Fandom: The Eagle (movie!verse)
Summary: Before Esca, Marcus had never loved someone. It's a little more difficult than it probably should be.
Author's Notes: Oh, hey, I still write fic! I've been on a bit of a fandom break while I try to figure out how to get paid for being creative (status: not yet successful), but what better way to unwind than writing emotionally stunted doofs in love? I should note that this fic is, like all of my fics, is shameless schmoopy curtain!fic. That's pretty much my plan of attack:
1. Find fandom with two boys ineptly in love
2. Write them running happily ever after off into the sunset
Thanks to robanybody, frantic_allonsy, sonicbookmark, and i_claudia for their support and cheerleading, and to carmarthen for the translation work, history-picking, and stellar beta. You are all fabulous, luminous beings of light. Or something.
Romans are not often given to love. Tender feelings and soft hands are not encouraged amongst them. They are raised to be a people of hard passions, of strength. And that is what keeps Esca apart from being a Roman more than anything else. Say what you will about the Celts - they're a bloodthirsty, brutal, ruthless people, and there's no mistaking that - but they throw themselves into love with the same strength they throw into fight. And Marcus knows this because he knows Esca. Esca is like a shellfish - closed up and sealed tight on the outside, all hard shell and rough barnacles, but tender at the center.
When Marcus took Esca as a partner to bed he had expected fight and fire. It was not something a proper Roman should want - if a Centurion were to bed a man, it was best he resemble a man as little as possible - but Esca's fight pleased Marcus. The anger that burned within him would not lend to tenderness, or should not have. And at times, it does not. Esca is passionate and energetic. There are times especially in the beginning, that he makes Marcus sweat and beg before giving him any quarter or release, where sex is more a physical exercise and fight than an act of affection. But more often than not, Esca defies everything Marcus has been taught to want. He is tender, almost doting. He never makes pretense of resisting or shows an ounce of shame at his own pleasure, is never submissive as might be proper. He treats Marcus as gently as he would a frightened foal, croons endearments in his native tongue that Marcus can only begin to understand, stares into his eyes with such loyalty and possessive pride it shames Marcus.
But what shames him the most is how much he craves that softness in Esca, how he knows he should refuse but cannot help but return again and again to Esca's soft kisses and gentle, callused hands. Esca is not a Roman. It is not his responsibility to keep his heart strong against such things. But Marcus is, and he is failing his lineage utterly.
Every Roman soldier Marcus has ever known has had a perverse fascination with barbarian women. Before he came to Brittania he lived in Rome, so he does not know what other colonies are like, but he supposes it is so amongst every corner of the empire, that the Roman men look with desire upon their subjects and covertly wish to sample whatever new pleasures they may have to offer. Men talk of barbarian women - Parisii, Brigantes, Cornovii, Coriantii - the way they would about a horse that they wished to be broken. These women are proud. Even as slaves, you can tell a barbarian woman not only by her features, but by the tilt of her head, her bloodthirsty fight equal to any man's, the way she carries herself as if prepared to face any challenge.
Marcus knows Esca revered his father, worshiped him, the way Marcus worshiped his own. It is a link they will forever share. But one way they are vastly different is their mothers. Esca had loved his deeply, and Marcus had hardly known his at all. Instead he had been raised by a parade of faceless wet-nurses and older slaves, as befitting of a Roman of his standing. Thinking back, he can hardly remember his mother's face. Yet Esca's mother, though he never met her, he can see in his mind with ease because of all the tales he has heard. Esca tells him that she was the daughter of a chieftain, tall enough to look any man in the eye, had long, curling copper hair, and that Esca favors her strongly. By Esca's accounts she was as brave and wise, ruling their tribe in peace while his father waged war, and was a skilled diplomat when swords and spears failed. She was worthy of admiration, far more so than the hazy memories Marcus has of the woman who bore him, a woman who was no more maternal than a fresco or statue.
But what he has never understood is how Esca speaks of his parents together. He says odd things, such as, "my mother could have bedded any of the finest warriors of our tribe, yet she remained faithful to my father," with a note of fondness and, perhaps, pride.
"Would that not have shamed your father?" He asks. "Made him look weak or cuckolded?"
"She was not his to command," is all Esca will say on the matter. And still, it niggles at Marcus, buzzes around the edges of his thoughts like a persistent fly. It grows louder when Esca tells him of how it was his mother who asked that his father kill her, of how his father wept over the body of his wife before he went into battle. How could a man weep over his wife? How could a warlord be so weak?
He is not so stupid, though, that he does not understand the message woven into these stories, the meaning behind why Esca whispers them to him on quiet nights when they lay curled together for warmth, too bone-tired from a day's work to do anything more than talk. He understands what Esca's eyes, so heavy with meaning upon him, are saying. My mother loved my father, he is saying, and they were equals. She had choice and I have choice, and I choose to love you. How she loved him is how I love you. And he knows the truth in it - that Esca is his equal, his counterpart, his balanced weight, in every way. Esca may be considered beneath him, but Marcus cannot find it in himself to see Esca that way. Instead of recoiling in horror at Esca's pride, as he should, it is why he loves him.
