You Have to Decide…
Which Dreams to Follow, and Which to Leave Behind
PART ONE: "WHO KNOWS NO FEAR"
Hope… It seemed like such a foreign word to him. His world had fallen apart at the seams again, once more – just as he had once again begun to believe. Why had he risked it? What had made him turn from the simple path of vengeance? How had he been convinced that there was once again something worth fighting for? Where had he gone wrong in finding and following that dream?
Who had made him do it? Did it matter? The answer was so utterly clear now that he had failed. Yes, it all mattered. Everything mattered – justice, freedom, truth, and Rome. Rome above all; or almost above all. But Rome hadn't made him do it. Rome, though she had pleaded with him to fulfill her dream, had not cried loud enough. The people, their suffering, and even his love for Marcus Aurelius had not been enough. No, there was a far more important reason. Her. Lucilla.
Only now could he truly admit to himself that he loved her once more – still, yet, again. Had he ever stopped? Probably not. Pain and pride had been the reason they'd been driven apart, never a lack of love. Love they had possessed in abundance. Maybe they had loved too much to see clearly that their own actions doomed them. Whatever the reasons for their downfall, the past was the past. They could not change it.
Or could they?
It had seemed so, in that brief moment only hours before. Now it seemed a lifetime ago when he had held her close for mere seconds that had lasted forever. They had both expected to find a second chance in life, in each other, in the days to come. It mattered not if she had betrayed him – for surely, she had – love had once more touched him. He knew Lucilla had been driven to betrayal to protect her son. He understood, and she had awakened something long dormant. Maximus had, for the first time since he had seen his family dead, hoped. Now he just awaited death.
Commodus had no choice but to kill him. He had inspired a conspiracy against the young emperor, and, worse yet, become a symbol of everything Commodus was not. People would have followed him willingly, even rejoiced in his victory over the ruler of Rome. Now, though that had been stopped, Commodus had no choice but to rid himself of Maximus as quickly as possible, lest others follow him or his army learn where he was. His mistakes had doomed more than himself, the general knew, but he was now powerless to change things and unable to influence anyone but himself. His life lay in Commodus' hands, but he'd be damned if he'd die the way the emperor wanted… whatever that was.
Searing pain from his back jerked him from his reverie. In surprise, he almost cried out, yet bit his tongue as he remembered where he was. He'd almost been unconscious, and why? Oh, yes, Commodus. Where was the brat prince now? Certainly not here, amazingly enough, watching his nemesis be tortured. Pain again, but Maximus refused to break. His dignity was one of the few things he had left. To Hades with Commodus' goals or reasons for this. He might have been captured, but he would not give him that victory.
Finally the agony began to bleed into gray dizziness, and the world began to spin. Teeth gritted; he'd not give in. As a slave, he'd been beaten before – although this was far enough beyond that to be called systematic torture. His still-analytical mind told him that it had a purpose, though what that was defied his comprehension at the moment. Surely Commodus was behind it – but why? What was the point to this? It would have been far more intelligent for the emperor to have killed him and been done with it. So what was this, revenge? Anger, pure and simple? No, dizzy and disoriented though he might have been, Maximus was willing to bet there was more than that. Commodus was far too sneaky for such simplicity.
Suddenly the pain stopped. Or, rather, the application of pain stopped; everything else remained. Then a voice intruded upon his blackness.
"Unchain him," Commodus said.
Pain forgotten, Maximus' head snapped up at the sound of the emperor's voice, anger sharpening his suddenly cleared gaze. Marcus Aurelius' son just smiled calmly at him, heightening Maximus' feeling that something was dreadfully wrong. Commodus had a goal; that much was clear, but what was it? He'd only begun to examine the possibilities when the chains were released and his body asserted itself, unthankful for the preceding long hours of torture. Pride notwithstanding, he staggered; a wave of dizziness dropped him to his knees. Instinct snapped a hand out to catch himself before he fell completely to the Coliseum floor. Agony laced mercilessly through his back and his head would not stop pounding…
Snickering from the praetorians behind him reminded Maximus where he was and he shoved himself to his feet, pushing the pain aside by sheer willpower. A quick glance to each side told him he was surrounded by Commodus' personal guard and… Quintus. Damn Quintus. He did not, could not, hate his old friend, but had Quintus listened for a half a second to him, long enough to explain – but would he have explained? Or would his pride have kept him from it? Best not to think of the possibilities now; Commodus would be enough of a challenge without being distracted by what might have been. Too, his head was spinning far too rapidly to bother trying to assimilate any information.
