You love it, don’t you?
Romano tipped his head back, giving a satisfied smirk as Antonio slumped against his chest. Antonio covered Romano’s sternum with hasty kisses, Romano’s name still tumbling from his mouth in short gasps. Romano wound his fingers through Antonio’s hair, kneading his scalp until his breathing was steady, and he buried his face at the juncture of Romano’s neck and shoulder.
He tightened his grip in Antonio’s hair, yanking his head up. Antonio gave a small gasp of pain, grinning, eyes shut in anticipation. Romano tilted his head and kissed him, loosening his grasp on Antonio’s hair so it wouldn’t hurt but not enough that he would pull away. Romano kept his lips on Antonio’s until Antonio couldn’t breathe and broke the kiss to gather his breath, settling on Romano’s lap. He gasped, sliding his hands up over his face and hair, dampened with summer sweat. Romano looked up through his lashes at Antonio, nonchalantly dragging his tongue along the tendril of Antonio’s cum winding around his inside of his wrist.
…knowing they’re desperate for you.
Antonio’s breathing returned to normal, and he continued staring at Romano. The copper shadows settled in the ridges of hard muscle on his torso, his waist, his thighs. Romano sat up, brushing the sides of Antonio’s thighs with the lazy evening in his eyes and movement of his palms. Antonio closed his eyes, enjoying Romano’s touch, sipping on the lingering euphoria until he was drunk off it.
“Do you feel better now?” Romano asked.
“Yes,” Antonio murmured, opening his eyes.
“Good.” Romano replied, taking Antonio’s hand to graze the hollow of his palm with his lips, then the spot beneath it where his veins showed. Antonio’s arm twisted and he giggled. He was the most ticklish person Romano knew, besides perhaps himself, but that was a secret he would guard with his life. “I’m sorry,” Romano said, smiling against his wrist. “I know you’re sensitive there.” Romano let go of his arm.
“I don’t mind.” Antonio smiled. “I haven’t laughed much the past month.” Antonio sighed, rubbing his temples.
“Right. Well, it’ll all be over soon, when you’re our new consul.” Romano said.
“Unless it’s your father.” Antonio said with a teasing grin. Romano didn’t smile.
“You’ve got a meeting tonight, don’t you?” Antonio puffed his cheeks out and exhaled with a nod, swinging himself off Romano and hurrying to clean himself off and get dressed. Romano rolled onto his side, propping himself up on his elbow and watching Antonio put his tunica on and touch his flushed face, wondering when the blush would fade.
He spun around and grinned at Romano, hopping to stay on one foot as he pulled his sandals on. “Thanks for the reminder. I would have forgotten without you.” Antonio said, finishing with his shoes and turning to leave. Romano had a dull tug of disappointment whenever Antonio left, and it felt worse today, a barbed hook underneath his ribs.
“Don’t I get a kiss goodbye?” Romano teased, sitting up and crossing his legs, leaning against the wall. Antonio dropped onto his knees, kissing Romano’s ankle and looking up at him with an adoration that made something flicker like licking flames in the back of his brain.
“I’ll see you next week?” Antonio added.
“Sure.” Romano said. “But be careful, unless you want people gossiping about how you often you come down to the lupunar. They’ll start muttering about your virtue,” he said, bouncing his ankle. Antonio kissed it again with a smile.
“No one knows I go here at all. It’s our little secret.” He leaned on Romano’s knee, still smiling at him with his distant reverence. Romano ran a hand over his hair, and Antonio closed his eyes, enjoying the attention.
“I love secrets.” Romano murmured, kissing the tip of Antonio’s ear. “Now go, before you miss your meeting.” He said. Antonio nodded, standing up to leave. Romano listened to his retreating footsteps and drew a heavy sigh, an out-of-place loneliness settling in as Antonio left.
Once he had disappeared from view, Romano got up, cleaned himself off, and dressed. He sank his hands into one of his pockets, a handful of denarios greeting his searching fingers. Guilt picked at him for accepting so much money from Antonio. Romano shook his head. He deserved money for his services; he didn’t work for free.
Then again, being with Antonio had never seemed like work.
Romano ran up the steps to see if Helen was there. They weren’t really friends, but Romano knew she appreciated some company at the end of a tiring day which she often spent lounging around in the small room upstairs. The brothel keeper complained of her laziness, though Romano suspected the reason for her lethargy was because she simply didn’t have enough energy to deal with the world anymore.
A freedwoman from Greece, Helen had started working at the brothel, she had been hoping to gain the funds to sail home to Athens. She had been there two years and still couldn’t afford the trip.
The upper floor of the lupunar was far worse than the downstairs where they met with clients, since only the prostitutes ever spent time on that floor. Helen laid on the couch beneath the arrow-slit windows after long days, waiting for the silent rapport of Romano getting his shoes. He asked her if she was all right despite her not wanting to ask and knowing she didn’t want to answer.
She was there today, lazing in the sun. She might have even seemed a little happy. Maybe she was dreaming of her city by the sea. Perhaps that was why she didn’t bother opening her eyes at first until Romano sat on the edge of the couch to put on his sandals. She cracked an eye open.
“You look proud of yourself,” she mumbled, rolling on her back.
“I saw my favorite client just now.” He said, leaning into the sunspot on the wall. Helen raised her eyebrows, and Romano allowed the smallest of smirks to slip onto his lips. “The son of a general from Hispania. The rising consul.” Romano added with a further smirk. Helen frowned, watching Romano take what she suspected to be a luxurious celebratory stretch. “He loves me.” Romano went on, shaking the remaining tension out of his shoulders.
“Everybody here loves you.” Helen said. She settled her hands over her stomach and turned back towards the sun, as if to signal an end of the discussion, but Romano scoffed.
“Yes, but that’s old men who can barely get it up. Antonio’s not quite the same. He’s so much more fun.” Romano added. Antonio had been his favorite for a long, long time. He was younger, leagues more attractive, far more giving, and gentler than everyone else. He listened when Romano wanted to talk, though Romano would never try to start up a conversation any other client but Antonio.
“I don’t understand how you enjoy this.” Helen murmured, her voice tired. Romano thought of her desperation to go home to Athens and decided he should shut his mouth. He finished with his sandals and leapt off the couch, stopping up short when he heard Helen speak. “You don’t find it strange?”
“What?” Romano asked.
“Antonio always coming to see you. It’s not as if he can’t afford the better brothels in the city.” Helen said.
“You just said so, didn’t you? I’m very popular.” Romano insisted. “Are you leaving?” Romano added. Helen nodded, pushing herself upright. They walked out into the fading sun together, parting ways a few blocks from the brothel. He counted the denarios Antonio had slipped him again, a little extra the brothel keeper wouldn’t touch. Romano smiled at the golden sky.
Seeing Antonio always made him breathe easier.
Romano lived alone, but he gave the overflow of money to his family, so he ventured to his family’s house first.
He had told them he was an architect working downtown on new baths. None of them disbelieved him, and if he came home sweaty and red-faced, he’d explain it away with a story about strenuous stone cutting had been that day. When he got hickies on his shoulders or some other inconvenient place, he would explain them as bruises from work. He didn’t know if they questioned that or not, but they at least never did to his face.
Romano opted to stay for dinner, because as of recently he rarely visited. Dinner wasn’t ready yet, so Romano went into his old bedroom. It was so small he could stand in the center with his arms out and touch either wall.
He flopped down on his bed and pulled the denarios out of his pocket again, turning them over in the dull light. He thought of the way the sunset had lit up Antonio’s tanned skin and made his eyes look like green onyx.
Romano rolled onto his back and gave a long sigh. “You’ve really gotten to my head, haven’t you?” He muttered. He closed his fingers around the coins and shut his eyes. “I wonder if I’ve gotten to yours.”
Roman bath anatomy:
There were three main rooms. You’d start in the frigidarium, which had cold water, then go to the warmer tepidarium and finally the caldarium, which was basically a steam room. There was also a main pool and the palaestra, which is the outdoor courtyard where people went to work out.
Romano went to the baths after dinner, intent on avoiding his father his senator friends. Romano liked the baths at night and late evening when they were nearly empty. Politicians sat with their heads bowed, muttering about assassination plots and whatever else they gossiped about. There were the rich complaining about how strenuous their lives were, people stealing kisses outside under the dull moon.
He spent a good portion of his time in the frigidarium since it was unoccupied, silent but for the gentle reverb of water droplets. It was calm, even if it was so cold it made his body quaver.
When he could take it no longer he wandered towards the main pool, stepping down the rough stone steps into the balmy water. Steam lingered in the room, a haze above the water’s surface and off Romano’s wet hands. He swam over to the corner, glancing over his shoulder and noticing the familiar figure of Antonio sitting in a crowd of campaign advisors and whoever else he surrounded himself with. Romano wished Antonio would meet look over, imagining Antonio stumbling over his words, his face going red. Much to Romano’s dismay, Antonio didn’t catch his eye.
Romano rested his head on his arms, listening to the snatches of tired speech and the delicate sounds of water that lapped at his chest and crept down his back. His eyes found Antonio, who was acting as the Antonio he saw adamantly campaigning in the Forum, serious and studious. Romano could understand how he had won over so much of Rome’s population despite him being the youngest in the running and being from a province.
Antonio didn’t act like that around Romano, but then again, nobody acted like themselves around him. He flicked his gaze up to the torches guttering in their holders, trying to pick out Antonio’s voice from the murmurs in the humid air. The warm sound of it would make the soft dusk seem even more pleasant, but only garbled echos greeted his searching ears, so he gave up.
He braced himself on the edge of the pool and pulled himself out, finally getting Antonio’s attention from across the room. Romano pretended he hadn’t noticed. Instead shook the water out of his hair, tilting his neck to the side so Antonio would see the mark he had left there. But Antonio needed to focus, and Romano didn’t want to be the reason he slipped up so close to the election, so he left to go exercise in the palaestra. He hoped, if he stayed long enough, Antonio might finish up with his meeting and join him.
Romano returned to the frigidarium, leaping into the icy water and sending a wave a shock through his aching muscles. He immersed himself and rubbed the sweat off his face, blowing a stream of bubbles out his nose towards the surface of the chilly water. He sulked there until he started to shiver and he climbed out and headed back to go put on his clothes.
Antonio was the only other person there, trying to shake the water out of his hair. He stopped up short when he saw Romano, who hoped he had realized how absolutely un-consullike and frankly ridiculous it looked.
“Romano.” He sounded a little surprised.
“Hello, Antonio,” Romano said. “Another busy night?”
“Yes. The meetings aren’t so bad, it’s just exhausting knowing it all might be for nothing.” He said. “Besides, I’ll have to get used to long nights and meeting after meeting if I’m going to be a consul.” Romano nodded, touching the spot on his neck again with idle focus and resting his cheek against his hand. Antonio stared at Romano’s lips, his own parted. He went to finish getting his toga on with a jolting movement like he didn’t want to look away.
“A toga candida . Very proper.” Romano murmured.
“Ha, and I’m sure you want to tear it off me?” Antonio asked, raising his eyebrows.
