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Before All Things

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The boy’s eyes are huge and guileless in his round face and maybe it’s that that lets Marcus agree. Esca’s face is lit in moonlight and his eyes speak of a young rogue warrior with no choices and no life ahead, breathing his last into a bloody river, and maybe it’s that. But mostly, Marcus thinks, it’s the relief, sharp and stark and still cooling his throat, and the Ruse, it was only a ruse, thank Mithras, I almost lost him…

 

Whatever the reason, the boy comes with them and - Marcus can see Esca hope - avoids his fate.

 


 

The boy doesn’t speak Latin. Marcus doesn’t speak Brittonic.

 

“Does it hurt?” The boy is looking at Marcus, eyes wide and innocent. 

 

Marcus sighs and rubs his thigh. “Intellegere te non possum.”

 

“Oh,” says the boy in realization. He moves closer and puts his hands on Marcus’ leg. Marcus throws him off and skitters away, still so damn edgy.

 

He grits his teeth and says, harsher than he means to, “Me piget. Sed noli tangere.”

 

The boy flinches and drops his eyes, muttering, “I only wanted to help. I think it’s bleeding.”

 

“What’s bleeding?” asks Esca, popping around the tiny hill they’re sheltering next to with a brace of what looks like...yes, rat. Lovely.

 

The boy beams at Esca and points at where Marcus is still rubbing at his old wound. Marcus narrows his eyes.

 

“Marcus, let me see,” says Esca, handing the vermin to the boy.

 

“Quid?” asks Marcus irritably, moving away from his questing fingers. “Hercle! Latine dic.”

 

“Oh,” says Esca, surprised and something harsher. “Crus tuum. Ronan dicit sanguinem esse.”

 

Marcus glares at the boy, who is humming quietly, skinning the rats.

 

“Quid putas te perficere cum non me narras?” Esca asks. His fingers are gentle but his face reminds Marcus of a lakeshore and giggling girls and fingers in his hair, fingers that are not gentle at all.

 

Marcus turns his head. Glares at the boy some more. “Nihil.”

 

“Cede,” snaps Esca, lightly tapping his cheek to turn his head back. “Ronan non malefecit, drutos.”

 

Drutos?” Marcus has heard Esca use this word before, usually in conjunction with his name or Ròmanach, which he knows by now means Roman.

 

Esca doesn’t reply, just pulls tighter on the makeshift bandage before tying it off. He smooths the outline of the wound and tucks the ends of the knot in, looking up at Marcus with distant eyes. Marcus coughs and awkwardly straightens his leg, but finds himself unable to look away.

 

The moment is broken by the boy, who seems to have just finished skinning their disgusting meal. “There!” Esca looks toward him, smiling fondly.

 

“Necesse erit puero Latinam discere,” comments Marcus.

 

Esca frowns. “Or maybe you can learn Brittonic.”

 

Marcus scowls. “Quid?”

 

“Nomen suum est Ronan. Non puer.”

 

“Scio,” grumbles Marcus, sure Esca changed his sentence but unwilling to ask again.

 

Esca passes him a raw, cold rat. “Consume.”

 


 

Later, under cover of night, they huddle against a rock, as much out of the rain as possible, and Marcus smooths Ronan’s hair when he whimpers in his sleep. Esca’s arm tightens around him.

 


 

The fight - it can hardly be called a battle - is short and bloody and Esca makes certain Ronan is kept out of the worst of it.

 

There is a moment - and it still raises the bile in his throat to think on it - when the Seal prince had slipped his notice, only surfacing with Esca’s cry and he had almost… Marcus had almost…

 

He shudders and looks long and full on Esca beside him, whole and hale. His face is lit in fire and his eyes speak of lose and gain, hand firm on Ronan’s shoulder.

 


 

“Est semper Hispania,” suggests his uncle one afternoon.

 

They’re strolling around the peristylium, Esca and Ronan chattering over a tablet nearby. Marcus hums absently, eyeing Ronan’s messy mop. He’s due for a trim soon.

 

“Marcus,” his uncle sighs.

 

“Me piget, patrue,” Marcus replies, jerking his attention back to the conversation. “Hispania, certe.” He hesitates before adding, “Esca dicit familiam esse sibi in Hiberniā.”

 

“Hibernia? Tune secum is?”

 

“Paulisper.”

 

His uncle eyes him, a smile forming slowly. Marcus does not like the gleam in his eye.

 

“Marce, Marce, ecce!” shouts Ronan, running up to them and pushing the tablet at Marcus’ elbow, face shining with pride. “Litterae! Litterae Romanae! I made them!”

 

“Ego eas feci, Ronan,” corrects Esca quietly, which Ronan repeats, only stumbling a little.

 

“Lepidissimae,” says Marcus. He looks inquiringly at Esca, who seems pleasantly surprised.

 

“Very nice,” provides Esca, and when Marcus parrots it to an ecstatic Ronan, he smiles at Marcus, slow and steady. Marcus feels warmth unfurl at the base of his skull, smiling back helplessly.

 

His uncle coughs to cover what Marcus suspects is a laugh. He ignores him.

Chapter Text

They set out in the spring, hoping to avoid travel during the colder months. Marcus’ leg is as healed as possible, but it’s still wretched in these northern climes. There are times he misses Rome like an ache.

 

They pack light, relying on Esca’s hunting skills for meat and wearing only light leathers for protection.

 

Ronan demands to ride with Marcus for most of the first week, claiming he’s much more comfortable. Marcus pretends he doesn’t find Esca’s hurt expression as endearing as he does.

 

Every few nights, Esca takes Ronan hunting, teaching him to be swift and silent and deadly, as Marcus tends to their camp and gear. And every night, regardless of the hunting schedule, Esca grills him relentlessly on his Brittonic. It’s likely the dialect will be different where they’re heading - not to mention that Marcus’ identity as a Roman won’t be as great a threat - but Esca seems determined to help him appear and function as unlike a Roman as possible.

 

“Good, we’ll stop there,” he says one night. Marcus sighs in weary relief, scrubbing his face with both hands. It feels as though his tongue is a lead weight and his brain is tied in knots.

 

Ronan giggles. “Your accent,” he gets out before falling on his side, convulsing with laughter.

 

“Sum laetus uti es delectatus,” grumbles Marcus. He turns to Esca, who seems to be attempting to scowl at Ronan. He’s not succeeding. “Latinam non reminiscetur.”

 

“Erit,” says Esca unconcernedly. “Cum reddimus.”

 

Marcus says nothing, only hopes and tries not to.

 


 

By the time they pass through Isca Silurum, Marcus is almost positive something is weighing on Esca’s mind. He is less positive he knows what it might be, only that there’s a fair chance it has something to do with him or Rome as a whole.

 

The military environment of the fort and the soldiers’ attitudes, if Esca’s reactions are anything to go by, seem to solidify this suspicion. His brow furrows deeper with every offhanded (and probably unintentional) insult aimed in his and Ronan’s direction, his eyes fiercer with every awe-filled compliment in Marcus’. Ronan takes it all in stride and really only seems interested in imitating the soldiers’ training regimes.

 

The night after they’ve left Isca, Marcus comes upon Esca scolding Ronan in the forest where the boy was supposed to be gathering firewood. When Marcus asks, Esca is tight-lipped and silent and Ronan stares at the ground with red cheeks. Yet Marcus can’t help but notice the sharpened stick in the boy’s hand and the three distinct indentions in the tree trunk behind him.

 

He takes to going out of his way to please Esca and hopefully distract him from the Roman presence all around them. He pays special attention to his Brittonic lessons and praises every one of Ronan’s accomplishments in the field of hunting, though is careful to steer the boy clear of emulating more Roman habits.

 

It is on a night as Marcus is laying out Esca’s bedroll for him since Esca himself is staring moodily into the fire and seems content to do so for the foreseeable future, that he suddenly demands, “What are you doing, Marcus?”

 

Marcus starts, having not noticed Esca behind him. “Videris somniculosus,” he replies, then winces. He had forgotten to speak Brittonic.

 

Esca doesn’t seem to notice. He is staring at Marcus, eyes narrow. “What is this? What are you doing?” he asks again.

 

“I don’t know what you mean,” Marcus answers, shaping his pronunciation carefully to make up for his slip.

 

“You do know,” is the answer, sharp and quick. “You’re being too kind. Too helpful by half.” Esca begins gesturing sharply with one hand as he speaks, becoming more animated. “Marcus, yesterday you offered to help me mount Arlyn and now you seem set on waiting on me hand and foot! That sentence was the first I’ve heard you speak in Latin for nigh on two weeks and Ronan even complained to me that you’d stopped teaching him new words. Do you think him a simpleton? Do you think me an invalid? What’s in your head?”

 

Marcus blinks and tries to remember what muin means, ignoring the slew of other new vocabulary Esca had just thrown at him. Deciding to focus only on the first part of the speech, he draws himself up close to Esca, using his height to his advantage to loom over him. Esca is unfazed, but he dimly sees Ronan pausing in his chores to look at them.

 

“So unbelievable is it that I wish I am helpful?” he demands, forgoing his grammar for vocabulary.

 

“No,” answers Esca immediately, completely throwing Marcus off. He takes a step back and blinks, feeling wrongfooted and foolish. Esca sighs. “You are kind, Marcus. Too kind, sometimes. But this is different. Something’s in your head and I want to know what.”

 

Marcus looks into his eyes stubbornly, weighing his options, then sighs and makes his decision. Better to have it out in the open, even if it risks hurting Esca’s pride. They have always been able to talk things through, even if it sometimes involves a spot of tackling. “I rather thought something was in your head,” he admits softly. “I was hoping it wasn’t to do with me. Or Rome.”

