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Note: very AU. Many thanks to Destina for spark and encouragement. *g*

One Of A Thousand Roads by shalott

Maximus drinks more wine than he likes, to have something to occupy his mouth; he can find no words to put into it. The Emperor's children are on the other side of the table, like statues of marble dressed in fine raiment. His daughter is very beautiful, but in a mortal way: he could imagine speaking to her, even kissing her or taking her to bed; she would be sweet and warm and lithe, under the silks and jewels, and they would murmur together and laugh, breathlessly, during their shared pleasure.

It is the son he cannot look at directly. The son that Marcus wishes him to supplant.

Four weeks ago, in the Emperor's tent, it seemed straightforward, if unpleasant. "I am not an unnatural father, Maximus. I love my children dearly," Marcus said. "But I must be the father of Rome before I am the father of Commodus and Lucilla. I fear for my city in the hands of my son. It must be dealt with now, before I am too old."

"Sire, he's still young; surely you judge him too harshly," Maximus said, uncomfortable. He imagined speaking so of his own son, and was unable.

"You have never met him, Maximus," the Emperor said. "Since he was a child he has been half lost in dreaming and superstition. The fault is mine; I was away from home too much. With his mother dead his care fell to a Greek slavewoman, and she filled his head with madness. He thinks he has visions, he thinks he is kin to the gods, and he practices a thousand perversities as if they are his right. He will drag Rome back downwards, and make the Romans more slaves than they already are."

He did not stop there. He brought out reports, written to him from Rome, that spoke of obscenities so extraordinary Maximus would never have imagined them. He dwelt on the agonies of Rome and her people, subject to a lunatic ruler. He spoke, with longing, of the glory and the grandeur that had once been the Republic, of a dream of peace. He did not speak of the things which Maximus owed him: life, home, family, wealth. He did not have to.

"I have sent for them both," he said, at last, when all the objections which Maximus could offer had been gently but ruthlessly set aside. "I will tell them here that you are to be my successor. The army here is completely yours, and they will not be able to disobey or foment unrest. You will enter Rome acknowledged as her future guardian by both of them, and then none can oppose you."

"As Caesar commands," Maximus said reluctantly, and bowed his head.

Now he drinks too much; since his arrival this morning, Commodus has been watching him with those unearthly eyes. Maximus makes a small gesture against evil under the table, where it cannot be seen. His first glimpse of the Emperor's son was from the side: the expensive robes, the full, sullen lips, the obstinate chin, the frowning lines already forming on the young face. Maximus looked to see a useless sybarite, and saw nothing to prove him wrong. Then Commodus turned and looked directly at him.

The Emperor will speak when the plates are carried from the table, Maximus knows, and he dreads what is coming. He does not know what it will be; he only knows that it will bear little resemblance to the angry, frustrated submission Marcus expects.

The plates are removed and the moment comes. Marcus speaks; at first there is only silence. Lucilla is looking down at her plate, her face rigid and pale. Then Commodus looks across the table at Maximus and says, "Would you give me that orange?" Having received it, he begins peeling it, and asks his father, "When I am to be put to death?" The tone of both questions is precisely the same: intonation, delivery, degree of interest.

Marcus is taken aback. "Commodus, do not be absurd; I will not have you put to death."

"Dear father, if you wish Maximus to sit upon the throne, you will have to," Commodus says. "There is no world in which he can become Emperor where I am not dead, I promise you. If you do not have me killed, I will kill you before you can formally announce the succession in the Senate -- with poison, most likely, although perhaps instead smothering --" this he mentions as an aside, like an interesting fact from a book. "Enough of the soldiers will follow me to arrest and kill him, then, although sometimes he escapes, and we kill each other in Rome, a few years later, when he comes to avenge his family."

Having delivered this speech, he sections his orange and offers a piece to his sister; she only shakes her head, never looking up, and he shrugs and begins eating it.

The Emperor's resulting anger is too simple: he does not believe, Maximus sees. Marcus threatens his son with imprisonment while shouting about superstitious nonsense. Maximus keeps his hands below the table; they are shaking. He wonders with a corner of his mind if Marcus is blind because he is a father, if he cannot see that his son is not merely mad, but god-touched; but mostly he thinks of his wife, his son, and the word avenge.

"Tomorrow morning, before my soldiers, you will accept Maximus as my successor; both of you," Marcus says.

Commodus nibbles on another slice of orange, his head tilting in consideration, and then he says, "No, I do not think I will; everything ends very badly that way, and I have Lucilla and Lucius to think of."

"Commodus," she murmurs, a protest; it is the first thing she has said all night.

He strokes her shoulder. "Do not be afraid, my dear; Lucius will be Emperor, I have told you already; after Maximus or after me, it makes no difference."

The Emperor's face is growing red and mottled with anger. "You will bow before Maximus tomorrow morning, or you will die," he roars out, enraged.

"Tomorrow morning, then; that is all I wanted to know," Commodus says, and Marcus is silenced by the realization that he has answered his son's first question. "And now, the night is short; you must forgive me for leaving so soon. Remember, my dear, keep Lucius at the villa in Illyrium during his fifth summer." He leans over and kisses his sister on the cheek, then stands and walks straight out of the tent; his father does not try to stop him.

