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[personal profile] azarias
Post-facto author's note: This was written as a more or less immediate reaction to Blood and Sand episode 7. You know, that episode. I was fine with everyone dying. I wasn't fine with passive dying, in place of the roaring rampage of revenge the subject deserved. A lot of the background for this fic has since been jossed by Gods of the Arena, but I'm not particularly motivated to change it. My greatest regret is that I don't have a vocabulary foul enough to do the fandom justice, hence why this is my only entry.

Though, IDK, maybe I'll write a short AU where they're in space or something. Space makes everything better.

Title: Journeyman
Author: [personal profile] azarias
Pairing: Barca/Pietros
Wordcount: 12,500
Warnings: By my calculations, I know precisely as much about ancient Rome as the show's writers do. This story mentions a number of very bad things, including slavery, rape, violence, genocide, and some pretty awful child harm; none of these actually happen in the story itself. Explicit sex, all of which is consensual. It all turned out much milder than canon, much to my disappointment.
Beta: [personal profile] vejiicakes, who did not so much beta as whap me over the head repeatedly with the Rod of Self-confidence.
Disclaimer: Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.

Summary: So Barca got his money from Ashur or wherever, and bought himself and Pietros free, and then ...

They set off on the road south, with swords and food on their backs and a few coins still clacking in Barca's purse.

They passed through the city gates on the outbound side with a hundred others. Pedestrians jostled them and mules grumbled ungratefully in the ceaseless rain. The skin between Pietros' shoulders itched. He looked down at his feet, watched them make steady progress along the even pavement. He had sandals, but they were tied to his belt. Feet could rot in weather like this, tied too long in damp shoes. The parched earth was sealed against the bounty that fell down on it after so long; puddles stood everywhere, waiting to be absorbed.

Two hundred paces out of the gates and he could no longer stand it. He stopped, turned, sidestepped quickly to avoid a frowning woman with a basket on her head and no intention of stopping for him. Just off the road, toes cradled in an inch of cool mud, he stared back at the city's walls and tried to will the tension from his back. There was no whip about to cut across him and no errand he should be on. He was doing nothing wrong.

Beside him, just on the road, Barca stood and let traffic dodge around him. He looked at Pietros, not at the city.

"I've never been outside," Pietros said quietly. He wasn't certain Barca could hear him over the spattering rain. "Just the ludus, and the market, and the arena." A few places around and between, when he'd been a child and allowed to slip away some evenings to play.

After a while, Barca touched his arm and set them back onto the road. Hours later, the next time Pietros looked back, Capua was gone.

*****

That night, they stayed in what was left of a barn. Pietros did not want to sleep indoors, but neither did he want to drown. The dying building was a good compromise, with holes in the roof and more in the walls, but just enough structure left to find someplace dry. It looked like the farmer's fortunes hadn't survived the drought. He or his creditors had taken everything of value, then taken their anger out on the barn itself.

Pietros wondered if the farm family would come back now that there was rain again, or if they'd sold too much, trying to survive.

One corner looked unlikely to collapse tonight. His back ached; he'd not gotten himself to stop bracing for the lash. It hurt to raise his arms high enough to unsling his pack, so he raised them even higher and grimaced as the soreness stretched out of his muscles.

When he could move without pain stabbing through him, he put the pack down and pulled the folded cloak out of it. Damp, but so was everything else in the world. The tough, dried meat beneath it had been wrapped in oilskin and was fine. He performed the same check in Barca's pack, then grabbed a moth-eaten scrap of old cloth from beside a smashed bucket and swept out a place to spread their cloaks.

Barca's hand on his shoulder stopped him, none too gentle. He was worried until he looked up from his crouch and saw the closed-off expression on Barca's face, and then he remembered. Funny how he hadn't stopped to think of it all day, though he knew it very well: it had been a long time, too, since Barca had been anywhere but the ludus or the arena, or worse parts of Capua.

"You aren't a servant," Barca said hoarsely.

Pietros clenched his fist around the rag. "No," he agreed. It was a cautious start that he threw away when he couldn't keep the smile off his face. "I'm just a man who wants a bed."

He looked around at the forlorn walls and the scraps of straw and piles of old dung littering the dirt floor. It wouldn't hurt to burn some of this place. It might be an improvement. He stood up and dusted his hands off, then threw the rag over his shoulder, not carrying much where it landed. "You're going to have to start the fire," he told Barca seriously. "I haven't a damned idea how to do it without embers from the kitchen."

Impulsive, he pecked a kiss on Barca's cheek and ducked away to spread out the cloaks, mixed a cup of wine and water, and grabbed a strip of the dried meat to chew on. By the time he stripped his clothes off to dry and sat down, Barca had scraped together a small pile of kindling and a stack of broken timbers, and had a flint in his hands. Pietros watched sparks fall in the gloom until one caught in the kindling, and Barca fed it chips of wood until the flame was strong enough to take big pieces.

Barca stripped then sat beside him and Pietros handed him the wine, then drew his own legs up to wrap his arms comfortably around his knees. Even in the summer warmth, now that he had stopped moving he could feel the chill of water on him and was glad for the fire.

"Where are we going?" he asked. 'Away' had always been enough of an answer, but now he was away and he had wanted to know more. They'd come so very far today that he could scarce imagine where they'd go tomorrow.

He took back the cup and drank deeply. He wasn't thirsty, not after a day when it had been harder to keep water out of his mouth than in. The wine was for warming, and to pass the time.

Barca took a stick and drew in front of the fire, resting on hand on Pietros' knee for balance. It was warmer than the wine. "Here, look," he ordered, and Pietros leaned forward. "Italia. See how it reaches out across the earth like a hungry snake?" He drove the stick into the dirt to dot the map on the snake's throat. "This is Capua."

Another dot, like a fang in the snake's jaw. "Tarentum. Ships from there sail all around the Middle Sea, and farther. It gives us choices."

Pietros nodded. He would see the sea, very soon. So many stories he'd heard about that -- "When will we reach it?"

Barca shrugged and sat back. "In this weather? Ten days, maybe."

Pietros stifled a gasp in the wine and nearly choked for his trouble. Days? But they'd come so far today. Twenty miles, at least, and they hadn't left the city until noon. To travel for ten days until they reached the sea ...

He hadn't thought the world was so big.

A deep breath cleared the sting from his nose and a deep draught of wine bought him time. He passed the cup back, gesturing for Barca to keep it. Too much temptation to drink more than his share.

"And then?" he asked. "What ship will we take?"

Barca's hand petted his thigh, something casual and welcome. The touch didn't seem meant to comfort or arouse. He couldn't bear the shame of being comforted just now, and he didn't think arousal would work. Tired and dizzy, he felt even the few mouthfuls of wine weighing his body down. Venus herself dancing naked out of the fire would have a hard time waking his cock right now.

"Choices," Barca said again. "Whichever we decide will take us far from this accursed land, and never back here again. South, to Africa; I speak some of the languages there. Or east, to Israel. The Jews pay fairly and have need of fighting men. And they've no love of Rome." His tone turned musing. "I had some under my command, years ago. Fierce warriors. Picky eaters."

He drained the cup and set it aside, then lay down on his side with his hand still on Pietros' thigh and his other propping up his head.

"We have choices. We'll discuss it when we get there and see what's in port. Think on it while we travel."

So many things he had to think about, it hardly seemed fair to set the whole wide -- impossibly wide -- world onto the list.

******

Pietros awoke with a gasp, scrambling to his feet. He'd overslept. He had to get the practice weapons out.

