For as long as Hadrian could remember, Rome had been the one place where he felt anything close to having a true home. He had fond memories of Santiponce, of course- the intimacy of such a small city; the hot afternoons spent curled up impatiently in his room with a favorite book, waiting for the cool of evening to come and bring with it the reopening of the library down the street following the afternoon siesta; his mother sending him off to study with a kiss on the forehead and secretly slipping a snack into his bag. But something in Rome made his heart soar, filled him with a sense of purpose and satisfied the longing that he did not even realize he had until he first looked out his taxi on the way from the airport to his apartment and saw the Colosseum looming above him, ancient and crumbling as it was, and yet so beautiful.
But love Rome as he did, Hadrian often felt powerless in her presence, as if recognizing an old friend who turned and looked at him in confusion when he called her name, answering his childlike enthusiasm with an unamused who are you? He would stand outside the ancient monuments, walk through the remnants of the Forum Romanum, pass by countless columns slowly yielding their dusty marble to ivy and decay, and wonder if he was truly happy. There was no reason he should not be, he told himself- a professor of the Classics living in Rome, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world at his fingertips, museums and ruins and monuments thousands of years old everywhere he looked, calling him, Hadrian, come home. Only for him to find that home just out of his soul's reach, only to constantly be on the cusp of complete satisfaction, only to bury the bitter ache in his heart in textbooks and the rows of busts in the Musei Capitolini- and when that did not work, to bury it in a glass of wine, or perhaps three or four.
The melancholy came frequently and had the decency to follow a fairly regular pattern. Hadrian would start his week feeling fine and would immediately delve into his work, researching, tutoring, translating; by the third or fourth day of this he would begin to feel the weight of his homesickness press upon him, a homesickness for a home he did not know and could not find; by the end of the week he would mostly have given up on his studies and prowled through the ruins like a man hunted by a past reaching back two thousand years strong; and on the weekend he would give up this search and settle down for a few glasses of chilled wine at the restaurant down the street from his apartment- a tiny place called the Curia- while he tried to wrangle his mind into submission by directing it at some Tibullus or Aristophanes or Livy. Then Hadrian would find himself feeling refreshed and begin the cycle again, the slow decline through the week that took him on a journey from the halls where Cicero once spoke to the restaurant that borrowed those hallowed halls' name.
He realized that he had become predictable when he would arrive at the Curia to find his glass of Greco di Tufo and a little bowl of snacks- or, if the owner was in a good mood, some caprese on the house- ready at the table in the corner so that he could brood and read. At first, this had distressed Hadrian. He knew that he was susceptible to melancholy, and he knew how he dealt with it, but to be confronted with his coping mechanism was only a harsh reminder of how out of place he felt no matter where he went. But soon he began to look forward to this gesture of familiarity, to smile when the enthusiastic greeting he received pulled him from his gloomy thoughts, to let himself be satisfied with what he thought was as close to a feeling of homecoming as he would ever get.
It all changed when he met the new waiter. Hadrian had been having a particularly unpleasant week. A series of spring rainstorms had kept him from the Forum- for as much as the ruins filled him with despair, he only felt worse if he could not walk among them- and no amount of Homer could fill the emptiness he felt in his chest with every breath. Outside his apartment, the rain fell in sheets, and each raindrop that struck his windows resounded in his ears like the pounding of an earthquake, the pumice fall of Mt. Vesuvius covering Pompeii, covering him, filling in the space around him as he screamed and screamed and screamed, forever to scream, body frozen for all of time in some plaster cast filled in by an indifferent archaeologist, but his soul still trapped within him, screaming eternally and yet no longer able to scream-
Only the thud of his book hitting the wall and dropping to the floor pulled Hadrian out of his panic, and he stared helplessly at its pages splayed out on the floor. He hadn't even realized that he had thrown it, and now the fact of it hung heavy in the thick air of his apartment. His lungs heaved, his arms trembled, and within a minute he was out the door before he could think too much about his tantrum or the walls of his apartment closing in on him. The rain fell fast and harsh on his back, plastering his thick curly hair against his neck, but he felt only the echo of his heart pounding in his chest as his legs took him the one place he could find any comfort.
