Dying hope

"The emperor needs you. It is urgent."

Never in the world had he expected this. Anything but this… Let it be anyone but Commodus standing before him, his face blank yet somehow hinting at cunning. And what cunning that turned out to be. Even in the beginning, even in that very first moment, he had known that something dreadful had happened. Maximus had known that something was terribly wrong, and that his carefully constructed world was about to fall to thousands of tiny pieces. What had once been the present was suddenly the past, and unexpectedly, everything that had once meant anything to him seemed very much like a dream.

"Lament with me brother. Our great father is dead."

Mechanically, he moved past the young prince, his longtime mistrust of the man almost forgotten in the emotion of the moment. Tears blurring his vision, the general almost stumbled to the bedside, yet his self-control was far too good for that. The only words running through his mind were that it could not be true, over and over again. This had to be a nightmare. This could not be real.

He placed a shaking hand upon the old man's forehead, trying desperately to keep his emotions inside. Outwardly, he succeeded, but Maximus felt his heart tearing to pieces even as he touched the dead emperor's skin. Please gods, no… He cannot be dead. Sobs welled up in his throat, but pride gave them no voice. Not here, and not now. There would be time later to mourn for the greatest man he had ever known, and the one man in his life he had loved as a father. Mourn… The Empire would weep with him, Maximus knew, but in truth, the people's welfare did not even enter his mind. Foremost in his thoughts was not Marcus Aurelius as the emperor, but Marcus Aurelius as a man – a man whom he depended upon so greatly, and had never been able to thank.

For one of the few times in his life, Maximus felt lost, and for the first time, Marcus was not there to guide him. He would never again hear the wise voice speak: not of philosophy, strategy, policies, politics, home, family… anything. Now he was gone. Now the embodiment of all Maximus' beliefs was dead. He had never believed in anything before he believed in Rome, and now, without all that Rome had come to mean to him, he knew not where to turn.

"There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it; anything more than a whisper and it would vanish."

For a moment, his heart bled as the words echoed through his mind. But now he knew where to turn; there was still a dream to fulfill, a dream that was as much his as the emperor's, for Marcus Aurelius had asked him to realize it. Even if he'd cared not for the dream itself, he would have died for that one last hope the good man had. Still, though, in fulfilling the dream, he knew he would grieve deeply, and a huge chunk of his mind – the only part ruled by his heart – would not believe that Marcus was dead. Only hours ago, they had sat debating the very future of the world, the very substance of the dream Maximus was now left alone to carry.

The few short seconds stretched into eternity before he gained the sense and composure to search for a sign of life, or a sign of death. Faint marks adorned the old man's neck, yet they were so light that Maximus had to wonder if he was imagining them. In truth, though, he knew he was wrong, but still he had to test. Without thinking, he asked quietly, "How did he die?"

The answer meant little to him, for he was searching for truth, not lies. "The surgeon said there was no pain," Commodus replied evenly. "His breath gave out as he slept."

"Commodus is not a moral man. You have known that since you were young."

Signs of a struggle could not come from a peaceful death in sleep. There was nothing else to say now, only a dream to carry out, consequences be dammed. Should he even bother with the murdering prince who should not rule? For a moment, his grief stricken mind examined the possibilities, but his eyes kept traveling back to Marcus' dead body, kept reminding him that the great man was dead. What do I do without you? Where do I turn? The brief clarity of mind was gone. Again, his heart felt ready to break.

"You are the son that I should have had."

Lacking a real father for all of his early life, Maximus had unconditionally accepted the love and relationship offered subconsciously by the older man. Neither had ever realized what it meant until Marcus had spoken those fateful words only hours before… and now, Maximus found himself unable to thank the emperor for all the guidance and love he had given him. Now he would never be able to tell Marcus that he was indeed, so much more than an emperor to him.

Ignorant of the other presences in the room, Maximus slowly bent over to perform the ritual Roman farewell, but his breath caught in his throat as he gently kissed the wrinkled forehead. "Father…" he finally managed to choke out, his tears threatening to break.

"Your emperor asks for your loyalty, Maximus."