Crixus and Agron still fight when Barca retreats to the shadows of the villa. He does not want any part in their argument.
They both accuse the other of selfishness, yet fail to see how selfish their own desires are. Crixus, he knows, is burning hot with the need to save Naevia, and he can hardly fault the man for that. Yet, he has seen Agron's gaze linger on the short-tempered Syrian slave, and he understands that the German, who just lost a brother, wishes nothing but to keep Nasir from harm. And Spartacus but fuels the fire, because he too is driven by selfish reasons, no matter how often he assures all who will listen that he is not.
They are all equally foolish. It does not make Barca hold them in lower regard.
Because he, too, is a selfish man. This is why he will move with Agron to Mt. Vesuvius, why he will not follow Crixus to the mines on a mission that will prove futile at best, and is suicide at worst. His decisions are now his own to make, but they are not his alone, and there are bonds more lasting than the mark of the brotherhood: a mark which now, as the grip of the nightmare fades, seems more curse than blessing at times.
He heads toward what once was the private bedroom of the villa's dominus, before the man died choking on his blood. Chadara approaches from opposite direction and smiles at him in passing – a smile he receives with more appreciation since it has lost its flirtatious air. She is smarter than most men would believe her to be, and understood quickly that he would not give her what she seeks. And there are worse men to lie with than Rhaskos, he supposes: the Gaul is an idiot, yet his cock stands more impressive than his head, and while coarse, he is not a cruel man at heart.
"He is awake," Chadara says without stopping, "Maena is with him."
"Gratitude," he replies, and marvels at how easily the word now passes his lips: times past, he would have eaten shit before uttering words of thanks for a deed this small. His world is changing, and Barca, the Beast of Carthage, is changing with the world.
He finds Maena in the smaller of the bedrooms, sitting on the edge of the lectus. The matron chatters along while her hands move quickly to mend a tear in a threadbare tunic, and only pauses to look down and smile at the dark head emerging from the blankets.
He brushes away the now familiar sting that pierces his chest whenever he sees another act toward Pietros with kindness. It is not an uncommon sight these days: the boy is pretty and friendly and not a threat, which makes his companionship welcome to women and children, and many of the men. Barca knows he should be grateful to see others recognize the boy's worth, and yet – he was the only to show Pietros affection for so long that at times, he cannot help but feel the change as a kind of loss. He is, after all, a selfish man.
At his approach, Maena looks up from her work and bestows a quick smile on him. This, too, is something he had grown unaccustomed with: women showing him kindness for no other reason but that they can. He does not smile in return, because he does not know how, but he nods and hopes that it conveys the sentiment all the same.
If Maena takes offense with his brusque manner, she does not say. She gathers up her handiwork and rises to her feet, but not without brushing a gentle hand over Pietros' hair.
"Another visitor arrives," she says and takes her leave. Barca waits until she is out of sight, then he approaches the bed and sits down at Pietros' side.
The boy brightens at his sight. "Barca!" he exclaims, and moves as if to sit. Barca stops him with a kiss, a move intended as much to keep the boy where he is, as for the sake of the pleasure alone.
"Hmm," the boy says happily, when their lips part at last. "Would be that every visitor greeted me like this." He grins, but rolls his eyes when he sees Barca's face.
"I know," he says, "my lips would be the last thing they tasted on this Earth. I've heard you repeat it far too many times to ever forget." His smile is soft as he raises a hand to Barca's face. "As you should know my answer, since you've heard it many times yourself: I do not and will not ever desire another's touch."
He shifts again, and Barca presses a gentle hand against his shoulder to keep him in place. "Rest while you can," he says sternly. "We will march tomorrow, and you are still weak."
The boy pouts, but only for a second. "Then come and lie with me," he says, and Barca sighs, part exasperation, part relief. He lowers himself to the bed until he is stretched out at Pietros' side, careful not to rest his weight on the boy, and feels the familiar sense of content enfold him as Pietros curls up against his chest.
"A decision has been made, then?" Pietros asks, his hand playing idly with Barca's braids. The Carthagian rolls his eyes.
"I have made decision," he huffs, and permits himself to run a finger along the shell of Pietros' ear. "Spartacus moves with Crixus to the mines to find Naevia. I would part for Mt. Vesuvius with Agron and his men."
"You would not go with Crixus?" Pietros asks. There is surprise in his voice, and a trace of guilt. "I know I am not able to, but neither would I be an obstacle to your goals."
Barca grunts, a clear message as to what he thinks of such words. "Crixus heads for the mines to be reunited with his heart," he says. "I stay because I would not be parted from my own." He moves his hand from Pietros' ear down to his neck, grip gentle but tight enough to feel the blood pulse underneath the skin. He takes comfort in such reliable proof of life. "Not when I nearly lost it mere days ago."
Pietros nods earnestly, eyes wide, and meets him easily when he leans down to touch his forehead against the boy's.
