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Interlude: Suffering

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Standard disclaimer: None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but are instead the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.

Author's note: This story is set in the same AU as my ongoing "Destiny" series. It is sort of a prequel to that series, detailing some events during the earliest part of Caesar's captivity, while Xena was still carrying out the destruction of Rome. It involves Caesar's final conversation with Pompey while he is chained to Pompey's cross, as well as a look at some of the thought processes going through Caesar's head at this time. Be warned: the first page carries a graphic depiction of the effects of decomposition. If this is a squick, skip it.


Pompey was dripping on him.

The sun was hot overhead, and the air was hazy with heat and ashes. The burning had largely come to an end, but isolated areas of the city still smoldered in the distance, with Xena's soldiers carefully spreading the coals. A low, rhythmic thudding sound came to his ears; he knew it was Xena's artillery, pounding the structures that still stood. If he had cared to look, he could have seen the heavy catapults, hurling boulders at the Colosseum, the Pantheon, chipping away at the stone buildings still standing on the flat plain. He shifted position slightly, and the chains that bound his wrists clinked.

Another drop landed, this one on the back of his neck, right above the iron collar. Slowly he raised his head, squinting painfully; the sun was high in the sky. Pompey's body hung from the crosstree; both corpse and cross stood out as black silhouettes against the relentless sun. He turned his head a bit, and a wisp of cloud came between the sun and himself; he could see better now, Pompey's face distorted beyond all recognition, the features mottled black and purple and bloated with decomposition. His arms and body had swollen; the skin was greenish and shiny with greasy moisture, and had split in several places. Where it had split, flies congregated, buzzing merrily. From one of the gaping rents on his lower legs, a glistening trail of a sickly yellow fluid wound its way down to his blackened, splitting feet. As Caesar looked, another drop fell; he twisted his head to one side, grimacing in disgust, but it struck him on the right side of his face. Quickly he ducked the side of his head against his shoulder, wiping the foul-smelling liquid against his filthy tunic.

He raised himself weakly on his arms, trying to pull himself further away from the base of the cross; but as he shifted, his shattered legs shrieked at him, and he fell back, panting and trembling, shivering despite the heat of day. He tried again, and this time the pain was so intense that the world grayed out before his eyes; he collapsed, burying his face in the dirt beneath him, weakness spreading through every limb. Another drop struck the back of his neck again. He ignored it. It was only a nuisance; his legs were agony.

Pompey had died last night. Or maybe the night before; Caesar wasn't sure any more of the days. Xena had had him chained to the foot of Pompey's cross as soon as it had been set up, but he could no longer remember how long ago that had been. He knew, thinking about it logically, that it could not have been more than a day or two ago, but it seemed like he had been there forever—lying in the dirt and stones at the side of the Appian Way, watching the flames of the city in the distance and the columns of soldiers riding past, exposed without shelter to the broiling hot sun. At least he had water now—a small bowl of stale, warm water, filled with dust and grit kicked up by the soldiers riding by. He was very glad to have it, too, after Xena had withheld water from him to watch him beg while he was chained in her tent. He and Pompey had spoken briefly on the last night of Pompey's life; that, Caesar was sure he remembered, but again, could not remember how long ago that was.

It had been shortly after nightfall, and the cool—soon to be chill—of the evening air had revived Caesar a bit; he was able to sit up, slowly and carefully, leaning his weight on his arms, and to drink a little. He forced himself to examine his legs—carefully and without touching them; he could hardly stand to look at the mangled, twisted ruins that Xena had made of them. She hadn't had Pompey's legs broken, and in some distant part of his mind he wondered why. His legs had swollen grotesquely, and the skin was dusky and mottled. He thought the swelling might have gone down a bit from what it had been earlier, but he couldn't be sure, and they were still so painful that he could not bear to touch them. Was this how Xena felt? he wondered dizzily. Was this how she felt after—?

The stars were out, and the moon was almost full; the night sky was crystal clear and so beautiful he could barely believe it. Pompey, above him, was a black shape against the evening blue of the sky. They hadn't spoken during the whole, long, hellish day; each of them had been too consumed with their own suffering. Now, however, in the cool of the night, Caesar felt a little more himself. He surprised himself with a low, harsh laugh.

"So she got you too," he heard himself say to his rival. His voice was weaker than he had expected; thin and shaky. "I knew it was going to happen eventually. I thought you might manage to last a little longer than this though. Apparently not."

