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Against the Cold

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North of the wall, Marcus' teeth chatter uncontrollably when he lies down to sleep, curled into himself against the chill. Across the fire, Esca seems as comfortable as if the cold ground were his pallet across the door, back in Calleva. Marcus tells himself sternly that he will get used to it, but the cold seeps into the muscles of his bad leg, making it stiff and sore in the mornings. He ignores it as best as may be and hopes that Esca will not notice. In vain, because Esca has ever been sharp-eyed and never needed for Marcus to tell him when he was over-taxed.

"Your pride will not keep you warm," Esca says on their fourth night out from the wall. He is squatting on his heels before the fire as Marcus readies himself for sleep, and he does not look up from the flames. "Better that we share the blankets, and our warmth. It will do your leg good."

Marcus' first instinct is to refuse, but then Esca looks up at him mockingly, and Marcus grits his teeth. "If you wish," he says at last, with a fair semblance of disinterest. Whatever Esca might think, he is not too proud to ignore sound advice.

Esca gives him a small, close-mouthed smile. "We will both sleep better for it."

Marcus spreads his blankets wide enough for the both of them to lie down, a careful handspan of space between their bodies. It is warmer, certainly, and that is all that matters and all that Marcus cares about.

Come the morning, Esca is awake and rolling out of their shared nest before dawn is more than a faint glow over the horizon. Marcus bites back an unhappy noise at the cold draft of air that rushes into the space Esca leaves and forces himself to follow. He does not feel so stiff today, once he is moving, and that is the only reason he finds himself hoping that Esca will offer to share his blankets again tonight.

Esca does, and the next night too, again and again, until it is just the way that things are, their small, shared comfort against the harsh landscape. So it only seems natural that the careful gap between their bodies narrows as the nights get colder, until Esca is lying with his back pressed against Marcus' chest and their knees bent up together. It should, Marcus thinks, make him uncomfortable, but he is simply too tired to feel much of anything at all. He is very careful never to let his arm drift over Esca's waist.

It is not until they are in the Seal village that Marcus realises how used he has become to sharing his sleep with Esca. The roundhouse is not cold, not with the fire and the warmth of a dozen other bodies in the small space, but Marcus feels bereft and lonely all the same, and he hates himself for it. There had been nothing between them then, and there is nothing between then now, only the cold weight of betrayal like a stone in his stomach. Marcus clenches his teeth and tries to think only of vengeance.

In the cold aftermath of the battle, Esca says, "Let me look at your leg." There is little enough he can do--it needs a surgeon--but he binds it up anew and says, "Here, lie down and let me warm you for a little while." The warmth of Esca's body can do little against the chill sunk into Marcus' very bones, but Marcus clings to him anyway, long past caring about feeling ashamed, and falls into a fitful sleep.

The first time Marcus splashes into the hot water of the caldarium back in Calleva, he makes the kind of noise usually reserved for the first taste of Sassticca's finest desserts.

"I may never leave the baths again," he says to Esca, tipping his head back in ecstasy. Esca snorts, but he seems no less reluctant than Marcus when the time comes that they must leave or be late for supper.

But for all that Marcus is glad to be back with his uncle, where there are stone walls and hot baths and a gloriously efficient hypocaust, his nights are restless and uneasy. For as soon as they had arrived, Esca went straight back to sleeping on his pallet by the door, just as Marcus had begun to be used again to leaning into his warmth as they slept, in drafty inns and jolting wagons on the way south. The nightmares he had been too exhausted to suffer on that return journey all stalk his sleep now. Esca is always there, bringing him a cup of water and staying up to talk until the small hours, but he never makes a move to return to his place by Marcus' side.

There is snow on the ground outside, and it makes Marcus feel cold and miserable even to look at it. He cannot wait until spring.

"If you are cold, there is enough space for you to bring your blankets and sleep here, on the bed," he says to Esca without thinking, when a draft rattles the shutter as they are readying for sleep and makes him shiver.

Esca gives him an amused look, and Marcus immediately regrets saying anything. Of course Esca will not want to, he has been sleeping perfectly calmly, and it had only ever been necessity that brought him to share Marcus' blankets. If Marcus is perfectly honest with himself, it is maybe not so cold as that, with the hypocaust at work, and there is no reason to think that Esca would want to lie beside him just for the sake of being near, even though they are friends now.

