Summary: Historical AU. Roman Republic, month of Junius (eq. modern June), 52 BC by the Roman calendar. Sephiroth, a renowned legate under Julius Caesar's command, returns to Rome after three years of battling Gallic tribes.
Disclaimer: All FF7 related characters belong to Square Enix.
Pairings: Sephiroth/Genesis; slight Genesis/Aerith.
A/N: B-Day fic with a specific request for my dear and faithful beta AlexJ69. I was having a little fun. Politics, sexual themes, slavery, violence.
Short list of terms, personalities, etc.
Legate – a commander of a Roman legion.
Clients – in Roman Republic, plebeians who were sponsored by a patron in exchange for their vote.
Toga – woolen men's outerwear worn only by the Roman citizens.
Stola – a corresponding women's outerwear (a dress).
She-wolf – a whore in Ancient Rome.
Optimates – the traditionalist majority of the late Roman Republic. Were opposed by populares, the leaders of the aristocrats. Pompey joined the optimates after the fall of the First Triumvirate.
O tempora, o mores! (lat.) - O, the times, o, the customs!
Dis pater – a cthonic Roman god (opposed to the Olympians). It is not very evident from the story, but Genesis secretly worships Dis pater, rather than the Olympians.
First Triumvirate – a political alliance between Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar (60-53 BC).
- SMILE OF A GOD -
"...In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature herself... and would like everything made after your own image..." (F. Nietzsche).
Genesis hated clients to the soreness of the mouth. Of plebeian origin, they often stuck to their patrons like leeches, and whereas the redhead generally loved fame, he found the constant attention to be nothing more than nuisance. His luxurious, decorated with burgundy and gold palanquin has just passed the main Forum and turned to the temple of Jupiter Victor when a familiar figure emerged from the crowd of loungers, who thronged the sunlit streets of the Great City. Good Romans loved spending summer days hiding in cool shadows under the basilicas, tittle-tattling about the rumors heard in the vicinity of the Forum, and recently those revolved around the rising star of Julius Caesar and the Gallic wars.
However, in the whole of Rome no one loved gossip more than Zack Fair. Having noticed the spiky-haired youth from the tail of his eye, the redheaded patrician tore his gaze away from the vellum pages he was reading and greeted his client with a mocking smirk.
"Ah, Fair, what a fortunate coincidence it is to meet you today."
Deep inside, Genesis was thinking that their meeting was hardly a coincidence; that Zack's presence vexed him, and his chagrin would not, most likely, dissipate by the time his palanquin reached his house. This meant his boy-slave, Cloud, would receive more lashes than usual.
"My virtuous patron, it is such an honor."
Eyes of the color of the spring welkin studied the youth's open and naïve face. His attempts at flattery were always awkward, but endearingly so; if only Zack kept their interactions confined to mere politeness, the redhead would sigh with relief. On purpose or out of forgetfulness, Genesis didn't order his slaves to stop moving, and the raven-haired youth had to mince along to keep up with him, a sight the redhead found quite comical.
"Was there a matter worthy of my attention that you desired to talk about?" Elegant fingers procured a coin his client obediently scooped.
"I wouldn't disturb my patron if I had nothing to say." Zack grinned and cocked his eye, bloating with pride. "A reliable source told me that the Fourteenth Legion had been ambushed by the leader of Galls and destroyed in that ambush."
Words sank in slowly. For three years, the Fourteenth Legion has been battling Galls under the command of a brilliant strategist, who also happened to be one of Genesis' closest friends. That was a lie – Sephiroth was the closest friend the redhead ever had; and now Zack was saying… The Senator sat up abruptly and stopped the palanquin; a frown creased his forehead, adding a predatory tinge to his otherwise gentle features.
"Are you certain it was the Fourteenth legion?"
"Don't worry, patron. I've made inquiries, and the tidings are trustworthy. Julius Caesar himself ordered Sephiroth to return to Rome and recruit more troops after they had suffered heavy losses. Like you, I thought at first – nah, this couldn't be true, because the great Sephiroth doesn't lose, and – guess what – he wasn't defeated this time." Zack put his hand on his hip. "It was Quintus' fault; he was temporary serving as the legion's commander while Sephiroth was secretly summoned by Caesar."
"And how do you know… everything?"
Genesis regretted his question at once as the eager youth began lengthy explanations, which included dozens of names of other patricians' clients; Zack even remembered Valerie, the most famous she-wolf of the rich area of the Great City, whereupon the redheaded Senator wearily interrupted him.
"Brevity is a great charm of eloquence, Zack." A wry smirk crawled onto his lips when he added, seeing the youth's bewilderment. "Marcus Tullius Cicero."
Another coin with the chiseled portrait of Pompey was enough to relieve the redhead of his client's presence.
"Thank you, generous patron," Zack added at conclusion, his expression akin to that of a puppy, and vanished from sight.
Genesis reclined against the pillows and absently pulled down his flawlessly ironed blue toga. The news of Sephiroth's return caught him unawares, waking contradictory emotions he thought had already died; among them were both jealousy and a strange, unexplainable affection, which used to bereave him of peace and rest. Even though the rumors have been afloat for quite a while, the redhead dismissed them as wittingly false; as someone's fraudulent attempts to earn money from a wealthy patron. Sephiroth followed the young ambitious consul to the battle a few years before the First Triumvirate ceased to exist, and Genesis suspected his friend would stick to the party of Julius Caesar to the end. The redhead himself considered joining the Pompey's opposition now that the confrontation between the two renowned leaders seemed inevitable. The final split would make them enemies.
