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Things to Consider in a Villa with Rather Thin Walls

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When Marcus wakes up, the fever is back. He has a violent, throbbing headache, and the panic that surges at that is fogged and delirious. He fails to open his eyes, so he lies still, waiting for the pain to pass and for anything to make sense. He digs through the dizziness in his head to find his memories, to figure out if those good ones – returning to Calleva, the eagle in his hands, Esca – are real. At the moment, everything kind of feels like a fever dream.

It takes him a while to truly wake up. The headache doesn’t disappear, but the world stops consisting entirely of fog and bouts of pain. He manages to open his eyes – tedious like lifting a field pack after a long march – and blinks a few times before his eyes adjust enough that the light doesn’t make his head sting like he took an arrow to the forehead.

He’s in Calleva. He recognises the room as the one he got familiar with before the journey, the one that started feeling like home after their return. He’s on the bed, too, which he counts as an achievement, and he’s... not wrapped around Esca, that would sound a lot less accidental than his position is. He’s slumped half on top of Esca, with an arm thrown halfway across his chest and halfway across his face in a way that can’t be comfortable, but Esca is apparently too passed out to care.

Marcus removes the arm from his face and instinctively pulls him closer, covering their shoulders with the blanket, because it’s icy cold and they’re not wearing clothes.

Slowly, his head starts clearing up enough to distinguish between memories and dream images. Whatever dreams brought back the chill of the highlands and the ache of the fever are picking up on the cold in the room and the headache that he can now identify as a brutal hangover. The fever made him sweat even in the icy water. Now he’s just freezing.

The last thing he remembers is pouring undiluted wine into a cup, because Esca dared him to try it, while his uncle intently conversed with his Saturnalia dinner guests. There isn’t much more he can remember. He isn’t sure if he wants to, either. It’s been some time since he properly celebrated Saturnalia, and apparently he isn’t as youthful anymore as he likes to make himself believe.

Another while passes, during which Marcus squeezes his eyes shut and tries to expel the headache by breathing deeply and evenly. It doesn’t work. Eventually, Esca stirs in his arms, pulls the blanket closer and lets out a quiet groan of agony. It’s nice to know that Marcus is not alone.

“Morning,” Marcus says – his throat is sore and his voice heavy like his head and all of his limbs – and flinches at the volume of his own words. Esca does the same.

“Don’t talk.”

Marcus doesn’t object. Instead, he buries his face in the crook of Esca’s neck and waits for his head to stop killing him.

They lie there for a while, eyes shut against the winter morning light, and breathing in tandem. It seems like the only sensible thing to do for as long as every word out of either of their mouths makes their heads wreak havoc.

As the headache subsides further, though, Marcus’ awareness of the world around him heightens, and it becomes increasingly more obvious that they and the bed reek of gone-cold sweat.

It’s disgusting. Esca seems to notice it too, because he shifts again and says, “We should wash, at least.”

Marcus can’t say if he’s whispering or just hoarse. At least Esca’s voice doesn’t do much to his head, so that’s progress.

He makes a vague sound of agreement. Neither of them moves to get up. Marcus lifts his head, just a little, and opens his eyes to look at the blurred shape of Esca far too close to his face.

“You remember much from last night?” he asks. Talking is worse than hearing someone else talk, not because of his head but because of his throat.

Esca heaves his arm up and lets it drop across his face to cover his closed eyes. “No.”

“Me neither.”

“Your uncle had guests over,” Esca says after a moment. He still sounds like shit.

Marcus rolls over a bit, so he isn’t lying on top of him anymore, and attempts a smile. “That’s where you passed out?”

His everything hurts. Moving was a mistake.

“Somewhere along the line. Late enough to remember how drunk we got,” Esca says. It’s hard to tell, but he sounds strangely pleased. “I wonder what those Tyrian stripes think about us.”

Now Marcus does have to smile. It’s not like it’s his fault that his uncle tends to invite people he himself barely likes, but maybe hogging a lectus at the triclinium with Esca and getting outrageously drunk hadn’t exactly been acceptable dinner behaviour. Well, he’s a soldier, not a politician, no matter what his uncle’s guests seem to believe now that he’s an imperial hero. And if he remembers correctly, some of their guests were similarly inebriated when they finally left.

