It is raining when they arrive at the plot of land that is to be their new farm...his new farm, Marcus corrects himself mentally. Or, more commonly, "the farm" when he speaks of it with Esca. As much as he might consider it to be both of theirs, legally it is Marcus's land, his responsibility. A responsibility, moreover, that Esca might not even want; he has been enthusiastic enough about the project, but perhaps he is merely making the best of a less than ideal situation.
Marcus does not take the rain as an omen, either good or bad; it rains constantly in Britain. He does, however, survey the flat, nearly treeless property with a rueful look. Perhaps he ought to have accepted Uncle Aquila's offer of a slave or two who could have gone ahead and built a small house. But Marcus was already relying so much on his uncle's generosity--the small cart pulled by Esca's horse was loaded to the brim with food and wine and supplies gifted to them by Uncle Aquila--and didn't want to take advantage of it when he and Esca were young and had strong backs...albeit only three strong legs between them, and could do the work themselves.
"In which direction is our neighbour?" Esca asks, blinking into the steady drizzle.
Marcus points to the west. "Over that hill. His house is perhaps half a mile away, and the village is farther in that direction."
Their neighbor had, contrary to the usual run of things, wanted to contract rather than expand his holdings. His wife only bore two live children, both of whom died in infancy, and he was now too old to continue farming his entire plot. Marcus bought the easternmost half.
Esca nods. "Perhaps we'll build the house on that rise, then. But for now we should shelter in that stand of trees."
He jerks his head to the side to indicate the grove, and begins to lead his horse there without waiting for Marcus's acquiescence.
Marcus follows without complaint. They won't manage a fire tonight, with the rain, but the weather is mild. And at least they won't have to dine on raw rat; the food that Sassticca packed for them will be as delicious as a feast after the long day of travel.
Marcus removes his hat to wipe his sweaty forehead with his arm. Soon he will suggest to Esca that they break their fast; they will go back to the coolness of their little stone house and eat bread dipped in goat's milk--the bread bought in the village, since neither of them can be trusted to bake anything edible, and the goat's milk from their own pair of goats, newly purchased to go into their new barn. He wants to finish weeding this row first, however, even as he knows that Esca would roll his eyes at his desire to work ever harder and faster.
"No matter how hard you work, you can't till the fields one day, sow the seeds the next, and harvest on the third," he always says. Marcus acknowledges the strength of his statement...but he still wants to finish weeding this row.
He turns almost involuntarily towards Esca, Esca's words still fresh in his mind, and spies Esca leaning over to yank at a stubborn weed, his position baring a long length of bare thigh. Marcus looks away in an instant, his earlier smile disappearing. He tightens his hands on his hoe and concentrates on his work; one more row to weed, and then they'll eat.
The summer days are longer in Britain than they are further south; Marcus doesn't know why and has never bothered to ask, but he accepts the gift gladly. While the sun is setting, huge and pinkly orange, he and Esca serve themselves duck and wild greens from the firepit near their home. Someday the farm will have a proper kitchen, but for now there are more important considerations, such as growing enough wheat and millet to keep their farm fiscally sound.
The duck is rich and delicious--this Esca has learned to cook well--and Marcus has to force himself not to eat it too quickly and thereby burn his tongue. He is focusing hard enough on his meal that he almost misses Esca's quiet words: "I've noticed you looking at me."
Marcus's blood freezes; of course Esca's noticed. He's a better hunter than Marcus, quicker and more observant. Of course he would have become attuned to Marcus's inappropriate attention.
Marcus shrugs, determined to brazen this out. "What else would I look at?" He gestures expansively. "There's a dearth of company, as you've no doubt noticed. You're all I have that's interesting to watch."
That last statement is a little too unguarded, and Marcus winces inwardly at the phrasing, but there's no way to retract it now.
Esca tilts his head and gazes at Marcus contemplatively. And then he rises to his feet in one smooth movement, and before Marcus even has time to wonder if he's irrevocably offended Esca, Esca unclasps his pin and strips off his clothes in quick, sure movements.
Marcus gapes for a moment, then averts his eyes, feeling his cheeks burn hotly. He's seen Esca naked before, of course, dozens--perhaps hundreds--of times. But on none of those occasions was Esca standing on display, lit by the sun's dying light and the flickering flow of the fire. On none of those occasions was Esca standing on display, without even the cover of motion to obscure his form. On none of them was Esca staring at Marcus with terribly knowing eyes, and Marcus blushes harder at the knowledge of where his gaze dipped, what parts of his body Esca saw him ogle, before he regained control over himself.
