He isn't sure he's heard Marcus correctly at first, but Marcus repeats the same unbelievable question, and Esca starts laughing as he stands up to greet his friend.
"That is ridiculous!" he manages. The statement should not be quite as funny as it is, but somehow, with Marcus standing in the doorway in all earnestness, out of breath as if he has run all the way from Calleva's forum to tell him this most shocking news, it becomes more and more amusing.
Marcus leans against the wall of the atrium, next to the painting of the birds, and his face begins to redden in something that is probably embarrassment and not exertion. His words are halting. "You mean it isn't true?"
Esca finally catches his breath enough to speak. "Of course Britons kiss. Why in the world would you think we don't? Did someone in town tell you this?"
He knows exactly why this must have happened as he says it, certainly; Marcus is a just and honorable man, truthful down to his bones, and he expects the rest of the world to be the same as he. It is one of the many things Esca loves about him, but it does mean that Marcus is a little... credulous.
"I was waiting at the barber's," he begins, slowly, "and as I was waiting one man began talking to another about a new British slave-girl he had purchased--" Marcus pauses here to eye Esca as if he expects the man who had once been Marcus' slave to object to any Briton being enslaved-- "and he was praising her many, er, fine qualities, but he said she would not kiss him. And the other man, who seemed knowledgeable in these matters, was nodding along and agreed that, yes, it was true, Britons did not kiss."
He looks almost hopefully over at Esca, as if waiting for confirmation, and Esca cannot help himself; he starts laughing again.
"Marcus--" he gets out. "Oh, Marcus, I am sorry--" And then another fit of laughter seizes him. It does not help that Marcus looks so earnest about the entire thing.
Marcus glares. "Is it that funny?"
Several long moments later, Esca finally trusts himself enough to speak. "I am only impressed that so many Romans can be made to believe a lie. She, and that other man's slave -- they probably did not want to kiss their loathsome masters, and so they told them that Britons did not kiss and it would displease them to try. And I am sure they looked very pretty and innocent as they did so, in such a way that their besotted masters would never question it as being anything other than the truth."
"They were fairly ugly men, now that you mention it." Marcus seems to consider Esca's words, perhaps remembering the men's appearances. "So you are saying that you do kiss?"
Esca smiles and thankfully manages to keep himself from laughing again. "Oh, yes. In fact, I would venture to say we're better at it than you Romans."
"You would, would you?" Marcus' eyes narrow at this slight.
"It is simple." Esca shrugs. "I have kissed Britons, and I have kissed Romans, and in every case the Romans were the worse of the two."
"You're only saying that because you're a Briton. For Romans, kissing is an art." Marcus takes a breath and Esca has to cut in before he starts quoting that damned poem again. Give me a thousand kisses, indeed. The number does not matter when the kisses themselves are so wretched. Kissing Marcus, though, ah, that might be enjoyable, and from the way Marcus has looked at him, he has often suspected Marcus of harboring similar thoughts. And so he wonders, could they? It would be pleasant to try. But if he simply kisses Marcus, or offers to, Marcus will run like a startled horse; he must go about this carefully.
"It may be an art," Esca retorts, "but it is one you have not mastered. As I said, I have kissed Romans, and it is all the same with you."
He feels himself start to smirk as he thinks of the best way to explain it. "You kiss like an army invading. Like a mouth must be plundered roughly for it to be a kiss. There is no subtlety in it."
"And I gather you will tell me that Britons do a better job of it?" Marcus' voice is tight, as though he is actually angry about this.
"Certainly." Esca licks his lips, slow and deliberate, and he watches Marcus' eyes drop to his mouth. Good. "We take the time to do it correctly. It is not a means to an end, something you do just so you can get to the fucking. It is a thing to be enjoyed for itself. You Romans do not understand this."
"You're calling me a bad kisser?" Marcus raises his eyebrows.
Esca shrugs. "You're a Roman, so I suppose I am, yes."
"I am not bad." He looks indignant. "No one has ever complained. I am certainly not bad at it."
Marcus glares at him and Esca waits several long breaths before making the suggestion. Marcus might shy away from him, after all, and then there would be no kissing for anyone. When he judges that Marcus is outraged enough, he meets Marcus' gaze and lets himself smile. "Prove it."
