Thalis walked over to one of the cupboards and took out some vials and bowls. "Anyway, we're out of dill oil. I'll use the time to make some more."
Alexios nodded and left the practice. I listened ashe went upstairs, perhaps to let Gregory know that the 'rich chick' was gone and he could come down again. Meanwhile, I remained at the desk, trying to put Clodia's file into the right drawer. It was sorted alphabetically. A to C was found on the left side of the desk in the first drawer from the top.
Thalis cleared his throat and turned to me. His mouth opened a little, but it took him a moment to get the words out. "Phillip, can you help me with this? Preparing the oil, I mean. At least you'll learn something useful."
I shrugged my shoulders and got up from my seat behind the desk. Why wouldn't I? All of this was far better than holding down screaming patients while their limbs were severed.
"Tell me though, Phillip, what did you think of the rich - and if Alex has his way, beautiful - Clodia?", Thalis asked me, rolling his eyes at the mention of his brother.
I shrugged my shoulders again. "I didn't think she was pretty either, nor very pleasant. Yes, almost hypocritical, I'd say. Perhaps that's because I've known her for longer than you guys.”
He looked at me, astonished. "How come?"
I laughed and hurried to explain what I meant by telling him about my way home yesterday.
Thalis snorted and nodded his head. "I can well imagine that. It only confirms the image I already have."
He poured oil from a large bottle into a mixing vessel. "It's actually quite simple. You fill the jug a third full of oil, then the dill blossom comes in. As much as will fit and still be completely covered with oil. And then you stir and knead well, for at least an hour. For that you need to dunk your hands in honey first."
After he added the dill flowers, we took turns mixing the oil. Unfortunately, time passed painfully slowly. It wasn't as if the process had been particularly arduous. No, it was a tension that was in the air between Thalis and me. When it felt like two hours I asked Elisa about the time that had passed. It was only twenty-seven minutes. Since starting we hadn't exchanged another word. I noticed though how Thalis gave me sideways glances when I stirred the mixture.
Finally he cleared his throat and paused. His hands were still dipped in the oil when he turned to me. "Listen, Phillip... I owe you an apology." His voice sounded uncertain. I looked at him tensely. "I caught you off guard the other day and took advantage of the fact that you were drunk. So you can’t exactly say that we actually did something together. Meaning I'm really not right to complain that you and Gregory are together now."
Ah, that story again. How could I best explain to him that there was nothing between Gregory and I? I took a step towards him and put my right hand on his shoulder.
"Thalis, now you listen to me. Let me tell you, there's nothing going on between me and Gregory. I don't even think he wants anything from me. In fact, he's not very nice to me, I'd say.”
Thalis looked at me, his expression unclear. He went silent for a moment before answering. "I know Gregory, he is my brother, after all. He’s not picky. Pretty girl or tasty guy, no one is safe from him."
I had to giggle. "Does this mean you think I'm a 'tasty guy'?"
His face turned a little red. "I... think you're... nice."
His choice of words only intensified my giggling, which upset him further. I cleared my throat and pulled myself together. I didn't want there to be another misunderstanding.
"Thalis", I replied seriously but sensitively, "I think you're nice too."
I decided to take the initiative one step further. I leaned over to him and gave him a tender kiss on the mouth. He was too surprised to return it. But when I retracted, I saw the smile on his face. It widened into a big grin.
"Let me quickly clean the oil off my hands so that I can better repay you," he said.
I approached him and held him back. "Why clean your hands?" I asked, grinning mischievously. "There are all sorts of things you can do with oil!"
He looked at me, puzzled. Then the penny dropped.
"Oooh, Phillip!" he replied lustfully. "Little did I know you were such a naughty guy!"
Was I? Actually, no. I wasn't sure what got hold of me during those minutes. Was it lust, repressed for too long? Or just plain madness? Anyway, I walked backward towards the treatment table, tearing my shirt off.
"Oh dear medicus", I imitated the last patient, my voice purring, "I have this pain in my lower lumbar region. Maybe there's an ointment for it?!"
