Pairings/Characters: Raucus, Crassus, Max, and Tavi.
Rating: K. Do unusual curses count? Oh, whatever, it's clean.
Notes: Max is marrying Veradis. His family and friends deal with various issues. Crassus and Tavi sort of make up. (You'll have gathered by now that this is meandering and utterly self-indulgent and kind of a bridge to a later fic I've got percolating at the back of my mind which may or may not see the light of day. There is no plot, just what I hope is come IC pondering and several conversations.)
"Did you drug her?" Antillus Raucus asks as he slashes a gladius at Max's chest. "How did you get her to agree to marry you?"
Max parries the blow and dodges the next one with ease, grinning as the swords sing in their hands. "I'll have you know, she asked me."
Raucus snorts. Their swords clang and clash and spark brilliant blue-white in intricate patterns. Max has only gotten better at the blade since he'd studied with Sir Nadus all those years ago. The old sword-master's letters had been infrequent, and had only included the barest asides—Your son's a quicker draw than you, Raucus, or He's got a steady and flexible arm—good to know he's not as stiff-necked as you, you old snowcrow—but Raucus had drunk those scraps of news like a drunkard after a drought.
Cereus Maximus, he thinks, with a pang of sadness, and a crow-taken High Lord at that. He shakes his head to clear away maudlin cobwebs. So what if he's giving up any claim on his boy? And Max had done for himself what his father was too weak to do: he had claimed himself his own home, his own legacy, and even before that, had carved for himself an indelible place in the fabric of Alera. And then the brat had taken it upon himself to fall into what seems a lot like love with a woman and thus done what Raucus had never been able to do—laid claim to a measure of personal happiness. Raucus has had no hand in making his son into this strong, solid man, a man who has more of Nephele's good grace in him than Raucus' own ill-humor, so he decides to keep his mouth shut. There's nothing to say, anyway.
They wind down after a while, and Raucus puts his only hand on his son's shoulder and squeezes. "Do her credit, boy," he says finally. "I know you will. I'm proud of you. Your mother—she would have been proud as well."
Max stares at him for a moment. Raucus is painfully aware that he's never said those words to Max, and the look on Max's eyes—surprised and painfully incredulous—near breaks Raucus' old, worn heart. He deserves them a thousand times over. "I—thank you, Father. Thank you."
Crassus flies into the fencing hall though one of the high windows and lands carefully on his feet. Raucus' heart lurches for a moment—it will never stop doing that, he's sure—as he watches Crassus walk over to the weapons rack to pick up a gladius. Crassus walks with a decided limp and often needs a cane, but he's walking, by the great furies. The sight will always look to him like a miracle.
"Did I miss it?" Crassus asks, smiling in his calm, quiet way. "Or are you old men too worn out to fight me?"
Max turns to Crassus, and the two grin at each other with such warmth and easy companionship, Raucus thinks, Perhaps there's hope for all of us yet.
Crassus has just returned from the first in a string of meetings for negotiating the year's trade agreements with the nearest tribes of Icemen, so he's missed formally greeting his brother's future wife. He knows next to nothing about Lady Cereus Veradis beyond that she has special talent at watercraft and is now the High Lady of Ceres and he's always been a something of a suspicious soul so he asks Max as he pours them drinks, "You're sure about this? Marriage?"
Max sighs. "Why is everyone asking me that?"
Crassus raises a brow at his brother, and Max has the decency to blush a bit. "All right, all right. And yes. If it makes you feel any better, I've never been surer about anything else in my life."
Crassus listens to his brother's voice. He's very good at listening for things unsaid and he hears the truth and the surety and—and a bit of something that sounds like contentedness in it. Something in Crassus calms in response, a feeling he hadn't even known had been swirling around in disquiet in him. They'd be equals finally. Perhaps, perhaps, he could stop feeling so guilty about—about his parentage about his inheritance, about being alive. Perhaps he could stop carrying Antillus like a burden that is only half his and only that by an unfortunate accident of fate. Perhaps, he could move to embrace her because he loves her like Max never can. It is a drop in the ocean of all that Crassus owes his brother, but—it's something. A beginning, maybe.
"It won't ever be the same again, you know," Crassus says when he can talk again.
"Hopefully better," Max says, smiling without much humor, "and it can't be that difficult, given what's gone on here before."