So engulfed in his misery and panic was he that Hadrian did not register the waiter shuffling him to a table, the softness of his voice and the lilt of his Greek accent as he said, "Come in, signore, you are soaked," nor did Hadrian notice the gentle touch of the waiter's hand on his back as he sat. The only thing that pulled him from his dark reverie was the menu placed before him; he looked up in confusion at his waiter, and only then did he realize that he had not seen this man before.
"It's alright, I'm ready," he mumbled, his voice much gruffer than he had intended. "I'll just take a glass of Greco di Tufo." He tried to mop some of the rainwater from his brow with his sleeve, but he was so thoroughly soaked that it only served to drench his face further. He turned his eyes up to the ceiling as if appealing to God- and noticed that the waiter was still standing at his table. He raised a questioning eyebrow at the man.
"My apologies," the waiter said- Hadrian blinked in surprise, just now noticing his Greek accent- and collected the menu from Hadrian. "It's just- I am new, I did not realize who you were until I heard your accent. You are the Spaniard who studies Classics, correct? The owner mentioned that you come here often, and I was curious. I too study Classics."
"Oh. What subject?"
"Philosophy. I find Plato in particular interesting. The perfection of forms, the goodness of unity, the ideal love…fascinating, is it not?" The waiter smiled faintly, a slight upward quirk of his lips, and Hadrian felt something in his heart pang, like a sort of nostalgia about something he had never seen in his life. But the waiter turned away, and the feeling passed, and Hadrian wondered if he'd had the sense to bring a book with him when he stormed out of his apartment. "I will bring your wine, signore," the waiter said, and Hadrian grunted his assent, digging through his bag in search of a text.
By the time the waiter returned with a glass of chilled, sweet wine, Hadrian was deep in a copy of Marcus Aurelius.
The rain had stopped the next day, bringing with it a blessed coolness, and Hadrian contemplated taking his weekly trip to a monument. But try as he might, he couldn't cajole himself into going. The panic of the day before had exhausted him, and he had not slept well. Besides that, this was the day he usually went to the Curia; still lost in his weekly slump as he was, he might as well go for his wine and pick his routine back up. Two days of wine wouldn't kill him.
As he showered and brushed the taste of yesterday's wine from his mouth, Hadrian thought of the waiter who had served him and frowned. There was something about the waiter, something in his voice or maybe in his face- Hadrian couldn't quite tell- that made him feel as if he were remembering someone. Try as he might, he couldn't think of a name or an occasion when he might have seen the waiter, though. All he had to go from was that strange feeling of recognition, a feeling so similar to when he had first looked upon on ancient monument in person that for a brief moment he wondered if the two feelings were connected.
"Oh, stop being sentimental," he grumbled to himself. Such good that sentimentality has brought you so far, Hadrian. He looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, his face warped and blurry in the condensation. In many ways, it was a more accurate portrait of him than if the mirror had been wiped clean. He knew himself to a point, recognized the vaguest contours of his face. But beyond that was nothing but fog, and somewhere within that fog lurked the waiter at the Curia.
Hadrian sighed and toweled his hair dry. He knew that he was putting off his visit at that point. He hadn't the faintest idea why- the waiter had perplexed him, but only briefly- but he could see himself doing it all the same (there was a Catullus poem like that, wasn't there? Odi et amo- now there was a thought about Rome). Taking a deep breath, he tossed his towel aside and gathered up the books he wanted to look at- Tibullus and Ovid, of course, since he was on a bit of an elegiac binge at the moment. And, for some reason, Plato. Hadrian looked at the faded cover of his copy of the Republic. Though he was unapologetic about his preference for ancient Greece over Rome, Plato had not been one of his particular favorite authors, and his Platonic texts had mostly been filling space in his bookshelves for the past few years. He told himself that it was a coincidence, a book picked at random off of his shelf.
