Soldiers often visited them. When the legate Marcellus came to visit Marcus' uncle, he usually brought a few men in uniform, though the gods were to be thanked he had never brought his tribune again. Sometimes men from the local garrison marched by, on their patrols. There were even fairly regular couriers, tesserae all the way from Isca Dumnoniorum; Marcus had struck up a tentative friendship with Lutorius Drusillus, as he felt himself capable of it now that he had returned the Eagle, now that he could befriend a man without feeling like he might be cursing him just by knowing him. Lutorius liked to tell him of the fort, and in fact Marcus had been expecting another courier with a letter.
The man in the atrium was none of these things. He was a man of medium height, brown-haired, brown-eyed -- the sort of man who could not be described except by saying how average he was. He carried a traveler's satchel on his shoulder and wore a soldier's red tunic and jingling, shining belts, girded with enough weaponry to make the slaves look at him uneasily. His smile was the winning smile of a man who was accustomed to getting everything he wanted.
"Centurion Aulus Velus." The man's handclasp was firm, testing Marcus' strength. "Grain-man of the Second Legion, and it's an honor to meet you, sir." Smoothly, he dropped Marcus' hand and held out his arm to Esca. "And you as well, of course."
"I never outranked you, Centurion," corrected Marcus, as mild a rebuke as he could make it. Hopefully the man would notice the hint. Ever since he and Esca had returned the Eagle, there had been a great many men seeking to ingratiate themselves with the two of them -- or rather, usually Marcus. Likely this was another such man, but it was strange that he was so far from his posting.
Esca, Marcus could see, was likewise dubious; he had dropped the man's hand as soon as was polite, and he was staring at him, narrow-eyed, in a way that went beyond polite. "And I have found that Roman soldiers are not usually glad to see me," Esca added.
Velus laughed. "Ah, but I am glad. Trust me."
Marcus didn't. "Did you come here for anything in particular, Centurion?"
The man's smile was rather thin. "Actually, yes. I would prefer to talk--" his eyes darted around the room-- "elsewhere."
Marcus motioned to Marcipor, who was beginning to look interested, and the slave quickly scurried out, leaving only the three of them in the room. "Anything you have to say to me," said Marcus, firmly, "is something you can say before Esca. And if you feel that it is not, then you are not welcome here." There had been enough men already who had wanted him to cast Esca aside, Esca who had been made a citizen, who had had just as much (and even more!) to do with the return of the Eagle as he did. He would not stand for any more of it.
Velus stared back, unfazed. "Then it's a good thing I came to meet with both of you," he replied. "But, as I said, another location would be better. There are still too many people in this house, and you will forgive me if I take no chances with the knowledge that has been entrusted to me."
Esca raised an eyebrow and even Marcus was becoming more and more curious. This was not anything that had ever happened to him, and they would just have to see what became of it.
It was thus that Marcus, Esca, and Centurion Velus came to be walking down by his uncle's lake. They walked past the slaves, past the horses in the field, past the birds calling to each other on the water, until finally, just as Marcus' leg was beginning to tire, Velus came to a halt on nearly the opposite side of the shore.
"You will want some proof of my veracity, I suppose," Velus said, and he promptly unslung his bag and handed over a traveling diploma, and along with it, something else smaller but still with the emperor's seal.
Marcus turned the diploma over in his hands while Velus named all the commanders who could vouch for him. The seals looked right to him, and only a fool would dare to counterfeit such a thing, even if it did win the bearer the right to use the roads and change horses as often as he liked in the emperor's service. The other item informed him that A. Velus was a centurion of the Foreigners' Camp in Rome on assignment to the Second Legion Augusta and was operating on behalf of the emperor himself. All very tidy, assuming this man was Aulus Velus.
"You do more than move grain for the legion, eh?" Marcus said, handing the items back.
Velus' mouth twitched. "Sometimes."
"You realize that, whatever you tell me, I will check it with my own acquaintances as well as your commander?" He thought Lutorius' vexillation might be at the Second Legion's headquarters this month; he would be sure to ask him about this man in his next letter.
"I would expect nothing less of you."
Esca's eyes flicked back and forth between the two of them, but he said nothing. He had not said anything for a long while.
"Well?" asked Marcus, finally.
The man answered his question with a question. "Have you ever met Tiberius Valerius Laevinus?"
Marcus blinked. Of all the questions he had expected, that was not one of them. "No," he said, honestly. "I know of him by reputation only."
"And what do you know of him?" Velus pressed.
This was becoming very strange indeed. Marcus frowned. "The same things everyone else knows, I suppose. He's of senatorial rank, obviously. He owns a villa out on the other side of Calleva. Other than that I know nothing about him. If it's information you're looking for, Centurion, I'm sorry, but I am not the man to ask. He and I don't move in the same circles."
Velus shook his head. "I think you misunderstand me, Aquila. I already have information. Rumors. I need your help to confirm them. You and Esca."
Marcus stopped suddenly and turned. Esca had finally spoken. Esca was, in fact, staring at Velus, his arms crossed across his chest, his eyes narrowed.
"Why do you need us?" Esca repeated. "Marcus is not a soldier any longer, I was never one, and as he's said, neither of us know the man. Why in the world should we entertain whatever you have to tell us? You do not command either of us, Centurion." Even though Marcus could not quite support the vehemence -- he knew Esca had no love for Rome -- he found he could not disagree with the sentiment of it. Esca was right, after all.
Velus nodded as if he had expected this, and even more strangely, was smiling, as if something about Esca's response had pleased him. "Excellent," he murmured to himself. "That will be believable."
Marcus was so lost in wondering what believable could possibly mean that he almost didn't hear Velus' next words.
Velus jerked his head in Marcus' direction. "There's money if you want it, but a man like you -- you'll do it for Rome. For the honor and glory of the Empire. Because you are, it seems, the only one who can help me, just as you were the only one who could return the Eagle. You do not seem like a man who could stand by and let nothing be done, when you know there is something you could do, some way you could right a wrong and save Rome."
Oh, he was good. If Marcus' leg had not been so bad, if he had not grown to like the settled life of Calleva, such a speech might well have made him take up with the Eagles again; it certainly stirred his heart.
Esca was unmoved. "And me? I don't think you can appeal to my fondness for your Empire."
Velus shrugged and grinned a little. "You? You'll do it because he wants to."
Esca stared, and then he shut his mouth and pointedly said nothing.
Something within Marcus twisted to see it, a kind of nervous pain. Of course he knew Esca cared enough for their friendship to do things for him -- he had helped him retrieve the Eagle, by Hercules! -- but at the same time knowing that this stranger knew it, having it shoved in their faces and used against them... it all made him feel oddly exposed. Not to mention, added a much less noble part of his mind, very quietly, that it led him to speculate on what else Esca might do, if he wanted it. If they wanted it. But that, he could not ask; he was not about to risk losing the truest friend of his life for the feverish dreams of something more.
"What?" Marcus said, irritably. "What will you have us do, then?"
"It is simple." There came another winning smile from Velus; a sign, then, that there was still something about this where they needed to be won over. "You merely need to attend one of Laevinus' dinner-parties."
"If it's that simple," said Esca, his arms still folded, "then you would not have come here from Isca Silurum to ask us to do it. What is it, truly?"
Velus' face was just as innocent as before. "A dinner-party, as I said. I, a mere centurion--" here Esca snorted-- "cannot procure myself an invitation, of course, but for you, an honorable equestrian, indeed for the men who returned the Eagle, it would be a much easier thing. It would be a great coup indeed for Laevinus to host both of you. There are men I can talk to who will indicate that you are willing, and then I am sure, an invitation will be forthcoming. So you see, I am prevailing upon the two of you, to go where your fine status allows you and mine does not."
He was hiding something. Of course he was hiding something. He was one of the emperor's spies, after all; he probably had enough damning little details in his head to keep half the Senate in scandal for months. The question was, what was he keeping from them now, and why?
