Title: Bludgeonings of Chance
Pairings/Characters: Max, Crassus, Tavi and Ehren
Rating: T because this is narrated by Max and he has a bit of a potty mouth.
Notes: Can you tell I love Max and his family and how utterly dysfunctional they all are? And that I love how bromantic Tavi, Ehren and Max are? This is Max in the aftermath of Captain's Fury at Mastings.
Swimming to consciousness is a depressingly familiar sensation. Max finds himself flat on his back on a pallet in what is presumably the infirmary in a presumably friendly legion. He tries to be cheerful about that, at least, as he takes stock of himself: he is stiff and there is a dull ache rumbling through his body. He ought to move but a voice warns him not to, for that way lies only pain and he's not comfortable now but…but, he's conscious and the pain is manageable, so that's something.
His first thought is, Oh, crows take the bitch, can't she do this right? Quite frankly, he's getting quite sick of waking half-dead in infirmaries and healing tubs, so if she's going to kill him, she really ought to get serious about it. Then he remembers that High Lady Antillus is currently a confirmed traitor to the realm and currently missing and therefore presumably currently terrifying someone else. This predicament seems to be entirely his fault. The thought isn't very comforting because he's still waking up half-dead and it's a damned uncomfortable way to be.
There is a warm weight against his side, and Max squints at it. It seems to be a person—why, it's Crassus, asleep with his head on his arms, and his arms on the cot. There's another lump in the tent; it looks a lot like a sack of potatoes, but more like Ehren. Well. Max blearily tries to make sense out of that, but gives up, and grunts instead.
Instantly, Crassus jerks awake. He looks wildly around the room before his startled gaze rests on Max. Crassus looks like he hasn't slept or eaten in days. On any other day, Max perhaps would have slung an arm around his little brother, dragged him to the food tent, and forced a meal into him. Not today, though, because Max doubts he looks much better.
"You look like the crows have been at you," Max croaks and attempts a smile.
That, apparently, galvanizes Crassus to action. "Don't—don't try to talk yet. Here, wait, let me get you a bucket—" He starts scrambling about and accidentally kicks Ehren in the side.
Ehren reacts like the Academy taught him to—he pulls out a knife and nearly sticks it in Crassus' thigh before opening his eyes. Crassus yelps and scrambles out of disemboweling range.
"Crows," Ehren squeaks, jumping up. "Don't wake me like that!"
Crassus stares at Ehren for a moment, shakes his head, and says, "I'm going to get Foss," and backs out of the tent.
Max would usually have found this hysterically funny, but he is aching where he didn't even know he could ache. He's never felt quite so weak and ineffectual, and that, he thinks, smiling faintly, is really saying something: he has, after all, managed to survive a fall from the walls around the citadel and a tumble down the highest staircase at home, an arrow in his back from alleged friendly fire at Placida, poisoning in Ceres, getting run through in the Capital, and then getting his neck hacked in half during training. Crows, he thinks, bemused. How the hell am I still alive?
"The hell are you doing here?" he croaks at Ehren. "Where's Cal—where's Scipio?"
"Tavi's at command," Ehren says.
Max raises an eyebrow. "We're allowed to call him Tavi now?"
Ehren smiles slightly and shrugs. "It doesn't matter now." He frowns at the exit flap. "I'll go get him, I think. He should be the one to tell you."
"Ehren," Max says, but the little cursor is already gone.
The next to enter the tent is Steadholder Isana, followed by Crassus. She regards him steadily and Max is again struck by how self-possessed the woman is. She kneels by him and gently puts her fingers to his temples. She frowns for a moment in concentration, and then smiles. "You're better, Tribune," she says. "You need more work, but I daresay you'll live. For now, the best medicine you can have is rest."
"Thank you, Steadholder," he says, and her hands still for a moment. "I wonder what you're doing here, though. I thought you were at Elinarch."
Her eyes are wide. "Hasn't anyone told you?"
"Not a blighted thing," he grouses, increasingly aware that perhaps the world has tilted on its axis and he is only waking up to it.
She swallows, stands up—she stands very straight, he observes—and says, "I think Tavi ought to fill you in. I assume Sir Ehren has gone to fetch him."
