Nasir sat on the ground beside the pallet on which Agron lay, stroking his lover’s short hair gently.
“You will be fine. You will see.”
Agron stared up at him, gaze full of both trust and uncertainty. He wanted to believe Nasir, yet it was clear that he was afraid.
And in truth, Nasir was afraid as well.
What had started as an occasional spell of fatigue had progressed into bouts of vomiting and frequent fainting spells. At first they had thought it a mere illness, something that would pass. But it never did and soon enough, Agron’s belly began to grow, hard muscle giving way to soft, rounded flesh.
Now, nearly three months after the spells began, they would soon have an answer. And though neither would admit it to the other, both were terrified of what it would be.
“Would that I were as certain as you,” Agron said.
“You doubt me?” Nasir asked, trying for a confidence he did not truly feel. And yet he had to be strong for Agron, for the man who had always been so strong for him.
Agron somehow managed a weak smile. “No, my love. Never.”
It was at that moment that the medicus chose to enter the room, brow furrowed as was his way.
Agron propped himself up on his elbows. “Tell me you come with answers.”
The man shook his head. “I do and yet … I scarcely believe them.”
It was all Nasir could do not to reach over and strangle him. “Speak, man!”
The medicus took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he continued to shake his head. “You are not ill, Agron. Not at all. You are, in fact, with child.”
Agron rose up, the blanket that covered his naked body falling to the ground. He launched himself at the medicus, grabbing at his clothing and shaking him. “I cannot be with child,” he growled. “I am a man.”
Nasir scrambled to take hold of Agron’s arms, pulling him away from the medicus and back to the pallet.
“Settle yourself, Agron. Let him speak.”
The medicus’ frown deepened into a scowl as he adjusted his clothing. “A man you are, but there is a child in your belly just the same.”
“That is not possible,” Agron said.
“It is an unlikely thing, yes, and yet I have heard of it happening. You are not the first. Nor will you undoubtably be the last.”
“Well then, take it out. We cannot afford to have me useless for nine months while this … this thing grows inside of me.”
“This thing, as you say, is our child, Agron” Nasir said, speaking at last. He placed a hand on Agron’s slightly rounded belly, feeling for the warmth of life underneath. “It is a blessing from the gods. A gift.”
“A blessing? Are you pleased about this?” Agron asked, his tone incredulous.
Nasir smiled, soft and tender. “Our love has created a child. Of course I am pleased.”
Agron turned fully to him, open-mouthed and slack-jawed. Nasir seized the opportunity and kissed him tenderly, much as Agron had first kissed him not so very long ago.
But Nasir could not be deterred, could not feel anything other than wonder and a nearly indescribable joy and pride. His strong warrior, the man whom he loved more than anything, was now carrying their child, would one day give it life.
He ran a hand down Agron’s cheek, using the other to cover his lover’s nakedness with the fallen blanket. There would soon be a great change come upon them. Agron would learn to be strong in ways unfamiliar to him. There would be no more battles for him, no more hunting … nothing of the things that he used to define himself as a man.
And yet Nasir was certain that they both were up to the task.
“Well?” the medicus asked, breaking into the moment. “What say you both? Do I attempt to cut it out now or later?”
Agron ignored him, instead choosing to look upon Nasir. His eyes were troubled, clouded with doubt and uncertainty.
“I do not know if I can do this, Nasir. I do not even know if I want this child.”
The words settled inside Nasir’s heart, sharp as shards of glass. “It is your decision, but … Agron, this child. It is the purest blessing that we could receive. What other chance will we ever have to be a true family?”
Agron sighed, closing his eyes as he leaned against Nasir’s body. He seemed very fragile then, and far too young and Nasir ached for him. Perhaps it was selfish of him, to want this so much.
“Yes,” Agron said at last, his eyes remaining closed. He murmured the words against Nasir’s chest. “For you. For us . . . we will keep the child.”
Agron stood away from the others, watching them from the shadows.
Growing weary after only a few moments, he placed a hand along the wall behind him and another on his now considerable belly and awkwardly slid down until he was seated. He shifted, tightening his cloak around him, trying for comfort but as usual finding none.
He gave in to it, accepting it, and turned his attention once more to the others. They had overtaken this villa mere hours ago, and now it was time to celebrate their small victory. And yet Agron had no heart for celebrations. Not when once again he had been forced to stand helpless and useless while everyone else fought; men and women both.
