Author: Guede Mazaka
Gawain got the nearest, edging up to only six inches away, but he still hung back. Partly because Galahad had hooked their arms together and was pulling on him, but mostly because his eyes glimmered with suspicion. Arthur tried not to drop his head into his hands; it was unprofessional and immature, and completely unsuitable behavior for his first sole command.
"There're rusalka--spirits in the water," mumbled Galahad. He cast a mutinous look Arthur's way and dug his heels into the ground. "Look like beautiful women, but they'll drown you if you're not careful."
"There are not. I assure you, I've used it many times and I haven't drowned yet." Arthur felt like he was back under his first pedagogue, endlessly reciting lessons. Then he realized that he might as well be because he and the four newest knights were starting on their fifth repetition of the same argument.
To make matters worse, Bors and Dagonet were watching from the entrance, clearly amused by the ignorance of their younger comrades and by the incompetence of their equally young commander. While Arthur was used to Bors' constant stream of banter, he was not accustomed to the sight of mockery on Dagonet's face. It hurt. Quite a bit, because the silent man was one of the main supports of the knights, and Arthur had spent a good deal of time cultivating Dagonet's respect. Now, however, he was going to lose it, and all because of a few superstitious youths.
"You're a Roman," Lancelot pointed out, challenging smirk dancing around his face. He was only doing it to cover up his uncertainty, Arthur's reason suspected. Arthur's temper didn't particularly care about the cause so much as the grating effect it had. "Maybe they don't like Romans."
"Roman or Sarmatian, there's no difference except the name. We're all men." Much too near to punching the annoying brat, Arthur tugged at his clothes. He didn't yet have a clear idea of what he was doing, except that he needed to prove to these idiots that if they just listened and trusted him a little-
--the water was freezing. So cold it smacked in Arthur's chest and whipped the breath right out of him. He suddenly remembered that the hypocaust was broken so there weren't any hot baths.
"Arthur?" came a dim call to his ears. It sounded worried, and he abruptly realized what kind of picture he must be presenting. His cheeks flushed with embarrassment-bad to worse, nag to fool-and he ducked under the water to hide his furious blush.
Even though the iciness shocked brutally through his bones, it took a strangely long time for his face to cool. Long enough for him to begin to acclimate to the temperature, which after a while wasn't too bad. Bracing, even-his skin warmed so a curious tingle spread all over it, and his nerves seemed to spring to life, singing with energy. He opened his eyes, watching the ripples pass over the old, chipped mosaic on the bottom. Beautiful, clear and glimmering like the mist on the distant mountains. Rome was still a deep ache in his stomach, full of brilliance and softness and enlightenment, but he'd had to acknowledge that Britain had some beauties his beloved city did not.
A black wave unexpectedly blocked out his view. Startled, Arthur straightened into a small hurricane.
"Fuck, if he's dead-" Lancelot's anxious face slapped Arthur's still-bleared vision as hands seized his shoulders and yanked him all the way to the surface. Palms thumped all over him, apparently thinking that that was the way to revive him. As he was definitely not unconscious or dead, the only effect it had was to make him spit a full mouthful of water in Lancelot's face.
For a long, tense moment, Arthur could hear nothing except the gentle swishing of water against stone and Galahad's nervous snicker. Lancelot blinked, soaked eyelashes dragging into his eyes.
"I'm...well...fine," Arthur finally said. He awkwardly waved at the rest of the room. "See? It barely comes up to your waist. And there's no beautiful lady rising from anywhere."
"Good thing," Lancelot muttered, glancing down at his front. "Couldn't get it up for her. Damn it, Arthur, I think my balls have shriveled back into me."
The entrance emitted a fiercely joyous bark of laughter. "Shame, boy! And they've just dropped, too!" called Bors.
"Two girls in the last tavern say different!" Lancelot yelled back over his shoulder. "Bet your hand can't say the same!"
"You're asking for a drowning-" Bors started, but Dagonet pulled him back, flashing a rare smile at Arthur. And then it truly was fine.
Laughing, he clapped Lancelot on the back and made his way to the edge, where he turned a deliberately blank face up to the other three. "Well?"
"Let no one ever say that black-curled bastard beat Galahad for courage," Gawain quipped.
Suspicion whisked across Galahad's face and he began to back away from his friend, but too late: Gawain took one arm, Tristan the other and together they heaved him in. Arthur barely had time to move out of the way before half the bathwater came surging over him to slick the edge.
Then Gawain and Tristan climbed in, Gawain's back presenting the perfect target, and Arthur couldn't help himself. He shoved a wave at it.
Later, when they'd warmed up with play and Arthur had showed them how to use the strigilis for scraping off the dirt, Lancelot nudged Arthur aside. It wasn't anything obvious, nothing more than a casual tug at the arm, but Lancelot's eyes were solemn. "Did you mean what you said about the names?"
"Yes." Arthur blinked, watching the emotions in the other's face change with each flicker between light and dark. "All men are born equal. That's what I learned in Rome."
"That can't be true. Just look at any conscript," Lancelot retorted, bitterness flaring into his eyes.
It didn't seem to be directed at Arthur, but he was stung nonetheless. "It is true. But not everyone listens to the truth."
"Romans." With a grunt of exasperation, Lancelot flipped backward and floated on the water, a trick he'd mastered as fast as he did anything that was physical. "You always think you're right."
"I was about the water, wasn't I?" Arthur checked on the others with a quick glance, making sure Galahad was dunking as much as he was dunked. When he returned his attention to Lancelot, he found himself the object of an oddly intense gaze. A shiver swept down his back, and he didn't think it was entirely from the cold.
Lancelot dropped his head back, assuming an indifferent mask. "Water and freedom are two different things."
"True. You can have too much of one, but not of the other." Arthur watched the water bead into droplets and roll off Lancelot's exposed belly. He waited a beat, then lunged forward and dragged a suddenly-howling Lancelot down till they touched the bottom of the bath. Then he let go and shot up to amusedly watch a sputtering, indignant knight surface. "But they're both endless."
That earned him another wordless scrutiny. Arthur's gaze fell to his hands, already hard with sword-calluses. "Give me time. I'll show you," he said, quietly so the others wouldn't hear.
"Well, why not." Lancelot stared at him for a few more seconds before shrugging and turning away. Then he suddenly whipped back and pounced, sending them both over. "Doesn't seem like your philosophy covers stealth very well," Lancelot laughed.
"Give me time for that, too," Arthur growled as he hooked his ankle around Lancelot's. It was the work of a moment to pull.