This chapter forms an inset between chapters 14 and 15 of the Adventures of Tom and Barard. It falls naturally into three parts.

I visited the British Museum in May and came face to face with Catos as a young man. This lovely picture is by Michelangelo and can be purchased from the British Museum in A4 or A3.





Catos grasped the mane of his horse and swung himself down. He was feeling a little shaky. The idea to race with no saddle or reins had not been the cleverest, when he had only been allowed back on a horse the day before. Still, he had won. He laughed at his friends as they came riding up at speed and slithered to a halt past the improvised finish of the ancient cedar tree. He gestured to show they were all a bunch of wankers.

There were shouts and jeers, and the next moment he was in trouble as they set on him. Their horses were left to stand patiently, while Catos fought against the ignominy of being thrown in the river. Five to one: it was a losing battle, especially weakened as he still was. He flew through the air, shouting obscenities, and landed with a huge splash in the middle of the bathing pool. He surfaced, rubbed the water from his eyes, and struck out for the sandy beach. Damn. He would have trouble getting his boots dried and polished for inspection. His friends were still doubled over laughing on the river bank, and a little revenge was in order. Catos made a show of difficulty in getting to the shallows; he crawled a little way, coughing dramatically, and collapsed onto his back. The water lapped the side of his face.

His friends’ approach was wary, but as Catos lay unmoving, they gathered round.

‘Catos? Are you all right?’

‘Is he all right?’

‘He’s just fooling. Isn’t he?’

‘Catos?’ He was poked by a booted foot.

‘Oh, that’s good. The hero of the hour, and you’ve gone and drowned him!’

I drowned him!’

‘It was your idea, Marcos.’

Catos struck. He grabbed the ankle of the man who had poked him, and heaved. There was a curse and a splash. Ha! Catos rolled upright, water cascading off him, grabbed a second man, and threw himself back into the water. He would probably have had to be satisfied with this revenge, had not the two in the water decided this was grossly unfair. They ganged up with Catos against their erstwhile allies. After much yelling, none of them escaped a watery fate.

They stood on the sandy beach and leaned on each other, shaking with laughter as they peeled off wet clothes. Marcos rolled his eyes. ‘Catos, stop giggling! Anyone would think you were a girl!’

‘He can be my girl, anytime.’

‘Yes, well, think again, Petrios,’ said Catos, sobering up. He had discovered that some men, even those who had girls or wives, were quite prepared to go with other men in the cavalry when they were far from home, and he wanted no part in it. It was not like his small friends, Tolm and Barard, who loved each other with an intensity that had left Catos feeling breathless; it was more like scratching an itch in the absence of a brothel.

‘I reckon our Catos is a virgin,’ teased Petrios.

‘Don’t be daft!’ said Marcos. ‘Didn’t you hear about the Lord Justice? Nearly foundered a horse getting here from Hafar when our little Catos was in such a bad way.’

‘He was my guardian,’ said Catos stiffly, ignoring the little; that was an old joke. ‘Of course he was worried about me.’ He schooled his face not to show how happy that made him.

‘Oh, come off it, Catos. The whole camp knows you’re lovers.’

‘What!’ Caught in the process of pulling his trousers off, Catos nearly fell over. They knew more than he did, then.

‘First he bawls the commander out -’

‘What!’

‘Stop squawking, Catos. You sound like one of those gaudy birds in Hafar that can endlessly repeat a few words.’

‘But... he shouted at Lord Yanos? Why?’

‘For letting his precious lover-boy get injured, of course. It warmed our hearts to hear the commander get a taste of being on the receiving end of a good tongue lashing. And if we had any doubts, there were the tales from the sickroom.’

Catos swallowed. ‘What tales?’

‘Tales of how he behaved with you. There’s no point looking all innocent, Catos. A guardian doesn’t kiss his ward like that - and his ward doesn’t respond as though he’s just been given a long drink of water in the desert.’

‘I’m not his ward. Not now.’ Catos looked from man to man. ‘Stop laughing! It’s true! And you know that creep of an orderly tells lies about everyone.’

‘I rest my case,’ said Marcos. ‘He protests against being his ward, not his lover. There were other witnesses there, Catos.’ He frowned. ‘I think you might have told us. We are your friends.’ The others nodded their agreement.

‘There’s nothing to tell!’ I wish there were. His friends variously rolled their eyes or coughed their disbelief, but dropped the subject. Catos was relieved. To be thought to have what he desired above all things was like another wound added to the many he had recently recovered from.

They draped their clothes over shrubby bushes, and stuffed dried grass into their boots to help keep them in shape as they dried. That done, they turned their attention to their horses, rubbing them down, then letting them drink at the water’s edge.

In the river they swam naked together, washing away sweat and grime, and there was not one of them without at least one scar to show for the many battles they had been in. As they finished, a group of new recruits arrived to use the pool, and Catos and his friends swaggered out to give the smaller fry a chance. Catos could hear the whispers.

‘They’re officers.’

‘How do you know? They’re stark naked!’

