appropriate for a woman. Women don’t need to fight, men must protect them.”
“A little bit old-fashioned, eh?” commented Kaz.
“I would say ‘ancient-fashioned’. Massimo is still very much an ancient Roman in his way of thinking. He adapted very well to this century’s technologies, science progresses etc., but his morality had not changed very much. Not that I am complaining… In fact I quite like it.” Ilaria smiled and sipped her tea.
“Uhm. And tell me how he behaves with you in Italy? I hope he doesn’t make you stay at home cooking meals or sewing? Or maybe you have to walk some steps behind him?”
Ilaria burst in laughter, almost drowning with her tea. “Hey, give both of us a little credit! He is more open-minded than that! But he likes to be needed…He needs to protect — maybe it is due to his past life: he was not able to protect his family and now he doesn’t want to risk it again. I grew up in a family that always gave me the right amount of freedom, and I am stubborn and independent in many fields of my life, so we have to compromise in many things, but still is very nice to have someone strong and determinate as Massimo at my side. Don’t you think so Laura? Don’t you feel the same with Max?”
Laura smiled and nodded, “But I think Max has become a little bit more modern than Massimo, probably due to this place and the constant exposure to so many different characters and guests.”
“I too think so. Massimo and I lead a very tranquil life. We live in the countryside, I write my historical novels, he farms and trains horses. As you can surmise, we have few selected friends. We are a bit of loners. The guys here can’t leave the place alone but sometimes I think they have much more freedom than Massimo has. We have — don’t ask me how, it is a secret because other persons are involved and of course it was not legal — procured some papers for him so he can travel without problems but we usually prefer to stay home.”
Laura assumed a dreamy expression, “I think it would be nice to have Max with me in Chicago… Have him ready to cheer me up after a stressful working day…uhm.” She was remembering the few days Maximus spent in her city in the past.
“Cheer you up? I didn’t know it is now called so…” Ilaria smiled with malice, retreating quickly back in her chair when Laura tried to swat her arm, “You!” The trio burst on laughter.
After that the table went silent for some minutes while they finished the already cold foods and drinks. Ilaria put down her napkin and Laura got a glimpse of metal in her left hand.
“Hey, let me see that ring.” Ilaria took it off her finger and gave it to Laura, who looked at it closely. “It is strange… I never saw a design like this.”
“Massimo gave it to me, it is an ancient Roman ring. It is about 1800-2000 years old.”
“Wow! So he gave you this as a present?” Asked Kaz after having examined the ring.
Ilaria blushed, “Not exactly.”
Laura narrowed her eyes, “What are you hiding?”
“It is not a present, it is a love token…. It is a marriage ring.”
Ilaria looked a little bit embarrassed, “Well, I just told you Massimo is old fashioned in many things…. love life included. He was not completely comfortable with us living together without being married. I am a little bit old fashioned too in this field and so agreed with him. But how could we resolve the problem? We could hardly wed in a normal way. So we did it in the Roman way or at least similar to it. We did it in the family, writing down a sort of contract, listing our promises and duties to each other and signed it in front of witnesses and then we exchanged rings. It was a brief ceremony but very touching.”
Ilaria lost herself in the memories until Laura said, “You lucky girl!”
Her friend smiled and replied, “I know I am,” then she sobered again, “Pity we can’t resolve your other problem so easily…”
“Children. Massimo and I would like to have many of them, but he is sterile as all the other guys here.”
“Yeah,” nodded Kaz, “It can be very useful in certain ‘situations’ but sometimes I think it is a pity. Think how could be this place full of little Terries or Lachlans or Johns or Maximuses or Buds or..”
“Arghh, don’t tell it even for joke! We don’t need his children, we already have him!”
Once again they burst in laughter.
Back in the woods, Maximus and Massimo were still lying on the soft grass, gazing up to the sky.
“May ask you something personal?” Maximus’ quiet voice broke the silence.
“Are you happy in Italy?”
Massimo arched an eyebrow at the strange question then nodded, “Yes, I am happy, very happy. I have all I could wish from life.” He fingered the silver ring he had on his left hand and smiled.
Maximus noticed it and grinned, ” So, I guess Tina and John are not the first ones getting married here.”
“Indeed. Ilaria and I did it in the spring.”
“Well, I am so happy to hear it that I won’t complain for not having been informed sooner,” Massimo started to speak but his brother raised a hand and stopped him, “Let me finish,” he added in a more serious tone, “You don’t how relived I am. You see, the happiness of my – our – brothers is important for me but yours is more than so, and sometimes I get a little worried about you, all alone in the real word and so far away from here.”
“I thank you for your concern, but I am not alone, not really. I have Ilaria, her family and some friends and that’s enough for me. The only thing that bothers me a bit, is that I sometimes have nightmares about our past life. I wake up in the middle of the night, afraid to discover myself still closed in Proximo’s cell and that my new life was only a dream. But usually, I just have to go out and breathe some fresh air to have the fear disappear.”
“I understand: I too suffered from them for a long time, but I am sure they will become less frequent with time,” commented Maximus.
“I thought it myself.”
“And what about your farm?”
“I love it, it is a dream become reality … the property is big enough to seem a little world apart when the gates are closed…”
“I bet it must be really beautiful,” Maximus’ tone was dreaming and Massimo told him, “You could come to visit one day… you told me you can leave this place with the help of one of the girls.”
“Yes, I might leave this place, but I don’t know if the girls would let me to do, not after what happened the last time I did it.”
Massimo frowned, not understanding and Maximus told him about his experience in Chicago – when he had chased after Laura – and the almost tragic conclusion that travel had. “So I for one I am not sure I want to risk another experience like what… even if, maybe some years in the future, I might be able to stay away much longer… I would like to take Laura to visit Rome, she loves it so much.”
“Another Roman history buff, eh?” Massimo smiled, “Ilaria and I visited Rome two months ago. It was during Stephanie’s sojourn. I think you know her.”
“Yes, I saw her around, usually with Terry. But tell me, how did you find Rome?” Maximus asked excited as he rose to a sitting position and Massimo did the same.
“It has changed, as the rest of the world did and it was difficult for me to reconcile it with my memories, also because we can’t say we saw much of it during our first sojourn….”
Maximus nodded, as the memories of his gladiatorial days washed over him and asked, a little hesitant, “Did you — did you see the Colosseum?”
Massimo nodded, “Yes, I saw it–we even visited it.”
“Oh. How– how it…?” Maximus was not sure how to pose the next question but Massimo understood anyway.
“It was strange… somewhat unreal. It is ruined now, only its inside structure exists but it is still awesome. When I was inside I could almost hear again the roar of the crowd, the clanging of the blades… I could almost sniff the smell of the tigers and the blood…. Ilaria said I froze on the spot and stayed unmoving for many minutes staring at what once was the ring pavement. I don’t really remember it but she said she had to shake me to call me back from there I had gone….” Massimo suddenly smiled, breaking the mood and Maximus began to breathe again, while cocking his head to the side, “Why are you smiling?”
“I was just remembering two funny episodes connected to the Colosseum which happened to us… One happened while we were inside: I was snapping photos of Ilaria when suddenly I realized we were surrounded by women…. you see, Ilaria was wearing a TOFOG cap, which attracted the attention of a group of American tourists, and the people thought I was Russell…”
“Oh no….How did you manage to avoid giving an explanation?”
“It was easy really; my accent while speaking in English is so bad that no actor – no matter how good he is – could do it on purpose…. We explained to the ladies I cut my beard on purpose for looking like Russell Crowe, because my girlfriend is a big fan of him, but that was all. I had to pose for some pictures however, before we could leave. Next day we banned the TOFOG cap and bough sunglasses.”
