Agron stood at the edge of the woods and stared into them. Blue eyes searched for darker ones, Syrian eyes staring back at him but found none. They'd been gone for too long, the group going after Naevia; if the rescue had gone to plan, they would have arrived there at the base of Vesuvius already. Something had delayed them. Something had interfered and there was every chance the whole of them were dead and gone within the maze of mines.
And Agron had left them to that fate.
It was nightfall now. There were footsteps behind him. He didn't draw his sword but instead kept his face turned toward the long woods they'd traveled to reach what would be their new base. The footsteps were delicate, but not the footsteps of someone sneaking; no, they were only of a woman.
She stood in silence next to him for a moment, peering through the trees as well. Agron glanced her way; she was one of the slaves from the villa they'd liberated. Blonde of hair and fair of skin. Had taken up with one of the Gauls. He didn't know her name.
He wondered if she was waiting for him, too. For her previous Dominus' body slave. For the dark-skinned Syrian. Because surely she wasn't missing that shit-eating Gaul of hers. She only had to speak to confirm his suspicions. "He never should have gone. If they had to fight their way out…"
"He's drawn sword against Romans before," Agron was quick to reply. The German had been telling himself the very same thing, trying to find comfort in it. It was after a moment that he realized he'd revealed himself in his hasty answer. He made no secret of his affection, but neither did he make a spectacle of it. No matter; she had to have already known. Otherwise she would have been more plain in who she was referring to.
Agron sighed. "Fucking Crixus. They never should have gone in after his woman. No doubt they all died for her."
The woman reached out and touched his arm. He glanced down at those fingers, brow furrowed. He didn't want her touching him; last time he'd taken notice of her, that ugly Gaul had been cock-deep inside of her. Or it could have been that Agron was just bitter because those weren't the hands he truly wanted to feel.
"Return to camp," he said abruptly, shaking her hand off. He looked once more toward the woods. Come now, he thought. Before I have to come find you. The slave woman - Chadara, he would soon find out she was called - did as she was told, and after a few moments alone, hoping and hoping, Agron followed. He was finished waiting for their return from the mines. He would hasten it.
The group's spirits were high. They'd journeyed all the way to Vesuvius and had survived with only scant encounters with the enemy, ones that had claimed no lives but those of the Romans and those loyal to Rome. That Agron had to - no, had decided to - dampen those high spirits with what he was about to say weighed heavy on him. He stepped among and over tired bodies until he stood in the midst of them all, and then raised voice. "We're safe here," he said, and that was met with a few cheers. He bore no smile, though. "There are those of us still in danger. The ones that went into the mines - word has not yet reached us of their fate. But I fear the worst. That Romans are pursuing them and they flee here. Without aid they will all die." It was clear that he meant for them to be that aid.
"And what if we should share that fate?" One of the gladiators stepped forward. "If they've got the entire Roman fucking army at their backs, we'll be the next ones slaughtered."
There was a moment of stillness and quiet after those words fell. In that moment, all Agron could see in his mind's eye was a small, dark body crawling through the forest, calling for him, calling for help—
Agron drew his sword. The crowd immediately, collectively took a step back; some of the men reached for their own weapons, but didn't draw them as he had. Agron pointed that sword toward the man that had spoken and started moving, circling him. A path was made for him. "Are you a fucking gladiator," he spat, "or are you a coward?" No matter that he'd been the one to lead them here for their safety instead of leading them to the mines, which would have surely been their graves. Had that been cowardice, too?
But all around him stood not only gladiators. No, there were slaves. Women. People that never would have been able to stand against the Romans, not on the road to Vesuvius or in the mines. He had made the right choice for them. Now they were safe - as safe as fugitives could be.
A frustrated noise escaped him and he stopped his pacing, glancing back toward the woods and still hoping to find the flash of skin bathed in moonlight. Still none. The German lowered his sword, let it hang at his side before sliding blue eyes back to the men and women intent on him. "We'll comb the woods. Search for any survivors. We won't go back to the mines. If any of them are still there, it's in chains or in pools of blood.
