By the time they reach the southern port by which they will cross back to Britannia, the colder weather is taking root in earnest. Marcus still makes sure Esca receives his daily allowance of fresh air aboard their vessel, even though he shivers worse than ever in the frigid sea breeze.
“You realize we must make another crossing in order to reach Rome,” Marcus reminds him, perhaps a little unkindly. Further down the railing, Ronan receives a face full of sea spray and laughs into the wind, shaking his head like a dog. Esca eyes him balefully.
“And the safest ways to Greece and Egypt are through Mare Internum,” Marcus finishes. Esca throws up over the side pointedly.
They aim to reach his uncle’s villa in time for Saturnalia but end up arriving rather earlier. Aquila is pleased to see them regardless, if his shout of reaction and hurried gait to meet them are any indicators.
He reaches Ronan first, holding him at arm’s length and exclaiming on how much he’s grown since their last visit.
“Ah, gratias,” says Ronan uncertainly. He seems to be a little out of his element, now faced with another native Latin speaker, and looks to Marcus for guidance.
“Mox erit altior quam Marcus,” comments Esca warmly, placing one hand on Ronan’s head and returning Aquila’s grip with the other. His uncle laughs delightedly and claps Esca on the shoulder.
“Si esset consilium tuum, hoc altum semper esset,” Marcus murmurs in Esca’s ear, cupping the back of his neck. Esca slants him a glance, smiling despite himself, and Marcus witnesses his uncle giving them a calculating look.
When Aquila greets him, Marcus can feel the promise of a conversation lurking in the grip on his arm and the steel of his uncle’s eyes. He swallows.
As it happens, the preparations for Saturnalia - his uncle is having several guests in, some even from the mainland - keep Marcus entertained and occupied long enough that he neglects to dread the impending talk. By the time his uncle manages to corner him one afternoon coming back from the thermae he has all but forgotten completely.
“Ambula mecum,” says his uncle and it is not a request.
They’ve made it up to the stables by the time another word is spoken, this time by Marcus. “Scio quid me rogares.”
“Vero?” returns Aquila coolly. “Tum mihi narra.”
Marcus sets his gaze on the front yard, where Ronan is carrying several baskets of pinecones and following Stephanos around the perimeter. “In vitā sunt plures res quam civilitas sanguisque,” he pronounces.
He holds his stance though he feels his uncle’s eyes piercing him. Out in the courtyard, Ronan drops a few pinecones and Stephanos throws his hands up then gestures for him to retrieve them. His uncle sighs.
“Enim,” he agrees amiably, “Diu illud scivisti.”
Surprised, Marcus turns. His uncle is smiling, with an edge of exasperation. “Es laetus, Marce,” he says. “Hoc cotidie video. Etsi est causa amore Escae, quis sum te foedare?”
For a moment, Marcus can only stand and look upon yet another man he does not deserve in his life. His uncle shakes his head, smiling, and asks, “Donumne foederis videam? Audivi id esse caelatura, rectumne est?”
When Marcus pulls the wooden totem out of his tunic, his uncle’s face becomes very grave. Slowly, he touches the bold lines of the head, the flowing curve of the body. “Es felicissimus, Marce,” he says, his voice low. “Escam adfecit hoc facere. Roma non fuit ei benigna.”
Marcus tucks the totem away, smoothing the line of the cord carefully. “Scio.”
They stand for a time in silence before his uncle lays a hand on Marcus’ shoulder. “In Romā non erit talis conciliatio. Estisne parati?”
“Esca est libertus meus et Ronan adoptatus suus,” provides Marcus readily. “Pars veritatis est semper optima.” He’d spoken with Esca on this already, anxious to provide a story that will allow for their ease around one another without slavery involved.
His uncle laughs. “Et Esca consentit?”
Marcus grimaces, frowning at his uncle’s amusement. “Non facile sed est modum optimum.” He pauses to sigh, then adds, “In annō redibimus.”
Aquila squeezes his shoulder before letting go, still laughing slightly. “Causa te spero id esse.”
Later that same day, Marcus happens upon Esca in the hallway carrying a huge pile of blankets and - in a split second decision - kisses his ear in passing. Marcus almost wishes there had been someone else to witness the ludicrous expression Esca gifts him with before stalking away, muttering something dire in Brittonic concerning Romans and their strange proclivities.
It quiets the apprehension that has been building in his chest, for the moment.
Marcus both dreads and longs for Rome. Rome and all her strictures, her expectations, her elitism, if he’s being honest. Yet her tree-lined streets, her fountains and art, her sense of home, weathered perhaps but still deep and true.
He pictures himself striding again under her eaves and by her shops, stepping comfortably through her crowded streets. Then he adds Esca and Ronan to the mental image.
He can see it, but he cannot stop the fear, people eyeing them with suspicion and derision - with hatred - and though he knows he’s letting his own fear distort reality, it remains, no matter what he does to alter it.
He wonders, briefly, if Esca had felt something similar on bringing him into Hibernia.
He knows he’s been projecting this gloomy outlook when Ronan comes to him one night and says, with the air of one making things up as they go, that he has had a nightmare and would like to sleep there tonight.
Marcus sighs, but lets him beneath the blanket.
If Ronan has stooped to lying - very much not his strong suit - in an attempt to mend Marcus’ perceived state of mind, he really must pull himself together.
This resolution is merely strengthened when Esca comes upon the two of them in the morning. He freezes - spine straight, eyes wide - then promptly topples Ronan out of bed and chases him into his own room, but not before shooting a look of deep concern Marcus’ way. Marcus may have his own demons to wrestle, but he would gladly be skewered by a wild boar before letting them near to Esca.
Saturnalia is perhaps the best distraction he can hope for. He spends an enjoyable day preparing food with Esca and some of his uncle’s guests, goaded on by Sassticca and answering Ronan’s endless questions as best he can. Esca is absolutely no help, feeding the boy false information as often as not just to generate more such questions.
Finally, Marcus loses his temper and flings a wasteful amount of flour into Esca’s smirking face, earning them both a demotion to cleaning duties.
Esca, aided and abetted by Ronan, Marcus rather suspects, takes the opportunity to dump a bucket of dirty water over Marcus’ head and Marcus really has no choice but to wrestle Esca to the ground amid Ronan’s cheers.
The boy is only more ecstatic when Marcus presents him with his Saturnalia gift, his very own wooden practice gladius, much to Esca’s chagrin.
As Ronan crows over his new possession, Esca frowning murderously, Marcus slides his hand between his shoulder-blades and murmurs, “You were adamant in bringing him with us. Surely you knew this was coming?”
Esca flinches slightly, but maintains his frown. “You still wish he had remained in Hibernia?”
Marcus’ hand spasms slightly before he places it more firmly on Esca’s back. “Never,” he says, loudly enough that he draws his uncle’s attention. “Esca, never.”
Marcus catches his uncle beginning to frown at the foreign words, but when Esca turns and looks him in the eye - abruptly, directly - all he can see is the man before him. Esca makes an aborted movement as if to cup Marcus’ cheek then seems to think better of it.
“Io Saturnalia, Marce,” he says instead, eyes warm.
Yes, a very good distraction, Marcus thinks later on as he beds down for the night on a pallet in the servants’ quarters, snug between the two people he treasures most.