‘I’ve been serving in the officers’ mess. See that one, the tall one with the scar on his face? That’s Lord Catos.’ Eager eyes followed them, making Catos feel like a battle-scarred veteran. Officers they might be, but junior ones, and he was only eighteen, the youngest of his group of friends.

They sat in the shade. Through the narrow band of trees, Catos could see the desert over which they had raced. In the distance, their camp shimmered in a haze of heat. He sighed and leaned back against a tree, the bark scratchy against his skin. He closed his eyes, thinking back to his bed in the hospital tent, more than a month before.

He lay with his eyes closed - not comatose, but in a strange state where he seemed to float. The activities around him had no bearing on himself, although he was aware that he ought to be feeling pain. A small part of his mind told him that he should be worried about the lack of sensation, but he wasn’t.

‘Where is he?’ The voice was loud, but so welcome.

‘Quietly, my lord. He sleeps.’

Catos wanted to say, “No. I’m awake,” but it was too much effort. He managed a sigh and rolled his head.

‘Oh, Catos.’ It was a whisper. Something brushed across his forehead. A hand. ‘How long? The report said -’

‘This is the eleventh day, my lord.’

Catos grappled with that, and failed to make any sense of it. He’d led his men to the rescue of a group of infantry, cleaving through the enemy lines in an unstoppable charge, then wheeling to protect his fellow Haradrim. He could remember nothing more, except a vague memory of regrouping his men, but he was sure it had not been so long ago.

‘But he is in no danger? I was told there was no danger.’

‘That was before the fever, my lord.’

In his darkness, Catos felt himself lifted into arms that felt so right he sighed again and nestled close.

‘Leave us.’

‘My lord?’

‘Leave us!’ The noise was too harsh, striking sparks that flared in painful brilliance behind Catos’s eyes. He whimpered, and was gently rocked.

‘Shhh, shhh. I’m sorry, love. I have you. You’re safe. Please, stay safe.’

If Faros was here, of course he was safe, but Catos couldn’t find the words. He raised a hand, curling fingers into soft fabric, wanting Faros to hold him close. Someone was weeping. Lips pressed against his in a gentle kiss.

‘Don’t die, my love. I can’t bear it, not again.’

‘Catos? Catos! Wake up! It’s time we were going, or we’ll be late for inspection.’

Catos jumped, one hand flying out to his sword which wasn’t there. ‘Shit! Don’t do that!’ Heart thumping, he pushed up from the ground and dusted himself down. The others were already dressed.

‘You’d rather we left you here, and you got all leave cancelled?’

Catos didn’t bother to reply. He reached for his clothes. Marcos stepped close as the others mounted their horses. ‘Are you all right, Catos?’

‘Just tired.’

‘Damn, we’ve let you do too much. I’ll help you with your kit when we get back.’

‘Thank you. There really is nothing to tell - about Faros, I mean.’

‘No? Then I’ll wager there will be.’


By the time the inspection was called, Catos was ready. He pulled on his boots, the leather supple from all the grease he had worked in with his fingers. Marcos had taken his armour and had done a good job; Catos’s distorted reflection gazed back from the polished surface. He turned his head this way and that, looking at the scar that ran down the side of his face. It had lost its red and angry appearance, and he even forgot it was there sometimes. He raised his fingers and touched the skin around the stark line; the sensation was odd, almost painful. He strapped on his armour, pulled on his helmet plumed with horse hair, and fastened his ceremonial cloak at his shoulders. The cloak was green, signifying his junior officer status with his own cohort of men under his command. Senior officers wore red and commanded ten cohorts. It was likely to be many years before Catos could expect that honour, and he was very much afraid that his heroics might have damaged his chances. He had disobeyed an order given before the onset of battle in order to rescue the Haradrim foot soldiers. He touched the scar again; well, he had paid for that in other ways.

He and Marcos examined each other critically. Marcos’s cloak was not hanging right, and Catos tugged it until it fell neatly behind him in deep folds. ‘There. Let’s go.’

They clasped left hands in the cavalry man’s gesture of good luck. Inspections didn’t fall often, thankfully, but they were a trial, and the Master at Arms was a tyrant. Men and horses would come under his eagle eye, and the smallest speck of dirt would be noticed. They separated outside their tent, to join their own men. Catos looked his cohort over and nodded approval. His horse was held ready, and he swung up into the saddle. A nudge of his heels was all that was needed to bring his mare forward into position. He didn’t really need to look back to check his men were drawn up neatly behind him, but he did anyway. Some of his fellow officers had trouble with insubordination, but Catos considered himself lucky: his men rarely gave trouble. He smiled at them. ‘Good. Petos, get your horse further back in line. Matos, you can sit straighter than that! That’s better. If we pass muster, I’ll buy you all a drink.’

Catos turned to face the front again, and sat unmoving as the Master at Arms came walking round them. Officers were not exempt from his sharp eye. The man tapped Catos on the boot to signify he should stretch his leg forward in the stirrup, and Catos was thankful that his saddle was as clean behind the stirrup leathers as elsewhere.

