"Agron!" A voice came to the boy's ears through the trees. It was Duro's, singsong and getting closer and closer. Somehow, Agron's little brother always managed to find him, no matter how he tried to hide. And he'd done such a good job of hiding this time around; he was in the open trunk of a giant tree and it was big enough for him to pull his legs inside. The two of them knew this forest well, though, and no unknown place remained such for very long. "Agron!" the voice came again, and it would only be seconds before Duro was upon him. With a sigh, Agron slid both hands behind his back to hide what he was holding in them and waited until his brother's wide-eyed and eager face appeared in front of him.
The young boy crashed through the woods, graceless and loud until coming to an abrupt stop. And there Duro stood, peering inside the tree first, his expression thoughtful, and then climbing in to see if he could squeeze alongside Agron. He could, but it was a tight and uncomfortable fit and it left the elder brother's arms and legs squashed. "Duro—" Agron started in protest, his face twisting in displeasure, but he was cut off when his little brother shifted in a particular way and sent a shot of pain through one of his wrists. With a little growl, the nine-year-old Agron shoved at the younger Duro with his body, bringing his hands from behind his back and burying them in his lap, if only to avoid any broken bones. But he could no longer hide anything from his little brother; Duro's eyes, darker than Agron's own, were intent on those hands, and he leaned forward to peek.
"What do you have?" Duro asked, glancing up at Agron.
To which the elder quickly replied, "Nothing of import."
But Agron knew already in his heart that Duro wouldn't let go of the subject so easily. And lo and behold, the boy reached out and tried to grab at Agron's hands, tried to turn them over so he could pry those fingers open and reveal what had been concealed. A struggle ensued and Agron, being the older and stronger of the two, overcame the younger easily enough, though it was all for naught because immediately after he'd managed to shove Duro out of the tree, he extended his hands and opened them, showing his little brother what he'd been hiding with a bitter expression on his face. "Here, look," he snapped, angry that Duro had tried at all to ruin the surprise. Forget that Agron himself could have been more coy about it instead of getting irritated, but that was the way with him. "Satisfied?"
In one hand he held a small knife and in the other a lump of wood, half-carved into a crude-looking animal. It may have been a bear but it was impossible to tell at that moment, semi-formed as it was. Duro's eyes lit up; he seemed sure it was for him. But now that the surprise was gone, Agron was far less excited about it. With halting movements, Agron pulled the work back to himself and began again, hacking at the wood with little grace. Duro was always underfoot. He was always eager to spend time with Agron but sometimes Agron just wanted to be alone. Like now. But Duro sat on the ground right outside the tree trunk after having been pushed out of it and seemed to inch closer and closer with every second that passed. Soon he'd be on top of Agron again, no doubt.
Agron did his best to ignore him, but it proved difficult. Every once in a while, Duro was lean forward, close enough that he was in danger of getting cut open with the knife, just to examine Agron's work. It was then that the older boy had to stop and stare hard at the younger until he leaned back again. Over and over this happened until, finally, Agron's patience ran out. "Go home, Duro!" he snapped suddenly, waving the other boy away. Somehow, in the process, he managed to be careless enough to slice open his own finger with the small knife he held. The blade and the carving both fell to the forest floor and he clasped his finger to him. The cut was deep, but he was so angry that the pain hadn't quite fully registered yet. He turned his rage on his brother. "You are not wanted here," he spat, and even before Agron could cry for the pain in his finger, tears sprang to Duro's eyes instead.
In an instant, Agron's little brother had disappeared. And as fast as Agron's temper had been in flaring up so it dissipated just as quickly and he was left feeling guilty for what he'd said. He loved his brother dearly, and wasn't it his job to protect the younger boy from anything that would hurt him? It was what he told himself he must do, as a big brother. It was the job he'd given himself, a job he knew only he could do - yet he'd just hurt Duro. How was Agron supposed to protect the boy from that?
With a frown, Agron reached out and took up the knife again, cutting away a piece of his tunic own to wrap around the cut on his finger. He wrapped it tightly enough to stop it bleeding, and that was his only concern; he couldn't have blood all over his carving, could he? Not when it was meant to be a gift for someone else. He gathered the lump of wood to himself and climbed out of the tree trunk and soon began walking through the forest, looking for Duro.
