Part 2 of 2 (part 1 here)
Fandom: The Eagle
Sequel to Disassembly
Marcus is watching atrocious afternoon television – or rather, using it to fill the horrendous silence in the cottage, set half an acre away from his uncle’s house – when his mobile phone rings. He’s not even sure why he’s been keeping it switched on since he got it back, even if the cottage’s landline hasn’t been reconnected.
But now it’s ringing, which is pretty unexpected. The number’s withheld, but he still scrambles for the remote control, stabs at the ‘mute’ button, and picks up the call.
The line’s bad, and from one word he can’t identify the voice. “Yes. Who is this?”
“It’s Esca.” Marcus blinks in surprise, but gets no chance to consider it, as Esca keeps talking. “Thank God you picked up, I wasn’t sure you’d have your phone – where are you?”
“Er, home, I guess, for now.” He can’t help the wretched feeling in his chest at that, even though he’s been here a couple of weeks now. “Berkshire. My uncle owns this cottage, so he’s letting me stay here.”
He can almost feel the hesitation on the other end of the line, which is weird given the way Esca is in person. “...How’s your leg?”
“It’s not fallen off.” The sardonic reply, out of his mouth before he thinks about it, makes him cringe. “I mean, I’m doing physical therapy.”
“How’s that going?”
“I hate it.” It feels good to say it so frankly. “One step forward and two steps back. Sometimes literally.”
Esca makes a stifled sound, evidently trying not to laugh. “You must be fun for your therapist to work with.”
Unused to it though he is lately, Marcus smiles. “Yeah, patient from hell.”
“Have they said... do they know...”
He takes a deep breath. “It’s nerve damage.”
“They don’t think I’ll be back. I get a reassessment, but not for months yet. I...” Marcus’ words stick in his throat. “I don’t think I’ll be back.”
Esca is silent for a moment. “So how are you doing?”
He sighs. He’s not sure he has words for that answer yet. “I don’t really know.”
“Hmm. You bored?”
“Of course you are.” He can almost see Esca’s smile. “You’ve got a TV and everything, right? Let’s talk films.”
Something suddenly occurs to Marcus. “Hang on, where are you?”
“Back on the forward base. Things weren’t really working on the front line.”
Marcus swallows heavily. He almost wishes he hadn’t asked. “I should let you go, shouldn’t I? You don’t want to spend your half-hour talking to a cripple, do you?”
“Don’t you dare call yourself that,” Esca says adamantly. “And my brothers can do without my voice for a week. I’ll write to Adair telling him to stop being such a pansy, boom, job done.”
“He still hasn’t proposed?”
“No. Like I said, the man’s a pansy. Anyway, where were we? Films, right. So are you a big romantic?”
“That’s a yes, then,” Esca says, a note of teasing in his voice. “I may not be the best person to ask for that kind of recommendation, but I’ve heard of a few that might... take your mind off things.”
It’s such a kind suggestion, and Marcus is so desperate for something to do, that he quickly finds a piece of paper and a pen, and writes down the list that Esca reels off. “And you’re really not a fan?” he asks when the list’s complete.
“No. I just heard those ones were good.” From defensive, Esca’s voice grows teasing again. “Don’t tell me, you probably own half of them already.”
Marcus glances around his living room, which is haphazardly occupied by belongings recently retrieved from barracks and his uncle’s house. It’s in order, sort of, but he doesn’t really like having other people in here, and he’s not been in the mood to organise things as much as he might like. “Maybe one or two.”
The conversation goes on in like vein, comparing tastes (purported tastes, at least) and talking about rubbish. Somehow Esca seems to know how to take his mind off the mess his life has become.
Thirty minutes is over all too soon, and Marcus does his best to persuade Esca not to use up his next week’s worth of call time on him too. He can’t get a promise out of him, but then he’s not sure he should have expected it.
When they hang up, the cottage feels even quieter. He turns the television’s sound back on, and puts his phone on the coffee table, out of his line of sight. The call might have been unexpected, but he’s glad of it.
Esca replaces the handset and sets out for his tent, back on the forward operating base, back where he has privacy, which he now only uses to brood. The Browning hanging on his belt probably needs cleaning; he’s been reluctant to touch it more than he needs to. Every gun and every bullet is a tool capable of the ruin he’s just witnessed again. He’s lost people, and things, before, and he recognises the sound of a man mired in grief.
It’s really bloody boring. Marcus has stayed in Mortimer before, but he’s never really appreciated how little there is to do. Or maybe he’s never been so unwilling to have time on his hands. His uncle makes him go on walks around the village, hobbling along with his stick while he has his ear bent about something or other. At least the conversation is something of a distraction, and it’s still preferable to the rehabilitation sessions.
When he finally makes it back to his sofa each time, keen just to get away from the chatter of the walk, it hits him that he needs something, anything to do. The silence of the cottage is too much. He sits through hours of sitcoms, or films of varying levels of direness which he’s ordered off the internet.
Somehow, he realises one night, still wide awake on the sofa after 1am, he’s made it through three straight box sets of The Tudors. Pretty depressing, most of it. Or maybe that’s just his life.