If they left. He shifts and glances at the covers. Jove, he hopes they left, or at least aren’t sleeping off their drunkenness in the room next door.

He settles back into the pillows. It’s gentler on his head. “You made me drink wine undiluted,” he reminds Esca, who lets his arm sink again and throws him a brief smile.

“You’ve got to admit now, it’s better.”

“I don’t know. It’s strong.” And he’s rather fond of spiced wine; it’s what got him through the bleaker days in some far-off camps. It always tastes like a piece of Rome. But his thoughts aren’t coherent enough for a discussion.

“That’s the point,” Esca insists. “Otherwise it’s not a feast.” With what looks like quite some effort that Marcus isn’t too keen on going through himself, he pushes himself up into a sitting position. Immediately, he lifts a hand to his forehead and quietly groans again. “I’m out of practice, though.”

“What kind of feasts do you have?” Marcus asks with a huff of laughter.

Esca turns a bit to give him one of those gorgeous smug looks. “Good ones.”

They stay like this for another while, not really moving at all. Marcus doesn’t quite feel ready to move yet and Esca is, by the looks of it, trying to massage the headache away. It doesn’t look like he’s making any progress.

Marcus smiles at what he can see of him without moving, his scar-covered back and the back of his head. As far as hungover morning-afters go, this is far from the worst case scenario.

He reaches out with one hand to let his fingers trail down Esca’s spine, trying not to linger too long on the whip scars there. “What was that about washing?”

“I don’t think we have any water here.”

Right. The inconvenient thing about Saturnalia is that there are no slaves that take care of things like this. Although that hasn’t been any different these past months, because Stephanos is more than busy enough with his uncle and Esca – well. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Esca would’ve been the one to bring him water not too long ago. And sometimes, remembering it makes it omnipresent, and now it’s impossible to convince Esca to go get some water. But he’s a soldier, not a politician.

“There’s a lake just out the door,” he suggests. On second thought, that doesn’t even sound like a bad idea. Maybe submerging himself in cold water will do something to make his head stop buzzing.

Esca seems to think it’s reasonable, at least, because he makes a hungover sound of agreement and reaches down to the ground to pick up the clothes they apparently lost there last night, only wincing once while doing so. He drops a heavy woollen thing on Marcus’ chest and proceeds to put on trousers.

Marcus decides to manoeuvre himself into an upright position, which doesn’t exactly do wonders for his headache, but works well, overall. Glancing down at the woollen cloth in his grip, he recognises the tunic he wore last night. It sports a decently sized wine stain on the front. He frowns at it. That was one of his good tunics.

His synthesis is a lump on the floor over by the door, and he can only imagine how maddening it must have been to get him out of that while drunk like Bacchus Himself. Whatever incident ended in the stain on his tunic hopefully hadn’t involved the synthesis as well.

He spots a pileus too, a little to the left. He can’t find the other one and has no idea where it could be, so he hopes this one is Esca’s. Marcus won’t be needing one after the celebrations.

With as much grace as he can muster – which is none, really – he pulls the tunic over his head. As he lets his eyes readjust after the moment of comforting darkness, he really looks at his hands for the first time this morning and spots a faint reddish line on each of his wrists. He blinks at them to make sure he’s seeing right, and lifts one hand to get a better look. It’s not strictly necessary, because he recognises a rope burn when he sees one. Huh.

Esca turns to look at him, maybe because he started laughing. Marcus meets his eyes and nods towards his hands. “Looks like I’m more experimental when I’m drunk.”

Esca lets his gaze wander down to Marcus hands and raises his brows. He reaches out and runs his thumb over one of the marks. “I have no memory of this,” he admits, still hoarse but somewhat amused.

“No, me neither,” Marcus laughs. He’s not sure whether he wishes he’d remember; now that he’s awake and has the full scope of his highland memories at his disposal, the implications of this aren’t all that compelling anymore.

But he can see why they were last night. He shakes his head. “Whatever we did, I hope we had fun.”

Esca cracks his neck and mirrors Marcus’ grin. “Going by how the morning after feels, we did.”

That’s what it takes, apparently, and Marcus leans forward and kisses him, running his hand through Esca’s bird’s nest of hair – he hasn’t really cut it in months – and tasting stale wine on both of their tongues. Gods, they need to get out of this bed and wash.

