Esca is strong.
He has been beaten within an inch of his life, not once but many times, but his back remains unbowed. The weight of the entire Brigantes clan rests upon his shoulders and he carries their legacy with him from dawn to dusk without complaint. He stole from the Seal People and he is still alive to tell the tale, and oh, what a tale it is.
Esca is strong, but faced with the broad sweep of Marcus’ bare shoulders, the dip of his throat, the shapely rise of his chest, all of him bronzed by the sun and dampened by a sheen of light sweat, Esca has come over suddenly, spectacularly weak.
“Marcus. You are certain you want this?”
Marcus nods. His eyes haven't left Esca's face.
Well. Esca swallows heavily, watching Marcus’ body as it rises and falls with each steady breath, no hesitation to be found.
The needle’s tip catches firelight as Esca lowers it to Marcus’s skin, feeling as though this moment is being dipped in gold, about to be made immortal.
~ Earlier ~
Esca has been thinking on it for several weeks, turning it over in his mind, but it isn’t until he finds himself on the roof of their house that he realises he is ready, that the decision to ask Marcus for what he wants has already been made. He only had to wait for it to solidify in his waking mind, for the design to take shape.
He looks around at their land, Marcus’ and his, with a lump in his throat where his heart has climbed.
It’s a terrible piece of land for crops. It slopes away at an odd angle over on the west corner where any water runoff turns into bog, and they will have a mess of trouble digging out a heap of stone in another part to make it useable. They can use only sections of it now and their returns will be meager for a time.
It will work them hard, this land, and Esca knows he is in for the long haul, but never mind any of that, because it’s theirs. It’s theirs and they made it across the wall and back again to get here, to get to make a life. It is terrible, and also nothing short of amazing.
What they have accomplished together is amazing.
Esca sits astride the roof with a hank of straw clutched in his fist and just looks at it all, the beautiful, backbreaking stretch of their future, right there within reach of their hands.
His smile is so big it hurts his face.
~ ⌘ ~
"It is meant to look something like this," Esca says, carefully etching the mark into the clay tablet with his knife as Marcus watches, nodding.
"It looks simple enough," Marcus says.
"Do you see this curved line? That is our journey. And these lines here, they are you and I."
Esca’s face is burning even as he says it, though the meaning is innocent enough, symbolising their brotherhood, their shared adventure. It is only that you and I has a certain ring to it that Esca can't help but feel down to his bones. Marcus, noble and unassuming, sits so close to him, oblivious. Esca’s skin prickles where their arms lie side by side, nearly touching.
“You are adding the tale of the Eagle to your marks?”
“Our tale,” says Esca, studiously tracing the shape again and again, carefully avoiding Marcus’ eye.
"How is it done?" Marcus asks, and Esca takes the opportunity to move away a little, give himself enough room to breathe again. He twists in his seat and presses the tip of his knife against his own forearm.
"With a tool which looks somewhat like a sewing needle. You make the pattern with the needle. You press in enough to draw blood and press in again with the ink. You do it again and again until you have made the shape of the mark."
Marcus nods, his eyes on Esca's arm where the mark will go alongside his older ones, already planning the size and shape of it, Esca can tell. Marcus is ever the tactician.
"Have you done this before?"
"No. The wisewomen of our clan made the marks when a boy came of age or when there was a celebration, say a great victory. Or upon the birth of a child. Sometimes to remember a noble death."
They sit in easy silence for a beat, and finally Esca says," Will you do this for me?"
"I am no wisewoman." Marcus smiles, but his eyes are kind and a little sad, and Esca can’t abide the seriousness in them.
"You have neither the knowledge nor the saggy tits,” he says, and it takes them both long moments to get their laughter under control.
“And too many teeth,” Marcus says into the quiet after they’re done, and then they’re off again, giggling like boys and flopping about, helpless with laughter. Esca slides from the bench to the floor, his belly cramping, lungs heaving for breath.
“But you are all that I have,” Esca says, and it is true; for one, all the wisewomen of Esca’s clan are long dead.
