From the moment Marcus’ back hit the lump of a mattress in the inn all the adrenaline that had been propping him up had left him. Immediately the pain in his knee returned and he felt the bile rise to his throat. A familiar feeling from the time at his uncle’s, one that had felt a distant dream as he gutted fish and cared for horses back at the camp, back when he was the slave. But he was no longer a slave, and neither was Esca.
The room’s emptiness seemed to purchase itself on his chest and Marcus began to feel it harder to breathe, though it could easily be blamed on his current physical state and not on the fact that his traveling companion was currently downstairs. Enjoying his newfound freedom with other Britons.
Marcus had wanted to stay, truly, though watching Esca talk in his native tongue with a smile on his lips twisted something within him. Which could have been the adrenaline slowly making its way out of him, or it could have been something else. Marcus denied the idea as he made the way to their joint room, politely excusing himself in Latin. Esca gave him a short nod and a knowing look, the others paid no mind. As if he was not Marcus Flavius Aquila, who had returned The Eagle of the Ninth to Rome. To them he was another Roman, he wondered if Esca felt the same.
By the time Marcus’ chest was about to burst he heard the light footfalls he had grown accustomed to hearing walking around in the early morning light in the villa. Marcus had made it a game as a child when he thought staying up late without the nursemaids or his mother knowing was truly the most devious plot he could conduct. He made it his mission to discern everyone’s different ways of walking. Something he had picked back up when he found himself waking up early due to his leg, something to distract from the pain.
He found that Esca’s were the hardest to make out as if he did not walk at all and simply floated from place to place. The number of times he had walked into a room without Marcus knowing would have been unnerving if he were a lesser man he would have jumped at more than one occasion. (He had once, but swore Esca to secrecy.)
Eventually, he managed to get a grasp on Esca’s, starting by listening as Esca moved about his room, watching the way his foot fell. It almost seemed to move from the ball to the heel, like the dancers his mother had taken him to see when he was still a child when his father’s name was still honorable. Marcus had gone home the night after the performance, mimicking the moves he had seen as his mother applauded for him, though he found it awkward and much preferred the heavy marching he had seen his father practicing.
Nonetheless, Esca was back in their room, fluttering around as quietly as a drunk man could. He probably thought Marcus was asleep since there was no greeting for him, and Marcus intended to keep it that way, his knee had other plans. Since it decided then was the correct time to twinge his nerves, sending a shock through him that forced a loud breath from him.
Marcus would never admit how he felt when he heard his Roman name spoke on British tongue. Especially by his friend. Only by his friend. Though he still had not answered Esca back, finding words caught in his throat as his brow began to dampen with sweat.
“Marcus, my friend what ails you?” Esca’s hands made their way to his forehead and if Marcus was a lesser man he would have mewled and leaned into the touch. He wishes he were a lesser man.
Esca must have not liked what he felt because immediately the hand was gone and so was Esca, moving once again around the room but with much more sobriety. Marcus wondered if it was in his blood, the ability to dilute alcohol so quickly. Since his own Roman blood made the sweet wine take its time in his body, and he usually felt the effects even after a long night's rest.
Two very different people, Marcus mused, how did we find ourselves here?
He knew the correct answer, the actual reality of what happened. But his brain? His heart? His soul? Wished for it to be something more.
Marcus blamed the fever for his thoughts and closed his eyes as Esca placed a cold wet cloth on his forehead.
He woke up in fits, and Esca was by his side each time. He’s not sure how perhaps by magic or perhaps his companion was a mirage that he had dreamt in a fever dream. Perhaps everything had been a dream, and he was still lying on the battlefield as blood pooled around him.
If this was a dream, Marcus never wished to wake from it.
Once or twice he would speak to Esca, mostly in whispers that had the other leaning forward. If he were a lesser man, it would have been so easy to pull Esca down to him. But Marcus had pride and Esca had honor. He refused to defile either.
Slowly Marcus found himself coming back into his body, and his voice had returned back to him. Since he was still in a hazy middle ground of wake and dream he found himself more confident than he had been in the past, even as a centurion.
“Esca, why do you stay?”