There’s some fancy note paper in amongst his stuff upstairs, mixed in with other belongings he hasn’t looked at in years. He makes his way cautiously back down the stairs, and finds some scratty biros in the kitchen. They make one hell of a contrast with the posh paper, but they’ll do.
He writes a letter. It’s to Esca, of course – who else? He’s got naff-all idea what to say at first, though. There’s a lot he could say. There’s not much happening here, admittedly, but there’s plenty he could say about how much he fucking hates it. But he knows damn well that that isn’t something to send to a soldier.
So it’s got to be banalities. He’s seen at least one film he can complain about – Esca recommended it, but he’s sure that must have been a windup. There’s no way he could have genuinely liked it. There’s little positive Marcus can find with it, and he has a good whinge. It might be a pathetic thing to complain about, but it’ll do, and at moments he can feel his tongue in his cheek.
He finishes with a seriously-meant order: Esca is categorically not to use his next phone call on him. He’s done it twice now, and has made no promise to stop.
Esca isn’t expecting post, so it’s a surprise when one of the newly-arrived items turns out to be for him. For a moment he worries, but the handwriting on the envelope doesn’t belong to either of his brothers, and a suspicion plants itself in his mind. The envelope’s unassuming, but the paper inside turns out to be pretty fancy.
The writing, at first glance, is nice – it’s neat, or at least it looks like it should be. It’s hardly chicken-scratch, but it looks like the hand in question belongs to someone distracted. He cheats, glances ahead, and suddenly realises perfectly well why that is. With an injury like Marcus’, there are probably opioid painkillers floating about, and they’ll do pretty well for distracting just about anyone.
But never mind that. The content makes him smile and wince alternately. Marcus obviously does have a taste for romantic films. And he’s obviously also very, very bored. He’s already confirmed the latter well enough from the phone calls; Marcus wants to come back, and given the official conversation Esca’s now had with Sergeant Knight, that makes him feel guilty as hell.
He writes back, and just like Marcus he keeps it light.
That week, he uses his half-hour to call Adair.
When the letter arrives, Marcus has just experienced his worst night’s sleep since those immediately after he left hospital. His leg won’t stop hurting, sometimes a dull throb, sometimes a feeling of fatigue, sometimes shooting pain. None of them are surprising, given what the doctors have told him. Might go on forever, even, if the nerve’s really messed up.
He has codeine with his coffee, and when he hears something hit the doormat, he makes his way down the corridor. The stick, held on his good side, swung in step with his bad leg, is almost like an extra limb now; he’s used to it, but he still can’t wait to get rid of it. And he’s determined that that, at least, is something he will be able to do.
Stooping to retrieve the few items on the mat is difficult, but movements like that are gradually getting a little easier. He’s also accustomed enough to his pain relief now that bending over no longer makes him feel like he’s going to lose his balance. He thumbs through the post, and makes his way back to the kitchen.
The pizza leaflet goes promptly in the paper bin. The bank statement gets better treatment, but fairly short shrift – hooray, so he still has money, hardly as if he has a lot to do with it.
The third item is easily recognisable: it’s an aerogramme, Forces Free Mail. As he starts on his second coffee of the day, he opens the envelope, and pulls out a fairly brief missive. Sure enough, the surprisingly tidy and elegant cursive belongs to Esca.
In content, the letter’s nothing of particular gravity, though he’s not sure what else he was expecting. Details can’t be shared with civilians, and that, for all intents and purposes, is what he is at the moment. There’s plenty of other things that could be shared safely with him, but they’d probably make him feel like shit if they were. So the choice of material’s probably a conscious effort to spare his feelings. No surprises on that front.
Esca claims to be unable to remember the bad film in any great detail, but he seems willing enough to corroborate a few aspects of Marcus’ critique, which makes him smile. Then the shooting pains come back, and wipe the expression off his face pretty quickly. It’s a good three hours at least before he can take any more painkillers, so he grits his teeth and drinks his coffee.
Once Esca’s dealt with that film, he moves on to another that Marcus mentioned, an old one, and there follows a long description. Evidently, Esca’s last ever date with a girl involved seeing the film in question, and there are some truly cringe-inducing details about it. Teenage boys heckling in the next row, toffee popcorn and its tricky consistency, and the girl, five foot nothing in stature, trying to pull the yawn-embrace.
Marcus finds himself laughing, the phrasing and the wit pulling him away from pain and codeine fuzziness for a moment. Then he reaches the final lines of the letter.
Luke found out I was writing to you. He sends his best, and he says they ‘should give you a damn medal’.
A scribble follows, and Marcus squints at it. He can still tell what the words underneath, small and apparently not worthy of being retained, say.
Sorry. Miss you.
Almost vengefully, he swigs down the last of his coffee, which is by now the same temperature as the moisture trying to creep out the corners of his eyes. A knock at the door follows, and he glances at the clock on the wall. It’s about twelve thirty. The time makes little difference to who it’s likely to be, anyway, and he scrubs at his eyes with his left hand as he stands and goes to the front door.
“Hello, my boy. Are you ready?”
