Five days passed before Dimmock told him he was moving.
"The Emperor's lanista is a man named Lestrade," the small man told him, neatly and efficiently wrapping John's sword in linen for the walk. "He will accompany you there and show you where you will sleep." His dark eyes shot up to meet John's. "Do not think you will enjoy better living conditions there, Watson," he said sharply. "Lestrade has been at the Emperor's court for almost twenty years. He does not believe in soft treatment."
John tried to smile, but the lanista had already looked away, discarding John's sword and picking up the other one, twisting linen around his palms. "I am capable of wrapping my own sword, sir," he reminded him. Dimmock looked up, his eyes scathing. John smiled as the man thrust the blade in his direction.
For the briefest of moments, the smaller man looked as though he was struggling. Then he said quickly, "You fought well. I was pleasantly surprised. But what you did to the two men you did not kill was unnecessarily cruel."
Confused, John blinked. "One of them was condemned to death anyway - I had no better shot," he protested. Dimmock held up a hand.
"And the other is perfectly fine, apart from the fact that he can no longer use the thumb on his right hand to hold sword or shield. To men like us, Watson, such a fate is worse than death."
John allowed himself a wan smile. "He was a cruel man, sir."
Dimmock dipped his head in acknowledgement, his own smile oddly incongruent to the harshness in his eyes. "But an exceptional gladiator."
He had drawn breath to reply when the bars of the gate clattered against the wall; John looked up to see a stocky, silvery-haired man wincing at the noise as he leaned against the gate. When he realised he'd been noticed, he caught the lanista's eyes and smiled tightly. John glanced at Dimmock to see him return the expression. It was easy to tell the two men were not friends.
"Lestrade," Dimmock grated out through tightly-clenched teeth. John couldn't help the smile etching itself across his face at the lanista's discomfort; if his wide grin was anything to go by, neither could Lestrade.
He nodded sharply. "Dimmock." His dark eyes - a shade lighter than Dimmock's, which somehow made them volumes warmer - slid slowly over John's body before resting on his face. "John Watson, is it not?"
John smiled as politely as he could manage. "Yes, sir."
"Right. Fantastic. Are you ready? I'm afraid we have something of a time to keep." In reply, John hefted his small pile of clothing topped with his two swords and the oils used to clean them. Lestrade cracked an almighty grin. "Fantastic," he repeated.
The man's manner was infectious. It was extremely difficult not to smile back as he turned to Dimmock. "Thank you, sir," he said quietly. However grudgingly, the lanista had taken him in and trained him, and gratitude was due. Dimmock raised an eyebrow and nodded.
"Good luck, Watson," he said shortly. Lestrade's mouth twitched slightly as John stepped away from Dimmock, joining him at the door. The Emperor's lanista cocked a lazy half-salute at the smaller man, and then led John out of the gate and across the arena.
When they were out of earshot, the silver-haired man let out a chuckle. "He always looks like someone has rammed something up his arse," he commented lightly. John almost stopped walking, shocked. "Authority means too much to that man," Lestrade continued, as though unaware of his quarry's shock. "Needs to be knocked down a peg. Do you prefer John, or is Watson all right?"
Blinking quickly, it took John a moment to stammer out, "I... well, I prefer John, sir, but..."
"Right, well, John it is then," he said simply.
The walk to the court was long; most festival parades went from the court to the circus arena, so the route between the two wound its way through most of the centre of Rome. John had made the walk before, and yet it had never seemed so long as with the Emperor's lanista making alarmingly comfortable conversation with him as they walked. At one point, the man even stopped and offered to carry some of his belongings for him.
John stopped and stared at him, and Lestrade shook with a lazy chuckle. "Forgive me," he said between rumbles of laughter. "My style is somewhat different from Dimmock's, I believe. I will be honest with you, John: you are a gladiator. It is unlikely you will live to see the next Saturnalia. Call it a weakness if you will, but I aim to make your last months as pleasant as possible." He shot another scintillating grin. "And, of course, if you do not die, hopefully you will look on me with some sort of fondness. A seasoned gladiator can be a handy man to have on your side. I should know, I am one."
Once again, his good humour was infectious, and John found himself grinning and chuckling along with the older man. Lestrade quickly broke that good humour by interjecting with, "Oh, and I should warn you, you are likely to meet the Emperor at some point soon. He has a certain fondness for the games, and likes to know each of his gladiators by name."
