The Taste of Freedom

Author's Note: A fix-it for one of the saddest moments of season 1. Discovered this almost finished in my GDrive and figured I should wrap it up and post it.

***

The magistrate came just in time.

Barca was kneeling in the rain, blood flowing from multiple wounds, colouring the water red, but he was still alive. Batiatus turned from him with a curse and gestured to the soldiers to keep him quiet and restraint while he dealt with the unwelcome visitor. When he returned, he was still fuming, but Barca could read his dominus well enough to know that the immediate danger for his life had passed. Instead Batiatus fixed him with a glare and said, "It seems as if you spoke the truth after all, Barca - the magistrate's nephew was found dead in the ruins. Jupiter's cock, what am I to do with you now?"

It was obvious that no answer was required, and Barca silently hung his head, closing his eyes and focusing on breathing through the pain. He knew the only way to save his life was to convince Batiatus that, despite the unjust treatment he had just experienced, he harboured no grudge. Which was a lie, but one that Barca hoped he'd be able to sustain.

He had wanted to leave before, but this had not been because of any ill will towards Batiatus, simply because of his wish to live a free life with Pietros. Now, however, his loyalty had been thoroughly shattered when dominus proved himself willing to kill him over the word of a messenger and fucking Ashur. Clamping down on his temper, Barca held his tongue and waited for the pacing Batiatus to come to a decision.

The lanista was too smart to expect that things could go back to the way they had been, but on the other hand Barca had served him faithfully and well for many years, protecting and killing without question or hesitation, in addition to being a great gladiator. In the end, the years of service weighed the scales in Barca's favour, if just barely, and Batiatus' voice was oily with faked generosity when he finally spoke, "You have served me well in the past, Barca, but you must see that I cannot fully trust a slave who desires freedom. So I am giving you a choice, and it is a fucking generous one: Either you leave these walls right now, a free man, or you will give me no choice but to take your life. Which is mine to do with as I will, after all."

Barca lifted his eyes and met Batiatus' eyes with a silent stare, but before it could be taken for insolence he looked down again and responded evenly, "Dominus. I take my freedom." He was aware that he should not tempt fate, but there was one question still burning on his tongue: "Only… what about Pietros? I meant to take him with me - Ashur owes me enough money to purchase his freedom."

He followed up his respectful words with a glance towards Ashur that had the Syrian blanch and flinch, trying to make himself invisible. Batiatus, however, was already shaking his head, and Barca knew his answer before it came: "No. You will leave this house right away or not at all. Ashur will pay you whatever he has on hand, the rest will go to me as compensation for your disloyalty."

Again Barca had to reign in fury at the Roman's duplicity, the way he twisted the fact that he had almost killed Barca by mistake and turned it somehow into Barca's fault. He was almost tempted to throw caution to the wind and try to take Batiatus' life before his own was taken, but the guards still had their swords at his throat and back, and Barca knew the attempt would be futile and doubtlessly lead to Pietros being punished. Revenge on Batiatus and Ashur would have to wait until he had found another way to free his lover. Continuing to keep his eyes respectfully averted, face impassive, the Carthaginian nodded his agreement with the terms offered.

It was not even an hour later that he was led to the gate, carrying nothing but some clothes, a few coins and his letter of manumission. The fact that Batiatus had withheld the wooden sword customarily granted to freed gladiators was an added insult that Barca could do nothing about. At least he had been cursorily patched up by the medicus while Batiatus drew up the papers, a reprieve Barca had used to entreat the other slave to let Pietros know what had happened. He did not dare to say outright that he would be back, since Ashur was hovering in the shadows, and the knowledge that Pietros would undoubtedly be hurt by his seeming desertion weighed heavily on the the Carthaginian's mind.

He had always scorned anyone who spoke against the house of Batiatus, proud to be a gladiator in its ludus, but now Barca was burning with fury over the way he had been treated on this night - distrusted, almost killed, and now discarded like a tool that had lost its usefulness. He would bide his time for now, but if Batiatus thought he would turn up by his door like a good freedman, bowing and scraping, he was sorely mistaken. For years Barca had been proud to be a gladiator, to serve his dominus loyally, but before that he had been raised on stories of glorious Carthage, dead for over 70 years, a descendant of its last rulers, and now he remembered what it had felt like to feel pride for his own sake.

He felt Pietros's absence like a missing limb, but as he left the house he had called home for so long, Barca did not once glance over his shoulder. He would be back for his lover, and to get his revenge for the injustices suffered.

