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Our Days of Blood and Sunset

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~~~

 

Underneath it all – under the stunned disbelief and gratitude, the horror and sympathy and dazed, aching joy – Nasir is desperately angry.

At the Romans – yes, of course. At what has been done to Agron, striking with such vicious precision at the core of who he is and seeking to destroy that with two crude spikes of iron.

If Nasir faced the men who did this, he would rip them limb from limb. He would break the bones of Crassus’s face into mere splinters. He would choke Caesar’s taunting smirk on his own blood. He would take a hundred spikes – a thousand – and drive them through every inch of their flesh.

But they are not here, and Agron is. And if Nasir is honest with himself, he is angry with Agron, too.

It’s simmered for days – no, weeks, really, ever since Agron left. Since he left him. Since he took it into his infuriatingly stubborn head that he has any right to pre-empt Nasir’s choices. Since he told him I ask only that you live, as if that was a thing made more likely by his departure. As if Nasir would stop fighting simply because he is gone.

It does not help that he is furious with himself as well – for letting Agron leave, for letting him think he had reason to. For not fighting harder. For whatever it was that Agron saw when he saw him gazing at Castus and his damnable blazing smile.

The anger churns inside him like a living thing and turns upon itself, a wounded animal furious with pain, and inflicting more to stop it.

Nasir shoves it down and denies it attention.

Agron lives. That should be all that matters.

~~~

Castus is the first visitor to their tent; everyone else has better sense. He hands Nasir a wrapped-up bundle and holds up two hot bowls. “Clean bandages, and meal for you both.”

He gives Agron a nod over Nasir’s shoulder, though his eyes stay hooded. “Your return to world of the living gladdens many hearts.”

Agron has sat up on the bed, tension plain in every muscle. “Your own not among them, I trust,” he grumbles, although the challenge is not nearly up to his usual heat. Nasir’s hands clench briefly on the rolled-up bandages.

But Castus merely shrugs, refusing to rise to the bait. “Mine too, for Nasir’s sake. News of your passing struck wound beyond healing.” His tone is even, but there is a hint of chastisement in his words. From the way Agron’s shoulders hunch, Nasir thinks he hasn’t missed it, either. For a moment, tension hangs thick in the small tent.

Castus disperses it with a broad grin. “Besides, I had missed your sparkling wit. I have not been punched without offence or called a Cilician shit in weeks.”

Agron opens his mouth, then closes it again, looking both confused and affronted at having his favourite slur forestalled. Suppressing a grin, Nasir turns to take the bowls of food from Castus. “Gratitude.”

“Spartacus sends word that we will gather in the arena tonight, to honour Crixus.” Castus hesitates, eyes flickering again to Agron. “Of course, if exhaustion of ordeal-”

“We will be there,” Agron cuts him off. Nasir shoots him a quick look but thinks better of arguing when he sees the stubborn line between Agron’s brow, and the hooded anguish in his eyes. He remembers Crixus – laughing and cursing and always, always fighting – and blinks his eyes against the sudden threat of tears. “We will be there,” Nasir confirms.

Castus nods. “I shall see you on the sands, then.” He turns to lift the tent flap. “Meanwhile, I wish you joy of nursing,” he says over his shoulder, with just a hint of mockery.

When he has left, Agron drops back upon the bed with a loud huff. “Fucking Cilician sh-”

“Do not start,” Nasir warns him, his amusement gone as quickly as it came. “Castus has stood a friend.”

“A friend?” There is the slightest hint of a sneer to Agron’s voice that reminds Nasir all too vividly of his accusations in Sinuessa. He bites his lip and forces himself to stay calm.

“A friend,” he confirms evenly. “I would hear no ill word.”

He crouches before Agron with a bowl of stew, hesitating when he looks at his hands. One of the medici has cleansed the wounds and wrapped them in fresh bandages, and tended to the wounds on Agron’s chest and side as well, but Nasir is not at all sure he trusts the man’s grimy hands, or those of his inexperienced assistants.

He holds up the wooden spoon. “Shall I-”

Agron shakes his head, a bit too quickly. “I can do it.”

He balances the bowl on his knees. The spoon is roughly carved thick wood, more ladle than anything else, and Nasir wonders briefly if Castus chose it deliberately for the greater purchase it offers. Agron holds it awkwardly between his thumb and the tips of index and ring finger, not letting it touch the palms. He eats slowly and methodically, rather unlike his usual habit of tearing into his food like a starving wolf. Once Nasir has reassured himself that he does seem to manage, he goes to retrieve his own bowl and sits cross-legged on the floor beside the bed.

They eat in silence, until Agron clears his throat. “What Castus spoke… of news of my passing. Does he-”

“He spoke truth. When I thought you dead…” Nasir sets his half-finished bowl aside, his throat suddenly impassable. “My world has stood absent light since that day.”

Agron lowers himself to the floor before him slowly and carefully, like a man in a controlled fall. He looks utterly exhausted, the bruises livid against his pale skin, deep shadows beneath his eyes, and deeper ones within. He looks like hell, and Nasir’s heart clenches at the sight of him. He lifts a hand to smooth at a greenish-purple bruise, and Agron tilts his head to rub his cheek into the touch.

“Apologies,” he croaks, pressing his forehead against Nasir’s.

Nasir curls his other hand around Agron’s nape, thumb tracing the nub of bone at the top of his spine. “You are here now,” he tells him softly. “None required.”

But his heart beats hot and restless in his chest and he isn’t sure it’s true. Worse, he isn’t sure if it’s enough.

~~~

Later, they stand in the arena, heated by the blaze of the pyre. Agron’s arm rests heavily across Nasir’s shoulder, and the reality of his body, upright and solid beside him, feels warmer than the fire.

