Echoes in Eternity
Part one: Germania
Unable to sleep, Maximus tossed and turned for hours, his head spinning wildly with duties, desires and decisions. Outside, his army still celebrated, but he paid their noise little heed – there were much more important matters occupying his mind. His emperor had asked him to do something he had never even considered in his dreams or his most painful nightmares. Now weighing upon him was a responsibility he did not want, a responsibility that was heavier than the burden of commanding the entire 186,000-man Northern Army; it weighed heavier than that of being Caesar's general and his sole military advisor for the entire empire. What he had been asked to do was an incredible vision in itself and a dream Maximus was unsure he could fulfill… Though, in his heart, he knew that no one else could. Like his emperor, Maximus shuddered at the thought of the empire writhing under Commodus' hard heel. Perversely, that only made things harder, though, not easier.
If any man other than Marcus Aurelius had asked this of him, Maximus knew he would have said no. One thousand times no, with all his heart no, not in this lifetime or in any other – but Marcus had asked him. Marcus had asked him to complete his life's work, to bear the burden that had been weighing on the old man's heart for so long. In good conscience, Maximus could not refuse – yet all he wanted to do was go home. He was tired of fighting, tired of bearing responsibilities he had never once asked for; he only wanted to go home and start over. Since losing his wife over three years before in a freak disaster of nature and regretfully leaving his son in the care of his sister, he had not left the front lines once returning. All he wanted now was to go home to the boy he remembered so well, to watch him grow and change, to give him the love and parenting he needed. His own childhood had been rough enough. There was no need to subject his own son to something of the sort Maximus had known.
Twenty-four hours before, that had not seemed like much to ask, but now his dreams lay shattered beneath those of a greater man. His yearnings paled in comparison with the vision Marcus Aurelius had revealed to him.
For the thousandth time, he asked himself, Why me? Unfortunately, he knew the answer to that timeless question. Years of friendship and trust lay between himself and Marcus, years of depending unconditionally upon one another when the rest of the world refused to cooperate. Once more, his emperor was depending upon him – and he knew it, though Marcus had not been cruel enough to phrase it that way. Just so, he also knew he was fighting the truth. "By sunset, I hope you will have agreed." Marcus Aurelius knew his general too well; Maximus could no sooner refuse him this than he could harm the kind old man whom he loved as a father.
And so why do I still sit here and stare? he asked himself with a frown.
Because I don't want this. I didn't ask for this! Still, it was useless to fight his sense of duty – Rome and Marcus were all he had left in an otherwise dark and cruel world. He could not, and would not, let either one down. Swallowing, he closed his eyes for a brief and peaceful moment – the last, he was sure, for some time to come. Why wait? Maximus had never been known for hesitation in a crucial moment, and his instincts told him that now was not a good time to start.
Maximus rolled out of bed. He had a duty to Rome.
Fully armored, he made his way through his army's camp, barely acknowledging the greetings offered by his officers and men. Too much was on his mind; the decision may have been made, but that did not lessen the consequences that came with it. He knew full well the price of what he would do; however, he would not turn back now. Once committed, Maximus never faltered.
Nearing the network of Imperial tents, he brushed past the praetorians guarding them with hardly a second look. Several glared at him in annoyance, but not one objected. Few could simply enter the emperor's tent unbidden, but Maximus could, and the guards knew it. Though the emperor's private guard might not have liked him – and many detested the fact that a Spaniard could hold Caesar's ear so – they knew better than to stop him. Rumor said that the general could be downright vicious when provoked, and each knew from long experience that the emperor would side with his general without so much as a second thought or even bothering to ask what had happened. Two of the men exchanged worried glances – not every day did Maximus simply storm by them wordlessly, and they wondered if this might have to do with the earlier summons the general had received. Hopefully, one mused, the Spaniard was losing his grip on the emperor's mind.
