Marcus was asleep when his phone went off. At least, that was his excuse for flailing around in the darkness and hitting his alarm clock twice. Naturally his snooze button refused to co-operate and it took a while before he recognised the dulcet tones of ‘Kids in America’ (thanks Esca) and caught his phone before it vibrated clean off the nightstand.
“Yeah?” If he was mumbling, it was because it was two o’clock in the morning.
“Marcus?” Esca was practically yelling in his ear which was never a good sign. “I need a lift.”
Marcus groaned and flopped back down, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “Do you know what time it is?”
There was a pause and the line crackled. “Uh... late?”
“Really really late. Or early. Whatever. Where are you?”
“Shut up, you owe me for Christmas. And I’m at the police station.”
Now Marcus really was awake. “The police station?” He didn’t care if he sounded like Esca’s grandma. The police station. “What the hell did you do, are you ok? You—”
“And you’d better bring me some pants.”
“Right, because pants will make this all better,” said Marcus sarcastically.
“My nuts would really appreciate your understanding right now. It’s fucking freezing.”
Marcus snorted. “Your nuts are the least of my worries.” Which was a lie, if ever he’d told one.
“I think you mean the greatest.”
“Oh god, shut up Esca,” Marcus refused to laugh, because Esca was at the police station and it was 2am and this was not funny. He threw off the duvet and stood up, groping for his jeans. “Would these be British pants or American pants?”
“Whichever ones will stop my arse going blue.”
“Right, good to know. I’ll be there in ten. Don’t—” There was a sudden loud crackle and the line went dead. “Great,” Marcus muttered and went to look for his keys.
Esca was sitting on a wall outside the station when Marcus pulled up, his knees drawn up to his chest as he shivered. This would be one of the reasons why Marcus had refused to wear a kilt at the end of February.
Marcus wound down the window. “Taxi for Wallace.”
Rolling his eyes, Esca unfolded himself, jogged round to the passenger side and climbed in, slamming the door and turning up the heating before he spoke.
“Braveheart’s not the only Scotsman in history.”
Marcus shrugged easily. “He’s the only one who had a movie out.”
“Not true,” said Esca as he settled himself, “Rob Roy was also popular.”
“So now you’re a Scottish expert?” Marcus signalled and pulled out into the non-existent traffic.
“It sort of comes with the territory when you’re doing Celtic studies,” Esca replied in his best Marcus-is-dense voice, before looking around and adding, “Also, Celtic does not equal Scotland, just so you know. Now what have you done with my pants?”
“Not a question I often get asked,” Marcus said dryly. He fished around in the side pocket, pulling out a clean pair of boxers and tossing them over, then he did his best to drive straight and avert his eyes at the same time whilst Esca pulled them on. Fortunately he’d had a lot of practice at not-looking-at-Esca.
When he was certain he was done, Marcus risked a glance sideways to find Esca looking out of the window, his eyes nearly closed, looking remarkably contented for someone who was just let out of jail. He let them cruise along a little further before he could resist no longer. “So... how was the highland fling?”
“Shut up,” said Esca, his eyes were still closed but Marcus could see the side of his mouth twitching.
“No seriously, I’m interested. Was everyone arrested, or just you?”
“It was an accident.”
Marcus grinned. “Did your pasty British legs scare the old ladies?”
“No, but my lack of underwear did.”
At that, Marcus nearly took a wrong turn into the wheelie bin on the corner of Church Street. “Are you joking?”
“I am not joking. If you must know I accidentally flashed an old lady and she nearly had a seizure.”
Marcus didn’t even try to hide his laughter this time and Esca turned his head, scowling, only to soften at Marcus’s obvious amusement. “Well I’m glad you find it so funny.”
“I hope you got the pictures for Cottia.”
“I’ve got a police caution, will that count?”
“Man, she’s going to love this.” Marcus was already imagining her likely reaction, and his. Esca just snorted. “Stop complaining. You danced and you pulled all in one night. Most people would count that as a good weekend.”
Esca shook his head in despair. “You’re such a dork.”
“Hey, at least I’m not a felon.”
Esca ignored that and turned to stare out of the window again, adding snootily, “If you’d have come, this would never have happened you know.”
“You mean it would have happened, but there would have been more photos.”
“You just don’t want to show your legs,” Esca said.
Silence followed this pronouncement as Marcus tried to think of a witty comeback to deflect the realisation he knew was coming, and failed utterly. Sure enough, Esca twisted around again. “I meant—”
“I know,” Marcus said, his free hand going almost unconsciously to rub at his thigh where the thick scarring could be felt through the denim.
For a moment, neither of them spoke. Marcus could feel Esca’s scrutiny and he hated how uncomfortable he must look, ruining what at been a perfectly normal conversation.
“I’m willing to forgive you,” Esca said suddenly into the silence, just as Marcus was about to start talking about Rob Roy (he was that desperate), “in return for food.”
Marcus glanced at him in suspicion, and not a little relief at the change of subject. “What food?”
“I’m thinking pizza, turn left at the traffic lights.”
“Yeah, now. They’re open til half past.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because I ordered ahead at the station. I got you a pepperoni by the way, you can thank me when you’re eating it.”
Marcus forgot all about driving for a moment as he just stared in disbelief. Esca met his look, smirking like the smug little bastard he was sometimes. No, make that ALL the time.
Then Marcus gave up, just like he always did. He had learned the hard way that he could never say no to Esca. Well, mostly. “You’re lucky I’m not dumping your ass on the sidewalk.”
“Fuck off, you love me,” said Esca, propping his dirty sneakers up against Marcus’s (clean) dash and closing his eyes once more, still smiling.
And the problem was, of course, that Marcus really did.
Marcus met Esca in his first week at university, which was also his second week in England (if you didn’t count a holiday to London when he was thirteen). He was coming home from the Student Union bar, limping from a combination of too much dancing, far too much walking and a well placed stiletto to his bad leg, when he came across a rowdy group outside a bar, some kind of sports team from the look of their jerseys and whatever they had daubed on their faces.
The rowdiness wasn’t a surprise to Marcus, it hadn’t taken him long to realise that the promise of a week of socialising and acclimatising to university life described in the glossy brochure was really an excuse for a week of heavy drinking and hangovers for most British students. On the up side, Marcus was legal here, on the downside alcohol binges weren’t exactly his thing and socialising was markedly less bearable when you were the only one sober. So he was limping home at midnight, having done as much mixing and making friends as he could stomach, and because he’d been too proud to take his crutch with him and was now suffering the consequences. All he wanted right then was to get back to his poky dorm room, lock the door and crash, preferably after icing his knee.
But he couldn’t, because whoever these guys were, they were blocking the street. As he limped closer, he heard a few catcalls, the jeering and the restless movement that usually came before someone got their ass handed to them. Marcus was about to circle past as best he could when the group parted for a second and Marcus got a clearer view of who was in the middle, a slight guy in a torn shirt facing up to a jock at least a head and a half taller.
Marcus hesitated, and in that moment the smaller guy looked right at him, his face already a little bloodied and Marcus got the distinct and undeniable impression that this wasn’t some stupid initiation or a gang of friends blowing off steam. For a second the guy looked scared, but only for a second before he looked back at the jock, chin raised in unmistakable challenge. Whoever he was, he was no coward.
Marcus looked down the street to the distant lights of his Hall and then he looked back. If he had any sense he’d keep his head down and keep out of trouble, but Marcus had never had that much sense in the first place and never when it was something like this.
“Hey!” At Marcus’s interruption, several of the guys turned around, some looking a little more sober than others which was something, at least. Marcus straightened up, willing his leg to co-operate. “If you’re going to fight, you should know campus security is working their way up the hill to the dorms. I saw them at the bottom carding a couple of girls.”
It was a lie of course. Marcus had seen campus security outside the Student Union but he had no idea if they were heading for the dorms or not. He figured it was worth a shot though.
The jock looked him up and down, reminding Marcus of every rich idiot he’d ever had to spend time with, and he’d spent time with a lot. “Who asked you?”
Marcus shrugged, “No-one. Just thought you’d want to know before you get caught beating the shit out of your friend.”
“This isn’t my friend, and we’re not fighting because he doesn’t want to.” The last was said in a tone that fairly dripped derision, prompting an outbreak of laughter from the goons watching.
“Maybe I don’t believe in cruelty to dumb animals,” the slighter guy said loudly – reinforcing Marcus’s belief that he was really brave – or really stupid. At once the laughter stopped and in the next moment the jock took a swing at the guy that would have knocked him out cold had it connected. That it didn’t was no thanks to him, but to the other guy nimbly jumping back out of reach. At once, the mood of the group changed, as several of the more sober ones began to look uneasily at Marcus and past him, to the Union bar.
“I think it’s about time you took your friend home,” Marcus said, before the jock could get another swing in.
One of the others tried to grab his arm, but the idiot wasn’t having any of it.
“I think it’s time I taught this cheeky fucker a lesson.”
“I prefer my teachers to be literate,” said the guy, because he apparently couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
“For god’s sake shut up!” Marcus said, exasperated, and was treated to a dark glare in return. Unfortunately the distraction was enough and this time the jock’s fist connected.
Marcus later blamed his weighing in – against all medical advice no doubt – on the fact that it was, technically, his fault for causing a distraction, although he stood by his comment 100%.
A short while later he was hauling the smaller guy away as best he could while the jock’s friends did the same and his leg bloody hurt. It didn’t help when the guy he had just helped shook him off so fast he staggered back, barely managing to steady himself before his knee gave out completely.
“I didn’t need your help,” the guy said with a scowl, his whole stance radiating attitude.
“Well fuck you too,” Marcus snapped, grimacing against the pain that shot through his leg. “Next time I’ll let them beat the shit out of you, shall I?”
The guy swiped at the blood on his face. “I can handle myself, thanks.”
“Yeah you were doing a great job of it.”
“I was until you barged in!”
Marcus watched the jock and his friends disappear around the corner, the jock still shouting his mouth off before he said, “You know, I’m starting to get an idea of how you got yourself into that mess in the first place.”
The guy gave up on the blood on his face and shot a disdainful look at Marcus instead. “Thanks for the insight, Jeremy Kyle.”
Since he had no clue who Jeremy Kyle was meant to be, Marcus just sighed and thought of how he was supposed to be in bed right now, or near enough to it. “Look, you looked like you wanted someone to step in. My mistake.”
Silence fell, and Marcus pressed hard on his knee a couple of times, ignoring the other guy as he assessed the chances of him making it up the hill. It was pretty pathetic, really, this time last year he’d been running passes and covering the field like it was a walk in the park, now he was faced with the possibility of calling a cab for a five minute journey. He swore under his breath and suddenly the other guy spoke.
“What’s wrong with your leg?”
Oddly enough, he had to be the first person to actually ask that outright since Marcus had got here. Oh he’d had a few ‘are you okay’s, a couple of hints and veiled questions and curious glances at the crutch (part of the reason he’d left it behind tonight) that had made me feel even more self-conscious about it but no-one had just come right out with it. It was kind of refreshing, in a strange way.
Marcus looked at him, trying to gauge how interested he actually was in hearing it but the guy was standing further off now and it was too dark anyway. “I had an accident,” Marcus said, opting for the short version.
“Oh,” the guy said. Just that.
After waiting another moment to see if he was going to add anything else, Marcus snorted and limped forward – he’d scratched the cab idea – ignoring the way the other guy was watching from the shadows. Let him watch, Marcus was too busy trying not to fall flat on his face.
He’d made it a good ten metres before he heard the sudden tap tap of sneakers on the pavement and then – to his shock – the other guy was there next to him, putting an arm around Marcus’s waist, fisting the fabric of his shirt, as his shoulder pushed up under Marcus’s arm, taking some of his weight even as he studiously avoided his gaze.
At first Marcus tried to pull away. “You don’t have to—”
“Shut up,” the guy muttered, with a grunt of effort as he straightened, visibly bracing himself. “And for fuck’s sake, keep walking, you weigh a ton.”
“Are you calling me fat?” Marcus said, shifting a little to accommodate him. “’Cause you know, I think I’m just tall.”
“That depends on whether you’re implying I’m short.”
Marcus took a moment to consider the safest answer to that one, since the guy was both a head shorter than him and the only thing between Marcus and the sidewalk at this point. “Uh... no.”
“Good answer,” said the guy.
They were just approaching the second streetlamp when Marcus finally said, “I’m Marcus, by the way.” He waited, but no answer was forthcoming. “This is usually the part when you introduce yourself.”
Marcus sighed. “Ok, fine. I’ll just think of you as the shorter guy. The not-the-jock. The guy picking a fight outside the bar. The annoying one.” He paused for a moment’s thought. “Maybe Bob.”
“Alright! My name’s Esca,” the guy said irritably.
Marcus narrowly managed not to grin in triumph and twisted round slightly, holding out his free hand. “In that case, it’s nice to meet you, Esca.”
Just then, they passed under the light and in the orange glow Marcus got his first good look at Esca (his first good look close up anyway) and shit, he would have to be exactly Marcus’s type. Not that Marcus had a type, not that anyone ever knew about and not outside furtive imaginings and the occasional glimpse of someone at school who made guilty wank material later. But Esca... Even with dirt and blood on his face, and a scowl, he looked gorgeous.
There was a pause where Marcus realised he was probably just staring like a creeper. Esca stared back, his scowl deepening as a flush crept over his face – visible even in the orange light. Fuck – he really did think Marcus was a creeper. To salvage the situation, Marcus grabbed his hand quickly and shook it a couple of times before Esca yanked it free and looked away, nearly pulling Marcus over in his haste to get moving again.
“Great. Introductions done, now can we get a fucking move on.”
For someone Marcus had thought of as slight, Esca was pretty strong – managing to get Marcus home and into the lift and barely breaking a sweat.
“You can just leave me here now, I can manage,” Marcus said – about three times actually – but Esca just ignored him and took him all the way to his dorm room, pausing on the threshold (after Marcus wrestled the door open) to whistle admiringly.
“So this is what an en-suite room looks like.” He looked around, and Marcus wished he’d at least tidied up before he went out. Also his crutch was propped really obviously against the desk and there was no way Esca could miss it. If he saw it however, he didn’t say anything.
“Where do you live then?” Marcus asked, leaning heavily on his chair in a completely subtle way (his leg was killing him now). He wasn’t really expecting a reply (Esca wasn’t exactly chatty) but after a moment he said, “Haddon,” then darted a quick look at Marcus like he was just waiting for him to say something disparaging.
Marcus knew vaguely where Haddon was. It was on the outskirts of his residential site, the ‘cheap hall’ as he’d been told on his orientation here. “So we’re neighbours?” he said, taking what he thought was the most important piece of information away from Esca’s admission.
Esca blinked. “I suppose so,” he said eventually, then his gaze skittered away, “What’s that?”
The abrupt change of subject threw Marcus for a second, before he followed Esca’s gaze to the Eagle flag pinned to the wall above his desk. It was hard not to see it really, most of his pictures and stuff were still in boxes but he’d put the flag up that first day. He wondered what that said about him, that he was still living in the past or that he was bravely facing up to it. His counsellor back home would have enjoyed the debate.
“It’s my team flag,” he said, still with more than a hint of pride. “For football. Not soccer,” he added when Esca looked confused, “American football.”
“With the shoulder pads,” Esca said after a moment.
Marcus snorted softly. “Yeah, that one.”
“You play then?”
Marcus blinked at him, because obviously he didn’t play, he couldn’t even make it up the hill without help – but Esca was looking at him with what seemed bizarrely like genuine curiosity so Marcus said, “I used to play. I was pretty good actually, that’s why they gave me the flag when I left – they all signed in, see?”
He gestured and Esca dutifully looked. The whole team had signed it, the last year that team would have played together before heading off the different jobs and colleges and new teams. It seemed incongruous to see it here, a reminder of thousands of miles away and a whole different life.
“Are you going to play here?” Esca asked. When Marcus didn’t immediately reply, he added, “when your leg’s better, I mean.”
“It won’t... I mean, it’s not going to get better. Not enough for sport anyway,” he wondered whether there would ever come a time when it didn’t hurt to admit that.
“Oh,” Esca said, frowning. “Sorry.”
Marcus shrugged in a way that was supposed to convey how totally fine he was with it all now, but he’d never been a very good liar. It felt slightly surreal to even be having this conversation with a guy he’d just met, and one who already had an impressive black eye developing to remind him of just how they’d met. “Do you... play sport?” Marcus added – in a stunning display of just how inept he could be when he had attractive men in his room at midnight.
Esca snorted, still examining the flag. “Did I look like I was with those morons?”
“Right,” said Marcus. It came out mostly rueful – not everyone was into sports after all, or realised they weren’t all drunken frat boy types – but to his surprise Esca suddenly twisted to look at him.
“I didn’t mean...” He stopped, colouring.
“Hey, no worries,” Marcus said. “I think those guys definitely missed a few basic lessons in sportsmanship.”
“Even though I had it under control,” Esca added pointedly.
Marcus could feel a smile threatening, “If you say so.”
For a second, he thought Esca was going to smile back, but just as quickly the suggestion fled. “I’d better go,” he said somewhat abruptly. “I have a thing in the morning.”
“A thing?” Marcus repeated, taken aback.
“Uh... yeah. I’ll see you around I expect.”
So saying, Esca hightailed it out of there (for once, Marcus felt that was a pretty accurate description of the way Esca cleared the corridor in about five seconds), leaving Marcus to call out a belated ‘goodnight’ to which the only reply was the flat door closing none too gently.
“That wasn’t awkward at all,” Marcus muttered as silence fell. After a moment, he closed the bedroom door and sat down on the bed, letting out a long breath as he slumped back against the wall, finally taking the weight off his leg. All in all, it had definitely not been the night he’d expected to have when he’d set off for the Student Union at seven, but he had to admit it had been kind of... fun, all the same, in a weird nearly-getting-your-ass-kicked and arguing about it sort of a way. Or maybe that was just the effect of meeting Esca.
On second thoughts, Marcus needed to just take his meds, ice his knee and get to bed – because there was no way that line of thought was heading anywhere good, or even possible.
Still, he thought later as he drifted off to sleep, it was too bad he probably wouldn’t see him around much after all.
The next day, he was waiting in a packed lecture hall waiting for his introduction to the History and Celtic Studies department to begin when the door at the back flew open and none other than Esca walked in, stopping short when he saw Marcus and, belatedly, the rather full benches everywhere else. Marcus hesitated for all of three seconds – mostly out of shock – before he moved his crutch along (it seemed a crutch acted like a force field or something, keeping other students away), clearing a space on the end of his row.
For a moment, he thought Esca was going to pretend not to hear him as he looked all around the hall before he finally, and with an unflattering amount of reluctance, acknowledged Marcus.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for glee club,” Marcus replied, deadpan. “You?”