Esca manages to get up first, after detaching his hand from Marcus’ neck, although the way he sways first and then spends several moments just standing there with his hand over his eyes doesn’t make standing up quickly look like a good decision. Marcus does it anyways.

It’s a horrible decision.

For three solid moments, his vision goes black. He grits his teeth at the dizziness that seizes him violently, and shifts into a wider stance to get his balance back. Slowly, the wave of pain and nausea ebbs away, leaving only the throbbing ache and the fog that he guesses he won’t be getting rid of anytime soon.

He glances at Esca, who is watching him with a little too much glee in his eyes, and presses another kiss to his forehead. Then he goes in search of his shoes, because venturing out into the December cold barefoot is too much even for him, at least when there is an alternative.

When he’s found them – one under his synthesis, the other halfway to the bed – Esca has made his way over to the other side of the room and is peering out of the door, looking sour.

“The lake is frozen over,” he states.

Marcus walks over to him, shoes in hand, and joins him in looking outside. There is, indeed, a layer of ice on the lake, covered by another layer of snow. It must have snowed all night. Esca had been saying something about the weather shifting that past week; it looks like that has caught up with them now.

The winter sun that here and there peeks through the British clouds tells him that it’s around the early fifth hour. The last time he got up that late, he was in bouts of fever. He just hopes his uncle didn’t try to wake him up.

“Looks like we’ll be getting water after all,” he says and turns away. Esca closes the door, shutting out most of the assaulting brightness.

“Warm water,” he adds and pulls Marcus’ tunic collar into place.

“Sure.” Marcus isn’t sure if this is a genuine request or some kind of reflex – he knows he’d prefer a slave to bring warm water in winter – but he agrees. The cold is starting to get to him. Lately, he’s gotten one blissful hour in the mornings before the cold seeps into his bones and causes him jolts of pain when walking. He’s not quite there yet though, so he says, “I’ll go.”

Esca frowns at him, maybe because the very moment Marcus says that, he has to shift his weight to his right leg, but he merely says, “Let’s hope your uncle’s guests left last night then.”

Marcus stops clenching his jaw and smiles. “Yeah, let’s hope they did. I really can’t remember either.” One of his hands finds its way into Esca’s hair again. “I trust my uncle to have kicked them out though.”

“Most likely.” Esca pulls him down and into a brief kiss. “You’re stalling.”

“It’s reasonably warm in here.”

“It’s not. It’s freezing.”

It is, and maybe they should move somewhere with a heating that’s actually getting any fire. Or he could put on his shoes and a proper cloak, and trousers now that he doesn’t have to look posher than he is. Maybe moving back to bed to sleep off the headache would also be an option. But he’s rather attached to his position right now.

“You look like shit,” Esca informs him.

“You’re not better,” Marcus says, and kisses him again.

He could just keep kissing him today. Maybe it’s the celebrations that put him in a mood.

He does keep kissing him for a while longer, though it’s numbed a little by the fact that he is currently experiencing every sensation through a thick layer of hangover fog. Then he takes advantage of the lack of pain in his leg to not limp out of the room, because he can’t stall enough to make Esca take care of that task after all.

He rubs his forehead as he closes the door. Saturnalia should be a time when things like that don’t matter, not for masters and slaves and especially not for him and the man who’s become closer to him than his own kin, whether he’s his freedman or not. But maybe that’s why it matters after all. Or maybe it has always mattered, even during those yearly seven days of supposed equality, and he just never noticed.

It’s a bitter thought that he doesn’t really want to entertain while he can still barely think at all.

He gets mostly lucky, and doesn’t run into anyone while he’s still pondering over that anyways. Their lack of luck with the weather on the other hand means that he just has to scoop up some snow from the porch and melt it over a small fire. There’s some evidence that a fire in the kitchen has been lit this morning, so someone is probably already up, but he doesn’t hear any footsteps while he waits for the snow to melt and the water to warm up. He hopes it’s going to stay that way.

He is, of course, not that lucky. When he makes his way back to the bedroom and past the living room, he catches sight of his uncle, who is sitting on a chair and bent over a scroll of papyrus. Before he’s done contemplating whether it would be too rude to just keep walking, his uncle also catches sight of him and leans back in his chair.

