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The problem, Marcus knows, is that the two of them don't make any sense. People simply don't know what to think about him and Esca.

If you stopped someone in the street, in any city of the empire, and asked them why men free their slaves, you would at most only come up with three good reasons. Marcus is acutely aware of this as he plods down such a street in Calleva. He ticks the reasons off on his fingers as he avoids the puddles in the road.

One: You are rewarding your slave who has served you faithfully for years upon years with his well-deserved freedom. People understand this. Of course, your newly-freed scribe comes back the next day and takes down your letters as neatly as ever, except that you pay him a little, help him when he needs food or more money, and call him "client" instead of "slave." He now wears the Pileus with pride.

Two: Your slave has fallen in love -- say, with the baker's daughter who lives across the road -- and the two wish to marry. Because you are a benevolent master, you free him. The pair, starry-eyed, come to you overflowing with gratitude, and you are pleased to have brought more happiness to the world.

Three: You are perhaps a more lecherous master than the other two, but in your own way you are doing a kindness. Not content with merely sampling the charms of your beautiful slave-girl for free, you release her so that you yourself can marry her.

But none of those reasons are the truth. Not for them. Marcus counts out the true one, folding his thumb through his closed fingers, a half-hearted attempt at the old obscene gesture, the one that wards off the Evil Eye. A fig to everyone who doesn't understand him and Esca, he thinks, proud and defiant.

Four: You are shaking and half-drowned, your life flowing out of you in the cold current of a strange river. You are clinging to the Eagle, like your father before you, and like him you fear you will die with it. You must free your slave that he might leave you to bring aid, to send word, else he would never abandon your side. He vowed it when you met, and you believed him with all your heart. And then he returns, and you were right to trust him all this time.

No one on a city street would ever guess Four, not even if you were to ask a thousand men in a thousand cities. But all of Calleva saw him ride off with Esca The Slave and return, triumphant and blooded, with Esca The Freedman. Explanations must be made. Events must make sense. People look at the manumission and they try to fit it into their notions of how things should happen, their ways of thinking of it. And for them there are only three ways.

Idea One is, of course, discarded immediately by most; though Esca has served him more faithfully and valiantly than those sneering make-weight senators could ever know, he has not served him long enough for that kind of manumission to seem remotely plausible. Oh, one may free a slave who has performed a single great act for you no matter their years of service, or one who saved your life, as Esca has many times over, but these heartless men cannot believe any Celt would do such a thing for a Roman. So they would not believe that. Two is unlikely, as anyone who knows Esca knows -- and many of the folk in the town are acquainted with him. They know that there is no woman Esca wishes to marry. That leaves Three.

And it can't be Three, Marcus thinks. It cannot. Of course it cannot. Esca is not a woman and he cannot marry Esca and no one in their right mind would entertain that idea at all. It wouldn't even enter their heads. Though, of course, he acknowledges with an inward sigh, if Esca were a woman it would be the first thing everyone would think.

The circumstances are unusual, but there is nothing to be done for it. Things happened the way they happened, and if that means no one understands why he freed Esca, then so be it.

With Marcus so lost in his thoughts, his walk has taken him on the long road back out of the town proper, up to his uncle's villa, where he is still staying. Where Esca is still staying, too. He has been taking care of the horses, because Marcus had to give his new client something to do. Marcus pays him far more than the task is worth, out of a foolish sense of fondness. Perhaps it will make Esca stay with him.

It has only been a month since their arrival, and so the news and the rumors are still spreading. Marcus is uneasily aware that events are still in flux. Just as no one knows what to make of their recent past, he does not know what to make of the future. Will Esca stay and fit himself into the space of a proper Roman client? Will he fly north alone, as a wild animal given freedom? Marcus does not know.

He comes into the atrium, finally, to see his uncle stretched out by the impluvium, in the very part of the room where the best afternoon light is. His uncle squints at the tablet he has been reading, then folds it up and shifts to sitting when he sees Marcus.

"Ah, Marcus," his uncle says. "Good, you're back already. When you're done with Esca for the afternoon, let him know I want to see him about the horses. My bay was favoring her right foreleg this morning."

