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15th of July 75 AD

It was hot. Oppressively, suffocatingly so. Hotter still thanks to the weight on his lap and upper body, but Titus didn't mind. Ever since the earthquake, Valeriana refused to go to sleep on her own, her young mind understandably afraid of the ground suddenly opening up again and making people and objects alike fall to the floor and get hurt the moment she closed her eyes. The heat had got the best of her, though, and she dozed peacefully against Titus' chest, her own small one rising and falling in a steady rhythm, head resting on his shoulder as he ran his fingers through her fine blond hair in soothing, repetitive motions.

Tarracina, the halfway point od the journey, was still a few miles away, and Titus found that mental depictions of sandy beaches, lapping waves and a fresh, maritime breeze weren't enough anymore to keep his brain occupied and stave off boredom. Standing up and moving about was unappealing for more than a few reasons, the most important of which was currently mumbling something that sounded suspiciously like 'globuli' before turning quiet again. Titus smiled down at this daughter's sleeping face, comforted that her dreams were populated by sweets rather than disturbing recollections of the chaos that had followed the earthquake.

That left conversation, then. In hushed tones, so as not to wake Valeriana up. He turned his head towards Tranquillus, and to the topic that had been floating about his mind for the last few days. Even in the heat, he could still have some fun. How to broach the subject, then? With a little foreplay to ease the matter in, or straight to business? Tranquillus was a good slave, Titus reasoned. He did not deserve such blunt attacks on his dignity, even if he could withstand them. So it was in a jovial, conversational tone that Titus spoke softly to Tranquillus.

"I never thanked you for making sure everybody was safe in the aftermath of the earthquake. Our young gardener in particular was very appreciative of your support, or so he told me." More like had had it coaxed out of him, but that was irrelevant.

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Tranquillus was lost in thought as the carriage meandered down the road, away from Rome. Away from Samorix. It was the irony of the gods - or at least the irony of being enslaved - that just when the two men finally found each other, one of them would have to travel away with the dominus, for weeks. When he told the young gardener, Samorix's face looked like a child's who just got their sweets taken away. Tranquillus felt the same inside. These were going to be long sumer weeks.

Maybe they should have been... less patient, after all.

Dominus was mostly quiet along the way, holding the young domina on his lap. Tranquillus traveled in the carriage with them, ready to take notes or provide conversation as Rufus wished.

And he wished.

"I never thanked you for making sure everybody was safe in the aftermath of the earthquake. Our young gardener in particular was very appreciative of your support, or so he told me." 

Tranquillus winced, his attention returning from Rome to his present state, and looked at the dominus a little sheepishly. Was he... making a reference to the two of them, after the earthquake?... Did he talk to Samorix about it?

"It was his first earthquake." he noted, trying to keep a neutral tone "They can be quite an upsetting experience. And he felt sorry for the gardens, especially."

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The look on his body slave's face only incited Titus to probe deeper. Very few times had he seen placid, unshakeable Tranquillus look so discombobulated, like a child caught red-handed stealing a cake. It almost made him feel bad, but that sensation soon gave way to impish entertainment once more. If Tranquillus began to show visible discomfort, he might relent for a few hours until he could catch the slave with his guard down again. In the mean time, he'd just carry on with the ribbing, at least until Valeriana woke up and demanded attention. Either way, Tranquillus would not be getting away with it for long.

"Um-hum." He pursed his lips into a smug smile, unable to keep a straight face. "Don't you think he took it well considering it was his first time? I gave him some tips in case it should happen again, as it surely will, but he seemed quite reassured by your efforts to comfort him." Gods, how difficult it was to speak somewhat seriously when all he wanted was to burst out laughing, but that was out of the question: it would slight poor Tranquillus and wake his daughter.

The distressed look  Florus had sported as he had spoken of the pomegranate tree's fate sprung to Titus' mind, and he wondered with only a smidgen of passing interest what other expressions of the gardener's Tranquillus had witnessed. It was easier and more rewarding to him to see what sorts of faces Tranquillus could make. He was capable of looking disconcerted, it turned out. Could he look embarrassed too? Or perhaps angry?

"Does he always sleep in the nude, you think? I'm surprised none of the other slaves have taken advantage of it yet. But if it helps him keep the gardens in tiptop shape..." Titus gave a one-armed shrug since he only had one free shoulder to spare. "He's very good with his hands, isn't he?"

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There was an amused expression on the dominus' face, which concerned Tranquillus. He was not quite sure where this conversation was going; it could have been completely innocent, and reacting wrong might land the body slave in a very awkward situation.

