LOVE IS STRONGER THAN PRIDE

Love is Stronger than Pride

Fateful decisions

Oh, and how ungrateful he was.  She had tried to save him, and what did that bring her?  Despair.  Bastard.  She'd never bother trying to show him what he'd lost, because he clearly didn't know or care. 

His heart ached madly.  She'd thrown it all away, hadn't she?  So easily broken his soul in two because he'd so heartfully given it to her.  He'd given her everything and then had been delegated down to a level below the equal she'd always claimed he was.  He'd sworn an oath to Rome – couldn't Lucilla see that?  He could not, would not, betray that oath.  It was duty.  Maximus could not fail Rome – even if it meant losing her love.

aftermath

12 hours later…

          What had once been a beautiful morning had oh so quickly turned into an ugly and lonely evening.  The battle long since over, Maximus wandered listlessly through his camp, acknowledging praise and forcing smiles for his exuberated men.  He was the hero of the hour, or rather, he knew, probably of their lifetimes.  Only his swift actions had saved the battle; the tactical genius had emerged in full force just in time to save Rome from another hideous defeat in a war no one thought they would or could win.  Rome's darling had saved them all.

            Yet, when by all rights he should have celebrated with them, he just drifted, pain echoing from his heart to his mind to his soul.  Never, not even in childhood, had he felt so lost… His anger, though perhaps justified, in a twisted sort of way, had long since drowned beneath the sorrow.  What had he done?  Part of him longed to just forget the past and move on – but he knew that was the cold and lonely part, the section of his soul that had been grafted since childhood to feel no pain.  Unfortunately, he had long since trained his mind to follow that cold lack of emotion and use only sense and intellect for guidance.  What then, though, was he supposed to do when his heart screamed so loudly?

            Torn between tears and screaming, and only holding onto her control by sheer force of will, Lucilla still had refused to see anyone.  Or rather, she had returned to the position she had held before her father had intruded on her solace.  Telling him the story had only made the pain increase one thousand fold, and just when she'd thought moving on was possible, her heart had broken once more.  Pride, though, kept her strong, and the princess was beyond such foolish displays now.  Her mind had always known that the match would never work – even as her father's general, Maximus was still a minor Spanish farmer.  Yes, his family had roots in Rome, in the senate, but that was certainly far from enough for the Imperial princess.  It was odd how her father had humored their love, but inwardly, she knew he had to be rejoicing.

            Yet, then as politically minded as she was, and as accustomed to acting only in Rome's service, why was she so bitterly disappointed?  Lucilla's cold and cynical side told her that it was better to fall apart now, of their own violation, then to have their dreams shattered by another, and watch each other die little by little in another's arms.  It's better like this, she told herself.  Less painful in the long run.  Why, then, did her heart still bleed so badly?

            His roaming had carried him all over the camp, but finally he could take the stares of his men no longer and headed toward his own tent.  They loved him too much, but none could understand.  Only Quintus had ever even known of his love, but even his old friend could never comprehend the heartbreak that consumed him now.  What did it matter, though?  There was no turning back.  His road was now chosen; fate was now sealed.  A little voice in his head, though, cried that it wasn't fair.  A small part of him reflected upon how foolish it had been…pride, anger, love

            Refusing to acknowledge the tears that threatened to rise in his eyes and shoving the canvas tent flap aside impatiently, Maximus stole into the darkness and relative peace of his chambers.  There, at least, there was only his heart to torture him.  Thousands of faces didn't gaze worshipfully upon him, thinking he was something he was not, and the loneliness was physical, which suited him just fine, for nothing could fill the gaping crevice in his heart.

            A voice, suddenly, drew his attention.  "You did a foolish thing today, Maximus," Marcus Aurelius said quietly.

            Spinning vehemently, the general faced his emperor, schooling his features down to complete control by the time he bowed.  "Caesar."

            Inwardly, though, he railed.  There was enough pain without this, too, and he knew what the old man would say.  Lucilla was his daughter, after all.

            Aurelius waved his bow away with a dismissive sweep of his right hand.  "Maximus…" he said quietly, then held up one finger before the younger man could interject.  "I know I promised you to let this take its course, and I will admit that, at first, I was furious that my daughter would fall in love with you.  But as time passed, I realized that the traits that I admire and respect in you are those she loves, and a man I chose as my friend was more than worthy of Lucilla."

            Marcus approached, his deep eyes never leaving those of his general, and placed a hand on Maximus' shoulder.  "That was when I began to realize how right you two were for each other.  I never said a word, and I left you alone, but I cannot say that I did not hope."

            Double pangs of agony sliced through Maximus' soul.  First, he had lost Lucilla, and now… "I am sorry to have disappointed you, sire," he said quietly.