When the names start rising to the evening sky – first just a few, then many, and in the end, just the one, over and over again, in a fervent chant – it feels for a moment like things might simply fall into place, a missing piece restored to a hole of the same shape. Like it might be easy.

~~~

The first night, Agron drops into bed and falls asleep before his head has fully settled on the pillow. He doesn’t even stir when Nasir takes off his shoes and belt and eases the blanket out from underneath him to cover him.

Nasir stretches out beside him in the dark and tries to reconcile his wildly conflicting feelings.

Even now, with Agron sleeping next to him, he can still feel the ghost ache of the loneliness that permeated him to the bone, these past few weeks when he lay in their bed alone each night. At first he merely tossed and turned with worry, hoping that Agron fared well, wherever he was. Every night, his body throbbed with frustrated longing, until he took matters into his own hands, eyes pressed shut, trying to pretend it was Agron’s hands upon him instead of his own. Spreading his legs to the imagined slow swell of Agron inside him. Bucking his hips into empty air, and empty release.

Later, after Naevia’s return, that stopped. He’d merely lie there, staring into the dark with eyes by turns overflowing or dry as bone. He’d say to himself, He is truly gone now, and his mind would refuse to accept the meaning of the words. Despite himself, his hand would creep across the blankets, the shape of Agron’s bulk so real in his mind that his fingers groped uselessly long beyond the point of realisation that there was nothing there to touch.

Tonight, perversely, his mind and body have taken the opposite approach, flinching in shock when his idle fingers encounter Agron’s body beside him, his skin slightly hot with the burn of recent wounds. Nasir’s mind shrinks and falters, afraid to believe it in the dark; afraid it might just be one of the torturous dreams he’s had of late, when he woke with a cry of joy only to realise that apart from him, the tent is utterly empty.

He tries to convince himself of the reality of it. He curls close to Agron, trying to figure out how to touch him without aggravating any wounds. He settles for lying on his side, one arm eased underneath Agron’s head, the other hand resting lightly on his hip. He lies awake for what feels like hours, listening to Agron’s slow, deep breathing.

Near dawn, Agron tears them both from sleep with a hoarse, blood-curdling shout, lashing out and screaming when he hits his hand against the edge of the bed.

Nasir grasps at the flying limbs, disoriented from a brief uneasy rest, shocked to wake and find Agron actually there.

“Agron… Agron!” he shouts, rolling on top of the straining body, pinning his shoulders down until Agron suddenly freezes. “Calm yourself! You but dreamed.”

Agron stares up at him in the grey morning light with eyes shadowed and wild, his chest heaving. His body has gone stiff beneath Nasir’s, knotted with tension; his arms have straightened to either side, the shoulders bulging with strain. When Nasir recognises the position, he feels his gorge rise. He grabs at Agron’s wrists and yanks his arms out of the rigid cross form, cradling his hands close to his chest without touching the wounds.

“Agron. Look at me. Return to waking world! I’m here, and you are free.”

Agron blinks slowly, once, twice. He draws in a shaky breath. “Nasir?”

“Yes,” Nasir says and kisses him, swallowing the harsh noise of pain Agron makes when the motion jostles his hands. “I’m here,” he whispers into Agron’s mouth. “This is real,” he whispers to them both.

~~~

Agron is usually the angry one. The one who erupts with the sudden force of a volcano, spitting wrath like lava and then just as abruptly simmering down.

Nasir is used to dealing with his lover’s temper. Sometimes Agron’s rash outbursts exasperate him; on the rare occasions when they’re turned on him, they have sparked indignation, and a few times, genuine hurt. More often than not, though, they fill him with amusement and no small amount of fondness.

He’s used to being the voice of reason, the one who defuses Agron’s anger with a calm word or touch, or the occasional sharp admonition.

His own anger is slower to spark but more enduring, and of a different heat. It’s a cold burn, like fen-fire, hard to grasp at, harder to quench. It’s difficult to extinguish a flame whose source you cannot touch.

He isn’t used to being the one who holds offence, especially an offence so elusive and tangled up in other feelings.

The ghost-flame of his fury burns brightly in those first few days. So brightly that he wants to shout and sneer and lash out, deservedly or not, like he did at Castus.

But Castus could take it, and Agron cannot, at least not right now, sprawled in their tent and staring with bruised eyes into an altered world in which he has no place. You cannot fly in anger at someone you love, someone you’d thought lost forever, someone you mourned. Someone who has been damaged worse than they ever have before, perhaps permanently.

So Nasir doesn’t. For days, he allows himself no other feelings than the ones he felt at first. Relief. Anguish. Love.

It helps that there are things to focus on. Things of a practical nature, easier to mend perhaps than the twisted mess of his conflicted heart.

These are things he can do: Find out what happened. Coax Agron into speaking. Listen to stories of battle, of strategy, of the tempting gleam of Rome on the horizon, nearly within grasp. Speak of Crixus: old memories and new. Share joy, share tears.

Speak comfort with an even voice, as though he were the rock on which the world is anchored. Pretend he’s not as lost as Agron is, or worse.

Have the wounds seen to. Argue with the medicus, who seems worrisomely indifferent about his tasks, and reeks of wine and piss. Delegate his other tasks so he can be with Agron.

Castus helps with the latter, matter-of-factly and in the same calmly persistent but unobtrusive way he has shadowed Nasir’s steps of late. He has offered no touch since Nasir’s violent outburst against him. In the days after Naevia brought the news, he made no move that could even vaguely be construed as an advance. He’s simply been there, prodding Nasir into eating, helping with training, conscripting him into some scouting mission when Nasir would have preferred to simply sit and brood.

It has been steady support but undemanding; accepting of Nasir’s grief but unwilling to see him drown in it. Nasir does not know what to make of it. It would be easy to attribute ulterior motive, to dismiss Castus’s efforts as merely biding his time in some ultimate play for more. But Castus has never struck him as someone easily given to deception, and there is something in the way he treats Nasir now that is as genuine as when he did attempt to court him.

Almost, he envies Castus his ability to make momentous choices with no more than a shrug or smile or sigh: to adapt so easily to the changing patterns of the world around him.

Brigand to rebel. Teasing flattery to solemn comfort. Courtship to friendship, as if he meant it; as if by mere force of stubborn will, he can and does change the nature of a thing. As if he looked squarely at his feelings, said to himself, This will not do, and saw them changed.

Perhaps it is a quality he’s taken from the sea he hails from: to flow with the current rather than against it, to ride the crest of a wave instead of throwing himself headlong into it and drown.

“I can take over recruits’ lessons, if you wish,” Castus offers now, having intercepted Nasir on his way through camp. “You have set them well upon path. It will not be hard to see they stay upon it.”

“Gratitude,” Nasir manages, and attempts a smile around the lump in his throat. It seems that lump is always there of late.

“None required.” Castus nods behind Nasir, towards the tent he shares with Agron. “How does he fare?”

Nasir shrugs. “He shows some improvement.”

If lying there and staring at a tent wall can be called improvement.

“Medicus has seen to him?”

“He has, but I go to seek another. The man stands more butcher than healer.”

He’s proud of how calm his voice sounds. He does not mention how he nearly punched the grubby-fingered fuck this morning when he offered to put a cauterising iron to Agron’s mangled palms.

Castus seems to pick up something from his expression anyway. His brows knit in concern and he looks for a second as if he wants to say something. He thinks better of it, though, and settles for a nod. “Spartacus spoke of a slave who helped Agron during march from prison camp. An old woman of some skill with herbs, it would seem. Perhaps she might be of more aid.”

“Advice well received. I shall seek her out.”

Castus stops him as he makes to move past him. “I know where she dwells. I shall go fetch her. Go see to Agron.”

