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*

 

91BC

 

Marcus has been to Rome before, of course, as a child. He's not a complete rustic. He's been reading, but the slower, stop-start motion of the carriage as they reach the congested part of the Via Appia has been making him feel sick, and the increasing level of noise outside is distracting, plus he knows his mumbling is annoying; he wants to climb up with the luggage and look at the city, but he's embarrassed to show his impatience under the sharp, amused gaze of old Stiro.

"Stop fidgeting, you'll be the death of me," the old man says. "Go on, get up. You're only fifteen once."

Marcus hesitates. "I'll see it soon," he says. "I should finish this."

Stiro laughs, a dusty sound. "Live a little, boy," he says. "Take a look at the young Cicero's new domain."

Marcus flushes, undecided as to whether it's a compliment or whether the old slave is mocking him. Either way, he's under Stiro's authority until he reaches the house of Frenullus. He pulls himself up out of the carriage and onto the roof, holding on so tightly to the ropes that they bite into his palms. He's long reconciled himself to being no athlete, and doesn't dare more than is necessary to find a safe perch. The carriage shakes alarmingly as the driver yells a curse and the horses begin to move again, and Marcus settles back with a jolt onto the case containing his books. It makes him feel better, to have them so close, and soon he feels steady enough to look up.

For a breathless half-hour his attention is divided between the grave monuments of great men along the side of the road, and the increasingly large mass of life before them. It is Rome, the centre of the world; it's also his new home, at least for the duration of the school year. Marcus feels a sick thrill in his stomach, looking at it, so that he can hardly breathe. So many people, the temple archives and private libraries, the senate and the courts, the places where things happen. He feels lightning thrum through his veins again, and identifies it, as he has since he was six years old, as want. As if in response to the impending expansion of its hunting grounds, it expands in his chest so that it feels almost unmanageable, terrifying, before he runs through a breathing exercise and contains it. Marcus does not know what he wants yet, precisely, but oh, he wants. His want has brought him here.

After a little while, he digs out his copy of Polybius. He doesn't feel sick, here in the open air, even though it does stink of horse manure and dust. He can't really hear himself, and his throat gets dusty, but he manages.

"Hey!" he hears, after a while. "Hi, over there!"

He looks around, jolted from his reverie. Several vehicles along and back, there is someone waving at him from a carriage roof. It's a man - no, a boy, but older than him.

"What are you reading?"

Marcus hesitates. In his experience, that's been the prelude to teasing. Besides, although he's never been given any particular guidance on the matter, he suspects it's ill-bred to yell from the top of a carriage. He's almost decided to ignore him, when the boy waves his own leather-bound scroll in the air.

"Polybius!" Marcus says loudly, trying not to attract any attention from around them.

"What?"

"Polybius!" he yells. A cattle drover looks up and scowls.

"Brilliant!" the boy yells. He's smiling. He waves his own scroll again. "Diodorus Siculus!"

Marcus' interest sharpens.

"Don't know it!" he yells. Below him, Stiro thumps on the ceiling.

"It's good!"

Suddenly, the flow of traffic on the road surges forward, and the boy's carriage is abruptly alongside them. He grins, breathless, and reaches out a hand over the space between them to clasp Marcus'.

"Titus Pomponius," he says. His hand is strong and sweaty, and he has fine hairs coming in at the sides of his cheek and chin; he must be several years older than Marcus. "Isn't often I see anyone civilized sitting on the top of a carriage."

Marcus glows, and is momentarily flustered by the overt friendliness. Perhaps, he thinks, the boy has mistaken him for someone older. "Marcus Tullius Cicero, it's lovely to meet you," he blurts out, feeling angry at himself for being so gauche.

"You here for school?"

"Yes," Marcus says, then adds, reluctantly, because he doesn't want to misrepresent himself, "I'm just starting."

The carts start to rumble forward again. "Where are you staying?" the boy says quickly. "Do you want to borrow some books? I've got a decent library here."

"On the Quiriline," Marcus says quickly, hoping that it isn't an embarrassing address. "With Marcus Taxus Frenullus."

The boy grins. He has a slightly crooked, handsome smile, and nice teeth. "I'll find you," he says. "Welcome to Rome."

