It began innocently enough.
After the first several days of their journey to the north Marcus’s leg began to grow stiff and painful. The combination of a hard day’s ride over rough terrain and cold nights spent on damp ground left his weak muscles so tight they could barely move. In the mornings he had to massage feeling back into his injured thigh before he could so much as stand again. It was frustrating; before this journey he had been on the mend, managing to convince himself that he was back to his old vigor. But just a few days of exertion had shattered that delusion.
At first Marcus tried to ignore the pain and work through it. He could feel Esca’s eyes on him, watching his every movement for signs of trouble. He should have been used to humiliating himself in front of his slave by now, but Marcus still clung to the few shreds of pride he had left, and tried to deal with it on his own as best he could.
Esca, in typical stubborn fashion, had taken it upon himself to deal with the problem. Marcus lay down beside their small fire one evening, trying to pull his rough cloak as tight around himself as possible to ward out the chill. He could already feel his leg starting to cramp, but there was little he could do about it out here in the forest with this damn bone-penetrating cold. More than ever he longed for the mild warmth of his homeland.
Marcus heard the soft rustling of Esca packing away their provisions for the night. He didn’t open his eyes when the familiar footsteps approached and Esca joined him on the ground. But he started with alarm when he felt a sudden warmth again his back, the press of a body against his own.
“Esca, what—" he demanded, his uncle’s warnings about a slave’s inevitable betrayal running through his mind. They had been out in the wilderness for days now, if Esca was going to make a move he could have done it long ago. Not to mention Marcus didn’t believe Esca's pride would abide such a cowardly tactic.
Marcus’s hand was tensed to reach for his sword, always kept close in case of ambush. But Esca didn’t move or say anything, only making soft shushing noises in his throat, as he did to the horses when they caught scent of a predator. He placed his palms flat against Marcus’s back, assuring him that they contained no weapons.
When Marcus had finally settled back down, Esca whispered, “For warmth, to help your leg.” He was so close that his words were a soft sigh against Marcus’s ear, and the contrast of warm breath and cold air made him shiver lightly. He drew his cloak tighter and tried to relax, knowing it wasn’t good for his leg to remain so tense.
When Marcus had settled back down Esca slowly pulled himself closer, tucking himself neatly into the contour of Marcus’s broad back, knees tucked snugly behind his. Marcus could feel the heat radiating off Esca’s body and into his own, spreading through his sore thigh and helping the tight knots begin to unwind.
It was also strangely comforting. Marcus had occasionally shared a cot or bedroll with a fellow soldier, particularly in his younger training days when he had been low in the ranks. There was an implicit comradeship in trusting someone in your most vulnerable state. Esca was certainly different from his fellow soldiers, and Marcus still wasn’t positive where his allegiances lay. But in that moment he trusted him implicitly, and finally fell into the deepest slumber he could remember since the early days of his injury.
After that first night it became routine. Marcus would always retire first, and Esca would see to the horses and supplies, then settle down behind him. Esca slotted himself in seamlessly, as if the space of Marcus’s broad back had been perfectly designed to accommodate his smaller frame. They never spoke about it, it was simply a given.
Marcus could already feel the difference in his leg after just a few days. He no longer woke with the intense stiffness and pain, which made breaking camp and starting on their way much quicker. He could ride longer without pain as well, allowing them to cover more ground each day. It was in both of their best interest to continue. Marcus was less of a liability to both of them if he was more mobile, and so Esca continued without complaint.
At some point Marcus had begun to look forward to this nightly ritual. He didn’t know when it began, but one night he found himself waiting impatiently as Esca took longer than usual to join him. He was restless, lying on his own without that familiar heat pressing against his back. He felt oddly bereft without Esca there, like something wasn’t quite right. Marcus had spent years sleeping on his own, and only days with Esca there beside him, but already he couldn’t imagine him not being there at his back. It was more than just the relief it gave his leg, or the feeling of companionship, but Marcus couldn’t explain exactly what it was he craved. He just knew he needed Esca near.
Esca finally settled into his usual spot, nose pressed against the back of Marcus’s neck. Marcus could feel him begin to drift into sleep, his breaths growing deeper and more even. Usually Marcus would quickly follow, the exhaustion of the day’s journey dragging him into a deep and dreamless slumber. But tonight he felt inexplicably restless. The forest was silent save for the far off hoot of an owl, and they had not come across anyone all day. They were as safe as they had been any night since crossing the wall.
He could feel Esca there beside him, radiating his almost preternatural heat. It was usually soothing, and his thigh was feeling remarkably free of pain this evening. And yet something still wasn’t right. The feel of Esca at his back somehow wasn’t enough. He craved more closeness, more contact, more Esca.
Carefully Marcus reached an arm behind himself, feeling for the rough wool of Esca’s cloak. He quickly found what he was looking for: Esca’s arm laid flat along his side, hand resting open upon his thigh.