“No.” Romano insisted. “It looks so good on you, I wouldn’t dream of ruining it. And who would vote for someone who couldn’t even keep their toga clean?” Antonio laughed under his breath. “Why do you want the consulship anyway?” Romano asked, deciding the cold had assaulted him enough and reaching for his tunica.
“What’s attractive about the job to you, I mean? The power?” His voice softened around the word. Antonio watched him pull on his clothes; he was being a bit too showy, but he loved showing off for Antonio.
“I want to improve the lives of the Roman people and the people in the provinces.” Antonio said. Romano laughed.
“You don’t have to give me your classic campaign answer. What’s your real answer?” Romano leaned forward. Antonio smiled.
“That’s my real answer. I don’t tell other people about wanting to change things for people outside of Rome. Roman citizens wouldn’t like that.”
Romano half-nodded. “It’s good that we finally have someone with noble motivations.” He said.
“Most people’s are.” Antonio said thoughtfully. Romano raised his eyebrows.
“No no, Antonio, not at all.” Romano said. They paused on the sidewalk beside the bathhouse, and Antonio waved goodbye. “Be careful.” Romano called after him. Antonio gave him a confused glance. “Haven’t you been in the city long enough to hear about all those murders going on?” Antonio nodded. “They’ve been attacking influential people. They could go after you.” Antonio shook his head.
Antonio gave a strained smile. “I’m not worried.”
“Aldrich!” Romulus slapped him on the back. Aldrich choked on his wine and dissolved into a coughing fit, straightening up with watery eyes to give a baleful look to an apologetic Romulus. “Sorry. It’s so good to see you again, which I guess you can’t say the same about me.” Romulus chuckled.
“I can.” Aldrich said. “It’s been a long time. So long I hear you’re being promoted to a consul. Is that true?” Romulus gave a teasing shrug and ordered himself some wine, enjoying the air of suspense he had created while he took a long sip. He set it down and grinned sideways at Aldrich.
“You know I don’t like to brag…” Romulus started.
“Oh yes you do.” Aldrich cut in. Romulus grinned at him and nodded. “This is a great opportunity, really. You should be proud.” Aldrich smiled.
“Well, you were off defeating all those nasty barbarians and rising through ranks. I had to catch up.” Romulus insisted. He hoped Aldrich wouldn’t translate this into Romulus’s compulsive desire to outmatch Aldrich whenever he possible. The competition between them had been much worse when they were teenagers, growing up at the foot of the mountains at the head of Italy. Even then Aldrich had pretended to be above it all, but Romulus sensed correctly that he wasn’t.
And now he seemed to even be outdoing Romulus in his desperation to serve his country; Aldrich had become one of the most revered generals in Germania. To avoid the military and him possibly being recognized, Romulus had to meet with him in the ancient, decrepit tavern downtown, drinking poor but cheap wine while regaling each other with their victories.
“Some of those armies were ours, but credit where credit’s due.” Romulus said, trying to stop the moment from becoming awkward by drinking the rest of his wine.
“I forgot. You’ve always been an unfaltering patriot. You’re even more obsessed now, aren’t you?” Aldrich asked. Romulus shrugged. “Consul, though. That’ll go straight to your head, won’t it?”
“It already has.” Romulus said. “Besides, it’s only a title, really. It’s not what it was in the days of the Republic.”
“But you still have influence and power.” Aldrich insisted.
“I mean… yes, of course.” Romulus was using the voice he did when he wanted to pretend he was being humble. His eyes widened and he stared at Aldrich. “Ah, I see. You want something out of me, don’t you?” Romulus frowned. A curtain of heavy velvet tension fell between them.
“Just a small favor for your old friend?” Aldrich asked.
“What is it?” Romulus asked.
“Well, you remember how uncomfortable it made you back when we were kids how people in the town would act towards me, being that I wasn’t a Roman citizen?” Romulus shifted his weight and nodded.
“Times have changed. The other person up for the consulship is Hispanian.” Romulus insisted. Aldrich shook his head.
“Fine. Then you can make that change even better. If you allowed more power to the provinces, more opportunity…” Aldrich trailed off, seeing Romulus’s expression. He was already pulling back. “I’m thinking of my sons.” He added, even though it was a lie; both his sons were already helping him in his systematic undoing of the Roman Empire. He felt bad for tricking Romulus, his old friend, who he really did care about, but Rome was bigger than Romulus and Germania was bigger than Aldrich. They were two people in a complex clockwork, ticking besides thousands of other gears.
Romulus shook his head. “You know I can’t do that, Aldrich. It’ll make me unpopular with the military and the rest of senate. I could lose my seat, especially since it sounds like an opportunity for one of the provinces to uprise and overthrow Rome.” Romulus said. Aldrich didn’t let his expression change even though that had been the precise idea he’d flirted with long before now along with a room of other scheming generals. “The Emperor will question my allegiance with a ploy like that. I’ll have to politely refuse.”
“Shame.” Aldrich said, turning back to his wine. “But maybe I’m wrong. A Hispanian senator, you said?”
“Oh, Antonio.” Romulus said. Aldrich nodded.
“You know him?” Romulus nodded. What have you been up to, Antonio? “What can you tell me about him?”
Antonio didn’t think he’d ever felt nervous sitting in the lupunar before, but today he kept having to wipe the sweat on his palms off on his lap and his heart clenched hard in his chest. He felt an increasing unease seeing the other men passing in and out. Had they been with Romano too? Did Romano treat them like he did Antonio, with careful touches and drowning kisses? Did he smile at them and run his fingers through their hair, ask them about their day?
The idea made envy sour his stomach, even though he knew he was being ridiculous. It was Romano’s job, after all. That made Antonio feel even more sick and frankly sad.
Romano appeared in one of the doorways, beckoning to Antonio and then sliding out of sight, but not before one of the men to Antonio’s left grinned at Romano and Romano tossed him a kiss. Antonio got up and followed Romano inside, shutting the creaking wooden door closed behind him. Romano was sitting patiently on the bed, already naked, perched at the angle he knew would make the light play over his body exactly how he wanted it.
“Romano,” Antonio swallowed, wondering if he could wipe the sweat off his hands without Romano noticing.
“Are you alright?” He asked.
“I think.” Antonio said, his voice much fainter than he was used to.
“Come here.” Romano said, patting the seat beside him. Antonio sat down beside him and Romano reached out to put his hands on Antonio’s face, brushing his cheekbones with his thumbs, so gentle it made Antonio shudder. Did he touch the man he’d thrown the kiss to like that too? “Poor Antonio. They must be working you too hard.” Romano muttered, twirling a bit of Antonio’s hair around his finger.
Antonio nodded, distracted by the faint hickey he had left on Romano’s neck days before. It was hardly there anymore, just a faint discoloration beneath his tanned skin. Antonio pressed his mouth over the spot and bit down, sucking at it as hard as he could. He wanted to leave a bruise, one that anyone else who touched Romano would see.
It took him several minutes to be satisfied with his work, after which he sat back and Romano reached up to touch the spot.
“What was that about?” Romano asked. His pupils were wide. There was a sort of grin on his lips like he didn’t even know he was smiling. Antonio didn’t answer, just kissed him. Romano fumbled to get his tunica off, but Antonio shook his head and pulled his hands back. He broke away from Romano’s mouth and what he said next was a genuine shock to Romano, who though he couldn’t be surprised by anything anymore; he had been asked to do things that made him feel like he needed to scrub a whole layer of skin off to be clean.
“I don’t want to fuck you.” Antonio whispered.
“For how much you pay, you can do whatever you want to me.” Romano said. He hoped his words would make Antonio red-faced and tongue-tied, but instead he looked a little sad. He rolled onto his side on the uncomfortable wool bed, pulling Romano with him so they were facing each other. Antonio drew a line down Romano’s forearm.
“Has anyone ever told you how gorgeous you are?” Antonio asked, then scoffed at himself. “What a stupid thing to say. People must tell you that every second of the day.”
“That doesn’t mean I get tired of it.” Romano said.
“Are you tired of this?” Antonio asked, brushing a few loose strands of hair from Romano’s eyes and kissing him again.
“Not with you.” Romano said. The honesty in his own voice surprised him. “You’re my favorite. You have been for a while.”
“Is it because I pay you so much?” Antonio asked.
“Well, that’s a big part of it.” Romano said, even though it felt like a lie on his lips. “But also because you take care of me. Sometimes it even seems like you’re trying to make me feel good too.”
Antonio turned red. Romano wondered if he had gotten too honest in the odd intimacy of the moment; most Roman men were appalled by the idea of using their bodies to give someone else pleasure rather than themselves. It was considered deeply unmasculine. Luckily, Antonio gave a stifled smile and Romano let out a breath trapped in his chest.
“And you’re very handsome.” Romano said. “I shouldn’t say this, but most everyone else who comes in here is old and awful.” Romano shut his mouth, his cheeks hot from embarrassment. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever gotten embarrassed in front of one of his clients before. Antonio didn’t seem to have noticed, too busy laughing.
“Really? You think I’m handsome?” He asked.
Romano frowned. “Antonio, are you allowed access to mirrors?” Romano asked. “You’re a work of art.” He kissed Antonio, breaking away to get to kiss him again. He loved the feeling when their lips just touched, when he could feel Antonio’s body go tight with anticipation and melt when Romano gave him the release he wanted.
Antonio didn’t kiss him like he was used to. Most people didn’t kiss him at all, but when they did they crushed his mouth to point it hurt and was packed with desperation or loneliness or desire that burned out anything else, usually accompanied by a writhing slithering tongue that made his stomach retract in disgust.
But Antonio seemed to genuinely enjoy it, instead of just viewing as the precursor for sex. It was odd. Romano didn’t have any clients who just wanted to kiss him, or who bothered to talk to him.
Romano didn’t dwell on it. He sank back into the moment, kissing Antonio in the warmth of the rumpled blankets until Romano could tell Antonio was getting restless.
“You’re going to be in a lot of pain if you don’t let me get you off.” Romano muttered.
“Yeah, my balls hurt.” Antonio admitted, sounding so sad Romano laughed aloud. “Why are you laughing?” Antonio asked. Romano gave a mocking, louder laugh and Antonio shook Romano’s shoulders playfully. “They do . I can’t believe you’re laughing at my pain. You should show more respect to your future consul—” he gasped when he felt Romano’s hand around his cock. Romano smiled at the look on Antonio’s face, feeling his dick twitch underneath Romano’s fingers.
If Antonio did become the next consul, Romano would have one of the most powerful men in Rome under his thumb. The thought made Romano hum with the power high he loved so much, and he forgot about all the sweetness of kissing Antonio and climbed on top of him, yanking off his clothes and making him squirm and whine and moan until he came onto Romano’s stomach. “By the Gods, I love you, Romano…” Antonio gasped, burying his head against his pillows.
Romano stared at him. His heartbeat kicked up. People said things like that to him all the time, and they never meant it. He knew that. So why did it cling in his head now?
Antonio laid still for a long time before finally getting up. “Thank you, Romano.” Antonio sounded dazed. Romano nodded, falling into his normal routine of watching Antonio get dressed. Once he finished with his sandals, he went back over to the bed and picked up Romano’s hand, kissing his knuckles softly.