Esca looked up from his sewing and gave Marcus that incredulous look he always does, even when he was under Marcus’ command his face would sometimes betray him if Marcus had something particularly disagreeable that day.
“What do you mean?” Other than the way he walked, Esca was not a soft man. Everything about him had points, Marcus hard learned that the sharpness of the elbows matched the tone of his voice. All words were pronounced as if Esca shot daggers out of his mouth, even if what he was saying wasn’t supposed to come out that way. However, Esca never needed words to tell Marcus how he truly felt, his face gave it away.
Marcus would never tell Esca this, in fear the other man would steel his face, never to make that expression again. When Marcus had thought he had lost him when Marcus asked if he had shamed himself, and now.
“Why do you stay here and take care of me?” Maybe, Marcus thinks to himself in his fever haze, maybe he has forgotten… Forgotten that he is free, forgotten that he is no longer bound to Marcus.
“Because you are ill.” The simple, correct answer, the realistic one. The one that reflects what is happening above the surface. Marcus wished he was blessed with the ability to read Esca’s mind, it may have saved him from heartbreak, past, and future.
“Because you are my friend,” Esca speaks with daggers that shoot straight into Marcus’ heart.
“You have no obligation to me anymore.” You have no reason to stay. Leave me.
“What kind of person would leave a sick man in an inn leagues from home?” Like most times, Esca was right. Not that it helped ease the storm in Marcus’ mind.
“I would live.”
Marcus sighs and looks away from Esca, the smirk that has been slowly creeping on his face was rather unbecoming of him.
“Marcus, what is this about?” Esca puts a hand on his forearm and Marcus feels the fever in his skin reach a new high.
He might as well tell him, while he is looking away. Because while Marcus may not be a lesser man, he is a prideful one.
“You are free Esca, there is no reason for you to stay and care for me. You can go anywhere you want, travel, drink….” Meet pretty men and handsome women.
Esca takes Marcus trailing off as a sign that he’s finished saying, whatever it is he thinks is a logical argument, and takes this as his turn to sigh.
“My friend, it is because I am free that I choose to stay by your side.” A pause. “If you don’t want me here I understand…”
Marcus whipped his head around, never had he heard Esca sound so unsure of himself. Marcus would do everything in his power to make sure his friend never spoke like this again, as long as he could help it.
“No, there is nowhere I would rather have you go…”
“But that is no longer my choice.”
“I understand.” Does he?
Esca just nods and smiles. He’s been doing that more.
“At least let me see to you until you are well enough to walk around on your own, I wouldn’t want to leave you out here defenseless.” Esca was also very adept in the art of provocation, something that he loved to practice on Marcus.
Marcus just scoffs back, sleep calls his head back into the mattress. “I was a centurion, a proud Roman soldier.”
“Yes, very proud.”
Marcus doesn’t have the chance to retort, as Esca’s hand finds its way to his brow once more and he is lulled into a dream.
His father is home, Marcus hands him the Eagle, Esca stands at his side, his father hugs him, shakes Esca’s hand, his mother is there, she is happy.
Marcus’ fever breaks the next afternoon, Esca still stays.
Marcus is able to walk downstairs to the tavern two days later, Esca is by his side, hand hovering the small of his back.
Esca is there when Marcus drinks too much wine in celebration, and he is there when Marcus collapses into his bed. Esca is there when he empties the contents of his stomach, saying something about Romans and their wine.
Marcus just blames it on the blood in his veins.
The innkeeper has slowly grown tired of their antics it seems, as his wife refills of their drinks take longer and longer, and also that he has asked multiple times over the past few days when they were deciding to leave. Marcus would like to say that he is Marcus Flavius Aquila, who had returned The Eagle of the Ninth to Rome, but he feels as though the sentiment would be lost on the owner who just wanted their room vacant again for another customer.
He had decided that they would discuss Esca’s plans for the future, as much as he dreaded the thought of Esca no longer being with him, it was something that had to be done. For who’s sake? Marcus was not sure.
He busied himself with packing their possessions for the morning ride, not that they had much, traveling in the north required they traveled light, but they had obtained a few gifts from the senators. Marcus wondered idly how much the gifts were worth.