"Um-hum. Don't you think he took it well considering it was his first time? I gave him some tips in case it should happen again, as it surely will, but he seemed quite reassured by your efforts to comfort him." 

Oh. He knew, then. Or at least someone had gone and told the dominus that his body slave had been seen hugging a naked gardener right after the earthquake. It was not a good look at all. Tranquillus felt himself blushing at the realization. What it must have looked like from the outside, a man like him holding a naked Samorix in his arms...

"Does he always sleep in the nude, you think? I'm surprised none of the other slaves have taken advantage of it yet. But if it helps him keep the gardens in tiptop shape... He's very good with his hands, isn't he?"

Tranquillus made a small choking sound at the comment about sleeping in the nude. It conjured images of Samorix being nude, as well as him sleeping in his bed, the one time he had been drunk. "He... is a very accomplished gardener." he managed to say, trying to keep up appearances. "I can talk to him if dominus doesn't wish him to sleep naked."

@Liv

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What a wondrous day. Many miles from Rome, under the unforgiving Italian sun, Titus had discovered that his body slave could in fact blush like everybody else, and probably felt like he had his own personal sun radiating from inside his cherry-red cheeks. And what was more, he could even gag too! It was shaping up like playing with an old toy and finding out it still had a few tricks up its sleeve.

"It doesn't bother me," he shook his head dismissively. "Just don't want him to come crying that he woke up to someone fingering him or something." Slaves should strive to keep their business amongst themselves; if he came to know of it it was because it was interfering with somebody's tasks, and the results wouldn't be pleasant for any of the parties involved. And he had little doubt that should the hypothetical situation he had just presented come to pass, Florus would immediately run whinging to Tranquillus for complaints and solace. Titus almost wanted to make it happen when they returned to Rome so he could see the events play out, but the gardener was not so haughty nor undisciplined that he required that sort of punishment, unlike a certain Dacian wench.

"Has he been requesting your help with the plants? I'm not opposed to it so long as it does not interfere with your duties, but if you choose to use your free time in that way, you won't get it back." Yes, Tranquillus could go and frolic all he want, all he had to do was to not forget who his master was. 

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"It doesn't bother me. Just don't want him to come crying that he woke up to someone fingering him or something." 

For a moment, Tranquillus looked about ready to throw up, and he thanked the gods that the young domina was asleep. Why would dominus even say something like that?! Sure, Samorix was just a gardener to him, someone he swapped for another slave, but... surely, no one in the household would do something like that, would they?... Suddenly, a few weeks away felt like an eternity.

"Has he been requesting your help with the plants? I'm not opposed to it so long as it does not interfere with your duties, but if you choose to use your free time in that way, you won't get it back."

Tranquillus swallowed, trying to keep a straight face (and failing miserably). "I have been... checking on his progress, in restoring the gardens." he managed to answer "It won't interfere with my duties, dominus."

I'm here, after all.

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The verdict was out: Tranquillus was indeed an ordinary human being, capable of running a considerable gamut of feelings and sensations and showing them on his face. Even the queasy look on him was comical, though Titus couldn't recall having seen it before. It only made him want to up the ante, but not before giving the impression of backtracking just a little bit.

"Well, now that Attis is back with his master, maybe that won't happen," Titus commented wistfully. He did not miss Longinus' body slave one iota, but reckoned such a deed might be amenable to his brand of mischief. On the other hand, it had been Attis' tongue that had got him into trouble in the first place, so perhaps he would have been using that instead of his digits.

He shot Tranquillus a knowing smirk and readjusted Valeriana's head on his shoulder - it was sliding down, but she still didn't stir. Not that it would have made much of a difference if she had been awake: he would have just polished his vocabulary a little. She was still too young to pick up on such themes, unlike her brother. Titus shuddered at the recollection of the catamite fiasco, but quickly pulled himself back to the matter at hand.

Playing word games and circling round the focal point was fun up to a certain point, but no siege could last forever; eventually action had to be taken. Now was a good a time as any. He gave Tranquillus a carefully schooled and utterly neutral expression, the one he usually saved for the endless haranguing in senate meetings, that betrayed no hint of what was to come.

"So, have you fucked him yet?"

@Chevi

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Tranquillus paled at the question. There was no doubt now that dominus knew. At least he knew enough. Maybe Attis told him his theory of the gardener and the body slave liking each other before he left? Or maybe he had been told of their moment after the earthquake... or their moment in the gardens? Had someone seen?

And more importantly, was dominus angry?