“What’s that for?” Romano asked.
“A goodbye kiss.” Antonio said. Romano beckoned him closer and kissed him on the cheek.
“Bye, Antonio.” Romano said. Antonio smiled at him and went towards the door, dropping a fistfull of extra denarios on the small decorative table. Again Romano felt guilty at the sight of them.
Romano didn’t like sitting alone with his thoughts. He got dressed and then jumped up to hurry upstairs, meeting Helen on the narrow steps.
“Heading out?” He asked. She nodded, waiting for him to get his sandals on and walk back downstairs with her. A few stragglers waved at Romano. He waved back, his hands in his pockets, rolling the golden coins around his fingers. Helen heard the soft clink they made against each other. She never walked home with money weighing down her pockets.
Romano left her at their normal spot and she lingered on the street, then slumped against the wall, trying not to feel the aches in her exhausted body. She cast her eyes back down and noticed someone watching her from behind one of the houses, a tall blond man she didn’t recognize.
He noticed her looking and met her eyes. She bristled like a dog with its hackles up, maintaining her spot by the wall.
“Who are you?” She asked finally, hopping over the stepping stones on the street to reach him. He looked down at her.
“Aldrich.” He said. It wasn’t a name that a Roman citizen would have. He wasn’t wearing a toga or tunica.
“You’re not Roman.” She said. Aldrich shook his head, glancing over his shoulder at where Romano had slunk away. “Do you know Romano? Are you a client?” She asked.
Aldrich shook his head. “No. I’m a friend of his father’s.” Aldrich said. “I saw you staring at him like you wanted to stab him in the stomach and I got a little worried.” Aldrich said. Helen frowned. “Does he work at that brothel?” Helen hesitated. “I’m not Roman. It’s not my place to judge him.” Helen kept still for a few more minutes. Aldrich was patient. Eventually she nodded.
“Everyone loves him. He gets handfuls of money even though he’s already got his life paid for by his family. Meanwhile I’m scraping by trying to afford a trip back home. It’s hard not to be bitter.” She said. Aldrich nodded.
“Where is home?” He asked.
“Greece.” Helen said.
“Forgive my abruptness, but do you think you could help me?” Aldrich asked. Helen frowned. “Just consider it. In return, I’ll pay for your trip back home.” Helen bit the inside of her lip, keeping her gaze steady on his. She had no reason to trust him, but she also had absolutely nothing to lose, so she held out a hand.
“Okay. Let’s make a deal.”
The baths were too crowded. Romano berated himself for not coming later, when the crowd of people leaving work, looking for relaxation and idle chatter, would have thinned. He shoved his balled-up tunica into one of the slots on the wall flexing his toes against the mosaic beneath his feet as he listened to the reverberating, echoing voices around him. The edges of the tile were rough. Romano liked the feeling.
“Roma!” Romano looked up. His father was approaching with a crowd of senators, his hair already damp from steam. “I was hoping I’d run into you. I need to introduce you to my friends,” he said with a charming smile and gesture to the senators behind him. Romano doubted they were Romulus’s friends so much as they were people Romulus was sucking up to to secure his position as consul.
“It’s a lucky day for us. He’s very busy with his job and usually doesn’t to the baths so early.” Romulus was telling his friends, earning nods of approval from the men behind him. They reminded Romano of very opinionated owls.
Romano went around shaking their hands. One of the men held his hand a little too long and when he smiled at Romano, Romano’s stomach clenched.
“We’ve met before,” he said to Romulus. Romano couldn’t decide if his smile was sincere. Had this man been to the lupunar? Romano’s heart started to pound. Would his father ever forgive him if he knew? Would his mother? Brother?
“You introduced us at dinner the other night.” He let go of Romano’s hand. Romano relaxed, drawing a deep breath. “Quite elusive, aren’t you?” Romano didn’t respond.
“It was nice to meet you all.” He said instead, forcing himself to sound polite and smile, though instead he came off as sarcastic. He tried harder to smile and still couldn't.
“Wait, Roma, before you go.” Romulus said. “Antonio!” Romulus waved. Romano turned around and saw Antonio tucking his sandals in the sot beside Romano’s tunica and giving a jovial wave back to Romulus. Antonio reached down to pull his own tunica over his head, folding it neatly before turning back to Romulus.
“It’s so great to see you!” Romulus said, giving Antonio a heart handshake. “You’ve got to meet my son. You know Feliciano of course, this is my oldest, Romano.” Romulus said. Romano’s heart started to beat hard again and he swallowed, but his throat was too thick with worry to.
“Nice to meet you, Romano.” Antonio said, holding out a hand. Romano let the air out of his lungs and shook it, blushing a little when Antonio gave him a sweet little smirk.
Fuck. Romano thought as Antonio whisked by him with Romulus and his council of wisened owls.
“Come with us, Roma.” Romulus said. Romano knew he couldn’t say no. His father wanted to parade him around in front of his friends a little, show off whatever he thought was salvageable about Romano. He wasn’t offended. That was politics.
Feliciano was sitting in the frigidarium and greeted the group with his winning smile, his golden smile, asking them how their wives were or daughters or if they’re sons had gotten back from Brittania or wherever else. Romano didn’t speak, just slunk down into the water, more fascinated with the little bubbles around his fingers than the conversation. He could sense the prickle of his father’s irritation beside him.
“Pay attention.” Romulus hissed out of the corner of his mouth. Romano sat up and met Antonio’s eyes across the pool. He raised a hand to his mouth, pretending to be rubbing his face while he mouthed I’m so bored to Antonio. Come sit by me.
Antonio made sure no one was looking at him then mouthed back I have to pay attention. Romano wrinkled his nose at Antonio and accepted defeat, leaning back against the marble and looking up at the mosaic above their heads. He drifted in and out of reality as they wandered from the frigidarium to the balmy, crowded caldarium where steam huddled in the air.
Romano sunk down to his upper lip in the water, half-asleep in the heat. He met Antonio’s eyes again. Antonio raised his eyebrows in sympathy but turned back to Romulus, who was discussing possible expansions into Germania. Romano sunk lower so his ears were underwater. He didn’t want to hear his father’s voice.
“Roma.” Romulus nudged him. Romano sat up. “Would you?” Romano squinted.
“I couldn’t, Romulus, really. I’m too busy.” Antonio said. Romulus shook his head.
“ Nonsense . Roma loves the chariot races. He’ll take you, right?” Romulus nudged him.
“Where? The Circus Maximus?” Romano asked, glancing at Antonio. Romulus nodded. “Of course.”
Antonio wore his toga to the Circus Maximus, sweating in the air choked up with the smell of baked sand and horses. He looked over at Romano, who was leaning back casually, looking down the empty ring. He was wearing his tunica, one of his legs over the other, burnt gold with summer tan. Antonio’s chest ached.
“That was awkward yesterday.” Antonio announced. Romano shook his head, hiding his face in his hands. “I would never let anything slip to your dad, though. Don’t worry.” Antonio promised, clapping a hand on his shoulder.
“Thank you.” Romano said. “I’m already a letdown to him, I can’t imagine what a slap in the face it would be if he knew I was a whore.” Romano said with a sigh. “I’ve always let him down, you know, because he wants me to go into politics like Feli, but I’ve just never had the charm for it.”
Antonio nodded. “I know what it’s like not wanting to follow in your father’s footsteps.” Romano glanced at him. “My father wanted me to be a general.”
“I have a feeling you wanted to become a senator, though. I didn’t exactly want to be a whore.” Romano looked away from Antonio to the dusty ring. “I wanted to be a poet.” He added.
“A poet.” Antonio repeated with a smile. “Then why—” Romano shook his head. “Alright. Then, what would you write about?”
“Things I liked.” He said, feeling stupid. Antonio grinned.
“Would you write about me?” He asked. Romano looked him over once.
“Maybe,” he said. His eyes found the clouds and he wondered how much longer it would be until the race started. People were starting to take their seats. “You must think I’m pathetic.” Romano added darkly.
Antonio shook his head insistently. “I don’t.” Romano scoffed. “Hey.” Antonio touched his arm and Romano met his eyes. “I don’t think you’re pathetic.”
“Wow, that was really sweet.” Romano said, raising his eyebrows. “You really tugged my heartstrings there.” Antonio laughed.
“Alright, no need to get all smart with me. I meant I don’t think any less of you. I like you a lot.” Antonio smiled. Romano smiled.
“Yeah? What do you like about me?” Lovino asked.
“You’re very honest.” Antonio said.
“So I’m a dick.” Lovino said.
“No.” Antonio said. “And you’re smart, and very sweet when you want to be, and you’re a very good listener. Also when you want to be.” Antonio added. “I like spending time with you. I wish your dad had forced you into taking me to a race much earlier than this. You look very pretty in the sun, you know that?” Antonio asked with a smile. Lovino blushed a little.
“What did you come to Rome?” He asked suddenly, apparently not interested in talking about himself anymore.
“My father was a general in Hispania. I think, after Vespasian became emperor, he thought he might have a chance to rise up the ranks too. I moved to Rome, but he died a few years back.” Antonio wasn’t looking at Romano. Romano felt an uncomfortable suspicion that Antonio was lying to him, but he shook it off. He was probably still upset about the death of his father.
“I’m sorry.” Romano said.
“Don’t worry. We never really got along much.” Antonio insisted, staring at the arena beneath them. “Shitty fathers. What can you do?” Antonio shrugged.
“Become a prostitute to get the validation from old men you never got from him?” Romano suggested. “Only joking.” He added.
“You know what I said about you being honest?” Antonio asked. “And you don’t make jokes.”
“I do when the mood strikes me. And it just struck me.” Lovino said, smiling sideways at Antonio. “Now be quiet. The race is about the start.”
The brothel’s upper floor looked a little less filthy in the early morning when the sun didn’t shine on the decrepity furniture and musty corners.
Helen stood with her back against the wall, standing up straight and stiff like a senator’s wife, hands at her sides even though she felt sick and wanted to clutch at her stomach. Aldrich’s eyes were heavy and untrusting and they made her want to shy away, but she wouldn’t. She was going to go home. She was so close it would be harder to let go and lose her chance.
Helen held out a shaking hand. Aldrich crossed the room and pressed the heavy handle of a dagger into her palm. Helen closed her fingers around it, bringing it close to herself, against her stomach, like it was something small and cold that needed to be protected.
“ Buona fortuna , Helen. I’ll be waiting for you.”
Romano hadn’t expected Antonio to come to the lupunar this week, seeing as there were only three more days until the elections. Antonio would be in meetings or campaigning to the rich or scrawling some final political messages on the walls at the Forum. That would be the smart thing to do anyway, but instead, he was standing in the entrance of the brothel, thinking about Romano.
Romano was sitting cross-legged on the uncomfortably bed, looking idle up at the ceiling when Antonio walked in.
“Hello, Antonio,” he said, turning to face him, hiding his surprise. Antonio sat beside him, looking at the spot he had left on Romano’s neck. It was faded to a softened sort of purple with yellowing edges. He reached out and touched it with a hesitant fingertip that trailed to the new ones beneath it he knew he hadn’t left. Antonio dropped his hand and glanced at Romano’s fingers curled on the mattress, trying not to wonder how many people had fucked Romano where he was sitting, and what they had done to him, and how much they had paid him.
