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[personal profile] ladderax
Title: Close To The Frozen Borderline
Rating: NC-17
Words: 10,000
Fandom: Spartacus: Vengeance
Summary: Agron loses an arm in battle with the Romans. Alternate timeline/canon AU.
Warnings/Content Notes: depression, possible sexist and ableist language, animal cruelty (hunting)



***


"Agron. Wake up, you lazy fuck." He felt the nudge of a boot's tip at his shoulder, and a hand ruffled his hair. He had no idea how long he'd been sleeping, or even where he was; being alert for the usual cues, the bustle of house slaves at the ludus or the position of the sun over his head, yielded no information. All he could see through his bleary eyes was a clay-colored ceiling and the vague form of a man. But he recognized the voice. Duro's, attempting to be gruff but mostly sounding gentle and playful.

Agron turned his face into the rolled-up coat that served as a pillow and shoved weakly at Duro. "I take enough fucking orders without you having to start now too. Let me sleep."

But Duro, always persistent, shook Agron's shoulder again, before grabbing him by the hair to forcibly turn his head. Agron tried to squint away his brother's grinning face, but he had to admit it was a welcome sight. Despite all he'd forgotten, he did know that he hadn't seen Duro in a while. Had he been hit in the head? he wondered. Had he nearly starved?

"You promised you'd help me train," Duro demanded. "And we have time now, at last. Uninterrupted."

"As if an extra hour of training would make much difference," grunted Agron. "You'd merely give me twenty opportunities to kill you rather than the usual ten."

Duro snorted. "You know I have improved. I might even be able to protect you now, if the time came."

Agron screwed his eyes shut and grinned. There was little light in whatever room this was, but the colors themselves hurt his eyes. "That's likely."

"I am a German warrior," Duro said proudly. "Fierceness in protecting kin is in my blood."

"You will have to protect yourself from me if you do not let me sleep for another quarter of an hour," Agron said, gritting his teeth.

"Brother." The tone of Duro's voice softened. "Do you not know what has happened?"

"Do the specifics matter? Surely it involves blood, and death, and the fucking Romans. You may take your pick of my guesses. Now let me be."

"Agron." Duro shook his shoulder gently and turned Agron's face back toward him once again. Duro's features were hazy, and looked somehow wrong, and Agron wondered if some sickness had come over his vision, or if he had truly forgotten how Duro looked so that his real face failed to match Agron's memory of it. "Do you trust me? After I gave my life for yours?"

"I trust your heart, if not your judgement," Agron said, running his hand over his face. He found his skin smooth, absent the bristly growth he expected to find, as if it had been shaved while he slept.

"You must trust my judgement now," insisted Duro. "Agron, you must wake up. Open your eyes."

Agron lifted his eyelids and forced himself to look at the empty room, at Duro.

"You must open your eyes."

Agron laughed. "My eyes are open, dumbfuck."

Duro touched his shoulder. "Your other eyes."

"I have no other eyes."

"Trust me."


*


When Agron opened his other eyes at last, he was no longer in the clay-colored room. The man who rushed to his side when a groan rattled out of Agron's throat had thick brows and long dark hair, but he was not Duro. Agron's mouth knew the man's name, though his mind did not.

"Have I been useless long, Nasir?" he asked, smiling despite himself, despite the tightness of the skin around his lips and the bodily heaviness that he could feel even though he did not attempt to move. Nasir lifted a water skin to Agron's lips with one hand and brought the other hand behind Agron's head to help him raise it. Agron had been given drink in such a manner by friends, comrades and brothers, but never before had a hand lifted his head so gently; never before had soft fingers held his chin and lower lip so that he would not lose a drop of precious water. This was a lover's touch.

"You are never useless." Nasir said sternly. Agron had begun to choke on the water, so Nasir withdrew the skin and laid Agron's head back on the bedroll.

Regardless of the pain Agron was in, his senses were still flooded by Nasir's beauty, by his scent and the kindness in his eyes. "So tell me," he said, with all the good humor he could muster, "where are we, and how much hope have we lost, and when can I take you in my arms again?"

At the last question, Nasir bit his lip and lowered his eyes.

Agron laughed nervously. "Have you gone and found yourself another while I was asleep, then? So long as it isn't a shit-flinging Gaul, I suppose I'll manage.”

"Agron." A dull russet light flickered across Nasir's face, and he leaned in close. "Something happened in the battle with Glaber's men. Do you not remember?"

Agron smiled weakly. "I remember you rushing at a centurion with a sword in each hand and a fury Gannicus himself might have envied. I remember mourning Mira and hearing that Oenomaus had fallen. I remember fulfilling my life-debt to Crixus when I saved him from ambush. And I see that you and I both live, and that there is still love in your eyes. Can anything be truly wrong, then?"

Nasir pressed his forehead to Agron's and kissed his dry lips softly. "I do not know how to tell you this."

Agron's mouth fell into a grim line. "Who have we lost?"

Nasir sighed. "Ragnhild. Bimmos. Aneunos. Lothar. But our numbers are still miraculously strong."

"Glaber?"

"Glaber is dead. Slain by Spartacus."

"And we are safe."

"For a time. Rome has a new Praetor. We do not know what action he will take. Spartacus's informants tell us that he has his eye on military conquests more glorious than putting down a stubborn, angry rabble. We stay here, in these caves, until Spartacus determines when we next go on the offensive."

"To hear you begin to talk like a soldier is both heartening and worrying," Agron said, smiling. He reached with both hands to touch Nasir's face. Only to find that one hand cupped the other man's cheek.

He tried again. No hand obeyed his will.

Agron closed his eyes. He dreaded looking at his hand. Perhaps it was merely bandaged to his side. Perhaps it had lost sensation for a time and had yet to heal. And so he tried to keep his voice sounding as bright as possible when he asked Nasir the inevitable question.

"My arm? It is--"

Nasir swallowed audibly and ran his hand over Agron's hair as if comforting a feverish infant. "Perhaps you should look for yourself."

