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writing on the wall

Chapter Text

The morning is surprisingly crisp, the roads still dark with the rain that had fallen yesterday, the same clouds still perched in the sky, but decidedly less threatening. Only a handful of students mill about campus, given as the clock tower has not even chimed eight. With finals beginning to loom in the not - so - distant future, exhaustion brings even the most studious to their knees. Still, academia stops for no one, and so he picks himself up and goes to class. Brutus regrets not wearing a cloak as he walks across campus, one hand balled in the pocket of his trousers, the other pale and nails blue wrapped around the stack of books clutched to his chest. He jogs up the stairs hoping that the exertion will warm him, but it only makes his lungs sting. 

Aemilius Paullus Hall, rather insensitively named for the Athenian campus, is an old one. The brickwork is light in colour, having been bleached by the sun over the years, but no less pristine, the broad Corinthian columns supporting an elegant frieze detailing the Virtues leading Minerva. The three sets of double doors have bronze handles, the name of the building painted on their windows with the same metallic colour. The doors lead into a grand lobby with a high ceiling, railings lining three floors like balconies, a warm, minimalist chandelier hanging from the large dome above the lobby, with skylights letting in the overcast sky. The halls are tiled, each corridor leading to a small domed veranda with two doors on each side of the hallway leading to lecture halls and classrooms. Beneath the domes, mosaics decorate the floor with aesthetic scenes of still life. Four large lecture halls dominate the first floor, above them classrooms, and offices at the top floor along with the political science library. 

His oxfords click on the tile as he walks briskly to the stairwell, the same stairwell he takes each day even though both lead to the same place. A spherical, muted light at the landing of the stairs flickers audibly. It provides a certain ambiance that might have struck Brutus as unsettling if he were more sensitive to those things. He continued on his way without a thought to it, and entered room APH CCXIV, the title painted on the frosted window on the door. 

 The classroom is dismal, brown wooden walls and muted carpet floor, tall windows overlooking the courtyard where fallen leaves cover the surface of the duck pond. He takes his seat in the middle of the second row, in full view of the professor’s rostra, the chalkboard, and her desk. The furnace purrs quietly, stirring the smell of coffee around the room and up to the high, dusty ceiling. There isn’t much to look at in the classroom, as it is all but barren of decorations, save a bulletin board by the door with old flyers and reminders on it that have long become obsolete, perched there on islands of cork where the rest had been picked off the students. 

Gradually, the room started to fill until fifteen students occupied the room, many empty desks between them. The professor was two minutes late, but she had a tendency to be so on Mondays. She apologised, as always, and rested her coat on the back of her chair, put her briefcase on the desk, and fished for her materials for class. It was to be somewhat of an easy day, Brutus figured, given that they had taken an exam the Friday prior and would be starting a new chapter. Military Theory is not his best class ; the thinking does not come easily to him. Dealing with someone man - to - man on the Senate floor is one thing. He has no problem understanding law and its loopholes, constructing arguments, and giving them without fear, but fighting tactic includes a myriad of other factors. It is easy to decide whether someone is right or wrong, and it is easy to find evidence to support that, but to battle someone into submission is a different matter entirely. 

The projector hums to life and she writes the date at the top of the clear sheet, and, beside it, “effective artillery composition”. He copies it onto his paper and colours in one of the cubes on the grided paper. She goes to her desk once more and take out a thick, orange folder. She unties the fastener and pulls out a stack of white papers. Brutus perks up as he realises that they are last week’s graded tests. She swipes her thumb across her tongue and begins to distribute them. Brutus is handed his packet face down. He turns it over nervously. 