It pained him to think that the fates were sometimes cruel, and this simple thought annihilated the feeling of perfect balance and feigned cheerfulness the redheaded Senator wove around himself after Sephiroth had left for Transalpine Gaul.
He no longer knew whether he should fear or rejoice at the news of his friend's return.
…The enormous villa Genesis of the Rhapsodos family lived at was situated in the richest area of the city between the famous Capitoline Hill and the Grand Circus; buried in verdure, it reveled in pleasant coolness, brought with the incessantly fresh wind from Tiber river. The redheaded Senator loved white marble and art, therefore the insides of his home were lavishly adorned with statues of the Gods, one of whom he favored the most. It was Apollo, the God of light and sun, the ideal of kouros - beardless, eternal youth, who also happened to be the patron of poetry. His statue - a haughtily naked man with a lyre - greeted numerous guests, who often gathered for night-long celebrations, by the entrance door. Underneath the pedestal, whereat the statue was erected, ran a salient golden engraving, ascribed to Cicero, a great orator the redhead often found himself inspired by. Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum, it said. To be ignorant of the past is to forever be a child. Another small depiction of the sun God could be found in Genesis' personal rooms with windows overlooking the gardens. Thereat, surrounded with vermillion silk and ever-present white marble, the Senator loved spending most of his free time reading, studying geometry, and slowly weaving his own cobwebs of schemes.
That afternoon Genesis stormed into his rooms, having forgotten about the whim he ritualized and meticulously conducted for several years. He would usually notice whether his servants dusted the marble Apollo and punish them if they didn't, however, that day his mind was burdened by thoughts of a different nature, and those concerning Sephiroth prevailed. To his discontent, his rooms looked placid, bathing in pools of quivering orange sunlight, the striking scarlet hues softened and the golden décor aglisten. Then he noticed her. In the narrow beam that seeped through the half-opened window, reclining against the pillows in a languishing pose, sat Aerith.
In response, she darted an impish glance at him, brilliant-green eyes playfully hidden in downy lashes; the youngest and the most beautiful child of a venerated matron, she was among the most desirable women in Rome, like Caesar's daughter had once been. For a short while Genesis considered fancying her, and Aerith didn't seem to mind; her mother definitely deemed a handsome redheaded Senator a good match for her daughter. But every time Genesis swore by all Greek and Roman gods he would approach her during one of Crassus' or Pompey's orgies, an obtrusive memory returned. It was the same reminiscence, but as the redhead looked into Aerith's eyes, he saw another emerald pair; he saw a pale visage framed in silver and thin lips quirked up in a half-mocking, half-genuine smile. Apollo smiled like that.
Vexed, Genesis shook his head. He didn't want to see Aerith or Zack; he wanted to be left alone. Nevertheless, the most charming smile found its way onto the redhead's lips as he complimented his guest.
"You look beautiful today."
"Thank you, Genesis," Aerith's palms joined underneath her chin, then flew asunder as she absent-mindedly tugged at the pink ribbon that held the unruly mass of wavy hair in place. Genesis could swear she was flirting with him. "I came to tell you that Sephiroth is coming back tomorrow; I thought you'd be glad to hear the news."
"Certainly, I am glad," he assured her hastily; perhaps, too hastily.
"The whole city is astir, as if Caesar himself decided to return from his triumphant campaign against the Gallic tribes."
"Are you waiting for him as well?"
"No, not at all. Why would I? My older sister is in love with him, but, hush," she softly giggled and pressed a finger to her lips. "Don't tell anyone."
Small feet, shod in wicker sandals, touched the floor; the polished wood creaked to her light steps as Aerith approached the window and looked out.
"Do you know what everyone is whispering about as well?"
"I am not interested in gossip."
"You are joining the optimates, aren't you?"
A small crease appeared between Genesis' thin eyebrows, and he straightened out his toga with irritation.
"You are too young to be involved in this rivalry, so l suggest that you stop contriving to appease your curiosity."
For a while there was no answer. She continued to stand by the window, light breeze playing with her dress, throwing whitecaps of weightless cloth against her finely moulded shoulders.
"Do you like the flowers I brought you?" The question rang suddenly. Only now did the redhead notice a huge ceramic vase, filled with lilies and carnations arranged in a bouquet. "I picked them in your garden."
"How thoughtful of you." He meant both – the change of topic and the flowers – but even the most well-versed orator wouldn't have noticed the sarcasm. "They add fresh hues to my room."
"You should do it more often."
Aerith turned, her head tilted to the side. "Enjoy flowers, of course."
When she finally left, Genesis called for Cloud, and vented his anger on him, having spared the slave only when his back turned vivid-scarlet where the redhead's lash marred its smoothness. Then he retreated to his bedroom and spent hours, trying to fall asleep and waking each time there was a rustle of wind outside the window.
It reminded Genesis of Sephiroth's steps and of his sudden, seemingly inescapable ubiquity.
It was early morning, but the throng, which gathered in front of the Temple to Jupiter Victor, rippled like a sea before a storm. Eyes of hundreds of plebeians were riveted on the straight, wide road, now empty, as the long, breathless expectation of their hero's triumphant appearance neared its pinnacle. Dust hung above the motley gathering, quivering in the air already heated with sun rays.