“Gratitude,” he says again, but Castus is already striding off.

~~~

Agron lies where he left him, where he’s been lying since Crixus’s funeral, barely stirring except to chew listlessly at food or take brief excursions to the latrines. He speaks when Nasir prods him into it, accepts water and offers feeble smiles. He doesn’t curse or laugh or fight or fuck or any of the things that make him who he is.

Nasir wants to hold him, or shout at him, or hit him, or kiss him, and doesn’t know how to start doing any of those things.

“Castus sends healer,” he tells Agron, hating how tension has stiffened his voice. “One known to you, it would seem – old woman that helped you into camp?”

Agron swallows and nods briefly. “Ursilla. I recall her. She offered aid, when… after.” He jerks his head at his hands as if they disgust him. Nasir struggles for words and finds none.

He’s saved shortly by the arrival of the healer. She’s grey-haired and burned by the sun, lean to the point of concern but straight-shouldered with purpose. Most reassuringly, she smells of herbs rather than unwashed bodies.

She wastes no time with soothing talk. “My name is Ursilla,” she states to Nasir, striding past him into the tent and setting down a large woven bag. She frowns at Agron, prone on their bed and brooding. “Why do you lie there like felled tree? Did you break legs as well? Sit up, boy. Show hands.”

She briskly unwraps Agron’s bandages to inspect the angry red wounds without touching them directly.

“Move fingers,” she instructs Agron curtly. “Does this hurt? And this? Can you feel this?” She bends his fingers this way and that, prods at his wrists and smacks his thigh reproachfully when he clenches his jaw. “Do not hide pain. I need to know the source of it.”

Agron bares his teeth. “Surely not difficult to find. Source is fucking great holes through fucking hands.”

Nasir snorts, amused despite himself, and Ursilla shoots him a quick, disapproving look. “There are different kinds of pain. Straighten fingers.”

She frowns when Agron struggles, his long fingers trying to stay curled. “You can yet move them. That is good. Not so good that they will not stay flat.”

Nasir steps close to gaze over her shoulder. “What does it mean?”

She lifts a bony shoulder. “Spikes did not fully sever tendons, or he could no longer use hands at all. But there is damage nonetheless, and healing may contract hands into claws. You should wear splints at night,” she tells Agron, flattening out one of his hands against her own. Agron winces as she straightens the fingers fully. “Keep them like this, you see? Prevent withering. Then work them during days, as much as you are able. Open and close, to keep them limber.”

Her hand looks ridiculously small against Agron’s as she demonstrates the motion. Nasir steps beside them and puts a hand on Agron’s shoulder. The tense muscle relaxes minutely under his touch. “What else?” Nasir asks.

Ursilla shrugs, rummaging through her woven bag to set out fresh bandages, a water skin, and a small stoppered pot. “Make sure wounds don’t go foul. Wait. Hope.”

She pours some of the water, smelling strongly of mint, onto a linen cloth and starts to clean the wounds with it. Nasir watches, teeth sunk into the inside of his cheek to keep from making a noise when the torn edges of the wounds come clean beneath the wet cloth, exposing red, gaping flesh, just in the earliest stage of knitting.

Agron endures the cleansing quietly, the occasional twitching finger the only indication of his pain. When Ursilla eventually sets the soaked, bloody rag aside, he clears his throat. “Will they heal fully?”

Ursilla holds his hands cupped in her own, peering closely at the wounds. “Only the gods know. There may be damage inside that cannot mend.”

Agron’s jaw goes stark and tense. “I am no use without my hands.”

“Of use to me,” Nasir interjects sharply, squeezing his shoulder. Agron’s eyes flicker briefly to his and then away.

Ursilla snorts. She’s opened the clay pot and now smooths a thick greenish salve across Agron’s palms, nudging globs of it directly into the wounds. “Time will tell. If nicked tendons mend properly and you keep stretching fingers – who knows. There may be odd sensations – tingling, burning. Some loss of strength in grip.”

Agron makes an appalled noise. “What of wielding sword? I cannot lose that.”

The old woman does not look up from her task. “You breathe,” she tells Agron curtly. “You walk. You speak. Your heart yet beats, and your eyes are clear. Many others lie dead back at Roman camp. I myself have buried two husbands and four children under heel of Republic. Do not fucking speak to me of loss.”

Agron swallows. “Regrets, for your losses. But… I am a warrior.”

Nasir almost winces to hear the words from him, uttered with such floundering desperation. It brings to mind too clearly the moment when he himself spoke those same words to Agron, with that same note of despair. One I am most proud of, Agron said then. And left him anyway.

Ursilla has finished wrapping fresh bandages around his hands. She ties them off and rises to her feet, one wrinkled hand brushing over Agron’s hair so briefly that it might be an accident.

“Be one again, then, if you can,” she says brusquely. “If not, be something else. There are many paths in this world.”

~~~

Nasir steps with her outside the tent. “The splints you spoke of. What form?”

She studies him briefly, her lined brown eyes shrewd in her face. “You are Nasir?”

“I am.”

She nods, looking thoughtful. “When we yet walked from prisoners’ camp… your name almost only thing he spoke since taken down from cross.”

Nasir swallows hard. “Castus made mention that it was your hands that aided Agron on way back. Your deed stands most treasured.”

She waves his gratitude away impatiently. “Splints are simple. Small, flat pieces of wood, to keep fingers straight. Fixed in place with soft leather straps. I shall return tomorrow, to replace salve and bandage. See that he keeps moving hands, but gently.” She hesitates. “Do not let him lie steeped in misery. Corruption can take root in spirit, not only flesh.”

He nods, but she must see something in his face, because she frowns and gives him an awkward pat on the arm.

“If you would see wounds mended, do not let him lose hope. Sheer will can go a long way.”

Nasir smiles at her feebly. “He has always been most stubborn.”

