For days before it happens, Pietros spends most of his time with the birds, rushing through the other farm chores so he can get back to the small barn. He always keeps it meticulously clean, now more than ever, scrubbing the floor, changing the straw daily. He watches over the eggs, tucks warming scraps of fabric into the nest, hand-feeds the brooding hen. Well-used to his touch, she tolerates his presence, even when he occasionally shifts her to check on her hard-shelled charges.
Barca shakes his head at him, bemused. “You fuss more than bird does herself. Perhaps it should be your ass upon eggs, not hers.”
Pietros smacks him on the arm, utterly unrepentant. “This from proud gladiator who spent days building coops – after more days spent drawing plans? You do not fool me.”
Barca snorts and pulls him close for a kiss. “Perhaps I merely deplore absence of your company of late.”
Pietros slides easily into his arms, his hands warm upon Barca’s face. “Apologies,” he murmurs. “I know I have neglected other work-”
Barca cuts him off by dragging him to the floor, arms around his waist and his lips busy against Pietros’s sensitive earlobe. “I give no fucks for work,” he huffs as Pietros goes down beneath him, yelping in mock affront. “If perching over stupid clutch of eggs all day brings you joy, I would have you do nothing else.”
It’s true. For years, he’s pictured freedom merely as the vague status quo of the years before his capture: being able to do as he pleases, with no one’s command to determine his path. But the idea has changed, since then. He’s learned freedom does not have to be some lofty ideal finally seen to fruition. Freedom can be something private, something silly, even. Something as bemusing and foolish as watching the boy he loves coo over a brooding bird.
He kept the birds, after Auctus. The ones that prospered did so in spite of his clumsy care. When he first took Pietros to his bed (and eventually, his heart), one of the first things he told him about – somewhat grudgingly and late at night, when they were alone in their cell – was how he came to keep the stupid, messy things.
He remembers the way that Pietros’s eyes lit in sympathy, the way he cupped his hands carefully around one of the placid birds. How he asked questions about Auctus, curious and open, without a whiff of jealousy. It was the first time in years Barca was offered a chance to talk about the man he’d loved. His brash, fierce spirit. His deadly grace. His face when he’d laughed and mocked at death in the arena; his face when he clasped Barca close when they were alone, whispering furiously, “Do not die. Do not fucking die.”
He should have demanded the same in return. Why did he never ask it back?
Pietros listened, and offered comfort with whispered nonsense words and heated touch. In a strange way, Pietros kept Auctus’s memory alive in a way Barca himself could not. He took to the birds like Barca never did, because this is who Pietros always has been: generous to a fault and drawn to things in need of mending. The birds were easy. Pietros would clasp a cockroach to his breast, if the damn thing came with a name or story.
He stretches Pietros out on the fresh straw, pinning him down when Pietros laughs and wriggles in protest. “We have a bed!”
“From which you have been lately absent, thanks to fucking birds,” Barca growls against his ear, his hands already busy at Pietros’s belt. Pietros wears more clothes now than he used to do at the ludus, but Barca has no complaints. If anything, it pleases him more to peel Pietros out of the extra layers; to bare his smooth skin to no one’s eyes but his own. These days, there is no need to ignore the idle heat of watching eyes.
He shoves his own trousers down one-handedly, unwilling to let go of Pietros even for a moment. Pietros makes a lovely, needy noise when Barca lowers himself to his elbows above him, pressing him into the floor. His hands dig into Barca’s hair. He winds the braids about his fingers to pull Barca’s head down to his own. Barca kisses him greedily, cock hardening when Pietros’s tongue slides into his mouth.
Barca presses more closely against him. Schooled by years at the ludus into keeping his passion silent, he makes no sound at Pietros’s touches. At first, Pietros strokes him gently, but he soon grows more insistent. His hands grasp eagerly at Barca’s flanks. His thumbs smooth down over Barca’s hip bones and he spreads his legs, giving Barca room to settle between them.