 

*

 

Titus Pomponius to M. Tullius Cicero, Greetings
It was a pleasure to meet you yesterday. Forgive my forwardness, but you seem an interesting fellow and I'm always keen to meet fellow readers. Call on me this evening ? This messenger will tell you where. TP

 

*

 

M. Tullius Cicero to Titus Pomponius, Greetings
Thank you for your kind loan of the Diodorus. The section you mentioned on Egypt is fascinating. I suppose you have read Herodotus on the subject? We are reading him at school currently, although I have read a little of him before. I prefer his Greek to Diodorus and Polybius, although of course I prefer Homer to both. Who is your favourite? When we met yesterday you said that you were raised in Greece - I envy you the opportunity to have learned it so fluently. I feel that I am behind the others here, although you were kind enough to compliment my reading.
If you require the Diodorus sooner, let me know, and I shall send it. I wish I had something to send to you in return, but Frenullus' library leaves a lot to be desired, and I am not permitted to loan from it as I please, anyway.
I hope we will have an opportunity to meet again soon.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

 

*

 

Marcus is reading in the quiet courtyard behind Frenullus'. Frenullus shows him off to friends - "This is my dear friend Cicero's boy, the bookworm I told you about," - and makes Marcus read him Greek, sometimes, but he bothers Marcus when he catches him reading in the house on a holiday. It's mid-afternoon, when the city dulls to a murmur in the heat, but it's shady here, and cool, and dice and laughter rattle from the taberna on the other side of the garden wall.

"Ssst!"

Marcus jumps. Titus Pomponius' head appears above the wall. "Tullius! Hello there!"

"Jupiter! Don't do that."

Pomponius hauls himself up onto the wall. Below him, a large, vulgar Apollo is pursuing a painted nymph towards a fountain. Pomponius looks down between his legs at it and grins. "Reading?"

Marcus waves the Posidonius at him.

"Slow going?"

"We weren't all nursed by the Muses," Marcus scowls. He's been getting increasingly frustrated with it - why must the man be so obtuse?

"Oh, Marcus, I was just joking, you're almost as good as me and I grew up there," Pomponius tuts, and slides down into the courtyard. "Posidonius is bloody awful. Come on, it's boiling out here and I've got a headache. Want to play tails and trops?"

Marcus hesitates, surprised and a little wary. He doesn't much like games, but he is tired of reading, and he's loath to say no to Pomponius. Marcus can't fathom why Pomponius is so eager to cultivate him as a friend, but he's been so persistent, giving Marcus free run of the books his parents send him from Athens - his father is highly placed under the governor there, although of an old Roman family, Frenullus had been careful to mention (although you wouldn't know it, he had said, to look at the length of young Pomponius' hair) - and it's nice to talk to someone about books. Pomponius seems happy to listen, although Marcus feels crushingly young next to him, and hates not knowing whether he's showing it. Playing tails, though, that seems more - informal - than he's used to.

"I'll teach you Athenian rules," Pomponius grins. "They're much more difficult than the version they play around here." He pulls a set of knuckles out of his pocket. Marcus sets his book and his misgivings aside, and listens carefully while Pomponius tells him the rules. Halfway through explaining why Venus beats the Dogs, he stops.

"Tullius," he says. "There won't be a test."

Marcus starts. "What?"

"Smile," he says gently. "You always look so anxious."

Marcus forces his face into a smile, sheepish. "I apologise," he says, face heating with embarrassment at his own awkwardness. "I didn't mean to -"

"Don't apologise! This is exactly what I'm talking about!" Pomponius explodes, his voice cracking with animation. "We're friends, aren't we? You act like I'm going to steal your purse or violate you or something."

Marcus' mouth drops open. Pomponius grins wickedly, and flicks his gaze lasciviously down. "Stop gaping, or you'll give me ideas."

Marcus is mortified to hear himself let out a giggle, high with shock, and he claps his hand over his mouth.

"That's more like a proper young Roman," Pomponius says, in a pitch-perfect imitation of Stiro, and Marcus can't help it, he laughs and laughs as Pomponius keeps it up - "Chin up, young Cicero! Hup! What's all this amusement? I take it you find Posidonius' venerable geological treatise risible?" until Marcus can hardly breathe and flaps a hand for him to stop.

