It's not lost on Esca that the moment he's at his lowest is the moment Toutatis chooses to show him his soul's twin. It's the dark-haired Roman above him in the stands, calling loud and clear for life, his words in time with the beating of Esca's heart. He tries not to look up, but he's powerless against the pull, and when his eyes meet the Roman's, it feels like lightning cracking through him. Take it back, he begs silently, pleading with whichever God might listen.
The Fisher's trident is pressed to his neck. Fear is coursing through him like ice as every part of his body tries to strain away from the sharp edge, but if this Roman's soul is meant to be the partner for his, then Esca would rather die here on the rough sand, knowing at least his blood would stay in Britain. Toutatis, take my sacrifice, I am willing.
But the Roman's insistence that his countrymen put their thumbs up means the sharp trident presses no further, and the next day Esca is bought; Toutatis now showing the rest of his cruel joke, as Esca is meant to be the Roman's slave.
"Yes, it is I," Centurion Marcus replies, and Esca remembers his mother's words about the joining of souls. It is like the thin ice on the river that breaks at a touch, it can never be the same, and so you can never be the same once you know the one your soul has longed for.
He didn't understand what that meant until he met the Roman's dark eyes and felt the crackle in his belly. It hasn't subsided, and as they look at each other again, Esca feels it roll up his spine. Pounding, like hoofbeats. He searches the Centurion's face, looking for some sign that this could be mutual, that it's not solely Esca destined to struggle against this. Sourness rises in his throat at the thought.
What would be worse? he thinks. That I am bound to this Roman but he is not bound to me, or that we are bound to each other?
It's his mother's voice, a dusty memory, that answers. Better that he is also bound to you; he will treat you better for it.
The Centurion's face is neither hard nor mean, and the stiff lines of his body have eased somewhat. To Esca it seems as though there is almost a look of wonder in his eyes. Something curious. "You feel it, too?" Esca asks, the question escaping, as he could have done on the walk through Calleva; he has no doubt he would be faster than Stephanos. For a moment he curses himself for not fleeing; he could have hidden easily among a Northern tribe, free countrymen who would not betray his clipped ear despite not being of the same blood. But there was a part of him that yearned to know whether or not the man who'd bought him was the man whose gaze Esca had been unable to avoid, to know whether the lightning snap of the bond pulling at Esca was reciprocated in any fashion. With every breath, that part of Esca had grown, until they were at the house with its straight-line Roman walls and he was pushed inside.
Esca feels himself soften the barest amount at that. "I did not ask the Gods for this."
"Nor did I," Marcus says, and it's then that Esca realizes they're speaking British. He takes a step closer to the couch, and Marcus does not move, nor does he avert his gaze. His face remains amiable. "Will you stay?" he asks, his voice low, indicating clearly that he understands Esca could have slipped away from Stephanos without issue, and that Esca could still slip away now.
Esca puts a hand into his tunic and withdraws the slim dagger he'd concealed. The metal is warm where it's been pressed against his skin. He lets the weapon drop on the table beside Marcus, then kneels beside the couch. There is no need to answer in words. He waits, and after a moment Marcus touches his the bare part of his shoulder, and although Esca is loathe to admit it, it's the nicest thing he's felt in months.
As the weather turns cooler and moves into winter, Marcus' old wound seems to pain him more than usual, and he holds Esca's shoulder more often than not. There is a trickle of pain that Esca can feel from him at times; at the worst moments it is cold and stomach-turning. Alone in Marcus' sleeping cell one night, Esca unlaces Marcus' sandals, then lays a light, cautious hand on the scarred thigh. He glances up at Marcus and sees the tightness around his eyes. "Are you well, my Master?"
"Only a little pain," Marcus replies. His smile by the light of the lamp is clearly forced. "The chill in the air, Esca."
Esca does not wish to push the matter. "How about the gossip I heard today at the market, then?"
Marcus' expression brightens considerably. "Yes, tell me."
So Esca tells him of the planned wolf-hunt. For weeks now they've heard the howling, and there is always news of which farms have had lambs attacked in their pens. Only a few days ago, Aquila had returned to the house with word that the wolves had killed a pony in a village not far away, and at the market, one of the sellers whispered to Esca and Marcus that he'd heard a baby was taken.
Marcus listens as Esca lays out all the plans of the hunters, his eyes bright and a smile on his face. Then he says, "Esca, it would surely be a good thing if you joined this wolf hunt."
Warm pleasure flares without warning in Esca's chest, and he knows Marcus can feel it as well. But to go on the hunt would mean to leave Marcus with crotchety old Stephanos to serve him, so quietly, he says, "It would mean a maybe a night and a day the Centurion must do without his slave."
"I will make do." Marcus puts a hand on his shoulder, the same place he often holds on to Esca for balance, and squeezes. "I am sorry now that I left my spears behind at Isca, else you should have had them."
The place in Esca that he doesn't want to soften any more towards Marcus, the place he needs to keep sharp against the Romans, relents a bare amount at the words. He pushes the feeling aside for now and says, "I know where I can borrow spears."
"Then borrow them." The smile that crosses Marcus' face is easy this time. "And you must remember every step when you go, so that you can tell me afterward, and I might imagine being there myself."
So Esca borrows a set of spears, leaves Marcus' sleeping cell before the sun has even thought to rise, and joins the wolf-hunt. The assembled men of Calleva barely seem to register that he's there without Marcus. There's a part of him that understands he could escape; it would be easy to disappear into the woods, a member of the hunting party one moment and gone the next. For a moment his soul longs for it, and in the next moment his soul longs for Marcus, and Esca shudders at the feeling and pulls his rough cloak more tightly around his shoulders.
He does not spear any of the wolves, but instead brings Marcus a small, furry grey pup fished from the den after the mother was killed. The pup wriggles in the crook of Esca's arm the entire walk back to the house, but not strongly enough to escape him, and Esca feels something of himself in the animal. "You are small," he murmurs to the wolf. "You will learn. And one day, he will give you the choice to leave."
It's dim in the sleeping cell when he stops in the doorway, but Marcus already knows he's there. Esca can tell he's barely awake, but he still looks eager for news. "Esca! How was the hunt?"
"The hunting was good." He leans the borrowed spears against the wall to return later, as Marcus sits up on the cot. "I have brought the Centurion my find," he adds, and sets the wolf cub on the blanket beside Marcus.
Marcus reaches for it, his touch almost hesitant at first, and strokes the pup's fur. When he looks up at Esca, there is surprise in his gaze. "A wolf cub?"
"He is little enough that he will remember nothing of life as a wolf," Esca says. "And once he loses his wolf-smell, the dogs will accept him as one of their own."