"Centurion," Marcus said, with a bit of the old familiar snap to his voice that made Velus straighten up sharply like a chastened soldier, "we are neither of us idiots, and you do not need to flatter us. Tell us, plainly, what you want to accomplish by this, and then we will decide if we will do it."
The pleasant facade dropped away from Velus' face, and he glared icily at them. "If that is how you wish it," he began, "then, fine: I will be plain. There are two sets of rumors swirling around Tiberius Laevinus. One of them interests me."
"And that is?"
"He and certain other elites of Calleva--" he ticked off the names on his fingers as he spoke-- "Gaius Lunaris, Decimus Acer, Gaius Cinnianus, Lucius Eutherius, Publius Muco. Let me guess, you've not met them either?"
Marcus shook his head. They were all senators, and they had extended him no invitations, or at least, not yet. "I am not certain that the higher ranks of society quite know what to do with me, Centurion." That was, he knew, understating the matter. He had been ignored for years due to his father's disgrace, and now that he had won his honor back in the north, even that was not quite good enough. The Ninth was still lost, even if its standard was not, and that meant the nobility still seemed not to know whether they should be seen with him.
Velus pursed his lips. "It is not ideal," he said, to himself again, "but at least we are working with the proverbial blank slate."
"Ideal for what?"
Velus ignored the question and plunged onward. Marcus was beginning to dislike the man. "The six of them," he said, "all wear the same ring, a little bronze one, on their right hands."
With difficulty, Marcus resisted the impulse to feel for the ring on his own hand, the emerald dolphin ring of his father. "What of it? Many men wear rings."
"Not usually the same ring," said Velus, dryly. "There are rumors, the barest rumors, mind you, that the ring represents a pact between them, conceived at one of these fine dinner-parties."
Marcus could feel his heart beginning to pound, quick and heavy. "What sort of pact?" He had to ask, even though he knew, of course he knew, because there was only one reason--
"Conspiracy to commit treason." Velus shrugged. "What else is there?"
Marcus stared. It was one thing to know that such men existed; it was another to hear that they existed in Calleva. And it was yet another thing to know that this man thought he could pass for a conspirator. "If I were," he said, very carefully, taking deep and even breaths, "a different sort of man, Centurion, I might be offended to hear that you believe these wicked men could so easily accept me as one of them."
"And I am not as nice as Marcus," came Esca's voice, tightly. Marcus looked over to see that he had colored in anger, and his hands now made fists at his side. "So I find myself wondering how you plan to pass off as a traitor a man who nearly killed himself to return your precious lump of metal." As Marcus watched, Esca stepped closer, in front of him, as if he could shield him from Velus' insults with his body.
"Relax," said Velus, quickly, too quickly, holding up his empty hands to ward them off, smiling as if that would disarm them. "I meant no insult by it. It will only be a pretense, and afterward, when these men are captured, your part in it will be made clear; no one will think you have betrayed Rome."
Marcus frowned. "But why should they think that in the first place?"
The smile was back now, coaxing, convincing. "It will only take some... embellishment. They could be made to believe, for example, that you have grown dissatisfied, believing you have not received the reward that was your due. After all, the Ninth Legion was not reformed, nor were you asked back to the army--"
"I would not go even if I could--" began Marcus, but Velus held up his hand.
"Ah, but you can imagine it might be so." Velus smiled. "A man in your circumstances might believe a thing like that, can you see?"
Having thought about it for a few moments, Marcus nodded. "I think I can feign that well enough." He would not like it, of course, but it was not about whether he liked it; Velus had been right to tell him it was for the good of Rome. He would just have to do his best.
"And me?" Esca's voice was dry and incurious. He had stepped back a few paces so that Marcus could see his face; he quirked one eyebrow. "What would you have me pretend?"
Velus made a show of looking Esca up and down. "I don't think it will take much with you, somehow," he said.
Esca glared and took a step forward.
"Peace," Marcus said, reaching out for Esca's arm. "I am sure the centurion here meant nothing by that, either." He pitched his remarks at Velus, who finally nodded, grudgingly. Marcus let Esca's arm drop. Good. There would be no trouble here.
Esca seemed to be thinking about something very intently for a few long moments, his brow furrowed, his thumb rubbing along the stubble at his jaw. "It doesn't make sense, Marcus," he said, in British, clear enough for Marcus to follow, and Marcus would wager that the choice of language was deliberate. "Oh, it's a very good story, and most of it sounds right, but there's something he's not telling us--"
"You're right," said Velus. His British was only a little worse than Marcus', and Esca stopped and glared again.
"Why us?" Esca continued, in Latin this time. "You can likely tap any disaffected men for the job, or men who can pretend so, men who pretend for a living. And why have you not rounded them up already if you believe they are plotting treason? And I have not heard these rumors. You expect us to go play traitors with men we have not heard ill words about? Treason is a hard thing to keep silent. Men like to talk about that one." His jaw was tilted up, defiantly. "For our lives, for our reputations, I want more proof than you have given us."
This, infuriatingly, made Velus smile again. "We have not rounded them up, as you say, because they are influential men of the area, and I have no wish to ruin their lives and the well-being of Calleva as a whole if they are innocent. The rumors are barely whispers. I have no proof. I ask your help in obtaining it."
"The rest of it," Velus said, "can be explained by the first set of rumors about Laevinus and his associates."
Marcus frowned again. "I thought you said they weren't of interest."
"They aren't. However, their presence does an excellent job of... obscuring the ones I am interested in."
"And those would be?"
Velus shrugged as if the information was the most boring thing in the world. "I am surprised you haven't heard. They say Laevinus is an unnatural pervert, and the goings-on at his parties -- with all the men I have mentioned as regular guests -- would put Nero to shame."
Marcus stared. "You think he puts around the rumor of the debauchery so that no one will suspect him of treason?" Velus was right about this; he would give him that. Surely no one would ever think that a dissolute, immoral man could plot treason! It was inconceivable. Everyone knew that weak, soft men could not do such a thing.
"Oh, no," said Velus brightly. "I have it from some of the slaves; I'm very certain of the debauchery, but not the other. I think he does both." He nodded firmly, as if this were not the most ridiculous, impossible thing in the world. "But it's so hard to get reliable testimony from slaves. You know how it is."
He could hardly hear the man over the roaring in his ears. "I assume, then," he said, faintly, "that you are talking about more than the usual slave-girls after a party."
Velus nodded. "There are of course those, but I am told that the men have the habit of, er, enjoying each other. You would pretend to be men of such habits, between yourselves. They will certainly act thus at the party. Some of the younger senators are... put forth in the common use." Marcus winced. "And there's no delicate way to say this, I'm afraid, but I have to ask you--" his eyes darted between the two of them, and Marcus, unable to stand it, looked away-- "if, in the course of this, if you have ever, if you would be willing to, er. You may be required to suffer the womanly part."
No. No, no, no, no. He couldn't do this. He thought he had forgotten. He had spent years not thinking about it, and suddenly it was all coming back to him with a few words. He could feel his throat tighten.
"I was seventeen," he blurted out, his eyes squeezed shut. "I was-- we were very drunk, my friend and I, and it was only once, and we thought we would try-- but it hurt before he had hardly done anything, so I made him stop, and so I am still a man. I am not soft," he said, and his voice only shook a little when he spoke.
He opened his eyes to find that both Esca and Velus were staring at him.
"Marcus," Esca said, very, very gently. "He was asking me."
He wanted to run, to hide, to disappear, but he could only watch as Esca looked back at Velus, and the expression on his face was the coldest thing Marcus had ever seen.
