As the summer days started to grow shorter and the heat cooled, Marcus could sense something was amiss with Esca. He was restless, as if he were uncomfortable in his own skin, something Marcus had never seen in him before. There were evenings where they would sit around the campfire and Esca would remain silent, almost brooding, as he watched the flames dance, refusing to join in the joyful songs or storytelling. They spent more afternoons together than they had before, as if Esca were desperate for more time, as if he were storing away these moments. It made Marcus's stomach twist with foreboding.
Marcus, for his part, was happy to oblige. Ever since the night of the solstice bonfire, he both craved and dreaded Esca's company. Just being with Esca, seeing the world as he saw it, lifted a weight from Marcus's shoulders. He could just be Marcus, not his father's son, not the honored war hero.
At the same time, however, Marcus found their simple companionship to no longer be enough. He longed to reach out and touch the freckles that littered Esca's summer-tanned skin, or to brush the overgrown hair out of those fiery eyes. He wanted things he couldn't even put a name to, but which he instinctively knew were things that were never to be spoken of. He remembered his time with the army, the close friendships that had formed between men that were never spoken of openly, never acknowledged. It was allowable in the midst of war, but even then, they all knew it was shameful. Here, in the heart of the civilized world, such things could never exist outside Marcus's unguarded dreams. If Esca knew he would surely turn away in disgust.
But some days he would look at Marcus with a soft, fond look, and Marcus couldn't quite quash the wild hope that stirred beneath his ribs.
He should have known from the beginning. The gypsy camp had sprouted up on the outskirts of the city like a ghost ship, appearing out of nowhere. It simply hadn't occurred to Marcus that it would disappear just as quickly and quietly and without much fanfare. He only realized the impending departure when he came to the camp one afternoon in search of Esca, hoping they might spend the afternoon down by the river together, watching the boats sail past, as Esca loved. The camp was almost deserted of visitors today, unnaturally quiet in the pale afternoon sunlight.
Marcus spotted Luca by his wagon, but instead of hawking his wares to passerby, he seemed to be packing things away into old wooden trunks, painted with long-forgotten symbols.
"Ah, Marcus," he greeted, with a strangely sad smile and a lingering hug. At first his shows of open affection had made Marcus deeply uncomfortable, but he had learned to appreciate the embrace, and returned it in kind. For the hundredth time, he wondered what it would have been like to grow up in this atmosphere, being cherished and valued. It would have been a much happier life, he imagined.
"What is going on, where are all the tourists?" Marcus asked, surveying the camp and noticing many more tents and stalls being packed away onto rickety flat-bed wagons. It made him deeply uneasy.
Luca looked at him with a mix of sadness and something that looked almost like pity. "The summer days wane, Marcus. Very soon it will be time for the Roma to move on. Such has always been our way."
And in that moment, Marcus finally understood: Esca's silences and brooding looks. The sullen hush that had settled over the camp.
They were leaving. Esca was leaving.
Luca was saying something else, something about the north, and the harvest seasons, or maybe the weather. Marcus could barely hear him over the buzzing in his own ears. Esca was leaving him. Marcus had almost managed to forget that he was a Roma, in his heart if not in his blood. Esca was a wild thing, like a bird that could never be tamed or caged or bade to do anyone's will but its own. He had spent a summer letting Marcus glimpse his world, but he could never be a part of Marcus's. It was such a simple truth that Marcus had somehow let himself forget.
"Marcus. Marcus! Are you alright, my boy?" Luca asked, placing a concerned hand on Marcus's shoulder. Marcus figured he probably looked as sickened as he felt. He tried to play it off and smiled weakly at Luca.
"I'm fine, just a bit tired today. Have you seen Esca?" He asked, feeling frantic. There was more he wanted to ask Luca: When were they leaving? Where were they going? Would they be coming back to London? He wanted to find Esca and ask him directly, though he wasn't sure he could bare to hear the answers. He just needed to see Esca. Now.
"I think he went into town. He said something about delivering a letter, I think," Luca replied, still looking at Marcus with concern.
