Marcus felt he was moving impossibly slowly; he shifted forwards on the couch, towards the boy's parted lips, and the boy's mouth closed around his prick, sliding halfway down his shaft then holding still, waiting for Marcus to move. Marcus watched, his eyes wide, as the boy's cheeks hollowed and he sucked gently. This time, Marcus could not hold back the moan as he tipped his head back and in the heartbeat before he squeezed his eyes shut, he saw the gods and goddesses in their frescoed glory staring down from the ceiling above him, as though they too were watching him with their painted eyes and judging his potency.
He found that his hips lifted of their own accord, thrusting upwards as the muscles of his abdomen tensed, trying to drive deeper into the heat and suction of the slave's mouth. His hands tightened around the frame of the couch, until the wood dug into the tendons of his hands to the point of painfulness; he was unable to let go, as though he had lost the mastery of his own body. The wine and the boy's skilled mouth had set a buzzing vibration across the surface of his skin, and it felt like it no longer fit him, as though he wore the form of a stranger unknown to him. Pleasure burst brightly inside him as he felt the tremor of the slave's tongue against the head of his cock; he tried to claw his way back from the edge of spending too soon, clenching his teeth until his jaw ached.
“Turn around, slave,” Lucius commanded from across the room.
The boy pulled off Marcus's prick, and it bobbed up to smack against Marcus's belly, wet with saliva. Marcus breathed hoarsely as the boy turned away from him, going to his hands and knees, presenting himself to Marcus. Marcus was very vaguely aware of one of the other men saying,
“He is readied for you,”
But he was not listening. He could not tear his eyes away from the boy, the way he spread his legs and lifted his hips, and the small pucker of his hole, how it glistened, slick with oil. Drunk on wine and desire, Marcus released his death-grip on the edge of the couch, and slid off it to kneel on the floor behind him.
It was tighter still than the girl's warm cunt had been that morning. Much tighter, and Marcus feared he might spend even before he had sheathed himself fully within the boy. He looked down between his legs to where he entered the slave's body, how his cock looked impossibly large sliding into the boy's slick, pink hole, stretched around the thickness of his shaft. Goaded on by the cheering and clapping of the men around him, he held fast to the boy's hips and drove into him more deeply, feeling how the boy's hole clenched tighter, bringing Marcus even greater pleasure.
It felt good. It felt so very good. In the blind folly all youths were afflicted with, Marcus thought himself half in love with him, sliding one hand up the smooth dip of the boy's spine to clutch at the back of his neck. Throughout, the boy had not uttered a single sound. Marcus should have liked to put an arm around him, drawing him close to kiss him, though he knew this was a thing not done with a fellator. The boy dropped his head in obeisance at Marcus's touch, and it hung below his arms, between the golden crests of his shoulders. The sensations built and built, until the only thing Marcus could hear was his own harsh breathing and the frenzied drumming of his heart.
Lost in passion, he forgot decorum and went back on his haunches, pulling the boy with him into his lap so they were fitted against each other, chest to back, wrapping an arm around the boy's ribcage and pressing a cheek to his jaw. As the angle of their bodies changed, Marcus felt the boy's ribcage contract under his arm, and heard the barest, whispery exhalation. The boy's arms remained limply by his sides, and what Marcus could see of his face remained impassive, but he felt the slave's thighs tense, his knees and heels digging into Marcus's calf muscles.
He glanced down over the boy's shoulder, and saw that his cock was filling, twitching up against the juncture of his thigh as Marcus thrust into him. The boy's back arched almost imperceptibly and he bore down against Marcus in a slight, tiny motion. It only took two more rolls of the boy's hips, moving with him, and the sound of another quiet, shuddery breath before Marcus was spilling deep and warm inside that tight, quivering heat.
As he withdrew and heaved himself back onto the couch, one of the girls was already by his side with a wet sponge, wiping his softening cock clean.
“It is well done, young Flavius,” said Lucius, putting his hands together to lead the group in a low patter of applause. “See what it is to be a man of Rome, and a master of those who tremble beneath her yoke,” he said, spreading one arm wide in an all-encompassing gesture. “You have dominion over all.”
“Aquila bred a fine son in you, indeed,” said Septimus, after Marcus had settled his toga into a more seemly arrangement, clapping Marcus on the back in congratulation. “You're already as strong as a young bull, and no doubt just as eager to mount everything in sight, hmm?”
Marcus paid him little attention; the boy had gone onto his hands and knees on the floor again, unmoving save for the steady rise and fall of his ribcage, and the fine tremors which ran through his limbs.
“Ha ha, drink some more wine and regain your strength,” laughed Septimus, pressing Marcus's cup back into his hand, “while we take our turn.”
