One Great Regret
As Esca dies, he remembers his greatest regret: losing Marcus without telling him everything. Reincarnated in the present day as Esmond Causey, he meets Michael Archer; a tall man with a charming smile who calls him "Esca."
I haven't read the book, but I'm saying that both Esca and Marcus lived above Hadrian's Wall in the end. (However, in the alternate ending, they decide they'll go live in Spain together and raise horses on a farm.)
It hurt to breathe. The light through the window hurt his eyes. All he wanted was to close his eyes and drift away, and perhaps never to come back again.
"I don't regret this, Esca. I don't regret choosing to live here with you."
The voice nearly burned his ears with its deep tenor tone. "M-marcus," he gasped out, his old and feeble voice barely making a sound. "Marcus."
A hand was on his shoulder, but it was too light to have been Marcus's hand. Marcus was too much of a soldier to properly be gentle. His hands were always heavy on Esca's shoulders, or around his waist. Esca missed the weight. A tear slipped from his eye and down his wrinkling face.
"He's not here," a young voice said gently. "He's not here, sir."
Esca knew that voice. For the life of him he couldn't remember the boy's name, but there was only one person in the village who called him 'sir.' "Mar-" he tried, but his throat failed him.
"Sir, please," the boy tried, his voice quiet. "It has been many years since he left us. You remember, sir?"
Remember. Oh yes, Esca remembered.
The light flashed in Esca's eyes and suddenly he was no longer lying in a bed, weak from fever and a bad harvest. He was six years younger, standing at the right hand side of a similar bed, staring down at a man he would give his life to save….unable to do anything.
Marcus Flavius Aquila lay in that bed. He'd been injured falling from his startled horse and a sharp rock had cut his leg, near his old wound. At first, they had been hopeful for a full recovery, but they did not have the doctors Rome had, and soon Marcus had become infected in the most mortal of ways. Esca hardly left his bedside as Marcus grew sicker and sicker; weaker and weaker.
"Esca," Marcus forced out, his body shaking with the effort.
Esca took the hand that was groping blindly towards him and leaned in close. "I am here," he said, clearly and surely. "I am here."
"Esca, I…." Marcus swallowed thickly and shook his head. He was sweating from the fever that had taken hold of him, and no amount of cool water helped. "I don't…regret this….Esca….I don't regret….choosing to live here….with you."
Unsure of how to respond, Esca simply gripped Marcus's hand tighter. He had always worried about that. Marcus had given up his everything to live out in the wilderness with Esca and his people. While he had consistently reminded the shorter man that it had been a decision he made willingly, Esca had always been concerned that Marcus regretted it: that he missed Rome. If it had been possible, Esca would have thrown away his old life as a Briton to live with Marcus in Rome; but it wasn't.
"I do not know…what religion to believe in, Esca," Marcus continued. "I….am dying…and yet I just can't decide….I grew up knowing Roman religion…..I have lived knowing….knowing so many others….But I don't know which to place my hope in…Esca…."
Marcus began coughing weakly and Esca placed one of his hands on Marcus's chest, feeling the ragged vibrations there. "Marcus," he said pleadingly. "Hold on, Marcus. Stay."
Marcus gave a rueful smile. "Which gods would permit this, Esca?" he managed, his voice rasping. Esca focused on his dark eyes. Marcus squeezed Esca's hand. "I don't know how….to feel any different….than I do….I just….I know….My only regret, Esca…..I never told you."
"Told me what, Marcus?" Esca urged when the Roman fell silent for too long. Only Marcus's heaving chest revealed he was still alive. "Marcus?" he repeated quietly, fearfully.
"Esca," Marcus responded. His voice was so quiet that Esca almost couldn't hear him. "Esca, the way I feel about you."
It was an abrupt end. Marcus forced his last words out and when that breath was gone, his body stilled. Esca kept his eyes on Marcus's, panic filtering in as those dark eyes clouded over and lost their shine. "Marcus," he gasped out, shaking the hand he still held gently. It was lax in his grip. "Marcus," he said a bit more forcefully, more desperately. He could feel no beat beneath his hand on Marcus's chest, no heat in his fingertips. "Marcus!" he cried.
Despair crept in through every pore in his body, covering everything within him in a dark hood. And Esca was back lying in his bed, six years later, dying of his own disease. Tears escaped him, rolling down his cheeks, and he sobbed with all the strength he had left.