He nearly tripped into the last smoking coals of the fire; there was just enough heat to warn him off, and he stood and looked around their small camp.

Dawn was on the horizon and Barca was up, stretching in silhouette. He was beautiful, huge and graceful and deadly. In the dawn gray light, his scars were invisible.

Patiently and silently, Pietros coaxed his racing heart to slow. He was free and far from Capua. He had no chores but those needed to get up and on the road again. He was free, and he was far from Capua.

Pietros sat back down and watched Barca and tried, very hard, to ignore the fear that had leaked from his heart down into his gut. If he had to, he was sure he could figure out where they were. It was only one road, after all. They'd come straight south.

He had no idea where he was. He had only Barca's map and Barca's guidance to tell him where he was going.

Barca's word was good. He knew that.

He had no idea how to survive, free but without Barca. It was ridiculous, almost infuriating. After all, he'd lived most of his life without Barca. Only for a few years had Barca been at the ludus, and for fewer years than that had Barca loved Pietros. He knew how to live without Barca, under Dominus. He did not even know how to light a fire, here in this new world Barca had bought him into.

Without thought, Pietros brushed his fingertips over the beaten gold cuff that still hugged his hear. It was only the shaking of his fingers that made him notice the gesture.

Domina was very particular about the women slaves and the children having nothing that was not from her hand. Pietros remembered that from his own childhood under her authority, and Naevia still brought him enough gossip from the house slaves to know she hadn't changed in the years since he had gone to serve the gladiators. Dominus cared not at all how his gladiators spent their coins. Probably he had preferred Barca buying trinkets for the boy he loved, not saving for manumission. Each one had delayed, if only for a little while, the day Dominus lost a lucrative gladiator and a trained servant with him.

Both his silver bracelets tinked softly together when he drew his hand away from his ear.

Barca sometimes liked to sit Pietros on his lap, impaled on his cock and leaning back against his chest. Barca would play with his balls and whisper sweet pleasure in his ear, tugging roughly at his cock but gently at his nipples. Every shiver and breathless gasp pleased Barca more, and he would run oiled fingers around the muscle at Pietros' hole where the thick rod filled him. Pietros, pushed to the edge of reason himself, would drive him wild with writhing as his orgasm approached. Then Pietros would have his pleas fulfilled, as Barca freed him and moved in him, fucked him until they were both spent and collapsed, twined together, facing each other at last and huffing helpless giggles until one or the other had to leave, or they both slept.

Sometimes other men would watch, entertainment being scarce in the gladiator quarters after dark. Barca would ignore them utterly, neither shifting to display Pietros to better advantage nor threatening them until they left. Pietros had all his attention.

That was their relationship in summary, all in one act. Handled like a toy but spoken to like a lover being wooed, held like a comfortable friend but lead through steps like a student. Pietros had loved it but not understood it, did not understand it, and had never had the courage to ask why.

He was lovely, he knew that. Knew that men desired him. It was clear enough why Barca had desired him, and the man was not known for his generosity: Barca did not share his lover. Very few men had thought it worthwhile to challenge the Beast of Carthage over a piece of ass, and all of those had regretted it. Pietros, born in the streets and raised in the ludus, knew something of fighting, and knew how little chance he would have had against taller, heavier men who trained to do nothing but fight.

It was lucky that Barca wanted him. Near-miraculous, that he had wanted Barca since he'd first laid eyes on the proud Carthaginian, scarcely after his own balls had dropped. Which of the gladiators, he wondered, would he have followed after had the gods not sent Barca to Dominus' ludus?

He knew all the reasons that Barca had courted him. The question was, why did Barca keep him now?

He knew exactly what his freedom had cost. It wasn't the astronomical sum required to manumit a gladiator, but it was more than Pietros could ever have hoped to earn on his own -- even if Dominus had chosen to reward his service with money, which had never happened. And small or not, it had been more added atop what Barca had been required to pay for freedom. Why?

A gladiator might love a serving boy, sweet distraction in a grim and violent life. But boys grew into men and ceased to be as pliant in mind or body. Pietros knew without asking that such had happened to him -- mind more than body, he was sure. And it was not as if Barca could not have another with a snap of his fingers, almost. Tall, beautiful, patient, and deadly -- anyone would beg for him, certainly.

Not that Barca liked begging. Wordless hunger, yes. But it had been a long time since Pietros had thought to to debase himself with begging.

That was to Pietros' favor, that he knew what Barca liked. What he liked to eat, what he found beautiful, how he celebrated a victory, how he liked to be touched. Any new lover Barca took would have to learn all of that. Perhaps he found it comfortable to keep Pietros for a time when so much else in his life had changed so quickly and he had so far to travel.

Pietros drew in a deep breath. Jupiter's asshole, what was he doing here? He had no idea how to light a fire, or ride a horse, or speak the languages of the south or the east or anywhere but Capua. Maps eluded him, and he was starting to suspect he wouldn't know the sea when he saw it. He was a serving-boy without a house to serve in, the fuck toy of a gladiator who wasn't a gladiator anymore.

He had never doubted Barca.

He had never had reason to doubt Barca.

At the ludus, had Barca walked out the gates and not returned, Pietros would not have lasted a day without another man's cock forced in him, or two or three at once if he were unlucky. It would have hurt, and being without Barca would have hurt.

Hurts were survivable.

Whips hurt. Chains hurt. Eating only every third day because Dominus was behind on his debts again hurt. Slavery hurt. Seventeen years of constant hurting had never killed him, and whatever might have happened at the ludus would not have been enough to overwhelm him. He could imagine all that, and all of it was survivable.

Freedom was not survivable. Not without Barca. Left alone in a foreign land, what could he do? Wander, lost. Starve. Sell himself, whore or slave. Die, far from Capua. Far from home.

Yesterday, he had wept with joy in Barca's arms after Dominus had declared them free. Today, he sat naked and shivering on the floor of a rotting barn, wracked with the knowledge that he was free and the world was huge, and he had no home and no anchor and no purpose apart from Barca. Who loved him, which was at least something, but who did not need him for anything at all.

He managed, barely, to master himself when Barca finished his exercises and came over for his clothes. He rolled to his feet and rolled up their cloaks, repacked their bags, kept his hands busy and trusted the still-uncertain light to hide any waver in his smile. And still he nearly jumped out of his skin when Barca's arms caught him around the waist and spun him, still naked, into a sudden, breath-stealing kiss.

Barca was hot from exertion and slick with rain, his thick hair already weighed down again with it. He smelled of clean sweat and his lips were salt over sweet water. Tasting them, Pietros realized for the first time since waking that he was thirsty. Barca took his mouth without hesitation or doubt of his welcome, and for all that Pietros' heart pounded with more fear than lust his body gave that welcome gladly.

As suddenly has he had begun the kiss, Barca ended it, and laughed while Pietros clung to him and tried to remember how to balance upright. "Do you know," Barca said, "how long I lay here this morning, trying to remember the last time I woke up to something as beautiful as you? I think breathing free air has done some magic to you."

"Or addled your memory," Pietros retorted.

Steadied, he leaned into Barca again for a new kiss on his own terms, and delicately and methodically removed every drop of rainwater from Barca's lips.

Barca stepped back, held Pietros at arms' length for a moment, then dropped his hands and stood back farther yet. "Get dressed, before you convince me that this fucking barn is a fine place to stay until the rain dries up. I want to go twice as far today as we did yesterday; I'm tired of smelling Capua on every filthy cunt we pass on the road."