Upon reaching the entrance to Marcus' tent, Maximus paused for a moment and glanced up at the gray Germanian sky, searching for answers and asking himself for the last time if he was doing the right thing. In this last instant of indecision, an unusual sound caught his attention – and that he could not immediately identify its source put him on guard. Slightly muffled, it seemed almost to be the sound of a struggle –
His battle-homed subconscious jolted him forward before he totally comprehended the horror of what he heard. Though he rushed inside the tent wary for any attack, what he found was far from what he could possibly have expected. His brain digested the situation in quick, small gasps – Commodus holding the emperor – Marcus struggling against him – the sick sounds of a strangling man barely emerging from beneath the rich folds of Commodus' tunic – No! –
Without hesitation, he seized the emperor's son by the shoulder and violently threw him backwards. Not pausing to notice where the younger man fell, Maximus caught his emperor before the old man collapsed, struggling for air. Concern for Marcus filled Maximus, not just for the emperor he had sworn to serve, but for the friend who lay limp in his arms. To make matters even worse, Marcus had been unwell already, suffering from the infernal Germanian winter...
"Caesar?" he gasped, the situation suddenly becoming painfully clear in his mind. By the gods, no… Do not let this happen. Please do not let this happen!
Marcus coughed, strained to answer – but an angry roar ripped Maximus' attention away from him. Like a madman, Commodus launched himself at his old rival, his rage stealing away any control he might have possessed. Furiously, the general shot to his feet and ruthlessly backhanded the younger man twice in quick succession, not caring that he was the prince of Rome – all that mattered was that he knew Commodus had tried to kill his father. The other landed hard upon one of the campaign tables in the tent, shattering it beyond all repair, and lay still.
Turning back to Marcus, Maximus noticed that the emperor was still struggling to breathe. As close to panic as he had been in years, the general shouted to the guards he knew were outside. "Medic!"
That done, he quickly lifted the frail old man into his arms and carried him to the bed across the chamber, setting him gently down upon the sheets. Six praetorians altered by his command rushed into the tent, two of their number stopping to help the bloodied prince to his feet. "What happened?" one dared to ask.
Maximus, kneeling by Marcus' side, one arm still locked behind his fragile shoulders, hardly heard the question and did not bother to reply. His eyes were riveted on the emperor's face as the older man stubbornly fought death off. Heart pounding, Maximus prayed a silent prayer for the emperor's life, desperately hoping that Marcus could prevail against impossible odds just one last time. Across the tent, Commodus, took complete advantage of the confusion. "Father!" he cried, suddenly becoming the innocent and caring son for his audience.
The guards gave way as he rushed to his father's side, but Maximus, unfooled, spun to face Commodus, seized him in an iron grip, and whipped a dagger's blade to his throat. "Come one step closer to him and I will kill you," he whispered, his voice all the more dangerous for its softness.
Frightened shock played all over the prince's features. Though he had known and hated Maximus for years, he had not expected this of all treatments. "How dare you…!" Alarmed, the praetorians made a move to defend their emperor's son, but the entering medic interrupted their actions. Maximus shoved Commodus back into the arms of his taken aback guard and turned to the physician, icy command in his voice. "See to the emperor."
Wide-eyed and anxious, Marcus' doctor moved quickly to the bedside and the ailing monarch it held. Maximus did not watch him; his narrowed eyes were focused on Commodus and the guards, for he knew that the emperor's son would not let it end there, and he knew which side the praetorians would take –
He was right, of course. "Arrest him!" Commodus spat at the praetorians as soon as he'd found the courage to speak and had clumsily wiped at his bloody face. Ironically enough, given the seriousness of the situation, Maximus found irrelevantly himself hoping that the little twit's nose was broken. That was the least of what he deserved.
"Highness?" one of the praetorians questioned the order in confusion. Maximus was, after all, Caesar's general, and despite the frictions always present between the praetorians and the legions, one did not cross those lines lightly, if one expected to hold onto one's precious job.
Just then, Quintus entered the tent, also alerted by Maximus' earlier shout. His gaze darted between his general, the prince, and the guards. Disaster was brewing in the atmosphere. "Maximus, what's going on here?" he asked warily.
"I said arrest him!" Commodus screeched. Maximus tensed for action, dagger still in his right hand and knowing the prince's deadly plan. The only thing he was sure of at the moment was that he could not leave Marcus alone – and that doing so would sign the old man's death warrant.
Two praetorians stepped forward cautiously; they knew a warrior when they saw one and were not anxious to fight the general whose exploits on the battlefield were legendary. Orders were orders, however, and they had been given them.
"Maximus?" a weak voice suddenly beckoned from the bed, halting the praetorians in mid stride. They looked at the general warily, but made no move to stop him as he turned his back on them. Swallowing his anger, Maximus quickly knelt by his friend's side, letting the dagger fall from his hand to the floor.
