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By Definition an Unmerited Gift

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Keeping a farm was not, it turned out, particularly different from serving in a legion.

Marcus didn’t know what he’d expected: a sense of pastoral ease, perhaps; a life backlit by lazy sunsets. A sense of idleness. That to occupy himself with the tending of fields and animals would make for a slow, frustrating, unpredictable existence, full of the unexpected pitfalls that would no doubt result from their shared ignorance when it came to life that didn’t involve blood or battle.

The reality of farming, it turned out, was the opposite of what Marcus had predicted in almost every single way.

The Downs were bucolic enough, but establishing the farm was backbreaking, endless toil, sun-up to sundown. There were days during which they barely spoke a word to each other, not out of spite or because of a quarrel but due to a bone-deep weariness that made it easier to clasp a shoulder and eat in silence than to have a conversation.

The unpredictable moments were few and far between. The routine, the discipline required to drive yet another stake into the ground while it rained and rained and rained, the camaraderie of working together for a common good: it was as familiar to Marcus as the heft of his shield, the grip of his gladius.

Luckily for them, perhaps the thing that Marcus could have foreseen least of all was that it somehow turned out that the two of them were good at farming. It took weeks, and at the beginning they’d held up unfamiliar tools to each other as if to say, do you know what to do with this? more times than Marcus would like to admit, but Esca seemed to have an instinct for what to put in the ground, and how, and when. Marcus had a way with the goats.

(It had, needless to say, not been Marcus’ ambition in life to have a way with goats. But he was grateful for it, and the first time he and Esca spread cheese of Marcus’ making onto bread and ate it, Marcus was—without irony, without qualification—proud.)

It turned out that farm life was expansive, somehow; the better they got at it, the more hours they seemed to have in the day, but the more hours that appeared in the day, the more things they realised they had to accomplish before winter. Marcus knew what it meant to deliver large plans with few men, and he knew the pinch of winter, and he also knew that the best thing for succeeding at the first and avoiding the second was discipline.

Discipline had the greatest impact when it was shared among the ranks, which was why, as Marcus had learned the hard way in his time in the legions, leadership mattered as much as it did. It might only be the two of them on their quiet farm with the lopsided tree behind the house, but it would still be best if one of them were in charge.

Esca knew this land better, and though it was fast becoming an old argument, Marcus maintained that between the two of them, Esca was the proudest. It was therefore, Marcus thought, only right that Esca should be the one who decided what they should do with each day.

And so when Esca said, “Marcus, please go to the market and buy a new blade for the scythe,” or “Marcus, please fetch the pail I left in the kitchen,” Marcus did what made the most sense, which was to do as he was asked.

It started that way, at least. At first Marcus did what Esca asked because winter was coming, because Esca had a good sense for the earth. As the days shortened into darkness and there were fewer and fewer things to do outside the house Marcus realised that he had grown not only to expect Esca’s requests, but to like them. There was something satisfying about the unspoken way in which they worked as one, and perhaps something even more satisfying about the way Esca spoke when he pointed Marcus toward something that needed doing.

It’s because a life in the legions has made me hungry for order, Marcus thought to himself, ignoring the shiver that went through him as Esca looked at him with steady, grey eyes. It’s because it gives me pleasure to give Esca power, when he has had precious little of it in his life. It pleases me to remind him every day that he is my equal. It is my duty to do so, as his friend.

Marcus was sharpening their weapons at the kitchen table—there were warrior habits they did not outgrow, despite their best efforts—when Esca came in one night, a winter hare clenched triumphantly in one hand.

He shot Marcus a grin and picked up one of the knives on the table, cleaning the hare efficiently before wiping the blade down carefully.

“These are very sharp,” he said, tapping the flat edge of the blade against Marcus’ wrist as Marcus sharpened another knife by the light of a candle.

Marcus looked up, and when his gaze caught Esca’s Esca did not look away. He put the blade aside gently and then said, “This is a fine job, Marcus. For this one thing, at least, I suppose I must thank Rome for training you well.”

It was a joke, a dig, and yet when Esca’s eyes crinkled up at the corners Marcus felt a strange, hot sensation in his chest. It was like being wounded, Marcus thought—like a very small wound, sharp and bright but not painful.

Oh, he thought, and then, looking at Esca’s teasing face, his easy smile, he thought again: Oh.

“I think this’ll be the last frost,” Esca said, kicking at the ground before looking up at the sky. He ran his fingers along the bark of the beech at the edge of their fields, and then said, “We need to bring up the last of the seeds for planting.”