Agron laughed humorlessly. "Surely you can tell me in a word if I still have a right arm or not."

Nasir closed his eyes.

And solemnly, he shook his head.

With that all of the moisture in Agron's throat dried up. Shaking, he lifted his head with all of his limited strength to look at his right arm--or rather, where his right arm had once been. His vision couldn't quite believe it at first; surely his mind was imagining things, surely it was merely tucked under his body or fastened to his side or...His arm could not simply be gone. It couldn't be.

"Tell me it isn't gone," Agron laughed incredulously.

Nasir touched his face with a tentative hand. With his left hand--his only hand, Agron thought bitterly--he wrenched the hand away. "I don't need your fucking pity," Agron said, squeezing his eyes shut.

Nasir's features became blank. With a nod, he turned away.

*


The days went quickly. Agron tried to sleep through them, but sleep rarely came. Thoughts arrived to him in flashes, thoughts of running through the forests with Duro, hacking at tree trunks with the wooden swords and axes their oldest brother had carved for them. Pretending those tree trunks were the bodies of huge brutes from other tribes, pretending they were going to war that very evening, child warriors too small and too quick to be seen by adults who could easily slash the tendons of a seven-foot giant and bring him to his knees.

He remembered getting in trouble for tying Duro to a tree with a length of woody vine that he had fashioned into a rope; after his father had spanked him raw, though, he had taken him to their uncle's house, boasting loudly about his strong and clever boy, and that night he had been given his first drink of alcohol. It tasted like old piss, but he took a sip so big his cheeks bulged out, and though his eyes watered and he could only wrestle it down his throat slowly, he gulped it all down without wasting a drop, glaring as if at an invisible enemy who held a knife to his throat. All the men roared with laughter and clapped him on the back, and he had wondered where Duro was, Duro who was only eleven months younger but who seemed years and years away from becoming a man.

All his life Agron had been a fighter. He worked hard for it, but there were others who worked harder than he and still dropped their swords, still died on the swords of other men. Fighting had, in one way or another, gotten him everything he held dear--his father's admiration, his freedom, the love of a good and beautiful man. And yet it had also lost him many things--his homeland, his brother, and now his ability to protect the things he loved. To be strong, he thought, was to be peculiarly at the mercy of fate.

Nasir was by his side more often than not, bringing him food and water, changing the dressings on the stump where his lower arm and elbow and part of his upper arm had once been, but he could not bring himself to speak even to the man he called his heart. It made the bile rise in his throat. Nasir was by far the weaker fighter, and yet he still had both slender arms. His shoulders could bear water and food, and Agron sometimes saw him at the mouth of the cave sparring with Lugo or Gannicus or Naevia. It was incredible how much he had improved even since they last fought. He would never be a master of the sword, but he was quick and clever, and intelligence so often bested strength in battle--Gannicus was proof of that.

Gannicus, who still had both his arms as well.

His friends and brethren came to speak to him, to joke with him and praise his strength. Some of them. Crixus stayed away, looking at him from a distance on his way to a chamber further back in the network of caves. All our talk of brotherhood was but empty words, and now you would leave me to die, Agron thought bitterly. Perhaps you are not wrong in thinking so. I am the hole at the bottom of a basket. I will only take food and water from those who can fight.

*


"How do you feel?" Nasir crouched by his side. Before Agron lost his arm, Nasir would not have sat at such a distance. He would simply have lain down at Agron's side, molded himself to Agron's form like the bank of a river. And Agron would have delighted at his nearness, would have turned and taken Nasir in his arms. But now he would never hold Nasir properly again. If Nasir even wanted to be held by a man with one arm, a man who was barely even a man anymore.

"All is delightful," Agron laughed bitterly. "The wall of this damp cave is full of unimaginable beauties. If you look closely, you can see an image of the conquest of Gaul."

"Agron." Nasir said gently, laying fingers upon his neck.

"I am aware of my own name," Agron said. "And I have told you, I do not wish to be touched. I am in no need of comfort."

"You would not have said that three weeks ago had I touched you in identical fashion," Nasir said, without any rancor.

"It is not three weeks ago, is it?" Agron turned from Nasir and fixed his eyes upon the wall which glistened with moisture. Holing up in a cave had its benefits; they could collect water from its sides and from the dripping stalactites.

"Must you think of it as comfort?" Nasir settled down on his own bundled-up coat. "Can it not be simply an act that means that we are lovers, just as an act of prayer signals devotion to a country's gods?”

The dim candlelight showed streaks of dirt on his face, the placement of which made his cheeks look hollower. Or perhaps they really were hollower than they had been. “Or does praying to our gods mean we pity them?” A sudden pang of guilt struck Agron, but he had not the strength to ask Nasir if he was hungry. After all, what could Agron do about it in his present state? Go hunting? Lift a bow and ask another to pull the string?

“Spare me your fancy Syrian theology, Nasir,” Agron whispered.

“Agron, I—“ Nasir then thought better of what he was going to say.

He spread out his bedroll a few feet from where Agron was stretched out and laid himself down on it. Their bodies did not touch at all.

*


Agron had always thought himself surer of foot, but it was he who slipped on a slimy stone and crashed into the river, Duro's laughter above distorted by the sound and depth of the current. He launched himself up again quickly, and though his long fair hair was plastered over his eyes like a reed mat, he grabbed Duro's ankle and yanked hard enough that the other boy lost his balance and fell in, kicking briny water into Agron's face as he broke the surface. And then they were wrestling, taking swings at each other's heads and squeezing necks in headlocks. Duro tried to pick Agron up by the waist, but Agron's feet were firmly planted in the muddy river bottom, among rocks and weeds and the first stirrings of eyeless, transparent lifeforms.

Suddenly Agron lifted his brother's face up to his and saw that Duro had the dark stubble and thick brow of his later years--the gift of their Illyrian mother, like Agron's own name. And then he remembered.

