Rain pelted over their little shelter from the storm. Droplets evaded the branches hanging over Esca, soaking through his tunic. He watched Marcus devour the skinned rat, his prior trepidation over the raw flesh long gone. Picking at the grass, Esca stared off into the foggy night, grimacing against the light drizzle hitting his face. He ought to enter the cave, but he was restless, eyes skittering about in anticipation of a grey figure emerging out of the fog. Though they were safe for the evening, their lack of fire granting them cover in the dark, Esca mistook every whistle of wind for the painted warriors’ cries and hollers, the hounds’ howls.
“Here,” said Marcus, passing the rat to him. “I can’t possibly eat anymore.”
Startled, Esca jolted. He flicked a look at Marcus and the rat. He smirked. “Come on. I saw you just now. You’re starved. Eat up.”
Marcus shook his head, eyes gleaming. “I insist.”
Esca didn’t feel much in the business of denying Marcus, not after he saw the shock and longing in Marcus’s eyes when Esca awakened him after the Seal People’s ceremony.
Marcus shook the rat, smiling.
Esca took it, stomach warming as Marcus’s smile softened. “Fine,” he muttered, then bit into the rat, scowling at the vile taste of it. Marcus was watching him, his smile still there, yet he was tense, disguising his shudders against the rain.
Esca swallowed down the rat, tossing the leftovers aside, and dipped his hands into a mud-colored puddles, washing off the blood and bits of meat into the freezing cold water. He wished he could just as easily wash up the distress rising up in him at Marcus’s ill health, but it lingered in his soul.
Marcus followed suit with washing his hands, crouching out into the rain and finding himself a puddle. He flinched from the cold, briskly washing and splashing water onto the grass. He wiped his hands dry on his braccae only for raindrops to soak him elsewhere on his weary body.
Esca rubbed his hands dry then crawled toward Marcus, pressing a hand to his chest. Marcus peered up, confusion written across his strong features.
Esca tipped his chin toward the small cave behind Marcus. “It’s not going to get any warmer. You go in first. I’ll shelter you from the rain.” Marcus hesitated, expression as small and shuddered as when he’d been presented with the rat. Esca nudged him. “It’s not like I can sleep out in the rain. Unless you want me to get sick?”
Marcus frowned. “No, we can’t have that.”
Esca pushed again, and Marcus surrendered.
Their shelter from the storm and the painted warriors was too small to be a cave, yet its expanse stretched far enough into the earth for it to warrant the moniker. Its dome ceiling curled high, shadows casting its true height into question. Mysteriously, Marcus let Esca guide him with a press on his chest far into the little cave, farther than necessary, and collapsed onto his back when Esca gave a little shove. They lay side-by-side, shoulders touching, and listened to the pitter patter of rain.
Then Marcus convulsed, teeth clattering. Esca turned on his side, peering at a shivering Marcus. In Esca’s clan, the solution for times like this had been simple: They were to hold each other, let Esca’s warmth seep into Marcus and ease his body back to a manageable temperature. Yet he didn’t know if Romans believed that to be sacrilege, and when they teetered on a fragile line from their journey beyond the wall, the last thing Esca aspired to do was frighten Marcus.
He laid his palm flat on Marcus’s neck, shocked at how cold he was, and smiled sadly at Marcus’s groan. “I could warm you,” said Esca.
Marcus closed his eyes, nodding. “I wanted to ask, but didn’t know how.”
Esca’s lip quirked. “Did you not want to frighten me?”
Marcus frowned. “Yes.”
“Well, neither of us are frightened, and you’re still cold.”
Marcus turned to his side, facing Esca, and Esca scooted toward him. Their limbs became tangled, legs hooked over legs, arms wrapped over and under and pulling the other close. They rested their foreheads together, breathing from their mouths, noses tingling at the hot air which only didn’t freeze because of the cocoon of warmth they’d cultivated between them.
Glancing, Esca clicked his tongue, teasing Marcus for the glimpse of joy on his face. “What?”
Marcus shook his head. “I’m imagining my old Centurion’s face, the one I’d had before coming to Britain. He called me a fool for volunteering to join the legion here. If he knew I was holding a Briton so close we’d be mistaken for lovers, I think he’d fall over.”
Esca massaging his back, chasing out the cold as much as he could. He imagined Marcus out in the grueling heat, unmarred by chronic pain. The first bout of happiness he’d ever glimpsed in Marcus had been as Marcus chased down the wild boar during their first hunt. It humbled Esca to imagine him in fighting shape, even if he had to discard the reasons for his stronger body aside. He thought over Marcus’s words again, and smirked.
“Is this how lovers hold each other in Rome?” he said wickedly. “I thought Romans weren’t prudes?”
Marcus laughed, hot puffs of air on Esca’s cheeks, only to be combatted by an organic heat arising from Esca’s very veins. “You’re redacting a substantial amount from what I said.”
“But you don’t deny it.”
Marcus grew silent. “We could act more Roman, if you’d like. It’d help warm me up faster, too.”
Esca forced himself not to laugh. “All right, then. Show me.”
“All right, then.”
Marcus tugged on their tangled legs, pulling and guiding Esca over him until he occupied to a comfortable position over his chest. Soon Esca was sprawled over him, their feet hooked together, his forearms beside Marcus’s ribcage while Marcus held him close and secure with arms hugging his back. Esca’s neck strained to keep his head upright, yet he was close to Marcus, their breaths still hot on their cheeks, noses touching. He could count the amber flecks in Marcus’s green eyes, having never noticed them before.
Esca shook his head. “It’s still prudish.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“Your Roman sensibilities might not like it.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
Esca shrugged. “I warned you,” he said, then kissed him.
The heat they exchanged now was entirely different. While their lips were cold, once their tongues met shyly, mouths opening with trepidation, the warmth inside their bodies was not only visceral but it bled into Esca’s heart. Marcus’s fingers curled, bunching up Esca’s tunic, and he knew that Marcus had felt it, too.
He relaxed his muscles, one by one, and waited for Marcus to utter a noise of protest at the weight. He shouldered every pound, and Esca figured that he might. Despite a year out of the army, his physicality still resembled a strong man keenly. He lent his weight to him, limbs finding cold notches, and they fitted together better than before.
They broke away, panting in cold air and expelling heat.
Esca grimaced. “It’s still a bit prudish, for Brigantes standards. I didn’t want to frighten you, but...”
Marcus pinched him. “Esca,” he said lowly, smiling.
His stomach spun, warmed there too, and kissed him again.