ainsoph15 (ainsoph15) wrote,

Pia Fidelis - Chapter 6

Title: Pia Fidelis
Pairing: Esca/Marcus
Rating: PG13/R (this chapter)
Summary: In between the lines of a story about honour is another story about love. This is an attempt to fill in those lines and to tell that story, with all the scenes that weren't shown.
Warnings: Behaviour that could be interpreted as (mutual) sexual harassment.
Word count: 4302 for this chapter
Disclaimer: The characters from the book 'The Eagle of the Ninth' belong to the estate of Rosemary Sutcliff, and the film, 'The Eagle' is the property of Toledo Productions, Film Four and Focus Features. All creative rights to the original characters and situations depicted within are held by the respective owners; any additional original material is attributable to the author, and no profit is being made from this story.
Author's note: THIS CHAPTER NOW HAS AN AMAZING PIECE OF ART BY THE LOVELY AND INCREDIBLY TALENTED motetus, who can see inside my head. I urge you to go and see it, and tell her how wonderful she is. I am the luckiest person ever :) 


Several cups of wine later, Marcus padded rather unsteadily to his room, hoping he would not trip over Esca and wake him. But Esca was not at his usual place across the threshold of the door, nor was he asleep. He was sat up in the middle of Marcus's bed, nibbling at one of the last honeycakes and squinting at a wax tablet that was propped up against his knees.

Marcus leaned on the frame of the door, folding his arms and contemplating this state of affairs with amusement. Some small part of him was certain that he wouldn't find any of this nearly so funny if he was sober. But truly, in the few moments of weakness he had indulged in when alone, little he had ever allowed himself to imagine could live up to the sight of Esca crowned in vines, his sharp features thrown into relief by the golden lamplight, catching a drip of honey with one finger before it escaped and putting it to his lips.

“So, once again I have to ask, why are you in my bed, getting honey all over my sheets?”

Esca shot him a cold look, pursing his lips together and saying nothing. Marcus had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, guessing at Esca's intention.

“Am I to sleep on the floor tonight, then?”

“No,” Esca said curtly, his accent thickened by the honey and wine he had drunk. “You think I would make you sleep on the floor? Get undressed.”

Marcus baulked a little at being given such a blunt order, and raised his brows in surprise. Esca pointed imperiously at the chair in the corner of the room.

“I put out your usual things for sleeping. You will not wish to wake in the clothing of a slave.”

“You did not have to do that,” Marcus said, annoyed that Esca would think him incapable of finding his own tunic. As Marcus pulled off his borrowed clothing, he was sure he was being watched, and raised his eyes in challenge. But although he had been certain that a moment before Esca had been staring at him expectantly as he disrobed, instead his slave again seemed quite intent on the tablet, lost in thought as he licked the last of the honey from his long fingers.

“What does it say?”

Marcus stripped off his bracae, and out of an impetuous, inebriated desire to regain some semblance of dominance, he went and stood by Esca's side still unclothed, leaning down to see which of the tablets Esca was looking at.

Esca reached out without looking up and ran his hand up Marcus's scarred thigh, his fingertips faintly sticky with honey as he worked them into the muscle. Marcus swallowed, but kept his composure, trying to focus on the scratched letters in the wax, though the wine made the words and numbers repeat themselves several times over as they swayed in his blurred vision.

“It's a list of the accounts I was working through for my uncle, to keep track of the expenses of the household.”

“Oh. Romans use writing for such things? Not only for stories or poems?”

Esca turned his hand over, and brushed his knuckles absently up and down the back of Marcus's thigh. Marcus held back a gasp as the hairs stood up on his legs in response. A prickle of desire ran up his spine, setting his nipples to hardness in the cool air of the room. Esca had touched him hundreds of times before, but this felt different. This was not the impersonal, brisk rub of his hands to ease the soreness in Marcus's muscles; it felt sensual, with the underlying threat of a terrible suggestion beneath each sweep of his fingers.

“My people do not have writing,” Esca said, peering at the marks with evident mistrust. “We carry our stories with us in our heads instead. Words are things too full of power to be written down.”