Because he does love Esca. He loves the proud, stubborn set of Esca's jaw and the accented cadence of his voice, he relies on Esca's council and entrusts him implicitly with all he holds dear. He would only ever take Esca's life if it was Esca himself who begged that from him. And though he would go on to fight, first he would weep over Esca, broken for a brief moment, as Esca's father was.
There are no true equals between Romans. No one ever has the exact same amount of gold, or slaves, or land. One reputation will always rise above another's. You are born and you die knowing exactly where you stand. From what Marcus understands, it is the same amongst Esca's people, yet Esca seems to ignore it all. He says it comes of being a slave, that when you are privy to the whims of even the most elite, even the highest amongst them seem terribly human, and that your fellow slaves feel more noble for bearing everything in stoic silence. That is not how Marcus remembers slavery - all he remembers is constant confusion and Esca, the only thing he recognized, even though he hardly recognized that version of Esca at all. He doesn't remember thinking more or less of anyone, or thinking of anyone at all. He just remembers feeling alone. But Esca - his Esca, not the Esca who once called him slave - bewilders him. He takes away Marcus' sure footing with his stories and notions of love and equals. He humbles Marcus. He is not Marcus' master, and yet with a single word, brings him to his knees.
Esca is the sort to collect strays. Why, Marcus does not know, but there is something about him that causes them to flock to him. There is the mutt, Cunos, who Esca found as a barely-weaned puppy, skulking in an inn yard as they made their way northward. He'd instantly gone soft over him, tucking him into his saddlebag gently with a look that forbade Marcus from challenging him. After that came the kittens, Tiberus, Titus, and Theodora, who nearly got trampled in their barn before Esca uncovered them, mewling pathetically under the hay. "Good mousers," he had said decisively, scooping all three of them up in one of his hands and then cooing as he cupped them to his tunic when they woke, squeaking and wiggling and crying for their mother, then sent Marcus to go milk the nanny goat so they'd have something to feed them. There are the human strays, as well. Boys, usually with their voices awkwardly booming and cracking, who shyly appear on their farm asking to work in exchange for a crust of bread. Esca takes them all, lets them sleep in the hay loft so long as they labor.
What it is in Esca that calls to these broken, tiny souls, Marcus cannot say. Esca is not foreboding, exactly, but neither is he welcoming. For a long time, Marcus thought Esca to be a naturally mulish sort, the kind naturally given to scowls and glares. But now he knows better. He knows that Esca is a double-edged blade, that he is the sort that can break a man's spirit as easily as he can mend it, that he is equally as ruthless to his enemies as he is gentle to those he deems worthy, and that Marcus, who is far and away the most frequent recipient of Esca's smiles and laughter, has been given the greatest part of Esca's heart, is Esca's very favorite stray of them all.
Neither Marcus nor Esca had wanted to stay in Calleva after the return of the Eagle. It was too suffocating for both of them, too full of fat, indolent senators and bad memories. But they also both agreed that they do not want to go too far North - the wall and the land surrounding it is haunted by ghosts they are not eager to face. Instead they had wandered in half-mad zig-zags across the land, performing odd jobs when they needed a few coins for what food they could not hunt, looking over every plot of land in hopes of finding one that called to them. Marcus was not so blind as to think that their quest truly was to find a place to call home, to find a perfect piece of land that neither he nor Esca could find minuscule fault in. It was more to find how to be with each other, now that neither was a slave. It was a time for Marcus to realize that traveling from fort to fort would not cure the empty feeling within him, that that emptiness would haunt him so long as he surrounded himself with men who talked around Esca, talked gleefully about slaying Brigantes as though Esca were not standing at Marcus' side. It was for learning that Esca, the longer they were together and away from forts, was capable of smiles that creased his entire face with good humor, that he could even let out a low chuckle if Cunos did something to amuse or please him.
After a months of hunting for the Eagle and another year wandering without tangible destination, Marcus had softened as well, though he had not realized it at the time. He still felt Roman, in his heart of hearts, still had a small corner of him that cried out for empire and dominion, neat lines and conquering ideals. But the longer they wandered, the more distant that voice grew, the harder it became to find, and the harder it became to find, the more Esca smiled and Marcus forgot to search in the first place.
So they settled a half a day's ride outside of Tripontium, almost exactly a year after they had set out from Calleva. It was as good a place as they were likely to find, and Esca had smiled when they looked over the small plot that would become theirs, and that was enough recommendation for Marcus. There was only a run-down barn on their land, and so that spring was spent on repairs, the construction of a cottage, and Esca's methodical selection of the herd of horses that would form their breeding stock and be their livelihood, since Marcus' leg was not capable of long days working the plow.