Marcus nodded, setting the spade aside where he’d been digging at the thawing earth and wiping his hands on his tunic before starting to head back to the house.

“Where are you going, Aquila?” Esca called.

Marcus turned back to him, pointing vaguely at the house. “The seed. You said we needed to bring it up from the cellar.”

“Well, yes,” Esca said. “But not right this moment. I’ll help you do it later.”

“I can do it now,” said Marcus, shrugging.

“We can do it later,” said Esca, firmly.

His tone was odd, curious rather than irritated. He looked at Marcus for a long beat, and then his head cocked ever so slightly to the side. A tiny smirk appeared on his lips, and Marcus would have been annoyed, but then Esca said, softly, “Unless you’d rather do it now?”

Yes, thought Marcus. I would rather, because Esca wasn’t the only one who could decide when to do what. Out loud, he said, “Whatever you wa—whatever you think is best. I have no head for the soil.”

Esca’s gaze was warm, assessing, as he looked at Marcus’ face. “Now will do,” he said. He walked toward Marcus and clapped a hand on his shoulder before saying, “But I will help. There was more left than we thought last year, and you’re getting soft.” He poked at Marcus’ midsection.

Marcus shoved him away in protest, not hard, and Esca stumbled, laughing, but was, as always, too quick on his feet too fall.

This was as familiar to Marcus as the back of his own hands; he and Esca could never get through the day without calling into question the other’s prowess, the other’s strength, the other’s parentage, though the last was always in jest and never skirted too close to things they knew not to say.

As Esca shoved him back, though, Marcus thought that the usual roughhousing felt strangely unfamiliar, like something they hadn’t done before. He worried at the thought, trying to figure out what it was.

It felt different because instead of routine it felt like escape, he realised: like something could have been said right before it, but they’d chosen to ignore it instead.

“Marcus,” Esca said.

He was sitting by the fire, squatting over a basin on the floor and washing his face. One of the cows had birthed a calf, yet another in a long line of farming firsts, and though it had—in Marcus’ inexpert opinion—seemed like a very easy birth, both he and Esca had managed to get themselves filthy from kneeling in the dirt and helping.

“Helping” had mostly consisted of making incredibly panicked faces at each other, but they had looked at each other once as they walked away from the placid cow and her little calf and agreed silently that they had done a decent job, under the circumstances. (Never speak of this again? Esca’s face had said. Never speak of this again, Marcus’ nod had communicated).

They’d been to the baths earlier that week, and they were not yet in a position to afford a visit as often as Marcus would like. Next year, he thought. Next year, when the harvest came in and they could set some aside; next year, when they’d know what to do if another calf came. For now they had settled for scrubbing themselves down viciously with cold water in the too-cool spring air. They had run inside and warmed a little water and Marcus had washed his hands and his face more carefully at the basin they kept in the kitchen. Now Esca was doing the same.

“I have,” Esca said, twisting his arm awkwardly behind him— “There is something on my back that I didn’t manage to get. I don’t even want to know what it is, but could you—”

Esca cupped water in his palm and let it flow back into the basin, and Marcus, understanding, said, “Of course.”

Esca pulled his tunic over his head, and Marcus watched his pale skin in the firelight. At the end of last summer Esca had been tanned golden all over by the sun, having decided to forego his tunic more often than not. Now, in the early spring, his tattoos stood out starkly against the delicate pink of his skin, and Marcus was—staring, and Esca was staring back.

When Esca had been—before they had crossed the Wall, Esca had helped Marcus bathe an endless number of times, propping him up with one strong shoulder while sluicing water over Marcus’ body with the opposite hand. He’d never seemed tired or acted as if something were out of the ordinary: Marcus, even before he had trusted Esca, had appreciated the no-nonsense way in which Esca had dealt with Marcus’ infirmity, never drawing attention to it. As he and Esca watched each other now Marcus wondered if Esca was thinking of the same thing, of a past two lifetimes away in Calleva.

Marcus cleared his throat and reached for the rag they were using to scrub at their faces; he dipped it in the water before moving to stand at Esca’s back, wiping gently at the streak of mud between his shoulder blades.

“How did that even get there?” asked Esca, amused, and Marcus huffed out a breath through his nose, feeling Esca’s voice rumble through his back.

“I think it’s from where you fell over on your arse when the calf showed its face for the first time and you startled like a boy at his first battle,” Marcus said.