They play tails with Pomponius' strange rules until it starts to get dim, and Scintilla calls Marcus from inside.

"Stay for dinner," Marcus says. "I'm just starting to get good."

"No you're not," says Pomponius. He steals Marcus' cup to take a sip, and nudges Posidonius with his foot. "What do you make of him, then, anyway? You know what they say - geological treatises are the cornerstone of a good education."

"Oh, it's riveting," Marcus says. "I particularly liked the four hundred lines on the weight of marble. I felt crushed under the weight of his wisdom. Flattened."

Pomponius snorts wine up his nose, and has to borrow Marcus' handkerchief to wipe his eyes and tunic before he's decent enough to go inside, where Stiro's suspicious glare starts them off again.

 

*

 

89BC

 

Hail, Man from Attica,
Well, Rome continues dry and dusty. When may we expect you to shower us with the spring dew of your presence? Do you like that? Quintus says it's too much. Well, let him rot, the Chalk's had us composing hexameter epics on the birth of Romulus and Remus for a month and I'm losing my mind. Quintus, on the other hand, is very much enjoying his proper Roman education. I suspect the novelty hasn't worn off yet.

I've finished everything you lent me before you left (thank you - the latest Diodorus remains a favourite), and things have been extremely dull, except that - you'll like this - Frenullus has started taking me on his visits. Stiro nearly fell clean off his elephant. Yesterday I met one of the consuls (well, the only consul, since Cato died at Marruvium, although we didn't know that at the time) - Pompey Strabo. You've probably met a consul before, Mr. Been-there-done-that, but I think I acquitted myself fairly well. Anyway, he said if an opening came up in his staff, he'd take me along. In all seriousness, I think things are starting to happen here. I assume you're keeping up with the news, even out in the sticks there, but Rome is all atwitter. People are telling incredible stories about Sulla's victories at Aeclanum. There are banners up in the street and graffiti everywhere, Sulla Italia Unita et cetera. Frenullus reckons that if he manages to settle the seceding tribes without too much bloodshed, he'll be consul next year. This may possibly change the plans for my taking the toga - if something opens up for me with Strabo, they'll rush it through so I can go. That will mean you miss the ceremony, but don't worry, you can send me a bigger present to make up for it.

I hope all continues well with the philosophizing, and that you're wearing a suitably ridiculous hat. Take care of yourself, don't catch cold, young man.

Big eggs!
Tullius

 

*

 

Tullius -
Quick note, I'm far too busy pondering the mysteries of the universe and chasing the local skirts (the girls aren't bad either) to talk to the likes of you, farm boy. Well, I hear from Rufus you went ahead and did it without me, but I suppose that's just the story of my life. Present en route, I hope you like columns. There's no shortage here, I can tell you (the girls aren't bad either... okay, I'll stop). I'm having this sent to the camp - hopefully it'll reach you. Oh, and, congratulations. Now you are a man, my son, etc. I'm sorry I missed it. I hope you're having fun being introduced to the wonderful world of military administration - be careful.
Much love,
Titus 'Atticus' Pomponius
PS - I've never met a consul. We philosophers shun the earthly trappings of glory. Big eggs!

 

*

 

88BC

 

"Tullius!"

Marcus sees Atticus standing back from the press of people at the dock, and he grins, despite the fact that his mouth still tastes of vomit and he feels unwashed and bruised all over. Atticus looks, of course, even at this distance, as if dust wouldn't settle on him if Jupiter willed it. He waves and jumps up and down, miming great excitement, his still-long hair flopping around his face. Marcus laughs, his heart light. He hasn't seen Atticus for nearly a year. Around him, he hears the harsh, blunted Greek of the sailors as they haul down the sails, secure the ship. He's had a week or so to get used to it, but he still can't understand eight words in ten.

Before he leaves the ship, Marcus self-consciously sees to the transportation of his luggage with the head porter, who seems to be nearly twice his height and girth, and he's careful to give him the exact amount of money Atticus had specified. He breathes an internal sigh of relief when the man nods politely, but maintains what he hopes is an unconcerned, dignified expression. He is a man who sees to his own business; he is perfectly assured. He takes a deep breath, and lets it out in a squawk when arms catch him around his middle and lift him off his feet an inch or two before dropping him. He spins, caught off guard, and Atticus beams into his face, then kisses him on both cheeks.