Marcus slumped against the cushions of the couch, catching his breath while another of the girls filled his wine cup and rubbed at his shoulders.
“Let's show him how it's done,” said Antoninus with a sly wink, tugging aside his toga to draw out his prick.
Marcus felt his cheeks flush again, and he shifted with discomfort, though this time it was because of a sudden anger that rose in him, inexplicable and without reason, as he watched the conclusion of the night's entertainments unfold before him.
One of the men penetrated the boy from behind, shoving into him roughly, while another stood before him and gripped him by the hair, thrusting into his mouth. Marcus wanted to look away, but something in him forced him to keep watching, to bear witness to this disconcerting spectacle. Each man took their turn to mount the slave boy, and they became increasingly violent as more wine was poured, losing the fabricated edifice of civilsation and reason as they gave in to their animal lusts and rutted the boy more brutally than any beasts.
The boy's softened prick swung between his trembling thighs, neglected, his head drooping lower with every thrust, until, trembling, the fight went out of his eyes, dull, save for the sheen of unshed tears. He lay his cheek against the cold marble tiles, like a small, fearful animal that had been hunted too hard and for too long, waiting only for the final blow of its pursuer to bring peace.
Marcus felt his gorge rise. There was a nausea in his belly that had nothing to do with the wine or rich food. He knew this was not something that should be questioned or challenged, especially by one who had only that day become a man. Lucius had spoken truth – it was indeed the right of a Roman citizen to have dominance over all his inferiors. Rome was unassailable; her men were unassailable; she would brook no argument to the contrary. And yet-- and yet-- Marcus believed with all his heart that Rome had been wrong to judge his father the way it had. Was it not possible that this, too, was not as it should be?
Lucius swaggered towards him unsteadily, giving Marcus a broad, indulgent grin as he held out his cup for one of the girls to fill it.
“What do you say? Ready to give him some more, hmm?”
Marcus covered his disquiet with a smile, and shook his head. He could not feel anything further from arousal at the thought of sinking into the boy's hole again, mixing his seed with that of all the men in the room, while the silent boy shook beneath him with horror.
“Thank you for your generous gift, but I fear I have had too much wine.”
“Well, if you won't,” said Lucius, tossing his head back to drain his cup. “I will.”
Marcus toyed distractedly with the wooden bird hanging from his neck, and allowed one of the blankly smiling girls to fill his cup again and again. He drank it dry until he passed out on the couch, and had to see and hear no more.
A couple of years later, Marcus joined the army, and had found little time or enthusiasm for dalliances in the interim. There had been a few times when he was still a young recruit, hot and energised from the blood of the battlefield, that he had formed an attachment to one of the other men. There had been a young Syrian who had taught him how to kiss; a Gaul who had shoved Marcus's hand between his legs and held it there, showing him how to twist and turn and tug with his wrist, his own calloused hand on Marcus's straining cock, until they spilled into each other's fists; and one night, very late, very drunk, there had been a sloe-eyed Macedonian who had shared with him the way to spend between one another's thighs with no shame of penetration.
He was not the only one in the dark of the barracks to shudder and press against the warm body beside him, though he could never give himself over easily. He found it too difficult to foster the necessary detachment from the men who shared his blankets, haunted with the knowledge that they could be lost in the next battle, and indeed this had been the fate of some of them. Soon, he no longer sought the affections of others, not only by choice, but by prudence. And as his career flourished, he saw the true danger in these entanglements, not only how they might pose a threat to his advancement in the military, but more crucially how petty jealousies and resentments between men could threaten the safety of the entire garrison.
Many years of stringent discipline had honed in him the virtue of temperance. While the other men might enjoy the delights of the inns and whorehouses when they had the chance, Marcus chose instead to pass his time reading or in prayer, and in rare moments of solitude, he preferred to spend in his own hand, than use his coin to spend in another.
And so it was that he leaned against the doorframe, assailed by the unwelcome memories of his past and lost in contemplation. It felt as though the walls were shrinking in around him, as his slave glared at him in defiance. Esca's presence seemed to grow, filling the whole room and looming over him, though he had not moved at all; he had not even blinked.
By the Lord Mithras, Marcus thought, gathering his strength and drawing himself up to his full height, I will treat him with the honour and respect he deserves.
“No,” Marcus said, with the firm tone of command he had used on his legionaries. Esca's eyes widened a little, a quirk of disbelief appearing between his brows. “It is not necessary for you to warm my bed. Take your usual place by the door.”
Despite the exhortations of men like Zeno and Epictetus, and much to his chagrin, Marcus had never found the necessary strength to drive the grief he felt for the loss of his father from his heart. In contrast, after that discomfiting night on the threshold of his manhood, it had always been a much easier thing for him to abstain from desire rather than yield to it, whatever form it took. Or, it had been, until Esca's arrival in the household.