"I was not supposed to see you again until the afterlife," Agron said sadly, looking into his brother's eyes. "Why are you here now?"

"Because," Duro said cryptically. "I am the only one left."

"The only one left for what?" Agron called. "From what?"

But Duro had turned from him and was walking away, toward where the river became as sharp as the point of a spear.


*


"Alright, you lazy sack of shit, it's time." It could not be much past sunset, but he knew the voice was Saxa's. He tried to close his eyes again, but she grabbed him by his arm and pulled up hard enough to wrench joint from socket in a weaker man. As he stood up and followed her lead he nearly tripped over Nasir, who slept a few feet away from him.

"Medicus says you are no longer in danger of blood poisoning," said a second voice, deep and raspy and barely stronger than a whisper. "The best thing for you is to begin to resume your normal life. To find purpose again."

"I know what Medicus says," Agron replied testily. "And Nasir has told me much the same thing.

"Yet you do not heed advice," Crixus said.

"I have been gathering food and collecting water."

"And that is your purpose? Plucking berries?" laughed Crixus.

They stooped to exit the cave and climb over the stones that led them to daylight. "Here. It's time." Crixus pulled a sword from his belt and handed it to Agron. Before, when Agron's body was whole, he would have thrown it.

Crixus held out his own sword. "Do you not remember what Oenomaus said before we went to fight the Romans? He said, Agron, that a man is never too weak or too wounded to fight, if the cause is strong enough in his heart. He lost an eye, and still faced the Romans without hesitation."

Agron laughed under his breath. "And we both know he lived to tell of it."

Crixus regarded him with narrowed eyes. "You fear death?"

Agron grasped the hilt of the sword with his left hand and stared down at it, unwilling to meet Crixus's flaying gaze. "I fear weakness," Agron said acidly. "I fear being more of an impediment to the cause than an aid. I fear," he continued, before raising his sword to Crixus's and listening to the clang of steel against steel, "being unable to protect the ones I love."

"You mean the ones you ignore in favor of pitying yourself and lying in the dark like an ailing old donkey?" Crixus's blade met his again. He goes soft on me, Agron thought. "You have friends who call you brother. You have a good man who loves you, who fears you have lost your love for him."

"Only a fool would doubt my feelings for Nasir," Agron snarled. He swung his blade around to meet Crixus's from the other side. Yet he recognized the lack of strength and deftness in the blow, coming as it did from his weaker hand.

"Then you call Nasir himself a fool," Crixus said viciously.

He blocked Agron's next blow and pushed his arm back with it, driving Agron back several feet.

"You haven't lost your legs, you know," cried Saxa in German from where she was perched on the rocks above. "Evade him!"

Agron had not lost his legs, true. But it was difficult to concentrate on everything at the same time: Crixus's accusations, fighting with his weaker hand, the distracting sensation of his missing arm. Crixus effortlessly blocked all of his strokes.

"You appear to tire," Crixus said at last. "Have you had enough?"

There was no apparent mockery in these words. Yet Agron could not but read them as such.

"Do not treat me like a child. Fight me like a man, you fuck!" he shouted, raising his blade sideways to Crixus's throat. Crixus regarded him fearlessly, with a mix of defiance and disappointment.

"Enough, you fucking animals," Saxa called.

"Perhaps your life is worth nothing after all," Crixus muttered. "If you refuse to see how the Gods bless you, you do not deserve their blessing."

"It is easy for you to say, Crixus. Live in my body for one day, then tell me how I should feel." Agron dropped the blade at Crixus's feet, then stooped into the cave.

Nasir was still asleep when Agron returned to their sleeping area. It was not like him to sleep past daybreak, Agron reflected. And when Agron had looked at Nasir in the daylight, he had noticed that he was beginning to look truly ill, wan and gaunt, his hair dull and his eyelids heavy. The thought of Nasir falling ill was like a slingshot stone in the stomach, and he could not bear it. He remembered Crixus's words. Likely they were not unfounded. Nasir often confided in Naevia, who in turn kept nothing from her beloved. And Agron wanted to weep with shame at the thought of inflicting such agony on the man he loved.

Agron reached out to stroke Nasir's hair, shame making his hand heavy and slow. He let his fingers rest in Nasir's hair a moment before waking him.

"I am sorry," Agron breathed upon watching Nasir's tired, glassy eyes open. Nasir responded with a gentle smile. "Crixus tells me you feared you had lost my love. You must know that could never be."

"I feared you had lost yourself," Nasir said softly. "That you had lost will and heart. And without those things, love cannot be either."

Agron could not respond to that in words. He knelt down and kissed Nasir's forehead, breathed in his warm, earthy scent.

"You must tell me what ails you," he said. And in the way he said those words, he felt, in his certainty and strength and love, there was more of the man that he had once been than in any words he had spoken in ages.

"Nothing ails me," Nasir exhaled. "The usual strains of life in a rebel camp, overlaid with concern for beloved."

"You lie," Agron said, feigning gruffness. "I know your face too well. You grow thin. You have not your usual spirit."

"I am in perfect health." Nasir edged closer and laced his fingers with Agron's. Agron could feel that those fingers had taken on a new slenderness, and Agron feared grasping Nasir's hand too hard for fear of breaking the birdlike bones.

"Do you have food enough?" Agron asked. "Surely there is food enough. The rations are plentiful. I have been eating better than I ate in the ludus. "

And with that, a germ of doubt took hold in Agron's mind. He almost could not believe he did not notice it before. How Nasir had brought him his food in their sleeping quarters because he dreaded facing the others, dreaded the pity and curiosity and derision in their eyes. And sometimes Nasir brought extra portions that he insisted were gathered together from what some of the lighter appetites could not eat. Agron had been so foolish, so ignorant of everything but his own despair and self-pity, that he actually had not noticed--

"You have been giving up your rations for me," Agron said, almost angry. "You fucking fool."