“Good morning, Marcus. I see you managed to sleep yesterday’s exploits off.” His raised brows confirm that he knows precisely that this is not the case.

“More or less,” Marcus answers. He steps into the room, still carrying the pot of warm water, and greets his uncle with a smile. “Good morning, uncle.”

He’s very aware that he is still, as Esca so lovingly put it, looking like shit. Maybe he should at least have put in the effort to find a clean tunic before leaving the bedroom at all, but his uncle has seen him in a far worse condition. At least he’s not half-dead and bound to a table.

And yet, something about the way his uncle looks him over makes his centurion instincts tingle alarmingly. He frowns and sets the pot down.

“Did the guests leave last night?”

“Oh, yes. I kicked them out before it started snowing.” The gleam in his uncle’s eyes tells Marcus that he had a lot of fun doing that. “I’d have sent word to Calleva already to ask whether everyone arrived home in one piece, but well, you can see how the weather has changed.”

There’s something about his uncle’s sense of humour that almost manages to throw even Marcus’ instincts off the track. “We’ll hear of it soon enough if something went wrong.”

“Indeed. I doubt it did, it’s not a difficult path even at night.” That anyone who’d manage to get lost nonetheless is an idiot stays implied. “Either way. There’s no need for you to worry.”

The weight of the words would have evaded Marcus if he hadn’t already been on guard.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well.” His uncle nods at all of him, from head to toe, his eyes lingering especially on the wine stain on his chest. Then he smiles like that’s in any way what he meant to imply.

Marcus decides to play along, for his head’s benefit if for nothing else. “I wasn’t planning on running into anyone.”

His uncle lets him get away with that for a moment. Then he asks, “Where’s Esca?”

It’s not a strange question – Esca might have officially been given one of the villa’s guest rooms, but Marcus still mostly knows where he is these days. They tend not to be apart for longer than one or two hours. But the tone his uncle uses carries a ton of subtext that Marcus isn’t even close to being able to decipher, but that drives him closer to the edge of a full fight-or-flight response.

He decides on flight. It’s the strategically better option for as long as he feels more equivalent to a widely decimated auxiliary unit than a proper cohort.

“Maybe he’s still asleep.” He doesn’t bother pretending that’s not a cop-out. “I’ll go find him once I’m really awake.”

He’s in the motion of picking up the pot of water when his uncle neatly puts his book down and leans forward in his chair.

“Marcus.”

He waits to continue speaking until Marcus is standing upright again and meets his eyes with a deep frown, and when he does, he sounds nonchalant as ever.

“You know, I think I picked a lovely villa, for an old bachelor. But, as I am sure you’ve noticed, its walls are rather thin.”

Marcus tightens his grip on the water pot and tries not to let on that his heart rate just doubled in speed. It’s probably futile, because he also instinctively takes a defensive stance. For a moment, he racks his brain for a response. “Sorry” doesn’t really cut it.

“Don’t look so worried,” his uncle interrupts his efforts. “I don’t care who you decide to sleep with. I was just hoping that you would answer me one or two questions.”

Questions, right. Whatever those are, Marcus is getting more and more certain that he doesn’t want to answer them. Still, he wills himself not to raise his voice. “What questions?”

His uncle hasn’t moved an inch, like he isn’t interrogating Marcus about something that is absolutely none of his business. But he’s pronouncing every word with too much care when he says, “You know that there are certain connotations to it when a man sleeps with his freedman? And there are certain issues that don’t exist when he sleeps with his slave.”

Every muscle in Marcus’ body tenses. “What are you trying to imply?”

“Nothing that you shouldn’t already be aware of. I am asking you if you’ve accounted for these things before you – well. Nobody cares what a Roman man does with his slave. They tend to be a bit more attentive when it’s a freedman. I think-”

“-what?” Marcus barks out, wishing he hadn’t picked up the damn pot so he could ball both of his hands to fists. “Are you saying that I shouldn’t have freed Esca so I could fuck him?”

“Marcus.”

“Do you think so little of me? Do you think I- what? That I just want to have my fun with him?” The volume of his own voice makes his head ring, but he doesn’t care. “This is bullshit!