Marcus stops laughing and simply looks at him, fond and warm. Over the next several days they practice marking and staining animal hide so that when they are ready to give Esca his marks they will have no need of wisewomen or anyone else.
When the day comes there is only he and Marcus, a large jug of wine and a small pot of woad and the feat they have achieved together.
It is enough.
~ ⌘ ~
It's a familiar pain and Esca rides the sharp edge of it until the repetitive motion dulls it to an ache. He watches Marcus' face, the furrow in his brow as he concentrates. His grip on Esca's shoulder is steady and firm as he applies the mark, all their recent practice coming in handy. He is being so careful.
They pause for a moment and Esca takes the opportunity to sip wine from his cup. It's neither good nor swill, but it's the best they can afford and Esca does not mind; it takes the edge off the burn in his arm. After a while it heats up his belly and his head too, everything precious to him right here within reach of the firelight, swathed in golden heat. Marcus' skin looks like honey.
"Almost done," Marcus says in a soft voice, tilting his head to admire his handiwork.
He is beautiful. Esca cannot help but notice, has noticed, had been noticing for some time. It is only that the noticing has all been from far away and never from close enough to feel the warmth of Marcus' breath on his own skin as Marcus bends over him.
Esca shifts in his seat.
"There," Marcus says, wiping a driblet of blood away with his thumb. "Look."
Esca soaks up the pleasure in Marcus' face as he surveys his handiwork. It isn't until Marcus looks up, brows climbing in silent question that Esca realises he has been staring too long.
~ ⌘ ~
The mark is well made. Esca's arm aches and he knows it will scab and itch just as before, but already he can tell Marcus has stayed true to the design Esca scratched into the clay tablet. He claps Marcus on the shoulder.
"Thank you, Marcus, it is exactly as it should be," he says, catching Marcus' eye, the friendly grip on his shoulder compelling and heavy. Esca ought to remove his hand but does not, lets it linger and slide up to cup the back of Marcus' neck instead, fitting his palm and fingers around it in a firm, gentle grip.
Esca gives Marcus' neck a little squeeze, the bottom of his stomach dropping out.
Marcus’ neck feels hot to the touch as he ducks his head. The moment breaks with a small, awkward laugh Esca feels all the way down in his clenching belly.
~ ⌘ ~
They are not drunk, but the air in the house seems to have been burnished with that fuzzy glow that comes with time stolen from the real world and poured into a cup of wine.
Esca smiles to himself. It has been a good evening, He has his new mark and Marcus sits beside him with their shoulders touching. They have eaten and laughed together and everything is well with his world. Now if only Marcus would relax.
"There is something I would ask you," Marcus says, suddenly.
Esca turns to look at him but Marcus is staring at his hands, tensing until he appears hard enough to snap. He won't meet Esca's eyes.
Esca nods at him to keep going, struck by his seriousness.
"Is there a rule to say that someone not of the Brigantes may not have such a mark?"
"Oh! No," Esca says. "Many clans wear inked marks such as these and it has never—"
"What about someone not of the tribes at all?"
Esca tilts his head. Marcus is red as a beet.
“Our journey, you said. You and—”
“Marcus,” Esca says, eyes wide. “Would you like me to—”
“Yes,” Marcus near whispers, his eyes lighting up, and Esca would do anything, give him anything; he has always been powerless against Marcus’ quiet, unrelenting brand of enthusiasm for things a Roman ought not want.
“I will, Marcus. I will give you the mark of our brotherhood if you wish it,” and then, when Marcus’ face brightens and he begins at once to hike up the cuff of his sleeve, “but not like mine, not on your arm.”
The seriousness is back, the same familiar furrow welling up on Marcus’ brow. “And why not?”
Esca gentles his voice with reason. “Not where your Roman friends or our neighbours can see it and judge you. Not where you will feel people staring. I do not want you to suffer for it.”
Marcus nods and there is a grim, unhappy slant to his mouth but he understands, Esca can see that he does as he releases his sleeve and simply peels his tunic up over his head instead.