Marcus frowns, confused. What can he mean by when you're done with Esca? Marcus hasn't been planning to see him; or at least, certainly not immediately. Not with the kind of assumption of urgency the statement would seem to imply. Something about this feels very strange indeed.

"Uncle, I'm sorry," he ventures, slowly, still not sure what is best to say, "but I don't know where Esca is. I had not intended to see him for the rest of today."

He already saw Esca in the morning, of course, as is traditional; his new and only client came to pay his respects, albeit without the hat. (He had suggested it the very first day. Esca just glared.) This morning they traded some inane remarks about the state of the farm; Marcus doesn't even remember it all now. Oh, and they agreed they would hunt boar together after the next market-day.

No, he thinks, reviewing this morning's conversation in his mind, that all seems reasonable. Perfectly normal. He certainly did not promise to follow Esca about his daily business, like some dog sniffing for scraps. What can Uncle be thinking?

But his uncle leans forward to look at him more closely. His eyebrows draw together as he observes Marcus' features diligently, looking for some sign of... what? What?

"A thousand pardons, my boy," Aquila says, and his face softens in... sympathy? "I had no idea you and Esca were quarreling. Perhaps after he has made it up to you, then?"

Nothing about this conversation is making any sense. Marcus tries again. "Uncle, we are not quarreling. I merely do not understand why you expect I should be seeing him at this minute. He is only my client, no longer my slave; he has his own work to think of."

Now it is his uncle's turn to look confused. "Only your client?"

"Yes," Marcus repeats. "My client." Oh, he counts Esca as a friend, too -- at least, he would like to -- but that relationship does not explain his uncle's questions. He has met his uncle's friends, after all, and he is certain that Aquila does not expect them to attend him at every minute of the day.

Some kind of realization dawns on his uncle's face. Good, Marcus thinks. Whatever was annoying him, at least he's figured out there's no reason I should be seeing Esca right now.

And then Aquila speaks. "You mean you're still not fucking him, Marcus?"

The bottom drops out of Marcus' stomach and suddenly everything and nothing makes sense. He can't speak. He can't think. His mind seizes blindly onto anything resembling order, and so he retreats into the lines of verse every schoolchild knows. Under his breath he sings the beginning of arma virumque cano until he gets to tantaene animis caelestibus irae and forgets the next line. Appropriate, as he can't figure out what he's done to anger the gods, either.

What seems like ages later, Marcus finally takes a deep breath, then another, and as calmly as he can manage, replies, "No, Uncle, I'm not fucking Esca."

"Oh," his uncle says, very quietly.

Marcus gives silent thanks that that is all the man has to say. I will sacrifice the best calf I can find to Jupiter if he will just be quiet right now, if I can go away and pretend this never happened. I give so that you give, O father of the gods, please, I pray to you--

But his uncle opens his mouth again. "Ah, so he's fucking you? I know some folk wouldn't approve of that sort of thing, what with him being your client, but as long as the two of you are happy together, I think it's none of my business which of you does what to the other." And he smiles like he's doing Marcus a favor.

Marcus can't decide whether he wants to laugh, or cry, or cover his face and run out of the room. They all sound like very good options. But he is a good Roman, a decorated centurion, and so he stands his ground.

"No," he says, and somehow manages to get the rest of the sentence out without collapsing completely. "Esca's not fucking me either."

"But--"

He can't stand it. He interrupts his uncle. "No one's fucking anyone, Uncle," he forces out through clenched teeth. "There is no fucking. None. Of any sort."

His uncle just looks completely perplexed now. "Marcus, by Pollux, why do you think I bought him for you? He was the cheapest slave at the slave-dealer, he was a failure of a gladiator, and he had no listed skills whatsoever. Incompetent at daily household tasks, they told me. I could have bought another Greek, someone lettered and knowledgeable. I bought you the boy because you liked him."