Marcus tried to concentrate on what Esca was saying, but he felt somehow claimed, owned, and hazily wondered if this was how Esca felt, though out of propriety Marcus had never been so free with his hands as Esca was now; Marcus had always refrained from touching him, though cupidity had urged him to do other than what was honourable. He had been so sure that no amount of wine would make him break the vow he had made to himself. A hot flush of anger joined with his arousal, and instead of retreating to a safe distance, he countered with his own challenge, resting one knee against the bed and leaning in closer, crowding his bulk over Esca. The wooden eagle around his neck swung forward, and the shadow it cast in the lamplight swooped to-and-fro across the bedsheets.

“You wish to learn to read it?”

His head swam, and he thought of how they had both had too much of the sweet wine to drink, and how wisdom was so easily abandoned in the Bacchanal haze. The want in him cut deep and raw, stalking the shadows at the edge of the dim room like a wild thing, dangerous and hungry, gripping its claws into his resolve and beginning to rend it to pieces.

Mithras, I cannot--

Esca's hand crept higher still, one finger brushing against the sensitive crease at the back of Marcus's leg where thigh met buttock, and this was too much, too bold; Marcus gave a low, instinctive warning growl. Esca raised his head and looked up at him, expression cool and perfectly calm, as though nothing of note was happening. The tips of his ears grew red, though, and his eyes were unfocused from the wine. For a brief, foolish moment as Esca stared at him, Marcus thought he imagined desire there too. He knew that if he bent his head lower and kissed Esca now, that he would taste of honey, or that if he jutted his hips forward just another foot more, his stiffening cock would brush against Esca's shoulder. He felt heat leap up his throat and into his cheeks, and knew that he was flushing with shame and arousal.

“No,” Esca said, eyes hardening, and the emphasis of his refusal was all-encompassing. Marcus felt cowed by sudden embarrassment at his immodest behaviour, and backed away, restraining the urge to cover himself with his hands.

“It is enough that I speak your tongue,” Esca said, closing the wooden panels of the tablet together with a snap. “Make yourself ready for bed. I won't leave you to lie on the floor and wait until you're cold and shivering.”

Esca's words gave Marcus pause. With a feeling of dismay, he wondered if this was how Esca viewed his actions, if he thought that Marcus waited to call him into his bed out of callousness, rather than propriety. He picked up his sleeping tunic, now with half a mind to sleep on the floor, if only to be away from the source of his temptation and ire. As he slipped the tunic over his head, he noticed that beneath where it had been sitting was a small leather pouch.

Intrigued, Marcus opened it and shook the contents into his palm, peering at the little flat wooden roundels that dropped out, no broader than the first joint of his smallest finger. He lifted one up to inspect it more closely in the murky lamplight. A delicate spiral was carved into the domed side like the whorl of a fingerprint, and the dark wood was still damp to the touch from the oil that had been used to polish it to a dull sheen. Marcus turned to look at Esca in surprise. Surely they could not be--

“Esca, what are these?”

Esca sat up, resting his elbows on his knees, and Marcus was bemused by the hint of a frown on his face.

“It is not right to receive gifts without also giving them. I did not have enough coin to buy anything of worth, so I made those, for the games you play with your uncle.”

“For me?”

Esca nodded.

“You spent Saturnalia carving these for me, instead of drinking or gambling?” Marcus felt an odd fluttering in his chest, as his heart thudded against the bars of his ribs, like feathers beating against a cage that was too small for the creature it contained.

“I had no wish to go into town. I was outside, under the trees, with time to call my own and to spend as I saw fit. And a gift cannot go unanswered.”

“Thank you, truly,” Marcus said, and the wine rendered him unable to hold back a broad, happy smile. “They are beautiful. Your father taught you well.” He rubbed his thumb appreciatively around the spiralled groove of one of the pieces before dropping them back into the pouch. Marcus looked up and saw Esca's face harden into an outright scowl at the compliment. He plucked the green wreath from his head, hung it upon the bedpost and lay down, drawing the covers around him. Marcus was left feeling thoroughly confused, wondering how what he had said could possibly be construed as an insult.

“Douse the lamps,” Esca said, his voice muffled by the pillow.

