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Spartan Red

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When Alexios shouldered past the day's other hopeful contenders and stepped into the neatly outlined circle by the foot of his grandfather's oh-so-shiny bronze statue, Brasidas looked confused; that should have been his first clue. So did both Nikolaos and Stentor, which really should have been his second clue. His mater didn't, which, taken in the general context of clues one and two, should have absolutely been clue number three. But such keen and dazzling hindsight didn't really help him hugely at the time.

(Kassandra, on the other hand, looked more interested in what they'd be eating for dinner that night than she was in the fight. Alexios couldn't say he blamed her, though; she, perhaps more than anyone, knew exactly how even the match wasn't.)

"Alexios..." Brasidas said, with a frown on his face like him stepping up was actually shocking instead of just unexpected, or maybe it was more like some kind of flimsy warning not to fight him. With that same keen hindsight he knew it was definitely the former, not the latter, but Alexios just hefted his broken spear from its sheath at his back and said, "What's wrong, general? Don't you think your Spartan training is a match for a misthios?"

He'd stood by and watched Brasidas fight a different man each afternoon for nine days by that point. He'd assumed it was just some kind of special training at first, but he knew even Spartans didn't fight that hard in training - hard, yes, so they'd be prepared for whatever came, but not that hard. So then he'd wondered if it was some kind of show they were putting on, which made more sense considering the location they were using and the fact that they'd drawn such a crowd, but Alexios didn't think he'd ever seen a man fight like that without having something to lose. Something important. He knew Spartans were proud, but even for Sparta it seemed kind of ridiculous.

He could have asked about it, he supposed, but he hadn't - frankly, he'd seen so many deeply strange things on his travels around the Greek world that unexplained fighting in a city full of well-trained fighters didn't even trouble the top twenty. His family didn't talk about it, not on the way there or at any time before or after, and he didn't feel much like questioning yet another Spartan custom when it just hammered home the point that he really didn't belong there the way they all pretended he did. Not quite. Not really.

He'd liked watching in the start, though, mostly because he'd missed fighting with Brasidas in the time after the battle at Amphipolis, while he'd been recovering. Sparring together had been out of the question for more than half a year, though Brasidas had come to the training grounds to watch him fight with Stentor and Kassandra, and anyone else who'd felt up to the challenge. Brasidas had sat on a bench nearby, leaning forward on the stick he'd used to help him walk at first, but then he'd started leaving the stick behind. And even when he'd been well enough to start training himself, he'd come to watch. Maybe he hadn't trained with Alexios - Alexios had tried to tell himself that was because he'd needed to get back to his men and not because he couldn't trust the misthios not to accidentally injure him - but he'd still come there almost every single day since they'd got back to Sparta.

Nikolaos or Myrrine had joined him sometimes, and friends, acquaintances, ephors, but whenever Alexios had glanced his way, he'd found him watching. Brasidas had always had a smile for him, even in the middle of a fight; for the past nine days, though, now it was Brasidas' turn to fight, he hadn't looked pleased. He hadn't smiled when he'd seen Alexios watching; he'd just raised his sword and banged it hard against his shield and fallen back into the fight again. He'd fought like he meant it. He'd fought like he'd have killed if he'd had to. Alexios supposed it would have been far from the first time, but in the middle of Sparta in peacetime seemed a strange time and place for it.

By the fourth day, Alexios had been completely sure: Brasidas really wasn't fighting for the fun of it, not like the two of them had done sometimes. Brasidas had won each fight but the victory had come hard - the fifth day, he was bleeding from a gash above one eye by the time he put the point of his sword to the other man's throat, though he did smile as he took the cloth Alexios offered him to press against it afterwards. The sixth day, his cheekbone was scuffed right over his old scar and his left eye was not-so-slightly swollen. The seventh day, Alexios could see the black-purple bruise peeking out from underneath the shoulder of his breastplate, and after the fight he walked him home and helped him take the breastplate off. He looked relieved when it was done, but it clearly hurt.

The eighth day, he dabbed the bloody split in Brasidas' bottom lip with a cloth he dipped in water that he'd boiled over the fire. He swiped a little ointment over it with his thumb when he was done and told himself that all he meant by that was helping, then they sat outside on a low stone bench and took turns putting the edge back on Brasidas' slowly blunting sword. Brasidas shivered once the sun started to set, so Alexios shuffled closer in and wrapped one arm around his shoulders before he'd managed to remind himself not to; Brasidas swore - his bruised shoulder was apparently still painful - but when Alexios tried to move his arm Brasidas just smiled and shook his head and pulled it back around himself. He brought Alexios' hand down to his waist instead of up to his shoulder and maybe that felt less friendly than he'd started out intending, but Alexios couldn't really claim to mind. The only thing he minded was when the sun was down and he knew that it was time to leave; Brasidas would spend the evening with his syssitia, and Alexios would go home. He didn't belong to a syssitia, and he didn't really believe he ever would.

After he'd watched the fight on the ninth day, he just raised one hand and smiled a sort of rueful smile, then walked away from the circle. Day by day, he'd watched the fights get just a little harder, not because his new opponents were better but because Brasidas was tired and hurt. Day by day, he'd watched them last a little longer, because Brasidas was a little slower thanks to the injuries that were stacking up. It wasn't just swords and shields but fists and elbows and knees, and one notable occasion when Brasidas had finished the fight with the particularly vicious though effective headbutt. That day, for the first time, he'd actually believed that Brasidas might lose. And, as he walked away, he realised he'd hoped he would lose, because it seemed like that might be the only way to stop it.

He didn't eat with Kassandra and their mater that night, at the table in their home; he wasn't really in the mood for his sister squabbling with Stentor when he returned from his syssitia or vigorous discussion of Lakonian politics, no matter who his parents were and who his grandfather had been. He took a piece of fruit and walked outside into the city instead; he crunched slowly through the apple, right down to the core that he tossed into a nearby hedgerow, and wiped the stray juice off on his tunic in what he was sure was a very unspartan way.

The moon was bright and he sat down with his back to the twisted trunk of an old olive tree so he could look up at it past the branches. It was the same but very slightly different everywhere he went - maybe he couldn't have told precisely where in the world he was by it, but Sparta was different to Skyros and the view from the roof of his old house on Kephallonia was different to Markos' vineyard on Kos. The moon over Athens seemed different to the one over Amphipolis, and he remembered both: one was the place where he'd lost Phoibe and the other, that was where he'd almost lost Brasidas. When he'd promised himself he'd never lose another friend the way that he'd lost Phoibe, he'd meant it; watching over Brasidas, though, tending the gash in his throat, swearing by every god whose name he knew that he wasn't going to let him die, he'd known even then that it wasn't the same. Brasidas really wasn't Phoibe; she'd been like a little sister to him, maybe more than Kassandra ever would be, but Brasidas didn't feel like his family at all.

Maybe that was why he did it: he wasn't going to stand idly by and watch Brasidas fight himself into an early grave, not after what had happened at Amphipolis. As he made his way back to the house, down the dusty streets he wished he could remember from his childhood, he didn't know if he had it in him to stitch Brasidas up again, put his dirty fucking fingers in an open wound just to try to keep the blood inside, then feel his stomach tie itself in knots when the fever inevitably settled in. On his sickbed in Makedonia, he'd shaved Brasidas' neck so he could better keep the stitches clean, with a worn old razor that was very nearly all that he had left from the old days back on Kephallonia; when he got home, he went into his room and he sat down on his bed and he rummaged in his bag for it. He'd kept the copper blade sharp at the edge over the years, polished to a gleam the colour of the setting sun, though the darkwood handle that it folded into had definitely seen better days. It was splitting at the pin and the place where he'd scratched in the outline of an eagle's head had long since started to look more like a particularly fearsome chicken.