The road ended with the bulk of the temple arising from yellow stones; on the steps stretched a thin chain of men dressed in immaculately white togas with a crimson tracery at the bottom. The Senators stood motionless, exchanging rare words, which didn't help mollify the redhead's agitation. For many a night Genesis imagined their meeting after Sephiroth's three years absence, yet never once had the young Senator thought he would be chosen to lay a laurel wreath on his friend's head. The news found Genesis finishing his breakfast this morning.
Rome greeted its heroes with gold and laurels.
The wreath made the redhead's fingers feel cold.
"What is taking them so long?" He heard a hoary Senator to his left whisper, and then someone's heartrending cry rang from the square below. "He is coming!"
The sea of human bodies billowed, rapturous screams swelled, flowing over Genesis as the crowd poured into the small square after the shining speck of a chariot. The redhead saw it turning onto the road, growing larger as it neared the temple, the details gaining clearer contours – the steel wheels, the pair of well-groomed white horses, and a tall silhouette shrouded in a mantle of silver hair. The sound of hoof beat drowned in a unanimous cry, but the warrior paid it no heed. The chariot was tearing at full speed, nonchalantly steered by a steady hand, until it came to a full halt at the bottom of the long marble staircase. Behind it, stretched a long swath of summer flowers, crushed underneath the enormous wheels. They reminded Genesis of his own feelings. Within living memory, only Caesar and Pompey Magn were greeted with such splendor.
Gait airy, dancing, Sephiroth ascended the stairs, swiftly removing his helmet on the go. Genesis expected to see a familiar face scorched by the sun as it often happened to legionaries, notably those who battled in Africa; however, to his momentary surprise, Sephiroth's pallor didn't turn a shade darker. His friend was dressed in a legionary's outfit, a white tunic underneath the light armor, and only the scarlet cloak and decorations distinguished him from the regular infantryman. Involuntarily, Genesis' eyes darted downwards, along the thighs, left bare by the leather and golden ceremonial armor, and the redhead felt heat, which had nothing to do with the sun, rise and show on his cheeks. He could only hope none noticed how he looked at the legate; there was no awe in his cerulean gaze, just undisguised lust.
Quintus Scipio, the consul who served alongside Pompey and a staunch optimate, stepped forward, solemnly proclaiming, "The city of Rome greets you, Sephiroth, and offers a laurel wreath for your feats performed in the name of Roman Republic."
Green eyes were vacant, not a spark of recognition flickering within; a chance sunspot lit up their depths, and left them dark, unreadable. With unchanged expression, Sephiroth lowered his head, and Genesis' trembling hands laid the golden laurels on shimmering silver hair.
"If that's the case, then I am flattered." The legate responded with candid coldness. Was it possible that Sephiroth had already joined with populares? Genesis swallowed to wet his suddenly dry throat, releasing the wreath and taking a step backwards.
His whisper was barely acknowledged. Sephiroth haughtily straightened and slipped by, leaving a befuddled Genesis to stare at his fingers. Three years had passed since they talked face to face. Has it been that long? Yet, it wasn't a good time to ask personal questions. Scipio was watching him closely, so the redhead pulled himself together and followed the chain of Senators into the coolness of the temple.
Behind them, legions entered the square, leading a crowd of chained, clothed in rags, slaves - the trophies of Sephiroth's victories.
Inside, everything has already been prepared for the ritual sacrifice to Jupiter. The Senators crowded by the entrance, while Sephiroth approached the altar alone. The censers were lit, flinging sweet aromas of incenses, and the scarlet sheens danced on his golden armor, which looked like perfectly matched scales of a mythical creature. The wave of silver hair gently swayed in time with each step, reaching lower than the hem of the tunic or the bottom of his cuirass.
Like that, his friend looked godlike, the personification magnificent but fragile, as if aware of its own mortality and impermanence. No, Genesis didn't want to think he looked unearthly; the redhead wanted to clear his mind of all thoughts, but they, persistent, enfeebling, continued lurking somewhere there, where the roots of his strange obsession began. And a soft voice kept whispering that Sephiroth looked like Apollo, and there was nothing mundane about him.
A blink – and the delusion thawed.
Three years did not pass for nothing. Genesis leaned against the marble wall, clinging to the cold stone to clear his reeling head. The incense's aromas hung heavily in the air, and their besotting scent did not help.
In the meantime, Sephiroth kneeled before the altar, each movement fluid, graceful. Proud. Mumbling, the priest raised the ritual knife and brought it down, having plunged the blade into the garlanded lamb's throat. The animal shuddered, uttering an almost human plea, and dark blood gushed from the wound, marring the priest's white toga. Having dipped his fingers into the scarlet pool spreading on white marble, he sprinkled the silver-haired legate's wreath and washed his hands in a basin with clear water. The ritual lamb grew still on the altar, last shudders subsiding; its fate was a mockery – the animal was groomed and fed specifically for the moment when a ritual knife would cut its throat. After being properly cooked, its meat would be offered to Sephiroth at the feast.
Were they, the Senators, like those well-fed and sleek animals, prepared for slaughter by someone like Caesar or Sephiroth on a long road to their common ambition? Genesis' thoughts smacked of bitterness and anger. He wanted his friend to turn around and meet his eyes, but Sephiroth continued to gaze at the altar, somehow managing to look more dignified in such a disparaging pose than council Scipio himself, standing upright.
