"When the time comes, do not look back," Agron had warned Nasir, back when they were examining their escape tunnel, during the early days of their stay at the temple. "Move quickly and confidently, and set example for your friends from the villa. If you stop, everyone else stops with you, and last in line could get sword in back. If you run, others may follow suit, and someone may get trampled. I trust you to get others to safety while I cover rear."
And who will cover you? Nasir had wanted to ask but didn't. He wanted Agron to be able to rely on him. Agron was the warrior, and though Nasir knew a hundred times more now about fighting than he once had, Argon was still far superior in that regard. It made sense for Agron to defend the rear.
That didn't mean Nasir had to like it.
Still, he suspected that if he remained, he would prove a distraction to Agron, who would doubtless feel the need to defend Nasir's flank along with his own. And Nasir did want to make sure his friends made it out safely. So even after they reached the outside, where they were almost caught by the Romans, and Spartacus ordered them to retreat, Nasir didn't seek out his beloved, but rather made his way up the mountain with bold and unrushed strides, torch in hand, silently encouraging those behind him by making forward motions with the light. It took everything he had to not look back and make sure Agron was following. All he could do was pray to the gods with every step that he and Agron would be reunited at the mountain's peak ....
As he faced the Romans, Spartacus and Crixus at his side, Agron wanted to look behind him and make sure Nasir had managed to escape, that the little Syrian wasn't caught by an enemy that had somehow slipped past or managed to find where the tunnel let out.
When he himself reached the tunnel's end, Agron sought out the familiar mane of dark hair and found it, on the other side of the clearing, in half a second.
Unfortunately, the Romans found them almost as quickly.
Once again, Agron had to struggle not to think of Nasir as he fought, not worry for his safety or wonder if he would ever see him again. If either of us must perish this day, let it be me. Agron had barely survived the loss of Duro; if Nasir died, that new loss would surely break his still-wounded heart completely, and so Agron would be dead anyway.
But Agron didn't die, and neither did Nasir -- though Agron perhaps came close to crushing his beloved when he was finally free to hold Nasir again. To be fair, Nasir's grip was pretty crushing itself.
"Agron! Do you think you can let go long enough to keep council with us?" Spartacus asked, smiling wryly, an expression mirrored on the faces of Crixus, Gannicus, Oenomaus, and Mira.
Naevia's gaze was sympathetic, at least. "Come, Nasir. With medicus gone, I need assistance with wounded," she said, holding out her hand.
As Nasir let go to comply, Agron clasped the Syrian's shoulder and reached out to cup Nasir's cheek, turning the smaller man to face him again. He kissed the man hard enough to hopefully last them both until the long night was over. Agron was satisfied that he'd achieved his intent as he watched a grinning Nasir stumble a little as the youth left with Naevia.
"Apologies," Spartacus said quietly as they made their way down the path, he and Agron bringing up the rear. "I would keep you together if I could, but at moment, Naevia's side is best place for him."
"I do not disagree," Agron assured him. He knew that their purpose was two-fold, going down the mountain as they were to hold council: they, the best fighters and most trusted allies, were going to stand between any Romans that might have followed and the rest of the people. Leaving Nasir with Naevia would keep him out of harm's way if they were attacked, and even if Agron should fall, there was hope that Spartacus and the others would defeat the enemy, finally seeing their people to safety. He may not always see eye to eye with Spartacus, but he had faith that the man would see them out of this.
"Still, I saw how you kissed him -- as though it might be your last," Spartacus noted. "I witnessed similar affection between Crixus and Naevia."
"And he made similar apology after similarly interrupting," Crixus remarked over his shoulder, sounding bemused.
Spartacus sighed. "Would that I did not have to separate any from their loved ones, this night or ever."
"If wishes were horses, we would have cavalry," Gannicus quipped.
Agron wanted to tell Spartacus that he was wrong in his perception of the kiss, that it was just driven by love, but Agron wasn't so sure now if fear hadn't at least played a part ....
It had been days since they had become trapped on the mountaintop, and food, water, and burnable materials were becoming quickly exhausted. Even with Agron's warm arms around him, and with so many others nearby, Nasir shivered against the cold, hard stone. His stomach growled, and he almost laughed when it seemed as though Agron's rumbled in reply. He would have laughed, if the situation hadn't become so humourless. Stuck on a mountain, a toss-up between starving, freezing, or dehydrating to death -- if the Romans didn't kill them first. If Spartacus and his rebels hadn't invaded the villa where Nasir had lived, Nasir would be enjoying a position of privilege in his master's house. He'd be warm, fed, and not fearing quite so much for his life.
