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It had been a long journey but a welcome one, from Britannia's chill to the now unfamiliar sun of Italia. Ostia had never looked so welcoming, and Aulus was impatient for the ship to dock. He would take a horse for himself and Felix and head straight up the Via Ostiensis and change out of his uniform once he got to Rome - and how he hoped that his family would be there and not at Baiae!

He hired two horses, one for himself and one for Felix (who had developed into quite a decent rider over the years). He would send Felix to the house to let them know, and to bring him a toga - he had a clean tunic with him, but it was forbidden to wear armour within the pomerium, the sacred limits of the city, and so he resgined himself to having to don the hot unwieldy garment that was the mark of the citizen.

It felt like an eternity before he was back in Rome itself, the toga (one of his father's with the broad purple stripe of a senator) heavy around him, with the end over his left arm, and tangling around his legs in a dreamlike familiar way.

He had no time for the sights of the city, and the Porta Ostiensis was the nearest gate to his home in the Piscina Publica; Felix had reported that the family were in Rome and anxiously waiting for his return. It seemed like that dream as he walked the familiar streets until he turned into the street where his father's house stood.

He could not be denied entry for long; the door-porter knew him and it was mere moments before he was in the atrium where his parents and wife and children were gathered.

He greeted his father first, as was only right, and then his mother and only then could he turn to his wife, who looked as he remembered her. Perhaps a little older, maybe more careworn, but still the girl he had met in Greece, in the garden of her father's house, dressed in a simple tunica. He had been enchanted then, and found that he still was, despite the stola she was wearing now as the mark of a Roman matron.

"Horatia," he managed, past the sudden lump in his throat.

 

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Horatia bit her lip as she looked into the small mirror in her room, fingers nervously pulling at the heavy fabric of the stola she had donned. It felt formal, but plain and the slave behind her dutifully held up another for her to examine. Never a vain woman, it was most unlike her to be so concerned about presentation but it had been just short of six years. Whilst only twenty-five, she felt anxiety that she would not be as Aulus remembered her and that must have been plain on her face as her mother in law interrupted her silent musing; "It's been long enough that you could wear a sack cloth and he wouldn't notice." Horatia shot the woman a sly smile and nodded silently. Their first proper interaction had involved a very plain tunica, and it seemed fitting that she should greet him after all of these years in an equally plain stola. 

Dabbing a touch of rosewater on her throat, she was stirred again from her nervous musing by the sounds of her daughter giggling to herself as she dipped little fingers into the barely touched pots of cosmetics. "Calpurnia!" She said exasperated and shot the girls nurse a withering look as the young woman hurriedly tried to wipe the red marks from the girls' fingers and dress. Gliding over to her she crouched so she was the same height as the five year old and arched a sly brow; "You know this is important, don't you? You get to meet your pater, and you have to be a good girl fo-" She was interrupted by Titus' smug statement of; "I've already met pater!" And Horatia rolled her eyes, "Yes, yes you have but that was many years ago and you have to be equally good. You understand?" Her seven year old bobbed his head but she swore she saw mischief in his eyes. 

Finally deciding enough was enough and her fussing over her appearance was going to achieve nothing, and equally finding her room stifling, she herded her two children into the atrium to take their places in front of her. One hand on each of their shoulders, it seemed like an age before the door finally creaked open and a man that felt as familiar as Britannia to her, walked in. She had to blink and then schooled her features into respectable neutrality. He wore their years apart well, but despite frequent letters, she felt an...anxiety settle over her as soon as he moved to greet his parents. Five, six years was no small measure. 

When he finally turned to her she offered a gentle smile, relief mixed with uncertainty in her eyes. "Aulus. Welcome home." She managed, perhaps a touch formally. Before remembering herself, lost in the moment as she was and squeezed her children's shoulders; "Y-your son, Titus and daughter Calpurnia Horatia." She said proudly, distinctly hoping he'd be pleased. 

 

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He felt... he felt a whole mix of things that he did not have words for. The very last time he'd seen them was that night when he'd left the house under cover of darkness, taking with him only what he could carry and a house slave for his companion. He did not have eyes for anyone else present except his wife, who pushed forward the two children standing in front of her. His son and daughter?