Bitterness and shame flashes through Crassus. "No, that's not what I mean." He grimaces and thumps a fist down on his thigh, on his useless, lamed leg. Helpless anger, an old companion by now, quickens in him. "I know Father and the others humor me when they spar with me, like you did today—and it helps. I'm not saying it doesn't. But—" How to make Max understand? "Do you—remember the Elinarch?"
"I do," Max says. "It was a bloody mess. What part are you talking about?"
"That morning, with the Knights Pieces and the Battlecrows and the sunfire? When we—when we led the charge onto the bridge? You and me?"
Crassus swallows. "I can't ever do that again, Max. I can't run, I can't fight, I can barely walk and it's not enough. It's not enough. How am I supposed to be a High Lord of this pile of stones if I can't even walk though it? If I can't wield sword and fury like I used to? It's not like I can—what?"
Max has started laughing, a loud, roaring belly laugh he doesn't even attempt to conceal. Crassus stares at his brother, at the wide smile on his face, stung.
"You idiot," Max says when he's done laughing. "You bloody idiot."
"I don't know what you mean," Crassus says stiffly.
Max shakes his head. "How is it that I always end up having this talk with you idiots, anyway? Let me remind you of what you've done, Crassus. You joined the First Aleran and took command of a company of mostly green Knights and then commenced whipping them into the best battalion of Knights this realm has ever seen. Then—"
"I had help with that—"
"Then," Max says, "you lead the First and kept men alive under Senator Arnos' command when he would have thrown every man away without a second thought—"
"But the First Lord got all that under control when he challenged—"
"And then you go to bloody Canea and the craft bloody ice barges to house the refugees from Shuar—"
"But I did that when I could walk!" Crassus nearly shouts. "When I wasn't lame!"
Max only raises an eyebrow. "What's walking got to do with it?" But he sighs, and says, "Do you remember the—the accident I had early in training with the First?"
Crassus nods, his face still drawn tight.
"And when stepmother tried to corner Octavian by having him light the campfire?"
Crassus frowns, confused. "What are you talking about? When she said that he didn't have any furies? He lit the fire, Max. I saw him do it. And it's obvious he's got talent—that he's always had it. He just hadn't been in full command of it."
Max shook his head. "You're wrong. I went through the Academy with him and then on to the First. He was furyless through and though until—oh, about two years before he declared himself."
Crassus gapes at his brother. Surely, Max is lying. "Max, that can't be true." He shakes his head. "The Elinarch—the things he did—when he stopped the final rush—he may not have had any discrete furies but he would have been insane to go into that without any furycraft at all." He pauses, considering. "Well, it would be in character, at least," he concedes, but his words aren't as bitter as they might have been.
Max laughs. "It is, little brother. And he had no manifest furies to command until after we returned from Canea." Max smiles. "You could say—and many did—that he was helpless, crippled, a freak. And yet, he managed to foil a plan Aquitaine set in place to discredit old Sextus when he was fifteen, foiled an assassination attempt on Sextus when he was seventeen, and kept the Camin running in circles for two years—all without a single fury to his name. Tell me you can't do one better, Crassus."
Crassus stares at his brother. "But—but he's Princeps Septimus' blood heir. I don't understand. How could he have been without any crafting at all?" Crassus had heard the rumors as well as anybody else, of course, but he had been disinclined to believe them: there was no way, he had firmly believed, that one went from nothing to great feats of furycraft without significant training and experience, and Octavian hadn't had that; therefore, he'd had to have had some measure of talent his entire life. One didn't come up with the skills needed to demolish the walls of a great city out of nowhere, after all.
Max shrugs carelessly. "Something his mother did, I gather. She crafted him when he was a child so his talents wouldn't draw unwelcome attention to him."
Crassus scowls. "So you are, in effect, telling me to man up about it—that I at least have my furies."
"That," Max says sagely, "and to tell you that Tavi fought and won all those battles because he used his mind. Nothing wrong with your mind, last I knew. Walking or not, crippled or not, furyless or not—well, all that's got nothing to do with what you do with yourself. You'll find your way, or you won't. Up to you, I'd think."
Crassus gapes at his brother again, though he quickly masters his expression before he looks even more like an idiot. Max isn't known for giving sage advice—or even serious advice, for that matter—because he generally said, "Get a girl into your bed," whenever anyone around him had expressed any sort of doubt or misgiving. His brother, it seems, still has ways of surprising him even after all these years.
Max peers at the bottom of his goblet and grunts after a time. Then he says, "I'm surprised at you, though. I've been talking about Calderon for a quarter of an hour and your haven't tried to gut me."
