Nasir scrambled for his sword, heart beating quickly and erratically in his chest, like a prisoner trying to escape the cage of his ribs. Shaking fingers wrapped around the hilt of the gladius tightly, desperately, because without it he would die. A foot connected with his side and flipped him into his back, the pain curling his body for the briefest of moments before he forced it back into action. He thrust the sword upward and the blade met yielding flesh, sliding through leather armor with ease. A scream of pain filled Nasir's ears, and for a moment, he thought it might have been his own.
The wound he gave this Roman soldier was the very one that Nasir had felt in the woods after their escape from the mines. As he pulled the sword back, releasing it from the soldier's body, he remembered the feeling - the blinding, searing pain, the mere second of relief when the sword had been slid entirely from him, and then the agony. Agony he now inflicted upon this man.
The Roman dropped his weapon and fell to the ground, clutching at his wound. Breathing hard, Nasir rolled onto one knee and leaned over the man, arm pulled back and sword pointed at the soldier's throat. But he hesitated. How many times had he been cautioned against hesitation, against mercy. He and Agron had trained over and over again, and Nasir's greatest downfall was hesitation.
Run him through, he commanded himself, and why shouldn't he? His hate for the Romans ran deep, after all that had happened. He was committed to this rebellion, part of it, trusted among the ones that led it. And this man had been intent on killing him, so why shouldn't he return that kindness? Nasir took a deep breath, brow collapsing in determination and arm jerking back again, ready to pitch forward and force the tip of the sword through the man's throat.
But then choked, whispered words escaped the Roman's lips. "Please," he begged. Nasir's stance wavered. "Don't kill me."
And with that, suddenly, the soldier was made human in Nasir's eyes. The face suddenly became that of a young man, scared and hurt, with a pleading gaze that was a strange color between gold and green. The Syrian knew exactly what he felt, knew what it was like to feel the life slowly flowing from veins, and he'd never felt more pity for another. He'd never been more tempted to show mercy.
"Nasir!" The Syrian turned quickly toward the voice and there stood Agron, covered in the blood of all the Roman soldiers he'd slain. A smile brightened his face even through the filth. "Kill the Roman shit and let us return to camp!"
Nasir's dark eyes shifted, slid slowly over the destruction he, Agron, and the other men had left in their wake. So many dead, and so many of them Romans. None had been allowed to survive; neither would the man trembling at Nasir's feet.
When he turned back to the soldier, he found he couldn't meet that entreating gaze. He parted his lips and made way for a shaky breath, and then spoke. "I will kill you quickly," he said, and the Roman's face grew wild. That was when he started screaming.
But the sound was cut short when Nasir's blade slid over his throat, screaming replaced with gasping as the soldier choked on his own blood. He was dead within another moment, though Nasir remained a little longer, only looking at him. His face had softened in his last moment of life and features were no longer twisted in pain. He seemed at peace now, though Nasir wished he could have spared him those last seconds of pain before his heart stopped beating.
A hand on his shoulder pulled Nasir from his reverie. "Your first time back with sword in hand, little man," Agron said as Nasir stood and turned to face him. "How did you find it?"
Nasir was struck suddenly with the overwhelming fear of revealing the weakness he'd just discovered in himself. Agron could never know of the struggle the Syrian had just endured. So the next words that passed Nasir's lips veiled his true feelings, hid them in ambiguity. "It was much the same," he said, dropping his gaze to the sword in his hand and occupying himself with wiping the blade on his already bloodied clothes. "But somehow different." With that, he sheathed his gladius, and only when the almost-lie had been told did he meet Agron's eyes again.
The gladiator made no reply, but instead lifted a hand and swept a stray strand of hair from Nasir's forehead. For a moment, the German seemed lost in that movement, but he came back to himself soon enough. "Come," he said, putting on his grin again. His hand dropped to clap Nasir's shoulder. "Take the weapon from your dead Roman and we'll make way back to the sanctuary."
Agron started toward the group of men not far away. Nasir felt trapped there between the man he'd killed and that strange, thoughtful expression he'd just seen on Agron's face. Move, he ordered himself, and then he whirled around toward the Roman again. All it took was one more glance and he knew that man's face would be burned into his mind forever. Nasir hastily grabbed the man's sword, snatching it up and backing away a few steps. He paused only a second more and then ordered his feet to take him swiftly to his people, who he followed blindly back to the temple they called home.
Nasir's mind remained behind. What was the name of the soldier that had begged and pleaded his way into his consciousness? The Syrian would never know, and that was a new torture in itself.
"Agron." The gladiator looked up from the map laid out before him, eyes falling upon Naevia, who stood in the entrance of the room. The worried expression on her face made him straighten out and he felt a skip in his heartbeat.
"Nasir?" he asked, already knowing the answer. What else would bring her here to him at this hour, when everyone else, save himself and the nearby Spartacus, slept? His fear were confirmed when she nodded.
He immediately thought the worst. Nasir had been hurt again, somehow, and he was slowly bleeding to death. Or some kind of sickness had come in the night and taken him. Without even another glance at Spartacus, with whom he'd been making further plans concerning the rebellion, Agron rushed from the room and toward the smaller one that Nasir sometimes shared with several others, when he wasn't sleeping in Agron's arms.
Naevia followed closely behind, her voice hushed. "I came for you right away," she said. "I know not what ails him-"
Agron turned the corner and looked to where Nasir lay on the floor. The Syrian was on his side and there was a stricken look twisting his features. A sheen of sweat covered his forehead and he was breathing fast. Too fast. The gladiator lowered himself next to Nasir and reached out, fingertips brushing over his damp brow, and to Agron's surprise, there was no heat underneath his touch. No fever.