He fell asleep with it tucked into his palm that night and then dreamed of Kephallonia, except he wasn't alone when he swung his legs from the side of the roof and settled there to watch the sunrise. The sun made Brasidas' eyes shine gold and the Spartan red of his tunic seemed almost too bright for him to look at, but the way he smiled, the way he smiled at him, wide and warm and genuine, affectionate... Alexios could have dreamed that dream forever. It wouldn't have been a bad way to spend eternity, he thought; give him a sword, too, and the occasional sparring match in which to use it, and he'd have been set for his whole afterlife.

In the morning, he rode out to the orchard with Kassandra and brought back a dozen fresh apples for their mater. As much as Kassandra liked to believe she was the quiet and mysterious type, she really wasn't; Alexios had learned not long after their awkward family reunion that silence made her anxious and anxiety made her angry, so she'd taken to talking to avoid that whenever possible. He couldn't say he minded, though, since she reminded him more of himself than anyone else in Sparta and it meant he barely had to say a word, except to the helots in charge of the orchard. When they got back, their mater was pleased with the apples - maybe not as pleased as Phobos was with the ones he'd chomped up from the ground, a lot like Alexios hadn't always made sure he had enough to eat. But Myrrine frowned at him like she knew something was wrong; he shrugged and he left her with his sister, who was grumbling about how she missed her old horse, and he went to find his sword.

He'd stopped wearing it around the city after he and Brasidas had come back from Amphipolis, except when they were going to the training grounds. Brasidas had told him, "You know, you make some of the others nervous," and he'd replied, "Oh, so the lowly misthios makes the mighty Spartans nervous!" then narrowed his eyes teasingly.

"Do I make you nervous, too?" he'd asked, and Brasidas had just smiled and clapped him on the shoulder and told him, "Yes, from time to time." He remembered Brasidas' rough thumb rubbing the bare skin at his collarbone by the neck of his tunic, and he remembered the warmth in his chest and the lump in his throat and how if Brasidas had been very nearly any other man in all of Greece he might have said his name then kissed his mouth and seen where that left them afterwards. But Brasidas was Brasidas, not any other man in Greece, so he'd unbuckled his sword belt from around his waist, he'd held it up and said, "I'll take it off. But only because it's you that asked."

Brasidas had given him an odd look then, like he was torn between just thanking him for taking his advice and some other thing, like asking what else Alexios might do if he asked him to. In the end, though, he'd just smiled and pulled the sword out of its sheath and they'd talked about weapons for a while instead, while they mock-fought with the sword in Brasidas' hand and the broken spear in Alexios'. He'd been using Nikolaos' sword for years by then, the one he'd given him that day by the cliff back up north in Megaris, though he supposed he'd had a blacksmith or five make an occasional adjustment. But it was that same familiar sword he picked up and strapped on before he made his way to the fight, late on that tenth afternoon.

People were gathered there already, just like they had been for the past nine days. Brasidas was there, still badly bruised at one shoulder and now across one thigh as well, from the previous day's fight. And it was clear who meant to step into the circle to fight him, because the other hopefuls seemed to have deferred to him already, but Alexios pushed forward through the crowd. Alexios pushed right up to the next contender and perhaps it was his heritage that did it, or it was his reputation, or the fact he was the only one so confident he'd turned up without armour, or maybe it was just the expression he had on his face, but that man looked at him, apparently weighed up his options, then stepped back to let him by. Alexios stepped forward. And when Brasidas turned, pulling up his shield ready to start, he dropped it straight back down by his waist again. He frowned.

"Alexios..." he said, like he couldn't understand what he was doing there. Not there, at least, inside the circle that was so carefully marked out in the dirt with a ring of small, light-coloured stones.

"What's wrong, general?" Alexios replied. He swung his spear, deft but casual, and the blade caught the afternoon sun on the metal he knew was something other than iron, even if he didn't know what. "Don't you think your Spartan training is a match for a misthios?"

Brasidas' frown deepened. His cheek was still grazed over the top of his old scar, and the bruise at his shoulder had bloomed up even further, up into his neck, under his newly regrown beard. The scar Kassandra had given him was mostly hidden underneath that, but Alexios knew it was there.

"I know I can't beat you," Brasidas said. He looked around at the people who were gathered at the edge of the circle, pointing them out with the tip of his sword, then he turned back to Alexios. "Everyone here knows I can't beat you."

"So does that mean you're not going to try?"

Brasidas looked at him, levelly, like this still didn't make sense to him; Alexios supposed he understood that because it wasn't as if he'd let him in on his plan. Brasidas looked at him, apparently conflicted, and the people around them started to chatter, and Alexios wondered, suddenly, if he'd completely misunderstood the situation. Maybe Brasidas was meant to win. Maybe it was a test, or he'd get some kind of glorious military promotion if he could best everyone who challenged him, or maybe it was all tied in up in Spartan duty and honour in ways Alexios was sure he'd never completely understand. Maybe he should have checked his help was wanted before wading in, but then Brasidas pulled his shield up high, even though it made him wince. He raised his sword and he reached around and he banged the hilt against his shield with a bright clang of metal on metal. As he made himself ready, the confusion on his face eventually slipped away and he smiled at Alexios just as widely as he ever had. And, after a moment's pause, he attacked. Alexios supposed that was his answer: he was going to try.

It didn't take long. Brasidas had been right: everyone there knew he couldn't win, because the only one they knew could come close to challenging Alexios was his little sister and they knew how close she'd come to killing Brasidas. He could have killed her that day but he'd chosen not to, more for their mother's sake than for hers, and no one believed for a second that Brasidas had forgiven her for her own sake, either; Alexios knew that was for his. But still, it didn't take long. Brasidas might have fared better if he'd used his spear and not his sword, but the truth was his favoured weapon could have only delayed the inevitable. Alexios just moved so much more quickly than he did, and he struck a great deal harder, and they both knew the only reason that Brasidas' shield wasn't in pieces on the ground within seconds was because Alexios had decided not to break it.

He drew on his powers in a way he never had when they'd sparred before, not to show him up but because he knew that fighting hurt his bruised, sprained shoulder. And so, when Brasidas swung at him, he dodged and skipped around behind him and he pressed his spear's edge to his throat. He knew that it was resting right above his scar and that was it: Brasidas dropped his sword and shield. He raised his empty hands and he turned his head just far enough to look over his shoulder at him. Then he said, smiling, maybe teasing, "So, what's your plan? Are you going to kill me or marry me?"

Alexios frowned. Suddenly, instantly, his chest felt tight, and it wasn't from the fighting. "Why would I do either?" he replied.

"Because you beat me."

"I don't know what you mean."

"Because that's the point of the ritual."

"What ritual?"

"The fight, Alexios."

"You're not making sense."

Brasidas closed his eyes and took a deep breath, steadying himself, then he looked at him again at that same awkward over-shoulder angle. Then he eased the sharp edge of Alexios' spear back from his throat, nicking one fingertip on the blade in the process, and he stepped away and turned to him as he sucked off the blood that was welling up. Brasidas looked at him, with an almost military calculation to his gaze now his smile had faded. It was like he was trying to figure out which move came next, or maybe just if Alexios was joking.

"Go home," Brasidas told him, after a moment's pause, with a look on his face that Alexios understood was very carefully neutral. "I'll take care of this." He clapped Alexios on the shoulder, gave a squeeze and a hard shake, flashed a smile that didn't come close to his eyes at all, then walked away and left him standing there. Honestly, Alexios couldn't say things had gone as he'd expected.