The thought made him so physically uncomfortable he had to clasp his hands together. Romano put a hand over his hands and laid a cheek on his shoulder, looking up at him.
“What’s bugging you?” He asked. “If you’d rather be in the Forum yelling at people to throw their allegiance at you, you’re welcome to go.” Antonio shook his head. He kissed Romano on the forehead, his lips lingering there for several seconds before he pulled back. Romano sat up and swung himself onto Antonio’s lap, made uneasy by that kiss. It had been far too intimate.
He braced his hands on Antonio’s chest and leaned to kiss him, but he stopped.
“Your heart’s beating so fast.” Romano had intended it to sound teasing, meddling, but instead he sounded breathless. “Is… is that the effect I have on you?” Again his own tone surprised him.
Antonio let out the softest of laughs that Lovino felt in his chest. “Yes.” His voice was a warm hum against Romano’s ear. “I’m sorry.” Antonio added.
“You don’t have to apologize. I’m not mad.” Romano said. He touched Antonio’s cheek, his thumb resting on Antonio’s lower lip. He dragged his thumb back and forth, and Antonio opened his mouth against it. Romano touched a fingertip to his tongue and Antonio rolled the tip against Romano’s finger, the salt of sweat lingering on his tastebuds.
Romano took his finger back, putting his hands on Antonio’s cheek and studying the soft colors of his eyes, the flecks of hazel and almost yellow alongside the deep greens, like the Tiber. He felt heavy, aching, and he wanted all of the weight of his heart on Antonio so he wouldn’t have to hold it anymore.
“I like it when you look at me like that.” Antonio said.
“Like what?” His voice was so quiet he wondered if Antonio would even hear him. Antonio smiled and slid his hands up Romano’s back, kissing his chest. Romano looked down at the back of Antonio’s neck, feeling Antonio sigh and drag his nose lightly back and forth over Romano’s sternum. Finally he looked up.
“Like you love me.” Antonio said. Romano could hardly process what he said, so he just kissed Antonio, silent and soft without being asked or wanting anything from it other than to kiss him. Then he pressed his lips to Antonio’s shoulder, shutting his eyes.
“You’re good at kissing.” Romano said into his shoulder.
“Hmm?” Antonio hummed. Romano shook his head. “Romano, are you al—” Romano cut him off with another kiss. This time he kissed Antonio as hard as he could, as desperately as he could, trying to get that reaction out of Antonio that used to make him wild.
He got it.
But he didn’t feel the dizzying high or pride he did with old senators and retired consuls who would never stop begging him for more, always more. He kept going anyway, because that was what he was supposed to feel from this, not whatever had been creeping up around him the past few times he had seen Antonio. Usually when he passed those men in the Forum, Romano would give himself a smirk when he saw them, knowing even someone with that much power was powerless to him. He didn’t feel like that when he saw Antonio. He felt… nervous? Excited—no—giddy.
Antonio was shocked by Romano’s sudden change of pace, but he didn’t stop him. He fell back into their usual rhythm, realizing this hadn’t done anything at all the clear his head like he’d hoped, quite idiotically. In fact, it may have made everything immeasurably worse with the added confusion of this hesitant affection that had turned into what he feared might be love.
Romano wouldn’t love him back. Everyone knew not to fall in love with your whore. Antonio thought of the way Romano had looked after Antonio had said like you love me . It was mostly a tease, but the minute he’d said it Antonio wished he hadn’t. Romano had looked so helpless when he said it, and Antonio had never seen that sort of emotion on Romano’s face.
Antonio grabbed Romano’s shoulders. “Stop.” He whispered. Romano stopped. “Get on your hands and knees.” Romano rolled off him and did as he was told.
Antonio didn’t feel much better after fucking him. His stomach hurt. He didn’t kiss Romano goodbye either, just left his denarios and hurried outside. Romano watched him go, flopping back against the wall. He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs, hiding his face against the inside of his elbow and shutting his eyes. Why did Antonio seem so mad at him?
Romano went upstairs to find Helen. She was sitting on the couch, pale but for her very, very flushed cheeks. She was sitting how he had been minutes before, knees up to her chest and arms around them. “Romano.” She said.
“Helen.” Romano settled at the edge of the couch. “I’ve been thinking,” he muttered, counting the denarios in his hand, “you’re right. It is odd Antonio comes to see me at this shithole and not somewhere upscale he can clearly afford. It worries me.” Helen inclined her head. “Well, I suppose it’s just my ego. Everyone knows better than to fall in love with a prostitute.”
“Some people don’t.” Helen countered, taking a deep breath. “But I wouldn’t worry too much about Antonio. He’s going to be the next consul, after all, he’s plenty smart enough to know better. Not to be blunt, but you’re almost half his age and he pays you to fuck him. What kind of a relationship does he possibly think he could get out of that?” Helen curled nearer to the wall, pulling her legs closer. Romano’s face got tight and he stared at his hands. “Don’t worry. Just be glad you’re young and beautiful and can monopolize it. That’s what I’ve done.” Helen sat up a little straighter.
“I forgot to tell you! My work finally paid off. I’ll be going home to Greece soon.”
“That’s great, Helen.” Romano said, unsure why he suddenly felt bitter. Well no, he knew exactly why. Because instead of a client falling in love with him, he had fallen in love with a client. He was a fool in man’s shoes. Helen started talking about Greece, the food and her family and the cats that hung around her garden. Romano tried to listen, but he couldn’t.
He felt mechanical as he walked downstairs with Helen. Maybe he should lose Antonio as a client. It would be too painful, going on like this.
Helen stopped up short with a scream. Romano looked up and dropped to his knees on the street.
Antonio was laying splayed across the sidewalk, blood staining his tunica. His eyes were half-open and his breathing was raspy.
“By the Gods…” Helen put her hands over her mouth. “I’ll go get a doctor!” She said hurriedly, turning and running down to the end of the street. Helen caught her breath beside one of the buildings, covering her face with her hands and staring up at snatches of sky between her fingers. She felt guilty, and worried for Romano, but shook it off. They weren’t friends anyway, only two people who exchanged conversation because they had no one else to offer their thoughts to.
Besides, she didn’t need to feel guilty. Aldrich had planted a doctor there, Antonio wasn’t going to die.
Helen turned away from the frantic voices behind her and slipped between the buildings towards the heart of the city where Aldrich would be waiting for her with enough gold for her sail back across the sea to Greece.
Romano was shaken awake the following morning. He opened his eyes, blinking in the morning that came in from the atrium and look at Luca with a confused squint.
“I’m sorry to wake you, but your father sent Abel. He told me your father wants to speak to you.” Romano held tight to the edge of his blanket, staring at Luca. He nodded, a cold defeat roosting around him, rustling its feathers. “I’ll tell Abel you’re awake.” Luca added.
Romano sat up. He squeezed his own arms for a moment, trying to comfort himself, and stared up at his ceiling with its beautiful frescoes. Did his father know? Had the news spread that fast? Romano pinched his eyes shut until he couldn’t even see the light from the atrium anymore. Of course it had, with so many big names in the city woven into it; the city’s beloved Antonio and the son of the most popular senator.
He covered his face with his hands and felt himself twitch. The frost that had climbed up the walls of his veins crystallized into hard ice and he shivered. His father knew. The entirety of Rome knew. His family’s standing in social circles would crumble. Romulus would lose his chance at consul. Romano wanted to fall back on his bed, let himself be helpless and cold with his frantic heart trying to break the ice in his blood, but waiting would only make it worse. The longer he waited, the more the rumors would spread, get wilder.
Romano pinched the side of his finger and forced himself to get up and get dressed. He walked with his head down the whole way to the stables and as they road through the Roman streets he dug his fingers into his stallion’s mane, holding on hard because he feared if he didn’t he would slip straight off and crumple on the sidewalk.
Abel dismounted and let Romano in, then left him alone to go tend to the horses. Romano looked around the massive entryway, HAVE tiled underneath his feet in marbles from every corner of the Empire. He didn’t feel particularly welcome. More sick to his stomach.
There was a mosaic of Alexander the Great on the floor of his father’s office, sitting astride his horse Bucephalus, his face sure as David facing Goliath. Romano wished he could hold his head up like that.
“Father?” Romano sat down across from him. “Abel said you wanted to talk to me.” He gripped the sides of the chair so hard his fingers prickled and burned. Romulus nodded. He looked sad, truly sad, and Romano felt heavy with nausea that wasn’t quite nausea.
“How much of it is true?” Romulus asked.
“Oh what, Father?” Romano asked, wondering how much Romulus really knew. Romano didn’t want to lie. It wouldn’t quiet the rumors, and if the real truth was hidden, there was potential for blackmail.
“These stories I’ve been hearing in the Forum. People are saying that you were Antonio’s… his whore. One man told me you stabbed Antonio while he was underneath you.” Romano tried to set his jaw as he shook his head. He looked down at Alexander’s face, calm in the face of the soldiers charging him.
“It wasn’t me. I didn’t stab him.” Romano said, his eyes not leaving Alexander’s. He hated Romulus’s stern silence of disappointment that made a lung-crushing weight settle underneath the curve of his ribs and press to his heart so now he was filled with heaviness and ice and cold.
Romulus raised his eyebrows. “...But I work at the brothel. And Antonio is one of my clients.” Romano said. When he looked up, Romulus was shaking his head, looking at his desk.
“I was going to be elected consul tomorrow. No one in their right mind would vote for me now.” Romulus snapped. Romano flinched back. He knew it was true; no one would want to vote for the father of a prostitute. That was the lowest someone could sink on the social hierarchy, and it would be even more scandalous because Romano was well-off and had no need to go to desperate measures. The city of Rome loved a good scandal.
“I’m sorry I got found out, but Antonio was stabbed , I needed to help him!” Romano yelled. “And I don’t know why I do it. I said I was sorry, that’s all I can say to you.” Romano hid his face again because he was afraid he would start crying and he didn’t want to let Romulus see him cry. Romulus’s anger went hazy as he saw Romano’s shoulders drop and he leaned forward.
“If you needed money, you have have asked me.” Romulus insisted. “Roma…” He looked at Romano’s stricken face which he turned away. Romulus sighed. “It’s alright. Go on home. When you’ve had some time to think I can help you get a real job, alright?” Romano nodded. He got to his feet and left, getting his stallion and riding back home.
He collapsed onto his bed. He had let his father down time and time again, his whole life, and now he might have cost him his position in society, everything Romulus had ever worked for. He would become his family’s dirty little secret, something to kicked out of sight. Romano hugged his knees. He felt small, and worthless, and so, so cold.
Romano wished he could talk to Antonio.
He hid his face between his knees. It’s because of you, you stupid old sod. Romano thought. You didn’t love me. You didn’t care about me. You loved Feli and you only loved Feli and it’s still like that, goddamnit. Romano raised his head and stared at the wall. He supposed that wasn’t true. Romulus did love him, but he had never been impressed by Romano like he had Feliciano. Romano had always been unremarkable.
