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Spartacus - Love is Hard

Chapter Text

Nasir folded his hands upon the shiny white table cloth, the candle lights perfect and flickering, and the meal delicious and expensive. One year anniversary, a first accomplishment in a long line of almost good relationships except the words did not match the setting.

“You try too hard Nasir.” The man sighed even as he spoke. He did not even need to say the words; I am bored was written all over his face, but he kept talking. Too much attention, too eager, not sophisticated enough… the list on and on. By now, Nasir had retreated into himself, wishing they were not in a public place for this, his cheeks red, eyes focused on the thin sauce on the plate, how they drizzled it nicely over the steak. He had no real appetite, not anymore. Caesar continued on about how he was pretty, fuckable pretty or something along those lines, but he just wanted him to stop. The rose was too much, but Nasir didn’t understand why. He almost bought a dozen, so at least there was that, just the one red rose that lay on the table between them, a stark contrast to the tongue lashing he received now.

“Hey buddy, why don’t you just leave?”

Nasir shifted to stand, at first not fully understanding that the man had not addressed him. His eyes lifted to see a very tall individual standing there in a dark navy shirt, black slacks, stubble and with incredible green eyes glowering down at his date. He was huge, and standing next to him in a white shirt and black slacks, their waiter, who looked somewhat similar to the man who challenged Caesar now, not nearly as tall but not small either. He could not help but stare at the stranger.

Caesar’s anger surfaced quickly. He was not a short man, but next to this other man, there would be no comparison which might explain why his boyfriend didn’t stand. “Listen, this is a private matter. You should get back to your table and mind your own business.”

“I’ve been listening to you berate him for at least five minutes. It’s time for you to go.”

Caesar snorted, leaning back a bit in his chair, pulling at his tie and seeming almost surprised by the confrontation. He’d never seen someone take on Caesar in public like this before. “You can’t kick me out. You don’t own this place.”

“Wanna see me drag you out of here by your fucking neck?” The stranger did not seem ready to back down; fury colored his face.

Caesar stood, and by now people were looking. If he could crawl under the table and look less foolish, he’d try that. Fortunately, Caesar wasn’t one to like a lot of attention, not in this sort of setting, so he dropped two bills. “Keep the change.” He left without looking back.

Nasir wasn’t sure whom Caesar addressed, this tall man or their waiter, and he wasn’t waiting around to find out. He stood quickly and tried to make as hasty exit, but someone grabbed his arm, a strong grip but not painful.

“Look I am sorry. I did not mean to embarrass you…” Sad green eyes, the man looked truly apologetic. “Can I get you a cab?”

“I’ll walk.” Somehow, he managed to keep his voice steady. When he pulled again there was no resistance. He found the exit door before his brain kicked, almost ten miles to go and rain. By the time he walked a few blocks and summoned a cab, Nasir’s jacket, shirt, everything soaked. When he entered the small apartment he placed the rose he didn’t remember picking up on the tiny kitchen table. The calendar lay beside it, the giant red circle around today’s date bright and jubilant as was the tally, written in purple, the amount saved for their night out at The Ludus, his treat. The shower, short and sweet, and he climbed into bed in the darkness. Sure he took tomorrow off in anticipation of a great night, but maybe he could pick up shift instead; he needed the money. There was no way he is staying home and diving into that gelato he binged on just two nights before in anxiety; that would ruin the one thing Caesar liked about him… the only thing.

God, he didn’t even cry. What was wrong with him?”

Chapter Text

Nasir pulled on the bright yellow rubber gloves, picked up the heavy bucket of already grey water. He struggled a bit getting it out to the cement platform in the back alley where he dropped to his knees with the white handled and blue bristle scrub brush, trying to eliminate the evidence of some young couple who never actually made it into the theater. This alley consisted of little more trash bins, the unpleasant failing brick of two historical buildings long forgotten and other evidence of human refuse. There was no reason to want to clean this, but his place was not to question such requests. A historical theater that played only classics or anything the owner’s felt like playing seemed to attract only two general groups, those over sixty who enjoyed the memories and wanted to relive their glory days, and young couples who just wanted a dark place to get to know one another better. Sometimes, they never made into the actual building, which resulted in something like this.

“Nasir!” Chadara flung open the door fast and hard enough it almost knocked over his bucket. He cursed quietly getting out of her way. She looked beautiful today, as always, blonde hair kept long and loose, untamed and youthful but not pressed straight, and she wore a new dress, a geometric maxi dress with vibrant but calm turquoise blue, sea green and pearl white colors. “I did not expect to see you today. I thought after last night you would be too tired to come in. Didn’t you ask for today off?”

Nasir paused, wiping his brow as he looked up at the blonde, thinking his hair in a ponytail seemed a poor choice standing next to his friend. “I told you by txt msg I didn’t want to talk about it. What makes you think I want to talk to you in person about same subject?” Chadara frowned, her beautiful eyes oddly steady which only meant one thing. “You already talked to him didn’t you?”

“Caesar said you were very strange last night, doing things completely out of character. You took him to a luxury restaurant, had your hair down; Nasir you left your hair down and long, and stubble? You know he likes clean shaven and contained hair, short preferable.”

He went back to scrubbing. “I wanted the night to be special and memorable, for both of us. Unfortunately, I only received one of those things.”

“He said some asshole intervened between you two, and you hardly said a word about it? Didn’t call him when you got home?”

That made him pause, brow furrowing slightly in memory. A tall man, very strong, amazing green eyes and who had a furious look on his face directed at Caesar. He’d not seen men he’d known for years step forward in his defense like that. A slight edge formed at his tongue at the thought of him calling Caesar after last night. No doubt the man waited for an apology. “No, it was not like that. The man just defended me, tried help me.”

She sounded exasperated. “Nasir, you know what Caesar likes, and I cannot imagine how can you defend some stranger over him? You’ve been with him over a year now. You know Caesar.”

“Caesar did not treat me well Chadara. I am really not interested in going over this with you. You were not there, and you should not have pretended like you did not know what happened since clearly he has spoken to you at length.”

She crossed her arms. “And now Quintus has you scrubbing floors? Nasir, you have a position of favor here. Caesar must have told him how out of control you’ve become to wind up getting a task like this.”

What good was favor if it did not lead to better pay or respect? Deep brown eyes focused on the stain he was trying to remove, something that had probably been there for years, not one night. “You refer Batiatus by his first name now? Chadara, he’s married. As for favor, he barely pays us, talks to little better than he would a couple of dogs.”

She shrugged slightly and kneeled, placing a soft hand against his shoulder. “Nasir, please look at me, please.” Hesitantly his eyes lifted to meet her fine blue gems. “People like us, like you and me, we’re defined by who we’re with. You don’t want to be back on the streets do you? You remember what it was like, always cold, always afraid of sounds and of others? Caesar said he was very close to asking you to move in with him. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life living in that rundown studio do you? Quintus is going to get me an apartment. Caesar will ask you to move in… this is what we’ve been waiting for, what we’ve dreamed of… don’t mess it up now when we’re so close to finding our place in this world. Don’t make people like Caesar and Quintus angry Nasir. They will give us what we want and need.”

When she left, he wiped his brow and sighed. If being himself made them angry, maybe they weren’t that great in the first place, but Chadara would be in no mood to listen, not with a new dress and a promise of an apartment to come. These were things she wanted. He just wasn’t so sure anymore what he wanted or needed, not after last night.

Nasir’s phone buzzed then, and he dared a quick peek. -Meet you at the café-Pietros. He stared at the message for a long time. The money he saved for their night out was only partially spent, but he knew he should put that towards past due bills… but he needed to hear from someone else, anyone else. –See you after shift-. He spent the next five hours making the old cement sparkle.

At the Chariot Café, he found Pietros in the back with his book bag, notebook and sipping coffee. He smiled almost immediately, waving Nasir over. “Hey, I figured when I didn’t hear from you today things did not go so well. I ordered you some chai tea and a muffin.”

Nasir shook his head slowly and took a seat. “No, no muffin. I should watch my weight. I am sorry Pietros, I can’t really speak about last night yet.” The tea was placed before him which he just turned again and again in front of him. It felt warm against his rough fingers though. Despite his best effort, his thoughts drifted to how Caesar would not like that coarseness; he would have to moisturize tonight.

“It’s all right man. Say, I’ve noticed you’ve been down a bit lately. I know your job doesn’t pay well, and your boss is an ass. You said you have reasons you work there and have others motives not to go back to school.” Nasir opened his mouth to say something, but Pietros raised his hand. “You don’t have to tell me. In time if you are ready to, I’ll listen. Right now, it doesn’t matter. Here…” He handed Nasir a thick gift certificate.

“Six week personal training program at the The Rebel?” Nasir frowned at his friend but not in anger so much questioning what it meant.

Pietros grinned. “Well I told you I met someone right?” Nasir nodded. “He’s on leave right now, but he used to work at this Gym called The Rebel. He says the guys there are pretty cool, and he has some of these trial passes he can pass on to others to give it a shot.”

“A gym? Pietros that’s not really my thing.”

Sure fingers covered his. “I don’t know what’s going on with you because you’re not letting anyone in right now, but I know you’ve been trying it your way for a while, the solo route. Please, just give it a try. It might boost your confidence. You look like you could use some.”

Nasir glanced to the side. “You said he used to work there?”

“Yeah, it’s not that far from where you work now. He had some sort of falling out with someone that was there, but he might go back someday.”

A smile formed. “You like this guy?”

Pietros smirked, but shook his head. “This isn’t about me Nasir, not yet. We’ll have time for that later. Will you go?”

Nasir sighed heavily, taking the certificate and studying it. “What’s an Agron?”

“Huh?”

He pointed to the scribble at the bottom, barely legible and handwritten.

Pietros shrugged and stood, gathering his books. “I am not sure. Hey I have to go join my study group. Txt me about your first few sessions and let me know if it goes all right? I’ve got a big test to prepare for, but I don’t want you to think I am vanishing on you.”

“It’s fine. I’ll see you around.”

He waited for Pietros to leave before downing his chai and heading out. He meant to leave the certificate there, claim it was lost or something, but as he placed his hand on the door and noticed another patron picking it up, he rushed back. “Sorry I left that. It’s mine.” He shoved it in his pocket and walked home. Six weeks? If a year of hard work and effort didn’t lead to anything but disaster, he didn’t see how six weeks could amount to much of anything.

Chapter Text

Nasir managed to avoid both Pietros, Chadara and going to the gym for almost a week before the little certificate with an old pizza magnet slapped onto it on the beige refrigerator started calling to him. It seemed Chadara was right, Batiatus continued to punish him for the rest of the week’s shift. Bathroom duty, garbage detail, and for reasons he could only imagine, the second storage closet suddenly needed to be cleaned up. The dust was so thick in there he had to cover his mouth with his shirt, and a perfectly white shirt turned grey when all the dust settled. There were so many films in their in old tin containers, labels rubbed off, some of the film torn, and next week, he was supposed to go through them and relabel them, mark them as damaged or salvageable. The work shifted between disgusting and foul to boring. Clearly Caesar spoke with not only his closet friend but also his boss, and they all felt he had done something wrong and punished him for it. The problem with this plan, he didn’t feel bad about what he had done but angry at their response. Caesar broke his heart, spoke cruelly to him after so much planning and saving. Deep down he knew he wasn’t loved, but he kept hoping even wondering if he could be loved. And while he had walked by the barbershop on the corner a few times, with maybe a minor inclination in going in and taking a step towards trying to patch things up with Caesar, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

After the fifth call from Caesar in one day, and the fifth one he did not answer, he found himself starring up at the sign on the large box like building, The Rebel in red lettering. It wasn’t much to look at, an old red brick building with some patch work on the side, a parking lot with a number of cars in it and a chalk board sign with the word open scribbled on it. It didn’t have a modern vibe at all, like that large one Caesar drove up to once with tall windows and attractive people that his boyfriend did nothing but berate until someone finally came out to talk to him. He considered that for a moment, the appeal of not having large open windows for people walking by to just stare at him. He shoved his phone in his jacket pocket and walked up the stairs.

Inside was a relatively short hallway with a number of posters along the dingy walls, fighting events, runs, a bodybuilding competition and something called cross fit days alongside some familiar group activities like Zumba. As soon as Nasir walked through another set of double doors, it was like he entered another world compared to the front of the building. The floors were clean, some sort of laminate leading up to a receptionist desk with no one behind it at the moment. Towards the back right he could see several workout benches, free weights and ab boards on top of hefty black padded tiles and on the other side with a few LCD televisions, treadmills, air walkers and elliptical machines. In the center was some sort of fighting ring and in the far back just open space and mats leading to some closed doors. His eyes focused on the fighting pen where a couple of very large and robust looking men were circling each other while others shouted at them to continue. One was tall with blonde partially braided hair, a ready laugh he could hear from this far away, and quick motions that left the other one, shorter but with dark partially long hair, some facial hair and broad shoulders tumbling forward. He glanced around noting how many of these men looked like they had come right out of a fitness magazine, most of them wearing tanks or short-sleeved athletic shirts while a couple seemed not to bother to wear a shirt at all as they shouted profanities at the men in the ring.

He turned to leave but almost ran smack into a woman who seemed to have come right up behind him while he was gawking. “Excuse me! I am sorry; I must be in the wrong place. If you will you will just…” She did not move.

The woman had a cat like expression, her dark hair just past her shoulders, and light brown eyes. They were about the same height but her posture, rising smile and the slight rise of an eyebrow presented a bearing and presence he was not about to brush past. She wore a fun black buttoned down shirt with a low v neck and jeans though it was her outstretched hand that caught his attention. Hesitantly, he placed the certificate he had pulled out into the palm of her hand, knowing that was what she expected. “I thought that looked like one of ours. I haven’t seen this style in a little while now, but it’s still good.” She looked past him to see what he was looking at. “Oh don’t mind them. Half of those idiots are our trainers or fighters, the rest of them are people I haven’t figured out how to get rid of yet.” Nasir shifted a little uncomfortably. “Just kidding, really, welcome to The Rebel. I’m Mira, please come over to the desk. There you go. I’ll get your name down, and we’ll get your started.” She took a seat behind the desk and pulled out a piece of paper, eyed him expectantly.

“Umm Nasir. Listen I am not sure this is really a good idea. A friend of mind just thought this might be worthwhile for me, but I don’t think this is really my thing.”

“N-A-Z-I-R?”

“No, with an S. Mira is it?”

She wrote his name down carefully. “Last name?”

“I don’t really give that out.”

She raised a brow in his direction. “Well it is not the DMV so if you just want Nasir that’s fine.”

“Mira I really think...”

She set her pen down. “Nasir, we have some people come and go from here. Sometimes it’s not their thing. They’re looking for something we can’t offer. I would hate to tell my boss I lost you though before you even met with one of trainers. Why don’t you just take a seat over there? You can talk to them for a little while, size us up. If you don’t like it, no harm right? You came all this way. We’re not exactly in the most happening part of town; don’t you want to at least give it a try?”

Nasir frowned slightly, somewhat irritated at her persistence but just annoyed enough at himself to comply. She was right. He couldn’t say he tried just by walking in the door and going back out again. He took a seat on the bench and waited. He fiddled with his fingers a bit, before he noticed he could hear her talking just beyond his view.

“He’s a little skittish, so I am thinking someone with good manners, polite, a little hand-holding at first.”

“I am not sure Spartacus has any openings, and he is not here tonight. Flies in tomorrow though. Crixus will probably just scare him off. I think Gannicus has already been drinking… What about Donar. I think he’s still around?”

“Yes, Donar might be good. He can be… wait.” There was a pause. “This is one of Agron’s.”

“I thought he didn’t take new members unseen anymore. He stopped handing those out a year ago.”

“Go get Agron. Tell him one of his certificates showed up. I know he hasn’t taken on any new clients in a while. Ask him if he is up to it.”

“But I thought you said you wanted someone with patience and good manners.” A pause. “Okay.”

Mira came around the corner, all smiles. “We’ll get you set-up with a trainer. Did you bring any other clothes with you?”

Nasir’s eyes dropped down to his jeans, his baggy green and black T-shirt and jacket with a frown. “I guess, well I guess I didn’t think about it. I had no idea we would start tonight. I just wanted to see what I needed to do to get started. I guess bring better clothes would be a start.”

Mira chuckled. “That’s all right. I am sure we can rummage up something. We have a few around here your size; they’ll have ordered some of our logo wear that just arrived yesterday. You can borrow that for today.” She jotted a few things down. Someone blocked her light so she looked up. “Oh Agron! I…”

“Mira we talked about this. I am not really interested in taking on clients unseen. The last few turned out to be real asses or some street thugs wanting to be better thugs. I want to be able to screen them and no offense buddy.” Nasir looked up and brown eyes met green. “You.”

**

Agron tapped his phone a few times, frowning at the message. He felt Donar’s presence behind him as he laced up his shoes, still starring at the screen. – Working late. Can you pick me up? No I didn’t see him today either. - He gave quick confirmation and then looked up at his large friend.

“I thought you were going home early? No more clients for the day you said.”

“I was going home early, but it looks like Duro is stuck with a later shift. If I have to stick around, I might as well do it here.”

“Sure sure.” They both looked at the ring. “Shit, even when drunk Gannicus is difficult to beat. You sure you don’t want to get in there? It’s been awhile, but I am sure you could hold your own?”

Agron shook his head, running his fingers through his hair. “Nah, I am done with that. I have other things to worry about.”

“Like him?”

“Him?”

“Your message. You have your brother looking for someone.”

Agron threw his phone in his duffel bag. “You know some people might find it fucking rude to have someone reading over their shoulder like that.”

Donar snorted. “Anyone I know?”

“Fuck you.”

“Hey, you heard what Spartacus said. Clean it up around here.”

“Yeah he also said we had to wear shirts at all times to comply with health regulations. I don’t see you over there giving Liscus a hard time about it.”

Donar shrugged. “I’ll leave Crixus to his, and you to yours.”

Agron huffed. “Not mine anymore.”

Their conversation ended abruptly when one of Spartacus’ pups showed up, Adal he thought was his name. Spartacus had a habit of trying to draw street kids in for some youthful type activates that Lugo hosted. Thankfully, the man found someone who could tolerate that much disrespect and energy. Problem was, somehow some of them seemed to get jobs or something and stuck around more often than he cared for. Agron stood.

“Mira says someone came in with one of your certificates. Before she gives him to someone else, she wanted to check to see if you had some time to talk with a new client.”

Donar piped up behind him. “It’s not his fault or hers that we ran that program for a little while. Remember you volunteered…”

Agron stood smoothly but didn’t say anything to the younger man who seemed thankful not to get a tongue lashing and instead just moved out of the way. He approached the reception area already irritated that he might have to take on some young eager nobody who thought he might teach them to fight when he did no such thing, anymore. He mostly just strengthened bodies now, confidence too if he was lucky. “Mira we talked about this. I am not really interested in taking on clients unseen. The last few turned out to be real asses or some street thugs wanting to be better thugs. I want to be able to screen them and no offense buddy.” He barely noted the shorter man next to her as they both peered at useless paperwork. God, he hated paperwork. It seemed an endless stream of it now with every new clients. Waivers, questions about medications, fuck they hadn’t gotten past the first page and they were already asking him if he could… the younger man looked up and their eyes locked. “You.”

It was the first thing that fell out of his mouth, without time to really let his brain process that this was the “him” he would not talk to Donar about. Ever since that night, when he stood and left his date to confront that rude blonde in his expensive suite about berating the man across from him who was clearly a few years younger, probably a great deal less well-off and had this gorgeous hair, fine eyes and such a warm smile that did nothing but fade with each passing moment with this guy. He would have bet his last twenty in his wallet his date kept droning on about that new car of his which wasn’t actually new. It just looked new, detailed three or four times a year, something like that. He barely listened and didn’t really look back when he threatened to go to jail for some stranger. Oh Duro would be so pleased not to have to keep his eye out for this one anymore. But as soon as his brain kicked in, things started to slide downhill a bit.

Color faded from the other’s face, deep brown eyes dropped to the floor, his body language shifted from uncertainty to just a hair shy of fleeing out the front door. He could tell Mira noticed something going on right away, but he was not about to give her a chance to actually comply with the demand he took so many words to say. “I’ll be with him. Take him… train him!”

Silence fell between the three.

Mira cleared her throat. “This is Nasir. He has a certificate for a trial with one of our trainers.”

Agron snatched the certificate. “Ahh, Agron. Good. I was wondering how many of these were floating out there.”

“Probably just one more. Listen Agron you don’t have too…”

Nasir stood straighter. “I do not wish to force anyone to train me, umm Agron. I just…”

“Do you two know each other?” Mira questioned.

“Yes.”

“No.”

Mira frowned looking at Agron’s yes face and Nasir’s no. Lies, both lies on some level. “Really I could just have you talk to Spartacus tomorrow. He’d be happy to take on a new client. He always is.”

Agron gave Mira a quick tap on a shoulder. “Give us a minute.”

Mira frowned but nodded, leaving as requested but this time closing the door to give them actual privacy.

Agron ran his fingers through his hair. “Listen Nasir, about that night…”

“I am sorry you had to witness that and intervene.”

“I did not have to. I chose to. Just like you chose to come here. Something tells me if I walk away now, you will be out that door, and I will never see you again.”

Nasir breathed in quietly, his eyes dropping to the unfinished page with just his name on it and an address. “You should know I have not spoken to him since. He’s furious with me. My closest friend thinks I have lost my mind. My boss is…” He shook his head. “I want what I saw there. I didn’t know it then but I do now.”

Me? Agron thought, but no he knew better than to say something so silly aloud. He knew what he wanted but everything about this Nasir suggested the other man was just finding out what could be wanted. “And what was that?”

“Confidence. To know no fear.”

Agron was this close to confessing his fear and his want, but he held his tongue; ironically enough driven by fear of chasing off someone he really wanted to get to know. “So why don’t you give The Rebel a shot, with me? It says here you have six weeks. If at the end of those six weeks you want to walk away, you can walk away. All you would have lost is some time, some sweat and maybe gain a bit of muscle.”

Nasir smirked briefly. “Agron it is then, my new trainer. Are you sure though; it sounds like you are closed to new clients?”

“I am certain.” Agron grabbed Mira’s pen. “So which nights are good for you?”

Nasir tapped the table. “I used to have Fridays off. I might still. Otherwise Tuesday or Thursday after shift. My boss has private parties on Sundays.”

Oh he knew Nasir only thought aloud at that moment, but he latched on just the same. Agron checked the box next to Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. “We’ll leave Friday’s for you. I suspect you don’t participate in these parties?”

Nasir hesitated. “I don’t but… three days?”

“Standard schedule. You will not know if you like it if you don’t give it a good shot aye?”

“Okay Agron. We will try it your way.”

“Only until you find yours. Come, let’s get you some clothes you can work with. We’ll just do some stretches, and you can tell me what you’ve done before. I’ll give your body a look over to see if you have any pain I should know about. Let’s worry about the paperwork later?”

He was rewarded with a hesitant smile before he led them past the fighting room to one of the smaller classrooms.

**

Mira and Donar watched them go, looking at the paperwork and a twenty dollar bill Agron slipped onto the desk. She picked it up eyes dropping to the check mark next to the deposit for a locker key.

Donar peered at the paper, scowling. “Three times a week. Aren’t our trials one? And what’s the twenty for?”

Her smiled widened, and Mira licked her lips ever so slightly. “When Spartacus flies in tomorrow, be sure to tell him to come in on Thursday. Tell him there will be something here he wants to see, and he shouldn’t miss it. I think our Agron problem might be working itself out.”

“Fucking hell. You women don’t make any sense.”

“Tell him and Jar now.” She pointed at a glass jar behind the desk, their Swear Jar.

Donar grumbled, dropped his dollar in. “Fucking fine.”

Mira held up two fingers and another bill entered the jar.

Chapter Text

Duro looked at his brother and shook his head. “You really don’t do anything halfway do you?”

Agron glowered at him, starring at the mirror, making sure his stubble was a nice consistent shadow, his hair cut from yesterday not completely botched up and then just a little cologne to help things along before they really got into the exercises anyway. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Fine don’t tell me. I’ll be out late again tonight. I’ve got to figure out how to be more consistent with my soufflés, or I am not going to pass this thing.”

Normally the word soufflé or anything that hinted at something especially tasty would gain Agron’s attention, but he was too busy trying make sure everything was just right. He had his duffle bag ready, and an extra set of clothes in there as well, shirts and shorts stolen from Duro’s closet, clean of course; he figured it would be close enough to the right size in case his trainee showed up again without anything proper clothing to work out in. He had another water bottle in there too, still in the box to ensure Nasir knew it was new.

Duro frowned at him. “I can’t tell if you are going to work or on a date.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’ve spent almost two hours in the bathroom.”

Agron gave him a sideways glare. “You’re close to losing your ride to class, and I did not.”

“You might think that walking out of the bathroom every two or three minutes resets your clock, but you’ve been in and out of there all morning, showering, primping…”

“I do not primp. I am warning you…”

“If only there was invention of something with wheels that you could pay to take you to some other place in case your big brother turns into an ass when confronted with the truth.”

Agron grabbed his wallet and shoved it in his back pocket. “You can take the bus if you want this morning, but you know how I feel about you taking it late at night. If you have to stay past our agreed upon time, you text or call me.”

“Yeah, yeah. I don’t know about this agreed upon part, but I’ve done it every time. Give me a minute. I need time to at least brush my teeth.” He rushed into the bathroom.

Agron glanced at the clock. He’d almost be late for his first client at this rate. “Duro!”

Duro grabbed his lunch and soon they were in his black Ford 150 and making their way to the culinary school. Agron gave him half a nod at the entrance as he headed to work, barely even noticing Mira as he walked in and not acknowledging her words as she shouted to him his first client was running late. Not that this news mattered to him much at all. It was not the first that held his mind for the rest of the day, but the last.

**

Nasir sighed, changing out the lightbulb of an old projector and giving a few pieces a jiggle with his screwdriver before sitting on the old metal chair and watching the film on the partially torn screen. It was bad enough he had to do this ridiculous exercise in the first place, but to then be demanded he use their old equipment for it which required him tinkering with it to get it to work, worse. He drank his soda and tried again, turning off the light to watch the film for distortion and tears. He’d been at this for hours, all black and white films, even a few of them that he assumed were meant to be silent films. He even jotted that down, glancing at the clock. Despite his annoyance and dislike of these recent tasks, no one else working the morning shifts noticed his unhappiness because he almost seemed, well eager today. Almost each hour he found himself glancing at the clock, looking forward to the end of the shift after so long. Sure in the beginning when he began dating Caesar, he felt the same thing. If it took him away from this old place and his unfortunate living arrangement, it meant fun on the town, something to do, something to enjoy. He couldn’t really place the moment in time when that sensation shifted from uncertain hope to doubt and some nights just dread, but to have it renewed again, well he was not the only one to notice.

Chadara entered with a sandwich on a plate. She wore a light yellow dress today, not nearly as long today and with a flayed skirt that ended just below the knee. It was pretty and of course new, another gift no doubt. She set the plate down, coughing a bit. “I cannot believe you look so content with all that dust in here.”

Nasir shrugged, giving her half smile as he grabbed the sandwich. “I guess I don’t notice anymore. I’ve been dealing with dust for days now.” He tapped another tin container. “There’s a lot of stuff in here they could probably show.”

“Do you really think he cares? I mean you know he’s doing this just to make a point.”

Nasir snorted and motioned to another chair so she could join him. “Well as long as he pays me, I guess it makes no difference. He’s got those idiot kids behind the container who can barely count cash and burn popcorn most the night.”

She smirked. “Well I am sure it will be short-lived with you smiling like that all day.”

“I kind of like the day-shift.” He glanced at the screen, noting a slight issue though the film kept rolling. “Smiling, I guess I didn’t realize I was smiling.”

“I haven’t seen you this animated in days.”

Nasir tapped his phone. “Well I haven’t had something to anticipate for a while.”

“So where is he taking you tonight, a ballet, an opera, or maybe a nice dinner?”

A frown formed almost immediately. “Chadara, I am not seeing Caesar. We’re done. I never liked those things anyway.”

Her disapproval presented right away. “What do you mean you are done? How are you going to make things work Nasir? You need to stop thinking with your heart, and remember what it takes to survive.”

His eyes narrowed a bit as he stood. “Thank you for the sandwich; I mean it. I am a little short this week, but this Friday is payday; I’ll be all right for a little while again. Chadara, we’re not talking about this. I know you mean well; I do. We do not see eye to eye in this. I tried it your way. It doesn’t work for me.”

She stood and placed a hand on his shoulder, waiting for him to meet her eyes. He couldn’t avoid that gaze for long, and the worry there, it made him falter. “My way got us here, remember that.”

“I do…”

“Speaking of Friday; he wants you to work this one.”

Nasir sighed heavily. He knew that was coming; he just knew. “Those are my days.”

“It’s not like you can quit Nasir.” Chadara reminded him carefully. “I’ll see if I can try and patch things up this Sunday.”

He turned to face her sharply. “You said you did not work those private parties. When did you start?”

Chadara patted him on the shoulder, giving him a smooth smile. “Hey, I’m fine. I am not the one wearing patched together clothes and eating my first meal of the day. I told you to tell me if you needed anything. You still will right?”

He felt his stomach knot, for a variety of reasons, but he nodded. “I’ll be fine as soon as the check clears.” Nasir paused. “Just be careful Chadara.”

“Always. Oh, one more thing, he says you’ll be the last one here until the night shift arrives. You need to wait for them since he has business to attend to and can’t do it himself.”

“Okay.” His thoughts lingered long after she left.

As the late evening began to approach, Nasir’s eagerness turned into worry and soon despair. He paced back and forth near the front door. They should have arrived by now, getting the popcorn going, making ready for the small crowd they’d get in the middle the week. Instead, the kid arrived almost twenty minutes past shift with his shirt in hand and still wet hair. “Where have you been?” Nasir hissed at him, helping him with his bags.

“Leonard says he is running almost an hour late. He’s not even in town, and he’s usually my ride. I really need your help Nasir. Can you help me with the popcorn and can you get the film up and ready. I’ll do everything else; I promise. I just need a little help.”

Nasir looked at the clock. If he was fast enough he could still catch the bus in time. Those sad eyes, young desperate face, you’d think the kid was about to face some hoard waiting for a fresh new Friday flick. It was Thursday, and this movie had been available for almost sixty years now. They’d be lucky if they had a couple dozen. “Fine. Just be sure to greet Mr. and Mrs. Smith. This is date night, and these movies help jog the old man’s memory. If the son shows up with them, that means they’re having problems with his health. Don’t give him a large popcorn, even if he pays for one, just the smaller one. He won’t know the difference, but gets very upset if you try and take it away from him.” This was not the first time these instructions were given to Jimmy, but Leonard listened better. He moved to the popcorn machine, one of the easiest to use around here but kind of a pain to clean. Fortunately, he did that yesterday so all he had to do was get it started. He waited to make sure everything looked right and then moved to mess with the projector. This one was at least a dozen years newer than the one he was forced to use earlier, but he had to be careful with the film just the same. He did not really understand where the films came from only that there would be hell to pay if one was ripped. It didn’t take him too long to get it set-up. He looked at the clock, smiling, just enough time to get to the stop.

He headed to the front door when he noticed out of the corner of his eye that Jimmy did exactly what he told him not to do, handed the old man a large popcorn with his son standing right there. He could already hear the argument starting. Nasir took a deep breath and hurried over to the three.

“It’s mine. I paid for it. Why are you trying to take it away? This is what we always get. We always get a large.”

“Dad, you know what the doctor said.”

“Who said? What doctor!?”

Nasir approached with a smile. “Mr. Smith. Do you remember me?”

“Naysir. Yes I remember you. Of course I remember you. Why shouldn’t I remember you? They said I can’t take the large popcorn I paid for. But I paid for it.” He was a small hunched man now, with white thinning hair on his head and arms, veins showing but bright eyes, bright big brown eyes. They pleaded with him to understand, and most the time he did even though he realized the cloudiness behind them. It was hard to remember what this couple used to be like before the stroke.

“Well that’s because you paid for the smaller one already.”

Mr. Smith frowned, confused but curious. “I… I did?”

“Yes, last week you had one of our buy one large and get a small one free coupons. You wanted to use it this week. Jimmy just forgot, right Jimmy?”

Jimmy blinked at him. “Right…”

Mr. Smith hesitated, his son and wife nearby, looking all too hopeful. “So if I give you this back, I get my money back and popcorn?”

“Yes.”

Nasir held out his hand and was given the larger bag. He took it behind the counter and proceeded to dump part it into one of the smaller bags. He came around the counter again and gave it to the older couple as well as his money back. Mr. Smith looked quite pleased, as did his wife and son who mouthed thank yous to him. Once they were out of sight, Nasir gave Jimmy a withering look.

“Nasir, I am sorry. I just...”

“Save it. I don’t have time for this. I have catch the bus.”

“But you know the drawer will be short. My parents will kill me if I lose another job.”

Nasir paused, reaching into his pocket, pulling out a five; his last one, but Friday was almost here. He dropped it on the counter and retrieved the popcorn bag. It would be better than nothing later.

“Thank you Nasir!”

He barely listened to him. He hurried out the door and ran down the block, but he wasn’t fast enough. He saw the bus pull away as he turned the corner. A series of curses fell from his lips. He’d have to walk the distance. It would be faster than waiting for the next one which meant… he’d be late.

By the time he arrived at The Rebel, Nasir was tired, panting just a little and shifting between being angry and upset. He’d look forward to this all day, but now, well maybe Agron would not even wait for him. Why would anyone wait for someone that wasn’t even paying? Tentatively, he walked in, seeing the reception desk empty again. There were no fighters in the ring, no one on the main floor, just some lights in some smaller rooms and someone running with the headphones on a treadmill. After waiting about five minutes, Nasir sighed and took a seat on the bench. He’d missed his first real session, and maybe his last. He was so embarrassed.

“Are you Nasir?”

His brown eyes lifted to see a man staring down at him. He looked almost as tall as Agron, his hair shorter, similar color eyes as well but they were different, steady, purposeful and his expression so serious. He wore a black T-shirt with the The Rebel logo on it as well as matching athletic pants with red lines down both sides. And his build, Nasir could tell he spent no small amount of time around here, maybe he was a fighter or a trainer himself.

Nasir stood steadily. “Yes?”

A half smile formed. “You’re not sure?”

Nasir stood a little taller. “No, I mean yes I am sure.” He hissed quietly. He sounded like an idiot. “I am Nasir. I was supposed to meet Agron for, for training. I am late. I had a little… Well did I miss him?” He tried not to sound disappointed while at the same time not wanting to get his hopes up.

The other walked over to the desk and picked up a handful of papers. “Agron left.” Nasir tried hard to not look crushed, his fingers tightening on his bag of popcorn. “But he’ll be back. He made Mira promise not to let you leave should you show up while he did his errand. I tried to inform her we don’t really take hostages here at The Rebel, so of course you are free to leave rather than wait.” His eyes scanned over the paperwork. “But I have this piece of paper with only a first name and an address on it. You could answer a few questions while we wait, and I know a thing or two myself. So did your movie run late?”

“Movie?” Nasir asked dumbly. He blinked down at his hand. “No, I mean was not in a theater. I mean I was but not to watch a movie. I mean I had to watch a movie today. It’s my job. I…” He took a breath, his eyes narrowing just a bit. The way this man just sort of stared at him, it unnerved him, and he knew he sounded like a raging imbecile now. “I work at a theater, and I had to stay late for reasons.”

“All right. I’m Spartacus. I hear you came with a certificate. I am glad our little campaign worked even if it is almost a year late.” He smirked briefly. “Now let’s see. Brown eyes. Maybe 5’8”?”

Nasir nodded.

“And have you been trained before.”

“No. Did you say your name is Spartacus?”

“Yes, my parents are fans of history. Now you have six sessions with…” He paused, examining the paper longer. “18… sessions with Agron. You know him?”

Nasir shook his head. “Not really. We met once before, but didn’t really meet. Sort of ran into each other on the street. I mean not literally the street.” Nasir scratched the back of his head. “Look since Agron is not here. Maybe I should come back another day. I didn’t mean to waste his time or yours.”

“Would you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Would you come back another day?”

Nasir remained quiet.

Spartacus nodded, reached into the drawer and held out a key. “Number 56. Why don’t put your popcorn in your locker and change out of your clothes?” He tossed him the key.

Nasir nearly dropped his bag trying to catch it and failed. His cheeks burned ever so slightly as he picked it up off the floor. “I didn’t wear jeans today. I thought I could just wear… these.”

“Agron thought that might happen. We have a set for you. Go on back. I’ll get them for you. You won’t want to wear yours.”

“Why not?”

Those bright eyes shone brightly. “You’re going to sweat, a lot.”

**

The evening group began to fill the gym, little by little. Individuals coming off their shift, fighters who didn’t have any matches, and then those who hung out like The Rebel could have just as easily been a bar.

Agron watched from nearby. Spartacus had Nasir using a jump rope. Thirty repetitions, a thirty second pause, and then another thirty. That was good cardio, helped strengthen several muscles in the body, helped teach rhythm and coordination and well the way that hair bounced up and down… He’d have to get the younger man a tie or something for that hair, but for now he was just enjoying the view. He felt Donar come up behind him before he said anything.

“Isn’t that your trainee he’s working with?”

“Yeah.”

“Aren’t you going to take over? I mean you’re not really one to share I thought.”

“Spartacus is different, and I am not going to interrupt. This gives me an opportunity to see what he can do.”

Sure he was calm right now, but he agonized something fierce when Nasir didn’t show. Mira watched him fidget, then pace, checking the parking lot, looking at the bus stop not far from here. It felt like he’d been stood up. He knew this wasn’t a date, nothing really committed. All he had was a first name and an address which was, well a hell of a lot more than he had just a couple of weeks ago, but he hadn’t realized how invested he was for this first session until it started slipping away. Then Duro sent him a message saying he really, really needed some ingredients he forgot at the store. And if there was one thing that could focus him, it was his brother needing anything, even if he was an idiot in forgetting his required ingredients. He made Mira promise, really promise not to let Nasir leave if he came when Agron was away. What she hadn’t mentioned was Spartacus might be coming in, and that surprised him. Usually he knew what Spartacus was up to since he was one of the few here who could really speak to him. He would think after a long trip, he’d rest for at least a day at home.

Donar crossed his arms, watching too. “I don’t know. He looks like trouble to me.”

Agron huffed but did not correct him. Maybe he was trouble. Maybe this Nasir wasn’t committed, would lead to a headache, frustration and a whole host of things he was better off not worrying about now. The problem was, he couldn’t stop looking.

“So what did you have to get that was so important.”

Agron didn’t take his eyes from the sight once Spartacus shifted him to push-ups. Nasir didn’t have a lot of upper-body strength it seemed, but they could work on that. “Something called saffron and another labeled truffle powder. It’s fucking expensive is what it is.”

Donar glanced over his shoulder as if he thought a spider might drop on him at any moment. “Careful. Mira’s already collected twenty dollars from me this week.”

Green eyes shifted to the tall blonde. “What?”

“I am not kidding.”

His eyes returned to see Nasir struggle with his push-ups; the shorter man was not giving up. “Stand up to her.”

“Easier said than done. How long do you plan on watching?”

“Until they’re done. He’s doing well.”

Donar shook his head. “Which one?” He didn’t wait around for a reply. Agron was already moving forward when Spartacus took his leave.

Nasir wiped his brow and neck with a large white towel. Agron could get used to that sight except he noticed an ever slight tremble. He was certain Spartacus would have noticed too had he not been distracted by an argument in the back corner. Since Gannicus was involved, he could only guess it involved someone’s girlfriend. He stopped near the water pitcher to fill his water bottle and then popped open Nasir’s and filled that too. He approached Nasir, offering him the filled bottle, setting the box nearby. “You look like you could use some. It’s a lot easier than using those paper cups. You know it’s not his fault. The first time is always difficult for new comers.”

The smaller man took a deep breath tearing his eyes from Spartacus to take the bottle, no thank you uttered, not yet. This did not discourage Agron in the slightest. “Maybe he could take it a little easier on new comers.”

“Most people who come here aren’t looking for easy. And those who do, usually leave during the first sessions.” Agron replied carefully. He did not want to see Nasir leave, and really he was impressed to see him struggle but not give up.

“I stumbled across this place more than anything else.”

Agron grinned. “Well you can stumble across me a third time any time you want.”

Nasir blinked up at him, hesitation and maybe surprise coloring his expression and tone. “I am sorry I was late. I meant to be here but things happened.”

“I am glad you made it. I noticed you filled out more of your sheet, but you left your phone number blank.”

“Actually Spartacus asked more questions at first. I don’t really have a number you can actually call.”

Agron chuckled. “Well I guess as the owner he has a tendency to want to do things the right way.”

Nasir seemed surprised. “Spartacus owns The Rebel?”

“Yeah, he didn’t say?”

“Well no, but I guess I didn’t ask, and it didn’t come up. How long has this place been open?”

Agron frowned slightly. “I am not exactly sure. I think it was open a year or two before I came here. I’ve been a trainer for just over a year, but I came here before that. Leadership was a little different then too.”

Nasir took a long drink of water. “What were you before being a trainer?”

Agron’s amused expression fell. “I did some work in the fighting ring and some other… things. Fighting did not turn out to be the best choice for me.”

Nasir took a seat on a bench near the wall, setting the bottle done. “Other things. That’s usually code for you don’t want to talk about it. I guess I can understand that.”

“You don’t look old enough to have that sort of an understanding, and you’re too fine to look at to have had an ill run in any fighting circle.”

His smaller companion scowled almost immediately. “I’ve known a fair share of life already. Just because you could not cut it as a fighter does not mean I have not had my share of experiences.”

Agron did not let the surprise or the anger show that built quickly inside him, at least not all of it. Nasir could not know or be responsible for the wave of emotions that struck him with that harsh tongue. Carefully he managed to keep his tone in control and tried hard, very hard not to say something he would regret later. “If you have any fucking sense, you’ll see that Spartacus has set you on a good path.” He turned too quickly to see the regret written all over Nasir’s face. “I hope to see you Sunday.” He left his new trainee there to clean up and avoided everyone else as he retrieved things from his locker, number 55.

That night, when he picked up Duro, he partially listened to the recant of the day, and had to keep it together until he was alone in his room. Anger came upon him quickly, but it had been some time since he opened himself up to be hurt like that. He did not realize how open he was until the blade set in.

Outside the door, he heard Duro’s muffled voice. “Agron, are you all right? You’ve been quiet all night, and I thought I might hear about whatever you were planning for tonight.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“You’d tell me if you weren’t right?”

Agron sighed, climbing off the bed and opened the door, peering down at his young brother. “Probably.”

“Can you give me more than that, so I don’t worry all day tomorrow?” Duro blinked up at him hopefully.

Agron drew enough strength to form a smile. “Don’t worry. I don’t give up that easily. You know that. I just have to show someone else the same thing.”

Sunday would be better.

Chapter Text

Fridays had been Nasir’s since he started his gig at Villa. Rotating shifts, late nights, or long days, he could always count on having Fridays to do with as he pleased. A part of him realized that Batiatus and Caesar had some sort of connection, and he suspected either his boss or Chadara had something to do with him originally meeting Caesar.

None of that seemed to matter just now. By the time Saturday rolled around, everything ached. His shoulders felt like someone had grabbed each of his arms and just yanked back as hard as they could. Just turning his neck drew a wince and he moved stiffly down the small hall to his tiny bathroom where suddenly having only a bathtub and no shower didn’t seem like such an unfortunate thing. He wanted that water steaming before he stepped in and when he did he hissed at the heat of it.

If an old classic movie could have a strong crowd, it would be a film selected for Friday night. Many of these were sci-fi or horror flicks, the cult classics, the kind of thing that drew out a younger crowd for a cheap thrill and some relatively expensive snacks. He spent the entire night in uniform filling soda cups, popcorn bags and dolling out candy to couples eager to just experience something new or claim to be some sort of true fan. But the entire evening, he thought of only one thing, or one man precisely.

Oh he knew the minute the words left his mouth he shouldn’t have said them. Watching that smile, that cocky confidence just melt away at the bite of Nasir’s tongue, well it surprised him really. Agron didn’t seem like the sort of guy who could be hurt by some random stranger’s unwarranted retort to his ridiculous claim. Except, well Nasir wasn’t sure but looking back, that might have been the guy’s unusual approach to flirting.

Even as he dumped large amounts of oil people still wanted to call “butter” on the popcorn the night before, he thought about the man’s exact words. Fine to look at, not old enough… at the time he took those remarks as some older, stronger man saying he was too young and untried in the world to know what real pain was like, how life could be, how unfair things could become. Maybe, just maybe, Agron meant to say he thought Nasir was young and pretty and didn’t fully realize Nasir meant to suggest to the man that if he had things he didn’t want to speak about in his past, Nasir understood because he had those too. He closed his eyes, frowning, trying to relax. And even though his body was eager, anxious even, for a quiet day, his mind would not relent so easily. If Agron was attracted to him, then, well then he was unlike any other man who had ever given him so much as a second glance and he did not know what to do in this kind of situation.

By the time someone rapped on his door, Nasir had a white towel around his hair, but still moved about in yellow and blue plaid pajama bottoms with a draw string barely keeping them on his waist. He did not even bother to put on a shirt because he had a pretty good idea of who it would be.

Chadara beamed, walking in with a small brown paper bag in hand. She walked past Nasir into his small studio apartment and frowned at the dead plant in the window and then moved straight to the fridge, finding only the remainder of a half-gallon of milk, an almost empty carton of eggs and movie popcorn in there. “I thought you were paid yesterday.”

Nasir nodded, closing the door and latching it with a growing frown. “I was, but I also had to work. I didn’t have the energy to shop. Chadara, are you checking on me or visiting?”

She pulled out a half gallon of orange juice, more eggs, a loaf of white bread and a small boneless ham and set it on the shelf along with some baking soda to help air out the almost empty fridge. “Can’t I do both?”

“Were you…sent?”

She gave him her most hurt expression. “Nasir, you were supposed to tell me if you needed help. How could you let it get this bad and not tell me?”

He pulled the towel off his head and set it on the chair, sighing. “Chadara, thank you. I just didn’t want to…” Nasir scowled and looked to the side. “I had to visit the clinic last week, so I came up short. I just, I didn’t want to worry you. It really isn’t as bad as it looks. Just a few days and I almost made it through the week.”

“Yeah I heard about what happened with Jimmy. You let the twit take your last five dollars?”

“He was worried about how his parents would react if he lost his job.”

She poured him a glass of juice and offered it to him. “Do you hear yourself Nasir? Worried about his parents? Do you know what kids like that do when they lose their job? They get another one. He doesn’t work to survive.”

Nasir took the glass reluctantly. “His family struggles.”

“They’re not in the streets. They’re not about to be in the streets, and for him there are other jobs. Nasir, what has gotten into you? I don’t understand you anymore.”

He drank the juice, admittedly one of the best things he had all week. “I have to get to the bank today, cash the check, pay bills. I promise I’ll buy food after that. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Caesar was your ticket out of here. You’re just throwing it away like it doesn’t matter.”

He set the empty glass on the counter. “No, no that’s what he did to me. He might regret it now, but I am not going back. I told you I didn’t want to talk about this.”

“Nasir…”

“Because you can’t understand. I don’t want what you want anymore.”

“But in order to survive…”

“Thank you for this, for helping me. I really appreciate it Chadara, but surviving is not good enough.”

They remained quiet for a few minutes before Chadara moved in closer, placing a hand against his cheek. “You don’t want to go back to the streets do you, being cold all the time, afraid all the time, hungry, always looking over our shoulder to see if someone is trying to drag us back?”

“Of course I don’t want that. I just need to try it my way for a little while. If that doesn’t work, maybe I’ll go back.”

“My way might not be available anymore by the time you figure out what this is really about.” Chadara ran her fingers down his neck, his chest and slipped her fingers past the waistband of his lower garment. “Come with me tomorrow. We can find someone else who’s interested.”

Nasir breathed in quickly. “Please don’t do that. Don’t ask me to go with you. Don’t do… this, don’t push me.”

“You know I don’t want to see you get hurt. This is what we know.”

“Please.” Brown eyes locked with blue, and Chadara pulled away. They both knew this wasn’t about sex, or attraction between them. He could feel the pull: the lure and the promise of something more could be a powerful bait compared to the uncertainty of what he was doing now. After six weeks, he could very well be right back where he was, in a thankless job that barely paid him, except without anyone to distract him from the futility of it all.

She kissed him gently against the temple. “I’ll see you next week. “

He glanced over his shoulder as she left. “I wish you wouldn’t go to that thing. If you must, be careful.”

“I always am.” She flashed him a smile and closed the door.

**

Agron placed a couple of Kind Bars, Two Clif bars and something called Pure bars on a nearby table, along with a clean towel and two free five pound weights. As he dug through his duffel bag, he saw Donar’s shadow and growled at the man. “If you touch those fucking bars, I am going to kill you.” As soon as he said it, Agron quickly looked around with maybe just a hint of fear for the smaller figure that had really come down on them lately. The jar was already brimming, and she gave them no respite.

Donar raised his hands in defeat. “I was just looking! And I saw that, you’re looking for her.”

Agron huffed, placing his water bottle on the table as well. “Don’t touch those.”

“I got it. What are you doing? Some new kind of diet?”

“No.” Admittedly, Agron preferred shakes, green shakes at least once a day, especially in the morning, but it was hard to get a newbie to down some sort of homemade concoction that looked like someone ground up spinach, chewed it and spit it out again. They hadn’t established that kind of trust yet, but he also didn’t know if Nasir was allergic to anything. He’d never admit it to Spartacus, but maybe filling out some of that paperwork would have come in handy when he stood in the store staring at a sea of plastic wrappers; he still wanted a phone number too. “They’re for Nasir. He needs more energy for the workouts.”

“So tell him to eat better.”

Donar backed away ever so slightly at the black look he received for that, but the man still had a little courage left in him. “I think you’ve forgotten how this works.”

Agron stood peeling off his jacket. He only had only the one client on Sundays, and normally he wouldn’t take any. This was his time to unwind and workout, but there was just something about those words that made him want to claim this day, the way Nasir said private party. “What do you mean?”

“You see, normally when someone wants to use our gym and get help with their fitness, they pay us. It’s how we keep the doors open, get a paycheck. You do remember getting paid right? Normally we get the money and don’t buy things for them.”

Agron rolled his shoulders and neck. “Don’t you have something better to do?”

Donar lifted his hands in defeat and retreated to another part of the gym. That gave Agron some peace and quiet to loosen up, get his mind in the right place. He was a little worried about the last exchange with his new trainee, but he had a good feeling that at the very least, Nasir would feel guilty enough about being late that he’d show up today, on time.

In the office, Spartacus watched through the window, noting how many of his trainers took the weekends to focus on themselves. A lot of the public seemed to prefer stricter routines, slots before or after work that didn’t get in the way of their free time, well the working public anyway. The cross fit sessions and more fun offerings in the smaller rooms could be the exception apart from Agron never agreeing to any kind of class. He seemed annoyed at the people who even signed up for group activities like that.

“You want to see something?” He turned to face Mira, who smirked at her clipboard and of course did not wait for an answer. Instead she marched right over to him and pointed to a couple of lines on last week’s report.

“Mrs. Bowne had to reschedule?”

“Not only that, Agron agreed to make up the session yesterday. He came in just for her and…” She pointed at two new memberships, accredited to Agron. Spartacus took the clipboard, frowning a bit. Mira continued. “And while he was here, he helped a few others with the machines and managed to make a couple of them annual members.”

Spartacus looked at the initials and tapped the hard wood for a moment.

“Maybe this training thing will work out for him after all. I mean I know he has a few individuals that really like working with him, but we all know he’s a bear to get started with. This could be the start…”

“I want you to promise me something.”

“Hmm?” She gave him a bright almost innocent smile.

“I don’t want you to interfere. Whatever this is, let it run its natural course.”

Mira pouted. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean it Mira, sometimes the best course of action is to just let it happen.”

Her tone became just a bit more serious and firm. “And sometimes a relationship needs a little work, a little effort.”

Spartacus lifted his gaze to meet hers; the stare lingered a bit longer than he intended it to. He cleared his throat. “Keep me apprised of the situation, and try to be discreet if you can. I need to go talk to Crixus about one of his fighters and some unwanted behaviors around here.”

“Oh you know me, a mistress of discreet.” Her playful light returned as if it had not shifted at all. “Good luck.” She took a seat at the computer and began transcribing the information though she paused for a moment, wondering if Spartacus really understood what she meant by a little effort. And just because she nearly gave Spartacus her word not to interfere didn’t mean others couldn’t, on her behalf of course.

**

Nasir paused outside the door, fingers playing with a yellow plastic bag in which a few useful things had been stuffed, reciting again in his head the apology he meant to offer Agron. He’d been practicing all morning, hoping this conversation would seem more natural, like two normal people, a trainer and his trainee would have. The problem remained. He was nervous about how Agron would greet him, anxious about how poor his performance with all this physical stuff turned out to be, and he wondered if Agron and Spartacus had spoken about him. He shouldn’t have glared at the man like that. But he was hungry at the time, short-tempered and sore. He knew he wasn’t in the best shape, but that took a lot more out of him than he expected. At least this time he didn’t show up with a popcorn bag.

With a deep breath, Nasir entered The Rebel again, finding it mostly empty and Agron easy to spot. Today he seemed to be wearing his uniform, a black tank with the words The Rebel on the front and the same athletic pants Spartacus had worn last time.

Confidently Nasir marched up to Agron and began his spiel. “Hi Agron, listen about…” His voice trailed off as Agron stood tall before him, and a bright warm smile lit up the other mans’ face. And those arms, those biceps looked so strong.

“Nasir!” Green eyes dropped to the plastic bag that held Nasir’s change of clothes and a sandwich. “I am glad you could make it. I’ve got your water bottle and here, pick a nutrition bar; it will help you get through today’s sessions. Oh, you should probably change first. You remembered your key right?”

Brown eyes swept over the man’s entire form despite his best effort. “Key?”

“To your locker,” Agron voiced carefully until their eyes met again.

“Oh yes! I have my key.” Nasir needlessly held it up and was rewarded with a smile for his effort. “Go get changed. We’ll get something inside you and work on your arms.”

Nasir blinked. “Umm, inside me?”

“The protein bars.”

“Right!” Nasir took a breath and then vanished as quickly as his legs could carry him to the locker area.

**

Gannicus piped up behind Agron. “Inside him huh. Smooth, real smooth.”

“Fucking shut up. Go find another corner to do your squats.”

“And miss this, never.” The man’s laugh grated his nerves, the arrogant fuck.

Agron turned on him, pointing a finger. “If I hear so much as a strangled chuckle out of you, I am going to find scissors and remove one of the things those women seem to find so fascinating about you so help me God.”

“Oh I don’t think God has much to do with what you’re thinking when you look at that fine piece of ass. If I swung your way I don’t know I would let you win him so easily.” Gannicus openly teased him.

He had to swallow his retort and resumed a smile when Nasir returned to sight. Duro’s clothes were a little big on Nasir, but they’d get those filled out in no time flat. He tried so hard not to openly glower at Gannicus’ goofy expression and failed. Instead as soon as Nasir picked out a nutrition bar and began to eat it, he casually shifted position so he didn’t have to see the man. “So we’re going to work on your upper-arms today. We’ll strengthen those muscles so maybe next time we try pushups it will be easier for you.”

Nasir dropped his eyes, looking embarrassed. “You saw that?”

“Hey, this sort of strength doesn’t happen overnight, and you came here for a reason right?” Agron encouraged. Once the bar was gone and some water drunk, he placed the dumbbells in each hand. “Feel okay?”

Nasir nodded.

“Now stand with your legs apart. Here let me.” He stood behind Nasir, guiding his legs apart with gentle kicks and then turned his wrists. “Hip wide. There we go, now exhale slowly and lift to your shoulders. Nope, don’t skip the breathing part. You’ll be tempted to now because this feels easy, but wait twenty minutes.”

Nasir blinked. “Twenty minutes?”

“You can do it.” Agron smiled. “Now pause, inhale and lower. Yes, like that.” He ran his fingers along Nasir’s upper-arms. “Not so tense. Back straight, don’t sag. Just work into it, there you go. Back straight, don’t sag.” They were close now, he could smell a fragrance on Nasir’s hair, a light conditioner or lingering shampoo. Oh, they would need a tie for that. He almost forgot, although this workout wouldn’t be a problem for hair, at least not yet. He was so focused on Nasir, their proximity and his trainee’s open willingness to follow instruction, he didn’t notice the small audience behind them in addition to Gannicus’ gawking.

“Are we about to get sued?” Crixus remarked from the other side of the room.

Spartacus set his weights on the rack and sat up. “You know a spot checker really should be paying attention. Why are you asking me if we are about to get sued?”

“I am paying attention, to Agron molesting one of our clients.”

Spartacus wiped his brow and rested his elbow on his knee, noting the sight. The man was awfully close, and touching and, well, not the harsh biting trainer he knew Agron to be. There was more patience there than he’d seen in Agron all year. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that, and I don’t think that is what Nasir is.”

“Nay what?”

“Nasir.” Spartacus repeated. “He came in with one of those promotional certificates we ran when several of you shifted from the sport to training.”

“Shifted is a nice word for it.” Crixus growled slightly. “That’s an old promotion. So you think we’ll see him six times and never again.”

“Oh, I think we’ll be seeing more of Nasir than that.” Spartacus wiped his brow. “Try not to goad Agron while he is working with his new trainee.”

“He’s a fucking idiot, and I am going to call him on it.”

Spartacus frowned.

“I mean he’s just an idiot.” Crixus glanced over his shoulder, but there was no sign of her.

The frown continued.

Crixus sighed. “I’ll try.”

“I appreciate that.” Crixus turned to leave.

“And Crixus.”

The big man turned back to him.

“I think that certificate might have come from Barca. Has he been in contact with you?”

“You’d know if he was because he’d be in the hospital, right alongside Ashur if I run into him too.”

Spartacus continued to frown but this time let the man walk away without any further interference. From afar, he could see Agron smiling, and he thought this might be the first time the man looked happy doing his job.

Chapter Text

Agron kneeled at one of the benches in the back, having drug one of the trash cans nearby, and emptied the structural paper from the new The Rebel black duffel bag he recently purchased. He ran his fingers over the embroidery on the side, “Nasir” in cursive white lettering. It took a little effort to find someone who could personalize the item for him in just a day, but having a little brother who happened to have a small social life with creative individuals in between work and his part time job finally came in handy. It almost made up for the expense that came with a chef in training, almost. He smirked, pleased with the white thread.

“You’re fucking kidding me right?” Donar stood behind him. Agron turned just in time for him to ball his fist in frustration. “Fuck. I did it again!”

If he wasn’t so annoyed with Donar’s disapproval in this, he might have been more amused at Donar’s continued foul language at being unable to stop cussing. Green eyes watched the other man move to the jar and drop two bills in it. “I am starting to get questions about carrying all these ones around with me. My date thought we were going to a strip joint.”

“Probably better than the place you wound up taking her to. All right. I’ll bite. What’s the problem with the bag? Too much? Too strong? Should I do something else, maybe more personal and fluffy?”

Donar kneeled down next to Agron, rubbing at his chin. “Mira did a really nice job with the merchandising around here. It’s quality stuff, not cheap though. What that cost you, fifty?”

“Focus.”

“Okay, okay. What are you trying to say? You want him. You desire him. You need him.”

“No, no nothing quite like that.” Agron glanced around, making certain this time no grinning blonde with too many braids listened in. “That you belong here.”

“Belong to you?”

“No, belong here at The Rebel.”

“Oh!” Donar’s outburst drew some attention.

“Will you keep it down?” Agron hissed.

“Sorry, sorry. Yeah that works.”

“What?”

“You’re giving him a gym bag to workout at the gym. It will be a nice upgrade to the plastic bag he carries. Help him fit in better.”

Agron beamed. “Yes, yes that.”

Donar laughed quietly. “I thought you were going for something stronger. Nice eyes, pretty smile, really want to jump your bones.”

“Jump your bones.” Agron scowled. “You’ve never actually said that to a woman, have you?”

“Sure, a couple of them laughed. You probably shouldn’t take relationship advice from me though. I don’t think I’ve had one for longer than a week.”

“Just a week?”

“Yeah, they never seem to work out.”

Agron zipped up the bag. “Well what is you want in a woman?”

“Her lips around my cock mostly. Having someone to watch games with or go to games would be nice too.”

“You’re a real romantic.” Agron stood up, setting up the nutrition bars again.

“Hey, you asked. Haven’t figured out the one he likes yet huh?”

“He picks a different one every time.”

“That’s probably because he thinks you’re expecting him to. He likes this one the best.” Donar picked up the Pure dark chocolate berry bar in a black wrapper. “Yeah, this is the one.”

Agron frowned, examining the bar. “What makes you say that?”

“It took him longer to eat. He was savoring it. He had to choke that other one down, lots of water, and fast, this Clif carrot cake one. You know the ones that always sound the best are the worst.”

“I can’t believe you noticed that and I didn’t.”

“You were too busy agonizing over some something silly I’m sure, like trying to hide that rip on the mat over there.”

“It’s embarrassing. We should have it fixed.” Agron tucked the Clif bars back into his duffel bag. “You know women aren’t the only ones who suck cock right?”

Donar blinked at him. “Huh?”

“Maybe your week long relationships are telling you something. Do you like breasts?”

“I don’t really dislike them.” Donar puzzled on that a moment. “What’s the longest you’ve been with someone?”

“Two years once, and well I know what I like so when I… not that I am offering. I mean I’m just trying to explain.”

Their eyes met.

Donar shifted. “This just got a little awkward, didn’t it?”

“It did.”

“And Nasir will be here soon right?”

“Yeah, in a few minutes.”

“I should go.”

“Agreed.” They separated.

Agron tried to erase that part of the conversation from his mind, but closing his eyes just made it worse.

A familiar laugh sounded from nearby.

“Gannicus you son of a bitch.”

Gannicus just laughed louder. “If I call you sweetheart will you suck my cock too?”

Agron was fast, but Gannicus gave Spartacus a run for his money when it came to speed. He only made it halfway across the open floor when he suddenly noticed Nasir in the room and Gannicus strategically made his way behind the smaller man, still grinning. The murderous look in his eyes quickly melted away by the time Nasir’s brown eyes lifted to his face. “Nasir.” A warm smile formed and he offered to take the other’s plastic bag, glowering at Gannicus as they headed to their corner. “You look a little tired today. Are you feeling okay?”

Nasir nodded going to the table and grabbing some water. Then he selected from the Pure bars, orange cranberry this time. His eyes, however, lingered a moment on the bar Donar suggested. Maybe his friend was right, Nasir had a favorite but selected from the others to please Agron or to just try a different variety. He cleared his throat. “Hey I have something for you, a little promotional material really.”

His trainee stopped munching and smiled. “Oh?” Agron motioned towards the bag and watched the light shine in those deep brown eyes. “For me?” He began examining the bag, playing with the zippers, opening the pouches and testing the strap. “This looks expensive. I really couldn’t…” He paused then, just now noticing his name on the side. Like Agron, he ran his fingers carefully over the decorative stitching. “Thank you Agron.”

Agron moved in closer, giving Nasir’s shoulder a firm, comforting squeeze. “You’re welcome. It will make going off site easier later.” Quietly he continued. “If you’re up to it, I think we should get you on the jump rope again today to warm things up, do a few push-ups, and then I’ll show you how to work one of our treadmills.”

“Sounds fun.”

“That’s the spirit.” Agron grinned.

They spent the better part of the hour working this time, less instructions although Agron would correct him on occasion and encourage faster speed until at last he had Nasir on one of their machines. He had his hand at the small of Nasir’s back, correcting his posture as he gradually sped up the machine when Mira came in with a wide grin on her face. “There’s a carnival about five blocks down in that old strip mall’s parking lot. I think we should all go.”

“We have a few clients in here Mira.”

Crixus walked out of the locker room, drying his hair. “Naevia gets out this week. If the carnival remains when she arrives, I’ll take her then. You guys can all go. I’ll watch the shop.”

Mira beamed.

Agron gave Nasir a sideways glance. “You want to go?”

Nasir shook his head, looking a little uncomfortable. “No, I really shouldn’t. You can go with your friends though. We’ve been at this longer than an hour, so really I am fine.”

“You’ve been working hard Nasir. Maybe we should just take a small break huh. My treat. Come on, it will be fun. You don’t want to see Mira pout do you? And believe me she will, bottom lip to the floor.”

Nasir giggled briefly. “All right.”

“To make you feel better about it, we can jog the whole way. Let’s get changed.”

Fifteen minutes later, they were jogging down the street with most their company in The Rebel logo t-shirts and jackets. Agron and Nasir were easily a hundred paces behind the rest; Agron couldn’t care less. It was an easy pace, not a fitness challenge.

Liscus scowled. “Explain again to me why we all have to jog to this thing because Agron wants his new client to learn how to jog properly?”

“Encourage don’t discourage.” Spartacus replied, putting an end to any more complaints.

Red, green and white neon lights illuminated the sky, loud barely discernable music, and the whirl of metallic machinery soon overwhelmed any lingering grumblings. They disbursed.

Receiving no complaints earlier, Agron let his hand drop to the small of Nasir’s back, drawing him just a little closer and guiding him through the park. “Have you eaten recently, I mean besides the bar?”

“I had a ham sandwich a few hours before I came. Are you suggesting that we eat junk food? My trainer is telling me to eat carbs and fat?”

“Sweet carbs and deep fried fat,” Agron smirked. “Your trainer is not telling you to do anything Nasir. I would like to buy you some fair food, take you on a ride or two, and maybe win a prize for you?”

Nasir glanced up at him although Agron did not turn his gaze from ahead of them. “You want to earn me a prize?”

Agron’s eyes darted towards Nasir’s curious gaze. “Yes, I do. Chili fries, corn dogs or Philly cheesesteaks?”

“Chili fries.”

“Good choice.”

Agron purchased them a basket of chili cheese fries and two lemonades before joining Nasir. He sipped the lemonade and dug in first. “So do you have family around here Nasir?”

Nasir played with the fries a bit, ate one and then drank his lemonade. “I kind of have a sister. I might have a brother somewhere.”

“Well that’s pretty cryptic.” Agron hesitated, not wanting to push but also not allowing things to stagnate. “I’m afraid if I ask too many questions, if I pry you might vanish on me.”

“That’s a possibility.” Nasir admitted. “But if you ask me to come back, I probably would.” A sad smile formed. “You’re doing a pretty good job on your own though. If you keep going, you might learn more.”

“Is that a dare?”

“More like an offer. I’ll stop you when I need to.” Nasir poked his ice with his straw. “You have a brother?”

“Yeah, yeah I do. A younger brother, Duro. He’s in school to be a chef someday, or an owner of a restaurant, something like that.”

“So he would be pretty disappointed with what you’re eating now.”

Agron shook his head, smiling. “More like he would be appalled that this is our first meal together.”

“Well we’ve had water and nutrition bars.”

“Those aren’t meals.”

“They are to me.” Nasir raised his eyes to meet Agron’s gaze and dropped them again.

They finished the fries in silence.

Eventually Agron stood and looked up. “Come, let’s do a ride. You ever been to a carnival before? Been on a Ferris wheel? You’re not afraid of heights are you?”

Nasir laughed quietly, gazing up himself at the tall structure, easily over a hundred feet tall and sporting the garish colors of green, orange and blue for the carts. “You might want to pause in between questions Agron. I’ve never been to a street carnival before, but I have been to Disney World and Six Flags. I am not afraid of heights, not yet anyway. You think whoever threw that together in an afternoon missed any screws?”

Agron chuckled. “Come on, let’s go find out. You only live once.” He discreetly gave the ticket taker a handful of extra tickets so they could go around a few times without interruption and then climbed into the car, waiting for Nasir to join him. Nasir climbed in and the ride soon began, stopping a few times to let others in.

“Don’t you want to be with your friends and co-workers?”

Agron shook his head. “Nah, Spartacus and Mira probably found a quiet bench somewhere. Donar’s out trolling for some one night stand. Gannicus is the center of some gaming booth’s attention by now; that man’s an attention whore, remember that.” He stretched his arms out. “So Disney World huh? That’s an expensive place to visit. I’ve not had a chance to take Duro there, not yet. Your parents take you there?”

“No, not my parents. I don’t remember them. I barely remember my brother. I was in the foster care system for a long time. My last foster parents, they were well-off.”

“So is it true? It’s the happiest place on earth?”

A quiet snort sounded from Nasir. “When you’re young you can at least forget about everything else while on the rides.”

Agron slowly placed his arm around Nasir, scooching in closer until their thighs touched. It was a tight squeeze for him anyway, so the maneuver was only slight. “You still in touch with them or this sister of yours?”

“Not them, and yeah, she’s still around. Agron, we should probably talk about something else if that’s okay?”

That sounded worrying but of course he consented. “Yeah, you don’t have to ask my permission. If we ever touch on something you don’t like, we’ll just move on. Okay?”

Nasir’s somewhat distant expression focused again and that smile Agron enjoyed returned. “Okay.”

Awkward silence lingered for a bit. This time Nasir broke it.

“So you were a fighter once?”

“Yeah, yeah I was. I was pretty good too. Had a good run for a couple of years, made enough money to pay for Duro’s schooling, get my truck… no real complaints.”

“And now you’re a trainer?”

“Yeah, for some time I thought it was a pretty big step down. I’m starting to think differently now.” Agron couldn’t look at Nasir at that moment. There was too much emotion still tied to past events that led to the change, and his new outlook still so fresh he wasn’t sure he could easily explain it to anyone else. He could feel those brown eyes on him though, curious, hesitant… wanted. Maybe, just maybe that meant Nasir had interest in him too.

“What made you change your mind?”

You can do it, a small voice sounded in his head. Just take the risk, just go for it. He’d been afraid only a few times in his life, and this was not the time to let fear stop him. “You did.”

“Me?”

Oh the surprise in Nasir’s tone, that was precious. “Yeah you. I look forward to our sessions the most. It’s great seeing you grow stronger, hearing you laugh and seeing you smile. I like it, like it a lot.”

Nasir drew a deep breath, wringing his hands and speaking so quietly Agron almost missed a few words, almost. “Your training sessions are the best hours of my week, best days in many years actually.”

The carnie opened the door, and they had to step off.

For a little while they just walked around the rest of the carnival, looking at a henna tattoo station, face painting, some air brushed paintings and some kind of nifty hemp jewelry. The silence lingered between them and Agron found himself agonizing on whether it was awkward and needed to be broken or comfortable and wanted. His eyes occasionally glanced at Nasir who seemed just interested in everything: the food, the art, the rides, and of course finally the games.

Now Agron might admit to close friends he was not exactly the smartest individual out there. He made it to college with middling grades and an athletic scholarship. At the rate he had partied, he might not have finished if it weren’t for the tragedy that forced him to grow up fast. He did know a few carnie tricks, and a game or two he could do. Oh no matter how much he spent, the prize would be junk, but that wasn’t the point was it? This was his time to shine.

He forked over his cash to get a couple of balls for the Milk Jug Throw. The top one was light, easy to knock over which is why so many others would go for it or the middle, especially after watching someone in front of them knock that one down. The bottom two were weighted, and well he had a fair amount of strength in his arms. It took four balls and a second go before he took them out but did so twice in a row and wound up with a large prize for it. His first impulse was to get the goofy banana with the dreadlocks, because well it was goofy. Then he thought about the snake, but he saw Nasir’s eyes shift to the white tiger before glancing away and well that was that.

A giant white tiger put an end to any ideals of fast rides, but they went on some Music Tumbler and one of his favorite the tea pot… which barely fit him. Since Nasir hardly said a word for the rest of the venture, as they waited near the entrance for the others to trickle out, Agron leaned over and whispered to him. “Hey, if I made you uncomfortable…”

“You didn’t… you didn’t.” Nasir looked as if he might explain further, but instead he just held the tiger tighter. Agron gave him a half-smile and looked up to see Mira prance around showing off her rather elaborate floral henna tattoo that ran from her ankle all the way past her knee.

Spartacus smirked at the tiger, glancing at Agron before walking onward. “Come on. I think Donar and Gannicus might be pre-occupied for a while.”

Back at the gym, Agron paused as they began turning down the lights and heading out. “Would you like a ride? It’s a little later than you’re used to and those buses can be risky at night.”

Nasir quickly shook his head, shoving his things in his new duffel bag. “No but thank you. I’ve ridden the bus later than this. It will be fine. I promise.” His hand lightly brushed against Agron’s, and then the taller man watched him slowly disappear into the darkness, the tiger still slightly visible when the man was not.

Spartacus stood by him. “How much that tiger put you back?”

Agron huffed. “Not as much as that tattoo.”

They both grinned.

Chapter Text

Agron whistled as he came out of the shower in a new black tank and his back-up pants. Oh he knew everyone around him thought he was about to lose it and he had probably earned that reputation.

He told that stupid kid, twice, not to guzzle Gatorade like that right before a workout, no matter what the commercials showed. This wasn’t the first time either. So when neon puke flew all over him after only twenty minutes of rigorous cardio, he just sort of stood there for a moment, lips pursed. Other trainers, even a few known clients, nearby had the same expression on their face because Spartacus was out of town again meeting with some sales rep, Donar had the day off, and Mira went with Spartacus leaving no one to calm Agron. They really expected this kid to be dragged out on a stretcher. Instead, Agron just took his towel, wiped his face and said only a few words. “Don’t do that again. I am taking a shower.” He walked away.

In the shower, he had to remind himself why they put up with kids like Tiberius: rich kids. His father was important in some way Agron didn’t care about and the man paid a family membership to their gym just so his son could train under someone who actually participated in the sport once. None of that would reach more than annoyance except for the part where this kid wanted to be the best fighter on the planet and had no potential to be even a good fighter on his best day. He didn’t listen and had this chip on his shoulder about, well he wasn’t actually sure. He could barely tolerate the kid’s voice but he did what he needed to do for the good of the gym of course. Agron even took on a few extra sessions hoping to earn a little extra money to have more flexibility with upcoming events.

Now granted, almost a year earlier he had wound up sending someone to the emergency room with a broken nose. The man deserved it for that mouth of his, and he realized Spartacus’ background in law enforcement and that guy’s track record were probably the only two factors that kept him out of jail at the time.

Today was different. Today was special. It was Thursday after all: a Nasir day. He didn’t have time to dwell on these things, and look, the mat was already cleaned up and Tiberius nowhere in sight. Excellent.

But as the clock ticked on and Nasir did not come into sight, he eventually stood and walked over to the office. He hated going in there. There was always paperwork that needed to be filled out, or a serious talk that to be had about behavior improvement, or some sort of policy worth mentioning yet again. Cautiously he peeked his head inside the office and was only partially surprised to see Naevia. That’s right. Crixus had mentioned she would be back to work soon after a long absence. He should have made an effort to welcome her back. He cleared his throat carefully. “Naevia?”

Her dark eyes raised to meet his, and the scar along her cheek, well it was red but not nearly as angry looking as when he last saw her. Her smile, well that was warm and familiar. “Agron!” She stood smoothly and hugged him, her white The Rebel t-shirt and jeans standard affair for many in this office.

He returned the offered hug. “You look good.”

“I feel good, thank you. What can I do for you? I don’t remember seeing you in here much. “

Agron scratched the back of his head. “I have a client that comes in today who’s not usually late. I am wondering if you got a message from him or a cancellation.”

“Yeah, I put it in your box.”

“My box?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

Agron frowned ever so slightly but ventured away from the office. He had a box? His eyes scanned the gym a bit, noting most of the trainers looked pre-occupied with other clients except… one. He sighed. Lifting his chin, he approached Crixus who sat on a bench working with some hefty looking free weights. “Crixus.”

“Agron.”

“Naevia looks good.”

Crixus didn’t pause with his routine. It looked like he might be growing his beard out which really just gave the man a wild look, but Agron would never be readily intimidated by a man who charged mindlessly like a bull. “Yeah she does. Thank you. If you get a chance, you should catch up. She’s up to going out again, at least for now. Try to avoid the one… topic. So what do you really want Agron?”

“I’ll do lunch with her sometime soon.” He shuffled his feet. “She says I have a box?”

“Yeah, we all do. It’s where the flyers, checks, anything you get in paper form goes.” The man kept lifting his heavy weight, show off.

“I usually get those on the bench by my locker, and my check is direct deposit.”

Crixus set his weight down and chuckled. “Fucking Donar. He puts those there for you, because he knows you won’t fucking read them otherwise. A pile of paper has what, two seconds of your time before you trash it?” He pulled out a dollar and walked over to a nicely decorated mason jar with a lid, slipping it through the slit.

He could hear Spartacus now. Patience, Agron, you want something from this guy. Don’t confront him. “Okay, where are the boxes? And isn’t Mira gone this week?”

“Honor system.” Crixus returned to his bench and motioned with his head towards an area near the back where some old trophies sat behind a glass case. He tried to avoid that area and the unwanted memories it stirred up.

“Thanks.”

“Idiot.”

Agron scowled but made his way back there. He supposed Naevia being back would only temper Crixus on some level; hopefully that would happen soon. He found his box and pulled out a reminder about the shirt policy and a scribbled note that said Nasir would not be in today due to illness. Due to illness? Note in hand, Agron returned to the office. “Naevia?”

“Yes Agron.”

“Did you talk to Nasir? Did he sound okay?”

“I didn’t talk to him. Mira told me his phone has limited minutes but unlimited text, or something like that. He texted her this morning, and she gave me the message.”

“Did she say exactly what he sent? And is that strange, a phone that doesn’t receive voice calls?”

Naevia smirked just a bit, setting her pen down. “Let me think. -Sick today, sorry Nasir- Mira said. And no, it’s not so unusual for the cheaper cell phones, mostly the prepaid I think. It’s not that they don’t have minutes Agron, just limited. How much do you pay for your phone and Duro’s?”

“Too fucking much, over a hundred I’m sure. I guess I don’t really pay attention.”

“Sorry, Mira says I have to.” Naevia hesitantly pointed to a jar on the desk all decorated with the sun and flowers like it was a happy thing. “Yeah that’s a lot for someone who doesn’t have a lot of money or maybe credit.”

Agron reached into his pocket, sighed and pulled out a one, dropping it into the jar. This felt like entrapment. “So…. you have his number?”

“Mira does I guess.”

“It’s not on his sheet.”

“Oh, I’ll ask her about that when she gets back.”

Agron pulled out his phone.

“What are you doing?”

“Asking her now.”

Naevia stood up quickly and stopped his roaming thumb. “Agron!”

“What, they’re just at a convention of some kind right, looking at exercise machines.”

She gave him a look, one of those looks that said he was missing something obvious. “What do you need Agron. Tell me, I will help.”

“I want to make sure Nasir is okay. That’s a brief message, and you don’t know how much these sessions mean to him.”

“Well before we bother Mira and...” Naevia cleared her throat. “Spartacus, let’s try his work number. Maybe he had to take a shift and didn’t tell you. Where does he work?”

“Spartacus said an old theater.”

“As in a physically old theater with plays or…”

Agron sighed. Why couldn’t he just call Mira? She was quick to make these things better. “Maybe, it plays old films or something.”

Naevia frowned. “Is it called the Villa?”

“Yes! Wait how did you know that? It was on his popcorn bag but you wouldn’t have seen that. Do you go there to watch old movies?”

She didn’t answer his question and instead wrote down the number. “Try this. You don’t want Batiatus. He doesn’t know about the day to day. Just ask for a staff member on shift if he answers. They’ll know if Nasir came in today.”

Agron added the number to his phone. “That’s his boss’ name. How do you know that?” He tried again.

“I… worked there when I was younger.”

His eyes focused on her eyes as he heard the phone ring. He didn’t like where this is going. “The Villa, Jimmy speaking.”

“Hi, I am trying to get a hold of Nasir, He had an appointment he missed today, and I know he normally works a shift before coming here. Is he still there?” He didn’t exactly lie.

“He’s been out a couple of days. Do you want to leave a message? I can give it to him when he comes in.”

“No, that’s okay.” Agron ended the call. “Give me his address. We’ll talk about the Villa later.”

“Not much to talk about actually.” Naevia pulled out Nasir’s folder and showed Agron his address. “I know I’ve been out awhile Agron, but this seems ummm weird. Are you sure this isn’t breaking a policy of some kind, going to the guy’s house because he missed a training session?”

“I don’t really care if it is actually. Good to see you again Naevia. I’ll explain later, but I’ve got to go.” Agron returned to his locker and grabbed his bag. If Nasir was sick, well maybe he wouldn’t be too unhappy to see him. If he was having second thoughts about training, then Agron wasn’t about to sit back and let him vanish. They hadn’t talked since the carnival. He had to make sure everything was still okay, had to.

His would be boyfriend’s part of town was not ideal, but Agron was expecting that. From the view of the uniform apartment buildings surrounding him, this could have been one of those housing project neighborhoods which might have been nice the first few years but now looked rundown and forgotten. Brown brick, maybe a dozen stories high with black fire escape laddering and several windows with planters made it seem livable, if just that. He didn’t see a lot of gang signs on the walls though and there were a number of cars on the street that looked less than five years old and still in one piece, so he grabbed his duffle bag, locked his truck, and headed up the stairs. Looking at the number on his phone, he managed to find the right door and rapped on it. He probably should have come up with an excuse, or an explanation that made this seem less creepy and out of place. Nasir could very well not be home or sleeping, but when the smaller man answered in an old robe and pajama bottoms looking exhausted and sweaty, thoughts fled his mind anyway.

Nasir spoke first, blinking in confusion though his voice lacked the usual strength shown at the gym. “Agron. What, what are you doing here?”

Agron cleared his throat, trying to make a decision, maybe a crucial one and something that could end this all before it even really started. A couple of weeks of training had been nice, but this went well beyond a trainer and trainee. It was approaching the point where it couldn’t be laughed off or ignored as an act that could be mistaken for something else. He thought about their hands touching briefly at the carnival and reached out, brushing Nasir’s hair back; the darker skin burned. “I was worried about you. You’re burning up. How long have you been like this?” He didn’t ask to come in but stepped forward, watching Nasir move aside and close the door behind him.

He stood in a studio apartment, the bed in the corner sitting on a small metal frame, worn sheets and a comforter smooth and clean, the white tiger near a couple of flat pillows. The tiny kitchen had just enough room to open the stove all the way, looked immaculate with three glass containers labeled flour, sugar and tea. The refrigerator was beige and the countertops burnt orange to match the hideous wall-paper behind it. On the other side of the half wall, a small table with two chairs. Near the sliding glass door sat an old CRT television on a rolling stand and a small hallway leading to the bathroom.

“Maybe a day.” Nasir whispered. “It got worse last night. You really didn’t have to come.”

Agron frowned and set his bag down. “Where’s your thermometer?”

Nasir hesitantly pointed towards a cupboard. “Agron… this isn’t necessary. I just have a little fever. I’ll be fine. I don’t want to keep you from your work. My message wasn’t a call for help.”

“Would you ask me if you needed help?” Agron questioned quietly.

Brown eyes dropped to the floor.

Agron retrieved and washed the small object as he’d done hundred times before for his younger brother, and he was familiar enough with resistance to standard care. After finding a clean cloth he dampened it and returned to Nasir who sat on his bed, looking miserable and embarrassed. “You don’t have to worry about my work; I’ll cancel all my appointments. Please Nasir, let’s check your temperature.”

Reluctantly, Nasir placed the small object under his tongue while Agron wiped his brow carefully. Then he checked the reading; 104 wasn’t good. “Have you taken anything?”

“I usually just wait these things out.”

Agron shook his head, pulling out a bottle of Tylenol from his bag. “We need to get that down. Are you allergic to anything?” Next session, they would fill out that paperwork, allergies, medications, and medical history, all of it before starting.

“Not that I know of. Agron…”

He poured Nasir a glass of water and returned to his side with two pills. “Please, take this. Let me help?”

Nasir swallowed, blinking up at him, his eyes partially closed in fatigue. “Okay, but no, no doctors.” He swallowed the two pills and let Agron guide him back to bed. Agron pulled off the comforter, knowing he should not overheat the smaller man. Once Nasir lay in bed and closed his eyes, Agron pulled out his phone.

**

Nasir had vague memories of the day before. Agron came to his studio, and he didn’t look surprised to see Nasir sick which meant Mira received his message. Then things got a little fuzzy. He remembered talking, taking pills, lying down and Agron on the phone with someone, asking questions and needing to cancel sessions. At some point a cool towel pressed against his forehead too, but most importantly, Agron must have joined him in bed because what he was lying against now was not a pillow, but firm solid muscle and warmth. The large chest rose and fell and he could hear a heartbeat, and feel a hand against the back of his head, stroking his hair. Oh? He blinked and looked up, seeing warm green eyes and a growing smile return his surprised expression.

“Hey, how are you feeling?”

Nasir yawned, stretched his legs, and wiggled his toes but refused to remove his cheek from Agron’s chest. His mind still tried to process that Agron stayed. “Honestly… stupid and embarrassed but better.”

“Your fever broke last night. Embarrassed? Why would you feel embarrassed?” Agron questioned quietly.

“I never meant for you to see where I lived. Or see me when I am sick. Or have you take care of me. This is just… I wanted to offer you better.”

“Hey, it’s all right. I’ve been around sick before. I raised Duro for a number of years on my own. He’s the biggest baby there is when he’s sick.” Agron kissed his brow. “You have no idea how close I came to just picking you up last night, putting you in my truck and taking you to the hospital.”

“Thank you for not doing that. I don't care for physicians, or hospitals really, anything like that.” There was sadness trapped in those deep brown eyes, and even while looking pale with illness, it seemed as if a light flush colored his cheeks at whatever memory surfaced. And just as quickly as the moment came, it vanished. Nasir peeked up at him. “You raised Duro on your own?”

Agron grinned briefly. “I bet you didn’t think I had it in me did you?”

“You’ve shown your protective side since the moment we met Agron. I just, you seem like you had a good family.”

“I did. We did. I had great parents, loving and warm in a good enough house with good enough jobs. I even went to college for a year before I got the call.” Devastation squeezed at his heart, and Nasir could feel it reflect in his eyes and expression. “Hey, hey, it’s okay Nasir. It’s been a number of years now. I can talk about it, but we don’t have to if you can’t hear it right now.”

“No, I want to hear.” He tried to relax again, to just listen to the sound of Agron’s soothing voice. “What happened to them?”

“A car wreck, a drunk driver they said. He walked away fine, but my parents were dead at the scene. I was recovering from a night of drinking and partying. I wanted to just let everything just sort of coast along, their estate, their will… everything. Then the subject Duro came up. He was still a minor, still a kid. They wanted to send him to some cousin I never met across the country. I remember thinking he would be better off with someone who knew what they were doing. I was almost twenty, and well we’re several years apart. When I finally saw him though, I mean really saw him at the funeral I knew.”

“What did you know?” Nasir asked quietly.

“I knew if we were separated, he’d wind up in the streets or worse. I don’t mean homeless, but into bad things, dropping out and such. He needed me. It took almost all the money we had to get lawyers to fight my relatives in court. When I won, we moved out here, left it all behind us, living mostly in my old truck until I ran into Spartacus. He helped me train, and I went professional.”

Nasir traced circles on Agron’s chest. “Spartacus trained you?” There were scars there, easier to see up close, some pale lines and others stretched and pink.

“More like fine-tuned, but yeah. I was an athlete before, but he was on a whole other level. Still is.”

“It’s good you took your brother with you. I wish, I wish mine had.” Tears came, and maybe because he was sick, or because Agron was opening up to him or maybe he was just tired of never saying what he had always felt. “I think he aged out but never came back. Chadara did. She fled, and I thought I would never see her again. I thought I was trapped… but she came back for me. Now she thinks I am making a huge mistake, and I just don’t know. But you’re here, and you don’t have to be.”

Agron sat up, his strong fingers working his way through Nasir’s hair, caressing his shoulders. “I'm sure he would have come back for you if he knew how or could. And this Chadara, this foster sister of yours, she is just trying to protect you, but I’m here because I want to be. And, hey, look at me. Look at me, Nasir.”

Hesitantly Nasir, wet eyes and all, met those warm green eyes again.

“You’re not alone anymore. And I have news for you: you’re part of the Spartacus family now, so you’ll never be alone again.” Agron cupped his cheek. Fever broken, pale moist skin, reddened eyes and nose, Nasir felt hideous, but the way those green eyes fell upon him left him almost breathless.

Agron planted a gentle kiss against his closed lips, and Nasir, surprised, cautiously smiled.

Chapter Text

An almost stranger barged into his apartment, coerced a thermometer into his mouth, and kissed him while his mind was foggy and unfocused, and Nasir had never felt safer. He knew where Agron worked, that he had a brother and lost his parents, but really the man remained mostly unknown to him. Agron was a powerful and confident individual who had the fire to threaten his ex in a public restaurant with open violence yet still maintained patience and warmth enough to encourage Nasir during his exercises with gentle touches to his back. The man even opened up to him on a peaceful Ferris wheel. Against all common sense, this felt right in ways he had never known before. Being drawn to that goofy smile, unusual statements and certainly those heated green eyes so often alit with kindness only to shift to something more, Nasir felt uncertain but hopeful. And though he was not entirely sure what all of this meant, what a single kiss might lead to, Nasir had fallen asleep again without the burden of unpaid bills, a disapproving friend, or bleary future weighing him down.

It must have been midday before he opened his eyes again, and he smelled something delicious. Through partially closed eyes, Nasir shifted and noted Agron moving about in the kitchen to instructions from an unfamiliar voice on the phone.

“Until fragrant.”

“I don’t know what the means,” Agron hissed at the phone. “You’re not making any sense.”

“You added the celery, onion, garlic and carrots to the butter right? And the pan was hot?”

“Yes.”

“So look at the onions and celery, they’re clearer right, and you can smell their fragrance?”

“Yes.”

“That’s what it means. Now add the thyme and the bay leaf.”

“Okay.”

Nasir could see Agron peering into a pot, looking like a giant in his tiny kitchen especially over that non-standard stove.

“You didn’t get the chicken stock from a can did you?”

“A box. I didn’t have time to go home for your fucking broth cubes.” Agron’s irritation showed not only in his voice but the tension in his back. “And I bought a roasted chicken too. I don’t have all day for this. I want to surprise him. Try to keep your snobbery to a minimum and just tell me what I can do to finish this.”

A deep sigh followed a brief silence. “Add your stock to the pot and bring it to a boil. I’m guessing you won’t strain it so just use a spoon to get the oil off the top then add your chicken. Taste it. And I mean it, taste it before you add salt and pepper. Then add your noodles, maybe five minutes until they’re soft. Got it?”

Agron poured in the stock, and Nasir could see him stir diligently for a minute before answering. “Thank you Duro. If you’re late tonight, I want you to call Donar to take you home. Promise me?”

“Yeah, I promise. You won’t be home again tonight?”

“…Maybe not. You’ll be okay right?”

“I’m not a kid; I’ll be fine, but you’ll tell me what’s been going on with you soon right?”

Agron glanced over his shoulder, and Nasir did his best to feign sleep feeling only a slight amount of guilt in doing so. “That might be harder than you think, but I’ll try.” He ended the call and stirred the soup.

Nasir rubbed his eyes, feeling his ruse would only last so long, and spoke quietly, “That smells good.”

Agron flashed him a quick smile, his hands shining with chicken grease. He was dropping it in there now, skin and all which only made Nasir smile wider. He knew a thing or two about cooking, and clearly his… Nasir paused, realizing that trainer did not suffice for Agron any longer. This was more, but he was not sure they’d reached an actual relationship status yet. Either way, his Agron did not cook often which made the act even dearer. The larger man threw in big chunks to hasten the job, washed his hands and joined Nasir on the bed, reaching out to smooth his hair and check his forehead. “Did you sleep all right?”

Nasir rested his palm against Agron’s upper-arm. “I am all right Agron. When did you go shopping?”

A flash of guilt shone in those light green eyes. “I sort of borrowed your keys so I could make a quick run and keep you safe with the door locked. I wanted to make you chicken soup. It’s great for the sick you know.”

Nasir grinned, still not feeling energetic, but he fed off Agron’s warm aura. “I know. I grew up watching the same commercials you did… well most of them anyway. ” He allowed only a moment’s hesitation before pushing himself to experiment with the idea that they were building a relationship that might afford him more control than he was used to. He leaned forward and initiated a quick kiss for which he was rewarded with Agron’s broad smile. “But you don’t have to stay Agron. I just…”

“Like I told you before, I’m making choices. No one is forcing me although I might have to run out to the hardware store. Your shower is broken, your tub is tiny, and I’m guessing your landlord doesn’t care about either problem?”

A mixture of a sigh and a groan escaped Nasir’s lips. He could picture this giant of a man trying to squeeze into that tiny tub, poor Agron, though the sight might have been comical at least.

Carefully Nasir sat up. “It’s only been like that a couple of weeks now, happened just after meeting you actually. I'm sure he’ll get around to it eventually.”

Agron squeezed his hand. “If you want I can talk to him. I tend to get my way with a lot of assholes.” He hurried over to the stove just then to add the noodles and make sure it didn’t boil over but remained at a simmer.

Nasir propped himself back on his elbow and toyed a bit with his stuffed white tiger, smiling at the larger man who just looked, well, awkward in that kitchen. “No doubt you do. Is that your first tendency: intimidation?”

Agron nodded. “Although many others have suggested to me I might take a softer approach, it works more often than not.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well if I’m not mistaken, I’ve removed my only obstacle from my current desire, and chasing away potential clients left my schedule open for a certain someone.”

“Your current desire… is that what you want call me?” Nasir smirked briefly.

While stirring the pot, Agron glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “No, but it’ll do for now.” The man paused. “I like this though.”

“Standing in a tiny apartment, in an insignificant kitchen forced to use a substandard bath?”

“Seeing you at ease.”

Nasir dropped his eyes, considering those words. Had he been at ease? Maybe that was the best explanation for what he felt and how easily words and emotions just fell from his mouth while Agron cooked him chicken soup as if all this was all ordinary. He'd never had common before, and while he thought standard and uncomplicated was what he wanted, being with Agron was not likely to ever lead to any sort of accepted normality. But it felt right. “I don’t know that we understand each other well enough for you to say that.”

