The epilogue to savior of Rome
Hot water stung his broken body as he sunk into the bath. Despite the pain, he was at peace for the first time since… since when? It was hard to remember that far back in time. Another lifetime ago, he had been Marcus Aurelius' general, the man whom all Rome's enemies trembled before in fear. More recently, however, he'd been a slave and a gladiator, both by force, neither by choice and neither without pain. But in a way, both had been easier than the burdens that he'd borne as the emperor's general. Neither had carried any responsibility for anything other than himself.
So then it was a rather abrupt change when he'd come into power in Rome. Sure, his intentions were to fulfill Marcus' dream of a republic, but even Maximus, with his minute knowledge of politics, knew that would be a daunting task at best. Fortunately, though, there was someone by his side… someone who knew him better than he knew himself, and knew more about Roman politics than anyone alive. Still, it would not be easy –
Enough, he told himself firmly. I am here to relax, not to fret. Through sheer force of will, Maximus pushed his worries from his mind and sank deeper into the water. It was good to unwind, to release the burdens of his new position for a moment. There wouldn't be nearly enough opportunities to do so in the coming days, so he knew that he had best get it over with now. Besides, he needed the break, and wherever better was there to take it than in warm water? Unintentionally, he started to slip off to sleep
"So tell me," the voice came from behind him several long minutes later, making a smile light his face. "Are you going to bathe or sleep?"
"Either. Both," Maximus replied drowsily, not bothering to open his eyes. The conscious part of his mind, however, was thanking the gods that he was up to his neck in the tub and there was no way that Lucilla could see his numerous half-healed and not-so-healed wounds, save for the rather obvious one on his head, which the earlier battle could truthfully explain away. Keeping secrets from her was not exactly what he wanted to do, but he knew he had to explain his problems on his own terms, not as circumstances dictated.
"Hmmm… sounds dangerous," the beautiful princess mused. "Sounds like Maximus."
"Does it now?" he asked playfully, basking in the warmth of her presence as he felt her lips touch his cheek.
"Yes," Lucilla agreed, slipping her arms around his neck. Though she did not know of his pain, her touch was still light, and he reveled in the feel of her closeness and love. Together they shared a moment of quiet peace before he spoke.
"Careful," Maximus warned with a grin. "You might get wet."
The returned smile was plain in her voice. "Only if you pull me in like you used to," Lucilla remembered.
"And you think I have matured or something?" the general countered, finally realizing that there were good memories mixed in there with the bad. Life had held so much grief for him that he had forgotten that there had once been past joys.
Maximus chuckled softly, then opened his eyes and swung to face her. Humor was good for the soul, but half-truths were everything but. There were some things she needed to know, and putting them off would only damage their relationship. He'd not keep secrets from her now; doing so had hurt them enough in the past. Seriousness entered his voice as he said, "But I have changed, Lucilla."
She met his open gaze with her own. "You grew less emotional, colder, harder, and more hurt," Lucilla responded evenly, touching his cheek gently. "And more alone."
"Yes," he whispered, touched by the truth in her words. With only one sentence, she had summed up what would have taken him hours to explain. In truth, she knew him better than he could ever hope to know himself. "More alone."
"We are alike, Maximus, you and I," the princess said quietly. "We both love too much and are hurt very badly when we lose those we care for. Fortunately, we now have each other to turn to."
"Yes." Further words caught in his throat with unexpected emotion. He wanted to say, And I don't want to lose you ever again, but somehow the feelings would not form into coherent speech. Maximus loved Lucilla more than life itself, but the words that would have once come so easily remained unspoken for times past and recent experiences.
Suddenly she kissed his forehead, seeming to read his mind. "I know you are hurt, Maximus," Lucilla whispered. "I know what Commodus had done to you. I know you are in pain, and were hurt in battle. You needn't hide that from me."
"I wasn't going to," he protested quietly, amazed at how well she could read him, and that she'd obviously convinced Quintus to tell her what had happened on the field earlier that day. With a half-hearted smile, he made a mental note never to try to get anything past her brilliant mind.
"Pride just kept you from opening your mouth until I mentioned it," she countered.
Maximus nodded reluctantly, noticing her concerned look. "I'll be fine."
