Marcus and Esca have, er, a negotiation of sorts, after a hunting expedition by the river. Follow-up to "Not for Sale," but can be read independently.

Good Hunting

"It was good hunting," said Esca in a satisfied voice as he and Marcus leaned on their spears and caught their breath. The dead boar at their feet had been neatly rolled to the water's edge, in preparation for butchering, and their horses, tethered close by, were cropping the grass as calmly as if they hadn't chased the wretched beast full tilt through the forest until they were lathered and panting.

"My uncle will be pleased," replied Marcus with a wry grin. "I should think fresh meat will be welcome at the table. And Kaeso will be happy."

A prize hound belonging to their neighbor, Kaeso, had been gored by the boar only a few days earlier, and would take some weeks to recover.

"He even hired a band of hunters to find this monster and kill it. They failed, of course."

"No more than I would expect," Esca said dismissively, "from those fools of the South."

"Sassticca will grumble," Marcus continued, prodding the massive, bristled creature with his foot. "But even she will be glad of something different to prepare."

They both smiled at the thought of Sassticca grimly wielding her iron kitchen tools and complaining loudly to the other slaves about the larder being filled past overflowing with so much bounty from the young Master's hunting expeditions.

"We had best get this part over with, then," murmured Esca, drawing his knife from its leather scabbard and bending over the boar.

Between them, they butchered the carcass neatly—Esca did by far the better job—and prepared the bulky cuts of meat for the ride home. They washed their bloody knives in the river, and then stripped, gingerly easing themselves out of their sweaty tunics and braccae before wading into the swiftly running water.

These days, in the hot summer months, when they went hunting they often did so near the river, so as to be able to wash off the sweat and dust afterwards. They might ride along the edge of the woods, hoping to scare up a fat buck, or perhaps a wild pig; sometimes they brought Cub with them, and at other times, fearful he would frighten off potential game, they left him to sulk at home in the reluctant care of Marcipor.

Their neighbors in Calleva had grown accustomed to Cub, although some older folk grumbled about the folly of adopting a wolf pup to raise in the home like a dog, and there were a few who said-although under their breath-that what could you expect of a former cohort centurion who would free his barbarian of a Briton slave, a Celt of the Brigantes tribe, and treat him as a friend rather than simply his armour-bearer.

Esca rolled his eyes when he heard this—he had the keen ears of a hunter, and when he walked through the town forum with Marcus, at his side now, rather than the three paces behind expected of a slave, he was not oblivious to the muttering of a few of the more narrow minded townspeople. But most of the folk of Calleva had grown used to him, some even liked and respected him, and as a number of well-to-do families in the area were descended from Briton tribes like the Iceni, they were not inclined to cast too much scorn upon the son of a Brigantes chieftain, even if he had been for several years a slave and was now a mere freed-man.

"And a citizen of Rome, as well," Marcus reminded him. "By order of the Senate. Because of the Eagle."

Esca shrugged; what did the Senate of Rome mean to him? But he was not completely ungrateful for the gift that had been bestowed on him, as little as he might wish to admit it. In the eyes of most of the locals, Roman citizenship all but cancelled out the shame and humiliation of his former slave status. And some of the Romans living in Calleva were simply impressed by the fact that he hadn't slit Marcus' throat during their expedition north of the Wall, where Celtic tribespeople would probably have been only too happy to give him a hand in doing so. One of Uncle Aquila's fellow magistrates had once said as much, in their presence, causing Esca to give one of his derisive snorts as Marcus tried not to double over with laughter.

As for Uncle Aquila, he was perfectly happy to give house-room to both Marcus and Esca until such time as they should purchase land in the downs country and take up farming in earnest, as Marcus had declared they would do. He had never interfered much with his nephew's decisions, and had made no objection when Marcus gave Esca his freedom. Indeed, he treated the young Briton with courtesy and tact, when he had occasion to converse with him at all, which was seldom. As always, he spent most of his time in his study, working on his History of Siege Warfare, emerging in the evening to join the young men for the evening meal. If he ever wondered about the nature of his nephew's friendship with his former slave, he said nothing about it, although Marcus noticed that he no longer spoke of marriage prospects, or the relative scarcity of well-born Roman maidens in the immediate area. Marcus himself had once thought of marriage as something he was bound to enter into, as a matter of course and for practical reasons, but the issue had rarely been foremost in his mind. His past lovers had been few and far between, military training having gotten in the way of anything more than the occasional tumble—when he was on leave—with a willing widow, and perhaps one or two other women. But all of that was several years ago, and now the thought of matrimony left him decidedly cold.

"Cold," he remarked, shivering, as he emerged from the river and reached for a drying cloth. Esca was still in the current, swimming with his strong, sure stroke for the deeper water near the center, where he dove and splashed like an otter. Marcus was toweling his hair dry when he finally waded to shore, shaking his head like a puppy and sending a spray of water in all directions.