It was then Marcus first truly noticed Esca's talent for finding strays, for whenever he went into town for one thing he always came back with something in tow and a look on his face that forbade Marcus from questioning him. And every time, Marcus resolved to be stern with Esca, to berate him for never seeming to simply return with what Marcus asked of him, but he could never bring himself to do it. Every time he opened his mouth he thought of Esca with the Seal boy, thought of how each of Esca's lost souls made him smile and laugh and go soft around the edges, the way that made Marcus' heart melt traitorously, and instead he allowed them all to stay with a gruff nod, if only for the reward of Esca's blinding grin.
It was dangerous, Marcus knew, to indulge Esca in this manner. Esca already held inappropriate influence over Marcus, far exceeding that of any proper relationship, let alone one between a freeman and his patron. And yet Marcus could not - perhaps would not - treat Esca any differently. He delighted in it as much as he was shamed by it, brought himself to pleasure at the mere thought of indulging Esca with his body as well, and then castigated himself after.
It was a cycle Marcus felt he would be caught in until the end of his days, and no doubt would have been had Esca not kissed him full on the mouth the very first time they stood in the threshold of their newly-completed house.
"What are you doing," Marcus gasped, as soon as he wrenched himself away (which was perhaps after a few moments of lingering, memorizing for a later date).
"I grow tired of your Roman customs and stupid notions of honor," Esca answered. Marcus' face was still held firmly between his callused palms and Marcus should move, knew he should move, but Esca's eyes were boring into his, rooting him to the spot. "I want you. I have wanted you and waited for you for over a year now, and still you do nothing, though it is clear that you want me."
"It would dishonor you," Marcus said, reciting his excuses he'd practiced so many times in his head. "It would dishonor both of us."
"In whose eyes?" Esca asked harshly. "By whose decree? Explain it to me, Marcus, because I do not understand."
Marcus sighed and took Esca's hands in his, lowering them from his face. "It is not..." he struggles to find a way to explain it, to remember the words he repeated to himself when he was young and hot-blooded and he looked at his fellow soldiers and burned for them but never, ever touched. "It is not something Roman men - citizens - do."
Esca's eyes are solemn, searching. "I am not a Roman."
"But I am!" Marcus cried, voice cracking like a boy's. "Esca, I am, no matter what you think of Romans, I am one, and what I want does not matter - " he ground to a halt, because Esca's gaze had sharpened.
"Very well," he said His voice was dark and husky and it made Marcus shiver even as he gritted his teeth and forced himself not to fall upon Esca like a starving man at a feast. "I will kiss you one more time. If you are truly as Roman as you say you are, you will refuse me. And if you refuse me, I will stop. I will never, ever kiss you again."
"What if I cannot refuse you?" Marcus asked hoarsely, barely a breath away from Esca and already half-lost. He had never been able to refuse Esca and, he thought, he perhaps never would.
"Then I will never stop kissing you," Esca whispered, like a secret, and Marcus was already groaning and giving in before their lips even touched, swallowing Esca's delighted laughter like it was the sweetest wine he'd ever tasted.
Esca has kept his promise - he has not stopped kissing Marcus since that day. (And Marcus has not regretted his choice, not for even the briefest of moments.)
Marcus is quite skilled in denial. He denies his leg is hurting, denies that Esca's cooking tastes like dirty dishwater, denies that that storm will break even as the fat raindrops are falling on his head and forcing him indoors. But eventually, even his denial is not great enough to stretch and cover the growing place in his heart that belongs to Esca.
It is snowing out, a howling storm that comes perhaps once every ten years and makes it near-impossible to see your hand in front of your face, the kind that comes with a cold that stings down to the marrow of your bones if you move outside the ring of warmth coming from a fire. It is perhaps the greatest storm Marcus has ever witnessed in his life, and Esca is somewhere in the middle of it.
He had insisted, though everyone could tell such a storm was coming. Even a near-blind man could see how heavy the gray and sullen clouds were overhead, could feel the air grow increasingly frigid, but Esca could not be convinced. "You Romans, so afraid of a little fall of snow," he had teased, readying the horses that were due to be delivered in Lindum. Marcus had all but begged outright for Esca to stay, but it was of no use. Esca had laughed at Marcus' protests, even as the first fat flakes began to drift to the ground, kissed Marcus briefly on the cheek, and promised that any true Brigante could handle a dusting.
And, true to Esca's word, it had begun as a dusting that melted as soon as it touched to ground for the entire first day he was gone. But that night it changed to a full-on frigid tempest that forced Marcus to spend an entire day indoors, fretting and pacing until his leg ached and then fretting some more. On the third morning, it was calm, but the snow came up nearly to Marcus' knees, and the entire world was deadly silent.