Romano got up. He found Luca sweeping the atrium.
“Could you get Antonio’s address?” Romano asked. Luca nodded.
“Do you want me to finish sweeping?” Romano shook his head.
“No, it’s alright. Thank you, Luca.” Luca nodded and turned to go. Romano went into the garden, sitting down on the uncomfortable stone bench beside his villa and staring at the outline of the sprawling city ahead of him.
He tipped his head back against the wall. Too many thoughts. He closed his eyes and found himself thinking of Antonio, which only made him feel worse, so he took to pacing around the empty garden, waiting for Luca to return.
“Aldrich, I had no idea you were in town!” Romulus swung himself onto the barstool beside Aldrich, who nodded with a tight-lipped smile. “It’s good to see a familiar face. Things have been very… hectic.” Romulus shook his head a little.
“I’m sure.” Aldrich slid a tankard of wine towards him. “I heard about your son.” Romulus shook his head. “And one of your fellow candidates. Antonio.” Romulus frowned.
“Please, don’t mention that name to me.” Romulus said, holding up a hand. “I don’t want to think about him, that meddling bastard. He coerced my son into doing all those filthy things, and…” Romulus broke off with a shiver. “No son of mine would behave like that.” Aldrich watched Romulus continue shaking his head as he took a long drink from his wine.
Aldrich took a long drink of his wine, then looked down at the dregs, not at Romulus. “I’ve heard a lot of people thinking the same thing, that Antonio corrupted your poor baby boy.” Romulus nodded. “It’s because he’s from one of the provinces, isn’t it?” Aldrich asked, looking sideways. Romulus paused.
“I thought you told me you’d leave that alone.” Romulus said.
“I didn’t say anything of the sort.” Aldrich replied. They faced each other in the dull light of the tavern, and Romulus frowned.
“Well, that’s not why. It’s because my son would never act like that. He’s my son, I know him better than you do.” Romulus said.
“I don’t think so. Romano was whoring himself out two years before Antonio came along.” Romulus sat up straight, glaring at Aldrich.
“That’s not true. I’m sorry we have our differences, Aldrich, but don’t degrade my family’s name.” Romulus said.
“It’s true.” Aldrich said. “One of the other whores down there told me.” Romulus leaned forward.
“Have you been scheming against him this whole time?” Romulus asked.
“Of course not. I’ve been scheming against you .” Aldrich said. “I had to knock you down from that ostentatiously high pedestal you gaze down at the rest of us from. I’ll give it to Romano, though, he was so careful not to get caught. I had to go as far as paying some freedwoman to stab Antonio to get him to come out of that rat’s nest.”
“Why would you ask someone to stab him ?” Romulus cried, his voice almost audible over the loud laughing crowds around him.
“Because everyone’s blamed Antonio for what Romano does, even though he nearly died . I thought you might get an idea of how prejudice your precious city is.” Aldrich said. Romulus slammed his tankard down.
“Bravo, Aldrich.” Romulus said. “You’ve ruined my chances at consulship, and Antonio’s, and you’ve destroyed my son’s life. Was it worth it?”
Aldrich stared at Romulus. “Only time will tell.” He said. Romulus almost sneered.
“Oh, it’s this old game, isn’t it? Me against you. Rome against Germania.” He leaned forward. “Rome will never fall, Aldrich. It will stand until the end of time.” He insisted.
“Nothing lasts forever.” Aldrich’s voice was calm. “And I’m not the only one scheming in this city.”
“Antonio?” Antonio raised his head from his pillow to look over at the doorway. His jaw clenched at the sight of his brother leaning on the doorframe, looking down at him with his ever-disapproving look. Antonio had expected a visit from João. He had no idea how João always seemed to know what was going on, and he started getting paranoid his brother had eyes everywhere.
“Are you alright?” João asked. Antonio nodded. “That’s good.” Antonio resisted the urge to make some sort of sarcastic remark about his brother’s lack of enthusiasm over the fact he hadn’t been murdered in the street. “I’m assuming you haven’t made any progress with Gaius, then?” He asked.
“Well, I almost died, that was a bit of a setback.” Antonio snapped. João sighed.
“Sorry. I’ll do it tonight.” He added. “And Romulus?” Antonio sat up and stared at the floor.
“We should keep Romulus alive. He’s terrific for social climbing.” João frowned, the shadows from the torches cutting deep lines into his face. “He helped me get close to all those senators on our list.”
“Our job isn’t to social climb, Antonio. I know you got comfortable, but that wasn’t part of our orders. Arthur said Romulus and Gaius need to go now .” João insisted. Antonio exhaled, raising his eyes to glare at João. It had taken roughly a minute for them to start an argument. “Come on, Antonio. It’s the perfect time to get Romulus; you were just attacked, and if he was killed now, everyone would think it was the same bastard who stabbed you.” Antonio frowned. He knew João was right, which he absolutely hated since João always seemed to know better than him. It was exhausting.
Antonio shook his head, partly because he wanted to be stubborn and also because he didn’t want to kill Romano’s father. He knew they didn’t get along, but that didn’t mean he wanted Romulus dead. Beside, Julius Caesar had wept when he saw Pompey dead despite them being locked in civil war. Opposite sides did not always mean enemies.
“Antonio. Get your head out of your ass. He’s been pouring obscene amounts of money into the military. They’re setting up more camps all over the Empire thanks to him. Think how much worse it will be if he’s consul.” João added. Antonio felt the fight go out of him and a helplessness squeeze his lungs. His heart went dead in his chest.
He couldn’t take much more of this, the lying, the blood on his hands. He shut his eyes.
“Antonio.” Antonio opened them again. Never had he felt more like a child than he did now in front of João, reminding he wasn’t a charming Roman politician of forty-two, destined for a consulship beside the Emperor.
No. He was a Hispanian exile of thirty-five, killing the biggest names in the Empire until he was too weak to lift a knife, and all because he had committed one of the most infamous sins in history.
He had killed his father.
He remembered that night well, perhaps better than anything, the bitter tang of smoke in the air, the hum of insects, laughter and the crack of flames.
Antonio waited for fire. He waited with his breath held in his lungs and his blood still in his veins, waiting for the narrow outpost building several feet away to flare up against the night sky in jewel-tone amber and jasper. He saw the light of the cadets’ small campfire painting their hands and their faces so they dripped with copper and bronze and gold. They were drinking, laughing at watered-down jokes.
One of the boys around the fire let out a laugh that broke through the treeline. Antonio’s father had never let Antonio or João learn Latin, so he didn’t know what they were laughing at, but that unabashed sound made him feel even worse about what he was about to do.
Antonio had spent his whole life being told nightmarish stories about the atrocities the Romans committed with a flick of their wrist, the lies they ensnared people in, the bloodshed they revered. When Antonio saw Hispanian soldiers return from the battlefield oozing blood and broken, he had no hesitation working alongside his father and the webwork of people woven across the provinces from Brittania all the way to the edge of Greece. They bode their time, chipping away at the Empire methodically so that, unlike the violent uprisings in other provinces, they would not be stamped out.
Romans had never been humanized to Antonio.
But the boys around the campfire were younger than him, fifteen or so, their heavy armor traded for more comfortable, casual clothes. The swords that seemed too big for them were stashed away. They were just kids, not even real soldiers. This was a training camp, that was all.
His father insisted that attacking the training camps was their best bet; to cut down the Romans before they spread, festered like disease on a corpse. But they were so young.
Their warm laughs seared to yells and Antonio saw the sign he had been waiting for.
Antonio jumped up. He was supposed to set the barrack beside him alight, help spread the fire, but instead he had been bound to the earth beneath his feet. João, who had been crumpled on his chest beside Antonio, had scampered towards the fire circle. At first Antonio thought he was going to attack them, but he was yelling at them to run. They could likely figure out what he was saying even if he wasn’t speaking Latin, and Antonio ran out of the brush and yelled with his brother, pointing them back towards the trees.
Neither of them knew what gear had suddenly turned in their chests, but now they were stamping out the rising fires, helping the centurions and cadets flee back into the safety of the woods. The fires climbed and lapped like the violent waves in a tempest, and they were forced down onto their knees at the extinguished fire, heaving with coughs as their bodies fought to expel the smoke from their lungs.
“What the hell are you doing?” João drew himself up first and dragged Antonio to his feet by the back of his shirt. They faced their father in front of the splashing, roiling waves of flame behind them. “What did you do?” He shouted. Spit flew from his mouth and flecked the ground. He lunged for Antonio when he got no answer, and João drew his sword, slashing it in front of Antonio, who stumbled back, clutching the hilt of his own blade. The fire made Antonio weak. The air was suffocating. Soldiers were still streaming past them, the noise of swords from the Romans and the provincial army making his ears ring.
He felt like he was underwater, his vision blurry, his ears refused sound, lungs starved for oxygen. In all the confusion, the fire, he didn’t know if he or João had been the one to bury their sword in their father first. All they knew was that in the early hours of dawn when the flames were finally sinking back towards the ground, back into Hades, he lay dead on the ground with their swords through his chest.
Antonio remembered his guilt and panic more than anything else that night, more than the military tribunal he faced for killing such an important general, or the night in his makeshift cell as he dreaded his sentence.
Any kind of infighting faced severe punishment. João and Antonio would be no different. They would be made into examples, proof that nobody was safe from the strict regulations in place, not even the sons of a leader of the rebellion.
As he knelt on the cold stone floor, glaring up at the bitter faces of the rebel leaders, Antonio had told himself he was brave enough to die. He would fight back and let them kill him, be noble instead of following through this proposed plan of theirs and tear down the walls of the Roman Empire from the inside.
But he wasn’t.
When he laid awake that night and imagined the nothingness of nonexistence, he couldn’t take it. He was afraid to die.
So then he was learning Latin, and how to lie, and every intricacy of Roman politics and society. It was awful and lonely and sickening work, but Antonio was grateful he had been placed in Rome. He had been living his whole life stumbling in his father’s footsteps until he had come to the city and started to remember his own ambitions, who he was as a person.
He liked to make people laugh. He liked to help people. The Romans had taken a shine to him, particularly Romulus and his group of friends, and it was because of Romulus that Antonio saw a small gap in the rigid door sealing the life he wanted and the plan the Fates had given him. And then he was on the ballot for consul.
Now it all felt childish, dreaming of becoming consul and convincing the Senate to help the people in the provinces, that he could somehow convince Rome and the rebellion to make peace. But if he had, then Antonio would finally, finally be free from their cold, cruel fingers.
Those had been the idle fantasies of a much younger, stupider version of himself with far less blood on his hands and less ties in tangled knots to the people of Rome. He liked Romulus. He liked his senator friends, even if they could be pretentious bastards, and his heart was sore with longing for Romano.
Romano was safe, at least. He wasn’t even a soldier. In fact, he was possibly as far from a soldier as one could be in Rome. Yet Antonio worried anyway because that didn’t make a difference in the eyes of the rebel leaders. He was still a Roman citizen, he was still a threat.
Antonio stared at João. “I want to speak to them, João. Aldrich or, or whoever. I want them to let me go.”