"You needed it to heal," Nasir said. His voice was still calm. "And I know you would have done the same for me."

And Nasir was right.

Agron sat up and leaned against the wall. "Come," he motioned. Nasir rose from his bedroll and sat on Agron's left side, and Agron snaked an arm around his waist. "Tonight we will eat with the others. Or rather, you will eat. Your portion and mine. Do you understand?" he whispered in Nasir's ear before dropping a kiss to his shoulder. "And from today on, you will eat until hunger is sated. I will give you whatever of my rations you desire."

"I am a fool that I ever doubted for a moment that you were not the same man," said Nasir.

"I am not the same man," Agron said, not quite sadly, but perhaps with a tinge of resignation. "But perhaps I can still be a man, at least."

"You will always be a man." Nasir laid his head on Agron's shoulder, and they watched daylight slowly fill the cave. He squeezed Agron’s fingers for emphasis. “You will always be my man."

At that Agron could not help but smile.

*


Eating with people was different from working alongside them. Working alongside them, gathering sticks and stones for hare traps or filling baskets with berries, it was possible not to look them in the eye or make conversation with them, possible just to wander off and pretend he was in the forests of his homeland again and had never yet heard spoken the weakling tongue of the Romans. But the forests here were different; there were pines, but they had an alien scent and shape, there were birds but they were Roman birds, no doubt prattling treacherous words of cowardice and greed.

Nasir had at last convinced Agron to eat with the camp. And at last Agron's shame was not, or at least not primarily, at the loss of his arm, but at his weakness these past few months, the way he had given into his despair like a coward. Yet when he walked toward the cooking fire, he was greeted mostly with warm embraces. There were a few who whispered, but Spartacus leaned in as he embraced him and said, "Let those whisper who would whisper. A pain never experienced cannot be understood."

"I have missed the wisdom of our resident priestess," Agron said, a wry smile breaking out on his face. He watched as Nemetes removed a hare from the spit and sliced into it.

"The one-armed giant arises from his slumber," said Gannicus, clapping him on the back and smiling. Agron was surprised to feel no anger at the joke, and he was moved to respond with laughter.

"I once knew a gladiator with one arm," Gannicus continued. "Truly fearsome man. Even more fearsome because his enemies always underestimated him. He was a victor for many years."

"The battlefield is not the arena." A sudden note of bitterness crept into Agron's voice, and he tried to suppress it; if not for Gannicus's sake, than at least for Nasir's--Nasir who, he was glad to see, was chewing a strip of meat and laughing raucously with some of the Germans.

"Is it not?" Gannicus said blithely. "Both can be won in the mind. If your enemy fears the sight of you, or underestimates you, chances are you have won already. You can use your loss. Use it to your advantage."

"Ever the opportunist." Agron shook his head.

"And I have much to show for it." Gannicus's eyes glinted wildly. "And I will have even more to show for it after we return from Stabiae, for which we depart tomorrow. We have not traveled there yet, and it is a busy merchant town. We will be able to gather intelligence there."

Agron paused. "How long has this been planned?"

Gannicus looked down at his nearly-empty cup. "Two weeks. Spartacus, Nasir and I go there. Nasir has not mentioned it?"

Agron's mood was suddenly dampened. "No," he said dully. "Nor has Spartacus."

"Surely they did not wish to burden you."

"So much for being one of Spartacus's fucking trusted lieutenants," Agron growled, and pushed past Gannicus and the others until he reached the mouth of the cave. He stumbled over the crag and ran out, past the boulders that surrounded the cave, and down the face of the mountain. He nearly lost his footing on the rock, and although the fall would likely not be enough to kill him, he might have broken a leg or his other arm. Let it happen, he thought furiously.

But despite the near-total darkness, the muggy sky lit only by the gibbous moon and close-hanging stars, he found his way to the ground. And he ran.

He had not taken his sword. When he heard the light footsteps behind him, he embraced the possibility of death at Roman hands. He thought with regret that his decision to run in the night without care for the noise he made was a foolish one, but he had been unable to stop himself. His mother had always said that his blood beat too close to the surface. It had been true then; it was true now.

"Agron," someone whispered.

And of course there was no Roman soldier, but Nasir come after him.

Nasir who once again had every reason to think him a petulant child and not a strong and worthy lover.

"It isn't safe," Nasir said, coming closer.

"Are you my man or my shepherd?" Agron said without caring who heard. "I would be alone."

"You cannot be alone with me?" Nasir did not wait for a reply. "Come to the edge of the forest. Follow my voice."

Once Agron had left behind the part of the forest where the pines were as wide as cottages, he saw where the moonlight outlined the shape of a man. He walked toward Nasir. He could not help but walk toward Nasir despite his sense that Nasir had betrayed him.

"You did not tell me of your mission," Agron whispered, trying to keep his voice low enough to mingle with the rustling of the pines.

"I meant no harm by it."

As Agron came close enough to whisper, Nasir reached around Agron's body and threw his cloak around him. Agron's heart was divided then, half insulted and half touched by the gesture. But he also knew what he would have done if Nasir's heart had been in pain, if he had felt abandoned, and it would have been the same.

"Let me come with you."

Nasir drew in a breath that Agron instantly knew meant no.

"Why?" Agron demanded. "Because I am too weak? Because I cannot fight? Has he lied to me when he told me I would fight again?" Agron wished he could grasp for something to throw, but he just swung his arm around futilely, touching only air.

"You will fight again," Nasir said soothingly. He rubbed Agron's shoulder and Agron leaned into the touch. "Crixus believes that if you do not let your pride defeat you, you will someday fight nearly as well left-handed as you do--as you did--right-handed."

"You talk about me behind my back as if I am a child." And Agron knew he sounded like a child again at that moment, sullen and weak.

"We talk about you because we love you, Agron." There was sadness in Nasir's voice. "Because you are often on our minds. And on some minds, more often still."

There was nothing he could say against this.