"What?" Even so, Marcus is taken aback, but Esca presses on.
"Prove it," he repeats. "You will kiss me, with your very best Roman kiss, and then I will kiss you, and we will see whose kisses are better."
A long silence stretches between them, as Marcus considers this, his expression unreadable. But just as Esca begins to wonder whether he's pushed Marcus too far, or worse, whether he's misread him entirely, Marcus speaks.
"All right." Marcus wobbles a little, unsteady, but he finally gives Esca a challenging grin, and it warms Esca to see it. "I need to sit down, first," he adds. "My leg pains me."
So Esca comes up next to him, as he often does, and Marcus leans on him as he limps to the couch next to the impluvium, where they sit on the edge of it next to each other. The sunlight is bright on the water, and Marcus turns to him, taking his hand and looking exceedingly awkward.
"You first," Esca tells him, helpfully.
Marcus' hand on his is damp with sweat; is he that nervous? Esca finds it oddly endearing to know that Marcus cares for him this much, that he should be behaving as though he is once again an excited youth, as one who has never done this.
And Marcus fidgets uncomfortably on the couch. "This is-- you're not making it very easy for me to be in the proper state of mind here." The look on his face is not that of a man who is about to kiss someone he likes, Esca thinks; it is akin to that of a man facing his own execution.
"Oh, am I not romantic enough?" Esca smiles the sweetest smile he possibly can, which he suspects looks far more mocking than he intends, given his words. "Kiss me, O my little dove! I beg you!"
Marcus gives him an annoyed half-smile in return, and then, having made the decision, he acts on it all at once. Esca feels Marcus' hands move up his arms, to his shoulders, his neck, threading through his hair and pulling him close. Then Marcus kisses him.
It is... nice. That is the very best thing that can be said for it, and Esca knows it is only nice because it is Marcus and he likes Marcus, and he knows Marcus is trying as hard as he possibly can. It is clumsy and rough, and just as he had thought, Marcus' tongue forces its way into his mouth, as though he wants all of Esca now, right now, and must claim him. Marcus' fingers lock tighter into his hair as Marcus' mouth presses against him. There is a certain appeal to the roughness, of course, and it is sweet that it is Marcus; for that alone Esca wishes the kiss would continue, and he likes Marcus' hands on him, even as Marcus' tongue moves sloppily along his teeth. Other than the kissing, he is sure Marcus would be a good lover. Just as Esca is beginning to entertain intriguing thoughts of how Marcus might be in bed, the kiss ends, as suddenly as it began.
Marcus draws back, his own breathing heavy, and a smug smile curls across his face. It pleases Esca that Marcus enjoyed it that much. "Well?"
Esca sits up and takes a few moments to compose his thoughts. "Adequate," he allows, and watches Marcus' face fall.
"I am not saying it was bad," he puts in, hastily. "And it has its virtues. It would be an excellent sort of kiss if we were fucking, or if we were about to--" he decides to say, hoping to raise Marcus' spirits, and then wonders why the statement makes Marcus blush-- "and I am certain you would be good at that, but it is not a kind of kiss that is about kissing."
Marcus frowns, looking a little crestfallen still. "I don't understand."
"I will show you," Esca says.
He leans forward and takes Marcus' face in his hands. Marcus' lips part, expectantly--
And Marcus' hands come up to Esca's hair again. No. This will not do. This will not do at all. Marcus does not get to have control of this. Esca lets go and pushes Marcus' hands down.
Marcus blinks, confused. "No what?"
"I know this a difficult thing for a Roman to understand," he says, smiling, and he puts enough affection in his voice so that Marcus will know it is a joke, "but I am in charge, and I am kissing you now. You are not kissing me. So be still." He bats Marcus' hands away again.
"I will try," Marcus says. His eyes are wide and dark with lust, and Esca has not even kissed him yet.
Esca leans in and presses kisses, one, two, three, feather-light, against Marcus' closed lips. These things must begin slowly. Marcus' mouth is wet still from the last kiss, and Esca can feel him smile, and-- Marcus' hand is on his shoulder and moving up to his neck.