He knew he had a daughter but the knowledge was suddenly very real, and his son had been merely a baby and had somehow remained so in Aulus' imagination despite all the letters his wife had sent, reporting everything about how the children were growing. The young girl seemed so very shy, and there was a definite resemblance to the other Calpurnia in Aulus' life, his sister, who was a Vestal Virgin.

Even the most stoic of Stoics could hardly remain unmoved.

"Titus... Calpurnia... " he managed a smile - he did not think he would ever be able to stop smiling, now that he had started. He took a step, and then another, and then his arms were around Horatia. "I've missed you," he said into her hair - such a well-coiffed hairdo and he was sure he was spoiling it, but could not care. "Felix, you can..." he said, and then all thought of anything other than his wife and children left his head.

 

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Horatia watched her husband intently, trying to gauge his emotion. Her husband had always been somewhat of an enigma to her, but his stoicism suited her own reserved personality well. At least it had, before. Who knew what sort of man he was now? She could confidently say she wasn't the same woman she had been, five years ago and suspected it was similar for him. But as a smile cracked on his face, one appeared on her own and the nerves began dissipating slowly. 

She was not expecting the embrace - and hadn't even been sure whether a kiss on the cheek of peace was appropriate (her education - excellent as though it was - hadn't accounted for how to properly greet one's husband after half a decade of absence!) but she placed an arm around his shoulders nonetheless to return it. His words were a balm for her, and the nerves settled in the pit of her stomach; not gone, but lessened. "I've missed you too." She said warmly into the crook of his neck with a little smile, her fingers squeezing his arm. 

But the familial embrace was not to last as she felt Calpurnia tug diligently on her free hand. Blinking, she pulled back from Aulus to look down on her little blonde daughter; "Mama h-he is scary..." Gods above! She felt colour rise in her cheeks in embarrassment. To give Calpurnia her credit - Aulus, standing broad and impressively tall, clad in a toga and tired from his journey had been anxiety inducing for her initially, she could only imagine how a confused little five year old would feel. It didn't help her embarrassment, however, and sensing the awkwardness - the ever gracious Tiberius said with a chuckle; "We will leave you to get...acquainted, join us for dinner in a little while." before he shepherded his wife from the atrium. 

She wanted to scold Calpurnia but didn't have the heart. "He's not scary, he's your father, Calpurnia." She squeezed the little girls hand but she looked at Aulus warily. Horatia winced - looking at Aulus, awkwardly, "I explained who you are...evidently my descriptive skills about what you look like aren't up to par..." 

 

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"I don't suppose I could have described you satisfactorily, either," Aulus said into Horatia's hair before reluctantly letting her go and stepping back to give a little room. He had probably tugged some of her hairpins loose, but cared not a whit. Introductions to young children were not something Aulus had any real experience of, but towering over them while looking as imposing as he did was probably a bad idea. There was only one way to get on their level and he knelt on one knee.

"Am I really that scary?" he said to Calpurnia (his daughter!), who was clinging to her mother's skirts for security. "I suppose I must look it - togas do that, don't they? You look like your Aunt Calpurnia did when she was your age. Will it help if I take the toga off, do you think?"

 

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She felt Calpurnia move back against her legs as Aulus knelt down, although Horatia was relieved that Titus didn't seem nearly as nervous - just cautious in a way that she expected. Her son chipped in at her husband's question, "You're not scary, father." And Horatia had to hide a smile at the formality that the little boy was trying to project. Bless him. Calpurnia, however, just nodded and with childlike simplicity, explained the situation; "Mama t-told me not to t-talk to str...strangers and y-you are scary." Horatia rolled her eyes and asked the Gods for some assistance silently, "But you can speak to your father, he is not a stranger Calpurnia, sweetheart." The little girl blinked up between her mother and then back at Aulus with wide blue eyes. 

Heartened that he was not offended by his children's obvious unease, Horatia felt herself relax and even laugh a little at his willingness to unburden himself of his toga. Calpurnia nodded at the offer and Titus chipped in with an ever helpful; "Can I help father?" And again, she had to keep from laughing. Bless his soul, he was trying and succeeding at sounding respectful, at least! Even if every word out of his mouth sounded as if they were coming out of the mouth of a forty year old rather than a recently turned seven year old child. 

