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Before All Things

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Despite Marcus’ - perhaps overblown - fears of Esca and Ronan’s acceptance, Rome’s call still feels a siren in his head. His parents may be gone, but he has family there - family that may even welcome them. And if not? They’ve slept in worse places than a cheap Roman inn.

 

“Eritis exspectatissimi,” says his uncle in surprise when Marcus presents this view. “Blandina est femina stulta at lepida. Erit laeta vos videre.”

 

When Marcus hums noncommittally, Aquila adds, of you. “Omnes tres vobis.”

 

“Epistulam mittere debeo.”

 

Aquila smiles ironically. “Esset optimum. Res in Romā non sunt sicut in Hiberniā. Erit laeta vos videre sed fortasse non copulam.”

 

“Erimus similes fratribus,” Marcus replies.

 

“Certe, esset optimum quod sperare possetis.”

 

Eyeing the old man’s suspiciously blank expression, Marcus is quite sure his uncle is mocking him for something. He ignores him and goes to write his letter.

 

---

 

Marcus originally plans to make the crossing from Clausentum, but Esca puts his foot down. Embarking from Dubris to Gesoriacum will lessen their time on the water from nine days to just four, even if it means an extra four days of travel through Britannia.

 

They’re sitting around a table in his uncle’s tablinum, maps and instruments scattered over the surface. Marcus absently taps a stilus against his chair, listening to Ronan chattering at Sassticca in the distance. He eyes Esca’s slumped and scowling figure next to him, wondering if he should belabor the point.

 

“Erit celerior,” argues Marcus. “Et cum sumus in Galliā, viae erunt--”

 

“Praesertimne curare videor, Marce?” Esca bites out. He scrubs a hand through his hair, now shorn above his ears, looking harried. His expression is sharp though there is a modicum of something in it that makes Marcus’ gut pang. “I care not that we travel farther through my homeland.”

 

Marcus blinks, the fight seeping out of him. “Esca, non necesse nobis--”

 

“O noli audire me,” Esca snaps. Still irritated then. “Scio te cupere ire, ita imus.” He pauses to look Marcus gravely in the eye. Marcus takes the moment to admire his eyelashes. “Sed non plus navigans quam necesse. Puto te agere tamquam vexes me.”

 

Marcus can’t help but wind an arm around his waist, though Esca splutters and grapples with him. “I don’t know where you get your ideas,” he murmurs to Esca’s hairline before firmly pressing his lips to his temple.

 

---

 

They say goodbye to Arlyn and Flos in Dubris with a promise to return the following year. Watching Ronan press his head into Flos’ wispy forelock, Marcus can’t help but think it a much more poignant farewell than the scene in Calleva. He gives Ronan two minutes then drags him away by his tunic, as Esca is entirely too busy having a savage staring contest with the strip of sea visible to him.

 

“Save your energy,” Marcus advises him, smoothing one hand over his shoulder, mindful of the nearby curious merchants glancing at them.

 

Esca doesn’t move his gaze, but his eyes twitch just slightly.

 

---

 

The voyage is slightly more successful than Hibernia’s in that Ronan is much more preoccupied with making friends with a group of Gallic boys than tormenting Esca. Of course, this means Esca’s focus is solely on Marcus, along with his temper. 

 

Mindful of this, Marcus chooses to remain silent when Esca feels the need to vent his frustrations, only speaking in quiet moments: stories of his family, growing up in Clusium, watching his father leave but not return. Esca holds his hand but refrains from his own stories, whether from reticence or feeling ill, Marcus doesn’t know.

 

They make landfall when Marcus has just gotten through the most painful story of his mother and perhaps it is this that causes Esca to be so withdrawn as they disembark. Ronan picks up on the mood, questioning Marcus without words, but Marcus focuses on getting their small party to an inn for the night.

 

---

 

It being the middle of winter, they don’t draw many eyes as bundled up as they are with hair shorn in a Roman style.

 

Marcus spares a worried thought for Esca baring his tattoos in the middle of the Roman summer, but pushes the thought away when Ronan’s anxious frown deepens in his direction.