He turns away to light the palm-oil lamp, and feels Marcus' wonder. It's an unfamiliar feeling, but he finds it's not entirely unwelcome. Marcus likes the cub already, so Esca did something good. When he turns back, he sees the pup nuzzling into Marcus' hand. He drops to a knee beside the cot, watching the wolf, but also watching Marcus pet it gently. He thinks of the Centurion Placidius' words again and his stomach turns, and immediately Marcus looks up and says, "Whatever it is, come out with it, Esca. You know as well I that when one of us has an ill feeling, the other knows."
His gaze is sharp and hot, but he waits patiently while Esca strokes a hand over the cub's back for a moment, waiting for the sourness in his chest to ebb enough to speak. Then the words tumble out; how another hunter, introducing himself as Placidius, had complimented Esca's hunting skill at first, then seen his clipped ear and chastised him for risking the Centurion's property.
He startles when Marcus' hand closes around his wrist, warmly, with roughened palm. A great feeling of confusion comes over Esca, and after a second he realizes it's Marcus' confusion.
"Have I ever led you to believe I think you to be nothing more than property?" Marcus asks, the last word an offended hiss, as though it disgusts him to even speak it.
Esca shakes his head quickly. Excepting the fact that Marcus had paid for him, the Centurion has shown him nothing but friendship since. He can feel Marcus' anger pulsing as strongly as his own anger towards Placidius. "Esca," Marcus murmurs, and then there are fingers beneath Esca's chin and a light pressure, forcing him to meet Marcus' dark gaze. "You must know in your heart that I have never thought of you as something that I own."
Esca has spent many sleepless nights torturing himself with all the things that could have been, if Marcus had not bought him the day after the arena. He knows he would probably be dead, shoved back into the ring for some gladiator to run through with a sword. Toutatis, please give me an answer, he prays, then asks,"And what of my soul knowing yours from the instant we saw each other? Do Romans believe in such a thing?".
"Oh, Jupiter!" Marcus exclaims. "Do Romans - why, the very moment I saw you - ouch!"
He holds up his hand, where there is blood welling up in tiny drops on his thumb. "Your gift has bitten me!"
Esca looks down to where the wolf cub is crouched on the furs, making a tiny growling noise that is interrupted by a yawn. He says, "Our argument has stirred his blood, but he is tired. It has been a long day already for such a small wolf."
"Perhaps his soul knows yours as well," Marcus murmurs, and sucks at his thumb for a moment, his gaze on Esca as he does. When he strokes a hand down the cub's back again, the cub turns around twice and lies down, nose to tail, in the curve of Marcus' body.
"Perhaps," Esca allows. Something he can't define inside him aches dully; it's not Marcus' emotions he's feeling this time. "It's barely light, are you going to rest here a while more?"
"Yes. And you should get a little sleep as well." Marcus settles his arm lightly over the wolf-cub, who is now so sleepy he barely twitches. "Bring your mattress closer so that the cub might jump down to visit you, if he wishes."
Esca pulls his sleeping mattress to the edge of Marcus' cot and settles under the blanket, listening to both Marcus and the cub breathe until he feels tired enough to close his eyes, and soon enough he finds that many of the things that had been prickling at him the last few months are soothed by their conversation and the soft sounds of the wolf-cub whimpering in sleep.
One day as they dress in the bathhouse, he feels the question well up in Marcus - it's always strange for Esca to know that the feeling pressing into him belongs to Marcus, but he always knows - and before Marcus can speak, Esca says, "My father was Clan Chieftain of the Brigantes, lord of five hundred spears," and interest sparks bright in Marcus' eyes.
Esca buckles his belt around his waist, so that his hands are occupied for a moment while he orders his thoughts, then continues. He tells Marcus of the clan's uprising, the battle, the loss of his family. The old ache sweeps through him at that part. Marcus looks stricken. "Mithras! All your kin are gone?"
"My father and two brothers were killed in the fight, and my mother before the Legionaries broke through. She asked my father to do it." He looks up at Marcus to see a sad and solemn expression on the Roman's face, and wonders briefly what his pain feels like to Marcus. "One would not bear living without the other," he adds, quieter.
"Did their souls know each other?"
Esca nods. He slips to his knees and makes quick work of the laces of Marcus' sandals, then stares out the high window of the bathhouse for a moment, letting the sun blur his eyes. Marcus lays a hand on his shoulder, not caring for anyone who might be watching them, and says, "Well, tell me what a Chieftan's son learns of war."
So on their walk back to Aquila's house, Esca tells Marcus of growing up in the clan - learning to throw a spear properly, making his first bow and set of arrows. He can almost feel the cool river water flowing around him as he describes hot summer days spent fishing. Then another memory strikes him, one he thinks Marcus might appreciate. It has been many years, but Esca can still picture it. "There was one day - I was maybe eight or nine years, still a child - I saw a Legion marching up the road. I hid behind a boulder to watch them pass; their marching seemed so loud to my ears. I had never seen such a thing, Marcus! I can still picture it when I close my eyes. Like a great serpent, the Legion stretched that long, winding through the hills."
Marcus' face has paled, and there's an odd, cool feeling stretching between them. "The Eagle flashed in the sun as their standard-bearers passed," Esca continues. "It was golden, with great wings, I remember thinking how heavy it might be. They marched straight the mist as it crept down from the moors, and I remember thinking how strange it was, that it seemed that long serpent of men disappeared in an instant."
He makes the old gesture to ward off evil without even thinking. "I stared after for a long while, and later I heard queer tales of that Legion. What is it, Marcus, why do you feel so strange?"
Marcus is still pale, and Esca is struck with the desire to reach for him as they draw near to the house. Quickly, he touches Marcus' wrist. "Marcus?" he asks, softer, then catches Marcus as he stumbles.
"I have heard those tales," Marcus murmurs, his voice low. His face looks to Esca almost as though his mind is somewhere else entirely, then a muscle his jaw twitches minutely and he swallows hard. "Esca, that was my father's Legion. His crest would have been the scarlet hackle next after the Eagle."
Esca thinks again of the way the mist seemed to close up around the column of soldiers between one breath and the next. "Get to the bench and I will fetch you a measure of wine," he says, slipping his arm around Marcus' lean waist. Marcus leans against him. Esca can feel his confusion swirling.
He gets Marcus to the bench, but hesitates there, and they do not let go of one another. "I try not to think of him often," Marcus says, still sounding far away. "For years, all I wanted was to honor his memory, to regain the honor he lost when the Eagle was lost."
"He marched into the mist and never returned," Esca murmurs, not shaping the words quite as the question he's asking. "I am sorry."
Marcus shakes his head and the cool thing he's feeling seems to dissipate slightly. He squeezes Esca's elbow. His fingers are warm. "You said something about wine? Mix yourself a cup as well. We can watch the sun as it sets, from right here."