“Oh we’re already working on that.” He ladled some soup in an oversized cup, a set of large black dishes that Nasir could use as cups or bowls to conserve space and money. Agron grabbed a paper towel, spoon and offered the meal to Nasir.

Taking the bowl carefully, Nair took a sip. It was steaming hot, almost burned his tongue, and tasted wonderful. He let the large cup rest on his lap before concentrating on Agron’s eager face. He should complement the food, he knew, but so many questions ran through his head. What did this all mean, for example, and what did Agron want from him? “It is very good. Thank you.”

“I’m losing it, aren’t I?”

Brown eyes locked with green again. “It?”

“The part of you that’s just relaxed and open around me?”

There was some truth to his concern, Nasir realized. His brow furrowed slightly. At the tip of his tongue were arguments against whatever this was. He didn’t have much to offer anyone: he lived in a small place in a poor neighborhood, and a few days of being sick could knock him back months in his budget. Then there was the fact that Agron was Agron, not exactly standard or average by any stretch of the imagination. He hadn’t been entirely sure of the man’s intentions, but just at the gym and carnival alone he could see how readily others showed interest towards this man, and he wasn’t even trying to get their attention. Actually, he seemed oblivious to the admiring looks. “I should take a bath. I smell of sickness.”

Agron placed a hand against his neck. “The soup will help. While you bathe, do you have another set of sheets or a laundromat in this place?”

He could feel the tension in his neck, the strain of his jaw as he tried to speak levelly while maintaining eye contact and not allowing shame to eat at his gut openly. “Just the one set. The laundromat down the street is cheaper and locks. The ones on this floor don’t lock.”

Green eyes did not even waver, and Agron even smiled. “I’ll get them started then, and guard them too. I doubt anyone will think of starting anything with me around.”

Nasir snorted slightly in laughter and stood, taking the soup to the table, his momentary lapse to shame nearly forgotten. He watched Agron gather his bedding, using a laundry sack to take it down the hall.

Once he ate most of the soup, Nasir grabbed his phone and slipped into the bathroom. Normally he took lukewarm baths to conserve energy, but he just started with hot today. He wanted to feel refreshed and smell clean for Agron. As the tub filled he scrolled through his contacts, pausing on Chadara’s name. Guilt twisted his stomach when he switched to another and held the phone to his ear. “Pietros?”

“Nasir! How are you? It seems like ages since we talked, and you almost never call me.”

“I…I don’t have a lot of minutes left on my phone. I’m doing okay. Are you busy? I was hoping for some advice.”

He heard some paper rustling. “Nothing I can’t pause for a minute. Did you try the training yet?”

“I delayed it a little while, but yes.” Nasir sighed. “I have someone in my room. I’ve been sick, and he came over to help. This just feels different; I don’t want to mess it up.”

“Whoa, whoa slow down. So you have a guy in your room, and you like him. Why do you think you’ll screw it up?”

“I haven’t done well with my relationships. I don’t know if I should play innocent or show him I know a few things or… or if I should delay things so he doesn’t think I’m easy. I just...”

“Hold on Nasir. I know this is Chadara’s influence, this need to plan things out and play some part. Plus, you’ve dated a number of jerks, I don’t see why that means you need to change.”

“She means well Pietros.”

“I know, but if this guy is for you, you shouldn’t have to pretend. Do what feels right. Sometimes that means not sleeping with them, and sometimes it means to go for it.”

Pietros did not offer the clear instructions Nasir hoped for and wanted, almost relied on; he sighed. “I’ll try.”

“That’s all you can do Nasir.”

“Thank you.” He ended the call and turned off the water, looking at Chadara’s number again before slipping into the bath and trying to unwind.

**

Agron leaned against the wall in one of the saddest looking laundry rooms he had been in in a long time. The walls had turned almost grey with peeling paint, the floor was made up of old tile with many corners torn up and the washing machine actually rattled as it turned.

When he and Duro first traveled across country to get away from all the sadness and bitterness and angry relatives, he remembered staying in motels that had set-ups like this. Once he found his way, once he came across Spartacus, things improved so quickly he nearly forgot the struggle that had lasted only a matter of months but felt like ages. Sure, they had to share a place with a few others early on, Donar being one of the first, but the family lifestyle made it a lot easier to share resources and take care of Duro while he was young until they managed to move out and get a place for themselves.

He was no fool: Nasir struggled here. Either too poor or too afraid to seek doctors when he was sick, a stack of bills in a corner, and the shame that flashed across those brown eyes tore at his heart. Had anything gone Nasir’s way, no doubt Agron would never have set foot here, but fate smiled on them both. Here he was, and he was all the wiser for it but now conflicted.

He tapped the washer, wishing the quick cycle might come to an end sooner. Twenty minutes seemed like an eternity. Once he dropped the sheets into the dryer, he pulled out his phone. “Hey Spartacus, are you busy?”

Spartacus was silent for a moment, and he heard the noises of someone moving about in the background. It sounded awfully quiet for a convention. “No, go ahead Agron. What is it? Is everyone okay?”

“Yeah, I mean at least I think they are.”

Even from afar, Agron could feel Spartacus’ calming effect, his patience and his willingness to guide him through anything. “What do you need Agron?”

“I’m at Nasir’s place; I know you wouldn’t approve. He was sick and didn’t come in, so I checked on him.
I think something is wrong, but I don’t want to push him away trying to find out what it is.”

“You don’t need to assume I won’t approve. Does he need to see a doctor?”

“No, not that kind of wrong, and I get the impression he won’t see doctors for some reason. Anyway, I think he struggles, a lot.”

“Well you know a thing or two about that yourself. I imagine you remember what kind of help you would accept when you were down on your luck as well.”

“Yeah, but this is different.”

“How so?”

“Well he’s alone for one thing. I think his family situation, well it could be non-existent. There is someone he sort of considers a sister, but I think there’s a disconnect there. His job is terrible; I can see the weight of it every time he comes into the gym.”

“The Villa does have a reputation.”

“A reputation for what?”

Silence met him for a short time. “We can talk about that later. How else can I help?”

“I want to take off today and the weekend.”

“Naevia is filling Mira’s role. She’ll be her full backup and assistant actually and will readily help you cancel and reschedule your appointments based on your calendar. I heard you started sharing it again… so that should be easy, but Agron you do not need my permission for this.”

“I know, but I’ve been a disappointment for a long time now. I just, I wanted you to understand why. It’s not because I’m angry or just you know, unruly again.”

“You’ve never been a disappointment to me Agron.”

Agron ran his thumb along the side of the phone, not certain how to respond to that although he tried. “I know you keep saying that Spartacus, but I also know what the others say…”

“And they don’t know what they’re talking about if that is what they are saying.” Spartacus sounded, well he sounded angry.

“I know I take in less clients than the others, and I haven’t exactly followed policy and procedures very well. The company events, the marketing, sudden cancellations that make others scramble to cover me…”

“You took the transition harder than anyone else did Agron. Fighting was important for a lot of us, and the…betrayal left scars seen and unseen on those closest to me. But for you, it was more wasn’t it? Fighting defined who you were, your place in this world. I cannot imagine what it would have been like if Duro was not there to keep you moving forward and grounded.” Spartacus paused. “I knew you would find your way eventually. If anything I was worried you were not receiving enough pay, even with your cut of the gym’s profit because of your small clientele. Mira told me you filled out your employee profile last week, enough that she can now market you on our website?”

Agron huffed briefly. “Yeah, I guess I got around to it after a year or so. You know I’ve saved a lot. We don’t struggle as much as you might think. Duro’s taken a few loans, but has aid. We’re okay, more than okay.”

“Good to hear. We both know you can do better, especially if you take on some of the younger ladies like they want. Anyway, take a few days. We fly back Sunday, so I’ll see you Monday?”

“Yeah, Monday.”

He hung up, staring at the phone for a moment longer before looking at the timer on the dryer and sighing.

Admittedly, Agron might have hurried the dryer a bit by taking the sheets out of it before the timer ended thinking they could air dry on the bed. By the time he returned to Nasir’s room, the smaller man smelled of Irish Spring soap and that hair product again. His brown eyes were brighter and did not drop down. Being clean gave his little Nasir confidence and strength; that was good to know. Agron flashed him a smile and put the mostly dry sheets on the bed, taking time to smooth out the wrinkles before adding the comforter.

Once complete, the two stood there awkwardly, the bed between them.

Agron broke the silence. “If you’re up to it, I thought we might switch up Sunday’s session.”

Nasir took a seat on the bed. “How so?”

“I’d like to pick you up around two. We can go for a jog to a place I know and then wrap the night up doing something special.”

Nasir seemed to hesitate. “It sounds fun, but I think I might need to pick up some extra shifts where I can.”

“But you don’t work Sundays.” Brown eyes dropped to the floor and Agron felt his heartbeat increase at the very thought of Nasir going to one of these private parties he knew almost nothing about.

But Nasir surprised him. “You’re right Agron. I don’t work Sundays, and I won’t start now. I’m in.”

Agron grinned. “Good, now for today, I’d like to get the parts for that shower and see if I can fix it if you don’t mind.”

“It’s not that I mind, but Agron it isn’t necessary for you to do that.”

“I know it’s not.” Agron gathered his things.

“I didn’t figure you for a handyman either.”

“Oh I’m not a handyman at all. I can’t work on my truck worth a damn, and I can barely figure out a lawnmower. But watching a plumber switch out a bunch of plastic pieces and charge us almost two hundred dollars for it didn’t sit well with me. I used to live in a house with a lot of people, and this is one thing I figured out how to do. It looks like the shower head is garbage, and that’s an easy fix.”

For the next couple of hours, Agron went to the hardware store and returned to replace not only the showerhead but a couple of the broken handles as well. And while he could tell Nasir wanted him to hang around a little longer, he gave the smaller man a brief kiss and a promise to return Sunday. He had intended to stay the night, but this wasn’t the right time or place for someone he hoped would only become more to dear to him.

**

Mira placed her palm against Spartacus’ chest. “Who was that on the phone?”

“It was Agron. He went Nasir’s place.”

“Oh yeah?” A bright smile formed. “Fifty bucks coming my way.”

Spartacus gave her his most disapproving look.

“What? It wasn’t my idea to start the calendar. You can blame Crixus and Donar for that. I just hitched a ride.”

He set the phone on the nightstand by their bed, drawing her close as the television flickered in front of them.

She returned to resting against his shoulder. “You ever see him like this before?”

“Two years with Antonio, and I never saw him anxious about a gift, a date and certainly no midday phone calls about that relationship.”

Mira grinned. “I kind of like the new Agron, but did he ask you where you were?”

“No, but he suspected something. I’m sure he will start asking questions soon.”

“What will you tell him?”

“I always tell my brothers the truth.”

Chapter Text

Duro looked in the cooler, noting the ice, water bottles, ham and cheese sandwiches and what looked like a slice of chocolate cake. “I didn’t make any of this.”

Agron shooed him away with a brief hiss and a kick. “Of course you didn’t. I am not going to use the food my brother makes to, well we’re not eating your food tonight.”

He received a quick frown. “Didn’t we talk about you sharing what was going on with you? Are you not telling me because you’re not sure about him? I know you agonized introducing Antonio to me but Agron, if this is a romantic interest you could at least tell me why you are being weird about it. It’s not like you’ve never dated before.”

Agron growled at him. “I am not being weird. I am just putting a little more energy into this one, and I am sure about Nasir. It’s not you I am worried about; it’s Nasir actually. Besides, Antonio was different. That was comfortable, convenient… this is, well not that at all.” He added a couple of beers to the cooler and frowned, thinking something was missing. What had he forgotten, oh that. He grabbed a long slim black box and popped it in there too. “You’ll be home all day?”

“Yeah I have an exam and a demonstration I have to prepare for.”

“And if you go out, even for just a little while, you will text Donar and me where you’re going and who you’re with?”

Duro glowered at him. “I’m not a kid anymore Agron. You need to stop treating me like one.”

“I’ll stop treating you like one when you move out. As long as you live with me, you live by my rules.” Agron stopped fussing with his cooler to give Duro his full attention. “I only ask you to do these things to minimize my worry. I am not asking you to get permission, just to tell me where you’re at. If you wind up with some girl over here, that’s fine. I just don’t want to know about it, and never on my bed… never.”

An angry scowl slowly shifted to a slight smirk. “I’m not that much of an asshole Agron. And I told you before, I’m not dating right now. I’ve got too much to focus on to worry about some girl.”

“Well you spend enough time with Donar I figured you might be screwed up enough to think a one night stand is dating.” He closed the lid of the cooler and grabbed his duffle bag. “There’s a twenty on the table for pizza or you know a trip to the store to buy your chef stuff.”

“Chef stuff? You make food sound weird.” Duro crossed his arms. “And how did the soup turn out?”

Agron paused at the door, glancing over at him with a smile. “I think he really liked it. Thank you Duro.”

Duro grinned. “Go have fun. Try not to worry the whole time big brother.”

Agron gave a nod and left.

If he wasn’t supposed to worry the whole time, he was off to a bad start. The drive over to Nasir’s place left a pit in his stomach. He was almost certain that Nasir had contemplated inviting him to stay Friday night, where one thing could have easily led to another. The problem was, Agron didn’t want to begin their physical relationship so soon after Nasir began to recover from an illness and while he was vulnerable and grateful for minimal help. One hundred and four degrees wasn’t a minor temperature, and he wanted to make sure the younger man had plenty of rest. But he still wanted to progress their relationship and his training, so a light jog out in the air would do Nasir good, he hoped.

He pulled up, and made his way up the stairs knowing he was a little early. This would give him a chance to calm the hell down. These butterflies working their way through his system made no sense at all. He’d dated a number of guys after all; this was not his first date and not even really his first date with Nasir.

As he turned the corner to approach the door, he frowned realizing someone already stood outside the apartment. Blonde hair, a fine pink and yellow dress, and some flowers… if Agron didn't know better he would think this woman was Nasir’s date.

He cleared his throat and approached, “Are you waiting for Nasir?”

She turned to him with an instant frown, “Yeah, he must have stepped out. Who the hell are you?”

“Agron, my name is Agron. Nasir is expecting me.” He kept his voice civil and calm; Spartacus would have been proud.

“I’m Chadara.”

“Oh his sister! Well I mean kind of sister since clearly you are not actually his sister. He’s told me a bit about you.” Agron smiled offering her a hand.

She glanced at his hand but did not return the gesture. “He’s said nothing about you to me. You look like you’re dressed to go run a marathon or something.”

Agron dropped his gaze to his athletic clothing. Normally he didn’t wear The Rebel logo outside of work, but the least he could do these days was give visibility wherever he went. “Actually marathon runners wear a lot less than this and it’s the numbers that give them away. I’m here to…”

“So you are some sort of athlete?”

“Yes, well I was anyway. Right now I train mostly.”

She snorted. “You’re not claiming to be Nasir’s trainer.”

Agron stood a little taller. “I’m Nasir’s trainer.”

Chadara turned to face him now. Wow, those were some nice blue eyes, he had to admit. Too bad she looked at him as if he had just spit at a funeral or something. “You’re a physical trainer, and you’re training my Nasir?”

No, no that wasn’t right. Nasir did not belong to her; he was Agron’s Nasir now. Hold it together, calm he reminded himself. “Physical training is one of the things I do for Nasir.”

“Do you make a lot doing that?”

“It’s a living.”

“So no.”

His eyes narrowed just a bit. “Not that it’s any of your business but I also own part of the gym. I am comfortable where I’m at.”

Her brow lifted at that and a smile formed. “So you are a trainer and an owner of a business. Well that’s better at least, a lot more promising.”

What the hell? Agron opened his mouth to tell her where she could go with her inquiries when Nasir approached them both from around the corner. He looked instantly worried to see the two of them there.

Taking out his key, Nasir smiled first at Agron and then Chadara. “Agron, Chadara. Please come in. I assume you exchanged names already.” He fiddled with the door and let them in. Agron politely let the other two go first but remained by the door when it was shut. “Chadara, I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Clearly not. You didn’t tell me you were seeing someone else. Does Caesar know?”

Brown eyes met green for a moment before he addressed the question. “Agron is…” Nasir hesitated. “Well we are getting ready to go out Chadara. Was there something you needed, and are those for me?”

She gave him the bundle of orange mums, yellow gerbera daisies and white carnations. “Yes, actually. I heard you were sick for the past few days, and thought you could use a pick me up as well as a chance to earn some extra money.”

Nasir smiled, taking the flowers. “That’s sweet of you. Thank you. I’ll get a vase.” He walked over to the kitchen, grabbed a vase and inserted the flowers carefully. “We can talk about the money opportunities later. Agron and I have somewhere to be.”

“The opportunity might not last long Nasir. If you can have him step outside…”

Nasir shook his head, not looking at her. “If you cannot wait to tell me, the answer is no. I’m sorry Agron; I meant to be ready sooner. Should I bring a change of clothes?”

Agron brushed past Chadara, presenting Nasir with more logo wear for the day’s jog. “Yeah, something light for afterward and a jacket. I already have a water bottle for you and dinner.”

Chadara frowned. “This training thing is serious?”

Nasir smiled brightly. “Yeah it is. It’s actually kind of fun. You might want to try it some time. I am sorry you came all this way Chadara. Had you texted me first I would have told you I had plans.”

She shook her head. “I…that’s all right. You’re right. I should have contacted you ahead of time. I guess I am not used to you being busy or distracted.”

Nasir emerged from the bathroom in his jogging outfit. “Did you need anything else?”

“Not…really, I just wanted to check on you. We can talk later.” Chadara left though neither man gave it much notice. Agron was too busy admiring clothes that actually fit on Nasir, not to mention it looked like the man might have had a short trim done to his hair, not too short though, just a bit.

“How does it look?”

The clothes, the hair, the bright smile and brown eyes. “I like what I’m seeing.” Agron all but forgot his little spat with Nasir’s family and led them out to the truck. Soon they were on their way.

The trip outside the city and up the mountains was a familiar drive for Agron. Sometimes he liked to just get away from the crowds and noise and unwanted memories. Before Duro graduated high school and entered culinary school, they’d spent a number of weekends up here just enjoying the fresh air and quiet time together. With Duro so busy and barely interested in physical training or the outdoors anymore, Agron missed these short trips and camping. He never shared these wants with anyone, not Spartacus or his former boyfriends, and he wasn’t sure why. Having someone go up there with him, well this was nice. And the way Nasir looked out the window, staring at the passing fields and observing the mountains, he began to wonder how long Nasir had been in the city. He’d never heard anything good about the foster care system, and Nasir’s brief mentioning of his last family, wealthy as they were, did not restore confidence. He hoped perhaps against all reason that he could give Nasir what he sought, help him gain strength without losing that softness, that empathy that seemed to come so naturally to the younger man.

“So…how long have you known Chadara?”

Nasir sighed quietly, pulling his eyes from where they were going to glance at Agron. “Apologies for whatever she said to you. I know she means well. She just doesn’t know any other way to approach things. We met each other just before we were taken in by the same foster family so almost eight years now.”

“So you were adopted when you were…”

He chuckled quietly. “Don’t try to do the math Agron or fish for dates. I’m twenty two. I wasn’t… adopted, not yet.”

“Hey, I can do basic math and drive.” Agron huffed. “So you would have been adopted if you hadn’t left?”

“Probably.”

Agron turned up a dirt road. That was a short answer. “You want to talk about something else?”

“Yeah, that would be better.”

Agron nodded, complying for now. “When Duro and I first came here we didn’t know anyone. We didn’t live in the city at first while I was just trying to find a job; we lived out of a motel in a cheap neighboring town. He would sit in the car while I did interviews, doing school work. It was hard for Duro, not having a stable place, a place to call home.”

A sad smile formed again. “But you were able to give that to him. That’s good Agron, real good.”

“Nasir I didn’t get there alone. I had help, a lot of help actually from a lot of great guys and well you’ve met Mira. It would have been harder trying to do it alone, maybe impossible.” He pulled over to a gravel area where there were more cars. He let his words linger in silence before opening the car door. “We’re going to leave everything here except the water and our phones. We’ll be back after about an hour out, a real easy pace. You ready?”

Nasir opened his the door, looking at the long winding trail with a slight incline until it could not be seen past the tall trees. They had sun with a nice breeze so it wasn’t hot at all. “What if, what if I can’t make it?”

Agron stepped out of the truck. “You’ll make it. I’ll be right there with you. I wouldn’t take you on anything I didn’t think you couldn’t handle, especially after feeling sick. This will be a nice easy jog. I’ll even let you set the pace.” He closed the door. “And then I’ll push you for a little more than that.”

Nasir shook his head with a smile. They began stretching.

True to his word, Agron let Nasir set the pace which gave him a nice warm up for the day although he realized the pacing became a little inconsistent after about fifteen minutes in. “Don’t try to impress me Nasir. Just take it slow.”

“Is that because you cannot be impressed, and is that your usual style, slow?”

“No.” Agron huffed. “But I’ve been impressed by you several times already.”

Nasir glanced at him. “You’re just saying that.”

“I don’t really say things just to be nice. You can ask around, Donar, Mira or Spartacus.”

“Which one is Donar again?”

“He’s as tall as me, the one with very little hair and a trimmed beard. You could say he’s my closest friend behind Spartacus. Spartacus is more like a brother to me though.”

Nasir faltered a moment.

Agron paused, retrieving the water bottle. “Let’s take a pause. Drink just enough to get hydrated. You’ll be tempted to drain the whole thing, but you don’t want that much water in your belly for the rest of the run.”

Nasir nodded, taking a drink, and then another. They started again. “Donar is close to you and a trainer too?”

“Yeah, probably a better trainer right now. He’s built his clientele up over the last couple of years. Like I said, Duro and I shared a house with him and a few others when we first started the gym, to save money and put everything we had into the gym. I thought it was a fool’s dream at the time.”

Brown eyes flickered over to him. “You put your money into something you didn’t believe in?”

“I placed my bet with Spartacus. Only death would ever keep him down. Then I sort of tagged along for the ride. Since you came along, I’ve tried to make more of an effort.”

“I…I don’t understand why I would have that sort of effect on you.”

Agron glanced up at the steeper incline, a brief smile pulling at his lips. “Well as long as there are two of us not really knowing what we’re doing we’ll be all right.”

Nasir laughed, an arid sigh which signaled he was slightly out of breath. “Your logic is suspect.”

“I’ve been told that before. Now as we climb this hill, you’ll feel some aches. You shouldn’t feel pain though, no pulls or sharp sudden throbs, just a dull ache since your muscles aren’t well trained yet. If you feel anything else, let me know?”

“Do you plan on carrying me if I do?” Nasir challenged.

Agron glanced at him. “I could do it, and I would. Let’s go.”

The rest of the jog remained relatively silent. It was a fine view with lots of forest around them, a few other walkers headed the other way, and a light breeze to keep them cool. Summer would make this trip a lot more hellish; this was good though. He heard Nasir’s labored breathing, could see the strain and the hesitation but the younger man did not give up. He’d not seen him do that with anything just yet, not since the first day when Nasir almost left the gym without looking back.

“Agron,” Nasir spoke after some time. “I don’t know if I…”

“Three more minutes, you can do it.” At least he knew Nasir ate well the past few days thanks to the soup, so the tremble was gone and had been gone since the introduction of the nutrition bars. “It will be worth it; I promise.”

And then they were there, turning the corner and seeing the park where less than a dozen people shifted around, a number of picnic benches but the highlight of the area was the whitewashed stone fountain in the middle of a circular stone path way. It gurgled and ran freely, disappearing into more rocks but had plenty of flow to refill their water bottles as well as stone benches nearby. Agron waited a moment, giving Nasir a chance to rest and lean against a tree before patting him on the back. “You can sit down for a moment. I’ll get us more water. I brought an extra one just for this.”

Soon Agron joined Nasir on a picnic bench, offering the natural mineral water to his companion. “How do you feel?”

“A lot better now. This is a pretty place, quiet. Is it usually like this?”

Agron rested his elbows on the table facing the minimal activity. “When it’s hotter there are lot more people up here.”

“The water tastes good after a run but… different?”

“Lithium salts. It’s not very common in natural springs, but there are a few of them.”

“This is… nice Agron. Thank you for bringing me here.”

Agron tilted his head in Nasir’s direction. “Rest up, drink some water. We’ve got to head back down. This isn’t our final destination. I was hoping to have dinner with you and take you to a show.” He could tell from Nasir’s expression he thought the idea was odd since they both knew he worked at a theater.

“Okay.” Nasir, of course, consented.

The trip down went faster though Agron cautioned Nasir not to abuse his knees too badly and break out into a full run. Of course he left out the part where someone almost nine years his junior might not feel that sort of impact at all. In fact, his trainee looked damn near energized on the trip down showcasing the very confidence Agron hoped to help him build. By the time they reached the truck, there were grins all around.

Instead of taking them back to town as Nasir expected, he took them further up the road. He hoped Nasir gave him enough trust not to worry about going deeper into the forest where they lacked cell service as the sky began to darken. This time of year, he knew the big rigs did not travel down the old logging road he eventually turned, but he had to switch to four-wheel drive to help with some of the big holes in the road.

By the time the sun set, he backed the trunk up along a large stone outcropping with an open view of the sky and a portion of the city and forest. He laid out a thick sleeping bag for padding and a couple more blankets for warmth in the bed of the truck. He hooked a few LED lanterns on the back of the cab window and pulled out the cooler. He held out his hand and helped Nasir climb in and settle against a couple of firm cushions he brought for this occasion.

Once Nasir relaxed against his arm, he reached into the cooler and retrieved the sandwiches.

Nasir chuckled, seeming stress-free though curious about all this. “Ham and cheese?”

“Isn’t that what you like; you ate it all week?”

“Oh, right.” Nasir smiled at him as if he knew some sort of secret Agron didn’t know.

He frowned. “I thought…”

“It’s fine Agron, thank you.” He ate the sandwich with a continued grin. “It’s a beautiful spot, the lights of the city, the dark of the forest, and all those stars.”

“They’ll be more in…” He checked his phone, no signal but at least it kept time. “Maybe an hour. You’ll see.” Agron offered him a cold beer.

Nasir hesitantly took it. “Before this goes further Agron, I think there are some things you should know about me.”

“I think I know enough Nasir. You don’t have to tell me anything you’re not ready to tell me.”

“It’s just sometimes guys are surprised by what they find out and get angry. I don’t want you to regret anything with me.”

Agron pursed his lips slightly. “If you’re about to tell me you were once a woman, that might take some time to deal with, but I bet I can cope.”

Nasir snorted slightly, trying not to smile. “I’m serious.”

“So am I. I like you Nasir. There are a lot of things I can handle for someone I want to be with.”

Nasir sighed. “There’s been guys, a lot of guys Agron. I was tested not long ago and am okay, and I haven’t been with anyone but Caesar in over a year.”

“Caesar was that ass in the restaurant right? He hurt you? I’ll fucking kill him.”

“Agron!” Nasir placed a hand upon his shoulder, trying to calm the anger already spurring Agron’s desire to confront that man again. “No, nothing like that. Caesar has never hurt me, physically. He’s not like that. There have been others who were, but not him. I would never stay with someone like that again.”

Nasir’s words helped soothe Agron’s fury. He fumbled through his cooler and pulled out the long black box, offering it to his companion. “The only parts of your past that I care about are the parts you want to share with me and those we should address. If anything gets in the way of our future, we’ll deal with it together, whatever it is.”

Timidly, Nasir opened the small black box, finding a single dark red rose resting on some white tissue paper with a hand written card:

I wish I had walked you home that night. We lost so many weeks together because I didn't know where to find you, but I kept looking…even forced my brother to look. He hates me for that.

Nasir grasped the back of Agron’s neck and pulled him into a kiss, not a quick fleeting one of hesitant exploration and uncertain affections, but a deep one, tongues gliding along each other followed by a moan of desire.

Fingers fumbled with the tie on Agron’s pants, loosening them enough to help pull them down. This was unexpected. He didn’t have long to let that thought linger because suddenly fingers slipped past his waistband and wrapped around his hardening flesh. “Oh!”

An arid laugh sounded while Nasir moved from his lips to his neck and finally nuzzled his ear. “Did you bring protection?”

Agron nodded, cupping Nasir’s cheek. “But that doesn’t change anything. We don’t need to go all the way unless you are ready.”

“I couldn’t be more ready for you Agron.” Nasir replied immediately, sitting up, removing his jacket, then his shirt and working on his pants. Agron assisted and Nasir soon kneeled naked before him.

Interesting, the larger man thought, the stars and partial moon along with the false light behind them provided enough illumination for him to visually explore Nasir’s fine form. Perhaps in the daylight, that skin seemed only a shade or two darker than his own, but in starlight, here in the forest, he seemed so exotic. So often Nasir would drop his eyes in shyness or shame, but not now. Naked and kneeling Nasir seemed comfortable, sure of himself, and that both excited and worried Agron. Agron had known only a few lovers over the years, was no stranger to passion and sex, but pursuing someone like this, this was new, this was scary and exhilarating and risky. He’d never exposed so much of himself to another outside of his family, and had never wanted someone more.

Agron too shifted to his knees, his hardening cock making the motion more difficult though he received assistance with his shirt which was tossed aside although he lacked the patience to let Nasir finish his pants. He needed to taste those lips again, now. He grabbed Nasir’s shoulders pulling him closer, giving gentle kisses this time, a series of them. His palm familiarized itself with strengthening arms and hardening muscle along Nasir’s chest and abdomen. He knew this body well, watching him for hours, but to truly know his lover he needed to caress and to linger when he felt a shudder or heard a gasp. The younger man had sensitivities around the neck, and moved forward naturally with just a touch against his lower back. “You’re so beautiful,” he murmured against dark hair before drawing back to remove the rest of his clothes.

Brown eyes watched him, the light reflecting off the dark pools giving his soon to be lover an even wilder look. His gaze, his skin, even the way Nasir smiled or blushed and looked down and to the side lured Agron in a way he had not felt before. As Agron removed his pants, Nasir broke the silence between them. “Do you like long hair Agron? You’ve never really said, and I was hoping the trim might...”

“Your hair’s lovely.” Agron replied without missing a beat, soon just as naked as Nasir. It would be unfortunate if they were caught out in the open like this, but he’d been out here alone many times before, to think and reflect, and never saw another soul. Naked, Agron did not feel self-conscious about his body, knowing he had grown in strength over the years, pushed in part by Spartacus but also others around him, their encouragement and occasional quips guided him to seek more productive outlets than allowing his anger and resentment to spiral into more harmful activities. And he was proud of his body and his abilities, though now he felt, well he hoped Nasir found him appealing. “But if you’re thinking about doing something else with it, I am sure I would grow to love it as long as I still get that smile when your eyes are on me.”

And he received it now when Nasir beamed in response to his reply. Maybe it was a little juvenile, but wait until the guys heard about this. Nailed it; he wasn’t getting quizzical looks or questionable eyebrow raises tonight. All the right questions were being asked, and his answers were heartfelt and welcomed. And those eyes, they raked over him and lingered at the evidence of his obvious arousal.

Cautiously Nasir reached out, fingers moving along his shoulder, pausing to trace over scars not readily seen even with the assistance of dim light. He let his lover explore down his chest, over the defined muscles of his abdomen and to the side where a few more scars were found. “You’ve led a violent life.”

Agron shook his head, whispering quietly. “No, the sport, not the life Nasir.” He needed Nasir to understand the difference, a variance he only began to accept himself. Yes, he was a little hot-headed, impatient and had been in a few fights, but that energy had been focused and directed in the ring, against defined opponents within set rules. He reached out to run his fingers along Nasir’s neck and shoulders. “My drive can be directed elsewhere, if you want it.”

“You give me too much credit, too much power.”

Agron kissed his brow and lips again before gazing into those precious eyes. “You have power already, yours and some of mine. It is my pleasure to show you how to wield it and draw from it. You’re not weak. Remember that, you’ve never been weak. I’ve seen weak, and you’re not it.”

Nasir licked his lips ever so slightly leaning forward to ensue another quick kiss. “Where is it? If we don’t get it on now, I might do something we both will regret letter.”

Agron grinned, wide and toothy, before fumbling around to find his clothes with it in his pocket. He withdrew the small item though Nasir covered his open palm with his hands.

“Let me?”

The larger man nodded, waiting for Nasir to tear open the package and proceed. He kept smiling though. “I sort of feel like a teenager again, out in the woods in the back of a truck like this fumbling in the dark.”

Nasir carefully unrolled the condom onto Agron’s eager flesh. “This is what normal teenagers do, sex in a truck?”

“Or a car initially, beats the school yard or some park. Not you?”

Nasir’s eyes lifted once he was finished, a smile still pulling at his lips though it faltered ever so slightly at the other’s expression. “That is not a good topic Agron, not yet.” Warm lips pressed against Agron’s. “Lube?”

“Right.” Agron frowned for a moment, trying to focus and remember where he put it. It was near the lanterns, and maybe… he felt his palm press against it, but Nasir grabbed it first.

Nasir giggled. “Gun oil... play safe?”

Oh that was cute. Agron was completely charmed by that sound and didn’t hear it often enough. “It’s good stuff, and there’s not a lot of questions when someone notices it.”

Nasir squirted a little in his palm, feeling the silicone lubricant before moving to Agron and applying it lightly over the hard covered flesh. “You leave it out for others to find?”

“Donar’s a little nosey and grabby around my truck. Duro has trouble remembering boundaries in the house.” He tried not to groan, tried very hard not to just sort of push into those moving fingers. He failed.

Again, Agron received a grin, and this time the stroking, the circle of fingers and Nasir leaning in close had nothing to do with proper preparation and everything to do with teasing. Nasir lied down, and he pulled at Agron, not timidly or reluctantly but with enough strength that Agron would have to actively resist to keep from rolling on top of him. Of course, he didn’t want to avoid that. Peering down at Nasir, he kissed him on the brow, letting his lips linger against that area affectionately before dropping to his nose and settling against his mouth, running his tongue along those willing lips until they opened in consent. He captured a moan as he thrust his tongue deeper inside, feeling Nasir lift beneath him while fingers moved to grasp at his broad shoulders. He reached between them, guiding his fingers through the dark small hairs to travel along eager flesh. “So eager Nasir?”

Nasir hissed quietly, a smile developing again. “If it were up to me, we would have spent less energy jogging and been at this hours ago.” His voice softened. “But I would have missed your rose; something beautiful turned ugly returned to loveliness again.”

With green globes locked upon brown, Agron probed Nasir’s ass and gently inserted his finger and then another. “It was always beautiful Nasir. Never give another man the power to make you see differently.”

Nasir breathed in deeply, as the second digit sank in. “And if I falter?”

“I’ll hold you up and kick the living shit out of the one that caused your doubt.”

“I could… could love you Agron.” Eyes dropped immediately, and he knew Nasir felt that was spoken in error.

Agron said nothing in response, waiting until the brown eyes focused on him again. He hoped his gaze gave assurance as he caressed Nasir’s forehead, cheek and neck for some time before finally dropping his hand to his cock and guiding himself to the heated entrance. “Relax, trust me,” he whispered, easing into Nasir. Fingers sought his hand, and Agron grasped them, holding them firmly. “I won’t hurt you.”

“Sometimes pain is needed and wanted,” Nasir whispered with a shuddering breath as Agron sank inside him, the muscles squeezing around him, throbbing and tight.

“Not tonight, tonight you are mine, to have, to treasure and to protect.”

Nasir hissed softly, body twisting ever so slightly while Agron allowed him to settle. Then he moved, and Nasir moved with him. No words uttered between them, just soft sounds, panting, and the slick noises of their bodies joining, the groan of a truck beneath them. Brown eyes vanished behind dark lids.

Agron leaned forward, kissing his cheek. “Open your eyes,” he whispered. “I want you to know it is me.”

Dark pools revealed themselves again, Nasir’s palm moving from shoulder to neck to glide through short hair. “I know it’s you; I will always know it’s you.”

He didn’t fully understand, but he knew to feel, to embellish and to give. When he moved this time, he felt Nasir shift beneath him, raising his legs and encircling them around Agron’s hips. Agility, they hadn’t really tested that beyond a few stretches and a couple of minor tests for pressure and pain points. This angle allowed Agron to fully sink in, though he did so carefully, wanting to know the inside of his lover as thoroughly as the rest of him. He rotated his hips a bit, their bellies touching, his lips against Nasir’s neck when he found the spot, that inner sensitivity that caused Nasir to gasp and arch sharply beneath him. Fingernails dug into his shoulders, and he knew that would leave a mark, especially in his tank or with his shirt off, but he didn’t care. Let them talk or speculate; nothing would ruin this morning, especially when the next thrust, a quick snap of his hips drew such a memorable cry from the man beneath him.

He pulled Nasir’s earlobe into his mouth, suckling gently, grunting ever so slightly until he whispered against his lover’s ear. “Will you come for me?”

Breathlessly, Nasir replied, eyes closing once again and legs tightening around him. “A little harder Agron. I won’t break. I promise.” A smile formed.

Agron grinned, giving that ear one quick nip before complying, thrusting harder, rolling his hips and then plunging in again and repeating, trying to angle against the hidden spot until alas Nasir breathed in sharply, body tensed and came. He rode out Nasir’s release, holding steady, the effort making him almost tremble until he felt he could move again. This time, he closed his eyes, gasping a bit, moving faster, feeling the friction. He could have held off a little longer except those inner muscles suddenly contracted around him, firmly. He spilled his seed moments later.

The two of them breathing hard together for a few minutes allowed Agron to cool off, focus his mind and roll off Nasir. He opened the window to his cab, grabbing a towel to wipe his stomach and then wrapped the rest of the mess to hide in a refuse bucket.

“Oh good, the beer didn’t spill.” Agron took a swig and grinned down at Nasir who smiled up at him.

“Worried about your beer? Thought you would lose something precious?”

“Oh no,” He grabbed the comforter and settled on the makeshift bed, offering Nasir his beer which he gratefully took a swig from. “I won’t be losing him tonight anyway. Hey move closer to me, I think it’s starting.”

Nasir complied though he peered at Agron curiously, resting against his shoulder. “What…?”

And then he saw it. The light show began and the sky, already alight with thousands of viewable stars, brightened with hundreds of particles burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. “Mondays you work the evening shift?”

“Yeah. We’re sleeping in.”

Agron held him close, not saying a word, satisfied and hopeful.

**

Nasir sighed quietly, laying his head upon Agron’s shoulder, looking up at the sky as the lights cascaded towards the Earth. When the sky was so lit with stars this night, it was hard to believe something could ever dwarf such natural lights. The celestial event, Agron’s encouragement, the fact he gave him a rose, a symbol that had carved such sadness and shattered what little confidence he had… he was afraid to call Agron perfect, but the man came so close to what he always dreamed of it was hard to shift away from that word. They slept together, and some might say it was too soon, others that they delayed the event too long. None of that mattered for long. He was falling in love, in love with an ill-tempered prone-to-violence fighter forced to learn how to train due to some unfortunate circumstance with a tendency to speak before thinking and act without valuing consequences. He couldn’t tell how deeply Agron felt for him, and he knew he might have messed up blurting out his heart like some love-struck juvenile, but Agron did not punish him for it, not yet. Maybe it was too soon for that, too soon by many months or days, but when he looked in those green eyes there was warmth and concern and determination. Agron didn’t know his past or his predicament or fully understand any of his struggles, but he knew the man seemed less inclined to fix him so much as give him a way out. He wanted that more than anything now, a way out to be with Agron, untethered by the past that weighed him down.

Chapter Text

Donar peered through the clear plastic, turning the package right, left and then reading the label carefully. “Four hundred thread count, Egyptian cotton, deep pockets. Isn’t the one in your right hand six hundred?”

“Yeah but this one says it’s silky smooth, sateen.”

“You don’t want that.”

“Why not?”

“If you fuck him on that you’ll be sliding all over the place.”

Agron grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him around the corner near a fire exit. “Will you keep it down? I don’t want to draw attention.” He hissed.

Donar scowled at him. “It feels like we’ve been in this store for hours. Cotton, microfiber, flannel, or sateen, for god’s sake just pick one. This mall is hellish enough. And if you don’t think two guys like us standing in this aisle for this long isn’t drawing attention, guess again.”

Agron lowered his head in partial defeat. “Okay, okay. I’ll just open these two and feel them, then I’ll know.”

“You can’t open the packages. You haven’t paid.”

“Yes you can. I won’t know if I like the feel with it stuck behind the plastic like this. I just got to…”

Donar grabbed his fingers. “Agron, you’re going to get us kicked out of the mall like a couple of idiot teens.”

“Mira does it all the time. She says women check things out like this before they buy it.”

“Since we’ve been in home department hell for a couple of hours now, I know you might be confused, but we’re not women. Mall security is going to throw your ass out if you open it.”

“If you’re that concerned about it, keep in an eye out.” Agron waved him to do just that.

Donar shook his head and stepped in front of him, giving Agron time and cover for slipping his fingers under the clear round label to lift it. The cotton had nice color, deep and charcoal-like but the microfiber, a rich wine color, was pleasant and a lot warmer. Nasir needed warm; he already had paper thin and nearly worn out. Agron grinned. “This is the one.”

“Thank god.”

Donar followed him towards the counter, and they waited in a ridiculously long line. “So you think he trimmed his hair for you?”

“Oh yeah, it was all even but not too short. It’s just past his shoulders now leaving plenty to run my fingers through. And he was so happy to hear I would enjoy it no matter what he did. You should have seen him Donar, eyes so bright, big smile; I nailed it!” A middle-aged woman in front of him with an odd perm and too bright red hair turned and glowered at him. “Anyway, it was a great night.” He added more softly.

“Sounds like it. You should have told me about the meteor shower. I could’ve taken a girl out some place with that sort of pick up line.”

“What, the carnies didn’t do it for you?”

Donar rubbed his chin. “You know, there are just certain parts of the body I didn’t know you were allowed to tattoo. It was interesting although hard not to stare a big solid black spider down there.”

Agron made a face , and suddenly he felt sympathetic towards the people around them. “You know you could do… better right?”

Donar shrugged. “Thing is I’m not sure I want to. It was fun for a while. Nights are rarely boring at my place. You should come over some time; it’s been so long since we caught a game together.”

“I might have to send a cleaner first, but ask for the next game you actually care about. Hey, you see that display over there. It says bed in a bag. You think that’s better?”

“Based on what you’ve told me, Nasir doesn’t need pillow shams or a bed skirt.”

“A bed what?”

“Bed skirt.”

“I don’t… what do you mean?”

Donar rolled his eyes. “Jesus Agron, how do you manage to get by in life? It’s the fabric that covers the bottom portion of the bed, at the floor. It’s meant to be pretty like a table cloth.”

“Isn’t that what a comforter is for?”

“It’s different. Comforters don’t touch the floor. Stick to your guns man. He’ll like the sheets. You can consider a comforter another time if he needs more than that. Let’s just see how he reacts to this. One of the weirdest fucking presents I’ve ever seen you give.” Donar covered his mouth then. “Damn it. I did it again.”

Agron laughed. “Still having trouble with that huh?”

“Don’t you pretend you’re not. I’ve seen you sneak over to those jars when no one is looking, and that’s only if Mira didn’t catch you in the act.”

“Or Naevia.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Agron sighed, tearing his eyes from the display back to the package in hand. “You’re probably right. It might be hard to convince him he should accept this gift as it is.” Agron paid for the sheets but grabbed Donar’s arm once he tried to make for the exit. “We’re not done yet.”

“You owe me dinner for this…and a beer. I haven’t spent this much time in a mall since I was trolling for mall chicks as a kid. This is awful. Look at all these people, half them are on their phones. What’s the point in going to a store if you are going to be on your phone the whole time… wait a phone store?”

Agron nodded. “Yeah, Nasir is going to like these sheets, but the phone, that will be harder sell.”

“You want to buy him a phone?”

“And put him on my plan.”

“You think he might be hesitant to take sheets and now you’re looking at a phone?”

“He sort of mentioned when he was sick that his phone might be off for a week to a month to make up for lost work, but I could contact him at work. I can’t have that Donar. I want to hear his voice. If I tell him it’s only twenty dollars a month extra, I’m sure it will be fine.”

“Well is it?”

Agron walked over to a white table sporting several of the new phone models, Samsung, Apple, and a Google Nexus. “Is it what?”

“Only twenty more dollars a month?”

“Umm, maybe.”

“And you think I’m bad.”

Agron lifted up a flat phone with a big screen, one of the new Notes. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t lie to my women.”

“I am not lying. I don’t know it’s not true yet.”

“Look, if you want to get him on your plan, you have to scale down.” Donar picked up a Nokia Lumia phone. “Look, you get one of the certified used ones. It’s less than a hundred dollars, and it looks like you can add for another thirty dollars a month.”

“Isn’t that the phone no one wants?”

“Nasir only uses text and hardly has any minutes now. He would be thrilled with whatever you give him. It’s a nice phone Agron, not terrible at all. And if he asks you about cost, you can honestly tell him it hardly cost you anything.”

Agron sighed, holding the square object in his hand. Duro had an Android something. He had an Apple and this was advertised as Windows 8.1. Hopefully Nasir could figure this one out, but Donar was right: Nasir had a cheap phone now with such a limited plan he rationed his minutes each month starting on day one. Anything would be better, and he didn’t want his new boyfriend to feel indebted to him, ever.

By the time they left the mall, he had a new phone on an expanded plan with a few accessories, bed sheets and a promise to take Donar somewhere to eat steak and drink beer.

They pulled up to The Rebel, and Donar readily jumped out of the passenger seat. “Thank god. I could use a dose of something sweat inducing and hard.”

Agron rolled his eyes, stashing his bag behind the seat. “There are a lot of ways someone can interpret that...”

“I intend to work out.” Donar grinned wolfishly which told Agron he meant to confuse the situation this time. As they walked in, the tall blonde chuckled. “You didn’t tell me Duro was dating some hot blonde.”

“He’s not.”

“Then who’s the looker with him?”

Agron blinked. “What, Duro is here?” He smiled immediately. Duro didn’t come often to the gym, but when he did, it was usually to blow off some steam and make his big brother happy by putting in a token effort to stay fit. Spartacus advised him even before he became a trainer to not push his brother too hard into something he didn’t want. “I love it when Duro comes in. Wait the blonde…”

His smile vanished immediately when he realized he was looking at his brother sitting on a workbench with Chadara grinning down at him. His posture, the tank, the way he just flexed his arm for her. Hell no. Agron stomped off but made it only two feet before Donar grabbed his wrist.

“Whoa buddy. You look like you’re about to kill someone. Take a breath Agron. Duro is just hanging out, I thought you wanted that.”

“I do but that’s Chadara.”

“And Chadara is…” The man raised both hands trying to emphasize his lack of understanding.

Agron gave Donar a withering look. “Nasir’s sister, sort of. She is also a raging bitch.”

“I’m not sure if that is jar worthy or not… I’ll have to ask Mira. But Agron, if this is Nasir’s sister you’re talking about…”

“Not really. There’s something not right between the two of them.”

“Well that doesn’t mean you should march over there and make a scene. Come on, let’s go talk to the kid.”

If Agron had feathers, he knew they would be ruffled right now, but Donar was right. He couldn’t tell the woman to leave the gym and not face consequences for it. He could, however, get her away from his brother.

Duro beamed as Agron and Donar approached. “Hey Agron, you didn’t tell me you were actually ‘that’ involved with that guy from The Ludus, Nasir? I mean I heard the name but didn’t really place two and two together until Chadara told me as much. Chadara says you two hooked up and have been training for weeks. He works at that old theater The Villa? I guess you already know that, but I’ve only walked by a few times, never gone in to watch some old movie.”

Chadara smirked briefly. “We have some bigger events people love, anniversary kind of things for hit classics like The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind or Some Like it Hot. We still get crowds for that because we run the films, not the digital remasters. Nasir works up-front and with the customers a lot more than I do. I mostly do back office work. The workout routines here really wear him out, making it difficult for him to finish some shifts.”

Agron pursed his lips. “Nasir doesn’t come here on Mondays.”

“Oh I know. I just thought I would check the place out while he was away. It was easy enough to find a place called “The Rebel” which was on both your clothes.”

“Well it’s good to know you can use Google like everyone else.”

Duro scowled at him. “What the hell Agron? What’s gotten into you; you’re not always so rude to customers?”

The larger man glanced towards the office where he could see Spartacus standing next to Mira and Naevia behind closed doors. It wouldn’t take long for them to notice an altercation. Agron took a breath. “I doubt money has exchanged hands, but you’re right, I could be more polite.”

“Has Nasir given you any money yet?”

Agron glowered at her. “What?”

“Money. You seem to think giving you money is important for someone to stay here. I only wonder if Nasir has paid yet.”

He stared at her in silence.

“It would be difficult for him to pay for a trainer when he can hardly stay afloat above bills, the need for food and clothes, and of course medical attention.” She paused. “Is it true, what he says, that you came when you heard he was sick?”

Agron gave a curt nod but found his voice again. “If you want to discuss Nasir with me, I would need permission first and that conversation should be held in private if he allows it at all. But for now, it would be better if you left.”

Chadara showed visual surprise although he couldn’t tell which surprised her most, his response to her question, the fact that he would talk to her if given permission by Nasir, or his calm request for her to leave.

“The bus doesn’t come for another half hour at least.

“I’ll take you home.” Donar offered easily. “Agron isn’t the only one with a car you know.”

She gave him a quick nod before squeezing Duro’s shoulder. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

Agron waited for Donar and Chadara to leave before turning to his brother who looked absolutely furious.

“I don’t want to hear your excuse Agron. That was not called for. I don’t care how many conversations you had with her before, a dozen heated exchanges…”

Agron sighed. “Just the one.”

“What?”

“I said it was just the one.”

“You hate her over one conversation?” Duro blinked up at him in disbelief.

“It was really unpleasant. She was a real bitch to me Duro, for no reason at all. You had to be there.”

“Well that’s strange. She had nothing but praise for you when we talked before you got here. Apparently you had a wonderful night yesterday with Nasir? She was so worried you’d abandon him after that, but I promised her my big brother would never be such an ass.”

Agron furrowed his brow. “Nasir talked to her?”

“This morning. I guess you dropped him off later in the morning, almost afternoon.”

Agron took a seat on the bench next to him. “Yeah, we came off the mountain a bit late; it was a good night.”

Duro frowned slightly. “It would have been easier for you to just tell me.”

“I know, but I guess I was worried.”

“About what? You know I want you to be happy.”

“It’s not that Duro; it’s Nasir. He’s just, well… his older brother left when he was younger. I get the feeling he kept hoping he’d come back, and he never did. I didn’t want to bring up bad memories so soon. I told you before, it’s more about Nasir than you. Did you exchange numbers with her?”

“I’m not going to lie to you Agron; let’s leave it at that. Will you spot me?”

“You know you should really do cardio. It’s better for you with as little as you come here.”

Duro snorted. “You can either spot me, or I will find someone else. Spartacus told me your next client isn’t for another hour at least.”

Agron huffed. “I’ll spot you.” He moved to the end of the bench and watched his brother continue his workout.

“So I did find out a thing or two about that guy he was with that night.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, his last name is Caesar. Apparently he’s a pretty wealthy individual.”

“How wealthy?” Agron didn’t like that sound of that.

“Wealthy enough to be a regular there. He’s not usually seated in the front but in the back area for VIPs. They have a separate entrance, personal staff and private booths upstairs. The reservations were in Nasir’s name, and we had no idea who he was downstairs.”

Agron sighed. “Great, that probably means I would have been sued if I threw his ass out of there.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Oenomaus is pretty good at handling those kind of things. I’m sure it would have been made right with no jail time. It wouldn’t be the first time a fight broke out there, or the last.” Duro smirked. “He probably would have taken your side too once I told him I kept giving you ‘the look.’”

Agron returned the smile. He knew the look, although he never really told Duro he was halfway out of his seat before the mayday gaze fell upon him. Caesar had been loud enough for him to hear the verbal abuse from their table.

“And Agron, let’s say I believe you, and you really don’t want to spook this guy so you’ve been taking it slow and keeping us apart. Do you remember when I ran away that one night?”

Agron tensed, his fingers curling just a bit too tight on the metal bar in front of him.

“I was so angry with you. I spent so many weeks sleeping in an old truck, and then that crappy motel. And I yelled at you, saying you weren’t even trying, that it was like you threw away everything mom and dad worked for.”

“I remember,” Agron replied carefully.

“And then I vanished one night and you and Spartacus and Donar were out looking for me. You found me at some weird bus stop and you hugged me tight, like almost broke my ribs tight, right before you threw me against the street and yelled at me for not valuing what we still had and scaring you.”

“Duro…”

“We’re past that now, way past that. I am so grateful for what you gave up for me, everything Agron. I want to meet this guy that creates butterflies in your stomach, has you calling me midday to make soup, and somehow inspires you to put dollars in that swear jar over there when you would have told everyone around to F off if they even suggested it but a handful of weeks ago. So either you invite him over for dinner or…”

“Or?” Agron pressed carefully, wondering just what sort of blackmail this might lead to.

“Or I will. I know his schedule now, at this Villa place and here. This guy seems to mean something to you. I’ve never seen you this… involved with someone before. It’s time I met him, face to face.”

Agron pursed his lips ever so slightly. “I don’t want you to ever to go that Villa place, at least not until I talk to Spartacus about it. I’ll invite him to dinner this week okay?”

Duro set the weights down momentarily. “Is there something I should know about where he works?”

“I’m not sure yet, just don’t go there.”

”Okay.”

Agron helped him for the rest of the hour, eventually getting him to the jump ropes. As he left, his brother reminded him to get a list of Nasir’s food allergies which only reminded him he still had to get the rest of Nasir’s paperwork filled out. He typed it on his calendar for Tuesday.

**

“And there were stars, the moon, the meteor shower… it was beautiful Pietros. I could not possibly explain it.”

“Well that’s hard to believe since you’ve been talking non-stop about this Agron guy since we sat down for lunch. Are you even going to eat that soup?”

Nasir glanced down at the bowl of chicken noodle soup and garlic bread not realizing it had been delivered. “Oh, I better. I don’t have long before my shift starts.”

As he ate, his friend finished his croissant and Swiss. “So you’re really into this guy, this trainer it seems. You said three weeks now?”

Nasir nodded. “On the third week I think. He’s more than a trainer though. I should talk to him about that, what I should call him in front of others.” He sighed sadly, worried about nearing the halfway point in his six weeks and the fact Agron hadn’t called him today.

“Nasir, I know that look. What’s wrong? You were glowing a minute ago, talking about carnivals, chicken soup and a forest. Now you look like you swallowed a bug.”

Well the soup wasn’t as good as Agron’s that was for sure. “It’s just, I haven’t heard from him today. I thought I might. After last night, that’s the standard right, to call?”

“Yeah but I know you. I bet you told him not to call right? You’re always guarding those precious minutes like they’re gold or something.”

“If I run out, I don’t have any additional funds to add to that month. I might even have to let my plan lapse a week or so to try and catch up.”

“You could always ask for a little help Nasir.”

“Everyone I know is in a pretty tight spot. I’m not taking from them.”

“Not everyone you know…”

“No, I am not like that. I am not going to ask Agron to bail me out. I want more than that Pietros; I can’t do it.”

Pietros frowned at him. “I am sure he would rather help than see you fall behind, show up at your apartment with an eviction notice on the door.”

“I don’t want him to think I am using him. Besides, Caesar started helping me at first, money on my phone so he could call him, a line of credit at a store in the mall. I have three expensive suits, Pietros. For what, fancy outings? Soon he was picking out my entire wardrobe, talking to my hair dresser.”

“You have a hair dresser?”

“No!” Nasir didn’t mean to shout, but his response was instant and so strong he couldn’t help the sudden rise in volume. “That’s the point. He just took over everything. I thought, I thought that was love because I didn’t have to worry for a while. I just kept doing what I was doing.” Nasir ran his fingers through his hair, frowning. It was hard to describe the sort of autopilot mode he’d entered while being with Caesar. He could have gone on like that for years until he suddenly had an inkling to do something, to take ownership of their anniversary and try to spark something between them again. “And there would be dinners out to make up for the lunches skipped and trips to some weird salon when I ran out of shampoo. This is different. I just have to figure out how to keep it going past six weeks, and how to keep my head above water.” Nasir groaned and lowered his head against his palms. “I wish I hadn’t told him I loved him. It was too soon for that.”

Pietros leaned forward. “You said you loved him.”

“Sort of.”

“How do you sort of tell someone you love them?”

“Well I said I could love him.”

“Could?”

“Yeah, like in the future, maybe not now…”

Pietros frowned again. “And what he did say?”

“Nothing really.” His brows scrunched together, and Nasir swallowed nervously and began turning his cup of soup around and around. “That’s bad right? God, he was so gentle and I was telling him pain could be wanted and needed. That could have weirded him out. I just wanted him to know if he got a little rough, if…”

“Nasir!” Pietros grabbed his fingers tightly. “You’re panicking. Go back to that happy space you were in when you asked to do lunch today okay?”

Nasir took a deep breath. “Okay.”

Pietros’ smile returned. “Now, you asked him not to call you on your phone and he didn’t. You can’t blame him for that. He might not feel comfortable texting you his feelings, but you see him tomorrow right?”

“Right.” Nasir sighed, blissfully and worriedly. “Chadara said the same thing you did, that I have a habit of panicking early on, overcompensating.”

“Well she’s almost there. You do tend to do that, but here’s the thing Nasir: the right guy for you is going to take everything, quirks and all.” Pietros paid their waiter. “So you talked to Chadara this morning?”

“Yeah, on the phone.”

“Was that rough?”

“Not so bad actually; she listened I think. I know you don’t get along real well.”

Pietros zipped up his backpack. “Just that one altercation. I don’t hold it against her.”

“She’s the only family I have. You don’t, you don’t know what we went through together. What she did for me.”

“I’d know if you told me.”

“I... I can’t.”

“Well when you are ready, I’ll be here. Listen, I have to get to class soon, and I’ll be gone for a couple of weeks with friends. You can text me, but we’re doing a lot of work up there to help the reserve out and a lot of it is out of cell range. As for Chadara, I know she would do anything in the world for you Nasir, help you the best she knows how unless it gets in the way of what she wants. I’ve never seen her put anyone above herself, but I’ve only known her a couple of years. You’ve been connected longer than that, so don’t take my word for it. And what she thinks is best, and what I think is best, well we’re different there too.” He gave Nasir a friendly pat on the wrist. “Finish your soup.”

Nasir did just that, emptying his soup before walking to the nearest bus stop to get to work. It might be the best meal he could get all week. With any luck there might be a couple of left over hot dogs and not just popcorn. Maybe he could get a few extra shifts this week, or ask around to see if anyone could use any cheap help somewhere for a short time so rent could be paid. Whatever that might be, he wasn’t about to let it take time away from Agron.

Chapter Text

Agron paced throughout the gym, from the locker area to the edge of the open space of the gym and back again. One of his appointments had canceled and while he normally didn’t fret over something so small, this gave him a sizable gap between now and when Nasir would arrive. This meant he had nothing to occupy his mind for almost two hours. He had his gifts ready, the nutritional bars, all Pure, and the paperwork he should have done on the first day in a nice little stack.

Eventually he made his way over to the free weights, sort of half-assing a few arm presses until Spartacus peaked out the door to the office. “Agron, can I see you a moment?”

God, Agron thought, setting the weights down and complying, walking into the office as his heart skip a beat when the two women exited without being asked. This felt, well it could be bad.

Spartacus stood behind the desk, arms crossed as was habit; he wore a black t-shirt with short sleeves, and matching pants. Agron wore logo wear too, although stayed with his usual tank and found himself fiddling with the seam while he waited for whatever lecture he was about to get to start.

“I’ve watched you walk in circles for about ten minutes. Then you wound up turning all the weights so the lettering could be easily seen. You straightened two pictures and walked to and from the lockers like you kept forgetting something. Do you need to tell me what is going on? You’re even making Gannicus nervous, and he’s hardly one to lift his eyes from a pretty woman when he’s training one as he is now.”

Gannicus was here? Agron forgot to be annoyed by him, and if the man laughed, he hadn’t even heard it. “Nasir is coming today.”

“I know. It’s Tuesday. Believe me Agron, we’re all very aware of the days Nasir comes to visit.” A slight smile pulled at Spartacus’ lips.

The man looked humored, not mad, but Agron was not ready to release the tension building inside him, not yet. “You all know?”

“Most the time you walk around with that silly grin on your face on the days he’s supposed to be here. Sometimes your other clients actually think you’re happy to see them too.”

Agron frowned. “That’s not fair. I am happy to see them, some of them… a few maybe.”

“I heard about Tiberius.”

“I don’t know what anyone told you, but he threw up on me. I didn’t even…”

“They told me you took his accident remarkably well, although that didn’t stop him from showing up with his father to talk to me about the incident.”

The frown deepened. “They complained about me? After what he did, he came in to complain!”

“Agron,” Spartacus walked around the desk and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Easy. Marcus just came to make sure his son would still be welcome here. I told them you hadn’t even spoken about it with me and Tiberius remained on your schedule. He bought a couple of hooded sweatshirts from us for the trouble.”

“Oh.” Agron should have felt relief, but he didn’t. None of this had anything to do with why he was anxious or what he really cared about.

“You did well, and if you’re up to it, I have a couple more rich kids for you to work with, two sisters actually. They’re rather taken with you I think.”

Agron sighed. “You’ve mentioned them before.”

“They’re pretty fit already. They’re just looking for some strengthening routines and compliments. A little bird told me you could use a little extra spending money.”

“Yeah, and is that bird tall, has a beard and a habit of fucking any woman that catches his eye?”

“Maybe. It’ll be easy for you. We could use a few clients like that: easy to please, paying.” Spartacus chuckled, moving to shut the door and pointing to the jar. “It’s Mira’s pet project, so I have to ask you to contribute.”

Agron threw a small wadded up dollar bill onto the desk. “I don’t see the point in teaching skinny rich kids how to be thinner. It’s not really what I do.”

Calmly, Spartacus unfolded the dollar and pushed it through the slot of the Mason jar. “I believe they plan on taking a hike up through a jungle to some ruins with a lot of stairs. Just help strengthen their legs for a few months. They’ll behave, and I bet we’ll get a year out of them just so they don’t lose their spot with you. Don’t worry; we only have one client around here who has an excuse to touch you.”

Agron pursed his lips. It was true. He could use the extra money to maybe start saving up or spending on a certain someone. Suddenly, he felt a little bit like a jerk for hurling that dollar at his boss, his friend. “Okay.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, sign them up. Tell them if they train together, they’ll get a discount.”

“I’ll make the offer, but I’m not sure these are the kind of sisters to share. Now, about your pacing…”

Agron moved to the chair and took a seat, waiting for Spartacus to perch on the edge of the desk. Once the man was seated, he started. “I want to give him a couple of gifts. The thing is, I’m not sure he’ll accept them. If he refuses the gifts, it might make things awkward. If he takes them, things might still be awkward but at least I get what I want.”

“And what is it you want?”

“I want him to sleep better and be able to talk to him on the phone.”

“Aahh.” Spartacus tapped his knee. “You’re addressing the phone situation. A new phone on your plan?”

“Is that, is it too weird?”

Spartacus shifted on the desk in thought. “It doesn’t matter if it’s weird so much as rather if it works for you two. If you’re asking for my advice…”

“I am. I have Donar’s, and sometimes he’s good, but I don’t think he’s had a woman longer than a week. Nasir is no woman and I want him longer than a week.”

“Well you already have him beat in that regard. You’re well past a week.”

Agron straightened a little in the chair. “Well we didn’t start dating at first. It was strictly professional I assure you.”

“You might be able to sell that line to other’s Agron, but not to me, and more importantly, not Mira.”

“Mira?”

Spartacus stood and walked over to a cabinet, pulling out Nasir’s file. “Do you know what this is?”

“Nasir’s file?” Agron visibly hesitated because the answer seemed obvious which meant, when it came to Spartacus, he was missing something.

“Yes, but it says more about you than it does about him. Three trainings a week on a trial pass, a locker you paid for, and a 21 year old.”

“Twenty two.”

“Right.” Spartacus pulled out a thicker file from a different cabinet, a very dense file. “And do you know what this is?”

Agron shifted uncomfortably in his seat, rolling his eyes to the side. Yes, he knew the folder with the frayed edges quite well. “My folder.”

“Yes, your folder.” Spartacus set them both on his table and lifted Nasir’s again. “And this tells me more about who you are than the other one. ”

“You already said that, but I don’t believe you.”

Spartacus gave him that look, the look that told him he was about to receive that lecture he was dreading when he first came in. His boss and friend opened the larger folder and pulled out a once folded piece of paper and began reading from it. “How many times do I have to fucking tell you to stop signing up these kids with no training, no measurable or obtainable goals, and no hope of ever amounting to any worthwhile physical status? Gannicus looks bored. Give the kids to him. Fuck you Crixus - Agron.”

Agron sighed. “It was an off day. I don’t know why you saved that.”

“I only own sixty five percent Agron. Crixus has twenty five which means I need to at least give Crixus some consideration when one of our employees posts what Mira calls a nastygram on his locker.”

“He shouldn’t have given that kid to me.”

“Let’s look at Nasir’s goal.”

Agron groaned.

Spartacus ran his finger down the page. “Seeks confidence building.” Bright eyes rose to meet Agron’s gaze for just a moment. “Look, a scribbled note next to Mira’s hand writing: I think I can help him with this. Please Spartacus, I want to try. Agron.” A slight smile formed, those eyes lingering on the words before lifting to meet Agron’s unhappy expression and this time locking with the other’s eyes. “There’s been something more here since the start Agron. Since before I had a call telling me I had to come in shortly after my long flight to see what was happening. This is the Agron I know. This is the man I sparred with and fought alongside in the same fight club. Now, as for my advice, be honest with him. Let him know the gifts are for him, but also tell him they mean something to you too.”

Agron stood, nodding, not holding the gaze for too long as his brow furrowed in thought and mild embarrassment. “How was your conference?”

“My trip went as expected. Why don’t you go out there and run a few laps around the building with Donar? It will help calm your nerves, and he’s been eyeing Gannicus’ trainee too long. I can’t have all my trainers dating their clients can I? It’ll tarnish The Rebel’s reputation.”

Agron gave the man a half-smile and left to do just that.

“One more thing Agron. Mira and I are thinking about going to the coast this weekend. The Jeep holds four. Let me know.”

Once Agron left the office, he didn’t have to use words to summon Donar. Instead he just gave the blonde a quick flick of his head to the door, and soon the two were going around the building at an easy steady pace. “So why didn’t you tell me about my paper box?”

“Hmm?”

“The box where all my paperwork is supposed to go. You’ve been dropping it off on my bench?”

Donar shrugged. “You’re head wasn’t in the right place to follow basic policy and procedures. It was an easy fix but a little tricky when we had more than say five papers in there. A couple of times I had to slip one on your bench twice a day.”

Agron chuckled, giving him a quick glance. “I thought I was crazy. I would pick one up in the morning to read it, trash it, then I came back later and another one was there. When I went to look in the trash, the first was gone. I thought I was just tired or something. What did you do with the first one?”

“Put it in the one place you would never look… the recycle bin.”

Agron huffed. “I am not that bad.”

“Only because Mira bought you a reusable water bottle. Before then, your plastic bottles were found everywhere.”

Agron stopped, turning to face Donar. “Wait, not everyone got one of those logo bottles?”

“Only the ones that paid for one. We got a discount though, so it was easy enough to make it look like we all got one.”

Agron rubbed the back of his head as embarrassment colored his eyes and cheeks. “I… I really haven’t been paying attention have I?”

Donar smiled briefly. “To the important things you have: Duro for example, asking Mira where she went when she was gone for a week, remembering the anniversary of Sura’s death, and of course listening to me about my women problems. Don’t worry, I got your back, unless I’m fucking… all bets are off then.”

Agron gave him a brief punch to the arm. And just like that, the awkwardness, the seriousness all but melted away, and he was thankful for that. “Bastard. Hey, did you hear anything about Spartacus’ conference, like are we getting more equipment?”

Donar shrugged. “I didn’t ask although I never heard him call it a conference.”

“What?”

“Mira said it was a conference of some kind, and Naevia said the same thing. I think he just called it a trip though. You want me to ask?”

“Nah, I’ll ask more about it later. Let’s just keep doing this for a few more laps. I need my stomach to settle.”

“Right, today is the big day, sheets and a phone.”

Agron gave him a rather firm shove in jest and continued with the jog; it looked like rain soon.

**

Nasir clutched his duffle bag tightly, enough to turn his knuckles white. He stood in the rain, hoodie covering most his features as he stared at the entrance to The Rebel. He wasn’t sure how he should greet Agron when they met this time. He could arrive as normal: a scan of the room, a brief smile, business as usual. Or maybe he could do his drop of the eyes and a light blush, waiting for Agron to say something first. Who was he kidding? He’d be blushing no matter what once Agron looked at him. This felt so silly. Agron was not the first man he slept with or dated after a night together but this felt different somehow, important.

After a couple of minutes, realizing his hoodie would soon be soaked through and silently calling himself a coward, Nasir entered the brightly lit area.

He didn’t see Crixus today, the one with the shaggy appearance who exchanged angry looks with Agron often. He did see the one who seemed to be laughing all the time, Gannicus if he remembered right, leaning against some bars attached to the wall talking to two women, one of them blonde with hair past her shoulders, strong arms and a fierce expression that seemed to give the man a run for his money. She wore the logo here, but he hadn’t seen a woman trainer yet. Perhaps it was silly not to think they had any when really he only spent an hour or two here on specific days and could easily miss them.

Eventually he continued his scan and let his dark eyes rest on Donar once he realized Agron was not in sight. Since the man was described as a friend, he figured it was time they conversed. Just as he neared the back mats and the man, Agron emerged from the locker area. All the plans, the hopes, the fears, everything just faded away. He set his duffle bag down, approached Agron with a growing smile, lifted his hands to grasp either side of Agron’s face and pulled him down for a quick kiss.

The taller man beamed, his smile wide and eager, green eyes bright and evidently happy to see him. “Nasir.” The word was almost whispered but had strength and conviction behind the utterance. It reminded him of quiet words spoken in a deep forest. This was Agron the lover’s greeting, not the trainer’s. A hand dropped to his shoulders and his voice lowered. “Let me help you with your bag. I have a few things for us to take care of in a room in the back before we get started.”

Public displays of affection didn’t seem unwanted, which kept Nasir smiling even as he nodded and hesitantly followed Agron to the locker area where they deposited his bag and proceeded to a smaller back room. The room had two chairs, a table with papers on it, and a Macy’s bag nearby; curious eyes lingered on the bag until he shifted back to his companion. Almost immediately, he could tell Agron seemed a little lost with how to proceed, so he started. “Agron, I’ve been thinking about you.”

Agron grinned. “Yeah? I’ve been thinking about you too, a lot actually. I wanted to call you, but I know you like to save your minutes for emergencies.”

Nasir felt relief instantly. “Yeah, I do. I, well I was a little worried things might become awkward between us, different.”

“Different for sure, but not awkward I hope.” He leaned forward and took Nasir’s hand. “I might not do this in the right order so ummm…” He picked up the Macy’s bag and pushed it across the small table. “I got you this. I was hoping to revisit, you know when you’re not sick, and this would be really comfortable when I do.”

Revisit? Nasir thought. He reached into the bag and pulled out a rather sizable package of microfiber sheets, in a deep wine color. He read the label, thinking over what Agron said before finding his voice. “You want to come back to my place again even after you’ve seen what it is?”

Agron bit his lip, frowning slightly as if that was not the reaction he was expecting. “Why, why wouldn’t I want to go back? That’s where you are? ”

“Oh.” Nasir fell speechless though a smile returned almost immediately. Agron wanted to come back to his place and share the bed again. There was something about Agron’s explanation that charmed because it was given without thought, almost like an open window to the man’s heart and mind. He tried to think of that night, how he just let his mouth run about his missing brother, a half explanation of what Chadara did for him, and crying. Maybe Agron just remembered lying together, or chose to only address that. “Well this time around I’m not likely to get you sick which is better.” He felt his cheeks warm, and the blush he knew would come finally arrived. “Thank you Agron. This is very sweet of you. I hope to share it with you soon. I think my bed is a little small for you though.”

Agron grinned again, looking relieved. “It’s a full right. That’s okay. Your body was mostly on mine last time anyway.”

Nasir giggled, a stupid sound he thought although Agron looked most enthusiastic about hearing it.

“So we have some paperwork I would like to finish for your membership information.” Agron grabbed the pen and began to scan over the empty spaces and lines.

It was easy for Nasir to see the areas Agron skipped over intentionally, last name which made him think Mira had spoken to him about her first inquiries, and phone number for some reason. The pen rested on the personal and family medical history, which made Agron visibly shift uncomfortably. Nasir thought it was time to bail Agron out before the man agonized himself into an ulcer.

“Agron, you know I can read and write. If you want, I can just fill this out if you give me a few minutes?”

Agron nodded, pushing the papers over to him and then trying not to look too curious as he did just that. No known drug allergies, and though food allergies was circled for some reason, he tried to remember what gave him a rash once. It was some sort of melon, honey dew maybe. He glanced up noting Agron’s interested gaze. “I think I’ve outgrown what little allergy I had when I was little.” He explained. He wrote none, and for much of the family history, he had to scribble in unknown. The rest he readily filled out, his place of work, date of birth but he left weight blank. “I don’t know my weight actually. I didn’t pay attention at the clinic.”

“Oh we skipped that too huh? That’s okay. We have a machine around here somewhere. The girls will know where it is. We’ll ask them sometime later.”

“Girls as in Mira?”

“Yes and we’ve had another employee return after a bit of an absence, her name is Naevia. She has the braids and dark complexion. If Crixus growls at you randomly while she is around, he’s just being overprotective, or you know, a general asshole.”

Nasir smirked briefly. “Must run in the blood of trainers around here. Speaking of trainers, the blonde woman with strong arms, does she work here?”

Agron frowned. “Blonde, strong arms… Ooh! Saxa. Yes, yes she does. You must have seen her with Gannicus. She does a lot of early morning cross fit kind of trainings, boot camps too. She can command a room, let me tell you. Don’t let her hostilities frighten you though, she’s usually very nice.”

“And with Gannicus?”

Agron grabbed the finished paperwork, scanning the lines. “With is a strong word for whatever that is.”

“So you wouldn’t say they are dating or she’s his girlfriend?”

“Dating, maybe, girlfriend I don’t think so.”

“And are we?”

Agron’s eyes lifted from the paperwork. “Are we what?”

Nasir worried his hands a bit. He hadn’t meant to inquire so bluntly, but Agron’s habit of just blurting out what he was thinking might have begun to rub off. “Dating.”

Agron put the paperwork into Nasir’s folder. “Yeah, I’d say so.”

“And would you say I am your…”

“Boyfriend?” Agron interrupted.

Nasir nodded.

The man fidgeted with his hands for a moment before reaching down and grabbing something small and black from near the chair legs. This time the item was pushed forward with obvious hesitation. “For you,” is all Agron said.

Nasir grabbed what turned out to be a phone, frowning slightly. He recognized the Nokia branding, and the Otterbox case that already covered the small item. It felt light in his hand, and when his eyes raised from the device to Agron again he tried to carefully select his words. “This is very nice Agron, but I cannot use this phone with the plan I have; I can’t handle changing right now either. It was very thoughtful though.”

Agron began biting his lip, and he shifted in his chair. It was almost like watching water drip when Nasir realized the man intended to say something but hadn’t figured out what to say yet.

Finally, Agron broke the silence. “I really wanted to call you yesterday, but I needed to respect your wishes. I know you’re working hard and that the training might be making that harder, so you’re tired at night. But if I could just hear your voice, maybe when you’re lying in bed, when I’m lying in bed and we’re not together… I just want to hear you sometimes, so the phone was added to my plan. I’ll make sure my spoiled brat brother stops hogging all the data. Apparently he does a lot more streaming than I thought.”

The words came tumbling out quickly, making it more difficult to process, but eventually Nasir cocked his head to the side and frowned slightly. “You bought me a phone, and put it on your plan so you could talk to me on it? Agron, this has to be expensive. I couldn’t possibly…”

“It’s not!” Agron replied excitedly. “It wasn’t expensive at all and adding you to my plan isn’t much either. It’s hardly anything at all if you take into account the additional clients I’ve taken on because of you.”

“Because of me?” Nasir leaned forward a bit, fingers playing with the plastic holding his new sheets.

“Yeah, you’ve had a ummm.” Agron tapped the table a bit. “Well let’s just say I can put up with more shit now that I have more to look forward to.”

Nasir breathed in quietly. He had two people who wanted him to take more from Agron but for different reasons. Pietros was just a kid really, younger than he was and riding high on some new relationship he had, and Chadara, she always took what she could get. He needed, he wanted someone else to talk to about these things, but he had no one else. His mind rolled through the risks here, the control Agron might have with this but his gut, his gut just told him to listen to his heart, and his heart liquefied at the realization of how closely Agron paid attention to what little he knew about Nasir’s life, locking onto immediate needs quickly.

“If you don’t like it, you can always go back to your other phone. You’re not obligated in anyway Nasir. I promise.”

Nasir slid his finger across the screen. “May I take your picture?”

Agron blinked. “What?”

“Your picture, for your contact profile.”

Agron grinned. “You might want to type in boyfriend under that.”

Nasir received his first picture of Agron to take with him wherever he went.

“Now,” Agron began. “I want to ask you about going somewhere for the weekend after your session on Thursday, to the beach. Do you think it would be possible to ask for those days off?”

Without batting an eye, Nasir nodded and replied. “Yes.”

When Nasir left the gym that night, he had new sheets, a phone and a mission: in order to go to the coast with Agron, he needed to see if he could get Saturday off, keep Friday as his day off and still somehow manage to pay his bills. All of this would require some amount of work. He also needed to talk to Chadara, ask her if she had spoken to Agron. How else would the man know he was fading part way through his shifts?

Chapter Text

Nasir pulled his hair back into a pony tail, put on his hat and carefully tucked his small plastic bag into a corner in the break room. He didn’t trust anyone here enough to bring his duffle bag although he missed the convenience. He wore faded jeans and a simple white t-shirt under his company issued tan and blue shirt. He placed his sandwich and apple in the mini-fridge, and hoped to run into Chadara today, not just to speak to her about Agron, but maybe get her assistance with getting his days off. She had a way with their boss, while he mostly tried to avoid the man.

Getting ready for a Wednesday night when there wasn’t any special showing or events always proved easy. Last night’s crew almost cleaned the popcorn machine properly, although he spent a little extra time wiping down the machinery in the areas where oil had a tendency to gather and solidify. If they let that go long enough, there would be a mess on their hands and a smell.

Until recently, he usually preferred working nights because this allowed him to serve customers, work with the food, and take tickets. Even with the cleanup, he was still afforded human contact. The day shift usually consisted of maintenance work, a necessity due to a cheap owner who wouldn’t put much money into the place. As long as they could pass health inspections, Batiatus only cared about passable appearances.

Things were different now. Nasir had a better place to go, someone who was happy to see him, others who smiled at him and greeted him like he belonged somewhere. He just needed to figure out how to hold onto it. Despite what Agron suggested, that he was part of some family, he didn’t believe it. Family had to be earned, fought for.

He had everything almost ready, even took time to clean the soda nozzles to keep the fruit flies away and finished mopping the floor when Leonard came in. “Hey Nasir, there you are. I thought you might be in the back getting the hot dogs or checking expiration dates.”

Nasir turned to face the kid, who looked oddly worried. Leonard turned out to be one of the more responsible kids around here, earning money for a trip someplace, a dream vacation he called it, a normal kid with a goal. “No, I’ve been around here the whole time. Is there something you need? You’re closing tonight right?”

“Yeah I’m closing tonight, and no I don’t need anything. I mean the boss wanted me to send you in when I ran into you, so I just figured you weren’t out front or he would’ve asked you himself right?”

That didn’t sound entirely promising. “Did he say why he wanted to talk to me?”

“No and I wouldn’t ask him either. I’d rather he just forget I’m here. The guy gives me the creeps you know?”

Nasir sighed, washing his hands. “Bring out the other container of soap. This one’s almost empty.” He dried his hands and headed towards the back area where the boss’ office resided to find out what the man wanted.

Quintus Batiatus hadn’t always owned the Villa, from Nasir’s understanding. His father had the place during the glory days, when the theater played modern films and individuals would dress up in their finest coats and furs for a night out to the movies. Rumors suggested the son squandered away the wealth and value of his name in poorly chosen business ventures and fertility attempts. Nasir had met his wife only once and he felt as if she measured his worth in dollars from the start.

Chadara had met Batiatus first, when they were younger and huddling in alleys in the streets. Back then, a night’s warmth became more important than food. When forced to beg, people would spit in his face, ignore him or tell him to go back to his family and follow the rules. He had wanted to go home more than once when it became clear they weren’t making it, hungry most days, always tired and dirty. Even “that” home seemed better than freezing and starving to death. Looking back, he was glad Chadara stopped him. There was hope now, even if only faint.

He tried to remind himself, as he often did in the presence of his boss, that this was the man that took them from the streets and gave them jobs and helped find a place to live when no one else would give them a second glance. How naïve he was once to think there were programs out there for people like him. They found out as minors there was little any adults would do to help them without sending them back, and as adults… he ran into additional unforeseen roadblocks that left him here despite earlier attempts to leave.

Batiatus sat in an office cluttered with files and paperwork, some probably as old as the films Nasir had pulled from the second storage closet. The list of that work, the films that could now be played and those too damaged to survive on the wheel was probably under one of those stacks or just thrown out. “You wanted to see me? I hear Chadara isn’t in today?”

“Who?” Batiatus was a man who stood taller than Nasir with short hair shifting from dark to grey. He seemed like a modest if meek man but careful eyes would soon learn to pay attention to his double speak and his actions, not his pretty words, or his empty promises. He had to be in his fifties by now, Nasir thought. As Batiatus aged, he seemed to become more determined and harsher, not calmer, not friendly. He often wore jeans, almost always black for some reason, and long sleeve button down shirts like the white and blue striped one today. “Oh yes, Chadara. She needed a little rest after the weekend. She’ll be back eventually. I heard from one of the kids you were looking to exchange shifts this weekend?”

Nasir sighed inwardly; he didn’t want to have this conversation with Batiatus, and had only mentioned it to a couple people in passing when he first arrived today. The man still made him uneasy after all these years. He wasn’t entirely naïve about the side business here and often attracted by the promise of rewards from it. Fortunately, Chadara dealt with this sort of thing for him more often than not, removing temptation, but she wasn’t here, so the only choice he had was to deal with him or leave his budding relationship with his… boyfriend floundering. “I was hoping to trade my Saturday shift with someone and ensure I keep Friday. I could pick up extra shifts next week to try and make up the difference.”

Batiatus finally stopped paying attention to whatever he was reading on the desk and focused on Nasir. The man smiled, but it was no Agron smile; such an expression on this man left him uncomfortable. “I remember when you two were a couple of teens shivering in the dark rain trying to hold garbage bags over your heads, huddled around metal bin fires with a couple of older bums that terrified you. Now look at you: beautiful, grown, and with lives of your own.” That smile continued. “I know you were sick for a few days which had to set you back.”

“Yeah, I haven’t had a raise since I started working here so I run a tight budget.” Nasir usually knew better than to let bitterness show, especially when he wanted something from this man, but he let his temper get the better of him. With typical kids working here, those with standard lives and few needs coupled with the downtrodden, Batiatus rarely gave raises or bonuses; there wasn’t need to.

Batiatus stood, not visibly reacting to Nasir’s biting words. “Nasir, if you needed more you should have just asked. You know I want you comfortable and happy here. I practically let you run the place without any oversight or rules. After that little fiasco with Caesar, I just assumed you were moving on.”

“It just didn’t work out between us. I am sure he will find someone else he would prefer.” This time Nasir kept his voice respectful. The sting of Caesar had almost been forgotten, overshadowed by a greater man. He truly believed Caesar wanted a figurine, someone who didn’t talk back or ask questions. And for a time, Nasir settled for that, thought he could survive on appearances alone if just given some measure of stability. One night changed everything.

“He was a good customer.”

Nasir held Batiatus’ gaze. “Was?”

“Well he hasn’t been here since your incident.”

My incident, Nasir fumed a little inside at Batiatus’ choice of words. “Apologies that was not my intention.”

“Oh I know.” Batiatus moved beside him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I know that now. He and I have had a few discussions since. You should call him though. He won’t push you; Caesar just wants to talk. Now about your weekend. You can have it off, a twenty-five cent an hour raise and to help you with your current troubles…” The man reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and laid down two one-hundred dollar bills.

Nasir felt the tension build immediately in his back and crawl along his spine to his neck. “You, you said when I started working here I wouldn’t have to work Sundays. You swore you wouldn’t ever ask me to.”

“And I haven’t, and I won’t. Nasir, I am a man of my word.” Batiatus squeezed his shoulder a little more firmly. “I have two men in Theater 1A. They just want a private viewing of one of our traditional movies while they discuss business. All you have to do is serve them for the night, two hours, maybe three at most, and you can go home and not have to return until Tuesday.”

“But I work Mondays.”

“Not this Monday, extend your weekend. Take my generosity Nasir; I know you could use it.”

With two hundred dollars, he could certainly pay rent, maybe catch up on his electric bill. If Agron took over his phone costs, he could… Nasir swallowed. The cost was steep, but he couldn’t beg Agron for help, watch those green eyes shift from warmth and happiness to pity. He wanted more than just things from Agron. “When do they get here?”

“They’re already here. I told them I didn’t have anyone to help serve them tonight, but if you show up they’ll be pleasantly surprised. I have another bottle of wine on the cart, some popcorn in white and red bags and cigars if they want them.” His boss handed him a blue cloth napkin.

Nasir took the napkin, staring at it as if he had just dirtied his hands. He needed help, and the further behind he allowed his accounts to get, the faster the fees would build. If he let that get out of control and wound up paying late fees on his rent, it would quickly spiral. “Two hours, no more.”

“Two hours then. Thank you Nasir. I knew I could count on you. Enjoy your weekend.”

Nasir left the office, looking at the cart for lingering moments before arranging the cigars, wine and popcorn for easy access, but he did not kid himself; these men were not here for the drinks or popcorn or even smoking.

Even the glare of the film on the sizable screen did not provide adequate light for Nasir to see their faces or much of their figures from the back of the room when he entered. They looked like they might be wearing suits, and the only sounds aside from turning of the projector’s wheel in the tiny room behind them was the sounds of wine being poured then sipped and hushed voices. He did not want to know what they discussed or get involved.

Once he wheeled the small cart inside and closed the door behind him, he knew they were aware of his presence. He lingered in the back for a while, eyes on the screen until an empty glass was raised. They shouldn’t have had to ask, but he felt tense, uncertain about this even though legs, arms and fingers moved to fill their glasses. Several minutes later, the glass was raised a second time, but a hand grabbed his wrist as he poured, and his eyes lifted to view them.

One of them had short light hair, a chiseled handsome sort of face, and a stern steady gaze though the light made it difficult to determine the color of those eyes. The other man was shorter and larger, his cheeks round and puffy, his eyes definitely dark as was his hair. Nasir’s eyes dropped to the strong fingers gripping his wrist, fingers from the more handsome, taller man, but he saw the other hand move between the man’s legs followed by the unmistakable sound of a zipper. His shorter companion frowned when Nasir did not move to assist or drop to his knees. “This one does not seduce, does not make offer.”

“Are you blind? This is not one of Batiatus’ whores, are you boy?”

Nasir said nothing, his jaw set.

“Then why is he here?” The other seemed perplexed and curious about the situation, not offended.

“I don’t know, but I like it.” The more attractive man addressed Nasir again. “We understand Batiatus’ rules here. I won’t hurt you. I would like you to pleasure me while I finish my conversation and this movie. Is that something you can do?”

“You want me to suck your cock?” Nasir asked levelly, just a bit of bite behind his question.

“Oh, he has spirit, defiance. Are you sure you can handle him?”

His companion was ignored when the man answered him. “Yes, I do. Are you willing to do that? I will not force you.”

Nasir lifted his chin. “I made my choice when I entered this room. I just want to hear you say it.”

While the shorter more portly one seemed perplexed, even appalled, by his words, the other stood pulling an already partially hard mass out of his pants. “I want you to suck my cock.” He stated as crudely as requested of him, but a partial smile formed.

Despite himself, Nasir dropped his eyes momentarily, thinking most of these men would greet his defiance with open hostility and indignation or at least arrogance, not mild humor and a willingness to play along. Arrogance and hostility made it easier to hate. The more he hated, the easier such memories could be abandoned. He breathed in quietly, curling his fingers slightly before he moved to kneel when the man reached out and lightly brushed the back of his hand against Nasir’s cheek. The act was unexpected, gentle and caused him to raise his eyes again to meet the other’s gaze, blue he realized.

“I am called Varinius and this is Gallienus. What is your name?”

Nasir pulled away and lowered to his knees, his heart beat quickening far more quickly than anticipated. This was not the first time he had to do this, but it had been a couple years since any money had exchanged hands for it. Not allowing his mind to focus on these things for too long and just wanting to get through it, he grasped the man’s cock ran his tongue along the soft bulbous head and drew it into his mouth carefully. He wanted Batiatus’ client to remain a nameless and faceless husk, just a means to an end.

He drew the filling mass along his tongue, taking in only an inch maybe two into his mouth. Then he gripped the man’s cock, covering the rest of the hard mass with his fingers, feeling it twitch against his palm. Most men like these two would attempt to deep throat him, an almost frightening experience to have with some stranger, so Nasir had learned a few techniques to bring quick but calmer pleasure. With his hand enveloping the bulk of the length, and his mouth stimulating the head as he bobbed back and forth, he essentially jerked the man off while sucking him.

Varinius certainly gasped in response and strong fingers grabbed Nasir’s hat and worked their way to his ponytail, pulling firmly. He was thankful for the hat, pleased the man’s hands could not familiarize himself with his hair like... No, he told himself. Don’t think of Agron, not now, but it was too late, especially when harsh thrusts did not come. Instead, this stranger held himself still, groaning, grunting while moving his hips ever so slightly.

Nasir ran his tongue along the underbelly, turning and twisting as he moved his hand faster. He managed some measure of control like this, so even when a sudden thrust moved forward, the man did not penetrate his mouth more deeply than allowed.

“Easy, easy boy,” Varinius hissed in a response blended of pleasure and perhaps a desire to slow things down.

Nasir did not comply. His nostrils flared as that last word resonated. He had no idea what this man was to Batiatus or what he knew about him. Maybe it wasn’t fair to punish him after declaring he chose to be here, but he did just the same, letting his teeth brush against the man’s glans enough to hear a hiss escape his lips before he soothed the area with his tongue. After a matter of minutes, he felt the other tense and yank at what hair he had, then the hot, salty fluid struck his tongue. More and more came, until he had to swallow.

It was over.

Nasir pulled away abruptly, grabbing the napkin Batiatus had given him to use for its true purpose, wiping his mouth.

Varinius watched him steadily rearrange the cart. Gallienus looked like he was about to say something when Nasir appeared to leave but the taller man stopped him. “You, theater boy. Come here.”

Nasir tensed, finding an unexplainable amount of anger swelling inside him, something he had not felt before. He should have felt nothing, had trained himself to bury these responses deep inside him as Chadara had shown him to do when such acts might keep them alive for another day or two and away from shelters where they would force men and women apart for safety reasons. Stiffly he moved towards Varinius, not trusting himself to speak.

The man opened his wallet and handed Nasir a bill. “I will tell Batiatus his venue has proven most worthwhile today and I asked you to leave early fully satisfied.”

Nasir did not understand why he would say this or make the offer, but he took the money, fled the room, fled the building and walked the entire way home.

**

Varinius watched Nasir leave and eventually made his way to his acquaintance’s office. Batiatus moved to stand, but Varinius raised a hand letting him know such efforts were not needed. “I trust you enjoyed my location enough to discuss your business arrangements?”

“Indeed, this unassuming site is beneficial. I must say when it was presented, I thought it would prove a disappointment.”

The man smiled. “It is my sincere wish to provide entertainment but perhaps we can discuss more profitable business that includes me in the future?”

“Perhaps, but not today. Now the one that you sent to service us this evening, what is his name?” He ran his fingers along the desk, expensive once, decades ago, now just old, dusty even when clean.

“That is Nasir. He has been an employee here for a few years now.” The man already looked excited that Varinius showed even a hint of interest.

“And he has never been to one of your parties? My companion and I do not recognize him.”

Batiatus shook his head. “Never actually. Nasir came with Chadara. I found them when they were teens in an alley, offered the girl a job and a place to live. Eventually she found the courage to sneak him into her apartment.” He chuckled quietly. “They were both so terrified when I showed up unexpectedly and found him in her place. Apparently he hid to try and avoid complications with the lease since they were clearly not related and he a minor, but I gave him a job and eventually they began separate lives.”

“Are they runaways then, and how old was he when you found him?”

“Now Varinius, I would not be a shrewd man to reveal all my secrets in our first conversation. Let’s just say the foster care system failed them, and they were willing to do anything not to go back to it. He was sixteen I think. By the time his involvement in my parties became a possibility, Caesar had interest.”

Varinius frowned, his displeasure more obvious than he would have liked it to be. “And does Caesar’s interest continue? It would be unfortunate for you to try and play us against each other. I’m not interested in taking on a man expected to obtain a great deal of wealth in the near future.”

The older man raised his hand quickly. “Forgive me. Such was not my intention, and the one who was meant to serve you tonight is still… recovering from Sunday’s events. I only coaxed Nasir at the last minute. As for Caesar, the interest in declining. Nasir has rejected him; he will no longer even take the man’s calls.”

A smile formed again, Caesar’s discomfort somewhat pleasing even if he did not plan to take the man on as a rival. “I see, so that leaves Nasir unattached?”

“As far as I know, the only friend he has is Chadara and I control my bed-warmer. I think he goes to some gym to socialize or something which shouldn’t be a problem. Do you want me to arrange another meeting?”

“No, no I think I will handle that myself. Thank you Batiatus. For the next private party, I’ll be certain you’re invited provided you help make Nasir available when I am ready?”

They shook hands.

Outside Varinius rubbed his chin. He found Batiatus to be too ambitious for his own good, for his origins and certainly beyond the reach of his intellect. But he left the man with a brief if condescending smile to rejoin his companion in a large black SUV that pulled up to take them to their office.