‘You have a well turned out cohort, Lord Catos.’ Praise indeed. ‘Lord Yanos commands you to attend him in his tent after the inspection.’

No answer was expected, and the Master at Arms stalked on to terrorise the next cohort. Catos bit his lip. There were only two reasons that Yanos would want to see him officially: commendation or reprimand. He had no idea which it was to be, but he feared it was the latter. Yanos had visited him in the field hospital, but he had come as a concerned friend. Now Catos was back on active service, it would be as a commander that Yanos would review his actions, and Catos knew there would be no favouritism.

The inspection ended, and they were dismissed. Catos turned in his saddle. ‘Well done, men. I’ll stop by and get you that drink after I’ve seen the commander.’

‘Will there be trouble, sir?’

‘Very likely, Matos.’ He dismounted and handed his reins over. ‘I’ll see you all later.’

‘Good luck, sir.’ It was a murmured chorus of support.

Catos strode through the camp to Yanos’s tent, and was announced by a servant. The tent was frugally furnished, although there was a certain amount of comfort. Yanos sat at a large desk, writing reports, his favourite sight-hound at his feet. He stoppered the ink and threw down his quill as Catos entered and bowed.

‘My lord. You wished to see me?’

Yanos acknowledged him with a nod and leaned back in his chair. ‘Thank you, Lord Catos; you are very prompt. I thought you would like to know that I recommended you for the Order of Aquilmos. I heard today that the king accepts my recommendation.’

‘Sir?’ Catos didn’t think he was hearing right.

‘You’ll be presented with the award next month in Hafar.’

Catos tried to think of something more sensible to say. ‘Thank you, sir.’ The Order of Aquilmos!

‘You don’t look very convinced, my lord.’

‘I’m sorry, sir. It’s just... I thought I would be in trouble.’ A raised eyebrow prompted him to add, ‘For disobeying orders, sir.’

Yanos leaned forward, hands together on the desk, and held Catos’s gaze. ‘You were ordered to dislodge the enemy from the high ground. Instead, you led a charge that broke the attack threatening a large company of our infantry who were leaderless. I have been reliably informed that they were in danger of being decimated. In doing so, I understand you received the wound near your eye. Despite the fact you were bleeding profusely, you took command of the infantry and sent them to make pretence of a disorderly retreat. Would you agree so far?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘The Khand were drawn from their defensive position by your ruse, and were then caught between your cohort and the infantry. Probably as a result of your wound, you were either unable to see, or unable to respond to, an attack against yourself, and were cut down. Your men rallied to your defence and carried you from the field, but the damage to the Khand army was done. Do you disagree with this account?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Good. I have it from many witnesses. Tell me, would you do the same again?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Yanos nodded. ‘Good man. You used your head, Catos. There are two hundred men who owe you their lives, and you turned the situation to your advantage. There was some rashness, and more than a little luck, but nothing can be certain in warfare. My best officers think on their feet and adapt strategy to the needs of the moment. I’ve watched you, Catos. You get the best from your men, and they are very loyal to you. You give them your respect, but you don’t expect them to be your friends, and you are not afraid to discipline them.’

‘I don’t often have cause to, sir.’

‘Of course not. Only a bad officer allows things to deteriorate so far that he must be heavy-handed.’ Yanos stood and stretched. His dog followed him up, feathered tail wagging. She was the colour of the desert, apart from black shading over ear tips and tail. She came and sniffed at Catos, and he rubbed her ears; he could afford to relax a little now. The Order of Aquilmos!

It seemed that Yanos hadn’t finished. He lifted a red cloak from the back of a chair and offered it to Catos, holding it out draped across his forearms. ‘I’ll make an official announcement tomorrow, but I thought you might like this now.’

Catos’s hand fell away from the soft silky fur at the dog’s ears. He stared at Yanos. This wasn’t possible. ‘Sir?’

‘I’m promoting you, Lord Catos.’

‘Sir! I’m... I’m honoured.’

‘And starting from now, you are on one month’s leave. You will take up your new command on your return.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘Hmmm. I thought I made myself clear. You are on leave, Catos.’

‘Oh, Yanos, really? I mean, you’re promoting me, and... and the Order of Aquilmos?’

Yanos put his arm around Catos’s shoulders and smiled at him. ‘Yes, really, my friend, and you deserve it all. Although I have no doubt that Faros will have something to say to me on the subject. Come! Sit down. What will you have to drink?’

‘Red wine. Thank you.’ Catos removed his breast plate and flopped comfortably into a chair. ‘I, erm, heard that Faros was angry with you.’

‘He felt I wasn’t taking enough care of you, and that’s why you were injured. I had to remind him that we are not here on some picnic.’ They touched glasses together, and Catos took a large gulp of his wine. It was a good vintage: mellow, with after flavours that chased across his tongue.

‘This is very good. What is it?’

‘A present from our small friend, Tolman. A vintage from his Shi-er.’

Catos took another mouthful, savouring the flavours. If Tolm were here now, he would turn to him for advice, but Tolm was far away. ‘Yanos?’

‘Hmm?’

‘Do you think Faros cares for me?’