Oh, hell. He’d forgotten about agreeing to this, and there’s no way his uncle will take no for an answer now. So he stumps back down the hall to grab a jacket, stuff his wallet in his pocket, and put on the stupid slip-on shoes that save him having to bend or balance.
His uncle seems to think he’s going to get agoraphobia or something if he’s left to his own devices. Fat chance of that happening, Marcus thinks as they make the slow journey to the pub, one-sided chatter underway as usual. At least there’s one perk this time, as he’s going to be fed.
Then they arrive, and his uncle immediately vetoes him having a beer. The food’s evidently going to be the only perk.
He’s halfway through a massive lasagne when he hits an even bigger low. The food’s great, but suddenly all he can think about is eating the same meal in cookhouses – in barracks at home, in Camp Bastion or Kandahar, or on a forward operating base. He suddenly feels very aware of the possibility that he might not get to go out there again. There’s a good chance that this is it now: eating with his uncle at a heavy, varnished table in a centuries-old public house in a village near Reading.
When his uncle disappears to the toilet, Marcus suddenly finds Leo, the landlord, at his shoulder. He regards Marcus with sympathy, which would be a bit of an affront if he didn’t follow the look with the furtive question: “D’you want a drink while the old man’s not watching?”
Marcus shouldn’t, of course, but he releases a long, slow breath through his teeth, and nods. “Love one, thanks.”
“Coke okay?” When he nods again, Leo nips back behind the bar, and sticks a glass under the suspended white rum bottle for two shots before filling it up from the soft-drink hose. “Bottoms up.”
“Thanks.” Gratefully, Marcus drains half of it, and finishes the piece of garlic bread on his plate.
They leave halfway through the afternoon, after Leo’s managed to sneak him another proper drink. His uncle leaves him at the cottage door, and Marcus, knowing full well there’s nothing in the cottage, sneaks straight back out (as much as he can sneak with his stick) and buys himself a six pack.
He spends the evening with a few crappy horror films, refusing to think about cookhouses or lasagne or the letter.
Then, halfway through a film and a beer, he falls asleep, and when he returns to consciousness, he feels wide awake. He also feels pissed and a bit sick. And now he can’t keep himself from thinking about the letter. It’s nice to know that Luke is thinking of him. He thinks. It also kind of stinks. He knows that if he were in the same situation again, he’d do the same thing, and take the risk to protect a comrade. But he hates knowing that the decision has rendered him useless to everyone, including himself.
The funny thing, when he thinks about the letter, is that he doesn’t just miss being in the field. He sort of misses Esca.
At some point, he falls asleep again, and when he wakes up the following day, he knows his uncle was right to try and stop him drinking anything. Half the day is spent on his knees in the bathroom. Throwing up is something he can handle. But the position is murder on his thigh, and he can’t take painkillers. He wouldn’t be able to keep them down, and in any case the codeine’s the reason he’s feeling like this in the first place.
It’s been a boring day, but out here that can be a blessing. No one’s been shot, or blown up, and Esca hasn’t had to fire a single bullet. He’s immensely glad of that. It isn’t getting any easier.
The sun’s setting, he’s eaten dinner, and he’s joining Luke and Guy and some others for a DVD in a few minutes. Right now he’s peeling the wrapping off a Mars bar. He bought the thing a few days ago from the little base shop, and hasn’t had the heart to eat it until now. But he’s got a bit of a sweet tooth sometimes, well hidden, and a few inches of what’s really pure sugar is just what he needs.
Well, mostly. It reminds him of sharing one with Marcus, compelled to eat a bite, nibbling and smiling and getting it all over his face. Eating this one, alone, isn’t the same.
Things here have got weird since the incident. He wishes Marcus were here, in a way, as he obviously wants to be. But more vehemently, Esca wishes that he himself were not here.
It’s a while before they speak again, as if both are trying to claw back some semblance of things being okay. That doesn’t go particularly well for either of them.
After his day spent worshipping the porcelain goddess, Marcus has to ditch beer in favour of his painkillers. It takes him some considerable effort not to start counting down the days until his hospital assessment; even though he realises it’d take a miracle for it to be good news, he just wants to know.
Esca takes to cleaning his Browning again, despite the discomfort it causes in the pit of his stomach. There’s a touch of nostalgia to it, and if he concentrates hard enough on the metal in his hands, he can imagine that Marcus is still there, watching with illicit promises in his eyes. He’s not, of course, and Esca’s too smart to fool himself for long. He won’t begin a countdown to the end of the tour, but that’s not to say for a minute that he’s not tempted.
He uses phone calls and snatched moments of letter-writing time to talk to his brothers. Adair hasn’t popped the question yet, and Esca tells him outright that as soon as he’s back in the UK he’s going to come and smack him upside the head to knock some sense into him. Pansy. It’s not as if ignoring the issue is going to stop it existing, so why doesn’t Adair just get on with it? The whole thing’s to no avail, of course; his brother’s as stubborn as he is.