"Caesar?" he replied quietly.
Marcus shifted feebly and, understanding, Maximus clasped his hand in his own. Strong eyes looked out from the otherwise frail face that the general riveted his gaze on, level and focused. "Commodus," the emperor gasped, "must not rule."
"Yes, sire," Maximus replied without a second thought. There was no denying that now, just as there was no denying what had passed in that tent brief moments before. He had a duty to perform for Rome, and he would see it through, consequences be damned. Marcus was depending upon him, and he could no sooner disappoint his emperor than he could kill himself.
Relief creased the old man's face for an instant. "You must – " he began, but the remaining words were dissolved into hacking coughs as a spasm shook Marcus' body. Maximus apprehensively held his breath as the emperor fought death back once more. Finally, Marcus' breathing steadied slightly, though was still incredibly weak. It was far too soon, he knew, for any discussions to take place. If only Marcus would realize that…
The medic at his side touched his shoulder nervously. "General, you should not talk to him now – "
Maximus cut him off with a curt nod. "He is right, Caesar," he said quietly, meeting Marcus' stubborn gaze. "We will talk of this later."
Albeit frowning, the emperor nodded tiredly in agreement, his eyes still locked on his general. Maximus looked back steadily, trying to lend the old man strength through the mere force of his will. Marcus could not die now – there was too much to be said, too much to be done – and Maximus had lost far too many friends in battle to want to lose the man he was closest to of all. Only now, when it was almost too late, was he realizing how much the old man meant to him. Or perhaps, he inwardly amended, only now was he admitting it.
Weakly squeezing Maximus' hand, Marcus looked beyond him, and Maximus followed his gaze as the emperor focused on the ranking praetorian in the tent. "Captain," Marcus rasped.
"Sire?" the man stepped forward anxiously.
"Follow General Maximus' orders as you would my own," the emperor commanded.
The captain bobbed his head in acknowledgement. "Sire." Out of the corner of his eye, Maximus spotted Commodus staring lividly at his father. Did he know? Had he heard? Or had Marcus told him and unwittingly started this all? The general was willing to bet that he had, and that matters could only get more complicated now.
"I trust you to do what must be done," Marcus said quietly, his voice hardly a hoarse whisper. Swallowing, Maximus turned back to him, feeling the burdens he had never wanted come crashing down upon his shoulders. But he had accepted them, and he was no stranger to responsibility. He nodded once in response, and watched the emperor close his eyes, finally relaxing now that he need no longer worry for Rome. Sleep came quickly to him.
For a long moment, Maximus let his eyes rest upon the old man's peaceful features. He always thought of Rome first – never anything else, not even himself or his family. Marcus was a wise man but not an overly proud one, and he had always put his people first. Even though he was the most powerful man in the world, Marcus had always stressed that he was just a man, and had tried to ensure that the citizens of Rome were treated justly and fairly, and protected from those who would do them harm. Over the years he had known him, Maximus had never known the emperor fail his people in any way. Wars had been fought when a single tribe of barbarians invaded remote sections of the empire, because nowhere was too remote to protect, Marcus always said. Every citizen living within his boarders deserved peace and respect. Inside, Maximus had to wonder if he could ever live up to his surrogate father's legacy. In his heart, he knew he would try.
But first he would ensure that Marcus did not die today.
A thought occurred to him that he did not particularly like but knew to be legitimate; he knew one way for Commodus to still kill his father. Looking to the emperor's physician beside him, he kept his gaze as cold as the ice he felt in his gut. "If he dies, you die," he whispered, just so only the medic could hear him. The small man's eyes grew large and he bobbed his head up and down in fearful acknowledgement. Staring hard at him for several long seconds, Maximus read the other's face and knew he was too scared to do any less than his best to save the emperor's life.
Finally, he stood and turned to the suspicious guards, the infuriated prince, and his bewildered friend. Though their expressions differed greatly, all their eyes all followed him closely, awaiting his move, since virtually the power of the entire empire was at his fingertips. Fortunately, he did not give them long to fidget. Maximus' eyes focused on Commodus as he spoke.
"Quintus," he commanded, "escort the prince to his tent and post a guard. No one enters and he does not leave."
"Maximus, are you sure this is prudent – " his second in command began warily.
"You have your orders," Maximus said flatly, still looking at Commodus, awaiting the unavoidable protests.