"I did-- I do like Esca," Marcus manages. "But I didn't-- we didn't-- we aren't--"

"So I thought," Aquila continues, "that maybe it was another one of those strange ideas you'd gotten about treating him as your equal, like how you insisted on bringing him north with you, some crazy idea that you wouldn't fuck him while he was your slave. Not that I understand that. But you've come back now, and you've even freed him, and he's not in your bed? He's not a woman, Marcus. You didn't need to free him to marry him. You can just fuck him anyway."

It's Three. His uncle, who before today Marcus would have said was a perfectly rational, reasonable man, believes that the third reason is why he freed Esca. This is not his life. He must be dreaming this. Two fine calves for you, O Jove, please, I promise, please help me.

Marcus still stands there, frozen in horror, and can only watch as his uncle keeps talking.

"You're not spending coin on the whores in town, are you? They're a filthy lot. You wouldn't want to fall ill from one of their diseases."

Marcus opens his mouth -- he has some idea of how to answer that, at least, because he isn't visiting the brothels either -- but the noise that comes out sounds like he's choking and it is then, finally, that his uncle seems to notice the expression on his face.

"I am sorry to have bothered you," Aquila tells him. "I suppose, then, well, if you happen to see your freedman--"

"I'll pass on your message if I do," Marcus assures him, turning as quickly as he can to head out of the house, into the fields where no one can see his face.


He breaks into a run as he leaves, and he comes upon Esca, as some part of him knew he might, in one of the fields behind the stables. He is too far away to call to yet, but Marcus knows it is him from the familiar shape of him, the way he is walking. He is working with one of the colts, the black one, breaking him to saddle. It is a slow process; Esca has not even dared to ride the animal yet, but merely has the saddle on his back, leading him back and forth, accustoming him to the weight and burden.

It is like how Rome conquers a people, Marcus thinks, and wonders how Esca can bear to do this for them. For him.

He has come closer now, and Esca looks up and smiles at him, a clear and beautiful smile that makes something within Marcus shiver and twist. It is not that Esca is not beautiful, for he is, and it is certainly not that Marcus does not find him attractive -- he has lain in his bed with his hands on himself and Esca's name on his lips more than a few times -- but it is a subject he cannot broach with the man. It is not right. It would still be using him, taking him, degrading him, even though Esca is free now. Especially though Esca is free now; it is farther for Esca to fall. And as much as he wants Esca, he does not want Esca to be less than himself, to be lowered.

"Marcus!"

He cannot tell Esca what his uncle thinks. He cannot. Marcus forces a smile. "This is what you've been doing all day?"

"Yes, as I told you I would be, remember?" Esca frowns a little, and Marcus finally does remember; Esca mentioned the colt this morning. "Why, did you have need of me somewhere else?"

In my bed, Marcus thinks, of course; given the way the day has gone, the reply is only too obvious. He bites his lip. "No, no, you may carry on."

"Oh, I think we are done for the day," Esca says, giving the colt a heavy pat on the neck in praise, murmuring something to him in British. "It will take a while, but he has been very good so far."

"That is good," Marcus replies, dully. "My uncle will be glad to hear of it."

And Esca grabs the lead-rope and walks closer, close enough now to really see Marcus, and he begins to look concerned. "Marcus, are you all right?"

"Fine, fine," he tells him, and he turns with Esca and they begin the trek back to the stables. "I just-- how is it that you can bear to do this?" His voice comes out of him, not curious as he had thought, but almost angry.

"Do what?" Esca sounds confused now, too. It is a day for confusion. "Work with horses? I like horses."

"No." Marcus waves his arm, dismissing the idea. "Not that. I mean everything. You told me that your father was chief of the Brigantes. You are known to the tribes, respected by them. Here you are only a freedman, working in my uncle's stables. I know you have no love for Rome, and that your people would surely think less of you for staying here when you could return to them. How can you bear it? Why have you not--?"

He cuts off the rest of the question, realizing just before the words escape his mouth what he was about to say: why have you not left me? He is afraid. He does not want Esca to leave him, not now, not ever. And so he does not say it, as if saying it will plant the seed of the idea in Esca's mind and he will wake one morning to find him gone.