Marcus never loses track of when the tour will be ending; he’s been on soldier-time for years, so it’s still programmed in his mind that deployments run in six-month blocks, leave lasts so many days, and dates x, y, and z are important. He doesn’t think about it consciously. He can’t dwell on it. But a corner of his mind won’t forget the date, heading into autumn, when the unit will be coming home. It’s fixed in there along with all the new necessaries, like physio sessions and the assessment.
With not much more than a month left, he cracks and writes another letter. This time he really has no clue what to say; he’s sick of complaining. He ends up writing about some dragonflies he’s been watching out on his uncle’s pond – well, it’s almost a lake, but he’s certainly not going to call it that. His prose is probably getting a bit purple as he describes the bright colours and lacy wings, and skates over what he thinks the two insects were attempting to do, but it’s better than talking about bad films or how many box sets of whatever he’s got through lately. Almost sounds like he has a life.
Esca knows the handwriting on the envelope, and finds himself relaxing on to his camp-bed with a smile as he opens it. It’s been odd not speaking, and he couldn’t, if asked, explain why they’ve been out of contact like this, though it’s hitherto been making perfect sense. Still, it’s always nice to have mail.
He’s biting his lip by the end of the first page (fancy note paper again), as Marcus manages to convey precisely what the two dragonflies were up to without saying a single explicit, scientific, or euphemistic word. It’s so Marcus to put it the way he has, and Esca imagines him speaking the words he’s written, his tone probably a mixture of disapproval and amusement.
Well, it might be a letter about fabulously beautiful dragonflies (who happen to be enjoying a little of the other), but at least they’re speaking. And it doesn’t sound fake. He’s not sure whether or not to be surprised at that. Maybe he just doesn’t know Marcus well enough to understand how he’s handling all this. In fact, lately he hasn’t even understood his own reactions to events.
That week’s half hour goes to Marcus, and by the time they hang up, there’s an epic and somewhat ridiculous love story conjured up behind the dragonflies’ encounter.
In the final month, Esca determines to make the best of a bad job. He’s in the home stretch, and he’s got things to achieve. Can’t let people down. So he holsters his damn Browning, shoulders his rifle, and gets things done.
Marcus seems to spend a lot of time sitting by the pond. There’s a bench out there, which gives a pretty good vantage point for watching tiny creatures going about their business: little frogs, the odd fish, pond-skaters, more dragonflies. He rests his arm along the back of the seat, and runs his fingertips over the grooves of the lettering where his uncle had the names of Marcus’ parents carved into it. He’s never been supremely fond of that kind of memorial, but now it seems to help.
It’s a calm place. He doesn’t have to talk, or work on rehabilitation exercises, or think about what he’s going to do with the remainder of his life. It makes him feel like an old man, but it’s the lesser of the available evils.
There are two weeks left on the tour when Esca calls the last time. He grouches about his brothers and the previous day’s iffy cookhouse dinner, and asks after the pond-life. Marcus obliges; sympathises; calls the dragonflies by the names they came up with. All too quickly, it’s time to go, and Esca tells him that he’ll call once he’s back in the country.
The sunsets over the fields while he sits by the pond are beautiful. The air has the slight snap that heralds the onset of autumn.
The journey back is a weird one. Esca barely remembers going home from the Kandahar tour, so he can’t tell if this deserves to be labelled as normal or anything like it. People alternate between being buoyant and being silent, relieved and a little excited as they head for the airfield to get their plane.
The unit’s solid, and simple looks exchanged seem enough, most of the time, for each of them to convey and comprehend feelings. There’s a sense of relief that’s almost tangible, but Esca’s pretty sure the tempering air of regret isn’t just in his own head. Sure, no one died on this tour, and that’s pretty good. But they’ve still lost someone, even if they won’t talk about him.
Esca almost wishes someone would. Even Luke’s fallen silent on that subject now; he might have put his ‘saviour’ on some kind of pedestal after the incident, but as the reality of Marcus’ absence has sunk in, it’s been safer to leave the pedestal at a distance. There’s a line to tread here, and this is more complicated to deal with than a death.
It’s a long trip, but nobody seems inclined to make a real effort to entertain themselves. Hours to get to Kandahar, then waiting for the plane, then finally seven hours in flight. Not a single face looks bored, and Esca knows that most of them are probably picturing themselves already with their families.
He can’t help but think about what this journey should have been like. The unit should have been complete, not a man down, and he should have been exchanging glances, smiles, with Marcus, thinking about their plans. He wishes they were still going to do what they had planned – it’s not like he’s desperate for genuinely private sex in some identity-less hotel, but he’s actually missed having company. Damn, he’s missed having Marcus.
In the end he, like a fair number of the others, falls asleep for a while, and when he wakes up they’re coming in to Brize Norton. It’s mid-morning, and a quick look around shows a mixture of faces that look half-asleep and faces that look like their owners have had several coffees in succession.
Getting on to the coach that’s taking them back to barracks, he feels flat. He might’ve threatened Adair with repercussions as soon as he got back into the country, but realistically that’s not happening. There’s no way he’s heading straight up north. What he really feels like doing is going to bed, and spending a long time there. That’s not such a strange thing to want to do after finishing a tour, but the fact is he really doesn’t want to do it alone.
