“Are you really going to rob a cripple?”
The stranger in black froze in his tracks, a Roman bust tucked under his arm as he turned and considered Marcus in the darkness of his kitchen. Blue shadow drenched the intruder in shadow, and the thin, black facemask he wore shrouded every feature.
“You seem fairly robust to me,” said the man, his voice muffled and distorted beneath the cloth.
Marcus’ muscles were bunched and poised for action, just as sure as he knew were the thief’s. He really didn’t want to come to blows. If this could be settled quietly and the guy just walked away, that would be appreciated. Not to mention that Marcus’ pride was officially bruised at having this waif of a burglar sneak into his heavily-alarmed home.
“I have an awful, gory scar,” Marcus said as he snuck forward an inch. “It would make you sick just to look at it. If I showed you it this instant you’d probably be so grossed-out you’d drop my bust and run to the toilet. Then I would knock you out with my cane and have you arrested.”
The stranger paused and cocked his head for a moment – although Marcus didn’t miss the tiny step back, towards the back porch. “As fascinated as I am by that ludicrously unlikely scenario, I have places to be.”
“Or I could just shoot you.” Marcus raised the handgun he’d kept at his side and clipped back the safety. No one needed to know that it wasn’t loaded – or that Marcus didn’t have bullets in the house.
Another step back from the thief. “This is what I get for nickin’ from a bloody Yank.”
To be honest, he still sounded a lot calmer than Marcus would have hoped for.
“Exactly. I’m a blood-thirsty American. Run.”
He was actually fairly surprised when the guy slowly set the bust on the countertop andran.
“Someone tried to rob me last night,” Marcus said over the office’s eleven o’clock tea. Working in an Oxford museum had its benefits. Like the entire restorations party pausing their projects just to take tea in the small adjacent room that consisted of a shitty table, shittier chairs, and out-of-place, expensive computers.
The rest of the crew stopped and stared.
“You alright, darlin’?” Lauren asked, her Scots lilt thickening with concern.
“Sure. I threatened the guy with a bulletless gun and he booked it.”
Esca snorted a laugh into the tea he’d brought up to his lips.
Marcus flicked him a look. “What?”
He and Esca didn’t talk much. In fact, this was probably the first time in months that Esca had reacted to anything Marcus said other than Hello and Goodbye. Even the errant, Nice weather we’re having! led to a grunt.
Artists. Seriously. It was always the painting restoration guys. They thought they were so much better than the rest of the team because they actually had talent.
Well, Lauren could check the acidity of sarcophagus paint like nobody’s business, so there.
“Nothing,” Esca said quickly, and returned to his overly-milky tea. His gaze fell, and just like that he was out of the conversation.
“You call the police?” Lutorius chimed in; although he was clearly more immersed in a poorly-written crime novel to which Marcus could probably guess the murderer in two chapters.
Marcus shrugged and sipped his tea. “Didn’t see any point to it. He didn’t steal anything.”
Lauren shook her head, her black bob haircut swishing at her sharp jaw. “I’ve always said you’re too kind for your own good.”
“You’ve only known me for five months, Lulu.”
“Aye, and I knew you were a push-over from the moment you walked in the room!”
Marcus frowned into his mug. “Maybe he’ll realise the error of his ways after almost getting shot –“
“Not getting shot at all,” Esca said.
“And quit the life,” Marcus finished with a narrowing of eyes in Esca’s direction.
“Marcus,” Lauren said as she placed her manicured hand upon his from across the table. Her dark eyes were laughing. “You are a complete dafty.”
Marcus’ lips curved, but he didn’t say anything in return.
“Seriously, we’ve got to stop meeting like this. People are going to start to think we’re dating,” Marcus said as he stood at the top of his stairs.
The burglar at the bottom – his lithe frame now familiar from three weeks past – stopped dead at the front door, a black satchel over his shoulder. He looked up. “Are you going to shoot me if the neighbours begin to talk?”
The harsh breath may have been a short laugh from behind the mask. “You’re not going to kill me, mate. You’re a puppy.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Marcus said quietly. “I could definitely maim you. Maiming is just as bad. I know from personal experience.”
“Are you lonely enough that you’ll converse with the bloke in the middle of robbing you?”
“Are you stupid enough to try and rob the same house twice? Oh wait, the answer is yes.”
“Bet your gun’s not even loaded. Good bloke like yourself wouldn’t dare break the law.”
Marcus considered the gun in his hand and shrugged. He held it flat in his palm, checking the weight. “I was an all-star pitcher on my high school baseball team. The least I could do is throw this at your head.”
“So you pitch, yeah? I’d wondered.”
Marcus’ eyes narrowed. Really, this guy wasn’t nearly as afraid as he should be. Although to be fair, Marcus was only really scary when he was angry – and that wasn’t what he felt right now. Perturbed, yes. Slightly curious, perhaps. Tired, a lot.
“You already triggered the alarm for the police, by the way,” Marcus said.
The thief was already dashing for the front door while Marcus yelled after him, “I’m buying a guard dog!”
He was going to throw his gun, really he was, but the stranger had already slipped away.
“You look shattered,” Lauren said as she wandered over to Marcus’ workstation.
He looked up blearily from the stone he was sanding down to later fit the hole in a statue. He yanked his goggles up to rest in his dishevelled hair.
“Is it that bad?”
“It’s that bad,” Lauren said.
“I got a dog,” Marcus said blandly.
“The weekend. He’s not a dog. I lied. He’s a puppy. He’s like, eating my life. It would actually be more beneficial had I been robbed again. At least then I knew my priceless collections were being sold and appreciated by some maniacal, old tycoon in an island mansion rather than being digested.”
“What kind of dog?”
Marcus pressed his palms over his eyes. “Fenrir's offspring. Descendants of hellhounds.”
“Aye, but why though?”
Marcus didn’t want to admit he’d been successfully robbed for a second time. After he’d changed the security codes and added another lock and everything. The guy was good. Marcus was slightly impressed and a lot perturbed.
But more than that, his pride hurt as much as he knee did on a rainy day.
“Just, y’know, companionship. Getting a taste of what hell is like so that I’ll return to devout Catholicism. Or alcoholism. Both interchangeably, maybe.”
“I think they go hand in hand,” Esca said from the next station over. He had dark grey paint the colour of his eyes smeared across one cheek and a paintbrush tucked behind his ear – but he wore it like it was some badass cigarette straight from Grease or something.
Unfortunately, Marcus never had the heart to be a jerk to him – or anyone, no matter how regularly surly they tended to be.
So he just made a noncommittal facial expression that probably made him look just as deficient as Esca clearly assumed him to be, and turned away.
“Ajax – dammit Ajax, come!”
Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way, because it was definitely Marcus who ran after the massive, black Newfoundland puppy rather than him coming to his master. They hadn’t yet graduated Puppy University. Marcus had a feeling they would be held back. Apparently he wasn’t firm enough.
Now that was all coming back to bite him on the ass – not literally, thank goodness – as his dog bounded up to Esca, of all people.
Esca was smiling brightly – there was a first time for everything – as he crouched down to meet Ajax’s excitable yips and jumps.
“Don’t encourage him,” Marcus said as he jogged up and grabbed a hold of Ajax’s leash once more. “Cesar Milan says we’re not supposed to stoop to the dog’s height, lest it start to believe it’s the alpha.”
Esca didn’t move from his spot at Marcus’ feet. He merely continued to ruffle the dog between the ears, as he looked up and said, “You named him Ajax?”
“Well. He’s big.”
Esca chuckled softly and returned his attention to mussing up Ajax’s fur with both hands. “I suppose he will be. So this is him then? The terror that’s been keeping you up every night.”
And this is the longest conversation we’ve had in the history of our relationship, Marcus wanted to say. What did he want, an award? “The one and only.”
“There could be worse things to keep you up.”
“Better ones, too.”
Esca’s gaze flew up, and today his eyes were bright and direct. His grin was lopsided and too casual for what Marcus was used to.
Marcus cleared his throat. “So if you don’t mind my asking, what are you doing here? I’ve never seen you in this park. I didn’t even think you lived in this area.”
Esca stood and dusted fur off of his jeans. “And where do you think I live?”
Marcus could feel his face heat up as he inwardly cursed himself. “I don’t know. Somewhere sufficiently hipster. Where you can like, express your inner artist and paint your feelings on the ceiling or something.”
Esca stared at him for a moment, and his laugh was abrupt and surprised. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”
“Wow, you are an awful conversationalist,” Marcus found himself saying without filter. “No wonder we don’t talk.”
“Maybe it’s because in the office you’re as dull as the stone with which you work,” Esca fired back as he shoved his hands in his pockets. “How’m I supposed to know you had any personality?”
Marcus was angry, and that kind of alarmed him because this really wasn’t something to get upset about. But that latent buzzing, accompanied by a crimson tinge to his vision was already creeping in. He was terrible at accounting for his tongue when he was pissed; it got him into more trouble than he cared to admit.
“Oh, I’m sorry that I keep a level of professional decorum in the office. Here, let me put some paintbrushes in my back pocket, style my hair to sufficient bed-head status, and speak in mysterious one-word codes to be as super cool as you.”
Esca blinked. “Did you just use the word ‘super’ in a serious rant?”
Marcus stared Esca down, his mouth going hard. “I’m sorry,” he gritted out. “That was out of line. But you really annoy me, and I’m positive I annoy you – so let’s just both walk away like the decent guys we are and pretend that this never occurred.”
Esca smirked. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
With Marcus’ cheeks flaming, he spun on his heel and stalked away. What the hell was wrong with him?
"Oh – and," Marcus tossed over his shoulder. "Rocks are not boring!"
The third time around, Marcus had fallen asleep on the couch while watching historically inaccurate episodes of History’s Mysteries. It would have been ironic, except for it wasn’t.
He woke up, squinting blearily at the bright television screen as he acclimated himself with the room doused in 2am darkness. Ajax had his warm, heavy head on his lap, and Marcus was tempted to simply shift across the length of the sofa and camp out there for the rest of the night.
Then a crunch of paper on his bare chest had him blinking awake in seconds. He fumbled for the note with fingers clumsy and slow. He didn’t have his reading glasses, so he had to hold the note nearly to his nose.
Scrawled messily was simply:
Hi. I think your dog likes me.
Marcus didn’t even have the energy to swear. What the hell was his life?
“But why me, do you think?” Marcus asked Lauren as they sat side by side at the computers. He hadn't been able to keep his secret for long.
Lauren typed something out, paused and said unhelpfully, “Dunno, babe.”
“It’s like he’s taunting me.”
“Or stalking you. Still haven’t seen his face?”
“And I mean,” Marcus barrelled on, “Does this guy have a hard-on for Roman relics or what? I can’t be the only person in Oxford who collects that stuff.”
“A stalking thief?”
“Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship to me,” Lauren said. With that, she hunched over her keyboard and began tapping away, which was a sure sign for her to be left alone.
“You’re sick. What do they teach you in Scotland?”
“Maybe,” Esca said from the table behind them, causing Marcus to stiffen up with surprise, “He wants something important from you, and he’s just looking for it every time he comes over.”
Marcus didn’t bother to look over his shoulder. “Well then he’s barking up the wrong tree. I don’t have anything. Not anything more valuable than what’s in this museum.”
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
“Did you make that up all on your own?”
“Did you buy that sweater all on your own or did your mum help you?”
Marcus looked over his shoulder with his eyebrows raised. “Did your mom help you with that come back?”
“Hmmm, I doubt that, considering she’s dead.” Esca’s chair scraped back with a loud squeal as he got up and strode out of the office.
“Uh oh,” Lauren murmured.
Marcus was already up and chasing after him. “Esca, wait.” He dashed out of the office and lunged across the hall, just in time to shove his hand in the closing elevator doors.
Esca just stared at him blandly.
Marcus swallowed and stepped into the elevator with him. The doors closed.
“Look, I’m sorry. Again. But – but,” he held up a finger and met Esca’s eyes. “Rule number one of ‘your mom’ jokes is that a person who’s mother is deceased is not allowed to engage in said jokes lest the other person of the joke exchange is unaware of afore-mentioned deceased...ness. It’s common courtesy.”
Marcus held Esca’s hard gaze and slipped his hands in his pockets for lack of anything better to do.
Just like that, Esca faintly laughed and rolled his eyes. He stared at the ceiling and said, “Even your jokes have rules. Do you ever do anything that doesn’t somehow fall under a regulation?”
“Yes. No. Maybe.”
Esca scrunched up his face in distaste, but his eyes glinted dark with humour. “You don’t have the mysterious one-word answers down pat yet. You’re only supposed to use one, hence the name.”
“I couldn’t decide.”
Esca out-right laughed this time, and it sent an unexpected shiver of pleasure rolling through Marcus’ frame.
The elevator dinged.
They both stared at each other.
Marcus was the first to say, “Going back up?”
Esca shrugged, shifted and stabbed at the button panel. “Yeah.”
“So, what is it exactly that this thief has stolen?” Esca asked from his corner of the room.
The museum had long closed, and they were both the last ones in. Normally, in cases like these, both Marcus and Esca would turn on their iPods and block the other out. Marcus had tried to make friendly conversation on more than one occasion on the past, but had always been promptly shut down.
Apparently Marcus being rude to Esca on several occasions had been exactly what the guy had wanted in their pseudo-relationship. Really weird. Marcus wasn’t sure he liked it at all.
Marcus looked up from the statue he was working on. “Just some collector’s coins and an old map of Roman Britain.”
Esca propped an elbow on his work station and leaned his cheek on it. Mauve shadows pooled beneath his eyes. Apparently Marcus wasn’t the only one losing sleep these days.
“You don’t seem particularly broken up about it.”
In truth, sometimes Marcus got the shivers thinking about someone invading the privacy of his house. More than some old relics, Marcus valued his solitude, his personal space. Knowing that someone had the ability to just walk in whenever they pleased was unsettling at the best of times, and infuriating at the worst.
Even so, Marcus wasn’t frightened. That was one thing that he was not. If this burglar wanted to turn this into a game, he would be sorely disappointed with how Marcus played. If they met again, Marcus wouldn’t be so seemingly casual about it. What this person was doing was wrong, and Marcus had given him enough chances to redeem himself.
“They’re just things, y’know?” Marcus said. “At the end of the day, I mean.”
“And you’ve got all of those things just lying about your house?”
Marcus frowned and put down the file he’d been using on the broken edge of a statue. “Not really. It’s all in this study that I don’t really use as a study. It’s more of a storage space for all my stuff.”
Esca raised an eyebrow. “You have a study.”
Marcus rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “So?”
“How did you come into your precious Roman relics, Marcus?”
That was definitely the first time Esca had said Marcus’ name. The inflection was unexpectedly soft; the way it curled around Esca’s tongue and rolled off of his lips made Marcus’ name sound somehow special.
“Family heirlooms and personal collections,” Marcus said with a distant roaring in his ears. He ignored the way his fingertips went warm and tingly under the direct, curious stare of Esca. “My father’s side are of Roman Italian descent and my mom’s side is mainly English.”
“Explains your first and second name, then.”
Marcus tried to laugh, but it was more of an awkward cough. “Yeah. Anyway, I should get home. Ajax will be –“
“I’d fancy a look at your collection up close, sometime,” Esca said with a curl to his pale lips.
All Marcus could think beyond the hot leap in his stomach was that Esca looked tired, and that he needed some warm food and a bed.
“You’d want to come to my house?” Marcus said with a heavy tongue. God, he was an idiot.
Esca angled his chin down and stared pointedly at Marcus. “That’s what I just said. Unless you’re the type to horde your personal life away so that no one can discover your secrets.”
Marcus laughed in earnest and shook his head as he pushed off the countertop and stood. “I’m not really the secretive type. But yeah, sure. If you want to come around this weekend or whatever, I’ll be home.”
“All weekend?” Esca asked with an incredulous look.
Marcus shut off the light at his workstation and smiled. “What can I say? I’m sure you were right. I’m just a boring guy with a cool collection.”
He lifted his jacket from the back of his chair and tucked it under his arm. As he turned away, he lifted up a hand in a slight wave and departed.
As Marcus was leaving, he could have sworn he heard Esca say, “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Three days later and one really awkward moment where Marcus had to draw Esca a map to his house with the illustration skills of a five year-old, Marcus was opening the front door and futilely attempting to stop Ajax from shedding hair all over his guest.
Esca stepped in with an easy laugh and a smile, his shoulder brushing Marcus’ chest just before he bent to greet the dog properly. Marcus only had a moment to register just how petite Esca’s frame was in comparison to his own.
Marcus groaned. “Don’t encourage him, please.”
“But he likes me.”
“He’s a pretty poor judge of character,” Marcus said as he crouched to grip Ajax’s collar.
Esca looked up and met Marcus’ eyes; like this, they were only a breath apart. Marcus could smell the fresh, clean soap that clung to Esca’s skin. It was distracting and also very very not right.
Even if Esca was interested – and his daily disdain of Marcus made it clear that Esca wasn’t – Marcus wouldn’t fraternise with a co-worker. That had disaster written all over it. And since Marcus was naturally prone to disasters, he’d prefer to stay away from the ones that could be avoided.
Esca huffed a soft laugh and didn’t move from his spot. “That’s not a very kind thing to say about your guest.”
Marcus’ cheeks heated as he ignored Ajax happily nuzzling at his neck. “Sorry.”
Esca waved him off and got to his feet. “You apologise too much.”
Marcus scooped Ajax into his arms and offered a slight smile. “Yeah, well I’ve found that I have a habit of forgetting my tongue when I’m around you.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Esca said as he stared at the puppy squirming in Marcus’ hold.
Marcus’ heart thumped against his ribcage. “What would be another way of putting it?” he asked as he dodged Ajax’s wayward tongue.
Esca fixed him with a look that lasted longer than it should have. “Kitchen’s this way?” he said, jerking his thumb in the correct direction. Before Marcus could reply, Esca was toeing off his grey chucks and sauntering away.
Marcus could only follow. “Do you want anything to drink?”
“Tea will do.”
“Super milky, right?” Marcus asked as he opened the back door and shooed Ajax into the garden. He turned to find Esca looking at him with a peculiar expression.
“Grown men really shouldn’t use the word ‘super’ in conversation as often as you.”
“Grown men shouldn’t buy jeans from the women’s section.”
“Says the man who owns the largest collection of polo shirts I’ve ever seen. Anyway,” Esca said before Marcus could retort, “I bought these at Topman and they look amazing on me.”
Marcus wasn’t about to argue. He also wasn’t about to affirm anything. The safest bet would be to make some tea. If his mother had taught him anything, it was that.
Esca lifted himself onto the countertop as if he’d been coming over for years and watched Marcus set the kettle to boil. “For what exactly do you require a house this large?” Esca said as they waited on the water.
“I don’t,” Marcus said as he leaned against the edge of the counter opposite Esca. “I inherited it from my uncle when I decided to move to England. He wasn’t living in it anyway.”
“Ah, to come from old money.”
“Wow,” Marcus said with a narrow look. “Could you have said that with any more misplaced disdain?”
The kettle bubbled up with a pop, and Marcus was relieved for the excuse to turn away and grab two mugs from the cupboard. The house may have been expensive, but Marcus’ belongings inside were still his things from days past.
Which was why Esca got a chipped DePaul University mug and Marcus used his favourite one with Toucan Sam on it that he once got free from sending in the proof of purchase labels from twenty boxes of Fruit Loops.
“Sorry,” Esca quietly said from behind him as Marcus set the tea bags to steep.
“It’s no big deal,” Marcus said. He turned and silently considered Esca for a moment. “If you don’t mind my asking, why do you want to see my collection in the first place? I thought you were really only interested in paintings.”
Esca breathed a soft laugh and picked a dog hair off of his knee. “Do I come off that one-dimensional?”
“I’d never think that,” Marcus said immediately, soberly. “Not of you or anybody.”
Esca’s smile was thin and faded fast. “Then in that way you’re a better man than I.”
Marcus’ face burned as he brushed off the comment and headed towards the fridge for milk. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m sorry I asked.”
“My mother is English, after all,” Marcus said as he shot a smile over his shoulder. He put on his best, eloquent reproduction of his mother’s accent. “And I must admit, quite posh.” He shut the fridge door with his foot and wandered towards the tea.
Esca sounded amused behind him. “Incredible. For a moment there you had a touch of class.”
“I wouldn’t want to get your hopes up. I’m just a Chicago boy, I swear.”
“I’m beginning to gather the impression that you underestimate yourself, Marcus.”
Marcus stilled in the middle of stirring his tea. He stared into the mugs; watched pale milk curl and swirl into a cloudy caramel colour. He took a deep breath, gripped Esca’s mug, and turned with a curved lips.
“Nah. I’m just me. I don’t really have a bursting need for self-exploration, y’know?”
Esca arched an eyebrow and took the mug from Marcus. Their hands brushed, and Esca’s fingertips were surprisingly calloused.
“Not really,” Esca said.
“Agree to disagree,” Marcus said as he brought his own cup to his mouth. Their eyes met and held over the rim, and Marcus was pleased he didn’t drop tea and ceramic all over the floor.
He really needed to get a grip.
“So your study is upstairs,” Esca said as they walked along the second floor corridor.
“Yeah, well I have an extra room downstairs, but it’s filled with old furniture that my uncle left. Are you in need of an ottoman that looks like it’s been upholstered with ugly floral curtains?”
“Perhaps I am,” Esca said with levity in his voice. He paused at the open door to Marcus’ bedroom and peered. His eyebrows rocketed towards his hairline. “My.”
Marcus looked in and felt his skin flush from head to toe. His king-sized, four poster bed was carved of dark cherry wood, the rumpled sheets a simple cream and rich coffee brown.
“Um.” Marcus shut the door and marched down the hall. “I’m tall.”
“I had noticed.”
“I need a lot of room.”
“And I have nightmares a lot. I flail.”
“Really. You don’t seem like the haunted type.”
Marcus halted at the proper door and smiled wanly at Esca. Without a word, he opened it and motioned for Esca to enter first.
Esca’s eyes went wide for the brief moment before his usual mask of cool slid in place. “So this is where you keep your real treasures.”
“I guess so.” Marcus shoved his hands in his pockets and watched as Esca made a beeline for the floor to ceiling bookshelves. His fingers hovered over the old, cracked spines. Marcus softly said, “You can touch. Anything environment-sensitive is tucked away in some glass-cased drawers over there.”
His uncle had taken good care of these relics. Gold, bronze, and silver pieces laid on display in their respective cases. Everything had been diligently catalogued and recorded in a thick ledger that Marcus really meant to transfer to a computer sometime.
A few pieces of art lined the walls, but it was the texts to which Esca seemed drawn. He pulled out a book at random, with his face more relaxed with wonder than Marcus had ever seen it.
In that moment, Esca looked almost painfully young.
“You like it?” Marcus asked, even though he wasn’t sure why he sought Esca’s approval in the first place.
Esca looked up then, a foreign expression – shyness? – colouring his features. “It’s like you have your own museum right here.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Marcus said with a smile. “Uh.” He rocked back on his heels. “You can hang out here as long as you like, okay? I’m gonna head downstairs and check on Ajax. I think it might rain and I really don’t want wet dog running around the house.”
Esca went pale and still. “You’d trust me alone with your things?”
Marcus stared at him and laughed abruptly; a deep rumble that filled up some of the empty spaces he’d forgotten about. “Are you crazy? Of course I trust you.” Marcus was already backing out of the room. “Just enjoy yourself, man.”
He dashed downstairs before Esca could call him back.
In the kitchen, Marcus splayed his palms on the countertop and stared intently at the black marble grain. Christ, he couldn’t look at Esca’s face like that for any length of time. It made him forget that he didn’t really like Esca, and that Esca especially didn’t like him.
Marcus could literally feel his brain cells fizzling away the longer he remained in Esca’s presence. It was... inconvenient.
And by inconvenient, Marcus meant totally and utterly fucked.
“I think that counts as encouraging him,” Esca said. He was leaning in the open back doorframe, his arms and ankles crossed in a comfortable, easy pose. A sliver of moon-pale skin peaked low at his belly where his cardigan rode up.
Marcus blinked and forgot all about the puppy currently dominating him from the spot atop his chest. He sat up in the damp grass and Ajax tumbled, rolled off of his lap and onto the ground. When the dog noticed Esca, he scampered over with too-large paws and excitable barks.
Ignoring Ajax’s jumps and wiggling butt of joy, Esca clicked his tongue and shook his head at Marcus. “Lauren’s right. You’re a pure pushover. Even your dog owns you.”
“We were just wrestling.” Marcus hefted himself up from the law and brushed off the ass of his jeans. There was nothing to be done about the grass stains on his knees, though. “It’s good exercise anyway – you should try it.”
