This story was written for a prompt on the lj kink meme. Somehow it ended up being 20k words. It's split up into 3 parts just for ease. There are a few Romani words sprinkled in there, the definitions are at the end. I rated it Teen mostly for the angst; there's nothing explicit at all, just lots of slashy manfeelings.
The column was under attack.
Bullets whizzed past from out of the low brush, the shooters hiding behind the small copse of trees, the only cover for miles around in this desert wasteland. Marcus should have expected an ambush, should have been prepared. Instead they were sitting ducks as the bullets flew at them.
Marcus yelled to his men to take cover behind the supply wagons, but it was like his voice had dried up in the arid heat, like every drop of water in this godforsaken desert. He watched his men fall one by one, trying to return fire at an enemy they couldn't see. But they were too slow. They would all be picked off, like animals in a tight cage, unable to either flee or fight.
Others might call it bravery, what Marcus did next, but in that moment all Marcus had felt was desperation. His men were dying. He was failing. This wasn't how it was supposed to go.
He turned his rearing horse toward the gunfire, clinging tightly to its mane when it tried to buck him off and flee. Probably a much more intelligent plan, but this wasn't the time for self-preservation. With both sword and pistol drawn, Marcus dug his heels into the horse's flanks, forcing it to dash skittishly right into the midst of the enemy position.
It was probably pure surprise that caused the enemy to cease fire for the one crucial moment Marcus needed. There were only a few of them, nothing more than a motley band of ragged farmers with hunting rifles. It was only their location which had given them the tactical advantage over the Queen's finest troops. These farmers were learning, adapting quickly. Marcus should have known better.
Marcus knocked the gun from the hands of one man and delivered a non-fatal blow to the shoulder of another. Anger burned through his veins, but he had seen enough bloodshed already in this war, and he was loathe to waste another life when he it wasn't absolutely necessary.
It was probably that soft-heartedness that almost cost him his life. Apparently he had missed one last guerrilla; he heard the rustling just quick enough to spin out of the way as the bullet hit his horse's flank instead. Marcus felt the animal shudder in pain as a hideous cry of fear and anguish rent the air. Before Marcus could react the pitiful creature had collapsed onto its side, its massive weight trapping Marcus beneath him.
Marcus heard screaming, from his horse, his men, maybe himself; the whole world sounded like it was crying out in pain. He felt the bones in his thigh shatter like the delicate porcelain vases his mother had always warned him not to touch. It took a moment for the pain to reach him, as if it were traveling over a great distance. But then it hit him like a crashing wave, white hot lightening coursing through his body, setting him on fire-
Marcus startled awake with a half-strangled cry, panting and squeezing his eyes shut tight against the memory of a pain that had long since faded to a constant dull ache. He waited a moment for his body to relax, till he could unclench his teeth and flex his fingers out of the tight fists gripping his thighs. The dream still seemed so real, even with his eyes open, the sight of the familiar book-lined library overlapping with memories of sand and blood. He couldn't resist rubbing at his leg, expecting to find the flesh twisted and bloodied beneath his fingers, the excruciating months of healing all a cruel hallucination. Instead all he felt was the ripple of healing scars beneath the soft twill of his trousers, and the thick leather straps of the supportive brace the surgeon had insisted he wear. That solid material beneath his fingers helped to ground Marcus in the present as his thumping heart slowed and the waking world came back into focus.
He hadn't had that dream in almost four entire days. A new record.
"Marcus," a soft voice called, accompanied by a knock on the heavy oak door. Marcus shifted to sit up straighter in the plush leather chair where he had dozed off. The library was at the back of the house, hidden away from visitors and the noises of the streets. Marcus had taken to spending his afternoons there, feeling at ease amongst all the other dusty volumes and relics, no longer relevant or necessary, kept tucked away for posterity. It was his favorite room in the house.
As he shifted, an open book slid off his lap and landed on the carpet with a muted thud. Marcus reached down to retrieve it just as his uncle's head appeared around the door.
"Fascinating reading?" Aquila asked with a knowing smirk. It made Marcus feel like a schoolboy who had been caught daydreaming during his lessons. He cleared his throat gruffly and willed his cheeks not to flush.
"Just brushing up on, uh-" Marcus had to glance down at the book, which had barely held his interest even before exhaustion took him. Stories of great wars no longer held the fascination they once had "-Roman history."