They have no oil at hand for a proper fuck – a further strike against the damn pigeon coop – so Barca contents himself with rocking against Pietros. He grinds slowly between his sprawling thighs and Pietros moans throatily when their cocks meet, hard flesh sliding together. He wraps his long legs around Barca’s waist and his heels dig into Barca’s buttocks. Barca swears at the wanton thrust of his hips as they roll slowly and sensuously up into him. They kiss hungrily, and Barca drags his mouth from Pietros’s lips down his throat, trailing kisses down his chest.
Pietros’s hands tighten in his hair when Barca’s lips find one of his nipples. He circles the tight nub with his tongue and drags his teeth across it just to hear Pietros hiss his name. “Barca…”
“Mhmmm?” He sucks the nipple into his mouth. It hardens further between his teeth and he plucks at the other one with his fingers. Pietros makes a hoarse, breathless noise and bucks up into him, his cock throbbing and wet at the tip.
“Gods,” Pietros gasps, and pushes Barca back just far enough so he can reach between them. Barca can’t help the muffled groan that escapes him when he feels Pietros’s hand clasp around their cocks. His other hand is pressed flat against Barca’s chest, fingers curling slightly.
Barca gyrates his hips, pushing into the firm grip and exhaling sharply as his oversensitised flesh rubs against Pietros’s. The friction is almost too rough but not quite. Aided by Pietros’s fingers gathering up precome and spreading it down their shafts, there’s a slowly building ache in his balls. They squash against the undersides of Pietros’s buttocks as he slowly grinds against him. He feels like he could come just from this, just from the pressure of his heated flesh against Pietros’s soft, sweat-slick skin.
Pietros’s lips part on a hitched breath when Barca starts to pick up the pace, thrusting more firmly into his hand, against his cock. There are slick noises coming from where he shoves himself into Pietros’s squeezing fingers, a soft smacking sound from where his balls slap rhythmically against Pietros’s ass.
Pietros’s free hand is smoothing hectically over his chest, his shoulders, grasping for his whipping braids to pull him down to his mouth. The soft lips part eagerly beneath his, and Barca kisses him deeply, one hand digging into Pietros’s thick hair.
He loves having Pietros to himself like this, with no master’s threats hanging over them and no calculating eyes upon his back, watching for any hint of weakness. Loves knowing that there’s no need for Pietros now to worry about Barca’s safe return from the arena or the alleys where Batiatus carries out his shady deals. These days the only risks they take are their own.
Once he would have laughed at such risks. Wolves, setting upon their flocks of sheep. Wood worms in the olive grove. The occasional brigand or escaped slave, desperate enough to make attempt upon a remote shepherds’ cottage, unprepared for the seasoned skill of a gladiator defending it.
Funny, what simple things now sate his desire for happiness.
Their small plot of land, tucked away between rolling hills. Some sheep, vegetable beds, some game to hunt. A fucking bird coop. Pietros’s eyes upon him, shining with love and free of shadows.
They shine at him now, fixed on his face, wide and dark with arousal. Barca’s hair falls on either side of their faces as they move together, dozens of twisted braids curtaining them off against the world.
Pietros’s breath hitches and his legs lift higher around Barca’s waist, dragging him in even closer. Barca gives up on trying to keep his weight off him. He drops down from his elbows so they lie chest to chest. He ruts, heavy and graceless, into the lithe body beneath him. His hands clutch at Pietros’s shoulders, his ribs, his clenching buttocks. Pietros mutters curses into his mouth, his hand crushed between their slick bodies but moving still, stroking and squeezing at their pulsing cocks. Palming the heads together, smearing wetness down the lengths, his movements become jerkier. He throws his head back suddenly, convulsing, and Barca fastens his lips on the long curve of his neck, sucking fiercely at the skin there, hoping to leave a mark. Pietros trembles and shudders beneath him as he comes, spurting against his cock, coating him in warm, sticky seed. When Pietros’s hand tightens and twists, Barca cannot help but follow, thrusting hard and spending himself inside that perfect grip. They keep moving for long moments, riding out the pulsing throbs of aftermath; his cock twitches feebly and releases a few final spurts, adding to the slick wetness between their bellies.
Pietros’s lips curve beneath his, parted and gasping.
“Poor birds. Exposed to shameless display at most tender age.”
