Merrie (merrie_oriensis) wrote,
Merrie
merrie_oriensis

FIC: Hollow-point (part 1 of 2)

Hollow-point
Part 1 of 2
Fandom: The Eagle
Pairing: Esca/Marcus
Rating: NC17

Sequel to Disassembly


The evening after their encounter in the stores, it’s getting dark when Marcus, returning from the rudimentary showers, finds himself pinned against the wall of one of the compound’s few buildings. Back to the wall, he recognises the hands on him, and doesn’t even flinch.
 
Esca’s looking up at him with a glint in his eye. “Was it a one-off?”
 
To say he’s wholly surprised by the question would be a lie. Ever since he left Sandhurst, Marcus has been getting quicker at familiarising himself with the men under his command, and he had the measure of Esca with minutes. He’s blunt to a fault – didn’t take long to figure that out. Marcus just isn’t used to having it directed at him so personally. He swallows. “...It should be.”
 
“Goddamn,” Esca mutters, and there’s a peculiar crack in his composure that Marcus hasn’t seen before. “You don’t want it to be, though, do you?”
 
The note of want in his voice, almost desperation, pins Marcus in place even more solidly than the grip Esca has on his arms. He hopes like hell that no one walks past. “We shouldn’t do this.”
 
Esca’s chin tilts up defiantly. “Tell me you don’t want to, and we can both walk away. Yeah?”
 
He summons the breath to speak. Esca’s hold on his arms tightens. He can’t say it, not on this breath at least, and he lets the air escape, gritting his teeth. “Christ.”
 
That seems to count as an answer. “Ten minutes,” Esca says, his expression lacking in the smugness Marcus might have expected. “The guys are putting a DVD on in Luke’s tent. I’ll slip back to mine.” And he’s gone.
 
Marcus should say no. He really should. Decision making is one of his better skills (good thing too, in this job), but this time around he’s just not sure duty’s going to win out.
 
Minutes later, he sticks his head into the tent Esca mentioned, where the four inhabitants and five others, three of whom he recognises as Esca’s tent-mates, are clustered round a laptop. Luke offers him a grin and a jocular salute, and he nods before heading out. His feet, as familiar with the layout of the compound as his brain is, deliver him to Esca’s tent without him even thinking.
 
This is the tough moment, on the edge, hesitating to go in but knowing that the longer he waits the more likely it is that someone will see him and there will be awkward questions. Even if he goes in, he can still back out, he tells himself, and enters the tent.
 
Then he sees Esca, cross-legged on his camp-bed in only a vest and trousers. His belt (gun removed this time) is lying discarded on the floor, and Marcus’ throat is dry. Maybe he can’t back out of this.
 
“It’s only some lousy comedy they’re watching – we haven’t got long,” Esca says, far too casual, and beckons Marcus over with a jerk of his head, as if he’s the one in charge.
 
Marcus obeys him anyway. “So... what are we, er...”
 
All that gets him is Esca rolling his eyes. His voice is almost indulgent. “I’d say you owe me one, but maybe we’ll call the store-room a freebie. Had to start somewhere.”
 
Against his will, Marcus feels his cheeks heating up as he’s so unceremoniously reminded of being jacked off quick-smart in the back of the supply room. “Well, then?”
 
“Wouldn’t mind your hand in my pants this time, if you feel like getting a move on,” Esca says conversationally.
 
It’s damn near shameful how easily Marcus complies, how badly he wants to. He hasn’t dated since he joined up, but it’s easy enough to pull when he’s on leave, and it hasn’t been a long time at all since he got laid.
 
But then he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be doing this for just any of his NCOs. This is an exception.
 
“Fucking massive hands,” Esca mutters in a bizarre kind of heavy-lidded consternation. But he’s hot, hard, and heavy in Marcus’ grasp, and his jaw’s clenched. Marcus must be doing something right.
 
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Marcus grits out. He’s doing his best to ignore the way Esca’s face is reddening, the way his stomach muscles are tightening and quivering under his vest, and the way he’s obviously so close to the edge.
 
Esca finishes with nothing more than a gasp, and for a moment his gaze is soft-edged, warm. “Thanks,” he says, his voice wrecked, and grabs something from the head of the bed to throw it at Marcus.
 
He catches it in his left hand. It’s a packet of wet wipes. There’s an appropriately military level of planning in this, he thinks, and uses one of the wipes to clean off his other hand. Esca holds up a plastic bag, and he drops it in.
 
Their eyes meet, and Esca’s gaze is already sharpening. “When’s your next turn, then?” he asks, and his voice is clearing too.
 
Hell. Marcus rubs a hand – the properly clean one – over his face. “We shouldn’t.”
 
“Bollocks to that,” Esca hisses, and glances at the tent door. “You want to, I want to, it’s not harming anyone. We need every chance we can get here.”
 
Marcus hesitates a moment, and sighs. “...We’ll be out to the patrol base within the fortnight.” That’ll only make it more difficult.
 
Esca curses under his breath. “Better make the most of it here then.” He zips himself up, businesslike as ever, and stands up, with a pointed glance at Marcus’ groin. “Wait here.”
 
It’s intensely quiet in the tent once he’s slipped out, and Marcus begins to fidget. This is seriously weird, and his mind’s racing to catch up. Yeah, he’s had an eye on Esca for a while, probably since he first got posted with the unit on the deployment before this one.
 
Things were different then: he’d just made Captain, and Esca was a mouthy Lance Corporal. Marcus was the new boy, and Esca really had something to prove. What that was, Marcus has never been wholly sure, but Esca’s not the only NCO he’s ever run into with little fondness for the Sandhurst crowd.
 
They got over it. Got on pretty well, some of the time. Marcus is good at what he does, and the unit grew to like him after a while. He was happy to stay with them this time round, because he likes the unit, all of them, and that’s the story he’s sticking to.
 
