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The Best of Men

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The pain draws Draco further into the darkness, tingeing it with red. He wants to scream, but the sounds cannot be forced out of his throat, no matter how hard he tries. There seems to be no end to this burning, infernal pain.

He is not aware how long he exists in that strange limbo of pain of darkness, but when the pain finally manages to lessen, when he is finally able to open his eyes to the light, he finds himself with a ruined leg and a barely begun career already over.

Oh, his services were appreciated, but it does not matter to Draco. He had waited ever since he had learned of his father's disappearance when he was ten years old to join the army and find the Ninth Legion, to bring glory back to the ancient name of Malfoy. He had come to Britain with a glad heart unlike many of the men he had served with, hoping to find something that would give him a clue as to what had happened to his father in the fifteen years that he had been gone, some clue as to where the rest of the legion and its Eagle had gone.

Two months before the fateful battle where Draco had managed to save the fort where he was stationed, but got himself a crippled leg.

He would laugh if it wasn't his life.

His godfather does not try to make things seem better than they are, a fact that Draco greatly appreciates, but Severus is not a man who lies to people in hope they might see the silver-lining. He tells the truth almost too bluntly at times, though he refrains himself somewhat around Draco at this time, a fact which Draco is not sure how to feel about. It is wonderful not to hear the snapping comments, but it tells Draco in exactly what condition he was in when he arrived at Severus's home.

Draco manages to find something to do with his hands, though he finds that it is not enough to quell his mind, which races with the terrifying possibilities that Draco has before him, when the only thing he had before was the knowledge that he had to find someway to get to Britain and serve.

It is on a day when Severus cannot stand Draco's moping and useless whittling that he drags him to the amphitheater to watch a gladiator match.

That is the day that Draco first sees Ron.

*

Draco's first glimpse of Ron was when the man was fighting for his life in the arena, clearly terrified of the bigger, stronger, and faster gladiator in front of him, but unwilling to go down without a fight. So fight he did, with everything that he could muster inside to survive this fight, to survive this day.

Draco was struck by this, and found himself twisting his hands together when Ron was knocked down again and again, each time taking longer and longer to get back and continue fighting.

It was a disappointment, but not a surprise when finally he couldn't do anymore.

That is the reason that Draco, before he knew this man's name, found himself giving a thumbs up, yelling at everyone around him, everyone in this arena, to do so as well.

He couldn't let this nameless man die, not when he fought so hard.

Draco did not think he would ever see him again, but Severus decides that he has had enough of sharing his body-slave with Draco and decides to purchase the man for him. According to Severus, a losing gladiator was worse than no gladiator to many men, so he had gotten quite the bargain.

He notices how Ron tenses and glares at that comment and while he doesn't say a word, he notes the find.

*

Draco finds himself staring at Ron while Ron begins his duties as a slave.

The only men in the world who would not find him attractive would be blind men. Ron is almost as tall as Draco, lean with tattoos on his muscles that make the simple yet striking designs, and Draco wonders what they mean, though he cannot gather up the courage to ask Ron.

He does not want to be rejected.

Ron's hair is a bright red that shines with notes of gold in the sunlight and nearly touches his shoulders, a different style than the short hair cut of the Romans, but one that Draco finds very becoming. (In fact, Draco's own hair has been growing since his injury, though it is not nearly as long as Ron.)

There is also his bright blue eyes, which watch anyone and everyone, calculating everything about them for some future use. Freckles dust his nose and cheekbones, and his skin is as tan from the summer sun. His features are fine, and Tattoos cover his biceps. Draco finds himself imagining tracing them in bed, while Ron sleeps on his chest.

But Draco is not an idiot. He can look at Ron and imagine what a less scrupulous owner would want to do with such a figure. He can look at the whip-marks on Ron's back and now that Ron would not have gotten those from always obeying the orders of a master.

He can remember the first night after Ron had been given to him, where after he had helped Draco prepare for bed. He had stood next to the it, fists clenched, head down, gritting out from clenched teeth, "Is there anything more I can help you with, Master?" and the sharp drop in Draco's stomach as he imagines what Ron must be waiting for.

