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Learn to Fly

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Ahead of Marcus on the path, Esca fluttered one wing, exhausted, and Marcus came to a limping halt. It was time to stop running for the night.

The makeshift bandage Esca had fashioned for his leg was soaked through with what Marcus hoped was only water; it was too dark to tell if it was blood, but the slow throb of pain portended nothing good. He curled up into the muddy hillside and shivered, while above him, Esca, just barely on his feet, began to cut his own cloak into strips.

In the darkness and rain he almost couldn't see the shape of Esca's wings, lopsided and awkward, defiled, all the gracefulness gone. Esca's mouth was tight, and as he drew the dagger down through the sodden fabric of his cloak Esca lost his balance entirely and listed to one side, then the other. His wings opened and flared out behind him, balancing, but as his right wing stretched he gave an awful, bitten-off cry, like a dying animal, and quickly mantled.

Does it hurt? Marcus wanted to say. Is it worse?

Stupid, stupid, for he knew the answer. They had almost been away, they had almost been safe, and then the Seal Chieftain had slammed Esca against the cave wall, his wing behind him.

And everyone knew that much about the rare winged-men of Britain: they broke.

Rome had found that out soon enough. Oh, certainly, the winged-men could not be caught once they were in the air, and they had a knack for avoiding even the most skilled archers. On the ground, too, they were fast, nimble, as Esca was. As he had been. But they were hollow-boned like birds, fragile, and if you could manage to get your hands on such men they were easy to ground. Permanently.

Marcus remembered the sickening snap of Esca's wing breaking, the crack echoing through the cave, and he knew he would never forget the sound, as Esca's wing, already injured, broke and broke again.

Esca's ragged wingtips didn't brush the ground. They were broken as well. Clipped. He had cut them himself, before they left, because he had thought-- he had thought Esca would run. Would fly.

He had been an idiot.

"What are you doing?" he asked, finally. There, that was safe enough.

Esca didn't look up. "I have to bind it down," he said. "So it can start to heal. So I don't-- if I keep moving it, even accidentally, it will worsen. It will wound me more. I won't even be able to run. I'll be no good to you. And you can't make it on your own. Not with that leg."

He pictured birds' wings, the easy, open-winged soaring of flocks in flight; he pictured splinted soldiers' arms, battle scars, shattered bone pushed through flesh. "You're going to tie your wing closed?"

Another strip of fabric. Esca still would not meet his eyes.

He knew little of the physician's arts beyond the basics of battlefield aid, but Marcus had to wonder. Something about Esca's plan wasn't right. "There's nothing to set it with, so the bone heals straight. And there's not enough cloth to keep it pinned to your body, just to itself. Will your wing heal properly like that?"

Esca still said nothing.

"It won't, will it?" His throat was raw. "It will heal wrong. You do this, and you'll never fly again--"

"I don't do this, and you'll never live!" snapped Esca, like a lightning strike, like a hawk diving for prey. And then he was shoving wet, muddy cloth into Marcus' hands. "Here. You have to. I can't reach."

It was no worse than he had done once, he found himself thinking, half-delirious, when he had clipped wings, ripped out flight feathers, grounded men who did not want it. He never pinioned them, never, and he remembered when he had thought that had made him a good man. He had even grounded Esca, and yet it was infinitely worse because it was Esca now, and Esca was asking him, and he had to break him--

There was nothing else to be done.

Marcus levered himself to his feet, biting back an obscenity as he tested his weight on his hurt leg again, and then he took the first strip, looping it loosely around Esca's wing. It caught under a feather. "Tell me how tight," he said, his voice terse.

Esca gave an awful laugh, one that transformed halfway through into a pained groan. "Tighter."

Marcus' hands shook, but he did it anyway.

By the time he got to the last strip of cloth, Esca's breathing was shallow, hoarse, and he had said nothing in a long while but whispered commands, hissed through gritted teeth.

"Done," Marcus said, still shaking, disgusted with himself, and he watched the rain run in long rivulets down Esca's back, between his wings.

Before he could think about what he was doing, he had Esca's other wing, his good wing, under his fingertips, and Esca made a quiet noise, a breathy gasp. It was the first thing Marcus had heard from him that wasn't twisted in agony, and selfishly he wanted to hear it again, to make Esca feel something that wasn't pain. He let his fingers trail down the long flight feathers, straightening them, smoothing them out, and Esca shuddered.

"Did no one ever tell you, Marcus," he said, and his voice was laced with something strange, knowing, wanton, "how awfully forward it is to preen another man?"

His face hot, Marcus dropped back, stumbled -- and then Esca turned and grabbed his hand. Esca couldn't hold them both, wounded as he was, and together they sank to the dirt, but Esca still did not let him go.

Somehow, under all the blood and bruises, Esca was smiling. "That didn't mean I wanted you to stop."

Esca extended his good wing and at the same time drew Marcus closer with one arm, enfolding him in an embrace that was half flesh and half feathered. Daring, Marcus reached out to trace the line of one sleek feather. Esca shuddered against him again.

"Good?"

"Good," Esca agreed, his voice a little strangled. "I can keep you warm for the night, and I can be -- oh, mmm, just there, yes -- an entirely different kind of warm. Oh, Marcus, your hands."

"My hands?" he said, innocently, and ran one fingertip over Esca's shoulder, where feathers met skin.

The choked-back noise was definitely a moan. Much better. "Do you know how long it's been since anyone's really-- oh yes--"

He kept touching Esca's wings. Straightening the feathers. Righting them. It was never a thing he had learned to do, for the winged ones; he only knew how to hurt them. But if he was doing it wrong, Esca did not seem to mind; his eyes were half-closed in bliss and there was a smile on his face. The pain of his other wing, Marcus hoped, was crowded out by the pleasure.

From the way Esca draped himself languidly over him, from the soft noises Esca was making as Marcus stroked his feathers, for him the feeling must have been somewhere between truly excellent sex and a luxurious massage at the richest private baths. Maybe both together. The distinction was unimportant; he only wanted Esca to feel pleasure. Any pleasure. If they were to die tomorrow, let them at least feel human again tonight. He could give this to Esca.

Any Esca was right, it was warm. The warmest he'd been in weeks. And it was Esca. Esca hadn't betrayed him. They had lived. They were alive. They were almost home. Almost to the Wall. They only had to get there before the Seal People found them.

"I wanted you to fly," Marcus said, slowly, ashamed of the man he had been. One hand was still spread out on Esca's wing, and Esca leaned into the touch. "I kept you down, and you never flew, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, and now you can't--"

"I might," said Esca. "If we can get home, get to a surgeon soon enough, it might not be too late." And then he kissed Marcus, lightly, lithely, the way he had always done everything. "I might fly again."

Marcus smiled, and let himself believe that for one moment. For just this one moment he let himself believe they would win free, they would take the Eagle south, they would make Esca whole again. "Are you beautiful, in the air? I always thought you would be."

"I will fly for you," Esca said, and his voice rang out proudly, like an oath. "I will fly for you, and you will see."

Esca curled his wing around them both, and Marcus, shielded, protected, gave himself up and kissed Esca again, not thinking of tomorrow. He thought instead of their life after. He thought of the sound of wings.