The withered hand in Esca's twitched, and Esca squeezed it gently, offering silent comfort. Often that was all Aquila needed. This time, though, he blinked open his cloudy blue eyes, and Esca smiled at him. "Are you hungry?" he asked. "There's some very good soup for you. I had a bowl of it earlier."
Aquila shook his head. "I'm thirsty."
"Wine or water?"
There was an already filled cup on the table beside Esca, and he let go of Aquila's hand to pass the cup to him cautiously. The old man couldn't always steady his hands enough to drink by himself. He managed it without incident, however, and Esca returned the cup safely to the table before offering his hand to Aquila again.
Aquila clasped it without hesitation, weary and sick enough that he'd lost most of his stubborn pride. He'd been hale only three weeks before, but then he'd caught a spring cold, and--as was too often the way of it--the relatively mild illness had left him a feeble old man when it had run its course. Since then, Esca had been his near-constant companion.
It wasn't that Marcus was inattentive to his uncle during this time, but most of his days were spent closeted with Stephanos, learning as much as he could about the running of the estate before his uncle's impending death threw everything into turmoil. Esca, unable to read and limited in his ability to cipher, was the natural answer to who should care for Aquila.
At least, it was natural to Esca's mind. Marcus had required a little more persuasion. "You're not a slave anymore, and dying of old age is a messy, undignified business," Marcus had said. "Someone else can do the work. I can buy someone to do the work if we can't spare one of my uncle's slaves."
Esca hadn't tried to disguise his horror at the suggestion; in the seven years he and Marcus had known each other, they'd discovered more than enough differences in opinion that they'd learned it was best to cut to the heart of each disagreement as quickly as they could.
"A slave is there to make things easier, but death is supposed to be hard," he'd said. "It's the family's responsibility to comfort and care for their dying, not the slaves'. Besides, old men's wits wander towards the end, and a slave might hear things his master would never want him to know. If Stephanos weren't too busy, he might have been all right: he's been with your uncle so long that his discretion can be trusted. But you can't just give the task to a stranger when I'm here and willing."
"You make some good points. Still, my uncle might prefer a slave himself," Marcus had said.
"And if he does, then his wishes will be obeyed. But ask him first."
Perhaps Aquila had been in Britain long enough to absorb certain British customs, or perhaps it was that he still thought of Esca as half a slave; perhaps something else entirely. Whatever his reasoning, he'd accepted Esca's offer with no more grumbling than was natural in a man who'd gone from hearty to bedridden in the span of a few days.
"What now?" Esca asked Aquila with another smile. Some days it seemed that the hardest part of his task was to smile when he'd much rather weep, but that's what Aquila needed from him the most. "Are you tired? Hungry? Bored?"
"I'm tired and bored of soup," Aquila said querulously.
Esca's smile broadened in sudden, genuine pleasure. "There's fish in this one."
"Oh." Aquila's peevish face brightened. "Fish, you say? Well, maybe I'll have a bowl of it, then."
He'd eaten much less than a bowlful when he shook his head at the proffered spoon, too tired even to say "no," and fell back asleep. Esca's heart clenched as he gazed down at him. And then he forced his mind along a happier path: it was a truly delicious soup, and Aquila had obviously enjoyed it, however little he'd eaten in the end.
Esca headed to the kitchen to return the leftover soup to the pot; Aquila didn't care for it cold. He was grateful for the chance to stretch his legs, as well, and--an unexpected happiness--to find Marcus eating his midday meal at the kitchen table.
Marcus rose when Esca approached and squeezed Esca's shoulder with a firm, affectionate hand. He'd have a hug for him later, and kisses, too, if Esca wanted them, but in Aquila's kitchen at noon, this was what they allowed themselves.
"How is he today?" Marcus asked. Aquila had still been sleeping when he'd looked in on him that morning.
"Tired, but well enough. He liked the soup. How's your work?"
Marcus grimaced a little at the question, but he said, "Fine," in an ungrudging tone. He sighed. "I should have spent more time over the accounts in recent years, rather than letting Uncle take care of that side of things. I thought that we'd have more time."
Esca placed a comforting hand on top of Marcus's, still on his shoulder, and said, "You're doing well."
"And how can you be so certain of that?"
"Because Stephanos would be complaining more if you weren't."
Marcus snorted, and Esca released him and gestured him back to his seat.
"I'll eat with you. Eithne saw me leave your uncle's room; she'll keep an ear out for him." He filled his plate with bread, olives, and duck with plum sauce. "Will Stephanos be joining us?" The household, always more casual than most in the treatment of its slaves, had adopted almost a holiday air in the past month. They were drawn together by their shared purpose, and besides, no one had the time or energy to spare for social niceties.