Esca looks, of course he does, and Marcus does too, gazing down at himself. He is leaner now than he was when they first set off together on their quest. Their new life has given them no respite from work, and Marcus’ body has been shaped by it, pared down to hard, corded definition rather than the bulk of a retired soldier, softened with easy living. He rubs at his chest, callused fingers pressing into the muscle, so innocent of how it looks, how strongly Esca is affected by his beauty.
Marcus reaches for the same wet cloth they used to clean Esca’s arm before applying the mark to it, and Esca is only a flesh and blood man; he swallows thickly and looks away while Marcus cleans himself of the day’s toil, ribbons of water sluicing down the ridges of his body, gods.
“Where would you like me to ink it?” Esca mutters, looking everywhere except—
“Right here,” Marcus says, touching his breast, two fingers left of his sternum.
Esca looks up at that and meets Marcus’ eyes, warmth blossoming from the roots of him right out to his fingertips, thoughts brought to mind of markers set to guard over treasure.
~ ⌘ ~
He starts slow, the same as Marcus began - unpracticed, worried about causing pain. His own marks were given to him over a decade ago and though he has borne witness to his tribesmen being inked, this is his first time as much as it is Marcus’.
They’ve resettled themselves on Marcus’ cot against the wall so that Marcus may lean back on the bedding, support his bad leg and give Esca a better angle to work on. Esca tries not to see the long stretch of him, brown skin and thick muscle over long limbs splayed out, but it’s like looking up into a cloudless sky and trying to not see the sun.
“People of the tribes would see this mark and recognise it,” he says into the quiet of the room to help himself focus. Thoughts air easily between them as they always do, even as Esca’s hand becomes more adept at the repetitive motion: prick the skin, dip the needle, stuff the pinprick with ink. “My people would have welcomed you like family.”
“It would have been an honour,” Marcus says, a look tinged with knowing sadness passing between them before he drops his eyes, both of them aware it would never have happened that way.
There are simple things to be grateful for: Esca’s heart is glad where he thought to never feel this kind of kinship again, Marcus’ eyes are warm hazel with such trust in them. The care and affection between he and Esca would not have been possible had they not each suffered great losses. Esca is grateful even for that.
Marcus stretches out and quiets and Esca loses himself in his task. When it is almost complete and Marcus is still silent, Esca looks up from his work to find his eyes closed, his lip wedged between his teeth and a quiver to his breath.
“Are you well, Marcus?”
Marcus eyes slit open but he says nothing. Esca’s heart begins to pound.
He looks down to where the mark is near complete but for a few more turns, ink smeared across Marcus’ breast by the heel of Esca’s hand. He wipes at it with fingers dipped into water, stomach clenching up at the sweep of hot skin, Marcus’ flat, brown nipples tightening from Esca’s light touch.
Marcus’ mouth falls open even as his eyes screw tightly shut. His hands are fisted and Esca looks him over; where his braccae pull tight over his lap, Marcus is undeniably aroused.
Suddenly all the wine seems to have gone to Esca’s head, blood roaring past his ears and a thread winding tight and pulling at his navel from the inside, making his stomach flip.
“Oh, Marcus.” He cannot tear his eyes away from Marcus’ tanned belly tightening with each breath, the arrow of his hips glistening with sweat.
“Esca, I am so sorry,” Marcus is distressed, holding still for the needle but looking as though he wishes he could sink through the floor and disappear. This will not do. Desire prickles at the base of his spine and loosens his tongue; things he would never ever say otherwise come tumbling from his mouth.
“With my tribe, among my shieldbrothers, there were ways of showing affection and trust,” Esca says, wondering even as the words leave him, if Marcus also feels the precipice they’re standing on. “They are not your ways, Marcus, but you have already trusted me with so much, haven’t you.”