Maximus chuckled, “Yes, I am familiar with this evasive technique….. And the other episode connected with Colosseum?”
Massimo looked a bit embarrassed and said, “Do you remember what Juba said when he saw it the first time? ‘I didn’t know men could build such things’… Well, it is still true. That building is still so impressive, so majestic that you can’t help to raise your eyes to its top, when walking at its base…”
Maximus nodded, not really understanding why Massimo was so embarrassed.
“Well I was so caught on watching it that I was not looking in front of me and crushed my head in a street lamp pole…” Massimo blushed and Maximus started to grin, “You, the commander of the army of the north! Ah!” he teased. Then he added, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell it to anyone.” They looked at each other and then shared a hearty laugh
Laura and Maximus were in her room in the Hotel and she was helping him to fold his clothes. They had just had a talk about that morning match, but it had not gone as she had hoped, because he had refused to agree to stop using real weapons while training with Massimo. His reasoning, which partly confirmed Ilaria’s words about he and his twin thinking in the same way, had been very convincing, and in the end Laura had capitulated, making him swear he would be extra careful during the matches. Maximus had promised it, somehow aware that, in the room at the end of the hallway, Massimo was doing the same to Ilaria.
The discussion ended, Laura was helping Maximus put away the clean clothes he had just retrieved from the laundry, trying in the meantime to pry from him some information about the bachelors’ party he was organizing, when, raising her head and looking outside the window, she saw Anthony’s truck pull near the clinic. She watched as the doctor jumped down out of the vehicle and approached the building. Laura smiled as she observed him trying to unlock the door balancing a bag full of provision against his side.
“I wonder what he bought,” she murmured.
“Who?” asked Maximus, joining her near the window.
“Anthony. Look at him: he seems to have bought enough food to feed a small army!”
He smiled, “Perhaps it is for his pregnant cat. Mothers-to-be need to be well fed…”
Laura laughed aloud: it was so good to hear Maximus joke about Anthony, after all the problems he had in accepting the doctor’s presence in the Point.
They looked until Anthony was finally able to open the door and then Laura asked, “By the way, how did Massimo take the news?”
“He does not know, I did not tell him. Not yet.”
“No? Why? I understand that you told me to keep silent with Ilaria for fear that Massimo would refuse to come here if he knew about Anthony’s resemblance with Commodus, but I thought you had decided to prepare him in advance, to avoid bad reactions.”
“I know, and it was what I planned to do, but-” Maximus sighed and stroked his beard, “Massimo had just confessed me he still suffers nightmares about our previous life and that he is always afraid something might happen to Ilaria. I don’t want him to worry even more by telling him a man looking exactly like Commodus is living in the Point. With some luck, they might never meet each other during this visit.”
Laura shook her head, “I know you want to protect him, but I don’t really think Massimo needs to be protected. He needs to be ready. Remember how shocked you were?”
“Yes,” he whispered, not really wanting to be reminded of those awful days.
“And I had somehow alerted you. Do you remember what you said to me just after you met Anthony for the first time? It was something like, ‘It was good you told me what he looked like before we met…. If I had walked into that room and seen his face, and been unprepared .. I’m not sure what I would have done… But I doubt that it would have turned out well for the doctor.'” Laura quoted and saw Maximus pale.
“I truly thought so,” he whispered. “You are right, but how could I do it?”
“Well, we clearly need to arrange a meeting and introduce them; I am sure Massimo will trust YOU if you tell him there is nothing to be afraid of… Perhaps we could find some photos of Joaquin Phoenix in other roles, to show Massimo he was only Commodus’ creator as Russell is your creator and that Anthony does not look like that monster, but only like a gifted actor. What do you think?”
Maximus nodded. “It could work. Let’s collect some pictures and then we will organize an encounter as soon as I can.”
The following day, as Massimo and Ilaria entered the Tavern for a drink after a long tour of exploration of the Crowe’s Point surroundings -which had proved to be so extensive they had not completed it and decided to take the horses the next day They planned to repeat the experience – then they heard voices coming from another room. It seemed as someone was explaining the rules of a game to someone else. Curious, they crossed the hall and peaked around a corner.
It was Roberta, Ilaria’s friend and fellow Italian, and Cort. They were bent together over the pool table and he was clearly showing her how the game worked. Knowing Roberta’s not so secret fascination for the Point resident preacher, a dirty joke involving how to play with long sticks and balls crossed Ilaria’s mind, but she refrained from telling it aloud, because she did not want to create discomfiture to Cort and Massimo, who was very prudish both in public and private. As for Roberta, she was not easily shocked, she would have probably retorted with a dirty joke of her own, but it was better not to discover it.
So she smiled and entered the room with a, “Ciao Roberta, tutto bene? (Hi Roberta, everything’s alright?)
“Sì grazie, Ilaria. Cort mi stava insegnando a giocare a biliardo.” (Yes, thank you, Ilaria. Cort was teaching me to play pool.)
Then they switched to English so as to not cut Cort out of the conversation.
They stayed there for a while, looking on as the preacher continued his explanation and showed Roberta some moves, and then they went away and left them to their play, but not before having arranged to see each other again that evening, to spend some time chatting.
That evening Ilaria, Massimo and Roberta met as planned in one of the Tavern booths and were soon joined by Maximus and Laura, both with a drink in their hands and ready for some chit-chat. The two Romans sat side by side on a bench while the three women sat in front of them on the other, and observed how the two men seemed to do everything at the same moment and in the same way, from how they picked up they glass to drink to how they gestured or folded their arms on their chest.
Ilaria and Laura often exchanged looks of understanding, as they remembered the fight they had witnessed, and the Italian wondered if the Generals were aware of the fact. They also engaged themselves in strange conversation made in English, with some touch of Italian and Latin here and there: sometimes it was done on purpose, sometimes it was merely due to confusion. Ilaria had studied both English and Latin at school and she still remember how many times she had written the Latin ‘sed’ instead of the English ‘but’ and vice-versa.
Suddenly Roberta whispered a “Scusami, (Excuse me) in Ilaria’s ear and rose from her seat, quickly crossing the room to join a dark haired man Ilaria could not recognize, even if she could tell from his body shape he was not one of the Boys.
“Who is he?” she wondered in silence, stretching her neck to see better, but failing to do so.
“What is it?” Laura asked her.
“Nothing, I was just trying to see who is the man Roberta is speaking to. He is thin and with dark, slightly curly hair. Have you seen him before?”
Ilaria saw Maximus and Laura share a look and then the Roman cleared his throat and said, “I think he might Doctor Anthony Giraudeau, the Point resident physician.”
“Oh, I did not know there was one.”
“He arrived here just a couple of months ago. He is Norma Jean’s friend.” explained Laura.
“I see.” Ilaria nodded and returned to concentrate on their previous conversation, never noticing the relieved and at the same time worried glances Laura and Maximus exchanged. Massimo instead saw it, but he thought it was due to something private going on between the other couple, maybe a discussion about the modern medicine. He, for himself, had been amazed by the scientific and medical advancements that had occurred in the last 19 centuries, but still he tried his best to stay away from the doctors and their dangerous looking tools. The thought that he, a general who had faced barbarian hordes, fierce gladiators, tigers and a mad emperor, could be wary of a doctor brought an embarrassed smile to his lips, and he covered it by sipping his drink.