“Varinius, I advise you against pursuing that individual. He is not like the other offerings; clearly this one is not participating willingly, and that was no party.”

“I spoke with Batiatus on the matter. Let us just say that Nasir is as against involving any sort of authority as we are. He and that blonde have an unknown history I am assured will keep them in line for the most part. But you are correct, that fool thinks he controls him when clearly he does not. This theater is little more than a house of cards he holds together with a few threats and promises.”

“Then why participate if you find the offering so low?”

“Batiatus’ house of pleasures does offer some mild amusement. It seems that this Nasir has not been brought into the fold fully because Caesar had interest for some time, an interest that is almost now severed. I think I can enjoy myself before this place falls apart.” Varinius rolled down the window peering at the theater as they pulled away.

Gallienus shook his head, pouring them both champagne. “Take my advice my friend and walk away. It is one thing to enjoy the bodies of the young and desperate in a haze of alcohol, music and the dim lights of a party. This is something entirely different. You plan to put him in some dungeon?”

“No, I would simply lure him to me with what he doesn’t know he wants: a firm hand, a comfortable life and no decisions. The only connection he seems to have is some gym. What are bunch physical trainers capable of anyway?”

**

Nasir lay in bed on top of the rich wine sheets Agron purchased for him and buried his face in the neck of his white tiger. Three hundred dollars remained on the small table, crumbled and wet from holding them so tightly in his fist the entire walk home. Tears came as he clutched the animal close to him. Had he ruined everything? He had a raise, money to finally catch up on bills, and the days off he wanted, but he hadn’t felt this low since, well since meeting Agron. How would he face the man now, after he had another man’s cock in his mouth and his fingers against his cheek? Why did he think this would be better than the pity of trying to get help? If Agron found out, what would he do? He couldn’t imagine seeing those green eyes so often the highlight of a jubilant eager expression turned dark with anger and disgust directed at him.

Carefully Nasir grabbed the phone, his most precious gift from Agron so far. It was not just expensive; this gift told him that Agron envisioned minutes, maybe hours at night spent between them only talking. His new boyfriend wanted to hear from him, listen. He’d never had that from anyone before. Not even Chadara gave him that much attention. She tried, sometimes, but she was terrible at accepting or fully comprehending his thoughts and wants. His finger caressed the picture of Agron grinning goofily at the lens on his new phone. The list of people he knew, considered himself connected to, could be counted on one hand; the rest were just businesses, his landlord and employment based contacts. Only one had a picture, only one made his heart skip and slow and now seize at the thought of everything crumbling around him. He’d fallen too fast, too hard, and the pain of loss would be immense, far greater than the night he realized he and Caesar had nothing between them.

Carefully he unlocked the phone and swiped his thumb across the screen, and sent a message to Agron.

At the other end of the phone, Agron relaxed on a couch watching cars race around a track in circles like it was interesting. Spartacus and Mira seemed to have a thing for fast cars, but he had a sneaky feeling Spartacus just went along to humor her. He was starting to understand that tendency though, thinking about Nasir and what silly thing he might endure to see a smile on his handsome face. He was about to ask which lap this was again when the new ringtone sounded. Agron eagerly looked at the phone only to see a few words he did not expect to see:

–I thought I would be able to make it tomorrow. Sorry I can’t. – Nasir

Agron tapped the phone a moment or two; the response was short and not a voice call. There was no reason for Nasir not to call him unless he was worried that Agron might hear emotion in his voice. Something had to be wrong.

– You can’t get the days off? If you have to stay in town we can do something else? – Agron

– I don’t think that is a good idea. Maybe see you Sunday – Nasir

Nasir didn’t answer his question, so maybe he had the day off but didn’t want to go now and didn’t want to tell him why. Maybe see him Sunday, maybe??? That was unacceptable to him. Agron scowled and growled just enough to get Spartacus’ attention.

“Everything okay?”

Agron stood, grabbing his jacket. “Yeah. Say, can you come by my place a little early tomorrow? We have to make another stop before we hit the road, and that might take a while.”

“Anything I should be concerned about?”

He shook his head. “Nah. See you soon. Thanks for beer and the race.” Agron left quickly, hurrying down the stairs. There were a few things he needed to pick up for tomorrow morning. He also needed to formulate a plan.

Chapter Text

The night proved restless for Nasir. He found little comfort in his pillow or tiger and wound up staring up at the ceiling for an indeterminable amount of time.

He kept thinking about Agron, about how the man probably realized by now that he was more trouble than he was worth. The last few sessions had left him happy beyond words and the thought of losing them made his chest tight. At least they would honor the rest of the trial before he returned to his dull life; he hoped. But the longer he stared at the ceiling, the more his thoughts darkened. Maybe it would be unkind to even continue. If Agron didn’t want him around, what was the point in forcing it? Maybe Chadara had been correct all along, that he had squandered the only possibility of leaving this place and that theater by setting his expectations too high, and what was he left with now?

By the time the sun began to peek through his curtains, Nasir already mourned the loss of Agron and his silly attempt to try and better his life. He couldn’t even remember if he’d slept.

That’s when he heard it.

At first, he thought it was a faint scratching sound, like the time the rats infested part of the building. Knowing his luck he would wind up with them in his place instead of the neighbors’ units this time. But then he heard it again, and it wasn’t scratching at all. Rubbing his eyes, Nasir sat up frowning in the partial darkness until he turned towards the door, noticing a shadow on the other side of the door and three pieces of paper on this side, like someone had slipped something through the crack near the floor.

Nasir moved across the carpet barefooted until he kneeled and realized it wasn’t just pieces of paper but photos. The first was of his original session with Spartacus, where he wore The Rebel logo gear a size too large and tried his best to keep up with a jump rope routine the man announced steadily behind him. His hair flew above him, and he realized from that shot he should have worn it tied back. The second was with Agron standing close to him, real close, showing him how to stand properly and lift weights. The third showed him at the carnival, eating chili cheese fries with Agron, and finally the fourth a captured image of him smiling with a large white tiger in his arm. None of the pictures appeared as close shots, as if someone had snapped them a good distance away.

Something else slipped under the door then, and this time it was a note, a simple white piece of paper that said: please let me in.

Hesitantly, Nasir placed his palms against the black painted wood followed by a press of his forehead against the door. He could hear the other on the opposite side, breathing, shifting and waiting. “Agron?”

“Nasir.” Agron replied faintly, barely received even in the silence of the early morning.

He knew who it was before that utterance, knew almost the moment he recognized the scenes in the photos. Nasir felt his heart skip a beat at the sound of his name, even muffled, from Agron’s lips just the same. Nasir swallowed thickly. “You, you shouldn’t be here.” Sorrow already tightened his throat.

“Please Nasir.”

He couldn’t deny a plea from Agron; he doubted he would ever be able to do so. With a deep breath Nasir opened the door, peering up at the man who stood in the hallway wearing denim shorts, a black t-shirt and sandals, and in his hands was a paper coffee cup and a brown paper bag. “I don’t know how you take your coffee, and I got you a bagel.”

Throat sore, generally tired and mournful that his lover saw him in such a state, Nasir dropped his eyes, confused and surprised that Agron was there. “Agron…”

Agron stepped in carefully, moving in such a way that his sheer size could not be used as a way to force entry into the studio apartment, allowing Nasir to try and stop him if he wanted to; he did not. Instead Nasir pivoted aside and closed the door carefully behind him. “Nasir, I know something must have happened last night for you to… well are you all right?”

Nasir carefully took the bag and the coffee, setting it on the counter, trying not to meet Agron’s gaze as he spoke. “I’m okay. I just encountered something I wasn’t expecting is all.” He should have been thankful, grateful he could pay his bills, make it through another month. But something was different now, something so profound that it left a pit in his stomach at the thought of doing all he could to just survive another day while losing what he was gaining in the process.

The large man approached, gently running his thumb along his cheek before strong fingers dipped down and lifted his chin, tilting his head upward until their eyes met. “Did you get the days off?”

Nasir nodded. He wasn’t prepared to lie.

“But now you don’t want to go?”

He pulled away, shaking his head. Agron would never understand. Most people couldn’t understand, so he didn’t fault Agron for it. “It’s more complicated than that.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Agron insisted.

Nasir glanced back at him, seeing the determination and earnest written all over his handsome face. “You don’t know me Agron. You don’t know what I am. You wouldn’t want me if you did.” He felt so deflated, giving Agron an out while finally accepting his future would lead him to something else, someone else.

“Don’t you think I should make that decision, that you could let me make that decision?” Agron urged returning to his side with strong fingers moving to his neck and shoulders, trying to ease the tension away.

“I’ll lose everything.” Nasir whispered. “If I fall with you, and you decide I’m, I’m…”

Agron drew him closer, taut against his firm body while whispering against his ear. “I don’t think that’ll happen. You said you wanted to find confidence, to know no fear. I don’t know anyone who feels who doesn’t know fear. But whatever you have now Nasir, it’s not enough; you know it, and I know it. Maybe losing it wouldn’t be as bad as you think if you gained something better in return. Facing your fear might be worth it. Come with me, come with us. Whatever happened, we’ll get through it together. You’re not alone.”

“I’m tired and a mess Agron.” He felt his resistance slipping away.

“Why don’t you go take a quick shower? I’ve got some clothes for you in the Jeep, and a few other things I picked up. All I need is you Nasir, just you.”

Nasir drew in a quick breath, hesitant but willing. He felt an objection on the tip of his tongue but he swallowed it, moving towards the bathroom to comply with Agron’s wishes. He took a warm shower again, instead of hot, finished by a splash of ice cold water to help wake him up. Confidence, he whispered, hope. He lingered a little longer in there, trying to focus and remember that Agron made the request. But that’s all it was: a request, not a command, not a threat, not an entitlement. And Nasir wanted to go.

When he emerged drying his hair, he found Agron on the bed, sitting patiently, looking worried and shifting like a ball of energy eager to be let loose.

The man stood as soon as Nasir walked into the room. “Take your time,” Agron encouraged, despite his obvious inclination to spring to action.

“Could we, could we stop by the bank a few blocks away? I have to make a deposit. I can’t have, well…” His voice trailed off, and his hand almost trembled as he picked up the wadded up hundred dollar bills from the table. Memories of the night before resurfaced, but he forced them to the back of his mind.

“Sure, Spartacus won’t mind.” Nasir blinked, only now remembering they were not traveling alone to the coast. He felt his stomach turn a bit and his heart quickened a little faster at the thought of facing two others today. Agron must have noticed because he returned to his side quickly planting a swift kiss against his temple. “You can rest on the way after we stop. It will take a few hours to get there. Nasir, it’ll be all right. I… I promise.” If he noticed the money, he didn’t say anything.

“You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep Agron.” Nasir nearly dropped his eyes again only to be stopped by another hand to his cheek which once again guided his gaze back to bright green eyes and now a grinning face.

“Maybe I shouldn’t but I’m feeling pretty confident about this one.”

“Why?” Nasir felt genuine curiosity stifle rising doubt as he tried to follow Agron’s thoughts.

“Because I’m not alone either.”

They made their way down the few flights of stairs to find the Spartacus and Mira in the front of the deep brown Jeep Wrangler, the body open for the sunny day. Mira waved at them immediately when she saw them approach. Nasir returned only a half-smile. With only a little assistance, Agron helped get Nasir situated, dropped the brown bag in his lap and the cup in the cup holder attached to the leather back seats. After a brief stop at the bank, the small group soon found the highway, and they were on their way.

**

As expected, Agron knew the moment he set eyes upon Nasir that something had happened though the smaller man would not reveal anything to him. The hesitant smiles, easy kisses and light laughter remained unseen behind a tired, almost broken exterior. This seemed worse than the night they first met, the first time he set eyes upon Nasir while some blonde bastard tore into him at an expensive restaurant. While Nasir seemed to retreat inside himself then, just sort of shut down, he oozed desperation now as if he’d lost his way and couldn’t find his way back again.

He was happy to see Nasir eat a little of the bagel before he closed his eyes, laid his head against Agron’s shoulder and just fell asleep. He reached down and at their feet pulled out a thick navy blanket to cover their laps, the wind around them cool for the morning drive.

Mira glanced behind her, looking at Agron behind the driver seat then Nasir next to him. “Is he all right?”

Agron nodded. “Yeah, something spooked him. He won’t tell me what. At least he ate a little but didn’t drink the coffee.” He frowned reaching out to pick up the cup and then taking a sip, still hot at least, and it tasted fine.

“I’ve never seen him drink coffee. Did he ask about the pictures?”

Agron’s frown deepened. “He hasn’t has he? Maybe he doesn’t like coffee. No he didn’t ask about the pictures; I think he might later though when the surprise wears off.”

Spartacus glanced at him in the mirror. “What pictures?”

Mira blushed briefly. “Umm just a few, you know, moments captured. Guys forget that sort of thing. If he wakes up before we get there, let’s pull over and try tea.”

“Tea?” Agron tried to think back to when he saw Nasir drink anything but water. He almost missed Spartacus giving Mira one of those disapproving glances.

“It was just a couple of pictures!” Mira protested smoothly to Spartacus before peering back at Agron. “Donar told me he’s seen him in a coffee shop once or twice.”

“What the hell? My guy sees Nasir in a coffee shop and tells you? Son of a bitch.” Agron let his annoyance spill off his tongue without hindrance. “And don’t fucking tell me about jars. I’m off the clock.”

Mira shifted her entire body this time to face him better. “Don’t blame me for what Donar tells me. Have you ever asked Donar if he’s seen Nasir around city?”

“I shouldn’t fucking have to.” Agron retorted. “The idiot should volunteer that sort of thing.” He quieted down when Nasir shifted against his shoulder. Still asleep, good.

“Or you can appreciate that your friends are paying attention Agron,” Spartacus corrected carefully. “Has he met Duro yet?”

“No and he isn’t going to either. It’s too much as it is.” Agron knew his brother wouldn’t like that, but after yesterday and today he was more convinced than ever to take this slower. He began to wonder if he’d pushed too fast and hard, but it was time to change the topic of their conversation. He didn’t know his thoughts on this and could scarcely attempt to formulate coherent words to describe the situation to others. “This guy’s boat we’re borrowing, how long have you known him?”

“I haven’t met him actually, and we won’t this weekend either. He’s a friend of a friend. I’ve borrowed his boat a few times. He’s a private investigator, a good one I hear, and often out of town, loves the water. It’s just a nice getaway. We’ll get the keys at the docks, and I have two rooms nearby booked. It will be fun, trust me.”

“I always do,” Agron remarked softly almost without thought as he focused on their surroundings, anything to ease his mind.

Sometimes it was hard to believe the man who drove exactly the speed limit most the way to the coast, had been such a risk taker early on and a fighter, a man who taught him most of what he knew about training and fighting. Agron appreciated Spartacus more now than ever when he seemed to shift from boss to friend to brother as Agron needed. He did not lie to Nasir when he said he wasn’t alone, and having Spartacus, even Mira here gave him a boost of confidence. The three of them stepped out of the Jeep a number of hours later in front of the motel. It was a simple place with basic comforts but clean with the beach just on the other side of the parking lot and road.

Mira checked them in and returned with four key cards and a ready smile. “Here you go boys.”

Agron took the two cards leaving the other two to hash out their plans while he moved to Nasir’s side, lightly running his fingers along his hair and neck. “Nasir we’re here.”

Nasir blinked, breathing in quickly as he took in the sight of the motel. Dark eyes still seemed heavy but at least the earlier expression of despair and hopelessness had dissipated to be replaced with a half-smile. “I hope you didn’t let me rest too long and ruin your plans.”

“Nah.” Agron gathered their things and led them to a corner room, where there was one king-sized bed, a tiny TV next to a similarly small fridge, and a kick-ass view of the ocean across the street. “There aren’t a lot of plans for the weekend actually. Spartacus has a boat available for us to use when we want to. It’s a little cold still for swimming, so mostly it will be boating and walking, and tomorrow and Saturday we’ll have to spend a few hours walking the local market. Mira is into that sort of thing.” He paused, frowning. “I forgot to ask if you can swim.”

Nasir sat on the edge of the bed, yawning. “Yeah, I can swim. I couldn’t win any competitions, but if you wind up bumping me off the boat, I could stick around until someone noticed I wasn’t there and came back.”

Agron chuckled sitting next to Nasir. “Oh I’d notice, but I’m not the kind to fumble around you know. I am very coordinated.”

Nasir grinned at his boast. “So what are the plans for the day?”

“Well…” Agron hesitated, wanting to word this carefully so as not to imply Nasir had no choice, yet at the same time encourage him to rest. “I thought I might walk the beach for a couple of hours and stretch my legs while you stay here and rest a little longer?”

Nasir glanced away. “I don’t want to slow you down or get in the way of your vacation. I can manage on a few hours’ sleep.”

Agron gripped his knee gently, waiting for those dark eyes to return to him. “I have no doubt about that, but you’ll enjoy the entire weekend more with some rest.”

“But...”

“And I am so happy you came Nasir. I promise I won’t be far or gone for long. I brought a few snacks if you’re hungry. I put them in the fridge, some beer, a couple of sandwiches and a few things my brother made for the trip. Say do you like tea?” Agron gave his lover a partial smile as he saw the opposition melt away.

Nasir nodded. “I do like tea, chai especially but all sorts really. How did you know?”

“Oh someone told me.” Agron stood so Nasir could get situated in the bed, grinning down at him. “Your key’s on the table. You look a little nervous though. Do you want me to stick around until you fall asleep?”

“I’ve not had a lot of luck with my time in small motels. You promise you won’t let me sleep too long, not all through the evening and everything?”

“I promise.”

Agron bent down and kissed Nasir, leaving after closing the curtains.

Outside he found Spartacus and Mira getting ready to go to the docks.

Spartacus approached, glancing at their room. “We’re going to the docks to check out the boat. I am guessing you’re going to want to stay around until he wakes up.”

“Yeah,” Agron confirmed. “I’ll stick around for a couple, few hours. We can meet up for dinner?”

“Actually, I made a reservation at that place we talked about. We can pull right up to the restaurant in the boat. How about we return to pick you two up around five or six. We can do a little sightseeing along the shore on our way. It will be a light day for you two?”

Oh that sounded perfect, Agron thought. Nasir could wake up, clean up a little, go out on the boat, eat and then they would be back on the beach for the rest of the night. “Perfect. And Spartacus…” He began when the man moved to catch up with Mira towards the boats. The other turned a questioning eye towards him, so Agron continued. “Thank you for inviting us and not asking a lot of questions.”

Spartacus smirked. “Don’t worry Agron, I’ll ask them later.” He soon caught up with Mira and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Agron peeked back at the motel room and then headed down the beach. A good run would help him unwind, and maybe somewhere down where those silly markets were… he could find some chai.

**

Despite his general unease around motels, Nasir found it relatively easy to fall asleep in the quiet motel; hearing the nearby ocean with a few seagulls around helped too, but mostly he was warmed and soothed by the knowledge that he was sleeping in their bed, his and Agron’s.

A few hours later, he awoke to the quiet sounds of someone in the shower and the pleasant smell of tea on the nightstand right next to him. Rubbing his eyes, Nasir looked at the paper cup with his name scribbled on it as well as a shirt and pair of pants folded up right next to it. Agron would not be the first boyfriend to try and dress him up or guide his clothing situation, except this felt different. No doubt Agron knew that if he managed to drag him out of the studio, he would have nothing prepared, and certainly zilch for what he assumed would be a nice dinner out. He ran his fingers over the fabric and sipped his chai.

Agron stepped out of the shower rubbing the towel over his short hair and grinning instantly at Nasir. “You’re awake. I hope I wasn’t too loud. We still had some time before I thought I should wake you in time for dinner.”

Nasir stood, walking over to Agron to grab a kiss which was readily gifted to him. “No, you were not loud. There was just enough sound to help ease me awake. I feel a lot better now. More sleep was definitely a good idea. Where are we going?”

Agron set the towel down working the buttons up his ivory white shirt with ever so faint grey stripes while looking for presumably socks to cover his bare feet. “A place on the water Spartacus knows. He says it’s pretty nice but not quite suit and tie. I brought you a set of nice things just in case we went some place like that. That cup is Oregon Chai. I assume that’s good?”

“Very good.” Nasir moved about, finding a towel in the bathroom and some tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner that would be good enough. “Thank you. Are you finished in there?”

“Go ahead. Like I said, we have plenty of time so take as long as you want.” Nasir closed the door, smelling a strong cologne. The second shower of the day proved refreshing and energizing. When he emerged, he felt like a different person from the man Agron encountered that morning.

The boat they borrowed was just over twenty-five feet that looked well-cared for and provided more than enough room for four. While it could be used for fishing, Spartacus described it as just a boat to cruise around the shore and enjoy time near the beach. Apparently the guy had a thirty-five foot yacht he moored for longer trips out to sea and down to the Caribbean or along the coast of other states. Nasir thought he might like to meet this man someday. He sounded adventurous and fascinating.

Like Spartacus said, Neptune’s Lair was two stories high, and had a marina that allowed them to pull right up. Their reservation gave them a table on the second story’s balcony which was alight with several white spherical lanterns and torches along the staircase. There was only a light breeze and the night’s air remained warm.

Nasir did his best not to fidget at the table. He heard stern voices of past men, boyfriends and otherwise, telling him not to mess with his collar or fiddle with the buttons on his sleeve. Sit straight, don’t let your eyes wander, and make a decision they said. He could feel Agron’s eyes glancing towards him, a quick easy smile, and an uncertain brush of the arm indicated his lover felt his discomfort. When their waiter came the first time, he became tongue-tied.

Mira cleared her throat after they ordered drinks, when Nasir became hesitant just to accept water. “Hey Nasir, let’s go freshen up real quick while they bring the bread and the drinks.” She smiled so brightly at him and with a hopeful expression that of course Nasir could not refuse. Near the bathrooms though, she pulled him aside behind a couple of plants. “Are you alright? You look anxious.”

Nasir glanced away, and remained silent until an elderly couple vanished behind each door. “I don’t know, don’t know if I should let him order for me. Or if I order maybe I should order light so he knows I care about my figure, or maybe go for something expensive so he knows that I realize he has a job and can afford it, or maybe I should show him I am aware of the costs of things so I should…”

“Whoa, whoa…” Mira placed a hand on his shoulder. “Nasir, that’s a lot of words jumbling around up there. Is that really what you were thinking when you were sitting there?”

He took a deep breath, dropping his eyes as she looked at him in bewilderment. He felt the tendons in his neck tighten while he clenched his jaw. Everything he knew, all the relationships he had, and all the advice given to him said he had to do this right to keep things going.

No, he realized, that was not entirely true was it. Pietros said he should do what felt right. This place, these clothes, none of it felt just right. Eventually though, he merely nodded in response to her question.

“Okay, here’s what we do. Let’s take a few deep breaths to relax, and then we can talk about what you saw on the menu that you liked so Agron can feel like he didn’t make a mistake picking this restaurant.”

“Agron?” Nasir frowned slightly. “He said Spartacus picked this place.”

Mira grinned. “Did he? Well maybe in his mind that is exactly what happened. Let me tell you how Agron’s brain works. He probably went to Spartacus and asked him if he knew of any nice restaurants around here. Spartacus likes to come to the beach and relax from time to time, so he knows the area well. He suggests this place to Agron. Agron tells you Spartacus picked the restaurant but who really wanted a nice restaurant?”

Nasir’s brow furrowed. “Agron did. But why would he want a nice restaurant?”

Her smile broadened. “Oh he’s dressed to impress tonight. Button down shirt, expensive cologne, not a swear word out of his mouth. If Agron was dating me, I’d say he’s trying to prove something. Now do you want Agron to control everything about your relationship, even down to what you order? I bet he would if you pressed him, but is that what you really want Nasir?”

“No…” Nasir replied after considering the question. He didn’t mind Caesar ordering at first, thought it was charming even, but then it became obvious he wasn’t supposed to say thing, not talk to the waiter or remind the man what he liked or didn’t like. “But I don’t want it to be a reason for him to walk away.”

Mira grabbed his hand and squeezed. “I’ve known Agron for almost as long as he’s been in this area. He’s not walking away Nasir, not over anything this minor; I promise you that. Just enjoy it while you can.”

Her words puzzled him, and it showed with his slight frown. “It?”

“Agron on his best behavior.”

“And when he’s not what does he do?”

“Just a little moody is all, nothing to worry about. So let’s talk about that menu. There must be something you want. What do you think about that fisherman’s stew? Do you like seafood?”

**

Agron shifted in his chair, sighing. “I don’t know, maybe this was too much. I thought he might like a nice dinner out. Maybe we should have just had sandwiches on the boat or something. They’ve been gone a long time right?”

Spartacus glanced up from his menu, looking cool, calm and collected as he set it down and took a swig of beer. “Take a drink Agron, relax.”

And without thought, Agron found himself following that command although he took such a big swig he almost choked on it. “Shit, I got it on my shirt.”

His friend dipped a cloth napkin in the water and handed it to him. “Try this. The light’s low so it’s unlikely anyone will notice once you stop fussing with it.”

Agron glanced behind him, looking in the direction of the bathroom, neither Mira nor Nasir in sight. Maybe she was back there giving his boyfriend tips on how to safely exit this uncomfortable scene, or warning him about his temper. He’d been really good for weeks now with that, and no, he reasoned, Mira would not sabotage him like that.

“Agron.” Spartacus spoke a bit louder trying to get his attention. “Hey, stop staring back there. You’ll start making me nervous.” The man chuckled and took another swig.

“I don’t see why you think this is so funny. He’s so uncomfortable he could barely confirm he wanted water. This is terrible!”

Spartacus waived their waiter over. “Steamed clams please, enough for the whole table.” He waited for the man to leave to lean forward and capture Agron’s gaze with eyes that refused to be ignored. “He’s nervous, just like you are Agron. I don’t know what happened this morning, but clearly he was reluctant to come for whatever reason. This place is fine. Just give him a minute to get situated. You’re a strong personality to adjust to.”

Agron drank more of his beer this time managing to keep most of it in his mouth. “Easy for you to say. You’ve had your relationship what two years now?”

He was rewarded with a brief frown. “Four actually.”

“Four years. It’s really been that long?”

“Longer if you count when we first well…”

“Had sex?”

“Yes that.”

Agron glanced over his shoulder again and leaned forward to keep his voice down. “Say what’s going on with you two anyway? No one has said anything about that conference you went to. I thought we might wind up with new equipment or swag or something.”

Spartacus gave him one of those serious gazes, the ones that suggested the next words would be carefully selected and a response to them examined skillfully. “Mira said we went to a conference?”

“And Naevia too.” Agron scowled. “Wait, you didn’t go to conference? Where did you go then and why?”

Spartacus opened his mouth perhaps to provide an answer, but Agron had been so distracted by their current conversation he didn’t even notice Nasir and Mira return. Spartacus wrapped his arm around Mira as soon as she sat down and planted a kiss right against her cheek.

Agron turned his attention back to Nasir who returned his gaze and even rewarded him with an easy smile. Almost immediately that smile lifted his heart and pushed aside some worries. Since he received mixed feelings about public affection, Agron slipped his hand over Nasir’s under the table. “Everything all right?”

Nasir nodded immediately. “Yeah, everything’s fine. We didn’t miss ordering did we?”

Agron grinned widely. “Nope, we just have some bread and an appetizer coming.” He flagged their waiter the second he came in sight. And when it was Nasir’s turn to order, he no longer hesitated but order the fisherman’s stew, the house’s red wine, and side garden salad. Agron order a ribeye steak with shrimp skewers. And when he was done ordering, Nasir turned towards him and gave him a quick happy kiss.

By the time they left the restaurant, he had his arm around Nasir’s shoulder, leading them to the night market.

**

Spartacus leaned against the dock, elbows resting against the smooth paled wood while watching Agron and Nasir mess around with the new wireless headphones Agron bought for Nasir’s phone.

“I could just go down there and help them out. It’s not that…” Mira sighed as he shook his head.

“Let them figure it out together. From the looks of it, Nasir is going to pick up technology a little faster than Agron. That will help the gym out a lot.”

“So you think he’ll stick around after his trial pass?”

Spartacus chuckled quietly, glancing at her. “If he’s trialing anything it’s Agron, not the gym. I don’t think Agron knows how to do anything halfway. He’ll figure something out.”

At this, Mira frowned. “You know, you could give them a little push Spartacus. Sometimes others just need a little help from behind. You can’t always lead from the front.”

He lifted a hand to her cheek and brushed his lips against her neck and shoulder. “Trust me Mira. Sometimes having a threat of separation can help kick start a relationship.”

She sighed and let him continue. Apparently Agron was not the only one bring out the expensive fragrances. “Twenty years from now I plan on taking full credit for bringing them together.”

“Because you gave Agron pictures to slip under a door?”

“He told you that huh?”

“He might have mentioned it at dinner.”

Mira snorted briefly. “Well that was better than him pounding on the door begging to be let in. That’s a good one too, but no, not that. I stopped Nasir from fleeing after taking one look at our bunch of half-clothed idiots swearing at each other and fumbling around the ring like rutting animals.”

“Speaking of idiots, have you figured out what you’re going to do with all that money from those jars yet.”

Her smile brightened. “Not yet, but I’ll think of something eventually.”

Chapter Text

After dinner at Neptune’s Lair and a walk by the docks just long enough for Agron to find something to buy for him, Nasir joined the larger man in bed for a relatively early turn in. He could tell by Agron’s body language and the way he hovered around the bed and waited for Nasir to settle in that the man wanted to talk, maybe ask questions that had been simmering all day. Fortunately, Agron didn’t press and with only a few warm words spoken between them, the lights were turned off. Nasir scooted closer to his lover and was thankful when a strong arm wrapped around him immediately, drawing him snug against the large, firm body. A part of him thought about pursuing something intimate, to prove he had interest, but another part of him loved this, just the holding. He closed his eyes, cheek against a rising and falling chest, listening to a strong heartbeat. Feeling warm and secure, pleased, Nasir soon found sleep.

He awoke the next morning to a familiar sound of the shower curtain being pulled back and a large body moving about the room. Once again, a paper cup of chai waited for him on the nightstand which suggested Agron had quietly left and returned already. He secretively watched Agron drop his towel, realizing this was the first time he had a fully lit view of the man’s naked body. Like his chest, his back had evidence of old scars which were easily overshadowed by those firm muscles shifting and moving. There was strength in every inch of the man, and he moved about easily. Suddenly his claim that he would not accidently knock Nasir over the edge of a boat had merit, and he began to wonder what sort of fighting Agron had participated in and what he might have looked like while in such a match.

Agron glanced over his shoulder. “Like what you see?”

Nasir smiled widely, sitting up, his long hair spilling over his bared shoulders. Oddly, though caught in his staring he felt no shame, only amusement. “Were you purposefully giving me a show?”

“Maybe.” Agron pulled on a simple green t-shirt. “I should have waited a little longer I think. If you’d made it to my ass, I’m certain I would have a blush by now.”

Nasir snorted. “You think I blush so easily just at the sight of some man’s ass?”

“For purposes of sex, no. But with me and when your heart flutters, yes.” Agron finished dressing in denim shorts and sat on the edge of the bed, still smiling.

“You’re not wrong.” Nasir glanced down and then grabbed his chai. “You don’t plan on bringing me tea every morning now do you?”

“Only until I find out what else you secretly like.”

“You spoil me, and it was no secret. You never asked is all.” Nasir took a sip. He felt so light this morning, and happy. At the rich flavor, the milkiness and spice, he sighed contently. “Have you tried it yet?”

Agron scooted closer and gave him a quick kiss. “I wouldn’t drink from something of yours without asking.”

“You’ve had your tongue down my mouth Agron; I think I can handle you sipping my tea.” Nasir smirked offering him the cup.

Agron huffed briefly and took a swig. The expression became comical. “It’s… a little sweet.”

“You don’t like sugar? Are you telling me you take your coffee black?” Nasir raised his brow and accepted the cup back.

“Only a hint of sugar, no milk. And sure I like sugar, in my desserts, maybe on your belly button.”

“Pillow talk, so early?” Nasir grasped his neck and gently pulled him down for another kiss. This time Agron met him halfway.

“It’s almost nine, hardly early.”

“You’ll get nothing until I take a shower.” Nasir swung his legs off the bed and took another swallow of tea. “Did you leave any hot water for me?”

Agron laid down, staring up at the ceiling releasing a teasing sigh. “Plenty. Say you ever ride a quad?”

Nasir grabbed his tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner and their wee bar of soap only to step into the small tub and notice there was a fresh bar of Irish Spring soap on the shelf. “Agron, how long were you out shopping this morning?” He turned on the water, hot and steaming.

“We’re not in the middle nowhere Nasir. It’s not difficult to get these things, just a bit expensive.” He heard the television turn on, sounded like the some kind of daytime talk show. “You never answered about the quad.”

“Are you referring to four-wheelers?” Nasir dipped his head under the water, thankful this place offered such a basic convenience as a hot shower.

“Yeah, you ever been on one? We were thinking we might rent a few and run them along the beach. I would be happy to get a two-seater.”

Nasir turned off the water, listening for a moment. “You want me to ride behind you?”

“Well you know until you’re not scared anymore.”

Nasir walked out of the shower, still dripping wet as he wrapped one towel around his waist and the other over his hair. He returned to the main room to view Agron lounging on the bed like a large lazy cat; he chuckled. “If we’re going to use quads, I want my own. We’ll see if you can keep up.”

Agron sat up, blinked at him and then grinned, a wide goofy smile that lit up the room. “You’ve driven one before?”

Nasir shook his head, grabbing a comb to work through his hair. “No, but how hard can it be?”

A few hours later, Mira and Nasir sat off to the side on a mound of sand to watch Spartacus and Agron, their shirts now off, try to get the fourth quad out from being wedged pretty solidly in a large pile of sand.

Mira sipped her water. “So how fast were you going anyway?”

Nasir wiped his brow, feeling oddly relaxed despite their predicament. “Faster than Agron. I guess that was the point.”

Mira handed him a sandwich. “You beat him huh?”

“It wasn’t even close. I’d be a mile ahead of him by now if I hadn’t struck that partially buried rock over there.” He took a bite. “Shouldn’t we just call for help? It would be easier to get someone to haul that out of here, maybe someone with a chain?”

“And miss this view?” Mira scoffed at the idea. “Besides, neither of those two want to have anyone else come to our rescue. It would wound their pride or something. It’s a good thing you had your safety gear on. Spartacus can be a little square sometimes.” She leaned back, peering at them through partially lowered sunglasses. “It is such a nice a view. Speaking of nice views… Agron was pulling out all the stops last night. He get rewarded for that?”

Nasir leaned back too although he left his sunglasses in place. This felt, well it felt right. Sure he wound up with a face full sand and a stuck quad, but he’d never seen two men get off their vehicles that fast to help him out, and neither seemed angry about it either. Up until that point, flying over the sand and passing Agron, it was exhilarating.

Nasir wondered if it might always be like this with Agron: hot and passionate, then quiet and sweet, and suddenly a whirlwind of activity. Life seemed unlikely to ever be dull around such a man and until recently he never would have thought to actually try and beat a man to win his heart. Agron seemed thrilled that Nasir tried to match his energy and enthusiasm, not threatened by it as others might be.

“He was really sweet last night actually. I have no complaints and I don’t think he does either. What about you and Spartacus?” This was new for him too: sharing his intimate relationship with someone who, well Mira seemed easy to talk to.

“He was sweet too. We should hang out more often. You two seem to encourage Spartacus to up his game.”

Nasir turned towards her, frowning slightly. “I thought you two were close?”

“Oh we are, or at least as close as Spartacus knows how to be with someone. Agron ever tell you about his wife?”

Nasir shook his head. “I… to be honest I guess I haven’t asked him a lot of questions about anyone around him.” He’d been so wrapped up in his own thing he didn’t really think about those close to Agron, at least not for too long.

Mira sighed. “I won’t get into a lot of details, not when we’re supposed to be out here to having fun. Sura was killed by some very bad men. Spartacus thinks it was to get back at him or to stop an investigation he had open on a group of them. Several of those responsible are in prison now but… he still thinks some remain free.”

“That’s terrible.” Nasir shifted his gaze from Agron to Spartacus. Physically they were both strong, tall, able bodied, even similar eyes but where Agron gave an easy, almost carefree exuberant if juvenile smile, Spartacus’ was steady and planned.

“That was several years ago, long before the gym and even before the fight club.”

“Will you tell me about the fight club? I mean what’s a fight club anyway?”

This time Mira turned her full attention towards him. “Agron hasn’t told you?”

Nasir shook his head. “He mentioned he used to fight professionally, but he never went into details. I get the impression he was forced to stop?”

Mira frowned, glancing at their two glistening men digging the wheels out with nothing but drift wood and their hands. “I shouldn’t go into a lot of details but Agron still has a hard time talking about it. I think he wouldn’t mind you knowing. See the fight club was just a private place, almost a gym, where the fighters and those close to them paid to come train or help with the program. Spartacus was a participant then, not an owner. There was sort of an honor code amongst all the members. Most of the fights were arranged so members didn’t fight each other, just members of other clubs or loners. When they did fight each other, there were conversations ahead of time and agreements never to fight dirty, that sort of thing. It was good, real good, with a lot of winners and those willing to support others developing their skills. Spartacus sort of built this family around him, calling them brothers, was a real champion and an upcoming name in this area. I think several of them could have made it big… until Agron’s last fight.”

Nasir felt his stomach sink. “He broke the code?”

“Agron? Oh no, he would never do that! He wound up in a match with one of our own, but it was unplanned and last minute, really strange.”

“Someone else was better than Agron?” Nasir couldn’t imagine anyone beating down Agron.

Mira beamed at him. “That’s cute. I’ll have to tell him he has you completely won over. Believe me, this will make his day. He’ll be strutting around that gym for a week once he finds out you think he’s the best fighter there.” Her expression shifted again to something more serious. “I’m not sure if his opponent was better. A lot of the damage he took was Agron’s fault. I mean Agron isn’t really a defensive kind of fighter. He is fast, sure, very strong, and smart but his first approach has always been aggression. When the last minute switch happened, Agron was so convinced Barca was forced into the fight he didn’t fight to win. He just sort of took it, but he didn’t take a fall either.”

Nasir sat up, resting an arm on his knee, frowning. “What do you mean sort of?”

“He put in a token effort and just took one beating after another, refusing to give up but still not really fighting back. I think he was waiting for someone to tell him what to do, figure out what was going on.”

“Did you find out what happened? Where was Spartacus, or Donar?”

Mira sighed. “There was always a darker side to the fighting rings, the betting especially and some of those intimately involved. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Spartacus was supposed to be out of town that night and Donar got a call just as the fight started that caused him to leave. That only left Crixus. At the time, Crixus wouldn’t, well he would have expected Agron to beat him regardless of consequences.” She gave Nasir an encouraging smile as if to remind him Agron was here now so her story did not end too tragically. “But Spartacus came back early, walked right up to that ring and told Agron to stay down, almost started a fight with the ref when the man wouldn’t call the fight. We haven’t seen Barca since. Spartacus thinks he was forced to fight, maybe to protect someone. We don’t know. I just know Agron wasn’t about to take down one of his brothers if he thought there was something wrong.”

Nasir frowned. “Agron would just take damage without knowing why?”

“Oh yeah. Agron’s got a big heart Nasir. He’d lay it all down for those around him. I’m not saying that’s always the best choice….”She took a swig of water. “The club fell apart shortly after that, but Spartacus isn’t one to let the family vanish without a fight. He spent the better part of the next year coming up with the gym idea, getting the funding and gathering them all back. Getting Crixus and Agron to work together, to actually be tied financially, that took skill.” Mira patted his shoulder. “I hope this doesn’t scare you away.”

Nasir shook his head. “No, no it doesn’t. It would take more than that.”

She stood as Agron and Spartacus managed to wedge the thing free, looking entirely triumphant for their efforts. She waved at them as they neared. “Hey,” she leaned over and whispered to Nasir. “Don’t lie or anything but if you can try not to mention I said anything. I don’t want them thinking I’m meddling or anything like that.”

Nasir didn’t get a chance to ask her why this information would be meddling because Agron approached and wrapped his large arms around Nasir, kissing his head. “Well that could have gone better. How’s the wrist?”

“Not sprained, just a little sore.” Nasir grinned up at him. “You shouldn’t have challenged me. It takes more than a hunk of metal with a motor to scare me. Now look at you, covered in sand.”

Agron’s large hands ruffled Nasir’s sand filled hair. “You’re not much better off. Care for a swim?”

“Race you!” Nasir took off quickly towards the water, and Agron soon followed, overtaking him with such larger strides.

Spartacus glanced at Mira with suspicious eyes. “You weren’t over here stirring up trouble were you?”

“Who me?” She gave him her most innocent and pouty expression. “I would never do such a thing. I’m just bonding with our newest recruit.”

“Recruit huh?” Spartacus didn’t exactly look convinced but looked from her to the sea and back to her again.

“You see potential there, admit it.” Mira sighed and waved her hands after them. “Oh go play with them. I’ll watch the quads. Tonight, you’re mine though, from dusk until dawn if I want it.”

Spartacus grinned and ran after them.

By sunset, Spartacus, Agron and Nasir had expended a great deal of energy in the water, enough to where they were ready to settle down for the night. They returned their quads to the rental site and retrieved a meal Duro had packed for them which consisted of well-seasoned fried chicken, kale and quinoa salad with seasoned almonds and rich triple chocolate brownies. Agron selected a spot away from the docks and close by the water where a growing breeze whipped at their blankets until they settled the corners with large rocks and drift wood. Eventually Mira purchased a large umbrella to help with the wind.

Nasir lied on the blanket, enjoying the delicious meal only half-listening to what the other three spoke about. Apparently it was not unusual for those from The Rebel to go on trips and vacations together. He could only imagine what having that many people to share things with might be like.

Eventually, Mira and Spartacus wondered off, and all Nasir could see of the two was Mira’s bright orange sarong wiping around her legs down by the smooth wet sand, near the ways. For the first time since that morning, Agron and Nasir were left alone together.

He relaxed on the blanket, stretched out with Agron’s hand lightly caressing his shoulders and back with soothing circular motions a constant reminder he was not alone. The man leaned on an elbow, his green eyes distant but expression almost relaxed. He began to think it wasn’t fair he knew so much about Agron when many of the questions Agron posed had been deflected by Nasir out of fear. Agron lost his family in one tragic event that he shared so readily, yet Nasir had only hinted at his lack of family, his strained relationship with Chadara, and his unhappy job and living situation. He had met Agron’s friends, spent time in a place where many of them mingled, shared some beloved locations with him and yet Nasir had given so little of himself in return other than repeated warnings Agron might not like what he would uncover. For some time, they remained in silence after dinner.

“What are you thinking?” Agron asked softly, finally breaking the silence.

Nasir pulled his eyes from the calm sight to see those green eyes peering at him in worry. “Just thinking.”

Agron sat up smoothly, pulling against Nasir to have him rest against him; Nasir did not resist. “Nasir, I am so happy you let go today, just had fun, let loose… but it seems like you’re not relaxed anymore, like you’re not here with me.”

“That’s because you don’t know me Agron. You think you do, but you don’t.” Nasir frowned. Normally he would stop there, but not this time. “But I want you to, I want you to know more about me. I want you to understand, but I’m not good at this part.”

Carefully, Agron worked Nasir’s ponytail free, working his fingers through the long hair. “I want to know you too.”

“It’s not all good.” Nasir whispered.

Agron breathed in deeply, a sure sign his boyfriend considered his thoughts before words fell from his lips. “I’m not perfect; I don’t expect you to be either.” Kind, strong arms wrapped around him and warm breath touched his ear.

Nasir’s gaze returned to the sea, his chest tightening as the lights of the sky blurred with the sea on the horizon when his eyes stopped focusing on anything here before them. “I’ve had ten last names. I remember the Hendersons; I was five I think. They had a big house with a spiraling staircase and a gardener. I was sent to a school, a private preschool in the hopes I might advance faster. I think, I think I had an accent. I just remember their faces, the shock of some of them when they heard me talk. I didn’t like those looks so I stopped talking. When I was sent back, I remember the Hendersons whispered they thought there was something wrong with me because I suddenly stopped speaking one day.”

He picked up Agron’s hand and turned it palm side up, giving him lines to trace, to focus on while continuing. “Then there was Mr. Blake, I think he had a motorcycle and wife who knitted. I was pushed down in the playground by some older fat kid, so I cried. He said I was too soft. He needed a stronger son. Then there were the Smiths, they had a cow and chickens… and this time when I was pushed, I fought back so Mr. Smith would be proud of me. I guess I broke the kid’s nose which made me a deviant.”

Nasir released Agron’s hand and leaned against his shoulder instead. Agron remained quiet, but an arm wrapped around his waist reminding him he was not alone. “Each time I was picked, I was told how lucky I was to find a family, that people would love me. When I was returned, it just wasn’t a good fit. As you get older, couples don’t want you as much anymore. They want young kids, kids they can raise and say were their own. So after a few placements, I just wasn’t connecting anymore. I was confused with what was expected of me, and I didn’t believe anyone when they said this was my new home. I just… I just needed time, but they were always so afraid that they picked wrong. If they waited too long, they might have to answer questions about where I went or why I wasn’t going to work for them. I guess I understand that… now.”

Agron’s strong fingers gripped his and held him tight. “Tell me about Chadara, when you met her.”

Nasir blinked, concentrating on that voice, that guidance. “I was twelve when they sent me to a foster home for troubled youth, stricter routines, and harsher discipline they said would keep us from going to prison. Chadara was there because her behavior was out of control. The others told me she supposedly slept with someone in charge at the last place, so at first I avoided her. When a couple came to view some of us, a nice couple who thought they could handle a challenge, I slipped away outside behind a shed so no one could find me. She did though; Chadara noticed I vanished and found me. She asked me why I was there and not with everyone else. I ignored her, but she kept pestering until I shouted at her that I was just going to age out, so what was the point?” His nostrils flared though he found his eyes dry, chest tight but just having Agron near steadied him.

“What does it mean to age out?” And then another question, just at the right time kept him from lingering on past pain points.

“It means you turn eighteen, and you are no longer in the system. You are responsible for yourself. I heard you get enough for week at a motel and are guided to other programs, government assistance maybe for housing or food, things like that. The only number you might be able to call with someone on the other line who would care might be some toll free phone tree number with a government employee on the other end… if you’re lucky.” Nasir fell silent then. He had more than that now didn’t he? Sure there was difficulty trusting anyone who might claim to remain at his side after he did something they didn’t like, but he had people around him now who seemed to care. And he had a man who came running to his apartment just because he missed one training session.

“Nasir, didn’t you say you were almost adopted?”

He nodded. “I did. Chadara convinced me I shouldn’t give up. She said we were the best looking kids in the place and the next couple would be all ours. She thought as a package deal, maybe they would be more interested.” Nasir smiled now. “I thought we were an odd pair and her enthusiasm was silly. When the next couple came, she grabbed my hand to keep me from slipping away again. The husband looked at our faces, looked at our clasped hands, and said those two. I was fourteen.”

Agron kissed his shoulder and neck, warm gentle reminders he was not alone. “What happened Nasir?”

But this time Nasir shook his head, not ready to go to that dark place here and now. “I got what I wanted more than anything in the world, but the reality was quite different. I owe Chadara a lot, but not for that. What came next wasn’t her fault.” He turned to face Agron, expecting pity and sympathy, but green eyes returned his gaze, and they were warm and comforting. He reminded himself Agron knew no small amount of tragedy himself. “I want to earn my place with you and those here but… I made a mistake Agron; one you will hate. It won’t be my last. I might even have to do it again.”

“Are you sick?”

He shook his head, eyebrows furrowed. “No…”

“Are you dying?”

Nasir cocked his head to the side, confused. “I hope not.”

“Then it’s something we can overcome, whatever it is, when you are ready to tell me.” Agron kissed Nasir’s brow drawing those powerful arms around him as if he were a blanket. “Nasir, don’t be who you think I want you to be.” The man whispered. “Those people made a mistake with you. They’ll probably never understand the cost you paid for that, but you don’t have to be perfect to have family, to be cared about.”

Nasir felt tears threaten to rise and fall. “Agron do you…”

At some point Spartacus and Mira must have turned around, because they were near now, shouting at them to come see something down by the water.

Agron kissed his neck. “I think they want us to look at something.”

They both paused, trying to hear what they were saying but the sound was too distant.

Agron shook his head, attention returning to Nasir. “What were you going to ask me?”

“Nothing.” Nasir lost his nerve. “Let’s go see what they found.”

They stood together, Agron wrapping his arm around Nasir’s waist to go investigate. Nasir left his question unasked, but he felt as if a weight had been lifted. He shared a piece of his past that only Chadara knew and still Agron walked down to the beach with him as if he wasn’t broken at all.

Chapter Text

Saturday morning Nasir awoke before Agron, rising from the bed to peer down at the man’s sleeping form. Asleep, his lover seemed so serene and calm, not at all like the man with bright green eyes and burning energy that so frequently crashed against the world around him. It was that vigor Agron seemed to use to guide Nasir through training and their budding relationship.

A part of him wished they could stay in this small room forever, just walk down the beach and forget anything else existed. But Agron had a job, had family and people who waited for him back home. Nasir had… well he knew he should be grateful for what he had when just years before he claimed even less to his name.

Moving to his knees, Nasir leaned down and brushed his mouth against Agron’s. Warm lips traveled up a stubbled jawline, then down to where Agron’s neck met his shoulder and finally along the shoulder itself. By this time, Agron stirred, eyes opening momentarily before he yawned and ran a hand along Nasir’s arm.

“You must have slept well.” Agron said.

Nasir nodded, smiling down at him, abandoning the shoulder for a quick peck of a kiss. “I did. What are our plans for today?”

Agron sat up, blinking and then frowning as he gently grasped Nasir’s wrist, turning it carefully and noting the darkening bruise. “I don’t think we have anything concrete for today. Does this hurt?” He ran his large thumb over the discolored skin.

“No,” Nasir assured. “But it’s a little tender when you press like that. Agron, don’t worry. It’s just a minor thing.”

Carefully the man lifted Nasir’s damaged wrist to his lips and pressed them against the skin kindly. “We can get a wrap for that, to help you from causing more pain to yourself.”

Nasir huffed slightly, leaning forward though he was charmed by the kiss. “I would rather spend our morning doing something a little more fun and energizing,” he whispered.

Agron dropped his hand to Nasir’s waist, pressing his lips against Nasir’s before shaking his head. “No, not just yet. I need coffee and a shower.”

With a slight frown and a drop of his eyes, Nasir relaxed his weight back away from Agron. “It’s been many days since the truck. We’re spending a weekend alone together at a motel and we haven’t… Agron have you lost interest in me physically? Is it because of what I said?” Somehow Nasir kept his voice steady, even managing to lift his chin a bit in preparation for Agron’s answer.

“What you said?” Agron mumbled with some confusion as he swung his legs to the side of the bed. He stood, rubbing his eyes. “What you said?” Agron repeated and then his eyes widened before quickly kneeling on the floor beside Nasir, cupping his cheek. “No! Really Nasir, not that at all. It’s just…”

Nasir took a breath. “Tell me Agron, please.”

Agron sighed heavily. “When I told some of the guys we were going to the beach this weekend, they just, well they made some assumptions about what we would do and how often we’d do it. Fucking assholes. That just pissed me off, and I don’t want you to think every time I take you somewhere we’re supposed to have sex. I do want you Nasir.” Agron shook his head with a brief almost sad smile. “If you knew how often I did… but we’re supposed to meet Mira and Spartacus for breakfast. I just want you to know that this is more than that, much more than that.”

At first Nasir just blinked, and then a smile formed as he comprehended Agron’s awkwardly explained reasoning. “You worry about what others think?”

“No. Well…sort of.” Agron growled. “Yes, a little. I don’t want to mess this up. I don’t want to treat you like some sort of Gannicus flavor of the month.”

Nasir swung his legs over the side of the bed, tugging at Agron to sit next to him so he could lean against Agron’s shoulder. “I had no idea you worried about doing this wrong too. I worry about it all the time.”

“Yeah?” Agron glanced at him, a smirk forming. “I guess because this isn’t something I do very often it just feels like untried territory.”

“No?”

“I haven’t ‘really’ dated in some time. I was with someone for a while but…”

Agron seemed hesitant to continue, so Nasir carefully pushed the only way he knew how: with a question. “What happened to him?”

Green eyes shone with uncertainty. “Everything was just so comfortable. Nothing behind it, no fire, no real desire to see each other. I remember a lot of shrugging and indifference from both sides when plans were canceled. I think we both knew it wasn’t going to last for a while. Eventually we just drifted apart, and he moved away for work. You ever been with someone for any length of time?”

Nasir nodded, his turn to shift uncomfortably. “A year exactly with Caesar that night we met.”

Agron huffed. “You managed to stay a year with that bastard?”

“I know it sounds strange, but some people thought he was good for me, and as long as I did what he wanted and expected things were all right.”

Lips pursed. “Some people, like Chadara?”

“Yeah, she liked him, or liked what he could do for me… and maybe her.” Nasir creased his brow. “Do you think it’s odd that we’re talking about our ex’s like this?”

Agron shrugged. “Maybe, but if it works for us who fucking cares?”

Nasir laughed quietly. “So do you always swear when you get mad or irritated?”

The larger man sighed. “Yeah, I guess so. I just, well I picture him just talking down to you like that again. I remember when you walked in: your eyes were so bright, you had that rose, you were dressed so nicely, and you had your hair all smoothed out. Most people would wait for their date at the front, but you were trying to surprise him, make it special. Sitting at that table alone, anxious for what he would say when he arrived… that was, well it was so sweet.”

Nasir beamed. “You noticed me when I walked in? Weren’t you there with someone?”

“Oh yeah, Steven or Brian, something like that.” Agron rolled his eyes.

“You don’t remember?” Nasir chuckled.

“We met the night before. If I ever took him up to the mountains, he’d be peaking at his car as we kissed. The man was completely obsessed. But I didn’t want to kick his teeth in. That was saved for your date.” Agron sighed. “Would have been a total disaster if I hadn’t run into you, a total waste of an evening.”

“I believe you said ‘wanna see me drag you out of here by your fucking neck’. I think I can picture you doing that more than actually kicking someone’s teeth in.”

Agron groaned, covering his face with his hand. “God, you think I’m a violent idiot, prone to confrontation.”

Nasir grabbed his hand and carefully peeled back that large palm so they could make eye contact. “No, you came to my defense, and you didn’t even know me. That was just... no one has ever done that for me before.”

“Come to your defense?” Agron seemed confused.

“Come to my defense at no benefit for them.” Nasir clarified.

“Oh but I did want to know you.” Agron admitted.

“You don’t even seem to know how to be selfish.” Nasir stood and tugged at Agron’s hand again. “You said you needed a shower. How do you feel about… sharing?”

Agron grinned.

Within minutes they were standing naked in front of the shower curtain, and Agron turned the water on glancing over his broad shoulder. “How do you like it?”

“As hot as I can stand it,” Nasir replied without thought. “I don’t…” His voice trailed off as he realized what he was about to say and his jaw clenched tightly, not wanting to spoil the moment with pathetic whining.

His lover turned the hot water up, steam beginning to fill the room, but not much seemed to get past Agron when they were alone together. He turned to Nasir and drew him close, kissing his brow. “Please tell me what you were going to say. “

Nasir turned his head to the side, avoiding the next kiss although he didn’t step away. Being close to Agron, he just enjoyed the man’s presence too much to want to leave it.

“Please Nasir. Let me help ease that tension and pain in your eyes.”

“I… I don’t get hot showers very often. I have to keep my costs down.” He wanted to walk away now, but he held still, shame burning his cheeks.

Agron stepped into the bath tub and gently tugged Nasir to follow. Hesitantly, Nasir complied though he felt the tautness of his body slowing his movements. Once the water struck him, he hissed lowly, as it was hot, almost too hot, almost.

“Too hot?”

Nasir shook his head, pressing his nose against Agron’s shoulder as the water fell against his back and head. Agron nuzzled his hair whispering. “It’s not your fault Nasir. The actions and words of others have filled you with doubt. I’ll help you build confidence again, help you remember who you are. We’ll figure this out together.”

Agron’s words resonated within him but Nasir felt hesitant to accept such an offer, to feel beholden to someone else as he was to others already; that scared him more than he would have admitted to anyone. “Agron, I don’t need you to rescue me. I don’t know that you really can even if you wanted to.”

“What’s so bad about being rescued? Spartacus guided me when I needed help. And believe me, I was a stubborn dick when he and I first met. I actually thought he was trying to get into my pants when he talked to me. Almost came to blows.”

Nasir snorted. “As opposed to the shining gentleman you are today?”

“Hey!” Agron tousled Nasir’s hair with a grin and kissed his brow. “I’m a perfect gentleman at least a few minutes every day.” His grin faded as he returned to the more serious topic. “Nasir, I think people in your life who should have propped you up failed and that has made you feel weak. I told you before. I’ve seen weak; you’re not that.”

He wanted to believe Agron, to feel the confidence and strength that Agron drew upon so readily, and a part of him began to believe those words to be true. Maybe Agron was right, and this weekend would lead to more like it, to good memories, doubt pushed aside in favor of a shining moment. “You said Spartacus rescued you. Did it leave you feeling… weak, incapable of making decisions or like you had a debt you could never repay?”

Agron shook his head. “No. Oh there was some…” The man took a deep breath, showing this wasn’t an easy subject for his lover to discuss either, “…crying and general emotional fallout, but in the end he helped focus and convince me I could scrape out a future for myself and my brother with hard work doing something I was good at. I just wasn’t built for desk work.” He paused, working his fingers through Nasir’s water heavy hair. “Is that how you felt when Chadara helped you, like something was taken away from you?”

“Not the first time and not when she came back for me.” Nasir replied.

“And now?”

Nasir grabbed their small bottle of shampoo, handing it to Agron and avoiding an answer. “You’re going to use this on my hair. If we just settle for water, it will be a tangled mess in no time.”

Hesitantly, Agron took the bottle. He knew Agron wanted to linger on the topic at hand, but once again he respected Nasir’s desire to steer the conversation elsewhere, at least for now. After a number of seconds, he emptied most of the contents into his palm and began to massage it through the dark strands before rinsing it thoroughly. “I don’t think we have enough shampoo for this. I bet we should wash it again.”

Nasir chuckled. “I’ve made do with less. Now the conditioner.” He sighed a little when those strong hands returned and massaged his scalp, deciding having Agron work on his hair would not be a poor way to spend a morning or afternoon.

Once water washed that away, he was about to suggest he could wash Agron’s back when the man dipped down, kissed his neck and left a trail of warmth down his chest to nip at his abdomen and finally settled between his legs. When those fingers wrapped around his slowly awakening cock, Nasir stepped back until he pressed against a cold hard wall. “What are you doing?” He barely managed to squeak out the words when Agron’s tongue traveled the length of his thickening cock.

“You got to do what you wanted to do. Now it’s my turn.” Agron murmured, engulfing the tip of his cock into his mouth and sucking.

Nasir gasped, throwing his head back and smacking his head soundly against the shower wall. This wasn’t a big enough space for this, especially with hot water still falling on both of them while the curtain shifted to where he was certain it was getting on the floor too. Of course this didn’t stop either of them from continuing. He reached out, grasping Agron’s short hair, thrusting forward slightly when the man’s tongue circled the smooth tip and pressed marginally into his slit. A whimper followed when strong hands grabbed his hips and pulled him forward and therefore deeper inside Agron’s hot mouth.

He closed his eyes, hearing the roar of the shower and the quiet sounds of his partner’s mouth. And then Nasir relaxed, just sort of floated, feeling his knees weaken though strong fingers and arms held him up while pleasure melted his mind. Nasir just let go, and minutes later, when every nerve in his body responded to a flick of a tongue, a strong suck or the vibration of Agron humming, Nasir came with a light gasp.

Soon Agron wrapped his large arms around Nasir and whispered against his ear. “Have no doubts Nasir, I want you. It’s difficult not to touch you and kiss you and hear you whimper… but we should hurry up.”

Nasir blinked, convinced but trying to focus again. “Or we’ll be late for breakfast?”

Agron huffed. “Already too late for that. It’s more like I feel the water cooling off. It’s getting damn near cold.”

“Oh!”

They hurried and finished the shower.

**

Once cleaned up again, Agron and Nasir made their way to a diner a few blocks from the motel where they saw the Jeep parked and Spartacus leaning against it. The man looked a bit annoyed when they approached. “Care to explain to me why you’re so late?”

Agron began. “Well we started off early enough, but then there was talking…” His voice trailed off.

“And a shower,” Nasir offered helpfully but didn’t have much else to go with either.

Spartacus looked between them and sighed. “Mira’s inside on her third cup of coffee. This is your fault, and when she starts bouncing off the wall and dragging me through the Saturday market, you two are carrying the bags.”

Agron groaned, lowering his head in defeat.

Nasir shrugged. “I don’t know why that would be so bad.”

A few hours later, he had two bags in each hand, Agron had three and Spartacus walked ahead of them with Mira on his arm pausing to look at a very large fake palm tree which the man himself wound up dragging through the rest of the market.

“I don’t… Agron how is all of this going to fit in that Jeep?” Nasir whispered worriedly.

Agron gave him his most sympathetic gaze. “In our laps.”

And he wasn’t kidding either. Agron and Nasir were ordered to enter the Jeep first, and then bags were piled around and on them with the threat of returning to the market should either of them let even one thing fly out. He could barely see Nasir with the palm tree sticking up between them like that.

Once they were back at the motel, they managed to get all the bags in Spartacus and Mira’s room, and Agron and Nasir left Spartacus with a very energetic and eager woman who mentioned something about parasailing or renting a couple of motorcycles. Agron guided them away from all the noise and Spartacus’ glares to a quiet area of beach where they had miles to walk under a hot sun in a cool breeze.

After several minutes of silence, Agron broke it. “Let me see your wrist?”

Nasir shook his head with a smile. “You’re still fussing. It’s fine Agron. I promise.”

Agron massaged the tender flesh carefully. “I don’t want this to keep you from coming to see me on Tuesday.”

Nasir withdrew his hand. “About that…”

Agron felt his heart skip a beat or two. “Do you have to cancel?”

“No, no it’s not that. I…” Nasir frowned, eyes dropping a bit but without a flush of his cheeks. This wasn’t shame or sorrow, Agron realized, this was something else. “I don’t think a few hours a week is enough. I’d like to plan something for next Friday. This was good, very good. I hope to keep my Fridays off for a while. I think I, well I earned it. Would you go out to a club with me, go dancing?”

Dancing? Agron felt his stomach twist slightly but those dark eyes looked at him with such hope there could only really be one answer. “Sure, what time should I pick you up?”

Nasir’s smile grew immediately. “Around nine should be good.”

“You mean start at nine?”

“Umm, yeah, do you need later?”

“No, no nine is good!” Agron replied in a hurry realizing the next thing out of his boyfriend’s mouth might be ten, as in leaving his house starting at ten at night. He forced a big grin while in the back of his mind he tried to think of ways he would stay awake: lots and lots of coffee…

Nasir beamed happily. “This will be fun Agron. I love hanging out at the gym but this will be a lot of fun.”

That sounded promising, real promising even if the first venture might lead to him awkwardly dancing in the middle of the night.

The rest of Saturday remained quiet and they spent much of it walking and talking about little things, television and movies, a little about music, and eventually getting gauze to wrap up Nasir’s wrist only because Nasir refused to wear an actual wrap but wanted Agron to stop asking him about it. They returned later Sunday, dropping Mira off with her pile of things at her place and then Nasir at his.

When Spartacus went to take Agron home, he asked for them to hang out at a nearby bar instead. It was there that Agron told Spartacus to be sure to keep him apart from any man hanging out there that night with the names Henderson or Blake or Smith. He didn’t go into details even though Spartacus pressed. On his third beer he opened up a bit more.

“I don’t know if Nasir knows what love really is.”

“Well, I don’t know how true that is Agron, but you can show him. You certainly know,” Spartacus offered.

“Yeah but, but I don’t want to be the guy he winds up loving just because I am the only decent human being whose ever showed interest in him. I want him to know he has choices, and then I want him to pick me.”

“Oh I think he knows he has choices Agron.”

Agron scowled immediately. “Why, you see someone look at him? Is it someone at the gym? I’ll kick his ass.”

Spartacus nodded thoughtfully. “And we’re done. Come on. Let’s get you home before you can’t make it up the stairs on your own.”

Of course he did make it home with only some assistance up the stairs. He even managed to peek in on Duro, seeing his brother asleep, safe and sound. It made it easier for him to find rest though he went to bed wondering once he helped Nasir free himself of the past, how was he going to keep up with someone in their twenties?

Chapter Text

Nasir covered his head in his grey hoodie, glancing at his phone as he made a quick list of things to buy at the store. Rice, black beans, frozen or fresh chicken breasts, which ever was cheaper since he had zip lock bags at home, maybe milk if he could find some on sale, whatever cereal was on sale, and orange or apple juice. He studied his phone for a moment after the list was complete and began surfing the web. He didn’t even notice the person who sat beside him who rudely wound up tapping him on the shoulder. He ignored them of course until it was done again. “What?” Scowling Nasir turned to face the other seated next to him only to discover a somewhat familiar face.

The young man was tall, almost as tall as Agron, had wider and rounder eyes, a similar nose but longer hair with some braiding along the side. He wasn’t clean shaven but the stubble was short and clean, and he wore jeans and a loose grey t-shirt. “You’re my waiter. Or you were. I mean…” Nasir’s voice trailed off when the other smiled; just like his brother, broad, open and happy.

“Well, that’s technically true, but seeing that you’re not really a customer right now, and how my brother is more involved than just threatening your date, I think it would be best if you just called me Duro.”

Nasir put his phone away, turning partially towards Duro at this point. This was Agron’s brother, a man he had encountered briefly before but not someone Agron had ever indicated he wanted him to meet. This made him nervous for that reason alone, but there was also the fact that Duro had only ever seen him as a victim of public insults. “Duro, I’m, I’m Nasir.”

Duro nodded. “Yeah, I know who you are. I mean I remember you from the restaurant. That sort of thing doesn’t happen every night you know. If he hasn’t told you, he probably described you in detail every day for a week to make sure I got it right. He needed to make sure I kept an eye out for the right guy. So you work Monday night’s right?”

He tried not to look uncomfortable or uncertain, but probably failed on every level. Why was Duro on his bus talking to him about his work schedule? “Normally I do, but not today. How did you know? Did Agron tell you?”

If Duro noticed his discomfort, he didn’t show it. Instead, the other just leaned back against the bench and continued. “My brother’s kind of been an ass about you actually. He tells me almost nothing. Donar’s been pretty tight lipped too, but Chadara is pretty free with information.”

“She told you where I lived? And how did you meet her?” Nasir didn’t like where this was going.

“Hah, no she didn’t. My brother has GPS in his truck. He thinks he’s so clever about hiding things from me, but since he’s driven to your apartment, and combined with your schedule at the gym and listening to Chadara, I put a few things together. I’m not the idiot they think I am.” He motioned with his head towards his pocket. “And now that you’re on our plan, I know this isn’t going away anytime soon. So you’re making a grocery list?”

Nasir frowned slightly, shifting in his seat. “Yeah, just making a run to the store.”

“Do you mind if I tag along? I want to talk to you, but I don’t want to get in your way.”

“Umm Okay.” Nasir consented, not knowing what else to do.

Duro continued unfazed by Nasir’s reluctance. “So here’s the thing. I told my brother to invite you over to dinner so we could meet. He ditched that plan so he could go play at the beach with you instead, which is fine, but then he brushed me off when I asked him to invite you again. See this tells me he’s not going to do it. I already told him what would happen if he didn’t do what I asked, so here I am.”

They both got off at the next stop and started walking across the parking lot. Nasir just listened as the mini Agron continued.

“So you’re probably wondering why I’m stalking you . It’s simple really. I want to make you dinner, you and Agron and me. I’m hoping you won’t mind a late dinner on Sunday, after your training of course. He might make good on castrating me if I got in the way of that. This will be a nice surprise for him.”

Nasir grabbed a hand basket and walked inside. “But Agron doesn’t know about the dinner or that I’ll be coming? Does he even like surprises?”

“No, that’s the surprise part.” Duro grinned. “And no, these kinds of surprises he hates. Don’t worry though, it’s good for him to be knocked off his game once in a while. You’ll want to see him unprepared anyway, get a real glimpse of my brother trying to think on his feet. He really reacts more than thinks in situations like these… but you’ve probably got a glimpse of that already. I’m sure it will be fine.”

“I, I don’t know.” Nasir didn’t like the idea of going to Agron’s home without his boyfriend’s knowledge or consent. Whatever reason Agron had for not inviting him over, he didn’t think it would change simply because Duro wanted him there. And if this made Agron angry, it could lead to their first real fight.

Duro followed him to the canned food area where Nasir picked up a few store brand cans of black beans. “He’s not going to get mad. He’ll do his I don’t know what’s going on dance which usually means a shocked expression, a few huffs, tension in his back and then he’ll relax. If he gets irritated with anyone and frees a string of profanities from his tongue it will be at me not you. Hey, can I show you something?”

A sigh escaped Nasir’s lips, but he followed Duro away from the center aisles to the bulk bins on the outer walls. Duro put several scoops of dried black beans in a bag. Then he did kidney beans, green lentils and navy beans. Next he moved over to the rice where he scooped up some long brown rice and added it to the basket. Finally he got a bag of steel cut oats. “I’ll text you how to prepare this when I get home. You’ll get six cups of beans to a can of beans this way because it’s going to expand. Dried has less sodium too, no preservatives and none of that can taste. Oh, let’s get you some kosher salt and brown sugar too. That will be a lot better than that cereal garbage.” As he led them to the bulk spice section and starting adding ingredients to small bags he kept talking, seemingly excited about what he was doing. “I switched Agron to dried beans a year ago. He doesn’t even notice a difference. The brown rice he swapped when he took his training seriously years before, but he complained about it, a lot. He doesn’t now. I introduced taste. So some beans, rice and chicken will get you through the day. I’ll send you some spice combinations on your phone to help keep things interesting. This cayenne pepper will give you a nice kick too when you’re in the mood. So anyway, about dinner, do you like lamb or coffee?”

Nasir hesitantly followed Duro right to the meat section where the other began inspecting the offerings. “I don’t know about lamb. I don’t care for coffee much, but I can tolerate it.” He stood behind Duro awkwardly as the other picked out his chicken.

“I’ll do a pesto rub then or maybe rosemary.” He put two whole chickens in the basket. “I’ll send you a video on how to cut this. You’ll get more meat with just the breasts but with the whole chicken you can use everything. The neck, bones and the innards will make nice broth and soup. The dark meat… oh do you have teriyaki or soy sauce. Hey let’s get that. It’s great with beans and rice too.” He tugged Nasir over to the vegetables once they found the sauce.

“Duro, I can’t really afford all of this, and if Agron isn’t ready for me to go to his house, I don’t want to push him.” Things were moving a little fast for him to actually fall into any sort of embarrassment routine. This Duro just kept moving and talking about sides for Sunday dinner, and a dessert too then he shifted back to what they were doing again.

Duro added a few carrots, two onions, celery and garlic to the basket. He paused then to really give Nasir his full attention. “He’s ready, but he’ll delay it for too long if we let him. Please Nasir. I promise I wouldn’t push you into anything that would be terrible for you and Agron. You and I should have met weeks ago, and it’s time for a little family dinner. He really likes you, more than I’ve seen him like anyone else before. And this is less than you think it is. What’s your budget?”

“I have twenty dollars,” Nasir replied glancing to the side although Duro only smiled at his reply.

“Okay, let’s get you some twine for that chicken and more baggies for the beans so you can prepare them ahead of time. I don’t want you going without because you’re out of time on the days you work. He’ll have my head if you faint during one of his sessions.”

Nasir scowled slightly as he followed Duro. He’d never fainted in his life.

By the time they were done with the rest of it, the total came to $22.61, but Duro just dropped a five on top of Nasir’s twenty to cover the extra. As they walked out, Duro spoke cheerfully. “That twine will last you a few months at least, as will the bags. Those beans, you’ll easily keep that going into the next months, the rice too. You’ll see. Those spices will make it all worthwhile, I promise.”

Back on the bus, Nasir tried to relax but something still nagged at him. “You said you’ve spoken with Chadara. When did you meet her?”

“Oh we met at the gym actually. I’m not just speaking with her though Nasir. I’ve started dating her. She’s a lot of fun to hang out with.”

Nasir felt nausea rising. Agron would not like this, and he found the idea suspect himself. “She’s dating you? You’ve gone out?”

“Sure, we’ve done dinner, a movie, went to some sort of art show. That wasn’t really my thing, but she seemed to like it. Oh shopping too.”

He knew Agron wasn’t going to like this, not at all. “And she said you were dating.”

“Well no, she said it was nice to go out. If you take a woman out, and she enjoys herself, isn’t that dating? Oh, well I guess it doesn’t have to be a woman, but you know.” Duro seemed entirely unaware about Nasir’s distress with this news.

A young man in school, who also worked but clearly couldn’t buy her the world; Duro didn’t seem her type at all.

“She likes to have fun is all. It’s nothing too serious.” Duro glanced at his phone. “Say it looks like my plans for tonight fell through. Do you mind if I just show you how to break down a chicken and prepare your stuff at your place? I’ve got my knives on me and everything. While I’m there, we can solidify the menu for dinner. Agron will eat whatever we come up with. I promise you he won’t pitch a fit with you sitting there.”

Nasir gripped his paper bag tighter. He didn’t like having guests over like this, but Agron had already seen his place so Duro couldn’t tell his boyfriend anything he didn’t already know. He also wound up with food he wasn’t comfortable preparing, so help was needed. “Okay.”

The two of them spent the next couple of hours breaking down two chickens, cooking enough beans and rice for two weeks to be stored in the baggies in the freezer, as well as preparing broth which took up both his ice cube trays for the night. As time went by, Nasir felt his comfort level return to normal once he got used to Duro’s nonsensical chatter .

Duro sharpened the couple of knives Nasir had and instructed him on ways to cook the chicken pieces. Once the menu was set for Sunday Duro gripped Nasir’s shoulders with a grin. “Hey, Nasir, don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of everything including my brother.”

That night, when Nasir had his bowl of chicken, beans and rice, he almost couldn’t believe he had a hand in making it. He went to sleep feeling full and less nervous about an unexpected dinner with Agron and his brother, though he still worried about Chadara’s relationship with Duro… if she considered that a relationship at all.

**

Donar laughed lowly, peering down at Agron while he lifted the heavy bar steadily.

“What’s so funny about my problem?”

“Oh we were just wondering how long it would take before it finally happened.”

Agron steadied the bar and sat-up, wiping his neck and brow with a growing frown. “Before what happened, and who’s we?”

“Oh before you realized you were going to have to keep up with a twenty year old.”

“Twenty-two, and what do you mean keep up?” Agron found his irritation level rising.

“Right, right, two years makes all the difference. Clubbing huh. I guess we should have put that on the calendar.”

“What fucking calendar!?” Agron snapped at him.

A few eyes shifted in their direction, so before Mira could stop putting up more flyers to come nag him, Agron reached into his pocket and found the nearest swear jar, dropping in three bills .

“Three Agron. You only said…”

“Fuck you Donar. You better give me some goddamn answers before I knock you flat on your ass.”

Donar blinked at him. Minutes later, Agron sat in front of a computer looking at an Agron and Nasir calendar with names, dollar amounts and winners written all over it. “You know they’re going to kill me for showing you this?”

“Mira won fifty dollars for being the closest to guessing when I’d wind up at Nasir’s place?”

“Well she didn’t think it would be because he was sick, but yeah, she thought you’d be there before many others did.”

Agron’s frown deepened as he glanced at his friend leaning over his shoulder. “You bet the first night?”

“Well I guess I thought you’d, you know.”

“Jesus Donar!”

“Hey, keep it down or you’ll get one of the girls in here or worse Spartacus.”

“Spartacus doesn’t know?”

Donar snorted. “I don’t think so anyway. I’m pretty sure if he did we’d get one of those employee meetings. Remember when he found a used condom in the employee bathroom?”

Agron groaned. “Tell me that wasn’t you.”

“Hell no. I don’t screw women here. That’s like shitting where you eat.”

Agron shook his head, scowling at the various relationship hurdles. First kiss, first night at Nasir’s place, first night at Agron’s, first public argument, first break-up. Fucking Crixus, he wanted to go beat his ass right now. Then his eyes focused on something else, first declaration of love. They’d already passed Mira’s prediction, so she wouldn’t win that one, but he couldn’t help but let his eyes linger there.

“You know Agron, it probably isn’t healthy for you to keep staring at this.”

Agron stood, shaking his head. “You’re all a bunch of assholes for this.”

Donar shut the machine down. “Remember when Crixus bought his first pair of rollerblades and we all placed bets on whether he would fall on his ass or face first?”

“That’s different.”

“You actually took a picture AND you convinced Saxa to help make sure it happened. I’m just saying.”

“That was all in good fun. This, this could actually hurt someone Donar.”

Donar sighed. “I know, I know but… but everyone is rooting for you Agron, not against you. You gotta know that. If you looked further out, you’d see some other dates… anniversaries and such. You’ve got the girls all really excited.”

Agron crossed his arms. “Not everyone.”

“Crixus is just an ass. We’ve already covered that a few times.” Donar gripped his shoulder firmly. “And it’s not just the girls. I really want to know what he thinks about your sheets.”

“He really liked them Donar. He really did.” Agron sighed. “I haven’t been clubbing since I was a teenager. I don’t know… what do you even wear to clubs now?”

Donar shrugged leading him back to the locker area. “Beats me. I don’t go to clubs. That was never my scene. I know someone who still goes though and so do you.”

They both peaked around the corner to peer at the man with a loud laugh and two women enjoying his story.

Agron sighed. Fuck.

“And I bet he can even help you catch up on your dance moves.” Donar suggested helpfully.

He banged his head against the locker. “Do me a favor and see if you can get him to stick around tonight. I might, might forgive you for that calendar if you help me in this.”

Donar grinned happily. “He’s all yours then.”

“One more thing. Nasir could use some nice pillows, real nice ones, so I want you to place a bet for me on that calendar…”

Later, Agron closed his eyes, already hearing loud laughter ringing in his ears. Crixus was bad enough, but now he had to beg Gannicus to help him to get ready to club with Nasir. This was going to be a trying week all around, and it had only just begun.

Chapter Text

Preparer No. 1

It was late at The Rebel and nearly everyone had gone home. Although Spartacus had ideas of having the gym opened twenty-four seven, they did not have the staff or the membership to support that sort of premium membership yet. Agron moved from side to side, finding it difficult to concentrate on what he was trying to do and realizing he hadn’t attended the last board meeting where they likely talked about premium memberships.

“Agron, I know you can move better than this,” Gannicus leaned against a white support post watching him move from side to side.

Despite feeling a bit sleepy, and hugely irritated and distracted, Agron managed to lock his angry eyes on Gannicus. “You’ve never seen me dance Gannicus, never.”

They both wore large, loose black t-shirts with matching pants that many of the trainers would throw on after a quick shower before going home and putting on real clothes. Even in the same clothes, Gannicus looked at ease and constantly amused. Agron was certainly not going to do this in a tank and shorts around a grinning fool either.

Gannicus chuckled lowly, circling him with a shake of his head, his dark blonde hair still damp from the shower and moving along his neck and shoulders. Nasir’s was longer, Agron noted, and not so curly. But the other trainers light brown eyes didn’t stop laughing even if the man himself calmed down enough to form some coherent words. “I’ve seen you move in a fighting ring. You look too stiff, like a trained bear or something. Relax Agron, I’m not gonna bite. Nasir probably won’t bite either depending on what kind of club he takes you to.”

Agron curled his fingers into loose fists. “And if I was in a fighting ring, I’d probably be fine. Since I don’t want to beat the shit out of my boyfriend, you think you could be a little more helpful?”

Gannicus approached him, and Agron did everything in his power not to stiffen up, failing completely. The shorter man pressed a hand against the small of his back. “Easy big fella.”

“Don’t call me that.” Agron snapped.

Again with the laugh. “You know Agron, you could be a little less hostile towards me. You asked me for help remember?”

“Sorry.” Agron took a deep breath and tried to relax. Gannicus had a point. He didn’t know why he was so uptight about this, or at least not exactly. If this was Donar, it would be a different story but this was a man he’d seen go toe to toe with Spartacus and seemed to disrespect the program, the gym, everyone efforts… he’d never seen Gannicus take anything seriously. It pissed him off. Sure, Agron hadn’t exactly performed to expectations, but it wasn’t because he thought the idea foolish or worth mocking.

“Good, good. Let’s get that tension out of those shoulders. Better.” Gannicus moved to the edge of the ring and turned on some techno mixes, heavy in bass. “Now I could tell you to put your hands in your pocket and just sort of shift your shoulders to music back and forth. A lot of tall men look cool and dignified doing that.” The man demonstrated.

Agron smiled reluctantly; that sounded promising. “I can do that.” He mimicked the motions after getting into the beat.

“Yeah, and you’d look like every other fifty year old man in the joint with a girlfriend half his age.”

Agron’s smile faded.

Gannicus laughed at his expression. “Hey, Nasir adores you. I am sure he’d be thrilled with any effort you put into this, but you can do something those other fifty year olds can’t.”

Agron’s brow furrowed into a deep scowl. “I’m not fifty.”

His instructor completely ignored the correction and kept going. “You can run laps around your hot twenty year old, just like me. So put your elbows up, make a fist, there you go Agron, sort of like your defending yourself.” Gannicus approached him. “Now move your hips with the beat. Good, good. Elbows and forearms, not so aggressive. You’re not fighting, just moving with the beat.” Then Gannicus touched his hip and everything fell apart.

Agron huffed lowly. “You messed up my concentration.”

“Okay, not bad, but this is a club Agron, someone is probably going to touch you. In fact, someone is probably going to hit on you too, get all in your space and…”

“If you value your bones, you’re not going…”

Gannicus placed a finger directly on Agron’s lips, unable to contain his laughter. “You’re actually kind of adorable all puffed up and confused like that. You’re probably either asking yourself whether you’re fast enough to take a swing at me, or whether or not you value Nasir enough to put up with me a little longer. So which is it?”

Agron sort of froze in place, like his brain couldn’t comprehend that Gannicus actually put a finger on his lips. Then the cogs turned a bit as he realized that he very likely couldn’t swing fast enough to land a blow on Gannicus, but his legs were fast. What settled his swirl of emotions though was that last part about Nasir. For Nasir, he would put up with Gannicus and then some, so he only sighed and pulled his head back. His lip curled in a bit of a sneer as he glowered at the man before him.

“That’s what I thought. Now Nasir has some energy in him when he’s eating right? I see a lot more of that since he’s been coming here, good job, so… if we can just get you to find a rhythm and you know, relax and have fun, we might be lucky enough that he’ll lead you all night.”

“Lead me?”

“Oh yeah, oh this is a good one. Watch me.” Gannicus let the music pump a bit. He walked near Agron, spread his legs apart a bit, bent his knees and began rocking his hips from side to side, in motions he’d only ever seen women perform; Gannicus was a natural, fluid and smooth. “Now come up behind me, try to get close to my level… match my movement.”

The way he pushed his chest out from time to time, Agron new the man was fucking with him at that point, but he tried to focus, keep that temper on a low simmer. He moved up behind Gannicus and tried to imitate his groove. Relax, have fun… Despite his tendency to do everything counter to that approach, Agron managed to finally let go and just flow with his instructor’s motions.

“Good Agron, very good Agron!” Gannicus seemed excited, maybe even laughing in enjoyment instead of as a weapon against him. “Come on now. This is your sweetie, your hot young lover. Move in closer, hand on my hip.” Agron complied and reached around his chest. “Hey, hey, hey. Keep it light grabby. I’m not looking to be molested on the dance floor.”

Agron blushed. “Sorry,” he mumbled. That was stupid. He’d have to remember that. This would be public.

“Bend your knees some more, closer to my level. There you go. Now you have the groove, this is good. We’re aligned. Now I am going to mix it up a bit. Just follow me.” And then those hips rolled forward and back and then right up against his…

Agron all but jumped backward suddenly. “What the hell was that?”

Gannicus stood upright and turned to face him. The shorter blonde took one look at him and just started roaring with laugher. “I just rolled my hips. Jesus Agron. You’ve turned as red as a cherry!”

Agron grabbed his towel. “I need a shower.”

The blonde kept chuckling. “A cold one at that. Maybe I should tell Nasir he needs to relieve some of that tension from you before he takes you into a club full of hot eager bodies!”

“Don’t you say anything to him!” Agron shouted back, disappearing back to the employee area; his ears felt like they were on fire now. Damn it. That was not something Gannicus was ever going to let him live down anytime soon.

Even with Agron out of sight, Gannicus turned off the music and shouted to him. “Another lesson tomorrow. Saxa will be here with some clothing options for you. We want to make sure everything fits right and hey, don’t’ worry. You’re just rusty. When you got into it… hey it’ll be good man!”

**

In the office, Spartacus peered through the window, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Mira kissed his shoulder and then looked at the two men separating. “So how did it go? Is our Agron going to do all right you think?”

“He won’t win any competitions, but he’s loosening up, remembering how to have fun and, you know, act his age a bit.”

Mira beamed. “This is so exciting. Why was the lesson so short though?”

Spartacus rolled his eyes and glanced at her. “Gannicus was playing with him.”

“So?”

“And Agron is still a young guy, probably forgetting it was Gannicus in front of him…”

Mira frowned. “But what does that have to do with… oh!” She giggled. “Come on, let’s go catch that movie. They both own a piece of this place. They’ll lock up.”

Spartacus nodded, leading her out the front door to the Jeep. “So does Donar volunteer this information or are you dragging it out of him? I assume he told you Agron would be going to a nightclub and would get some lessons after shift with Gannicus.”

She only gave him her most innocent smile.

**

Preparer No. 2

Nasir glanced at his phone, noting how late it was and smiling at the calendar. He hadn’t been this anxious about a date since, well since his last visit to the Ludus. Despite his best effort to avoid the other event, his dark eyes did flicker to the Sunday following that Friday. That event made him a little nervous, but he had had to trust in Agron’s brother not to ruin everything and just look forward to Friday. He sighed, opening his door and closing it behind him securely.

“Nasir.”

He’d never been one to be afraid of the dark or to react to sudden noises in immediate fear, but the presence of the other man did make his heart skip a beat in a subtle and silent sort of way. His eyes focused on the blonde in front him, dressed in a suit as bright blue eyes returned his gaze steadily.

Nasir set his key on the counter and frowned at the man, raising his chin slightly. “How did you get in here? I never gave you a key.”

Caesar stood approaching and reaching out for him although Nasir took a step back to avoid his touch. “That’s an interesting greeting. I had my car parked several blocks away from this dump to avoid attention. I was hoping you’d at least give me the time of day for the effort.”

“You shouldn’t be here.” Nasir replied tensely.

“You wouldn’t answer my calls, and now your phone is disconnected. I was worried.”

“You lost your right to worry about me and don’t lie to me. I know Batiatus tells you anything you want to know.”

Caesar frowned, dropping his hand. “I didn’t ask him to do anything about us Nasir. I didn’t know about the punishments until Chadara told me when I called her about the phone. She couldn’t get through either.”

Shit. Nasir had forgotten to give her his new number. She probably tried to get ahold of him this weekend and found it disconnected, but that didn’t explain Caesar being here. “So she gave you a key?”

“Nasir… I was given a key a long time ago. I just didn’t use it. Look, I know things ended badly between us.”

“Bad!” Nasir almost snarled at him. “You humiliated me in a public place. You treated me like some, something that you had lost control of. You broke my heart.”

Caesar kept his distance but lowered his voice. “Your heart? Were you in love with me Nasir? Is that honestly what you think we had?”

Nasir curled his fingers against the counter. This hurt, but he wouldn’t give the man the satisfaction of seeing that. “It’s what I wanted, not that what I wanted ever mattered to you.”

“I gave you what you wanted.” Caesar insisted. “Stability, events out, affection, sex… I was going to get you out of this place too, give you decent place to live.”

“What makes you think that is what I wanted? What makes you think I would ever just settle for that?” Nasir honestly wanted to know. Sure, maybe early on he was just thrilled with the attention, the invitations to go places and stay away from his unfortunate living arrangements and crappy place of work. But he couldn’t even remember Caesar complimenting him on anything that the man himself hadn’t given him or paid for; he’d been blind to the other’s selfish nature for over a year.

“It’s what they said you wanted, and it’s what I needed. I just needed someone around who wouldn’t make waves, give me what I desired now and then, someone for the public to see. This is all…”

Nasir cut him off, this time moving closer, in arm’s length. He wasn’t afraid he realized. Caesar had no power over him, not anymore. “Who’s they?” He didn’t ask meekly either. What came out, it was a harsh demand, an order.

Caesar frowned, his expression stern but not openly angry. He seemed surprised with Nasir’s tone. “I thought I was giving you what you wanted, what you expected from me. When things started changing, I wasn’t prepared for that Nasir. I’m sorry.”

Nasir locked eyes with the man. The apology, his explanation, he could feel himself almost believing. Maybe he didn’t have it in himself to harbor hate or anger, not when there was something more promising ahead of him that he might be able to leave the rest behind him. “No one should be treated the way you treated me. You belittled me for breaking rules you never bothered to tell me I was expected to follow. Who gave you the key, and who told you I wanted that kind of life?”

Caesar sighed, holding out the key. “I think you already know the answer to that Nasir. You need to leave the Villa. It’s not a good place to be. You, you were practically sold to me. I kept my end of the bargain, so I think you’ll be fine for a while; I don’t know for how long.”

Nasir took a breath, glancing away. “It’s not that easy. I am surprised you don’t know that. What do you mean sold?”

Caesar placed a hand on his shoulder and offered a small blue book he withdrew from his pocket with the key. He bent down and kissed Nasir on the cheek. “You know where to find me when you get this all out of your system. We still have time before I go public. We could still work this out, I think, if you settle down a little.” The man left.

Nasir cautiously opened the book, peering at a portrait of himself along with a profile: first and last name, birthdate, age, height, eye color, hair color, approximate weight, address, occupation, highest level of education, and then more pictures, lots and lots of pictures. There were images of him at work, on the bus, in bed sleeping, on his knees in an alley… Nasir took a breath. One had him in the shower, but not his shower. On the last page of the booklet was more information: client interest was pending, and current activities included visits to the gym which could lead to a stronger more able body. First sexual experience was listed as unknown but prior to sixteen years of age. At the bottom a hand-scribbled note, relationship status-pending. He recognized that hand-writing.

Taking a deep breath, he picked up the phone and typed in a number. After it rang a few times someone answered. “Chadara?”

“Nasir!” Chadara exclaimed on the other side. “I was so worried. I tried to reach you all weekend, and I just kept getting a message that said your number wasn’t accepting calls.”

“I have a new phone. I forgot to give you the number is all,” Nasir replied carefully, heart pounding in his ear though he tried to remain calm, to think about what he was going to say.

“I don’t understand.” She sounded confused. “Why would a new phone mean you have to get a new number?”

“Because it was given to me, and I want a new number anyway. I just, I forgot to give it to you. Chadara, do you know anything about blue booklets.”

Long silence. “You mean like passports?”

“No, but I guess they’re about the size of one.” He took a breath. More silence; she knew. “How could you Chadara? How could you give Caesar a key to my place? How could you participate in some sort of profile like this? There are naked pictures of me Chadara, private moments not meant to be shared.”

“Nasir…”

“How could you?” He heard his volume rising, but he tried to reel in his emotions again. “Who gets these booklets? Who makes them?”

“Nasir I had no choice. You know we don’t have many choices working there. We do what we have to do to survive.”

“Are these, are these used as threats?” He whispered

“No, no nothing like that. It’s how Caesar first became interested. Think of it as a dating profile although I don’t know how he got ahold of a recent one. I think they were green when he got yours.”

“Dating profiles are consensual Chadara.” Nasir hissed angrily at her.

“This isn’t online dating Nasir. These are for the elite, for the wealthy and those…”

“Men who Batiatus wants to get closer to?” He set his phone down for a moment, emotions shifting about erratically from anger to fear to despair back to anger again.

“Nasir!” Chadara’s voice became loud enough he could hear her even with the phone down. “These aren’t the profiles for the parties. This is for something better, for longer-term. I didn’t… I didn’t have a choice.”

Nasir lifted the phone back to his ear. “You gave him all this information, and those pictures?”

“I didn’t take them,” she quickly corrected. “Those ones in the alley, he must have had someone watching us before he offered us jobs and a place. I have a profile too Nasir. I… I was trying to protect you from this. Caesar protected you from this. He never forced you did he, Caesar?”

“No, no he never did,” Nasir replied tensely.

“I’m just like you Nasir. I am just trying to get by. If Batiatus tells me to update your profile, I have to do it. I have to…”

“It wasn’t before I was sixteen,” Nasir interrupted her quietly.

“What?”

“My first experience wasn’t before I was sixteen.”

“But you said your first time was with a boy…” She sounded distressed now, finally.

“I lied.” Nasir’s voice became level, cool and distant as an almost numb sensation settled in his body and his mind.

“But if it wasn’t before you were sixteen then your first would have been with him. And your next ones with…”

“I know Chadara. I lived it.” He let the silence linger for a moment, making sure he had her complete attention and ensure his words would remain strong and steady. “I lied so you would let me help, so you thought I was more mature than I was… so you wouldn’t pity me. My first time was with a man who was supposed to love me and protect me and guide me into adulthood. And now my sister is selling me to the highest bidder, so she can get an apartment from her boyfriend. You’re more like him than you think. You’re like the man we fled from, and you’re only two steps below your boyfriend. You and I, we’re not alike Chadara. We couldn’t be more different.”

“Nasir!”

“I can’t hear from you for a while. Please don’t call this number until I call you or I will block you.”

Nasir hung up. He went to take a hot shower and ten minutes later when his skin turned red from the heat and scrubbing, he still didn’t feel clean. Only then did he realize he forgot to ask Chadara what happened to her and why she didn’t make it into work last week.