 

Esca doesn’t blink, but his eyes open wider and his stance loses some of its aggression. “Why would you…?” he trails off, then suddenly looks back at Ronan. “Watch it, you’ll have the forest down around our ears!” he barks, and the boy scrambles to pick up the still smoldering stick he’d dropped in the grass, too busy staring open-mouthed at them. He looks back up sheepishly, cheeks glowing. Esca makes a specific gesture at him - rapidly shoving out his palm then curving it over his head - which makes the blush deepen. Then he beckons to Marcus, says, “Follow me,” and disappears into the trees.

 

Marcus follows, slightly apprehensive. When he comes upon Esca, he is standing stiffly near an enormous oak, scowling at the ground. “I don’t like to speak of it,” he begins.

 

Marcus leans against a tree and waits patiently.

 

Esca stops and starts a few times, before finally bursting out with, “I am not looking forward to this crossing. The sea, it,” he sighs, seems furious with himself. “It makes me ill.”

 

Marcus waits a few moments, hoping for clarification but when Esca remains stonily silent, he asks, “Ill?”

 

“Yes, ill, Marcus,” spits Esca. “I’ve heard it all before, so don’t even say--” He cuts himself off when he gets a look at the confusion on Marcus’ face. “Oh,” he continues, much more gently. “Aeger. Ill means aeger.”

 

Marcus mouths the new Brittonic word to give himself time to think on his response.

 

“Marce,” Esca interrupts, sounding almost fond. “Licet tibi dicere Latine. Praesertim cum me non intellegis.”

 

Marcus looks up. “You hate Latin.”

 

Esca sighs. “Sed est lingua tua. Et te non odisti.”

 

Marcus coughs and wonders what to say to that. Esca suddenly loses his fond expression and glares at him. “Have you really been tripping over yourself all this time just to distract me from this?”

 

Marcus considers several answers - starting with the simple truth and ending with the vague uncertainty that Esca may not choose to stay with him and the terrifying bleakness that invokes - but it seems Esca isn’t content to wait for him. He shakes his head and drops it into one hand before saying, “Of course you have. Drutos Marcus.”

 

Marcus swallows down his irritation at that - Esca treats him more like a child than Ronan at times, not to mention that blasted word again! - and says as neutrally as possible, “We’ll be in Hibernia soon.” Esca looks up at him, eyes unreadable in the near dark. “With your language. And your people,” he concludes.

 

Esca steps toward him and reaches out to palm the side of his face. He seems to hesitate for a moment before he sighs softly and makes it so their foreheads are touching. Marcus feels as though the point of contact is spread through with fire. “Scio, Marce.”

Chapter Text

Moridunum is rowdy and smells strongly of fish. Esca is visibly unhappy, but stares Marcus down every time he is about to offer reassurances.

 

Ronan, however, seems livelier than he has since Marcus has known him, looking round with bright, excited eyes and more than once disappearing from sight only to pop up a few minutes later with a story to jabber to Esca, who smiles grimly at each one.

 

Finally, Marcus snaps at him to stay in sight lest he become lost. He deflates immediately but thereafter walks within an arm-span of them. It’s a mark of Esca’s inner turmoil that he has nothing to add to this, only nods at Ronan and walks stoically on.

 

“What’s wrong with Esca?” Ronan whispers to Marcus some minutes later as they wander down a line of boats for hire, Esca lingering further inland away from the smell of the sea. “I only wanted to see what kind of fish was for sale. Are you cross with me too?”

 

“No,” says Marcus shortly, avoiding the first question in favor of the second. “And Esca’s not angry either.”

 

He notices a passing Roman guard eyeing them uncertainly and adds, “Latine dic hic, donec ad Hiberniam advenimus.”

 

Ronan sighs and looks longingly back at the market. Marcus wrinkles his nose; he may not suffer from seasickness but that doesn’t mean he enjoys the smell of a fish market. “Habitarene hic vis, Ronan?” he asks.

 

“Minime!” giggles the boy. “Ego...id…” he pauses, thinking. “Est similis domo. Sed non...ah, seals?”

 

“Seals?”

 

Ronan makes a face, thinking, then mimes a strange flopping motion with his arms.

 

Marcus furrows his brow, frustrated. Though they’re getting fewer and farther between, they still stumble on language barriers occasionally.

 

“Una minuta,” Ronan blurts, then scurries over to Esca.

 

They have a hurried conversation, Esca glancing over at Marcus with genuine amusement - which fills Marcus with both warmth and irritation - before Ronan runs back.

 

“Phocae!” he says triumphantly.

 

Marcus looks at him in surprise. “Non phocae?” He has not considered before now if Ronan might miss the Seal people’s village and experiences a vague sense of guilt.

 

Ronan nods happily, completely unbothered. Marcus sees him mouthing the new word several times and quickly does the same. Ronan grins up at him when he notices and Marcus can’t help but smile back.

 

“I’m tempted to report the two madmen I saw wandering by the docks mumbling to themselves,” teases Esca, rejoining them. “I may even get a reward out of it, aye?”

 

Marcus just shrugs. “You’d be lost without us madmen.”

 

“Latine, Marce!” scolds Ronan and Esca’s lips twitch.

 

“Fortasse,” he murmurs, brushing the back of Marcus’ hand with his fingertips.

 

Several hours later, as they are boarding their chosen vessel, Marcus thinks he can still feel it tingling.

 

---

 

The crossing takes eleven very long days. Esca is abed for nearly all of them, though the sea remains fairly calm.

 

Marcus brings him soup and cool cloths to press into his forehead, forcing him into the fresh air at least once a day despite his grumblings. Ronan finds it all hilarious, but keeps his teasing to himself after one particular jibe causes Esca to glare murderously and Marcus to cuff him across the ear.

 

Usually, however, Marcus stays by Esca’s bedside, talking long hours through the day. The conversation centers around more Brittonic lessons, which seem to distract Esca enough to keep the sickness mostly at bay and give Ronan a different target for his teasing. Marcus finds he’ll put up with many things if only to avoid the paleness of Esca’s face.

 

Palens soon becomes Ronan’s new favorite Latin word and he requests they name their next horse after it.

 

Flos was bad enough, Ronan,” grumbles Esca from under his face cloth. “And don’t encourage him,” he adds sharply when Marcus would have opened his mouth to do just that, though there is no way Esca could have seen him through the cloth. “Now repeat the phrase, Marcus. You’re still mangling your vowels.” Marcus sighs and Ronan laughs into his hand.

 

When they finally disembark, Esca sighs with divine relief upon stepping onto solid earth. “Never again, Marcus,” he mutters, his hand shaking slightly where it grips Marcus’ shoulder.

 

“Esca, we still have to go to Rome, remember?” says Ronan, though he seems just as pleased to get off the stuffy boat.

 

“You’ll just have to build me wings then.”

 

Ronan smiles and shakes his head then turns to Marcus consideringly. “Doesn’t one of your gods have wings, Marcus?”

 

“Several, though I doubt they’d agree to transport three wayward mortals this far north.”

 

“Ah, then I suppose we’ll have to stay forever,” Esca says, smiling at him and squeezing his shoulder before stepping away. Marcus lets his hold on Esca’s elbow slip away, trying to ignore the deep, yawning terror in his stomach.

 

---

 

Exactly how different the language is becomes apparent the further north they travel. Marcus’ stumbling Brittonic soon leaves him feeling dull and useless, though when even Esca must ask for repetition he feels slightly better. Esca blames the accent, which he pronounces as outlandish and nonsensical, while Ronan takes great pleasure in practicing each new phrase as often as possible.

 

“What was that about being among my language?” Esca grumbles to Marcus after a particularly trying incident with a local trader. Ronan runs ahead, trilling his r’s to imitate the thick brogue.

 

Marcus glances back to see the trader eyeing them suspiciously and watches the man out of sight before replying. “It was a mistake to trim our hair before we left Britannia. It seems the whole of Hibernia will be speaking of the Roman and Brigantes travelling together.”

 

Esca laughs. “And their adopted son?” he asks, squinting after Ronan’s figure flitting through a meadow ahead.

 

Marcus feels a surge of warmth and gives in to the urge to run his hand comfortingly up Esca’s back. “Surely your family won’t mind though, will they?”

 

“No,” sighs Esca, leaning back slightly. “I doubt it. The rest of the tribe though… Well, I don’t think it’ll matter that we had haircuts - you’d still stand out as Roman.”

 

Marcus frowns, feeling slightly foolish. “I have been trying, you know.” When Esca only gives him a questioning look, he clarifies, “With Brittonic. And dressing the part. All of it. I have been trying.”

 

Esca holds his gaze for a long moment, his eyes direct and off-putting as always. “Yes,” he answers then winds a hand around Marcus’. “I know.”

 

It is only when Ronan comes gallivanting back and gives them a quizzical look that Marcus realizes he has yet to release the hold.

Chapter Text

Britannia:

- Where The Eagle film takes place and the beginning and middle of this story.

- Places of note:

  • Hadrian's Wall - The northernmost border of the Roman Empire, known as the edge of the world in the film. All of Marcus and Esca's adventure occurs north of this boundary.
  • Calleva (town on the yellow road) - Home of Uncle Aquila.
  • Isca Silurum (west and a little north of Calleva) - Roman camp that they pass through in the story.
  • Moridunum (west of Isca) - Port town from which they embark to Hibernia.

 

Hibernia (island on the left):

- Modern Ireland and where Esca's extended family resides.

