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The Talk (for want of a better title)
The night was soft on Ryou's skin as he leaned against the windowsill. He closed his eyes to appreciate the faint breeze touching his face, but opened them again when he felt the weight of Darius's gaze on his features.
Darius still had one elbow planted on the stone balustrade, but he'd turned away from the moonlit gardens and was giving Ryou a long, slow scrutiny from head to toe.
"Do I look that strange to you?" Ryou asked dryly, shrugging his shoulders against the brocaded tunic that'd been nipped and tucked to fit him as rigorously as a tailored business suit.
"Strange? Strange. Strange, he says." Darius glanced at the ceiling and shook his head as if exchanging a few exasperated comments with the god or goddess who might be presiding over this moment. "Anyway," he said, pushing away from the window with the air of one changing the direction of the conversation, "the master of the Noble Quarters asked me to extend his most humble pardons. He wasn't expecting me to bring a guest. The other apartments aren't aired. He told me he'll have a room ready for you as soon as possible."
"A room?" Ryou asked, surprised, trailing after Darius.
Darius paused in the act of jerking off the black leather collar around his throat. "You thought you'd stay here?" he asked with a wry smile.
I guess I'm not, Ryou concluded. What was this? He and Darius had been sharing a bed for weeks now. They'd shared one in full sight of fourteen of his men. Ryou hadn't really thought of where he'd be by this time tomorrow, since this had been changing every day since he'd first arrived in the Outlands, but he'd assumed there would be no problem continuing the accommodation he and Darius had struck up while on the road. Was it because they were now in Darius's home...? Ryou was already struggling to figure out where and how he was going to fit into this society; he'd assumed he knew where he fit into this relationship at least. Well, mostly.
"I'm sorry, I did not mean to impose," he said neutrally to see if that would get him more information, while deep inside he wondered if he really wanted any...
Darius gave him a puzzled look. "Impose? I invited you. I'm the one who should have asked the man to get you a room ready right from the start, blame me if you must."
"It's fine," said Ryou automatically.
"The day you stop saying 'fine' will be the day the stars fall out of the sky," Daris said under his breath, tossing his belt over a nearby low chair.
"When did you say he'll have a room ready?"
"No idea. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow if they have to move furniture into it. Most of these other rooms have been unused for years."
"I see." Ryou gave the nearby bed a glance. It looked both big and comfortable, and maybe he'd been an idiot to assume he'd be enjoying it. "In that case, may I sleep here tonight?"
"Oh, now you're just teasing," growled Darius.
"Wh-" was all that Ryou had time to say before he was caught, overbalanced and pinned to the bed in a screech of wood and a twang of rope.
A mouth locked onto his throat. Ryou was paralyzed by surprise for a short moment, but then he relaxed, welcoming the sudden contact, the weight holding him down. Things were whirling too fast to grasp: this unknown civilization, Sura, Leyam, the royal court with all its currents and shoals, Darius and his hurry to get Ryou out of his room...This at least Ryou could touch and hold, he knew what this was.
Darius broke the kiss, his mouth hovering over Ryou's, little caresses of air. "'May I sleep here tonight', I swear..."
The question hadn't been meant as funny or coy, but Ryou liked this mood better than the one he'd been in previously, so he didn't mention it.
Darius raised himself up to look down at Ryou sprawled beneath him. "Those clothes...They befit you as they would an Assyrian prince, but it's you in them, like something out of a tale, eyes like almonds, skin like gold...It's exciting." Ryou could see that excitement tenting the dark red tunic his lover wore. Ryou's blood had also pulsed at his words, at the heat of his gaze. Darius's hand hovered, touched the brocade on Ryou's chest....a gesture built around a little pause as if waiting for a comment. Ryou wouldn't know what to say - 'thanks' sounded lame - so he reached up and touched Darius's lips.
A faint frown curled Darius's brow. He brushed past Ryou's fingers to kiss the soft part of the wrist. Those lips, hard yet sensual...Ryou's skin tingled at the memory of that mouth. It just so happened that the two of them were finally somewhere private, did not expect to travel tomorrow, and, an important yet usually neglected detail for Ryou, they were both properly bathed; maybe now they could finally take a little time to explore each other properly. For starters, Ryou hoped his lover would help him chase away this awful tension, this uncertainty, hunt it down with his fingertips and wipe it out...
As if guessing Ryou's needs, a hand fastened on his thigh, pressing the skin beneath the layers of cloth. An equally rough kiss traveled from Ryou's cheek towards his mouth. It was harder than before, and Ryou took it in.
Another pause. Darius's breath was harsher now, his mouth an inch from Ryou's. Ryou had never figured out how much kissing figured in Outland foreplay. The first time they'd fallen into bed, Darius had only briefly touched his mouth, hard and without lingering. He'd been a little surprised at letting tongues come into play. And it had been abundantly clear that kissing in view of others was not acceptable...Ryou brushed the lips near his with his mouth and then leaned back to see what was expected of him.
From this angle, he could see the length of his lover's body by tilting his head. No armor to get through this time. He reached up towards Darius's mouth with his fingers- a faint pull back made him hesitate. Apparently that wasn't wanted right now. Ryou remembered Darius thumbing his lips open back in Essin, the memory seared into his dream skin many nights in his sleep. But maybe he wasn't supposed to do it to Darius for some reason. Ryou let his hand fall back, waiting for a cue. He'd...not really wanted to have to think about this too hard tonight. Not with everything else going on.
There was definitely something off about the lack of motion. Ryou opened his mouth-
"What's wrong?" Darius asked, effectively beating Ryou to the punch line.
The words 'you tell me' wobbled on Ryou's tongue, but he wasn't sure- had he been doing something wrong? He hadn't been doing anything, nothing more than he'd done the first two times they'd made love, why-
Darius's eyes were narrowed. "I'm not blood-drunk this time, but you're still acting like you did back in Essin. After the heat of battle that was understandable, but now I feel like I'm raping you. Do you not want this?"
"Huh? No! I mean, I do want-"
"Yeah, but you just don't want it like this," said Darius, jerking his chin at Ryou beneath him, his lips curved in a jagged smile. "Looks like I should have made myself clearer three nights ago. I do not go down on my knees every time, not by your wish nor any man's. Get used to it."
Ryou stared at him, and then he closed his open mouth with a click and gave his head a shake. "Okay, that's it. Time out."