Esca rolled his eyes and then, apparently realising no other space was going to magically become available, plunked down next to Marcus with very little grace. “You didn’t say you were doing history,” he said, in a faintly accusing tone.
Marcus shrugged, trying not to react to the heat of Esca pressed against his side. It was one thing to (not) think about last night, when he was at least a little out of it with the pain, but it was something else entirely now. “You didn’t ask what I was doing.” Esca said nothing, rooting around in a battered rucksack instead for a notepad and a pen. Opening it, he managed to angle it so he was leaning just slightly away as he started writing. It was stupid to feel hurt by it, but somehow Marcus managed it all the same. “I’m sorry you have to sit here,” he said, pointedly.
Esca paused in writing the date and flicked his gaze to Marcus, just once before quickly looking away again. “It’s nothing personal.”
“Sure it isn’t,” Marcus muttered.
“Maybe I just don’t like Americans,” Esca said, still not looking up from his page. Marcus watched Esca underline the date an unnecessary number of times. He seemed oddly tense, and it was that that gave Marcus the push to speak, despite the clear fuck off vibes he was getting.
“Nobody hates Kermit,” he said.
There was a pause and then finally, Esca looked up properly, frowning. “What?”
“Kermit the frog. You can’t hate on the guy. Look at the shit he has to take from Miss Piggy.”
Esca stared at him, managing to look an adorable mix of perplexed and annoyed – and Marcus did not just think that – before he eventually said, “Has anyone ever told you you’re weird?”
Marcus smiled easily, because no-one said he couldn’t be friends with the guy, they were on the same course after all. “Sure they have. Now aren’t you glad you sat here?”
For a second he thought Esca might actually move seats but then he snorted, his mouth curving upwards despite his best attempts to frown and before he ducked his head down Marcus could see he was laughing. “Weirdo.”
Marcus turned to the front as the lecturer cleared his throat to begin – but he was still smiling.
And that was how Marcus met Esca.
When Placidus found the entrance hall to the main college liberally papered with photographs of him wearing full Highland dress and dancing a jig, it took him all of a minute and a half to identify the culprits.
“Where is she?”
Marcus looked up from where he was totally thrashing Esca at X-Box, enjoying the sight of Placidus’s red face for a few seconds before he answered, mildly, “Who let you in?”
“I knocked,” snapped Placidus. “One of your flatmates has better manners than you do, apparently. Once again, where is she?”
“Who?” said Esca infuriatingly, taking advantage of Marcus’s preoccupation to knock his car clean off the racetrack. Marcus elbowed him hard in retaliation but Esca just grinned in triumph.
Placidus made a sound that might have been a screech of rage, strongly suppressed, it was pretty hard to tell. “And don’t think I don’t know you were there. I knew I saw you – I suppose it was you who was arrested for harassing the invited guests.”
Esca had the nerve to look pleased with himself. “The police decided it was just an unfortunate misunderstanding actually so the arrest didn’t stand.”
This time the sound of rage wasn’t quite so well suppressed as Placidus looked from Esca to Marcus and back again.
“Hey, don’t look at me,” Marcus said immediately. “I wasn’t anywhere near the place.”
Placidus dismissed that with a wave of his hand. “Yes, thank you. I think I would have noticed you dragging round the floor.”
Before Marcus could react to that underhanded dig (which was typical of Placidus), Esca tossed down the X-Box controller and stood up. He was nearly of a height with Placidus – not that that made much of a difference since Esca had never had any trouble intimidating Marcus. “To answer your question, Cottia’s not here, she’s at work. Something you know fuck all about. The next time you try to get her banned from the Student Union, you might want to remember what seeing your pasty legs all over college felt like. Now fuck off before I call security and have you tossed out on your arse.”
Marcus didn’t need to look to know Placidus probably wanted to punch Esca, or to know that he wouldn’t (not after that other time). There was a tense silence and then Placidus pushed past Esca and out of the kitchen, letting the door slam hard behind him.
Huffing, Esca sat back down and picked up his controller, glaring at the screen.
“You realise he’s going to come after you next,” Marcus pointed out, because if he said thank you instead Esca would probably hit him with the X-Box.
Esca shifted to get himself comfortable, his arm brushing Marcus’s. “Let him try. Wanker.”
Marcus didn’t meet Cottia until the end of Fresher’s Week – which was crazy considering she lived right next door. When he arrived on the Sunday, she was already moved in – he heard snatches of The Beach Boys seeping through the walls and the occasional burst of singing, accompanied by thuds and the scrape of furniture. But just when Marcus thought he should actually stop hiding in his room and go introduce himself, he heard her leave in a flurry of footsteps and slamming doors.
The next few days continued on the same pattern and Marcus had given up hope of ever meeting her when on Friday afternoon he found himself attempting to scrape an omelette out of a pan in the kitchen and an unfamiliar voice suddenly said,
“Are you going to throw that out, or is it a salvage operation?”
On the plus side, the shock of her interruption was enough to make him jerk the spatula so hard the whole omelette came off at once. It was just unfortunate it ended up welded to the cooker hood.
“Well I suppose that answers that,” said the voice and Marcus twisted round to find a tall, thin girl watching him, evidently amused by the fate of his dinner, still wearing an outdoor coat and a green woollen hat jammed down over a mass of red-gold hair. “Sorry for scaring you. I came in a few minutes ago but you didn’t look up, and then you looked so engrossed I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“No, it’s...” Marcus gestured lamely to the mess he had made. “It’s all good. I was just, uh, making dinner.”
The girl smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners. “I can see that.” She pulled off her hat and went to hold out a hand, before realising Marcus was brandishing a spatula and a frying pan and letting it fall to her side. “You’re Marcus, aren’t you? I think we’re next door neighbours. I’m Cottia by the way – Well, actually it’s Camilla – but no-one calls me that except my aunt and uncle, and my cousin,” she pulled a face. “I prefer Cottia.”
“Cottia it is then,” Marcus said easily, already warming to her. “It’s good to meet you at last.”
“Likewise,” said Cottia. “Also, there’s a bloke out on the landing, he looked like he wanted to knock. Several times actually, but then he didn’t. I asked him if he wanted someone in the flat but he nearly bit my head off. You don’t know him, do you?”
Marcus frowned, put the pan down, and walked into the corridor where he had a clear view of their little porthole window and... Esca?
“Someone you know?” Cottia said, materialising at his side and peering around him curiously.
“Uh... yeah. That’s just... It’s a guy from my course, I didn’t know he was stopping by.” Marcus liked to think he looked totally cool and collected but Cottia’s gaze was a little too shrewd for him to wholly convince himself. He’d seen Esca three times that week now, once on that first night, once in the introductory lecture and then again on the field trip that followed, and then again on the field trip they’d all taken to a nearby Roman fort where they’d ended up wandering around the ruins together, bickering over the advantages of the Roman invasion of Britain.
“Aren’t you going to let him in?” Cottia broke into his thoughts, waving at Esca who had just noticed them and looked rather taken aback to see the two of them just staring at him through the window.
Marcus blinked. “Oh... yeah, sure.” He hurried to the door and yanked it open with what was probably a little too much enthusiasm. “What are you doing here?” He winced. Smooth, Marcus. “I mean—”
“I was just passing,” Esca said, as if daring anyone to suggest otherwise. He ignored the other comment completely. “And you left something behind on the trip.” Swinging his backpack off his shoulder, he rooted around in the side pocket and produced the calculator Marcus had forgotten he’d even leant him.
“Right – thanks,” Marcus took it and then just stood there, wondering if he should invite Esca in, or whether Esca really was just passing. Would it be weird to ask him in? Would he assume Marcus was just being friendly or... other things, which Marcus wasn’t, of course, except for the one time on the field trip he’d gotten distracted by Esca’s hands.
“Well, this is all a bit awkward,” said Cottia, brightly, when no-one spoke. “I vote we go to the pub – preferably somewhere that serves proper omelette, I’m starving.”
An hour and a half later had found them sitting outside a bar in the mellow sunshine of a September evening. There were plates stacked haphazardly on the wooden table, leftovers from a dinner that wasn’t scraped off the cooker hood at least, and Marcus’s arms were turning red from the sun. Cottia seemed to be enjoying it just as much, her head tipped back and her eyes closed but Esca had pushed his chair back into the shadow of the building until Cottia had teased him about his freckles and Esca had told her, quite good-naturedly, to sod off and promptly changed the subject.
As it turned out, Cottia was a local – well, she lived locally anyway – which soon explained the odd hours she kept as she lived in the dorms but worked part time at a hotel outside of town.
“I’m a Norfolk girl really though, can’t you tell from the accent?”
Marcus frowned. “You just sound British to me.”
“Well I sound common as muck to my aunt and uncle.” Cottia made a face and mimicked. “Please speak properly, Camilla, you’re not on the farm now’. As though that was something bad.” She stopped, a shadow crossing her face. “I’d rather be on the farm any day.”
“Did your aunt and uncle own the farm?” Marcus asked, his sluggish brain trying to make the connection.
Cottia snorted. “Certainly not. The farm belonged to my parents before they died.” She waved away Marcus’s apology. “No, no, It was years ago, I won’t cry on you I promise. We had a farm and we bred horses, but when they died my uncle sold the whole thing and he and my aunt took me in – and that was that.”
‘That’ sounded shitty enough to Marcus.
“You don’t get on with them,” Esca said, hardly a question. At some point, he’d lit a cigarette and the smoke curled idly in the air.
Cottia shrugged. “We don’t get on with each other. They had nothing in common with my parents and all they want is for me to fit in with their friends, their ‘circle’,” She drew speech marks around the word. “And I really, really don’t. I just want to breed horses.”
“I know the feeling,” said Esca. Cottia and Marcus stared at him. “Not the breeding part, morons. The fitting in part. Back home anyway.”
“What, you don’t win over everyone you mean with your boundless charm?” said Marcus with an easy grin, “I find that hard to believe.”
Esca blew a lungful of smoke in Marcus’s direction, making him cough. “Oops. Sorry about that.”
“I was just saying, you can kind of abrasive, you know?” Marcus tipped his chair back, enjoying the loose feeling the alcohol had given him and the good company. He didn’t want to analyse why it took sparring with Esca to get him that way.
Esca frowned – “I’m not abrasive.”
“How about the first time I met you, you told me to fuck off?”
“Wait, wait,” Cottia interrupted, slopping half her drink on the table in her enthusiasm. “When was this?”
“A few days ago,” Marcus replied, before Esca could say anything. “And this was after I stopped him getting his ass kicked.”
“Uh... no, I was perfectly able to deal with that on my own actually.”
“Ok, now you have to tell me the whole story,” Cottia said, laughing.
So Marcus did, with liberal interruptions from Esca, but her reaction was not exactly the one he been expecting. “Awww so you were his knight in shining armour?”
Esca inhaled on his cigarette too fast and began spluttering. “He was not,” as Marcus went for the more straightforward, “No! It wasn’t—”
“I’m only winding you up,” said Cottia, grinning, then she winked at Marcus when Esca wasn’t looking.
It was only later Marcus realised that Esca had had a perfect opening to mention how he’d had to help carry his sorry ass home anyway. Instead he’d just taken a long pull of his drink and they’d carried on talking until the light began to fade, conversation drifting easily between the three of them, and for the first time since he’d come here, Marcus thought he could be happy.
Marcus should have known that, Placidus being Placidus, it was no use expecting something upfront. Given what he already knew of the guy, something really fucking stupid was about par for the course – not that Esca was finding it funny.
“He doesn’t even need the bloody books, he’s just doing this to be total and utter dick.”
“Whoa,” Marcus tried to grab Esca as his pacing took him past once more, nearly dislodging a huge pile of photocopied articles for Esca’s Celtic studies presentation. The assessed presentation he was giving in two days. “What books? What are you talking about?”
“And they want them back by tomorrow. I am going to have to photocopy everything.”
This time Marcus grabbed him and brought him firmly to a halt. “Jesus Esca, will you calm down for two seconds and tell me what the hell is wrong?”
“That wanker has recalled all of my books. My library books, the ones he doesn’t need, that no-one needs because I have the most obscure fucking subject on the syllabus, and he’s got them on some sort of ‘emergency recall’ list. When I find him, I am going to—”
Marcus didn’t need to ask who he was talking about. “Okay, just... just be quiet a second.” He realised he was still holding on to him, his hands curled tightly around the lean muscle of Esca’s biceps, and quickly let go, stepping back and clearing his throat. “Look, we’ll fix this, okay? We’ll... I don’t know, find the books, or break into Placidus’s house or something – I’m sure Cottia would love the excuse to piss him off and do some breaking and entering.” Esca smiled wanly. “Don’t worry about it.”
He tried smiling encouragingly and then, because Esca looked tired and grumpy and all round dishevelled (hard to resist at the best of times), Marcus allowed himself a quick shoulder squeeze as well, and if his hand lingered a little too long, Esca didn’t mention it. He didn’t have any smart comebacks either, which told Marcus all he needed to know about just how stressed out he was. He wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up, but he knew the terms of Esca’s scholarship as well as Esca did, and he didn’t get to flunk anything, not even in his first year when it shouldn’t count.
“Right,” said Marcus, doing his best to sound like he knew what he was doing, “Stay there and drink some tea or something.”
This time he got the ghost of a real smile. “Tea isn’t the answer to everything.”
“I think they revoke your Britishness for that,” Marcus pointed out, virtuously
Esca rolled his eyes and sat down on the bed, running a hand through his hair until it stood up every which way – which had the effect of making him look more than a little crazy. “Fine, you make me tea. I’m going to stay here and work out a place to hide the body.”
In the end, it took tea, some seriously Mammoth photocopying, Cottia’s calling in a favour from a friend with a amazing library (“okay, not all my aunt’s friends are totally useless”) and Marcus actually buying a couple books in town, to get the job done – and there was no way he was telling Esca about the buying part, money was already a touchy subject, especially when Marcus just happened to have plenty of it.
On the morning of the presentation, Marcus went to the gym for a work out and his physio – because he needed it and because he drew the line at hanging round the department like Esca’s stalker, or his mother. He came out a couple hours later to find Esca leaning against the wall, cigarette in hand like he thought he was James Dean, only shorter, and wondered what that said about his predictable life that he wasn’t all that surprised.
“How’d you know I was here?” he asked, swinging his gym bag over one shoulder.
Esca’s gaze flickered over him – probably some sort of silent-yet-withering comment on his sweaty shirt, but hey, he only lived two minutes away and his shower was a hell of a lot better than the gym’s. “You weren’t at home, and you were antsy all weekend. Usually means a fitness montage is in order.”
“I don’t montage,” Marcus said, plucking the cigarette from Esca’s hand before he could react and dropping it in the sand bucket. “And stop with the smoking, would you? You told Cottia you’d quit.”
Esca’s response to that was to scowl and light another one. “What Cottia doesn’t know, doesn’t hurt her. Anyway this is the part when you’re supposed to be asking me how it went.”
“How did it go?”Marcus said obediently – he knew where Esca’s cigarette stash was anyway, he hadn’t given up yet.
Esca exhaled and shrugged, the very image of nonchalance. “Alright. I got a first.” Then he jumped when Marcus let out a whoop. “Fuckin’ hell. Don’t do that.”
“Sorry,” said Marcus, who was not sorry at all. “Just... you kicked ass.” He grinned and an answering smile tugged at Esca’s lips though he tried to hide it.
“So, are we celebrating or what?” Marcus said, before an unwelcome thought occurred to him. “Unless you have other plans, I mean we could do something another time.” He wasn’t a total idiot, he knew there was a guy on Esca’s Celtic Studies course that had been sniffing around for a while and the last time he’d seen Esca, they’d been planning to meet up before class.
Esca just ducked his head, tossing the cigarette down (even though it was barely started) and stubbing it out. “No plans. What do you want to do?”
Marcus grinned, happy again. “How about you decide while I shower.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Esca, pulling a face and then dodging out of reach when Marcus tried to swat him with his gym bag.
They ended up at the animal shelter again, eating fries (or chips as Esca reminded him several times) they’d bought on the way as they sat outside the wooden enclosure that housed a certain three-legged fox. Cub had greeted them as he usually did – by running off to hide under the shelter and making weird growly noises that Marcus guessed were meant to be threatening. As usual however, the longer they sat there talking quietly, the braver Cub got – until at last he was sitting the other side of the fence, ears flicking back and forth uncertainly, seemingly transfixed by the smell of food.
“Sorry man, no chips allowed,” Marcus said apologetically. Naturally they wouldn’t give a fox chips, because it wasn’t part of their normal diet and because one of the shelter volunteers was spying on them from the main building, just in case (it wasn’t their fault Cub was hard to resist). Cub made a soft yipping noise and scratched at the bottom of the fence. “You’re not getting through there either.”
“Careful, foxes are clever,” Esca said from his half-sprawl alongside Marcus.
Marcus helped himself to another chip. “Says who?”
“Roald Dahl,” said Esca, in that superior I’m-about-to-impart-wisdom voice. “You should read ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ sometime, it’ll make you see Cub in a whole new light.”
“Will it make me think he’s intelligent?” Marcus asked, as Cub jumped up and nearly toppled straight over – having momentarily forgotten he was balancing on three legs these days, not four. “Because that seems like a long shot.”
Esca smirked, “Intelligent and needing snazzy waistcoats.”
“You’re weird,” said Marcus, not meaning it in the slightest.
Esca just grinned and stole the last chip.
There were some people in life that you knew were going to be a giant pain in the ass from the moment you met them, and Cottia’s cousin Placidus was just such a person.
“He’s not a person, he’s a worm,” was Cottia’s initial pronouncement.
That took the grand total of things Marcus knew about her cousin to two. The first being that he was, in fact, a student at their university but lived off campus at his parent’s place and never bothered to visit his cousin. Come to think of it, her aunt and uncle never visited either but Cottia said she preferred it that way so Marcus left the subject well alone.
As it turned out, he was destined to make his own assessment at the beginning of November and yeah, the guy really was a worm.
The first hint that his Saturday was not going to be spent working on his Imperial Britain essay (followed by the pub for the football game) came on Friday afternoon when he was in class and his cell phone lit up with a text from Cottia.
What are you doing tomorrow?
The lecturer was still trying to find the right file on her powerpoint so he quickly tapped back, Essay. Why?
The reply came swiftly.
Wouldn’t you rather fight injustice and defend small animals?
At that point, Esca – who was sitting beside him as had become his usual habit – leaned in to see what was going on, and Marcus fumbled his answer twice thanks to his warm breath tickling his neck.
Have you been drinking again?
There was a small delay then, and Marcus was just starting to think his reply had actually offended her when his phone lit up again and he opened the message to find a picture of a small, dark grey puppy of some sort, all fluff and big eyes, staring beseechingly out at him, followed swiftly by another text.
Would you kill this?
Is that a trick question?