"Esca," sighed Marcus reprovingly, but without heat. The Briton grinned and stood, unconcernedly dripping, at the river's edge, his eyes drawn to the fish moving sluggishly close to the bank. Then he was wading back into the water, moving stealthily this time. Having dried off to his satisfaction, Marcus lay in the sunlight, on his stomach at the water's edge and watched, entertained and fascinated, as Esca, lithe and golden in the afternoon sun, caught trout with his bare hands by tickling them as they rested in the shallows.

The fish, wrapped in leaves, went to join the parcels of boar's meat, and the hunters walked away from the river, into the thin growth of trees at the edge of the forest, until they reached a small clearing they had discovered only weeks before. There Esca stopped, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand, and Marcus, following a little behind him, looked with appreciation at the way sunbeams made a nimbus of the bronze, russet-brown, and dark russet-blond colors of his hair. At the long line of his back, which ran smoothly into the narrow curve of his buttocks, his runner's legs, taut with muscle, shapely and trim.

"The sun is westering," Esca commented quietly, not turning his head as Marcus came up behind him and reached out to rest his large, well-shaped hand on Esca's slender nape.

Their foreplay, if one could call it that, often more closely resembled boyish rough-housing than tender intimacies; they grappled and wrestled like soldiers in training, each striving to win the upper hand. Marcus was the larger, taller, more solidly built of the two, but if he had ever thought it would be easy to pin Esca beneath him, he found very quickly that this was not the case. Esca might be smaller, lighter, slim when compared with his former master, but he was strong and quick, and as flexible as a young fox; his seemingly pliant body slid out of Marcus' grasp at just the moment when Marcus thought he had him. Growling, Marcus tackled him, and they rolled over in the grass, startling an indignant pheasant with their thrashing, their harsh breathing, and their half-smothered laughter.

At moments like this, Esca was almost feral; in the delicate scraping of his teeth against Marcus' skin, the nips and nibbles along his neck and shoulder and chest, he reminded Marcus of a rambunctious Cub in the early days of his puppyhood. His work-hardened hands and clever, slender fingers knew exactly where to touch and press and cup or slide to make this disciplined former centurion twist and arch and clench his teeth. It had taken a little while for Marcus, whose few bed partners had known him as a gentle and considerate lover, to realize that there was no need to handle Esca with the kind of caution and delicacy he would have used with a girl. Esca had been a warrior, like himself, and he clearly enjoyed pitting his own fighter's wiles against Marcus' strength. Gentleness, and slow, lingering kisses and caresses were reserved for the dark of night, in the privacy of Marcus' sleeping chamber. Here, in the sunlight and warmth of the out-of-doors, he, like Marcus, relished a contest of physical prowess. They gripped each other with an energetic passion that sometimes left bruises on the light olive of Marcus' skin, or Esca's—tanned to a warm brown everywhere but about his hips and loins, where he was creamy pale.

In one respect only Marcus had been holding back. Mindful of Esca's former status as a slave, conscious of the Briton's fierce pride and half-abashed—but never vocalized—sense of indebtedness to Marcus for having freed him, he had not attempted to exert any genuine kind of dominance in their love play, never forced Esca into submission, had never penetrated his body. Even in their forest rough-housing, Marcus was careful not to seem too much the "master," and at night, when he drew near to Esca in the quiet of Uncle Aquila's villa, he did so gradually, as one might approach a half-tame woodland animal. He was aware that this amused Esca a little, but it seemed to fuel his desire as well, when Marcus cupped his hand gently around Esca's cheek, or ran his fingers slowly down over his collarbones to his chest, or brushed his brow, lips, and throat so lightly with his mouth.

Once, on the verge of murmuring, "My Esca, mine," into Esca's passion-rumpled hair, he had caught himself and said nothing, fearful that it would sound too much like ownership.

The fervor with which Marcus burned for Esca sometimes embarrassed him…that he, a disciplined Roman of military background should wait impatiently for night to fall so that he could have Esca warm and panting beneath him, on top of him, entwined with him, breaths mingled and eyes half-closed, in the bed that was really too narrow for two. But he never felt shame, for how could he possibly be ashamed of Esca? His proud, courageous, indomitable Esca? And because Esca was his friend, and had been his comrade in the most dangerous quest he had ever undertaken, he wished to make it plain to him that he would never try to force him into anything he did not want. He himself unquestionably did want…well, certain things. But did Esca? Would the suggestions even offend him? Marcus knew little about the sexual mores and customs of the Brigantes, or of any other Briton tribe, for that matter. And it was not that he was dissatisfied with the way things had been going, far from it. He reveled in his intimacy with this intense, wiry, oddly beautiful companion; they brought each other to fulfillment with their hands, or by the relentless grinding of their hips against each other. Most recently, inflamed past rational thought by the Briton's bites, nibbles, and clever, clever hands, he had (for the first time) moved his mouth down Esca's body and drawn him into it. Esca had made a muffled sound of surprise, and his body had jerked with shock and the thrill of sensation, before his head fell back, enabling Marcus—when he finally raised his head—to see the pulse beating in his throat.