Uncle Aquila smiled fondly, moving over to take the book from Marcus. The green leather spine was cracked in several place, and Aquila ran his hands over them reverently, with the type of tender affection reserved for an old friend. "Ah yes, the glory of Rome. I wonder what they would think of our own little Empire?" he asked, and Marcus couldn't be sure whether his uncle spoke to him or to the book. It hardly mattered; Empire and glory were two of the last things Marcus wished to think about after his dream.
"Did you need something?" Marcus asked, trying not to sound impatient. His uncle was kind enough to let Marcus, a nephew he had not seen in many years, stay with him in his London townhouse without question. Marcus usually enjoyed his company, the way his wry humor pulled Marcus from his own black moods, but the dream had left him feeling raw and exposed. At these moments he felt all wrong in his own skin, as if it were an ill-tailored suit. He would rather have some time alone to compose himself, and maybe a stiff drink to help him forget.
"Actually, I was just thinking what a lovely day it is outside," Aquila said, looking up from where his hands were still thumbing through the yellowed pages of the book.
Marcus followed his gaze out the tall study windows, but all he saw was an endless expanse of grey clouds, just like every other London day. It was nothing like the hot blazing sun of southern Africa that he could almost still feel scorching his skin. Marcus had never thought he'd be so happy to see a gloomy English fog again.
Marcus kept quiet and waited for his uncle to come to the point. There was no use in trying to rush Aquila, he was one to do things in his own way, in his own time. It had always frustrated Marcus, who thrived on precision and order. A born soldier, his father had always said.
"It would be a nice day to get out, get some fresh air," Aquila continued, with a studied air of casual indifference. "Maybe take in some entertainment. We could both use some diversion, I believe."
And there it was, that quiet concern that Aquila never addressed directly. He never asked Marcus if he were alright, never pushed him to talk about the war. He had been a soldier himself, once, in another lifetime. He looked at Marcus sometimes with a keenness of understanding that was almost worse than the curiosity of strangers. But he never said anything, Instead simply plying Marcus with plenty of good food and easy chatter, subtly making sure his nephew had everything he could need without having to ask. Marcus was more grateful than he could ever express.
Marcus didn't particularly feel like going out, especially when long walks were still somewhat of an awkward proposition and would probably leave him stiff for the entire next day. However, he also wouldn't be so selfish as to deny his uncle such a small pleasure.
"Did you have something in mind?" Marcus asked, already knowing his uncle did. His mouth had that wry twist that meant he was plotting something.
"There's a fair, of sorts, out by Spitalfields. It's quite the talk of the town, or so I hear from Claudius. I thought we might go see what all the excitement is about. Besides, I promised Stephanos an afternoon off, since you've been running him ragged lately. Poor man's not as young as he once was."
Aquila said this last with a chuckle, and Marcus knew it was an old joke between them. Aquila's butler, Mr. Stephanos, had been with him for as long as Marcus could remember. They had grown into old men together, set in their ways, until Marcus had stumbled into their life and set the prim servant's well-ordered world askew. He would feel guilty, if Stephanos hadn't been the one to force so many awful tonics and medicines down his throat during his convalescence.
"A fair?" Marcus asked skeptically, though he was already resigned to going. A fair would be noisy and dirty and full of too many jostling bodies jeopardizing his precarious balance. Why had his uncle always loved such folksy attractions?
Aquila simply nodded and grinned, as if he could sense Marcus's imminent capitulation. "It will be fun, you'll see," he assured, whistling a jaunty marching tune as he strolled out of the room. His shouts for Stephanos echoed down the hallway and Marcus sat back with a sigh.
"Fun," he murmured to himself. He briefly closed his eyes, rubbing a calused palm over his face as if it would preemptively relieve some of the day's coming tension. But behind his eyelids he could still see the sharp rays of sun and the baking clay of the earth, so he snapped them back open. Maybe some diversion was exactly what he needed.
The "fair," as Uncle Aquila had called it, was nothing more than a sprawling gypsy camp in an cramped grove at the outskirts of the city.
Old wooden wagons, covered and converted into mobile homes, were interspersed with makeshift tents stitched together from a dizzying assortment of the most boldly patterned cloths Marcus had ever laid eyes on. The air smelled like a curious assortment of spices and incense, reminding Marcus of some of the stops he had made in small, uncharted places as the army journeyed through Africa. Tents, stalls, pens, and clearings littered the wide open space with no distinguishable order whatsoever. The noise was nearly deafening as children and chickens darted about together underfoot in a cacophony of squawks and shouts and laughter. More than once the sudden appearance of a stoic goose had caused Marcus to nearly loose his footing as he stumbled out of the way. He was glad Aquila had insisted he bring his cane, even though it made him feel like an old man.