It's not as though Esca minds Marcus' hand cupped over his shoulder as they walk, or his warm presence close to Esca's side, felt even through the wool cloaks they wore in the cold months. "I have no desire to see you stumble and fall," he replies, as teasing as he dares, and Marcus' whole face alights with shared humor.
Esca gives an answering smile, then returns to the leather belt he is mending. "You are quick with that," Marcus says.
"I enjoy the craftsmanship of it, I suppose. It's not as though you send me on many errands, so I must find something to do." Esca shrugs, then fixes Marcus with a curious look. "I see you also looking for ways to keep your hands occupied."
Marcus glances down at the shield he'd brought out from the house. It was a shining piece, beautifully worked with bronze and red enamel, the leather embossed with flowing curves so like the buckler he'd carried for his father. Esca often admires this shield where it hangs on the wall of Aquila's study, put up now for decoration, no longer for war. The straps it hung by were thin and ragged, and Marcus has very carefully cut them away from the body of the shield.
Esca passes him a strip of new leather, and watches him work for a while. Marcus' hands are quick with the thin blade and waxed thread; he doesn't seem to mind Esca watching. The shield is soon returned to good condition, and Marcus looks down at it, tracing the embossing with a thumb.
"What is it?" Esca asks him. "I can feel the question welling up inside you; ask."
Marcus puts the thread and blade aside and leans back against the wall behind them. He turns his face up to the sun, and the expression on his face is one that Esca cannot sort out. "Why do all the frontier tribes resent our coming so bitterly?" he asks, the words quiet, his mouth a thin line. "The tribes of the South have taken to our ways easily enough. I do not understand it. Can you explain it to me?"
Marcus, raised his entire life to love only Roman things, to look at a straight road and find it perfect, to see the columns of troops as a reflection of the columns that Esca imagines might hold up the temples in Rome, does not understand the loose curves his hand caresses on the face of the buckler, but Esca can feel that he wants to.
So he puts a hand over Marcus' on the burnished leather, winds their fingers together as he tries to sort it out in his mind. "Can you feel as I do right now?" he murmurs, moving closer on the bench so that their legs press together.
There's confusion in Marcus. Esca squeezes his fingers. At least this he can try to explain. "The Southern tribes sold themselves to Rome long before the Eagles came in war," he says. "These tribes are more Roman than British now, with their acceptance of all the things Rome brought here."
Marcus' brow has furrowed. "But justice, and order, and good roads - are those not things worth having?"
Yes, Esca thinks, and feels Marcus startle. "But they cost."
"Cost - how do you mean - these things cost the tribes their freedom, you mean."
"Among other things," Esca says.
Marcus looks at him then, his gaze as sharp and clear as the curiosity burning in him. "Tell me, Esca; I want to know."
"Give me a moment to think," Esca murmurs, dropping his gaze to their joined hands on the buckler, wondering how best to explain that where Rome saw straight lines and loved them for their order, the tribes saw the curve of the land and the bending of the river, and loved them for being free. What he feels in that moment must sing through clearly, because Marcus' fingers tighten on his.
"Look here," Esca says, and reaches across himself with the hand not holding Marcus' to run fingertips over the dagger-sheath on Marcus' hip. "At the sheath that holds your dagger. See how the pattern repeats; a small curve, with another here to balance it, with the tight flower in between. It is orderly and repetitive, and it is meaningless, Marcus. It is only a pattern and nothing more, at least not to me." Do you understand? he wants to ask; he wants to shake Marcus harshly by the shoulders.
Marcus nods slowly; he must have felt that quick flare of temper. Esca moves their joined hands on the leather of the shield-face, tracing the curves. "Now see the lines here, how they aren't lines. The curves flow, one to another."
A thought occurs to him and he asks, "How many live in Rome?", still with his grip on Marcus' hand.
Marcus tilts his head for a brief second. "Last I remember, thousands upon thousands."
"In one city."
"In one city, yes."
Esca traces the embossed curves again for a moment. "Perhaps with so many, the straight roads and walls, and order makes sense - it takes many things to keep a city with so many people from descending into disorder, I would wager."
Marcus nods, his gaze focused sharply still on Esca's face.
"But how many are here, Marcus?" Esca murmurs. "Not thousands upon thousands in Calleva, nor in my clan."
"I see the point you are making." This time, Marcus is the one to move their hands over the shield-face, looking down at it, clearly contemplating. Through the bond he feels calm, and there's something that feels sort of wondrous to Esca, the same way he remembers feeling the first time he'd held his own wolf cub as a child, and the way he'd felt watching the sunlight reflect off the golden Eagle borne by Marcus' own father.
Silently, he pushes himself into a sitting position so he can look closer at Marcus. There's a faint sheen of sweat on his face, and his expression even in sleep is unhappy, his mouth drawn tight. Esca thinks at first he's ill from some poor food, but then he gently draws back the thin blanket to see the odd way Marcus' bad leg is positioned, and knows it must be the old wound tormenting him yet again.
He brushes a hand softly over Marcus' cheek and Marcus stirs a little. His skin feels hot. Esca wants to wake him, wants to fetch him something cool to drink, but doesn't move. It's so early he'd have to light one of the lamps to slip through the house to the kitchens, and he doesn't want to make any noise that might wake Marcus yet. Cub also doesn't seem to have noticed that Esca's awake, snoring his wolf-snores with his muzzle resting on Marcus' foot. Were Esca not distracted by Marcus' health, the sight would have brought more of a smile to his face.
He stays sitting on his deerskin with one hand resting on Marcus' chest until the room lightens enough that he can roll silently to his feet and pull on his tunic, then cross the villa to the kitchens. He gets a cup of water, hearing the faint noises of the other slaves beginning to stir, and goes back to Marcus' sleeping cell.
Cub is awake now, watching over Marcus with dark eyes, but Marcus hasn't moved. Esca settles carefully on the edge of the cot. He puts a hand on Marcus' cheek again and it's still warm. "Marcus," Esca whispers, dipping his fingertips into the water before thumbing the line of Marcus' jaw, trying to cool him. "Centurion."
Marcus makes a soft sound, turning his face into Esca's touch. He blinks awake, but it's much slower than normal, and he barely stirs under the blanket. "Esca?"
"You are sick," Esca says, keeping his voice quiet. "I can feel it, here." He presses the side of the cup to his belly. "And your skin is so hot, do you feel as though you have a fever?"
Marcus shivers and Esca is struck by the urge to crawl onto the cot next to him. "Marcus?" he presses.
"The old wound." Marcus squeezes his eyes shut tightly and breathes heavily through his mouth for a moment. "This is the worst I've felt since the old fort surgeon patched it up."
Esca knows that's not a thing he would admit lightly. "Do you think you can sit up? I brought you something to drink."