It remains silent on the farm for the next seven days. No boys seem willing to hike out to the farm , and Marcus is in such a temper he no doubt would have snarled and sent them away had they come. Cunos mopes unrepentantly in Esca's absence, sniffing and whining high in his throat, and Marcus wants nothing more than to join him - probably would, if he did not have his pride to consider and a farm to keep running. His leg aches, not only the usual, persistent winter's ache from the cold, but also from the extra effort it takes to trudge through the snow, the hard work of shoveling pathways for himself and the horses. He is cold all the time. His boots are always soaked through and his toes arealways icy, and no amount of heavy wool seems to dull the constant, biting chill. He misses Esca next to him at night, misses warmth, misses how quickly the furs warm when there were two bodies cocooned instead of one. And then there is the cold in his heart that comes not from the weather, but from the loneliness of Esca being gone.
The only thing he can do in the silence is fret. He chops wood and wonders if Esca can find any to use, how Esca will manage to stay warm without somewhere to dry off and be protected from the wind and cold. He cannot even bear to sleep in his own bed, instead he and Cunos wait in the front room, where Marcus frets and frets and keeps the fire stoked and frets some more, waiting to be woken by Esca and miserable every time he blinks awake and it's another morning where he's alone.
On the eleventh night, he's woken by Cunos' barking. Cunos is not a particularly gifted guard dog, or really talented at anything besides being a source of warmth and dopey affection, and Marcus is bewildered as he blinks the sleep from his eyes, sure he is still dreaming. Cunos rarely ever barks, and he's not only barking, now, but whining and jumping over a hooded figure, which he never does, never gets so worked up unless it's him or Esca. And the figure isn't... couldn't possibly be...
"Down, mutt," Esca's voice says from under the hood.
"Were you expecting someone else?" is the wry response. "I should hope not - if I were here to burgle or kill you, you'd be dead by now at least three times over." It certainly sounds like Esca, and when the hood is pushed back it looks like him too. Marcus would be certain it was a dream, or Esca was some sort of ghostly vision, but Cunos is still jumping and licking at his face, his tail wagging hard enough to shake his backside clean off, and his paws thunk against solid flesh.
"Esca," Marcus breathes, shedding the wool blankets and furs as he stands. "I thought... you hadn't come back... I was beginning to think you were dead."
"Not this time," Esca says, and then, "Down, Cunos." Cunos obeys with a whine, but circles around Esca's legs frantically, only pausing to writhe in joy when Esca obligingly scratches his rump.
"It's been ten days," Marcus says unsteadily, walking towards Esca slowly, half-afraid there's some sort of spell he could break if he moves too fast. "And the storm... and then there was no word..."
"I waited it out in a barn," Esca shrugs. "And I would have sent word, but it would have cost me nearly the entire profit from the trip, and I knew I'd return faster than any messenger."
"But you took so long..."
"The roads were impassable." Up close, Marcus can see the bags and strain around Esca's eyes, how tired and travel-worn he looks, can smell the night air on him. "You've never been through a snow storm before, have you?"
"I thought you were dead," is all Marcus can say. His voice cracks like he's a boy of fifteen again, and he would be ashamed if not for how soft Esca's face goes.
"Drutos," Esca murmurs gently, gathering Marcus to him. It's not a word Marcus recognizes, but he knows the tone - fond, incredulous, teasing. The novelty of the syllables tumbling gently out of Esca's mouth more than anything convinces Marcus that Esca is real beneath his palms, and then his lips. When he brushes kisses over his rough face, it really is Esca is shivering slightly beneath him.
"You're cold," he says, which makes Esca laugh.
"Well observed, Aquila," he says. "What do you say to warming me up?"
Marcus looks down at Esca's face and instead of yes and please and pushing Esca towards the bed as fast as he can, his mind is blank, and all that comes to him is I love you, and then the thought repeats itself, louder and louder until his mind is near screaming it, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you. He wants to say it - wants to shout it, to yell to anyone who listen until they understand just how much - but the words choke him, stick in his throat like an old chicken bone. He's never told anyone he loved them, he suddenly realizes, blind with panic. He's never loved anyone before. He doesn't know how to do it properly. He should have paid attention to love poems his teachers and tutors had tried to have him memorize, he thinks hysterically. Why didn't he pay attention? Why was he only interested in bloody epics? If he wanted to entail all the various and gruesome ways he wanted to kill Esca, he could have verses spill from his lips without a second thought, describe in minute detail what he will do to desecrate each one of Esca's organs. But instead he wants to cherish him, wants to kiss every inch of him and cover Esca's body with his own and never leave Esca's side. Those are all far more pleasant emotions, to be sure, and yet he is fumbling, inept.