“Marcus!” It’s rare that his uncle raises his voice, so that alone throws Marcus off for a moment. “I’m not trying to insult you. If you let me finish my sentences, you’d be aware of that.”

“I freed him because he is the best man I have ever known! I owe my life and my honour to him!”

“That is the impression I had been under from the start. I know you value each other very much, Marcus, I’m not daft.” His uncle sighs, picks up his book again and begins to roll it up. “I fear that you might be rushing into something you haven’t thought about. There is nothing wrong with you two deciding to end last night the way you did, but if you’re going to let this continue-“

Marcus cuts him off. “What are you accusing me of?”

At that, his uncle raises his brows in surprise. “Nothing more than having been very, very drunk last night.”

“What?” It’s so bizarre Marcus almost has to laugh. “Do you think I had some kind of drunken fit and decided to fuck my best friend?”

The beat of silence that follows is answer enough. Good to know that the walls aren’t all that thin, after all.

His uncle seems to be turning this over in his head at record speed, or at least at the speed of a man who stayed mostly sober last night and is certainly very sober now. There are only so many conclusions he can reach, and it seems like the one he decides on is mostly accurate.

“How long has this been going on, then?”

“That is none of your business.”

Another beat of silence. “I guess it’s not,” his uncle says then and laughs quietly. “That doesn’t change what I am saying, though.”

“How doesn’t it?” Marcus shoots back. “I know what I’m doing.”

He’s been thinking about it, at least, more than his uncle apparently gives him credit for. It’s easy to affirm this to him now, but, well.

“Do you really?” his uncle asks, as if he’s read his mind. “You risked your life to regain your honour, and you, against all odds, succeeded. And I could not be prouder of you.” His smile at that does warm Marcus up a bit, even though he’s still tense all over. “I want you to be aware of what your choices could mean for your reputation. I’m sure Esca would think the same about his freedom.”

That cuts deep like a battle wound. It takes Marcus all his self-control not to lash out like a cornered animal, throw the water pot to the ground and stomp out of the room. The awful thing is that his uncle is echoing the very thoughts he’s been unable to get out of his mind, no matter how often they’ve been over it.

Marcus’ reputation is one thing. He likes to think he stopped giving a damn about it after he almost died thrice over mending it, but he’s not sleeping with a freeborn. It’s unlikely he’d suffer more than rumours. Anyone who took a look at them would give him the benefit of casting him in the more favourable, the acceptable role, that of the Roman and the master and the man. Esca doesn’t have that privilege. He’d have the reputation of the effeminate forever branded on his very name.

“Esca can make his own choices,” Marcus says. It’s a lame objection, but it’s true. Esca has made the choice to risk it, insisting that there is barely any risk at all.

“Of course he can,” his uncle says calmly, reassuringly, although his very look at Marcus tells him he’s not done yet. “You know that I’ve come to appreciate him a lot. But he’s your freedman, Marcus. Not your slave. You two are free to have your fun, but I urge you to consider whether this is worth it.”

“Fun?” Marcus repeats in disbelief. For a moment, the white-hot rage disappears from his aching head. He lets the entire conversation pass by him again in the blink of an eye and realises, stunned, that his uncle hasn’t understood a thing.

“I’m not risking his reputation because I want a goddamn puer!” he says. He’s still pretty much shouting. “He’s not a way to pass a fucking idle afternoon!”

“Marcus, you are overreacting.”

“I love him more than I can say!” he bellows, rage back in his bones. “Don’t try to tell me I’m not allowed to sleep with the man I love because it’s not worth giving some posh bastards their daily gossip!”

When he trails off, his uncle is looking at him with genuine surprise. It’s rare to see him at a loss for words, but he can’t seem to find a good response now. Eventually, he sets the rolled-up scroll down on the table with a curt shake of his head.

“Well, then I’m stating a moot point here, am I?” he says. “You’ve made up your mind already.”

Marcus keeps frowning at him, refusing to let his guard down. “I’m not risking a thing that isn’t worth it. The rest is Esca’s call.”

“And he’s made his call, I see.” His uncle nods and folds his hands in his lap. His whole posture relaxes, and he looks like he is willing Marcus to do the same. Marcus is not sure if he’s just letting this go because he has to, but right now, he is grateful for any rest he can get.