"Darius, let me get up please."
Darius sat up and removed his hands in an exaggerated gesture.
Ryou shoved up his glasses and straightened himself out. "Let's get one thing straight. I don't know how things work in Assyria. For men together, I mean. So we need to take a few minutes to discuss what we expect of this." And if it ruined the mood, so be it. Ryou's inner control freak was only going to accept so much before it had conniptions.
"Don't expect much." Darius was looking at him with that unblinking, feral gaze that reminded Ryou of his lover's nickname. "I told you right from the start that I'm not to be tamed. I was never an eromenos- and I'm certainly not going to be one now, I'm too old. Hell, I was born too old."
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. You may be a better man than me in more than years, but fuck, I was never and never will be a bloody puppy to mentor."
A tense little silence ensued.
Finally Darius looked away from Ryou's steady, unrelenting gaze. "I take it that wasn't what you meant," he concluded in a grumble.
"Thank you," Ryou said sardonically. "Took the words right out of my mouth. Now can you explain what you just said? Without the colloquialisms and the swearing this time?"
"You really don't have a clue what I'm talking about?"
"No, I don't, Darius, that's why we're having this conversation. Maybe everyone from here to the Roman Empire knows what you're talking about, but I don't."
Darius rubbed his face, and then to Ryou's relief his mouth twisted upward in a ghost of humor. "It's your own fault, you know; you just...you stand imperturbable and calm, watching and understand things about our countries that most people who live here their whole lives never considered. I've had to damn well break my back to get a rise out of you from day one, and the only time I caught you completely off guard was with Leyam, who'd give All-Seeing Enlil a start. It's funny, but it's almost to the point where I forget where you come from at times. Ishhara knows I've lain with people from all over the Outlands, I know the various customs and so do my bed mates. I never had someone who didn't at least know what I was talking about. I should have remembered that. My apologies."
Ryou, who knew full well that Darius's apologies were few, far between and always very serious, nodded in acceptance. "Now, can you tell me more about it?"
Darius scratched his beard, looking puzzled at having to explain something that everybody must know about. Bye-bye mood, though Ryou morosely, but this was undoubtedly for the best.
"You really don't know what an eromenos is? Okay," Darius added when Ryou rolled his eyes, "then I'll start with that. Hm. Well, it's originally a Greek thing, though it's spread. The Greeks were the standard of civilization around here for a long time. But the erastes tradition wasn't as widespread as their culture, it's specific to certain city states. Boys need education, see, so they are approached by a mentor who teaches them a lot of things, including the arts of courting and the bedchamber."
"Oh, I see. That's not that different from the way we used to do it not that long ago," said Ryou, polishing his glasses, smudged by an earlier brush against Darius's cheek, on the edge of the cover. "In our warrior tradition, a younger man in training served a more experienced older warrior, who in turn taught him to be a man, and occasionally this kind of bond was known to lead to-" But then a not-insignificant difference in wording suddenly struck Ryou. "You meant young man, right? You said boy."
"Not sure which is which in your country," Darius said with a shrug. "Eromenoi are usually courted by their mentors when they're twelve."
"Yes." Darius gave him a savvy look. "I take it that's not how you do things Inlands."
"Don't shout at me, I never did it."
Ryou - who had not been shouting - lowered his volume a handful of decibels back to its usual levels. "No, that's not what we do back home. To start with, that'd be illegal."
"Sometimes the boys are older. But when they're sixteen, they leave their mentor and go to war - or plough a field or build a house or screw a girl, depending on which state they're from - and when they're twenty, they cut their hair, grow a beard and then it's their turn to educate another."
"This is seen as normal?"
Darius looked puzzled. "It's Greek."
"So it's not Assyrian," said Ryou, remembering Leyam's act with Nicodeme. He'd not known what to think about that - correction, he'd known exactly what to think about it, but had refused to believe it of someone Darius respected. Then it'd become obvious Nicodeme was a bodyguard, not a bed toy, and Ryou had packed away the whole idea with some relief.
"It's done here too. Not often, though. It's-...only in certain cases." Darius was still fishing around to put into words for this poor bewildered foreigner, concepts which to him were as plain as rain and sunshine. "Mainly it's painted men and those who like them who do that. It stays in its own circle."
"You know, the men who dress and act like women. Not like my brother," Darius added dryly before Ryou could stick his sandal in his mouth. "I know what it looks like, but Leyam does not actually sleep with men. Or boys. Hell, he doesn't sleep with anybody, he kicks whoever shared his bed out the minute he's done with them. He's- well, he's fine, he just doesn't like to have anyone else in the bed with him," Darius said abruptly as if Ryou might find that weird and comment on it.
Ryou was quite ready to avoid the subject of Leyam tonight. That was a fraught discussion for another day. "Darius, why did you assume I wanted you to be-...er, that? You're a grown man."
"I know, that's why I was pissed off."
"Yes, but why did you think I had that in mind in the first place? There's only four years difference between us; even back in my country at an era where younger and older might signify, that difference is too negligible to count at our age. Why did you think I wanted you to...?"
Darius frowned as if couldn't quite figure that out himself. He was silent a moment, sitting on the edge of the bed, staring blindly out the window. Ryou got a little distracted by the thought that that very same window did not have a pane, that their apartment was only one floor up and that the guards who'd been warbling away at the maids earlier might have a patrol route that took them nearby.
Darius reached out blindly until his fingers brushed Ryou's face. "Maybe...I feel at times as if I can't quite...touch you. You're here, yet a part of you is just out of my reach. It's a feeling I only ever had with-...though it's not really- never mind. It's completely different." He turned on the bed to look Ryou in the eye, shedding that odd moment. "The erastae- that's the men who court the boys - that's only in some city states, as I said. But what is widespread is the Greek ideal of what a man should be, what a lover should be. A true man should not be ruled by his appetites, not even in bed. Moderation, self-discipline, asceticism even, is the Greek ideal. That's why I thought you were trying to tell me something earlier, when you lay there like a stump. Because you have to grant me, when it comes to being all composed and reserved, you and I are night and day."
"Oh, is that why you said back at Essin that you're not an ideal lover?"