"Those of you who are willing and able," he continued, "who have swords, take them up. And let's hunt some fucking Romans. We leave at dawn."
The men seemed to like that. He grinned with them, pumped his fist, but the Romans were not what he was hunting. He was hunting for whatever remained of the group that had gone into the mines. For the leader of this rebellion, Spartacus, and if asked why he risked life and limb, he might say it was for that man. But when dawn approached, and it would be soon, there would only be one he thought of as he moved through those wood once again. Only one - Nasir.
Agron turned from the group and from where they'd made their camp. His footfalls led him back to his sentry position at the edge of the woods, and there he would wait until the sun peeked over the horizon. There he would close his eyes and remember the mere moments he'd had with that fucking Syrian, and pray to the gods for a few more.
There, at the edge of the forest, Agron looked for respite in his memories. There, he remembered and found comfort.
'My brother called me Nasir,' he'd said. Agron couldn't free his mind of it. He'd been sure the Syrian had been intent on ending Spartacus' life, and then he'd saved them all. Had seen to it that those scouts would never leave the villa with the knowledge that rebels and freed slaves occupied it. The little dog they'd all meant to put down had revealed himself as true and had shrugged off his ties to Rome when he'd spoken his true name.
And Agron's mind was full of him.
The hour was late. Early the next day they were to move against some slave traders riding toward the mines. Agron should have been resting; they had this villa now and could come by sleep more easily within those walls, but even as the rest of their numbers slumbered around him, he found no peace. No peace from the man that had once claimed to be more Roman than Syrian, but no more.
Agron sat up and rubbed calloused hands over tired face. Bare feet found the cool stone floor beneath him and he walked with no destination, until he heard the sounds of another waking soul. It was toward those sounds that he moved, toward someone to share in his sleeplessness, whoever it may be. The sounds were not loud, only of feet moving in sand and cold metal swinging through the night air.
The courtyard - the one that reminded Agron so much of the house of Batiatus, where the gladiators had trained - was empty save one other man. The very one that occupied Agron's mind and stole him from sleep now danced in the moonlight with sword and shield. Agron watched as his small, dark frame lunged toward an invisible attacker, thrust with the sword and kept the shield tucked close to his body. Initially, his gaze was a scrutinizing one, looking on the Syrian as Doctore would have looked upon him, but as moments passed so did any caring for technique. Instead, he found himself admiring the man. The little dog that had bared teeth. Agron would have him whimper.
The German leaned against a column of stone, feet yet upon the deck and not the sand. Strong arms crossed over a broad chest and he found himself grinning even as he banished that last thought from his mind. Nasir needed to be a soldier, not a lover. Not both, not yet, and Agron would have to often remind himself of this.
"Who do you fight so fiercely, little man?" Agron called out, blue gaze sliding up the Syrian's body from bottom to top. Nasir spun around, his dark eyes wide with surprise at the sound of another's voice. The sword faltered, Agron noticed; it lowered just slightly before Nasir caught it and lifted it again.
"The Romans," came the answer.
"It wasn't long ago you counted yourself among them," Agron returned. There was a teasing in his tone.
The sword faltered again, but this time lowered entirely, Nasir's arm hanging at his side. "No longer," he said. No longer. Agron recalled the conversation they'd had. 'I too had a brother,' Agron had said. 'No longer?' Nasir had asked, though he'd been called Tiberius then. The pain of losing Duro lingered and always would, though sometimes Agron forgot it. Like then, when he'd been watching Nasir move.
Agron pushed himself away from the pillar and walked out into the courtyard and began to slowly circle Nasir, examining him as he did so. "Even with training from the mighty Spartacus, slayer of Theokoles, you handle the sword like a child." He meant to inflame Nasir. To enrage him. There was a flicker of defiance in those dark eyes, but the remark was otherwise met with silence. Agron had not stopped in his circling of the man.