Marcus pushes himself up and leans against the wall, then drinks half the cup of water in only a few swallows. Cub has barely moved, but now he pushes his muzzle into Esca's hand, and Esca strokes the short fur of his head for a moment before Cub jumps down, presumably in search of breakfast. "Give me a little time, Esca, I'll be all right," Marcus says, but his face still looks ashen.
Esca hums his disbelief and Marcus drops his gaze, finishing the cup. "Or perhaps I will stay in here a while longer," he says after.
"Rest. I'll bring you something to eat." Esca squeezes Marcus' arm, then rises from the edge of the cot.
"Bring yours in as well," Marcus calls softly after him.
Sassticca is by now in the kitchens and Esca tells her quickly that Marcus seems unwell. She piles fruit, bread and honey, and some dates onto a platter and pushes it into his hands. As Esca's walking back, Aquila appears. "Sir," Esca calls out to him, keeping his voice pitched so that Marcus should not be able to hear. "My master is not well. The leg wound bothers him more than ever, it is making him sick with fever. I should not be surprised if he needs a surgeon."
Aquila nods, his gaze fixed on Esca and his expression conveying clearly that he expected this day to come. "I know of a much better surgeon than the first one. I will make arrangements for him to come from Durinium." He gives Esca a long look. "Don't let my fool of a nephew argue with you."
"Sir, I would not," Esca promises, well aware of Marcus' usual attempts to pretend his leg has never been hurt.
Marcus is still leaning up against the wall, his eyes closed, one hand holding tightly to the blanket. The shadows underneath his eyes seem darker. "Come sit here beside me."
Esca settles on the cot again, careful of the food. "Can you feel it?" Marcus asks, and Esca nods. "Is it... as bad? I feel as though someone is driving one dagger through my thigh, and another through my temple."
"Because you are feverish," Esca says. As gently as he can manage, he loosens Marcus' fingers from their grip on the cloth. "Can you eat a little? Some apple?"
Marcus eats a few pieces of the apple and drinks another cup of water that Sassticca brings in a few minutes later, before closing his eyes again and shifting as though he can't get comfortable. "I can feel that you're worried," he mutters. The words are grouchy, but Esca will let that pass.
"Yes, I am worried," he replies honestly. "Why would it bring me joy to see you in pain?" He reaches to grip Marcus' hand tightly as he asks it.
Marcus mumbles something about Rome and Esca scoffs. "Don't be the fool your uncle insists you are," he chides. "You know I would have no other master."
Marcus' smile at that is small and lopsided, and there's a fierce tug in Esca's chest that's not his own. "Oh, Esca. If only..."
Esca looks at his face, so well-known by now, and asks, "If only what?", but Marcus does not reply, as he's dropped off into sleep once more. Esca should get up and complete his tasks for the day, but Cub comes padding in and rests his head on Esca's thigh, so Esca thinks he's all right to sit here with Marcus for a while longer.
"You mean - it is all to do again?" Marcus asks, looking stricken, and Esca feels the fear run through him as cold and swift as the river water over rocks. In the lamp-lit room, he can see the tightening of Marcus' mouth and wants to rush over to reassure him, but stays where he is.
Galarius lays a kindly hand on Marcus' shoulder. What Esca can see of the surgeon's face is set in a serious expression. "You will have no peace until the wound has been re-searched. What is left in there is making you ill, and if it is not done, you will lose the leg. Or your life."
Marcus nods shakily and asks "When?", and Galarius answers it will be done in the morning. Marcus turns his head so that Esca cannot see his face, but he can still feel Marcus' apprehension.
"My boy," Galarius says. His voice is gentle, but firm. "Once it is done, you will have it behind you, and there will be better things ahead."
Marcus nods. A great wave of exhaustion crashes through him, strong enough that Esca aches hard in sympathy, and he does cross the cell this time to linger near the foot of the cot. Marcus gives him a wan smile.
Galarius talks of a few more things, clearly trying to distract Marcus from his thoughts, but Esca does not hear most of it. After what seems a long time, the surgeon says he will go talk hunting with Aquila, and that Marcus should try to sleep so that he's well-rested for the morning.
Esca sits down on the side of the cot after Galarius has gone and signals a patiently waiting Cub that it's all right to visit Marcus now. "Ah, Cub," Marcus breathes, as the wolf puts his paws on the edge of the cot and his large head very close to Marcus'. Another few weeks, he will no longer fit on the cot with Marcus.
"He is worried about you," Esca says.
Marcus sighs, pressing a shaking hand over his eyes for a moment, then stroking Cub's neck. "And you?"
"Of course I am worried." Esca reaches out to squeeze Marcus's shoulder, then gently thumbs the pronounced line of his collarbone. "I do not like to see you ill."
"Galarius will need your help in the morning," Marcus murmurs. "You will do that for me?"
Esca fixes him with a sharp look, for that question is foolish and Marcus must know that. Esca would quite possibly push anyone else who tried to help out of the way, because it is his to do. "Who else but I should do it?"
Marcus seems to relax slightly at that, and Esca cups a hand over his knee, trying to feel reassuring for Marcus' sake. "There is no shame in being frightened of this," he adds, as soft as he can. "But I will share the pain with you and take what I can, I swear, Marcus."
Marcus shifts and pulls at Esca's tunic. "Will you lie down here with me?"
"Yes. Let me snuff out the lamps first." Esca extinguishes the flames, then removes his sandals. The cot is narrow but he's slept in much smaller and more uncomfortable places, and Marcus moves closer to the wall so that Esca has some room on the pillow. It's warm underneath the blanket. In the dark, he feels Marcus find his hand and squeeze so tight it's nearly painful.
"I'm glad you are here, my friend," Marcus whispers.
Esca grips his hand tightly in reply, not trusting himself with words.
The morning comes much sooner than Esca wants. In the dim light of the sunrise, he gathers rags and hot water for the surgeon while Marcus lies down on a long table, looking pale and apprehensive. "It will be over before you know it," Galarius assures him, then looks around for Esca. "Slave, where's that water?"
"Here, and there is more being kept hot in the kitchens should you need it."
Galarius unrolls his instruments beside the steaming bowl. The knives look very sharp, and Esca is glad that Marcus cannot see them from where he's lying. "I will need you to hold him," Galarius says to Esca, once he's had Marcus drink some foul-smelling herbal tincture. "He will only be awake a few moments, the pain will see to that, but he must not move."
Esca nods. He leans over Marcus as the surgeon readies the leg. "I will be right here the entire time," he murmurs, pitched only for Marcus' ears.
"I trust you," Marcus replies.
"Hold him now," Galarius says, and Esca leans all his weight on Marcus's shoulders. He sees Marcus' face twist in pain and Marcus cries out sharply, but moments later his eyes roll back in his head. Esca also feels the pain crest and shudders, not looking down at what the surgeon is doing, instead keeping his fingertips pressed to the place beneath Marcus' jaw where the blood beats the strongest, needing to feel him alive.