Crassus raises an eyebrow at Max. "Yes, well. I don't think physical violence is a handy expression for personal pain, but that's just my opinion."
"He's sorry about it all, you know."
"I don't think either of us would appreciate you prying."
Max raises his hands in mock surrender. "I'm not trying to pry, Crassus. I'm just saying that maybe you ought to realize that he, well, he had bigger things on his mind and she had asked him to keep it quiet. And then if he had brought her to light, he would have been bound to execute her for treason."
It's an old, tired argument. Crassus is far from stupid on his good days, he knows, and he's gone over Octavian's side of it a thousand times or more. But that doesn't change the sick churning in his gut at the thought of his mother—his mother—enslaved and just beyond the nearest palisade wall for all those months. He isn't so angry now, he realizes, as he's…tired. Tired and disillusioned and so bloody sick of metalcrafting his pain away, of his crowbegotten knee giving out at odd moments, of working and drilling and beating old school-yard lessons in sword- and fieldcraft into his muscles.
"She's collared," Crassus says in asnwer. "She doesn't know what she wants. How didn't he know that? How could he let her…how could he just leave her there? Don't tell me he couldn't have figured out how to steal her from them Max, don't. He could have. And if he'd thought it important, he would have." He remembers Gaius Octavian's gaze, calm and direct and bright, the ring of truth and sincerity in his voice, and remembered that same calm and direct brilliance that colored everything his former captain did, and how Crassus had loved him wholeheartedly for it, had given him trust and respect in equal measure. "And it's more than that. He lied to me."
"I'm not the right person to ask, having been out cold," Max says equitably, "but I think he was jammed into a tight spot and there were other things that took higher priority. Like sixty thousand Canim ready to rip us to shreds. You were awake for most of that, I believe."
"That doesn't make what he did right!" Crassus snaps reflexively. He's had this argument with himself a million times, it seems, and the words are well-run ruts in his mind. "I trusted him to help me find her! He could have told me later! And he just left her there like so much refuse and left me like—like—" Crassus freezes.
"Aha," Max says softly in the ringing silence. "Is that it, then?"
Crassus hears his breath speed up as what feels like a gale wind blow clouds from his thoughts. Crows. Bloody crows. Is that why he's been so angry? Had he, in some strange corner of his mind, morphed Octavian into some sort of infallible savior? Did Crassus blame Octavian for what the Vord Queen had done to him? Had he seized upon his mother as an excuse to remain angry with his liege? He had been angry at that betrayal—but had he been angrier that Octavian hadn't somehow anticipated the Queen's answering moves, that he hadn't planned for every contingency, and that that lack of foresight had caused Crassus to lose his legs?
Crassus' heart speeds up as he remembers the Queen-her eerie similarity to the First Lady, the snarl that twisted her lips, and her depthless eyes glittering in anticipation-and the answer is a plain as his thundering heartbeat. "Crows," he mutters, taking a long, fortifying draft from his own goblet. "And here I thought the legions had beat it out of me."
"My biggest flaw, I think," Crassus says. "Yours would be overindulgence. Mine is assigning myself too much importance in the grand scheme of things." He tries to think back to the terrible storm his mind and heart had been in after the conclusion of the war: there had been so much pain, and so much anger—he had spent days either lying in darkness in his room or in blistering fits of rage. He winced. He didn't like to think of it.
Max is quiet for a moment. "You're important. You're important to Father, and your mother, and to me. You're important to Antillus and to the rest of the bloody realm. But you're right in this case. You're being an idiot. I told you—shit happens on campaign. You were a good soldier and you were doing your duty, man. It's nothing to be ashamed of and it's not your fault." Max's eyes are steady and understanding. "And it's not his, either."
Crassus clenches his hand around his goblet's stem and he makes an effort to not draw strength from the stone surrounding him. He wants to fling the cup across the room and watch the firelight glint on the shards. He wants to drive his fists into the table and create a storm of splinters. The beast is awake again, roaring in his chest and in his head in his ears. It is one of terrible anger, and it is hungry.
Crassus clenches a fist. He is not a child. He is not newly lamed. Blaming his commander for an injury suffered in the line of duty—in the line of what had probably been the most important duty in Aleran history—is the epitome of childish pique. He closes a hand around the dagger thrust through his belt; the still coolness of good, solid Aleran steel fills his ears and calms him. "I think I do blame him, Max," he says when he trusts himself to speak. "It was always this." How clearly he sees himself now, and how clearly he knows that his anger and his bitterness has faded into a steady hum of something quite a lot like hurt. "I was angry…that he didn't save me. Every time our situation was hopeless he did something outrageous and brilliant and he always saved the day. Why didn't he save me?"