Esca raised an eyebrow. “No way in hell. You probably reek of kibble and slobber now.”
“You’re just jealous that I’m an expert dog wrestler.”
“Hate to break it to you big boy, but Ajax had you pinned.”
Marcus approached Esca with a grin. “I’ll have you know I was a wrestling champ in my high school division. I’m amazing from the bottom.”
Esca paused mid-reply, with his lips softly parted. The tip of his pink tongue peeked out to wet the corner of his mouth. His eyes flicked down, then up, and landed on a point over Marcus’ shoulder. “Do you eat Chinese?”
Marcus shrugged. “Sure.” He didn’t really, but Esca was the guest, and the guest always came first. “Why, do you want to order some?” They were still speaking in the doorway. Esca on one side, and Marcus out in the waning spring light.
Esca mimicked Marcus’ gesture. “I’m hungry.”
“Works for me.” Marcus cleared his throat and slipped past Esca, into the house.
Esca’s shoulder brushed Marcus’ arm, reminding him again of the sheer difference in their statures. Marcus never really focussed on that kind of thing when he was with Esca – not until they were close. Not until Esca had to tilt his chin to look up at him, and Marcus felt the urge to hunch his posture just to get closer.
Marcus swallowed and continued right through the kitchen and into the living room. The furniture was simple and tidy, all upholstered in rich, buttery leather. “Have a place in mind?” he asked as he slumped back onto a sofa.
Esca lightly vaulted the couch from behind and plopped down beside him. “I do.” He lifted his hips, unearthed his cell from his back pocket, and flicked straight to speed dial.
“Oh my god, you have the Chinese on speed dial.”
“And curry, Thai, fish ‘n chips – you name it.”
“That is sad. Like dog-wrestling levels of sad.”
Esca slid a withering look Marcus’ way. “Nothing is sadder than dog wrestling, Marcus. Except perhaps the sheer expanse of your loneliness.”
Marcus threw his head back and laughed good-naturedly, but he didn’t have a comeback.
“So,” Esca said with an edge of impatience to his voice. “What do you want me to order for you?”
“I dunno, something plain. Like chicken fried rice.”
“Bloody hell, don’t tell me you’re one of those unadventurous eating types,” Esca said with scorn practically dripping from his tone. “You order chicken wherever you go and never try anything new.”
Marcus’ brow furrowed. “I just like what I like.”
“That’s probably the most definitive opinion you’ve stated thus far – and regarding the most worthless topic, as well.”
“Hey, I grew up fine on plain food, didn’t I? Maybe you need to eat less shrimp, because I hear you are what you eat.”
Esca’s cheeks went red and he speared Marcus with a sharp, narrowed glare. Marcus was expecting like a full-on attack or a punch in the face – but what he got was far worse. Esca flicked his ear – hard.
Marcus yelped and slapped a hand over the side of his head as he felt the offended spot begin to sting and burn. “Ow! What the fuck?”
“Call me short again and find out what happens, you overgrown puppy.”
Marcus flinched as his hand dropped. “What did you call me?”
Esca was already scowling at his phone as he dialled the Chinese number. “I said you’re anarsehole. Now shut up, I’m ordering.”
Marcus tried to look sullen, but he didn’t know what that looked like, so he settled for plainly watching the animation of Esca’s features as he ordered their food.
When Esca put down the cell, there was a beat of silence before he shifted and surveyed Marcus’ face. “I’d never heard you say ‘fuck’ before.”
“It’s not a very nice thing to say in the presence of a co-worker or guest.”
Esca’s lips twitched. “Another rule?”
“If you want to look at it that way.”
“How else could you possibly look at it?”
Marcus jerked a shoulder and met Esca’s eyes. “I dunno. It’s not like it’s a conscious choice or anything. It’s just a part of who I am.”
Esca frowned. His gaze drilled into Marcus as if he were searching for some answer that Marcus couldn’t give. “You seem rather sure of yourself in ways that normal people are not.”
“Uh.” Marcus wiped his sweaty palms on his thighs. He’d noticed the rings around Esca’s irises were almost black. “Thanks?”
“I didn’t mean it that way.” Esca rolled his eyes. “But you’re welcome, I guess.”
However Esca meant it, Marcus couldn’t help but smile.
“I should leave,” Esca said as he leaned forward from the couch and chucked his chopsticks in an empty grease-lined takeaway container.
Marcus could never get the hang of chopsticks. He had sausage fingers or something.
“Sure, I’ll call you a cab. Where do you live?”
Esca‘s laugh was short as he shook his head and stood. “You’re not calling me a cab.”
“It’s dark and raining,” Marcus said as he got up and followed Esca to the front door.
“I’m very good in the dark.”
Marcus stared hard at the back of Esca’s tousled hair and swallowed thickly. “Okay, well the inherent creepiness of that statement aside, it’s dangerous for anyone to walk around late at night without someone beside them.”
Esca tugged on one shoe without untying it first. “And you?” He yanked on the other. “If you were out alone at this time of night...”
“Well that’s different. I’m –”
“A titan?” Esca said as he straightened and stared at Marcus with a curl of lips. “Here’s some friendly advice. Don’t underestimate me. Don’t write me off. And don’t think I can’t crack your or anyone else’s skull should the need arise.”
Marcus frowned. “That’s pretty unfriendly advice, if you ask me.”
“Well I didn’t ask you for any either, but we’re just brimming with sharing moments today, aren’t we? Now –” Marcus plucked a black umbrella from a holder beside the door. He held it out to Esca. “At least take this.”
Esca looked at it like he was being offered a venomous snake. “Fuck’s sake, Marcus – who are you, my mother?”
Marcus scowled at Esca and shoved the umbrella against his chest. “It’s called common courtesy. Something you’re obviously not familiar with.”
Esca’s hands came up, his pale fingers curling stark around the dark umbrella as he held it against his body. He angled his chin further, because Marcus had closed in a step. “No,” Esca said quietly, “No, you’re right about that one. Goodnight, Marcus.”
“Do you need a jacket?”
Esca smiled. His eyes were shadowed, but his face was free and clear and young again. “Goodnight, Marcus.” He stepped back, opened the umbrella, and let himself out.
Marcus walked to the front step and watched Esca go. “Night.” He definitely did not check out that firm, tight ass walking away. And how could Esca’s legs look so long when he was so short? Marcus called out, “Be safe!” even as Esca was down the lane and disappearing into the darkness.
A moment later Marcus heard a faint laugh.
Grinning like an idiot, he shut the door behind him.
“So what you’re telling me is that yous two had a date,” Lauren said with her dark eyes bugging out.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything remotely like that,” Marcus said with a frown. He bit into his sandwich and stared blankly forward.
The spring day was clear and bright in Oxford, and they sat on the museum steps with their lunch. Marcus had always preferred the fresh air of the outdoors to the stale confines of buildings. Especially when he spent hours cooped up with things that had likely been hanging out with other musky, dead things.
“I’m well sure it was a date,” Lauren said definitively. “Although, Esca? Really?”
Lauren shrugged. “I just can’t see going from barely speaking to each other to full-on snogging.”
“There was no snogging,” Marcus said as he took an aggressive bite of his food. Still, he waited until he’d finished chewing to say, “I don’t know where you’re getting that from. He expressed an interest in my collection and I invited him over to see it. I mean, I would do the same for anyone who asked.”
“Aye.” Lauren picked a tomato out of her salad bowl and tossed it towards a wandering pigeon. She really needed to stop doing that. Rats with wings. “And then you had dinner together.”
“Yes, because people only eat together when they’re on dates.”
Lauren grinned, a bright flash of white against her tan skin. “That’s how I do it. Saves money on food bills.”
Marcus laughed softly and shook his head. “Those guys are basically paying to watch you eat.”
“I wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings by turning them down,” Lauren said, and brought a bottle of water to her lips.
“Does that mean this is a date?”
Lauren choked and wheezed on her drink, while Marcus smiled and patted her back.
“If that’s the case,” Lauren said when she’d caught her breath. “You’re the longest relationship I’ve ever had. We’ve been through a good half year of watching each other eat.”
Marcus took another bite of his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. All of his past relationships had been fairly long-term and serious. He didn’t really do regular dating like Lauren. Marcus wasn’t suited to it – and anyway, how would he ever be able to find thatmany people who’d want to hang out with him?
First dates weren’t exactly Marcus’ forte. He tended to come off stilted or quiet or plain disinterested, when really he was just stuck in his head worrying about what to say or how to act properly.
It had been on a first date where this one woman, Jennifer something – some Irish last name that Marcus could no longer recall – had placed her hand gently on Marcus’ shoulder and said, “Honey, have you considered that you’re gay?”
“If only dating was as easy as hanging out with you,” Marcus said finally.
He wasn’t exactly closeted regarding his sexuality, but he probably wasn’t out either – whatever that really meant. Marcus didn’t flaunt his orientation out of some misplaced sense of ‘gay pride’. He wasn’t proud or ashamed of being gay. That was like being proud of being tall or having big feet. These were just aspects of who Marcus was, and he didn’t feel any pressing need to make an announcement.
Despite all of that, Lauren had definitely caught on to Marcus’ inclinations long ago. It was almost too bad, Marcus thought. He and Lauren could probably have been good together.
“Uh no,” Lauren said emphatically. “A sexless relationship? No thanks, babe. You’re notthat much of a catch.”
Marcus grinned. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Do you need an umbrella?” Marcus asked as he shrugged on his jacket.
Esca zipped up his hoodie with a sharp jerk and quirked an eyebrow in Marcus’ direction. “Only tourists and daft Yanks carry brollies.”
“Well I guess I’d rather be daft and without pneumonia than stylish and pneumatic.”
Esca barked a short laugh and turned away to study the steady downpour that curtained the Oxford skyline in grey. “Lucky I don’t get ill, then.”
Without a second look, Esca flung his bag over his shoulder and strode out.
The next morning, Esca trudged in looking like death warmed over.
The way he shot daggers at Marcus on his way past gave Marcus the impression that Esca was functioning on pride and Beechams alone.
That same afternoon, on their lunch hour, Marcus approached Esca. All there was to the invalid was bed-head porcupining from folded arms upon the countertop as Esca attempted to sleep his break away. Marcus set a paper bag near Esca’s elbow and Esca shot up in his seat.
“Wha–” His eyes focussed on Marcus, scraping him over in a sharp up and down look. He licked his chapped lips. “Fuck’s that,” he said, fixing on the bag, now.
“Soup, drugs, OJ,” Marcus rattled off.
“Why.” Esca was still staring at the bag. He sniffled with his raw, red nose.
Marcus frowned. “Because you’re sick and I’d do the same for anyone else in the office.”
Esca glowered up at him.”You’re gloating.”
Marcus raised his eyebrows. “Fine, if you don’t want it then –“
“No.” Esca snatched the bag up and held it to his body like it was his freaking first born. “Thanks.”
Marcus rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help the curve of lips. “Sure.”
Marcus was intent on a textbook regarding Sumerian stonework when a wide, white, opaque Tupperware container was placed in front of him.
Looking up with a frown, Marcus found himself staring at Esca, who’s lips were pulled down in return. Esca lodged his hands in his tight pockets and said nothing.
Marcus went still. “Uh –”
“For you,” Esca said with a jerky shrug. “As reparation for lunch and drugs.”
“What is it?” Marcus said, although he was already peeling back the plastic lid for a peek. “Oh.” Marcus couldn’t help the exclamation. He blinked down at twelve plump vanilla cupcakes, simply decorated in mint green frosting.
“Wow,” Marcus said. He could barely hear himself above the thunder of his heartbeat. He stared at Esca, who looked almost murderous with discomfort. “Did you make theseyourself?”
“Yes, well –” Esca scowled down at the desserts as if they’d offended him. “It’s about my only talent in the kitchen unless you count the things one can do on kitchen counters. I have to work now.”
“Sure.” Marcus was boggling, he was sure of it. “Yes. Thank you. I mean – thanks.”
Marcus held eye contact with Esca until it was Esca who swallowed, nodded, and hurried away.
Later in the day, Marcus was tempted to keep the cupcakes from himself – but then he felt guilty at the mere thought and dolled some out during lunch. If anyone inquired where he’d gotten them, Marcus merely ducked his head down and quietly said that they were a gift from a friend.
“So where’d you learn to bake like that?” Marcus said a few days later. Both Lauren and Lutorius had skipped out on eleven o’clock tea in favour of a collaborative project on sarcophagus preservation, and Marcus and Esca were on their own in the break room.
Esca looked up from the magazine spread before him and raised his eyebrows. “My mum.”
When Esca didn’t willingly offer up any more information, Marcus could only suppress an eye-roll and sip his lukewarm tea.
“Well,” he said after a time. “You’ve got a talent for it.”
“Brilliant,” Esca said apparent disinterest as he flipped a page. “I’ll just go open a bakery on the High Street, shall I?”
“I take it back,” Marcus said. “They were awful, awful cupcakes. You’re not good at anything ever, forget I said anything.”
Esca’s mouth twitched and his gaze flitted up, clear and grey. “Cruelty doesn’t suit you, Marcus.”
Marcus’ lips quirked. “But it gets your attention.”
Esca sighed softly and disengaged his attention from his magazine. Curling his fingers around his mug, Esca leaned forward with an imploring look. “And why would you want myattention?”
“Well, I mean – because you’re fascinating.”
It was the truth and Marcus didn’t mind saying it. In this world he found a lot of people interesting, and he’d never seen the harm simply saying so. His mother had always told him that people reserved their kindness far too much – Marcus was just doing right by her.
Esca went quiet and his large ears went pink. “Don’t be daft,” he finally said. With a dismissive wave of his hand, Esca took a long gulp of tea and fixated once more on his magazine.
Marcus frowned and cocked his head, but said nothing in reply. Maybe Esca wasn’t very good with friendships – Marcus could certainly relate.
Marcus looked up and over his shoulder to see Esca standing a few steps behind him. “Hey, grab a stair.”
Much to Marcus’ surprise, Esca actually did. As Esca hunkered down beside him, Marcus said, “Lauren’s away up to Scotland to celebrate her birthday ahead of time with family.”
“So I hear,” Esca said as he plucked a bunch of grapes from a plastic bag and popped a few into his mouth. He didn’t look at Marcus, but out at the sidewalk where pedestrians and tourists idled by. The afternoon sun seeped through puffy clouds and highlighted the faint freckles on Esca’s cheeks.
“I haven’t been to Scotland yet,” Marcus said, intent on diverting his attention from Esca’s profile. That wasn’t safe territory. “I hear it’s gorgeous.”
“It is,” Esca said. His voice was low and almost soothing, in comparison to the buzz of energy that tended to surround him. He seemed oddly relaxed today. Maybe this was just Esca without the barriers. “Where would you go?” Esca said after a comfortable silence.
“Ben Nevis,” Marcus replied immediately. “I would love to hike that. You know they do races up the mountain every year? Some people go naked. I wouldn’t go naked –”
“– But I’d love to climb Ben Nevis.”
When Marcus looked to Esca, it became clear that Esca had been watching him for his entire excitable gush. The feline tilt of Esca’s eyes, along with the frank and open stare had Marcus willing away a blush.
Esca’s lips curled faintly. “Sounds as if you’ve got a hard-on for nature.”
Marcus shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. I like adventure.”
“You?” Esca affected incredulity. “Adventure?”
“Well. Within limits.”
“Uh huh.” Esca rolled his eyes, but there was no venom in his voice when he said, “That’s what I thought.”
“Okay, hotshot.” Marcus leaned back on the wide, stone step, with one hand placed just behind Esca. “What’s your idea of an adventure?”
Esca glanced over his shoulder with an eyebrow raised. “Every day with me is an adventure, big boy.”
Marcus felt his face go up in flame. He stared, stared – and threw his head back with a guffaw. “Be quiet. You’re such a dork.”
Esca’s jaw dropped in only half-playful incredulity. “What? Fuck you, I’m not a dork.”
“You are,” Marcus said with a grin. He got a grape to the face for his insistence. Marcus easily dodged the second flying fruit. “The glasses and the cardigans – and don’t think I never noticed your magnifying glass.”
Esca gamely swallowed a laugh and leaned in over Marcus’ lounging form. “Says the bloke who gets off on dirt and rocks.”
Marcus inched forward until their faces were close; until he could count the freckles on Esca’s nose. H e smiled and said, “I guess I just like to get down and dirty.”
Esca’s eyes widened and clouded as his gaze flicked from Marcus’ eyes, to lips, and back.
“I’ve got to dash,” Esca said without preamble.
“What? But – hey!”
Marcus gaped as Esca collected his lunch and was off like the freaking Road Runner.
“You plan on hitting me with that?” the masked thief asked of the iron poker Marcus wielded.
“Yeah. As fun as this has been, I think you need to give it a rest, buddy. Even you can’t bethis cocky.”
A faint shrug shifted the shadows. “I’m here, aren’t I? And you’re not going to hurt me. You’re a puppy, remember? Just like the one sleeping soundly in the next room. Perhaps I should name you too. What do Yanks always name their mutts – Sparky?”
“How do you keep getting in here?” Marcus asked with a steel note to his voice. There was only so much of this he could take. He’d filled out the appropriate police reports on each theft, knowing he’d receive compensation, but would never see his belongings again. He was resolved to that.
He’d changed the locks, bought new keys. Things had been quiet for weeks after that. Marcus had thought that his very own cat burglar had finally moved on. He’d thought wrong.
“I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun,” the stranger said lowly.
“This is fun to you?” Marcus demanded. He took a step forward and wished he’d previously turned on the lights. He was an idiot. “Breaking the law is enjoyable? Who are you trying to be – Robin Hood?”
“Maybe,” came the muffled, cryptic reply. “Maybe not.”
Something pinged in Marcus’ head. He narrowed his eyes and surveyed the thief’s slight, black-clad form.
“Well, whatever it is, you’re done here.”
“Aw.” The figure backed up from the living room and into the kitchen. He was going for the back door. “Are you breaking up with me?”
Marcus blinked. “You’re a really really bizarre robber.”
“I do try, Sparky.”
“You’re also the worst robber,” Marcus said as he slowly approached the stranger. “Because I keep catching you.”
The man was silent for a long moment.
“As I said – wouldn’t want to ruin the fun.”
“So you threw a tire iron at him –” Lauren said.
“Fire poker thing.”
“Sounds like my ex-wife,” Lutorius muttered, unhelpful as ever.
“A fire poker thingie at him,” Lauren said with a furrowed brow. “But you missed, it crashed through the glass panelling of the back door – you had bare feet and couldn’t chase him as he escaped.”
“Yeah,” Marcus said dismally. He stared into his untouched cup of tea.
“I thought you were a baseball star in high school,” Esca said with his head cocked. “Surely you couldn’t have missed from so close a distance unless you’d meant to.”
Marcus’ gaze snapped to Esca. “How did you know I played baseball?”
Esca shrugged with a bland expression. “You mentioned it at some point.”
Marcus nodded slowly.
Lauren cleared her throat. “What’d he steal this time?”
“Some gold and copper torques,” Marcus said. He must have looked as pathetic as he felt, because Lauren cooed and took his hand from across the table.
“Don’t let it get you down, babe. You’ll catch the bastard next time.”
“Or not,” Esca said sharply. He was looked at Lauren and Marcus’ interlaced fingers. His jaw flexed beneath pale flesh. As if sensing Marcus’ attention, Esca looked up and they locked eyes. “You’re fairly useless with this guy – or haven’t you noticed? Man up, Marcus. Grow a backbone.”
With that, he stood up and exited the room.
After a moment, Lauren simply smiled. “Tortured artists, eh?”
Marcus curved his lips in a polite, expected reply, but he couldn’t look away from the vacant doorway.
Marcus felt like he was back to square one.
Esca had returned to his abrasive, cloistered self and barely said two words to Marcus on any given day. It was decidedly suspicious and weird, and Marcus wondered what the heck he’d done wrong.
He liked to think he was a fairly good friend most of the time, and not bad at keeping up even long-distance relationships. But he’d never been good at reading people unless they told him right out what they were thinking.
In the case of Esca, who never told anybody anything, Marcus was at a dead end.
“Are you coming to the night out after work?” Marcus asked as he peeked around a massive, regency-era portrait.
Esca looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. “No.”
“But it’s Lauren’s birthday. She’s going to be twenty-five.”
“Yes, I am aware of the details, cheers.”
Marcus frowned and hunched in a bit, just enough to gauge the steel blue shade of Esca’s eyes today. “Tell me what’s the matter.”
Esca blinked. “Nothing’s the matter. What’s the matter with you?”
“Um, a lot of things, probably. But at the forefront, I’m just puzzled over what I’ve done to upset you.”
Esca actually looked surprised. His mouth worked like a fish out of water. Then his lips thinned and he snapped, “Not everything is about you, Marcus.”
Marcus boggled at him. Esca was like a freaking Rubik’s cube. “Okay. So if there’s nothing wrong between us, why are you acting like there’s something wrong between us?”
“I –“ Esca peered around Marcus’ shoulder and Marcus followed suit.
Lauren saw them staring at her staring at them and smiled sheepishly from across the room.
Esca uttered a moan of exasperation. Abruptly, he gripped Marcus’ elbow and dragged him behind the large painting, where they went unseen. “Were you always this nosy?” he asked in a harsh whisper.
Marcus leaned in. “It’s called concern and it’s what you express when your friend is acting strangely.”
Esca fisted his hands upon his hips and jutted his chin out. “Right, so we’re mates all of a sudden?”
Marcus grinded his teeth. He was tired of talking in circles. Marcus only moved straight ahead, in nice clean and concise lines. He was a linear kind of guy. And this was making him dizzy.
“Are you saying we’re not?” Marcus said. “Because if I’ve been under some delusion that we were starting to get along despite your being a snooty little shrimp, then please put me out of my misery.”
“You.” Esca’s eyes narrowed. “Call me a shrimp again, you titanic doormat!”
With that, Esca smacked his palms on Marcus’ chest and shoved.
Marcus grunted and stumbled slightly. “Hey! What the hell?” He stepped into Esca’s space, their chests nearly bumping as Marcus loomed in. “I may be a doormat, but at least I don’t sulk around like a teenage girl. Now are you going out with me tonight or not?”
Esca gaped. For once, it was his face that went pink.
“Is this a date or something?” he said quietly.
“What?” Marcus yelped, his eyes going wide. “What? No. I mean. No. It’s Lauren’s birthday – everyone will be there.” He paused. “Why? Do you want it to be a...?”
Esca scowled and went redder than before. “Obviously not.” He swallowed and looked away with a shrug. “But I’ll see you there.”
Marcus didn’t know why this conversation suddenly felt weird, but it was very definitely weird. He nodded. “Good.”
Because Marcus didn’t know what else to do, he walked away.
Esca was wearing this thin, clinging, purple-grey t-shirt with a massive, silver roaring tiger on it – and Marcus was fairly certain he was trying to make a statement about something.
He certainly didn’t look like a shrimp as he strode into the packed pub in black jeans that he probably needed help getting out of. Oh okay, that wasn’t the right path to take right now. Not when Marcus and Lauren had been the first people of the party to arrive, and both of them had begun drinking early.
Marcus was on his... third beer. And two celebratory shots. He was pretty sure, at least.
“You came,” Marcus said with a smile.
Esca furrowed his brow in the way that clearly depicted how confused he was by people who stated the obvious. “I did say I would.”
“Great! I’ll get you a drink.”
Esca rolled his eyes, but he was already smiling. “I’ll get me a drink.”
“Fine fine, I’ll buy you one later.”
The bar was jammed from end to end with raucous, chattering folk out for a Friday night. Marcus had been leaning on it before, and now he shifted back and reached out to place a hand on Esca’s far shoulder. He firmly led Esca towards the counter, putting him in the place Marcus had been before.
Marcus took up a spot behind Esca, with his hip pressing against the curve of Esca’s ass. Marcus’ hand slid down to the small of Esca’s back and drifted away.
Marcus was the worst level of handsy drunk. As a child, his mother had always expressed her displeasure in the casual way Marcus touched others and invaded their personal space. Over the years he’d learned to tame himself, and most of the time the manners stuck – but when the booze came out, Marcus reverted to his intrinsically intimate self in threefold.
Marcus leaned in, his mouth hovering above Esca’s ear as he pitched his voice over the clamouring din of the crowd. “I’ve lost Lauren. And everybody else.”
Esca gave a disinterested glance over his shoulder as he waited on his drink. “Heaven forbid you two aren’t joined at the hip for more than ten minutes.”
Marcus frowned. “That’s not very nice.”
Esca turned then and leaned back against the bar top. His arms folded over his chest as he looked up with a smirk. “Well I’m not a very nice person. Glad we cleared that up.”