There are tears on Lucilla's face; she slips out only a short while later, and Maximus looks at his emperor. "Caesar, I cannot do this," he says. "I cannot become your successor anointed with your son's blood. No good can come of it." He does not try to tell Marcus that it would be an offense against the gods to kill one of their chosen, an impiety so great he trembles for it; he does not say that he fears the deaths of his wife and son, prophesied so casually. He can tell that Marcus does not want to believe.

"Ah, Maximus, surely you do not think so ill of me," Marcus says. "I spoke in anger only. Of course I am not going to have him killed. If he persists, I will have him kept here under guard while we return to Rome. Once you have been publically acclaimed, he will be powerless to change matters."

Maximus feels the blood leaving his face. In the pardon for Commodus, he reads the death warrant for his wife, his son; but he knows Marcus will never listen, and he cannot refuse his command.

He can see no avenue of escape, so it is not so very strange that he should find himself outside Commodus's pavilion. He is half-afraid what he may find within; but the guards do not try to stop him, and when he ducks into the tent, he finds the emperor's son alone upon a raised platform covered with pillows and furs, writing by candlelight. Commodus waves him to recline alongside with his free hand, while he continues writing; he does not seem surprised. Maximus is still wearing armor, and he lowers himself to the cushions stiffly.

Commodus lays aside the pen and papyrus, and looks at Maximus searchingly. They are very close together, close enough that Commodus can reach out and stroke Maximus's face lightly; the touch makes him jump.

"In another world," Commodus says dreamily, his strange light eyes roving over Maximus's face, "my father did not send me back to Rome when I was seven and cried for days at the sight of a sword; instead he kept me with the army until I forgot to be afraid. The first time I saw you was after the campaign in Dacia. I was drinking from a stream next to a linden tree, some distance from the main camp, and you came over the hill with the sun. I was sixteen, and you were twenty."

Maximus trembles. He remembers the end of that campaign, wandering through the woods after he had reported. He remembers cresting a hill, with the sun warm on his back, and the light through the leaves sparkling; the water tasted so cold and delicious. But he had been all alone: no one else in the world even knows that moment happened.

"We call each other brother, there." Commodus is still speaking. "We have fought together for many long years, all through Germania. Your son calls me uncle. Your wife does not like me very much, though; we are lovers, and I keep you from home too often."

His fingers are wandering, they are on Maximus's lips, and they are very soft. "Or perhaps," Commodus whispers, drawing closer, "that is the true reality. Surely you have just woken me from night terrors. I have only been dreaming that my father despises me, that we have never met. You are dearer to me than life; how could I have imagined such things?"

He is opening buckles, and Maximus helps him with shaking hands. The tent is warm and aromatic with fine incense, and his head is cloudy with wine; his breath is stuttering with holy terror. The stranger lying next to him is his lover, his friend, his shieldmate, trusted beyond reason: in this moment, listening to his voice, it seems as real to Maximus as anything in the world.

"Yes, here," and a light touch behind the knee, the place that always makes him shudder. "And like so." Commodus scrapes his short-trimmed nails up Maximus's inner thigh, and it is the most perfect sensation imaginable, second only to the soft wet slickness of his tongue, following them. He is naked on the pillows, under these hands, this mouth; he is completely and utterly known. The world is moving beneath him like water.

"Yes," Commodus whispers. "Yes."

"Yes," he says; the sound of his own voice startles him. For a moment, when Commodus comes into him, it feels strange; he thinks for a moment that he has never lain with a man before. But he shakes the thought off as absurd; he has been under Commodus like this a hundred times or more, surely, and the reverse as well; it is only that he cannot remember just now. "When -- when -- " he asks, gasping.

"Six months after we met," Commodus says readily; he continues to move, and his voice is husky. "We bathed together in a pool near the Danubian border, and I kissed you; you took me on the bank."

Maximus closes his eyes; he can see it now, in front of his eyes: Commodus pale and beautiful against the lush green grass; his own eager urgency tamed just enough to make the moment last. "I remember," he says; surely it is true.

They lie curled together after, touching and kissing drowsily, comfortable in the way of old lovers; eventually Maximus falls asleep in the candlelight. He wakes in the hour before dawn. Commodus is still asleep, silent and pale amid furs, his cheek pillowed on folded hands. He sleeps like a child, except for the lips too full for innocence, and with his dangerous eyes closed he does not look like anything to fear.

Maximus draws on his fur cloak and goes outside naked otherwise; the guards look up from their fire and salute him, no surprise in their faces. He walks past them over the hard ground, his footsteps gradually growing quicker, until he comes to the small tent pitched beside his own.

"How long have I known the Emperor's son?" he asks desperately, shaking Quintus awake.

"What?" Quintus is struggling up, wiping sleep from his face.

"Commodus. How long have I known him?" Maximus says again, struggling with anger and terror mingled. "Do you know when we first met?"

Quintus stares. "I thought it was yesterday morning," he says. "Do you mean you have met him somewhere before? I thought you had never been to Rome."

Maximus staggers outside, back to his own tent, and sits shivering before his brazier, rubbing his hands together over and over, mechanically. The sky is growing pale, and the morning is coming.

= End =

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