SUMMARY: In which there is bathing, discussion of weird Roman holidays, and Marcus tries to help Esca out. Kinkmeme fill for Marcus giving Esca a massage.
RATING: T for alluded sexuality and discussion of Roman fertility holidays
NOTES: For more Eagle and Eagle of the Ninth stories, I recommend the ninth_eagle community on Livejournal: livejournal DOT com SLASH community SLASH ninth_eagle. My own Eagle fiction (including many more stories than I have posted here, since most of what I've written in this fandom is sexually explicit and I don't really post to FFN anymore anyway) can be found at archiveofourown DOT org SLASH users SLASH Carmarthen.
The Art of the Possible
The snow is just beginning to melt outside, but Esca is still chilled enough that he yelps as his skin tingles and burns with phantom cold and real heat in the hot water of the caldarium.
Marcus eyes him with unsympathetic amusement. "You should have waited for your skin to warm first."
Esca does not bother to dignify that with a reply other than a rude gesture, but finally he adjusts to the heat of the water and leans back, sighing as the warmth seeps into the tight, knotted muscles of his back and shoulders.
He's been helping the field hands mend fences, and after a winter of repairing tools and other indoor work at old Aquila's villa, his muscles protest the unaccustomed hard use. Marcus had spent the first part of the winter with a fever and deep, wet cough, and Esca had changed his bandages and made him drink Sassticca's horrible medicinal broths and rubbed his tense shoulders. It is only in the last month that he has been well enough to spar or hunt with Esca, and they have both grown a little soft from lack of exercise.
After a moment Marcus joins him in the water, only hissing a little between his teeth when the water laps over the still-tender skin of the new scars on his thigh. Scars on top of scars, Esca thinks. Marcus's leg will never work quite the same again.
"How are the fences?" Marcus asks. They have had little time to talk of late; Marcus has needed less care, and Esca has been too busy with the spring work of the farm.
Esca shrugs. "We are nearly done with the south pasture." It is exhausting, backbreaking labor, and not something Esca wants to do for the rest of his life if he has any choice in the matter. He had been born to a gold torc and a sword, and he does not understand this fascination with farming the wealthy Romans have—although of course farming must be more pleasant when you have slaves and freedmen to do all the real work of it, he thinks sourly. His family had owned many cattle and sheep and land for grain, but they had not fooled themselves that they were the farmers.
Marcus had told him to decide, but Esca has not yet been able to think of a place, a life, where they can both be content. He hopes, by all the gods, that Marcus is not set on being a farmer as so many Roman soldiers are. There is no one left that Esca would rather swear service to, yet he does not wish to break his back over the plow for the rest of his life.
"There will be the Liberalia celebration in Calleva the day after tomorrow," Marcus says. "My uncle has invited them to the fields here."
"Liberalia?" Esca stretches, wincing a little at the pull of sore muscles in his shoulder, and sinks lower in the water. He does not know all of the Roman holidays. They have a great many of them, often quite silly, although of course he does not tell Marcus he thinks this. It would not be kind, and these days Marcus brings out a sort of kindness in him that he had once thought had been lashed from him long ago.
"One of the rustic ceremonies," Marcus says. "Folk make offerings of honey-cakes, and then everyone carts a great wooden phallus around to all the fields to protect the crops from evil. At the end the most virtuous matron to be found places a wreath on it."
Esca stares incredulously, and then he can't suppress a laugh. The Romans are so contradictory; their matrons must all be pure and sexless as statues, yet bear many sons, and then apparently it is virtuous for them to crown an imitation cock with leaves, as if it is a victor in battle! And it is beyond him how this wooden cock might protect anyone's crops.
"It is quite a celebration," Marcus says, looking a little hurt.
"I am sorry," Esca says quickly. "It is only that your customs are strange to me."
"No matter," Marcus says, but Esca thinks he is still a little annoyed. "I think I have grown overheated."
Esca tries not to look when Marcus levers himself out of the water, his skin gleaming with moisture. He does not think Marcus would like him to look; Roman men seem to believe it unmans them to be desired, and Esca knows he is much older than Roman men prefer and surely not what Marcus wants. So he only looks when Marcus cannot see, admiring the strong lines of his back and the curve of his arse when Marcus turns away for a moment.
He is feeling too hot as well, and he does not think the water alone will ease his sore muscles. He will have to go into Calleva on his next free day and pay for a massage at the public baths; at least now he has the pay old Aquila gives him for his work on the farm and can do so.
Marcus gives him a concerned look, all irritation gone, when Esca rolls his shoulders and grimaces. "Are you hurt?"
"No, only sore," Esca says, with a smile. "It is hard work, moving rocks all day. I will have to see about a massage next time I am in town."