Esca is silent for a long while, until they have reached the stable, empty except for the horses. None but the two of them are there. He is silent even when they have removed the colt's tack, put him in his stall, and begun currying him. Marcus grabs a comb and begins working the other side of the horse, for the sake of something, anything to do.

"When I was captured, when I was sold," Esca begins, not looking at him, "all I could feel was hatred for Rome. My hatred kept me alive. When I was beaten, when I was insulted, all I could think about was that I must live to avenge the dead." Esca looks up at him now, his face unreadable. "But anger burns fast, and a man cannot survive on it for long. And in its place I learned-- I learned not to care what people think of me. I cared about nothing, not even my life; it is why I was ready to die in the arena. And if I am hated for being a slave, what is it to me? It does not change who I am. I decided long ago that if I were ever to be freed, I would do as I alone wished, not what others would say I should do, and I would not feel shame for it. So, as I said, I am here because--"

"--you like horses, as you said," Marcus finishes for him. It is an absurd idea on the face of it, not enough of a reason for Esca to abandon his upbringing, certainly. The Britons, after all, have their own horses. Even if Roman stock is of course better.

"There is that," Esca says. "And where else would I go? My family are dead; my tribe, scattered. I have no wish to live with strangers only because we speak the same language; I would lie awake in terror every night hoping they would never learn it was I who stole the Eagle, because after that my life would be short indeed. The only person now living whom I like enough to stay with is you, Marcus, and I am already here. I made my choice long before you freed me. I like you more than I hate Rome. Surely you must have figured out I am still here because I like you?"

Esca raises his eyebrows to go with the question and Marcus can feel himself, embarrassingly enough, starting to blush. Esca likes him. Esca likes him. Esca's words twist themselves up with his uncle's words, and even worse, with the fantasy he was imagining for himself the other night, his favorite one, the one where he is driving hard into Esca's body beneath him, the one where Esca is clinging to him and whispering yes, like that, harder, oh, I love how you feel inside me and begging for more--

Trying to avoid his wonderful, awful thoughts, Marcus leaps backwards and slams hard into the side of the stall; the colt, skittish, throws his head back but thankfully does not try to strike either of them.

"Shh, shh," Esca says to the colt, who quiets down soon enough, and then he edges carefully around the stall to the other side of him, where Marcus is still pressed against the wall.

He can't breathe. He can't think. How is he going to get out of this?

"What did I say?" Esca reaches out as if to comfort him, as if he intends to touch his hand.

But touching him is the last thing Marcus should do, and so he jerks away. "Esca--"

There is hurt in Esca's eyes now. Esca's beautiful, beautiful eyes. "What did I do, Marcus?" he asks. "Is this not a thing Romans say to each other, that they like people? I thought I knew what was acceptable. I am so sorry. I didn't mean to upset you--"

"You said nothing wrong," Marcus says, quickly. "It is not you, it is only because of a talk I had--" by Hercules, now he will have to explain it all-- "with Uncle, just now. It was... uncomfortable, and your words put me in mind of it."

Esca tilts his head to one side, curious. "What did he say, then?"

Marcus takes a deep breath. "He was under the impression that I had freed you for... licentious purposes. As a man might free a slave-girl and marry her, so they could love as equals and be right in the eyes of men and the gods. But it is all nonsense, of course; you are not a girl, so these things cannot happen."

He dares a glance at Esca's reaction; Esca, oddly, looks completely unfazed. As if nothing about that statement is in any way bothersome.

"So, in Rome," Esca asks, and his voice is inquisitive and thoughtful, and at the same time somehow sad, "men do not do that sort of thing? Men do not love men, or marry them?"

The first conversation was bad enough. To have this, on the same day? Having to explain to the one he loves in secret why he cannot, must not love him? This is torture. The gods surely must hate Marcus now. What has he done? What can he possibly have done to deserve this? A suovetaurilia for you, he thinks desperately, in the direction of Mars, trying another god this time, but if the god hears his most extravagant offering there is no sign.

"No," Marcus says, trying as hard as he can to calm his voice, so Esca will not notice the tremor in it. "They do not. Men may fuck slaves, yes, but that is a different thing. Men do not love free men, and of course they cannot marry them." How in the world can Esca have missed this? He is usually so careful to notice the workings of the world around him.