Of course, he wouldn't be with Agron, then. Granted, he wouldn't know what he was missing, either, were that the case, but now that he did? He would take these possibly last moments in his beloved's arms, these past few happiest months of his short life, over whatever safe but lonely decades he might have had in the villa.
He snuggled deeper into Agron's arms, oddly contented, and was gratified to feel a soft kiss at the nape of his neck.
Nasir wasn't surprised to find Agron missing from his side when he awoke up. He assumed that his beloved had gone looking for food, and so Nasir sat by the fire, trying to warm up, debating whether to wait for Agron to return before going to look for food himself. He had an idea he wanted to ask Mira, their best marksman, about: the possibility of using tethered arrows to shoot birds out of the sky. Looking around, though, he didn't see her, either.
And then he did.
The fire did nothing to chase the sudden chill away as he realised that his friend had been gravely wounded.
His horror over her injury, however, apparently wasn't enough to keep some small part of him, to his shame, from being relieved that Agron was unharmed. Spartacus barked for Nasir to heat his sword, and he was further shamed then, for not thinking of doing that himself. It wouldn't have mattered if he had, though: in seconds, she was gone. All that time Nasir had spent with Agron, it hadn't occurred to him that moments spent with others would prove just as precious and fleeting. He came to kneel beside her, taking up her hand much as he had Chadara's, hoping that perhaps Naevia was wrong. Seeing Mira's wound up close, hope vanished in an instant.
Nasir, watching numbly as Spartacus launched himself at Nemetes, pieced the events of the morning together. Like Agron, Nasir had grown to trust Spartacus, and he believed that they had to stick together if any of them were going to get off the mountain alive. Spartacus had spoken so often of how each man must be free to make his own choices -- it was how he'd convinced Nasir that he wasn't simply trading one master for another. He understood that Spartacus wasn't trying to take away choices so much as keep them all alive: if the Romans had killed those who had gone down the mountain, they might have decided that those that remained were few enough -- and divided enough -- to be defeated.
Even so, he could see the perspective of Nemetes and his followers as well. Sooner or later they were going to starve -- better to act than wait for death. As he held Mira's still hand, he shuddered to think what lengths hunger might drive some of them to ....
If they were to have any hope at all, they needed food enough to tide them over until some plan could be arranged, and so Nasir, after sharing a broken heart with Agron over Mira's loss, urged Agron to stay near Spartacus, to look after him, and discuss options with Crixus, Gannicus, and Oenimaus until Spartacus had recovered enough to join them. Meanwhile, Nasir took Mira's bow and headed as far away from the others as he could, which led him around the other side of the peak.
Eventually, though, he noted some sort of disturbance in the camp, and so went back towards it, slowing when he saw a newcomer, stopping when he was close enough to see the man's face and hear his voice. Close enough to recognise him.
Nasir had feared that this man Ashur that everyone spoke so heinously of might be of his blood, but he'd dismissed it. The man who had committed such foul deeds could not have been the brother he'd loved so before being torn from him! Or so he'd hoped. Clearly the man who faced everyone so defiantly now was the Ashur they had been speaking of.
Nasir stayed hidden in the back of the crowd, uncertain of what to do. The man before then might look and sound like his brother and even bear his name, but the deeds ascribed to him were the actions of a monster. The man was like a stranger, whereas these people around Nasir, the rebels, had become his family. If Nasir spoke up now, in defence of his brother, and revealed what he had kept hidden -- lied about -- all this time, would he lose the new family in favour of an old one that was no longer worth having? No matter how much he'd loved his brother, how could he forgive or protect a man that had made sweet, kind Naevia suffer so?
And when Naevia faced her tormentor, Nasir knew his answer. He worried for Naevia, not Ashur. He wanted his friend to live, not the man who wore his brother's face and name. Nasir almost did reveal himself, almost cried out in outrage when Ashur spoke such foul words of and to the woman he'd wronged. His brother had died long ago. And when Naevia cleaved Ashur's head from his shoulders, Nasir felt no grief over it, only justice. This man had murdered Nasir's brother long ago. The sorrow that tore at Nasir's heart now was for the youth he knew all those years gone.
It was that youth whom Nasir snuck back to his bird-hunting perch to quietly mourn.