"N-never," he managed, gasping from the effort it took to cry. The boy pressed a little firmer on his shoulder. "Never told you, either…."
He'd never told Marcus that he felt something so deep and profound between them that whenever he lost sight of the slightly older man his chest constricted in pain of loss. He'd never told Marcus that he wanted to be with him every day, all the time. He never told Marcus that he never took a wife because he'd dreamt of sharing his nights with Marcus for the rest of their lives. He never told Marcus of his fear of these feelings, because he didn't know what god permitted them either. He never told Marcus a lot of things.
Were these the same regrets that Marcus had on his deathbed? Wishing he had more time to say what was left unsaid, to fix the wrongs of his life? If Esca admitted that this emotion that burst through his being at the very thought of Marcus was 'love,'….had Marcus felt it too? He wished he had told Marcus before he died.
Now he would never know.
A shudder ran through his whole body and Esca tensed. "Sir?" the young boy asked worriedly. Esca gasped and the hand left his shoulder. "I'll fetch the healer!"
It wouldn't matter, Esca thought, but he had not the strength to call the boy back. His time was up. This was his end. If only he'd….
"Alright, Ed," a peppy blonde girl piped up from behind a large camera. "Great job! We'll take a break for a bit, kk?"
Ed let his arms drop from where he'd had them held up over his head in a frozen stretch, his shirt riding up just a tad to show a tiny bit of skin, and rolled his shoulders. He stepped off the cloth that served as his white floor and background and over to a chair in the corner. He'd barely plopped down in it, graceful even in his most ungraceful moments, when a hand landed on his shoulder.
"Ed!" a jovial male voice greeted and Ed grimaced.
"Mr. Lewis," he greeted back, his voice not nearly as jovial but not letting his displeasure through either. He turned his head to see the tall, dark haired reporter. "How did you get here?"
"Oh, if you know the right people," Mr. Lewis chuckled.
Ed hated this man. He was a snooty reporter who was always looking for the best dirt. He was a hound dog for such things. Sadly for him, Ed kept his record completely spotless so he always left empty handed. Ed had thought last month's prison scare had driven the man away, but it seems he was wrong.
"What brings you here today, Mr. Lewis?" he asked, letting a bit of his aggravation through. "We're really busy right now."
Mr. Lewis shook his head. "No problem. That's the point exactly! Today is busy busy busy. And I hear a new model is coming in today too," he gushed, his face turning red from the excitement. "What are your thoughts on your new competition?" And suddenly he had his notebook out with his pen ready to jot down whatever words came from Ed's mouth.
Ed sighed. "I don't really care, to be honest," he said, looking back toward where the background personnel were changing the layout of the little stage for the next round of pictures. "He's a model. I'm a model. I don't really think of us as competition, Mr. Lewis." His eyes spied the snack table and he took his chance. "If you'll excuse me. I'm thirsty and I need to get back to work."
He pushed off from his chair and left the annoying man to his scribbling. In keeping up with appearances, Ed made his way over to the snack table, where one or two other people were milling, and grabbed a plastic cup.
Mr. Lewis was always asking him how he felt about things, but in all honesty…unless he was in front of a camera, Ed didn't give a shit about much. He could smile or cry or look imposing or childish, standoffish or lovable, but he hadn't ever truly cared about something. Sometimes he felt like a terrible person for it, but he couldn't help but feel like there was something missing in his life. There was a hole inside him that ached with the deep need to be filled. The only problem was that Ed had no idea what he needed to fill it. If he thought about it too much, it began to hurt worse and Ed got sick to the point of puking. So he tried not to think about it often.
He was just finishing filling the cup with water when another familiar voice rang in his ear. Could he not get a moment to himself?
"Ed!" the voice called. Ed plastered a smile on his face and turned to his agent.
"Amy!" he called in return, matching her intonation and everything.
She scurried over to him, a hyper brunette who looked ten years younger than she was at almost forty, and took his free left hand in both of hers. "I'm so glad you're on break," she said, almost seriously. "Michael Archer has just arrived."
It took Ed a moment to realize who that was: his new 'competition'. His mouth formed an 'oh' for a moment before he took a sip of his water. "And?" he asked. Who cared?
Amy rolled her eyes. "Ed," she said as if talking to a stubborn child. "I understand that you like to keep up this whole 'antisocial' façade, but you'll be working together for the next week at least, so you should at least introduce yourself. I heard he was quite interested in meeting you."