Agron sighed, a deep and painful sigh that felt at the same time like pain leaving his body. The only thing he had strength to do was to let Nasir wrap his arms around him, and let the night breeze tickle his face like a mischievous spirit, and let the truth sink in uncontested.

*


Nasir departed before sunrise, but not before pressing a kiss to Agron's lips and promising that he would not die lest he face Agron's wrath in the afterlife. Agron lay awake afterward, noticing how the cave's dampness seemed to soak through his skin especially mercilessly with Nasir gone.

He regretted that they had not made love. It had been nearly a month since he had lain with Nasir, and that for various reasons. He still found it hard to imagine Nasir looking at him with lust in his eyes, and without being distracted by the bandaged stump that clung to his side.

And it was hard to imagine making love to Nasir without the absence of his arm weighing heavily on his mind. Fucking meant stroking Nasir's cock with one hand and letting the other roam up his chest to pinch his nipples; it meant spreading Nasir open with one hand and fingering him with the other; it meant wrapping both arms around Nasir and pulling him into a wet, breathless kiss as Nasir's cock thrust all the way into him. Agron had always felt that even two arms were not enough when he was touching Nasir.

But for the first time since the battle he longed, ached, to touch Nasir in more than a brotherly way. He only hoped Nasir bore the same ache for him.

*


The week seemed to pass both slowly and quickly. He took meals with the camp--hare as usual, with a few wild greens and berries. He prayed that the expedition would bring back wine, as their supply was drained nearly dry. And as used as he was to the diet of a fugitive, he still daydreamed (when he was not dreaming of Nasir, and of a comfortable and lazy life and home of their own amid the ashes of Rome) of bread and venison, and of the wild boar he ate. He remembered how good his first kill had tasted, when he was a lad of fifteen. Just before his life became a series of battles that overlapped so closely that one was nearly impossible to tell from another.

Thought of wild boar reminded him: had seen boar wallows in the woods as they sought their new camp, and he had pointed them out to Spartacus, hinting at a hunt. But Spartacus had said that hunting would have to wait. Agron chafed, but he saw the wisdom in his decision; a boar hunt could be a long, noisy and dangerous ordeal.

Now he only wondered if Crixus would feel the same.

He approached Crixus cautiously during dinner. He was with Naevia, whose presence, he hoped, would soften Crixus's temperament--though it was always a gamble.

Crixus had kept his distance since their sparring match had turned sour. And Crixus turned away as Agron drew near, leaning in toward Naevia and pretending he didn't see the other man at all. Agron was tempted to interject, but he knew that appearing impatient would earn him no favor with Crixus. So he lingered, pretending to watch Saxa wrestle Arnulf. As Agron and anyone else might have predicted, Arnulf was not doing well, but he thoroughly enjoyed his defeat at her hands.

"What do you want?" Crixus finally asked.

"I wish to make amends," he said, the words like wet clay in his mouth. No, it would likely never be easy to apologize to Crixus.

"And with good reason," Crixus said archly. "They are owed."

"You cannot take a man's apology without also grinding heel into wound," said Agron, gritting his teeth. "As always."

"I accept your apology," Crixus at last offered.

"That is fortunate." Agron crouched next to them. "Because I would ask a favor of you."

"He wants a favor." Crixus shook his head. "Let's hear of it, then."

Agron wondered if he would still be wanting to murder Crixus at this moment had he not lost his arm.

"You know there are boar in these woods."

Crixus nodded slowly and chewed the last of his handful of greens.

Agron formed his sentence cautiously before speaking. "What say you, then, to a hunt?"

Crixus fixed him with a flat gaze. "A boar hunt."

"My dominus used to hunt wild boar," Naevia said worriedly. "He required many hounds and men. He said the boar was a formidable enemy. Called it a four-legged gladiator. Do you even have what is needed?"

Agron chuckled at this. "The Roman boar hunt is but theatre. All that is needed is a strong arm and a spear."

Naevia, wide-eyed, looked unconvinced. But Agron could see that something had piqued Crixus's interest.

"Since you know Spartacus's thoughts on all things, you likely know that he would not hear of hunting boar," Agron continued. "But I think our people deserve a feast. It has been so long since we had anything but hare that I fear my ears begin to grow tall and pointed."

"And besides that," Naevia said, smiling, "you wish to give your love a homecoming gift, do you not?"

Agron was embarrassed to feel himself blush simply at hearing Nasir called his love but he held her gaze as his lips turned up wistfully.

"That may be a small part of it," he said, anticipating Crixus's scornful refusal and perhaps an ear-boxing.

But no ears were boxed, and Crixus, after looking pensively into the fire and chewing on his lower lip for a few long moments, looked back at Agron and said "We set out tomorrow."

Thanking Crixus was even harder than apologizing to him. But Agron managed to do it.

*


Agron and Crixus set out early the next morning armed with spears and knives, and Crixus carried a bow as well. Agron and Crixus--once Agron had never thought he would imagine those names together unless followed by smote each other with fists and swords. Yet here they were, taking one last glance at the rough map Agron had drawn on the cave floor with a piece of charcoal, a map with zigzags and X-es showing the path through the woods to the spring near which Agron had sighted the boar wallows. The trees were thick enough there to serve as a blind so they could watch the creatures undisturbed, preparing to make their move.

Or they might have, were there any boars in the wallows to begin with.

They crouched there silent as the sun ascended in the sky. Time passed too fast; the shadows of the trees seemed to withdraw into the trees’ bodies quick as the fly-catching tongues of lizards. Sometimes, as he watched and waited, Agron forgot everything--the sweat beading on his skin, Crixus breathing at his side, even the absence of the arm he had learned to fight and grasp and masturbate with. He thought only of his desire to drive his spear through flesh.

As if that would anchor him to his own flesh; drag him violently into making peace with it, somehow.

"If the Romans kill us while we're squatting here waiting for imaginary pigs, I will cut off your balls in the afterlife," Crixus grumbled.