"And I know what the rest of the truth is," Esca said, his voice smooth and dangerous. "You needed us because you needed me. You need a man of enough importance to earn an invitation in the first place, and -- here's the difficult part -- you need one who won't object to being fucked." He spat out the obscenity. "And, oh, you know all about Britons; we're shameless whores, the lot of us, and we don't mind anything anyone cares to do. Why should we? We're not proper like you Romans. No morals whatsoever. Wouldn't reflect badly on someone like me, not at all. And, yes, I was a slave as a youth, even better. Surely, surely, you say to yourself, a man such as myself has likely given his body to men before, so what is one more time to him?"
Velus had gone pale. "I am very sorry--"
"You're not." And then, suddenly, Esca smiled. "But I volunteer, Centurion. Someone has to get fucked for the glory of the Empire. But please don't insult me by offering money; I am not that much of a whore."
They all stared at each other in silence. Marcus could not think of a thing to say.
"Thank you," Velus said, finally, and then, unexpectedly, he saluted, a proper salute, which Marcus hastily returned. "I will have your names given to Laevinus. I think he will be interested."
With that, he turned and headed out across the fields, not even in the direction of the road.
"Esca," Marcus began, unsteadily, "you didn't have to--"
"He was right." Esca's gaze was unreadable. "He wasn't lying. We are his only choice."
"But you can't--"
"It's only fucking, Marcus." The words were plain, as if it meant nothing to him. "And I'm sure they'll have a slave-girl for you, if it comes to that, as I am sure you would prefer. You can tell them you'd rather try someone new that evening. It's not as though we have to fuck, after all."
From the tone, it sounded as though Esca could never want that, not from him. It didn't matter. It didn't. He never would have asked, anyway.
Marcus stared out across the field. "No," he said, "I suppose that won't happen."
"It doesn't hurt, you know," Esca said, out of nowhere, as they picked their way back toward the house.
The corners of Esca's mouth lifted a little. "Being fucked. Not if it's done properly, at any rate, and I am sure your senators will not want to hurt me, so they will be careful." Marcus must still have been staring, for he clarified. "You've been looking at me like I agreed to be tortured, did you not know that? It's a pleasant thing. It feels good. Very good indeed." And he was grinning now, as if in fond reminiscence.
Marcus swallowed hard. He could picture Esca now, smiling just like that, wanton, begging for it--
He cleared his throat. "That is good to know. I do not like to think of them hurting you."
"I am sorry," Esca put in, and there was real regret in his voice, "that whoever talked you into trying it before was so clumsy about it."
"I as well," lied Marcus. "But it is better that I never liked it, I am certain." And at that he had to look away and could not speak, for Esca could not know it had been his idea, only his and never Sextus'. It had taken Marcus a month to talk him into it. He was not sure what he had done wrong, when it came to it, that he could not even be a pervert the right way, and so he had never dared to ask anyone for it again. Sextus, of course, had died a month later, a spear through his throat on their first posting together. And Marcus had grieved, but all the same his death had made it easier, somehow; it felt like he could bury his own perversions with him. Now, though, they were coming to life again.
But he would not. He would not. No one would know.
He allowed himself to imagine it that night, the thoughts he had not even let himself entertain in years, his hand rough and heavy on his cock, thinking of anonymous men pressing into him. Huge, muscled men took their turns and then a lithe wiry one slid in, fucking him hard, using him, holding him down, and, ah, yes--
Gasping, shaking, he came almost instantly, and for long moments he could not summon the strength to stand and fetch a cloth. He could only lie there, panting, disgusted with his own weakness.
He had not thought of Esca, at the end. Of course he had not. And Esca had been wrong, anyway, probably lying to make him feel better; it could not truly feel good. It was not as though slaves or whores actually looked happy when you fucked them.
Marcus had been half-hoping that something would turn up to disprove Velus' story, but each successive letter only confirmed it. Lutorius' missives said there was a grain-man of that description, and that he had in fact been in Calleva. When Esca asked the slaves what they had heard of Laevinus, they found very quickly that the rumors of his immoral parties had spread far and wide; trust the slaves to know such things. And then, sooner than Marcus had expected, came an invitation from Laevinus himself.
Ti. Valerius Laevinus sends greetings to M. Flavius Aquila and Esca, Cunoval's son. I have been made aware that we are men of mutual interests who may prove advantageous to each other, and I would consider it a great honor were you to attend a dinner at my house with other like-minded men on the Nones of this month.
Stephanos finished reading the letter and closed the tablet. Marcus looked wildly around the room, at him, at his uncle, at Esca, and he frantically tried to think of something to say that was not he is inviting us to sleep with him and kill the emperor.
"Why, Marcus," said his uncle, sounding approving, "I thought you hated dinner-parties. I had no idea you were developing a taste for politics."
"A very small one." Marcus hoped he did not sound too nervous about it, or anything else that would give him away. "So many men seem to want to befriend me since we returned the Eagle, and I do not think I should turn down a senator."
Luckily, his uncle did not seem to notice. "That will be well. And maybe you will enjoy yourselves, eh?"
"I will," said Esca, "even if Marcus will not." The queer, dark smile he gave was for Marcus alone, but Marcus was not sure he understood what Esca meant by it, for he could not mean what it sounded like.
Esca dropped his toga on the floor. Again.
"Can't I just not wear this?" he asked, plaintively, picking up the thing in the middle of one of its folds. "I don't understand what you all see in it. It's so... cumbersome. I'm already wearing a tunic."
Marcus tried again to drape the end of it properly up and over Esca's shoulder. It did not help that Esca had been a citizen for six months and had worn the toga perhaps three times; he did not know all the tricks to it. "Here, you have to clutch at it, sort of. It won't stay up by itself if it's not balanced. And don't move around too much; it'll fall off."
Naturally Esca had done a good job dressing Marcus; Esca should not have done it, of course, now that he was no longer a slave, but a man could not put his own toga on by himself, and Esca did not seem to mind helping, as Stephanos and Marcipor were busy elsewhere. He had done it before, after all. Marcus, unfortunately, had no such experience, and if he could not fix this, the senators were not going to think well of him.
"Exactly my point." Esca was holding the toga now, but it was still unbalanced; he had too much of it and would surely drop it again. "Why do you not have clothes that stay on? You are a great empire, you say, but then why did you not invent braccae?"
"You wear braccae to this dinner," said Marcus, under his breath, "and they'll think you're a revolutionary, all right, but not the sort they're interested in."
Esca shrugged. "I was joking, Marcus." He finally gathered up the toga and Marcus threw the end over his shoulder; the folds draped more or less correctly. "I'm ready. Are you?"
In a few hours, he supposed, they'd have it all off both of them anyway.
"Yes." His mouth was dry. "Let's do this. For Rome."
"For Rome," Esca agreed, but Marcus could not tell if that too was a joke.
The man who stepped forward to greet them in the atrium did not look like a conspirator or a pervert, thought Marcus, but he had to admit he did not know what a conspirator looked like, and as for perversion, surely Marcus himself was proof that a pervert could look like a normal man. This man was young, wearing a senator's broad-striped toga and tunic, and he was short, shorter than even Esca, with the coloring of a Latin and a wide smile on his face. He looked like a man who smiled often.
"You would be Marcus Aquila, then," said the man, grinning and holding out his hand. Indeed, he had a little bronze ring on his smallest finger, just as Velus had said. "Welcome, welcome! I am Tiberius Laevinus, and it is a pleasure to meet you."
Marcus shook the offered hand. "Likewise. And this is my--" oh, what word was right?-- "my friend, Esca."
Laevinus extended his hand to Esca next. "And it is good to meet you as well."
Esca nodded and, Marcus was glad to see, managed a credible look of pleasure. "I have never been a guest at a fine Roman dinner before," Esca said. "I am told yours are quite the thing."
Laevinus threw his head back and laughed. "That they are! I hope you will enjoy this one. I have heard so much about the two of you lately; I think it will suit you nicely."
What in the world has Velus told him about us? Marcus wondered. He could not even tell if Laevinus was alluding to treason or the other things, the shameful unnatural things, and it worried him that he did not know which would be worse.