"Your eyes are shadowed," Agron remarked as Nasir sat beside him, handing him a bowl of thin soup. "You should be strutting like cockerel for getting us this!" He held up the bowl for emphasis. Nasir had been the one to catch the meager bird whose meat had been added to the last of their water -- their last meal, if the mad plan Spartacus had come up with failed. He reached out to cup Nasir's cheek, and grew even more worried when Nasir flinched and pulled away. "Share your heart's burden, so that I may find means to brighten eyes again," Agron insisted gently. "Did I not once promise to shoulder weight?"
Nasir seemed about to say something, then shook his head. "I only worry. These vines do not seem strong enough to bear weight themselves. And I sorrow over the loss of Mira still."
Agron didn't believe for one second that Nasir was telling him everything, but he nodded. "As do I. She was dear friend." And without her, I would have lost you, Agron added to himself, thinking of how she helped to carry the wounded Nasir through the woods. She had become as a sister, and her loss was nearly as keenly felt as Duro's. It was only through Nasir that Argon was able to bear the loss without storming down the mountainside and slaughtering as many Romans as he could before they took him down.
In Nasir, Agron had found something he wanted even more than vengeance: a future.
Agron took a sip and handed the bowl back to Nasir, marveling at how hunger could make a weak broth taste like heaven.
"I had my share already," Nasir said.
Agron furrowed his brow. "You procured this only moments ago, after braiding vines with me for an hour, so I know that you did not have bowlful entirely of your own. Yet there is still more than half bowl left here," he pointed out.
Nasir ducked his head, shrugging. "I am not very hungry."
"Mira would want you to keep up your strength," Agron replied, trying to give the bowl back.
"You will need more strength tonight than I," Nasir countered, holding his hand up in refusal. "Spartacus will choose you to go with him down the ropes tonight, I am sure of it, and I would not have you fall from hunger!"
"Then take nourishment, and your hands on the rope will keep me safe," Agron insisted, pressing the bowl into Nasir's hand.
Nasir looked like he was going to protest again, then sighed, shaking his head with a wan smile before taking a long sip.
Satisfied with this victory, Agron did not press the issue of what else was bothering Nasir. They would both survive the night, and then Agron would wrangle the truth from Nasir after the battle. For now, it was enough of a struggle not to think of how long of a journey it was to the side of the mountain, or how many adversaries they might face when they reached the bottom, or how weak he felt, or how flimsy the ropes seemed. It would not do to lose what little nourishment he had gleaned if his stomach became too flighty with fear to keep anything down. He would not waste what Nasir had caught for them.
After they ate, they set back to work on the ropes. It wasn't long before they finished -- which was good, since night was falling. Nasir reported to Spartacus that the task was done, and their leader called Agron, Crixus, and Gannicus to his side. Nasir saw Naevia and Crixus kiss farewell; he longed to do the same with Agron, but held back. He didn't think he could refrain from telling Agron the truth about Ashur, and this was not the time for upsetting news. He would have faith that he would see his beloved again, and so there was no need for goodbyes. He saw Agron shifting uncomfortably next to Spartacus, could tell Agron was nervous about the descent, and knew he'd made the right choice in keeping quiet. They couldn't afford for Agron to be distracted.
Thunder cracked. Agron saw it as a sign of favour from the gods, but it only worried Nasir more: if it started to rain, Agron and the others might slip and fall!
But as Agron prepared to make his descent and their eyes met, Nasir was careful not to let any of his anxieties show through. He instead focused on all the love and pride he felt towards Agron, all the confidence he had in him. Argon, who always returned safe and sound. It turned out to be a much easier task than Nasir had imagined. Agron was right, he was certain: the gods favoured them. As Agron dropped out of sight, so Nasir's anxiety disappeared. He could feel the thrum of Agron's heart through the rope, beating strong between his hands. Even when the rope suddenly grew light, Agron's weight suddenly gone, Nasir still felt connected, still knew with undeniable certainty that Agron was alive and well. He could feel his beloved's ferocity as though it were his own. By the time the signal finally came, Nasir was more than ready, blood roaring in his ears as he roared his battle lust to the skies and charged down the path into war.
