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 notes: Another in my apparently on-going series of AU Caesar and Gabrielle Xena-fics. This one was not planned; the idea for this one came when I woke up one morning over Christmas break with the first line in my head. At first I thought it would be humorous, but then that idea butted up against the fact that I apparently have no talent for writing comedy.
I partly wrote this because I was having some difficulty with Caesar's character, so I used the device of getting him drunk to open him up and see what was inside him, particularly in regards to his attitudes toward Xena and the fact that he lost everything to her. I'm not sure how well it worked out as a story, but I do think it turned out helpful for me. As a bonus, readers can try to figure out from where I brought in the character of Zoe—I thought it was completely obvious, but my beta reader had no clue until I told him. Course, he's not a big fan of that fandom. I'll give y'all a hint: Zoe is not from X:WP or H:TLJ. Anyway, enjoy.
Caesar decided to get drunk.
Normally he did not drink to excess—wine impaired judgement, and habitual drunkenness was a serious character flaw that spoke of a lack of self-control—but in brutal honesty, none of that mattered anymore that he could see. He had just come from the plain of ashes that had been Rome—"Still smoking," that stupid blonde girl had said with something approaching awe, as they had stepped off the Appian way into the burned and barren wasteland that had once been his city. "Still smoking, after five years." He had looked over at her from where he leaned on the staff she had found for him, and she had immediately shut up. It was a miserably small victory. After seeing what was left of Rome, he couldn't see how a cup or two of wine would matter; he couldn't see how anything could matter ever again.
They had wandered among the gray and smoking ashes that Xena had left for most of the day, while he tried to see if there was anything left of his city, under the devastation. There wasn't. Occasionally they would come on a bone, blackened and charred to crumbling by the firestorm that had swept the city, or a cobblestone or two, cracked and sooty; once they had wandered into an area where some sort of stone structure had once stood, as they could tell by the few jagged stubs of rock that poked up through the blanket of ash. Caesar guessed it might have been the Colosseum, based on its location in relation to the Appian Way, and what he remembered of how long it had taken Xena to tear that structure down, but it was impossible to tell. After a while he had realized peripherally that the girl was no longer beside him, but it hardly mattered. His shattered lower legs were throbbing in pain, but he barely noticed that either, as he wandered among the ashes of what had once been his city, looking for anything he recognized, anything familiar that he could see through the destruction. There was nothing. As he had wandered, once he caught sight of the girl seated on a cracked rock, scribbling on a parchment, probably composing one of her stupid tales. The sight of her sitting so casually on that rock, which might once have been the cornerstone of a temple or a bathhouse, gave him a chill as if he had seen someone playing carelessly with the skull of one of his ancestors; the thought that she was writing about the ashes around them was worse. The idea that she was using the utter destruction of his city—his city—as fodder for one of her ridiculous stories made him want to strike her. Instead he turned away.
Finally, as the sun had started to sink in the sky, she had come up to him. "We probably shouldn't stay too much longer," she had said, speaking with the sort of gentle sympathy that always made him want to go straight for her throat. "It's getting dark and there could be bandits. It'll take us a couple of hours to reach the inn."
He struggled with himself, and nodded coldly, not trusting himself to speak. She was right, and he knew it. He allowed her to lead him to where she had placed Argo—right under the base of Pompey's cross, though he hadn't told her whose it was. He remembered, though. He'd spent weeks chained by the neck to that cross, forced to watch as Xena tore the burned-out remains of his city apart stone by stone. She helped to lift him up on Argo's back, and as she swung up before him, he looked up at the bleached bones of his rival, still hanging from the crosstree. This was all your fault, he thought with old bitterness. If you had only stayed on my side, instead of deserting for Xena, this would never have happened. At least Xena gave you the reward you deserved….