A gory, mutilated page stares back at him, angry marks of violent red slashing over the page, so overwhelming in concentration, his eyes can’t seem to focus on any of it. He isn’t even sure of his score, he cannot bring himself to look, all he can see is red. He flips through the pages quietly, almost hunkered down to keep anyone else from seeing. The professor lectures far away. Red covers the pages, sharp damnations written in the margins, and a few patronising question marks thrown in for good measure. He suddenly feels as if someone is pushing down on the soft spot of junction between his collarbone and his throat, cutting off his airway, making it so his chest can hardly expand, let alone process oxygen. Brutus can feel his heart thundering, his hands grow clammy, and his eyes squint shut for a horrible moment. You aren’t trying hard enough. You’re distracted. You’re too stupid to handle this. You don’t belong here. You don’t belong in this program. You don’t deserve your name. You don’t deserve anything. The humiliation is overwhelming, and he suddenly grows hyper aware of everyone around him, as if they all know of this black mark sitting on his desk, this dangerous plague to his perfect image, his perfect GPA, his perfect composure.

He swallows hard, blinks camly, and places the test in a random page of his notebook. Brutus glances down and sees red along the top margin sticking out from the top of the test and he folds it carelessly away from sight. 

Brutus lives in a small home just outside the campus in a historic neighbourhood of homes centered around a small forum, despite the main forum of downtown Athens being a twenty minute drive away. It boasts a more village-esque life of independently owned post offices and bodegas, and a quaint temple to Athena at the very centre, and town ordinances would take place on the steps leading up to the wooden double doors. 

His house is a single story with an annex hanging above the withdrawing room with a balcony leading out beneath a tall citrus tree. Everything was small but no less luxurious, befitting the illustrious Iunius name. The porch is framed by two small white columns, and, on the side of the house, a trellis of bougainvillea crawl up the pale wall to the red shingles lining the roof. A single housekeeper ran the menial work of cooking, cleaning, receiving guests, and even serving, at times, as head of household, when Brutus’s duties as both student and pater familias drew him thin. 

He hears Antony before he sees him, and before that, he sees the branches of the orange tree outside the annex convulse beyond the usual sway with the cold afternoon wind. Brutus huffs as he holds onto his papers once the door squeals open and the gusts sweet in, sending the dust motes swirling through the soft light of the sun. Antony comes up behind him and leans down, resting his calloused hands on Brutus’s slight shoulders to brace himself as he presses a sloppy kiss to his cheek. “What did we do in class? I was too hungover to go,” he says as insouciantly as he would if they caught up in the halls between classrooms and lecture halls. Antony’s home invasions are not a particular rarity. 

“I don’t remember.” 

“You don’t remember?” He parrots. 

“No, I don’t.”

“Let me copy your notes,” he says as he goes to rifle through Brutus’s bag propped against the desk without waiting for an affirmative. Brutus’s eyes flicker with a sudden alarm, but realises it is too late to stop Antony. He hopes that treating this all mildly will keep Antony from smelling the blood in the water. He has no idea why he allows Antony to see him like this, to know these things about him. Perhaps it is some form of punishment, or perhaps he gets off on the danger of someone so cruel seeing him so naked, more bare than if he was stripped down to his skin. “I see we got the tests back. Great score as always, Brutus,” he waggles the paper.

“Leave me alone.”

“These are honour roll grades, you know. Maybe you’ll make the Consul’s List, yeah?”

Brutus stands from the desk, finally facing Antony, his fists clenched so tightly at his sides that his knuckles threatened to pop. “I don’t need to take this from someone who doesn’t even know how to hold a pen, let alone write his own fucking name with it.”

“Oh, come on , I’m just teasing you. Are you crying? You’re crying!” Antony laughs. “It’s just one test, Brutus, calm down.” Brutus huffs quietly through his nose, glancing away. His whole body radiates heat, and his jaw tightens as he can feel the dreadful wetness of tears that start to well up in his eyes. Antony turns the paper over, his fingers folding the page across the staple. Outside, an afternoon rain starts to splatter against the window panes. He scans over each answer as he speaks, this time quieter, “It’s not just one test, is it? You don’t think I’ve failed a few tests, a few classes?”

“Well, you’re you .” He breathes shallowly, trying not to let the crack in his voice show. Antony recoils.

“Yeah, and you’re better than me, aren’t you?”

Brutus doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t need to. His silence says more than any words could have. 

“If you weren’t so mean, I might have offered to help you.”

“Why would I want your help?” He snarls. 

