As soon as Marcus was able to stand, he resolved to make a trip to the baths. His uncle had his own small bath complex adjoining the villa, but Marcus had been laid up inside for too long, and if he had to look at the same walls, window and ceiling for even one more day, he felt he might go mad with boredom. Marcus knew himself well enough to know that patience was not one of his virtues, and this circumstance was no different from any other. He longed for movement; action; independence. Esca's care of him had been uncommonly patient, and for that Marcus was almost pathetically grateful. But he was no longer feeble with pain and fever, and refused to be treated as an invalid might, fed broth as though he was incapable of holding his own spoon, and suffering the indignity of being washed in bed instead of taking the waters as every citizen ought to do.
Unwisely, he had determined to force the strength back into his body by forgoing his crutch, and that soon meant that Esca had to take most of his weight, half-carrying him across the town to the great bathhouse, both of them wrapped in cloaks against the chill of the morning air that heralded oncoming winter. Marcus nodded in polite greeting to the few stallholders who were starting to set out their goods, as the shutters of the shops began to open. The great roof of the basilica thrust its head above the other buildings, lording it over them, and Marcus thought of the vast city of Rome, the peerless beauty of her fine buildings and wide, marbled walkways, the sculptures and frescos which were unrivalled by any other of her many provinces.
It is likely that I shall not walk her streets again, if I can ever walk at all without support, he thought with a twinge of bitterness. He squeezed Esca's shoulder as a contraction went through the muscle of his bad leg, and drew them up short near the entrance to the forum.
“Stay,” Marcus said, catching his breath as the cramp took hold, his hand automatically going to his leg to knead at it.
“Do you need my assistance?”
Marcus shook his head. They were but a moment from the baths now. He had to learn how to conquer this pain himself through strength of will, not simply by relying on Esca's attendance. That he still needed his support, though, was without question, as Marcus leaned heavily on him, breathing hard. Marcus wondered at the strength contained in that small frame. Esca's grip never faltered, though Marcus was twice his size. He stood patiently by Marcus's side, bearing the brunt of Marcus's weight and idly watching a flock of nearby pigeons squabble over an apple that had rolled away from one of the vendors stalls.
“I was not always lame, you know,” Marcus said, straightening up. Esca took that as their cue to continue and led Marcus onwards, though he allowed Marcus to set their pace.
“I know. Once you were a soldier, and won a great victory against the Dumnonii, when you were wounded. Sassticca told me.”
“I was a centurion,” Marcus clarified, though he was sure that the specifics of the Roman army would hold little interest for Esca. One Roman soldier was like any other to him, most likely. “It was my first command. I had not thought it to be my last.”
“Few get the fate they deserve,” Esca said dismissively. “Though some at least deserve the recognition they receive.”
“That bracelet you wear,” Esca said, deftly kicking a bit of rubbish out of their path without breaking a step. Marcus realised that he meant the engraved armilla.
“They told me it was given to you for valour. Because you returned to the fray, so that your men might be saved.”
Marcus glanced at Esca in surprise. It had almost sounded like there was a note of reluctant approbation in his words.
“Yet it was your people who fell in their stead,” Marcus said, unable to understand how Esca, who hated all things Roman, Marcus included, could possibly approve of his actions on that day.
“The Dumnonii? They are Britons, yes, and fine men. But they are not my people.”
“So you care not that they lost that day,” Marcus asked, confused. Esca sucked in a quick breath, as though frustrated by Marcus's lack of understanding.
“The outcome of the battle, and who fought in it, has no bearing on whether your conduct was worthy.”
“And you think it was worthy?”
Esca gave a quick, tight-lipped glance up at Marcus, and nodded once. Marcus felt his cheeks flush, and something almost like pride stirred in his belly. Esca's compliment had obviously been heartfelt, judging by the reluctance with which it had been given. The more time Marcus spent in the company of his slave, it seemed the less he understood him.
The apodyterium of the baths was quiet at that early hour, with only a few men exercising before taking the water. None of them were known to Marcus, who was yet acquainted with only a few citizens of the town, since he had had little chance to socialise, what with his initial injury and the subsequent reopening of his wound. He was glad that it meant that he was spared from the usual meet and greet that formed a part of the ritual of bathing.
