Marcus finds the boy underneath the wood rack, curled in on himself so small that Marcus almost missed him in the thick grass.
“Hello there,” he says, tapping one of the posts.
The boy startles badly and scrambles around to look at him with wide, hunted eyes. There are dried pits scattered around him, which means he’s been in the cherry trees. If he’s afraid of punishment, he needn’t be. Marcus prefers to leave young thieves to their parents’ wrath, a fate much worse, in Marcus’s opinion, than anything he could dream up.
“I won’t hurt you,” Marcus says. His leg will never again allow him to crouch, but he stoops a bit and tries to look nonthreatening. “Come out of our woodpile, and we will talk like men.”
The boy tries to make himself small behind the post. He says something very quickly in a high-pitched voice, and Marcus mentally sighs. He’s speaking the Pritani language.
“Esca,” he shouts over his shoulder, keeping half an eye on the boy.
When Esca comes, he does crouch, speaking softly with his hands raised and visible. The boy replies to him in the same high, strained voice. At length Esca makes a gentle beckoning gesture with both his hands, and the boy crawls slowly, so slowly, out from behind the post.
“He’s a runaway,” Esca tells Marcus. “He says his owner beats children.” Esca’s eyes are hard.
Marcus looks at the boy, so thin, with sun-darkened skin and too-long hair. He can’t be more than nine. Staring right back with something like defiance, the boy pulls the collar of his tunic aside to reveal the beginnings of a large purple birthmark.
“His parents sold him,” Esca says, in the same tone he used when Marcus suggested that he wear a toga now that he was a freedman, or when Uncle Aquila tried to convince them that they couldn’t run a farm without slaves.
Esca says something to the boy. The boy says, in passably accented Latin, “Caius Antonii Aelii servus.”
Esca shakes his head impatiently, and repeats the question with a different emphasis.
The boy hesitates, looking from one of them to the other. Then he says, “Breth.”
In those first days, they didn’t see much of each other. There were buildings, fences, and earthworks to be built; purchases to be negotiated; work on the villa to be overseen. Marcus spent his days losing arguments with Uncle Aquila about the necessity of a hypocaust, going over numbers with the contractors, or simply up to his elbows in the daub pit, trying to get the granary walls sealed before the onset of winter.
When he did see Esca, it was either in passing, one or both of them weighed down with wood or wattle or stone, or at night, when they staggered in a few hours after sunset to drop into their cots. Sometimes they would exchange words at these times, something along the lines of, “The roof looks good,” or, “The chickens are settling in.” More often they simply nodded at each other.
Once Esca said, “I miss you,” when they ran into each other by the stream. He said it in a broad, joking tone, but Marcus felt it in his gut anyway.
“Give it a year,” he joked right back. “You’ll be sick of me then.”
“Never,” Esca said with a grin, and Marcus grinned back for a stupidly long moment before Esca nodded, and they went their separate ways.
Breth eats like he’s never seen food before, and given what he’s told Esca about his former home, that might not be far off. He hesitated when Esca showed him the bread and fruit, and heartbreakingly, apologized for eating the cherries, but Marcus made emphatically negative gestures and Esca reassured him in their language. Now he is tearing into his second helping and Marcus is a little worried he might choke himself to death.
“His owner will come looking for him,” Marcus says as they watch.
“Perhaps he won’t find him,” Esca says coolly.
“If he is discovered, we will be found guilty of a crime,” Marcus says. He doesn’t really care if they are, but this is his role: Marcus speaks for Rome, and Esca for Britain. They assume these roles even now, when they agree with each other more often than not. In this way, they pay homage to the homes they have left behind.
“We are already guilty of a crime,” Esca points out. “He’s here, and we’ve fed him. Even if we take him back now, there will be questions. And we’re not taking him back,” he adds, with a blunt finality.
“No,” Marcus agrees calmly. “We’re not taking him back.”
He won't be the only cast-out on the farm, Marcus thinks, shifting his left leg.
Marcus has his eyes on Breth, now demolishing a third apple, but he can feel Esca turn to look at him. He can feel the pressure of Esca leaning gently into his arm.
“Good,” Esca says.
It was in their first year that it happened, when Marcus was out long after Esca had gone to bed, dealing with the collapse of the metalworks after a particularly bad storm. His mood had blackened steadily with every hour he had to spend digging tools out of the mud, unearthing fallen beams only to find them split from the impact. He picked his way down to the stream to wash, even though the winter chill hadn’t quite left the water, and by the time he made it to the villa he was shivering, wet, and his leg was throbbing deeply. Inside he let himself limp, let himself curse, though quietly, just in case.
