Esca’s expression is disapproving.
Marcus can remember a time when he thought Esca was too quiet. He barely spoke, and when he did, his Latin was short and purposeful. Esca walked more quietly carrying buckets across hard stone floors than some people did when they were hunting. Sometimes, he didn’t even seem to breathe, as silent and still as a snake waiting for a mouse to come into range. It had felt restful, something both opaque and empty in comparison to the nagging care of his uncle, which demanded he respond, answer, try.
Sometimes, it amazes him that he ever thought that, because Esca has the loudest silences imaginable.
“It’s a gentle slope,” Marcus argues. “And high enough up we wouldn’t need to worry if the river floods.”
“If we were further west, we wouldn’t need to worry about the river at all,” Esca says.
“You’d miss the fish,” Marcus says. “And you’ll be happy for it in the summer. We could build up here… I think we could get a vineyard started this year, if we can find someone to sell us the vines.”
“And someone to teach us how to grow them?”
Marcus waves off his concern. “I’ll tell you a secret; every roman believes that he knows how to grow and make good wine, even the ones that have never set foot outside of room or seen a grapevine growing anywhere but on the side of their apartment block. We’ll have to hide to avoid people wanting to teach us.”
The slope up to the top of the hill isn’t actually that gentle. Not a hard walk, but... well, he can’t say Esca’s wrong, to say he regret it some days. This isn’t Italy or Spain, some place where it’s sensible to build where you can catch the wind. Britain isn’t always cold, but it’s rarely hot enough for you to want the shaded courtyards and open rooms of, say, Spain. No need to build houses to take advantage of even a slight breeze. It’d be sensible to build it down in the valley -and maybe he will let Esca wear him down, make practical arguments to win him over.
But Marcus has fallen a little in love with the view from here, at the top of the slope. The land rises and falls in irregular waves around them before disappearing out of view. He can already imagine how it’ll look in autumn, clouds clinging like smoke against the reds and ambers of the turning trees like campfires. Welcoming.
“Some horses,” Marcus adds, which is a bribe for both of them. “Sheep, too.” A few sheep for milk and meat, maybe-- well, he wasn’t a farmer, but they could hire someone to shear them, sell the wool too. A good homestead, the officially approved dream for all ex-soldiers, and which he hadn’t thought he’d ever want.
Esca sighs and then drops next to him. He likes the thought of that too, that he won’t even have to think to know where Esca is. In his uncle’s house, there are enough rooms for them both to disappear into, but here-- even ifn Esca wasn’t in sight, was over where the forest drifted on to the edge of the valley or on the other side of the hill,
he’ll always know that Esca was here, on their land.
Right now, even staring straight up into the blue, cloudless sky, he knows Esca is next to him. The ground is warm underneath them.
“I’m not a farmer,” Esca says.
“I am,” Marcus says. “All romans are, in our hearts. We pride ourselves on it.” He doesn’t have to look to see Esca’s expression. “Horses,” he says again. “And wine, and sheep.”
And a house nestled into the hill.
Aquila, senior, is appropriately grateful when Placidus hands over the message from the legate. It is somehow still irritating - Aquila is gracious when he thanks him, but in a way that makes it less about the respect Placidus is owed and more about the courtesy Aquila chooses to give.
It’s nothing Placidus could say out loud, but he knows it’s there. But he wouldn’t be tribune if he couldn’t overlook such thing, for the sake of his career. “And your nephew?” Placidus says. “Does he live with you still?”
He has no interest in Marcus Flavius, of course, but he’s sensible enough to know that an association would benefit him. It’s glory of a type he-- well, that it’s not within his purview to obtain. His reputation would be enhanced in certain quarters by a perceived friendship.
“He’s building a villa,” Aquila says. “Well, a farm, but I’m persuading him to let Rome reward him with something more substantial than just the land.”
“A farm?” Placidus says. There’s nothing wrong with farming, of course - it’s proper, even, to have a farm in the countryside to visit. A proper Roman should have a farm, but that doesn’t mean he should exile himself to it. “Where? Your family are from Tuscany, aren’t they--”
“Here,” Aquila says, as if the news is something to be proud of. “He’s chosen to take it here.”
Marcus Flavius had brought back the eagle. Marcus Flavius had given Rome back the honour that his father had lost, had had men acting is reclaiming it was somehow more noteworthy than never losing it in the first place.