Instead of mocking Marcus as he no doubt richly deserves for standing there so foolishly, Esca smiles again, more feral, and pushes and manhandles Marcus until he is falling back into bed, instantly cushioned by the furs. This, Marcus knows. He can follow Esca's subtle tells, that the way his hands linger as he undresses Marcus slowly means he will be skin-hungry and painfully slow, will make Marcus sob before he gives him any release. And instead of fighting Esca or goading him to go faster, faster, always faster, Marcus revels in it. He tugs at Esca's too-long hair and nuzzles each patch of newly-uncovered skin while Esca babbles above him in a language he only half understands. Sterca is the only word he catches over and over again, and sometimes a whole phrase breathed hot against his ear as Esca grinds against him, tu esi mon sterca - that he thinks he knows the translation to, but is too hopeful and half-afraid to ask.
"Fuck me," he whispers into Esca's mouth when they're both finally unclothed. It's not something he asks for very often. He's too used to pushing away the yearning, pretending it isn't there and clinging to his pride instead. It's usually something that happens after Esca's teased him until he can't resist, something he always puts up a pretense of being a prize Esca must wrestle away from him. But he doesn't want to tonight. He wants Esca to own him.
Esca makes a small noise of surprise at his request. "Marcus, we don't have to -"
Esca studies him a moment longer before drawing Marcus in for a kiss,slow and gentle. "Do you want to turn over?" he asks. Marcus shakes his head vehemently, which makes Esca smile against Marcus' mouth when he kisses him again, kisses and pets Marcus indulgently until he has melted under the attention like a contented cat. A distant part of Marcus' mind thinks that he has never known anyone to stake a claim like this - a gentle insinuation rather than a bloody fight - but he feels conquered all the same. Conquered and unabashedly adored and like he would allow Esca to do anything to him. He is dreamy and touch-drunk when Esca does fuck him, in a soft white-edged haze that makes him come with a sigh rather than a shout, right after Esca does in an easy rhythm that's so good it makes it hard to breathe.
It takes a few moments for him to remember how to inhale and exhale, and it's almost impossible to breathe with Esca collapsed so heavily on his chest, but Marcus would sooner die than remove him. He's missed this dearly, missed Esca's breath hot against his neck while his fingers idly stroke Marcus' sweaty hair off his face.
"I'm sorry I was gone for so long," Esca murmurs.
"It's all right," Marcus says grudgingly, "I suppose you can't have enjoyed it either."
"No, I didn't," Esca agrees. He pushes himself up enough to look Marcus in the eye. He has a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth, which makes Marcus smile against his will, which in turn makes Esca grin wider until they're beaming like two fools, giddy and relieved. "I missed you," Esca says.
"I - " missed you too Marcus intends to finish, but it doesn't feel like enough. "Missed" doesn't feel adequate to encompass the emptiness he felt, how cold and lonely and miserable he was, how pathetic, really. He feels like he's drowning in affection, again, just looking at Esca, loving him so much he cannot bear it. I love you, he opens his mouth to say, but he can't, still. It's still to raw and painful and huge, even after what they've just done, how they've just done it. If anything that makes it harder, because Marcus already feels so bared and fragile in front of Esca already, so easy to break. "I'm glad you're back home," he finally manages. He expects Esca to look disappointed at how impersonal he sounded, how stiff, but Esca smiles again, this time as if he knows a secret, and kisses Marcus one more time before he yawns and rolls off him, clearly ready for sleep.
Esca drifts off easily and quickly, probably tired from the journey, but Marcus lies awake and watches him in the dying firelight for a long while after. I love you, he tries thinking over and over, until the words no longer make sense in his brain, until everything loses meaning and all that's left are a mass of tangled syllables, but it doesn't become any easier to think, and it doesn't become any easier to say.
If Marcus had any half-formed hopes about how perhaps his feelings for Esca were madness brought on by loneliness and sentimental touch-drunkness, they evaporate when Esca wakes him the usual way, with a rough shake as he mutters to himself about Romans and their laziness. It sounds annoyed, but when Marcus opens his eyes and squints at Esca it's to the expression he is most used to seeing on Esca's face when he wakes, irritated on the surface only, but with a smile poorly hidden in the corners of his eyes and mouth. This morning Marcus smells porridge and the sun looks mostly risen, which means Esca has already done the morning chores. He must have decided that Marcus should lie in after waiting up so late for him, because his grumbling is only perfunctory. It makes Marcus' heart feel like it's thumped up into his throat and is choking him with adoration.
"Get up, lazy bones," Esca says, pinching Marcus' ear with a small smile, and since Marcus doesn't dare say what he's thinking, he swallows the reckless giddy feeling and obeys.