“I think we will forego the frigidarium today. My leg will not tolerate it,” Marcus said to Esca, reaching into his coin purse to pay the small fee to the bath attendant.
Esca was looking around with curiosity at the high ceiling of the bath, and then down at his feet to study the intricate mosaic tiles of the floor.
“You have not been to the baths before?”
“No,” Esca said, then frowned at the echo of his own voice, how much louder it sounded in the domed room.
“These are pleasant, but they are nothing compared to the baths of Trajan in Rome. There, you can fit well over a thousand people inside, and the rooms are vast and decorated with silver and gold. The mosaics there are some of the finest in the Empire, and the domed roof is covered with paintings of gods and goddesses. It is a wondrous thing to see.”
Esca helped Marcus sit on one of the benches, then knelt before him and began unbinding his caligae.
“We used the pool beneath a waterfall, where the wildflowers grew,” Esca said, lifting Marcus's foot. “It was cold.” Marcus saw a twitch at the corner of Esca's mouth, and it was the closest thing he had seen to a smile on Esca's face.
Marcus undid the clasp of his cloak so that Esca could remove it, and was about to stand to take off his toga, when he hesitated, and shocked himself when he realised that he felt unconscionably shy.
Marcus knew that he was tall for a Roman, and that along with his broad shoulders and thick muscles he drew the attention of others. He had long grown used to being looked at by other men in the bath-house, either with envy or appreciation, but he had never felt abashed to strip down before until that moment, when he knew that he would unveil the ugly scar that ran along his thigh, disfiguring the skin there. It was preposterous for a Roman to feel anything but indifference towards nudity, here in the baths where it was as natural and necessary as breathing.
The place is all but empty, you fool, and none here will care, nor should you care for their opinion, Marcus thought to himself with impatience. Esca does not care; he has seen you before, and borne no judgement for the scars you carry. Do you shrink from letting him see you now? Marcus mocked himself inwardly that he should hold a slave's esteem of him to account, but the thought troubled him, that his courage had failed at the idea of being naked beneath that cool, blue gaze. He forced himself to his feet, and lifted his arms out so that Esca could unwrap the toga from him in a swift movement. His unruly fingers twitched a couple of times, then he stripped off his subligaculum and held it out. Esca's eyes did not linger on him. Instead he folded Marcus's toga and put the subligaculum with it in the wall niche, then bent to unlace his own shoes. He removed them hurriedly, then stood with one arm crossed over his chest, scowling down at the floor.
“You also must disrobe,” Marcus said gently, feeling some solidarity in how Esca too seemed ill at ease.
“It is-- not a custom I am used to,” Esca said, drawing his arms more tightly around himself.
“It's warm in there. You'll be glad to be without clothes, particularly in the pool, I'd imagine,” Marcus said, trying to lighten Esca's mood, and his own.
Esca stood still for a moment in contemplation, and Marcus saw how the tendons in his feet flexed as though he wanted to run. Then he made a small huffing sound through his nose, and plucked his tunic up and off. As he folded it hurriedly and placed it into the niche, Marcus was glad to see that the broad welt of dark purple bruises on Esca's ribs had faded, and only a faint yellowing remained to show that they had been there at all. Marcus's attention was drawn to the curious blue bands around Esca's right arm, which stood out starkly against his pale skin. He remembered seeing them in the arena, and wondering about them then also. When Esca's hands moved to unfasten his bracae, Marcus looked away as he stepped out of them. Unlike him, Esca did not trouble himself with the niceties of a subligaculum. Esca tucked his bracae away along with the rest of their clothes, then half-turned to Marcus, his chin lifted high, as though he was daring Marcus to look at him.
At the edge of his vision, Marcus did look, and he saw how even unclothed, there was no hint of vulnerability to Esca. If anything he looked more powerful, and close up, Marcus saw where that uncommon strength came from. Esca's body was lean and compact, every muscle defined as though carved out with the chisel of a master sculptor. He was not marble, though. He was flesh, vital and warm, and Marcus turned his head away from the sight of the flat plane of Esca's stomach, where a line of dark gold hair below his navel went down, down--
“We should proceed to the tepidarium,” Marcus said, reaching for Esca's shoulder, and keeping his eyes fixed on the arched doorway ahead of them.