Liar though he was, and quite good at it after years of deceiving himself, he could not convince himself of that if he tried.
"Plato, I see?" was the greeting Hadrian got when he settled down at his table in the corner and tucked into his lunch. He looked up at the Greek waiter and was met with a head cocked in amusement and one of those strange familiar smiles. "I do not suppose that is because of me?"
"Purely a coincidence," Hadrian lied. He knew it was pointless; if he couldn't convince himself, then surely not this wily Greek with the quick wit and the honey-brown skin and the perfect smile-
He downed what was left in his wine glass, if only so that he could act as if his face did not suddenly feel hot as a Roman summer day.
"I will bring you another glass," the waiter said. "Greco di Tufo, right? From a Grecian grape. It is good to see that you have such good taste."
Hadrian switched to Ovid after that comment and tried to pretend that a book on seduction was a less embarrassing choice.
Hadrian wished that he could say that he had mostly forgotten about the encounter at the Curia that week, that he had buried himself in his books and his work and continued on his weekly decline into depression. In the end, it was his line of work that made such forgetting impossible. As a Classicist, he had read too much of fate and powers beyond mortal knowledge, and fate shadowed him through Rome that week, nagging in his ear with the thought that maybe some greater power had intended for him and the strange Greek waiter to meet.
Chide himself as he did for having such ridiculous thoughts, Hadrian had to admit that the idea appealed to him, especially when he found himself awake in the early hours of the morning, too consumed by his thoughts to sleep.
Of course, it wasn't much help that Hadrian had spent all of five minutes in conversation with the waiter. It was difficult to try to recognize someone without actually spending some time around them, and Hadrian simply wanted to figure out whether or not he actually knew this mysterious young man or was having misplaced thoughts about him. That was what he told himself, at least, when instead of going to one of his favorite museums that Friday he instead decided to get wine at the Curia.
"How strange to see you so soon," the waiter said as he brought Hadrian his glass of wine and a pork sandwich. "I was told you usually only come in on Saturdays."
"I've been busy, and I wanted to relax this evening. That's all," Hadrian did not so much say as mumble into his dinner. He glanced up at the waiter only to glance back down when his gaze was met with that amused smirk that made him feel as if he were centuries old.
"I am sure," the waiter said. He nodded towards the book tucked into Hadrian's bag, its binding just barely peeking out. "What is it today? The Timaeus? The Symposium?"
"Demosthenes, actually. The Olynthiac Orations for now," Hadrian said casually, as if he hadn't spent fifteen minutes deciding on it as the text least likely to embarrass him.
"Ah, the Athenian orator. An interesting choice. His insults against Philip are most amusing." The smirk fell from the waiter's lips and was replaced with a more contemplative look. "I should read Demosthenes again. I enjoy hearing about Philip and Alexander. Something about emperors is just...so appealing, no?"
Hadrian finished his meal and had no recollection of a single bite of it.
He had been having a hard week, and so of course his emotions were all over the place. He knew that when he got like this, the strangest things would upset him. It was only to be expected that his heart should fall at something insignificant, given that he was so worn out from all of his work.
That was what Hadrian told himself, at least, when he walked into the Curia that weekend and found that the Greek waiter was not there. He knew he was being ridiculous- the waiter had to have days off- and that it was his own fault for purchasing an impressive-looking (and needlessly expensive) copy of Plato's Phaedo that he found at a rare book store with the hopes of showing it off. Now, as he sat with his wine and his Homer (for he had shoved the embarrassing Plato back into his bag), he found with some alarm that he was having to force himself not to act too disappointed. All of this for a waiter he hardly knew. He stared at the lines and lines of epic poetry and did not read a word of them; embarrassed though he was to admit it, he was far too preoccupied with his foolish emotions.
