He remembered the first time he understood what it meant to be owned.
Nothing remained of his homeland but the grinning face of a boy he inexplicably knew to be brother and a dull ache soothed by the passage of years where once the sharp pang of separation from his mother pierced his heart. Agron spoke only once of his sister's breathless parting words in the moments before she slit her own throat, and of the forced march away from the village by the forest he called home. Nasir's own memories, however, sat too faded to hold the meaning of freedom, and therefore failed to serve in comparison to anything of his experience.
Not the passage from Syria nor arrival at his fate settled the weight of slavery upon Nasir's young shoulders. He was yet too small to understand more than the abrupt pain searing through the flesh of his ear, the confusion and terror of rough hands and hot sun beating down upon the auction square as he was pushed out to the front of the rostrum. Two voices – keen, calculating eyes trained to spot potential – battled briefly in strange words until he was sold for four denarii, thrown over a man's shoulder like a sack of grain, and put to wagon.
The word dominus held no meaning at the time – Latin was yet a foreign tongue – just as the collar around his neck signified nothing more than an irritating presence.
When they took his name, he did not feel the sting of loss, for he still did not understand. Tullia, the dark girl who sang him songs at night and snuck him dates when she could, did not have the words to explain to one so young. Instead, proper mourning for his free name was lost in the passing of years and Nasir became Tiberius without ever really knowing why.
To be owned was to belong to another in body and soul, and he remembered the first time he understood that.
Though he had lived in the villa for many years, fetching and carrying and mending and serving at the whims of others, he had always enjoyed an unsteady façade of security. When he answered summons, however, Dominus took his chin between thumb and forefinger and raised it, prompting his face to a slight incline left, then right. Nasir – still Tiberius, then – did not lift his eyes from the floor.
"What sits fixed upon the ground that captures your attention so?" asked Dominus softly, lecherous fingers grazing the line of his jaw before his chin was raised yet higher. "I would look into your eyes, boy." He hesitated a moment before sweeping his gaze upward to meet his master's for the first time in his life.
"Very pretty, indeed," the man said, sounding pleased, and although Tiberius could not have known what was about to happen, gooseflesh erupted along his arms when Dominus ran a cold finger over his lips.
Sharp tile bit at his knees when Roman hands found his shoulders, forcing him to kneel, yet it was a sting barely felt when Dominus next spoke.
"Take cock in mouth."
It was an order, unmistakable and dispassionate, and although Tiberius felt every inch of his skin burn white hot when commanded by such words, he knew there was no choice but to obey. He had seen men and women suffer for less – sent to the mines for speaking out of turn, executed ad gladium for spiriting away a little extra food. A large hand entangled itself within his hair, gripping tightly, and he did not dare hesitate a moment longer. With light, trembling fingers and a distant ringing in his ears, he found the hem of Dominus' robe.
The extra water ration he was allowed afterward helped to scrub away the oil and residue of rich perfumes from his skin, but his body ached beyond belief and memories lingered. Tiberius felt somewhere deep in his solar plexus that it was a stench he would never be rid of.
He was fourteen when he first understood that his life was not his own, but by then he knew how to be quiet and obedient, and above all things he knew how to survive.
Not so many years later, four enormous men, armed and bloodied, stood in his master's bedchamber, one easily pinning Dominus to the wall. Tiberius quickly grabbed for Chadara's arm and pulled her close to his side. His heart pounded somewhere in this throat when one of the intruders turned to face them. "Go outside," he said. "We mean you no harm."
Tiberius glanced uncertainly at his master, prompting the savage man to add, "The Roman fuck will join presently."
Fingers still twisted around Chadara's wrist, he met her gaze and tugged urgently for her to follow him from the bedchamber. The sight that greeted him in the courtyard, however, stopped him in his tracks. The bodies of dead guards everywhere he looked. Panicked slaves mingling about uncertainly. And, most unnervingly, a large collection of strange newcomers. Among them were fighting men, yes, but also women and men who, for all that they appeared as defenseless as he felt in that moment, bore arms and evidence of battle upon their clothes and in their eyes.
At the helm of these strange trespassers stood three men. One shorter than the rest, one in the midst of speech, and one – gods help him, for all that his world was suddenly turned on itself, for the smallest of moments he forgot to breathe.
Distraction in the form of burning blue eyes was torn from his mind, however, when Tiberius realized that the other man spoke of freedom.
Spartacus had come to the south.
When the shortest of the three leaders dragged Dominus back into the villa, he suddenly felt the weight of what he was to lose. Tiberius had never wanted freedom, especially not now. He had been a slave nearly his entire life – he knew how to serve, how to please, how to anticipate. He was good at it. And while he may not have chosen it, he had done the best he could to elevate his status to gain security and respect. He had long ago taught himself to be observant, taught himself to foresee Dominus' needs long before he was elevated to the position of body slave. There was nothing in his experience that would help him absent the collar Spartacus stole from his neck.