Well, that’s the major part of it. Fact is, he’s fancied Esca right from their first argument back in Kandahar, and he’s far from convinced that Esca’s only just noticed it. This is not how he foresaw things turning out. God knows how he’s going to stop it, even though he knows they can’t do this. It’s probably going to take the rest of the tour just to connect the old, argumentative Lance Corporal he kind of liked with the new, bossy Corporal who’s just come in his hand.
 
Marcus flexes his fingers, and fidgets more. Where the hell is Esca, anyway?
 
It’s only a minute more before he reappears, face scarcely apologetic. “They’re watching the next episode. Want me to see to that?” He nods to Marcus’ crotch, and seems to take his lack of coherent response as an affirmative.
 
Marcus’ trousers and pants are out of the way before he cottons on and backpedals. “Hey, you don’t have to-”
 
Esca just shoves him squarely in the chest so he’s flat on his back, and has Marcus’ cock in his mouth before any more salient protests spring to mind. For a moment or two, Marcus’ brain keeps striving to string together a decent sentence, but in the end all he can manage is a garbled collection of expletives.
 
As soon as the words – if they can be called that – have left his lips, he clamps his hand over his mouth, and fights to remain as still and quiet as he can. Esca’s going for it like there’s a record at stake, and evidently the inappropriateness of the whole thing isn’t enough to deter Marcus’ body from responding.
 
The blanket’s wrinkled under his back, and his spine’s arching in a way that’s not altogether comfortable. The bed’s narrow and he’s tall, so there’s nothing supporting his neck, and they’d both be in so much shit if this got out, but goddamn, none of that’s enough to stop him coming, hard.
 
Esca swallows. His eyes are a little glazed again, but he looks lucidly at Marcus, and raises an eyebrow.
 
“Why did you do that?” Marcus asks, not really sure whether to expect a remotely logical answer.
 
“Saves on wet wipes,” Esca says with a shrug, and licks his lower lip. “Don’t want to waste them.”
 
Marcus feels his lips twitch, and then he can’t help but laugh. It’s just too ridiculous, all of it.
 
“Oh, piss off,” Esca tells him, and whacks him in the shoulder, but he’s laughing too.
 
They stay there, half-sprawled and trying to keep their amusement quiet, for a few minutes. At last, Esca stretches and sits up properly. “You’d better go.”
 
“Can’t even be seen in each other’s company now?” Marcus queries, even as he starts making himself presentable.
 
“Not when anyone with a decent sense of smell can guess something’s up – or been up.” Esca gives him a moment to test the air. “Yeah? Not so bad if they think I’ve just been having a crafty wank, but you’re better off out of it.”
 
“That’s almost thoughtful.”
 
Esca snorts, watching as Marcus stands and moves to leave. “...Find a chance tomorrow.”
 
This time, when Marcus tries to muster the right thing to say, the words die before they reach his mouth, and he just smiles. “Yeah. I will.”
 
---
 
He doesn’t get a chance the next day, in the end. Things on the base seem to be picking up, getting just that little bit more frenetic in the way that says loud and clear that soon, people will be moving on.
 
Around and out he sees Esca several times, but when a man’s got his helmet on he’s not the same. Marcus is well used to it by now. Putting on that extra item, that extra layer, is the moment that makes the difference, makes the break between the guys he hangs around the base with and the fellow-soldiers he’s relying on in the field. And it goes for Esca too.
 
It’s early the following morning when they finally get a moment that’s anything like what Esca must have had in mind. Over by the basins at the latrines, it’s hardly romantic, but then nothing about this really is. There’s no one else around, which is the only real requisite, and a part of Marcus almost relaxes when he realises.
 
“Ready for another day?” Esca asks, his voice sleep-roughened and his question inconsequential.
 
“Depends what’s waiting for me,” Marcus says honestly, and is rewarded with a small smile and Esca’s fingers twining round his wrist. The touch shifts and lingers, innocent and suggestive all at once.
 
“You know what could be,” Esca murmurs, and squeezes his fingers for an instant before leaving.
 
---
 
The day gets hectic from the moment when, with the sun at its highest point, the engineers start running about getting very animated about something. Marcus, in charge of an ongoing task in the town, has very little to do with it, but Esca’s seconded with a small group of others, and goes running off with the engineers.
 
When they see one another next, back in the compound for dinner, Marcus has already settled with his meal when Esca drops into the space beside him, looking absolutely bone-tired. “They found a bunch of IEDs,” he says, and jams a fork grimly into what’s on his plate. “Whole load of them, mixed up round the well. The civilian well. That’s just fucked up.”
 
He shoves a forkful of dinner into his mouth like he hasn’t seen food in days, and mumbles round it: “And all round there. Masses of them. Took all the tech lot and a bunch of us to deal with it.” An angry growl comes from the back of his throat, and then he abandons talking entirely, in favour of eating.
 
There’s nothing Marcus can do but make the right noises. They all know how this works; the two of them alone have had plenty of exchanges like this since the start of the last tour. It’s just lucky no one died.
 
Once he’s finished eating, Marcus has a better look at Esca’s face. He looks completely wrecked, and it’s not just from the dust he hasn’t managed to wash off yet. Despite Marcus’ head-start on the meal, it’s not long before he’s done too, and as he lays the fork down he says very quietly: “Anywhere we can go?”
 
“After today?” Marcus can’t refrain from a little incredulity.
 
Esca runs a hand through his hair, and the dust makes the short blond strands stick out at odd angles. His voice remains very low. “I don’t know what to tell you, Marcus. If you think it’s fucking reprehensible, that’s your lookout. Thought we were professional enough to draw a line under what happens outside.”
 
“Oh Jesus, I didn’t mean it like that.” Marcus glances about, and shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know. Don’t think my tent’s any good. Knight’s already back there.”
 
“The guys’ll be in tonight, reckon everyone’s pretty knackered.” Esca tenses his jaw, thinking. “Just come to the bit by the stores in fifteen. I need a shower first.” His eyes narrow in consideration for a moment. “...You had one?”
 