Part of the problem was that he was not entirely sure how he felt about the waiter, nor was he quite sure if he wanted to find out. Hadrian had figured out his sexuality years ago, when he was still a student. He had discovered that he had absolutely no interest in women, and while he'd had his fair share of flings with men and knew that he was sexually interested in them, he had never really connected on a romantic level. By now, he was quite comfortable in his solitude and rarely, if ever, gave a thought to romance.
Hadrian could not, however, figure out how to label his feelings about this strange Greek waiter as anything other than a crush, a thought which made him immensely uncomfortable. He had never thought himself to be sentimental about insignificant matters, and a waiter he had talked to twice definitely fell into that category. Yet here he was, buying books just to impress this waiter like a lovesick schoolboy.
Sighing quietly, he looked into his wine glass as if it could answer all of the questions he had for himself. In vino veritas, after all. Maybe he could just let himself get drunk and let that solve his problems. It was smarter than his other options, which were either to ignore his feelings altogether or to pine like an idiot. After all, he figured it was the closest he could get to getting rid of those feelings altogether.
He glanced up from his wine and nearly dropped his glass when he saw the waiter sitting across from him at the table, dressed in skinny jeans and a low-cut shirt. The waiter laughed, a honey-sweet sound that made Hadrian's heart beat an embarrassing rhythm.
"Sorry, signore," the waiter said. "I wanted to say hello when I saw you with your Homer, but you seemed so focused, so I did not say anything."
"It's fine. I just…wasn't expecting you." Oh, damn him for always looking so amused at everything I say, Hadrian thought. He could deal with being mocked in earnest, but every smirk or quirked eyebrow was so playfully teasing that Hadrian couldn't trust himself not to blush. He cleared his throat. "Do you, um. Do you normally come in even when you are not working?" The waiter grinned, and Hadrian cursed himself for stuttering. He wasn't normally one to tease, and his poor line delivery just made that all the more obvious, which only served to amuse the waiter more.
"I am meeting someone today, and this seemed an easy place. She should be here soon."
She. Hadrian swallowed. Well, that's what you get for having these ridiculous feelings, he told himself. Doubtlessly someone as beautiful and charming as this handsome Greek waiter would have a girlfriend. At least that was the end of this crush nonsense, even if getting drunk seemed like an even better idea now-
"Ah, there she is!" The waiter stood up and motioned to a girl standing outside the Curia and checking her phone as if to see if she was at the right place. "I had best go to her, since we have plans to go see a movie- my sister has complained about how late I always make her since I was five. I will see you next week, I assume? On Saturday."
"Oh, um. Yes. Probably. I mean, if you're working then." Hadrian would have berated himself for continuing to incriminate himself, but he was currently too busy berating himself for the relief that washed over him at learning that the waiter was simply meeting his sister to notice how awkward he was being. The waiter simply laughed again.
"I will be here, don't worry," he said. He pushed in his chair and turned to leave. "Oh, by the way, I like your Phaedo, the one in your bag. It is beautiful. That must be a very old copy, no?"
If Hadrian could go back in time and keep himself from buying that book, he would have done it. Or to save himself the trouble, he could just go back to a time before he ever stepped foot in the Curia and find another restaurant to brood at.
That was what he told himself, at least.
It's your own fault, Hadrian kept telling himself as he stood on his balcony chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes. Better to keep that thought running through his head than to think of what happened at the Curia four hours earlier- not that it helped at all. His heart was still pounding so hard he could barely think through the sound of it thumping in his ears, but of course that didn't stop his own personal theater showing of what had happened from playing on repeat in his brain.