Pompey shifted, writhing against the crosstree. "Shut up." His voice was even weaker, Caesar realized; he took a bitter pleasure in that realization.

"Don't feel too bad; at least when you get down to Tartarus you'll have a lot of company. One of the lovers she's betrayed? I can't imagine there are more than two or three dozen or so of those—"

"I said shut up," Pompey snarled. He writhed against the crosstree again, straining at his bonds briefly; then with a groan he went limp, and Caesar could hear him breathing hard. Caesar settled back down into the dirt by the side of the road, shivering a little in the advancing chill of the night air. For a time neither of them spoke.

"You arrogant bastard."

Pompey's voice was low and intensely bitter. Caesar raised himself on his arms again, twisting to look up at his rival above him; he was in silhouette against the stars and Caesar could make out nothing of his features.

"This is all your fault. Bastard."

"My fault?" For a moment, Caesar was too incredulous to feel anger, and then it was there, a welcome hot rush of rage that filled him with an illusory strength. "How in hell is this in any way my fault?" he demanded. "You were the one who went over to Xena—You were the one who brought your own army across the boundary—You were the one who betrayed Rome! It's because of you that—" He gestured awkwardly with one chained hand and almost fell flat on his face in the dirt. "All this! It's your fault, not mine!"

"And what the hell else was I supposed to do?" Pompey snarled down at him. "Xena had me outnumbered twenty to one. You've seen her army. How was I supposed to fight that? How was I supposed to fight…her?" He hung his head for a moment, and the sound of harsh breathing drifted to Caesar's ears. "I did the only thing I could do. The only thing that had a prayer of allowing me to survive. You would have done the exact same thing in my place, and don't try to tell me any different."

"I would never have betrayed my city," Caesar responded hotly. "Never."

Pompey gave a thin laugh. "Your city. See what I mean?" He moved again, testing the ropes that held him to the cross. "Even if I had fought her it wouldn't have mattered. I'd've been slaughtered. There was nothing I could have done." He slumped in his bonds. "This is all your fault."

"How?"

Pompey didn't answer. He only hung there, limp in his bonds. Again, there was silence.

"You arrogant bastard."

Caesar shifted position, trying to move off a large stone that was digging into his side; his legs flared and he hissed breath through his teeth. "You already said that," he said when his breath came back.

"You bastard." Pompey's voice was weaker now, softer. "Bastard."

"What?" he demanded, twisting again to look up at his rival.

Pompey was silent again for a long moment. Caesar couldn't read his expression in the darkness. When Pompey spoke again, his voice was thin, ragged, exhausted. "You had to do it, didn't you? You just had to. You never could leave well enough alone, could you? Not when that goddamned ego of yours was involved."

"Had to do what?"

Pompey didn't seem to have heard him. "All that talk about your destiny." He sneered the word, turning it into an insult. "That's why you did it, right? Why you crucified Xena? So that she might stand as a warning to all those who thought to oppose your destiny?" He gave that harsh laugh again. "Look how well that turned out."

"Shut up," Caesar said coldly.

"You couldn't just have left her alone, could you?" Pompey demanded, raising himself in his bonds; Caesar could see his shoulders tense as he fought to shift his weight a bit. "You had to go back and kill her. Not just kill her, conquer her, isn't that right? Because that's what she did to you. You had to show her that she couldn't conquer you because, oh, what's that thing you say?" His voice grew harsh, mocking. "No one conquers Caesar. Gods, do you even realize how stupid that sounds? Well, take a look around!" Pompey said with rising anger. "What do you call this? You deliberately went out of your way to piss her off, and now look where we are! Oh, you showed her, all right." He struggled against the ropes, gasping in pain. "I always knew that damn ego would be the death of you, I just didn't know you'd end up taking all of Rome down with you. You brought her down on us!" he snarled furiously.

Caesar straightened, the pain in his legs forgotten in his own anger. "I'm warning you, shut up!"

"Oh, what are you going to do? Crucify me?" Pompey laughed bitterly; then his entire body tensed and Caesar heard him groan. "Gods, this hurts. You wouldn't believe how much this hurts."

"Try me," Caesar said sullenly, carefully settling down again; his legs shrilled and he froze for a moment, then gingerly lowered himself the rest of the way to the dirt below him.