"Oh," Esca says. He is silent for a while, as if pondering something. "That is not what I was given to understand."

He has to ask. He probably shouldn't ask, but a part of Marcus wants to know, insists he should know, how Esca might have come to believe this outrageous thing. Was someone playing a trick on him, lying to him? How could Esca have fallen for it?

"What were you given to understand, then?" Marcus asks. "And how did you come by it?"

"I had heard there was an emperor of yours, some time ago, who loved a man," Esca says. "I heard he married the man, and that the emperor was even dressed as the bride in one of your ceremonies, that he was given away to him as a bride is. I heard their marriage was celebrated throughout the empire, with great rejoicing." He cocks his head, quizzically. "This isn't true?"

Marcus cannot help the sigh that escapes from him. What can he tell Esca about that? That it was a long time ago? That Nero is said to have done a great many things, and no one now knows whether even half of them were true? That even if he did he was a cruel man and not a model for the way any Roman should behave?

"We should not strive to do anything Nero has done," he says, finally, and watches as Esca's face falls. Why, he wonders, should this make Esca so sad?

A thought seems to occur to Esca, then, one he rallies himself about, because his face suddenly brightens. "What about the last emperor?"

"The divine Hadrian?" Marcus asks, surprised. "What about him?"

"He loved Antinous, did he not?"

Oh, this conversation will be the death of him. Marcus has to point out the obvious. "Antinous was only a slave. It is as I said, it is all right to do with slaves--"

Esca tilts his chin up in defiance. "He was not only a slave, as you say, and it is clear that your Hadrian--"

"Divine Hadrian," Marcus corrects him, reflexively.

"He is not my god." Esca glares at him. "Anyway, it is clear that he loved him as one loves an equal. Even now I am passed coins with Antinous' face on them. There is a statue of him in town still. And I hear in Egypt they worship him as a god, because the emperor asked them to. You do not do that for a slave who is only a warm body to penetrate."

Marcus admits, grudgingly, that Esca may have a point. "But," he maintains, "emperors are not like ordinary men, Esca. People dare not disapprove of what they do. It's different--" he stops, and chokes off the last, damning word. For us. Esca must not know. Esca must not learn what he wants.

But Esca knows. Esca always knows. The gods are probably laughing at him right now.

"So," Esca concludes, and his face is sad but somehow his eyes are burning, an angry flame, "for men like the two of us, because I am free now, we could not? Even if we wanted? You would say, no, Rome would disapprove? And we could have done this very thing before you freed me, and all would understand? This is what you are telling me? Well, then, I must say, I would that you had never freed me."

Marcus has forgotten how to breathe. The realization hits him, too late, that Esca was most likely believing such improbable things about love between men because he must have desperately wanted it to be true. The world has disappeared, and it is only him and Esca. Esca likes him. Esca wants him as much as he wants Esca. They can. They can. They can't.

"It would be... improper... for me to take you to my bed," Marcus says, hating himself, hating the words that are coming out of his mouth, even hating his damned honor for making him be the man who would say this. "It would lessen you, Esca, and I would not want to shame you further. You have endured enough in your life that you should not have to be a centurion's bed-warmer. It would not be right."

Esca grabs his hand and squeezes, hard enough to hurt. His voice is louder now, and probably the only thing keeping him from yelling is that he doesn't want to frighten the horses. "Marcus, you honorable idiot, have you not heard a single word I've been saying? Nothing you can do will shame me, and certainly not that. It would not shame me to love you. I do love you."

He cannot look at Esca. He wrests his hand away, closes his eyes, tries to breathe, tries to force sense into the world.

But Esca presses on, relentless. "And if what you have told me is true, your uncle has practically given us his blessing. Marcus, please." He feels a touch on his face. Esca's hand.

Marcus opens his eyes, and Esca is looking at him and smiling and smiling, so gently, like he thinks Marcus is another of his skittish yearlings, one who would bolt unless treated with the utmost kindness.