Agron didn't need to look to know where Nasir was, nor even listen. He could feel the Syrian charging towards him. Moments during the battle when he happened to look Nasir's way, he was never surprised to see his beloved, fighting ferociously and well. Perhaps it was a delusion, but it comforted him, allowed him to focus on the battle before him, and so he didn't allow himself to believe it was anything but a true, divine connection. Nasir could and would take care of himself -- Argon had faith. When they approached the temple wall, they were yards apart, but Agron felt Nasir's eyes on him, and, turning, found it to be so. They exchanged fierce smiles, gratified to find each other hale, certain any blood the other wore belonged to the enemy.
Within the temple, seconds after Agron had defeated all within reach, he saw Spartacus facing one of the last Romans -- the hated Glaber. Pleased for Spartacus and satisfied that the Romans had been soundly defeated, Agron found Nasir instantly and made his way to the man's side.
"I ... have something to tell you," Nasir whispered, looking pensive.
Agron smiled encouragingly, glad that he didn't have a battle of a different sort ahead of him but also worried about what Nasir had to say. The Syrian had just fought countless Romans and looked fearless doing it; what could possibly be so horrible that it would put such fear in his eyes now?
"Let us find a quiet spot within temple for privacy, then," Agron told him. They waited for the Thracian to finish his death-dealing, then his speech, and cheered with the rest of the crowd. Agron gripped arms with Spartacus a moment, then followed Nasir past the congratulatory throng.
"We may as well check tunnel," Nasir suggested as they looked within each room for any remaining Romans.
Agron suspected that Nasir was just postponing whatever he had to say. A heart pounded faster and faster, and he couldn't tell if it was his or Nasir's -- or both, in tandem.
Finally, they were outside again, carefully scanning for any signs of enemy stragglers, of which they found none.
Facing away from him, Nasir took in a deep, shaky breath, then turned to face Agron. "Ashur was my brother," he revealed in a rush as he exhaled.
Agron crinkled his nose in involuntary disgust, and immediately regretted it when he saw the hurt in Nasir's eyes, a split-second before the Syrian ducked his head in shame.
"I'm sorry I did not tell you. I did not want to believe that my brother could ... could do such things as everyone accused him of. A-and there are others with such a name, so I hoped maybe it wasn't him ...."
Agron nodded, heart breaking for his beloved. "And then you saw him today, and lost that hope."
"Lost my brother," Nasir nodded, eyes glittering. "That man wore his face, but he was not my Ashur. He was stranger. A monstrous stranger. I could do naught but look on him with disgust -- and I could not bear for you and others to look on me with same, so I said nothing." A tear finally fell, carving a trail through the grime of battle.
Agron felt his own eyes burn. "Nasir ..." he whispered, pulling the man into his arms, into a grip even Hercules could not break. "Forgive me for whatever I have done to make you feel as if you could not come to me with this," he said quietly into Nasir's hair as his Syrian shed burning tears against his chest.
Nasir jerked his head up and sniffled. "You have done nothing wrong!"
"And neither have you!" Agron pointed out, taking Nasir's face in his hands and kissing him hard. He kissed the salt and copper from his cheek next, gently, and then his brow, before finally resting his forehead against Nasir's. "You are no more Ashur than I am, and carry no responsibility for his action."
Nasir was quiet for a moment, drawing shapes absently in Agron's chest. "You say this because your love me," the Syrian said finally. "And I am grateful for it. But others ...."
"Are your family now! Spartacus spared life of Glaber's woman because child she carried was innocent of wrong doing; you are likewise innocent. More, you have proved selfless, helping save Naevia when I would have seen her left in mines. Even Crixus has forgiven me for my actions, a true crime. Being brother to most hated enemy was not something in your control, and by hour of your certainty, matter was closed anyway. Ashur is dead; what difference makes it now, that you shared bloodline and did not mention it? No one would blame you for not claiming bond with him, and our knowing would not have changed anything."
"It wouldn't?" Nasir asked, sounding hopeful but still uncertain.
"I do not love you any less now than I did before you told me," Agron promised, tenderly brushing a stray lock from Nasir's brow. "And I loved you more than anything then. But if you thought I would hold brother or lie against you, you must not believe it. What can I say to prove it to you?"
"Lips can give other proof than just words," Nasir suggested, a sly smile tugging at his lips even as he blushed.
"Can they now?" Agron asked with a salacious grin. "Perhaps you could demonstrate ...?"
Nasir grinned, and Agron felt a knot within him loosen. He came unraveled in the best of ways as he and Nasir proved their affection for one another.
The day might yet bring more nightmares, but for that moment, they were free men having a glorious shared dream.