Marcus smiled. "We are honored by your hospitality."
"Come now." Laevinus waved a hand about the room. "Let me introduce you to the other guests."
Acer was an older man, gruff and gone to fat, while Lunaris was tall and thin, pale like a Briton or a Gaul. Eutherius, of course, was a Greek, bearded and dark. Muco was a little unfriendly, but Marcus did not think he suspected anything, for he seemed withdrawn talking to the others just as much; perhaps he was only that sort of man. Cinnianus was the youngest of them all, with luminous dark eyes, his curling hair framing a fine-boned face, pretty as the youths the poets wrote about; as Marcus took his hand he could not help but think so, he is the one they all fuck, and he shivered.
Hard on the heels of that thought came an even more awful one: But he is not more beautiful than Esca. At that Marcus bit the inside of his cheek, in surprise, in fear that he might say such a thing aloud, and he wondered how it was that that a wiry, bony Briton, a man to whom no one would write love poetry, a man with a tongue sharper than a slaver's whip-- he wondered how that man had captured his heart.
No. He had to pay attention. They were here for a reason, after all.
The other men did, he noticed, all wear the same ring as Laevinus.
Dinner was ready soon enough, and the slaves ushered them through the house to the summer dining-room. As there were only eight of them for the three couches, it meant that Marcus and Esca were the only two on the couch they were given, in the honored guest's place. He was reassured by this: one, it meant more opportunity to talk to Laevinus, the closest to them, over on the nearby couch; and two, if the evening did turn to debauchery it meant there was not a stranger at his back.
It did mean Esca was at his back, and as Marcus lay down with Esca sliding up behind him, his stomach twisted in on itself in little nervous pieces, making him shake in fright, he thought he could not go through with it. Everything seemed unreal, the room insubstantial, and he thought the other guests must surely know him for a spy with every furtive movement.
Then he felt a touch on his arm. He looked back over his shoulder at Esca's hand, Esca's fingers around his wrist, and he shuddered for an entirely different reason.
"Breathe, Marcus," whispered Esca, the words barely breath themselves. "Breathe and smile. You're at a dinner-party. You're enjoying yourself."
"I'm breathing. I'm enjoying myself," Marcus repeated, dully, but he managed to put a smile on his face nonetheless.
They all wanted to hear about the Eagle.
He should have expected this. Everyone wanted to hear about the Eagle; he'd told the tale hundreds of times, surely, but now he was resenting it more than ever -- for across the dining-room, Eutherius and Lunaris had stopped paying attention and were whispering something to each other, and damn it all, but he could not hear. They could be conspiring at this moment, and he could not make out a single word, thanks to the rest of the room wanting to ask him and Esca questions they had answered a thousand times before.
Even the slaves looked interested, Marcus thought, as he reached out to snag a skewered dormouse from a platter. As Marcus chewed it, Esca smoothly took over the story; he had just reached the part where he was describing how they met the Seal People. There was a lull in conversation just long enough for Marcus to hear Lunaris laugh, to see him make an agreeing sort of gesture at Eutherius, and then, and then--
"Oh, how absolutely shocking!" Laevinus said, and there was a strange low purr to his voice. "Truly?" And he smiled a little pleased smile, a knowing one, as if they shared some secret.
Belatedly, Marcus thought about what Esca had just said: he had been telling him Marcus had pretended to be his slave. No one had reacted like that, not in all the recitations. No one had acted like they liked the idea of it.
"Yes," Esca repeated, after a pause; it had probably surprised him as well. "We had to, you see; they would have killed us both if Marcus had been anything other than a slave."
Laevinus nodded, entirely animated now. "But you can't have liked that, can you?" He raised an eyebrow at Marcus. "It's so... deviant, isn't it?"
Marcus opened his mouth to say that, no, of course he hated it, but then he thought about it. He remembered the terror, the cold, the pain. Then he remembered going to his knees, Esca's hands in his hair, Esca holding him up, and suddenly he knew there had been a rightness in that. "On the whole, most of it I would not repeat," he agreed, "but I think in another context some of what I did might be called pleasurable. With a very good friend, one does not so much mind kneeling."
There, let him think he played the catamite. Let him think what he liked. But then Esca twitched, surprised, against Marcus' shoulder.
"You have never told me that," Esca said, and the strange, almost hopeful quaver in his voice was no fakery. Marcus would swear to that.
Marcus shrugged, awkward and self-conscious. "You never asked."
Laevinus was still staring at them. "So it is a new thing, the two of you together, eh?"
He scrambled for an answer. "You could say that." It was so new it did not even exist. He was aware he was halting, hesitating; oh, it was hard to lie about this.
Esca nudged him again. "You'll have to forgive Marcus," he said, much more smoothly than Marcus could have dreamed of managing himself, and he envied Esca for it. "We are not accustomed to being able to be so open about our relationship. I'm sure you understand how it is."
"Oh, of course." Laevinus sounded perfectly understanding. "We are all friends here though, and it will not leave the house. But it was an idle curiosity only; you do not have to speak of anything you do not wish to."
"I don't mind." Marcus had recovered enough to try to invent a story. They had not, unfortunately, discussed one beforehand. "It has not been long at all, no. I-- we wanted to wait until Esca was free, until after we returned the Eagle. It seemed wrong to me to do this while he was a slave. I would not have liked us to be unequal." And that, at least, was true as well; he wouldn't have wanted to.
"How charming!" A small smile played across Laevinus' lips. "But why did you not free him before, then?"
Oh. Damn. Well, you see, I thought I could compel him to travel with me, and he hated me as much as one man can hate another. No, no, he could not say that.
"I think Marcus was not certain he liked me at first," Esca put in, which even he had to know was a fiction, for was it not obvious Marcus had liked him enough to save him from the arena? "It took him a while to warm to me. And then we were in the north, and there was no point in it until we knew we would both live. And then, well, I was specially made a citizen, which worked out even better, wouldn't you say?"
Laevinus made a noise of agreement, and it was then that Marcus realized the conversation across the room had moved on, while he had been distracted; they were loudly discussing the most recent races, with Eutherius favoring the Reds and Lunaris the Whites. There was no treason in that. Could Velus not have gotten a proper spy? He was going to be of no use if he could not even observe what was being said.
The meal had moved on as well and the platters the slaves were carrying now bore fresh fruit. Berries had just come into season, it seemed, and Marcus reached out for a small handful of them, leaving the plate bare as he went.
"Did you just take the last of the raspberries?"
Marcus stopped with his hand halfway to his mouth and rolled a little ways onto his back, enough to see Esca. "I can share?" he offered, tentatively, not sure what Esca wanted. As far as he knew, Esca had never had a particular fondness for them; he had, in fact, said he liked strawberries better.
Having turned over, he held out his hand and waited for Esca to do the same, so he could hand them over. Instead, Esca smiled, licked his lips, and then opened his mouth, just a little, enough for Marcus to realize the plan.
If they had truly been who they were pretending to be, a thing like this would be completely natural. He had to. So Marcus lifted his shaking hand to Esca's lips and let Esca take the berries from his fingers. Esca's tongue was warm and wet against his skin, and the feel of it sent a jolt of need all through him. His cock twitched against the wool of the tunic, the pleasure of it and humiliation of such a public arousal twined together. Such a thing should not move him so much, as if he were an inexperienced youth!
Marcus made to move his hand away, once Esca had swallowed the berries, but before he could Esca had grasped hold of his wrist and delicately drawn one of Marcus' fingers into his mouth, licking along the sensitive pad, then sucking at his fingertip, all the while looking up at Marcus with laughing, joyous eyes, as if it pleased him to do this, as if it would please him even more to do the other, baser things he was implying. And those things, he certainly would never do; no decent man would.