The camp was also crammed full of tourists. It seemed all of London had come out to see the curiosity, from its lowliest to its most refined, all gawking at the displays of heathenish exoticism.
Marcus didn't see what all the fuss was about. His mother's family had been French, in a long distant time that the English side of the family conveniently chose to forget. She had told him stories that he could only half remember, passed down from her grandmother and her grandmother's mother; stories of gypsies and their abilities to curse or bless, of their conniving wiles and wild, barbaric ways. The reality was much more mundane.
All Marcus saw here were a poor people, dressed in colorful rags and artfully painted faces, duping tourists with their mystical tales and exotic accents. An old woman with graying dark hair tucked away beneath a crimson scarf had tried to entice them into her tent to have their fortunes revealed, but Marcus had steadfastly refused. He had objected less to a show with hand-carved wooden puppets suspended on strings in front of curtain, painted to look like a mountain landscape.
Aquila had then dragged him over to a large clearing where a crowd had begun to gather. Music began to play, softly and slowly at first, a strange mix of stringed instruments that Marcus couldn't identify. The song started out mournful and hauntingly sad before increasing to a frenzied jig. Several women with flowing skirts and wild, braided hair twirled about like children's tops, creating a living, moving swirl of color. Marcus was still a little dizzy afterwards as they stopped at a small wagon to purchase heavily spiced meats, while Aquila examined the beguiling array of bobbles for sale.
After an hour or two of this dawdling Marcus's leg was beginning to ache and he was more than ready to head back to the quiet comfort of his favorite chair and a glass of brandy. He turned to catch his uncle's attention and pull him away from yet another merchant trying to overcharge him for trinkets, when he felt a body bump into his shoulder.
It certainly wasn't the first passerby to jostle Marcus that day, the way the crowds were packed in like chickens in a coop. But Marcus's long training as a soldier instantly alerted him that this hadn't been an accidental bump. This had been purposeful, calculated. Marcus immediately felt for his wallet fold, tucked in the inside breast pocket of his jacket.
It was gone.
Marcus turned, searching the crowds for the thief, his eyes blazing in anger. He wasn't worried so much for the wallet; there was barely anything in it, and the thief would undoubtedly be disappointed that he had chosen such a poor target. But to be duped this way, taken for a target of little risk, stung his still healing pride.
The crowds were thick, but Marcus spotted one figure moving through them with the precision and grace of a blade. Marcus made his way towards it, pushing people aside as politely as he could in his hurry, but his movement were stilted, awkward. He was quickly losing ground.
The figure he followed was short, barely visible above the heads of the crowd, but Marcus's eyes were locked on him. His clothes were the baggy, mismatched garb of the gypsy folk, but a cap was pulled down over his head, obscuring any distinguishing features. Marcus could make out nothing until he turned back, just for a moment, and seemed to look directly at Marcus. Marcus could see the shadowed outline of a strong jaw and sharp cheek bones, the details still hidden from view, but the sight arrested him for a reason he couldn't name. He halted in place as people jostled around him, his breath frozen in his lungs. The young thief actually had the gall to smirk at Marcus and touch the brim of his hat in salute, before turning back into the crowd and disappearing.
For one desperate moment Marcus thought to go after him, to find him, for what purpose he couldn't say. Something about that smirk had lit a fire in him, a sensation of excitement and purpose and thrilling uncertainty he hadn't felt in many years.
He stood helpless as the sea of faces ebbed around him, until suddenly Aquila was at his side, taking his elbow and guiding Marcus out of the stream of traffic.
"Find something to interest you at last?" his uncle asked, and Marcus felt like his words indicated far more than just the amusements of the fair ground. The man's senses bordered disturbingly close to the supernatural.
"No, nothing," Marcus replied gruffly, turning away from his uncle's too-perceptive gaze. "I think it's time to head home."
"I quite agree, I could do with a real meal myself. Besides, Stephanos will start to fret if we're gone too long. Probably call the constable to report us kidnapped by gypsies."
Marcus let his uncle's stream of banter wash over him as they flagged down a hansom cab and headed back towards home, away from exotic faces and beguiling strangers and feelings Marcus couldn't name.