Marcus’ stomach lurches in a funny kind of way. “...Yes.”
 
“Fine. Fifteen minutes.” And Esca whisks his plate off to the wash-up.
 
---
 
Fifteen minutes later, Marcus is nervous as hell. The extra little bit of time has given him the chance to think, and it’s a whirl of where are they going to go, what’s going to happen, why in the name of God did he think it was okay to get into this in the first place?
 
Then he slips into the shadows by the building that houses the stores, and within seconds there’s an unusually freshly scented Esca by his side, a more than adequate distraction.
 
“Where are we going?” Marcus whispers.
 
Esca nods to his left. “That do?”
 
“...You’re kidding me, right?” Marcus stares at the half-a-building that was once destined to become the stores, bewildered and not a little anxious. “That thing’s dangerous!”
 
“The collapse was before we even got here,” Esca says reasonably, sizing up the structure at issue. “It’s stable enough. Can’t be as dangerous as anywhere else, anyway.”
 
He’s got a point there. “Okay.” Immediately Marcus finds his hand being gripped tightly, and he’s all but hauled into what’s left of the old building.
 
“Nice.” Once they’re inside, Esca’s basically appraising it, as if it’s a house-viewing. Marcus can see the moon through the remainder of the roof, but he’d be hard pressed to identify what else the place has going for it. Apart from privacy, of course.
 
Esca doesn’t push him up against a wall on this occasion – a fact for which, given the building’s structural integrity, he is immeasurably grateful. They remain in the shadowy space with only each other as support, and Esca’s hands are everywhere.
 
There’s no purpose this time; Marcus won’t assume control, and Esca seems content to be aimless for once, or at least lacking in the energy to be anything but. It’s been a long day, and they’re both pretty keyed-up, so there probably doesn’t even need to be purpose to this.
 
Guns and such are off, out of the way, and universal issue trousers give a whole load of friction, so pressure’s building without even a real touch. With bodies pressed together, hands grasping and tugging, Esca nestles his head under Marcus’ chin, breath hot around the collar of his t-shirt. It makes his skin tingle, and just serves to remind him that no, he hasn’t had a shower.
 
Esca’s lips touch the skin of his neck, warm and dry and gentle, and he almost thinks to remind him not to make a mark, but he doesn’t need to say it. Even as they both approach climax, writhing together in the dark, still air, Esca’s touch remains soft, just lips and a quick flick of tongue, such contrast to the way his hands grasp possessively at Marcus’ arse.
 
With the rush and with how tired they both are, the crucial moment almost somehow passes them by, and the next thing Marcus knows, they’re standing still pressed together, breathing hard, coming down. Esca’s tongue flickers over his throat again, and he knows his skin must taste salty, definitive proof that he lied.
 
But Esca doesn’t mention it, just tugs him into a patch of moonlight and looks them both over to make sure nothing’s obvious. They both pass inspection, and move for the point where they came in.
 
The coast’s clear. Esca heads off to his tent, and Marcus wonders how he’s going to manage a quiet moment with a wet wipe in a full tent. No doubt he’s got the ingenuity, though, and Marcus can’t dwell on it. He makes for the latrines, hoping fervently that he’ll at least be able to clean himself up with no one else present.
 
It proves to have been the right choice. Even when people do come in, no one tries to talk to a guy when he’s doing his business, and it’s the best way to get a few minutes’ peace and quiet. And that’s a good thing, because by God does Marcus need some time to clear his head.
 
---
 
The next day’s just as insane – something’s blown up in the next village and there are people on the move, nervous, wanting someone to say it’s alright and give them something to stand behind.
 
Once the end of the day rolls round, Marcus is in a briefing – objectives for the remaining time in the base and logistics for the move to the patrol base the next week – so it doesn’t get any better. It’s not the best part of command.
 
When he gets out, leaving the other few still in there, it’s getting dark. He’s damn tired as he heads to his tent. He left Sergeant Knight and the others at the briefing, so he might at least get a few minutes to himself. Drawing slow, calming breaths, starting to think fondly of sleep, he reaches the tent.
 
That’s when Esca, who’s evidently been loitering there, grabs his arm, and he jumps about a foot in the air. “Jesus!”
 
“Not quite,” Esca says with a smile. “How’s the day been?”
 
“Tiring.” As if to illustrate his point, Marcus yawns widely.
 
“You look like you could do with your bed.”
 
“Yeah...” Marcus tilts his head from side to side, and winces slightly at the stiffness he can feel in the muscles. “Look, do you want to come in?”
 
“I won’t keep you up,” Esca promises, but follows him into the tent anyway.
 
“How about you? Day okay? Barely seen you.”
 
Esca shrugs, standing casually, arms folded, as if he’s supposed to be there. “Same old. Well, as much as it can be around here. Not as shit as yesterday, at least.”
 
With a weary smile, Marcus sits down on his camp-bed, and scrubs a hand through his hair. “That’s something.” With another yawn, he feels himself slump slightly. He can read this situation well enough to know tonight’s not going to end the same way last night did, and he wants to go to bed, but at the same time he’s really not ready to ask Esca to leave. Goddamn, it’s stupid and it’s a useless thing to wish for in this place, but what he really needs is a hug.
 
The bed sinks slightly, and he finds Esca sitting beside him. “You’re tense as fuck,” Esca tells him bluntly. “Turn that way.” He obeys, and then Esca’s hands are on his shoulders, working the muscles. It starts to ache a little less, except when his thumbs reach a knot and push, and it hurts like hell for a minute before everything relaxes.
 
Even when most of the problem has dissipated, and Marcus is jelly-like and even more tired than before, Esca keeps rubbing his shoulders. His fingers skate over the skin of Marcus’ neck above the collar of his shirt, and the whole thing feels perfect.
 
“Thanks,” Marcus breathes at last, unable to maintain the silence any longer.
 
“No problem.” Esca’s hands still rest on his shoulders. “Want me to stay for a bit?”
 