"Thank you," Marcus managed, lurching away and heading back towards the city with a hurried, stilted gait.
He hailed the first hansom cab he could, breathlessly giving the driver his uncle's address as he ambled up into the seat. The streets were congested with afternoon joyriders, slowing the carriage to a crawl. Marcus felt like his heart was about to beat out of his chest in panic; he had never felt so frightened before, not even when faced with a barrage of enemy gunfire.
He practically threw the fare at the driver as he descended the cab and lumbered up the steps to his uncle's door. Stephanos was standing in the open doorway, watching him in shocked bewilderment.
"Young Master," Stephanos said, reaching out a steadying hand as Marcus stopped to catch his breath. "Are you quite alright? You look ghastly," he said with unusual candor. Marcus waved him off, trying to slow his racing heart enough to inquire whether a letter had been delivered.
Stephanos beat him to the punch. "A young man just dropped this off for you, just a moment ago. At the front door, very unusual. Didn't wait for a reply, just said to be sure you received it."
The words seized Marcus's chest; he was too late. He turned to scan the orderly streets, looking for a familiar face, a face he would know anywhere, by now. He thought he caught a glimpse of shaggy blond hair and a mishmash of colors, but then it was gone in the blink of an eye.
Marcus took the letter from the bewildered butler without a word, retreating to the seclusion of the library before he could be accosted by his uncle.
Marcus didn't even pause to remove his coat or sit down; he tore open the letter, dread pooling in his stomach. He knew who it would be from even before he saw the neat, cramped letters.
My dearest Marcus,
I'm sorry to be bidding my farewell to you in a letter rather than in person. I know it is cowardly of me, but I hope you will understand. If I saw you one last time, I'm afraid I would not be able to leave, and I must.
They are my family. My place is with them. We may not be bound by blood, but we are bound by the heart, and those ties can never be broken. Please, remember that, Marcus.
I wish that you will be safe and healthy, and that you will find your peace.
His heart may have stopped beating in that moment, for all Marcus noticed. It felt like the world had stopped around him. Just as when his body had shattered, he felt a moment of intense calm, before the entire world became an explosion of pain.
He staggered into his chair, his bad leg suddenly refusing to support him. Marcus re-read the letter, twice, a dozen times more, looking for something, some clue, some hidden meaning. But all he could see was the one word that wasn't there: goodbye.
He contemplated rushing down to the fairgrounds, ready to beg and plead and sacrifice his own pride if only Esca would stay. But he knew he could do no such thing. Esca was plainly asking Marcus not to interfere, the one and only request he had ever made of Marcus. As a testament to their friendship, he would honor that request. He would stay away, and let Esca leave in peace. Even if it broke him to do so.
After that, it seemed like the last bits of color had drained from the dreary London landscape, leaving along with the gypsies and their brightly patterned cloths. The city went about life as if nothing had changed, and Marcus tried to follow suit.
He spent his afternoons locked away in the library, losing himself in books and glasses of strong gin. When he fell asleep in his chair it was to entirely different nightmares now, more haunting memories, but these ones filled with smiles and sun-warmed skin and secrets shared by firelight. They left Marcus just as shaken and hollow inside.
Marcus didn't dare leave the comforting walls of the house. Outside, the world seemed both larger and smaller at once; larger for all the more he now knew of it now, all the new faces he had seen and places he had been. But there was no longer any purpose in going out, because the one face he hoped to see most would not be there. He couldn't go to the places they had been together without feeling despair, couldn't walk amongst crowds without his eyes betraying him and searching out a familiar profile. It was torture he refused to put himself through.
And so he sat, and sulked, and tried to make himself forget. Aquila indulged him for the first week, leaving Marcus to his solitude, not asking questions he already knew the answers to. It was like Marcus was newly injured all over again, only now the healing was much slower and more agonizing.
Aquila remained silent until one afternoon, when Marcus was ensconced in the library as usual, doing more drinking than actual reading. Aquila came in without a knock or an apology, and settled himself in the chair across form Marcus with a stern stare.
Marcus stared back balefully, in no mood for his uncle's chatter today. What came out of his uncle's mouth caught him completely off guard.