Slowly, careful not to wake him, Marcus took Esca’s hand, pulling his arm over himself so it came to rest around his chest, nestled snugly around the crook of his own arm, still holding onto Esca’s hand. Immediately he felt calmer and more relaxed, the restlessness draining away. There was something more intimate about this position, about the increased contact and touching of their hands. It pulled Esca more fully against himself, so they were connected in one long unbroken line, flush together.
Just as Marcus was about to settle back down into sleep Esca stirred. Marcus felt a tug on the hand in his grasp, and in a flash Esca was on top of him, Marcus’s hands pinned beneath his weight. His eyes flashed wildly as he pressed a small dagger against Marcus’s throat.
Esca’s weight knocked the air from his lungs, and for a long moment Marcus couldn’t get enough breath to call out and calm him. Esca stared with wide eyes that looked startled and unnervingly feral. In that moment Marcus understood how fearsome he must have been on the battlefield. He didn’t seem to see Marcus before him at all, perhaps still half dreaming, seeing instead some long remembered enemy.
“Esca,” Marcus whispered urgently, trying to free his hands from beneath the boy’s weight. But with the dagger pressing dangerously into his flesh he could not risk any greater struggle.
“Esca, it’s me, Marcus,” he tried again, repeating the name over and over, hoping it would snap Esca out of his dream and bring him back to the present.
Finally Esca seemed to come fully awake, blinking in surprise. “Marcus,” he repeated, finally seeing the man before him once again. Still, he moved slowly, pulling the dagger away and sliding off of Marcus with reluctance.
Marcus heaved a sigh of relief, gasping for deep breaths of air now that the weight was gone from his chest. Esca tucked the dagger back into his belt and sat down, though he stayed several feet away.
Marcus watched him silently, waiting for him to calm down and come fully to his senses. He had realized from the first that Esca’s size belied his strength, but he had never before felt the full weight of it turned against himself so violently. It was a startling revelation.
“Why did you do that?” Esca demanded, his eyes frank and searching. He addressed Marcus in a direct challenge, forgetting even the pretense of deference. Marcus felt no desire to correct his manners at that moment, remembering the cold metal of the dagger pressed against his flesh.
Marcus could not think of a suitable reply under the pressure of Esca’s suspicious gaze. “I just wanted…” he began, but could not finish the thought. What was it he had wanted? He wanted Esca, closer, nearer. But he couldn’t tell him that. And Esca would probably sense a lie, the same way he always seemed to see through Marcus’s defenses.
Esca watched him closely for a moment, then seemed resigned to his silence. “You startled me,” he said, and Marcus took it for a half apology, as much as Esca’s pride would allow.
“I would never harm you,” Marcus said quietly, by way of his own apology, “nor let harm come to you.”
Esca’s eyes seemed to gleam even in the pale light of the forest as they looked straight into Marcus’s. “I know,” he replied after a long pause, and some of the tension drained from his shoulders.
“I only wanted to be closer,” Marcus admitted, the unbidden words sticking in his throat.
“Why?” Esca asked, seeming puzzled but no longer wary. “Is it a custom of your people?”
Marcus couldn’t hold back a soft chuckle, and Esca seemed offended, though Marcus hadn’t meant to laugh at him. “Don’t your people lie together?” he asked in return. “It’s not so strange, is it?”
Esca ducked his head and Marcus could no longer read his expression, but his shoulders were hunched awkwardly. “Among bonded couples, perhaps,” he replied, and Marcus guessed he wore that far off look that he had whenever he talked about his tribe. It was fond and despondent at the same time, and it pained Marcus to see it. It was the same way he felt when he thought of his father and his home.
Marcus didn’t know how to respond. Perhaps that was what he had in mind, after all, the closeness of lovers. It startled him to think it, and yet it did not seem unnatural. Esca had become so much of his world, even before setting off on this journey. While once he would have found it absurd, he now thought that perhaps that was what he had longed for since that first glimpse of Esca in the arena, bold and fearless and beautiful.
“Yes,” Marcus finally replied, finding his voice again. “It is so among my people as well.”
Esca glanced at him askance then, brow furrowed in confusion, or perhaps wariness. Nevertheless, he moved closer, once again sitting by Marcus’s side, looking down at him.
“That it what you wish?” he asked.
“Yes,” Marcus replied softly, comforted to be able to feel Esca’s heat at his side again. “But only if you wish it also.”
Hesitantly the corners of Esca’s lips quirked up ever so slightly, in an expression Marcus had only seen a handful of times before, when they were out on the hunt and working together.
Without further response Esca laid back on the ground beside Marcus, resting on his side.
Marcus was uncertain what he intended, but turned back on his own side as well, until they were resting as they had been before.
Just as Marcus was about to resign himself and drift back to sleep, Esca’s arm came curling over his side, around his own, searching cautiously. Marcus took his hand in his own, as he had before, and lay still, waiting for any resistance. Instead Esca breathed out a soft sigh against his neck and settled down closer.
For that night, and many nights afterward for years to come, they fell asleep that way, Esca tucked snugly into the solid comfort of Marcus’s back, bodies intertwined and overlapping, his hand resting over Marcus’s heart.