As he stooped to pick up Brasidas' discarded sword and shield, people started to step into the circle and offer their congratulations. He smiled awkwardly and he thanked them just as awkwardly, and he slung Brasidas' shield onto his back and held his sword at hip height, hovering there by his own to keep it marginally safe. He excused himself as quickly and politely as he could and didn't just break into a sprint once he had, though he felt a lot like it; he walked away with tight nods and tight smiles and Brasidas' shield feeling surprisingly heavy at his back, its strap digging into his collarbone and its edges clattering against his shoulderblades. He'd always hated shields. He'd liked them a lot more as decorations for his walls.

He thought about heading to Brasidas' house and either dropping off his stuff and heading home or staying there for him, to try to make more sense of what had apparently just happened, but he went straight home instead. He scuffed the heels of his sandals through the dirt as he went, wondering what exactly he'd just done - Are you going to kill me or marry me? Brasidas had asked. Kill or marry. He hadn't been planning on doing either, all he'd wanted was to get the fight over with then maybe they'd have walked back to Brasidas' house together, taken off Brasidas' breastplate and had a drink before the sun set. Maybe he could've got out of joining his syssitia for the evening and they could have eaten together instead and told stories about the places they'd been and the things they'd done or he could've asked Brasidas some of the questions about Sparta and the Spartans and the Spartan way of life that he'd been avoiding asking his family - it was just so good to be with them after so many years that he didn't want to ruin it by reminding them how long he'd been away.

He went home. He'd only just pulled Brasidas' shield from his back when Stentor walked in after him, brisk and brusque as ever.

"You're an idiot," Stentor said, and he took the shield from him after a moment's pathetic tug of war that they both knew Alexios would have won in short order if he'd wanted to. Alexios watched him put it down, resting against the wall, then Stentor held out his hand for the sword. He gave him that, too, and watched him set it down on the top of a cupboard though the width of its guard meant it wouldn't lie flat. It seesawed on the cupboard top for a moment then not-quite-balanced there with its tip tilted up. It looked like a good way for someone to cut themselves, but he supposed he'd never known a family so thoroughly acquainted with the use and maintenance of weaponry as his was.

"You know, you've said that before," Alexios told him, as they stood there in the kitchen, eyeballing each other. "You're going to need to be more specific."

Stentor clucked his tongue and he gave him a dirty look, but neither thing was exactly out of the ordinary. Then he shook his head and said, "You didn't know."

"I didn't know what?"

"Why you were fighting."

Alexios winced, then he shook his head. "You're right," he admitted. "I didn't know."

"So, what? You just wanted to fight? Did the mighty eagle bearer feel left out of the competition?"

"No! No. I wanted it to stop. Brasidas was injured. I thought if I beat him, he'd stop fighting."

"You were trying to help, then."

"Yes."

Stentor re-shook his head. "You're an idiot," he said again. "He's unmarried. His name was called. The one who beats him marries him, or else they kill him and take his place. Rank, positions. Property." Stentor raised his brows and peered at him pointedly, tilting his head back so he could look down his nose at him. "So, do you want to kill Brasidas or make him your husband, brother?"

Honestly, Alexios hadn't thought very much about either thing. Of course, he was absolutely positive he didn't want Brasidas dead; one close call back in Makedonia had definitely been enough for one lifetime. Sometimes he still dreamed about it, all the blood on his hands, under his nails, on his clothes, how his fingers had slipped on Brasidas' skin as he'd tried to stop the bleeding, though he'd known at least if he was bleeding that meant he was still alive. Sometimes he dreamed about the weeks that had followed, sleeping on the floor by Brasidas' bed so he'd know straight away each morning if he'd survived the night, and no one had been able to persuade him to leave for long, by force or otherwise.

He knew that was when things had changed for him, in that time not knowing if his friend would live or die, unsure if anything he did could affect the outcome either way. He'd wanted him to live so badly that he'd prayed for it in a way he hadn't prayed in years, in the room by the bed or in the woods while he hunted, while he was running errands to replenish the healer's supplies or to try to keep their camp safe. He knew that somewhere in the midst of tilting Brasidas' head so he could drink, mopping his brow till the fever broke, shaving him to keep the stitches clean so the wound could heal, how he felt had changed. When Brasidas had opened his eyes and smiled at him, he'd gripped his hand and smiled back. The relief he'd felt that day wasn't friendly. And perhaps he hadn't felt that way about Brasidas before, or maybe it was just that he hadn't realised, but there it was. He'd realised. He'd known.

He grimaced at Stentor. He'd been trying to help, but it seemed like he'd just made things ten times worse, or else maybe he actually had helped and the reason Brasidas had fought so hard was he'd thought the others meant to kill him for advancement. Or maybe he'd had someone else in mind, and maybe the man he'd been meant to fight instead of Alexios that afternoon was a secret lover he'd hope to marry. Alexios had no idea because he hadn't asked, and he sat down heavily on the bench by the kitchen table. He scrubbed his face with both his hands and he pulled sharply at his hair. He looked up at Stentor and said, "I've really fucked things up, haven't I."

"Yes," Stentor replied, blunt and to-the-point as ever, with a shrug that said the answer was so desperately obvious that he needn't have asked the question.

"He said he was going to fix it. Will the kings let him do that?"

"That's the ephors' decision."

Alexios groaned. "You know what I mean, Stentor. Will the ephors let him?"

"It's unlikely. He'd have to call in a lot of favours."

"And if he did? What would happen then?"

Stentor shrugged again. "The ritual would start where it left off, I suppose. Unless they wanted to make an example out of you."

"He'd have to fight?"

"Yes."

"And they might kill him."

"Yes."

Alexios dropped his elbows to his knees and his head into his hands. "I'm an idiot," he said, and Stentor took a couple of steps forward till he was close enough to rest one hand on Alexios' shoulder. It might, if he'd been anyone else, have been meant as reassuring, or maybe he'd been growing on Stentor since the last time they'd tried to kill each other.

"Yes, you are," Stentor agreed. "But Brasidas doesn't seem to object to that." Then he went back out again - where to, Alexios neither knew nor really cared given matters at hand - and left him there alone. He wasn't completely sure if he was grateful for that or not.

Alexios unbuckled his own sword and he left it in his room, and he went up to the roof to think. He sat and swung his legs over the edge and drummed his heels against the wall like he'd used to do in Kephallonia; sometimes Phoibe had scrambled up to join him and she'd sat there feeding scraps of meat to Ikaros while they looked out over the sea. They'd counted boats and talked about the places that were out there, past the horizon where they couldn't see, and sometimes they'd laid back and just named all the places that they knew of but had never been to, and that they honestly believed they'd never see. There were so many places that he would've liked to have shown her, like his grandfather's lion at Thermopylae or the iron bird in the hills above Stymphalos, because he knew she'd always loved birds. And the view of Spartan streets and the green fields beyond might have felt a bit more like home if she'd been there with him, too.

He heard his mater and pater and Kassandra coming home maybe an hour or so later. He saw them walking up to the house and he waved down and they waved back, even Kassandra, though she had an awkward look on her face as she did so. He didn't feel much like talking, though, not after all the unexpected congratulations and his little chat with Stentor, so he said a quick hello/goodbye, grabbed Brasidas' things and ducked out before anyone could start a conversation. It was getting later and the sun was setting and he still had the ghost of Phoibe in his head - he still remembered the promise he'd made himself, that he wouldn't let another friend go that way, and if he explained that, he thought maybe Brasidas would understand. He'd been overzealous, and he'd interfered where he had no business to, and he really hadn't understood, and... As he made his way to Brasidas' house, he realised his motivations didn't particularly matter. He just needed to apologise, return his sword and shield, then leave. The only other thing he'd allow himself was asking if Brasidas needed anything from him so they could put things right that he'd ruined in the first place.