All day long, the words clang about Marcus' head. He thinks them while he and Esca widen the pathways he dug through the snow, while Esca croons to the horses who are clearly delighted to see him, and repeats them that night when he goes to sleep. The next day is much the same, and the day after that, and the day after, until the snow melts and so does winter into spring. The first foals of the season are born and Marcus conjugates the verb amare to himself as he strokes the groaning mother, watching Esca gently help tug the newborn foal out by her front hooves, then tenderly wipe her face clean with a rag so she can breathe her first breaths. By time the blossoms are appearing on the trees, he finds himself slipping, nearly putting voice to endearments he has lavished upon Esca in his mind while he watches him sleep - mellitus, corculum, animule.
And yet he never says them, nor does he say he loves Esca. The longer he waits the more impossible the task seems. Because love, Marcus has discovered, is like rust on a plate of armor - it grows and grows and if you do not catch it before it can be gotten rid of it becomes impossibly large and heavy and breaks down your every protection. The mere thought of it makes Marcus' throat seize in terror, so he tries to think of it as little as he can.
Which means, of course, that there is nothing else he ever thinks about except Esca, Esca, Esca.
Marcus is not fond of mornings, or never used to be. When he was injured and lay in bed day after day, the one thing he enjoyed was sleeping until well after sunrise, letting himself be woken at his own pace rather than forcing himself out of bed by sheer habit. Esca, who is frightfully alert in the mornings and who usually takes it upon himself to wake Marcus, teases him, calls him a lazy bones and a pampered brat, or he yanks the covers off with a merciless laugh on the coldest of mornings.
But there are times, though they are rare, that Marcus wakes before Esca. He normally would rather be sleeping, but having Esca next to him makes it bearable, almost precious. Esca is never vulnerable, not even in front of Marcus, but in sleep he is oddly young-looking, curled up and pressing his mouth against one of his fists like a little boy.
Marcus knows Esca is beautiful; it's a fact that strikes him at the most inconvenient of moments with painful clarity. But it never hits him with as much force as it does when he sees Esca in the pre-dawn light. Those are the mornings he loves Esca so much it physically pains him, and he has to kiss him awake, has to taste his sleep-warm skin and nuzzle at him until Esca is half-awake and humming contentedly like one of their cats. This is, of course, usually followed by sex, lazy and indulgent in a way they rarely are, but what Marcus loves most is those moments before, when Esca's eyes are heavily lidded and he's mumbling to Marcus in a half-forgotten tongue. It's then that Esca is purely Esca, when he lets himself be selfish with Marcus, push him around with grunts and small noises that he usually swallows. A fully-awake Esca holds Marcus in some esteem, loves him too much not to think of his pleasure or comfort. But a half-asleep Esca is a greedy, talkative, demanding Esca, which is how Marcus imagines he was before they knew each other. He likes to imagine Esca as a tiny boy, imperiously ordering things this way and that, and aches a little that he ever was made to swallow that urge and bow his head to slavery's heavy yoke. So because he feels guilty, and because he is selfish and adores Esca too much not to touch him, and because, truly, there is no incarnation of Esca he doesn't wish to fuck, he treasures those mornings when they're in bed until the sun is half-risen in the sky and Esca's moaning nonsense in his ear as he comes.
"You are tricking me into encouraging your bad habits," Esca grumps after Marcus has successfully delayed him for half the morning, though he is far too smug and post-coital for his complaints to carry any real heat.
"Would I do that?" Marcus asks lazily, pushing himself up so he can kiss Esca's shoulders. It's halfway through May, and Esca's shoulders are beginning to freckle again. Marcus kisses each little spot fondly, marking it for later exploration. Esca was halfway through tugging up his braccae, but Marcus' ministrations make him stop and let out a noise that is almost like a reluctant purr. His head lolls back until his neck is one long, gorgeous line that Marcus nuzzles, partially because it is there, and partially because he enjoys how his and Esca's cheeks scrape and catch each other, both prickly and in need of a shave.
"Wire diacus," Esca mutters, but sinks into Marcus' hand as he draws idle circles over Esca's stomach.
"You know I can't understand what you're saying," Marcus complains half-heartedly. He doesn't mind, really. He enjoys the odd inflections in Esca's voice when he speaks his native tongue, the way the words wash over him when he isn't focused on their meaning, just the intention.
"Mm," Esca hums.
"You never speak Latin, when we're together," Marcus notes. "I wonder why that is?" It's an idle question, but he feels Esca stiffen ever so slightly under him, and regrets asking it immediately.
"I suppose..." Esca says slowly, and then swallows, brings his hand to cover Marcus', which has now stilled. "It seems odd, to me. I don't think I've ever heard someone say a kind sentiment in Latin."
It would be the perfect time for Marcus to say what has been bubbling in his chest, growing stronger and stronger by the moment, but still, he cannot. Part of him hates that the words still won't come, and another feels as though it is not the right time, not when Esca has thrown out such a statement like a challenge. He wants to say them when Esca knows it is not a blind response, but that it means something, he wants Esca to know how much it means to push those words out. So instead of speaking he presses his lips together and brushes them over the burgeoning freckles again. "I'm sorry," he whispers into Esca's shoulder.
