Disclaimer: These versions of Atia and Octavia are owned by HBO.
Spoilers: For both seasons of Rome.
Thanks to: Kathy, for beta-reading.
Author's note: This story was written for the Remix Redux Ficathon 2008, based on the story Luxury by Kangeiko, which you can find here: http/archive/50/luxury.html
Survival (The Amy Tan Remix)
To Atia, hildbirth was always connected with the scent of apples and lemons and the sensation of clothes soaked in warm olive oil laid over her abdomen. When she went into labor with Octavia, the midwife had suggested the right foot of a hyena as well, but Atia had brusquely rejected it. She didn't want the smell of anything rotten in her room when she gave birth to the child who would change it all. Atia was bristling with discontentment. Her father had been a nobody Caesar's older sister had been married to when the family had fallen on hard times. Now that the Julii were respected again, Atia was just a minor cousin, married off to a man who had money but no senatorial rank, a widower with a daughter nearly as old as Atia. Atia knew she could be more than just Gaius Octavius' second wife, doomed to spend the rest of her life in the country. It all depended on her having a son, though, and not just because that was why Octavius had married her. No, a son would give her an advantage over her cousins, it would change her position in a family with an abundance of daughters; it might get her noticed by her uncle. Once noticed, she could make sure she would never be forgotten again, and work from there.
There were two beds in the room for Atia, one hard and low for labor, and a soft one to recline on after the birth. The birth itself, and only the birth itself, was supposed to take place on the birthing stool, a chair with a crescent-shaped hole through which the baby would be delivered, and armrests at the sides of the chair, which Atia was told to grasp during delivery. She tried lying on the bed, but found herself too impatient, pacing up and down, lashing out at the slaves who tried to get her to lie down again, breathing in the smell of the lemons and apples that were stored in a corner of the room in case someone should faint.
"I certainly won't," Atia said, "and if anyone else does, I'll have their hide."
But she liked the scent nonetheless.
As she was young and strong, there were no problems during birth. She felt the midwife's oiled finger gently rubbing her cervix to help with the dilation, and the baby came as it should, head first. In the midst of pain, exhaustion and relief, Atia felt a blaze of triumph until the midwife, told her it was a girl, and a weak one at that.
"I have put her on the ground," the midwife said worriedly, "but she does not cry."
The slaves exchanged looks. If Gaius Octavius heard he had another daughter, instead of a son, and that this new daughter was of dubious health, he might well decide not to raise her. It was his right. They knew it, and Atia knew it; the awareness broke through her own keen disappointment with the sharpness of a knife. Her slaves were trying to guide her from the birthing stool to the second, soft bed, but she refused to make one step further. Instead, she knelt down on the floor, next to her newborn child, bent down as best she could despite the fact that by now, every muscle in her body was screaming in protest, and hissed:
"Don't you dare!"
The baby, covered with the salt the midwife had sprinkled on it, had its eyes firmly shut. A heartbeat passed after Atia had spoken, and then the baby opened its mouth and started to cry, as loudly as anyone could wish for. Atia sat back on her heels, and allowed the slaves to pull her up. Disappointment or not, this was her daughter, and if Atia had to make her cry in order for the girl to survive, then she would.
When she was a child, Octavia's hands would often smell of beeswax, eager as she was to stratch her letters and numbers into the wax tablets her teacher provided. Later, they were ink-stained and full of little cuts made by the reed she used in order to write. It wasn't Octavia's most annoying habit, but Atia found it as incomprehensible as she found most things about her daughter.
In many ways, of course, Octavia was a daughter to be proud of. She was soft-spoken, obedient in a way Atia herself had never been, devoted to her little brother, beautiful, far more so than her older half-sister, that condescending sneering fool whom the family thankfully hardly ever saw after Octavius' death, and all of this gave Atia immense satisfaction. But she did not understand how Octavia could memorise verses in Greek or Latin that were no use to anyone with perfect ease, yet could not recognize something as simple as the fact that no one outside the family should be listened to, and certainly not a conniving bitch like Servilia. Octavia could argue with her brother about Achilles or Hector, who aside from providing useful names for slaves were of no relevance to every day life at all, but despite having been raised by Atia with every care somehow had avoided learning that marriage was an alliance between families for their mutual benefit, not an arrangement based on mutual moon-eyed passion. Her attachment to her first husband, her entire behaviour when told to divorce him in order to become available to Pompey, and her wild grief for him later, as if she was one of those people in the poems she always read; it baffled and infuriated Atia, and she did not know how to handle it.
The worst was realising that Octavia had come to hate her. Atia was used to being hated; was, in fact, proud of the number of enemies she had made. One had to, in order to succeed. But to find her daughter among them hurt in a way she had never experienced before. Being loved by her daughter had been something she had always taken for granted and never thought about, like the air she breathed, but now that this love was withdrawn, she found herself watching Octavia's closed-off, remote expression, the way her daughter did not even react to a quip about her penchant for dead Greeks and their poetry, and felt her throat constricted, and the words dying on her lips.
When Octavia returned from her self-imposed exile, apparently ready to leave the past behind, she and Atia were still skittish around each other when they were alone together. Finally, Atia set next to her daughter and took Octavia's right hand in hers. For a moment, Octavia grew very still, and Atia wondered whether Octavia would either pull her hand back or just let Atia take it listlessly, ignoring her and withdrawing into her silent hostility again.
"Ink stains and cuts," Atia said, looking at Octavia's fingers, and sighed. "Still."
"You should be used to it by now, mother," Octavia said quietly, but there was no hate in her voice anymore.
"I am," Atia said, feeling Octavia's fingers grow warm in hers, and shook her head. "But it will never be something I approve of. Your skin is so delicate. I don't want you hurt."