Chapter Text

Even though their Thursday session had continued as expected, Nasir knew his polite but brief departure left Agron with unasked questions. He had arrived early enough to warm up on his own then they spent most of the hour using one of the elliptical machines and eventually finished off with what Agron called cool down stretches. Cool down stretches had a lot to offer it seemed. These were quiet moments with lots of eye contact, and Agron remained close, moving Nasir’s limbs and back to the right position, helping him loosen up again. They even exchanged a few quiet jokes about yoga, a thing neither of them had actually tried before. After a brief kiss, Nasir returned home. Despite his best effort, he found himself thinking about Chadara and this strange and detailed profile floating out there with men who had somehow managed to function beyond the norms and rules of general society viewing it like some sort of catalog selection. He almost told Agron, almost, in case the thing showed up. Oh he knew Agron could tell something was wrong, but he wasn’t ready to talk about it, not yet. Agron didn’t push him, but sometimes Nasir wished he would. Occasionally he needed someone to encourage or confront him as Chadara once did when they were younger and closer. Somehow they lost that, though he could not say exactly when they drifted apart.

It was Friday night and Nasir pulled on a black tank and a white summer T-shirt over it. The summer T-shirt was essentially a larger sleeveless piece with a hood and buttons only part way down with comfortable fabric. He matched the two pieces with some faded jeans which had a couple of extra zippers on the left leg. Finally his hair was pulled back into a messy bun to keep it out of his face. Nasir felt nervous, standing in front of the mirror. He looked good, but… this felt different. This was his idea, his choice which could mean Agron might wind up hating it the entire night. Despite the distraction of growing worry, Nasir still remembered to tuck his money clip and his ID into the front pocket of his jeans; he waited for Agron.

Not long after nine, a rap sounded on his door and Nasir opened it to find Agron wearing a casual slim fit purple shirt with long sleeves, a collar and buttons all the way down. Even though it crinkled and creased the length of Agron’s long torso per design, the shiny shirt did nothing to hide the sculpted form of his lover’s body. The black denim with the medium length bronze stitching along the pockets and down the seams complimented the shirt without overshadowing it as did the black shoes. And his hair was a little smoother, thankfully not slicked back but just… calm. Green eyes looked at him nervously, and Nasir realized despite this being out of Agron’s comfort zone, his boyfriend was making an effort.

Nasir reached out and ran his fingers down the shirt, the buttons pausing his descent periodically as he appraised the man physically. “Agron, you’re gorgeous.”

He was rewarded with a broad and familiar smile that seemed to send rivulets of ease throughout the large body. “I’m glad you approve. Are you… ready?” Agron didn’t need to return the compliment, Nasir could see the warmth in those eyes and the way he just sort of reached out and played with his wrapped hair.

Grinning himself, Nasir locked up behind them and followed Agron downstairs to find his black truck two blocks away. Agron entered the address into the GPS, and soon they headed into the heart of the city.

After a little while on the road, Agron tapped the steering wheel a few times before breaking the silence once they were on a main throughway. “So this club of yours, are we going to have to bribe some bouncer and drop a hundred to get in?”

Nasir snickered briefly. “Agron it’s not that kind of club.”

“It’s not a rave is it?” Agron blinked, realizing his question came off as reluctance. “I mean it’s okay if it is, but I would like to be prepared in case it is… you know, just in case.”

Nasir laughed quietly, glancing at the man. Nervous Agron was cute; that helped settle his own nerves even. “So just how long last night did you spend searching the internet for night clubs and raves in the area?”

“I’m on my third cup of coffee.” Agron confessed looking a bit sheepish.

Nasir patted his arm. “Don’t worry. I don’t plan on keep us out until they kick us out, just a few hours. I’ve been to this place before. I used to know a guy there, but I haven’t been for a couple of years now. It’s crowded but not too bad.” He could see relief all over Agron’s face, although he wasn’t sure which fact gave him the most relief: the promise not to stay until 2AM, that he knew the place, or that he had never been there with is last boyfriend Caesar whom he was with only a year. When they took the off ramp, Nasir eventually pointed to a small alley. “Park here; it’s a good spot. There’s a manned security booth across the street and cameras.” He figured Agron wouldn’t admit to being worried about his truck even if he was.

They walked a few blocks pausing in front of an unassuming building with a line about 20 people long so far. He waited at the back, glancing at Agron who looked like he had at least a hundred questions at the tip of his tongue but held them. Just as well, Nasir thought; he hoped a couple of drinks would loosen his stiff lover up. If anyone in his social circle had been available or trusted at that moment, he would have told them just ten minutes, all he needed or really expected was ten minutes of Agron trying something he liked to do to be satisfied. His heart fluttered that Agron came at all when clearly this was out of his element. He was doing all of this just because Nasir asked him to and with no complaints so far.

At the door, Nasir gave the man their entry fee, receiving no angry retort or insistence from Agron on the matter. His taller partner shifted like he wanted, really wanted to pay, but he let Nasir do so without a word. Nasir smiled. He took Agron’s hand and pulled him into the sea of bodies, the neon lights giving them their only chance to navigate, the music already blaring with a mix of new and old dance singles combine with the DJ’s unique flare. Now for the first hurdle: a first dance.

Taking a breath, Nasir started with the next piece, “Tonight is the Night.” He started with his shoulders back and forth between the two just shifting with the beat until his entire body began to move with the chorus. To his surprise Agron faced him, lifted his arms and elbows and moved with the beat, already smiling. Of course Nasir’s smile became larger, and he moved in closer once it became clear Agron wasn’t going to stumble with this or reluctantly participate. The man looked like he might have fun right off the bat. And then when everyone around them threw their arms in the air and bounced around, they did the same, vigorous like teens until the next piece started: “Feeling so Close.” By the middle of that piece, Nasir’s lingering worries from the week had faded away.

Then came, “Talking Body.” Having ended the last song facing away from Agron, Nasir began dancing again grinning when suddenly he felt Agron right up behind him, hand on his hip. Experimentally, Nasir moved his hips back and forth, rolling them to the beat of sensual song. He felt Agron hesitate in moving closer, and he raised his hand twice before dropping it again as if afraid to use his other hand. This wouldn’t do; he wanted everyone in the immediate vicinity, especially anybody whose eyes lingered upon Agron’s form, to know they were together. Nasir backed into him instead, encouraging both hands on his hips. Soon they were really moving together, and Nasir felt his pants begin to feel a little tight; he breathed heavily, thrilled to have his lover so close. When it ended, he turned to see the tall man breathing just as deeply, the smile a little calmer though it rose again when their eyes met. “Need a drink?” Nasir asked.

“Hell yeah.” Agron replied without pause. This time he slipped his hand into his pocket and handed Nasir two twenties.

Nasir took the money with a half-smile, dragging Agron to the outskirts of the dance floor. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”

**

Agron watched his lover slowly disappear into the partial darkness towards the bar. He could only imagine how the little man would make it back with their drinks intact. It didn’t matter. If he thought he wouldn’t wind up dropping his phone and losing it forever, he would’ve sent Donar a fuck you text. He was mastering this, and that nearly hysterical laughter he received from the man when he saw the shirt Saxa bought him while Gannicus showed him how to keep loose and dance close, well fuck him.

Instead of sitting like a stiff board, as the others advised him not to do, Agron danced by himself, keeping his hands out of his pocket because he wasn’t fifty damn it. Suddenly he felt a hand on his ass, and turned expecting to see Nasir behind him with drinks, but instead he was peering at a blonde with a green streak in her hair; she had to be in her twenties and in her hand was a neon green necklace.

“Hey cutie.” She gave him a suggestive smile.

Somewhat dumbfounded, Agron didn’t really respond when she reached up and dropped the necklace around his neck. She winked at him and vanished into the crowd.

“Wha…”

And it happened three more times, so by the time Nasir returned with their drinks, Agron had four new necklaces. Nasir offered him his cocktail, a smirk written all over his face. “You know there are phone numbers on those right?”

Agron took the drink downing it relatively quickly. “What?” He could barely hear Nasir over the music and others.

“Your necklaces have phone numbers!”

“What?”

Nasir shook his head and grabbed one of the necklaces off Agron’s neck, shaking it briefly so a name and a phone number slowly appeared. “Hook-up!”

Agron gulped. “I swear I didn’t know. Most of them were women!”

Nasir chuckled, setting his drink down. “Come on. Let’s dance!”

Now being a physical trainer had a lot of benefits, and he couldn’t help but hear Gannicus’ mocking but informative voice again telling him he could run circles around Nasir even as the older one in the relationship. He shifted from one song he didn’t know real well to another. “Style” and “Prayer in C” mixes neither of which was his kind music, but Nasir seemed to enjoy the faster paced and heavy bass pieces. Sure someone bumped against him, and maybe someone else tried to cop a feel, but all he could see in this dark crowded place was the look of pure bliss in his lover’s eyes. He’d only seen that look once before while flying over the sand on a quad right before his fearless lover sped ahead of him and won the makeshift race. Nasir knew how to live when set free. It was beautiful.

Agron lost track of how many twenties he handed out, but this last round was taking a bit. He knew Nasir was close to his tipping point and he had a bit himself. He remained cautious of his limit and Agron was larger and drank less than half of most of the drinks before setting them down and not daring to sip from them again after losing sight of the glass. Still he finally began squeezing his way through the crowd towards the bar, trying to get to Nasir while a song he actually kind of liked started: “I Want You to Know.” Oh he wanted to dance with Nasir while this piece played, and he was nearing the bar when he saw them.

First of course was his Nasir, a drink in one hand and what looked like another one on the counter. The other one he was talking to, a little taller than Nasir and dressed head to toe in black with dark arms exposed, perfectly sculpted, incredible arms exposed. His skin was smooth like rich moist soil, his hair buzzed short against his scalp, and the part of his chest that was exposed would make some of the other trainers feel inadequate… Agron felt a growl start to develop in his chest. This man was incredibly built, and the way the two were talking, Nasir glancing to the side and then back at the man with one of those surprised but pleased expressions. Was that a blush? Then there was a dark chocolate hand against Nasir’s exposed arm and out came a necklace. Son. Of. A. Bitch.

Now admittedly, Agron had had a couple of drinks, but he wasn’t drunk. Why what happened next sort of turned into a whirlwind of blurs and shouts was hard to say, but most likely it was the rage that overtook his vision. He was pretty sure he asked the man to remove his hand. They exchanged tense words but at some point his fist connected with the bastard’s smirking face. The man wasn’t wise enough to stay down, so he hit him again and then again. By that time, he vaguely acknowledged Nasir grabbing his arm and a very large man coming towards him, probably a bouncer to kick him out or hold him until the police arrived.

His knuckles hurt, split from the other’s tough face and nose. Agron didn’t think he broke the man’s nose, so maybe that was why the other didn’t intend to press charges, and they were not officially kicked out. Apparently his rival knew the owners and assured Nasir they’d be allowed back any time; he almost kicked him at that point but thought better of it. Agron snarled at the idea of ever returning but wisely left before he pushed his luck. Nasir wasn’t far behind and they entered the truck in silence.

Agron knew he should break the silence, but he wasn’t really sure what to say. Nasir beat him to it.

“Are you out of your mind?” His younger lover finally accused loudly. “You could have sent that man to the hospital. You could have gone to jail Agron!”

“But I didn’t,” Agron retorted briefly, scowling at the road.

“You were going to beat the shit out of him, and for what?”

“He touched you.”

Nasir blinked, sobering up quickly. “What?”

Agron felt the tension in his shoulder and neck, still recalling that smooth expression, the ‘I am going to get some’ face when he tried to hand Nasir when those damned hook-up necklaces. “He was going to try and fuck you.”

Nasir snorted. “Not in the middle of the night club he wasn’t. He was just flirting.”

“And you were flirting back…”

“I…” Nasir sighed, shaking his head. “It was just a little banter. I didn’t have any interest in him. I didn’t even get his name Agron.”

“And he was going to give you a necklace, name and phone number provided.”

Nasir scowled at him. “Like the four, no six around your neck. Did you pick up two more?”

Agron swerved just a bit as he grabbed the offending jewelry, worked them off his head and threw them out the window. “I never talked to any one of them, and most of them were women.”

Nasir looked behind them. “Real mature Agron. You could have hit someone with those. And if they don’t mean anything to you why do you think I would be any dif…”

“I saw that expression.” Agron replied tensely.

Nasir seemed genuinely confused. “Expression.”

“You were flattered, enjoying the attention.” Agron pulled over near Nasir’s apartment.

“But your response was…”

“As it fucking should be. Anyone who tries to take you from me…” There was no way Agron could hide the hostility in his voice. This could be it. Nasir could take one look at his unbridled rage and decide…

“Agron.” Brown eyes softened slightly. “I… there was only one man in that place I cared about, and he surprised me, really surprised me by letting go with me for a night. I thought we might last ten minutes and it’s…”

Both their eyes shifted to the clock: just past midnight. They sat in the truck in silence for a few minutes, lost in thought.

Agron closed his eyes briefly. “I couldn’t stand the thought of…” He took a deep breath. “Or the idea that your eyes might linger on someone so obviously strong and attractive and...” He could see that man again, bright smile, confident and fucking charming trying to lure Nasir away for the night.

Suddenly Nasir was in his space, kissing his neck and his mouth. “Come up with me, to my place?”

Agron blinked. Did Nasir just…

Nasir exited the truck, moved to the driver’s side, and opened the door. He grabbed Agron’s hand and pulled him out, getting the keys for him.

“Okay,” he finally responded needlessly to Nasir’s questioning gaze.

He was pretty sure he lost a button or two on their way up the stairs with the way Nasir yanked him onward and paused to kiss and touch and kiss some more.

Nasir barely managed to get the key in the door when the two tumbled forward. Agron had quick reflexes though, reaching out with his right hand to stop an abrupt fall, the left wrapping around Nasir’s torso while he used the strength of his thighs and knees to crouch low and stop the descent. His young lover blinked up at him, giggled, and they kissed, heatedly with tongues gliding along one another. Their legs were still in the hall when Nasir began to undress. Agron’s mind kicked in, and he managed to get them inside and lock the door.

His young lover had the summer t-shirt off and was making short work of the tank when Agron grasped his fingers essentially forcing brown eyes to look up at them. Oh those lovely eyes were vibrant but slightly unfocused, heavy with alcohol.

“Are you sure?” Agron whispered.

“Yes,” came the immediate reply. “Please…” Nasir ran his tongue along his bottom lip, unblinkingly returning the gaze. “Tell me you want me.”

“Every minute of every day,” Agron replied, reaching behind his lover to release his hair.

Nasir took his other hand, lifting the knuckles to his mouth where he kissed each one slowly, sucking briefly. When he completed his short task, he spoke again. “I should get gauze for your other hand. There’s blood.”

“Leave it, it’ll be fine.”

“But the sheets.”

Agron grinned. Even his heated body felt the glow of Nasir’s worry and appreciation for the gift. “I’ll get it. Go… wait for me on the bed.”

They exchanged another quick kiss, and Agron hurried to the bathroom to find the gauze which he wrapped haphazardly around his knuckles, pausing just long enough to rinse his face and examine his puffy and slightly broken lip. He didn’t even remember getting hit, but the other must have got a strike or two in. Shaking his head, he finished unbuttoning his shiny shirt to find Nasir naked, kneeling on the bed, moving the white tiger to the floor and turning on the lamp now that the rest of the lights were off.

There was something to be said about the soft warm lights of incandescent bulbs although a part of him recalled what his heart looked like under the neon lights where just flashes gave him a glimpse of a grinning, excited face. Those dark eyes looked up at him with eagerness, beckoning though a hint of hesitation returned while Agron shrugged off his shiny shirt and began to make short work of the rest of his clothes. When he pressed his knees against the bed, it creaked beneath him though he continued smoothly until his fingers could move along that slightly curved back and side. Gently he gave Nasir a nudge and the other shifted onto his back allowing Agron to crouch over him. He didn’t rush though, instead he peered down at his young lover, breathing and smiling. Nasir exhaled slowly, his eyes heavy from a night of expending energy and substantial drinking, but they were focused, returning his gaze while his strong hands lifted to caress along both Agron’s of shoulders.

“Kiss me.” Nasir whispered.

And he didn’t have to ask twice. Agron lowered his head, capturing those eager lips with his own in a series of open mouth kisses that ended when he worked his way down Nasir’s jaw to his ear, where he kissed just behind his ear. Soon he was right at the curve of a stubble jawline again and then his neck. Nasir sighed lowly, fingers moving to Agron’s short hair, holding him close while lips familiarized themselves with every inch, a tongue running along that hidden vein and then dipping to the area between neck and shoulder, playing with the small crevice there. Salty, familiar… his, his mind told him as he relished the taste and sounds of his lover.

Nasir ran his coarse fingers down Agron’s side, caressing his ribs and muscles before pulling at him to move closer; Agron complied. He lowered his body, their heat mingling. Naturally, Agron was hard by now, eager, beyond eager. The adrenaline of the night, from dancing, from the music, from beating the shit out of his competitor, it coursed through his veins with far greater potency than any of the watery expensive drinks he downed earlier. And when his fingers played over his lover’s chest, feeling the dark circles sporting perfectly round hard nubs, he didn’t want to wait.

“Will you roll over and tell me where the oil is?” Agron asked softly, trying to keep the growl out of his voice.

Nasir swallowed thickly, their eyes locking momentarily until he nodded. Gracefully, his little dancer twisted his body and turned, reaching into a drawer to withdraw a small pillow pack of lube and a round package. “I can put it...”

Agron encircled Nasir’s hand with his large grip, holding firmly while he kissed his shoulders. For a few moments, Agron spent his time doing just that, holding Nasir’s fist while he explored his shoulders and back with lips and a free hand. He felt strength there, the hardening of Nasir’s body, days turned to weeks of training building muscles and agility and a little more mass. He loved this, to feel and see and selfishly take advantage of growing strength and energy he helped develop. Receiving no additional protest, Agron gently peeled back his fingers and retrieved the lube and the condom. Placing another series of kisses down Nasir’s back, Agron backed off just enough so he could ready himself, saving just enough to coat his fingers.

Licking his lips, he gently placed a palm against Nasir’s firm ass, waiting for him to settle, for the tension in his back to ease. Oh he would love to see those dark eyes now, but there was something to be said about an arched strong body, dark cascading hair and the sounds of someone breathing just as heavily as he was. “Spread your legs sugar.”

Nasir complied, carefully spreading his legs. “Sugar?” Confusion and hesitation highlighted his young lover’s tone.

Agron didn’t go straight for his ass, no, he wasn’t just about to jump his lover, no matter how eager they both were. Instead, he gently encircled those dangling balls, massaging the tender flesh and squeezing at the base of his cock. Thick and hard, a little darker than the rest of his body, pumped full of blood and twitching just a bit under Agron’s touch, there would be no complaints in this area, never had been. Only after he received an arid gasp and a longer moan did he try another. “Sweetie?” Nasir only breathed in deeply, shifting his weight from one leg to another when Agron’s fingers moved along the length of his lover’s cock and back down again. “Snooky?”

The last one caused Nasir to turn a flushed face in his direction, looking over his shoulder with a brief giggle. “Isn’t that a character on a television show?”

“I don’t know baby, is it?” Oh! Something flashed in Nasir’s eyes before he returned to lowering his head and panting quietly. Agron grinned triumphantly, squeezing out the last bit of lube from the pillow pack onto his fingers before parting those fine cheeks before him and carefully inserting a single finger. “How’s that feel baby?”

Nasir inhaled in sharply when he bent his fingers and turned gradually. The younger man whimpered quietly. “Good, good dear?” The slight pause told them both that wouldn’t do.

Agron smirked, adding a second. “Try again,” he encouraged, rotating both digits steadily. So tight and hot, it would be hard to hold back.

Nasir gasped softly when Agron bent his fingers and continued. “I don’t know Agron…”

“Try again baby.” Agron pushed gently.

Nasir swallowed thickly, his shoulders sagging just a bit. “Almost ready… cowboy, no, no stud?”

Agron stroked his lower back with his free hand. No, Nasir knew neither of those two worked well. Then he saw it, a hint, a raise of the head, and a brief smile upon Nasir’s fine lips. Nasir found a word he liked, something he wanted, something that felt right, but when their eyes met, he saw the confidence weaken.

Quickly Nasir looked away. “Hon?”

That wasn’t it. Agron felt that was not it, that was not what clicked inside his Nasir’s head, but he accepted it, not pushing too hard now, not like this. “I can do hon,” Agron voiced warmly. “Do you trust me?”

“Always.”

Agron could hear the smile in Nasir’s voice. “Good because I’m ready to be inside you.” Agron ran his hands along Nasir’s thighs, stepping in behind him, easing his cock against that puckered entrance and then carefully pressing forward spreading the heated warmth with his sizable bulbous head. Like the fingers before, he was surrounded by moist heat, engulfed by quivering muscles as he slipped in bit by bit.

Agilely and with a low moan, Nasir lowered his chest to the bed, like he was about to do a push-up though he remained down, breathing in sharply, bending his knees, keeping his ass up while Agron moved in closer and closer until he was fully embedded in his lover’s entrance. Placing one powerful arm near Nasir’s neck and using his right to grip his shoulder, Agron managed to keep still a bit longer, feeling his love relax, accepting the full thickness of his cock. Once Nasir’s breathing steadied again, he pulled nearly all the way out and then thrust forward… hard. Nasir gasped, burying his face in a thin pillow which devoured his moan. Using the strength of his defined abdomen muscles and thighs, Agron withdrew and thrust forward again, this time faster, this time a little harder, enjoying the shudder and moan of pleasure from the strong man beneath him. Gradually, what started off as experimental thrusts and deep penetrations shifted to something steady, rhythmic and needier as he gained confidence with each of Nasir’s strong yet positive responses.

He was leaning over Nasir now, the length of his torso and reach of his arms allowing him to move his hand from Nasir’s shoulder to his fingers, to entwine them together while he began to snap his hips, angling, searching and finally finding the hidden spot inside his beloved that forced a higher pitch gasp from Nasir as well as a sharp thrust back.

Agron remembered when Nasir spoke about enjoying or maybe enduring pain in the truck under the stars. He didn’t want to give him pain, never that, but strength, maybe the feel of someone firm and hard and powerful against him he could do. He would show his lover he could have that, have the authority, someone in control without feeling helpless or knowing pain. Nasir could have everything he liked about a physically impressive lover without the pain though Agron still wanted to hear those moans, shuddering breaths and surprised gasps.

They moved together, following an unheard beat, quick and throbbing very much like the music from the club they left only there were no other eyes here, only the heat and tempo of two bodies. Suddenly Nasir squeezed his hand in a vice like grip, a painful grasp indicating no small amount of strength from those large hands, and then he shouted into the pillow, burying his lightly damp brow into the yielding softness as he found release.

Not waiting for Nasir to completely come down, Agron moved his other hand so both hands now grasped Nasir’s, squeezing their fingers tightly together while he worked nearly every muscle in his body to continue to thrust inside his lover’s body, feeling the quivering muscles around him squeeze and relax from the earlier release. He panted against Nasir’s ear. “Now squeeze me, squeeze me real hard baby. I know you can do it.”

And he did, Nasir was no stranger in the bedroom. Despite the hour, the exerted energy and the drain of his own release, his dark little man constricted around him, sending Agron into a spiral of pleasure. He growled his release against Nasir’s ear.

After a few deep breaths and taking a moment to come down, carefully Agron rolled to the side, looking up at the dark ceiling with a smile, waiting for his body to cool off and his brain to catch up with the rest of the world so he might formulate words. He felt Nasir stir, shifting to his hands and knees and making his way to the edge of the bed although Agron gently reached out to brush his cheek with a strong palm. “Come close to me?”

Nasir hesitated, their eyes meeting. “You don’t want me to clean up?”

Agron smiled briefly, tugging against Nasir until he laid down beside him, cheek against his chest. “I’ll help in a minute. Let’s just lie here together.” He kissed his brow.

Progressively, Nasir relaxed and smiled weakly, closing his eyes once Agron began to stroke his hair. “Did you…?”

“I liked it a lot.” Nasir assured without missing a beat. “Are you going to stay the night… hon?”

Agron could hear the hesitation. Nasir worried he would leave in a minute, and that word again, it wasn’t quite right. “In a few minutes, I am going to throw this top blanket on the floor, grab a damp cloth to clean us, and then hold you all night long.”

And he did just that. By the time everything was in order for sleeping, Agron held Nasir firmly against his body and drifted off to sleep. He wasn’t certain if he was entirely awake when he heard: “I wish you could stay always… love.”

Chapter Text

Donar turned his bottle of beer around a few times on the countertop. Agron had joined the man in a small sports bar near Donar’s house. Unlike the rest of the trainers, Donar managed to stay pretty close to where they had originally met, near the old gym site and the large rental they shared for a time; they both knew the neighborhood well. When they went their separate ways, Agron had to find a decent school district within his budget, which proved a lot more difficult than it sounded and led to a bit of a distance outside of the inner city. The rest of their family found their places not too far from The Rebel which made it the closest thing they had to a mutual location they all frequented.

“So you let me get this straight.” Donar took another drink. “You don’t want to voice the ‘L’ word because you think if you do Nasir will be yours forever. And you think this because you’re fairly certain you’re the only nice guy who’s ever really gone out with him, so by default of course he’s going to love you.”

Agron frowned. Sometimes it was helpful to have Donar summarize his thoughts in as few words as possible; other times it was just cringe worthy. “It’s a little more complicated than that Donar.”

“I’m not done.” Donar grabbed a handful of pretzels. “So you’ve hinted that he could be with others, that he’s strong and attractive and anyone would be lucky to be with him, but the first guy who came onto him you beat the shit out of at the club? ”

Agron continued his scowl, this time turning his cold beer around a few times. “It sounds a little, well…”

“Stupid?”

“When you put it like that…” Agron tried not to snap at him and failed.

Donar raised his hand in mock defeat. “I’m just telling you what you’re telling me. You danced for hours, beat up a potential rival, and then had incredible sex… so what happened the next morning?”

Slowly Agron’s irritation level lowered and he smiled as he thought about that morning. “Well we slept in. Nasir’s a real quiet sleeper, doesn’t really snore unless he’s sick. We took a shower together, he really likes that, really, really likes that.”

“TMI man.” Donar gobbled up his pretzels.

“Then I coaxed him into breakfast down the street. There’s a little Mexican restaurant nearby that was a little greasy but good. Then we just went to the park for a while. I left so he could get ready for his shift and take care of bills or something.”

“You had to coax him? Say did they have good Huevos ranchero? I’ve been looking for a spot for that.”

“Focus.” Agron growled but managed to continue. “Nasir has difficulty accepting some gifts or me paying for us. He paid for the club, and I know he barely scrapes by, but I didn’t even say anything when he did. I just, well it felt like it was important for him to do that. I might have dropped a hundred or you know two on drinks.”

Donar whistled. “Expensive date.”

“He was so happy; it was worth it.”

Donar grinned. “Agron, you might not want to say the ‘L’ word, but buddy, you sound in love to me. But hey, when we come to this bar, you’re usually seeking advice. Since you already went to that club and spent the night… I can’t imagine what more you need help with.”

Agron sighed and played with the pretzels now. “I don’t know how safe it is where he lives, but it’s old, not comfortable and small. I have to bend my knees to keep my heel from going over the edge of the bed. I tower over his shower head. His work… there’s something wrong with this Villa place he works at, I’m just not sure what yet.”

Donar turned to him, just sort of studying his expression for a minute. “Has he even met Duro?”

“No,” Agron glanced at him hesitantly. “He’ll overwhelm Nasir. He’ll just bulldoze right over him without realizing he’s doing it. Duro doesn’t have a low button, and I just… Nasir is really sensitive about how he grew up and about his brother and whatever he might call a family. He might…”

Donar placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing tightly. “Agron, you’ve got to have the man meet your brother before you ask him to move in. You know that right?”

For a moment, Agron just blinked at him, stunned. “How did you know? I mean I haven’t even asked.”

“Well you certainly can’t afford to hire him yourself, and the job thing will take a while to iron out so that just leaves the living situation. You want to follow him to the bus stop every time he leaves that gym. Just imagine what it would be like if he just stuck around until you took him home, with you.”

Agron sighed happily this time. He liked the sound of that, taking Nasir home with him. “I know right?” But then an image of his brother came to mind, the grinning, bossy fool fussing over chicken broth cubes and quantities of protein in a meal while Nasir tried to patch together clothes from a second hand store. God, he just thought that would be a disaster pairing.

“So you have three bedrooms right?”

“Hmm?” Agron blinked, returning to the here and now. “Well yeah, but one of those is the exercise room.”

“You’ll lose that, but I can take some of that equipment in my garage.”

Agron leaned back with a growing frown. “Wait, why would I lose that room? I was hoping Nasir would join me in mine…”

Donar gave him a look that he swore would have mirrored Spartacus exactly. “Agron, Nasir will need his own space. You said yourself Duro just keeps going and going until his crashes, and you… well you know I love you but sometimes space is just needed.”

Agron exhaled noisily. “This is going to change everything, isn’t it?”

“Don’t worry; you’re ready and not alone. Now you just need to introduce your lover to your brother. Another beer?” He pushed his cash across the counter. “So what did Spartacus say when you asked him for advice?”

“Yeah yeah, maybe in a few weeks. I gotta time this just right. Mmm Spartacus?” He was only half paying attention, picturing all his equipment, collecting dust in Donar’s garage, his stuff shoved into boxes in his closet, and toying with the idea he might actually sell some things.

“Spartacus, what did he say about all this?”

Agron took the second beer and traced unseen patterns on the counter. “I didn’t ask him. I asked you.”

Donar grinned widely. “You asked me first? That’s awesome! I can’t wait to compare guy tips with him. I must be moving up your world. Was it the sheets? It was right? Oh and the calendar, maybe getting Gannicus to bump pelvis with you? I am getting pretty good with this friend thing.” The man looked truly excited.

“Don’t ever. I mean…” Agron covered his face with one hand. Would it even do any good to try and stop this? Yes, yes he had to. He couldn’t keep quiet about that. “Don’t ever talk about Gannicus and me like that again, and I’m not going to ask Spartacus.” Agron felt the hesitation as those last words settled so he knew Donar could hear it well enough.

Donar set his beer down. “Wait what? You’re not going to ask him. I thought you two are like brothers?”

“Oh we are,” Agron assured quickly. “And if he needs me to follow him into an alley to kick some ass I would in a heartbeat. But with relationships… I just don’t know.”

“But he’s been with Mira for what, two years now?”

“Four. And they haven’t moved in together. They’re not engaged. They go to the same place every anniversary.”

“It’s a nice fucking place.” Donar slammed his fist on the table. “I can’t seem to stop myself when I get you know… all talking without thinking.”

“You’re swearing is getting better, sort of.” Agron shifted, trying to find a way to explain his position without tearing down his brother. “It’s like he’s stuck or something. I don’t want that look.” He thought about how Nasir sat in the Ludus, trying to eat a delicious meal in a nice place just wishing he had more, that he was somewhere else with someone else. If he ever caused that expression on Nasir’s pretty face he would just…

But Donar just seemed confused. “What look? When Nasir’s around you, he seems mostly happy. Sometimes hesitant and now that you’ve beat some guy to a pulp, maybe a little scared. Not that I blame you for that. If some guy was hitting on my guy, a broken nose would be the least of his problems…”

Agron gave him a light hit on the shoulder. “I didn’t even break his nose. I certainly didn’t beat him to a pulp. Nasir was more angry than scared anyway, like really pissed at me.” He shook his head, trying to focus on what was important here. “And the look I am talking about is just wishing for more. Mira wants more from Spartacus. Knowing her, she’s even asked for it. He’s going to lose her if he’s not careful. I’m not going to lose Nasir, not over that anyway.”

“He’s a fucking moron if he lets that happen.” Donar seemed troubled. “Life is too short to let good things slide by.”

“Yeah,” Agron noted a somewhat distant gaze in his friend’s eyes. “Something troubling you?”

“Nah, you know me. Just a tight warm hole and I’m good.”

Agron snorted. “You’re supposed to be working on that, that and your mouth.”

“Hey you said I was getting better!”

Agron took a deep swig. “Sort of.”

Donar took a swig of his own, eyes shifting to the game on the television nearby. “You still owe me a steak.”

 

**

Nasir turned his paper cup a few times, looking at his name scribbled on the side. He felt nervous, a little uncertain about what he was going to say to the woman sitting across the small table from him. “Thank you for joining me. I didn’t mean for you to buy me anything though. I just thought it would be a nice place to meet up.”

She wore a cute white dress today with a flare skirt and yellow shawl. Mira beamed at him, her smile ever present and eyes bright. “Agron says chai tea is your favorite.”

Nasir toyed with the paper sleeve around his cup. “It’s actually just chai, not chai tea. That’s like saying coffee coffee.” He wanted to kick himself. It was rude to correct her when she was kind enough to meet him here and buy him drink. He wanted someone to talk to and with Chadara being who she was, he just couldn’t handle her right now, especially for this. “I’m sorry. I just…”

Mira took a bite of her scone looking completely unfazed by his response. Instead her smile grew. “Oh this is delicious! Donar’s right. This is a cute a little spot. I love it! And you work just around the corner right?”

Nasir’s lifted his gaze to meet her light brown eyes, so, well she looked ridiculously happy actually. “Donar?”

“Oh yeah. He comes down this way from time to time. I think there is something or someplace he visits around here but come to think of it, I am not sure what exactly.” She glanced around since they were outside on the patio. “Nothing around here looks like his sort of thing though. Is there a strip club nearby?”

Nasir smirked briefly. “Umm, no, not that I know of. There might be one around eight blocks west but that’s quite a walk. So Agron told you I like chai?”

Mira shook his head. “Actually no, Donar told me and I told Agron. We… well information has a way of making the rounds, but don’t worry. We don’t spill secrets or anything, at least nothing important.”

He nodded, worrying his hands together for a moment. “So you’ve known Agron a long time?”

Mira took a sip of her coffee. “Well, like I said, for almost as long as he has been in this area, so yeah you could say that. I’ve seen him as a sort of lost man trying to find jobs that clearly didn’t fit him, to an impatient fighter who had to be dropped on his bum a few times by better men and fighters before he’d listen, to the reluctant trainer and now… well to this guy you’re shaping him into.”

At that Nasir shifted his eyes from his hands to her face again, seeing a warm gaze and smile in return. “Me?”

“Oh yeah, you Nasir. Agron, well he’s a bit of a…”

“Hot head?” Nasir felt just a hint of annoyance work its way into his tone.

“Uh oh. What did he do?” Mira frowned.

Before he knew what was happening, Nasir was sharing. “Just, you know, beat the hell out of some hot guy at the club who said less than twenty words to me at the bar.”

Mira tapped the table briefly. “Were the cops called? Do we need to get Spartacus involved? Last time he did a pretty good job of keeping everything off the books and straightening things out.”

“Last time?” Nasir raised his brow.

“Umm…” Mira grabbed her phone. “We should probably not talk about that just yet. If you just tell me what…”

Nasir leaned forward, covering her screen with his hand. “No, no. Please don’t call Spartacus. It was handled. I just, well it surprised me I guess. It’s also not the reason I asked to talk to you.”

Mira returned the phone to her purse. “Okay. Well that’s good I guess. Hopefully Agron’s little outburst didn’t scare you too much?”

Scared? Nasir realized the only real fear he had in that moment was the idea that Agron might wind up in jail. The energy, the fierce look, and later realizing the emotions and thoughts behind Agron’s actions, Nasir felt a little guilty about being turned on by all that actually. “I wasn’t scared, not the way you are thinking anyway.”

She smiled happily. “Oh good. That boy has a lot of energy in that big ole body of his. Hopefully he’s found more productive ways to burn it off now that you’re around.”

And of course he blushed slightly at that remark, doing his best to down his chai to partially hide it but managed to nearly choke on it instead.

Knowingly, Mira only smirked some more and gave him an extra napkin. “Well that answers that. So if you’re not wanting to give me a play-by-play of Agron’s reaction to guys hitting on you, what can I do for you Nasir?”

Fear was a better description for what he felt now. He could handle a lot of things, felt that he had, but exposing himself to someone like this, someone he barely knew, it felt like opening himself to more hurt and disappointment. But then he thought of how Mira shared the story of Spartacus’ wife, how she spoke about her relationship with the man, and sharing with him a little of Agron’s past on the beach. Mira did all that without asking for anything in return. And if it weren’t for her persistence, he would have fled The Rebel and never returned, never met Agron, really met Agron. “Well, Agron’s been very patient with me, and considerate, and I am not even sure I can summarize all the feelings. I just, well I…” His eyes dropped to his hands again.

Mira covered his hands with hers. “Hey, he’s a complex guy. That’s okay right?”

Nasir took a breath. “I think I love him. I just don’t know that he loves me.”

“Nasir…”

He felt his throat tighten. “He talks a lot about wanting to be with me, and really liking me, but he never, he never says…”

Mira’s hands tightened. “You know I am probably going to get in a lot of trouble with my boyfriend over this, but… sometimes Spartacus is just wrong. A few months ago, hell even a few weeks ago, if someone asked me how Agron expressed his feelings, I would just tell them Agron acts out his feelings. He didn’t really talk about them, or share, or do much more than grunt and scowl. You knew he liked something when he stuck around, and even then he’d be in the corner or off on the couch by himself. Spartacus, Donar… me, we’d go out of our way to keep him involved.”

Nasir lifted his eyes to meet her supportive gaze.

She continued. “Duro’s the reason Agron shows up to work every day. Without him, I’m not even sure Spartacus could guide him for long.”

“I don’t understand what this…”

“And I’ve never heard him say I love you to his brother. Spartacus said he heard him say it at least once, when Duro tried to run away as teen.”

“Ooh.” Nasir slowly processed what she was saying. Oh he wasn’t slow to catch on to most things, but this felt raw and scary yet these words sounded almost promising. “So if he hasn’t said it…”

“There is no way Agron doesn’t love you. I’ve never seen him like this with anyone else. Unfortunately for you and me, his best role model in this area needs work .” She leaned back to sip more of her coffee.

“You mean Spartacus?”

She set the cup down. “You called me to talk about Agron, not Spartacus. We can do that some other time.” Mira winked.

Hesitantly, Nasir smiled. “Okay. I have to get to my shift. Thank you Mira. I know we don’t know each other well. I really appreciate you meeting me here, and buying me chai.” He stood.

She stood as well grabbing his hand and giving it a brief squeeze. “Hey, we got to ogle almost naked Spartacus and Agron together. The only thing better than that would have been if they were in their trunks and wet. That’s real bonding there; we’re getting closer. ”

A light chuckled escaped Nasir’s lips. Mira was easy to talk to, real easy. “I’ll work on mine if you work on yours.”

“Deal!”

With another quick smile, Nasir hurried off down the street to get to the Villa on time. Being late for his shift would just give his boss another reason to make his life difficult.

Now Saturdays were a lot like Friday’s at the Villa. These were good nights to run old horror flicks or event type films. They had three showings tonight, which meant they could easily get a number of people, especially with “Night of the Living Dead” showing, an all-time favorite. He moved about getting the popcorn ready, making certain the syrup was loaded properly in the soda machine as well. When he first started, he had forgotten about checking the soda machine as often as he should have, and some angry teen threw thirty-two ounce soda on him because it wasn’t sweet at all.

As he situated the ladder to pull down some of the popcorn buckets, he felt his pants restrict his movement. Most of his clothes were beginning to feel tighter, and as he came down from the ladder, Nasir realized this was quickly becoming a problem. On a steady diet, and working out, he should have realized sooner this could happen. Somehow he’d have to get through the next few weeks with what he had because the club entry fee meant he didn’t have much for even second-hand clothes. He thought there might be a safety pin around here somewhere when someone cleared their throat behind him. Quickly Nasir turned to see Batiatus standing there in another one of his long-sleeved shirts, grey this time, and of course black jeans. He wasn’t sure, but the gold chain around his neck looked new.

“Nasir.” An almost genuine smile formed. “I was hoping you might join me in my office? Come this way.”

Nasir sighed, tugging his shirt down a bit hoping to hide the fact that his button was a bit stretched. As he followed the man, he realized another habit of his boss, to ask a question like there was a choice but then follow it with a command.

Once inside the familiar office, Batiatus closed the door and grinned at him, one of those expressions that always seemed genuine until someone understood the motives behind it. “So Nasir,” the man began. “We never got a chance to talk about your weekend, your extended weekend. How did that go?”

“Well, thank you.” Nasir replied politely, not elaborating even a tiny bit.

Batiatus clicked his tongue, pushing his pile of folders off to the side so he could rest his ass against the desk.

“Well I know Chadara was here, so you must have spent your time with others. Anyone I know?”

“No.” Nasir tried hard to keep the hostility from his voice.

His boss frowned, so he knew he was only partially successful. “Nasir, you speak to me as if I am some monster. Was I not the man who pulled you off the street and gave you food and a place to shower ? When I found you hiding in Chadara’s apartment, I could have informed the landlord, had you kicked out, but what did I do?”

“You gave me a job.” Nasir’s eyes dropped.

“I gave you a job.” Batiatus needlessly repeated. “And when you wanted your own place, I paid for the first few months and the security deposit. I clothed you both, taught you basic skills and now look at you, hanging out with friends at a beach for a long weekend, and you treat my inquiry like I am some sort of tyrant you hate to be around.”

Nasir took a breath, trying to calm his irrational anger. Maybe Agron had rubbed off on him a little more than expected. “Apologies.”

Batiatus gave him a brief nod. “I certainly won’t force you to tell me what you do with your free time Nasir. I only asked out of curiosity. I heard you had a relationship building again, which I think is wonderful. Now none of this is why I asked you in here.”

“And why did you ask for me?” Nasir felt his irritation rising again since he already knew who told his boss about his relationship; he just didn’t know how much Chadara told him.

“I have a guest who would like to spend a little time with you.”

Nasir felt himself tense almost immediately.

The man kept going. “He has a car out front. There is really no need for you to be here tonight. I’ve already called in Leonard and Jimmy. They are both eager for more shifts as you know, trying to earn a little extra for a trip or some spending money…”

“I’m not getting into a car with a stranger.”

The brief frown Batiatus had turned into a far more menacing expression. “He’s no stranger. You’ve met him, and I cannot see why you do not trust me. You’ve known me for many years…”

“I said no.”

“Nasir!” Batiatus slammed his fist so hard on the desk it made Nasir jump. “I will finish what I am saying before you interrupt me. I am still your boss, and unless you plan on finding a job somewhere else, you will give me at least that much respect.”

Nasir’s clenched his teeth and turned his head slightly to the side, but he held his tongue.

“Now this guest of my mine, this friend, just wants to take you for…”

“Batiatus… there is no need to frighten the boy.” Varinius stepped out from the back area wearing an ivory white collared shirt with the top buttons open, black slacks and fine shoes. He looked at ease, his stunning eyes shifting from Nasir to the man on the desk. “There’s no reason to frighten him Batiatus. I understand his fear. He doesn’t know me and the idea of getting into a car with me is understandably concerning.” A charming smile spread across the man’s handsome face. “Nasir. It is good to see you again. I don’t know if you remember but I am…”

“Varinius, I remember.” Nasir felt his stomach tighten a bit more.

“Good, good. Now your boss has more than covered tonight’s shift. If you’re not comfortable traveling with me in my car, why don’t we just take a walk? We don’t have to go far.”

Nasir’s gaze shifted from one man to the other. He understood his choice was limited here and he was dangerously close to losing his job without much of a chance of getting another. Without the job, he’d lose his place to live, and without Batiatus support, many worse things could happen. “Walk where?” He asked carefully.

Varinius grinned. “We’re not far from a few shops, a restaurant, and a park. We can go wherever you feel comfortable going, isn’t that right Batiatus?”

Batiatus didn’t look pleased with this change of plans, but he nodded. “It’s up to you two, of course.”

Nasir toyed with the pocket of his pants before finally nodding. “Okay, but not far.”

Varinius motioned for him to follow. “Not far at all. Why don’t you leave behind the hat? You’re not really on shift anymore, but Batiatus is still going to cover your pay, right Quintus?”

Batiatus nodded and didn’t say another word while Nasir left his hat behind and followed Varinius out into the darkening night.

For at least two blocks, they walked in awkward silence. Nasir finally turned towards the taller man as they neared the park. “What is you want from me Varinius?”

He received a gradual smile in response. “We’re here.”

“That park?”

Instead of pointing towards the quiet spans of grass, benches and a water fountain, the man instead turned towards a handful of shops, including a men’s shop. “Come.”

Hesitantly, Nasir followed, expecting Varinius to lead him into some over-priced men’s shop to try out suits or something only rich men seemed interested in. Instead they walked past that store and stood in front of another. With a slight frown, his gaze shifted from the store sign to the man again. “American Eagle? It’s closing in a few minutes.”

“Oh they will stay open for us. You could say I know the owner who leases this stretch of land to these storefronts.” He held the door open for Nasir.

Nasir walked in, noting how completely empty the store was except some young blonde behind the counter.

“Mr. Varinius. It’s been awhile since you’ve visited. Are you looking for gifts again?”

“Actually no, not this time. If you can make yourself scarce, my friend and I are going to do a little shopping.”

“Sure thing.” The kid vanished behind a back door.

Nasir shook his head. “I am not really up for buying anything. This is just… strange.”

Varinius leaned against the counter, relaxed, at ease with everything around them even as shops began to turn off their lights. “I will be doing the buying, all you have to do is try the clothes on. Whatever you like Nasir.”

Despite his best effort, Nasir felt his eyes shifting to the clothing racks, just lines of jeans, shirts, nice shorts… new clothes. Sure, Caesar purchased things for him before, but they were always silly things he didn’t wear and couldn’t get much for even when he tried to sell them, things like silk shirts, suits and fitted jackets. This was, these were normal clothes, clothes he would be wearing if he had a living wage job or when, for a moment, he had the illusion of an actual family. “You, you can’t buy me. Someone’s already tried that. I wasn’t real receptive.” He allowed some bite to show through this time.

An arrogant but not hostile smile formed though his companion made no effort to move or change position. “Of course I can’t buy you. You’re a free man Nasir. You’re always welcome to walk away. I am not going to force you try on clothes, take my gifts… no more than I forced you to drop on your knees for me. You could always walk away, but you didn’t. Why didn’t you Nasir?”

Nasir’s nostrils flared as he acknowledged the truth in those words. It was never really force was it, none of it. No one ever threatened to kill him or beat him just take what little he had. He held onto his tiny piece of the world so tightly because he just knew that was all he would ever get. At least that was what the old Nasir thought. Now, with Agron in the picture, with friends and people who referred to him as family, he was beginning to think differently. “I’m sure Batiatus told you.”

“We’re not friends Nasir. I can barely tolerate the man. He’s a gambler, a parasite always reaching higher than a man like him should ever hope for. He takes sure things and throws them away in hopes of something better, almost never attainable for such a small minded man. He’s told me a little about you, but he’s not bright enough to see the obvious.” He picked up a pair of sunglasses. “Like how those pants of yours are just two washes and a sudden movement away from falling apart on you. Do you know how to sew Nasir, or will you let me help you?”

Nasir glanced away for a moment. “And why would you want to help me? I already said you can’t buy me. I…”

“I know you belong to someone else, and it’s not that twit Caesar is it? I don’t plan on owning you Nasir. A man can enjoy now and then and still let it roam free.”

Brown eyes narrowed briefly. “I don’t belong to anyone. What do you know about Caesar anyway?”

“I know he was foolish enough to lose you.” He set the sunglasses down. “Nasir, you need the clothes; let me help you. I am not asking you to belong to me just to spend some time with me. Or you can wait for them to fall apart on your body and see what Batiatus might ask you to do for his assistance.”

Nasir stood there in silence; he didn’t know what to do. Even with a raise and Agron paying for his phone that left very little for clothes. He could eat less, try and return to his usual size but that would make exercise difficult, and Agron would soon notice. Varinius spoke the truth. Batiatus would soon notice he was in trouble, in need of something and the man had a habit of pushing and demanding just a little more with each “gift” or offer of assistance. Between the two, Varinius could be better, especially if this was what Batatius would eventually demand of him anyway. His eyes shifted to the racks and shelves of pants. “Just, just a few pants for work.”

“No Nasir. I will be purchasing more than that. Why don’t you go and try them on. I’ll wait here. It would… please me if you would show me a few things that you try on.” His tone was firm but not threatening and steady with confidence as if he planned this entire scenario out.

Tentatively Nasir began pulling items off the hangers and shelves. His shirts were mostly okay still, especially the couple he bought this year that had been a little loose already, like the set he had for going to the club. One glance at Varinius told him the man wanted him to buy more than pants, so he grabbed a few jeans, shorts, shirts and a handful of tanks. For a while, he stood in the dressing room just looking at the clothes hanging nearby and sitting on a chair. Sometimes he wondered would it might be like to just go to a store and buy new things without this feeling, this sinking sensation and ever lingering regret. With new clothes, he could at least keep up appearances, maybe delay worse outcomes a little longer. That feeling like he had made a mistake that would eat at him for years to come at least would come and go while the assurance of properly fitting clothing would make the rest of life just a little more bearable.

He tried on a few pants and shirts, the new size predictably comfortable even if he did not feel comfortable in his own skin. When he moved to the jeans and a tank, cautiously he stepped out of the booth finding the man still leaning and waiting patiently. In another venue maybe another time, the handsome man could be a welcome sight too many, a beacon of strength and power and wealth. Here and now, Nasir had trouble looking him in the eye.

Varinius approached him, and Nasir expected him to touch his face, his cheek or maybe just go straight for what he wanted. Instead, the man placed a finger under his chin and lifted slowly until brown eyes met blue. “Whomever your man is, he’s a lucky man. Nasir, you don’t need to lower your eyes around me. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You’re stunning, now finish trying on the rest, and I’ll walk you to the bus stop. Maybe next time you’ll let me drive you home.” He released his chin, brushing his fingers along Nasir’s brow but then returned to his spot, trying nothing else.

Nasir breathed in deeply before returning to the dressing room. A part of him felt drawn to Varinius, the part that sought survival, protection and comfort above all else. The portion of his heart that made him feel as if he was in some act of betrayal, that part remembered Mira’s words from earlier. Agron might love him, even if the man never said so; he would choose a hard uncomfortable ground in the man’s arms over the most luxurious bed money could afford in the arms of another if that was true.

Exact to his word, Varinius walked him to the bus stop. On the way home, Nasir felt confused and conflicted about the experience, but he had to push those thoughts aside. Tomorrow he would spend part of the day with Agron at the gym and for the first time at least part evening at Agron’s home.

**

Varinius shook his head as he held his cell phone against his ear. “No Batiatus, this went well. I have no need of you to amend any behavior or attempt to do anything in my favor. As I said before, I will handle this. I am pleased with the arrangement so far.” He stepped into the large car not surprised to see his friend had not waited and already opened the bottle of champagne.

Gallienus sipped from the tall flute. “I saw you two walk by. I assumed we would not be making a trip after all. It did not go well I take it?”

“Home,” Varinius told the driver, taking a glass offered to him as the window rolled up and gave them piracy. “You’re correct that we’re not going to make our little trip but incorrect in stating the outing went unwell. I purchased Nasir some clothing. I think he will be most appreciative in the future.”

“One of your stores?” His cohort seemed surprised.

“No, but one of the properties I sold some time ago. I know the owner of the real estate now and the store.”

“You baffle me Varinius. You buy the young man some clothes and call it success? I take it you did not get more out of the bargain?”

Varinius laughed lowly. “Careful Gallienus or I might have to think you as daft as Batiatus himself. I made a connection with Nasir. I am pleased with that outcome. Now what did you find out?”

Gallienus grabbed a tablet from the nearby seat and handed it over. “Works at a gym, used to be part of a professional fighting program, lost his parents while he was a young man and took guardianship of his younger brother. Other than a few run-ins with the law and some connections to even more colorful individuals, he seems pretty ordinary to me.”

“No, I don’t think so. No one ordinary would capture someone like Nasir.” Varinius scrolled down the list of names, pausing with a brief frown followed by a rising chuckle. “This Agron knows Spartacus. I knew he looked familiar. Batiatus is an even bigger fool than I thought.”

The shorter man leaned forward. “Spartacus? I must not have read far enough. I found it all very dull. Isn’t that the man Batiatus used to sponsor?”

“And the man who spoiled a fight that cost us all a fortune. Batiatus always thinks he controls his puppets more than he does. He’s a fool to think any of these men were puppets to begin with. Yes, Spartacus cost us all dearly with that little stunt of ruining a sure fight and then leaving the sport entirely, but that was our dear fool’s fault, not his.”

“I see. So you plan on removing this obstacle then, getting rid of Agron?”

Varinius tapped the shiny screen. “No, that’s Batiatus’ tired and overused play. My sources tell me Spartacus is still looking into that little event and his wife’s death which means my approach must be careful around such a man.”

“Maybe we should stop attending his gatherings then.”

Varinius finished his champagne. “No, that would make Batiatus and Spartacus suspicious. Those events are not exactly illegal anyway, strictly voluntary, and anything else our lawyers could handle. No, no that would just make our dear clown desperate, and when Batiatus is desperate he becomes even more thoughtless. Nasir is still in his grasp, not mine… yet.”

“So what do you plan on doing? No one has ever been able to control Spartacus for long, not his boss, the mayor or his sponsors, not even his friends.”

“I don’t need to control Spartacus for what I want.” He tapped on the screen, looking at Agron’s mugshot. “I need this one, and this one has at least two to lose which makes him vulnerable.”

Small beady eyes peered at him. “You’re going to leverage those he cares about against him to free up Nasir?”

“No. If I control Agron, I will control the one thing in Nasir’s life that has given him defiance and confidence.”

The other smiled, a wide selfish grin. “You aim to have them both.”

“And why shouldn’t I? A man of my status is worthy of such a thing.” He lifted his phone.

“My dear I believe you are dating someone of interest to me. I have something I want you to do. Let’s not tell your boss about this one. This time, it will be my event at a location of my choice.”

The dark vehicle soon pulled up a very long and winding road to the massive house Varinius called home.

Chapter Text

Nasir and Agron peered at a long table with a model of the gym’s proposed expansion. There was a swimming pool along the side, two sauna rooms and a large common area. Nasir peered closely, carefully running his fingers along the plastic walls and miniatures. “You want to add a pool and is that a dance hall?”

Agron rolled his eyes slightly. “No, that’s a larger room for bigger activities. Saxa wants to expand her Zumba classes and I think Lugo wants a place for summer activities for kids.” He turned the page of the proposal nearby. “But the first pool would be set up for laps. It’s a good way to get the heart racing. Hopefully we can keep Gram out of the sauna though. That’ll probably give her heart attack or something. I’m pretty sure I signed something that says I have to resuscitate any of our clients in trouble.”

“First pool and who’s Gram?” Nasir raised his brow.

“Oh right, you haven’t seen her yet. She’s usually here on the days you’re not. I swear she has to be ninety, at least eighty. And yeah, we’re hoping to get a full size pool in the future, complete with swimming classes.”

Nasir giggled, circling around the small dark room. “And she came here?”

“Most of us believe she wrote down the address to some other place down wrong. The woman can’t see very well, but you know how Mira is. She can be very pushy and managed to sign Gram up. I’m not sure why she keeps coming back though.” Agron rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“Persistent sounds a lot like someone else I know.” He gave Agron a sideways glance and a smile. “Mira’s not the only one who doesn’t take no for an answer.”

“To be fair, you’ve never actually told me no.”

Nasir picked up a tiny tree. “Are you sure Agron? What about when I told you to stop touching my hair.”

Agron lifted his hand to Nasir’s cheek. Soon he pressed strong fingers through the dark smooth strands. “You’ve never told me to stop touching your hair.” He smiled down at Nasir, and they shared a quick kiss.

“Well I do like it when you stroke my hair,” Nasir admitted. Agron moved to lift his chin for a deeper kiss, but Nasir turned slightly away, the act too familiar to a touch from the day before, one he was trying to push to the corner of his mind. “So will you be teaching others in this pool Agron? Do you know enough to do that?”

Those green eyes told him Agron noticed Nasir pulling away, and the larger man’s brow narrowed slightly. “Sure, I swam in high school and a little in college. Nasir, baby… you’ve been a little distant today. I thought I would ease into the exercises a bit after this but if you want to start now we can.”

Nasir set the tree back down. “It looks beautiful Agron. I hope you guys can finance everything so your real clients can enjoy it.”

“My real clients?” Agron placed his strong hands against either side of Nasir’s waist and pulled him back against the large frame. His man kissed Nasir’s neck and whispered against his ear. “You couldn’t be realer to me Nasir. No one could.”

A deep sigh escaped Nasir’s lips; he felt warm and safe in Agron’s embrace, safe enough to reveal a hint of his thoughts. “You know what I mean, paying customers, people who can actually afford a membership. You know I can’t right… that after six weeks…”

“Owners have certain privileges around here Nasir.”

Nasir shook his head. “I could never ask Spartacus to let me hang around for nothing. I have some pride you know.”

Agron snorted although he quickly went into explanation mode when Nasir whirled and shot him a withering look. “No, no, not about the pride part. It’s just Spartacus isn’t the only one who owns this place.”

That left Nasir confused. “Others own this place? You said Spartacus was the owner.”

“Well he is… mostly, after him is Crixus and then Gannicus and… me.”

Nasir blinked at him. Agron owned a part of The Rebel? “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m sure I did. I told you that night I met…” Agron frowned after a moment. “Oh wait, that was Chadara. She pissed me off enough where I sort of let that slip. I guess I didn’t tell you. It’s kind of not a real thing though.”

Nasir cocked his head to the side. Agron’s jumbled clarification confused him. “What do you mean it’s not a real thing? Do you own a piece of The Rebel or not?”

“Well I do… but I don’t attend the meetings or vote or you know go to the bank or anything Spartacus sometimes asks us to do.”

“Why not?”

Agron crossed his arms. “I don’t like it.”

Nasir shook his head. Well that was a stupid reason not to do something. If he didn’t do things just because he didn’t like them, he was pretty sure he’d be dead in a ditch somewhere by now.

He thought about what Mira said not too long ago, about how he was a good influence on Agron. This might be one of those situations she was talking about, something he could push Agron on a bit while he had his full and undivided attention. “So if Spartacus isn’t certain what to do or wants to bounce ideas off people, he can go to Crixus or Gannicus?”

Agron tapped his finger against his arm. “I don’t… well I don’t think Gannicus goes to the meetings or does anything serious either.”

“So… if Spartacus doesn’t know what he should do he just asks Crixus?”

“I guess so…” Agron shifted uncomfortably.

“And you don’t really care for the man right?” Nasir pressed just a bit more.

“I hate the man.”

“So if Spartacus isn’t sure about his decision and wants to bounce ideas off someone, the only one he gets input from is a man you hate? So does Crixus like the idea of this expansion or not?”

Agron’s face scrunched up just a bit more. “Can you, can you hold on a second?”

“Sure…” Nasir slowly smiled as he saw Agron venture into the main room and head over to the one he remembering being called Naevia. They conversed for a few minutes and then he returned and grabbed his phone.

“So Nasir on… Friday after our session I was hoping to do something fun like a movie or something. Do you think you can stick around for an hour or so though while I…?”

“Attend a meeting?” Nasir grinned. “Sure.”

Agron returned his smile and presumably added the event to his calendar.

Once he set the phone aside, Agron returned to Nasir lightly running his fingers along his shoulder. “So what do you think about the pool and the sauna, the larger stupid group room?”

“It’s real nice Agron. You’re sure to attract a broader crowd with those.” Nasir sighed briefly. “Your clients will like it I am sure, even if it makes memberships more expensive.”

“You’re the only client I care about right now Nasir. I can just…”

“I want to earn my place not have it given to me, not from you.” Nasir breathed in deeply. “I’ll, I’ll figure something out. I wouldn’t give this up for the world.” And now he wanted to change the subject. “So you remember when we jogged to the carnival?”

Agron shifted weight from his left foot to his right, fingers curling against his shoulders as if deciding on whether or not he would press the matter, but the man let it go, for now. “Yeah, that was a good night. I’m not likely to forget that.”

“Do you think we can do that jog again? I am feeling a little closed in and I’d like to be outside for a bit.”

Agron kissed his shoulder. “Sure, we can do that jog. It wasn’t very long and it’s not very pretty to look at without the carnival, but I can lead us around the neighborhood. There’s not a lot to look at, but it’s pretty safe. People around here know who a lot of us are.”

Nasir nodded.

They took some time to change their clothing, putting on pants, tanks as well as the jackets. For reasons Nasir was not entirely certain about, Gannicus gave them both a very obvious smirk and wink followed by some out of the blue dance moves which only caused Agron to hurry them out the door on their way out. Once they started down the street though, Nasir felt more at ease. “So you want to see a movie?”

Agron nodded. “Yeah we need to do it by this week, so I figured Friday would be a good night.”

Nasir glanced at him. That was an odd thing to say. “Why do we need to do it by Friday?”

Green eyes flickered in his direction. “Did I say need? I meant it would be great if we could. Is that okay, to see a movie? I mean I know you work at a theater and all.”

“It really only plays the old stuff. It would be nice to go see a movie with someone I care about, something modern anyway. I haven’t been to a movie in newer theater for a number of years now. Was there a movie you wanted to see?”

Agron got this weird look on his face, like he knew what he wanted to say but felt hesitant in saying it.
“Well there is this movie where a guy gets fired, winds up going home to live with his parents. They live in a small town…”

“Are you asking me to go see a romantic comedy with you Agron?” Nasir slowly grinned; that was unexpected if a bit charming.

“Well yeah I guess.” Agron rubbed the back of his neck. “You know, if you are into it?”

“Oh that’s fine. I mean, I didn’t expect that to be your movie of choice. I was thinking that action film with burning cars or that sci-fi piece with explosions in space would be more your thing.”

“Yeah, so does everyone else which is the point...” Agron muttered.

Nasir assumed he heard him incorrectly because what he said didn’t make sense. “Did you say everyone else?”

Agron perked up. “Oh no, no, just thinking aloud. I love those kinds of movies, but I think our first movie together should be special and a little, you know, unanticipated. This way I can hold you all night and not look, you know, out of place.”

There was something about the way those green eyes flickered that made Nasir suspicious, but it sounded like a lovely evening so of course he consented. “I would love to spend an evening with you Agron. If that means a romantic comedy at a theater, then I’m in.”

Agron grinned.

The rest of the jog, they remained in near silence, the old strip mall clinging to life with a single open laundromat and a small deli now closed. By the time they returned, Nasir felt energized and almost ready for an evening of surprises.

As they unlaced their shoes on the bench, Agron shifted a bit just before speaking. It was cute really how Agron had these little tells right before he was about to say or do something he wasn’t sure of.

“So you want to get a bite to eat and I can drive you home afterward?”

Nasir was just about to accept the sweet offer out of habit and pure desire when he realized he had forgotten, for a short time of course, they had plans already. “I would but I have plans tonight. I’m sorry Agron. You know I love spending time with you.”

Agron huffed, trying to brushing it off. “I know. I should have asked earlier in the week it’s just…”

Nasir peered at him quizzically.

“Well my brother said there was something we needed to do together tonight so I blocked off the evening, but just now he told me to be sure to go to the store and get milk for dinner.”

“Why would that mean you’re not doing anything tonight?” Nasir asked carefully.

“Every time we wind up doing something.” Agron made air quotes. “That usually means me standing in a store for too long getting weird sounding ingredients and all he really needs is my wallet.”

Nasir chuckled quietly. “You must do other things together right?”

Agron sighed. “Not much actually. When he was younger, yeah, I could take him wherever I wanted to go and make him have fun.”

That sounded fishy. “Make him have fun? Can you actually force people to enjoy something?”

“Well you know teens right. They gripe about every little thing without actually trying…” Agron’s voice trailed off. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying.”

Nasir grasped the strong neck and pulled him closer for a quick peck of a kiss. “It’s okay. I was a teenager once, just you know, a little different than what you remember. Be sure to get the milk he wants so you show him you care.”

Agron smiled again. “It’s just milk, how hard could it be?”

“Well I guess that depends on what kind he wants.”

“What do you mean kind?”

“You know, whole, 1%, 2% maybe organic.” Nasir closed up his bag. “What kind do you normally get?”

Agron frowned slightly. “Ummm, the blue one.”

“Then I am sure that will be fine if it’s what you usually get.” Nasir kissed him again. “See you later.”

He hid behind some bushes and waited for Agron to drive off in that black truck before texting Duro. – I am on my way. –

Duro replied quickly. – Did you do as I asked about the milk? –

– Yeah, I reminded him there are a half dozen kinds of milk out there. –

– LOL. Way more than that even. Good, get over here. He’ll be agonizing in that store for at least twenty minutes trying to remember what I said to him on the phone since I didn’t text it to him like I usually do. If you see Donar, tell him the bet still stands. –

Nasir glanced up, not seeing Donar’s car in the parking lot. – I think he already left. What bet? –

– He thinks Agron won’t show up with more than two because he only has two hands. I know my brother, we’ll wind up with three maybe four depending on whether or not he remembers there’s more than just cow’s milk to pick from. See you soon. –

Nasir took a breath, hopped on the bus and rode to the other part of town.

The ride out of the city and closer to the outskirts of town was a bit of a long one. He wished he had brought a book, although it had been sometime since he spent any time in the library now that he had The Rebel to go to a good part of the week. When he stepped off the bus, instead of peering up at rows and rows of high apartment buildings with long black fire escape ladders and A/C units in the windows, these were not more than two stories high, had cement steps up to the second story and there were bikes tied to the railings with chains covered in flexible plastic that any cutters could easily remove. He looked at the address and began walking per instructions, three blocks south, one west and then up the stairs, third door on the right.

Nasir either read the directions poorly or he became lost but eventually he stood outside of 3C, standing in the hallway, amazed at how quiet it was. He heard a dog in the distance, which seemed a mile away, and somewhere down the street he even heard a cat or two hissing at each other. He shifted his bag over his shoulder and rapped on the door.

Duro opened it smiling brightly at him, a white apron around his waist with sauce already down the front and flour. He still had a couple of braids on either side of his head and a silver strand earring in one ear. “Nasir! Come in come in. I’d hug you but I have flour and stuff on me.” He stepped aside to let Nasir in.

Nasir stepped in, hearing the door close behind him. He stood in a fairly sizable living area with a couch that sit three easily and another chair alongside it, deep brown, facing a fairly sizable flat television mounted on the wall. There was a dining area with a rounded table that had four chairs although he could imagine fitting six or eight if necessary. The kitchen had a little island, a dishwasher and racks under cabinet racks to hold wine glasses.

Duro wiped his hands and motioned for him to follow. “Let me show you around real quick. This here is the exercise room, Agron spends a fair amount of time in here, doing his machine things, and that television there is where he sometimes watches sports or news as he does them.” They moved further down. “This is the bathroom. We only have a shower which works out pretty nice actually. Donar, Agron and Spartacus made a deal with the landlord to clean this place up a bit when we first moved in so they remodeled this part of the bathroom for us… it’s a really tall showerhead, he loves that. My room.” Duro opened it briefly, showing a fairly messy bed with clothes on the floor, partially in the hamper and sticking out of the laundry basket. He had a full-sized mirror and shelves and not much else. “And Agron’s. Shhh, don’t tell him I let you see this.”

Agron’s room had a large bed, a dresser, full-size mirror and not much else either, maybe a few posters and what looked like a picture of The Rebel’s grand opening. There were a lot of strong bodies and smiling faces in that one, but Agron’s looked, well his expression seemed forced. On the wall, were at least a dozen pictures of when the two looked younger, and, to his surprise, a large framed picture of the two of them eating chili fries.

Duro led him back to the kitchen. “I’ll wait until Agron is here to finish roasting the rack of lamb I’ve already seared. I’ve got the salad ready. The potatoes are covered. I figured you’d prefer potatoes after all that rice and beans you’ve been eating. Say how is that going? You look good Nasir, really good, so I am thinking all that healthy high fiber and high protein food and exercise is working out for you?”

Nasir blinked at him after a moment, trying to pick out the questions from that jumble of words. “Potatoes sound really nice actually, and yeah I am gaining some muscle it seems. Can I go change? I mean you’re having a nice dinner so I thought I would wear something better than… this.”

The other man glanced at him. “Oh I think Agron would be happy in what you have now, but sure. You can use the bathroom to change. I just want to rinse and cut the green beans and start steaming them. Say do you prefer a red Bordeaux or a Rioja.”

Nasir stepped into the bathroom, and began slipping out of his old clothes and into his new ones. He had to take a few breaths, reminding himself they were just clothes. No matter how he came about them, they were just inanimate nice looking clothes that he could wear for a nice dinner with his boyfriend and his family… if only his boyfriend knew about the dinner. “A what?”

“Wine!”

“Oh just whatever you think is best!” He shouted back.

Nasir looked in the mirror, sighing nervously and tried to toy with his hair with his fingers. He should have brought a comb or a brush or something. God, why couldn’t he think ahead a little better?

He heard a door open and then something heavy hit the floor. Nasir glanced at the closed door.

“Duro, damn it! How many times do I have to pound on the door to get you open it? Shit, I think one of them sprung a leak.”

“Agron, I can’t stop stirring this glaze just yet. Hey, don’t go back there, wait!”

“Why can’t I go back here? You got some girl hiding in the bathroom. She had better have her clothes on by now Duro. I won’t have…”

The door swung open and Nasir found himself looking up at Agron who had a half-gallon of what looked like goat’s milk spraying on his shirt.

“Nasir?”

Nasir froze momentarily, like he was some sort of rabbit or deer who might just meld in his surroundings. Then his brain kicked in and he walked forward, taking the carton from Agron’s fingers before the man let the entire container continue to drain all over him. He set it in the sink. “Hi. Umm, I was invited to dinner…”

Agron blinked. “You were invited to dinner and a movie actually, but that… wait a minute.” A familiar glower formed and he stomped out of the bathroom back towards the kitchen. Nasir followed.

Duro fidgeted a bit, raising a whisk with glaze dripping down it. “Now before you get mad Agron, I think it’s only fair to remind you I warned you. I actually told you I would do this if you didn’t invite him yourself. And you weren’t going to…”

Agron grabbed the whisk from him. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You went behind my back and snuck my boyfriend into our home?”

Duro carefully tried to get the whisk back. “Well not really behind your back because I said I would do it. Remember that part, where I said I would ask him if you didn’t. Hey don’t whip that around. It’s hot, and you’re likely to scald someone with that.”

“Five.” Nasir spoke and the other two turned around. Nasir cautiously continued, motioning to the bags on the floor. “Whole, 2%, soy, rice and… goat’s milk. You weren’t kidding Duro.”

Duro gave Agron his most innocent don’t kill me face and carefully slipped the whisk from Agron’s grasp.

Agron’s scowl deepened. “You sent me to the store as part of the ruse? Do you have any idea how much all that cost!?”

“No, but I could guess or you know you could stop yelling at me and let me finish dinner and not leave your boyfriend looking so lost and uncertain in our hallway… like that.”

Agron took a deep breath, wagged his finger at Duro once more and then tentatively approached Nasir.

Nasir worried his hands together, dropping his eyes. “I ahh, I’m sorry Agron. I knew you didn’t want me here, but Duro thought it would be a good idea. The plan didn’t sound so bad at the time, but I can work an extra shift or two for the milk.” By the time he raised his eyes, Agron was there, and having moved remarkably light on his feet with an expression, well that fury he saw directed at Duro had all but dissipated.

“It’s not that I don’t want you here Nasir. I just, well I would have done this differently, maybe a quiet evening just the two of us. Did he show you around?”

Nasir nodded quickly. “Yeah, it’s a nice place Agron, real nice and in a good neighborhood too, very quiet.”

Agron smiled and motioned to the table. “Yeah, it’s a nice place for now. Hey you want a drink, it looks like Duro got us some wine.”

“Sure, wine sounds nice.”

Agron popped the cork.

Duro peaked around the wall. “Hey be sure to let it…” Agron glared at him. “Breathe.” Wisely, he retreated back to the kitchen.

Agron poured them both a glass of wine. “Did you find it okay? I would have given you a ride had I known…”

Nasir took the glass with a tentative smile. “Yeah, it wasn’t too bad. Duro gave me some extra directions. I haven’t really figured out the GPS thing just yet, but I am not sure he knows his west from his east yet.”

Agron glowered in his brother’s direction. “That’s because the idiot doesn’t fucking drive.” Agron’s attention returned to Nasir and his voice softened as a result. “Or you know, pay attention when I do.”

Nasir sipped his wine, setting his glass down. Only seconds later Agron covered his hands with a firm grip.

“You okay?” The man looked worried.

“Yes, no. I mean I didn’t want to lie to you…”

“You didn’t.”

“Or deceive you.”

“My brother did that.” Agron smiled briefly. “He has a hard time taking no as an answer.”

“Sounds like someone I know.” Nasir smiled in return.

They held hands a few minutes longer until Duro showed up and started setting the table. The younger man looked like he might ask Agron for help, but one look at those green steady eyes and he thought better of it. Instead, Nasir awkwardly stayed in his seat watching Duro bring out the dishes, the napkins, and finally the food one dish at a time. Then he went into the main room and finagled getting the four cartons of milk in the fridge before finally retrieving the fifth after using some duct tape to plug the hole.

Once they were all seated, Duro grinned readily, looking between them. He poured himself some wine, because Agron was clearly not going to do that, and just began talking while serving for them. While he asked Nasir politely about each dish and what he wanted, he just piled on Agron’s plate because his older brother didn’t seem willing to give him anything more than a growl or grunt.

“So I'm guessing my brother told you a little about me, I hope. I'm a chef in training so I am frequently trying out new dishes around here. I’ll get some good custard out of that milk and some ice-cream too. Don’t worry, we won’t let it go to waste. Agron won’t be complaining long about the cost once he tastes what I cook up. I’ll probably send you home with one too Nasir, and a recipe with some baggies of spice or something so you can make it. I make a mean rice pudding.” He took a seat again to dish his own plate. “So tell me about your family Nasir. Do they live around here? Ow!” Duro shot Agron a sharp glare. “What the hell was that for?”

Agron flared his nostrils, but Nasir spared the man from more spitfire against his kin. “No, they weren’t from around here from my understanding. I lost them when I was very young.” He toyed with his mashed potatoes and then took a bite; they had a rich flavor of cream, butter, garlic, and an herb. “Oh this is very good.”

Duro shifted in his chair, giving his brother a glower in return though a smile arose again after a moment when his attention returned to Nasir. “Oh we lost our family too when I was younger. I wasn’t so young that I couldn’t remember, but my big brother here stepped in to finish me off. I’d say he did a pretty good job, but he seems to be testing domestic abuse limits tonight. So do you have any brothers or sisters? Ow!”

Nasir didn’t need to imagine what was going on this time. Agron kicked so hard this time he felt the table move a bit. “Agron, it’s all right, really.” Nasir gave him a weak smile and then addressed Duro’s question. “Maybe, sort of, it’s a complicated question for someone who doesn’t really remember their family and…” He paused. “Chadara hasn’t told you any of this?”

“Why the hell would Chadara tell him anything like that?” The tension in Agron’s neck told him the anger was just about to boil over.

Duro cut into his lamb. “We should probably save that for another time. So family is a little complicated, I understand that. So what do you do for living? You must have… Ow!” Not only did Duro shout a bit louder this time but Agron stood and grabbed him by a pierced ear.

“Excuse us Nasir, I need to have a little talk with my idiot brother. We’ll be right back.” Agron dragged him out of the room, and he heard a door close down the hall.

Nasir took a sip of his wine, finding a whirlwind of emotions inside him. He didn’t know if he should be upset, irritated or humored by all this. No doubt this was what Agron had been trying to avoid. Duro managed to hit on every sensitive topic Nasir could imagine in less than five minutes, but everything else he witnessed suggested that Agron didn’t have a problem with him being here at all. Being around Duro was another matter. As he sipped his wine and tried not to listen to the rising voices down the hall, it occurred to him that Agron had been quiet and cautious, even careful with questions when they first met. Sure he had met a number of guys with few if any casual questions, but that was usually lack of interest. Over the course of a few weeks, Agron managed to coax a few answers out of him, more than a few, and for now, Nasir wasn’t sorry for revealing them to the man either.

When the two returned to the table, Nasir stood slowly. “Agron, really it’s okay. He doesn’t know.”

Agron kissed Nasir gently against the temple. “Sorry about that, we just needed a quick little talk. It’s all settled now.”

All returned to their seat.

They ate in awkward silence for a while until Nasir decided he might be able to salvage the situation. “So Agron took me to a place up in the mountains, a forest that he said you two used to go to when you were young?”

Duro’s eyes lit up. “Oh yeah, near the old camping ground with Stumpy?”

Nasir blinked. “Stumpy?”

Agron toyed with his beans. “He named a stump up there. It’s about fifteen feet wide I think, pretty far from the trail and roads.”

“Yeah, I used to lay my blanket on it and read for a while, let Agron do his clear head thing in peace.”

Nasir smiled briefly and looked to Agron. “Clear head?”

Agron pursed his lips. “I had some trouble concentrating at times, you know letting things go so we would go up to the campsite on the weekends and just hike up there to just listen to the quiet.”

“That’s code for nothing. I wore headphones.” Duro added helpfully.

“Not nothing,” Agron corrected quietly this time with only a hint of irritation. “Wind and leaves, birds, small animals, that sort of thing. It was nice.”

Nasir’s grin widened. “I liked it up there too, very pretty and calm.”

“Calm’s a good word for it,” Agron agreed.

Nasir enjoyed the lamb a lot and the glaze even if it was a little on the strong side for him. “So Duro, how much longer do you have in school?”

“Oh a year, maybe two, but Oenomaus told me if I get past this last semester I can start working in the kitchen alongside waiting tables at the Ludus which would be awesome. That’s a really fancy restaurant, as you know…” Duro gave Agron a quick glance since the man was restarting his glare again.

Instead of watching the earlier events repeat themselves, Nasir reached over and grasped Agron’s hand firmly. “Oh I know, I met the most incredible man there. Is this Oenomaus the owner?”

Agron returned the squeeze. “No, he’s an old friend that left fighting long before the rest of us did. He manages the place for someone. As soon as he found out Duro had potential, he offered him a job and a chance to learn hands-on alongside his studies. It’s been great for Duro.”

Duro nodded. “It has been great. I love it.”

Nasir toyed with his salad. “Do you ever go to the ocean?”

Duro leaned back and considered the question. “I guess, well… what’s it been Agron, a few months?”

“Over a year.” His boyfriend replied readily only pausing a moment before continuing to eat.

Duro looked between Nasir and Agron and back to Nasir again. “You went there recently too?”

“Yeah, there was this little motel just across from the beach. They have these markets down there too that sell silly things and electronics strangely enough, and we rented quads. It was a lot of fun.”

A half smile formed on the other’s face. “Yeah, yeah I remember having fun there. Agron.” Duro poured his brother more wine. “Maybe, maybe we should plan a trip during my next holiday. I know I’ve been real busy with my friends and studies, but if you want I mean…”

“I’d like that a lot actually. If it is all right with you, we could invite Donar and Nasir too?”

“Yeah!” Duro looked excited. “We would do something really exciting, adventurous.”

Agron frowned.

“Or you know relaxing, relaxing is good too.”

Agron’s smile returned.

They finished their meal, and Agron had Nasir join him on the couch while Duro dished them up some peach cobbler.

“I hope my brother didn’t, you know, overwhelm you too much?”

“Nah,” Nasir relaxed against his shoulder. “He’s alright and sweet just like his brother. Besides, he did most of that when he stalked me on the bus, and it helps he cooks so well too. It’s a wonder you’re not fat yet.”

“You say that because you’re tasting the results of years of me having to taste early tests. I’m pretty sure I lost weight early on. Some of it was pretty awful.” Agron chuckled and kissed his brow. “I’m glad you came. What, what do you mean stalking you on the bus?”

“Oh nothing, and I am glad I came too.” Nasir accepted the dessert, and the caramelized marshmallows on top were an added bonus.

“So after Duro convinces us to play a couple rounds of Settlers, will you let me drive you home?”

“Settlers?”

“He loves games. He’ll clean-up for twenty minutes, wash everything, get it put away, finally get to his dessert and then give us a pouty face and talk about after all that hard work he was hoping to unwind with a little game.”

“It’s a… board game?”

Agron grinned. “German even although it’s been in the states for a number of years now.”

“Is it easy to learn because I haven’t played a game since I was a child?”

Agron leaned forward setting his bowl down. “Yeah, not too bad. You’re a quick learner. I am sure you’ll do fine.”

And Nasir did just that, winning both games.

Chapter Text

“So you did very well with your push-ups yesterday,” Agron remarked as he paid for a couple of movie tickets and then moved them inside to wait for some popcorn and soda. “Say are those new pants?”

Nasir fidgeted a bit and nodded although Agron wasn’t sure why the younger man seemed uncomfortable with the question. Mira had not so casually been giving Agron hints about complimenting Nasir more, on his clothes, his workouts, and especially his hair. He would almost bet that Nasir had begun using a new shampoo or conditioner or something; it smelled a little like rosemary and sage, maybe thyme, and he knew Mira had a real interest in using natural products like that.

He grabbed the bag of popcorn and a large soda, trying not to think about how much these things cost as they walked into the theater. As they sat down, he tried again. “Are you sure you don’t want anything? You’re not a diet right? I mean if it were up to me, I would increase your caloric intake with the amount of energy you’ve been burning lately. You look real good Nasir, all sculpted like.”

“Agron, all these nutrition bars and meals out, trust me, I am doing fine in the food department. I'm just a little tired. My boss has had me work longer shifts this week. Normally he’s a real hard ass against overtime, but these days…” Nasir trailed off and giggled slightly when Agron pushed his fingers up his shirt to feel along those defining muscles he mentioned earlier. “Hey, it’s not that kind of movie! And you can’t possibly call me sculpted compared to you anyway.”

Agron quickly withdrew his hand and put his arm around Nasir’s shoulder, next, a kiss on his brow. “Okay, I’ll try not to worry too much then. And don’t worry, I am very fond of that stomach of yours. I could kiss it all day.”

“All day, but not here.” Nasir insisted with a smile. “Besides if I need a snack or a drink, we always have yours.” Agron playfully moved the bag away when Nasir reached for some which led to both of them laughing quietly. “Idiot, you spilled at least a dollar’s worth on the floor doing that.”

“Oh that’s fine they’ll just pick up after ummm.” Agron frowned then leaned down and started picking up the lost morsels. “Sorry baby, I didn’t think.”

Nasir laughed and grabbed his arm. “Love, they have brooms for that. It will take them half the time to take care of it. It’s fine. I’m not offended. Just relax with me.” He sighed happily when the arm returned around his shoulders. “So are you going to tell me why we’re seeing this movie when you spent the whole time in line looking at the sci-fi marine one? Is that another Aliens movie?”

“Nah, although I bet there is an alien in it.” Agron glanced at him with a partial smile. Nasir had begun sneaking in that love label now and then. That just gave him more confidence for what would come next. “And I think this movie will give me a better time to ask my question than any of the other ones.”

“Question?” Nasir blinked at him.

And just at that moment, the lights dimmed and the movie began to play.

Nasir wasn’t rude enough to try and continue his conversation with the movie playing, but he found it difficult to concentrate on the plot at all. He could only imagine what Agron’s question might be. If it weren’t for the playful, tender way Agron toyed with the hair around his ear, he would have worried himself into stomach pains.

Instead, he tried to relax, and it was a sweet movie. An affectionate family left behind for a life defined by his job and co-workers, until he was fired. Then the man went back to a small place that was warm and loving and struggling only to find true love. By the end of the movie, he’d almost forgotten he was supposed to be anxiously awaiting some mysterious question to be asked.

When they left, Agron took him to a nearby burger joint because it was close and had some outside patio seating which was quiet because it was a little cool but soon he was draped in a seriously large jacket. This time Nasir did order some chicken tenders and fries. “So how do you stay fit with all this junk food?”

Agron chuckled. “Mostly a lot of activity and only splurging with people I really like. Besides, I think I need a little extra energy for the work I’m hoping to do soon.”

“Well it’s good to know you really like me at least.” A smile formed though it faded slightly as Nasir toyed with his water. Agron used that word a lot to describe him: liked and wanted but not, not what he was hoping to hear. He swirled the lemon around in his water, not a true fan of lemon water like this. All he could do was picture how many people reached into the same container for a wedge of lemon and knowing it took only one of them to be unclean to spread the problem to every patron in this joint. When the waiter came, he ordered club soda rather than request water without lemon in case they wound up just taking the wedge out and giving him the same glass. “What sort of work are you hoping to do soon?”

Agron shifted, which meant Nasir should probably pay attention to what came next. One day, if he had the money to spare, he thought he might try a game or two of poker with Agron. He was almost certain he had most of the man’s tells down. “Well I think I will be helping someone move, so packing mostly and then hauling of course.”

“You’re not moving are you? Your apartment seems really nice to me. I'm not sure you could do a lot better without moving into an actual house.” That would be nice, Nasir thought, not having to share walls or remember the neighbors were even there.

A wide smile formed. “You’re probably right about the house bit. I hope to rent a house someday or maybe buy one. I’m not sure I am cemented enough to buy one though. One day Duro is sure to leave on his own and then, well I’m not sure what I will do if I’m on my own like that. I'm glad you like the apartment. It’s really comfortable you know, central air, a good view of the sky at night, and pretty close to the bus stop as you know. Duro’s spent a fair amount of time telling me about your rice and bean and chicken lunches. He’s been drawing out some new healthy on a budget recipes for you try next. He gets really into planning menus and stuff. You’ll find out if you stick around more, say you know every day.”

Nasir blinked at him as the waiter delivered their meal. Agron seemed very talkative tonight. “Well I did say it was a nice place. Wait… are you?” He furrowed his brow slightly. Everyday?

Agron grabbed his hand. “Duro only goes into this sort of deep planning when he really likes someone Nasir. I told him to hold off because I think it might not be necessary.”

“Agron…” Oh!

“Because I think we’re wasting time commuting all over town when I have such a nice place, as you said, and with an available room.”

Nasir glanced at the table, concentrating on a spot he wasn’t even sure was there. “That’s, that’s a big step Agron. I’ve had my place a long time, and you’ve got a lot of stuff.”

“Donar already volunteered his garage for most of that exercise equipment. I can get one of the smaller machines in my room to keep me busy at home. If you live with me, we can spend more time at the gym because we’ll spend less time driving to each other’s place anyway, and I know you like jogging too. It’s a nice neighborhood to move around in.” Agron paused as if he was trying to come up with more benefits.

Nasir only glanced upward hoping to cut him off because he thought he might be misunderstanding. “You’d, you’d give me a room, like to myself?”

“Yeah you need your space. I get that, but I’d hope you’d spend most of it with me, you know, in my room.” Agron scooched his chair around the table so they were almost shoulder to shoulder. Tenderly, he lifted Nasir’s chin. “Nasir, you can tell me no. I hope that you don’t, but you can tell me no, and we can continue this at a pace you’re comfortable with. I know some people just start with a toothbrush or a drawer or something but we’re not most people are we?”

Nasir’s furrowed his brow. “It’s such a big step though. We might be doing this too soon. If things don’t work out, I won’t have a place to return to if I give up that apartment.”

Agron brushed his lips against Nasir’s ear, warm and welcomed and such talented lips. “You hate that place. I felt it when I was there with you, and if you stay with me I am betting you could muster up the funds for a membership right?”

“Yeah…” Nasir felt himself drawn to the offer. He’d been tempted by worse before. Caesar certainly didn’t love him, and he was just half a step away from joining that man as little more than his arm candy at his place. And if his landlord raised the rent or anything went up in price even a fraction he was at risk of losing it all anyway or worse having to do more for Batiatus than he did now for just a tiny bit more money to scrape by with. This wasn’t a safe or comfortable option. It was scary and risky and placed a lot of trust in a man who’s only real flaw so far seemed to be his temper and maybe a little problem with recognizing important things worth directing his energy, like running the gym he actually owned.

“My home can be your home Nasir. Anything else we’ll just work through.”

Nasir breathed in deeply. “Well I do have a month to month lease. I am supposed to give thirty days’ notice.”

“That’s okay. You can move in ahead of that, and that’ll give us time to make it spotless so you can get your deposit back. They might be able to rent it out sooner too. I have the boys lined up to move you as soon as you give the okay. Nasir, let my home be your home. Anything that comes up, we’ll make it work, I promise.” Agron repeated himself, and it sounded just as good the second time around as it did the first.

He took a breath. A part of him wanted to jump in head first, worry about everything else later. There had been so many nights he wished Agron would just stay with him. “You’re sure Duro won’t mind? I mean, it might be a little odd having his brother’s boyfriend around all the time.”

Agron huffed. “Duro spends more time out and about than in the apartment. He’ll be fine, and we can make ourselves scarce when he needs space. We have The Rebel, the forest and the ocean. That’s a whole lot of space, and probably… maybe we’ll wind up watching a game at Donar’s house or a race at Spartacus’.” He leaned forward and whispered. “Between you and me, I don’t think he even likes racing. I think he puts up with it for Mira. She like’s fast.”

Nasir smirked. “And partially naked.”

Agron blinked at him. “Partially naked?”

“Never mind. I’m, I’m trusting you with a lot Agron. I just, if you’re not serious about us, just don’t hurt me like this.”

Agron grinned. “This will be good, you’ll see.”

And despite having the offer of several individuals to help them move, Nasir requested only Agron and Duro actually assist which lead to a lot of whining from Duro and a few curses from Agron when it came to moving the bed down some stairs. Fortunately, Nasir didn’t have a lot to worry about, and he just didn’t want Spartacus or Donar or even Mira to see where he lived.

After a number of days of back and forth and rearranging, Nasir finally stood in his room with his full bed, TV stand and television and boxes stacked in the corner. He had no idea how he was going to organize things yet. And he wasn’t sure where they came from, but he had two king-size beautiful pillows with matching pillow cases to his sheets the second night. They were so fluffy and luxurious he almost declined Agron’s offer to join him in bed, almost.

There was just one more thing to do. Nasir picked up the phone. “Hey Chadara.”

“Nasir! I am so glad to hear from you. I stayed away just like you asked, I really did.”

He smiled, listening to the earnest tone in her voice. She did, avoided him at work and didn’t call or text him once. “I know. Thank you for that. I appreciate that you respected me enough to give me space. Listen, I wanted you to know I’ve moved. I’ve moved in with Agron and his brother. I didn’t want you to be surprised or hurt to find my place empty or find out from Duro and not me. Do you, do you want to do lunch sometime soon?”

Chadara was quiet for a little bit, and Nasir began to wonder if the call dropped. “Sure, sure we can do lunch. How about in two days. It will be fun. I can’t wait to see you. You can tell me about your new place.”

“Yeah.” He hesitated. “And you can tell me what’s going on with you and Duro. He’s really nice.”

“Oh I know, I know. He’s been real attentive. Kind of a young twit, but nice. Two days then?”

”Yeah…” Nasir frowned. Twit didn’t sound especially affectionate.

“Okay, got to go Nasir. I'll talk to you later.”

Nasir sighed after she hung up. Sometimes, he just didn’t understand her. He thought, well he thought she would be more enthusiastic about reconnecting after their fight. Then again, he was the one that broke off communication so maybe he was expecting too much reaching out to her again.

Agron peeked into his room. “Hey Nasir, are you coming to bed or did you change your mind?”

“No, no I didn’t change my mind Agron. I just…” His recent conversation still lingered with him. It was so strange for Chadara to have such a short phone call. She didn’t even take the opportunity to brag about any new presents she got or a nice place she was taken to. He shook his head. They were both moving on and maybe this was just… better that way. He smiled at Agron and walked into his arms. “Just sleep tonight though. I have an early morning. Duro showed me some rates last night, and I think I can afford a bus pass for the month. It will be nice to save money and not have to keep change around all the time so I need to get to the office before work.”

The larger man nodded. “Okay. I am just going to wash up and join you in bed.”

Nasir accepted a quick kiss and entered Agron’s room. He noted the one treadmill was a bit of a tight squeeze in the corner and didn’t give Agron a direct view of the television while he was on it. He hoped his presence wouldn't inconvenience the two too badly.

Agron came up behind him and gave him another quick kiss to the neck. “It won’t bite; I promise.”

Nasir gave him a quick elbow to the abdomen. “I know that. This is just, well it feels different.”

“I’m thinking different is good considering what you’ve told me about the guys of your past.” Agron climbed into bed and enveloped Nasir almost the moment the smaller man hit the sheets. “You know I can give you a ride any time you want?”

“Yeah, I know, but our schedules conflict; it'll be fine.” Nasir snuggled up close to him, closing his eyes. The bed, the sheets, the man, everything felt right and safe. He fell asleep with a smile on his face.

**

Varinius turned on the lamp and picked up his phone, smiling. “Ahh, Chadara, I am pleased to hear from you. They’ve moved in, excellent. It’s a little sooner than I expected, but we knew it would happen eventually. I sincerely appreciate the information.” He paused. “Yes, this means we will move onto the next step. Be sure he is invited, and that he trusts you. Above all, he has to trust you my dear. He’s not going to break the rules for you if he doesn’t trust you. Now I will give you the address on your phone. Do this for me and I will make good on my promise. You will have the life of luxury you’ve only dreamed of.” He frowned slightly, listening to her concerns about the second participant. “You’re concerned about the other one, the boy that used to work with you? I don’t know why you would be. He’s easy to control, and I’ve used him in the past. Oh, he just needs a little reminder of what is at stake, and I am sure whomever this man is he is dating will know nothing about his past. He’ll want to keep it that way. Yes, get them both there and I will take care of the rest. Good girl. Your days on your knees for Batiatus will soon be over.” He hung up, looking out of the glass wall at the stars and the moon with contentment.

He made another call. “It’s on. Yes, be sure all of them are there. Tell them they will enjoy this. I think this will be rare treat for them. Yes, yes, he is youthful and attractive… worth every cent. And no pictures, I want it to be a surprise.”

Chapter Text

Nasir picked up two towels, three socks, unable to find the fourth, and what he hoped was Agron’s boxers and placed them in the hamper. He moved about the hallway and followed a trail of pants, a shirt, what looked like a hand wrap right up to Duro’s room… damn, so not Agron’s. Nasir sighed and peeked in the room to find Duro asleep on top of his bed with a cookbook open and a video playing on his laptop. Carefully, he snuck in and turned off the video and left the door ajar.