- Only area of note here is the Eblanii territory (eastern coast near the north), which is the tribe they're visiting. 

 

Gallia (Gaul):

-Modern France and the place they travel through to get to Italy.

-Places of note:

  • Gesoriacum (in the north very close to Dubris) - Port town to which they embark from Britannia.
  • Alpes (in the south on the border of Italy) - Mountain range which they travel through to reach Italy.

Chapter Text

Esca’s aunt is a wide, friendly woman with many brown spots across her face and piercing grey eyes that ensure Marcus knows immediately who she’s related to. The first thing she does is stare unnervingly at the three of them while Ronan squirms nervously behind Marcus and Esca remains as still as stone. The second thing she does is step close, take Esca’s face in her hands, and say, “You have her eyes.”

 

Esca’s façade crumbles and she catches him in her broad arms when he would have fallen to his knees. Ronan makes a sudden movement as if to run forward, his face stricken and confused, but Marcus holds him back, turning aside to give them a moment.

 

When Esca introduces them some time later, naming Ronan as his adopted son and Marcus as something called a sgiath bràthair, she shoots him such a penetrating glance that Marcus is selfishly relieved he’ll never meet Esca’s mother.

 


 

The Eblanii villagers seem both fascinated and leery of them and Marcus does everything he can to express his goodwill, offering help to all those who will take it. This amounts to a handful of elders and some young, seemingly unmarried girls. Esca’s aunt, Moira, seems to be reserving judgment, eyeing him consideringly whenever their paths cross.

 

It is on a day when Marcus is weeding an elderly woman’s garden that Caoimhe, one of the shyest of his new acquaintances, approaches him hesitantly. She tips her head to the ground in greeting when he looks up, wiping the sweat from his brow.

 

“Good day,” she murmurs, playing with the end of her long plait. “I was hoping, if it’s not too much trouble, that you might look into a leak in the roof?”

 

“Your roof?” asks Marcus, thinking ahead to what materials he might need.

 

“Yes,” she admits in a rush. “If it’s not too much, it’s just. I’m terribly afraid of heights and I know it’s not more than twenty palms from the ground but--”

 

He waves a hand to cut her off, smiling. “Of course, Caoimhe. I’ll come by this evening.”

 

She flushes happily and is about to reply when another girl named Faelan turns the corner and bursts into laughter at the sight of them. “Oh Marcus, is she bullying you again?”

 

“No!” blurts Caoimhe, red-faced, “He--”

 

“What is he climbing for you this time, a cabinet? A bush?”

 

“Faelan!”

 

“All right, all right,” Faelan concedes, still laughing. She throws an arm around Caoimhe’s shoulders, ignoring her glower. “I’m sure it’s something completely reasonable.”

 

Then, steering the now spluttering girl away, she waves at Marcus as they depart. Marcus watches them out of sight, smiling.

 

“Progressed to roof repairman, have we?” asks Esca. When Marcus turns to look, he is leaning against the side of the hut, smirking widely. Dubhán, the elderly woman, is sitting beside him, smiling benignly and peeling vegetables.

 

“Apparently,” agrees Marcus wryly. “I just hope Caoimhe doesn’t have the wrong idea. I enjoy her company but I have no intentions toward her.”

 

Esca looks at him a moment, several expressions flitting rapidly across his face, before he shares a disbelieving look with Dubhán and promptly begins to laugh.

 

Marcus frowns and rubs his cheek, confused and irritated. “It is not an unfair assumption. Saepe dixit--” He cuts himself off, now embarrassed by his lapse.

 

Esca walks over to where Marcus is kneeling in the plants, still laughing slightly. “They are paired, Caoimhe and Faelan,” he explains, then matter-of-factly licks his palm and swipes it over Marcus’ cheek before wiping it off on Marcus’ own bracchae. Marcus weighs the benefits of tackling Esca in a garden that does not belong to him, his cheek and thigh burning.

 

“I thought you knew,” Esca concludes, standing again. “They’re not exactly subtle.”

 

Dubhán cackles with laughter at that and when Esca turns to her in confusion, Marcus is glad he’s not the only one lost this time.

 


 

The next day, there is a coming of age hunt in honor of all the newly named men in the village. Marcus and Esca are invited, somewhat grudgingly, and Marcus determines to bring in more game than he ever has before.

 

Ronan throws an unholy fit when he is not among those selected, despite Esca’s reasoning that this is not his tribe nor is he old or skilled enough even if it was.

 

“I’m almost as tall as you now,” he whines as a last ditch effort, following Esca around as he prepares their equipment. “See? Up to your chomharra,” he adds, measuring himself against the bottom of Esca’s tattoo before he’s pushed away.

 

“Talk to me when you reach my chin,” snaps Esca, exasperated.

 

Ronan immediately rounds on Marcus, making his eyes as big as possible. “Don’t look at me,” says Marcus mildly. “If it were my decision, you’d have to wait ‘til you were up here.” He gestures to the air over his own head.

 

“Marcus, that’s impossible! You’re a giant!” Ronan groans. “Esca, please--”

 

“Enough, caidear!” shouts Esca, patience abruptly gone. Marcus doesn’t recognize the word but feels it may not be the best time to ask.

 

At any rate, Ronan flees and Marcus, smiling, silently hands Esca the sheath he’d been looking for. Esca takes it in surprise and absently touches Marcus’ shoulder in passing as thanks, muttering about rebellious young boys.

 


 

Marcus - with a healthy portion attributed to Esca’s skills - does, in fact, catch more game than he ever has before. Granted, most of his hunts have been limited to several hours at most instead of almost an entire day, but most of the tribesmen seem to have gained a modicum of respect toward him to temper their suspicion.

 

That night, a great feast is held wherein all the men recount their favorite stories, boasting about their own coming of age hunts, while the honored young men grow progressively louder in their exaggerations about the day’s events. Several women are present as well, including the village elder, a wizened old woman named Haerviu, and Faelan. The children, including - after a brief and sharply worded discussion - Ronan, serve the food and drink then retreat to a corner of their own to eat and play some form of dice.

 

Some time after the third helping of good drink has gone round the circle, several men - chief among them Bren, a man nearly as tall as Marcus himself - insist on a story from either Esca or Marcus. Esca catches his eye and Marcus, in response to the silent question, says, “Es melior fabulīs,” without really thinking about it. He registers several odd looks from the men, remembering too late not to speak in Latin, but Esca only smirks and nods.

 

Esca is good at stories, Marcus reflects, watching his narrow, expressive face in the firelight as he details their first meeting and subsequent adventure. He also paints Marcus in a much more sympathetic light than usual, which Marcus appreciates among this group, but hardly thinks he deserves. There are some days when he can hardly believe Esca is still by his side. Esca and his courage, his honor, his loyalty. What has Marcus ever done to deserve such a man?

 

He looks up in time for Esca’s recounting of the final battle with the Seal people, remembering that horrible moment when he’d thought Esca would… Esca must see something of this in his eyes, because he falters in the telling and seems to get lost in Marcus’ gaze.

 

Ronan is happy to pick up the slack, however. “And then Marcus saved Esca’s life, they adopted me, and we lived happily ever after!” he shouts, having apparently been listening from his corner.

 

The group roars with laughter, several people toasting loudly to Ronan. Esca’s cheeks flame and he mutters to Marcus, “I’ve changed my mind. He’ll need to be up to my nose, at least.”

 

Marcus chuckles with the rest, slinging an arm happily around Esca’s slim shoulders, his actions made smooth and easy with the warmth of the drink in his stomach. Esca laughs a little as well, slightly self-conscious, and looks up at Marcus with dark eyes.

 


 

After the food and drink is cleared away, the entire group relocates to the village square, where a large bonfire is being steadily built up by the women. Marcus sees Faelan laughingly attempt to help Caoimhe, but is immediately scolded for drunken disorderliness and banned from fire duties.

 

Chuckling, he finds a seat with Esca and Ronan near the edge of the circle being set up and leans over to ask, “Is there to be more storytelling then?”

 

Ronan rolls his eyes. “What do they teach you in Rome? It’s a dance, Marcus!” On the boy’s other side, Esca smiles helplessly at nothing in particular and mutters a quiet, “Saltatus,” at Marcus’ confusion.

 

Marcus watches, intrigued, as the newly minted young men all stand and incline their heads, first to Haerviu then to the group at large. Instruments are produced by a group close to the fire and Marcus is startled by the nasal drone that begins the tune. The boys shuffle together, sliding their feet to the ponderous drums and grave melody. Marcus, who was expecting something more along the lines of the Seal People’s bizarre and vaguely violent dance, is pleasantly surprised by the stoic, careful movements exhibited by the dancers.

 

As the tune changes and the drums beat faster, he finds himself getting caught up in the moment. There’s something about the teasing lilt of the music that has him clapping along as the boys begin to leap and twirl, kicking their feet up in opposing patterns. And suddenly, it stops. The boys all move to the side, gesturing grandly toward the empty space as if expecting a new act.

 

A group of giggling girls, whispering and half-shoving one another, steps forward. As the music starts up again, this time with a jaunty flute melody, the girls strike out with their feet, toes pointed and arms arced high above them. Several times they come near the boys waiting patiently to one side but no contact is made. Finally, one lass steps boldly forward and lightly taps a young man on his painted shoulder. The boys grins and spins her forward onto the floor while the rest of the congregation shouts and whistles uproariously.

 

It is only then Marcus realizes. “Ah, it is a dance for…” He trails off and glances at Esca for help.