“Do you know, exactly, what a ‘bridal shower’ is? Massimo asked to Ilaria as he arranged his cloak.
“No, not really. I know it is a common thing here in America, a party where the guests give their presents to the bride ad groom.” She replied, staring critically at her mirror reflection. “Stephanie organized it and she told me it would be great.”
“I see.” The General finished his task and then moved near Ilaria, to better admire the attire she had chosen for the occasion: a richly woven scarlet tunica and stola, with the hems trimmed in gold to match her earrings and the tiara she had on her head.
“What do you think?” Ilaria asked, a bit of anxiety in her voice. Massimo knew she did not like to dress up, that she was uncomfortable in dresses, so he hurried to reassure her.
“You are perfect.” He said, taking both of her hands, “Venus herself could not be more lovely.”
She blushed at his compliment and he smiled, because he liked her modesty and shyness. They exchanged some kisses, but when Massimo’s ardour threatened to ruin her effort to tame her rebellious hair, Ilaria said, not without regret, “It is better to stop: Stephanie is expecting us.”
“Yes.” Massimo’s took a deep breath, straightened his uniform, then gave her his arm. “Domina?”
“Domine,” she replied in kind, posing her hand on his bent forearm and together their left their room.
“Oh my, what a party!” said Ilaria, her head resting on Massimo’s chest as that night they cuddled together under the sheets.
“Indeed. I was not expecting something like that,” commented the Roman, caressing her hair, “but I enjoyed it very much.”
“I am so happy to hear it. I know how difficult it is for you to adapt to our modern customs. I would have loved to have a camera to capture your expression when Stephanie explained you about the modeling game… or when you blocked Maximus on his chair and proceeded to wrap him with toilet paper like a mummy!”
“Oh well, it was a way to get a revenge for all the beating I am getting from him during our training session! And also, darling, I must tell you when I was young I attended a couple of pretty wild parties… “
“Wild parties? Oh that’s interesting! And what happened? Were they like the endless orgies the movies are so fond to picture, so to show us how corrupted and immoral the Romans were? Did you eat so much you had to visit the vomitorium?” Ilaria teased, and grinned when her companion squirmed in the bed and his face assumed a delightful shade of red.
“Well…” Massimo was clearly embarrassed, not knowing how to go on, but she saved him by cutting his explanation with a kiss.
“One day I would like to hear all of your story, but for tonight I just need to sleep. I am afraid the jet-lag is catching up with me.”
“All right. I too am tired. Maximus’ training sessions are terrible.”
“Why don’t you take a vacation tomorrow morning? We can go out for a ride…. or perhaps enjoy some private workout.” Ilaria winked to him, and the Roman, after feigning to be scandalized by her suggestion, said, “I will certainly do so! No sparring tomorrow!”
He sounded so eager Ilaria began to giggle, her hilarity so contagious Massimo soon joined her, his rumbling laughter echoing hers.
Stephanie looked up when she heard a knock on the heavy wooden door of her room.
“Who is it?” She called, glancing at the clock in annoyance as she struggled to zip her dress. She had lingered too long under the shower, and she was supposed to meet Terry for breakfast in eight minutes. He was neurotic about being on time- yet another “quirk” acquired from his years as a K&R man- and she didn’t want to set him off, especially not with all the problems they had been having.
“Laura.” A voice called back. “Can I speak to you for a minute?”
Stephanie frowned in puzzlement. Of course she knew Laura- the woman was practically a fixture around the Point, and her friendship with Tina meant that she had been thrown into the Kentucky lawyer’s company fairly often during her stay, but they had never had the chance to talk alone, and Stephanie couldn’t imagine why the woman was here now.
She drew back the chain on the door- wondering absently why she even bothered with these things at the Point- and swung it open. “I can only talk a second.” She said quickly, tempering the abrupt comment with a warm smile. “I’m meeting Terry in the restaurant. You know how he can be…”
“Yeah,” Laura smiled, “Trust me, I know.” She looked around the room curiously as she was allowed to step inside. “This will only take a second. I was just going to ask you a favor.”
Laura walked to the window, looking over the front lawns of the Inn as she spoke, “Have you ever… noticed how much Anthony looks like Joaquin Phoenix?” She said in an almost off-hand tone.
“Of course,” Stephanie’s cheeks flushed as she considered the Doctor’s features. Abruptly, however, her expression fell as she realized why Laura must be asking. “You mean how much he looks like Commodus.”
With a sigh, Laura turned back around, “Yes. That too, I’m afraid.”
“But I thought Maximus had — “
“The trouble’s not with Maximus,” Laura interrupted, “It’s Massimo- his ‘twin’ from Italy. You’ve met him, haven’t you?”
“Of course.” Stephanie had known Massimo longer than almost anyone else at the Point. Ilaria and Stephanie had been friends since before the Kentuckian’s first visit to the Inn, and she had even passed a week in Italy with the General and his wife just after her separation from Jack. The frown on the young woman’s face deepened as the implications of this new question sunk in. “Oh, no! He hasn’t met Anthony, has he?”
Laura shook her head.
“When I heard they were coming I…. I should have thought about it, but its so easy to think of Massimo and Maximus as the same person.”
“The same for a while….” Laura corrected, a hint of possessiveness in her voice, “But Maximus lives here at the Point. He’s more… familiar with how things work. It was hard even for him. I’m hoping we can make an easier transition for our Italian friends.” She turned toward the television, “That’s actually why I’m here.”
“Oh?” Stephanie tilted her head to the side.
“Yes. Maximus and I want to ease Massimo into the idea of someone who looks like Commodus… we’re going to acknowledge up front that it is going to be difficult, but hopefully we can arrange a meeting before they return to Europe.”
The lawyer nodded her head. “How can I help?”
“Well,” Laura began in a matter of fact tone, “No one knows Anthony as well as you do-“
“Norma Jean!” Stephanie corrected, slightly embarrassed that the amount of time she spent with the priest was so well-known.
Laura neither confirmed nor denied the remark. “At any rate, I wanted to ask you if you own some of Joaquin Phoenix’s movies: we would like to use them to try to see if we can convince Massimo that Anthony isn’t Commodus.”
Stephanie settled onto the edge of the bed, her meeting with Terry all but forgotten as she pondered., “That should be easy. He’s never reminded me of the emperor in the slightest… aside from being so handsome.”
Laura arched an eyebrow, wondering if the other woman had meant for the last remark to be said aloud.
“Actually, he reminds me a lot more of Joaquin’s character in ‘Quills’, Abbe Coulmier.”
“Yes… it’s a movie about the Marquis de Sade, but it really isn’t as prurient as you would expect…. it’s mostly about censorship. Joaquin plays a sensitive priest who is struggling against the idea of falling in love.”
“Life imitates art.” Laura laughed.
This time it was Stephanie’s turn to arch an eyebrow. Seeing that Laura did not intend to explain her last remark, she continued. “He’s a very decent man who is finally overwhelmed by the darkness and evil in the people around him… it doesn’t end very well, but if you wanted to find someone more Anthony-like than Commodus….”
“That’s exactly what I was searching for! Any idea where I can find a copy?”
“Sure. I’ve got on right here.” Stephanie walked to the armoire that hid the television and pulled out a slender DVD case. “I… uhm…. like the part where he kisses Kate Winslet.” She blushed. Her eye caught on something in the cabinet. “Oh, here are two more!” She extracted the cases for ‘Return to Paradise’ and ‘Clay Pigeons’. “The first one is probably better… he plays some sort of pacifist put in an Indonesian jail for drugs. I haven’t watched it yet… and then in ‘Clay Pigeons’, he gets framed for a bunch of murders that he didn’t commit…”
“Thank you.” Laura said, accepting the discs, “These will probably help a lot.”