And it was all his own damn fault. He was usually good about keeping cash on him everywhere he went, but it had been a busier week than usual, and he hadn't had time to make sure that he was well stocked up before he went for his usual drinks. And so when he had reached into his wallet to pay off his tab at the Curia, he found only a few Euro coins and his card. It really shouldn't have been a big deal. A few weeks ago, Hadrian would have been a little disgruntled about being forgetful, but he would have paid with his card and been done with it. But that was before he met the Greek waiter, who took one look at the name on the card and smirked that oh-so-perfect smirk.
"So, I finally find out signore's name," he said, so amused that Hadrian could already feel the blush creeping up his neck. "Is it safe to say that your parents are also fans of the Classics?"
"I told myself I wasn't going to be like them, but here I am," Hadrian replied, staring into his empty wine glass and doing his best to keep his voice steady. The waiter huffed and smiled wider.
"No need to defend yourself. I'm in the same position as you, really. Perhaps it is fate that we have met." Hadrian had looked up at in confusion at that remark, and he could still see the waiter's face at that moment perfectly in his mind: an unaccustomed hesitance, the faintest hint of pink on his cheeks that made Hadrian realize just how boyish the waiter looked. Their eyes locked for a brief moment before the waiter looked back down at the card and smiled again. "My parents love the Classics as well. They named me Antinous."
Hadrian lit another cigarette even as he was still coughing on the last hastily-taken inhale of his previous one. It should have been comforting when he realized that Antinous was very clearly flirting with him, that his feelings were returned with interest. He shouldn't have felt the air closing in around him, the panic rising in his chest until it spilled onto his face with a look of horror. He was not usually a spiritual man, but Antinous's joking talk of fate had suddenly struck Hadrian as a real possibility, and the thought of it crashed upon him like a wave. Hadrian and Antinous- the emperor and his lover- once again united in Rome: the plot of some wretched romance movie written to appeal to the sentimental who couldn't look upon history with the objective gaze that Hadrian tried (and often failed) to demand of himself as he prowled through the Forum like a man haunted by a past he did not have. The worst part of it was that he had entertained the thought himself and been captivated by the idea of a fated lover from a past life. He thought he had put such foolish notions aside. But at that moment Hadrian could have believed it, and he had realized with terror that he actually wanted to.
Only the look on Antinous's face- shock, realization, and then an embarrassment that did not suit him- pulled Hadrian from the panic that threatened to drown his heart. The waiter stammered out something about being right back with his card and did not emerge from the kitchen for another ten minutes.
It was plenty of time for Hadrian to think, to collect his thoughts, to calm down and come up with something to say so that he could convince Antinous that his reaction was not directed at what Antinous had said. It was perhaps even enough time to be smooth about it and redirect the conversation to where Antinous had planned for it to go. Antinous finally returned with Hadrian's card, pointedly not looking up at him or saying anything to him.
Hadrian then had simply taken the card and left without another word. Hadrian now cursed that silent parting and crushed his cigarette to ashes against the balcony rail.
A week passed without Hadrian's usual visit to the Curia, and then two. By the end of the third week, he was fluctuating daily between a listless stupor spent reading for hours at his desk and a restlessness that drove him to pace his small apartment but left him too anxious to leave it. What little equilibrium he had achieved in his life had been upset, and what for? A meaningless Greek waiter whose coincidental name did not change the fact that he was little more than a two-line character in the play of Hadrian's life, who had a charming smile and little else to his part. Who brought something long-suppressed and ancient up from the depths of Hadrian's soul and breathed life into a part of him that felt much older than his body.
Hadrian shook his head at that thought and gave himself a stern internal talking-to about such ridiculous sentimentality. Not that it did him any good. He twirled his favorite note-taking pen in his fingers and thought of Sappho. Thin flame running through his limbs, eyes covered over with twin night- or was that Catullus's adaptation? Not that such distinctions mattered to him at the moment, not when he had his melancholy to ponder, since he lacked the energy to ponder anything else aside from melancholy and the sickly-sad look in Antinous's eyes when he had seen Hadrian's face and found in it a look of terror-
Hadrian heard the whirl of his pen out the balcony door and over the rail before he felt it fly away, and he stared at his now-empty hand with the resigned gaze of a man who knew with complete certainty that the gods were not, and never had been, on his side. A glance out the balcony told him that the pen had at least survived its fall to the alley below, and a quick run to grab it would at least get him out of his apartment for a few seconds. Hadrian stretched as he rose from his chair, trying to shake out aches that never quite left, and began his slow and ponderous descent down the stairs. Like Dante guided by Vergil, he thought, except it's only two flights down and I'm all alone.
