When in Rome

 

Part One

 

Light had struck, searing through his eyelids. Aya fought back the urge to continue sleeping, allowing his eyes to open slowly, adjusting to the light. Once he'd made the transfer from sleep to wakefulness, the memory of what had happened before he'd been put to "sleep" came back swiftly.

So why, Aya wondered, rapidly regaining his senses, am I sleeping in a bed? Had they been captured? Rescued? His eyes narrowed back into slits as he noticed something else. Why am I naked?

His surroundings were strange. The bed seemed common enough, if somewhat old and well-worn. The covers almost seemed to be made of actual animal fur. The room was wooden, small, and slightly cramped, with the only light coming from a window built into the curved roof. The place seemed almost archaic. It wasn't a hospital, and it certainly wasn't Kritiker headquarters, not by any stretch of the imagination.

So where was it?

Aya frowned. None of this made sense. If they'd been arrested or taken prisoner, he could hardly expect this sort of comfort. And what reason would there be for stripping him and then putting him to bed? He turned his head to see the other side of the room.

And discovered that he wasn't in bed alone.

The moment that followed that discovery was the closest Fujimiya Ran had ever come to actually falling out of bed from jumping back so quickly.

"Rrmph." Youji reached out blindly with one arm, face still buried in his pillow. "Aw, c'mon, baby, s'too early t'get up," he complained, still groping around for his bedmate.

Aya recovered from his shock, torn between confusion and anger. A scowl spread on his face all the same. "I'd say it's plenty late enough, Kudou," he growled back.

"Mmm." Youji's hand stilled, and he seemed to relax.

Then he shot bolt upright. "Holy fuck!" he swore, eyes wide and looking bloodshot. "Aya?"

Aya picked up a large chunk of white cloth from the floor and tossed it into the blond's face. "Put some clothes on," he said curtly, retrieving a second piece of clothing for himself. It looked like an oversized shirt.

Whoever is responsible for this will suffer before I'm through.

"What the hell is going on?" Youji pulled the shirt over his head. There were a couple of brown strips of cloth to belt the absurd outfit, and… "Are we supposed to wear this?" The blond held up a strange-looking sandle with huge laces. "It looks like a ballerina shoe." He dropped it in disgust.

Aya put on the entire outfit, laces included. He had a strange feeling about all of this… "What do you remember about what happened to us?"

"What happened… oh, right." Youji struggled with the shoes, following Aya's example. "A building fell on us."

Aya chose to ignore that. "You don't remember anything?"

"Besides blacking out, no."

So neither of them had an answer. "Let's find out where we are." Aya headed for the door.

"Where we are." Youji chuckled, and he ran a hand through his hair. "I'd rather find out why some sick bastard stuck us here. I practically had a heart attack, waking up in bed with you." His fingers twitched. "God, I'd kill for a cigarette."

Aya frowned. He didn't know exactly why, but that statement irritated him. "It'll be easier to figure out why after we've discovered where."

"Good to know cold practicality hasn't failed you," the blond replied. "Give me a little while to be shocked beyond all reason, would you?"

"Be as shocked as you'd like." He was really getting tired of the clever comments. "I intend to take a look around. You can stay here or come along."

Youji gave him an incredulous look. "You're going out in public like that?"

Aya ignored him this time. He wasn't going to get anything done if he kept stopping to talk all morning. Besides that, Youji's reaction had made him more annoyed than he wanted to admit, and removing himself from the source was the best way he knew of to keep his reactions under control.

Outside of the room was the most primitive living area he'd ever seen. It was made of wood, and nearly bare - and what was there was strangely crude. No sink, no computer, no refrigerator… it was like something from an entirely different time.

Youji came out beside him. "Nice place," was his comment.

Not that it tells us much. Aya found the second door, down the hall, and opened it to walk through. On the other side was what looked like a primitive shop of some kind. Huge, neatly cut blocks of various-colored linen were draped over crude wooden racks that lined the walls, and there was a small shelf near the back with some strange but simple tools. A small window by the front door provided some light.

Aya moved toward that door. Now we'll find out something useful.

He opened the door, looked outside, and froze.

"What?" Youji made his way over, trying to get a good look outside. He glanced over Aya's shoulder, and took in a sharp breath.