"Continue," Agron ordered. Nasir shifted the sword in his hand for a moment and seemed to weigh the demand, but soon took up his weapon and continued much in the way he had when he'd been unaware of his audience, though there seemed to be a bit more effort put forth underneath the watchful eyes of the gladiator.
Soldier, Agron told himself. Nasir's dark skin glistened with sweat even without the sun beating down upon him. Soldier, not a lover. "Stop," his voice rang out. The mantra continued in the back of his mind.
"You hide behind your shield, little man," he observed, stepping closer. He moved toward the other man's back; Nasir turned his head to keep Agron in his periphery, it seemed, but was otherwise still. "The sword isn't the only weapon you have," Agron continued. He reached out and wrapped his fingers around the wrist of Nasir's shield arm, making the other man extend that arm. Only a short distance separated their two bodies; one step forward and they would have been pressed close, Agron's front to Nasir's back. "Don't hold it to you so tightly. It is not something to cling to. It's part of you, as sword is part of you. An extension of your body."
Moonlight revealed goosebumps rising on the Syrian's skin. Agron was close enough to see them; they drew his eye but he forced himself not to linger. He did lean forward, though, even as he released Nasir's wrist. "Again," he said into the other man's ear, and then stepped back to once again observe. Nasir slashed at the air and better used his shield offensively after Agron's brief instruction. He learned quickly, it seemed. The dog had more than just sharp teeth and claws.
Agron moved to a corner of the courtyard, where the weapons for training were kept, and bent to pick up one of the swords. He took only one, and no shield, to give Nasir advantage. He would need it. Agron twirled the sword in hand, caught the Syrian's eye with the movement. And when their gazes met, the gladiator nodded, and within a moment the sound of steel against steel rang through the courtyard.
Nasir fought fiercely, but Agron countered him at every turn. There was a short pause in the fight during which Nasir caught his breath, and Agron offered him a too-playful grin. "Reach out and touch me, little man," he baited, and there was a hint of a smile on Nasir's face before he swung with his sword again.
Perhaps Agron had let his guard down, or perhaps he was a good teacher; no matter which, Nasir drew blood. Only a scratch on Agron's upper arm, and the amount of blood exaggerated the severity of it. Nasir halted, eyes wide, and his lips parted to let out a warning or, perhaps, an apology, but words never passed those lips because air was stolen from them. Agron took advantage of Nasir's dropped guard and knocked him to the ground, using his larger frame to pin the smaller to the sands.
"Show that mercy to the Romans," Agron said, voice breathless from the training, "and you'll find head parted from body." He lingered, though he shouldn't have. Nasir didn't squirm, didn't try to push him away and so he stayed for a moment longer than he should have allowed himself. And the entire time, he held Nasir's gaze; the Syrian couldn't look away.
"What," Agron challenged after a few beats of silence. "Did someone rob you of your tongue? I remember you having more bark than that, little man."
Nasir seemed to be weighing something. The fingers that were slack around the strap of his shield flexed, as if he meant to move, but he apparently thought better of it. What he'd meant to do with that hand, Agron didn't know. He could guess.
Having gotten no reply, Agron started to move, to pick himself up off of Nasir's body. But, hastily, the Syrian spoke, as if to hold Agron there. "It was mercy that kept me from taking off your arm."
There was a moment of silence in which Agron turned to stare down at Nasir, both eyebrows raised. The gladiator wasn't blind; he saw eagerness there in Nasir's face. It was likely he wasn't aware of it. A grin curled Agron's lips and was followed by a laugh, and in the midst of that laughter he reached out and cupped Nasir's jaw in one large hand. "I count myself lucky, then," he said, and then finally climbed onto his feet. He reached out for Nasir's hand and was given it, then helped the man to stand. As soon as the Syrian's feet found purchase, Agron used that grip to pull the smaller body close.
"You fought well," he offered, looking down at the face lifted toward his own. "Tomorrow we intercept a slaver's cart on the road. I will have your sword next to me." And before Nasir had time to answer, Agron used his free hand to clasp the man's forearm. "Regain your strength, Nasir. Sleep." And, with that, he retreated within the villa, leaving the other man there in the sand.