"Zeus, it's so good to see you! My god, he's got a beard!"

Atticus rubs the (actually fairly unsatisfactory) fuzz on his cheeks and flutters his eyelashes in mock rapture, then gives him a quick kiss on the lips. Marcus shoves him away, laughing and mortified, his stomach clenching with unfamiliar fear and - something else. "Atticus! Get off, you ass!"

Atticus roars with laughter, and lets him go, then ruffles his hair. Marcus glares at him. "I vomited earlier," he says, severe. Atticus grimaces, and Marcus makes a face at him. "Serves you right." He can still feel his cheeks burning.

"Oh, don't be such a Roman," Atticus says. "You're in Greece now, we're much more relaxed out here. Come on, I'll take you home. Or - baths first?"

"Baths," Marcus says immediately. "I feel disgusting."

Washing is glorious, and he soaps his hair with pure, unalloyed gratitude; it's only when Atticus, naked, lowers himself with a sigh into the hot water next to Marcus that he feels a stir of that unease again, the tension he'd felt at the docks. Atticus is - different, somehow. More assured, older. Marcus somehow had not been expecting that, and he has to keep stealing glances, even here in the baths, to update his mental portrait. Atticus will never be tall, but he's filled out at the shoulders, and his face is leaner, with a very convincing afternoon shadow on his chin. He's twenty two now - a man. He catches Marcus' eye, raises an eyebrow, then arches back in the water with a sigh, dips his head back and wets his hair, so that droplets run down his throat, through the stubble. Marcus swallows, suddenly seized by the incredulous, horrible certainty that he's getting an erection. He turns and scrambles out of the pool, thankful for the steam, then plunges into the cold tank before he can think better of it. The icy water scours him with a shock that's like a blow to the back of the head, and when he tugs himself out, shivering, he's safe again.

He feels skittish and tired for the rest of the day, wary, but he shakes it off, in the excitement of a new city, and the lectures he will be attending. He has a lot of preparatory reading to catch up on. Soon enough, he's forgotten about it.

 

*

 

Marcus meets Pomponia several months later, at Atticus' parents' villa near Megara. Atticus introduces them elaborately. Marcus is acutely aware that a lot rests on this moment; Atticus has been on-edge for weeks, talking about how delighted he is that Marcus is finally meeting his sister, how much he will like her, how much she's heard about him. He hasn't quite gone so far as to say that they'd make a good match, but it's there, an undertone to everything he says. Marcus had been surprised, when he'd first realized it, for reasons he didn't care to examine; but, he'd told himself, Atticus looks out for him in every way, introduces him to all the right people, books, art, even food. Why not this? So he goes along out of a combined sense of curiosity and self-advancement - he knows very well that an advantageous marriage is necessary for a career in politics, and everyone says that it's best to get the tricky first few years out of the way before he becomes eligible for any offices. But the idea of marrying Atticus' sister sits uneasily with him, makes something shift under his skin that he can't brush off.

They go to the farm on a festival weekend, when even Philo's iron hold on them must loosen for the mandatory three days of holiday. And, when she steps out, gaze modestly averted, long hair tied sleekly back and covered with a gauzy veil, he ignores Atticus' anxious glance and bows.

He's polite, of course, but he's unaccustomed to speaking with women of dignified rank. He forces himself to speak with her for longer than is necessary, ruthless with his own awkwardness. She's fourteen, so it's difficult to gauge what kind of a woman she will become, but she's soft-spoken, obviously intelligent, and responds to her brother's teasing with a wit and measured sharpness that bodes well, he thinks, for her ability to command a household when she's older.

"...of course, your brother doesn't allow me to make any decisions unsupervised," he says, and she tosses her head and laughs.

"Oh, Atticus doesn't let anyone do that," she says, and Marcus' assurance stumbles as he sees the resemblance - in that moment, they could be twins. She has his slightly snub nose, his thin eyebrows and round chin, and wide, warm smile. She sees his hesitation, and stops laughing, obviously aware, with the agony of being fourteen, that she has misspoken, somehow. He feels an unexpected pang of sympathy, and hastens to reassure her.

"My apologies," he says. "I was just struck by how much you resemble your brother."