“You can’t let love blind you to reality,” his uncle warns him. “Be careful.”

“We are. We don’t have a choice.” Cautiously, Marcus lets his shoulders and his defences sink. He doesn’t quite trust the peace; he can’t say why his uncle should change his mind all of a sudden, or if he’s changed his mind at all.

Risk trumps whim. Love trumps risk. It’s not that easy, he can tell.

But his uncle just gives him an all-knowing smile, all harmless old man again. “I wouldn’t say that. People gossip, that’s in their nature. Just like forgetting most things three weeks later.”

Then why did he make such a scene out of it, Marcus wants to ask, but he doesn’t have to. His uncle’s look shifts again, into one of open concern.

“But I’d prefer not having to mend anything over mending what went wrong.”

Marcus appreciates the sentiment, he really does. It’s the delivery he has a problem with. “You don’t need to tell me that.”

“Well, I’ll do it anyways,” his uncle replies. “I’d rather not see my nephew get into any more trouble for at least a year or two.”

“We can take that kind of trouble,” Marcus insists.

His uncle sighs, defeated. “I don’t doubt that.” Then, he rises from his chair and, not taking his eyes from Marcus, joins him at the door. “Your father was the same, sometimes. Stubborn like a mule.”

It’s only the third time he has talked about Marcus’ father since they met, and the first time he’s done so of his own volition. It’s not an apology, not really. Maybe a peace offering.

Marcus decides to take it. If they start making apologies, he’ll have to apologise too, and he still needs an hour or two to cool down enough for that.

“I know what I’m doing,” he repeats and places his free hand firmly on his uncle’s shoulder. “Esca does, too.”

He hopes that’s not a lie. He follows it up with a smile that is probably still too forced, but he has some practice forcing smiles. It doesn’t do much to convince his uncle that everything is said and done, that much is obvious, but it does seem to make his words sound believable enough.

“Go clean up,” his uncle tells him. “I’ll call you two for dinner.”

Marcus nods in agreement. There’s a lot in there, he thinks. It’s a free pass to get out of the situation, for one, and he is very inclined to take it. He’ll end this conversation another day, when he’s fully sober and in control of his brain again. He has all the time in the world, after all, and not many problems that are more immediate than this.

That in itself is still a foreign feeling.

He dips a finger into the water when he reaches the bedroom door. It’s at best moderately warm, but he doesn’t have enough Tyrian purple on his everyday clothing to be squeamish about this.

Esca’s sitting on the bed, working on a new bow he started carving two weeks ago. It’s a leisure project; Marcus gave him one of his own bows that he never uses. Or it’s a matter of pride. He can’t say for sure.

Esca seems to have solved the hair situation and found some clothes that don’t stink of wine and sex. He hands Marcus a tunic when he joins him on the bed.

“Did you get lost?”

“No.” Marcus says it like he wants to expand on it, to explain what happened, but as soon as he tries to find the words, he comes up with nothing. He finds Esca’s eyes instead, in search of something to start with, and is met with a piercing look that he can recognise now as deeply concerned.

“What did your uncle say?”

Marcus raises his brows in surprise. Esca copies the motion, but drenches his expression in sarcasm.

“You’re the one who wakes every time someone starts preparing breakfast. You know the walls aren’t very thick.”

“Yeah,” Marcus says through gritted teeth. “That’s the problem.”

It takes Esca a mere moment to catch on. His frown deepens and he sets the half-finished bow aside, turning the knife he nicked from the kitchen in his hands. Marcus has a dagger lying around between his clothes, a Saturnalia gift to replace the one that melted in the pyre. He has no idea if it’s a tasteful present. Esca will probably tell him.

“Apparently,” he continues, “my uncle thinks this is a bad idea.”

“This.”

“This,” Marcus repeats and nods vaguely at the dishevelled bed. “Sleeping together.”

Esca eyes him suspiciously. “I thought Romans didn’t care if one isn’t freeborn.”

Marcus sighs. “They don’t. But there are“–he clenches his jaw–“connotations.”

“I know of the connotations.” There’s a trace of annoyance in Esca’s voice that tends to show up when this topic is breached. The finer workings of the mos maiorum are as foreign to him as the patterns he carves into his bow and the language he spoke in the highlands are to Marcus.