Pietros dressed and shouldered his pack, Barca watching him all the while.

*****

At some point, they out-walked the rain, or else it passed them by. Capua's sharp cliffs and deep valleys fattened into rolling hills and broad burbling streams. Under a layer of mud, the dry-burned countryside was coming alive again in air still pregnant and slow with humidity. It was foreign and beautiful, and Pietros devoutly wished his head would stop hurting long enough for him to appreciate it.

There were handfuls of small towns along the road, most tiny enough to fit inside the city's arena. Each time they came in sight of one, Pietros' back tensed, and no amount of silent cursing would cause it to obey and relax. He kept a pleasant smile on his face and hoped it didn't look at weak as it felt; he avoided making eye contact with anyone and tried to look as though he knew precisely where he was going.

Whenever he could, he let Barca walk ahead.

Rise, walk, and sleep to rise again: the next four days passed much alike. Before noon each day his back screamed and his head was a tense, still band of pain. His feet ached, distantly, but by the time his thoughts reached that far down he was too tired to care. There were no more convenient barns, just underbrush and rocky alcoves; wrapped in his cloak, he'd fall headlong onto the ground and be asleep before he could notice any discomfort. Barca lit a fire, but the greatest share of warmth came from him stretched against Pietros' back as he was every time Pietros woke.

The morning of the sixth day he added bruises to the list.

"Swords," Barca ordered, and Pietros fetched them both to offer hilt-first. Barca took one from him but left the other, and Pietros turned to pack it away.

"No," Barca said, "keep it."

Pietros paused, puzzled, and Barca took his wrist in hand. "Stand straight. You know how to hold a blade; let me see you with this one." Obedient and still lost, Pietros squared his stance and slipped his arm free of Barca to hold the sword at ready. One did not grow up in Doctore's training yard without learning this much.

Barca stepped back to look at him. Standing absolutely still was no hardship. No slave lived long without knowing that trick. If you didn't move, you became furniture, and furniture, which could not heal itself, was too expensive to break. Pietros breathed, in and out, and concentrated on that motion rather than any urge to shift his feet or the sudden itch that scrabbled at his left ear. He kept his eyes straight ahead.

Barca looking at him was nothing new. He did it often, and Pietros liked the feeling. It reminded him he was valuable, to Barca at the very least, and that was no small thing. But there was nothing of hunger on Barca's face now, as far as Pietros could see as Barca paced slowly around him. Just -- something critical, looking for flaws.

That worried him enough that he nearly missed the fist aimed for his stomach.

He jumped aside, yelping in surprise more loudly than he would have done in pain. Then there was a sword -- sword! -- cutting in toward his ribs, and lacking a better tool he threw his own sword up to meet it. The crash of steel on steel caught his wrist at a bad angle and pain shot up his arm, but not enough to make him drop the weapon. He was too busy staggering backwards, white-knuckled on the hilt and panting like the last sober whore at the orgy.

Barca came after him again, lazily swinging overhand and down toward Pietros' head. His face was calm. Focused, free of any rage or madness or any emotion that would make sense of the attack. Pietros got the blade up, slapped Barca's swing aside and shoved Barca in the chest when he stepped closer. That, somehow, got his balance back under him, and he turned his stagger into a light-footed dance, hopping back and then spinning out of the way, dodging to the side farthest from Barca's free hand, taking his chances staying nearer the blade.

Couldn't let himself be grabbed. He knew Barca's strength too well to think he had any chance of breaking free. Knew his speed too well to think he could run --

Except Barca just stood there, calm and still and not even breathing hard, while Pietros' heart pounded nauseatingly in his throat.

"What --" Pietros dared, pausing just a few steps away on still-damp soil. Couldn't fight, couldn't run. Couldn't breathe slow enough to speak.

Barca's face still held that critical look, but it was softer, somehow. He nodded. "Good. Very good. You used the sword when you needed it, not as if you feared it. And you used all your body. You're fast. You'll get faster."

The sword wavered in Pietros' shaky hand -- fear or anger, he wasn't sure which, and the burning ache that had settled into his wrist wasn't helping. He clamped both hands over the sword hilt and held it steady, point down. Disbelievingly, he asked, "That was a test?"

Barca nodded again, serious. "I learned what I needed to. What I hoped to, in fact. You've got the reflexes. I've seen men, captive less long, who lose that. Having the fight in you to begin with makes the rest easier.

"I don't say that you reacted well. You flail, you leave yourself open like you're inviting the sword to fuck you through the gut, you show fear and suck in air so fast you'll be unconscious in a few minutes if some god keeps you alive that long. But. I can work with that." Smiling -- faint, that smile, but there on his mouth, and in his eyes if you dared meet them -- Barca held out his empty hand and with it asked permission to step closer.

Table-still again, but for the heaving of his breath and weakness in his arms, Pietros didn't move away. Barca's rough hand cupped his shoulder, and he didn't tense at the touch only because his muscles could hold no more tension.

"Next time, if you don't have a better plan, run. That I can probably outpace you doesn't make it fated that I will, and even a little distance will give you time to think and sway fate in your favor."

Next time?

Pietros bit back the response, but just barely. It felt like swallowing a stone.

Barca frowned. He went from holding Pietros' shoulder as he would a friend's to petting it. That wasn't how he touched anyone else, not even Crixus. Pietros knew for a fact: he'd looked. "I did this for a purpose, Pietros. It won't happen again without warning. I won't teach you to flinch away from me."

He sounded calm and very, very reasonable.

Only Barca's hand kept Pietros from shaking. Not because it was comforting, but because he'd be damned if he'd let Barca feel him tremble right now. He felt sick, all the fear washing out with his sweat and leaving him weak. Even with his breath and pulse slowed, each inhalation felt as if it were dragging a brand down his chest.

He dropped his head and nodded. It seemed the thing to do, and it kept him from having to look Barca in the eye.

As soon as Barca released him, he handed over the sword and went to pack their bags. He thought perhaps Barca stayed frowning, but he kept himself busy until it was time for them to take to the road again, and didn't look to see.

Barca wanted to teach him how to fight. Another thing to ask why.

*****

They had come farther than the drought. It was a gradual thing, but even Pietros' untrained eye could see the changes in the country.

It had rained here, perhaps the same string of storms that had finally blessed Capua, but the land hadn't gorged and vomited the water back in impromptu rivers of silt. The soil, moist and loose already, had drunk up the water gracefully. Grass and underscrub thrived, springy and lush, where only the tough old trees had weathered the long dry season well back home. Cattle in the fields were fat and sleek, and so were the children that tended them.

Their coin might stretch a bit here, when buying supplies in Capua had threatened to take too much. They might even get something that wasn't jerked meat.

Pietros did the bargaining. He'd run errands to market all his life, first fetching sweets for Domina and then more interesting things for Doctore. In this small town, the farmers inflated their prices less to begin with and so could not lower them so far, but were easier to talk down to something that wasn't an insult. Pietros walked away with fruit fresh and dried, honey, cheese, bread, oil, and wine, at a price well worth the luxury, and a few odds and ends they'd not packed but had turned out to need. The locals kept just high enough a margin to gloat to their neighbors that they'd taken the tourist.

Well, he supposed. They held back any gloating while he was in earshot, or while Barca was.