He felt Esca snort softly at his answer but ignored him because if Esca was going to claim he killed puppies in his spare time, Marcus was going to call bullshit.
Good. Meet me tomorrow then. Will get you back in time for essay stuff and won’t make you do anything illegal. Bring Esca.
Marcus was still frowning at the message when Esca took the cell out of his hands and wrote, Maybe I’m busy.
The phone lit up just as Dr Walker started her video clip.
Going to Tesco doesn’t count. And give Marcus back his phone.
Even Esca looked impressed at that.
“How does she do that?” Marcus muttered, pocketing his cell once more as the powerpoint flashed back into life.
Cottia’s superhuman powers were still in evidence the next morning when she started knocking on Marcus’s bedroom door at some unholy hour, only to head off his complaints at the pass by holding out a steaming cup of coffee and a bacon sandwich, bought on the way over from her boyfriend Lee’s place, where she’d stayed the night.
“You know you’re freaky, right?” Marcus muttered, around a mouthful of food.
“Put something warm on, and cover up before Esca sees you,” she added, eyeing his bare chest.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Marcus said, but Cottia was already hurrying away to the kitchen.
Grumbling, he threw on his jeans, a sweater and his warmest coat. Did Cottia think he was going to parade round with his shirt off? Not that Esca would care about that anyway, although Marcus wasn’t sure he could have said the same if it was the other way around. There were times when Esca yanked his sweater off in class and Marcus got a tantalising glimpse of skin before he reminded himself of all the reasons why he shouldn’t be staring at his classmate.
He shoved the thought out of his mind and stuffed his gloves in his pocket and grabbed his crutch and his car keys.
They picked up Esca from his dorm – he looked about as thrilled to be awake this early as Marcus, but with much better bed hair – and headed out of town as per Cottia’s instructions. They had made it onto the dual carriageway before Marcus finally said, “Are you going to tell us where we’re going and why at any point?”
Cottia pulled on her gloves. “We’re going on a hunt.”
“What?” demanded Esca, at about the same time Marcus said, “But I thought we were saving fluffy animals?”
“We are,” said Cottia. “I’m a member of the League Against Cruel Sports.” She sounded proud of the fact.
Marcus was confused, but Esca was already nodding approvingly. “Right, a protest. I can do that.”
“So we’re protesting a hunt?” Marcus asked, trying to keep up.
“Exactly,” said Cottia.
“Of... puppies?” Marcus couldn’t help but think of that text.
“What? No!” Cottia said, scandalised, “of foxes.”
“I thought that was illegal here,” said Marcus, catching sight of Esca in the back, laughing at him. He glared and Esca just turned to look out of the window, obviously still amused – how was Marcus supposed to know?
“It is,” said Cottia, sighing. “They’re meant to follow trails nowadays, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen occasionally. We’re there to observe only, and report back on any law breaking. Well, I’ll do that bit. I know I dragged you two along but we’re not meant to go on our own, and Allie – from the hotel – she usually comes along but she’s ill.” She reached into her rucksack and pulled out a plastic container and a flask. “I brought you guys food and tea, for while you wait and to bribe you a little bit.”
“Hey, you don’t need to bribe me,” said Marcus, turning off where Cottia indicated. He had been camping out once with his uncle – when he was staying with him up in Colorado – and his uncle had shot a rabbit, skinned it and cooked it for their supper. Marcus had helped, because it made sense out there and he could hardly say it was worse than buying it in the grocery store, but he’d taken no pleasure in it, it was necessity, and the idea of hunting just for sport didn’t interest him at all. There were a few people at his school who’d seen it as a mark of pride, but Marcus had never been one of them.
“Excellent,” said Cottia, beaming. “Because I’ll need someone to drive us round so I can check on the fox holes we already know about as well.”
Arriving at the lay-by Cottia indicated, Marcus had his first sight of hunting done with considerably more style than his uncle had ever managed. In the distance the field was a sea of horses, hounds and riders in scarlet coats, against the backdrop of an impressive manor house teeming with activity, its doors thrown open as people hurried in and out with trays of glasses. It was almost festive.
Esca whistled. “How the other half live.”
“Welcome to my life,” said Cottia, staring at the scene unhappily.
Marcus shielded his eyes to get a better look. “Your aunt and uncle live somewhere like this?”
“Sort of,” said Cottia, with a twist of her lips. “Shall we get started?”
She produced a map from her backpack, annotated in her spiky handwriting, and lay it flat on the hood of the car. “We can start on the east fields, since they’re right next to the lane so you can park up and let me go check things. It would help if I can lay a couple of false trails too, that way everyone gets their run except the foxes. I have my notebook for recording any continuing signs of habitation, and my camera. What do you think?” She looked up at the two of them and Marcus felt a surge of affection for her in her green mac and mud-spattered wellingtons, her unruly copper hair braided out of the way and a look of such fierce determination on her face that Marcus didn’t envy any hunter – however important – that got in her way today.
“Sounds good to me,” he said, and looked across at Esca to see he was grinning too.
“What?” said Cottia, noticing and looking from one to the other.
“Nothing,” said Esca innocently. “Haven’t we got fluffy animals to rescue?”
“I may have lied about that,” Cottia said apologetically, “foxes will have your fingers off if you’re not careful and even the little ones haven’t looked fluffy since about June.”
So began their morning’s work which was, for the first hour at least, pretty uneventful. Marcus drove and Esca and Cottia got out and disappeared off into fields, armed with Cottia’s trusty notepad, and in between they argued over who got control over the iPod (Cottia mostly) and who was stealing all the sandwiches (Esca). Every ten minutes or so they glimpsed the hunt in the distance, a streak of noise and colour that Cottia watched through a battered pair of binoculars.
It was as they reached the hour and a half mark that everything went to shit. They were driving up a narrow dirt path, and Cottia was delivering an enthusiastic lecture on British wildlife when all at once excited barking and shouts filled the air, followed by the sound of an animal in pain – and she broke off, staring out of the side window with something like horror.
“What is it?” Esca was leaning forward from the backseat, trying to see along with Marcus, when Cottia pushed open the door of the barely moving car and jumped out, tearing down the track at a run and heading right for a field where Marcus could now see a large group of hunters and dogs had converged on a thicket.
“Shit,” said Esca, and followed her.
There was no way he could catch up with either of them, but Marcus parked up all the same and got out, hurrying as fast as he could over the uneven ground as the voices got louder. He could pick out Cottia’s raised in anger now, and then Esca too. When he finally turned through the gate, the scene that greeted him was nothing like he’d expected.
There were dogs everywhere, a couple of them dashed with blood as they flocked to a dense tangle of brambles. Cottia was standing a little at a distance, and she had gone from raising her voice to plain yelling at a man on a horse who was looking down at her like she was something that had crawled out of a drain. From the irritated or downright disapproving looks on the faces of some of the other riders, Marcus got the impression this was someone important. Not that Cottia gave a shit, nor Esca for that matter, who was standing a pace or two behind Cottia, a look of disgust on his face.
Marcus reached them just in time for the man in question to try a “My dear young woman,” on Cottia that he could see was going to backfire massively.
“Don’t you ‘my dear young woman’ me,” Cottia snapped, proving him right. “If you’ve killed a fox here, I am going to report it.”
“You might want to check the law,” the man said, looking increasingly irate. “If a scent is accidentally taken by the dogs then it—”
“That’s bollocks,” Cottia said, “you didn’t even try to stop the pack. You—”
Just then a man of about Marcus’s age rode up to the group, dismounting so quickly he nearly fell down. Striding over, he grabbed Cottia’s arm and attempted to drag her away, his face red with embarrassment.
“Hey!” Marcus said loudly, moving forward at the same time as Esca.
“Mind your own business,” the man snapped, ignoring Cottia’s attempts to yank her arm free.
“Let go of my friend then,” Esca said, with equal force, doing the glare that never failed to intimidate Marcus.
The man paused and looked Esca up and down. “Let me guess, her friend from the hotel?”
Esca’s glare didn’t waver. “No, I’m a student.”
The man snorted. “God, they let in anyone these days.”
“They let you in,” Cottia said at once.
The man ignored her, still looking pointedly at Esca who was standing his ground, “If you don’t mind.”
“Actually I do mind,” said Esca, flushing at the insult. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m the person whose father owns this land, and you and my stupid cousin are trespassing on private property.”
“You’re her cousin?” Marcus cut in, looking from him to Cottia.
“It’s not a relationship I’m proud of,” the man said – sounding a hell of a lot like Cottia had when talking of her cousin. Clearly, there was no love lost here.
“The feeling is mutual,” said Cottia, “and as far as I’m aware Uncle James hasn’t yet bought the public road so we were perfectly entitled to use it to check on what you were doing.”
“Except you’ve been tramping all over the fields, don’t think I didn’t notice you earlier, with your friends, trying to obstruct the hunt and embarrass us.”
Cottia opened her mouth to reply to this revelation but it was lost on Marcus because just then a movement caught his eye. Positioned as he was, further back from both Cottia and Esca and in the shadow of the thicket where the fox had evidently tried to go to ground, he heard the abrupt rustle of branches and saw the branches wobble like something had knocked into them deep within the dense tangle of branch and root.
He shifted a little closer and it came again – another wobble and then a sound like something in distress, so soft Marcus wondered if he had mistaken it.
Cottia’s cousin had succeeded in pulling her further away now to argue, but Marcus had to wait until the dogs had drifted away too – called to order by one of the huntsmen – before he dared look for the source of the noise. It was awkward for him to crouch down, but he managed it, his knee sinking into the soft mud as he ducked down out of sight of what remained of the hunt and peered into the shadowy tangle.
Silence. Reaching out carefully, he prodded a thick branch and saw answering movement within. He was either going to find something that needed rescuing or have his face bitten off by a rabid fox, it was a tough call. Suddenly a shadow fell over him, and before he could react Esca was crouching next to him,
“What are you doing?” he hissed. “Have you done something to your leg?”
Marcus pulled back, startled and looked past Esca to the field beyond – but the dogs had been herded away now and the few people that remained paid them no attention.
“There’s something in there,” he said softly. “I heard it.”
Esca tipped forward onto his knees, his bony shoulder pressed against Marcus’s upper arm as he too looked, and then, to the surprise of both of them, they saw it – a fox, not dead like they’d expected but alive and injured, moving on unsteady legs.
“It’s still alive,” Esca said softly, in wonder.
The fox was licking its back leg frantically, the source of its injury Marcus could see now.
Marcus shifted closer, but the fox didn’t seem to have noticed. “Can we get it out?”
“I don’t know, just because it’s injured doesn’t mean it won’t be— Marcus!”
Ignoring Esca’s warning, Marcus had reached into the thicket, wincing as thorns pulled at his hands and caught the sleeves of his jacket. He felt the warm coat of the fox and got a grip – but not before it whipped its head around and almost sank its needle-sharp teeth in.
“Fuck,” he gasped, moving his hand just in time and getting a better hold as he pulled the animal free and tucked it against his coat. It was small for a fox, scrawny even and much lighter than he expected, which thankfully made it easier to hold, even as it tried to twist again to bite its strange new predator. “Get my gloves out of my jacket pocket, will you.”
Esca fumbled with his jacket and pulled them out, helping Marcus work one on the hand holding the fox still. Then he sat back on his heels, regarding Marcus with an odd expression.
“What’s that look for?” Marcus said, settling the cub more comfortably.
“Nothing,” said Esca, quickly. Then he frowned slightly. “Just you clearly have a thing for coming to the rescue.”
Marcus snorted, as the fox tried to bite him again through the thick leather of his gloves. “Yeah, the crankier and less appreciative the better. Call it a crazy habit of mine.”
He looked up in time to catch Esca’s look of amusement, hastily suppressed into his habitual scowl, and ignored the way his heartbeat sped up. “I guess we better find somewhere to take it before someone else finds it,” he said. His leg was starting to hurt from crouching and Esca must have noticed his discomfort because he pulled the thread free and quickly got to his feet, dusting off his trousers and then offering Marcus a hand up which he accepted, staggering a little as he straightened.
“If we can drag Cottia away,” Esca said dubiously, releasing his hand. “I think she’s just getting warmed up.”
Esca had a point. Whoever the older guy on the horse was, he had now been drawn into an argument with Cottia while her cousin stood by, red faced and looking daggers at her. In any other situation, Marcus might have felt quite sorry for the guy, but in this case he’d insulted Esca and Cottia and been a total and utter ass, so Marcus’s sympathy was at an all time low.
“Can we just... tell her we have to leave?” Marcus said. Esca just looked at him. “Yeah, that was a dumb idea. Forget I said anything.”
“You hide the fox, I’ll sort Cottia,” said Esca – which was ridiculous because what was Marcus meant to do with a fox, even a scrawny one, hide it under his coat?
He hid it under his coat. It made him look fairly pregnant.
Meanwhile, Esca had walked the short distance to Cottia, her cousin and Mr Someone Very Important and was announcing, “I think we can safely say you’re both dickheads and Cottia here is right and you’ll be hearing from the police etc etc,” then while they were both still spluttering in outrage Esca quickly leaned in and whispered something to Cottia that wiped the confused look from her face entirely.
“Look at the time,” Cottia said brightly in the next moment. “Time to be off, I think. Things to do, protest, whatever.”
“What? You can’t just leave,” said her cousin loudly. “You haven’t apologised for—”
“Actually she can,” said Esca, making a casual gesture that, in hindsight, was probably a really bad idea, “Happy hunting.” By then, Cottia was striding back towards the gate and Marcus was only a few paces behind her, the fox more still now, although Marcus feared that had more to do with its injury than the two of them bonding. Marcus glanced back once, and had to resist making a gesture of his own at the sight of Cottia’s cousin and Mr Important watching them leave in outraged silence.
“Have you got it?” Cottia said breathlessly, as soon as they reached the safety of the car, well out of sight of the field.
Marcus pulled open the door and sat down, opening his coat just a little bit to reveal the fox’s head. “Its leg’s hurt pretty badly I think.”
Cottia nodded. “Okay, give it to me. There’s a place not far from here we can take it.” She clambered in the back of the car and Marcus eased the fox over, careful to keep a hand around its jaw, just in case.
The place Cottia knew of was a wildlife shelter just off the motorway, part of what had been a sprawling farm before a charity had taken it over and turned it into a centre for rescue and rehabilitation of British wildlife. Marcus found all this out from the handy leaflet he picked up in the waiting room – after Cottia had disappeared into the assessment room with a friendly middle aged woman called Harriet and one very unhappy fox. A little while after that, a teenage boy wearing a HELP A HEDGEHOG shirt had brought him and Esca a mug of tea each and some biscuits – along with the news that the fox was going to live, but they weren’t sure whether they could save the injured leg.
Marcus had no idea what that meant long term, probably nothing good if it was released back into the wild.
“Do you know much about foxes?” he asked Esca, mostly just thinking out loud and because it was oppressively quiet in the waiting room.
“No,” Esca said shortly. Then he glanced at Marcus, seemed to consider for a moment and added, “I had a dog once, that’s about as near as I got.”
“Really?” Esca didn’t exactly seem a romping in the fields with his puppy type.
“Yes, why not?” Esca said defensively and Marcus quickly backtracked.
“No reason, I just... You never mentioned a dog that’s all. What kind?”
Esca looked at him again, as if to gauge how sincere he was, before answering. “It was a Dalmatian.”
“Cool – like the movie?”
Esca sighed the sigh of the long suffering – which Marcus thought was unfair since everyone was going to think of Disney when someone said ‘Dalmation’. “I knew you were going to say that. But yes, like the movie.” He exaggerated the last word. “He was cool though, you know, for a dog. An old lady from the next street over gave him to me.”
“Do you still have him?” Marcus asked, intrigued at this new side of Esca.
Esca helped himself to a biscuit. “No,” he replied eventually. “We had to give him away. The council didn’t let us keep dogs and Mam always said he would have been too big anyway, when he was grown. Then I got brothers instead – although I think I’d rather have kept the dog in the end, he was less annoying.”
“See, I didn’t know you had younger brothers either,” Marcus said.
“Two. Nine and eleven and collective pains in my arse,” said Esca, but he sounded fond enough to reassure Marcus he wouldn’t really be trading them in for a dog any time soon.
It was the most Marcus had ever heard Esca say about his home life. He wasn’t an idiot, he’d worked out pretty fast that Esca wasn’t as well off as a lot of the students there. The fact Esca was on some sort of scholarship kind of gave that away, and there were other clues too, like the way he used the computer labs instead of a laptop, and always borrowed books instead of buying them. Marcus talked plenty about home, well not everything but the everyday stuff he talked about, but Esca rarely volunteered anything, and when he did it was always with a fierce sort of pride that suggested he was waiting for the snide comments to begin.
“I’m sorry about your dog, anyway,” Marcus said. “Did you ever get to see him?”
“Not really. He went to one of the big houses in town, turned out he was a pedigree or some crap like that. I think they took him to shows.” Esca sounded like he couldn’t have cared less, but Marcus wasn’t taken in.
“So you didn’t have any pets at all?” Marcus tried to imagine a childhood without a pet of some kind and failed.
“I had a goldfish,” Esca said, and looked sidelong at Marcus, smiling slightly in something that looked a hell of a lot like embarrassment. It was pretty charming. “What did you have then?”
“No goldfish,” Marcus replied. “But I do have a dog.”
“Let me guess,” Esca said mockingly, “some massive beast of a dog. A Rottweiler, or an Alsation, right? Probably called Rocky.”
Marcus almost grinned when he thought of his dog back home. “Rocky? Are you serious? Don’t assume, Esca MacCunoval. As it happens, I do have a fierce beast of a dog, she’s just a little height challenged.”
“Height challenged?” Esca said, sceptically.
“She’s short. Surely I don’t have to explain that to you?”
Esca looked at him like he couldn’t believe Marcus had just said that, then Marcus grinned and after a moment Esca rolled his eyes, smiling enough for Marcus to know his balls were safe for now. Not that Marcus cared all that much, there was something addictive about pissing off Esca. Maybe it was something to do with the way his face went all red along the cheekbones and he fairly vibrated with annoyance.
“And just so you know,” Marcus went on blithely, “my dog is a terrier called Bubbles – don’t ask, I was like eight years old or something when I named her.”
“Right,” said Esca, drawing the word out evilly. “Marcus and Bubbles.” He smirked.
“Better than Rocky,” Marcus said good-naturedly. “I bet yours was called Spot or some shit.”
Esca took a beat too long to answer and it was Marcus who started laughing this time. “You’re kidding me? Spot the dog?”
“Shut up,” Esca said, trying to scowl and failing. “No-one with a dog called Bubbles is allowed to judge me.”
“Keep telling yourself that, Esca.”