Before . . . before the burden of this child, he’s been counted as one of their best warriors; both fierce and skilled. Now he counted as nothing. He hadn’t even been allowed to help in setting up the camp, something even the weakest of them could manage. Even when he’d insisted that he could be of use, he’d been told, by seemingly everyone, that he was not.
He tried not to think overmuch on the fact that they might be right. Even now he felt sapped of strength and short of breath, as if even that small movement was simply too much for him.
It was often a struggle not to feel resentment toward the life growing in his stomach, the one draining him of everything he was. He had not wanted this child when first they’d been given the news, and still was not certain that he did. He had only agreed to keep it because Nasir had wanted it so.
A smile brightened his face as thoughts of his lover slipped into his mind. He would do anything for Nasir. He would steal for him, bleed for him, kill and die for him. And he would do this . . . he would have this child if it brought Nasir joy.
Even if he himself did not survive the birth, a dire thought that had seemingly never entered Nasir’s mind.
Agron’s eyes sought him out, suddenly desperate and aching to catch sight of him.
And then, as if thought were enough to summon form, he saw Nasir striding toward him.
Nasir reached him quickly and settled down next to him. Agron smiled as Nasir took his face between his hands, lifting it upward to share a tender kiss.
“I seem to recall giving you leave to celebrate with the others,” Agron said.
“You did. And yet I couldn’t stay away. I would much rather be here. With you.”
Nasir placed a hand on Agron’s belly, fingers widening across its expanse.
“And how fares my little girl?”
“Your son is extremely active this night. He shall be a proper warrior with the strength of these kicks.”
“Yes, she will be. Much like her father.”
It was a game they played, teasing each other by pretending preference over the sex of the child.
Nasir grew serious. “And how is her father?”
Agron shrugged. “He aches.”
“My back. Down my leg,” he said, rubbing it as was his habit of late. “But its nothing,” he added quickly, feeling foolish for complaining over so little.
“Slide forward,” Nasir said.
“Nasir, there is no need . . .”
“Slide forward, my love, and let me care for you.”
At that Agron fell silent and did as he was bid. He knew that voice and that voice brooked no argument. Inching forward, he settled in between Nasir’s legs, resting his back against Nasir’s chest. He let his head rest on Nasir’s shoulder, closing his eyes as a sigh escaped his lips.
Nasir’s hands were sure and strong, and soon they were wringing quiet moans from him as they kneaded at sore fleash.
“Good?” Nasir asked, breathing the question against the shell of Agron’s ear.
“Good. Oh gods, so good.”
Nasir groaned and shifted behind him. “Careful. Those sounds of yours awaken my cock.”
“That, my heart, is how we found ourselves on this path in the first place.”
Nasir chuckled, yet his hands still roamed downward, below the cloak where fingers slid down Agron’s hips, joining to wrap around his cock. “There are many other things we can do, as you well know.”
Agron bucked upward, the friction from those skilled hands delicious.
“Nasir,” he said, nearly panting. “Not here.”
“No one can see,” Nasir whispered. He licked a stripe down Agron’s neck, making him shudder with sudden want.
“No, not here,” he said, pulling away and turning enough so he could see Nasir’s face.
“To our bed then? I’ve already prepared it.”
Agron shook his head. “I . . . I don’t understand how you can desire me still.” He cast his gaze down, hiding from dark eyes before they saw too much.
“You are just as pleasing to me as that first night I saw you. More so.”
“How can that be? I am not even a man, Nasir. Not anymore.”
Nasir’s eyes softened and his hands traveled back up to the skin of Agron’s belly.
“You are yet a man, Agron. A man and so much more. You are handsome and strong and kind. And blessed by the gods. And after you bring our child into this world, you shall be a warrior once more . . . if that is what you desire.”
“I only wish to be of use.”
Nasir’s hands left Agron’s stomach, settling at his hair, his fingers combing through it. “You are. Spartacus would be nothing without you. This army would be nothing you.” He took Agron’s chin in hand, insisting their eyes meet. “I would be nothing without you.”
Nasir’s words were as soothing as a balm. And oh, how he wished he could believe them. “You are much skilled with tongue and voice, Nasir.“
Come,” Nasir said. “Let us to bed. We can speak more of this in far better comfort.”