And then Marcus Flavius Aquila had turned and poured half that honour over his barbarian slave, as if it meant nothing to him to waste it like that.
Did Marcus Flavius take his slave - his freedman - with him?
“And his… freedman. Esca?’
“Oh, him too.” Aquila gives him a look, a look that says Placidus cannot understand, and he pities him for it.
It’s the look he gets from men like Aquila, veterans, a lot.The look that calls him, not weak so much as juvenile. Men like Aquila, like both Aquilas, that considered themselves above him because they’d chosen to serve Rome wearing a helmet. Men who would talk about loyalty and honour as if they took full possession of it the moment they picked up a sword. Men who, even if they were in a Gaulish legion, even if they’d been in the east for twenty years, who took an Iceni wife, men who wore trousers, somehow considered themselves more Roman than Placidus himself.
Men like Marcus Flavius, who gained Rome’s favour and then chose to squander it on this godforsaken country, lowering themselves until they were on a level with any of the local tribes.
He makes his excuses and heads back to his doma - not his as such, of course, but his as long as he’s in his godsforsaken country.
It’s raining, that British rain that sinks into the skin, no matter how many layers he wear. It’s another reminder why his stay in this country is temporary. Has to be temporary.
He can’t stop thinking about Marcus Flavius Aquila and his-- and Esca.
Marcus is not a good Roman, not a real Roman-- not even Italian. He’s like his uncle, too in love with Britain, enough to turn his back on their homeland. Even the Romans born here seem more tied to Rome herself than Marcus Flavius does. Marcus Flavius will find himself some nice Celtish wife and bury himself in this country.
Unless, of course, he already has. Unless he had gone far enough beyond the pale to take his Brigantes “comrade” as a lover-- or worse, for his former slave to take him. The thought alone makes Placidus--
--makes him uncomfortable. It makes him uncomfortable, makes his skin prickle and his stomach clench. The way Marcus Flavius had looked at Esca, the way Esca had looked back. Bad enough then, but worse with this new speculation in his mind.
When they’d walked away, leaving the eagle behind them, as if the two of them were on one side of a wall with everyone else on the other.
It was windy enough that Marcus had to lean into it, making his way to the house. Not cold enough to think about bringing the horses in, but he’d think about pitching the old army tent for them if it got much worse.
When he got in, Esca was sitting in front of the fire. He was looking down at something suspended in his hand, turning in the light, and Marcus realised that the thing he’d been carving for the last week was a spindle.
“You’re spinning,” he said. Esca looked up, his face slightly flushed from the fire
“It’s as good a time as any,” Esca said. “Not much else to do, until the rain stops.”
“Is there enough light?”
Esca shrugs. “You do it by feel as much as anything else.”
Most of the time, Marcus thought of Esca as Esca - Brigantes, yes, with all the differences in custom and habit that brought with it, but the things that would have felt foreign if Marcus had seen them in someone else, never seemed strange when Esca did them. Esca would do things that were unRoman, but Esca was not Roman. As if, Esca being Esca, everything he was permissible in service of that.
But it was-- not wrong, never wrong, but strange to see Esca spin. Watching his hand keeping the spindle turning, stretching the cloud of wool into tight thread, as confident as any woman. Strange in a way it wouldn’t be if was any other Briton, because Esca wasn’t a freeman or a foreigner, an outsider. He was Marcus’s, of Marcus’s home and family. His brother, or not a brother, but. Part of him.
He was knew Esca’s hands as well as he knew his own. He’d seen them steady on a bow-string, clever picking through a fishing net, firm and kind petting a horse. He’d seen them, even, on Marcus’s own skin, carefully cleaning his wounds. Esca still did that, even it was just a scratch on the back of Marcus’s arm, not trusting Marcus to take care of even small injuries.
But now, there was a weird sense of them being as familiar as ever, and not. As if he’d never seen them before.
“I didn’t know you could spin,” Marcus said, aware he’d been staring at Esca’s hands too long. There was a kettle next to the fire, smelling vaguely green with one of Esca’s tisanes, and he busied himself with pouring a cup.
It didn’t mean anything Esca spinning, not the way it would if Marcus did. If he brought it up, Esca would probably look at him; the look he gave when he thought Marcus’s Roman ways were strange and senseless. Marcus wasn’t even sure he had the right words to explain it, even to himself.