Some masters had intimate relationships with their slaves. Rufus had never looked at Tranquillus that way, and as far as he knew, not at Samorix either. But that didn't mean he could not have other problems about two of his household sharing a bed. Theoretically. Tranquillus did not get into trouble with his dominus very often. It was a novel feeling. Very much worrying. The tutor swallowed and shook his head. At least he didn't have to lie.

"No, dominus."

@Liv

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Titus had to give mental praise where it was due: Tranquillus could have remained silent, or attempted to dodge the question, or even excused himself by alluding to a call of nature, but he took the interrogation in red-faced stride. It was understandable that the gardener had sought him out when the world had felt like it was coming to an end.

"When you do, make sure it's out of my sight." And the children's, it went without saying. It was no secret that neither doing men nor watching them do one another did anything for Titus. Valeria could watch if she wanted, he wouldn't stop her from it - from the outside looking in, there always was an element of hilarity to two fumbling virgins going at it. Perhaps Landicus would disguise himself as a 70-year-old Vestal virgin and deflower some gullible unsuspecting youth in his next adventure.

The thought gave him pause, and he narrowed his eyes at his body slave as if attempting to decipher some obscure language.  There was no anger in it, not even so much as faint displeasure; just plain old curiosity. "Have you fucked anyone yet, Tranquillus?" If he had, Titus was none the wiser, as he had never even heard mentions of it.

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"When you do, make sure it's out of my sight."

By this point, Tranquillus' face was bright red with shame. There was no good way to answer the statement; yes dominus would mean he was planning on... being intimate with Samorix (which he was), and no dominus would... mean the same. Dammit. Tranquillus was too much of an honest man to flat out deny there was anything between him and the gardener. And he still could not quite read where dominus was going with all this. Did he not care, or was this a test?...

"Have you fucked anyone yet, Tranquillus?"

Tranquillus' gaze flitted to the sleeping girl again. Apparently her father did not mind talking about these things over her head. He swallowed again.

"Some... I have been with some women before. Back in Hispania." they had been in the household like he was, and he was young and curious and so were they. But not since he'd come to Rome. He was in a different position in the household now, older and wiser and not much interested, and he was not going to tarnish Rufus' name with having some kind of a sordid affair.

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Titus could almost see the furious debate taking place inside Tranquillus' head: acknowledge the order disguised as an off-hand statement whether verbally or with a nod, or pretend he had been temporarily struck deaf and thus had not heard a word of it. In the end, the slave went with silence, which as its own response was also rather telling. 

"Ah," he nodded appreciatively, "good for you." At least one of his slaves what an inkling as to the mechanics of the thing, which didn't vary that much between the sexes. For all Titus knew, Florus could very well be a voracious pullus, using his innocent looks and presenting himself as woodenly all-absorbed by his tasks to fool oblivious partners, but all his interactions with the gardener led him to assume otherwise.

"I'm afraid I can't give you much advice there, but you're clever enough to figure it out on your own." He exchanged a fond smile with Tranquillus. It was the simple truth: the man was sharp in mind and manners, and it was somewhat endearing to witness one who had always been so composed and serene be struck by Venus' designs and grow so shaken by them.

Yet sweet though it was, and despite Tranquillus' position and the trust Titus placed in him, he felt the need to clarify things before they even happened, so that the lovebirds would be aware of the rules. "My saying this doesn't mean I wish for it to happen, but should things between you two not work out, I expect you both to carry on with business as usual. Heartache is no excuse for slacking off." They could cry into their pillows at night when they were done with the day's tasks, but no moping around during working hours.

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"Ah. good for you. I'm afraid I can't give you much advice there, but you're clever enough to figure it out on your own." 

Tranquillus breathed a small sigh of relief. The dominus was not a bad man, and as much as he seemed amused by his discovery, he was not upset with Tranquillus or Samorix. That was a good thing to know. He would have had the right to decide otherwise, to sell one or both of them, or to forbid them to talk ever again. But it seemed like he did not want any of that to happen. He was just making some jokes at Tranquillus' expense, and drawing some lines.

"My saying this doesn't mean I wish for it to happen, but should things between you two not work out, I expect you both to carry on with business as usual. Heartache is no excuse for slacking off."

Tranquillus swallowed, then nodded. He had not been thinking that far ahead. Would things... not work out? It felt painful to think of that. But he nodded anyway, to reassure Rufus. "Of course, dominus." if things turned to the worse, he would have no choice but to carry on. But, until that happened, at least he would be accepted. "Thank you. I... did not expect any of this."