With more than a little reluctance, Marcus did as he was told, then lay down, butted shoulder to shoulder against Esca in the narrow bed, the air still heavy with the smoke of the oil lamps and the lingering scent of honey.

He lay there for what seemed an endless time, his blood too hot to sleep, still warring with the deep ache of desire and confusion that had set his muscles on edge and his cock to twitching, while the bellyful of warm, intoxicating wine rolled heavy within him. When he fidgeted and sighed again, he heard a quiet voice in the darkness next to him say,

“Why did you save me, Centurion?”

Marcus had wondered if Esca would ever ask this question of him, though he had not expected it to come at this moment. In truth, he had thought of all the reasons he could give for his actions, though he knew his own motives had not been a thing of rationality, but of instincts both base and noble. He had forsaken the arena since that day. Even before then, he failed to see honour in the arena, and had found little sport in watching death doled out for pleasure rather than in the heat of battle. It was a sentiment that had always been met by his associates with mistrust, that a soldier should baulk at the sight of blood. Marcus was glad for once of the excuse his leg provided to exclude him from attending any more of the games. He had no thirst to look upon the gladiators, then to look upon Esca, and see the lingering shadow of death still haunting his face.

His head buzzed with drink, and he settled on the simplest explanation he had found for his actions that day, though his breath caught in his throat.

“Because I could. I couldn't simply stand by and watch. If it had been a fair fight, perhaps things would have been different.”

Marcus felt Esca shifting next to him, going up onto his elbow as though he could see Marcus even in the darkness. With the kind of logic brought on only by wine, Marcus wondered if perhaps Esca could; it would be one of the least surprising things to discover about him that day.

“You think it was not a fair fight?”

“You had no armour, and your opponent was twice your size.” Marcus knew his logic here, at least, was sound.

“You have not seen me fight,” Esca said, and Marcus could hear the arrogant tilt of his head, and knew exactly the lofty expression Esca wore as he spoke. Perhaps he, too, had the ability to see in the dark. “I could have defeated him,” Esca continued, “Speed can outmatch strength in hand-to-hand combat.”

“Then why did you throw down your weapons?” Marcus had always wondered at that. He had seen it as an act of courage, of defiance, but he was even more curious now to understand why, seeing as Esca seemed so sure that he could have won the fight. Esca was silent for a moment, then he lay back down. His arm was cold against the flushed heat of Marcus's skin.

“Because I chose to die a Briton, than live one more day as a Roman slave.”

Marcus considered for a long while how to respond to what Esca had told him, then said quietly,

“Do you still wish for death?”

“No,” Esca said, rolling onto his side. Marcus could feel the nub of each of Esca's vertebrae pressing into him. He wanted nothing more than to turn on his side as well, to slide an arm around Esca and fit his body around him, to press kiss after kiss against the back of that long, elegant neck and leach the bitterness from him with his hands.

Lord of light. Lord of light--

Instead, he lay still, staring up into the darkness as bright, phantom swirls danced in front of his weary eyes, then finally asked,

“What do you wish for, then?”

Esca twisted a little and spoke over his shoulder, and Marcus had never heard such rancour in his voice, not even on the first day they had met.

“What do I wish for, Centurion? I am a slave. What desires can I have to call my own?”

That served well to douse the last flames of Marcus's own fledgling desires that night, and he fell into a restless sleep. His dreams were heated and formless, woven ephemera composed of shreds of colour and a feeling of flying aloft, swept up on currents of warm air like a bird, then plummeting like wingless Icarus, down towards a darkness without end.

He awoke with a terrible pounding in his head. The other side of the bed was empty and long-cold, from the feel of it. The garland hooked around the bedpost was gone. Marcus clawed his way into an upright position, while the room spun at a disturbing angle. Very carefully, he shifted his legs out of the bed, though wisely he made no attempt to stand. He clamped his head between his hands, resting his elbows on his knees as he tried to regain his equilibrium. The tiles of the floor were comforting beneath his feet, their cool smoothness reassuringly firm while his stomach dipped as though he was once again on board the ship that had brought him across the narrow channel of water to this strange country.