"Go after him." Marcus could only stare dumbly, sure that he had misheard.
"Excuse me?" he gaped.
"You heard me just fine, you stubborn boy," Aquila said, his tone impatient. "You're clearly miserable without him. What good are you doing anyone, rotting away here, slowly killing yourself with self-pity and cheap gin." He picked up the bottle from the table next to Marcus and took a disdainful sniff before pouring himself a small glass and tossing it back in one gulp.
"You don't know what you're talking about," Marcus said, his tone sharp and brittle.
"The young always think they are first to experience life," Aquila said with a dramatic sigh, but his voice and gaze had softened. For the first time Marcus had to consider his uncle as a man; one who had never married, had never had a family. What had he given up in his own life?
"What are you afraid of?" he asked frankly, startling Marcus from his thoughts. "Your father, God rest his soul, is dead. You don't have to live for him anymore, boy, nor for those foolish notions of honor he drilled into your head. Whose sins are you trying to pay for by making yourself miserable? Who do you think to protect? Surely not me, I hope." He chuckled, pouring himself a larger sip of gin.
Marcus knew it could never be so simple, but for the first time in years he tried to look at the world without thinking of honor. For years he had lived for the sole purpose of defending his father's legacy, of restoring his family's good name. Somewhere along the line it had become all that mattered. Could he really give that up? Could it be so easy?
And then he thought of Esca's smiling face, lit by firelight, and he decided that it didn't really matter. He had spent most of his life sacrificing himself for his family, but they were all long gone. Now he had to consider what he would give up for the chance at a new family. One not bound by blood or name or honor. Bound by the heart.It was an easy decision to make.
"I'll have Stephanos put together a traveling bag for you," Aquila said with a knowing smile, rising from his chair. "I believe the next train leaves at three o'clock," he added as he sidled out the door.
And so Marcus traveled north. It was the only clue he had to go on, Luca's words to which he had only half listened.
He took trains when he could catch them, rode by post when he could not, and when he was desperate, he accepted rides in the back of farmers' carts, over rickety country roads. He traveled through the first few nights, before exhaustion overcame him and he was forced to take a room above the tavern in a small backwater town. The next day he was up with the sun and off again. His leg pained him, jarred by the constant bumps and jolts, but it hurt far less than his heart, and so he ignored it the best he could.
In each town he would inquire for any word of the traveling gypsies, grasping onto even the barest rumor. Apparently they were not settling down in one place for long, as they had in London. He caught traces of them here or there, one man who had heard of a fair in a nearby town, another who had seen a lone peddler passing through days ago.
"Ah, looking for the gypsy folk, eh?" one man had asked, northern accent thick and rumbling. "Steal something from you, did they?" And Marcus was almost tempted to say yes.
None of it offered much hope, but Marcus refused to give up. He had traveled across continents for far less noble causes.
When Marcus finally did stumble across the caravan, it took him completely by surprise.
The last train of the evening had left him stranded at a small station surrounded by pasture lands. There was no inn or tavern in sight, but a passing farmer had offered to take him up the road towards the next closest town.
Marcus sat in the back of the wagon, letting his legs dangle over the edge like a small boy. In the growing dusk he took in the beauty of the countryside, with its open fields and small huddled woods. It was no wonder Esca had felt cooped up in the narrow labyrinths of London.
As they passed a copse of trees a strain of soft violin music drifted to Marcus's ears, achingly familiar in its sorrowful beauty. Marcus immediately leapt down off the wagon, his eyes searching the landscape frantically for the source of the sound.
The farmer looked back, but Marcus waved him on, and the man simply shrugged and continued on his way.
The music came to him again, and Marcus followed it, his heart clenching painfully with each note. As he drew closer to the tree line he could make out the outlines of figures moving in the shadowy lights, and the distinctive shape of their covered wagons, parked in a haphazard circle around a glowing fire. Marcus's heart was near to bursting in relief when a lone figure emerged from the shadows as if bidden by his silent thoughts.