"Yeah, I've had a few lectures from my brother and others on my lack of manners, refinement and control of my passions. This was back when I was younger, mind you. I've grown some since. Now I don't care as much; not about Ishhara's little games, and not about the fucking Greek ideal either. Nine years of a murderous campaign have taught me that there's better reasons to fight a man than over something so small as who beds who, what with all the other ways there is to die. They've also taught me that when the fighting is over, you tell the Greek Ideal to go screw itself, get drunk, grab the nearest body available - drunk, horny and willing too - and drag him into bed. Assuming we make it that far," Darius added with a hard leer. "The whole restraint and temperance thing...feh. Truth be told, the Greeks themselves are divided in what they believe is ideal; I gave you the general notion everybody has of them, but I met a lot of Greeks who told me that was donkey balls, and that they'd not recognize as a Greek, or even a man, some boring piss of vinegar who wouldn't want to drink himself into bed with a comely person of whatever the age. The Greeks I knew weren't always very restrained, that's for sure. I told you I was good looking when I was a boy, right? Back when I first led a command in the Alliance, learning the trade of leadership from Terentius, I had to break a few Greek bones when some guys didn't understand that an Assyrian youth did not appreciate their courting."
Cross cultural clashes at their finest, thought Ryou, rubbing his forehead. At least Darius seemed to find the memory of those episodes amusing rather than unpleasant.
"That was rare, though. The Greeks stick to defending their homelands tooth and nail; those who leave are mercenaries who form their own units. By contrast, most of the Hounds are Ionian. Unlike the Greek erastae, Ionians consider this to be a man's business, not a boy's," said Darius, his fingers wandering down Ryou's cheek and throat in a very exact illustration of what he meant by 'this'. "For them, it's all very serious. In fact the Tibans, Doceans and Kaliceans build their army around this notion. Did you see Dionysodoros and Bareil?"
"Er, yes," said Ryou, unsettled. He'd not been sure from the start whether there was anything sexual about that, and now that he knew them both, he wasn't sure he wanted to find out anything that'd upset him; Bareil was barely sixteen.
"Dio is Ionian, from Kalicee; one of many refugees from that city after the plague and then the war. The Kaliceans are proponents of that idea. It's what you said earlier, the older warrior takes care of the younger, educates him. It means their cadets are protected and learn their trade damn well. In counterpart, the older warrior would let himself get chopped up on the spot rather than show cowardice in battle to his younger friend. It strengthens the bonds between the men and makes them fight like lions. Even the triarii are cautious when they attack a Tiban phalanx. But unity is considered important, so Tibans don't mix with the rest of the Alliance troops. Only some career officers practice it in our armies. Bareil is the son of a scribe, he can read and write, he's got both guts and a good brain; he'll be a fine commander of men one day. Dio took him under his wing last year the way someone once did with him. When Bareil is old enough to grow a beard and take a command of his own, he'll do the same to another youngster, assuming he can find one with promise."
"But from what you say, they also sleep together, right?"
"Oh all the time. Didn't you see them on the road? Especially when it's cold-"
Ryou rolled his eyes, caught the finger that was now toying with the fastenings of his surcoat, lifted it to his mouth and ran his lips up to the tip. "I meant like this, as you put it so well."
Darius looked like he'd lost the thread of the conversation for a minute. "Huh...Dio and Bareil...? Oh yeah, they've been known to. When they're not both busy chasing tits."
Rather offhand, then, concluded Ryou. The relationship would be mainly about friendship, co-reliance and education, while sex was just thrown in as an occasional pleasant bonus.
"Ryou, just so you know," said Darius, then he cleared his throat. His eyes were still fixed, unblinking, on the hand Ryou was holding captive. "When you do that- something like that, with your mouth, that's a suggestion. Hell, in Ionian terms, that's as good as a promise."
Ryou glanced from the fingers he was holding to Darius's face. "It's wrong?"
"Wrong?" echoed Darius as if he suspected Ryou was making fun of him, then he caught himself. "No, no, not wrong at all, but for the Ionians and also Aksumite and just about anybody else when you do it like that, it means you're suggesting you're going to go down on me."
"Oh, so that's why earlier when I reached for your mouth, you thought I was asking you to-...I see."
"Well," said Ryou, lips moving against the callused skin as he spoke, "just to set the record straight, I do not expect you to be the one to get down on your knees each time, as you put it. I don't mind doing my share."
"Is that so," said Darius, his voice lower and a little rough, eyes still fixed on Ryou's mouth while his hand slowly moved to cup Ryou's chin. A little smile tugged Ryou's lips. Who said the mood was gone...?
But then his reason kicked in again, and before his libido could tackle it to the ground it prompted him to ask, "But didn't you touch me like that at Essin? Was that the same thing?"
"Hmm? No, I wasn’t thinking about that back then. I just did it. Spur of the moment. Then all I was thinking was that it was the most erotic thing I'd seen, and I've seem the dancers of Sarsareen go at it in public, so I know what I'm talking about." Darius's voice was still husky. Then he seemed to come back to himself and remember his duty as illuminator of lost and confused Inlanders. He dutifully removed his hand and used his fingers to run through a mental list instead.
"Let me see, Eratery, Kaimé, Halicarnace- There's a lot of boy-lover states and cities out there, I can't list them all. Kaliceans, Doceans and Tibans pair off according to older and younger as well, though a man has to be fourteen before he can join their armies, which is where such bonds mostly stay. Then there's a lot of lesser known customs that I only came to know when I paid my respect to Ishhara. For instance, I knew a man from Xepomeles - Zozimos, he'd been named after the hero of his city. I met him back during the campaign of Ryii. He was only one year younger than I, but thought that because I was more elevated in rank, he had to act like a boy. The damn bugger was even bigger than I was, and built like a fucking rock, and- well, I try to remember him for his friendship, not for the one time we ended up in the bedrolls, that's too excruciating. Then there was- damn, I can't remember half their names. Oh, there was that guy from Thezali we called Beauty because he was anything but. He would always say it had to be the smallest man who gave way; the way nature makes the female smaller than the male. He was almost as tall as Zozimos had been, so no fucking wonder he believed that, but he swore that's how they did it in his city. We loved to bug him by pointing out that female spiders are bigger and female lions considerably more dangerous, but he stuck to his argument. Greeks, and those who think themselves Greek, tend to have very rigid ideas. Thermopilyans, Zoreans, Olympians- oh, and that one lay I had who was from Athens the New and who I do have to admit was rather awe-inspiring, though fortunately he was sixteen for my twenty three so no struggles there. Yeah, wherever they hail from, Greeks are all the same, it's just the details that change. The Ionians tend to think of sex between men as a way of forming a bond, so at least there's not all that black and white divisions. But then again, they tend to take it a little too seriously. Inder help me, I shared a cup of wine, a bowl of olives and a bed with a man from Leossia, and found out the next morning that I was on course to forming a lifelong commitment with the ass. I did keep him around for awhile; he was a good man, for all his funny ideas. He could throw a spear further than I've seen anyone throw it since. But tell you the truth, I was rather glad when he found out his wife had gotten pregnant on his last leave and this meant he had to go home and leave me before things went too far. He cried. I swear. I shouldn't speak badly of him, though, he was killed in the last thrust of the Eightieth Legion into Leossia, defending his home; a good death all in all. Melliod was his name, Melliod. All the Ionians I knew had different customs; I could recount dozens. And of course there's countries further afield where they'll go and stone you for taking a man to your bed, like Ras Dal Aran.