Okay, so Duro might keep the kitchen flawless, but evidence of him seemed to be all over the place, every day. He was also beginning to understand why these two had so many towels: while he managed to get by with two or three, there had to be at least fifteen around here since Agron and Duro grabbed a new one each time. No matter, he told himself. These were minor quips for a much nicer place and warm company.

Quietly he moved to the bathroom and stripped out of his work clothes for a nice long hot shower. Oil, popcorn bits, sticky soda and all the other messes that came with a night at working at a theater swirled down the drain. At least he had a chance to talk to Chadara today, if briefly, in person. He missed having real conversations with her, but it almost seemed normal again, just meeting in passing in the hallway. She seemed really happy lately. Maybe Batiatus finally made good on his promise and moved her to a higher-end apartment, like a proper mistress. He worried for her but at least they were still here, both moving forward albeit in different directions.

He dried his hair and moved about in a robe to the kitchen where he found two wrapped plates in the fridge with labels, chicken quinoa salad with roasted chia seeds and feta cheese, basil dressing on the side. There was one for Agron and another for him. He frowned realizing that meant Agron had not come home yet.

Home… that word still felt strange to hear, even in his head.

Nasir grabbed the plate and a sparkling water and moved over to the sofa, tentatively turning on the television. He still felt guilty about using these luxury items, like cable, when neither of them was there to enjoy it with him. He didn’t have a chance to contribute yet and was in a fight with the landlord over who would get the security deposit. Since Batiatus had originally paid it, the man wanted to give it to him and not Nasir. He wasn’t entirely sure that was legal but hadn’t told Agron yet. At least neither of his roommates seemed especially concerned he couldn’t contribute yet. He would, he promised himself, do more than just clean up after them. He would find a way to be an equal here. He’d spent almost his entire life knowing he’d have to pay for what was given, one way or another, but this time he meant to do it on his terms.

He was watching some sort of discovery channel special about orphan dolphins when Agron finally made an appearance pretty late in the evening. The taller man looked weary and unhappy although he shot Nasir a quick smile before he dropped his bag in the corner near Nasir’s and joined him on the couch. They exchanged a quick kiss. “You’re home so late?”

Agron nodded glancing at his plate. “Quinoa again. God, I wish he would move onto another chapter or something. This ancient grain kick is really starting to get… I want flour, plain white processed flour. ”

Nasir chuckled and offered him a bite. “It’s not bad Agron, try it.”

Stubbornly Agron shook his head and leaned back. “Crixus is blocking the expansion.”

“Can he do that?” Nasir set his plate down and faced Agron. “I mean I thought Spartacus had the majority share by far.”

“He does, and I support him fully. Gannicus doesn’t seem sure either way. He couldn’t keep his tongue out of Saxa’s mouth long enough to really give an opinion. I wish he would just not go rather than do that like we’re all not there but…”

“But?” Nasir encouraged.

“Crixus could just sell his shares, walk away from everything, and take a fair amount of the trainers with him. Most of those who still work with the professionals, the fighters, boxers, you know the actual athletes follow him. It would change everything, split us up.”

“And Spartacus doesn’t want that.” Nasir understood enough about Spartacus to understand that. This gym, The Rebel was a desperate measure in itself to keep everyone together. If an expansion unraveled that, well he could see why Spartacus wouldn’t want to try and continue without Crixus.

“No, he wouldn’t.” Agron sighed.

Nasir stood and went to the fridge to grab Agron a beer, returning to his side with that and an ice cold glass. “Did Crixus say why?”

Agron took the glass and poured, scowling at the innocent yellow fluid. “Yeah, he thinks it will draw more families, women and kids, not athletes. He doesn’t want to be just another gym. He says before long, people will forget we were even in the sport. We have to do more to keep the real athletes coming.”

“He… insulted you?” Nasir was worried the tension between the two had grown since he started encouraging Agron to get engaged the operational aspect of the gm. Maybe, maybe that wasn’t the best choice after all. Maybe he made a mistake with pushing that.

Agron took a big drink from the cold glass. “He reminded me how long it’s been since I’ve actually won a match, pointing out the last one was a draw, not a win.”

“The one with Barca.”

The tall man had leaned back and closed his eyes at that point, but they opened again. Green eyes turned to Nasir. “Who told you about that?”

Nasir quickly looked away. “I’m, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

Agron sat up again and frowned. “It’s okay Nasir. I guess I should have known once you started hanging out more and talking to others at the gym, you’d hear some things. Yeah, on paper it’s a draw.”

Cautiously his eyes lifted to meet Agron’s gaze again. “And in reality?”

“He put me in the hospital. I’d say that’s a pretty big fucking win on his part.” The bitterness there, it was like Agron wasn’t talking about something that happened a couple of years ago. It was no wonder no one liked to bring this up.

Carefully Nasir touched his shoulder. “But you didn’t really fight. It’s not a real match if someone isn’t participating Agron.”

Agron grunted and stood, brushing off his hand. “Oh yeah? Did you suddenly become an expert in calling fights today?”

Silence hung between them.

Nasir knew he could pursue a fight with Agron on this or just let it go. He let it go, for now. He had a feeling this was more than an argument between Crixus and Agron. Maybe Mira could tell him if they came to blows over it. Agron did look like he favored his side a little. “So I heard you, Donar and Saxa are going to go to a fight this Friday. Mira and I thought we might go out that night instead, have dinner and shop a little.”

Sorrowful green eyes shifted from the wall back to Nasir again. “Nasir, I didn’t mean to snap at you. I hope…”

A smile formed almost immediately, a genuine one. “It’s not that. Mira and I talked earlier today. I was planning on asking you tomorrow since I thought you might be in bed when I came home. I promise I am not trying to avoid you.”

Agron grinned and brushed his fingers along Nasir’s cheek. “Good. I wouldn’t want that. We’re just trolling for clients, as Donar puts it. You should probably come with me sometime, but you’ll have more fun with Mira.” He paused and took another swallow. “And you know Mira doesn’t know how to shop a little right?”

Nasir nodded. “Oh yeah, I haven’t forgotten our beach trip. I’ll reign her in. I hear she is getting Spartacus’ credit card.”

“The man’s an idiot, a lovesick idiot.”

“So do you, do you think he loves her?” Nasir felt his heart skip just a beat. This wasn’t the most ideal time to bring something up like this, but maybe this would be a chance for him to try asking his question again.

Agron stood suddenly and shrugged. “How should I know? I mean, maybe, probably. I’m going to take a shower. Will you be in bed soon?”

Nasir nodded, watching him move down the hall. “Yeah, I will just finish eating. I’ll be in there when you get out.” He sighed. One thing at a time.

At least after a shower and in bed, Agron seemed to be in a much better mood.

***

Friday night, Agron had already left to meet up with Donar and Saxa leaving Duro and Nasir to get ready for their nights out. It was a lot easier to share the bathroom with Duro, not just because he was smaller but he didn’t get all puffed up over having his stuff accidently touched or bumped.

Expensive cologne, product in his hair, silver strands in his braids and on his ear, Duro looked like he was about to go on a hot date. Nasir tied his hair back, not in a full ponytail this time, just part of it and the rest would go over his shoulder. “So are you going out with Chadara?”

Duro grinned. “Oh yeah, it’s been fun so far. She says she knows a great party we can go to, out on the other side of the city, a rave I think. We could party till dawn, I hope.”

“Does Agron approve?” Nasir frowned slightly. “I know I’ve said this before Duro, but you should be careful with her. Chadara is, she’s not always what she seems.”

Duro waved his hand impatiently. “Yeah, yeah. You and Agron keep warning me about her. She’s energetic, fun and pretty. I don’t see the problem here. She hasn’t said an ill word against you or Agron. ”

“Well… she wouldn’t.”

Duro faced him. “And why wouldn’t she voice her mind with me?”

“Because she knows if you said something bad about me or Agron you might not take it well.”

“You act like she’s playing me. What the hell man, I thought she was like family to you. Why would you want to spread rumors like that?” Duro’s voice rose just a little.

Nasir sighed. “I don’t, I don’t want to fight with you Duro.”

“Then don’t.” He snapped, showing just a flare of that temper his brother carried around with him. At least when Duro was angry, he didn’t tense his entire body like he was about to tackle a guy like someone else he knew.

“But she might be playing you Duro.” He felt he had to try again anyway.

“Because I am such a tall dark handsome stranger that can whisk her away to tropical islands and paradise with all the money I have?” He snorted. “What reason would she have to play me?”

Well Duro had a point, Nasir had to admit. Chadara leading Duro on had no obvious end game. Maybe she was just having fun while Batiatus lacked energy to even clean his desk. He wasn’t sure the man could be much of a lover, but you never could tell about these things for sure. “I don’t know. I'm just worried is all.”

Duro placed a hand on his shoulder. “Listen Nasir. I know you’re trying to look out for me. Trust me when I say Agron has spent more than his fair share trying to do that. You guys can concentrate on what you have going on and not worry about me. I’m great. Life is good. Besides Chadara told me what an ass your foster father was, a doctor right? I don’t think she would share that with just anyone.”

Nasir stiffened; that completely blindsided him. Chadara never told anyone about their past, not in that kind of detail. They barely spoke to each other about it. “She, she told you that?” He whispered as if somehow doing so made the fact less real.

Duro must have realized his off-hand remark left a lingering effect because he quickly stopped what he was doing and tried to console Nasir. “Nasir! Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to tumble out of my mouth like that. I just got going and didn’t think. I just told you that to let you know she and I talk, really talk. I swear I haven’t breathed a word to my brother, and I won’t either. Hey, you okay?”

For a short time, Nasir just sort of stood in place, blinking at him. “Yeah, okay.” He eventually found his tongue again.

“I’m so sorry Nasir. I just, the way Chadara talks about it I guess I just assumed you both felt the same about it… I really messed up Nasir. I am so sorry.”

Nasir took a deep breath and forced a smile. “Duro, it’s fine. I was just surprised. If she is opening up about this, maybe you are connecting. I’ve never seen her do that before, but that’s okay. She’s always dealt with the past better than I have. I hope you have fun, I really do.”

Duro smiled hesitantly as if he couldn’t tell if Nasir was being sincere or not. “So I am going to be out really, really late tonight. I told Agron I was going to go to a party but I didn’t say it was with Chadara or where. I’ll get a ride home though, I promise. No bus, or you know, go back to her place.”

Nasir raised a hand. “No details on what you do with her.” He returned to finishing his hair. At least Duro was excited about a party. He wondered if Agron had ever been that way or if he was dragged to these places by all his dates. He forced himself to push aside the fact that Duro knew something he wasn’t sure anyone else but Chadara and their assailant knew. “Have a good time Duro.”

“Hey you too!” Duro called to him as he left.

Soon Nasir placed his palms on the bathroom counter and just stood there looking at the mirror. He didn’t see himself there, just a man’s face he hadn’t seen in years, a man with a smooth voice and soft and steady hands. Everything on paper said he’d been the ideal, wealthy, a noted member of the community, adopting children when they couldn’t have their own. He felt a pit in his stomach, an ever hungry hole at the thought that the others would find out what happened to them while there. It didn’t make sense she would tell Duro, not when others they knew for years were never told. And Nasir didn’t know Duro well to know how tightly he would hold this secret or how much detail Chadara even knew. They almost never talked about it, not what happened to her or later him when she left. He’d have to try to trust Duro, remember for all his rambling and somewhat idiotic tangents, it was endearing and light, never heavy or emotional. Maybe Duro could be discreet when he wanted to be.

Nasir blinked, focusing on himself again in the mirror. He felt ugly and unclean, but he needed to shake this off, to try and enjoy himself with Mira. He shook his head and with a deep breath, he left the apartment.

Nasir waited at the curb until Mira pulled up in a sleek red sports car with leather seats, pastel crystals hanging off the mirror and the top down. The woman herself wore a cute black sheath dress and a wooden beaded bracelet. She pulled down her sunglass and gave him a wide smile. “Are we ready?”

Nasir climbed in with a grin. Maybe, maybe Agron was right and Mira had a thing for fast cars after all. Whether Spartacus liked them or not, Nasir and Mira spent the better part of the evening not shopping but just driving down long curvy roads with music blaring and wind in their hair. He understood the appeal. This was nice and distracting. It was hours before they set foot in the first shopping center, and her secret was revealed to him. She didn’t spend much time at all shopping on these trips, but she did fill up the tank and wind up with a couple new dresses and some lingerie though.

Spartacus was a lucky guy, Nasir decided. They didn’t return until late in the evening.

He still had the place to himself when he came home. He hoped both Agron and Duro were having fun and didn’t expect either to return before morning. Still feeling restless Nasir was about to start finally rearranging his room a little when he got a text from a friend saying he needed help followed by an address.

Nasir left immediately.

Chapter Text

Duro pressed his palm against his forehead, blinking as he stumbled down the hallway he thought he saw Chadara take earlier. He couldn’t focus, the music made his head throb and why was it difficult to control his tongue? “Cha…” His fingers moved along the smooth wall until they bumped against a wooden door frame. Cautiously he pulled himself around and continued into the room until he bumped against something softer and about knee level, which he fell upon. A sofa or maybe a bed he realized, though he closed his eyes just trying keep the world from spinning. Someone touched his arm.

“How do you feel?” A soft and steady male voice called out to him. The man sounded distant but he knew he was right there, could feel those fingers against his shoulders.

“I…” His tongue felt heavy and thick, but Duro tried hard to control it. “I think I might be sick or… something.” A light shone on him so bright he could see it through his eyelids. He was torn between opening his eyes and shielding himself. Finding the experience even more disorientating Duro lifted his arm to protect himself but a strong hand grasped his wrist, pulling it away from his face and pressing it firmly against the soft covering beneath him.

“No, don’t do that. Don’t shield your handsome face. We all want a good look at you.”

“We?” Duro felt fingers at his shirt, opening each button one at a time. His fingers curled slightly as he meant to move and stop whoever was doing that but everything just felt so weighed down.

“Very nice.” The voice praised and fingers moved along his exposed chest and down his abdomen to toy with the buttons on his jeans.

“Hey, you shouldn’t… shouldn’t do that.” Duro found his objection weak and barely more than a whisper. Fingers opened his button and pulled down his fly and then he felt the denim being pulled down his body.

“What’s your name? Look at the light and tell me your name.”

Duro breathed in deeply, glancing at the light. “Duro, my name’s Duro. Who are you? Where am I? This is still the party right?”

“Oh yes, this is going to be a wonderful party.” Down went his underwear, and Duro partially realized he was naked. “You’re not as built as your brother it seems, but you have a youthful appeal and great potential, yes very nice as is. I am pleased. Spread your legs for me.”

He tried to shake his head clear, but as time moved on, everything felt like he was floating. He had been high a few times before but this was different; this was weighty and he felt himself completely spreading his thighs so the man could work his clothes off his body. “You know, you know Agron?”

“Good boy,” came a calm praise. “No, not yet but I suspect I will meet him very soon after this. Look at the light, good boy, now tell me, have you ever been with a man before.”

Duro opened his eyes partially. “No, I am not, not gay like my brother. I like women a lot. Is Cha…?”

“You don’t have to be to have a cock up your ass as you will soon learn. It is good to know you are untried Duro, unless women have had toys up there?”

“I don’t know what you mean… I need to get home… I should at least tell him where I’m at. I should have told him. She said not to.” Duro tried to sit up but hands pressed against his shoulder. It was then he realized there was more than one other person in this room.

Slick fingers grasped his cock, moving along the length and then circling around the tip. Duro gasped, the oil left behind gradually warm up. He felt himself getting hard and quickly.

“Don’t worry about Agron. He’ll know what happened here soon enough.”

A mouth engulfed the tip of his cock, and what little thought he could muster fled Duro’s mind. He partially covered his forehead with the back of his right hand, his left moving downward to feel the thick curly hair of someone sucking his cock.

“Good boy, nice and slow. This is Duro’s first time. We want to capture every moment… a nice close up when I am the first to enter. The rest of you will have to wait your turn.”

Wait your turn. Duro could only partially process the meaning of those words, even as the mouth that was giving him so much pleasure was suddenly pulled away and someone else moved between his legs. Fingers grabbed his thighs, and he was pulled down firmly until his ass was midair over the bed.

Something small and firm pressed into his ass, a finger maybe, and then two. Once again Duro tried to sit up but others pressed against both his shoulders. He knew he should do more, but the world still spun, voices sounded like they were in a tunnel and there was this odd stretching sensation happening inside him.

“Just go for it.” A new arid if excited breath sounded in the darkness.

“Patience. My intention is not to damage the boy, just… enjoy him.”

Then there was something slick and a lot larger pressing at him, and this time, his reaction was stronger. This time, he felt palms against his shoulder press hard enough they likely left bruises behind. It felt like someone was cramming a rolling pin inside him, large and solid. Someone cried out. It might have been him. Pain, unfamiliar, deep resonating pain. His body lifted upward in reaction to the incredible sensation.

Duro squeezed his eyes shut, and someone whispered against his ear. Relax, they said, or it will hurt more. It already hurts, he thought. Please stop. Then he realized, he was saying that aloud, and someone was stroking his thigh, fingers just along the soft sensitive skin of his inner thigh.

That voice again, the warm firm one from earlier spoke to him again. “Duro, relax sweetie. That’s it. Good boy. Let me in. There you go.”

Duro turned his head to the side, and his eyes focused again, a bright light in his face, the silhouettes of others around him. He heard breathing, deep and labored breathing and the sound of flesh against flesh, fast moving, pumping sounds.

Gradually, his mind comprehended that he was being fucked, and there were others around him beating themselves off to the sight. What, what was happening? Why couldn’t he concentrate? Then something went off inside him, an electric sudden and intense sensation that left him gasping, writhing in pain and pleasure and confusion.

“There it is. Louder, louder for me Duro. I want everyone to hear you, hear your pleasure, your surprise, the sounds of having the first man claim you.”

And he obeyed, he didn’t know why he did. His body did one thing while his mind dragged behind it. He was crying out now, whimpering and gasping, turning sometimes though the man down below held him tightly, snapped his hips and slammed hard enough inside him he heard the slap of the man’s thighs against his ass. Whoever this was, they were strong, and sure and did not give him a moment’s relief.

And then he felt it, another tingling sensation that started with the tightening of his balls, the clench of his ass and finally the twitch of his cock as he came.

“Very good.”

He received praise. His muddled mind thought that might be good; that had to be good. Praise was always good.

Things quieted down a bit, and someone was panting, breathing real hard. He realized it wasn’t him and then there was a deep grunt, a powerful almost angry sound. A wet sensation inside him soon followed.

Oh. He almost comprehended what that was, opened his mouth to say something but a cock was thrust inside it. He almost gagged, didn’t know what to do until someone started giving him directions. The cock inside him was withdrawn but seconds later another replaced it.

Quiet again, or almost quiet.

“Everyone gets their turn, keep recording… make sure he’s left unharmed. When you’re finished send the video.”

He heard a door open and then shut.

Duro wasn’t sure if he passed out or fell asleep hours later. He remembered being carried into a shower, a nice hot shower, with someone maybe more than one person, holding him up and cleaning him real thorough like and then dressing him again. He was in a bed eventually, could have slept real well except a familiar voice sounded shortly after that.

“Pietros, are you here? Pietros… Oh my god, Duro. Duro is that you?”

Aah, Nasir was here. That was good. Maybe he got to enjoy the party too. “Nasir…”

Nasir pulled at him. “Duro, we have to get you out of here. Help me. Can you stand up?”

Maybe he could, he just put his foot down. Oh that was working, but he was stiff and walking hurt. “Yeah.” It was all he managed.

Nasir hurried around the room, grabbing a jacket. He didn’t remember having a jacket but probably brought one.

Then they were moving down the hallway real quick and were out in the streets, dark but was that the sun coming up? Somehow Nasir knew where they were going.

“We have to get you to a hospital. We need them to check you out.”

“No hospital.”

Nasir froze, looking at him. “Duro, we have to. You’ve been drugged, maybe worse.”

“No, no hospital. Take me home.”

Oh those eyes, even in the dark they were so incredible. He could see why Agron liked those eyes. They were so wide and frightened right now, torn. “You, you could need help Duro. I don’t know. I don’t want to go either but you could...”

“No hospital.” His tongue felt like sand-paper. “Take me, take me home. Please.”

And Nasir must have listened because he remembered being in a taxi, then being taken up some stairs and oh good, his bed. That was nice, real nice of Nasir to tuck him in like that. He heard a door open and slam shut. “Duro!”

Agron was home. He should talk to him but after that it was just black.

**

Nasir felt his heart sink. Agron was furious and acting like he had an idea of what happened. He kept going on and on about some message he received, but the man didn’t really look at him. It was like he was yelling at someone else. “Agron, I swear, I didn’t have anything to do with that party. I didn’t know…”

“Who’d he go with, Chadara?”

Nasir placed a hand against Agron’s shoulder but the man pulled away from him sharply. “I haven’t really spoken to her in weeks, and I didn’t see her there. How did you find out? Agron I don’t understand…”

“I need you to get out.”

And his world stopped, a sudden collision that left him breathless. “Agron…”

“I can’t be around you right now.”

“But, but this is…” Tears fell down Nasir’s eyes. “You said this was my home. I, I don’t have any other place to go now. Agron please let me explain. I was there for someone else. I got a message that said he needed help and was in trouble. But when I got there, people were leaving and I found Duro…”

Agron’s entire body became a complex pattern of knots, and his fingers tightened into threatening fists. Although they never left the countertop, Nasir felt fear for the first time of what Agron might do. “Now Nasir. We can’t talk about this. I need to not be around you right now.”

With shaking hands, Nasir grabbed as much of his clothes he could fit in the bag, a toothbrush, and a comb before looking at Agron’s form hunched over the counter, playing a portion of some video in a loop:

“What’s your name? Look at the light and tell me your name.”

Duro breathed in deeply, glancing at the light. “Duro, my name’s Duro…”

He left without another word.

**

Agron didn’t know how long he stood there, just staring at his phone with the video on pause. While he was out fucking around with Donar, Saxa and Lugo, his little brother snuck off to some party… someone had sent him this video as proof of what happened with only an address and ‘no police’ in the message, and it was almost two hours before he even noticed it was there. He felt as if his entire world had imploded around him, and he couldn’t act. He thought about calling Spartacus, getting the entire police unit over to that address, but he knew this was a threat, an arrangement of some kind. They were using Duro to get to him, but why?

“Agron?”

Duro’s voice cut through his haze, and he quickly moved to his brother’s side, placing a strong but gentle hand upon his shoulder. “You shouldn’t be up, you need rest. Fuck we should be taking you to a hospital.”

“Hospital, why?” Duro blinked, his brow scrunched, running his tongue along this bridge of his mouth and moving stiffly. “I feel like shit. What, what happened last night? Where’s Chadara?”

Agron led him over to the couch. “Here, let me get some water.” He returned to his brother’s side, offering aspirin and cool water. “I don’t know where that little bitch is.”

“Hey, hey what did I tell you about talking like that against her?” Duro could barely string his words together. Whatever they had him on, the lingering effects remained.

Agron was a heartbeat away from dialing 911 now but the words, and the warning of no police stuck with him. “Duro, I need you to try and remember what happened last night.” Agron prodded gently, trying to get Duro to remember even a hint of what and where he was, but Duro couldn’t remember. Chadara gave directions to the cab. Carefully, Agron asked enough questions where Duro got the idea of what happened.

Duro took deep breaths, his jaw clenching with each detail, glancing at the phone although he didn’t reach for it. “Wait so Nasir found me and brought me home?”

“Yeah, he said someone had already cleaned you up, probably to hide the evidence, and you wouldn’t go with him to the hospital.” Agron felt his fingers curl into a fist again, anger returning swiftly at the thought.

Duro’s brown eyes lifted to meet Agron’s worried gaze. “Nasir was willing to go to a hospital for, for me? Oh…” He drew an unsteady breath, trying to concentrate. “Where is he Agron? Why isn’t he here?”

Agron breathed in deeply. “I was so angry Duro. I just, Nasir brought Chadara into our lives. And whatever he’s into I just couldn’t...”

Duro stood swiftly, wincing as he did but that didn’t stop the volume of his voice from rising. “You hit him? You hurt Nasir! Agron how could you?”

Agron stood as well, shaking his head. “No, no of course not. I didn’t touch him. I could, I could barely look at him. Duro I swear to you I didn’t hurt him. I just couldn’t…”

“Then where is he? Why isn’t he here?”

Agron shook his head several times before answering. “I asked him to leave for a little while. I just, I needed space. I was so angry.”

Duro looked around, glancing in the corner where Agron and Nasir kept their gym bags, noting Nasir’s was not there. “You asked him to leave, or you asked him to leave for a little while?”

“What?” Agron looked at him confused, trying to figure out why Duro was getting on him about this when this seemed the least of their problems. “Duro, we’ve got to get you to a... “

“Did you ask him to leave or did you ask him to go for a little while and come back?” Duro hissed this time, a low angry sound that was building in strength and volume.

“What fucking difference does it make? Duro, do you realize what happened? These men are blackmailing you, or me, maybe both. I don’t know what they want but I need to protect…”

Duro walked up to Agron and slapped him hard across the face.

The two stood there, staring at each other, Agron’s eyes wide in shock and Duro’s steady and furious.

“Agron, I don’t remember what happened. I can feel it, in my mouth, in my ass, I know there are bruises, but you will listen to me. Now did you ask him to leave and come back or just tell him to go?” Duro breathed hard now, and Agron could see it, see his little brother start to break down right in front him.

Agron inhaled deeply, his face hot and red where Duro struck him. He would never strike Duro, no matter the rage and emotions welling inside him now. Sure they knocked each other around bloody when they were younger, but once he took on the role of a guardian, never. “I asked him to leave. I’m sure he knows he can come back.” And why wouldn’t Nasir know to come back? He’d been furious at others in the past, Donar and Spartacus were prime examples, and they always came back… eventually.

Duro shook his head and tried to reach down and grab his jacket but he paused, feeling the pain and strain of last night’s activity.

It looked like Duro intended to go looking for Nasir, right now, right after he’d just guided his brother through what happened last night. This meant Duro seriously believed Nasir was gone. Hesitantly Agron grabbed the jacket for him, the anger and insistence began to fade. What if he was wrong? What if Nasir didn’t know he just needed time, only a little while to process this? Family came back… and Nasir was family; he knew he told Nasir he was family. What if that wasn’t enough? Maybe Nasir thought this was a breakup not just a… well whatever the hell it was other people labeled it when he lost his temper. “What do you think you’re doing? You don’t think I’m actually going to let you leave this house? Duro it’s not safe; you can barely focus.”

Duro ripped the jacket away from his tight fist. “Unless you plan on tackling me, I sure as hell am. I have to go find the rest of our family, your boyfriend, you big fucking idiot.”

“Duro, Nasir’s…”

“Why do you think he’s going to come back? Because he’s had so many healthy relationships before? Because all that good quality family time he’s been talking about since he’s been here.” Duro placed a hand against his forehead, gasping and looking slightly unsteady on his feet. “Jesus, I think I am going to throw-up.”

Agron quickly helped him to the bathroom, stroking his back as he threw up. Several minutes later, Duro managed to calm down and tried to stand again. “Duro, you can’t go out like this. I don’t, I don’t know if this is the drugs or your reaction to what happened, but I can’t leave you…”

Duro shot him a withering look. “You have to find him. Agron, you promise me you will go out there and find him or so help me god I will be on those buses so long as they run and walking around at night when they stop trying to find him myself. You’ve got to go. I just need… I just need…” For a moment Duro just looked lost. “I need you to bring him back. Promise me.”

Agron’s gaze shifted from Duro’s angry face to actually look around the bathroom, noticing the missing toothbrush holder on the sink, and the missing comb, his eyes moved to the Irish Spring soap in the shower he wasn’t sure if Nasir liked or just managed to get on sale now and then. Duro was right. In his reaction to what happened, he didn’t hear what Nasir was telling him, didn’t assure him… all he could picture were all these men taking turns on his little brother in some warehouse, at some rave.

“I promise.”

He didn’t take his jacket. All he needed was his wallet, keys and phone. He pulled away from the apartment in search of Nasir, his boyfriend, his love that he just threw out of his promised home.

Chapter Text

Agron drove through the city to every place he could think of to find Nasir. He went to the gym, both theaters, Nasir’s old apartment and every bus stop he remembered his boyfriend using. He tried the three shelters he knew in the area, a soup kitchen that hadn’t opened up yet, two hospitals and a half dozen churches. Eventually he had to pull over and just stared at his phone, looking at the dozen or so calls he’d made to Nasir’s phone, but they all went straight to voice mail.

He thought about calling Spartacus and Mira, having them both look for Nasir too but the video and the warning that came with it gave him pause. He didn’t know who was behind this or what more they were capable of. Spartacus had clear ties to law enforcement and could be a primary reason the men warned him not to go to the authorities. Mira, as clever as she was, was as close to Spartacus as someone could be which made her someone the others might be watching too. For Nasir’s sake, he wanted to go to them anyway, but Agron felt torn between the conflicting needs of his brother and finding Nasir, his beloved. Fuck, he didn’t even know Nasir’s last name. It wasn’t on his paperwork. He hadn’t received mail at their house yet, and there was always something odd about that way he guarded that part of his identity that kept Agron from asking more. He had intended to peel back the layers and break down these barriers a piece at a time because they would have all the time in the world to get there… if he hadn’t messed it up.

He grabbed his steering wheel and screamed, just screamed as loud as he could.

A couple of people nearby looked in his direction before hurrying away. It was probably the wise thing to do right now. Agron could barely keep it together for people he knew, he wasn’t about to put any effort in giving a shit about people he didn’t know.

He closed his eyes, trying to calm his breathing, steady his heart. He could almost hear Spartacus talking to him, telling him not to drive while angry, to try fucking breathing exercises to calm down. Oh right, what were those? Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, deep breath in through the nose, exhale from his mouth. Agron repeated the process over and over again, his fingers slowly relaxing against the steering wheel. He opened his eyes, realizing he was lucky he didn’t rip the whole thing off and completely ruin his truck. He needed this truck. He needed this truck to find Nasir, bring him home and then go find the sick fucks responsible for Duro and…

The phone rang.

He answered blindly. “Nasir! Nasir I am so sorry! I…”

“Agron its Spartacus.”

“Oh god…” He didn’t even realize he said it aloud. He hadn’t even stopped to register the ring.

Spartacus was quiet for a moment. “Agron, what’s going on? Is everything okay?”

“Yes.” Agron swallowed thickly. Before his heart was beating so fast he thought it would fly out of his chest, now it felt like it was slowing to the point where he wondered if a man could continue to live if it just skipped a few beats now and then.

“Agron, you know you can’t lie to me. Tell me what’s going on.”

“I messed up. I can’t find Nasir. We had a fight. I blamed him for something that wasn’t his fault. And I just, I don’t…” Breathe, his brain told his body but all he received were gulps of air.

“Okay, you sound unsteady to me. Why don’t you give me your address and I’ll come pick you up.”

“No. No I have to find Nasir.”

“Agron…”

“You don’t understand Spartacus. Everything is falling apart. Duro’s in trouble. Nasir’s missing. I…”

“Why is Duro in trouble?”

“What?”

“Why is Duro in trouble?”

Agron set the phone down for a minute. Shit. Fuck whoever was watching over him right now. He had to get his mind straight. He couldn’t deal with his blackmailers if the goddamn police were involved. Okay, the best way out of this was to give partial truths. Spartacus could read him like a book, so a partial truth would work better than an actual lie. “Because we got in a fight too. Everyone I care about is so mad at me right now, and I just want to protect them, but I can’t.”

“Agron, calm down. Whatever it is, we can handle this right? We’ve been through a lot together.”

“Nothing like this…” Agron breathed in deeply.

“What?”

“Nothing. I just…”

He heard Spartacus take a deep breath. “You’re worrying me now. Why don’t you tell me where you’re at? I’ll come and get you, we can talk about it.”

“No, Spartacus I don’t…”

“I don’t want you drinking and driving.”

“I’m not drunk.” Agron blinked. He was tired as hell, angry and upset but damn it not drunk.

“You’re sure because…”

“I swear Spartacus. I am not drinking and driving. Please just… don’t send a unit after me or something.”

“I trust you Agron, but I want you to go home.”

Agron didn’t say anything. Go home? That was admitting defeat, giving up. He couldn’t do that. Spartacus was one of the very people who convinced him to never give up. But the truth was, he didn’t know what else to do.

“Agron. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Agron ended the call, looking at his GPS. He was near at least one destination, it said, the one the assholes sent him, but as he drove forward all he saw was a park and some bench with an envelope on it. He put the truck into park and cautiously got out, glancing around but seeing no one. He grabbed the manila envelope with his name on it and headed home. But when he pulled up to his apartment, he just cried. He broke his promise to Nasir and to Duro. There was no greater defeat than that.

He wasn’t sure how long he sat in his truck, just listening to the world move on without him, but somehow he managed to open the door and head up the stairs to their unit. And if he had raised his head a bit, he would have seen him sooner.

Nasir leaned against their door, duffle bag next to him, just sitting there, looking okay, looking normal except for the fact he was leaning against their door instead of being inside.

Carefully, Agron approached him, wiping his face although his eyes burned from just falling apart repeatedly throughout the day. What should he say? What could he say?

Nasir spoke first, staring at the wall as he did so. “You know Agron. I’ve been spending the last few weeks having the time of my life. I was so desperate for affection, and hungry and just waiting for something to either fill this void I felt or to just… and then you came along. You were so sweet, and desperate in your own way, and silly and cute and just so strange.” He smiled sadly. “And I kept telling myself how perfect you were. Strong, and handsome, and even though you keep working me until my muscles ache, that you’re doing it all for my benefit.”

“Nasir…”

“Not finished Agron.” Nasir’s brown eyes shifted to him, and there was a bit of fire in those brown eyes and a bite in his words Agron hadn’t witnessed before in the younger man. “And one word kept floating in my head, perfect, and so loving, so mine. And then you beat the shit out of some club goer, and I never asked myself what I would do if that energy ever turned on me.”

“I would never….”

Nasir stood and approached him. “I said I wasn’t finished. You’re not perfect. You have a fucking temper on you, a grudge against Crixus, an open wound from an event you can barely talk about and one of the most idiotic processes I’ve ever seen to rationalize your desire to simply not to do something.”

Agron blinked at him, sort of frozen in place. He wasn’t sure what was happening here. Nasir was okay though. Whoever got to Duro did not get to him, and he was just so relieved to see him. Every bone in his body wanted to reach out and just touch him, but he wisely kept his hands to himself, listening, really listening to Nasir knowing he owed him at least that much.

Ever so gradually, Nasir’s volume lowered and his tone softened. “But none of that is what I saw today. I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize it at first. I was on the bus headed to someone I know isn’t good for me when I realized what I saw, what I witnessed from you.” Nasir swallowed thickly. “I’ve never seen you scared, or terrified or feeling so helpless before.” Hesitantly, Nasir lifted his hand to Agron’s cheek. “No one’s told me what happened last night, but I think I know. We’ll find the people responsible for this, but you can’t lash out at me because you don’t have another target, and you can’t push me away thinking that will save you or me or… Duro. You’ve already saved me. There’s no turning back now, not for me.”

Agron felt tears well up in his eyes and he tried to breathe in deeply, to let his body dissipate the anguish and the fear, but he couldn’t do it. They fell free.

“Let me be strong for you.” Nasir whispered.

Agron wrapped his arms around Nasir tightly, nuzzling his hair. “Okay.”

They embraced for a time, just standing there in silence until alas Nasir spoke. “Agron.”

“Mmmm.”

“Can you let us in? I left my key inside.”

Agron huffed quietly. “Yeah.”

He managed to open the door. Helping Nasir with his bag and instantly going to find Duro. He found his younger brother in their bed, sound asleep, and hugging Agron’s favorite pillow taut against his body. Agron felt his heart twist, but he looked okay, he was sleeping and there was even a hand scrawled note on the bed that said. – I’m okay. Don’t wake me up. –

Nasir wiped his eyes. “He has the right idea.”

Agron nodded. “Yeah. Hey you take the first shower, and I’ll join you in bed shortly.”

He waited for Nasir to get into the shower before going to the table and opening the envelope. It was a picture of him with that asshole from the club, slamming his fist into his nose, a picture of him and Crixus going at it in the parking lot, and finally a picture of him and Donar walking out of a bar together.

Along with it was a typed note:

We know you. We know who you love. We know who you value. We know where you work, live and make love. Don’t make us hurt another one of yours. Follow instructions or the next target won’t be so easily returned to you. This is only a taste of what we can do.

There was an address and a date and time. Come alone, it said.

Agron took a breath and tucked it behind the old family Britannica encyclopedia set on the bookshelf he could never bring himself to get rid of; he joined Nasir and Duro in bed.

**

Spartacus sighed, putting the phone away. A part of him knew something was up with Agron and he should get down there right away. The other part of him tried to focus on the here and now because this was important too.

The man across the desk patiently waited for him to focus on him again before speaking, “I take it your man is not available at this time?”

He forced a smile on his face. Crixus told him to fuck off. Gannicus wouldn’t answer his phone, and apparently Agron was falling apart today. That meant he was the only one that would make this meeting and he hadn’t expected this level of inquiry at the first meeting. He cleared his throat. “It seems my business partners are currently occupied. I assure you they are just as serious about the gym’s expansion as I am. I didn’t request their company for this first visit or they would have cleared their schedule fully Mr. Basile.”

“Mr. Basile is so formal.” The man tapped his name plate: Aaron Varinius Basile. “Please call me Varinius. All my associates do. It’s a name I’ve become very fond of over the years. Spartacus Mardas, Greek?”

“Varinius it is then. Actually, I was told by my great grandfather that we might have linked our line back to Thrace, pre Greek as it were. You could say there is a bit of a history obsession on one side of my family, my father’s actually.”

Varinius smiled widely. “How fitting. Basile is Italian or your family might prefer a Roman link as it were. Now I understand one of your associates has his heart set on bringing in more professionals?”

“Oh.” Spartacus sat up a little straighter, surprised to hear that. “You’ve talked to Crixus?”

“Yes, only briefly I assure you. I understand his concerns, but I also understand your desire to cater to the locals and your impressive trainers that are not as competitive minded these days. Now I happen to have an excellent architect and modeler in my employ who has created a few things for me.” He buzzed in his assistant who rolled in the model.

The two stood and moved over to the design. “You have a failing strip mall not far from your location. There’s some money from the city to rejuvenate the area which gives us an opportunity to go into business together.”

Spartacus frowned. “I’m not really interested in taking on more partners…” He could barely wrangle the few he had, and none of them were especially entitled so much as arrogant, childish or both.

“Oh no, no nothing as complicated as that. I have capital, a lot capital you see and research. Now over here we have a two thousand foot multiuse turf for sprints, drills and functional training. Around it we have a quarter mile indoor track with four lanes.” His fingers moved as he spoke. “And we have a boxing ring here, a cage here and then lockers for your trainers and their professional or hoping to be professional clients. Down this hall, you’d have your swimming pool, and your large scale rooms for your group activities, further down your exercise equipment, and I am sure everyone will enjoy the rock climbing wall.”

Spartacus whistled. “That’s pretty impressive. And I am sure it comes with an impressive price tag.”

Varinius handed a black folder with The Rebel’s logo on it. “Like I said, I’ve done some research. You have several previous fighters on staff, and your group activities for the children as well as the adults are top-rated. Many of your trainers who don’t compete are active in the community, participate in marathons, rowing competitions, and you still have many that want to sign up to work with your trainers but who are turned away.”

“Well some of my trainers are, or have been moving in a different direction.”

“If you look at page fifteen, that’s a very competitive rate.”

Spartacus opened the folder and peered down at the number. “That’s a very large loan, but the rate seems...”

“Too high?”

“No, no not at all. This is extraordinarily low. I don’t understand…” It was too good to be true, surely, Spartacus thought.

“Well, associates of mine have some quality products they would love to sell at store there. I am certain you know a person or two who can handle stocking and selling products to customers, maybe even deal with a juice bar?”

“Now that you mention it there is someone…”

“And my associates are often eager for a chance to have strong, attractive bodies represent them.”

Spartacus closed the folder and offered it back. “We’re more than that…”

“Of course, of course.” Varinius shook his head. “No, please keep that. It’s yours. You’re free to go over the figures and take your time.”

“I appreciate that. If I want to continue with the smaller expansion?” His brow furrowed slightly. He wasn’t entirely sure if this closed the door to his original request or not.

“If you want to set your sights lower… the rate will not be as competitive since I won’t have nearly as many investors interested in a small scale project, but if you can get your partners onboard we can probably manage something competitive for you.”

Spartacus offered him a hand and the man accepted; he felt relief with having two options. “I appreciate your time Varinius. I’ll look this over and get back to you.”

“You are most welcome.”

On the way out, he paused to speak to a man in the waiting room. He was middle-aged with sun kissed skin, dark hair, powerfully intelligent eyes and spoke with a strong accent. “Heracleo, I want to thank you for introducing me to Varinius. I guess it’s true what they say: it’s who you know. And thank you for lending us your boat so often. It was a pleasure to finally meet you and a bonus that you know someone with financial ties.”

“Networking is key they say? Business went well?” The man sported a large open smile.

“Well it’s an interesting proposal. I’ll have to think about it and of course not act without my partners.”

“Mmm, partners. They are an interesting breed yes. Yours could use a little, how do they say, kick in the ass?”

Spartacus chuckled. “They’re good guys. They just have to remember that now and then.” He shook the man’s hand and waved good-bye.

“If you say so!” Heracleo returned.

Once Spartacus was out of sight, he joined Varinius in his office. “So the ruse worked yes?”

“It’s no ruse Heracleo. I truly believe that a gym with such a group will do very well, recover the cost in a handful of years or so.”

“If that is the case, then why do you need me?”

“Because as much as my associates enjoy peddling in money, they enjoy peddling flesh more. Do you have more for me?”

Heracleo opened his brief case and gave him four folders. “You already have Agron and Nasir’s.”

“You’re working on Duro’s?”

“Yes yes of course although there is not much there. He is very much ordinary compared to the others.” Heracleo shrugged regrettably. “Now Crixus, Crixus you will not be able to crack but he has a weakness.”

“This Duro surprised me. I want to know more about him.” Varinius opened his folder, looking at the large scowling man. “He looks as dangerous as Agron.”

“My money says more so.”

“Naevia is his girlfriend?”

“Was his fiancé.”

“Was?” Varinius raised his brow in surprise.

Heracleo grinned happily. “Her sealed record hmm, am I not worth the price you pay?”

“And then some, especially with your associate’s help.”

He waved his hand. “No, no. I do not engage him in these more underground activities, but yes yes, he is good. Now this girl he meant to marry, she was how do you say ganged-up on.”

Varinius frowned turning the page slowly. “And she was committed?”

“Batiatus is not as kind as you with such things, not so gentle.” Heracleo sounded sorrowful although his eyes suggested otherwise.

The businessman glowered at what he was reading. “Scarring, internal damage, night terrors… Batiatus is sloppy, prone to destroy what he possesses rather than tame it.” He stood looking out the tall window, watching Spartacus get in his Jeep and drive away.

“Sour note between you two?”

“I am losing patience with him. He has yet to deliver.”

“Should we handle the problem?”

Varinius gripped his hands behind his back. “No, not yet. We’ll see if he is stupid enough to cross a line.”

“As you wish. I will leave you with your thoughts.”

Heracleo moved to depart and as he did Varinius called out to him. “And you are correct, Mira is beautiful very pretty. Your boat proves a fine backdrop for such a lovely creature, a good choice.”

Chapter Text

Duro sat on the couch in the dark room, the television muted but flashing rolling waves and the cloudy skies of some distant shore where turtles were being born. He held a phone to his ear, taking a deep breath. “Hi Chadara this is… this is Duro again. I tried calling yesterday and it went straight to voicemail like now. I… I…” Duro fell silent for a few moments. “So that party Friday, we had fun, drank some, danced, and smoked a little… I just… something happened. I don’t really remember, and I was hoping you could help me. I was hoping you might tell me if I talked to anyone or if I angered somebody...” He drew another deep breath. “Chadara please call me.”

There was silence.

Nasir waited before walking over to the couch and taking a seat, his hesitation stemming from not knowing whether or not Duro wanted his company. Judging from the spotless nature of the kitchen, bathroom and living room, he suspected Duro found a productive way to focus his energy. If he looked in the fridge, almost everything left there last night had been turned into some sort of quick dish. Even though Nasir wanted a little extra help with cleaning up around here, this worried him, but he waited for Duro to talk, to see if he wanted to talk.

“I, I told Agron I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I still don’t. I can’t really talk to anyone anyway with the threats and their tendency to want to call the authorities or do a kit or something. That’s what TV shows tell me they do when someone is… Umm I just…” Duro’s voice broke off and he licked his lips, not looking at Nasir.

Silently Nasir stood and went to the kitchen to get a glass of water which he gave to Duro before sitting a little closer to his distraught roommate. “Do you have insurance and a physician you can use instead?”

Duro closed his eyes, his bottom lip quivering slightly before he took a drink. “Yeah but there’s no lab in that office; I don’t think. I don’t want to go to him. Agron has insurance but…”

Nasir grasped his knee, gently squeezing to offer comfort. “Hey, hey it’s okay Duro. I know a clinic. They have everything there for you to get tested. They won’t ask too many personal questions, just enough to do their job and justify the tests.”

Duro nodded, opening his eyes though he still wouldn’t make eye contact with Nasir. “Is it close to a bus stop?”

That surprised Nasir and he breathed in quickly trying to allow his mind to process the request to formulate a careful response. “I don’t, I don’t think we should go without Agron.”

“I don’t want him there.”

“Duro…”

“It’s my choice isn’t it, my body, my choice?” Anger and pain mingled together within those words.

“Yes.” Nasir assured him quickly though he pressed the matter further. “Agron doesn’t have to be in the room. They might even ask him to leave so they can ask a few questions.”

“Nasir…”

“Please listen to me.” Nasir appealed gingerly. “If we’re not here when Agron wakes up… Duro, Agron would be very upset, worried even. He might think something happened to us, to you especially. You don’t want him running around upset do you? And if we go later and don’t tell him he’ll start agonizing about what he should have done, maybe think he should have pressed the issue. Maybe he would start to wonder how he messed up. I mean you know him better than I do…”

Duro covered his face with his hand, his shoulder visibly rising and falling with each breath. After a moment, his head lifted and he drank from the water again and laughed ever so slightly. “Actually it seems you know him pretty well.” He paused. “You’ve been tested before?”

“Yeah, yeah I have. It’s not too bad. Your physician will give you a physical exam, ask a series of questions, and they’ll take blood samples.”

Duro’s round dark eyes shifted to him, at last. “Why would they ask Agron to leave the room?”

“Just in case the person who brings you in is a person that might be hurting you.” Nasir couldn’t think of an easier way to say that, but this was progress, this was Duro listening and asking questions. “It gives you a chance to talk to them privately so they can provide resources.”

“God.” Duro stood and walked over to the window, peering out at the empty street. “Do you get results quickly?”

“I’m sorry but no. The first visit is some information gathering, explanations, and that physical exam. They’ll take some samples, but you’ll need to go back. In a few weeks or so you can test for most of it, and if you had anything you could have symptoms by then. But Duro, you don’t know those men had anything.” Nasir tried to encourage him, moving closer to Duro and drawing him nearer.

Tears fell from Duro’s eyes but his voice remained steady, and he didn’t pull away from Nasir. “I don’t even remember. I don’t know who. I don’t know why. I don’t know exactly what they did. Agron is so mad... I just… you haven’t heard from Chadara have you?”

“No I would have told you if I had.” Nasir assured immediately. “But knowing who doesn’t always help.”

Duro covered Nasir’s hand gently with his. “You’ve been through this before. I guess I forgot that. I mean I didn’t but I did. I just... it’s Sunday you know? I should make breakfast. Agron likes a big breakfast on Sundays. Most other mornings he just drinks this spinach puke he calls a green shake or smoothie or something.”

“I’ve been tested before, but not because of him...” Nasir shook his head. This wasn’t the right time or person to have this conversation with. “Duro I don’t think Agron would expect you to make him breakfast today.”

Duro wiped his eyes and turned to give Nasir a weak smile. “I like cooking. I like making food others enjoy. If Agron needs to take me to the clinic so he doesn’t rampage through the city beating the crap out of anyone who might look or act suspicious, then I guess he can drive me, us. I want to give him breakfast before I ask though.”

Nasir felt his heartbeat quicken and color partially drained from his face. He tried to return the smile but a cold wet fear began to work its way through his veins. Despite Duro’s need, he wasn’t sure he could bring himself to enter a clinic for someone else. He’d only gone a few weeks ago because he wound up cutting himself pretty bad on something dirty and the fear of infection and tetanus outweighed the lingering emotions tied to his past.

“Come on.” Naturally Duro wasn’t content to let the silence remain too long. “I’ll show you how to make an egg white omelet that’s actually flavorsome. He’s a big fan of avocados too, and with a few tomatoes, garlic and an onion we can whip up a salsa for it. The smell of food will wake him up. You can tell me where he found you while we’re at it.”

Nasir followed him into the kitchen. “Agron didn’t find me; I came back.”

Duro placed the carton of eggs on the counter and peered at him. “What made you come back? I was worried you didn’t understand my brother. He can be a little, well, thick when it comes to communicating with people.”

Brown eyes flickered towards Duro as a slight smirk formed. “He does okay, better than okay. At least I know with Agron it’s genuine since he doesn’t always think before speaking. Sixteen told me what I needed to know.” He began digging through the silverware drawer.

Duro frowned slightly. “Sixteen? Hey what are you looking for?”

“He called me sixteen times and left just as many messages. I’ve met a lot of entitled assholes in my life but I’ve never met one that would put in that much effort just to yell at me some more. Don’t we need an egg divider… plastic thing to separate the yolks and white?” Nasir’s gazed shifted from the drawer and their eyes met briefly. “I’m so sorry Duro that this happened to you. I don’t know if I could have done something, said something to stop…”

Duro returned to grabbing the rest of the ingredients. “Hey, it’s not your fault. I won’t lie. Agron will probably stumble with placing blame on the wrong person again, maybe even let his temper flare but he’ll accept this just sort of… happened eventually.” Duro shook his head, taking a deep breath and walking over to close the drawer. “We don’t need any more single-use items. Let me show you what you can do with your hands and a bowl. Cup your hand like me, yeah like that… now spread your fingers a little.” Duro opened an egg into his hand. “Now just shake it gently from side to side. There you go see the white’s falling through. Hey Nasir, you’re pretty good at this.”

They both laughed quietly. Neither one of them noticed Agron standing in the hallway.

**

Agron hardly slept the night before, lying in the middle of his large bed with Duro lightly touching him on one side and Nasir on the other, cheek against his firm chest and fingers curled against his right breast. Duro remained in bed all night hugging Agron’s favorite pillow tightly, nose pressed against the smooth pillowcase; he’d worried that his little idiot brother might smoother himself sleeping like that. Every bone and muscle in his body longed to reach out and pull Duro close, to hold him snug against him to know he was safe, to protect him from the pain and the fear and the memories that might soon torment his dreams, but he didn’t want to wake him, didn’t want to force him. Even during the shower prior to climbing into bed all he could think about was how he failed Nasir and Duro. That ate at his soul and tore at his stomach in ways he could never explain. He longed to speak to Donar and Spartacus or even Mira for some semblance of guidance, but their enemies denied him even that, stoking the fury inside him even further.

Eventually he heard Duro awaken sometime in the middle of the night, but his little brother did not depart to his room or pull away. He lay there in the darkness, back taut with shuddering breaths signaling his descent into sorrow. Agron stroked his back ever so lightly, experimentally offering comfort and closeness, just enough to let Duro know he was not alone, just enough to remind him he was safe. Duro didn’t pull away or say a word, eventually falling asleep again.

So while it was true that Agron would normally be late to rise on a Sunday, the one day where he didn’t get up for a jog or force himself into any sort of routine except remembering and eagerly awaiting a session with Nasir later in the day, today was different. He barely slept a wink. The fighters they spoke with Friday night, the cards given and programs explained, fun in the bar afterward all melted into darkness, nearly forgotten as he stood in the hallway listening to Duro and Nasir speak quietly to each other in the living room and then the kitchen.

Yes, Agron had insurance, and more than that, so did Duro until he was out of school or past some age Agron couldn’t remember right now. Agron had pushed, much to the dismay of Crixus due to the increase costs for the gym, to have good insurance not just for the trainers but their families. Most of them didn’t have families, but he did and he needed something he could afford for Duro to keep him safe. Now they had it, and his brother was too ashamed to go to their primary physician to ask for tests since the old man with too cold hands might realize something was wrong with an out of the blue request like this would be.

Agron balled his fingers into fists thinking how these men, these men without faces or names, had used his brother.

He knew he shouldn’t have listened in on them as he did but a part of him wondered if all this could have been avoided if only he had demanded more from Duro about Chadara and their plans. Despite his promises otherwise, he would have prevented Duro from going to some party with people he didn’t know, in a place he wasn’t familiar with to be out until morning.

And Nasir, well he always suspected his lover had events in his past he didn’t want to talk about, especially concerning his last family; now he knew. He remembered Nasir telling him he’d been tested and was clean before they had sex in the truck. Something about the way he said it though always stayed with Agron, like Nasir had to explain why he wasn’t dirty. Now that the two of them spoke about some clinic Duro could go to for discreet testing, it filled him with more rage. Duro didn’t know his rapists and Nasir did. Those were the words tumbling from the mouths of his brother and lover right there in his living room and he was powerless to do anything about it.

Silently, he returned to his room, lying in the bed knowing eventually Duro would either come looking for him or expect the smell of food to summon him. How silly and sweet and naïve of Duro to think he would just wake up Sunday morning like nothing had happened. None of them would be able to continue as normal, and that meant he would have to tell Spartacus something because the man was very likely going to stop by today after Agron freaked out on him on the phone. He closed his eyes, trying to calm his anger, his frustration and his fear. Maybe, just maybe he could get a few minutes of shut-eye.

As expected, someone entered his room sometime later to wake him for breakfast. He could already smell one of Duro’s recipes from the kitchen, something spicy but he felt no hunger, only this tight ache trapped in his throat. He kept his eyes closed.

“Agron…”

He peered up at the deep brown eyes of the man he’d thrown out of their home after days, weeks even, of convincing and planning and coaxing Nasir to let his guard down and trust him. Nasir looked so sad and hesitant that Agron gently brushed his palm against Nasir’s cheek, trying to encourage comfort and trust again. “I smell breakfast, but I’m not hungry. I don’t think I could eat anything right now.”

A small pink tongue moved across Nasir’s lips, and the smaller man tilted his head slightly, not pulling away, as if to consider his next words. “It’s important that you eat what he’s made. Cooking distracts him, settles him. It might help him regain his confidence. He doesn’t remember, Agron. He’s reacting to what he feels and thinks happened. He’s probably confused too. I don’t… I don’t think they physically beat him or were especially brutal…”

Agron sat up, blinking at Nasir finding this information hard to digest. Sure, he could force food down his throat. He’d done it many times during the earlier days of Duro’s experimental phases, but the rest. “Nasir, if he doesn’t remember at all how would you know if they were rough or not?” He didn’t let on about the video. He wasn’t sure he wanted to Nasir to know that was accessible to them.

Brown eyes shifted away from him to focus on the white tiger Nasir so cutely brought into the room to be with them each night. “Well you must have been with someone who wasn’t careful before and know the pain of it. If someone assaulted him savagely he wouldn’t, well he would have trouble…”

Agron took his hand to interrupt the stumble of words. “I… I know what you mean. I guess you’re right. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to find these men and…”

Nasir placed a hand gently on his wrist. “There’s a threat right? Duro’s talked about it, and you sort of have too. Agron, has anyone said what they want?”

The last thing Agron needed was for Nasir to become the next target or enter danger because of him. So he only partially lied. “No, I don’t have specifics yet, but I’ll get them. When I was in the fighting club, let’s say we ran into a lot of bad people, rich, violent, or just crazed really... maybe it was one of them. I just don’t know.”

Nasir shifted on the bed, eyes dropping to the floor. “If, if Chadara’s involved then someone either forced her to act or, or she thought this was the only option she had for what she desired.”

Agron reached out and pulled Nasir closer. As far as he knew, Chadara had nothing to do with the fighting club, but he honestly thought her involvement would be a far more likely scenario than any old grudge after these few years from his fighting days. “And what does she want?”

“A way out,” Nasir replied quietly but immediately, without thought.

“A way out of what?”

Nasir took a breath and lifted his eyes to meet Agron’s, a forced smile formed. “We should talk about that another time Agron. You need to see to Duro today. He’s, he’s going to ask you to take him somewhere. You’ll want to resist the request at first, but I think you should just do as he asks. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with this sort of thing with people you don’t know than those you do.”

“Okay.” Agron kissed his temple gently. “Breakfast smells good. You want to help choke it down with me?”

Nasir returned a hesitant smile. “Yeah, yeah I do.”

After breakfast, Nasir went to shower and Agron stayed in the kitchen to help clean up. He just watched Duro wash a glass for about two minutes too long before finally adding it to the strainer. When his younger brother didn’t move to grab another one, just let the water continue to pour from the faucet, he stepped up behind him and gently ran his strong hands up and down both upper-arms. “Duro…”

Duro swallowed thickly and shook his head as if awakening from a day dream. “I need to, to go to a clinic. I need someone to check on things and tell me what I should do to get tested.” His voice remained steady though it almost broke towards the end.

Agron reached past Duro and turned the water off before drawing Duro close to him in a tight embrace. He remembered Nasir’s words and intended to follow the advice, but he didn’t want to be too obvious about it. “Dr. Ferrell has been your physician for a number of years now Duro. Are you sure you want a stranger to do this?”

“Yeah.” Duro closed his eyes, leaning back against his brother’s strong form. “Nasir knows a place, but I’m not sure he’ll go in with me. I just…”

“Whatever you need.” Agron whispered against his ear. “I can drive you there, walk in with you. I’d… I’d like to be there when your physician talks to you Duro.”

“Agron…”

“Do you remember how you felt when I was in the hospital and my head was all wrapped up covering my eye. I was sleeping when Spartacus brought you there, and you were afraid I had brain damage or blindness… after my fourth fight?”

“Sixth, I remember,” Duro replied softly.

“And when I came to, you were in the room asking the physician all sorts of questions like you owned the place.” Agron smiled at the memory. “Spartacus had to remind you to let the man talk.”

“I didn’t want you to fight anymore after that.” Duro sighed quietly. “I kept hoping you would be okay, that everything would be all right but maybe, maybe there would be just enough damage to keep you out of the ring.”

Agron held him tighter. “I know you worried about me in the ring, but it’s what I was good at, what I could do to help us make it. Even though you hated me being in there, you never made me feel like I did wrong by you by continuing. You gave me confidence, purpose. I’d like to give you that kind of support.”

“You’ve always given me support Agron, loads of it, heaps even.” The humor was almost there, just a hint trying to lighten his brother’s tone. Duro turned towards him, having trouble looking him in the eye. Not seeing those light brown eyes tore at Agron’s heart. “He’s going to ask me questions I can’t answer. He’ll ask me how many I’ve slept with. If I had unprotected sex. If….” And then the tears came, and the strength in his voice cracked. “And I’m probably going to cry. And then he’s going to ask me if I’m okay and I’ll have to lie. I don’t want you to see that. I don’t want you to see me as weak when you’re so strong.”

“Hey, hey.” Agron wiped Duro’s cheek with his large thumb. “You think I’ve been strong all these years? You might even think I just coasted through yesterday feeling just anger, but you don’t know how much help I’ve had. I lost count of the number of times Spartacus had to stop his routine to come over to me and give me a pep talk, to tell me I could do it, to remind me what I was fighting for. Or how many nights I went to a bar with Donar… Duro, we didn’t change bars to hunt for dates like he said, we had to change bars at least twice because I broke down right at the counter. And honey, I cried my share yesterday... and many of the years before. I’ve never told you that have I?”

“No…” Hesitant eyes met his gaze at last. “Really? Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you hide it? And is that why Crixus called you a blubbering baby once.”

Agron sighed, cupping his cheek. “I guess I was afraid to show you I didn’t know what I was doing, that I was frustrated and scared. I didn’t want you to think you’d be better off with that asshole cousin of ours or that old man that was a distant great uncle or something that smelled like fish all the time.” His eyes darkened. “And I fucking broke Crixus’ nose for that and almost got suspended. If Crixus ever so much as looks in your direction in the wrong way, I’ll break all his teeth next.”

“No need to fight him for me. You have enough reasons as it is.” Duro laughed quietly. “Agron, I knew we struggled; that a trip to McDonalds was the highlight of my week after your first fight told me that. You barely made enough to get patched up. And then you were trying to make mac and cheese, you and Donar I think, boiled it all over that stove, and almost scalded the milk.”

Agron ran his fingers through Duro’s hair, trying to smooth it out. “Well after I started getting more fights and winning you complained about too much take out, and how everything started tasting like fried fat or syrup. Donar and I went out shopping that night, and we tried to pick things we thought we could make. It seemed stupid for us to have to stand there and just watch and wait for milk to boil. Isn’t that like watching grass grow?”

Duro took a deep breath, wiping his face as his grin widened. “Well I guess there had to be something left for me to do to help. Cooking I can do. It’s an art you know.” He quieted down and all hints of humor were gone as his attention seemed to shift. “It still hurts a little, like a burning sensation. Does it hurt when you, when you do it?”

Agron shook his head. “Not really, there’s preparation we do to prevent most of that. We’re careful; I promise. You haven’t been… bleeding have you?” He hated asking the question and probably should have asked it earlier.

“No. I know Nasir wouldn’t have taken me home or waited around until you got your lazy ass up if he thought that was happening. I wouldn’t have lied about it either. Agron, he’s helped a lot, a lot.” He suddenly wrapped his arms around Agron, hugging him tight. “I’m sorry for not hanging around you more, for not listening to you.”

Agron squeezed his eyes shut and kissed his hair. “This isn’t your fault Duro. They targeted us. I’ll find out who did this and why, make them pay.”

His brother nodded. “You can take me to the clinic, be in the room but just promise me you’ll leave if I ask, no arguments and… don’t force Nasir to come in if he isn’t ready.”

That was tough, real tough. He wasn’t used to walking away without a fight, but it meant the world to him that his brother would trust him with another promise. “I promise.”

“Good, I want to finish cleaning up. Now go wait for Nasir to get out of the shower and clean up; you look like hell and he could use a little attention.” Duro withdrew with a bright smile, sniffling briefly.

Agron gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “We won’t be long.” He glanced over his shoulder and went to find Nasir.

**

Nasir took a long hot shower, placing his palms against the tiles though there was little scrubbing going on. He barely even remembered to work shampoo and conditioner through his hair as his mind raced.

If Chadara was a part of this she’d be just a pawn in someone else’s scheme… maybe a willing one if the reward was big enough. That was survival; that was how they got out of an abusive home, off the streets and into crappy apartments that were at least clean and dry and safe. Her way kept him alive, and she had come back for him. No one made her do that. He owed her the world, but he wasn’t sure he could ever forgive her if she had a part in this, especially since he could still feel the chill that went through him when Agron’s fingers curled into giant fists he thought would turn on him.

Their pasts were merging together into their present, and neither of them knew it.

“Nasir.”

He turned the water off, hearing Agron’s voice. “Yes?”

“Can I come in?”

A weak smile formed. It was cute that Agron asked. He was still adjusting to Duro and Agron being generally courteous around him, even if they forgot to pick up their clothes, or not to bury his phone under a pile of laundry. And more than that, even an irritated, on edge Agron was polite enough not to walk in here like he owned him, like Nasir was something he had to continuously claim and remind he was claimed.

Letting go of what happened the past couple of day, he’d have to try hard to do that, to remember the days before.

Nasir wrapped a towel around his body and stepped out onto the old bath mat. That would need replacing once things settled down. It looked almost grey and he was pretty sure it had been white once. “Sure.” Little things, he reminded himself, they kept the mind from wallowing on the ugly for too long.

Agron stepped in, closing the door behind him. In the bright lights of the bathroom, the tall man looked worn down, his eyes puffy and maybe a little red. “We’re going to take Duro to a clinic soon. I was hoping you might go with us, help navigate the place. I usually just take him to his primary. The old crone there scowls at me enough but she knows all his stuff and doesn’t expect me to do anything without being told to do it.”

His boyfriend, the parent, the guardian managed to navigate the world with a little extra help and patience from those who cared enough around him. No doubt Agron probably went to a dozen offices until some front desk staff, whether sour or not, took the time to show him how to fill out the paperwork, set up appointments and told him what to expect. Nasir’s smile returned as he walked in front of the sink, peering in the mirror. He didn’t look much better than Agron it seemed. He grabbed a comb and began to work the wet strands apart. “I should hurry then right?”

“No…” Agron fidgeted a bit. “Can I… can I?”

Nasir glanced over his shoulder. “Can you what Agron?”

The taller man didn’t answer and instead tugged at the comb, which Nasir released, so the taller man could work the long dark strands himself. With his hands busy and something to focus on Agron visibly seemed to relax. “Duro’s finishing up in the kitchen, you know gathering himself for the trip. The wait could be a bit right?”

“Yeah, it can be a long wait.”

“And this is where you go? The staff will treat him right, not make him feel...”

Nasir turned, lifting a hand to his cheek. “Some of the staff are cold and indifferent, but they won’t make him feel worse Agron. I wouldn’t take him to a place like that, and believe me, there are several others who go where we’re going who do terrible things to their bodies and they still get care and consideration.”

Agron took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay.”

Nasir grabbed his neck and pulled him downward for a quick kiss. “We should hurry though. The longer he waits the more nervous he’ll get. I’ll get dressed.” He turned to go to his room but Agron grasped his wrist rather tightly, causing him to turn a questioning gaze back to the man.

“I know you don’t have a reason to trust me right now, but I hope we can talk more about why you ‘re handling this so well, someday.” Agron pleaded the best way he knew how, with his eyes.

Nasir dropped his gaze to the floor, trying not to show how well that worked on him. “Someday. I just, I just need time to recover from the sting.” He cautiously licked his lips. “Between your brother and me, I knew you’d always choose Duro. I understood that once you spoke about what you two have been through, but I didn’t expect the choice to be so cruel.” Agron’s expression shifted to sorrowful immediately, but he released his wrist.

Nasir almost told him, almost let it all fall out that no matter how bad Agron screwed up, his temper, his lashing out, his acting without thought in general, he was still the most loving, protective and passionate man Nasir had ever met. Instead, he gave his lover a quick sad smile and hurried off to his room to throw on some clothes.

Agron screwed up, they both knew it, only Nasir knew he would forgive him far more quickly than the man expected. Maybe even before Agron stepped out the shower.

Once they all tried to look like they knew a thing or two about personal hygiene, they climbed into the black truck, Nasir scooching to the middle and headed to the address he punched into the GPS unit. Agron gave them both a reassuring smile and headed off making a brief comment about needing a bigger truck now that they were frequently traveling with three.

As causal as the remark was, it charmed Nasir and made him feel warm inside. If Agron actually meant it and intended to get a larger truck just because suddenly he found three people traveling in the cab instead of two, well that would certainly be a step closer to permanence.

But what he really wanted to hear was something far simpler than the act of purchasing a brand new truck, just three words actually.

At the clinic, Nasir felt his hands slightly tremble and his breathing quickened though he tried to control his responses. These near panic attacks seemed worse with others, and when the other two climbed out, he remained there for a minute or two with both doors open.

For a while, he forgot the two brothers were there because they waited, silently until he finally remembered to breathe normally and climbed out; Duro needed the support. He could do this for him and he was safe with Agron, he reminded himself, or at least it felt safer. He was stronger now too and not so easily overpowered like he was when he was a teen. All the staff here, well he was pretty sure Agron could take on a half-dozen of them, and he could take a couple himself, maybe even three if only he knew how to fight.

Cautiously, Agron hooked his arm around his waist and they entered the main doors. He wasn’t sure exactly when it happened, but at some point he’d grabbed Agron’s hand and squeezed tight enough to make the man wince. Agron… didn’t make sound though.

Inside they waited in a moderately crowded room where Agron filled out the paperwork, with Nasir’s help of course. Amazingly enough, he had the wit to give verbal instructions. Luckily Agron had the insurance card ready at least and had a little fold-up card of important dates someone else had clearly written down for him. Duro’s vaccination dates, brief notes on family history, and his height and weight.

It took a number of hours before Agron and Duro were called back, but Nasir waited in the main room. Without the presence of the other two, he felt the desire for flight return though he held it off. Instead, he found some silly app to play with, some mindless jewel matching game that kept his attention away from where he was and why they were there.

When, he wondered, had he become so dependent on the presence of others when he had spent most of his life alone?

Eventually he remembered to look up in time to see a distraught looking Duro and worried Agron come his way. He joined them and waited until they were outside to make inquiries. “Duro what’s wrong?”

“Two weeks, I’m supposed to come back in two weeks. And after that, up to five days to get the results once they draw more blood. How am I supposed to work, to not think about this for that long?”

“We talked about this.” Nasir squeezed his hand. “You can do it Duro. It will go faster than you think; then it will be over, and you’ll be relieved.”

Words would only provide so much assurance, but Duro took a deep breath, trust flickering in those worried eyes. “Okay. Yeah, yeah we did. Let’s get out of here.”

Once they were back in the truck and belts fastened, Duro fidgeted before making a request, a tell similar to that of his brother. “Do you think we can stop by a Red Box and pick up a movie and maybe get some movie popcorn?”

Agron gave his brother a quick glance and replied softly. “Sure, we can do that. Whatever you like Duro.”

Now admittedly, Nasir expected for them to find some random store with a Red Box machine on the way home, which they did, but he was rather surprised when Agron pulled up to a theater and hopped out only to return a handful of minutes later with a bucket of popcorn and placed it in Duro’s lap.

As he pulled out of the parking lot he noticed Nasir blinking at them in confusion. Agron huffed briefly. “It’s his favorite.” And judging from the way Duro clutched that bucket and smiled, he wasn’t wrong.

Nasir picked up the movies. “Housebound and Paranormal Activity, horror flicks?” Again his eyes shifted to Agron instead of Duro for explanation.

“Another favorite, loves the slasher movies. We might get lucky. I think that first one there might actually be classified as a somewhat decent movie.”

“Hey, you could, you know, not talk like I am not sitting right here.” Duro didn’t look truly upset. In fact, the humor that usually colored his eyes seemed present again. “Can you go a little faster? I don’t want to eat this before the movie starts.”

“You control the start of the movie and what goes in your mouth.” Agron helpfully pointed out.

Nasir smiled after a moment, returning his attention to the road. At times, Agron seemed unbelievably sweet. He dropped at least seven or eight bucks on movie popcorn to make movie night better for his young brother. He laid his head against Agron’s shoulder sighing and being rewarded with a sideways glance and a smile.

They returned to the apartment where Duro managed to take in his mostly full bucket, just the mound was gone, and set it on the table. Then the two began to rearrange the room much to Nasir’s puzzlement. The coffee table was carried into the dining room. Agron’s soft exercise mat was brought out in front of the television, and soon Duro’s pillows and blanket followed. Duro reheated some leftovers for all of them while Agron and Nasir moved to Agron’s room to get a couple of their pillows to make a better bed for him on the floor.

“So… do you do this often? Set up a tent for your little brother to watch horror movies?”

“Not a tent anymore, just a bed.” Agron smirked briefly. “No, not really. He does like watching a couple of movies on the floor though. He’d wait until later at night to watch horror movies normally, but I got a feeling he’s going to crash early today, long day.” The smile vanished and worry soon replaced it.

“Agron,” Nasir stopped him as he grabbed a fresh pillow case. “He’s strong, just like his brother. If a couple of horror flicks will help him… then we’re in pretty good shape.”

Agron’s fine green eyes lifted to meet Nasir’s gaze. “I like the sound of we’re… but you should know I hate horror movies.”

Nasir raised a brow. “You’re scared of movies?”

Green eyes rolled. “I didn’t say I was scared of them; I just hate them.”

He was about to press for more when the doorbell rang.

Agron moved quickly to the main room, glancing at Duro who stayed in the kitchen, with a handful of lemons, a citrus juicer, cup of sugar and a pitcher of water which meant he intended to make lemonade “real quick.” It was a good thing because Agron looked like he was about to tell them both to stay put which Nasir couldn’t decide was a good or bad thing, when the larger man opened the door looking ready for a fight. “Shit, Spartacus.”

Instead of any hostile unknown waiting at their door, Spartacus stood there with his arms crossed with a patient if somewhat surprised expression. “That’s not normally how you greet me Agron. Is everything all right?”

Duro went back to making his lemonade while Nasir remained in the hallway.

“Right. I knew you’d wind up coming. I guess I forgot though...” Agron rubbed the back of his head for a moment. “Listen Spartacus, it’s not a good time. Whatever it is, can we do this tomorrow or when I get back in the gym?”

“No.”

“No?” Agron blinked in disbelief.

“We can talk about why you skipped out on a business meeting and acted strangely on the phone when I called you while I am standing here in the hallway or you can let me in and give me an explanation.” His eyes shifted to Nasir. “I see you found your boyfriend.”

“Shit.” Agron took a deep breath. “Was that… I mean I meant to…” Hesitantly he stepped aside, letting the man in.

“So you want to tell me what’s going on, or do I have to guess?” He looked down at the makeshift bed at his feet. “So why are we trying to make Duro feel better tonight? I thought you said he wasn’t in trouble?”

Noting how Duro tried not to look at Spartacus, Agron hurried forward before his friend and brother started with more specific inquiries. “Here, let’s go talk out on the balcony.” He gave Nasir and Duro his most apologetic expression and went outside closing the sliding glass door behind them.

**

Spartacus turned and addressed Agron patiently. “Let’s start with the most important business shall we?”

“Yeah so about that meeting…”

“You found Nasir, and he’s okay?”

Agron swallowed and nodded.

“And he’s still here so you two are okay?” Spartacus pressed a bit more.

“We’ve got a few things to work on but yeah.”

“Good. Now you said Duro was angry with you. So you’re letting him watch horror movies again in the living room to make up for being such an ass?”

“Yeah…” Agron tried not to make direct eye contact. Spartacus would know, could always tell when he wasn’t really being truthfully. “I mean sort of, not really. He’s had a hard time lately, and you know how this helps him steady himself.”

Spartacus remained quiet for a few moments, cocking his head to the side. “I do. I remember you doing this when we lived together too. You’re not… keeping anything from me are you Agron?”

“Nothing you can help with.” True enough. Agron swore he was speaking the truth because he was convinced someone who watched them like that would know Spartacus and his background which meant this man was the one they most likely worried about the most and didn’t want involved. “I won’t lie. We’re going through some things, but right now I want to handle it myself. Okay?”

Spartacus sighed glancing to the side. “I thought, I thought we were past this. I thought you understood we’re a family Agron; we’re here to help. But if that is what you want, I will respect that… for now.”

Agron smiled weakly.

“Now the meeting you skipped out on.”

“I forgot, I swear I forgot. My mind was all over the place. I just, and you called and I couldn’t…”

Spartacus placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. I heard it in your voice when I called. Something happened. I get it. Agron, you don’t have to be heavily involved. I thought you wanted to be, but you don’t have to be. If you’re not up for it right now, it’s okay. Most of the time I figure this stuff out on my own anyway.”

Agron shook his head quickly, finding Spartacus’ acceptance comforting. If only he could tell him the truth. “I want to be more involved. I really do. Look I know Crixus doesn’t want the expansion, so I hope he didn’t tank the meeting. I just, if we expand the gym, the forecast says we will get more members, and more members means we’ll need more help running things right, for non-trainers?”

“Crixus didn’t show. Apparently he’s angry with me over something. As for the expansion, that’s the plan. The man I met has a much bigger vision so even more so. If you’ll read it, I will make a copy.” He paused. “Non-trainers, are you thinking about Nasir?”

Agron glanced to the side.

“It’s okay Agron. You’re not the first person to want to help their lover with their career. I don’t think it would be a terrible fit actually. He gets along very well with Mira and will probably do well with Naevia too. Do you know what education he has?”

Agron shook his head feeling hesitant to answer. “We don’t, well we don’t talk a lot about his job or his past much, at least not that part of his past. I’m not sure if he finished high school or not. That’s not a reason we couldn’t hire him right?”

This time Spartacus turned and leaned on the railing frowning. “No, we don’t require a diploma or GED for those positions although it’s preferred. It’s just, Agron you might find it harder to get him away from the Villa Theater than you think.”

“You’ve mentioned problems there before but you’ve never said what they are.”

“I don’t think you paid much attention to the small details even during the highlight of your fighting career but Batiatus was an early sponsor of mine.”

Agron blinked. He knew he recognized that name from somewhere before. “Why would a man who owns a theater be involved in any of that?”

“For the money, I believe.”

“But you dropped him?”

“I was in process of replacing him. The night you and Barca wound up fighting, I was actually set to meet a very wealthy potential sponsor to take his place. He canceled at the last moment, and I don’t think it was coincidence it was just before Mira told me what was going on.”

Agron rubbed his forehead. “I don’t understand. You were supposed to be out of town.”

“I was. I had Mira’s motorcycle… it’s pretty quick on the straightaways.”

“You, you could have been killed.”

Spartacus glanced over his shoulder. “I could say the same about you. I made it didn’t I?”

“Yeah…” Agron joined him on the railing. “So why were you dropping him.”

“He started acting strangely around Mira, calling her a distraction and saying that she was holding back my real potential. I just didn’t get a good vibe. I needed someone else.”

“So what’s the deal with the Villa then?”

“You know how I said I stopped investigating Sura’s killers once three men were convicted?”

“Yeah, they all got life.”

“Well it was true. When I was fighting, when we got the gym off the ground but something kept nagging at me.”

“So you still think someone else is out there and you’re going after them?” Agron didn’t like the sound of that. They killed a woman which made those people more than a little dangerous.

“Yeah, but I’m not looking for the fourth person. I started digging into the old investigation again, the sex trafficking ring.”

Agron stood up. “You think they use the Villa for that?”

Spartacus shook his head. “No, no they’re not doing it there. Batiatus might be involved. I’m just not sure. I don’t have legal proof or any real good leads. It’s just the Villa has come up before, came up just before I lost Sura. If he’s involved, he’s not in charge. I just, I think Nasir might be stuck there under a threat maybe or something else… Naevia worked there too, and I’m not sure but I think she was still in contact with that place and broke it off right before she was assaulted.”

“Jesus.”

“I’ve started investigating Nasir and…”

“You did what?” Agron’s voice rose instantly and took on a menacing sound

“Easy, easy.” Spartacus tried to calm him quickly. “Keep your voice down. It’s not what you think. It was very light, nothing official, and nothing traceable. I wouldn’t do a background check without your permission, just leg work. I have more questions than anything else. Agron, I want you to do me a favor.”

He felt his boiling blood cool down to a simmer though he knew the glower he gave Spartacus did not imply he was about to do any favors. “If he finds out you’re doing this it could ruin everything.”

“Agron, he won’t. You trust me don’t you? You still trust me?”

“Yeah…” And he did, even if everything about this made the hairs on his arm stand up.

“It’s really easy, nothing involving lying or deceit. I’d never put you in a position to choose me over him, or put him in danger intentionally.”

Agron breathed in deeply. “What do you need?”

“I think he went the police once, but there’s no record of it.”

“Is that… bad?”

“Depends on if the officer he met with thought he was doing Nasir a favor by not making note of it. Nasir may have been involved in something illegal, so if the officer doesn’t report it Nasir keeps a clean record.”

“Otherwise?”

“Otherwise…” Spartacus sighed. “The people I am looking into have some police under their control.”

Agron shook his head. “That sounds risky.”

Spartacus waited for their eyes to meet. “If it’s true. They might already know I’ve been looking for a while now, and I’m already in danger. We all could be in danger. If it’s true it might explain why they wanted me out of the picture and how, well, they got away with murder.”

Agron narrowed his eyes. “What could I possibly ask him to help?”

“Nasir’s been more nervous around me since the trip to the beach. Just little tells, nothing rude or obvious. I just feel it. I asked Mira and she told me she talked to him about my background. Most people, Agron, don’t get nervous around cops without a reason. Either they’ve done something wrong or… we have. I just want a name, who he met with. Don’t ask him tonight, not while I’m fresh on his mind.”

Agron huffed. “He trusts you. He looks forward to hanging out with you and Mira again. I don’t think he would avoid you just because you were a cop once.”

“He’s not avoiding me, but I know what I see. Please, just find out which precinct he visited and hopefully the officer’s name. If something happened, he won’t forget that name. Nasir’s real smart.”

Agron smiled immediately at that. “Yeah, yeah he is. He just needs to be reminded now and then. Okay, just a name and that’s it.”

“That’s it.”

“And if I get this name, no one will be able to trace it back to you or Nasir?”

“I won’t be the one looking into those files, and if there is no file there, there is no way for them to track it back to me or Nasir anyway.”

“Okay. I’ll try.” This made him nervous, but if Spartacus was right, well maybe it wasn’t Chadara at all that caused Duro’s hellish night. If it was tied to Spartacus, he needed to know, they all did.

“Thank you Agron. I’ll let you get back to your evening. Duro’s starting to peek out here. I know he won’t want to start without you.”

Agron nodded.

Spartacus grabbed his hand and pulled him close for a quick one-armed hug. While so embraced he whispered into his ear. “Whatever you’re going through right now, remember you can trust us, you can trust me. We’re family. If it’s too much for you to go it alone, don’t. We’re here for you.”

He saw Spartacus to the door and then checked every door and window before settling down with a blanket and two glasses of lemonade, one for himself and Nasir. Nasir joined him under the blanket, having made a simple sandwich while Duro put in the worse of the two movies.

Normally, Agron had trouble sitting through two movies, but tonight he just felt tired and heavy, weighed down by worry for both the men in this room. Duro only made it an hour into the second movie before he was fast asleep, but Nasir remained awake, resting against his shoulder.

“So why don’t you like horror movies?” Nasir finally asked.

Agron smirked. His lover rarely let anything get by him. “So many of them involve families, siblings and they get torn apart, killed.”

“Oh.” Nasir grabbed his hand squeezing firmly. “But aren’t action movies the same way?”

“Sometimes.” He admitted. “But at least they fight back. With the slasher movies, there’s all this running, and fear. Sometimes they never fight until there is just the one guy and girl left. In the action movies, some of them just learn to fight back, to make a stand… it’s pretty rare to lose an entire family in those. Did you want to finish this?”

“No.” Nasir yawned. “But I will if you want to.”

Agron turned it off. “He’ll finish it tomorrow.” He stood, folding the blanket, leaving it nearby just in case Duro awoke and was cold. He knelt by his brother, fixing his bedding and giving him a light kiss before cleaning up and heading into the bedroom where he found Nasir already tidying up the bed while still brushing his teeth. Fluffing his pillow Agron peeked at Nasir once he returned with a glass of water. “You work tomorrow night right?”

“Yeah, it’s Monday. It should be a light evening. Not much happens there on Mondays. It gives us a chance to gear up for the week, check the machines and schedule, that sort of thing. But you know my schedule… I already had to get Saturday off. Do you need me to be here Agron? I can try…”

“No, no.” He took care of his teeth, probably faster than Duro’s damn timer brush would have said it was okay, and Nasir’s quick glance told him his lover noticed too. To hell with it. He was tired and worn down. He fell on the bed like bundle of bricks. “I think I will suggest Duro call in sick to his classes and come with me to the gym. So you’ll be home most the day alone unless you want to come in with me before you go?”

Nasir climbed into bed, tugging at Agron to share the blankets. “No, I think there is some place I want to visit before I go in. I also want to visit the library too to read up on a few things Duro mentioned to me.”

Agron pulled him close. “Yeah, on what?”

“Some foods that will help me sleep better and maybe some tea.”

“Can’t you find that information online?”

Nasir kissed him and turned off the light. “Yeah, but he has an author he likes that has a couple of books I can borrow about this. I’ve always had trouble sleeping. It’s better when you’re here, but you can’t always…”

Agron sat up and turned the light back on. “Why wouldn’t I be here?” He peered at Nasir seeing doubt and sorrow. “Hey.” He gently ran his fingers along his jaw and lifted his chin. “Hey, I made a mistake. Please, don’t… give me a chance.”

Slowly, Nasir lifted his eyes and a smile formed. “It’s just tea Agron. If I wind up drinking it while in bed with you… the better.”

And he realized that would have to do, for now. Agron turned off the light and drew Nasir close to him. He wanted to promise Nasir there wouldn’t be any lonely nights or nights away, but the truth was, he couldn’t keep that promise. He had no idea where the gym would take him, and he had a meeting with someone soon who might demand who knew what from him. “Okay.”

In the dark, he felt Nasir shift more to his side and press his cheek against his shoulder and chest. “It’s a little strange your brother falls asleep to horror movies Agron.”

Agron chuckled, stroking his hair. “Yeah, I guess so. But at least I know one thing tonight I didn’t know yesterday.”

“What’s that?”

“If our first movie had been a horror, you wouldn’t have hugged me tight in fear. You didn’t even blink an eye at some of that tonight. It would have been a complete waste and a disappointment.”

Nasir snorted briefly. “Neither did you. Besides, the only monsters I’ve ever encountered were just men with power.”

Agron nodded, fully understanding his beloved’s mind. For all the years he spent chasing away makeshift monsters from his little brother’s bedroom, in the end, it was just a man that took everything away from them but led them here, led him to Nasir. And the guilt associated with knowing he would never want to turn back the clock if it meant that would not find his soulmate sitting lonely and unloved in a fine restaurant, well he wasn’t entirely sure Nasir was correct about always choosing Duro first. He’d die for his brother without a second thought, and he was pretty sure he would die for Nasir too.

Chapter Text

Monday was quickly becoming one of Agron’s least liked days. Not only did it mean he had to spend the day working with clients who either lazed around the entire weekend and woke up that morning just remembering they had bodies to take care of or they overdid it during the weekend and felt the pain just as they walked in the gym. Also there would be no Nasir to see during the day. He hated that more than the other two problems by far.

This particular Monday, one of his too skinny girls waltzed in bragging about some hike she did over the weekend which led to an almost twisted knee that he had to wrap while she pretended to get a closer look at his handy work all while touching his shoulder, a lot. This meant they couldn’t do much more than have her lift weights on a bench which was incredibly boring. A normal person would have stayed home, and damn it he wasn’t stupid. She kept twisting her wrist at an odd angle just to get him to move in closer and correct the motion before she hurt herself. Gannicus would have eaten this kind of attention up, and then asked for more, but for Agron it was one thing to be looked at like a piece of meat in the ring, but here was supposed to be different. Here their family gathered, had fun, worked hard and generally moved forward. This sort of thing threw him off a bit, but he grit his teeth and just bore the open visual appraisal even though he knew Spartacus would be quick to have a discussion with the girl if he asked him to do that.

No, he reminded himself, these rich girls paying for lessons would help them in the long run. An expansion could lead to more opportunities, maybe a way to get Nasir away from that wretched boss of his. He’d put up with a lot to be able to see Nasir’s smiling face throughout the day. And as he began to read the larger expansion proposal in between clients, he dared let himself get a little more excited about this all actually happening.

Even though her sister came a couple of hours later and actually grabbed his ass, much to Gannicus’ amusement, he considered her request for private lessons off the main floor, which would cost more. An extra hundred bucks or so could lead to that knife Duro wanted, yes a single knife he’d been viewing for some time. A gift like that could help cheer his brother up, who refused to come with him to the gym despite a rather heated argument between them which Nasir had managed to calm on his way out the door. Just a touch from his young lover, and suddenly he was driving away leaving his brother behind trying to convince himself Duro would be okay alone.

The phone rang as he began packing up for the day, and he frowned when he realized it was Spartacus not Duro. Maybe asking his brother to text or call on the hour might be seen as excessive, but Duro had done an excellent job with complying most the day.

“Hey Spartacus? I thought you’d be in today. Mira said you were MIA almost all day?”

Spartacus sighed heavily. “Yeah, I’ve been occupied with a lot of things today. Listen Agron, I have some bad news, some really bad news. Can you sit down for a moment?”

Agron felt his stomach turn though he found a bench easily enough. “Okay, sitting…”

“A buddy of mine gave me a call… There’s no easy way for me to say this, so I am going to just say it. Chadara was found dead at her apartment. I’m here now at the scene. Nasir came here several hours ago, but I didn’t know until just now. He was a suspect for no more than a minute, and they asked him a few questions before he left.”

His heart quickened again. “He was a suspect? Where is he?”

“If his story checks out and matches Mira’s he’ll be fine, but can you account for your whereabouts Friday night and Saturday morning?”

“Me?” Agron found it difficult to think and breathe at the same time suddenly. “I was, I was at a fight with Saxa and Donar most the night. We went to a bar. I crashed at Donar’s because I was a little drunk. I think Donar and Saxa had sex, maybe, they were up pretty late so they would have seen me sleeping. Wait, why do they think I’m a suspect?”

Spartacus was quiet and he heard voices in the background. Eventually the man spoke again. “Good, good, see if you can find your tickets to the fight. That will keep them off your back I think. Nasir might be in shock. The rookies said he spoke a bit incoherently towards the end of his questioning. He mentioned your name a lot and Duro’s, something about a party. An old friend came here, read the notes and called me since he recognized your name. They let him go because… there’s no way Nasir could have done… this. He doesn’t have the physical strength to twist a neck like that.”

“How long ago? He hasn’t called me all day!” Agron grabbed his bag heading towards the truck. “Oh no!” He felt his stomach twist into a knot.

“What Agron? Tell me.” Spartacus’ voice came through clearly on the phone, commanding yet comforting.

“Does, does Nasir think I killed his sister?”

“I… I don’t think so. According to the notes he said you wouldn’t do it. He was pretty angry and upset. Do you know where he is?”

“Fuck Spartacus. I’ve already asked you that what, twice now. I think… no.” Agron tried to focus himself, get his thoughts together and not attack Spartacus just for being the messenger. “I’ve been at the gym all day, meeting with clients and reading that paperwork you sent over. I should...” Agron hadn’t felt his life spin this fast out of control since he had to stumble forward with life after the loss of his folks. “I need to find him. Spartacus, she’s the only family Nasir has. I would never kill her. Even if she hurt Duro I’d…”

“Don’t tell me Agron. It’s not wise to express anger towards her right now, especially from those like us, who could do this. If Chadara and Duro were close or in contact, you should prepare him for a conversation with the police in the next forty-eight hours. But Agron, you need to go find Nasir. I tried his cell, but he left it here. I’ll bring it over tonight if you two are up for it, or bring it to the office. Agron, deep breaths. You’ll find him. Remember that.”

“Okay.” Agron hung up and finished packing his things into his truck.

When he pulled up to the apartment, he had to take a few deep breaths. This was different, he reminded himself. He didn’t screw this one up. This was something else. Nasir probably wasn’t missing, he was just dealing with his grief. Only, only Agron wished Nasir’s predisposition and desire had been to seek him out, not go it alone.

That, he realized, might still be his fault.

When he walked into the apartment, he found Duro sitting on the couch looking frustrated and lost peering at one of his oversized student and commercial cookbooks. Based on the calculator at his side, the notebook and the fact he had a dozen or so measuring utensils around him, it looked like he was trying to do conversions again. Agron vaguely remembered his brother telling him it wasn’t simple math to increase the serving sizes when taking a small recipe and trying to create servings for hundreds… something about pounds being too much salt.

“Hey.” Agron set his bag down and closed the door. “Is Nasir around yet?”

Duro glanced up with a slight frown. “You know he works Monday nights. Why would you think he’s here? And why are you home so early? I thought… didn’t I call you an hour ago?” He picked up his phone, peering at the screen.

Agron sighed and took a seat next to his brother, gently grasping his fingers so he couldn’t be easily distracted. “I have some, some bad news Duro.”

Duro took a breath and returned his gaze. He knew he had his brother’s undivided attention then.

“I got a call from Spartacus today. There’s no easy way to say this, so I am just going to okay.” Agron wasn’t sure exactly what he should say so he stole Spartacus’ line.

“Okay…” Duro tensed.

“You know he still maintains some of his connections with his law enforcement buddies.”

“The cops you mean?”

“Yeah, and some others. They called him as courtesy, and he went down to Chadara’s apartment. She’s been dead since Friday night, maybe Saturday morning.”

Duro pulled his hand away. “Oh my god. Did she overdose?”

Agron cocked his head to the side, giving his brother a good long look. He almost forgot why they were talking in the first place. “Was she doing drugs Duro? Were you?”

Duro glanced away, his fingers rolling into a fist. He stood suddenly and began to pace. “I, I did everything wrong. I did everything you told me not to do. I went out with someone I barely knew to an unknown place out in the middle of nowhere and I, and I… and now she’s dead. And we…”

Agron stood and grasped his shoulders. “Duro, honey it’s okay.” He drew him close, hugging him tight. “I shouldn’t have asked that. This isn’t your fault, and it isn’t mine. Shhh.” Once Duro calmed down he tried again. “Chadara didn’t overdose, she was killed; at least that’s what the report says right now. They’ll know more after…”

Duro yanked away sharply, eyes wide. “They…. they killed her?! Are these the same men that, that…?”

“We don’t know that.” Agron saw the panic flash instantly in those eyes. “I don’t think these people want to kill you or me. They had their chance. Duro look at me. Come on, look at me. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. There you go, again, and again.” Who knew Spartacus’ breathing exercises could come in handy and actually worked? He lifted his hand to Duro’s cheek. “They went through a lot of trouble to do what they did to you and contact me? I don’t think they want you or me or anyone else dead. They want something but not that okay?”

Duro nodded, swallowing thickly. “Okay.” He nodded some more. “Does Nasir know? Oh god, he does, that’s why you were asking? Did you call him?”

Agron tried to keep his worry from showing, but he knew he failed completely. “He accidentally left his phone at the scene. I think he went to talk to her today.”

“For me.” Duro closed his eyes. “I don’t think I can handle this.”

Agron wasn’t a huge fan of pills, but he remembered the physician gave Duro a couple of samples to help him calm down and sleep needed. “Hey, the doctor gave you some pills for anxiety and sleep right? You want to try one of those?” He didn’t want to see Duro have a full on panic attack, and well things were starting to stack up where it looked like that might just happen. He led Duro to the bathroom to take one pill and then helped him settle in Duro’s room. He was leaving when Duro spoke to him.

“Agron.”

“Hmm?” He glanced over his shoulder.