The sacrificial offering ended when the lamb was taken away by junior priests. The legate rose and in swift strides approached the Senators.
"I hope Caesar is in good health." Marcus Messala, a portly Senator, whose figure and face showed signs of excessive abuse of delicacies and wine, spoke to him.
"He is. I hope you are likewise, Messala." A few Senators chortled at the unhidden sarcasm in Sephiroth's remark.
Genesis elbowed his way towards his friend, determined to greet him personally, but by the time the redhead reached the entrance door, the legate has already excused himself. And as Sephiroth slipped by anew, there was nothing etched on perfectly chiseled features, which would make even Apollo's statue look alive in comparison.
Words never passed Genesis' lips.
The feast in Sephiroth's honor was held in the evening at the residence of Lucius Afranius, one of the former consuls, who served the Roman Republic alongside Quintus Celer. Being beholden to Pompey for his rise, he supported the optimates, and therefore opened the door to one of Caesar's legates with visible reluctance. However, the tension between representatives of the opposite parties loosened when wine and desserts were brought.
Aerith came as well. She looked astonishing when she forgot to tie her hair with a ribbon, letting it cascade freely, like a foaming waterfall. Her light-green stole matched her eyes. For a few short minutes, she contrived to achieve what even Cloud failed – and it was to make Genesis forget about Sephiroth's existence. The girl was retelling something with excitement, however the redhead wasn't listening, having riveted his eyes on her serene face and lit up with inner fires green eyes; on her heaving under the light cloth chest. Then he shifted his gaze, and through the huge, sparkling emeralds of her earrings saw his friend; and mollified emotions surged anew.
Sephiroth reposed himself on a low couch in a relaxed posture; his head was resting on his palm, thoughtful eyes half-closed. A white toga cascaded down the curves of his body, revealing more than hiding, accentuating each slight bend. The legate was surrounded by men and women, expressing eulogies or chattering idly, however Genesis knew him long enough to see indifference, even boredom through occasional smiles, which flitted across his face. Titles and lauds concerned his friend rarely, even if he was used to looking at others with certain superiority; but that superiority was deserved, Genesis had to admit. That superiority didn't need to prove anything to anyone.
"Are you even listening to me, Genesis?" A reproach rang in his hazy mind, words sinking in slowly. Wine was affecting him worse than the besotting aromas of incense in the temple that morning, his heartbeat increasing and blood pounding in his head.
Armed only with an ironclad determination to talk to his friend, the redhead left his interlocutress without an apology and gracefully maneuvered between tables and low beds. During such orgies, Senators lay with virgins or matrons, who shamelessly flaunted their withering delights or showed off their tawdry attires and jewelry. As he passed by, he could hear scraps of conversations.
"Do you know that Cinna's son keeps company with Valerie?" One old Senator complained to another. "O tempora, o mores!"
"It will be two years since Caesar's daughter Julia died. What a shame." Therebeside, an old matron sighed with regret. "Pompey was devastated."
"So devastated that he is soon remarrying," another woman objected in a rasping voice.
By the tables, a small group of eminent Roman citizens boisterously discussed the brisk trade in the Mediterranean after Pompey had earned his title as the scourge of pirates, and increasing prices on grain.
A conversation of a different kind was being held by Sephiroth's bed. Quintus Pedilus, Caesar's nephew, argued with the son of the great dictator Sulla about the role of Crassus and Pompey in the infamous Third Servile war. The renowned legate appeared to be listening to them attentively, occasionally stretching his hand to tear a grape off the bunch.
"How could you be saying that Pompey stole Crassus' fame?" Faustus Sulla was speaking. "On his way to Rome, he encountered and defeated the remains of Spartacus' army, having captured over five thousand of the slaves. Even without Spartacus…"
"Without Spartacus," fervently objected Caesar's nephew, "the insurgents were doomed, and Crassus is the rightful victor over their leader. "
"Crassus is dead!"
"What if he is? Glory outlives mortal men." Quintus Pedilus turned to Sephiroth. "What will you say, legate?"
His friend swallowed another dark grape and lifted his eyes, having plashed Genesis with emerald moisture of his gaze. Suddenly, the world narrowed to a pair of those eyes, enthralling and hypnotizing, like snake's.
"Genesis." Sephiroth's lips twitched, shaping a half-smirk. "I have just noticed you came."
"I wanted…" the redhead unstuck his disobedient lips with much ado. "You never greeted me, therefore I decided to offer you a greeting myself."
"Humph. What do you think about Quintus' words?"
"The merit is Pompey's, of course," he blurted out without thinking.
Sephiroth strained at once; a silver lightning flashed in his eyes and faded as he loosened the sudden grip on the berry. It burst in his hand, splashing his palm with crimson juice.
"Genesis, you never change." Yet, the deep voice rang calmly, a perfect match to his always stoic veneer.
"You should know better than ask an opinion of an optimate."
Quintus' words helped Genesis out of the strange stupor; his head felt lighter, usual defiance returning, and the redhead mordantly parried.
"We, citizens of Rome, are free to choose who to follow."
"Three years ago Genesis and I supported the First Triumvirate, but then three years is a long term."
Was the redhead delusional, or was there indeed a wistful strain in his friend's words?