“Okay. Well.” Marcus pursed his lips in thought. “You’re not very nice, but you’re not unlikeable either.”
“My, how generous of you.”
“But why the Lauren hate?” Marcus frowned. “She’s nice to everyone. Even guys like you.”
“I don’t hate Lauren. And what do you mean by ‘guys like me’?” Esca said with a quirk of eyebrow, not looking insulted in the slightest.
“I don’t know. Prickly.”
Esca stared. “Prickly. Right.”
“Like those tropical fruits that have –“
“Right, I’m going to stop you right there,” Esca said as he held up a hand and turned back to the bar to retrieve his drink and pay.
“You interrupted my metaphor.”
Esca turned around with something that looked amber and bright in the dim lighting. “Drunks should never metaphor.”
“You can’t use that as a verb,” Marcus said as he teetered forward and reached past Esca for his own beer, Esca’s face nearly pressing into his chest. “And I’m not drunk. Buzzed, yes. Wasted, not yet.”
“Mind yourself, Marcus,” Esca said, his voice muffled until he flattened his palm on Marcus’ stomach and pushed him away. “Let’s find the rest of the group.”
With that, Esca swept past Marcus as if he expected him to follow. Of course, that was exactly how it went. It turned out that the rest of Lauren’s friends, including several people from the museum, were all bunched at the back of the pub. It was rowdy and louder there than in front, with music blasting from some untraceable place and pitchers of neon mixed drinks cluttering the tabletop they sat around.
Marcus and Esca pulled up chairs and Marcus straddled his backwards. The fact that he nearly toppled back twice from huge guffaws in the next hour didn’t deter him from his seating choice. He didn’t know half the people here, but they were entertaining.
Every now and then Marcus would lean in and relay in Esca’s ear something interesting another person had told him. Other than that, the next hour passed with a good three more drinks on Marcus’ part – and he didn’t even know how many on Esca’s.
Apparently someone as small as him could hold his liquor like nobody’s business, because he hadn’t turned down a line of shots once. And there had been a lot of shots so far. Still, Esca seemed composed. He smiled more and his cheeks were pink, and at some point his hair had become exceptionally dishevelled, but he looked to be enjoying himself more than Marcus had ever seen him.
“I like you like this,” Marcus said too loudly in Esca’s ear.
Esca whipped around in his seat with narrowed eyes. “What?”
“You lick me like a dish?”
“Like,” Marcus said. It had definitely gotten louder in the pub. “I said I like you!”
“Oh.” Esca looked further put-out by the clarification. “Okay. Do you simply say anything that knocks around in that meathead of yours?”
“No,” Marcus said, aghast. “That would be rude.”
Esca laughed and sloppily dragged a hand down his face. He turned fully towards Marcus, propped his elbow on the table, and plopped his cheek on his palm. Amusement still shining in his eyes and playing at the curve of his lips, Esca’s gaze slid down Marcus’ frame, back up, and locked on Marcus’ curious stare.
“I guess I like you too,” Esca said.
“Well, often times I entertain breaking something over your thick skull.”
“I actually do have a really hard head. Even if you did hit me with something, it probably wouldn’t hurt that bad. One time when I was thirteen I fell out of a bouncy castle and onto my head on the pavement. I was totally fine. Totally.”
Esca looked like he was trying not to laugh as he pressed his lips together in a frowning sort of smile. “Pardon – did you say you were thirteen in a bouncy castle?”
“Yeah. Well.” Marcus could feel his face burning, but that could have just been from the alcohol. “There weren’t any little kids in it at the time.”
“Even so – how tall were you at that point?”
“Not at all. I was about five and a half feet until I was fifteen.”
“Liar.” Esca’s face lit up with almost deviant glee. “I need pictures of this. Marcus the shrimp.”
Marcus smiled good-naturedly and cocked his head. “It was more like Marcus the midget or Marcus the mite or Mini Marc. Some of my school buddies still call me Mini.”
Esca scrunched his nose. “Only you would be fine with something like that.”
“Like what – silly nicknames?” Marcus shrugged. “At the end of the day it’s what people do, not what they say, that makes the difference. They always acted like my friends – it didn’t really matter what they said.”
“That works for naive people.” Esca’s flicked his hand dismissively. “I’m going to get some air.” He stood.
Marcus jerked up from his chair. “I’ll come with.” The world tilted for a couple precarious seconds, but Marcus was good. He was definitely good.
“Honestly,” Esca said with a small grin. “Like a puppy.”
“Okay,” Marcus said as he dropped a hand on Esca’s shoulder and trailed behind him. “Thatone I do take offense to.”
Esca’s laughter was nearly drowned out by the pub ruckus, but not enough that it didn’t manage to put a smile on Marcus’ face.
Bracing cool air nipped at Marcus’ flushed cheeks as they burst out the door and into the dark, quiet side street. A main avenue lay just at the end of this cobbled back alley, but the distant clamour of people laughing and cars rumbling sounded miles away.
With the muddled murmur of the bar behind him, Marcus leaned against a frigid wall. He inhaled a deep, refreshing breath than ended on a happy sigh.
Esca mirrored Marcus’ action, remaining close but not touching. His voice was pitched low and familiar in the hum of the night. “How is that you appear content wherever you go and whatever you do?”
“Huh?” He looked at Esca, who was digging a slim pack of cigarettes out from his back pocket. Marcus blinked. “How did you even fit those there?”
“What? Oh.” Esca’s aimed a quizzical smile Marcus’ way as he brought the filter to his lips. “They’re slightly crushed.”
Marcus watched as Esca took out a cheap orange lighter and flicked it on with a quiet snap and fizz. A peach and white glow curved within the cup of Esca’s palm as he brought the flame close and lit the tip. When Esca’s cheeks hollowed to dark contours and shadows upon the first suck of smoke, Marcus looked away; up to the sky dappled with faint stars.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“Can I...” Marcus trailed off and smiled sheepishly.
Before Esca could react, Marcus leaned in and nicked the cigarette from Esca’s mouth, fingertips brushing warm lips for the briefest second. With his attention fixed on Esca’ from above the fiery cherry, Marcus took a long drag, savouring the flavour languidly rolling on his tongue.
“I –” Esca cleared his throat; his voice was faintly hoarse. “Please don’t tell me this is some misguided attempt to impress me.”
Marcus blew grey ribbons of smoke to the sky before he returned the cigarette to Esca’s waiting fingertips. “Why?” he asked with a smile. “Would my smoking somehow impress you?”
“No.” Esca took two jerky drags in a row before he spoke again. “I simply hadn’t pegged you as the smoking type.”
“Socially,” Marcus said with a wink that Esca decidedly ignored. “And only when my mother is four-thousand miles away. I fear her.”
Esca’s laugh was breathy and loose. “Just when I start to think you’re rebelling.”
“I’m fine with being boring,” Marcus said as he lightly elbowed Esca’s side. He’d somehow gravitated closer, and now their hips were pressed warmly against each other’s. Not for the first time, Marcus was hyper aware of Esca’s thin shoulder jutting against this upper arm. He was so perfect for manhandling and – “I’m a very well-adjusted person, you know.”
“You’re a semi-reclusive, walking punching-bag whose best friend is a dog who probably enjoys rolling in animal feces. And you’re misguidedly attempting to befriend me. I’d say you’re as well-adjusted as any of us other poor arseholes.”
Marcus snorted a laugh. He couldn’t really argue. “And what are you then, Esca? You’ve said next to nothing about yourself in all this time we’ve known each other.”
Esca shrugged sharply and took a contemplative puff of his cigarette. “What do you want to know?” He tossed the remaining stub to the stones, where it slowly burnt to a cylinder of ash.
“Everything,” Marcus said honestly. “Birthplace, siblings, pets, favourite food, guilty pleasure.”
For a while there Marcus assumed Esca wasn’t going to reply. Marcus wondered if Esca knew how suspicious it was when a seemingly regular guy encountered apparent difficulties with sharing even the smallest facts. Marcus also wondered if Esca realised that he was about a million times more sensitive than he liked to assume. People who were truly apathetic – well, nothing ever got to them.
Esca? A lot of things bothered Esca. In fact, Marcus would venture to say that Esca was rarely happy with anything ever. That was why it had been nice to see him smile as much as he had tonight. Whether or not Marcus and Esca were friends was irrelevant – everyone deserved happiness.
“The Isle of Skye, none, none, Thai lemongrass soup, and...” Esca shuffled at Marcus’ side; turned and leaned his shoulder on the wall to face Marcus. His smile was a wide and wicked sliver of white in the midnight darkness. “I feel guilty about very little. I’m not a fan of regrets.”
A deep, hot thrum started up beneath Marcus’ skin. A fresh wave of intoxication sloshed through his system and left him inwardly reeling. He turned to match Esca’s position so that they could watch each other directly. Marcus looked down at Esca and swallowed, his gaze dropping to those pale, curved lips.
“You don’t sound Scottish,” Marcus found himself saying. He was surprised his tongue even worked on that level anymore.
“Moved,” Esca said shortly. His eyes were darting over Marcus’ face, wide and pitch black in the shadows. “I really fucking hate how tall you are.”
“I’m sorry,” Marcus said.
“Stop apologising,” Esca murmured.
“Sorry,” Marcus said softly.
Marcus cupped Esca’s face in his palms, fingertips burying in soft hair, and hunched forward to lightly touch their lips together. Esca unexpectedly breathed a subtle sigh against Marcus’ mouth, and that was it for him. Marcus groaned and swept the tip of his tongue insistently against the seam of Esca’s lips, begging for entry, crying for release from the tension that coiled tightly in his belly.
Esca parted for Marcus like magic; a soft, hot huff tumbling onto Marcus’ tongue with the admittance. He tasted like sharp, fruity alcohol and musky smoke – and at the base of it all, where Marcus greedily lapped at every contour of Esca’s mouth – there was a bittersweet flavour that was inherently Esca. Like dark, dark chocolate and chilli.
Then Esca nipped at Marcus’ lower lip, and Marcus snapped. His hands dragged down Esca’s arms, a firm and possessive mapping of the subtle musculature of Esca’s frame, finishing where Marcus tightly cuffed Esca’s thin wrists with hard fingers. Marcus turned, whirled until Esca’s back was against the wall and Marcus could easily tilt Esca’s chin up with the force and depth of the kiss.
A jolt of heat shocked through Marcus’ system as Esca moaned low at the back of his throat and thrust his hips forward, against Marcus’ thigh. Then holding Esca prone and shackled wasn’t enough; Marcus had to be everywhere, touch every curve and line and quivering muscle that was available to him. He delved into Esca’s mouth, searched out the sharp prick of teeth and the thick, desperate curls of tongue as Marcus wrapped his arms around Esca; flattened his palms along the small of Esca’s back and trailed them down, down past his belt to rest snugly above the subtle jut of Esca’s ass.
With Esca’s hands now free, they shot up and fisted tightly in Marcus hair. Esca’s mouth seared against his own; demanding and pushing Marcus further into the sweltering, humid senselessness that flooded his every sense. There was only Esca. There were only these insistent, clever lips and rolling, encouraging hips and the little mewling noises that Esca wouldn’t stop making, which were driving Marcus to utter distraction.
Marcus wasn’t sure who came up for breath first, but when they did, Esca was gasping against the underside of Marcus’ jaw, and Marcus was gaping into the dark with complete shock. His body was humming with attention, his dick throbbing painfully against the rigid zipper of his pants. He felt like he’d been swimming for hours without remembering to breathe, and Esca was clinging to him like a life raft, so Marcus must not have been alone in this.
“Not boring,” Esca said raggedly against Marcus’ collarbone. His hands loosened their grip on Marcus’ hair; slid low to delve beneath the hem of Marcus’ shirt and hook cold, slim fingers into the waist of Marcus’ jeans. “Definitely not boring.”
Marcus was going to die. He was certain. This was far too fortunate and he was far too drunk – on booze, on Esca, and on this totally surreal situation.
“That’s,” Marcus paused, nuzzled his nose against the tousled crown of Esca’s hair and inhaled. “That’s uh, good to hear.”
“Complicated, though,” Esca murmured into Marcus’ shirt.
“Marcus.” Esca canted his chin and lightly thumped his head against the wall so he could look up at him. His lips were dark and flushed even in the shadows, and very faintly curved. “You have to let go of me now.”
“What?” Marcus said dumbly. Then he realised he was still gripping Esca’s ass like a lifeline. His face went up in flame as he immediately snatched his hands away. “Oh. Oh, sorry.”
“It’s fine, I can’t blame you.”
Marcus shoved his hands in his pockets to keep himself from touching Esca again. “So, um...”
“We should go inside,” Esca said in a voice gentler than Marcus was accustomed.
“Sure, right, yes.” Marcus nodded vehemently. He couldn’t stop looking at Esca. Couldn’t stop thinking about those noises he made while Marcus’s hands practically branded him. Well shit – this was going to replay through Marcus’ mind forever now.
Marcus turned to head for the door.
Marcus glanced over his shoulder. “Y–”
Esca went to his toes, hooked his arms around Marcus’ neck for leverage, and placed one long, hot kiss on Marcus’ lips. When they parted, they were both breathless and looked just as shocked as each other.
“This,” Esca said quietly, with his eyes sober and his pupils blown wide. “I might regret.”
Marcus could only nod. What more could they say?
“This isn’t a wise move,” the masked figure said as soon as Marcus had an arm firmly around the thief’s neck and a hand gripping one wrist. The man’s free hand came up to clasp Marcus’ forearm, as if testing the muscle there.
“Right back atcha, buddy,” Marcus said gruffly, his mouth close to where he figured the man’s ear would be.
“What have you been doing – lying in wait every night, just in case? Don’t you have a girlfriend or something to keep you busy?”
“You know I’ve only had eyes for you recently,” Marcus said dryly.
“You do flatter a girl,” the stranger said, and – and Jesus Christ, he pressed his ass back against Marcus’ crotch. With Marcus’ arm around the man’s neck, they were practically plastered together in the darkened hallway.
Marcus sucked in a breath, suddenly shockingly aware of the height of the person in his arms, and just how perfectly their bodies fit together. “What the –”
The sharp elbow in his gut packed enough force to have Marcus wheezing; his hold loosening just enough for the thief to slip away and dash down the stairs, taking the steps three at a time.
“Oh, hell no.” Marcus said as he clattered down to the main floor and squealed around the corner.
He wasn’t screwing it up this time. He had a backbone and dammit, this was his house! Marcus was mere feet behind the intruder, but it was several feet too many. He knew his own living room and kitchen, and it this guy didn’t trip up, he would be gone.
In the moment where the thought crossed Marcus’ mind, Ajax came bounding through the kitchen and headed straight for the thief with a happy dog smile. The guy swore sharply and skittered to a halt, clearly not wanting to hurt the puppy in any way – and it was just the opening Marcus needed.
The following scuffle was a disaster and his wrestling coach would have been ashamed at the amount of effort it took to pin this tiny, nimble guy to the floor. By the time Marcus straddled the man’s stomach and pinned his wrists about his head with one hand, they were both out of breath.
“I’m getting too old for this,” Marcus said with a sigh as the stranger continued to buck uselessly beneath him. “Save your energy, man.”
“Don’t do this, Marcus,” the muffled voice came from behind the mask. “Trust me.”
Marcus narrowed his eyes, cocked his head. “Why on earth would I trust someone like you?”
“Don’t,” he said, his voice quiet and so frighteningly familiar.
Just then, Ajax padded up and snuffled at the side of the man’s mask. He licked the material and yapped a bark.
Marcus’ heart dropped. “My dog likes you,” he said tonelessly. Dread crept through his limbs, left him feeling heavy, leaden with horror.
“Yes,” the masked man said. He’d long stopped struggling.
Marcus was proud that his hand didn’t shake as he reached into the collar of the man’s black Henley and found the hem of the mask. His face did burn, though, as he peeled up the cloth to reveal a pale, frowning mouth whose owner was unquestionable. The remainder of the mask came away and fell to the floor, giving way to a beautifully angular face in the shadows.
“Marcus,” Esca said, his eyes black and wide.
Marcus felt cold, frozen; distant from this scene, like the stars. “Your accent was different,” was all he said. “With the mask on.”
Marcus stared at Esca for a moment.
“Marcus?” Esca said again. “Are you...”
Without a word, Marcus released his hold on Esca and stood. As Esca warily got to his feet, his eyes never leaving Marcus, Ajax jumped up at Esca’s calves for attention.
“No!” Marcus said in a voice so abrupt and booming that Ajax whimpered and cowered towards a different area of the kitchen. Marcus fisted his hands at his sides and considered Esca quietly. “You’re still here? Run. Isn’t that what you’re good at?”
Esca furrowed his brow and looked between the back door and Marcus. “I can’t just – what are you going to –”
Marcus sucked in a shaky breath, furious at the emotional rasp in his voice. “I’m not going to do anything.”
Esca visibly balked. “What – seriously? Marcus, at least let me expla–”
“Don’t bother,” Marcus said without inflection. His throat felt raw and hot, and his heart felt seared; cauterised from the rest of him. It was almost painless. Almost. “I don’t want to know – I genuinely don’t. I don’t want to hear another word.” Marcus was barely aware of his tone increasing in volume with each word; was utterly oblivious to the shaking of his fists. “I don’t want to have to talk to you or listen to any fucking shit that spews from yourstupid mouth.”
“I get it now – I really do. You’ve probably noticed that I don’t take hints very well, but I’m not an idiot. I was an easy target, right? You could take my keys at any point in the day to copy them and I wouldn’t notice. You could befriend me, come to my house to scope it out because I’d just let you. Hell, even my guard-dog-in-training loves you.” Marcus shrugged, his shoulders feeling weighed down. “You can leave now.”
Esca’s eyes wouldn’t remain still; they flittered over Marcus’ expression, his body, his hands – as if looking for an answer that wouldn’t come. “But let me just explain and –”
“Get out,” Marcus said quietly. He didn’t have the energy for this. He turned his back and dragged himself up the stairs without even waiting to hear Esca leave.
Marcus hadn’t really realised it until now, but Esca had taken at least half of Marcus’ heart with him. How had that happened?
“Marcus.” Lauren had her arm looped in Marcus’ the moment he walked through the door on the following Monday. She was grinning from ear to ear; her large, ornate earrings jangling with every bustling movement as she pulled them into the small adjoined room where they had a kettle and a small refrigerator. “Tell me everything!”
“What things?” Marcus asked with a quizzical curve of lips.
Regardless of his mood, Lauren didn’t deserve to be needlessly snapped at or hindered by Marcus’ problems. He really liked Lauren, and he knew that once he went into detail of one aspect regarding his relationship with Esca, the rest would eventually flood forward.
Marcus was not a good liar by any stretch of the imagination. The less he told Lauren, the better for everyone involved.
“Don’t be daft – you know! Esca. Yous two goin’ off with each other in the night and coming back a pure state.”
“Ah...” Marcus rubbed the back of his neck and managed a small smile. “Nothing. I mean, not nothing, but nothing that’s going anywhere.”
“What?” Lauren pouted. “How no?”
“Just.” Marcus shrugged. “We don’t exactly mesh well.”
“That hardly matters when you’re busy mashing mouths.”
“It was mutual disagreement.”
“Huh.” Lauren narrowed her eyes for a moment before her expression relaxed. “Well, itmust have been mutual. Esca didn’t seem any different than usual either.”
“He’s here?” Marcus said, feeling immediately stupid for asking like some lovesick teenager. He could sense the beginnings of a headache pounding hot and red behind his eyes.
“Came in not five minutes ago. His usual, you know. Head down, hoody up, iPod on, and coffee in hand. I swear he’s the most crabbit morning person ever.”
For a moment, Marcus nearly smiled; almost got his usual amusement out of Esca’s churlish tendencies. Then he remembered why Esca was always tired and so very quiet about himself. Marcus probably wasn’t Esca’s only mark. Perhaps not the only person Esca had subtly seduced as a means to an end, as well.
A shiver cut down the length of Marcus’ spine. He pointedly ignored it.
“Did you have a fun birthday weekend?” Marcus asked, and shut down his mind as he listened intently to Lauren’s stories. Smile and nod – he could do that.
Work wasn’t horrendous. Marcus couldn’t complain.
Esca seemed to ignore him as determinedly as Marcus did. On one level it was a relief – on the other, it was kind of a disappointment. It seemed like Esca’s penitence from two nights ago had been a one-time-only deal.
Throughout the day, Esca kept to himself as he researched whatever it was that he was working on recently. He didn’t speak to anyone unless necessary and he didn’t stop for lunch. So basically, as Lauren had pointed out, Esca was his characteristic self. It was as if nothing had happened at all.
Some part of Marcus wanted to ask. After the first wave of shock and betrayal had numbed, it had only been natural that Marcus thought, Why.
He was a curious person by nature. Marcus liked to learn about people – to appreciate them and their quirks. And if kleptomania was somehow one of Esca’s idiosyncrasies, then Marcus wanted to know about it.
But something told Marcus that Esca didn’t do this on a whim or through relentless urges. Esca was far too purposeful in his nature; meticulous. There was certainly a wild streak in him – some dangerous glint of steel in his eyes that endlessly fascinated Marcus – but Esca did not let that own him. As far as Marcus was concerned, Esca wasn’t reckless.
So why return to the scene of the crime over and over? What had Esca desired so strongly that he would risk his cover for half a dozen repeat performances with Marcus? What secret treasure did Marcus have that kept Esca coming back?
Too many questions and too few answers, Marcus thought dismally.
He snuck a glance to Esca’s work station. Esca was hunched over some layer scan of a painting, peering down with a massive magnifying glass to his eye. He would have looked like a complete dork had it not been for the fierce look of concentration on his face.
Esca interested Marcus, friendship or not. By all appearances, he was a good guy. Some people might have disagreed, and Marcus probably shouldn’t have been so quick to admit it – but the truth was the truth.
Esca was brilliant at what he did. He was quick and clever and scaldingly funny in a way that Marcus always envied in people, because he was more of a gullible goofball than anything. Esca tried to appear impassive, when really he was passionate about everything – had an opinion on everything. He was intriguing and mysterious – and yeah, kind of a douchebag – and all the things Marcus thought were totally captivating in a person. All of the things Marcus could never be.
Crap. He was so in over his head. Even now, after everything.
Without a thought, Marcus groaned quietly, bumped his forehead on the countertop of his workstation and simply left it there.
“You okay?” Lutorius asked from the next station over. He didn’t actually sound interested, but bless him for trying.
“Just a headache,” Marcus mumbled.
There was a pause, and then, “I’ll find you something for it.”
Well at least Marcus still had some friends.
By Friday, Marcus was at the end of his rope. And he had a really long rope. Like, Grand Canyon level lengths, okay? But this – this was driving Marcus insane.
Did Esca really not care enough to even try and give him an explanation? Was Marcus not even worth that? What the crap?
That was around the time Marcus began to make some really poor decisions. Because he was really good at that, and he hadn’t made any in a while – unless one considered his drinking some milk this morning that was a day out of date. Hey, it tasted fine.
So when Esca clocked out for the day, so did Marcus. And when Esca zipped up a striped hoody that was about two sizes too large – PS: for someone who tended to wear ridiculously tight clothing on a regular basis, Esca only ever wore this one awful, massive hoody over it everything. It never ceased to boggle Marcus’ mind. At one point it had kind of made him imagine what Esca would look in one of his shirts, but the daydream had spiralled out of control and that was the last time Marcus had let himself think about it.
Anyway, Marcus hurriedly buttoned up his grey peacoat and rushed after Esca. He had a scene of déjà vu when he scrambled for the elevator and jammed his hand in the closing doors. One day that wasn’t going to end well, but that was not today.
Esca, who’d already had his iPod buds firmly in his ears and his head down, whipped his gaze up – and Marcus got the small pleasure of seeing surprise flash in his wide eyes before the usual mask came slamming down. His posture went ramrod straight and his stare fixed on the button panel as Marcus slipped in beside him.
They really hadn’t been this close since that night. Since Marcus had pinned Esca to the kitchen floor and exposed him for what he was. Unfortunately, Marcus still didn’t knowwhat Esca was. Obviously Marcus wasn’t happy with how their relationship had gone down, and some part of him knew that Esca had only been using him – but things had severed so sharply that Marcus felt like there was no closure to whatever this was.
If there was one thing Marcus’ mother had taught him, it was that the true gentlemen always extended his hand in truce, whether he was right or wrong in the situation. Playing games and stewing and moping and whatever else was not the way to live a life.
So, on the way down, with some muzak rendition of a Beatles song playing above their heads, Marcus cleared his throat and said, “So...”