"Stassticca cooked this especially for you," he tells Marcus.
"I'm tired, Esca," Marcus breathes, not moving except for where his hands twitch restlessly on the blanket. He feels very far away.
Esca wraps his free hand around Marcus' wrist, stilling him. For a moment he's not sure what to say. Marcus' exhaustion is a dark thing, and heavy. Esca knows that his leg aches terribly, and that it's been almost stifling in the sleeping cell. He rubs his thumb back and forth over the thin skin on the inside of Marcus' wrist a few times, weighing his words carefully before he says, "You are making me tired."
Marcus' flinch is almost imperceptible.
"Eat," Esca says firmly. "You will get stronger."
Marcus nods and carefully takes the bowl. Esca watches until he's eaten nearly all of it.
After that he does not have to convince Marcus to look after his health, and a few days later, Esca helps him get to and from the courtyard. Simply sitting in the sunlight with Cub at his feet improves Marcus' mood immensely, and he takes to bringing some small task or whittling with him. He carves himself a sturdy walking stick and begins following the list of exercises that Galarius had laid out.
"Cub is now full grown," Esca says one day, as he helps Marcus to stretch his leg. "It may be time to offer him the chance to return to the wild."
Marcus' eyes grow wide. Esca knows the idea had not occurred to him. "He is still a wolf, Marcus," he adds softly. "I cannot say for sure if the wild longing still fills his soul. All there is to do is offer him the choice. He may stay."
Marcus turns his gaze to Cub, who is sniffing around the courtyard with his tongue hanging out. Esca pushes gently at Marcus' knee, holding his leg carefully. The visible scars on Marcus' thigh are still thick, red lines, but no longer angry nor hot to the touch. Esca smooths a salve Galarius left into the scars each night and feels a strange apprehension curl in Marcus much as it curls in his own belly. "Does it help, do you think?" he asked the night before, gentling his touch for a moment before stopping altogether.
"I do." Marcus glanced down at Esca's oil-slick hands. "You are good at this. I find myself looking forward to it every night."
Esca ducked his head, feeling heat rise in his face. "I must attend to the Centurion's clothing for the morning," he murmured, pressing the half-truth, and slipped out of the room before Marcus could call after him.
Now, Marcus groans softly at the stretch, then tilts his head on the rug beneath him and asks, "Do you think Cub would return?"
"I cannot say." Esca puts his other hand on Marcus' hip, holding it in line. "But I hope so."
"That makes two of us." Marcus takes a deep breath. His concentration is evident for the time Esca makes him stay in the same position; his eyes are closed and there's a wrinkle in the center of his forehead.
Esca eases Marcus' leg back down with care. "That's further than you could move it only a few days ago. I think soon you will be able to get up onto a horse again."
"Onto the horse, but likely not down again," Marcus says dryly, and Esca laughs.
Cub comes over and sticks his nose against Marcus' ear. Marcus wraps an arm around his neck and pretends to wrestle him, Cub's favorite game. Cub growls playfully and rolls to the ground with his paws in the air. Marcus pats the wolf's chest. "He grew up so large," he says to Esca. "When I was a child we had a few dogs that ran around the farm, but even the biggest of them was maybe half Cub's size."
"My brothers and I had a female pup seized much in the way I found Cub." Esca makes a face down at Cub when the wolf licks his arm.
"And did your wolf leave when offered the chance?"
"We thought she might," Esca admits. "She was never as affectionate as Cub can be. We went with her into a cool shady patch of woods - I remember it so clearly, although I was barely ten years - and she followed us right back out again. After that she came and went mostly as she pleased, but she was never gone more than an afternoon."
The next day, they begin taking Cub out to the place a mile past the outskirts of Calleva where the forest meets the hillside; at first Marcus moves slowly with his walking-stick and grip on Esca's shoulder, and Cub trotting up ahead and then waiting for them to catch up. With each trip, Marcus can walk a bit faster, and after a few weeks, he moves his tight grip on Esca's shoulder to a loose hand curled around Esca's elbow. There is often no other soul in sight. Esca, who will admit to himself that he enjoys their wanderings with Marcus keeping so close, is glad there is no one to see the Centurion and his slave.
Winter passes with Marcus training his body back to the strength he must have had as a Centurion. They spar nearly every morning, and walk Cub out to the hillside in the afternoon so that the wolf might remember the way home if he wants to return. Spring is in the air the day that they stop at the tree line and Marcus bends down to unbuckle the collar he'd made for Cub from around the wolf's neck. Esca watches as Marcus rubs Cub's soft ears before patting his head. "Go free, brother. Good hunting."
Esca moves a bit closer so that Marcus might hold his arm as Cub looks around for a moment, then takes off down the hill with his tail in the air. Sadness is plain on Marcus' face, and it throbs in Esca's chest. Then Marcus turns away from the sight and limps towards the trunk of a fallen birch tree that's nearby. His muscles are all strong, but the leg will always be twisted enough to disturb his gait.
Esca squats at Marcus' feet and watches down the hill. It is a good view, he supposes, for this part of Britain. Marcus must catch the fleeting feeling because he asks, "Do you like it here, Esca?" as he stretches his legs out in front of him.
"I like it as well as I can like a place that's not my own," Esca says, after thinking over the words. It is an honest answer. For all that Marcus treats him as a friend and not as property, Esca is still a slave. He wonders at times if Marcus might be reluctant to grant his freedom because he thinks that Esca might slip away into the undergrowth as Cub had done minutes ago.
Toutatis! He must know I could not leave him.
"Is the land all that different?" Marcus asks.
Esca considers the wooded hills before them. After a long silence he says, "It is not, but you must understand that for me, it is not the look of the land."
Marcus reaches down to take his hand and squeeze. "Esca…"
Esca looks at their fingers wound together. A painful ache sweeps through him, enough to prickle the corners of his eyes, and he hears Marcus' swift intake of breath. "What is it? Esca, what is it?"
Esca shakes his head, not trusting himself to speak in this moment. He wants to shift away but feels Marcus lift his hand and then there are lips pressed warmly to his knuckles. "You don't have to say," Marcus murmurs, his breath ghosting over Esca's skin and making Esca shiver despite himself. "I will watch the forest for Cub."
Esca sits with his eyes closed for a while, listening to the sounds of the woods, birds calling, and Marcus' even breathing. It's likely foolish, to feel like this, but he thinks that Marcus feels the same way - if the tight grip he keeps on Esca's hand is any indication.