They were still bickering when Cottia reappeared, looking tired but relieved, Harriet in tow. “Good news, the fox is alright, if a bit three legged, but he gets to stay here so it’s not all bad news for him.” She paused suddenly, eyeing the pair of them with suspicion. “You two look freakishly cheerful, what did I miss?”
“Nothing,” said Esca, before Marcus could even draw breath. Marcus turned to look at him, a little hurt, but Esca was already getting up and grabbing the new mugs to take back to the desk.
“Okay then,” Cottia said, after a moment – giving Marcus a look that was probably supposed to mean something but really didn’t. “Moving on... Harriet wants to know if we have a name for him, since we rescued him and all. Or rather since you two rescued him.”
“Uh... Mr Fox?” Marcus said, because he was useless and Esca was being no help whatsoever.
Cottia gave him a withering look. “How about no, and anyway he’s not old enough to be a mister, he’s only a young one, that’s why they used to call it cub hunting at this time of year.”
“How about ‘Cub’ then?” It wasn’t much better than Mr Fox really, but he thought it was kind of cute.
Evidently Cottia agreed, because she mulled it over for a while, ignoring Esca’s “Cub? Are you serious?”
“Cub,” she said at last, nodding. “Actually I like it, it’s cute.”
Cub it was then. When they left an hour later, Esca was still complaining about it.
“What, you couldn’t have thought of something more literal?” he grumbled in the car as they pulled away.
Marcus frowned as if in thought, “Oh hey, I’ve got a great name – how about Spot? Spot for a dog with spots, it’s got a real original twist to it I think.”
Esca leaned forward and turned the music up – high enough to drown him out, an irresistible quirk to his lips, whilst Cottia just looked at them, bemused.
“I’m not even going to ask with you two. I don’t want to know anymore.”
It took nearly three weeks weeks for Cottia to come up with a suitable revenge on Placidus for the library stunt. Three weeks of Marcus making sure Esca didn’t get there first since he really didn’t need that on his college record, however much he swore it was worth it.
“I’ve got it,” Cottia burst into Marcus’s room while he was trying to make sense of his lecture notes, practically bouncing with excitement.
“Please come in,” Marcus said sarcastically, putting a question mark next to something that could have been a date, or a leaky pen, it was hard to tell.
“Oh hush,” said Cottia, pulling up a chair. “Do you want to hear my revenge or not?”
Marcus sighed and put the pen down. “This better be good.”
“We swap his books!”
Marcus waited for the rest of the plan but it wasn’t forthcoming. “That’s it? Isn’t that kind of lame?”
Cottia smacked him on the arm. “It’s better than it sounds, and it’s not his books exactly, it’s the Business Society’s books.”
That definitely sounded more like it. The election of Placidus to ‘librarian’ of the Business Society’s extensive collection was a point of enormous pride and superiority for Placidus and a point of enormous irritation and sufferance for everyone else. “Didn’t he have to swear an oath or something to guard those with his life?”
Cottia smiled widely. “Exactly. Now are you going to help or not?”
Marcus only had to think about it for a second. “Okay, but this time, we don’t tell Esca, I’m not having Placidus make trouble for him again. Not after last time.”
Cottia pursed her lips, giving Marcus a look that made him feel about five years old. “Alright, but he doesn’t need protecting you know. Even though I think it’s adorable that you try, both of you.”
“Will you stop with the adorable thing? Neither of us is ‘adorable.’”
“You think Esca is adorable, don’t lie.”
“This part of the conversation is over.” He ignored her tut. “How are we going to break into the room anyway, I’m willing to bet Placidus sleeps with the key under his pillow.”
Cottia propped her chin on her hand. “Yes, if only I had a devious boyfriend who played darts with one of the night security blokes, how helpful that would be...”
Marcus snorted, Cottia could be a force of nature sometimes. “How the hell are you and Placidus related?”
“No idea, but I think I got the looks and the brains.”
They picked Friday night for their ‘great revenge’ (Cottia’s words, not his) – since Placidus was home all weekend for some big society function and Cottia didn’t have a shift at the hotel until ten.
“What did you tell Esca?” Cottia whispered, when he met her at the college gate a little after eight.
Marcus shrugged, picking up the bag of books she’d brought for him so as to avoid her gaze. “Nothing, he’s seeing that Liathan guy.”
“Again? Are you serious?” Cottia huffed. “God you two are so emotionally stunted.”
“Why are you dragging me into this? I’m not going out with anyone.”
“Exactly,” said Cottia darkly – which just made no sense at all.
As they made their way inside, Marcus tried not to think about it. Esca hadn’t even told him about Liathan himself. One minute, he’d just been the guy on his course Marcus was suspicious of, the next he’d spotted him lurking around the coffee shop after Esca’s shift and when he’d mentioned it to Esca, Esca had and said “It’s just a drink,” in a tone that told Marcus quite clearly he didn’t want to talk about it. That had been last week, and since then they’d gone out to the student union one night and now another ‘drink’.
Marcus didn’t know what would be worse, knowing that Esca might be off with some guy for the foreseeable future, or having said guy tag along on their bar nights, or movie nights, or torturing-Placidus nights, or any night where it was meant to be just him and Esca, or him, Esca and Cottia. And what sort of a name was ‘Liathan’ anyway?
“Stop thinking about Esca’s date, you’ll give yourself indigestion.” Cottia thrust her rucksack (which weighed a ton by the way) into his already laden arms and started fishing around in her pocket for the keys she’d ‘borrowed’ from Lee’s friend. They were outside the door neatly labelled:
BUSINESS SOCIETY LIBRARY:
LIBRARIAN P. MONTGOMERY.
“I wasn’t thinking about that,” Marcus said, too late – he was blaming that sign, when the hell did Placidus get that made, it looked like he’d had the thing carved in oak.
“Of course you were, you always get that look on your face when you’re thinking about Esca. You could just ask him out you know.”
Now she definitely had his attention. “What?”
“You, Marcus Aquila” said Cottia with exaggerated patience, “could ask Esca MacCunoval out. Romantically, not for your weekly takeaway and xbox flirtathons – as thrilling as they always sound through your bedroom wall.”
“But I’m not gay,” Marcus blurted out. Cottia just looked at him steadily, her eyebrows raised, and Marcus felt a familiar burst of frustration. “Okay, even if I was, I need a crutch to walk, in case you haven’t noticed, what am I going to do – prop it against the bed and hope my knee doesn’t give out while I explore my thrilling new sexuality?”
He stopped, regretting his words as Cottia’s face cycled through a variety of expressions from shock to pity to exasperation. He hadn’t planned to say any of that, but it been bubbling under the surface for a while. It was typical that he had never dared think about all this stuff at home, and now it didn’t matter any more, his pride wouldn't let him act on it. “Look, just forget I said anything.”
He put down the bags and took the keys from Cottia, the better to get on with actually opening the door, but he could feel her eyes on him and wasn’t at all surprised when she spoke. “Esca wouldn’t care about that.”
Marcus gave the door a push. “I care about it,” he said, the click of his crutch of the floor a constant reminder of his insecurities. He switched on the light, revealing row upon row of neatly catalogued shelves. “And this is all pointless, Esca and I are just friends.” And he was probably doing things Marcus didn’t even want to think about right now, with Liathan. “This is a stupid conversation, you know that?”
“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response,” said Cottia as she followed him in dragging the bags behind her. Letting them go, she straightened and looked at Marcus kindly, then heaved a great sigh. “How about I promise to leave your love life alone, if you do the top shelves? I’m tall, but not that tall.”
“Deal,” said Marcus.
In the quiet of the empty college, they got to work. The plan was not to leave the shelves bare of course, but to simply (in Cottia’s words) swap the covers where they could, the better to ensure that the next time Placidus signed out a copy of The Pursuit of Profit, the lucky reader got to enjoy ‘The Joy of Sex’ instead.
“Why does this have ‘Property of Placidus’ written on the inside page?”
“Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no evil plans for humiliating my cousin,” Cottia said loftily, swapping the dust jacket for How To Talk To Girls with the much less garish jacket for Understanding the Stock Market.
“Where did you find these anyway?” Marcus asked, as he tipped out the second bag.
“The first lot were from charity shops, the rest of them are mine – the good ones, that is.”
Marcus picked up a large hardback with a picture of a bare chested man astride a black stallion. “Like ‘The Horse Master’s Bride’?”
Cottia snatched the book away. “I was young and it did not live up to its title at all..”
Marcus grinned and for a few minutes they worked quietly, Marcus determinedly focusing on the books to keep his mind from what Esca might be doing right that moment. It was working pretty well, right up until the moment Cottia triumphantly brandished Gay Sex for Beginners in his face and he grabbed wildly for the wrong book and brought a whole series on Tax Law down on his head with an almighty crash.
Cottia was still apologising five minutes later. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. Is that blood? Do you think you need stitches? You could have concussion.”
“Jesus, Cottia, I’m fine.” Marcus batted her hands away from his scalp (again) and pushed her towards the tiny office in the lobby where night security were on duty and apparently watching Wildest Police Chases 5. They’d cut short their plot when Cottia had convinced herself Marcus must have suffered a massive head wound and no amount of accurately describing how many fingers she was holding up seemed to be convincing her otherwise.
“Are you sure you’re not seeing double?” Cottia said, the moment she came back over. “Because that is a massive bruise.”
“I am sure.”
“This is all my fault – it was the gay sex, wasn’t it? You weren’t ready.”
A passing night porter nearly walked into the door.
Marcus thought his face was probably scarlet by now and he started for the exit, limping a little more than usual thanks to nearly falling flat on his face after the book shower. “Thanks for that. How about we leave now before this gets any more humiliating.”
“I’m texting Esca,” said Cottia, getting her cell phone out and typing rapidly.
Marcus made a grab for it and missed. “Would it kill you to tell him tomorrow instead?”
Cottia danced further out of reach. “I’m not telling him so he can laugh, I’m telling him so he can come and watch you for signs of concussion while I’m at work.”
“You’re not serious.”
“I am serious. What if you die while I’m folding towels at the hotel? How do you think I’d feel? Guilty! That’s how I’d feel.”
“Look, it’s Esca or Lee, and the last time Lee nursed me I fell out of bed and he didn’t notice for an hour and a half.”
She was walking fast as they left the college and set off down the road back to Halls, but Marcus just about managed to keep up. “Cottia, I’m serious, I’m okay – don’t text him.”
“Too late,” said Cottia, pocketing the cell phone again. Then she stopped and peered at him again and Marcus was touched to see she really was concerned about it. He couldn’t deny his head hurt like hell, but that didn’t mean he wanted Esca dragged back from his date like Marcus was some pity case for him to take care of when he’d rather be elsewhere.
Fortunately it seemed it wasn’t going to be an issue because by the time they’d reached their flat, Esca still hadn’t text back or answered his cell when Cottia had tried calling.
“Shall I wake up someone else?” Cottia said anxiously.
“For god’s sake, I’m fine. Will you go to work?” Marcus didn’t think he’d had more than a two minute conversation with anyone else in the flat, they were all scientists and psychologists, the last thing he wanted was them coming in and out of his room all night on Cottia’s orders. He was just going to take a couple of his strong painkillers and sleep – they always knocked him out.
It took another five minutes to get Cottia to leave, and then it was with the promise that she’d call him on her break, just to make sure he hadn’t drowned in a puddle of his own vomit.
Marcus had just changed into his pyjama bottoms and a grey shirt and was trying to remember where he’d put his medication when he heard the flat door open and close again and Cottia was knocking on his door.
With a groan – his head really did hurt – he limped over and yanked open the door, already saying, “Cottia, I told you—”, when he found himself face to face with Esca. “What are you doing here?”
“The door was on the latch and Cottia led me to believe your death was imminent.” Esca looked windswept, as though he’d been hurrying back up the hill from town, and his eyes had gone straight to Marcus’s hairline where he knew he had a sizeable lump developing in some interesting colours, not to mention the blood Cottia had got so worried about. “Shit. What the fuck did you do?” He stepped inside and immediately raised a hand, tracing the bruise forming with delicate fingers.
“Uh...” said Marcus, not very eloquently it had to be said, but then Esca was touching him, and standing so close he could see lightest dusting of freckles on his skin. He cleared his throat. “I’m good, really. It’s just a bump. You don’t have to...”
All at once, Esca seemed to realise what he was doing and he snatched his hand away, breaking the strange moment between them and leaving Marcus stranded in the middle of the room as he moved past, shrugging his coat off and tossing it over the back of the desk chair. Marcus turned, belatedly, his eyes taking in the smooth expanse of his neck as Esca unwound his scarf. Fortunately for his sanity, there were no telltale marks there from his evening, only a flush of red.
“You don’t have to stay,” Marcus said, properly this time, but no less a lie. “I mean, you had plans. With Liathan.”
Esca kicked off his sneakers, managing to get them half away across the floor like always. “Cottia said something about you drowning in vomit,” he said, as though he hadn’t heard the second part of Marcus’s comment at all.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
Marcus pushed Esca’s fingers out of his face. “Flipping me off doesn’t qualify as a medical test, Esca. Also, Cottia did that already, several times. I’ve got a bump not a fatal head wound.”
“Nevertheless...” Esca picked up Marcus’s wastepaper basket and pulled a face at it, before he removed the empty coke can and set it by the bed. Then he flopped down on Marcus’s duvet, lounging in a way that was probably going to feature in one of Marcus’s more embarrassing dreams later on, and raised an eyebrow expectantly. “Come on then, sit by the bucket and stick a film on or something. No-one said I had to endure your conversation as well.” Then he ducked, as Marcus tried to swat him and missed.
“I’m starting to think I should have let Cottia send Lee over.”
“Even though she fell out of bed when she had the flu and he didn’t notice for over an hour?”
Marcus limped over to the desk and switched on his laptop, defeated. “She told you about that too, huh?”
“Yep,” said Esca smugly. “I’m your only hope.”
“Thanks, Leia – Ow!” he jumped as Esca poked him in the ass with his crutch. “Will you stop that! My crutch is not a weapon.”
“Well I really don’t look good in a bikini.”
Marcus opened his mouth to make a teasing reply but stopped when the memory of Cottia’s ‘flirtathon’ comment came to mind. That left a rather self conscious silence as Marcus looked along his DVD shelf and tried to think of something to say that couldn’t be misconstrued. He was still coming up blank when Esca spoke again.
“So what were you doing anyway? To have a ton of books drop on you?”
Marcus pulled out a couple of movies that Esca might like and tossed them over. “We were just in the library.” It wasn’t, after all, a lie.
“Since when do you study in the library on a Friday night? We haven’t got anything due.”
It was a fair point, and one Marcus didn’t have an answer to since he and Esca shared at least half their modules and Esca seemed to know his timetable better than he did. This year, anyway. Next year, they probably wouldn’t be seeing each other much in classes at all.
Esca poked him with the crutch again. “Answer the question.”
Marcus yanked the crutch out of his hand and propped it up in the corner – he was tempted to put it on top of the wardrobe, well out of reach, but that would just be asking for trouble and he was already in pain. “Okay, but don’t get mad.” Esca was going to find out about the books soon enough anyway.
Esca’s eyes narrowed. “Marcus!”
“We were playing a prank on Placidus.”
At first, Esca looked confused, then to Marcus’s surprise something unexpectedly like hurt crossed his face. “You and Cottia were? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You were busy...” Marcus began, and then stopped when Esca looked distinctly pissed off. He tried again, “Come on Esca, don’t be like that. Look at how much trouble he caused for you last time. I didn’t want – we didn’t want something like that to happen again. Plus it’s my turn to annoy Placidus.”
He didn’t know if that had improved things. Esca just stared at him, then said flatly, “You left me out because he stole my library books.”
Put that way, it didn’t sound good. “Not... I mean, you had plans and it didn’t even take long.” Esca folded his arms. “Look, can we argue about this tomorrow? My head is really pounding right now.”
It was pretty weak, as get out clauses went, and it was obvious Esca thought so too from the totally unsympathetic eye roll he got in response. But it did the job – sort of, as Esca’s glare softened somewhat and he slid off the bed and went unerringly to the shelf where Marcus kept a pile of books, a nearly full tube of Pringles and – apparently – his pain medication.
Marcus frowned. “How did you find that?”
Esca passed it over, looking smug – an expression that always had the effect of making Marcus want to tackle him there and then and do things that were almost certainly bad for his leg. “You’re always throwing stuff up here. You’re like the messiest organised person I know. And don’t think this means you’re off the hook about the library by the way.”
“I’m not messy,” Marcus said automatically. If there was one thing his mom had always tried to instil, it was organisation. However his mom wasn’t here, so Marcus thought he was more than entitled to slack off occasionally. Anyway, “I’ve seen your bedroom, Esca, so don’t start on me about mess.”
“Yeah, but I don’t have a wastepaper bin, and a laundry basket, and under-bed storage boxes.”
“I have a lot of stuff,” Marcus said, defensive, “and nothing would want to live under your bed, not even storage boxes.”
“It’s called being a student,” Esca pronounced and disappeared in Marcus’s en-suite to get him a glass of water – which Marcus figured meant he was off the hook over Placidus. Fortunately for everyone, Esca’s moods tended to burn off fast.
“It’s called a hasmat case waiting to happen,” Marcus muttered anyway.
Esca returned with the water and pushed it into Marcus’s hand. Then he stood there and watched Marcus take his meds – which was a little unnerving, or at least that was Marcus’s excuse for his heart rate speeding up. “Uh... Did you want to pick a movie?” Marcus said, voice a little scratchy when Esca seemed determined to watch him swallow every last drop of water from about six inches away.
Esca blinked. “What?”
“The movie... Film, whatever. These meds will probably knock me out pretty fast so I don’t mind if you’d rather go back to—”
“Just put a DVD on and shut up,” Esca said, and grumpy Esca was much easier to deal with than weirdly staring Esca so Marcus did as he was told.
As always, it only took about fifteen minutes for him to start feeling the full effects of his meds and he was groggily listening to Esca picking apart the opening scenes of a King Arthur movie when the shrill tone of Esca’s cell phone broke through the haze.
Pausing in his diatribe, Esca picked it up, read whatever was on there, and then tapped out a short reply before he turned it off and tossed it aside
“Cottia?” Marcus asked, when Esca didn’t immediately return to the historical inaccuracies of post-Roman Britain or whatever the hell he was talking about before.
“Liathan,” Esca said shortly, his eyes fixed on the screen.
“Oh,” said Marcus. After a sluggish few moments, he figured this was probably the time for him to be a supportive friend, however much he really didn’t want to hear about Esca’s night. Actually, if he was any kind of decent friend, he would have asked this a lot earlier and when he wasn’t doped up. “How was your date?”
Esca watched the screen for a few more seconds, then slowly turned and said, “What?” like he couldn’t believe the words had just come out of Marcus’s mouth.
Marcus yawned hugely. “Your date. Was it, uh, fun? You know, with the... That guy. Again.”