I let myself fall backwards onto the table. I almost slipped a little too far, risking to fall off on the other side. Laughing, I also did away with my trousers. Thalis had come closer in the meantime. He held his well-oiled hands at the ready in front of him.
"Certainly, my lady! Let's see if we can do something about this fertility problem!"
My sexual experiences with Manu had always been beautiful and emotional - but also somehow awkward since neither of us had any real experience. It was different here. More superficial, more physical - but at least as intense. Thalis knew exactly what he was doing.
While we both enjoyed ourselves on the table, the next quarter of an hour passed by in a flash. A not inconsiderable amount of the oil intended for medicinal purposes was used in a much more profane way. The whole thing had only one catch, which we had unfortunately overlooked thanks to our bubbling libido.
A creaky noise sounded and the door to the practice room swung open. Alexios came in. He stopped as if rooted to the spot, his eyes gaped open. His view must have been bizarre. Two naked bodies on the treatment table, embraced in a clear pose, the skin shining and shimmering from the oil.
Whilst I should have been dying of shame right there and then, I instead found the situation hilarious and started laughing out loud.
Thalis was a little more startled. He stammered. "Umm... it's just... a massage. Phillip had tension in his back!"
This stupid - and for everyone who saw it obviously wrong - excuse only made me laugh even harder.
Alexios lowered his head, burying his face in his hands. A few seconds passed in which nobody moved. Only my laughter, which had been reduced to a giggle, penetrated the silence. Finally, Alexios lifted his head again. His expression was serious, but a twitch played around the corners of his mouth.
"This is a doctor's office, not a brothel! " he shouted to us. "Imagine if a customer had come in!"
Unfortunately, this very justified consideration had escaped us. As well as the fact that we were in a room with an unlocked door.
"What is it with you guys and oil anyway?” He shook his head. “No, I don't want to know. Clean yourselves up and get dressed!" He turned around, making his way to the door. Before reaching it, he burst out laughing. "Tension in the back... yeah, right. More likely a tense penis, to be treated by rectal massage!“ Finally he pulled the door shut behind him.
Thalis had moved nothing but his head during the whole scene. Even little Thalis was still inside me, albeit deflated. The oil caused a smacking noise when he detached himself from me.
Thalis let his head fall on my chest. "Oh, man, thatwas embarrassing."
The next two weeks passed faster than expected. I didn't have a lot of free time which saved me from pondering my future too much. What started as two or three patients a day quickly went became ten. After the end of the first week, the waiting area was virtually always occupied, often there were more patients than the brothers had time to treat. These were mainly the less wealthy who did not have a fixed appointment but came to see a doctor after work. Therefore, the practice was quite full, especially in the afternoon, morningswerea little quieter. It was the more affluent clients who did not have to keep regular working hours, who occupied the mornings, as well as more serious cases that were too weak to work.
The most fun though - if one could use the word in this context - were the visits to the thermal baths. The brothers had managed to rent a room in the Trajan Baths even though another doctor had settled there after Pericles' death. However, over time, he had proven to be an incompetent charlatan and complaints had accumulated, finishing recently with him being dismissed. That was a stroke of luck for the three brothers because a thermal bath housewas the ideal place to acquire newcustomers. It was the antique equivalent of a water park, without the slides, of course. It was by no means lagging behind the modern version in size and capacity. With more than a hundred thousand square yards of space, the site could accommodate more than a thousand visitors at a time.
It was mainly thanks to their presence at the bath that the practice was so well attended. The three brothers even had an advantage over their uncle. In contrast to Pericles, they were able to divide their time and thus one of them was always there and they coveredthe whole week.
It was noon when Thalis and I arrived at the Trajan Baths, walking through one of the three magnificent round arches, which formed the entrance to the park. The inner courtyardcompriseda swimming pool covering almost the entire area, lined with arcades on both sides. The pool was empty, but this would change in half an hour when the bathsopened for the early afternoon.
