"You look troubled," Marcus said that morning when they had paused from plowing for a rest, and to let the oxen drink.
"It is only that I had a strange experience yesterday," Esca said. "I thought I understood Roman ways well enough now, but it unsettled me."
"Perhaps I can ease your mind, then. Tell me what happened."
"You know the baker's daughter, Junia Tertia? She has been making eyes at me for a time, and I thought no harm in it. Well, she had me come around the back of the shop to see a horse her father is selling, and then she put her lips on mine and licked me," Esca said, grimacing a little at the memory. "It was most distasteful. Why would she do such a thing?"
Marcus gave him a surprised look and then began laughing, which Esca thought was not very kind, for how was he to understand all the strange customs of the Romans? He felt a hot flush rise in his face and spread down to his collarbones, and he turned back to the plow, but then Marcus stopped and laid a hand on his shoulder and Esca's hurt flare of anger died and dissolved. "Forgive me," he said, "of course you do not know. She was only trying to kiss you. It is something that Romans do with those they are fond of; you said she finds you handsome."
"It does not seem enjoyable to me."
"Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred. Then, another thousand, and a second hundred. Then, yet another thousand, and a hundred," Marcus said, with a faintly wistful smile. "I am not much of a scholar, but I must agree with Catullus; it is a far better thing than it sounds."
"Show me," Esca said, without thinking.
Marcus only gave him a puzzled look. "Would you not rather go back to the girl, now that you know what she wished?"
"I had rather my friend show me than some woman I hardly know," Esca said, and then feared he had said something he should not, for Marcus had the look of a man struck.
But then Marcus said "Very well," in a rough voice and put his hands on Esca's shoulders. "This is one kind of kiss."
This time Esca expected it, and it was Marcus, whom he knew, and Marcus thankfully did not try to lick him. It was only Marcus's lips on his, surprisingly soft, Marcus's callused hands big and warm against his neck. It was, Esca found, rather nice, although as much because of Marcus's closeness and the fingers trailing absently down the back of his neck and into the collar of his tunic as anything.
He had wanted this, had since Marcus had freed him, if not before. Indeed, he had wondered since why Marcus had not made use of him as a slave, nor asked him to warm his bed in the cold winter after they returned from Caledonia. Had Esca been shieldbearer to a prince of his own people, it might have happened long since. He would have gone to Marcus this past winter, with joy, but for a sign. His breath caught in his throat--perhaps Marcus could not because he was Roman. Perhaps it was not done with a patronus and and his libertus, and this was all he would ever have of Marcus.
Marcus looked shaken, eyes wide, as he drew back. "There," he said, his voice husky. "That is what Catullus spoke of."
Esca frowned, absently touching his mouth, and Marcus gave a strangled gasp and bit his lip. "But you did not lick me."
Marcus swallowed hard. "That is...not something one speaks of ordinarily, but I will show you that as well if you truly wish it."
Esca nodded, still feeling shaken, his palms damp with sweat. He did not think he would like it, but he was curious all the same, and Marcus would touch him again.
It began like the first kiss, with Marcus leaning in and touching his lips to Esca's, his hands cradling Esca's face again, but then Marcus murmured "Open your mouth," against Esca's lips, and when Esca obeyed, he slipped his tongue into Esca's mouth.
Esca's first thought was to push Marcus away--it was strange and wet and he could not imagine why anyone would like this--but Marcus had tangled his hands in Esca's hair and pulled Esca against him, so Esca put his arms around Marcus and tried to relax. After a moment it was not so strange, and Marcus was clearly enjoying it, so Esca tried meeting Marcus's tongue with his own. Marcus gave a soft moan into Esca's mouth and jerked against him, his hands tightening in Esca's hair. A spark down Esca's spine at that; it was wondrous and thrilling in itself, that he could do this to Marcus, coax forth these soft sounds and the helpless flexing of Marcus's hands and the growing hardness pressed against Esca's thigh.
After a time, Marcus drew back again, resting his forehead against Esca's, his hands gripping Esca's shoulders hard. Esca found himself trembling as much as Marcus, his heart beating hard and fast in his chest.
"Esca, Esca," Marcus was saying. "I am sorry, I had thought I could--I do not wish to shame you." His voice dropped to a whisper against Esca's hair but he seemed unwilling to let go. "I dare not say what is in my heart."
"There is nothing in your heart that could shame me. I am your freedman," Esca said, as fiercely as he could, but he thought shieldbearer, for that was what he was in his heart. "I will never turn from you."
Marcus would not meet Esca's eyes, and Esca recognized that peculiar Roman shame that sometimes came upon Marcus when he thought he was not being a perfect Roman. "I had thought I could show you, and steal a bit of joy for myself," he said, a dark blush in his cheeks. "It was dishonorable to mislead you so. These kinds of kisses are for lovers, not friends."
"Ah," Esca said, overwhelmed for a moment with joy, and then he cupped Marcus's face in his hands and met his eyes and kissed him. Esca still did not understand why Marcus loved this so, but he did, and Esca loved Marcus. It made desire coil in him to see how Marcus went pliant and wanting under his hands and mouth. Perhaps kissing was something that grew better with practice. Indeed, Esca hoped there would be a great deal of practice. He caught at Marcus's lip with his teeth and Marcus made a stunned whimper.
When he stopped, Marcus was gazing at him with dark, dark eyes and parted lips, breathing hard.
"That is two," Esca said, giving Marcus a smirk and squeezing his hand. "Have we time for ninety-eight more before we eat?"
Marcus laughed, but his eyes were soft as he twined his fingers with Esca's. "Let us live, my Esca, and love. As for all the rumors of those stern old men, let us value them at a mere penny."
Marcus nodded; he was still smiling at Esca, as Esca had not seen him smile in a long time, and he thought his own eyes were probably as soft.
"It is in my heart that your Catullus is a wise man, for a Roman."