For Esca, it is simple. He decided on Marcus north of the wall, the first decision he has made as a free man since he was seventeen years old. He does not think he will come to regret it. What they do now, where they go, be it farming in Etruria or the Downs country or adventures in Egypt--those are only the details.
When he says so, Marcus’ face breaks into an expression of unguarded joy.
“Egypt will still be there after we have brought in a harvest or two,” continues Esca. “It is in my heart to live quietly for a time.”
“I can have no complaints with that,” Marcus says with a grin. He talks of how it will be, their land, with lovingly tended fields and a house they have built with their own hands.
“And a stable for the horses,” Esca says. “I would like to have a chariot team again, and breeding stock, in time.”
It will be hard, Esca knows, especially at first, but neither of them is afraid of that. In the weeks that follow, waiting for official word from Rome, he lets his mind wander to their future, to bright days spent in the field at Marcus’ side and tired evenings at the fireside with Cub drowsing at their feet, and, eventually, his little herd of horses grazing the slopes of their home.
A smallholding is little enough for Rome to grant for Marcus’ service in lieu of a military command, and when word comes it is with a small sum of sesterces to make their start. It is small indeed, but Marcus is canny and careful, and there is a tiny portion left over after all the arrangements are made, which he gives to Esca.
“Towards the purchase of your breeding stock,” he says. “Little enough now, but a few good harvests and it will grow.”
Esca tries to thank him, but Marcus cuts him off. “As well to thank your right hand for putting a gift into the left. I would have none of this if not for you.” That is not what the documents from Rome say, but Esca knows that it is Marcus’ truth.
They leave for the Downs as soon as the nights are warm enough for them not to freeze while they build their first shelter. At first, it hardly seems real. Esca half expects that it has all been a mistake, and someone will ride out of the mist to order them off of this land, but no one comes. Slowly it sinks in that the ground beneath their sandals, and everything they will build upon it, belongs to them.
“It is hard to imagine there will be a villa here,” Marcus murmurs beside him.
“But first there will be wattle and daub huts and empty fields,” Esca reminds him. “Your villa is still some time away.”
“Our villa,” Marcus says, and grins at him.
Part of Marcus’ preparations have included finding able-bodied men from the village to help them in these early days, when everything is an urgent priority. He cannot afford to pay them all in coin and so they find themselves already indebted, but there is no helping it, for they must have a place to sleep and the fields must be plowed.
“It does no good to push yourself too hard,” Esca warns, the first day they spend breaking the fields. “That leg will be reminding you of our adventure for a while to come.” Marcus grits his teeth and ignores him. It galls him to be in their neighbours’ debt, and he will not be seen working any less than one of them. Esca knows that nothing he can say will move that stubborn pride now.
After the evening meal, he kneels by Marcus’ rough stool, his hand on the tight muscles of his bad thigh. “Lie down, and let me massage it. You will be useless tomorrow, else.” The hut where they sleep is small and rough, but there is a proper bed, a gift from Marcus’ uncle.
“It is not for you to act as my body slave,” Marcus says stiffly.
Esca pokes him in the belly. “But it is for me to act as your friend. Now off with your braccae and lie down.”
Marcus grumbles, but obeys. Esca brings his full weight to bear, working up and down the knotted muscle, and Marcus’ breath hisses sharply between his teeth. Cub whines and pushes his nose into the curve of Marcus’ neck.
Gradually the knots ease, and with them Marcus’ breathing, until he is near to drowsing under Esca’s hands. He makes a pleased noise deep in his throat, one familiar to Esca, for he has heard it sometimes when Marcus thinks that he is asleep. It is the sound Marcus makes in the moment just when he takes himself in hand.
Esca would be lying if he said he did not like to hear Marcus make that sound at his hands, but it is not in him to want to embarrass his friend, as he would if Marcus rouses enough to be aware of himself. So he goes noiselessly to his own pallet and spits into his hand and tries not to think of Marcus.
The stone walls around the fields rise slowly, and within them the wheat and hay. The goslings in the goose pen have lost their down and grown into gangly, ugly adolescents. It does not take them long to learn how to hiss and menace Marcus, just like their parents. The horses and goats have a proper byre now, and there is a steady growing supply of timber and brick and tile for the construction of a farmhouse, with a hypocaust and bath.