Max claps a hand onto Crassus' shoulder and Crassus realizes that he would be a fool to discount all Max had suffered in service to the crown and how many times he had been bleeding into the water of a healing tub because of it. But it's always been this way between him and Max: Crassus thinks and ponders and frets in circles, while Max charges forward in straight, firm lines.
"He's not omniscient," Max says, "no matter how much he wishes he is. And he wishes he did. He misses you, Crassus. He misses his friends and he's got precious few left of those."
Crassus sighs. Like his pain, his anger had worn his nerves thinner and thinner until it was easier just not to feel it. Wishes matter little when all is said and done. "How can I trust him again, Max?" he asks tiredly. "I'm not really even angry anymore—except maybe at myself for being such an idiot—but I don't think I'll ever be able to think of him as a—personal friend again."
Max barks out a laugh. "Who the hell says you have to? Now that Antillus is entering the business of trade instead of war, he's going to be bleeding every free coin he can out of your hands. He's going to be spying on you, gathering intelligence from everywhere around you, demanding your support in his insane plans and expecting it absolutely, despite everything and maybe because of it. And you're going to have to balance the demands of Alera with the demands of Antillus, and you'll have to parlay him and predict him and decide if you'll let him win." Max snorts. "You don't have to be friends with him. Just try talking to him and try making things just a little civil again."
Crassus laughs weakly and without much humor. "You're going to be a High Lord soon, too, brother. Is that how you think of him?"
Max shrugs easily. "He's my friend. I trust him absolutely to do well by me as he trusts me to do well by him."
Crassus snorts. "You're being idiotically idealistic."
"Maybe, but you don't survive what we did and come out the same on the other side. Have a little faith."
Crassus scowls, but he's glad they're no longer discussing him. The revelations that have snuck up on him tonight are raw and bleeding, like blisters gotten after a long and tiring march. He'll need to think on them, and for a long, hard time, but now is not that time. "Marriage will agree with you, I think, if you're already sprouting homilies."
Max grins, and it's nearly blinding. "Do you think so?" And then he smiles even wider. "And I nearly forgot why I came to find you tonight."
Crassus can't help but smile back, even if they come much harder to him. "It wasn't to get drunk and get maudlin?"
"Crows, no. I wanted to ask—will you come to my wedding?" Max makes a vague gesture with his hand. "His Highness will be there and I know you've embarked on a campaign of avoidance with him—but I want you there. Don't talk to him, if you don't want to. But I'd like for you to attend."
Crassus opens his mouth and closes it again with a snap. Bloody furies. Is this where his childishness has gotten him—to the point where his crowbegotten brother had to ask him to his crowbegotten wedding? Had his irrationality blinded him to such an extent that a small thing—a thing that should have been taken for granted, damn it—like his presence at his brother's wedding would be suspect? Perhaps a short few years ago, it would have been, but not after what they had done together.
The ever-shifting mass of his feeling solidifies. There had come to Alera the end of the world. He had survived it. Perhaps it is time to stop being so tragic about it all and perhaps, once he'd had time to think and take measure and pull his head out of his ass, it would be time to apologize
"Of course," Crassus says, "yes. I'll be there."
"I can't be drunk," Tavi says. "I'm the First Lord. I can't be drunk."
Ehren hiccups. "I'm the cursor legate," he sloshes from the floor. "Imagine all the acts of sedition I could get up to. And I wouldn't even remember."
"I have a child," Tavi mutters. "I have a wife. I have to get back ru…ruling the country. In the morning. What the hell are you doing to me, Max?"
"I'm getting married in the morning, you idiots," Max says cheerfully. "Drink up."
Tavi glares at Max, or the most solid Max, as there are three of them and all of them are equally irritatingly coherent. "Why are you so sober? Ehren, why is he so sober?"
Ehren snores in answer.
Tavi groans in the bright light of morning and decides to never get drunk with Max again. By all accounts, he should have known that, having gone drinking with Max before and having woken up in exactly this situation—with a throbbing head and eyes that reacted to light like it is a knife. The bed is empty aside from him, which is to be expected, all things considered, and perhaps he ought to be grateful for her absence; Kitai is conscientious to a fault when Tavi has been sick or injured through no fault of his own, but she doesn't take his hangovers with anything resembling good grace.