He pushed it all aside, concentrating on not what had been or could be, but on the moment – perhaps his last moment. Commodus, the forever-spoiled prince, was still gazing at him unreadably… what did he want? Was he merely here to witness Maximus' death, or was there something more? He could only find out with patience, never one of his most favored courses of action, especially around Commodus and especially recently. The man had killed his family and destroyed everything Maximus had ever believed in – including Rome… and Marcus. Marcus Aurelius, the only father Maximus had ever really known and the one man he would have followed to the ends of the earth and beyond. Marcus… the bastard had killed him.
"What do you want?" Maximus snarled.
Commodus smiled innocently. "I have an offer for you," he said.
Shove your offer. "I don't want anything from you."
"Really?" Commodus moved forward, and general fought the urge to strangle him on the spot. The only thing stopping him was the knowledge that he'd never succeed – and yet, somehow, honor. Once again; strength and honor. Now it meant something to him again, something more than mere words. He was finally and truly himself again, although it had taken failure to bring the final change.
He glared, but did not reply. Did Commodus not understand the depth of the hatred Maximus had for him? If not that, then at least his defiance? The general cared not for what the emperor wanted. Not this emperor, anyway.
"I think I have an offer that you can't refuse," the brat continued.
"Then you do not know me as well as you think," Maximus replied flatly.
"Are you so sure?" Caesar's voice came gently. Maximus did not bother to reply; he only stared at Commodus' unfazed arrogance. "I want you to serve me."
The general scoffed. "Never." There was nothing in the world that could make him serve Commodus.
"You still have someone dear to you," the emperor whispered.
Maximus' eyes widened, then narrowed sharply as he glared at Commodus. Nothing in the world – except that. Except his love for Lucilla… The man was not a fool after all.
"Oh, yes," Caesar went on. "I know you love her. And I know she loves you. She weeps for you, you know."
"What are you getting at?" he asked angrily, all too afraid of where this was leading.
"You will serve me to save her life."
"You would kill your own sister?" Maximus asked incredulously.
"If you force me to." The answer was cold, and forced Maximus to do some immediate soul-searching. He closed his eyes briefly. Could he do this – betray everything he had ever believed in – to save his love? To save Lucilla, whom he had always loved more than life itself? Maximus would sacrifice his life for hers without hesitation, but could he sacrifice another's? And another's? How many would die if he served Commodus? Would it be worth the price?
His eyes popped open. "No."
"No?" Commodus questioned, unperturbed.
His face hardened as he focused on the Coliseum's far wall, almost unable to face what he was about to do. He would never be able to live with himself, but Rome and honor demanded that he not give in. Some things were far too precious to give. Maximus knew he could doom Rome by "serving" her. "No," he repeated.
"'No'…" Commodus echoed thoughtfully in his ear. "'No'. Then tell me… do you not remember how your family died? Burned and crucified while still alive… Your wife ravaged again, and again…"
Immediately, the anger and control vanished. Maximus closed his eyes in pain, the memories welling up from his soul's dark recess in which they'd been kept. "I remember," he whispered with difficulty.
"And would you like that to happen to her?"
"No." His eyes flew open and he glared at the wall again.
"I will do it," Caesar said levelly, and Maximus had no doubt.
He felt his heart break. "I know."
"And still you refuse me?" the emperor asked quietly. "I wonder; how much will I have to put her through…?
The gladiators stood distant in their cells, watching the confrontation with expectant eyes. They could not hear, but it was of no matter. Surely Maximus and the emperor were having yet another clash; this one was only taking place far from the eyes of the crowd. The gladiators and prisoners – Senator Gracchus included – were the only spectators for this match. To a man, they cheered silently for Maximus, knowing that he would win, no matter what the price. Even now, he was facing down the emperor angrily – one could tell that from his tense posture, even though they could only see his silhouette – and doing things that no other man dared to dream of. So they watched, and waited, for the final victory.
Quintus Magnus watched his old friend's face turn from merely pained to absolutely tortured. The praetorian commander was the only man close enough to hear his emperor's threatening whispers and the only man close enough to know what he really meant. The outer façade of the gracious emperor was a complete fraud; Commodus was playing with fire without getting burnt. Quintus had never condoned what the praetorians had done to Maximus' family – it disgusted him and mocked all he'd spent his life fighting for. If he had known what the praetorians Commodus had deployed in the late hours of that night had been told to do, he might never have sided with the heir apparent in the first place. Those had been Commodus' sick orders, not his. He could never have condemned Maximus' family to that.
Obviously, though, Commodus had – and could do it again. Would do it again. Maximus, too, knew it – and that was why the general looked so tortured. His duty to Rome was clear, for no one would be able to oppose Commodus if he had Maximus for his general, but his love for Lucilla was plain on his face. Quintus had long known that the princess was in league with her father's general (just as he had, long ago, known they were lovers) but he had been unaware of the rekindled feelings between them. However, that didn't mean he wanted to stand by for this. But he had no choice. Any action on his part would only get them both killed.