“You, you’re gonna find Nasir again right. He’s going to be so upset.”

Agron gave him a weak smile. “I know. I think, I think he will come home again. He knows where home is.”

“Okay.”

He closed the door and grabbed his jacket. Oh he thought Nasir would come home, especially if he spent the day alone in grief and anger, but he wasn’t sure. He needed to find his lover. One step out the door and he saw him again, just like last time, in the hallway, sitting and waiting. At least a hundred different phrases circled his mind, nice things to say, encouraging things to say but all he could blurt out was one thing. “Nasir, I didn’t kill her.”

Nasir sniffed, arm against his knees just staring at the wall. “I know,” he replied distantly. “I saw the body. You could never be that brutal. Broke her neck, just twisted and snapped it they said. Her eyes were wide open… two days before anyone noticed. I should have. I just…”

“Oh god Nasir.” Agron walked forward to be at his side.

“I, I lost my phone. I just… I don’t even remember taking it out. I just lost it like it wasn’t one of the most important things in the world to me.” Nasir sniffed again, but there weren’t any tears, not yet. “I looked everywhere for it. I don’t remember when I last used it. I’m sorry Agron.”

Agron dropped to his knees, and since that was solid cement, he knew he would be paying for that later. “Nasir, baby, you’d feel more comfortable inside.” He didn’t reach for him, not yet, not when those brown eyes still stared almost impassively forward like that. He didn’t want to startle Nasir, whose attention seemed to be only partially on his surroundings. “Don’t worry about the phone. Spartacus has it, and it’s not that important baby. We can always replace a phone.”

“I tried to warn Duro. I knew she was up to something. I just, this is beyond anything Chadara could have come up with. She’s too lazy for this, not clever enough. Just a stupid girl looking for fancy things and a nice place to live. It had to be here. I don’t know why though. I thought things were working out for both of us. We weren’t alone anymore. People seemed to care we were alive, and I just… I should have talked to her more. I should have told her if Batiatus didn’t give her a place that I would help if I could because I have someone who….” Nasir’s voice sounded a little more human as the words trailed off and he took a breath. “How did Spartacus get my phone?”

“Nasir we don’t know that she had anything to do with what happened.” Agron had suspicions about the little bitch, but Nasir meant so much to him. He couldn’t just twist a dagger in his breaking heart by confirming anything now. “You left it at her apartment. He got a call to come over since we’re involved.”

Nasir looked at him, the sorrow and heartache etched upon his handsome features like open wounds. “We don’t know that she didn’t.” He took a breath. “It’s my connection to you. It’s so important to me connected to you, but you know, you know you don’t talk much on the phone.”

“Well if my boyfriend hadn’t moved in with me, I would have learned to blabber about my day all night long. Instead, I get to spend my nights talking about it with you next to me instead.” Agron lifted his hand to Nasir’s cheek. “Come inside, please.”

Nasir threw his arms around his Agron and cried.

**

Agron lay in the dark, the lights of passing cars on the streets illuminating the dark walls through the large nearby window. Nasir rested his cheek against his chest, fingers curled near Nasir’s nose as Agron held his lover close, stroking the dark skin of exposed shoulders with strong fingers. The larger man could feel the moisture against his bare skin, the tears flowing freely for some time now. Nasir didn’t say a word, just held Agron tightly as sorrow threatened to consume him yet managed not to overtake the caramel body shuddering against him. “Can I get you some water, or maybe…”

“No,” Nasir whispered. “If it is all right, I would like to just stay where I am.” That voice was so steady, so strong and contrary to the moisture leaving those deep brown eyes.

“It’s all right.” Agron murmured, kissing his brow. Of course it was all right. He just didn’t know what to do in this case, didn’t know how to soothe such pain away. It took him years to get past the loss of his parents, and he had his little brother then. Nasir had no one now but them, and he wasn’t sure they were enough yet.

“You can listen to music or watch TV. I just want stay with you for a while.” Nasir sniffed. “I know it’s too early for bed.”

Agron huffed, as if he could watch television with his boyfriend so heartbroken at his side and his brother sleeping in the other room on meds. Telling Duro about Chadara, well that had been hard, but feeling Nasir’s agony, that was even harder. Music on the other hand could help. He reached for his phone on the nightstand, flipping to a music app and letting Metallica play just loud enough that he could recognize the piece but not so loud as to disturb Nasir.

He wanted to say something, to remind Nasir of how much he was loved, how his friendship would have proven invaluable to his lost friend, how he had so many now who loved and cared for him. But Nasir’s heart seemed to need quiet, almost silence. Nasir appeared content to just be with Agron, to be held. He glanced down to see closed lids though the tightness in his neck, shoulders and back told him his lover was not fully asleep.

“Agron…” Duro opened the door. “I tried to…” He blinked only now realizing his brother was not alone. “Sorry.” He moved to leave but Agron stilled his actions.

“Duro wait. Come here.”

Duro lingered in the doorway.

“Come here.” Agron voiced just a tad bit more firmly but without the bite that would suggest an actual command.

Hesitantly his younger brother moved to the other side of the bed, trying to wipe his eyes though it was already too late to try and hide his tears form his older brother. “I didn’t know Nasir was in here. I didn’t hear him enter your room. I must be pretty out of it.” Duro somehow managed a weak smile.

“It’s all right. Those pills are supposed to calm you not knock you out. It probably leaves you a little cloudy in the head.”

Duro’s brow creased. “I liked her, and I am so confused right now. I can’t remember my last moments with her. What do I, what do I do if they ask me where I was?”

“Come here, I have two arms.” Agron motioned him closer, and with only some hesitation, Duro joined him and soon wept again. “Hey, shhh. Don’t worry about that right now. We can ask Spartacus for help if we need it. He’ll know what to do.” He stroked Duro’s back, keeping those closest to him in a warm embrace throughout the entire night.

Agron woke up early in the morning, the sun peeking through the curtains ever so slightly. He barely slept a wink, maybe an hour or so. At some point Duro rolled to the side, grasping his favorite pillow tightly, eyes squeezed closed, ever so slightly snoring. Nasir remained quiet, wedged against him, but he knew his boyfriend found sleep eventually when those fingers loosened, body relaxed and breathing evened out.

What he heard now wasn’t steady breathing. The smaller body shuddered and a deep breath sounded now and then as if trying to control his emotions. Agron suspected Nasir had awakened and gently ran his fingers along his neck. “Nasir,” he whispered quietly. “Do you want to take a shower?”

Nasir sniffed, blinking after a moment. “Oh. I guess… I’m sorry. I should have thought of that. I was running around all over yesterday. I didn’t mean to offend…” As soon as he took a deep breath, Agron interrupted.

“No, no. You’re fine. I mean with me.”

Eyes vanished behind closed lids. “I am not ready to, to be with you just yet Agron. Please...”

God, Nasir sounded so defeated and resigned to being pushed into something he didn’t want to do. He realized, this time, he’d have to push the anger that came with the realization aside so he could focus on helping Nasir now. Agron shifted, running his fingers through Nasir’s dark strands. “No, not that. It’ll make you feel better, help you relax. Come on.” He carefully stood, helping Nasir stand as well though his boyfriend already looked skeptical about such a claim; Agron didn’t let that detour him. Instead he placed a strong hand on the smaller man’s hip and guided him down the hall to have him stand before the glass shower door. He turned on the water and began to gather a few things, mostly towels, some soap and shampoo. He stripped first, easily dropping his loose athletic pants and boxers. “Your turn,” he said with a warm smile. Nasir wiped his eyes, still wearing grey washed jeans from the day before which he fumbled with for a moment before Agron gave some assistance. “Let me.” He received no objection and soon led Nasir into the steaming shower. Granted, they did not have the largest apartment and certainly not exactly a roomy shower, but at least he managed to make it in and close the door behind them without pushing Nasir completely under the water.

The water was hot, maybe a little hotter than he liked, but he remembered when Nasir said once he liked it hot, enough to make his skin turn pink which this certainly would do after some time. Just seeing Nasir stand there, the water raining down on him, getting the lower part of his hair wet while not moving or raising his eyes pulled at Agron’s heart strings again. Gently, Agron guided him back. “Close your eyes.” Nasir complied, without question or smile, the only true acknowledgement that he was heard remained only the compliance of his request. Carefully, he backed Nasir up, getting his hair wet, running his fingers through his long hair, extended and slow strokes that continued until he received a sigh so quiet the water itself nearly swallowed the sound. Then he went for the shampoo, the more fragranced kind Duro used since he didn’t see the natural stuff Mira got him. Fuck, he should have asked, but it was too late. Agron just took heart and worked a good lather through and promptly rinsed. He reached for the conditioner when Nasir suddenly lifted his arms and drew Agron close, both of them under the water now as he pressed his face against Agron’s neck.

“She was the only family I had.” Nasir whispered.

“She was.” Agron replied, running a strong palm up and down his lover’s back. “But not anymore. You have Duro, Spartacus, Mira… me now.”

They stayed that way for a few minutes, just close, embracing until Nasir swallowed thickly and spoke with an ever so slight smile. “You’re pretty good at this, but the water is a little hot. Did you used to do hair?”

“No, but I remember my mother used just wash hair to soothe us, really just work the scalp, wash the worries away she said.” Agron laughed quietly and leaned forward, keeping one arm snug against Nasir back as he cooled it a bit. “It would be easier if I had a place with a bath instead. We could just relax together then.”

“It’s okay. I remember when I only had a bath for a while, until you fixed the shower for me. I like this better.” Nasir leaned back looking up at him, eyes and nose red, brown eyes shining, olive skin now sporting a hint of pink.

God Nasir was striking under cascading water, even in sorrow. Agron had to push that thought away, real quick like.

“I have to call work, I just, I just didn’t go in. I might be in some real trouble because of that.” Nasir looked worried, really worried about that situation.

“Your boss should understand…”

“Agron, he won’t. I doubt he would care much at all. Fuck, he probably slept with her over a hundred times and sometimes couldn’t remember her name.” That defeated look and energy began to fade from his youthful handsome face.

Agron took a breath, shifting a bit as he struggled with wanting to wait to bring this up and speaking now. “I wanted to wait and talk about this later. I don’t want you to think I am taking advantage or trying to control you… anything like that.”

Nasir shook his head. “You’ve never…”

“I would never force you to do something you don’t want to do Nasir. I love you too much for that , but I don’t want you working there anymore. The man just doesn’t sound right, doesn’t treat you well. We don’t know who’s responsible for any of this stuff yet, I know, but… I just, Spartacus acts like that place is awful, like it’s dangerous. I mentioned to Spartacus that you might be looking soon, and if he might have something you could do for him we would love having you around the gym. Until the expansion, it might not be much but I’m sure we can come up with something.”

Nasir turned around, grabbed the shower handle and shut-off the water. For a moment, Nasir just stood there, breathing deeply, leading Agron to worry. “Agron, say that again.”

Agron’s stomach tightened. “I said I spoke to Spartacus, and he said…”

“Not that part. Before that, you said something else.”

“Oh, I said I didn’t want you to work there...” Agron blinked as realization hit him and then smiled. “And I love you too much.”

He saw Nasir’s knees begin to buckle and quickly wrapped strong arms around his waist. “Come on. Let’s get you dried off and into one of my shirts.” He managed to get half-way out of the shower to grab a towel when his lover followed him onto the bath matt. He could have sworn that was white once. He dried his face and body, before focusing on Nasir and his towel, pressing the white fluff against his love’s face while the other just sort of stood there.

“I’m overwhelmed.”

“I am so sorry!” Agron agonized quickly. “I didn’t mean for all of this to come out now. It’s just I see how work makes you feel, so I talked to Spartacus...”

“Agron.”

“Really Nasir I didn’t mean to interfere or force you into anything. I just…”

“Agron.”

“I just wanted to help and guide you towards something that might bring you happiness.”

Nasir placed a finger against Agron’s mouth, forcing him to finally focus on the smaller man in silence. Nasir’s dark hair was still dripping wet and leaving water all over the floor around them, not that Agron’s was doing much better. They both had water now dripping down their foreheads, but those brown eyes looked awfully determined and alert now. “No one has ever said they’ve loved me and meant it before.” His brow furrowed and such a sorrowful expression dominated his face again.

“Nasir I am so sorry!”

“No, no you misunderstand.” Nasir wrapped his arms around Agron, making sure they were both good and wet again. “I thought we were getting close I just… I‘ve been wrong before, but this felt different. And then you threw me out…. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that if I gave my heart you would even want it…”

“I’ll keep it warm and protect it always.” Agron whispered against his hair. “And I probably should have mentioned this before, but I kind of overreact and sometimes I hurt those I love trying to protect them.”

Nasir wiped his eyes, obviously trying to control himself. “I just… Jesus Agron you picked hell of a time to tell me this. I don’t know if a man can handle this much anger and sorrow and happiness at once.”

Agron kissed his temple. “I’ll work more with Mira on my timing. She says, you know, I should work on that.”

Nasir nodded though he was smiling again. Curiosity shown in those dark eyes. “Why your shirt? Why wouldn’t I wear one of mine?”

Agron shifted briefly because he was starting to feel a little silly now. “Well I guess I thought since Duro likes to snuggle with things that smell like me when he’s upset you might like… that… too.”

Nasir hugged him tight. “I want the grey one with the skull and mouse ears.”

Agron blinked. He’d had that shirt a long time but… “Okay Nasir, whatever you want.” If he was going to lose that shirt, at least it would be with Nasir walking around in it half naked knowing he was loved.

“And Agron, I love you too.”

**

Varinius glanced at the time, four am and someone was calling him. Even if it was Gallienus, the man had better have a good reason for this. “Gallienus, you better have justification for this call.”

There was a pause. “Take a minute or two to wake up. It’s important that you hear me.”

Varinius turned on his light, massaging his temples for a minute. “If this is about Duro, and there are complaints tell them that should have exceeded any reasonable expectations.”

“Oh, no. There have been no complaints about that at all. The men were most pleased with the experience and a few asked if there was a chance to see the young man again. I’m afraid that’s not why I’m calling.”

Varinius grabbed his carafe and poured himself some water. “Did contact with Agron not go well?”

“I should have told you, but I delayed initial contact a few more days than you requested. I thought it would be best to let a man like that calm down a little before we engaged him. Since you don’t want their deaths, the last thing we want is him raging during the first meeting. I hope I am forgiven.”

“Of course, of course. You have a mind for these things and the proper contacts. I trust you to continue with actions that will get me what I want.” Varinius rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Save me time then, tell me why you are calling.”

“There’s been an unexpected development. My sources in law enforcement have informed me that Chadara was killed the night of the party, several hours after the party but before Nasir and Duro left the warehouse. No one knew at that point what happened. It couldn’t have been Agron.”

His eyes narrowed and the grip on the phone tightened. “Someone killed Chadara?”

“Oh good, I was hoping it was not you.” His friend let out a sigh of relief. “It is one thing to take advantage of others for pleasure and fun but the brutal killing of a young girl…”

“Why would I kill someone who follows orders better than you do and does such a perfect job for me? Do we know who did this?” He grabbed his tablet, glancing at the messages. “I see nothing that indicates a problem. Was it Batiatus?”

Gallienus exhaled his cigarette. “If he knew she was following you instead of him, he might do that. I’m not sure he even knew about the party although I suppose he could have been waiting for her at home. He’s not the only one that would have grudge against her. There were a fair amount of victims on her path to a better life. In any case, judging from the method of murder, Batiatus didn’t do it himself if he was involved at all.” There was a pause. “I am currently on a plane Varinius. I will spend some time in Europe for a while. Take my advice, cut your losses. No one knows you’re involved, better yet, come join me.”

“I will not slink off into the night. If Batiatus had anything to do with this death, I will make sure his very last breaths are ones of pain and suffering. And if it was someone else, I will find out who and make them pay. Did you leave all your information for me so I continue myself?”

Silence.

“Gallienus…”

“Yes, I did. It’s in your office. Varinius, I wish you would reconsider. It’s one thing to be teamed up with Batiatus but if you two start actively working against each other… if those within the organization turn on one another, it weakens all of us. But I’ve left my contacts for you to use. They won’t let you down.”

“I don’t know why you are so concerned. We’re talking about one ex-cop, a handful of fighters who haven’t faced a real challenge in a number of years, and I have Agron right where I want him. The fact that his brother turned out to be a pleasant surprise on camera and in person is an added bonus. You know as well as I that Batiatus is not part of the organization; he just wants to be. The others have no interest in what we do here. They prefer far grander schemes than late night sex parties. This is about fun, not money, not business. I provide enough money for them to leave this to me.”

“You’ve always chastised Batiatus for reaching too high and not settling for what he already has. Maybe you should take your advice. You’ve had your fun. You’ve fucked a straight virgin. Take Nasir to your bed, toy with Agron a few times and then leave. You’ve plenty of other places you can go.”

“Thank you Gallienus that will be all. Enjoy your stay. I will be certain to send you videos and pictures of my continued success. I know you will enjoy them, many of you will. You all lack the courage to create the scenarios you desire, but you will beat off to them fast enough just the same.” Varinius shook his head with a grin. “And one more thing, send an anonymous donation to her estate. I want to make sure Chadara has a pretty headstone. She was such a pretty girl.” He hung up; it would take one cold or enraged bastard to end her life.

Chapter Text

Agron placed an arm around Nasir’s shoulder, keeping him close but giving Nasir enough flexibility to examine the casket in front of them. The smaller man brushed his fingers over the pale woven bamboo and the braids of white flowers and deep greens that ran around the perimeter giving the casket a beautiful appearance. They’d been in the funeral parlor for over an hour now. Fortunately, Duro managed to distract the glorified salesman so Nasir could have some breathing space and time to just digest his choices.

“I don’t, I don’t really know what she wanted. I don’t know if she wanted cremation, or if she even cared about green ceremonies. It’s…” Nasir took a deep breath. “It’s almost thirty-five hundred just to get a casket into the grave. Agron I can’t…” His fingers clenched the crumpled pamphlet tightly.

Agron smoothed his hair and kissed his temple. “Hey, I told you not to worry about that. Just pick what you like.”

Nasir fixed him good with a long hard glower. “Don’t tell me not to worry my pretty little head about things like money.”

“I didn’t…”

“And it doesn’t matter what I want. It’s what she wanted. We never talked about this. I never asked. It’s like I barely knew her. I don’t even know who to invite to the wake. I don’t know if I should even have one. We grew apart and it’s all my fault.” Nasir’s heartbreak colored his face and weighed down his voice, but he didn’t shed any tears, not today. Today grief and anger simmered just below the surface of every word.

“Shh, baby.” Agron lowered to one knee in front of him, hoping if he looked smaller Nasir might stop targeting him with such anger and be able to listen to him, really listen to him so he could help. He was no stranger to grief but the anger and self-loathing radiating from his lover seemed sudden and harsh and without any signs of waning. He tried again because he had to reach Nasir, had to offer him something to hold onto. “Nasir, baby, funerals aren’t for the dead; they’re for the living. Chadara’s in a better place; now it’s about remembering her.”

Nasir shook his head quickly. “You don’t believe that do you? Do you even believe in God, or forgiveness after death, or that any of this could possibly make me happy? How can cheap flowers and wood in the ground do anything for anyone?”

“I believe that there are some things in life I’d rather not take with me to the grave, just to be safe. I believe that my parents still guide me when they can, and I know if you loved Chadara, there was something good about her. So yes, she’ll earn my forgiveness in time no matter what she did.”

For a few moments, Nasir just looked down at him, brown eyes blinking at him in surprise. Slowly Nasir’s brow furrowed displaying sorrow and regret. “Agron, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, no it’s not. I just don’t know what to do. I feel so angry, and I shouldn’t turn that on you because you’re here. You’re here because you care about me.” Nasir drew a shuddering breath, trying to keep it together.

“No.” Agron corrected softly. “I’m here because I love you.” Agron reached for Nasir’s hand and this time his little man accepted his touch, even seemed to welcome it. “It’s okay to feel anger and sorrow and more anger. You can feel anything you need to feel Nasir, but please don’t think about costs or what others might think or want. Just take a deep breath and we’ll look at caskets again. We have plenty of time to pick one out and talk about a service and the rest…”

Nasir sniffed. “No one’s going to come to the service. No one liked her. A few men fucked her but they barely remembered her birthday. They didn’t know her like I did.”

“I know at least one person loved her. I know someone that could have easily fallen in love with her in time, and I promise you Nasir, people will be there. I swear it.” Agron waited patiently, eyes unwavering and hoping Nasir was ready to trust him in this.

And then quiet settled between them, the only sounds coming from behind them where Duro pretended like he was interested in some sort of catering service. There was no way his brother was going to let that man saddle Nasir with some expensive service, but at least he occupied the man’s time.

Eventually, Nasir spoke again. “White, she’d want a white casket with yellow and white roses.”

Agron stood tugging Nasir closer. “There was one back a couple of rows for twelve hundred dollars, had gold tinted handles and trim. I think that would be pretty with those flowers, don’t you?”

Nasir nodded and they went back. Within another hour, they had the casket picked out, flowers ordered and a short pamphlet designed. Since there wasn’t a lot of information about Chadara’s background or family, Nasir wrote a short poem instead...

Petals in the wind

Ever shifting

Never settling

Beautiful and fleeting

Admired but never claimed

I will miss you forever Chadara.

My Guide. My Rescuer. My Sister. - Nasir

Agron walked outside, rubbing his face with his hands. He hadn’t shaved fully today, so the stubble bothered him a bit, and he wasn’t sure he could take much more of this. If only someone watching over them would show them some fucking favor and give them at least a few weeks of rest he’d be grateful.

Then he saw a familiar face, the man leaning against his Jeep.

Spartacus could easily wait in place for an hour or two, without complaint, without even thinking about coming in and interrupting. Agron wished he had that sort of staying power, but he was so happy to see Spartacus that he just walked up and gave the man a lingering hug. “Thank you for coming. How long have you been waiting?”

“That’s not something you need to worry about Agron. How’s he doing?” Spartacus looked worried and sorrowful but calm and steady, just as Agron needed him to be.

“It’s tough, real tough.” Agron said.

Spartacus nodded. “I remember how hard it is. I bet you do too.”

“I didn’t, well I didn’t really pay attention to this stuff back then. Other people sort of took that on. Duro opened my eyes long past the funeral.”

Spartacus shook his head. “You’re always downplaying your role. I hope one day you realize how important you’ve been to everyone. I got another call today.”

Agron sighed, rolling his eyes. “Look, it’s true. Nasir brought Duro home that night, but if Nasir says Duro was with him, I believe him.”

Steady eyes just sort of watched him for a few moments before his boss, friend and brother continued. “There was an anonymous donation for Chadara’s burial costs, specifically for a gravestone, upright.”

Agron blinked. “Aren’t those thousands of dollars?”

“Yeah.”

“Did the police try and track the source?” He was nervous about this but… how relieved it would be for Nasir to have something to mark her grave with, more than a basic plate even. It also meant somewhere out there, someone else must have cared, at least a little.

“They did because murderers sometimes keep themselves involved, but it was traced to a lawyer’s office. They might sniff around for a while, but I doubt they’d find anything. Whoever this was clearly didn’t want to be found. I just… I don’t feel it was her killer. I can’t explain it, just a gut feeling.” Spartacus looked like he wanted to ask more questions, maybe talk about Agron’s sudden outburst about Duro’s alibi, but he let it rest, for now. He knew the man wasn’t about to make a hard day rougher.

Agron sighed. “I’ll tell Nasir when things settle down here, and we go out to dinner tonight.”

“We’ll run a skeleton crew at the gym so most of us can attend the service as soon as you let me know when it is. I’ve got Donar and Crixus covering you for the rest of the week. Saxa’s taking care of your morning clients for now. So Duro’s going to help with the luncheon afterward?”

“Yeah, surprisingly enough he’s up to it.” Agron shook his head. Duro could have collapsed under the pressure of his experience, but instead his little brother stayed with Nasir becoming part of a support structure Agron’s lover desperately needed. Maybe the kid deserved more credit than he gave him before all of this even if a part of him just couldn’t see past the teen crying in motel rooms years ago to recognize the young man Duro had become, a young man who chose to live with him now, maybe as much for Agron’s benefit as it was for Duro’s

“I think Mira and Naevia would like to help if they can. I know you’re working on a budget, so the girls are already gathering tables for the luncheon and tablecloths, some flower arrangements, stuff like that. I didn’t know Duro and Chadara were close?”

“Oh they weren’t. Not really. I mean…” Agron sighed. “He falls for girls pretty fast. I think he’ll recover okay though, once the shock wears down. He’s in there now helping Nasir with the paperwork.”

“You’re giving me mixed messages here Agron. You think Duro’s going to be okay because they had a short relationship, but you’re really surprised he’s up to helping out with her service? The Duro I know would be eager to cook for someone, even if he winds up crying through part of it.” Spartacus cocked his head slightly to the side.

“Umm.” Agron blinked at Spartacus who continued to look at him expectantly. “I meant, well I meant that it’s real hard to focus on something like this when someone in our house is grieving as much as Nasir is… is all. And he did know her, and death hits home pretty hard with him…” God he hated the disapproving look he was receiving now, the one that told him Spartacus wasn’t buying the entire explanation he was selling. He was so used to just speaking freely with Spartacus that he kept slipping, kept instinctually wanting to tell the man all their problems so he could help, but he couldn’t do that, couldn’t risk what their blackmailers might do if the police got involved.

Fortunately, Nasir and Duro emerged just in time. Nasir looked… well relieved which brought a smile to Agron’s face. He gained a quick kiss before Nasir addressed Spartacus. “Duro tells me you’re going to take him shopping for the luncheon?”

Spartacus grinned. “I happen to have some free time on my hand. Mira’s handling the few clients I have left for today.”

“Mira trains?” Nasir looked utterly surprised.

“She knows a thing or two. You’d be surprised what someone can learn if given the chance and time. You’ll see.”

Nasir smiled immediately, his eyes lighting up in ways Agron hadn’t seen for a few days now.

Spartacus cleared his throat. “Come on Duro. Let’s fill your endless list of ingredients for only a handful of refreshments, and try not to pick out anything that’s more than twenty dollars an ounce. Trust me, these knuckleheads wouldn’t know the difference either way.” Duro hopped into the Jeep while Agron fished for his wallet.

“I’ve got this.” Spartacus climbed into the driver seat.

“Are you sure, because Duro can be a little picky, and… well expensive.” As he spoke, Agron walked over to the vehicle and gave his brother a squeeze on the knee. The two didn’t exchange words, but thank you was written all over Agron’s face. Duro, well he looked eager as he normally did when it came to a trip to grocery store.

Spartacus snorted. “I’ll have him home before too late big brother. You two try to rest up.”

Agron wasn’t sure he was ever going to relax anytime soon, but going home to be alone with Nasir, well it had been sometime since they were really alone it seemed. He watched the other two drive off. They entered his truck and headed home.

If he’d asked Nasir if they should go out to dinner like he wanted, he was almost certain his lover would have consented. But those dark eyes, the way he looked out the window and watched the buildings pass by, Agron just knew the younger man wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Instead he dropped by Ling’s and picked up some of the greasiest, most delicious Chinese food they had in the area. They wound up with way too many white boxes sitting on the table for two, and Agron didn’t even bother with plates. Instead he dropped a few forks, spoons and even a couple sets of chopsticks on the table, and they dug in.

Nasir was smiling in no time.

“Let me guess, Duro hates this place?”

“Ling’s? Oh yeah, the kid doesn’t know good Chinese when it smacks him right in the face; I know, I’ve tried with a few noodles. He’s not very appreciative at all.” Agron gave him a toothy grin.

Nasir poked at the chicken chow mein, fishing out the cashews which Agron gladly accepted. “And he’s not going to like we didn’t use plates is he?”

Agron chuckled. “Appalled, a good meal is as much about the presentation as it is the food, or you know, some bullshit like that.”

Nasir smirked. “You’re such a cruel brother.”

“When he can get off the snobbery train for a minute, he’ll remember he loves house special fried rice, and BBQ pork and more than anything else, shrimp spring rolls.”

Eyebrows went up, and Nasir began digging through the boxes. “Did we get those?”

“Umm….”

His dark brow furrowed. “Is that the last one? Drop it. You didn’t even share!” Nasir tried to stretch across the table but lacked the reach Agron had by several inches, so he pouted. It worked.

Agron took pity on him and dropped the last one into the chow mein for his boyfriend. “So you like… shrimp?”

Nasir nodded. “Prawns especially, I… well I didn’t get seafood very often growing up and well Chadara didn’t like the smell of it; it’s expensive.” He sighed taking a bite out of the egg roll looking sad again.

Agron stood and took a seat next to him placing a strong hand on his back. “Well you’re in luck because Duro really enjoys making seafood, and I don’t mind it.”

He received a suspicious glance for that. “Don’t mind? You stole all the shrimp egg rolls.”

“Fried.”

Brown eyes blinked at him. “Fried?”

“I love deep fried food. I never get it around here. It’s right up there with processed flour and plain sugar.”

“You get sugar…”

“Oh yeah?” Agron challenged. “When’s the last time you saw Duro open up the cupboard and just get a big ole cup of sugar and dump it into any recipe?”

“Well he made pancakes...’”

“Wheat flour and applesauce.”

“Really?”

“He thinks I don’t notice these things.” Agron leaned forward as if to share a secret. “Do you know he switched beans on me a while ago? I’m not really that fond of beans actually. One of the guys at work got some sort of ‘hot’ deal, like five cases of beans. Do you know how many beans are in a case of beans?”

“No…”

“A lot! We all wound up with just cans and cans of beans, so I started having them for lunch and dinner because, well they’re easy protein I guess. Then I found him reading the label one day bitching about sodium. All of a sudden, he’s replacing my cans with bags of dried beans that he lines up in the freeze after cooking… like I wouldn’t notice.” Nair gazed up with him with such warm eyes and an amused look, Agron wondered if he was telling the story correctly. No one else ever found it that interesting. He cleared his throat. “But hey, you should hang out with Duro in the kitchen more. He likes the company.”

“I wouldn’t want to get in his way.” Nasir shifted as if considering the idea after he declined and not before. “Do you think he’d mind? I mean he did show me how to separate egg yolks with my hands, and how to cook chicken and rice… beans.”

“He’s been trying to ‘engage’ me with cooking for a few years now. I told him the best he would get out of me is a wallet, a mouth and a short jog afterwards.”

Nasir set his fork down. “I don’t get how you stay so… fit with all this junk you like.”

Agron laughed and gave him a quick kiss. “I keep active. I have this green shake in the morning, and I jog either before you get up or shortly after you leave. And then when I work with my clients, I don’t just tell them what to do, I show them and do it alongside them. For some of them, I have to show them a lot, like over and over. I think people who struggle really appreciate that, or at least I hope they do.”

“Oh right, Duro said it looks like spinach puke.” Nasir paused. “I… I appreciated it. To be honest, I thought you did some things with me because I was different. I didn’t realize you did that with all your clients…”

“Nasir, you’re special. I promise you I’ve done a lot, a lot of things with you I would never do with other clients.” He’d probably wind up in jail if he had, or so Crixus claimed, not that the big ass ever complained about Gannicus whom he knew screwed around with a number of women going there. Agron kissed Nasir’s cheek but frowned shortly after registering what Duro must have said about his shakes. “Well… okay so it’s not the most appealing, but you could try it sometime.”

“Well what’s in it?”

“Spinach, frozen berries sometimes, bananas most the time, water, and then I throw in some protein powder, chia seeds or maybe Maca powder. Powdered peanut butter can be okay too for protein, but it’s a little strong so I might vary between vanilla and chocolate protein powders instead.”

“Agron, that sounds awful.”

Agron huffed. “And that’s why you got the nutrition bars.”

Nasir smiled briefly. “You wanted to give me a shake instead?”

“It’s really energizing. I just assumed that if a stranger showed up at the gym trying to get you to drink homemade green fluid…” Agron sighed briefly. “Well I didn’t want to scare you off.”

“Half-naked men grunting and screaming profanities at each other in your fighting ring almost did that. But you know, Mira kind of bullied me into staying, so did you.”

Agron grinned again. “We did didn’t we? Any regrets?”

Nasir shook his head but the happy eyes and smile faded and grief replaced them again. “Those nutrition bars helped a lot, and some of them were really good. I saw them in the grocery store, so I know they’re really expensive. I was really, really struggling Agron when we met. I should have told someone, especially Chadara.” He paused poking at the chow mein with his chopsticks. “She kept telling me to let her know if she could help, but I was ashamed. She was doing better than I was, and I threw away the person helping me… I needed something more. I was just so unhappy because I needed something more.”

“Hey, hey Nasir it’s okay. We’ll get through this together.” Agron kissed his temple. “You’re not alone anymore. And if you’re talking about who I think you’re talking about, that asshole tossed you aside, and he was making room for a better man remember?” He got a half snort half laugh in response from his lover; it made his heart glad.

“I’ve, I’ve never had so much to lose before. I thought having more would make me fear less, and I always relied on Chadara to help guide me. When she wasn’t there before it turned out so bad.” Nasir drew a deep shuddering breath.

Agron ran his fingers through Nasir’s hair. “You said she came back for you once. Is that what you mean?”

“Yeah… yeah that’s what I mean.”

“What happened Nasir?”

Nasir stood and moved to the dining room window, looking out at the small community park nearby. There were kids down there, a couple of dogs and a small white cat. Agron knew the family, but they blurred before his eyes as he focused on the shorter man with fine black hair over his shoulders. “We were taken in. Everything was great. We each had a room, new clothes and shoes, and dinner together as a family every night. We were even driven to school each morning. It was like, it was a like a dream, just a quiet little dream, everything you see in commercials. Then Chadara started getting moody and mouthy. I just kept getting angrier with her as she fought with our would-be parents. She was going to ruin everything, and I wasn’t sure they’d keep just me since they wanted a boy and girl. Then one morning, she was just gone. She packed up her bag and probably left with her boyfriend, another troublemaker...”

Agron stepped in behind him, rubbing his shoulders.

Nasir turned his head to the side. “Can we go somewhere? It doesn’t have to be far just… outside.”

“Sure I know a place nearby.”

They left the food on the table, and Agron drove them about fifteen minutes away from the apartment to a small hill near a park and pulled up to the parking lot which gave them a better view of the trees and a nearby swing set but mostly a darkening sky. He didn’t have the mattress in the back, but Agron did manage to lay down a couple of sleeping bags for padding. Once they were settled in the bed of the truck, he spoke quietly. “Better baby?”

Nasir nodded. “Yeah, yeah it really is.” He settled into Agron’s arms. “I… I didn’t really understand at first what was happening. They’d fought more and more, mostly about her boyfriend but also just boys in general. I thought about her reputation and why she wound up where I was, and just assumed she was doing things she shouldn’t be doing. I blamed her even though I was at the place for all the wrong reasons.”

Agron stroked his hair and found a hand to hold. He remained silent, like he knew he should. Nasir took a breath. “After she left, things got… bad. Chadara said that she heard from someone I wasn’t doing well in school anymore. I kind of remember not doing my homework and sitting off to the corner somewhere in the cafeteria. I was never that social Agron, especially without her around to push me into parties or sports.” Nasir gripped Agron’s hand tightly. “She had no reason to come back. She had her boyfriend, a chance at life with him, and to leave the area… but she did. I left school one day and she was there with her boyfriend, in too tight jeans and a short yellow crop top she was never allowed to wear just waiting for me. I don’t know how long I could have continued like that, but she took me away from it.”

At this point, Agron fished out a bottle of water from a box he kept in the back of the truck which Nasir drank from eagerly. His lover, his quiet and reserved lover, was just letting the words spill out. It was strange, Agron thought, how this was linked to Chadara, but it was Nasir’s story. He knew it had to be bad, not just the group homes Nasir grew up in but this last house, this last family, this last man.

“For a while we traveled with her boyfriend. He had this old classic car, a Mustang I think, and we would be in old motels and run down diners… they fought one night outside the motel window. I was in the way, he said, of his big plans, a burden. He didn’t sign up for that. When she tried to defend me, he slapped her. They didn’t see I was awake, and he was gone the next morning. We had enough for a few more nights but that was it.”

Nasir sat up straighter. He knew he was scowling now, trying to remember something he so often pushed aside in the hopes of forgetting. “We thought we could get help, go to those government places for food and housing once the last of our money ran out. When we found an office, each of us was taken to a different desk. They asked questions, and I tried to answer as best I could, my age, where we were from, and questions about my family. She was really nice to me, said everything would be taken care of… I saw Chadara make a motion then, like she wanted to drink something, signaling to me, so I asked the lady for water. As soon as they were out of the chairs she ran over and grabbed me; we ran out the back. I didn’t… I was so naïve.” Nasir fell silent, remembering how his relief and hope had shifted to anger as he was dragged out of that office, just so angry at Chadara for taking them away from the help they so desperately needed.

“Naïve about what?” Agron’s voice broke through the memory reminding him we was not alone, encouraging him to continue.

“They called the cops to bring us back.” Tears came this time, but Nasir’s voice, surprisingly enough did not waver. “Clearly we were runaways. She knew our records said we had behavioral problems, troublemakers... They’d never believe us, and even if they did, what was the good outcome, to go back to the home where you just age out to be alone forever?” Nasir pulled the sleeping bag further up and then gripped it so tightly Agron’s hands soon covered his trying to coax those fingers to relax again. He consented, surprised really at the gentle touch. They stayed that way for a little while, maybe not more than a few minutes, but it felt so long. “We had five months before she turned eighteen, became an adult, and no longer a runaway. We tried the shelters but they separate the women and children from the men for safety reasons… they didn’t really consider me a child, and Chadara wasn’t going to leave me with all those men, alone. So we just…we lived in the streets. We slept in the streets. The soup kitchen helped but that was just one meal a day… and some of the others that went there, they started to notice we were hanging around. Some came looking for us which scared us so we had to leave, but we held out for five months.”

Nasir watched Agron’s fingers gently stroke his knuckles. Sometimes, he didn’t understand how the man could exhibit so much obvious impatience but right now, when he needed him, he was quiet, tolerant and even encouraging. “People would yell at me when I tried begging for food money. They told me to get a job, to go back home, and sometimes to go back to my country. I got hit with scissors once; they shouted I needed to cut my hair and grow up.”

“After five months you went back?” Agron kissed his neck, strong arms wrapping around him just a little tighter. He could feel the larger man’s anger in the tightening of his body’s muscles, that warm body enveloping him like a shield from attacks and harm that took place years ago.

“Yeah but we didn’t understand… we left home with nothing really, no birth certificates, or social security cards or numbers, no ID, and we had no physical address. Chadara couldn’t establish her identity, couldn’t even prove that she was a citizen, so we couldn’t get help.”

“And you couldn’t go back because he beat you?”

“We couldn’t go back.” Nasir’s voice was distant now, he felt himself fade as he recalled the cold way the woman just took the paperwork, with mostly blanks in required fields. The woman recited the need to fill it out completely, but they didn’t have the information.

A strong hand brushed his cheek and pushed aside his hair, and he was brought back again. “Chadara’s the reason I’m here. I didn’t know how to survive, but she figured it out. Maybe we could have done better if either of us understood more, but she kept us alive.” The strength that began to build inside Nasir since Agron met him revealed itself again, and Nasir’s voiced steadied. “I didn’t tell Mira or you or Spartacus my last name because I don’t remember what it is. You’d think it’d be the first one I remember having, but I’m not sure. When I say it, it doesn’t… feel right. I didn’t want to start things with you with a lie. The driver’s license I gave you, the ID I work with, it’s just whatever Batiatus managed to get for me.” He swallowed, trying to read Agron’s’ expression and failing. He continued because Agron kept telling him to trust him, and he was beginning to think he could and should even if the man wasn’t perfect after all. “If the gym was going to change things for me, I wanted it to be real. The only real thing about me is my first name. I remember my brother calling me that at least, but I can’t work for Spartacus knowing that everything he’s using is fake and could get him trouble and cost all of you.”

Agron ran his fingers down Nasir’s neck eventually caressing his shoulder. “That’s not true. You’re real in more ways than I can list Nasir. The man I saw sitting in the restaurant, so hopeful, so excited with your little rose… that was real, real genuine hope and a desire to be loved. Besides, no one is going to check the gym for our paperwork. It’d be fine.”

Nasir shook his head. “He’d call Agron. He’d report it, make life hell for everyone. You’d have health inspectors, ICE, permit questions… no one leaves Batiatus unless he is ready to let you go.”

Even in the darkness Nasir could see Agron’s expressive scowl. “I doubt he’s so…”

“He’s done it before. That’s what I’ve heard; terrible, awful things, and not just to you but people you care about. I didn’t want to tell you because I don’t want you involved Agron. I’m not getting my security deposit back because even my landlord knows Batiatus. Everything, everyone around me is controlled by him.”

“I’m not, my friends and family aren’t, and that’s not legal. It doesn’t matter who paid them it goes back to…” He bit his lip once those green eyes focused on Nasir’s expression. “Right, so we report this asshole with Spartacus’ help and then…”

“Agron,” Nasir interrupted gently. “We can’t have police around right now; you know that. And I don’t want to start trouble with Batiatus. I want a clean break if I can have it… and I hear it’s possible. I hear a few have left and been okay.”

Agron stiffened but his hand did not stop caressing Nasir’s shoulder. “What exactly is he capable of?”

“I’m not sure actually.” Nasir hesitantly rested his head on Agron’s shoulder as he closed his eyes. He felt… drained, but Agron was still here, not leaving, not angry at him, not accusing him of anything.

Agron must have noticed how exhausted he felt because his voice softened. “Could he be behind Duro’s assault or Chadara murder?”

“He was sleeping with her. I don’t know why he would kill her, and he’s not strong enough to do the damage I saw. Duro… that seems more complicated than he could come up with. Everything I’ve heard he’s done just sounds like stuff thugs in the street would do not… that. I mean he had trouble balancing accounts, following basic directions… I can’t be sure, but I don’t think that was him. He fails at everything he tries.”

There was silence between them for a time, only the rustling of leaves and the occasional shift of a bird or some small animal to be heard. Agron broke the silence. “Maybe we can’t have Spartacus involved in everything, but I think he can help you find out who you are Nasir, or he might know someone who can help. I’d like him to try.”

“I… I lied to him; I lied to everyone. Why would he help me?”

Agron snorted, kissing his temple. “You didn’t really lie Nasir, you kept information from us, and you went out of your way not to lie. Around here, we would have called that a little white lie anyway. Besides, if he thinks this is the reason we’re avoiding him, he’ll be less suspicious, make things easier for us.”

“If he’s around more, won’t he make our blackmailers uneasy?”

“I don’t think it will be a problem.” Agron would do everything in his power to ensure it, especially since the day was almost here to face those bastards.

Nasir sat up again, peering into those green eyes. “You mean it? You really think he can help me?”

“If he can’t figure out a way to do it, I’ll find someone else who can.” Agron replied without hesitation.

Nasir smiled. “Well there is someone that might help me with Batiatus, and if you think Spartacus can help me with my past, this could be good. But Agron he might uncover ugly things you don’t know about me.”

“Do you trust Spartacus?”

“I try to, but I trust you more.” He answered honestly. “I believe you in all things. It’s just hard sometimes to find my voice.”

“Well…” Nasir could almost hear Agron’s cocky grin even without seeing it. “You do have a lovely voice. I’m especially fond of it when it’s calling my name.”

Nasir nipped his chin. “I’m being serious you ass.”

“I like that too.”

Nasir snorted.

Agron held him tight. “Trust me when I say you can trust Spartacus with anything, even the stuff you don’t want me to know about. And Nasir, I don’t care what your last name is. You’re my Nasir, my baby, and we’ll get through this together.”

**

Eventually they returned home where they took a quick shower together and emerged in time to help Duro and Spartacus with the supplies for the luncheon. Agron looked at the packed fridge and once again began to question whether or not this apartment was large enough for three. Things were just different now, and he wasn’t just a physical trainer just sort of floating through life from one exercise or quick meal with his brother to another. And while he knew Nasir would never complain, hell most of the time his lover just seemed thrilled they found space for him at all, he wasn’t ready to settle for that. He didn’t want to squeeze Nasir into his existing life; he wanted to build one with him.

Tonight Duro slept in his own bed again with the help of an old mushroom nightlight they’d purchased for the motel rooms years ago. Back then, Duro was too nervous to sleep in complete darkness but not willing to accept the offer from anyone not fighting that night to stay over with him. Agron set up the light without Duro asking, knowing his brother would feel too much shame to make the request. But the younger man didn’t turn it off when he went to bed and left his door slightly ajar which made it easier for Agron to check on him before he joined Nasir in bed.

Late that night though, Agron silently left the bed, grabbing a change of clothes he’d put in the gym bag, filling a thermos with coffee and then silently leaving the apartment after checking on both Nasir and Duro once more. He drove through the dark streets, sighing heavily as he tried to make out the addresses on these big warehouses several minutes outside of town. The GPS led him only so far.

Soon he saw the big yellow 3C on the side of one dark wall. He pulled the truck over and just paused, glancing down at his phone, Spartacus’ quick dial number just under his thumb. This was stupid, he knew. He was out in the middle of nowhere with no one the wiser of where he was meeting people who’d already proven how dangerous they could be. After another minute or two, he shoved the phone into his pocket, grabbed a small LED flashlight from his glove department and headed inside.

The warehouse was big and empty, the cement floor a washed out grey with the place oddly clean in comparison to the outside appearance. As he walked further inside, bright lights turned on and continued to flip on two at a time in front of him until the place was so bright his eyes had to adjust. There, right in the middle of the place, was a wooden table, a matching chair, a strip of cloth and papers on the desk. Seeing no one else around, Agron approached. Strange, he thought, how fear seemed secondary to anger. This was it. He was going to meet the people responsible for what happened to Duro, who might have killed Chadara, and if so might be also be linked to Nasir.

Green eyes dropped to the document, a list of names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mails. He didn’t recognize most of them although that one looked like…

“Agron, good, you came.”

Agron glanced up, the male voice on the speaker sounded digitally altered in some way to conceal their identity. “What do you fucking want?” He didn’t give the pretense of being docile or happy to be here. They knew him, they claimed, and he was ready test their knowledge. “What is this, a list of names?”

“Yes, some you are familiar with, some not. Please, have a look.”

Agron picked up the paper and began turning the pages. Many of them didn’t mean anything at all to him, but this one, he thought this might have been Duro’s senior English teacher. This other one he thought might be his third cousin or something and this name, he thought that might be the name of the woman who was kind enough to sew Nasir’s name onto the gym bag for him. “Are these…”

“Friends, family, co-workers, teachers…” The voiced paused. “It’s a long list.”

“I don’t know if you are trying to threaten me with all these people but…”

“Patience Agron. Let me explain in simple details you can understand. This is the list of people who will receive Duro’s video if you do not comply with our wishes.”

Agron’s fingers curled slowly into fists. “You would ruin his life?”

“No Agron. You would. I am pleased with Duro’s performance and his behavior since. You all have complied with our simple requests so far. So long as you continue to do so, the impact of our interest on your lives will be minimal and fleeting.”

He swallowed thickly and set the document down.

“Good Agron, very good. Now I’ve had a card placed in your truck. On the back of that card is a number. You’ll become quite familiar with that number in time, but any instructions from that number will come from me, directly from me. I expect you will follow them precisely and promptly. Is that understood?”

Agron nodded.

“I cannot hear you Agron.”

The fucker could see him; Agron knew he could. Clenching his teeth he managed to squeeze out. “Yes, I understand.”

“So you say. Let’s test this theory shall we? Now, there is a strip of cloth on the desk. Tie it around your eyes.”

Agron breathed in deeply, glancing around the warehouse as he picked up the black strip of cloth, glaring at it. “You want me to blindfold myself?”

“You already know the answer to that question why ask it?”

Stiffly he complied, covering his eyes and tying it behind his head.

“Good. Now whatever you do, don’t remove the blindfold, don’t turn around and don’t react violently.”

He didn’t like the sound of that, but he waited, not even the bright light peeked through the thick fabric. Agron heard a door open to the left of him followed by steady footsteps. This person wore hard soles, but walked lightly. He felt someone come up behind him and a hand touched his arm, a strong hand but not the hands of someone who worked with his hands daily. He didn’t flinch though, he refused to flinch. He felt too much anger and desire for revenge to leave room for fear.

“Good Agron, very good.” The voice was thin, distant somehow like he was still using a device to disguise his voice again.

Internally, Agron fumed but only for a moment until his temper got the better of him. “Are you going to rape me like you raped my brother?”

There was a long pause, and Agron half-expected to be punished for his accusation, struck at the very least, and maybe even killed. Instead the man chuckled quietly. “The only way I will ever be taking you as mine Agron, is when you ask me to. I want you to remember that, mull it over a bit in your mind.”

Over his dead body would he be asking this man to do anything to him or anyone else. Agron’s loose fist tightened as he felt his grip on his temper slip.

“Unroll those fingers Agron, try to relax. Do this and I will let you go for the night.”

He had no reason to believe this man, to think for one second that he would keep his word. But with fingers still touching his arm, somehow Agron managed to relax his grip again, loosening his fist until his palm rested against his side.

“Very good, very good Agron. Don’t forget the card. You can go once you hear the door close.” And within a minute or two, he heard just that.

Quickly Agron pulled off the blindfold, but as expected, there was no sight or sound of anyone there. With a growl, he grabbed the papers and returned to his truck, finding a pale leather card holder sitting on the driver’s seat, one card in it with only a phone number. Sighing, he pulled away from the place and headed home.

This meeting only gave him more questions, not answers. He still didn’t know what these people wanted from him or why, and as he walked into the apartment, he tried to think if he could try and guess how many men were in that warehouse. At least two he decided, one that spoke to him and one that dropped off the card. The one over the speaker might not even be the same man that approached him.

“Agron.”

The light turned on once he closed the door, and he found Nasir sitting on the couch in an all too familiar grey t-shirt. If he wasn’t too busy being caught, Agron would have found the visage hot.

He forced a smile, opening a drawer to drop the document in before approaching Nasir. “I thought you were asleep.”

“I was asleep,” Nasir assured. “I had a… dream. When I woke up you weren’t there. Where did you go?”

“I just needed to go for a short walk. I had trouble sleeping too.” Agron replied smoothly, setting his keys on the nearby table.

Nasir cocked his head slightly to the right. “You went for a walk with your… truck?”

Shit. Agron thought for sure he was going to get through this smoothly. A late night walk was hardly unheard of, but if Nasir noticed his truck was gone, he needed something else to fall back on. He sighed. “Look, Nasir I just…”

Nasir dropped his eyes. “I know since coming here we haven’t been able to be together very often, and I’ve brought so much trouble with me…”

Agron shook his head, immediately cutting him off since he could see where this was headed. “Nasir, I’m not cheating on you, and I am not fleeing our bed because of anything you’re going through. I just had to… had to meet Donar at a bar for a little while.”

Brown eyes lifted immediately. “Donar?”

He forced another smile. “Yeah. He and I meet sometimes, just to unwind a little, share our burdens, and drink… nothing special.”

“But it’s so late.” Both their eyes shifted to the clock which showed one AM.

Phew, Agron thought. This was working out for him. “Not that late. You can ask Duro if you want. He knows I meet him sometimes at night. It’s been going on for years. I know I shouldn’t have snuck out on you, but I didn’t want you to worry Nasir. Sometimes I just need an old friend to talk to.”

Slowly Nasir smiled and stood, approaching him with warming eyes. “I’m sorry Agron. I was just worried. The last few days have been tough. And if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have to worry about all this.”

Agron placed a hand on Nasir’s hips, guiding him back to the bedroom. “And the next two days will be just as hard too. That’s okay; I can handle it. I want to handle it if it means I get to stay with you. We’ll do something nice this weekend, okay? Now I want to brush my teeth before I join you in bed.”

Nasir nodded, and they exchanged a quick kiss. “Okay.”

Agron watched him head down the hall before entering the bathroom to do what he said… and just a little more.

**

Donar blinked, lifting his arm from his eyes and glancing at the empty bed. Oh, that’s right. He didn’t take anyone home tonight. Fuck. That meant it was his phone that made all that racket. Who’d be contacting him this late? He rubbed his eyes and grabbed the small device, peering at the message for a bit longer than he should have trying to focus on what it said.

-Donar. I need you to cover for me. I was out with you at a bar tonight. Okay?-

Donar sighed, his long bare torso losing the same sheets Agron wound up buying Nasir except they were navy as he used his thumb to reply. –Okay. We’re up to two steaks though.-

He set the phone on the nightstand and frowned, staring up at the ceiling. There were only a few people he thought Agron might need a cover story for, and he already knew where Spartacus was tonight which left Nasir or maybe Duro but probably Nasir; Duro knew his brother too well. Fortunately, Donar knew Agron too which was why he knew the man wasn’t out cheating with someone else which meant his suspicions were starting to lead somewhere. Something was off with Agron for sure, maybe Duro too. He hadn’t heard from the kid in a while, and he just felt it in his gut.

Chapter Text

Nasir sat on the park bench, waiting nervously as he watched people walk by: students playing on their phones sporting heavy backpacks, business men and women in their suits clutching briefcases or laptop messenger bags, and of course families just walking their children, their dogs or babies in strollers.

The service the day before was sweet, and just as Agron had promised, many of his friends, men and women his boyfriend called family, came and filled most of the chairs. Pietros didn’t show up, and Nasir hadn’t been able to really talk to his friend since the night he received the mysterious text for help. The other had at least sent a follow-up letting him know he was okay, but nothing more and no explanation. Nasir wasn’t even sure Pietros knew Chadara died, and no one from work came, none of the kids and certainly not Batiatus or his wife.

He didn’t know how Duro managed it, but the chef-in-training filled several of the beautifully set tables with cucumber sandwiches, smoked salmon mousse barquettes, fresh cherry tomatoes and mozzarella ball skewers in balsamic vinegar and, much to his delight, shrimp spring rolls. The last one still drew a smile to Nasir’s face because he knew Agron must have talked to his brother; he just didn’t know when Agron would’ve had the chance. They didn’t share Chinese until after Duro went shopping, but considering how much effort Agron gave to the milk incident, he had little doubt the man would go to the store for shrimp, cabbage and carrots for him. It warmed his heart.

Nasir sighed quietly, feeling a little guilty at the pleasant memory when he mourned the loss of someone who used to be so close to him. At least Spartacus eloquently spoke for him when he couldn’t bring himself to stand in front of everyone and read his poem or speak of her. He hoped one day he could inspire others as well as Spartacus could; the man was a natural at speeches, and he listened, really listened to be able to praise her so well based on sporadic bits of information Nasir had given him over just a few weeks.

“Nasir.”

Instantly he sat a little straighter, realizing he’d let his mind wander as he waited for the man to show up. “Varinius.”

Varinius wore a black leather jacket with a darker black button-up shirt, the collar open, with equally dark jeans. Even in two layers, the man’s strong form was evident, and if Nasir didn’t know better, he would have assumed him to be ordinary and not the very rich individual he was discovering Varinius to be. He was handsome, at least, a confident smile on his face which would make the conversation a little easier he thought; Batiatus made his skin crawl whereas Varinius did not.

“I heard about Chadara. You have my heartfelt sympathies. She was a pretty girl, very energetic and ambitious.”

He hesitated, “You, you knew Chadara?”

“We spoke on occasion. She was, after all, at Batiatus’ side at some venues.”

Nasir glanced away, feeling some doubt about his plan again. He knew Chadara started going to Batiatus’ private parties, but he never found out why she wasn’t able to return to work after one of them. What if, what if Varinius had something do to with that?

After prolonged silence Varinius pressed Nasir gently. “You contacted me?”

Nasir took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, yes I did. Thank you for you coming.” He toyed with his black and blue American Eagle shirt, knowing the man would recognize it and hoping it would play in his favor. “I’m sorry. Yeah I did.” He repeated and glanced to the side finding it difficult to even know where to start. “You’ve known Batiatus for a while?”

“I have for a few years now.” Varinius confirmed.

“And… you’re not friends, but you’re familiar with his business, and he’s trying to win your approval?”

For a few moments, Varinius remained quiet. Nasir actually raised his eyes to see the man studiously examining him before answering. “Yes, that is true.”

Biting his lower lip, Nasir continued, this time just letting his thoughts spill out. “I haven’t been to work most the week. I’m sure Batiatus is furious with me and, and with Chadara gone it’ll be harder for me to get away with much.”

“You no longer wish to work for Batiatus?” Varinius inquired.

He lowered his eyes and head trying to keep focused while not letting his emotions get the better of him. “I… I need work, but I’m afraid to go back or leave. I just, well I was hoping you could help me.”

Varinius reached over and gently gripped his chin, lifting and turning Nasir towards him. “I told you before. You have no reason to show or know shame around me Nasir. Now I may be able to help you, but you haven’t exactly told me what you want me to do.”

Brown eyes met steady blue and Nasir wondered why men who were so powerful, so wealthy and so handsome tried to control everyone around them. Was it never enough? Could these men not buy all they desired without still wanting to take from others what wouldn’t be given? But he had to remind himself Varinius was better of the two. If the rumors were true about his boss, he needed help, and it just wasn’t something Agron could deal with right now.

“I need protection from Batiatus and… work.”

Varinius leaned back, his expression and eyes unreadable. He barely knew the man but he hoped him to be less cruel than the one who signed his paycheck each week. “Batiatus has a strong desire to be involved with myself and my associates. I’m not entirely certain I would want him more connected than he is now.”

Nasir’s heart sank.

“But for your sake I am willing to take the risk. I assume your current relationship requires you to keep certain aspects of your life unknown?”

Nasir straightened himself. “It would be… better if he thought everything was settled and mostly unchanged for now.”

“Nasir, you won’t have to lie to him because you will still work there, as you always have. The difference is you will be under my protection and employ and therefore receive lighter work shifts and not work Saturdays.”

His brow furrowed. “I don’t understand… You want me to still work for Batiatus?”

“For now, yes. He will consent to my requirements until you are comfortable making the change known. At that point, you will not have to go to the theater ever again. I will have something more suitable for your talents arranged.”

Nasir swallowed. “And why don’t you want me to work Saturdays?”

“Because the price for my assistance is for you to spend Saturday evenings with me.”

Almost immediately he shook his head, pulling away from Varinius’ grip. “I can’t spend the night with another man. Agron would never understand. He’d want to know why I didn’t come home, and the anger….”

Varinius smiled and quickly corrected Nasir’s assumption. “I do not require you to spend the entire evening with me Nasir. I told you I understand you belong to another, this Agron. It is not my intention or desire to claim you as my own. I only wish to sample now and then. I will pick you up at the theater, and take you to my home. You’ll be returned to the theater or whatever drop-off location you would prefer long before the night is ended.”

This deception would not be well-received by Agron, but if he stayed with Batiatus, it was only a matter of time before the man began to sell him off to others, all under a threat of one kind or another. “There wouldn’t be any others, not even that man with you in the theater?”

“My friend is currently and will remain out of the country for some time. If your requirement is that you are mine alone, then I consent. Now if you need time to think this over…”

“I don’t.” Nasir voiced confidently, raising his chin. He had to take a chance, to get away even if it was gradual and into the clutches of another. “I’ll do it, but… don’t refer to me as yours. I don’t belong to anyone. This is my choice. I think it’s the best one to make right now.” And the safest. He could avoid Batiatus’ wrath and punishment, and Agron wouldn’t get directly involved or be hurt as a result. Maybe down the road, if his identity could be discovered, there might be more options available to him.

Varinius smiled broadly. “Good. I will escort you to work today and speak to Batiatus myself. You have nothing to worry about, nothing to worry about at all.” The man paused. “But I think there is one thing we should test before we come to an agreement.”

“Test?”

Instead of answering, Varinius ran his finger along Nasir’s jaw, leaned forward and pressed his lips against Nasir’s.

Nasir closed his eyes, slightly worried about being in public like this, but he knew how to play this part well enough. He opened his mouth, felt the tongue slip between his lips and teeth. Varinius did not push or become too aggressive, his hand moved down to Nasir’s neck but didn’t grab him or try to control him physically. He consented to the exploration of the man’s tongue as Chadara taught him to do years ago, letting this happen to him. And really the kiss would not have been bad, not terrible at all had he not met Agron to know better. When they parted, Nasir glanced away, saying nothing.

Varinius stood. “Come Nasir. Let me show you what a man of position and wealth can do.”

Nasir followed.

**

Agron placed his duffle bag on the bench near his locker, number 55, and smiled at number 56.

Mira promised him the name plate would come soon. Since they didn’t know his last name, the plate would simply say “Nasir” which was fine by Agron. He hoped the application of the plate would give Nasir a sense of permanence here, letting the younger man feel like he really belonged even when Agron was not actually in the building.

He had just removed his jacket when someone shouted behind him.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Green eyes blinked, and he turned, setting the jacket down carefully, prepared for a fight when he realized he was looking up at Donar who wore a loose black T-shirt, tight jeans, and a prominent scowl. Oh good, at least it wasn’t Crixus entering one his unexplained rages again. “Oh you mean the text? Listen, I just need you too…”

“You told Spartacus I slept with Saxa?”

“Wait… what?” Agron frowned. Did he actually do that?

Donar threw his arms up in frustration. “Do they have a name for what’s wrong with you? Why would you do that to me!?”

“Ummm, are you sure because I don’t really remember saying that?” Agron wasn’t feigning innocence at this point because he couldn’t remember what was said or when for most of this past week.

Donar leaned in real close. “You don’t remember telling Spartacus that Saxa and I might have slept together, that we were in bed together Friday night after the fights?”

Agron scratched the back of his head. “Well you were in bed…”

“Watching a movie! Jesus Agron.” Donar slammed Agron’s locker closed. “Why do you think every time I’m in bed with a woman I’m having sex?”

“Well that is kind of all you talk about. There really wasn’t a need to slam…”

“God, I’ll never be able to take a shower now. It’s too dangerous.” Donar’s voice rose an octave.

“Look, I’m sure Gannicus isn’t going to mind too much. I mean he sleeps with at least what… six women at a time?”

Donar up and smacked him on the back of the head. “You’re an idiot.”

“Hey!” Agron stood. “I’m not an idiot. Why would you say that?”

“Because you think I’m worried about Gannicus beating me up. It’s Saxa that’s going to gut me. She’s going to think I’m running around telling people I banged her and then she’s going to...” Donar looked truly distressed at the moment, words lost on the tip of his tongue.

“Donar, I’m sure she’s not going gut you. Saxa isn’t about to just go around ripping people’s stomach’s open because they run off at the mouth.”

“You’re right! She guts people she doesn’t know. She’ll be more than pissed that it’s me she thinks is bragging about adding her as a notch to my belt. She’ll castrate me. She’ll take her two knives and just rip them right off. I’ll be lucky if it’s a clean cut!”

Agron tried not to grin, tried really hard and managed to mostly keep a straight face but when he spoke a slight chuckle did come out. “Saxa isn’t going to gut you or, you know, castrate you. I’m sure she’ll be fine once she understands this is just a big misunderstanding.”

“Good, so you’re going to fix it. You’re going to wait until she gets out of class today and fix it.” Donar placed his hands on his hips.

Was that a new belt? It looked like a nice one, leather and some intricate stitching. Focus, Agron told himself. He had to focus, though he hesitated. “She’s in class today?” Normally Saxa took off early in the mornings; he rarely saw her except at company events.

Donar grabbed a yellow piece of paper off the bench nearby. “Don’t you ever fucking read these Agron? Saxa is helping Mira and Naevia set up Barre classes at night. They’ve been adding bars to a room all week, and there was a memo too.”

Agron grabbed the poster, peering at the picture of women in dark tights, gripping black bars. “This looks like ballet. Crixus must be shitting bricks.” He grinned. Watching Crixus get all knotted about something could be the highlight of any day.

Donar snatched the paper away. “Of course he’s not. When Naevia’s involved, everything’s golden. Now you’re going to talk to Saxa right? You’re going to make this right?”

Agron sighed, rolling his shoulders. “Donar I really think this will blow over.”

“Because if you don’t, I’m going to have to talk to Spartacus about it myself to help calm things down, and let him know you raced out of my house in the middle of the night and have been acting strange ever since.”

The smile faded and he stood cautiously. “That’s not true. I’m not acting strange Donar. I’m just…” He pursed his lips when Donar showed him the text which asked him to cover him for a night.

“So what’s this about exactly?”

“I’ll talk to her.” Agron replied quickly, opening his locker and shoving the rest of his stuff in there.

“You sure that’s easier than just telling me what’s going on?” Donar’s tone suddenly changed making Agron realize silence lingered on a little longer than he intended.

Agron had to avoid Donar’s eyes as he pulled on his work clothes. He just got back from the store, and wanted to smell fresh for a certain someone. “For now, yeah. You know I’d try to make this right regardless of that… right?” Agron felt phantom weights pull on his shoulders again though he tried to remain erect and confident, even in Donar’s presence.

“Yeah. That’s why I’m standing here and not in Spartacus’ office still trying to convince him I didn’t fuck around with Saxa. Apparently he frowns on that.” Donar placed a strong hand on his shoulder, squeezing right where Agron’s neck met his collarbone. That hurt a little. “Hey, can you look me in the eye and just tell me you’re okay?”

God, Donar bounced from concern to anger pretty quickly. Agron began to wonder if that was what people saw in him these past couple of years, and he wondered if this was where Duro got some of his erratic behaviors.

Agron took a deep breath. At least with Donar he could lie, had before too and gotten away with it. He dropped his hand to the latch on his locker toying with it to help with the flow of words. “I’m just going through some things right now. Everyone’s okay but… I’m just not sure I’m enough support for them. With Chadara dying, and Nasir and Duro taking it so hard, things are just, well they’re off right now.”

Donar shook his head and frowned. “Yeah I feel really bad about Chadara. I mean I only slept with her once, but had I known she was in trouble I would’ve…”

He turned immediately, giving Donar his most outraged expression. “You did what?”

Donar backed away ever so slightly. “Just the one time man!”

“That’s Nasir’s sister you fucking asshole!” This time Agron didn’t lower his voice. “It’s when you took her home wasn’t it? Son of a bitch, I knew I should have stopped you. Donar what the hell were you thinking? Duro was dating her!”

Donar looked just a bit sheepish. “Well he was doing more than that… but that was really after. They’d just met. Look I backed off as soon as I knew, and she got all weird and clingy. I didn’t want to tell you because Duro was really into her and…”

Agron advanced towards him. “I should let Saxa castrate you right in this locker room, do womankind a real favor.”

“Hey you said she wouldn’t do that, and you said you would talk to her! It’s not my fault Agron. I wasn’t…”

“Gentlemen…”

They both turned to see Spartacus standing in the door frame in his black Rebel logo wear with another man in a grey and blue suit wearing shiny shoes. This man looked to be six foot one inches with short light brown hair and scars along his right cheek, like something hot had been held there a moment.

“This is Hector. He’s been sent from the financial institution to have a look around and get a better idea of how we operate in response to a few inquiries I’ve made about the loan they’re offering. This is Agron, he’s one of the partners here and is reviewing the proposal as well. This is Donar, one of our most seasoned trainers and the one who typically has the fullest schedule around here.”

Sharp eyes looked at them both before the man jotted a few things down in his portfolio.

“Hey, what are you…” Donar began to question Hector but Agron gave him a not so gentle nudge with his elbow.

Hector spoke. “So these men were both fighters once?”

“Yes.” Spartacus offered without giving either of them a chance to respond themselves. “Agron was working his way through the program very quickly and undefeated, and Donar had a very good go at it before we peeled off and began the gym.”

“I see. And with the expansion you’re hoping to hire more fighters as trainers?”

“Actually, I’ve already begun preparing others for those roles. Mira and Naevia, you met them earlier, are starting some group classes this week with Saxa’s assistance; she was the blonde leading the class you saw in the other room. We have another individual, Nasir, that I will help get started. We have funds set aside for classes and certifications I am hoping to send all of them through prior to setting up individual clients with them of course.”

“You said Nasir right? I thought I had him marked down for potential staff in the store.”

Spartacus shook his head. “No, no that’s not right or at least it didn’t come from me. Nasir has more potential than that. I have some younger kids we can look at for the store.”

Hector nodded and walked away.

Before following, Spartacus’ gaze shifted towards Agron and Donar again. “Donar, in my office in five.”

Donar gave Agron a nasty sideways glance. “Sure. Let me just get my stuff together. I’ll wait for you.”

Once the other three left, Agron was alone, and he cursed quietly. He didn’t know how much was heard, but his life just seemed to get more and more complex. He slammed his fist against the locker, not too hard this time, and went to look for Saxa. He could at least do one thing right today.

Saxa was easy to find, gathering the supplies from her last class. With her long hair, toned body and quick smile, Saxa looked like she easily belonged on the cover of some swimsuit magazine or fashion blog, except Saxa was easily the most vicious and fierce person he had ever met, not just amongst women but out of all of them. He didn’t need to really question Donar’s fear. Saxa and Mira used to go at it when tempers were high, alcohol flowed and disagreements with referees spilled over into after the fight parties. Hair was lost. She participated in a number of fights herself too, official and maybe unofficial. The scars along her thighs and near her hips, well that didn’t detract from her beauty at all.

“Agron.” She turned, vibrant light eyes peering right at him, steady and predatory like.

Agron cleared his throat. He wasn’t afraid of anyone, and had been part of the team brave enough to try and ease Saxa down from threating to cut the throats of opponents to trying very hard not scare away their customers. She cleaned up well, he thought, and her accent, well he could see why some men would put up with Zumba to enjoy her presence. “Look, I might have said something without really thinking it through about you and Donar.”

Instantly she pouted, but it wasn’t the sweet innocent plea that Mira sported at will. This pout unnerved him. “I was hoping you were coming here to speak about Gannicus.”

“Gannicus?” Agron took the bait without even thinking about it.

“He did not talk to you about weekend at the coast, very nice hot tubs?”

Agron frowned. “Why would Gannicus talk to me about… wait, you don’t think…”

Saxa approached him, smiling again proving the pout was all for show. She ran her fingers along his wrist. “Me thinks that seeing you dance with Gannicus makes for nice show?”

He yanked his wrist away. “Hey, that was just teaching, nothing more. You know I’m dating Nasir.”

Her eyes lit up. “Yes, bring Nasir, bring Nasir too.”

“No, no, no.” Agron raised his arms, retreating back towards the door. “I’m not bringing Nasir with me to join you and Gannicus in whatever it is you two do.”

“We could dance.” She teased with a grin. “The sight of you and Gannicus, I like. The sight of you and Nasir, I like better.”

Agron scowled at her. “Wait, when did you see me dance with Nasir?”

Saxa ran her finger along a nearly white table that held the pamphlets for her classes and Cross Fit trainings. “It was not difficult to find where you go. Handsome dark man made Agron very angry. I liked angry Agron.”

Holy shit. Agron just blinked at her, dumb founded for a moment. “Was, was Gannicus there? Did he say anything to anyone else?” His voice dropped to a whisper without him even realizing it.

Saxa laughed, neared him again and grasped his shoulder so she could pull herself up to kiss him quickly on the cheek. “You worry too much. I was there alone, at least for part of the night. Your secret is safe with me. But Agron, aren’t you just a little curious about…” The blonde paused, looking behind them. “Nasir, you’re early.”

Agron backpedaled again, this time quickly enough he almost tripped which forced Saxa to grab the first thing she could grasp to keep him from falling, which of course was the waistband of his pants. He heard a tear. The pants went down.

“Briefs would be better!” Saxa teased.

Damn it. He liked those pants, and he felt his ears burn as he yanked them upwards holding them upright with his fist. By the time he raised his eyes, he met brown eyes before Nasir simply turned and walked away. He chased after him immediately, still gripping his pants. “Nasir!”

Nasir opened his locker and gave Agron a quizzical expression.

“It’s not what it looked like.”

He received a very serious gaze in return. “It wasn’t a beautiful, strong woman hanging off of you who then tried to remove your pants?”

“I did sort of trip.” Agron felt his heartbeat quickly. “But I wasn’t… I mean I didn’t…”

A slow smile formed as Nasir placed his bag in the locker. Next came the open laugh. “Relax Agron. I’m not worried about it. I was just walking away so I didn’t bust a gut laughing at you.”

Agron rubbed his forehead. “Wait… what? Why not? I could land Saxa if I wanted to.”

Nasir snorted. “Right… except for the fact you’re gay. I don’t really see women as a threat Agron. I’m surprised you’d think I would… well maybe that’s not too surprising considering the last reaction you had when someone just talked to me.”

Agron huffed but reached out and ran his fingers along Nasir’s jaw. “How was work today? Did you get everything straightened out or at least as best we can for now? I wish you would have let me come with you. I could have made sure things were okay.”

A shy smile formed and Nasir looked away without actually pulling away from Agron’s touch. “Yeah, it’s handled for now. I’ll be fine. I promise. Have you had a chance to talk to Spartacus yet about my… situation?”

Agron shook his head. “Not yet. He’s been gone most the day, and I didn’t want to have the conversation on the phone. As soon as he’s done chewing out Donar’s ass, mine will be next, so I’ll ask then.”

Brown eyes returned to him. “Why would Spartacus be mad at you?”

Agron sighed. “God, don’t ask. I am not even sure I followed what happened this last hour. You ready for some push-ups today and maybe some…”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind the push-ups too much but can we do more of the weight training with the ummm weights?”

Agron smiled, moving in closer. “Dumbbells, they’re called dumbbells.” He whispered.

“And what are the not dumb ones called?”

“I think you mean barbells, the ones you slip the weights on and off?” Agron snickered.

“Yeah, so the dumbbells then.”

“You liked those?” Agron asked nuzzling Nasir’s hair and ear. He could smell that shampoo again, rosemary for sure. It was a nice replacement for the buttery oil smell that sometimes clung to his young lover’s body and clothes.

“I liked being close to you when we worked. Can we do that again?”

“Yeah, you sure you’re okay?”

Nasir nodded. “Yeah, things are better now. Come on let’s get going. Aah better change your pants first though.”

Nasir didn’t make it two feet before Agron grasped his wrist and pulled him back again, planting a warm kiss against his forehead. “Not out there. Come on, let’s go to a back room so we can avoid staring. Spartacus will find me when he’s ready.” He let go, and changed to his spare set real quick like, anxious.

The room they selected was large enough for classes, but it had two walls with mirrors, a padded floor and an area for water bottles which told him someone managed to convince Spartacus they needed an entire room devoted to yoga or Pilates. Agron decided he could get mad about that later, instead he moved a table over closer where he set the water bottles down and two sets of weights, fives and eights.

“You’ve been working hard Nasir. I know it’s been a few days since we’ve done a full routine, but I think you’re ready.”

“Yeah?” Nasir took a drink, setting a partially eaten nutrition bar on the table before joining Agron, the Pure dark chocolate and berry bars Agron gradually switched to exclusively receiving no complaints.

Agron stepped up behind him, placed the eights in each hand and ran his fingers along Nasir’s arms. “Deep breath, try to relax. Good. Now lift and down, lift and down, breathe in, breathe out. Good.” He felt Nasir press back against him and just held steady, adjusting Nasir’s stance slightly and ensuring hekept his wrists pointed outward. “Good posture, there you go. Keep your upper body still, no swinging. Good.” This gave him a reason to stand real close, to encourage Nasir to remain upright and still. Soon it was quiet, just Nasir’s breathing filling the room which deepened slightly. “Has Spartacus talked to you about training at all?”

After a couple of profound breaths, Nasir shook his head and smiled. “No, why? Are you growing tired of me already?”

Agron chuckled. “Never. No I meant, learning to train others.”

Nasir lowered his arms and glanced behind him. “Me? You mean have me train others? I don’t know anything about training.”

Gently Agron swatted Nasir’s right thigh. “Hey, keep going. Let’s not lose the rhythm, you were doing well.”

“Okay.” Nasir started again. “Did he say something to you?”

“Not exactly to me. I know he’s looking into it though. Spartacus is rarely wrong about someone’s potential. As for physical training, there are certifications, classes you can take and then you can learn from us.”

“Learn from you?” Nasir asked softly.

“He’ll want you to learn from others too but yeah me.”

Nasir smiled, glancing to the side although he didn’t let his arms stop moving. “Do you have a degree Agron?”

“Sort of.” Agron pushed himself to provide more information. This was Nasir after all, someone who shouldn’t have to pull information out of him anymore. “I have an Associate’s Degree in Physical Education. I transferred some of my college courses from before and finished a program here. Spartacus might have threatened me once or twice if I didn’t finish the program, and he wants me to go all the way for a bachelor's degree eventually.”

“Threatened you with your job?” Nasir sounded worried.

“Sort of, but not in the way you’re thinking Nasir. He probably would have paid me the same, let me keep my title and then promptly hand me a broom, mop and plunger each morning instead of clients.”

Nasir snickered. “I can’t imagine you on your hands and knees unclogging a toilet Agron.”

Agron huffed. “You probably don’t have to. I’m sure Mira has a picture of that somewhere. Gannicus and Donar thought it would be funny to lock me in the shower once and then clog all the bathroom stalls.”

Shoulders shook in front of him with instant laughter. “They didn’t?”

“Oh they did.” Agron assured. “About half an inch of water all around me, flushed every one of them.”

“And Spartacus made you clean up after them?”

“Well they were almost falling over drunk, and he had somewhere to be. It was okay though; Crixus helped me later.”

This time Nasir did stop and turned to face Agron. “You’ve been friends with Crixus before?”

Agron shook his head. “I’d never really say friends. We were on speaking terms before, at least enough for him to grab a mop.”

“And not now?”

“Not really.”

“Why?”

Agron sighed. He knew it was coming. Nasir was not the type to simply accept information and not ask questions. “It was my fight that ruined everything Nasir. And when Naevia was hurt badly after, I just, I was too angry to be there for him. I just, I just wanted to get back at the world. I didn’t get it.”

Nasir placed a hand against his upper-arm. “And now?”

Agron gazed down at his lover and smiled weakly. “Now I understand better. Did you ever finish high school Nasir?”

Nasir shook his head. “I was… close but I didn’t make it.”

“That’s okay. How close, do you remember?”

He felt Nasir tense up but the smaller man only dropped his eyes. “I started calculus, and I think I was in advance world history.” Agron’s grin must have really showed because Nasir’s voice trailed off as he looked up at the man. “What?”

“I think we know someone who can help you finish your diploma. It sounds like you were really close Nasir, maybe even a little ahead. Did you have two years left?”

“I was a junior, so just over a year maybe.” Nasir hesitated. “You really think I have a chance of finding out my information. I mean if I can’t will you still…?”

Agron gave him a quick kiss. “Let’s not worry about the worst scenario right now Nasir. You’ve got a place under my roof and in our bed, in that order of course, no matter what.”

Nasir snorted and his fingers twitched against the textured thick bar beneath his fingers. “Your bed Agron.”

“I believe the extra dozen pillows and white tiger says otherwise.”

A minor smile reformed. “Only three more pillows.”

“I don’t know why you need them. You spend all night with your head on my shoulder anyway.”

“They’re a little bony you know. We should get Duro to make some more of that custard.”

Agron spun Nasir around carefully. “Back to work. Thanks to you, Duro’s been showing off and my caloric intake is well above average. Speaking of Duro, unless, you know, Donar is an ass tonight, he’s taking Duro back to his place.”

Nasir began lifting again. “Yeah, Donar wants him to hang out?”

“Oh he loves it when Duro cooks for him. Donar doesn’t know it, but tonight he’s getting T-bone steak and lobster with some sort of fufu rice pilaf thing and a crème, ummm, a crème…”

“Chocolate Pots de Crème, it’s a French dish Agron although it has a lot of eggs in it so it’s mostly like a custard.”

Agron’s eyes grew huge, and he felt his heart skip a beat. “Can you, can you make that?”

Nasir chuckled but kept pumping his weights as ordered. “Duro showed me yesterday I think… takes about ten minutes and maybe two hours to chill. But if Duro is…”

Agron grabbed his shoulders and stepped around in front of Nasir. “Just ten minutes?”

Nasir hesitated. “Well it might take me a little longer. He only showed me once. I’m not sure we have everything we need if Duro is taking it with him to Donar’s.”

“I’ll get you anything you need.”

The smile that Agron loved formed again, and Nasir’s face just lit up. “Okay. I’ll try and make it for you, but why is Duro going to Donar’s tonight? I guess I figured that meant you had plans?”

“We have plans, nice ones. I’ll just…”

Mira peeked her head into the room. “Damn. I really, really thought I would catch you two up to something. This is such a disappointment. Say, Agron, if you have a minute, Spartacus wants to talk to you.”

Agron glowered at her. “I told you before I never did anything like that… here.”

She gave them both her most innocent expression. “I never accused you of anything. Go talk to our man Agron, I’ll keep Nasir going, get him all sweaty for you.”

Agron scowled at her and grabbed a towel. “I’ll be right back Nasir. I promise.”
Out in the main hall, his nemesis seemed to be having light conversation with the man Spartacus brought to tour the place. He didn’t like the idea of someone like that getting information from Crixus, but he knew better than try and get between them. So instead, Agron gave Crixus a sideways glance as he returned to the main room, trying to get a hint about what this was all about and maybe if he had anything to do with the real reason Spartacus wanted to talk to him. The man ignored him, which was usually fine by him but today it just irked him. This meant he went into Spartacus’ office again without a clue as to what his boss wanted. Hopefully he wasn’t too mad about the argument he overheard earlier.

“Close the door Agron.”

Damn, Agron tried to keep his back straight and quietly closed the door, glancing at the chair already pulled out for him. “Spartacus I’m so sorry about before. I didn’t know we had guests in the building, or I would have kept my mouth shut.”

“Please, have a seat Agron.” Spartacus looked serious behind the desk like that.

Agron sighed and sat across from the large desk. It was strange seeing Spartacus on the other side of the desk when more often than not the man just sort of leaned against it when they talked. He remembered when everything was different, when they were almost equal and training and fighting. Something felt off here so he tried again. “I know I’ve struggled a bit in the past, haven’t really kept up with everyone else in the number of clients, but I’ve finished all my paperwork, got my calendar hooked up right and if we need anyone to talk to that man, umm Hector, I’ll give him my most sincere apologies.”

“I am not demoting or firing you, Agron.” Spartacus pursed his lips. “You should know better than that although I wished you two hadn’t been yelling at each other about sleeping with women, one of them dead, in the middle of our locker room.”

“It’s really more of an employee area…”

“And Nasir is not the only one who gets to play on the other side is he? Anyway, you don’t realize it, but you stabilize this place.” Spartacus raised his hand at Agron’s doubtful expression. “You’re a leader, just like me, just like Crixus. It’s just a different kind of leadership. We’re doing okay as far as business is concerned. There’s always risk out there, but for now, I think we’re pretty steady. With the expansion idea, we’re going to have to do better. Did you get a chance to read the proposal?”

Agron leaned forward. “Yeah, the numbers are tight, but if Naevia and Mira are up to chasing fad classes.”

“Agron…” Spartacus gave him that disappointed look again.

He sighed. “I mean the popular crowd pleasing classes, we should be able to meet the numbers requested to make the payment. I know it’s a risk Spartacus, but I think we can do it. We’re securing the loan with the existing business and the money we’ve put into it right?”

“And a little more. I would put up a little more than that to keep the amount we borrow in check and also an additional discount on the interest rate. I already spoke with the gentleman about that.”

Agron drew his brow together. “Like how much more?”

“If we decide to go through with the expansion, you’ll certainly see the numbers before you sign Agron. So you’re in then?”

Agron nodded. “I really want this expansion. I think it’ll give us a chance to do more and accommodate more employees.”

“Speaking of employees.” Spartacus smiled and tapped a familiar manila folder. “You’re down to only a couple of weeks. How’s he doing?”

Relief released the tension building in Agron’s form. He wouldn’t have admitted it readily to anyone, but he needed and wanted this job. He couldn’t imagine working somewhere else right now, and if an expansion could ensure that future, he was all in. He had the freedom he wanted with just enough pay to make plans with a certain someone who was quickly occupying more of his thoughts and hopes. “You mean Nasir? Yeah he’s doing great. I raised his weights to eight today, really he’s good for ten but I want him to have some energy for tonight.” Agron cleared his throat having no intention of elaborating. “He’s still doing the jump rope routine, and we started some machine work too. He can do some pretty solid push-ups which I’m sure he’ll want you to see soon. Next week we’ll try some pull-ups.” Agron frowned. Spartacus didn’t look surprised but also not really happy either. “I don’t understand. You’re not looking glad.”

Spartacus opened the file. “Well you took care of the questionable part of town he lived in but the employment at the Villa remains a problem. Did you get a chance to ask him about his run in with the police yet?”

Agron shook his head. “Soon though. Things are just now settling down again. Nasir worked this morning, Duro has a partial shift tonight… we’re just you know, getting going again. I swear I’ll ask.”

“It’s okay Agron. I trust you.” Spartacus tapped the desk after a moment. “I’ve been watching you and Nasir pretty closely as you’ve worked. The kind of training Nasir is receiving is the kind of training I intended for us to provide when we shifted some of our energy away from the competitive fields to something more personal. You’ve made a real connection with him, and drawn out a lot of potential. Hopefully my trainers don’t all intend to sleep with their trainees but… I’d like to use Nasir as part of our marketing campaign.”

“You know Gannicus has been doing that for…” The agitation written all over Agron’s face slowly faded and was replaced with guilt and uncertainty once his brain registered what was actually being said. “I don’t know if he would be interested in that.”

“He’d be paid for his time, receive free membership at the gym as well as other perks being part of The Rebel family... and it would be a good way to get him started with us sooner than if we waited to get him set up for some physical education classes.”

Agron fidgeted slightly on the chair. “I’ll talk to him about it.”

“Good. Take your time. We’re just starting to mock up the campaign. The decision doesn’t have to be made right away.”

Agron nodded, and then shifted some more. Naturally, Spartacus knew the tell signs of him trying to bring something up so he patiently waited for Agron to continue. “Nasir has a few problem areas when it comes to finding new employment though.”

Spartacus leaned on his bellows and entwined his fingers. “Explain.”

“Well, I’ve hinted before that he grew up in the foster care system, but it turns out he and Chadara ran away from it. His last family, there was some kind of abuse there, so they left abruptly. He doesn’t have any of his documentation, things he needs for services and employment. That’s why he hasn’t gotten any state help or financial assistance. He… he doesn’t like being around doctors, so I think the father from that house was a doctor. Oh, and I think this boss of his, Batiatus, hurts people who try to leave his theater, so he’s afraid to leave it, but he doesn’t want me to interfere with that. He’ll probably be pretty pissed I told you, but since you told me about Naevia, I figured you already knew… about that.” He took a breath.

Spartacus’ brow matched the frown he formed with his lips. “He doesn’t have a birth certificate or social security card?”

“Or even a last name…” Agron added. “Or at least he doesn’t remember it. He doesn’t want to work for us until this gets all straightened out, and I think Nasir’s afraid it won’t be straightened out.”

“And Batiatus knows about this because the ID Nasir has been using is fake and given to him by the man?”

“Yeah, which is why he didn’t give it to us here, but I remember him using it at the coast.” Agron felt relief already because Spartacus didn’t seem entirely surprised. He could already see the man’s cogs turning. “And Nasir’s convinced Batiatus would use him working here against us for reasons I don’t really understand.”

“Batiatus and I didn’t have a good parting.” Spartacus took out his phone peering at the screen. “I know someone who specializes in discreet information gathering; I’ll set something up. In the meantime why don’t see you if Nasir would be willing to work with you for strictly cash.”

Agron blinked. “With me?”

Spartacus’ sharp eyes lifted to meet Agron’s gaze; the man smiled. “You two have great chemistry. It will work well for the marketing material I have in mind. Can I count on you to be there for the vote?”

Agron nodded, his mind still processing the idea that he and Nasir might be modeling for this place soon. “Yeah, but what about Crixus?”

“The new expansion is exactly what he is looking for, and we almost have two athletes signed courtesy of our new financial partner. I really think he wants to see this place succeed.” Spartacus set his phone aside. “You can go Agron. Please let me know what Nasir thinks about the idea, and show up on time at the next meeting so you can vote. I’ll let you know when my contact is available to start working Nasir’s case.”

Agron stood and turned to leave.

“And Agron…”

He turned back towards Spartacus.

“His fake IDs are some of the best I’ve seen to date. I recognized them for what they were when were at the coast and he showed them to be able to ride the quads; I just wasn’t sure why he had them. You can trust me, and don’t forget to ask about the police. It’s important.”

Agron nodded.

As Agron left Mira slipped in, her brow raised ever so slightly at her man’s direction. “What happened to letting nature take its course, letting them figure this all out on their own?”

Spartacus tucked the file back into his drawer and made a quick mark in his notebook. “They’re putting in a lot of effort and a lot of work… on basic needs. I’ve got a good feeling about Nasir. Once he’s set up properly here, I want to get him working with some others. That’s going to be hard for Agron. They need solid footing now so he can get through that.”

Mira pursed her lips. “Agron’s his rock. That’s going to be hard on Nasir too. I’m not sure he can handle it yet.”

Spartacus raised his brow slightly in surprise at the comment. “You think Agron is the stronger of the two. Interesting.”

“You don’t?”

He only gave his lover a knowing smile.

Chapter Text

Spartacus Love Is Hard Chapter 29 the Notebook

Chapter 29 – The Notebook

The rest of Agron and Nasir’s session was spent working on weights and doing more jump rope routines. By the time they finished, Nasir felt sore and out of practice again. It amazed him how easily he felt out of shape after just under a week of not going to the gym. A quick shower and change of clothes at least rejuvenated him again and he ventured to the truck expecting to find Agron and waited when he did not. Nasir wondered what Spartacus wanted with his lover, but his mind didn’t linger there too long.

He began to consider if it could all be true. Would everyone here actually be able to help him regain his identity, earn his diploma? If he accomplished those two things, what choices would he have then? He wanted to cut ties with almost all he knew before he walked into The Rebel and tried to find more in life. With Chadara gone and Pietros barely responding it seemed like most of his previous life was already behind him… except the Villa. But he didn’t want to get his hopes up even if his heart truly desired to shed himself of anything that might weigh down his new relationship.

Nasir must have had a pretty solemn expression on his face by the time Agron wandered out because the man tossed his duffle bag in the back of the truck and touched his cheek gently with a strong hand. “Nasir, you okay? You’ve been a little… off all day.”

He gazed up into those piercing green eyes and gave Agron a weak smile. “Just thinking is all. You seem to stimulate that more often than you can imagine. You said we have plans tonight?”

Agron looked like he wanted to press the issue but he backed down in favor of something more promising. “Yeah, but let’s swing by the store and pick up what you need for the chocolate dessert thing.”

“Chocolate Pots de Crème.” Nasir replied climbing into the passenger seat.

Now shopping with Agron turned out to be a completely different experience than going to a grocery store with his brother. Agron walked down the aisles grabbing what he needed with only a quick glance at the selection of items and always took the first one his fingers touched. If there were two options, he took the one on sale. He didn’t study the labels or inspect any of the produce carefully, avoided the dried bin section entirely and grabbed the blue labeled milk, not even checking the expiration date. They were out of the store within fifteen minutes with but a couple words uttered between them. Only after they were in the truck did the taller man turn to Nasir and curse. “Shit Nasir. I should have asked if you needed anything. I just, well I get into this zone to get out as soon as possible, and I didn’t ask you if you have what you need for lunch or breakfast, or if there was anything you wanted.”

Nasir laughed quietly, securing his seat belt. This was the same man that wound up spending how long picking up almost a half dozen milk options? “Agron, I don’t know if you’ve noticed it or not, but Duro keeps that place pretty well stocked, and it’s more than I’ve ever dreamed of. I’m fine.”

Agron scowled briefly. “Nasir. I don’t want you to be fine; I want you to be happy.”

His words made Nasir’s smile widen instantly. “I’m happy Agron. We exercised together today. I get to go home with you, and I think you have a plan I am anxious to see. If it’s important to you that I ask for things from the store when I don’t have money of my own to buy it…” He tried and failed not to look defeated with his current situation but managed to continue. “I’ll try to remember to do that next time.”

“Nasir… you’ll be able to contribute someday. If it is with money, that’s fine, but maybe it will be something else, something of equal value, just as loved. For now I just need help and assurance that you’re getting what you need from me.”

His first instinct was to drop his chin and shift his eyes, but he heard multiple voices in his head tell him to know no shame. Some of those voices were warm and loving, wanting to lift him up, and others, well he wasn’t sure what Varinius’ angle was yet, but the man didn’t want him feeling embarrassment either. Nasir kept his head level and he reached out and grabbed Agron’s knee. “Agron, you give me love and support, a place to sleep at night and a place I feel safe, and… you’ve been giving me so much since I first walked into The Rebel that it’s difficult for me to even think about asking for more. I’m learning my voice and mind with your help, but believe me when I say that I’ve never entered a grocery store with you or your brother and walked away lacking.”

Agron snorted briefly, giving him a fleeting roll of the eyes before he pulled away from their spot and headed home. “Now you’re just making fun when I was being so sincere too.”

Nasir giggled and grinned feeling the weight lift from his heart. “Only a little. It’s a good thing we’re exercising again with all this food around. I don’t know how attractive I would be round.”

“You’d be pretty cute fat Nasir , more to hold.”

A light blush warmed his cheeks. He didn’t know how Agron managed it, but the man often said just the right thing at the right time when it came to any remarks about his appearance. “You’re just saying that. A chubby little Nasir in a restaurant would not have gained your attention.”

Instantly Agron rejected his claim. “I told you it was your eyes, you’re expression, the…” They entered the highway, forcing Agron to focus on his driving for a minute although he quickly continued. “I can’t explain it well Nasir. There was fire in you just waiting to come out. I could almost feel it, and I just knew when you gave it to someone it was going to be... well I really wanted that to be me.”

Nasir couldn’t care less if they were driving into a hundred car pileup right now. He was so focused on Agron who just let words tumble from his mouth like it was nothing to say these things except it was everything. He’d never met another man who wore his emotions and heart in the open like Agron did. It was no wonder jealousy and anger came just as quickly as a price for that sincerity. “But fat… Agron?”

His man scowled at the traffic in front of them and shifted lanes before finally glancing at Nasir with an almost boyish grin. “Fat I can work with. Fat I could live with. I think Duro would be the first to tell you you’d make an excellent Chibi .”

“Chibi?”

