Marcus does not need a slave. What Marcus needs is a leg that will bear his weight and that does not wake him in the night with its pain. But his uncle cannot give him that, so perhaps this is the next best thing.
“His name is Esca,” Uncle Aquila says. “According to the circus master, he hasn’t any Latin. But he knows his duties well enough; no need for a body-slave to do much talking.”
“I have no use for you,” Marcus says, when his uncle is gone, even though the slave will not understand. Saying it aloud makes him feel better, like it might make it true, until pain cramps his thigh, disabusing him of even that small comfort. He sits down hard, grimacing.
Esca’s face is still sullen, but he steps closer to help Marcus settle his leg on the footstool. His hands are sure and gentle.
“Thank you,” Marcus says. “Esca.”
Esca says nothing.
“Did they tell you my name?” Marcus taps his chest. “Marcus Flavius Aquila. Marcus.”
Esca inclines his head a fraction. “ Domine.”
“Did I shame myself?” Marcus asks through the fog of pain and medicine, before he realises that it is Esca at his side. There is no way for him to know. Esca makes a shushing sound, and taps the pillow.
“I am to sleep?” Marcus slurs. “Rest?”
Esca nods. “Rest.” He says something else in British, and sighs. I wish you could understand , say the twist of his mouth and his spread palms.
“As do I,” mumbles Marcus, drifting back into the medicine’s woolen embrace. There is a damp cloth on his forehead and through the fog, a trickle of soft words that mean nothing to him.
“I want to get up,” Marcus says stubbornly, pushing against Esca’s restraining hand. He has been lying in this cursed bed for days, and if he doesn’t get up soon, he is going to go mad.
Esca shakes his head. “No. Rest.”
“Just to the garden to sit for a moment.” Marcus points out the window, and holds his thumb and forefinger a little apart to show just how short the outing will be, and gives Esca his best winning look.
The corners of Esca’s stern mouth lift ever so slightly. He mimics Marcus’ gesture, but with his hands spread a span apart in front of his chest, his eyebrows quirked wryly.
Marcus shrugs, trying not to grin. Esca rolls his eyes and goes to take the chair and footstool outside for him.
It hurts to walk, leaning heavily on Esca’s shoulder, but the pain is cleaner, not the angry, sick throbbing of before. He is on the mend. Esca settles him on the terrace and makes sure that he is warm and comfortable before sitting against the column opposite, and pulling out a small knot of wood for whittling. Others might have called Marcus a fool for letting his slave go armed with even such a small blade, but he trusts Esca, for all that they can scarce communicate.
“What are you making?” he asks, pointing at Esca’s work.
Esca holds it up for him to see and says something in British, which Marcus repeats. “ Each? A horse?” To show what he means, he makes the little figurine gallop across his lap, like a child at play.
Esca nods. “ Each . Making a horse,” he confirms, giving Marcus that slow half-smile. Marcus rubs his thumb over the flowing mane and tail that are beginning to take shape.
“It is well done,” he says, pointing to Uncle Aquila’s bay mare grazing in the field and holding up the figurine to show how like it looks, even unfinished.
“Thank you,” says Esca, and looks a little smug. “ Tapadh leibh .”
“ Tapadh leibh ,” Marcus repeats, rolling the unfamiliar sounds around in his mouth. Esca snorts at his pronunciation. Marcus leans forward to return the little horse to him, and winces as the movement pulls at his wound.
Esca points to the bandage on Marcus’ leg, making a pained expression, and raising his eyebrows. “Bad?”
Marcus shakes his head, and says, “My leg hurts a little,” gesturing to help Esca follow what the words mean. “But not badly.”
“Tell me...” Esca makes a face, clearly searching for the Latin words he wants. “If hurts bad. Badly.” He jerks his chin meaningfully towards Marcus’ room, where he is meant to be resting.
Marcus nods. “I will. But now, I want to learn more of your language.”
“ Gàidhlig ?” asks Esca, trying to understand. “And Latin?”
Marcus nods. “ Gàidhlig and Latin. We will teach each other, you and I.”