"You brought her down on us," Pompey repeated again. The anger in his voice was muted, but there. "You went out of your way to antagonize her, and look at the result."

"Look, how was I supposed to know?" Caesar demanded, turning to face his rival. "She wasn't like that then! She was just—she was just another pirate," he said slowly, thinking back to five years ago. "How could I have known that she…." He fell silent, lost for a moment in memory. The Xena he had known had been beautiful, certainly, arresting, certainly, but she had shown no trace of the unearthly power she now possessed. "If she had been then….like she is now, I…." He would have what? Married her, the thought came. I would never have let her go. Not a woman like that. What an empress she would have made….

It was too late. Much too late. "I couldn't have known," he said, looking up at his rival; he sounded lost, and knew it, and hated it.

Pompey laughed harshly. His words came in gulps; he seemed to be struggling to get enough air to breathe. "You couldn't have known. Some excuse. It wouldn't have made any difference. Believe me, I've seen you in action enough times to know how that twisted mind of yours works. You'd have done the same thing if she were a goddess, and I'm not so sure she isn't." He fell silent for a moment, panting. "You and your goddamned ego," he said again.

"Tell me something," Caesar said sourly. "How soon exactly will you be dying?"

Pompey struggled to raise himself, and Caesar heard him groan. He writhed in his bonds, then leaned his head back against the wood behind him, giving that breathless, ragged laugh. "Not soon enough."

The two of them lapsed again into silence.

The night wore on, seeming every bit as interminable as the day that had preceded it. The chill of the evening air became a cold as unpleasant as the heat of the day; Caesar huddled on the ground, trying to remain in one place, on the patch of dirt that had absorbed his warmth. By the time the moon was high in the sky, clouds had rolled in and a light rain was falling—not enough to do anything about the fires that still smoldered in the distance, but enough to thoroughly soak him and the surrounding ground, and to make him completely miserable. He was shivering uncontrollably, his teeth chattering, wondering if it was possible to freeze to death from a light rain; the shivering drew splinters of pain from his legs, as his muscles tightened irregularly around the fragments of bone. Soon it will be day again, he told himself. This night can't last forever.

Some time later, Pompey spoke.

"Caesar."

The word was a tortured whisper. Caesar turned his head so that he could look up at the cross out of the corner of one eye; he was too cold to uncurl any farther. "What?"

"I can't…feel my body….any more."

"Is that all?" Caesar asked in irritation.

Pompey made a breathless sound that might have been a laugh. "I don't…don't think I'm going to last…much longer," he whispered. "So before….before I die….I want to say one thing. I want to give you….my best wishes….for a long, long life with the Dark Conqueror." He laughed again, a strangled, choking sound. "I wish….the two of you…every happiness," he said, still laughing that half-choked sound. "Every happiness in the world."

"Shut up," Caesar snarled at him. Pompey ignored him, laughing merrily as if he had just told a particularly fine joke. Caesar turned his face to the ground and closed his eyes, doing his best to shut his rival out.

Some time still later in that everlasting night, Caesar spoke. "Pompey. Are you still up there?"

No response.

"Still up there?" he asked again.

Still no answer.

The rain had stopped at some point, and the sky had cleared again; the moonlight shone down on the dead and desolate roadside. Caesar slowly and torturously raised himself on his arms. His muscles were stiff with cold. Carefully he twisted to look up at the cross above him.

"Pompey, are you still there?"

A third time, silence. The silhouetted form of his rival hung, slumped and motionless, limply from the crosstree, black against the moon and stars. He's dead, Caesar realized.

It was strange. He'd wished Pompey dead countless times, and yet now that his rival really was dead, Caesar realized he felt…nothing. No triumph, no joy, no satisfaction, nothing. Except for the pain in his legs. If anything he was almost envious. Pompey was dead. His suffering was over. Caesar knew his own was only beginning.

That bastard, he thought sullenly, thinking of how Pompey had mockingly wished him a long life with Xena. He curled back into his ball again, trying to conserve warmth, and tried to will himself to sleep, so that he could escape for a time from his misery.