However, Horatia was acutely aware that as embarrassing as the children's behaviour was for her, they were serving a very real purpose of distracting from her awkwardness. She wasn't sure if Aulus felt it to, but five years apart from one's spouse was enough to change things irrevocably. She'd be able to examine the damage on their marriage if there was any (and likely there was) when alone with her husband, but the thought made the nerves bubble in her chest. Thank the Gods for her fertility and children, keeping them both suitably distracted! She stayed respectfully silent as the children chattered with her husband, letting the little scene play out before her.

 

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"Well, I've been practising being scary for a very long time," Aulus told his daughter, reflecting that the entirety of Calpurnia's young life would be a very long time, from her perspective. "I'm sorry to be so good at it that I've scared you." He looked up at Horatia with a smile. He might not be a stranger, in the strict sense of the word, but he was more than enough of a stranger to his family - even to Horatia herself. He had been apart from her for far longer than they had been together, after all, and he could only wonder, for now, at what she must have gone through, especially in those first months.

"Would you prefer to call me Tata?" he asked. 'Father' sounded strange, especially from a seven-year-old - there would be plenty of time for that when Titus was older. It was what he called his own father nowadays after all - it was the sort of form of address that fathers and sons grew into between themselves. "And of course you can - it works like yours, only it's much bigger." He looked at Calpurnia. "Would you like to help, too?"

 

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Titus nodded and offered a little smile, "Yes...Tata." and Horatia felt her heart swell with love. The children had been absent a father for so long, she had half expected them to never use such words of endearment but to hear it was a mother's pleasure. And she saw how her son practically beamed at the chance to help, to look useful before a man who he'd really only heard stories of over the years, but who he knew to be impressive. 

Calpurnia, however, wasn't convinced and only shook her head at Aulus before looking up at her mother; "Can I go play now, mama?" Disappointed that her daughter didn't seem more invested in this meeting, but understanding why perfectly (the concentration of a five year old was minuscule as it was, especially when it involved adult strangers), she nodded. "Yes, you can-" But she stopped herself, blinking, realising it wasn't her decision. 

Technically under the authority of her own father, not Tiberius, and with her husband absent for so long - Horatia had become comfortable in the rearing of the children as she saw fit. It hadn't occurred to her that her role in their lives might well change if Aulus had other ideas and she bit her lip, feeling awkward. "I'm sorry," She offered to her husband and continued to grip onto Calpurnia's hand as she squirmed to get away - not understanding the awkwardness of re-establishing authority, roles and boundaries between her parents, "Would you like her to stay?" 

 

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Aulus had stepped back into a family that didn't know him that had functioned perfectly well without him, and had its own rules and understandings, and he had come in and disrupted everything. He could exert his authority as a Roman man and throw his weight around and demand their attention and respect... but he would lose them. Respect, in Aulus' opinion, should be earned - given as a right, yes, but those to whom respect was given should be worthy of it or it would cease to be respect in any real sense.

He had to fit back into this world, he could not expect this world to shape itself to his whims if he wanted them to have any feelings towards him other than fear. Fear was what he inflicted on rebels and the enemies of Rome, after all, not on his own family.

"You can go and play, as your mama says," he told her. They could get to know one another slowly, over the next few months (years, if the gods were willing!), after all. He had to earn her trust, and simply enforcing his will on them... they were his family, not his slaves.

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Relieved that he seemed not to take offence as Calpurnia bounded away to her dolls, she shuffled Titus forward and the boy - perceptive like both his parents - lay out his arms to help fold the toga as Aulus disrobed. Horatia glanced sideways to a slave who had become finely tuned over the years to her domina's looks and scurried away, returning a few minutes later with a tray beset with wine and a few snacks. She saw Titus lick his lips and she smiled to herself. 

Feeling awkward at not contributing, she clasped her hands in front of her waist and asked; "How was the journey home?" As if he'd only been out on a walk of the city, rather than what seemed like a tour of the empire. She was under no illusion that he'd speak at length about his service if he wanted to, and was in no mind to push it if he didn't wish to discuss it. The unfamiliarity of being close to him again was mercifully being distracted by her son who looked at the formal toga with reverence she'd not seen before, and she'd need to save heavier topics, or really any topics of conversation to stem the awkwardness, for when she was alone with her husband. 