A young girl ran up to them and, giggling, laid a laurel wreath on Sephiroth's head to earn a kiss on her cheek. The gesture was meaningless, but looking at the blushing girl, Genesis felt a prick of jealousy, especially when his mind obediently offered an image of those thin lips sliding in-between his own. They had to be cool, like the nature of their holder. Having boldly pushed a stranger aside, the redhead slipped into the vacant seat by the legate's side.
"May I join you?"
"I don't see why not."
The bed was narrow, and Genesis' leg ended up tightly pressed to his friend's. Darting his gaze at the plate with fruit, the redhead noticed Sephiroth didn't wear a tunic, the toga flung over his bare shoulder. Dwelling on it was a mistake – the proximity, the smell of musk half-in-half with vanilla caused another wave of heat to flood his body and blind his senses.
"What does Caesar want now?"
Genesis didn't notice when Scipio approached. Sephiroth politely greeted the new speaker with a nod, and light dimply glimmered on the golden leaves of laurels.
"Aside from victories, we suffered defeats. Estimable consul," a light sneer, "should know that the Fourteenth legion has been crushed by Vercingetorix."
"If Caesar wants more legions, he will not get them. He has already drained our army of troops and capable leaders. Does he think about replentishing it?"
"Caesar is battling for the benefit of the Republic."
Scipio darted an angry look at the legate. "Caesar is fighting for his own benefit."
Sephiroth made a move to rise, but Genesis' palm settled on his friend's thigh, preventing the latter's outburst of anger; although usually short and non-spectacular, they could end violently, disrupting the evening's placidity.
"Sephiroth brought enough slaves in exchange for new legions," Genesis interjected. "I think it will be a fair deal."
"We will see what the Senate has to say about it," Scipio scoffed. "But if I were you, I wouldn't count on their benevolence."
"We will know in a week, won't we?"
The redhead inclined to believe the consul was right, but decided to say nothing, for Sephiroth retained his legendary calmness and the least of all Genesis wished to test it.
Scipio retreated proudly, and a few optimates left shortly after him. Genesis stayed, his hand still lingering on his friend's thigh; the latter didn't seem to notice or object, even when the redhead carefully passed it across the white toga in a caressing manner, feeling his fingers sweat.
May Dis pater curse any reason you came back, Sephiroth.
"So… how have you been these past years?" Genesis decided to start with a neutral question, nothing too personal or suggestive, although the crowd around them dispersed. Sephiroth threw back a few long tresses and adroitly swallowed another grape. Genesis casually wondered when his friend developed an obsession with this particular fruit.
"I have been well," his response was equally nonchalant. "There is much to tell if you want details, but I haven't regretted my decision to join Caesar. He is a very talented commander."
"Not for once?"
"Why would I?"
Because one summer day you decided to leave me behind. Have you ever regretted that part, at least once?
Genesis yanked his hand away, as if his friend's skin suddenly became unbearably hot. He felt like a fool coming here, hoping his feelings still mattered only to receive a lucid, honest answer.
Veracity didn't appease his pain.
"I don't know… maybe, once in a while you thought what would have happened if you stayed."
"Humph, I did think about it."
Genesis waited for Sephiroth to continue, but the legate chose silence. His shoulders faintly glistened from ointment and smelled of musk, tempting Genesis to touch them, to feel their alluring smoothness, but the redhead's pride wouldn't let him. He had once accepted that Sephiroth was beyond his reach; the second time it should be a lot easier to let go of his feelings completely.
With a sigh, Genesis sat up and tore his gaze away from the legate's refined visage.
"Are you leaving?" The redhead could have sworn Sephiroth sounded alarmed… or was it again his treacherous imagination hearing what he wanted to hear?
"I agreed to meet with a client of mine," he lied smoothly, not even bothering about the plausibility of his fib.
Suddenly, Genesis felt legate's long fingers tenderly curling around his tight fist, slowly unclenching it until Sephiroth's hand completely rested in his. The simple gesture ran counter to his previous words and indifference, with which they were spoken. The simple gesture begot a faint hope, yet anew Genesis waited for Sephiroth to continue until the silence became awkward.
"You wanted to say something?"
The legate inaudibly sighed and averted his face. "No, it was nothing."
Fine. Be it your way.
Genesis leapt up and hastily left the room, forgetting he had promised Aerith to take her home.
…Each movement of Genesis' hand was spattering blood, and scarlet droplets landed everywhere - onto the floor, onto the sky-blue toga he wore at home, and even the chairs were smirched with tiny dark spots. Fingers were clenched around the hilt of the lash, swift strikes of his hand mercilessly leaving new weals on the already marred back of his slave. His most trusted slaveholder sold Cloud for hundred sesterces, but the boy proved to be of only one worth to the redhead – when he needed to vent his anger on someone, lashing Cloud soothed his raging emotions. Once Genesis had almost beaten Cloud to death; it happened three years ago, when Sephiroth left for the military campaign at Gaul. Outwardly, Cloud looked as any other Roman citizen; spiky blond hair matched with brilliant-blue eyes, like fields of ripe wheat - with the summer welkin, and among his peers he could have been one of the most handsome looking. However, a thin copper collar coiled around the slender neck, the ends tightly soldered to prevent it from being removed until death. It was a mark of ownership with Cloud's name engraved into metal.
After the leather lash rose and fell again, the blond turned, revealing boyish face streaked with tears. Usually, Cloud suffered the blows silently, screaming only when the redhead was particularly heartless. They both knew how to be heartless, Sephiroth and him.
