The room was full of silent onlookers, but only two hovered
near the bed. The old man forced a
smile for his family; his goodbyes to his daughter and grandson were done, as
were those to his estranged son, who stood far away, his back to the wall and
avoiding all gazes that turned his way.
Not far away, a handmaiden led young Lucius from the room, aware that
the end was near, and grandson of greatness or no, the boy was not yet
nine. Only the hardest words were left
to be said to his true son, the man he had inherited, adopted, and embraced, though
the two were tied by no blood. For a
moment, the old emperor reflected upon what might have been had Commodus, the
distant and dark shadow backed against the wall, had sat at his bedside, but
then shuddered at the thought. Rome
would die for him…
his heir asked worriedly, concern creasing his handsome features. They both knew it would not be long, it
could not be long, now. Even the
inevitable could only be delayed so much.
Weakly, Aurelius reached out to touch the general's cheek; a solitary
tear was warm to his touch. He smiled;
now, there were no regrets, save that he had no more time to spend with them.
times," he mused quietly, "have you said that 'what we do in life echoes in
eternity'?" A slight smile touched the
younger man's saddened face as the emperor continued. "I see that now…and you are my legacy, Maximus. You will be great."
seemed to force a smile, barely controlled emotion rushing across his face, but
the emperor knew him well. He was more
than ready for this challenge. The
dream lived on within him.
miss you," the younger man finally choked out, uncharacteristic emotion filling
his voice. Their eyes met, one set old
and weary, the other young and alive – although both were saddened by what each
knew must come, years of love and loyalty passed between them. Time had wrought many changes in their
world, but not this; never this.
they embraced, holding each other one last time. Years of trust, dependence, and emotion surfaced for a final
breath of life before drowning, and the emperor and his heir held on tightly,
knowing there would never be a second chance.
Between them, then, a vision passed.
"Lead well, my son," the old man whispered.
In his ear,
the sorrowful reply came. "Thank you
for everything… Father."
again touched the wrinkled features, and then froze as the breath went out and
the Marcus Aurelius went still for all time.
Despite raging emotions, the strong arms did not falter as they laid the
old dreamer back upon the pillows.
Trembling fingers reached out to close the still open eyes.
Maximus bent to place the ritual farewell kiss upon the slack forehead. Tears blurred his vision momentarily, as he
realized that the future was his alone.
"Father…" he whispered one last time, then rose to gently wrap his arms
around his wife, whose tears flowed as heartfully as his own. Together, they stood, oblivious to the
shadows filing out of the room. From
that moment on, both knew that their world, and the dream, was theirs' alone.