***

The medicus did speak to Pietros, but he could not tell what he did not know, and so the young slave was left believing that Barca had abandoned him when offered the chance of freedom. All the Greek slave could do was assure Pietros that Barca had seemed reluctant to go, which offered little in the way of comfort. Smarting from having to pay coin to both Barca and Batiatus, even if it was far less than Barca had actually won, Ashur was quick to reinforce the notion, sadistically pleased by the glistening of tears in Pietros's eyes.

It was Naevia who found him crying in Barca's old room, cradling a restless pigeon in his hands. Her kind heart went out to the young man, despite only knowing him in passing, and she impulsively sat down next to him and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, saying softly, "I do not know why Barca left as he did, but I believe he did not have choice in the matter."

While she also did not know what exactly had transpired, she had been present during the signing of the manumission letter and had seen the strange tension between Batiatus and Barca. This secret, rushed ceremony in the middle of the night had been nothing like Gannicus' emancipation, and remembering how Ashur had glowered while keeping well out of Barca's way, Naevia felt confident to add, "It is scant comfort, but Ashur had a hand in Barca's departure, of this I am certain - as certain as I am of the love Barca bears for you, Pietros."

"Gratitude," Pietros managed, tears still flowing down his cheeks. It did not help much, but he knew enough of Ashur and his schemes to believe his offer of help had been spurious and maybe even hidden some darker intentions. He met Naevia's eyes, full of kindness and understanding, and gave her a watery smile. They had not exchanged many words before, but he knew about her and Crixus, both from Barca and from what he had seen with his own eyes. In many ways they were the same, and it made the pain more bearable to be able to share it with someone. Praying that the gods would not rob this kind woman of the man she loved as they had deprived him of his, Pietros gratefully accepted Naevia's comforting embrace.

"Barca would rather part with his cock than leave Pietros!" Crixus's exclamation echoed Naevia's own thoughts when Doctore broke words on the subject of the Carthaginian's departure while Naevia was visiting Crixus in the infirmary as Lucretia had commanded.

She knew it was not the way of the ludus for a gladiator to concern himself with a common slave, but Naevia felt a kinship with Pietros and wished him to be safe. Doctore intimidated her, but she remembered Melita and how the serious face had softened when looking at his wife. It gave her the courage to speak up on Pietros's behalf, "The heart breaks for the boy. Not only has he lost his beloved; without Barca's protection I fear what might become of him."

She was mostly directing her plea towards Crixus, but Doctore was also still contemplating the situation and finally said, "I will do my best. Losing the one you love is painful enough without others taking advantage of the fact."

Naevia smiled gratefully, and Pietros found himself with a watchful protector, although he was barely aware of the way Doctore shielded him from unwanted attention. For him, Barca's absence was all that mattered, his world suddenly empty and dark.

***

Pietros had been barely more than a boy when Batiatus bought him. At first he served in the villa as a house slave, but then the need for another pair of hands in the ludus arose and he moved his few belongings downstairs.

Apprehension clogged his throat and slowed his steps, causing Doctore to shoot him an irritated glance, which added to Pietros's fear. He was no innocent, having been a slave all his life, but until recently Pietros had been too scrawny to garner much attention, unwanted or otherwise. Then his body had begun to change, and suddenly there was hunger in the way some men looked at him. Batiatus himself did not favour boys, but had he not been sent to the ludus, Pietros had fully expected to be commanded to service a guest at the next party. Now, having seen gladiators from afar and having heard of their rough ways, he was truly terrified that one or more of them might look at him as prey.

Unaware of the boy's frightened thoughts, Doctore directed him to the slaves' sleeping quarters and then ordered him to the mess hall, where he was to help serve dinner. It did not take long for some of the gladiators to take note of the pretty new slave, and Pietros fixed his gaze to the ground and tried his best to be invisible. Cook's presence was enough to save him from more than a few pinches, but it was enough to make him dread the moment the first man cornered him alone. Then, in the commotion of dozens of gladiators readying themselves to start training again, Pietros managed to run right into the biggest of them all.

It was like walking into a mountain, and Pietros scrambled backwards, his eyes flying up nervously as he tried to regain his balance. He was completely unaware what an appealing picture he made with his cheeks flushed and eyes flashing through long lashes, but stern features softened into a smile at the sight, even as strong hands flew out to steady the flustered slave who was stammering out apologies.

"Do not concern yourself, boy, no harm was done," a deep, surprisingly gentle voice reached Pietros's ears. "Just give me your name and I will call us even."

"Pietros. My name is Pietros." Pietros swallowed, still scared, but somehow not as much as he suspected he should be, considering that this was exactly the kind of attention he had been trying so hard to avoid. He could still feel the place where huge hands had rested to stop him from stumbling, although they had been dropped the moment Pietros had been back on his feet, and almost in spite of himself he met the mountain's smiling eyes with a timid smile of his own.

