As of this morning, he's been avoiding Brasidas for the best part of ten days.
There's a really good reason for that, he tells himself while he tries not to, as he sits on the doorstep of his family's house. He's fletching arrows, not because he's particularly good at it - his arrows are always mediocre at the absolute best of times - but because sometimes the repetition of it helps to take his mind off things. And, besides that, he always needs arrows; he's always running out of them at the worst possible time. Plus, he's already finished sharpening every weapon he owns. And his father's and mother's. And Kassandra's. Even Stentor's. Unless he's going to open up his skills in that area to the community at large, fletching is what he has left.
He's been avoiding Brasidas. Which, actually, takes a lot more work than he'd ever thought it would, now they're both living in Sparta. Now he wants to avoid him, Brasidas suddenly seems to be everywhere.
The first day after they came home, he saw him at the training grounds while he was taking weapons to Stentor and his men; Brasidas raised a hand to him and he could see him start to walk toward him, but he left before they could exchange a single word. Brasidas was there two days after that when he came into the house for breakfast, sitting at the table with Alexios' family just like he belonged with them; Alexios, grimacing, said he needed to go feed Ikaros, and he fled with a plate of raw meat in his hand. He ran into him - in a very literal way - in the square three days later; they bumped shoulders and both of them almost fell, and as they staggered and held each other upright, hands clutching tight at forearms, Alexios realised who it was.
"Alexios," Brasidas said, as his brows raised in surprise.
They both let go. They both stumbled again, but thankfully they didn't fall. Alexios might have felt obliged to stop and help him up, though he didn't completely trust himself.
"I'm sorry," Alexios said, then he turned and he took off at a run, maybe even the right way for the errand he was running. And he didn't say what he was sorry for, but he assumed Brasidas had to know. It should have been completely obvious.
He's been avoiding Brasidas more carefully since then. Except now, as Brasidas comes toward the house, he has nowhere to go; there's a messy heap of arrow shafts on the ground around his feet and he's covered in down and bits of feathers like Ikaros has been moulting on him for three days straight. There's no easy escape. All he can do is sweep the arrows into a neater heap and dust himself down a little as he stands. It doesn't help. He steps on an arrow and breaks the shaft in two with a muttered curse. He really doesn't want to make another.
"Is your father here?" Brasidas asks.
Alexios shakes his head and he brushes feathers from his tunic that drift in the air and stick to him again, just lower down. "No," he replies. "He's training with Stentor."
"And your mother?"
"No. She's speaking with the ephors."
"Sailing with Barnabas."
"So you're alone."
"It's hot out here. You should invite me in."
"It's hot in there, too."
"But at least there's shade."
He makes no invitation, but he steps out of the doorway. And when Brasidas steps inside, Alexios follows and then closes the front door. Brasidas is right; there's shade indoors and as awkward as this feels, it feels good to be out of the sun. It would feel even better if the dark didn't remind him of another place completely.
"We should talk," Brasidas says.
He doesn't want to, but he knows they should. So, as Brasidas sits down on a chair at the table, Alexios sinks to the ground with his back against the door. He rests his head back. He sighs.
"I'm sorry," he says.
He knows he has a lot to be sorry for.
He didn't ask Brasidas to go treasure-hunting. Crawling around in the dark inside tombs cut into hillsides didn't seem like a particularly Spartan pastime, from what Alexios knew of Spartans, so he just made his excuses and said he'd be back soon. He didn't ask him. It was exactly the other way around.
"You might need a second pair of hands," Brasidas said. He had his arms crossed over his chest in that way that always seems to mean he's already made his mind up. "I'll go with you."
"I don't see why not. It's just a few miles out of the way. We should be able to catch up with the men by nightfall and if we don't, they're more than capable of handling a few wolves and stray bandits without me." He nudged Alexios with his shoulder. He raised his brows. "Besides, how often do I get to see you work?"
So, he went with him, despite any concessions to the fact Alexios really should've known better than to take a guest along. They rode a few miles off the beaten track, halfway up a hill to an old, ruined temple by a roaring waterfall. There were Followers of Ares in the area even though the temple had never actually been dedicated to Ares, but between the two of them (and Brasidas' spear, and Alexios' sword), the Followers didn't last for very long. And then, when they'd wiped their weapons clean of blood, they moved on into the tomb.
The entrance room looked absolutely normal, and absolutely empty, except that the Followers of Ares had apparently been using the table in the centre of it to make sacrifices. Alexios suspected that probably hadn't pleased Aphrodite in the slightest; it was reputedly the tomb of an unnamed high priestess from back when the temple had had actual walls and a roof and hadn't been just a collection of half-broken, tumbledown columns with the occasional intrepid flower growing out of the side. It looked empty but Alexios knew where to push: he put his shoulder into it and the wall crumbled.
"You're not concerned that you're disturbing the dead?" Brasidas asked.
"They've usually been disturbed a long time before I get there," Alexios replied, as he was lighting a torch. "But they're dead. I guarantee you they don't mind."
Brasidas chuckled in response and lit his own torch; apparently a healthy respect for the long departed wasn't going to keep him from delving in a little deeper. In just a few moments, they went inside.