Outside the door was a city teeming with people in the same sort of clothing that Aya had found on the floor. The outer walls of every building had been sheathed in regal white marble, and they rose in archaic, elaborately carved pillars, causing the city to almost soar as they rose up to touch the edge of the sky. It was a vision conjured up out of a history book, directly from the past.

Youji summed up what Aya was thinking quite eloquently then.

"Fuck."

~~~~~~

"Is he dead?"

A short, ugly laugh answered that. "Not hardly. Probably wishes it, though."

"Wake him up, then."

Somebody's solid-soled boot connected with Omi's side, hard enough to drive him into full wakefulness and send him into a painful ball, gasping for breath. What…? Where am I?

As he pressed a hand to his aching side, cold metal came into contact with the bare skin there. Omi opened his eyes slowly. There were heavy iron chains on his wrists and ankles.

What happened to me? The last thing he remembered was Ken pulling him along with that painfully tight grip on his arm, and the building crumbling… there was still a bruise on his arm, too. So, what…?

"Get him up."

"Right." The boot nudged Omi's ribcage, none too gently. "On your feet, boy!"

He allowed himself to uncurl slowly, taking in everything while struggling to push aside grogginess and rise so that he was standing. He wasn't the only prisoner; to the sides, he could see quite a few people, men and women, all chained together with the same link that imprisoned him. The males, himself included, had only what appeared to be a simple loincloth for clothing.

What is going on here?

One of the men in front of him whistled low. "That's a pretty one, isn't it? I was beginning to think your whole bunch here was good for nothing but hard labor."

Omi studied him for a minute, warily. He was a small man with a carefully groomed goatee and oily dark hair. His clothing was a strange sort of costume - something like the dress in ancient Roman times. The burly men beside him, too, were dressed the same way, only less fanciful.

What is this? Some elaborate game?

"There's always a gem in every batch of rocks," one of the big men said, sneering. "This one'll fetch us a good price from some fancy noble, you think?"

The small man reached out to grasp Omi's arms with both hands. Without even thinking about it, he brought up his chained hands, knocking away the unwanted attention.

"Spirited." The man snickered, wringing out his hands as if something filthy had touched them. "This one is stronger than it looks. Better than a soft, submissive thing, like the girls. Well get a high price for him, I'm certain." He gestured to the two goons, and they turned to leave the small, dank room.

Are they planning to sell me?

"What were they talking about?" Omi asked, when the door banged shut. He looked around to the two men on either of his sides. "What did they mean by all that?"

"We're being put on the block today," one of the men answered, in a low voice.

"The block?" Omi repeated, confused. None of this made sense! Are they trying to recreate the slave trade from Roman times? "Where am I?" he demanded.

The man on his other side chuckled humorlessly. "Don’t you remember, boy? We were brought here from the outer villages. They're going to sell us on the street to the highest-bidding Romans."

"I was born a slave." Omi's head whipped around toward the first man. His head was down, his voice still low. "I'm going to die one, too."

Slave! "But…" Omi protested weakly, mind whirling. "Romans? That's impossible! I was in Tokyo before… that's nowhere near Italy! And the slave trade was abolished there centuries ago!"

"Never heard of Tokyo - or Italy." The second man shrugged. "Doesn't matter. You're one of us now."

This can't be happening! Omi clung to that, trying to fight the fear that threatened to take over him as the reality of his situation came crashing down on him. "There haven't been slave markets like this since the fall of the Roman Empire!"

"Fall?" The man gave him a look that was almost pitying. "The Roman Empire is the largest power in the world we know, boy. They're never going to fall, those Romans. Not so long as there's still the 'glory of Rome'." The last words had a definite bitter feel to them.

Omi leaned against the wall behind him, stunned.

The Roman Empire… but that's impossible! Impossible!

Everything about that made sense, though - the way they were all dressed, the reality of the slave trade, the words about the glory of Rome… These people all believed they really were in ancient Rome. But I'm from Japan! I live in the present, not the past! Could it be possible that they were all insane?

But how did I get here? He'd been buried under a building the last time he'd been conscious. It almost made more sense that he really was back in the past. If this was some twisted afterlife…

What about the others? Omi twisted his hands together, biting back panic. Were they back in Tokyo, looking for him? Were they here as well? What if, right then, all three of them were being sold as slaves, or sentenced to death, or something just as bad?

The second man shrugged, watching Omi. "Sometimes it hits them later than others," he said.