Marcus tried to forget all about it. He spent the evening listening to his uncle's chatter, through dinner and drinks and several rounds of cards, and tried not to let his mind wander.
Still, when he closed his eyes that night he saw a face, half hidden in shadow, smirking enticingly. Anything seemed an improvement over dreams of war and pain, but it left him with an altogether different kind of ache.
Several days later Marcus had almost managed to forget. He was out for a walk in the mild afternoon sun, mind on his destination: the dusty old specialty bookshop where several volumes Aquila ordered had just come in. Apparently he had taken Marcus's casual interest in Roman history for much more than it was. They had never shared much in common before, besides memories they couldn't speak of and a knowledge of field maneuvers, so Marcus didn't have the heart to correct him.
It had been a long time since Marcus had leisurely strolled the streets of London by himself, with little to distract him from the sights and sounds. He had grown up in the countryside, only visiting his uncle in Town on rare occasion. In the few months since he had become a semi-permanent resident here, he had rarely had the motivation or energy for exploration. The city was still much as he remembered it from his boyhood, though: noisy and gloomy comfortingly well-ordered with its neat rows of brick townhouses and well-ordered lanes and parks.
He was considering a short detour through Hyde Park when a sudden shout startled him from his placid thoughts. When Marcus turned in the direction of the disturbance he was struck still in utter shock.
He caught sight of a figure, much more familiar than it should be from having seen it only a moment in life, but many times over in his dreams. The gypsy boy from the fair, the one who had so brazenly stolen his wallet from right out of his pocket. He was here, on the same sidewalk, in the middle of downtown London. Marcus wondered for a moment if he weren't dreaming in the library again after all.
There was another shout, shaking Marcus from his frozen shock. A man had the young thief by the arm, wrenching it behind his back and hurling scathing obscenities to the general populace, it seemed. The thief winced in his grip, but held back from crying out, probably not wanting to attract any more attention from the passing crowds lest someone think to fetch a watchman.
Marcus's feet carried him forward before he could question why, or what he intended to do. There was already a small crowd of gawkers gathering, creating a thin barrier between Marcus and the scene before him.
"Think you could rob me, eh? Think I'm a sucker?" The man was shouting, brandishing his wallet in front of the thief's face, as if he were a puppy being made to look at the evidence of his misbehavior. The thief's face was shadowed still by the same shabby cloth cap, but the set of his shoulders conveyed defiance rather than penitence. He wriggled experimentally, testing the man's grip on his arm. Marcus felt a pang of admiration that was entirely unsuited to the situation. The thief probably would have made a fine soldier, in another life.
His resistance seemed to only inflame the man further. "You're not getting away from me, I should haul your worthless arse down to the constable, let you rot in the goal where your kind belong," he jeered, twisting the arm in his grasp back further towards the breaking point.
Something inside of Marcus finally snapped in to action.
"There you are!" he shouted, trying his best to sound exasperated instead of panicked as he pushed through the ring of onlookers to stand before the two men. He tried to call forth the intimidating aura of a military officer which he had not possessed in many months. He was glad he'd left the cane at home today.
"Who are you, what do you want?" the man asked suspiciously, as if he suspected Marcus were there to steal his prize away from him and deny him the joy of torment. The malicious glee in his eyes made Marcus want to cringe. He had met that kind of man before, cloaked behind a uniform and words like Empire. The memories made his stomach turn.
"I'm so sorry, has my cousin been causing you trouble?" he asked, trying to think of a way to diffuse the situation without arousing suspicion. Words had never been his strong suit, but on this battlefield they were his only weapon. As badly as he may want to club this arrogant fool over the head, it wouldn't do the thief any favors to attract even more attention. "He's new to town, and I've promised to keep my eye on him, but he keeps getting into trouble, the scamp," Marcus said, shaking his head in an approximation of fond exasperation, as if pickpocketing were nothing but the amusing antics of a misbehaving child.
The thief assessed Marcus from beneath his cap with sharp, suspicious eyes, as if trying to work out his motives. If he recognized Marcus from the fair, he gave no indication. Marcus felt both relief and an unaccountable pang of disappointment.
"You know him?" the man asked, deflating somewhat. Apparently he only picked on the weak and friendless. But then he rallied, brandishing his wallet. "He tried to steal this from me!"
"I'm sure it was just an accident," Marcus placated, moving closer and subtly trying to ease the man's hands off of the unfortunate pickpocket with a chummy pat to the shoulder. "He's so clumsy, always bumping in to people, sometimes things just…fall out."