Romano watched the sunlight touch the frescoes on his walls, and as it brushed his cheek, his eyes dropped closed. I love him. I love Antonio. He wasn’t dealing with some passing affection that would burn until it ate itself away and went out. No, Romano was fuel for this fire and it burned longer and higher, up from his organs to his lips so they blistered with heat aching for release.
He let out a soft sigh and his eyes stayed closed while his fingers searched for his own heart in the darkness, beating somewhere far away.
Lovino took his horse through the city to Antonio’s house and raised a hand to knock on the door. One of Antonio’s slaves answered the door.
“Hello.” Romano forced out. “My name’s Romano Vargas. Would you… would you please ask if I could come in and speak with Antonio?” She nodded and shut the door, retreating back inside. Romano fidgeted with his tunica in the dying sun, the evening gold warm on the back of his neck. The door opened again.
“He’s resting, but he says you can come in.” She said. “His bedroom’s that one.” She added, pointing. Romano nodded and thanked her as she pushed the door aside. Antonio was sitting upright in bed, reading a scroll of papyrus with aching eyes.
“Antonio.” Romano said. Antonio gave him a polite nod.
“Romano.” Antonio half-smiled. “I’m assuming you came to check on me, and you don’t need to worry. I’m doing alright.” He promised, his gaze sweeping over Lovino almost curiously. “I’m surprised you’d come and see me, though.” Romano raised his eyebrows. “Well, I’m not exactly your friend, am I?” Romano’s eyes found the floor, and then they were back on Antonio’s face with its warm smile and soft eyes.
“No, you’re not my friend.” Romano said. “You’re a lot more to me than that.” Romano inhaled and the flames grew in his lungs, withered his throat and his mouth. “I love you.” Romano said. He knew he should stop talking and let Antonio process what he had said, but he couldn’t. “I love the way you smile at me and talk to me and how you laugh and how you touch me and how, how you look at me like Venus made me just for you.”
Romano saw Antonio smile, his eyes get wide, but then that all broke. He looked confused, a little hurt. “Oh, Romano,” Antonio said. “I… I need to think…” Romano’s heart sank six feet under the dark dirt.
The flames died and acrid smoke replaced them, making his eyes water and throat burn and stomach turn. He didn’t know what else to do but give a murmured apology and then turn around before Antonio could call him back, even though he wanted to.
It’s not right for me to be with him without telling him the truth. And will he still love me when he knows what I’ve done, what I still do?
Antonio sat up straight, staring at where Romano had gone, his words tumbling over and over in Antonio’s head like breaking surf against the shoreline. I love the way you smile at me and talk to me and how you laugh and how you touch me and how you look at me like Venus made me just for you.
Yes, if Venus took her time to make a perfect lover for Antonio, she would have made Romano Vargas.
And she had.
She put a soft arm around his shoulders and wept with him, her tears painful when they dropped onto his hand. He wondered if she would ever spin another person for him of gold and brushstrokes, music and poetry.
He knew she wouldn’t.
Romulus won the consulship.
He arranged an obnoxious celebratory feast to which Romano was not extended and invitation, seeing as a majority if not all of his political allies would be there. The celebration of his father’s proudest achievement, and Romano wasn’t allowed to go.
Romano spent most of the day at the lupunar, sitting upstairs on the uncomfortable couch and looking out the arrow-slit window at the street, counting the men who passed in and out of the brothel. Some were there less than fifteen minutes. Romano sneered at them, but still found himself getting a tug of pity for those sad old men who couldn’t afford anything better.
But his pity wasn’t nearly as strong as his contempt as he thought of how they bit his lips until they bruised and yanked his hair, dug their dirty blunt nails into his skin, spoke empty words so oversaturated with sweetness they made his stomach hurt.
Then he was thinking of Antonio, how his kisses were so delicious his mouth hummed with some gentle sort of electricity, how he dug his fingers into Romano’s hair, dragged his nails down Romano’s back so he shivered and whispered things to him Romano was sure Antonio knew made him fall apart.
Romano hid his face in his knees, finally giving his body the release of tears and easing the ache off his heavy heart. He clutched at his arms, trying to get rid of the loneliness, the agony of rejection. The world through his teary eyes was blurred, confused, and so he shut his eyes as tightly as he could.
When he couldn’t cry anymore, he stood up and went back downstairs. To most people, it was a normal day, and he had expected there to be the typical amount of people in the brothel. He had not expected to see Antonio there. Now he had let Antonio see his splotchy face, that he had been crying, and Romano didn’t want Antonio to have any emotional power over him. Every part of him hurt, and Antonio may have broken his heart, but Romano could still had the upper hand.
He retreated to his room and stripped off his clothes. He ruffled his hair and then leaned on the doorframe, signalling Antonio to come in.
“Romano,” Antonio was breathless. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to see me, but I need to talk to you.” Romano traced Antonio’s lips with his pointer finger, tapping his bottom lip with a half-grin.
“You didn’t pay me to come here and talk, did you?” Romano asked, sliding his hand around to cup the back of Antonio’s neck and whisper in his ear. “That would be such a waste, wouldn’t it? I can use my mouth for so many other things,” Romano said, flicking his tongue against Antonio’s earlobe. “Let me make you feel good, Antonio, you can forget about everything else…”
“No. I want to talk to you.” Antonio said. “I want to be with you. I do, but I, I want you to know why I came to Rome.” He said. “I… I came here as an assassin for and rebel group from the provinces trying to take down the Empire. I’ve killed people, I don’t remember how many anymore, generals and senators and influential patricians...” Romano’s eyes widened. “I don’t want to let you love me not knowing what I’ve done, but I do love you, I do, and by the Gods, I want you so badly.”
Antonio kissed Romano’s chest, the spot on his breast bone where his heart beat. Romano felt the flutter of his lashes as he wrapped his arms around Antonio’s shoulders and hugged him. Romano was still for several seconds, trying to process what he had just heard.
“Please, say something.” Antonio whispered.
“There must be something really, really wrong with me,” Lovino said, “because I still want you.” He sighed. “I want to take you somewhere.” Romano slipped free and pulled his clothes on. “Let’s go, before anyone notices me leave.” He hurried down the cramped stairs with Antonio’s hand in his, and they walked to the edge of the city, near the shore.
“Where are you taking me?” Antonio asked, hearing the distant ocean crashing on rocks. He grinned at Romano, who pointed to a small cluster of seaside cottages. Lovino walked up to the smallest and stepped inside, shutting the door behind them. The last of the sunlight stained the floor, and it smelled sweet like wet wood and linen.
It was only big enough for a large desk and little divan, the desk flooded with papyrus and wax tablets.
“I told you I wanted to be a poet, didn’t I?” Romano asked, sitting down at his desk. Antonio sat down on the edge of the bed. He nodded. “Well, I am,” Romano grinned at Antonio, the first real smile Antonio thought he had ever seen from Romano. “I come here to write.” Antonio smiled.
“Can I read some?” He asked. Romano tapped his lip.
“Maybe.” He said.
“Have you written one about me?” Antonio asked. Romano smiled again and looked down at his desk, then leaned forward to kiss Antonio lightly on the lips. Antonio put a hand to his cheek.
“Yes.” Romano’s eyes were closed, but he was smiling, waiting for another kiss.
“What did you write about me?” Antonio asked. Romano kissed him, long and slow.
“How Venus wove you with gold and streaked your skin with the colors of the Divine,” he kissed the side of Antonio’s neck. “And she gave you a voice as sweet at the sound of Orpheus’s lyre, made your touches like ambrosia and your words like Erato’s poetry.” Romano dragged his lips up Antonio’s throat, and Antonio felt him smile.“Would you like to try?” Lovino whispered, still smiling.
Antonio gave a huffing exhale. “I’m not good with words.” Antonio said. Romano nodded in defeat and went back to kissing him. Then Romano pushed him down on the divan, swinging a leg over his hip and sitting on his lap. “Then show me instead.”
Antonio unseated him and swung him around so he was laying underneath Antonio, who kissed his neck, beneath his chin, the soft hollow of his throat, the dip between his collarbones. Romano let out a soft sound of relief and fumbled to get his clothes off, desperate for the sweet sensation of Antonio’s body pressed to his. There was no purer physical pleasure than skin on skin.
Antonio kissed the points of his collarbones, traced the smooth planes of his toned stomach with gentle fingertips that made it feel like he was dragging static across Romano’s body. He sunk lower, peppering kisses down his ribs to his navel and laying between Romano’s legs. He kissed his stomach, the inside of his thighs, ran his hands down the back of Romano’s calves.
“You’re beautiful,” he breathed against Romano’s thigh. He kissed Romano’s stomach again and Romano actually giggled. Antonio did it again and Romano drew his knees up, grabbing Antonio’s hair. He loved diving his fingers into his hair, thinning slightly but still full and soft.
“Stop making me giggle.” Antonio rested his chin on Romano’s stomach and looked up at him.
“Hm. Does it ruin your moodiness?” Antonio pecked Romano on the stomach again and Romano laughed out loud with a yes! Antonio got up to all fours and kissed him behind the ear. “Good,” he said, winding his fingers through Romano’s with a gentleness that made Romano’s spine tingle. Antonio sat up, still holding Romano’s hands, and looked down at him with the wonder of someone whose heart had been stirred by a work of art.
Antonio felt Romano move his legs further apart, creating a sort of cradle for Antonio against him. Antonio brushed his hair off Romano’s forehead and kissed the fine bones of his face again, and again, never getting enough from kissing him. He always wanted one more kiss, and after that last kiss he needed another.
Antonio lingered at the places that got a soft draw of breath or a whine, and those places he pressed his mouth down and sucked at Romano’s skin until he got too restless and Antonio settled him with gentle kisses to his forehead or his chin or his stomach, whichever he was closest to. He stroked the sensitive spots of his body; the hollows at his hips, the back of his knees, his wrists.
Whenever he could, Antonio held Romano’s hands, grinning when Romano gasped and dug his nails into Antonio’s hand.
“I wrote something once,” Romano started, then let out a sharp gasp as Antonio pressed his hips against Romano’s, slowly moving them in lazy circular motions.
“Keep going,” Antonio whispered.
“W-when I was younger…” he inhaled again, trying to focus, but he was so hard at this point it hurt, actually hurt, not some sort of dull soreness, real pain. “I wrote something about wondering if someone’s fingertips would fit in the dips of my knuckles, and I didn’t think it sounded very poetic…”
Romano tipped his head back with a whine as Antonio slipped himself inside of Romano, who closed his eyes, clutching Antonio’s hands even harder. The pleasure was intense as pain in the sense he could think of nothing else but the feeling of it, of how good Antonio felt inside him; sweet, almost innocent in a way. There was nothing else in the world but Antonio, not now.
“And?” Antonio asked. Romano’s breath shivered as he tried to focus on his words. His voice was breathy.
“...but I thought of it just now, because…” he held up one of their clasped hands. Antonio smiled and kissed their entwined fingers. He went slow, and Romano liked it, but soon he’d had enough of gentleness. He wanted to ache. He wanted to burn.