“Good. Make use of it.”

~~~

When he returns, he finds Agron up and about, but his relief turns quickly to alarm when he sees the sword lying on the bed, and Agron’s fingers trying to curl around the grip.

“What are you doing?”

Agron glances up briefly. His lips form a thin line, compressed with pain and determination. “I cannot remain idle upon back like old man.”

“Words I agree with, and have spoken also. Yet holding sword is still beyond you.” He strides across the tent, but Agron moves quickly between him and the sword.

“You heard the woman! If I would yet be a warrior, I must reclaim purpose.”

Nasir stares at him, very nearly at his wits’ end. He’s tired and exasperated and heartsore, but somehow, despite all that, sourly amused. There’s no denying that it feels good to see Agron obstinate and rash rather than empty-eyed and broken.

He clears his throat and struggles for calm. “Those not exact words she spoke,” he says dryly, “nor do I think she meant for you to grip a sword today. Next thing I know, you’ll be charging towards Roman camp on foot and naked.”

Agron ignores his attempt at humour entirely. “I would see intent upon road to success,” he insists, fingers extending once more towards the sword.

Nasir grabs for his arm. “Agron, see reason! Hands are but newly bandaged-”

“Do not fucking coddle!” Agron all but roars, shrugging him off so brusquely that Nasir staggers back a step or two. “I am not helpless babe mewling for succour!”

Nasir’s temper finally snaps. “Tear open wounds, then, you great fool!” he hisses. “Romans will thank you for saving them trouble of seeing you to end!”

But when the sword clutters from Agron’s hand a second later, he sighs and goes to him, grasping his wrists and drawing them towards him, not as gently as he meant to.

“Sword will wait,” he says firmly, squeezing Agron’s forearm.

Agron stares at his fingers, curled protectively over the bandaged palms. His face looks naked, stunned at the betrayal of his body, and Nasir’s heart goes out to him, despite the exasperation churning in his chest.

“The fighting will not,” Agron says flatly. “I have heard and seen plans for battle laid, and would not be apart from it.”

“Agron…”

The wrists he holds are abruptly wrenched from his grip. “I do not lay attempt in foolish stubbornness! It is not merely steel that falls from useless hand, but life’s purpose!” Agron breathes in shakily, holding up his hands in disgust. Nasir stays where he is, watching as Agron turns his hands back and forth, trying to straighten out the fingers as Ursilla did. They strain and shake with the effort. Agron’s shoulders slump suddenly, and he drops heavily to sit on the bed, elbows on his knees. He’s breathing hard.

“I have been a brother,” he says abruptly, and Nasir blinks at the sudden change in topic. “That did not change when Duro died,” Agron continues slowly, staring down at his dangling fingers. “I have been your lover, and never ceased to be so when I went to battle with Crixus.”

Nasir bites his lip to keep the objection in his mouth. He can sense it’s vital that he let Agron speak, despite his own instinctive need to challenge.

Agron looks up at him with naked frustration in his eyes. “But before everything else – almost all my life, I have been a warrior. I could no more cease to be that than I could cease to be Duro’s brother, or you the keeper of my heart.”

He lifts his shoulders helplessly and drops them, just barely wincing when the motion jars his hands. “I cannot of a day turn from who I am.”

Nasir wants to scream, or hit something, or rush out and kill a hundred Romans. It’s too much to see Agron like this. It’s too much to know he can’t undo this damage, can’t help, can’t turn back time and make this a thing not happened. It’s too much to see him sitting there, two steps away and all the world between them. Commiseration sparks sharply inside him, and kindles his frustration. “Comparison seems to suggest otherwise,” he blurts. “You were able, of a day, to turn from me, were you not?”

He knows the words are a mistake as soon as they’re out. He’s let a crack open in the dam of his carefully banked fury, and knows immediately that there’ll be no sealing it when Agron’s eyes lift to his. They widen in confused realisation.

“You stand angry.”

“A privilege not yours alone.” He means to say it jokingly, but it comes out sharp, each word etched with tension.

Agron furrows his brows at him, but his voice is level; placating, even. It grates at Nasir’s nerves. “I did not wish to leave your side.”

The shift of focus was not planned, but Nasir throws himself at it almost savagely. Anything is better than having Agron sit there, hollow and hurting. In the absence of solutions, a different kind of pain will do. He nods grimly. “And yet you saw it through.”

Agron rises slowly, head tilted at Nasir. “I wished to know you lived, and were happy.”

The gall of him, to say that with such sincerity; as if he meant it, even now. Nasir bares his teeth in a mirthless smile.

“By removing from my grasp that which held core of happiness to me? Worst fucking plan in memory, from head that spawned a few.”

Agron’s eyes narrow; his shoulders straighten. Nasir notes it with almost savage satisfaction. This is a thing familiar, almost soothingly so: Agron bracing, ready to meet a challenge.

But it lasts only for a moment, and then Agron slumps back onto the bed, visibly deflating. “Rejoice, then,” he mutters, fingers twitching briefly on his knees. “I stand removed of means to see further foolish plans to fruition. Direct useless hands as you see fit.”

Nasir breathes out slowly. A part of him wants to drop to his knees before Agron and soothe him; another wants to knock the self-pity right out of him and berate him harshly for using injuries in place of argument. His own pain clashes with Agron’s, both locked in place, neither able to budge or drain. It isn’t fair, but then nothing about this is.

He doesn’t know what to do: how to stop being angry, how to keep voicing it when Agron has so few defences right now. Support is what is needed. Confrontation must wait. He swallows it consciously, willing himself to calm. Focus on the moment. Focus on the wounds.

He sits beside Agron in the end, nudging knee to knee.

“I spoke too rashly – this is not time for us to rail at each other. Your wounds will heal.”

“Healer seemed less convinced than you.”

Nasir puts a hand on his back, pressing his palm into the reassuring resistance of bone and muscle there. “She does not know you as I do. Your stubbornness would send even Diana’s deadly aim astray.”

Agron lifts his head at that, one corner of his mouth twitching up despite himself. Nasir smiles back, moving his hand slowly over the tense planes of Agron’s back, until the muscles start to ease. For a moment, everything feels almost right.

~~~

The second night, Agron tries to touch him.

Still half-asleep, Nasir rolls towards his searching mouth instinctively, as he has done a hundred times. Agron’s lips move restlessly against his throat, stubble rasping across the tender skin there, and Nasir shivers, breath hitching in his throat.

Desire heats him from within, a steady, familiar burn. When Agron’s body shifts and moves on top of him, he makes a low noise of encouragement. His belly tenses, lifting against Agron’s. His cock stirs.

Agron’s mouth travels up his exposed throat. He nips and sucks along the way, coaxing moans from Nasir’s lips. It’s hard to believe this is real. It still feels almost like a dream, but then in his dreams he isn’t usually this breathless. In his dreams, he can’t smell pungent salve.

When Agron’s lips finally brush his, Nasir rears up with a growl and latches onto his mouth. The soft rasp of Agron’s tongue against his makes him writhe and shiver. Their teeth clash briefly. Agron’s lips close on his and suck, pulling blood to the surface of his skin. The harsh tingle of arousal rushes down his chest and belly, all the way into his loins.

He’s hard and hungry and he’s longed for this for weeks, thinking he could never have it again. So at first when he feels Agron’s hands on him, it doesn’t even register as something that should not be happening. Agron is always touching him, whether casually or with purpose, in a hundred different ways. Brushing his hair out of his face, cupping his cheek, his chin. Gripping his shoulder, his arm, his hip, in reassurance or casual caress. When he feels playful, he sometimes picks him up and twirls him around, grinning at Nasir’s indignant protests. In bed, his hands are always all over Nasir. By turns gentle and rough with passion, they travel all over his body as if they cannot get enough. His touch is possessive and intoxicating; warm and familiar and always welcome.

Nasir only realises what is going on when Agron’s mouth, open and inviting a few moments ago, turns into a hard flat line against his lips. He pulls his head back and starts to ask a question. Awareness hits him, cold and sudden, when he feels Agron’s hands pushed flat on either side of Nasir’s hips by sheer force of will. He can feel them tremble, can sense the pain-twitches of the fingers, the unnatural heat radiating from the bandaged palms.

“Agron,” he says in alarm, pushing at his chest. “Your hands…”

“They’re fine.” He can’t see Agron’s face in the dark, but the curt words, spoken through gritted teeth, tell him enough. Agron’s body has gone from seductive, powerful motion against his to rigid lines and muscles held tightly in check.

