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61 AD - my love, my life

 

He cradled her clumsily but gently in his arms, taking care to support her head, unable to take his eyes off of her as he held her close to his chest. By what miracle of the gods had two ordinary people created such an extraordinary being? Twenty perfect little fingers and toes altogether. A tuft of brown hair, feather-soft and almost fur-like, a tiny little mouth that had been clamouring for food not long before but seemed now content to open and close occasionally with muted mewls.

Her small soft hazel eyes blinking lazily up at him before closing again, the tiny fingers that gripped his with surprising strength, her wrinkly and yet silky skin, so fragile-looking he feared a careless touch or breathing too hard might leave a mark, break her forever. What a thing of wonder.

He had known her for all of a few hours, and from the very first second his life had been irrevocably and permanently changed. He had known her for all of a few hours, and from the very first second he knew he would kill and die for her and everything in between just to see her happy and healthy.

Was it like this for everyone, the delightful terror, the breathtaking fascination, the never-ending awe? If they were blessed with more children in the future, would he have yet more pieces of his heart forever taken from inside his chest, swelling with pride and shrinking with fear? Had his own father felt anything like this when he was born, or his siblings? It was a herculean task that would never see completion, and he wanted it to stay that way – never finished, never done, never over with. Now that he had become it, he never wanted to stop being her father.

Up until that day, he had thought love at first sight was only for poets.

He had never been more delighted to be proven wrong.

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61 AD 

 

He was at his wits’ end.

He had gone through every trick in the book. Tickling had borne no success: she had twisted and turned and batted his hand away with her tiny chubby ones while crying all the while. She wasn’t hungry, either – Valeria had seen to that not even an hour earlier. Bouncing her on his knee while making clicking sounds resembling a horse’s trotting was effective for all of two minutes, during which Sulpicia stopped her wailing and looked up and around with watery eyes, waving her arms up and down excitedly and squealing in delight before whatever was bothering her won out again and the crying resumed. Rocking and shushing her to try and get her to sleep was as futile as teaching a monkey to read, and making goofy faces or cooing distracted her only for a few seconds. What else was he supposed to try?

Holding Sulpicia against his chest as he paced the room, Titus was beginning to feel like he too wanted to cry out in exasperation. Seeing his baby like that, ruddy-faced and eyes scrunched up in discomfort, if not pain, whilst tears ran down her plump cheeks and drool dribbled down her chin, was no crowning moment of parenthood. In fact, he felt like the most incompetent person in the world.

Could she be thirsty? She was a bit too warm too, Titus concluded as he softly pressed his lips to her forehead – but that could easily be thanks to this fuss she had worked herself into. A slave brought a small cup of water as commanded and made a respectful retreat. Sulpicia took only a few sips before turning her face away and starting to squall again. Titus put the cup down with a defeated sigh and bit his lower lip, willing his stumped brain to please come up with one more thing, or two, or ten.

It did not oblige. Defeated, Titus frowned and poked his daughter gently on the tip of the nose. “Are you hungry after all? Hmm? Do you want your mama?” Sulpicia replied with unintelligible pained babbling before grabbing his finger in a vice grip and bringing it to her mouth. When she began to chew on it with all the might and abandon of a starving man, Titus experienced an eureka moment.

Teething. The more he thought about, the more obvious it seemed. Babies were born without teeth – as they very sensibly should be. According to bits and pieces he had heard, they would usually make an appearance during the second half of the baby’s first year of life, should baby survive that long. Seemed as clear as V + V = X.

The second sudden realisation that followed the first one only lent it more strength: how could a baby’s gums be so hard and exert such force? Fearing for the integrity of his finger, Titus removed his spit-covered index from Sulpicia’s mouth before she chewed it to the bone. She gave him a puzzled, slightly betrayed look before knitting her brow and expressing her displeasure quite loudly.

Let it not be said he was a man who did not learn from his mistakes. Eager for silence to return, he offered her his pinky, vanquished yet relieved that the cause of her stroppiness had come to light. As Sulpicia bit and chomped away at his finger in delight, Titus wondered what could be a suitable victim instead. Soft leather? Wool? He might have to defer to the women in the family, and do it soon. He only had ten fingers, after all.

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Winter, 65 AD

 

The scream died in his throat, disappearing into nothingness. His heart was furiously beating out of his chest and the wet chill that covered his body had also soaked the bedsheets; they were almost as wet as if they’d been just washed. Titus sat up bolt upright in bed, shaky hands still balled into fists bunching up the sheets. He gasped for air, but it wouldn’t come. He did it again, and this time a bit of precious oxygen made its way down to his lungs. His heart had yet to slow down a beat; he could feel it pulsing everywhere, in his good ear too, mixed with some faint ringing. It felt like he was dying. Again. No, he really was dying this time. Again. And again. And again. Every time he drifted off to sleep.

He tried a deep breath, but it hurt too much. Up until that moment he had failed to notice the intense, tearing pain in his abdomen and the sticky, metallic wetness that accompanied it as the need for air had outweighed everything else, but now it was impossible to ignore. His fingers twitched, loosening their grip on the fabric and Titus bit down hard on his lip, drawing blood. His whole body shook: cold, pain, fright, any and all of those were to blame. He felt like screaming, wanted to, but wouldn’t. It was bad enough that he found himself in this sorry state, he didn’t need to make the others just as miserable by waking them up too.

How many times was his now? And how many times more would this scene play on and on – in his mind’s eye, in the world of the living, in the realm of Somnus? How many more times would he have to relive the same episode, see the same giant Briton with murder in his eyes and a sword in his left hand, and his helmet flying off into the distance and the Briton’s sword making the blood flow freely down his ear and cheek and neck and the blue-dyed man would have sliced his head off if Titus hadn’t managed to dodge at the last possible second, and then there was pain and blood and more pain and silence and darkness and nothing and he would wake up from his vision a shaking mess.