Esca’s eyebrows climbed a little higher. “Just how strong are those tablets?”
Marcus scowled, because yeah, he was usually passed out by now, but at least he was making an effort this time. Esca could be less of an unappreciative ass. “I’m trying to take an interest.”
“In my love life,” Esca said, as though to clarify.
“Fine, excuse me for asking,” Marcus muttered.
“If you must know, he wanted to go for dinner.” Esca made it sound like some unspeakable act of horror.
“...And?” Marcus said, not seeing where this was going. He and Esca ate out at least a two or three times a week – even if it was just in the college canteen or occasionally the Thai place on the High Street that Esca loved and that handily gave student discount.
Esca picked moodily at a loose thread on the duvet. “And I’m not his boyfriend. I don’t want to go out for dinner.”
“Well okay,” said Marcus, since the whole thing seemed gloriously simple to him right then. “Don’t go out for dinner with him. Stay in with me.”
Esca’s mouth twitched, and then he looked sort of...sad? Marcus decided that must be the drugs taking effect. “That simple is it?”
“I guess?” Marcus’s head wasn’t hurting anymore, and nor was his leg, but shit he was tired, and if he didn’t sleep soon he might just pass out instead. “I think I’m going to sleep now.” It came out as more a mumble, but then it occurred to him Esca hadn’t actually answered his question. “You staying then?”
Esca sighed and shifted around, grabbing a pillow from the stack at the end and making himself more comfortable. “Of course I’m staying. Go to sleep, idiot.”
“’M not,” Marcus managed and passed out.
Marcus woke up twice in the night. The first time, the movie was still playing – shouting and flashes of violent movement that confused him – but Esca was curled up beside him on the bed, leaning back against the wall, and when he shifted, mumbling and blinking against the harsh light, he felt a hand in his hair and Esca telling him softly to go back to sleep.
The second time, only the desk lamp was on and the movie was over, the DVD logo bouncing around a black screen. Esca was slumped against him, snoring lightly, his warmth covering Marcus like a blanket. It felt like he was drunk, or dreaming, so he just lay down, pulling Esca with him, despite his sleepy grumbling, and tucking him more comfortably against his body, and then he drifted off once more.
When he woke up a third time, to the sound of his alarm and the glare of sunshine, Esca had gone and Marcus couldn’t remember anything.
After they had rescued Cub, Marcus thought he could say, with confidence, that he and Esca were properly friends (he and Cottia had of course been friends since that first afternoon when she’d helped him scrape omelette from the cooker). He sometimes wondered if Esca would agree with his assessment, but the way he saw it, friends spent time together, and went out, and talked a lot and he and Esca definitely did that, even if he sometimes talked more than Esca while Esca was busy doing his ‘moody artiste’ thing.
Given that as a fact, he wasn’t sure why he and Esca were friends, or rather why Esca was friends with him. Marcus’s reasons were pretty simple – he liked Esca. He thought he was gorgeous, yes, but beyond that he just liked the guy. He was all sharp, prickly edges and humour that made Marcus laugh before he stopped and thought he probably shouldn’t find it funny. He could be a moody little bastard, that was for sure, but Marcus found that didn’t bother him at all, since it made it all the more fun to prod him out of it. He sometimes wondered if Esca did it deliberately, since he seemed to like the stupid arguments that followed as much as Marcus did, whether they were about Marcus’s sad lack of knowledge of British culture, or which muppet was the best.
Marcus had always been popular at home, he was a good football player and he didn’t think it was possible to be that and not be popular, not where he came from. But more than that he was known for being a good guy he supposed, easy-going for the most part but driven when it came to football. So yeah, Marcus had been popular, he’d gotten on well with most everyone, but he knew he had never been friends with someone like Esca back home. He didn’t even know someone like Esca back home and he had no idea what exactly he was bringing to the friendship. Football had been his thing (or his life, as his mom had once uncharitably said). Losing that had been the worst part about his injury – the knowledge he would never be that person again, mixed with the realisation that the future he’d planned for and relied on could never happen.
So here he was, as far away from all that as he could get – a deliberate choice, but no less scary for that – majoring in history of all things, and friends with a cranky guy with an unhealthy interest in ancient Celtic burial practices and tribal customs, and a girl who, when not defending the rights of foxes, could tell you stuff you never asked to know about the rigorous standards needed in successful horse breeding programmes.
“It’s a question of retaining the quality of the bloodline,” Cottia told him earnestly on one such night in early November and after more than a few drinks had been had (by Cottia at least). It was, incidentally, the night Marcus finally met her long-time boyfriend, Lee, who was nearly as tall as Marcus and had nearly crushed his hand in what he could only assume was a warning handshake. He had heard plenty about him, but meeting him was something else. Also the guy was really into farming, or maybe he was just used to Cottia by now – which was great for Cottia, less fun for Marcus.
“Right,” said Marcus, not really knowing what the hell she was talking about. He kept glancing at the door of the bar and wondering where Esca was, he was supposed to be coming by after his shift at the coffee shop.
“Lee agrees with me, don’t you?” Cottia went on, swaying towards her boyfriend alarmingly.
Lee guided her back upright. “I always agree with you.”
Cottia beamed at him and opened her mouth to continue her lecture on horse mating rituals or whatever the hell it was when the door opened in a flurry of wind and rain and Esca came in at last. It took him a moment to spot them, giving Marcus ample opportunity to appreciate the sight of him, hair spiky with rain and cheeks flushed from the cold.
“Sorry, I got stuck talking to the boss.” Esca dumped his bag on the floor and then pulled a stool over, dragging it round to Marcus’s end of the table and dropping down onto it with a sigh after carefully moving Marcus’s crutch out of the way.
“Cottia’s been telling us about horse breeding,” Marcus said, trying to convey the full horror of this through stare alone.
In the weeks he had known Esca, Marcus had quickly come to recognise the look he got in response as totally unsympathetic, possibly even devious. “But you seemed so interested the other day, weren’t you asking about racehorses?”
“You were?” said Cottia, perking up.
“I was not,” said Marcus, firmly, and Cottia looked tragically disappointed. “Okay, maybe I was a little,” which was a total lie.
Cottia grabbed a stack of beer mats and launched right in, complete with diagrams, leaving Marcus to resign himself to nodding along and commenting in all the right places – at least until he caught Esca watching him.
Esca started and looked away, quickly tipping out a pile of coins onto the table top and counting out some change. “You’re such a sap.”
Marcus glared at him. “Shut up, Esca.”
“Sap,” said Esca softly as he stood up to go get himself a drink, still looking highly amused. Marcus tossed one of Cottia’s beer mats at him and he made sure it was a wet one.
Of course, Cottia had her own ideas about their friendship, and it had nothing to do with Esca knowing all kinds of interesting shit about Celtic Britain and Doctor Who and drinking games and providing Marcus with an ‘essential’ (in Esca’s words) British education in return for raiding his DVD collection and being taught the finer points of Supernatural appreciation.
“He can be kind of... standoffish with most other people, you know,” she said one afternoon, giving Marcus a sidelong look he pretended not to see. They were in the kitchen of their flat, just the two of them and the subject of Esca had come up somehow.
“I wouldn’t say that’s true anymore,” said Marcus, feeling defensive on Esca’s behalf, even though he’d drawn vampire fangs on Queen Victoria in Marcus’s book on The Great Empires which meant Marcus owed him nothing at all, the little shit. Apparently it was from a novel, which Marcus hadn’t heard of, but Esca seemed to find it hilarious.
“Yes, you would,” Cottia said. “You don’t have to get all defensive, you know I like him as much as you. Well, maybe not quite as much as you.” She’d starting saying stuff like that more lately and Marcus hadn’t found a way to respond yet that didn’t involve him going red in a way that was completely obvious. This time was no exception, but Cottia clearly wasn’t finished. “It’s just that he can be abrasive, you’ve said so yourself, and doesn’t mix that much – which is why it’s such a good thing he has us, or rather you in particular.”
“It is?” Marcus said dubiously.
“Yes, because you can’t resist the grumpiness,” and then she made the sort of face you might make at a cute puppy, which was just wrong. “You’re good for each other, and I’m good for both of you.”
“Really,” said Marcus drily.
“Yes, we outcasts should stick together,” said Cottia.
“Speak for yourself,” said Marcus, who’d gone out with some people from his modern history class just last night, though granted, Esca and Cottia had been at work and if they hadn’t been Marcus wasn’t going to pretend he wouldn’t have invited them along. As it was he’d had a good time, and Esca had texted him on both of his breaks anyway.
The next time he saw Esca, he felt like an idiot for over thinking it all. He liked Esca, he liked his company and his moods and even his weird facts about ancient dead people and why their customs were so important. And for whatever reason, Esca seemed to like Marcus and find him funny – even when he wasn’t trying to be, especially when he wasn’t trying to be. If he could just stop with the wildly inappropriate fantasies and Cottia could stop with the looks, everything would be cool.
Two weeks after the business library stunt, Cottia was forced to admit it was an idea with a long-ass return for their efforts. Placidus evidently hadn’t noticed yet, or at least the quality of the death glares he directed at them in the corridors hadn’t changed a whole lot and no rumours had reached them of his love of romantic self help guides. Cottia was all for bribing someone to use the library and get one of the eleven books they’d managed to swap before Marcus had given himself a head injury, but Marcus was having a hard time focusing on torturing Placidus when Esca’s night out with Liathan had extended to nearly three weeks of dating-but-not-dating (according to Esca anyway). The dinner clearly hadn’t put Esca off that much, if anything he’d been seeing even more of Liathan since that night, something that made no sense to Marcus at all. It wasn’t even that he didn’t like the guy, it was just that he... didn’t like the guy.
“I don’t trust him,” he told Cottia, after Esca had cried off of the movies because he had to go to a poetry reading. Okay, so Esca had looked like he felt really bad about it, but he had still gone.
Cottia had merely given him a look and flicked her hair dryer to the next setting, completely drowning him out in a way that told Marcus she hadn’t forgotten his unwillingness to annoy Placidus some more or listen to her opinion on Marcus and Esca’s “utterly moronic stupidity”.
Eventually Marcus took the hint and went back to his own room to glare at his textbooks and not get any work done while he imagined what Esca and Liathan might be doing right that moment.
He gave up after an hour and started mainlining Daily Show clips instead, at least that stuff was funny. He was on something like clip 17 and eyeing the half empty Pringles tube on the shelf (it was that bad) when his cell phone beeped.
Like the empty blackness of a
Kicking your ass at
Call of Duty 4.
Sadness and madness
(Just so you
He stared at the message, his mood lightening so fast that if he hadn’t known he was fucked a long time ago, it would have known it then for sure.
Quickly, he typed back.
You know what else is lame? LYING about your score. I believe the only ass-kicking going on is yours. Also your poetry is shit. Just so you know.
Then he waited and about thirty seconds later, his cell beeped again,
You talk big, but I’d like to see you convey the transience of life through interpretive dance.
I thought this was a poetry reading?
Poetry is of the soul, Marcus. It takes all forms.
Even the mashed potato?
All forms except the mashed potato.
The mashed potato IS poetry.
Maybe in 1957.
Marcus tilted his chair back, grinning widely as he typed.
Remind me of that dance you and Cottia showed me again – the Macarena? Because that looked really poetic when you fell on your ass and took Cottia with you.
I was conveying the pointlessness of existence.
And the potency of vodka?
Your wit slays me, Esca.
I’m crying. What are you doing, anyway?
Marcus looked from the screen and Jon Stewart’s frozen face, to the Pringles, and then typed,
Working on my essay for Imperial Britain.
Oh really? What’s the title?
Uh... Marcus dived for his folder that he’d tossed on the bed and flipped through to the course handbook, choosing one at random.
The British Empire was a matter of policy, not opportunism. Discuss.
Nope, sorry. You took too long. What are you really doing?
Marcus swore, how the heck did Esca do that? Resigned, he typed,
Watching Daily Show.
I knew it. I have Jedi skills.
Ok Yoda – what am I doing now?
Flipping me off.
Marcus closed his hand again and glared at the phone.
You’re a freak, you know that?
Stop being so predictable then.
Marcus considered not replying to that one at all (everyone knew predictable meant boring), but before he could make a decision one way or the other, his phone flashed.
Got to go. Texting at poetry readings is frowned upon apparently.
Marcus read that through twice and then let his head drop to the desk with a soft thunk. Oh yeah, Esca was on a date-that-wasn’t-a-date with Liathan. For a moment he’d forgotten that part.
Inevitably, he had to actually spend some time with Liathan. It was hard to avoid when he was Esca’s not-boyfriend and Marcus was Esca’s best friend. Friend. Whatever. He’d spent the first two weeks dreading it – because he didn’t know if he could see Esca kiss another guy again without wanting to bash his own head in with his crutch. Fortunately for his sanity, Esca didn’t seem any more keen on the meeting than Marcus, which led to week three, where Marcus mostly wondered why Esca didn’t want him and Cottia to meet Liathan.
“Maybe he knows you’re going to eyeball Liathan all night,” – had been Cottia’s totally unhelpful and uncalled for suggestion.
She might have a point. But it had only happened once and at a distance, and Esca hadn’t even been looking in his direction.
As it was, it was three and a half weeks of poetry readings, gigs and nights at the union bar before a trip to the beach threw Marcus into Liathan’s company. This time Lee was driving – since taking a barbeque to the beach had been Cottia’s idea – which meant Marcus ended up in the unenviable position of being sandwiched between Liathan and the window on the forty minute journey. Not that he was complaining, it had been four days since he’d seen Esca outside of lectures and the inbox of his cell phone and he’d missed him far more than was healthy.
“You must be Marcus,” Liathan said, sliding into the seat next to him and giving Marcus a cool smile.
Marcus held up a hand in greeting, as best he could in the confined space. “Hey, man. Good to meet you at last.” It was a lie, but what the hell, he wasn’t going to be a dick about it. Esca climbed in after Liathan and sat down, looking awkward – shit, maybe he had noticed the eyeballing.
“Likewise,” said Liathan, which was the sum total of their conversation. Liathan preferred to talk to Esca – which was totally understandable, Marcus would prefer to talk to Esca too.
Unfortunately he could barely see Esca past Liathan’s shoulders and was forced to listen instead to their conversation about bands and TV shows Marcus had never heard of.
It was a relief to finally hit the beach, even if Cottia’s idea of a ‘few bits and pieces’ would probably feed an army.
“You do know there’s only five of us, right?” Marcus said as she dropped the cool box onto the sand. Armed with his crutch as he was, he’d been relegated to carrying the paper plates and plastic cups. They found a spot up by the dunes, far away from the few kids still messing about and sheltered, though Marcus had to admit Lee has been right about the weather. It wasn’t hot, but it was warm enough for May, a clear blue sky just starting to tip into dusky evening.
“Oh ha ha,” said Cottia, supervising Lee transporting the cups and plates. “Esca, get the beer.”
Esca saluted smartly, making Marcus grin – until he caught Liathan’s eye and thought better of it. He busied himself with getting the matches out.
“I’ll give Esca a hand,” Liathan said, rather pointedly Marcus thought, and strolled up the beach path after him, slinging an arm around Esca’s shoulders as he caught up and tugging him close.
Marcus looked away quickly and struck the match with a bit more force than was probably necessary, snapping it in half and taking three further attempts to get the firelighters going. Then he stood up, cutting Cottia off mid-speech (she was counting burgers out loud). “If you’ve got this, I’m going to go take a look around.” Cottia looked at him suspiciously for a moment, then her expression just as quickly melted into sympathy that Marcus was not about to deal with right then.
“Of course. I can do this, just...” she shooed him away, “do what you need to do, but if you’re not back in twenty minutes, your burgers are mine.”
Marcus snorted. “I’ll bear that in mind.”
He had no intention of going that far, just far enough that he didn’t have to watch any impending love-in between Esca and his not-boyfriend – just in case they were planning one. He had no idea if they were, the last time he had tried to casually raise the subject of Liathan with Esca again, he’d received the patented MacCunoval glare (it was scary) and the subject had been very firmly changed. And really, whatever Cottia said, it was none of his business. If he wasn’t about to tell Esca how he felt (couldn’t tell Esca how he felt, he thought, mind shying away from the familiar embarrassment), what business was it of his who Esca dated?
Not to mention, Esca clearly had a type and that type was cool and into poetry readings, not tall and fond of Pringles. Marcus was happy here, something he had never expected to be after the accident, and he wasn’t about to ruin that with some pathetic crush on his best friend.
His careful walk took towards the cliffs, but he had only been gone fifteen minutes or so when he made his way back, the smell of the barbeque already drifting across the beach. However if he’d thought he could slip back unnoticed, he was mistaken.
“Where have you been?” Esca said, as soon as Marcus was close enough to hear. He was crouched beside Liathan, opening a bottle of beer, but his gaze was fixed unwaveringly on Marcus and he was frowning.
Marcus stopped, willing to bet any amount he looked guilty as hell. “Just taking a look around, I thought there might be... caves, something like that,” he said, trailing off before he started talking about lost treasure or something equally stupid.
Esca raised an eyebrow. “Like the Goonies?”
Marcus felt a familiar rush of affection, because of course Esca would actually think of the lost treasure part. “No, not like the Goonies. Like something cooler than the Goonies.”
“There is nothing cooler than the Goonies,” Esca said, flipping the bottle top off.
“What about Jack Sparrow?” Marcus hazarded, relaxing a little because this was, at least, familiar ground. Cottia handed him a drink.
“Actually I think it’s better that you just stop speaking now,” Esca said, very seriously.
Marcus smirked. It was easy to forget how easy it was with Esca, when he wasn’t busy wandering along beaches at sunset feeling sorry for himself. Even Liathan interrupting soon after with some surfing anecdote couldn’t quite shake the relief. He was an idiot, and Esca was his friend, and he could do this.
Later, as the sun dipped low on the horizon and Cottia and Lee built up a fire, Marcus tipped back his fourth beer, feeling pleasantly buzzed in a way that made Liathan marginally less irritating. Marginally. Marcus might be easy going, and he might be (no, he was) a little bit drunk, but he wasn’t such an idiot he couldn’t see how Liathan had been manoeuvring him out of the conversation all night. No-one could have so much to say about so much obscure shit and it not be deliberate, he thought Cottia might have noticed too from the annoyed frown she kept wearing.
Fortunately, Marcus had spent months listening to Cottia talk about horse breeding, and so could nod along with the best of them and think of other things – but it had been nearly a half hour now since Marcus had done more than drink, or talked to Esca which was what he wanted to be doing, and he getting pretty bored.
“Okay we’re going to need more wood,” Cottia announced suddenly, poking the (rather pathetic) fire. Marcus made to stand but Cottia waved him back down, “It’s alright, Liathan can come and help me. Lee can get us more beer.” She gave them a winning smile, Lee got up easily enough but Liathan seemed more unwilling, though really he had no choice but to abandon his lengthy anecdote about the last time he went surfing and get up to go help.