"Oh, cease idle threats" said Agron. "I'm going to go take a piss. Unless you'd prefer I did it on your head."

“Thought might harden your cock, but mine fails to stir." Crixus said dryly.

Agron stood and turned around, and he walked off in search of a slightly more secluded spot. They planned to disturb the woods as little as possible, knowing not who might live there or be passing through on an inauspicious visit. The Romans were not going to let Spartacus and his band alone for long, Agron knew. It was folly to forget for a moment that they were probably hunting them even now, and every trace of their presence in these woods was one more clue that could lead the eyes of Rome back to the caves.

It would be wise to turn back, thought Agron.

But something on the ground caught his eye. He went toward it and found that it was a piece of animal scat. The size and shape of a boar's waste.

And leading away from it, the shallow impression of a split hoofprint with two sharp points.

In spite of his excitement, he tried his best not to make too much noise as he returned.

"I have found direction of their travels," Agron said.

"Likely they hide in lairs. We shall never find them," Crixus replied, sounding unimpressed."It would be best to return home."

"The thought did not fail to cross my mind," Agron said, a bit testily. "But we should make attempt."

"Picking up trail does not mean successful hunt." Crixus sounded firm. "Perhaps only of us, by the Romans."

Agron opened his mouth to speak, but he knew Crixus was right. The rebels could subsist on hare and greens and the occasional deer that ventured close to camp. Boar was a luxury.

"Quiet. Do you hear that?" Crixus lifted a finger. "Movement in the woods."

The creature that broke twigs beneath its feet was heavier than a deer. Heavy, perhaps, as a Roman soldier. They both stilled immediately and diverted their whole minds to listening. And Agron, as he used to do at least once every day, prepared himself for the end of everything. He imagined what he would say to Nasir, as imagination would have to suffice until they could hold each other again in the afterlife.

What a fool I have been, to weep over arm when I still had heart alive and by my side. And in this life please remember me with love; save anger at my folly for the next world and then, simply, know this, Roman shits; I die free and in love.

The sound's approach interrupted the writing of his epitaph. He recognized the rhythm of its footsteps and knew instantly that it was no man. And an incredulous smile spread across his face.

"The Gods favor us this day, you sour fuck," Agron said, grinning.

"We shall see," Crixus answered.

Without waiting for Crixus's leave Agron trod cautiously in the direction of the sound. The sound of the boar. Big one too, from what he could tell. He held his spear at the ready and stepped as quietly as he could, cursing inwardly with every twig he disturbed. And then at last he saw as well as heard. A low hanging branch shuddered, and a flash of black was visible between the trees. He knew he could wait no longer.

He didn't have a clear enough shot to employ the spear, so it would have to be the knife at first. Agron gritted his teeth. It would have been so much easier with another hand to hold the spear while he fished a knife from his belt. But he did not have to think about this for long. A silvery glint flew through the air and between the branches, and a vicious bellow told him that the animal had been hit. His impulse was to turn and glare at Crixus for trying to claim a victory that should have been his alone, but he did not have time.

An enraged and wounded boar was hurtling through the trees and heading straight for them.

Crixus's first knife had sunk into the animal's rear. A hit that could not kill or even maim. The Gaul threw another knife, but it glanced off the boar's side and landed in the dirt. Agron leapt aside as the boar charged and watched it run about, hurt and unsure now in which direction to pursue its vengeance. Agron tucked the spear under what remained of his right arm and drew a knife from his belt. That knife, too, grazed the boar. And Agron began to doubt. Did his hand lack the strength to aim?

The boar howled. Another of Crixus's knives had pierced the place where its front leg met its chest, and now a trail of blood spattered the ground. The boar huffed and before Agron knew it it was charging Crixus again at full speed. Crixus ran through the trees and, agile as ever, lead it back towards where Agron waited. Agron could see that the boar was beginning to favor its left leg, and for a moment he pitied the creature, who was powerless to stop its strength from leaving it.

Crixus kept running, trying to wear the animal out, and Agron knew he had missed a few chances when they passed him. But he had only one spear. It had never been like him to be indecisive. But he feared that the small things would once again add up as they had in his fight with Crixus--the change in his balance, the relative weakness of his left arm, the fear itself.

Finally he became weary of the doubt. I have thrown heavy things with my left arm before, he thought. And his eyes focused on the point on the boar's body most likely to yield a clean kill. Right through the shoulder. He imagined the spear piercing that shoulder as if it was going through water. And he lifted his arm and imagined a chain between the spear and that point on the shoulder.

Blade and flesh are joined by destiny already, he remembered Doctore telling them.

Blade and flesh are joined by destiny, he repeated to himself. Saw the cord hovering in midair despite the animal's attempt to tug away from it. Aimed along the cord. It was foolish to move as though he doubted the cord, he thought silently. The cord is real.

And the spear flew along the cord. Agron heard the wet crack as it burst through flesh and the point buried itself in the ground. The impaled animal struggled, and Crixus leapt to put it out of its misery.

"We will eat well tonight, brother," Crixus said, smiling. Once he had slit the boar's throat, Crixus hefted it over his shoulder. Agron felt a moment's bitterness that he could not lift his own kill, but he could not help but return Crixus's smile as they looked up for the sun to reorient themselves.

"We did well," Agron said, and he slapped Crixus on the back. "Today boars, tomorrow Romans."

"Indeed," Crixus agreed, and they made their way back toward home.

*


Around nightfall, when Crixus had nearly finished butchering the boar, the chatter in the camp increased in volume and urgency.

"Something has happened," Agron said, and he could not contain his grin. He looked toward the entrance of the cave to see Spartacus entering and being greeted by those currently on watch.

"Go," Crixus said, waving his knife toward the returning party. Agron did not need to be told.