"You have no authority over me, General," Commodus said arrogantly. His chin practically touched the sky in his effort to look down upon his father's officer. The praetorians beside him shifted uncertainly, not knowing if to defend him or not. Maximus did not give them the chance to decide. He stepped close to the prince, looking down at him menacingly from his few inches worth of greater height.
"Either go willingly or I'll have you knocked out and dragged," he threatened matter of factly.
In reward for his warning, Commodus sputtered in astonishment, easily losing the control he had always bragged about having but had never truly possessed. "You wouldn't dare," he objected.
"Wouldn't I?" Maximus challenged. Their eyes locked in mutual hatred, and Maximus knew it was only a matter of time before one of them acted upon their long years of animosity. At the moment, however, he had the upper hand, and the conceited prince was well aware of it. Scowling, Commodus spun on his heel to storm out of the tent, followed closely by Quintus.
Not bothering to watch his dramatic exit, Maximus turned to the praetorian commander. "Supervise the guard outside this tent yourself," he ordered. "No one enters or leaves without my permission."
The man, he saw – making a mental note to learn the captain's name – had the good sense not to argue with an irate general invested with the emperor's powers. He merely nodded and gestured his guards out. "Yes, sir." As they left him alone with the emperor and his physician, Maximus finally allowed his eyes to close briefly in relief. Marcus was safe; Rome was safe – for now.
Unbidden, a terrible thought rose to mind: What if I had not stopped Commodus? He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat as he considered the worst possibilities. Marcus would be dead, he knew. And so would I, probably, for hesitating before I gave him my answer, because no one else would have known. What of Rome then?
Like a stage tragedy, events played through his mind as they might have been. Would Commodus have simply killed him, or would he have demanded the loyalty he knew he could never have? What then, of the empire he had fought to defend for over half his life? Would anyone have had the courage to stand up to the fiend that would be emperor? In his heart, he knew the answer was no.
Opening his eyes, Maximus turned to look at Marcus' peaceful, sleeping face once more. The hopes of Rome all rested in that fragile, willful, old monarch. He was the one man who could bring justice and peace to an empire that seemed, to Maximus, to be falling apart at the joints. Yet, ironically enough, Marcus' hopes all rested upon him, a Spanish general who had never once been to Rome. For the sake of Rome, he knew, he had to protect Caesar. Even stronger than his duty to the empire, however, was his love for Marcus. No one would harm the emperor while he lived. Especially not his beast of a son.
"I do not care what orders you have been given, Captain," her furious voice commanded. "I will see my father. Now move aside."
The praetorian's response was politely firm, although clearly unnerved. "I am very sorry, My Lady, but the general said that no one can enter or – "
"I do not care what General Maximus told you. I am the Princess of Rome and my father, the emperor, is ill. I wish to see him." Lucilla's declaration jolted Maximus out of his quiet, solitary, watch of the sleeping emperor. Throughout the night and well into the morning, he had been by the old man's side and had watched Marcus' occasional tossing and turning with worry. Now that the emperor was at peace, he'd not have the spoiled princess interrupting him, no matter how well she meant.
Unless, of course, she was on Commodus' side. That would bear watching and caution. Damn her ability to lie and seem innocent, to control and manipulate. Once he had known her so well… but time, Maximus suspected, had changed Lucilla far more than it had altered him. And there had surely been plenty of time since they had known each other so intimately. On guard, then.
He rose quickly and stepped outside the tent before she could raise more of a ruckus – something, he knew, Lucilla Aurelius was far too talented at doing far too effectively. Temper tantrums seemed to be the one thing she and Commodus had in common. Forestalling the overmatched captain's answer, he placed a hand on the man's shoulder. Poor fellow; he'd never have been up to a sparing match with the fiery princess, though he'd certainly have tried valiantly before failing. She was far too quick and sharp of the tongue to be beaten with anything other than common sense and pure stubbornness. Besides, he had an advantage – he didn't work for her.
"Can I help you, My Lady?" Maximus asked quietly, before she could speak. It had once been a game between them to find out who could get the first word in, but now it was no contest, only a possibly deadly match.
Lucilla was clearly having none of politeness and glared daggers at him. "Maximus. You can let me see my father."
Another man might have been bullied by the superior look, but he'd seen her more angry before, and the arrogance merely rolled right off of him. "He is sleeping."