He didn't knock at the door, and he didn't announce himself, so when he went inside and caught Brasidas washing, he really shouldn't have been particularly surprised. It shouldn't have shocked him that Brasidas was naked, either - it wasn't as if Spartans found nakedness in any way shameful, and he was inside his own home. He glanced at Alexios, gave him a tight smile, then returned to the bowl of hot water on the table.

"You look terrible," Alexios said, as he put the sword and shield down inside the door, and Brasidas turned his head to raise his eyebrows at him. Alexios grimaced and flapped one hand in his direction, at the big black-purple bruises that were so much easier to see without his clothes. "I didn't mean that how it sounded."

"So you mean I look good?" Brasidas asked. He raised his arms out wide and turned a slow circle there in front of him, the cloth in his hand dripping water onto the floor. When the circle was complete, he gave Alexios a not quite pointed look, which he guessed meant it almost was, or it partly was, or else he'd just lost all ability to read Brasidas that he'd built up over the years. Or maybe the truth was Brasidas had only ever let him do it. And when Alexios didn't respond, he held out the cloth. He shook it, sending drops of water all across the floor, and Alexios stepped in to take it. Brasidas turned back around.

Alexios frowned. "What did the ephors say?" he asked, as he ran the cloth between Brasidas' shoulderblades. He should have probably declined to help, but it didn't seem right to say no under the circumstances.

"The ephors think I look great for my age."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know." Brasidas glanced back over his shoulder and then turned away again, and leaned a little lower with his hands pressed to the table's edge. "They say they'll override the decision." He paused, drumming his fingers on the table. "But they have conditions. They made that very clear."

"What conditions?"

"Well, firstly, I have to fight again," Brasidas said. "But they'll let me carry my wins and start at the tenth match." He glanced back again "There are twelve. In case you don't know that."

"And me?"

Brasidas took a measured breath. "They want you to leave Sparta," he said.

Alexios squeezed the cloth suddenly and water ran down the length of Brasidas' spine. He didn't mean to do it but the careful, neutral way Brasidas said what he'd said turned his stomach. Leave Sparta. He had to leave Sparta, after everything he'd done to return. And he didn't want to leave, no, but he knew if that was what it took to make things right then he'd do it. There were plenty of places he could go, he supposed: he had a standing invitation to join Xenia and the pirates on Keos, or he could go back to the arena in Pephka where fighting was actually something they expected of him. Markos could probably use help on the vineyard on Kos, or he was sure he could catch up with Sokrates, or Hippokrates, maybe Alkibiades or Anthousa. He could sail the Aegean with Barnabas. He could go back to Kephallonia where there were still people he knew and put down whoever had tried to rise up to take the Cyclops' place. Maybe he could be the new Cyclops himself, just in a good way, and he could use some of the drachmae he'd earned to build himself a bigger house right where the old one was, not that he really needed the space just for himself. He had options. Maybe he didn't like them, but that didn't mean he didn't have them.

"When do they want me to go?" he asked, as he ran the cloth slowly down Brasidas' spine, following the water that he'd just squeezed out.

"As soon as possible," Brasidas replied, still in that neutral tone that Alexios was quickly starting to hate. He had a lump in his throat and his chest felt tight and he didn't want to leave, at least not forever. He ran the cloth down lower, over the crack of Brasidas' arse to catch the last remaining stray drops of water, then he laughed bitterly, at himself, at the situation, at touching him like that when he was being told to leave for the rest of his life, and he threw the cloth back into the bowl. Water splashed onto the table and he took a step away. His hands had wanted to keep going. His fingers had wanted to touch skin, now more than ever, now what had started as a friendly good deed had turned into marriage or death, then into a new exile so soon after the first had ended.

"I'll leave tonight," he said. "Will you explain to my family?"

Brasidas turned. He frowned. "You're not going to tell them?" he asked.

"It's better I just go." Alexios smiled tightly and took another step back toward the door. "They'll understand. I did something stupid and I need to take responsibility. Tell them I'll miss them, though. And I'll miss Sparta, even if I clearly don't understand it." He rubbed his mouth as he looked at Brasidas, stubble rasping against his fingers. "I'll miss you, too," he said, feeling a sharp pang in his chest, in his throat, in his gut. He shook his head to try to shake that feeling loose. "I'll miss you," he said again, and he stepped back in to raise his hands to Brasidas' shoulders. "I'll miss you," he said, again, lower, almost fucking desperately, and he brushed the pad of one thumb over the scar at Brasidas' throat. He felt Brasidas flinch but he didn't pull away or try to make Alexios stop; he just swallowed, which made his throat shift, which made the scar shift, and he tilted his head back just very slightly, enough to make the scar stand out more clearly through his well-kept beard.

Brasidas' eyes were still on him as Alexios turned his hand and ran his fingertips down over the scar instead. Brasidas was looking at him as he felt how smooth it was and how well he'd scarred, relatively speaking, in spite of the nasty, gaping wound he'd had and Alexios' far from perfect stitching. It hadn't been pretty, but compared with what might have happened if he'd just arrived a moment later, it was art; he'd never mentioned the conversation to Brasidas but Kassandra had told him she'd been aiming for the back of his head via his throat. Alexios had arrived just soon enough to knock the spear off course and send its edge across Brasidas' throat, not through it.

Alexios inched a little closer, the soles of his sandals shuffling against the floor. He was anxious and sorry and wholly disappointed in himself and he smiled regretfully as he bent his head to rest his forehead down against Brasidas'. His hand slipped to the back of Brasidas' neck and his fingertips toyed with the metal cuff around the base of his braid, and he brushed at his nape, and he closed his eyes and took a breath. It didn't steady him the way he'd hoped it would. Maybe that was because he hated the thought of leaving Sparta, and leaving his family, or he hated the thought of leaving him, or maybe it was Brasidas' hands coming up to cup his jaw, warm palms scraping softly against a week-old growth of stubble. Maybe it was the fact that when Brasidas moved, it wasn't to step away from him, it was to lean in close, and tilt his head, and press his mouth to his.

The kiss was straightforward and completely undemanding, but there was no mistaking it for something chaste. The sure press of his lips and how his hands moved after a moment, one to tangle in Alexios' long hair and the other to press at the small of his back, the fact he was so close that Alexios' tunic brushed against bare skin...it couldn't be mistaken for any kind of friendly kiss goodbye. And it was a terrible idea, given recent events, but Alexios had slipped both hands to the curve of Brasidas' bare arse and pulled his hips in flush against him before he'd given it a second's thought. Brasidas made a surprised sound somewhere in his throat, surprised but pleased, and he broke the kiss just long enough and far enough to take a breath before he did it again. This time it was harder. This time it was demanding, and Alexios required absolutely no further encouragement. He kissed him back, squeezing his backside with one hand and raking his blunt nails down Brasidas' spine with the other. He knew he shouldn't - it was all far too sudden - but he couldn't not.

The kitchen wall wasn't far away and Brasidas shoved him up against it. He wasn't sure he understood exactly what was going on, except physically he knew exactly what was going on: Brasidas' mouth was at his throat and he was tugging up Alexios' tunic with both hands till it caught at the cord he'd worn tied around his waist like a belt. Brasidas pulled back far enough to see what he was doing as he fumbled to untie the knot and when Alexios looked at him, his face was flushed and his breath came quickly and when he glanced down, unable to keep himself from doing it, he couldn't have mistaken the fact that Brasidas' cock was stiffening. The look on Brasidas' face as he met his gaze said he wanted him. Alexios figured why not, just once before he left, even if it turned out Brasidas knew the contents of his head and was doing it from pity. It'd be something to remember, at least, while he went who knew where.

