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that i live and you are gone

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~~~

The spaces around him are getting emptier. The patterns fall apart.

Whenever he makes plans or gives commands now, he has a moment or three where he flounders in the silence following his words. It’s been weeks since Crixus and Agron left, days since Naevia returned with news of their deaths; yet still he pauses after every command he speaks, thrown off-kilter when Crixus does not bark some angry challenge, when Agron does not casually ask him if he’s lost his mind. When he walks through the camp, his shoulders feel itchy and exposed without the two of them flanking him, their shadows merging into his.

There have been moments, since they started this war, that he has gone without them. When Crixus was captured. When Agron left for Vesuvius. But he has never known their absence to be so final. Not since they ran, blood-drenched, from the house of Batiatus that night so long ago, has he ever truly had to lead alone.

He misses them. It hurts.

He cannot even show it. He is their leader. The great man on the hill. Open displays of constant mourning might show weakness, for one thing, and infringe upon the grief of those more deserving of it, for another.

So he straightens his shoulders, weighs his voice with confidence when he speaks, and pretends he cannot hear the silence.

~~~

 

He goes down the valley to meet the ragged train of prisoners himself, despite Naevia’s misgivings.

“Spartacus. Think of Lysiscus,” she urges him. “Delay welcome until we have made certain there are no Roman spies hidden in their midst.”

Her voice is level and her counsel solid, but there is an emptiness behind her eyes that hurts to look at. It is a look he has seen many times since they took up this fight – a look he suspects he still wears himself – but there are some faces on which he’d hoped he’d never have to glimpse it: the look of a heart broken beyond mending.

Naevia’s face. Nasir’s.

He’d hoped he could do better by them. Somehow he’d hoped there’d be more happiness for them before the end; or, selfishly, that they might all fall together and he would not have to face that look in their eyes.

The worst thing in the world is to be the one who survives.

He puts a hand on Naevia’s shoulder. “Your words hold wisdom. Yet these are our people, returned to us after having suffered beyond the telling of it. If a hundred spies stand among them, I would yet give welcome and solace to the four hundred others. Command is yours, until I return.”

Naevia frowns, but does not question him further. “At least take troop with you. Well supplied with weapons and sharp eyes.”

“I shall.”

She helps him pick the rebels themselves. All around them, the camp is bustling with hectic activity, preparing for the returned prisoners. In this, too, his first instinct was to task Agron with the preparations while sending Crixus out to scout for traps – after they’d all argued about it, of course. Once, he deplored their minor clashes over nearly everything, the daily struggle of sharing power with men who are as close as brothers to him; men who would never hesitate to tell him when they think he’s wrong, or being an insufferable ass. He didn’t think he could miss being challenged so much.

Nasir has set his new recruits to raising extra shelters for the injured; food is being prepared, and the few medici they have are busily gathering supplies and enlisting helpers. No one knows in what condition the prisoners will be returned to them, but they’ve had enough dealings with the Romans to prepare for the worst.

Most heart-breaking are the scores of rebels who mill about trying to keep themselves busy as they wait; hoping against hope that a specific loved one may return.

For an idle, useless moment, he tries to picture the luxury of uncertainty, and fails. It has been too long since those agonised weeks of waiting for news under Batiatus’s roof. He can no longer even imagine that kind of hope. Sura is gone. His brothers are gone.

Nobody will return for him.

Naevia helps him saddle his horse, looking grim as she tightens the straps around its belly. “I do not trust Caesar in this. Crassus’s son returns to him a corpse, the terms of bargain broken. What fired his confidence that Crassus would still wish to see trade honoured? Why would he keep promise, for a slave?”

She makes no mention of how that slave robbed her of Tiberius’s death, but he knows how it must eat at her. The chance to avenge Crixus personally was the first thing that brought some light back into her eyes since she returned.