“My uncle’s concerned about what it could do to our reputation.” Marcus stares at the opposite wall, piecing something together that he previously hadn’t realised. “Yours especially, I think. I don’t have a lot to lose in this.”

“You have to lose what the damage to my reputation does to you,” Esca retorts, and that’s probably even closer to the truth. “Tell him I can decide that for myself.”

Marcus smiles at him. “I did.”

He hands Esca the pot of water when he reaches for it and watches him set it down on the floor, along with the carving knife. Esca settles back on the bed and places a hand on the nape of Marcus’ neck, tracing his vertebrae with his thumb.

“It’s none of his business, either,” he says casually.

“I told him that too.” Marcus tries to concentrate on Esca’s thumb rubbing circles on his neck, but he can’t get rid of the feeling that he is maybe not as right in this matter as he’d like to believe. “He’s worried,” he says, and admits, “And he’s not wrong.”

Esca draws his hand back and gives him a wary look. The loss of contact is chilly, but Marcus doesn’t feel like backing down.

“I know we’ve talked about that, but he’s right,” he insists. “You’ve been a free man for what? A few months? I know this kind of people, the moment they manage to get dirt on you, they’re going to use it. I have the standing to fight that off”–and Jove, is that an unfamiliar thing to say–“but you don’t. I know what talk can do to you.”

Esca is still frowning at him. “I spent the last seven years in slave quarters, learning more about the secrets of the upper class than I’ve ever wanted to know. I know what they talk about,” he says, entirely unimpressed. “I agreed to keep it a secret. What else should we do?”

That’s another one of these things. Marcus had never even considered not keeping it a secret. It’s not a matter of shame but of keeping them out of the local gossip mill. For Esca, that alone was not self-evident at all.

But there’s another implication in his words, a far more polemic one.

“I’m not saying we should stop,” Marcus protests. He thinks of never kissing Esca again. “Gods. No. That was never what I-“

Esca cuts him off. “What’s the problem, then?”

Marcus glares at him. Stubborn like a mule. He fits right in with the Flavii. But he’s right, too, which is the most irritating thing. There is no option either of them would accept as an alternative.

“I don’t know,” Marcus grudgingly admits. If he can’t find an easy solution to this, maybe that’s because there is none. “A woman, I could’ve married.”

“I’ve no interest in being your wife.”

Marcus meets his eyes again, and smiles at his mocking glare. “Fair enough. But I won’t stand for anyone calling you a pathicus.”

It takes Esca a few moments to place the word, but it doesn’t shake him. It’s strange to consider that he didn’t grow up with it being thrown around by the boys who’d only just learnt its meaning. “You Romans make things far more complicated than they need to be,” he says. “I’m not going to let anyone degrade me because they think they know what we do in bed.”

As if to make a point, he takes Marcus’ hand and traces the almost faded red line on his wrist again. Marcus considers being insulted by the implications, but he stops himself before he can jump to conclusions.

That’s the point, isn’t it? The Roman ideals don’t apply to Esca; Marcus doubts he even has the full scope of them in mind when he says things like this. They stopped applying to Marcus too, or he stopped applying them to himself in more ways than this one, somewhere along the line. He wonders if he’s ever going to get used to this.

“They have no idea,” he says and grins.

“Neither do we, today,” Esca reminds him. He picks the pot up from the ground, kicking the knife to the side of the room so nobody steps on it, and holds a hand into the water. “This is not warm.”

“It used to be.”

“Well, it’s water.” He reaches over to the other side of the bed to grab a piece of cloth and submerges it in the pot. “Let’s get you out of this tunic. You look awful.”

“You said that already,” Marcus says, but he complies and pulls the woollen tunic over his head. Cold air hits him and makes him wish he’d gone back to warm the water up again. But he’s had worse.

He looks at Esca, who has gotten rid of his cloak and tunic and is massaging his head again.

“How are we supposed to last seven days if the third one already feels like this?”

Marcus smiles at him like he’s the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. He’s had much worse, really. “I thought you had good feasts,” he says, earning a disapproving look from Esca. “We’ll find a way.”

Esca hands him the (cold) cloth and pulls him into a lingering kiss.