Marcus supposed, somberly, that many a fellow soldier had given himself the pleasure of taking one of his Briton prisoners or slaves without giving a moment's thought to whether his victim might regard the act as degrading, a violation, a painful and unwanted form of attention. The fact that he, Marcus, could feel something more than simple carnal satisfaction in bedding a tattooed Briton, probably would be incomprehensible to many of his peers. That he did his best to give the young man pleasure, that he actually took the time to hold him in his arms after they were spent, watching the reddish light from the brazier play over Esca's limbs and the blue markings on the smooth surface of his skin, and that he never thought of him in terms of equal or unequal, conqueror or conquered, would have astonished most of his fellow Romans, here in Britain or in his native land.

He remembered how, less than a week ago, he had steeled himself to ask his friend whether there was something else—anything else, really—that he could do to make him happy when they were, um, alone together, that would, er, bring him gratification.

Esca had simply cocked his head to one side and looked at him speculatively with his hunter's eyes, as if wondering how on earth one was supposed to communicate one's innermost desires, verbally, to this big, handsome, earnest Roman with his oh-so-Roman seriousness about nearly everything.

So now, as he and Esca rolled about on the floor of the forest clearing, half on, half off of the old cloak he had spread for them, it occurred to Marcus that perhaps certain things could only be shown by example. Not that he himself knew very much about them…his knowledge of what he wanted to try being secondhand, so to speak. All of his previous, limited, amorous experience had been with women. For what he was thinking about doing to Esca, he had little more to go on than the scroll of erotic Greek drawings owned by one of the junior officers in the Second Legion (and duly passed around the officers' mess hall). Mithras! How in blazes had those Athenians or Thebans, depicted in finely-outlined detail, gone about initiating things with each other anyway? Had they asked, formally, or simply flung themselves onto the object of their desire?

Doing was no doubt better than thinking, in this case, and there was nothing wrong with setting an example. So when Esca managed to roll him deftly over onto his back, he stayed that way, letting Esca settle between his knees. When Marcus made no move to continue their struggle, Esca paused and looked at him questioningly, bringing his hands to rest lightly on Marcus' hips. In response, Marcus reached into the leather pouch that held their small packet of bread and wine, and brought out the jar of oily salve he had sometimes used when massaging his injured leg.

He bore the pain with the stoicism bred into every Roman soldier, not making a sound. He had not known quite what to expect, and his mind and his senses were astonished by the peculiar feel of it, the burn, and the pressure. But he was riveted by the intent, focused look on Esca's face, by his almost stern expression, brows drawn together with effort, lips parted but tense, breath coming in harsh gasps as his hips thrust forward again and again; Marcus could tell that he was holding back, and moving slowly, so as not to hurt him any more than was inevitable. As his own body adjusted, the hardness within him moved against something that brought an explosion of pleasure, which continued to build until the discomfort was quite diminished by comparison. It reached a level of ecstasy that finally caused him to moan aloud, his body arching upwards involuntarily, sending him over the edge and bringing him to his climax only seconds after he felt Esca's release.

When they were replete with exhaustion and euphoria, lying tangled together half on, half off of the old cloak, Marcus watched Esca's dark bronze lashes flutter after he brushed his fingertips over them, softly. He felt a tenderness, a fierce protectiveness such as he had never felt for another person…and for a young warrior perfectly capable of looking after himself. By the Light of Mithras! Truly the gods worked in strange ways.

"Did that hurt you?" Esca murmured from his shoulder, turning his head and fixing those clear grey-blue eyes on his face in one of his disconcerting stares.

Marcus narrowed his own eyes, and reached out to tap Esca's high-bridged nose with the tip of his finger. "Did I look as though it hurt me?"

Yes," said Esca, ignoring Marcus' snort of denial. "At first, anyway."

"Well, look, Esca," Marcus said patiently, gesturing at the stickiness on his stomach that was practically gluing them together. "It didn't hurt so much that I couldn't, um..."

"I imagine that you will be wanting to do it to me, then," Esca went on philosophically, raising one eyebrow with just a hint of a smile.

Marcus took refuge in what he hoped sounded like Roman forthrightness. "Naturally I do," he said severely. "How could I not, when you're so…when you…but only if you want to, of course."

Esca gave him one of those ambiguous looks that said "You will have to wait and see, oh impatient centurion," to be followed by an exasperated one that clearly said, "Romans!"

"It grows late, Marcus," he murmured out loud, sitting up reluctantly and running both hands through the brightness of his hair. "It's bad enough that Sassticca will be cross about having to keep the cena waiting. But your uncle—"

"Uncle Aquila has no qualms about dining late," Marcus retorted, pulling Esca back down again. "He'll be too busy rewriting his summary of Agrippa's campaigns against the Aquitainians and Germans to even think about food. We can stay a few moments longer."

He tightened his grip on the young Briton, using a wrestler's hold they had both practiced, to keep him prone and immobile. Esca broke the hold with a countermove, but then subsided against Marcus' chest, bringing one hand to rest just below those impressive pectorals.

"Mine," Esca mumbled against Marcus' collarbone, and Marcus couldn't help himself; he grinned.