Barca had stood back and watched while Pietros worked. That they were strangers in these parts was obvious in the Capuan burr of Pietros' voice that rolled steadily under the rise and fall of the local twang. If he had a hope in hell of keeping their prices down, the locals didn't need to find out just how foreign they were, and so Barca stayed silent. Crossed his arms, narrowed his eyes, and looked very, very interested at any sign Pietros was about to be cheated, but stayed silent.

He'd never lost the strange accent that blurred his vowels and bit off his consonants, and the slow, careful way he had of pronouncing words in Latin to make himself understood. After days on the road of hearing scarcely any voice but his, Pietros had begun to notice it for the first time in years. He'd never heard another voice quite like Barca's. That wasn't love talking, the bone-deep conviction Pietros had developed some time in his youth that Barca was utterly unique on this earth, and not quite mortal -- unshaken by the fact that he'd seen Crixus beat Barca a handful of times in the sparring-ring and once in the arena, the single time Dominus had found it worthwhile to have his two greatest assets try to kill one another.

He'd never lost that conviction. Come to recognize it and know it for the foolish hero-worship it was, yes, but he'd never quite figured out how to rid himself of it. Or convince himself that he wanted to be rid. The warm, safe feeling he could summon just by being near Barca was as insidiously addictive as unwatered wine, and more certain to get him killed if he lost himself in it. He'd grown up in a school for killers, and yet he felt certain that this long road he walked was leading him someplace more dangerous still. And it was Barca who had pointed the way.

Barca had traveled farther than this before Pietros had ever met him. He was cloaked in reminders, now that Pietros remembered to look. His relentlessly foreign accent. The disconcerted look that came onto his face sometimes when he ate, as if the flavors weren't what he was expecting. His hatred for even Capua's gentle winters, so strong that he'd first enjoyed the drought, taking weeks before it ground him down into dust with the rest of them.

Pietros barely knew him.

The realization was staggering. Literally. His feet scuffed a step and his knees went weak, and he stayed upright only because he'd look a fool if he fell, and they weren't far enough from town to be alone. Barca looked back at him, drawn by the change in his stride. Pietros smiled vaguely and handed over a twist of bread and all the cheese, as if balancing his pack had been distracting him. Then he lengthened his stride and walked ahead, where Barca might see him stumble again but where he could keep his face to himself.

He figured Barca would call him back if he took the wrong turn on the road.

Camp, near sunset, and more effort went into it than had become habit. The rain had stopped, the land was gentle, and they had food that didn't taste like brined leather. That was nearly grounds for celebration.

At the very least, it was grounds for finding better ground to sleep on than a bush or overhang just off the way. Barca and Pietros each ranged to either side of the road as the afternoon faded, and of course it was Barca who found a place he liked. Some ways off, far enough that any traffic on the road would be silent with distance, and just the other side of a hillock from a pond -- an upwelling, really, where a stream grew meandering and lazy in its course before starting straight again. There was an old stone wall in place to encourage it to tarry, but it was very old indeed: worn down to half its proper height or less, to judge from the tumbled rocks, and held up as much by moss as stone, half-submerged in the water and eternally damp. Someone, once, had herded cattle here, but it was long ago.

Pietros made camp and took longer at it than he needed -- camp was a fire and the most useful of their belongings laid out in order, no more. He'd become good at making fire these past few days, and their belongings were, of course, few. He wanted time alone, though, and time to stretch the splints out of his legs without Barca watching, and to frown at the bruises on his arms in the dying light of day. Bruises from this morning, from the swords.

Barca went to bathe, and when the moon was well-risen and the camp as tidy as it cared to be, Pietros went to find him. Perhaps this time he would ask the questions.

All his reasoned, important questions died on his tongue when he saw Barca there, naked but for water to the thigh, holding a knife aloft, and the severed mass of his hair. What was left on his head scarcely brushed his jaw, even when he cast his eyes down to the water. There was a current, faint in the fattened stream, but enough to make eddies round his waist that gleamed in the night's lights; Pietros could see the ripples by the nearly-full moon.

Odd, that it gave him pause. He'd seen Barca naked an uncountable number of times; even in the water baths, when the ludus had been rich enough to spare those for gladiators. But he'd not seen Barca like this, quiet and poised, save before battle those times he'd traded enough favors to tag along to the arena and jostle his way to the bars of the pit. Quiet, turned inward. Reverent.

Prayerful.

Barca lowered his hands, and the knife sliced through the water as through flesh, and the water did not still around it. Not like blood, not like flesh, but as something that lived still despite the blade sunk in it, twisted into its heart. And his other hand --

Gently, cautious and seeking -- the touch of a lover -- he opened his other hand where the moonlight shone brightest on the water, letting the thick crop of his hair fall, bob, and float slowly away. Past him, past the dying wall, and down the slender stream that fed fields below.

Quietly, Pietros stripped off his clothes and stepped into the water. It was just cool enough to make his skin prickle, up his legs and over his hips as he waded through the pool.

"Hello, Pietros," Barca said quietly, his face still upturned and made sharp by the full moon's light. There was a smile on his lips beneath his closed eyes, peaceful and free on a man whose hand still held a killing knife.

Pietros stopped beside him, feet finding a little prominence that put them almost of a height. "You've sacrificed your hair," he said, sure he'd found the right word.

It shouldn't unnerve him so. Barca's face was not that different, not at this angle and in this poor light. But tomorrow he'd look for Barca and, just for a moment, think him a stranger.

Barca looked at him, then, that serene smile not leaving his face. "To Tanit," he agreed, nodding up at the moon. "The queen of heaven. She, at least, has kept some faith with me." His empty hand reached up and stroked Pietros' cheek, cool water droplets lingering on his skin. "Unlike her fucking coward of a husband."

Gods of Carthage. Pietros thought they might have died with their city, but perhaps Barca was enough to keep them alive.

Best get used to the change as quick as he could. He mimicked Barca's touch, sweeping a hand over Barca's cheek and then back to run through his hair, surprised at how light it felt to lift now. "You're going to want that evened. Turn around and I'll do it."

Barca handed him the knife, turned, and sank to his knees. Pietros was accustomed to the cool by water now, and didn't shiver when the waves that Barca made lapped up nearly to his waist. He took a moment to test the blade by laying it carefully against his arm. Still sharp enough for the job, though he'd want to put a clean edge on it later.

"Lean your head forward," he asked, and combed his fingers through Barca's hair when Barca obeyed. Kneeling, the man was tall enough to be at the right height for Pietros' hands.

The moon was bright but Barca's water-weighted hair barely reflected it; Pietros worked as much by touch as by sight. Three or four braids at a time, gently straightened and held briefly taut for the knife to pass through. Pietros could have wished for another set of hands to make the task easier and be certain he wasn't pulling at Barca's scalp. Unlikely that Barca would care even if it hurt, and Pietros would not give a knife into another man's hands to hold at Barca's neck, but still. He'd almost rather not do a job at all than get it half-right.

"Tanit won't mind, do you think? Taking the last bit of her sacrifice from my hands, instead of yours?" Flecks of hair clung to his hands, washing away each time he dipped back into the water. He was no one a goddess would pay attention to, any normal day, but if her eye was turned to Barca then she might see him, as well. "I'm not of her Carthage."

"No one is," Barca said distantly. "We wandered too much, on the road and the sea; it was never the city that mattered. Carthage was just where we rested between journeys, and where we kept safe the memories we wanted our children to grow up with.

"Besides, I've come in your ass often enough that you're more than half-Carthaginian by now. She won't notice the difference."

That was true.