            "You did not disappoint me, Maximus," Aurelius said with a gentle smile.  "Not in the way that you think, anyway.  Had you and my daughter rationally decided to part, I would not be here.

            "But I look at both of you, and I see the same expression on two different faces.  Pain…Loss…Pride… And I have to wonder if you have done the right thing."

            Maximus swallowed hard, staring at the floor, and struggling to keep tears from forming.  The pleadings of his heart were bad enough without another voice, one he respected and loved so much, echoing their cries.  "I did not have a choice, sire," he said quietly, knowing and hating that it was true.  Thousands more would be dead now, if he had not acted, and sometimes Rome demanded absolute service…

            "I don't mean about the battle," the emperor replied.  "I mean your pride, and that you have not turned around, defied fate, and picked up where you left off."

            "It's too late for that," the general said heavily, wishing his heart would not pound so loud.  Nothing in the world ever hurt so much as an absolute truth.

            "Is it?" Aurelius challenged him.  "When I spoke to my daughter, I saw in her what I see in you: sadness, and regret… And a person still very much in love."

            Disbelievingly, Maximus finally dared to look up into the emperor's eyes.  Hope he dared not feel…yet Marcus Aurelius was offering it to him on a silver platter.  And in the long run, he had nothing left to lose…

            "Go to her," Marcus said softly. 

            "My Lady, are you sure you want nothing?" the maid asked quietly, fearing another explosion like the last, yet loyal enough to endure the wild seas if she had to. 

            "No, Alicia, I am fine," the princess said quietly.  Her voice was toneless, though, and that worried her handmaiden and lifelong friend.  She had never seen Lucilla this way; her mistress was always confident and relaxed, never depressed, and certainly never lost.  If this was what love did to you, Alicia was glad she'd not found it.  Quietly, she slipped from the bedchamber.

            In the tent's entrance, though, a shadow blocked her path.  The servant gasped, recognizing the general's form immediately, and surprised that he'd dare show his face.  Despite her lowly station, though, she did not move out of his way.  "The princess is not receiving, General," she said coldly.

            His expressionless face gave nothing away.  "I know," he said quietly, and Alicia fancied that his voice cracked… perhaps all was not as it seemed.  "But I am talking to her anyway."

            Without warning, Maximus slipped by her and strode into the tent.

            Lucilla heard the footsteps reentering her chamber, and sighed quietly in vexation to herself.  Would no one leave her alone with her heartbreak?  Had she not experienced enough pain because of losing him?  At the mere thought of her onetime lover, the princess was tempted to burst into tears once more.  Maximus…  It had been easy to remain angry at first.  The fury had come hot, fast, and naturally.  Now, however, there was only a painful emptiness in its wake.  She wanted him back so badly…

            "I told you that I wanted to be alone," she said wearily, not even bothering to look over her shoulder at Alicia. 

            But Alicia did not answer, and Lucilla began to wonder if she were imagining things.  Perhaps no one had entered after all… If so, good for them.  She only wanted peace and quiet, even though it meant that she would be wallowing in her own grief – at least it would keep her busy.  Busy, yes; busy feeling sorry for herself.

            "Lucilla…"

            The voice came from behind her and startled her to the very core of her being.  She knew that voice.  She loved that voice… Longing surfaced immediately, but was quickly replaced by anger.  The bastard dared show his face here, in her tent, uninvited?  It mattered not that he'd done so a million times before; fresh in her mind was the fight they'd had in that very tent, and the words he had said, the insults she had spat…  How could he dare come there?  Didn't he realize how deeply she was hurt? 

            Damn him – his voice was emotionless, as it almost always was.  Again, he was controlled and calm, impenetrable.  The perfect little Roman general, everything her father wanted him to be.  The hero of the hour had arrived, for what?  To gloat?  To say 'I told you so'?" Typical.

            "What do you want?" Lucilla asked bitterly, spinning on her old lover with a vengeance. 

            But he was standing so very close to her when she turned… close enough to touch – yet so far away, separated by their wide gulf of anger and fears.  Fury flared immediately within her soul, and Lucilla felt her fists clench in anger.  She didn't need to talk to him, or to hear whatever arrogant things he had to say.  Now was not the time, not when her heart lay shattered in pieces at his feet.  A thousand heated responses came immediately to her mind, until she saw his face.

            Her anger, however, quickly dissipated when she saw the tears in his eyes.

            "I came to talk to you," Maximus said quietly, the legendary control gone.  "I came to apologize."

            Good sense could not stop the bitter reply.  "Whatever for?" Lucilla snapped.  "You were right."

            Rage flashed over his handsome features, and the sadness – had she imagined it? – abruptly disappeared.  Eyes narrowing, Maximus faced her, cold and hard once more.  "I guess I was," he retorted.  "About more than one thing."