"He's resting. These long days are hard on him. If my uncle doesn't manumit him in his will, I'll have to do it myself, as soon as..."
"He certainly merits it," Esca said smoothly, allowing both of them to ignore the unspoken words and to turn their attention--if only for the brief span of a meal--on happier things.
After they'd eaten, Marcus followed Esca to Aquila's bedroom, where they found the man reading quietly to himself. As was typical, nights were hardest on him, with their effects lingering often until midday. In the afternoon and evening, however, he usually regained some of his old strength and focus of mind.
"Ah, I'd wondered when I might see you again," Aquila said to Marcus, laying aside his scroll.
"I did come this morning," Marcus said self-consciously, "but you were still sleeping, and I--"
"No, no, my dear boy, don't apologize. We all have our jobs to do. I'm glad to see you now, though."
Marcus sat on Esca's usual chair, and Aquila's face brightened further at the implicit promise of a longer visit.
"Do you need anything right now?" Esca asked.
"Not a thing," Aquila said, and after a brief touch to Marcus's shoulder--a metaphorical changing of the watch--Esca headed to his own room for a nap. Marcus would fetch him when he was needed again.
It was Eithne who woke him, not Marcus, which probably meant that Aquila had fallen asleep at the end of Marcus's visit. Either that or he'd chosen to spend a bit more of his meager strength on reading longer. There was no point in scolding him for it. The end was nearing, and a little faster or a little slower wouldn't make any difference. Let Aquila take his enjoyment where he found it.
"Yes?" Esca said muzzily from his bed. He couldn't remember the last time he'd actually felt rested.
"Master Aquila needs the chamber pot," Eithne said, long past blushing at such a statement, and Esca nodded and shoved himself to his feet.
This was the main reason he hadn't gotten a full night's--or afternoon's--rest in weeks. The demands of an old man's bladder were terribly insistent, and Aquila couldn't bear to have this chore shared among the household. Esca sympathized; he wouldn't want a crowd of people helping him piss and shit, either, no matter how kindly they did it.
At least practice had made both Esca and Aquila good at their respective tasks, and it wasn't long before Aquila was settled comfortably in his bed again and everything in the room was in its usual state of clean preparedness.
"I'm very glad I bought you," Aquila said abruptly, looking at Esca with disconcertingly sharp eyes.
"Oh, yes?" Esca said, determined not to take it amiss whatever Aquila might say next. The old man had always been kind to him, even before Marcus had set him free. That mattered more than anything Aquila might think or say now.
But instead of delivering a casual and no doubt well-meaning insult, Aquila said, "I don't talk much about my brother. Marcus's father."
Esca shook his head. He'd noticed, though he'd thought at the time that Aquila meant only to spare Marcus's feelings.
"Marcus asked about him when he was brought here after his injury, you know. I told him--oh! that his father was the perfect Roman, that no matter what was said about him in the court of public opinion, we could be certain of his character." He shrugged. "It wasn't a lie. But what I didn't say was that he was a rigid man who disdained anyone who fell short of his high ideals. Including his elder brother."
Based on what Esca already knew of Marcus's childhood, the revelation wasn't very surprising. Still, he kept his face carefully blank, even as Aquila smiled ruefully.
"Perhaps he was right to do so. I've tried to be a good man, but not always to be the most proper one. It may only have been my hubris telling me that I was correct in making a distinction between the two. In any case, his character made my brother an easy man to admire but a hard man to love. I saw a lot of him in Marcus, back in those early days. But then I bought you on a--forgive me for saying so--a whim, and somehow by his loving you, Marcus has grown into a man who's the son of my heart."
Esca started at the words, dropped so casually from Aquila's lips. He and Marcus had been careful, so very careful, for five entire years they'd been careful, and now it turned out Aquila had known all along.
Aquila grinned at him, enjoying the joke to its fullest. "Oh, yes, I figured it out soon enough. Quiet and discreet you may have been, but you would keep looking at each other."
"Teach me to think we'd gotten anything past your crafty old eyes," Esca said, grinning as well now that he'd gotten over the shock.
Aquila chuckled, then sighed. "I truly am glad, you know," he said again. "I wasn't at first, though obviously I didn't mind it enough to try making you stop. But after I'd rested with the knowledge a bit longer I realized how fortunate I was. I've lived all my life a bachelor, and yet somehow in my twilight years I've gained two sons of my heart." And he stretched out his hand, and Esca held it once more, his own heart quietly full.