It's strange, being in the small room without Cub. The place seems too quiet without his snuffling noises, and Esca already misses the warmth where Cub would often press up against his leg. From the atrium he can hear bits of conversation; Aquila's stately and often booming voice, the visitor with the loud laugh - that must be Aquila's old cohort-mate the Legate of Victrix, whom Aquila had told Marcus he hadn't seen in many a year. "That is often how it is with soldiers," Aquila said placidly. "And yet it is possible to pick up again as though no time has passed at all."
Esca cannot hear enough to make it all out, and it's after he's taken care of Marcus' clothing and mended some of his own that he hears Marcus cry out in a delighted tone, and Marcus' happiness pulses through him. He's on his feet before even thinking and waiting at the doorway, and then down the hall he sees a familiar wolf-shape, and the joy swells in his own chest. "Cub!"
"He has returned," Marcus calls breathlessly. Esca reaches out and Cub presses his great head to Esca's palm. Esca strokes his fur slowly, pleased. He can see the collar around Cub's neck again, and Cub's tail is swinging happily.
"Oh, Esca, I am now in much better spirits," Marcus says. There's a wide smile on his face and Esca does not even think on what he's about to do, simply urges Marcus forward by his belt and puts his arms around him. Marcus embraces him close in return. Esca feels Cub press against their legs.
Marcus sighs and makes no move to release Esca, instead holding tighter, so that Esca feels breathless himself. "The Legate's companion is that soldier you told me about from the hunt," Marcus says in Esca's ear, and Esca feels a flicker of anger in him. "The one you said was smooth like a girl, who insulted you."
Centurion Placidius. Esca finds himself chuckling. "There are worse insults."
Marcus draws back a bit, far enough to look Esca in the face. "I admit the urge rose in me to defend your honor."
"Ah!" Esca laughs, but lifts a hand to touch Marcus' cheek, soft and swift. "Must you go back to converse with them some more?"
"We have parted to bathe before dinner."
Esca nods and steps back. "There is fresh water here; let me help."
Although Marcus could have always requested Esca's help in bathing, he had only allowed it when his leg was the worst and even the strength spent washing his face left him pale and shaking. "I am neither an old man nor an invalid," he said. "And you must rinse your own skin, yes?"
Esca has never argued with that. But tonight he feels he might yank the cloth straight from Marcus' hands if he has to, that it is his to wipe the dust and sweat from Marcus' face and arms. Emotion swells in his chest, pushing hard on his lungs. "Is this you feeling such things or is it me?" he asks, managing the words without choking. "Marcus, I -"
Marcus leans in and presses his mouth to Esca's. The Roman kiss, Esca thinks, as his hands grip Marcus' shoulders of their own accord. Marcus' lips are warm and he smells of wine, and when he pulls back, Esca feels almost dizzy. Marcus' eyes are wide, apprehensive. He asks, "Was that all right?".
Esca nods. He takes a deep breath to clear his head. "You should bathe."
"Might I kiss you again first?"
Esca nods again. He feels Marcus' gentle hand cup the back of his head, and Marcus opens his mouth this time, and Esca registers that Marcus' tongue is touching his lips, so he opens his mouth as well. Oh, he thinks, feeling dazed.
"Has no one ever kissed you before?" Marcus asks a few moments later, close by Esca's ear. He makes it sound as though he's happy to be the one introducing it, and not like he thinks Esca should have been kissed by someone before now.
Marcus makes a pleased sound at that, and kisses Esca's earlobe, then down his neck. "Marcus," Esca hurries to say, because he feels like he would stay in the moment forever otherwise, "Marcus, don't you need to bathe? And go out to eat dinner with your uncle's guests?"
"Oh." Marcus seems to shake himself. "As always, you remain my voice of reason, Esca."
Esca goes to the bowl of water and wets the cloth. "You must stop me if I linger too long on this," he makes himself say. He doesn't miss the way Marcus' eyes darken at that, but then he nods.
Esca washes Marcus' face first, trying to remain mindful of the fact that he doesn't have the time to spend on this that he'd like to, then wipes the day's dust from Marcus' neck, arms, and hands. "I'll get you a fresh tunic," he murmurs when he's finished.
Marcus catches his arm and kisses him again, quickly. "It would be rude of me to keep my uncle's guests waiting, yes?"
Esca has to laugh at that. "Yes," he replies, but he doesn't move any faster in helping Marcus settle the soft white tunic over his head.
"Shall Cub stay with you?" Marcus asks, once he's buckled the belt around his waist. He's still close enough to touch.
Esca glances down at Cub where he's sitting in the doorway as if guarding them from anyone who might look. "He is your wolf. I'm so glad he's returned, but I will visit with him later."
Marcus steps back and Esca misses him immediately. He strokes a hand over Cub's head in an attempt to cover the feeling, then feels Marcus touch his chin. "Will you share my bed tonight?" Marcus asks. The expression on his face is such that Esca can hardly bear to look, but cannot fathom looking away.
Esca nods, not trusting his voice. Marcus looks at him a moment longer then whistles low for Cub to follow him back to the atrium. Esca picks up his mending again, but stares down at it without seeing, unable to think of anything but the way Marcus had embraced him, and how it had felt like they were sharing one single emotion between them.
The sound of conversation reaches him again after a while, and he can hear Marcus speaking more this time. Eventually he convinces his hands to return to their tasks once more, and is shining up the buckle on a belt when he hears Marcus call, "Esca! Hi! Esca!".
He slips through the house on light feet. Marcus, Aquila, and the guests have finished dinner and are reclining on their couches with wine. "The Centurion called?"
"I have the thought to go North of the Wall and reclaim my father's lost Eagle," Marcus says. Esca feels the thrill in him, and his face is shining with excitement in the light of the lamps.
"North of the Wall," Esca repeats in Latin, questioning.
"I still think it to be a fool's errand," Aquila says to Marcus, ignoring Esca completely.
Marcus is still looking at Esca. He asks, "You will come with me?"
Out of Calleva, with Marcus at his side. Esca does not hesitate. "I will come."
Aquila is now shaking his head. "This is lunacy," he says, waving a hand at Marcus but also indicating Esca as well. "Sheer lunacy."
"One man might get through where an entire Legion could not," the Legate says to Aquila. He splashes some water into his wine-cup. "And your nephew is willing to go, my friend."
Marcus beckons Esca closer, and Esca leans his head down so that Marcus might murmur in his ear. "As long as you come with me, I believe I have a plan." He brushes a quick hand over Esca's arm. "Let me convince my uncle, and I will explain it to you later."
Esca nods and withdraws from the room. He gets a quick dinner from Stassticca in the kitchens, then stands in the doorway of Marcus' quarters, looking at the weapons and clothing stored in various places. He wonders how long they will be gone; how much they'll have to carry. Already his hands long for bow and arrow to hunt the Northern forests. He'd been given Marcus' old one when the one they'd made last Spring had been completed; both of them lean now in the corner, the wood shining, waiting to be restrung.