He could not deny that he longed to kiss the pout off that angry mouth, as Esca rose from his bed and silently crossed the room, straight-backed and with his head held high. Not another word passed between them, as Esca helped Marcus to bed, removing his toga and dressing him in his sleeping tunic.
As Marcus settled into his bed, the sheets were warm and welcoming and smelled good. They smelled like Esca. Marcus lay on his back, refusing to allow himself the indulgence of burying his face into the pillow to breath in that scent. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited for the dark to take him.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~He was pulled into semi-wakefulness as the night air cooled and seeped into his skin where it was left uncovered by the warm blankets. The furnace of the hypocaust would not be lit again until dawn was near, and the braziers in his room had long burned out.
Marcus blinked into the darkness of the room and stretched his leg out a little, wriggling his toes to ease the cramping in his sore thigh and to warm his blood. He tucked his bared arms back under the covers and rolled over, already feeling sleep tugging at him again. But despite his tiredness, he was troubled by a faint noise that kept him from slipping immediately back into the welcoming dark. Sleepily, Marcus lifted his head and listened. It was not the high whewling noise of the wind in the trees outside; it was a pained, staccato rhythm at the edge of the room. Esca was trying to grit his teeth against the cold, and gave little huffing breaths as he shivered. Marcus listened for a moment longer, and with angry remonstrance he tried to quell the way his blood leapt as he drew upon what was after all the most pragmatic conclusion.
“Esca,” he called out, and it sounded too loud in the quiet midnight of the room.
“Yes, Centurion,” Esca said, instantly springing to his feet.
Marcus sat up and saw Esca's lithe figure silhouetted against the doorway in the dim starlight, hugging his blanket around him tightly.
“I find the night is colder than I thought, and the chill is making my wound ache. Draw nearer.”
Esca came to stand at the foot of the bed, still shivering, and Marcus ignored how his heartbeat kicked up a notch, thudding in his chest. It does no good for us both to be cold, he thought, when this is an obvious solution. He shifted over in the narrow bed to make some room.
“Throw your blanket over the bed.”
Marcus saw in the gloom how Esca's brow knitted and his jaw clenched as he reluctantly removed the covering from round his shoulders, tucking it over the foot of Marcus's bed. He made to move back to his bed-roll in the doorway, and Marcus felt deeply affronted.
“Esca,” he said sharply, and Esca turned and glowered at him. “Get in the bed,” Marcus said more softly. “Did you think I merely meant to rob you of your own source of warmth?”
Esca looked down at him for a moment, and his face was like carved stone in the dim light.
“Yes,” he said, his eyes boring into Marcus's, even in the darkness. “I did.”
“Not every Roman takes what is not his,” Marcus said, drawing back the sheets. The cold air raised little bumps on his skin, and he shivered, waiting for Esca to comply.
“The blanket is not mine,” Esca said sullenly. “It is yours, as I am yours.”
“Hold your tongue,” Marcus said with an impatient huff of mirthless laughter, “and get in before the dawn comes upon us.” Try as he might to show only kindness, Esca always challenged him, always cast him as the adversary, bent only on destruction. Marcus was too tired to chastise himself for once again wanting to prove his slave wrong.
Esca hesitated for the space of another few heartbeats, then slid onto the bed. Marcus threw the covers over both of them and closed his eyes, too weary to let his troublesome thoughts take hold. He found himself still unable to relax, though, with Esca staring at the ceiling next to him, unyielding and straight as a pilum.
“Esca,” Marcus sighed wearily, “your wakefulness robs me of my own sleep.”
“Are there no other duties you would have of me,” Esca asked very quietly. “I was told that you might require-,” Esca broke off, searching for the word, and finally muttered, “relief.”
“No,” Marcus said brusquely. He had withstood temptation this long. He would not succumb to it now. All he wanted was a good night's sleep. He heard a sloughing sound of linen, and the pillow dipped a little beneath his cheek as Esca shifted next to him. He cracked open an eye again, and saw how Esca had turned his head and was watching him narrowly out of the corner of one eye. It made Marcus think of that first time he'd seen him, in the amphitheatre, lying on his back in the dirt as his chest rose and fell. Even in defeat, there had been no yielding to him; Esca's pride and equanimity remained intact then, as it did now.
The muscle in Marcus's thigh ticced in warning, then went into a full spasm, stealing Marcus's breath from him. Esca rose onto his elbow at Marcus's gasp, still watching him warily.
“Though now you mention it,” Marcus said between gritted teeth, “my leg is cramping, and would benefit from your attendance.”