“If you want.” It sounds noncommittal, but then he’s not going to admit just how much he likes the idea. He yawns yet again, and starts to undo his overshirt. “I won’t be great company, I’m afraid.”
 
“That’s okay.” Esca moves his hands so Marcus can shed the shirt and put it away. “The other guys going to be back soon?”
 
Marcus shrugs and half smiles. “There was talk of hot chocolate going on after the briefing, I think.”
 
“Like kids,” Esca grins. “Guess we should be enjoying the home comforts here while we can.”
 
Their eyes meet for a second or two, and Marcus remembers the other thing they won’t be able to get out on the patrol base – snatched moments of privacy. Briefly it crosses his mind that they should be making the most of this, but in all honesty, right now he’s got no enthusiasm at all for sex of any kind.
 
“You’re pretty much ready to drop, aren’t you?” Esca’s voice is almost teasing, but his eyes are kind, and he’s smiling.
 
“I’m seriously considering it.”
 
With a wider smile, Esca pulls back the blankets on the neatly-made bed, and goes to stand up. “I should leave you to it.”
 
“No-” Marcus bites his tongue. He hadn’t thought what the rest of the sentence would be, and he’s just grateful that Esca’s expression at the one, truncated syllable looks favourable.
 
“I’ll stay if you want.” Esca’s smile is open, and Marcus strips off his boots, socks, and uniform trousers with an inward sigh of relief. Once they’re folded out of the way, he sits down on the bed, just in his t-shirt and boxers now.
 
Esca moves out of the way, and Marcus finds himself a comfortable reclining position. Lips pursed a little, Esca reaches out and runs a finger over a scratch on his cheekbone. “Ow,” Marcus mutters, but his lips curl up at the corner. “...So, sure I can’t wring anything of interest out of you about your day?”
 
“You’re like a little boy who doesn’t want to go to sleep,” Esca remarks with a good-natured swat in his direction. “Made a phone call earlier. Must’ve been while you were in briefing.”
 
Marcus dredges his memories from Kandahar for a moment. “You talk to your brothers, don’t you?”
 
“Yeah.” There’s a hint of surprise there, as if he didn’t expect Marcus to remember. “Called Adair today. Soppy bugger’s finally bought an engagement ring for his girlfriend – about bloody time, they’ve been going out for longer than I can even think. God knows how long it’ll take to get him to actually ask her.”
 
“I think it’s cute.” Marcus absorbs the look of mild disdain. “So you’re not a believer in romance?”
 
Esca flounders briefly. “Not like that, I’m not. He’s turned so... mushy.”
 
“Now who sounds like a little boy?” Marcus’ grin is kind of sleepy at this point. “Next thing you’ll be saying girls have cooties.”
 
“Well, I’ve never been a big fan of girls.”
 
“Neither have I, but still, not believing in romance?”
 
At that, Esca laughs. “And to think, I thought my type were always the totally manly men...” He shuffles up closer to Marcus’ head, and leans to give him a quick but fierce hug. “Sleep well,” he murmurs in his ear, and slips out of the tent before Marcus can say another word.
 
---
 
The following evening, Marcus uses his own half-hour to phone his uncle. The elder Aquila cheerily talks about how well the fruit trees are doing, back home in Berkshire, and asks him the usual questions. He can’t say much in reply; that’s the problem here. His preoccupations of the moment aren’t great fodder for a conversation like this one.
 
His uncle does ask how the others in the unit are doing, even managing a few names. It’s like being in school again sometimes, with his guardian striving to remember the names of his classmates and friends to sound involved. He does appreciate it. His uncle asks after Esca by name, and Marcus finds heat spreading along the tops of his cheeks. “Yeah, he’s good. He’s had a frustrating few days, but he’s okay.” Once he’s said it, he feels himself flush darker, the accidental double-entendre striking his consciousness.
 
Never mind. He explains that he might not be able to call the following week. There’s not much detail he can give, again, but his uncle knows the form, so he’ll be able to work out what he needs to know. After that, there’s little more to say.
 
It’s nice outside, and he’s walking back in the direction of his tent when he hears his name called out. Turning to his left, he’s not all that surprised to see Esca lounging on an upturned bucket, grinning, with the last of the light glinting off his hair. He’s more surprised when Esca throws something at him, but he catches it by reflex.
 
“Thought you were looking a bit peaky at dinner,” Esca says as he opens his hand to find a Mars bar. “Wondered if a bit of sugar might help.” He nods to another bucket, resting a few feet away from his own.
 
Marcus isn’t convinced the bucket’s up to taking his weight, so parks himself on the ground instead, brushing a few sharp stones out of the way. “Thanks,” he says, and opens the chocolate bar. “Would you like some?”
 
“Nah, got it for you.” Esca waves a hand in polite dismissal.
 
“Oh, come on.” Marcus breaks off a piece, twisting to break the strings of caramel, and holds it out. “You need feeding up far more than I do.”
 
Grinning wryly, Esca relents and takes it. He eats it slowly, nibbling away at it and then licking the clinging vestiges of melted chocolate from his fingers. “Thanks.”
 
Having watched his enjoyment with a little relish of his own, Marcus smirks. “Hey. You missed a bit.” He points to his own face, indicating a place just below his lower lip, to the left. “Right... there.”
 
“...Oh.” Esca licks his forefinger and wipes at the skin, then pops the tip of his finger in his mouth. “Gone?” he asks afterwards.
 
Marcus nods, and he lets his eyes linger on Esca’s lower lip and finger, which bear a glistening hint of saliva. It’s nice not to have to hide his gaze; on the contrary, he sees a flicker of amused satisfaction in Esca’s eyes. They can’t follow up on it, of course, but it feels good nonetheless.
 
In the end, they stay there, just talking about nothing, while Marcus finishes the Mars bar, and then for some time after.
 
---
 
The day they move out to the patrol base isn’t a happy one. Sitting in the armoured car, lumbering down a broad dirt track, Marcus is not the only person who’s silent. The atmosphere is devoid of meaningful sound, just the car humming, clattering softly over the rough ground.
 