Unsurprisingly, John stopped dead. "The Emperor?" he gulped out. He'd been filled with anticipation all morning until it felt as though his stomach was a pit of worms just at the thought of fighting in front of Sherlock Homes again. Now he was supposed to actually meet the man, face to face?
"Yes. He is closely concerned with the way the circuses are run. I would say his constant presence was irritating if he were anyone else. You may want to attempt to get used to him, it is likely he will be around a lot."
John snorted. "Right. Get used to the Emperor. That will happen."
Lestrade threw his head back and positively guffawed. "And you have not even met him yet."
John barely had any time to settle before he was summoned out to the court arena, the noon bell ringing in his ears. He was surprised to find when he arrived that the arena was empty but for Lestrade, standing in the middle of the sand and twisting a sword around in one hand. The arena itself was smaller than he expected, too, the stone tiers of the stands only three rows high. He wondered how many people were expected to watch.
Lestrade smiled at him as he approached, lowering the sword to point harmlessly at the ground. John smiled back.
"Right now, I just want to see what you can do," the lanista said once he had reached hearing distance. "Many of the fights in this arena are not intended to kill, but merely to show your style and prowess in front of some very powerful people. Today I want you to experience that without so much pressure."
John grinned. "In front of powerful people?" The silver-haired lanista smirked back and jerked his head in the direction of the stands.
Sitting on the top tier, midway between the gates at either side of the arena, leaning back on his elbows, was Sherlock Holmes.
He sank onto one knee immediately, averting his eyes. Lestrade chuckled. "Do not worry, John. He merely intends to watch for now. When we are finished - and we likely will not be long - he may wish to talk to you. He is not so scary as you might think."
Personally, John doubted that he would be any less intimidated when the moment came. He allowed himself another brief glance towards the man; now that he knew he was there, he was impossible to miss, the purple and white of his toga stark against the grey stone of the stands. It was enormously distracting.
But he could not afford to think about it, because Lestrade had changed his grip on the broadsword he was holding, and John had to quickly flick his own sword - the man who had fetched him had instructed him to bring only one - above his head to block the sudden swing he knew was coming. He had to divert a considerable amount of focus to not allowing his eyes to stray to the Emperor, to not check obsessively whether the tall, pale man was shaking his head in disappointment or had lost interest in the fight completely.
The lanista was a quick and strong swordsman, though, and he needed to keep his eyes on him, to sense the tenses and changes in his muscle that pre-empted each movement a moment before the man moved so that John could block and parry and counter-strike in ways the older man would not expect. The last time he had wanted to impress the people around him so much, he mused somewhere in the middle, was when he asked Mary's parents for her hand in marriage.
Lestrade pushed him until the two men were covered in a light sheen of sweat and the old wound etched into John's shoulder had started up a low, throbbing ache. After a while, he wondered if he would need to train like this every day; wondered, for a moment or two, whether he would be able to handle the Emperor's court after all.
Then the older man stopped and stepped away, holding up a hand to stop. Panting, John lowered his own sword, jumping when the hollow sound of applause echoed out through the arena as Sherlock Holmes stood up.
"Magnificent," he called, his deep voice resonating incredibly through the space. "From both of you. I did not know you still had it in you, old man."
Lestrade made a rather impolite face at his Emperor while John looked on in shock, watching with growing terror as the man skipped lightly down the tiers and made his way across the sand.
"May I?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at Lestrade. Close to, his voice was a low, pleasant rumble that made something in John's chest spread warmth right down to his fingertips.
The lanista nodded, stepping back. "Of course, my Lord."
John dropped respectfully back to one knee in front of the Emperor as he approached; Sherlock Holmes lifted a facetious eyebrow at Lestrade before rolling his eyes at the prostrate gladiator. "Oh, Jupiter," he said dryly. "Get up." John hastily recovered his footing, keeping his eyes averted. "John Watson, is it?"
"Yes, my Lord."
He smiled softly. "I am sure you have realised that your performance in the arena impressed me."
John bowed his head graciously. "Thank you, my Lord."
The Emperor tilted his head to one side as John finally looked up. "May I ask where you gained your impressive knowledge of human anatomy?"
He let the corners of his mouth smile. Of course the Emperor would notice. "I... find it interesting, my Lord. I always have. When I was younger I insisted the physician on our street teach me the things that he knew. I have learned more since then from study. I served in the military for a very short period of time where I had the opportunity to better my anatomical and medical knowledge."