Ed sighed and set his cup down. "Fine, Amy. Fine. Lead me to him." He still felt like he was wasting his break.
Amy smiled and half-dragged him by the hand she was still holding into another room. Once they were there, Ed wished he were anywhere else. Whereas he was short with a thin build and dirty blonde wavy hair that fell to just touch his ears, Michael was tall with a fighter's build and dark hair so short it almost wasn't there. They were complete opposites. No wonder he'd been chosen as the opposing model in this campaign. While Ed wasn't worried about competition in front of the camera, he was actually intimidated by Michael's muscle size.
"Mark," Amy greeted Michael's agent. The name stuck in Ed's mind, like it was the first half of a clue to a memory just out of reach.
"Ah, Amy, you found him," Mark greeted pleasantly. He was probably Amy's age, but he looked it. "Michael, this is Ed."
Michael held out his large hand. "Michael Archer. It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Ed." Ed felt his name sounded weird, like Michael was trying it out and it wasn't fitting quite right. Michael had a smile that had probably scored him boat loads of women. Ed had been told his own smile could charm angels, and he put it out in full force as he gripped Michael's hand.
"Esmond Causey," he introduced in a clear voice.
"Es?" Michael asked, still holding his hand.
Ed shrugged. "Amy nicknamed me Ed cause she's head over nutshells for the guy who plays Edmund in those Narnia movies, even though she's old enough to be his mother."
Amy smacked him in the back of the head, hard. "Ed!" she scolded.
Ed laughed. "But my real name's Esmond."
Michael gave him a considering look for a few short moments. Then he gave Ed's hand one last shake and let go. "I look forward to working with you, Esca."
Ed's smile fell from his face in an instant. "What?" he asked in a breath.
"Es, Esmond. Ca, Causey. Esca," Michael explained, a little smirk on his face like he was daring Ed to try something.
"Hm," Amy said, considering. "That's actually pretty catchy. Esca. What do you think Ed? New nickname?"
"Only from him," he said, pointing at Michael. Amy looked shocked at the dead serious tone of his voice. "Just him." He couldn't explain why, but he only wanted that name used by Michael.
"Ok, Ed. Sure thing," Amy agreed, still not sure what had caused Ed's mood change. She glanced at her watch. "Oh, Ed, you need to head back soon. Have you had anything to drink lately?"
Ed shook his head. "Just what I had when you came to get me," he admitted.
Amy grabbed him and began tugging him back toward the snack table in the other room. Michael waved. "I'll talk to you later, Esca!"
Ed barely managed a wave back.
It was late but the shoot was still going on. Ed had been a bit out of it all afternoon. That name kept running through his mind: Esca, Esca, Esca. It was him. It felt so perfectly right. He was Esca. He was certain of it. But who was Esca? And what was the pull in his gut that told him he needed to get closer to Michael Archer? It almost felt like that empty space inside of him was on the edge of being filled. But why?
He glanced over at Michael, standing slightly to the side with his agent, and found him staring. His dark eyes were watching Ed intensely, almost like prey…or no…more like he was watching, searching, waiting for something. It was a look of intense patience. That look shot through Ed like a bullet and he barely held in his gasp.
The cold lands of northern Britain. The conquering Roman armies. Hadrian's wall. The golden eagle of the Ninth Legion. Slavery. Freedom. Marcus Flavius Aquila. Forever Marcus Flavius Aquila.
"Alright," the camera woman was saying, but Ed's attention wasn't there. "Now, look happy. And I don't mean just happy. I mean I want you to look so happy that I can feel it pouring off you in waves, even in black and white, Ed. Got it?" He lowered his head to the white of the floor and she took that as a nod. "Great. Now go!"
Regret. He remembered regret. Why had he never opened his mouth and said anything? But now Marcus was standing not twenty feet from him. He had another shot at this. He had another chance. "Marcus," he mouthed, lifting his eyes to see the object of his affection. Tears sprung, unbidden, to his eyes and down his cheeks and he smiled. A relieved laugh made its way out through his parted lips and he almost started to giggle.
Another chance with Marcus. Whatever god had given him this chance was a truly wonderful god indeed.
Michael's eyes were wide. He turned his head, breaking eye contact with Ed, and that's what snapped him back to reality. Quickly wiping his eyes, Ed shifted his gaze an inch to the left and saw the photographer staring at him in much the same way Michael had been.