He offered brief "welcome backs" to Spartacus and Gannicus before turning his full attention to Nasir. Nasir looked tired and somewhat bedraggled from traveling, but he also looked healthier than Agron remembered. Agron took a moment to look upon his face, to cleave every detail to memory, since he could swear that Nasir's face changed slightly every time he saw it and he did not wish to lose a single version of it.

"You have seen me before, you know," Nasir laughed, an impish smile breaking out on his face. "My flesh is not made of wet clay. I cannot be molded."

"I would not be so sure. I think the gods make you lovelier each time I look upon you."

Nasir rolled his eyes playfully and wrapped his arms around Agron's shoulders. "And what do you hope to gain by this flattery?"

Agron rested his forehead against Nasir's. "Only everything you have."

*


They ate and drank well. The men returning from Stabiae had acquired wine as well as information, and Agron could not be sure which intoxicated him more--the wine, or Nasir's presence, or the joy of having gotten for Nasir this token of his love and repentance.

"You have slain formidable beast," Nasir said, admiring the kill. "Do you feel like a man again?"

"It was Crixus's kill as well as mine." Agron looked down at the shadows of the fire undulating on the dirt. "I could not even carry it home or butcher it."

"Agron," Nasir said sternly. "If one man or woman could do all, would there be need for armies?"

"No, of course not."

"Did Crixus's time killing animals in the arena teach him how to track them in the woods?"

Nasir's wisdom never failed to delight Agron except when it was aimed at him. "No," he mumbled.

"There is no shame in men helping one another." Nasir ran his hand over Agron's thigh. "There is something you can help me with."

"Is there." Agron could not help but turn to Nasir then; it was difficult to give life to any bitterness when Nasir's fingertips were stroking him, insinuating past touches that did not stop at his knee or his hip, touches not meant for the eyes of company.

Nasir leaned in and breathed in his ear. "On my journey," he began, "I could not stop thinking of your cock."

Those words swallowed the entire world around Agron. He lost the power of speech for a moment and could only close his eyes and part his lips like a boy who has only lain with a lover in fervent dreams.

"And what--" he was finally able to say, "what did you wish my cock to do?"

"I wished it to be inside me," Nasir whispered. "I wished to feel your strength. Touch me between my legs and know now that I do not lie."

Agron's eyes flew open and he rested his hand on Nasir's thigh. Discreetly as he could manage, he brushed his thumb over the place where Nasir's breeches clothed his cock and felt the hard tip.

"I would have you now," he groaned into Nasir's neck.

Nasir rose from his seat and offered Agron a hand. "Daylight still favors us for long enough," he said teasingly. "We will not give our friends a show this night."

This he said loud enough that a number of the other rebels heard him, and it was answered by incoherent whoops and hollers that he didn’t care to decipher. He cared only for Nasir’s hands around his, leading him.

"Do you have--" he asked.

"In my coat," Nasir said, smiling wryly.

They found a spot in the shade of the mountain, and Agron laid his coat down on the ground. After that he hesitated. In the life of their love, one month was a long time. He remembered how to touch Nasir, but it felt like a story related by a close friend, replete with counterfeit memories--looking like memories, but strangely hollow.

"You wish this to happen?" Nasir asked with caution. Agron nodded and cupped the side of his face.

"More than you know. My cock has a message similar to yours." Nasir reached to touch his cock through the subligaria and smiled at the hardness he found there.

"Then I will have its orders carried out," Nasir replied. "Lie down." His hands pressed Agron back toward the coat, and Agron obliged.

As Nasir straddled him, his hands crept across Agron's shoulders and he drew him into a kiss. With Nasir's lips against his, gently pressing and sucking before beginning to tease Agron's tongue with his own, he wondered how he could forget this. It was the easiest thing he knew, letting his tongue drift between Nasir's lips so Nasir could suck at it like he'd later suck Agron's cock, kissing at the corners of Nasir's mouth and the way it invariably made Nasir tilt his neck up so Agron could kiss his way down Nasir's jaw and throat in an attempt to put lips on his pulse.

When Agron kissed his way back up to Nasir's lips, Nasir mirrored Agron's earlier travels. He let his lips linger over the stubble on Agron's chin, then licked down to the cords of muscle on Agron's neck. Agron threw his head back and felt himself whimper. His neck was on intimate terms with his cock, and he feared that if Nasir did not undo his garments soon there would be proof of that in his clothes. But Nasir did not work his magic in that region for long; he proceeded downward to flick his tongue against the hollow of Agron's throat, and from there he kissed a path like the zig-zag path of an oxcart, pressing his lips over Agron's chest and stopping only to tease each nipple briefly with a lapping tongue. He sat up and replaced his lips with his hands, squeezing Agron's pectorals gently.

"Yes?" he said.

Agron nodded and ran his hand up and down Nasir's back, where he felt the dampness of early sweat.

Nasir traced his upper arms--both of his upper arms.

"You must not doubt that for me nothing has changed." Nasir said, his voice saturated with reverence. Honest reverence. "Your body is still the most beautiful I have ever seen."

"Now it is you who flatters," Agron laughed, but he drew Nasir down for a kiss. His hand wandered back down Nasir's back and played at the base of his spine, right where the cleft of his ass began. Nasir was slightly ticklish there, and he bit down on Agron's lip as his body twitched.

At the urging of Agron's hand, Nasir slid his body up Agron's chest. He did not need to be asked to retrieve the vial of oil from the pocket of his coat, and after he found what he needed he discarded the coat along with his breeches. Agron looked up at Nasir's form with longing. How his skin glowed. How his long hair traced the strong peaks of his shoulders and clung to his graceful neck.

Nasir uncorked the vial and spread a bit of the oil over his hands.

"No," Agron insisted. "Let me."

So Nasir took Agron's hand in his. And for a moment he merely held it, palm-up, in both of his hands, looking at the calluses and lines that predicted an early death for a foolish reason. Then Nasir brought the hand up and kissed each of its curled fingers one by one. And then he poured the bottle over it, a generous amount of the oil glopping over Agron's fingers.