"You are the last person who ever needs to apologize to me," Esca whispers back, squeezing Marcus' hand. He lingers for a few more moments, patient, and then pulls away to finish dressing. When he is clothed, he stands and gives Marcus a long, considering look. "Do you plan on lazing about in bed all day?" he teases. "Come, up with you. Otherwise I'll gather wood and there will be no breakfast to cook with it."
Marcus makes some grumbling noises but sits up and begins to root around for his tunic, which seems to satisfy Esca. He waits until Marcus has found it before pressing one long, last kiss to his forehead. "tu esi mon sterca" he says, and Marcus swallows thickly and nods, more sure than ever he understands what those words mean.
It is, of course, terribly anticlimactic, when it does happen. It is a late May afternoon, unusually warm, and Marcus has just finished feeding the horses when he sees Esca in a patch of sunlight, repairing saddles. It's a terribly mundane sight. Esca is fond of sunlight and likes to bathe in it - without his tunic, when it is warm enough that he can manage it, as he is now. Titus is curled up at his feet idly swatting the straps with eyes open in the thinnest of slits. He is just as fond of sunlight as Esca, likes to sidle up to him and purr loudly for attention, take advantage of the fact that Cunos often unsticks himself from Esca's side so he may lay in the shade and pant. As always, Marcus takes a few moments to admire the coiled strength in Esca's shoulders, the contrast between the sinuous curves the muscles in his back shift to make and the foreign patters tattooed on his skin. It is not strange that Marcus thinks Esca beautiful, or takes time reflect on the thought - a great portion of Marcus' thoughts concerning Esca, in fact, lead back to some sort of besotted reflection on Esca's appearance. This Marcus blames squarely on Esca, because he simply cannot help that when he calls out Esca's name to greet him (as he always does, because Esca detests feeling snuck up upon), Esca looks up and smiles slow and sweet like the finest of honey spread warm across his face. Marcus could not, for all the riches of the Roman Empire, stop his heart from stuttering in his chest at that sight, nor does he have any wish to.
When he looks back at this moment, Marcus will never remember the original reasoning for calling out and going to Esca. Perhaps he intended a simple greeting. Perhaps he had intended to mention that one of their mares had take a pebble and should go easy on her front left hoof. Perhaps he had meant to drag Esca into the woods behind the barn like they were giddy youths and kiss him silly. Perhaps he had simply meant to ask Esca if he preferred the salted meat or herring for dinner. He doesn't know. He'll never know. All he knows is that when he opens his mouth, whatever he initially intended to come out is abruptly pushed aside, and what comes out instead is, "I love you."
Esca's eyes widen and he fumbles the saddle, near dropping it on Titus, who hisses and quickly flees the scene. "You... I see."
"You seem surprised," Marcus says. He is slightly disappointed. He thought for sure he had been obvious, that Esca had known, and the thought that Esca had not, after all this time, felt secure in Marcus' affections due to Marcus' own personal failings, shames him.
"Not at the emotion itself," Esca clarifies, looking down. He's blushing, Marcus notes, feeling slightly giddy with relief. "I had thought, after all this time... I had supposed you would never say it."
Marcus kneels before Esca and tilts his chin up from where he is determinedly staring at the saddle. "I'm sorry," he says softly. "I do, though. I have for a long time but it... it's not something I have ever spoken of before, or felt. It is not something I thought a man ever should."
"Romans," Esca says with a put-upon sigh, lips quirking upward. "Must you make everything so -"
Marcus interrupts what he has no doubt is a scathing ramble with a firm kiss. Instead of being a brief, distracting press of lips, Esca takes control of it, turns it into a tussle. He drops the saddle so he can bowl Marcus over and kiss him breathless, until Marcus forgets everything - what they were speaking of, his name, which way is up, to protest that Esca is stripping him of his clothing outside, when a stray farmhand could appear for half a day's work at any given moment. He can think of nothing but the new easy, free feeling that has been set loose in his chest, the ease which with he now thinks, I love him when Esca pulls away long enough to catch his breath and smile. It is like sinking into the warmest of baths, and Marcus wants to drown in it.
"I love you," he whispers hoarsely again. "Esca, I love you."
"And I love you," Esca replies, for the first time in a language that Marcus cannot even pretend he does not understand.
"I like when you say that in Latin," Marcus says. Esca chuckles at that, low in his throat.
"Then you should give me reason to say it more," he challenges, and Marcus laughs as well before he kisses him again, determined to wring the words from Esca's mouth as many times as he can.