On a normal day like this, I assisted in the practice the morning and after a quick lunch accompanied one of the brothers to the thermal baths. Usually, Alexios and Thalis took turns. Gregory was less satisfied with the situation because in my absence he often had to take over those assistant duties that I usually took care of. However, he didn't want to go to the baths either. According to his words it was even more beneath his dignity to massage the limbs of fat bathing bigwigs after their 'sport'.
Indeed, massages with various essential oils were among our main tasks there. Of course, medical consultations were also offered and simple ailments were treated. Though more serious cases were referred to the actual practice. In the first week, Alexios and Thalis had taught me the basics of massage. Alex had taken the opportunity to point out that I obviously knew a lot about massage oil already. It wasn’t long until I had to roll up my sleves and do massages on real customers. Kneading one customer after the other was much more strenuous than I had imagined.
Thalis and I walked along the left colonnade and entered the maincentral hall. We were heading for one of its side rooms which had been assigned to the brothers. The bath was constructed symmetrically with an identical set of rooms to the left and right of the main hall. The two wings had different sections each with hot pools, cold baths, and sauna-like rooms. The left wing should be reserved for men and the right wing for women. Officially, there was a separation of thesexes, but it was not always respected.
Fortunately, I could not confirm Gregory's prejudice that the bathers were 'fat bigwigs'. Sure, there were exceptions, but in general the opposite was true. Most Romans seemed to pay attention to their figure. The baths’ sports facilities were always well-visited. What fascinated me most was the clothing of the bathers. Or rather, the lack of clothing. People were completely naked in the bathing area. Only wearing a loincloth for sports. Thanks to these customs, I was often offered a pleasurable view of well-trained bodies. And when I had the pleasure of welcoming such an Adonis on my massage table, naked of course, then the day was perfect. I suppose it was understandable that it took me a few days to get used to this and being able to do my 'work' without a permanent erection - luckily I didn't have to be naked!
Before we entered the small room, we greetedour neighbor on the left. He like us had also just opened his shop, a clothing store. From the room on the right, a snack bar, the smell of frying was already in the air. I helped Thalis and in no time we had everything ready for the arrival of the first visitors. The room offered enough space for a pair of cupboards, a small working table and two treatment tables. Outside we set up a slate which advertised the offered services. The room was too small for a separate waiting area, but Alexios had organized a bench to sit on outside the room.
I glanced discreetly at Thalis as he took some materials from the cupboard. He didn't notice. My relationship with him was very good since the incident with the oil - one could almost call it reconciliation sex. He gladly made himself available as a test subject for my massage training, completely selflessly of course. Often, such a training massage ended with a 'happy end' - for the trainer as well as for the student. This time with a closed door, though.
Every time I thought about the two of us, I came to the same conclusion. I liked Thalis and thought he was cute, but I wasn’t in love with him. Perhaps things would have been different had I not experienced Egypt. There I had found my first real love - and lost it. Thinking back, thisstill hurt a lot. How long ago was that now? Just over three weeks, although it felt like three months had passed here. Still, I wasn't ready for another serious relationship yet. Maybe with enough time and for once I had plenty of that. I had known for quite a while that there was no chance of returning and I had more or less accepted it.
I wasn't sure what Thalis was expecting? Did he view it the same way I did, or did he expect more? I noticed the occasional sideways glance from him when I was massaging a particularly well-built body, but who knew whether he was jealous of me or the customer. On the other hand, what more could he want? Unlike in ancient Egypt, homosexuality was widely accepted in Rome, buthomosexual marriage didn't exist.
I shook my head to dispel those thoughts. Everything was alright the way it was. Yeah, considering the circumstances, I was doing pretty good here. Better than I first feared, anyway.
I heard someone clearing his throat behind me. I turned around. It was the owner of the diner next door.
"This is a doctor's office, isn't it?"
Thalis nodded, approaching the guy. "Yes sure, what can I do for you, dear neighbor?"
"Well, I've had this athlete's foot for a while now and on my big toe a festering ulcer. Maybe you could take a look at it?"