That had been some time ago. Looking up at what remained of Pompey, squinting against the glare of the bright sunlight, he thought it must have been the night before that; he found it difficult to believe that Pompey could have deteriorated that much over the course of one morning. He couldn't remember for sure, though. Now, the sun was high in the sky again, baking the flat, surrounding land, parching the dust and dirt to bone white, glaring into his eyes. His head felt like it was baking; the sun's rays struck his head like hammer blows. The guards had come by in the morning and given him some more water, but by now it was warm as blood, and did little to alleviate his thirst. They had also left him food, a bowl of some indefinable substance, but he had rejected it. He could not eat. He could do little but lie in the dirt, waiting. No, he thought, that was wrong. He was not waiting; waiting implied some hope of change. He was merely enduring.

He talked to Pompey from time to time, as he lay there, sometimes silently, sometimes aloud; he had lost track of the distinction between the two. "My fault. You say it's my fault. Just goes to show you don't understand about my destiny. You never did."

Pompey didn't answer, simply hung there. A large black crow landed on the crosstree and hopped along it, eyeing his rival's discolored face with interest.

"That's why you're up there and I'm down here, isn't it? My destiny," Caesar muttered. He felt dizzy; his thoughts were vague, distant, almost as if they weren't really coming from him at all. Briefly he wondered if he were going sun-mad. "You know this was all planned out, right? Written in the stars long before you or I were born. It's all part of the plan. You wait and see. Five years at most, and it'll be my turn. My turn to conquer Xena. I know exactly where I'm going to put her too. Up there right beside you. You can keep each other company…."

He stopped there, raising one hand to the side of his head, realizing that was wrong; he didn't like the idea of Xena keeping his rival company. Neither did he like the idea of crucifying her. That would kill her, and he didn't want her dead. If she were dead, she'd never know he'd won. No, he wanted her to suffer. Just like he was suffering now.

"She will, too," he muttered, only distantly aware he'd spoken aloud. "She will. You know that? She will, you wait and see. She'll suffer. She'll…." He trailed off. His skin was hot to the touch. The flat, baked dirt underneath him had heated up to the point where it felt like he was lying on the surface of an enormous griddle, and the metal shackles and collar were burning against the skin of his wrists and throat. Water, he thought. Maybe he needed some water.

He reached out for the bowl of water. It was stale and flat, full of grit. He drank from the bowl anyway, and then slumped down again on the hard ground, trapped like an insect between the hammer of the merciless glare and the anvil of the heat baking out of the ground. The sun was at its zenith, and seemed to have been there forever; it felt as if he were in a land where time stood still, and there was nothing for him to do but lie dying by the roadside in the blinding white sunshine. Where is Xena? he wondered vaguely; he felt light-headed, nauseous. His eyes were having trouble staying in focus. Where was she? It was somehow worse that she wasn't there with him. Had she forgotten him? Why did she leave him to die like this? Didn't she care about him at all? If she wanted to kill him, why hadn't she just crucified him?

"I thought I was important to her," he heard someone saying, and it was only after a moment that he realized it was him. He seemed to be talking to Pompey, but again, his rival didn't answer, just hung there. The crow had started pecking at one of his clouded eyes; they had gone a putrid gray-green with decay. "I betrayed her. Crucified her and broke her legs, by all the gods. Proved she—proved she's just another woman, like any other woman. Even the Dark Conqueror. I did all that and she's still ignoring me. What does it take? I deserve better than—than to be chained here and just forgotten about. I know I'm more important to her than that. Why'd she even bother to come back and burn my city anyway, if she was just going to leave me here? What's wrong with her?" Thinking it over, he reached the inescapable conclusion that it was very unfair of Xena to ignore him so and he had definite grounds for complaint. Some part of him recognized that he was not making sense, but that realization was far off. His brains felt as if they were frying in his head.

Caesar fell into a bright, semi-dozing state where he was explaining to Xena at great length exactly why he had every right to treat her as he had five years ago and her reaction was completely unjustified. "…and you should have known it was coming, too," he insisted. "You should have known. You were standing between me and my destiny, what did you think was going to happen? If you had just gotten over it, don't you see? Maybe I'll let you live. When my destiny comes. If you ask me nicely…."

He tried to roll over and fell back at the protest from his legs. They had subsided to a dim throbbing as long as he lay still, but whenever he tried to move, the pain came back with a vengeance. White-hot spikes of fire lanced up his legs all the way to the hips. It brought him back, enough to know that he was rambling incoherently; with shaking hands, he drew the bowl to him and forced himself to drink some more water. It was warm and brought no relief, but he drank it anyway. He lay back down and closed his eyes, grinding his teeth together. The rough cawing of crows drifted to his ears distantly.

