In the days after returning to Calleva, Marcus and Esca occupied themselves with discussion of the future - their future, together, for Esca had made clear he would not be parted from Marcus now, and Marcus would not have had it any other way. There was the matter of the lands Marcus had been given by the Emperor, and whether to arrange a trade for lands farther south.
Marcus had only to look at Esca and think of all he had lost -- all he would never have again -- before he decided that the cold and grey days of the wilding north were not too much to bear for Esca's sake.
"We should see about building soon," Marcus said to Esca one day, as they sprawled in the rare winter sunshine, their kill at Esca's feet. Marcus would have been quite content to gut and split the boar, but Esca was always quick to the task, his new knife glinting bright as he used it.
Esca stilled a moment, then cast him a sidelong look. "Best to wait until spring if we are to choose land in the south, is it not? Your uncle has the ponies which need tending, and the weather will be upon us soon."
"There will be no land in the south," Marcus said. "I find Calleva well enough to my liking."
Esca's sharp eyes examined him, understanding all Marcus had not said, since this was the way of things for them. "It will not be well for your leg," he said softly. "You are still healing."
"It will be fine." Marcus caught himself in the act of reaching down to touch his thigh, a self-conscious gesture. "As I have no need of a strong leg to march on, I will make do."
Esca nodded and returned silently to his task, but Marcus could tell he was pleased, and it warmed him through in ways the southern sun never could.
There was no rush to leave the villa. Uncle Aquila seemed content to have Marcus stay with him in the meantime, and there were many plans to make. But there was a price to pay, and that was to suffer through interminable dinners with Uncle's friends. So many of them, now that befriending an Aquila was profitable again; Uncle's businesses thrived in the warm light of honor. There seemed to be an unending stream of men who wanted to curry favor, and Stephanos could barely keep enough food in the house and wine at the ready to entertain them all.
Every night, Marcus bathed and put on a toga, and went to sit at the table with men he'd never met and did not care to know. All of them wanted some version of the tale, and it became an art to discover what version of it they wanted to hear.
For the senators, it was the version which included tales of bravery for Romans living long in the wilds north of the wall, and no mention of how they had run from battle, leaving Marcus's father to fend for himself. The senators nodded in approval, and drank Aquila's best wine, and murmured of the glorious career Marcus could have commanding the new Ninth - when he was fully healed, of course. Only Marcus knew he would never take that command; he must pretend for the sake of his honor, but Esca's knowing gaze sometimes caught him at the moment of despising such pretending. It was strange to be known so well by the one man in the room who was not Roman.
For Uncle's old comrades, it was the story of the triumphal days in command of a tiny fort, and the deeds done to earn an armilla - deeds which filled Esca's eyes with sadness when Marcus recounted them.
And for the round merchant who supplied wine to Rome, it was the version of events which included only battles, both real and imagined, and a bloody end to the Britons. On that night, Esca did not appear at the table, and shame bloomed in Marcus's heart even as the truth stretched from his tongue.
After the meal, Marcus found Esca curled up on his pallet, feigning sleep; he had known Esca too long now to be so easily fooled.
"I am sorry," he said, and waited until Esca turned to his back and met his eyes.
"It is what must be done," Esca said, "until we can go." And he turned his back again, leaving Marcus with nothing more to say.
The worst evenings were those nights when Placidus came to the villa. His smiles were frequent, but Marcus thought of the way beasts bared their teeth before biting, and he was not fooled. Too often, Placidus would lean close when the meal was done and the talk turned to politics, as if he wanted to confide in Marcus, but his eyes were often trained on Esca.
For his part, Esca did not shy away from those stares, but met them with a fierce scowl which made Marcus's heart beat a bit faster. He could not have said why it bothered him, only that it did, and it was only for the sake of courtesy that he did not take Placidus by the throat and throw him from the villa.
Late one evening, when Placidus had overstayed his welcome as usual and Uncle had made his excuses, Marcus sat listening to Placidus prattle on about the latest senatorial gossip, and asked Mithras silently to grant him the patience to endure his boredom. He heard little of what Placidus said, instead watching Esca sharpen a knife by the brazier, golden lamplight gentling the angles of his face. He was beautiful, and Marcus was not ashamed to know in his heart that he had made the right choice, to stay here, with Esca.
"His hands are always busy, that one," Placidus said, startling Marcus into attention again. Placidus nodded to Esca, who must surely have heard, but gave no sign other than a stiffening of his shoulders.
"He does the tasks any man might do," Marcus said.
"Any man without his own slaves." The dismissiveness was hard to ignore; Placidus had made much of Aquila's lack of slaves, and of Marcus's reluctance to buy his own, on many occasions. Esca would be nothing to him; the dust under a sandal. "So, then, is manumission truly granted to your slave? If not, perhaps you would consider trading him to my household for a time."
A sea of red drifted across Marcus's vision, and through gritted teeth, he said, "Esca is not mine to trade."
"Such a shame. I'm sure I could find use for one so clever and resourceful as the slave who helped you find the Eagle." Placidus smiled gently. "Perhaps I will distinguish myself in the Emperor's eyes, and I will claim one such as him as my prize."
Marcus could not tell if it was a threat, or some sort of twisted competition between them. Placidus' hand came to rest gently on Marcus's arm, and suddenly a shadow blocked out the light - Esca, with the newly sharpened knife in his hand. He reminded Marcus of an angry lion, set to pounce in the arena.
Marcus shook off Placidus's hand, and resisted the urge to rub away the ghost of his touch. His fingers trembled; it was the way he felt before battle, when his hand itched for a weapon to hold, and an enemy to strike into.
"It is late," Esca said, staring at Placidus. "There is much to do tomorrow."
"True enough." Marcus stood. "You will excuse us, Placidus."