"And that would be where you gained the wound to your shoulder?" the Emperor asked, one dark eyebrow arching into his hairline.
"Yes, my Lord," John confirmed quietly, attempting to hold back the automatic movement of his right hand to rub the mesh of scar-tissue. "At Ctesiphon."
The other caterpillar-like eyebrow joined the first, frost-coloured eyes flashing. "Ah." John risked meeting that brilliant gaze; Sherlock Holmes smiled kindly. "You come across as a remarkable man, Watson. I am confident you will do well in my court."
Surprised, John let slip a brief boyish grin. "Thank you, my Lord. I will do my best."
The taller man seemed to hesitate for a moment, his smile faltering, before it hitched up into a grin to match his own. "See that you do," he said, his deep voice rumbling with good nature. "I look forward to it." His sharp eyes flicked quickly back up to the lanista behind him, the smile widening for an instant before vanishing. "Thank you, Lestrade. You may continue."
The two fighters watched in silence as the tall Emperor strode away across the sand. "What was that?" John asked finally, when the iron grate door had creaked shut behind him.
Lestrade chuckled. "That was Sherlock Holmes. He likes you."
"I did get that impression," John remarked, turning back to see the lanista grinning at him. "I cannot imagine why."
The older man rolled his shoulders into an easy shrug. "I was impressed by your performance too. None of us were expecting anything like it. Your disabling of the tendons in that last man's wrist was masterful."
John smiled, thinking of Dimmock's reaction. "He spent the entire time in the cages throwing insults at me. It was difficult to resist cutting off the hand entirely."
He was rewarded with a grating sort of laugh from the lanista and a solid hand on his back. "Just be sure you do not get overconfident. The men in my arena know how to fight better than the rag-tag bunch in Dimmock's." The silver-haired fighter drew his sword again, moving away from John but not taking a preparatory stance, his face calm with contemplation. "I have never seen his Excellency react to anyone quite the way he seemed to react to you," he said slowly.
"Are you and the Emperor close?" John ventured bravely. Lestrade's dark eyes suddenly met his, sharp and piercing. "Sorry," he backtracked. "I simply noticed the two of you seem more familiar than is perhaps customary for Emperor and lanista?"
Lestrade grinned slowly. "Yes, I suppose. I got to know him as the child that would not grow up to rule, so perhaps my worries for propriety were less. I came to the court when I was twenty. Even at five years old, Sherlock - his Excellency was interested in everything, us gladiators no exception. When he was ten he begged me to teach him how to handle a sword. Had I known then that he would become Emperor perhaps I would not have done it." The smile on his face adopted a faraway quality; John could not help but smile with him, thinking of a young, gangly Sherlock Holmes with unruly dark curls struggling to hold up a sword. "I thought it best he knew how to handle himself. He ran around with no thought for his own safety. And I think I liked that he seemed to find me... fascinating."
He looked up at John suddenly. "Sorry. I think sometimes that I really have lived a remarkable life." The hand holding his sword began to twist and flick the blade nervously as the lanista seemed to churn something around in his mind. "What did you think of him?" he asked finally.
John could hardly help the smile. "He seemed incredibly... human."
The lanista nodded, grinning. "He is. That, I think, is why we love him. He has dreams, and fears, and desires just like the rest of us." Quite suddenly, the older man flicked his sword back into its sheath at his belt. "Actually. Perhaps... I would not be surprised if he were to request some form of closer acquaintance with you." John frowned, attempting to decipher closer acquaintance. Did he mean that John would be required to entertain the Emperor? Or teach him, as Lestrade himself had previously? Or... "He will always give you ample opportunity to say 'no'," Lestrade continued, frowning slightly.
John grimaced. "I am afraid saying 'no' has never been a strength of mine," he admitted.
"Perhaps," Lestrade acknowledged, smiling at him. "But I... this may be... should he request that you share his bed, or anything similar that you are not entirely comfortable with, I strongly urge you to turn him down unless you are absolutely sure, however good your intentions may be." The lanista smiled sadly at John's utterly bewildered look. "You might hurt him."
It was a moment before he processed this piece of information. Could the Emperor possibly... desire him sexually? He would do many things for the man he'd always admired, the man he had not expected to be so... ordinary, and yet so otherworldly at the same time that his very existence seemed paradoxical. But there was still a line, and he thought he may be discovering where that line was. "I will," he confirmed, watching Lestrade's face relax.
He couldn't, anyway. It would feel too much like betraying Mary.