            Without a further word, he spun on his heel and stalked away from her.

            Lucilla's heart crashed.  Was she a fool, or was she imagining things once more?  She had never known that love could be so hard to let go of…  "And what is that supposed to mean?" she demanded.

            Part of her expected him to keep walking, but, instead, Maximus whirled around to face her once more.  Pained anger captivated his features in an expression the princess had never seen before.  "You're not even worth it," he snarled, his voice thick with emotion.

            "Worth what?" Lucilla shot back, her own anger rising to match his.  Quite aptly, they were picking up almost exactly where they had left off.  The same pain, the same betrayal, and the same desperation and ignorance of fate were once again present.  "Letting go of your precious pride?"

            Suddenly, Maximus strode forward once more, grabbing her arms so roughly that it hurt, and not allowing her to turn or to pull away.  "I came here to apologize!" he cried.  Then his voice suddenly died into a raw whisper, and a vulnerability entered his features that she had never seen before.  "I came here to say I was sorry…"

            Struck speechless, Lucilla could only stare as he continued.  If I had only one wish…  She could feel his hands trembling on her arms.

            "I came to tell you that I love you, and I don't want to lose you."  His words came out in a rush, but she saw the features hardening into stone once more the moment the statement had passed his lips.  "I guess I was wrong."

            As he pulled away, the princess' world froze into that moment, and that decision.  She could stand fast and be prepared to do her duty for Rome – which would necessitate, she knew, marrying a man of her father's choosing, and thus cause her to lose Maximus eventually, anyway – or she could simply throw herself into the arms of the man she loved.  She could be a coward or take a chance in the name of love; she could through her heart to the winds and pray for a fairy-tale ending.  Lucilla stood motionless, watching his back and feeling tears of her own rising hot in her eyes.  In the end, though, it was a decision that only her heart could make.

            Her voice caught in her throat as she tried to call his name.  "Maximus...?"

            Matching tears were shining on the general's face as he turned.  He looked to her, and, for the first time, the princess realized that his heart had broken as well.  How could she have forgotten that, after all the love they had shared…?  How could she have tried so desperately to remain wrapped up in herself that she could so completely ignore the man that she loved with all her heart and soul?

            "Don't go," she whispered.  "I don't want to lose you, either."

            In three quick strides, Maximus covered the distance between them, and before she even made a conscious decision to act, Lucilla had thrown herself into his strong arms, which encircled her with such warmth and love that her foolish mind could not comprehend why she had ever left.  Burying her face into his shoulder, the princess allowed herself to cry from relief… For suddenly, the future seemed so much brighter by his side.

            "I love you," Lucilla said through her tears.

            His answer was a deep and passionate kiss that only broke apart when the biological need for air assaulted them both.  "I love you, too," Maximus replied, and Lucilla felt his strong, but ever so gentle, hands brushing her tears away.  Smiling gratefully, she did the same for him.  "I will always love you," he said.

            Tightening her grip around his neck once more – for indeed, Lucilla was almost afraid that he would disappear, and this would all become such a sweet and ending dream – she said quietly, "Make me promise you something, Maximus."

            "Only if we both promise never to let pride do that to us again," he replied, reading her mind.  "I do not want to think about life without you."

            Foolish though they were, the words left her mouth of their own violation.  "And I promise that you will never have to."

            If Maximus knew how impossible that would come to be, he gave no sign.  The general only pulled her closer, and they stood, silently together, each lost in hopes and dreams… The future would not come easily, but, somehow, it seemed far safer together.

            An aging face smiled to see them as such, wrapped in each other's arms, finally at peace once more.  Perhaps, the future would show them how much stronger they were together than apart, but for now, he was content to see them happy.  If I could only have one wish, the old man mused, it would be to see them never be so foolish again.  Silently, he prayed to gods he usually chose to ignore.  Let them be together, he urged the skies. Give them both what they need so badly.

            And preserve my empire while you're at it.

           

You can't deny what the heart wants –

No matter what life deems impossible

Author's Note and Disclaimer:  None of it belongs to me, as we all well know.  I promise I'll put the toys back in the box when I'm done playing, and since I go to a military college, the box will probably be neater than it started out being… Oh, and yeah, I ganked the title from the Lonestar song, "Love is Stronger than Pride," too.  Great song, but it doesn't belong to me, either.  Don't sue me.  I'm a poor college student who wouldn't be at Norwich without a scholarship.  By the way, I'd be grateful for Reviews.

PS – foreshadowing, here, anyone?  Look for this sucker's "sequel" of sorts, What Price We Pay…To See Our Dreams Fulfilled.