“If you say anything to the tune of ‘how ‘bout them Cowboys, Lakers, Celtics’ the conversation will terminate here,” Esca said in a bland voice as he continued to look in the opposite direction of Marcus.
“You can hear me with your music on?”
“One – were you speaking to me with the intention that I wouldn’t hear you? Two – of course I can hear you. I’m not one of those arseholes who blasts their shite for the world’s ears.”
“Right, but you would steal their boombox,” Marcus said before he’d thought it through.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Esca’s jaw clench. “No,” he said in a very careful, icy tone. “Because what idiot still owns a boombox?”
The elevator stuttered to a halt with a ding, and the doors opened. Esca swept out like his ass was on fire – and man, did the little guy move fast.
“I do!” Marcus said as he caught up beside Esca on the stairs outside the museum. Whereas Esca could scoot between the crowds, Marcus had to make all of his apologies for bumping into everyone with his messenger bag and massive shoulders.
“Do what?” Esca said, as if he’d expected Marcus to follow the entire time.
“Have a boombox. Still.”
Marcus blinked and went silent at that as he easily kept up with Esca’s harried steps. Of course Esca would know.
“Oiy,” Esca said as he stopped and turned to Marcus. He was openly scowling as people bumped past them, pushing them closer together. Marcus automatically brought a steadying arm to Esca’s elbow. Esca flicked a look down and then back up as his cheeks went red. “What’s this about, Marcus?”
Esca’s eyes narrowed. “Fuck’s sake, I hate it when you play stupid. We both know you’re far from it.”
“Er, thanks I guess?”
“What are you doing,” Esca said again, the colour rising fully to his face and his eyes snapping stormy blue.
“I’m just –” Marcus had no idea. “Walking you home.”
For a couple of seconds Esca just stood there with the blankest expression in existence. Then he turned on his heel and began to march away.
“Wait!” Marcus caught up to him again.
“You’re not walking me home.”
“Yeah, I am. You’ve seen where I live in detail, so now it’s my turn.”
“Fine. Walk to my house. I’m taking the train. I’ll see you there.”
“You know what your problem is?” Marcus asked. Just then, Esca veered off from Marcus’ side and a mass of students were in between them. Marcus had to swerve into the street, nearly got hit by an angry bicycler – Marcus thought exercise was supposed to make people happy? – and finally caught up to Esca. Damn, the guy could move.
“Your problem,” Marcus continued as if Esca hadn’t attempted a daring escape, “Is that you’re scared.”
“Bloody hell, you’ve got me pegged, Marcus! Truly, you are a paragon of brilliance. All of the awards.”
“Ha-ha-ha. No, but really.”
They were nearing the train station. Marcus had to talk fast. He didn’t know why he cared so much. Didn’t know why he cared about Esca so much. He didn’t feel bad for Esca, but he did experience regret when Esca would switch between his open, easier self to the caustic asshole he tried to be. It was like getting a present that Marcus loved, only to have it snatched away and given back and snatched away.
They paused at a crosswalk. Esca looked like he was seriously considering walking into oncoming traffic.
Marcus leaned to his side, towards Esca, plucked a bud from Esca’s ear and quietly said, “I’m willing to forgive you if you tell me everything – everything and then some. I’m easy, Esca. You know that. We can be friends again – but this can’t be one-sided. Just say you’re sorry.”
The green man lit up, and everyone moved. Esca didn’t.
“You think you’re easy...” Esca said slowly, as if Marcus had just claimed he was a Vulcan. Esca laughed sharply and turned to him. “Easy?”
Marcus frowned. “What?”
“Marcus.” Esca pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re so bloody easy that it’s nearly impossible for me to be awful to you. That makes you more difficult to be around than anybody.”
Marcus raised his eyebrows doubtfully, even as a small vein of hope wove its way through his chest. “Hmm, I’m fairly sure the police and I would disagree about the whole awful thing. You’ve been doing a pretty good job.”
“Yes,” Esca said solemnly. “You’re right.”
In a gesture Marcus had never seen before, Esca worried his bottom lip with his teeth and looked away uncertainly. “I don’t – I’m not usually – ugh. Fuck.” Esca dragged a hang through his hair, leaving it mussed and sticking out in all directions. When he looked up at Marcus, his lips were barely curved – but he looked young again. “Come home with me.”
“I – uh – yes,” Marcus said, taking a surprised step forward. “Of course.”
“Ta,” Esca said, with his cheekbones flushing.
They walked the rest of the way in slightly strained silence. When they got on the train for the short, twenty-minute ride to a small county town, they sat beside each other with Marcus in the aisle seat.
“Such a beast,” Esca grumbled as he made a point of crunching himself against the window like a bug.
“Thank you,” Marcus said with a shameless grin. His insides were a twisting mess, but he didn’t need to broadcast that if he could help it.
Esca hugged and folded his arms across his chest, hunching into his body like a sulking child. For someone who always wanted to be taken seriously, he was such a kid sometimes. Marcus wondered selfishly if Esca only let himself get this bratty around him.
They were silent for part of the ride, with Esca closing his eyes and Marcus wondering how he was supposed to handle this situation in which he’d invited himself. He knew he should probably be angrier than this.
The thing was this: Marcus was never one to get violently angry or hold a grudge or whatever. He was upset when he was upset, and then he just kind of... let it go. It made him feel physically ill to carry pain around with him, and rather early on he’d figured out it was just a hassle to stay mad just because it was somehow expected of him.
His mother had always said that as a baby he’d never cried and rarely fussed. Marcus hadn’t particularly changed on that level.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t annoyed, nor did it negate his puzzlement or driving need to see this through and create some kind of legitimate resolution between them. Because the majority of his anger had faded did not mean Marcus wasn’t frustrated, or that he didn’t desire an explanation. If he had it his way, he would get what he wanted by the end of this.
Marcus was, if nothing else, incredibly stubborn with the things that mattered to him.
He had a little patience stored up still. Marcus would wait for what Esca had to share with him. And if that came to a dead end, then Marcus would walk away. For real.
“Why,” Esca said softly, with his eyes still closed, “are you being so kind to me when I don’t deserve it?”
Marcus should have said something clever or meaningful here, but instead he immediately said, “Because I like you.”
Esca’s laugh was faint and humourless. “Then stop.”
Marcus smiled wanly to himself. “You don’t think I would if I could?”
“I don’t know what you’d do, Marcus. You never cease to amaze me. Drives me absolutely mental.” Esca snorted lightly. “Never met anyone I couldn’t pin right off the bat.”
Marcus shifted in his seat and looked at Esca, who was staring blankly out of the window. “Esca, have you ever considered that I mean exactly what I say and I say exactly what I think?”
“I have, but no one’s truly like that.”
“I am. I mean, I try.” Marcus dared to brush his elbow against Esca’s. “What’re you hiding?
Esca rolled his eyes and flashed the briefest smile in Marcus’ direction. “Don’t make it sound so nefarious.”
“Esca, you’re by far the most nefarious person in my life.”
“You flatter me again.”
“I’m not trying.”
“I know. You’re just Mr. Nice.” Esca slid a glance Marcus’ way. “Too nice to be around me, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
Marcus met Esca’s eyes with a peeved expression. “I can make my own decisions. I’m a big boy, you know.”
“Oh, I know.”
Marcus was frozen in blushing silence for the remainder of the train ride.
“Well,” Marcus said as he followed Esca into the cluttered but generally tidy apartment. “It certainly doesn’t look like my torques are paying rent on a mansion.”
“Sh!” Esca said, his eyes going uncharacteristically wide as he shut the door behind them. He was in Marcus’ face in seconds, his eyes darting to the side once before locking on Marcus. He whispered, “Don’t mention that while my brother’s around. We’ll talk about it later.”
“Wait, what – your brother? As in –“
“As in brother, and you’d best not speak a word about our business to him or I will chop you down like a lumberjack brings down a mighty Sequoia.”
“You said you didn’t have a brother!”
“I lied,” Esca said with a smile already plastered on his face, most likely due to the footsteps coming down the hall.
“Essa, who are you tal– oh!” A pale face undeniably similar to Esca’s lit up with obvious delight.
Esca’s brother looked several years Esca’s junior – maybe even still a teenager – but he had to be a good three inches taller and skinny as all hell. He and Esca shared the same eye colour and skin tone, but this kid had unwieldy black, curly hair and a cheeks bursting with freckles.
“Hey,” Marcus said, and mustered up a friendly smile and held out a hand. He had no idea what was going on. This was like being dropped into one of those Gaelic soap operas they played really early in the morning on TV, where Marcus watched and thought he mightknow what anyone was saying, but really didn’t understanding a freaking word. “I’m Marcus. I’m a friend of Esca’s from work.”
“Essa – friends?” Esca’s brother said with a clearly teasing tone. “You must have the patience of a saint.” He took Marcus’ palm in a firm, energetic shake and release. “I’m Enda, but everyone just calls me Mac, thank God.”
“Mac?” Marcus frowned. “Oh, right. MacCunoval.” Marcus always just thought of Esca as Esca; no last name necessary. Who else was named Esca, anyway? Who the hell was namedEnda, either?
“Mac,” Esca stepped in. “You’re out tonight, aren’t you?”
“I dunno, do you want me to be?” Mac asked with a smile wide enough that it had to hurt his cheeks.
Esca went still, and Marcus could swear his neck was going red. “Idiot,” Esca said mildly. “Go out. Have fun. Do young people things.”
“Oiy, you know it’s creepy when you speak like a fifty year-old bloke, so let’s just bring this conversation to a close, shall we? Yes, I’m going out. No, I probably won’t be back tonight because hopefully the alcohol in my bloodstream will’ve hindered my ability to recall my name and address. Also,” Mac raised a finger, as if counting off an important point. “Sex.”
“You are a walking billboard for tragedy and self-destruction,” Esca said, even though it was clear by his relaxing demeanour that he actually trusted his younger brother.
Esca, trusting someone? That was news.
“As long as you approve, oh miniature mother figure.”
Esca narrowed his eyes. “I do hope you’re leaving soon.”
Mac looked at Marcus as if Esca hadn’t spoken. “So are you two dating?”
Marcus’ heart flopped in his chest like a fish out of water. “Ah... um –“
“It’s fine, y’know. Essa’s always coming in late and I’m not stupid.” Mac winked.
Marcus was sure the heat from his face could have cooked an egg.
“Oh no!” Mac exclaimed, still beaming. “I’m sorry. You’re shy – that’s brilliant.” Mac looked at Esca, who was looking cross, but not surprised or embarrassed. “He’s great – a keeper. A Yank, too.”
A chime to the tune of Europe’s ‘Final Countdown’ jangled from Mac’s pocket, and suddenly he was all jerky, restless movements as he answered the phone. He waved once more at Marcus before disappearing down the hallway, chattering away.
Marcus found himself feeling like he’d just been spat out of a tornado. “I’m sorry, but howare you two related?” he said, still in a daze.
Esca had unzipped his – no, definitely Mac’s, that explained the size difference – hoody and threw it on an old, worn-down leather couch and shrugged. “I’ve never allowed him to worry about anything.”
“Ah.” That kind of explained a lot. Although that was another one of Esca’s cryptic replies that only led to more questions. “Essa?” Marcus asked with a grin as he followed Esca in the direction of what he quickly learned was a tiny kitchen.
Esca rolled his eyes and opened the fridge, ducked his head in. “Couldn’t say my name properly when he was young.”
“Well that’s just adorable. You know what’s not adorable? Lying about having a brother for no discernable reason. Makes you look like a jerk.”
Esca shut the fridge door quietly and offered Marcus a bottle of water. He didn’t let go, even when Marcus’ fingers had wrapped around the drink; just paused and met Marcus’ eyes.
“I thought we went over that. You read the warning label and you simply chose not to heed it.”
Marcus jerked the bottle from Esca’s hold and leaned in, just enough to loom over him. “That doesn’t give you permission to be an asshole, Esca. It just means you’re trying to find an out that’ll allow you to be one. No one calls you on your bullshit, and when they do, you just own up to it as if that’ll make it okay for you to continue being however you’re being.” Marcus searched Esca’s eyes for a glimpse of recognition. “But that never makes it okay. Just so you know.”
“So,” Mac said from the entryway, totally undeterred by the scene unfolding before him. “Hate to break up the big gay love going on in here, but that’s me out the door.” He grinned and waved. “I’ll see you two around. Bye, Marcus. Essa, you don’t get a goodbye because you’re short. Sad but true facts.”
A water bottle hurled across the room with a force and accuracy that shouldn’t have surprised Marcus.
Mac yelped, dodged, and then laughed all the way out the door.
“At first you were just an easy target.”
“Yeah, I figured that one out already,” Marcus said dryly as he sunk into the surprisingly comfortable couch beside Esca.
“I’d heard you mention to Lauren how you’d inherited a mass of artefacts when you’d moved to Oxford. I spent a couple of weeks doing recon on your house, and since our schedules are almost identical it was easy to take into consideration.” Esca tucked his legs beneath him and leaned against the far armrest to consider Marcus with a cocked head. “Your sleeping habits, however, were rather unexpected. Do you ever sleep, Marcus?”
“Do you?” Marcus said with raised eyebrows, and took a sip from his water bottle for lack of anything better to do.
Marcus snorted. “If I were you I’d have a hard time sleeping at night too.”
Esca’s expression went shuttered and blank, his eyes hard as stone. “Actually, what I’d said once before about regret was true. You are the problem. You didn’t react how someone else might’ve. You didn’t get overtly upset or scream or yell threats. You were so –” Esca actually laughed and shook his head, dragged a hand over his face. “Cool, actually. Absolutely ridiculous with your unloaded gun and that nonsense about some scar –“
“It’s real and pretty gross.”
Esca looked at Marcus’ knee now as he continued on. “But you were not what I’d expected. I’d always assumed you were some rich idiot who’d charmed and paid your way through interviews, using a name and a pretty face to go where you pleased.”
Marcus’ expression crumpled at the use of the word ‘pretty’. That was almost as bad as being a puppy. All of these cursed p-words. But all he said was, “And you don’t think that now?”
Esca scowled stretched out a leg and kicked Marcus’ hip with the flat of his foot. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Marcus’ eyebrows rocketed up. “Um, no? Is your robbing me on multiple occasions and invading my privacy your way of showing affection?”
The heavy silence that blanketed the room had Marcus reminding himself that breathing was meant to be an involuntary bodily function. He wasn’t supposed to have to try.
“No,” Esca said. He looked down and began to shred the label off his water bottle. “I shouldn’t have returned the second time, but I was annoyed that someone like you –”
“Hey now, I hope that’s past you talking right now.”
“Someone like you had managed to fool me and leave me empty-handed.”
Marcus licked his chapped lips and stared hard at Esca. “And the other times? What was that?”
Esca’s jaw clenched, like he was biting back any form of admittance. “Curiosity,” he said quietly.
Marcus’ heart thumped once, hard, against his ribcage. His body felt flushed as he willed his voice calm and said, “You’re gonna have to give me more than that, Esca.”
“I liked you, you idiot!” Esca went from barricaded and calm to red faced and flailing a water bottle accusingly at Marcus’ face. “Fuck’s sake, Marcus – don’t you get it? I was weak and daft and you never reacted how you should have, or lied when you should have.
“Your house on the inside is this plain, barren wasteland because you’ve holed up your inheritance into a room that you don’t even go in. You’ve got all these framed photographs of your friends and your mother and none of your father. Your fridge always has enough food in it to feed a family of four, but a third of it is always a week out of date. You hang up your laundry on the back garden line like some granny or mum with children, and your bed is the most sinful fucking thing I’ve ever seen. You watch the god-awful History Channel which is completely historically inaccurate, as we both know – but you have stacks and stacks of biographies around the house like it’s the only thing you read.
“You don’t sleep, but you’re the most obnoxiously emotionally balanced person that I know, so you should sleep like a baby. You’re too serious when you shouldn’t care, and your laugh at the stupidest jokes. Fuck, Marcus! Every time I came back to that house I just saw more and more things that didn’t add up, didn’t make sense – didn’t equal some dumb Yank with an obsession for polo shirts and ugly sweaters.”
Marcus wasn’t sure how long he spent boggling at Esca, or how long Esca continued to glare daggers at him like he wanted to bludgeon Marcus with a water bottle.
Finally, Marcus said, “My sweaters aren’t ugly.”
“You wear corduroy sometimes. That’s atrocious.”
Marcus was probably making a really pathetic face, but he didn’t know how to un-face the expression as he pointedly stopped himself from fidgeting on the couch. “Whaatwhat? I don’t know what to say to that! I’m both creeped out and flattered and want to kiss you, when really my mind is telling me the best thing to do right now would be to ask again, whyyou’re a thief in the first place.”
Esca heaved a dramatic sigh and stared at Marcus balefully. “You’re like a dog with a bone, aren’t you?”
“And you’re as skittish and vicious as an alley cat with one eye. So now that we’ve gotten the anthropomorphic idioms or metaphors or whatever out of the way, can we do this thing?”
“I thought we were doing it,” Esca said with a raised eyebrow.
Marcus gave him a flat, unamused look.
Esca rolled his eyes and waved Marcus away. “Fine, fine. But if you pull out the pity-party, I will chuck you out the door.”
“Foster kids?” Marcus said.
Esca hummed in assent. He’d returned to picking at his water bottle paper. “Our Da walked out shortly after Mac was born. I was seven.”
Marcus didn’t comment. He had his own daddy issues, but now was not the time to bring them up. If he could avoid it altogether it would be especially nice.
“He was an alkie,” Esca continued, his voice bland, as if he were speaking of a different person’s life. “Permanently between jobs while my mum worked three. She always had Sunday free, though. No matter what, she made a roast and we went to church. First it was just her and I, then wee Mac. Da never went.”
Without a second thought, Marcus reached between them and placed a hand on Esca’s foot. Even if Esca didn’t look like he needed the comfort, Marcus knew better. Well, if Esca was anything like himself.
Esca’s brow furrowed as he looked at Marcus’ fingers curling around his argyle sock. “One day we came home from church and he was simply gone. Mum wasn’t surprised.” Esca laughed briefly, but with genuine humour to his tone. “Apparently she’d packed his bags early that morning. Drained the house of alcohol and put his suitcases in the hallway with a note. When we got back, it was like he’d never been.”
“Sounds like a lady who takes life by the reins.”
“I remember exactly what she said to me then. She said, ‘You’ve only got yourself in this world, Esca. Take care of yourself first and the rest will follow’. I think she always had a strong survival instinct. If she didn’t like someone, she shut them out. She didn’t have the time or inclination to deal with anyone who would cause her trouble or pain.”
Esca picked at a cigarette burn in the leather cushion.
“Five years later she passed away from cancer of the liver. Almost ironic if you consider what a drunk my Da was, and the fact that she never touched alcohol. Anyway, we went to stay with our aunt in Cumbria. She was an older woman, some fifteen years our mum’s elder. She couldn’t keep up with a perpetually angry adolescent and a little one who couldn’t comprehend the loss of his mother.”
“Let’s make dinner. I’m hungry.” Marcus wasn’t, but in his experience it was better to have something to do when talking about serious stuff.
Esca blinked, his foggy eyes clearing as if waking from a deep dream. He smiled slightly, grateful. “Come on Mr. Wonderful, let’s see what we have.”
“Oh, Mr. Wonderful – now that I can get behind,” Marcus said as he followed Esca into the kitchen. He kind of wanted to envelope Esca in a hug while his back was turned, and just not let go until Esca got pissy and elbowed him in the gut – but that was probably not one of Marcus’ best ideas, so he refrained.
“Christ,” Marcus said as he ducked his head into the small fridge. “Slim pickings.”
“You asked for it,” Esca said with a laugh, sounding a bit stronger than moments before.
“Yeah yeah – be quiet and get me a pot and a pan.”
“Get your own pot and pan.”
“You’re an awful assistant. I want Vanna White back.”
“Your brother goes to Oxford,” Marcus said, deadpan.
“Like Oxford Oxford.”
Esca paused his cutting mushrooms to stare at Marcus like he was a slow child. “Yes, Marcus. Oxford University in Oxford.”
“Okay.” Marcus blew out a long breath. “That must be expensive.”
Esca flicked an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Marcus got the inkling of where this was going, but he diverted for the moment. He wanted to know more.
“What year is he?” Marcus asked as Esca finished chopping up the mushrooms.
“Fourth?” Marcus resisted smelling Esca’s hair as leaned into Marcus space to toss the mushrooms into quietly sizzling pan. That would not be wise. “He looks so young though.”
“That’s because he is,” Esca said. He leaned casually against the counter beside the stove and folded his arms. “He’s twenty and –“
“Seven years apart and several inches taller than you,” Marcus said with a sad shake of his head.
A wooden spoon came down hard on his elbow – then Esca merely held the utensil out for Marcus to take. “He skipped a year in primary and then again in secondary.” Esca’s tone went dry and amused. “You wouldn’t know to look at him, but he’s quite brilliant.”
Seeing Esca proud of someone – anyone – was new, too. He was trying to play it off, but the message was clear. Esca’s little brother was everything, and he would do anything for him.
“Wait, so before you’d said you were foster kids,” Marcus said, backtracking. He idly stirred the wilting mushrooms, garlic, and onion, inhaling that fragrance instead of that of Esca’s skin.
Esca made a soft sound of agreement. “We must’ve stayed with our aunt for a mere six months before she was ready to get rid of us. We were put into the system. They wanted to split us up, but Mac went into fits every time we were separated, and I’m sure you can imagine I wasn’t pleasant to deal with.”
Marcus laughed and glanced at Esca. “What, are you saying you weren’t always this charming piece of work that stands before me?”
Esca gave him a sour look and then shrugged. “Anyway, the rest is history. Mac buried himself in school, but always remained well more social than I ever was. I went through my early teens playing the tortured artist until I realised that I’d need to get my life in order if I was going to take care of my brother when the time came. So I did. Worked two jobs and went to uni at night.” He waved his hand, effectively dismissing the topic. “As I said – history.”
“Hmmm,” Marcus said as he added cream to the mushrooms and onion and set the pasta sauce to simmer for a time. “So you’re telling me that I’m paying for your brother’s education.”
Again, Esca said nothing.
Nothing about this felt entirely right, though. Marcus could only assume that Esca’s paycheck was similar to his own, and surely the cost of school was affordable – and if it wasn’t, there were loan agencies. The way Esca didn’t give anything away – didn’t assent or negate Marcus’ assumptions had the hairs on the back of his neck prickling up.
Marcus faced Esca with his face set in grave lines. “This is wrong, Esca.”
Esca narrowed his eyes. “And what were you going to do with all of that shite hiding away in your house, Marcus?”
“Whatever the hell I want, because it’s mine,” Marcus snapped. He held his palms up and took a calming breath. “You know what? It’s not about the stuff. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s that stuff doesn’t make your life any richer or less lonely or painful. What this is about is an invasion of privacy and breaking the law.”
“What do you want me to do, Marcus – send all of my past marks apology cards?”Esca said as he stalked out of the kitchen. “Turn myself in?” he yelled from the other room.
Marcus followed and watched as Esca dug through his discarded hoody for something. “I don’t know, man. Isn’t this eating away at you?”
“You know what eats away at me?” Esca said in clipped tones as he unearthed a crumpled pack of cigarettes. He slipped one out in jerky movements, placed it between his lips and patted himself down for a lighter. He groaned as he caught the cigarette in the vee of his pale fingers and yanked it away when he realised he didn’t have a light. “What eats away at me is thinking I might not be able to give Mac a better life than I had. That he won’t get the chances he deserves– that he won’t end up the person I know he can be. A better person than I’ll ever be.”
Marcus felt an angry flush prickle at his skin as he stomped up to Esca. “You are a good person, you idiot! Stop with this boohoo-me crap. The only way you’re being a shitty human being right now is you know what – and that’s something you have control over. So just stop. Find another way. Make it work. Good things come to good people, Esca.”
“The world doesn’t function that way,” Esca said, abruptly calm, as if he were so very sure of himself when Marcus now knew he was anything but.
Marcus took a step forward, his eyes intent on Esca’s face. “Has it occurred to you thatI’m a good thing that’s happened to you?”
Esca met his look in a level stare. “No,” he said softly. “Let’s eat.”
“So how did you discover your talent for uh, this sort of thing?” Marcus asked as he dried a wet plate Esca handed to him and set it aside.
Esca flicked one of those indiscernible looks Marcus’ way. “I told you, I’m very good in the dark.”
Marcus swallowed thickly. “Do you like it?”
Esca didn’t reply. His profile was still as he looked into the soapy sink.
Marcus nudged Esca’s arm. “Hey, I get it. Life can be boring. Doing what you do – it makes you feel alive, right?”