What cause did he have to turn against the Romans? It was his bad fortune to be owned, but there had always been masters and slaves and that was simply the way of the world. Why should he turn swords on those who had given him a place and a home when Spartacus and his horde had ripped such things from him only to expect obedience in return?
He would never be a fighter. He did not know the ways of the sword, nor did he wish to. Not impaled within a Roman soldier, at least. That was not who Tiberius was.
Only one path remained, though he never truly expected to succeed in the attempt. He had heard whispers of that day not so long passed when the rains finally came. More than one tale had reached his ears of Spartacus' victory over Theokoles. He knew who he was dealing with. Tiberius did not expect to take the gladiator's life, but he would rather have died as himself than live another moment as the lost, hazy nothing the past hours had reduced him to.
Yet he lived. He wasn't expecting that.
Had he laid such assault on Dominus, his death would have been slow and torturous. Instead, he found himself pinned between two of Spartacus' men, facing the three rebel leaders. The shortest of the three – Crixus, he finally realized, the formerly-Undefeated Gaul – looked at him as one would the scum of the underworld, and Tiberius glared right back. These were not his masters. He refused to be sorry. Not when they stood there discussing him like the chattel they claimed he no longer was. Not when Crixus struck him across the face. A hiss of anger escaped him, surprising himself somewhere in the back of his mind, but he straightened up once more and scowled at the Gaul's retreating back.
"And how do you propose we train this wild little dog?" asked the tall one, and gods be damned, not even his beauty could penetrate the adrenaline of fury coursing through Tiberius. But then those eyes, the same he had seen burning with vengeance the night before, met his. Fuck the gods. Tiberius looked to the floor, and cursed himself for it.
The tall one, as it happened, was called Agron, and were it not for him, Tiberius may have never again become Nasir. It was Spartacus that put a sword in his hand bereft of orders, but it was Agron that asked the question that brought Kahlil's face to his mind's eye. It was Agron that faced his choice to tell of Naevia's fate with respect and high regard, and it was Agron that stirred the sense memories of companionship for the first time in years.
No matter what concerns troubled his own mind, Agron consistently took time to ask after him, to clap him around the shoulder in a boisterous embrace. Theirs was at first a friendship of little consequence – conversations that revolved around Gallic shits and the constant lack of wine – yet Nasir found it a luxury of sorts, so unlike what was between he and Chadara. Despite the sister he had found in her, their companionship had grown out of necessity and desperation.
Whatever else lay between them, he and Agron had chosen each other.
It was this that Nasir took care to remind himself each time his sight rested upon the German warrior, an imposing tower of hard-earned muscle crowned with the clear blue eyes that had caught his attention that very first night. He calls you brother, and that is enough. Time and time again he revisited the thought like a mantra when Agron clasped hand to cheek, when he smiled brightly and laughed obscenities that Nasir longed to take as invitations, when he sighed and let them go their separate paths.
Nasir was beautiful. It was not pride to acknowledge the fact – if it were not so, he would never have been ordered to his master's bed. But Agron made no attempt to stop their parting of ways and he resigned himself to the truth that Chadara was wrong.
He calls you brother, and that is enough.
Agron's feelings, however, made themselves known when Nasir awoke within the temple walls at Vesuvius for the first time since he was claimed by murky dreams and a Roman blade. The first hint was in the red strip of cloth he found fastened around his wrist, a cloth he thought he recognized as once having been fastened about Agron's thigh.
A sudden, closed mouth upon Nasir's own was all the confirmation he needed. A muted kiss, chaste, and too brief to make any one intention clear, but when they drew apart once more the answer was evident in the softness of his eyes, the way they cast their gaze quickly to the ground, as if expecting rebuttal. Oh.
This was Agron's choice, and he had placed his heart in Nasir's palms to do with as he would. It was not a conscious decision made to spare Nasir the memory of being taken against his will as he had been so many times in the past, but an offering made in the wake of having lost his heart once, unsure if it could be borne again so soon. There would be no pursuit, save the one Nasir took on himself.
So Nasir chose this because he could. Because he wanted to. Because beyond the striking face he desired above all others he recognized a man still lost within himself as he had been not so long before. Because though he had never considered himself a particularly nurturing soul, Nasir found that he desired little more than to take care of this man who yearned for companionship, to unravel his soul, for Agron to know his in return.
The pursuit was short-lived. Any lingering confusion long-since resolved, he welcomed Agron's return from Capua with a searing kiss, and the man was claimed.
Several weeks passed since victory was won at Vesuvius before another cause of celebration came to the rebel camp. Having taken refuge within yet another liberated villa, secluded within the hills, far away from prying eyes, the army had since seen their ranks swell to include the villa's former slaves, two wagons headed for the mines, and a caravan transporting a score of Mauretanian warriors to Rome.
Yet it had not been these triumphs that had prompted Crixus to interrupt the morning's training, a boast in his walk and glistening joy in his eyes, demanding a parcel of fighters put together to procure libations for that very night.