‘No doubt at all. He loves you dearly. Do you really need to ask?’

Catos hesitated. It was tempting to just give a light answer and let the matter rest, but he sorely needed help and advice, and he trusted Yanos. ‘No, I mean -’ It was still hard to say.

‘Yes?’

‘I mean, cares for me as Tolm cares for Barard.’ The words came out in rush, and Catos was suddenly closely interested in swirling the little wine he had left around in the bottom of his glass.

‘Ah.’

The wine was a very dark red, and Catos stared into its depths. “Ah”? What help was that? It had been hard enough to ask once; he wasn’t going to push the point. He felt exposed and vulnerable. The silence finally forced him to look up.

Yanos considered him for a moment. ‘Tell me, what do you feel for Faros?

‘I love him.’

‘You mean, you would bed him if you could?’

From Markos or his other friends the question would have sounded coarse, but Yanos’s voice was gentle. Catos nodded.

‘How long have you loved him like this?’

‘Since the time of Tolm. He advised me to be patient.’

‘That long? Faros is a fool!’

‘Yanos!’

‘Oh, he’s very wise as a judge, don’t get me wrong, but he does not judge well for himself. Yes, I do believe he loves you as Tolman loves Barard, but I’m not sure he wishes to admit it. The rumour in camp is that you are lovers.’

‘I know. I heard. I wish it were true. Do you think Faros...’

Yanos leaned forward to top up Catos’s glass. ‘What?’

Catos took a grateful sip. ‘He had a lover who died. Did you know?’

‘Yes; I know. Trust Tarlos to find these things out.’

‘Do you think it’s possible that... that he’s afraid I’ll die? I mean, I remember some of what happened when I was ill, and I’ve heard the gossip. But as soon as I was getting better, he... he ran away. It was as though he pushed me away and ran.’ Catos rubbed his eyes; Yanos would surely have second thoughts if his newly promoted officer started blubbing into his wine. He met Yanos’s gaze again, and the sympathy he saw there encouraged him to continue. ‘Tolm always believed that his usage by that bastard Bayos made him wary of his actions with me.’

‘I cannot imagine what Faros suffered. He has never spoken of it, nor of his feelings. Disgust? Self-loathing? He may even believe he is somehow unworthy of you.’

Catos choked on his wine. ‘Unworthy?’

Yanos shrugged. ‘One cannot know another’s thoughts. What will you do?’

‘Now I’m on leave? Go and see him.’

‘Good. Tell him from me, he’s a fool.’


It was the early hours of the morning, before the city was stirring, when Catos rode into Hafar nearly a week later. He had camped a few hours away the previous evening, but - unable to sleep for the restless ache of longing in his body - he had saddled up and ridden on. Now he felt tired, his excitement at the thought of seeing Faros tempered by his doubt as to what he was going to say. The fingers of one hand curled around the reassuring familiarity of the reins, and he rubbed his other hand on his thigh, wiping away the sweat that had formed despite the early chill of the air. His stomach felt as though it were tied in a knot, but whether from nervousness or anticipation, he wasn’t sure. Possible scenarios played out in his mind: Faros welcoming him into his bed, Faros throwing him out of his house in disgust. The latter was too painful to contemplate, but the image lurked on, hovering just on the edge of conscious thought and adding nausea to his discomfort.

Since Faros did not keep stables, Catos went first to the palace. He had not yet found the need to get his own residence in the city. He had a room in the palace, but it was Faros’s estate near the river that he called home. What if he does throw me out?

This early in the morning there would be no hot water at either place, and Catos knew his only hope for a proper wash was to visit the public baths used by servants and the few remaining slaves. He stopped in the palace only long enough to ensure his mare would be well cared for, to leave dispatches with Balios, and to collect clean clothes, then headed out across the awakening market square. He took his time shaving and bathing, putting off the moment when he would make his way to Faros. His hand shook as he scraped away the stubble of his beard, and he swore as he nicked the skin of his neck and blood oozed. Please, let everything go right! If, by some miracle, he found himself in bed with Faros, at least he no longer smelt of stale sweat and horses.

He gave instructions to a servant for his cavalry clothes to be laundered and returned to the palace, and hoped that his outward pretence of calm assurance fooled the man. Inside, he was in a state of near panic; the thought of succeeding was almost as terrifying as the thought of rejection. His friends had been right, although there was no way that he would have admitted it to them: he was a virgin, a fucking virgin, and the only person he had ever wanted was Faros.

His walk across the city to the garden estates in the southeast did little to calm him, although the irony of being honoured with the Order of Aquilmos and being shit-scared about confronting the man he loved was not lost on him. The sun was still low enough in the sky to dazzle his eyes as he pushed open the tall gate and slipped into Faros’s garden. The early morning blue of the sky was thrown back by the lake that stretched away to his right, and it was easier to look at the reflection of the house beyond than directly at the startling whiteness of its walls and columns. A fish broke the water, and the image of the house flickered and wavered into ripples, but not before Catos had seen that the shutters to Faros’s room stood open. He shaded his eyes. Drapes were drawn closed; Faros had not yet risen. Maybe he should just go to his own room, catch up on his sleep and see Faros later over breakfast. Then what? Faros would most likely be busy all day, and Catos would have hours in which to fret and worry until he could get him alone in the evening.