“How would you know? You’re the model citizen.”
Marcus took another dish from Esca’s dripping fingers. “I’m going to pretend your head isn’t so far up your ass that you don’t mean to insinuate I’m boring again.”
“Not boring,” Esca said quickly. “Just – safe.”
“What’s wrong with safe? Safe is good.”
“Good isn’t always fun.”
“Hey,” Marcus caught Esca’s eye and smiled. “I can be a fun guy.”
Esca held his gaze for a moment longer than comfortable. His voice came out raspy and low. “But you could have more fun being bad.”
Marcus tended to be fairly oblivious regarding insinuations unless they were blatant ‘that’s what she said’ jokes – but he was fairly certain they’d stopped talking about stealing some time ago. Esca was gripping the edge of the sink with wet hands, and Marcus had moved to face him with one hip leaning against the counter. He could see Esca’s Adam’s apple bob with a hard swallow; could watch Esca’s pupils burst wide and black and his lips part just enough to release a soft breath.
Marcus could still remember how Esca had tasted. Bittersweet chocolate; addictive enough that he imagined he could spend forever just kissing this man – learning every flavour and texture until Esca was a moaning mess in his hands.
He could entertain that thought all day long – but putting it into action? That wouldn’t be wise. Not in this mess. Marcus wasn’t good at dating normally, let alone stepping into some confusing, chaotic relationship with no clear lines delineating the boundaries.
It was like football – you played the game within the designated field, not in the bleachers. Right now Marcus was fairly sure he and Esca were up in the nosebleed seats.
“I should go,” Marcus said, as he inwardly threw himself into a wood chipper. He actuallywas the most un-fun guy ever. “I need to get home to the puppy.”
Esca blinked and took a step back. “Of course.” The remainder of his reaction masked as he turned away to dry his hands on a towel. “Tell Ajax I was asking after him.”
Marcus snorted a soft laugh as he turned and headed for the door and his coat. “Will do.” Marcus shrugged into his coat; as he looked down to do up his buttons, he quietly said, “Hey.”
“Before – at the bar – was that all just to get on my uh, good side?”
Marcus looked up.
Esca went to his toes, buried one hand into Marcus’ hair, and kissed him softly.
Marcus’ mouth opened in surprise; welcomed the slight dip of tongue and faint scrape of teeth. Warmth washed through his limbs, left heat and sparks where Esca’s fingers trailed along the nape of his neck. Marcus huffed a breath of relief against Esca’s lips, with his arms moving to wrap tightly around Esca’s waist. Marcus needed to feel the perfect fit of Esca’s body against his, if just for a moment.
Then there was that subtle sigh – the small sound that haunted Marcus’ dreams. Esca’s surrender.
For now, that was enough. Marcus groaned softly as he pulled back, just so that his nose still brushed Esca’s.
Upon opening his eyes, Esca’s cheeks bloomed with colour, but he didn’t ask for release. “You really are an inconvenience,” he said hoarsely.
“Thanks,” Marcus said, in all sobriety.
“You have to let me go now, Marcus.”
“What do you do when you have a friend who’s making really poor decisions, but doesn’t have to?”
“This isn’t a poor decision,” Lauren said as he flicked through a rack of summer dresses. “I’m pure sweatin’ my tits off in that office. I won’t make it through the day if I don’t get into something cooler. What do you think of this?”
Marcus stared blankly at the flowery thing held before him. “Um,” he said. “Is that a skirt or a tube top?”
“It’s a dress,” Lauren said. “You just... stretch it over the important bits like this.” She demonstrated, holding the supposed-dress in front of her.
Marcus’ eyes bugged. “Put that away.”
“Put it away. Anyway, I wasn’t talking about you. Just, I have a friend who’s into some bad stuff and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Who says you’re meant to do anything about it?” Lauren said as he picked out a pink thing that at least looked like a dress, with straps and everything.
“What do you mean? He’s my friend. I should stop him.”
“Does he want to be stopped?”
“I don’t know. No.”
“Well then he’s not gonna be very pleased if you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong,” Lauren said with a sympathetic pat to Marcus’ shoulder.
“Yeah, but –”
“So if you have to do something – because I can see you’re getting antsy – then convincehim that he wants to change. Otherwise, what the hell do you expect from him?”
Marcus didn’t like it. “I don’t like it.”
Lauren shrugged, her massive earrings winking in the light. “You wanted my opinion and I gave it to you, babe.” She looked down and frowned. “I need shoes to go with this dress.”
“Our lunch break is nearly up.”
Marcus was fidgeting. He didn’t do well in department stores. The best thing that ever happened to him was online shopping. He could just buy give of what he liked, all in different colours.
“Ugh, aye alright. Let’s get me into this beauty.”
Marcus spent the remainder of his day switching between pointedly not mooning over Esca and worrying about Esca. It was a fairly Esca-oriented day.
“Marcus – oiy, Marcus – hey!”
Marcus paused n the way to his bus stop and blinked owlishly as Mac, of all people, jogged up to him with a wide smile.
“How’s tricks?” Mac said as he sidled up beside Marcus, apparently unconcerned that Marcus wasn’t travelling in the direction of the train station.
“Good, fine. How was your weekend?”
“Well I’d like to say it was pretty mental, but in actuality I ended up getting smashed and played Street Fighter 4 on my mate’s PS3 until I passed out on the floor. I woke up in a dress. That’s not to say I didn’t put it on out of my own volition – I’ve no idea – but I woke up in a dress.”
Marcus couldn’t help but laugh. “I think every man has to wake up in a dress at some point in their lives.”
“No truer words.”
“Are you just out of class?”
“Yeah – it was dead dull, though. The year’s nearly done and my mind’s well past graduation.”
Marcus cocked his head to look at Mac a bit closer. “Are you going to continue on for a fifth year somewhere? From what I heard from your brother, you’re pretty darn smart.”
Mac rolled his eyes in a mirror expression of Esca, but he was grinning. “Nah. Think I’m gonna travel – just disappear for a while and see some of the world.”
Marcus couldn’t hide his smile. “I’m sure Esca will be ecstatic to hear his little bigger brother is running away from home.” But no more silly excuses for stealing. Marcus wasn’t even sure he bought Esca’s whole story anyway – his reasoning, at least.
Mac laughed. “I’m not even telling him until the last minute. He’ll give me hell for it from the second he finds out. I think he still imagines I’m ten years old.”
“I’m sure he does. Probably always will.”
They walked in comfortable silence for a few seconds before Mac cleared his throat and said, “So anyway, I just wanted to say hiya. And y’know, thanks for putting up with Esca in whatever context you guys are hanging out.”
Marcus willed away the flush that crept up his neck and kept what he hoped was a fairly neutral expression. “I don’t feel like I’m putting up with him. He’s just –”
“An arsehole?” Mac said with a cheeky smile. “No worries, mate, I’m just feeling you out. Brotherly duties and all. No one really ever sticks by Esca.”
“He doesn’t have childhood friends?” Marcus said. He knew he should probably be asking Esca, but it could be like pulling teeth with him.
“Nah. He was busy getting into rammies or being brought in for petty theft and that. He knew a lot of people but no one really knew him, you know?”
It seemed that old habits died hard for Esca. Perhaps there wasn’t a simple financial excuse for Esca’s nightly shenanigans. Maybe Marcus had been on the ball before – Esca enjoyed it.
“I think so,” Marcus said.
“He’s cleaned up pretty well though, with that posh job and all,” Mac said with a shrug and a half-smile. “Still puts on some ASBO as fuck attitude when he’s being a dick about something, but he’s not so bad.”
Marcus could tell that the latter was an understatement. Mac clearly adored Esca.
“Well,” Marcus said. “Chip in his shoulder or not, I like Esca. I think that fact alone sometimes confuses me, but – I don’t know.” Marcus jerked a shoulder. “I just like him.”
Mac beamed. “Chuffed we’re on the same page, mate.”
“Go on a date with me,” Esca said from behind Marcus in the tiny kitchen, nearly causing Marcus to drop the four mugs he expertly grasped.
“Oh crud!” Marcus said as he whirled and stared at Esca’s determined expression. “Uh.” Marcus looked down at the tea he’d made for them two plus Lauren and Lutorius. The ceramic was beginning to sear his knuckles.
Esca shifted from one foot to the other; looked away and then back. He looked physically pained to speak. “So. A date.”
“Esca...” Marcus was fairly sure his face was going strawberry, even as he worked to keep a cool expression. “That probably isn’t – I mean, I can’t when you’re still –”
“So I won’t,” Esca said definitively, his eyes direct on Marcus. “Mac only has one year left of uni. We can manage. As you said, we can find a way. I think I – I think I took what felt like the easy way for me. What I do – did – what I did wasn’t difficult. I’d been doing it for ages – since I was a kid. It wasn’t a compulsion, but it was a natural progression.”
Esca tugged a hand through his hair and scowled at Marcus. “I don’t know. This whole thing – my whole life – just adds up to my being a general poor excuse for a human being, but at the same time it was like you’d said. I got off on it. The excitement. But then with you – when you – it wasn’t.” Esca rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “It stopped being fun when I was doing it to you.”
“This tea is literally singing the hairs off my fingers right now.”
Esca looked down at the steaming mugs in Marcus’ hands, as if he hadn’t noticed they were there in the first place. “Oh. Sorry.”
Marcus’ lips quirked. “Apologising?”
Esca narrowed his eyes for a moment, but then he reached forward and carefully dislodged two cups with both hands. “Yes,” Esca said quietly, holding Marcus’ gaze. “Definitely apologising. For ev– I mean. I am sorry, Marcus.”
“Esca, I –“
“Where the bloody hell is my cuppa?” Lauren hollered from the room. “My crazy Auntie Mary can make boil the kettle faster than yous two and she’s senile!”
“Coming,” Marcus and Esca said in unison, neither of them moving, both fixed upon each other.
“Sure,” Marcus said. His pulse was slamming in his ears to the point where he was surprised Esca didn’t hear it.
Esca cocked his head. “Sure?”
“I’ll go on a date with you.”
“Oh – right – well.” Esca cleared his throat. “I’ll text you a date and time later.”
“You don’t have my cell number.”
Esca gave him a bland look. “Retired thief here. I know everything.”
“That’s an awfully foreboding thing to say. You don’t know everything about me.”
Esca was already walking out the door when he looked over his shoulder and said, “Then let me.”
If Marcus had a free hand a free hand to spare, he would have pressed the hell against his heart, just to make sure it didn’t burst through.
“So let me guess,” Esca said with an easy smile that was definitely directly related to the glass of wine he’d polished off with the appetisers of olives, bread and chilli oil. “You’d hoped that by the end of that film the baddies and goodies would’ve come to some kind of agreement rather than shooting it out.”
Marcus frowned as he mulled the question over. “No,” he finally said. “Violence can be an unavoidable hazard of life.” Marcus shrugged and took a sip of his second glass of wine. “Sometimes offense is the best defence.”
Esca’s eyebrows rocketed up as he leaned back in his seat and considered Marcus. “Here I was assuming you were a pacifist. What with the fire poker incident and all.”
“Hey, I wasn’t trying to miss that time.”
“And he’s a liar too – fuck’s sake!”
Marcus smiled and rolled his eyes. “What a mouth on you. Anyway, it would’ve been difficult growing up wholly as a pacifist. My dad was a Marine.”
“Well that’s certainly impressive.”
“I don’t know. I guess.”
Their food came at that moment and Marcus was thankful for it. He didn’t want to bring down Esca’s lively mood with talk of his dad. Anyway, it didn’t have anything to do with anything, and so was best left alone.
Esca looked over at Marcus’ plate, where a freshly-baked, spicy meat calzone the side of Marcus’ head sat before him.
“I like yours better,” Esca said decidedly, even though his hand-tossed pizza looked delicious. He sounded about five years old and Marcus had to laugh and shake his head.
“You haven’t even tried yours yet.”
“Yes, but I can see that yours is better.”
Marcus feigned indifference as he picked up his knife and fork and began to cut in. Wafts of garlic and pepperoni steam rose up from the flaky crust. “Well that’s a shame, because I don’t share my food.”
“More lies,” Esca said with an easy, airy laugh. “You would share your last crumb with some mingin’ hobo even if he looked like he’d spent all of his money on crack.”
Well, Marcus couldn’t argue.
“See,” Esca said with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he lifted his glass to his lips. He swallowed and flicked his tongue along the corner of his mouth to catch dark drop of wine. “Mr. Wonderful,” he said with half of a laugh.
“If I’m Mr. Wonderful, who does that make you? Mr. Small, Grumpy, Grumble, Mischief, or Rude?”
Esca didn’t even look phased as he cut a large, misshapen square of pizza, picked it up, and waved it at Marcus. “How the hell have you remembered the names of all those Mr. Men books?”
Marcus tried his best impression of Esca’s ‘mysterious expression’, but it probably didn’t look right as he was chewing at the same time. “I have my ways,” Marcus finally said.
In truth, he’d really just loved those books as a kid and his mom had bought him the full Mr. Men collection. They sat in his bedroom, which at least gave Marcus the impression that it was one place Esca hadn’t intruded.
“I change my mind,” Marcus said as he watched Esca eat with more gusto than he’d expected. The time they’d eaten pasta together hadn’t counted, as Esca clearly hadn’t had much of an appetite at the time. Now, though, Esca ate like a starved man. He looked to enjoy food almost as if he’d tasted it for the first time.
Esca hummed in question as he sucked tomato sauce off his thumb, his eyes fixed across the table.
Marcus had a split second where his mind cracked open and he forget everything he was ever going to say in the history of ever – but thankfully that lasted only a moment.
“I think you’re more of a Little Miss Naughty.”
At that, Esca laughed bright and clear. He had a really dirty laugh – there was just something about it that made Marcus feel like Esca was always amused with more than just the joke. “Fuck you.”
If Marcus had been Esca, he would have had the guts to say something like if you insist – but Marcus was just himself, and so he ducked his head in a small smile and returned to his food.
They ate in a comfortable general silence for a couple of minutes, both of them polishing off their second glasses of wine and emptying the remainder of the bottle on the third round. Esca’s eyes had a shining glaze to them and his cheeks were faintly pink as he stared contemplatively at Marcus’ plate.
“What?” Marcus said.
Marcus looked from his plate, to Esca and said, “What’ll you give me if I do?”
Esca leaned his elbow on the table and propped his chin upon his palm. His gaze was direct, his eyes a dark grey in warm lighting when they met Marcus’. “Whatever you want.”
Needless to say, Marcus shared a lot of his remaining meal with Esca that night.
“Mmm,” Esca said as they stepped out of the restaurant. He raised his face to the starry sky with eyes closed and inhaled a deep breath of fresh, spring, evening air. “It’s lovely out. I adore the night. Bloody hate waking up in the morning, you know? My body was never fashioned for that.”
Marcus made a mental note that three glasses of wine had Esca as talkative as a five year old with candy.
“Mornings are nice, though,” Marcus said as he led them in the general direction of the train station. “Sunrises.”
“Aye,” Esca said, his accent going a bit thick for a moment. He leaned heavily against Marcus’ side as they walked. “When you’ve stayed up all night to see it.”
“Either way,” Marcus said. He was often up around five in the morning anyway. Nightmares.
Without warning, Esca spun to face Marcus and slung his arms around Marcus’ neck. “Fancy staying up with me all night?” he murmured low and hot against Marcus’ jaw. “I can’t promise we’ll get to see the sunrise, but...” Esca trailed his lips along the sensitive skin beneath Marcus’ ear.
“Um,” Marcus choked out. His brain was short circuiting in spectacular fashion. His hands kind of touched Esca’s shoulders, then flitted over his sides to rest lightly at his hips. “Okay, this – uh – we should probably, you know, wait for –“
“What?” Esca said, his fingertips brushing at Marcus’ nape, leaving bright fissures in their wake. “What d’you want me to do, Mr. Wonderful? Break into your house and slip into your massive, sinful bed? Wake you up with my mouth?”
“Oh my god, okay then!” Marcus said as he promptly untangled himself from Esca’s arms. “Let’s just get you home.”
“I’m not steamin’,” Esca said petulantly, even as he allowed himself to be led towards the station. “You wouldn’t be taking advantage of me. I take advantage of you. I’m rather good at that, you know.”
“Oh I know, Naughty, I know.”
Marcus had the minor heart attack to prove it right now. No matter what Esca said, he wasn’t exactly sober either, and Marcus hadn’t planned on putting out on the first date. Not that anything regarding Esca ever seemed planned on his end. Still. It was the principal of the thing.
They made it to the station without further incident – Esca discussing in detail his apparent previously-hidden obsession with Marcus’ ass notwithstanding.
“Will you be all right getting back on your own?”Marcus said.
“I’m a grown fucking man – of course I will,” Esca replied with no heat.
Marcus’ lips twitched. “Fine.” Before he allowed himself to do otherwise, he gave into the nagging need he’d been feeling since – well, since the last time he kissed Esca.
With one hand resting on Esca’s elbow, Marcus sunk forward and lightly captured Esca’s mouth with his own. Esca’s lips were warm and pliant and his chin was tilted at just the perfect angle, as if he’d been waiting for this all night. A soft purr from Esca shivered over Marcus’ skin and left his blood thrumming.
Before Marcus forgot himself, he slid his palm down to Esca’s hand, squeezed once, and took a half step back. Esca’s dusky lashes fluttered once as he opened his eyes and pressed his lips together, savouring Marcus’ taste.
“Have a safe ride,” Marcus said quietly.
Esca just nodded, appearing almost bewildered for whatever reason.
Marcus smiled. “You have to let go of me, Esca.”
Esca looked down to where he’d gripped the sleeve of Marcus’ jacket. His face went redder than Marcus had ever seen it, and that was really the highlight of his night.
Things would be different today. Marcus had no doubts about it. Everything changed after you went on a date with a person – it was just that Marcus didn’t know how it was going to change.
He’d already broken his rule about not dating someone from the workplace. He’d kind of broken a load of other principles just getting mixed up with Esca on a personal and emotional level – and, not gonna lie, his dick had also become pretty invested in the situation, no matter how diligently Marcus ignored it.
Everything was going just a bit... fast for Marcus. He wasn’t necessarily a slow guy, but Marcus liked to feel comfortable and confident in his own skin. He didn’t appreciate surprises or sudden uproars or drama. Some people were into that, but it just wasn’t how he rolled.
With Esca, there was no keeping up with him.
Several days – and one date – later, the scene in the office kitchen was still reeling through his mind.
Esca had given up his thieving tendencies with what felt like little to no prodding from Marcus’ end. Sure, Marcus had been about to say that he couldn’t date Esca if he insisted on continuing with his path – but that hadn’t been some kind of ultimatum. Marcus had never understood the mindset of ‘it’s me or this’ – he’d simply been stating a fact. He wouldn’t have been comfortable being with Esca knowing the kind of person he was when the sun set.
And yet – it had only been upon Marcus’ clear hesitation to date him that Esca had come clean with what seemed to be apparent honesty.
Marcus didn’t think of himself as some special prize for which Esca would drop everything. On many levels they still hardly knew each other. There was just no way someone as vibrant and, admittedly, slightly crazy as Esca could just, well, give something up for someone like Marcus.
Marcus was just a dude. He could offer up decent cooking skills, the entire boxset ofMonty Python’s Flying Circus, and the ability to play the ukulele. That was about it. Also, he could do the robot.
The point was, all of that business made Marcus uneasy.
Then he’d gone on a date with Esca and it had been almost deliriously amazing and thatmade him kind of nervous, too – because what came after that? With any other person, Marcus would’ve just semi-gracefully stepped into some gentlemanly courting or whatever. But this was Esca, and Esca was small and scary and brilliant and caustic – and more than anything, he was completely unpredictable.
So what happened now?
Marcus was sitting alone in the workroom that morning, staring blankly at the statue at his station which sported a massive stone erection, when Esca whisked by him in Mac’s large hoody.
“Morning,” Marcus said, and was pleased when he didn’t sound tentative. This moment would define what was to come, he was sure of it.
Esca didn’t even turn. He grunted, slumped onto his stool facing away from Marcus and dropped his ratty messenger bag on the countertop with a loud thud.
Marcus blinked. Okay. So things were the usual, then? Nothing had changed at all.
For some reason Marcus felt his heart sink a bit.
A long moment of silence stretched in the room. The sounds of morning traffic were muffled at the wide span of windows on the far wall, letting in peach and white light. Marcus stared despondently at Esca’s hunched shoulders and swallowed a sigh.
Just then, Esca turned and stumbled a bit clumsily off his chair, made a beeline for Marcus,straddled his lap and sat down. Cloudy blue eyes fixed on Marcus, and before he could utter the most basic sound of surprise, Esca took Marcus’ face in his palms and kissed him soundly. A sharp nip scraped over Marcus’ bottom lip, urging his mouth open until Esca could dive in with slow, lazy curls of tongue and a raspy little mmm.
Marcus couldn’t stop himself. Slow warmth weaved through his limbs and Marcus slid his arms around Esca, fingertips lingering at the base of his spine, just above the curve of his ass. This was the first time they’d kissed at the same height and Marcus revelled in the way Esca led with surprisingly gentle sweeps of tongue, and the shifting angle of his chin, and the way one of his thumbs dragged down the line of Marcus’ jaw to coax his lips to part further.
Marcus felt like he was slowly overflowing, spilling over in hot, dizzying waves. It was only when Esca left a soft, damp kiss at the corner of Marcus’ mouth that he realised he hadn’t breathed in quite some time. Marcus inhaled deeply, with his eyes wide in opposition to Esca’s heavy lids and eyelashes glinting in the hazy morning sunlight.
“What...” Marcus’ voice didn’t even sound like his own.
“Mornin’.” Esca dropped his hands, and a small smile played at the corners of his lips. “I’ve wanted to do that from the first time you walked into this office – even when I thought you were a dim-witted Yank.”
“Gee, you do know how to set the mood.”
“I’ll leave the candles and sappy shite to you.” Esca slid off of Marcus’ lap, and Marcus was proud to hold back a whimper from the loss of the heavy warmth upon his thighs.
“I don’t think I own candles.”
“Well thank fuck for that.”
“Not that I’m complaining about this, but –”
“I’m trading one thing I enjoy for another,” Esca said with a raised eyebrow. “You’d better be worth it, Wonderful.”
Marcus was grasping for the words to reply, when the distinct clack of Lauren’s heels flounced into the room at the far end. They both turned away from each other in tandem, but Marcus was unable to wipe the stupid smile off of his face even when he went to greet Lauren.
Things were definitely different today.
“You and Esca are dating, aren’t you,” Lauren said as she stretched her slender, tan legs out on the stone front steps. Every day seemed to be getting warmer and sunnier, and as the temperature rose, so did the hemline of Lauren’s skirts. Marcus had a theory that Lauren attracted the tourists more than the billboards for the Alexander the Great exhibit.
Was he? They’d had a date. That didn’t fall under the heading of dating, as far as Marcus knew. But then, Esca had seemed pretty into him on their date and then earlier today. What did that mean? Was Marcus supposed to know these things already?
Another theory: dating was confusing and also stupid.
Marcus was usually a fan of rules, but not in the cases where everyone had their own and no one’s lined up. Like now – what did Esca consider dating? What did he consider serious? Again, was he really invested in Marcus – enough to give up burgling, which he apparently got a serious kick out of?
“I don’t think so,” Marcus said carefully.
“Clueless,” Lauren said with a fond smile.
“We’re guys,” Marcus said. “We walk around in a perpetual state of ignorance.”
“Still, but.” Lauren smacked Marcus’ arm lightly.
“Still,” Marcus said with a small smile. “Anyway, I’m happy to take things slow.”
“Ew,” Lauren said, making a face.
“What – how is that gross?”
“Your emotional sensitivity is sick, babe. Give me a bad boy any day.”
Marcus just chuckled and shook his head. “Good thing we’re not dating then.”
“Thank the lord!”
“Okay, don’t sound too thankful. I’m sitting right here.”
“Sometimes I can read you plain as day,” Esca said with that scalpel-sharp look of his. “Other times – more often than not – you’re like a blank canvas.”
Marcus raised his eyebrows and took a moment to drink from his pint.
“That’s rich, coming from you,” he said as he placed his glass on a paper coaster. “And you’d be disappointed. I assure you there’s nothing life-altering going on up here.”
Esca scowled. “You underestimate yourself again.”
Marcus snorted a soft laugh and leaned back in the booth. “I don’t, promise.”
“So what’re you thinking, then?”
Marcus did that thing where he stupidly forgot to filter himself, and said, “I was considering if we’re officially dating or not.”
Esca blinked, and this time it was him who went expressionless. “We’ve only had one date.”