"Of course. Please thank your uncle for his hospitality." With a perfectly polite bow, Placidus withdrew. Stephanos was standing by half-asleep in the doorway to usher him out.
For a long moment, Marcus stood in the quiet room, waiting for the violence in his heart to ebb away.
The knife glittered in Esca's hand as he said, "Such a man would not be welcome under my roof."
"I would not let-" Marcus broke off as Esca's eyes snapped to his, full of anger. "He will respect your status, Esca, or-"
Esca's laugh was harsh in the small, quiet space. "I care nothing for his opinion of me."
"He looks at you," Marcus said, the words tangled together, not what he meant to say.
"Let him look."
"Like--he looks at you as if he owns you," Marcus said.
"You know well that this is not so, do you not?"
"Of course I do."
"Because," Esca said, "if I were to belong to anyone, it would not be that bloodless whore of Rome. It would be a man who has known war and come back from it changed."
Marcus drew in a breath. "Esca," he said softly. But suddenly Esca was upon him, and the force of the shove sent them both crashing into the wall, Esca's full weight upon Marcus.
"Do not think I am the only one the tribune seeks to put his mark upon," Esca said, very low, in the voice Marcus had come to recognize as his most dangerous. "He seeks to possess you also, and for much the same reason."
"He thinks I can be bought," Marcus said, thinking of Placidus' cold hand against his skin. "And that you can be sold."
"He is wrong on all counts," Esca answered, his lips ghosting beneath Marcus's ear. His hands fisted in Marcus's toga; he tugged on it, and stepped away.
When Esca turned to go, Marcus was seized with the impulse to call him back - but Stephanos was returning, noisily putting away the wine and cups. He looked down at his toga, so clumsy and awkward on his body after the functional braccae and tunic, or the practical armor of a warrior.
He was still Roman, but that was not all he was, anymore.
When he reached his rooms, Esca had already pulled the shutters against the damp and lit the lamps. The brazier glowed warmly in the corner where Esca's pallet covered the ground, and Esca's knife was at the center of his bed.
Esca removed his belt, back to Marcus. The air was heavy with smoke; Marcus's leg ached as he closed the door behind him.
There would be more dinners, more obligations for Marcus, if they stayed in the villa. More of Placidus staring at Esca like he wished to order him to his knees. Some small part of Marcus feared that when Placidus turned his eyes to Esca again, Marcus might throw away his honor for the chance to beat him senseless.
If Esca did not move to strike him first, that is. The idea of it made Marcus warm all over.
"The trader in Calleva - the one with the beard and dark hair - told me of land I might purchase, only a few leagues from here. Land for horses. For farming," Marcus said. He tugged at the draped folds of his toga until it gave, and shed it off like an old skin, a lump of misshapen fabric at his feet.
"A place to build," Esca said, his back still to Marcus as he pulled his tunic over his head. His tattoos came into view, the marks of his history, just as the wound on Marcus's leg told a part of his story. A part, but not all.
"A home where you will choose who is welcome," Marcus said, unable to stop himself from taking in the lean lines of Esca's back.
Esca turned then, and his gaze was not shy as he looked at Marcus's bare chest. "We will choose," he said, and Marcus gave a sharp nod. It was all he wanted.
"It is less than a day's ride," Marcus said. Esca kicked the heap of white fabric away and stepped close, so that the heat of his body licked at Marcus. They had shared so much already; now Marcus could see there was much more they would share, once they were free of this house.
Esca stood very still, watching him. "In the morning," he said. "We will go and see this land."
Marcus had shed his pride and his fear on the quest to restore his Roman honor. That was in the past, and Esca was before him, waiting. With a steady hand, he reached out to touch Esca's face: the corner of his mouth which turned up sometimes when Marcus said exasperating things; the faint scar from the hilt of a gladiator's sword which lingered at the corner of his eye. "It is a long time until morning."
When Esca reached to touch in return, his quick hands pulled Marcus's undercloth away, then pressed against the jut of Marcus's hips. His cock rose, hard and eager for Esca's touch. It had been so long since he was touched so, and never anyone he cared for as he now cared for Esca.
"I had feared you were too Roman to permit this," Esca said. From another man, it might have been an insult, but Esca had accepted him as he was. Marcus was glad to disappoint him, this once.
Esca's fingers curled around the back of his neck and he went willingly into Esca's embrace, let Esca take his mouth in a slow, fierce kiss. Sounds welled up from deep in his throat when Esca took him in hand, and he swept his hands down Esca's back, thrilling to the way Esca arched into him. It seemed only moments before his pleasure crested and overtook him, leaving him gasping into Esca's smug, smiling mouth.
Made clumsy by desire, Marcus made short work of Esca's braccae and pushed him back toward the bed. He straddled Esca's slender hips, placing his hands everywhere to see what reaction he might find. He kissed Esca's shoulder, shuddering when Esca's hand slipped gently into his hair, and curled his fingers around Esca's length with purpose. Esca spent in his hand with a cry, and Marcus kissed him, smiling to think that if Stephanos was lurking about outside, that would cure him of eavesdropping.
There was so much more to learn about Esca; Marcus drew his lips across the sharp line of his collarbones, and across his sides. With each touch, he imagined a small house of their own, where Esca might work his knives, and Marcus might wait patiently for him to tire of other pursuits, and come to bed.
When Esca pushed his hand aside and stood, Marcus made a noise of protest.
"One more night," Esca said. He splashed water from the basin into his hands, cleaning himself, and went to his own pallet, as was his custom - near enough to be a temptation, but as far away as if the Wall stood between them.
With a groan, Marcus fell back upon his bed, listening as Esca pulled his blanket up. It was but one more night, and in the morning, they both would be free.