He found that the Syrian name somehow tasted better than the Roman one had.
There sat the fallen Crixus, heart broken in two. Agron, for once, felt pity for the man. Not pity enough to tell him the truth, that Naevia had been sent to the mines, but pity enough that he almost wished it wasn't a necessary evil.
Now he and Nasir held this weight: the weight of knowing the truth and being false. Some bore that weight better than others. "A sword in his chest would be a blow less felt," Nasir said. He could barely meet Agron's eyes, except when the gladiator reached out and took his hand.
"We've all made sacrifices." There was a familiar pain in his chest, one that accompanied thought of his brother. "Crixus now makes his."
"I would speak with him—" Nasir moved toward the Gaul, pulled his hand from Agron's grip but they weren't parted for long. Agron leaned forward, and there had been the slightest jump in his heartbeat, the slightest panic. No one could know what they knew but it seemed Nasir wasn't prepared to keep this secret.
"Your words would only cause greater suffering," Agron said beseechingly. He glanced toward Crixus. That Gaul's pain wasn't so great that all else should be sacrificed to ease it. "If he knew the truth…" Blue eyes searched for those darker ones, held them. Agron let go of Nasir's hand only to touch his face, demand his attention and show him that in that moment, they were one. They were in this together. "I would not have you—" Not you, not after Duro. "—and countless others fall in vain attempt."
Because vain attempt it would be, to rescue that woman from the mines. None of them would come out alive. Strong as they were, they could not stand against Rome and against labyrinthine tunnels that would surely trap them like rats. Of this Agron was sure.
Agron's hand lingered there on Nasir's face, his thumb shifting slightly to brush the man's cheekbone as he nodded. It was a welcome feeling, that skin-against-skin, and he swore he could feel the Syrian's face warm beneath the touch. He wanted more of it - more heat and the other man's eyes always on him as they were in that moment - but he denied himself that. He drew back. "Come," he said, and he offered Nasir a small grin. "There's much planning yet needed towards Neapolis."
He turned to leave Crixus to his heartache, and Nasir soon followed. "I felt less robbing a man of his life than I do robbing this man of his heart," Nasir said, and Agron's footfalls slowed. He should have been firm in that moment. Should have threatened Nasir to keep him from exposing them, but he found himself unable. No, he had a fondness for how very gentle the Syrian was revealing himself to be, when not long before he'd had no pity for anyone but himself. He'd even made an attempt on Spartacus's life in that anger.
The thought drew a short laugh from Agron. "None would be able to find middle ground within you, little man." he observed, turning the corner into one of the villas many rooms. He used that address, that pet name with more affection than he had before. "When you rage, you rival the wrath of the fucking gods. And when you take pity, it's with all of you." The room was empty, leaving them alone. It was a room that Agron and a number of the gladiators used for sleep, though it wasn't yet late enough for any of them to be settled in. Agron knew it would give himself and the Syrian the privacy they needed, as Nasir was still burdened with too much guilt and would speak words to condemn them. There, no one would hear those words. "I wonder what you might do with passion," he added, despite himself and with one of his grins.
"You speak to me in riddles," Nasir said. Agron turned to find the other man's eyes downcast. There was a familiar blush on his cheeks, too, one that begged to be touched again. Agron's hands, though, remained where they were, but he did draw closer.
"And you feel in extremes," he replied. He ducked his head down, tilted it to the side to try to find Nasir's gaze with his own. It was on him suddenly, so that he stopped in his approach.
"Do you not?" Nasir asked.
That gave Agron pause, and the grin on his face flickered. "Do I not what?"
Agron knew what Nasir asked of him. Not if he had emotions, no. To someone listening to their conversation, that might have seemed the case, but there was more between them than met the eye. There were looks that had been exchanged, fleeting touches, moments of tension - so what Nasir really asked was clear.