Agron chuckled. “Don’t ask the guys at The Rebel. They’d have no idea what you are talking about. Duro has friends who play around in the arts. Look it up on your phone if you want.”

And Nasir did just that as they continued home. At first, he wasn’t quite sure what he was looking at. Mostly it looked like drawn characters with big heads, and many of them weren’t exactly fat. Then he started noticing characters he was pretty sure he knew about, and they were roundish or had simplified sausage like limbs… “Cute.” Nasir finally said as they pulled off the highway and started heading into the neighborhood. “You think I would look cute fat? Oh Chibi Dark Vader is kind of cute. I’m pretty sure it would have been a shorter movie if he looked like that.”

“It’s Darth Vader… and if you want to see something like that you could try Family Guy or Space Balls is a good one too.”

“Space what?”

Agron pulled up to the apartment. “I’m pretty sure you were at least… born when that came out.” He sighed. “Come on. No, no I don’t need help with the bags. I have to feel I’m not that old yet .”

Once inside, Nasir smirked briefly, glancing at his phone trying to find something called Space Balls which turned out to be a movie?

Agron put the groceries away. “Only ten minutes right?”

“Well maybe fifteen.” He didn’t complain when Agron took the phone away. “Are we on a schedule?”

“I need you in the bedroom in less than thirty.”

“Not exactly romantic Agron.” Nasir challenged with a half-smile.

Agron huffed and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “Give me some credit will you? In the bedroom in thirty, and change into something relaxing. I’ll expect you waiting for me, in bed.”

Nasir only laughed quietly. “Well if you want clothes on me, that’s something.” He ducked when Agron took a faux swing at him before vanishing into the bathroom.

Now making the chocolate dessert proved only a bit of a challenge. He was pretty certain Duro showed him a lite version of this dessert since it consisted of little more than stirring milk, heavy cream, egg yolks and sugar together in a pot until it was thick and hot and pouring it over chocolate in a blender. He sort of forgot to hold the lid with a towel and nearly burned himself from the heat. When it was all said and done he poured the dark smooth liquid into little white ramekins to sit in the refrigerator for a few hours. Sadly he forgot the mint leaves and the raspberries as a garnish although he was pretty certain Agron could care less about such things. The man certainly enjoyed his food but the presentation, well he figured Agron would be just as content to sit in a pub as he would a fancy restaurant.

Wiping his brow Nasir ventured back to their room where he found the lamps on each night stand turned on, the bed made and comforter and sheets pulled back as well. He climbed onto the bed, grabbing his white tiger with a boyish smile and hugging him tight, sighing happily before he remembered he was supposed to change into something relaxing and comfortable. Well that was easy enough at least since it basically meant his pajama bottoms or just Agron’s shirt.

Only when he climbed onto the bed a second time did he notice a change in the room. Instead of a dozen or so pictures directly across from the foot of the bed a large TV was now mounted on the wall, at least fifty five inches, maybe larger. “Agron?”

“Be right back!” Agron shouted back at him and he heard the door open and shut.

He sighed briefly. Agron had wanted to get rid of his little television for a while now thinking Nasir’s small CRT was not satisfying or, well, good enough for him. But Nasir spent most his time in this room, and while he could be easily distracted for hours by the colors and sounds of nature on Discovery in the living room, he didn’t seek out shows at all. If this was the surprise, it worried him because it meant Agron spent so much for something that would only give them a small amount of pleasure. And then he kicked himself for being so ungrateful. Agron went to a lot of trouble to get him to notice this TV and all he could do was fret about it.

The door opened and closed again and after a minute or two Agron walked in with a richly colored mahogany bed tray. The tray supported a white ceramic vase with a single red rose, an empty wine glass and a silver dish with a lid. “Get comfortable.” The larger man advised.

Hesitantly, Nasir set his tiger on the floor and scooched back against the pillows. “Should I, should I be under the covers or… or over them?”

Agron’s green eyes watched him as a warm smile formed. “I would say under.”

“Okay.” Nasir climbed under the covers and sat very still while Agron placed the tray over him.

Seeing how stiff Nasir had become, Agron leaned forward and pressed his palm against the bed while giving him quick kisses along the neck and shoulder. “Relax Nasir. It’s just food. I’ll be right back with my tray and the wine bucket.”

Nasir took a deep breath, finding this new situation awkward. He’d spent a number of weekends in expensive hotels with Caesar in the past, but the hotel staff wheeled in serving trays and never, well this was just different. Agron was certainly no servant, and he actually found the idea of the taller man trying to serve almost comical. Right now though, when he came back in balancing a matching tray in one hand and trying not to spill the ice from the wine bucket, it was just sweet. Nasir placed a hand on either side of his tray intending to help his love when Agron’s voice reprimanded him.

“Don’t you dare.” Cumbersomely Agron made it the bed, setting the bucket near Nasir before balancing his tray on the bed. Soon he moved around the room, closing the blinds, leaving the bedroom door slightly ajar, and turning off the overhead light so it was mostly dark. Smiling he joined Nasir, situating his long legs under the tray like his lover. He lifted the lids, Nasir’s first.

Under the lid was a small glass bowl with bright red cocktail sauce and six very large shrimp. A small red leaf salad with grated carrots and shrimp meat and little white bowl of what looked like prawns and scallops swimming in butter with lemon wedges. Agron lifted his lid to reveal the same thing although he had two sets of silverware one of which he promptly gave Nasir. Next came the white wine which Agron opened to fill their glasses to the brim.

“What... what is the occasion?” Nasir hoped Duro would have told him if it was Agron’s birthday, and suddenly he felt so guilty he didn’t know that date.

“Nasir.” Agron’s voice interrupted his train of thought, and brown eyes lifted to see Agron’s patient and beaming expression. “Baby, it’s okay. It’s just, well I know I missed the actual date but since you have tomorrow off and I don’t have to go in until the afternoon, I thought we would celebrate our one month today.”

“Oh.” Nasir didn’t contain his surprise, blinking in wonderment. “I didn’t get you anything Agron.”

Agron grasped his left hand squeezing. “Sure you did. It’s in the fridge right now.”

“You tricked me .” Nasir snorted with a half-smile.

Agron grinned. “Well, maybe just a little. I knew you would hate to leave me empty handed, but I still wanted the surprise.”

With a deep breath, Nasir took a drink of wine and peered at the dishes. “Did you make all these prawn dishes Agron?”

Agron laughed straight from the gut, a deep rumbling sound that filled the room easily. “I am not even sure what the difference is between shrimp and prawns actually. No, I ordered them from a nearby restaurant. Mrs. Dudley across the hall accepted the delivery for me so I could surprise you. Do you like it?”

Another deep breath helped Nasir contain his emotions but gave Agron the answer he wanted. “And the TV?”

“That’s another surprise, but you have to finish your dinner first.”

“I… Agron you knew I would love this. I don’t know why you would even ask.”

Agron only smiled. “To hear your voice of course.”

They ate in relative silence before Agron reached over brushed a stray hair or two behind his ear. “So you never really said… what do you think about the idea of working at The Rebel with us?”

Nasir glanced at him. “I already told you I can’t really, I mean with Batiatus it’s impossible right now.”

“I know. I know, but after that Nasir. When we get you your identity, get you away from him, how would you feel working with me, and with the others? I mean some of the guys can be kind of rough and are a real assholes but I can help with that. It does get sweaty around there, and it’s not exactly glamorous work...”

“I’d love to work with you Agron.” Nasir interrupted, already picturing the laundry list Agron would run through if he didn’t stop him. He knew he had never been completely honest with his lover about the Villa and what it was like to work there, but there was no comparison. The smell and stickiness of the food, the gross things people did in dark theaters and in the alley paled in comparison to what the owners pushed him to do. “But you know I don’t know anything about any of that. I just don’t know… I haven’t been in school in a long time. You’re opening a store right, with the expansion?”

“Yeah… but…” Agron set his tray aside and poured them both more wine. “I bet you could finish your diploma faster than you think you can, and then we can send you to classes. Nasir, I took some of these classes, and if I can do it I know you can. We don’t even have to wait for all of that; in the meantime you can help us with marketing.”

“Marketing?”

“Yeah you know, pamphlets, maybe a TV spot. I don’t know exactly. It sounds like something Mira brewed up to me. We could probably ask her. Mira does have a habit to just talk and talk about her ideas though so be forewarned about that.” Agron frowned, probably picturing her excitement and rapid series of words that would soon follow once they asked.

“And she needs help to run the campaign?” Nasir pressed, trying to focus the man again and draw out real information.

Agron shifted. “If by help you mean someone to be in it… yes. And if by in it you mean in the photos and things with me then also yes.”

Nasir sipped his wine puzzling over what Agron said. “You mean model for it?”

“Yeah.”

Nasir set his tray aside. “Agron, I’m not an actor or a model. I mean you would want someone with like sculpted muscles and a name.”

“Me either but you know that little text that says at the bottom of the screen that these are actors and not real clients.”

Nasir nodded.

“We wouldn’t have that. You’re a client, and I’m your trainer. This is exactly what Spartacus wants… real strength, real bonding. I don’t know what kind of badass marketing Crixus has in mind, but that’s not this. We can let him send his lapdogs to the fights with pamphlets or something.”

Nasir shook his head. “I don’t know Agron. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to hope for something that might not happen.”

Agron wrapped his arm around Nasir’s waist and pulled him closer, pressing his lips against Nasir’s ear. He felt warm in Agron’s arms, those lips settling his anxiety before it began to rise. And when he closed his eyes it allowed Agron’s words to just resound inside him.

“I had a lot of hope that I would find you Nasir, and no facts that suggested it would happen in a place so big. You could have just been a tourist for all I knew. I didn’t give up. You have to have something to look forward to. Why can’t it be this if you want it?”

I do, a small voice whispered inside him, but he didn’t share that with Agron, not yet. Instead Nasir licked his lips and replied. “I’ll think about it Agron.”

“That’s all I want you to do. So are you ready for your next surprise?”

“If it involves you or me moving from this spot, I think it should wait.”

This time Agron kissed his brow and grabbed a strange looking remote with purple navigation bars on it. “Let’s watch a movie together.” The large screen lit up and Agron began navigating through a menu to a library of movies.

Nasir grinned. A movie sounded relaxing and peaceful although he was half expecting a movie about Aliens popping out of people’s stomachs. “Okay.’

Agron flipped through a number of titles. “You ever see The Notebook ?”

Nasir shook his head resting it against Agron’s shoulder. “What’s it about?”

Agron just grinned.

A couple of hours later, Agron turned to his lover. “So, so what did you think?”

Nasir sniffed, having held onto Agron’s arm tightly almost the entire time. He rolled to his side and then his knees, wiping his damp cheek before straddling Agron and capturing his lips in a long drawn out kiss.
When they parted breathlessly, he replied softly. “I think you like romantic movies.”

“Well I like watching them with you.” Agron’s strong palms moved up Nasir’s sides, admiring the slight but ever defining muscles forming just under the grey fabric.

“You, you knew I would want you after that.” Nasir accused grabbing Agron’s tank and lifting it so he could press his palms against the firm flesh hidden beneath it.

“I had a hunch.”

“You set me up.” Nasir continued with a smile while again familiarizing himself with Agron’s body, those broad shoulders, those defined abs and the way those muscles just sort of vanished down inside his pants. Nasir trembled slightly in anticipation but also doubt. “You’re so strong Agron, and attractive I just don’t know why…”

“Hey.” Agron gently lifted his chin so their eyes could meet. “I’m fine with you checking out your man’s bod, but don’t you think like that. What do I keep telling you?”

He swallowed quickly and sighed. “That I’m not weak.”

“And you’re stunning and smart. You light up a room when you smile. You’re warm and so many of the others want to get to you know Nasir. You have to know that’s because of you, not me.”

Nasir blushed briefly. “You don’t say all those things all the time.”

“But I think them.”

Nasir smiled briefly, letting the words linger a bit longer before pulling his chin away and running his fingers down Agron’s abdomen again. “My man’s bod?” He teased.

Agron gave him a big toothy grin. “All yours.”

The smile remained but he hesitated, staring down at Agron, feeling the heat rise between them but something just felt… off.

“Baby, you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s been so long. I don’t think, I don’t think we’ve been together since you’ve loved me.”

“Since I told you I loved you.” Agron corrected ever so carefully. Nasir’s eyes raised again and Agron continued. “I just didn’t say the words but I'm pretty sure you had me the minute I threatened to drag your boyfriend out into the street to beat the crap out of him for what he was saying to you.”

Nasir crossed his arms and lifted the too large grey T-shirt from his body. Although he fiercely guarded his claimed possession, he tossed it aside carelessly tonight. Strong fingers gripped either side of Agron’s face and he leaned forward, kissing him eagerly. His mind whirled with Agron’s praise, his actions and the ideal that his lover selected one of the sweetest and most heartbreaking movies of eternal love he’d ever seen just to make this night more special than it already was.

Eyes vanished behind two sets of lids as their tongues tangled together and Nasir shifted, feeling both their bodies respond to the brewing heat between them. He felt love and passion and a sudden drive to know every inch of the man again. With Agron’s bottom lip captured between his teeth, Nasir smiled, opened his eyes and peered into the dilated green globes. Nasir took a deep breath and moved down to Agron’s chin, admiring the light scruff which he followed along the jawline all the way to his ear where he toyed with the lobe with tongue and lips until a pleasurable shudder wracked Agron’s large frame. Agron said nothing, his fingers dropping to Nasir’s shoulder, resting there, not squeezing, not guiding, not even encouraging. This was Nasir’s show tonight and they both knew it.

“Too much clothes, off now.” Nasir barely managed to voice his desire against Agron’s ear, but he was obeyed just the same.

Even though no one could claim anything about Agron’s body could be small, not his shoulders, his frame or his… filling flesh beneath the fine sheets and comforter, the man moved gracefully and purposeful, lifting his body off the mattress without dislodging his naked lover and managed to rid himself of those troubling boxers like he was a smaller more nimble creature than appearance suggested. He meant to take care of the tank too, but Nasir grew impatient, so two sets of hands managed to lift it above his head. It might have been torn in the frenzy, but neither cared. Naked and pressed together, their lips met again. This time Nasir thrust against him, his own eagerness evident while fingers grasped his man’s short hair, tightly. More bites and moans this time, a little blood as he bit Agron’s lower lips; no complaints emerged.

A part of Nasir wanted to take a deep breath, to soothe the fire inside him that Agron so eagerly wanted to stoke so he could savor and treasure everything. But the voice inside him, the one that was usually tiny and pushed aside refused to be silent tonight. He needed this, to feel, to throw aside reservations and just tumble into this reckless and frightening relationship with a lover who seemed just as likely to lead him into danger as he was towards a sunset.

“There it is.”

Nasir licked his lips, blinking at the man who grinned up at him with the most triumphant smile he’d seen in days.

“The Nasir that’s open, that isn’t thinking of what if, how come… the one’s that’s just with me and no one else.”

Again, Nasir ran his tongue along his bottom lip. “What if that fire you keep talking about isn’t as easy to control as you think?”

Agron pushed himself more upright, propping himself with the extra pillows he sometimes teased Nasir about. “Then I get burned… and come right back for more.”

Grinning Nasir dropped his head to toy with the sensitive spot right where Agron’s neck met his shoulder. He didn’t have to imagine if that little move made Agron’s cock twitch since his hand soon dropped between them and grasped the standing flesh, running his thumb along the glistening top and receiving a deep, needy grunt for his efforts. Soon he had Agron using those well-defined muscles to thrust himself between Nasir partial fist and what tiny doubt remained that Agron felt anything less but the utmost desire for him vanished. “Lube,” he whispered softly.

Naturally Agron had that nearby, though the man might have reached his control limit because he fumbled in the dark, missing the handle to the nightstand he’d had at the side of his bed for years. Somehow he managed to grab a smaller brown bottle of the same brand he kept in his truck along with a rubber. He didn’t ask Nasir to prepare him, and instead carefully tore the small package open and guided the protection along his eager flesh. The lube soon followed.

That small act, as simple as it was, made Nasir’s heart flutter. How often had he fumbled in the dark with others, trembling fingers, trembling lips and damp eyes just thankful that the other man would consent to being careful. And here he was, with a strong, attractive lover who burned for him, praised, and guided him, loved him and was just as into the moment as he was.

As soon as Agron was ready, Nasir climbed atop of him, palms on each side of Agron’s shoulder. He gazed in those eyes, noting the hesitation and worry because they hadn’t prepared properly. It would hurt, Nasir knew, and it would be worth it. He wanted to feel this, what it was like to be in control, to make mistakes, to fall and for once have someone to pick him up without a price, without a debt attached to the outstretched hand.

Nasir lowered himself down, carefully but steadily, hissing as he guided that large flesh inside him. And to his amazement, Agron managed to stay incredibly still, the muscles in the larger man’s neck, shoulders and abs tight from the effort not to thrust, not to let go and just bury himself inside Nasir’s tight body. Nasir panted, feeling full, wincing as he took inch by precious inch until he settled fully on his man… his man and no other’s.

Their eyes met. With brown locked with green spheres, Nasir began to ride his lover, setting the pace with full motions, lifting and lowering, rocking back and forth in a steady motion that mimicked a dance and beat he’d never seen or heard but felt thrumming deep inside him. Agron lifted his hands higher, letting powerful fingers rest against Nasir’s sides without pushing or trying to manage him, just a stable presence, and a reminder… a comfort. Nasir closed his eyes and continued to rock to that phantom beat, palms turning sweaty while gripping Agron’s shoulders tightly for leverage.

He didn’t know how long they enjoyed just being joined, just feeling their bodies strain and move against one other, but eventually Agron’s hand shifted down his front pausing just above the dark hairs above his groin. Nasir didn’t protest which was as close to consent as Agron needed. Hands that he could imagine could take life as easily as help wrapped around his outstretched, darkened flesh and began to pump him. And he didn’t exactly need help to find release like that. He knew how to angle his body, to try and find pleasure from deep within himself but being filled as he was and being guided by the warm hands of a lover, what focus he had on reality soon disappeared. And when Agron shifted his body striking that inner pleasure zone, Nasir curled his toes, saw white lights and then he was crying out quietly, or maybe it was loud and he couldn’t tell as release gripped him.

A part of him realized that at some point, Agron gripped his body as he descended from pure bliss, thrusting upward a few times to follow Nasir in suit with his climax. His cry, powerful and heated and primal all but ensured they might get a few glances tomorrow if any of their neighbors were home tonight.

It took several minutes before Agron managed to break apart from their contact to take care of a little clean up and grab a small cloth from the nightstand drawer. They were both breathing deeply still, the room lit only by the minute landscape screensaver behind them when they settled back down.

Agron rested with one arm behind his head and the other dutifully claimed by Nasir who sighed quietly, resting his head against Agron’s powerful shoulder. Maybe he was a little slim and firm for a proper pillow, but he felt tired, exhausted even, and wholly satisfied. His eyes were partially closed, looking at landscapes shifting across the large TV. One day, he thought, they could visit places like those, tropical beaches or grassy hills with the remains of old castles on them. Going to the beach on the weekends and short trips to the forest could bring joy to his heart for years to come, but he tried to latch onto Agron’s words, think about the future, about what could be, what he wanted.

Eventually he broke the silence, wanting to keep their connection and to hear his love’s voice, “If we were ever separated for a long time, do you think you would remember me like in the movie?”

Agron shifted his arm so he could hold Nasir tight against his body and ran his fingers comfortingly along Nasir’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t have to remember Nasir. I wouldn’t be able stop thinking about you even if we were apart.”

“I used to be afraid that if I was lost, if I disappeared, no one would remember to look for me. Chadara would have looked for a little while but she would have stopped. That’s what you have to do to move on, to survive. I don’t remember the kids I grew up with. Some of them I must have lived with for years, but I never connected.” Nasir explained quietly. “It would hurt too much when they left, when they were taken or… arrested.”

Silence lingered between them for a few moments and Nasir began to think Agron had fallen asleep when those strong fingers squeezed his shoulder tightly. “You run into the police a lot when you were in the foster care system?”

“Not really.” Nasir replied. “I was picked up a couple of times for curfew violations but I really just, I wanted to be perfect so someone might want me. I held onto that for a long time. Others though, they just, they gave up like I did eventually but in different ways I guess.”

Nasir received a quick kiss against his forehead before Agron asked his next question. “So you’ve never been in trouble with the law or, you know, talked to them?”

At this point, Nasir decided to distract himself by tracing Agron’s sculpted abs, and not for the first time, he wondered what sort of fighter Agron had been. He bet there were videos out there he could use to see what Agron used to be like although he tried to focus on what Agron was talking about now. It was just hard to do that while lying naked and warm next to a man, his man, like this. “When I was living in the streets, sometimes they would hassle us, but mostly no. I didn’t have any ID and was dirty and in heavy coats; I can sometimes look older than I am that way. Why would I want to talk to one though?”

“For help mostly. I mean…” Agron shifted. “That’s what they’re there for right, to help people? You’ve kind of said you’ve dealt with bad people in the past, even now.” Agron peered down at him as if studying his expression and eyes like he was worried about something. “You don’t know how hard it was Nasir. I just, I really wanted to go with you to work. I wanted to make sure your boss didn’t hurt you, or do anything and I just… I had to tell myself this was your thing. You have every right to deal with this yourself when you want to and I have to…respect that.”

“Agron.” Nasir began softly. “It’s not that I didn’t want you there. I just didn’t want to see you go to jail. I’d have to call Spartacus, maybe Mira and tell Duro…”

A frown formed on his lover’s handsome features. “Why would taking you to work end in me being in jail?”

“Batiatus doesn’t treat me very well, or talk to me nicely and… I’m pretty sure you would wind up hitting him if you weren’t chains or you know, restrained.”

Agron’s scowl deepened. “Even if it was that bad I don’t know that I would…”

“You beat the hell out of a random stranger in a club for just talking to me, and Mira said last time you wound up in jail Spartacus had to work hard to get you out. I just don’t…”

This time Agron sat up fully, a smooth quick motion though he held onto Nasir firmly to keep him from being dislodged from his body entirely. “My fucking friends need to stop telling you that sort of thing. I didn’t… the man deserved it. He was just itching to start a fight, daring me to pop him in the nose and you know what, seemed so surprised when I did!”

Nasir tried to stifle his laugh but wound up snorting instead. “You’re not even sorry you beat my guy up.”

“Your guy!?”

Quickly he raised a hand. “I’m just trying to point out that there is the guy that was with me and the guy from before…”

“To hell he was with you Nasir!” Agron rolled his eyes, his heart beating quickly enough Nasir could feel it against his flushed skin. “Besides, I don’t see what this has to do with me going into that theater.”

“Because if you knew what he did you’d probably kill him, and he’s not good at hiding what a sleaze ball he is Agron.” Nasir exhaled, wishing almost immediately he hadn’t said that.

Agron bit his lip, green eyes gazing at him intently. “Did you ever try going to the police?”

“Yeah.” Nasir looked away. “I don’t, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. We just have to deal with what we have right now. Maybe you’re right, maybe in the future things will be better but right now… It was a beautiful movie Agron. I loved it. And afterwards… I just want to go back to that.”

“Hey.” Agron cupped his cheek drawing his attention back to the handsome now worried face. “Stay with me Nasir. It’s okay. No matter what happened. It’ll be okay. I promise.”

“You shouldn’t make so many promises Agron. You might not be able to keep them.”

“I’d die trying to keep a promise to you, to make sure you’re free.”

Nasir shook his head immediately. “I don’t want that. I don’t even want to think of you dying Agron. Please don’t say things like that.”

Sorrowful eyes dropped to the bed a moment. Agron might have realized what was likely meant to give assurance actually frightened Nasir more than anything else. “Sorry. I didn’t mean for it to come out so bleak. Will you at least tell me what happened when you went to the police?”

“Agron…”

“Please. You don’t have to tell me why you went, not exactly what happened. I just, I want to understand what you’ve been through Nasir. Please.”

Nasir gave Agron a firm push to get the man back to lying on the bed. Of course he knew Agron’s massive form wasn’t about to budge unless he wanted to lie back. Fortunately he consented, and Nasir was able to return to a more comfortable position again. “I filed a police report, and the next day Batiatus knew. He… punished me.”

Agron didn’t ask for details. He simply turned out the light allowing darkness to enter the room and he kissed Nasir gently on the cheek, on the neck and finally their lips met for a longer more tinder moment. “Thank you for trusting me Nasir, for sharing with me.”

Listening to Agron’s heartbeat, feeling him stroke his back, his shoulder and lips rest against his brow. Nasir found himself steadily treading towards asleep when the man asked his last question.

“What was his name Nasir?”

“Hmmm?”

“The officer’s name, what was it?”

“Oh. I think his name was Nemetes, at least that’s what they called him when I was there.”

**

Duro carefully poured the cold cucumber soup and arranged a few slices of bread around the small white bowl. He placed the dish up on the counter to go out.

“Hey Duro.” Arro, one of the college kids that worked at The Ludus mostly weekends peeked into the kitchen. They’d been prepping all day for the dinner crowd although a Thursday night wasn’t especially busy; the early diners were just trickling in.

“Yeah?” Duro gingerly removed a dribble with a white clean towel and faced the blonde. He knew Oenomaus was just a half step away from telling the kid to get a haircut if that messy bun came loose one more time. He wasn’t normally one to judge seeing that he wore his hair a little on the casual side with braids even and even was allowed to wear an earring, but Arro seemed to press the limit of even a mild mannered general manager like Oenomaus, and they were so lucky to have Oenmuas as a boss. The man didn’t even blink an eye when Duro claimed illness as his reason for being gone most of last week.

“I was hoping to duck out a little early today. I know you’re only doing a partial shift tonight, but someone just came in and the night shift is just gearing up. Do you think you can…?”

Duro pulled off his apron and hung it on a wooden hook nearby. “The hostess is getting him a drink right?”

“Yeah, already pouring it right now. From the looks of him, this will be a heavy spender. Can you...”

“On it. I could use the extra cash after being… sick for a few days. Head out Arro; I’ll be at the table before you’re out the door.” They grinned at each other.

Duro took time to change his shirt real quick, glad the apron spared his pants, although he always kept an extra pair in the back. He reached up to remove his earring but forgot he hadn’t been wearing it for a few days now. Lingering in front of the mirror for a minute or two just staring blankly at his face lost in recent memories, Duro finally pulled away, grabbing his notepad.

Like Arro said, it was a light house, mostly a few older couples having dinner at just past four, and the man Arro spoke of was easy to spot. He sat in a corner booth meant for at least a party of six, and it was dark, which only made it harder to see the food making it one of the worst tables in the place according to Duro, but it was still private. He wouldn’t move the man with so few patrons around and knowing by the time the rest came he’d be gone. The dark navy suit his guest wore was clearly tailored though he looked relaxed and at ease in it, and unlike most of the business men that came in alone or waiting for someone, he didn’t pull out a computer, tablet or phone. He simply sipped his wine from a small tumbler, waiting. With a smile, Duro approached, but before he could open his mouth the man addressed him.

“Duro, how pleasant. I hope I’ve arrived before the dinner crowd so I can receive personal service. I am expecting to take my time as well. You’re not in a hurry are you?”

Duro hesitated because of the way man addressed him though his eyes dropped down to the small gold-tinted nametag he wore on his shirt which told anyone who he was, right. “Welcome to the Ludus. I assure you you can take your time here. I see you’re drinking Lambrusco, a chilled imported wine. Might I recommend the prosciutto rolls, filled with goat cheese, arugula and served with a house made fig jam?” The man’s eyes were so steady, so powerful, Duro felt he had to glance away.

“That does sound lovely, and a fine combination for a properly imported cool wine. A lot of the domestic versions are sickly sweet and served too cold, but your buyer has done an excellent job here. Your suggestion would be a proper match, but tell me Duro, did you make the prosciutto rolls?”

“No sir. The rolls are made to order.” His eyes shifted back to the man.

“And did you make anything on the menu today Duro?”

Duro nodded, trying to shove down the unease he felt. The man was handsome, not the kind of person anyone would easily forget although he didn’t recall ever seeing him before despite the familiarity he felt. And if his guest noticed how uneasy he was making his waiter feel, he didn’t show it. “Yes sir. I made the cucumber soup.”

“Is it good?”

“Very good.” A twinge of confidence and pride arose again. “Great consistency, creamy, and cold with good flavor including a pinch of dill.”

Brows rose. “But you did not suggest it to me. Why?”

“The wine you chose, that there is an appetizer better suited for it is the only reason. If you would like to have the soup instead, I would be happy to arrange that.”

The man smiled. “I would, I would enjoy having your soup. Do you have any recommendations for the meal?”

“Well I didn’t make any of the main courses exactly, but since there is a bit of dill in the soup, it would go nicely with our wood grilled salmon. That comes with seasoned vegetables, a rice pilaf and a house salad. The creamy poppy-seed dressing is a favorite or the raspberry vinaigrette if you prefer something sweeter.” Duro managed to get it all out without stuttering or holding the man’s gaze for too long.

“Sweet is a good word for what I came for. I’ll take the salmon with the raspberry option.”

“Very good sir.” He reached for the menu, and their hands touched.

Normally guests would offer the menu when they were done ordering or drop their hand so Duro could retrieve it. Instead the other’s hand shifted over his and it lingered there for a moment before Duro managed to withdraw gracefully. “Your soup will be up shortly.”

“Thank you Duro.”

Once back in the kitchen, Duro took a moment to breathe, leaning against the wall. He just needed a minute or two before the bustle of the kitchen drew him back, allowing him to focus enough to get the soup ready.

A strong hand suddenly clasped his shoulder, although he was calm enough to know Oenomaus right away. “Duro, you look a little shaken. I know you’ve been sick. Your shift is almost over, and you’ve done a great job. Are you alright or do you want to go home?”

Instantly he shook his head. “No. I just have this one table, and then I can help clean up a bit before my ride comes so the evening shift won’t have to worry about that. I’m just a little tired is all. I swear I’m not sick. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Oenomaus, tall and steady, his gaze unwavering didn’t look entirely convinced but he gave a curt nod. “All right. Good job with the soup. Next week I want you to work on the lamb stew, and since you’ve been working so hard on ancient grains, there’s a sweet crepe I want to try with an ancient grain flour and chia seeds. Do you think you’d be up for that?”

Duro beamed immediately. “I would love that. Thank you Oenomaus.”

Oenomaus returned the smile. “Now get that soup out and refill his drink.”

He was quick to comply with the order although he never took instruction from Oenomaus as anything more than just a reminder to keep moving. He came out with the soup and a bottle of wine, setting it down before the other and carefully refilling his tumbler with the rich red liquid.

“Wait a moment.”

Duro stayed where he was, watching their guest take the spoon and gracefully scoop from the top, sipping. Anxiously Duro waited for a response, finding it strange that he felt almost held in place in order to get that approval.

“Very good, very good indeed.”

Duro gave a swift nod and hurried off to not only check but watch the salmon dish be prepared. Chefs in training, and he wasn’t even that exactly, always started with the less expensive dishes at first, the fruits and vegetables, and sometimes the desserts if they had talent in that area. Moving to the proteins was a privilege and especially the expensive pieces like wild salmon. He was just a course or two away from being able to prepare main courses here, and he knew he was really lucky that Oenomaus allowed him to shift from a waiter to the back staff when they weren’t especially busy.

“Careful with that, don’t overcook it.”

He received a scowl for his impertinence from one of the junior chefs, but most of them had adjusted to his habits a while ago and recognized his anxiety and eagerness for what it was. Duro couldn’t really explain it, but he needed this dish to be perfect.

After bringing out the salad he soon followed with a beautifully presented salmon with just a hint of a garlic butter and herb glaze which included dill and noted the empty glass. Carefully he set the plate down. “My apologies. Would you like more wine or just water perhaps?” At least he had the sense to bring the water carafe and began to refill the tall partially drunk glass when the other grabbed his wrist.

“Which do you think?”

Their eyes met and the gaze was held for what seemed like several minutes to Duro although it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. “I don’t understand?”

“I think you know how to serve Duro. In fact I think you are fit perfectly for service. Which do you think I want, more wine or more water?”

Duro licked his lips. “Wine.” He was rewarded with a smile which gave him an unfamiliar sense of relief. “I’ll return shortly.”

“Please do.”

And he did, refilling the tumbler. Duro lingered in the back kitchen for a little while, finding it hard to focus on even the light cleaning he did, and by the time he returned to the table, the man was gone. Oddly enough, he had no worries about the check being taken care of, and sure enough right alongside the half-eaten meal were two hundred dollar bills and a white card with the letter V on the front, a phone number on the back. He took the money, the card, and then finished with his duties in the kitchen.

By the time Donar rolled up he had their meal in a carry out bag and a quizzical enough expression that Donar questioned him about it. “Hey kid. What’s wrong?”

Duro shook his head. “Nothing, nothing really just an odd guest is all. I thought he was a food critic but now I’m not sure.”

“You couldn’t pay me enough to put up with the assholes that show up at restaurants just to complain about the food, more power to you. Hey what’s in the bag?”

Duro grinned, all but forgetting the card he tucked away. “It’s a surprise. Come on, let’s get back to your place. I need these to be room temperature before I cook them, and I need to get the dessert made and chilled.”

“I’m liking the sound of this already. You’re going to like the movies I picked out too, real slasher stuff.”

They drove off.

Donar’s house was in the longstanding part of town, the old neighborhood some members of The Rebel family called it. The house they shared a number of years ago was only a dozen or so blocks away. This was an older two story building with a covered front porch large enough for a bench near the front door and street parking. Duro had come here countless times once Donar bought the place and remembered painting the walls and fixing the siding. Insulation had been added last year, but really the inside had been modernized slowly over time.

Even though Donar preferred simpler dishes, he had a nice set-up in the kitchen with deep sinks and plenty of space for cutting boards and plate arrangement. Duro entered and went straight to work, pulling out the two steaks to let them warm up to room temperature. He began making the Chocolate Pots de Crème.

The taller man peeked over his shoulders. “Steaks, yes! What else did you bring?”

“I baked the potatoes earlier, so we can twice bake them now.” He pulled out the sharp cheddar cheese, sour cream and chives, shifting between the dishes easily so he could get the desert in the refrigerator and scoop out the potatoes for their filling.

Donar grabbed a beer and set a wine glass near Duro for the wine he no doubt knew Duro would bring. “So you wanted to give Agron and Nasir some space?”

Duro paused in grating the cheese. “Yeah, they could, they can use the time. Thank you for making Agron think this was his idea. You know how important it is for him to be in control.”

“Don’t I know it.” Donar snorted briefly. The man waited for Duro to set the oven and refill the potato skins. “So you wanna tell me what’s going on Duro? You’ve not really looked me in the eye since I picked you up, and I know something is off over there.”

Duro placed their potatoes on a cookie sheet and turned to face Donar, looking the taller man directly in the eye knowing he’d have to get past this to enjoy the rest of the evening. “Agron and Nasir have some reconnecting to do. Things are a little tense at home, but you don’t have worry about any of that.”

After taking a big swig of his beer, Donar frowned at Duro and shook his head. “You’re taking on his bad habits. I’ll get the movies set up.””

He ignored the part about Agron’s flaws but the part about movies perked his ears right up. “Movies? How many did you get? What did you get?”

“Scream, all of them. We’ll see how many you get through.”

Duro beamed, getting the skillet hot on the stove. “I’ve never done that marathon before. We’ll be ready in about 30 minutes.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Dinner was quickly prepared, although Duro was not about to let anything ruin a good steak which meant he insisted they rest after they were done. Soon though they were seated on Donar’s old leather couch and watching the first movie. By the start of the second movie, dinner plates were cleaned and desert cups were on the coffee table. But before Donar hit play, he turned to Duro again. “Agron has a habit of going it alone because he thinks he has to. You don’t have to take on that habit Duro. Neither one of you have to fly anything solo.”

“We’ve got a whole lot of movie left Donar.” Duro knew he wouldn’t have much luck brushing that off so easily, so he offered just a little more. “I know I’m not alone Donar, none of us are. I mean it.”

With a frown, Donar started the next movie. A few hours later, the man had the spare blankets and pillows splayed out on the couch. Duro hesitantly laid down, watching Donar walk down the hall. He worried his hands together, trying to get comfortable, looking at the weird white card he’d put in his wallet along with the cash before setting everything to the side. But he left the light on and stared at the blank TV for a while, hoping his mind would eventually just settle down. This was what he liked, what helped ease him to sleep, but he just couldn’t bring himself to start that last movie.

At some point, Donar must have returned to the room because suddenly he was aware of the other man’s presence. “Hey,” Donar yawned scratching his neck. “It’s almost three. Have you been sitting like this the whole time?”

He blinked, not realizing hours had ticked away. “I… I guess I lost track of time.”

“Are you okay out here? I mean I know I don’t really have much more than the couch with all the renovations going on but…”

Duro glanced at the front door, nervous and unsettled. “I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah I don’t think so. Come with me kid. You can rest in my bed.”

Duro stood. “I can’t take your bed Donar.”

“And you won’t be.” Donar grabbed the extra pillows he brought out. “You’ll be joining me in it.”

“That’s a little weird don’t you think. I’m not a kid anymore.”

“You’ll be a kid to me right up until I die.” Donar motioned with his chin. “Come on. I’m as stubborn as your brother you know. You won’t win this.”

Hesitantly Duro followed Donar down the hall into a room that wasn’t anything like Agron claimed as Donar’s living habits. It was clean, almost pristine, the navy blue sheets only wrinkled because the man had just crawled out of them. He didn’t have a TV in here, only a couple of night stands with lights and a Kindle on one, a dresser with a few books on the corner and the door to the master bath closed. The larger man climbed into bed and after a minute of two of Donar looking at Duro expectantly, he joined him but he didn’t find it comfortable.

“Donar, this is just… I mean we’re not related, and I’m not your brother.”

“Fuck you Duro.” Donar remarked without any bite to the soft words. “I’ve had a little brother since Agron stumbled into my life, and he sure as hell stumbled let me tell you.”

Duro crossed his arms and looked down. “I’m sorry Donar. I didn’t mean to imply… you’ve always been there for me.”

“I’m not fishing for compliments. You wanna tell me why you’re nervous to be out in my living room alone, and don’t bother saying it’s the dark. You haven’t been afraid of the dark for years now.”

“Donar, I’m backing my brother’s play. He’s doing what’s best for us.” Duro stared at the sheets, they looked new and were so soft. It gave him something to focus on for a moment at least. They seemed familiar too.

“Us as in you and Agron, or you and Nasir?”

“What he thinks is best for all of us. I just… there was a man in the restaurant today. He just threw me off is all. I just felt, it felt weird. I can’t really explain it.”

Donar frowned briefly. “Weird how. Did he threaten you, hurt you?”

“No, no nothing like that. It was things that he said, almost like he knew me but I don’t know him.” Like an old habit, Duro settled in closer to Donar, waiting for the man to wrap his arm around his shoulder before he felt safe again. He knew he had to get rid of this feeling, couldn’t expect his family, not even Agron to help him sleep every night, but he was glad to have someone tonight. “His exchange was so familiar, but I’ve never seen him before.”

Donar turned the light off, helping them settle in. “Should we talk to Oenomaus about it?”

“No, no he didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t do anything at all really.”

For a few moments, Donar just remained quiet, like maybe he fell asleep but eventually the man just sighed. “Keep me posted about it then. Say, why aren’t you wearing your earring?”

Duro closed his eyes, settling his head against Donar’s shoulder. A single tear escaped each eye before he stilled himself again. “I don’t… I don’t know.”

“I know you got some shit from some of the guys at the gym because of it over the years, but I like it. Maybe we should get you a new one tomorrow before I take you home?”

Duro sniffed. “Yeah?”

“I know a place that does some pretty good work, earrings and leather bracelets. It’ll be fun; you’ll see.”

That brought a smile to his face. “Okay. I’d like that.”

Several minutes later, ensuring Duro was fast asleep against his shoulder, Donar reached over to the nightstand and grabbed his phone, using his large thumb to SWYPE a message, even managing not to curse when the spell checker fucked up several of his words. It wouldn’t be good to wake Duro after all.

On the other end, Spartacus glanced at the screen while leaning on the railing at his place.

-You’re right. Something’s up, and it’s not just with Agron. I think it’s Duro and probably Nasir too.-

Spartacus sighed. He thought he had an idea of the source of the problem that Agron was only partially able to hide from him, but he didn’t know what Nasir’s tie to Batiatus would have to do with Duro. If Duro was part of the equation, it was a part he didn’t understand.

Mira kissed his shoulder. “Are you coming back to bed? It’s so late.”

“I’ll be inside in a minute honey.” Spartacus paused. “After we bring in the investigator for Nasir I’ll need to go away for a few days, look into a few things. Do you think you can hold shop while I’m away?”

Mira grinned. “The boys are just big teddy bears in tanks and pants with too much energy. I’ll wrangle them for you.”

Spartacus smirked. “When’s your next appointment?”

“Three days.”

He turned to her but Mira was already there giving him a quick kiss. “No, go. I know that look. Something serious is going on. Take care of it. This is just more of the same. Naevia will go with me; I’ll be fine.”

Spartacus watched her enter the house, peered up at the sky a little longer before joining her.

Chapter Text

Agron awoke before his phone went off and silently disabled the alarm so it wouldn’t potentially awaken Nasir in another ten minutes. As he had mentioned to Donar earlier, Nasir was a quiet sleeper, prone to find a place against him and remain there all night in virtual silence; the darkness of Nasir’s past, well it seemed to be kept at bay while he was asleep, at least when Agron was around. He knew Duro and Nasir had researched more about natural sleeping aids and now they had two different boxes of something called Sleepy Time tea in the cupboard, neither of which had actual tea leaves in it. In the freezer they had a baggy of spoons with globs of honey frozen on them so Nasir could use them with lemon tea or hot water at night.

Maybe the next time Spartacus started talking about conventions, instead of suddenly making himself scarce and faking an illness Agron could just say he didn’t want to spend a night away from Nasir; at least that would be true. Even though they’d only known each other for a matter of weeks, he’d never felt this way about anyone else before and… the thought of Nasir nursing some hot beverage alone in an empty bedroom bothered him.

Gently Agron ran his fingers through the long dark hair as he gazed down at the handsome, peaceful face. Yes, he’d admit he had a special fondness for this hair and hoped Nasir would keep it at least shoulder length if not longer. Maybe he could convince Mira to help find some manly hair ties to encourage the style. Last resort, he might even ask Gannicus or Saxa for assistance.

“I want to go running with you this morning,” Nasir murmured sleepily, shifting against Agron’s large frame before beautiful brown eyes revealed themselves briefly.

Agron pressed his lips gently against Nasir’s brow. “Hey, you shouldn’t be up so early. Today’s your day off. Besides, why would you want to run with me when you can stay in this warm bed longer?”

Nasir blinked, lifting his palm to glide along Agron’s chest. “So I can spend more time with you.”

Agron brushed his fingers along Nasir’s bare shoulders; his little man could be so sweet at times. “I could wake you when I come back,” he offered.

Gracefully, Nasir pushed himself to a partial upright position so brown eyes could peer into green. He looked at Agron for a moment before glancing to the side, frowning slightly. “This is… your alone time isn’t it? You haven’t really had that since I moved in. I’m sorry Agron. You can just tell me you need the time alone.”

Agron raised his hand to Nasir’s cheek and then used his palm to ever so slightly lift his chin so their eyes could lock. “It’s not that Nasir. I just don’t want you to push yourself too hard. If you get sore, or you start equating going to the gym or working out with me with pain and discomfort, something you have to do we’ll lose something I really don’t want let go of… ever.”

A slight smile formed on that youthful face. “You’ve never pushed me that hard before Agron. You’ve been conscious of my limits from the start.”

Agron leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss. “I learn from my mistakes.”

Carefully Nasir climbed off the bed giving Agron a nice view of the sinfully dark delight he enjoyed last night as well as watching those strengthened muscles flex down his back, ass and thighs. “You made a mistake with someone?”

Agron yawned and rolled his shoulders as he climbed out of bed too. He walked past Nasir and down the hall to the bathroom to take a shower. “Yeah I pushed Duro pretty hard when he was trying to decide what to do with his life. Now… now he barely shows up at the gym anymore.”

Nasir followed grabbing his toothbrush and looking at his hair in the mirror already smoothed out by Agron’s eager fingers. “You wanted him to be more like you?”

“I thought if he knew more about the sport and the physical strength behind it, how I trained, he wouldn’t worry so much and maybe like it a little himself.” Agron sighed, remembering how worried Duro would get and anxious to the point of just sitting in the locker room until the fights were finished… if he came at all.

Nasir took his time brushing his teeth, trying to hide a wince as he made it to a back molar. “What happened?”

“He was doing okay, got a little cocky and kind of picked a fight with Crixus when I was distracted. Crixus beat the shit out of him, gave him his first solid black eye before I broke it up with my fists.” Agron kissed his neck. “Hey, what’s that? You have something going on with one of your teeth?”

“I think I like Crixus a bit less now.” Nasir sighed. “Why didn’t you mention this before Agron, when you were telling me why you two aren’t friends?” Nasir spit and rinsed. “And it’s nothing. I just have troubled areas.”

“That was a number of years ago. We can have someone go look at that.” Agron turned on the shower, pleased that he didn’t even have to ask Nasir to join him. His little man walked right in which meant the temperature needed to go up; Agron had already began to adjust to hotter showers anyway.

“Dentists don’t see people for free Agron, and hospitals just pull teeth. It’s not that bad and, and I really don’t want a hole in my mouth.” Nasir looked up at him, clearly forcing a smile. “Crixus beat your brother and gave him his first real black eye? I know you Agron, that’s been just under your skin since it happened.”

Agron scowled not wanting to admit he might be easily read so soon. “Everyone said Duro started it.”

“But…” Nasir pushed.

“He didn’t have to take it that far. He’s a fucking professional, a champion once, he could have just…”

“Knocked his teeth out, brained him, or broken his arm?” Nasir offered cautiously.

Agron continued to frown shaking his head as he grabbed the body wash and cloth. “I know. I know; he could have done a lot worse. I know Duro has a mouth on him, and he’s not a kid. But Crixus didn’t have to do that, didn’t have to take it that far. Duro went back in the ring a few times to spar with close friends, but any desire for competition was just gone after that.”

Nasir grabbed the washcloth gaining Agron’s attention. “And you blame yourself for that.”

It wasn’t a question, Agron knew that, but he answered anyway. “Spartacus said I wasn’t handling things right with him and the gym and the fighting. What did he know? Duro’s my brother, and Spartacus never had one of those.”

“I’m pretty sure Spartacus sees you as a brother Agron, just like you see him as one.” Carefully Nasir gathered some soap onto the cloth and began washing Agron’s chest. “And then you had a fallout with Crixus over Naevia?”

Spartacus was right, and Agron knew it too. At the time, well Agron wasn’t ready to admit to anyone he made mistakes, but right now, it felt so freeing to just tell Nasir anything he asked; he trusted him that much, trusted him with almost everything. “Yeah something, something really bad happened to her. I didn’t really know at the time just how bad, but when it happened Crixus was ready to take everyone and everything down with him trying to get back at the people responsible, like everything we worked for, our livelihoods, our families didn’t matter.” Agron drew a shuddering breath trying to quell the conflicting emotions he felt, anger and fear but mostly… regret. “I wasn’t down for that. I’d worked hard, put everything we had into The Rebel… the paint is barely dry and he’s asking us to track down these violent people and just see what happens.”

Nasir leaned forward and planted a feather like kiss against his wet shoulder, his baby’s voice smooth and calm and encouraging just coaxing more out of him. “But she’s okay now?”

Agron nodded. “Yeah, Spartacus and some of the guys found her, took her to a hospital. I guess it was pretty bad. She had to be away from everything for a while to recover.”

“And the people responsible are…”

Agron lifted his hand to cover Nasir’s moving fingers stopping the gradual wash. “A few of them are dead, several are in jail. It was a big risk and Spartacus and a few others were injured but eventually cleared of any wrong doings. I thought it was just a random act against her at the time though."

Nasir’s furrowed brow and look of uncertainty told Agron his worry shone as plain as day. “And now?”

“Now I’m not so sure.” It was his turn to force a smile. “Hey, let’s get that hair washed huh?”

Nasir dutifully turned around, allowing Agron to apply an ample amount of shampoo throughout the long strands. “So you ever talk to Crixus about any of this?”

“No.”

Nasir’s sigh told him his lover wanted more, way more than a single word answer. “But you said you understood his position better now. Am I the only one that knows you feel that way?”

“Yes.”

“Agron….”

Agron huffed, massaging Nasir’s scalp. “He’s not going to listen. He can barely get out a handful of civilly inclined words towards me before some sort of insult comes out.”

“If you extend an olive branch Agron and he doesn’t take it that reflects on Crixus not you.”

“Yeah but what am I going to get out of that kind of experience? No one is even going to know I tried. They’ll just hear him spout profanities at me again as usual. We’ll probably fight and then another piece of paper will be added to my employee folder. It’s fucking thick enough as it is. Spartacus says he has to keep track of these things, just in case. I just don’t know why he has to though. No one would know if he just let one piece slip out or something.”

“I’ll know you tried.”

Whatever words were resting on the tip of his tongue just dissolved into dust. Nasir’s simple reply, well it had a greater impact on him than he could ever imagine. He said nothing in response to it, just let the words roll around in his skull a bit. Nasir would know, and oddly enough, Nasir’s good opinion of him mattered.

They finished the rest of the shower in relative silence. Nasir allowed him to comb and dry his hair and after that he went to the kitchen and made not one but two green shakes. When Nasir came out in his jogging outfit, Agron had to admit he was tempted to escort him right back to the bedroom again. His Nasir looked alluring even as sleepy as he was.

Agron offered him the glass. “I figured if you’re going to join me on my morning jog, you might as well get the full experience.”

Nasir took the glass hesitantly. “You said it was a run earlier, and what’s in this?”

“Sometimes I run; sometimes I jog. Spinach, frozen strawberries and blueberries, vanilla protein powder, chia seeds and a little honey.”

“And are we jogging today because I am tagging along?”

Agron merely grinned. “Maybe, bottoms up.”

Nasir took a deep breath and drank up, his glass only half-filled to Agron’s full.

When they were finished, they both set the glass down on the counter at the same time, and Agron kept on smiling. “Not so bad right?”

Nasir cocked his head, a slight smile forming. “It’s okay, not as good as Duro’s omelets though.”

“God don’t tell him that. He’ll figure out a way to freeze those and have us nuke them in the morning or something. They are good though.” Agron patted him on the back. “Come on. Let’s get going before people and their dogs are out. There are at least two that are a little nippy.”

The early morning provided just enough lights in the streets that made jogging not too difficult even as the streetlights began to turn off as they went. This reminded Agron of their trip into the mountains, and he decided they should go camping sometime soon. He’d want to hit the beach at least once more before the weather started to really get cold but after that he bet he could get at least a handful from the gym to join them on a short camping trip.

“So when’s Duro coming home?” Nasir asked, managing to keep pace although he had to move faster, lacking the long stride Agron had.

“Donar’s taking him to the gym later today. I’ll take him home from there so you get the place to yourself for most the day.”

Nasir glanced at him. “So about that. Do you think, I mean, would it be okay if I came with you today to the gym?”

He was used to just rocking out on his runs, but Nasir’s conversation kept things lively too. “Well you know I have other clients. I wouldn’t be able to hang out with you much.”

“Oh I know. I thought I would just stay out of the way, observe a little. I could find a quiet spot to read too. If you think it’s a bad idea I won’t…”

“No, no it’s fine Nasir. If you want to come in today with me that’s more than fine; it’s good.” He smiled.

“Even though I don’t really have a membership?”

Agron snorted. “If I had a dollar for every person that hangs out at that place because their significant other is around, well we’d have more than your membership fee for sure. And if you are up to it, I bet Mira might like to talk to you about whatever marketing scheme she’s cooked up this time. The woman has had her ups and downs with that.”

Nasir smiled, looking relieved. “You mean like trial coupons?”

“Yeah.” Agron chuckled. “I think we got maybe two memberships out of all of those, and several hours of headaches and complaints.”

“I guess I was just lucky it was so unsuccessful.”

Agron motioned with his head to take a right. “Yeah, we both are. I never really put much effort into mine though.”

His love snickered. “I’m shocked Agron, shocked.”

“Hey!” Agron objected to Nasir’s sarcastic tone. “I gave a few out. I really hated standing on a street corner handing out coupons like some sort of… low class begging gym.” And the looks he got too. He was ready to land a few of them on their ass if Donar and Spartacus hadn’t insisted jail time would not improve the situation. “Everyone got a bunch of coupons with their names on it and then we used a mailing list to send out sets to everyone too, you know in case we thought another trainer was better for a potential client.”

Nasir smirked. Listening to Agron complain about handing out coupons on a street corner charmed him even though he’d had to stoop to far worse himself in the past. “And you didn’t remember you had one still floating out there?”

Agron shook his head. “I knew there were a few left. I let Duro hand out most of mine in the end, and most the others came in but there were a couple that went to… Barca.”

He knew by the stiffening of the smaller body that Nasir understood the importance of that name even though it had been many days since they talked about Barca. For a little while, neither one spoke although Nasir finally took a breath and responded. “If he hated all of you and you him, why would any of you give him certificates to your new gym?”

Agron glanced at Nasir, noting he breathed a little heavier, his body strained to keep up with the pace but Nasir didn’t actually drop in speed; this was still a good spot to rest for a moment though. Maybe it would be a little while before he could get a good pace and keep his heart rate going with Nasir at his side, but he knew they’d get there; it would be worth the wait. “It’s not a popular opinion Nasir, but I still don’t think Barca had a choice. He’s a survivor, kind of like you but more like… how Chadara was based on what you’ve told me about her. I think he’d do a lot to save what he cared about, maybe more than even I could but… Spartacus never actually said for sure, but I think Barca helped silently in getting the gym up but never showed his face in front of others. You don’t know that name right, you didn’t know it before I told you?”

Nasir looked up at him with a slight frown. “I never heard the name Barca until you guys told me about him. You think my certificate is one you gave him?”

Agron looked away, still finding this topic difficult to tackle without letting his emotions get away from him. The anger that came with thinking back to that night still arose so quickly and fiercely he was afraid he might turn it against Nasir… again. “I think Spartacus thinks so, and he’s not often wrong.”

“And if it is…” Nasir began carefully. “Would that be a bad thing or a good thing?”

“I’m not sure honestly. I think a lot of people might be relieved to have some evidence he is alive and still around.”

“And others?”

“Would want to put him in the ground. I don’t think you’d forget him though if you met him. He’s two inches taller than I am, dark skin, usually likes his hair longer, and built like a tank… fierce guy all around.”

Nasir smirked briefly. “I’d remember looking up at someone taller than you. Built like a tank means he was stronger?”

Agron motioned with his head to get going again. As they jogged along the sidewalk Agron made a little confession. “I’m not sure actually. We never really sparred or had a real fight. Crixus was pretty sure I’d lose to him though.”

“If you were going to lose anyway, why would anyone fix that fight?”

“Well it wasn’t a sure thing I would lose; Spartacus said I had a real chance. And it’s not really sanctioned but there can be a lot of money riding on these fights. The fact it was a draw, well I am guessing a lot was lost that night.”

Nasir lightly reached out and touched his hand drawing his full attention again. “Did… did Barca like men?”

“We weren’t together. It would never happen Nasir. I’m not…”

A light laugh silenced Agron. “You’d think by your reaction that I was the one that entered a jealous rage or two. I’m not asking for that reason Agron.”

Agron settled down immediately, focusing again though he began to wonder if maybe he did react a little strongly towards ideas that that anyone would be interested Nasir. Then again, as much as Nasir seemed to enjoy being with him, to love him, the very idea of anyone taking him away made his pulse quicken even now. “Why did you ask then?”

“My friend, Pietros, he found a guy I think. I thought it was only recently but, but he’s a little like me.”

“What’d you mean like you?”

“Well where I work and where he used to work, you could flaunt your good fortune and have everyone hate you or… or you keep it hidden mostly and hope no one finds out and ruins it.”

Agron stopped abruptly, almost causing Nasir to bump into him. He turned and searched Nasir’s eyes. “Pietros used to work at the Villa with you?”

Nasir nodded hesitantly. “Not for very long though. He was there before me. Chadara was acquainted, I think. He and I shared a night community class together until I fully understood my documentation was really messed up, and my aid fell through. Why Agron?”

“Was he… kind of forced to work there like you or maybe just a naïve bystander?”

“Like me, not a lot of choices but he got out.” Nasir sounded wistfully hopeful.

“You sure?” Agron pressed.

“He said he did.”

“Did he say how?”

The shorter man shook his head. “No, but a few years ago he left and didn’t come back, and Batiatus didn’t seem concerned about it.”

Agron frowned briefly. “Come on, let’s pick up the pace and get back home.”

Back home, Nasir did take a little longer to get ready for the day. He took a quicker shower to cool off a bit and began stuffing his duffle bag with things to do: a couple of books from the library, a beginners cookbook Duro had pulled out for him, the headphones Agron gave him and a couple changes of clothes. Agron moved about with purpose and a routine, never really wavering from his task until he paused to give Nasir a kiss and make them both sandwiches for lunch; a couple of apples were thrown in for good measure too. Soon they were on their way to the gym.

**

At the gym, they parted with a quick kiss in the locker room. Agron continued to get ready for his first client in the open space of the main floor while Nasir grabbed his phone, headphones, and book and found a quiet corner by some bags to hang out near the front entrance. Nasir remembered people watching in the park sometimes, just imagining stories for complete strangers, making up their jobs, their lives and families, just fantasy that helped make long unpleasant days end more quickly. Today was different though. A number of people he knew, and knew a little about them. Crixus was in the ring with some kid that looked like he might be on steroids and couldn’t move very well even if he hit hard. The other men that hung out with Crixus practiced nearby, some with each other and others with those he didn’t know. He noticed Gannicus by what his phone told him was a rowing machine working with a very attractive albeit slightly older woman. Nasir must have been distracted by watching where Gannicus placed his hands because he didn’t even notice the other person walk right up to him.

“Yeah, Gannicus gets a little grabby around here. Don’t worry though, Mrs. Jericho has been coming here for a couple of years now.”

Nasir blinked up at Mira who beamed down at him with an open friendly smile. She wore her t-shirt pulled out today and had shinning metal studs along the outlines of her pockets on her black jeans. “She’s married and he does that?”

Mira snickered. “Yeah, but you know… her husband pays her gym membership and she gets a lot of lessons with Gannicus… a lot. Hey why don’t you come in the office to hang out? It’s quieter in there, and I promise you’ll be able to keep an eye on Agron with the blinds open.”

Nasir stood frowning at Gannicus. “I really don’t want to get in anyone’s way.”

“You won’t be in our way.”

“You and Spartacus?”

Mira shook her head trying to guide him into the office with careful positioning of her body. “Naevia today. Spartacus is out most of the day finishing his research and looking into personal matters. He’ll be here for the big vote.”

Nasir chose not to fight her, knowing how futile that would be and received a quick sympathetic smile from Agron for his efforts.

“Here you can use Spartacus’ desk. Naevia will be back after she does the supply run at a depot, so it’s just you and me for now.” She took a seat at her desk and opened up a folder before typing. “So… has Agron talked to you about any, oh I don’t know, changes we might be making at the gym?”

Sighing inwardly, Nasir took a seat at Spartacus’ desk. With the surface clean and everything in place he certainly felt like he was invading someone’s personal space. “You mean like the expansion and your marketing plans?”

“Oh good! He told you!” Mira became animated immediately, excitement written all over her face. She opened a drawer and walked over with a brochure, a small poster and a flyer. “See one of the things Spartacus really wants to promote with our gym is the personal attention without the high prices. We’ve got the machines and spaces for self-improvement, but you see here...”

“I’m not a model.” Nasir shifted uncomfortably in the chair. “I just think you’d be better off finding someone else to do this for you. I don’t know how to do these things.”

Mira huffed and tapped her finger against her hip. “Nasir you’re gorgeous. I’ve taken more than my fair share of pictures of the two of you training, so it’s not as if I don’t know you’re photogenic.”

“You… have?” Nasir inquired hesitantly.

“Let me show you!” Mira hurried over to the desk, grabbing a royal purple photo album which she placed in front of Nasir labeled Agron / Nasir. Just over a handful of pages had pictures in them, but she turned the pages slowly so Nasir could see. The carnival pictures were there, of course, as well as the first time Agron showed him how to properly lift weights, and then the jump rope effort with Spartacus, and also the time Agron helped him work the treadmill.

Despite his best effort to do otherwise, Nasir smiled at the pictures because they were sweet and Agron had the most sincere and gentle expression on his face. They also mirrored some of the pictures that had been slipped under his door. Of course in a few others, well it looked like Agron had trouble keeping his eye on the equipment and not Nasir’s ass which only served to widen the smile. Carefully Nasir closed the album. “I don’t think you want someone like me being the face of The Rebel Mira. I don’t know how much Agron’s told you…”

Mira walked over to the office door and closed it quietly. “Look Nasir, we all come from different places right? I’m not more than a fighter groupie myself. I was following some other guy around on my motorcycle, barely even blinked at for my efforts when I got into a shouting match and a fist fight with Saxa over some stupid thing I said about her ass in a bar. That’s how I met Spartacus. He got me a baggie of ice from the bartender, held it against my eye and asked me where I learned to fight. You know what I told him?”

Nasir shook his head.

“I learned to duck from my dad’s wild swings as I got older. I learned to hide when my mom grabbed the belt, and when I put them both down, took the cash out of their wallets and left town to follow my dream guy, I figured I was tough enough to be on my own. I’d be hard pressed to find someone in here without a record. I mean Duro’s a sweetie and doesn’t have one, maybe…” Mira peeked out of the blinds.

At some point, Nasir noticed he began breathing shallowly, listening intently to her words. While she scanned the room for individuals without records he processed what she said. Mira came from a physically abusive home. “Your father hit you?”

Mira turned away from the blinds looking at him a moment. “Yeah, only when he could catch me though and mostly when I was a teen. I think he lost his job around then. Anyway, I was a scrawny little girl and I got faster as I got older. Problem is with Saxa, she’s fast too. I didn’t really know how to throw a punch until Spartacus showed me.”

“Do you, do you still talk to them?”

She shook her head returning to the desk. “Not really. I send them a Christmas card every year without a return address, just to let them know I’m alive… I even slip a few bills in there. They were mean drunks. I don’t think they really grasped what they did when they were in a haze like that.” Mira hesitated, lost in thought though she seemed more puzzled than upset. “Say Nasir, do you do anything for Christmas?”

He shook his head slowly, raising his eyes from an unseen spot on the desk he’d managed to fixate on. “No. Theaters don’t close on Christmas, not even the old ones. I usually work those days.”

Mira lifted a single finger. “Donar doesn’t really have a record. Oh he has a DMV file a mile long though, but I don’t think he’s ever been convicted of anything outside of that since he pays his tickets, maybe a night in jail at most.” She gave him a reassuring smile. “You wanna know a little secret?”

Nasir nodded although he was almost afraid what else she might tell him.

“Several of the guys, especially Donar, pitch a fit any time they get pulled over for a ticket. I mean like really verbally abusive, the kind of stuff that could get your car towed. Spartacus got tired of his old unit calling him over and over again asking about these guys they pulled over because they would name drop him so he came up with a plan.”

Nasir leaned a little forward, her words pulling him away from lingering on his past too long.

“So one day he tells them they are all required to attend a class Saturday evening on how to behave when an officer gives you a ticket, and the best things you can do to get out of one. Do you know who he managed to get in that class even though he hasn’t gotten a ticket in years?”

“Not Agron?” Nasir found it difficult to believe Agron’s temper didn’t lead to a heavy foot now and then.

“Yes Agron!” She beamed. “He’s one of the most cautious drivers I know. He spent so much time driving Duro around like he is some precious cargo that he never fell out of the habit.”

“But why would he want Agron there if he…”

“So Spartacus gets them all in a room.” Mira interrupted. “And he hands out notepads and everything, and starts telling them about calming down, not letting things rile them up, how to breathe deeply in through their nose and out their mouths when things really get to them… you know like a way to ease them away from their initial reactions to things. He starts telling him words to use to be polite and if it really doesn’t look like they’re going to get out of it, and they didn’t go say 7 miles past the speed limit, they could mention his name and say the officer was free to call him.” Mira beamed. “He doesn’t get as many calls anymore because of that.”

Nasir cocked his head to the side. That sounded a lot like a class that was only partially related to driving. “Spartacus tricked Agron into taking an Anger Management class?”

“More like a lite version of emotion control.” She winked. “So you see Nasir, you’re in good company. We’ve all got our demons, and when you’re ready to share, you’ve got a lot of support. And you know what, I think you’ll be doing something for Christmas this year.”

A slight smile formed when he opened up the photo album and looked through the pictures again. Agron looked so happy, and so did he. “Yeah?”

“Donar’s been a rock for a lot of people around here. The only reason he didn’t pitch significant money into the gym is because he bought a house once everyone split up, a house that needed a lot of work. And it was at that house we had the meetings, and people stayed as they moved back into the area. We have our Christmas meal there every year.”

“Does Agron bring anything to that?”

“Aside from a few presents, mostly just Duro so we can borrow him for kitchen duty. Then he takes a beer and usually sits on the bench outside until we call him in.”

Nasir blinked. “It would be really cold outside.”

“Yeah but he doesn’t really feel much around that time of year.”

Nasir sighed. “He misses his parents?”

“He misses a lot of things. This year though… I think we’ll be able to get him into the ugly Christmas sweater contest and inside. What do think? I have one picked out already.” She showed him her phone.

Nasir snickered. “It… It doesn’t light up does it?”

“Oh it does.” Mira beamed.

Nasir shook his head. “I think it’ll be hard to tell the differencebetween him and the tree. So this marketing thing, how much time would you need from us at first?”

“Well depending on how the vote goes tonight it could be minimal for a while until we get the remodel or the new place built. I’d like to do some brochures for Agron especially. He’s a little light on his calendar and way too shy to go out and get clients himself.”

Nasir raised his brow. “Agron’s shy? Are you sure because he was pretty aggressive with getting my attention. I mean… didn’t really let off at all.”

Mira laughed quietly. “Well that’s different isn’t it? He followed his heart with you, an emotional response. Emotions Agron does pretty well, too well I guess. Dressing up in a suit, trying to sell numbers not so much or asking people to come try out a gym membership either. Don’t you think there are a lot of people out there that would benefit from working with Agron?”

“Yeah, but let’s just keep any short pretty boys with dark skin and long hair off the list.” Okay, maybe Nasir had to admit to himself he could find himself feeling a little jealous in some circumstances.

Mira giggled. “Deal, now let me show you some of the layouts I’ve mocked up.”

“Sure, and while we’re at it maybe you can help me think of something Agron might like for Christmas. It’s a ways off but anything I might get him I’ll have to save for.”

“I might actually have an idea for that… and it won’t cost much at all.”

**

Gannicus looked at the wall as he stood at a urinal next to Agron. “You keep staring at that office like you’re expecting some sort of monster to pop out. You plan on giving any of your focus to your clients today?”

Agron refused to look at the smug blonde even though he could hear the smile in the man’s voice. “You know I don’t like it when you come in here and talk to me. Besides, they’ve been in there a long time. What could they possibly be talking about?”

“All your dirty little secrets of course. I hope she tells him about the time you knocked yourself out in our bathroom. That was pretty damn funny.”

Agron zipped up and turned on Gannicus, eyes a fire with agitation, all thoughts of not falling for Gannicus’ ploy long gone. “You guys put a fucking wet bar of soap on the ground waiting for someone to step on it. You’re lucky I didn’t get a concussion.”

Gannicus laughed heartily. “I tried to warn you the floor was slippery.”

“Getting this place up and running was hell working with you guys. I don’t know why I stuck around.”

“Oh I don’t know. Watching Donar dropped to his knees and start frenching you in a panic was fun.”

“CPR.” Agron growled.

“And then Spartacus came in and reminded the big lug that you were breathing and your heartbeat was fine…” Gannicus laughed some more. “At least we all got training that weekend. Donar was so embarrassed, but he took to the class like a pro.”

“At least he was concerned. I’m told the rest of you couldn’t stop laughing your asses off long enough to see if I was okay.” Agron grabbed a wad of paper towels and jammed them in the trash can. “And stop talking to me when you come in here!”

As he left he heard the man shout out to him. “At least I would have slipped you some tongue for the chance to practice some more!”

Agron sighed and glanced at the office as he returned to the main room to wait for his next client. He was really itching to blow all this off and take Nasir to lunch. While they were out, he could ask him what they were talking about in there. He knew Nasir wasn’t going to lie to him, but maybe it wasn’t right for him to even think about asking either.

Just then his phone buzzed and a text message came in. He was expecting it to be an update from Donar telling him when they would be in today. It wasn’t. Instead he was looking at a number he’d only seen once before: on a card in his truck.

--Call this number-- It said.

Still reeling from his minor exchange with Gannicus and not fully convinced he was doing the right thing to begin with, naturally he acted on impulse.

--Fuck off--

He slipped the phone back in the duffle bag and went back to work.

The next few hours with his clients went by uneventfully. He joined Nasir in the office to share a lunch, looking at the spreads Mira was putting together with photo scene suggestions. Naevia popped in just long enough to drop off a box of pens, notepads and a few promotional water bottles giving them both a smile before going to have lunch with Crixus. When Mira left to join Spartacus at a café, that gave Agron and Nasir some alone time although they ate primarily in silence. Nasir just kept looking at him and smiling. It wasn’t one of those mocking smiles he was used to getting around here, so he tried not to let it worry him too much. The kiss he received at the end of their quiet lunch at least gave him enough to get through most of the afternoon until he started worrying about Donar and Duro who had not shown up yet.

When he was packing his things up because his last client canceled and thinking about asking Nasir if he wanted to do a round or two on the floor, they finally showed up, and something was wrong.

Donar leaned heavily on Duro’s shoulder as he hobbled in on a walking cast. Naturally, Agron approached them quickly, giving his younger brother a speedy look over and noticing only a slight scratch before he addressed the tall man who looked none too happy. “What the hell happened?”

Duro shook his head and answered before Donar could get anything out. “Some black SUV just side swiped him right in the crosswalk.”

Nasir came out to help with the bags while Agron escorted the other two to a nearby bench. “In the city?”

“No.” Donar grunted, taking a deep breath. “And it wasn’t really a crosswalk, just in front of my house.” He sighed. “The fucker came really fast. I’m lucky he didn’t just take me out. Mostly missed Duro though… it was just so fucking weird.”

“Did you get the plates, call the police?” Spartacus walked out of the office, looking worried.

Duro shook his head. “There were no plates. I saw the front and back, not a one or any temporary permits. I just, well we went to the hospital first and the police but a black SUV without plates, they said there wasn’t much they could do.”

“You should have called me, or at least Spartacus. He’s good with the police.” Agron tried hard, really hard not to let his anger surface which was easier to do with Nasir standing next to him so close he could feel him brush his shoulder.

Spartacus glanced at him. “They’re right Agron. There isn’t much more they can do than write the report and question the area. I doubt anyone’s going to notice too much in a place like that.”

Agron looked frustrated, moving forward to give his brother a quick hug. “I’m glad you’re okay. Is that a new earring?”

Duro nodded. “Yeah we went to breakfast this morning and shopping. It’s sterling silver with a stone, I have a matching bracelet in my bag. We should go there sometime. It’s been awhile since you purchased any jewelery.”

Agron frowned slightly, noting Duro glance away from him, looking not just shaken and afraid but like he was hiding something. Once the others occupied themselves with Donar’s comfort and asked the man to retell the story Agron pressed for more. “What is it Duro?”

Duro took a breath, his brow furrowing. “I think, I think the car was parked before we were in the street. I think it… I think it waited to go until we were in the street. That’s crazy right?” His eyes raised to meet Agron’s. “I mean who would want to hit Donar or… or me?”

“We should just go home. I mean…”

Duro shook his head quickly. “No, no you need to stay for the vote. Agron, you need to stay.” He insisted. “Donar just sprained his ankle and has a few scratches. He was pretty quick to move. It barely hit him.”

Agron pursed his lips. “It shouldn’t be long.”

Spartacus placed hand on his shoulder. “It won’t be Agron. I’ll meet you all in the meeting room in a few minutes. After the vote, I promise I’ll look into the matter myself, okay?”

“Okay.”

“I mean it.” Spartacus’s serious expression gave Agron some ease.

Agron gave both Duro and Nasir a quick kiss. “Keep an eye on Donar for me till we get out huh?”

Nasir nodded, looking worried but that encouraging smile Agron drank from like water showed soon enough. “Good luck.”

Agron sighed, trying to push aside all this stuff so he could focus, and wound up being the second to be in the meeting room. Crixus already sat at one end of the table, reviewing the documents Spartacus had readied for them along with the edited proposals.

Crixus glanced up from the table. The man partially shaved and had his hair cut which gave him a little less of that “just came out of the jungle” look he seemed to take on these days. Maybe Naevia was rubbing off on him in a good way already.

He cleared his throat and took a seat near Crixus, purposefully keeping the distance minimal between them which the other seemed to notice right away.

The scowl came immediately although Crixus wasn’t openly hostile yet. “I heard there was some sort of commotion out there. Everything alright?”

“Yeah Donar got hit by a car but he only sprained an ankle and got scuffed up a bit, nothing serious. Duro has a few scratches. Spartacus is going to look into it more after the vote.”

Crixus shook his head. “That would be a no Agron, no not everything is all right. God, listening to you is like trying to understand a preschooler.”

“It’s really fucking tough for you to just you know listen to what I have to say without saying something snarky back isn’t it?” Agron growled.

“You don’t make it easy. Maybe if you thought about words before you opened your mouth, or you know, talked less it would be easier for me not to call you the idiot you are.”

Agron breathed in deeply. No, no he would not fall into this trap. He was trying to make peace with the man for something he did wrong. He had to try again. “Listen Crixus. I know I made a mistake. I know I should have supported what you needed back then. I didn’t understand what it meant to put everything on the line for someone you fell in love with. I do… I do now. I just, I’msorry okay?”

Crixus rested his elbows on the table and folding his fingers together giving Agron his full attention and a long stare before replying. “Naevia considers you a friend. Spartacus has always been considerate of her needs and considers you a brother. Mira seems to think you are capable in some way but I… I can hardly stand the sight of you. When I think about her suffering at the hands of those men, and the threat they would do it again so powerful and strong in her head that I had to take the love of my life and have her committed while you worried about the warmth and safety of yours…” The larger man leaned forward. “I’m not about to…”

Gannicus walked in just then dropping into a chair, lifting his feet onto the table and leaned back, regarding the two before chuckling. “I didn’t miss the vote already did I? I thought I was early. Are you two fighting over this or…?”

Agron lifted his lip ever so slightly. “Just reminding myself why Crixus is and will always be the prick I know him to be.”

Gannicus laughed loudly. “Well don’t let me get in the way. Do continue, although I thought it was a little more interesting that Spartacus plans on putting up his house as collateral for this loan with this uhh…” He opened up the folder and turned a few pages. “Varinius fellow. You two can continue your pissing contest though. Don’t let me stop you.”

Agron forced his eyes away from Crixus to focus on Gannicus. The man was grinning like a wolf but his eyes told him he wasn’t lying. Frowning, he grabbed his folder and began reading on the first page what had changed in this version. Sure enough, the change was right there to knock down the interest by less than half a percent. “No fucking way.”

Spartacus entered then and closed the door frowning at the group as he stood over them. “Agron, we’ve talked about your language. Did you forget… I don’t see a jar in here?” He looked around the room.

“Your house?” Agron stood. “You’re putting your house at risk? You can’t do that Spartacus. You’ve worked too hard and lost too much to put that at risk. We might not even make projections. They’re optimistic at best!”

Spartacus shook his head. “The numbers are tight but doable. I just think this is our chance to move away from what we fell into to something bigger. I can’t think of another place around here that can do this better than we can. Can you?

“But that’s your house.” Agron voiced quietly, looking at the newly drafted proposal and the couple hundred thousand Spartacus intended to get out of his home. “You worked hard for that. You put a lot of money into it you… you lived there with Sura. If we lose that…”

Spartacus walked around the table and placed a hand on Agron’s shoulder, squeezing firmly. “Agron, we’ve all made sacrifices. You don’t have a house. You live in a relatively small apartment with your little brother and now your boyfriend. You put almost everything you had into this place saving enough just to be comfortable and to get Duro through school. You keep saying you’re doing fine, and I believe you. But you could have had more. We all made sacrifices. This place can do better, you can do better and get some of that back faster than the trickle you get now.”

“What the fuck did Agron sacrifice Spartacus? The three or four times he actually won a fight?” Crixus laughed. “You and I, we worked our ways up and this boy…”

Agron advanced while Crixus stood up. “I’ll show you who’s a fucking boy.”

“Agron, Crixus, back-off now.” Spartacus voice rang loud and clear in the meeting room.

Agron’s nostrils flared, glowering at Crixus, his fingers tight in a fist, neck and shoulders tense readying for a fight though his eyes shifted to Spartacus the moment the man spoke. He all but snarled at Crixus and returned to his seat.

Gannicus stood as well though he looked between Crixus and Agron and just laughed. “You want to run a ginormous gym with these two? I think it’d be easier to stick my cock in a pond of piranhas and hope for the best.”

Spartacus cautiously shifted his gaze from the other two to give Gannicus his most unappreciative frown. “Gannicus.”

“No, I’m not fucking kidding. I don’t know what it is with all of you. We have a good thing here. Sure it’s small, it’s a little hole in a wall and we have to coax people into it with outdated cards and failed marketing gimmicks but it’s a place to be. Maybe instead of worrying about some new big fancier gym moving into the area and taking all our clients as we get older and people forget we used to be somebody we just enjoy it while we can.” He kept the smile but when his gaze moved to Agron, it didn’t reflect in his eyes. “You think you’re going to be able to skip out on a session or two because Duro forgot something at a store or your boyfriend needs some time when our numbers are that close?”

“I don’t do that. I mean I don’t do that often…” Agron amended his reply slightly.

“You were gone most the week. Donar pulled double duty to cover your clients. The man really stood up for you and all you’re worried about is whether or not we have a place in the gym for Nasir. Hey I like him too, but maybe we should stop taking in strays like it’s some kind of lifetime commitment. You can fuck and help people without employing them for life. I say let’s help him get his diploma or whatever and find a job somewhere else. Why does it have to be here?”

“Because Agron thinks with his fucking cock and nothing else.” Crixus accused.

Agron slammed his hand on the table, needing to release some energy to maintain any semblance of control. “His sister was murdered, and the rest is more complicated than that you asshole. Nasir works hard. He’d do well here for us.”

“How the fuck would you know how hard he works? You spend more of your sessions here feeling him up and have you ever been to that theater of his?”

Gannicus shook his head, his long hair moving with him. “You’re no better Crixus. You held a job for your girlfriend for what, almost a full year making Mira do double duty, and now you’re chasing after young fighters like you can’t wait to suck their cocks in the hopes they might step one foot here and stay.”

Murder flickered in Crixus’ eyes but before he could move towards Gannicus, Spartacus slammed both palms on the table heavily. “Enough!” Only when he had all of their attention did he continue. “Per Crixus’ request Nasir will not be hired on as a physical trainer until he has completed his education, taken physical education classes and proven himself here. He will not however work in the store. He would not be happy in that position, and we have others to fill those shifts as part-time workers keeping the costs low. Mira and Naevia…” His sharp eyes shifted between Agron and Crixus. “…Will need additional help. We can give them an assistant. Once he has his driver’s license, Nasir can help all of us run errands associated with our work. Naevia is working her way back into her position, and she is doing fine so she will stay. All of this is mentioned on page thirty-two.”

Spartacus took a breath and looked pointedly at Gannicus. “I don’t want you to abstain from this vote. You know that I don’t need any votes to continue with what I think is best… but I want them and I need you all to help with this. It is a big risk, a very big risk, and financing my house is my choice. But Gannicus, we can’t have you sit in the back and shake your head and just tag along thinking and saying you didn’t have anything to do with the direction we’re taking. We need you all in or… out.”

Silence lingered in the room.

Spartacus sighed quietly. “You have your ballots and the choices are the remodel, the larger expansion and a relocation or we continue as we are. Please take your time, read what’s in the folders and make your choice, drop them in the wooden box just outside this door. I will take everyone’s vote into consideration, everyone’s. And you should all know, although they have no voice as they are not partners, I have spoken to everyone who works or volunteers here as well.” Spartacus sighed, his shoulders looking heavier than Agron ever remembered seeing them. “If the decision made does not… if you cannot continue because you are uncomfortable with the choice, I have looked into my options in offering you a full buyout of everyone’s share.” Spartacus straightened himself. “Gentlemen, I will be near the door just in case I am needed.” He turned to leave but paused, glancing at Gannicus. “There are a lot of people here and at home who remember us. We’re still somebody even if our names will never be in some hall of fame or championship again.” Spartacus left.

Within the hour, Crixus, Gannicus and finally Agron emerged, dropping his ballot in the box a smile brightening his weary face when he saw Nasir and Duro on a bench together playing around with their phones. He wasn’t sure, but it looked like they might be doing something together. His eyes shifted to his friend nearby. “Hey Donar, I know you can drive like that but it can’t be comfortable. Let me take you home.”

“Oh that’s not necessary.” Mira piped up. “I’ve already found him a ride home.”

Saxa leaned against the door frame and smiled briefly, twirling the keys around. “I know how to drive a man’s stick.”

Donar gulped, glancing at Agron as if he might actually make a declaration of help, but with so many around, he just cleared his throat and accepted his fate. “It’s um an automatic... I couldn’t drive a stick like this.”

Mira gave Agron a playful slap on the shoulder. “I’ll make sure Saxa gets home after she drops him off. How’d it go?”

Agron motioned for Duro and Nasir to follow. “Who knows? Come on Nasir, Duro…” He paused in front of Donar. “I’ll give you a call tomorrow. Thanks for helping out.”

“I’d say it wasn’t a problem, but I’m in a cast.” Donar gave him a weak smile. “Tomorrow then.”

“We need just a few minutes Agron. Is that okay?” Duro asked not lifting his eyes from the phone.

“Yeah, yeah.” He grabbed his stuff and left eager to get some fresh air. Once he loaded things in his truck, he took a look at his phone. No message but he wondered…

--Can I call later tonight?--

He waited, almost anxiously for a reply.

--So respectful now. Next time, it won’t just be a swipe. I will not accept calls at this time. You will come to this address tomorrow at 8pm. Do not be late. Our generosity has its limits.--

Agron curled his fingers in anger. Maybe, just maybe Spartacus could find something they could use against these people when he looked into the accident. Once everyone was in the truck, he pulled away and sighed heavily.

Duro played with a light scratch on his cheek. “So how did the vote go and what were you and Crixus fighting about?”

“What makes you think we were fighting?” Agron asked cautiously.

“Well we couldn’t hear words, but I know your voices too well and there were only two people in that room when the door closed.”

Agron flared his nostrils. “Just stuff in the past, nothing new really, same old shit.” Nasir pressed his lips against Agron’s upper-arm, and he glanced down just in time to receive an encouraging smile. Agron returned it. “I, I voted for the bigger picture. I’m not as confident today about it as I was yesterday but… I never used to just play it safe. I guess I thought we needed to at least try while we still can.”

Later that night, after everyone was in bed and sleeping, Agron reached over and grabbed his phone once it buzzed.

**

Mira lay in bed with Spartacus resting her head against his shoulder. “You never told me your vote or your decision.”

Spartacus looked up at the ceiling smiling ever so slightly. “I didn’t really decide until I saw their votes.”

“And what did each of them vote for?”

“For the first time since we started this… they finally agreed on something. We’re getting a new gym. I just sent word to everyone.”

**

“Good, very good. Be certain to take the paperwork down first thing in the morning. I want it signed right away. I don’t want to give any of them a chance to change their minds.”

Varinius hung up the phone and looked at the man standing across from him on the other side of his desk. “Your man had a simple task to perform, and he nearly failed. You told me he was reliable.”

“He is young, and he is reliable. The task was completed…”

“His specific instructions was to strike the man when I gave the order and only after Duro was clear. I saw the dash cam. He almost struck Duro; that is not acceptable. I do not want him harmed. Do I make myself clear?”

“Perfectly.”

“Now as to the matter of this new recruit. His skills are lacking as is his patience and attention to detail. I am no longer interested in his recruitment.”

“I’ll get rid of him. It was my mistake suggesting him in the first place.”

Varinius shook his head. So many of the underlings were so short-sighted. “He’s not unpleasant to look at. He wanted to be part of the crew, so I am certain he won’t mind entertaining them.”

The other smiled. “Of course.”

The other man turned to leave but Varinius’ voice gave him pause. “One more thing. I am not Batiatus. I do not dispose of perfectly good assets nor do I want them broken. Make certain if Gnaeus is interested in your team’s new toy that he does not provide him any lasting harm. Is that understand Ashur?”

“Perfectly.”

“And I trust you have not found Pietros or his lover…” Varinius flipped through his notes. “Barca?”

“No sign of Barca or Pietros since the night you saw the boy last.”

Varinius sighed. “And Agron, he had no… valid reason not to return our call?”

Ashur turned to face him. “My source inside says no. He was not heavily involved with anything when he returned your message. There is no good reason for him to take that tone with you. Would it have mattered to you if he had a reason?”

“I try not to punish needlessly. Some like to break the spirits of their pets to keep them docile. I prefer to train mine and earn obedience. You may go and continue with our plan for tomorrow. Do not deviate from it Ashur. I am warning you. My focus is not as easily distracted as your former master’s is.”

Once the other man left he lifted his phone again, peering at the message that simply said… --Fuck off-- Perhaps he needed to accelerate the training a little sooner than anticipated, with all of them. After tomorrow, at least he’d have a leash and collar around their necks not so easily shaken off.

Chapter Text

Agron opened his eyes and frowned when the sun peeked in through the thin curtains along the window; something felt off, unfamiliar and certainly unwelcome. He rolled to the side and realized immediately what it was: while the white tiger had managed to work itself closer to his side of the bed, Nasir was nowhere to be found.

At some point his habit changed or at least his expectation. He’d spent many years waking up to an empty bed, even when he was in a closed relationship, but this was the first time when it felt off.

Yawning he climbed out of bed and went in search of his lover, past Duro’s bedroom and past the bathroom to stand before a rather peculiar sight: Duro sat on the couch, reading a book about crepes, and Nasir stood over the stove stirring something in a pot. His love hadn’t bothered to dress yet wearing only his thinning pajama bottoms which left his defining back and chest open to appraisal; Agron took ample time to enjoy the sight too. With his brother not bothering to look up from his reading, Agron walked over and gently placed a hand against Nasir’s bare shoulder, leaning forward to give his temple and neck a quick kiss. “Hey, you woke up a few times last night and you’re up so early today. You want to talk about something, and is that oatmeal?”

Nasir gave him a weak smile which broadened just a bit when Agron ran his palm over his firm ass. “Steel cut oats. Duro says they’re not too heavy for your Saturday routine but heartier than cereal. I kind of got used to them myself after a few weeks of eating them. Did I wake you last night? I didn’t mean to.” He replied quietly.

“Only briefly each time, just enough to know you were gone and be happy when you returned. I was just realizing this morning I don’t really like waking up to you not being in bed with me.”

Nasir chuckled quietly. “That’s sweet Agron, but you know you tend to slip out early morning before I wake up. I thought that meant it would be okay to do it myself.”

Agron tapped Nasir’s hip briefly in thought. “Does that, does that bother you?”

The smaller man shook his head. “No. I know you’ll be back, and I have to work later than you do some nights.”

Agron grinned. “Good, because I can change my routine, but Duro can tell you what a bear I am when I have to adjust like that.”

Duro glanced up. “I believe the word he is looking for is ass.”

His younger brother received a quick scowl for his effort though Agron’s attention quickly returned to Nasir. “It’s not like you to be restless at night.”

Nasir shifted the pot off the hot coil. “Work’s hard is all.”

“You’ve been at the same place since we’ve met, and I haven’t seen you this disturbed by it before. Are you sure it’s…”

“Agron.” Nasir turned towards him, forcing a smile while he grasped Agron’s hands. “A lot of things are different now. You and me for one, no Chadara and work has… changed a bit. I’ll adjust, and I promise I won’t turn into a bear while I do.”

Agron huffed. “Along with the information on the vote, Spartacus’ message said he’s arranged for the PI to come into the gym on Sunday. That brings us a step closer to getting you out of there. I’ve got to go in a little early today to sign the paperwork, but I want to come back and give you a ride to work.”

Nasir shook his head quickly. “No, no I’ll take the bus. It’ll be fine Agron. I get by remember? So you gotta tell me if you prefer brown sugar or honey or just white sugar maybe?”

He bit his lip, trying to tell himself that he should let this go. Nasir didn’t want him to go to the Villa, to this shady little theater and encounter his scum sucking boss. This was a boundary, but he wasn’t really great with those on a good day. “Nasir just let me drop you off; I’d feel so much better if I could just…”

For a moment, Agron thought he’d win this argument too. Nasir waffled, stood silent, his eyes dropping to the side as if he really considered Agron’s request. Then the smaller man replied. “What I really need from you Agron is to be here when I get home. You don’t know how…” Nasir lifted his chin a bit, locking eyes with Agron. “How wonderful it feels to come home and have others be there waiting for me, expecting me. I just need that right now. Can you do that for me?”

And how much of an ass would he be to deny that? Fuck. In the back of his mind, he knew he had that rendezvous to make with their blackmailers, but Nasir got off late on Saturdays so he really thought it would be fine. Nasir’s plea, well he found his heart pull at the very thought of rejecting it. “Okay.”

Gracefully, Nasir rolled to his toes and gave Agron a quick kiss. “Thank you. So which one do you want?”

“Honey.”

Duro piped up again, reminding Agron they weren’t exactly alone. “You don’t like honey in steel cut oats.”

“I like honey in a lot of things.”

“Yeah but you always forget you don’t like it in these. Nasir, I’d do brown sugar if I were you.”

“What the hell Duro, don’t you think I know what I like?” Agron growled at him.

Duro shrugged and returned to his book. Fifteen minutes later, Agron left the table to go take a shower, his honey laced steel oats less than half eaten. Nasir frowned slightly his eyes naturally drifting to Duro for explanation. Duro sighed. “He never remembers that. He used to eat it like that because he wanted to be like… dad. But he never liked it. Just throw a handful of raisins in there. He’ll finish it before he goes.”

Nasir stood, deciding to take his shower later as he sat next to Duro. “Crepes?”

Duro smiled widely. “Yeah, Oenomaus said I have an opportunity to make one of the desserts this week. If I do well enough, maybe he’ll let me do it twice in a row. I just have to study up on these alternate flours and experiment a bit with them.”

Nasir smiled, glancing at the rich looking offerings, some doused in deep chocolate while others were light with fruit and whipped toppings. His eyes shifted to the dangling leather on his left ear. “That’s a new earring right, and your bracelet too? Can I see it?”

Duro took off his bracelet and gave it to Nasir to toy with the braiding and the smooth white and grey stone. The dangling earring with matching stones, Nasir touched ever so lightly. “I like this.” The darker man said. “So Agron’s a creature of habit?”

“Sometimes, yeah, but he prefers the word routine.” Duro turned the page, silent for a few moments. “I don’t think he realizes he falls into habit most of the time.”

Nasir leaned back, thinking about what Mira said about her parents and how little Agron or Duro spoke of theirs. “He tried to copy your dad? Agron never really talks about them does he?”

Duro set the book aside giving Nasir his full attention. “I usually get pretty emotional when it comes up, so mostly it’s my fault. I just… one of my earliest memories is walking or more like stumbling up to the table when I was younger, it seemed so huge then, and watching Agron kick his feet at the table trying to eat oatmeal like my dad did instead of corn puffs. He made a face, like he was so surprised it tasted like that even with honey, and he really likes honey. He makes that same face now. Goes maybe four spoonfuls before the memory hits him and then he just walks away. I’m not sure if I should try harder to prevent him from doing that or if I should just give him a chance to remember once in a while to get past it instead of, you know, shoving it down again.”

“That’s so sad…” Nasir sighed, feeling a bit guilty he triggered one of Agron’s unhappy memories.

“But it’s not a sad memory, Nasir. It’s a happy one. He was happy that morning because dad was home and not going to work so early.”

Nasir smiled briefly. “Oh.”

“And he’d be pretty upset with me knowing I made you sad though. God knows I won’t get his wallet if I ask for it while you’re in tears, and chia flour is looking pretty promising.”

Nasir laughed quietly and reattached the bracelet around Duro’s wrist. “Well that’s too easy to do for you to get in trouble for it. The good thing is I know how to bounce back, mostly.”

“But he’s right isn’t he?” Duro asked softly. “Something is bothering you?”

“You should get more like these. They look good on you Duro. You might be able to attract some real attention from a nice girl.”

Duro shook his head focusing on the book again. “I think, I think I am done with women, for a while anyway.”

Nasir had been about to stand and leave, maybe join Agron for the last few minutes of his shower but he didn’t like Duro’s answer one bit. “You haven’t been with anyone since that night have you? Have you even gone out, seen your friends?”

Duro hesitantly glanced at Nasir. “I… I’ve texted them a few times to let them know I am still around.”

“Duro, you can’t let this stop your life. You could go out, show off your new jewelry. It’s very nice…”

The other man shook his head, scowling briefly as he did so. “I just think about someone touching me and I feel… nauseous, and then there was this guy in the restaurant that I mistook for a food critic and now I just, I just…”

“You just what?” Nasir pressed lightly.

Slowly Duro’s eyes focused on Nasir’s again. “I think he might have been hitting on me. I mean I’ve been hit on before by gay guys but this was just different.”

“How was it different?”

“He just… he unnerved me. That’s never happened before. I mean I work at a restaurant that Agron only goes to because sometimes I get a reward for my work or discounts he can use. It’s so expensive… well you know. I’m around wealthy men all the time but this one…” Duro shook his head. “I just don’t want to be around anyone right now.”

Nasir sighed softly. This wasn’t a good sign. Maybe it was too much to expect Duro to bounce back from his experience. While Nasir spent most his life dealing with the empowered and vile, Agron and Duro, well they just bumped into it now and then. The problem was, he wasn’t sure how he coped was any better. “Well you could go to a favorite place, just relax a little. Is there a café or small diner, some place you like to sit and read or just enjoy the view?”