"Welcome to the ludus, Pietros. I am Barca." Finally moving to rejoin the others on the training ground, the big man gave him another smile that warmed Pietros more than the afternoon sun. Irritated with himself he forced his eyes away and for the rest of the day tried his best not to single out Barca from amongst the other gladiators, a task more difficult than he would have liked. While he was passing out weapons and water, Pietros could not help but notice that there was a kind of savage beauty in the way Barca moved on the practice grounds, surprisingly graceful for one so big.

It was a sight Pietros came to enjoy more with each passing day as he settled into life in the ludus. He kept his head down and fulfilled his tasks quickly and diligently, and with the exception of the occasional lewd comment or stray hand he was left to his own devices, giving him more freedom than at any other time in his life. Then came the first time he was present while the gladiators got ready for the arena. Pietros had never been one for the games, having never had the chance to attend them and not caring much for the idea of men slaughtering one another for sport, and now he had another reason to dislike them, finding himself fearing for Barca's life.

Almost against his will he found himself standing next to the big gladiator in the baths, shyly offering him the strigil to scrape the oil off his gleaming chest. He was thanked with a surprised glance and a grateful nod, and with only a small quaver in his voice he managed to say what was on his mind, "May the gods be with you, Barca. I pray they see you to victory and back tonight."

He squirmed a bit under the thoughtful gaze from those deep black eyes as Barca turned his full attention on him, smiling warmly. "Gratitude, Pietros. It has been a long time since anyone cared to pray for me - even if in this case your prayers will not be necessary. I face no real threat this day."

"You should not speak lightly of the gods," Pietros could not but admonish. "However, I am glad to know I will lay eyes on you again tonight."

He made to duck away, but a strong hand stopped him. "I meant no offense. Know that your thoughts are greatly appreciated." The Carthaginian's voice was low and gentle, and Pietros felt it almost like a caress. "Maybe you can find it in your heart to grant me another favour: Should misfortune occur and the gods claim my life on the sands, would you look after my birds?"

"You would entrust them to me?" Pietros looked up in surprise. Of course he had noticed the birds which Barca tended with great care each day, their unexplained presence another proof of how he differed from the other gladiators. In truth it was this Barca, whose big hands, so used to violence, cradled the fluttering animals without bending a single feather, who appeared in Pietros's thoughts and dreams most often. Consequently his smile lit up his whole face. "Of course. I would tend them as if they were most precious gift. But, as you say, you will be back, so there is no need for such precautions. Perhaps then you will show me how best to treat them."

Just then Doctore called him away, but not before Barca agreed, his hand trailing along Pietros's arm in what was almost a caress. "It would bring great pleasure to do so. See me about it tomorrow."

That night there was great festivity in the ludus, the gladiators either celebrating victory or trying to forget defeat. Pietros did not intend to take part, wary of the drunken men, and was on his way to his cell when his fears were proven correct and someone grabbed him roughly. It was Raskos, a great brute whose eyes Pietros had felt on himself almost from the first day, and his hands pushed aside Pietros's tunic without preamble, his breath stinking of sour wine as he shoved his tongue down the slave's throat. Whimpers escaped unbidden, but there was nothing he could do against the gladiator's raw strength, and he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to prepare himself for what was sure to follow.

However, he was rescued by another set of strong hands, already familiar, which wrenched him out of Raskos' unwanted embrace, their grasp firm but not painful. Barca placed his bulk between Pietros and the drunk gladiator, who seemed befuddled by the inference, and stated calmly, "Apologies, brother, but this one is spoken for."

Pietros's eyes flew up at these words, but Barca only guided him away from Raskos without further words until they reached the cell where the birds were kept. Only then did his arm, wrapped tightly around Pietros's waist, fall away, and he looked away, focusing on the cages as he spoke, his voice tight, "Apologies, Pietros. I make no presumptions, I have no interest in fucking where it is not welcomed. I only meant to offer protection, and this was the sole explanation Raskos would accept."

Looking up at him, Pietros was surprised to see the dark cheeks flush, and it loosened something inside of him, gave him courage to lay a hand on the broad chest, the first time he had ever initiated touch, and say with a smile that was almost coy, "Gratitude for rescue much appreciated, no apologies are needed. I have only one question, Barca - what if your… attentions were welcome?"

Forcing himself not to look away, Pietros could feel himself blush, but any misgivings that might have developed disappeared when Barca claimed his lips in a kiss that was much softer than Pietros would have expected had he not seen him with the birds. It was his own choice to deepen the press of mouths into a hungrier dance of lips and tongues, sparking a fire in Pietros's groin as Barca's hands began to wander down his back. His own fingers tangled in Barca's long braids, tugging the tall head down towards him, the big man following with a laugh that Pietros swallowed eagerly.