He took a shaky breath and made his way along the well-tended gravel path that skirted the lake. The gardens were full of colour, and flocks of birds rose up before him. The only servant he saw was a gardener in the distance who raised a hand in greeting. That at least ruled out running away: sooner or later, Faros would hear that Catos had come and gone without seeing him.

As he entered the house, the transition from the brilliance outside into the cool interior left Catos momentarily blinded. He stood waiting for his sight to adjust. He had no wish to announce his presence by blundering into one of the many statues in the reception room. The blackness before him gradually lifted, and dim shapes became more clearly defined as colours brightened. The richly painted wall murals were merely a background detail; he ignored them as he took the wide stairs to the first floor, two at a time. He strode to the door of Faros’s room, but his resolution faded as he stood there, willing himself to turn the handle. Heart pounding, he wiped his sweat-damp hands on his dress. This was harder than going into battle for the first time; at least then he had not felt so alone. The worst that could have happened was his own death, short and final, but now he feared something worse: loss of a dream.

His hand was trembling a little as he turned the handle and entered. He closed the door quietly and turned to lean back against it. Faros was lying asleep on his bed, and he was naked. Catos swallowed, arousal fighting his fear. He had seen Faros naked many times, but never like this, never when he could look freely. Was it right? That he should take possession with his eyes when Faros had no say in the matter? He touched his fingertips to his lips. The kiss made it right. Let Faros deny it, Catos knew he had been kissed.

Faros lay on his back, one arm thrown wide, and the sheet that must have covered him in the night had been cast aside in a crumpled heap. His long hair was loose; a black disordered sheen that spread out over his pillow. Catos sighed softly at the sight of the face he loved in repose. Slowly, his gaze travelled down the lean brown frame. His friends might describe the joys of a generous bosom, narrow waist and fulsome hips in lyrical detail, but all Catos desired was to run his hands over Faros and feel the hard muscle and subtle curves, the maleness of him. And touch him there, feel his cock harden. He wanted... he wanted to bury his head against the slight round of Faros’s belly while his hand coaxed forth his seed. Beyond that, he didn’t know, although he had seen and heard enough in the camp to have some ideas.

Lie next to him!

What! No! I can’t do that!

So, you’re going to persuade him to bed you by the eloquence of your prose? Is that it?

Yes! No! I don’t know. I can’t lie on the bed. My... my clothes will get creased.

Take them off.

Oh, shit.

Catos stepped away from the door, and bent down to unfasten the leather thongs of his sandals. He kicked them away, and shrugged off his robe to lay it over a chair. His fingers were trembling as he unfastened the buttons of his dress. He had a further argument with himself over the cloth wound about his loins, and in the end let it be. The thought of Faros unwinding it made his balls ache and his cock swell within the confines of the soft cotton.

He slid onto the bed facing Faros, to lie on his side on the discarded sheet, and lifted a strand of hair away from the face that was so dear to him. ‘Faros,’ he whispered.

Faros didn’t wake, not fully, but made a soft noise in his throat and rolled towards Catos, reaching for him. Catos pushed in against him with a sigh of relief. Oh, Faros. Love me. He pressed a kiss against Faros’s skin. Faros jerked back as though the touch of Catos’s lips were a brand. Before Catos really knew what was happening, he landed on the floor with a yelp of shocked surprise: Faros had grabbed the sheet beneath him and heaved.

‘Catos! What in the Eye’s name are you doing!’ Faros was out of the bed and pulling on a dressing robe.

‘What the fuck does it look like I’m doing!’

‘This is how you horseboys behave, isn’t it? Climbing into each other’s bedrolls when the itch takes you to go whoring? Well, forgive me if I want no part of it. Get dressed and get out!’

The heat of Catos’s anger at being dumped so unceremoniously on the floor dissipated into cold panic at the look of disdain. ‘Faros, no. It’s not like that.’

‘We’ll discuss this later. Get dressed and get out.’

Catos pulled himself to his feet. He was numb, his features rigid. The pain would come later. He reached out for his clothes and paused. Was he going to let Faros believe that of him?

‘What are you waiting for?’ Faros was shaking. He looked as close to tears as Catos felt.

‘Shhh, love,’ murmured Catos. He stepped in to stand before Faros, and held his gaze. ‘I’ll go if I must, but let me speak. You owe me that.’

‘I owe you!’

‘For being dishonest with me.’

‘Now just a minute!’

‘Faros, I do remember. I was sick, but I remember. Why did you kiss me if you don’t want me?’

Faros swallowed. ‘You... I... you weren’t awake!’

‘Oh. That’s all right then. Like just now, in fact.’

Faros dropped his gaze. ‘I thought I was going to lose you.’

‘But you don’t mind losing me now?’