"Be on your guard," Alexios said, as they walked. "There'll be snakes. There are always snakes. And if you hear this noise..." He gave a panel in the floor a firm prod with one foot and then stepped back quickly, holding Brasidas back with one arm outstretched. There was a sort of hissing click and then a set of old but apparently still sharp spikes about as long as his forearm popped up out of the floor; he felt Brasidas jump and then chuckle at his own surprise.
"This is an interesting job you have," Brasidas said, as they made their way around the edge of the spike-riddled floor panel. "You're not going to tell me to go back or wait outside and watch the entrance?"
"I'm just going to tell you to be careful," Alexios replied. He glanced back over his shoulder in the torchlight for a second, with a wry sort of smile. "I don't play the lyre, Brasidas. I'm not going to go storm Hades if you die down here." Except honestly, he had a pretty strong feeling that he might. It was a feeling he'd had in every battle they'd fought for the past six years. Sometimes, he liked to think maybe Brasidas felt the same.
It took them an hour to make their way through the tomb together, dispatching snakes and clambering over debris, breaking down walls to avoid paths blocked by collapsed doorways, and then there they were, almost in the tomb itself, except the way was blocked by water that had clearly risen over the years.
"Is this as far as we go?" Brasidas asked.
"We can probably swim through," Alexios replied.
"Are you kidding?"
"I usually try," he said. He flashed him a smile and set his torch into a conveniently placed metal bracket on the wall nearby. "I usually don't drown."
He unbuckled his sword. He started taking off his armour and, once he was down to his tunic and sandals, he raised a brow at Brasidas then turned back to the hole in the floor. "I'll be back," he said. "Don't wander off and get eaten by snakes?" Then he dove headfirst into the water. He might've been showing off, just a little bit.
Fortunately, it turned out to be possible to get through to the other side and he wasn't just swimming around down there like a total fool; when he came back to Brasidas, he told him, "It's a straight run, but it's not near. You don't have to."
Brasidas just grinned and started pulling off his armour. "If you can do it, so can I," he said, and Alexios laughed, treading water as he watched him. It's always been one of the things he's liked about Brasidas: he has a healthy sense of adventure. Except, of course, it was dark under the water; after a few deep breaths, they went down, and Alexios guided Brasidas through, the two of them kicking together as hard as they could. On the other side, there was at least some light they could see by; they surfaced with a gasp in a room set into the stone behind the waterfall, kept damp its spray and full of the roar of river water as it fell against the rocks below.
They pulled themselves up out of the water and Alexios checked a couple of chests for things he might be able to sell if he ever saw another blacksmith. There wasn't much but that was fine; it had been a long, long time since he'd needed more drachmae, after all. So he looked around, at the water-damaged paintings on the walls, at the collapsed pottery, and here and there those same small yellow flowers growing out of cracks. They both dripped haphazard patterns on the floor and Brasidas brushed the dust and cobwebs from the familiar stele that stood against the tomb's back wall.
"What's this?" he asked, and the stele started to glow the way they always did when Alexios found them, familiar though it had always been somewhat unnerving. Except this time, something about it seemed different. Alexios' skin felt warm and kept on getting warmer. His chest felt tight, and started to get tighter. His hands balled into fists at his sides. His heart beat faster in his chest. His jaw clenched till his teeth hurt. And as the golden light from the ancient stele spread throughout the room, as he caught the scent of those little yellow flowers on the air, he felt his cock begin to stiffen underneath his soaked-through clothes. He had no idea what was happening and then, in the moment that followed, he had no ideas at all. All there was was what he had to do.
He pushed Brasidas up face-first against the stele and made him yelp in surprise as he did it. He didn't struggle, though; he said, "Alexios, what are you doing?" but Alexios had no answer for him. He had no words for him at all, come to think of it. What he had was the stiff length of his cock that he pushed up against the curve of Brasidas' arse and his hands that he ran up over Brasidas' damp thighs and underneath his soaked tunic, and his mouth and his nose and his cheek that he nuzzled against the side of Brasidas' neck.
"Is this what you usually get up to inside tombs?" Brasidas asked, almost like he was trying to joke about what was happening, though he didn't manage to sound as lighthearted about it as he probably meant to.
Alexios maybe meant to say no, and he meant to joke, except all he did instead was hiss in a breath against Brasidas' skin and then lick his neck, and suck his neck, and bite his neck, and then drag him down onto his knees on the damp stone floor. He couldn't speak. He couldn't think. The golden light was everywhere, dancing in the air, in his eyes, in his chest, shimmering straight through every one of his veins and down into his stone-hard cock, and he knew what he had to do the same way he knew he had to breathe. He'd wanted Brasidas for so long, maybe since the day they'd met, and honestly that desire had never lessened. But they were friends and Alexios wanted that, and had never suggested more for fear of losing that. Now here he was, and here they were, and he knew he had to have him. He had to have him. There was no question of what he had to do. His body burned for it, inside and out.