Marcus was just babbling now, letting his mouth run to distract the man. It was working, because his hands had fallen away, letting Marcus get his own around the thief's shoulders to steer him out of reach. The man seemed to realize he was being cheated out of his righteous anger and made another attempt at protest, but Marcus simply kept talking.
"You have your wallet, so no harm was actually done, yes? We'll be going, then, and I'll keep a closer eye on him in future." They were already walking away before the man could say anything else. The small crowd had already lost interest and dispersed once they realized there would be no violence, and the man was left with no one to complain to, sputtering to himself on the cobblestone walkway as life continued on around him.
Marcus walked as swiftly as he could with his weight so awkwardly distributed, not releasing his hold on the stranger until they had turned a corner. The thief jerked from his grasp, rounding on Marcus with an angry, suspicious glare. It caught Marcus off guard. He hadn't expected gratitude, exactly, but he didn't expect such blatant hostility, either.
"What do you want?" the thief asked, and Marcus was struck dumb for a moment by his voice. His accent was smooth and lilting, nothing like the rough working class twang he had expected. There was something almost foreign, exotic about the way his voice shaped around the words. Marcus was so startled by their sound that it took a moment for their import to sink in.
"Want? Nothing. I was just trying to help you." Marcus held his palms up in a placating gesture, as if soothing a spooked horse.
"Well I didn't need it. I can take care of myself," the thief replied with a fierceness that made Marcus think he was probably right. Still, it didn't change the fact that Marcus had just gone out of his way, put himselfat some risk, to save the man from a brush with the law that a habitual criminal like him probably couldn't afford.
"Or did you expect some kind of reward?" the thief continued, his tone turning mocking. "Want me to be indebted to you? Give you special favors?" Something about the way he said it made Marcus shiver with a mixture of excitement and shame. He shook himself, his indignant anger outweighing all else.
"Look, I didn't have to help you, but I did. I could have let you rot in jail or get a beating or worse. By all rights I should have. It would have been fair justice, as I've witnessed your skills twice now."
Marcus watched the thief's expression shift as recognition seemed to dawn on him. "The fair," he said, and Marcus was stunned that he remembered, a crazy happiness bubbling in his chest, pushing away the anger.
But just as quickly, the thief's expression turned back to suspicion. "Is that what this is about, then?" he asked, the shadowed corners of his lips sneering. "You saved me from him so you could get to deliver a bit of 'justice' yourself." It was barely a question, as if the answer were obvious. His body stiffened, bracing for whatever blows he imagined were coming. Marcus flinched away, appalled.
Marcus was hurt that this complete stranger would think him some sort of brute. He wanted to explain, to defend himself, but, as usual, his pride took over. Pride was easy; it was something of a family talent.
"I saved you because it was the right thing to do," he said, his voice steely and formal. "Some of us choose to live by a moral code."
He was only partly lying; his instincts had kicked in when he had seen someone smaller being threatened with violence, though he realized now that the thief was by no means weak or defenseless. But part of him had also wanted another opportunity simply to see the young man again, get a proper look at him, talk to him. Look how well that was turning out.
If he'd meant the words to be chastising, they had the opposite effect. The thief's eyes slipped down Marcus's chest, landing on the two medals he always wore pinned to his jacket, over his heart. The first was his Queen's South Africa Medal, with it's clasps indicating the battles he had seen in the Boer Wars. The second was his Victoria Cross, a decoration of distinguished service he had received after his discharge.
He wore the medals with a mix of pride and shame. Pride for his service, shame that he hadn't done more, been more. A reminder that he would never be enough. But for the first time, this stranger's look of utter disgust made Marcus feel a different kind of shame.
"Yeah, I bet you showed your morals to those people you went to conquer and steal from too," the thief sneered, voice dripping with derision. Without his bidding, images flashed to Marcus's mind, of farmers and soldiers, their blood watering the arid sands.
Marcus physically stumbled away, from the venom in the stranger's voice, from his own memories. In a flash, the boy was gone, disappearing back around the corner and quickly blending in to the anonymous crowds of the streets. Marcus stared after him but he had disappeared once again, like an apparition.
Marcus turned towards home, forgetting his errand altogether as his mind reeled. He no longer took any note of his surroundings, limping as fast as he could toward the safety and solitude of the library.