If Barca had ever before put two sentences together about his home, Pietros hadn't heard them. That wasn't the kind of thing the gladiators' code of honor held against; too many slaves had stories of devastated lands and dead families for the ludus's idle gossip to steer clear. Every so often, he had seen men think it permissible to ask Barca the kinds of questions Pietros held back now. These days, most men had more sense than to wonder. Except, it seemed, Pietros.

He bit his tongue and finger-combed Barca's hair straight, to prove to himself that it lay even just above his shoulders. Some few of the braids were coming undone. Pietros marked them in his mind, but it was nothing he could fix by moonlight, standing to his waist in water.

"Done," he said. He plunged his hands into the water to take away the last bristles, then checked the blade of the knife again. Definitely would have to take a stone and give it back its edge tonight. He wouldn't be able to sleep with a neglected knife on his conscience.

When he looked up, Barca was looming. And then he wasn't, splashing back to his knees where he could bow his head and bring Pietros' lax cock into his mouth. Oh, fuck.

"Oh, fuck."

Pietros whimpered until he sucked in enough air to suffocate the sound. He thought, very clearly, about the knife in his hand, and quickly flipped it to tuck the blade flat against his forearm where he was least likely to hurt someone with it. Probably he wouldn't notice if he stabbed himself right now, but he would be really fucking displeased if he cut Barca off in the middle of sucking his heart out through his cock.

Barca's hands held his thighs, Barca's tongue nimble enough to work him with mouth alone. The fingers digging into the long muscles of his legs weren't hard enough to hurt, but he was going nowhere until Barca let him go.

Decision made for him, he balanced with a hand on Barca's shoulder and his feet firm on the pond bottom, toes curling and uncurling in the silt. His cock had already awakened to Barca's touch. He was never slow, and only rarely would Barca tell him to wait, to bite his lips until he tasted blood and hold himself on the edge of coming until he felt like letting go would rip him apart.

This time Barca swallowed his cock whole.

Pietros did not fall, because Barca would not let him fall, and he tried to swallow down his whimpers and got an embarrassing shriek instead when they pushed their way out anyhow. He bit his lip and came, and Barca stroked his thigh, both soothing and supportive.

Barca wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and grinned up at Pietros, pleased with himself as if he'd just won a bout. Pietros laughed down at him and wound his fingers in Barca's hair as he wouldn't have dared do a minute before, when he might have gotten carried away. More water splashed Pietros' stomach when Barca surged up to kiss him, but he was warm enough he barely felt it.

And Barca hadn't come, of course. That fact was very clear and urgent against Pietros' hip, for all that Barca was taking his time about kissing.

The bitter-salt tracings left on Barca's tongue sizzled through Pietros' mouth until he was ready to demand a chance to return the favor. But the slow, insistent grind of Barca's cock against him warned him that wasn't what Barca wanted. He spread his legs for Barca's wet fingers to press against his asshole, wrapped both arms around Barca's shoulders for balance, saw a brief glint and experienced the minor miracle of a moment's clear thought.

"Nm! Knife. Knife!" he stammered out, tearing his mouth away from Barca's by force and nearly swallowing the words in a moan when Barca's fingers didn't stop coring him open. "Gods damn it -- I am not fucking around with a knife while you fuck me -- where is the sheath?"

He pounded his empty fist against Barca's shoulder, and wasn't surprised when Barca was fast enough to catch the wrist and hold it tight, bring Pietros' hand to his mouth and lick at the knuckles until Pietros' fingers uncurled and he could bite at the tips. Pietros nearly held on to his pride, but Barca's other hand left his ass and he hissed in disappointment.

"You're dangerous enough unarmed," Barca agreed. His arm slung around Pietros' waist, he pulled Pietros close. Lips parted for another kiss or another curse -- he'd not yet decided -- Pietros' first and last warning came when Barca's shoulder dipped and Barca slung him by wrist and waist over his shoulder.

"Shit!"

Pietros balled his fist again and slammed it left of Barca's ass, where with the gods' blessing it might bruise and remind Barca what parts of his body were not for thinking with. The tip of the knife had scraped down Barca's back before Pietros got control of it again, and a few dark beads of blood welled up and dripped down with the water. Of course Barca wouldn't feel that. When it came to blades, Pietros wasn't certain how much pain it took to get through to him and didn't truly want to find out.

He kept better control when Barca let him stand again, beside the stone wall where the water was a little shallower above a bed of silt that sloped back from the stone. Neither of them bled while he found his footing.

"Sheath's there," Barca said, which reminded Pietros he was looking for that and not at Barca. He turned and found the sheath where it rested on a higher rock, winced just barely when he slid in the blade still wet and dulled. Time to care for it later.

He reached behind himself, took Barca's cock in hand without wasting the time to turn around. "Sheath's here."

Barca complied.

He was no more minded to be gentle fucking than he had been sucking, and Pietros was his bitch for both. He bore Pietros' weight down and forward until he held him against the crumbling wall, and a pike of his hips slid into Pietros, familiar and thick and making Pietros' mouth stretch wide in sympathy for his ass. He'd been stretched enough, just, and his nerves were already smolding before Barca's cock slid through them like an ember to set them alight.

Barca nuzzled Pietros' neck with his mouth still hot and slick from Pietros' cock, moving locks of hair aside with his tongue so that he could scrape his teeth on bare flesh at neck and ear. No marks -- just the press of hard teeth like hard hands, hard cock. Then he spoke, and it was ...

"Will you fuck me, next?" His voice rumbled like the distant warning of Jupiter's anger blowing in on a summer evening, and Pietros was so used to hearing it, like this, that the words took a moment to make sense. And they made only a very little sense.

"Yes. Ah -- yes!" Yes, the answer was always yes, because Barca had never asked him for anything that had not been good for him, almost nothing that had hurt and nothing at all that had hurt enough to make the pleasure it brought not worthwhile. And Barca always asked.

But -- what? What?

But Barca's hand had slid from Pietros' hip to his cock, and the rough palm scraped over still-raw nerves as Barca pulled at him mercilessly. Pietros whined and tensed against his will, all his muscles going tight as if to lock out the sensation of too much, too much and too good so soon after coming the first time, and when his ass clenched around Barca's cock, Barca only laughed with pleasure and kissed his shoulder. Barca's strokes into him slowed but did not stop, and his hand slowed but did not stop, and the hand still on Pietros' hip gripped him firmly. It made him think that, if he wished to escape, he would have a struggle, while firm hands held him and a rock-hard cock drove into him, and his thighs shook and his breath went ragged as if he'd run for miles.

Of course, it was Barca who held him and drove him open. If he wished to escape, he had only to say 'Stop, enough,' and the rough touches that made his very skin burn with confused, searing pleasure would stop, and the thick cock would leave him empty, and he would turn to see Barca standing some paces back, watching him with the languid, all-seeing eyes of a lion. Below, his cock would jut up proudly and still slick from water at Pietros' hole, and in the harsh moonlight it would be an angry red, begging for release.

If only he could shape the words in his throat and force them past his tongue, he could make this stop.

Instead he whined high and long like a dog on its belly, and let the tension in his body pull his back into an arc until he could rest his head on Barca's shoulder and mouth at his jaw, futilely trying for a kiss at all the wrong angles. And when Barca took his chin and tilted it back until his throat was bared and Barca could nibble at his jaw and draw his tongue down the whole length of Pietros' neck, he remembered how to make one word

"Please. Barca, please, please --"

Barca's hand in his hair was more brutal still than the hand at his cock, and Pietros was just as helpless to resist as it pushed him down until he was bent down to the height of the wall. He crossed his arms and rested his forehead on them; Barca held him there. Gentle pressure from the heel of Barca's hand, sharp bite from Barca's fingers twisted in his hair if he dared move his head. He moved by instinct to draw a hand across his own mouth, muffle his moans, but remembered in time where they were.