“I’m glad you asked,” he says, unfazed in the face of Brutus’s upset. He gropes in his backpack, which is flimsy from lack of content, and finds a packet of paper crumpled among the void of Antony’s effects. Brutus already knows what it is before he looks, but still, he takes the paper anyway. It is a perfect score on the same exam. “Military and Strategic Studies is my major, idiot.”

What is there for Brutus to say? Of course he knows Antony’s major, and of course Antony knows he knows. They are at a stalemate, or so Brutus thinks. Antony has what Brutus needs, but he would rather fail than a class and ruin everything he has worked for than ask for his help and thus go back on his word. That isn’t true. It cannot be true. How far would Brutus go to be perfect? Or rather, how far would he go to sustain the idea that he is perfect? Is life as an imperfect man worth living?

Antony speaks before Brutus can think of something, anything , to say. “You’re lucky I want to keep you sweet.”

His brow furrows. “What does that mean?”

“It means that I’m the only one allowed to make you cry.” Brutus’s face begins to screw up in disgust and upset, and he is about to protest when he reins himself in. He cannot mess this up. “So, I’ll help you out just this once.”

“That’s very generous - ” Antony cuts him off with a simple quirk of his lips.

“…for a price,” he finishes. 

“Name it.”

“If, when , you become Student Senator, make me your Imperator.” 

Brutus balks. Imperators serve as the representatives of the ROTC division at each Imperial University, and to be confirmed as one by the Student Senate, the student government spanning across the entire University district, from Hispania to Cyrenaica to Pontus to Cisalpine Gaul,  is a shining badge on the young soldier’s blossoming career. It promises attention, internship, audience, and confirms them as a leader and student of formidable note. Brutus, while his campaign was glowing and voting day still on the horizon, had already been planning on giving it to Cassius. “Can’t we just have sex?”

“We already do,” Antony shrugs, disinterested. “The point of bartering is for us each to get something that we don’t have. You get y - ”

“We can do it in public.”

Antony’s eyebrows raise with interest, and for a flicker of a moment, he almost seems moved from his original request. “Brutus, are you trying to prostitute yourself?” 

“I’ve done worse for less.”

“Would I really make that bad of an Imperator?”

Quite the contrary, Brutus thinks to himself. Whatever Antony lacks in qualification, which isn’t much at all, he makes up for in popularity. Rumours swirl and his reputation is somewhat of a gutter, but no matter what he does, his vices draw a sort of chaotic respect from the student body. That admiration hasn’t escaped Brutus, either. Antony does whatever he wants in spite of their rigid society, and, by doing so, takes control of his life in a place where being a young person means surrendering everything. It rouses a flare of jealousy in Brutus at times, though he could never be introspective enough to know it. 

Brutus’s adversity to Antony as his Imperator isn’t a matter of merit, but of debt, in a way. It’s not that he is indebted to Cassius, but rather he feels the inclination of friendship to him. It is a strange feeling to Brutus, who doesn’t have many acquaintances who linger with him only for his bank - table and prowess, to be genuinely liked. Still, despite their closeness and mutual love for one another, it isn’t like Cassius is unqualified for the position. His grades are fine, certainly better than Antony’s, his military ability is notable, but inferior to Antony. Cassius’s only bane is his savage temper that has a tendency to derail his rationality, but, then again, that isn’t to say that Antony shares a very similar vice. 

“The final isn’t getting any further away, you know,” Antony sing - songs, holding up Brutus’s leather bound planner he takes from the finely organised desk. “You can make me Imperator and I’ll get you a perfect score in the class, let alone the test, or you can go your own way. I hear Appia has office hours tomorrow at nine.” Brutus grits his teeth. He would rather fail the class than go into a professor’s office, his tail between his legs, his wretched test clutched in his hands and begging for help because he was too stupid to understand the content the first time. He sees it as an affront to the professor’s teaching and an affront to his own intellect. It is his perfection or doing what he can to further Cassius’s career. Brutus’s eyes, the pale grey of a painter’s brush swirled in clear water, narrow with resolve. Cassius needn’t ever know.