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Esca is in his bed, naked.

Marcus blinks. His hands still on his belt. This is the first evening that Esca hasn’t appeared after evening meal to help Marcus stand, offer his shoulder to lean against as Marcus limps back to his rooms, but Marcus had thought little of it. He had been grateful that there had been no witness to his lurching, uneven progress down the hallway, the long rest he had taken at the halfway point, leaning heavily against the wall.

Esca is bare, reclined on the pillows. He stares up at Marcus and then jerks his chin at the space next to him on the mattress. There is no mistaking his meaning.

Marcus finishes unfastening his belt, hands clumsy. Esca watches him, his face expressionless in the golden lamplight. Marcus swallows and strips off his tunic and subligatum, his sandals, and sits down carefully on the edge of the bed.

Esca is stripped to the skin, narrow and freckled and warm. Marcus thought of this, of Esca’s service this way, when he was injured, when Esca tipped water into his mouth and washed his face, knelt at his feet to fasten his sandals, but he hadn’t ordered it.

Esca opens his mouth beneath Marcus’ when Marcus leans down over him. He shivers a little when Marcus slides up on top of him and hitches a knee around Marcus’ hip. Marcus noses at his neck, just beneath his ear, and Esca opens his mouth in a gasp. He’s fresh washed, smooth, clean, the muscles in his stomach jumping under the flat of Marcus’ palm. Marcus hasn’t touched anyone like this in months, and Esca, proud and sour as a tart wild apple—to know Esca wants him, has been thinking of him, has Marcus hard in the space of a few long kisses, Esca thrusting up against him, half hard prick rubbing against his stomach.

“I can’t—” Marcus says, shamed. He can’t hold his weight on his leg braced over Esca, as much as he’d like to, curl Esca up in half and fuck him and watch his face, he can’t.

“Ah,” Esca says. “If I turn over?” he says.

“Yes,” Marcus says. He’ll be able to brace himself over Esca and keep much of his weight on his hands; he thinks of Esca, beneath him, caged in his arms, moving. “Thank you.”

Esca kisses him once, hard, on the mouth, and then slips over onto his hands and knees, rolls his hips against Marcus’ palms when Marcus touches him.

“Have you—” Marcus begins,

“Oil on the table,” Esca says impatiently—eager, Marcus thinks, and he bends over him, covering him, to mouth the nape of his neck. He presses a string of kisses down Esca’s back, the knob at the top of his spine and the curve of his shoulder, and Esca is so—rigid, Marcus realizes. Elbows locked, head bent. He’s shaking, a fine, nearly imperceptible tremor.

Marcus shoves himself off Esca, falling heavily, twisting his bad leg underneath him.

“What are you—your leg—“ Esca says, reaching for him.

“Don’t.” Marcus bites the inside of his cheek, mouth filling with bile. “Get up,” he says, roughly. Esca slides to his knees, slowly, but doesn’t move otherwise. “This isn’t what—” Marcus hardly knows what to say, looking at the soft pink marks already rising on Esca’s neck. “I will not have you lie to me,” he says.

“I don’t lie,” Esca says, face calm.

Marcus wants to get up and pull his clothes back on but he’s not certain his leg will take his weight, and he won’t fall in front of Esca, have Esca’s hands on him, helping him up, see the flicker of pity in Esca’s eyes. “So you think me a fool,” he says, “that I cannot tell when my touch is unwanted.”

“What does that matter?” Esca says dismissively. “This is the reason your Uncle bought me for you.”

“No,” Marcus says.

“No,” Esca says, his mouth curled in contempt, but then he looks at Marcus’ face and falters a little. “No?” he says cautiously.

“No,” Marcus says. “I require your assistance with my leg, that’s all.”

“Oh,” Esca says quietly. He lifts a hand and scratches his ear. “I thought—I did not know,” he says.

“If you didn’t want to, why did you come here?” Marcus says. He doesn’t expect an answer, but Esca lifts one shoulder and says, voice level,

“Better to offer than to be--ordered.”

Marcus nods; there’s nothing to say. It isn’t as though he’s deluded enough to think that Esca would say that had wanted to, he was only nervous, that he had wanted more kisses from Marcus before they fucked, that it was his first time and he’d never—he’d never—stupid, Marcus knows.

“I—” Esca begins, and then breaks off. “May I go?” he says.

“Yes,” Marcus says. Esca crawls around him quickly and drops his tunic over his head, and then seems to hesitate, standing barefoot by the bed.