He pulled his wet tunic up underneath his arms and he yanked at his loincloth desperately until it came free from around his waist. He practically tore Brasidas' underwear away and there wasn't anything there in the room he could use to ease his way - all their things were at the other side of a long, water-filled corridor - except somehow he knew precisely what he had to do. He wrapped one hand around Brasidas' cock and he stroked him roughly. He made Brasidas shiver as he rested his forehead down against the stele and held on tight to the sides of it. He made him rock against him and breathe in gasps and hold so tight at the stele that his hands looked white. He made his muscles flex and tense. He made him come in his hand with Alexios' cock rubbing there between his cheeks and then he smeared Brasidas' own come against his hole, over his cock, and pushed inside. It was everything he'd wanted, and still nothing like it at all.
It wasn't until after, when the golden light had shimmered back into the air then back into the stele, when he'd wound himself up tight and come inside Brasidas, when the little yellow flowers had all shrivelled up and died away almost like they'd never been there, that he even thought about what it was he'd done. He pulled out of him with a sick, cold lurch of his insides and he let Brasidas' tunic drop back into place so he wouldn't have to see his own come trailing down from Brasidas' hole and dripping from his balls onto the damp stone floor. There was just enough desire still in him that he wanted to lean down and run his tongue between Brasidas' cheeks, taste himself there, lick his come away like that could make this better somehow, but now he knew better than to do it. He raked his hair back, put his wet clothes hastily back into place, and wondered what he could say to explain what he'd just done except he wasn't even sure there was an explanation to give.
Brasidas had to undress almost all the way to put his clothes back on correctly, and Alexios tried not to look as he slumped heavily against the nearest wall. He couldn't leave; he didn't need Brasidas' help to get back out of the tomb but Brasidas needed his if he didn't want to drown, much as Alexios wished he didn't. And, when they left, Alexios could barely look at him, and Brasidas could barely stand to have his hand around his wrist as he helped him over heaps of rubble, or his arm around his waist as he pulled him back from a set of spikes he'd triggered without noticing. He didn't blame him. He supposed it made sense. After all, this hadn't been part of the treasure-hunting description.
When they got back outside sometime around sunset, Alexios left him there. He rode all night back to Sparta so he wouldn't have to find the words to say he hadn't meant to do the things he'd done. Or that he regretted it, even if he did. Or that he'd wanted it, even if he hadn't wanted it to be that way.
That night, he rode back to Sparta alone. Brasidas and his men came back the next day.
"I'm sorry," he says, sitting back against the door, and Brasidas frowns at him.
"What for?" he asks.
"You know what for. It's why you're here. I..." He pauses. He rubs his face with both his hands, though they're both still faintly feathery. He closes his eyes. "I couldn't stop. I didn't want to stop. I know how it sounds. I'm not trying to make excuses. But by the gods, Brasidas, before I did that, I would have sworn I'd never hurt you. I would have sworn it."
"It's not your fault."
Brasidas sighs. He leans forward, his forearms to his knees. "I think I did this," he says. "I don't think this was you at all."
"I don't understand."
"I think I asked for it."
"Now I really don't understand."
"I don't pray, Alexios," he says. "I think you know that?"
He pauses. He clasps his hands, and he unclasps them, and he presses them to his knees instead. He looks awkward, and that's not something Alexios is used to seeing in him; Brasidas' almost unfailing self-assuredness is one of the most attractive things about him. He knows himself with certainty that Alexios has never had. He's never seen him like this.
"It's not that I don't believe in the gods," Brasidas says. "I do, but I believe our fates are better left in our own hands. I don't pray. But when we were at the temple that day, I'm ashamed to say I spoke to Aphrodite and I asked her for her help."
"What did you ask her for?"
Brasidas smiles wryly. He rubs his beard, his mouth, runs his hands over his head and sits back up.
"You," he says. "I asked her for you. Perhaps had I been more devout, she would not have used my prayer against you. I am sorry, Alexios. I prayed that if there was any part of you that felt the same attraction I do, you would think of me as I think of you."
Alexios pushes forward, up onto his knees. "You prayed to Aphrodite?" he asks.
"For me to want you?"
Alexios laughs. He drops his head into his hands. "What made you think I didn't?" he says, exasperatedly. "What makes you think I don't?"
There's no reply but after a moment, he hears Brasidas move. After a moment, he feels the insides of Brasidas' knees brush against the outsides of his own. He feels Brasidas' hands against his shoulders. He feels Brasidas' thumbs come up to trace his jaw. He looks at him, and when Brasidas smiles, Alexios understands. When Brasidas presses his mouth to his, when he kisses him, he understands. They're both to blame, or maybe neither of them is, but the fact is he's pretty sure blame doesn't matter.
"Next time, just ask me instead of the gods?" Alexios says, with his hands full of Brasidas' tunic.
Brasidas chuckles warmly, his mouth pressed tight against Alexios' neck. Then he pulls himself back up to his feet and he holds one hand out down to him; when Alexios takes it, and Brasidas pulls him up, he really doesn't need some distant goddess's pretty flowers to make him feel desire. He feels it because he sees it there in Brasidas' face, just the way he's wanted to. He feels it, and maybe now they can act on it.
The gods are fickle and Alexios knows that. But maybe, just this once, Aphrodite really did answer Brasidas' prayer.