Esca’s untidy little garden yields peas and cucumber and herbs. He and Cub go often into the Weald on the hunt and bring back roe deer and partridge to trade in the village for labour and necessities. The work is still hard, but there is a little time now to breathe, time for Esca and Marcus to go fishing, stripped to their subligacula in the stream. The fish are not biting, and Esca laughs in Marcus' face when he suggests that Esca should try tickling the trout to catch them instead. They soon abandon their efforts, and Esca floats on his back, kicking in lazy circles in the shallows.
Marcus grins down at him as he floats by, his hair wafting in the current. It is getting long now, in the manner of his people. The water makes the blue lines of his tattoos slick and bright, and Marcus reaches out to trace the ones over his shoulders, and Esca shivers. Marcus cuts his eyes away and paddles to the bank, sprawling out in the warm grass. Esca floats for a while longer, before joining him, side by side, their arms barely brushing. The clouds overhead look to him like a squirrel, and he points it out to Marcus, who laughs. They see a pig, an eagle, and a cow before it is time to return and tend the animals before supper.
By the time the sun is setting, the pale skin of Esca’s legs and lower back, usually covered by braccae, shows pink and hot to the touch, right up to the edges of his subligaculum. It makes him wince when he crouches by the fire to eat, and Marcus laughs at him, not unkindly. Esca eats his dinner standing up, and before they go to bed, Marcus brings cuttings of aloe vera from the garden and helps him to salve the sunburn.
Even with the salve, his skin is tender, and he tosses and turns and cannot get to sleep. Eventually, he takes a blanket and goes out into the field, where he can lie restless without disturbing Marcus.
He is barely settled when footsteps approach, and Marcus says softly , “It is too quiet without your snoring.”
“I do not snore,” Esca huffs, trying not to laugh, and makes room for Marcus on his blanket. “Cub, you will have to sleep on the grass, there is no room for you here thanks to your master’s bulk.” Marcus flicks his ear, and Esca smiles. Cub sighs reproachfully, and curls up at their feet.
Esca wakes in the night to Marcus whimpering in his sleep, as he has been mostly too tired to do since they came south. Exhaustion is a good cure for nightmares.
Marcus tosses his head and whines again, and Esca says, “Hush, all is well.” Marcus gropes blindly for him, and Esca gives him his hand, squeezing tight. “Shhh, now. I will keep you safe.” Marcus must believe him, for he sleeps peacefully the rest of the night, his hand clutching Esca's through til morning.
As the harvest approaches, Marcus finds more and more to fret over. When he begins to get dark hollows under his eyes from spending more of the night worrying than sleeping, Esca has had enough.
“Move over,” he says that night, standing by Marcus’ bed. Marcus obeys, only thinking to ask why after Esca has already climbed into the blankets.
“Because you are keeping me awake with your thinking.” Esca punches the pillow a few times and pulls his leg away from Marcus’ cold feet. “Stop that!” He knows what he would like to do, here in Marcus’ bed, surrounded by the smell of him, but he wants Marcus to stop fretting, not send him away in a fury.
Marcus chuckles and rolls so that he is facing Esca. "If you are going to invade my bed, then the price of being a footwarmer is one you'll have to pay."
"If you could be trusted to go to sleep of your own accord, then I would not have to invade your bed," Esca retorts. "Now be quiet and sleep."
Marcus pretends to grumble, but tips his head towards Esca's on the pillow and closes his eyes. Before very long, his breathing has settled out deep and even, and Esca congratulates himself on a job well done.
His satisfaction is short-lived, for even though their farm is very small, bringing in the harvest is a long, laborious endeavour. They can ill-afford to hire many hands to help, and though Marcus pushes himself to his limits and beyond, there is no denying that his lame leg holds him back from doing the same share of work as Esca. This puts him in a bitter mood, and he is short with Esca whenever the latter encourages him to rest or take a lighter load on himself.
"The grain harvest does not care that my leg is lame," Marcus grits, when Esca tries again to persuade him to rest. "And neither will we, should we find ourselves hungry in the spring because of my weakness."