That got Faros’s attention. His head jerked up. ‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means you have to choose. I love you. I’ve loved you for years - no one else, only you. I’ve never lain with another. You are all I’ve ever wanted. If you tell me to go, then I’ll go, but we will not discuss this later. I’ll know I was wrong, and we won’t ever talk of it again. Tolm warned me you might never love me as I love you. All you have to do is tell me that you don’t love me, and I’ll go.’ Still there was no pain. It was just as it had been as the sword cuts laid him open: shocked numbness, a sense that this could not be happening. The pain, when it had come, had been overwhelming. Catos didn’t know what else to do. He gazed down at Faros, and that was so wrong that he couldn’t even begin to articulate it. Always he had looked up to this man. He went down on his knees, his body moving smoothly into the prostration, and kissed one foot, then the other. I am your servant; whatever your choice, I will obey you. He rested his forehead a moment, fighting back his tears before he rocked back onto his heels and dared to look up.

‘Catos.’ It was the barest whisper. ‘Catos. I... I’m sorry.’

Catos took the hand stretched out to him, and turned it to kiss the palm. From Faros’s expression - soft, dazed - he dared to hope that the apology was for being stupid, rather than for a rejection that was to come. He let go of the hand, and pulled the belt free from Faros’s robe. As the silk fell open, he knelt upright and cupped his hands around warm skin and hard muscle to draw Faros closer. He nuzzled in, laying his face against the chest that rose and fell with ragged, uneven breaths.

Arms wrapped around him, cradling his head, pressing him closer. ‘Catos, please stay. I... I want you to stay.’

Catos gave a soft huff of laughter against Faros’s skin, because, really, did it look like he was going anywhere? But the next moment all his pent up emotions rolled together into a sob that released his tears. He hadn’t realised that joy could hurt so much. Shaking, he clung to Faros, resisting all Faros’s efforts to make him stand.

‘Catos. Dear Catos. Either stand up, or let me go so that I can come down to you, yes?’

Catos let him go, and pushed up onto his feet and into Faros’s arms. Faros soothed him, gentled him until he calmed, and then sought Catos’s lips with his own. The kiss was awkward on Catos’s part; it took him a moment to realise how much easier it would be if he tilted his head, and a moment longer to realise that Faros wanted him to open his mouth. He felt a moment of panic at his inexperience, but Faros gave a soft hum of contentment as his tongue teased and probed, and Catos relaxed. There were so many sensations: the pressure of Faros’s body, the softness of his mouth, the smell of his sweat, the harshness of his stubble against Catos’s own smooth-shaven skin, but the overwhelming sensation was of comfort.

They parted, Catos gasping for air, and Faros laughed. ‘You can breathe, you know.’ He suddenly looked serious. ‘You were telling the truth. You’ve never done this before. Never even kissed.’

Catos bit his lip and shook his head. ‘How could you even think I was making a whore of myself?’ That still rankled.

Faros stroked his face. ‘Shhh. I don’t think that now. The orderly in the field hospital kept leering at me, and telling me that you were much sought after, that you went with anyone.’

‘The lying bastard. I’ll -’ He was halted by Faros’s hand cupping over his mouth.

‘I shouldn’t have believed him. But I’d only just realised how much you meant to me, and I wasn’t thinking very clearly.’

Faros took his hand away, and Catos smiled at him, his anger forgotten. ‘Yanos says to tell you, you’re a fool.’

‘Yes.’ Simple agreement.

Catos wanted to lay his head on Faros’s shoulder, but the height difference meant the other way worked better. He rested his cheek against thick, black hair and smiled again at the light kisses pressed within the hollow of his neck. That felt surprisingly good, but it wasn’t enough to stop him yawning. He had forgotten how tired he was.

Faros raised his head. ‘Did you ride through the night?’

‘I couldn’t sleep.’

‘Then come to bed. Sleep now.’

‘Where will you be?’

‘Here. With you. There’s nothing I was due to do today that I can’t cancel. When did you last eat?’

‘Yesterday.’

Faros made a disapproving noise, and released Catos to give the bell-pull by the bed a sharp tug. He disappeared briefly into his dressing room, and reappeared with another dressing gown. He held it up for Catos to slip his arms into, and reached around him to tie the belt. With a sigh of contentment, Catos leaned back into Faros’s body and shivered at the kisses that ghosted down the back of his neck. A knock at the door pulled them apart.

‘Come in.’

Catos tried to look nonchalant, as though he were always to be found in Faros’s room. It was Faros’s personal manservant who entered, carrying a tray with a jug of coffee and a single cup. ‘Good morning, sir.’ His face broke into a smile at the sight of Catos. ‘Lord Catos, welcome home. I didn’t know you were here. I’ll fetch another cup.’

‘And some breakfast. Something that won’t take too long. Lord Catos has been travelling all night. I don’t think he’ll stay awake much longer.’

‘Yes, sir. I’ll tell the cook, and then get our young lord’s room ready.’

‘No need. He’ll sleep here. Will you send a message to the palace to cancel my engagements for today? We will be dining in tonight; tell the cook it’s a celebratory meal.’

