His birthday was never much of an occasion, less so when he was a child. His uncle was not inclined to displays of extravagance, and his mother... well, his mother had other things on her mind. He was instructed to offer the relevant sacrifices to the deities; however brief, this was more of a spartan chore than a joyous celebration. One year, one of the slaves took pity on him and baked him a cake - ten times more humiliating than having the day unacknowledged. Marcus ate it anyway: the taste of baked honey was enough to overlook whatever reservations he may have had. When he entered public life and finally grew into the role befitting one from his family, well-wishers became more frequent - in the forum, in the Senate, on the streets. Some years, there were even enough of them to have a little banquet in someone's house with more wine than food: pretentious affairs, not particularly merry, and that often left Marcus rather wishing the day had gone unacknowledged after all.
Today, however... today he sits in the Senate, a knot in his throat as he watches Caesar engage in a lively debate, his wit quick and his tongue sharp, his smile genuine but for the cold gleam in his eyes as he delivers vaguely threatening platitudes. Marcus licks his lips. A fleeting wish, selfish and juvenile, starts growing inside him. What if Caesar were to single him out when the session concludes and wish him a happy birthday in front of all the others? The mere thought is ridiculous and yet the moment he thinks it Marcus begins longing for it, craving it, needing it so desperately it takes his breath away.
He can imagine it: Caesar letting his glance wander around the curia with his usual poise, the corner of his mouth lifting when their gazes meet, the subtle arch of his eyebrow, and then his voice, firm and commanding as he demands silence. 'By the by,' he'd say, a hand extended to shush the others, 'today happens to be the birthday of my dear friend Brutus. I wish him a happy day.'
There would be murmurs, of course, when aren't there murmurs? That old rumour might resurface: that he is, in fact, Caesar's son, borne out of his mother's longstanding affair - making him take a keen interest in Marcus's birth. If only they knew how little like a father Caesar behaves when they are alone, how his hands stroke his thighs idly, how his fingers linger on the back of his neck, how his mouth both loves and wounds, kissing, biting, marking Marcus his.
What sordid rumours would circulate, if only they knew!
First the mother, then the son, they'd say. They might speculate that this is the cause for the recent frost between Caesar and Servilia, that Marcus stole his mother's lover. The notion draws a smirk out of him. People tend to imagine him more cunning than he really is, often to hilarious extents. In truth, while his unnatural desire for Caesar is nearly as old as his somewhat mortifying sexual awakening on the cusp of adolescence, their own entanglement is a rather recent development. As recent, in fact, as Caesar's crushing victory over the remnants of Pompey's supporters somewhere along the coasts of Greece. His overt friendship to Marcus, in public, answered to purely political reasons. But in private, Caesar claimed the absolute surrender his pride demanded: on his knees with Caesar's cock down his throat, Marcus could not help but thinking then that this was hardly a hardship on him. The fact that he was called to his tent every night made it evident his ardour (and his shameful skills) had not gone unnoticed.
"Partied too hard last night?"
Cicero's voice startles Marcus out of his musings. He stares up at him, not understanding. His friend is looking at him with an amusement that is far from benign, lips twisted in a mocking smirk.
"The session is over," he adds, gesturing around themselves.
"Oh," Marcus says, a little stupidly.
He blinks. Most Senators have risen from their seats and are making idle chatter in smaller groups on the way out of the building. Right in the middle of the curia, Caesar is listening to Antonius with an affable smile, seemingly in no hurry to leave. Right, then: no birthday wishes, no grand speeches, no gazes in Marcus's direction. He clears his throat and stands.
"No partying for me, I'm afraid," he retorts, perhaps too late, as he starts walking towards the doors. "I'm becoming a boring old man with alarming speed."
"If you're an old man, that makes the rest of us Senators little more than corpses. Do you not intend to celebrate your birthday then?"
"Not really," Marcus says, and holds his breath, because they are walking right next to where Caesar and Antonius are standing.
"Ah, Brutus!" Caesar exclaims, interrupting Antonius and turning to face Marcus. "Would you care to come home with me and go over what was said today in the meeting? I could use your counsel."
"I would join you, but my counsel may be of little help," Marcus says, opening his arms in a fatalistic gesture - he spent the session too engrossed in Caesar's physical presence to really listen to what was said today, like a young boy too enraptured by his tutor to mind his lessons.
"It would be most valuable," Caesar insists.
Not one birthday wish. Antonius is smirking with overt contempt, likely aware of the extent of Marcus's absurd infatuation with Caesar. Nevertheless, Cicero is still next to him, and Marcus has grown weary of his sardonic conversation of late: he'd rather not waste his birthday drinking with him. Besides, who is Marcus fooling here? He is desperate to spend time with Caesar, in any way possible - even if it means ignoring this small slight of having his birthday forgotten.
"Thank you, that is kind of you to say," Marcus tells him. "I will walk home with you."
The walk to Caesar's house is nothing short of chaotic, uncanny in how much it resembles a scene from a comedy. The slaves clear the way for him, but they cannot stop the expressions of love and admiration from the crowd as he walks by. People call to him, cheer for him - some even bow before him, as if he were a God. His consecration a few weeks earlier seems to have cemented his divinity among the common folk. Marcus hardly blames them: even he, seated among the Senators, was dazzled with the sheer power radiating from Caesar, dressed in purple, his stern face painted with blood as he greeted the crowd with a solemnity befitting Jupiter Maximus. He was Jupiter Maximus, for a moment as fleeting as the life of a mortal before a God.