"Then I'll leave you to your rest," she says decisively. She turns a basilisk glare at Crassus, and his little brother stands up straighter. Isana, it seems, is the sort of woman who would make the most terrifying of sort of tutors: exacting, expectant, and omniscient. Max remembers that this is the woman who'd raised Calderon, and thinks he might have an inkling as to how Tavi had come to the Academy with balls of steel already firmly in place. "Please have him drink a bit of water and make sure he stays in bed, if you will, Tribune."
"Yes, my lady," his brother says, and salutes.
She looks over Max again, purses her mouth, nods once, and sweeps out.
"'My lady'?" Max asks. "What the bloody hell is going on, Crassus?"
His brother doesn't answer. He does, however, deposit a bucket in front of Max in case there is food he'd like to see again—though he doesn't remember eating anything, any more than he remembers what got him into the infirmary—and is brandishing flagon of water in case Max wants a drink.
Max peers up at his brother's face, and is struck by a memory. It is an old, old one. Crassus, small and tearstained, holding a kite as a peace offering, hoping, perhaps, that the toy would somehow mitigate the stinging pain lashed along his back. Crassus had trembled and there had been tears on his face. "I'm sorry," he had squeaked, over and over again. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
But for the tears, Max thinks, heartsick, you look exactly the same now.
"'M all right, you know," Max croaks, and tries to sit up. Pain screams through his abdomen and the tent spins and he decides to abandon that particular notion. No big loss, that; he could do with more lying about, even without a woman or two to warm the bed. "I take it the legion's alive," he says after the dizziness recedes.
Crassus nods, and carefully supports Max's head and feeds him a bit of water. That's nice, Max thinks. Maybe I won't knock your head in for not saying anything, after all.
"More or less." Crassus' eyes are downcast. "How much do you remember?"
Max tries to sort through the haze. "Not very much. Crows. Was I hit by lightning?" That must have been a dream. He laughs a bit, but stops, because it's not very funny and his chest still hurts.
Crassus glances at him, horrified, and puts his head in his hands. "I don't know how to say this, Max," he says, muffled. He sighs shakily, and lets his hands fall away. "Or even if I deserve to, but—" he brings his eyes up to meet Max's, and they're overly bright "—you were right. It was an untenable position to hold. It was my fault to ordering it and you told me not to think so conservatively and to sound a charge and Marcus told me the same and I…" his voice breaks as tears fill it. "I'm sorry," Crassus says, putting his face back into his hands. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, oh crows, I'm so sorry."
Max stares at his brother, horrified and touched and somehow near tears himself, and he remembers all those nights and the nightmares—he is running and running and running and he only needs to run faster so he can catch Mother, he needs only to hold on to her hand and keep her from falling—and how many times he had cried himself to sleep in the silence.
So he raises a hand and puts it on Crassus' head and ruffles his brother's hair. "Stop apologizing for something that isn't your fault, you brat."
Crassus sits upright and swipes at his face. "What do you mean, not my fault? I ordered the stand, I put you in harm's way—"
"Did you make me sign up for the legion?" Max sighs. "Crows, Crassus, shit happens on these campaigns, you know that. You can't take responsibility for it all. The men knew what they were in for. I knew what I was in for."
Crassus looks ready to fight, but seems to think better of it. He looks at the floor. "You…you never blamed me back then, either. You always told me to shut up whenever I tried to apologize."
Max considers pretending he doesn't know what Crassus is talking about, but figures it wouldn't work. He's a crap actor, anyway. "Yes, well, because it wasn't."
Crassus shakes his head. "No. Mother wouldn't have touched you if I hadn't complained to her all the time, if I hadn't made you so mad, if I hadn't been so clumsy. It was my fault."
There are a lot of things Max could say. He could say that, no, she would have beat the tar out of Max anyway because she feared that Max would take Antillus away from Crassus. He could say that she would have beat him because she couldn't punish their father for not loving her, so she punished him instead. He could say that, bloody crows, she was Kalarus' sister, and that family wasn't known for being sweet and stable and sane.
These are all things he has thought over the years though he can't bring himself to forgive her and forget, because she is his enemy, and there is no peace in your enemy's house. But he doesn't like that Crassus believes that the burden is his to carry; it is enough that only one of them is scarred.
So he says instead, "It was fun flying that kite. Do you remember?"