Stephanie smiled. “Oh, look!” She picked up a fourth box, “I have Space Camp too…” She giggled, “but he was only eleven in that one.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think that Massimo would understand the concept of a bunch of middle schoolers being accidentally blasted into space…”
Laura looked over the rest of the DVDs that Stephanie had brought from home: ‘8mm’, The Yard’, ‘Inventing the Abbots’, ‘To Die For’….she was noticing a theme. “I didn’t know that you were a Joaquin Phoenix’s fan.” She remarked. “It’s a change from most of the ladies around here.”
Stephanie flushed, “Well, I wasn’t, until-“
“-you met Anthony.” Laura laughed at the attorney’s discomfiture. Silly girl, the whole Point could see that she was falling for the former priest – She, Anthony, and Terry seemed to be the only three left in the dark.
Her grin deepened when she saw ‘Proof of Life’ underneath the other videos., “Ah, but here’s Terry too.”
“Yes!” Stephanie scooped the video up eagerly, “I was just watching this again… trying to figure him out.” She forced an overly casual smile, “And speaking of Terry…. I’m late.” She reached for her sandals as Laura turned to go.
“Let me know how it turns out!” She said.
“I’ll talk to Anthony about the meeting.”
“We thought to organize it for this afternoon, Maximus says Massimo will want to see Anthony with his eyes as soon as possible and I agree with him. Do you think Anthony will be free around four o’clock?”
“I don’t know, but I think there will be no problem, there are no patients in the clinic. Well, excluding his cat!”
The two women exchanged a look and then left the room together, with Stephanie rushing to the restaurant and Laura carrying a bunch of DVD to the Point screening room.
As Laura and Stephanie were talking, Massimo and Ilaria were having breakfast on the terrace of their bedroom. Suddenly they heard someone knock.
“Come in,” called the Spaniard, “the door is open!”
They listened to the sound of footsteps crossing the room and then Maximus appeared on the threshold.
“Good morning, Ilaria, Massimo. I hope I am not disturbing you.” The General greeted them.
“Of course you are not. Why don’t you join us?” asked his twin.
“Thank you.” Maximus took a chair and sat down. He eyed the food on the table: while Ilaria was having a typical modern breakfast with toasts, brioches, jam and a cup of tea, her companion was eating something totally different: goat cheese, olives, honey-dipped rough bread and watered wine. He stared at the beverage with such intensity Massimo noticed it.
“What is it?”
“Nothing, I was just wondering how can you drink wine at breakfast – I am no longer able to do so. I think I acquired different tastes since arriving here.” He looked at the glass and added, “Don’t you find it too strong?”
Massimo smiled, “This is not normal wine; this is the kind I made by myself in the farm, using Roman techniques and recipes. It is spiced too.”
“Really?” Maximus’ eyes brightened, “May have some of it?”
“Of course!” Massimo poured some wine in a spare glass and gave it to his brother, watching with interest as the other sipped the ruby liquid and then sighed in delight. The Italian general turned to look at Ilaria and they shared a happy smile.
“It is wonderful. It reminds me of Hispania… of Trujillo”
“Yes, it is really so.”
Silence fell on the little party as Maximus sipped some more wine, his carefree mood totally disappeared as the memory of his house brought back to his mind the reason behind his visit. He put down the glass, cleared his throat and began, “Ilaria, Massimo, I came here today because I need to speak with you about Doctor Anthony Girardeau.”
The Italian pair looked at each other and shared a perplexed glance as Maximus went on, “You see, doctor Girardeau has a physical characteristic that could…. ahem.. create problems for you, Massimo.”
“Physical characteristic?” The couple was even more confused.
“Yes. He – he resembles Joaquin Phoenix a lot,” said Maximus, following his and Laura’s plan to stress the likeness between the doctor and the actor and not between Anthony and Commodus. However his subterfuge did not work for very long because Ilaria quickly made the connection, “If he resembles Joaquin Phoenix it means he resembles Commodus too.”
“What? The doctor looks like Commodus?” Massimo sat straighter on his chair and stared at his twin.
“Well, not really. Anthony is taller and his upper lip is not scarred, but-“
“All the rest is the same.”
“My gods!” Massimo slumped against his chair and closed his eyes and Ilaria felt the impulse to stand up and squeeze his hand in silent support, but she did not. She knew when he wanted to be left in peace with his thoughts.
“Why did you tell us?” she asked instead to Maximus.
“Because I remember, all too well, how badly I reacted when I discovered him here and I don’t want to see the same happen to Massimo.”
“So he truly looks like Commodus?”
“Yes, but it is only a physical thing, nothing more. Anthony is a very dedicated doctor and a former priest.”
“A former priest?” Ilaria was curious.
Maximus nodded and opened his mouth to say something else but Massimo stopped him.
“I want to see him. Now.” He jumped to his feet, a determined expression on his hardened face.
“No, not yet.” Maximus stood up and blocked the other’s path, “Not until you have seen a couple of Joaquin Phoenix’s movies.”
“Why?” Massimo’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Because I want you to understand Joaquin Phoenix is an actor: the relation between him and the Commodus we knew is the same as between Russell Crowe and us. He is a creator, just like Russell. I think it will be easier for you to accept Anthony if you are able to see Joaquin Phoenix in other roles.”
The two Romans stared at each other, communicating with their eyes, until Massimo nodded curtly with his head, “All right, let’s go to watch these movies. But after that I want to see him, with no more delays and excuses.”
“It’s a deal.” Maximus accepted, “Now come with me; Laura should have returned with the movies she borrowed from Stephanie.”
As Massimo, Ilaria, Maximus and Laura were closed in the Point little screening room, Stephanie poked her head into the Clinic waiting room. As always, it was empty. Nevertheless, a bouquet of cheerful flowers set on the reception desk, and some current magazines were arranged beside the chairs.
“Anthony?” The Kentuckian called, proceeding down the hall that led to the physician’s office. She found him sitting behind his desk, perusing the pages of a medical journal. He closed it when she walked inside.
“Stephanie.” Anthony’s handsome features stretched into a broad grin. “You’re early.”
The woman gave him an answering smile and moved forward to perch on the edge of his desk. “I’m not here for the painting.” She said, alluding to the portrait that the doctor had been making for her these past several days. “I came to see if you’d like to get a mid-afternoon snack with me.”
The doctor’s features brightened, then abruptly fell. “Don’t you usually meet Terry?”
“Not today.” She held his gaze steadily. “There are some people I want you to meet.”
“More of them?”
“Yes: a friend of mine from Italy named Ilaria, and her husband.”
The look on the doctor’s face betrayed that the arrival of the Italian contingent was no surprise to him. The woman studied his features as a range of emotions flashed behind his eyes: first annoyance, then anger and, finally, resignation.
“I had thought… hoped… that I wouldn’t have to go through this again.”
Stephanie gave him a sympathetic look, allowing herself the indulgence of reaching forward and laying a comforting hand on his cheek. “You just have to talk for a few minutes and-“
“-prove I’m not some bloodthirsty monster.” Anthony’s jaw tensed.
Stephanie sighed. “Show him that. Anthony, it’s hard for them to-“
“It’s hard for me!” He said firmly, but the gentleness quickly returned to his eyes. “I’m sorry.” He said heavily. “I know it must seem… childish. I can’t imagine what he… they went through. For me, even seeing it as a movie was awful… but I also can’t help who I am.”