~~~~~~

"This is un-fucking-believable," Youji commented, walking beside the silent redhead. His fingers were trembling, even though the initial hard shock had more or less worn off. I really wish I had a cigarette… "Did we hit a time warp or what?"

Aya was silent; that was his way of saying 'I don't know, but talking probably isn't going to help us find answers'. Youji sighed. Of all the people to get stuck with. And waking up next to him like that…

The shock of that was more that he didn't completely trust himself not to have done something than anything else. Even someone with more of an eye for the opposite sex had to admit that Aya was a pretty damn sweet piece of eye candy, and Youji had always had an appreciation for people who were well put-together. He might've entertained the thought more than once, were it not for Aya's frigid attitude.

He really needs to get that stick surgically removed from up his ass. Otherwise he's never going to get laid.

"Something's going on," Aya said, snapping Youji out of his own thoughts. He was watching several large groups of people who were moving along one of the wide streets, chatting excitedly. From that same general direction, a lot of shouting seemed to be going on.

"Seems that way, doesn't it?" Youji sighed - a little theatrically. "And I guess next you'll be saying we need to go check it out, won't you?"

Aya glanced at him sideways.

Hmm… I don't think he's buying it. "Well, let's go, then."

There was a large crowd still gathering at what appeared to be a pavilion in the center of the street - actually located where two streets crossed each other, and the space was widened out to accommodate large gatherings of people. The crowd was getting bigger by the second, and there was a certain amount of chattering going on. Even over that, though, a few people were shouting - mostly calling out numbers. Standing on the pavilion was a small man with a scantily clad girl and two larger men beside him. The girl's hair was tangled and her eyes darted about the crowd, terrified. The small man was shouting.

"Four hundred! Do I hear four-ten?"

"Four-thirty!" somebody shouted in response.

"Four-thirty! Is there a four-forty?"

No more shouts answered him.

"Get up here with your four-thirty then! You've got yourself a girl!" The two big men handed the struggling girl's chain over to the plump man who came up to claim her.

Youji felt his blood boil. "Bastards!" he hissed, starting forward without even thinking about it.

Aya held him back. "There are too many people around," he cautioned. "And we aren't armed right now. You couldn't do anything for her anyway."

The words were true, but they stung all the same. Youji shrugged off Aya's hands. "Right. Lucky you're cold-blooded enough to figure that out."

Aya's face didn't change. "Someone needs to keep you alive."

That made him feel a bit guilty, but he was still too angry to apologize. "I'm going to come back here and strangle those guys with my bare hands when everyone's out of the way." That was an empty threat, and they both knew it. No one would cover his tracks here.

Aya didn't bother to reply.

"Here's a real treat for those inclined!" the little man roared suddenly. His two big men were leading another slave from a group of chained men and women beside the pavilion. This one was a boy, and he was struggling viciously. One of them got an elbow in the face, and the other was neatly tripped. The boy was agile enough to duck and probably would've escaped if he hadn't been hindered by his chains. He got a stunning blow to the side of his head for his trouble and slumped back, dazed.

"Feisty little thing, isn't he?" The small man snickered. "How much?"

"Three hundred gold!"

"Three-fifty!"

"Four!"

Youji wasn't paying much attention. He could see the boy's face, and that fighting style was one he could've recognized in the dark. "Omi!" he exclaimed, horrified, and acted before Aya could stop him. "Five hundred!" he shouted.

Aya wrenched his shoulder. "Idiot! We can't save him like that!"

"So, what? Let them sell him?" Youji glared at him, yanking free viciously. "That's Omi up there, not some random victim! And I don't see you coming up with any bright ideas!"

"Wait until someone outbids the rest," Aya replied, meeting the glare steadily. "Then follow and kill them. Bidding without money is pure idiocy."

Youji scowled, but he could see the logic there. "Yeah, all right, fine," he gave in, reluctantly.

"Seven hundred fifty! Do I hear seven-sixty?"

No answering shouts.

"He's all yours! Get on up here!"