Another rape from a new master.

He can remember the look of surprise on Ron's face when Draco waved him away, trying not to let his disgust show on his face at the thought of what other men must have put Ron through, and how Draco knows that is the moment where he realized he could never lay with Ron, not if he wanted the man to trust him.

He laid down that night, feeling colder and lonelier than he should, but it was worth it when Ron didn’t glare at him constantly the next day.

*

This life continues, a life where Draco and Ron have achieved a strange peace. As long as Ron does his duties to perfection, Draco does his best not to look longer at him than it's necessary.

There is one moment that stands out.

A doctor was passing through town, and his godfather hires him to inspect Draco's leg. The doctor then promptly tells him, with a fucking laugh, that the doctor at the fort was a sham. Left pieces of metal in his leg, that's why it hurts so much, and it would heal better if the metal was taken out.

It makes Draco's blood boil, at the thought he could avoided so much pain if only the doctor had been competent, but a look from Severus gets Draco to bite his tongue.

It ends with Draco on a table, Ron holding him down so they can collect the metal in his leg. Ron is not terribly strong, Draco could probably move him with only minimal effort, but he gives Draco an anchoring. He stares into Ron's wide blue eyes and unthinkingly traces the patterns on Ron's arms as he does his best not to scream.

When the metal is out, when Draco wakes up after trying to sleep away the remaining pain, he wakes to find Ron next to his bedside, whittling a small dragon. The wave of content that passes over Draco is so strong, he drifts right back to sleep.

*

It is only a few weeks later when Draco hears the rumors of the eagle being in the north, past Hadrian’s Wall. He cannot contain his excitement, his hopes now that his leg is working again. He might not be able to follow the plan he had when he first arrived in Britain, but he can still achieve his ultimate goal.

He can still get the eagle.

When he explains the plan to Severus’s however, he is dismayed to see his godfather does not have much faith in this idea.

“Why do you wish to do this foolish thing?” he’s asked, and Draco doesn’t know how to respond to that. Why does he want to do this? What use is this to his father, a man long dead?

He’s saved from answering that by Ron, who’s standing by the side of the room. “He wants to do because he’s being called to it,” Ron says in his accented Latin. “It is not for us to question what the gods say.”

Draco raises an eyebrow at Severus, who scoffs at Ron’s words, but does not say anything. He knows that his godfather does not believe in the gods, but he cannot argue with such a statement.

He does find it odd that Ron said those words though, when he distinctly remembers Ron laughing when Draco, in a rare moment that he tried to glean information about his slave, asked what he believed in.

“I believe that the best of men are cruel, and Romans are the worst of men.”

Draco had not asked any follow up questions.

But he must now.

He grabs Ron’s arm as they leave Severus’s study, pulls him aside into an empty room. “What was that for?” he asks. “Why did you help me?”

Ron shrugs, but he does not look at Draco, merely at a spot on the wall behind him. “You were floundering like a child learning how to swim. I took pity on you.”

“Pity?” Draco says with a laugh. “Come, you must do better than that. I would swear before today you would be fine seeing me drown.”

Ron turns a sharp gaze at Draco, seizing him up for a moment before a sickly almost-smile crosses his lips. “You really want to know why?”

“I do not ask for answers I do not want to know.”

“Fine,” Ron says, with an affected breeze. “I did it because you want to bed me and you somehow refrain yourself from forcing that want onto me. I did it because it is such a small thing to be grateful for, but I still find myself being grateful for that. I did it because I believe I should pay you back somehow, even if that leads to you being killed. Is that enough answers?”

Draco is stunned, only recovers himself enough to say, “You do not have to be grateful I do not rape you, and you do not have to pay me back for it.”

“Oh,” Ron says. “You truly do not know what it is like to live this life. I have been a slave for five years, since I was six-and-ten. In that time, I have been owned by seven masters including yourself. Do you wish to know how many of them bedded me? Offered me to family and friends and guests of honor who always accepted? Do you wish to know how many men I dream of killing?”

