SUMMARY: In Isca Dumnoniorum, Rome is a new slip grafted imperfectly onto old stock. Marcus and Cradoc visit the baths together, and Marcus's world shifts.

CANON: Book, set during chapter 2, "Feathers in the Wind"—the aftermath of the hunting trip before Cradoc's trip to Durinum

PAIRING: Marcus/Cradoc UST


NOTES: Written for the second round of the fanmedia challenge, inspired by the picture of the strigil. In a fit of insomnia, I remembered I always wanted to write Marcus/Cradoc (sure, they're doomed, but I'm shocked there isn't more of this pairing). Although this is probably not the Marcus/Cradoc I always wanted to write, at least it's something.

I am only posting some of my fanfiction to this site, due to FFN's content restrictions; the rest can be found at archiveofourown DOT org SLASH users SLASH Carmarthen. Also, if anyone here is looking for more Eagle or Eagle of the Ninth fanfiction, ninth-eagle DOT livejournal DOT com is Ninth Eagle, where there is a whole lot of stuff by a whole lot of people.

Without A Sign

The mist lifted by mid-morning, burning away in the late summer sunlight. Cradoc's hounds had caught the scent of a stag earlier, bringing it to bay in the bend of a stream. They had butchered the animal and thrown the offal to the hounds, Cradoc's face quiet and set under level russet brows as he worked, his knife flashing in swift, sure strokes. There was nothing strange about the work, or about the morning—a quiet morning, clear and cool, good hunting—and yet, watching Cradoc, Marcus still could not forget the worry that still blunted his pleasure in the day.

"Does the Commander wish to keep the antlers?" Cradoc asked, unsmiling, looking up from where he knelt above the gutted deer. His sun-bronzed arms were streaked scarlet with blood almost to the shoulders, as if he had been doing warrior's work, rather than that of a hunter.

Marcus shook his head, as much to clear it of foolish fancies as to answer Cradoc's question. "I have no use for them."

They spoke hardly at all on the way back, Cradoc sunk in thought, his gaze fixed on the distant hills. And in that, too, there was nothing unusual: Cradoc was not a talkative man, at least not with Marcus, and his silence stilled Marcus's own tongue.

He was surprised that Cradoc agreed to accompany him to the run-down little public bathhouse that scarcely deserved such a name; unlike the wine-shops, the Dumnonii regarded the baths with the same modest approval which they gave the forum, visiting occasionally when the mood took them, but not as a regular habit. It was quiet that afternoon, with only a few other men present, one of the local magistrates—or what passed for magistrates in this town—and a Greek merchant passing through.

Cradoc nodded to the magistrate and ignored the merchant, slipping into the water with a little hiss of breath as the heat struck him. The steam dampened his long hair, turning russet to to brown and plastering a few stray strands across his forehead as he closed his eyes and sighed, leaning back against the the tile. "One of your better Roman ideas," he said, in a voice that was as near to teasing as Marcus had ever heard it.

Feeling oddly uncomfortable, Marcus slid into the water himself. He was not quite friends with Cradoc, it was true, but they were friendly, and there was certainly nothing strange about going to the baths with a friend.

"...ran into him on the road to Durnovaria," the merchant said on the other side of the pool. "A queer fellow, wild-eyed and hollow-faced, hair like he'd been living in a tree. I've been in this land for more than ten years now and I swear I'll never grow used to your holy men."

Marcus did not hear the magistrate's murmured reply, but he marked the man's wooden expression—he might wear a Roman tunic and call himself by a Roman name, but under them he was still Dumnonii, and the merchant an outsider.

Just as Marcus himself was. Cradoc, across from him, had gone very still. His eyes were still closed, and he almost looked asleep, but for the white grip of his hands on the edge of the pool.

Again the merchant's voice rose: "I've some fine Samian ware with me this time. Perhaps your lady wife—Lovisca?"

"Lovernisca," said the magistrate."

"Ah, yes. These British names—hard to remember—my apologies—your Lovernisca, perhaps she might need some new serving platters. I have a set stamped with dolphins..."

Again their voices dropped too low to hear, and Marcus stared resolutely at the mosaic behind Cradoc's head. It was missing half the tiles, and had been badly done in the first place. He ought not to eavesdrop anyway, but there had been rumors of a wandering Druid ever since he had arrived in spring, and more rumors of late, and he minded Quintus Hilarion's words that first night, When there is any sign of unrest among the tribes, you can wager your sandals there is a holy man at the bottom of it.

"I find myself over-warm," Cradoc said to Marcus, rather abruptly, and levered himself out of the water, the muscles in his arms flexing. He stalked away to the tepidarium without waiting for Marcus to follow.

By the time Marcus caught up with him, Cradoc had already begun to scrape the oil from his skin with a strigil, his hands moving in swift, sure strokes with surprising skill, almost as surely as he had gutted and skinned the deer earlier. Marcus looked away, feeling his face heat, when Cradoc caught him watching, something wry and dark in the sudden twist to his mouth; his own hands shook a little as he poured olive oil into his palm and began working it into his skin, wishing for a slave to do it for him. But he was in Isca Dumnoniorum, where Rome had scarcely taken root, as he was reminded seemingly at every turn this day. If he had wanted a bath-slave, he should have returned to the fort.

He wished he had returned to the fort. It was always difficult to reach the middle of his back with the strigil, and his shoulder, strained from the hunt earlier, protested the ill-use.

"If the Commander will permit assistance," Cradoc said, very quietly, his hand closing over Marcus's. A strong, callused hand, warm against his skin and still a little slippery with oil. All words caught in his throat, and he could only tilt his chin up and nod, hoping he did not look as though Cradoc had just turned the earth beneath his feet to quicksand.

Ordinarily the strigil left Marcus feeling relaxed and clean; but under Cradoc's touch, he felt his skin awakened, acutely aware, tingling at the lightest brush of Cradoc's fingertips.

It was over almost as soon as it began: one last stroke of the strigil, and then Cradoc offered it back with a shuttered look that Marcus could not read. "Good hunting today." His eyes remained steady on Marcus's face, and Marcus looked back, refusing to glance down, praying that Cradoc would put his flush down to the warmth of the room. "I will bring the skin and the meat up to the fort when my woman has prepared it."

If Cradoc's face was in his mind that night as Marcus turned restlessly on his narrow cot, if he remembered the way Cradoc's fingertips had felt against his skin more vividly than he remembered the touch of the woman whom he had tumbled in a drunken haze after the Saturnalia games back in Isca Silurum, it meant nothing. It could not mean anything.

Cradoc had a wife, a wife with secrets behind her eyes; and Cradoc himself had secrets, a reserve that Marcus did not know how to penetrate.

When he closed his eyes at last, he dreamt of Cradoc kneeling in the stream, the water around him the color of a bloody sunset; only in his dream it was not a deer's blood that painted Cradoc ruddy and wild, but Cradoc's own heart's-blood, seeping almost black from a hole in his chest and dripping into the eddying water without cease.