At first glance, those in the car would seem still, but actually they’re anything but. Feet are tapping, knees jigging, hands fidgeting, fingers intertwining and separating again. No one’s speaking, but everyone’s thinking.
 
Marcus chances a glance out of the rear screen. He knows Esca’s in the next car, and he’s trying not to think about him. He has to think of the mission; they all should be thinking of it. They’re not, of course. On the way to the front line, everyone will be thinking of the comforts of the larger base, left behind now, and of the people they’ve left back home. The risks are really going to kick in now, and they’d be fools not to let it cross their minds.
 
The thoughts are never quite the same for Marcus. The only family he’s left back in the UK is his uncle, and while they may be fairly close, it’s nothing like leaving a partner, leaving kids, the way some of the unit have. He doesn’t envy them. Sure, he still has to face down the dangers, has to get out there despite knowing the risks, but he’s well aware that if he’s the one in the next flag-draped coffin, there won’t be as many tears as there would be for the others.
 
Anyway, the thoughts of danger can’t be dwelt upon, and that’s equally true for any member of the unit, not just for the ones like Marcus. They’re going to do a job.
 
So he has the time – not that it’s such a blessing – to think about other things. He has the time to think on what he’s left behind in shipping out of the forward operating base, and to regret the loss. Out in the field, moving forward, there won’t be the easiness; out there they’ll have to keep their guard up even more than before. There won’t be the home comforts, the proper showers, little shop, cookhouse, and the rest. Now it’s a doss bag under a mosquito net, latrines they may well have to dig for themselves, and no privacy.
 
That might be the biggest loss, to be honest. The last couple of weeks, since the encounter in the stores, have been almost surreal, and a part of him is afraid it’ll seem truly unreal now. If he’s completely honest with himself, Marcus is worried about where things will go.
 
It’s not just sex. He could count on his fingers the number of times that’s happened, and it’s what’s been going on besides that counts just as much. It’s about massages, Mars bars, and suddenly having someone to notice when there’s a slight difference to the set of his shoulders that means no, he’s not okay. But he worries. Without the opportunity to spend time apart from everyone else, to relax in one another’s presence – damn, to get each other off if that’s what they feel like – what’s going to happen next?
 
---
 
Esca can feel the weight of the frown creasing his forehead. In transit, on the way to the line, no one’s talking, everyone’s got a firearm in their lap, and nobody notices the look on his face, because their expressions all look the same.
 
He’s not afraid of dying. He’s not. Well, probably not as much as a rational man should be. He’s not like his brothers, not tied down by anything other than his own spirit. And that spirit directed him into the forces, so what else is he going to do?
 
The dangers don’t bother him overmuch. But he’s going to miss the proper base. Food that boils in a bag, regardless of the fact there are now supposed to be twenty different options available, isn’t really food. Sleeping in a doss bag isn’t so bad, not when you can squint through the mosquito net and see the stars. They did it on the Kandahar tour, and he doesn’t mind it. The lack of real food’s a pain in the arse, though.
 
He wonders how Marcus, up in the next car, is feeling about it. This sort of thing got more complicated when he made Corporal, so it’s probably even worse for a Captain. An overarching sense of duty is straightforward enough – it’s what keeps him going in this job – and a sense of duty towards fellow soldiers is something they pick up in the early days of training, but the sense of duty as a leader is something else. Probably, he thinks, that’s why training at Sandhurst takes so long. The proper officers get it drummed into them, and NCOs like him just learn in the field, since it doesn’t get taught like that at Catterick.
 
He’s done with the broad strokes of feeling, the concern for the unit, the care for the mission. A few minutes of a journey like this always get given over to selfish feeling. Guard shifts will get serious now, and he’s not going to be getting off for a while.
 
It doesn’t feel right, putting it that way. If he’d wanted to get off, pure and simple, he would have secured the tent to himself for a few minutes and done it himself. Making a move on one of the unit leaders in the first place was a hell of a risk, and he did it for that look he’d seen in Marcus’ eyes when he watched Esca clean his gun.
 
He’s got used to that look and similar ones now, but the lack of sex isn’t a big issue. It’s not like they’re home-style fuck-buddies, so it’s hardly crucial. They’re kind of... friends, which is stupid because they were friends before. Now it’s bloody hard to label, unless he uses something generic. They’re closer friends. Who fancy the pants off each other. That’s the best he can do. Given how long it’s been since Kandahar, it’s hardly progress.
 
---
 
Two days into life on the patrol base, Marcus has realised just how much a smile can mean. In the fading light, he, Esca, and a couple of others are playing cards, cross-legged on the dusty earth of the small compound. No one’s got the wherewithal for something like poker, so out here it’s trifles like Snap, or nothing.
 
They’re playing Go Fish, voices quiet in the remains of the daylight, and Esca is winning, smirking over his diminishing cards. His next request goes to Marcus, and as their eyes meet there is an extra kind of softness at the corners of his eyes.
 
When Esca wins – and it doesn’t take very long – the other two guys have to go for watch duty, leaving just him and Marcus. Esca gathers the cards and begins to shuffle them expertly. “Enjoy the game?”
 
“I’m not really big on games,” Marcus says, leaning back on his hands.
 
“Too straightforward,” Esca remarks, smiling at him more widely. He looks down at his hands, absently watching himself split and reshuffle the pack of cards. Marcus sees him frown slightly. “You know, when we finish the tour – I know it’s a way off – but when we do, we could go somewhere, just get away from the base, and maybe finish the games.”
 
“I didn’t think I’d hear you talking in riddles.” Marcus grins back at his expression of surprise, before glancing around. “No one can hear.”
 
Esca swallows and shrugs. “I just thought maybe we could... I don’t know, go to a hotel or something. Sounds fucking seedy, I know, but... just us.”
 
“Sounds great to me.” Marcus bites his lip even as he smiles, and they’re looking at each other again.
 