Once they reach barracks and he gets his hands on his stuff again, he sits down for several minutes, just holding his phone. And somehow he knows what his next move should be.
It’s evening, and Marcus has just finished a rather disappointing Chinese takeaway when there’s a knock at the door. “Damn it,” he mutters, and hobbles into the hallway, not even bothering with the stick. It must be his uncle, though God only knows what he wants at this time. Probably wants to drag Marcus out, maybe to the pub (where he can’t flaming drink) again.
Then he opens the door, and it’s a sign of the state of his brain that the first thing to strike him is the realisation that he can’t remember ever seeing Esca in civvies before. But here he is, standing on the cottage porch in jeans and a scruffy cable-knit jumper. His hair’s a mess, sparkling from the light rain outside, and there’s a set to his jaw that speaks of nerves. Wordlessly, Marcus steps back to let him in, and immediately he starts talking.
“I’m sorry, I know I said I’d call, but when we got back I thought I had time to get over here. Getting a train in Reading took longer than I thought though, and I had to ask about six people how to find this place.” He looks like he wants to say more, but he stops.
“It’s... good to see you,” Marcus manages to say, none too eloquently.
“God, you too.” The words escape Esca in a rapid exhale. “I mean, fuck, it’s good to see you alive. You scared the shit out of me before.”
“Well, I didn’t die.” Marcus tries to smile, though it comes out pretty awkward. “Maimed, yeah. Killed, no.”
Esca just mutters a couple more expletives, and grabs Marcus’ sleeve, as if to confirm that he’s real. “Been bloody weird without you.”
“Been bloody weird here too,” Marcus admits, and lets the weak attempt at a smile slide off his face.
For a moment, it looks as if Esca’s forgotten how to breathe. The small satchel he was carrying is slipping carelessly from his fingers. “...For a bit, I really thought you were a goner.”
A muscle jumps in Marcus’ jaw. “So did I.”
“Oh, Jesus.” Without another second’s hesitation, Esca moves forward and wraps his arms tightly around Marcus’ waist, face buried in the front of his t-shirt. It poses a brief challenge to their collective balance, but Marcus’ leg is stable enough to keep them both up.
It feels unbelievably strange to have Esca in his arms, and he’s dimly aware that for a while back there, he wasn’t sure he’d have this moment again. He clings on, trying for now not to think about anything but how good it feels to hold Esca’s solid warmth against his chest, to breathe together and not even speak. It’s like finally breaking out of the self-made cell he’s been in since he came back to the UK.
His hands smooth up and down Esca’s spine, the damp wool of his jumper soft under his palms. Esca’s hair brushes against his cheek, and he idly wonders how long he can get away with just standing there, holding on.
It’s a while before Esca gently disengages from the embrace, and his face looks just a little flushed as he moves back. Then his eyes flick down to Marcus’ leg, and the colour in his cheeks rises a touch more. “Sorry, I should let you sit down or something – how’s your leg?”
Marcus’ smile is actually genuine this time. “My leg’s okay. Come through to the kitchen.” It takes some concentration to get there himself, but he can move without the stick if he tries. “Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee?” He moves for the kettle; right now he feels he could do with something hot.
“Tea would be good, thank you.” Esca settles into a chair, hands folded on top of the big wooden table. He looks somewhat awkward, as if he’s got something to say but isn’t sure how he’s going to say it.
Marcus just watches his expression as surreptitiously as he can while he makes two large mugs of tea – both with milk, Esca’s with one sugar, as requested – and takes them over to the table. “...Are you okay?”
Esca looks down into his tea, and takes a sip. It burns his tongue slightly, but it takes away from the faint nausea brewing in his stomach. “Yeah, fine.”
“Look, I know it’s weird when you finish a tour. It won’t upset me if you’re bothered about going on leave. I’m getting better at handling this kind of thing.” He musters a rather tight, small smile.
“It’s not that.” Esca swallows heavily. “I’m... I’m glad to be back. Really glad. You don’t need to worry about me talking about how the tour was.”
Marcus frowns. “So what’s up?”
“I’ve given my notice.” Esca stares resolutely at his mug. “I’ve still got most of my twelve-month period to do, and then I’ll be in reserves still, but I’m quitting service.”
“...Oh.” Marcus wasn’t expecting that. Still, it’s not really the punch in the gut he might have expected it to be, hearing that someone else is quitting by choice when he’s being forced to leave. “Why?”
“I can’t stand it any more.” Esca’s gaze remains fixed on the tea. “Every time I picked up a gun after what happened, I felt sick. After what I saw a bullet do to you, I can’t do it.”
Marcus takes a long gulp of his tea. “...I’m sorry.”
Now, at least, Esca looks at him. “What? Why?”
He half-shrugs. “Fucking over my own career was my problem. I didn’t realise I’d be doing it to someone else’s as well.”
Esca snorts in bitter amusement, and looks across at him with a helpless expression on his face. “You’re just too good, you know that?” He drags a hand through his hair. “I mean Jesus, Marcus, you didn’t choose to get shot. You didn’t make me react like this.”
“But maybe I could have...” Marcus flails for a way to finish his sentence, but there isn’t one.