The beautiful eyebrows arched skeptically. "And why do you stay? And why is my brother under arrest?"
Willfully committing a breach of protocol, Maximus took her by the arm and led her inside the tent – far enough away to not disturb Marcus, provided they were quiet, yet also away from the prying eyes and curious ears of the rest of the camp. Trusting Lucilla would not come easily to him, if at all, but she did deserve to know what had happened, for better or for worse. Besides he'd never acquired her comfort with lying… He turned to look her directly in the eye.
"Commodus tried to kill your father," Maximus replied.
"What?" she gasped, but he saw her mind working even as her eyes filled with concern. Lucilla knew he'd not lie to her. Maximus never had; now he only nodded silently, reading her face carefully – perhaps she'd not changed as much as he'd thought. Perhaps she was not heartless or cold, for the shock and fear were obvious. Lucilla cared a great deal about her father; she always had. "Why?" the princess whispered.
All too conscious of how her blue eyes were searching his face, Maximus broke his gaze from her's for a moment. Did he dare to tell the truth? Or was it really not his story to tell? For once in his life, he could not find the answers he sought. Such indecisiveness was virtually unknown to him; Maximus was accustomed to being a man of action – and inwardly, he cursed the fact that it was happening just when he needed it the least. However, the general pushed his frustration aside and replied:
"You will have to ask him that."
"Is he all right?" Lucilla asked quietly.
Maximus nodded again. "He will be."
"But you are worried," the princess stated, bringing a slight frown to his face and earning herself a sharp look. She could always read him far too well for comfort. Lucilla knew his mind merely from the look in his eyes; he had never been able to hide much around her.
"Yes," Maximus admitted, allowing his temper to dissipate. Anger was not worth the energy it consumed. "Your father is… fragile, as you said."
Lucilla's eyes softened. "You will watch him?"
A slight smile creased his face as he replied, "Always." For a moment, it was as if nothing had changed; he felt as if pride and politics hadn't ripped them apart all those years ago… Yet some things died forever, even when they died hard. The look in her eyes, however, said that she had little intention of letting the sleeping lie in peace – and that, perhaps, her heart was beating as wildly as his.
"Thank you," Lucilla said. She might have gone on – and they might have both tempted the fates and their pasts – had a weak voice from the emperor's sleeping chamber not interrupted them both and replace the division between them.
"Maximus?" Marcus called softly.
Immediately, the general turned and strode back to his emperor's side, his mind far removed from the – possible – emotions of only seconds before. "Caesar?" he asked, dropping to one knee upon reaching the bedside.
A thin smile lit Marcus' lined face. "You stayed here, didn't you?" he asked.
The old man frowned slightly with disapproval but let it pass. He knew his general far too well to expect otherwise. "Sit, Maximus," the emperor said quietly. "Don't kneel." As Maximus pulled a nearby chair to the bedside, Marcus asked, "Who were you talking to?"
A quick glance over his shoulder revealed Lucilla's continued presence; she was discreetly peeking around the corner into her father's bedchamber, her face still marked with concern.
"Your daughter," Maximus replied unnecessarily, knowing that Marcus had followed his gaze before the old man gestured to his daughter and she approached. The princess gingerly settled herself at her father's side.
"What happened?" Lucilla asked quietly.
"Commodus tried to kill me," Marcus replied with his characteristic bluntness. "Maximus stopped him, and saved my life."
At those words – which he'd carefully left unsaid earlier – Maximus felt Lucilla's eyes on him, but he purposefully did not look at her. Instead, he continued to watch the emperor. It was far easier than dealing with the questions he knew would be on her face. "Why?" Lucilla asked her father after a moment of silence.
The emperor was silent for a moment, seemingly considering what to tell his beautiful daughter. Knowing his difficulties and seeking to make it easier, Maximus began to rise. Marcus grabbed his arm to stop him. "Stay, Maximus."
He settled back into the chair, keenly aware of Marcus' hand on his arm. Did the old man not trust his daughter, or did he merely want Maximus at his side as he told her of his intentions? Either was possible, and though Maximus had little desire to be reminded of what he had promised to do, he knew that its explanation was inevitable. Finally, Marcus continued:
"I told Commodus that he will not be emperor."
