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Waking from a Dream by shalott

Sequel to One of a Thousand Roads.

The sun will not rise today; the sky is a solid bank of clouds too pale for rain. The tent flap opens, and Commodus enters, fully dressed. Though he is wearing armor, his tunic is embroidered in gold, more a costume than practical clothing for battle, and he looks like what he is: a jaded sophisticate from the city. He is a stranger, and they met for the first time less than a day ago. But Maximus does not tell him to go, and Commodus comes and sits beside him. They warm their hands together.

"You are the same," Commodus says. "You are the same in every world. It is I who am different. I who am broken, in all worlds but one. And this is not that one."

Broken. It is a good word, a vivid word. Maximus sees, with perfect clarity, the image of that beautiful ivory body spattered red with blood, cracked open and spilled over the ground, the pale eyes clouded and unseeing. Blood on lush green grass, or golden sand, shining in the sunlight. He swallows. "What do you want me to do?" he asks, dreading the reply. He has heard all the tales of oracles consulted, and they rarely end well.

"If he carries through, if he names you his successor, you must kill me. Shh." He puts a finger to Maximus's lips. "Yes. Wait until I am sleeping. One quick thrust I will not even feel, and we will meet again in Elysium, with all eternity before us; we will embrace, as long-parted friends. Otherwise--" He says no more, but his eyes are still mad, after all, and Maximus has heard too much of his cruelties. "Promise me, Maximus. Promise me, brother."

In this world, it is all a scheme to manipulate him: Commodus's hunger for the throne, his quick eye for any weakness, a little glimpse of vision to give his words weight and power, and all the rest only imagination and cleverness and sex. Maximus is not a fool; he can see it all. And yet beneath there remains that whispering thread of the other world, true even if Commodus invented it. Maximus cannot help but feel a duty to the man he has never met, the one who could have drawn him down on a warm spring day, the one he sees in the spoiled promise of the man before him.

And even if the offer is manipulation, it is also true. If he gives his promise and goes, Commodus will lie down here and fall asleep, while Marcus leads Maximus before the troops. And then he will have to return to this tent and put a knife into his heart; watch him sigh and perhaps open those shining eyes to look at him one last time before he slips away forever. Promise and reality both gone, leaving sacred blood on his hands and a murder to start his reign.

He does not have the heart for it. If this is a weakness, then Commodus has seen it clearly. But the other alternative is equally impossible: to refuse, and leave Commodus a dispossessed son, rejected, hearing the soldiers' cheers for the man who has supplanted him, feeling all the fury of stolen love, of frustrated ambition. To suffer through the hell that Commodus will make between them, all the worst that a corrupt yet brilliant mind can contrive, until they are both dead, his wife and son casualties along the way, and only Lucilla's son left to take the throne.

Maximus believes in the choice between the two fates, even if the cold light of morning renders other worlds an absurd superstition, and he can accept neither. He shudders under Commodus's hands, warm on his face, and says nothing.

"Promise me," Commodus says softly, urgently. "It is the only way, Maximus; I swear to you. Promise me, and then go tell my father."

Of course. Here is the turning point of the scheme. If Marcus knew that his proclamation would seal his son's death, he would not make it; what father could? There is a gleam in Commodus's eyes as they rest on him, but whether this is vision or conspiracy does not really matter: it shows him a way out.

Strangely lightened, Maximus smiles. "Yes. I will go to him," he says; the words ignite victory in Commodus's too-clear eyes. Maximus does not stop there, but makes a prediction of his own. "And he will make us co-emperors, and put us both on the throne." Commodus's lips part on a suddenly-caught breath; Maximus runs his thumb across the smooth cheek and presses them gently closed. "Yes. We will rule together, and when Rome is threatened, you will come with me on campaign; you will take no other to your bed, and you will stop your excesses," he says, quiet and firm and tender. "And when the gods ride you too hard, I will be there."

There is an uncertain moment, and then the deadly eyes soften, and Commodus leans into his hand, pressing kisses into his cupped palm, biting at the softest flesh. "Yes," he whispers, yielding. "Oh yes, brother." Then he is pushing the fur off Maximus's shoulders urgently and pulling him down; the sleeping pallet is smaller and less thickly padded than the one in Commodus's tent, but it is good enough to have him on.

They leave for Rome that afternoon. Lucilla rides in the first wagon with her father, up ahead; Commodus is beside him in the second. Silk and fur cradle their naked bodies. Commodus knows things in this world he never learned in the other, secret ways to give pleasure, a thousand vices that become somehow innocent in his eagerness. Under his hands, his tongue, in the close, muffled dimness of the wagon, the world frays around Maximus again; he does not know what future they ride towards, but it is not one that either of them has foreseen, and he is content.

= End =

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