“I offer my apologies,” he says, finally.

“You did nothing wrong,” Marcus says. Esca’s mouth flattens. He looks, for the first time, ill at ease.

“You have your pick of willing bed partners,” he says, meeting Marcus’ eyes. “I should not have been so quick to assume you would want an unwilling one.”

“I—what?” Marcus says, bewildered, and then realizes that Esca is mocking him, making a joke, and he sneers out, “yes, they’re all lining up to screw a maimed Centurion who’ll never fight again, the son of a disgraced family line—”

“You earned your wounds on the battlefield,” Esca says, sounding confused. His fingers open a little, almost reaching for Marcus’ armilla. “You showed courage.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Marcus mutters. “I’m damaged. There’s no one who—”

“They’re fools, then,” Esca says, with finality. Marcus looks up at him; there’s no scorn in his eyes. “Your wound is a mark of valor,” he says. He lifts a hand and brushes his knuckles down Marcus’ cheek and Marcus feels a rushing tingle of sensation in the wake of his hand, wills himself not to show it in his face. “And you are very finely made,” Esca says, almost to himself, and now he’s looking at Marcus, at his face and his body and it’s not—right, it’s disrespectful and insolent and Marcus should put an end to it now, but then Esca smiles, and leans in closer. Marcus’ legs slide open, seemingly of their own volition, and Esca steps between them.

“I said you could go,” Marcus says.

“When was the last time you had anyone in your bed?” Esca says. Marcus feels his face go hot.

“I don’t require your pity,” he says.

“That long,” Esca says, voice low. Marcus doesn’t answer. Esca lifts his hand slowly, as though Marcus is a—an easily spooked horse, and slides the pad of his thumb against the center of Marcus’ lower lip. Marcus’ stomach lurches; he’ll have to beat Esca for this, for daring to touch him so, have him whipped or strap him himself.

Esca says, “That’s an awful waste,” and kisses him, open-mouthed. Marcus allows it to happen, allows Esca’s hands in his hair and his tongue in his mouth, allows Esca to push him back on the bed and climb on top of him, Marcus’ prick rubbing up against the soft skin of Esca’s thigh. Esca half smiles, heavy-lidded, and leans in and takes his cock in a firm grip. Marcus shudders, arches helplessly under him, wanting, closing his hand softly over a handful of Esca’s bare arse beneath his short tunic.

He reaches climax too quickly, spills over Esca’s knuckles, biting his lip to keep from shouting. Esca waits for him, straddling him still, his eyes searching Marcus’ face.

“I’d like your hand,” he says.

“You presume too much,” Marcus says, ignoring the sound of his voice, shaken, breathless. Esca nods, and takes himself in hand, the hand wet with Marcus’ spunk, and Marcus watches, the way Esca’s fingers move, the flush sliding up over his cheeks, his parted lips, until he can’t help himself and wraps his hand over Esca’s, wipes his thumb across the wet head of his cock.

“Ah,” Esca says, a soft exhalation. Marcus threads his fingers beneath Esca’s, gives him a hard, long stroke, watching as Esca’s hips arch towards him, as his eyes go hungry and dark.

“My hand,” Marcus says, and Esca nods. “My—” my slave, Marcus should say, remind Esca exactly what it is they’re doing. Esca moans, and leans down and crushes his lips to Marcus’, drawing him close with a strong hand on the back of his neck, fingers tangled in his hair. His cock surges in Marcus’ hand and he shudders to completion, his mouth trembling against Marcus’ lower lip.

After, he slides off Marcus, sprawled untidily on the bed, still breathing hard. Marcus stares at him, the red of his hair glinting in the lantern light, the wild blue markings on his chest and shoulders and reminds himself—his slave, that’s all.

“Fetch me a cloth,” Marcus says. Esca cracks open an indolent eyelid, but he rises easily enough and fetches a clean wet cloth, which he uses to clean Marcus, his hands gentle—the wet mess of their combined seed on his stomach and the streaks that are higher on his chest, even a smudge on his throat, and when Esca reaches this last Marcus snatches the cloth away from him and finishes for himself. Esca stares at him, still kneeling by him in the bed.

“I was rough with you,” he says.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Marcus says.

“Your—” Esca lifts a hand, but seems to know better than to touch. “Your mouth,” he says. Marcus shrugs. His mouth feels hot, a little swollen from Esca’s kisses, but it’s nothing. “It’s been—overlong, for me as well,” Esca says. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I’m not your woman,” Marcus says, furious, realizing now what he’s allowed Esca to think, the liberties he’s given him.