Her mouth turns down a little, and he's aware that that might not be what a fourteen-year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood wants to hear from a potential suitor. The idea of himself as a potential suitor catches him off-guard, and he's suddenly ambushed by the idea of kissing that familiar mouth, looking into those eyes as a lover, and he feels a strange sense of panic. She looks around, obviously wanting her brother to rescue her, but Atticus has drawn back slightly to speak with his housekeeper, discreetly giving them some space without actually leaving them unsupervised in any way. Marcus, feeling as trapped as she, for a terrible moment cannot think of anything to say. But he recovers, he forces himself to recover.

"How do you like Pompeii?" he forces out. "I believe you just visited it for the first time?"

She chatters gamely for the eternity it takes for Atticus to return to the conversation. Her relief is so obvious that Marcus almost laughs.

"Well?" Atticus says later, easily, over drinks.

"She seems very nice," Marcus says.

"But you're not interested," Atticus says, with the disconcerting bluntness he pulls out sometimes, and which Marcus has no defence against. "No," he says, after a struggle. "No, I'm not. She's - I don't mean any offence to your family or you, Atticus, and I really appreciate the chance to - she'd obviously be a wonderful -"

Atticus slings an arm over his shoulder. "Think nothing of it," he says. "Honestly, it was just a thought. Pretend it never happened. You're already practically family, anyway. Really, I mean it, stop fretting. It's fine." He shakes Marcus a little. "Damn you, now I'm going to have to start looking for suitors in earnest. You would have saved me an awful lot of time."

"Oh, I see how it is now," Marcus says, laughing, the bands around his chest easing as Atticus laughs out loud. He looks as if he hasn't slept in days, Marcus suddenly notices. He feels awkward joking about this, when they weren't even speaking about it before, but Atticus seems - relieved, almost. Atticus shrugs loosely, slouching on his divan.

"They want her to marry an Italian, so they've shopped her out to me. You know how lazy I am, it just seems like so much trouble." He seems more relaxed than he has in weeks.

"Oh, come on, you must know every eligible young bachelor in Rome," Marcus says. Atticus gives him a sharp look that he can't interpret, then shrugs again, drops back onto the divan and folds his arm over his face, as if he's about to go to sleep. He's quiet for a moment. Marcus settles back into his own divan, and looks out at Atticus' family's vinyard, the rows of laden trellises silhouetted like strange, bent-over soldiers against the dark evening sky.

Atticus says, his voice husky, serious, "I only know one I'd marry."

 

*

 

They return to Athens the next day, Marcus to his philosophy lectures and rhetoric tutoring, Atticus to managing the restoration of his parents' villa and occasionally sitting in on the student debates. Marcus does not sleep well for weeks, not knowing why. He aches, and is bad-tempered, and Atticus' ready laugh for everyone, his lazy touches and easy smiles, begin to grate on Marcus, stinging like salt in an open wound. He thinks he's doing a good job of hiding it, until Atticus says something about it, one evening. They're in his parent's library; Atticus is making notes on his old, tattered Democritus, and Cicero is rereading Plato's Republic in preparation for the lecture the next day.

"Tullius," Atticus says suddenly. "Is everything - have I done something to offend you?"

Marcus looks up, surprised. Atticus' face is serious, and with a sick, sinking feeling, he knows he's been found out. He considers trying to brazen it out, but Atticus knows him too well, and he is not yet a good enough liar.

"I - no. No, honestly, you haven't."

Atticus leans forward, puts a hand on Marcus' knee, warm and solid. "Then what is it?"

Marcus looks down at his hand, almost involuntarily, his whole, damnable body tensing, then wrenches his gaze up again. Atticus' eyes open a fraction wider, then a line appears in the middle of his forehead, and he gently removes his hand. He steeples his fingers before his face, and presses them against that line between his eyebrows for a second, as if to smooth it out.

"I'm sorry, Marcus," he says, in an unrecognisable voice. "I didn't realize I - I'm sorry if I embarrassed you. I'll - control myself. It won't happen again."