“I know – that’s why I was only mulling it over. Like, I don’t even know if you want a serious kind of relationship or whatever.”
Hmmm, déjà vu much?
“Do you?” Marcus fired back with a patient expression. “Your call, man.”
Esca, who always wanted to make the decisions, didn’t seem to like that.
“If you do,” Esca said flippantly as he looked to the side as if he had better things to be thinking of. But Marcus knew better by now.
“Are you scared that I’m going to turn you down if you want to be official?”
Esca scoffed. “I’m hardly frightened by something so inconsequential, Marcus.”
Marcus shrugged. “So if it’s no big deal, then say it.”
Esca’s jaw clenched.
“Well,” he snapped, “What do you want me to say, fuck’s sake.”
“Hey, I’m not one to dictate your life,” Marcus said with a nearly-smug smile. He might’ve enjoyed making Esca squirm more than he should have – but it was fair play, considering how Esca tended to do the same to Marcus on a regular basis.
“Liar,” Esca said, a hint of amusement flashing in his eyes. “You’re a nosy bugger if I ever met one.”
Marcus grinned. “You’re totally changing the subject.”
Esca rolled his eyes. “And you’re totally pushing it.”
“Well, you asked me what I was thinking. I told you before – I just say what I think and mean what I say. Why don’t you give it a try?”
Esca aimed a narrow look his way. “You’re bloody bossy when you want to be, know that?”
“Only with you, because it’s necessary,” Marcus said. He took a long sip of his pint, generally assuming that the line of conversation had petered out. He could be content with dating limbo for now – it wasn’t so bad as long as Esca was there, anyway.
“Sure,” Esca said quietly.
“Sorry, what?” Marcus said over the din of the bar.
Esca heaved a sigh and locked eyes with Marcus. “I said, sure I want you to be my giantfriend.”
Marcus laughed in confusion. “Giantfriend?”
Esca raised an eyebrow. “Well you’re certainly not a boy.”
Marcus beamed and Esca looked embarrassed, and it was kind of awesome.
Things changed from there. Marcus could never put his finger on it, but he never much tried. He wasn’t about to dig around for rationale when there was none needed. But things had changed.
There was the way Esca leaned his temple on Marcus’ shoulder when the elevator doors closed, at the end of the day. The way he admitted he was exhausted, rather than playing the Energiser Bunny card.
There was the way Marcus didn’t feel stupid for borrowing Esca’s hoodie in the movie theatre, because he was cold. It was the wrong side of too tight, but he wore it out of the cinema anyway. It smelled like Esca, like fresh winter air and pine.
There was the way Esca fell asleep on Marcus’ couch, reading a crappy best-seller crime novel. There was the way he gushed about his brother over dinner, and the way he drunkenly sang ‘Lady Madonna’ in a light, playful tenor at midnight, when they walked out of his favourite pub.
Things changed when Marcus looked at Esca and felt a buzzing crescendo in his blood.
Everything changed when Esca looked at Marcus like he felt it too.
The only problem was, none of that was enough for Marcus to move things along. He didn’t do one-night stands. He didn’t even do dating for fun, per say. Of course, there had to be an enjoyment factor, but for Marcus...
Well, for Marcus, relationships simply meant more. Esca meant more. With each passing day together, that only became clearer. Marcus didn’t want to mess this up. And if that meant taking his sweet time, then he’d take it all.
Unfortunately, Esca was not of the same school of thought.
This was painfully evident every time Marcus looked up and found Esca partially fellating a pen while eyeing up Marcus, from across the lab. Also, there was that clever tongue, which always managed to warp the situation into something sharp and sexy. Also also, there were the times Esca tried to physically drag Marcus to his home, to his bedroom.
Now was an excellent example of this.
“Esca, I –”
“Less talk,” Esca said with a rasp, against Marcus’ jaw. “More of this.”
Marcus’ eyes nearly crossed when a slim, hot hand slipped past his belt buckle, right in to cup his rapidly-hardening dick through his boxers. His nerves felt aflame, his thoughts sizzling away to steam.
“Um.” Marcus buried his face in the crook of Esca’s neck and bit back a guttural noise that was nothing like him. It took his last ounce of strength and sanity to grip Esca’s hips, turn him, and press him up against the apartment door.
Esca’s hand slipped away, paired with a blatant noise of frustration when Esca glared up at Marcus with pupils still blown and lips still swollen. “I don’t know whether I want to murder you or fuck you stupid.”
Marcus swallowed thickly, felt his knees go to jelly. His every fibre screamed to push Esca through the threshold and bury himself in that perfect, pale body until he lost his senses.
“I’m not sorry,” Marcus said quietly, and leaned into Esca’s space. He slid his palms up Esca’s sides, canted his hips forward, and pressed his forehead against Esca’s. “I want to do everything right.”
“You’re obsessed with what’s right,” Esca said with an edge of irritation. Even so, his voice lacked malice. “Have you yet to realise that the world isn’t black and white?”
“I know that.” Marcus brushed a kiss across Esca’s temple, and his heart leapt when Esca tilted his head into the motion. “But it doesn’t mean I can’t try. Doesn’t everyone want someone who’ll do their best by them?”
Esca went still. His fingers encircled Marcus’ wrists, at his waist. “That’s not how real life works, Marcus.”
“It does now.”
At that, Esca laughed, breathy and surprised as he met Marcus’ assured gaze. “And you’re going to change the world, just like that?”
“Talk about a superhero complex.” But Esca was grinning, his sobriety dispersed. Marcus liked him like this – easy, with the ice in his eyes melted away.
“Goodnight, Esca,” Marcus said with a slow curve of lips, and took a step back.
Esca rolled his eyes and grabbed Marcus by the collar for one long, firm kiss that sent Marcus’ tingling from head to toe.
“Goodnight, Mr. Kent.”
“Ha – too slow!” Marcus said as he swerved around the incoming Ajax and kicked the soccer ball just out of puppy reach.
Slightly breathless and grinning until his cheeks hurt, Marcus flicked the ball back with his heel as Ajax spun and charged towards him with pink tongue lolling out. The ball went out of control and both he and Ajax made a mad dash for it across the yard, with Marcus yelling, “No no no, it’s mine!”
Ajax got to it first and slobbered good and sloppy all over the ball as he ineffectually attempted to chew on it. Marcus laughed and lightly kicked the ball away from Ajax’s body, and the puppy took that as a direct offense, as he promptly latched his teeth onto Marcus’ bare foot and began to chew.
“Ah!” Marcus didn’t want to kick his stupid dog in the face, so he started hopping away as quickly as possible – but Ajax remained latched on, his tail wagging manically as he revelled in the ultimate game of tug of war. “Uncle – I said uncle! Crap, I don’t speak dog – stop!”
Marcus admitted defeat by flopping onto the damp grass and rolling onto his back. Ajax released his foot in favour of clamouring onto Marcus’ naked chest and lapping at his neck. Marcus very likely squealed like a girl at this – ticklish – and roughly ruffled the scruff of Ajax’s neck.
“Why do you always win, huh Jaxy?”
“I told you – titanic doormat.”
Marcus’ heart thumped solidly in his chest. Marcus released Ajax – who flounced after a squirrel – and flopped his arms out as if making a snow angel. He tilted his head back into the grass and looked up at an upside down Esca holding a flat, white box.
“Hi,” Marcus said with a smile.
Esca’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Hi yourself.”
“I would kiss you, but I have dog breath.”
“That is actually one of the most mingin’ things you could have said. I’ll just appreciate your physique from afar.”
Marcus could feel a blush riding down his neck, travelling to his sweaty chest. He was cooling down, and now the morning air was beginning to give him a chill.
“Um, not that I actually mind your breaking into my backyard, but what are you doing here on a Sunday morning?”
Esca shrugged. “You have no life, I have no life. But I do have pastries,” he said, gesturing with the box.
“Don’t say super.”
“Wanna lay in the grass with me?”
“Hmmm, let me see – no. You shower, I make tea.”
Esca was already meandering towards the open back door.
Marcus grinned as he called after him. “Watch your sticky fingers with my stuff!”
Esca flipped the two-fingered bird over his shoulder and said, “I’ll be sure to leave powdered sugar prints on whatever I decide to nick.”
Marcus had only walked from his steamy adjoining bathroom and into his bedroom when a single knock sounded at this door. Marcus’ first instinct was the grab tight the knot of towel at his hip – yes, because obviously Esca was just going to come bursting through when Marcus was possibly naked.
“Yeah?” Marcus said, running a hand through his wet hair.
“Can I come in?”
“Uh...” Marcus looked around for a pair of sweatpants.
From behind the door there was a muffled, “If you’re looking for clothes, I’d just like to take this opportunity to remind you that we will be seeing each other in the scud some point. Sooner than later, if I have anything to say about it.”
“It’s the –”
“The principle of the thing, I’ve got it.”
Marcus whipped open the door in long basketball shorts and found Esca standing there with a vaguely amused expression. Esca cocked his head and blatantly surveyed Marcus from hips to chest.
“I’m not sure that’s ever going to get old,” Esca said, almost to himself.
Esca gestured vaguely to Marcus’ body with a sweep of his hand. “That.”
“Oh.” Marcus ducked his head for a moment, then forced himself to meet Esca’s piercing stare. “Thanks?”
“Thank me later.” Esca stepped into the room, into Marcus’ personal space, and slapped a hand on his damp chest. “Or during,” Esca added as he pushed a dumbfounded Marcus back, back until his thighs hit the high edge of his bed.
“Wait,” Marcus said, even as his dick twitched with interest against Esca’s leg, which had smoothly slipped between Marcus’ own.
“No,” Esca murmured as he hooked his fingers in the waistband of Marcus’ shorts and licked a bead of water clinging to his collarbone. “I brought you baked goods and everything. You’ve been properly wooed.”
Esca met Marcus’ shocked gaze just before he firmly shoved Marcus onto the rumpled sheets. “Now you’re going to fuck me. In the middle of the day –” Esca yanked off his shirt and tossed it aside, with his hair spiking into a wild, dark gold halo. “On this bed that I’ve been dreaming of since I saw it.”
Marcus swallowed thickly and leaned back on his elbows. This wasn’t happening. This was definitely happening. He was being manhandled. He was being manhandled by Esca.
Marcus was rock hard and aching in seconds from that thought alone.
Esca was all lithe, moon-pale expanses of subtle sinew and muscle that begged to be bruised to midnight purple and blue with hard fingertips. His eyes were dark and his lips already flushed in anticipation as he kept his attention fast on Marcus’ face and undid his belt buckle. Marcus wanted to see Esca – all of him – and yet he couldn’t tear away from Esca’s face and the fierce determination in his expression that jolted straight to Marcus’ core.
“Okay,” Marcus said on a shaky breath, with heat flooding his thighs and pooling low in his belly. “Okay.”
Esca had pinned Marcus in seconds, wearing nothing but tight purple and orange striped boxers that oddly suited him. Marcus huffed a soft laugh against Esca’s mouth and took a moment to bask in Esca’s body draped over him, covering him like this wasn’t the first time. Marcus sunk back on the mattress, giving in to the insistent lips that battled Marcus’ for entry.
Everything felt perfect, right, real. Esca’s hands mapping the muscles of Marcus’ arms, cataloguing the quiver of his stomach when Esca touched just so; Esca’s breath whispering over Marcus’ tongue. Esca kissed a line along Marcus’ throat, hot and wet and open-mouthed right down to Marcus’ heart. When his teeth dragged over Marcus’ nipple, Marcus bucked and felt something snap inside of him.
Marcus had Esca flipped onto his back in a second. At the faint gasp that sounded in Marcus’ ears, he smiled into the curve of Esca’s neck. Esca smelled like autumn, like rain and green hills. Marcus nuzzled the soft spot below Esca’s ear, kissed it tenderly as he revelled in the shudder that caught Esca’s body.
“Marcus,” Esca said hoarsely. His hands clamped onto Marcus’ sides, fingertips lightly digging into his ribs. Esca ducked his head, found Marcus’ lips and captured them; rolled his hips up, up to slide and slot their cocks maddeningly beside each other – close, but not close enough. Esca mindlessly rutted against Marcus; explored his mouth with wet thrusts of tongue and sinful midnight-sighs that had no place in this room dappled with sunlight.
Esca tugged at Marcus’ shorts with impatient fingers, murmuring, let me against Marcus’ lips.
Marcus had Esca’s wrists shackled above his head before Esca could even whine in frustration. A deep, thick heat pumped through Marcus’ veins; left his pulse pounding like it would crack straight through his skin. Esca brought out something new in Marcus. Something just this side of frightening with how quickly, how wholly, it consumed him.
Mostly Marcus could repress it; the urge to pursue Esca to the very end. The flare in his chest when Esca smiled, or the way his lungs seized up when Esca absentmindedly touched him. Marcus could control those things for the most part.
But not when Esca lay prone beneath him with pink, parted lips and heavy-lidded eyes and pale thighs spread wide for Marcus’ throbbing dick. All Marcus could envision was claiming him, watching Esca break apart against him until he was a shuddering, shaking mess. This desire was like a broken record; spinning him around and around until he was dizzy and focussed on a singular goal.
Marcus’ free hand dragged down Esca’s side; fingertips skating over each curve of bone beneath thin, taut skin. His large, wide palm swept over the spur of Esca’s hipbone before he reached between them and firmly cupped Esca’s erection through his boxers.
A high, hitched breath skittered through the air as Esca jerked up into Marcus’ hand. “You –” Esca gulped for breath, looking both indignant and wildly fuckable. When Marcus firmly dragged his thumb up the pulsing line of Esca’s cock, pausing to flick at the bunch of nerves beneath the crown, Esca’s eyelashes fluttered as he moaned, low and throaty.
“Fuck me,” Esca said between clenched teeth.
“Not yet,” Marcus said, and sunk down to steal a kiss, messy and desperate. He squeezed Esca’s wrists in reminder of who was on top here, and who had demanded their way into his bed. Esca would get what he asked for – on Marcus’ time.
Esca made a sound of protest against Marcus’ mouth, which went ignored as Marcus finally slid the front of Esca’s boxers down and freed his dick. Marcus groaned as he released Esca’s hands and rested his forehead upon Esca’s shallow-heaving chest, just so he could look down and watch his thumb slick over that wet cockhead; watch his fingers curl around the hot base.
Mine, Marcus thought as he soaked in the mangled little mewls from Esca, the blunt nails scraping at his shoulder blades and fisting in his damp hair. Marcus was hard to the point of bursting as he watched his palm firmly jack the slight curve of Esca’s cock in slow, steady movements. Esca’s heels dug into the mattress as he half-whispered profanities and promises that all amounted to more, please in Marcus’ mind. He could hear nothing else.
“Marcus – fuck – if you don’t – I’m gonna –”
Urgency pounded at Marcus’ temples, rolled through him in molten waves as they both moved in tandem, limbs and fingers in a tangled rush. Their garments were shucked, tossed aside. Marcus was already shoving Esca back against the headboard when Esca gaped at Marcus’ cock, with his pupils eclipsing all but a sliver of silver iris.
“Fuck’s sake, Marcus,” Esca said, “You could poke a bloke’s eye out with that thing. From a meter away.”
“Commentary not appreciated right now,” Marcus said as he gripped Esca’s hips and yanked him down, slid him across the bed until he was flat on his back beneath him again. Esca yelped in protest, but was quickly silenced by Marcus’ single hot stare. “Quiet. Don’t move.”
Marcus abandoned Esca to dive for the side table. He nearly threw the drawer across the room in his haste to rip it open. He was grabbing a condom and lube when a sharp nip pinched at his side, and this time it was Marcus who made a rather undignified noise as he looked incredulously over his shoulder.
“Did you just bite my ass?”
Esca raised an eyebrow and lounged back on his elbows, managing to look haughty and debauched all at once with his cock swollen and leaking onto his muscled stomach. “Maybe. What’re you going to do about it?”
Marcus was on him before Esca had finished his sentence. Talk, play, teasing all splintered away, leaving only raw need. Nerves singed and screamed as they tore at each other, hands slipping over damp flesh and shifting muscle, a sigh and a strangled gasp puncturing ragged tears into the humid, sticky air.
Huffing a heavy breath, Marcus watched Esca’s face, utterly rapt on the slack-mouth moan and tilt of chin as Marcus slipped a lube-dripping finger into Esca’s tight hole. Kneeling between Esca’s legs, Marcus bowed down to place a soft, open-mouth kiss above Esca’s belly button. He dipped in another finger and Esca hissed, his stomach quivering beneath Marcus’ lips.
“This good?” Marcus murmured into the faint ridges of Esca’s ribs. Marcus wanted to be worth it, worth Esca’s time – wanted to make Esca feel like this could be something more. Wanted to prove it.
“God,” Esca gasped out and lofted one of his legs atop Marcus’ shoulder, the sweat-slick back of his knee hot and perfect at the curve of Marcus’ neck. “God,” he said again, staring blankly up at the ceiling and rutting down onto Marcus’ fingers.
Marcus couldn’t help the rumble of laughter that bubbled up. “’Kay.”
Long, patient minutes wove in and out of time as Marcus brought Esca to the point of writhing, whimpering mess. All Marcus could think was that Esca was perfect beneath him. Perfect and his.
Marcus slid his fingers away from the tight, twitching heat of Esca – and Esca arched up with the action, his spine taut as a bow. He brought his hands up to cover his face as he groaned into his palms. ”Marcus, please...”
Marcus’ breathing was shallow and laboured as he fumbled with the condom and rolled it on with mounting anticipation. The remaining scraps of his control were wearing thin, and all Marcus could fix on was plunging into Esca and fucking him straight through the mattress.
“Look at me,” Marcus said, his voice not sounding like his own. He gripped Esca’s hips and unceremoniously dragged him across the bed until Esca’s ass rested upon Marcus’ knees. Esca’s arms flung up over his head as he blinked owlishly at Marcus, all black bewitching eyes and tarnished gold hair.
Gaze still bent on Esca, Marcus swept his palm up Esca’s thigh and pressed a kiss to the side of the knee that was hooked over Marcus’ shoulder. Marcus’ heart hurt in all of the right ways when Esca’s eyes widened, and he looked at Marcus as if seeing him for the first time. Esca’s lips parted to speak –
But Marcus was already circling the tip of his dick around Esca’s lube-glistening hole. Heat flared in Marcus’ belly, the air catching and sticking in his throat as he made the first shallow push. His and Esca’s gasps mirrored each other’s in the moment that the ridge of his cockhead caught Esca’s rim and shoved in. Marcus’ eyes slid shut, his face angled to the ceiling as he slowly – too slowly, not slow enough – eased into Esca. Marcus felt driven out of his mind; every thought scattered, his own name flung to the wayside. They fit so tightly, like they’d been meant for this.
Esca was whimpering; all these beautiful, tiny sounds as his thighs shook beneath Marcus’ hands. He lay there before Marcus, his skin blossoming in pink, with white splashes of sunlight pooled across his face, his shoulders. He looked lit up, glowing as surely as Marcus radiated from the inside out.
Then this slow slide into Esca wasn’t enough. Marcus rocked into him, a steady-firm drive straight in and back out to the edge of his cockhead – then slammed forward. Esca reacted like fireworks, with a cry bursting from his lips as he lifted his hips into the movement, welcoming another and another. Marcus’ fingertips dug into Esca’s ass as he lost himself in the snapping rhythm; drowned in the fierce, dark heat that flashed in Esca’s eyes when their gazes clashed.
Esca’s skin had gone damp, but Marcus held fast. He couldn’t hold back – didn’t remember how to – and so began to pump Esca full of his cock in sharp, short thrusts that had Esca’s entire frame jerking up the bed and Marcus following. Their staccato breathes punctuated each slap of hips, and soon Esca’s hands were pressed back on the headboard for leverage against the force of Marcus’ driving hips.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Esca babbled, his eyes squeezing shut as Marcus’ pace quickened. “Harder,” Esca said, and bit down on his bottom lip enough that he might draw blood.
Marcus didn’t need to be told twice. He paused long enough to shrug Esca’s other leg over his free shoulder, gripped Esca’s hips and thrust up into him – hard. Then again, deliberate and angled deep into Esca’s overwhelming heat. Esca’s eyes shot open, his mouth wet and wide in a silent look of shock as Marcus buried himself into Esca’s ass at a maddening, uneven pace.
There was nothing but the heavy slide of Marcus’ cock, the erratic push-pull of Esca bringing his hips up to match him stroke for stroke. Marcus couldn’t breathe, didn’t want to – couldn’t look past the sweat beading at Esca’s hairline, and didn’t want to.
“Good?” Marcus said hoarsely, pulling out and pausing just long enough to make Esca whimper before he drove home again. His arms were trembling for the long effort of keeping Esca up, and he wouldn’t change the feeling for the world. Wouldn’t change this– this unrelenting pound into Esca’s hot, wet ass.
“Fuck –” Esca gritted out, even as his eyes looked like they might cross. “You.”
Marcus bowed forward, near folding Esca in half as he fucked into him anew. “Yeah,” Marcus said with the faintest hint of a smile, his voice wrecked. He circled his hips and thrust at a sharper angle, grunted, and shoved in again. “Yeah, okay.”
Just like that, Marcus released Esca; rose above him so that he would slap his palms against the headboard, just above Esca’s hands. For a moment, Marcus was struck with a shock that nearly had him cumming right there when Esca didn’t untangle his legs, but simply kept them on Marcus’ shoulders, with his knees nearly touching his ears.
Marcus stopped mid-roll of hips to gape at Esca. Where had he learned to bend like –
“If you don’t fuck me ‘til I cum my brains out –” Esca hissed as he fucked himself on Marcus’ cock. “I will end you.”
That was all Marcus needed to hear. He dropped his head between his shoulders and took up a wild pace, his thighs shuddering and his back singing with strain as he thrust into Esca hard enough to steal the breath from both of them. Pressure and heat built within Marcus, swarmed his vision in a haze and grasped him by the heart until he imagined he’d simply burst out of his too-thin skin.
Esca as wrapped so tightly around him, an unforgiving vice that stripped Marcus of everything but the sweaty desperation for completion. They’re rhythm was so in tune with the other’s, their gasps in time with each snap of hips. Esca’s ragged noises climbed higher, sparking the air and the swelling fire in Marcus’ gut. Without skipping a beat, Marcus balanced all of his weight on one hand while he reached between their slippery bodies and fisted Esca’s slick cock.
Everything shattered – Esca cried out almost instantaneously as he spilled over Marcus’ fingers, his hips bucking up, pulling Marcus in deep as Esca shook apart. Esca’s expression – the freedom of it, the swollen lips and wide, foggy eyes that stared up at him – sent Marcus over the edge. He buried himself in Esca with one final thrust and went undone.
The way Esca clenched around Marcus’ dick was near unbearable, and it staggered Marcus right to his curling fingers and toes. He pressed his brow hard against the headboard and rode through the tremors that jolted through his body in one wave after another. He was faintly aware of Esca’s lingering whimpers beneath him as Marcus’ cock twitched and jerked in his sensitive ass.
Marcus felt like an earthquake had just swept through his frame, and he was left with the aftershocks for some time to come. When he realised his eyes were still closed, Marcus huffed a breath and opened them. He found himself staring straight down at Esca’s orgasm-dazed expression.
“Uh...” was all Marcus’ brain allowed.
“Hm,” was apparently all that Esca had by way of coherency.
Marcus considered moving. It would probably be helpful, considering Esca was crushed between him and the headboard like a sardine in a can – not to mention Marcus’ knee was beginning to ache; a rare thing.
Then again, moving? That didn’t sound pleasant either.
“Move,” Esca said, with his voice low and faint.
Marcus grunted and rolled – the both of them wincing and Esca swearing as Marcus’ dick slipped from his ass.
Esca unfolded his limbs with a grateful sigh and spread his arms out across the bed. His hand landed on Marcus’ forehead; his fingers sifting through the damp strands. They were silent for enough time that Marcus nearly fell asleep.
“Fuck you,” Esca said again.
“You’ve been sayin’ that a lot today,” Marcus said with a slur to his voice.
“You piss me off. You shouldn’t be real.”
“Please, enlighten me with your unfailing logic.”
“I’m not usually –” Esca hesitated, even when he continued to pet Marcus. “Such a doormat. In bed, I mean.”
Marcus didn’t even have the energy to quirk an eyebrow. “Mmm? S’okay. I like to take care of you.”
Esca’s hand paused in Marcus’ hair. “You must have one hell of a deep, dark secret to be this overtly, annoyingly perfect.”
Marcus’ laugh was hoarse as it shook his tender frame. His smile was wide as he lolled his head to the side and found Esca’s grumpy face. “You’re such a pessimist.”
