"What are you doing, Marius?" Vitallion stepped up beside the other man, puzzled but curious.
"Flipping coins", was the short answer as Marius tossed another silver coin into the fountain's water.
"I can see that", Vitallion remarked, more bemused than anything at the scene in front of him. "But why?"
Marius took another coin out of his bag and flipped it off his finger with his thumb. This time the token didn't hit its mark but went flying way beyond the fountain, landing in the grass.
Marius didn't seem discouraged by this however, but tossed another one before he started to explain his actions to his commander.
"It's for good luck." And with that he continued.
Both of them had been drinking in celebration of the first victory in defending Rome against the Britons. The legion had crushed the first waves of attack and though they were under siege still Marius had felt the men deserved an early celebration of triumph. After some debating the centurion had finally convinced his commander to treat it as such and to allow themselves and the men the luxury of making merry for once.
Marius himself had welcomed the occasion, too, and though – just like he expected from his legionnaires – he would be fit for duty come next morning, he had taken the liberty to toast to more than just victories.
Still, somewhere in his mind it had registered with him that every day might be the last for any of them and that if fate decided it, he wouldn't get his chance at vengeance.
"I've heard your wish will come true if you offer a coin at the fountains of gods." Neither Vitallion nor Marius himself commented on the fact that this particular fountain didn't even sport any sculpted figure at all – much less was dedicated to a god.
"Then why so many?", Vitallion asked instead, peering into the basin which shone like silver itself, already.
Marius paused at that and looked at the other man for a few seconds. Then he flipped another coin right on top of the rest.
"Why, of course, one for every wish."
Vitallion shook his head, a mild grin on his lips.
"I don't think it works this way, Marius", he said.
And for once, Marius too seemed to reach the same conclusion – or maybe he was finally out of coins.
Either way he stopped in his actions and tied the small leather pouch safely away under his tunic again.
It was then when Vitallion suddenly grew serious. "You're just wasting your wage, anyway. The gods favor no one, especially not Rome. They didn't favor our leaders when they sent us to Britain, to this godforsaken part of the earth. And now it has come to this. The emperor doesn't care about the people. And it's us who have to clean up his mess. We are the ones who risk their lives on the battlefield every day. And for what? No. It's no good waiting for a sign of the gods. They have abandoned us, Marius."
Marius stilled in his movements, a bewildered expression on his face. He didn't know what had brought on this sudden change in the mood of his commander. Maybe it was simply the prospect of the battles they still had to fight; tomorrow and for some long days after. It was not a bright outlook for sure, but in Marius' eyes it was still too early to abandon hope.
"Commander. With all due respect: loosen up a little. Please. For tonight at least forget about all of this. I know it's difficult. It is for me as well. But tonight we should celebrate. Don't trouble yourself on this day of victory."
Vitallion eyed him with a dubious look. "So you suggest I just bury it for now and pretend everything's fine?"
Marius shrugged. "No harm in doing so, is there? Besides, there's no point in worrying at this time. Come now. Have a drink with me."
Vitallion thought about it for a moment. The largest part of him knew that he should focus on winning the upcoming fights, prepare for tomorrow, contrive strategies. But this evening alone, before he had allowed the men to celebrate for a bit, he had gone over the battle plan ten times already. And he was tired. For the first time he truly felt the weight of his years. His years of experience, a trump card in military maneuvers for sure, suddenly seemed a burden in the actual fighting. His legs were tired, his shield arm numb and his wrist ached from exertion. It seemed that ever since the Fourteenth had marched north, he had been constantly fighting. How many months ago had that been? How many years? He wanted to rest.
Vitallion took a deep breath and when he slowly exhaled, he nodded to Marius and followed him.
- - - - - - -
Vitallion started to relax visibly after he had consumed a few more cups of wine. He talked to Marius like they had always been close and even shared some more private stories with him from the time when he had still been a young recruit.
Marius smiled to himself while listening. He could easily see himself reflected in those tales.
And in Vitallion's eyes he spotted the sparks of mischief, remnant from the past.
It seemed that all weariness and worries had been washed away by their lighthearted conversation and joking.
"See?", Marius said "Now you look like a young recruit yourself again, already."
Vitallion's expression changed in an instant and with dread Marius realized that he had probably gone too far and overstepped his boundaries. He swallowed and waited for a reaction. But Vitallion didn't seem to be angry so much as astonished and confused.