Brasidas took a step back with the belt in his hands, some shiny gold thing Alexios had picked up in Attika that really didn't seem very Spartan at all. Brasidas tossed it over his shoulder, and Alexios heard a splash, but he was already pulling his tunic off over his head and really, he couldn't have cared less if Brasidas had thrown it into a fire and not just a bowl of cooling water. He dropped the tunic onto the floor. He untucked his loincloth and dropped that too, till the only things he was still wearing were his sandals and the beads in his hair. Then he wrapped one hand around his cock and gave himself a stroke, or two, or three, easing back his foreskin to expose the flushed tip underneath. Brasidas watched him, wide-eyed, then laughed and shook his head and ran his hands over his hair, and then he stepped back to him, close and quick, and dropped down abruptly to his knees. He nuzzled at Alexios' thigh, at the sculpted ridge where thigh joined abdomen, then wrapped both hand and mouth around him. He did it so quickly, so completely lacking in self-consciousness or hesitation, that Alexios couldn't stifle a groan as he dropped his head back hard against the wall. His pulse soared. He didn't care.

Brasidas didn't stop. He knelt there with his knees spread wide, his cock jutting out long and thick and hard, and all Alexios could do as Brasidas sucked him and stroked him and squeezed his balls with his free hand was grit his teeth to try to keep from bucking his hips against his mouth. He jabbed the nails of one hand into his palm and wrapped Brasidas' braid around his other hand, just by his knuckles, and he bit his lip and made himself watch. It would have been easier not to, knowing this was a one-time deal, knowing he was leaving Sparta, but he watched, and he pressed his head back hard against the wall, and Brasidas wasn't teasing, he didn't take it slow, he clearly had a goal in mind, and Alexios let himself be swept along. He just let him do it, watching his head bob, watching his mouth take him, hearing it, wet and fucking obscene, until he couldn't catch his breath and his teeth were bared and his thighs were almost trembling. Brasidas swirled his tongue over the tip and Alexios hissed in a breath, and he hit the wall with the heel of his hand so hard he wasn't sure he hadn't left a mark. All his toes pressed down tight against the soles of his sandals and that was it, he was done, his already shredded control completely failed and he came, hot and hard and almost painful, still in Brasidas' mouth.

Brasidas didn't move away quickly. He teased him through it, the tip of his tongue there at the slit in the tip of Alexios' cock, and then he sat back on his heels, paused, raised a brow, and spat into his hand. Then he moved. He rocked back and he pushed up onto his feet, wiping his mouth on the back of his other hand, and for a moment Alexios thought maybe that was it, they were done, all this was was a consolation blowjob before Alexios left Sparta and Brasidas went back to his normal life. But then he ran two fingertips through Alexios' come in the palm of his hand and the look on his face made him rethink that assumption. Brasidas was still hard and honestly, Alexios didn't care how it looked; he pushed himself away from the wall and he took the five or six unsteady steps required to reach the kitchen table, and he bent down low over the edge of it, propped up on his forearms. That must have been the right move because he felt Brasidas' fingers push between his cheeks and rub against his hole. He heard him move closer, felt him part his cheeks and press the tip of his cock against him. Alexios dropped his forehead down against the back of one hand, and he took a breath, then he felt Brasidas start to push inside him, slick with Alexios' own come.

He felt himself start to stretch to let him in and heard Brasidas groan out loud as he gripped his hips and pushed in deep. Maybe he wasn't the biggest Alexios had ever had but that didn't mean the fit wasn't tight enough to take his breath away. Maybe he wasn't the only man he'd ever slept with but it might have been the only time he'd wished it could last for more than just one night.

All told, it didn't last long. Sometimes he could make it last for hours but neither of them seemed interested in slowing things down. With every deep, jarring thrust of Brasidas' hips, the table shifted with a squeak of wood against the floor and the bowl of cooling water sloshed and spilled but neither of them really seemed to care. What Alexios cared about was how it felt to be full of Brasidas' cock, he cared about Brasidas' hands gripping his hips and the harsh sound of his breath and the fact he'd wanted this every single day since he'd known for sure that Brasidas was going to live. What he cared about was the heat and the friction and how good it felt, how he fucking tingled with it, and the ridiculous fact he'd left the door half open when he'd come inside and anyone could've walked straight in and found them there. But everyone except the ephors still thought Alexios had chosen marriage, not exile. What they were doing then wouldn't be out of place at all as far as they knew. As far as Sparta's general population was concerned, Brasidas would soon be his husband. Alexios resented how turned on and joyous and fucking destroyed that thought made him feel.

It didn't last long. Brasidas fucked him in short, deep thrusts full of typically Spartan fucking vigor, and Alexios felt his own cock stir again. It didn't take much, just the sound of Brasidas' shaky breath and the almost too hard way his fingertips pressed against his hipbones, how one hand shifted to rub at his rim with the pad of a thumb where it was stretched tight around Brasidas' thick cock. He came again, not even fully stiff, spilling onto the floor instead of in Brasidas' mouth, but it made his knees weak and his head light and his hole pull tight as he tried to brace himself against the table. It tore at him, till his nerves felt raw and his breath was harsh and Brasidas pushed in, once more, twice, maybe five or six or seven times, erratic, before he bucked in deep and came in him. Alexios could feel him pulse with it and he heard the desperate, torn-up sound he made. And he expected him to pull straight out but he stayed there, like that, stroking his almost too sensitive rim, as they both started to calm their breath. Then, as Alexios' overheated skin began to cool, he finally pulled out of him. Slowly, with his fingertips trailing over his come-slicked hole as he did so, making Alexios bite down on his lip.

Alexios pushed himself back up to standing, stiffly and not quite steadily, then dropped into a similarly unsteady crouch to retrieve his tunic from the floor. He didn't look directly at him but he could see Brasidas was leaning back against the wall and when Alexios glanced that way he saw he really had left a mark there with his hand when he'd hit it, not a hole but a recognisable indent that would be there long after he was gone. He stood and he pulled the tunic on and he wrung some water from his belt and tried hard not to wonder if maybe one of Brasidas' three remaining fights would result in a real marriage, to a real Spartan, and maybe Brasidas' upright Spartan husband would wonder what had left that mark on the wall in the house they shared. Maybe Brasidas would tell him, "Do you remember Nikolaos' son? The mercenary who didn't die when they threw him off Taygetos. The one I almost had to marry because he didn't understand our rituals. Well, it was him." And they'd laugh, but it wouldn't matter - Alexios would be half the world or more away by then.

He finished tying the knot in his belt and he picked his loincloth up and folded it in his hands - he didn't think his chances of success were very high if he tried to put it back on in front of someone who was watching him quite so intently. Then Brasidas picked up his own tunic from a stool by the table; it was a Spartan red one, as usual, unlike Alexios' nondescript brown-grey. He pulled it on over his head before reaching for his belt, though he tossed the belt to Alexios. Alexios frowned and Brasidas raised his brows and told him, "I took yours off. Why don't you put mine back on me?" And maybe that was a strange kind of equivalence that Alexios really didn't understand, but he still did it anyway, no questions asked, because he couldn't think of a reason not to and honestly, he wasn't sure he could have said no to anything Brasidas might have asked right then. He moved in close and he reached his arms behind Brasidas' back to pass the belt around his waist. It had a worn bronze catch and he could see from the stretch in the leather which of the holes it was worn at, so he fastened it into place.

He could feel the ache in his muscles from what they'd just done. He could feel the heat rolling off Brasidas. And he should have left, he thought - it was time to go, slip into the house for his things then the stables for Phobos and he'd be waiting by the shore in Korinthia inside a week or two, a month at the most, depending how the journey went and how many stops he decided to make. The Adrestia called there regularly, once every few months thanks to an arrangement they had bringing trade goods to Korinth for Anthousa, and Alexios thought he'd join them. He'd be pleased to see Barnabas and the crew, though he didn't doubt that they'd have been getting on just fine without him.