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Good old Tranquillus seemed so relieved to have explicit permission to pursue his Ganymede that Titus almost felt bad for having interrogated him so. Almost. But if anyone deserved his leniency, it was his trusted body slave with his calm demeanour and inexhaustible patience. "You deserve it," he said simply, nodding back. Even slaves could find pleasure in a companion.

"What is it you see in him?" They still had enough miles to go that Titus could indulge his curiosity and pick Tranquillus' brain. "Besides his looks, obviously," he quickly added, although he did not think Tranquillus was the type to be swayed by appearance alone. "He just seems so..." Titus bit his lip as he trailed off, trying to come up with a word that conveyed the gardener's dullness without offending Tranquillus; nobody liked to hear their darling be talked about in unfavourable terms. "...Unsophisticated." Tranquillus was an educated slave - a former tutor! -, thoroughly reliable and possessing impeccable manners. What possessed him to go for a Briton country bumpkin?

It might just be the old adage of opposites attracting.

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"You deserve it," 

Tranquillus' face lit up in a small smile. The dominus was not angry, or disapproving. He was a bit amused, and mostly stern about the rules. Tranquillus could live with that. That was familiar and easily managed, unlike all the feelings around... well, Samorix.

"What is it you see in him? Besides his looks, obviously,"

It was a surprising question. Tranquillus looked at Rufus a little taken aback as he considered it. It had never been about the looks for him... sure, Florus was extremely handsome, but so were many other men around Tranquillus, and he had never felt this way about any of them. It was something else entirely, but Tranquillus had never really stopped to analyze it.

"He just seems so....Unsophisticated."

He was. He was a Brion far from home, from a different land, a different culture, a different language. And he was a slave, ordered to work in gardens. For a moment, Tranquillus felt a flash of anger deep down. What is he supposed to be? He blinked at the unfamiliar emotion.

"He's kind." he said finally, trying to put things into words "He is caring, and passionate..." blink "... passionate about his work. It's just... when he is working in the gardens, or when he talks about plants, he... is like a whole different person." He smiles. How did Rufus not notice the smile?...

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It looked as though Tranquillus himself had never posed himself the same question, which struck Titus as curious. How come his detail-oriented body slave had never considered it? On the other hand, maybe his inner monologue had never deemed it necessary. People liked who they liked even if it sometimes defied rhyme or reason.

Even though Florus was objectively a good-looking young man, somehow Titus had the feeling that had weighed very little in why his body slave was attracted to the gardener. Still, he tried to keep an open mind as Tranquillus gathered his thoughts and eventually voiced them, carefully prying away the thumb his sleeping daughter was unconsciously guiding towards her mouth and knitting his brow in displeasure at the same time. Earthquake or no earthquake, she wasn't a toddler anymore to still employ this particular self-soothing strategy.

"That he certainly is," Titus conceded with a nod. The gardens had never been lusher - at least until the end of the previous month. From what he knew of Tranquillus, it made sense that a good work ethic - which the gardener possessed - and passion for one's tasks would be desirable traits in a partner. "One thing, though. Regardless of however passionate he is," Titus warned, emphasising the variety of things one could be passionate about, "I don't care for this new state of things to go to his head, and I'll hold you accountable if it does. I've always trusted your judgement, Tranquillus. Don't let a pretty face and a tight arse change that." How many times had lust been the downfall of great men, as proven by Tullia in the days of the kings and Cleopatra in more recent times?

Confident that he had once made himself very clear, Titus changed the subject to a lighter one, voice tinged with mirth. "Are you going to bring him a souvenir from Neapolis? A pretty sea shell, maybe?"

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Whether he thought Florus dull or not, even the dominus had to admit that the young man worked wonders with the gardens. Slaves were rarely chosen for the job they were best suited for, not when they were fresh captives from the provinces anyway, but Samorix was lucky enough to be doing something he actually cared for. And it showed.

"That he certainly is. One thing, though. Regardless of however passionate he is... I don't care for this new state of things to go to his head, and I'll hold you accountable if it does. I've always trusted your judgement, Tranquillus. Don't let a pretty face and a tight arse change that." 

Tranquillus winced and flushed at the crude comment. He was not used to someone talking about Samorix like that; those were... not the features he cared about, generally. But Rufus made his point abundantly clear. Preferential treatment was not to be tolerated. Tranquillus knew he'd be held accountable, and he was comfortable with that; he trusted Florus for the kind, unassuming person he was.

"Of course, dominus."

"Are you going to bring him a souvenir from Neapolis? A pretty sea shell, maybe?"

Tranquillus blinked at another sudden change of topic. The thought had not occurred to him until now. "I... think? I should, shouldn't I..."