"But I'm wandering. What those donkey-fuckers do is their own business, and if I don't like it, I'll go sleep with my own kind. Assyrians are as split as the Ionians, mind you. Assyria is made up of Old Assyrians, Persians, a few Babylonian tribes, some Greek and Ionian regions and others. Most Assyrians sleep only with eunuchs, or men who might as well be, but there are plenty who are of my mind in the matter. We usually take after some Ionian tradition or other. The Persians do tend to be a bit decadent about it, you know, hareems and toys of different genders for the rich and powerful. The only men Babylonians sleep with are whores. The men from Carrat have this weird idea that-...never mind. But the ones I feel the greatest kinship with were the men from Aksum, as a whole. Especially those from the north. There's just, how can I say it, no fuss, no question. They call themselves shield brothers; there's no notion of one being lesser and the other greater, no cares for age- well, within limits, nine years being the most. In the capital and in the province of Diar-Arorot, it's actually illegal for a man to take a lover nine years younger, and that goes for women too. Oh, and it's a deep shame to fight another man over a third, that's their custom. Doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but they consider it a disgrace. A guy I knew from the city of Haxosterex had a saying for that, the pervert: if both men want him, then it's time to share, he'd say." Darius scoffed as if the idea was shocking in an amusing way.
Ryou had built his career on facts and numbers, and if there was one thing he'd known from day one, it was to be absolutely sure of them. Cross-reference was his motto. In this world, however, such concept was unknown. Darius did not have any encyclopedias, or even the dubious veracity of the internet; he'd never picked up a newspaper, books were rare here - most people could not read or write anyway - and stories changed with every telling. Darius's view of the world was strictly divided between those facts which immediately surrounded him and affected his unit and his country, and then everything beyond which existed in some woolly limbo full of weird, interesting and totally unverifiable stories. This way of thinking drove Ryou ever so slightly crazy, which was why he'd learned to distinguish when Darius was talking of one or the other.
...What he was talking about right now had a feeling of being the former. It sounded like facts he knew about intimately. Intimately being the key. "...Um, Darius," he said, while Darius was still shaking his head at the notion of threesomes, "I suppose all this is common knowledge?"
"Hmm? I don't know about common, most people do not travel and only know such things through hearsay, if at all," said Darius, his eyes on the finger he'd sloooowly wound around the gold and brown ropes of Ryou's surcoat. "But leading the Hounds, and fighting with the Alliance army all over this region of the Outlands, I got the chance to gather all this first hand."
"All of it?" were the words that escaped Ryou's throat before he could constrict it.
"Yeah. What- oh, what are you thinking?" Darius burst out laughing, his hand dropping away.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to imply- I didn't mean to offend."
"Offend? I'm flattered!" Darius had to lean back against the bed he was laughing so hard. It broke that hard set of his eyes into a heap of smile lines, it also showed the gap of two missing upper back teeth on the left which Darius had said he'd lost from infection when he was younger. Laughing like that was something that Ryou thought Darius should do more often, because it suited him.
He finally stopped with a gasp, and spoke with a chuckle still running through his words. "By my father's blood and seed, man, I may have embraced many in my life, but I also had to fight a lot, and, you know, sleep. And eat. And tie my sandals and other sundries. Besides, if I'd spent that much time in Ishhara's pursuits, Leyam would have neutered me long ago. No, when I said I got it first hand, I meant talking to my men or my friends on those long cold nights when swapping such tales was the next best thing to having a bed warmer, and the only thing keeping us from freezing our cocks off. Don't ask me to tell you what nations I have known in the ways of the flesh, though, because damned if I remember. I was drunk half the time too, I think I mentioned."
"Were they all younger?"
That stopped the last few ripples of laughter. Darius's eyes flickered towards the corner of the room as if he expected to find something or someone there. "Yeah, as it happens. Not counting women - who cares about them - I've only had two lovers who were older than me, and you're one of them."
Ryou hadn't thought Darius was the kind to be the younger partner in the Greek sense, or even the Japanese one. He opened his mouth around a question starting with 'Who' when Darius turned towards him briskly. "And you?"
"Me? I've had lovers who were older and younger. Who was it-"
"Really? But that's not what I meant. How is it in your country?"
...Okay, so apparently the other older lover was not a subject that was going to be discussed tonight, if ever. Ryou forced himself to drop it with some effort, and scrubbed his hair as if that could help massage his thoughts into some order. "In my country, it's...complicated."
"Everything is complicated where you come from. You're even worse than the Ionians."
"You may be right. It's complicated because our society has been changing rapidly these past hundred years. In old times, we were more like the Kaliceans, if I understood you right; we also had our, ah, painted men and those who paired up with them. They were frequently prostitutes back then, though not always. Now it's not quite so defined. As for the way two men behave together, age is frequently a factor, yes, if all else is equal, which it rarely is. Experience is more important, really, some guys can hit forty before they're ready to come out of-...um, decide they might want to sleep with their own gender. If age and experience are on par, then it's up to individual preference; most men know quite soon if they prefer to be passive or active as a rule. Some are still open to the idea of switching on occasion, or at least they say they are, though the few tachi I'm acquainted with would simply lead from the bottom-"
"Wait, switching what?" asked Darius, mystified.
"Roles. Take turns being passive and active, I mean."