Yet, that evening screams or silence didn't help, and Cloud begged, "Master, don't hurt me more. Please."
The pleas only woke the beast inside him. Genesis presented his friend with a laurel wreath, and the latter didn't even deign to acknowledge his presence. It was outrageous, yet the feast outdid all ominous expectations. Genesis swung the scourge and brought it down with the force that made Cloud howl at the top of his voice; drunk with the smell of blood and another's pain, the redhead continued the flogging until the bloodied heap collapsed at his feet, quiescent. Genesis could tell Cloud was still alive only by the rare heaves of his chest. Pieces of skin hung down from the boy's back, and the wound had to hurt immensely; the blond was lucky he was unconscious and felt nothing. The redhead cast the lash away, wiping sticky blood off his face. Slaves were lower than men; one step below were gladiators, but those were not even considered men. Entertainment. Animals. A one-night pleasure for a rich, aged matron. Cloud's life was an object of envy for any gladiator.
The boy on the floor stirred with a whimper. Even if he didn't get a fever, it would be a week before Cloud could walk; that was Genesis' only regret.
"Master!" A slave's voice rang from another room – his servants knew better than interrupting him during the punishments. "Zack is waiting for you."
The young Senator lowered his hands into the basin with water, watching lucid depths turn scarlet, then slowly washed his face and neck.
"Tell him I will see him as soon as I change."
Three days had passed after the feast; three days of dashing around the room, feeling like a caged predator, three days of vain waiting for a slave to appear at the gates and deliver him a message from Sephiroth. Genesis could not understand his friend. On the evening of the third day, the redhead gave up waiting. He put on a sky-blue toga of the finest wool, which perfectly matched his eyes, perfumed his copper locks, and readied himself for the final conversation. This would be his last attempt, and if his friend decided to play a blind man again, Genesis swore he would forget the enigma that was Sephiroth – his godlike looks, his smile, his strange, alluring personality. Perhaps, he would have stayed at home and forgotten already, yet there was a strange feeling in his heart that told him to go. Looking at his reflection in the silver mirror, Genesis felt even more assured – the chord, auburn and striking blue, captivated women's eyes; now it was time to see whether men could be ensnared by the same.
Speaking of women. Genesis pivoted abruptly, sensing her presence even though her light steps made no sound. She glided into the room, lit with evening hues, as though she was the rightful mistress of his house. Her light-green stola was fluttering around her girlish forms, budding but not yet fully developed. The redhead was certain that one day Aerith would become a beautiful woman, however, his attraction to silver hair, pale skin, and eyes of the color of a stormy wave was overwhelming.
"I was worried you were sick, since no one has seen you around," she leaned against the table, adding in a gale of forced merriment. "But I see you are fine, finer than ever, even though you looked pale leaving that ill-fated feast. I didn't dare hail you. Did something happen?" Her hands were nervously twiddling the hem of her stola, and huge, charming eyes looked at him suppliantly. "You can tell me. You know I don't worry over politics."
What was there to tell? Genesis behaved like a fool, and so did Sephiroth; perhaps, his friend had an excuse, but the redhead did not, and politics was the last thing on his mind both then and now. The Senator shot a dark glance at Aerith.
"No, Pompey and his optimates have nothing to do with my troubles."
"You are not helping me, Genesis. I can only think of another person. It was him, wasn't it?" She wasn't asking, suddenly assuming a warlike demeanor. "He hurt you again. But what good will you achieve by confining yourself to your room?"
Genesis looked through Aerith, as if she wasn't there. "At times, I don't know whether my love for him is stronger than my hatred."
Her face fell at once, shoulders drooped. "Love? You love him, don't you?" A breathless whisper. "Why didn't I see it before? Why… why didn't you tell me?"
Genesis regretted the words that had slipped him at once, but there was no turning back. "I didn't deem it important."
Aerith paled. "You… not important… you are just like him, cold, blind, and heartless. And I thought you were different. Passionate. Tender. Was I so wrong?"
The redhead was cut to the heart. Sneering to hide the genuine feeling, he snapped out, "Yes, we are no different. We wear different faces, we speak different words, and play different roles, but underneath all these superficial masks, we are one and the same. This is why I belong to him."
Then the young Senator stormed out of his room.
The evening streets were empty. Flocks of swallows skimmed over the Grand Circus like black lightnings. The air smelled of river and fresh flowers, and Genesis inhaled deeply, feeling life return to him after three days of voluntary imprisonment. Blood began hammering in his temples. He crossed the paved street in swift strides, and went deep into the labyrinth of alleys, which cut directly through the center of Rome. His steps echoed, trapped between fences of villas, walls of houses and brothels, marked by red lights at the doors. Buildings were lit from within, shadows dancing in the yellow glow and imparting an otherworldly look to the ancient city.
Sephiroth lived on the other side of the Palatine hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, not far away from his villa, and Genesis decided against taking the palanquin. The redhead regretted it soon enough. Five dark silhouettes detached themselves from the wall of a house and followed a noticeable figure in the azure toga. The young Senator forgot how dangerous Rome could be at nights.
The thieves overtook Genesis by the deserted crossroads, surrounding him in a heartbeat, before he had time to scream or run, although screaming would have hardly helped him. The redhead took a shortcut through the empty alley and was about to pay the price for his carelessness.