When Marcus drew aside the curtain to the bedroom, his eyes fell on Esca, asleep on his side. A wall of warmth hit Marcus, solid and thick, and so fast that for a moment he couldn't breathe at all. One of Esca's shoulders was exposed, his face soft and unaware. The furs rose and fell with his breath. Marcus thought it must be the hypocaust, this suffocating warmth, and made a mental note to tell Esca not to stoke the furnace quite so hot. Then, as his body adjusted to the heat of the room and his heart continued to turn over and over, he realized with dismay that it wasn’t the hypocaust. It was Esca.
He turned towards the other end of the room, feeling panic constrict his chest, making himself breathe silently, without gasping. For a long moment he just stood still, by the head of his own bed, trembling with his new realization. If he gave it a little time, he thought, it had to pass, since it had never been there before.
Something like dread iced through his veins. He opened his mouth to respond, then winced as he let a strange silence stretch out instead.
“Marcus, what is it?” Esca’s voice was more alert now, losing its sleepy incoherence.
Marcus shook his head, willing himself to look at Esca like a friend does, to wave it off and say that he was tired. “Nothing,” he managed, though it was so strangled that he wished he hadn’t spoken.
The furs rustled and Esca padded over to him. Esca’s hands on his arms, turning him around. Marcus waited until the last possible moment to look Esca in the eyes, and when he could avoid it no longer, Esca’s concerned eyes, the sharp serious cut of his mouth, the simple fact of his face, overwhelmed. Marcus didn’t gasp, but he shivered, and Esca felt it.
Esca’s expression cleared of its concern, and then became complicated. Marcus saw warmth, and irritation, and pity, which engulfed him in shame like a dive into deep water.
“Marcus,” Esca said, “It’s all right. It’s all right, ” he repeated, tightening his grip when Marcus would have pulled away. “Look at me.” Marcus could barely obey.
Esca put a hand up to Marcus’s face, and Marcus froze. Esca’s thumb stroked from Marcus’s cheekbone down to the stubble under his ear. “It’s all right,” he said again, and then, very softly, he said a word in the Pritani language. Marcus started to form the question, but then Esca was leaning towards him, face upturned and tilted ever so slightly to one side, and Marcus would never have imagined this of himself, if asked, would have said he would have rejected this, but Marcus leaned down, and he kissed Esca the way Esca was asking to be kissed.
“Shit!” Esca yells. The cow backs out of the doorway it has destroyed, mooing unhappily. Marcus rushes to the window in time to see another cow stampede past, and in the distance, another heading for the woods.
“Mithras,” Marcus swears. “The pen’s open. How the hell did they get so riled up?” He scans the view and catches sight of a small figure running near the wide-open gate. His eyes narrow, and he turns, heading for the gaping doorway.
“Wait,” Esca says, already having guessed the culprit. “There could be an explanation for this.”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s an explanation,” Marcus says grimly, stepping over parts of the door the cow flattened. “I'll be glad to hear it.”
“Stop. Please,” Esca says, getting between him in the door. Something in his tone makes Marcus stop walking.
“Just let me talk to him,” Esca says. He’s almost pleading with Marcus, something Marcus has never in his life heard him do before.
Marcus stares at Esca, unsure of what’s happening here. “All right,” he says slowly. His anger turns to a confused kind of guilt in the face of Esca’s reaction. Is he wrong to be angry?
Esca disappears out of the villa. Marcus puts it from his mind and busies himself with organizing farm workers to restore order.
The cows are penned and the door is repaired by sunset, but Esca does not appear until after the evening meal. Marcus waits for him in their room, carving a small piece of wood and dropping the shavings into a bowl.
When Esca enters the room, he has a closed look, as though he’s never had an expression in his life and he’s not going to start now. Marcus knows it well and will not allow him to get away with it.
“What the hell was that?” he demands, having had all day to get angry about it. He puts down the carving and the knife.
Esca shakes his head, but he doesn’t pretend he doesn’t know what Marcus is talking about. “You don’t speak Pritani,” Esca says. “It makes more sense for me to talk to him about these things.”
“That’s not what you said before,” Marcus counters. “You seemed -” He hardly wants to say it, but he thinks that it’s true. “Afraid of me.”
Esca looks at him hard. Even when Esca is caught, his face is still hard. He never collapses, never whines, never gives excuses. He holds his head high, something Marcus has always loved in him. So it scares Marcus, the idea that Esca would need to beg him for anything. He needs to know why that would be so.
“I have never been afraid of you, and I never will be,” Esca says. He says it sharply and it’s true, but it’s not the whole story. “Breth is young,” Esca says when it becomes clear that Marcus is going to wait. “They hurt him in his former house.”