“No one wants you to be anyone else, Anthony.” Stephanie said quietly. She took another step toward him, allowing the first hand to remain on his cheek, while the other gently smooth a lock of wayward hair from his temple. “You just need to be you and make him look through his preconceived notions… I know that it’s frustrating, and I admire your patience. You’re ..you’re a good man, Anthony.”
“A good man.” Anthony echoed glumly, as though it had been an insult, rather than a compliment.
“The best man.” Stephanie added softly.
The woman didn’t answer, meeting his eyes with a question she could not voice aloud. Finally, she broke the gaze. “Four o’clock.” She mumbled. “Ilaria and Massimo will meet us at the Tavern. Maximus and Laura will be there too.”
“Great… both of them.”
“Maximus is trying, Anthony.” Stephanie assured him. “And Massimo should be prepared. I loaned my copies of Quills and Clay Pigeons to Laura, so that they could watch them. That should help him to be more open to the idea of you being someone other than Commodus.”
Anthony huffed. “I do NOT look like Joaquin Phoenix. I’m three inches taller than he is…”
Whatever. Stephanie thought in her mind, but said aloud. “And better looking too- but that’s not the point. There is a resemblance, Anthony. And we have to face it. Trust me, things will be better this way.”
“I hope you are right. Let’s go.”
Stephanie walked slightly ahead of Anthony as they stepped into the Tavern. It was nearly exactly four o’clock. She had wanted to arrive a little later- to allow Massimo a chance to arrive first and select a seat, but in the end she had been worried that the General might take the lack of punctuality as an insult and so she had rushed the Doctor along.
Without thinking, she threaded her hand into the former priest’s and gave him a reassuring squeeze, leaving their fingers intertwined as she lead him through the back door.
Ilaria and Massimo were sitting in a corner booth. Maximus and Laura were already there as well. Maximus was wearing an approximation of 20th century clothing: a short woolen tunica over a pair of brown pants, but Massimo was in full Roman General regalia, with the lone exception of his sword. Stephanie reminded herself that this was typical for the man – he was still adapting to the modern world – but it she still found it unnerving. Beside her, Anthony’s footsteps hesitated, and she looked at him, relieved to find his features fixed in a strained, but determined smile. He stepped past her as they reached the table.
“Maximus.” He greeted Laura’s companion. The men clasped hands, then gave each other’s forearms a firm pat. They exchanged a look, then the doctor turned his gaze to the other couple.
Stephanie took a deep breath before she began the introductions. She tried to gauge the look in Massimo’s eyes. The orbs were dark, and brooding, but not yet threatening. The doctor had dressed in light colors– khaki chinos and a French blue shirt – and had gelled his hair in a fashion that minimized the waves, downplaying his resemblance to the emperor. It seemed to be working.
“This is Ilaria.” Stephanie said at last, extending her hand toward her Italian friend. “And this is her husband Massimo.”
“Legatus Legionis Massimo Decimo Meridio,” he corrected her flatly and, standing behind him, Laura rolled her eyes, seeing he was reacting exactly as Maximus had done, stressing his rank to emphasize that the doctor was not his friend, and thus not entitled to call him by his name.
“Legatus Legionis Massimo Decimo Meridio then,” Stephanie repeated with grace, exchanging a brief look with Ilaria and then with the doctor.
“Ilaria.” Anthony repeated, dipping his head in acknowledgment. “And….Legatus Legionis,”
“And this is Anthony, the Point’s doctor.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Anthony.” Ilaria said. She glanced at her husband and squeezed his hand, but he remained still.
The physician exchanged a look with Stephanie, and then they sat down.
Stephanie slid into the booth first, placing herself directly across from Massimo. She was followed by Anthony, and then Laura. Maximus faced his girlfriend on the opposite side of the table, sitting next to Ilaria.
“So, Anthony…” Maximus began. “I was just telling my brother that your family is about to increase in size…” He alluded to the pregnant cat.
Anthony gave a polite, but brief reply. Both men were trying. Maximus’ fear of the doctor was gone, but they were still uncomfortable in each other’s presence. At least they were making an effort.
“Would you like a beer?” Maximus proposed knowing how his brother, just like him, liked a good cold glass of cervesia, and hoping to put him more at ease.
“Yes, please.” Anthony replied.
“All right. Massimo, do you want one too?”
A curt nod with the head was his only answer and, after collecting the orders from the three women, the resident General called a waiter and told him to bring them five beers and a Coke for Ilaria.
Silence fell amidst the group as they waited for the beverage, and so the women began to chatter about the wedding. Maximus tried to remain engaged in the conversation, interjecting his observations on the differences and similarities between Roman and modern Western wedding traditions, but Anthony and Massimo were silent. The doctor kept his eyes focused somewhere between Ilaria and Maximus, but Massimo’s eyes were boring straight into the doctor’s skin.
Stephanie could sense the tension in her friend’s expression, and she let her arm fall beneath the table, giving his leg a comforting caress before he dropped his own hand within her grasp, and their fingers wove together once more. Anthony rubbed his thumb over the woman’s knuckles, the nervousness of his actions betraying his discomfort, even as he doggedly held his smile. Ilaria too was trying to support her husband, squeezing his thigh in a comforting way, but Massimo had fallen in a very Roman mood and was not keen to accept any comfort. Not to mention the fact he was so tense his muscles were hard as marble.
“Ah, here we go!” Maximus looked relieved as the beers finally arrived. He gave one to his brother, and then to the former priest.
“So, Stephanie, have you seen my bridesmaid dress yet?” asked Laura.
The Kentuckian shook her head “no”.
“Let’s go look! I have it upstairs in our room. Ilaria, you should come too….and you Maximus.” The general looked confused, until Laura added. “I need you to get the box down.” And she gave him a meaningful look.
She wanted Massimo and the priest to be alone.
Stephanie gave the Chicago native a look that said “Are you sure?”, but Anthony was already squirming out of the way.
“I’ll be right back, she promised.” Then, with a final look back over her shoulder, she followed Ilaria and Laura up the stairs.
Anthony watched as Stephanie and the others disappeared around a corner and finally forced himself to look at Massimo. He should have been used to the similarities between the brothers by now, but the resemblance between Massimo and his twin was so exact that it was unnerving. Even the gestures were the same. The cold hate that burned behind the blue eyes was exactly as it had been with Maximus when the doctor had first arrived, and remembering all that they had gone through on that occasion, the doctor couldn’t fight a wave of dread.
Oh, well. I suppose I should try to make the best of it.
“So,” Anthony began, setting his beer bottle on the table. “Did you fly from Italy, or did the Point let you in.”
“We drove.” The general answered tonelessly.
The doctor took another drink of beer.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, he tried again. “You live in the countryside…isn’t that right? I think that Stephanie said you raise horses?”
“And your wife writes?”
“Stephanie said that she had a wonderful time on her visit.”
Anthony sighed and allowed his gaze to drift away. This wasn’t working. He’d made an honest effort, but it was never going to work if Massimo refused to meet him halfway. It probably didn’t matter anyway. In a few more days, the Roman and the Italian would be gone. They didn’t seem to stop by often.
But he had promised Stephanie…
With another sigh, Anthony braced himself for a second attempt. The Kentuckian was very fond of her Italian friend, and whether he wanted to admit it to himself or not, he was very fond of the Kentuckian. He was doing this for her.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Italy.” He said. “Rome, in particular. I used to be a… member of the clergy… so I’ve always had a particular interest in seeing the Vatican. It was built on top of Roman ruins, I think.”