It was never difficult to find him. Whenever he wasn't attached to Agron's side he was in the same exact place: high up among the branches of one of the largest trees in the forest - or at least what seemed like the largest to two boys so small that together, with hands linked, they couldn't fit their arms around the trunk of the monstrous thing. They'd tried, again and again, and as they grew up they got closer and closer to being able to do so, but not yet. They would have to grow up a little more.
Sure enough, when Agron stopped at the base of this tree and looked up, he could see his brother's bare feet dangling. "Duro, come down," he called up, expression contrite. In response, those dangling feet drew up and disappeared from sight. Agron could just imagine Duro perching on one of the boughs like a bird. "Apologies!" he added, the word sincere, but it seemed as though the younger boy wouldn't be moved. With another frustrated sound, though there was little feeling behind it, Agron kicked lightly at the base of the tree - as if that would somehow bring it down and Duro with it - and then sat abruptly on the ground, back pressed against the trunk. He would just have to wait for Duro to come down in his own time, then. And as he waited, he would finish the carving. It would be a better apology than any words.
The work was clumsy now that he had an injured finger to deal with, but it wasn't long before the carving took shape. It was, indeed, meant to be a bear, though it was a bit more blocky than it should have been. It did the job well enough, though; Duro would be able to tell what it was, and that was what mattered. When he was done, Agron held the carving up in the sunlight that filtered through the forest canopy and announced, as if to himself but really for Duro's ears, "Finished." With one last appreciative nod at the completed piece, he placed the carving on his shoulder and slumped back against the tree, crossing his arms over his chest and closing his eyes, as if it had been weary work.
It looked as though he hovered on the edge of sleep but it was all a show. And it soon served its purpose; there was a rustling above him in the branches of the tree and, though Duro was trying to be quiet, Agron could hear the younger boy as he climbed down. Minutes later, the slight weight of the wood carving on his shoulder disappeared and was replaced with the weight of little Duro sitting beside him, the young boy's head leaning on the his shoulder. It was with a grin that Agron pressed his cheek against the top of his brother's head and just like that, all was forgiven. It didn't matter who hurt Duro, whether it was a friend or foe or the gods or Agron himself - Agron would always protect his brother, always pick him up and dust him off and make him smile again.
Agron brushed battle-worn fingers over the carving in his hand, sweeping away the wood shavings that remained and revealing beneath a shape perhaps a little better than what he might have produced years and years ago in the land east of the Rhine where he and his brother used to play, explore, get lost. The gladiator had taken a long while to decide the animal he would carve. A tiger or a lion would have, perhaps, been more exotic. A boar would have been too ordinary. Neither quite fit, he'd decided. So it would always be a bear. The creature somehow seemed both out of reach and at your fingertips all at once. Majestic but common. Harmless but so very dangerous.
His mind wandered as he carved, though he'd begged it not to. The pain of losing Duro was always so near, threatening to wrap its cold, spindly hands around his heart and squeeze for all it's worth. He'd found refuge from this suffering in Nasir's arms but they weren't wrapped around him then. Nor were they other times, when Agron would turn with a smile and a remark meant for the brother that would have laughed, brown eyes dancing. Sometimes there simply was no escaping the void in his life that Duro had once filled.
The corners of Agron's lips twisted into a frown. He paused in his carving and tilted his head, shifted his gaze to look at his thumb, which pressed against the dull edge of the knife. There he could see the white of a scar, barely visible after years and years of being worn down and smoothed out. He forgot it often. He couldn't stop remembering it right then.
But then, a distraction from his thoughts. Agron sat back against one of the pillars of the temple, at the top of the stairs, and across from him was its twin. Behind that column of stone he could see a shape. A shadow that had retreated as soon as Agron had lifted his gaze. Pretending not to have seen anything, the gladiator looked back to his work and from the corner of his eye he could see that shadow appearing again. No doubt if he looked up quickly enough he would see wide and dark eyes ringed with ink-colored lashes. Those eyes weren't as eager as Duro's had been. They were cautious but curious. Clever. But they were just as intent on the figure Agron carved.
It had been two days since they'd brought Sana back with them to the sanctuary. Still, the boy only spoke with Nasir, only spent time with the other Syrian and always sat close to him. But Agron was determined to gain the boy's trust. It would be difficult; there was the language barrier to contest with and, not only that, but Agron had to make sure Sana knew that he was safe. That the gladiator would protect him. From friend or foe or the gods or Agron himself. A promise he'd made before but hadn't kept.