 

Suirghe,” Esca supplies, watching the whirling figures - several more of which have now joined the dance - with a slightly melancholy smile. Ronan yawns and leans against Marcus, seemingly bored with the proceedings.

 

Marcus smooths his hair absently and considers Esca with a frown. Several unhappy thoughts occur to him, most painfully that Esca might well take a wife among these people. And though this may remedy the current bitter tilt to Esca’s mouth, Marcus cannot find it in his heart to encourage it.

 

It is as this thought is crossing Marcus’ mind that Esca looks over. “What is it?” he asks with slight concern.

 

But before Marcus can form a reply, the courtship dance ends with a shout from the whole village, the happy couples stumbling over each other as they bow amid their own laughter. Anything he might have said is swept aside as Haerviu rises and the village slowly quiets. Abruptly, she gestures to the musicians, who begin a wild tune to general mayhem from the crowd. As Haerviu backs away to stand at the front of the fire on a sturdy tree stump that puts her head and shoulders above even Marcus, the rest of the audience stands and jostles for position in a wide circle, linking arms and grinning.

 

“C’mon, Marcus!” says Ronan, tugging at his arm. “It’s Dannsa Mor, you have to!”

 

“It is tradition,” agrees Esca, smirking at him.

 

Marcus blinks at them. “But I don’t know how--”

 

“It’s easy,” insists Ronan, digging his heels in now. “You just do whatever you want. C’mon!”

 

“Just stand and clap until it’s your turn,” explains Esca patiently, extending a hand. “When you hear your name, go to the middle and dance.”

 

“Ah,” says Marcus and prays it won’t come to that. He does take Esca’s hand though.

 

It does come to that.

 

The dance lasts a very long time, long enough for everyone in the village to have a turn, sometimes alone, most of the time with at least one partner. Marcus is first called to dance with Faelan, who nearly nails him in the shin several times with her exuberant kicks - possibly even by accident - and Esca is called to dance with a young woman named Ailbhe who blushes the whole time and nearly falls twice, laughing with delight when Esca is there to catch her. Even Ronan gets partnered with two other boys, though it very quickly devolves into a tripping competition. 

 

Finally, Marcus and Esca are called a final time near the end of the evening, this time partnered with each other. Esca grins broadly as they take the floor, whispering, “Sequi me,” before beginning a pattern Marcus knows well.

 

He mirrors Esca’s grin as he follows the combat form, made more fluid by Esca’s lithe movement and embellishments. Marcus throws in some of his own additions and before he knows it they’re seconds away from tackling each other to the ground. He doesn’t know why he expected differently.

 

Finally, Marcus gives Esca an obvious opening, waiting to see what he’ll do, but instead of flipping him onto his back, Esca whirls in close, wrapping Marcus’ arm around his waist and flipping backwards over it to thunderous shouting. Marcus spins him back in, holding him close, and suddenly never wants to move again. Their brows are touching and their panting breaths are mingling and Esca’s eyes - Marcus can’t -

 

It’s almost a relief when the next pair is called and they can take their leave, inclining their heads to Haerviu before moving back to their spot next to a hollering Ronan.

 

Esca wastes no time in leaning against him as they clap for the remaining dancers, a solid line of contact from Marcus’ hip to his shoulder. He claps harder and focuses on breathing.

Chapter Text

After the hunt and subsequent feast, several positive things occur. The majority of the tribe seems to accept Marcus is not there to slaughter them and begin to treat him as an honored visitor rather than a dangerous outsider. Marcus makes several friends among the men and strengthens his friendship with Caoimhe and the other young women. Ronan seems to settle into his place among the children, no longer griping about proving himself a man at every opportunity, though Marcus has a feeling this new complacency will only last so long.

 

All this, however, does not make up for the fact that Esca seems to be avoiding him.

 

After a week of seeing Esca only at group mealtimes or when he creeps into their hut in the night, despite searching high and low and asking after him to the villagers, Marcus decides to swallow his pride and seek out Moira. 

 

“I do not know or understand Roman customs,” she begins. They’re sitting on furs within her house while Iela, Moira’s daughter, prepares for dinner in the background.

 

Marcus waits, but when nothing else is forthcoming, he says, “I confess I am not learned in the ways of your tribe either.”

 

Moira ignores him, seeming deep in thought. After a time, she murmurs, “I may not understand, but Esca does. And I do not like what I see.”

 

This, at least, seems to be going in the right direction, so Marcus adds, “Esca? Do you know why he’s avoiding me?”

 

“Oh, he is, is he?” she asks slyly and Marcus winces. “Don’t grovel so, it doesn't suit you!” she continues, shoving his shoulders straight. “I thought you were simply shield brothers at first, as Esca claims, though I don’t think anyone in the village believes that anymore.”

 

Marcus clears his throat. “I don’t know what you mean,” he says, though a pit seems to yawn open in his stomach.

 

Drutos,” she scolds to Marcus’ astonishment. “It happens sometimes, you know. Though our tribe is one of the few that allows it beyond a simple indulgence. I thought you knew, what with Caoimhe and Faelan hanging around your doorstep every second of the day!”

 

Marcus blinks and tries to decide what to ask first.

 

“It is not so in Rome, is it?” Moira continues. She is looking at him shrewdly, though Marcus thinks she also seems troubled.

 

“No,” Marcus admits. “Though it happens, sometimes. It’s not…”

 

“Love is a myth and marriage is only for children, is that it?” she laughs. Marcus looks at her, startled, as several things slot into place in his mind.

 

“You’re going back anyway, aren’t you?” she asks, sobering up.

 

Marcus shrugs helplessly. “It’s my home.” He stares into the cooking fire for a moment, Iela singing softly somewhere to his right. “I’ll go alone though. I’ll not force Esca.”

 

Moira scoffs. “You’d be hard pressed to convince him to stay.” Marcus wisely keeps his opinions to himself.

 

It is only later, as Marcus is sitting with Ronan practicing Latin in their hut that he realizes he forgot to ask after that word again.

 


 

A few days later and Marcus is starting to get angry. What does Esca think will be gained with no communication? More than that though, it’s unlike him to avoid confrontation and it rubs Marcus the wrong way.

 

He’s sitting and whittling angrily one evening when Faelan walks by and says, apropos of nothing, “It’s about time, Marcus!”

 

She must see the bewilderment in his face, because she laughs and stops. “That is for Esca, is it not?” she asks, gesturing at the small wooden figure in his hands.

 

Marcus glances down as if to check the sea serpent he’s carving hasn’t transformed into something else. “I don’t…” he says, completely flummoxed.

 

Faelan squints at him, then sighs and flops down next to him. Pulling at the cord around her neck, she produces a small, beautifully hewn wooden butterfly. “Caoimhe gave this to me for lá Bealtaine,” she explains.

 

Lá Bealtaine?” Marcus asks, once again feeling slow around customs not his own.

 

“Oh, but then you wouldn’t know!” she says, eyes round. “It’s the next step after the courtship dance. It’s coming soon, less than a week. I thought you were gifting Esca with one?”

 

“So it’s a marriage dance?” Marcus asks because it seems the safest thing rattling around in his brain.

 

“Of course!” laughs Faelan. “Honestly, Marcus, what’s in your head?”

 

“But Esca wouldn’t - what about Ailbhe?”

 

“Ailbhe?” asks Faelan derisively. “What about her?”

 

“Well, she. At least I thought Esca would--”

 

“Oh, please. That girl would bed everyone in the village if possible. Did you know she rated Esca higher than you though? No brains in her head.”

 

“Ah, thank you?” Marcus says, flushing and only barely holding the thread of this conversation.

 

“You’re welcome,” says Faelan, slapping him on the back as she gets back up. “You have lovely eyes, you know. Anyway, you should get a move on. Only four days to go!” And she walks on, waving over her shoulder.

 

Marcus sits for several long moments then, as if in a trance, gets up and goes to beg another block of wood from the village carver.

 


 

Two days later, Ronan comes to Marcus while he’s whittling studiously by the forest. He knows he’s been neglecting his usual offers to Dubhán and the others, but he finds he can think of little else now that so much has become clear in his own head. Esca may not desire it, but he would have him know before he returns to Calleva or Rome or wherever he ends up.

 

“You should make the nose smaller, it looks too much like a dog,” observes Ronan, pointing to the carving. Marcus grunts and refrains from asking again if Ronan has seen Esca.

 

“There’s some kind of argument going on,” Ronan continues with studied casualty. Marcus narrows his eyes suspiciously. Ronan bites his lips and rocks on his heels, before blurting out, “I think Esca might be involved!” and running back toward the village. Cursing, Marcus stumbles to his feet and follows him.

 

When Marcus arrives, following the turning of heads and the sound of raised voices, he sees Ailbhe and a young man he doesn’t know shouting at one another while several people look on, Esca among them. Ailbhe appears to be crying.

 

Marcus looks directly at Esca, who glances at him and promptly disappears in the opposite direction. Marcus curses again and slips around the group, but Esca is gone from sight. Resisting the urge to stomp his foot like a child, he feels a slight tugging on his tunic and looks down to see Moira’s daughter, Iela, who is pointing down a narrow strip between two nearby huts.

 

She giggles as he pats her head in thanks and swiftly squeezes through the gap. Several turns later and he nearly trips over Esca, who is sitting in the grass behind the last outlying building.

 

He blinks down at him and Esca blinks back, clearly not expecting him.

 

“Marcus,” Esca greets carefully.

 

“What do you mean by it?” Marcus growls, suddenly so angry he can barely think.

 

Esca seems to be considering his thoughts carefully, looking away to the forest and sighing. “Sit down, Marcus,” he says.