The opinion of a complete stranger, and a thief at that, shouldn't matter to Marcus. He had served his nation proudly. He'd been called a hero. And yet for some reason in that moment it all felt oddly hollow. How did this one man keep popping into his life and throwing it completely off kilter? It was inexcusable. Marcus resolved to put it out of his mind and think of him no more.
But the pain in his chest didn't fade all the way home, or by the time he settled into a fitful sleep that night, his dreams haunted by scores of nameless faces he could never forget.
The next morning Marcus was caught off guard in the middle of attempting to read, steadfastly no tthinking about the thief, when Stephanos knocked on the library door to announce a caller. Most guests came to see his uncle, not Marcus, and Stephanos's grimace of displeasure indicated that it wasn't any of their usual small group of acquaintances.
"See him in," Marcus instructed, sighing with a mixture of relief and apprehension as he put aside his book; he could certainly use a distraction this morning, even from one of his uncle's gossipy old friends. But Stephanos stood his ground, hesitating a moment before responding.
"He is at the servant's entrance, young master. I don't wish to inconvenience you, but I believe it would be more appropriatefor you to see him there."
Marcus's curiosity was peaked. If it was simply a messenger they would have given the butler their missive and waited for a reply. No one else he knew would use a servant's entrance.
A feeling of anticipation curled in Marcus's stomach as he followed Stephanos through the winding hallways bellow-stairs. The warren of pantries and cupboards had once been filled with a bustling staff, but these days it was quiet as a mausoleum. The butler looked highly agitated at Marcus's presence there, but said nothing. The cook, old Ms. Sasstica, greeted Marcus with surprise as he went by. It had been many years since Marcus had snuck down to the kitchens to steal her honey cakes, fresh out of the oven.
The feeling of mixed anticipation and dread increased as Marcus rounded the last corner. He didn't even dare to hope and yet he couldn't stop himself from picturing—
There, leaning in the doorway looking fierce and proud was a figure that had already become achingly familiar to Marcus's trained eyes. The young gypsy looked up as they approached, straightening his posture and squaring his shoulders as if expecting a confrontation. Marcus was too surprised to summon the anger he had felt the day before.
Before Marcus could speak, the gypsy held out his hand, brandishing something under Marcus's nose. It took Marcus a dazed moment to recognize his wallet, the one that had been snatched from his pocket at the fair.
Marcus held out his hand to accept the wallet, but could find no words in reply. The thief saved him the trouble, his lilting accent once again filling Marcus's senses.
"You don't know me, and I don't know you," he said, shifting his weight from foot to foot nervously. "You may not approve, but I have my own moral code. And I may not like it, but I owe you a debt. This is your repayment."
His eyes pierced through Marcus, full of resentment and a fierce pride that reminded Marcus of himself, not so many years ago, when he'd had so much anger and so much to prove. In that moment they didn't seem so different at all.
The thief waited, for what Marcus wasn't sure. Chastisement? Thanks? Insult?
Marcus remained silent, studying him, and suddenly the stranger nodded, once, as if he has made up his mind about something, and turned to go. Marcus felt a moment of blinding panic as that back turned towards him once again, taking his breath with it. He hadn't even realized how badly he had wanted to see those piercing eyes again, how he longed to hear more of the unusual accent. And now the man whose memory had haunted him for days was standing in his doorway and Marcus was struck dumb with desperation. Floundering, he uttered the first thing that came to mind: "What is your name?"
The stranger turned back to him sharply, examining Marcus with hard eyes as if he expected a trick of some sort. Marcus held his breath and waited. His soldiering instincts told him this moment was tactically crucial, the turning point that would win or lose this battle. Finally the stranger replied: "Esca." And Marcus remembered to breathe again.
"Marcus Aquila," he replied, holding out his hand. Esca's eyes widened, in either surprise or suspicion, but he took the proffered hand and shook, his callused fingers a match to Marcus's own.
"Esca," Marcus said, testing the name on his tongue as he reluctantly pulled his hand away after holding on just a moment too long. He cleared his throat, pushing away the awkwardness. They were on his turf this time, the next move was in his hands. "Would you like to join me for tea?"
The shocked look Esca gave him was almost comical. It had seemed like a perfectly reasonable request to Marcus, but Esca looked at him as if he had suggested they pop in for supper with the Queen herself.
"Are you stupid, or just dense?" Esca asked, but his tone was amused this time, rather than insulting. Marcus looked at him with genuine confusion and Esca sighed, a longsuffering sound that Stephanos often employed with his uncle. "Dense, then."