“Yes,” Agron said. And if his smile did not quite reach his eyes, Nasir did not seem to notice.
The pain, when it came, dropped him to his knees.
He and Nasir had been walking back to camp, Nasir ever at his side even as he relieved himself in the nearby woods.
Nasir’s hand had been at his elbow, steadying him as he found his footing over uneven terrain.
And then the pain all but assaulted him, sharp and jarring. Even Nasir’s strong grip could not keep him from falling to the ground.
He doubled over, one hand on the ground in front of him, the other held protectively over his belly.
Agron became aware of Nasir desperately calling his name and of lightning quick touches all over his body, as if his Nasir were afraid that prolonged touch would hurt him more.
He took deep, harsh breaths as he waited for it to end, moment by excruciating moment, until at last it did.
He lifted his head to see that Nasir now stood, looking around frantically as if searching for help. But they were too far from camp.
“Nasir,” he said, his voice raw with fear. And yet the fear was not for himself.
All this time, all these many months, had been spent wishing that he were not burdened with this child.
And now, when at last faced with the possibility of its coming into the world, fraught with danger for them both, all he could think of was how badly he wanted to protect it.
“It’s too soon,” he gasped. “It’s too soon.”
Nasir gave a grim nod. “I know.”
He knew, they both did. Agron had barely entered into his eighth month. It was much too soon for any child, but especially a child born of man and not woman.
Nasir worked to soften his face. “All will be well, Agron. You will see. The gods would not bless us with this gift only to tear it from grasp.”
Agron wasn’t as sure of the gods’ kindness as Nasir was; he had been fucked by them far too often to have true faith. But he nodded regardless.
“Can you walk?” Nasir asked.
“I can make attempt,” Agron said. He took hold of Nasir’s outstretched hands, gritting his teeth as he prepared to stand.
And then the pain came again, stealing his very breath and obliterating all thought.
It was the most difficult thing Nasir had ever done; leaving Agron alone in the woods, curled up agony. And yet he knew it was all he could do. He had tried shouting for the others, yet no one had come. He had tried to pull Agron up and walk with him, but the pains were too close together and much, much too strong. Agron could barely focus on breathing, much less walk. How Nasir wished for a gladiator’s build and strength now, so that he could simply carry Agron safely to camp, but it was beyond him, Agron’s weight and size simply too much.
So instead he helped Agron curl up on his side, brushed at his hair and kissed him as he assured him that he would return.
Agron nodded, his eyes lucid and momentarily clear from pain. “Go. Be swift, Nasir.”
“I will,” he said, bestowing one final kiss upon Agron’s brow before turning and running.
It was the right thing to do, although it felt too much like abandonment. Half the camp followed him back to where Agron lay waiting. Surprisingly, it was Crixus that knelt down and made to carry him, yet it was Spartacus who, without a word, pulled Crixus away and brought Agron into his own arms.
Back at the camp, they gently lay Agron on a hastily assembled pallet and divested him of his clothing. The medicus and his assistant ushered everyone out but grudgingly accepted that Nasir and Naevia would stay.
“You’ll have to help hold him down,” the man said.
“Yes, fine,” Nasir replied, his gaze fixed only on Agron. He dabbed at Agron’s sweat-soaked face with a wet cloth, his other hand holding on firmly to Agron’s.
Agron stared up at him, green eyes clouded and unfocused. “Nasir?”
“Do not leave me.”
“No, my love,” Nasir said, smiling softly. “Never.”
Agron closed his eyes, only to open them a moment later as yet another wave of pain overtook him. His body arched, muscles tensing as tortured moans escaped him.
Nasir exchanged a worried look with Naevia. It went unsaid; the episodes were growing worse.
“Can you not hurry?” Nasir asked.
“This requires care! The wrong mixture could send him to on the afterlife. He and the child both. I don’t suppose that’s what you want.”
“Apologies,” Nasir said, instantly chastised. “It’s only . . . I cannot bear to see him in so much pain. I’ve seen women give birth before and it has never been like this.”
“Because his body is trying to expel the child. And it has nowhere to go,” the medicus explained, his own tone softening only slightly. “Give me a few moments more.”
Agron slumped back against the pallet, all strength seemingly gone. He turned his gaze to Nasir, his eyes half-lidded with heavy exhaustion. “Nasir . . .”
