Training is not yet over when Barca returns from the market and yet another of Batiatus’s alleyside schemes gone sour. A part of Barca thinks his dominus a fool, grasping forever for position that so clearly lies beyond his reach.
The other, larger part too keenly feels the kinship struggle of such aspirations to dismiss them. They all strive for greater things in the house of Batiatus.
The hour is late, and Doctore waves him away when he would join his brothers in their training. “Everyone is well paired,” he states shortly. “Take rest from task, and meet new day with strength renewed.”
Barca, who has known Doctore from when he was only Oenomaus, a mere gladiator among many – though formidable – recognises well the hint of disapproval in the man’s voice. Doctore has never favoured Barca’s duties as dominus’s arm of protection in the darker alleys of the city, though he knows better than to openly display his misgivings.
Barca shrugs it off with his cloak as he heads for his cell. Oenomaus may afford the luxury of principle, having nothing to defend but his own honour and nothing to lose but his own life. Barca knows himself not nearly so untethered from the burdens of fate or affection.
The source of such afflictions chases Barca down the corridor, his voice raised in glad greeting. Barca thinks sometimes about how lucky he is, to keep his own name in a place like this; to hear it given sound by one who loves the man behind it. Most others have not known such fortune, their names long driven even from their own minds by the clang of weapons and the heat of the branding iron.
He turns to find Pietros wrapping his arms around his neck and allows himself to pull the boy close, relishing as ever the sweet uncompromising warmth of him. Pietros gives of himself wholeheartedly, forever without thought for prudent barter.
“You are returned to me,” Pietros says into his neck, a little breathless with relief.
Barca snorts dismissively, or attempts to. “Am I not always?” he scoffs, but whatever further mockery his brain might devise is chased from his mind by Pietros’s kiss, hot lips and playful tongue claiming his mouth and thoughts.
Such claim came unsought for. Barca was not looking to have his heart bound again by strings of devotion and the threat of loss, after Auctus died. In fact, he avoided it on purpose, seeking only fleeting pleasure with slaves or gladiators who would take his fancy. Otherwise, he took companionship with Crixus and such other friends as life at the ludus might afford, and kept to himself and his birds beyond that. And yet, he found his heart ill-fortified against a pair of dark eyes and a cautious smile turned his way from a new ludus slave, too young and comely to last a day without protection in such a place.
In truth, it wasn’t anything so noble as thoughts of protection that set his path towards Pietros.
It took less than a heart’s beat, that day not too long ago in a dark corner when he saw Gnaeus’s grip upon the boy’s hips, and Pietros’s hands raised in futile resistance, for Barca to step in and growl. Gnaeus snarled back, for sure, but in the end backed down with a spit and a scowl, in grudging deference to ludus hierarchy. It was no conscious thought or principled idea that spurred Barca then. He saw only the boy in peril, and a part of him was piqued, no, offended beyond reason at the idea of undesired hands set upon that golden flesh.
“Gratitude,” the boy murmured, that first time Barca heard his deep soft voice. He turned from it then, without so much as a nod tossed Pietros’s way. It was no small jolt of alarm, to find himself so stirred by another’s plight.
That night, when Pietros appeared at his cell door, Barca shook his head. “You mistake intentions, boy. I would not trade protection in exchange for your scrawny body.”
Pietros flushed, but raised his chin, a measure of defiance that snatched Barca’s interest against his will. “I do not come to trade. I’m here because I wish to be.”
Barca frowned, his hands tightening about the idly cooing pigeon in his hands. “The ludus offers more choices than you may divine now,” he said in the end, proud of how indifferent he sounded. “See three days pass. Come back then, if you still feel the same.”
Three days passed, and did not see Pietros return. Not quite so defenceless then, and not without resources.
He came back after four. Barca treasured him for that extra day, ever after.
There were not many challenges after that. A gladiator in Batiatus’s ludus may purchase any whore without too much expense of coin; there isn’t much reward in challenging the Beast of Carthage over a piece of ass, no matter how alluring.
Barca was glad then for the rewards of his painstakingly established reputation. He does not relish fighting. He never has; it is the secret he may one day take to his grave, unless it shapes his doom before that. From the day his father turned from him in disgust over his reluctance to fight to his very latest triumph in the arena, it is all make-believe: an elaborate gambit that he has become fatally skilled at through long years of luck and practice.
They play such desperate games in this house, inside the silk-draped villa or upon the sun-drenched sands.
Against the soothing chorus of the birds’ cooing, Pietros’s laugh sounds a deep counterpoint. He has a lovely laugh, rich and melodious.