There's a long and breathless silence that Marcus expects Esca to break at any moment, until he finally realizes that Esca will not speak first. It is perhaps the cruelest thing that Esca has ever done to him, forcing Marcus to accuse himself rather than lashing out at him with his own angry and betrayed words. But Marcus will take on this burden, too, if that is what Esca requires of him.
"I do look at you," he admits lowly. "And not because you are the only person I see for weeks at a time, but because I'd want to look at you every day no matter how many--" he chokes a little on the next word, but forces it out "--beautiful people I had before me to distract my eye. But looking isn't asking; there's no reason that we can't go on just as we were before. And I can stop looking, too, though it might take me some time before I break the habit entirely, for which I apologize and beg your forgiveness."
"And what if I'm asking?" Esca says, his voice flat as it often is when he's feeling a height of emotion.
Marcus shakes his head, confused, and is about to ask, "Asking what?" when Esca drops to his knees in front of Marcus, places a callused hand on his cheek, and leans forward to kiss him.
Marcus opens his mouth to Esca's insistent tongue and kisses back, still feeling painfully off-balance but marginally less fearful about it, and lets Esca press him down to the ground with no more than a twinge of foreboding, quickly obscured by his own eagerness for whatever Esca chooses to offer him.
"Antinous wants to sell his cow," Esca announces when he returns from the stream with a string of trout. "He was passing by as I fished. I told him we'd give him an answer in a day or two."
Marcus nods abstractedly. Their goats provide enough milk for the both of them, but not enough for cheesemaking. He was already thinking of buying another goat or two, but perhaps a cow would be better if one is on offer.
Esca drops a kiss on the top of Marcus's head as he passes, and Marcus accepts the gesture with only a slight stiffening of his shoulders. He welcomes every caress, of course, but each one presents its own dilemma: does Esca expect him to return it immediately? does he wish to bed Marcus, or only to whet his appetite for the night? what should Marcus do?
Esca is, as always, no help. He gives Marcus the same opaque smile that he always does, and Marcus has no idea whether Esca is genuinely pleased with him or hiding impatience or annoyance or exasperation behind that secretive expression.
And, as always, Marcus can't bring himself to ask. Esca is here at his side and shares his bed at night...and, once or twice, in the day time, though there is too much work for them to do to allow that particular indulgence often.
"I want to clean and cook these," Esca says, hoisting the fish higher. "I'll join you shortly."
Marcus nods and shoves himself to his feet. Esca may be unbearably complicated, but the farm is simple, and right now it needs his attention.
Esca stomps snow off at the doorway, hastening to strip off his chilled outergarments.
Marcus, tucked in by the fire and with all of their blankets cocooned around him, hides a smile.
Esca gives him a look that says plain as words that he knows Marcus's thoughts, then flings himself at the pile of blankets--and incidentally at Marcus--burrowing underneath them and pressing close to Marcus's side. It is his good leg that Esca presses up against, which Marcus appreciates silently. "The animals are content?" he asks.
"As far as I can tell," Esca says, a thin thread of amusement running through his voice. "Though my knowledge of their language is limited. You can ask them yourself if you like."
Marcus keeps his silence, since he neither would like nor wants to discuss his reluctance to step outside their slightly drafty house. He has borne pain and he's no stranger to the deep, crippling ache of his leg in the cold; he finds, though, that even harder than battling through an unremitting chill is to move from one temperature to another. It leaves his muscles both shaky and knotted, and he does not look forward to the day when he unbalances in front of Esca. Better to endure Esca's teasing at his warmbloodedness than to have Esca witness his weakness.
Today, however, Esca does not tease him but only says, "So, what shall we do? Sleep, riddle, sing, or play games?"
As much as it originally chafed Marcus, in truth they have almost no work to do while the ground is frozen other than to tend their animals. He is not used to idleness outside of the months he spent injured, though he soon came to enjoy the lazy days and nights by the fire with Esca.
Marcus opens his mouth to choose one of Esca's options, when suddenly a new idea presents itself to him. "We should drink," he says decisively.
Esca turns curious eyes to him. They drink together at their meals, of course, wine and cider and mead, but Marcus has never before invited him to drink as entertainment.
"It'll be fun," Marcus says in his most persuasive tone, and Esca shrugs and gets up, careful not to dislodge the blankets more than necessary.