 

Marcus considers telling him he would rather sit on a needle cushion. Something about the stiff set of Esca’s shoulders and the downturn of his brow, however, allows him to push his pettiness aside and comply.

 

“Well?” Marcus asks brusquely when Esca seems content to sit in silence, staring off into the trees.

 

Esca sighs and rubs his face, before murmuring, “I thought you wouldn’t want to see me.”

 

“Wouldn’t want to…?” For a moment, Marcus is stunned by the absurdity of this statement. “Why else would I be studying Brittonic if not to please you? Or sailing per mare Hibernium? Nisi tibi non adessem!”

 

He stares at Esca, unable to believe how he could not see this. “Ego te videre semper cupio,” he finishes gruffly, thinking that Latin is the best way he can explain this. His Brittonic is still too rough, too uncultured. This thing in his chest, this glow - terrifying and exhilarating - it deserves more.

 

Esca stares stiffly ahead and something about this makes Marcus remember how he had fallen into his aunt’s arms, face twisted with grief. He looks away, feeling a flare of shame in his understanding.

 

He stands again and suddenly finds he cannot bear this. He will reveal his affection in two days’ time, but he cannot see the pity in Esca’s eyes, cannot hear his rejection.

 

“Marcus!” Esca calls behind him, but he keeps walking.

 

Esca does not follow.

 


 

That night, Marcus has a dream that Esca comes to him. He feels the warmth of a hand on the back of his head and a suggestion of breath in his ear, whispering things he cannot hear.

 

When he snorts awake, Ronan is secure in his arms and Esca is across the room, facing the opposite wall.

Chapter Text

Lá Bealtaine dawns bright and warm. When Marcus rolls over, Ronan is cooking and Esca is already gone. Marcus sighs and drops an arm over his eyes.

 

Ronan hums at him in greeting. “You know Iela, Marcus?” he asks cheerfully.

 

Marcus grunts noncommittally and Ronan continues, “She says she gets in trouble all the time for things that aren’t her fault. But if she just apologizes, it makes things better.”

 

Marcus squints at him through his fingers. “You are not subtle, Ronan.”

 

“Just say sorry!” Ronan suddenly explodes, abandoning his pot to spin around and glare at Marcus. “I don’t know what happened, but you have to make it right. You know Esca is too--”

 

“Enough, Ronan,” chides Marcus. “Finish your chores.”

 

Ronan’s glare intensifies but he turns back to the cooking, muttering dourly to himself.

 


 

The day is filled with hard work and laughter as the villagers go about gathering the first crops of the season while the smallest children are sent into a nearby meadow to gather flowers. Singing can be heard throughout the day and intoxicating smells continuously waft from the main cooking hall.

 

As the evening closes in, Marcus is sitting and watching the bonfire woodpile being slowly built up while several children play nearby. Marcus absently follows Ronan with his eyes as the boy successfully dodges past a young girl with two braids down her back, who promptly jumps on him and knocks him to the ground. As Ronan tosses her off and raises a hand to retaliate, Marcus shouts at him.

 

“She started it!” the boy whines but stays his hand.

 

“And you’ll leave it unless you want to spend the night in the hut!” returns Marcus. Ronan sulks and the girl giggles and runs away.

 

“Here, Marcus,” says a quiet voice near his elbow. Before he can turn, however, a light weight is dropped on his head and he catches sight of Iela flitting away. He reaches up to feel the soft weight of leaves and petals.

 

“Fetching,” says Esca from far closer than Marcus expected.

 

He turns. Esca is looking at the flower crown with soft amusement. His posture is very stiff. “May I speak with you?” he asks and, when Marcus nods, squats gracefully and looks him in the eye.

 

“I wanted to apologize,” he begins, speaking tersely, almost angrily. He is framed in twilight and Marcus cannot see much of his face save for his eyes, which are very bright in the gathering darkness. “I have acted selfishly and without thought to you. You are my brother before all things; this will always be.”

 

Marcus swallows around the lump in his throat and feels as though the carving in his pocket is weighted down with lead. He nods, holding Esca’s gaze as steadily as he can. “Until the end,” he manages.

 

The little of Esca’s face he can see seems to crumble slightly and Esca reaches out to steady himself on Marcus’ knee. Marcus savagely tamps down on the flare of warmth that leaps into his stomach at the contact.

 

“Marcus, I--” Esca starts, his fingers tightening briefly. “I know, in Rome, this is not done, but it is in my heart to give you something. You do not have to take it, but I would have you know…”

 

Esca sighs, shakes his head ruefully. His fingers trail against Marcus’ knee as he removes something from his tunic. With a deep breath, he uncurls his fingers to reveal a small, roughly hewn eagle attached to a fine leather cord. It has something of Rome in the proud arch of its neck, but the rest is reminiscent of Britannic artwork, flowing and vague. 

 

For a moment, Marcus cannot breathe. He stares at the totem, at the way Esca’s fingers are trembling very slightly, and then at Esca himself, who is staring at him almost defiantly. Esca cannot mean…

 

“You do know what it means, don’t you?” asks Esca wryly. He tries to smirk, but it comes out more like a grimace than anything.

 

Esca does mean. Forgoing words, Marcus retrieves his own carving and slowly, reverently lowers it around Esca’s neck. He clasps one hand around the eagle carving in Esca’s hand and with the other makes it so his forehead is pressed to the side of Esca’s head.

 

Esca seems shell-shocked for a moment. His mouth is slightly open and his hand is slack where Marcus grips it as he stares down at the wolf around his own neck. Then his free hand comes up with a sense of disbelief to card gently through Marcus’ hair while the fingers of his right hand tighten around Marcus’.

 

“But I thought,” he murmurs, almost to himself. He pushes against Marcus’ forehead, his face twisted. “Marcus, it’s not done. I’ll not take you from your customs, your responsibilities. The Aquila line - your uncle has no children--”

 

“I thought that’s what Ronan was for,” Marcus interrupts softly, stroking Esca’s hair.

 

Esca closes his eyes and laughs quietly, almost despairingly. “I have been a fool.”

 

“Let us be fools together then,” Marcus answers, sounding unbearably fond even to his own ears.

 

Esca pulls back, smiling helplessly, his eyes suspiciously wet. Marcus traces his cheekbone with his thumb, then plucks his new carving from Esca’s hand and drops it over his own head.

 

Something dark flickers in Esca’s gaze and he stands abruptly. “See that you attend the dance,” he says, eyes heavy on Marcus’ own. Marcus smirks and nods.

 

Esca turns to walk away, seems to pause in indecision, then turns around again. He swiftly walks back, bends down, and very briefly presses his lips to Marcus’. Before Marcus can even register the pressure, it’s gone and Esca is walking away again, a slight lilt to his step.

 

Marcus presses the eagle against his pounding heart and gives up on breathing for the moment.

 


 

Marcus knows he sits at the feast, but he doesn’t remember what food or drink he takes. The night seems to speed by and before he knows it, the bonfire is lit and the familiar circle of villagers is formed.

 

He has received several good-natured jibes concerning his new necklace, but he notes no one seems very surprised. Nor do they ask from whom it was gifted.

 

He sits on the edge of the circle with Ronan, who seems to have picked up on his nervous energy, though judging by his endless questions has no more idea than Marcus what the evening will bring. “What are they talking about?” is a popular one, followed closely by “Did you say sorry?” though nothing tops the refrain of “Where’s Esca?”

 

Marcus answers tersely and wishes Esca were there to distract some of Ronan’s attention. He does not have long to wait.

 

“Esca!” shouts Ronan, jumping up and dragging Esca down on his other side. “Where have you been? Are you still angry with Marcus? I told him to say--”

 

“Ronan,” growls Marcus, very close to losing his temper.

 

“Peace, labhrach,” laughs Esca, ruffling Ronan’s hair. He seems to be in a much better mood than Marcus. “All is well.”

 

He glances over at Marcus, smiling softly. His hair is full of firelight and the wolf howls on his chest. Marcus’ chest unfolds with warmth and he leans back on his hands, looking his fill. He still feels in a state of disbelief, as if the events of the past day will drift away come the morning.

 

Esca blinks at his open regard, looking away briefly. He visibly seems to master himself then leans over Ronan to whisper, “The dance is quite simple. Most is freeform; just follow my lead for the rest.”

 

“What dance?” asks Ronan at a normal volume.

 

Caidear, just wait,” says Esca, leaning back and shoving Ronan’s head down.

 

Caidear,” Marcus tries. “Is that like furcifer?”

 

Esca laughs and Ronan perks up at the new Latin word. “Very like, yes,” agrees Esca. “Now quiet, we’re about to begin.”

 

This is almost immediately apparent, as Haerviu stands on her customary stump and claps her hands once. The echo reverberates around the group, which is suddenly silent and expectant. The nasal drone which began the courtship dance plays again, but Haerviu does not stand down. She lifts her wizened hands high and her voice rings out, singing a long, slow ballad.

 

Marcus does not understand all the words, as they seem to be in a tongue more ancient than even Hibernian Brittonic. He is impressed with a sense of loss, joy, and the continuation of life circled around by a word he feels more than knows means love.

 

Beside him, Ronan is wrinkling his brow, no doubt attempting to parse the language, while Esca’s eyes are closed, his head tilted toward the stars. In that moment, Marcus wants nothing more than to hold them both, to feel their hearts beat with his. It is a feeling greater than he can contain, but all he can do is slide his arm behind Ronan’s shoulders and place his hand spread on Esca’s shoulder blades.