Marcus has done more than trust him, he has put his life in Esca’s hands again and again. Even now he gives up so much in staking out this life together in the low country: he could have stayed with old Aquila and lived easy in the bosom of his family, he could have taken a wife. Why hasn’t he taken a—
Something dawns for Esca, warmth flaring sweetly around his heart.
Oh, he has been blind.
“Will you let me show you how it could be with us? How it might have been if we’d been raised together, become men together, gotten our marks side by side?”
He’s so close now, bent over Marcus and whispering low against his cheek, watching Marcus’ brows draw together in an expression that borders on hurting, aching. His eyes are heavy lidded and glittering through the slits, but he's listening, doting on Esca's every word.
“Will you let me give that to you?”
Marcus nods, breathing his answer against Esca’s cheek, and it’s so easy then, just a tilt of the chin, a nudge of noses against each other and Esca leans in, presses their lips together and seals Marcus’ yes inside a kiss.
Soft, it’s so soft, Marcus shuddering beneath him, breathing not at all as Esca tastes here, and here. Marcus’ mouth opens and he lets Esca catch his lip and then release it, only to capture it again. Esca hooks his lip with the tip of his tongue and Marcus whimpers, breath suddenly coming fast. He does not know how to kiss a man like a lover, eyes screwed shut and mouth lax for Esca to take, to show Marcus how.
It excites Esca all the more.
He fits their mouths together properly and shows Marcus what it means to be tasted like this, a kiss that is just like fucking, hot and deep and with a rhythm all its own. Esca’s lips tingle when they come apart, Marcus looks tender and bruised, awe in his eyes.
Bold now, Esca clasps Marcus’ neck between his hands and traces his jaw with his thumbs. He nudges Marcus’ face up to kiss his throat, lick at the dip between his clavicles until Marcus is panting and he has worked up a sheen over his skin and Esca is hard and heavy between his legs.
Esca kisses his way back to Marcus’ mouth and gives him but a little room, just enough to ask, “Are you well, is this—” before Marcus tangles a hand in Esca’s scruff of hair and brings their mouths together again, and then they’re kissing, really kissing. Marcus groans from deep in his chest and follows Esca’s lead with real passion, with need.
His kisses are not practiced and their teeth meet too often but it has been a lifetime since Esca was held so tightly and with such earnest wanting. Marcus’ fingers dig into him with a bruising intensity that curls hotly at the base of Esca’s spine and licks at his balls, drawing them up tight as a curled fist.
Esca’s whole body is alight. Marcus wants him.
“Will you let me give you this, too?” He traces his knuckles down over Marcus’ chest and belly, dipping the tips of his trembling fingers beneath Marcus’ waistband.
“Yes, Esca, I— yes,” Marcus says, but there is uncertainty etched in the set of his mouth, a silent plea in his eyes. He does not know. He wants Esca, his whole body is singing under Esca’s touch but he does not know how and he is so beautiful in his trust that it makes Esca want to cry with happiness and with love for him.
“I will take good care of you,” Esca says, feeling that same earnestness echo from within him. “I will love you like my shieldbrother and the joy of my heart, for you are both.”
Marcus shudders beneath him and tracks Esca kissing his way down Marcus’ body, stopping to lick circles around a nipple before sealing his mouth over it for a suck, fondling the other so as not to disturb the ink-stained mark newly etched above it. Marcus hides his face in his arm until all Esca can see is the shine on his lip when he wets it and the gleam of his eyes in the shadows, watching.
Untying the laces of Marcus’ braccae with one hand while nibbling Marcus’ nipple proves difficult no matter the delicious sounds it coaxes out of him, so Esca sits back and straddles Marcus’ thighs, taking a moment to admire him, flushed and glassy-eyed, panting for it.
He’s something out of a vision, colour blooming high on his cheeks, embarrassed at Esca’s appraisal. He is the least vain person Esca has ever known and Esca wants him with an intensity that surprises even himself.
He watches Marcus’ face as he unwraps him with slow deliberation though both of them are vibrating with need. Esca lives for this sweet delay, but still, he holds Marcus’ gaze while he lowers himself to kiss him again, to peck sweetly at his mouth and to part it with his tongue even as he finally slides his hand inside Marcus’ braccae.