“Mmh,” Esca said, languidly. Marcus was, he realised, still wiping gently at his back with the damp cloth. Esca twisted around, a smile on his face and his eyes glinting in the firelight. He didn’t move away from Marcus’ touch. “That was you, Marcus, but I’ll forgive you for not remembering correctly. I know the experience was very traumatic for you.”

Marcus smiled, and the two of them looked at each other until Marcus couldn’t bear the challenge in Esca’s eyes anymore, and slide his gaze away. He looked at Esca’s thoroughly clean back and said, “I think that’s all of it.”

“Thank you,” said Esca. He stepped away, not putting his tunic back on. “I’ll bring in some of the salted fish for dinner, will that do?”

“Yes,” said Marcus. His voice caught uncomfortably on the single syllable, but Esca pretended he hadn’t heard.

This had to stop, thought Marcus, bracing one hand on the tree behind the house and clumsily unlacing his braccae with the other. He didn’t even have to look: three years ago he would have said he’d never be caught dead in Briton clothing, and now the lacings were as familiar to him as anything on the garments he’d worn since childhood.

Esca was still asleep. Marcus had woken up early to the sound of a bird outside his window, and he’d been in the process of stumbling outside for a piss when he’d caught sight of Esca’s discarded tunic, still thrown over the back of a chair in the kitchen.

Marcus always woke up half-hard, and he’d never really outgrown a kind of boyish enthusiasm when it came to sex: it only took a look or a thought to get him hard, usually, and he’d made peace with that long ago. His eagerness should have been embarrassing, maybe, but he’d grown to accept it over the years. To like it, even.

There was eagerness, though, and then there was getting hard over a tunic, over the sudden memory of Esca’s skin in the firelight.

Marcus fisted his cock, giving himself a few strokes to spread wetness from the tip of his dick down the shaft. He groaned quietly, already aware it wasn’t going to take long. He thought of Esca’s broad shoulders and narrow waist, of the capable strength of his hands. Then, less explicably, he thought of the softness of Esca’s grin first thing in the morning, of his dislike of rising early and the rumpled creases by his eyes as he was first waking up.

“Marcus?” Esca called, and Marcus could hear him clattering around the kitchen.

Oh shit, Marcus thought, and came.

The hens were laying well this year, so Esca sent Marcus to the market to see if they couldn’t get some early vegetables in exchange for some eggs.

It had been a long winter and spring of turnips and parsnips, and if Esca, who was normally the more frugal between the two of them, was willing to trade eggs for someone else’s spring greens, Marcus wasn’t going to complain.

There had been a strange look in Esca’s eyes when he’d handed Marcus the basket of eggs—measuring, with the slightest hint of uncertainty underneath. It was almost hidden by the challenging tilt of Esca’s chin that Marcus knew so well, but not quite.

No one who knew Marcus would have described him as someone who was particularly adept when it came to reading others, but he knew Esca, and he knew them, and even Marcus couldn’t miss the charged, prickly thing between them.

Marcus could barely interpret the tangled mess of his own feelings, let alone guess at Esca’s, but he did know this: if Esca liked telling Marcus what to do, then Marcus liked it too.

People—Marcus—had spent far too long telling Esca what to do and when to do it, and Marcus would do whatever it took to ensure that was never the case again. To ensure that Esca understood, as deep in his bones as Marcus did, that Marcus saw him as an equal, that Marcus could think of no man for the sake of whose happiness Marcus would rather submit.

Marcus had spent two years looking at Esca, following the line of his jaw with his eyes and trying not to let his gaze catch on the pink curve of his mouth or the sweet dip between his collarbones. That was nothing new. That Esca had begun to look as if he were looking back, that was new. But if Esca had found that he liked looking, then Marcus liked it too. And if it happened that Esca might want to take Marcus to bed and tell him what to do while they were both spread out against the furs, then Marcus would go, and happily.

“Fetch more logs for the fire,” Esca said, and then, “The chicken coop needs cleaning,” and, “The second plough should be moved across the field so the water doesn’t collect where it’s been sitting, but I can’t spare the ox.”

They were all logical requests, and Marcus would have thought nothing of them, as Esca called them out as he milked the cow and set their meal to cook and yanked the ox along the new land they were tilling behind the house. But Esca seemed strangely angry about it, furious by the time Marcus finished dragging the plough behind him and setting it against the fencepost and walked, sweating, towards Esca to ask, “What else?”

That night they barely spoke over the stew Esca had made. They were both tired, but it was more than that: as their spoons scraped across the pottery that Uncle Aquila had given them the tension was so thick Marcus felt it like a palpable weight across his shoulders.