The soothing heat of the room surrounded them, as they sat side-by-side on one of the warm bronze benches at the edge of the room. Marcus allowed himself to relax, and he smiled at the story one of the other men in the room was telling his friend, a bawdy tale that could have come straight from the mind of Apuleius. He shot a sideways glance at Esca, who seemed less than comfortable, bent forwards with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on the backs of his knuckles. The muscles in Esca's arm tensed, making the blue bands around it ripple like water, and driven by curiosity, Marcus asked,
“The marks on your arm – do they mean something?”
Esca nodded briskly, hunched over and staring at the floor between his knees. Marcus waited for Esca to continue, but his eyes remained fixed on the mosaic tiles. Eventually, he looked up and met Marcus's expectant gaze with a look of cool defiance.
“Yes, they mean something,” he said, and offered no more than that. An uncomfortable silence settled between them. Marcus finally shuffled his feet and said,
“Well, I think I am ready for the hot pool.”
The surface of the warm water already shone with oil from other bathers, and Esca's cheeks and chest were instantly flushed pink in the heat of the caldarium.
“I told you it was better without a tunic,” Marcus said, leaning back against the side of the pool. Esca said nothing in reply, but that tiny quirk again appeared at the corner of his mouth. He dipped a washcloth into the water, and came nearer to Marcus, reaching up to wash his hair.
“You don't have to do that,” Marcus said, startled by Esca's sudden proximity, and trying to grasp for the cloth. It meant he had to twist awkwardly though, and even with the water holding him up he was wary of putting too much weight onto his bad leg. Esca had already bobbed out of the way behind Marcus's back, cloth still held firmly in his grip.
“I am your body slave,” Esca said from behind him, and the low sound of his voice close to Marcus's ear sent the hairs prickling at the back of his neck, further intensified by the swish of the linen cloth against his skin. “It is my duty, Centurion.”
Marcus blinked when he perceived what Esca had called him, and felt an exhilarating rush of blood in his veins. Esca had never called him domine, and Marcus had never insisted upon it. However, that Esca had remembered his military rank and chosen to address him thus, Marcus appreciated deeply. He would never again be called by that title by his legionaries, so it was a powerful thing to be addressed that way once more, as though Esca had unwittingly restored some of Marcus's lost glory to him.
Marcus felt as though a great weight had lifted from him. He closed his eyes and sank lower in the water so that Esca could reach with the cloth more easily. He remembered how Esca had washed him when he had been delirious with fever, the wrung-out linen cool and soothing against his skin. But it was different, somehow, to be tended that way when half-insensible with pain. Marcus was all too aware now of how his pulse raced as Esca stood by him in the hot water, running the cloth over Marcus's back and shoulders. Marcus would only have had to shift back one more step, and he would be pressed against Esca from nape to knee.
This is madness, he told himself, balling his hands into fists beneath the water. He was loath to admit it, but he knew that he had entreated the crowd to spare Esca's life that day in the arena not only from the overwhelming desire to do the right thing, but from dark, selfish desire itself. What he had not anticipated was that he would ever see Esca's face again; inscrutable, fierce, and lifted in proud acceptance of his fate, let alone have it scant inches from his own, with that aloof gaze following the line of the washcloth as Esca moved to stand before him and run it down Marcus's chest. Marcus resolved then that he would never dishonour either Esca or himself by succumbing to base passions. He was an initiate of Mithras; a decorated soldier of the Roman army. Esca was his slave, sure enough, but Marcus would not make him his chattel. His resolve was tested sooner than he thought.
“Spread your legs,” was all the curt warning he got before Esca dipped the cloth further beneath the surface of the water, and washed him with a deft twist and tug of his wrist. It was barely a second of sensation, but it was enough to have Marcus half-hard, a prickle of sweat breaking out all over his chest and shoulders under the sheen already coating him from the water and oil.
Lord of light, give me the strength to withstand temptation.