He studies her across the horse’s back: the sharp-edged lines of her face, the clenched jaw. He barely knew her when she was yet a body slave, gentle of spirit and abhorring blood. The woman and the friend he knows was shaped by the horrors she lived through, and by the love of Crixus. It is no wonder, then, that the warrior who emerged from such a forge is one of Crixus’s ilk: uncompromising in love and loathing, with little time for mercy or the humanity of enemies. She has been scoured and burned clean of any softness she once possessed, survived despite it, not because of it.

To her and Crixus, vengeance came easy, and compassion was a waste of time.

Often, he’s envied them.

He shrugs at her question. “You spoke to Kore as much as I did. What did you make of her?”

Naevia’s eyes narrow as she considers. “She was beautiful, and educated. Of some worth even to a Roman imperator, certainly. But five hundred prisoners?”

He looks at her closely: her frustration and anger held but loosely in check. She truly cannot imagine it.

“Perhaps he cares for her.”

In the weeks and months past, he has learned much about Marcus Crassus, and none of it simple or in line with his previous knowledge of Roman commanders. Sometimes, when he is bent over his maps and plans, he wishes with pathetic fervour for the simplicity of an opponent like Quintus Lentulus Batiatus or Gaius Claudius Glaber: men who did not credit him with enough brains to rival theirs. Who did not take him seriously. Who did not respect him enough to devise proper plans against him.

Naevia sneers. “Marcus Crassus, richest man in Republic of Roman shits, swayed by feelings for a slave? No,” she says, and there is more in her flat statement than simple disagreement with his idea. It is a refusal of all possibility that their enemy might harbour conflicted feelings of his own. That he is anything but anathema, a hated Roman to be destroyed.

He wishes he could feel the same – no, more than that: he wishes it were true. Much simpler to fight a man whose sole purpose is their destruction, rather than one who would let go of tactical advantage for a matter of the heart.

Once, a long time ago, a capricious sky chose a portentous moment to end a drought, forever branding him Bringer of Rain: leader, destroyer, catalyst. Whatever callous god opened the floodgates of the heavens that day never cared enough to direct him through the raging waters. He’s muddled through the torrents of change on his own.

He feels the necessity of anticipating Crassus’s movements like one of the heavy wooden beams he once dragged around the training grounds at Batiatus’s ludus. His people expect him to outthink the enemy, because it’s what he’s done before. He isn’t sure if he can, this time, but he doesn’t have the luxury of doubt.

They think he can, so he will have to.

“Maintain close guard as we return,” he instructs Naevia, as much for practical need as to see her straighten with purpose. He takes some comfort from her grim nod. Even if he can never persuade Gannicus to lead with him, he has one general yet who will never waver in her purpose.

“I shall.”

It isn’t far to where Caesar’s men released the prisoners. They trail across the valley floor, some small groups of those more able-bodied ranging ahead, but most of them clustered together in a sluggishly moving mass. His small mounted troop spreads out as they ride towards them, keeping an eye on the surrounding land for unwanted surprises.

He doesn’t think Naevia had much to worry about. For one thing, Crassus would consider him smarter than falling for the same trick twice; he must know that another infiltration attempt would be sure to be discovered.

For another, this is an exchange of pain. Crassus’s slave, whatever meaning she holds to the man, returned to him with the body of his son.

In trade for these spectres. He barely manages to rein in his fury when he sees them trailing towards the camp: rail-thin and covered in the signs of torture, sent on the strenuous walk with no provisions or shelter from the chill of night. Even so, they cheer him hoarsely when they recognise him.

He wishes again that he could still picture Sura. Pushing through the tattered crowd, covered in filth and blood and bruises, but alive and real. The weight of her in his arms. The scent of her hair. Her voice, warm and hoarse, murmuring his name.

Once these poor fantasies kept him going, kept him grounded, but enough time has passed that he can no longer summon them. She has been gone too long, and he, like Naevia, has been scoured of softer things.

