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"Papa! Papa!" Serranus is a little old to be shouting and running in the halls, but Maximus cannot bear to greet him with a reprimand: it has been more than six months since he saw his son. He catches the boy up and swings him high, smiling with the joy he does not permit to turn into laughter. Vibia is standing in the doorway, wrapped in a robe against the early morning chill, and her eyes are shining.

He puts Serranus down and they go to her together, his hand on his son's shoulder. Her mouth is sweet, her hair is fragrant; she is soft and yielding in the circle of his arm. For a moment he can close his eyes and almost believe he is at home in Trujillo, an ordinary soldier returning from the wars, with the fields ripening to gold under the warm Spanish sun. But the walls here are white marble, cool and imperial, and her robe is of silk richly embroidered with gold. The threads are thick and nubbly beneath his fingers.

They go into their rooms arm in arm. The slaves are laying breakfast on the table, fresh fish and new-baked bread, with the rich smell of olive oil rising over everything, and ripe apples. Serranus tells him eager stories of mock battles, running back and forth from his bedroom a dozen times to bring metal figures of soldiers, his practice sword, a new tunic, a small corselet of leather armor.

"He and Lucius are never apart from morning until night," Vibia says, while he is out of the room. "They are in trouble twice a day, and I'm ashamed of his writing. But they are so happy running about that half the time I don't have the heart to make him mind his lessons."

"There is time enough for his letters," Maximus says, smiling. "Let him run while he can."

When he finishes, she pours cool sweet wine for him and offers him a bowl to wash his hands in. "Will you dine with us tonight?" she asks, tentatively.

He drinks deeply and avoids her eyes. "I must see Caesar. I came to you first," he adds, by way of the apology he cannot make. "I have not yet reported."

"Of course," Vibia says, bowing her head. "Perhaps tomorrow."

#

The guards outside Caesar's door salute him and open the door. Commodus rises from his writing desk as Maximus comes in and clasps him by the shoulders. His eyes trap the sunlight, and his smile is unsteady. "At last we have you back," he says. "Have you seen your wife and son?"

There is an urgency to the question. "Yes," Maximus says. His own breath is coming quickly.

Commodus gives a small, quick sigh. "Good," he says, and slides his hands up from Maximus's shoulders and up his throat, thumbs brushing his collarbone, to cup his face. "Good," he repeats. And then he leans in abruptly, lips parted, and takes Maximus's mouth, licking and biting. Commodus is wearing only a light tunic, fine-woven linen; it bunches and crumples under Maximus's hands, and the bed is heaped high and soft with furs.

Commodus welcomes him, welcomes his strength, urges him on to the point of violence. He cries out in ecstasy at each thrust, and his smooth white shoulders are shining with sweat. When Maximus was first married, he rationed himself carefully: once a week, never more, even during the first month when he wanted nothing more than to spend every night in Vibia's perfumed bed, tasting her dusky skin. He remembers it dimly; he was so proud of his control. But there is nothing of moderation or control in the savage way he pounds into Commodus's gasping, shuddering body; his own panting is an animal sound in his ears.

Afterwards, he lies on his back with cushions beneath his neck and lets Commodus fuck his mouth. The obscenity of the long phallus sliding down his throat fits well enough with the rest, and he swallows when Commodus comes.

They go to the baths together, straight to the caldarium, and lie side by side upon a single broad table. The slaves scrape them as the sweat pours off their bodies. Commodus nuzzles at his shoulder drowsily, scratching his back and rubbing it alternately. Maximus breathes deeply of the steam; he feels as though he might grow hard again. The cold water feels good afterwards, and he rises streaming and shivering. The slaves rub him down with soft wool and massage clean, fragrant oil into his muscles.

"We have subdued the Parthians for a time with this last campaign, I hope," he tells Commodus, back in the bedroom. They are lying on silk, naked and clean, and the slaves have brought them fruit and cool sherbert to eat. It seems very like a dream, so far removed from the dust and heat of the campaign, the shouting and the blood, and even from their earlier fucking.

Commodus tosses his empty cup aside with a clatter and lies back, licking sherbert off his fingers as he gazes up at the ceiling. "Yes," he says, smiling dreamily. "Five years at least, even if their prince does not die. We will give you a splendid triumph, brother, and a hundred days of games."

Maximus doesn't bother trying to refuse. Commodus rolls over and kisses him again, mouth sticky-sweet, and climbs out of the bed to papyrus and pen. He sends the message out with a slave and comes back again.

"Serranus looks more like you every day," he says, pillowing his head on Maximus's hip. "He and Lucius are very dear to one another."

"Time soon to start their training," Maximus says. "There is a garrison in the west, near my home. I know the captain there. He is a good man, and not to be swayed by rank."

"Mmm." Commodus turns and kisses his thigh. "I suppose it must be done," he says wistfully. "I will miss them; they bring life to the place. But at least you will stay with us a while now."

His eyes glitter even in the dim filtered sunlight; the hunger in them is as terrifying as always. His hand is wandering over Maximus's leg. Maximus breathes deeply and stares up at the ceiling. A year in Rome, in the palace, his apartments two doors from Commodus's quarters; Maximus wonders if he will recognize himself when it is over.

He has fled to the army on any pretext these last ten years, since Marcus died. Vibia looks at him wistfully when he leaves, though she never complains, not about being uprooted from Trujillo for a throne she never wanted, not about being abandoned in Rome while her husband attends to border disputes that a centurion could crush. Not about being left in a cold and empty bed in the full prime of her beauty, while her husband leaves their rooms and walks to the second door down the hall to spend the night in Caesar's bed. But then, she knows Commodus now. They both know the bargain Maximus made, to preserve the peace of Rome.

"Yes," Maximus says, low. "I will stay with you."

# End