Esca’s lips twitched, and in the morning – afternoon? – light, his eyes were clear, sky blue. “Realist. There’s a difference.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Also,” Esca said.
“Can we just make a note somewhere that you talk too much after alcohol and sex?”
“Also, you’re like a different person in the sack.” Esca lightly fisted his hand in Marcus’ hair and pulled. “Why do I keep allowing you to surprise me?”
Marcus frowned as he mulled that over. “I’m not different.”
“Oh –” Esca’s eyes went dark. “You are.”
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
Esca’s smile flashed bright and mischievous, and he looked five years younger. “I think that’s what I like about you.”
“Think? Why I – no, nevermind. I’m too tired to beat you up.”
“Mmm, lazy arse.” But Esca didn’t move either.
Neither of them moved for a very long time.
“By the way – pastries? Really?”
“They got me in the door, didn’t they?”
“That’s some war wound,” Esca said as he trailed a fingertip along the jagged, ashen ridges that curdled Marcus’ skin in a mighty scar. Esca lounged on his stomach with his feet swaying in the air like a child as his eyes followed the path of his fingers.
Marcus didn’t flinch at the specific – and somewhat ironic – wording of the observation. He did, however, wish desperately that the sheet wrapped low around his waist hadn’t shifted to expose this particular leg. Marcus’ hadn’t left the king-sized bed yet, and Esca had only disappeared to grab food and bottles of water. Well, and his boxers too. Marcus kind of thought they were cute.
Marcus remained slouched against the headboard as he picked at a flaky pain au chocolat. He shrugged and then waved his pastry in the general direction of Esca. “Where’d you learn to bend like that, by the way? Next time warn me before I have a minor heart attack.”
Esca glanced away from Marcus’ knee and raised an eyebrow. “Next time warn me that you’ve got a cock like a bloody titan.”
“No, but really.”
Esca rested his cheek on his palm and looked up at Marcus. “I took dance until my mum died.”
Esca smiled quizzically. “You think that’s cool.”
“Well yeah. A lot of professional athletes take dance to increase their cardio and to work some muscles they didn’t even know they had. Dance is hardcore.”
Esca huffed a laugh. “I suppose it is. Did you take dance, Mr. Baseball-and-Wrestling-Star?”
“I wouldn’t say star,” Marcus said, lowing his eyes with a small smile. “But no, I never did anything like that.”
“So you can’t dance.”
This time Marcus grinned and took a bite of his pastry, waited to swallow and said, “I didn’t say that.”
Esca’s smile widened and his eyebrows climbed. “So you can dance too, on top of everything else?”
Marcus jerked a shoulder. “You’ll have to take me dancing and find out.”
“So where did you get this?” Esca said, his attention clinging to Marcus’ knee again.
Marcus shoved the entire last piece of pastry into his mouth – his mother would have been seriously displeased with the size of that bite – and chewed for a very very long time. By the time he was done, his pulse had slowed and Esca was scowling impatiently.
“You eat like a turtle,” Esca said flatly.
“I happen to like turtles.”
“Of course you do.”
“Sea turtles are especially majestic.”
Marcus just smiled serenely as Esca yawned and laid his head on Marcus’ thigh.
“I think it’s cool,” Esca said after a time, with his eyes closed.
“Your scar. It’s not gross.”
“Oh.” Marcus stared speculatively at Esca’s face. “Thanks.”
“Do you really think you could, y’know,” Marcus said after they’d finally migrated to the kitchen in search of a real meal. “Stop doing what... you were doing before, for good?”
Esca was still in his boxers, but he’d yanked on one of Marcus’ grey, threadbare DePaul t-shirts. It hung off him like a shapeless shift, but his legs still looked miles longer than they should have. Esca gave Marcus an exasperated look as he lifted himself onto the counter to sit, just like he had the first time he’d come Marcus’ home.
“You can say it, you know. I was a thief and I enjoyed it.”
Marcus needed something to do. He opened the fridge and rummaged for dinner.
“As far as I’m aware, I won’t be doing it again. I mean, unless you break up with me – then hell, it’s a free for all, right?”
Marcus was frowning deeply when he turned from the fridge with the fixing of a meal in the crook of his arm. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Esca’s face went quiet and he cocked his head. It was the same look he gave paintings when he was figuring out the extent of their layers, their damage.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, has it?” Esca said. “Knobhead.”
“What – what hasn’t?”
Esca’s eyes narrowed. “That I gave it up for you, obviously. Fuck’s sake, do you want slow music playing in the background? The only reason I did what I did so that I could –” Esca waved a hand at Marcus, clearly unable – or unwilling – to verbalise his meaning. “Ugh, sod it.”
Marcus’ brow furrowed and he stared hard at Esca. “You’re supposed to stop because it’s wrong, not because of me. You should be doing it for yourself.”
“Well perhaps some of you will rub off on me. I do hope for as much,” Esca said with a leer at Marcus’ crotch. Suddenly wearing basketball shorts was not nearly enough. “By the way, are you holding a raw chicken?”
They were whizzing past entire conversations without Marcus’ consent. Esca was fast and smooth, and oddly charming when he chose to be. Marcus had no plans of leaving Esca any time soon, but it bothered him that Esca insinuated that if they broke up he might return to thieving for kicks.
Well that was for another day, apparently.
“We have a winner,” Marcus said as he dumped the chicken and several vegetables on the countertop.
“Why a chicken?”
“Why not a chicken? You said your mom made roasts on Sundays. It’s Sunday. Roast will be had.”
Esca’s face went blank, his lips softly parted in surprise as his cloudy blue eyes flicked over Marcus’ features.
“That’s –” Esca swallowed. “That sounds good.”
Marcus’ lips curved. He patted Esca’s knee once, his palm lingering. “Good.”
“Is that a lockpick in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Marcus asked with a shaky breath as Esca pressed his unmistakably stiff dick against Marcus’ ass. Marcus could do very little about this, as his hands were occupied with scrubbing dishes. He had a dishwasher, but there had always been something methodical and relaxing about this activity for him.
Other activities, like the one Esca’s wandering fingers seemed to be suggesting, were less than restful.
“Your jokes are the worst,” Esca said, with his lips brushing Marcus’ shoulder blade. One of his hands snuck beneath the waistband of Marcus’s shorts, where Esca idly brushed a thumb down Marcus’ happy trail.
Marcus bit back a groan as his cock began to jerk in response. “If by ‘worst’ you mean ‘best’, then yes.”
Esca hummed under his breath and cupped Marcus’ balls, rolled them lightly in his palm as if testing their weight and feel. Marcus hissed in response and dropped the plate he’d been holding in favour of gripping the ridge of the sink with hot, wet hands. Esca was grafted to his back, his dick unevenly rutting along the crease of Marcus’ ass.
“Esca,” Marcus choked out as fingers firmly curled around his thickening dick. “What –“
“Would you like me to stay the night, Marcus?” Esca said, whisper-soft against his spine. He swept his thumb over Marcus’ cockhead, spreading and circling slick precum. “Would you like me to walk into work on Monday wearing the same clothes I stripped off in front of you the morning before? Would you like to look at me from across the room and know that your fingertips are imprinted on my skin – that my shirt may ride up and flash a glimpse of your personal brand to the world?”
Yes. Yes and no.
Marcus sucked in a sharp breath and gritted out, “Stay.”
It was a long time before they made it back to the bedroom.
“Marcus – Marcus!”
Marcus shot up in bed with a ragged scream dying in his throat before it could tear off of his tongue. He gaped into the blue dark, unseeing and unblinking as he gasped for air and grasped the sheets like a lifeline. His chest heaved, ached with the phantom sear of the seatbelt across his sternum. Sweat pooled at the small of his spine, cold and unwelcome as the fire that burned in his lungs and the chill across his limbs.
His father’s dying words still echoed in Marcus’ ears before the sickening crunch of steel and glass and bone rung in his ears.
For God’s sake Marcus, at this rate you’ll never –
That was all.
Marcus would never be good enough, would never amount to his father’s words before his body had been flung through the windshield.
For God’s sake M–
“–arcus, come back.”
Something on his face, something on his fucking face. Marcus slapped away the hands, the strange fingers, and scooted back back back against the headboard with his knee crying and his eyes wildly searching the darkness.
Someone at his side, Esca at his side; just a shadow in the dark that slowly took form – not touching Marcus though, thank God. No one should touch him because it never worked out like it should. Never good enough, never –
“Don’t touch me!” Marcus said with his teeth bared in a snarl as he felt fingertips creep at his shoulder.
Esca snapped his hand back as if burnt, the inky outline of his eyes wide as saucers.
“Marcus,” Esca said slowly, and his murmur was like a balm. It banked the flame, soothed the scrapes and bruises. “Marcus, just – you were having a nightmare. It’s over. You’re home with me.”
A nightmare. Always a nightmare.
Just like that Marcus was lucid, as if a bucket of ice water had been splashed in his face.
Marcus flicked a glance to the clock. Past four in the morning – his usual time then. Normally no one was here to experience this with him, fortunately. Usually Marcus would either wake up in a cold sweat or with a shout on his lips, then flail blindly for a minute or so before he calmed down, remembered himself and got up for the day.
There was a reason why his past partners had never moved in with him.
“Marcus?” Esca’s voice was smaller than Marcus had ever heard it.
Marcus stiffly faced Esca in the shadows, blinked until his concerned expression came into focus.
“I’m sorry,” Marcus said, the words cracking in half. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Esca’s exhaled was that of relief. “Don’t be.” He reached out tentatively, and when he saw that Marcus wouldn’t recoil, ran his fingers through Marcus’ sweat-damp hair. “Are you – this is why you don’t sleep.”
Marcus realised with a lurch of dread in his stomach that he’d screwed up this relationship far more quickly than he’d intended. It would be over before it started.
“I need coffee,” Marcus said, his voice hoarse. “Then we’ll talk.”
“Whatever you want,” Esca said immediately. “Anything.”
“The scar’s from a car accident,” Marcus said after they’d both curled up on opposing ends of the leather loveseat. Dawn had yet to creep over the horizon, and neither Marcus nor Esca had turned on a light, so they huddled in pale grey and shadow like an underexposed photograph.
Marcus wished he could leave it at that. It was easy to take the cop-out, to cauterise the questions then and there. Most people weren’t curious enough to question the short explanation further, while others were tactful enough to do something like nod sympathetically and move on. Anyway, a scar was a scar – why did there have to be a huge, drawn-out story? That kind of thing left everyone tired at the end of its telling.
Esca’s legs were bent up against his chest, with his mug of tea wrapped in both hands, balancing atop his knee. His expression was blank, but not unkind. “Must’ve been a bad one.”
“You can’t really have a good car accident.” At Esca’s pointed look, Marcus averted his eyes to the coffee held on his lap. “Sorry. I’m not really – I don’t talk about this. Not because I’m going to like, cry about it or anything. Just – it’s not really relevant to anything most of the time.”
“I’d say it’s relevant right now.”
“Is it?” Marcus said in a final ditch effort to head this conversation off. “I mean, had I not let you stay overnight, you would’ve never known. Probably wouldn’t have known for some time because it’s not as if sleepovers are a necessary part of sleeping with someone. And then things would’ve gone on as normal.”
Marcus really liked normal. He wanted to live a mundane but happy life with a family he loved and a job he enjoyed and relatively safe adventures and no nightmares or plaguing guilt. So it made him boring. He didn’t mind. Not at all.
“And you believe that’s a healthy relationship?” Esca said with slightly raised eyebrows.
“What do you know about healthy relationships?” Marcus said immediately, and regretted it before the words had even shot from his mouth.
“Right,” Esca said with narrowed eyes. “Because if I’m a vaguely immoral thief I must not know how to care about someone.”
Marcus was acting like an animal backed into a corner, and he knew it. He took a breath, but this time it did nothing to alleviate the roaring in his ears.
“Sorry,” Marcus said, turning his mug in his hands around and around. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
Esc said nothing in reply, but when he brought his tea to his lips and met Marcus’ eyes above the rim, it was damning enough.
Marcus swallowed. “So there was a car accident and my dad was there and I killed him.”
Esca blinked. “Is it just me... or was that a rather abridged version?”
“I was seventeen and applying to universities. My dad and I were arguing in the car. I was driving.” Marcus looked to the ceiling for a moment with a bitter laugh stilted on his lips. “It was a sunny day. Not even like in the movies, with the thunder and rain. Just a regular Saturday afternoon with a regular father and son arguing about regular things – like what I was going to do with my life.”
“And what had you wanted to do with your life?” Esca said quietly.
Marcus looked at him and shrugged. “Don’t know. Not sports, like some people thought. And not the Marines, like my dad wanted. This job now – it was more like an accident than anything. Later when I went to DePaul I was an anthropology major with a minor in chemistry.” Despite himself, a small, sheepish smile tugged at Marcus’ lips. “I liked archaeology. My mom said I’d always had too much fun playing in the dirt, collecting rocks and old bottle caps and stuff.”
“Of course,” Esca said with a mirrored expression of slight amusement. “Because rocks aren’t boring, right?”
Marcus brightened a bit. “Yup. But then I took art appreciation on a whim, and I was likeoh, I like art too I guess. I never knew that I did. I can’t draw for shit.”
Esca laughed at that. “And then you decided to conglomerate them.” Abruptly, Esca went serious and aimed a look at Marcus. “You’re doing it again, Marcus.”
“Doing what?” Marcus said as he sipped at his lukewarm coffee.
“Dancing away from the topic at hand. I think you must do it more than you realise.”
Marcus frowned. “It’s not on purpose.”
“Either way –” Esca waved a hand, coaxing Marcus to speak. “You and your father were arguing.”
“He’d tried to raise me as a Marine kid since as far back as I can remember,” Marcus said. “Unfortunately for him, I didn’t amount to anything even close. I just wanted to, I don’t know, play with imaginary friends and read adventure novels and listen to the same Bob Dylan cassette tape over and over until it broke.”
Marcus didn’t want his coffee after all. He shifted and set it carefully atop the low table at his side. When he dared a glance at Esca, he was resting his cheek on the back of the couch, just silently watching.
Marcus took a deep breath. “We didn’t really... get along, most of the time. I think he knew about my, uh, inclinations far before I even suspected them myself, and he definitely didn’t approve. Probably wanted to ship me off to see if he could make a real man out of me or something cliché like that.”
Esca snorted. “Believe me Marcus, you are a real man. I’ve still got the ache to prove it.”
“Totally inappropriate commentary again,” Marcus said, but he was biting back a smile. “Anyway, we were arguing about it in the car. The angrier I became, the more I sped and the less I looked at the road.” Marcus felt his stomach drop like a stone, and his voice was hollow when he next spoke. “He wasn’t even wearing a seatbelt.”
“Marcus...” Esca’s toes scooted forward between them and overlapped Marcus’.
“So anyway,” Marcus said with forced levity. “I had physical therapy for a long time. Missed out on most of senior year baseball. Once I was in DePaul and healed up, I went into wrestling. It kept me active and I didn’t have to be fast like I used to be. It was all okay.”
Esca raised an eyebrow. “And the nightmares?”
“They come and go,” Marcus said with a shrug. “Sometimes they stay for months on end, sometimes they don’t. I can’t really control them.”
Marcus made a face. “I tried them. I don’t like to be out of control.”
“You don’t have to be in control when you’re sleeping.”
“I didn’t like how they made me feel, okay?”
“Have you spoken with a therapist?”
“I don’t like doctors.”
Esca rolled his eyes. “It’s not really about whether you like them or not.”
“I’m fine,” Marcus said, biting off the words too sharply. “You know me. I’m a totally functional person.”
“That’s what you continue to tell yourself,” Esca said blandly, and set aside his own mug. “That’s what you’d have continued to tell me after all that you’ve forced me to share withyou. You’d have just bottled this up, suffered in silence like some bloody martyr until what – until you collapsed from eventual exhaustion?”
Marcus sighed. “Don’t exaggerate.”
“Ex –” Esca blinked. “Exaggerate? Marcus, you don’t have to be so fucking perfect all the time. No one expects you to be Mr. Wonderful twenty-four seven – in fact, people preferit when they don’t have to feel completely inadequate beside a person who can do everything.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Marcus said as his face burned. “I’m not anywhere near perfect.”
“So stop forcing it upon yourself, for fuck’s sake!” Esca said as he sat up straight on the couch, his eyes fierce in the waxing night. “I know you’re a nice guy, Marcus – everyone does – but torturing yourself with guilt over a freak accident? Striving to please someone who isn’t around to know or give a shit? Don’t be an idiot.”
Something stabbed too close to home; a sharp and jagged slash within Marcus’ chest. “Well that’s rich coming from someone like you.”
Esca went still, and his tone was careful, modulated. “Someone like me.”
Everything was screaming in Marcus to hold his tongue, to consider his words – but his instinct of self preservation was stronger. It choked away the doubts until Marcus could hardly breathe.
“Someone who lies for a living. Someone who’s a fake for fun.”
Esca’s soft, short inhale was the only sound in the room. He might not have been there at all with how abruptly the room fell into thick, encompassing silence. Marcus didn’t flinch, didn’t apologise. If he was an idiot then so was Esca.
No one had ever taken complaint with Marcus’ personality as strongly as Esca. From the very start it had always been boring, dumb, doormat, martyr. If Esca didn’t like him – well, Marcus had experienced the inkling early on that he wouldn’t be enough for Esca. This moment would have come around sooner or later – Marcus was only expediting things.
Take that, realists of the world.
Regardless of Marcus’ numerous justifications, it still felt like Esca ripped something important out of him as he got up, silently collected his things, and disappeared into the dawn without even slamming the door.
“I wanted to apologise for what I said before,” Marcus said to Esca a week later, after having caught him in the elevator. Marcus would have said he was sorry earlier, but Esca was frustratingly talented at slipping out of Marcus’ fingers at the last second.
Although they both knew it was Marcus who’d fumbled Esca first.
“Right,” Esca said, not looking at Marcus. “Is your conscience clear then?”
Marcus hadn’t expected Esca to make this easy on him.
“No.” He watched Esca watching their reflections in the cold steel doors. His eyes held a similar glint. Marcus didn’t look away. “Just… I don’t think you’re fake. At all. I think you’re really great.”
Crap, you’re rhyming now.
Esca nailed Marcus in place with a single stare. “This is how many fucks I give.”
The doors dinged, slid open, and Esca was gone.
Despite the crushing sense of failure that swamped Marcus, he had to admit that Esca’s dramatic timing was pretty excellent.
Esca took the elevator and Marcus took the stairs. Esca came in quarter after nine, so Marcus walked in at nine sharp. Eleven o’clock tea had Marcus and Esca sitting at opposite ends of the table, or Esca not joining in at all.
They barely exchanged a word – and when they did, Marcus’ heart felt like it would beat so hard it would crack through his ribcage. Once, Esca had been forced to defer to Marcus with a question regarding a small museum in Rome that was lending out a painting. By the end of the conversation, Marcus’ hands were shaking.
He was painfully aware of Esca’s presence at all times – Marcus’ skin felt tight with it, his resolve chapping and peeling painfully at the edges.
He wanted to apologise.
He didn’t want to apologise.
What could he do when he desired both?
Marcus liked to consider himself a reasonable man who could admit to his defects and work to right them... but.
But there were some places Marcus simply didn’t want to venture. It was like walking into a room piled with junk from floor to ceiling, and having no idea where to even begin clearing it out. Where could Marcus start with his mess?
Apologising to Esca would mean admitting to his deepest faults. He would have to lay bare those parts of him which Marcus was certain that he could not change, even if he tried. There were just some things that stuck around forever.
But Marcus missed Esca. He could admit to that. He’d messed up big time, and the whole idea of dragging Esca back to him was almost unsavoury considering Marcus’ assumption that at some point Esca would realise once again what kind of person Marcus could be and proceed walk out.
Esca was a proud person. He wouldn’t stick around if Marcus didn’t treat him right. Heck, Esca wouldn’t stay if Marcus wasn’t treating himself right. Even more likely was the possibility that Esca didn’t want Marcus at all at this point.
Who could blame him?
Marcus told himself it was better off this way. Less pain for everyone all around.
Each time he reminded himself of that, it became easier to believe. Maybe.
“Right, Marcus – I’ve stayed out of your business for two weeks,” Lauren said as she pulled Marcus away from the elevator and into the stairwell. “That’s well long enough to make me look like a good person. Now tell me what’s going on so we can fix it.”
“It’s nothing that I want to talk about,” Marcus said stiffly. He couldn’t be rude with Lauren though, so he offered a slight curve of lips. “Don’t worry about me, it’ll pass.”
“Aye, but when? It’s like a bloody warzone in there,” Lauren said, gesturing to the general direction of the workroom. “The amount of pure tension in that room is at murderous levels, babe – and I swear I saw Esca sharpening a knife yesterday. A knife. He restores paintings! What’s he doing with a knife?”
“Okay, one – I think you imagined the knife part, and even if that were true it’s not like Esca is going to stab me in the back. Two – I don’t want to talk about it, but thank you, I appreciate your concern.”
Lauren frowned and looked up at Marcus with her arms limp at her sides. “Hey, come now Marcus. Talking to someone will help whatever’s going on – I can promise you that.”
“I really don’t think –” Marcus took a breath. “Sorry, Lulu. I’ll do my best to lighten things up, okay?”
Lauren scrunched her eyebrows together. “Marcus no, that’s not what I –”
“I gotta go, Lu. I’ll see you on Monday.”
Marcus practically hurtled down the stairs. He inwardly winced when he heard Lauren’s distant sigh echo through the corridor.
Perhaps he could try a little harder. For Lauren’s sake, if no one else’s.
“I don’t want your bloody brolly,” Esca said as he recoiled from the umbrella Marcus held out.
“It’s raining and you don’t have one. You need it.”
“I don’t need anything from you.”
For a moment Marcus thought he caught a flash of a sulk across Esca’s waspish expression. Despite the situation, it was almost enough to make Marcus smile. Even if he’d screwed up with Esca, it didn’t negate the fact that he found Esca’s orneriness oddly endearing.
“What if I told you it wasn’t technically mine, but a generous donation from the museum’s lost and found?” Marcus said as he gave the umbrella a little wiggle.
Esca’s mouth pinched. “One – you’d never nick a brolly, even from a lost and found. Two – I can tell it’s yours because of the heinously expensive brand name printed on it. And three – I’m fucking British. I don’t need one.”
With that, Esca stomped past Marcus, who remained still, holding the umbrella out.
Of course everything Esca had said was true. But at least Esca was speaking to him again.
Progress was progress.
“Can we talk?” Marcus said one early morning, slicing through the stilted silence.
“No,” Esca said in a rather reasonable tone. He pushed a pair of tortoise-shell glasses up the bridge of his nose and squinted at his laptop.
“Why?” Marcus said, his voice low and morning-rough.
He was tired. Tired of staring at Esca from across the too-far room. Tired of imagining Esca in his bed when they’d only spent a day there. Tired of remembering Esca’s elusive laughter and youthful smile, and the way he owned whatever space he stood in. Marcus was tired of missing Esca, and not having the words or the ways to express the depth of that emotion.
Esca must have sensed the sobriety of Marcus’ mood. He looked up, swiped his glasses off, and studied Marcus for the first time in weeks.
“Do you still have nightmares?” Esca said, seemingly ignoring Marcus’ inquiry.
Esca nodded once, faintly. “Are you going to do anything about them?”
Marcus didn’t move; didn’t breathe. His dreams – the memories that plagued him – they were penitence for what he’d done. Who was he to try and eradicate them? And anyway, Marcus was fine. It wasn’t like some silly nightmares owned his life or anything.
“No,” Marcus said firmly.
“Then no, we can’t talk.”
Marcus’ hand fisted tight atop his thigh. “Why the hell does this matter so much to you? Why are you hinging everything on nothing?”
There was a small tick in Esca’s jaw before he spoke. His eyes were sharp and clear. “Marcus, I’m not going to be with you if you can hardly be with yourself.”
“But I’m better with you.”
“You don’t know that.”
Marcus could practically hear his teeth grinding. “I do. Don’t you feel better with me?”
Esca looked away and then back. The reaction was brief, but it was there. “You’re alarmingly honest with everyone but yourself.”
“And you’re honest to yourself, but no one else. See – we fit.”
“I’m not good at taking care of people, Marcus!” Esca said, and stood up so abruptly that the shriek of his chair scraping back caused Marcus to flinch. “For fuck’s sake, I’m not going to make you better. I’m not going to take care of you. I could barely accomplish that with my own family – my own brother. How the hell do you expect me to manage that with a person whom I barely know?”