He gasped aloud and tried not to push himself any closer to Esca, for that had gone straight to his cock and made him achingly hard with the desire for things he could not have and should not entertain. Hopefully Esca had not noticed that. It was another advantage of togas: the folds tended to obscure almost anything short of hiding an actual spear under one's tunic. Besides, it was one thing to pretend to enjoy what Esca was doing, and another to truly wish for it. The former was encouraged; the latter could never happen. Esca did not want him in that manner and to believe so would only invite sadness.
Then Esca nibbled on his fingers, very lightly, and Marcus moaned.
By the time Esca let his hand go, Marcus could think of nothing else for long moments except how to get him back, before he remembered that Esca was not even to touch him this night. It would kill him if he did, he thought. He wondered if it would kill him regardless.
"Thank you for sharing," Esca murmured, lowering his eyes and giving Marcus a wonderful, awful, teasing grin.
He could not even summon up words to reply.
Perhaps they could leave. Yes, perhaps they could. These men had said nothing illegal, after all, and they were not likely to talk of treason while fucking, if indeed the evening was heading there. And who was to say they even did that? So far the dinner had been perfectly normal.
"Well," said Marcus, hoarsely, a little louder than he should have been speaking, "it has been excellent to make the acquaintance of all you fine men, and I must say I have greatly enjoyed the dinner. It's getting late--"
"Nonsense!" someone -- Lunaris, Marcus thought -- called drunkenly across the room. "You can't possibly leave now! This is the best part!"
"Agreed," Acer said, laughing. "You'll miss all the fun!"
Laevinus' face was flushed with wine, and he was smiling at them. "Oh, please do stay! I think you'll like it."
"But it's late--" Marcus started, and he just barely caught the one confused glance Esca slipped him. He could read that well enough: Esca was asking him why he was doing this.
I am afraid, he could not say. I only want you and I can't have you, and I can't watch them do everything I would have wanted. At this moment he did not care about the honor or the glory or anything else Velus had tried to bribe him with to do this; his world now was all bound up in that one look from Esca.
"We don't have anywhere to be later," Esca said, and it was only because Marcus knew him that he could see how he said it, all tension and gritted teeth, how he was scrambling to recover.
Laevinus spread his arms, extravagant. "And you can certainly stay here if the hour grows too late to leave! I have plenty of spare bedrooms, with more than enough room for the two of you!"
They had to stay, else everything so far would be for naught. He would just have to watch.
"Very kind of you." Marcus swallowed hard. "Perhaps, then, we will stay after all."
Esca's hand found his, interlocking their fingers together. It was probably supposed to be reassuring. It wasn't.
The slaves brought more wine. Both Marcus and Esca had drunk sparingly throughout the dinner, as a drunken spy was no kind of spy at all, but as Marcus watched the dark liquid slosh in the mixing-bowl, he wondered if perhaps now would be a good time to revisit that plan. He wondered when the debauchery would start, how he would know, if Laevinus would throw off his toga and tunic, bare himself to the world, and announce the festivities begun.
Then he realized it had already started. On the furthest couch, Lunaris had turned over and was kissing Cinnianus with a surprising amount of passion, his hands knotted in the younger man's hair. Marcus stared at them in amazement. He had not realized it would be like this, that, for all the shameful things they were setting out to do, it seemed that they would truly enjoy them, in levity and good humor and without a care for anyone watching. And there were watchers, of course; Marcus was far from the only one. Their couch-mate Eutherius had slipped a hand under his own toga and tunic, and, though he was still fully-clothed, Marcus could certainly recognize the motions. His own cock pricked up again in interest and he squirmed, embarrassed. Of course he knew he was supposed to enjoy it, but that was a different thing from being here and actually enjoying it. Next to him, Esca's breathing was beginning to deepen, familiar and strange all at once. This was what Esca was like when he desired someone. The thought of that, the idea that Esca was hard from watching this, went all through him with an intensity that was painful.
On Laevinus' couch, Acer and Muco had quickly shed their clothes and were -- Marcus craned his neck to see -- kissing each other, Muco beginning to rut between Acer's legs in the Greek manner. He caught a glimpse of the curve of Acer's ass, Muco's thick cock sliding between his hairy thighs. They were no pretty youths, and Marcus was certain that enjoying the sight of that made him even more unnatural.
"The two of them always start early," Laevinus said, cheerfully, as if this were completely normal. "Was there something you would like to do with any of us?"
Marcus floundered helplessly around for an answer. "I, um, I don't--" he started, and could produce nothing more to say.
This seemed to have been an expected response, thank all the gods, because Laevinus only laughed. "You are nervous at our party, hmm? It is no matter. You can always change your mind later. Why not watch for now?"
So Marcus looked around the room, striving to find something safe to rest his gaze on, something that would not make it look like he was staring too much. And he could not look at Esca, he could not. But he could hear him. Esca's breathing was quicker now, with a sort of rasp to it, and every breath he took shocked Marcus again with arousal.
He shut his eyes to try to steady himself; when he opened them again, many of the men around the room were wearing much less than they had been. Cinnianus and Lunaris -- not that he had been looking overmuch -- had dispensed with their clothing entirely, still kissing, sliding up against one another, all glorious skin and flexing muscle. Marcus knew he was staring now, and he wondered whether it would be ruder to touch himself or ruder not to.
Then Cinnianus and Lunaris pulled apart and Cinnianus raised his head and looked across the room. "Where are my manners?" he asked, in his light, pleasant voice, holding out a hand and smiling. "I should have greeted the new guests first, should I not have? Can I interest you in anything?"
Cinnianus was standing up now, and Marcus could not avoid staring all down the length of the man's finely-muscled torso, gleaming in the lamplight, down to where his cock was rising eagerly, and he was still smiling at them--
Marcus opened his mouth, but there were still no words.
"I will, then," said Esca, suddenly. From the low murmur that went about the room, Marcus guessed the invitation had probably been meant for him rather than Esca, but he was not going to object if Esca took him up on it.
In short order, Esca had slid off the couch, leaving his toga behind him, and was standing in the middle of the room, his fingers at his belt, undoing it with lingering, deliberate motions to draw every eye to him as he ran his hands along his thighs. His body was not the sort a Roman ought to call beautiful, but he stood proudly, defiantly, the confident set of a man who knew he could make you like it. By the time Esca began to lift his tunic, ever so slowly, Marcus' mouth had gone dry and his pulse pounded fast and heavy through his body.
Then Esca stood there, nude, half-hard, scarred and tattooed and pale and a thousand times better and more beautiful than anyone else in the room. His hand began to drift to his cock; Marcus thought, distantly, that he might die of lust if he had to lie here and watch Esca touch himself showily, shamelessly, for everyone to enjoy.
"Well?" Esca asked, his eyes bright. "What shall we do?"
Cinnianus spread his arms, encompassing the room. "Anything you like. Anyone you like. Me, Lunaris, any one of us... you have only to say whether you want to fuck or get fucked."
Esca's smile had too many teeth. "Or both," he said, low and promising. "I can fit between the two of you, if you'd like."
Marcus swallowed. He could picture that, oh, he certainly could.
There came another grin in return. "Mmm. That would be different." He held out his hand, beckoning Esca to them.
Esca took another step. In an instant he would be at Cinnianus' side, touching him, kissing him, doing everything he had never done with Marcus.
Marcus pushed himself up, frantic, sitting now, at the edge of the couch, reaching his hand out--
The word echoed dizzily in Marcus' head; he hardly realized he had said it until Esca turned around, surprised, with what are you doing? writ across his features as plainly as if he'd said it. "What's the matter, Marcus?" Esca asked, finally.
"I don't think--" he started, and stopped. "I am not sure I can watch--"
Esca's face went blank then, frighteningly so, and Marcus knew that their pretended identities were being tested beyond all possible limits. But there was no way he could explain to Esca how he felt, much less now when they were in a roomful of conspirators.