“I like this, having you all to myself while daylight still draws breath,” he murmurs, voice hot with kisses against Barca’s neck. “Too often duty pulls us both on opposite paths.”
He’s sprawled atop Barca in their cell, slender limbs wrapped all around him. He’s tall, Pietros is, with wiry muscle under all his gangly limbs; he’d make a fair gladiator, Barca thinks, given half a chance to earn the mark he bears.
“I’d have it like this every day,” he rumbles in response, before he’s had a chance to rein in his tongue. Thankfully, Pietros pays his unwise words no mind, soft lips busily travelling down Barca’s torso, mapping out the lines of his muscle and his scars in kisses. Barca growls when those lips reach his groin but playfully skirt around the edges, licking a ticklish trail along the seam where hip meets leg. He digs his hands into the lush thickness of Pietros’s curls, but Pietros continues his teasing, unconcerned. He knows he has nothing to fear from Barca’s hands.
Pietros makes him helpless in a way that terrifies him, stripping him of all the layers of ruthlessness that he has cultivated so carefully over the years. In a life that requires deception to survive, Pietros is ever bent on truth, and Barca fears every day it might mark their undoing. There is no room in the house of Batiatus for tenderness bared of all defences, for anything so unblemished as devotion. There are but two avenues to see Pietros delivered from the dangers of his own innocence: to force the harsh truth of reality upon him and leave him to float or flounder, or to set him free and forever far from Barca’s taint.
Sometimes – rarely – he pictures a third path, one too daring and novel to consider outside the fancy-filled realms of dreaming: To stand before his lover with all his secrets laid bare, the ugly, desperate truth of him. To admit to all the things he’s done, all the things he would yet do, to see Pietros and himself far from this place. The imagined Pietros of such fevered dreams stares at him with wide eyes, repulsed and horrified, and cannot possibly embrace hands so blood-stained beyond redemption. It is too much to bear.
Someday, perhaps. Someplace not here. When Pietros is not quite so guileless, quite so unprepared. When Barca can muster the courage to bare himself so.
“Your thoughts stray far. I would draw them closer to loving mind and eager hands.”
Barca bites his lip when Pietros’s mouth finally closes about his throbbing cock, soft tight heat enveloping him in bliss. He allows his hips to tilt upwards, into that generous mouth, lets a groan slip past his lips when Pietros’ teeth graze him just barely. His tongue, wet and strong and hungry, works Barca’s cock in all the right ways, now swiping across the head, now taking his length deep, tracing the veins and swiping just for a second across his tender balls.
He swears when Pietros releases him too soon and moves up his body until they’re face to face. He grins at Barca, flushed and gorgeous.
“I burn for you,” Pietros whispers, brushing his lips across Barca’s, tongue dipping leisurely between his lips. “Not only when you’re absent my arms. Even as I watch you on the sands, all I can think of is your touch and your cock inside me. What have you done to me?”
Barca resists the urge to grab him and flip him over, spread his legs and see his words given truth, fucking him hard until he can’t walk. Instead, he smooths his hands down Pietros’s flanks, tracing the outline of shivering ribs, and ghosts kisses along the boy’s jawline.
“You have worked equal spell,” he manages, and brings his hands up to cup his palms around Pietros’s face. “See it to purpose.”
Pietros raises above him on his elbows. His eyes are dark and lust-glazed, impossibly beautiful.
“You’d place yourself upon my mercy?”
Barca struggles after a dozen rough jests, and finds his mind can’t form a single one. Truly, this boy will be his downfall one day.
“I stand ever so,” he admits instead, cursing himself for a mad and reckless fool. “Surely you know this.”
The widening of Pietros’s eyes says he did not, but Barca can’t regret setting this weapon into Pietros’s hands. If he can’t speak full truth yet, let this at least be a beginning.
They have done this, but not too often: their cell is too exposed, and the ludus has too many eyes and too many rules. Outside its walls, any man may submit to another’s cock and be thought no less for it. In here, though, hierarchy is too serious and deadly a game for any aspect of their lives to be dismissed in the ranking. If the second-highest placed gladiator of the house is seen taking it up the arse from a mere boy, challenges will follow as surely as curses drip every day from their master’s lips, and he will have to fight for weeks, maybe months, to regain position and see them both unmolested.
His mind may know these things and warn of the dangers of discovery, but his body does not care. When Pietros’s hands dig into his hair, carding the twisted locks, his neck tilts back, baring his vulnerable throat. When Pietros’s hips nudge between his legs, his thighs fall open like any dripping, eager nymph’s before the might of Jupiter’s cock.