This time would be different.
So lost Agron had been in these oaths he now made to himself that he hadn't heard another's approach. There was suddenly a hand in his hair, gently sliding through it, and when Agron looked up Nasir was standing above him, leaning against the pillar. "Your face is darkened by memory," the Syrian said, his fingers curling and giving the gladiator's hair the lightest of tugs.
It drew a grin from Agron. "Thoughts now brightened by your arrival," he answered. Dark though the Syrian was of skin and hair and eyes, he brought lightness more than even the sun, and more warmth, too. Thought memories still haunted him, lingered, were carved into the wood he held in his hands, the weight was easier to shoulder with that simple touch and those few words from Nasir. The gladiator held up the figure for the other man to see. Nasir gingerly and with his free hand plucked it from Agron's fingers and looked closely. And then his eyes wandered to the adjacent pillar.
"For Sana?" he asked, a smile playing at his lips. Nasir handed the carving back to Agron, so very careful with the thing though it was solid and would, hopefully, see rougher treatment when Sana played with it.
Agron nodded. "For Sana," he repeated. The boy must have heard his name because he quickly disappeared behind the pillar again. Few paid attention to the child; when he'd first arrived at the temple, all had been eager to greet him, happy to have something as sweet as a child in a place so saturated with blood, but they'd all soon realized that he wanted nothing to do with anyone other than Nasir. They all left Sana alone now, as he clearly preferred. He was no more than a wisp of smoke, here and then gone from sight in a moment and never at the forefront of anyone's mind. Except for Nasir's - because he was the only one the boy talked to - and except for Agron's - because he was determined to win the child's affection.
The hand in Agron's hair moved to under his chin, and Nasir tilted the gladiator's head back before bending in two and pressing a kiss to his lips. When Nasir pulled back, it wasn't far. His face was still near enough to steal another kiss. But he spoke before Agron could do so. "Such gentle things your hands can do," the Syrian said in a whisper. "Yet they can so easily deal death when called to purpose." Agron grinned and leaned forward to claim Nasir mouth again, but the Syrian pulled quickly away and left Agron hungry. "I will leave you to finish," said the tease, gaze flickering to the carving once more. And then Nasir was gone. As always when he wasn't near, Agron wished him to his side.
But he would do as he'd been told. Only a few more strokes with the knife and the bear would be done. Sana was still behind the pillar; Agron could now see his thin arms. They were wrapped around the column and it was with a pang that Agron was reminded of himself and Duro trying to wrap their arms around that ancient, giant three. They'd never reached. With Agron's assistance, Sana would have been able to reach around the pillar, but the boy wanted nothing of the gladiator's help. Hopefully the gift Agron had made him would change that.
It was done. For a moment Agron only stared down at it, his brows drawn together and his expression thoughtful. It was good. Better than he'd done before. And this time, he'd shed no blood in carving it. Shaking his head slightly, trying to rid himself of thoughts of his brother, Agron arranged his features into a look more triumphant. "Finished," he announced to seemingly no one, holding the carving out and up and examining it in the sunlight. He knew Sana's eyes would be on it, too, from behind the pillar.
Agron settled against the column at his back. He stretched his arms over his head in a show of sleepiness and, before he closed his eyes, he placed the wooden figure on his shoulder. And there he remained. A moment passed. Another one did. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Agron thought that maybe this wouldn't work. Maybe it had been for nothing. Perhaps the child really wanted nothing at all to do with him, and never would, no matter the effort he put forth. It was a disheartening thought. Though it wouldn't change the vow he'd made to protect the boy.
But then the weight of the carving was gone from his shoulder. Sana was better at sneaking than Duro had ever been; the gladiator hadn't heard his approaching footsteps, hadn't felt his presence nearby. And unlike with Duro, the boy didn't sit by Agron, didn't stay close. No, when the gladiator opened his eyes again, Sana was at the other pillar once more, though he now sat in front of it. As Agron looked on, a smile so large it was almost painful came to his face and he felt a swelling of the heart, a feeling overwhelming when paired with memories of his brother.
Sana knew nothing of it, but on the stone floor made the wooden bear walk on its hind legs.