Fortunately, Laevinus saved them. "Oh, it is like that?" he asked, his voice falling in sympathy. "Since you are so new to being lovers, as you say, it makes sense that you would not want to share him."
He would share him after, Marcus promised -- himself? the gods? anyone? Just let him have this, this one moment with Esca first, since they could never have it again.
"Yes," Marcus said, gratefully. "I thought I could, but I find I cannot, now that I am faced with it."
Esca had recovered well enough to form his mouth into something like a smile, though his eyes were wide with disbelief.
"I was looking forward to the show," someone -- perhaps Eutherius -- complained.
And at that Esca smiled. "Oh," he said, his voice a low, dark growl, "I think we can still give you that."
He stepped close to Marcus, bending down so their heads were of a height, and he wrapped one arm around the back of Marcus' neck in a manner that was almost possessive; the touch went all down Marcus' spine. They were close enough to kiss, nearly, if Esca moved in a little more-- but he did not. His breath was warm against Marcus' cheek.
"Be certain of what you want," Esca whispered, in British. "Once we start, we see this through. Me or them. Choose now."
Marcus closed his eyes for an instant. "You." Always you.
He waited to see if Esca would kiss him, but instead Esca straightened up and stepped back, grinning a knowing, wicked grin, and he pushed at Marcus's toga until it slid off his shoulder to pool on the couch and the floor. "Off with your clothes," he said, louder, in Latin.
With shaking hands, Marcus unfastened his belt and let that drop to the floor, aware that the entire room was watching him. Somehow the thought of that, so demeaning, was wonderful, and he knew he was growing hard again under his tunic.
"Stand," Esca said, sharply, and before he knew it Marcus had risen to obey. In several senses.
"So," someone was saying, quiet and amused, "the slave-as-was is the master now? I like it."
Marcus colored and would have looked away, but Esca reached out a hand to his jaw, steadying, and looked him full in the the face. "Good," he said, softly, for Marcus' ears alone. "You're doing well. So well for me, Marcus."
He caught his breath at the words and swayed where he stood, suddenly so aroused he could do nothing but let the sensation wash over him. Name of Light, how could a sentence like that be arousing? How could any words be that arousing? And the words were for him, not the other men -- how did Esca know?
"Esca--" he started.
But Esca just smiled. "The tunic as well. Come on."
So Marcus pulled his tunic over his head. He did not care to know what the rest of the room thought of him, though he was sure they were staring -- at his leg if nothing else. Esca being Esca, he looked Marcus up and down, thoroughly, with equal attention paid to everywhere until Marcus knew he was growing still harder just from Esca's stare and was on the verge of shifting away from the sheer overwhelming intensity of it, not sure what to do.
"You can sit now," Esca said, quiet again, as if he was doing him a favor.
Marcus did, and then he watched as Esca very deliberately planted a hand in the middle of his chest, on his breastbone. Esca was slow, giving him time to move, to intercept, but Marcus could only watch as Esca brought his palm to rest there, and he shivered again at the touch.
Esca smiled again. "Lie down." It was not a question. Then he pushed, and Marcus went over.
What was Esca going to do? He realized he had no idea, and far from frightening him, the idea only aroused him more. Whatever he was planning, Esca was still Esca; he would not let him come to harm.
Then Esca knelt on the mosaic floor, between Marcus' legs. He licked his lips once, regarding the length of Marcus intently, and his plan became very, very clear. No. He couldn't do that. It was wrong. He was not a slave any longer -- not that Marcus would ever have demanded this of him -- but a decent, honorable citizen. It was filthy and wrong and disgusting and, worst of all, Marcus wanted him to.
Dimly, he was aware of the rest of the room looking on with interest; they probably did not go this far, even in debauchery and dissipation.
"Esca," he tried, weakly, "you can't. It-- you are not a soft, weak man like that. You can't."
The glint in Esca's eyes was familiar; it was the same stubborn look that he got whenever Marcus told him he could not simply drink unmixed wine, or that he must wear a toga to this dinner.
"Oh, I can," said Esca, and the words were a tease, a taunt. "I can, and very well too. And Romans would call me weak, because I would take you in my mouth and enjoy it? I can take you apart, I can bring you to the very edge, until you beg me for your release. So tell me, Marcus--" Esca's voice curled around his name like it held a secret-- "how does that make me weak?"
He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think. He could feel Esca's hand, sliding up his thigh, closer, closer, and yet not where he wanted it. "Esca, please, please--"
Esca's head was still closer now. "Say yes, Marcus," he whispered.
"Yes," Marcus breathed, and then Esca's mouth was on him. Not his hands, just his mouth, taking him all the way down, and he wondered in stunned amazement how Esca was doing that before he was lost in the hot, wet tightness of Esca's mouth. He tried not to thrust up -- the last thing he wanted to do was choke him -- and so he lay there, his head thrown back, shaking with the effort.
Esca lifted his head. "It's more fun if you move, Marcus," he said, gently chiding. His mouth was obscenely red and shining, twitching into a smile.
"I-- you--" Marcus panted. "Don't want to hurt you--"
The last person who Marcus had done this to had been a five-as whore in Massilia, a pretty young man with a clever tongue who had never smiled at Marcus, not once. Esca was still smiling. He had never stopped.
"You're not hurting me," Esca said, and then his fingers clenched tight against Marcus' hips. "Give me this."
Marcus smiled, and Esca took him in his mouth again. This time he had his hand to help, stroking tight and heavy all along the length of his cock, while his tongue played around the head, licking at him, then darting back. Marcus gasped and moaned, snapping his hips up into Esca's mouth. It was good, it was so good, and Esca was teasing him, kissing the head of his cock and then smiling, smiling like he wanted to do this, like it was truly making him happy.
Next to him, Laevinus had pushed his own tunic up past his hips; Marcus glanced over and saw that Acer had reached an arm across him and was working roughly at Laevinus' prick, so fast his hand was almost a blur. Then Esca opened his mouth wide again and took Marcus in, all the way to the root, wet and messy and perfect. Someone off to his side was groaning in pleasure, and that was it, that was absolutely it, he was going to--
"Esca," he managed. "I'm-- I'm going to--"
All at once Esca was off him, not sucking him, not even touching him, and the sudden aching need he left in his place made Marcus whimper in frustration.
"Not yet, you're not," Esca said, sitting back on his heels and wiping at his mouth. "You're going to need that to fuck me."
Marcus whimpered again.
"Oh," Laevinus said, almost dreamily. "I would have waited for that." Glancing over, Marcus saw that Laevinus must have been enjoying himself, for his seed was spattered messily across the couch. Muco had returned to sliding between Acer's thighs, a little more urgently than the lazy pace of earlier.
"Going to do that for the rest of us?" Acer called out, turning his head.
Esca laughed. "Let me consider it." But from the way he said it, it sounded like he had already picked Marcus.
The men on the other couch, too, had been quite busy while Marcus' attention had been elsewhere. Eutherius was sprawled on the couch, touching himself and watching as Cinnianus lay on his back while tall Lunaris fucked him. Marcus watched, enthralled despite himself. Flesh slapped rhythmically on flesh, and both men groaned with every stroke. They were close now, they had to be -- Lunaris' thrusts were growing faster and faster, and his hands were tight on Cinnianus' hips. It was a very appealing view, and he thought that if touching himself would not bring him to his climax in a stroke or two right now, he would have liked to have done that. From the way Esca's hand was inching toward his own cock, it was clear he was not alone. This was not a view he had ever had the chance to appreciate in such a way either, then.
The oddest thing, though, was that Cinnianus was clearly enjoying himself. Marcus had never seen that, not with any of the men he had fucked. But Cinnianus was rising to meet every thrust just as fiercely, urging Lunaris on with vulgar encouragements. His cock was hard, lying against his stomach, even though no one had a hand on him. He liked it? How did he like it?