If he could have silenced his brain at that moment and never had another thought again, he would have. As it was, Hadrian simply scowled at himself and at the sun as he stepped out into the light, only to duck back beneath the shade of his apartment building in the alley to find his pen. It was filthy and wet from landing in a stagnant puddle of water, but it was still his, so he tucked it into his pocket and turned to go back up to his apartment.
His feet refused to move. Around him Rome went on, and he had the realization (one he'd had many times before) that for the most part she would continue to do so without him. But he had his one little hold on her- a tiny restaurant where he drank his weekend wine, an owner who doted on him as if he were family and gave him free caprese, and a waiter who would very sorely miss teasing him about Plato. He could go back into his apartment and forget all of that, bury himself in his depression and his Demosthenes and pretend it all had never happened. Find a new restaurant, try a new wine, flirt with waiters who didn't make him feel the weight of millennia pressing around him.
Hadrian nearly ran the whole way to the Curia.
He stopped briefly to catch his breath and wipe away the sweat on his forehead- really, why had he felt the need to run when Rome was already hot enough without exerting effort?- and he stared up at the restaurant's sign, noticing for the first time that it featured a sketch of, for whatever reason, the Colosseum. His breath came in strained and huffy as he laughed for what felt like the first time in years, not understanding why he was laughing but grateful all the same. It was enough to get him to the door of the Curia; he hesitated when he saw Antinous inside, but he was already opening the door, so too late to go back on that one.
Or maybe not, Hadrian thought when Antinous turned to greet him and immediately stopped smiling. Maybe he could just turn right back and run all the way home, since he had already managed it once. Antinous mumbled a "this way, signore," and deposited Hadrian in his usual seat in the back before promptly disappearing. Hadrian stared down at his menu as if he planned on ordering something new- but then that would upset what was already a delicate balance, and besides, he would have to be able to think past his heart pounding all the way up to his ears.
Antinous returned several minutes later, teetering on the border between normal wait time and complete avoidance. Hadrian wordlessly handed him the menu, and he wordlessly accepted it, and Hadrian was sure that that was going to be the end of that interaction. But then, perhaps the gods were on his side, because Antinous took the time to stare past him at the wall and ask, "Your usual today, signore?"
Hadrian had been prepared to mutter a brief assent, enough to be polite without making it sound like he had thought about how he would answer that question. For a moment he wasn't sure that the words that came out of his mouth weren't "Yes, please." But when he glanced up at Antinous, the look of surprise on the waiter's face told him that he had indeed, for whatever reason, asked Antinous if he had ever been to the Musei Capitolini.
"Once, when I was young," Antinous replied, finally meeting Hadrian's eyes, and Hadrian forced himself to keep the eye contact, as if Antinous would take the chance and run if he looked away. Antinous swallowed nervously, and something in that nervous gesture, a tic seen for the first time and yet so familiar, made Hadrian's blood run hot and prickly through him, as if his entire body had fallen asleep and all at once roared back to life. "It has been a long time, though. I am sure much has changed. Why do you ask?"
Hadrian cleared his throat and almost looked away, but he caught himself and forced himself to look Antinous in the eyes. He breathed long and deep through his nose. How long did he have to think about his answer before it got awkward, before the chance to say anything worthwhile was gone? He usually liked to sit and think about his decisions for as long as he could, to formulate plans of action and meditate on their consequences, and he was not a man who enjoyed making split-second choices. But something in him must have at some point in his soul's life been prepared to think fast, because the words came tumbling out of his mouth before he could even decide if he really wanted to say them:
"Would you like to go sometime? With me?"