‘Of course.’ The servant nodded, and Catos caught the slight twitch of amusement about his mouth. ‘May we know what you’re celebrating?’

Faros hesitated, and Catos stepped in smoothly. ‘I’ve been promoted, and I’m to be awarded the Order of Aquilmos.’

‘Congratulations, my lord. Well deserved, by all accounts.’ The servant took his leave with a bow, and Faros shut the door behind him.

‘The order of Aquilmos? Catos, I’m proud of you!’

‘We must write to Tolm.’

‘Or maybe tell him.’

‘What! He’s coming home?’ Catos hugged Faros in delight, but Faros shook his head, even as he folded his arms around Catos.

‘This isn’t his home. The king is sending an ambassador to Gondor.’

‘Who? Who is to go? Can we go?’

‘I have asked - begged - but Sûlos has not yet decided. There are many who have petitioned for this honour.’

‘But if you go, I can come with you, yes?’

‘That would be Yanos’s decision.’

‘Faros, we must go!’

‘I’ll let you be the one to tell Sûlos that.’

‘Maybe not. But I can beg as well as the next man.’

‘Mmmm. I’ll hold you to that later.’

Catos swallowed at the hum of approval and the husky promise. He felt a rise of excitement, but also the fear. He was crap at kissing - what would he be like in bed?

‘Catos?’ Faros caught Catos’s lower lip between his, a soft teasing. ‘Don’t look so worried. I won’t do anything you don’t want me to. You know that don’t you?’

For answer Catos tilted his head down and parted his lips. The soft noise he made in the back of his throat was an involuntary expression of his desire. There’s nothing - there’s nothing I don’t want. Faros pressed in to claim what Catos offered, and Catos gladly gave himself into the keeping of the man he loved. He remembered to breathe, while he remembered anything, and then he was sinking, falling into a deep well of feeling. Faros shifted, slipping a hand within the dressing gown Catos wore, his finger tips brushing down over taut belly. The light touch over sensitised skin was like throwing a lighted taper into a flask of volatile oil. Catos was dimly aware of the heat that suffused his body, of the rough intensity of their kissing, of the urgency of his hands, but it was no more than a backdrop to the jolt of sensation at Faros’s touch. He canted his hips instinctively, his whole body pleading for those fingers to dip lower, to slip beneath the cloth that confined his cock. He wanted to thrust into the haven of Faros’s encircling hand and lose himself, to become in truth what others had believed him to be. Please! More! Don’t stop.

The next moment, Catos stilled in shocked surprise and his eyes flew open. Had he done something wrong? Faros was stopping, withdrawing. Hands curled at Catos’s hips, pushing him away. As Faros disengaged from the intimacy of their kiss, he turned his head towards the door. His voice, pitched to carry, made Catos jump.

‘Thank you. Leave the tray there.’

The answer was muffled. ‘Very good, sir,’ There was a clatter, as of a tray being set down, and the soft sound of receding footsteps. Catos swallowed.

‘There was a knock?’

Faros rubbed the back of his hand down Catos’s undamaged cheek. ‘Yes, there was a knock. You didn’t hear it?’ Catos shook his head. He was still trying to recover from the sensation of having been doused in cold water. Faros pulled him close again, and kissed him lightly on the lips. ‘You look exhausted. Have some food, and then you can get some sleep.’

‘Fuck the food.’

‘I’d rather fuck you.’ There was an underlying roughness in the words that made Catos tremble, but not because he didn’t want to be fucked and definitely not because he shied away from the idea of rough. Faros was such a gentle man, and the thought that he might be quite otherwise in bed was all Catos’s cock needed to complete its recovery.

‘So, do it.’ He pressed in and rubbed his hips from side to side, letting Faros feel how hard he was.

Lips quirked in amusement. ‘A very tempting offer, but I want your first time to be more than a quick jump in the sack. You’re nearly dropping on your feet.’

‘I’m fine.’

‘No, you’re not. You’ve been ill, and you’ve not had any sleep. Look in the mirror and tell me you’re fine.’ Faros turned Catos to face the large mirror that hung on one wall, and left him there while he fetched the tray. Catos had to admit Faros had a point: he did look tired. He stared into eyes half hooded by drooping lids. It was easiest to just let his lids close. His head nodded...

‘Catos!’

Catos jumped. ‘Wha?’ He looked blearily into the mirror, his heart thumping, trying to gather his wits and work out where he was. Faros stood partly behind him, a hand on his shoulder. Their eyes met in the mirror, and Faros smiled.

‘You were asleep, love.’ The word love was a caress. A warmth spread through Catos as he held Faros’s reflected gaze, and he relaxed into it, his body’s demands in abeyance for the moment. Faros gave him a little shake. ‘Food.’