Esca came into their room from making sure the horses were ready for the journey back, the two procured as gifts as well. The only things given to them that Esca had actually cared for. The smile on his face when the stablehand brought them out, Marcus wishes there was a way for him to etch the moment into his head permanently.
But now was not for reminiscing, there would be time for that later when Esca was no longer there. When Marcus would be a faint memory to him, a time from another life.
Esca was a sharp man, but becoming a freedman had undone a knot within him, Marcus noticed that his smiles were more frequent. He idly wondered how they tasted.
But he was proud and Esca had honor.
“Have you given any thought to what you will be doing next?” He tried to make it seem as though it was a normal conversation, but Esca was smart, Marcus had learned that the second he met him.
“I thought I would try and get some sleep next.” He had an ever-sharper tongue, how would that taste…
His smiles were more frequent but that didn’t mean they were any less sarcastic. It drove Marcus mad, just enough.
“The conversation we had while I was fevered.”
“The one where you believed that our room was a gladiator ring and that I was a lion?”
If Esca was making this up Marcus had no idea, and he did not care. Esca was frustrating him, a perfected art at this point.
“Esca if you do not cease this…”
“What would you do?” Esca is looking at him, really looking, and Marcus feels the fever return and his throat becomes dry and all he can do is look back.
Marcus may as well be in the gladiator ring because Esca is looking at him as though he is prey.
“So that’s how a Roman blushes.” Marcus wonders if he was supposed to hear that, but he doesn’t have the time to dwell on that thought because Esca is making his way over to him and placing a hand on his cheek and if Marcus was red before, the Gods may have invented a new color.
But Marcus is proud, so he looks away because Esca means more to him than he may realize. He would do nothing to harm that, even though it harmed himself.
Esca just sighs and removes his hand. The moment has passed, Marcus knows it will one day be worth it, even when the pain in his heart ceases to subside.
“I am well and able, I can make the journey back, thanks to you friend.”
Marcus needs to choose his words carefully, or maybe not. Would he rather have Esca as a friend someone who visits him at his lonely villa with his beautiful wife and wonderful children? Or should Esca be a dream that Marcus had woken up too soon from?
“You are free to go anywhere you choose, you decide.” Free from my side.
Esca hums and sits down on his bed, Marcus is still standing and the dull ache in his knee has begun to become more prominent. He decides it better to also sit down, to keep his leg from betraying him in the middle of saying that he would be fine without Esca. Even though he knows he won’t be.
“Are you really that unable to stand my presence?” They both sit on their separate beds, facing the wall in front of them. Marcus does not have the strength to turn his head to Esca. He doesn’t know what Esca wants to hear, because Marcus cannot stand Esca’s presence it is true.
He cannot stand that Esca will always be near him and Marcus will never be able to hold him, not the way he wants. He recognized the look Esca had given him, something familiar to the looks of his fellow soldiers who had built up too much lust within them. He had seen that same look in the seal prince.
Marcus recognizes the look Esca had given him because he has caught himself giving Esca the same look when he was well and able and had built up too much lust. But Marcus was not that kind of master and he refused to make Esca that kind of slave.
The look he had learned to control, but by quelling such thirst it made way for something else. Something that wanted to touch but not in the way many others had looked at him once wanted, no Marcus wanted to hold Esca, caress him. Of course, he would love to bed Esca, but that was no longer the thought that crowded his head. Bedding Esca just turned into Esca. A change he wishes he could control just as well, but he had failed.
Now here he was, the man who had grabbed the reins of Marcus’ soul is asking him if he is able to stand his presence. The answer, of course, is no.
Marcus will never be able to stand the fact that he may never have Esca, will never be able to hold him, because that is not what was written for him, and that was not what was written for Esca. Strong, noble, honorable Esca, who had survived seven years of being a slave, survived returning to the north, survived a fierce battle against a clan he might have once called family, survived his own tribe’s demise. Esca’s story ended happily, with a woman and children. Marcus would be a distant memory, the Eagle would just be another myth to his grandchildren.
Marcus’ story ended alone, in a house filled with caretakers, until he slowly withered away.
Their stories did not end together.
“Marcus, answer my question.” Esca was sharp, he spoke with daggers. Even facing away from Marcus they still found a way to imbed themselves into his heart.
“You will always be my closest friend.”