Marcus watched them go, wondering if Cottia was going to subject him to the equine bloodlines talk and secretly hoping she was. He was enjoying himself so much just imagining it that it came as a shock when Esca suddenly dropped down beside him with a whoof of air, his hand nearly landing on top of Marcus’s in the sand before he realised and shifted it away. Then again, Esca had been knocking back a few beers himself.
“Hey,” Esca said inconsequentially as he got himself settled. He looked a little moody, but that was almost Esca’s default setting.
Marcus tilted his head in acknowledgement, “Hey yourself.”
They were silent for a few moments but Marcus didn’t mind. He’d spent so much of the night stuck over here without Esca that he could just enjoy the familiar feeling of him close by, the comfortable silence they fell into as easily as their more usual banter these days.
Then Esca spoke, “Are you okay?”
Marcus looked at him, surprised, and almost as quickly regretted it. Esca was sitting closer than he’d expected, almost shoulder to shoulder with Marcus, his gaze the slightest bit unfocused but undoubtedly sincere. “Yeah, of course I am.”
“It’s just, you’ve hardly said a word tonight.”
“I haven’t had a lot of opportunity,” said Marcus, before he could engage his brain.
To his relief, Esca didn’t take offence at the slight on his date. Instead he snorted, wrinkling his nose, “You’ve got that right.”
Emboldened, Marcus said casually, “Not a keeper then?”
Esca dug into the ground with his bottle-top, gouging a deep groove in the sand and avoiding Marcus’s gaze. “Hardly.”
Marcus tried not to let his relief at that show, because it didn’t change anything and if he was any kind of decent friend he’d be wanting Esca to be happy, and nothing more.
“Is that the only reason?” Esca was still digging into the sand – a pointless exercise since it was sun-dry – eyes downcast.
It took Marcus’s sluggish brain a second to catch up with his meaning, “Well, maybe I was thinking too.”
“I guess that would shut down all other functions,” Esca said and then had the audacity to look pleased when Marcus caught up with his words and gave him a sidelong glare. He looked relieved too, which went a pretty long way to easing Marcus’s guilt and making him 98% less likely to be pissed off at the insinuation he was dim. “What are you thinking about? And if you mention work, I am burying you in a dune, just warning you now.”
Marcus blamed the alcohol for the fact that instead of just answering the question like any sane person, he let his gaze sweep pointedly over Esca’s slighter figure, saying, “I’d like to see you try.”
When he glanced back up, Esca’s face had taken on a distinctly redder hue, which meant Marcus might have overdone the looking, or he was about to get kicked in the nuts for yet again reminding Esca he was short. Shit, he shouldn’t have had that fourth beer. He was such a lightweight these days. Hastily, he said, “I was just thinking about the last time I was at the beach, back home. A whole bunch of us were there to surf and it was such a good day, the best.”
“You surfed?” Esca said, apparently forgetting to be annoyed.
“Yeah,” said Marcus, ducking his head. “I was pretty good at it too.”
“And modest,” Esca put in.
“Until I got sand in my wetsuit anyway...” Marcus added, smiling nostalgically, “I wasn’t so keen after that.” Esca snorted, laughing softly.
There was something dangerously satisfying about making Esca laugh so easily. It was something Liathan hadn’t managed to do all night, although Marcus squashed that thought before it could take hold.
Esca was still smiling at him, shielding his eyes against the sun as cast a last blaze across the sand. “Do you miss it?”
From anyone else, it might have been an awkward question, but it was Esca so Marcus shrugged and answered honestly. “Sometimes I do. It already feels like a long time ago, surfing and football, and I like it here.” Esca looked pleased at that, “If I was back there, I wouldn’t have met you.” Esca’s eyebrows had shot up and Marcus realised he might have been a little too honest. “I mean all of you, you and Cottia. And everyone.”
Possibly that hadn’t been as good a save as he’d hoped. Esca was looking at him and Marcus was abruptly and acutely aware that they were alone and so close together that it would be nothing at all for him to lean forward and do what he’d wanted to do for months.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t thought about it, Esca’s eager hands and smart mouth and how it might feel. Right at that moment, it was all he could think about.
Esca inhaled sharply and Marcus realised, mortified, that he had somehow swayed closer, as if he was really going to...
Panic was not Marcus’s friend, and nor was alcohol. “God, I’m sorry, I—” He made to pull back, was pulling back when Esca suddenly leaned forward to cover the remaining few inches between them and kissed him, hard and clumsy. For the longest moment, Marcus didn’t move, stunned into immobility as Esca withdrew just enough that their lips barely touched, then Esca kissed him again, careful at first, and Marcus forgot all the reasons why this was a fucking terrible idea and opened his mouth to it, let Esca push against him and kiss him like they were both starving for it and no closeness was enough.
Esca’s shirt was soft under his fingers, warm from his body as Marcus tugged him closer, bunching the fabric to get purchase until his knuckles grazed smooth skin and he felt Esca shudder and tilt forward onto his knees, giving him a height advantage he lost no time in using. It was nothing like any kiss Marcus had experienced before, not soft and chivalrous like the way he’d kissed girls back home but hungry and exhilarating and there was no way in hell Marcus was in charge of it (then again, when was he in charge of anything where Esca was concerned?).
Then Esca pressed forward a little too far, his hand coming down hard on Marcus’s leg in a bid to get his balance, and with a hiss Marcus was abruptly and painfully brought back to himself, pushing Esca back even as he gasped, “Stop.”
Esca scrambled back, nearly falling over. “Shit, did I hurt your leg? I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking—”
“It’s okay,” Marcus said quickly, embarrassment mounting as Esca went to put his hand on his leg again as if to check for damage. He immediately pulled it back out of reach, bending it at the knee despite the pain. “It’s fine, you don’t have to... Just leave it.”
Esca let his hand drop and they were left just staring at each other. They were both still breathing hard and Esca’s face was flushed, as Marcus was sure his own must be, his gaze sharper than it had been as though the very act of kissing had sobered them both up.
“Esca...” Marcus began, with no clear idea of what he was going to say. This was a mistake maybe, or I was drunk. Whatever it was, he never got a chance to say it.
“Jesus, how long does it take to find some firewood?”
It was Lee, beers in hand, and luckily for Marcus and Esca he was too busy looking out across the nearly dark beach to notice the two of them too close together for any kind of plausible deniability. While Esca’s attention was momentarily diverted, Marcus got hastily, if awkwardly, to his feet, his face burning. Lee was back, Cottia and Liathan were likely heading back right this second and he’d been what? Making out with the guy Liathan was here with – whatever Esca might have decided – in full view of anyone who happened to be passing?
“I’ll take another one of those,” he said, too loud, and when Lee cheerfully opened a new bottle for him, Marcus crossed the sand to get it, not trusting himself to sit down again next to Esca. He could feel Esca’s gaze fixed on him but he didn’t dare look back, just took a deep pull of the beer with a shaking hand and tried not to think of what he might have done if Esca hadn’t overbalanced, hadn’t grabbed him like that Fuck, he wasn’t someone who just lost control like that, he wasn’t. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, the alcohol useless against the adrenaline still flooding his system.
“You alright, mate?” Lee said suddenly, as if finally waking up to the atmosphere.
“I’m fine,” said Marcus immediately, wondering how many times he was going to have to reassure people of that fact today. “I’ll go and see what’s keeping them.”
He didn’t wait for Lee’s reply before he headed towards the dunes, nor did he respond to Esca’s frustrated, “Marcus!” He just kept walking, ignoring the way his leg burned, until he made out the dark shapes of Cottia and Liathan coming towards him.
Finding out Esca was gay was one of those things that was always going to happen. It wasn’t enough for him to be gorgeous, cantankerous and fast becoming Marcus’s best friend, he just had to be gay as well, or bi, or whatever – the point was he liked guys, a fact that would take Marcus’s guilty fantasies to a whole new level.
It still took Marcus nearly a whole semester to realise, but he was so used to suppressing any ideas that involved Esca and sex in the same sentence that the whole ‘past relationships’ conversation had never come up, or if it had, Marcus had been sure to change the subject. Esca spent most of his time with Marcus and Cottia anyway, and when they were out, he’d never shown any interest in any of the girls, or the occasional guy, that hit on him.
The final Student Union night before the Christmas break was supposed to be no different. Instead, Marcus was standing in a corner of the noisy, overcrowded room staring at Esca kissing a man that Marcus thought he vaguely recognised, and he felt like someone had just punched him in the gut. No, scratch that, he’d been punched in the gut before and it didn’t feel as bad as this.
Marcus wasn’t sure what the hell had happened between sitting at the bar with Cottia, Lee, Esca and a whole group from the history department, and this. It had all got a little bit hazy after the third luminous drink Cottia had pressed into his hand. There had been singing – Esca yelling the words of some 70s Christmas song right into his left ear and grinning at him like a maniac – and some (poor) attempts at dancing. He even thought he could remember Cottia’s cousin Placidus watching them and looking appalled. Then the mistletoe had come out, and by the time Marcus had extricated himself (after deflecting at least two drunken attempts at a full make out session instead of the peck he was going for), Esca had disappeared and forty hazy minutes later Marcus had realised he still wasn’t back and gone looking for him.
It looked a lot like Esca had found better things to do.
Someone pushed past the couple in front of him – knocking into Esca and causing him to break the kiss and look around before Marcus could move, or breathe, or arrange his face into an expression that wasn’t stunned. If he was shocked, then so was Esca it seemed. In a moment, he’d stepped back from the other man, wiping his mouth in a quick, nervous gesture that probably ranked high among the least flattering things to do after kissing someone, but which reminded Marcus of why he so often found Esca ridiculous and endearing in equal measure.
“Marcus.” For a second, Marcus thought Esca looked upset, then he spoke again and his tone was defensive. “Were you looking for me?”
“I was just...” Marcus trailed off, feeling stupid and sick, which probably had a lot to do with the luminous drinks actually but didn’t quite explain how much he wanted to yank Esca away. This was something he had never considered, because he barely let himself consider it, and now it was pushed in his face and he had no idea how to react.
“I’m Liam.” The guy who Marcus had been doing his level best to pretend wasn’t even there held out a hand, smiling a little awkwardly, when it became clear Marcus was never going to finish that sentence. Suddenly, Marcus recognised him. He was one of the guys that had come along with Placidus and not acted like a complete dick when he’d stumbled across their group draped in tinsel and delivering a heartfelt rendition of ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’, as conducted by Cottia with a glowstick.
Marcus ignored the outstretched hand – because he was pretty sure that, regardless of the lack of dickishness, he and Liam were never going to bond.
“For fuck’s sake,” Esca said when Liam let his hand drop, confused. With an impressive show of force, he grabbed Marcus tightly around the wrist and dragged him a short way off, looking upset. “What the hell is your problem?”
“What is my problem?” Marcus replied, forgetting all his usual caution in the hot rush of jealousy. “We’ve been wondering where you were and you’d what? Wandered off to pick up some random guy?” He knew he was completely overreacting but the image of Esca and Liam kissing was playing on a loop in his brain.
Esca flushed angrily, “Oh, like you even noticed.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that it’s okay for you to kiss half the history department, but not me to find someone?”
“They were girls,” Marcus hissed – and immediately regretted it as he realised how it sounded. Esca flinched like he’d been slapped, staring at Marcus in disbelief. “Esca, I didn’t mean—”
“Fuck you.” Esca shoved past him and headed for the exit, Liam following – straight past an astonished looking Cottia and Placidus.
“Liam,” Placidus watched them go like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Cottia glared at him. “Shut up – you can freak out later about having a gay friend.”
Placidus looked his scorn. “Oh I knew he was gay, I just thought he had standards.”
Cottia drew in a breath but Marcus didn’t hear her response, hell he didn’t even react to the insult, all he could think about was the catching up with Esca and telling him he hadn’t meant that, that it had come out all wrong and that he was a total and utter idiot.
Without thinking, he hurried after them, making agonizingly slow progress through the press of bodies, and by the time he had grabbed his jacket, got down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk, Esca was nowhere to be seen.
Marcus stood there foolishly for several long moments, breathing hard and unable to believe the whole evening had gone so wrong so quickly. No thanks to himself. He tried calling Esca’s cell but it just rang over and over before going to his machine, Esca’s familiar voice telling him to ‘leave a message, I’ll probably call back.’
There was one possibility Marcus deliberately wasn’t thinking about. Liam had followed Esca out after all, it wasn’t completely crazy to assume he might have gone home with him to... to...
No, not thinking about that.
Determinedly, Marcus set out for Halls, praying that Esca had gone back there alone so he could camp outside his room until dawn if necessary and apologise. He was going home for the holidays tomorrow and he couldn’t leave things like this. The whole walk, his brain continued to torture him with images of Esca kissing Liam, or any number of faceless men that weren’t Marcus. Not that there was any reason why Esca would want to kiss Marcus. In fact, he should probably stop thinking about Esca kissing him because Esca currently thought he was a homophobic ass.
By the time he reached Halls, he had convinced himself that he would try Esca’s flat regardless. It was like ripping off a plaster, even if he was in there with Liam it was better to face it now.
In the end, he didn’t even need to go that far.
“The posh building’s the other way,” came Esca’s voice out of the gloom as Marcus approached his Hall. It took Marcus a second to adjust – to the gloom and to the shock of Esca’s sudden announcement – before he finally spotted him perched on the wall by the bike racks, smoking.
Marcus came to a halt, facing him. “I don’t think you’re allowed to smoke there,” he said, stupidly.
“Luckily I don’t have to give a shit what you think,” Esca replied, taking another drag.
The coolness of his tone was something Marcus had never experienced before, not directed at him anyway, and it stung, reminding him of the reason he was here in the first place. “I’m sorry.”
“For what,” said Esca, still sounding remote and wrong.
“For what I said. I didn’t mean that there was anything wrong with what you were, you know, doing,” his hesitation didn’t go unnoticed by Esca, but Marcus ploughed on because he might not like what he’d seen, but it truly wasn’t for the reason Esca thought, “It was just that it wasn’t what I was expecting, that’s what I meant. I was surprised.”
Esca flicked his cigarette butt to the floor and jumped down. “Good, I’m glad you got that off your chest. Goodnight.”
“Esca!” When Esca made to go back inside, Marcus blocked his way finally earning himself a glare instead of the un-Esca like blankness. “Will you just listen?”
“I have listened.”
“I just mean that you didn’t tell me, so I—”
This at least got a reaction. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t think it would matter.” Esca’s words were defiant but his look was anything but.
“It doesn’t matter.”
Esca laughed. “Oh yeah, I can see that.”
“It doesn’t,” Marcus repeated with every ounce of sincerity he could muster. When Esca snorted and made to pass him again, he actually caught his arm. “C’mon Esca, do I seem like someone who would ever think that way?”
Esca stared at him for a long moment, and Marcus couldn’t even begin to fathom what that look meant. Then at last he pulled his arm free and shrugged, looking oddly defeated. “No.”
“Well, then – that’s good,” Marcus said, wrong-footed by the sudden capitulation. “Because I don’t.”
Marcus half thought that might be it, that Esca might just go back inside and they would (awkwardly) pretend like this didn’t happen, but then Esca said, as though continuing an argument they hadn’t actually been having, “It was just a bit of fun. Stuff like that doesn’t have to mean anything.”
“I know that,” said Marcus, who didn’t. The jealousy he'd thought he'd got under control reared up again at the thought of Esca doing that for... fun, or whatever, like it didn't matter. Esca deserved better than that.
“Not unless you’ve got a thing for half the department.”
It took Marcus a second to realise what Esca was talking about, distracted as he was. “I don’t— The mistletoe?” He had almost forgotten that after what happened next. “Yeah, that was a little scary, thanks for leaving me on my own there, by the way.”
“Too much woman for you?” Esca said after a moment, in a pale imitation of his usual teasing tone.
“Something like that,” Marcus replied, wishing he could tell Esca how true that actually was. Even if he could have told him before (and Marcus had never told anyone before), he could hardly do it now. What was he going to say? ‘Oh hey Esca, I think I might be gay too. Also I have dreams where you and I do things I probably couldn’t manage in real life. Hope that’s cool and doesn’t completely screw up our friendship.’
A cold gust of wind blew across the pathway and Esca shivered as Marcus noticed for the first time he was still wearing only a thin shirt. “Where’s your jacket?”
Esca looked down at himself as though he’d only just noticed, then said sheepishly, “Left it at the SU.”
Marcus would have made some comment at that, but since it was his fault he thought he should really leave that one well alone. “You should go in,” he said instead.
Esca rubbed his arms but didn’t move. “When are you leaving?”
“In about six hours.” This was just one of the reasons he shouldn’t have let Cottia and Esca talk him into coming out tonight. “I’m packed, I just need about five alarm clocks to get up in time. Or just Cottia.” That got a quirk of the mouth that could possibly have been a smile. Marcus hoped it was.
“Alright. Have a good trip then.” Esca looked like he was going to shake his hand or something equally formal and repressed and suddenly Marcus found all this awkwardness a bit ridiculous.
“Come here, idiot,” and so saying he reached out and pulled Esca into a hug which, okay, was not something he had ever done before, or that he might have done when completely sober, but it was really late and ten minutes ago he thought he’d screwed things up with Esca for good.
“What are you doing?” Esca’s voice sounded both surprised and muffled – which might have something to do with the way he was squashed against Marcus. It was possible Marcus didn’t need to hug him quite so tightly. He eased off, but only a little because he had no idea when he’d ever get to do this again and at least right now he could blame the luminous drinks.
“Hugging you. It’s a custom of my people.”
“Yeah, well people might talk,” Esca muttered.
Marcus flicked him on the ear for that one and Esca promptly disentangled himself. “I was just thinking of your reputation.” His face was red, despite the cold, and he looked flustered.
“I rescue fluffy animals, I think my reputation’s shot to hell,” Marcus replied – which was as near as he could get to telling Esca he really didn’t care about what other people thought about him, or them, or what had happened that night. If Esca wanted to pick up random guys in clubs, Marcus was going to learn to deal with it. Somehow.
“If you say so.”
Marcus looked towards the lit entry-way of Esca’s building and then back to Esca. He should really go, and let Esca go and warm up, but... “We’re cool then, yeah?” It was meant to be more a statement of fact, but somehow it still came out like a question.
Esca hesitated, but then, to Marcus’s enormous relief, he rolled his eyes, a reluctant smile breaking through. “Of course we are. Go away, or you’ll be a zombie in the morning.”
Marcus grinned back, “Alright, I’m going. Have a good Christmas!” Then, because he couldn’t quite imagine three weeks without talking to Esca every other day, he added, “I’ll call you.”
“That’s what they all say,” said Esca, but he looked pleased.
Marcus raised an eyebrow warningly. “Do you want me to hug you again?”