Never, he vowed, will I drink to excess again. He had a few hazy memories of the previous night which were all alarmingly licentious, and he cursed himself for almost losing his self-control. Drink will turn all men to beasts, he thought, and leave them little more than a carcass the morning after.

Marcus heard a very quiet footstep at the door, and swung his head towards the source, instantly regretting it as another green wave of nausea flooded over him, and he squinted his eyes shut.

“Your Roman wine is too strong, Centurion,” Esca said, setting a bowl of water by the side of the bed and wringing out a sponge. He squatted before Marcus, and Marcus had his chin gripped between a firm thumb and forefinger and lifted upwards, as Esca batted away Marcus's hands where they held his head in a vice.

“I have no memory of last night,” Esca said briskly, though his voice was hushed. Marcus could not tell if that was out of compassion for his aching head, or because Esca too was suffering from the results of a surfeit of wine. The sponge was soothing over his eyelids and mouth, but the cool shock of it when Esca ran it over the back of his neck made him gasp. He opened his eyes and met Esca's, and they were blank and indifferent as they had always been. Marcus felt a rush of relief go through him. If he could resist his base lusts even under the weakening influence of wine, then he knew that this time he had conquered them.
Once again Esca was quietly defiant and withdrawn in his demeanour, and Marcus walled-in his perverse desires with the cold marble of reason and rightness. Though, after that wine-soaked night, he did not call Esca to his bed again. He had no need to, for every evening thereafter, Esca would help Marcus into bed, then climb in beside him unasked, his bedroll at the door abandoned.

There was no affection to it, nor any of the unnerving suggestiveness Marcus now thought he had only imagined, since his memory of that night was cloudy and incomplete. He remembered Esca's words clear enough though, and thus had gleaned his dislike of sleeping on the cold floor. He had no mind to send Esca back there, though he did not care to dwell on whether that was out of compassion or selfishness. As they fell asleep back-to-back to ward off the chill of the winter night, he knew that it was only that Esca shared his pragmatism, pure and simple. On the occasion that Marcus would jerk awake from his dreams of blood and battle, Esca would shush him and rise sleepily to get him water to drink, then push Marcus back down to the mattress. His hand would linger on Marcus's chest, splayed out over his heart until his pulse slowed, offering reassurance without tenderness.

Yet, it remained unchanged that each morning, Marcus would wake with at least one of Esca's limbs tangled up with his own, shunning the pillow and instead sleeping with his head rested on Marcus, or Marcus would be curled around Esca, cocooning him against his chest, his hips pressed far too snugly against the firm curve of Esca's buttocks to be seemly. A few times he had been certain that he had heard a soft whisper, and that long fingers were brushing over his shoulders, before he became fully conscious and realised that Esca was still fast asleep, his head pressed against Marcus's neck, breathing slow against his skin.

It was a daily trial that Marcus learned to endure, with one or both of them hard and warm against the other upon waking, but even with repetition it became no easier. As before, Marcus refrained from ever consciously touching Esca or from indicating the extent of his desires, as surely as if his hands were bound. They never talked upon waking, and Esca never tarried in bed once he had roused himself from sleep, nor did he ever look upon Marcus when he rose. Marcus paid no mind to it. This was how it should be, after all. He would drowsily open one eye to a slit, and watch Esca's back retreat through the doorway, before turning his face to the pillow and shifting his hips, slipping a hand beneath his tunic to press at his heated skin.

Soon after Saturnalia came the shortest day of the year, marking the birth of Mithras the Unconquered Sun, and with it came a far more sober ceremony. The pre-dawn sky was flat and grey, and it seemed unlikely that the celestial sun would deign to show its face at all. Instead, there was a needle-fine rain that seemed to be native only to Britannia, which blew sideways against everything in the erratic gusts of wind. Marcus held his cloak around his head and set his shoulders into the squall, as he made his way through Calleva to the Mithraeum with Esca by his side, wondering how this foul weather got him wetter than good, honest Roman rain ever had, when it came dropping fat and warm from above. This insidious dampness permeated everything so much more thoroughly, leaving him soaked and shivering. As they approached the entrance to the temple, joining in with the crowd of worshippers already beginning to file in, Marcus squinted up at the heavy sky and asked Esca,

“How do you mark the dawn ceremony at the stones your people worship at, when there is no way of telling when the sun has risen?”