“Why—” Esca’s voice sounded as angry as he had looked all day, and Marcus set his shoulders for a fight. Esca’s eyes slid to the tight curl of Marcus’ hand around his spoon, and suddenly his own shoulders dropped, his face softening into something cautious, uncertain. “You never complain,” he said. “When I ask anything of you.”

“You never complained,” Marcus replied, simply, knowing Esca would know what he meant.

It was clearly the wrong thing to say. Esca picked up his spoon again and finished eating without another word, and Marcus, knowing what he could say differently—I don’t complain because I like it. I would never complain, because I love you—but too cowardly to say it, didn’t break the silence.

Marcus woke up too early again, the grey of the pre-dawn light filtering through the window. He made his way to the kitchen, prodding gingerly at one shoulder where it was twinging from the previous day’s work. Maybe Esca was right and Marcus really was getting soft.

He stoked the fire and set water to boil. He listened carefully. The house was silent, no tell-tale creaking of the stone and wood as Esca fumbled his way out of bed, always unhappy to face the morning.

Marcus watched as the tiniest bubbles slowly formed in the pot. He glanced at the doorway one more time and cocked his ear; when he heard nothing, he dropped his hand to his lap, palming idly at his dick and thinking that if he were quick and quiet about it, surely Esca would not wake up before Marcus finished.

He had barely curled his fingers around himself when Esca appeared in the doorway, silent as a ghost.

Marcus restrained the urge to yelp, too surprised to pull his hand away from his cock, perhaps hoping that Esca had not seen.

Esca dropped his eyes very deliberately to where Marcus’ dick strained against his braccae, where Marcus’ knuckles were outlined against the tan-coloured cloth.

“Don’t,” he said. Nothing else.

Marcus slowly pulled his hand from his braccae. He was dripping; the tip of his cock was clearly visible, and as Esca and Marcus watched a damp spot spread outward from where Marcus had moved his hand.

The two of them were quiet in the pale morning light. Marcus was breathing heavily; he thought Esca was, too, but he couldn’t hear over the rush of blood in his own ears.

“When—” he said finally. He realised he had no idea how he was going to finish the question. When had Esca woken up? When had Esca appeared in the corridor? When—Marcus abruptly knew this was what he meant to ask—could Marcus touch himself?

“Tonight,” Esca said, picking out Marcus’ question before Marcus could. “Tonight, when we are done in the fields.” And then, what Marcus had not known or allowed himself to expect: “When we are done, wash and come to my bed.”

Marcus was too confused to spend the day aroused, but too aroused to let his confusion get in the way of a series of exhilarating, terrifying moments in which he would remember the look in Esca’s eyes that morning. More than once Marcus grew hard in his braccae before he remembered his uncertainty and a gnawing ball of nerves settled low in his stomach again.

By the time the sun dropped behind the trees in the neighbouring farm Marcus was a mess: there was a thin sheen of sweat at his nape, and a tremor in his leg that hadn’t been there since well before crossing the Wall.

Esca watched him with dark, amused eyes, grey fading into dark blue as Marcus stood in their kitchen and unlaced his sandals before drawing his tunic over his head and his braccae down over his hips. Esca looked slightly surprised as Marcus undressed: Marcus had not expected to do it, either, but it had all of a sudden seemed less nerve-wracking to get it over with than it did to wonder how to start.

Esca recovered quickly, drawing the basin over to where Marcus was standing. When Marcus reached for the cloth Esca stopped him with a gentle hand on Marcus’ wrist, his thumb flicking over the place where the skin was thinnest. Marcus shivered, unable to stop it, and Esca looked at him from under his eyelashes, smiling with what looked more like pleasure than amusement.

Esca dipped the cloth in the water, wringing it once before raising it to Marcus’ shoulder. A stream of cool water ran down Marcus’ back, and he shivered again.

“Stay still,” Esca said, and Marcus would have been baffled at his calm if it hadn’t been for the slight catch in his voice and the almost imperceptible tremble of his fingers against Marcus’ skin.

Marcus stood still.

Esca washed him carefully. He drew the cloth along Marcus’ arms and between his fingers; he knelt with his usual grace to wipe at the back of Marcus’ knees. He lingered over Marcus’ scars, fingers careful and sure as they pressed at where the tension would gather throughout the day, every day. Marcus let out half a groan, already knowing what Esca would say—Stay quiet—but then Esca said, “Don’t. I want to hear.”