“And that is not enough for you?” No.
But if in the end if that was all that Esca would give him, Marcus would take anything. Scraps from the larger table of Esca’s heart.
“It is more than enough.”
“Then why do you keep asking me to leave? Why do you insist?” Esca is looking at Marcus, he can feel his eyes boring into the side of his face, it even begins to ache.
“Because you are free.” Marcus turns to face him, maybe the ache will lessen if his eyes catch his. “Because you no longer have an obligation to me.”
“Do you think I do not know that?” The thought had crossed Marcus’ mind. “Do you think I did not know that past the wall I could have easily slit your throat any time I wanted, I could have truly betrayed you at the seal camp you would have been none the wiser.”
Marcus takes a breath to begin speaking, but Esca is not done. “Am I still a savage to you? A stupid boy that must be told when to breathe, to piss, to sleep?” Of course not. “Has it crossed that thick, Roman skull of yours that I choose to stay because I choose to stay. Because I am free.”
The thought had also crossed Marcus’ thick, Roman skull, however, it never stuck.
“I have nothing left to give you.” Sometimes, Marcus can speak the truth.
“You are insufferable.” Esca brings his hands to his head as if Marcus is a headache he cannot be rid of. “In the morning, you plan to head back to your uncle’s?” The trip was only a few days ride away. The journey back was always shorter.
“Then whatever way you ride,” Esca sighs. Marcus wishes his smile would return. “I shall ride the opposite.”
Marcus had heard fables of people dying of heartbreak, romanticized versions of a heart-shattering. He knew it was physically impossible, he had seen enough on the battlefield to know what hearts were capable of. But the maids had claimed in whispers that his own mother was suffering from heartbreak, he wondered if such a thing could be passed down.
Marcus just nods at Esca, and they fall asleep in separate beds.
His father is home, Marcus hands him the Eagle, his father claps him on the shoulder, his mother is there, she is content.
When he awakes Esca’s things are already gone, and Marcus is thankful there will be no solemn goodbye. Though the Gods are not kind, as he makes his way to the stable Esca is there calming his horse as he packs his belongings into her satchel. Marcus wonders if he could turn away and pretend that he was never there.
“Good morning.” Guess not.
“I wasn’t sneaking out on you, I just wanted to make sure everything was squared away.” It eases some tension within Marcus’ heart.
“I see.” Esca just hums back at him.
It’s as if they are meeting again, and Esca has just thrown his father’s dagger at Marcus’ feet.
“Would you have preferred it if I snuck out?” Marcus sputters and the horses become uncomfortable. “I jest.”
Marcus’ doesn’t know if his heart can take much more.
They move in tandem and soon enough they find themselves mounted on their horses and making their way out onto the road. Their story is nearing the end, Marcus wonders if there is anything else left to be written for him.
“It has been an honor.” The sun is rising, Esca has never looked more beautiful. If this is the last time Marcus sees him, he will thank Mithras every day of his life for such a memory.
And like that, they part.
Marcus refuses to turn around and look at Esca’s retreating figure, it would only sully the last image he has of him.
The journey back is always shorter, it is as if in a blink he has already returned to his uncle’s villa.
Marcus retells the entire story and finds him repeating himself as Stephanos wishes to write the tale down.
His uncle makes an inquiry as to Esca’s location, Marcus tells him they decided to go their separate ways, his uncle just nods and pats his shoulder as he passes him on his way to his room.
There will be parties, senators will be making their way to him with offers, businessmen with daughters, legionaries who wish to see the famous Marcus Flavius Aquila, who had returned The Eagle of the Ninth to Rome. The wine and food and festivities will fill a hole in his heart for some time, but in the morning when he wakes the hole will be larger.
Marcus knows what is to come, so he takes this night to sleep, to prepare for this new life.
His father is home, Marcus hands him the Eagle, his father smiles, his mother is there, she is pleased.
Over the next few months, Marcus’ predictions ring true. Many people make their way through his uncle’s estate, how it once was before the Aquila name was something no one wanted to be associated with.
The first few weeks Marcus can handle since most of it is parties and celebration of the return of the Eagle to Rome. However, the morning after is always plagued with a dull ache in his head and a matching one in his heart.