In the brief moment between his question and Antinous's answer, Hadrian realized just how cruel he had been last time he had seen the waiter. Even knowing how Antinous felt about him, that pause sat between them like a dying animal- bloated, torturous to face, and decidedly unsexy. He would never have forgiven himself if he'd had to face such a pause without the comfort of certainty- but then, he had never been the forgiving type, and he had a feeling that Antinous was much more gentle than that, a feeling strangely close to experience. A feeling that was validated as the look of confusion on Antinous's face slowly turned to one of…not tenderness, they didn't quite know each other well enough for that (or at least they weren't sure that they did), but it was something close.
"Somehow I am not surprised that you would choose there of all places for this sort of thing," Antinous said.
"I am a man of unfortunately recognizable habits," Hadrian replied, and he finally gave himself the luxury of a smile. Antinous's eyes lit up at that- and there it was, that oh-so-perfect smirk, and Hadrian felt like he could live forever at the sight of it. Forever, or, at the very least, a few thousand years.
"In that case," Antinous said, winking at Hadrian before he turned towards the kitchen, "I will get you your Greco di Tufo."
When Hadrian first caught sight of Antinous approaching him from where he waited outside the museum (and had been waiting for the past half an hour after anxiously arriving far too early), he realized that he was horribly overdressed. It was still so strange to see Antinous in casual clothing after always seeing him at work, and the tank top and high-cut shorts only reminded Hadrian of how sticky he felt in his button-up shirt and trousers. Antinous took one look at him and grinned; in the familiarity of it all, Hadrian couldn't help smiling back.
"Hot, signore?" Antinous asked.
"Miserably. And please, call me Hadrian."
"Hadrian, then," Antinous said, and the sound of his name in that sweet lilting voice was enough to send shivers through Hadrian's body. "Well, in that case, let's get inside before you melt."
It was strange to Hadrian how comfortable he felt as Antinous hooked their arms together and they walked side by side, bickering over who was going to buy the other's ticket. It was at once invigorating and frustrating, as if an itch had buried itself just deep enough in his skin that he could not scratch it no matter how hard he tried. Walking in the great halls of the museum helped nothing. While seeing Antinous at the Curia made Hadrian's heart beat faster, seeing him surrounded by ancient marble drove every other thought from Hadrian's head until he could imagine nothing but Antinous, Antinous, Antinous.
The downside of which, of course, was that Antinous immediately noticed how quiet Hadrian had gone and turned to find Hadrian staring at him.
"Everything alright?" he asked, reaching out to touch Hadrian's cheek. "You have turned a magnificent shade of red."
"Oh! Um, it's, ah." Floundering, Hadrian turned around to look for something else to focus on. "Ah! See, there's the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. We should go take a look, don't you think? The real one is so much better than the replica outside." He trotted off before Antinous could answer him, and as soon as he felt Antinous's hand back on his arm, he kept talking so that Antinous couldn't have the chance to tease him. "It's really such a magnificent statue. Look how he has his arm extended, so similar to how we see Augustus portrayed! And yet he wears no armor- a peacemaker, not a warrior. It fits with how he speaks in the Meditations, of course….You're smiling." Hadrian frowned a little, which only made Antinous smile more, cheeks pink and dimpled. "O-oh, of course, you probably know this already, I-"
"No, no, it's fine!" Antinous pressed his head into Hadrian's arm, hiding his face- a rare show of shyness. "I mean, yes, I do know about this statue, but. I think it is sweet, how excited you are. Keep going."
"I don't want to bore you."