“You sure?”
 
“Yeah.” Marcus pushes himself to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”
 
After a quick visit to the small pouch beside his doss bag, he returns, and kneels beside Esca to write something on a scrap of paper with a stubby pencil. After a moment, he hands the paper over.
 
Esca looks quizzically at him, then at the string of digits. “...This your mobile number?”
 
He tilts his head and shrugs a little. “No good here, I know, but just makes it a bit more definite.”
 
“It’s a good idea. Got any more paper?”
 
Casually, as if he didn’t deliberately bring two pieces, Marcus hands him a blank one, and within moments holds another number in his own hands. “It’s happening, then?”
 
The look Esca gives him is full of promise, but more excited than suggestive. “It’s happening.”
 
---
 
The quiet moments are few and far between after a while, and a blessing when they come. Early one morning, before everything kicks off again, Marcus finds Esca cleaning his Browning, which never leaves his side now they’re out here.
 
He sits, eating his porridge-in-a-bag, and covertly watches as Esca strips the gun down, runs the fancy brushes through the workings, and lubricates the slide and the barrel. Esca catches his eye for a moment and slows down his movements, lips curling up at the corners. It’s not like every time Marcus has watched before, dry-mouthed, nervous at the prospect of discovery. The thrill of anxiety is no longer there, but there’s still a frisson involved even now he knows how Esca’s hands feels on him instead of the gun.
 
It doesn’t last long – Marcus finishes his breakfast, and Esca reassembles, tests, and holsters the gun. It’s time for another day, another patrol, another crack at doing what they’re here to do.
 
Today, there’s an eight-man patrol sweeping a smallholding outside the village. It’s deserted, everyone says, so it shouldn’t be too bad a day – just checking up, making sure and securing another patch ready to move forward. It’s the hills, looming just ahead, that are going to be the problem.
 
Marcus is in charge, nominally. He’s worked out how they’re going to do it: the first four go in, spread out, and then he’ll be heading up the others, covering behind. Not complicated at all.
 
They’re en route when the first obstacle crops up, but it’s just a little, mangy dog. Marcus is absolutely positive he hears Luke, the second of the follow-up four, muttering something about ringworm, and almost smiles, but they manage to shake off their four-legged distraction, which scampers off towards the village.
 
The first four advance through the outer buildings, and Marcus glances back towards the base, gun in hand, checking the area around them. It’s all looking okay. No sounds come from the smallholding, apart from Guy, leading the front four, muttering through the radio to keep everyone on the same page.
 
“East buildings are clear,” he confirms at last, and that’s the signal for the next four to follow.
 
They advance round the first building and into an empty yard, where only footprints in the dust show that the others have just come through. Fanning out along the south side, they identify the hidey-holes and doorways they need, and get in there, before there’s even time to think.
 
Luke, crouched behind a pile of crates with Marcus, taps his arm and points, suddenly, to a spot opposite. Marcus squints over at the north side for several seconds, and checks back and forth along the wall before shaking his head. Caution’s vital, but this time they’re clear.
 
Once they’ve indicated positions on the radio, Marcus keeps watching the north wall. It’s looking fine, and then Guy announces that they’ve made it across to the west, and that the stairs in the building to the north are pretty much gone.
 
With another glance at the north building, Luke concedes that he didn’t see anything. Now the others are getting to the west side, it’s looking fine. There aren’t any openings on the west building, so they can move safely. Shoulders still tensed, Luke shuffles to the right and emerges from the pile of crates, which is exactly when Marcus sees something flash on the north building. “Get down!”
 
Luke turns his head, but he doesn’t drop, and Marcus takes his eyes off the building to all but tackle him to the ground.
 
They’re halfway to the floor when he hears a quiet crack.
 
“Man down!” Compared to the sound from a moment before, the voice on the radio is deafening, and it takes a long, long moment for Marcus to realise he’s on the ground. The burning hits at the same time as the noise of gunfire. There’s shouting over the radio, and he tries to scramble to his feet, but gets as far as his knees before a hand catches his shoulder and shoves him down behind the crates again.
 
Then he sees the ground turning red, and his hand feels sticky. There’s blood on it. His thigh is burning, he can’t get up, and there are tears in his eyes because suddenly it hurts. He can’t seem to get enough air. Desperately, his ears still full of shouting and shots, he probes his leg with his fingers, and he can barely see for the blood, but he can feel it’s a hell of a mess.
 
Oh, fuck, it must have been a hollow-point bullet. It’s a wreck down there, and it might be him in that next coffin after all.
 
He blacks out then, and the next thing he knows, the shooting’s stopped, but the radio’s still full of yelling anxiety, not panic though that’s how he feels, and there’s something pressed to his leg. Luke’s face looms over his, pale under his helmet, and he’s gone again.
 
---
 
After an hour or so of ‘liaising’, a well-organised mishmash of body-language, basic-level Pashto, and interpreters, Esca’s been back from the village a bare ten minutes when the patrol team come back. Standing there with a water bottle, regrouping for the next task of the day, as soon as he sees Guy come into the compound he knows something’s not right.
 
The second he sees blood, he can feel his heartbeat in his ears, and he legs it over to Guy, because he’s free, he’s not doing anything, so it’s the sensible thing to do. The way his breathing’s tightening up in his chest is just down to useful adrenaline. All normal.
 
“Get the medic,” Guy says, and without waiting a second longer he goes.
 
The compound’s hardly big, so in the end he and Gail, the combat medical technician with the unit, meet each other mid-dash, as she’s got wind of a problem. “What’s happened?” she asks, rolled stretcher in her arms already, as they hurry back towards the gate.
 
“I don’t know; Guy only just got back.”
 
She nods, and they’re at the gate in seconds. People are clustering now, despite the attempts the team will be making to keep things low-key, and Esca surveys the standing figures. He gets up to six, then seven when he glimpses Luke, surrounded by people.
 