The wrapped hands move, clumsily, across Nasir’s belly, pressing against his ribs. “What are you…”

“They’re fine,” Agron insists. His hands keep moving, pushing, prodding. He lowers his head back to Nasir’s neck, pressing kisses against it, but they’re hard and controlled now instead of wild with passion. His fingers scrabble briefly against Nasir’s thighs and try to close around his cock. When they fail, Agron drags them higher with a muffled curse, forcing them almost brutally to follow the contours of Nasir’s ribs.

His fingers are shaking now, harder by the moment. Nasir can smell the salve and the tang of seeping blood. He is suddenly horribly aware how many sharp places there are in his body. Hip bones, ribs, shoulder blades, pushing close to the surface like hidden traps; just waiting to press their pointy angles with vicious precision into those open wounds.

He shrinks from the thought, and from the deliberate, self-inflicted agony radiating against his skin with every touch. In his years as a body slave, he has known a man or three whose desires were stirred by the infliction of pain, but Nasir has never even remotely shared the inclination. Nor, he is sure, does Agron. Nasir can feel him soften against his thigh, despite a few half-hearted thrusts. His own arousal has already dissipated utterly.

“Agron,” he says, grabbing his forearms and pulling his hands away. “Not like this.” It might be the worst time to deny him, but he knows this can’t go on for a second longer. “I would not see you hurt.”

Agron freezes, then rolls abruptly away from him. He lies still, staring at the dark ceiling of the tent. His chest is heaving but not, Nasir thinks, with any remnant of passion. Nasir stares at his prone silhouette, trying to regain his breath and battling a brief but fierce surge of nausea.

That tremble in Agron’s fingers. The way they tried to close. Agron knows only one way to do things: immediately, and well. Agron does not do slowly, or gradually. Agron does not fail.

He will have to learn.

When Agron finally speaks, his voice is flat and bitter. “So they have taken this from me, as well.”

“They have not!” Nasir shifts towards him immediately, reaching out to touch, to refute the grim conclusion. Agron doesn’t flinch or move away, exactly, but neither does he make room for Nasir to fit against him as he usually does. He simply lies there, bandaged hands stretched out at his sides, angled slightly away from his body as if he wants nothing to do with them.

Nasir reaches down to take one, very gently, by the wrist. “They have not,” he repeats resolutely. “Give it time. I will feel your hands upon me again, once they have healed. And until then… there are other things that we can do.”

Agron makes no reply, even when Nasir pulls his wrist up to his face, exceedingly careful not to touch the palms or fingers.

He loves these hands. The long, clever fingers, broad but elegantly proportioned, that know exactly where to touch him, and how. The square, short nails. The rough patches of callouses on the palms that can set his skin on fire. The fingertips, calloused as well but surprisingly soft when brushing across his lips. There are freckles and old cuts and nicks on the backs, and a sparse dusting of light hair. They are hands with stories written upon them, victories and losses. They’re strong, scarred, and beautiful, and it seems impossible to think of them as broken.

“I will not let them take your touch from me,” he murmurs. Agron says nothing. He lies there in the dark, not moving; his breath is even and for all Nasir can tell, he may have simply forced himself back into sleep. He doesn’t think so, though.

He puts his lips onto the spot between Agron’s wrist and the base of his thumb, far enough from the centre of his palm not to irritate the wound, but close enough to smell the strong scents of comfrey and clove, to feel the heat it radiates. Not the heat of infection, thank the gods, but that of early healing: the dull painful throb of a body trying to burn injury from itself. Nasir knows it all too well from his own various wounds over the past year and a half.

Of all of them, he still remembers the first one best, the stab he took in defence of Mira. He remembers the startling intensity of the pain, the shock of his body at the sudden intrusion of steel. The way he could feel the life leaking out of him, insidious and unstoppable.

Most of all, he remembers the searing pain of fire when Spartacus sealed the wound. He remembers how, weak with blood loss and nearly out of his mind with pain, he nevertheless thought how strange and fitting it seemed to try and undo a sword-wrought injury with another blade, to balance cold steel with hot.

He wishes he could do the same thing for Agron now. That he could forge his restless anger into blazing iron, to burn the injury from Agron’s flesh.

But these are subtler wounds, and more dangerous. A stab, a slice, a gash merely needs knitting back together, something hot iron can help achieve. These are holes: empty spaces that only time and patience have any hope of filling – things in short supply, in these days of blood and sunset.

He isn’t sure if he can fill them with merely love and fury.

~~~

The new day is filled with visitors, for which Nasir is secretly grateful. The coming and going diffuses some of the heavy tension in their tent, and gives them both a chance to focus on something other than avoiding each other’s eyes.

He spends the morning making finger splints. He selects sturdy twigs of kindling and starts with a handful of quick sketches to visualise their arrangement. When he has fixed the concept on parchment to his liking, he whittles and smooths the wood into thin, straight supports, then lashes them together with bits of leather string. Contrary to expectation, Agron sits still when Nasir fits them to his hands, although his eyes are hooded. Nasir carefully aligns fingers with wood, tying the splints in place with soft strips of linen.

Held in place by carved wood and white cloth, the injuries look manageable, under control. They look redeemable.

Nasir frowns at the tanned fingers stretched upon his thighs, and makes a decision then, quietly and only for himself.

These hands are not just Agron’s. They’re his as well, pledged to him with a hundred touches etched upon his skin, sometimes possessive, sometimes entreating, sometimes placed there instinctively, without any thought at all.

He will not let the enemy have them. Not for a moment longer.

 

Ursilla comes by twice. She seems to have conscripted Castus into fetching and carrying for her, and he is laden with food and supplies as he trails after her. He follows her tart instructions graciously enough, setting out herbs and salves, fetching hot water, smirking when Agron scowls, and seeming enormously amused by it all. Despite the grim mood of the morning, Nasir can’t help but grin at the sight of one skinny old woman ordering a battle-hardened gladiator and a muscled pirate around as if they were dim-witted children.

Ursilla nods tersely at the splints Nasir has fashioned. “That shall do. Make sure he wears them every night.”

Agron’s eyes meet his briefly and then slide away. Nasir feels heat rise to his face at the memory of last night, and looks aside as well. “Yes, domina,” he says to Ursilla, forcing himself to smile.

She glares at him, and then at Castus when he laughs.

“Fool boys,” she mutters loudly as she leaves.

~~~

Naevia’s visit is the hardest. She brings wine, and tries to smile, but Nasir is painfully aware of the empty spaces between them, mirroring the awkward lulls in conversation. A few days ago, he and Naevia stood equal: united in their loss, knowing themselves untouchable by anything so trite as comfort. He remembers standing beside her in the dusk as the returning prisoners stumbled towards the camp: the grim, unspoken kinship between them. The solidarity of two lives altered beyond repair, two hearts so thoroughly scooped empty of feeling.