Esca stops and plucks the offending hand away, locking his own hand around Marcus' wrist. "Did we not just discuss this?" he asks, smiling kindly at him.
"Sorry," Marcus says, quickly, as if he is seriously worrying he has offended Esca. Of course he has not.
He considers the situation for a long moment, and then lifts Marcus' hand to his own mouth, kissing Marcus' fingertips.
Marcus inhales sharply and shudders. "That's not my mouth." His voice has gone low in arousal, and Esca smiles in satisfaction. Oh, he likes that, does he?
"We'll get there eventually," Esca says, and licks along Marcus' hand once, teasingly, and then pulls two of Marcus' fingers into his own mouth. Marcus makes a very quiet noise, perhaps a moan, and his eyes fall shut in pleasure as Esca sucks gently on Marcus' fingertips. His hands are large, and not as callused as Esca had thought they might be; Esca's mouth feels pleasantly filled as he slides his tongue across Marcus' skin. He nips one fingertip, gently, and Marcus groans at that, slightly louder.
He opens his mouth slowly and takes Marcus' fingers away. When Marcus opens his eyes again, he looks bereft and wanton, and Esca smiles to see it: Marcus is already gone.
Esca holds Marcus' hand down at his side now, and when he leans in once again to kiss him properly, on the mouth, Marcus is trembling, and he has hardly even begun.
"Oh--" Marcus whispers, amazed.
Esca kisses Marcus a few more times, here and there -- his throat, his jaw, his cheek -- before moving to his lips, which lie open already for him, slack with pleasure. He bites Marcus' inviting lower lip; he has a feeling Marcus will like it, and is gratified to find Marcus moaning against his mouth already. Marcus' hand, still trapped within his, tries to rise up. Esca presses him down more firmly and wraps his free hand around Marcus' other arm, holding him close.
And he holds him there for long moments more before finally tasting Marcus' mouth, as Marcus clearly desires him to. When he eases his tongue in, slowly, slowly, savoring the strange taste of him, Marcus whimpers and melts against him. Esca can feel it as Marcus leans against him, completely trusting. He could do anything, anything, and Marcus would love it. How can no one ever have kissed him properly before?
He stops then, and pulls back to kiss Marcus again more lightly, a scattering of kisses, before tasting him another time. Marcus' mouth is sweet, and under Esca's hands Marcus is shaking as if he has truly never been kissed.
Esca can hear only his own heartbeat pounding in the silence, until he pushes his head forward, kissing Marcus in earnest now, and the sound is joined by the noise of slick mouths on mouths, and Marcus groaning again. He kisses him now as Marcus was kissing him, hot and rough and heavy, sliding forward and taking, and Marcus yields to him, and Esca is pushing and pushing, and--
Somehow Marcus is underneath him on the couch and Esca has Marcus' arms pinned above his head with both of his hands. Marcus is no longer fighting the hold, and he moans and arches up against Esca, not with the sort of insistent rut Esca might expect, but a shaking, tentative nudge, as if he is overwhelmed by all the sensation and content merely to float in it.
Esca lifts his head and their lips part. Marcus looks up at him, smiling, and his eyes, all dark now, are hardly even focusing.
"Why did you stop?" Marcus' voice is little more than a whisper, low and intense, full of amazement.
"That," Esca says, and grins at him, "is how Britons kiss."
And he kisses Marcus once on the nose for good measure and sits up, moving off Marcus, smiling and attempting to look perfectly composed and coherent, while Marcus is straightening his clothing and pushing himself upright with the dazed and distracted air of a man who clearly has other concerns.
Finally Marcus seems to remember enough Latin to talk. "Is that-- do you--" he tries. "Do you kiss like that all the time?"
Esca laughs. "Only with people I like very much."
"I--" Marcus still seems to be at a loss for words. "It pains me to admit it, but I think you win. Your kisses are better by far."
"You think?" Esca grins at him. "Would you like to try it again, to be certain?"
Marcus looks strangely nervous and begins to smile. "I-- if you would, I-- please," he manages. "Yes. Again, and again, and all the time."
"I would as well," Esca says, and he catches one brief flash of Marcus' smile broadening in the sunlight before he tackles Marcus and presses him to the couch.
In the end, everyone wins.