Crassus looks confused. "Oh," he says after a moment. "Oh, yes. The one Venorius gave you." His smile is small and sad. "You got it tangled in that big tree off the blue courtyard."
"No," Max says, "I clearly remember that that was you. You cried until I climbed up there to get it."
"I did not!" Crassus says. "And you fell out of the tree." He grins, and this time, with a good memory. "Right into Abelia and Ballus, I believe."
Max laughs. "She came after me like a hellcat! I don't think I've ever run from anything that fast in my life. I don't regret breaking that up, though—do you remember what he was like back then?"
Crassus shakes his head, smiling still. "He's still like that. The girls are still fluttering and sighing, and he flutters and sighs right back. Do you remember that prank we pulled on him?"
"The one with the fish? Ha! No one went near him for weeks after that one."
"Cookie was baying for your blood for weeks afterward, though."
They go on like that for a while, and Max puts his current concerns—the legion, the Canim, where the hell is Calderon?—in the back of his mind. He'll find out presently, once Calderon decides to move his ass over. For now, though, his brother looks less like a lost little boy, and that is enough, because, really, life at Antillus wasn't that bad, and they need to remember that.
Calderon does manage to stumble into his tent half-an-hour later, with Ehren on his heels. Tavi looks like he almost always does—lean, serious, neat and like he hadn't slept in days. Knowing Calderon, he probably hadn't. Max wonders if his fate had been sealed the moment he'd met the other man what seemed like eons ago in a dingy Academy dorm room. Calderon had been so small and so fierce and so helpless, and Max perhaps had bonded for life—oh bloody crows—because Max will never stop worrying for him.
"Cheers," Max says. "And perhaps you'd like to fill me in on what the hell is going on. No one else seems willing to tell me."
Tavi grins tiredly and collapses on a campstool. "Crassus," he says, "Go get something to eat and rest a bit."
Crassus looks worried. "Sir?"
"Go on," Calderon says. "He can't kill me like he is, anyway."
Crassus doesn't look any better, but he clears his throat, salutes, and leaves.
"What have you done that makes you think I want to kill you?" Max asks, eyes narrowed.
Ehren chuckles. "Oh, I can't wait to see your face."
"Well, you see, Max, the thing is," Calderon says, smiling tiredly, "that I'm apparently the princeps of Alera."
Max blinks. "Right, and I'm a Parcian dancing girl. No, really, what happened?"
Tavi shakes his head as Ehren bursts into laughter. "I'm serious, Max. Princeps Septimus was my father."
Max stares at him for a moment. Tavi's face is serious, his eyes direct and calm and certain.
"Crows," Max swears softly. Then louder, "Bloody blighted crows, you mean to tell me that you are the princeps?" He gapes at Tavi. "The bloody princeps of Alera? Heir to the office of the First Lord?"
Tavi colors a bit. "Well, yes. Actually, the Senate has to review the question of my legitimacy and I've got to live long enough to assume it, but in essence," he says, "yes. I'm the bloody princeps of Alera."
A terrible thought strikes Max. "And you didn't—tell me?" It is a stupid question; there are bigger issues at work here, and obviously, if Tavi—if Octavian—had meant it a secret than he shouldn't have told anyone, friends included—but he can't help but feel a bit betrayed. They had been through too much bad business together for Tavi to keep a secret so large from him.
"I didn't know," Tavi says. "Araris told me the morning we left Elinarch on campaign and…" He gestures expansively, his expression bemused. "I didn't really get a chance to think through the implications for a while."
"And you," Max says to Ehren, who is still chortling obnoxiously, "did you know?"
"Found out quite by accident, actually," Ehren says, smiling, "while we were on our long sojourn."
Max shakes his head and looks around at his two friends, at his fellow cursors—well, no, that's not exactly right anymore, is it? Still, nothing feels different. Tavi is still Tavi, stolid and calm and brilliant; Ehren is still Ehren, quiet and whippet smart.
"Well," Max says, allowing belligerence to steal into his tone. Crows take it, Calderon had been his friend first, before this princeps business, and that was not going to change. "You two going to tell me what's going on now or what?"
Tavi's shoulders slump a little in relief as he leans his elbows on Max's cot. "Pull up a stool, Ehren," he says, grinning like they were all sitting down for lunch at the Academy, "and let's tell him how he missed out."