“My hands are cold, Centurion,” Esca said, sitting up in bed to look down at him, though Marcus could not read his expression, occluded by the darkness. “They will offer you little comfort.”
“I'm sure they will warm soon enough.”
Esca blew on his fingers and rubbed his hands together, but when he settled beneath the blankets, his touch was indeed icy cold. As he slid his hand across Marcus's thigh, Marcus shuddered and gasped,
“You are honest, I'll give you that.”
Esca remained quiet, and worked his fingers into Marcus's flesh; beneath the blankets, his hands grew warmer, and as Marcus felt the tension leave his muscles, he was finally able to relax into the massage. The pressure of Esca's fingers lessened as the cramp eased, and sleep drew near for both of them again. Esca kept at his task, though, trailing his thumb gently around the edges of Marcus's scar, rolling it into the muscle when he felt a knot. Marcus ignored how Esca's fingers left tingles and shivers on his skin in their wake, travelling up his leg to coil and linger at the base of his spine, but when he felt the first heated pulse of arousal in his cock, he reached down and pushed Esca's hand away.
“That's enough,” Marcus said, shifting onto his back. “Sleep now.”
He awoke gradually in a daze of warmth, feeling a welcome looseness in his limbs that had long been absent. Something soft brushed his nose and mouth, and he twitched and stirred, which only succeeded in him burying deeper into the ticklish pillow, which smelled good, familiar. Very familiar. Marcus felt his awareness return like a shock of cold water down his back, and he instantly knew that his face was buried in a tuft of sandy-coloured hair, where he had rested his cheek against the top of Esca's head. His heart began to hammer as he realised that Esca's arm was wrapped around him, Esca's head was buried under his chin, butted up against his chest. The warm length of his slender, wiry body was pressed against Marcus's own, and there, against Marcus's hip, was a telling heat and hardness he could feel even through the covering of Esca's coarse-woven bracae, and his own length began to throb in answer. This was not one of Marcus's febrile dreams; he steeled himself and shuffled backwards as carefully as he could, disentangling Esca's limbs from where they clung around him and trying not to disturb him, or fall out of the other side of the narrow bed. Despite his best efforts, Esca woke with a start, and Marcus quickly closed his eyes, feigning sleep.
He felt the mattress move as Esca rolled out of bed, and slid one eye open a crack to see him pad out of the room to attend to his duties without a backward glance, scrubbing a hand through his hair to flatten an errant cowlick. Marcus waited for as long as he could, then rose and ducked through the large doors that led from his room to the garden, hastening to the baths in the grounds of the villa as swiftly as his good leg could carry him.
He closed the doors of the bath-house behind him and leaned against them for a moment, listening intently for any sign of movement nearby. When he was satisfied that the only sounds he could hear under the shaky hiss of his breath were the fluting trills and rustling of the birds in the garden outside, and the erratic drip-drip of water in the damp circular room, he crossed to one of the benches and lay down. He thought of nothing, nothing, as he pulled up his tunic and slid a hand into his bracae, under the fetter of his subligaculum to grasp at his cock, turning his face away from the rounded aperture in the domed ceiling, where the blue of the morning sky stared down at him like one, censorious eye.
He ached, oh, how he ached, taken aback by how soon he was at the brink, lifting his hips to push his rigid cock up into his fist, working himself over quickly, and he bit down hard on his lip as he spilled silently into his hand. He lay there for a few moments, feeling no more sated than when he had woken, then lifted his head a fraction and slammed it back down against the bench with an admonitory crack.
The water was still cold enough to steal his breath and send a twinge through the muscle of his thigh as he slid into the bath; the hour was yet too early for the hypocaust to have had much effect on its temperature. Marcus lay in the water, glaring angrily up at the hole in the ceiling, like mendacious Ulysses gazing upon the face of Polyphemus, until he began to shiver.
Mithras, help me to be strong when I am weak.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Each night after that, Marcus found sleep evaded him, and he would lie awake, staring into the darkness as the bitter winter wind blew in through the cracks in the shutters.
Pride would not allow him to order Esca to his bed until he felt the last vestiges of heat leave the room, and his skin prickled with chills, his leg threatening to cramp at any moment. Only then would he call out, and Esca would rise like a living shade cut from the very shadows of the room, sliding into bed beside him, chilled to the touch in the few places where his skin and Marcus's met at elbow and ankle.
It is only to ward off the cold, Marcus told himself. There is no dishonour in practicality. Silently, Esca would fall asleep beside him, and silently he would wake. And in that silence, Marcus could hear nothing but the sound of his own heart drumming in his chest, like hoofbeats through the turf, and feel his pulse pattering beneath his fingertips where his hand lay across his chest, clutched around the little wooden bird, more precious and potent than his bulla had ever been.