But Esca says, "I would like that." A quick little sunburst of joy blooms in Marcus' chest, and is quickly stifled.

At first, Esca leaves a very generous handspan between them. Then, after a moment spent getting comfortable and stealing the lion's share of the pillow, he puts his icy feet on Marcus' shins.


"I thought you wanted to warm me up," Esca says innocently, and Marcus swats at the back of his head. Esca shoves back with his shoulder and there is a brief wrestling match that rumples the blankets, until Marcus ends it by pinning Esca in a bear-hug. Unthinking, he buries his nose against Esca's hair. It is much nicer to do this than it had been in Caledonia.

The smell is not the only thing that is different--better--than the last time they had done this. There are no fleas in Marcus' mattress, for one, and it is soft and comfortable. And every inch of Marcus is warm, all the way down to his toes. Now that Esca has settled, and moved his cold feet, Marcus' mind feels very pleasantly set adrift, as though he has had a cup or two of fine wine.

When he was small, Marcus had had a precious scrap of silk that he kept under his pillow, some piece of trim from one of his mother's old gowns, and he had often rubbed it between his fingers or against his cheek while he lay in his bed, waiting for sleep. It is a habit that has stayed with him, with whatever is near to hand, a comfort so old he scarce realises he is doing it. Now, he finds himself toying with a fold of Esca's tunic, rolling the weave over his fingers like the touch-curious child he had been. It might have ended there, with Marcus falling asleep and the fold of tunic dropping from his fingers when Esca stirred in the night, but Esca does not wear braccae to bed, and Marcus' thumb slips accidentally beneath the hem of his tunic, brushing against the soft skin of his hip. It feels much nicer than the coarse wool, and somehow it seems no great thing to slide his hand under the tunic until his palm is flat on the planes of Esca's belly, fingertips tracing up the light line of hair to his navel.

There is a small, crescent shaped scar on Esca's ribs that Marcus has seen many times, but never touched, and he inches his fingers along Esca's skin until he can rub along it with his thumb. Esca makes a throaty, surprised noise at that, and Marcus jerks back as though scalded, suddenly aware of what he is doing, and horribly embarrassed.

"Forgive me, Esca, I did not mean anything untoward. Stay here, and I will go sleep on the pallet--" He is rolling away, still babbling apologies, when Esca's fingers clamp onto his wrist.

"Do not be a fool." Esca rolls over to face him, pulling Marcus back down so that they are nose to nose. "I did not ask for you to stop."

The tramped down sunburst of warmth beneath Marcus' breastbone flickers suddenly back to life. ", you did not." He can feel the blush rising in his cheeks, and does not know where to look or what to do with his hands.

"So do not stop," Esca says, and kisses him.

In between kisses, Marcus sets about touching every inch of Esca's skin that he can reach. He runs his fingers down the ridges of Esca's ribs, accidentally tickling, so that Esca chokes with laughter. He shivers when Marcus' fingers ghost over the skin just above the cleft of his arse, and he arches his back and sighs when Marcus traces up the supple curve of his spine. It would be better, Marcus thinks, if Esca were out of his tunic. He tugs at the hem of it, waiting for Esca's nod of permission before dragging it over his head. Esca gives him an expectant look, which Marcus pretends not to notice.

"Oh no you don't," Esca says, cuffing him lightly on the shoulder when he tries to go back to touching. "Off with it, Marcus."

It is not right that Marcus should feel so warm and pleased at the thought of Esca taking pleasure from looking at him--wanting him, as though he were a woman or a slave--but Esca spares only a glance along his body before sliding in close and pressing another kiss to Marcus' jaw, almost as though he could read Marcus' thoughts.

Marcus could happily spend hours at this, trading lazy kisses and exploring every secret dip and angle of Esca's body with his fingertips. Always before, this act has been quick and impersonal, his orgasm wrung out into the calloused fist of an unknown brother in arms, while both of them pretended to be somewhere else and did not meet one another's eyes afterwards. Those encounters set a sour, unhappy feeling in Marcus' belly, always, and so mostly he found it better to go with the soft-eyed, willing girls who followed the legions. It was more enjoyable, with them, but not very much less distant.