 

The moment Haerviu’s chant is ended, Esca’s eyes open and fix on Marcus’. He rises smoothly, never once looking away, and holds out his hand.

 

“Will you dance?” he whispers. His eyes are like starlight and Marcus cannot breathe. How is it possible that someone like Esca could…?

 

He forces himself to breath in and nod. He may not deserve him, but Marcus will spend the rest of his days trying to prove himself worthy. He takes Esca’s hand.

 

“From this point forward,” Esca says quietly in his ear when they are standing in the center with two other couples. “We do not touch. Intellegisne?

 

“Ita vero,” Marcus murmurs. He breathes in Esca’s scent like a promise and stands clear.

 

The first part of the dance is very slow but very beautiful. Marcus drifts for a moment before tying in to the loose circle they are meant to form, slowly extending their legs in opposing movements. There are several times Esca spins in the opposite direction with a flourish and Marcus follows in what must seem very clumsy imitation. He can’t find it in himself to care though, not when Esca has yet to move his gaze, as direct as always and never as compelling.

 

As the beginning winds down with a long held note, they slowly bring their hands up, stepping closer and closer and finally stopping on the last chord. There is barely a breath of air between their palms and Marcus has never wanted to touch Esca as badly as he does in this moment.

 

Before he can succumb to the impulse, Esca smirks and whispers, “Stay there.” He whirls away, briefly joining hands with the two women who have also broken away from their partners before beginning a very athletic dance to match the suddenly frenetic music. He leaps and spins, kicks his heels up in increasingly impressive displays and all the while never looks away from Marcus.

 

Marcus feels his mouth dry and knees stiffen and it’s all he can do to keep standing. It is when Esca spins closer that Marcus sees the glint of amusement in his eyes and… He is posturing. Esca is mocking him in the sweetest, most torturous way possible and Marcus will not bend. Stubbornly, he sets his jaw and bends his knees, preparing for whatever comes next.

 

What comes next is Esca swanning in close enough to Marcus’ side for him to feel a rush of air that sets him shivering and panting in his ear, “Your turn.”

 

The music changes subtly, less leaping flourishes and more of a steady, rhythmic drive that Marcus can definitely work with. He doesn’t try to imitate Esca’s graceful, bounding style and sticks to what he knows: scraping his heel to tamp down with the flat of his foot, clapping his hands strategically to spin slowly with his arms raised. If the dark of Esca’s eyes are anything to go by, he seems to be doing well enough.

 

They trade off again, though this time Marcus and the other two men stand in a loose triangle while Esca and the women revive their leaping dance around them. Esca is often close enough that Marcus can feel the wind of his passing, can smell his sweat, sense his warmth, very close but still not touching. It is the most excruciating anticipation in Marcus’ memory; his skin is itching as though it will fly from his very bones.

 

His turn comes again and he makes the most of it, spinning as close as he dares so Esca may undergo the same treatment. He knows he’s smiling smugly when he catches sight of Esca’s rigid expression but he is powerless to stop it.

 

Finally, the music seems to erupt into a block of sound, chaotic lines crawling over one another and Marcus looks to Esca for guidance. Esca leans close and says calmly, “Now you can touch me.” But when Marcus lunges forward to do just that, Esca jumps out of reach, laughing. “If you can catch me!” he taunts then takes off at a dead sprint.

 

Slightly stunned, Marcus can see Esca is not just being difficult as the two women are also dodging their prospective partners. Though they don’t seem to be trying nearly as hard to avoid them, Marcus notes wryly as one woman is caught up, laughing merrily, and easily slings her arms about her new husband’s neck.

 

Marcus tries for several long moments to catch up, but Esca is simply too quick. Every time he comes close, Esca spins away in the opposite direction to jeers and laughter from the circle of villagers. Marcus can hear Caoimhe screaming encouragement and Bren advice.

 

“Esca, you’re meant to let him catch you!” shouts Faelan in exasperation on his fifth successful maneuver. “Stop being so flighty!”

 

Marcus curses loudly in Latin as Esca evades him yet again, slipping between the other two now united couples and disappearing into the crowd. He hears someone shout his name and, seeing Dubhán gesturing him into the same crowd, he squeezes through and stoops next to her.

 

“Wait here,” she says a little too loudly directly into his ear. “He’ll come.”

 

He feels the music is drawing to a close and wonders with a pang what will occur should he fail to lay hands on Esca. Just then, Esca comes bursting out of the crowd nearby, grinning and looking round to find Marcus but, with Marcus still stooped behind Dubhán, does not see him. It is as he turns his back on Marcus’ section of the circle, frowning now, that Marcus bursts forth and scoops him easily up onto his shoulder, smiling triumphantly.

 

Esca laughs in exhilaration and thumps his back none too gently. “Marcus drutos, crus! Crus tuum! Let me down!”

 

And Marcus does, wrapping his arms securely around Esca’s rear to lower him slowly to the ground amid thunderous applause and chaotic music. He shifts his hold to Esca’s waist and spins him once round, Esca’s feet flying off the ground and his laughter falling on Marcus’ ears.

 

The music swells to a finale and Marcus moves one hand deep into Esca’s hair to press their foreheads together fiercely. He knows he must be smiling quite foolishly, but finds he cares for nothing past the smell of Esca’s skin and the joyous light of his eyes.

Chapter Text

They barely make it through the entrance of their hut, Ronan safe in Caoimhe’s care for the night.

 

Marcus presses Esca against the wall and tastes the sweet sounds rising from his throat. He feels as though his skin is about to come off and Esca won’t stop touching him, spreading his fingers over Marcus’ back as though to meld their flesh together. For Marcus’ part, he spreads his hands as wide as they will go to hold Esca’s head in place so he can continue to lick and nip at his lips, his mouth, his tongue.

 

As Marcus tongues a particular spot on the roof of Esca’s mouth, Esca groans deep in his throat and seems to melt against Marcus, sweet and pliant. Encouraged, Marcus does it again and Esca breaks the kiss with a heartfelt sound to drop his head against the wall and run his hands under Marcus’ tunic and - oh how is that so much better.

 

Marcus can do nothing to stop the sound he makes nor his mouth as he continues to kiss Esca desperately, now on his jaw, his ear, his neck. Esca hisses when Marcus finds the hollow of his throat and scratches his nails up Marcus’ spine, panting, “Marcus, come on, we need to - amabo te, Marce…”

 

But Marcus is senseless with want to hear Esca speak his name in Brittonic, in Latin, like that…

 

He does not immediately register that Esca is trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to remove his tunic, growling in frustration when Marcus does nothing but continue to lick his neck and whisper his name in scattered breaths. Something clicks in Marcus’ head and from a meandrous train of thought comes tunicae and craiceann and suddenly Marcus wants nothing more than to explore every inch of Esca’s swirling, striking tattoo.

 

He pulls Esca from the wall, scrabbling at the hem of his tunic, but it seems Esca has had the same idea for he pushes Marcus at the same time and they go toppling over together, thankfully onto the pallet. Marcus wastes no time in pinning Esca and pushing up his tunic to lay open, sucking kisses on his stomach and chest. He finds the edge of the swirling blue ink and follows it upward with his tongue, feeling Esca shudder and curse colorfully in Brittonic, a phrase Marcus has never heard.

 

Then Esca hooks a leg over Marcus’ waist and suddenly Marcus is laying on his back and panting at the ceiling as Esca swiftly pulls off first his own tunic then Marcus’. “Drutos, stop distracting me,” he scolds, then slides up to take Marcus’ mouth in a harsh kiss, and the feel of their bare chests together - wooden totems catching and sliding - is matched only by the deep tug of desire when Esca rolls his hips into Marcus’.

 

“Esca,” Marcus can hear himself say. It does not sound like anything he’s heard before. His hands are on Esca’s bare skin and his breath is full of Esca’s scent and Marcus feels as though he will burst -

 

Esca laughs breathily, high and slightly hysterical, and says into Marcus’ neck, “Marcus, please. Can I…? Licetne mihi…?” And Marcus nods frantically, whatever Esca wants, anything - please - just -

 

He hears himself say at least some of this aloud but cannot tell if it’s in Latin or Brittonic or gibberish. Esca makes a broken sound that has Marcus clinging to him, denting fingerprints into his skin, determined to press some of himself into this man - this wild, lovely man - 

 

It is both a few moments and a century later that Marcus comes back to himself, Esca laying lingering kisses down his shoulder, their hands still intertwined loosely around their lengths. Esca’s other hand is wrapped around Marcus’ eagle carving, his thumb tracing it over and over.

 

Marcus sighs so he feels Esca rise gently with his chest and, removing his hands from their hold, takes Esca’s face and presses their lips together. He puts all of himself into it. His devotion, his wonder, and above all his faith in Esca - Esca and his quiet strength and boundless loyalty. He cannot stop it from flowing into the kiss and feels his heart swell almost painfully when Esca answers in kind.

 


 

Marcus wakes to soft kisses down his throat, slow and meandering. He hums with quiet contentment and spans Esca’s back more fully with his hands.

 

“Good morning,” he rumbles, his voice coming out rougher than expected.

 

Esca shivers against him and presses his lips carefully to the soft skin behind Marcus’ ear. “Dies bona.”

 

Marcus can feel the fingers of Esca’s left hand trailing his spine and the other smoothing the lines on his eagle totem. He can’t decide which he would rather lean into. “Are we to switch languages then?” he asks as Esca begins a new trail of kisses across his jawline.

