Marcus set his bundle carefully on the table. "We have brought back the Hispana's lost Eagle," he said, rather mussily, and very quietly crumpled forward on top of it.
When he awoke it was in a dark room with a rush burning dimly on the wall. A shadow detached itself from the darkness and became Esca.
"We are safe," he said quietly. He put a hand on Marcus's brow and frowned. "But you are not well."
"I am perfectly well," said Marcus, and he believed it – and then he tried to sit up. The pain in his leg arced into his back, meeting a similar pain darting down from his shoulders, and he winced, came near to crying out. To hide it, he forced his lips into a smile. "Perhaps I am not entirely well."
"Perhaps you are not," agreed Esca. His smile was rather more grim. He moved across the room and pushed back the curtain that covered the window, revealing the dim pink light of early dawn. "It is good that Centurion Drusillus is an old friend of yours. You will need to rest here for some days, his surgeon said."
"We cannot –"
"We can. And we will." He returned from the window and knelt again at Marcus's side.
"Very well," said Marcus, slumping back onto the cot. "But you must rest as well."
"I slept for several hours." Esca indicated another cot like the one on which Marcus lay; it was awkwardly placed against the wall nearest to the doorway, and it brought to Marcus's mind Esca's days as his slave, sleeping on a pallet across the door.
"You have hurt your head."
Esca swiped his hand across the jagged cut above his eyes. "It is nothing."
"It should be washed," Marcus chided. Then he caught Esca's eye, and suddenly they were both laughing, for they were both in desperate need of washing. Their skin was grimy, their tangled hair and beards matted with sweat, and Marcus was sure they both stank like a swamp, although the scent had been in his nostrils for so long he hardly noticed. As for their clothes – well, hopefully Drusillus would have extra tunics.
"I will enquire," said Esca. He rose and went through the doorway, and Marcus could hear him talking in a low voice with another man, but could not make out the words. After a moment he reappeared. "I will go wash, and then I will bring water for you." He stood there a moment as though daring Marcus to contradict him, then nodded, and vanished again.
Esca was gone for a long time, and Marcus grew bored, studying the small room as it grew gradually lighter with the dawning day. It was a soldier's cell, not the sick-block with its line of narrow cots, and he was the only occupant. He thought it likely was a room to house visiting Centurions, or even a Legate; the simple furnishings were fine, and the window was large and looked out on the marching-ground. It was good of Drusillus to have put him here, he thought, and as he did, the curtain moved and it was the Centurion himself who came in.
"I am glad to see you awake and well," said Drusillus as he extinguished the now-unneeded rushlight, then went to Marcus's bedside. "Your man will be back soon to help you clean yourself."
Marcus frowned. "He is not a slave."
"No," agreed the other, "he is your freeman, or so he told us. But I think he would take the head off any who would dare tend you in his place."
He might at that, thought Marcus, and smiled to himself. They had been close as master and slave, and closer still as quack-salver and servant, and then, in the final days, when they had found the Eagle and fought to bring it back with them – no, Esca would not suffer another to tend to Marcus, nor would he have allowed any but his own hands to care for Esca, had their conditions been reversed.
"You have done very well, I see, to be promoted to Commander."
"Not as well as all that, or it would not be Borcovicus I commanded!" He grinned, then went on: "It was the defence of the fort at Isca Dumnoniorium that earned me the rank."
"While I lay in a bed much like this one, thinking I might die."
"Yet still you are alive. And you are not going to die this time, either."
A noise outside the room interrupted them, and a moment later Esca entered with his arms full of piled cloth, followed by men with buckets of water, steaming in the cool morning air. Esca had been shaved, although his hair was still long, and he wore a clean tunic in the Roman style that was a little too large for his frame. The cut on his forehead was shiny and red, already healing.
The men placed their buckets on the floor near the cot, gazing curiously at Marcus. Esca nodded at them and they left, along with the Centurion.
"I could have got up to wash," Marcus began, but Esca cut him off sharply.
"You could, but you should not, and you need not." He pulled the cover back from Marcus, wrinkling his nose at his clothing. "You reek like a midden. Let me get these rags off."
"So did you," muttered Marcus, but he leaned forward to allow Esca to pull off the ruin of his tunic. It hurt. It hurt as well when he shifted so Esca could undo his braccae, enough that he could not prevent the pain from showing on his face; Esca finally slit the cloth with his hunting knife and pulled the pieces away.
"They are for the fire, in any event. Now, shall I shave you first, or bathe you?"
"It does not matter," said Marcus. "As long as you do not cut my throat."
"You know I would not," said Esca simply. He pulled the cover up to Marcus's chest, then lay a cloth across it. He wet another and stroked Marcus's chin with it until the beard was damp.
"I did not know you were a barber."
"Hush, or I shall cut you, and it will not be my fault." Marcus closed his eyes and felt Esca make careful strokes with a sharpened blade. "We did not have barbers among the Brigantes as you Romans do. We cut our own beards, or our brothers cut them for us, or we grew them long. Anyway, the garrison barber is busy with the officers, and I did not want you to wait."
It felt good, Esca's sure hands on his face. Esca was not as skilled as a Roman barber, but he was more gentle, his fingertips moving softly on the newly-exposed skin of his jaw and cheek. Marcus obligingly turned his head as Esca directed. He might like Esca to do this again, he thought.
Finally Esca rubbed his face with a cloth until it tingled, and looked at him critically. "I do not think it is a poor job, but you will probably want a Roman barber before long. Still, it will do for now."
"What of my hair? I would have it short again."
"You will have to ask a Roman barber for that. I think this blade is already too dull."
"Perhaps I will keep you as my barber."
"Then you will have to pay me double," said Esca. He removed the cloth, now covered with the dirty hair that had been Marcus's beard. From among the things on the floor he took a jug and uncorked it. After a long swallow, he gave it to Marcus, who tipped it to his own lips.