Even now, as he walks among the crowd, Caesar still has the presence of mind to make vague and absent-minded greeting gestures with his hands while he speaks to Posca about the session that just ended. The sly little slave will be more help than Marcus to untangle the subtleties of the Senate, that's for certain. Posca has an admirable grasp of politics, that must be the reason why Caesar keeps him so close and tolerates his occasional sass. Marcus follows them in silence, walking behind them as if he were the slave. As he basks in the admiration Caesar leaves in his wake, he is also keenly aware of the curious stares of the crowd on himself. The populace knows they are friends, perhaps father and son, but they too are ignorant to the fact that they are also lovers. Marcus allows himself a secret smile.
Caesar's house is a welcome respite after the excitement of the streets. Marcus has to give it to Calpurnia: she's made a pleasant home in this villa, quiet and calming - somewhere Caesar can hide from the world, if he's ever so inclined. A couple of slaves bring some water in a bassinet the moment they step inside. Marcus washes his face in silence, both to recover from the heat and to awaken from this enamoured stupor that lingers even long after the session has ended. Caesar's fingers brush against his inside the bassinet. When Marcus looks up, he finds him smiling at him with an unexpectedly playful grin: then, as swift as a child, Caesar sprinkles some water on him. Marcus gasps, then laughs and answers in kind. The cheerful moment hardly lasts: Posca hands them cloth to dry themselves with something of an eye roll.
Wine has been served in one of the smaller triclina, the one Caesar usually uses to entertain Marcus. Posca seems to have disappeared, and it is another slave who pours them their drinks in unassuming crystal cups. The wine is sweet, exquisitely so, and the slave has hardly watered it. Marcus lets it linger on his tongue to savour it better.
"Do you like it?" Caesar asks him.
Marcus meets his gaze: reclined in his chair, Caesar is watching him with curiosity.
"Yes," he says. "Very much. Where is it from?"
"It was sent from Hispania last week. I've been saving it until now."
"Oh?" Marcus stares at the dark wine still left on his cup. Yes, it would be a pity to water this down. Undoubtedly Caesar gave instructions for its handling. "Do you like it?"
"Hm, yes. Perhaps too sweet." Caesar takes another sip and smiles at him again. "But it fits you. Wouldn't you say?"
Marcus lets out a short laugh. "Too sweet? Is that how you think of me?"
"Not at all. But there is virtue in sweetness and excess. Both are qualities I have come to appreciate in you."
"What excesses do you have in mind to slander me like this?" Marcus teases, leaning forward towards him.
"Some recent nights, I believe," Caesar says with a sly curling of his lips. "But never mind that. I had a taste of this wine when it arrived and decided to save it for your next visit."
"Thank you," Marcus says, touched with this oblique compliment. "This is a rare boon from you."
"A rare boon?" Caesar raises one eyebrow. "Is that how you see me, then? A roguish, ungenerous old man?"
"Not ungenerous." Marcus smiles at him. "And not old. But a little distant, perhaps."
Caesar stares at his cup thoughtfully and takes another sip, raising no objections to this characterization. Gods are meant to be distant, too engrossed in their divine affairs - and yet. And yet Jupiter, Neptune, Apollo and countless others deities have had their heads turned by mere men. What is it about mortals that seduces Gods so? Earthly pleasures, perhaps? A skilled tongue, a firm set of thighs? No doubt he'll soon find out what it is that Caesar wants from him today. Marcus takes another sip of the wine, feverish already in anticipation.
"Posca," Caesar calls. "Bring it now."
Posca enters the room moments later with his usual exasperated expression. He carries a silver platter of food, covered with a lavish lid. His bow transmits sarcasm rather than respect, but he bends before Marcus nevertheless, presenting the platter before him.
"Go on," Caesar says. "Uncover it."
Intrigued, Marcus lifts the lid. It's a cake. A birthday cake, covered in honey - absurdly large in size but an honest-to-Ceres birthday cake nonetheless. He gasps.
"I wish you a happy birthday," Caesar says, sounding very pleased with himself.
Oh, Marcus did think he forgot in earnest. He cannot help a smile, a smile that spreads and spreads until he must be grinning like a simpleton.
"Thank you," he whispers.
"My dear boy, you didn't really think I forgot, did you?" Caesar says.
Posca moves away to set the cake on the table, and another slave brings a knife to make square little cuts - easier to eat without getting fingers too sticky.
"I did," Marcus admits, a little annoyed at himself for his lack of judgement.
"You should have known better." Caesar nods at him. "Come, sit with me, then. Let us have wine and cake, and celebrate together."
Marcus joins him on the reclining chair. Caesar's hands are never idle: one still holds his cup, but the other comes rest on Marcus's back, both possessive and soothing. Marcus lifts his left hand and touches Caesar's face with the back of his fingers, hardly a caress.
"I think," he says, leaning closer to whisper in Caesar's ear, "that I'm not the only sweet one here."
Caesar lets out a sound that is both a scoff and a laugh.
"Perhaps," he concedes. "But you would do well not to mention it again."
"I will not. I will keep your dreary secret," Marcus promises, and he closes his eyes when Caesar kisses his lips.