Nasir took hold of Agron’s hand, the one closest to him, in both of his own. He kissed the battle-scarred knuckles lightly.
Agron’s voice was strained, nearly whisper-soft, as if speaking were an insurmountable chore. “You must swear to me, if there is a choice to be made, between my life and the child’s . . . you must choose the child’s.”
“Do not even speak of such a thing. You will both be fine.”
“No, you must swear it, Nasir. You must swear it.”
Nasir opened his mouth to further protest, just as Agron’s eyes screwed shut tight, his muscles seizing as he cried out in pain. Another wave of agony, and all Nasir could do was to clutch Agron’s hand and offer meaningless words of comfort.
This had all been folly, he realized as he watched Agron collapse on the pallet, his features lax, barely conscious. How much pain could the human body take? How much could the mind bear before collapsing under the strain? Even someone as strong as Agron could only bear so much.
“Hurry,” he hissed, his heart sick and breaking at the thought of what Agron was being forced to endure.
But the medicus was already at Agron’s other side, nudging Naevia away. He held up a small cup. “This will help him to dreams. It will dull the pain.”
“Then delay no longer,” Nasir said, his own voice tinged with exhaustion.
He helped to tip Agron’s head up, watching him sputter and cough as he tried to take the liquid in. Then he laid Agron’s head back gently, watching his face anxiously for any sign of relief from the agony that plagued him.
Naevia turned to the medicus, just as Agron’s head twisted to the side, a small whimper sliding from parted lips as the pain returned. “How long?” she asked.
The medicus nodded. “Soon.”
Three days passed and not once did Nasir leave Agron’s side. He ate next to him, he slept (what little he did sleep) next to him, and he cared for their child next to him.
“I would have you know your child, Agron. Please wake. Please,” he said, his voice hoarse from the never endless chatter he had kept up since the medicus had pulled the child from Agron’s body.
Yet, it was not until the end of the fourth day that Agron opened his eyes at last. Too weak to move his head, he turned his weary gaze to Nasir.
“I live?” he whispered.
Nasir both laughed and wept. “You live, Agron. You are too stubborn to die.” With his hand, he turned Agron’s head for him, his fingertips tracing the curve of his cheek, the line of his jaw.
Agron attempted a smile, eyes fluttering closed briefly before coming open again. “The child,” he said, hand moving toward his belly. Nasir caught it easily enough. The medicus had warned that Agron was not to touch the place of incision.
“Your daughter is well,” he said. “She is here.”
“A daughter?” Agron asked, voice soft with wonderment. “We have a daughter?”
Nasir wiped away his tears. “Yes. And she is as strong and beautiful as the man who bore her.”
“May I see her?”
Nasir nodded happily. “Of course.” He turned and reaching behind him, gently lifted their daughter from her makeshift crib. She sniffled and scrunched her nose as if in annoyance at being disturbed.
“So much like your father. He gets grumpy too,” he whispered to her. Then, with an infinite amount of care, he laid her on Agron’s chest. Knowing that Agron did not have the strength to do it himself, he took hold of Agron’s hand and placed it gently on her back.
“Oh . . .” Agron said. The sound was little more than a breathy exhale in the quiet of the room. “Oh.”
“Agron? Should I fetch the medicus?” he asked, worry bleeding through his voice as he made to take back their child. The medicus had made it very clear that Agron was not yet free of danger, that for the next few weeks, he would be weak and frail.
Agron shook his head, and his eyes swam with tears. “She is beautiful. I cannot believe . . . I cannot believe she is real.”
Nasir smiled warmly at him. “You did well.”
“I did well,” Agron said, his words slurring.
It was clear that he was tiring, and the occasional wince bespoke of reignited pain. Nasir was loathe to separate them, but he knew that he must. He lifted their daughter into his own arms.
“Sleep. Regain your strength. We will be here waiting for you when you wake.”
Agron gave a small nod, eyes already falling closed. The ache that Nasir felt in his heart came from the love that he felt for this man, now joined by the love for his child. Their child.
He wiped Agron’s tears away, the ones that were drying on his cheeks and bent forward to kiss his slack lips.
“My love,” he said, though he knew that Agron would not hear. “You’ve given us the most special gift that one ever could. You have made us a family.”