Nevertheless, a short dagger appeared in Genesis' hand. He wasn't giving up without a fight. In response, homely weapons dimly flashed in last rays of setting sun, and the dark figures drew closer.
"It's a senator," one faceless man suddenly hissed. "I recognize him."
Genesis took a deep breath to calm himself and haughtily lifted his chin. "That is right. Now let me go and find yourselves another victim. I swear by Dis pater I will not persecute you."
An oath, strengthen by the name of the old, underground god, shook the thieves' resoluteness, but only for an instant. The leader maliciously laughed in the redhead's face. "No one will see us here, not even your Dis pater. Give me your money peacefully, and we will let you live."
"I didn't bring any."
"What a shameless lie." A short sword flickered before the redhead's eyes. The leader alone had a decent weapon in the whole gang. "Beat him until he bleeds, but do not bash his pretty face."
Genesis dodged the first blow, parried another with his dagger, but the result was obvious. The thieves adroitly barred his ways for escape. Genesis managed to cut one of them before he missed the first blow to the chest – luckily, with the blunt side of the weapon. Having staggered, he got a better grip of his dagger in his sweating hand and swung it; its blade landed on the leader's short sword, whereupon a bearded thug kicked him to the side. Genesis sprawled in the dust, clutching his throbbing chest, knowing that any further attempt to resist was futile – it would only cheer up the band. His only hope was that the thieves would not dare kill the Senator, having confined themselves to a severe beating. Azure eyes closed, fingers clawing the warm, dusty road, as Genesis obediently awaited the torment to continue.
The next blow was never struck. Instead, there was a swish and a canine yelp, as if a master kicked his dog, followed by the thud of a body hitting the ground. The redhead cautiously opened his eyes in time to see Sephiroth deliver another devastating blow, having ripped the thug's chest open in one, clean swing. Light, like a silvery butterfly, his friend gracefully avoided all attempts to counterattack and plunged his gladius into his enemy's stomach. Having pushed the wheezing and bleeding man with his foot, Sephiroth freed his sword and turned in time to parry the leader's thrust. Steel grinded against steel, the leader taking a step back after the legate applied more force. The swords flew asunder, catching yellow sparks of torches; his friend gracefully skirted the thief, exchanging short, powerful blows, until the latter finally made a mistake, having left his right side unprotected. Whirling in the mass of falling silver hair, the legate thrust through the opening, his gladius cutting through the arm just below the shoulder with inhuman force. The leader gaped at the missing limb, at the fountain of blood gushing from the wound, a short moment of befuddlement enough for Sephiroth to remove his head. His slaves finished off the remaining thug who tried to escape.
Brushing an unruly silver lock off his forehead, Sephiroth offered his hand to the Senator, who gratefully gripped it. The fight didn't even make the renowned legate sweat, appearing to be a trifling matter for him, a routine. His friend's white garments were spattered with blood, a few droplets clearly visible on his pale skin.
"What are you doing here at this time of night?"
"Same question for you," Genesis found strength for irony even after his life had been in danger just a few moments ago.
"I was returning home from a bath. Now," he shook his head, "it seems, we will be going back. My toga is ruined, and you look like you could use fresh water. What were you doing here alone anyways?"
The redhead coughed, both fighting excruciating pain in his chest and attempting to hide his confusion. He didn't have a plausible explanation, the least of all desiring to blurt out his intentions now, when their meeting was chance and meaningless.
"I had a business to take care of with my client." He hastily mumbled, but Sephiroth did not seem to notice.
"Very well. Will you join me for a short ride?"
What kind of a question was that?
His friend's palanquin was cramped, barely enough to accommodate two adults, and Genesis found himself pressed to his friend's body. It smelled the same as three day ago and yet a tad differently, vanilla and musk blending with a faint scent of sweat, which caused Genesis' mind and heart to race uncontrollably. Did Sephiroth feel the same? Woe betide him, if he was capable of reading what hid underneath the inexpressive facade.
During the trip, which turned out to be shorter than Genesis expected, they barely exchanged any words besides a few remarks on meaningless topics, yet the redhead felt a slight change in his friend's behavior, a change that favored him. The cold detachment he was met with at the temple of Jupiter and at the feast gave way to curiosity, his distrust melting with each short moment they spent in the narrow palanquin.
The baths were opened even at such a late hour. The legate ordered his slaves to stay outside, and they entered the premises alone; both servants and guests have already left, and they were met with servile bows of the owner, who led them into a private bath and withdrew thereafter.
It was a small, oblong room with a dome-like ceiling, propped up by tall columns of white marble. Greenish-blue waves temptingly swashed against the stairs, luring them into the lucid waters, illumined by torch light. It was dark and quiet, aside from the faint murmur of water.
"Do you mind?"
Sephiroth undid the knot on his shoulder, and Genesis swallowed saliva to wet his dry throat as the white garments cascaded down, revealing long legs in the fringe of the tunic's hem and long silver hair.
"No, not at all." He whispered in a foreign voice.
The tunic followed next, and the legate stepped out of the heap of clothes. He was perfect, no extra curves or disproportional parts, and even the statue of Apollo faded in comparison, because its perfection was dead. Everything about Sephiroth was vibrant with life, radiating power and confidence, which at times bordered with arrogance. The legate stepped into the water, and it obediently parted until his lower body plunged completely, weightless shimmering silver left floating around his frame. Each movement sent ripples through the spots of light, spilled on its dark surface. Genesis lingered on the edge in indecision; he took baths with Pompey and Scipio, but nothing was like sitting by naked Sephiroth.