Taking the two cups from the tray, she held one out for Aulus. 

 

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"Long," he admitted with a laugh. "If you ever wish to visit Britannia, you will want to avoid travelling in the winter! It is very cold and the seas can get very rough."

He accepted the cup of wine Horatia offered him.

"Is it true that they're all blue... Tata?" Titus asked, screwing up his courage to ask the question of this tall man who Mama said was his father. He knew that Tata had known him when he was young but, despite his reassurances to his sister, he did not really remember him. "Is it because they're cold?"

Aulus laughed and set the winecup down so that he could disentangle himself from the mass of cloth that was his toga. His son had helped, a little, but really it had been Aulus and gravity that had done the bulk of the work.

"Shall we go and sit in the garden and I shall tell you and Mama about it?" he suggested, feeling an insignificant pang of contrition at leaving the toga in a heap for the slaves to deal with. And then if Titus likewise got bored and wanted to go and play, or whatever small boys of his age did, he could begin to catch up with Horatia - he had always imagined her in the garden, when he had the time to think about her - they had first met, properly, in the garden of her father's rented house in Greece, after all, and it seemed, somehow, to be her natural habitat. At least, to Aulus' mind.

 

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Titus nodded enthusiastically and without so much as a second glance at his parents, set off to the garden; his love for it matching Horatia's own. Being alone - even for a brief moment with her husband - was unfamiliar and as she moved to follow Titus through the domus, she lightly brushed her hand against his - unsure of excess displays of familiarity. Whilst his embrace had lingered, stories from friends of husbands returning from war or postings with a concubine in tow and without a second glance spared for their wives who had remained chaste and alone for all those years of absence, filled her mind. She didn't think Aulus was such a man, but one could never be sure and she was equally not naive enough to believe he had endured five years of chastity as she had. Whether he'd want her as before, or her affection, was anybody's guess.

"I'm glad you're home." She managed with a soft smile and removed her hand from his as she found herself in the bright hot sun and Titus already taking prime position on one of the chairs the slaves had dutifully carried out (the benches set about the place too far apart for a family of three to properly converse). 

Settling down, and strategically placing Titus between them (although she hoped he wouldn't sense her unease), she curled up in the chair - legs folded beneath herself and placed her jaw in the palm of her hand. Unconciously, her spare hand went to smooth down the ruffled hair of her son and when content, picked up the wine that was offered by a dutiful household slave. "So," She glanced at him with an amused, sly smile, "Were they really blue?" She rolled her eyes - above Titus' head and eyeline. She was not an ignorant woman and had voraciously read all she could about the provinces where her husband had travelled, but for the benefit of her son and her own interest, would let him tell his own version.

 

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Aulus turned his hand to take Horatia's as their hands brushed, though he was gentle about it, and allowed herself to pull free as they entered the garden. This was unfamiliar territory - not the house, which was where he had grown up and whose fabric was as familiar to him as his own reflection, though dulled somewhat due to the passage of time spent away from Rome. Their relationship, his whole marriage... this was unfamiliar. He knew how he should behave with an unmarried girl of marriageable age. He knew how to behave with matrons of his mother's age. He knew how to behave with married women of his age, and Horatia's.

He did not know quite how he should behave with his own wife, when they had been apart for so long.

"I'm glad to be home, too," he replied, and was surprised to find that he was, despite the discomfort and awkwardness of it all.

He settled down, a little amused, and a little hurt, to find that she had placed Titus between them, as if for protection. He would have to take things slowly, make sure that they knew he was not someone that they should be scared of. He found himself relaxing fractionally more when a slave came out with a basin of water and  a pair of indoor sandals for him, and began to rinse the dust of the road from his feet.

"No, they weren't. Well, they were sort of. Once a boy reaches the age of manhood - when you would take the toga virilis, Titus - their young men are tattooed with blue. It's like painting themselves, except that it doesn't come off, and they do it in lines and patterns. Some of their warriors stiffen their hair with lime, too, so that it stick up like the spines of a hedgehog."

He settled back in his seat as the slave dried his feet and slipped the indoor sandals on - he had not brought any with him and wondered if his mother had kept his old ones against his homecoming.