His back hitting the wall, he found himself being lifted up easily, Barca's body surrounding him as Pietros wrapped his legs around slim hips, his arms around broad shoulders. A hard cock pushed against his own, and Pietros met every thrust with a passion he had never felt before. He had exchanged kisses and fumbling caresses with a fellow slave before, but nothing like this, nothing like the deep pleasure he found in the way Barca held him, full of joy and shared need. With a groan he lost himself in a bone-melting climax, one that Barca helped him ride out, undemanding hands steadying Pietros as he bucked and shuddered.

Finally opening his eyes again, he met Barca's warm gaze, watching him with the same curious tenderness Pietros had witnessed before in the handling of his birds. It made his skin tingle with something strange and deep, and he had to lean forward and kiss the smiling lips, reveling in the already familiar taste and warmth of Barca's mouth, which opened to him readily. Pietros lost himself in the sliding of lips, the tangling of tongues, until he became conscious of Barca's unsated desire pressing against him.

Grinning, he wriggled free, Barca letting him go without question, and went to his knees in front of the Carthaginian. Their eyes locked while his fingers freed Barca's cock from its confines, and Barca cupped his chin with one hand, the other combing through Pietros's curls. Pietros smiled, showing more courage than he felt, and leaned into the caress. "I have never done this before. I beg that you forgive any clumsiness in this first attempt."

"You are a fucking marvel, Pietros. There is no way in Hades anything you do could ever displease me, trust in that..." Something like wonder showed on Barca's face, giving Pietros all the reassurance he needed to set his mind to the task. He did not expect to enjoy it, having witnessed all too often how the mouths of fellow slaves were used by Romans, yet he quickly realised there was a joyous thrill in the way Barca reacted to his every touch. It did not take long before the gladiator half-bellowed in warning, but by then Pietros was determined to see it through to the end and swallowed without hesitation.

When he was done, Barca helped him back onto his feet and claimed his lips in another soul-searing kiss, taking him tightly into his arms. They swayed back and forth, half-drunk on one another, and Pietros dimly realised he was hard again at about the same time that Barca did. He broke away and grinned, "Ah, you are so fucking young. I shall see you have no reason to complain of me either!"

With that Pietros was tumbled unto the ground and covered by the Carthaginian's massive body, mouth and hands exploring him until he writhed and cursed. Only then did Barca stop tormenting him, kneeling between his legs and swallowing his leaking cock with a laugh. If he had not been so lost to pleasure, Pietros would have been embarrassed by how quickly he succumbed to the heat of his lover's mouth. As it was, he fell apart with his eyes fixed on Barca, knowing with bone-deep certainty that this mountain of a man, violent and gentle all at once, would forever have a hold not only on his body but his heart as well.

***

It was Naevia's fate, along with the kindness Spartacus had consistently shown him, that made Pietros decide to follow the Thracian on the day the house of Batiatus fell. His own freedom was of no great concern to him, not anymore, not without Barca by his side as they had once dreamed of in the quiet hours of the night.

Still, once he had chosen his path, he followed it wholeheartedly, stealing the key to the ludus and even taking up a dagger to slash a legionnaire's throat. The man jerked and shuddered, gushes of blood spurting from his neck, and, staring at the body at his feet, Pietros suddenly remembered Barca and wondered if taking a life had ever felt like this for him, like a heavy thing that was too easy to do. His half-wild grin, rising unbidden, sat all wrong on his face as he realised that this was another thing they shared now, his long-gone lover and he.

Afterwards, he scrubbed his skin roughly, seemingly unable to get rid of the blood that stained it. Still, there was something uplifting about being gone from the ludus, even if they were hungry and cold most of the time. Pietros did his best to keep up the spirits of the other house slaves, tried to make them feel more comfortable around the gladiators, whose constant arguments did nothing to calm their fears and worries.

And then Doctore appeared like a shadow from Hades and brought warning of approaching danger. Afterwards, before leaving them to their fate, Doctore approached Pietros and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Pietros, I am glad to find you alive, although saddened that you threw in your lot with Spartacus. But I have words to break regarding something of concern to you. After the Thracian forced my departure from the house of Batiatus, I must admit to using unwanted freedom to satisfy curiosity on a matter weighing on my mind."

His eyes were gentle and probing, and while he had known Doctore had affection for him, Pietros wondered why the taciturn man would lose so many words on one as unimportant as himself. What he said next made Pietros close his eyes for a long moment, fighting down tears. "I am speaking of Barca's fate. It always felt wrong that he would depart as he did. And indeed I discovered reason."