Youji grit his teeth, watching a pair of grinning men come up to take Omi's chain. He's barely eighteen! If those bastards hurt him… He suppressed the thought, and immediately found it replaced by another. "Hey… if Omi's here…"

His eyes met Aya's and he knew they were both thinking the same thing.

Where was Ken?

~~~~~~

"My Lord…"

Ken swatted at the offending hand. "G'way, m'sleeping." His eyelids were heavy and he was resting on something warm and soft. It was too comfortable to spoil.

"Forgive me, my Lord, but you must wake up."

Ken pulled a pillow over his head. "Gimme another minute, Aya," he complained. He was exhausted. It must've been from all that running before the - before the -

Abruptly, he was wide awake and sitting bolt upright. The building! He couldn’t remember anything after running through the collapsing structure, pulling Omi by his arm… Omi! And the others! Where…?

"My Lord?"

He looked up. In front of him was a strange-looking man in an odd costume. What the hell…? Ken looked back down. He was in a huge, luxurious bed with mounds of soft pillows and thick fur covers. Where the hell is this?

"My Lord, is there something the matter?"

Crap. He turned back to the funny-looking guy, and frowned. "Hey look, if it's not too much trouble, do you think I could get a robe or something?" I'm not getting out of bed like this, that's for sure! What happened to my clothes?

"At once, my Lord!" The man hurried from the room.

Lord? Ken stared after him in perplexity for a minute, then turned his head to get a look at his surroundings. Whoa…

The room looked like something out of some foreign fantasy hotel. It was large and made for comfort - practically as big as the whole living area he'd shared with his teammates back home. It looked sensuously old-fashioned, and definitely not Japanese.

What is going on here?

First things first; he had to find out where he was, and what had happened to the others. Then, once they were all safe and together, they could piece together what was going on and what, exactly, they could do about it.

"Here you are, my Lord!" The man - a servant? - returned, holding a huge white robe that was as old-fashioned and strange as the room. Ken took it anyway and put it on without complaining. He needed to wear something.

"Where am I?" he demanded, maybe a little too irritably. The servant flinched.

"You are… in your palace, my Lord."

Palace? Ken frowned. "And where's that?"

The servant seemed flustered. "Why… in the capital city of Rome, my Lord."

Rome? Isn't that a city in Italy? But that was impossible! "Wait, wait, how long have I been asleep, anyway? And what happened with the building?"

The servant looked baffled. "Building, my Lord? You've been sleeping all morning. There are people who wish to see you, if it's convenient for - "

"Yeah, yeah, okay," Ken interrupted, impatient. This guy doesn't know anything, obviously. He spotted a tray sitting on a small table beside the bed. "I'll just have some breakfast and all… you know. I'll be up and about later."

"Yes, my Lord." The servant appeared to take that as a dismissal, because he bowed and hurried out.

This is too strange…

Ken ignored the food for the moment. He was more than a little worried, and worry always made him restless and irritable. He paced across the room, mind racing. Omi had been right with him, and he didn't seem to be anywhere nearby - unless he was in another room. Whoever had found him under that rubble had to have found Omi as well, right? He tried to assure himself of that, but it didn't help much. Besides, Aya and Youji had been pretty far behind them - they might still be buried.

I need to get out of here and figure this out!

There was a window opposite the door - a high, ornately carved thing set in the same smooth marble that encased the walls. Ken chose that as a starting place - he'd have a better chance if he had at least some idea of where he was.

As it turned out, looking out the window didn't exactly give him that.

Shit!

It was late in the day, and the sunlight gave him a perfect view. He was in an upper-level room and so he could look down on a city that appeared to be a sea of white marble as far as he could see - ornate foreign buildings, lined with huge pillars that strove as hard as they could for immensity. There were exotic, teeming markets and wide streets permitting strangers in odd costumes to go about their business. It was incredibly rustic - like a scene from a movie or a picture out of a history book.

Ken stared.

Where the hell am I?

It was impossible… totally unbelievable. Impossible like seeing the future, his mind replied frankly. Or reading minds. Or not feeling pain. Or moving things with your thoughts.

Still, the biggest concern still stuck out in Ken's thoughts.

If I'm here… where are the others?

 

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