It seemed fitting then that they should stand together. When he first knew her, a thin, wild-eyed scarecrow of a girl, shattered by torture beyond endurance, they discovered their purpose alongside each other: learning to fight, to grasp what they were capable of, to defy expectations. Learning to love.

He remembers the way she smiled back then, hesitant but determined, as she re-forged herself daily in the bold fire of Crixus’s love. He remembers sitting with her, in those early days, him speaking halting words of commiseration; her teasing shyly about the way his eyes followed Agron’s swaggering stride across the camp. They stood united then, in the slowly unfolding joy in their own strength; in discovering how much further their limits extended than they knew.

United, too, in the love of two men who knew no compromise, who butted heads more often than not, to Naevia’s and Nasir’s shared exasperation and amusement.

So long ago.

He has changed since then, moulding himself from a wide-eyed boy into a warrior, but there are structures at the root of him that time has not altered. The man who loves Agron has been revived so suddenly: despite his agony and fury, there is always joy there as well, fierce and unrelenting. The friend who has loved Naevia, even in her darkest moments, now cringes in guilty knowledge at the unfairness of it all: that he should stand restored to his heart’s purpose, and she should not.

It hurts to look at her now, and he suspects she feels the same, from the way she avoids his gaze. It feels almost worse than losing Crixus, to see her there and know he cannot walk back across the distance to her pain.

In the end, he leaves, making half-hearted excuses of tasks to see to. When he encounters Spartacus on his way to their tent, he’s doubly glad he left. He isn’t sure he could endure yet another pair of eyes, well-meaning but agonised, wandering from Agron’s muted face to his mutilated hands.

~~~

He drops by the training grounds first, but it turns out he isn’t needed there. Castus has the newest batch well in hand, taking them through drills and mock skirmishes. He smiles at Nasir hovering at the edges, but it’s a distracted smile, and his attention remains focused on his task.

Nasir is not quite sure whether he feels glad or otherwise about it.

The camp is buzzing with hectic preparations, people moving with purpose to and fro, gathering supplies, preparing to move on. Nasir has paid only half-hearted attention to the battle planning that’s been going on, but even he knows that they’ll be moving soon, preparing to meet Crassus and his army upon the plains.

He wanders among them, offering aid where it seems required. He feels rootless, unanchored. Before Agron was restored to him, there was no question about Nasir following Spartacus to the end of this war. For one thing, yes, he owes that much to the man who wrested his life from the Romans and placed it back into his own hands. Spartacus has never made demands upon his loyalty, which is why Nasir has given it to him wholeheartedly. For another, this has become his own purpose as well: to see others freed as he was, to pay forward the unexpected gift he was bestowed, fraught though it was with the harsh truth of choices.

But things are different now that Agron lies in their tent broken, angry-eyed and desperate, bereft of his own purpose. Nasir has no idea where to go from here.

~~~

When he finally feels ready to return, he finds the tent empty. One of their neighbours tells him that they saw Agron climbing the steep steps up the hill to the cliffside arena. Nasir lopes up the narrow path, unreasonably worried. He breathes a little easier when he finds Agron sitting on the low wall separating the fighting ground from the spectators’ seats. Dressed in his cloak and leathers, with his long legs dangling down the wall and his bandaged hands hidden in his lap, he looks as he always has, strong and handsome and invincible.

He looks up when Nasir approaches, and gives him the shadow of a smile.

Nasir drops down unto the sun-warmed stone beside him. It’s late in the day, but the old arena lies high enough to still be bathed in light, the sands shimmering warmly in the lingering glow of the winter sun.

“I did not think to find you here.”

“Spartacus set me in mind of it. He spoke of early days we shared in the arena.” Agron’s broad shoulders lift briefly in a shrug. “It seems a lifetime ago.”

Nasir nods, looking out across the churned sands, still clumped here and there with blood from the games held in Crixus’s honour. The remains of the pyre stand at the centre, a crumpled heap of ashes and charred wood. It seems a sorry monument, but Nasir thinks that Crixus might have liked it anyway. He would have liked this arena, reclaimed from the enemy and made their own, high and free beneath the open skies.

“I’ve never seen you fight in the arena. It must have been formidable sight.”

Agron’s mouth curves in a rueful smile. “They were empty spectacles. You’ve seen me fight in battles that held true meaning.”

Nasir doesn’t know what to say to that, not when the means to fight such battles lie swathed in bandages in Agron’s lap.

Agron saves him the trouble, nodding at the sand below them. “Besides, it would appear you’ve won your own laurels in the arena. Spartacus mentioned your fight upon the sands, and that it was a glory to behold.” His voice lifts with a smile, unexpectedly warm. “I should have wished to see it.”

Spartacus seems to have mentioned a lot of things, not all of them welcome. Nasir looks aside. “Had you been here to see it, there would have been no need for it.”

Agron sits up a little straighter beside him. Nasir can feel his eyes on his profile, but somehow he can’t quite bring himself to face him. The restless, fretting turmoil he’s felt trapped in all day – no, longer, much longer than that – twists inside him still. He half-braces for confrontation, but when Agron speaks, his voice is level, almost carefully blank.

“I have been thinking upon words you spoke yesterday. About my leaving.” It isn’t phrased as a question, but the gritty air lingers in the wake of the cautious words. In truth, Nasir is sick to death of trying to navigate the pitfalls between silence and speech, trying not to speak too harshly or too much. Trying to be careful to avoid injury, and somehow only broadening the gap between them with his restraint.

He takes a deep breath, tasting the dust and the still air of sunset. “It was poor judgement to speak of such, while you struggled to come to terms with injuries.”

“It is my hands that lie injured, not my mind,” Agron says stiffly. “I’d have you give voice to what causes trouble.”

Nasir nods. He stares at the sand and rock below him, the shadows cast by the dark red glow of the sinking sun. “When Naevia brought news that you had fallen, it tore heart from chest. It stands restored now, that you are returned to me” – he hesitates, then shrugs – “… yet bruising lingers, and I cannot make it otherwise.”

He feels Agron’s eyes upon him. “Give plainer words.”

Nasir’s hands clench on the edge of the rock beneath him. The rough stone digs into his palms, lending him purchase. “I have known no greater joy than to see you yet among the living, but… unease remains at thought that similar circumstance might yet again see you turn from my arms as easily.”

“You think it was easy?” Agron flares, then gathers himself visibly, shoulders hunching. “I spoke apologies for foolish venture,” he says tersely. “What amends would you have me make?”

Nasir compresses his lips briefly. “You misunderstand. Words of remorse not my concern.”

“Then what do you seek?” Agron speaks gruffly, but there is an audible layer of anguish not too far beneath the challenge. It tears and gnaws at Nasir’s already tattered feelings. “You speak soothing words yet shrink from touch and look at me with anger! Give fucking voice to true reason!”

“You took my choice!”