“There’s nothing you could have done, before or since.” Esca falls silent for several moments, drinking his tea. “I should’ve known it was a risk of getting involved in the first place. Didn’t think like that, though.”
“Me neither.” Marcus cradles his mug in both hands, and watches him pensively. He’s not altogether sure what he’s going to say from here on in, so for a while he sips, feeling his way in the silence. “...Sorry we never made it to that hotel.”
Esca laughs, and it’s a clearer sound this time, more relaxed than before. “For a while I thought I’d never see you again. Believe me, the hotel’s not too great a loss.” He looks seriously, candidly across the table at Marcus. “It was just about getting you to myself for a while, anyway.”
Marcus smiles, the words soothing him somehow, so he can forget for now all the negative thoughts that have been weighing him down. “You’ve got that. I’m not exactly whole, but I’m all yours.”
The words hang for a moment, and Marcus feels heat beginning to spread over his cheeks at the way they sounded. But Esca just gazes at him, his head slightly tilted, his jaw slightly tight, and says quietly: “Really?”
He nods, biting his lip. “...Well, yeah.” He wants to explain it better, throw in some more words that might make what he’s said sound less... less like it sounds now. Something grates in his throat, and he coughs a little and tries to say something. “I mean, not like... but...”
Esca’s on his feet suddenly, lithe as a cat, and he touches a finger to Marcus’ lips. “Shh. I know.”
At the obvious incredulity in his voice, Esca smiles, and his gaze drops away shyly for a moment. “I think I do. And if I don’t, I guess we’ll figure it out.”
Marcus exhales slowly as the touch of Esca’s fingertip brushes his chin and falls away. “There’s something,” he begins, watching the kindling light in Esca’s blue eyes, wondering what he should expect next, “I wanted to ask if you... if we...”
Esca kisses him. It’s the first time he has, and even though it’s just what Marcus meant to ask, it’s not what he was expecting. It’s gentle, and it reminds him of their snatched moments together on deployment despite being a world removed from the eager, forceful way they were with one another then.
When Esca pulls back, the kiss not having gone beyond a caress of lips against lips, Marcus finds himself frowning. “You don’t have to act like I’m fragile or something,” he says, hating the obstinate, contrary note in his voice but knowing he has to say it.
To his great relief, Esca’s lips curl at the corners, and his fingers smooth over Marcus’ hairline. His voice is soft, conspiratorial. “I’m not. Don’t you get that? We can forget the game now.”
Oh. A superhuman weight falls from Marcus’ shoulders, and he can see in Esca’s smile that he’s seen it go. “I was never sure there’d be anything left after the game was over,” he admits, unable to look Esca in the eye as he says it.
“You don’t know me well enough yet, then.” Esca slips his hand to the back of Marcus’ neck, thumb rubbing warm circles over the skin. “Plenty of time, though,” he adds, and Marcus’ hum of agreement is muffled by another kiss.
It lasts longer this time, pressure of lips chased by the softest suggestion of more, and taste and heat and motion. Knowing that this is how it would be even if he had never been hurt, Marcus revels in it, holding on and responding as Esca’s tongue maps the contours of his mouth, all smooth warmth and delicate sensation.
“You taste of MSG,” Esca murmurs afterwards, and Marcus laughs with him.
“The takeaway wasn’t up to much.”
“Can’t you cook?”
He shrugs. “Sometimes. It’s just hard to muster the effort some days.”
Esca nods, reading the harsh truth of these last months straight from Marcus’ face, and kisses him once more, swiftly and chastely. “I make a mean spag bol,” he says with a little smile. “I could teach you some time.”
It’s more than an offer of a cooking lesson, and Marcus smiles gratefully. “I’d like that. Thanks.” A twinge runs through his leg then, and he winces.
Esca’s on it immediately. “You okay?” He’s unconvinced by Marcus’ nod. “We should move. This chair’s probably not doing it any favours.” He backs off a step, and helps Marcus to his feet.
The sensation shudders through him again, and only by concerted will does he stay standing.
“Okay.” Esca steadies him. “It’s getting pretty late; can you get upstairs?”
“Yep.” Marcus grits his teeth slightly. He wants to apologise, or something, but he’s got no idea what to say without sounding like a complete idiot. So he keeps his mouth shut and focuses on staying upright and keeping moving.
The stairs go more easily than he might have expected, and he does speak when they’re about two thirds of the way up. “My uncle did suggest getting a stair-lift put in.”
Esca laughs, and looks sideways at him. “Do I even want to ask what you said to that?”
“I kept it clean,” Marcus insists, and returns Esca’s grin. “His heart’s in the right place.”
“Good.” They’ve paused on a step, and Marcus instinctively reaches out to smooth the frown that’s appeared on Esca’s brow. It’s an eloquent enough sign of something he’s not going to say: he’s been worried as all hell about how Marcus has been dealing with things at home.
Soon they make it to Marcus’ bedroom, and he sits down heavily on the edge of his bed.
“Is it improving?” Esca asks, sinking down next to him.
Marcus shrugs. “In fits and starts. It’s not going to go back to normal. But it does well enough, most of the time.”