He leans in close to Draco, whispers in his ear. “You are the only one who has not raped me. The only one who does not give me out like I am just a thing, not a person with a soul that is being corroded with every transaction. And I have lost count of the men who deserve their death by my hand. And you do not touch me and you leave me alone and you are kind. So it might be pathetic to be grateful that you are able to control yourself, but grateful is what I am. Do not take that away from me.”

Ron moves to leave the room, but Draco stops him, forces himself to look Ron right in his eyes. “I cannot say I fully understand these reasons, but they are yours. I just thank you for your words.”

Ron gives a curt nod, and then wrenches himself from Draco’s grasp as he leaves the room.

*

Draco cannot forget Ron’s words. He had known that the man had cruel master’s before Draco had seen him, but it is one thing to know based on thoughts and implications and another to know from the mouth of the man himself. He had not known even the smallest detail about Ron’s past, and though he does not know much now, it is still more than he had before.

He had six master’s in five years, given as a favor to more men. And he finds Draco kind enough to have build up a small amount of gratitude. He tosses and turns in his bed, trying to figure out a way to repay Ron for his words, both in front of Severus and just between the two of them in that room. The fact that Ron is only grateful to him because for what he has not done to him rather than what he does for him grates.

There is only thing he can think of to repay Ron.

He walks into Ron’s room, less than half the size of his. He stands over his bed, reaches down and touches Ron’s shoulder lightly.

Ron wakes up with a start. He backs himself into the corner where the bed meets the wall, and the look in his eyes speaks of betrayal. Draco takes a step back, puts his hands up. “I do not come to harm you,” he says. “I came because I realized that I have not done anything to truly earn your gratitude. The absence of wrongdoing does not mean right is there.”

“What are you saying?” Ron asks.

Draco takes a deep breath. “I am going to free you.”

Ron sits up, blinking with surprise. “What?”

“You will never be owned by another man again, in complete control of your own destiny.”

Ron stares at him with wide, wet eyes. “What will I do?” he asks, his voice cracking slightly.

“Whatever you wish,” Draco says. “But if you want an idea, you come with me past the Wall to find the Eagle.”

Ron nods. “Yes. Yes, I will.”

*

They leave as soon as the papers for Ron’ freedom are drawn and signed, and the change in Ron is remarkable. He’s happier, smiles more and laughs without bitterness. The change is not overnight, and as strong willed as Ron is, there were habits he picked up from being a slave and Draco knows it is hard for him to remember that he can break them.

But he has the opportunity to break them now.

They spend the first day of their journey in companionable silence, broken only by the sound of nature around them. It is when they stop for the night that they finally talk.

“Tell me about your family,” Draco says, as he admires Ron through the fire. “You do not say much about them.”

“There is not much to tell,” Ron says stiffly.

“Liar,” Draco laughs, tilting his head back as he smiles at Ron. “They were your family. There’s always a story there, even if it’s the absence of them.”

A beat of silence fills the woods, and it seems like even the animals and the wind are still and quiet, waiting for Ron to break it.

“I had five elder brothers, and a younger sister,” Ron finally whispers. “And a loving father and mother.”

Draco raises an eyebrow. “Really? In Rome, families are not that big. I am the only child of both my father and my mother.”

“Yes,” Ron licks his lips before he continues on. “And they’re all dead.”

That does not shock Draco, but it still saddens him. “By Roman hands?” he asks quietly.

“My father’s and brothers’ were. I saw them all slain. My mother and sister choose to kill themselves rather than suffer the hell that the Romans would put them through,” he stops, and then pushes himself to continue, “the hell they put me through.”

“I’m sorry,” Draco strangles out.

“It’s not your fault,” Ron says bluntly. He lays down and turns on his side. “Now I am tired and I would like to sleep. Good night.”

Draco does not sleep that night, and judging the too-measured breathing next to him, Ron doesn’t either.