Marcus breathed in deeply, shuddering air into his lungs. When Esca wiped carefully at Marcus’ inner thighs, at the skin behind Marcus’ balls, a high, greedy whine escaped Marcus’ throat before he could stop it.

“Good,” said Esca, looking up at Marcus with that same pleased smile on his face, and Marcus tried to stop his legs from trembling.

Esca only seemed satisfied after he had cleaned every inch of Marcus: they had been to the baths two days earlier, so Marcus was forced to conclude, despite the tug in his chest telling him that it couldn’t possibly be, that Esca was doing it mostly for pleasure. Esca gently pushed Marcus’ limbs where he wanted them to go, and Marcus closed his eyes as Esca sluiced the cool water over him, and let his fingers trail into Esca’s hair when Esca dropped his mouth to follow a trickle of water up Marcus’ chest and into the soft skin behind Marcus’ ear.

“Please,” Marcus said, glancing at the doorway that led to the bedrooms but not entirely sure what he was asking for.

“Shh,” said Esca, following Marcus’ gaze. “In a moment.”

He ran his hands up Marcus’ shoulders, stepping in close and standing on tip-toes to brush his lips against Marcus’ jaw, Marcus ear. Marcus felt the rasp of Esca’s tunic and braccae and realised Esca was still fully dressed; he was about to say something, but then Esca placed a hand on Marcus’ cheek and turned Marcus’ face to look at him. Once Marcus’ gaze was on his Esca raised himself up on his toes again and placed his mouth very softly, very gently, against Marcus’ own.

Marcus felt the air rush out of his lungs as Esca kissed him, not as Marcus had expected, with the playful demand with which he had washed Marcus or the angry determination with which he had asked after the plough, but questioningly, tenderly. It was, Marcus realised, almost unbearably tender, a soft slide of lips that turned wet and hungry when Esca opened his mouth.

Marcus’ fingers twitched with the urge to curl around Esca’s back, under his arse, to lift him up against Marcus and press them together chest to chest. But Esca had said not to move, so Marcus kept his arms by his sides and let Esca kiss him, endless and deep.

“Come on,” Esca said finally, taking Marcus’ hand and pulling him toward the doorway, and Marcus followed in a graceless tangle of limbs that had Esca turning around to grin at him.

Esca led Marcus into his bedroom and pushed him toward the bed, the muscles in his arms standing out as he pressed Marcus where he wanted him. Marcus let Esca grasp his wrists and arrange them to his satisfaction above Marcus’ head, crossing them before pressing them down gently into the bed with one warm palm: keep those there.

Marcus nodded and watched with hungry eyes as Esca pulled his own clothing off, with a haste that was gratifying to watch. They had seen each other naked so many times that Marcus wouldn’t have thought Esca’s body could surprise him, but it did—there was the familiar dark pink of his nipples, but also a soft trail of hair between them that Marcus had never really noticed; there was the well known wicked tilt of Esca’s mouth, and the unfamiliar swipe of his tongue across his bottom lip. There were the oddly high arches of his feet, and the dark ink along his thigh that Marcus had seen before, but never identified as a bird-like swirl across the inside of Esca’s leg.

“Will you please come here,” Marcus said, gasping, and Esca blinked slowly at him, still fucking smiling, and padded toward the bed.

He gave Marcus no warning, just dropped to his knees on the tile and took Marcus into his mouth, and Marcus keened, lifting his hips off the bed and just barely managing to keep his shoulders and wrists where they were.

Marcus was big, but if it bothered Esca, he didn’t show it. He drew back to mouth at the tip of Marcus’ cock, gentle fingers dropping to Marcus’ balls, and hummed with no small amount of pleasure as he drew his lips tightly down Marcus’ cock again.

“Fuck,” said Marcus, shuddering, and Esca moved his hands to grip at the juncture of Marcus’ thighs and his hips, holding Marcus down.

Marcus looked up at the ceiling—the ceiling below the roof they still needed to repair after the winter; there was the barest hint of night sky between the thatch—and held his arms where they were and tried not to come before Esca even got started.

Esca hadn’t said he could.

Marcus let the pleasure of it wash over him in long, languorous waves, a warm flush spreading from his chest all the way down to where his toes were curling against the floor. Esca sucked Marcus as deeply as he could and encouraged Marcus’ moans with deliberate, warm strokes of his thumbs against Marcus’ hips.