“I’m sorry.” Esca absorbs his look with equanimity. “I know it’s a useless thing to say, but I am.”
“Nothing any of us can do.” Marcus shrugs again, trying to ignore the weight in his chest.
Esca doesn’t say anything more – too wise for that – but just kisses him again, and that takes some of the weight away.
It’s when things are getting a little more serious that Marcus suddenly pulls back, and Esca’s hands, which have slipped under his t-shirt, fall still. “I...”
One of Esca’s hands comes up to cradle his chin, making Marcus meet his eyes. “I know it’s different,” Esca says softly. “But nothing that’s happened has changed what I want.”
Marcus swallows heavily. “...I’m not the same. I’m not whole any more.”
Esca moves closer to him, and rests his free hand gently on Marcus’ knee. “You’re just the same man you were before – better, stronger, if anything. They can’t change you.”
“But...” Marcus’ expression is tense, and he knows that if this goes any further, the precise effects of these few months will be obvious. Esca’s fingertips have already come close to touching the muscles that, through weeks of forced inactivity, have begun to turn to fat. And that’s without even considering the state, despite the surgeons’ best efforts, of his leg.
“If you think it’s going to put me off, you’re underestimating me.” Esca’s words are quiet, insistent, and his tone is painfully believable.
“You don’t know how bad it is yet.”
“I don’t care.” Esca’s palm is warm on his knee in spite of the thick layer of weighty denim keeping skin from skin. “Doesn’t matter to me whether you’re my CO or a civilian, what your clothes are or what’s underneath them.”
“Really?” It’s only when he pushes the word out that he realises there’s a lump in his throat, and he’s mortified to discover tears prickling at the corners of his eyes.
“Yes.” There’s a hint of a crack in Esca’s voice as he goes on. “That’s never been the important thing. We’ve got time and somewhere to ourselves at last. Don’t shut me out now.”
Marcus can’t even get words out now, and just nods helplessly. The threat of tears becomes real, and Esca brushes the moisture away with his fingertips, murmuring soothing nonsense, before kissing him. And Marcus lets him, welcomes it, and uses the force of his good leg to shift himself properly on to the bed, pulling Esca with him.
Jumper and t-shirts are shed within minutes, and when Marcus shivers, Esca somehow enfolds him in his arms despite their difference in size. In response, Marcus offers him a smile as warm as the embrace, and ignores the renewed tingling at the corners of his eyes. Whether the tears fall or not, it doesn’t matter, and he’s glad to know it won’t make less of him.
The first jeans to go are Esca’s, and it is in part the desire to feel skin on skin that induces Marcus to swallow the last of his protests when he feels Esca’s fingers making a determined attempt on his belt. Once the buckle is undone, Esca litters his face with kisses, distracting and soothing as he unfastens the button and pushes down the zip.
Marcus feels his lips curl into a wry smile. “I don’t even know what I’m afraid of,” he whispers, more to the ceiling than to Esca, and Esca’s fingers still for a moment as he presses a kiss to the skin under Marcus’ ear.
“You don’t need to be. I’m here.”
And that’s so sweet that Marcus has to close his eyes, breathing slow and deep, raising his hips to give Esca room to slide the heavy denim down his legs. He won’t open his eyes until he feels the weight of the fabric slip over his feet and disappear. Then his courage fails him, and he still keeps them closed.
“Hey,” Esca whispers. His breath sighs gently over Marcus’ cheeks, then his eyelids, and then his lips brush the skin. “It’s alright. Open your eyes.”
Just like their first encounters, he follows Esca’s orders, and looks up at him.
“Yeah,” he breathes, convincing himself as best he can.
“I told you it’s not going to make me run.” Esca’s face is totally earnest.
Marcus takes a very deep breath. “I know.”
“I don’t even have to look if you’d rather I didn’t. But it’s part of you.” Esca runs his thumb over the tightly-bunched muscles in Marcus’ jaw. His eyes are darkened but serious.
Oh God, Marcus is in deeper here than he ever thought he would be. Then there’s another pang in his leg, and there’s no way Esca can miss the pain that passes over his face.
Then he feels Esca’s hands on his leg, fingers pressing solidly around the twitching muscle, and he doesn’t even care whether Esca’s looking or not. It hurts to begin with, but gradually it turns to relief, and a heedless sound escapes his lips as the discomfort fades away.
“Better?” Esca asks in a whisper, and when he murmurs ‘yes’, he feels Esca’s lips on the wrecked flesh – smooth, gentle, accepting. “Has the pain gone?” Esca murmurs several seconds later.
“Yeah.” Marcus can feel his breath levelling out again after the elevated sensation of the spasm and the touch. To his relief, Esca moves to lie over him once more, looking down at his face.
“How it looks doesn’t matter,” he says honestly, and nuzzles into the crook of Marcus’ neck.
Instinctively, Marcus wraps his arms around Esca’s wiry frame, overwhelmed for just a second or two by the very fact of him being there. “No?”
“No.” Esca brushes his lips over a pulse point, the weight of his body atop Marcus’ reassuring without being a burden. “What I’ve missed has nothing to do with your leg.”