Then he gets up, puts down his book, and leaves the room. Marcus sits, frozen, humiliated and bewildered. He half-thinks Atticus will come back immediately; when he doesn't, he is in two minds as to whether he ought to follow him, but trying to imagine how the conversation might go makes his chest twist and hurt. He hates this; he never gets better at it. He doesn't understand anything. He thinks that he should leave the library; he thinks he should go after Atticus, try to explain, or ask him to explain. He thinks that he should leave Atticus alone. He doesn't know what to do. He sits with Plato heavy and forgotten on his lap, until, some time later, Atticus comes back, looking exactly the same. "Dinner's ready," he says. "Some people are coming over who'll be at the lecture tomorrow, you should meet them."

Desperately relieved, Marcus, for a moment, thinks that he must have imagined it; after all, Atticus is never angry. He drifts on the warm seas of Athenian life, never upset or shaken. Marcus must have imagined it. But as Atticus holds the door open for him, Marcus misses the usual warmth of Atticus' hand on his back, and the weight on his chest comes crushing back again.

He will miss it for all the months to come, when his money comes through and he moves into his own lodgings without a murmur of protest from Atticus, when he sees Atticus in lectures leaning close in and laughing with some of the other students Marcus doesn't know, and in the hollow feeling in his throat, he feels that he has done something wrong, broken something that was once whole; he is so unused to the feeling that he does not even know where to start with dissipating it. He is caught up in his studies, in the philosophy lectures by the great Philo and others that seem to push the walls of his mind outward and rearrange them. There are whole weeks when he can convince himself that everything is the same, when they laugh and talk and argue about philosophy and share their meals in the shade of the Stoa; then there will be a moment when Atticus would have thrown his arms around him, before, or ruffled his hair - which Marcus never liked - and now doesn't.

Marcus increasingly finds it easy to say the perfect thing on every occasion, works at it, but with Atticus, with this one thing, his mind freezes and empties out, and sickness balls in his stomach. He isn't even sure what he is afraid of, and he is afraid to find out. He is afraid to ask what has happened between them - what has, perhaps, been happening for years, that with all his cleverness, he never noticed. So he says nothing about it, and tries to put aside the thump in his chest he felt when Atticus used his first name, the shivery feeling of Atticus' hand on his knee, that strange, aching fear that feels almost like longing. After a while, the sharp edges of it start to erode away, and he is able to push it aside, and concentrate on his work. He has so much work to do.

 

*

 

One night, he's roused from his bed by Ioannos, his hair messy and cheek bed-creased, to find Atticus pacing in his reception room.

"Marcus," Atticus says, coming towards him, and Marcus' breath stops. "Marcus," he says again, and, stunned, Marcus sees he's been crying.

"Jupiter in heaven, what is it?"

"Sulla's marched on Rome," Atticus says. "He went in with his soldiers - there have been riots." His face crumples. "Marcus, my father's dead, he, there were fires, the whole quarter -"

Scarcely knowing whether he's still asleep, Marcus reaches out and touches Atticus' hot, wet cheek. Atticus stumbles forward into his arms - it is a dream, it must be a dream - and Marcus holds him as tightly as he can. Atticus whispers that he has to go back, he's sailing in the morning, and Marcus whispers that he'll come with him, of course he will, he'll do anything Atticus needs.

"I love you," Atticus chokes, weeping openly into his neck, now. "Marcus, I love you. Thank you."

"Shh, shh," Marcus says. He vaguely thinks that Atticus should sit down, and then they are in his bedroom; Atticus falls asleep in Marcus' arms, with Marcus stroking his hair. He has never shared a bed with another person, and he lies awake for the few hours before dawn, his arm going numb under Atticus' head and the rest of his body too hot. He's already thinking about what it will cost to sail back to Rome, whether his family will want him back in the country during civil unrest, whether it might not be more responsible to send for his brother here until it's all over, whether it might even be dangerous for him, in an occupied Rome, with his second cousin on his father's side one of Sulla's major political opponents. Atticus' heart beats against his, steady and reassuring, and Marcus feels so many things. He holds on to him. He is nineteen years old, and they are a population of two at the axis of a changed world.