Esca startled for the briefest of seconds, as though he thought Marcus might actually do that and maybe he wouldn’t mind – so much for the prickly exterior. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
That sounded like a victory to Marcus, but he had enough sense not to look too happy about it. “Good night, Esca.”
Marcus was still smiling as he made his way back down the path towards the ‘posh building’, not even minding how loud his crutch sounded, clicking on the ground with every step. He might not be Liam, but he was Esca’s friend and that was good enough, it was better than he’d expected to have.
At the end of the path, just before he turned out of sight, he glanced back, eyes tracking up to Esca’s dark window before he realised Esca wasn’t there yet but still outside, facing Marcus’s direction (although Marcus was fairly sure he couldn’t see him in the darkness). Marcus frowned; he couldn’t see any smoke, but still.
You better not be smoking again.
He could hear the chirp of Esca’s cell even this far away and a minute later, his own buzzed in reply.
No, I’m eating them raw just to piss you off. Stop spying on me, creep.
No sooner had he finished reading then he looked up to see the small figure that was Esca disappear inside, letting the door of his building slam shut behind him with a resounding clang.
Marcus snorted. Served him right for smoking those damn things in the first place.
In the three days since the trip to the beach, Marcus had discovered a newfound commitment to physiotherapy and working out, a fact absolutely not connected to avoiding his flat, Cottia and Esca – and possibly not in that order. He should have known it was too good to be true.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” Cottia demanded the moment Marcus stepped out of the shower cubicle. She was standing so close to the door he almost cannoned into her and only managed to avoid it by grabbing onto the door handle in a decidedly ungraceful fashion and dropping his shower gel.
“Cottia, this is the men’s locker room!” Marcus hissed, too shocked to not sound like his grandma. “You can’t come in here.” Marcus was fairly certain there was sign on the door to that effect and everything. He was just glad he always put his pants on inside the cubicle these days.
“There’s no-one here, stop avoiding the question.”
Unfortunately, she was right. He sighed. “Nothing happened, will you just...” He tried to slip past her but she slapped her hand against the wall, blocking his exit.
“Bullshit. I know you ate both those tubes of Pringles yesterday – don’t think I didn’t see them in the bin, and Esca’s trying to give himself lung cancer again.” Marcus looked away guiltily, but Cottia wasn’t done. “Oh, and did I mention that the pair of you aren’t talking to each other.”
“We’re not not talking to each other...” Marcus began feebly and then trailed off because that was absolutely what they were doing. Ever since the beach trip three days ago he’d been avoiding Esca. In fact ever since the excruciating drive home where Esca’s stare could have melted the window Marcus was doing his best to look out of, he’d been avoiding the whole situation, making a hasty exit the moment Lee’s car had stopped and while Esca was still shaking off Liathan. Esca had tried calling, twice, after that, but Marcus hadn’t picked up and he hadn’t tried again. Marcus hadn’t felt this shitty since the days after the accident, except this time it was all his own fault.
“Stop making excuses, you’re crap at it,” Cottia said bluntly, then her voice softened. “What happened? Lee said you were being really weird when he got back, did you two have a fight?”
“Did you two have passionate sex while Lee was trying to work the bottle opener? Because you know, he can be kind of oblivious.”
It was evidently meant as a joke but Marcus felt his face heat at just the idea of it and he must have looked guilty because Cottia eyes widened and she actually gaped at him, shocked silent for possibly the first time since she’d seen Marcus’s second attempt at making an omelette in Fresher’s Week. “Oh my god!” She clapped her hands over her mouth, then lowered them after a moment, saying, “I am going to kill Lee.”
“We did not have— I mean, we didn’t do that. You’re being ridiculous,” the words sounded unconvincing even to Marcus. “You were only gone ten minutes.”
Cottia grinned wickedly. “I’m sure you’ll get better with practice. I doubt Esca cared anyway.”
That was a little too close to the truth for Marcus. “Very funny. It was nothing like that.”
“What was it like then?”
“We should probably head out, before they lock us in here.” Marcus went to reach for his shirt on the nearby bench, but Cottia picked it up and tossed it into the nearest shower stall where it landed in a puddle of soapy cold water. “Hey!”
“Don’t ‘hey’ me, answer the question.”
“It was just a kiss, okay, nothing like you’re thinking,” Marcus blurted out. He figured this couldn’t get any more embarrassing so he might as well just tell her.
Cottia didn’t look relieved, if anything she looked disappointed. “Then why on earth are you hiding in here? Why aren’t you two at it like bunnies all over campus?”
Apparently it could get more embarrassing. “How is it you always come back to sex?”
Cottia rolled her eyes. “Fine, how is it you two aren’t writing poetry to each other all over campus?” Marcus pulled a face. “See, the sex idea was more realistic.”
“Because I panicked, and acted like an idiot and I just... I don’t know what to do.” It felt good to admit it out loud, he’d spent the last few days going over and over events at the beach and thinking of all the things he could have done differently, or what it might mean, or what it could mean and if he was more excited by the idea than terrified of it.
Cottia patted the bench beside them. “Okay, maybe you should sit down for this. When a bone-headed moron and a bad tempered Doctor Who geek love each other very much, there’s a special way that they...”
Marcus threw his towel at her. “Yeah, thanks – I’m up to speed with that part.”
“I was just making sure.” She picked up his towel and handed it back to him, smirking a little. When Marcus didn’t say anything more, she sighed. “Do you actually want my advice?”
“You’re going to give it to me anyway,” said Marcus, which was his way of saying yes.
“Alright then, has it ever occurred to you to talk to Esca and find out how he feels about all this? I mean, I know you have your whole inner angst thing going on, about your leg and mooning over Esca which is new and probably terrifying, but Esca’s known you nearly a year now and he can make his own mind up about whether or not you and your brooding is worth his time.”
“It was just a kiss,” Marcus muttered.
“If it was just a kiss you wouldn’t be hiding in a shower room after working off two tubes of Pringles and Esca wouldn’t be trying to smoke himself to death.”
It was a fair point – at least where Marcus was concerned, he couldn’t speak for Esca.
“Come on,” Cottia added coaxingly, “why don’t we go home and you can call him or something. We can make a flow chart to cover all possible conversation directions, I have an old write and wipe chart from the stables we can use.”
“We are not making flowcharts,” said Marcus, trying to sound firm and failing.
Cottia pouted. “You spoil all my fun. Now am I, or am I not helpful?”
“A little bit,” Marcus conceded. He couldn’t imagine what on earth he could say to Esca, but he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t missed him like crazy. At least when he’d been off with Liathan, Marcus could still talk to him if he’d wanted, now he didn’t know if Esca would even want to talk to him and he couldn’t bear that.
Clearly Cottia had decided to take Marcus’s reply as an enthusiastic yes. “Normally this would be where we’d hug, but Lee and I have a rule about not hugging good looking wet half-naked men. Or at least, he can but only when I get to watch.”
“If I’m half naked, I know whose fault that is,” said Marcus, eyeing the sodden mess that was his shirt pointedly.
In the end, the short walk from gym to his block was awkward and a little chilly, what with the no shirt situation, but as it turned out not even half as awkward as walking through the front door of his flat in just his track pants and sneakers to find Esca and their flatmate, Molly, in conversation outside Marcus’s half open bedroom door.
He stopped dead, Cottia walking into the back of him before she realised what was going on. Molly broke off in the middle of what she was saying, apparently taken aback to see Marcus wandering the corridors half dressed, but he barely noticed, too busy drinking in the sight of Esca.
“Uh... Hi,” Marcus managed, after a particularly vicious poke in the back from Cottia alerted him to the fact his staring might be a bit obvious.
Esca’s eyes moved rather rapidly upwards from Marcus’s torso and he blushed, looking as awkward as they had the night they’d first met. He looked tired too, Marcus thought, and unhappy – and the realisation made his stomach twist with guilt.
“Thank god you’re back, we were about to call Security,” Molly said, breaking into the silence. “Someone’s been in your room!”
Marcus dragged his eyes away from Esca, “What?” Suddenly the significance of the half open door became clear. “Someone broke in?”
“They must have been disturbed,” Molly went on anxiously. “There doesn’t seem to be anything missing. I mean, your laptop’s still there, and your dvds.”
But Marcus could see something missing the moment he pushed the door open wider. On his wall, above his desk was a large empty space where his Eagle flag had been.
He was still staring in horror when Esca moved closer, following his gaze. “I saw Placidus by the way, he’s pissed about his library.”
Going home for Christmas break that first time had been strange. Marcus had been in England for nearly four months and for the first few days everything felt alien, from the accents to the weather. Even his house, already decorated for Christmas, seemed too big after his dorm room, and it took a while to get used to wandering into the kitchen in the morning and finding his mom there making coffee, instead of Cottia perched on the counter in her pyjamas, munching on toast.
He went shopping for Christmas presents (he mostly guarded the shopping bags while his mom shopped), visited family, caught up on football games on the TV and played with Bubbles-the-badly-named-terrier. His mom was, of course, thrilled to have him home, and listened to him talk about school, and Cottia and Esca with such palpable relief that he wondered just how bad things had been for her last summer, when Marcus was at his lowest.
He also found time to meet up with some of the guys from his old football team. They’d kept in touch, on and off, just the odd email or line on Facebook (usually about a game) and it was good to see them again, even if it was bittersweet to hear about the highs and lows of the season and college games he couldn’t be part of. But Marcus found, to his surprise, that it was not as painful as he had expected it to be. He still missed it, he missed the purpose it gave him and the camaraderie of the locker room and training sessions, but hearing them talk about it just made him more grateful than ever that he had found people and a purpose he could have just as much fun with, even without the game. He even found himself wondering – heresy that it was – if he might be having more fun. He’d excelled at football by always making sure he worked harder than almost anyone else and most of the friendships he’d made were through the game, people who were just as driven as he was and expected him not to fail. There was, then, something intoxicating about all that stuff no longer being important, at least not with Esca and Cottia. No-one was expecting him to be the best anymore – although he’d still argue his jokes were pretty close to it (whatever Esca claimed to the contrary).
It was the morning after a catch-up session that he called Esca for the first time since he’d been home – despite all his good intentions to not bother him for at least a week (he’d made it to five days). He knew he had it bad, since he’d spent the latter part of the night before telling funny stories about Esca until one of the guys – Mike – had given him a strange look and Marcus had excused himself to go bang his head against the wall in the men’s room.
He figured that calling him was like tackling the obsession head on. Or something. Plus he’d had several long emails from Cottia already, complete with pictures of Cub from her recent visit to the shelter, but nothing from Esca and he missed him.
The phone rang, once, twice, three times, and Marcus was about to chicken out and hang up when there was a click and Esca said, “Hello?” in such a scratchy, sleepy voice that Marcus’s brain temporarily short-circuited. “Hello?” Esca said again, sounding more irritated this time, and it was that that prodded Marcus into finally speaking.
“Esca – hi, it’s Marcus. Did I call at a bad time?”
For an excruciatingly long moment, Esca didn’t say anything, then, “It’s fucking five o’ clock in the morning.”
Marcus looked at his clock, did the calculations and realised he had been a total moron. “Shit. I didn’t think. Sorry, I’ll just—”
“No, wait!” Marcus paused in the act of pulling the phone away from his ear, listening to the sudden rustling down the line. “Don’t you dare hang up now you’ve phoned me. I’m never getting back to sleep now.”
“Sorry,” Marcus said again, because he still felt like an idiot for not remembering international time zones.
“Stop apologising, it’s weird. What do you want, anyway?”
It wasn’t the most promising opening but Marcus knew Esca well enough by now to know he wasn’t really mad. “I just wanted to say hi,” Marcus said, “I said I’d call you.”
There was a sigh down the line, and the sound of a duvet shifting and he was abruptly reminded that Esca was in bed, probably with bed hair (Marcus had never forgotten the bed hair from the day they’d rescued Cub). “So you did,” came Esca’s voice. He sounded amused. “I just thought you’d do it at a more civilised time. How’s home?”
“Same as always,” said Marcus. His mom was at work so he had the house to himself. “Mom’s gone crazy with the decorating this year though.”
“Are you all baking cookies and watching holiday specials on the TV?” Esca asked.
Marcus snorted. “Depends. Are you wading through Dickensian urchins and eating plum pudding?”
Esca laughed quietly. “Touché. Alright then, smart arse, if we’re not being stereotypes, what have you been doing?”
Marcus grinned and settled himself more comfortably on the couch. “Visiting relatives, watching football games, not getting up at 9am for lectures. Being forced to go shopping with my mom.”
“God I hate Christmas shopping,” Esca said after a groan that made Marcus shift uncomfortably in his seat.
“You too, huh?” Marcus said, belatedly but Esca didn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah, I’m always stuck watching my brothers.” He made it sound like a fate worse than death but Marcus wasn’t taken in.
“Are they excited for Christmas?”
“Are you kidding? They’re climbing the walls.”
“I can’t imagine you babysitting.” It was actually quite an endearing thought, but Marcus kept that to himself.
“I like to think of it as crowd control, really.” Esca yawned hugely, and then went on, “But I keep them fed and watered, on the off chance I ever need a kidney.”
Marcus laughed out loud at that. “Yeah, right. I bet you’re such a pushover with them.”
“I am not,” Esca sounded indignant.
“You rescue fluffy animals, remember? Your opinion is invalid.”
“That’s not a get out clause for any time I’m right.”
There was a strange noise down the phone that took Marcus a few seconds to identify, and when he did he couldn’t quite believe it. “Did you just blow a raspberry at me?” he said, incredulous.
There was a substantial pause, then Esca’s voice sounding like it was half-muffled by a pillow, “Oh god, shut up. I’ve been stuck indoors with my brothers all week and it’s 5am, I can’t be held responsible for my actions.”
“I’m starting to wish I’d recorded this phone call.”
“I can hang up anytime, you know.”
“Okay, okay, I’m shutting up,” Marcus said hastily, but he was grinning again.
“Talk about something else, or I’m going back to sleep.” Esca sounded embarrassed and a little bit grouchy so Marcus switched to the whole reason he’d started getting antsy to call Esca in the first place.
“I met up with some of the guys from my old football team last night.”
“Oh yeah?” Esca perked up a bit. “How was that?”
That first phone call turned into several more – which almost made up for not getting to see Esca every day. Almost. It was slightly surreal to lie on his bed, or sit at the kitchen table, or in the den, so many thousand miles away and hear Esca’s voice against the noisy background of his house. Marcus could barely remember when his family had been bigger than two (plus Bubbles), and he envied the easy affection Esca had for his mom and dad and brothers and what seemed like a never-ending list of aunts, uncles and cousins.
He even got to talk to Esca’s brothers once. Sort of. Although it was more of an interruption as a loud and childish voice suddenly broke in to Esca’s story about his uncle getting drunk on Christmas Eve and falling in the garden pond, yelling “IS THAT MARCUS? ESCA SAYS—” before he heard Esca swear, the sound of kids laughing, and a voice calling “Mam! Our Esca just—” and the phone went abruptly dead. It was possible that didn’t count as a real introduction though.
By silent mutual agreement they didn’t talk about what had happened in the Student Union that night, or Liam. In fact, Marcus often forgot about it entirely, falling all too easily back into their usual topic of conversation and the good natured arguments that left him inexplicably cheerful for the rest of the evening.
Of course, neither of them found out until after Christmas that Cottia had got into an epic argument with her cousin for insulting Esca, leading to Placidus trying to get her thrown out of the Student Union and nearly coming to blows with the normally even-tempered Lee in the process.
After that, as Esca said, it was on.
Cottia was livid, and when Cottia was livid everyone heard about it.
“How dare he!” she said for maybe the eighth time. “He actually broke in, I cannot believe he—”
“Cottia, you might want to remember the small fact of us doing exactly the same thing to his library,” Marcus put in.
Cottia paused, like she was thinking about that one, before she went on resolutely, “We didn’t break in, we had a key. It was entirely different.”
“Well it doesn’t look like Placidus broke in either, the lock’s not broken. Maybe he had a friend of a friend too.”
Cottia looked at him suspiciously. “You’re taking this awfully well.”
Marcus wasn’t, he was pissed as hell – but he was also burningly conscious of Esca beside him, and it said a lot that that was bothering him just as much as the loss of his beloved flag. So far as Marcus had been able to tell from Cottia’s questioning, Esca had bumped into Placidus and come straight here – which seemed a hell of a lot more than Marcus deserved after the way he’d been acting.
“I want to kick his ass too, Cottia, I just don’t think we can take too much of the moral high ground on that front, is all.”
After a particularly loud sigh, Cottia conceded. “Fine, you’re right. But we’re still getting it back. Come on.”
“Now?” Marcus looked down at himself.
“No, next Thursday, I have an hour free before work. Yes, now!”
He glared. “I didn’t— I just meant can I at least get a shirt first?”
That pulled Cottia up short. “Oh... Sorry, I’d forgotten about that.”
Marcus certainly hadn’t. Standing next to Esca whilst shirtless had to count as one of the more mortifying ten minutes he’d spent this year, he could practically feel the heat radiating off his skin and the effort of not looking at Esca was making him so tense that Esca had to have noticed. That Esca was carefully not looking at him either was scarcely a comfort.
At Cottia’s words, Marcus ducked into his bedroom, pausing the moment the door was pushed nearly shut behind him to take a few deep breaths and try to get a hold of himself. Then he grabbed the nearest clean shirt he could find, put it on and went back out to find Cottia with her cell phone in hand, speaking low to Esca who was standing with his arms folded, mouth set in a stubborn line.
She stopped as soon as she saw Marcus. “Ready? I texted Lee to come and get us.”
Marcus looked from her to Esca, but whatever they’d been talking about, Esca’s shuttered expression wasn’t giving anything away. “Don’t you want me to drive?”
“No, you need to sit in the back,” and she widened her eyes at him meaningfully, before quickly adding, “since you don’t know the way.”
“Right,” said Marcus. He glanced at Esca, wondering why he was still there and what that meant. “Are you... coming along?” he asked uncertainly.
Esca raised an eyebrow. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“No reason,” Marcus backtracked immediately. “I just didn’t know if you would want to...” he couldn’t think of a way to say ‘help me ever again’, so he finished with, “go all that way,” instead – which made no sense whatsoever considering he and Cottia and Lee were apparently ready for the off and it was barely a twenty five minute drive.
“Well I am,” Esca said tersely, “so shall we stop talking and get on with it?”
“Yeah, sure. I only meant...” Marcus began, only to trail off as Esca just headed for the door and let himself out without another word.
“Well that went well,” said Cottia as Esca’s footsteps echoed on the stairwell.
Somewhere below, the front door slammed, making Marcus jump. This whole evening had pretty rapidly gone to shit. “Let’s just get my stuff back before Placidus decided to use it as a dish rag or something.”