Cub comes into the room ahead of Marcus and Esca drops to his knees to rub Cub's ears and lean his cheek against Cub's head. "You were hardly gone any time at all but I missed you," he whispers. "Did you have a great adventure in the woods?"
Cub makes a soft whining noise and rests his muzzle on Esca's shoulder. Esca strokes his fur, sinking his fingers into the thickness of it. To Marcus he says, "Were they scared of Cub, your uncle's guests?"
"Startled at first, but Cub came right to me, and put his head between my knees as a dog might." Marcus replies, stopping next to Esca. He holds out a slim roll of papyrus.
"What is it?" Esca asks as he opens it. "I can make out the capitals, but other than that…"
"Your manumission - your freedom," Marcus says quietly, as Esca stares down at the papyrus. The ink seems barely dry. "I made it out this evening, and Uncle Aquila and the Legate witnessed it. I ought to have given it to you a long time ago, Esca."
Esca looks at him, then at the scroll again. Confusion swirls through him, and Cub presses tightly against his leg. "I am free? Free to leave?"
Marcus sits down heavily on the edge of the cot, folding his hands in his lap. His expression is serious. "You are free, Esca."
Something hot ricochets upwards in Eca's chest and he nearly crumples the papyrus. A long silence stretches between them before he can find the words he needs to ask. "Are you - are you sending me away?"
"Mithras, no!" Marcus nearly shouts it, his eyes wide, looking dumbfounded. He slides to the floor next to Esca, balancing oddly due to his leg, and nudges Cub hurriedly out of the way before reaching to grasp Esca's hand. Relief floods Esca so quickly he feels it all the way to his fingertips. "How could I ever - your soul is twin to mine," Marcus says quietly. "It is for you to choose. I was a fool to wait so long."
"I have no wish to leave you," Esca replies. He makes himself loosen his grip on the papyrus, then smooths it out again so he can roll it up to put somewhere safe in a moment or two. Cub whuffles and rests his muzzle on Esca's thigh.
"I doubt I would get far, if I even tried," Esca adds. "But Marcus, what of this mission for the lost Eagle? You still wish me to come?"
"I could not bear go without you. But I would not force any slave to accompany me into what may prove to be a wild and dangerous hunt. This is the right way. This way, I know you are choosing to come."
"I am excited to leave Calleva with you," Esca admits, and Marcus smiles widely at that.
Marcus settles himself more carefully on the floor and leans in to brush his mouth over Esca's. "This is still all right?"
"Yes. I like it."
"I'm glad." Marcus kisses beneath his ear, and Esca shivers. "I was going to tell you my plan," Marcus murmurs, still with his lips near Esca's neck.
"Yes, tell me." He moves closer to Marcus, sliding himself between Marcus' splayed knees. Cub makes a grumpy sound and shifts, curling up next to them instead, nose to tail.
"Do you remember Rufrius Galarius' mention of the oculist who plied his trade the whole of Hibernia?" Marcus asks, and Esca shakes his head, because that was the time Marcus was in pain with his leg and Esca could think of no more than that, much less remember tales told by the surgeon in an effort to distract him. "If an oculist's stamp will carry a man safely through Hibernia and home again, surely it would see us through Valentia and Caledonia."
"And you mean to learn to tend sore eyes, to support this ruse?"
"I will learn enough to get us through," Marcus says confidently. "I shall pay a visit to Rufrius Galarius in Durinium, and obtain some salves and the basic knowledge to apply them."
Esca leans into him a little further. "You have given this some thought, Marcus."
"Once the idea came to me that we might look for the Eagle, it was like the map for how to do it appeared almost fully formed in my head." Esca can sense that wondrous feeling swelling in Marcus again as he says it. "Surely this is something we are meant to do, if I can see laid out in front of me so clearly the way to go about it."
"The North is still wild," Esca feels compelled to point out. "Rome would not have built such a wall if it were conquered, and the scar from the helmet-strap I still see beneath your chin is telling."
Marcus lifts a hand to touch it. He looks mulish for a brief second. "I shall grow a beard."
"Any beard you attempt will be patchy at best," Esca replies lightly.
Marcus laughs at that, saying, "I only need one particular patch," before bringing his mouth to Esca's again. Esca feels Marcus' arm tighten around his waist. "What you asked me before," Marcus breathes, "about which of us it was who felt so strongly - is it not both of us, Esca?"
Esca is almost certain of it. He kisses Marcus first this time, hoping to impress upon him the strength of his feelings, and Marcus' grip tightens further. The wool of the white tunic is soft beneath Esca's hand where it rests on Marcus' shoulder; he can feel the warmth of the skin beneath. Marcus tugs at him, pulling Esca up onto his knees, and Esca winds his fingers through Marcus' hair as Marcus kisses down his neck all the way to the line of his rough tunic. "Will you take this off?" Marcus asks.
Esca nods and unbuckles his belt. Carefully, Marcus gathers the material in his hands and lifts it up over Esca's head, then sets it aside. He skims his hands down Esca's arms, tangles their fingers together. "Cub," he says to the wolf. "Guard the door."
Cub gets up and pads across the small sleeping-cell to the entryway, where he settles with his head facing out into the hallway, and Esca watches Marcus smile after him.
"Now that you have freed me, I can tell you," Esca hears himself say in a quiet, even voice. "There has been many a time that I thought to myself that this has not been slave-service, but Esca serving Marcus. You hardly asked anything of me that went beyond simple assistance."
He lifts their hands to press against his chest. "I was angry at first, that our souls were intertwined, but you have never treated me as anything less than a friend. After the anger faded I was mostly irritated that I preferred your company to all others, and even that irritation has been swept away with time."
Marcus looks at him for a long moment. "I was lonely."
"As was I," Esca replies, and kisses him again. Then he tugs at Marcus' belt. "Take this off?"
Marcus unbuckles it swiftly, and ducks out of the tunic. After setting it aside, he slides his hands up Esca's thighs, and Esca shivers. Marcus pulls at him, tugging Esca closer, nearly onto his lap. "Marcus, your leg," Esca whispers.
"It's fine for this," Marcus replies hurriedly, hands settling on Esca's hips, and Esca feels hot, then chilled, then hot again all over. "Jupiter! How I have wanted to touch you before now but thought better of it, lest you level me with that cold look of yours and never speak a word to me again."
Esca thinks on that for a moment, turning Marcus' words over several times before he says, "It was for the best that you didn't - but freedom or not, I would have shared your bed tonight. You could not have kept me away."
Marcus' kiss this time is hot and hard, and Esca is gratified by the way Marcus moans into it. He puts his hands on Marcus' shoulders, feeling the lines and curves of bone under the smooth skin, places he's washed before when Marcus was on his sickbed but never really touched.