The words were barely out of his mouth before Anthony realized they had been a mistake. He had forgotten, for a second, why the ruins had been significant.
“Yes, the Circus built by Caligula,” Massimo said, bitterly. “Several emperors were fond of having Christians put to death there….but of course, you must remember.”
Anthony felt a chill run up and down along his spine as he realized, for the first time, that the Roman general did not think that he looked like Commodus. In some small, unacknowledged corner of his mind, he thought Anthony was Commodus- or at least that he might have been…that he had been brought to life in this place in the same way that the Boys were, and that he had changed his appearance to lay a trap. And the hate he saw in the other hard eyes confirmed it. Massimo was only apparently calm and controlled, but Anthony was sure that if he made a sudden move, the Roman would have jumped on him in an instant: having seen “Gladiator”, he knew what the warrior was able to do, and decided to stay still and silent to avoid provoking him until the others returned.
“Did you miss me?”
The sudden reappearance of Maximus and the ladies – though welcome – was so jarring that Anthony didn’t even have a chance to relish the light kiss that Stephanie laid on his cheek.
“Of… of course.” He mumbled, scrambling to his feet so that she could slide back into the booth. “But… I just remembered a call I need to make to the hospital.”
“There’s a phone behind the bar,” Laura volunteered.
“No…. I…. I have to look at a chart.” Anthony stammered. “I have to head back. Stephanie, can you get a ride back to the Inn, or….?”
“I’d better go with you.” She replied, “My crutches are in your kitchen.” With a look of apology to Ilaria and Laura, she rose to leave as well.
“It was a pleasure to see you again, Massimo…and you too Ilaria.” Stephanie said. “I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah. Nice to meet you.” Anthony said under his breath. Then, taking Stephanie’s arm, bolted for the door.
As soon as they disappeared from the room, Ilaria turned to look at Massimo enquiring worriedly, “What happened? Did you talk?”
“Yes, he did. Too much.”
Ilaria, Laura and Maximus shared a perplexed glance but before they could ask for an explanation, Massimo rose to his feet, walked to his wife and looking into her eyes said, “We are going to leave for Italy now. I will make our excuses to Etienne and John and then we will go away.” He began to turn around, ignoring the astonished expressions of the others.
“But Massimo, we cannot-“
“Do as I say!” Massimo whirled back and hissed, “I am your husband! Go to our room and begin to pack, I will arrive shortly to help you.” And with that he marched out the room, leaving a shocked trio behind.
Laura and Maximus looked at each other and then turned to glance to Ilaria. She was pale and her lower lip was trembling as she tried not to cry: never before had Massimo treated her in such a way. Yes, he had problems adapting, but he had always been respectful and accepting of their differences, never trying to demand obedience from her….as he had done just now.
Laura put an arm around her friend’s shoulders, hugging her. “I am sorry,” she whispered as Ilaria sniffled loudly and nodded.
Maximus watched Ilaria for a while and then murmured to Laura, “Take care of her, I need to speak with Massimo.”
An instant later he too was gone from the room.
Maximus caught up with his twin just as he was stepping onto the path that led to John’ ice rink. “Massimo stop! We need to talk!” The other man did not stop and he rushed near him, “I know it is hard, but you will get used to him!”
“I don’t think so! I don’t want to get used to him, I just want to leave this place as soon as I can!” Massimo gestured angrily.
“I know what are you feeling, it was the same for me when I first saw him here. I raged against the gods because they had allowed a monster to ruin my Elysium. And I wanted him to leave and never return. But with time I understood Anthony is no Commodus; instead he is a gentle and caring man and a competent doctor too.”
Massimo glared at him, clearly unconvinced. His eyes were hard when he said, “I am going to take Ilaria away from here and back home, where she will be safe.”
“She is safe here!” Maximus almost shouted but his twin seemed to don’t hear him.
“I cannot risk losing her, do you understand? That man might be a doctor as he claims to be but perhaps he is Commodus… as this place gave back Argento and Scarto to us, it could have recreated that monster too… No, we cannot stay here, we cannot..”
Maximus was growing desperate, because Massimo was not listening to him, having already made his decision. Only a drastic solution would have stopped him and the general used it: he grabbed his brother by the shoulders and staring deeply into his eyes he declared, “Anthony is not Commodus: I swear it to you on Selene and Marcus’ memory.”
The words entered Massimo’s mind with the sharpness of a blade, and he paled under his tan: they both knew the importance of what Maximus had just said. There was no way Massimo could ignore such an oath. There was a long moment of thoughtful silence, then he took a deep breath and nodded curtly. “I trust you, Maximus. Anthony is not Commodus. I will do my best to accept it.”
“Good, that’s all I ask of you.”
They exchanged a nod of understanding and a slight smile. Once again they fell silent, as they both stared into the ice-rink they could see far away, then Massimo stroked his beard and murmured, “I must go back and apologize to Ilaria.”
“You certainly have to do it…. She was almost crying after you left.”
“Oh.” Massimo’s eyes were full of guilt, “I did not want to react so badly, I was worried … I-“
“I know it, but it is not I who needs to hear it.” Maximus patted his brother’ shoulder and said, tilting his chin in the direction of the Hotel, “Go to her. Now.”
Massimo nodded, turned around and soon disappeared from his brother’s eyes.
When Massimo arrived at their room, directed there by a worried Laura, he paused for few second soutside the door to collect his thoughts and calm his nerves, before turning the knob and going inside. The small living room was deserted, so he crossed it until the reached the bedroom, from where little sounds were coming; he tensed his ears but was not able to decipher them and so he silently walked into the room.
Ilaria was kneeling on the floor, surrounded by open suitcases as she folded their clothes and put them away. Now and then he could hear her sniffle or see her brushing the tears from her eyes and his throat constricted. What had he done? How could he have treated her so badly, and in front of other people too! Massimo was ashamed and unsure about what to do. In the end he let his heart guide him and dropped to his knees in front of Ilaria and whispered, “Forgive me.” He was no good with words, but he hoped the sincerity in his tone and eyes would be enough . He cringed as Ilaria raised her tear-reddened eyes to meet his. “I am sorry,” he murmured, feeling on the verge on tears himself, “So very sorry. I – I don’t know what happened… I did not want to react so badly.. . I-” Ilaria stopped his river of words by placing her fingers on his lips.
“Shhh,” she whispered, “It’s all right, I forgive you, Massimo, but please, don’t ever do it again: I don’t know if I would be able to bear it.”
“Oh darling, I won’t, I promise you, I won’t ever do it again.” He opened his arms wide and his heart jumped with joy as Ilaria lost no time and fell into his embrace.” They hugged for several moments, with Massimo caressing Ilaria’s back and kissing her hair, until she said, “Now let me go, we need to hurry up if we want to take this evening plane.”
Massimo was stunned; in spite of everything, she was still going to do what he had decided? Leave the Point even if she clearly wanted to stay and do it for him? The Roman felt overwhelmed because she was putting his happiness before her own. But he wanted her to be happy and so he said, “We are not going anywhere, my love. We will stay here till after the wedding, just as intended. And I will do my best to learn to live with Doctor Girardeau near.” He knew what that decision was going to cost him, but he completely forgot it as Ilaria looked into his eyes and gave him a smile of pure joy, before throwing her arms around his neck. “Everything will be fine,” he heard her whisper into his ear. “Yes, as long as we are together, everything will be all right.” Massimo echoed, before kissing his wife with passion and they lost themselves in the beauty of their love, the open suitcases and scattered clothes totally forgotten.