I turned to one of the cupboards, pretending to be terribly busy with something else. I had to giggle quietly and at the same time sigh with relief. Good thing I wasn't the one in the room with medical qualifications. Should the brothers ever want to train me in this respect, I would definitely refuse.
The rest of the working day had been largely uneventful. It was shortly before sunset when Thalis and I left the thermal bathsto head home. That was possible on foot without any problem. In about a quarter of an hour we reached the house, just as the sun disappeared behind the buildings. I paused on the veranda, looking at the setting sun. An intense orange-red saturated the sky. The clouds were shaded from pink to purple, depending on their height. What a beautiful evening. Thalis stepped beside me and put his hand on my shoulder.
"You know," he began, "initially I had little hope. Hope. When we first got here, seeing the way it is. Rough, direct, more concerned with the coin than the man. It was different to our little town where almost everyone knew each other. I didn't really think we would be able to get a foothold here.”
He followed my gaze into the sky before continuing. "Though it seems to be working out after all. Alex was right. And there are beautiful sunsets here too."
His eyes wandered to me and my gaze met his. "Thank you, Phillip, for being here to help us... and me in particular."
I broke eye contact before the whole thing got too romantic. "On the contrary, Thalis. I must thank you guys. Without you, I'm sure my future in this city would have been bleaker. Come though, let's go inside. I'm sure the others are waiting for dinner.”
So it was. Helena must have guessed we were arriving or seen us out the window. She was already standing in the doorway when we came up the stairs.
"Ah, there you are at last!" she called to us in a good mood. "Dinner is served. And Frugi is also visiting!"
Hence the lady's good mood. Sure, one could have a good chat with the merchant, having him tell a couple of anecdotes. However, I wondered whether there was more to Helena's joy concering Frugi than met the eye. Who knew?
Frugi himself greeted us as we entered. "May I infer from your late arrival that you enjoyed the pleasure of bathing yourselves after closing up shop?"
Thalis shook his head. "No, certainly not, Frugi. And if I look at the number of ointments sold for athlete's foot, I don't know if I'd like to either."
The merchant giggled. "Oh, Thalis, there's nothing that can spoil a true Roman's bath! And I promise you, tomorrow I'll go to the Trajan Baths and stop by your booth."
We took a seat on the uncomfortable couches. Apparently, Helena had splashed out today, having prepared some delicious food. We had a salad with eggs and mushrooms as the starter, following an appetizer of fish. The general mood was noticeably better, more relaxed than two weeks ago.
Frugi lifted his glass in which the mead swayed. "To the success of our trio of doctors! May your patients be cured and your coffers filled!"
Everyone joined in with laughter and we each took a sip.
"Thank you, Frugi!" Alex started, addressing everyone. "We have been practicing here for two weeks. I think we've made it halfway. We're almost always busy. We just have to manage to attract more solvent customers. I am confident though that this will come with time. The baths are a great advertisement."
The participants agreed, toasting each other. The meal continued until after sunset. Afterward, we still sat together for some time - of course with a generous serving of Frugi's wine. That was okay because tomorrow was a holiday for once and the practice was supposed to be closed. Only Alex held back with the wine, wanting to finish some documents in the practice after dinner.
The merchant was in his element. He was just telling a joke about doctors. "A scholastic goes for a walk when he sees his family doctor. He quickly hides in a doorway. His companion asks, confused 'What is this, why are you hiding?' He replies 'It's been a long time since I was last ill. I’m ashamed.'
His joke was answered by loud laughter from all sides. I was quite drunk, but I still didn't think it was funny. Well, different times, different jokes. Something, probably the wine, led me to make a joke as well. I cleared my throat and began, my voice slightly husky.
"A man goes to the doctor. The doctor: ‘You must stop masturbating.’ The man asks ‘Why?’ and the doctor replies ‘Because otherwise, I can't examine you’.”
In fact, this time everyone joined in. Slippery humor was very popular in ancient Rome as well.
After Frugi and I had tolda joke, everyone in turn had to tell one. Gregory pleaded to make it a drinking game. If you couldn't think of a joke, you had to drink. "But there must be doctors in it!" he added. Only Alex refused and said goodbye for the evening.