“Be quick,” is his only admonition, gauging the time they have in scant minutes before his brothers return to their cells; he snarls his irritation when Pietros hesitates.
“I am no trembling virgin,” he growls into the sweat-damp neck above him. “Fuck me, damn you.”
A gust of breath above him, half laughter, half arousal, but Pietros reaches for the bowl of oil anyway, too chary of causing injury. A moment later his fingers are back, slick with oil and teasing just briefly at Barca’s entrance before breaching the tight ring of muscle, spreading him none too gently. Barca thrusts down against the welcome burn, willing his body to relax. His own fingers travel down to find and close about Pietros’s straining cock. The head is slippery with oil and the boy’s own eager wetness anticipating the deed; Barca smears it along the pulsing shaft, relishing the sounds that Pietros makes at the caress of his calloused fingers on sensitive flesh.
“Inside,” he commands, under his breath, but Pietros is devious; he wraps his cock with one hand, positioned at Barca’s twitching hole, but when he enters, it’s not with the sudden brute force Barca half-craves. Instead, he slides in inch by torturous inch, undoing him with the slow, delicious invasion.
Barca’s legs are straining, lifted high with knees hooked over Pietros’s shoulders, and he is bent double when Pietros’s gasping lips seek his. It’s a keen, double agony of pleasure to feel Pietros’s tongue inside his mouth just when his ass is stretching to accommodate Pietros’s cock; it has, after all, been some while since they did this, and his body is bewildered by the intrusion, helpless with pleasure and habitual resistance all at once.
Pietros’s hands dig into his hair, pulling his head back to bare his neck to kisses. “So tight,” Pietros purrs into the juncture of Barca’s neck and shoulders. “The way you clench about me… you are killing me.”
Barca is beyond the titillation of mere words. He grasps at Pietros’s buttocks in a desperate attempt to draw him closer, then reaches down to cup the boy’s tight hot balls. Pietros goes semi-rigid under his hands, bucking and cursing at the intimate touch. Barca grins, rearing up to capture his lips and revel in the knowledge that he is not alone so utterly disarmed.
Pietros trembles against him for an agonised moment of suspension, a shuddering noise on his lips, but he rallies and regains momentum for a final assault. Slick with sweat, he thrusts rapidly and hard, burying himself to the hilt; his eyes are wide and fierce, staring at Barca’s face as if he glimpses revelation there. Barca can tell his undoing moments before the end, by the soft slackening of his mouth, the glazing of his eyes. He chokes out Barca’s name, close to his ear, and liquid heat wells inside him, a measure of it trickling down his thighs when Pietros withdraws with a gasp. His own release takes only seconds longer, barely requiring the tight grasp of Pietros’s fingers coaxing him to strain, spine arching, and spill into the boy’s flexing hands. Pietros collapses on top of him, and breathless laughter gusts against Barca’s chest.
“The Beast of Carthage,” Pitros teases, voice ragged and fond, “You would defeat a man even on your back, with legs spread to his pleasure, and unravel him to his core.”
No one but Pietros has taught him what joy lies in sharing laughter between each other’s thighs, in the rich pleasure of mixing rut and tenderness without the merest hint of mockery or threat. There’s a new kind of delight in that easy unrestraint, both thrilling and terrifying: for if it is this easy to forget hard-learned caution in shared abandonment, surely the price to pay for that indulgence in the harsh light of morning will be triple-fold.
Barca knows about the cost of things. It is both joy and agony to him that Pietros does not: not yet, not truly. Pietros has never know true loss, and Barca would not have him learn it.
“Have you ever thought,” he murmurs later, carefully and making sure no measure of lust-hazed fog still lingers in his voice, “of where we might venture when we win our freedom from this place?”
Pietros is silent just long enough for Barca’s muscle to tense, for awareness to sink in that in this house, betrayal lurks in every corner, presented most alluringly in svelte naked limbs and adoring smiles upon silver platter, and what a fool oh what a fool he was to ever venture his heart in yet another reckless gamble.
But then the boy – his boy – leans up upon his elbows, staring wide-eyed at Barca, and if deception could ever form such a guise of disbelieving, desperate hope, Barca does not want to know what other arts it may employ.
“Our… freedom?” Pietros whispers. Barca can’t help the smile upon his lips, the slowly kindling spark of possibility.
Pietros is looking at him as if he were Apollo riding up to their very gate in his chariot of fire. “I… do not know.”
And Barca feels his smile widen with the sudden bloom of determination, forbidden and dangerous and altogether sweet. It sets his world to sudden, blazing purpose. “One day soon,” he promises, “we shall find out together.”