"Marcus!" Cottia exclaimed, her voice a shocked whisper. She reached out to touch his cheek, as if fearing he were a specter come to haunt her in the daylight. When she found him to be corporeal she threw her arms around him in fervent welcome. It felt wonderful, like coming home, and Marcus was so tempted to cry into her shoulder like a child and tell her all his worries.
"What are you doing here?" she asked him, pulling away to study his face with concern. Then her look turned sharp, desperate. "Has something happened to Esca?"
And Marcus's heart almost stopped. What did she mean? Was something wrong with Esca? Was he missing, hurt, in trouble? Oh God, if anything had happened he would never…
"Marcus," she said gently, reading his panic. "You do not know then?" Her look was soft, but it did nothing to quell Marcus's racing heart.
"Where is he?" Marcus asked, hating the tremble in his voice. But he had little to hide from her, anyway. She had seen his future, after all, knew his secrets without him having to tell her.
"Silly boys, the two of you. I told you, you would face great trials if you did not listen to your heart. Ay me," she said, patting his arm in a soothing gesture. "Here you are, traveling north, looking for Esca, while Esca travels south, looking for you. Was there ever such a foolish pair?"
Her words sunk in slowly. South. Esca was alright. Not injured, or hurt, or dying. He had gone south.
Looking for Marcus.
Marcus wasn't sure whether he should laugh or cry. In the end, relief won out over his exhaustion and frustration. Esca had gone to look for him. That could not be a bad sign. He couldn't contain a whoop of crazed relief and happiness, and laughed as he had not done since he was a child. Cottia looked at him as if he had lost his wits, but then she smiled with understanding.
"Fools, the both of you," she said, shaking her head and smiling to herself. "Dadro," she called out over the camp, where the others were too busy setting up for the night to notice their unexpected visitor. "Come, see who I have found wandering the roads!"
Luca welcomed Marcus with the same joy and the same concern, until Cottia explained all to him. Luca also laughed at Marcus's foolishness, and Marcus supposed he deserved it.
They invited him to stay the night in their camp, and though Marcus was eager to get back, the dark was already closing in, and there would be no more trains until the morning. He was so eager to be on his way, now that he knew where to look. But relief had turned to exhaustion as the nervous energy keeping him going slowly drained.
He spent the evening around the fire in the middle of camp, as everyone told him stories about Esca. Marcus heard about Esca's first adventures in pickpocketing, how he had been caught by an old granny and spanked to within an inch of his life. The others laughed as they told it, and so Marcus guessed it had been greatly exaggerated over the years. He heard about Esca's first attempts with the knives, how many times he had failed and cut himself or nearly struck a horse, but his determination kept him going until he had mastered it. The story made Marcus smile; that was the Esca he knew.
They spoke late into the night, passing around bottles of strong bitter wine, occasionally pausing for a song. It felt like some kind of ritual, an initiation. And for the first time, Marcus truly felt as if he were a member of a family.
He fell asleep at some point, in the soft grass beside the fire, and someone threw a blanket over him. He woke with the first rays of dawn shining through the thinning fall leaves. For the first time since Esca had left, Marcus felt strong and ready to face the day.
He said his farewells, hugging each person in the way that had become so comfortable and familiar now. Cottia held him back a moment, pressing a small pouch into his hands. Marcus looked down at it curiously, opening the drawstring and emptying the contents into his palm. Marcus recognized the small black seeds, those of the wild, golden flowers his mother had always planted when he was a boy. He looked at her in confusion.
"Plant these someplace sunny," she said, closing his fingers around them. "They are Esca's favorite." And that, Marcus thought, seemed very fitting. He kissed her on the cheek and tucked the seeds safely back into their pouch.
"A wedding gift!" she shouted as she walked away to join the others, and everyone hooted in amusement and congratulations, shouting choruses of "Baksheesh!" as they retreated. Marcus didn't fight the warm blush that came to his cheeks. He could only hope she was right.
He didn't feel any sadness this time, as he watched their colorful wagons rumble down the road away from him. He knew he would be seeing them again, and that he would be welcomed back as family when he did.