"The Gods did not wish to see me taken from your side," Pietros says against his lips, sounding pleased and serious at the same time. "I shall make sacrifice to Bastet when I am able again."
Barca nods in agreement and retreats, pulling Pietros' head against his shoulder. He does not care for the Roman gods, who are as capricious and fickle as their worshippers are, and he has been given no sign that they care for him. The myths of Egyptian deities, however, told by Pietros' mother to him as a child, and retold to Barca during sleepless nights, had inspired awe and reference in his heart.
Once, long before Auctus had fallen, one of their doves had been caught and devoured by the scrawny cat that roamed the ludus' kitchen, tasked with ridding the rooms of vermin. Barca had nearly killed the creature over it, if not for the skinny slave boy who put himself between gladiator and cat. The boy had stared with wide, terrified eyes at the man who was strong enough to squash both boy and cat with one sweep of his arm, but had not backed down, and Barca had been powerless in the face of such courage for the sake of an animal's life. Barca had not known it then, but much later he understood that it was that moment when Bastet had chosen him to be the protector of this child from her lands, when she had tested Barca and found him worthy, despite all the darkness in his heart.
"How do you fare?" he asks, because those are thoughts too grave to consider in the bright light of the day. "Do you suffer much pain?"
Pietros shrugs. "The pain is bearable, and I have suffered worse." He falls silent, yet a shadow of annoyance passes over his face.
"So what is troubling you?" Barca asks, and frowns when Pietros looks down. Crixus has mocked him more than once for letting the boy lead him around by his cock. Barca merely shrugs off such words. It is the truth, and yet it is not, because for years, the boy's hold on his heart has been stronger than the grip he has on his cock. It is no secret that Barca would do all he can to ensure that Pietros is safe and content, and yet Pietros seems oblivious to the truth. Barca is a selfish man, and he still recalls the days before his capture, free to pursue the desires of his heart. But Pietros, born to a slave, never learned to ask for things: with his mother's milk, he had swallowed the lesson that wishes are dangerous, futile things, and it is a difficult lesson to forget.
"It is nothing," Pietros sighs. "It is a foolish thing to wish for. But –" he pauses and looks at Barca with dark eyes. "I've rarely laid in a bed such as this, and only to entertain my dominus' guests. I never had a bed to myself, a bed I could have shared with you. I dreamt of putting it to good use, if the occasion ever arose. And now that I am in possession of a bed, I am too injured and weak to pursue my plan."
He looks so miserable at the thought that Barca does not know whether to provide comfort or to laugh. In the end, he does neither, and bends down for another kiss. The boy submits willingly, and the pliant softness of his lips when they part for his tongue causes Barca's cock to stir.
"There will be many beds," he says, voice hoarse. "And if there is only grass, and sand, it will still be our own." He runs a hand down Pietros' chest, warm and smooth, and feels the boy shiver at his touch. "But we shall still make use of the one we have today," he adds, and watches Pietros' eyes widen in shocked delight. His hand is gentle as it ghosts over a narrow hip, careful to avoid the bandage that covers his side, and finds the boy's cock at last, resting in a nest of silky curls, but already straining against his touch. "I would erase all memories of other beds from your mind," he says, and bites down on the edge that threatens to color his voice. They all did what they had to do to survive, under Batiatus' rule, and if Pietros was summoned to the villa on occasion, because a guest had voiced specific requests, there was nothing to do but direct his rage at his opponents on the sand, so that it would not taint his touch when the boy returned.
Never again, he thinks and strokes the boy in a lazy, steady rhythm, feels his own cock grow against the curve of Pietros' hip, leans down to kiss the moans from Pietros' lips.
"I want –" the boy breathes, his voice thick with need, and Barca stills his hand.
"Turn," he orders and helps the boy shift to lie on his uninjured side. Pietros fits himself into the mold of Barca's body, back flush against Barca's chest, ass pressed into his groin. Barca's cock finds the space between his cheeks on its own volition, no doubt drawn to the familiar heat, and Pietros groans and arches in invitation. But Barca does not press further: the fire of youth and desire may burn hot enough, but Pietros' body yet heals. Instead, he reaches out, his hand taking hold of Pietros' cock again, and lets the boy set the pace. Pietros pushes into his hand, then back against his cock, with gentle, careful thrusts, a sweet, low, steady burn. There is no hurry, no danger, there is nothing but Barca's harsh breath and Pietros' little sighs, and this, this moment is what makes it all worth, the fights, the betrayal, the blood they have shed. Barca feels the boy spill in his hand, and presses kisses against his neck as his own climax comes like a rolling wave, lapping against the shores of the ocean, quiet and slow and inevitable, then withdrawing, leaving him sated and raw and clean.
Somewhere behind the villa, a shabby stray cat lazes in the sun, green eyes blinking as she stretches her limbs.
In the courtyard, Agron and Crixus yet fight.