Marcus was barely aware of standing or striding over to face an almost panic-stricken Esca. “You’ve talked so much bullshit about my admitting that I’m not perfect, and yet here you are basically saying that you could only be with someone infallible. A person who doesn’tneed another person. Someone who doesn’t need you. But here I am, Esca. I’m saying that I’m not perfect, and that I’m not going to try to be. Right here, right now, I’m just me needing you.”
Esca’s face was pink. He looked as if he might pass out. “Don’t be so hopeful.”
“Don’t be so hopeless.”
Esca squeezed his eyes shut and took a breath. “This isn’t the time or place.”
“Name both and I’ll be there,” Marcus said immediately. He wanted to touch Esca – just a hand on his elbow, his cheek, something. He wanted to break through those cracks he’d found and peel away at Esca’s shell.
Marcus could plainly see that Esca was no longer angry. Not anymore. Not with the icy fury from Marcus’ living room. Now Esca was scared. He didn’t want to mess up with Marcus as much as Marcus wanted to mess up with Esca. They just approached the fear in different ways. Esca had put up a wall of excuses, whereas Marcus had simply pretended the problem hadn’t existed at all.
Esca and Marcus both inflicted loneliness upon themselves, but it had only been recently that Marcus had realized how much that actually… well, sucked. Marcus didn’t want that at all. He knew what he wanted.
But Esca had yet to reply.
Marcus bit the inside of his cheek and reached out for Esca’s hand. “Esca –”
With his eyes wide, Esca flung a palm up and backed away and out, muttering, “I need air.”
Alone in the dreary morning grey, Marcus allowed himself to kick his chair across the floor.
In the third week, Marcus padded into his kitchen at dawn and realised that someone had broken into his house.
Nothing was stolen, as far as Marcus could tell – but there was something somewhere it didn’t belong.
Marcus squinted blearily at his old, scuffed boombox sitting on the island countertop. He spotted a yellow sticky-note attached, and his heart flopped once in his chest, as if it didn’t know whether to be excited, confused, or finding the unloaded gun again.
Ignoring the heat rising in his cheeks and the dull hum starting across his skin, Marcus picked up the note and brought it close to his face. He recognised the cramped, chicken-scratch scrawl immediately, and this time his heart began an unrelenting tattoo in his ears.
I heard somewhere that you fancy tapes.
Marcus blinked and read the note again – then again, as if he’d missed something. But no, there was no hidden meaning to the message. Nothing written on the back either.
Marcus frowned and set the paper down; glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone was there. No one. He looked back to the boombox and pressed the thick button that ejected the tape. Sure enough, one was slotted in there, and Marcus plucked it out with shaking fingers.
The A-side was titled in the same handwriting – Esca’s handwriting.
Rather Cool Mixtape of Mr. Wonderful &
Little Miss Naughty.
Marcus smiled faintly. Bubbly warmth swelled inside of him, leaving him slightly dizzy. Marcus swiped his thumb over the label once and then fit the tape back into its spot. He took a big breath, and before he allowed himself to chicken out, pressed play.
There was barely an introduction to the song before it started up, and Marcus immediately recognised the lyrics with a loud, surprised laugh.
’Cause he gets up in the morning and he goes to work at nine, and he comes back home at five-thirty, get’s the same train every time.
Marcus leaned against the counter and rubbed a hand over his face, almost shocked to feel his own wide smile beneath his palm.
And he’s oh so good, and he’s oh so fine, and he’s oh so healthy in his body and his mind. He’s a well-respected man about town doing the best things so conservatively.
“Sarcastic jerk,” Marcus said to himself, but a hysterical giggle was already rumbling in his chest. He felt light; felt like he hadn’t laughed in forever. With a cheek-aching grin, Marcus bobbed his head and mouthed the words to the chipper song as he set about boiling the kettle and setting out his tea.
And he likes his own backyard, and he likes his fags the best–
Marcus snorted at that and heard Ajax thundering downstairs.
’Cause he’s better than the rest, and his own sweat smells the best.
“What’re you saying, Esca?” Marcus said aloud, even as he bit down on his bottom lip to keep from smiling too much. He watched his tea steep to near-black as the song faded away and static silence filled the space where his laughter once was.
And a new song began.
I broke into your house last night–
Marcus smiled softly.
And left a note at your bedside. I’m far too shy to speak to you at school–
Ajax boomed with an adult doggy bark as he brought his paws up on Marcus’ shins and demanded attention. Marcus crouched and ruffled the puppy’s neck; buried his flushed face in Ajax’s scruff.
I find it easier to sit and stare than push my limbs out to you right there.
Marcus sighed as something in his chest tightened once; sharp and keen, then alleviated and left him able to breathe again. He flashed back to all of the times Esca had looked at him oddly without speaking – of the times when they’d first met and Esca had pointedly notspoken to him when it would have been easier to converse.
Marcus thought of the way Esca’s chin jutted forward when he was practically asking for a fight, and the way his gaze was sharp and consuming while his lips were pliant and giving. He thought about pain au chocolat and pale eyelashes and silly striped underwear and soft, private sighs in the dark.
He remembered how Esca hadn’t seemed disappointed in him at all on that night – not one little bit. Just... concerned. Pissed off with how Marcus handled himself.
Marcus hadn’t notice the songs switch. He’d ended up on the floor with Ajax rolling his lap as he absentmindedly pet the puppy and thought about what a complete asshole he’d been. Marcus didn’t know when the last song had ended and when this one had begun, but he recognised the verse as the hoarse, world-weary voice flooded over him.
If I seem edgy I want you to know that I never mean to take it out on you. Life has its problems and I get my share, and that's one thing I never meant to do – because I love you.
Marcus froze, his hands stilling on Ajax’s belly as he blindly gaped at the woodwork of a random cabinet.
Sometime I find myself alone and regretting some foolish thing, some little simple thing I’ve done..
Tea and dog forgotten, Marcus dashed out of the room and clamoured up the stairs. He was rummaging through his closet like a madman while the faintest bluesy twang rolled towards the second floor.
I need you, need you by my side. Lonely evenings, eyes are open wide. Nothing you say could make me turn my back. Well I see you, and you see me too.
Showering be damned. According to that one song, Marcus’ sweat was made of awesome anyway. Marcus tugged on a t-shirt, buttoned a flannel over it with trembling fingers and found a pair of jeans that seemed clean, regardless of them having been on the floor. He ran his fingers through his hair and winced in the mirror – there was really nothing to be done about the porcupine on his head.
He thundered downstairs with a grin and squealed into the kitchen.
Put your hand on your heart and tell me it’s all over. I won’t believe it ‘til you put your hand on your heart and tell me that we’re throu–
Marcus switched off the boombox. He wanted to listen to the remainder of the songs, buthe had to go. There was a fire burning in Marcus and he didn’t want to put it out – he wanted to fuel it.
Because Esca might actually love him. Like love-love, or something very near – and hell, who was Marcus kidding? He would take anything in the same ballpark right now as long as it wasEsca.
Esca answered the door after the third knock. He was squinty-eyed and anime-haired with his pajamas precariously clinging to the jut of his hipbones. He looked perfect.
“That was quick,” Esca said in a sleep-thick voice. He didn’t step back to allow Marcus in. His eyes were wary on Marcus’ face as he folded his arms across his bare chest.
“I couldn’t wait,” Marcus said with a breathlessness that had nothing to do with his dash up three flights of stairs.
“Yeah,” Marcus said with a smile.
“For?” Esca said with a faint crack.
“What now?” Esca said with his chin tilted. Anyone else would have found Esca’s stance to be confident, even confrontational. Marcus knew better.
Marcus placed his hands on either edge of the doorframe and leaned in, bowed over Esca until he caught the faint sound of Esca’s single shuddering breath; saw his pupils swell and his irises stain stormy grey.
Esca wet his lips, then said, “I’m curious to know if we truly are better with each other or if that’s simply my cock talking.”
Marcus’ lips curved. “That’s so romantic.”
Esca quirked an eyebrow. “If you wanted romance you’ve chapped the wrong door.”
“Nah,” Marcus said quietly. He could see Esca’s chest still as he held his breath. Esca was just as nervous to jump into this as Marcus. “I like it here.”
Marcus’ lips found Esca’s.
The kiss began light; a tender nudge of mouth to soft, dry mouth – the tips of their noses brushing and Esca’s exhale against Marcus’ skin. For a half a minute they didn’t touch each other, didn’t grab or move in haste. Previously, everything between them had been rushed. A rollercoaster of ups and downs that Marcus didn’t care for, but wouldn’t change for anything now that it had happened.
Still, Marcus wanted to show Esca how good it could be to go slow and steady. He might find that he enjoyed it.
Of course it had to be now, of all times, that Esca crooned that little sigh of his, cupped Marcus face in his palms, and whispered hot against Marcus’ lips, “Mac’s not home. I’m all alone.”
Marcus snapped. When had his control become so frighteningly brittle around Esca? Oh yeah, always.
Marcus wasn’t sure if he pushed in or if Esca dragged him – all Marcus recognized was the sound of the door slamming, and Esca’s fingers fumbling with the buttons of Marcus’ shirt as he thrust Marcus against the wall.
Missed you, missed you, need you. Marcus could hear every sentiment in the way Esca attacked his mouth, yanked away the thin barriers of clothing that separated them, rutted mindlessly against Marcus’ thigh.
Marcus didn’t need words. Sometimes they helped, but he didn’t need them. This was the only language in which they could both fluently communicate anyway. The language of lingering lips and teeth and tongue.
Esca’s fingertips mapped the curve of bone and quiver of muscle with each inch of skin revealed, like he wanted to travel every plain of Marcus’ body in record time only to do it all over again. Their bare chests slid against each other, a whisper of humming skin on skin as Esca’s mouth found the shadowed hallows of Marcus’ ear, neck, collar bone. Marcus moved beneath Esca’s lips, his hands; rolled his hips forward, with his chin tipped to the ceiling as he gasped a breath in time with Esca’s tongue flicking over the hardened peak of Marcus’ nipple.
“Bed,” Marcus managed to say. He fisted Esca’s hair, silk between his fingers, and lunged at his mouth for a kiss that tore Marcus apart from the inside out.
There was something about the way Esca used his mouth – pliant and still in control, as if he were granting Marcus permission each time. Like Esca was specifically letting Marcus in, letting Marcus win. Esca allowed Marcus to feel so much of him, see so much of him. Esca laughing, sulking, conflicted, confident – in love. In like. Whatever this was for him.
Esca, unwittingly or not, gave so much of himself to Marcus, and it took every fibre in Marcus not to drop to his knees and swear everything to this one man. This single irrational, moody person who saw Marcus and still wanted him, flaws and terrors and scars included.
Marcus pressed a palm to Esca’s chest, felt a hot pulse clatter against ribs and thin skin. Their lips drifted apart, Esca’s slick and swollen and raspberry red. His hooded gaze was pitch black when it locked on Marcus – and sensing Marcus’ need for haste, Esca quirked a smile, gripped Marcus by the belt and began to walk them towards the corridor.
Walking turned to stumbling as Esca became fixed on undoing Marcus’ buckle and zipper with pale, slim fingers that burned low on Marcus’ stomach with each errant brush of knuckle to flesh. Marcus’ breath caught on his tongue, his thoughts and desires stuttering and scattering as Esca’s clever fingers freed Marcus’ hard, heavy erection. A single playful squeeze had Marcus hissing in Esca’s ear and shoving him eagerly towards an open doorway.
“This better be your room.”
“And if it isn’t?” Esca said in a voice like sandpaper. Marcus could feel Esca’s moist breath and spreading grin against the sensitive skin of his shoulder.
“Then I’m fucking you on the nearest available surface and you’ll deal with it,” Marcus bit off as he strained for sanity, struggled against the need to drag Esca to the floor before they reached a bed. With Esca’s thumb swiping slick and lazy circles around the crown of Marcus’ cock, the idea was growing more appealing by the second.
Esca’s face flushed as he gaped at Marcus. “Oh,” was all he said, slightly breathless. “Okay.”
Marcus caught flashes of dark blue walls and mismatched sheets in orange, purple and grey before Esca laced his fingers at the nape of Marcus’ neck and toppled them both to the bed. They wrestled for a moment, grappling and gasping as they vied for the upper hand. Marcus came out on top, but only ended up with his hands on either side of Esca’s head as he watched those slim hips wiggle out of loose pajama bottoms.
Marcus couldn’t wait for Esca to kick off his pants entirely; not when Esca was lying beneath him, his pale skin lit up with a soft blush. Marcus surged against Esca, fisted his hand in Esca’s hair and attacked those wet, clever lips. Esca moaned against Marcus’ mouth, arched to flow with the rhythmic slide of chest to chest, hip to hip.
Wedging his hands between them, Esca tugged Marcus’ jeans down over his ass, where they were abandoned at his thighs. Marcus was only dimly aware that he still had his socks and shoes on. It didn’t matter. What mattered was rocking close together; their lips clinging and tongues clashing as Esca scraped his nails down the small of Marcus’ back. Fire burned down the length of Marcus’ spine, pooled hot and low in his belly as their cocks brushed and slicked over each other’s.
“Missed you,” Marcus said, and sunk his teeth into Esca’s bottom lip. He couldn’t not say it.
Esca’s fingertips branded Marcus’ hips, tugged them so that their bodies were perfectly aligned, the contours of muscle and bone moulded together. He tore at Marcus’ mouth like a starved man, taking barely a second to gulp for air that Marcus swore had gone electric. Esca scraped his teeth over Marcus’ throat, tasted his pulse and whispered, “Idiot. Me too.”
Marcus’ heart swelled and his hands shook. He breathed a laugh into the damp crook of Esca’s shoulder and neck – and yelped when Esca tangled his legs with Marcus’ and flipped their positions with surprising ease. Esca covered Marcus’ body with his own; bowed until their noses bumped and their eyes locked, firm and unyielding.
“I’m going to ride your cock until you can’t think of anything but me for days – alright Wonderful?”
Marcus wanted to say, I’m already there, but all that emerged was a shuddering breath and a dumbstruck nod. A half-smile tugged at the corner of Esca’s lips before he sunk lower and closed their remaining distance with a messy, open-mouth kiss full of lazy, rolling tongue and clashing teeth. Seconds, minutes ticked by as Marcus lost himself in Esca; the weight of him, the sweet friction of their cocks slotting against each other, the familiar sigh that echoed in Marcus’ ears like a promise.
“Esca.” Marcus ran his hands over the hills of Esca’s shoulders and down his arms, memorising the curves and plains of muscle and subtle strength. Marcus paused to grip Esca’s hips, his thumb grazing over the sharp wing of bone.
Esca’s eyes flashed, then unfocussed. He burst into motion, scooting to sit on Marcus’ stomach as he stretched across him and to the right, towards the bedside table. Marcus had to swallow the saliva that pooled on his tongue at the sight of Esca’s swollen, dusky dick so close to his face. He wanted to touch, to taste; to languish in the sharp tang of Esca’s unique flavor.
But Esca was fast, and soon he was seated atop Marcus’ thighs with an opened bottle of lube in one hand, a condom package nipped between his teeth, and a fierce glint in his eyes. Clearly foreplay was out of the question, and Marcus sure as hell wasn’t going to argue. Not when Esca was jacking his own cock in a few long, languid strokes while his gaze roamed Marcus’ body with unabashed arousal.
Marcus felt his remaining control splinter, just as it always did around Esca. From the very beginning it had been Esca who’d crept under his skin, gotten into his veins, pumped through his heart. It had only taken Marcus some time to realize it. His every sense was sharpened on Esca; the faint, damp shimmer of sweat on Esca’s collarbone, the thick, salt scent of sex and desperation, the soft panting breaths that plumed hot and humid around them.
Before Esca could gather his balance, Marcus had surged forward, sat up and wrapped his arms tightly around Esca’s waist. The condom fell between their flush bodies as Esca laughed, adjusting himself to straddle Marcus’ lap with a knee on either side of his thighs. Esca smacked Marcus on the shoulder. “You fucker, I’ve dropped everything.”
Without concern, Marcus merely hummed in Esca’s ear. Kissed the curve of cartilage, nipped at the lobe, and pressed a constellation of kisses along Esca’s scruffy jaw. Esca sighed and slung his arms around Marcus’ neck; Marcus could still feel Esca’s smile as their lips met, and Marcus ended up kissing teeth more than anything. For a long while, the thought of fucking Esca straight through the mattress slipped his mind and Marcus fell into the easy slide of tongue and the heavy pressure of his cock trapped between their stomachs.
Then it became all too clear what Esca wanted. He’d begun to shift higher and higher up Marcus’ lap, rising to his knees so the glistening tip of Marcus’ erection could bump and slide along the curve of Esca’s ass. Marcus squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his forehead to Esca’s chest with a hiss. Esca was mewling into the mussed mess of Marcus’ hair; tiny pleading noises that had Marcus slapping out a hand to blindly pat down the bed for the lost lube. He could have cried with relief when his fingers wrapped around their target.
As Marcus flipped up the cap, Esca angled back just enough to snatch the bottle from Marcus’ hand. Esca already looked completely destroyed; his hands were jittery as he applied a liberal amount to three fingers and rasped out, “Let me do it. Watch me.”
“Always,” Marcus said, his throat tightening up as he met Esca’s hooded gaze. Marcus could never look away, even if he’d wanted.
Watching Esca reach behind him, the delicate arc of his back as he fucked his own fingers just for Marcus was nearly enough to have him cumming on the spot. It was too much and not enough all at once. Esca was looking directly at him, straight into him even when he winced and choked on a short gasp.
Marcus couldn’t keep his hands off Esca. They skittered over the straining cage of ribs and tapered down to Esca’s cock. Marcus fisted their erections in one hand and watched Esca’s expression go from concentrated and intent to slack-mouthed bliss.
“Alrightalright,” Esca said. “Come on come on, fuck me.”
“Oh Jesus,” Marcus said with eyes wide as Esca launched his arms around Marcus and began to shift and shimmy down onto the head of Marcus’ dick. “Condom! Esca, Christ don’t donggh–”
Marcus reached between them, groping wildly for the wrapper until he found it stuck to the inside of his thigh. He ripped the foil open with his teeth and had to hug Esca close in order to roll the condom on without being able to freaking see it. All the while, his nerves were frying from the bruises Esca was sucking to life along the ridge of his shoulder.
But when Esca reached back, gripped Marcus’ dick firmly at the base and began to gingerly seat himself upon the thick length, the entire frenzied fray was worth it a thousand times over. Marcus was throbbing from head to toe as he rested his hands on Esca’s hips and guided him down, slow and easy. When Marcus made his first shallow, gentle thrust in, both he and Esca moaned in tandem.
Esca’s eyes slid shut, and then he was burying his face in moist shadow of Marcus’ neck and shoulder and clinging to him closer than Marcus thought possible. With a sharp, throaty inhale, Esca eased himself fully on Marcus’ dick. The pressure and heat were so immense, so all encompassing that Marcus could do nothing but grip Esca’s ass and hold them firm and still until he could regain a semblance of sanity. This was oblivion, perfection; falling into someone in every way possible.
“Feel me?” Esca said breathlessly against Marcus’ damp temple. Esca angled his hips and rode Marcus’ cock in one long, deliberate stroke.
“Yes,” Marcus said into Esca’s shoulder. Marcus knew he was bruising Esca’s ass, his thighs, and still he couldn’t stop himself from kneading the taut flesh and muscle beneath his palms. “Yes. Again.”
Esca rumbled a low laugh that ended on a gasp as he began a quick pace, placing his hands on Marcus’ shoulders for leverage as he leaned into Marcus’ body with each up-stroke. Marcus was at a loss for his own movement; he was almost entirely prone to Esca’s rhythm, the increasingly loud sweat-slick slap of skin meeting skin speeding up in urgency. He was simply holding on for dear life as Esca impaled himself on his dick with an unending snap and roll of hips.
This wasn’t going to last long – Marcus was sure of that. He knew it in the way his balls were tightening up against him. Saw it in the way Esca was losing himself like this was the first time he’d ever let go, allowing every emotion play out as it washed through him. Esca was wrapped so perfectly around him, practically vibrating right on his lap. Marcus clamped onto Esca like it was the last thing he’d ever do; moaned when Esca arched down to capture Marcus’ mouth in a kiss that was more a smearing of lips and tongue than anything.
“Want me?” Esca said between sloppy kisses, his voice hitching higher.
“Always,” Marcus said immediately, his mind whirling around the question while his blood and body sang and screamed with each deep plunge into Esca’s hot, wet heat. Marcus blinked sparks from his eyes and brought his hands up to cup Esca’s face. Their foreheads leaned against each other’s, both of their brows damp. “Esca, always.”
Just like that, Esca went wild atop him. He shoved Marcus back onto the mattress and shifted to a new angle; splayed a hand over Marcus’ heart for balance and began to ride Marcus into oblivion.
Marcus couldn’t gather a breath, couldn’t do anything but latch onto Esca’s thighs and fuck straight up into that vice of heat. Esca’s eyes were black slits, focused on nothing as he panted and slammed down onto Marcus again and again. They fell into an unrelenting rhythm of plunge, push, pull, plunge, push, pull.
Marcus could feel release mounting, coiling within him. Everything was spinning, spiralling out of control until there was only Esca at the centre. He would always be at the centre of everything for Marcus. Always.
Marcus drove up into Esca with purpose, burying himself to the hilt and holding Esca’s hips down. Esca cried out and tugged at his own dick once, twice – then Esca’s face flushed as he spilled hot and thick over his jerking fingers and Marcus’ stomach. Tremors wracked through Esca’s body, straight to the core, jolting around Marcus’ cock in wave after wave of pulsing pressure.
The world shattered in white-hot star bursts, staggering Marcus through and through. In that moment he met Esca’s eyes, and there was nothing else but the each other and the fall they took together. Marcus watched Esca come apart until he bit his bottom lip against the lingering aftershocks and collapsed in a sweaty heap.
Time passed without consequence, and Marcus was content to bask in the moist breath huffing against his neck and the languid looseness in his muscles. He threaded his fingers in the tangle of Esca’s hair, the pad of his thumb rubbing lazy circles behind Esca’s ear. Eventually Marcus’ hand grew heavy and he drifted off.
“So,” Esca said somewhere beyond the thin veil of Marcus’ unconsciousness. “Is this like the second go at this whole dating thing?”
Marcus hummed sleepily in reply.
“Oiy.” Esca folded his arms atop Marcus’ chest. “I’m trying to speak to you like an adult here, fucking narcoleptic giant.”
“Why always the talking during the sleeping though,” Marcus said groggily. When there was only deathly silence in reply, he braved one eye open and discovered an icy glare. “I mean. Yes. We are adults… What were we talking about?”
“Oh, fuck you,” Esca said, but he was smiling wide and white and trying to pretend he wasn’t. “That’s it, you’ve passed your moment to have a say in this. Now it’s up to me, and I say you’re stuck with me.”
“I think I’m actually stuck in you right now.”
That was actually true. Both he and Esca winced and squealed like girls as Esca pulled off and rolled away to flop beside Marcus.
“Marcus?” Esca said after a time.
“Sorry for stealing all of your shite.”
“Mmm, s’okay,” Marcus said. He reached a hand out, where the back of it landed on Esca’s face. He was fairly sure he heard a muffled swear, but no matter. “Love you, anyway.”
“I know,” Esca said quietly.
Esca shot up in bed with a hoarse gasp ripping at his throat.
“Nigh’mr?” came Marcus’ rumble from beneath a pillow.
Esca whooshed out a breath and then murmured his assent. He pressed his palms against his eyes and desperately wished for a fag.
“’Bout?” Marcus said in a thick voice that never failed to give Esca distracting chills.
“It was awful. You brought home adoption papers. For a child. A child,” Esca said into his hands. The thought of children running around Esca’s feet and screaming and doing other loud, unseemly things that children were wont to do was terrifying.
“Tha’s sweet,” Marcus said. One large hand flopped out from the sheets, laid on Esca’s thigh and squeezed. “Don’ think y’have the hips f’r childbirth.”
Despite himself, Esca snorted a quiet laugh and lightly thwacked the pillow atop Marcus’ head. “Shove off.”
“Be quiet now,” was Marcus’ reply.
Just like that, Marcus’ tree trunk of an arm wound around Esca’s waist and yanked him back onto the mattress. Esca’s half-hearted protests went ignored as Marcus shifted and spooned Esca snugly. With Marcus’ fingers brushing Esca’s bellybutton, Marcus murmured into his ear, “Kids come later. First you’d haveta marry me.”
Esca’s heart hammered in double-time. He threaded his fingers with Marcus’ atop his stomach. “Maybe.”
Marcus’ reply was to snore rather loudly. The big oaf.
Esca could only smile.