Esca drew his new cloak more tightly around himself, and turned to scowl up at Marcus, blinking drops of water out of his eyes.

“Why do you worship your sun-god underground, where there is no light at all?”

Marcus felt his blood rise to the bait, but could see from the stubborn clench of Esca's jaw that to push the matter further would only lead to argument. It seemed an unworthy way to behave in front of the temple of Mithras, right before the most holy ceremony of the year, so instead he bit his tongue and said,

“Find somewhere warm and dry to wait for now, and I will meet you afterwards.”

“I would rather stay out here, if it is all the same to you, Centurion,” Esca said, and this time the roughness was gone from his voice. “I should like to welcome the dawn, even if I cannot see it.”

Marcus heaved a sigh, and stepped out of the puddle that was slowly seeping through into his boots.

“In that case, take this,” he said, unwrapping the cloak from around his shoulders and holding it out to Esca. “I won't need it while I am inside. Though, much good it will do you; it's already wet through.”

Marcus failed to see why Esca looked so stricken by an act of kindness, as he threw the cloak around himself and gave Marcus a tight nod of thanks.

As Marcus descended the steps into the Mithraeum, he heard the first low rumble echo around the sky above the town. The dawning of the rebirth of Mithras would come with fire and thunder. Whether this was a good omen or an ill one, he could not say.

A few days after, Marcus blinked awake before dawn, tucked into the crook of Esca's arm. He withdrew as soon as he felt Esca stir next to him, but found he was thoroughly weary of the morning silence between them, and broke their unspoken rule before Esca could rise.

“So, since you were a charioteer, am I right in thinking you also know how to ride?”

If Esca was surprised by Marcus's question, he did not show it. He rubbed the heel of his hand over one eye, still half-asleep, and answered him on a bitten-off yawn.

“It is said of my people that they can ride before they can run.”

“Good,” Marcus said, keeping his voice light and amiable. “Let's give this leg a couple more days of rest, then we'll go hunting.”

“You'd take me with you?”

Marcus saw that Esca was wide awake now, the drowsy softness of sleep completely gone from his face, leaving him tense and alert. Now he seemed noticeably shocked at Marcus's suggestion.

“Why not?” Marcus felt confused, wondering why Esca was so hesitant, and dearly hoped that it was not because Esca still thought him too weak to ride. That was an insult he could not stomach. “I will need someone to carry my spears,” he said, offering an explanation, if that was what Esca needed, “and to help me bring back whatever we take down.”

Esca sat up, drawing the blanket around him, and turned his head to look down at Marcus with a little frown of incredulity on his brow.

“You'd allow me to carry weapons,” he asked, the pale morning light illumining a faint shard of blue in the corner of his eye, narrowed warily.

“Are you planning to use them on me?” Marcus raised his arms over his head and stretched the sleep out of his limbs, closing his eyes against Esca's sombre gaze. “I would have thought that if you wished to do me harm, you would have done it before now, while I was still weak. It would have been a simple matter to slip an extra dose of opium into my cup.”

“That would not have been a fair fight,” Esca replied with a hint of reproach.

“Ah, I see,” Marcus said with a faint laugh, recalling his own words regarding Esca's fight in the arena. “So you have waited until we are evenly matched before you stab me in the back.”

“No, Centurion. I would do you the honour of stabbing you face to face,” Esca said, and looked at him levelly for a moment. His mouth twitched at the corners, which Marcus knew was Esca's way of smiling. Marcus dipped his head and snorted.

“All this talk of stabbing puts me in the mood to try some sparring. I'll need to get my strength up before I ride again. And I admit, I am curious to see if you are true to your word and are as good a fighter as you claim to be.” He paused, waiting for Esca's reaction. When it was unforthcoming he coaxed a little harder.

“What do you say?”

The curl at the corner of Esca's mouth tipped further upwards, and his eyes lost some of their haunted look.

Marcus took that as a yes.
Tags: fic, pia fidelis, the eagle
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