There was some distance between them that Agron would close, but for every step forward he took, Nasir took one back. Soon enough, the Syrian's back was against the wall, and he had nowhere else to go. So Agron advanced. "You know my answer," he said, voice low. The way Nasir pushed himself back against the wall demanded Agron's body there, pushing him from the front. And so they were pressed together, closer than they'd ever been. One of Agron's hands was splayed on the wall and the other reached out, wrapped around the back of the man's neck. His thumb traced the line of his jaw, turned Nasir's head at his will and exposed the long expanse of the Syrian's throat.
How badly Agron wanted to taste that skin. And there it was, offered to him freely; Nasir made no attempt to move away from the touch, no, but tilted his head back to further Agron's cause. The Syrian's eyes were closed and his breath came quickly, and Agron could feel the tension in him. The anticipation. But he would not be fulfilled that day.
Agron took a deep, steadying breath. He leaned forward, and his lips hovered over Nasir's skin but never touched. They hovered over his throat, his jaw, over his lips and cheeks and Nasir would be able to feel their presence though they did not find purchase. "Neapolis awaits us," he whispered finally. Nasir's dark eyes fluttered open and they were hazy when they fell upon Agron's face. The German continued. "Only there will I have time enough to show what I feel." Agron's fingertips slid into Nasir's dark hair and tangled there. "Slowly. And thoroughly. To leave no room for questions." And there was his grin again. Such a promising grin. Nasir's eyes closed again and he nodded, returning a faint smile.
There was a surge of voices outside. Agron tore his gaze away from the face so close to his own. The subject of Neapolis would soon be breached, and he needed to be there for it. "Come," he said, turning back to Nasir. Those dark eyes were looking at him again. Slowly, reluctantly, he slid his fingers from Nasir's hair and took a step back. "There's more to be done." Because if either of them wanted the promise that awaited them in Neapolis, the others would first have to be convinced to journey there at all.
The villa was quiet. The next day they would leave for Neapolis, where they would liberate countless fighting men from the ships that made port there. That was what Agron needed to be focused on. It was what he should have been thinking of as he sat awake amongst all of the other slumbering bodies, but his attention was elsewhere.
Nasir robbed him of sense at the worst of times. He could have been doing countless other things, productive things - planning or even resting, perhaps - but instead his eyes were closed and his mind was full of the dark-skinned man. Not of Neapolis, not of the secret he kept from Crixus, but of the Syrian. Agron remembered how their bodies had pressed together against that wall, remembered the harsh breath from Nasir's throat and the heat that came from him and Agron wondered in that moment how he'd ever been able to stay his desire.
It overtook him then. His body hummed with tension and there would be only one way to relieve himself of this. Abruptly, Agron pushed himself away from the wall he sat up against and stood. It was with careful footsteps he walked through the sea of sleeping bodies on the floor. He saw Nasir's compact figure there, no doubt dreaming peacefully of what he would find in Neapolis - or perhaps dreaming of him. Of Agron. That was a welcome thought.
Though his body begged him to stop, to bend and rouse Nasir and claim his lips in a kiss and steal the sleep away from him, Agron paid it no heed. He moved past the Syrian that so tortured him even without knowing, past the gladiators and freed slaves that seemed to litter every corner of the villa, until he found privacy - or the closest thing he could get. There were few people in here, and a pillar that would shield him from view, so it would suffice. He knew not what purpose this room had served when the villa's dominus had still roamed its stone halls, and he cared even less; it would now serve a new purpose.
Agron fell back against side of the pillar and closed his eyes, and his hands roamed to his middle even as he slid to the floor. The subligaria was made hasty work of, leaving him naked in air seeming much cooler now that this fire was rising in him. Only when his mind was free of Nasir, when the body thrumming with desire was sated, would Agron be able to rest. He would find release quickly and by his own hand.
Calloused fingers wrapped around heated flesh and pulled a shaking breath from the German's throat. So invested in Nasir was he that there was no trouble imagining the hands that touched him were not his own, but those of his Syrian. Soon fluid gathered and eased the way of his pumping hand, and each stroke was met with a short thrusting of his hips, a slight roll of his muscled body.