“Of course, all children of the Brigantes can,” Esca said, sounding slightly offended. “Not just children, but all children.” He grinned. Marcus felt his heart stutter a little. “It kept us busy, especially in bad weather. But only…” he hesitated, the way he did when Latin lacked words. “I only made thread and cloth for things. Blankets, tents. Animals. Maybe to trade with another tribe.”
“Not--” Marcus plucked at his tunic. “Not for clothes?”
Esca shook his head. “Not until-- not when you were a child. It’s… not forbidden, but not… not right, to spin thread for someone, for a person, when you’re still a child.”
Marcus frowned. “What does that mean?”
He shrugged. “My tribe-- my grandmother said that you put yourself into it, when you spin. You change it, you move it from fleece to thread to cloth, and when you do, you put whatever you were thinking in with it. Good intent, bad. It’s not safe for children to spin or weave for people. Or not…” he looked up and away. Marcus couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed or just struggling to find the right word. “Lucky,” Esca said, dropping his gaze to look at Marcus.. “It’s not lucky-- we didn’t think it was lucky or safe.”
“A good Roman woman spins and weaves for her family,” Marcus said. “That’s the ideal, anyway.”
“It’s considered women’s work.’” Marcus looked down at his cup. “It’s part of her--” he made a gesture at the house. “Her domain, her responsibility. Augustus boasted about how the women of his household made his clothes. He lived in a palace, but his wife and daughter still wove his toga.” He took another sip of his drink. “I helped my mother, sometimes,” he said. The words were out before he could think about them, and it wasn’t something he’d have told anyone - a warm memory, but not one he could share. Of course, some men were weavers, but not men like Marcus. Not like the kind of Roman Marcus was meant to be.
But Esca wasn’t roman, wouldn’t know why Marcus, citizen and soldier and son of a soldier, should feel embarassed by the memory.
And. It was Esca, and the thought of there being anything left of Marcus kept from seemed absurd. Insulting, almost.
Marcus nodded and stole a quick glance at Esca. He’d stopped spinning, the spindle resting, lightly held against one leg, the distaff still held next to him.
“Yes.” In his memory, everything was shaded gold and terracotta, warm sunshine turning the pale cloth into gold. His mother was impossibly tall, her hands moving high above him as she moved the shuttle through the cloth. Letting him hold the wooden bar to shift the threads, as if she couldn’t do it himself. He’d leant against her leg and watched carefully as the cloth would slowly form, comforted by her calm, her quiet surety, happy to be quiet and sharing that time with her.
Sometimes, when they got to end of the cloth, she’d let him take over. He’d been too small to stand in the middle and pass the shuttle the arms width length of the cloth, like she did, and would have to walk the shuttle across the loom. He’d been proud to help her, even though now, he knows it must have been slower than if she’d done it all herself. The thought doesn’t ruin the memory, but it changes it. He wasn’t making her work easier; she was giving him that shared moment as a gift.
He looks away from the memory and back at Esca. Esca is looking at him, as strong as the day he’d held Marcus down when the surgeon cut into him. Strong as that day in the river.
“Can’t spin, though,” he said, loud to break the mood.
“It’s a long winter,” Esca said. “I can teach you.”
It’s early, and Esca hasn’t quite out of sleeping in on the long, slow mornings of winter.
But the fish like mornings. Marcus goes to check the snares for any early morning hares and Esca checks on the horses, and then they meet again by the river at the bottom of the valley. It’s an easy way to start the mornings, especially when the ground is still too cold for most planting.
Today, Marcus gets there first. He’s sitting on the log they dragged over for just this purpose, line in the river. It’s not the most practical method of fishing - really, they should find someone to weave some baskets to leave in the water - but it’s as good a way of passing the time as any.
Esca sits down next to Marcus. He tugs Marcus’s cloak more securely around him, and in the process, tugs him over to kiss him. There’s a second - there’s alway a second - where Marcus looks surprised, before he leans in to it.
Marcus’s new cloak is loosely woven, not intentionally, and really too narrow for Marcus’s broad shoulders. Not as warm or as practical as his others.
It eases something in Esca to see Marcus wearing it anyway.
He breaks the kiss to lean against Marcus’s side, and let the world wake around them.