 

Esca smiles against Marcus’ skin. “Wouldn’t that be a disaster,” he murmurs drowsily. Marcus slides one hand to Esca’s hair, which is even more unruly than usual. He tangles his fingers into it to scratch Esca’s scalp, delighting in his soft sound and the way he arches against Marcus languidly.

 

Something about the conversation filters slowly through to his sluggish brain. “Esca,” he says quietly, kissing him firmly on the top of the head. “What does drutos mean?”

 

Esca stills for a moment, then all but giggles against the crook of Marcus’ neck. “Oh, Marcus,” he sighs, still laughing. “I thought you would’ve asked someone else by now.”

 

Marcus isn’t sure whether to be offended or suspicious. “I was going to,” he says. “At least, when I last spoke with your aunt, she used it but we were speaking of other things and--”

 

“I thought you would’ve asked Ronan before we ever came to Hibernia,” Esca interrupts him, leaning back to smile up at him. He seems slightly exasperated, which Marcus thinks is hardly fair.

 

“I was learning a new language,” Marcus says, miffed. “Nec facilis,” he mutters, half to himself.

 

Esca slides his eyes to the side despairingly then rolls himself within range to lightly press his mouth to Marcus’. He makes to pull away but Marcus reels him back in and slots their mouths together until Esca’s hands clench and he makes a low noise of want in his throat.

 

When he pulls back, Esca’s eyes are screwed shut and his mouth is red and shining. Satisfied, Marcus swipes a thumb over Esca’s bottom lip and asks, “So what does it mean?”

 

Esca’s eyes are very dark when he opens them and Marcus almost picks right back up again until Esca says, low and quiet, Carus. It means carus.”

 

Marcus feels his brow furrow in confusion but Esca adds, almost impishly, “Quoque stultus,” and pecks him on the nose and Marcus isn’t surprised at all.

 

With a smile, he tucks Esca’s head under his chin, holding on to what is his.

 


 

Ronan is vastly unimpressed to have been shunted off for the night. He seems to be attempting to goad one or both of them into an argument, but Marcus feels too at peace with the world to be bothered and Esca is content to ignore him. After several failed attempts, Ronan gives up with a huff and falls back to his old standard: questions.

 

“So are you and Marcus married now?” he asks Esca as Marcus prepares breakfast with Caoimhe. Marcus wills his ears to remain their proper color.

 

“By the laws of the Eblanii, yes,” answers Esca easily, showing absolutely no signs of embarrassment.

 

“Are you going to get married in Rome too?”

 

Esca stills at that one, glancing at Marcus once before looking steadily at Ronan without answering. The boy hunches a little and looks uncertainly at Marcus.

 

Marcus clears his throat and goes back to slicing cheese. “It’s not that simple, Ronan.”

 

“Why?”

 

Marcus sighs despairingly and looks beseechingly at Esca, who returns his look with no expression. “Hanc cavernam fodisti, Romane mi. Es solus.”

 

Roman frowns. “What’s fodissisti?”

 

Fodisti,” corrects Marcus absently. “It’s not simple because marriages in Rome - they’re often political in nature. Or their only purpose is to produce children. Strengthen the…” he trails off, frustrated, then finishes, “Sanguinem.”

 

Sanguinem?” Ronan repeats.

 

“Family line,” provides Esca quietly. His spine is very straight.

 

“Foolishness,” mutters Caoimhe angrily. Marcus looks at her, startled.

 

“Oh, don’t think I’m spitting on your customs!” she assures him, blushing. “But if two people love each other, I always thought…” She stops speaking, embarrassed, and goes back to kneading dough.

 

“Rome has a long, proud history of politics, nonsensical laws, and murderous backstabbing,” says Esca coldly. Marcus frowns at him. Ronan looks fascinated.

 

“But don’t you have family elsewhere, Marcus?” asks Caoimhe, trying to relieve the sudden tension.

 

“None with the Aquila name,” Esca answers for him.

 

“That’s not important,” Marcus says gravely, turning to face him. “Not to me.”

 

Esca holds his look for a moment, his eyes flinty, before he softens and nods slowly. “I know.”

 

Marcus sees Caoimhe smiling sappily and Ronan miming gagging, but before he can respond, Faelan makes her entrance with a basket of freshly picked fruit. “What’d I miss?”

 

Esca turns to greet her and Ronan immediately asks, “Esca, what’s on your neck?”

 

Visibly delighted, Faelan peers at Esca and he shoves her away when she crows with laughter. “It looked like a bruise,” continues Ronan, frowning disapprovingly at Faelan. “Are you okay?”

 

“Oh, Ronan, that’s not--” tries Caoimhe awkwardly, but Faelan interrupts with, “It’s a bitemark!”

 

“A bite?” asks Ronan, alarmed. “What bit you?”

 

Marcus feels as though his skin may be twice as hot as usual. “Faelan, don’t--”

 

She ignores him completely and answers Ronan nonchalantly with, “Marcus did,” before bursting into laughter again.

 

Ronan takes one look at Marcus’ over-red face and Esca’s long-suffering expression before also beginning to laugh.

 

“Really, Faelan!” scolds Caoimhe. “They’re our guests!”

 

“Marcus bit Esca!” laughs Ronan, then topples over onto his furs, still laughing.

 

“Furcifer,” he tells Faelan, but she only winks and goes to console Caoimhe.

 


 

Ronan seems to be deep in thought about something all day and Marcus, remembering the morning’s conversation, dreads what he will eventually ask.

 

It comes out around the time Marcus has started to think the boy will wait another day.

 

“I’m to sleep in the young men’s hut tonight then?”

 

Esca favors Ronan with a glance before turning back to preparing the pallets. “Did you have a growth spurt I should know about?”

 

“But you’re married now!” Ronan exclaims as if that explains everything.

 

“Why would that change anything?” asks Esca with almost no inflection. Marcus glances at him, wondering if he should be worried.

 

“But,” says Ronan, then stops. He waves his arms at the pallets, arranged as always close enough so the three of them can sleep comfortably together.

 

“Ronan,” says Esca with great patience. “Go wash your face.”

 

Ronan seems to take great affront at this, jutting his chin out and visibly working himself up before bursting out with, “But I should already be a man!” He screws his face up, already red and splotchy. Esca goes very still, his face suddenly hard and dangerous. Despite these ominous signs, Ronan continues. 

 

“My father would have--”

 

“Your father would have slit your throat in front of our eyes!” Esca shouts, as sudden as a storm. His eyes are terrifying, merciless grey clouds. “He would have spilt your blood and not lost any sleep that night! But by the gods, at least you would be a man, aye?”

 

“Esca,” warns Marcus sharply, but the damage is done. Ronan reels back as if slapped, eyes very bright, then runs through the door without looking back.

 

Esca’s regret is immediately apparent in the dip of his spine and his clenched jaw. He sighs deeply and turns away. “Not a word, Marcus.”

 

“I think you said enough,” replies Marcus mildly.

 

Esca whips around again, opening his mouth to retort, then seems to think better of it. He looks severely at the pallets, now neatly set for sleep. “Ita vero, fortasse.”

 

Marcus hesitates, glancing between Esca and the door. This idea has been niggling Ronan for months and will not be resolved easily. Even less easily if Marcus were to go after him right now.

 

Instead, he drops to his knees next to Esca, rubbing his back. Esca is rigid under his palm, his eyes very tired. “Let’s just go to sleep,” he murmurs.

 

It takes some time to accomplish.

 

Just when they finally manage it, Marcus hears nearly silent footsteps followed by a quiet, scratchy voice. “Esca?”

 

Esca shifts slightly and looks over his shoulder within the circle of Marcus’ arms while Marcus squints at the boy. Ronan’s eyes are very red and his tunic is slightly muddy. He still looks a little angry.

 

A sharp pang of expression passes over Esca’s face. He rolls over and beckons, but Marcus gestures to Ronan and murmurs, “Change that first.”

 

Less than a minute later, Ronan buries himself deep into Esca’s arms, clinging tight. Marcus closes his reach around both of them and holds on for all he’s worth.

Chapter Text

Marcus’ suspicions about Ronan prove correct.

 

The idea of manhood has gripped the boy like no other - this need to prove himself - and Marcus knows better than anyone that telling him to stay put and be complacent will only push him in the opposite direction faster. He predicts it will all come to a head sooner rather than later and can only hope - hypocritically, he knows - it won’t be quite as dramatic as his and Esca’s journey the previous year.

 

He cautiously shares some of these thoughts with Esca one afternoon as they sit weaving baskets with two other young men. Instead of the sullen silence he expects, Esca seems to give Marcus’ words due consideration before sighing and admitting, “Yes, I’ve thought much the same recently.”

 

“So let the boy prove himself,” suggests one of the men. Marcus thinks his name is Morwyn. “There is to be another hunt come the falling leaves. Why not then?”

 

“He won’t be ready,” says Esca. He pulls the weave a little tighter than necessary. “His training isn’t complete.”

 

“He’s improving his hunt every day,” remarks the second man genially. Marcus doesn’t remember his name.

 

“Yes,” answers Esca fairly. “But he’s three years out from his changes yet. Your other young men, at the feast. They were all four years his senior.”

 

“There have been younger before,” says Morwyn. When Esca glances at him as if deciding to be hostile or not, he holds up his hands, chuckling. “But the final decision is yours, of course.”

 

Marcus hesitates then decides to risk it. “He thinks you’re holding him back.”

 

“I know what he thinks,” bites Esca, returning to his work. “And I know for a fact his father was holding him back. He has several things to catch up on and I’ll not speed through.”

 

“I--”

 

“He needs to know, Marcus,” snarls Esca, tying off the weave with a harsh movement.