"I hope... I hope that the past few years have not been too hard for you," he said to Horatia, meeting her eyes over their son's tow-coloured hair, and flicked his fingers to dismiss the slave.

 

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Titus screwed his face up, and glanced to his mother for reassurance, as if to make sure his father wasn't joking. "But...hedgehogs aren't scary, mama said that the British are fierce!" Horatia rolled her eyes and squeezed Titus' shoulder, "I think you'd be scared if hundreds or thousands of men covered in paint that doesn't wash off and with hair like hedgehogs charged at you with swords and axes, hmm?" Titus shook his head resolutely and frowned up at Horatia, "I wouldn't be! I bet Tata wasn't either!" And Horatia merely smiled, not willing to put words in Aulus' mouth about how he must have felt. His letters had been descriptive, but not to any degree where she could interpret his mood or his feelings beyond the cursory. 

His question, however, caught her off guard and she glanced up at him. Titus - bored of this turn of conversation, but respectfully not interrupting (he was a good child), fidgeted in his seat. 

"No, not hard." She lied through her teeth. She had been fortunate that her parents in law had been at the villa when she had gone into unexpectedly early labour with Calpurnia which had almost claimed her life. She had lied to them, as she had lied to Aulus in her letters that everything was well and she was fine. And by the time Tiberius and Aurelia returned to Rome, she had recovered sufficiently to feign ignorance about rumours from the slaves about bleeding and fever. Navigating two children under two - even with the army of slaves employed - had been difficult, as had the crippling loneliness. Friends were no substitute for a husband upon an evening. But Horatia was not a woman to complain, at least not to anybody that mattered, and she wouldn't now - not unless he probed it. But she added, for good measure; "I can't believe it's been as long as it has." Signalling that this unfamiliarity was slightly (understatement!) uncomfortable for her, "It's like we're starting again." 

Titus fidgeted between them, confused at the conversation.

 

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If the truth were known, there were times Aulus had felt unsettled. Not about the overall outcome of any of the battles he had fought, but at what the outcome might be for himself - Roman soldiers were disciplined, fighting together in cohesive ranks and units, but even the best-planned battles could break down into melee fighting, and Aulus was visible to friend and foe alike in his officer's armour and helmet.

"A little hedgehog isn't scary, of course. But a big British warrior wearing nothing but a pair of braccae down to his ankles and with his face and chest painted all over with blue lines, and his hair sticking up in spikes can look very scary, though a lot of it is just looks. Like a cat when it sees a dog it doesn't know and makes all its fur stand on end so that it looks bigger and scarier than it really is."

Some of the tribes, especially those in the South, had been much more welcoming of the Romans and Roman ideas than the tribes in the north, such as the Brigantes. Caesar had brought back the erstwhile leader of the Brigantes while Aulus had remained behind in Britannia and by all accounts had spared him his life (rather than executing him, as was usual for prisoners of war) to send him to the arena. That had been two years ago, and two years for a child of Titus' tender years must be an eternity.

Titus' wriggling had not escaped his father's eye, but (as with Calpurnia earlier) it would not serve either of them if he kept Titus here while he and Horatia had an adult conversation about boring adult things.

"If you would like to go and do something else, you can," he said gently. There was a time and place to be the stern paterfamilias, and this was neither. "I shall tell you stories about it another time."

 

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Titus looked at Aulus, blinking and then up to his mother for confirmation. That would be a habit that would need to be broken, but another time. There surely must be some transition of authority whilst the children got used to this strange, imposing man they suddenly needed to answer to. Horatia nodded a fraction and Titus smiled before leveraging himself off of his seat. "Thank you Fa-...Tata." He beamed, a gap toothed smile where he'd recently lost one. Horatia brushed the back of his head fondly as he, without another glance, bounded back into the domus to do whatever havoc he had been planning during the course of this conversation. 

Silence swelled and settled between the couple and Horatia found herself stuck for words. Deciding, for now, the safest course of conversation was still the children she spoke with pride but a touch apologetically; "I did try and teach them about you, and about manners - not that you'd notice with Calpurnia," She shifted in her seat - making no move to close the gap and take Titus' vacant spot, "But they're young - they'll learn." As will we all, I hope. She added silently in her head. 