"A blessing in case I lose that one too?" Agron said dryly.

"Stop prophesying doom and finger my ass," Nasir growled.

Agron pressed his palm against Nasir's back and urged him still closer. When Nasir's hips were astride Agron's shoulders, Agron lifted his head and took the tip of Nasir's cock between his lips. In an instant Nasir's face lost its tart expression and his eyes clenched shut with pleasure. He moaned Agron's name, and please, and Gods, and the moaning became louder still when Agron pushed the first finger into Nasir's hole. Nasir moved his hips from side to side to relax himself, and then he slowly pushed backwards onto Agron's finger. Agron kept up his licking at Nasir's cock and tried to banish thoughts of what he might do with another arm--thoughts of spreading Nasir's ass wide, of digging his fingernails in, of gripping tight to Nasir's thigh to feel those muscles twitch and stretch and tense. I have but one arm, Agron thought. So I will use mouth instead.

When Agron had added a second finger, and then a third, he thought he might be willing to stay inside Nasir like that forever. But his cock ached to be touched. As if Nasir knew his thoughts, he pulled away from Agron's hungry fingers and moved back down Agron's body to undo his subligaria. When Agron's cock was revealed, Nasir bent down to kiss it from base to head, his lips idolatrous and greedy. Then he positioned himself over Agron's cock and sank down onto it, slowly but with an unbroken movement. Agron gasped; it was the feeling of Nasir around him, squeezing him all the way down to the base of his cock, but also it was the sight of Nasir, eyes half-closed, lips parted and tongue sadly too distant to kiss. He rose back up and sank back down, and as he kept up this rhythm he ran his hands over Agron's chest, teasing his nipples and stroking his ribs and landing ticklishly light on his neck.

Agron could not decide where he wanted to touch, so he brought his arm around Nasir's back, drew him close, and turned them both over. There was now grass under them, and his weight pressed Nasir into it; with a smile Agron imagined the vivid green streaks of grass-juice that would later decorate Nasir's skin. Nasir wrapped his legs around Agron's hips and opened his mouth for a kiss. And Agron had to rein himself in to keep from coming in that moment; the feel of Nasir's skin stroking against his, knowing that Nasir wanted to be weighed down like this, by him, and did not see it as a loss of his freedom...He guided his cock back to Nasir's hole again and pushed in. He fucked him hard, fighting each time he pulled out against the strength of Nasir's thighs pulling him back in. He gave in to Nasir's lips, open and vibrating with cries and slapping messily against his, and their noses smashed together and their teeth dragged against each other's skin and it was so good that Agron did not want to come even when he was on the verge of it, but he knew Nasir's cock was still full. So he gave his mind the final permission to let go. He sank his teeth into Nasir's shoulder as all of his strength rushed out of him in one joyous flood.

He breathed heavily against Nasir's chest for a moment and let Nasir stroke his hair.

"Not done yet, do not worry," he said hoarsely. "My lips would give you equal share of the bounty."

And, summoning all his energy, he peeled himself off of Nasir and moved to kneel between his legs. Fucking had brought Nasir close; there were droplets of precome inching down his shaft, and Agron licked them off before taking Nasir's whole cock in his mouth. It only took a few bobs of his head and swirls of his tongue before Nasir was crying out and coming down his throat.

"It is too bad there is no cock-sucking contest in the arena," Nasir said as Agron kissed his way back up Nasir's stomach and settled down to rest in his arms. "You would have won for certain."

"I am not so sure," Agron laughed. "There are more than a few cock-sucking Gauls."

Nasir was silent at that. "What, you have become defender of the Gauls now? I say such things in jest."

"No, it's not that." Nasir still sounded pensive. "Move for one moment. I must find something."

Agron nodded and rolled onto his side. Nasir reached for his coat and fumbled for something in the pocket; what he drew out was so small he could easily enclose it in a folded hand, and Agron was intensely curious.

Nasir lay on his side next to Agron and rested his head on his hand. "You must know how serious I am when I say what you mean to me. And that nothing can change that. Not loss of arm. Nothing. You are handsome and brave, and you have a keen mind and a gentle heart. And I ache to be touched by you, and work and fight always with your regard as utmost goal."

"As I do for yours." Agron edged closer to Nasir.

"And you must know," Nasir continued, "that were we man and woman, I would offer you guarantee of my love and all else that is mine. Guarantee to last as long as we may live." A note of trepidation crept into his voice. "Would you do the same for me, if we could?"

"Without doubt," Agron said, and did not hesitate.

Nasir opened his palm and held an object out to Agron. Agron reached for it and examined it; it appeared to be a small bronze brooch in the shape of a swan.

"I bought this from one of the artisans in Stabiae," he explained, looking a bit sheepish. "It is not much. Just a token of a promise intended to be kept."

Agron couldn't speak in answer to that. He only looked at Nasir, at the warmth and openness visible in his face despite the dying-out of daylight, at the slight nervous tremor in his fingers, and he hoped as he reached for Nasir, the brooch still clutched between two fingers, that his own face said enough.

*


Agron was fool enough to try to mount the stallion again. He ran and swung a leg over its back, and it flared its white-spotted nostrils nastily and bucked him off easier than a cow swats off a fly. He landed on his side and pain radiated through his chest.

"Brother, your arm," Duro cried out in a tone of voice he used to use to warn Agron of ghosts.

"Broken?" Agron looked down and expected to see it bent or painted with blood. Instead, there was no arm there at all.

"It isn’t there.”

Agron wanted to tear the house and pastures apart looking for it; had it been hidden as a joke? Taken as punishment? But he had been told he should not make Duro worry. He knew as the elder brother it was his job to stay calm.
Cowardice, like pestilence, spreads, his father had told them once. Don’t be the dung it lives in.

So he swallowed a curse to the gods. And he turned to Duro, and he said, "So it is, brother. Let us take a walk and tell each other stories. You have been gone a long while…”
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la pellegrina

May 2012

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