“What—of course not,” Esca says. “I never thought—”

“Get out,” Marcus says.

“But—”

“I’ll fuck you if I ever find you in my bed again,” Marcus says. “Get out.” Esca’s mouth hardens from dismay to anger.

“Very well,” he says, and stands. His tunic is stained and wet; Marcus knows he doesn’t have another. He turns over, facing the wall, and draws his blanket up to his shoulder. His leg aches and he feels sick with humiliation at how he’d turned so easily into Esca’s touch, how he had wanted the approval in Esca’s eyes. He hears Esca picking up the tunic he’d left on the floor, his sandals, and then, after a few moment, Esca’s footsteps leaving the room.

*

Esca doesn’t meet his eyes the next day when he brings him breakfast. Marcus’ rooms are tidied, his clothes laundered, there’s always fresh water in the pitcher by his bed, but Esca makes himself scarce otherwise.

Marcus walks. He leaves at daybreak and walks the perimeter of the fields, stopping only to rest when his leg cramps so badly he can’t go on. He goes home and forces down the midday meal, left carefully covered on a tray in his room, lowers himself shuddering into bed. He sleeps entire afternoons away and then lies awake at night, body aching, exhausted but unable to sleep.

“You’ll do yourself harm if you don’t stop this,” Esca says, standing just inside his doorway, holding a freshly laundered toga.

“I don’t recall asking you,” Marcus says, pushing himself up into a sitting position and rubbing his hand across his face.

“Your uncle has visitors and requests your presence for evening meal,” Esca says. He brings Marcus water to drink, and a cool wet cloth for his face and hands, and then helps him dress, in silence, his hands deft and impersonal.

Dinner is long and very dull, discourses on philosophy and mathematics that Marcus can’t follow over the throbbing ache in his leg, over Esca, who serves at the table, refills Marcus’ wine cup. His leg is so stiff by the end of the evening that Esca has to help him up and then support him as they walk slowly back to Marcus’ room.

Esca helps him remove his toga and braces himself against Marcus to lower him to the bed, kneels to remove his sandals and then settles in on his knees and puts his hands softly on Marcus’ leg, just at the worst of the pain.

“What are you doing?” Marcus says. Esca pushes his thumb into a knot, mouth twisted stubbornly.

“You need your leg looked after—“

“I don’t want you to touch me,” Marcus says. Esca yanks his hands away, drawing in a harsh breath. He stares at the floor for a moment, a muscle ticking fiercely in his jaw, and then he looks up and meets Marcus’ eyes.

“I would ask your forgiveness,” he says quietly.

“What for?” Marcus says.

“When we—” Esca hesitates. “I—thought you desired me,” he says, in a rush. “But instead you have been in great distress and that is never what I—“

“I’m not in distress,” Marcus says.

“I’ve never bedded anyone who wouldn’t look at me afterwards,” Esca says carefully.

“You didn’t—bed me,” Marcus says. “Do you have no notion of any sort of appropriate conduct—”

“That’s the wrong word?” Esca says.

“Yes,” Marcus bites out.

“Then I’ve never—“ Esca frowns. “done--what we did and angered someone. I only sought to give you pleasure.”

“Why did you?” Marcus says. “You barely tolerate me, you hate—Rome. I can’t begin to think why you’d ever degrade yourself so.”

“Um.” Esca scratches the back of his neck, starting to look embarrassed. “You, the way you touched me. My blood was hot. And you were—”

“What,” Marcus says coldly, his heart is throbbing in his ears.

“I--uh,” Esca looks wary. “I don’t know the right words.”

“It hasn’t stopped you yet,” Marcus mutters, but he’s caught off guard when Esca blurts out,

“Beautiful—you—”

“That’s the wrong word,” Marcus says.

“I know,” Esca says, wincing.

“What is—how can you,” Marcus stammers, at a loss for words. “I was about to take you against your will and it heated your blood?”

Esca shrugs. “I knew you wouldn’t hurt me.”

“You’re my property,” Marcus says, “I can do anything I want to you—“

“Yes, right, of course,” Esca says, cutting him off impatiently. “I didn’t say you couldn’t hurt me, only that I knew you wouldn’t.”

“You are mine,” Marcus says harshly, “to do with what I will.”

“But not if I do not will it?” Esca says, the hint of a smile in his eyes.