"Passive...? Active? I don't understand. You're not talking the more experienced and less, here, right?"
"Oh." It was Ryou's turn to scratch his head and ponder explaining something that was hard to properly put into words. "I suppose you could say we match the way men and women behave together. I don't mean one of the male partners acts womanly," Ryou added quickly, knowing Darius's stellar opinion of women.
Darius snorted as if that'd been abundantly obvious from the start.
"But in bed, sometimes even in the relationship, at least to start with, one man will be the one to-" Ryou paused, because the instinctive words - attack and surrender - would give entirely the wrong idea. "One will engage, the other accept. The former will then lead. Most times. While the one who accepted - the woman in normal relations - receives that affection and the pleasure. Is taken care of, in a way, doesn't have to do anything. This is just generalizations, it depends on each person really, but it's the...what you were saying about the Greeks, the overall image we have of relationships. This is true only for my country, I understand that other countries are different, and in some instances it's still illegal I believe. I'm not all that sure, really, I've not traveled very far. Until now," Ryou added with a pale attempt at humor.
Darius's eyes narrowed. "I think I'm starting to get it. This is what you were doing. This is what men do in your country? One just lies there?"
"...Not quite that passive, necessarily. I...it's been a long day, and I...wasn't sure what you expected of me tonight, once things got off on the wrong footing," Ryou admitted. Which was sugarcoating the truth somewhat. In reality, Leyam had frightened him earlier, and Ryou had realized how complicated and potentially risky his future could be now that he was firmly committed to staying in these very foreign lands. In these dangerous waters, Darius was the only rock he had and for an instant he'd thought it'd shifted, and so he'd done what he instinctively thought was right: lain back and waited for an indication of what he was supposed to do. Ryou frowned, not liking that on several levels, only one of which was a tachi's automatic reaction to the very idea he could turn pliant and surrender up control like that.
Darius chewed that over, then nodded to himself, leaned over and captured Ryou's mouth with a harsh kiss, his hand gripping the back of Ryou's head. Then he tore away and whispered in Ryou's ear, "You are the only man I will say this to, but if I make you feel that uncertain again, punch me, call me an ass and remind me of this conversation."
Ryou smiled, obscurely relieved. He'd not wanted to feel like he had before, not with this man. "No need for violence, but I would like you to teach you two little words," he whispered into Darius's ear, cheek brushing cheek.
"Restraint and courtesy?" Darius asked with a touch of irony.
"No. Culture gap." He kissed his lover before the latter could ask what that meant. There'd be time to learn.
The kiss turned into a muddle of rough caresses and a roll onto the bed. Ryou looped an arm around strong shoulders, a hand tangling in brown hair for the pleasure of hearing the disks clink. He felt more than heard a subvocal hmm of pleasure, so he let his fingers play, tousling the hair and gripping the hard cords of the neck. Darius's strong fingers stroked down Ryou's chest, dragging the tight linen across the latter's skin until he reached Ryou's thigh. He'd hooked the loop of one of the brown and gold cords with his fingers on the way, pulling the knot loose. The other fastening was somehow already undone, and Ryou hadn’t even noticed. Then Darius's hand rose up between Ryou's legs, making Ryou tense and swallow a gasp.
...Something even deeper inside burned under the touch; a fire that'd sparked into life the very first time he'd seen Darius smile, back when the guy was just a crazy foreigner killing monsters with a sword. It scared him at times, to feel this deeply about this man, this stranger from out of an obscure history book, whose values were so different...but then Darius would reach out, with those blunt words and warm look that Ryou was one of the very few privileged to know, and Ryou would remember why the fire kept burning hotter and hotter...
"So," whispered Darius against Ryou's collarbone. "This passive stuff...you really like that?"
Ryou ummmed, not sure he wanted to go into his past on that score. For starters, despite Darius's words just before, it still might queer this hot, melting moment if Ryou admitted that he'd always been the seme until now, and a control freak specimen at that. He also didn't want to talk about his streams of empty relationships and practically-whores in this night they were sharing. Darius didn't fit that mould. Hell, he exploded it. What the two of them shared had nothing to do with anything Ryou had ever known before, in bed or out of it.
"Because I can't imagine you like that at all," said Darius.
"I don't think it really applies to us," admitted Ryou, who had to agree he did not like to think of himself on the bottom, but who could not imagine Darius in that position either. At all.
"You know," said Darius into Ryou's neck, beard prickling the skin. "I told you the best time I had was with the men of Aksum, right? Two men, two warriors of equal ages with the same kind of metal in their hearts, and nothing to prove except in a friendly wrestling match beforehand. Two lions, they call those men."
"You're not asking me to wrestle, I hope...So what you're saying is, ah, both of us would be active?"
"That's the idea."
"...How does that work? Don't you get your hands mixed up, or bump into each other?"
"Only on purpose," said Darius with a leer in his voice.
"Oh. Well, looks like you have something to teach me, then."
Darius looked at him from the corner of his eye, a moment's pause before he realized Ryou actually meant that and also did not mind. Then he smiled. It was a smile Ryou really, really liked to see, crooked in its inability to totally let go after years of threats and hardships, but warm beneath it all as it tried...Then Darius pulled off Ryou's surcoat and put his hand on Ryou's thigh beneath the dark tunic. Ryou retaliated, getting a grip on that dark red tunic. Ryou couldn't wrestle to save his life, but in this sort of battle he had an advantage; Darius didn't wear trousers and had already taken off his belt.
The bed creaked happily. This wasn't the easy, no-thinking sex Ryou had thought it'd be when his back had first hit the mattress, before twenty minutes of discussion and a whistle-stop tour of the Outlands' sexual practices. It was exciting, though, in a way he wasn't used to...But it was damned hard, a difficulty he suspected was uniquely his own. Darius seemed to be enjoying himself, but for Ryou it was hard to reach out, touch a hip or a thigh, and not immediately pull back and stay still when his lover reciprocated. Hands did indeed get mixed up a bit, and overall it just felt...weird. And he also had to fight himself to not stop and pick up the clothes that were being slowly stripped off and dropped onto the floor. He'd always been careful of his business suits, but now that he knew how precious a thing clothes actually were, he wanted to treat his only decent piece with respect. Hopefully he'd have more soon, and a place to hang them - or rather, a chest to put them in.