"I want to know," Esca whispers, "what you want. Not what you think you should want. Not what Rome tells you to want. Just you. Do you want me?"

Marcus can only nod at him, mouth gone dry. They stare at each other and Marcus scrapes together a few words, the ones he's always wanted to say. "Yes. I want you. Very, very much."

Esca's smile is brilliant, like the light of the sun blazing on him. "Good."

And suddenly they are kissing and kissing and Esca's mouth is sweet like honeyed wine, better by far than all his imaginings because it is real. He pushes Esca back against the wall and Esca melts against him and they begin to sink to the floor--

"Not here," Esca hisses, pulling his mouth away. "I love you, Marcus, but I would rather not be trampled to death when that colt spooks--"

His mind is already too lust-fogged to make much sense of the words. "Where, then? Make it nearby."

"The stall across the way there is empty and clean," Esca says, quickly; clearly he has the same intentions in mind. "If you don't mind it."

"Perfect," Marcus says, and as Esca smiles triumphantly at him they rise and make their way out.

He watches Esca fasten the stall door behind him and then, shortly thereafter, try to unfasten the door of the second stall; Esca's hands shake a little and he fumbles with the latch.

"Sorry," Esca mutters, sounding sheepish, though he doesn't look sorry at all. "I find I am... distracted."

Marcus steps up behind him, wrapping his arms around Esca, and breathes in his ear. "Oh, whatever by?" he asks, and he bites Esca lightly on the back of the neck.

Esca shudders ecstatically in his arms. Marcus can feel the trembling spread down Esca's spine, as Esca moans and then grinds against him, hips pushing backwards, forcing glorious friction against Marcus as they slide together.

"Do that again," Esca breathes out, and it is every one of his fantasies come to life. "Please."

"I'll do that and more," Marcus promises, "as soon as you get that door open. Or," he adds, daringly, "I could just take you right here, if you like. You're already bent over for me. I could push your tunic up right now." He slides his fingers along the hemline in illustration.

Esca makes an astoundingly arousing whimpering sort of noise, and the door finally swings open, letting the two of them tumble in onto the straw.

Esca is under him, arching up against him, and they are kissing and kissing and both of them trying to get all their clothing off at once, a frustrating tangle of tunics and belts separating him from Esca. Then they manage it, and Esca is pressing up against him, warm and alive, skin to skin. Marcus rubs himself up against Esca's hip, growing harder, and he could come like this, just like this.

"Fuck me," Esca whispers in his ear. "Please, Marcus, I have wanted this so much--"

He wriggles under Marcus and rolls over. Marcus sits back, admiring the long pale line of Esca's spine, down to the curve of his ass, and he feels himself stiffen even more, just looking at him. So beautiful and all his, and Esca has given himself to him willingly. This does not lower him. He has said.

Esca turns his head and looks at him, eyes wide and insistent. "How much do you need me to beg? Please. Do this to me."

Marcus runs his hand along Esca's buttocks, and Esca shudders and writhes as he traces a finger down and not quite in. "Is there oil somewhere about?"

Esca's hips hitch back against his fingers; he's already trying to fuck himself and the sight of it is incredibly, unbelievably arousing. "Ah--" Esca breathes out, and the rest of what he was saying comes out staggered. "Somewhere, yes-- for working the leather-- but if you go anywhere right now, even as far as to get the oil, I will hate you forever."

Marcus chuckles and slides his other hand under Esca, running his fingertips along Esca's cock to watch Esca thrust back and forth, suspended between his hands. "I thought you said you loved me."

"Ah, but I am fickle," Esca pants out, halfway between breath and laughter. His eyes are huge and dark, unfocused already.

Marcus feels like the smile on his face will never disappear. "Liar. You're the most loyal man I've ever known."

"Come on," Esca says, impatient, and he shoves his hips back so hard that one of Marcus' fingers slides in involuntarily. "Fuck me already. You won't hurt me, even without oil. I have spent all this month preparing myself every night for you, putting my fingers in me, fucking myself and thinking all the while of you, wishing it were you--"

Marcus draws a sharp breath and tries as hard as he can not to come just from Esca telling him that, from picturing Esca in that very position.