His breath came faster. Agron swallowed the sounds that rose in his throat, soft whispers of the other man's name, because he did this to him. No matter that he wasn't there kneeling between Agron's legs and lavishing attention on the throbbing flesh that demanded it; everything Agron felt and the way he moved under the stroking of his hand was for Nasir.
Neapolis called to him. He would have Nasir on his back. He would have him on top, would have him against the wall, their bodies damp with sweat and pressed so close that one would be indistinguishable from the other and he would draw it out. He would force them both to the edge of madness with the pace if only to sample of every last noise that could possibly fall from the Syrian's lips.
This fantasy was what drove his hand to move faster and faster, as if he were thrusting against the body that would be his. As if the other man was there and wrapped around his cock. Agron wished for it; he wished for the dull, flat sound of their flesh joining, wished he could lean forward and drag his tongue over skin salty with sweat. All it had taken to set Nasir's heart to racing had been the touch of Agron's fingers to his neck, so to draw a whimper from him would be no chore. Agron wanted that sound in his ear as he touched himself. But no voice called out to him.
There was another sound, though. Was it the whisper of bare feet against stone floor that drew Agron's eye? He turned his head and blinked into the darkness, but by ever-present torchlight he saw a figure in the wide archway of the room. A ghost of a grin came onto Agron's face, chased quickly away by a pang of pleasure that instead twisted his expression into something desperate.
But his gaze never left that figure. When the torchlight flickered, it showed dark, Syrian eyes intent on him. Agron tightened his grip, clenched his teeth and bared them slightly.
And even as he held that gaze his release came upon him. It arched his body, forced a short, breathless sound from him. There was a mere moment, only seconds, in which his eyes fluttered closed as the pleasure overtook him, and when he opened them again, Nasir was gone. Agron turned away from the archway, tilted his head back against the pillar and struggled to catch his breath. His face broke into a smile; how long, he wondered, has Nasir been standing there, watching him? And how hungrily that gaze had regarded him.
The night seemed to grow darker and heavier, and it weighed down on Agron. The rest he'd so coveted would find him moments after he washed and gathered himself, and that voyeuristic gaze would visit him again in his dreams.
"I move for Vesuvius." Agron announced in the crowded courtyard. His eyes swept the people surrounding the scene. "Those that would live," he continued, finally glancing back at Spartacus. Fucking Thracian. "...follow me." He was decided. After a split second of absolute stillness, as if everyone waited to see if he meant what he said or if he would bend instead to the will of Spartacus and Crixus, he finally moved. Walked away. And soon others followed.
So they were divided. Some would go to their deaths in the mines, and others would find safety at Vesuvius and men to swell their ranks in Neapolis. He couldn't believe, couldn't fathom that there were men who would risk everything and likely sacrifice it all just for Naevia. But then he remembered Spartacus's words, the ones that had rung in his ears after the blow he'd suffered.
Duro. It didn't matter that Spartacus was right; true, if it had been his brother trapped in the mines he wouldn't have hesitated to throw himself into their endless dark tunnels. But he never would have asked anyone to go with him. He never would have expected that, not like Crixus. Would he have?
There were people following him. "Go prepare yourselves for the journey," he snapped, tone clipped, and most scattered. All did, except one. The man who had betrayed their secret. Agron didn't look at him but, instead, shoved at a nearby chair, somehow satisfied by the sound of it clattering to the stone floor underneath. How fucking dare Spartacus invoke his brother's name and use it against him. How fucking dare he. He felt sick. Hot with anger. He wanted to strike something and he would-
Except that when he turned around to find something else to throw, he was face-to-face with Nasir. Wide, dark eyes stared at him and he could see there was shame in them. An apology for what he'd done. Some of the fire inside died down, though not all of it. No, not all. Especially when the other man lifted a hand and brushed the pad of his thumb over Agron's bottom lip. The finger pulled away smeared with blood, and Agron remembered the stinging of Spartacus's swinging fist. He pressed his lips together briefly, clenching his jaw at the new, though slightly lesser, surge of anger.