“When I wish for your opinion, I shall ask,” Marcus says, and the words sound hollow, petulant, false. Esca nods. He gathers the cast-off toga, draping it in neat folds over the back of a chair, empties the stale water from the pitcher and then disappears down the hallway, reappearing some minutes later with a full pitcher, his face determined.

“I must yet beg your forgiveness,” he says, as he puts the pitcher down.

“For what?” Marcus says. Esca’s face darkens.

“You insult my honor,” he spits out, finally angry. “You are content to believe that I—bullied you into something that shamed and angered you and never gave it a thought, when you wouldn’t even fuck your slave when you thought he was unwilling.”

“That’s different.”

“Because you’re free?”

“You didn’t force me,” Marcus says. “You—it was my responsibility to stop it and I didn’t; the fault lies with me.”

Esca nods, slowly, his eyes troubled. “Allow me to tend to your leg, then,” he says and Marcus lets him. Esca’s hands are warm on him, and the muscles are so stiff and badly-used that Esca’s first strokes against his thigh are agony. By the time Esca is running slow fingers across the slackened muscles, Marcus is half-asleep, shivering with the sensation of Esca’s fingers, the new looseness in his leg.

“There,” Esca says. He puts a folded blanket beneath Marcus’ knee, frowning in concentration as he gently straightens Marcus’ leg. “You’ll sleep now. Your leg needs rest.”

“Thank you,” Marcus says, drifting.

*

Esca brings him breakfast the next day, works him through a punishing set of stretches and strengthening exercises that leave Marcus shaking with exhaustion.

“How is this any different than the walking you didn’t want me to do?” Marcus says, lowering himself to the floor and laying his cheek against the cool tile when Esca finishes counting off the final exercise.

“These will make you stronger,” Esca says. He helps Marcus up off the floor and takes him into the garden, brings him a tray of small snacks, slices of fresh cheese and warm bread and honey, and he works the muscles in Marcus’ leg again before Marcus goes to bed, hands gentle and sure.

“Is there anything else you require?” he asks, lingering in the doorway as Marcus pulls off his sandals.

“No, that is all,” Marcus says. “Thank you.”

So it goes, for a matter of weeks.

*

Esca brings him dinner one evening, but stays, tidying the room, telling Marcus a little inconsequential kitchen gossip, and then finally clearing the dinner tray away and settling down to his knees at Marcus’ feet, a respectful dip to his neck.

“Yes?” Marcus says cautiously.

“Could I—may I be of service to you?” Esca says.

“Um,” Marcus says, staring at the back of Esca’s neck, which dips fractionally lower.

“I might—“ Esca pauses, then continues on, carefully. “perhaps there is some way in which I could—“

“Are you saying do I want to fuck you?” Marcus says.

“Yes, that’s right,” Esca says patiently. Marcus sighs. “What?” Esca says. His neck is still bent, but Marcus can see the edge of his mouth, starting to fold in frustration. “Did I do it wrong?”

“Yes, of course you did it wrong,” Marcus says. “You’re not supposed to ask, that’s--that’s—presumptuous.”

Esca’s neck straightens; there’s a crease of confusion between his eyes. “But then how will you know that I want to?”

“It doesn’t matter whether you want to or not,” Marcus says, exasperated. “Your continued insolence is unfathomable—“

“I’m doing the best I can,” Esca says. “I tried to be respectful--“

“How you’re acting makes a mockery of—respect,” Marcus says. “What can you even hope to get out of this, is it favors, or—“

“Mostly just trying to get a hand on my dick,” Esca mutters.

“You—“ Marcus says, nearly speechless, thinking he really might have to beat Esca now, and Esca curses, in his own language, words Marcus knows well from hearing them in the market in Calleva,

“I’m sorry, fuck, I didn’t—this isn’t how I meant to do this. Marcus—domine,” Esca corrects himself hastily. “Please. This isn’t what I’m used to.”

“What are you used to?” Marcus says. Esca swallows, throat jogging visibly.

“Do you want me in your bed tonight?” he asks, his voice even.

“I told you, I don’t require that service from you—“

“You won’t ask,” Esca says, interrupting. “And I can’t ask because you’ve made it clear that’s not--welcome, but I have been—” he smiles, crookedly. “I thought you would ask me into your bed again.”

“I never asked you in the first place,” Marcus says. Esca takes a jerky step back, eyes shuttering.