He should have left, but Brasidas was so close, his skin still flushed, a strange look on his face that was as indecipherable as the stelae he sometimes found in long-abandoned tombs. Alexios would have liked to have kissed him again, but he supposed that would have been a step too far. He wasn't sure why, considering everything they'd just done, but it seemed like a line best left uncrossed.

"Don't leave," Brasidas said, suddenly, blurting it out, and the look on his face changed. It was one Alexios could read: Brasidas hadn't meant to say that. He was as surprised that he had as Alexios was.

"We both know I have to," Alexios replied.

"No, you don't." Brasidas took him by the wrists. "You could marry me. You don't have to leave."

And it was tempting to agree, it really was, because he didn't want to go. As much as he complained about Kassandra's fights with Stentor, he'd miss them both - maybe Kassandra would leave with him if he asked, he thought, but he wouldn't do that to their mater. He didn't want to go and, more than that, he was tempted by the idea of marriage. But he couldn't stay: he couldn't do that to Brasidas, tying him to a mercenary who just happened to be Spartan in name if not much else. Spartan life was still so foreign to him that he spent half his days wondering what he'd get wrong next, though he'd been trying his very best. He couldn't put a stain like that on Brasidas' reputation, no matter how much he might have wanted to stay and make his new life there.

He kissed him. He'd told himself he wouldn't but he did, just briefly, a quick lean in and a press of his mouth against Brasidas' before he stepped away again, crossing the line completely. Then he smiled the best way he could, which might have been a little tight and a little regretful, and he told him, "You know, you've been a good friend. That's why I can't stay."

When Brasidas tried to argue, he told him no. When he turned for the door and Brasidas tried to stop him, he was undeterred. He told him, "Just think about my offer, Alexios. Stay in Sparta. Marry me," he just nodded like he might consider it, but he was wincing. He left. He closed the door. And once the door was closed, he fought down the urge to run; he walked instead, like he had after the disastrous fight, through the streets back to his family's home. It wouldn't take long, he thought - he'd just slip inside and be gone in minutes. He could trust Brasidas to explain the situation to them, because he wasn't sure he knew how to do it himself.

He was going to leave immediately. He planned to. That was his intention. But when he slipped inside the house, Stentor was there in his room. And yes, so he knew he could have outrun him, and yes, so that needn't have stopped him - he could have picked up his spear then turned around and left the rest of his things exactly where they were. He didn't have much, not even enough to fill a trunk, unless his armour counted and he could always pick up another set where he was going. But Stentor looked at him from the chair where he was sitting, by the lamp, and said, "So, what did the ephors say? I assume you went to see Brasidas."

"They agreed. No marriage necessary."

"Their price?"

"Favours, like you said. And Brasidas will finish fighting." He leaned against the edge of the table and picked up his spear. He contemplated using it to disappear, but he didn't. Instead, he glanced at Stentor, who was watching him intently, and told him, "Make sure he doesn't die, Stentor. Can I trust you to do that?"

Stentor eyed him. "Can't you do that yourself?"

"You'll know how to do it in a Spartan way. And don't you think I've done enough?"

Stentor shrugged and sat back on the chair, at least half-satisfied with that response because they both knew Alexios had done more than enough, and they both knew precisely how little Alexios really understood about the intricacies of the Spartan way of life. He'd been gone so long that sometimes he wasn't sure what was memory and what was just the stories that he'd told himself, half fact and half fiction, based on things Markos said, or others back on Kephallonia who'd likely never even met a Spartan. Stentor was ten times the Spartan he would ever be, not just because hadn't barged in on a ritual he didn't understand because the idea of not just acting when someone he loved was threatened made no sense at all to him.

He smiled wryly. There it was: someone he loved.

"You're leaving," Stentor said.

"You're more perceptive than you look."

"Why are you doing that?" He raised one hand and cut Alexios off as he began to answer. "Let me guess: that's what the ephors said."

Alexios rubbed at the back of his neck. "Like I said," he said. "You're more perceptive than you look."

"But you know you can't leave."

"I can't?"

"No."

"Stentor, are you getting sentimental?" He raised his brows. "Will you miss me?"

Stentor snorted. "Hardly. But our pater will. Your mater will. Your accursed sister. And what does Brasidas think of this?"

Alexios chuckled drily. "He proposed," he said.

"What did you say to that?"

"I said I couldn't let him do it."

Stentor closed his eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "You're an idiot," he said.

"So you keep telling me."

"Because it keeps being true."

"What did I do this time? In particular, I mean, not just my general character."

"Do you think he wants you to leave?"

"No."

"Do you want to leave?"

"No."

"Then by Zeus, why are you leaving!" Stentor exhaled loudly, gripping his thighs possibly to restore some of his calm. He grimaced at him, then he stood and gestured at Alexios' bed. "Think it over. If you're still set on leaving in the morning, go. The ephors won't care about one night."

"You won't tell Nikolaos or Myrrine?"

"I won't even tell Kassandra."

"You won't try to stop me?"

"I can't see any reason why I would, if that's your decision."

Stentor gave him a hard look, then he went out through the door and left him there. And he knew he should ignore what Stentor had said and go on with his plan but something told him, wait, and told him, just one more night couldn't hurt. If he left early enough, the ephors wouldn't even know he'd stayed, and he was tired. He didn't want to spend hours riding through the night just to sleep with one eye open at a campfire with a horse and an eagle for company. He could leave in the morning and be halfway to Arkadia by nightfall if he made good time and find someone willing to feed Phobos and sell him a bed for the night.

It seemed logical, though he suspected Sokrates would have words to say about his reasoning; likely lots of words, all of them without really saying anything at all, though he found he did miss their admittedly confusing conversations in an admittedly confusing way. As he put his spear back down and sat to take off his sandals, as he pulled his tunic off for the second time that evening and went to bed for the first, he was wondering if he should look up his old friend the philosopher. As he lay awake in the dark once he'd blown out the lamp, he wondered what Sokrates would say about his situation, if he could be persuaded to say much of anything that wasn't just another question. He honestly didn't know.

Sleep was a very long time coming. Alexios lay there, turning it all over in his mind: he'd been so sure of himself and what he should do about the fights, and he hadn't helped at all. Who knew what kind of hard-earned political capital Brasidas had had to expend with the ephors to have them agree to break tradition and then, when he'd seen how unhappy Alexios was with the idea of leaving, he'd offered the marriage they'd tried to avoid just to save him that unhappiness. That was just the kind of man he was.

He really wasn't sure he could imagine what being married to Brasidas would be like, either. He'd never given much thought to marriage at all; on Kephallonia really all there'd been to life was getting Markos out of trouble and trying to keep an eye on Phoibe, even when she'd said she didn't need him to, because he'd known that he was really all she'd had; marriage hadn't been a plan he'd had in mind, not even distantly. Then Elpenor had come and shown him just how big the world was away from the island, and how many dangers there were in it, and he'd known there'd be no rest until the Cult was gone. Now, though, maybe it was possible, now he'd brought a bloody end to the Cult of Kosmos and reclaimed his home in Sparta. Maybe he could have a handsome Spartan husband, whose military victory had paved the way for the real if unsteady peace they were currently enjoying, who liked him and respected him even if he was more misthios than Spartiate. Brasidas thought of him as a good friend, he believed that, and maybe what had happened earlier that night meant there could be something physical between them, too. Or maybe that had been Brasidas' attempt to persuade him to stay by any means necessary. Maybe he'd been so obvious in the way he looked at him sometimes that Brasidas couldn't help but know what he wanted.