"Esca," Marcus breathes, as Esca works his fingers into Marcus' short hair and pulls, but gently. Marcus turns his head into it and Esca can feel the throb of want in him as heavy as he feels the thrill of being allowed to touch Marcus like this, hand still tight in Marcus' hair. "Esca, you would make me beg?"
"For what?" Esca asks, sliding his fingers down Marcus' throat to rest at the place where the blood rushes strongest. The memory of placing his fingertips here while Marcus lay white-faced and motionless as the surgeon re-opened his leg rises in Esca's mind, but it is easy to push back down. He repeats: "For what?"
Marcus takes his hand and draws it down his chest. "Your hands on me."
Esca holds his fingertips against Marcus' belly and looks at him, not quite comprehending, hoping his confusion will echo through their bond. "We have spent so long, me what telling you what to do," Marcus murmurs. The heat emanating from him soaks into Esca, inside and out. "Now I'd like you to tell me what you'd like… what you'd like me to do."
"Ah." The sound escapes him without thought as he focuses on what Marcus is feeling; what he finds makes him shudder. Marcus wants Esca to simply take what he wants. The thought rings in his ears and pulses hot in his chest.
Marcus' own shiver is palpable all the places Esca is touching him as he says, "I very much enjoy that you can feel what I feel. It -" he stops, and pulls Esca even closer, then kisses him. Esca is now fully on Marcus' lap. He can feel Marcus' cock hard against his thigh, and knows Marcus must be able to feel his.
He bites gently at Marcus' lower lip. "Perhaps we should move from the floor."
Marcus makes a disagreeable sound, but Esca unfolds himself carefully from Marcus' lap and stands up. "Get up, Marcus," he says. "It will be more comfortable for both of us."
When Marcus stands, Esca unties his subligaculum and leaves it with their tunics, then undoes his own. They have each seen the other naked countless times; there are no new scars or freckles for Esca to let his gaze linger over, but he looks anyway, because Marcus flushes even more the longer Esca looks. Esca pushes him down onto the blankets, then crawls on top of him.
Marcus stares up at him with wide eyes and Esca can't help but smile. "I do like to look at you," he says, "because it's my hard work, too, reflected in your strength."
Marcus makes a desperate noise at that and wraps an arm tightly around Esca's waist, pulling them closer together. Esca finds Marcus' free wrist and circles it with his fingers, squeezing, then finds Marcus' mouth for yet another kiss. Marcus makes another gratifying sound and Esca feels like the heat in his belly has grown hotter, more fuel added to the fire. He rubs his cock against Marcus' thigh and finds that makes Marcus grow louder, and his trembling increase. "You like that I - that I use you? Keep you pressed down like this?" Esca whispers in his ear, testing out the words as he says them, and Marcus groans again. "If you do, I shall bring myself to completion like this, and let you finish after."
"Please," Marcus gasps. He pushes up against Esca but they are fairly evenly matched in size, and right now Esca has the advantage. "Please, Esca."
Every bit of Esca feels as though it's been set ablaze, one part at a time, until he's consumed. Marcus looks no less affected, his eyes closed, his head tipped back against the furs. Esca leans down to tuck his face against Marcus' neck and taste the skin there, as he rubs his cock against Marcus' thigh. It's nearly perfect, he thinks, even though he feels like parts of him are breaking like the thin ice on the river, never to be the same.
"Esca, please." Marcus sounds as though he's near tears.
"Ssh," Esca breathes, pressing his mouth to the soft skin beneath Marcus' ear. He feels Marcus' hand slide up his chest, fingertips tracing the lines of the tattoos.
Marcus shakes his head and Esca catches his chin, thumbing lightly over the scar. "What is it?"
"You wouldn't -" Marcus stops, but Esca can feel the rest of the question unfurl between them, flickering like the light from the palm-oil lamps.
"I have no wish to leave you, but I understand why you have to ask." He whispers it in Marcus' ear, still sliding against Marcus' thigh. "I would ask the same were our positions reversed. Now, stop talking."
Marcus shudders at the direction and clutches at him, and Esca leans on him a little more, keeping his shoulders pressed to the deerskin beneath them. Mine, mine, mine, thunders in Esca's breast. The feeling expands with every breath he takes and the echo he feels in Marcus is just as bright.
Chilurnium is soon well behind them. As the sun begins to dip, they ride into a narrow glen, lush with greenery and a small stream. It looks to Esca a good place to rest, and Marcus must agree, for they both slow their mares without conversation. The hills around them buzz with sound that's all nature; they have seen no other men since leaving the Wall, and Esca is glad for it. Away from the inn where they'd spent the last few nights, he feels almost as though he and Marcus are the only two in the whole of Britain. It's a feeling he wants to tuck away to cherish privately, while his soul seems to call out yes, mine every second that Esca rests his gaze on Marcus' form.
With the horses watered and set to graze, he stretches out beneath one of the many sweet-smelling rowan trees. Marcus' plan has them criss-crossing the land, working northward with every cast, hunting down any rumor of a disappeared legion. It seems to Esca to be a good way to go about it, even though it could take many months.
Marcus eases down beside him with a few broken sticks in his hands. "What are you doing?" Esca asks after a while, watching Marcus use his knife to cut up squares of turf and arrange them in some way Esca does not comprehend at first.
"Building an altar, here in the place of our first halt. To Mithras, the Light of the Sun."
Mithras is not Esca's god, but he watches Marcus' strong hands arrange the pieces of sod into an altar and place the bits of wood in place for a fire. Marcus looks happy, intent on his work, and he smiles at Esca when he glances up again. "I am glad you are here," he says.
"And as I have told you countless times, I am glad to be here," Esca replies, returning the smile.
Marcus leans over to kiss him briefly, then asks for the flint and steel which Esca carries. Esca watches as he strikes a good spark, then coaxes the flames to life, catching the broken pieces of tree-branch and scattered heather blossoms. Marcus rubs the dirt from his hands, then closes his eyes in prayer, and Esca lets his gaze rest on Marcus' sunlit face. His features are almost as well-known to Esca now as his own, and it brings Esca joy to look at him.
Toutatis, did you know? he asks, remembering their first sight of one another.
Marcus tilts his head slightly. "I always give thanks that you are by my side, Esca," he murmurs, reaching out.
Esca lets himself be drawn close and settles his head on Marcus' shoulder, breathing the honeyed scent of the rowan trees and listening to the hum in the air as the bees go from blossom to blossom in the branches above their heads, and the sound of the mares grazing nearby. He does not know what the gods have in store for them tomorrow or any day after that, on this wild hunt in a wild land, but Esca feels a keen pleasure in the unknown adventure of it.
"You are happy about something," Marcus murmurs in his ear, his beard tickling against Esca's neck.
Esca curls their fingers together, gripping tightly. "We are free out here, the both of us."