So Romano let go of one of Antonio’s hands and grabbed his shoulders, pulling him down closer. “Fuck me like a dog,” he hissed in Antonio’s ear, pressing his heels into Antonio’s lower back and laying his arms beside his head, completly open to him.
Soft admirations tumbled from Antonio’s mouth and into Romano’s as their lips meant again, though this time they felt less like kissing and more like just pressing their open mouths to each other’s. If their bodies hadn’t been searching and hopelessly caught up with sex, neither of them would have found it nearly as enjoyable as they did in the moment.
Romano slid down to get him deeper, closer, as if he wanted their bodies to fuse, or break, or he simply couldn’t stand even a breath of distance between them, and when he finally came he fell apart and wanted to stay broken like that for eternity.
They stayed still for a long time, listening to the distant sea on the rocks. Antonio rolled over and laid beside him, staring at the painted ceiling. Romano reached around hugging him and kissing his cheek. Antonio savored the seconds like the last bits of copper evening sun, and they fell asleep there in the mussed blankets, their hearts beating the same careful rhythm, moving with the tide.
It started to rain in the night, and by the tired morning the storm had left the sky grey, fog settling between cracks in cold stone and along the sand. Antonio woke up to discover Romano lying on his chest, face hidden in Antonio’s shoulder and arms draped over him. He must have gotten cold in the night. Antonio put his arms around Roman’s shoulder and kissed his forehead, scooching upwards so he could breathe easier. The movement made Romano stir.
“Good morning,” Antonio muttered, pushing Romano’s hair back and running his hands dow to the end of his hair at his nape. Romano looked up at Antonio in his daze of sleep with a look of utter adoration while Antonio continued to stroke his hair. “Did you sleep alright?”
“Yes,” Romano muttered, rolling off Antonio onto his side. Antonio shifted onto his side to face Romano. “It’s cold.” He muttered, snuggling closer to the pillows.
“I know.” Antonio pulled the blanket up to Romano’s neck and smoothed it over his arm. He was half-asleep and Antonio suspected he was about to doze back off. Antonio himself crept off the divan to the door and slid the door back a crack to look at the grey world outside, knowing what would happen when he got back to Rome.
Aldrich or Arthur or someone wold be waiting for him, and Antonio would either die or have to learn how to be an insanely good negotiator in roughly a half hour.
“Come back…” Romano whined, lifting his head. “Antonio… it’s chilly.”
“I’m here, I’m here.” Antonio said, climbing back onto the divan. Antonio inched closer to Romano, resting his forehead over Romano’s heart. He reached for Antonio blindly, cradling the back of Antonio’s head in his hands, pressing his face to Antonio’s hair so his next words were muffled.
“You smell nice,” he whispered. Antonio smiled.
“Do I? Like what?” Antonio asked. Romano made a soft hmm sound against his hair and inhaled softly. It ticked Antonio’s scalp a little.
“Oranges, sugar, paint, wood, summer…”
“What does sugar smell like?” Antonio asked.
“Sweet.” Romano muttered. Silence for a few seconds, and then Antonio guessed he had fallen back asleep. He slipped out from Romano’s arms and kissed him on the top of his hair again. “Don’t go…” Romano whispered. Antonio continued stroking his hair.
“I have to go.” He whispered. He pressed his forehead to Romano’s and brushed his nose with his own. “I have to.”
Antonio spent most of his morning walking back to the city center, then wandering down side streets. João was probably following him, or making Arthur follow him, either way, he was being followed. Antonio was so sure of this that when someone clapped a hand over his mouth and pulled him sideways into a narrow street, he was nearly unfazed.
He glanced over at his attacker, who was trying not to laugh. Antonio grinned. “Gilbert!” He said. Gilbert let go of him.
“Nice to see you, Antonio.” He said. “Sorry about snatching you off the street.” Antonio shrugged and then pivoted so he was facing the other person lurking back against the wall. Aldrich. Antonio set his shoulders and swallowed. Gilbert had sideled away from Antonio, leaving him feeling like he was standing at the crux of Heaven and Hell, waiting to be judged.
“Hello,” Antonio said.
“Why is Romulus consul?” Aldrich asked. Antonio laughed.
“I don’t know. Maybe because you got me stabbed.” He said. “If you’re here to punish me for not killing him or letting him get the consulship, I think we should make it very clear I know you put my life in danger to settle a vendetta.” Antonio said. “Then again, I’m pretty shitty at my job.”
“That’s true.” Aldrich said. Antonio licked his lip nervously. Could he barter with Aldrich? He hadn’t been one of the people to assign Antonio to his position of crude assassin, so maybe he would be easier to convince. “But Romulus can’t be consul. Not with all his plans for military expansion.” Aldrich frowned at Gilbert and Antonio. “João told me you wanted to talk. After I take care of Romulus we’ll rendezvous and then we can discuss our options.”
Aldrich couldn’t help the contempt that reached a boil when he found Romulus exactly where he thought he would: drunk at a tavern with a group of friends. He was a consul, for God’s sake, and yet here he was, so inebriated he fell face first on the sidewalk the second he left the bar. Aldrich wanted to feel bitter, but seeing him in his childish drunken state made him think of the Romulus he had grown up with. There had been stars spilling from his eyes as he whiled away the days, desperate to grow up and take all the opportunities the world would give a man like him.
“Aldrich!” Romulus yelled from the ground, waving his arms. “Aldrich, you’ll never guess…!” He grabbed the side of the tavern to help himself up. Aldrich crossed the street to him and helped him back to his feet. “I won!” He cried, still holding Aldrich’s forearms. “I won the consulship.”
“Congratulations, Romulus.” Aldrich said, setting him upright. “I see you’ve been celebrating.” He added.
“Yes!” Romulus said with a hiccup.
“Well, I’m not surprised. You’ve always been full of joie de vivre ,” Aldrich said. Romulus invited him back home, excitedly telling him about all his plans for military expansion and new architecture from aqueducts to baths to another amphitheatre, the staples of the Roman’s society of pleasure.
Romulus stopped on the doorstep and beckoned him in. “Come in. Have something to eat.” Romulus insisted. He lead Aldrich into the kitchen. Aldrich drew a dagger from his belt, breath hanging in his chest. And then he was thinking about Romulus in that little town on the border of Italy when he was barely eighteen, day after day trying to reach out his arms just a little farther until his fingertips were inches from those stars in his eyes.
Just a little bit farther.
Romulus yelled and swung himself around, scrabbling for the dagger in his back. He overbalanced and fell forward onto the floor, blood staining his toga where Aldrich had driven it in up to the hilt.
“Ow,” Romulus whined, touching his back. He felt the hilt and his eyes went wide. Aldrich swallowed, watching Romulus fight to get the knife of out of his back. It was pathetic, piteous, watching this soldier, this consul, this father of two writhing in pain and fumbling with the knife in his back, too drunk to do anything more. “Aldrich…” Romulus gasped, giving up with the dagger.
Aldrich didn’t move until Romulus said his name again.
“I’m sorry, Romulus,” Aldrich said.
“I’m not sure sorry is quite enough for this.” Romulus pressed his cheek to the cold floor. Aldrich crouched down. Romulus spit at his knees.
“I’m glad your sense of humor is still intact.” Aldrich’s voice shook. Aldrich felt a subtle sting in his eyes, but he wouldn’t cry for Romulus.
“Time for last words now, yeah?” Romulus asked, his conscious seeming to have sharpened. Aldrich doubted anything sobered up a man like a dagger to the back. “Tell Roma I’m sorry, will you?” He coughed, and Aldrich heard a slight gurgle in his throat of blood. “Tell him, Aldrich, tell him…”
Aldrich’s chest constricted. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t.
“No. You will, Romulus.” Aldrich leaned forward, hands hovering over the knife. He should have known better than to pull it out but he was desperate and so he yanked it from Romulus’s back and blood bubbled up from his skin like water coming up from the earth in spring time. Romulus’s eyelids fluttered.
He stripped off his cloak and pressed it to Romulus’s back hard, trying to stop the hemorrhaging, finally realized nothing he did would stop the bleeding from a wound like this. The dagger had punctured Romulus’s lung by the sound of his breathing.
Aldrich let go of his cloak. “Romulus.” Aldrich pressed his fingers to Romulus’s carotid. There was nothing. He pressed harder. Nothing. Aldrich’s eyes fluttered closed, and when he opened them, they were blurred with tears. “ Ave atque vale , Romulus.”
Rome’s newest consul was dead.
Gilbert and Antonio were sitting outside in Antonio’s garden when Aldrich returned, looked pale in the grayish night. They got up and met him in the atrium where the moonlight and torches mixed silver and gold on the surface of the impluvium.
“Romulus is dead.” Aldrich choked out. “Now… now, Antonio. You’ll have to take his consulship.” Antonio rolled his shoulders back, looking uncomfortable.
“I can’t. I lost all my credibility thanks to your stabbing stunt. The Emperor doesn’t want me, the Senate doesn’t want me. I’m useless politically now, and without Romulus I can’t get into more social circles, either.” Antonio said, his heart beating up in his ears.
Antonio felt like Tantalus, reaching for the fruit he couldn’t touch as he thought of the possibility of breaking off from the rebellion, living his life in Rome, with Romano, with no secret agenda. He wouldn’t worry anymore that his friends would wake up murdered or worse, that he would have to be the one who drove the blade through their heart.
“I’m useless to you.” Antonio said. “Which is why… I, I wanted to ask you to let me go. I don’t want to do this anymore, Aldrich.” Aldrich raised an eyebrow. “I don’t want to be part of this. I never wanted to be part of this.” Antonio swallowed. “I promise, you’ll never hear from me again. I won’t say a word to anyone about the rebellion, and you know I’m too much of a coward to lie to you.” Antonio insisted.
Aldrich frowned. “They’ll ask where you’ve gone.”
“Tell them I died!” Antonio yelled, throwing his hands up. “I can’t live like this anymore! Besides, Aldrich, when will you give it up? The Romans aren’t going to get tangled up in your net as easily as you think. I mean, how do you think they’ve made it this far?” Antonio braced himself as Aldrich considered him.
“If we give up, someone else will take over where we left off.” Aldrich said.
“Then let them .” Antonio said, exasperated. “I’m human, I’m self-centered, and I don’t really care what the hell you do, or about whether the provinces take over the Empire or not as long as I’m okay.” Aldrich looked at Gilbert for help, who had been hanging back by the doorway to the kitchen.
“It’s for the best, Dad.” He said. “Antonio’s a terrible assassin.”
“Yes. The worst .” Antonio said.
“Absolutely horrific. How hard is it really to murder someone?” Gilbert asked.
“Enough, Gilbert.” Aldrich said. “I’ll have to tell the council.” He said. “If it were up to me alone I might allow it, but…”
“Please.” Antonio said. “Please, Aldrich. I’ve done everything I could.” Aldrich scrutinized him for several minutes.
“You swear to me there won’t be a word about us?” Aldrich asked. Antonio nodded.
“I’ll keep my job in the Senate and go on like nothing happened. But if I’m framed for Romulus’s murder, and you know I might be, you have to get me out of it.”
“I’ll decide your terms of release tonight and bring them in the morning.” He said finally. “I suppose you can consider yourself a free man.” Aldrich extended a hand and Antonio shook it. “Thank you for your service, Antonio.”