To her credit, Lucilla seemed relatively unsurprised. She knew both her father and her brother – and also knew what a disappointment the latter had always been to the former. Unfortunately, the princess also knew politics. "Who have you chosen?" she asked.
The emperor drew in a weak breath, and Maximus was tempted to suggest that they continue this conversation another time, but he knew that Marcus would never allow it. Once the old man had made a decision, it took an act of the gods and the senate to get him to reverse it – and even that only worked about half the time. Marcus Aurelius was one of the most stubborn and strong men on the earth; Maximus knew he would have only been wasting his breath, so he kept his peace and let Marcus speak. "Rome is to be a republic again."
"If no one man holds power, all will reach for it," Lucilla replied immediately.
"That is why I have asked Maximus to become the Protector of Rome when I die," the emperor said. "He will give the power back to the people… and end the corruption that has crippled the empire."
Lucilla glanced at her father's general, and then frowned slightly as her mind digested the information. Politically speaking, she was an absolute genius, surpassing even her father with her instincts and experience in the political arena. "What if it does not work?"
"Then Maximus will succeed me as the emperor of Rome."
Maximus looked at the old man in shock – this was something they had not discussed. He had no desire for power, for Rome… only to fulfill a dream that had been whispered to him and then go home. What if it does not work? What if he, who had never even been to Rome, was forced to become her emperor…? No, forced was the wrong word. He always could have said no. And somewhere, in the back of his mind, he had always known of that possibility. He just hadn't wanted to consider it until now – and Maximus still did not want to face it. He shook his head slightly, silently pleading with Marcus that it not be so.
"It must be," Marcus said quietly, reading him perfectly. "Commodus must not rule."
And what would make me better than him? Maximus wanted to demand. Why would I be a more just ruler? I don't want this! But he remained silent, not asking the questions that needed to be asked, for he already knew the answers that he did not want to consider. Does every child dream of this? I never did. Does every general watch and wait for the right opportunity to take it? I never have. So why is it that I have a feeling that Marcus' dream will fail and that I will end up where I have never even imagined being? Finally, he nodded slowly in response to the emperor's unasked request. Would he do it? Yes – and he would hate every moment of it.
Lucilla broke the uneasy silence. "Why are you telling me this?"
Marcus sighed tiredly, and again, Maximus wanted to tell him to rest, though he knew the old man would refuse. "So that Commodus can not act with immunity. So that someone else knows…" The emperor closed his eyes briefly, clearly fighting fatigue back.
"You need to rest," the princess said suddenly. "We can talk of this some other time."
Before Maximus could breath a sigh of relief, Marcus' eyes popped open and he shook his head. "Not yet," he disagreed. "I need you to do something for me first."
"Of course," Lucilla said immediately, obviously hoping to placate her father enough so that he would rest, but Marcus' eyes were on Maximus.
"Both of you," the emperor said.
The general nodded his assent, not even pausing to wonder what he would have him do – for even if he'd had second thoughts, what could be worse that what Marcus had already asked? His loyalty, anyway, was absolute, for he'd not begin failing the emperor now. The old man studied his daughter and his general for several long moments, and then finally continued. "I want the two of you to marry."
Lucilla beat Maximus to it, but just barely. "What?" she gasped. They looked at each other in shock, then back to the emperor again. Years ago, they would have jumped at the opportunity – but what of now? Now? Too much time had passed since they had even spoken, truly spoken; it had been longer since they had loved. Once they had been closer than friends, more than lovers… but now they had both changed. Although Maximus knew his heart was beating wildly at the thought of a second chance – how many second chances was one offered in a lifetime, anyway? – he also knew that too much time had passed. Stubborn pride and anger had driven them apart, too far apart… And the pain of losing her had driven him straight into marriage with a woman he barely knew.
Selene had been different from Lucilla in every possible way; perhaps that was exactly what he had been searching for. The last thing he had needed was to be reminded of his lost love. She had been quiet, laid back, easy to get a long with – nothing like the stubborn, beautiful, and willful daughter of Marcus Aurelius. Whereas Maximus and Lucilla had been able to argue for hours on end about the least important of subjects, he and Selene almost never fought. They had each been willing to leave each other's habits well enough alone, to exist separately while together – theirs had been a low-maintenance marriage. Neither had ever required too much of the other's time. He had loved her, of course, but never in the all-consuming way that he had loved Lucilla. Still, to speak with the princess always had meant to reopen his heart, to reopen old wounds – and he did not know if he could do that again. Maximus didn't know if it was worth the risk of losing himself once more.