"How long will it take before you understand?" Commodus was saying.
Maximus' face contorted further in pain, and Quintus knew what a toll this was taking on his general. "She has nothing to do with this," he finally responded.
"Oh, but she does. She means everything to you."
The general remained silent, his eyes focused just past Quintus on the far wall, but the praetorian saw uncertainty begin to enter his face. To Maximus, this was far worse than anything the emperor could do to him – Quintus knew that he was a deeply compassionate man, given to care until death. After he had lost so much, the threat of sacrificing all that remained to him must have been unendurable.
"Lucilla may be my sister, Maximus, but I will spare her no pain," Commodus explained cruelly. "I will do to her ten times what was done to your wife… and at the end, before she dies, I will tell her that you were too cowardly to save her."
Maximus' eyes filled with unshed tears.
"But I will not kill her quickly," Caesar continued. "It will take a long, long time – all because of you."
The pained eyes shut momentarily, and one tear quietly slipped down his cheek as they opened. It was obvious that Maximus could not bear this. When he finally spoke, his tone told of agonized decision. "No."
Quintus recoiled in shock; how the man still held out was beyond him. His pain was obvious in that one tear, for Quintus had never seen Maximus so close to losing control. He had always been a deeply private man who kept his feelings to himself. Deep emotion was rare from Maximus, and in the sixteen years they had known each other, Quintus had never once seen him even approach tears.
"You would refuse?" Commodus pressed on, clearly sensing that he was getting close.
"Yes," Maximus replied flatly.
Anger sharpened Caesar's tone, but he kept quiet. No one was supposed to overhear this. No one would know how far he would go to get what he wanted. "You would put her through that?" he demanded.
Maximus answered quickly, "No!"
"But you will by refusing. Don't you know that?" the emperor pressed.
"I know." His voice cracked in the barely audible whisper.
"So you will condemn her to torture and pain." Commodus mocked him. "You, who claim to love her." Maximus refused to reply, staring again at the wall, tears still in his eyes and agony ripping though his heart. His love, which had seemed like a gift only minutes before, was now tearing him apart. He could not bear letting that happen to her. "I think, then, that I will enjoy it… Though I am sure that Lucilla won't…"
The general blinked the tears back. Lucilla…
"I will make sure that you can hear her screams. I will make sure that it never seems to end. And I will make sure that she knows it is your fault and hates you for it by the time I am done…"
His heart shattered as the monster continued. "You know she will break," Commodus said conversationally. "She is not strong enough to endure it, not what I will do. And even if she begs and pleads, I will not stop. Nothing will make me stop until she is dead. But she won't die for a long time. Weeks, months, perhaps… I wonder; how long will it take?"
Maximus closed his eyes one more time, trying to keep the pain inside. This was beyond what he thought even Commodus would do, but he had no doubt in his mind. If he refused, Lucilla would pay… and pay dearly. There was really nothing he could do to save her pain. There was no question about his decision now. There was nothing else he could do, no other path to take. He opened his eyes and focused on the wall once more, just for a moment, just to make sure. But there was no other choice.
Maximus dropped to one knee at Commodus' feet.
Senator Gracchus drew back in shock. The defiant, heroic general had just submitted to that monster that had been proclaimed Caesar. How could such a terrible twist of fate have taken place? Maximus was a living, breathing, alternative to Commodus, a reminder of all that Rome once was! He was the only hope thousands of people had. He was all their dreams, alive! And now he had given in. He had just given Commodus Aurelius his allegiance.
For what? Gracchus thought bitterly. A pardon? And I thought he believed. I thought he would die for Rome.
Boy was I wrong. The senator fumed. He was to be executed for conspiring with this man against the emperor, and the damn general had just sworn allegiance to the very same corrupt emperor that they were trying to dethrone! In his heart, Gracchus recognized what an astute move it was for Commodus to make. Now no one would stand a chance against him, especially with Maximus' popularity working in his favor. The old man shook his head. Now all hope was gone.
Juba frowned slightly. He had, of course, grown to the point that very little could surprise him – his association with Maximus highlighted that – but the present circumstances defied comprehension. Although he was unsure of the exact significance of his friend's actions, he knew that something was dreadfully wrong. Maximus hated Commodus more than Juba had ever seen anyone hate another – sure, it was a quiet, hurt hatred, but it was furious all the same. The general's control had been all that stood between the world and a white-hot temper. But now… now what? What had he done, and, more importantly, what did it mean? Perhaps, though, the most important question was why.