Sleep was a long time coming, but it did come in the end. He drifted off and when he woke the sun was just starting to rise, turning the sky a brilliant Spartan red. He dressed. He pulled his things together, the few things he wanted to take with him - he gathered his armour in a sheet and tied it up so it would sling neatly over his shoulder, tied his sword around his waist and slipped his spear and bow and arrows onto his back. He tucked a necklace into his saddlebag, one he'd found in the labyrinth on Krete that he thought Xenia might like, with Phoibe's carved eagle and his old copper razor. He folded up his bearskin cloak, the one he'd had made for him on Chios after an unexpected hunt, and then he left the house as quietly as possible. No one challenged him as he slipped away - Stentor remained true to his word. He almost wished he hadn't, even though he was grateful that he had, too.

Sleep had been a long time coming and he'd had a lot to think about. He'd made a plan, of sorts, and told himself he'd stick to it, but he'd never been good at taking orders even when he'd given the order to himself. He was meant to go to the stables, saddle Phobos and head directly out of Sparta, out of Lakonia, no goodbyes, no errands, no delays; he did go to the stables and he did saddle Phobos, but after that the city gate was not where he made his next stop. He'd considered it the previous night while he was lying there awake and indecisive but he'd told himself no, because it was ridiculous. Still, there he was, leading a horse through the city, though Phobos probably knew the way as well as he did. They'd been there often enough, to Brasidas' house, where it was stupid to go but once he'd had it in his head he couldn't not. And besides, it was fine: Brasidas wouldn't be awake and he didn't want to see him anyway. That wasn't the point of going there.

The point was, there weren't many Spartan rituals that Alexios understood. He'd spent so long on Kephallonia, then wandering the Aegean, that his childhood felt like ten lifetimes ago, dim and distant except for the few clear memories he'd hung onto, whether he'd meant to or wanted to forget. There wasn't even complete agreement on the gods in the other places that he went, never mind rituals that went along with them, and sifting out the ones that were Athenian from the ones that were Korinthian or Kretan or Spartan had seemed pointless while travelling and impossible once he'd stopped. But he knew one thing, and that was what was required to officially accept a Spartan man's proposal. A number of foolish men had proposed marriage to Kassandra and Alexios remembered what Myrrine had told her; she'd been joking, mostly, because anyone could see from the appalled look on Kassandra's face that she wasn't interested in marrying any of them, but if she had been...the proper way to accept was to give a gift. Not just any gift, though, and that was the tricky part - it had to be a gift that meant something to the giver. And no, he wasn't going to force some unwanted state of matrimony on Brasidas just so he could keep his citizenship, but if he was leaving Sparta then by the gods he was going to make his feelings on the situation crystal clear. He'd say yes the best way he knew how to, and then leave and never come back. At least he'd know Brasidas knew.

Of course, as he was leading Phobos over there with the morning sun stinging in his eyes, he knew there was a problem: what was he going to give? He couldn't leave Phoibe's eagle - it still felt more like it belonged to her than it belonged to him. None of his armour meant much more than the drachmae he'd spent having blacksmiths work on it and the necklace he'd kept for Xenia was pretty, and it was shiny, and it was probably worth more than everything else he owned put together, but he didn't feel attached to it. No one in Sparta needed a bearskin cloak, and it was too bulky to put away and just forget about. His sword really belonged to Nikolaos and he meant to give it to Stentor one day. The spear was his family's and his mother would never forgive him if he gave it away. He smiled to himself, maybe a little wryly, when he realised what that left him with, and when he got to Brasidas' door he fumbled in his saddlebag for it. He slipped inside under Ikaros' watchful eye from where he'd perched above the doorway; he set it down on the corner of the kitchen table, and he left. He could pick up a new razor anywhere, if he decided he needed to shave.

He hopped up onto Phobos' saddle once he'd closed the door quietly behind him and he walked him through the city toward the gates. He could have risked a little more speed, given how quiet the streets were, and he probably should have, but he knew part of him was hoping Brasidas would wake up and wander into the kitchen, find the razor sitting there and set off after him. It was nonsense, and he told himself he left so slowly because he knew it was nonsense, not because he hoped it wasn't. But Brasidas didn't come and Alexios left Sparta, trying not to think of all the things he'd miss that would remain there.

The first night, he made a fire by the road and slept there - he used Phobos' warm neck as a pillow and his bearskin cloak as a blanket while Ikaros dozed in a nearby tree. Ikaros woke them both not long after dawn and they all ate by the dying fire before he smothered it, and then they carried on. It was like so many nights he'd had before and he hadn't been sure he'd ever have again.

The second night, they slept in a small village to the north, in a storehouse by a blacksmith's workshop that the blaze of the forge kept warm. He gave the blacksmith and his family enough drachmae to feed him and his horse and his eagle the next morning and then themselves for maybe another month, mostly because he could afford it and everyone there looked tired and drawn. They might have had peace between Sparta and Athens, but Alexios knew the war hadn't been kind to anyone.

The third night, as the sun was setting, they came to a vineyard on the edge of a small town. When Alexios asked if they could stay the night and offered his drachmae, the mistress of the house told him there was something that she needed more; it was nothing he hadn't done before, so he agreed. That night, when the wolves came in to eat the chickens, he killed all three of them then cleaned his blades and went to sleep. The chickens survived the night and in the morning, Alexios moved on.

Days passed. He took a job or two here and there to pay for room and board for himself and his menagerie, though Ikaros did pretty well for himself hunting mice and rats and fish; he retrieved stolen goods from bandits, found a tanner's missing child, helped herd unruly goats for a local festival, though he had to admit that Ikaros did most of the herding. The Spartans at Fort Arkas asked him to help them with the bandits who'd been attacking their supply lines, so he did it in exchange for a bed for two nights so Phobos could get some well-earned rest. They made a fuss of Ikaros, but they left Alexios alone. He preferred it that way.

Weeks passed. In Nauplia, the thief who'd taken an ex-soldier's armour turned out to be his son who'd sold it to buy expensive gifts for a pretty girl in town. In Argos, he visited Hippokrates' clinic but the man himself wasn't there; Alexios helped distribute medicine for a few days so the apprentices could spend their time making more of it. He camped for a night in the ruins at Mycenae, underneath the stars, wondering how many of the old kings and heroes had come from a bloodline just like his. Agamemnon, Menelaos, Ajax, Achilles...was he like them? How like Leonidas was he? He wasn't sure he'd have liked the answer if he'd got one.

A month passed. From Mycenae, he headed for the coast and followed it north to the port of Kechries, just east of Korinth. He already missed Sparta, and his family; he missed Stentor's scowl as they sparred and the sound of Kassandra's voice, the rare times that Nikolaos smiled and the stories his mater told, about Korinth and Keos and Naxos and all the things she'd done. He missed the training grounds and his bed and the table in Brasidas' kitchen where they'd sat and drank sometimes, a cup of wine each or just sharing the same one between the two of them, once he'd come back from his syssitia. He remembered the warm glow in Brasidas' cheeks when he drank too much and how once or twice, when Alexios spilled his wine, Brasidas had brushed it from his prickly chin with his own fingertips; that had made him twice as warm as the wine had. As he slept the night in the woods outside the port, he tried not to think about other things Brasidas had done, like that night before he'd left. Maybe he'd told himself he'd done it for the memories he'd have, but it was far too soon to remember without drowning half the pleasure in regret.

When he walked into Kechries bright and early the next morning, he expected to ask about the Adrestia at the harbourmaster's office and find she wasn't due back in for another month or more; what he didn't expect was to see her docked there already, just like she was waiting for him. He saw Barnabas on the deck, overseeing the unloading of their cargo, and Anthousa's carts being stacked with all the things they'd brought her from all over the Aegean. And he was making his way down there, to board his ship and clasp Barnabas by the arms and tell him Keos was their next stop then Delos where he'd heard Sokrates might be visiting, making a nuisance of himself as usual. He was striding down to the dock, already smiling to himself, wondering if this was the time he'd finally tell Barnabas about the minotaur and the sphinx and maybe even Medusa, just to see how wide his eyes could get, when another familiar figure popped up onto the deck.