“Fuck birds,” Barca grumbles, kissing along the soft swell of his lower lip. He thrusts his hips a bit just to feel their softening cocks, the warm slick mess they’ve made. Pietros groans and wriggles against him.
“You crush breath. Give room.”
Barca sighs and rolls sideways into the clean straw, gathering Pietros close against him. Pietros rolls gracefully with him, throwing one leg across Barca’s, nuzzling into his neck.
Barca presses a kiss against his forehead, wraps both arms around him, and promptly falls asleep.
He wakes in the middle of the night, to the disorienting sounds of high-pitched cheeping. Shaking himself loose from the clinging straw, he registers, firstly, that he has slept alone, and secondly, that there is movement near him.
Chirping, fluffy movement.
In the flickering light of candles, Pietros is bent over the pigeon nest, his dishevelled curls distorted by the shadows on the wall. He is murmuring softly, his hands cupped around something in the nest.
Barca clears his throat, and straightens up. “Have they…?”
Frowning, Barca pads over to the flame-lit corner. All around him, the other birds grumble sleepily on their perches, not used to having their night rest interrupted.
He blinks into the nest, where the mother hen squats contentedly among the broken shells of eggs. Huddled all around her fat bulk are four – no – five… things.
Downy, tiny, half-bald… things. Red holes in the sides of their exposed skulls. Naked, yellowish beaks. Pink skin shining through colourless fluff, looking like nothing so much as overly boiled meat.
Barca squints at the lone chick huddled in Pietros’s clasped palms, its pink maw opening and closing as it emits shrill, high-pitched squeaks.
“Eggs hatched?” he asks dumbly.
Pietros beams at him. He smiles with his entire face these days, not cautiously as he used to back at the ludus. He holds the raw birdling out to Barca triumphantly.
“Just look at them. They live!”
Barca frowns at the pink hatchling, looking tiny and ridiculous in Pietros’s cupped hands. It does have the affront to live, although he has not the faintest notion why. If he looked like that, he’d do the world a favour and die quickly, without attracting notice.
“This may be ugliest fucking thing I have laid eyes on in entire life. What by the fucking gods did luckless bird breed with?!”
Pietros rolls his eyes and reaches out for him. “They will grow feathers soon. All birds enter world like this.”
“They do?” Barca starts, then freezes when Pietros suddenly deposits the bird on the top of his head. Small but sharp claws dig into his scalp, catching at his braids. He holds still, terrified at the small weight above his brow. “What…”
Pietros bursts out laughing. “Would the gods that you could see yourself!” He cackles mercilessly, eyes flitting from Barca’s face to the top of his head and back. He can’t seem to stop chortling. The bird on Barca’s head chirps and shuffles, its leathery claws scrabbling at his scalp.
Barca bares his teeth. “Oh, would they? Let us double their mirth, then.” He scoops up one of the fluffy birdlings from the nest. It huddles in the centre of his palm, warm and shivering, barely filling a third of his hand. He drops it swiftly into the curly mess of Pietros’s hair, watching with satisfaction as it flutters there, cheeping shrilly. Its beak nips down a few times in quick succession, nibbling at Pietros’s brow, before it settles, obviously pleased with its new nest.
“There,” Barca sneers, still sitting up straight, all too aware of the tiny, fragile weight upon his own head. “You’ll yet make perfect mother hen. All five of them have ample room to nest within your fucking hair.”
The hair he loves to pull when in the throes of passion. The hair that makes him smile in the mornings, standing up every which way. The hair he nuzzles into, late of a night, when he deems the boy asleep.
Judging from Pietros’s smile, he isn’t sure he’s fooling anyone. “They live,” the boy repeats, hands framing Barca’s face and pulling him in close, lips pressing against lips. “I love you,” Pietros adds in a whisper and kisses him, breathing warm laughter into Barca’s mouth. Above them, the ridiculous plucked-looking things chirp greedily, digging their claws into their hair as they demand their breakfast.
“And I you,” Barca says gruffly, pulling Pietros close into his arms. Birds. Stupid, bald, useless birds.
Somewhere, he pictures Auctus laughing at him.