"What?" he asked a bit heatedly. Oh god, that was embarrassing. He'd been crying in the middle of a job, surrounded by people! And that sleaze ball Lewis was off to the side too. He could see the headline of the next article "Causey suffers emotional breakdown during shoot."
"N-nothing," the usually peppy girl stuttered out, sounding amazed. "That was just…perfect." Before Ed could ask her what the hell she was talking about, she continued. "I could literally feel the happiness ooze off you. I like the tears."
"Really?" Ed asked, acting like he'd done that on purpose. If everyone thought that was him acting, he'd go with it. No one needed to know about this sudden memory recovery he'd had.
Well, perhaps no one but Michael, but only if Michael remembered too.
He was released to leave soon after that, but he told Amy to go on without him. He needed to talk to Michael. He needed it so badly he was hurting inside. It seemed like hours had gone by before the shoot closed for the night and Michael was released. It was already dark outside. Ed was leaning against the wall right next to the exit on the outside.
He'd been inside, but Lewis kept leering at him until he took refuge outside. Lewis'd been dragged away by the police shortly after, but Ed stayed outside regardless.
The door opened and he heard Michael's voice, but unfortunately the door opened in such a way that Ed was blocked completely from view. He grunted in displeasure.
"Alright," Michael was saying with a slight laugh. "I'll catch up with you later then."
"Yep. See you in a bit, Michael," Mark said goodbye with a heartfelt wave.
Michael stood with the door open until Mark was gone in his car. "I didn't think hiding was part of your style, Esca," he said casually, letting the door swing shut finally and turning to face Ed leaning against the wall.
"I didn't know your senses were still that sharp, Marcus," Ed countered, his heart beating painfully fast in his chest and his soul praying to the highest heaven.
Michael's face split in a wide grin and Ed felt like he'd died. "Good," he half-breathed, stepping up into Ed's personal space. He lowered his head so their faces were closer together and whispered, "I don't think I could've survived another day without my faithful servant and friend."
Ed grabbed Michael by the front of his shirt, pulling him down even further, their lips only centimeters apart, and stared him hard in the eyes. "I don't think I'll survive another day without this," he said, almost like it was a pre-battle speech. "I didn't tell you before because I was scared and I didn't understand. But I've lost you once and I won't do it again." Without further ado, he ripped Michael down the last breath of space and crushed their lips together.
Michael's hands were instantly in his hair, gripping at the back of his head and neck and trying to pull them closer together while Ed seemed to be trying to crawl inside of Michael's very soul. His hands wrapped around Michael's back and clutched there, holding them tightly together. The kisses were passionate and desperate. They were filled with the fear that after this one moment, they would both wake up and it would have only been a dream. When it became hard to breathe, they finally pulled away, but only enough to get those precious puffs of air.
"I would give you my beating heart, if it were possible," Ed proclaimed in a whisper between their lips. "I love you, Marcus."
Michael smiled and nudged their lips together a moment before he leaned that mite bit away again. "Desperately, truly, infinitely, Esca. My soul calls out to yours forever."
"And mine, in turn, responds." Ed snickered suddenly and Michael raised an eyebrow. "We sound so old fashioned and cliche."
Michael smiled a bit wider. "We are the original old fashioned. I don't mind."
Ed shook his head a bit, his forehead sliding against Michael's. "Me neither." He locked eyes with Michael and fixed him with an imploring look. "Stay with me tonight. I fear I will wake and this will be a dream."
Michael's broad smile lessened to something more nostalgic and sorrowful. "I would never leave you, Esca. Where are you staying?"
Ed kissed him again, deeply. "I actually have a pretty nice flat in this town."
Michael's smile lost its sorrow but kept the nostalgia. "Then we are once again in your territory, and I will follow you wherever you lead me."
Ed gave that smile that could charm angels, but he didn't do it on purpose this time. Michael kissed him, enjoying the taste of Ed's happiness, and ran his hands over Ed's cheeks as he pulled away. Ed nodded his head to the right.
"It's that way. Let's go before I lose it right here and now," he breathed out.
"Right," Michael laughed lowly. He took Ed's hand and led him across the parking lot to his own car.
They held hands the whole way to Ed's place and once the door was shut and locked behind them, not even death could pull them from each other's arms.