“I would never hurt a little boy,” Marcus says, hardly even feeling the need to point it out.
Esca looks at him flatly.
The weight of that look drops on Marcus like a stone. He opens his mouth, but it’s a struggle to find anything to say. “You think,” he starts finally.
“You did,” Esca says.
In a flash, Marcus knows what he means. First he is incredulous; then he is furious. “That was different and you know it was. He would have killed us first! He tried to kill us first!”
Esca lifts his chin. “I know that.”
“We were fighting for our lives up there, Esca! It was war!”
“It wasn’t war,” Esca says, his syllables clear and dangerous. “It was nothing like war. And I know you would never hurt a Roman child, but Breth isn’t one.”
Marcus feels like he’s been stabbed. “Esca,” he says.
“I know you don’t think of us that way anymore,” Esca says, not looking at Marcus now. Marcus knows he’s not doing well when “us” means “Britons” instead of “you and me”. “I know you’re not a soldier anymore. But it happened,” Esca bursts out. “It happened and I was there when it happened.” He says this a little wild-eyed.
“Esca,” Marcus says again, standing up from his chair. He puts his hands on Esca’s shoulders. “Please,” he says, trying to figure out how to make right for Esca something he himself doesn’t know how to speak about. He feels that moment in their history like a wound. “When we were beyond the Wall, I - I didn’t know you,” he says hesitantly, and then adds, because it’s true, “I didn’t know me.”
“That’s for fucking sure,” Esca mutters, and Marcus is glad of the joke and ashamed of the truth of it all at once.
“I would never hurt Breth, or you, or any Briton, or anyone, ever again,” Marcus says, as plainly as he can possibly put it. “I’m not a soldier anymore. And I’m not a simpleton anymore.”
The look Esca gives him is rich and expressive, and completely worth it.
“Well, I’m not a soldier anymore,” Marcus corrects, with a rueful smile.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers later, in their wide wood-framed bed, wracked with the silent and crushing guilt that only comes before sleep. Esca rouses himself and slips an arm around Marcus’s waist.
“You are forgiven,” he says, his eyes glittering in the dark. Marcus can hear in his voice that he means it. Marcus puts a hand to Esca’s face. “I’m sorry, too,” Esca says, his words humming against Marcus's palm.
“You are forgiven,” Marcus says, even though he forgave Esca long before this moment.
The farm took time to become profitable. A good deal longer than Marcus had counted on, actually, since the land was worked entirely by freedmen and citizens. At first they paid only their workers, and made do for themselves from the harvest that first summer produced. But over time, when the loom was set up and the sheep were sheared, when they installed a beehive near the herb garden, when the cherry trees began to give their full yield, they started to make money at last.
They bought furs and blankets and lamps. They built a new bed wide enough for them both. They built a second bed when they broke the first, to Marcus’s embarrassment and Esca’s endless amusement. Esca started to teach Marcus a few words in his language, although Marcus was a slow student and his pronunciation was terrible. They sent their wares to markets, and started to become well-known for their honey. Marcus learned the meaning of Esca’s tattoos, and he found the ones that could not be seen when Esca was wearing clothing. It was a mad, fruitful, whirlwind existence.
“Why don’t you pray?” Esca asked him one day, picking herbs for medicine while Marcus split wood.
Marcus split another log to give himself time to answer. He was surprised, though he shouldn't have been, that Esca picked up on the fact that anything was bothering Marcus, let alone pinpointed exactly what it was. Esca had always understood more than he let on, ever since the moment Uncle Aquila brought him to Marcus.
“Why don’t you?” he said at last.
Esca laughed, to his annoyance. “I’m not trying to insult you,” he said. “What I mean is, I used to see you pray. All the stuff with the smoke and the gods and everything. But you don’t do it anymore. Why not?”
“How can I?” Marcus asked, and was disgusted to hear his own voice breaking. He cleared his throat and tried again. “How can I pray? I have left Rome and my father’s honor behind. I have...” Here his courage failed him, and he trailed off abruptly. He glanced at Esca.
“Taken up with a man?” Esca said, on the point of laughing again.
Marcus glared at him, glad again of Esca's understanding, but irritated at his cavalier attitude.
“Rome feels very differently than the Britons about such things,” he said, though they'd had this conversation so many times that the words were starting to feel meaningless.
“Rome can suck an egg,” Esca said seriously. “Any gods that don’t want you to be happy aren’t the right gods to be talking to.”
“And so I don’t pray,” Marcus said shortly, and he split another log.