"The water is warm," his friend's deep voice rang from semi-darkness. Sephiroth mistook his irresolute conduct. Then, seized by an impulse – therewith he did not have any better course of action in mind – Genesis threw off his own clothes and, ignoring the obvious sign of his arousal, jumped into the bath.
Sephiroth's visage was suddenly near; he started saying something, but Genesis fingers were already clenching his broad shoulders, bringing their naked bodies together, joining their lips in a hungry, almost poignant kiss.
No second thoughts, no vacillations. Three years was a term too long.
Sephiroth responded eagerly, passionately crushing the redhead's lips beneath his own. Genesis didn't expect his friend – a venerated legate thirty four years of age – to be a virgin. At nineteen he had commenced one of those careers attractive and inexplicable to ordinary mortals, and was successful – therefore desirable – ever since. Now… now Sephiroth will belong to him only, as it should have been from the beginning.
A short kiss left them both breathless.
"How long did you… want it?" Sephiroth drew back and whispered, astonished.
"Damn you in the name of Dis pater! It has been three years and not a day was too short."
Having gently pushed his friend onto the marble stairs, Genesis settled in-between his legs and clung to his wet lips anew, craving for more. It was bliss, tongues entwining and warmth sparking between their bodies; then their kisses turned short, sharp, as if their lips were snatching at each other in a wild obsession. Hungry and flushed, both kissed and kissed, as if they had missed the pleasure and now attempted to make up for the lost time. Hips wedged between hips, as Sephiroth wrapped his strong legs around Genesis' slim waist. As a token of appreciation, the redhead sucked at his bottom lip and let his hands marvel at his friend's flawless build. Caresses were light and soothing at first, but, like kisses, they became hungry fast. His lips still devouring Sephiroth's lips, Genesis palmed his silver hair from top to the very bottom, fingers finding the latter's throbbing flesh and squeezing it tightly. The response was a faint moan of pleasure and a quiet, "That's enough."
Albeit the objection lacked conviction, Genesis obeyed when his friend put his palm onto his bruised chest. "I think you have some explaining to do."
"Explaining?" The Senator took a deep breath – for the thousandth time that day – to hide his frustration. He was just getting a taste of their closeness, and if it were the beginning, the pinnacle promised sheer bliss. "Why do you need any? Wasn't it clear that I wanted you all those years you were in Gaul? Wasn't it clear I wanted you when you came back? In the name of Dis pater! Isn't it clear that I want you now? You will have to explain to me why you behaved like you've never seen me before!"
Sephiroth shook his head. "I needed to know whether I could trust you. Even though you were not aware of his presence, my faithful slave was watching you all this time to see if you were loyal to the optimates as rumors said you were. But, it seems, we misunderstood each other." He chuckled with relief. "My apologies."
The silver-haired legate sighed heavily, looking up and past his face. "Among the reasons I left three years ago were my feelings for you. I thought it was for the best to forget because I was certain you would not return them."
Genesis laughed. He had never laughed so hard in his entire life, and continued laughing even as the legate's expression changed from neutral to confused; even as tears of merriment welled up in his eyes.
"I thought the same." The redhead explained once he could speak. "Isn't it ironic? I tried to forget as well, and see where I am now… begging for your embrace."
There was no need to beg. A warm arm, twining around his shoulders, was a good enough answer. Genesis threw his head back and looked at his friend's face looming slightly above.
"What will you do now? Be honest with me."
Sephiroth took his hand into his own and squeezed it tenderly, as if holding something precious and fragile.
"Those old fools in the Senate don't understand that Caesar earned the loyalty of his legions. After battling with him for nearly a decade, after eating at one table with him and sleeping side by side, those legionaries will go through fire and water to carry out his orders. It makes no difference that they are small in number. Even if the Senate refuses to send reinforcements, for Caesar they will cross Rubicon."
"And for you. Am I right?"
"I thought up of a new plan," Sephiroth admitted after a pause, "to build an Empire of my own design, and since you have not yet joined the optimates, I want to ask you to stand by my side."
Genesis blinked, feeling helpless and at the same time flattered. The decision was abrupt, yet he knew he would not regret it. "I will join you."
"Then it is settled."
Having rested his back against Sephiroth's broad chest, Genesis felt safe and complete, as if he had found a missing part; a missing wing.
"Do you want to create the Empire of your ambition to eclipse Caesar?"
The question was uttered, and Sephiroth smiled, his smile - a thin flourish of a quill, which signed the sentence of fate.
Some people were born to be gods; it was in their blood – the unquenchable thirst to etch their names into history and be remembered for many generations to come. It took a lot of determination and will to achieve such a goal; it required a lot of pride, a lot of selfishness and spilled blood. And there they were – kings, pharaohs, dictators, and emperors, the living incarnations of everlasting human desire to become more than mere mortals. To become godlike. Or, perhaps, gods themselves were created in the images of those men. Later, in sacred Scriptures, the old, stooping hermits would write that the Earth should be inherited by the meek and that pride was sin, but then it belonged to the bold, haughty, and ruthless; to those, who lived like gods, battled and loved like them, and even smiled like the effulgent deities of yore.