Each winter Aquila feels a little colder, and this year is the worst. It sinks into his bones, like frost flowering on the tender exposed stems of the goldenbrush outside. Then his thoughts turn to Egypt, to Judaea, to the devouring heat and the relentless sun, and Aquila dreams a little of it, fumbles his fingers through Procyon's fur. The great hound rests his head on his knee as though to keep his master here. The days stretch long and cold, and he finds himself missing his nephew a little.
He was never a presence in the house. Of course being inconspicuous was what Marcus had craved, and with every movement was denied, but loud as his steps were, clumsy as his recovering footfalls were, still he left no trace of his passing, no innocent vine bent by his movement. His room is empty now, gathers dust aplenty regardless of Stephanos's attempts to sweep away the passage of time, and Aquila misses the quietness. It makes no sense he acknowledges it to himself, but an old man is allowed his whims, is allowed to miss what the years have taken from him.
Marcus is hale now, he reminds himself. He is whole and happy, and his sword no doubt rusts in his great chest, worth nothing save to hand to his children when the times comes, to tell them that this was the blade that their father had carried on his adventures. In his own chest, there sits his sword and indulging himself, he sinks down on knees that creak and opens it. This work he does himself, his sword gleams ready and fresh as it always has done. Part of the old soldier's impulse he knows, and smiles at his own foolishness. He remembers his own centurion so many many years ago, clouting him round the head with the handle, telling him that only sloppy fools didn't keep their weaponry gleaming, and rubs his head where the old ache echoes still.
When he has finished communing with the past, he closes the chest and leans on it for a second, struggles to lift himself once more from the ground, and when he does, the cold strikes deep again. Now, he does not need to instruct Stephanos to build up the fire, to maintain the heat, and Sassaticca in the kitchen does not stint on bringing him hot drinks. Once- she brings to him like it's precious- there is spiced milk seasoned with a pinch of what she has bought from the man at the market who brings his wares once a year, and when he sips it, it warms him from the tips of old fingers to his ears, and he is no longer in Britain. What bursts on his tongue is the old old flavours of long ago, and he droops his eyes to keep his thoughts from spilling forth. Thanks her for the kindness, and savours the rest of it. That night when he dreams it is of his old friends, and of ancient battles... Regnus with the notched ear, Rufrius, Claudius they gather around him, and he wakes up groping for his sword.
Stephanos plays him at draughts in his chambers these long nights, and he is a deal better than Marcus when he forgets his dignity. Sometimes he allows Aquila to win, and Aquila cannot but appreciate those moments. Men growing old together, he thinks, no such competition now between them, save in small ways. Stephanos bows his greying head and ponders his next move, and Aquila feels great affection for those who remain by his side as the world goes dark.
When spring comes, the cold does not lessen noticeably, has sunk too deep into them all to be so soon cast out. The snowdrops hardily brave the frost, and slowly the garden comes back to life, the old bench where Marcus had sat and surveyed the world feels the tickling fronds of grass again. Now appear their neighbours, Valaria and Kaeso, and Aquila almost wishes the ice back again. Still they bear gifts, Kaeso a skin of wine he assures them comes from Falernia. Valaria brings the warm spiced bread that she hastens to assure him was cooked by her slave and not by herself, and he receives it gratefully, hands it to Sassticca who with the instinct of hospitality has spread the meagre goods of winter's end upon the table for their guests. The purpose of their visit is simple. "It is good to visit old friends," says Kaeso, and Aquila remembers the clang of sword on sword in a practice bout, the stripping of a companion's boot from his wounded foot, how tight you held so the blood didn't spill.
"Old friends," he echoes, not in mockery but in puzzlement.
Valaria explains how they have come to ask for word of Cottia, and beneath her Roman finery, her assumed name and feathers, her eyes are anxious, and Aquila softens with unaccustomed courtesy, lays his fingers on hers as he tells her, he has heard nothing for long months. He will not show his own worry for these strangers to see, though he smiles within himself to think that now between them exists the bond of marriage, however distant removed. He tells them, with perfect truth that he expects word soon, when the frosts have broken entirely, when the world blooms green again, and they must be content with that, and with the last words he'd heard from Marcus before the snows came down. When they are gone, and the spice bread is wrapped in its cloth by Sassticca and secreted away where Procyon cannot ferret it out, he breathes in deeply and says a quiet prayer to the gods, and perhaps a smaller one to the eagle that has now reached its final resting place.
He has not quite given up hope of word when the first cuckoo calls, but the time for action has come. He had known Marcus would not call for help, not even from him, but he was honourable. If he'd told Aquila he would see him before spring had fully come, then he would not break that promise unless he could not keep it. Stephanos holds his horse for him, and there is worry in his dark eyes, but Aquila can not take note of that. The sun's meagre rays warm him a little, as his horse prances a little, the blood of spring racing through its veins, and Aquila pats it in kinship.
He has travelled only a little, perhaps half a days worth, though his bones ache enough for ten, when he sees them, a little tired procession of ponies and people, and then Marcus is there, warm dark eyes alight, his face drawn and thin but beaming, and happier than Aquila has ever seen it, save at the glorious moment he returned. Behind him Cottia shakes back her hood, and copper hair falls around her, and she too smiles, while Esca kneels to subdue Cub who is barking a joyful welcome.
"Did you doubt us Uncle?" Marcus asks.
Aquila breathes in deep and lies only a little. "Not for a second," he says and is richly rewarded by their love.