Esca stopped picking herbs and came over to where Marcus stacked his wood. “Seriously?” he asked. “There’s not a god in the whole Roman lot that wouldn’t accept tribute from a man who sleeps with a freedman?”
Marcus rubbed his forehead tiredly. “The fathers don’t get that specific about it,” he said. “But I can imagine what they'd say if I asked.”
Esca watched him retrieve another log from the pile, and balance it. “You should pray,” he said. “Really. The gods are greedier than you think. They’ll take your offerings.”
Marcus felt that little hollowness, the tiny grief he sometimes felt, now in the days after he'd abandoned Mithras.
“Maybe,” he said, and he split the log.
They agree that the best way to curb Breth's mischievous tendencies is to tire him out, so they put him to work weeding the gardens and baling hay. He’s a good worker, and he often has to be told to break for meals or water. Esca speculates that he feels beholden to them and wants to work off his debt, but whatever the case may be, there are no more incidents like the unpenning of the cows or the removal of the discs from the chicken house that keep out mice. On more than one of these occasions Marcus has wanted to to say something like, “No wonder they haven’t come looking for him,” but he refrains. Esca has relaxed somewhat when Marcus is with Breth, but there’s no reason to spook him with bad jokes. Marcus knows Esca meant it when he forgave him, but he also knows that Esca's memory is long.
Marcus tries to speak with Breth in Pritani, although he is met with equal parts confusion and outright laughter. The laughing gets less funny to Marcus every time it happens, but as Esca points out, it's better than staring at him blankly, which was Breth's reaction to Marcus for several weeks. He’s also a much better student than Marcus, and his Latin gets better every time he uses it. Within a mere two months, he is speaking in full, if short, sentences to Marcus and the citizen farm workers.
“Why is it so easy for children to learn?” Marcus complains one night. Esca laughs into the crook of his shoulder.
“Just keep trying,” Esca says. “I know you have the ability to be as smart as an eight-year-old boy. I have faith.”
Marcus gathers up the blanket and stuffs it in Esca’s face, prompting something of a wrestling match that ends rather more slowly than it started.
They cut Breth’s hair, Esca explaining at length in Pritani why it’s more hygienic while Marcus does his best to get an even cut despite Breth’s fidgeting.
The time comes to shear the sheep, and Breth is fascinated by the process, watching great clouds of wool come off of the sheep.
“The sky falls on the farm,” Breth says, pointing up and then pointing at the mounds of wool.
“You’re a poet,” Marcus tells him, which leads to a definition, and then a long discussion of art and rhyme and image.
“You’re turning him into a Roman,” Esca says, shaking his head, and he tells Breth the stories of the Brigantes, the giants, the bloody magic, the battles. Breth absorbs it all, poetry and folk stories both, with wide eyes.
Marcus shows Breth his shrine to Mithras, and he explains the levels of induction and the little painting of Mithras and the sacred bull. He teaches Breth the questions, and lets Breth play father and ask them, Marcus giving him the ritual answers. Marcus gives Breth the little carving he has been making of a bull. Esca never comments on these occasions, but he radiates smug contentment from wherever he happens to be working.
Antonius Aelius does, eventually, send his steward in search of his missing slave. Marcus meets the steward at the gate, and gives him a polite tour of the farm. At no point does he show him the bedroom, where Breth is napping after an exhausted morning hauling containers of cherries. He conveys his wish that the gods bless Antonius Aelius and his household. The steward wishes something similar for Marcus and his household. The steward takes his leave.
At night, heat drifting up from the stones, Breth snoring gently in the bed they have built him outside their room, Esca says, without rancor, “You got what you wanted, you entitled bastard.”
“What did you say to me?” Marcus mumbles, half-asleep, drifting.
“You wanted a farm,” Esca says. “You wanted children. You wanted a wife, a dream I've well and destroyed, but the rest -”
“You destroyed nothing,” Marcus says, opening his eyes. “I have everything I want.” He rolls onto his side so that Esca can see the truth of it in his face. “And not because I was ever entitled to it.” He thinks of his post with the Cohort; he thinks of the Eagle.
“I know,” Esca whispers. They've said these things to each other before.
“Because of you.”
“I know,” Esca whispers, the ghost of a smile on his face. The repetition is holy, and it binds them together. The asking of the question. The same answer given every time.
“And Esca,” Marcus says, finding Esca’s hand under the blanket, “I pray to Mithras that you have everything you want as well.”
Esca kisses Marcus, slow and sweet. “I do,” he says, and he says that word again, the one Marcus didn’t understand the night they came together for the first time, the word that Marcus has since come to know means “my beloved”.