"What do you want?" he asks.
Marcus considers the question carefully, then answers, "Mead, but bring some wine as well. No water for me."
Esca gives him a small smile. "I'll drink you under the table," he says. "...if we had a table."
It's true, and Marcus smiles and nods. "Lucky for me, then, that I'll begin this exercise on the floor, with no distance to fall."
Esca responds with a kiss, sweet as the mead Marcus is about to drink, and Marcus responds with great will until Esca pulls away and says, "Let me get the liquor first. Then you may kiss me as many times as you would like."
"And wherever I'd like?" Marcus says boldly.
Esca kisses him again, a brief, hard touch of lips. "Always, Marcus."
The words, no matter how casually spoken by Esca, strike at him; "always" can mean different things to different people, and there's only one meaning that would please Marcus. He hides the change in his mood with a grin and a hearty cry of, "Hurry, then."
Esca rushes to fulfill his self-appointed task, and Marcus realizes belatedly and with a faint twinge of guilt that Esca has been outside the blankets this entire time. Indeed, he is chilled when he returns with bottles and cups and burrows under the blankets once more, and Marcus pulls him tightly against his side.
Esca moves into Marcus's embrace willingly...more than willingly, Marcus amends, as one of Esca's hands drops to Marcus's lap. Marcus is half-hard already, from Esca's kisses and the promise of more, but he made a plan and intends to see it through, no matter how inconsequential it is. So he pulls Esca's hand away gently and says, "Fill our cups?"
The look Esca gives him at the request is as inscrutable as ever, though he does not seem displeased, at least. He fills their cups with mead, passes one to Marcus, and drinks from his own. And keeps drinking, Marcus watching in fascination, his throat working for a number of long swallows until he thunks the cup onto the floor, empty. He wipes the back of his hand over his mouth and gives Marcus a challenging look.
Marcus chuckles. "Do not expect me to follow your example," he says and takes a more moderate sip from his own cup. He's come to like the taste of mead, but it still burns his throat on the way down, for all that Esca can drink it as though it were water.
"I won't," Esca says, smugly content. He rests his head against Marcus's shoulder and asks, "May I touch you now, or must I finish that before you, as well?"
Marcus's breath catches at the thought of Esca masturbating himself in front of him, even as he wants Esca's hands on him once more, now that they've finished their first drinks--or quarter of a drink, in Marcus's case. All he says, however, is, "Whatever you prefer."
Esca narrows his eyes at him in consideration, then smiles suddenly. "A game," he proposes. "Finish your drink before I finish you, or you pay me a forfeit of my choosing."
Before Marcus can respond, Esca has refilled his cup to the brim and arched an eyebrow at him, daring him to accept.
It is more playful than he's ever been with Marcus before, and Marcus forces himself not to wonder what it might mean, that Esca should invite this sort of behavior in bed, when always before they've taken their pleasure more seriously. He nods, and Esca ducks under the tent of blankets, his quick fingers already at work pushing aside Marcus's clothes. Marcus takes two burning gulps of mead as Esca strokes his erection, fighting to swallow evenly despite the distraction so that he doesn't choke.
And then Esca draws away--Marcus frowns to himself--only to replace the familiar touch of his hands with something warmer and wet and...Marcus splutters out his next sip of mead as he spends suddenly with the realization of what exactly Esca is doing under the concealment of the blankets.
Esca sucks him carefully until Marcus is done and then emerges, his face flushed with heat and a triumphant look in his eyes.
Marcus feels himself flushing, as well, unable to look away from Esca's wet, swollen mouth despite feeling as though he should. "What forfeit do you claim?" he asks, his voice rough, half-fearing Esca's response but needing the distraction.
The smug grin on Esca's face fades, replaced by an oddly determined look. "Kiss me," he says.
Marcus feels his eyes widen. Esca knows what he's asking, that much is obvious. What Marcus doesn't know is why. But that will have to wait until later to determine, because at the moment Marcus cannot but do what Esca asks. He leans forward and presses his lips against Esca's, tasting the strange, bitter flavor of Esca's kiss with his tongue for long minutes until Esca pulls away to gaze at him thoughtfully.
"Your cup needs refilled," he says and fills both it and his own.
Then he curls against Marcus and starts telling a funny story about his first time hunting, just as if this were any other day, except that he holds Marcus's hand in his and presses kisses to it every so often as he talks.