He doesn’t realise he’s actually shouted it until he sees Agron’s startled expression, until the echo of his voice reaches his own ears, ringing out across the empty arena and spilling into the void beyond.

“You took my choice,” he repeats more quietly, but with emphasis. “You turned my world upon its head without so much as fucking by-your-leave. And now you gaze upon me with anguished eye and expect me to forget the weeks of agony you caused?”

The dying sun captures the varying shades of Agron’s eyes, blue and green and grey shifting as contrition struggles with affront. “I merely sought to see your heart’s decision eased!”

Nasir slaps the rock in frustration, sending up a cloud of dust. It seems there is no way to plug up the hole he’s made in the tight bubble of his long-tethered fury, and it all comes bursting through. “No! You sought to remove it. You made plan and presented it to me as fact, absent opportunity to voice any objection that would be truly heard.” He lifts his chin to face Agron squarely, plunging recklessly ahead now there is nowhere else to go. “You made decision for me, as though I were yet a fucking slave, absent power to make own choices.”

Agron’s eyes widen with appalled denial. “Such was never my intention!”

Nasir nods rigidly, trying to rein himself in. “I know it was not, and I do not blame you alone. Yet fact remains, and gave cause to anger, even when heart soared with joy.”

Agron cocks his head at him with narrowed eyes, the challenge in his tense jaw equal to Nasir’s own. “Fault was mine in such, and I admit it. Yet I do not think I stood absent cause for worry. Castus-”

“Do not speak to me of Castus!” Nasir flares. “I told you more than once my heart yet lay with you!”

“Heat of your gaze upon him spoke otherwise,” Agron says flatly.

The guilt floods back then, a taste like poison in the back of his throat. He instinctively tries to swallow it down and deny it, but then thinks better of it, and relaxes consciously. If he would force Agron to honesty, the least he can do is offer as much.

“I did cast eyes,” he admits, “and walked most heavy under yoke of blame, when it caused you to leave.” He feels ill and furious at the expression in Agron’s face, the vindication mixed with anguish. He squares his shoulders. “Yet heart’s resolve was no less true for it. Perhaps more so.”

He speaks as evenly as he can, but Agron’s jaw has already tightened, his gaze withdrawn. He snorts grimly. “My eyes were not mistaken in this, then. He may have beckoned shamelessly yet it takes two to fall to temptation.”

Nasir resists the impulse to shove him right off the wall, sending him flying to choke on the dirt, and kick his ass to boot. “You stupid, stubborn fool. I never fell.”

“Yet you considered it!” Agron’s voice rises with something almost triumph, and Nasir gives in at last to physical temptation, if only to smack him sharply on the shoulder.

“So you condemned me upon fleeting possibility of future lapse?” he snarls. “You set me into place of betrayal and would not let me budge from it, no matter choices that I actually made? How fucking dare you?”

Agron stares at him, momentarily stunned by the force of his eruption.

“That isn’t what I did.”

“It was. It is!” He’s straightened and tensed to the point of breaking, braced against the lengthy, pointless struggle he is sure to lose, in the face of previous condemnation. But unexpectedly Agron blinks and frowns and deflates visibly, tongue darting out to swipe his lips. He shakes his head, looking confused and agonised.

“Nasir,” he says hoarsely, one hand reaching out towards him and hovering at the last second in mid-air, remembering what it can and cannot do. “It was not your heart that I mistrusted. I thought… I feared…” He swallows, Adam’s apple moving visibly. “I strode to ruin on purpose, seeking to face it before it tore me from your side. I do not know how to place faith in things that last.”

The hand drops onto the rock between them, fingers straightening against the pain, brushing against Nasir’s knee. “I railed against Castus,” Agron continues, voice catching in his throat, “but I saw the way he gazed upon you, and I thought… that you might find something there. Something beyond this war, this endless fight and death. Something I could not give you.”

Nasir feels the dry air constricting his throat, making him feel hot and helpless. “It is my place to decide whether what you give me is enough! And mine to ask, if it is not.” He tilts his head low, seeking to capture Agron’s restless gaze. When the blue-green eyes uneasily meet his, he smiles, although he feels his mouth twitching with more than fondness.

“I do not know what lofty things you think I demand from you. There is no more that I require but your heart, and knowledge that I can yet trust you with my own.”

Agron lowers his head in a slow nod. “I sought to move before the fact. I should not have.”

He looks down at his hands then, moving restlessly in his lap. They curl and straighten slowly, following the exercises Ursilla set him. Agron breathes in raggedly. “Before I met you, I stood yet new to love,” he confesses abruptly. “I thought it a simple thing, at first. The longer I hold you to heart, the more I learn it is not so.”

Nasir leans towards him, feeling his chest unravel slowly, like a knot unexpectedly loosened. “And I as well,” he concedes hoarsely. “Yet hard lessons are faced more easily together. As equals.”

Agron’s eyes lift to his at that. “I have always held you so,” he says simply.

Nasir nods. “Then never again take decision from me in matters shaping both our path. Choice to be with you, or not, was mine to make. And was made, despite your absence,” he adds.

Agron snorts, his mouth quirking wryly. “Poor enough choice. I stand a fucking cripple.”

Nasir reaches for him and grips his hands, close enough to the wounds to elicit a startled hiss of pain. He ignores it, using his grip to pull Agron closer, until their faces are only inches apart.

“You stand the man you always have,” he says fiercely. “The man who would wrest the heavens open with sheer force of will, were such his intention – wounds or no wounds. The man I yet want by my side, come what may.”

Agron’s smile deepens, slow but real, until it reaches all the way into his eyes. “He is yours, as he has ever been.”

Nasir drops his head to Agron’s hands then, placing a kiss upon each wrist with hot, fervent lips. “Then never turn from me again, unless you mean it.”