There was no one here to hear, no slaves on the other side of the wall who would not like their sleep delayed by his pleasure. With Barca's protection, he had scarcely had to care, but it had not seemed right to court trouble, but now --

And the hand on his cock stroked roughly, tirelessly, in time with the thrust of Barca's hips. A pause, just a stutter in the rhythm but enough to have Pietros almost sobbing in want, and then Barca moved again at a new angle, down and in and straight onto the knot of pleasure in Pietros' ass that sent lightning dancing across the backs of his eyes. Again, and again --

*****

They lay on the grass, Barca curled on his side with his head pillowed on Pietros' stomach, where Pietros could play idly with the prickly ends of his new-cut hair. They'd not managed to bathe; Pietros hadn't even wet his hair, aside from where Barca had pawed at it with wet hands.

"What you said, in the water --" Pietros began. Barca grunted, noncommittal. "Barca, what did you mean?"

Barca moved, leaving his comfortable sprawl for a position where he could look at Pietros, chin propped on his hand and eyes narrow. Pietros took a deep breath, ribs expanding free from the weight of Barca's head.

"I thought I was clear," Barca said, voice low and dangerous. Of course, his voice was always low, and Barca could not help but be dangerous. "Your cock, my ass, whenever we manage to feel like fucking again. Though, your fingers first, I think. I'm out of practice."

Evidently, he decided another demonstration was needed. He left off petting Pietros' stomach to cradle Pietros' balls instead, and after a moment's tension Pietros breathed out and spread his legs. It was comfortable, warm and safe, as Barca's hands often made him feel. There was nothing erotic in the touch. Just familiarity and possession -- which, granted, might have been enough to rouse Pietros again had Barca not rung him so thoroughly dry.

"Do you dislike the idea so much?" he prompted when Pietros remained silent.

Pietros shook his head, made his eyes focus on Barca. "No. Not at all. I just, it --" He sighed, admitting defeat. "You confuse me."

"You've ridden my cock more days than not for years, Pietros. If you've found it unpleasant, you might have said something by now." At Pietros' objection, Barca shook his head apologetically. "I'm playing ignorant. You're wondering why I want to take some submissive boy's role, hm? Why I want to get to my knees and spread my legs, your panting bitch?"

A flush crept across Pietros' chest and face at the words, or rather at the thoughts they conjured. Fortunately, his skin was dark enough that even the full moon couldn't make that visible.

Then Barca kissed him in the dip of his chest, in the middle straight down from his throat. His lips had to have felt the embarrassed heat.

"Because it's fun," Barca said. "Because I could not do anything to let them think me weak, at the ludus. For years -- it's been so very long since I've had a man's cock in me, Pietros. And I've dreamed of it. Sometimes, when I've woken you in the night and been ungentle about spreading you open and fucking you halfway to the floor -- that was because I woke so hard I felt as if I might die without getting fucked, and so I fucked you instead and imagined myself in your place."

He hadn't moved after kissing Pietros, just looked back up into his face. He was hot and heavy against Pietros' side, one leg curled casually across Pietros' thighs, hand back to cradling his cock. The comfortable sprawl did nothing to lessen intensity of his words, which came fast and harsh as if pushed out of his chest by a punch to the ribs.

"Do you understand? I'll do it because I want to. Because you want to. Who I'll bend over for is my decision and where you put your cock is yours. Freedom, Pietros. That's what it means." He laughed, soft and low, genuine humor in the sound. "Listen. A few days with you and already I feel young again, thinking about where my cock goes first of all. It did most of the thinking for me when I was as old as you are now. I envy your clear headedness."

"I'm not going to have any of that left if you don't let me go," Pietros warned, feeling the flush from his chest flow downward rather than dissipate. Barca moved his hand, though not without a flash of devilment in his eyes as he decided whether or not to he wanted Pietros able to think.

Pietros sat up, drew his knees up and crossed his arms over them. It was a good position in which to think. He felt he could catch any unwise words before they fell from his mouth. "You were -- someone's boy, then? When you were young?" It made sense, of a sort. Even Barca had to have been young once. Though his father, if truly a chieftain, should not have liked seeing someone use his son so. Perhaps Barca had kept it secret. Or perhaps his father had had reasons to approve.

Maybe that was why Barca had killed him.

"No," Barca said, looking at him strangely. "Not the way you're thinking. It was nothing like the way the Romans --

"Pietros, what have I told you about Romans?"

That they're all sheepfuckers, mostly.

Pietros caught it and threw it away before it could be said. It was true that Barca said that often and in earnest, and it was equally true that he was often right, but it wasn't the right answer right now.

When Barca had cut off that sentence half-spoken, Pietros' stomach had clenched. Barca was often silent when other men would chatter, and was a miser with words when he did speak, but when he had decided to say something he would say it, not change his mind halfway through. And he had no reason to guard his tongue against Pietros.

Barca was in no hurry to hear him speak. Barca, probably, would lie there all night watching him, waiting for an answer. Pietros swallowed down the sick feeling that crawled up from his knotted stomach and thought.

Pointing out that he, too, was Roman was also not right answer. He'd never warred against Carthage nor taken Barca for a slave, and his life was much better for being someone Barca thought of as not-Roman. Which might be a very, very big problem if he took ship at Tarentum and wandered off into the vast world where people knew from Romans, and the only language he spoke was Latin.

Finally, "That all the world is not like them, for all that they think it is."

He'd always taken it on faith that this was true, because Barca said it was, and he'd never been able to imagine any reason for Barca to lie to him. He still couldn't imagine what a world of different people would be like. Like being always around a hundred Barcas, maybe, each more alien than the last. Were his imagination up to it, he'd probably be terrified.

It was the right answer, or at least a right answer. Barca nodded and looked away, taking the weight of his strange scrutiny off of Pietros as he rolled onto his back. Pietros felt a little better, free of it.

"Do you know how to find your way by night?" Barca asked, as if he'd decided he wanted a different conversation all together. He didn't look back, but he saw Pietros shake his head -- or, more likely, he already knew the answer was no. Pietros knew streets and markets, not maps.

"Look above you, at the stars. You can do this by the sun, as well, but it's easier at night when you can see Tanit's waystones. There are calculations, too, you can do to be more accurate, but this is the simplest." He pointed, sighting along his arm, and Pietros leaned back to match the angle. "See the small bear, hung from heaven by its tail. Between its forelegs is always true north. To find Capua, walk a day west, then north again."

Pietros, absorbed in marking the stars, took too long to hear what Barca had said. He stopped breathing. Patient, always patient and quiet, Barca lay looking at the sky.

"If I ... were to return to Capua," Pietros said, careful around the bile in his throat. His tone went higher at the end, making it sound like a question. The problem with asking questions was that they got you answers or beatings, and either was usually bad.

"If you were," Barca agreed.

Quietly, Pietros began, "I don't want --" He caught himself. Quiet and pleading: there was no better way to ensure that what he did not want to come to pass would. Tried again, voice flat and toneless, "I'm not going to go back to Capua, Barca."