Nasir grinned to see Naevia attempting to translate between Lugo and Dahia, an aloof beauty who clearly held little interest in the German. It was evident to all that Naevia's grasp of the language was limited, despite what she may have learned from her mother, yet no one dared point out such a thing to the woman of the hour, not when Crixus was of such a fine mood.
Instead, he drained the remainder of his cup and settled himself back against the wall, Agron's arm securely nestled about his shoulder, his warmth pressed tranquilly at his side.
"He has long desired to raise a family with her," Agron said, the rough pads of his calloused fingers running the length of Nasir's arm so lightly that he was almost sure they did so of their own accord.
Nasir smiled, and relaxed into his touch. "It is a gift well deserved," he said, thinking on the shell of a girl he had nearly died liberating from the mines, the woman who stood laughing before him now, radiant in the firelight, and the man who had, for all that he had not understood, supported her through such a miraculous change with gentle words and the clash of swords. "Under normal circumstances I would fear for a child born to such uncertainty."
"Yet you do not?"
"I do not." He turned to capture Agron full in his sight. "None will be more loved, more defended, more capable of defending themselves when of an age to do so. A child born to parents so deeply in love is blessed indeed."
Agron did not respond to that, but nodded faintly and turned to gaze upon the festivities. Nasir raised a curious brow and inquired, "I thought you had put grievences with Crixus aside?"
"I consider the Gaul trusted friend," he replied, an expression of annoyance upon his face that Nasir suspected had little to do with the insect he batted away. The summer had arrived in full not a week before, bringing with it days of sunlight and pleasant nights filled with unwelcome housemates.
"Then what troubles your heart?" he asked, trailing fingers across his chest. "Give voice to concern and see it lifted."
A moment passed before Agron said anything, and when he did, it was not as Nasir had expected.
"The cloth about your wrist," he said. "Remove it."
Nasir frowned, yet obliged him. Slowly he unwound the dark red cloth about his wrist that had once found its home upon Agron's thigh. They had never before spoken of it, instead letting it remain a tacit reminder of what they had lived through and come out the stronger for, a reminder of why they still fought.
When the strip of material had been all but uncoiled, Agron clasped the freed end and wordlessly stood, pulling Nasir to his own feet. The cloth still linked between the two men's hands, he led him into the villa, through the maze of hallways and chambers. Nasir caught sight of the small quarters they had claimed as their own and began to walk in what he assumed to be the right direction, but again Agron surprised him, continuing his expedition past the expected room until they emerged outside once more into the clear, warm night air, away from the noise and frivolity of the courtyard.
At last Agron came to a stop, but when he turned Nasir's breath caught in his throat to see the fire ignited there, the passion, the trepidation, the want.
That is what broke him in the end, what forced all curiosity for Agron's words from his mind and led Nasir to drive his lover against the villa's outer wall, quickly followed by lips rammed against lips. Taken by surprise, it took a moment for Agron to find his balance, but Nasir cared little. His own body, small as it was by comparison, was propelled by enough force and sheer willpower to keep them both there for as long as he desired. Steadied against the stucco, Agron wrapped his arms around him, his mouth seizing, demanding more. Nasir allowed his hands to wander down the German's chest, reveling in the heat that radiated there, the rough cracks of scar tissue over compressed muscle. When he came to the smooth base of his abdomen, where the V that formed there dipped below his subligaria, Agron let out a small whine and broke the seal of their kiss in gasping gulps of air.
"What you speak of, this bond that Naevia and Crixus share," he said breathlessly, his deep voice giving way to a slight waver in the wake of their passion before he caught himself and lowered his tone to little more than a growl. "Do you doubt that there are others so deeply blessed?"
Nasir shook his head. How could he do otherwise, when Agron's hand still remained hot upon his cheek and his gaze still spoke of the worlds they had seen within each other?
Gently twisting the red cloth about his fingers to link them still more tightly, Agron took Nasir's hand in his and said, "In my country, we do not trouble with pomp and circumstance as the Roman shits. There need be only two, enough to know that we and we alone own each other's heart, in this life and the next."
Steadily his breath pumped in and out of his lungs, and Nasir wondered if Agron could see the tattoo his heart was beating into his chest. Because he understood exactly what he was asking, but it was when he said own that Nasir stopped and swore he could suddenly feel everything, every bit of himself coming together as it never had before.
To be owned was to belong to another in body and soul, but before him lay a prospect that was eons away from anything he had been taught as a boy. Because here was Agron, putting his body and soul in Nasir's hands, as he always had, to do with as he would. Because regardless of what answers he could give, Nasir knew in his heart that he already belonged to Agron, yet his life would always belong to himself. Because what existed between them was the truth already, and the strip of cloth that now bound together their hands was little more than confession of such.
Raising his eyes to meet Agron's, full of hopeful anticipation, Nasir smiled widely. Yes. Yes. This was as it was always meant to be. In a tree nearby, an owl hooted softly.
"The summer birds see us wed," he spoke at last and surged upward to claim Agron's lips in his own, a promise of all that was to come.