Agron curls over him with his whole body, one arm wound tight around him, nose burrowing into Nasir’s hair. “I shall not.”

~~~

The third night, they make love.

Nasir makes the first move this time, sleepless and all too aware of how Agron lies tensely beside him, merely faking rest.

He knows this isn’t wise. He knows that they should wait, especially after the disaster of last night. He cannot help it anyway; he’s appeased but restless, and there are some things the body knows better than the mind.

He reaches over first to relight the candle they quenched earlier. The light lends him determination, limning Agron’s bared skin in flickering caress.

At first, Agron freezes when Nasir leans towards him, one leg sliding between Agron’s thighs and rocking close. “Nasir,” he says reluctantly, one arm lifting. His hands are lashed to the splints Nasir has made, but he brushes his underarm against Nasir’s shoulder, half in caress, half reproach.

Nasir swoops down to swallow his protest, brushing his lips back and forth against the tight-pressed seam of Agron’s mouth. When Agron’s lips open, hesitant but willing, he breathes between them, licking along the edge of that warm, familiar swell.

“If you mean it,” he whispers, swiping his tongue against the soft rasp of salty skin and stubble, “then tell me no.”

But all that Agron murmurs into his mouth are the syllables of his name in a ragged stutter, and Nasir takes it for permission to dive in, to plunge his tongue into the soft depths of Agron’s mouth.

Candlelight dances across the curves and hollows of Agron’s body as it strains and rises to meet his own. In the soft glow, he is powerful as ever, each line etched in flame and shadow. There are scars on him from a lifetime of fighting: clusters of nerves that don’t work quite as they should do, tissue that’s grown in protection of the injuries beneath. But all of those things are Agron; he has ever been himself despite the boundaries of the flesh.

Nasir reclaims the scars – both familiar and new – with lips and teeth and fingertips, mouthing the outline of his claim around each one. With every touch, he presses memories into Agron’s skin, willing him to remember who he is, who they are together. He coaxes Agron to hardness with his mouth and the slow, teasing motion of his hips, until Agron groans and writhes beneath him.

He works Agron’s pulsing flesh eagerly, first with his tongue, then with oiled fingers. When he has him hard and ready, he leans back. He straddles Agron’s hips firmly and wraps one hand around his own cock. His other hand delves between his buttocks, slick fingers easing inside in preparation. Agron watches him, his gaze heated under his half-lowered lashes. Nasir gives him a strained smile. He moves slowly and sensuously, trapping Agron’s heated flesh between his thighs while he spreads himself gradually open.

When Nasir finally lowers himself onto Agron’s cock, Agron’s back arches and his mouth opens in a long, growling moan. Nasir leans forwards to swallow it in a heated kiss. They move and surge together, slowly at first, but soon raw need takes over. Nasir rolls his hips in tight, wanton circles down against the rise and thrust of Agron’s thighs, his hands clenched on the tense curves of Agron’s shoulders.

He makes noises that he’d usually swallow, not keen on being overheard in the neighbouring tents, but right now he recognises that Agron probably needs to hear them, and so he doesn’t bother holding back. He gasps and moans and curses at the sensation of Agron inside him. He cries out raggedly when Agron tilts his hips and his cock shifts inside Nasir’s body, hitting him right against the spot that makes him contract with dizzying pleasure.

When Agron lifts his hands to his chest, splints and all, Nasir tenses for a moment; but the touch is light, just the tips of his fingers brushing over his skin. Nasir puts his own hands on top of them, hesitantly at first, but then with increased confidence when he realises that the splints hold them in place, preventing any deliberate damage.

Agron’s eyes shift colours in the flickering light, the pupils wide with lust. He drags his fingertips across the tight peaks of Nasir’s nipples. Nasir moans hoarsely at the rasp of callous against the sensitive nubs, and Agron smiles. Nasir smooths his own hands down the length of Agron’s arms. The muscles are strong and tight with strained passion, goose bumps rising under his touch.

He leans down to kiss Agron, drawn in by the irresistible curve of pink lips, half-parted in the dim light. Agron’s fingers cautiously trail down his ribs, his clenching belly, and finally brush against his cock. Nasir groans deeply and thrusts his hips. It’s different, naturally, from the way Agron usually handles him, the tight, sure grip he’s used to, tugging at sensitive flesh and jerking him swiftly to completion. This touch is light and provocative, just a brush of rough fingertips teasing against his swollen flesh, but it’s no less thrilling for that. It’s just different.

He whispers words against Agron’s mouth, asking him harder and yes, there and gods, again and please, oh please. Agron moves beneath him with powerful, assured grace. They move and grind and push into each other, both gasping wetly for air in between sucking kisses. Nasir clenches around the throbbing length inside him and drops forwards with a hoarse shout, going limp against Agron. His body convulses and then eases, thighs sprawling wide, welcoming the uncontrolled, hard thrusts inside him that see Agron to his climax as well. They move together afterwards, slow and familiar, riding out the final sparks and twitches. Nasir mouths at Agron’s collarbone, relishing the slow burn inside him, the wet slide of spilled seed between their bodies.

Agron’s hands evade him awkwardly, far from their usual habit of petting and stroking afterwards, but his arms are warm and solid across Nasir’s shoulders, drawing him close.

Eventually, Nasir rolls onto his back, dragging Agron with him. Agron follows with a grunt, collapsing heavy and boneless against his side. His face is warm in the crook of Nasir’s neck, his lashes tickling underneath his jaw. Nasir captures his wrists, a motion he is fast becoming used to, and pulls the splinted hands toward him. Agron offers no resistance, breathing deeply into his sweat-sheened skin. Eyes closed, still struggling for breath himself, Nasir kisses each fingertip, slow and solemn, a wordless promise. Then he cradles both of Agron’s hands close against his chest, placing his own on top.

~~~

Agron is up before him, taking forever about dressing, but persisting with each motion, stubbornly urging his fingers to work a belt buckle, then waiting long moments to loosen them, bending and straightening, before he moves on to the next garment.

Nasir uncurls slowly, swinging his legs over the edge of their bed. For the first time in a long while, his body is loose and utterly relaxed, slow to embrace the challenge of the day.

“Where are you going?”

Agron straightens self-consciously, tugging the bandage around his torso into place. “I must see Spartacus. I must tell him that I can yet fight in this war.”

His voice is almost even, his shoulders level. He stands tall. Apart from the bandages and the fading bruises on his face, he looks himself. Yet there’s an odd look in his face, the stubborn determination tinted with apprehension, a hint of anxious defiance.

Nasir cocks his head, only mildly surprised to discover that all his tightly coiled anger is gone, leaked quietly away like a fever broken overnight. There is only calm there now, a sort of grim acceptance and pride. And love, laced through it all like the warm glow of sunset, but then love, in this, is nearly inconsequential. Love, after all, has never been in doubt.

He gives Agron a nod, rises to cross the distance between them, and smiles when he sees Agron’s eyes automatically travel down his naked body. He cups his palm firmly around the angle of his lover’s clenched jaw, and feels it soften under his touch. “Go speak to Spartacus. I shall get dressed and ready our weapons.”

The gratitude that washes over Agron’s face is brief but all-consuming, nearly too much to take, for something so self-evident.

After Agron has left, Nasir returns to the sketches he’s been making for the splints, turns over the rough parchment, and starts anew. The charcoal lines take form quickly: the bold curve of the shield here, the sharp edge of the blade sheltered behind it, held in place by the hinted lines of straps. It’s quick work and uncompromising, fashioning the world into what it needs to be, so they can both remain who they are.

He doesn’t know the exact moment when Agron committed to this war, but he knows his own: late of a night, a long time ago, when a stranger gazed upon him with furrowed brow and decided he deserved a chance, even after he tried to kill him. It’s a debt still worth repaying; a purpose still worth seeing through.

When he is done, he rolls up the worn piece of parchment, picks up Agron’s sword, and goes to find a shield and borrow some time at the camp’s makeshift forge.

These are the sunset days of war, drawing to a close, and Nasir is done with anger and regret. If they must face the dark, they will do it together.

 

~ finis ~