Lucilla snorted and glared for a moment, then her tone and face softened. "He had you tortured, Maximus," she said quietly.
All emotion left his voice as a thousand images and memories assaulted his mind. Angrily, he pushed them away. Now was not the time for that. The past was the past. "Yes," he said shortly.
"You cannot tell me that it did not hurt you," Lucilla said gently, the care in her voice slicing neatly through his cold reserve. "Not after what you have been through during the past year."
A denial came immediately to mind, but he pushed it back. No secrets, remember, Maximus? an inner voice demanded. You promised yourself that. True love has no secrets worth keeping, unless you want to lose her again. "No, I cannot."
"Do you want to talk about it?" she asked.
He turned away, and his eyes focused on the far wall. The memories rose, and this time, would not go away. "No."
Even while not looking at her, Maximus could feel her displeasure. No, displeasure was not the right word – his lack of trust had hurt her again, dammit. He'd once been so good at that, long ago… But he hadn't meant to hurt her. And he didn't really mistrust her. Maximus just didn't want to talk about it. Now angry with himself, he shook his head wearily.
"I'm sorry," the general said quietly. "I am not myself…"
"Aren't you?" she wondered. "Stubborn, strong, trying to do everything alone…" Gentle fingers brushed his cheeks. "You are not alone, Maximus. And you cannot fight this battle by yourself."
Inside, he knew she was right, but painful pride kept him from admitting anything of the sort. Circumstances and memories made him want to keep the most recent pain locked deep inside; once already, he had lived through and healed from hell, with only the help of a good man to see him through and preserve his sanity. Now, though, the father he knew was gone, and even though he trusted Lucilla, loved Lucilla, she did not and could not know what had happened all those years ago in Germania…. And to tell her of recent memories meant to relive and explain the past.
That darkness, though, was something he'd never wanted to touch again.
Only in recent days, he'd been forced to face it repeatedly – first by Commodus and his ruthless enforcers, and now by Lucilla, who, though she meant well, still could hurt him greatly.
"I know," he finally replied. "There are just many things in my life that I have told so few… Not even my wife, when she asked."
Her quiet voice startled him. "Germania."
Eyes snapping up to meet hers, Maximus' heart did a backflip in his chest. How did she…?
"I was at the camp, for a time," the princess replied. "With Verus. But I sat at your bedside while you fought to live…even when the doctors said you had no chance."
Emotion and old memories threatening to overcome him, Maximus whispered, "I did not know."
Somehow the past and the present were linking together – in ways he had never thought possible, and so many heartrending disappointments were slowly yet surely fading into nothingness with so few words…It suddenly felt good for her to know, to understand. Somehow, it made him feel so less alone in an otherwise dark and cruel seeming world. No longer were his dreadful secrets his alone. He needed not to rip another hole in his already shredded heart to reveal that old truth.
"You had no reason to. I begged my father not to tell you."
"Why?" His voice carried very softly now, as memories tumbled through his soul for two reasons – once, for the past, and again, for the man whom had helped him through it.
"Because it could have only made us both do what I longed for," Lucilla admitted. "I was married, and I was afraid."
Her eyes met his. "To admit that I still loved you."
Maximus closed his eyes, remembering back to a time he'd all but blocked from his soul. Before this moment, he had never wanted to remember those experiences again, but now it was suddenly very important to know. "I awoke once," he said quietly. "I thought I saw you… I heard your voice, telling me not to die. But I slipped back into unconsciousness, and when I opened my eyes, you were not there. So I thought I had been dreaming."
Again, her lips brushed against his cheek before she gently wrapped her arms around his neck. "I'll never be a dream again, Maximus," Lucilla said.
Maximus leaned into her touch, opening his eyes to gaze upon her beautiful face. Tears were rising in his eyes, born of emotions he had forced to lie dormant for too long. "I love you," he whispered.
"And I you."
"Are you going to be my new father?" Lucius asked suddenly, his bright eyes focused unwaveringly on the general. Though the question alone was unsettling enough, what really threw Maximus was the hope in the young prince's eyes.