 

*

 

87BC

Tullius to his dear Atticus, greetings,
Arrived safely back in Rome. The crossing from Athens was rough, but at least the nausea distracted me from my sadness at leaving you and your family, although this was also tempered by my happiness at seeing you all settled there again; doing better than I had imagined possible, under the circumstances, and I was glad to see it. The atmosphere is uneasy here - we hear that Marius is laying the foundations for his return from exile into a seventh consulship, and there are murmurings that Sulla is moving against Mithridates in Greece with unexpected violence. Do take care of yourself, don't venture north if you can help it. The new lodgings my parents arranged for me and Quintus are fine - attractive furnishings, an adequate staff (please thank your cousin for his recommendation of Mauro, I haven't eaten so well since I was at your parents'), quiet, close to the law school. I've met with Q. Mucius Scaevola - he's as impressive as rumour makes him. He's got it all at the tips of his fingers, it's incredible. I can't believe I will ever have that kind of memory, but I'll be delighted if I can retain half of what he knows. I haven't met any of the other students yet - lectures and test-cases begin in several weeks, but he's got us on precedents already, and I'm barely recovered from the journey. In fact, I think I have to lay my pen down now, but I'll send this on in case I don't have time to finish it for a few days. I'm sorry you decided not to come up this year, but of course I understand your wish to stay with your family at the moment. Still, it won't be the same without you. Write soon, tell me how the others are faring. Is your sister over her cold yet? I've started on the book of odes you gave me by that friend of yours. They're not bad, although I have some suggestions - I think you're right about the clumsiness of the match of metre to subject. All right, I really must go to sleep now.
All my best,
your Tullius

 

*

 

Tullius to Atticus,
Since I wrote my last, we've heard that Sulla has Athens under siege. There are terrible stories. Please, please, don't be in Athens. Go south, come back to Rome, anything. You know there is a home for you here. I pray you do not get this letter, for the right reasons. Be safe.

 

*

 

"For Jupiter's sake, Quintus, this is hardly the time."

Marcus is cross, and has statutes on the ownership of property (freedmen, sons of freedmen, foreigners, inside city limits, outside city limits, wooded areas, river boundaries, wall construction, bequeathals) pounding on his brain. There are more stories from Athens - rivers of blood in the streets, massacres of the governor's family. He can't think about them. He stumbles a little, and Quintus catches his arm to steady him, so that a chink of light escapes for a moment through the blindfold of his hand over Marcus' eyes. Quintus is seventeen, and taller than Marcus, now.

"Stop complaining, you'll thank me in a minute."

"Okay, let him go," a laughing, familiar voice says, and Marcus grabs Quintus' hand and rips it away.

"Titus?"

His throat closes up, and Atticus stares at him, half-smiling.

"I wrote you a letter yesterday," Marcus says, stupid with shock.

Atticus laughs a little, shakily. "Well, I'm here," he says.

"But - what are you doing here? How did you get here so fast?"

"It's lovely to see you too," Atticus says, his mouth still twisted upward at the corner, his eyes shining.

"I'm -" Marcus shakes himself, and forces his feet to move. He hugs him, overwhelmed by the reality of him, and then finds he cannot let go, his eyes stinging. "I'm just surprised, I - thank the gods you're all right." Atticus squeezes him tightly, and this time his laugh is more like a sob.

"I couldn't let you have all the fun of law school without me," he says, and wipes his eyes with the back of his wrist. "Besides, who'd keep you in good wine and nice books?"

"I'm so glad to see you," Marcus says simply, meaning it, without caveat or reservation.

"I know," Atticus says, and pulls him in for a hug again, pressing his face against Marcus' neck, warm and a little wet. Marcus closes his eyes, and breathes, and breathes.

 

*

 

Later, they lie on Marcus' bed and look at the ceiling.

"My family'll be here the day after tomorrow," Atticus says. "We're all here until things settle down at home. We got out before it got really bad."

"I'm glad."

There's a silence. Marcus has so many things to say, but he's become accustomed to putting them in letter form; usually, when he's going to see Atticus again, he takes days of storing up news and observations, ranking them in order of importance, but now it's all piling up out of order.

Atticus rolls onto his stomach on the bed, so that his side is pressed along Marcus', and he looks over into Marcus' face. Marcus feels, suddenly, that he's on the edge of a cliff, his heart is beating so fast and his face is hot, and he wants, he wants so much, he feels that his body can't contain it.

"Marcus -" Atticus murmurs, and Marcus blurts out, "I want to be consul."

Atticus stares at him.