He sank back into that bright, half-dozing state, dreaming that Xena was up on the cross above him; she looked like Pompey, but he knew it was really Xena. For some reason, he was still chained to the base of the cross, but that was a small thing beside seeing the Destroyer of Nations crucified. He'd put her up there; he knew he had, because he had before. I told you, he said, relishing the triumph. No one conquers Caesar. I told you my day would come.

She laughed at him from where she hung. Then how come you're still down there?

What does that have to do with anything? he demanded. Don't you see I've won?

You haven't won anything, she responded, laughing again. You may have put me up here, but I can get down when I choose—I did before, don't you remember? And when I do, I'll still have you chained where you are now.

Caesar was about to respond to this—was trying to think of a suitable reply—when a distant thrumming came to his ears, and vibrations in the ground pulled him out of the dream. He came to his senses in time to realize that soldiers were coming up the road, riding to the distant ruins of burned-out Rome. They were still a ways off yet, and his vision was foggy with dust and heat, but the lead rider was mounted on a golden horse.

Xena, he thought at once She was coming to get him. Of course she was. She wouldn't leave him here to die by the side of the road in the heat and the glare and the silence. He was too important to her. He'd known it. Trembling, he raised himself on his arms, squinting against the heat haze. The mounted riders were rapidly drawing nearer along the stone roadway. He blinked, trying to clear some of the grit from his eyes, and an absurd hope filled him. He had been right. It was she. It was Xena.

Gods, she's beautiful, he thought dizzily as she and her men thundered up the road toward where he lay. So beautiful… Clad in armor with a sword at her side, at the head of a column of warriors, she was more enthralling than the finest courtesan in Rome, more seductive than the most well-trained Greek hetaera. He supported himself on his shaking arms and waited in anticipation as she galloped up the road, waited as she drew nearer to where he and Pompey lay, and he was still waiting as she thundered right past him, her face that beautiful, perfect mask, her eyes half-lidded, without so much as a glance in his direction.

What? It took a moment for what had happened to penetrate his understanding; Caesar remained on his upraised arms as the column of riders flowed past, staring after her stupidly as she receded into the distance, until he got a lungful of some of the dust kicked up by the column and collapsed, coughing uncontrollably. The coughing felt as if it were tearing him in two, and his legs pulsed in time to the spasms. When at last the coughs subsided and he was able to sit up again, the tail end of the column was sweeping past, and Xena was no longer in sight.

She'd left him there. She'd left him by the side of the road to die all alone. A wave of desolation swept over him, even through the thick confusion the sun had brought to his mind. His eyes were stinging. She had abandoned him. She didn't care about him after all. She was never going to let him free, and he was going to die right here, chained to Pompey's cross, in the bright and baking sun. Maybe he was already dead, Caesar thought deliriously; he tried to remember if he had died at some point. Maybe this land of heat and silence where time stood still was the land of the dead and he was no more than a ghost or a spirit, trapped here forever. No wonder Xena had ridden right past him. She couldn't even see him. He didn't even exist anymore.

Suddenly he no longer had the strength to support himself; he lay back down in the dirt, burying his face against the ground. What did it matter if he lived or died. Rome was burned. Pompey was dead. Xena had abandoned him. What did he have left?

Slowly, the answer came to him. My destiny, he thought. My destiny.

Shakily, he forced himself to sit up again. He drew the bowl of water to him. Estimating the amount of water left in it, he swallowed about half, then looked around unsteadily. A small boulder stood up out of the ground nearby; it cast a tiny amount of shade, not enough to do him any good, but enough perhaps to shield the water from the full heat of the sun; moving very, very slowly and carefully so as not to wake his legs, he dragged himself over to it and slid the water bowl in. It just barely fit. He lay down again, crossing his arms and resting his head on them, with a glance up at Pompey; the crow had finished off one of his rival's eyes and was starting on the other one. In his semi-delirious state, Pompey appeared to be winking at him.

"That's right," Caesar said to him. His voice sounded too loud in the silence; it rang strangely in his ears. "You know, don't you." A rock was digging into him. He shifted against the hard ground, leaned his head on his arms, and set himself to endure. Someday, Xena. Someday. Just you wait. You can't change my destiny.