*

The next night is spent with Draco awkwardly trying not to ask Ron any questions concerning his family. He does not want to disturb those old, painful memories.

Yes it seems that Ron does. “I love my family,” he says suddenly as they set down by the father. “And I wish they were here with me today. But I am glad I was not given my desire to join them five years ago. I was glad every action I took to try and ensure it happened failed.”

Draco looks at him with surprise. “Why?”

“Because living life is worth it,” Ron says with a shrug. “And I am free now.”

“You did not know that one day you would be,” Draco counters back.

Ron nods in agreement. “I didn’t. I didn’t even have faith. But still, it somehow happened that I would be here, a free man. I cannot forget that.”

Draco stares, and then says, “I am glad you failed too.”

Ron laughs. “It is thanks to you that I am glad. I owe you my freedom.”

Draco shakes his head. “No, you do not. Your freedom is yours. I should have done the moment I decided to buy you.”

“Perhaps,” Ron says. “But it is useless to think about that now. We have only the future to think about, and no matter what you say, you gave it to me. Do not forget that.”

“I will not,” Draco says, realizing that this is important to Ron, for Draco to know this, even though Draco doesn’t think he can ever truly understand.

*

The third night has Ron ask about Draco’s family.

He sighs. “You know about my father.”

“Yes, but what of your mother?” Ron asks, already laying down on his bedroll.

He is beautiful in this firelight, Draco thinks, but he cannot bring himself to say it. Ron does not feel any animosity towards him, but he doubts that Ron can bring himself to care about another man, not so soon after the life he has been put through.

“My mother. . . .” Draco starts, stops as he struggles to say the right words, but he is unable to find them. “My mother loves me very much, but she did not find it easy to raise me. I was a wild and unpleasant child, angry at my father for unintentionally abandoning me. I was cruel towards my schoolmates, and I made her life hard. I took after my aunt, and my aunt was not a kind woman. Neither was my mother, unless it was towards me, but she at least wanted to keep up the appearance that she was and I ruined it. Truth be told, I think my mother was glad when I joined the military. She knew I was someone else’s problem.”

Ron listens to this story, and then merely says, “You’ve changed.”

“Yes,” Draco gives a humorless laugh. “I have.”

“It’s a good thing,” Ron continues. “I do not think the man you were would have freed me.”

“No,” Draco says with surprise. “I don’t think he would have either.”

*

It is after Draco ends up pretending to be Ron’s slave for a tribe of Brigantes to gain access to the Eagle, after they manage to grab the Eagle and make a run towards the Wall, after they clear it and somehow manage to get it back to Severus’s, that they finally talk again.

Though it is less talking and more Ron pulling Draco into an empty room and pressing his mouth upon his.

Ron is not a skilled kisser. He is too aggressive and too nervous, just gripping Draco’s shoulders as he attempts to press their bodies as close as possible together.

It’s the best kiss Draco has ever had. He wraps his arms around Ron, attempts to deepen the kiss. Ron eagerly follows his lead. Draco is lightheaded when he finally pulls away from Ron, who is not looking at him at all.

Draco licks his lips. “What was that for?” comes out in a husk, and Ron shrugs bashfully.

“I wanted to know what it would be like,” he says. “I have wondered over these past few weeks, and I know you have wondered for longer.”

“I have,” Draco says. “And I am glad you have availed yourself of the opportunity.”

Ron nods as he stares at the floor. His cheeks are red, and Draco finds him so incredibly attractive. He finds him even more so when Ron looks up with resolution, squares his jaw, and says, “I am not ready to lay with you, just so you know.”

Draco can’t pretend that it isn’t disappointing, but he’s glad that Ron knows he can tell him the truth. “Of course.”

Ron sags in relief. He takes a deep breath, and looks at Draco. “Where do we go from here?”

Draco tries to think, but he cannot come up with anything. “I do not know,” he finally says, “but I’m sure we can figure it out.”

The laughter that Ron gives as a response draws Draco into a light he didn’t know existed.