Unsure of what to do - a rarity for a woman who was usually comfortable in all manner of circumstances thanks to her upbringing and education - she asked quietly; "Would you like me to leave you? You must be exhausted after the journey." 

 

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"Yes, they are still young," Aulus mused, thinking that they were a lot older than he had imagined. Yet they were young enough that he could not expect them to defer to him, a total stranger to them, when only yesterday it had been their mother who had had the final say in their lives. "Their manners are - there is nothing to fault them for, when it comes to their manners."

At the suggestion that she leave him, he shook his head. "We have been apart for too long already. I kept thinking about you, you know. Remembering that time in Greece, when I found you in the garden - your father was out, I remember, and the slave didn't know what to do with me. And there you were, looking like a naiad, with you hair half-down. And then, all that time in Cappadocia, and Germania, and Britannia, I kept trying to think what you might be doing, and all I could remember was that moment in the garden with the sun on your hair, making you look like some sort of goddess."

The journey had been long, but he had had longer, more fraught journeys.

He got up and came to kneel beside his wife's chair, taking her hand between his own. "I feel like Odysseus, finally returned from Troy to find my own Penelope." He wanted to joke about suitors and ask whether she had been weaving to keep them at bay, but found that he could not, and fell silent, simply gazing up into her face, trying to imprint it on his memory as it now was, with the new lines that had begun to form during his absence.

 

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Horatia listened, quietly, fingers fidgeting with the trim of her stola as he spoke, but she couldn't help the gentle smile that lit up her face at the fond memory. "I thought I looked more akin to a pleb in the street, I was horrified." She chuckled and dropped the fold of her stola back into place. That he thought of her was a comfort. As the years had droned on and the letters between them became more infrequent with the novelty of children pulling her attention or military matters dividing his time, she had grown worried she would be forgotten. A haze in the back of his mind maybe, but not something thought about often. She was not a jealous woman by nature, but the image of her husband entwined with beautiful barbarians had crossed her mind, she admitted to herself ashamedly. 

As he stood and then knelt next to her, she blinked, surprised. It had been so long without proper, physical contact for her - at least from somebody like her husband, rather than the grabby, grubby hands of children, that it felt almost...wrong. Uncomfortable, in the least. But she tried to relax back into this familiarity and gently swept her thumb over his hand. 

"And you're not disappointed in the Penelope you've found?" She asked cautiously. She wasn't used to needing validation, but sorely felt the urge for it now. The years had been kind to her and she was still young, but two children and the passage of time had changed her. She hoped, secretly, not beyond his desires. Gingerly, and anxious in case she should misstep, she took her free hand to sweep lightly over the curve of his cheekbone before settling to hold his cheek. "Because I'm very satisfied to have my Odysseus home." 

 

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"A pleb? Oh gracious Juno, no!" Aulus said, startled into the exclamation. "Nothing could have been further from my thoughts - you had the bearing of a true Roman patrician and fire in your hair. Had I not met you before, and known Publius had a sister, I might have mistaken you for Venus, I think."

The simple dress and lack of make-up and jewellery had done more to charm him than any amount of primping and preening and fine silks and cosmetics ever could, and the letters she had written him had told him the tale, between the lines, of times without him, bringing up their children as best she knew how - a tale of survival during crisis and a journey south that could not have been an easy one to make for someone who had not, as Aulus had, experience on the march with the Legions.

"I could not be at all disappointed in my Penelope," he told her, pressing her hand between his own, the sunlight glinting gold off the signet ring he wore to mark his senatorial rank. "Odysseus' Penelope never walked to Baiae, to the house of a father-in-law she had never met. If there is another Livy to write the history of our present Rome, I shall make sure he includes that."

He would not ask her the details of that journey, not now, with his arrival so recent.

"I shall make everyone envious, I think, that I have such a wife. I am sorry that I have been away so long, but I will not go away again and leave you alone, I give you my solemn word."

 

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His words were like a balm for her soul, soothing and placating and smoothing the anxiety from her features. It might be lies, of course, words to comfort her but with no truth, but in that instance she didn't care a fig. She had mapped this meeting out in her mind so many times, for so many years, and it had often ended with the hope he should be proud of her. For what she'd achieved in his absence, and that she was waiting for him as any dutiful Roman wife would. Whilst he did not say it so expressly, she took it from his words.