"I had to-"
Agron quickly lifted a hand to stay the Syrian's words. He turned away and closed his eyes, leaned and pressed both on the table he found in front of him. It was the very one on which he and Spartacus had laid the map of Rome to decide their route to Vesuvius.
Cautious fingers touched the small of his back and he lowered his head, sliding his tongue against the inside of his lip where it had split. Nasir's voice sounded again. "The one he loves suffers in the mines. I could not have held my tongue forever. Better now when there's still chance of him finding her."
"And so you betray me," Agron countered, and the hand on his back withdrew. He was sad for it. There was no response from the other man and they remained as they were for a moment, until Agron let out a sigh. It was a sigh heavy with guilt. Guilt that he'd burdened Nasir with this secret. Guilt that he himself had kept the secret at all. Guilt that he now blamed the Syrian for betraying it. The rest of his fire burned out.
Agron straightened and turned back toward Nasir, reaching out to take the man's face in both hands. He looked surprised at the treatment, but that expression soon melted away when met with the gentle one on the gladiator's face. "You feel in extremes," Agron said, remembering previous words. "I expect nothing else." He wouldn't remain angry. He couldn't. There was relief in those Syrian eyes now, a slow and hesitant happiness.
Though it stung to do so, he grinned. Gently, he patted the side of Nasir's face. "So," he said. "Vesuvius. Let us make ready our things." And just as he pulled away, just as he started purposefully in another direction, Nasir reached out and touched him. It was more than cleaning him of blood this time; it was initiative. Dark-skinned, worked fingers played along his collarbone. Agron looked to Nasir, both eyebrows raised. This was new and very welcome, when before it had always been Agron reaching out searching hands with intent.
"Your brother's name was Duro," the Syrian said. His gaze was steady, but just below Agron's eyes, as if he didn't want to meet them. And it was understandable; the only other time the subject of Agron's brother had been broached, during their first conversation with one another, Nasir had wagged criticizing tongue against Duro turning sword against the Romans. This time was different. Things between them were different.
But it didn't lessen the pain at the reminder of his brother. There was a pang in Agron's chest, a mourning and hollow feeling, but there was also more than that. There was panic to speak of Duro beyond the tale of how he'd died. Memories lurked at the edge of his mind and here in front of him was one to hear them all.
But he couldn't. "Not now," Agron said, his refusal mild. Almost tender. "You'll know of him," he promised. "When I am ready." Briefly, Agron lifted his hand to touch the one Nasir had extended, his own fingertips brushing over the man's wrist. But as quickly as the touch had been there, it disappeared. The subject had been put to rest.
"Go," he said, nodding. "Finish preparing. I'm eager to leave." They exchanged the smallest of smiles, and in those smiles they held promises to be kept. Promises of the time awaiting them at Vesuvius and in Neapolis in which they would explore one another - now, it seemed, in more ways than one.
The sky above lightened. The stars were chased away one by one and in there wake lifted a white mist. It was the last thing they needed, this fog; they had a forest to scour, and the mist would only make it harder to distinguish friend from enemy amongst the trees.
Agron couldn't recall if he'd slept. Had those been dreams he'd fallen into, or only memories? It mattered not; these were waking hours, and every last minute of them would be used in the search for any survivors of the mines. The gladiator climbed to his feet and lingered at the edge of the woods for one more moment, hoping again to see the movement of a familiar figure, but there was none. And so he turned back toward the camp to rouse the men.
They armed themselves. There was no predicting what awaited them, no guessing what might have followed the other party through the wilderness. Some were left behind to defend the camp, should it come to that; the rest dressed and readied themselves, and followed Agron into the forest. They'd only just come from it, it seemed, on their way there, and now they charged into it once more. It was just as stifling as they'd all remembered it to be. The trees were all too close together, perhaps, or maybe it was the mist weighing down on them and coating their lungs. But still the party moved quickly and searched thoroughly in the morning light.