A couple of days later, Hando left the Tavern by the back door, and looked around as he breathed in the cool autumn air. He scanned his surroundings, happy to see no one was in sight. He didn’t like having this many strangers around. The Sheriff and Tina’s imminent wedding had attracted so many bloody rubber-neckers he had been left with the choice of either suffering their presence or hiding away. For the past five days he’d chosen refuge, away from curious eyes. However he had gotten bored and missed his training with Maximus. Thinking about the General caused him to throw away the cigarette he had just lit and speed his pace away from the Tavern until he was almost jogging.
It took him ten minutes to reach the training compound, and as approached he could hear talking. It sounded like Maximus, but he was speaking another language that Hando recognized as Latin. He just wasn’t sure whom he was speaking to. The skin-head peered through the bushes and his mouth opened in shock as he saw two Maximuses in front of him. “So it is true,” he thought, “Maximus really does have a twin.” He had heard about Massimo from Sid, but he never imagined the two Romans would have been so alike. He emitted some kind of sound and both the heads turned in his direction.
“Who is there?” asked one of them in English.
“Me,” he said coming out of hiding place.
“Oh Hando,” Maximus smiled, “Good morning.”
“Come here, I want to introduce you to someone.” Maximus walked to his twin and said, “Massimo, this Hando. He is training with me to become a legionary. Hando this is Massimo, my ‘Italian’ brother.”
The other Roman arched his eyebrows and bowed his head to the skin-head, closely studying his appearance, but without giving the impression of staring at him.
“General Massimo, I am happy to meet you,” said Hando in Latin and Massimo smiled at the unexpected words.
“The same for me, Hando.” They shook hands then, Hando stepped back and assumed an at-attention position. “What do you want me to do, Max?”
“Oh, well… Since you had told me you wanted some days of rest, I and Massimo had scheduled a match against each other for today.”
Hando suddenly realized both the Romans were wearing their armor: Max did not wear it during their training sessions and that gave him the idea the match those two were planning would be something very interesting to see, “Can I stay here and watch? Maybe I’ll be able to learn something.”
“Of course!” Maximus grinned, and Hando went to sit down on a rock, watching with attention as both the soldiers picked up their swords and shields, bowed their heads and then threw themselves at each other.
It was immediately clear it was not an ordinary training match: the two men were attacking each other as if their lives were really in stake, with a strength and a ferocity Hando had never seen before. He had watched “Gladiator” many times but none of those fights had the same intensity of the one he was seeing now, perhaps because Maximus and Massimo were so alike, so incredibly well matched. Hando watched avidly as they moved up and down the training compound, attacking groaning, snarling and shouting as if they were each other’s worst enemy, charging, retreating and changing places with such speed, Hando no longer knew who was Maximus and who was Massimo. They also seemed to have endless stamina, because the match went on for almost one hour before, all of sudden, both the warriors seemed to lose their swords at the same time. Hando gasped as they let their shields fall, jumped on each other and began to use their bare hands to hit, pound and grab at each other. They fell down and rolled on the ground, trying to get hold of one of the discarded swords. Hando rose to his feet, almost clapping as finally one of the Romans grabbed the hilt of the blade and pressed it to his opponent’s throat. But instead of the killing blow that would surely have happened in ancient times, the winner simply said panting, “I think you’ve had enough of this for today. I certainly have.”
“You are right: you win Maximus…. for today,” They grinned at each other, then Maximus rolled away and up onto his feet, offering his hand to his brother.
Hando ran to the chest where they kept their training tools and returned with two towels. “That was incredible,” he said with admiration, “I never saw anything like that before.”
“Thank you,” said Massimo, taking the towel and wiping it over his face and neck, as he struggled to regain control of his breathing.
“You are getting back your form,” Maximus commented to him, “I am sure next time you will beat me.”
“That would be nice, but it is not really important. I simply love the exercise, now that I can take it when and if I want.” Massimo replied then grinned, “But I bet I would be faster than you in harvesting, sowing and seeding your fields.”
“I have no doubts!” the other general laughed.
Hando had observed the exchange with keen interest, seeing there was no animosity between the pair: both had been Rome’s greatest commander and unbeaten gladiator, but Massimo was not ashamed to have been beaten by Maximus, even in front of an audience. Perhaps because he respects his opponent, thought the younger man.
Massimo seemed to read his mind because he said quietly, “There is no shame to admit a defeat, when you know you have done of your best.”
Hando nodded in understanding, “You’re right, Sir.”
The Roman smiled, “I don’t remember the last time someone had called me “Sir” with your tone! Thank you, it makes me feel a general once again.”
“But you are a general, Sir. You might be a farmer now, but you will always been a soldier in your heart. And I think you know it.”
Massimo blinked his eyes, surprised by such forwardness and understanding. He had not expected to find them in a former skinhead. Truly the Point was something special. He bowed his head to Hando, silently acknowledging his words.
A moment of silence followed then Maximus raised his head to the sky, saw how high the sun already was said, “I think it is time to go back and take a shower. I need to take care of the final details for tonight’s party.”
The other men nodded and followed him away from the training compound.
The party organized by Maximus to celebrate John’s farewell to bachelorhood was approaching its end, and Massimo began to head for the exit to retrieve his cloak and to go see how Ilaria was doing.
The Tavern was reduced to a mess, with cans of beer and glasses scattered everywhere, upside down chairs and food leftovers abandoned on the table, but the party had been a success – even if the guest of honor had decided to fall sick that very night – and Massimo had enjoyed himself very much, both watching the wonderful lap dancer his twin had procured and sharing time with some of his less known brothers. He had talked with Terry, Jeffrey, Arthur, Cort, Alex and Hando, sharing jokes and tales with them. But perhaps, given their situation, the most “interesting” part of the night had been when Anthony had joined their table after he finished visiting John: Massimo been able to sit at the same table with him without being overwhelmed by hostile feelings or by the desire to leave the room as soon as he could. He still was not yet comfortable in the doctor’s presence – and he suspected that would be so for a long time – but at least it seemed his efforts to treat Anthony with equanimity were working. That of course made him happy, because he did not want to create other troubles with Ilaria or Maximus.
He had just finished arranging his cloak and was about to push the door open when a hand landed on his back.
“May I speak with you for a moment?” Maximus asked in Latin.
“Of course.” Massimo replied in the same language.
The other general gestured to follow him in a quiet corner of the room and said, “I have a favor to ask to you.”
“Ask me anything.”
“As you know, John chose me as his Best Man for the wedding and, outside of performing some duties during the ceremony, I will recite something to couple… a carme by Catullus.”
“Catullus?” Massimo’s eyes brightened.
“Yes. I chose this one,” and Maximus pulled out a sheet of paper from his pocket and gave it to the other man.
“Oh, oh, it is quite spicy, is it not?”
“It is, but certainly less than the songs they sang at our wedding! Do you remember?”
“Oh gods, don’t make me think about them! Selene’s face was redder then her flamine…” Massimo’s voice died as they both shared a moment of nostalgia as they thought back to that night of so long ago. Then the Italian general shook his head and asked, “What favor do you want to ask?”
“Oh, forgive me, I did not tell you: I would like to sing this poem during the ceremony, and I wanted to ask you to join me.”
“Of course I will do it!” Massimo’s eyes shone at the idea to have a little role in Etienne and John’s wedding, after almost having decided not to participate in it.
“Great! I was hoping you would say so.” Maximus smiled, “Here, take this copy and learn it as soon as you can, then we could begin to practice together.”