Then comes the more serious dinners, where senators come to offer him positions of power. To command the new Ninth, he declines every time. His uncle just watches him throughout the night, as if he is an unruly child.
There is one offer that Marcus takes, a plot of land, bestowed upon him for his valiance. Marcus leaves as soon as he can.
It is not as if he does not appreciate everything his uncle has done for him, and the villa is only a few miles away, not even half a days ride away. Marcus could no longer stand being watched, his uncle keeping an eye on him constantly, and when he couldn’t, it seemed as the slaves of the house seemed to keep it up for him. It became too much, he needed his own place, away from prying eyes.
Though while the villa wasn’t exceptionally large by any means, Marcus quickly learned it would be too much to handle by himself, especially since winter was making its way back and his knee had begun to ache again. He begrudgingly agreed to allow his uncle to provide a few slaves, just enough to help on the farm and to cook when he needed help. However, Marcus had found that he had enjoyed cooking by himself, only allowing for help when he found it hard to stand.
He appreciated the help most of all on the farm behind the house, without help, the vegetables and herbs would have withered before they even sprouted. The goats and chickens would have faired no better. Especially when Marcus had a particularly hard time finding a reason to leave his bed that morning.
At the end of the day Marcus flourished in this life, he could dig in the soil and milk the goats and prune the trees and work the horses and collect eggs and cook and bake and tire himself so much that when his head hit the pillow he would sleep. There was no real-time to think of anything at all, especially not of a beautiful Brigantes man. No, those thoughts were left for his loneliest times, nothing else.
His mother is home, Marcus hands her the Eagle, she is there.
The servants have begun to prepare for winter, there is not many of them, just enough to help take care of the house. They are still wary of Marcus, and he does not blame them, he rarely speaks and only gives commands when absolutely necessary. He keeps to himself, they step lightly around him.
“Mast-“ Marcus raises an eyebrow, “Marcus, sir, there is someone at the gate asking for you.”
Marcus thanks Mithras for the gate surrounding his property, keeping senators and businessmen at bay, at least until they insisted on coming inside.
“What do they want?” He could barely make his way from the bed to his chair this morning, he doesn’t want to have to deal with speaking to another human today.
“They wouldn’t say, just said they were an old friend.” Lutorius? No, he visited last month there would be no reason to return.
Marcus just sighs. “Let them in, I shall meet with them in the vestibulum.” The servant just nods and leaves, Esca would have huffed.
Marcus sighs again, it’s all he is good at these days and makes his way through the villa to greet his guest. He was smart to design his house with so many chairs and benches laid about, perhaps the only smart thing he had done this past few months after returning.
“I leave for a few months and you turn into a hermit, really Marcus?” Daggers. Daggers straight into his heart, something he hadn’t felt in what had seemed years. Marcus didn’t realize how much he had missed such sweet pain.
“Do you know any other Britons by that name?” He looks… Good? Handsome? Beautiful? As the Gods had intended him to look, muscular and filled out, with a slight smirk on his lips. His hair is longer and there is a scruff of beard on his face, he looks ragged. But Marcus still can’t help the way his chest caves within itself and he feels as though he cannot catch his breath.
“No, just the one.” Esca smiles at him, winter is near but the summer heat has seemed to return to Marcus for the moment. “Would you…would you like to bathe?” Under my tongue.
“I suppose a nice hot bath would do me well.” It seems the smirk is still permanent.
“Nona, if you would please show our guest to his room and fill a bath for him.” Esca just watched him as if he was testing him, Marcus didn’t mind. “I’ll prepare dinner for when you are done.”
Marcus watches as Esca is shown to his room. He stands taller, sure of himself. Then heads to the culina to begin dinner.
He asks Manius and Decimus to pick the freshest fruits, vegetables, and herbs they can find.
“We’ve noticed a chicken has begun to age, sir.”
“Well, then we shall have chicken tonight!”
If the servants had noticed that Marcus walked brisker then he had these past few months, they kept it to themselves.
By the time the chicken was done, Esca had found his way over.
“A hermit and a cook, you’ve kept busy friend.” He had shaved, Marcus wondered which way he preferred. Any way he is willing to give me.