Time passed, and the longer they went without finding anything, the less hope there was of success. There were some among them that grew restless; they'd traveled far to reach this place and had hoped for rest but instead had been taken on this search and rescue mission. Soon, one of them men spoke up, pulling Agron from task. The German stopped and seemed reluctant to turn around and listen to what was being said.
"If death had not come to them, they would have found us or our camp by now," the gladiator said. He spoke the fear of all, and the very fear Agron had pushed to the back of his mind. He couldn't believe that. He refused to believe that. He refused to believe that he'd seen the last of the dark eyes he'd so favored.
He looked closely at the men. They had life yet in them. Energy. Their training at the ludus had been more than this. So he was decided.
"We search until we've found them or evidence of death," he said, and the tone of his voice was not to be argued with. "We'll not fucking abandon them again." Some would think him weak in his convictions. He had decided to continue on to Neapolis instead of going to the mines, and it had been the right decision. But then the idea of losing those who they'd left behind had crept up on him, and his convictions had changed.
But no one protested, and so the search continued. What, though, would happen if no one was found, or if only corpses awaited them? What would happen to the rebellion? Spartacus had been a rallying point; he'd been the leader, the man that every man had heard of. It was his name that persuaded people to this cause. If he was died, who then would be Spartacus, rebel leader?
A shout pulled Agron from his thoughts. Someone was calling his name. One of the gladiators was far off, crouching close to the ground, looking at something. "Blood," the man said, when Agron approached, "and dragging footsteps. A group passed here not long ago."
Agron's heart seemed to jump to his throat. "We must have missed them," he breathed, and then stood straight to address the others. "Circle around and move swiftly. That way." He pointed in the direction from which they'd come and then started to run, glancing down at his feet at intervals to make sure he followed those tracks. Every breath, every beat of his heart sounded loudly in his ears. All else was stifled. He heard not the crack of a branch underfoot or the rustling of leaves; it was as though all of his senses, all save his sight, had dulled so that he could better search for what he was looking for. For what he was truly looking for.
And there, through the trees, through the mist and after some time, did he see bodies silhouetted? He sped up, left the other men in his wake. Soon the fog cleared enough so all was revealed to him, and his steps slowed and eventually stopped. He couldn't help the shock that registered on his face. There stood Spartacus, the fucking cockroach that nothing could kill, and his woman Mira, swords drawn and determined, desperate expressions darkening their features.
Agron smiled, relief pumping through him. He'd found them. Running forward again, he reached out and clapped Spartacus's shoulder, looked behind him expecting to see the army of men he'd left with - but there was no army. And as his gaze shifted, it fell on two figures huddled against a tree. He passed by Spartacus without another glance, without a word, and ran to the tree, the breath suddenly stolen from his lungs. He knew that hair. The dark skin ashen now. The head bowed and face pale. Agron knelt and reached out, gently cupped the man's chin and lifted his head. Open your eyes, he begged silently. Open your eyes and look at me.
And so Nasir obeyed. Dark eyes opened, though they were hazy until they focused on Agron's face. There was the hint of a smile on the Syrian's lips, though it quickly fled. Alive. He was alive. Agron wanted to smile, wanted so badly to give Nasir that welcome, but he couldn't smile for the worry and pain in his heart at seeing the Syrian like this. No matter; Nasir was weak and couldn't hold his head up, nor could he keep his gaze fixed on Agron.
The gladiator looked toward the one sitting with him. Naevia. Of course. He gave her a nod, a gesture that she no longer needed to protect Nasir. Not when Agron was there. He reached out and gathered that broken body in his arms, one under Nasir's knees and the other cradling him, pressing heated face against his neck, and slowly, Nasir's arms lifted to wrap weakly around the man that carried him.
There were no words. There was no need. Nasir could rest, because in Agron's arms, no more harm would come to him.