“And talk to Esca,” Cottia added pointedly.
Marcus had a sinking feeling at how that ‘talk’ might work out. “Yeah, that too.”
It didn’t take them long to get to Placidus’s place – which Marcus was thankful for because it didn’t matter how much Cottia glared at him in the rear-view mirror, he was not having this conversation with Esca in front of her and Lee and over the top of an annoying jingle about reasonably priced cars. Not when Esca was busy ignoring him in that stubborn, frosty way he was so good at. Marcus sat there nervously instead, jiggling his good leg up and down until Esca glared it to a stop – which he decided was something at least.
Marcus didn’t really say a hell of a lot in fact until they reached the lane that bordered the house and grounds (or mansion, as Marcus preferred to call it – he could certainly see why Placidus preferred it to a poky dorm room) and it became apparent they weren’t, in fact, going to be knocking on the front door.
“Are you mad?” said Cottia, as she unloaded a torch, a rucksack and what looked a lot like a fireside poker from the trunk of Lee’s car. “Do you really want to give Placidus the satisfaction?”
Marcus dragged his eyes away from the poker. “What about your uncle and aunt?”
“They’re at their house in France.” She flicked her torch on and nearly blinded Marcus. “Oops, sorry. Anyway it’s more fun this way.”
“Isn’t ‘this way’ a felony?”
Cottia grinned. “Only if I get caught.”
Marcus looked at Lee for support and realised he wasn’t going to find any since the other man just looked vastly entertained by the whole thing. “Cottia, we are not breaking and entering.”
“You’re not, I am,” she said happily. “And it’s not really breaking and entering when I know the kitchen side window can be opened from the outside if you slide it just the right way, is it?”
“That’s...” Marcus inadvertently caught Esca’s eye and forgot what he’d been about to say. For the briefest second, he’d caught a familiar flash of warm amusement before Esca’s expression shuttered once more.
Cottia patted him on the arm. “You learn fast, my young Padawan. Now Lee is going to wait for us here with the getaway car, you two are with me,” she looked between Marcus and Esca, then nodded, apparently satisfied. “Come on.”
Marcus grabbed his crutch and followed her, resigned, Esca falling into step behind them. “You need to stop watching so many cop shows, Cottia.”
“Roger that,” said Cottia, because she could be as much of a pain in the ass as Esca when she wanted.
Marcus had to wonder what Cottia’s master plan actually was when they came to a pretty solid looking wall skirting the gardens. “What now? I know I’m tall, but...”
Cottia ignored him, adjusting her rucksack and turning to Esca, “Okay, give me a leg up.”
Esca stared at her for a moment, as if doubting her sanity, then he shrugged, tipping his head back to survey the wall. “Alright. I hope there’s something soft on the other side.”
“It’s fine, there’s a hedge,” said Cottia knowledgeably. She stuck her foot into Esca’s hands, already linked to (Marcus hoped) propel her safely over, “You two wait here for me and call Lee if I’m not back in twenty minutes, or I can’t get over the wall.”
Marcus shifted back out of the way, ignoring Cottia’s wink because Esca was right there for god’s sake. “I feel like I should be doing this, you know.”
She pulled a face at him. “Yes, but you would be knocking on the front door. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
So saying, Esca gave her a boost and she sailed smoothly into the air, clambering onto the top of the wall – only to vanish over the other side with a swiftly muted yell and a clatter of what sounded like half-a-dozen tin cans.
“I’m alright!” sounded only seconds later – before Marcus and Esca could do more than start at the noise. “I think they got rid of the hedge and put the bins here. Don’t worry. I won’t be long!” There followed some more clanking (not as loud, thankfully), a couple of quiet ‘ow’s and finally the sound of someone moving swiftly over the grass in the direction of the distant house.
“Famous last words,” Esca muttered, beside him, and Marcus had opened his mouth to reply before he remembered that he and Esca weren’t exactly speaking, and Cottia had just run off and left them standing by a wall in the dark for at least the next twenty minutes. Unfortunately, his hesitation was obvious.
“I suppose we just wait then,” said Esca, after a strained silence.
Marcus tried and failed to think of something intelligent to say, settling for, “Yeah, I guess.”
The silence dragged out even longer, until eventually Esca sighed and pushed past Marcus to flop down with his back to the wall, his arms folded, giving Marcus the option of standing there and making this all even more awkward, or sitting down next to him and actually talking about what was wrong.
Given the way Esca was determinedly ignoring him, Marcus might have been a coward and stayed there anyway, but it had started raining, that fine misty sort of rain that Marcus had come to find was a staple of the English weather and he took that as a sign that he better get his ass over there and apologise. He wanted to apologise, he just had no clue how to go about it.
He sat down, pretending not to notice the way Esca moved further away under the guise of giving him room.
“I hope this doesn’t get worse,” he said, because he couldn’t just dive right in, that would be weird and Esca would think him even more of a tool than he already did.
“It’s only rain,” Esca said witheringly.
Okay, clearly diving right in was the way to go. It still took a couple of false starts and far too much staring at the large PRIVATE PROPERTY sign on the grass verge before he managed, “About the other night, Esca, I—”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to do this whole speech, you know,” Esca said, almost flippantly.
“The ‘I’m not gay, can we just pretend nothing ever happened’ speech – although I would like to point out, before we do that, that you didn’t exactly fight me off at the time.” The words came out in a rush like he wanted to get them over with.
“That’s not what I...” Marcus broke off, frustrated now because he had this planned. Sort of. Alright the planning had been more ‘panicking’ in the short time it took them to get here, but he’d definitely had an opening sentence at least. Esca started rooting around in his pockets and Marcus had a pretty good idea his cigarettes were going to make an appearance soon, so he said the first thing that came to mind, which was unfortunately, “Why did you do that, at the beach?”
“Do what,” said Esca. He yanked out the contents of one of the pockets of his pants, dumping it on the grass like it had personally offended him.
“Nope, sorry I don’t.” He was patting down his pants, looking a little more desperate for a cigarette now.
Marcus reached over into Esca’s jacket pocket, retrieving a packet of roll ups and tossing them into Esca’s lap before he could stop and think of all the many ways that was not okay right at that moment. Esca stared at him, and Marcus felt his face heat. “Okay, let’s just... Let’s start this again. Why did you kiss me at the beach?”
Esca snatched up the packet. “Why did you try to kiss me first?”
“Are we five years old now?” Embarrassment gave an edge to his voice.
“Don’t answer then.” Esca looked away, scowling but the effect was somewhat ruined by the fat raindrop that bounced off his nose.
Marcus glared down at the wet mud by his sneakers. He didn’t know why he was trying to make this into a fight, this whole thing had never been Esca’s fault anyway. He should just answer the damn question, but once he said the words he couldn’t take them back. He wasn’t such an idiot as to think that not admitting something out loud made it less true, but there was a difference between admitting something to yourself and throwing it out there for other people to know and use, for Esca to know and use.
A small movement caught his eye and he looked up to see Esca trying to wipe the rainwater off his face. Compared to Marcus, who had miraculously managed to find a dry spot, he seemed to be getting wetter. There was at least a foot and a half of space between them but Esca still stayed stubbornly where he was, getting dripped on.
“Cottia better hurry up,” Marcus said – to try and fill the heavy silence that had fallen.
There was a world of disappointment in that one word, and whatever Marcus had planned to say next fled. Beside him, Esca drew his knees up to his chest, practically radiating unhappiness – and suddenly Marcus found that the anxiety he had been nurturing for three long days had nothing on his reaction to an unhappy Esca.
“I did it because I wanted to.”
The words hung there for a moment, before Esca frowned slightly and half turned to face him, cigarettes forgotten. “What?”
If Marcus was going to pour out his feelings, he certainly wasn’t going to look at Esca while he did it. “At the beach, I wanted to do that,” he told the sign post, which reassuringly failed to react in any way. “You shouldn’t think I didn’t want to, or that I was, I don’t know, experimenting or something. I wasn’t. I know I’ve been a complete ass these past few days, and I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken it out on you and I hope you can, uh, forgive me.” The last part came out weirdly formal, which Marcus blamed on his whole lack of practice with emoting (as Cottia called it), but he meant it all the same.
Esca didn’t reply at first and when he did it sounded a little strange. “What did you say?”
Marcus shifted awkwardly. “That I’m sorry?”
“No, the other part.”
Marcus risked a glance, but only enough to tell that Esca was staring at him. He looked away again. “The meaning it part? Yeah, well I did. It wasn’t an experiment, or whatever you thought, and I wanted you to know that.”
“But you’re not gay,” Esca wasn’t even bothering to speak quietly.
And there it was, the crux of it. Marcus swallowed and then said before he lost the courage for it, “That’s a matter of opinion, actually. It wasn’t something I could exactly shout about at home but I’ve always known that I—”
This time Marcus did. look and okay – wow, Esca looked really pissed, which Marcus had not been expecting.
Esca shifted to kneel upright, facing him, fairly bristling with indignation. “So what the fuck was that at the beach? If it wasn’t a gay freak-out and it wasn’t you experimenting, then what was it?” He pushed his hair back off his forehead impatiently – it was a mess now thanks to the rain and sticking up every which way. It should have made him look ridiculous, but somehow it only made him look hot, but then Marcus almost always thought Esca looked hot.
He shifted, awkward. “It was an accident.”
“An accident? So you didn’t mean it then.”
“No I did, but—”
Esca let out a noise of frustration. “You either did or you didn’t.”
“Fine,” said Marcus, goaded, “I did.”
Esca grimaced. “Yeah and I can see how happy you are about it.”
At that, Marcus felt like an utter shit because he’d accepted that Esca might be mad about what had happened and how Marcus had reacted, but hurting him was another thing entirely. There was a part of him that was amazed he even had the power to do that. But the greater part of him was waking up to the fact that if he didn’t act on this now, he might never have it again. Sure, Esca might still be his friend but he’d known for a good while now that he wanted more than that, he’d just convinced himself it wasn’t possible.
Before he could talk himself out of it, he reached out, hesitating only when Esca stilled, eyeing him warily. When he didn’t stop him, Marcus closed the distance, tracing the curve of Esca’s jaw and letting his hand settle loosely around his nape where he could feel the slow drip of rainwater onto his skin from Esca’s hair and the fast beat of his pulse under his thumb, echoing the quickened beat of Marcus’s heart.
“Are you going to hide in the gym for another three days after this?” Esca said. The slight catch in his voice told Marcus he wasn’t anywhere near as casual as he was trying to sound.
Marcus shook his head, his mouth dry, “No hiding, I promise.”
Esca licked his lips, tilting his head a little like he was waiting and Marcus realised it was up to him now. He’d only done this once and he’d certainly never done it sober, but there were only so many ways it could go wrong and god knows, Marcus had probably already thought of all of them these past months. So he leaned in to press his lips to Esca’s, shoving his insecurities down and away because he wanted this and he was going to have it, whatever the consequences might be.
It was different sober, sharper, like the way he noticed Esca’s skin was cold and damp from the rain, how tightly Esca gripped his forearm, hand slipping a little at first, and the first shocking touch of Esca’s tongue to his, the way Esca seemed to melt into it.
Then Esca pushed him, hard, and Marcus found himself flat on his back in the wet grass with Esca kissing him like it was going out of fashion. Marcus was okay with this, he was more than okay with this, except for the rain soaking through his shirt and the fact that they were on somebody’s lawn for fuck’s sake.
“This place better not have CCTV,” he said, when they broke for breath. He was panting and doing his best not to react to the feeling of Esca straddling him, or to deal with the realisation that Esca had shifted his weight to one side even now, avoiding his bad leg.
Esca snorted with laughter, “I’d like to see Placidus beat that.”
“I would not,” Marcus said emphatically. Esca smoothed his hand back over Marcus’s forehead, still smiling down at him, a manic, happy smile that made something seize inside Marcus with the realisation that no-one had ever looked at him quite like that before.
“You know, I did have reasons why this was a bad idea,” Marcus blurted, because he was apparently determined to ruin the mood. “I wasn’t trying to be an ass.”
Esca sighed. “Thanks for killing the moment.”
“No, but...” It was kind of distracting with Esca lying on top of him. “I was meant to explain all this stuff, before...”
Esca quirked an eyebrow as he lowered his head to ghost a breath over the sensitive skin of Marcus’s neck. “Explain then.”
“Well... My leg is really busted up,” Marcus said, a little wobbly– but then Esca was licking him for god’s sake.
“I know that,” said Esca, like Marcus was an enormous idiot.
“It looks horrible.”
“I’ll close my eyes.”
“I’m being serious!”
Esca pushed himself up, his hands braced against Marcus’s shoulders and a familiar exasperation creeping back into his expression. “So am I. Do you think I care about any of that?
“I care,” Marcus said, in an unconscious echo of his words to Cottia all those weeks ago, only not so certain this time.
Esca’s eyes narrowed and Marcus felt a sudden flare of lust because bad tempered Esca never ceased to affect him. It couldn’t be normal. “Do you mean we could have been doing this months ago?”
Marcus swallowed. “Uh... maybe?”
“I thought you just didn’t...” Esca broke off, and then smacked him on the arm, hard.
“What the hell, Esca?”
“That’s for being a fucking idiot!” Esca said, then he sat back, still fixing Marcus with that fierce stare. “Does everything else still work?”
Marcus was still rubbing his arm. “Everything...?” Esca shifted in a way that made his meaning unmistakable and Marcus’s hands came up to grip his hips instinctively. “Oh right, that,” he said, breath hitching. “Yeah, that works fine.”
“Well then, shut up,” Esca said as he kissed him again, swallowing any final objections he might have been planning to make.
It didn’t seem possible it could be that easy, but Esca was kissing him like there wasn’t anything Marcus could say that would put him off, and just the thought of it was thrilling and terrifying all at once.
It was enough. He pulled back, drawing a thumb across Esca’s bottom lip and revelling in the shudder he felt as a response before he took a deep breath, “Esca...”
It was, in hindsight, as good a time as any for Cottia to make a re-appearance – loudly and suddenly as she fell off the wall and nearly tripped over the pair of them in the dark, jabbing her torch somewhere unfortunate if Esca’s pained grunt was anything to go by.
“Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap,” Cottia kept up a litany as she crawled clear of the tangle they were all in, swung her rucksack back on (narrowly missing Marcus’s head), and staggered to her feet, dramatically announcing, “Okay, so my super stealth was not so stealthy after all.”
Esca climbed off Marcus. Cottia failed to notice. “What does that mean?”
“COTTIA!” The angry yell that sounded clear across the lawns kind of answered that one.
Cottia pulled a face, “It means I got your flag but we better make a run for it. Now!”
Marcus sat up, grabbing his crutch, “You two go ahead, I’ll catch up.”
“For fuck’s sake, Marcus, this isn’t ‘Nam. Get off the floor you numpty.” Exasperated, Esca reached out to pull Marcus to his feet, then grabbed Cottia’s arm while she was still dancing about on the spot. “Cottia, stop panicking and phone your boyfriend.”
Cottia stared at him for a moment, still poised to bolt for the lane, before, “Oh yeah, good plan.”
She pulled her cell from her pocket and hit speed dial, but not before they heard the sound of a door crashing open somewhere beyond the wall and Placidus’s angry voice.
“If you don’t get off my property right now, I am calling the police—”
“We’re not even on your property!” Cottia shouted back, ruining any last hope they had of denying this later.
Placidus continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “—and if you’ve damaged anything I will press charges!”
Cottia made a rude noise. “Good luck finding any damage then.”
Just then, there was the sound of a car approaching at speed and they all turned in time to see Lee reverse wildly up the lane and plough straight through the PRIVATE PROPERTY sign with a screech of tyres and an ominous crunch.
“Actually there might be some damage in the house after all,” Cottia shouted after a horrified moment, “you should check there first.”
“What was that?” Placidus demanded, sounding a hell of a lot closer now.
“Oh my god, this is like bloody amateur hour,” Esca said, as the three of them made for one side of the car and Lee scrambled out the other and tried to knock the sign post back into place with a tyre iron.
He was mostly succeeding when Cottia yanked the iron out of his hand and tugged him back to the car, muttering something about ‘the world’s worst getaway driver’ as she pushed him into the driver’s seat.
It was possible this evening would go down on record as one of the more ill-advised of Marcus’s college career, but it was hard to imagine a day he would ever regret speeding away down the lane to the sight of Placidus in a tartan dressing gown, yelling after them as he stood next to a listing sign post Lee had managed to knock in backwards.
Cottia started laughing first, then Marcus, then Esca and finally Lee – which probably should have worried Marcus more considering he was driving, but he found he really didn’t care.
Cottia was still hiccupping when she reached into her rucksack and pulled out a familiar wad of green cloth, tossing it back to him. “Here you go, I think we can safely say it was worth it.”
Marcus caught it and unfolded it, relieved to see the flag was still in one piece, and the eagle wasn’t wearing sunglasses or some shit like that (he wouldn’t put it past Placidus). It was just a flag, he knew that, but it would always be more than that to him.
He was still looking at it when he felt Esca’s hand sneak underneath the fabric and curl around his own as it lay against his thigh. For a second he tensed, before remembering with a rush of elation that he didn’t have to hide this anymore. He squeezed Esca’s hand in his, thinking he should maybe say something.
“Shut up, don’t spoil the moment,” Esca interrupted, proving that everything and nothing at all had changed.
Marcus grinned. Alright, maybe there was time for that later.
“WAIT. Stop the car!”
At Cottia’s sudden shout, Lee jammed on the breaks, swearing and looking everywhere for the animal he evidently expected to see on the dark road. But Cottia had twisted in her seat, eyes wide, and Marcus thought he had an inkling of where this was going. Somewhere in the periphery of his vision, Esca was smirking, the bastard.
“Are you two holding hands under there?” she demanded, proving him right.
“Jesus Christ, Cottia!” Lee said loudly, “I thought I’d hit a rabbit or something.”
Cottia waved that triviality aside, fixing Esca and Marcus with an accusing stare. “You are! And you didn’t say anything! Wait, you are holding hands under there aren’t you, you’re not—”
Marcus lurched forward and clapped a hand over her mouth before she could finish that sentence, feeling Esca shaking with suppressed laughter behind him. “Why do you always...” He trailed off, finally noticing the way her eyes were practically brimming with mirth. “Never mind.”
“It’s alright,” Cottia said, when he released her, looking very pleased with herself. “You can tell me everything later.”
Marcus pulled a face at her (which she ignored) and sat back, enjoying the novel experience of feeling Esca pressed all along his side.
“Bet you’re glad you came here now,” Esca said quietly, still sounding far too amused about it all.
Marcus thought of all the things he could say right then, about how he’d hoped to find something to take his mind off what he’d lost when he came here, not something better.
But Esca was looking at him curiously, so in the end, Marcus just said, “I am,” and knew he really meant it.