"By other people," Octavia replied, but her hand remained in Atia's, and her fingers held on with considerable strength.
Octavia smelled of his dried sweat, and Atia, looking at her daughter, wondered where her anger was. Instead, she felt only numbness. It was as if the fury that had gripped her ever since Antony had revealed just which marriage Octavian had suggested had burned itself out, for the moment at least. Or maybe it was just that Atia had spent the entire night awake, imagining the two of them together. There was no trace of Antony left in her own bedchamber. She had ordered the slaves to burn every bit of furniture and get the bed that used to given to guests of honour in her own room as a replacement.
"Mother," Octavia said, and Atia held up a hand, palm open.
"Now's not a good time. Go away until I can summon up some anger."
The most humiliating aspect of the entire affair was that she was well aware of her own foolishness. She had not planned to fall in love with Mark Antony. Their affair made sense. First, he was Caesar's right hand, a good ally to have, one of the few men Atia knew who had a sense of humor about himself, and of course a good lover; Atia was in a position to make comparisons. After Caesar's death, he had become even more necessary as an ally, and it had looked for a while as if her old idea about ruling the city through him could become true, at least until her son had started to argue with him, had called her a whore and had claimed rulership of his own. Still. All very sensible, and an arrangement with mutual benefits, not about sentiment at all, except for the fact that at some point during those years of great sex and greater benefits, she had stopped desiring other men. When she saw him again in his winter camp, with his ridiculous beard, she had felt downright lighthearted in a fashion that had nothing to do with expecting her plan to reconcile him with her son to succeed, and the way he had smiled at her hadn't just made her want to get him out of his armor as it used to, it had made her realize that she wanted to grow old with him.
There it was. She had never felt that way about any other man before, had always kept her head and had used them even if they thought they were using her, and certainly had not dreamed of giving up her hard won independence. But now she wanted it all, not just power, not simply sex; marriage. In short, she had become as idiotic and soft-hearted about a man as her daughter had ever been, and now fate had punished her appropriatedly.
Octavia was still talking to her, protesting, telling her that she wanted a purgative. This was finally enough to jolt Atia out of her numbness.
"What a stupid thing to say, girl. Go lie down and raise your legs and hope the bastard seed takes!" she said as cuttingly as possible.
Octavia did not react with tears, as she would have in former times. There was a new hardness in her face; her little daughter, her infinitely breakable Octavia, finally grown up. And all it had taken was for Octavia's brother to betray her by marrying her to their mother's lover, spite and revenge masquerading as political necessity.
"I don't want his child," Octavia whispered. "And I'll not allow it."
Trust Octavia to come up with a futile gesture when it was too late to be of any use and would only damage herself. She had spoken the word, she had consummated her marriage; she was Antony's wife now. If she did not bear him children, she would sooner or later become a discarded wife. Sooner rather than later, for Atia did not believe the alliance between Octavian and Antony would hold for good, no more than the one between Caesar and Pompey had. Without children, a divorced Octavia would fall under her brother's authority again, destined to fade into a shadow existence of increasing irrelevance.
No, Atia thought. Something in her had known Servilia's curse would come true the moment her enemy had sealed it with her own blood in front of Atia's eyes, and maybe Atia was indeed doomed. But Octavia was not. And if the stupid girl had to be forced to understand that, then so be it.
"You'll not allow it? You?"
She felt the skin of Octavia's face, still too soft and young, connect with her palm before hearing the short, sharp noice the slap made in her bedroom. There was silence between them, and Octavia's gaze remained steadfast. There was no accusation in her daughter's eyes, though. Instead, there was understanding and worse, much worse, pity.
Atia moved away, and looked at the bed Antony had never slept in. Neither had she. There was no freedom there.
"We don't have those luxuries anymore," she said. "Go back to your husband, daughter."
Octavia had just been to the baths, alone, a rare treat given all the children she was taking care of these days, and smelled of nothing but herself as she lay next to Atia, talking of the need to continue.
"I don't know what I'll do if you give up," Octavia said. Atia didn't reply, but her hand moved to wrap one of her daughter's curls around her finger, a habit she had always chided Octavia for. But Octavia had grown past admonishments quite a while ago.
Atia remembered the stiffling heat of Egypt as they waited together for something that would never happen. She remembered Octavia giving birth, years before that, and lifting Octavia's child off the ground. Both men who might have had the right to had, in the end, proven themselves deserters, and Atia certainly was not going to concede this last bit of authority to Octavian.
In a way, she still was proud of her son. He had become everything she once had hoped for: the First Man in Rome, the most famous of all the Julii, governed by his reason, not sentiment, and disposing of his enemies without the mercy that had gotten Caesar killed. She had not guessed she would miss what he had abandoned along the way before he did, and now the sense of loss made her pride distant and impersonal. It was a good thing her granddaughter had cried right from the start. There had been no need to make her, and Atia had decided to take this as an omen. Antonia, it seemed, would always know how to survive.
But then again, so did Octavia, and that had ceased to surprise Atia quite a while ago, too. "Undoubtedly," she said, "you will continue to read poetry that does not change what the world is. You'll have to decide whether or not to take that round-faced upstart back as a lover once he has realized what a fool he has been, or you will find someone else to break your heart over, and mend it again. You will spoil all the children so rotten that they will adore you for the rest of their lives, and a good thing, too. And if you allow that vicious little trollop your brother married to hire second class mimes for my funeral procession, you will be haunted by my lemures for the rest of your life."
The corners of Octavia's mouth twitched, and only when her fingertips traced something wet on Atia's face did Atia realise that one of them must have started to cry. She preferred to think it had been Octavia.
"Don't you dare," Octavia whispered. "Don't you dare."