That reminded him of another question. He didn't necessarily want to talk. The mood was damned resilient, but this was pushing it. But neither did he want to stop talking, now that they'd finally broached the subject of this relationship.
Darius snickered at the reaction, the sound echoing through Ryou's bare abdomen.
"Hm, Darius, about the room-"
"What room?" asked Darius in a totally disinterested tone, his concentration elsewhere.
"You said you were going to get me my own room."
"Oh yes. One not too far away. And I hope I'll be welcome in your bed on a regular basis."
"Yes, I guess."
"You're supposed to say, I'm counting on it."
"I will be, but it was the room I was wondering about," said Ryou, squirming away from those hands and that mouth that were not helping him concentrate. "I don't want to impose on your space, but the way you mentioned it earlier- is it wrong for two men to share a room here?"
"A room or a bed?" Darius purred, reaching for him again.
"A room. Focus."
Darius smiled sensually but desisted. He rolled to one side and propped his head up on one hand to look at Ryou comfortably, just one hand doing lazy circles on Ryou's stomach. "Yes, a room; you will have one, of course."
"Okay, I had a question about that. I do not want to impose on you-"
"You're not, you ass."
"Thank you, but beyond that, does sharing a room violate some Assyrian custom? Because I don't see anything wrong with it."
Darius's expression went from lustful to blank. "...You don't? Really? But-"
"...Men live together in your country?"
"Well, lovers do, some of them."
"Really?" Darius looked intrigued. "Well, here I'd only be living with you if I was your eromenos."
"I find myself forced to point out that I'd be the one living with you."
Darius swatted the air like he was chasing away all those previous pesky misunderstandings. "Bah, it would not matter anyway, boys stay with their mentors until they're ready to move on, but even then they have their own room. Once grown, a man must have his own dwelling. That's the norm, anyway. I did hear that the Ionian poet Cessalee lived for thirty years with his lover, who happened to be the general of the army of Ambroxes. That was odd, but nobody from Ambroxes seemed to find it so...The Free Cities are such a patchwork of ideas, I don't think even they keep track. In Aksum, shield brothers will often live in a house side by side, sometimes joined by a courtyard and encircled by the same wall, but each has their own chamber. Hell, even the women have their own chambers unless you're a peasant and living in a shack."
"I see. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind having a space of my own. Won't anyone mind if I move into a room here, in the Noble Quarters?"
"Did I mention this palace belongs to the king? Did I mention the king was my brother?"
"That is certainly convenient," said Ryou dryly, making Darius grin. "Very well, then. But what I was getting at was, do we have to stay discreet?"
Darius cocked his head to one side. "Discreet?"
"Is there any reason you don't want others to find out about our relationship?"
Darius snorted and rolled away, off the bed. "Personally I don't give a damn if the whole of Sura knows we share our blankets. There'll be talk, of course. There always is. Some of the nobles from Persian lineages will potentially throw a few jibes your way. You can handle that. Give them one of those looks of yours. They'll figure out soon enough that you're not some ball-less pussy I'm bedding. If you get any serious hassle-...where the hell did Peistrasos put my stuff?" he muttered, ferreting around a drawer of a decorated wardrobe near the bed. Darius's room was a reflection of its owner; there was an inbuilt regality in the luxurious surroundings, which was otherwise completely invaded by weapons, maps, pieces of armor and crates stacked here and there. Darius was opening a few seemingly at random and poking around anything from clothes and old sandals to objects that looked quite precious and were probably the result of a commander's right to choose his own pick of the loot.
"I was only gone six months...A man can't find his own things in here. I'm sure it was here...About the courtiers, Ryou, make sure you walk around with Jexen as an attendant as much as you can. It will signify your status, and if one of the goat-fuckers really insults you, you will have his word to add to yours later as to what happened. You are allowed to defend your honor, though do try not to kill anybody. I will back you up if you do, but that'd not be the way to make friends, and it can make a big mess out of Leyam's tortuous little plots to keep all these fighting dogs balanced out against each other."
...Because the Assyrian court could get even more fun and friendly, it seemed.
"You're not serious, are you? You don't really expect me to-...they actually have duels here?"
"Fights? Oh, we do, but it's rare," said Darius, glancing up from a deep chest. "It's rare because we all know who we are, where our place is, and even newcomers know the rules. You will really confuse them. Then again, fifteen years of my brother's reign has made them cautious about dismissing someone based on looks or apparent prowess. Leyam has greeted you and approved of you; that will protect you from a lot of trouble, though it will procure you as many enemies as friends. Ah, here it is." Darius picked out a flask from a series of bottles in the bottom of a short chest that opened from the front, and then he turned towards the bed, naked, aroused, resplendent. It was terribly distracting.
He crawled onto the bed again, eyes raking over Ryou's body. The open window, the singing guards, the royal court, the somnolent dogs watching them from the blanket near the doorway and the whole press of the immediate future slipped from Ryou's mind. He reached - still a bit hesitant, damn it, but he hid it by moving slowly - to place his palm flat against Darius's bare chest. It was a little too warm in the room for this, even without clothes. Ryou could feel a bead of sweat run down his back. And he wanted to feel more, he wanted the lust in those dark eyes to open him up and dig everything out...If this was one of his one night stands back in Japan, he'd know exactly what to do, he'd be in control, already deep in another's body, a pliant, willing body...and it would be nowhere near as exciting and scary and wanting as this moment right now.
Darius uncorked the flask with one thumb, sending the stopper flying. "Do you mind?" he said, holding it up. His other hand tightened on Ryou's thigh, which clued the latter in. Ryou nodded permission, though this reminded him of something else he'd wanted to ask, something that was really going to be quite pressing in the next minute.
"Darius, just one more question-"
"Aaaah, no more talking," said Darius with a corner smile that looked as hedonistic as a leer.
"Do you always do it...ah, here? Like this?" Ryou asked, watching the drizzle of oil snake its way around his thighs, up to the crook and onto his balls - he shuddered and closed his eyes briefly. Darius made a noise that was amused and full of desire. Ryou could feel the viscous liquid run down his skin like a warm tongue. Oh damn it, they'd hardly done anything yet and he was already this hard-...