“There you are,” he whispers into the curl of Marcus’ ear, holding him in the palm of his hand, and it is good, so good to feel Marcus like this, silky and hot for him, hard as rocks. Esca buries his moan in the crook of Marcus’ neck.
Marcus gasps like a wounded man when Esca begins to stroke, then cycles from bewildered, to alarmed, to hopeful within the space of a moment as Esca scoots down until his face is close to where his hand is working Marcus.
“Peace, Marcus,” Esca says, and licks the dusky head of his cock until Marcus falls back to the bed with a pained moan.
Marcus’s whole body shudders and folds when Esca takes him in his mouth. He whimpers, still so restrained when Esca toys with him, nibbling and licking at him, but sinks his fingers into Esca’s hair and clutches on for dear life when his cock is sucked in earnest. It is a thing happily remembered, to feel that stretch and ache, that sweet, heady power. Esca loves it.
Marcus shouts when he comes, surprised, wounded sounds startled out of him.
Gently, Esca releases him from his mouth and rests his forehead on Marcus’ scarred thigh.
He has but a moment to wonder if they have made a terrible mistake pushing Marcus so far past his Roman sensibilities before Marcus grabs at his shoulder, hefts him up with a grip under his arms, pulling Esca up into a tight embrace.
“Esca,” he says, nuzzling at his face, at his throat. “My Esca. You cannot know how I love you, you cannot know,” repeating this mantra while Esca can only think oh, but I can, I do know.
His heart feels too large for his chest, crowding thickly into his throat.
He knows it the moment Marcus notices Esca’s erection jabbing into his hip. Marcus stills, mashing his face into Esca’s neck and slipping a hand between them to feel it, to get his fingers around it, pressing in with the heel of his palm. Esca bucks helplessly into Marcus’ hand.
Marcus braces his back against the wall and shoulders him, nudges at him until they have maneuvered themselves so that Esca’s back is to Marcus’ chest. He tries to sit forward a little so as not to put pressure on Marcus’ chest with its brand new marks, but Marcus will have none of it, pulling Esca’s body to him harder, tighter.
Marcus rucks up Esca’s tunic,, braces one arm across his body to hold him in place and touches him like he must have his hands on Esca everywhere and all at the same time, rough and callused fingers making his skin sing, making his body roll.
Marcus is impatient, pushing Esca’s braccae down to get at all of him properly, both of them gasping when Marcus takes him in hand.
“You can show me more, Esca, you can show me everything but for now will this suffice?”
Gods. “Yes, oh yes,” he says, pushing into the channel of Marcus’ fist.
Marcus’ breath is warm on Esca’s neck. He grips Esca with the same sure certainly Esca has come to expect from anything Marcus sets his heart on. Esca smiles, blissed on the thought that he may be such a thing.
“I have thought of you like this,” Marcus whispers into his ear as though he is reading Esca’s mind, and Esca could come from riding the wave of those feelings if only Marcus did not slow his strokes to teasing.
“Do you think of me?” He says, and Esca can only grunt and nod, clasping his hands over Marcus’ and pressing his shoulders into the solid warmth that is Marcus at his back.
Marcus nuzzles at his cheek, strokes a little faster and Esca turns to seal their mouths together until it’s too much, until he cannot even kiss anymore, only feel.
It is well that the wet cleaning cloth is still within reach.
~ ⌘ ~
It takes days to get the blue out of their bedding, Marcus‘ shoulders flexing as he kneels by the river, dappled sunlight on his broad back.
It takes near two weeks for their marks to scab over and heal. Marcus’ mark is covered by his tunic during the day but this does not stop Esca from knowing how it lies on his breast, and what it means.
Esca does not know how long it will take to taste the fruits of their labour but each time he returns home from a trip into town, the winding road reveals their land little by little until he can see their house: the marker over all of Esca's heart.
~ Fin ~