She couldn't help the sly smile at his comment on Livy. She'd tell him, perhaps, the lighter side of the story of her walk to Baiae. Not the dark parts, they would stay locked in her memories, but the parts she could spin with levity. Such as his father, confused at the bedraggled woman, dressed in clothes befitting a pleb or a slave banging on his door with a crying child, exclaiming she was his daughter in law, only to be barred from entering for hours. In the end, as any resourceful person might, she had used the last of her coins to bribe a slave to let her slip in the slave's entrance, allowing her to storm up to the man directly, hand over papers bearing Aulus' mark and thrust the baby into his arms. She doubted neither herself, nor Tiberius would forget that

As he finished speaking, she dropped her hand from his face to his neck - fiddling with the tunic's edge and arched a brow; "Don't give me your word, lest you break it." There was no malice in her voice, only weariness and she shrugged, "You don't know if you'll be called away again, and I don't want to be disappointed in you." Her words were firm, and she hoped he'd hear them. "And I wasn't alone," She countered, "After Calpurnia was born your parents remained in Rome for longer." She shrugged and enjoying the intimacy, moved her slight frame - shuffling it so that there was room next to her, should he wish to join her in the seat. 

 

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"It won't be for..." He paused, and got up, squeezing into the seat beside her, feeling mightily like a youth with his first crush as he rearranged them so that she was sitting in his lap. "I want to take up my next political appointment, if I can get it, and I think I will have Quintus Caesar's support in it. So that's a year here in Rome, and then I suppose there'll be a governorship somewhere - not Britannia, that's a proconsular appointment. And governors can take their families with them because of the rank and what the job is, and how long those posts are for."

He wasn't sure why he was telling her this, he'd never thought of telling a woman this sort of thing - but Horatia wasn't any woman, she was his wife and the mother of his children and had more right than anyone to know what he was thinking. Even if he had only just got home. Besides, she was easy to talk to, easier than he had hoped, now that all the first awkwardnesses were out of the way.

"I am glad that you weren't alone," he told her. " I wish that I hadn't had to leave the way I did." But he had been a known support of the Flavii-Alexandrii, and his presence would have put his wife and infant son in danger and he couldn't have stayed, for that reason alone.

 

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Horatia listened with patience, and barely concealed pleasure, that he was talking to her as if she were his equal. Her father indulged her intelligence and whilst she'd not been schooled in politics in any traditional sense of the word, she'd been adept at picking up tidbits here and there. She knew he'd been a quaestor before he'd left, and that he'd been a legate in Britannia which she supposed meant a Praetorship.

Stretching out her legs, and delighting in the intimacy and the settling of her anxiety, she offered him a light smile. "So a Praetorship next then?" She arched a brow. She knew what the role entailed through conversation and observation with her father, but that was the extent of her knowledge. Hoping he'd indulge her, she asked; "And how does one become a Praetor? A senate vote or Caesar alone?" 

Shrugging at his apology (or...sort of apology) she offered a slight smile, "There was no choice for you, for any of us. I understand that...although I wish you'd left me a letter to take to your father. You can ask  him the story of what happened when I arrived without one." She added a little laugh to lighten the mood. She had no wish to revisit that period in her life, or the terror of it. Tentatively, she reached for his hand and gave it a light squeeze, enjoying the peace of the moment. Her nerves had dissipated mostly, as had the awkwardness, yet the unfamiliarity of being this...familiar with a man was a novelty to her, as was her role as a wife. Being a mother had come naturally to her, but a wife? She had only had the few short months with her husband - many of them spent apart in Greece - before he had left, and the boundaries and dynamics would take a while to get used to and bed in. Not wishing to overstep, she stayed quiet and unobtrusive, but unconsciously her fingers traced the lines of his palm as if trying to memorise them.

 

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"Yes," he said simply. "Then, as I say, a post as propraetor somewhere - probably an Imperial province rather than a Senatorial one. That will last for as long Caesar needs, so I'll take you and the children with me. Then back here for a consulship, should the gods be willing, and then probably another governorship somewhere as proconsul." He found himself reaching up with his free hand to try to ease one of her ivory hairpins from her hair, wondering if he could make her hair come down - her slave had probably spent hours putting the mistress' hair up, but a husband didn't come home every day after years spent in the world's furthest reaches.