"Good," was all Barca said to that. Then, "We were not barbarians, living in tribes and warring with each other over cattle. Lifetimes ago, it's said, we managed to elect kings worth feeding, and before that queens ruled, when we were great enough that a woman's wisdom was worth more than a man's strength. I never saw the empire in glory, but we were not fallen so far as to have chiefs we followed like packs of dogs, sniffing the ass of whichever one had the biggest teeth. My father was a general, answerable to the Tribunal. I was young, a captain, and answered mostly to my own cock.

"Father once said he managed not to beat me to death, time and again when it lead me into trouble, only because I reminded him so much of himself as a youth. Then he shoved me into the ring for more practice, still hungover, hoping that more bruises atop a wine head would teach me to think twice about whose sons I seduced."

Barca craned his neck back to look at Pietros, a move that arched his back to show off the long lines of his torso and his exposed throat. "It did, eventually. Or perhaps I grew tame as I grew older."

In another place, Pietros would have laughed to hear anyone call Barca tame.

"I had friends and lovers, Pietros. Maybe too many, if such a thing is possible. No one used me."

So very foreign, more so the more Pietros learned about him. Pietros could imagine some of what Barca said. Not being used, not being some man's boy for good or for ill; that was simple enough. Just imagine it not happening, as if with an ugly youth. It would be a different life from his, but he'd known people who'd lived just that. Most of them had grown to be ugly men, too, but looks were not usually a man's greatest worth, anyhow.

But imagine this: friends and lovers, freely chosen. Seduced, to mutual pleasure. He had little problem imagining Barca as a lover, winning beauties to his bed, but from what Barca said, it hadn't been like that. He had been won, or else had wooed men and then rolled over for them, for some reason.

Because he wanted to.

Not used or overpowered or trading protection from a stronger man. Not even the unfathomable luck Pietros had had in Barca, where there had been a little of the one and a little of the other, but pleasure and care besides, and Pietros gone stupid with love for him.

If anyone could manage that kind of life for himself, it was Barca.

Pietros licked his lips. "No wife?" he asked stupidly, as if it mattered to him at all.

Barca laughed. "And what would I do with a wife, Pietros? Keep my eyes closed and imagine a cock growing from her cunt? No, I had two brothers and three living sisters. My father was well-supplied with grandchildren. There was no reason for any woman and I to make each other miserable. Father ... always indulged me.

"I was the only one of his sons who took to soldiering. My brothers trained only as the law required, once they were old enough to be out from under his hand. I liked it, the work and the weapons. Knowing what I would do from day to day in camp. The way it felt to march in formation and know just where my men would be without having to turn my head, being able to trust that that would carry through to battle. After a while, I liked the killing."

"I'm glad of it," Pietros interjected. "It kept you alive. I'm -- glad of that."

Barca might have smiled, but his face was in shadow again and he didn't show his teeth, so perhaps he didn't. When he spoke again, he spoke more slowly, with the fond notes of reminiscence gone. "That it did. We were all needed, at the end. Soldiers and horse traders and priests alike. At the end, when the enemy is before you and home behind -- many men learn they like killing then." He breathed out and in, a huff then a hiss, oddly loud.

"My brothers had the wisdom to die in battle. My sisters were brave women. They would have been quick enough. We bought them time to kill the children, slit their own throats. I believe we bought them time for that."

And if they hadn't, it had been years since the fall of Carthage. Any children might have taken after their uncle, tough and stoic. Sisters might have been the fierce warrior women of Africa, turning their kitchen tools into man-killing weapons. They could have fought to live when the city crumbled. But he'd stood in the shadows of the arena and heard how the crowd loved to roar for Carthagenian blood when Barca was cast as the savage, how happily they hated in the re-enactments, especially the funny ones where Barca was dressed in legionary kit and the prisoners to be executed played "Carthage" in costumes complete with dogs' tails and goat horns and bits of fur and teeth.

Women and children wouldn't have survived that hate, not sent through the kind of slave markets prisoners of war would see. They would have been sold for less than the price of the iron that bound them, an afternoon's entertainment for a soldier flush with a victory bonus. Too expensive to maintain them, when they were had that cheaply.

Not that men could survive it any better. That Barca was here was something extraordinary. A hero broken free by his own will from the underworld to walk on the earth once more could not have been more terrifying and glorious. Pietros had known the glory bit, but was just now coming to understand the terror. How sheltered he had been in the ludus, when Barca was his protection but not his life. He might, just, have managed a life worth living had Barca walked out the gate and never come back for him, as he'd feared so many times.

Barca didn't need him for anything but company. Barca wanted to know if he could learn to use a sword. Barca choked back tears when he talked about his family.

"Don't lie to me," Pietros told him.

Strange how that took no courage at all. He'd been so fearful since Capua, the dread of having to say it building every day into a terror he couldn't continue to face. It was a relief, submission to his fear, just to say it and have done.

Barca was looking at him in confusion and shock. Or maybe anger and rage; they all look the same in the dark.

"Don't lie to me," Pietros said again, trying to will Barca to understand that this wasn't a request. Wasn't even begging, though he wouldn't mind being made to beg if only Barca would enjoy the sound. It was a description of what had to be, if Pietros wasn't going to go mad walking through this unbounded, unfathomed world waiting to be abandoned. "You've told me so much, Barca. Just now -- you never talk like this, you know? You never talk, except when you have to, and that's all right. You tell me what's important. But don't ever lie to me. I can't survive if you start to lie to me, and if you're going to do that I'd rather you cut my fucking head off right now.

"The boy, Barca," he said. "What happened to the boy?"

The son of Dominus' enemy. The one who was most assuredly asleep safe in a bed right now, having worn himself out frolicking with puppies and gorging on fresh milk and honey all day. To hear Barca tell it last week, at least.

"Dead in a ditch," Barca said. "Probably not still in the ditch." He shrugged.

Pietros was almost giddy with relief. Maybe Barca really would cut his head off. That would be fantastic. He'd definitely never be afraid again then. He tried not to giggle, but thought he probably did. "So when you told me you'd sent him safely away, for soft and delicate things are beloved of you --"

"I lied."

"Why?" Why why why lie and why keep Pietros and why talk to him like this, tell him these things Pietros couldn't ask to hear?

Barca sighed heavily. "Because you don't like me murdering children."

"And I'd like it better if you didn't murder children, rather than kill one and lie about it, but if you are going to do it anyway why are you bothering to lie to me?"

There was a silence in which Pietros could feel, bit by bit, every mouthful of food he'd eaten in the last week lining itself up to be vomited. Even the ones he'd already shit out. He wanted to -- he didn't know. Unsay what he'd said. Say more. Beg Barca not to be angry. Roll him over and fuck him like he'd asked.

"Pietros ..." Barca asked slowly, "why do you think I brought you along?"

"For sex," Pietros answered promptly. "And to carry things. And for someone to talk to, when you want to talk."

"Ah," Barca said. Then he stood up, walked back into the water, and came back to shore with the knife they'd left on the broken wall. Pietros sat stupidly, watching him. Now would be the time to run, but he'd already determined he couldn't outrun Barca. And Barca could throw a knife.

Barca knelt beside him, grabbed his wrist and pulled it up, forcing his hand out of its white-knuckled grip on his knee to wait palm-up between them. Barca looked at him, looked him right in the eyes where Pietros couldn't question that he was being seen, and maybe the clouds passed beyond the moon or Pietros had just gained the clarity of vision that came to madmen, the kind of madmen who demanded things like honesty from their lethal lovers, but Pietros could see Barca clearly as well.