Catos sighed. ‘All right. If it makes you happy.’ He knew Faros well, and there was a tendency for him to want things to be perfect, and anticipation was all part of his enjoyment. At the great festivals, Faros sometimes drove Catos mad with his obsessive insistence that every tradition should be adhered to. Catos had given up protesting that it was only a stupid festival and it didn’t matter. It mattered to Faros, and that was enough for Catos. Now, he accepted a bowl of his favourite breakfast, and nodded at the thought that the kitchen servants knew their role in Faros’s quest for perfection. He obediently curled his long frame into a chair, and tore off bread to scoop up the mix of aubergine, sesame paste and dried tomatoes. The taste of garlic was strong, lemon added its distinctive tang, and the flavour of pine nuts rounded the whole into a sensual feast. He was hungrier than he’d realised, and he wiped the bowl clean, licking his fingers with slow, appreciative thoroughness. He looked up, to find that Faros was staring at him with his coffee cup part-raised between saucer and lips. The cup was canting dangerously close to spilling its contents.

‘Faros?’

Faros jumped and really did spill his coffee. ‘Oh... fuck.’ He set the cup aside, jumped up and brushed ineffectually at his dressing gown. It was very obvious that the gown covered an impressive erection.

Catos uncurled from his chair, carelessly dumped his empty bowl on the tray, and impatiently tugged loose the belt around Faros’s waist. The ruined silk fell open. Catos half expected Faros to protest when he eased the fine cloth off his shoulders, but Faros didn’t move. Gravity took over, and the robe whispered to the floor unheeded. Catos furled his hand around the rigid cock, feeling the weight and the heat. He rubbed his thumb back and forth, his gaze held by the dark depths of Faros’s eyes. ‘I love you,’ he murmured. ‘I love you.’ He had wanted to tell Faros this for so long, and now it seemed inadequate, trite. You are my heart, my life. What would it be like to have this cock thrusting deep within him? He closed his eyes at the thought, aching to be taken, if the taking was by Faros. There was no fear now; Faros would hold him, teach him, guide him, love him, and the fine tremor he could not control was from the sheer wanting. He felt fingers loosen constraining cloth, and then he was being teased and caressed. His own hand working his cock had never, ever felt like this. He gave a soft cry, as Faros spread moisture with his thumb.

‘Catos.’ It was love expressed in two syllables, breathed out in wonder. ‘Come to bed.’

Catos opened his eyes, and tried to smile, but couldn’t; the gaze he met was too intense, a conflagration waiting to happen. He had been surrounded all his life by brown eyes, had not known any other colour was possible until he met Barard, but there was brown, and there was Faros. Warm, and loving, and so deep he could lose himself.

‘Come to bed.’ It was an invitation, not an order. Faros’s voice was husky, catching a little on the word bed. Resonating as it did with Catos’s own throbbing need, it made it hard to think. The only wonder was that he hadn’t just come at the sound of it.

‘I... I...’

‘Shhh. Don’t talk.’

Catos hadn’t realised he was being manoeuvred backwards until the bed collided with the backs of his legs. Faros let go of his cock, which was bad, and stripped the robe from his shoulders, which was good. Warm hands running lightly up the inside of his thighs were better than good, and Catos spread his legs and lifted his hips in invitation. He whimpered in frustration as Faros ignored him. Hands smoothed on up over his flanks and chest, thumbs rubbed at his nipples. Lips whispered against his. ‘Bed.’

Damn the man! He was pulling away again. ‘Faros!’

‘Shhh. I’m old enough to like my comforts, horseboy.’ This time the appellation was warm, an unspoken possessive hanging in the air. My horseboy. Faros took his hand, drew him onto the bed; his fingers curled around Catos’s shoulders as he pushed him onto his back. Faros’s hair was still loose, falling like a curtain around his face as he knelt over Catos and kissed him again. Catos moaned into the kiss, his eyes fluttering closed as Faros settled his weight part on him. One hand wrapped around his cock started a slow stroke, and all the while, Catos could feel hard heat against his thigh. He had a hazy notion he should somehow be reciprocating, but all he could do was clutch Faros and make stupid, inarticulate noises. Faros moved against him, matching the rhythm of his hand and mouth to that of his body, and it was all too much. Catos was desperate for relief, desperate to come, but the pace was just short of that needed to topple him over the edge. He pushed up against Faros, his mouth hard and demanding, his back arching, his hips trying to thrust against the restraining weight. He pressed Faros to himself, one hand locked into his hair, the other at the firm swell of his arse. He twined a leg around Faros’s thighs, scrabbling for greater purchase, unable to care that he had trapped his Faros-enfolded cock between them.

Faros didn’t seem to care either. He made a deep noise in the back of his throat and hugged Catos to him. They moved together, to a place where there was no pulling back, no thought of pulling back, nowhere to go but into an obliviousness of everything except an outpouring of love. The intensity shook Catos, left him gasping and sobbing for breath, still pressed to Faros, still clutching him. It took long moments to come back to himself enough to realise that his head was thrown back, that his mouth was open, that light kisses roamed over his eyelids and face, that his body was being gently stroked. Slowly, he opened his eyes and gazed into warm, brown depths that were full of wonder. He twined his arms around Faros’s body, and smiled lazily up at him, drifting in a state of euphoria. His eyes fluttered closed again on a sigh of contentment, and without meaning to, he fell asleep.



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