"Nasir," Agron whispered, leaning down to cup the man's face in his hand. There was no response, no dark eyes appearing from behind fluttering lashes at the sound of his name. "Nasir," he said again, louder this time. "Nasir." Finally, a response. The Syrian's body jerked and his eyes snapped open, wide and scared and pained. His hands grabbed at his own body, at the scar clearly visible on his abdomen, the one that had recently healed and closed. It was then that Agron realized what had gripped Nasir. A nightmare. Some horror had come to him in his sleep.
Relief surged through him and he sat abruptly on the floor next to Nasir, using strong arms to gather the smaller man against him. Only a nightmare. No deadly sickness, no mortal wound. A nightmare. Though the body trembled, it would soon recover, and the thing Agron most feared wouldn't come to pass. Not yet, not because of this. The gladiator buried his face in Nasir's hair and closed his eyes even as the Syrian gripped tightly onto the arms that held him.
The others sleeping in the room had been roused by this, and Naevia, who had hung back by the door, gestured for the few of them to leave the room. Neither Agron nor Nasir noticed, so intent they were on one another; Agron on keeping Nasir close, and Nasir on clinging to what he knew was real and solid.
Moments passed, and soon Nasir's ragged breath, panicked and shaking, eased into a rhythm more normal, though Agron could feel that his pulse still raced. "What haunts you?" Agron asked, his voice no louder than a whisper, as if anything else would send Nasir back into the terror he'd awoken in. Agron pulled back slightly, only so he could look down onto the other man's face. Dark eyes refused to meet his own, just as they had earlier that same day. He'd known then, watching Nasir turn away from the dead Roman before him, that something had been wrong.
Nasir made no reply. A gentle hand turned the Syrian's face, forced gazes to meet. "Tell me," Agron urged softly, "so that I may chase it from your mind." What love he felt for this man, that he might take up arms against anything threatening him, even if it was Nasir's own dreams.
There was a short silence in which Nasir took a long, steadying breath. And then, finally, he spoke. "He begged me not to take his life," the Syrian said. "In the end, he pleaded."
So it was the soldier. Agron blamed himself for not mentioning what he'd noticed sooner. Perhaps Nasir could have been spared the nightmare that had caused him such anguish. "What man wouldn't, with death hanging over him?" he replied. Really, scores of men had fallen at his hand and hadn't begged, but then again, he'd never given them the chance.
"I knew what he felt. I was him, with the same wound, bleeding and wanting so badly to live," Nasir confessed in a whisper. "But still I robbed him of his life."
Agron had said time and time again that the slaves were no gladiators. They weren't accustomed to this violence, whereas the warriors that had escaped the ludus had seen bloodshed and had felt pain almost daily. They were desensitized, while the former slaves like Nasir who broke swords with the Romans felt every last blow they delivered as if it were on their own flesh.
"Dealing death is no easy thing," Agron said. He shifted one hand to lightly touch the scar on Nasir's abdomen, and there the Syrian met the gladiator's fingers with his own and intertwined them. "Take comfort in the fact that he would have claimed your life, given the chance. No matter the pain you were feeling."
"I know," Nasir muttered. "I told myself the same. Yet he still followed into my dreams." Agron felt a sudden and fierce protectiveness. He hated that the spirit of this Roman soldier had been able to find Nasir, to hurt him, and Agron hadn't been able to do anything to stop it.
"You should have told me how this affected you, Nasir," Agron said in gentle admonition.
A pause, and the Syrian looked away again, worry lining his features now. "I wouldn't have you thinking me weak."
So that was what had stopped Nasir from coming to him. Fear of being accused of weakness. And yet that had never once crossed Agron's mind. Carefully, he lowered Nasir to the floor and then stretched his long body beside the Syrian's, leaning over him slightly. Calloused fingers brushed Nasir's damp hair away from his forehead and, all the while, Agron's gentle gaze searched the other man's face.
"I see no weakness," he said, after a moment. "Only mercy. Great men have shown it." Agron's fingertips curled around one of Nasir's ears, pushing his hair behind it. "Mercy stayed Spartacus's hand when all others would have had you put down for making attempt on his life."
"So should I have spared the Roman?"
Agron shook his head. "It was no time to grant mercy. Spartacus spared you because he saw loyalty in you. Fire. What you saw in the Roman was only fear of dying. It wasn't something worthy of being saved." The gladiator held Nasir's face in one hand, now, demanding his attention. "There is strength in what you did," he said with conviction. "Strength in wanting to show mercy, but knowing that it is not an option. You did what had to be done."
And all this from a man who, upon the sands of the arena, hadn't hesitated in cutting short the lives of all the men he came against. But there had been a time, once, when Agron had struggled with killing. There had been such a time in all warriors' pasts, even if it lasted for only seconds. This is what the gladiator drew from to give this advice to Nasir. He only hoped the Syrian would find comfort in it.
Nasir hesitated, but soon nodded his understanding. He touched the hand resting against his cheek, tugged it to his lips to press a kiss against the palm. Leaning down, Agron stole that kiss away with his own lips. When he pulled away, he was glad to find the smallest of smiles curling the corners of Nasir's mouth. So what Agron had said had brought him some peace. Thank the gods. "Stay here," the Syrian whispered. "Follow me into my dreams."
Agron would claim those lips in a few more kisses before letting the other man slip back into sleep, but when Nasir did brave his dreams again, it was with Agron's arms tight around him. Anything that came to threaten Nasir would be chased away by the security that embrace brought him. He would sleep soundly.