Then Barca slashed the knife across his own palm, deep enough to leave a new scar when it healed, and lay his bleeding hand in Pietros'. "Just yours. Do you understand?"

Instinctively, Pietros closed both his hands around Barca's, pressing tight to staunch the bleeding. It flowed between them, thicker and hotter than the summer night, and dripped out through Pietros' fingers and down his wrist. It was a bastard of a cut, with that damned dull blade, and he was going to have to bandage it.

His hands knew what to do with a wound, which was why they didn't shake.

"No," he said. "No, I don't. It doesn't. I never --" His breath hitched, sharp like a knife in his gut, and he pressed his lips to Barca's knuckles to keep the sobs back.

Barca left the knife somewhere and laid his free hand across Pietros' neck, cool and light compared to the bleeding one. "I do not like some of the things I've done to live. Other things I've liked a great deal, and it would upset you to know what all of those are. I did not like to kill the boy." He paused, and his breath sounded almost as rough as Pietros'. "I would do it again, if it took that to keep Battiatus' trust and free you."

He bent his head low over Pietros' shoulder and spoke again, quiet. "I gave him to Tanit."

"It was what we did, at home, with the children we couldn't keep. Gave them to Tanit, to keep her fed. We didn't leave babies beside the road to die unnoticed and keep our hands clean."

Gods ate flesh, everyone knew that. Souls, too, and scents, music, prayers, sex, whatever they found enticing. Man had found ways to keep them sated and leave enough of the world alive to live in. The arena fed them, too, or at least entertained them like everyone else.

No one liked to talk, though, about the babies. There was nothing you could do about it but expose them, if there were too many or they were sickly. You left them on the hill or outside the gate, and someone else took them or they died. It didn't hurt. Pietros didn't remember it hurting, at least. Didn't remember it at all, nor the marketeer who must have judged him strong enough to be worth picking up and raising to sell. His memories began in Domina's service when he was old enough to be useful.

But killing children, not because they were sick but to keep a goddess fed -- no one did that. At least no one admitted it. Except Barca did.

And would it have been more noble to -- not refuse, because Dominus had ordered it and there was no way to refuse. But to do exactly as Barca had first said? Take him off as if to slaughter and lose him somewhere remote enough to buy a few days' veracity?

And if the boy had been found too soon, it would have been both their deaths. Barca's quickly, a disloyal gladiator too dangerous to live. Pietros' more slowly, from a hundred different cuts. He had a list, couldn't get it out of his head yet, of the men who would have wanted him. Of the ones most likely to win that contest, all were brutal. Gentle men did not win in the ludus or anywhere else. Except for terrifying, foreign, probably mad Barca, who literally torn men limb-from-limb in the arena sometimes, who loved birds and delicate things, who sometimes simply held Pietros and always, without fail, saw to Pietros' pleasure as much as his own. And who, evidently, had been dying for the chance to roll over and spread his legs for his fuck-boy. Whom he loved.

It explained a lot. As soon as Pietros could stop shaking and clutching at Barca's bleeding hand, he'd think it through. It was too much for right now, though. He was still thinking about the child.

He'd been so happy to accept the lie when Barca'd first said it. The child lived. There was no bloodguilt, this time.

Except it hadn't made sense, and he hadn't been able to stop from noticing. Barca hadn't checked the door or lowered his voice before admitting treason. They'd not made haste away from the city, nor hidden their trail, as if Dominus wouldn't put a bounty on their heads the moment he learned of Barca's betrayal, whether or not he had a way to pay the bounty off. All those days on the road and Barca had never once looked behind them. And tonight Barca had given him the option of returning to Capua, told him how. And he had known.

That Barca might tire of him, that Pietros had feared. That Barca might, in a rage and with no arena to sop it in, kill him for some transgression, Pietros had considered. But Barca would not, would never send him back into what would be waiting for him in Capua, had Dominus found the boy alive.

And Pietros had gone a bit mad.

Not for the boy. The boy was dead and a stranger, and Pietros would not have sacrificed himself nor a day's freedom to save him. He'd gone a bit mad because he'd been sane and reasonable and orderly until now, and it seemed the world didn't work like that. So if it was mad, then it was madness not to be mad, and the only sensible thing to do was to ask questions he shouldn't, and call out for a liar the man on whom he was absolutely dependent.

And Barca had cut open his hand and vowed that ...

That he would spill his blood only for Pietros. Not for an owner or the pleasure of Rome. Nor for money or the arena's fleeting glory. For Pietros, whom he loved, to keep him safe and fed. To teach him how to fight and how to live. That was what it meant, those few words and the blood going tacky in Pietros' hands. And the damned thing with the swords that morning.

He looked up and brushed a sticky hand over Barca's cheek, pushing back a handful of short braids. They'd both had Barca's blood on them enough times not to worry about a little more. "I didn't know. Do you realize, I hardly know you?"

"Not a lot to know."

Pietros laughed. "Liar."

Barca smiled, squeezed his hand and the sluggish seep of blood surged for a few heartbeats. "It wasn't what the stories say." He'd put the knife aside at some point, and now he took Pietros' free hand in his uninjured one, lacing their fingers together.

"That first day, in the arena. My father raised his sword and turned aside his shield. It would give more power to his blow, and my arms were nearly dead; I could not have blocked it. And it left him unguarded. He gave me the choice. To make the sacrifice or be it, to kill him and live as a beast in a Roman stable or to bleed out in one last offering to Baal Hammon, for all the good that might do. He would take whichever burden I feared more.

"I live."

He squeezed Pietros' hands again, this time enough to hurt. "Do you need to know more?"

"Yes." Pietros squeezed back. He was strong enough for Barca to feel it.

"Then stay with me and find out."

Pietros had been born in a gutter and owned by someone else his entire life. He was pretty enough, but nothing special. He knew this because he'd been sold for a house servant, not a whore. For years he'd been too tall and muscular for any who liked their boys soft and delicate, and he was accustomed to work that roughened his hands. And he was aging.

The world was mad and he would have to learn to fight.

He nodded. Everywhere he kissed Barca's knuckles there was blood, but he didn't mind.

*****

Meanwhile, back at the ludus, Spartacus angsted a lot and was boring.

Date: 2015-03-11 12:54 am (UTC)
merle_p: (Leverage)
From: [personal profile] merle_p
I know I'm years late in commenting, but I love this so much.

Date: 2015-03-11 03:50 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Aww, thank you :D I was so pissed off when I wrote this, I'm surprised but pleased it's made folks happy.

Out of curiosity, I've been getting a wave of kudos for this on AO3 lately -- did you see it recced somewhere? I'm trying to figure out where the new readers have come from!

Love your icon!

Date: 2015-03-11 02:12 pm (UTC)
merle_p: (Default)
From: [personal profile] merle_p
Hehe.

Hmm, I think it might be because Spartacus was just recently made available on Netflix, so maybe there are a lot of people who are only watching it now?

I know for me it's that it took me two years and a deadline for a conference paper to (wo)man up and finally watch THOSE episodes, because I knew they'd just kill me. I'd pretty much seen every episode BUT the ones with Barca and Pietros because I was too scared, LOL. And of course, now I have all these feelings about them and need fic to mend my wounds. I mean, Agron and Nasir are lovely, but they do get their happy ending on the show, whereas Barca and Pietros just got royally screwed. Just objectively speaking, I think their story might be the most tragic of the entire show, and that really says a lot. So I love your story just for making me feel better about the world, but it's also by far one of my favorites out there!

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