Footsteps echo in the hallway, annoyingly loud. Good. It would be Marcus or Kitai or even Max, coming to rouse him—
He freezes. There is an odd, shuffling quality to the sound and an extra thump of wood or stone striking the cool stone of the floor. He curls a hand around the dagger under his pillow and waits as someone confers with his guard and his doors open.
But it's Crassus, not a cutter, who enters, and he's carrying a steaming mug of something. He sets it down on Tavi's desk.
"Late night, your highness?" Crassus asks.
Crassus links his hands behind his back. "I went drinking with Max a few times in the legion. This will help."
Tavi tries to bully his mind into motion, but the crowbegotten lump is stubborn.
"Well," Crassus says, obviously uncomfortable. "I'll be going then."
Right before Crassus leaves the room, Tavi croaks tentatively, "Are we…are we talking?"
Crassus turns to frown at him, but it's a pensive one. "Are we?" he asks.
"I'm sorry, Crassus," Tavi says. "There's no excuse for what I did. You extended to me a trust as your friend and your commander and I broke it and—there's no excuse valid enough on the face of Carna."
Crassus absorbs Tavi's words solemnly and inclines his head. "There are excuses, your highness. She asked you not to tell me; you didn't want to execute her; you had bigger things on your mind."
Tavi keeps his gaze steady. "I apologize, Crassus."
Crassus shakes his head. "They're all valid." And here, he hesitates and gathers his thoughts in close. "And I find that I've got to apologize as well."
Tavi blinks. "For what?"
Crassus sighs, long and low. "For being an idiot, mostly. I had a talk with Max and—and he made me realize some things that I…that I thought I had put behind me. And I owe you an apology, sire. For—for blaming you for the mess I made of my life."
Tavi jerks himself out of bed. "Crassus—"
The younger man holds up a hand. "No, let me speak. It wasn't your fault. You had your reasons and they're valid—they are—and I've decided that—well, maybe I ought to stop hating everything and start moving on." He takes a moment to smile ruefully. "And as my brother saw fit to remind me, I am walking again. I'm walking farther and farther every day."
Tavi moves across the room on rubbery legs and can't help the small smile breaking across his face. "I'm glad, Crassus. You don't know how glad I am."
Crassus shrugs, smiling wearily in return. "We can't trust each other, though. Surely, you see that. Let's make amends, your highness. What will follow will follow."
Eagerness billows in Tavi as it always has—a restless energy that cleanly and efficiently got him plowing through his days of endless work and obstructive bureaucrats and the never-ending web of intrigue of Aleran politics. His fingers twitch. If he could, he would forcibly reassemble his mangled friendship with Crassus, but he knows because he's had to learn patience in long, hard lessons over the years that only patience and time would heal this rift in between them. So he inclines his head as regally as he can—as though his eyes were not crusted and his clothes stinking like a night of dissipation and his head pounding—and says, "As you wish. We'll talk at the reception, I hope?"
Crassus nods. "And after, if that's convenient." For a moment, the old Crassus, with his sharp, dry wit and his willingness to allow it to pepper his conversation with Tavi, resurfaces. "Bloody crows, man. Antillus has just turned a sizeable portion of her recourses to trade and farming for the first time in as long as anyone can remember. Do you plan to bleed us dry before we've even had a chance to start production?"
Tavi grins. "Got the decrees for this year's increase in taxes on trade goods, did you?"
Crassus only stares at him, then shakes his head. "Get dressed, your highness. We'll talk about it later."
Tavi waits until the younger man is almost out the door before saying, "Why come to me this morning? Surely it could have waited until after the excitement."
Crassus turned and something half chagrined, half bemused flashes across his face. "Something Max said to me about—" he gestures vaguely at the hallway outside with his walking stick. "About getting married, about starting something new." He shrugs. "Today felt like a good time, even if I'm giving my brother far too much credit for my comfort these days." He nods at Tavi. "Until later, Highness."
Tavi inclines his head. Crassus walks with a limp, Tavi thinks, as he sips the mug of hot, sweet tea Crassus had brought him. But there's more than that—Crassus walks like a man with a quiet measure of purpose, a man who is sure of his place in the world, not a man who has complicated burdens. He chuckles, and raises his mug in a small salute. "To new beginnings," he says, and drinks deeply.