He had resigned to the fact long ago, though it was always nice to pretend.
“There’s not much else to do out here.” Esca hums, and they eat.
It is silent, but Marcus does not mind, just to watch Esca eat is enough. To see him from afar is enough. Esca is enough.
After they are done eating Marcus silently leads Esca to the back, a patio that overlooks his farmland. He’s not sure if he is boasting, or if it is some primal urge to show that he can provide. He does not dwell, Esca is by his side.
And for a moment they are two people, not a Roman and a Briton, not a former master and slave, not two warriors who fought for the honor of the Ninth, just two people who know one another.
Of course, silence was meant to be broken.
“I went to your uncle’s, he was shocked to see me in such a state.”
Marcus can picture the face.
“He told me that you moved here several months ago.”
“It was gifted to me by Rome, for my valiance.”
“Do you know why I returned to you?” Marcus assumed he would not be allowed to speak, and thus kept his mouth tight. “I went south, it was warm, the languages were all new, the landscapes were vast and beautiful, people did not care who I was or where I came from, I felt truly free.”
Marcus’ throat becomes tight as well.
“I roamed the countryside, watched wild horses run with their foals, do you know who I thought of? Who I wish was by my side?”
If Marcus could move he would have nodded, but his muscles betray him and all he can do is look at Esca as Esca bores back into him.
“It was you, Marcus. Every night I went to sleep, every morning I awoke, every step I took, every thought, I wondered about you.”
“Esca…” Marcus can’t help the way he says it so broken, maybe he is the lesser man he feared himself to be.
“Did you do the same for me?” He wishes he could kiss the pain from Esca’s face away.
“Of course! Of course I did, you never left my thoughts, never.” It does not seem to help, as Esca’s face becomes even more stricken.
“Then why did you ask me to leave your side.” Marcus idly wishes this was a dream, and he was still dying on that battlefield, it would be easier than this. Than the things he needs to say.
“I — “
“Do not think of lying to me, Roman.”
“Esca, I have nothing left to give you.”
“You said that once before.”
“Because it is the truth, there is honor returned to the Aquila name but I can no longer provide the way I used to. I am a lame centurion, that is all I am.”
“Is that what you truly think.”
Marcus just nods, the little he has said is the most he has spoken in a while, he is not used to such extraneous activity.
“Then you are dumber than I thought you were.” Surprisingly Esca’s words are soft, but the hand that has made its way to Marcus' cheek is rough and callous, and the breath on his lips is hot, and the lips on his are chapped.
It feels so wonderful Marcus wonders if this is Elysium
“You do not have to provide for me, I am not some maiden in distress.” Marcus knows this, but he still cannot help the way he feels, he wants to give Esca all he wants and more, it is only natural when one is in love.
“Esca, it is only the truth.”
“Well, I see a wonderful farm, filled with fruits and vegetables I have never heard of or tasted, with healthy animals and staff well taken care of by their master who loves to cook, that is more than enough.”
“Were there not others you met on your journey?” Better than me.
“I thought of it a few times, but each time they opened their mouth I was reminded they were not you.” Esca speaks with daggers, Marcus does not think he could take much more speaking so he kisses him, it is rather addicting.
Esca stands abruptly, Marcus wants to protest but a hand is held out to him. “So which is your room?”
If they pass any servants on the way it is hard to tell, especially when Esca is touching him like that.
They are clumsy and Marcus falls harder into the bed than intended and Esca laughs too much and their hands are both calloused from hard labor and his knee aches when they try to find a comfortable position and it is beautiful and Marcus would never ask for anything more.
They lay with each other in the afterglow, Marcus thinks he may have died this time for true.
“How long have you know?” Esca speaks in whispers now, as if he is cautious of an invisible field around them.
“Since you threw the dagger at my feet.” Marcus returns in whisper. “You?”
“When we returned the Eagle.” Marcus hums and holds Esca closer, it is only right. “But something began when I looked up at you from the ring.” If he held him any closer he’s afraid bones would break.
Marcus is proud and Esca has honor, but here they are. Maybe their stories do end together.
His father is home, Marcus hands him the Eagle, Esca holds his hand, his father hugs him and Esca, his mother is there, she hugs them as well. They are happy.