When Esca pulled his mouth off Marcus with a wet sound, Marcus turned to look at him dazedly and said, “Can I— will you?” and Esca, knowing what he meant, went to rummage in the cabinet he kept by the wall and returned bearing a small pot of oil.

Marcus spread his legs lewdly, watching with an utter lack of shame as his cock rose between them, but Esca tsked, curling his hand around one of Marcus’ knees and urging Marcus further up the bed.

“Wha—” Marcus could barely get words out as it was, and then Esca was drawing an oil-slick hand down Marcus cock, straddling Marcus on the bed and reaching behind himself to—to stretch himself open, and Marcus swallowed around the sudden desert dryness of his throat and looked up at Esca with eyes that probably said too much.

Esca hadn’t stopped grinning since the kitchen, as if the flummoxed, stupid look on Marcus’ face couldn’t have pleased him more. He leaned forward, pressing his lips to Marcus before lifting his hips, holding himself over Marcus with a teasing, wicked look in his eyes.

“I want to hold your hips as you do it,” Marcus got out in an unexpected rush.

Esca braced himself over Marcus, considering, and eventually said. “Yes. No moving them.” Then, when Marcus slid his fingers over Esca’s slim hips, he said, “Tighter.”

Marcus pressed his thumbs into Esca’s soft skin and held absolutely still as Esca lowered himself onto Marcus’ cock, closing his eyes and wincing slightly as he went.

“Your huge cock seems an unnecessarily unfair advantage from the gods,” said Esca, opening his eyes to look at Marcus.

He lifted one hand from Marcus’ shoulder and ran it gently down Marcus’ cheek, and Marcus looked at his impossibly beautiful face, at the golden scruff across his jaw, at the perfect vee of his hips in the cradle of Marcus’ hands, and thought, Me?

Esca set a desperate, hard pace the minute he had all of Marcus’ cock inside him, and Marcus tried to get enough air into his lungs and retain some minuscule measure of dignity as he moaned like he’d never fucked anyone before in his life.

Esca leaned down to kiss him and Marcus licked into his mouth, trying to put every gram of the raw, blown-apart feeling in his chest into the kiss.

“You—” said Esca, panting, putting a hand on Marcus’ chest to get Marcus’ attention back on him before sliding his hand down Marcus’ stomach to curl around his own cock.

Marcus wished he could say he had the self-discipline not to come at the sight of Esca’s pleasure-flushed face, at the line of his neck as he threw his head back and worked his hand on his cock, but he didn’t. Thankfully, Esca tightened his hand on his cock and stroked faster as he felt Marcus start to come inside him, and he bounced on Marcus’ cock once, twice, and came all over Marcus’ chest and stomach with a groan.

Esca dropped forward onto Marcus’ chest, and Marcus tightened his grip on Esca’s hips as Esca lifted himself off Marcus’ cock with a wince and a wry twist of his lips. Marcus let one of his hands drift to the crease of Esca’s arse: he felt his own come slowly dripping out of Esca, and shuddered hard as Esca dropped his weight completely onto Marcus’ chest.

They lay there, breathing hard in a sweaty tangle of limbs, until Esca lifted his head, propping his chin on his hand and gazing at Marcus with an inscrutable expression on his face.

“I what?” asked Marcus as they looked at each other, suddenly remembering Esca’s cut-off gasped you as Marcus had watched him touch himself.

Esca was quiet for a long moment, searching Marcus’ gaze for something in the dim light of the fire, filtering in weakly through the doorway from the kitchen.

“You never complain,” Esca said, finally. “When I ask anything of you.”

It was Marcus’ turn to be quiet. He saw the almost hidden uncertainty in Esca’s eyes, and found he couldn’t bear it: whatever Esca said in return, whatever Esca felt, Marcus could only tell him the truth.

“Because I like it,” he said, spread open in front of Esca without a single secret between them and liking that, too. “Because I love you.”

Esca’s face creased into the best smile yet, and he said, “That’s awfully convenient, as it happens.”

“Fuck you, ‘convenient’,” said Marcus, feeling the surest he’d ever felt of what Esca was about to say, relishing the easy back-and-forth of what was between them, already hungry for the next time Esca made it so Marcus had to do as Esca said.

Esca’s grin turned soft around the edges, and he lifted Marcus’ chin with two fingers, gentle, gentle, and put his lips to Marcus’.

“It’s only, I like it just as much,” said Esca, mischievous with what he wasn’t saying. Marcus waited, and Esca leaned down to kiss him again, whispered against his lips. “And I love you, too.”