Marcus's nerves returned, however, as he sat aboard the first morning train bound southward. Cottia had said Esca went south searching for Marcus. But what if it wasn't for the same reason Marcus sought him out? What if their feelings and intentions were not one and the same? His family seemed so sure that they knew Esca's heart, but Marcus was hesitant to believe until he had heard it with his own ears. The train did not move nearly fast enough, and he was ready to crawl out of his own skin with the waiting.
The journey back took only two days, now that he knew exactly where he was going. They were the longest days of his life, but slowly he inched his way closer towards home, his true home.
Finally he could see the outline of London ahead. His heart beat so hard it threatened to burst straight through his ribs as he hailed a cab at the station and gave the driver his uncle's address. Esca was somewhere in this city. He would stop home, leave his things, and then set out to search all the places that Esca might possibly go.
He burst through the front door at a loping run, ready to rush right back out, when Stephanos stopped him. "Young master," he greeted, poorly concealing his shock at Marcus's frazzled appearance. "Mr. Aquila and your guest are awaiting you in the drawing room."
Marcus tried to wave him away. He had no time for any of his uncle's boring old friends right now. The man would understand. But Stephanos stopped him with a gentle hand on his arm. "I was instructed to send you in as soon as you returned. I understand it is rather important."
Marcus wanted to scream at the butler that he didn't understand the meaning of the word important, but Stephanos was pushing and prodding him in such an uncharacteristically unceremonious manner that Marcus was too shocked to resist.
He pulled the drawing room door open impatiently, ready to make his excuses as quickly as possible. "Uncle, I'm sorry but I must-"
"Ah, Marcus, you're finally home," Aquila said, cutting him off with a cheery smile. He spoke as if Marcus had simply stepped out to run an errand, rather than traveling across the country on a desperate and fruitless chase. "I've just been having a most delightful chat with Esca, here."
And there, in his uncle's drawing room, lounging on his French silk settee, was the maddening, infuriating man for whom Marcus had just spent days scouring all of Britain. He looked completely unrepentant at Marcus's harried shock. In fact, he seemed rather pleased with himself, as he sipped his tea calmly and Marcus continued to gape.
As Marcus's silence stretched Esca's expression morphed into a mixture of uncertainty and hope and boldness that made Marcus wonder just how much of his recent behavior Aquila had revealed. Esca looked both out of place and oddly at home, there in Aquila's parlor, in his horribly mismatched clothing, sipping tea from the family heirloom china. Seeing him there broke something open inside Marcus's chest. He would make his home wherever Esca was, whether that meant traveling with the gypsies, or staying here with his uncle, though that might be a bit awkward, perhaps maybe they could-
"Have a seat, Marcus, don't just stand there gawping," Aquila broke into his feverish thoughts, nodding his dismissal to Stephanos, who stood hovering in the doorway. Marcus wasn't sure where he should sit; he wanted so badly to be close to Esca, to once again take in his scent and the heat of his proximity, but it wouldn't be proper in front of his uncle. Aquila just clucked and shook his head as Marcus settled down in a chair facing them both.
"I've been telling Esca-" Aquila began, and Marcus nearly panicked at all the embarrassing possibilities. "—about the family land you inherited from your mother, in Somerset. Lovely farming land, that."
Marcus could only blink at him in incomprehension. Of all the things he had expected his uncle to say, this had not even crossed his mind.
"The farm? But the farm is-" Sold, me meant to say, but Aquila cut him off.
"-A bit rundown, yes, you're right, but hopefully not in too rough shape. I should think it will take at least two people to fix her up and get the land in working order again," Aquila continued smoothly, ignoring Marcus's confusion. "It turns out I had mislaid that bit of paperwork we discussed before," he leaned forward and muttered in a mock whisper. "I suppose the mind becomes forgetful with age, but I thought you might find it in your heart to forgive me this one time." He gave Marcus a sly smile, and in that moment Marcus had the crazy thought that his uncle had in some way planned all of this.
Esca looked between them with sharp eyes, trying to determine what was really being said. A frown creased his dear brow as he looked to Marcus, and Marcus could hold back his happiness no longer. He broke into a jubilant grin, which Esca mirrored back, the tension finally draining from his shoulders as hope and happiness seemed to win the war for his feelings.