"Others embrace from behind," said Darius, voice so low even those bloody mutts by the door would not be able to make out the words, not that the tone left anything to the imagination. "But I like it better this way; especially with you, I just have to be watching your face when you spill-"
"Yes, but," said Ryou, then had to fish around in his memory for what he'd been about to say. Darius's hand was tight on his knee and sliding upwards, the sheer pressure of his fingers as exciting as any caress. "You don't...do penetration?"
Darius's momentary blank look turned into a frown, and his hand stopped. "Ryou, I would never treat you so. You're neither a woman nor a ball-less non-man to rut into like an animal."
Ryou extended a mental apology to the female gender at large and to eunuchs everywhere, but he was not going to fight that one, he was just going to let that slide for now. "I take it men don't do that here."
Darius lay down beside him, chin level with Ryou's stomach. At least he was taking this 'culture gap' notion in stride now, and was not getting too surprised or put off by some of Ryou's questions. "Of course not. I mean, not voluntarily; rape is another matter entirely, as is prostitution. But not between friends, no. A man who'd accept that might as well be a woman. The Greeks believe it threatens the male spirit. Boys who begin to like that sort of stuff turn girly."
The Greeks again. "Is that so."
Darius caught a trickle of oil making its way down Ryou's thigh with his fingertip, and slowly escorted it back up, dragging the nail lightly across the skin. "Well, that's what I was taught. But I hear some Ionians practice it...And then there's Emperor Cornutus Caesar, the predecessor of Galeo the Older. I have it on firm evidence that he used to buy the best hung slaves at the market to service him. Romans, huh? Yet the man could ride a horse, lift a spear and father bastards until he was well past fifty. Terentius knew him personally, he swears to it. So maybe the Greeks don't have the right of it. I guess I never thought it about it much. But I hear some big-headed Roman philosophers spoke in denouncement of men getting ploughed like women. A denouncement they made after Emperor Cornutus passed away and Galeo proved he was only interested in fighting his wife, screwing his mistress and raping other countries. Still, I'd say most Romans consider fucking that way to be degenerate, and if they think that, that's saying something. Besides, the very thought of it- feh."
Feh indeed, thought Ryou, tracing a scar across Darius's shoulder. Well, he'd not been in that much hurry to get taken that way, in truth. And though a little curl of honesty forced him to admit he'd miss that tight, sliding thrust into another body, he preferred Darius - vibrant, stubborn and with those unreasoned prejudices - to some mere sexual sensation...Though perhaps doing it the Greek way had some similarities? Particularly when one had a lover with quite a lot of leg muscle...
"As a whole, I think the better Romans are opposed to what the Greeks do - the erastae, as well as the systematic pairing of the Tiban soldiers. They say it corrupts the youths and is uncouth for the men," said Darius, half his mind on his lecture and the other half on spreading the oil over Ryou's thighs and other, even more sensitive areas. "They're pretty weird over there; a lot of Romans believe in the same asceticism as the Greeks, and they live by that too. They even have Brides of Aten, men as well as women, who stay virgins all their lives. So-called men who voluntarily live as eunuchs and are okay with being called brides; that's pretty weird, but they're proud of it. Every free Roman, from the poorest to the senators, are forbidden from wearing anything other than a tunic and toga, or the long tunic for women. They're quite strict that way. But then while one man's living in this rigid sobriety, his neighbor right next door-"
Ryou made up his mind, reached for the oil and pushed Darius back while the latter was saying something about Romans and goats. Darius looked surprised, then intrigued. Ryou knew himself well enough to realize that he was either going to be the seme or he was going to be virtually immobile again out of cultural conditioning and sheer information overload. The best way of learning about this mutual participation was to let Darius show him what it entailed...And for starters...
"I believe I made a promise earlier," he said, pouring the oil onto Darius the way he'd seen his lover do it. They were making a royal mess of the coverlets. Ahhh the joys of having free labor to do the backbreaking task of washing sheets by hand. Ryou made up his mind that next time, he'd badger Darius into using a towel or blanket they'd keep on purpose and wash on their own, giving some poor slave a little less work and fewer juicy details to talk about.
"Promise? What prom-...ahhhh."
Ryou smiled at that exhalation that was only partly to signal understanding. The way that made his lips move around his lover's sex also produced an appreciative follow-up noise.
"You...don't have to," Darius said after a few seconds, very reluctantly because at this point Ryou had gotten his hands well and truly oily and had gone exploring with his fingers. The scent of the bronze skin and the thick brown hair tickled Ryou's nose. The oil on his hands was plain unscented olive oil, no surprise there; Darius was not the kind to like prissy fragrances. It was almost certainly comestible, which was good, things were undoubtedly going to get messy soon. Ryou lifted his head, letting his mouth draw back sloooowly, and gave his handiwork the assessing look of a perfectionist. That was a start, but surely he could do better.
"Let me," he said without looking up when Darius touched Ryou's hair and started to reiterate that this wasn't necessary. "In my country, keeping an oath, even unspoken, is considered the height of a man's honor."
"...You are teasing me this time," growled Darius in a tone that reminded his audience that teasing Ghan the Beast, leader of the Hounds of Assyria, was probably not something that should be done.
"Just a little. This may be something the younger partner does in your culture, but it's not that clear-cut in mine, so it's not like I mind. We've both got things to learn and unlearn. We might as well get started, unless of course you wanted to talk some more."
Darius's hand was a hard pressure on Ryou's neck, quite an adequate answer. Ryou felt a smile tug his face. He let his fingers slide down from the uncut tip of Darius's erection and travel south, followed by his mouth. Darius made a kind of voiceless sound that was pure sex to Ryou's ears. His own hard-on was starting to ache...Damn, he'd forgotten to ask where sixty nines featured in the sexual landscape of Assyria. But if he broke off for a question now, Darius would probably punch him.
His fingers caressed their way down again, a barely-there pull on the foreskin to let his tongue caress as well. The hand on his neck convulsed but quickly returned to a warm, gentle grasp, and Ryou found that for once he didn't mind, almost found that contact, that shared control, exciting...He swallowed the little foretaste on his tongue. His hand curved, caressed testes, let his fingers trail further down on sensitive skin. Darius's breathing was harsh and all over the map, and his muscles were tensing, strength that rang and shuddered beneath Ryou's palms. Ryou almost pulled back at that point; he was barely getting started...but then again, tiredness was lurking behind his lust, and Darius was going to get up early tomorrow to give the Sura troops hell, so maybe the more involved lovemaking could wait for another day. Ryou let his tongue play one more time in the creases near the tip, and then he slowly moved his mouth down, taking his lover's erection in. His fingers kneaded Darius's thigh and then swept to the balls that were starting to tighten, the caress oily and a little rough; Darius would undoubtedly like his caresses like his lube, unvarnished.