"I want to be consul," Marcus says again. Saying it out loud makes it frighteningly real, transmuting it from a white-hot burn into something solid in his mind, a goal. He has to know if Atticus will laugh. It's the most important thing in the entire world, it's everything, and he hadn't realized until he had already taken the risk.

Atticus looks at him for a long, quiet moment. He doesn't laugh. With every heartbeat, Marcus feels older, more sure.

"You'll have to work at it all day, every day for the next thirty years," Atticus says. "Twenty-five, if you're lucky. And if there's even a consulship left by then. Sulla might set up a hereditary dictatorship. Dissolve the senate."

"He can't do that. Nobody would stand for it."

"No, you're probably right. But something else could happen."

"I know."

Atticus lays a palm over Marcus' chest, over his heart. "You're an overeducated farm boy with pretensions above your standing," he says. "They'll hate you."

It hurts, but Marcus swallows around it, because he's never seen Atticus look at him like this before, and he feels like he could do anything at all. "I know."

"You could do it," Atticus whispers. "I'll help you. I'll become friends with everyone in Rome and make them all vote for you."

Marcus chokes a laugh. "How will you do that?"

"I'll let them all stay in my expensive farmhouses and feed them very expensive food." Atticus looks completely serious, and Marcus laughs again, incredulous, his heart full.

"I was going to ask if you'd run alongside me."

Atticus snorts. "You must be joking! I'd have to work far too hard. And think how many scandals I'd have to avoid. All that clean living, I couldn't do it."

"I'll have to get married before I'm twenty five."

Atticus nods, then breathes out, and lets his forehead rest on the sheets. Marcus shuffles down a little on the bed, then puts his hand on Atticus' shoulder, slides it up to the warm skin of his neck. Atticus looks up at him. Marcus doesn't move away when he leans in to kiss him on the mouth, gently, carefully. Just for that moment, the last time they will ever have, Marcus lets himself kiss back.

Atticus' mouth is soft, sweet and undemanding, and when his hand comes up to cup Marcus' cheek, Marcus feels that his heart will be torn in half. Then Atticus pulls back and kisses him once more, hard and quick, like the seal to a promise. He takes a deep, wet breath.

"Marcus Tullius Cicero, consul," he says. His voice is hoarse and twisted, but he's smiling. Marcus feels that surge of want again, but it's controlled now, settled into a slow burn that feels that it could last for thirty years, twenty-five if he's lucky. Atticus squeezes his hand, and Marcus interlaces their fingers and holds on tightly. He feels lucky.

 

*

 

83BC

 

Tullius to his Atticus, greetings.

Today I gave my first speech for the defense. It went well, I think. The client is a wretch - he undoubtably did it, and murder, of all things, but I suspect we can get him off. I'm second defender to Roscius and Sulpicius, but Scaevola says it won't be long before I can take first throw on a case. My voice is suffering now, but I'm trying the remedy you suggested, and it seems to be helping. Thank you for the books - I doubt I'll have time to start on them before the case is over, but it should only be a week more at the most. They are waiting on my shelf as a symbol of the holiday to come and your affection which cheers me greatly through my exhaustion. I'm very glad to hear that Rufus' first chapters are finding an audience with your help - heavens above, might this be a literary endeavour he actually finishes? I'll believe it when I see it.

You may have heard that we had something of an upset on the Capitoline - the temple of Jupiter caught fire on Kalends night and burned completely to the ground. A few priests and slaves were caught in the blaze, no doubt trying to recover the archives, and the Sibylline books were completely lost. You believe in prophesy as little as I, but even you would have found Cornelius Scipio' speech disconcerting. "From now on, honoured senators, we step forward into the dark." He did a very good job of it, everyone was quite rattled. If only he took as much time over foreign policy. There is little other news; your friend and mine, Ptolemios, has had a grevious falling out with my brother. I am trying to persuade them both to see reason, and I think I am beginning to be successful. Old Caesar has had a son by Cornelia Cinna - a formidable match, as we said at the time. The boy is by all accounts healthy. But we can talk of all this when we meet.

I miss you; conclude your business and come to Rome. Rufus' chapters can't be that good, and my prospects are better than his. Also, I need you to help me buy a house. Yes, I'm moving up in the world. "But not without me!" I hear you say. No, not without you.

Your devoted friend, always,
M. Tullius
End