Esca turned away and Marcus felt that sickening panic return. He had insulted Esca, and now he was going to disappear again, maybe forever this time, and why was that such a horrible thought?
Esca took a few steps and stopped, looking back over his shoulder. "Well, are you coming, then?" he asked. Before Marcus could even think, he was nodding and following along, out the servant's entrance and through the narrow back alley, without his overcoat or his cane or a word to anyone about his plans. He heard Stephanos call out behind him, but he couldn't turn back for fear of losing sight of Esca in the crowded streets.
Esca paused and waited for Marcus to catch up before wordlessly leading the way, navigating the narrow alleys and backways through the less reputable areas of town where Marcus had never dared venture before. They passed by jammed marketplaces filled with shouting vendors and rotting wares and the stench of fish, past shouting groups of men gathered around a game of dice or huddled in tight circles to watch a cock fight. Somehow it made it all the more exciting and thrilling, to be following this intriguing stranger through uncharted territories.
Esca seemed to know exactly where he was going, and he didn't even pause as he turned into a small hole in the wall that appeared to be no more than a cramped storeroom to Marcus, no sign above the lintel to indicate it was a place of business at all. Inside was a small, low-ceilinged tavern, stuffed from wall to wall with worn wooden tables and mismatched chairs. Marcus had to stoop a bit to avoid hitting his head on the exposed beams of the ceiling, which somehow seemed as stained as the rough hewn walls and floor. The lighting was dim, just a few rudimentary gas fixtures, which lent the small space a surprisingly cozy aura.
Half the tables were already occupied by dockworkers and laborers and the habitually unemployed, drinking away their sorrows or celebrating money earned. It was the sort of place many of the soldiers under Marcus's command would have favored, but Marcus had never let himself fraternize too closely with them. He felt distinctly out of place in his somber black suit and tidy waistcoat, but at least his bulky frame seemed more suited to this rough environment than his uncle's stylish dining room. If anyone noticed his polished shoes or the fine material of his trousers, they said nothing, too occupied with their own shouted conversations and arguments and bawdy drinking songs that Marcus remembered from the service. That, oddly enough, made him feel more at home than he had in months of living with his uncle.
Esca led the way to a wobbly table in the corner, making a quick motion to the man behind the makeshift bar before taking a seat. Marcus sat across from him, the small table leaving barely any space between them, so their knees knocked together awkwardly beneath. Esca removed his cap and set it aside, and for the first time Marcus had an unobstructed view of his face.
His dark blond hair was shaggy and hung down over his forehead in loosely tousled waves. It stuck out over ears that were just oversized enough to be endearing, making his face look younger, softer. His nose was small and straight, his lips a thin, grim line.
But his eyes were what arrested Marcus's gaze. Before, Marcus had only seen them from under the shadow of his cap. He had been able to tell that they were hard and fierce and piercing, but without the obstruction he could finally make out their color, a haunting mix of green and honey flecks, like no color he had seen before. Even in the low light of the tavern, they were utterly fascinating.
Marcus only realized he was staring when he was interrupted by the barkeep setting two large clay mugs before them. Marcus lifted his to take a sniff, and pulled back in surprise. The smell alone would have been enough to intoxicate some men, the vapors almost overpowering. Esca took a long sip and smiled at Marcus, a challenging, mocking grin.
Marcus smiled right back and took a sip from his own cup, barely managing to hold back a cough as fire raced down his throat. It had been a long time since he'd had a drink like that.
"Like it?" Esca asked, one eyebrow raised in mock-concern.
Marcus simply smiled back. "It's good. Reminds me of some of the finer vintages we used to get hold of back in the army. Just about anything will do when you're stuck in a desert."
Something shifted in Esca's face, the hard mask that Marcus had seen the day before returning. There were a few moments of awkward silence as they both sipped their drinks, the tension growing and expanding to fill the small space between them.
"So," Esca said, his voice sounding an equal mix of indifferent and disdainful. "You were a soldier, then?"
Esca already knew the answer, Marcus wasn't sure what else he was digging for. He didn't wish for another confrontation, not now that they had finally formed this tenuous sort of truce.
"Yes, in Africa," Marcus replied, not wanting to go into greater detail. Most people had heard the newspaper reports about the war, filled with Britain's glorious victories. That was all they really wanted to know.
"That how you earned the lame leg? Your reward for service to the Empire?" Esca's lips curled in a disdainful sneer, but Marcus detected a hint of something else in his eyes. Curiosity, maybe.