It is the first time Marcus has seen Esca truly smile.
Soon after, Marcus decides that if he is well enough to sit in the garden, he is well enough to go to the bathhouse. Esca looks skeptical, but Marcus is sure he dislikes the awkward sponge baths as much as he himself does, and he makes no real argument.
It seems a much further walk than Marcus remembers, and Esca all but carries him the last third of the way. Marcus sighs and stretches blissfully in the warm water, washing away the chalky feeling that comes from lying too long in a sickbed. Esca draws back to wait by the door, but Marcus says, “No, come join me.”
Esca strips off his tunic, and Marcus sees for the first time that his shoulders and chest are decorated with the blue whorls of a warrior’s tattoos. Not for the first time, he wishes that one of them were more proficient in the other’s language, so that he could know how it is that Esca came to be in the arena that day.
He sees Marcus watching, but doesn’t offer anything as he eases cautiously into the water. Marcus thinks it must be the first time he has ever been in water warmer than a summer pond.
“Do you like it?” he asks. Esca shrugs, wiggling his hand in a so-so gesture.
The water is just deep enough for Marcus to paddle from end to end, his bad leg trailing behind him, and it feels good to move freely again. Esca splashes a little, but seems mostly content to watch Marcus paddling until he has had his fill and they are both wrinkled as old men.
Esca helps him out and settles him on a bench, where he brings oil and a strigil for massage, and Marcus remembers Uncle Aquila saying that his body slave knew his duties well enough, though he has not really thought that way of Esca since the surgeon opened his leg up again. He would not have asked Esca for this service, but it is nonetheless pleasant to lie there drowsing under Esca’s hands, which are strong, if unrefined.
He is aware of a comfortable warmth in his belly as Esca scrapes the oil from his back, and his cock is half-hard against the bench. It is only a natural reaction to the massage, and already fading by the time he pulls his tunic on again. Esca gives him an inscrutable look and Marcus wonders if it is different among his people, if he is perhaps offended. But that is a conversation far beyond the scope of their small vocabulary, and as Esca comes quite willingly to support him on their walk back to the villa and does not offer any further indication of upset, Marcus does not worry overmuch on the subject.
It has been a long while since Marcus has taken himself in hand; the pain in his wound left little room for anything else. But tonight, he remembers the warmth that lit in his belly earlier, and finds it grown now until he is tenting the blanket that covers him. He listens to Esca breathing by the door, and thinks surely he must be asleep, or near enough, and Marcus did not spend time as a soldier without learning to be quiet at this.
It has been a while indeed, and Marcus sucks in a shaky breath, thrusting up unthinking into his fist and biting back a groan when fire shoots through his bad leg. He hears Esca shift on his pallet, and then his light footsteps padding across the floor. Not so quiet as he had hoped, then.
Esca says something very softly in British, and climbs onto the bed beside Marcus.
“I don’t understand,” Marcus breathes, his cheeks hot with embarrassment, and his heart pounding so hard he wonders that Esca cannot hear it, like the sound of horses’ hooves ringing on a road.
Esca makes a scornful sound. “This,” he says, and pushes the blanket back. There is enough moonlight that Marcus can just see the whorls of ink on Esca’s shoulders and chest as he leans over him, his intentions obscenely clear.
“No,” Marcus croaks, and then quickly, “Esca, I would not use you this way.” Esca takes in the tone of his words, if not their exact meaning, and leans back on his hands, casting a pointed look at Marcus’ erect cock, which quite plainly has no qualms about using Esca in this or any other way. But Marcus is not weak, to be ruled by his base desires.
He pushes himself up against the pillows so that he can meet Esca eye to eye. “Whatever my body says, I would not take advantage of you, my friend.” There is one word at least that Esca knows, though he and Marcus have not used it between themselves. It surprises Marcus to hear himself say it.
“I am your friend and slave, so,” Esca says, and bends over him again, licking the palm of his hand from wrist to fingertips to slick it, and Marcus’ cock twitches against his belly, leaving a damp smear of fluid. This does not escape Esca’s notice, and he gives Marcus another pointed look.