"Almost," Cinnianus was saying, through gritted teeth, his curling hair now plastered to his forehead with sweat. "Almost, Gaius, come on-- ah-- yes, right there, that's--"
Lunaris' hips shoved forward again and again, driving his cock into him still faster. "Not yet!" he gasped. "You can't even wait--"
He couldn't finish like that, Marcus thought in disbelief. Surely no one could. But then Cinnianus groaned and came, spurting all over his stomach without anyone so much as touching him.
"Sorry," Cinnianus panted, falling back on the bed. "Couldn't wait. Eutherius, you'll have to give me a bit for a second time." And then he grinned a dazed, exhausted grin up at Lunaris, who was still thrusting into him. "On me or in me, friend?"
Marcus watched as Lunaris pulled out, stroked himself with a few quick motions, and promptly spent, spilling his seed all over Cinnianus, adding to the mess.
Eutherius must have seen something of concern on Marcus' face, because he waved a hand. "Don't worry, eh? He likes it! Sometimes we all come on him." Marcus shuddered at the thought. It was disgusting, filthy -- how could anyone have invented such a practice? But his cock twitched in interest, and he knew he would find himself picturing it later.
"Ah, youth." This was from Laevinus. "He'll be ready to go again in no time."
Then Esca pressed a small pot of oil into his hand, impatient. "My turn," he said, and then in an undertone: "Do not skimp on the oil; it's been a while."
Marcus did not dare speak aloud, but he shaped the words with his mouth. Do you want this?
Esca nodded and rolled onto his stomach, then pushed himself to his hands and knees. "Please, Marcus."
That, O gods, that was Esca asking for it. Marcus still couldn't quite understand how willing he was, and how Cinnianus had been, as he poured oil into his hand, dazedly, feeling like someone else was here, doing this.
"Like that?" Marcus asked, lying alongside him, resting the flat of his palm along Esca's ass, feeling Esca draw a ragged breath next to him.
He nodded again. "Like that."
Gently, gently, Marcus slid a finger forward, pushing, pushing, and then inside. He kept his gaze on Esca's face; as he pushed, Esca's face twisted in something that might have been pain, and he stopped.
"Am I hurting you?"
But Esca's face cleared, and he shook his head again. "No," he said, hoarsely. "I like it." And he canted his hips upward, pushing more of Marcus' finger inside himself, and the sound he made then was unfeigned pleasure.
"You like it," Marcus repeated, stupidly.
Esca raised his head, smiling, a distracted, faraway look in his eyes. "Of course-- mmm, yes-- of course I like it. Did you think I was lying? I like it all, either way. And if you-- if you ever wanted me to, I would. I have -- ah, yes -- I have thought about that," he said, and something shone brightly in his gaze that made Marcus go hot all over. If Esca wanted him, maybe they could-- but it would hurt. Surely it had to.
"Can you--" Marcus started, and was distracted by the feel of Esca clenching, warm and so tight, around his finger. "You can come from this? Like Cinnianus did?" It couldn't really be true, could it? And if it was, how had he done it wrong?
Esca chuckled, and, oh, that was an interesting sensation. "Not quite," he said, taking shaking breaths between each word. "I find I need-- oh, Marcus-- a little more help--"
He knew what Esca meant by that, so he reached out to where Esca's cock lay, thick and hard at his thigh, wrapping his free hand around him. Esca gasped and thrust forward into his fist, then back on his fingers, perfectly suspended there, and clearly so greatly pleased by all of it. It was wondrous, Marcus realized, to be able to do this to him. He knew Esca's own arousal was making him hard, too, making him rub himself up against the couch.
"Like this?" he asked again. "It doesn't hurt?"
"It doesn't hurt," Esca repeated. "I'll swear by anything you want, please, Marcus, don't you want me to come on your cock? You know you want to fuck me," he said, and it must have been the lust making him say these things, making him sound like he had wanted this before, for everything else he said was in British, incoherent obscene praise that would make a whore blush, as he fucked himself on Marcus' hands--
"If it doesn't hurt," Marcus said, hesitating as he spoke, hearing his own words echo strangely in his ears, "Esca, if you want it and you swear it doesn't hurt, then do it to me."
Esca stopped moving and looked up. "What?"
"Do it to me," he repeated. "I want that."
He watched the muscles of Esca's throat work as he swallowed. "You-- you don't have to," he said, finally, quietly, pitched so only Marcus could hear, and in British besides. "You know that, yes? You don't have to do it for them, for me, for anyone." But as he spoke there was a strange sort of hope in his eyes, as if he too had been thinking about this for a time.
Perhaps Marcus had not been the only one who desired.
He was dimly aware that across the room, Eutherius and Cinnianus were at it again; Muco and Acer still hadn't stopped moving. As far as he was concerned, there was only Esca.
And then Esca smiled wide, wider than anything. "All right," he said. "Hands off me; I'm getting more oil."
Once Marcus had gotten his hands free of him, Esca slid off the couch and padded across the room; there was, in fact, more oil on a small table at the side.
"Something the matter?" Lunaris glanced away from where he had been watching Eutherius take Cinnianus, bent over the edge of the couch. From the look on Cinnianus' face, he seemed to be enjoying this time just as much.
"Change of plans," Esca said, holding up the oil. "Marcus wants to try something new."
"Well," Lunaris drawled, amused, and Marcus did not even blush. "So Aquila wants to suffer, does he?"
Marcus smiled. "Judging by the evening so far, it seems one may suffer good things," and he couldn't help but laugh as Cinnianus turned his head to grin an agreement.
It was not that he was not afraid, for he was, a little, but then Esca was at his side, calming him, running his hands down his arm, down his ribs, over his hips, down his thigh. He did not even mind Esca's hands on his scar, even though there the skin was ticklish and the muscle tight. He looked up and saw Esca frown, testing it with his thumb. It was so much like what Esca had done for him before, what Esca had always done, here to take his pain away, except now the context was entirely, wonderfully different.
"You cannot brace yourself on that," he said, thoughtfully, with a remarkable amount of composure given his current state of arousal. "And I don't think it will work with you on your back either; you'd have to hold your legs in the air. Here," he concluded. "On your side."
So Marcus did as Esca said, rolling to one side. He felt exposed, suddenly, as Esca pushed one leg forward to stroke lightly down the cleft of his ass, but he was not shamed by it. He felt as though nothing could shame him, any longer, for he was here and Esca was here and it would be all right.
"I'm breathing," Marcus repeated, smiling, pillowing his head on his arms, and then, remembering what he had said earlier, added, "I'm enjoying myself," and he laughed into his hands.
One finger was strange and two were stranger. Marcus was not certain he liked it, but he pushed himself back against Esca's hand, knowing only that it did not feel bad as it had with Sextus, and that was a vast improvement. It didn't hurt; Esca had been right about that. But he had wanted it to be good; if it was indeed possible, as it seemed, to enjoy the thing, he wanted that. He wanted Esca to make him feel that pleasure.
"Good?" asked Esca.
Marcus turned his face away, helplessly, not wanting Esca to know. He had wanted this. He had asked for it this time, too, but there must still be something wrong with him, that he could not stop wanting these things and yet they never felt as he imagined it.
"Fine," he said, but his voice was tight, and so Esca stopped, holding very still, as soon as Marcus spoke. Esca was not stupid.
"You have nothing to prove by doing the thing if you dislike it," he said, simply, quietly. "And all men do not like the same things. I will not turn away from you. It will be well. Here, let us try this."