I couldn't say exactly how much time had passed when the circle disbanded. Unfortunately, no more doctor jokes had occurred to me. Accordingly unsteady on my legs, I staggered to my chamber, letting myself plonk down on the bed. Before I fell asleep, the thought occurred to me that I could have asked Elisa. Would she have known a doctor joke?
I was awakened by whistles and roars in my head. So this was the punishment for consuming an excessive amount of wine. I opened one eye and looked out the window. It was still dark outside as well as inside. I noticed the sound was only in my right ear. No sooner had I gained this insight than the noises stopped abruptly. Instead, I heard Elisa's metallic voice. It was clear to me that this had been a wake-up call. The fact that she woke me up in the middle of the night did not bode well.
"Alarm! The lock on the front door was forced seventeen seconds ago. Probability eighty-seven percent."
My brain worked slowly, processing one thought at a time. Eighty-seven percent. That meant the margin for error was one hundred minus seventeen... no, one hundred minus eighty-seven, which computed to… I interrupted the thought, as it was completely irrelevant, skipping to the next one.
A burglar! Downstairs, at the front door! Doing what?
Wake the others!
Maybe he was armed?
Would he come up, or was he planning to clear out the practice?
"A second door has just been broken into. Probability of the scenario now ninety-eight percent."
There was only one other door on the ground floor. The one to the practice.
"How many burglars are there, Elisa?"
"One person. However, I am detecting two life signs downstairs.“
I sat up for good. One burglar, but two people? Which means...
"The sounds now indicate the use of a weapon. One person has been injured."
I jumped up. I staggered for a moment before regaining my balance. I still didn't realize what was happening down there. Though I had to do something immediately. I tore open the door to my room, rushing out into the hallway. As I sprinted towards the front door, I screamed at the top of my lungs.
"Burglar! Wake up!"
In the darkness, I feverishly fumbled for the latch on the apartment door. I found it quickly, jerking the door open. I ran along the short corridor. Finally, I swung around onto the stairs to the ground floor.
At that moment a figure rushed out of the practice room. Its head turned to me. For a small eternity, which hardly lasted a second, we stared at each other. I couldn't make out more than the outline of the person. It was too dark. Abruptly, the figure turned. It pushed open the front door, vanishing into the night.
I snapped out of being petrified. I hurried down the stairs and through the open door into the practice. However, I didn't get very far. As soon as I walked through the door, I slipped and fell on my back.
It hurt, but I hardly felt the pain. I quickly sat up again. My hands reached into something slippery. I drew a sharp breath. The sight in front of me was horrific. In the pale moonlight, I saw a person lying on the ground. He had a dagger stuck in his chest. Blood was all over the floor. I had slipped on it.
I covered the last feet on all fours. I bent over the face of the injured man.
It was Alex!
"Elisa!" I screamed the name of my electronic companion, forgetting to add the actual command. She understood nonetheless.
Alex's eyes wandered to me. He made a wheezing sound.
"The blade pierced his heart. I cannot identify suitable treatment."
"Shit! Alex! Who did this?" I grabbed him by the shoulders as if it could help.
He made no more than a gargle. Deep pain and sadness lay in his eyes. I knew it was not his physical suffering. He was aware that he was dying. That his two brothers, for whom he had always taken responsibility as the elder, would be left on their own.
My mouth was trembling and tears were running down my cheeks. "I'm so sorry, Alex!"
His hand rose slowly. For a second, it touched my cheek.
Then it fell, limp. His gaze wandered into infinity.
"The patient has died," Elisa commented needlessly.
I let myself sink backwards and gave my tears free rein ...
What if I'd been down here fifteen seconds earlier? Would I have been able to stop the drama? Or would there have simply been two dead people?
I could barely hear Thalis and Gregory entering the room, screaming. They dropped to the ground beside their dead brother. Experienced but with trembling hands Thalis felt his pulse. Slowly his hands sank to the ground.