“Right, shift!” Gail demands, and the cluster parts for her to get to the middle. She’s in there for only a couple of seconds before she speaks again. “Luke and Guy, get him on the stretcher, get him over there, and tell me what happened.” Marching in the direction of the medical station, she barks out: “Esca. Where’s Sergeant Knight?”
 
For a moment, he can’t think. “...Still in the village.” Not knowing what else to do, he follows her, not even looking at Luke, Guy, or the stretcher.
 
“We’re going to have to get him out of here, I suspect.” She points out where to put the stretcher, and Esca’s eyes skate over it. Him. “What happened?” Even as she speaks, there’s a pair of scissors in her hand, scything through the fabric of the trouser leg to get it out of the way.
 
“There was a sniper in the smallholding,” Luke says, and his voice is quiet. “Captain Aquila pushed me out of the way. The sniper only got one shot in before we brought him down.”
 
“We got the weapon,” Guy adds, and produces a magazine. “He was using these. Hollow-points.”
 
Gail swears under her breath, and takes one of the bullets to look at it more closely. “Right.” She snaps on a pair of rubber gloves, and unwraps a pack of sterile swabs. After ten seconds of mopping, and a sharp glance at Marcus’ face, where his eyelids are flickering, she squares her shoulders and looks up at Esca. “Call for the emergency response team. Go.”
 
He goes. Out of the corner of his eye he can see her going for more swabs and a syringe of something, analgesia no doubt. He doesn’t really want to think about it.
 
Once he gets back, there’s blood all over the rubber gloves, Luke and Guy are sitting a few yards away, ashen, with bottles of water, and Marcus looks half-conscious. He’s mumbling, and Gail’s clutching a pair of forceps while pushing a pad over the wound. “Are they coming?” she asks, voice clipped.
 
“Yeah, they said half an hour.” He swallows hard, and tries to keep himself from looking at the bloody dressing covering a mess of blood and muscle and God knows what else. “Is he going to be okay?” It’s a flaming stupid question. But he can’t stop it coming out.
 
Gail sucks a breath in through her teeth. “No promises.” She purses her lips and glances over at Luke and Guy. “Can you check Luke?”
 
So he does it. Standard first aid training’s more than enough for this; Luke’s got nothing more than cuts and bruises from being knocked over. He checks quickly on Guy and the other five, who are also hanging around but are only sporting a level of shock not even classified as medical. It keeps his mind off what’s happening just behind him – or rather isn’t happening, as Gail’s not even trying to deal properly with this herself. She’s leaving it for the MERT, and that’s even more worrying.
 
When, at last, the Chinook arrives, probably scaring the living daylights out of a few people, suddenly Sergeant Knight appears, and Gail runs off to bring him up to date. Esca, ordered to hold down the dressing in her absence, is left alone with Marcus for the scant minute before the team emerge from the helicopter and whisk the stretcher off to somewhere better. Somewhere else.
 
“Esca?” Marcus’ eyes are barely focused, but he grits the word out.
 
“Shh, it’s going to be fine, they’re going to get you out of here.” His hand, unbidden, moves to wipe the thin sheen of sweat off Marcus’ forehead.
 
“Are the others alright?”
 
“Yeah. Yeah, they’re fine. Luke said you saved him.”
 
Marcus doesn’t even dismiss it. It barely seems to register. The footfalls of the helicopter team are now audible as they hurry across the compound. “I guess... goodbye.”
 
Before the team arrive, before he has a chance to think about it, and so quickly he’s barely aware he’s done it, Esca kisses him on the forehead. “You’re going to be okay.” His voice nearly deserts him as he adds: “Please be okay.”
 
Pale, clammy, eyes even more unfocused now, Marcus gives him a tiny smile, and then the emergency team are there, and the stretcher’s gone.
 
Esca watches the helicopter take off, minutes later, bound probably for Camp Bastion. It rises, a strange double-propelled silhouette against the sky, and then it’s off. He watches as it grows smaller and smaller, and it feels as if his stomach has turned to air.
 
---
 
He drifts in and out, and what he’s hearing isn’t reassuring. A part of him thinks, after a few snippets, that it would be better to stay unconscious. He’s still not a hundred per cent sure he’s not going to end up in a wooden box after all.
 
As it is, he’s looking at a lot of time in a metal box, from what he can gather – the emergency team are talking about onward flights after they have him stabilised, and it’s pretty obvious that Camp Bastion’s going to be a relatively brief visit. His thoughts, in the brief moments of something like clarity, run away with him, though that might be to do with the morphine.
 
Is he going to the military hospital back in Birmingham? He’s never been. He doesn’t want to. How did things get to this so quickly...? ...and he’s out again.
 
“...don’t think it hit the artery...”
 
“...mess... There’s a lot of shrapnel...”
 
“...talking to aeromedical evacuation...”
 
He wakes up to a blank, cool room, where he’s smacked in the face by the smell of antiseptic and in the leg by burning pain. A green-masked figure stares at his face and then sticks a new needle in his arm, and he’s floating.
 
The next time he comes to, his throat rasps as he gasps for water, and they wet his lips. They’re muttering more quietly here, not having to speak up to make themselves heard over mechanical noise. He can’t hear them.
 
It could be minutes, or hours, or even a day later that he feels himself on the move again, hears something about blood loss being stemmed, feels something tight around his leg. It’s not uncomfortable, not compared to what the chaos in the tissue was like before, but he knows it’s there. Well, he knows until he passes out again.
 
He wakes up next in a large space, and when he manages to ask where he is, the answer is in a Hercules, somewhere over Italy, and good God will he lie still. Barely even aware he’s been moving, Marcus tries to keep himself deadly still. His hands and feet are freezing.
 
How bloody long has it been? Next time he asks, they’re over France. He’s getting anxious, and the feeling in his thigh is coming and going. He can’t say which direction is the worse.
 