Massimo nodded, folded the paper and put it in the pouch he always carried tied to his belt when he dressed in his uniform.
He had just finished doing so when a woman approached them.
“Thank God you are still here!” she said, a little out of breath.
“Are you all right, Trisha?” both the Romans said in unison.
“Yes I am, but I need Massimo to follow me to the Hotel. Ilaria…well..”
“What?” Massimo urged her with worry.
“Well…. she is sound asleep with her head on a table and we need you to carry her to bed.”
“She is sleeping?” Massimo did not know whether to run to her or burst into laughter.
“Yes. I am afraid I gave her to much to drink… I know she told me she can not tolerate alcohol, but I did not think it was so bad!” The English woman shook her shoulders in apology and Massimo smiled, “If I did not you better, I would think you tried to get your revenge on Ilaria because of her harassment about ‘Clodia’.”
Trisha’s eyes widened in a “Who, me?” expression, before she started to laugh. “Well, now that you mention it….”
Massimo shook his head in amusement and after a quick salute to Maximus he followed Trisha out of the Tavern.
“I’m going to go congratulate my brother,” Terry Thorne said, nodding to Lisa and Lachlan before rising from his seat. He turned to his date, “Wanna come, luv?”
“No thanks.” Stephanie stretched her legs, scratching at the omnipresent itch that lurked just out of reach beneath her cast, “I am sure that I’ll see Tina and John later on, and I want a chance to say ‘hello’ to Ilaria and Massimo again, we’ve barely spoken since they got here.”
Terry nodded and then the pair parted ways. Taking her crutches under her arms, the Kentuckian hobbled to a table on the far side of the dance floor which her Italian friends were standing near, the General’s arm wrapped around his wife’s waist.
“Ciao!” Stephanie said, stepping near them. She briefly considered trying one of the Italian phrases that she had learned during her visit that summer, but decided not to make her friend suffer. “Ilaria! I am so glad to see you again- I was afraid that you would leave before I caught up with you.”
“Don’t blame us! You’ve been a stranger since that afternoon in the Inn.” Ilaria chided.
Stephanie blushed, “Well, Terry has been keeping me busy.”
The ladies shared a laugh, then the Kentuckian turned her attention to Massimo, thinking to herself that he seemed much more at ease than he had the last time that they had met. His gaze was fixed on Tina and John, who were leaving the room, so Stephanie waited a moment before interrupting.
“So, will you tell me what you and Maximus were singing at the wedding? I only knew enough Latin to make myself profoundly lost.”
The general merely smiled, “Maximus and I just told it to Etienne and John… pity you were not here to listen!” He was teasing her, a thing he did only with his closest friends.
Stephanie briefly smiled and then, putting on her best pouting face, she turned to her friend, “Will you tell me what it was?”
Ilaria only shrugged, “How much money will you gave me if I tell you?” she asked seriously, examining a fingernail with feigned indifference.
“WHAT?!” The Kentuckian exploded and her friend burst in laughter.
“I was just joking!” Ilaria grinned, then lowered her voice, “Given your passion for Ancient Rome, you certainly know that Roman weddings were followed by processions escorting the bride to her new husband’s house,” she paused and Stephanie nodded, “and you perhaps remember what the guests sang during those processions…”
The Kentuckian frowned, “I seem to recall they were extremely sexually explicit songs…”
“Exactly.” Ilaria grinned as realization stuck her friend.
“Don’t tell me they sang that inside a church!”
“No, they recited a Catullus’ poem which gave… ahem… instructions to the groom about what to do with his bride…”
“Oh my!” For just a moment Stephanie did not know what to do, if she should feel scandalized or if she should laugh. The second option won and she and her Italian friend collapsed in a peal of giggles. In the end the American shook her head and tilted her chin in Massimo’s direction, commenting, “Well he and Maximus certainly enjoyed themselves by singing that and then refusing to say what it was!” Then she lowered her voice and she turned her attention fully to Ilaria, “And speaking of enjoying himself, did I see Anthony sitting beside you at the wedding?”
The dark-haired woman nodded her head, “Yes. He sat in the row with us.”
“But I thought-” she remember all too well Anthony’s curt reply about how badly the meeting between him and the General had gone.
Ilaria raised her hand as if to foreclose comment, “He is not happy about the situation, but he has made peace with it. Maximus… explained things in a way that he can understand or at least I think so. He knows that Anthony is not Commodus.”
Stephanie nodded her head, more relieved at the announcement than she would have guessed, “I’m glad to hear that he came around. Anthony is nothing like the man that killed the Massimo’s family. He’s tender and intelligent and kind and creative and-” The woman stopped abruptly when she noticed the curious arch of her friend’s eyebrow.
“Oh? You seem to have put a lot of thought into this.”
“Well, I…” Stephanie fumbled for words, relieved when Terry approached.
“Ciao, bella,” He said, kissing the Genoan on both cheeks, then mumbling something easily in Italian, “Massimo!” Thorne clapped his brother heartily on his back, “Where have you been hiding all this time? Always training with Maximus?”
With a shrug as her only answer to Ilaria’s comment, Stephanie took a sip of her drink and feigned interest in the conversation, acutely aware of her friend’s scrutiny.
“And this, I believe, settles the matter,” said Massimo pressing the point of his sword against Maximus’ throat.
“Indeed, your argument is very convincing!” the resident general commented, letting his sword and shield fall to the ground, “You win, Massimo.”
His twin smiled and opened his mouth to reply, when a round of applause stopped him. Both the Romans turned around, and noticed the noise came from behind the bushes that bordered the training compound. Then the vegetation parted to let pass Ilaria and Laura.
“Well done, my general,” Ilaria commented with awe, walking to her husband, “You were magnificent.”
Massimo blushed at the sheer admiration he saw in the woman’s eyes, also because she was scanning his sweaty body in a way that was sending his blood pressure to the sky. It was very unusual for Ilaria to look at him in that way in public and, needing to break the spell before he committed some rash action such as pick her up and disappear between the trees, he cleared his voice and asked, “What were you doing there?” and he tilted his chin to the bushes.
“Well, since we are going to leave this evening I surmised you and Maximus would have enjoyed a last match and I somehow felt it was going to be special.”
“It was,” Maximus commented, as he and Laura approached the pair, “Massimo beat me for the first time since he returned here.”
“Better later than never,” replied his twin with a smile, then returned serious, “I love our training sessions… I will miss them…”
“But we won’t!” said Ilaria and Laura in unison, “You don’t know how scary it is to see you two fight with real swords! I think you made us grown grey hair!” They put all of their disapproval in their voices, but the men did not mind it.
“Really?” Both the generals said, before they made moves to examine their companions’ heads, “Uhm, let me look…. Oh yes, I can see a lot of white hair here…” commented Massimo.
“WHAT!? I don’t have white hair!” Ilaria was outraged and her husband laughed aloud.
“I know, darling, I know.”
Maximus and Laura smiled indulgently at the other pair and then he said, “What about returning to the Hotel for a shower? Then we can go to the restaurant and order the proverbial Lucullian lunch to celebrate Massimo’s victory… I think there is still enough time before you have to go to the airport.” Maximus did not want to say it aloud, but he knew he was going to miss his twin, and every excuse was good to spend some more time with him.
But of course he did not need many words to be understood by Massimo, who whispered to him, “We will return soon, don’t worry.” The two Romans nodded to each other in understanding, when slipped their arms around their companions’ waists and in few seconds the four of them left the training area hand in hand and disappeared between the bushes.