Alexios paused where he was. His own eyes felt pretty wide. Brasidas stretched and rolled his neck and said something he couldn't hear that made Barnabas laugh out loud and clap him on the back so heartily that it made him stagger forward a pace. And he was going to leave - he was sure he could find another way to get to Keos, even if it meant a detour to Piraeus, even if it meant riding on through Megaris and Attika and flagging down a pirate ship with a charming smile and a pouch of drachmae. But Barnabas saw him, eagle-eyed as Ikaros despite only having the use of one of them, and he waved and called, "Alexios! Alexios, I knew we'd find you here!"

He supposed he could still have left; he'd done worse things in his life than being rude to an old friend, after all. But a few members of the crew looked up and raised a hand in greeting and when Brasidas turned to look, too, when he smiled and waved, Alexios knew he couldn't leave. He clenched his jaw and he waved back, and he carried on toward the ship.

"Alexios!" Barnabas said, once he'd wandered up the gangplank and onto the deck, and he shook him by the shoulders almost as hard as any beast of legend ever had. Then Barnabas leaned in and told him, mock-conspiratorial, "Some of the crew thought you were never coming back, you know, but I told them, just you wait, we'll see him again. And here you are!"

"Yes, here I am," Alexios replied, and he gave Barnabas' forearm a fond squeeze. "I've missed you too, Barnabas. How is the Adrestia?"

"We have a great many tales to tell! There were sirens on the rocks off Skyros when we last passed by there, Alexios, I'm certain of it. But..." He gestured at Brasidas. "All of that can wait. We have a guest."

"So I see." He looked at Brasidas, clenching his fists at his sides to try to wave off his nerves as he did so, then glanced back at Barnabas. "How did you come to be transporting a Spartan general, Barnabas?"

Barnabas looked at Brasidas; Brasidas looked at Barnabas; Barnabas made a gracious you first gesture and Brasidas turned to Alexios.

"I went to find a ship at Gytheion, and I was surprised to find the Adrestia," Brasidas explained.

"I'm surprised to see you outside Sparta. I thought Spartans didn't leave Lakonia without orders."

"Archidamos gave permission."

"What for?"

Brasidas raised his brows pointedly as Barnabas patted Alexios on the shoulder and wandered away almost discreetly to return to the cargo.

"Why do you think?" Brasidas replied.

"I don't know."

"Well, it seems I've carelessly misplaced something."

"You have?"

"I have."

Alexios frowned. "What is it?"

Brasidas' smile turned wry but warm, and he reached out for Alexios' shoulder. "My husband," he said. His thumb rubbed lightly at Alexios' collarbone, as it had done so many times before. "You."

"I'm not your husband."

"Alexios, let's be clear: I think we both know you should be." He reached into the pouch hanging at his waist and produced the old copper razor on his palm. He held it out. "You know, or you wouldn't have said yes."

"That's just an old razor. I wondered where I'd left it."

"Do you think I don't remember?"

"Think you don't remember what?"

Brasidas sighed. He tilted his head back and he stretched out his throat and he ran one hand over his beard to make it obvious - both the scar and what he was referring to by way of it.

"I was only unconscious the first time you did it," he said. "Don't you remember me telling you to shave the rest? You told me I looked ten years younger without the beard, but I was so weak, Alexios. I felt thirty years older."

He did remember. He remembered helping Brasidas to sit up in bed, except he could barely hold himself upright; Alexios had ended up on his knees behind him, Brasidas' bare back against his clothed chest, and shaving him had almost been like shaving himself, they were so close together. He'd done it as much by touch as by sight, slow and careful, the oil he'd rubbed into his skin with his fingertips making the blade glide just a little more easily and he'd tried to keep calm, but his heart had felt like it might beat out of his chest at any moment. And when he'd finished, when he'd washed away the oil and stray hairs and patted Brasidas' newly-smooth face dry, he'd just sat there for a moment longer with his knees spread wide and Brasidas sitting back between them, resting against his chest. He remembered looping his arms around Brasidas' waist, feeling the rise and fall of his chest with his breath and the warmth of his skin seeping in through his tunic. The beard had grown back in, but he remembered.

Alexios smiled faintly. "You did look ten years younger," he said.

"So I look older now?"

"You are older now."

Brasidas huffed out a half-amused breath. "I suppose I am," he said. "But don't think you can sidetrack me so easily." He raised his hands to Alexios' shoulders. "I asked and you said yes. It was a genuine offer. Tell me, was it a genuine reply?"

Alexios frowned. "Brasidas, I want you to know that I'm grateful," he said. "But I'm not going to let you pay for my mistake just so I can stay in Sparta."

Brasidas tsked. He stepped closer, and his hands that had been resting at Alexios' shoulders slipped up to his neck, his fingers nudging in just underneath his hair. It made him shiver.

"You know, I thought I'd made myself clear," he said. "Why do you think I smiled when you wanted to fight me, Alexios? I thought you knew what you were doing. I thought it was a statement of intent."

"And you were pleased?"

"Yes! And the night that you left Sparta. I don't make a habit of taking strange men into my bed." He sighed. He took a breath. "Before Amphipolis, I had my duty and the war, and you had the Cult of Kosmos, and I knew that wasn't the right time. When I was called and you didn't fight, I thought that meant you were happy being friends. But then you fought me, and I thought perhaps now was the time. Do you understand?"

He understood. At very long last, he understood, and his face felt warm and a smile broke out as he looked at him, half relief and half sheer fucking joy. "I don't know," he said. "Could you be any clearer?" But Brasidas must have understood that he was being teased because he laughed out loud, fondly but exasperated, before he stepped in close and kissed him right in front of everyone in Kechries. That was about as clear as it could possibly be, Alexios thought; even a misthios who'd spent more of his life outside Sparta than inside it couldn't misunderstand the intent. So, when Brasidas drew back, Alexios pulled him straight back in again and made him laugh. Barnabas whistled his amused approval, and that was that.

They married as the seasons changed, when at long last they got back to Sparta; they didn't take the direct route home by any means. Alexios gave a necklace to his friend the pirate queen of Keos and introduced her to the man he was planning to marry. They walked and talked and drank a lot of wine with Sokrates when they found him there on Delos, and Alexios sat back and watched with a smile on his face as Brasidas debated with him in a way that didn't seem completely Spartan. He showed Brasidas the forge on Andros and the gates he'd closed on Thera. Then they went back to Lakonia and said goodbye to the crew just up the shore from Zarax Point, at least for the time being.

They married as the seasons changed, back in Sparta, wearing Spartan red that Alexios figured he'd better get used to. And later, in Brasidas' home, their home, in bed, Alexios sprawled naked on top of him just like his bearskin cloak. He smiled. Brasidas laughed and tucked Alexios' straying hair behind his ears, then he trailed his fingers down over nine days of stubble at his jaw, just long enough that the hair was soft.

"You know, you could use a shave," Brasidas said, not exactly casually. There was maybe a twinkle in his eye, or maybe that was just the lamplight; Alexios thought he knew which of those things it was.

"Tomorrow, maybe," he replied, and Brasidas didn't protest at all. For the time being, they had other things to occupy them, but he suspected they'd return to that. After all, Brasidas did still have the razor.

There were a lot of things he didn't know about Sparta. There were a lot of things he didn't understand, but he could learn. He had an excellent teacher.

There were a lot of things he didn't understand. But when Brasidas kissed him, when he slipped his fingers into his hair and pressed his mouth to his, he understood that perfectly.