He and his small troop dismount as they reach the first prisoners. Within a dozen steps, he’s ordered their horses to be handed over to the wounded, two or three crowded on each animal’s back. As he wades further into the incoming throng, he wishes that he’d brought more horses. Some of them are terribly injured, stumbling along between supporting arms. Some of them he doubts will last out the week.

Still, their eyes are glued to him as he passes, and he distributes what comfort he can. Welcoming words, a touch in passing, praise for their courage. All the while, his fury burns brightly, all the more so for lack of a proper target. He can silently curse Crassus, but were the surviving citizens of Sinuessa in any better shape when he returned them to him?

Bringer of Rain. Of change. Of blood.

Mira used to rail at him for wallowing in the suffering he’s caused them. For trying to claim their pain as his responsibility.

“We chose,” she’d tell him sternly, again and again. “Our fate not your wish, or your command. We chose. Cease placing claim upon consequences of our actions, lest you take meaning from them. These wounds are ours.”

His mind believed her and treasured her for it, but his heart was a different matter.

He walks among them, comforts, soothes. He tries not to take each trembling limb and broken spirit, each gangrenous wound upon himself. If only every tenth one of these people is welcomed back by a loved one, this is a victory, despite the loss that came before.

“Bringer of Rain!”

When the raised voice reaches his ears, hoarse with urgency, he realises it has called out several times before, and not as idle cheering. It’s an old woman walking towards him, lean from a lifetime of slavery, but wiry with knotted muscle. He does not know her and spends long moments blaming himself for that, before he realises he does know the figure tottering beside her, wide shoulders slumped against her narrow frame.

The shock of recognition roots him to the spot for several long moments.

“Agron?” he asks hoarsely, afraid to believe it. He is desperately afraid that his mind is playing tricks on him, cruelly twisting a passing similarity. In his heart, he said goodbye to them after Naevia brought the news of Crixus’s defeat: goodbye to all his brothers, the shining angry gods of the arena. He went to see Nasir, to speak apologies; then, faced with his empty-eyed stare, found his lips would not shape the useless word.

This must be a mirage.

But Agron’s head lifts slowly at the sound of his name, and so does Spartacus’s heart. He rushes to meet them.

“I thought you gone from this world!”

The old woman transfers Agron’s stumbling weight to his arms with an audible sigh of relief. “So did we, at times.” She drapes Agron’s arm around his shoulder and somehow manages to draw his eye to his crudely bandaged hands without pointing them out directly. His heart clenches with dread at the blood crusting the dirty linen.

“He hung upon cross for two days,” she confirms his unspoken question, brushing tangled hair out of her lined face. “No one objected to us giving him water, or lowering him down when command to gather prisoners came. They did not pierce his feet, thank the gods.”

“Gratitude,” Spartacus manages, his eyes searching Agron’s face. His friend stares at him blankly, one eye nearly swollen shut, the other dull with pain and fatigue. There are other wounds on his torso, crusted and oozing.

“Agron. Brother.” He tries to push meaning into the hollow ghost before him. Fingers feebly twitch against his nape, and eventually Agron’s forehead drops slowly against his. He takes a deep, shaky breath. His throat works several times before the cracked lips open.

“Nasir?”

It’s barely a croak, but it is something. “He lives, and aches for you,” he tells Agron. Something breaks briefly through Agron’s dull stare, a small spark of feeling. When Spartacus lifts his water skin from his belt and holds it to his lips, Agron drinks slowly, half of the water dribbling out of the sides of his mouth. His eyes are moving, searching for a path ahead.

Spartacus wraps an arm around Agron’s waist and turns them towards the camp. From emptiness, his heart has gone to blazing purpose in a moment, the pain searing but joyful, for once. If he can yet help work one miracle, anything is possible.

“I will take you to him, brother.”

Agron does not answer, but he leans on his shoulder as they start to walk, and his laboured breathing rasps in Spartacus’s ear. The silence falters, and retreats.