It was poor, rough wine, only slightly watered, and it burned Marcus's throat and made his head spin. Still, it was good to have something other than air in his belly. He took another drink. "I am glad you did not drink before you played the barber."
Esca smiled and took the jug from him, laying it back on the floor, then dipped a clean cloth into the warm water. He cradled Marcus's shoulder in his own arms and began to work.
A low moan escaped Marcus as his arm was moved, and Esca's eyebrow rose. "I am only removing dirt from your skin. It should not hurt so much as when the surgeon removed the splinters from your leg."
"That was not a noise of pain," Marcus informed him. "That was a noise of joy at the thought of being clean again."
"Ah." Esca continued to work, carefully lifting and moving Marcus's limbs as he did so. Marcus knew he should be embarrassed that he was being washed thus, as a child or an invalid. Certainly he could have washed his own arms and chest, even if he could not have walked to the fort's baths. But Esca's strong, gentle hands stroked him, and he admitted to himself that he would not have him stop.
The water was warm on his body, and the wine warm in his belly. It was easy to relax into Esca's arms. It was soothing to be touched. He gave another murmur of contentment as Esca slid the blanket to his waist and washed his chest and back.
He felt Esca's fingers through the rough weave of the cloth, imagined he could feel Esca's blood moving through those fingers, through Esca's body. When he listened, he heard Esca's breathing, calm and steady breaths. The cloth moved down his torso, leaving warmth in its wake.
He forced himself to lie calmly as Esca moved the blanket from where it lay across his hips. I am being stroked so pleasantly, he thought, and I have had nothing to eat for over a day, save a few mouthfuls of wine. Any man in this state would react so. It is only my body. It does not matter.
Esca's hands hesitated, stuttering across his skin, and his breathing caught for only the briefest of moments; but Marcus was listening, so he noticed. Then Esca wrung the damp cloth into an empty bucket and dipped it into the clean, warm water. Gently he rubbed the water into the coarse hair at Marcus's groin, around his balls, against his thighs. Marcus groaned. If Esca had chosen to pretend that he had not seen his arousal, he certainly could not do so now.
"May I ease you?" Esca's voice was the softest of whispers in his ear. His hands rested at the apex of Marcus's thighs, on either side of his prick.
"You do not have to."
"I know. But would you allow me?"
Allow me, thought Marcus. That was a strange way to phrase it, as though it were he doing Esca the favour, not the other way round. "Esca," he said desperately. "I cannot hide what my body wants, but – I would not have you think I required – what I mean is – it is not – oh!"
For Esca had grasped him firmly, and all thought had fled. "What you mean," Esca said in a dark, low voice, close to his ear, "is that you want it, yes?"
"Yes," said Marcus. Shame flooded him. He should have better control over himself; it was the injury, the exhaustion, the wine.
"Good," said Esca. His hand moved, and helplessly Marcus moved against it. "I want it, too."
And those words went straight to Marcus's prick, straight to the spot at the base of his spine that had tingled with every caress that Esca had laid upon his skin with the dampened cloth, straight to his wine-warmed belly. He could not stop himself from thrusting back against Esca's hand, from twisting and gasping as Esca stroked him, from biting his own lip so he would not cry out with the sharp pleasure of it.
Afterward, he felt as though he were a horse, lathered with the effort of a long and difficult journey, come to the home paddock at last. He closed his eyes, breathed in, breathed out. Esca was cleaning him anew, rubbing gentle circles on his torso. He imagined the damp cloth drawing a pattern, like the one on Esca's skin. Symbols on his skin that others could not see, but that he knew were there – that they would both know were there.
"Tell me if I hurt you." Marcus opened his eyes; Esca had moved the cover entirely from his body and was poised above his injured leg. It was noticeably red and puffy, swollen, ugly.
"You will not hurt me."
Esca flashed him a smile. "I shall try not to, at any rate. But I give no guarantees."
It did hurt, of course, but he made no sound. He gripped the edges of the cot, moved when Esca shifted him, breathed carefully in and out; he thought about Esca's hands, his long hair falling about his face, his look of contentment as Marcus spilled into his hands.
When he was finished, Esca unfolded a clean soldier's tunic and helped Marcus to slip it on. His hand dipped low as he did so, touching him between the legs for just an instant, and he grinned. "I thought I took care of that!"
Marcus felt his cheeks turning red, but he did not look away. "I was thinking on it while you were torturing my leg. It was the only way to keep from screaming."
"Well, you will have to wait," said Esca, pulling the blanket back over Marcus's body. "You are clean now, and I am not washing you again until after we eat. I am sure they have food here somewhere. I will see what I can find for us." Marcus's stomach gave an enthusiastic gurgle, and Esca laughed. "See, your body agrees with me."
"On all things," agreed Marcus. "My belly and my prick both seem to have forgotten the art of self-discipline."
"You Romans and your self-discipline! It is folly to deny oneself a feast when one has been starving."
"I hope you do not expect a feast from the soldier's mess," said Marcus. "We will be lucky to get a bit of cheese with our bread."
Esca regarded him steadily. "I was not speaking of food."
Marcus swallowed. Suddenly the room seemed very warm and very quiet. Softly he asked, "Have you been starving, Esca?"
"I have broken my fast," he said, his voice equally soft. "Soon, I hope, we both may feast."
Then Marcus's stomach gurgled again, and Esca's stomach answered it, and Esca's face broke into a grin. "But perhaps it will be after we have eaten."
"Go, then. Get us some food," Marcus said. Esca nodded, still smiling, and left the room, and Marcus followed him with his eyes. Soon we both shall feast, he thought. Settling back into the cot, he smiled and closed his eyes, and awaited Esca's return.