But something nagged at the back of Marcus's mind, an old fear that had held him back before, that could still snatch his happiness away now.
"If I'm going to re-open the farm, I will need help" he said, tone serious, looking deep into Esca's eyes. "Esca, do you…" Marcus paused, steeling himself for a question that could change the course of his happiness. The apprehension returned to Esca's eyes as he waited. Marcus didn't want to ruin this, but he had to be sure. "Do you think you could be happy, staying in one place?"
And Esca's uncertainty melted away like ice in the summer sun. "With you, yes," he said simply, his tone full of warmth and surety. It was all the assurance Marcus needed.
"Well," Aquila cleared his throat, breaking the intensity of the moment as he shuffled to his feet. Marcus felt himself blush under his uncle's amused gaze. "I think I'll go compose a letter to my man of business, make sure all the paperwork is in proper order. I'll see the two of you at supper."
He shuffled from the room, tossing a wink at Marcus over his shoulder as he shut the door behind him.
Marcus wasn't sure what to say, where to even begin to explain everything he feared and hoped and longed for, all that he had felt over the last few days. But Esca rose from his chair and came to hover over Marcus, leaning in until their faces were mere inches apart. Marcus could make out all the summer freckles beginning to fade across his nose, and the golden flecks in his eyes that he had thought never to see again.
"Are you sure?" Esca asked, voice barely a whisper.
"Yes," Marcus replied, answering every unspoken question Esca could have possibly been implying. He was sure, more sure than he had ever been in his life. This is what he wanted, who he wanted to be. For the very first time, he felt at peace.
"Thank god," Esca murmured fervently, before swooping in and closing the final distance between them and capturing Marcus's mouth in a searing kiss.
And in that moment, Marcus knew he was home.
"Esca!" Marcus called, walking out the back door of the cottage, headed towards the small fenced-in yard where the chickens and geese were housed.
The intervening months had changed Marcus greatly. In place of his stiff suits he now wore the stained, worn-in clothing of a farmer, patched in places with bits of the brightly colored fabrics that still seemed to find their way into all of Esca's wardrobe, and now Marcus's as well. His skin was tanned from long days spent in the sun, a healthy glow that made him look younger than he had felt in years. The work had been good for his leg, as well, his limp far less pronounced.
Esca looked up from where he had been collecting the day's eggs in a basket, setting it carefully out of reach of the madly clucking hens. He wiped his hands on his trousers and turned to Marcus with an expectant look.
"Breakfast is ready," Marcus announced, and then waited as Esca collected up his things. He felt a stirring of overwhelming fondness as he watched Esca speak softly to the birds, his hands always gentle as he soothed them back to quiet contentment. It was yet another skill that Marcus had been surprised and delighted to discover in the former-thief.
Esca came to join Marcus at the gate and they walked back towards the house together. It was small and weathered and the roof still leaked a bit in places, but Esca treated it as if it were their castle. At first Marcus had worried that he would grow restless, staying in one place, but for now, at least, he seemed content.
Marcus couldn't resist dropping a quick kiss to Esca's brow as he pulled him against his side. There was no one to see, out here in the country, no reason to hold back. It always made Esca smile, and that was reason enough.
Esca held the egg basket in one hand and wound his other arm around Marcus's waist. As they walked, he slipped his hand down over Marcus's hip to rest his fingers in his trouser pocket, a proprietary grasp that Marcus found he enjoyed very much.
The motion brought back memories that made Marcus snort in laughter. When Esca looked up at him in confusion, Marcus dropped a kiss on his lips and smiled.
"Trying to steal my wallet again, little thief?" he teased, making Esca wrinkle his nose at the strange endearment. "Don't you know that everything I have is already yours?" And if it came out more serious than Marcus had intended, he let it be. It was the truth, anyway.
"Yes," Esca replied simply, pulling himself closer into Marcus's side. "I know."
Gaje= outsider/ non-Roma
Baksheesh= good luck/good fortune