 

Marcus sets his own work aside to lay a calming hand on Esca’s shoulder. “I’m not arguing, amate.”

 

Esca’s shoulders relax slightly, but he doesn’t look up. Marcus rubs Esca’s skin, thinking on something that’s been building in the back of his mind for several months now. Before he can phrase it, however, Morwyn clears his throat and, looking up, Marcus can see the other man smiling awkwardly.

 

Marcus removes his hand and retracts his thoughts. It’ll keep for a time.

 


 

In the end, two separate events begin it. Unremarkable on their own, but all the catalyst a young British boy needs to make a foolhardy decision.

 

There is a rumor of a wild boar roaming the area. The neighboring tribes report dogs and men alike downed by the beast. It will take many warriors to fell it, they say.

 

There is also an argument. It is the first serious one between Marcus and Esca that does not concern slavery and ownership.

 

When they had set out to Hibernia, Marcus will readily confess he had no stable idea of where he would eventually go, only that he would not tie Esca to a life of wandering, and certainly not Ronan. Given their current status, however, Marcus acknowledges that Esca will come with him whether he is invited or not. Marcus steadfastly ignores the niggle of guilt this thought always provokes - to be tied to a ruined soldier, a broken man… But that is Esca’s choice and his life and Marcus will not do him the dishonor of doubting his judgments.

 

Ronan, however, is a different story.

 

The boy is Esca’s adopted son - it has always been Esca, no matter how Marcus’ regard has grown - and Marcus only wants the best for him. When cold and scared and grasping at a carved wooden fish like a lifeline, that was to take him. When happy and hale and surrounded by a culture in which he can thrive and carve a life for himself, that may be to leave him.

 

Esca does not agree.

 

In fact, Esca does not agree very loudly and on more than one occasion. Marcus has great confidence that Ronan overhears at least some of these conversations.

 

“He longs to be a man, Esca,” Marcus tries his last line of argument. “We cannot stay and he needs longer than we can give him.” Esca, staring at the wall, incensed, does not respond. “Here, he can stay and grow into his own, take part in the ceremony when he’s ready. He will not have that opportunity elsewhere.”

 

“And where will he go?” Esca asks quietly. His jaw is very tight.

 

Marcus hesitates. He wonders if he should. He closes his eyes and says, “This village is fortunate. There are no orphans this year and Caoimhe and Faelan cannot adopt.”

 

Esca’s eyes are full of a rogue warrior, younger than the others, with a knife in his back. “You spoke with them?”

 

Marcus says nothing. He feels the words heavy as ash on his tongue but would rather swallow than unburden them onto Esca.

 

Esca’s narrow face is suddenly very young. “I must think on this.”

 

He stands slowly and walks away. Marcus does not follow.

 


 

The day dawns with a blood-red cloud hovering menacingly above the sun, its edges almost black. Marcus thinks religious thoughts for the first time in almost a year.

 

The second portent is a missing spear. It is one of Faelan’s finest and she ravages the town in her search.

 

The third is the most telling: the absence of Ronan.

 

“I’m going after him,” says Esca when Marcus sprints into the hut after him. He is pulling on soft hunting boots, daggers already strapped to the outside.

 

“We don’t even know--”

 

“Spare us both, Marcus,” Esca snaps mercilessly. “I know where he is and I’m going after him.” He stands, looks Marcus in the eye, and Marcus feels his spine straighten in response. “Are you coming?”

 

Marcus manages to pass their destination to Moira before following Esca closely, afraid of losing him in the forest. Esca moves silently, as substantial as a shadow, and Marcus feels a million librae in comparison. He quiets his steps as much as possible, willing himself to blend into the background.

 

It ends up not mattering in the end. Marcus knows he will hear Ronan’s scream echoing through the trees for years to come.

 

Esca takes off like a shot and Marcus marks his location as best he can, knowing he’ll never be able to keep up. Instead, he listens fiercely for any sound of hooves or tusks carving their way through the undergrowth.

 

When he hears it, he veers sharply to the right and readies his spear, hoping to cut the beast off from Esca. The boar shrieks again, closer than Marcus estimated. He can see it now, a fine Eblanii spear dangling from its side, bearing down on a figure hunched at the top of a small cliff.

 

Esca has seen it too. He reaches Ronan just as the boar is upon him and rolls the boy out of the way. However, the dodge has put them in a precarious position against the cliff’s edge and Marcus can see blood flowing freely down Ronan’s leg as the boar wheels to charge again.

 

Downhill and from behind, he knows he cannot fell the beast. He quiets his mind and readies his spear, looking only at his target, not his whole world crouched defenselessly in front of it. The spear slams into the back of the throat and the animal lets out a horrible, gargled roar, turning now on Marcus.

 

He slides down the remainder of the cliff, making sure the boar can see him well enough to follow, giving Esca and Ronan a chance to flee. The beast, however, is cannier than he imagines. It successfully corners him against the base of the cliff, screaming its rage to the skies before lowering its great head and charging for a third time.

 

“Marcus!” he hears a small voice shout from above him, but he is fully in the fight now and does not look. In one smooth movement, he draws his sword - kept despite Esca’s advice - and executes a clean slice to push the boar to one side while avoiding the murderous tusks.

 

It works, but to his detriment. The sword is ripped from his hands, adding to the array of weapons clinging to its hoary hide. Knowing he has only seconds, Marcus flings himself further away, noting absently that his thigh seems to be on fire.

 

Unfortunately, he’s out of options. There are no trees nearby and the cliff wall is nigh un-scalable. He braces himself to face off with the beast, determined to make a stand at the last. As the animal wheels for its final attack, he distantly sees Esca jumping down and skidding to face him, his mouth open in horror. “Marce, curre!” His voice scrapes down Marcus’ spine.

 

He hears Esca call again, all frantic fear, but then there is a whooping scream and three spears thud into the boar’s sides. The animal falters and Marcus takes his chance to sprint out of the way, avoiding his death by a handspan.

 

The boar takes three more spears and several arrows before it comes to a shrieking, shuddering halt, its eyes glassy and malevolent even in death. Marcus can feel his leg catch up to his adrenaline a moment before Esca catches him.

 

“Marcus,” says Esca, his forehead a brand against Marcus’ own. He swallows dryly and Marcus can feel him shaking, just slightly. “If you ever do that to me again, I will personally carve you into pieces and feed you to your uncle’s ridiculous dog.”

 

Marcus huffs a shaking breath of a laugh and kisses Esca’s cheek. “Where’s Ronan?”

 

Esca looks at him then, furious and afraid. “I swear it on the bones of my father, Marcus.”

 

Marcus palms the side of his face and looks into his eyes with intent. “I know.”

 

Esca closes his eyes and shakes his head, but does not remove Marcus’ hand. “He’ll have a new scar. Perhaps it will teach the lesson I can’t seem to get through to him.”

 

“I changed my mind,” grumps Faelan from behind them. When Marcus looks at her over Esca’s shoulder, she pulls her spear from the carcass with a wet squelch and gestures at Ronan with it. He’s leaning against a nearby tree, leg freshly bandaged and face red with emotion. “You can keep him.”

 

“I was planning on it,” says Esca severely. He does not turn, but continues to look at Marcus with unnerving intensity.

 


 

They set out with the last harvest. Their bags are heaped high with supplies and well-meaning gifts. Their borrowed horses are fresh and eager to begin.

 

Ronan insists on naming the white one Palens and Esca only smiles indulgently, a common enough occurence in the last week. Marcus finds his misgivings fading with each new curl of Esca’s lips. Marcus had never imagined his life would be as it is - to have the love of a wild British man, the desire to see the world at his side. Perhaps Ronan will find a similarly unlooked-for purpose.

 

Marcus had spent the whole of the day before walking the village and surrounding woods, finding a surprising amount of melancholy in the experience. Though they’re going to Calleva and after that back to Rome - Rome , after such a time - he finds he’ll miss this place and its people.

 

Esca receives much friendly advice about how to incapacitate Roman soldiers - should it come to that - and Ronan, with very wide eyes, a single white flower from Iela. Faelan surprises Marcus by sobbing into his shoulder while threatening him with severe bodily harm should he do anything to upset Esca or Ronan while Caoimhe bestows a kiss on his cheek and gently wishes him well.

 

Moira is the last to come forward and Marcus supposes she planned the symmetry of that.

 

Esca speaks with her at length while Marcus keeps Ronan busy and out of earshot. When Esca returns, his expression is distant and unusually pensive. He rounds Ronan’s shoulder with his palm and leans into Marcus absently.

 

“Marcus,” Esca’s aunt calls to him. Her eyes are very clear, as if a piece of the sky has dropped into them. “Tibi gratias ago.”

 

Marcus blinks in surprise, then nods respectfully. “Es exspectatissima.”

 

She smiles broadly and, stepping forward, reaches up to cup his face in warm hands. “You are unique among Romans, I think. Continue to feed that heart of yours.” Then she lets him go to ruffle the top of Ronan’s head, which is peeking around Esca’s side. “And come back before I die, aye?”

 

Ronan stands still, looking comically confused at the sudden attention. Esca smiles and hugs her, briefly but with strength. “Many times the stars may turn but we shall meet again.”

 

Before they mount up, Ronan looks quickly between Marcus and Esca. He darts to Marcus, tugging on his elbow. When Marcus bends obligingly, Ronan whispers in his ear, “Don’t worry, you’re still more comfortable,” then runs back to ride with Esca.

 

Marcus entertains himself with glancing at Esca throughout the day, each time finding amusement in his look of mingled joy and suspicion at Ronan’s choice.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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.