Marcus winced at the thought of himself as lame. That was how other people saw him now, lame and useless. He had known this, had lived in dread of the pitying looks and ill-concealed stares. It somehow hurt even more coming from this strong, wiry, graceful young man, to know that in his eyes Marcus was nothing more than a defective wretch. He set his shoulders against the sting and called on what little remaining pride he still clung to. It was an inadequate balm, but all he had.
"Yes," he replied, voice stiff and formal, that of the soldier he had once been. "For my Queen, for my country, for my brothers in arms," he looked down at the scarred tabletop, unable to meet Esca's eyes. "And for my father," he finished, and took a gulp of the burning liquid.
"Your father?" Esca asked, and there was more curiosity now than contempt as he leaned closer across the small table. "Was he a soldier too?"
"He was," Marcus replied, with a note of finality that warned Esca from any further probing. There were some topics he would not discuss with a virtual stranger he had met off the street; his family's pride and his own failings were two of them.
"What about you?" he asked instead, glancing up to study Esca with new interest. "Why do you do what you do?" It should have sounded accusatory, he meant it to be, but instead it was just inquisitive. What circumstances led one to a life of pickpocketing and petty theft? And how had Esca ended up amongst the gypsies? Now that Marcus could see his face it was obvious that his skin was far too fair, his features too fine, to be one of them by blood, even though he wore their motley garb. Marcus had read the social reform pamphlets on class disparity, had hear the tales of the gypsies barbaric ways. But that was all abstract, where Esca was all too real and all too intriguing, and Marcus found he wanted to know his story, not just out of idle curiosity.
For a moment Esca's eyes hardened, and Marcus thought he wouldn't answer. But then he whispered, his words barely carrying over the noise of the tavern. "For brothers in arms. For family." He met Marcus's eye with a defiant look that dared him to mock or take offense as Esca parroted his own words back at him. Marcus did neither, simply waiting. Esca took a long sip from his glass before continuing.
"I was orphaned as a child. Or maybe abandoned. I don't know. The Roma found me wandering the streets of the city, eating scraps of food from the gutters and stealing what I could. They said I had a talent for it, even then." He said this with a fond smile, as if it were an old family joke, a source of pride; it was the same look Marcus's father used to get when he said that soldiering was in the Aquila blood. "They took me in, made me one of their own, taught me their language and their trade. No one else wanted me. You and your glorious empire had no place for me, or for them, so we live as we must, on the outskirts. It suits us fine," he said, with another rebellious glance at Marcus, daring him to disagree.
But Marcus remained silent and Esca's tongue slowly loosened, telling Marcus stories of a childhood spent in wild misadventure, of mishaps and close calls and triumphs, of a close-knit community that was more like a family than Marcus's distant father had ever been. He told Marcus their tales of epic journeys, passed down over generations, and the superstitions behind the customs they still upheld. It was beautiful and Esca's voice was soft and warm and it made Marcus nostalgic for something he couldn't define, something he had never known.
The spell broke when another patron drunkenly swerved into their table, knocking over their now-empty glasses. Esca looked up in surprise, as if he had forgotten where they were, so caught up in his own memories. Marcus wanted to say something, to thank Esca for sharing such a gift with him, but everything he could think of sounded inadequate, or worse, condescending. Instead he kept quiet and hoped Esca's sharp eyes would read what he couldn't say.
Esca studied him for a few interminable moments before nodding his head once, almost shyly, then rising to his feet. Marcus followed suit, somewhat stiffly after sitting in the rickety chair for so long.
"I should get back to the camp," Esca said, shifting on the balls of his feet and not quite meeting Marcus's eye.
Marcus nodded, reluctant to let him go, but unable to make him stay. "Can I see you again?" he asked instead, hoping it didn't sound as over-eager to Esca as it did to his own ears. A flicker of surprise flashed across Esca's expressive face before he smiled a slow, easy grin that made Marcus's legs feel weak for entirely different reasons.
"You know where to find me," Esca replied, pulling his cap back on and tugging at the brim in a farewell salute. And then he was out the door, dissolving back into the nameless mass of faces and bodies of London once again.
Marcus left a few coins on the table in payment and set off towards home. This time as he passed through the crowded alleys and crammed markets he saw them with new eyes, as Esca might see them. And if Stephanos wrinkled his nose and exclaimed at the stench Marcus had brought home with him, Marcus barely heard.