He had never thought himself invincible, not consciously, but he had never envisioned being made so keenly and painfully aware of his mortality. And he hated, hated, hated that he knew fear and failure now. In his dreams he would die a thousand times and while awake he would turn it over in his head a thousand and one and ask himself what he could have done differently. Rinse and repeat, like the damned wound below his ribs that would bleed and ooze ghastly pus and bleed and ooze some more and just not fucking heal no matter how often it was cleaned or stitched.

Short, shallow breaths allowed him to take in much needed air, but did very little in the way of calming him down. Sleep would not claim him again that night: he was too tired, too in pain, his nerves too fraught. Going by the complete darkness that shrouded the room, it would be quite some time before Aurora rose and took to the skies. In the morning, when he came round for his customary visit, the Greek doctor would bristle at his recent handiwork having been quite literally torn apart – again. And the doctor would fuss, Valeria would fuss, the slaves would fuss, visitors in the form of siblings and in-laws would fuss, and little Sulpicia would fuss too because everyone else was fussing. It felt to Titus that he had entered some Sisyphean alternate reality, where he only got so far before being forced to start from the beginning once more in a loop with no end in sight.

In the end, all he could do was to gingerly and carefully lower himself back into the mattress and stare unblinkingly at the ceiling in the dark, waiting for time to pass and for the gruelling ache to let up. Titus made a mental note to ask good old Laurus to leave an amphora of strong wine and a cup by the bed next time. Somnus was cruel, but Bacchus should be more merciful if he drank himself into anaesthesia or dreamless unconsciousness.

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74 AD, during the Gladiatorial Games

 

The journey back to their domus was very much as Titus had predicted. The moment it was just the two of them again, Publius had zeroed in on him like a moth drawn to a flame, and wide-eyed and toothy-grinned posed the question that had been plaguing him ever since the word had been uttered. Titus set his jaw and exhaled grimly, keenly aware that this was not how he had imagined the first of presumably many father-son conversations on the topic to go. But the gods enjoyed playing dice too, and this was what the roll had dictated. If he did a reasonable job now, maybe it would be a while until the next 'conversation' came. A long while.

"Dad, will you tell me now what's a catamite?" The boy was all curiosity, hands folded in his lap and unconsciously bobbing up and down. Titus nodded, defeated. "First of all, it's a bad word. So you're not to call anybody that, all right?" Publius nodded enthusiastically back. He cleared his throat and continued. "It means a boy who is very good friends with a grown man, but they're not related." Well, they could be, although that would be even less appealing, but Titus chose to word it the way he did to prevent any instances of his son proudly and publicly declaring himself his catamite, since they were such good friends. The thought made him feel queasy, but the boy seemed not to notice; maybe he ascribed it to the movement of the litter.

Yet, somehow that was not enough to quell Publius' interest in the topic. The boy peered up at him, confusion written all over his face. "But why is it a bad word if they're friends?" Titus ran a hand through his hair, stalling for time. "Because..." By Jupiter, there was no easy way out of this. "Well, because the adult is having fun, but the boy is not. It's very, very bad for a freeborn boy like you to be called that," Titus stated seriously, trying to impress just how insulting it would be and failing due to his lacking explanation. Publius only seemed more confused, but his childish grin had faded. Perhaps he understood deep down inside on some visceral level that this was no laughing matter. "So if somebody is ever stupid enough to call you that or tell you they want you to be their catamite, you tell me straight away, okay?" The boy assented solemnly. "Okay, dad."

Silence filled the litter for a short while, enough for Titus to think the ordeal was over and lean back on the cushions. No sooner had he done it than his son was piping up again, clearly not satisfied with the resolution. "But dad, if it's bad for free boys, is it okay for slave boys? And you said it's fun for the man, but not for the boy...?" Publius' eyebrows had quizzically shot upwards, almost disappearing into his brown hair. It was a difficult concept for his young mind to grasp, and Titus quickly realised he would have to provide a definitive explanation - and do it fast, because going by the familiar incline the litter was taking now, they would be home soon. And once they got home there would be at least two more pairs of ears interested in said explanation and another pair of ears probably quite keen on co-opting it and making it even less child-friendly.

Titus swallowed, muscles tense as if he were headed into battle. "Son. You know how sometimes people lie together, yes?" Publius nodded with a knowing look. "Yeah! You said that if it's a man and a woman, sometimes they make a baby!" Good, that bit had stuck. "Exactly. But sometimes, and that goes for everyone, they just do it because it's fun and feels good. But in this case, it doesn't feel good for the boy. It's not fun." Publius seemed to dwell on the information for a moment or two, taking it all in. "But is it fun for slave boys...?" All Titus wanted to do at that moment was bury his head in his hands and let someone else take over. Had he ever asked his late father this many questions? Titus didn't quite remember, but he didn't think so; he'd had his older brother to ask, which had been far less embarrassing. And most of the time he hadn't even needed to ask, the information had just been given to him. The gods were surely laughing. "I guess? I don't know, son. I was never a slave boy."

Publius made a small sound of acquiescence, as if what his father had just said made perfect sense. "Do you think I'll have fun too when I grow up? Like, when I was little I didn't like wine, but now I do." Titus chuckled, feeling the stress ebb out of him. The 'wine' the little boy was referring to was at most a finger's breadth of actual drink and the rest of the cup filled with honeyed water, but it made Publius feel like he could keep up with the adults, and if that made him happy, why burst his bubble? The important thing was the he grasped that some things were enjoyable only when was one mature enough. "I'm pretty sure you will, son. "

The litter came to a stop, signalling the end of their journey. With any luck, there would be no more difficult questions that day.

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