Marcus says nothing for a moment, and there's an odd expression on his face. Some of it is nervousness, but the rest…that Esca doesn't quite understand. He swallows visibly. "I could try, if you like. I have not done it before, but then you would not have to wait another three days. You have done it for me often enough."
Well, why not? Marcus has good hands, strong hands, and even if he is not practiced, it will likely help a little. And if that means he has Marcus's hands on him for a while, that is not an unpleasing thought, either. "Thank you," Esca says, following Marcus into the tepidarium. Marcus pulls his tunic on before they begin, even though it is warm enough in here, but perhaps it is still only the weakness from his fever earlier that winter.
It is strange, lying down on the table here; he is used to being the one standing, with Marcus spread out naked before him. At first, when he hated Marcus, he had disliked this duty, but later there were times when in a secret part of his mind he looked at Marcus and found beauty in his strength of body and will, even as he resented his ownership.
Marcus is no longer his master. He knows Marcus is not quite the Roman ideal, too broad and bulky for one of their athletic statues, but Esca is not a Roman.
Marcus clears his throat. "Where does it hurt?"
"My shoulders, mostly," Esca says, twisting an arm up awkwardly to gesture; it is probably not very helpful. "Also the lower part of my back, the muscles around my spine."
At first Marcus's oiled hands are gentle, tentative. They are callused, but the oil keeps them from scratching as he runs them over Esca's back. It is more like the touch of a lover than anything else, and Esca almost shivers, stopping himself only with great effort. But Marcus is only learning the muscles, it seems, and Esca is spared the task of finding an innocent way to convince him to press harder.
He does not have the skilled technique of a bath-slave as he kneads Esca's shoulders more firmly, but his hands are warm and strong and careful. It hurts—Esca's back is too tight for him to enjoy the feeling much—but it needs to hurt before it feels better, so he says nothing.
After a while the pain fades and he closes his eyes, beginning to enjoy the pressure of Marcus's hands. He hasn't been touched in kindness by someone he cares for in longer than he wishes to remember, and something loosens a little in his chest.
Marcus finds one of the knots in Esca's shoulder and bears down on it with his thumb, a slow, steady pressure that makes Esca gasp in pain.
"All right?" Marcus says, but he doesn't let up.
"Yes." Esca grits his teeth and forces himself to breathe deeply and evenly, trying not to fight against Marcus's unrelenting hands. Finally he feels that welcome release of tension as the knot eases all at once, a sensation of mixed pleasure and pain so intense it borders on arousing.
Marcus keeps finding knots and working them out, and when he has finished he runs his hands over Esca's back again, oil-slick and gentle. He circles his thumbs slowly and deeply in the tired muscles of Esca's lower back until Esca thinks he may melt into the table from sheer pleasure; he feels like he is floating in warmth as he shifts a little against the table.
Esca has thought about Marcus's hands before, but now he knows in his skin how they feel on him, and the thoughts which had been idle now have the weight of that knowledge. Marcus is so very close to touching his arse, his palms almost brushing low enough but not quite, and if Esca were not so languid he would want to snarl in frustration. They have oil right here, and he is already as relaxed as he ever is; it would be an easy thing, if Marcus were not so Roman, if he would not balk at the suggestion.
Finally Marcus gives him one last gentle rub all over his back, until Esca's skin tingles with awareness. His hand rests heavy for a moment on the back of Esca's neck, large and warm. "Did that help?" he asks. His voice sounds strange, tight, but Esca's mind is too slow to try to determine the cause as he rolls over, luxuriating in the feeling of his newly loosened muscles stretching.
"Much, thank you," he says, and only then sees the flush in Marcus's cheeks and the way he quickly drags his gaze to Esca's face. Esca glances down at himself; of course he is half-hard, not an unusual reaction to a massage. There is no reason for it to embarrass Marcus, unless—
His heart beats faster and he cannot stop the grin that spreads over his face then, but Marcus has already turned to put the oil away and does not see. Esca manages to regain control of his expression by the time Marcus turns around, although the grin keeps threatening to break free again.
Because Marcus is Marcus, Esca will have to go gently here, but he does not mind—not when there is so much to gain.
Historical Notes: I couldn't really find a definitive answer on whether repairing fences is a plausible outdoor-labor activity for this time of year, so...go with it? The medieval farming chart I've been using suggests fence repair in January (brr) and plowing in March, but medieval farming is different from Roman farming and I don't know what part of Britain the chart applies to. If anyone has a better idea on this, let me know and I'll change it to plowing. :-)
Liberalia takes place on the 17th of March, and it really does involve a giant penis. I am not sure that it was actually celebrated in Roman Britain, but it's wacky.