“No,” he agrees. “Of course. Then I’ll—take my leave of you—“

“Wait,” Marcus says. “You wish to stay.” Esca nods. “Because I—“ Marcus feels his ears heat up, “I make your blood hot.” Esca nods again, a warm, wry smile starting at the corners of his mouth. Marcus circles a cautious hand around his wrist and Esca comes down next to him with one gentle tug.

Esca’s mouth opens under his when Marcus leans to kiss him, Esca’s fingertips touch his cheek and then slide up slowly to twist in his hair. Esca groans when Marcus sucks a wet kiss at the point of his jaw and Marcus sees that Esca’s learned his place, that he’ll wait for the pleasure that Marcus chooses to give him.

“Will you,” Esca murmurs, when Marcus is kissing his neck, “will you take off your tunic?”

“What for?” Marcus says.

“I want to see you,” Esca says. Marcus pushes himself up until he can see Esca’s face. “I—that’s not allowed?” Esca says, politely enough, but his brow is tight with frustration.

“You can’t treat me as though I’m—” Marcus stops. Esca is fair to look upon, his body lithe and strong, the son of a chieftain; his other lovers would have granted him anything he desired.

“right, never mind,” Esca says quickly. He reaches for the hem of his own loose tunic and strips it off over his head, settling back against the bed. He’s—Marcus bites his lower lip. He hadn’t gotten to really look, the first time, at the freckles that shoot across Esca’s shoulders, the narrow lines of his hips, his half-hard cock. Marcus traces his fingers down Esca’s thigh, the muscles jumping beneath his fingers, and then palms his cock, and Esca lets out a bitten off groan, grinding up against the touch. His knees fall open, his lips part.

“What are you used to?” Marcus asks. Esca smiles faintly, shakes his head. “Tell me,” Marcus says, working his hand until Esca’s cock is hard, growing wet at the tip. Esca shifts against him, sighing, and says,

“A shieldmate’s hand, after the hunt—“

“Only a hand?” Marcus says, slicking his thumb just beneath the head of Esca’s cock.

“N—no,” Esca says.

“I see,” Marcus says. He rolls up over Esca, closing Esca’s hips between his thighs. His cock slides against the crease of Esca’s hip, and Esca grins up at him, breathless, and arches his back. Marcus braces his hand against the wall on his bad side and indulges himself, riding his prick against the warm skin of Esca’s belly, watching the flush work its way down from Esca’s hot cheeks to his chest.

“Tell me of your other lovers,” Marcus says, low. Esca’s eyes meet his, blue and bright, and slide away.

“Touch me,” he says. “Use me, if you so desire—“

“Is that what they said to you?” Marcus says. His tunic feels heavy on his shoulders, rough. He peels it over his head and drops it heedlessly onto the floor, leans in and takes Esca’s mouth, Esca surging up against him, responding, their bodies straining together. Esca grips the back of his neck and kisses him ardently.

“What does it matter?” he says, his hand still heavy on Marcus’ nape. “Now it is only the two of us.” He tugs Marcus down, says, “Come here.” Marcus braces himself on one arm to thrust against the cup of Esca’s hip, so close to Esca’s face that he can feel Esca’s breath feather across his face, feel the heat of his cheeks, stained pink. Esca’s fingers trace gently down Marcus’ face, graze his lower lip.

“You are so warm for my touch, I can think of no others,” he murmurs, and Marcus reaches a trembling, unexpected completion that seems to continue for an endless series of pulses, his pulse pounding in his throat, only dimly aware that Esca worked his hand between them and found his own climax, his shout of pleasure soft and distant in Marcus’ ear.

“Your leg,” Esca says, some time later. “You mustn’t—“ He nudges gently at Marcus’ shoulder until Marcus turns over. He hears Esca rise and move around the room, the soft splash of water from the ewer, and then Esca’s hands are on him again, wiping him clean, settling a pillow beneath his leg, drawing the bedclothes up. Then there’s an odd, expectant stillness. Marcus opens his eyes to see Esca standing by the side of the bed.

“Is there anything else you require?” he says, eyes respectfully lowered.

“Stay,” Marcus says, “please,” the words leaving him unbidden. Esca’s chin jerks up, a surprised smile blooming on his face. He puts a knee on the bed and sinks in easily beside Marcus, rolls up against him with a noise of contentment. Marcus drifts, listening to the distant lowing of cattle, nightbirds calling in the garden. He’s nearly asleep when he feels Esca press a soft kiss to his shoulder.

“God, you are sweet,” Esca murmurs, and Marcus flushes in pleasure, feels warmth kindle low in his stomach, and pretends not to hear.