Marcus’ mouth curls at the corner, and he can’t even bring himself to voice aloud the thought that comes to his mind.
It doesn’t matter; Esca seems to realise it anyway. “...It’s not the sex, either. It’s you.”
Goddamn. It’s enough for Marcus’ poor brain to deal with that the ‘crush’ he’s had since Kandahar might be more than that; the idea that it might have been more than that for Esca too is just overpowering. Suddenly, relaxed and safe for the first time in so long, Marcus is beginning to feel very tired.
Esca traces a fingertip down his torso, over the ripple of his ribs, coming to rest at the waistband of his boxers. He wasn’t sure he’d get the chance to experience this, and now he’s here he can hardly bring himself to move an inch. “You do funny things to my head, I swear.”
When he’s waited for a while, and there’s still no response, verbal or otherwise, Esca raises his head, and realises Marcus has fallen asleep.
All he can do is smile, and reach for the duvet, which he pulls up over them both. He shuffles off Marcus’ body so they both have room to breathe, and huddles in close. Is it really lame, he wonders as he closes his eyes, that this is kind of what he wanted all along?
Marcus wakes from the best night’s sleep he’s had in a long time to see dawn teasing at the edge of his bedroom curtains. Then, as his vision and his mind sharpen, he realises Esca is half-sprawled over him, snuffling and fidgeting and with really cold feet. It’s one hell of a treat to have a nice surprise to wake up to in the morning.
He doesn’t move. His leg doesn’t hurt (another nice surprise there), and it’s early still, so there’s no need. It only takes a few minutes before Esca stirs, and suddenly there’s a pair of muzzy blue eyes squinting at him, and Esca smiles before nuzzling against his chest. “Morning.”
“Morning,” Marcus murmurs back with an answering smile. “You sleep well?”
Esca chuckles softly, and Marcus can feel the vibration in his chest. “Oh, definitely.”
“Good.” Marcus barely moves, but Esca reads his mind and wriggles upwards to kiss him.
“How about you?” Esca asks quietly, their faces just inches apart.
“Best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.” Marcus stretches up and kisses him again. “...Thank you.”
Esca shrugs, his smile warm and easy, one gentle hand smoothing down Marcus’ chest. “No need to thank me.” He hesitates, palm resting over Marcus’ stomach, fingertips toying with his waistband.
It’s as if the covering of the duvet gives Marcus the confidence to forget the way he feels about his body now, and he stretches languorously. Delicately, he splays his hands over Esca’s shoulder blades, the skin warm and pliant under his touch.
There’s still a long moment where Esca looks into his eyes, gauging his response, before the playful touch of his fingers strays under the elastic. They both seem to relax, even as a sudden breath escapes Marcus’ lips, and Esca kisses him yet again. There’s no need to speak, but now – a gift that’s been hard-won – there’s no need to hurry either.
With leisurely strokes of fingers and with heated breath against his jaw, Esca slowly brings Marcus higher. It’s a revelation when Marcus realises that this time he can reciprocate, right here, right now, and slips his own hand into Esca’s underwear. The reaction is immediate, and the heat visible in Esca’s gaze causes Marcus’ breath to hitch in his throat.
Esca won’t stop looking at him, the contact between their gazes as important as what their hands are doing under cover of the duvet. Marcus strives to commit it all to memory, to copy in his mind the sounds and sensations of this, of returning to technicolour life after months of darkness and loss.
“I’ve got three weeks’ leave,” Esca breathes, and Marcus wonders for a moment why he’s saying it now, until he sees the heavy earnestness in Esca’s eyes. “Will you have me?”
“Yes,” he says instantly. “Stay.”
At once, Esca breaks into a beaming smile, and catches hold of his free hand. “Thank you,” he whispers, and presses a short kiss to the corner of Marcus’ mouth. “I want to learn you. All of you.” His voice hitches, and there’s a slight twist in the final stroke of his fingers, and Marcus is gone.
Through the haze, he watches Esca’s face, his darkened eyes, pink cheeks, quivering lower lip, and continues his movement. “Me too,” he says, hearing the huskiness in his own voice, and watches as Esca’s face changes. He finishes quietly, like Marcus remembers, but in his expression Marcus can see him come undone: his eyelashes lower to fan darkly over his cheeks, his jaw drops and tightens, and in the moments afterwards, everything in his expression radiates warmth.
Marcus gathers him close, pressing his lips to Esca’s temple, just feeling him there. Back when they were planning their sojourn to a hotel, this was not what he expected, this gentle, affectionate closeness. But a part of him knows that this was what was coming all along. If there was going to be something left once they were clear of the battlefield, it would make perfect sense for it to be this.
“You’re thinking. I can hear it,” Esca mumbles against his collarbone.
Smiling into his hair, Marcus runs a hand down the smooth skin of Esca’s arm. “Sorry.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Esca says, and his tone makes it obvious that he’s smiling too. “I’m not going to give you the time to think too much.”
“What if I say I’m thinking good things?”
“I’d rather you said them out loud.” Esca shifts to press his lips against the skin just over Marcus’ heart. “Now we’ve got each other to ourselves for a while.”