“I do not want this!”
“You lie,” Esca says, and Marcus’ traitorous body offers the proof. But Marcus will not bed someone who cannot refuse, cannot change his mind, cannot seek anything for himself, and Esca most of all, for the respect Marcus holds for him. It must be that someone has told Esca that this is what a master requires of a slave, that this is what Esca owes him for saving his life, someone with enough British to make sure he understood, so that now Marcus’ stumbling, urgent protestations do not make any sense.
“You are not bound to this,” he says, putting his hand to the side of Esca’s neck, where he can feel the pulse fluttering. “You do not have to do it. I would not punish you so, nor ever ask of you anything you do not want.”
“I do want,” Esca growls. “I want this.” He rubs his thumb over the head of Marcus’ cock, calluses catching at the sensitive skin “I want you ,” Esca croons, and Marcus whimpers.
Esca’s fingers tighten on Marcus’ cock, and he says something in British that sounds caught between satisfaction and mockery. Marcus’ body is taut as a bow-string with the anticipation of Esca’s mouth on him, but it does not come. Esca’s fingers keep working at the head of his cock, and then Esca’s teeth are set against Marcus’ neck, not quite hard enough to leave marks--Marcus shudders and moans, shame and unbearable want burning together in his belly at the thought. He can feel Esca smirking against his skin, and knows that this is his retaliation for Marcus’ stubbornness.
Esca teases his way down Marcus’ chest with sloppy, open-mouthed kisses, laving his nipples and sinking his teeth into the curve of his hip. This time, it will leave a mark, and it is all that Marcus can do to keep from begging, biting his tongue with the effort. He is already making all manner of embarrassing noises.
Esca finally takes pity on him, and oh , Marcus does not care any more about being weak, nor about anything else, because Esca makes a filthy, choked noise of delight as he takes Marcus’ cock in his mouth, and Marcus very nearly finishes from that sound alone. He fists his hands in the sheets, and Esca pulls back from him.
Marcus gasps, “Please, Esca--” and Esca grins at him.
“I am. Only, you can touch,” and he grabs one of Marcus’ hands and tangles his fingers in the short hair at his nape. “It is good,” he says, and takes the head of Marcus’ cock into his mouth, and no further, until Marcus understands what he intends. Esca hums happily around him as Marcus sets a rhythm, and Marcus feels it all the way up the base of his spine, his hand going limp on Esca’s neck and leaving him to set his own pace again.
It is not long at all until--
“You have to stop, I--Esca--!” He pushes frantically at Esca’s shoulders, but Esca makes an annoyed sound and pins his hands to the bed. That is what undoes him. Esca holds him there through it, swallowing and keeping him in his mouth until he is fully spent. When at last he looks up, smiling, Marcus is transfixed by the shine of his own seed on Esca’s lips. He reaches out a trembling hand, and swipes it away with his thumb. Esca turns his head and sucks Marcus’ thumb into his mouth, swirling his tongue over the pad of it until every trace is gone.
Esca's hand is on his own cock, fluid leaking over his fingers, and Marcus says, “You are--I should--” He cannot get the words out through the haze of orgasm, and Esca laughs at him, not unkindly. In the back of Marcus’ mind is the nebulous thought of what it would be like to do for Esca what Esca has just done for him, with his mouth, but it is too much, the overwhelming rush of a lifetime’s conditioned disgust and shame pushing the idea away.
So he spits into his hand as Esca had done before, using the other to pull him close so that when he finishes, he shoots over Marcus’ hip and then slumps bonelessly against Marcus’ shoulder, his face buried in his neck. Marcus kisses his hair, before he realises he is doing it, and decides that he is too tired to worry tonight about what any of this means.
Esca takes another minute to catch his breath before going to find a damp cloth to clean them with. When he is done, he makes to go back to his own pallet, but Marcus catches him by the wrist, and says, “Stay here. Please.”
Esca does not hesitate, and something like joy unfurls cautiously in Marcus’ chest as Esca curls up with his head on Marcus’ shoulder, and falls instantly asleep.