 

“Esne famelicus?” he asks, smoothing the boy’s hair. Absently, he notices he has less distance to reach down than usual.

 

“Ita vero,” mutters Ronan, ducking away from the touch. “Lactem huc habere possumus?”

 

Marcus makes a face before he can help it and Esca lets out a soft huff of laughter, which Marcus takes as a good sign. “Non spero,” he sighs.

 

The inn serves not only milk but also copious amounts of wine, a Gallic habit of which Marcus heartily approves. They eat in relative silence, the ebb of conversation in a mix of languages flowing around them.

 

When Ronan finishes, he eyes Marcus and Esca in turn, something baleful about his look. Esca appears preoccupied, looking vaguely into the fire and occasionally spooning stew into his mouth. Marcus is pleased to note his color has almost fully returned to what it was before the crossing. He waits Ronan out patiently, smoothing Esca’s hand below the table.

 

“Can I go see Segomaros now?” Ronan suddenly blurts out. He’s looking at Marcus, apparently having decided on which of them would be more allowing.

 

Marcus feels his brow furrow. “Segomaros?” 

 

Esca turns slowly and looks flatly at Ronan, who colors under the attention but raises his chin almost defiantly. “One of your Gallic friends, aye? And what are you planning to do?”

 

“Nothing!” Ronan defends. When Esca does nothing but narrow his eyes, almost unnervingly still, Ronan releases a puff of air, scoffing. “Why must we be up to something? We’re just friends, Esca.”

 

Marcus rubs his hand along Esca’s spine, leaning slightly into him to murmur, “Innocentes satis videbantur."

 

Although he cannot see him directly, Marcus can feel Ronan’s hopeful eyes boring into him. Esca rolls his eyes away, but there is a faint smile lingering upon him. “Don’t stay out too late.”

 

Ronan’s face lights up and he scrambles away to the door, shouting over his shoulder, “Gratias, Marce!”

 

Marcus laughs outright at Esca’s offended expression before moving to clear their dishes. 

 

---

 

It is as they are bedding down for the night that Marcus begins to worry.

 

“Num iam revenire debuit?” he asks, squinting through the small window. He sees no lights, no movement of small figures playing in the snow.

 

Esca seems similarly disquieted. He smooths the bedcovers of the second cot absently then, with sudden decisiveness, dons his cloak. Marcus is already slipping his own around his shoulders.

 

They ask around the darkened common room with no luck. Most patrons have since retired or are nursing drinks in corners, uninterested in answering questions from anyone, least of all foreigners. Marcus reigns in his temper as Esca does most of the talking, reminded irreparably of dripping forests and misty hills, of whispered conversations just out of his hearing and completely out of his scope of understanding. The difference is stark, however, in that Esca’s impatience eclipses Marcus’ own, rising in his voice through each exchange and following them into the windy night in search of footprints or distant voices.

 

As the distance from the inn increases, so does their desperation, both shouting for Ronan until their voices are hoarse, the wind driving through them and ratcheting up their fear.

 

Marcus has taken to cupping his hands to project his voice though it seems to do little good. He takes a breath to shout again but stops, his air catching high in his throat. There is a spot on the ground, brownish and nearly covered by the shifting snow, surrounded by muddled, half-buried footprints, all smaller than his own. Then, movement in the corner of his eye followed by a half-stifled cry of surprise before several short figures detach themselves from a nearby grove and sprint in the opposite direction.

 

“Esca!” he shouts, but keeps his eyes on the retreating figures. Esca appears as if blown there by the wind.

 

“Illuc specta!” he says, pointing to the trees, then takes off after the boys. Marcus hears Esca call his name then he’s grabbed from behind, Esca purposely forcing the majority of Marcus’ weight onto his bad leg. Marcus curses and nearly topples.

 

“Esca, quid facis?” he growls, grappling with the shorter man. “Necesse est nobis--”

 

“What we need is to help Ronan,” Esca snaps. He pulls Marcus down by the shoulder, forcing him to look him in the eyes. They’re as flinty as ever but there’s some vulnerability in their shape that has Marcus stop pulling to get away. “What are you hoping to do anyway? Walk into a Gallic camp and ask politely to kill their children?”