"Oh, you like that thought?" Esca's smile turns daring. "You'll like it even better when you do it. Come on, come on, now please--"

So Marcus sits back a little and spits on his hand, rubbing the wetness all over his already-slick cock and hoping it will be enough, as Esca rises up to his hands and knees. He moves behind him, grabs Esca's hips and pushes, and the slow slide into him is exquisite and perfect, just as he dreamed.

Though it is agony not to move when every part of him is crying out to thrust into Esca just as hard as he can, he holds himself still, trembling. "Are you all right?"

Esca nods, and so Marcus moves, slowly, carefully, and Esca hisses at him, mixed pleasure and annoyance. "You won't break me. Just fuck me. Hard. I want it."

He wants it hard? He can have it hard. He grabs Esca's hips and finally, finally lets himself go. His hips snap back, forward, and Esca groans and rises to meet him with every thrust, rocking back harder and faster each time. It is rough and coarse and Marcus loves it, loves that Esca can take it, loves the feel of Esca surging underneath him.

"Just like that, oh, Marcus--" Esca moans, and hearing him say his name in such a tone sends warm shivers down his spine. He wants Esca to say his name like that, always, and never to stop.

He can tell Esca is close by the fine trembling of the muscles in his back, the rasp in his breathing, and so Marcus slides a hand down from Esca's hip to his cock, taking him in hand at last, pulling long, rough strokes. Esca gasps and cries out, something wild and raw, and he comes hot all over Marcus' hand, body shaking beneath him with spasms that Marcus can feel buried deep within. And knowing that he has done this, that it is he who has made Esca feel like this, is enough for Marcus to lose the last shreds of his own control. He thrusts once, twice more, and then he is gone, sent beyond all other awareness as he knows only the ecstasy of it.


Some minutes later, Marcus lies staring at the ceiling of the stable, Esca's head nestled on his shoulder, and he has the vague feeling he's forgotten something he was supposed to do, even though he would rather not move from this spot for anything in the world.

"I had a message for you," he finally recalls.

Esca lifts his head. "Oh?"

"Uncle said that when I was done with you he wanted to see you about one of the horses," Marcus says, struggling now in his haze of delight to remember the particulars. "He thought it might have been lamed this morning. I cannot remember which he said, though."

Esca, naturally, knows exactly which horse he must mean. "The bay mare? It was only a stone in her hoof. She'll be fine. I can tell him so."

"That's good."

Esca gives him a teasing grin and runs his hand down the length of Marcus' body. "But are you done with me, eh? I'd hate to leave you unsatisfied."

Marcus kisses him again and can't help but laugh. "I will never tire of your company, but I think in this case I may require some time should you wish to... satisfy me... again."

Esca's fingers on his spent cock makes him twitch a little, but that's all he can accomplish. "I look forward to that," Esca replies, grinning. "Next time, perhaps, in a bed?"

He smiles. "Perhaps."

"Well, then," Esca says. "Recover, and I'll clean myself up and go see your uncle, shall I?" He moves away to find his tunic, slide it over his head, and stand up again. He looks undeniably like someone who's just been well-fucked in the middle of a stable. There's straw stuck in his hair and he is absolutely beautiful.

Marcus stands, too, and kisses him again.

"One more thing," he adds, as Esca steps back, his tunic belted, ready to leave. "Make sure to tell him you've made it up to me."

Esca frowns at him in confusion. "Why, were we quarreling? I did not know you were angry with me."

"I wasn't," Marcus says, grinning, "but tell him anyway. He'll probably want to throw us a wedding. And since you have no shame, you can wear the flammeum, eh?"

Esca starts to laugh and Marcus can't help but kiss him once more. Perhaps the gods don't hate him after all.

Tomorrow, he thinks, I will have to go into town and buy many animals for Jupiter and Mars. And another offering to Venus, and another to Juno. As I promised, so I shall do, and I have been given aid even better than what I asked. For now he has Esca, and Esca has him, and all things are as they should be.