"Trust me, you're not. It feels…well, never mind that." Antinous lifted his head from Hadrian's arm, and a lock of his curly hair fell out of place; without thinking about it, Hadrian brushed it back. Antinous's skin was soft and warm beneath his hand, and he could feel Antinous's breath on his wrist. They stood in silence for a moment, eyes locked, Hadrian's hand still in Antinous's hair, before finally Hadrian gave a nervous laugh and turned aside.
"We should keep going. It's quite a large museum…as, ah, I'm sure you remember," he said, walking towards the main staircase. "You'd be surprised at what I do and don't remember," Antinous mumbled as he followed, so softly that Hadrian could barely hear him. Hadrian looked at him with a furrowed brow, but he seemed preoccupied and didn't look back.
"What do you mean?" Hadrian asked after a second. Antinous glanced up at him, his deep brown eyes cautious.
"I think you may already know," he said. Hadrian stopped walking, but Antinous grabbed his hand, drawing him close. "Listen, can we take a detour? I…I really want to see the Hall of the Emperors first."
"I…suppose. I mean, of course, certainly. We'll, uh. Let's head to the Palazzo Nuovo." Hadrian let Antinous take the lead, unsure if he should keep holding Antinous's hand, but Antinous tightened his hold on Hadrian's as they walked. The feeling of Antinous's fingers entwined in his own only served to intensify the almost electric surge of emotion racing beneath Hadrian's skin, and he found their sudden silence unbearable. Hadrian knew the museum almost as well as he knew his own home, and he filled the silence with babble about the slightest detail of every bust and figurine they passed.
"Really, I'm so sorry, I don't know why I can't shut up today," he finally said, well aware of why he couldn't. "It's just, these artifacts? They're so amazing? And I know that you already know so much about the ancient world too, so I don't mean to insult your intelligence or, or your knowledge or anything, I just. Truly, I feel…sometimes I feel connected to them more than I do to our own time, and…no, I'm sorry, that's silly, I…I'm making a fool of myself."
"No, Hadrian, you're really not. I think I…hang on, stop here." Antinous stopped so quickly that he accidentally jerked Hadrian's arm (and Hadrian realized now that they had been practically jogging through the building). Hadrian looked around and took in the sight of all of the busts of Roman emperors, and he found himself surprised at how unfamiliar he was with the room. Now that he thought about it, he hadn't been in the Hall of the Emperors in years; something about it had always made him feel nervous, and he'd simply stopped coming. As his eyes passed over Nero and Galba and Augustus, he frowned, wondering why. Finally, he looked back at Antinous, and then at the bust that Antinous had stopped in front of.
Hadrian's breath caught in his throat at the sight. From the tightly curled hair, the large, angled nose, and the short, well-groomed beard, he knew immediately what he was looking at. It would have been like staring into a mirror, except that the marble Hadrian in front of him was a more pale, lifeless, antique version of himself.
"Antinous," he said slowly, not taking his eyes from the bust, "when you talked about remembering things, what did you really mean?"
"You already know the answer to that, Hadrian," Antinous said, and finally Hadrian tore his eyes from the bust to look at him; when he smiled, something blossomed up from Hadrian's chest, so huge and eternal that Hadrian could only stare slack-jawed at the man before him.
"What I've been feeling this whole time, since I met you," he finally managed to say, but he could barely form sentences in his head, let alone spit them out. "It's…it isn't…I haven't been…?"
Antinous saved him from further embarrassment by pressing their lips together. It was a quick kiss, and Antinous pulled away as soon as he felt Hadrian's body go slack, his eyes turned shyly to the ground. But shyness was not a good look on him, and Hadrian immediately lifted his chin with his finger to kiss him again more passionately, until Antinous buried his hands in Hadrian's hair and let out a soft moan that sent waves of familiar pleasure through Hadrian's body.
"I don't know how long I've missed you for," he whispered hoarsely when they finally broke apart.
"I'm never going to leave you again," Antinous said, and Hadrian let himself lean into his arms, gazing at the image of the past he had left behind, but which had never quite left him.