The moments of clarity are disjointed, and his brain can’t process the order in which the journey should be happening. He doesn’t know how long it’s been. He’s in the Hercules, then he’s in a room, then some kind of vehicle, and then it’s morning, in a hospital, and he finds a button by his side that lets him ring for someone, anyone, to come.
 
They give him more pain relief, but refuse when he asks for water. He can feel the needle of a drip in his arm, but all they’ll do is wet his lips again, and despite the drugs he knows what that means.
 
When he asks, they do tell him, and he does acknowledge it, but with the tiredness and the analgesia and the reality of it, he barely knows what anyone’s saying. He’s going into theatre so they can operate, get a proper look, and get the remnants of the bullet out. And assess the damage. He doesn’t want to consider that part. He can barely deal with the fact any of this shit is happening, let alone think about what it means for anything beyond when they let him finally have some water.
 
---
 
There’s a strange feeling in the air on the patrol base after the Chinook has left, and it won’t go away. Luke alternates between buoyant cheerfulness and brooding quiet, and both make perfect sense to Esca.
 
He’s not feeling very straightforward himself.
 
The next day, he dresses on autopilot, eats breakfast, and fastens his belt with the ever-present semi-automatic. It’s only when he picks up his rifle that something shifts uncomfortably in his stomach. He secures his ammunition. They’re not hollow-point bullets, but it’s too easy to picture them coming apart, inflicting damage, covered in blood.
 
Fuck. He takes a deep, angry breath, and moves off across the base. Today he’s reporting straight to Sergeant Knight – the removal of a Captain from the command chain will make things weird for a while.
 
“Corporal MacCunoval.” Knight gives him a nod of greeting.
 
There’s no way he can not ask. “Any news on Captain Aquila?”
 
“They’re planning to evacuate him to Selly Oak. He’s in no immediate danger.”
 
Esca feels himself relax slightly, though the weapons still sit uncomfortably against his body. “Right. Orders?”
 
---
 
Marcus wakes up feeling even grimmer. He looks down at his leg, but even when his blurry vision clears a little there’s barely anything to see. It’s swathed in a dressing, bright white, which if nothing else at least means he’s not bleeding much now. Experimentally, he tries to move his leg – not much, just to test it – and finds he can’t. Oh, hell.
 
He can bend his toes. Well, that’s progress. His ankle moves a bit, too. There’s no sensation above his knee, but then he must be on something to stop the pain, so that’s not too disturbing.
 
Okay, no, it’s bloody horrifying, and he grabs for the call button.
 
Expecting only a nurse, he’s startled when a doctor walks in, all white coat and businesslike manner. “Hello, Marcus. I’m Dr Pursina. How are you feeling?”
 
“I can’t move my leg,” he says bluntly.
 
“Ah.” The doctor shuffles slightly, and straightens his white coat. Marcus’ throat gets even drier. “As you know, we operated earlier to remove the bullet, and investigate the damage. Unfortunately we can’t say at present quite what the results of the trauma are going to be.”
 
“When will you...” Marcus hears his voice scrape, and coughs. The doctor, God bless him, pours him a glass of water and hands it over. Finally, Marcus is free to down half of it and fix his throat. “When will you know?”
 
“We’ll be arranging physical therapy for you as soon as you’re on your feet,” Dr Pursina says, and sits down in the chair beside the bed. “And on that front we’re talking days rather than weeks. Once you start therapy, we should begin to get a feel for the prognosis.”
 
Now his senses are clearing, Marcus can see the awkward set to the doctor’s features. “...You’ve got an idea already, though.”
 
Reluctantly, Dr Pursina nods. “You were very lucky. The trauma didn’t damage the femoral artery.”
 
“But?”
 
The doctor sighs. “It’s likely that you’ve sustained some nerve damage. We won’t know the exact effects until you start the therapy sessions.”
 
“What do you think, though?”
 
“...The prognosis isn’t good.”
 
“Am I going to have to leave the army?”
 
Dr Pursina shifts in his seat. He doesn’t look comfortable. “We really can’t say until you start the therapy. You’re certainly going to need extended leave.”
 
“Do I have to stay here?” Now Marcus has started asking questions, he doesn’t want to stop.
 
“Not if we can find a viable alternative. You’re going to need a lot of support.” He glances at the door. “In fact, you have a visitor already.” He shifts again, as if about to stand. “Do you have any more questions?”
 
Marcus sighs. He knows pretty well who it’s going to be. “Not for now.”
 
“Would you like me to let your uncle in?”
 
Tiredly, he nods. He’s going to have to do it some time.
 
“Marcus!” His uncle, a big presence in any room, is almost an overwhelming one here, but when he gives Marcus a cautious hug, Marcus realises just how much he’s been needing one. “How are you doing?”
 
He thinks he has an answer, but in the end it fails him, and all he can do is sigh and shrug.
 
“What are the doctors saying?”
 
“Not much. Looks like nerve damage.”
 
His uncle sucks a breath in through his teeth. “That doesn’t sound good.”
 
“No. They don’t think so either. Won’t know till I’m in therapy, though.”
 
“Do you have to stay here for that?”
 
Marcus shakes his head. Once in a while, just occasionally, his uncle seems to read his mind.
 
“Would you rather come back down to Mortimer?”
 
Doubt creeps in. It’s a rare feeling, but Marcus isn’t sure he fancies being around people, especially not his uncle, especially not if he has as much to come to terms with as he’s starting to suspect. “Are you sure you wouldn’t mind me being in the house?”
 
A smile creeps over the elder Aquila’s face. “There’s no one down in the cottage. We could set you up there. I’m sure we could get you into Reading for whatever therapy they want you to do.”
 
“Thanks.” Marcus manages a grim smile, really just a sign of apology. “Can’t stand it here already.”
 
“In that case,” his uncle declares purposefully, “we’ll get you out of here as soon as is decently possible.”
 
Marcus has a feeling – not that he wants to examine it – that soon enough he’ll be well and truly sick of having to get people to do things for him. But right now, he’ll take it.

Part 2 here
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