Any word that was uttered after this was lost on Pietros, his eyes riveted on a hulking form appearing in the darkness behind Doctore. Unthinkingly he backed away until his back hit the wall. His heart constricting in painful certainty, he tried to speak, yet his mouth would not form words. Then Barca was there, pushing back the hood of his cloak and reaching out a hand as if wanting to touch Pietros but not daring to.

Eyes darting back and forth between the face that had haunted his dreams since that rainy night so long ago and the outstretched fingers that uncharacteristically trembled in hesitation, Pietros was frozen to the spot, his heart beating so hard he thought it must burst from his chest. Barca just stood there, equally unmoving, his soul laid bare in every line of face and body, and suddenly Pietros was filled with anger.

He hurled himself past Doctore, who had stopped speaking once Barca appeared, pulling back his fist and punching the Carthaginian right in the face. It was not very effective due to the difference in their heights, but Barca flinched nonetheless. Pietros recognised the moment he suppressed his instinct to defend himself, the way his shoulders slumped, and, fury battling something else, something he was not willing to name yet, Pietros raised both hands and pushed him backwards with as much force as he could muster. He could hear himself scream, "You left me, Barca! Why? Why all the lofty promises if all I ever was was a convenient fuck?"

Then strong arms came up and enveloped him, leaving him to fight against an embrace he had thought lost to him forever. Dimly he was aware of the attention of others, the murmurs of Barca's name running through the crowd, but all his attention was on Barca's voice in his ear, frantic and laden with emotion: "It was never my intention to leave you, Pietros. The fuck Ashur had conspired to blacken my name because of the coin owed to me, and Batiatus left me no choice - it was either depart immediately as a penniless freedman or be killed on the spot. But by all I hold dear, every second since I tried to think of a way to free you!"

A part of Pietros wanted to accuse Barca of lying, but deep down he knew better, and slowly he stopped thrashing, although he could not yet bring himself to look at the man holding him so tightly. Barca's hands ran up and down his back, gentling, soothing as if Pietros was one of his birds, and he continued his explanation more calmly but no less intense, "The moment news reached my ears of what had happened, I returned to Capua. You know I am no praying man, but I prayed every minute to every god that you had survived the slaughter and were free. When Oenomaus found me… I fear I owe the gods a considerable sacrifice for having spared you."

Pietros could feel the gusts of Barca's short, rueful laugh in his hair, and his hands tightened reflexively in the front of the dark traveling cloak the Carthaginian wore. He finally found his voice again, although it was barely more than a whisper, "A part of me feared you were dead, because I could not believe you would leave me. A part of me even wished it, rather than thinking myself abandoned." He looked up at this admission but saw only acceptance in those black eyes, leading him to continue, "A lot has changed, Barca. Maybe you should not be too eager to thank the gods for bringing us together again. I am no longer the boy I was."

To his surprise Barca's face broke into a smile, small but there, and calloused fingers cradled his chin, stopping him from averting his gaze as he said in his gentlest voice, "Pietros, I do not expect you to remain the same forever. I hold the boy you were dear to my heart, for he was gentle and strong and showed me life outside the ludus, away from blood and death. Yet now I only long to be at your side and learn what man you have become."

The words were a balm to Pietros's heart, and, shedding the last of his reservations, he raised himself to his toes and pressed a gentle kiss to Barca's lips. He was rewarded with a heartfelt sigh, tension leaving Barca's massive body in a rush as he responded to Pietros's careful caress with a hunger that spoke of months of longing.

Choking on a sound that was stuck halfway between a sob and a laugh Pietros gave himself over to a tenderness he had thought lost forever, allowing himself to cling to Barca's strength, heedless of the people whispering around them. Crixus, of course, had never been one to whisper, and it was his hearty voice that broke into their increasingly heated kiss, exclaiming, "Let your boy breathe and greet a brother, you fucking Carthagian!"

Laughing, Pietros and Barca separated, but even as he exchanged a warm greetings with Crixus and the other gladiators, Barca kept an arm wrapped around Pietros's shoulder, obviously loathe to let him get too far away. It was a sensation Pietros shared, and he let himself be held, not bothering to hide the giddy smile on his face. He didn't know whether Barca would follow Crixus's example and join Spartacus or whether he would want Pietros to join him in the life he had built himself out in the world, but he knew with complete certainty that whatever fate had in store for them, they would face it together.

Technically Pietros might have shed the chains of slavery when leaving the ludus, but now, with Barca warm and alive next to him, Pietros tasted freedom for the first time.

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