Esca shifted position and encircled Marcus' cock with his other hand, as Marcus had done for him. Marcus could not see how it would make a difference, but then Esca's fist tightened about him, the familiar pleasure new again, and it shook loose something deep within him, so that now Esca's fingers inside him were good, good, good, better than his fantasies because it was Esca--
"Good," he said, hoarsely, clenching down and knowing that he wanted more, more of this. "Yes, please, Esca, more--"
He felt Esca's fingers slide out, replaced shortly with a heavier, blunter sensation. His mind filled with the filthiest of images, Esca's cock, thick and blood-dark, just as he had seen it before, pushing into him, stretching him wide, making him take it. Oh, he wished he could see that, somehow--
"I can see," Esca said, laughing, and Marcus realized he must have spoken aloud. "So can everyone else. Oh, Marcus, you are so--" and he did not finish the sentence with words, but slid in deep, as easily as anything.
Then Esca began to move against him, inside him, in earnest, and all Marcus heard from him was moans and half-words with every thrust. Esca's hand was still wrapped around Marcus' cock, but at some point the two rhythms became disjoint, and Marcus put his own hand on himself, sliding in time as Esca moved within him. Esca's hand dropped to his hip, and the motions became faster, harder, slamming into him roughly, and he loved every bit of it.
"I'm close," he said, because Esca ought to know, ought to be told, ought to know everything. "We do this again-- please, do this again-- do everything-- anything you want-- you can hold me down harder, make me take it--"
--and Esca's hand tightened on his hip, hard enough to bruise, and then he was groaning and shaking against Marcus' back, coming in him, trembling, while Marcus still stroked himself, not there yet, not yet--
--and then Esca reached out, his arm across Marcus' chest, his hand on Marcus' face, pulling him to him, holding him down, his hand over Marcus' mouth and Esca had him, Esca knew him, and it was exactly right--
"I love you," Marcus whispered against Esca's fingers, because it was the only thing he could say, and then he shut his eyes and let the ecstasy take him.
Drifting off into sleep, Marcus was only dimly aware of the world around him. The other men were likely well-satisfied, judging by the sudden quiet. He knew Esca was there with him, sliding out of him but still a long line of warmth pressed against his back, and that was enough. Presently he heard the couch creak, and then Esca was gone.
Marcus flung out an arm, bereft and confused. "Esca?"
"Getting a cloth," Esca's voice called back from somewhere across the room. "We're a mess."
"Going to clean him up?" someone asked, disapprovingly. He thought perhaps it was Acer to Muco, but he did not so much care. "That's no task for a free man." It was probably better that Marcus could not stand up, because he found himself possessed of the desire to strike anyone who said an ill thing about Esca.
"I do not do it because I was his slave," Esca retorted, and Marcus could imagine the stubborn set of his face without even opening his eyes. "We are friends, and more than that. I belong to him, and he to me, but it is not slavery."
Good, thought Marcus contentedly, drowsily, and he must have drifted off because the next thing he knew, a warm cloth was already pressing on him. It was an intimate gesture -- oddly, it felt as much if not more so than everything else he had done -- but it was Esca, so he did not mind it.
"Esca," he said, speaking muzzily into the couch, and he flailed an arm backwards in search of him.
Esca caught his hand. "Still here, yes. Come. I am not sure you heard, but Laevinus has had a room prepared for us."
Still uncoordinated, he pushed himself upright, then to the edge of the couch, then to his feet. Why bother dressing? No one else was clothed, after all.
"Thank you," Marcus said to the room at large, swaying on his feet, feeling the burn of muscles where he hardly knew it was possible to be sore. "Thank you for your hospitality."
Laevinus chuckled. "The bedrooms are that way. I'll see you in the morning."
Turning, he staggered off in the direction Laevinus had indicated, with Esca next to him, half-holding him up, just as Esca had done for him before, except that now Esca was smiling up at him in a way that was far more fond than he had looked at him then.
But Esca did not say anything until they were in the little bedroom with the curtain pulled closed behind him, and even then he spoke in British.
"I did not know you wanted me," Esca said, and the sheer wonder in his voice made Marcus burst out laughing, at the joy of it.
He lay down on the bed and Esca promptly did the same; there was, as Laevinus had said, enough space. "I did. I have, for so long. I only did not think you wanted me," he echoed back, and Esca smiled again.
"It seems there is much we have not been talking about." He reached out and captured Marcus' hand with his. "And thank you for speaking in my language there, at the end, when you were telling me what you wanted of me. For next time. It meant very much to me."
Marcus had not realized what language he had been speaking then, but he was glad he had used Esca's language. "I would not have liked them to overhear that," he said, and wondered if Esca had heard his very last words. There was no way to ask that; he would have to say it again when he knew Esca could hear. Sometime.
"Speaking of overhearing," Esca began, suddenly more serious, his face drawn and rueful, "you didn't happen to hear anything of interest?"
Esca shook his head, and Marcus was comforted by the fact that they were both rotten spies.
"We'll have to come back," Marcus said, grinning. "More observation."
Esca chuckled, running his fingers through Marcus' hair, down his neck and shoulders. "I think that for this, though, you will have to be less possessive of me. They will look at us askance if you do not let us do anything with them. It doesn't have to be fucking," he offered, and then he was wrapped close around Marcus, their bodies pressed together in the dark. "I can use my hands. I-- now that I have done the thing to you, I think I would rather not give them my mouth."
"I don't mind if they fuck you, not for this," Marcus said, for it was the truth, and besides, it made his blood hotter to think of getting to watch that. "And it would be unfair of me to say otherwise; I had been wondering -- if you don't mind either, I mean -- what it would be like if they all fucked me." Suddenly, it seemed a shameful thing, to confide this fantasy of his in Esca, for what if Esca laughed, or mocked him--
Esca drew a sharp breath, digging his fingers, surprised, into Marcus' back, even as his cock twitched to life somewhere against Marcus' thigh. "Oh," he breathed, clearly enthralled by the idea. "That would be-- yes. I think you might want to practice first, though."
"I wonder who I might find to do that with me," Marcus said, with as much innocence as he could muster, and Esca laughed again and poked him in the ribs.
Esca couldn't even keep from smiling; Marcus could tell that much in the dimness. And then he pulled his head back and looked at him. There was enough light for him to see that Esca's eyes were wide and pale, suddenly serious.
"But there is something we didn't do tonight," he whispered, "and I think we should."
Marcus could not imagine what it might be, but if Esca wanted it, it could not be bad. "I am sore," he admitted, "but I am sure that whatever it is, I can manage it."
Esca laughed. "Not that, Marcus. Just--" he let the word hang between them for a long time, full of promise. "Just kiss me."
Oh. They had not done that, Marcus realized. All the things they had done this night, and they had not kissed, not once.
"I can do that."
He brought his hand to the back of Esca's head, drawing them close. Their lips met, and Esca sighed happily against him. It was not the beginning Marcus would have imagined for them, everything done in reverse, but it was done now and he would not trade it away, for it was what he wanted, it was everything he wanted, and they had their whole future ahead of them.
"I did hear you before, you know," Esca murmured, "and I love you as well."
There was nothing to do in response to that but kiss Esca again.
"We'll have to thank Velus," Marcus said, but he knew it was a poor rejoinder. "For all his assistance."
"You know, I don't even think they're conspirators," Esca replied, smiling, again concealing his words in his own language. "I think the rings are for their membership in this club of -- what did you call it? Debauchery?"
Marcus nodded. He could still hardly picture any of those men as plotting against the state, not when he had seen them fucking each other. At any rate, it was not a question they could answer now.
"I would look very fine with a ring such as they have," Esca said, holding up his bare hand, still grinning, and pretending to consider the finger where it would lie, turning his wrist this way and that. "I hope they give me one."
Marcus laughed. "I will give you a ring of mine if you want one that badly."
"Oh? What sort of ring?" Esca was still smiling, but there was something serious in his eyes.
"It has an emerald set into it," Marcus said, not knowing what he was going to offer until he had said it, and Esca's breath caught. "With a dolphin carved into it."
"You can't." But it did not sound as though Esca did not want him to.
His hands shaking so much he nearly dropped the thing, Marcus slipped the ring off his own finger.
It fit Esca perfectly.