"I don't know," he replied honestly, a lump forming in the back of his throat. Are you going to be my new son? Could anything ever replace the loved ones you lost in life? This was his first time alone with Lucilla's son, and he'd have readily acknowledged that he hardly knew the child. While he'd immediately been struck by Lucius' resemblance to his own lost son, once upon a time, it was impossible to suppose that either of them could be what the other needed.
Of course, he could have told Lucius that, but surprise had wrought a far different answer from him. Impossible, yes; improbable, true, yet at that point, the former gladiator was sure of very little.
Lucius looked up at him, somehow capturing the older man's eyes with his own. "I'd like it if you were," he said openly. "I barely knew my father, but you're nicer than he was. Mother likes you a lot, too."
And there was the common thread linking man to boy – Lucilla. The very thought of her was enough to make Maximus' heart warm. The past had been always cruel to him in terms of relationships, yet he had finally and conclusively found love anew. As they grew closer, he knew that Lucius, the light of his mother's eye, was included in the bargain, but he had not thought through the consequences until slapped in the face with them. Although it didn't surprise him, it did frighten him, inwardly, for Maximus was unsure how much his heart was willing to accept.
"I like her, too," he finally replied quietly, not knowing what else to say.
Suddenly, Lucius tugged on his hand. "Do you like me, Maximus?"
Turning, the general dropped down to the young prince's level to look him in the eye. "Of course I like you, Lucius," he said sincerely. "I like you very much…. Only sometimes, you remind me of the son I lost, and that saddens me."
"I'm sorry," the boy whispered.
Placing a hand on Lucius' shoulder, Maximus half-smiled for him. He wasn't lying; he had already become very fond of the boy. The words, however, came far easier than he could have ever expected. "It's not your fault," he said. "Around you, I just remember what it felt like to be a father."
The prince's answering smile was sad. "Do you like to remember that?" he wondered.
Despair warred with hope for an instant; past fought with present for control; but suddenly, the world fell into place. Ruffling the boy's hair playfully, Maximus rose. "Yes, I do," he replied. "And I tell you what – if you are willing to get to know me, I'm willing to get to know you, and then we can find out what will happen."
Lucius beamed. "Can we?"
Maximus let the demons float away once and for all. No longer were they needed, and no longer would their presence be tolerated. First Lucilla, and now her son, had showed him that there was life left to be had. The least he could do was take the chance, and help a young boy avoid a childhood as lonely as his own had once been. There were a million things he might have said, but there was one he knew would take the first step.
"Would you like to go riding, Lucius?"
Lucius lay on the floor in a decidedly un-royal pose, his head resting contentedly on the snoring wolf's furry right side. The boys' chest rose and fell in tandem with Skelton's as he slept, completely trusting, exhausted, and unafraid.
"He is so happy," his mother said from where she sat, curled up in Maximus' arms with her head resting on his shoulder. "Thank you."
Lightly pressing his lips to her forehead, Maximus replied, "As am I… With you, and with him, I am finding something I thought I lost forever."
"As I am with you," Lucilla replied, snuggling closer to him. But then her tone of voice changed, became quieter. "Sometimes I am so afraid that this is but a dream, and I will wake again under my brother's thumb."
"Dreams only die if you let them," Maximus replied quietly. "And I'm not going anywhere."
She laughed a little. "I would not let you if you tried."
"Nice to know that we finally agree, isn't it?" the general said lightly.
"Better than the past, at least," Lucilla replied. The princess was silent for a long moment, then asked, "Maximus?"
"Will you promise me something?"
"Of course." Whatever of the world that was his to command he would have willfully laid in her hands. Anything…everything…He would give it all for her. If her dreams lay within his power, he would ensure that they came true.
"Let's never walk away again," Lucilla said quietly. "Never again let pride stand in the way of love."
Instead of replying, he gently cupped her chin in his fingertips and kissed her. Quickly, their passion overtook them, and as he wrapped his arms tightly around her, Maximus felt Lucilla do the same. Fire danced and the world spun, but neither cared for the outside environment, until the need for air finally forced them apart. Breathlessly, they smiled into each other's eyes, like guilty teenagers sharing a first embrace. In the back of their minds, they both wondered if love could always be so sweet.
"I promise," Maximus replied.
Some things never die.