Esca kept his eyes firmly trained on Marcus's face, which Marcus might have been glad of, were it not that the directness of his scrutiny was once again in complete contradiction to the normal conduct of a slave, and the way that the water had spiked together Esca's eyelashes around his hooded eyes in a manner that made Marcus's chest tighten.
“I am done,” Marcus said, breaking away from Esca's stark gaze and making his way to the side of the pool.
He started up the steps and put his hand out for Esca's shoulder to steady himself. The sudden motion made him sway, and he felt dizzy from the heat. He realised too late that it was not enough support to merely lean on Esca's shoulder. His leg felt like it might give way at any moment and he stumbled. Instantly, Esca's arm was round his waist, as he held him up and pressed tightly against Marcus, leading him back into the tepidarium. Marcus bit at his lip and prayed to Mithras for mercy. His cock was still half-hard, and his body responded with confusion to the stab of pain in his leg, coupled with the forbidden pleasure of Esca's body against his. It was torture, to have the length of Esca's body sliding against him, both of them slick with oil from the bath, their bodies unnaturally hot from the water as he limped over to one of the benches and sank onto it, lying down face-first and pillowing his head in the crook of his arm.
It was not unheard of, of course, to be afflicted with arousal whilst bathing, but it was seen as the height of uncouthness and barbarity – a thing only the lowest would allow themselves and not to be tolerated by any good citizen. Marcus tried to will his desire away, but the warmth of the bronze bench did little to help, nor did the thoughts that came unbidden into his head. Esca, standing before him naked in the pool, but this time Marcus would reach out, cupping a hand to the back of his head, and Esca would come willingly, pliant when Marcus wrapped his arms around him, his skin heated and wet. He would open his mouth to Marcus's tongue with a soft noise, tilting his head and raking his fingers over Marcus's shoulders. Marcus would take hold of those narrow hips, fitting his thumbs into their perfect hollows, and pull Esca onto his lap. Esca would wind his long, lean thighs around Marcus's waist, and tug at his hair, sliding his length against Marcus's own, harder, harder-
Mithras, Lord of Light, I pray you, please, no more--
Marcus felt a hand on his shoulder and jumped, eyes opening, and Esca stood before him, carrying a towel, strigil, and oil bottle. He was within reach of Marcus's grasp, but not for him to touch.
He would fight me all the way. That is why I want him. That is why I cannot have him, Marcus thought, and somehow, that made him glad with relief. He felt his resolve return and it was as though he was stepping back from his body, back from his desires, to a detached place where he once more had control of himself.
In the few seconds that Marcus had been alone, Esca must have hastened back into the apodyterium, because he had slipped his own tunic back on without bothering to dry first. With his wet hair plastered to his head, it made the sharp angles of his face look even more feral. Now that he was once again the master of himself, Marcus could watch idly as Esca uncorked the bottle of oil, then moved out of his line of sight to pour a few drops into the dip of Marcus's spine. Marcus closed his eyes and let his muscles relax in preparation for the massage. Esca's fingers trailed hesitantly over Marcus's skin, sweeping up the length of his back, and Marcus squirmed, gasping,
“That tickles. You can be a little firmer with me.”
Then Marcus let out a grunt as Esca took him at his word, working his fingers expertly into a knot under Marcus's shoulderblade. Marcus cracked open an eye to look up at him. Esca's hands stilled, fingertips resting lightly on Marcus's skin.
“No; it's good,” Marcus said, settling again as Esca resumed the firm, steady strokes with his hands.
“I've not had to tend to anyone else before,” he said, after a pause. Marcus was intrigued, given how adroitly Esca had ministered to him while he was feeble and feverish. He twisted a little so he could look over his shoulder at Esca, ignoring the impatient noise Esca made when Marcus's muscles knotted again with the movement.
“You did not have a wife, or children, who needed you when they were sick?”
Esca shot him a guarded look.
“No,” he said, though there was a measured weight to the word, and Marcus wondered how so small an utterance could carry so much hidden meaning. He feared he might have tried to force open a gate which had been locked for a reason.