"The Senate nominates, and Caesar ratifies their nomination. Otherwise Caesar would be kept busy trying to remember all the senators who are eligible for which office and posting." It gave a semblance of democracy to proceedings, too, although the Senate would generally nominate supporters of Caesar. Quintus Caesar was pragmatic enough to allow even those who had been against him in the civil war to hold office, though. For the glory of Rome, after all.

"I should have thought of that. I was too concerned with getting away and getting you away, with enough money for the journey - was it?" And he would ask his father that question; it sounded very much as though there were a story in there, though one that Horatia did not want to tell herself (but seemed not to mind his knowing).

 

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She listened intently without interrupting, although she felt the flutter of amusement in her chest as he tried to unpin her hair, to no avail. Decima, her and Aurelia's shared ornatrix had spent some time tugging loose red twists and braids into an ornate style that felt far too formal, but Horatia had been in no mood to complain. She hadn't known if Aulus would want her to appear the formal matron, mother of two, or the young newlywed he had left behind. It seemed the latter, annoyingly and she reached up her own spare hand to bat his way lightly and begun to unpin the ivory hairpins herself as he spoke. 

"I see, that makes sense." She said lightly, but hopefully not flippantly, and stored his lesson in her bank of all of the useless pieces of political trivia that women weren't ever likely to need, but interested her nonetheless. 

"It was enough." She said with a slight smile but was unwilling to say more unless pressed. She'd not needed much - posing as a plebeian family with poor, sweet Gallio who hadn't survived the walk. She didn't tell him that she'd used the bulk of it on bribes, both to leave the city unmolested, to those they encountered on the roads, and to his own families slaves. She thought it unbecoming to mention. As she finished speaking, she plucked a fourth pin from her hair, which let down the bottom half in a row of unbound braids. Runnings light fingers through them freed her long red hair, which now fell over her shoulders; aside from the top braids still securely fastened with glinting pins. Setting the other pins down, she resumed her hands position, lightly sweeping the curve of his neck and throat. 

Feeling a flutter of attraction in her chest, she pushed it away. If he wanted any more intimacy, he would initiate it, she reminded herself. It wouldn't always be so, but with new boundaries being set and his incredibly recent return, she'd play it safe for now so as not to misstep. And besides the attraction, there was a deeper feeling of anxiety in intimacy. The man was a virtual stranger to her now, after all. Turning the conversation to push down any other feelings she arched a brow and glanced in the vague direction of the slave's quarters; "And how was Felix in the end?" 

 

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He had just wanted to tease her - and maybe steal one of her pins for himself, a silly little keepsake as a reminder of today. Now that she had loosened her hair, though, he found himself winding a strand of it around his finger.

"I'm no ornatrix, but I will try to pin your hair back up before dinner," he said into her ear, quietly. He would not like her to be embarrassed in front of anyone in the household, after all, just because he'd found himself in a silly mood - and anything else he might like to do with her could wait until they were very definitely alone that night.

"Felix was... I could not have chosen a better slave for the journey, and everything afterwards," he said. "He was well named, and worth his weight in gold - perhaps more." He could only hope that his slave was enjoying his own reunion elsewhere in the house, although he did not, as far as Aulus knew, have anyone special that Aulus had dragged him away from. "Very resourceful, very intelligent, very discreet. He suggested the route north and east, although I had intended to avoid Ostia because everyone would have gone that way."

Right across the city at night, and out the Porta Flaminia right under the noses of the Praetorians. "I could not have done it without him," he confessed. "What of afterwards though - with two children and an absent husband?"

Other women faced much the same, but not for as long, surely, as Aulus' absence had ended up being. He could only be thankful that he had not become a second Odysseus in truth - to return to find that the son he had left as a babe in arms had grown to be a young man of marriageable age ... it was bad enough to find his son and daughter thought of him as a stranger, although in all fairness he was.

"Where do the children like to go? I should like to take you all somewhere, reassure them that I am not truly some scary stranger." Even better if it was somewhere Horatia would like, too - but he could steal her away, just the two of them.

 

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