For some reason it made color rise to his cheeks.
"I'm sorry", he blurted out. "I didn't mean any disrespect."
He held Vitallion's gaze even after that, though.
But his commander still showed no reaction.
A few more seconds passed, before Vitallion responded. When he finally did, his expression changed once more. This time he almost seemed concerned.
"What do you see in me, Marius?", he asked. But it was without malice, only unveiled curiosity and maybe just a hint of a graver undertone, although Marius failed to see the cause of that.
He felt his cheeks grow even hotter and he hoped that – if Vitallion recognized it at all – he would blame it on the wine. Marius didn't have to think long about an answer however. And with similar sobriety he replied like the good soldier he was.
"You're my commander."
And a little less brash he added.
"But I think of you as a friend, too."
If Vitallion thought otherwise or despised the sentiment, it wasn't visible on his features.
Quite the opposite of what the centurion had feared, Vitallion's look softened just enough to bring out something in him that Marius never would have told the other man under different circumstances.
"...and maybe even..." '...more', he thought, but he swallowed that last little word just in time.
Vitallion's eyes widened. For a moment he thought he had misunderstood. But the flush on Marius' face was so intense, he was certain it wasn't from just the wine anymore. But if Marius really meant what Vitallion thought he had…
Vitallion reacted instinctively, a skill honed by years of training and leading the soldiers under his command into battle. He quickly glanced around him without even moving his head. When he was sure that the rest of the men were occupied otherwise, he grabbed Marius by the arm and dragged him away into a secluded corner of the plaza.
"Marius", he began, but stopped. He wasn't even sure of what to say. There were a number of things he would have done, but his thoughts reigned him in, before he could act on these whims.
Marius was holding his breath. His heart was pounding in a similar fashion it did before a battle. Maybe even faster. Despite his nervousness though he kept his eyes trained on his commander. An array of emotions flickered over Vitallion's face, each one more indecipherable than the last.
Until now he had fought countless battles side by side with the commander. He had seen him in action. Had felt his presence beside him in the thick of battle. And he certainly had looked at Vitallion's face before. But when he was studying the soldier's features right now, something seemed different. He had seen him before. And yet, he saw him in a whole new light then and there.
He could hardly make out Vitallion's expression in the dark. But even without being able to read it he felt the man's intense stare on him.
They both just stood there for what felt like half of eternity. Marius' mind was racing. It was difficult to have even one clear thought. But amidst the chaos swirling in his head, there suddenly emerged one dire certainty.
"Commander", he began, having found a new sense of confidence.
Vitallion's eyes twitched only in the slightest, assuring Marius that he had the man's full attention.
"If… when we perish during battle tomorrow… there's one thing I want to be sure of."
Vitallion waited for a moment, before he dared to ask.
"What is it?"
It took everything in him to hold his commander's gaze. But he did, although his voice was shaking just the slightest bit.
"That I have never betrayed your trust in me. I have always been truthful with you. And the truth is..." He faltered. He couldn't say it after all. It was just so surreal, so foolish. But right then Vitallion surprised him once more on this strangest of evenings.
"I know, Marius, I know." He looked the centurion dead in the eye. The noise from the celebration seemed far away. The only thing Marius could hear was their accelerated breaths. Then with a sudden motion Vitallion held out his hand to Marius.
Marius grabbed the offered arm without hesitation, both of them hanging on just a few seconds longer, sharing in this precious moment in silence. Then they slowly loosened their grasp, feeling the lingering sensation. Their eyes were still trained on each other.
"I'll see you tomorrow then." Marius' voice broke the spell, sounding far louder to Vitallion's ears than their earlier conversation or the drunken bawling and laughing from the legionnaires in the distance.
Vitallion actually had to clear his throat, bringing a smile to the other man's face.
"Tomorrow," the commander agreed.
And with one last long gaze passing between them Marius turned around and left.
Vitallion cast a look into the darkness. It would be hell tomorrow, once again.
But knowing that Marius would be there waiting for him at the end filled him with hope – and a certain calm.
Whatever happened, Marius would see it through to the end. And he, Vitallion, would do what he could to pave the way for Marius' revenge. The way to restore the Rome they both loved to it's former glory.