“No,” Esca said, more sharply this time, his fingers digging deeper into Marcus's back, focusing on his task and not the frown on Marcus's face. “I was not long a New Spear when the Romans came to our village. I was still young. Union was expected but not required, so that loss I was spared of, at least.”
Marcus thought it unwise to push the matter further, and lapsed into silence. It seemed that Esca had other ideas, though.
“And your wife,” Esca asked, his voice sharp as knives. “Is she still in your homeland?”
He had asked the question directly, without being prompted. There was nothing guileless about it. Esca was newly a body slave, indeed, but he had been a slave for some time, and could not be ignorant of the fact that one of the first things required from any slave was that they only spoke when spoken to. Added to this was the open way that Esca looked at Marcus all the time, unabashed, as though there was nothing unseemly in it. Moreover, he often looked at Marcus with a haughty jut of his head, as though they were equals – no, as if Marcus was his inferior. It was the kind of rebellious behaviour that warranted a whipping in most households, or worse.
Marcus wondered if he was being tested, to see what sort of master he was, to see how he would use a slave who behaved as Esca did. He wondered if Esca was toying with him, baiting him at every turn to see how long it would take before Marcus snapped, and would behave as Esca expected from every other Roman. Marcus smiled to himself: he could not be drawn so easily. One thing he was sure of was that he rarely conformed to the expectations of most people. Esca, then, would be no exception. If Marcus was expected to be brutal, cruel and licentious, then he would be the contrary.
Marcus had broken horses before, long ago in his boyhood, and the other lads in his village had laughed at first to see how Marcus, the largest and strongest of all of them, forewent the whip and the bridle in favour of kind words and a firm, gentling hand on a trembling flank. Their laughter was silenced when the hours of waiting won out, and the coltish head dipped into Marcus's hands voluntarily, acquiescing control, and the wild creature stood perfectly still and docile for him. It was why his chariot pair had been the finest. They ran not because they had to, fearful of the lash against their backs, but because they longed to, sharing Marcus's desire to win. Esca would never be docile – Marcus could see that all too well, nor did he want it of him. But the idea of breaking him with kindness was both amusing and appealing.
“No,” Marcus said mildly. “I have no wife.” Then he took a sharp breath as warm metal grazed the length of his back. He had not been prepared for the brisk scrape of the strigil, and he was almost undone again as the sensation shot through him, going straight to his groin.
“Turn over, so I can work on your leg,” Esca said, and once more it was a command rather than the meek request of a humble slave.
“Pass me the towel,” Marcus said. “I feel a chill on my skin.”
In the tepidarium, where the very walls themselves sweat, Marcus thought to himself scornfully. What must he think of me?
Esca unfolded the towel and handed it to Marcus, who draped it over himself and turned over with as much grace as he could muster.
“Thank you,” Marcus muttered, relieved to have the covering over him to prevent any further unseemliness. However, he heard a quiet, disdainful tut from one of the other patrons in the room, and belatedly realised it was because he had thanked Esca. Worse still, he thought he caught a glitter of something in Esca's eyes, amusement, most likely, and set his jaw tight, staring resolutely at the ceiling as Esca worked at the tense muscle of his thigh.
He vowed then to take his daily baths in the privacy of his uncle's bath-house, alone, rather than endure a repeat of the morning's awkwardness.
They were halfway down the steps of the entrance to the baths, when the acoustics of the changing room sent the scornful echo of some unknown observer out to their ears.
“One wonders, with young Aquila and his Brittunculus, who is the master there, and who the slave.”
Marcus went rigid, his spine snapping up straight in the custom of a soldier readying to meet a challenge. He felt Esca tense beneath his arm too, and how he looked to Marcus, waiting to see what he would do. He glanced down and met Esca's narrowed gaze, and saw the tight, furious line of his mouth.
“Do you wish to confront them,” Marcus asked, throat tight with anger. Esca stood silently for a moment, searching Marcus's face as though seeing him for the first time.
“No,” he said finally, reaching up to settle Marcus's arm more securely around his shoulder. “Let's go home.”
A/N: Brittunculus – wretched little Briton (Thank you, Bettany Hughes for generally being awesome, and for teaching me this gem of a Roman insult in the Roman episode of your 'Seven Ages of Britain' program :D)