When Lucilla spoke again, her voice was level and rational, betraying none of the emotion she had to feel – none of the emotion he irrationally hoped she felt. "Father, we lost what we had long ago," she said reasonably.
Something sharp seemed to stab into his heart with her words; why it hurt so much he did not know; Maximus would have said the same himself. Marcus, however, was hearing none of the arguments or caring for their emotions, no matter how pent-up, destroyed, or nonexistent they were. The old man's tired glare turned angered.
"Then find it," he demanded. "If not for yourselves, find it for Rome. She will need you both now."
"Father, you are not – "
Marcus cut her off with a shake of his head. "I am dying," he said gently. "We cannot deny it after what has happened. But I can choose the legacy that I leave behind, and I choose you – both of you."
Maximus swallowed uneasily. The emperor was asking for more than his loyalty, now; he was asking for his heart. Although he loved the old man like a father, he was unsure that it was enough for this. Maximus could not love Lucilla for Marcus' sake… only for her. And that, he knew, could become the most heart-breaking thing of all. Finally, he dared to look up at the princess, and to his surprise, found all his worries and fears mirrored in her blue eyes. But there was also hope, something he'd dared not to feel…
"I know I ask much," Marcus continued, looking now to his general. "If Rome… cannot be changed, you will need help, Maximus. And this is the easiest way to ensure your claim to the throne." The tired eyes flickered between them both. "I know you loved once… could you not again?"
Their eyes locked – could they not again? Often times, it took risk to gain much. The problem was willingness to take that chance. For a moment, neither of them moved or even dared to breathe – would they have the courage to tempt the fates? All Maximus was conscious of was the pounding of his heart in his ears and the fact that his face was suddenly growing warm with a smile that threatened to break through his uncertainty. With this thrust upon them, they suddenly again shared fears and worries, dreams and hopes… perhaps time had not wrought such changes after all. There was, though, only one way to find out. Tentatively, Maximus reached out and took Lucilla's hand in his own.
When she smiled, his heart quieted its pounding and almost stopped altogether. In some impossible way, it was worth the chance again. Maximus finally replied to Marcus' question for them both. "Yes," he whispered.
A grin lit the emperor's face, but disappeared quickly beneath his weariness. "Then let an old man sleep in peace knowing that."
They both nodded and rose, hands still joined; in silent accord they moved around the corner, to the same place where they had argued only minutes before. How strange, it suddenly was, to be on the same side again. Lucilla slipped her hand from his and looked away. "This is strange," she commented.
"Yes," Maximus agreed. How strange, and how ironic, he suspected only they would ever know. An awkward silence descended upon them then, as they both came to terms with what Maximus had committed them to doing. Inwardly, he wondered if he had made the right choice – his emotions had driven him to it, but it had been a long time since he had let his emotions govern his actions. What in the world were they doing? What in the world would they become – together?
"Tell me, Maximus," Lucilla finally whispered. "How did we fall out of love? It all seems so foolish to me now."
The general swallowed. How many times, years ago, had he rehearsed this conversation in his head, only to never have the courage to say I'm sorry? Now years later and changes past, it was all coming down to this. Silently, he vowed to never let his pride step between him and his love again. "We didn't," Maximus answered slowly. "We just led ourselves to believe that we had. Stubbornness and anger drove us apart. We were too proud to apologize."
Lucilla finally looked up at him, her eyes again searching his face hopefully. "I know. But I would apologize now."
"As would I," Maximus replied, trying vainly to ignore the pounding of his heart. How many times had he dreamed of making this right? But now that the moment had arrived, he had never felt so unsure of himself. "And now we are older. Does that make us wiser, or just more afraid?"
"A little of both, I would think." She smiled nervously. "I don't know what to do."
"Neither do I," he admitted.
Suddenly she stepped close to him, her eyes still searching his face. He met her gaze levelly, knowing that every dream he'd ever dared to have was now coming back into his heart. "I don't want to lose you again," Lucilla whispered.
"Then don't." Could it be so simple? He did not know, nor did he give either of them time to find out. He just kissed her instead, and found himself unsurprised when she returned his unchecked passion with her own. The years seemed to melt away between them, and all that mattered was that moment, and each other.