“I’m sure we won’t be seeing the last of each other here.” Antonio said. Gilbert put a hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry. I’ll drop in when you least expect it, under the cover of night,” Gilbert muttered behind his father’s back. “Also, I’ll make sure he gives you a really noble, distressing death.” Antonio smiled at him.
“Thanks you, Gilbert.” Antonio said. “Good luck destroying the Empire.”
Gilbert laughed and offered a wink. “Good luck trying to stop us,” he said. He joined his father by the closed door and waved goodbye to them, but Aldrich stopped suddenly, telling Gilbert to wait outside. He shut the door and Antonio looked after him nervously.
“Antonio, one more thing.” Aldrich said. “If you see Romano again, tell him Romulus wanted him to know that he’s sorry.” He gave a curt nod and then turned around to join Gilbert outside.
Antonio spun on his heel and raced out of his villa, hurrying through the dark streets to Romano’s house, guided by the small bits of white marble between the street stones.
Romano’s house was shuttered and quiet, but he knocked on the door anyway. No answer at first. Antonio expected it, but he knocked again, so happy he was nearly vibrating on the spot. A few seconds after he had decided to come back in the morning, Romano yanked the door open with a dagger in his hand.
“The hell?!” He yelled, dropping the dagger. Antonio launched himself into Romano’s arms, drawing him into a hug, kissing him all over the face. “Antonio? What…?” Antonio started laughing. “ What is going on ?” He forced out, wriggling. Antonio grabbed his hands and grinned at him. “What the everliving hell are you doing on my doorstep in the middle of the night?”
Antonio grinned. “I’m free.” He touched his nose to Romano’s. “I’m all yours. You don’t have to share me with scheming warlords anymore.”
Romano put his arms around Antonio’s shoulders. “That is very comforting.” He said. “But this couldn’t have waited until morning?”
“Absolutely not!” Antonio said. “I’ve been waiting for this day forever, forever and an eternity.” Antonio gripped Romano’s forearms. Romano gave a half-smile.
“Alright, well, I suppose this deserves some celebration.” He smiled, and when he smiled he looked so much like Romulus. Antonio’s shoulders dropped. Romulus. He wondered if he should tell Romano now, or wait, but Lovino would be upset if Antonio waited, wouldn’t he?
“Wait. First I, I should tell you, Roma… I’m so sorry. Your dad… Aldrich killed your dad.” The smile went out of Romano’s face. “I’m so sorry.” Antonio whispered. “Are you alright?”
“Killed him?” Romano repeated. He stood there blankly for a moment, eyes unfocused. Then his throat bit down and his eyes stung and he started crying. Antonio hugged him but he shook his head and pushed him back. “I’m fine, I’m fine.” He dried his eyes on his tunica. “Let’s go inside, it’s cold out here.” Antonio followed him in and shut the door.
They went into Romano’s room and Romano collapsed on his bed, staring at the floor. Antonio sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulders. Romano leaned against him. “I wish I’d gotten to see him one last time and tell him I quit working at the brothel. He might’ve died thinking I wasn’t such a disappointment then.” Romano pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and Antonio squeezed his arm.
“I’m sure he didn’t think you were a disappointment. Aldrich told, he told Romulus wanted to apologize to you.”
“For what?” Romano asked.
“Maybe everything?” Antonio suggested. Romano sighed. “Do you want me to get you something? Wine? Water?” Romano shook his head.
“I just want to go to bed. I don’t want to have to think for a while,” he murmured, flopping down on his mattress. He reached behind him for Antonio’s hand and looked over his shoulder. “Antonio. Will you stay?”
“Yes, Romano, I’ll stay.”
“For how long?” Romano muttered into his pillows.
Antonio brushed his hair off his forehead, fingers grazing his cheek. “As long as you want.” Romano closed his eyes.
“Stay forever, Antonio.” Antonio kissed him on the cheek, lightly over his closed lids.
"Ave atque vale" means "hail and farewell"
Well, finita est.
A huge thank you to anyone who read this, I truly appreciate having people read my work. I also loved reading your comments and seeing your thoughts ;D
I hope you’re all doing well, or at least not downright shitty, right now. If I’ve gotten anything out of research for these fics other than the fact that we as a society collectively agreed to use a petroleum by-product as lube in the 1900s, it’s that humanity has gone through a lot, and we’ve gotten through it. We’ll be alright.
I lied there's more
3 years later
Romano laid back on the divan against the wall, resisting the urge to close his eyes, even though he was heavy and tired and it was too late at night to be up. He didn’t particularly like going to sleep when Antonio wasn’t home, with all the assassination plots that flew around the Roman government and having no way to reach him. He had told Romano he was just at the baths, having a meeting about last-minute arrangements about Ceriala.
Sometimes Antonio’s job got tiring for Romano, even though he himself had free reign to spend most of his day in his cottage by the sea, writing. Antonio wasn’t often home, and sometimes he brought other senators around who sneered at Romano, forcing him to hide himself away in the garden or make conversation with Antonio’s slaves until they had left. It wasn’t a good feeling, once again being the shameful part of a respected public figure, the thing people whispered about when they saw Antonio in the streets.
Romano pressed his cheek to the wall. Antonio still asked him to come with him to festivals and dinners where the senators sat with their wives and glared down the table at Romano. Antonio didn’t care, perhaps recklessly so. He kissed Romano on the cheek in front of whoever, he held Romano’s hand in the Forum, brought him along to everything he could, and overall made it quite obvious how much he loved Romano.
But Romano cared. He hated being that part of Antonio’s life everyone figured he must be ashamed of, the reason Antonio had lost some of his public favor; even though Romano had given up working as a prostitute years ago, it was all anyone would ever see of him. He would always be Antonio’s whore, never his lover, never his friend, never his equal, to the public.
The door opened then and Romano sat up and tripped into the atrium, because maybe to the public he wasn’t anything but to Antonio, he was everything.
Antonio was shutting the door as softly as he could, like he thought maybe Romano had given up this time and gone to sleep. Romano ran past the impluvium to hug him, and Antonio hugged him back. He smelled like humidity and olive oil from the baths, his hair was wet and full of the scent of the spring night. Romano wanted to bury his nose in it, but he wasn’t quite tall enough.
Antonio smiled at him when he let go.
“How was your meeting?” Romano asked, brushing Antonio’s cheek lightly.
“Awful.” Antonio said, hiding his face in Romano’s shoulder. Romano put a hand on the back of Antonio’s head, stroking his hair and the side of his neck. “I’m so tired.” He added.
“Me too.” Romano said. “I’m going to bed, now that I know you’re home safe.”
“I’m not going to be murdered, Romano. It’s the emperor who gets stabbed be the senators, not the other way around.” Romano didn’t respond. He wasn’t worried about the other senators, instead the coalition Antonio had previously worked with and if they might come back and polish him off if they found out he had left them. It plagued his thoughts a little too often.
They went into their room, and while Antonio got dressed Romano lay down on the bed and faced the wall, looking at the low table beside the bed.
There was a stack of letters from Helen there, the first of which he had gotten a few months after the consul election. It was a lengthy apology about what she had done, and then an even lengthier description of her home in Greece and how much she had missed it, especially her garden and the cats and the food and festivals and so many other things Romano couldn’t remember.
He had been sending her his poems to translate into Greek, as they did better with the Greek audience than the people in the city of Rome, who remained firmly against the idea of Romano as an artist after spending several years of his life as a prostitute. No one in Greece knew his name had any implications, that he was the partially estranged son of a dead public hero, or the despised husband of a provincial senator.
Antonio collapsed into bed beside him. “What’s wrong, Roma?” He asked softly. “You seem sad.”
“I feel sad.” Romano said finally, rolling over to face Antonio and putting a hand to his cheek. “I love you and I want to see you succeed, but I drag you down and I hold you back. I can’t stand being the thing that’s getting in your way, and I know you don’t care but I care and I can’t let it go.”
Antonio sighed. “I know you don’t want to hear this, Roma.” He began, putting a hand over Romano’s and then kissing his palm, “but you mean more to me than my job ever will. You mean more to me than possibly anything else in the world, and if you haven’t heard that so many times you’re sick of hearing it then I’ve let you down.”
“I do know.” Romano said.
“Good.” Antonio kissed his wrist, then the inside of his forearm, and Romano smiled and closed his eyes. “And the Roman senate is full of old men whose favorite hobbies are bitching and imposing their air of superiority over unsuspecting victims, so to Hell with them. Plus, at least a quarter of them are trapped in loveless relationships, which I know because their wives flirt with me when they’re not around.”
Romano smirked. “The one whose house we were at last week used to come to the brothel.” Antonio winced. “Oh, I didn’t see him. Helen did. He would come down four times a week and was there for about ten minutes, and Helen assured us he was wildly impotent.” Antonio cringed further still. “And his daughter was one of the few female clients I ever had, I remember her. She used to scratch me up so bad I bled. It was horrific.”
“His daughter ?” Antonio asked, shocked.
Romano nodded. “It’s kind of fun, knowing I could expose the sex lives of at least twenty men on the Roman Senate.” Romano smirked. “Oh, I forgot, one of them used to cry, like really cry, and it freaked me the hell out.”
“Who was it?” Antonio asked. Romano beckoned him forward and cupped a hand by his ear teasingly.
“Gaius.” He said.
“Which Gaius?” Antonio whispered back.
“The one who sets behind Tiberius and between the two Brutuses.”
“Which Tiberius?” Antonio asked.
“The Tiberius that sits to your left in the chamber.” Romano said. Antonio considered for a moment, then gave a snort of laughter. Romano laughed with him, grabbing the back of Antonio’s shirt and rolling onto his back, dragging Antonio with him as the continued to laugh. Antonio rubbed his nose against Romano’s and kissed his forehead. “You’re laughing. Does that mean you feel better now?”
“A little, yes,” Romano said. “I’m so glad I have you to complain about it to.” Romano said, putting his arms around Antonio’s shoulders.
“Are you glad you have me for other things, too?” Antonio asked.
“Of course, Antonio. You know I love you, you get so worried.” Lovino said, kissing the tip of his nose.
“Sometimes you can be hard to read.” Antonio said with an apologetic laugh.
“I know, I know. And we haven’t spent a lot of time together recently. We should go to the cottage tomorrow, go down to the beach… It’s going to be hot tomorrow.”
“Sounds like a wonderful idea.” Antonio said. “But you’re just going to lay in the sand and get abused by the sun.”
“I like the heat.” Romano said. “Laying on the sand, the sun coming through my closed lids, my face all warm… ah, I love it. I take the time to properly appreciate Apollo’s miracle while you go and harass the tide.”
“What does that mean?” Antonio asked.
“I’m not sure. It sounded interesting, so I thought I’d say it.” Romano said. Antonio scoffed a little. “It’s fascinating to try out some different word combinations, isn’t it?”
“Here’s one.” Antonio said. “Let’s go to bed.” He said, rolling onto his back. Romano sighed and curled up to Antonio’s chest.
“I like the sound of that one.” Romano said. “Goodnight, Antonio.”