For the most part, summer passes in a happy daze. Marcus finds himself laughing longer, louder, and more often. Slowly, he lets his hands become freer with Esca, lets them linger on the small of his back or the curve of his arm, and gets sweetly surprised half-smiles in return. He and Esca never had the first blush of infatuation before this. When they met there was too much anger, when they became friends and something more, there was too much doubt between them still. In the time before Marcus could speak his feelings there were a million chores to complete, a million tiny details to see to to make their little plot of land a home. But now, even though Marcus still stumbles over the words of how to tell Esca that he loves him, he at least is sure he does, and that Esca loves him in return, and that is worth more to him than anything.
The one blemish on the otherwise golden stretch into midsummer is how much more aware Marcus feels of everything - himself, Esca, how the two of them fit together like interlocking puzzle pieces, the way they have effectively turned their backs to everything but what is between them. Marcus is happy so long as he focuses on just that, but when he and Esca go into town the world comes back into sharp, jarring focus. He suddenly sees what he isn't anymore reflected in the faces of young Roman soldiers on their first postings who jeer at Esca, or in the foreign merchants who try to shortchange him or speak to him as if mentally afflicted. Marcus both loathes and pities them for having such empty lives as Romans, colorless and loveless. Esca is like a proud, exotic peacock amongst stupid and drab sparrows, and it fills Marcus with pride as much as it makes him worry that one day Esca will see him for who he truly is - boorish, flawed, plain, and above all else, ignorant. He tries not to think on this, and to instead focus on the good that is simply him and Esca. If he loses sight of that, he inevitably sinks into a brooding, black mood, castigating himself for every transgression he has ever made.
Esca keeps his council, though he clearly longs to cajole Marcus out of his sulk but eventually even Marcus can see his patience is wearing thin. "I wish you would explain this mood to me," Esca sighs while Marcus glowers after two soliders who had stopped by the farm for refreshment had spent the entire hour making snide comments about Esca - his tattoos, his accent, his pale, freckled skin and baseness. "It wasn't so long ago that you were just as -"
"Don't remind me that I was once like them," Marcus snaps. "The thought makes me ill."
Esca cocks his head to the side. "Is that what has been weighing so heavily on you lately?" Marcus purses his lips rather than reply, though his lack of reply speaks volumes more than any verbal affirmation would. Esca snorts at him.
"You shouldn't have to bear that," Marcus insists. "And the fact that you bore it from me, and then found it in your heart to -" there isn't quite a word for what he and Esca are, so he gestures fruitlessly, "-with me. I don't deserve that. And for that, I am ashamed."
"Tell me," Esca says in his most bland tone, "are all Romans as easily shamed as you are, or is that a particular quality of yours I shall have to endure?"
"Why? Are you planning on taking up with another Roman I should know of?" Marcus snaps. It doesn't provoke Esca as he had hoped, and that makes him feel petty, small. "I'm sorry."
Esca reaches across the space between them and runs his fingers down Marcus' arm as a soothing gesture, like he's an angry stallion. It both makes Marcus feel more demeaned and, oddly, comforted. "The past makes you who you are," Esca says. "We have all made mistakes."
Marcus grunts unhappily.
"I would not change the past," Esca continues. "There were times, before I met you, where I could not understand what had happened to me, or why, and I would have given anything to go back. I didn't understand what I had done wrong to deserve the fate I had been dealt, and then you saved my life."
"And?" Marcus prompts hopefully, like a child at bedtime waiting for the rest of a tale they already knew the ending to.
"I was more miserable than ever," Esca replies with a cheeky grin, and it shocks Marcus into laughter.
"You are terrible," he scolds, and Esca gives an unrepentant shrug.
"I have learned it's best not to question the gods," he says. "What is done is done. Perhaps others do not understand it, but can you blame them? I hardly understand how we got here myself."
Marcus looks at Esca for a long, silent moment, searching out every hint of the angry, dirty barbarian he first met. Esca was so full of fire and rage, so young, so raw and animalistic he was almost inhuman. And now he is unquestionably a man, from the sure set of his shoulders to the lower, steadier cadence his voice has taken on. His Esca has meat on his bones, walks with easy contentment instead of scuttling and snarling at passers-by like a feral dog. When Marcus reaches out to cup his face, he leans into it with a small smile of acknowledgement instead of batting him away, as he first did when Marcus made the sweaty-palmed gesture, so fumbling with how to treat a lover rather than a whore. He had burned so hot for that enigmatic creature Esca used to be. But he loves the man Esca is now.
"You are right, as always," he sighs, breaking the long moment.
"Of course I am," Esca says. "Now come, I need you to muck out the stables."
"I love you," Marcus adds, because he can. Esca smiles and kisses his cheek before swatting his behind.
"I love you too," he says, heading back to his chores. "I meant it about the stables, though, unless you want to wait until tomorrow, when they'll likely be even worse."
"I take it back," Marcus calls after Esca's retreating back "I don't love you anymore."
"Yes, you do! Terribly! So much you can hardly stand it!" Esca calls over his shoulder. And as always, Marcus thinks to himself in fond resignation, Esca is right.