"Uh-..." Darius made a noise that suggested an attempt to remember how to vocalize. "Do you-...ah-...do you swallow-"
Ryou made a sound of affirmation, which was quite enough. A word - Assyrian and untranslatable, but one Ryou heard a lot around soldiers - squeezed out of Darius's mouth as he bucked. Ryou put both hands and mouth to the task of making sure his lover got the most out of the wave rocking his hips and body, swallowing and licking and dredging the pleasure out just that little longer.
Finally Darius's grip moved to Ryou's shoulder and nudged him away. Ryou let the sensitized organ slide from his mouth with one last shuddery lick, and glanced up. His lover was panting, magnificent body spread out on the bed...a sharp ache made Ryou's hand fall to his own erection out of sheer reflex. Damn, but he could come right here and now just looking at this.
Darius's eyes flickered open and he reached down. "Come here," he growled like one of his dogs. Ryou found his shoulder caught in grip that could not be denied and he was hauled up to half fall onto his lover's body.
Ryou could have said at this point that he'd be quite happy to jerk off on the tail end of that short but very appreciated blowjob, like Darius himself had done back at Essin. He could have said that, but the full body contact of hot skin on skin, and the way his dick found itself dragged up against oiled flesh, tripped Ryou's into a new realm of desire and lust and a slow meltdown of self control. With a deep groan he pushed himself down- into- on- oh! Darius's hands were on his lower back, gripping him and sliding up and down, the strength of the fingers against Ryou's skin as strangely erotic as the thrust of his dick into slick heat and pleasure. Ryou knew Darius's spent erection had to be rather sensitive right now- but the man didn't say anything about the weight and friction Ryou was applying to his body, and even used those hands to egg Ryou on, a mouth fastening on Ryou's shoulder in a bite before-
- before pushing him away to half an arm's length, to be able to see Ryou's face.
Ryou shook away the hold with a frustrated noise because now the touch of hot, wet skin was like a drug high and he needed more. Darius laughed, a low sound of approval as he held Ryou up with insolent ease, watching Ryou's face to his content as the latter gasped and felt his body shudder. Ryou's gaze bounced around the bed's headboard, Darius's hungry gaze and then down at their bodies where he was thrusting against his lover's inner thigh. This sensation- it was nothing at all like anal sex and Ryou decided instantly that he didn't mind and this was damn good as it was and he didn't want it to ever stop. Ever. But at the very thought, his traitorous body gave an inner lurch, a start of release that took him by surprise because surely, surely he could have gone on longer, felt that hot sliding touch longer, done it better and with more intent- no- no not yet wait dammit-
Now said another part of him. Now! And now and now and...hmmm, now...
A finger wiped the sweat from his eyebrow, ran teasingly down his nose. Ryou thrust one last time, instinctively chasing the fading tremors of orgasm. He shivered, opened his eyes and blinked into focus. When it didn't come, he remembered his glasses on the floor along with his clothes. It felt like a bit of a comedown somehow, but then Darius let him sink forward until they were lying body to body. Ryou's common sense informed him it was really, really too hot for that sort of thing, but most of him loved it, just like he loved the arm Darius had snaked around his waist to hold him tight.
"So," Ryou eventually murmured against the warmth of Darius's shoulder, "will I be welcome in your bed too, in the coming days?"
"Counting on it," mumbled Darius from somewhere near Ryou's right bicep.
"I'll be sure to have plenty of new questions by then."
That earned him a slap on the rump and then a good natured shove to roll him off. The bedroom felt almost cool for a few seconds as sweat evaporated, and then the heat leapt back on him again.
"We made a mess of your covers," Ryou said, reaching off the bed for his glasses.
"Fuck the covers," said Darius with great conviction, using a corner to wipe off and then leaning back, one arm folded beneath his head. He closed his eyes, but then one cracked open and he frowned. "Damn, forgot the candles."
"I'll get them," said Ryou, standing up and noting with satisfaction the wonderfully languid feel in his body and the lack of stress in his mind.
Darius grunted his thanks. Ryou stretched, arms over his head, and then he walked over to the tall candle holder Darius had brought into the room with him earlier. He blew out the five flames, put the cap onto the oil lamp he himself had been using before Darius showed up, and turned back towards the bed. His lover was already asleep, stretched out naked on the covers in the grey-blue light from the stars and moon outside the windows. Ryou looked down at him in wonder. This...this right here was one of those moments in life that stayed self-contained and vibrant in one's mind, a memory he'd look back to much later and think, whatever else happened, at that particular moment life was really good. An immortal moment. Though one without a camera which was a pity, because damn...Ryou smiled at the thought. He'd been smiling a lot these days. He'd probably smiled more in the last month than in the whole previous year. Hopefully there wasn't some kind of quota.
He went to bed naked too because he didn't have any bedclothes yet, and also because it was hot and it really did not seem to matter much anymore, a good feeling all in all. Completely relaxed, he slept five solid hours without twitching, that faint smile still on his face and one hand resting on Darius's thigh, until the first ray of light broke across the sky.
Note: Now, I was constrained by my ten minute research rule, but a lot of this is researched nonetheless, if not cross-referenced (Ryou would be disappointed in me). The two varieties of Greek slash, erastae and military, the huge predominance of intracrural sex, the greek ideal of men and lovers, what the Romans thought of all that - kind of mixed, from what I could tell - the presence of cross-genderism in ancient cultures, etc. Then there's also a lot I changed on the fly or made up to give more detail and accentuate that these cultures have changed and evolved over the thousands of years. I urge anyone who's curious to do more research, because even if some details are unpleasant *doesn't like the idea of eromenos, no, not at all, even with the blanket excuse of 'it's a very different culture'* it's still all quite fascinating and a needed change from the idiocies we come across in our own sad society on the subject of LGBT in general. Mind you, it's very hard to find out more details and cross-reference for reliability, as the matter has suffered from lack of historical research and also centuries of various form of censorship...
Now, Mal is going to bed, because Ryou curling up next to Darius like that is making me sleepy. Next solo chapter should be out in two or three weeks.