"Then spend the coin to bring another man to help gather it in," Esca retorts. "You can work as hard as you like, but no manner of will can undo the damage of that wound. I would never scorn you for your lameness, but your misplaced pride is another matter."
Marcus grits his teeth. "You would scorn me for my pride?"
Esca softens a little. "No, Marcus. But it pains me to see you suffer so, for no benefit. If you will not do it for your own sake, will you do it to ease my mind?"
"I like being managed even less than I like being unable to shoulder my own share of the work," Marcus grumbles, but the stubborn set of his jaw has eased, and Esca knows he has won this battle. "Very well. Tomorrow, we shall have another pair of hands bringing in the harvest."
"Thank you," Esca says simply and turns over to go to sleep. If he wakes tucked into the curve of Marcus' body in the night, and chooses not to return to his own bed, it is only because he does not want to wake Marcus from his hard-won rest.
Their days shorten quickly after the harvest, and though there is never a shortage of work, there is leisure in the winter, short snowy days spent huddled around the fire, working at small necessary tasks of the farm, the mending there is no time for in other seasons. They sleep early and rise late, and Esca's bed sees little use, for their tiny hut is drafty and it makes the most sense to lie together under Marcus' blankets, as they did north of the wall, with the dog draped across their feet for extra warmth. Unlike those days, Esca does not resent their closeness. On the contrary, he has to put forth especial effort not to seek to deepen it, and it is lucky that Marcus is only grateful for his warmth when they wake up intertwined, Esca's body betraying his orders in sleep.
They proceed that way until the Saturnalia, which Marcus requires they celebrate for the full three days, as though they were a proper Roman household. There is much drinking and merriment and visiting their neighbours' more luxurious holdings, and Esca is pleased to see the lines in Marcus' face soften a little.
That softness lingers still on the last evening of the festival, when they have returned home from a final party, weighted down with rich food and heady wine. Marcus slings an arm around Esca's shoulders and smiles drunkenly into his face.
"We should celebrate your people's solstice too," he slurs, and Esca feels a warm rush of affection for him that requires he push him away immediately, before he can do something he will regret.
"It is much the same," he says. "Drinking and singing and feasting. But our music and poetry are better."
Marcus makes an affronted face, and Esca cannot help but laugh out loud. "I appreciate that you have thought of me," he says. "We can light a Yule log and I will recite some British poetry for you, but I think we have both had as much food and drink as we can stand."
Marcus nods happily and leans on Esca until they are safe in their own little hut, warm before the fire. Perhaps Esca should push him away again, but Marcus is smiling so sweetly at him and leaning against him so warmly that he cannot bring himself to do it. They have no proper Yule log to light, but they can make do. Marcus seems suitably impressed, regardless.
"I was promised poetry," he murmurs when they are settled.
Perhaps, with fewer cups of wine in him, Esca would have chosen something with more battles and fewer amorous declarations, but he has already started before giving it much thought and it is too late now to change. His cheeks are flushed, but that is only the wine. The same must be true for Marcus, watching Esca with rapt attention and two spots of colour high on his olive cheeks.
Esca trails off at the end of the poem, rather undignified and out of keeping with the tone of the thing, but he is distracted by Marcus' unsteady sway, bringing their faces close enough that Esca can count the lashes of his eyes.
"Marcus?" He cannot seem to put much power behind his voice, barely more than a whisper.
"Esca, you--I--" His breath is warm and wine-soaked against Esca's own lips, and it takes barely any action to press their lips together. Esca is not even entirely sure which of them crossed the last remaining distance, in the end.
"Was that a kiss?" Marcus murmurs nonsensically, and Esca cannot help but smile.
"If you would have it be."
Marcus nods decisively. "I would. And this one as well." He is more straightforward this time, and Esca welcomes it gladly, though there is a frightened curl in his belly at the thought of having this only to lose it again.
"Will there still be kisses tomorrow, when your wine is more watered?" he cannot help but ask.
"Tomorrow, and the day after, for as many days as you like," Marcus says, smiling shyly, and Esca chooses to believe him.