 

Marcus glances once more in the direction of the fleeing boys. They’ve long since vanished into the night and there is nothing to greet him but a chill rush of air into his face. He pulls away from Esca, who releases him cautiously, before nodding and hurrying after him to the grove.

 

They find Ronan sprawled beneath a tree, disoriented and shivering, but alive. Marcus finds purchase on the bark and Esca immediately pulls Ronan to sitting, checking him over with light fingers, eyes intent.

 

Ronan blinks purposely several times then squirms away, pulling his hood tight over his head. “I’m fine, bene,” he mumbles but Esca is undeterred. Ronan yelps as Esca prods him hard on his cheek and some small drops spatter his chin before he wipes his face and tries again to retreat.

 

Marcus is squatting before he knows, holding Ronan’s chin with a strength born of fear. His other hand forces the boy’s hood back, searching his scalp. “Cur est sanguis, Ronan?” he asks. He catches Esca’s glance and is reminded briefly of a different time, a different interrogation, one born of distrust rather than fear. It seems a lifetime behind them.

 

“Ego… I didn’t…” Ronan mutters, lips quivering. He’s avoiding their eyes but has stopped trying to edge away. Marcus finds a wet patch amid his hair and pulls his fingers away to see them glistening in the dim light.

 

“Mihi narra!” Marcus knows his voice is too loud, but he can no more control it than the dread pooling and spiraling in his gut.

 

He releases his grasp on the boy’s chin when Esca grips him hard on the forearm and murmurs his name. Marcus stands but doesn’t move away, ignoring the slight tremor in his knee.

 

---

 

It takes some time before Ronan is persuaded to speak. Marcus has since calmed, much of which can be attributed to seeing Ronan warm and safe in their room, though the bruises on his face and bandage wrapping his head still make him wish for a sword.

 

“I had to say something,” Ronan is saying. He’s sitting on the smaller cot, Esca rinsing out a cloth close by. “They kept asking questions. Then Caturix called Esca a…”

 

The boy hesitates, shooting Marcus an inscrutable look before blushing at the floor. “Well, it wasn’t nice.”

 

Esca wrings the cloth into the bucket with a loud splash then sets it to the side. “Strìochdach ?” he asks. His voice is very soft but Ronan flinches nonetheless.

 

“I couldn’t just--!” he starts, balling his hands into fists, but Esca makes a curt gesture, abruptly standing over him.

 

“You’ll need to get used to it,” he says. His tone brooks no argument but his eyes are far away. Marcus thinks again of misted hills, wavering against a grey horizon. Ronan says nothing, though he clearly wants to. He’s staring at Esca defiantly, jaw jutted forward and face splotchy with emotion.

 

Striochdach ?” Marcus repeats quietly, breaking the tense moment. He’s loath to repeat an insult that caused such a reaction in Ronan but his need to understand, to repel the distance in Esca’s eyes, is too great.

 

Esca gives him a wry smile and even Ronan laughs a little at his pronunciation, though it’s mostly forced. “Pedicator, Marce,” Esca explains.

 

Marcus frowns. He knows the open welcome they received among the Eblanii is the exception rather than the rule, but he had hoped other tribal cultures might come close. He sighs before crossing to kneel in front of Ronan and ruffle his hair. For once, the boy doesn’t flinch away, meeting his eyes unwaveringly.

 

“Est verum, Ronan,” he explains. He hates himself even as he maintains eye contact and keeps his voice strong, unrelenting. “In Romā est communis audire.”

 

“Sed est non verum!” Ronan protests. He knocks Marcus’ hand away and turns to the wall, shoulders tense. “You’re married! And you love each other. Why would anyone--?”

 

“Because they do not understand,” answers Esca. His tone has gentled somewhat but his eyes remain distant. He sits nearby but does not reach out. “Nor do they wish to. If I have learned anything of Rome, it is that she will live or die by tradition, regardless of its sense.”

 

Marcus rounds Ronan’s shoulder with his hand, sighing, but says nothing. After a moment, the boy turns and clings to his sleeve. Marcus grips him tighter and meets Esca’s eyes, thinking of home.