“Yeah.” Duro dropped his eyes back to his book.

“You don’t have to meet anyone there or go very far. It’s important to start liking things you used to enjoy again.”

“There’s this small place in town by a park that serves espresso I enjoy. It’s been awhile since I’ve gone there. I did earn a pretty big tip so I could afford to treat myself to a little extra I guess.” Duro smiled. “You’re right Nasir. I should go out today.” The slightly younger man began gathering his things.

“I didn’t mean you had to go now Duro.” Nasir stood. “Do you want me to tell Agron where you’re going?”

“Sure, you can tell him I went to the Royale Café for espresso and a pastry and to study more. I’ll be home before dinner though.” Duro paused after he had everything gathered in his messenger bag. “Oh but I guess you won’t be home for dinner because it’s Saturday and you work nights at the Villa on Saturday right?”

“I work nights each Saturday.” Nasir replied carefully, trying to avoid outright lies with any member of his new family.

Duro gave a nod. “I made some soup earlier. I put it in a glass bowl but you can put it in one of our plastic ones to take it with you. Oh, I bought you something too.” He stood and went to the kitchen reaching into the cupboard to pull out a small insulated bag. “There’s a gel pack in the freezer too to keep things cold for you. I guess I should have asked if you had a microwave or something. Hmm.”

“It’s fine, have fun.” Nasir assured, his heart warmed at the thought that Duro even thought of him while out shopping.

Once Duro left, Nasir frowned slightly. At first he thought Duro would desperately need some counseling, should probably get some anyway, now he wasn’t so sure if all it took was a little suggestion for him to get outside. The very idea of being stuck in a room with some doctor made Nasir ill, so he was less inclined to suggest someone else do that.

About twenty minutes later, Agron walked out in clean clothes drying his hair as Nasir finished straightening up the kitchen. “Did Duro go out?”

“Yeah to some place called the Royale Café.”

The taller man nodded, coming up behind Nasir to give him a gentle kiss against the neck. “His favorite coffee place. Do you have a favorite tea place?”

Nasir shook his head. “There’s this coffee place, the Chariot Cafe, near work I go to sometimes to meet friends. It’s not bad for as cheap as it is. Hey don’t go fishing for it so you can start dropping me little gifts again.” He hesitated. “You didn’t like the honey?”

“I thought the Oregon Chai was a hit though!” He could feel the downturn of Agron’s lips against his shoulder as he lingered near the kiss location. “And I… I guess not. I don’t know why I didn’t remember that.”

His heart told him to just go for it. He didn’t want to treat Agron like others in his past. He wanted to be open and feel confident if he did something wrong, made Agron angry, the man would still be there for him. “You… don’t remember or you’d rather not tell me?”

Agron sighed. “Fucking Duro has a big mouth.”

“You could get mad at your younger brother or you could choose to share with me Agron. You don’t talk about your parents much.”

The frown didn’t change but the tone softened. “There isn’t much to talk about Nasir. They were there, and then they were gone. People think that watching someone go away to jail for their death is supposed to make you feel better or something, but I all I could think about was another family learning to live without. It didn’t bring mine back.”

Nasir tugged Agron towards the table, and they sat near each other. Just as Duro predicated, the pile of raisins stirred into the bowl seemed to stimulate Agron’s interest again. He began finishing his cereal even if it was cold now. “I have… very few memories of my family Agron. I don’t know if I could even really describe their faces. Voices I remember better, but I hold onto those memories. I’m always afraid I’ll forget. I already forgot my last name. I just don’t want to cheapen their memories by forgetting.”

Agron’s beautiful eyes saddened and predictably the man stopped eating to touch his wrist and eventually draw him closer. “I wanted to be just like him. He worked a regular job, was gone most the day, and traveled sometimes. I was always so excited when he picked me up from school. Sometimes I wonder how my mother felt about that because when he was home early we’d be all over him and we were never like that with her. I hope it never hurt her feelings. I just wasn’t mature enough yet when I lost them to ask things like that. I didn’t think of it until they were gone. And I don’t know if they’d approve of my first career choice. I’m pretty sure they’d be fine with what I do now… at least I hope they would be.”

“More than fine. I can’t imagine anyone who brought you and Duro into the world being anything less than proud with what you’ve done with your life and with how Duro is starting his.”

“You think so.”

“I know so.”

Agron smiled, a bright big happy smile. Silence settled between them as he finished his cereal. “So,” he began after a bit. “I know you don’t want me dropping you off at your place of work or picking you up or even visiting there.”

“Agron…” Nasir warned ever so carefully.

“But can I at least pick you up at the bus stop?”

“It’s only four blocks Agron.”

“Five maybe six but definitely not four. I’d feel better if I could be there when you get back.”

Nasir sighed softly. He was asking for so little except it could be a great deal more than that if he couldn’t be sure when he would get home. Varinius said he’d be back at the Villa like a normal shift so he should be able to take his regular fare. “Okay Agron, but if I text you I am running late, I don’t want you get angry with me okay.”

“Deal.” Agron grinned. He placed a wet kiss against his temple.

“I just don’t get why you want to stay up for me. You should get more sleep than that. I know you like to go to bed around nine.”

“Ten!” Agron protested. “I don’t go to bed in the single digits I just, you know, settle down then. And I’ll stay up for a good show.”

“Like what?” Nasir challenged.

“Umm…” Agron’s neck tensed ever so slightly as his eyes shifted from side to side as he tried really, really hard to think of a show. “Criminal Minds?”

Nasir was already smiling. “You don’t watch that. I asked you what you thought about Penelope and you said who.”

“I can’t memorize all the characters on a show Nasir.”

“She’s not forgettable. Agron admit it, you watched it once, and it was just because I was channel surfing… you didn’t even finish the whole episode.”

Agron smirked. “All right, so you’re dating an old guy who goes to bed around nine.”

Nasir slipped onto Agron’s lap facing the man as he gave him a firm warm kiss. “I don’t know too many old guys who would dance with me until almost one in the morning, and then stumble into bed for me for a couple of rounds later.”

A big grin formed as Agron returned the kiss. “I did do that didn’t I?”

“You did.” Nasir replied softly.

“You know I have twenty minutes before I have to leave or I could just call Donar.”

Nasir huffed briefly and nipped Agron’s chin. “You’re not going to be late to work on my account Agron, and I think you owe Donar enough already don’t you? Besides, twenty minutes is plenty of time.”

“Plenty of time for wha…” Agron gasped as Nasir’s fingers slipped past the elastic waistband and slid into his boxers, wrapping his fingers around the hardening flesh there.

“Hmmm?” He challenged.

“God, you’re going to be the death of me Nasir.” The larger man rasped.

“Well I could stop…”

“No!” Agron whimpered, his hips thrusting forward ever so slightly encouraging Nasir’s gradual strokes.

Nasir placed a hand against Agron’s covered chest, his other slowly pumping the eager flesh filling beneath his fingertips. His lover was fairly easy to manipulate, physically, and he loved him all the more for it. “If you can manage Agron, grab me one of those cloth napkins from the table. You have a longer reach than I do.”

Agron grunted but complied, handing the cloth object to his lover with a sigh equally parts regret and pleasure. “Duro’s going to kill me for that.”

“Either don’t tell him or get him a new set.” Nasir teased.

“New set definitely,” Agron murmured before his voice ended in a long drawn out moan that sent shivers up Nasir’s spine and heat pooled between his legs.

Carefully Nasir worked the cloth napkin down his pants, giggling when the coarse fabric brushes against the man’s sensitive skin. “Easy love. I don’t want to be responsible for you having to dress again and being late.”

“Say that again.”

Nasir lifted his eyes to peer at his lover quizzically. “Late.”

“The other l word.”

A light blush formed. “Love.”

“That’s the one baby.” Agron grinned and then grunted when dark fingers resumed their motions.

“I waited so long for you to say that to me Agron, but I can’t ever imagine denying that I love you myself.”

“It’s hard for me to say.” Agron replied quietly.

Nasir’s fingers slowed gradually, his brown eyes peered up at the partially closed green eyes. “Why?”

“People I love have a tendency to get hurt or… die.” Agron rotated his powerful hips ever so slightly moaning from the sensation of it all. “And… I wasn’t sure you knew what love was.”

Nasir licked his lips and then leaned forward so he could whisper against Agron’s ear. “You might wind up hurting me again Agron, but I was almost numb when you found me. You don’t have to tell me what love is when you show me every day.”

Agron moved suddenly, his fingers grasping Nasir’s hips as he lifted him to the table and captured his lips. “That’s a lie. I saw hope and excitement. I saw devastation and sorrow, and when you fled that restaurant embarrassment. You’ve always felt something Nasir even if you didn’t know how to describe or explain it or embrace it. I don’t care if I’m late, I’m having you right here on this table.”

“And what makes you so sure I’ll let you have me?” Nasir purred as their lips met again.

The larger man pouted. “Because this is all your fault.”

“Guilty.”

“But I don’t want to… I mean I can’t just… and then leave.”

Nasir bit Agron’s lower lip, drawing just a hint of blood. “Do me Agron. Think about me all day, and have that broad smile on your face when you pick me up at the bus stop tonight.”

Whatever hesitation lingered in that head of his must have melted away because the next thing Nasir knew his pajama bottoms were down, and he was pressed back until the smooth wood of the table tried to cool his exposed skin.

Now the table would have been a little high for Nasir to try and use in this way, but as he looked up at the basic metallic chandelier above him and felt those powerful hands glide along his thighs and encourage his legs to spread, he had no doubt Agron had ample reach. The man, no his lover lifted his left leg to rest on Agron’s broad right shoulder and the other went just under his left arm. He didn’t even want to know what was used as lube though the scent smelled faintly of… olive oil. “Duro’s going to kill us.” He murmured quietly.

Agron only laughed quietly, tearing open a package and a pause indicating the man proceeded with being cautious. “Only if he finds out.”

Nasir sighed happily. “You don’t have your Gun Oil near but you carry around a rubber?”

“With you around, you’d be surprised where I can stash these.”

He let a hand rest just against his chest, patiently waiting though he knew the upright nature of his cock told Agron he was more than ready even if the insertion of a finger and then another drew just a light and content sigh from him. “Clock’s ticking Agron.”

“Tsk.” Agron clicked his tongue. “I’m not hurrying this even if I do get yelled at by Spartacus. My first time on a table is going to be good.”

A hearty laugh filled the room as Nasir smiled widely. “You know I’ve never done it on a table either. An alley, a desk, on the dance floor but never a kitchen table.”

“The dance floor?” He felt Agron stiffen and the stretching attempt stopped.

Nasir rolled his eyes and sighed. “Agron, relax. I’ve not been with anyone since…” And then he felt his heart skip a beat because that wouldn’t be true soon would it? And even if it was true now, he couldn’t continue the statement. “Agron, no one has my heart but you. I didn’t even know the man’s name.”

Agron sighed heavily. The uncomfortable silence lingered for only a few more moments before the large man continued and soon familiar, wanted and eager flesh pressed inside him.

Maybe it was the small amount of olive oil or lingering anger from being reminded about the night at the club. Whatever it was, Agron’s motions seemed harsher and more powerful than usual. It left Nasir gasping for air on a couple of occasion and arching briefly in discomfort. But he liked it, this strength, this unbridling of Agron’s nature which so often seemed overly cautious, incredibly considerate when he was as drawn to the man’s physicality as he was his warm heart. And maybe, just maybe there was a bit of pride swelling inside him knowing that a man like this, someone whom he thought could easily crush another man and find anyone he wanted… fell in love with him.

Nasir hadn’t realized how tight he’d become, adjusting to the pain and strength of Agron’s movements until the warm voice reached his mind. “I’m sorry baby. I got carried away. Relax it won’t hurt anymore.” Agron slowed down, his fingers brushing against Nasir’s hand.

Nasir grabbed the strong palm and guided his love to feel between his legs, run those coarse fingertips along his upright, leaking and twitching cock. “I’m more than okay… see.” He smiled and it wasn’t even forced. “I’m the one that started it with teasing and biting your lip. I can handle it Agron. I want to.”

Agron shook his head. “Don’t, don’t do that. Don’t compare me to other men.”

Nasir looked him directly in the eye and replied without missing a heartbeat. “You’re not comparable to other men. You’re the one that holds my heart and no other.”

With their eyes locked, Agron began to move again. Yes, maybe he lost a bit of that snap of the hips and the grip against his waist that almost held tight enough to cause bruising loosened, but the strength was there with renewed confidence. They were well past twenty minutes when Agron finally came with a deep growl, and at least another five before Nasir found his relief.

He was glowing when Agron pulled him to a sitting position, and they were down not one but two napkins. Another five minutes, and Agron looked presentable for work and they parted with a lingering kiss. Agron would only be ten minutes late, and Nasir had something to smile and hum about in the shower.

**

Eventually Agron walked through the doors of The Rebel, almost forgetting why he’d come here or even remembering the drive over. He set his duffle bag on the floor right by the receptionist desk feeling almost a bit in a haze.

“Agron?”

Someone probed him but he didn’t really acknowledge who was talking to him. Too many conflicting emotions clashed inside him, love, the lingering warmth of early morning passion and… rage. “I think Nasir’s cheating on me. I want to find this bastard and bust his head open.”

“On it! Donar cover for us!” Before Agron knew what was happening, Mira had his wrist and was yanking him into the office, closing the door behind them.

Meanwhile Donar sighed when he heard his name and saw Mira disappear into the office with Agron in tow. He limped his way over to get another set medicine balls and, of course, grab Agron’s client. “Agron wanted me to show you a couple of my special techniques today. You’re in luck because there’s no one in the gym better at this than I am.” He smiled. Donar only hoped later someone might actually explain to him what was going on… if he was lucky.

Chapter Text

Mira pulled Agron into the office and closed the door, leading him over to a chair and trying very hard to pry his keys loose from his tight fist. “Agron, open your fingers sweetie. I don’t want you to have any metal or weapon-like objects in your grasp right now.”

Agron blinked and scowled at her but relinquished his keys.

“Sit down Agron. Let me get you some coffee.”

“I don’t want any fucking coffee.”

Mira sighed. “Agron, listen. I’m sure Nasir isn’t cheating on you. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone so in love before…”

Agron crossed his arms. “You weren’t there Mira. Has he said anything to you, talked to anyone around here lately?” Agron stood and peeked out of the blinds. “It’s Gannicus isn’t? He’d fuck anything standing up I just know it!”

“Agron.” Spartacus entered the office and closed the door behind him. “I heard there was something wrong.”

Agron clenched his fingers into a fist. “Nasir is fucking someone else, and I bet it’s someone in this gym.”

Spartacus frowned, pursed his lips and gave a quick motion towards the door with his head. “Mira can you give us a minute?”

“But I really think I can help with this one. Nasir and I talk and…”

“Honey, please.” Spartacus’ voice softened. “It’s important okay?”

She sighed and nodded, pouting slightly as she finished closing the blinds and slipped out of the room.

Spartacus returned his attention to Agron who looked tense, angry and dangerous. “Please have a seat at my desk Agron. Please…” Stiffly his friend complied taking a seat while Spartacus propped himself against the desk. “Now let’s see if we can work our way through this without any damage or uncontrolled anger shall we? You want to tell me what’s going on?”

Agron reached into his pocket, pulled out a twenty and threw it on the desk.

“What…” Spartacus began clearly puzzled.

“Can I get some sort of discount or something if I pay in advance?”

“In advance?”

Agron huffed and began. “So this morning Nasir and I got hot and heavy in the kitchen. It starts all innocent enough, just sharing you know, mild things, deep things and before I know it his hands are in my pants, we’re grabbing napkins and fucking on the table.”

“Got it.” Spartacus picked up the twenty and put it in the swear jar.

“We’re both talking about how neither of us fucked on a kitchen table before, and I’m thinking this is great. I know Nasir isn’t really inexperienced when it comes to sex, so I really got excited when he said he’d never done this before.”

“Agron…”

“Right so we’re in the kitchen talking about where we’ve fucked, well mostly where he’s done it since I’ve not nearly had as many experiences as he has and he mentions the dance floor.”

Spartacus sighed and partially covered his face with his hand. “And you automatically think back to the night you two went clubbing.”

“Yeah, except that wasn’t really clubbing since we went just to the one…” Agron blinked. “Wait, who told you about that!?”

Spartacus cleared throat. “Let’s focus on the important part here. You know that man didn’t have sex with your boyfriend on the dance floor that night.”

“He sure as hell didn’t fuck Nasir while I was waiting for him.” Agron stood and began to pace. “It was Saxa wasn’t it? She told you. Son-of-a-bitch, she promised me she’d keep it to herself.”

Spartacus raised a brow ever so slightly. “Saxa knew about that?” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s focus on what’s important here. Something happened that has made you think Nasir is cheating on you.”

“Right so where was I.” Agron paused. “Hands in pants, on the table, olive oil, napkins…”

Spartacus considered trying to focus Agron, maybe get him to lower his voice a little and try to stop swearing but as terrible as this particular problem might be, he hadn’t seen the man just spill his guts so readily before, swear-word laced or otherwise. As hard as it might be to believe, this seemed almost like progress. The walls weren’t that thin and the glass was pretty good; they’d probably be fine. Wait, olive oil? He cleared his throat trying to focus them both. “On the table talking about unique places to have sex.”

“Right! And he says the dance floor, so I’m thinking back to that shit-faced smug bastard who was trying to land my boyfriend right from under me, and he’s telling me I don’t have to worry.”

“Nasir is?”

“Yes Nasir… except he stops. He’s about to tell me he hasn’t been with anyone else since he’s met me, but he stops mid-sentence and tells me I have his heart. That means he’s been with someone else! I can’t fucking believe it. I thought…” Agron’s expression shifted from anger to hurt to anger again.

Spartacus risked moving forward gently placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Agron look at me, look at me.” He waited for his companion to comply and continued. “Tell me about Nasir’s expression. Think back to what he looked like this morning and tell me how he seemed.”

A sad smile formed. “He was restless all night, and then he was making breakfast and he was playful, and when he’s experiencing pleasure he closes his eyes…”

“Agron…” Spartacus tried again. “When he stopped mid-sentence, tell me about that, tell me how he looked at that moment. Did he seem surprised or scared?”

“Oh.” Agron breathed in quietly. “Surprised. He looked surprised like he just realized something.”

Spartacus released a sigh of relief but tapped the desk. “He starts to tell you you’re the only man in his life now and in the middle of the sentence he realizes it might not be true or it will not be true.”

Agron hesitated. “You think I’m wrong. You don’t think he’s cheating on me?”

“Agron do you remember when we talked about Batiatus and the Villa, the work I was doing and what happened to Naevia?”

Agron looked uncomfortable. “You think he’s being forced to sleep with someone?”

Spartacus pushed himself away from the desk. “I think Nasir has navigated the world he lives in for a lot longer than you or I have been looking at it. We’re working to pull him out remember? And we’re being cautious just in case. Trust Nasir to hold out a little longer on his own.”

Agron sighed, glancing to the side. “If he, if he cheated on me it would break my heart… but I don’t think I could let go that easily. God, I’m fucked. I don’t know… I don’t know how to do this.”

“Hey.” Spartacus patted him on the back. “I know what’s like to be in love Agron. You don’t have to tell me.”

“I cheated on him.”

Spartacus blinked, trying not to react instantly to what he just heard. “You cheated on Nasir?”

“No, no of course not. Antonio, I cheated on him. I just followed a guy home one night. And when I told him… he just nodded and proposed the next day.” Agron rolled his eyes.

Spartacus remained quiet, completely perplexed by this. Agron sharing, really sharing with him without alcohol and at least an hour of coaxing, well he wasn’t used to this side of his closest friend, his brother. And more than this, this didn’t sound like Agron at all. “You never told me that.”

“How could I?” Agron stood. “I wanted to get something out of him. A rise, anger, hurt… fucking anything. He didn’t even blink, like it was expected. Just as long as I came home, he said. Like I’m some fucking dog.” He turned towards the windows to the main floor, the blinds preventing either of them from looking out. “I can’t be kept like that, and now that’s what I want. I mean I think I do. I’m not sure. In the middle of making love to the man of my dreams, I think he might have just confessed he’s cheated on me and the only thing I think about is claiming him as mine and wiping the floor with whatever bastard is in my way.”

Spartacus frowned slightly. “You know Agron, you’ve got a lot of energy and emotions pent up inside you. It’s been years since you just sort of let all go right? I mean I know the arena gave you a release for a lot of things, but now I’ve put you in a position where you’re expected to be in control all the time.” Spartacus sighed trying to decide how to approach this. “This almost reminds me of the man I met years ago who was wound up so tight he thought a friendly smile and a laugh was a strong come on and an indication I wanted in his pants, but I think I’ll let Mira and Donar work on your homicidal tendencies while I work on getting your boyfriend out of this mess while trying to find out who he really is. You’re stronger now. You have a good support system… and I think when you calm down you’ll know Nasir spends most his waking hours trying to be closer to you. Anything that gets in the way of that, isn’t going to be his choice.” In attempt to lighten the mood he added. “But don’t forget, if I really wanted you that night, I would have had you in my motel room begging for more.”

Agron gave him a sideways glance and then just laughed. “Sometimes you’re just an asshole.”

“Takes one.” Spartacus winked on him. “Come on. Let’s get your stuff in your locker and walk down to that sleazy bar down the street so I can list for you the number of ways I know Nasir loves you and only you. You can run through that list when you see him again to avoid letting this anger surface.”

“But my clients…”

Spartacus gave him a pen. “I need you to sign these loan documents, but Donar’s got you covered and Gannicus had a cancellation this morning. Your clients are fine.”

Agron grabbed the pen and began signing his name next the others. “One beer might help… Wait a minute, it was Donar wasn’t it? He told you about the club.”

Spartacus put the signed documents in a folder. “It wasn’t Donar or Saxa actually. I have my own birds, those two are yours, well they are now anyway.” As Agron’s list of allies grew it was becoming more difficult to keep an eye on this rocky relationship.

As they walked out Spartacus handed the folder to Naevia. “Can you run an errand for me?”

And on their way to the nearby bar, Agron remembered something he’d meant to tell Spartacus earlier. “I forgot to tell you what Nasir told me about his trip to the police station, and who he met with…”

When the afternoon finally rolled around, Varinius ran his fingers over the signed loan papers and smiled. He picked up the phone. “He should be ready soon, bring me what’s mine.”

**

Duro took a deep breath and sat outside at a small steel table under a large blue umbrella sipping a strong espresso and enjoying a cannoli. The sun was warm although the breeze and the chill this morning certainly suggested the summer heat was all but lifting away. This felt good though, real good. Things were quiet here but just busy enough to distract and steady him as he turned through the pages of his book.

Chia seeds were in right now, considered a superfood, so a chia seed based crepe would certainly draw the attention of their upscale crowd. He could try it two ways, chia flour, milk and a rich cream sauce or maybe chia seeds with rolled oats and almond milk with a more flavorful blueberry sauce would fit the bill and be a gluten free option. He planned on testing them on Agron, of course, Nasir and maybe Mira and Donar. He knew for sure Agron would give an honest, unfiltered opinion. He wasn’t sure about Nasir or Donar but Mira liked to play around with healthy and natural foods so her opinion most likely would be coupled with helpful suggestions and maybe an idea or two about the description of the dessert too.

He was jotting down his idea and wondering how feasible it might be to have a blueberry and blackberry option when someone blocked his light.

“Hey…” His voice trailed off when he saw who it was.

The same man who had unsettled him at The Ludus and left him a sizable tip took a seat across the table. Unlike before, this man wasn’t wearing a suit but an expensive heather blue button up shirt with the collar open and accessorized with some sort of smartwatch on his wrist. The other set his phone down on the table and tapped his black slack covered knee gazing at Duro with unwavering and confident eyes. “I wondered how long it would take before you wound up here.”

Duro set his jaw. “Who the hell are you?”

“I think you know who I am Duro. I think you suspected almost the moment you started serving me. You did so well serving me… on both occasions.”

Two opposing emotions slammed against each other inside Duro as his nostrils flared. “You get away from me or I’ll call the cops.”

Those piercing eyes locked onto Duro as a smile formed. “And tell them what exactly?”

“What, what you did to me.” Duro had to look away, and he kicked himself for it. He just couldn’t maintain contact with those eyes. Was it true he thought? Did he know when the man came into the Ludus who he might be?

“I don’t think you remember what happened to you Duro; you certainly aren’t supposed to remember. I believe nothing is a hundred percent certain, but your response to that little cocktail of ours was most impressive. I’ve received many compliments.”

Duro drew a deep quivering breath trying to muster enough courage to fish for information. “Did you kill her?”

Those confident eyes shifted ever so slightly and a frown formed. “Chadara’s death was unexpected. The drugs you two were doing were clean, I made sure of that. Your cocktail was certainly not created by an amateur but that outcome was not wanted.” He shook his head. “Eventually that person will pay, but you don’t need to worry about that Duro. I’ll take care of it for you. That is not the reason I came here today.”

Duro closed his book and leaned forward, angrily hissing at him. “You have a lot of nerve coming here. I know someone intimately involved with the police. If you don’t leave me alone he’ll…”

“Spartacus is a remarkable man that is certain. He was good in law-enforcement, competent on many levels but flawed by his own pursuits. His abilities as a fighter, now that was even more remarkable. But as I said before, you have my attention not any of them.”

Duro leaned back. He shouldn’t be surprised. He already knew these people were concerned about police involvement, so it made sense they would research Spartacus. “How do you know about him?”

“I know about all of you. I know about your brother Agron, his lover Nasir. I know Agron’s best friend and your close friend is Donar. Gannicus is fairly easy to manipulate. Saxa is a pleasant creature to look upon. Mira…”

“Stop.” Duro stood grabbing his things. “I don’t have to listen to this.” He reached for the check but the other man did the same and when their hands touched he jerked his way. “Don’t do that.” His hand began to shake, or maybe it had already begun to shake, and he just didn’t notice. Duro didn’t look at the other man again though as he hurried away.

“Call the police Duro. Let me show you what a man of position and power can do even with law enforcement.”

And he didn’t hear the rest. Instead Duro rushed down the street several blocks before taking a short cut down an alley that would take him to a bus with a direct route home. As he walked he pulled out his phone to call someone, anyone. Agron, maybe, no Spartacus would be better. Suddenly he was slammed against the nearby wall and the phone fell from his hand.

Every instinct in his body told him to fight back, to scream for help and slam his knee against his assailant. But he was overwhelmed by surprise that this guy would know him well enough to guess what stop he would head to and by which route. And feeling the other against his body like this, solid, muscular, Duro knew this man was no simple and weak businessman. “You may call me Varinius if you like, and I am not finished with you.” Varinius breathed against his neck, the rich voice calm and smooth, it was too familiar, too pronounced and he felt his body react to a memory his mind did not have the privilege to retain.

**

Varinius leaned forward and brushed his lips along Duro’s neck and shoulder. He felt the young body before him tremble while drawing in a shuddering breath. “Shhh,” he whispered. “I won’t hurt you Duro.” His palm traveled down the front of Duro’s strong chest pressing ever so carefully against the rising bulge within the other’s jeans. He chuckled quietly. “You respond so well to force, to power, unlike many I have encountered over the years. You are naturally submissive Duro. That makes you… special and pleases me.”

Duro turned his head to the side. “So special you passed me around to other men, discarded me like garbage...”

Carefully Varinius leaned back looking at the tense jaw and the tight muscles in the younger man’s neck but mostly noted the unsteady eyes trying to lock on anything but him. So vulnerable, he thought yet there was potential here, strength and anger that could easily be directed and guided… a similar flare found in the older brother, but Duro’s potential remained untapped. “Is that what upsets you Duro? That I took your virginity and didn’t keep you?”

Anger sparked in those brown eyes and Duro suddenly moved, pushed firmly against him except Varinius barely stepped back. He too was strong and not a stranger to physical activity and challenges. His powerful fingers moved quickly and grasped each wrist, slamming them audibly against the brick building above Duro’s head. This left his lower body open to attack, but Duro seemed reluctant to put up a true fight.

“I wasn’t a virgin.” Duro hissed after a long delay.

“No doubt you’ve attracted a number of young women over the years, but being with men, I think not. You said as much yourself… that night.”

“I’m not gay.” Duro retorted though the anger and the harshness of his tone faltered when Varinius locked eyes with him.

“As I told you before Duro, you don’t have to be. You’re just a man, and like all men you respond to stimulus.” Curling his lips ever so slightly Varinius stepped forward, wedging his knee between closed thighs, working his way between them until the younger man gasped quietly and spread them to relieve the painful pressure he soon felt. With such access granted, Varinius took full advantage and moved in closer until his thigh pushed firmly against Duro’s hard flesh. “Yes, very responsive.” He whispered silkily. “I’m going to give you an address, and I want you to come to it alone tomorrow night. “

“What makes you think I’d do anything you ask me to do?” Duro rasped out through grit teeth.

“The same reason you haven’t called for help now, but mostly because of your brother.”

That got his attention quickly. Brown eyes that refused to maintain eye contact steadied on him again. “What about Agron?” Duro looked fearful and uncertain, lovely.

“He’s put his whole life into that gym. Everything he has, not just his money but his pride and his hope… his sense of self-worth.”

Duro seemed confused. “How do you, how do you know about that?”

Varinius kept his voice calm and smooth. “Because I can take it all away from him. I own the loan they just took out.”

Brown eyes narrowed. “That’s a contract. You can’t just change things on them. I know the law…”

“Of course not. It’s a perfectly valid and legit contract I assure you, but I am wealthy man. I don’t need to trick a few physical trainers into signing a bad contract. I can simply buy that entire neighborhood right around them, empty it for blocks, construction for years, delays and missed opportunities. When your friends and family lose everything they put into this Rebel place, how long before they go their separate ways? How long do you think someone like Agron could last working under someone else besides his close friend? How long before he puts on a suit and tries something else only to be rejected over and over again? Do you remember what it was like Duro, when he was looking before?”

“How… how do you know about that?” What little strength Duro held before dissipated quickly and left only a hollow quiet question in its place.

“I know a lot about you Duro and everyone around you. I know that you’ve gone to a clinic. I know that you’ve tested negative for what you have tested for, and I know you’ll test negative for the other tests as well.”

Brown eyes vanished behind closed lids as tears leaked from the corner of his eyes. “You can’t, you can’t know that. That’s protected information. They’re not allowed to share that and those men, they didn’t…”

Carefully Varinius released Duro’s wrist so he could brush those tears from his face. “Those men were clean. I wouldn’t have let them into that room otherwise. They weren’t men of low worth.” The other shook his head quickly. Duro was having trouble focusing on a single question, on a single topic, his expression reflecting confusion and uncertainty. Perfect. “You have a choice Duro. I can pull out this card and give it to you and you can return home as you are… or I can take advantage of you right here in this alley and then give you my card. How would you like to take the bus home with a stain on your jeans, shirt ripped and body sore?”

Duro’s fine eyes shifted back to him and the sorrow there was unmistakable this time. “Why did you do that to me? Why are you doing this to me?”

Varinius ran his thumb along Duro’s lips. “If I told you, it would only upset you more. Know that I undervalued you, and I won’t do that again. It was my privilege to be your first Duro, and you were so hot in your video. It is one of the most requested I’ve ever made. But you don’t belong to those men, not the men watching and not the men that had you after I did. You are mine now Duro, and I enjoy the video myself some nights, a favored memory. Now take the card.”

For some time Duro’s breath only quickened like he was trying to process what was being told to him. Then cautiously he held out his hand.

“Good boy.” Varinius withdrew his card and placed it tenderly onto Duro’s outstretched hand. “I know you don’t work tomorrow. I will expect you there. I’ll pay the cab upon your arrival.” He leaned forward and brushes his lips against Duro’s. “We’ll work on your ability to follow my orders later.” And then he left him there to climb into his black Mercedes.

“I think you’re making a mistake letting him go like that.”

“Drive.” Only after they left the area did Varinius engage Ashur. “I do not pay you to think. On the contrary when those I select believe they have a choice in their future they become more manageable. It’s the guilt I think.” He opened a bottle of sparkling water and considered young Duro further. There was a spark of resistance in the boy but it seemed undernourished. Perhaps his aggressive and more dominant brother’s protective nature had something to do with that. “You are set for tonight?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. You will be well rewarded for a job well done Ashur. Remember that.”

“I always do.”

The man smiled.

Chapter Text

Nasir decided to go to the park early. He wore his uniform just in case something unexpected occurred or someone noticed him, but really he just wound up sitting on the park bench in the late afternoon to people watch for a bit. Normally he’d make up stories about the business men and women, deciding what their jobs could be and what sorts of homes they might return to.

Instead, today, he thought mostly about Agron. Sure he wasn’t the brightest bulb around, and his temper flared too quickly frequently getting in the way of his thought process, but he was so sweet more often than not. Underneath that godlike body, his Agron’s heart remained ripe from past losses which continued to surprise him. Agron needed to share the pain of his past; that was something Nasir now felt he could help with. Agron trusted him, so all they really needed were more quiet moments and private places to talk. And the best part, he trusted Agron too.

As Nasir tried to brainstorm of a place they could go and just relax for a little while and unload, he noticed someone limp by. At first, he didn’t fully recognize the man because he’d never really talked to him outside the gym, but more than that, the guy had something in his right hand that seemed a bit odd.

Standing, Nasir followed him around the corner and up to a building with a sign that said Dr. Adler Veterinarian. Cautiously Nasir opened the door and walked into a room with about a half dozen chairs, a vinyl floor, a reception desk with a sign-in clipboard, several treats for pets and a woman shuffling around papers near the back. The tall man in front of him though kept his attention.

“Donar…?”

Donar turned around, wearing a light t-shirt and jeans, took one look at Nasir and sighed. “Well shit.”

Nasir only gave him a brief smile before walking forward and kneeling down to take a good look inside the pet carrier. He saw two very large and round yellow eyes looking back at him from a deep soot black cat with a very cute white stripe down the nose. It meowed. He straightened himself. “You have a cat?”

Donar scratched the back of his neck and head. His ears and cheeks turned just a bit red, just a few shades lighter than his red and white shirt, and he carefully set the carrier down. “Well see about that. The guys… they don’t really know I have cats.”

“Wait you have more than one?” Nasir furrowed his brow. “Didn’t Duro just stay the night with you? How could you have a cat and they not know?”

“Umm, well when I have guests over I sort of let the little old lady across the street take care of them. They spend a lot of time outdoors anyway, and they kind of, you know, hang out with her over there during the day.”

“They? How many, how many cats do you have?”

Donar cleared his throat and looked like he was going to answer when a man in a white lab coat with blond hair that dropped to his shoulders, bright blue eyes and a scar along the side of his face from his right eye down to his chin approached them. He was handsome and seemed a little older than Nasir by at least three years, and strongly built; the man smiled immediately at Donar. “Donar! Now did you bring me another one or is this one I am familiar with?” He dropped to peer into the cage. “Soxi, don’t tell me she got into your stash of jerky again?” And right behind the vet came a beautiful golden retriever whose mere size just made Nasir nervous enough to back away.

“Yeah, the whole bag actually. You said it doesn’t really hurt her right, just need to get some medicine to help keep things from getting blocked up?” Donar asked in a peculiar way that made Nasir think he already knew the answer.

Warren nodded. “That’s right. At this rate, I am thinking I should write you an ongoing prescription. Don’t tell me she was clever enough to get into your drawer?”

“No, no not quite that good yet. I might of, you know, drank a bit last night and left it out. No need to write a long prescription though; I really don’t mind you know, coming in now and then.”

Nasir blinked, catching Donar’s quick glance at the man followed by a… blush? He would have focused on that more except a wet nose suddenly touched his hand making him jump back with a startled yelp. Both men turned their gaze to him.

Warren stood quickly, raising a hand. “It’s alright. Lady is a service dog if a little too eager in the shop. She won’t hurt you. She’s just used to getting pets from all my customers. Lady come here. Leave the poor man alone.”

Donar teetered briefly on ball of his one good foot as if trying to decide how to proceed. “Actually Dr. Adler this is Nasir. He’s with me, sort of.”

Warren’s smile broadened. “Agron’s boyfriend, the one you told me about? It’s hard to believe I actually get to meet one of these gym members you keep referencing.”

“That’s the one.”

Once Lady backed off, Warren approached and offered a hand. “Donar has told me so much about you and his friend Agron. You can call me Warren. I own this small place, and it’s been a pleasure taking care of Donar’s growing pet family.”

“He has?” Nasir glanced at Donar who refused to look him in the eye.

“Oh yes. He’s had a lot of trouble with his cats lately, so while I’m investigating the problems we’ve been chatting a little. He keeps trying to convince me to go down to The Rebel and try out a membership.”

“Cats huh. So how many does he have… exactly?” Nasir accepted his hand trying not to be nervous around the dog. He hadn’t been around too many animals, and the ones he encountered in the streets scared him. They were hungry, dirty and sometimes vicious things.

“What are you up to now Donar? Soxi is four right?”

Donar pursed his lips briefly. “Daisy makes five. Oscar was the third. That wound cleared right up by the way, just like you said.”

“Five.” Warren whistled. He must have noticed Nasir nervously look at Lady because he addressed Nasir again. “You want to pet her? She’s perfectly tame. She’s a good service animal. She’ll let a toddler pull on her ears, so I assure you there is nothing you’re going to do to upset her.”

Hesitantly Nasir reached out and touched her muzzle not really intending to pet her except the animal was quick with a lick for his effort. “You said she’s a service animal, but you’re not blind?”

“Oh that’s a common misconception actually. There are a variety of conditions that service animals can assist us with now and not just dogs mind you. Lady here alerts me if I am about to have a seizure. I have a mild form of epilepsy. Donar was concerned about it so I’ve already told him what to do in case I have one near him. Here let me take Soxi back, it will only take a minute or two. You can stay with your friend if you want Donar. If it’s what we think it is, I’ll get you the prescription right away.”

Nasir looked to Donar once Warren left. “Five cats?”

“It really only started with the one.”

“And you kept picking up more?”

“Well yeah Oscar was all little and underfed. Soxi came with Oscar one day. Daisy…”

Nasir raised a hand. “I get it, but why are you keeping this from Agron and Duro?”

“Are you kidding? If the guys found out I had five cats… Nasir you can’t tell them! They’ll make my life hell.”

Nasir smiled briefly. “Over cats?”

“You don’t know what it’s like there!”

An older woman looked up from her Kindle peering at them so Donar grabbed Nasir’s arm and pulled him over to the side. “If they find out, they’ll never let it alone.”

“But why keep them, surely you could find homes for them.”

Donar frowned. “Well I have a big enough house. No one really comes over anymore and the remodel on the back rooms is almost finished. Besides Dr. Adler says I am doing a pretty good job. This jerky thing has only happened twice. Like I said the cats are mostly outdoors, so I don’t have to deal with the cat box too often…”

Nasir only half listened to his explanation. Granted, he didn’t know Donar real well but the way the man’s eyes lit up as he spoke about the veterinarian was clear. They shone brightly when the said man returned to the room with the cat in hand and medicine too. Oh! Nasir blinked focusing once again. “Listen Donar. I have to go. I can’t be late to work.”

“You won’t say anything to Agron will you?” Those sorrowful eyes pleaded at him.

Nasir turned to hurry out. “About the cats? Yeah I won’t say anything to Agron about the cats. Nice to meet you Dr. Adler.” Warren on the other hand… If Nasir could remember when this night was over, he’d have to ask Agron a few questions about Donar’s previous relationships. He must have missed something from before because he thought Agron only referred to an endless parade of women with Donar, not men. In fact, Nasir was so distracted by what he saw between Donar and Warren he’d forgotten to be nervous around a doctor, even one focused on pets.

Even though butterflies settled in his stomach from the thought of continuing with the evening, Nasir still wound up walking a few blocks to the theater. He stood across the street looking at the familiar black SUV. He knew he was late and could see Varinius leaning against the back of the vehicle in green dress pants, and a desert brown shirt while peering at a smart phone patiently waiting for him. A part of him knew he should be happy, more than pleased that the man was helping him leave Batiatus’ grasp. Batiatus had already shifted towards treating him like a whore, sending him into that dark theater and trying to force him into a car to go who knows where. But no he was willingly going towards Varinius because it seemed like such a better choice than to remain with a man who couldn’t be bothered to mourn the loss of Chadara, another person he whored. His heart kept twisting at the thought though, knowing how badly Agron would react if he found out what was going on. It was bad enough he was forced to live under Batiatus for so long, but he chose Varinius. Agron would never forgive that.

Nasir pulled out his phone, worrying his hands along the smooth side before he sent a simple message to his boyfriend. --Love you. See you tonight.--Taking a deep breath, Nasir approached the taller man.

Varinius looked up, throwing him his most dashing smile. “Nasir, I began to worry that you changed your mind.”

Hands in his pocket, Nasir looked up at the man, locking with those intense blue eyes. “I can still do that right, change my mind?”

The other’s expression softened and the smile remained. “Of course Nasir. As I told you before, nothing between us is forced. You have always been free to walk away.”

“But… if I do you won’t help me.” Nasir kept his chin up, not looking away, feeling the sapling of strength cultivated inside him able to withstand facing even a man like this, at least right now.

Varinius glanced away for a moment looking as if he considered his reply, really thought about what he would say next. “Do you know a lot of good men Nasir?”

Nasir hesitated, and he hated himself for doing that because he didn’t understand the angle for the question. “I know a few good men.”

“And you don’t consider me a good man?”

“I…” Nasir glanced away, feeling himself entrapped with this question.

“It’s okay to answer honestly. I’m not going to become angry if you do.”

Nasir shifted his weight from one foot to another. “I know men that are kinder and more generous than you are, and I know men that are worse, or at least I think they’re worse.”

“And why don’t you go to those good men to help you?”

“Because, because I don’t think they can.” Was he being too honest? Nasir couldn’t see how he might be too honest when Varinius must have known a great deal about him already. Batiatus would have told him everything, given him that profile he and Chadara fought about.

“Good men have their limits Nasir. Good men have their faults. People come to me because I have resources, because I have influence. There aren’t many good men out there that can achieve these things because they stop when they realize they’ve got to step on someone else to advance further. I’m successful and wealthy, but I’m not a monster.”

“Did you have Chadara killed?” Nasir asked after a long pause, searching his eyes.

Those stunning confident eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “No. The police are trying to find her killer and so am I.”

“If you couldn’t protect her how can you protect me?”

Varinius moved around the large vehicle and opened the door. “She didn’t ask for protection, and I didn’t know she needed it. You’re worried about Batiatus, but I have access to what he wants. He’ll respect what I want to get it. It’s your choice Nasir. You can come with me or you can go back inside and ask Batiatus what price he wants for you to continue as you are. We both know it won’t be long before he demands more, and if he doesn’t think he will get what he wants from me, he will use what he has to to try with someone else. You’re all he has at the moment. Is that not so?”

After an additional delay, Nasir climbed into the car.

The trip out of the city seemed too long. It could not have been further than the forest Agron took him too, but it felt like an eternity. He didn’t look out the too dark windows to watch the city speed by or note the long winding roads that finally lead to a heavy metal gate where the driver input a code to begin the drive onto private property. He was not surprised to see the landscape of the property impeccable, long expanses of green lawn, trimmed bushes and strategically placed lighting along the driveway, sidewalk and trees. They pulled into the semi-circular driveway, and the driver opened the door to allow Varinius and Nasir to walk out and take in the sight of the contemporary mansion. He’d never seen a building so white or have so many windows. The walls seemed thick and unyielding but the wall sized windows made the place seem fragile and open. As soon as they walked in the door, he could see out a back sliding door to a sizable pool with white lounge chairs along the edges of the rectangular masterpiece as well as stone seating built within the water in such a way they looked as if they floated upon the surface. Custom glass globes dangled from the ceiling for lighting, blown glass tubes as chandeliers above the kitchen table, and heavy marble steps lead to the second level. There were multiple televisions built into the walls as well which made this a modern masterpiece, a paradise.

Except, for Nasir, it felt too sterile, too quiet. But a few years ago, he’d dreamed about living in such a place, resting where it was quiet and clean. Now he wanted smaller, he wanted flawed… he wanted to be with Agron and nothing so impeccable could ever be a place for his love.

Varinius moved to the stainless steel refrigerator and retrieved a carafe of water and two glasses from the nearby counter. “Would you like something stronger or will water do?”

“Water’s fine. You have a nice home.” Nasir replied politely feeling awkward standing in a place like this. “You don’t have anyone to share it with?”

Varinius approached him, offering the glass which Nasir took gratefully quenching his parched throat. “I made a few attempts when I was younger to pursue something more serious, beautiful women, ambitious and almost lethal. I made peace with my choices Nasir. I don’t regret it.”

“But now you pursue… men?”

“I enjoy the offerings of many Nasir although I suppose there is a certain appeal to harnessing the strength and beauty of young men like yourself.” Varinius studied him a moment. “You’ve never been with a woman have you?”

Nasir looked away, realizing he’d already made a mistake. He intended to find out more information about this man but only wound up revealing more about himself. Carefully he set the glass down on the white and black marble countertop. “I’m not really sure how to do this part.”

Varinius smiled. “That’s because you’re not a whore nor do I intend to make you one.” He motioned towards a door. “There’s a change of clothes in there, something more comfortable than the uniform you’re wearing. Why don’t you go try them on… although I am fairly certain I have the correct size.”

Everything about this situation felt wrong, but in the back of his mind he saw Chadara’s unseeing eyes just clouded over and staring at nothing. He thought about how his friend Pietros disappeared, and he thought about Agron. If doing this kept them together, he’d do it hundred times over until they could get away from all of this… safely.

In the other room he found a sizable white terry cloth robe sitting on a bed but it was the smaller item that made him pause. On top of the plush comfort and clearly dwarfed by the terry cloth was a deep indigo Speedo brief. Nasir’s eyes darted to the left realizing that this room was another access point to the infinity pool which gave a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape and forested area. “You… you want me to swim?” He asked quietly.

Nasir knew he didn’t have to speak too loudly because Varinius had followed him into the room just moments later. Strong hands moved to his shoulder.

“I thought swimming might help relax you a little Nasir. Am I wrong?”

“It’s fine.” Nasir replied levelly. He would stomach this like he stomached everything else. But the man behind him wasn’t satisfied.

“I get the sense you find the ideal repulsive.”

“It’s not…”

“And I want to remind you that you asked me remember?”

Nasir took a deep breath and turned to face. “Because you wouldn’t help me without a cost right?”

“Correct.”

“Then I didn’t have choice.”

“You always have a choice Nasir. Men who tell themselves otherwise just prepare for an excuse later.” Varinius lifted his hand to Nasir’s cheek and leaned forward brushing his lips against Nasir’s forehead. “I have other colors if that is preferable.”

“No, no this is fine. Can I dress… alone?”

An amused smile formed but the man complied at least. “I’ll get you a towel and meet you outside.”

Getting undressed took Nasir longer than he expected. Normally he was always anxious to get rid of those old, outdated uniforms that often smelled of too much oil and burned popcorn. Today though, it seemed like he was relinquishing an important shield. Varinius said he wasn’t a whore except, well he felt more like one now than he’d ever had in the past. This felt like a choice, like he picked his john and traveled with him to some expensive mansion and now he undressed for him. The ache in his heart and stomach that had formed in the theater where he’d sucked the man off for a few hundred bucks returned again. It was getting worse, he realized, his inability to just float outside himself and not feel anything, to just endure.

True to Varinius’ word, both the robe and the swimming brief fit well. No doubt the man took note of his measurement when they went to American Eagle, an experience he’d allowed to slip his mind until now. Mustering up some amount of courage, Nasir lifted his chin and slid out the large door to stand out on the beautiful deck, noting not only a towel by one of the loungers but also an ice bucket with sparkling water, bottled water and a crystal bowl full of cut fruit.

“Do they fit well?”

His eyes shifted away from the offering to Varinius who sat under a shaded part of the deck dressed in his fine clothes with a laptop in front of him, his phone nearby and a tall glass of some sort of mixed drink.

“Good, good. Come here then and let me see.”

Reluctantly Nasir stepped forward stopping just in front of Varinius and well within his reach. Varinius reached out and untied the robe, letting the thick sash fall to the side. He chuckled quietly. “Those like you never use the inner ties.”

“Like me?” Nasir inquired tensely.

Bright eyes lifted to meet his gaze. “Those who were not raised in high society. I’ve already told you Nasir, you have no reason to be ashamed around me. I do not hold you in low esteem.”

“You’re telling me you’d take just anyone off the street and treat them as you do me?” He knew there was challenge in his voice. He should have known better than to confront Varinius like this. It was a stupid move, one that could easily lead to unforeseen consequences.

“I would and I have. You’d be surprised how many straight and moderately successful men will suck another’s man’s cock for a handful of hundreds.”

“What about the men who were offended with the offer?” He still felt skeptical of Varinius’ claim and at least the conversation helped him try to ignore the fact that Varinius pawed at him now even if it was just a gradual soft touch traveling from his chest down to his abdomen to trace the waistline of his swim briefs.

“If they attacked me, and a few did, I brought them down myself. I’m not a weak man Nasir, and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty to remind a powerful man how small he can be. In fact, I enjoy it.” Fingertips pulled at the brief as the man frowned slightly. “Nearly a perfect fit for an off the rack purchase. It will do for now.”

Nasir felt the blood drain slightly from his cheeks. Varinius spoke of bringing other men down low so casually, so precisely that it made him think of Agron almost immediately. He didn’t believe for one minute that Varinius could take on Agron in a fair fight, but someone like Varinius was unlikely to fight fair. And if all the stories around Barca were true, he already knew Agron would go down for someone else.

Varinius released him with a smile. “Good, very good.” He stood and cupped Nasir cheek leaning over to brush his lips against Nasir’s. “Go swim. Try to enjoy yourself and relax. I’m just going to work over here and appreciate your company.”

Hesitantly Nasir walked away from the man, dropped the robe near the edge and descended into the pool using the rounded stone steps. Of course it was temperature controlled, just cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough to fulfill a desire to swim year round. Nasir could feel the other man’s eyes on him, but he brushed it aside and took the opportunity to swim, and swim hard. In order to be a better life partner to Agron, he needed to get stronger.

It would be nearly an hour before he climbed out of the pool exhausted to lounge at its side, and another before Varinius joined him there. This time, with mind and body exhausted, Nasir floated afar, to a familiar place where waves could be heard alongside the cries of gulls and the lips against his neck were wanted. The man was not harsh in his attentions, allowing him to hold tight to those memories as the rest of the evening dragged on.

Chapter Text

Agron stayed seated stiffy in his truck, looking at the address on his phone and the sign across the street that indicated he was in the right place. This was no warehouse or commercial lot but a house, a simple aged house that seemed far too small to belong to any of the men behind this scheme.

Each time he went out alone in the dark, he knew he risked it all. There were only a few lines between rape, kidnapping and eventual murder. As strong as he was physically he’d stand no chance against men armed with guns or even most weapons. But he thought about what he told Duro, and how he believed whatever these people wanted, they didn’t want death. It would have been just a half-step away from lacing the drugs with something lethal and Duro could have just been another young body in an empty warehouse with no answers and no trace to what really happened. The very thought sent a violent shudder throughout his entire body. Taking a deep breath, Agron marked the location on a map in his phone and left it in the glove box to approach the place. He’d committed this much, might as well see it through.

As he walked up the old rickety stairs, he noted several of the windows had bars on them and some were boarded up entirely. This place was marked as condemned, not fit for humans to live in but he could hear activity inside. Since he wore just a white tank and vest, Agron rubbed his arms briefly, trying to calm his heart and emotions. Despite outward appearances, he knew fear just as well others, and this place unnerved him. Someone was waiting for him in there, for who knows what? He stopped in front of the door, biting his bottom lip ready to knock on the door. Before he could though, the door swung open and a familiar face revealed itself.

It had been a few years since Agron had last seen that smug face, but the man was almost the spitting image now as he looked back then. Short hair, strong arms, a brace on his leg and an ever smirking smile accompanying sharp, unkind and dark eyes that peered at him.

“Ashur,” Agron growled. He’d only met the man a few times in the past but was more than familiar with the man who toyed in the darker side of the sport for amusement, pleasure, and money.

“Agron. I wish I could say it’s a pleasure to see it you again.” The man laughed. “Actually in these circumstances it is.” Dark eyes raked over his body, lingering at his waist. “Smart choice to wear jeans. It will make the frisking a little more tolerable. Come on in, entwine your fingers together behind your head and spread your legs.”

Agron pictured just lunging at this man, slamming him against the old wooden floor and beating his face to a pulp. It wouldn’t be that difficult since he had an obvious weakness, that bum leg of his. He’d heard only brief stories of how the injury happened and the fact that Ashur blamed Crixus for it. None of that mattered right now. There was no way even a man like Ashur could be behind all of this. He couldn’t bankroll it, but this meant two of their enemies had somehow encountered one another, teamed up. Stiffly Agron entered the house and was not entirely surprised to see it was mostly empty but certainly not the decrepit picture that the outside structure indicated. The walls were painted, the floors solid. There were chairs and a working fireplace, stairs that led up somewhere and voices. A good front, it seemed.

As instructed, Agron laced his fingers behind his head and patiently waited as he was patted down. He found nothing of course, no wires, no phone and certainly no weapon. “Looks like you might be a little bit smarter than you look Agron, but not much more I expect.”

Wisely Agron didn’t reply. He wasn’t sure if he could stop a series of words that would make this situation substantially worse if he did.

Ashur, of course, was not short of words himself. “The last time I got a good close up of you, you were bleeding on the floor of a fighting ring. If you ask me, it would have been more sporting for Barca to up and fuck you up there than watch your pitiful attempts to defend yourself. Then again, you’ve always been little more than Spartacus’ rapid dog, waiting for your master to tell you what to do.”

Agron’s nostrils flared but he managed to keep his silence.

“But in the end he did give you your orders. That had to be a relief… to just lie there until the ambulance came. Since you like orders so much, why don’t you come with me?” Ashur turned and walked into another room of the house.

Now Agron knew he could take Ashur down right here. The man wasn’t a great fighter when he wasn’t maimed. With his leg damaged like it was, it would have been a small matter to overcome the man and break his neck. But where red would normally flash before his eyes when rage gripped his heart, he saw the faces of others. Of Nasir, Duro and Donar, Spartacus and Mira… family, friends who were in danger from these people and who would never know what happened to him if he killed Ashur and died in the process or wound up in prison forever. He thought Nasir would wait for him if he went to prison, but his heart deserved better than that. Agron wouldn’t want him to wait.

Taking a deep breath, Agron followed The Rebel’s most hated enemy into a back room where all the walls were painted deep blue or green. There was a large photography light set-up in the center of the room and black fabric on the floor. One wall had markings in feet and inches. There were two other men in the room though their features and build seemed unremarkable; grunts Agron realized.

Ashur motioned Agron towards the markings on the wall. “Undress Agron and stand next to those won’t you?”

Every bone in his body protested against the idea of listening to this maggots orders. Again he let the image of Donar limping into the room flash before his eyes before he began to undress. He’d take his que from Spartacus. It was too soon to play his hand. He needed more information. Ashur was a follower, a man almost incapable of acting fully on his own. Someone was calling these shots, and they weren’t here.

Agron pulled off his shirt and tossed it nearby, next he worked on his shoes and socks and finally his pants. “So where’s your master Ashur? He’s not brave enough to show his face to me? Just like he wasn’t the night of my fight.”

Ashur laughed lowly shaking his head and wagging his fingers. “Oh I’ve moved up in the world from then Agron. You’re a slow study, so I don’t blame you for not following so well.”

Agron locked eyes with him. “Slinking around in the dark in a house that looks abandoned only to force a better man to undress for you… doesn’t look like you’ve worked your way up to me.”

Immediately Ashur narrowed his eyes. “Underwear now.”

Without missing a beat, Agron hooked his thumb on each side of his defined hips and dropping the boxers, standing naked on soft dark fabric. The light turned on, almost blinding him, and then he heard them, one camera and then another and then another before he could focus again. He didn’t give them enough power to elicit embarrassment or shame. He was proud of his body, strong and while he thought about what happened to Duro in some unknown warehouse that only fueled his anger not his fear. And despite every ounce in his body trying to dampen the response a curl pulled at the corner of his lips when he could finally settle and see Ashur again, looking surprised and angry himself that this did nothing to unravel Agron’s confidence and defiance.

A phone rang, and Ashur lifted it to his ear. After a minute or two, the orders came. “Turn to the right, closer to the wall, the markings.” Once he complied, more came. “Now the left.”

As Agron turned, he spoke again. “So this your life’s work Ashur? Taking pictures for him in the dark, arranging the rape of my brother, and trying to run Donar over?”

There was silence, and the room became dark as the large light was turned off. When the cameras began to flash again, Ashur’s voice sounded again. “None of those were an accident Agron. You’d do your friends and family a courtesy by learning simple obedience.” There was silence. “He says your brother didn’t even begin to beg, but he knows how to stimulate such a cry that it would haunt your dreams for years.”

Agron stiffened, turning his head towards Ashur, eyes narrowed.

“Oh good. I was beginning to wonder if that bravado would extend to the welfare of others.”

Ashur walked forward stopping less than an arm’s length in front of him so he could whisper. “If it was up to me, I would have fucked him until he bled, grabbed his hair and sent you his teary eyed bruised face begging me to stop… just like Naevia.”

Agron was quick but there were men suddenly on him, grabbing his arms and holding him back while Ashur bled into the darkness around him while the men tried to bring him down. One, two, maybe three or four, he couldn’t tell but he was soon on the ground. No one spoke. Aside from the heavy breathing of men recently engaged in the physical confrontation, it remained silent until a voice sounded on a speaker he didn’t remember seeing.

“That was an unfortunate and violent act on your part Agron, but I know our Ashur can provoke even the most patient of men. I’ll speak with him about his unnecessary impromptu baiting. For now, you have complied with my wishes. This could have all been a far more pleasant experience if you simply listened. I will provide you further instructions in the future. Know that because you made the attempt to obey, those you love and hold dear will not suffer, at least not this time. You may go.”

Agron waited for the men to let him up and then grabbed his clothes dressing quickly to leave. He felt his blood pump rapidly through his veins, locking eyes briefly with Ashur as he left. Men who dealt with Ashur always thought they had that man under control, and they never did. And if Ashur had anything to do with Naevia’s gang rape, he feared for everyone around him even more.

Looking down at his watch, Agron decided he had some time before he needed to pick Nasir up. He needed to go someplace to calm down, clear his head, and decide what to do.

**

Varinius leaned back, not at all pleased with Ashur’s behavior around the man. He couldn’t hear what his man said to Agron, but it stimulated a quick and violent response. It was the exact opposite of what he was trying to accomplish. Under just the right amount of pressure and threat, he could ease Agron into a life of servitude, teach him obedience. It was a fragile balance with someone like Agron, something that could easily be thrown off course with just an ounce of too much enforcement.

He sighed, looking at the folders on his desk with Agron, Duro and Nasir’s name on them. Duro responded well, very well to physical force and threats. Nasir still felt he owed Varinius for pulling him out of Batiatus’ grasp.

“Sir.” His intercom buzzed.

“Yes?”

“Batiatus says he would like to see you.”

“No now.”

“He says he’s been trying to get ahold of you all week.”

“I said not now. When I am ready, I will engage him. Tell him to return home and be patient.”

“Yes sir.”

Varinius sighed and picked up his phone sending a quick message to Heracleo. –Lay off Mira for now. The situation is too fragile and at risk for additional involvement.—He tapped his chin briefly. – When you get back in town, survey Batiatus… and Ashur.—

Chapter Text

Nasir stepped off the bus and stood by the sign not seeing the black truck or the tall man waiting for him. Figuring Agron must have been running late, he leaned against the bus stop’s sign and waited, hands in his pocket once he got his earbuds in place and could listen to some music. Fifteen minutes later, he tried giving Agron a call but it went straight to voicemail. “Hey it’s me. I thought you wanted to pick me up tonight at the bus station. It’s been a little bit, and I don’t want to walk home in case you come here and can’t find me. Give me a call Agron.” Another twenty minutes and Nasir became nervous.

He thought the morning had gone well. Agron seemed happy, especially after their romp on the kitchen table and even now the thought made him smile. Maybe Agron remained unhappy about it though even if Nasir couldn’t imagine why he would be.

Eventually he tried giving someone else a call.

“Hello?”

“Hey Duro. Is Agron home? Did he forget to come and get me?”

“Who’s this? And you’re waiting on.” Long pause. “You said Agron?”

Nasir frowned slightly. Duro didn’t sound right. His speech was slurred, and he seemed to have trouble following basic conversation. “It’s Nasir. Agron said he wanted to pick me up at the bus stop, but he hasn’t shown up. Is he home? If he is I can just walk home, but I want to be sure.” In the back of his mind he still worried he mistook the signals this morning that said everything was alright.

“Agron’s… not home. He left a while ago. I… umm, yeah a while ago.”

For a few moments, Nasir didn’t say anything. His concern peaked to a level too high to be angry or upset at Agron when Duro was acting this way. “Duro are you okay?”

“Not really, but I’m home and safe I guess. I uhhh, you said you’re waiting for Agron?” Duro seemed like he was trying to follow what was going on, but something was getting in the way.

“Yes.”

“Yeah he’s not home.”

“You told me that.” Nasir’s frown deepened. “But you said he went out?”

“Yeah he went to pick someone up at a bus stop.”

And then he sighed. Something definitely wasn’t right with Duro, but he needed more information before he completely panicked. “But you said he left a while ago?”

“Who left a while ago?”

“You said Agron left a while ago?”

“Yeah to pick you up at the bus stop.”

Don’t get frustrated Nasir reminded himself. He tried again speaking slowly and patiently. “How long ago did Agron leave to come pick me up?”

“Oh he probably left well over an hour ago, maybe… maybe two hours.”

Well that was way too long. “Did Agron say why he left so early to get me?”

“No…” Nasir heard shuffling. “Do you need me to come get you? I’m not really dressed but I can…”

“No!” He took a breath remembering he shouldn’t shout at someone in a condition like this. “No, I want you to stay home Duro. I’m going to call the local hospitals to see if there was an accident or something. Do you know which one is the closest here?”

“Why would you call to see if there was an accident?”

“Because Agron hasn’t showed up.” He let a little more emotion slip into his tone than he wanted.

“You should probably try the bar before you do that.”

Nasir was just starting to allow his heartbeat to quicken at the thought of Agron in trouble when his mind keyed in on Duro’s last statement. “Bar?”

“Yeah there’s a uhh bar not far from that stop. It’s kind of a dive, but Agron and Donar would walk there sometimes when we first moved here. He can lose track of time when he’s doing his emotional thing. I know because of your last fight you might think he would just leave you there but Agron’s not… like that. Sorry Nasir. I can’t think real clear.”

“It’s okay Duro. A bar… so how far is it from here and which way?”

“West two blocks or… or maybe it’s east.”

Nasir closed his eyes, forcing himself to remain patient. “Duro it’s dark. I really don’t want to get lost out here. Can you try and remember or give me the next street over.”

“Church Street is the first street you should hit on the way. If you don’t… it’s the other way I guess.”

Good. Nasir took a breath. “You’re in for the night right? You don’t plan on going anywhere?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

He wanted to run in the direction of the bar now but conflicting worry kept him talking. With Duro’s mind muddied, maybe he could pull just a bit of information out of him. “Duro are you on something?”

There was a long pause. “I don’t want to lie to you Nasir. Can we talk about this when you get home?”

“Yeah just don’t go anywhere.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”

Nasir hung up, tucked his earbuds and phone in his pocket and headed west. When he hit Rose Street he almost turned around but then he saw a church up ahead and sure enough, the next road was Church Street. Not too far after that road he saw a small orange LED sign that said Ollie’s Tavern. Agron’s black truck was right in front.

Cautiously he entered the place, noting the rough clientele, the smell of smoke and cheap beer strong while a few eyes shifted in his direction not looking too inviting at all. He caught sight of Agron almost immediately though sitting at the bar counter kind of slumped over. “Agron…?” Nasir voiced quietly while he carefully touched his shoulder. “Are you okay? Are we okay?”

Agron’s beautiful green eyes were partially closed, his cheeks flushed and he blinked at Nasir as if he didn’t see him initially. “Oh shit. I’m late aren’t I?” He reeked of alcohol. When he moved from the stool, Nasir had to reach out to help steady him to keep him from falling.

“Yeah, you’re late. What’s going on Agron?”

“Going on?” He blinked at him slowly.

“Never mind. I shouldn’t have asked that here. Come on, we’re getting you home. I don’t think I can drag you a good eight blocks like this. Where are your keys?”

Agron reached into his pocket and dangled them in front of Nasir like he was a cat. “But you can’t drive. You don’t have a real driver’s license.”

Nasir snatched the keys before his boyfriend changed his mind. “I think I can manage eight blocks. Come on. I want to get you into the car before you pass out.” He glowered at the barkeep who should have cut him off several drinks ago.

He managed to guide Agron to the truck well enough, but getting him buckled, well that was a bigger challenge because the man squirmed around like a small child in his drunken state. After that Nasir spent a few minutes rearranging everything because Agron was huge and he wasn’t. The mirrors, seat, even the steering wheel had to be shifted so a normal person could use it.

Okay, you can do this. Nasir steadied himself noting Agron leaned against the window now and looked asleep. Nasir knew he wouldn’t be able to get Agron up the stairs by himself, and he wasn’t sure if Duro was drunk or high, maybe both. Since he needed help Nasir pulled out his phone and looked at the names. His heart twisted sharply as he noted at the top he still had Chadara’s phone number, the one person he used to call first for anything gone wrong now gone forever.

Swallowing thickly he pushed heavy emotions aside, reminding himself he was lucky Agron was okay even if something bothered the man enough to just go get shit-faced drunk like this. Focusing Nasir first thought about Donar, but they’d asked enough of the man already, and he wasn’t that close to town. Then there was Spartacus, but Agron really valued Spartacus’ opinion and would be so disappointed if the man found out about this. Maybe Mira would have been a good choice, but calling her might alert Spartacus. As the last resort, Nasir paused on another name for a minute, recalling something Mira said about this person; he made the call.

By the time he managed to parallel park the largest vehicle he’d ever driven at the apartment complex, Agron hadn’t even stirred, so Nasir just leaned back and waited until at last a car finally pulled up on the street. Soon a familiar grinning blonde walked up to the driver’s side and peeked through the window.

“Well you weren’t kidding.” Gannicus smirked. “He’s out cold. That’s okay though. We can get him upstairs.”

Nasir climbed out of the truck to help ease Agron out of the passenger seat into Gannicus’ strong arms. Once they got a pretty good grip, they headed towards the apartment. “Does he do this often?”

“No, not often at all actually. I know not everyone keeps me in the loop all the time, or thinks I give a damn, but I am pretty sure a drunk and incapacitated Agron would make the rounds.” Gannicus chuckled. “Yeah it definitely would, and there’d be pictures, lots of and lots of pictures they couldn’t hide from me forever.”

“And… and what about Duro? Does he drink and… stuff?” Nasir felt like he might have betrayed the other right then, but going into this blind wasn’t going to help anyone.

“And stuff?” Gannicus paused, one foot on the cement steps while he shifted his grip on Agron’s broad shoulders. “Duro’s home?”

“Yeah…” There was an awkward pause so he tried to fill it. “So I heard you were lifeguard once. Mira said you know some medical stuff, and you were good at it right up until…”

“Yeah I popped a celebrity right in the nose. Fucking asshole deserved it, lost my job. Life’s not bad now though.” They continued moving towards the home. “I know a few things still, so if you were hoping I might be able to help in that area, maybe I can with these two.” Gannicus paused shifting Agron’s shoulders a bit. “Look Nasir I’ve only heard of Agron doing this once or twice before…that whole Naevia thing included, so I was told. Those were really hard times for everybody.”

Nasir carefully retrieved his keys without dropping Agron’s legs. “You weren’t a part of that?”

“Nah, I came to the party late. I helped Spartacus get out from under some pretty heavy and stifling loans which is how I got my shares. He was suffering in silence while his two blockheads bickered over stupid shit. No offense.” Gannicus shook his head in open annoyance. “Assholes, they still do that.”

Nasir gave him a weak smile, and they worked their way into the apartment to the back bedroom. “None taken. I know Agron has a temper. Can you, well I’m hoping to get him out of these dirty clothes and into bed.”

“Sure, sure. Say, you’re worried about Duro too right? Want me to check on him first?”

Nasir nodded and they rested Agron on the bed to go back to Duro’s room.

Gannicus kneeled by the bed, gently touching Duro’s back and neck, checking his pulse and finally his eyes. “He’s out pretty heavy too. At least he had the good sense to do this at home but…” He glanced at the empty beer bottles as well as a prescription bottle nearby; at least it wasn’t empty. “Oxycodone, that’s a hefty combination. I wonder where he got it from. It’s not like Duro to play around with drugs.”

Nasir sighed feeling anxious and worried. “I know someone who kind of played with that… knew. Is he, is he okay?”

Gannicus nodded. “Yeah, I think so. Strong pulse, and breathing well, it’s all a good sign. I’ll take this though and get rid of it.” The blonde turned the light off and went to the front door locking it too. “Let’s get the big guy out of his clothes.”

Even though Gannicus grinned like he was in the midst of some high profile heist, the light of his eyes and the unwavering gaze told Nasir he was taking this seriously. They had Agron undressed and in bed within fifteen minutes. Soon he had tea for both of them and the two of them sat at the table in an uncomfortable silence. At least the cup heated his fingers and the honey spoon and lemon scent helped relax him.

Gannicus finally broke the silence with a half-smile and a light tone. “So listen Nasir. I’m glad you felt you could trust me with this. I know this has to be tough coming home from work to find these two in their stupors.”

“I’m sorry Gannicus. I didn’t, well I wasn’t sure who to call.” Nasir sipped his tea. It’d been a long night, and he wasn’t sure why the brothers were upset enough to do this to themselves.

“And judging from that distant look in your eyes you don’t know why this happened?” Gannicus pushed, not touching his tea.

“I… I really don’t know. When I left this morning they both seemed fine, happy even. I just… this has to be my fault.” It was the only thing that made sense. If Agron looked happy, seemed happy but was secretly suffering, what did that mean?

The blonde shook his head, lifting the cup to his lips. “Don’t do that Nasir. Don’t take on Agron’s issues. The guy lets things eat up inside him until he can’t contain it anymore, usually in an act of violence but if he’s doing this instead, well I’d say he’s trying not to wind up in a cell. You’ve got your PI coming tomorrow right?”

Nasir looked up from his cup. “You know about that?”

“Yeah, I mean we try not to pry but Spartacus wanted us to know a PI was coming over and why the room he’s reserved we really, really can’t take. Nobody even checks the reservation calendar, so if the girls don’t post it on the door… we take it. But he didn’t really tell us why he’s coming and that’s okay, I’m not asking you to tell me. I just know Agron’s gotta be all sort of anxious about this.” Gannicus waited for their eyes to meet and gave him a sympathetic smile.

“You’re close to him?” Agron never really mentioned Gannicus much although he began to pick up on Agron’s expressions. The annoyance he shot at Gannicus was not nearly as anger filled as the glare’s his boyfriend reserved for Crixus.

“No, I wouldn’t say I’m close to Agron. I’ve been around him long enough to know a few things that make him tick and you know, make sure I get that all wound up tight to get a rise out of him. It’s good to keep the heart from becoming too steady.” Gannicus grinned.

Nasir huffed briefly in a partial laugh. It was no wonder both Agron and Donar were worried about these guys finding out about certain secrets. Maybe Gannicus was just trying to lighten the mood, but he wasn’t sure. He had a feeling the other trainer might actually be serious about poking the bear. “You want a reaction out of him?”

“Keeps life interesting.”

“And... and what about Duro?”

“That’s new.” Gannicus’ expression became serious again as he sipped his tea. “I’ve never heard of the kid playing with drugs or drinking much or even staying out that late before. I know he has friends at that school of his and a few he hangs with from work but nothing like this.”

Nasir’s brow furrowed though he said nothing.

“Hey Nasir, I’m not going to force you tell me what’s going on. I know there are a lot of people already trying to press you guys for that, but would you feel better if I stayed over tonight? I can crash on the couch. I don’t need anything special, and you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to tell me.”

Nasir lifted his eyes, hesitant but relieved at the offer. Agron might not like it, but he felt like he needed someone around who seemed to know what he was doing better than he managed to do. “You would do that?”

“Yeah.” Gannicus stood up. “It’s late though. You should shower and try to relax; big day tomorrow right. I’ll be right back; I want to grab a bag out of my car.” He paused at the door, turning to give Nasir a steady and confident gaze. “The guy loves you. I don’t doubt that and neither should you.”

Nasir released a breath he didn’t know he was holding when Gannicus left to get his things. He decided to follow Gannicus’ advice too, taking a quick shower before checking to make sure Gannicus was comfortable on the couch, peeking in on Duro who slept quietly in his clothes on top of his bed and finally climbing into bed with Agron. He placed his head against the larger man’s chest, listening to the strong heartbeat and feeling the rise and fall of his chest. He all but forgot his experiences earlier in the day as he wondered what had upset Agron so badly that he drank heavily and didn’t pick Nasir up at the bus stop.

**

Agron opened his eyes, the glare of the sun peeking through the curtains amplifying the throbbing behind his eyes. He groaned and sat up, yawning with a frown. His mouth felt like sandpaper, his face felt sticky and gross and why did his head feel like it was split open? He reached over for Nasir but found the bed empty. A deep sigh sounded as he climbed out of bed, remembering that sometimes Nasir got up early on Sunday.

Instead of venturing to the kitchen though he went straight to the bathroom to take care of his teeth and take a long hot shower. He wanted to wash away yesterday, though glimpses of memories came back as he did so. That sneering face and repulsive big smile, the flash of the camera and the taunting. His fingers curled against the shower wall. They almost ran Donar down, threatened to release Duro’s video and now they demanded more from him. He didn’t give a shit if naked pictures of him floated around the internet. He was half naked when fighting anyway, and certainly posed for enough suggestive shots this seemed only a partial step forward. Even though enough years passed by that only a few people really recognized him from his earlier and successful years what were a few more pics?

Carefully he pressed his head against the shower wall and groaned. “Duro, Nasir can one of you give me some aspirin?” Jesus, why couldn’t he remember most of the rest of the night?

He heard the door open and someone set something on the counter. Perfect. He walked out, drying his hair and grabbed the bottle, dropping a handful into his palm and downing them quickly. He felt like a ton of bricks hit him. Wrapping a white towel around his waist, Agron walked down the hallway still dripping a bit and barefoot into the kitchen smelling waffles of all things and not omelets. That’s weird, he thought. Duro always made omelets on Sundays, not that he wouldn’t mind a waffle or two. Maybe that was Nasir’s favorite. Shit he meant to get chai this morning too for the big day.

Sighing Agron managed to get to the counter, grab a waffle and was munching on it when he turned and froze.

Standing in the hallway just grinning at him was a nearly equally naked blonde with his hair down, the blue eyes bright and looking entirely too relaxed. “Hey big boy. How’d you sleep last night?”

Agron dropped his waffle. “What… what the hell are you doing here Gannicus?”

Gannicus pouted. “After last night I was really expecting something a little more, I don’t know, appreciative.”

Oh god. Agron teetered. “No, no. This can’t be happening. Where’s Nasir? Where’s Duro?”

Gannicus approached him, the smirk returning as he reached out and pressed a cool hand against Agron’s firm abdomen. “Easy big boy. We had the whole night to ourselves and most the morning. Don’t you remember? I got a lot more Yes out of you last night. I guess so many you’d be stuck with just No today hmm?”

Agron jumped back as if he’d just been burned. Holy shit, no. No this couldn’t be happening. There was no way, no way he just cheated on Nasir with Gannicus. Fuck. His head hurt, and he couldn’t think real well. He was supposed to pick up Nasir at the bus stop. Oh shit! “Nasir!” He ran into the bedroom to grab some clothes. He had to go get Nasir.

Gannicus must have followed him because soon he was leaning in the door frame just watching and laughing at Agron’s frantic motions. “Agron sweetie, stop panicking. Why don’t you let me take care of what’s under that towel and then…”

Agron whirled on him, fist raised. “Stop fucking calling me that. I’m not your sweetie or your… big boy.”

“Well you’re somebody’s big boy.”

He felt his neck, ears, and face turn red.

“Really, after all I did for you last night you’re going to knock me out? We both know you can’t best me although you sure did buck nice and…”

Gannicus darted down the hall lightning fast as soon as Agron advanced towards him. He was in the kitchen before Agron even made it to the living room, but Agron stopped right there, leaning forward and pressing against the arm of the couch as the world spun just a bit. “Shit. Oh god. He’s going to leave me for this. He’s going to find out, and he’s… Gannicus I don’t have fucking time for this. I have to get Nasir. He’s at the bus stop waiting for me. And I… I…” He felt moisture gather in his eyes. “I really fucked up this time.”

It was quiet for a bit, and he thought maybe Gannicus had somehow just vanished, but suddenly the man was right behind him and speaking quietly. “Yeah you did. The thing is, I think he probably does love you enough to just sit at a bus stop all night long waiting for you to finally show up. Fortunately, he’s not that stupid, and you didn’t fuck anyone last night, except yourself.”

Agron glanced over his shoulder. “I… I didn’t?”

Gannicus crossed his arms and shook his head. “You didn’t. I’m pretty sure Saxa would be pissed if I got your hot ass without her around anyway. She’d probably rip my balls right off.”

Agron groaned, closing his eyes tightly; he felt nauseous. “I don’t know why everyone keeps talking about their balls and her violence. You’re a real ass trying to trick me like that. So we didn’t fuck around… where’s Nasir?”

“She’s got a record for a reason Agron. It’s not a short list either, and she prefers her victims to be men.” Gannicus pursed his lips. “You’ve got a real keeper there Agron. After dragging your heavy ass in for the night, the first thing your man did was wake up worried about you and your brother. This could be a big day for him, and he’s thinking about canceling so he can take care of you two. I told him I could stick around for a while, so he could go in and get what he needs done.”

Agron straightened up and scowled. “You don’t work today?”

“My women prefer their weekends off.”

Agron placed his palm against his aching head. “You and your fucking women. Wait did you say take care of Duro, and why didn’t Nasir wait for me?”

“Really Agron.” Gannicus walked past him to pick up the cold waffle off the floor and toss it in the trash. “You spend the last five minutes thinking you and I went hot and heavy last night and you want to throw stones at my glass house?”

“Hey I didn’t even think you liked men.”

“Somebody must have hinted otherwise to have you believing me so readily.” Gannicus chuckled. “And we both know it was Saxa. She’s one strong personality.”

“Strong enough to get you to turn to men?” Agron knew he should focus on Nasir and Duro, but this conversation, it was just so absurd he couldn’t help but continue it.

Gannicus laughed loudly. “Don’t pound your chest too hard big boy. You certainly wouldn’t be my first. And why not: if it makes her happy I’m game.”

“Don’t fucking call me that again. What’s going on with Duro?” He glanced around, no cookbooks were out, no towels on the floor, and the TV was off like he’d not even gotten up.

“I’m guessing you know that better than I do. He spent the morning emptying his stomach of everything he had last night. After we got him back to bed, we cleaned up and he’s been sleeping ever since.”

“Wait, Duro was up and now he’s back in bed?”

“Agron, it’s almost one o’clock, and Duro needs the rest.”

Agron’s eyes shifted to the clock on the stove. Holy shit, it was early afternoon. He blinked several times. “I need to get dressed and get to the gym. When did Nasir leave?”

“Hmm about three hours ago. He waited around a little but it was pretty clear you weren’t going to wake up on your own anytime soon. Your man wasn’t willing to disturb you. If it were me, I would have tried a bucket of ice water.” Gannicus offered helpfully.

Agron returned to the bathroom to try and screw with his hair. Next he entered Duro’s room and checked on his little brother, who slept deeply in his bed. Even though the room smelled a little of alcohol, he didn’t see any signs of beer anywhere. Gently, he leaned down and ran his fingers through Duro’s hair, squeezing his shoulder carefully.

Back in the living room, Gannicus leaned against the wall waiting patiently.

“You, you gonna stick around for long?” Agron asked awkwardly, trying to find his wallet.

Gannicus grabbed it off a nearby shelf and held it out for him. “I can stick around. You want me text you when he wakes up?”

“Yeah would you? I want to, to get down to the gym to be there for Nasir.”

“Good idea.”

Agron took the wallet and shoved it in his back pocket. He hesitated. “How, how is he?”

“Honestly?” Gannicus ran his fingers through his hair. “I think he was relieved you both stirred this morning and seemed okay. I’m starting to wonder if any of you are really okay myself but no one tells me anything around here. When you get a chance, you should probably talk to him about what the hell all of this is about. He was a little shaken last night.”

“I bet.” Agron sighed. “Thank you Gannicus.”

“No problem. Oh wait you forgot something.” The other trainer went into the kitchen and returned with another waffle. “He tried to make omelets this morning but he didn’t like how they turned out so he made these instead.”

Agron took the waffle. “Nasir made these?”

“For you… said something about using real sugar? What the hell is that all about?”

Agron shook his head. “I gotta go. Don’t forget the text.” He hurried out the door realizing he didn’t know where his truck was parked. After a few minutes of searching for it he pulled away. Nasir was at The Rebel learning about what some stranger could do for him all alone, and it was all his fault.

Chapter Text

Now when Agron arrived at the gym, he really had no idea what he might find. Nasir could be furious with him or just so upset he might be barely holding it together.

Fortunately a Sunday afternoon didn’t present an especially large crowd, so it was easy to make a quick scan of the gym to try and find which room they might be in. Agron noticed one of the back rooms with the lights on almost immediately, and as he neared he could look into the small window and see Nasir who looked engaged and not angry or upset at all. The other man must have been the private investigator who was smiling and… Agron blinked and froze when he recognized that perfectly sculptured set of shoulders and arms, paired with an easy and confident smile, steady eyes, and deep beautiful skin. He didn’t make it two steps before Spartacus invaded his space and actually touched him, pressing a palm against his chest.

“No fucking way.” Normally Agron would simply plow through any obstacle in his path to get to his desired result. The problem in this case was the obstacle also happened to be his closest friend, his brother, Spartacus. This caused his desire to violently react to the situation to remain on pause, at least for a moment.

“Agron, listen to me.”

Agron tried to cool the temperature rising quickly within his large frame with a deep inhale. “He’s that…”

“I know. Nasir told me when they first met.” Spartacus also took a deep breath followed by another until Agron suddenly found himself mirroring the man exactly, and as a result, calming down too. “I didn’t know Agron. I promise you I didn’t know, nobody did. But Agron, Castus is one of the better investigators in the area.”

“But you said…”

“Heracleo wasn’t available. Apparently he’s working heavily for someone else. Castus is his partner, sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“If I remove my hand will you be able to just stand here and listen to me like two normal men having a conversation?” Spartacus looked at him expectantly.

Agron’s lips thinned, and his eyes shifted from Spartacus’ face, to the room where Nasir and this Castus just casually conversed. His eyes dropped to the hand still pressed against his chest. “Yes,” came the delayed response.

Spartacus immediately looked relieved and retrieved his hand taking on a more relaxed stance. “Heracleo and Castus have worked cases together in the past. They’re not exactly equals. Castus was an understudy for a while but now he takes on cases on his own. I checked a few references. He’s discreet Agron, and he’s good. He’s going to be Nasir’s best chance to uncover his past.”

Agron didn’t want to hear that. He really, really didn’t want to hear that. “But he hit on my boyfriend.”

“Yeah, well Nasir has a certain appeal doesn’t he so that’s going to happen from time to time. Say you want to tell me why you’re late. Nasir came in here looking worried, but he wouldn’t tell anyone why you didn’t walk in the door with him. He said you were at home and everything was fine. I thought you planned on coming in with him?”

Shit, Nasir lied and covered for him; that had to be hard and was unfair. “We can talk about that later I think, maybe.” Agron sighed. Spartacus would see right past that lie.

“I know when someone’s lying to me Agron. But you’re okay, really okay?” Spartacus’ steady eyes carefully unwound the tension lingering in Agron’s neck. With that, Spartacus shifted from being a barrier to what Agron wanted and into the support he needed.

Agron covered his face with his hand and groaned. “Yeah, I just did something stupid. I should, I should go in there though.”

“You should. Agron just remember why Castus is here and who he’s here for okay?”

“Okay.” Agron let Spartacus’ warning linger and echo inside his head for a moment. He needed to support Nasir and keep his jealousy in check. But as he walked over to the room and saw the man again, this Castus, wearing a half-sleeved shirt, sporting an arrogant smile, and talking to Nasir he felt the bile in his stomach begin to build again. At that moment, Nasir caught sight of him and stood immediately.

Nasir had his hair pulled back in a casual loose ponytail that almost looked like a bun allowing some strands to drop around his neck. He wore a loose smoky grey t-shirt he recognized as his but it was knotted on one-side, and the blue denim jeans probably had one too many holes in it be fashionable but seeing his hot lover in them only dampened his anger and stimulated… guilt. “Nasir I’m so…”

Before Agron could finish his apology, Nasir walked right up to him and wrapped his arm around his chest, hugging him tight. When his lover didn’t say anything, Agron cautiously returned the hug and kissed his hair. Rosemary, clean, smooth, just like Nasir should smell, just like he hadn’t fucked up this entire morning. “I should have…”

“It’s okay.” Nasir whispered. “I upset you. I thought we ended well yesterday morning, but Agron if all of this is too much I can just delay this longer. I don’t have to have a past to have a future with you. I’m okay just being as we are now. If nothing changed ever again I’d be happy to just be a part of this with you.”

Agron breathed in deeply, his eyes returning to the steady bright eyes of the man staring at them through the glass. Normally when Agron returned someone’s gaze, they didn’t hold it very long, but not this one. He felt a challenge with Castus’ scrutiny, but he forced himself to focus on Nasir, but not the Nasir talking right now. This was the Nasir he met at a restaurant not the confident young man he was helping Nasir become, and that wasn’t good for either of them.

“No. This is important for you Nasir. I… I want to talk later, but not here, not with others. Right now we need to… well how much did you tell him? Spartacus said you’ve been talking for a couple hours?” Don’t be jealous, don’t be angry.

Nasir nodded, still hugging him. “Yeah, light stuff mostly, factual things nothing heavy or deep yet. I’ve learned a little about him, and he knows a few things about me. I hoped you’d come Agron, so I waited to cover heavier topics until you did.” Nasir stumbled a bit with his words; his entire body tensed up in apprehension and anxiety, so Agron tried to soothe that away by running his palm from Nasir’s shoulder to the small of his back and up again. Nasir continued. “It’s going to be bad, what you hear. I didn’t want the investigator to know things about me you didn’t. Agron, I know at the nightclub…”

Gently Agron guided Nasir back so he could see his love’s eyes better. “Spartacus told me a little about him. That doesn’t matter right now. Let’s go see what he can do for you.”

Nasir smiled; they kissed and entered the room. They had one folded slim, black and rectangular table in the room with one chair for Castus on one side and two chairs on the other. Nervously Nasir waited for Agron to near the table. “Agron this is Castus. Castus this is Agron.”

Castus offered him a hand. “We’ve met, sort of. I guess really I met your fist and not much else.”

Agron didn’t take his hand and instead took a seat, waiting for Nasir to sit near him. He was pretty sure he might wind up cracking bones if he and Castus actually touched in some way.

Castus took it in stride and returned to his seat across from them. He had a tablet in hand and a stylus. “Nasir was just telling me about his current job, how you two met at the restaurant, and we looked over his fake IDs. Don’t worry Agron, I’m a very discreet man, and Spartacus has emphasized that this is a sensitive case.”

“You’re friends with Heracleo right?”

He shook his head. “I wouldn’t exactly say that. We work together, have a financial interest but that’s it. Now Nasir, you said you wanted to wait until Agron, your boyfriend, came in to talk about what I really need to try and help you uncover your past. Are you ready for that?”

“No.” Nasir managed keeping his chin level. “But I have to be I guess.”

Agron scooched his chair closer and wrapped his arm around Nasir’s waist. “Take your time.”

Castus glanced between them and continued. “Well let’s start where we mostly left off when you decided you wanted to wait and talk about something else. The house where you met Chadara your…”

“My foster sister. It was called Bradley’s House, at least that’s what everyone called it. Ten maybe twelve others lived there with us. We were four to a room separated by gender.”

“And was it run by Bradley?”

Nasir shook his head. “It was funded by some trust of the Bradley family. The woman in charge there was called Doris. She’s the one I was delivered to when I was picked up in violation of curfew anyway. I think she was in charge.”

The man nodded. “Good, good Nasir. And then you were adopted by a physician?”

“No, not adopted, foster parents, Dr. Kevin Olson and Mrs. Chelsea Olson. They umm had the intention to adopt, I think.”

“Do you remember his age?”

Nasir’s dark eyes shifted from Castus and focused on the table. His jaw muscles tightened and Agron felt his body tense up. “No.”

“Try to remember Nasir. I want to be able to find this guy for you.”

“Hey he said he can’t fucking remember, leave it alone.” Agron growled. He leaned over and whispered against Nasir’s ear. “Do you need to stop?”

Nasir’s hands left the table and dropped to his lap worrying together until Agron gently covered them with his large free hand. “I… I can’t. It’s not enough. He won’t be able to find them with just that. If they moved, or if they… I just…”

Agron grasped Nasir’s right hand squeezed. “Look at me. Nasir, look at me.” Hesitant deep eyes lifted to meet his gaze. “He can come back. We don’t have to do it all today, or you can use me, just squeeze as hard as you need to. I can take it.”

A half-smiled formed. “You can, can you?”

“Yeah.” Agron returned the smile.

Nasir experimentally turned his hand palm side up and squeezed Agron’s hand. His eyes returned to Castus who patiently waited, not responding to Agron’s outburst or Nasir’s struggle. Castus did smile eventually though when Nasir gifted him with the friendly gesture. “Thank you for your patience.” Agron tried really hard not to tense up when Nasir responded positively to that gesture.

“For you, anything.” In fact, Castus’ smile only broadened. “Okay Nasir, let’s try again. Do you remember anything about his age?”

“I…” Nasir took a deep breath, squeezing Agron’s hand hard. “Not sixty. She kept saying he wasn’t sixty yet. We celebrated a birthday that year, but he wasn’t sixty yet.” His eyes shifted to Agron who smiled immediately in encouragement.

“Good Nasir. Very good actually.” Castus continued. “Now you’ve said there was abuse in the home. Can you tell me what kind of abuse?”

Agron glowered at Castus. “He doesn’t have to tell you that. The man was abusive, that should be enough. What difference does it make anyway?”

Castus set his tablet down, his eyes moving from Nasir who remained silent as he gripped Agron’s hand to Agron whose open hostility continued to rise. “It’s true. He doesn’t have to tell me. It helps though. Agron, I know you feel threatened by me.”

“Threatened?” Agron snorted.

“Threatened.” Castus repeated without a moment’s hesitation. “The more he tells me the easier it is for me to track all these people down. Abusers tend to abuse more than once and more than one person. He can’t tell me about his parents or his brother. I have to work my way back to them from the people he does remember… right Nasir?”

Nasir glanced between Agron and Castus. “I can’t. Agron I can’t I remember them just my brother’s voice and my name off his lips… just his back as he left. He said he’d come back, but he never did. Agron… I don’t have anything to work with.”

Agron pursed his lips. Oh he knew he looked little better than an angry teenager with an expression like that, but he couldn’t help it. Castus grated on his nerves. He wished he’d broken that man’s nose. He’d look a lot less handsome and confident and steady right now with a swollen face and a nose brace cluttering that good-looking facade. Still he forced himself to stop glowering at this over glorified PI and focused on Nasir’s questioning face. “I don’t know what difference it makes whether he used a belt or fists or…”

“That’s not what he means.”

“Look I know there are different levels of abuse. I just don’t see why that would matter.”

“There’s also different kinds of abuse. He didn’t hit me because I didn’t really fight back. I was too scared to fight, too scared and confused.”

Agron gazed into those dark eyes and he felt his throat clench and his stomach sink. He didn’t free the hand Nasir gripped painfully tight now, but he lifted the other to Nasir’s cheek. “Oh.” Maybe he should have said something more significant, something profound but he just looked into those beautiful eyes and tried to give reassurance where words failed.

It worked.

Nasir smiled in relief, took a deep breath and returned his gaze to Castus who watched the two without that usual smirk on his face. Something serious took its place, serious and sorrowful? Maybe Agron gave enough strength to Nasir because he continued. “He started with Chadara, my foster sister, but I didn’t know. When she ran away, he moved on to me. “

“And then you ran away with her?”

Nasir nodded, but he looked at Agron not Castus.

“And you didn’t take any identification with you, no school ID? Do you remember what school you came from?”

“It was Valley High School, maybe North or South Valley.”

“And do you have a record under any of your names?”

Agron and Nasir both looked to Castus at that question. He felt himself frowning again, trying not to just roll to anger but understand the meaning behind Castus’ question. “Why are you asking him that?”

“Sometimes even public information can be hard to locate and this will help me track down everything. Agron, I promise you I’m just doing what’s best for Nasir here.”

This time, Nasir tried to pull his hand free and his eyes dropped; for the first time, Nasir looked upset even bordering on devastated.

Agron was quick to react, moving in closer, stroking his shoulder and holding onto those digits as firmly but gently as he could. “Nasir it’s okay.”

“It’s really not.”

“Baby I have a bit of a record myself.”

Nasir chuckled aridly but there was no joy behind that sound. “Not like this.”

Castus cleared his throat. “You don’t have to tell me. I can look up your names. I might find your real record in time.”

Nasir kept his eyes lowered. “I think for my real name I might have trespassing, minor in possession and I was in a fight a few times but I think those were dropped, cops were called though. Under other names I might have trespassing, petty theft and… prostitution. I might have that, that last one on more than one identity. I don’t really remember the first times.”

Agron let out a breath but he didn’t budge. He let his mind just process that last bit for a little longer than he should have. No doubt Nasir waited for his response, his support or at least his acceptance. He didn’t get any of it. He was too busy tying what Spartacus warned him about with what Nasir said. The Villa was a bad place, but if Nasir had been arrested there for that… there was no way the police, especially with Spartacus involved, would have let it be. But other places, when he was in the streets and at what age...

“Agron…”

He blinked, realizing he was silent and the other two men in the room seemed to