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From his reaction, it seemed his slave was less than impressed by Titus' choice of words, but that was perfectly irrelevant for the matter at hand. This was no formal occasion where he had to watch his language, quite the opposite - and if he couldn't speak freely in front of his body slave, then where could he? Besides, plain language left less place for misunderstandings.

"I'm sure he would appreciate flowers, but I don't see those surviving the journey back. Might be a bad omen," Titus laughed cheerfully at his own joke. He briefly contemplated adding a witty comment about bringing back seaweed instead since it was, well, a weed and therefore appropriate for a gardener, but that might just be too much ribbing for one day for poor undeserving Tranquillus. "Why don't you go to the market one day and see what they've got there? Perhaps you'll find something that reminds you of him. Failing that, seashells are free and plentiful." Knowing him, Florus would probably want to use them for decoration or draining or whatever it was he thought was good for the plants; maybe he would even want to use one as a flower pot if it was big enough.

The constant motion of the carriage combined with the heat was threatening to make Titus drowsy. He brought a hand to his mouth to hide a yawn and blinked lazily at Tranquillus. "So what are you looking forward to the most in Neapolis?" If Tranquillus dared to say 'the road back to Rome', Titus would personally kick him out of the carriage and make him follow on foot.

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"I'm sure he would appreciate flowers, but I don't see those surviving the journey back. Might be a bad omen,"

Tranquillus had thought about that. He had already found the perfect gift in the white heather (which was greatly appreciated), and besides, if he purchased something flashier than that, it would end up decorating the dominus' gardens. Samorix regarded the gardens as his own domain, but in the end, they were not his. A gift felt like it should be more personal. 

"Why don't you go to the market one day and see what they've got there? Perhaps you'll find something that reminds you of him. Failing that, seashells are free and plentiful."

Tranquillus nodded. It was strange to be getting advice on romance from his master. He did have some money, though, and if he was allowed to visit the markets, he might find something Samorix would like. And that Rufus would not disapprove of.

"So what are you looking forward to the most in Neapolis?"

Going home.

"I'm not sure" Tranquillus answered instead "I think the sea is quite beautiful. How about you, domine?"

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It was decidedly a little unusual, though altogether not unpleasant, to be the one giving advice. Normally it was Titus who requested Tranquillus' opinion on any number of subjects, but the change was more than a little entertaining. If his slave would take any of it seriously remained to be seen, although Titus' suggestions were mostly benign - and likely to get a lot raunchier when they finally arrived and he'd had had a little too much to drink. Poor Tranquillus, he would have to arm himself with even more patience than he already possessed, Titus mused.

"I'm looking forward to a good swim most of all," he answered truthfully. He could already picture it in his head: clear skies, the calm ocean spreading out endlessly and the water glittering like a million jewels and a slight breeze to cool the air. It was so enticing. Maybe he'd manage to con Longinus into a swimming race at some point. "Fishing too, I guess." Not on mornings that followed nights of excess, obviously, because Titus was not into self-inflicted pain, no matter how many of Neptune's creatures woke up early to taunt him with their bounty. "Actually, just getting a proper workout," he said by way of conclusion. There were so many activities that were impractical in Rome but entirely feasible in the countryside: hunting, horse riding, peaceful picnics by the water. 

In previous years, Titus imagined Tranquillus had spent the most part of his short free time reading; how different would it be this year? Would the body slave stare forlornly at some nice-looking tree and think of his beau? The mental image made him chuckle, though not unkindly. "You should try to have fun too, Tranquillus. Then you'll have all sorts of interesting things to tell Florus about when we go back." He needn't be afraid of indiscretions; Tranquillus had never been that foolish before, nor did the gardener seem like the gossipy type with his one-track mind and his tasks.

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"I'm looking forward to a good swim most of all. Fishing too, I guess. Actually, just getting a proper workout,"

Tranquillus nodded. He knew his dominus enough to know what his favorite pastimes were in the summer. He was not as keen on exercise as Rufus, but he could appreciate the cool waters of the sea in the summer, and definitely the fish fresh from the water to the table. On these trips he usually had time to read (he was carrying scrolls in his bag), and do some studying of his own. The tow of them, dominus and body slave, were different in a lot of ways, but they could manage well side by side. 

"You should try to have fun too, Tranquillus. Then you'll have all sorts of interesting things to tell Florus about when we go back." 

Tranquillus blushed again, which was getting a little bit annoying. He did not want to seem like some love-stricken old fool.

"I will keep an eye out for things of interest" he noted with a nod. "He has been practicing his letters, to... learn more about gardening."

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