Esca, though, smiles at him and does not seem to mind the slow pace, luxuriating like a cat under Marcus' hands. He is beautifully responsive as Marcus maps out the places he best likes to be touched, his peaked nipples tight and sensitive like a woman's, the smooth stretch of skin beneath his ear. When Marcus begins to mouth at the elaborate whorls of ink that limn his breast and shoulders, Esca willingly turns over onto his belly, that Marcus may continue, licking and kissing in ever lengthening lines along the ink and further, until he reaches the hollow of Esca's back. He remembers how Esca had reacted when Marcus had touched him there before, and he inches his kisses down Esca's back as far as he dares, until Esca whines low in his throat and rocks desperately against the bed.

And Marcus wants, wants to drag more of those noises out of Esca, wants to see Esca's face as he comes, wants to feel the slickness of Esca's fluid spilled over his skin, wants for Esca's name to be on his lips as he undoes Marcus, all of this and more Marcus wants, and he does not know how to ask for any of it.

"Esca," he says, putting a hand on his friend's hip to hold him steady. "Esca, tell me what you want." That is something Marcus can work with; he can give Esca what he wants, surely. He has not ever made such an offer before, but he had not even needed to think about it just now; he knows only that he wants to give Esca anything, everything.

Esca huffs a laugh against the furs covering the bed. "Where shall I start?" He rolls over and gives Marcus a searching look. "All right. I want for you to lie down with me--" Marcus does, and then blushes, feeling the fool for being so over-eager.

"No, that's good," Esca says, smiling at him. "And here, let me--" He presses flush against Marcus, rolling his hips so that their cocks rub together, damp and hot between their bodies. "Is--oh--is this all right?"

Marcus nods, his breath hitching, and he pushes tentatively back against Esca, who smiles in encouragement.

"This is what you want?" Marcus asks. "Just this?"

"Just this," Esca sighs. "This is perfect." He moves against Marcus that way, in long, slow undulations, until Marcus' whole world is narrowed to the friction between them, desire and need building until he forgets to be restrained, forgets to worry about whether he is doing this right, and he reaches out to clutch at Esca's hip so that he can grind helplessly against him.

"We should have done this long ago," Esca gasps "Ah, Marcus, you feel so good,"

"Oh," Marcus says, "Esca, you are--I--" He wants to tell Esca that he feels good too, that Marcus has wanted to do this since that very first night that Esca curled up against him, but the words seem locked away, and Esca is kissing him again anyway, sloppy and open, and Marcus is not going to last very much longer. When Esca drags one dry finger down the cleft of his arse, Marcus whimpers and pulses slick against Esca's belly.

"Fuck," Esca groans and pushes hard against him, rolling Marcus over so that Esca can brace himself above him and bring his full weight to bear, settling between Marcus' legs and rutting against the slick crease of Marcus' hip. Marcus reaches up to touch, running his fingers along Esca's jaw and down his neck and shoulders, the corded muscles of his arms, savouring the feel of him.

Esca is close now, sucking in air in great heaving gasps, and Marcus says, "Please, Esca, come for me, I want to see you--"

In answer, Esca grits out something in British, broken, harsh words that Marcus doesn't understand, but Marcus' name is on his lips when he comes. Marcus touches the shape of it as Esca shudders against him, and he feels full and split open with a rush of hot, aching joy.

Afterwards, Esca sprawls beside him, grinning, and Marcus smiles shyly back, unsure of what to say. He reaches out and twines his fingers with Esca's, and hopes that is enough. Esca squeezes his hand. Just as Marcus' eyes are beginning to drift closed, Esca sits up, letting go and climbing out of the bed.

For a miserable second, Marcus' heart sinks as Esca walks away, the old fear rising up in him, but Esca says, "I am only getting the basin to wash up," and from the soft, gentle way that he says it, Marcus knows that his fears are no secret from Esca.

"I won't leave, you know," Esca says when he comes back to the bed, slotting his leg in between Marcus' and grabbing his hand. "Wherever you lay your head, there I shall lay mine also, even when you do not need me to keep you warm."

He is smiling, but Marcus hears the solemnity of an oath in his words. He swallows against the sudden tightness in his throat, and Esca kisses him so that he does not have to say anything, because Esca understands.

Outside, the wind keens around Uncle Aquila's watchtower and the snow piles up in the courtyard, but here, in the safe little bubble of warmth that Esca has carved out for them, Marcus runs his thumb along the soft line of Esca's wrist and falls asleep.