Then the bard touched her heels to Argo's sides, and the horse started off, down what had once been the Appian way, past the row of crosses—most still standing, though some had toppled over—that held what had once been Rome's senate leaders. Caesar could have named each and every one of them in turn as Argo passed them, but instead he kept his eyes on the road ahead. He'd seen enough death and destruction for one day.
Which was why he decided to get drunk when they reached the inn. He thought, after all, he was entitled to it. I'll get drunk and sleep tonight, and see if things look any brighter tomorrow. The only drawback to that plan was that he had no coin; that stupid blonde girl whose name he still couldn't remember—Bella, maybe?—paid their way by telling stories and reciting epics, and she kept all the gold she earned to herself. He didn't think she would give him any, either, if he told her what he wanted it for, so he would have to lie. He was trying to think of what he could tell her—what she might believe—when it came to him what he was doing: he, Julius Caesar, the emperor of Rome, who had once been able to command the lives and deaths of thousands with but a word, was trying to come up with a lie to tell a stupid girl so that she would give him money for wine.
He managed to choke back the rising, bitter laughter just in time, but it was a close thing. She called me psychotic once, I wonder if she's right… Instead, he turned to her. "Give me your coin pouch."
Gabrielle looked up at her companion. "What?"
"Give me your coin pouch," he repeated, looking down at her.
"Why?" she asked.
"I'm going to get drunk. Give it to me."
"No," she said, and backed away. They had gotten into a previous tussle over her belt knife, and she had no desire to repeat the experience. She was holding Argo's reins, so the horse came too; Caesar had been supporting himself against Argo's side, lurched, and almost fell. He caught himself on one of the posts supporting the tavern's porch roof, and looked up at her; his brows came together in a now-familiar scowl.
"What do you mean, no? Give it to me."
"I mean, no. We don't have that much money and we need it for important things like food, shelter, and stables for Argo. We don't have enough for you to waste on a drinking binge."
She sympathized with his desire to get drunk; she did. She had watched him walking among the ashes of Rome for the entire day, wondering what he was thinking. She herself found the devastation—the level of it, and the scale—almost staggering, and she had never even seen Rome before its destruction. She couldn't even begin to guess what its effect might have been on him; but she hadn't been able to tell anything from his expression. He hadn't said a single word to her as he had wandered through the ruins that day; he had seemed a little more distant than usual, but she hadn't been able to tell. He can't possibly feel nothing, she had thought to herself, given how obsessed he had been with Rome throughout all the time she had known him; but he had not shown her what he did feel. This demand to get drunk, however, seemed to indicate that he had been deeply affected. However, just because she sympathized didn't mean that she agreed; she was not going to let him drink away her hard-earned coin if she could avoid it.
She expected him to argue, but instead he simply straightened, pulling himself up the post hand over hand, and looked at her. "You're not going to give it to me." It was not a question.
"We need that money for more important things."
His mouth tightened. "Fine," he said shortly. "Be that way." She had found him a staff; she had gotten tired of having to half-carry him everywhere they went, and he hadn't said anything, but she had the impression that he was not happy with having to lean on her for assistance either. He reached out and took it from the wall behind him, leaning on it unsteadily. Gabrielle watched him, standing there, leaning on his staff. His head was down, and he suddenly looked very tired. Pity rose up inside her. She knew him well enough by now to know that he would not appreciate anything that looked like sympathy, so she helped him the only way she could, by giving him space.
"Well, Argo has a shoe loose. I saw a blacksmith on the other side of the village; I'm going to take her to get her shoe looked at. I'll probably be back in an hour or so."
"Fine," he said again, not looking at her. Gabrielle took the reins and led the horse off. It occurred to her briefly to wonder why he was being so cooperative, but she shook it off; after all, she had the coin pouch with her, and what trouble could he get into?
The blacksmith's forge was all the way across town, and it took Gabrielle longer than she had expected to find it. When she did reach the forge, there were several others before her, so she had to wait almost an hour before the smith got to look at Argo. While she waited, she listened to the gossip from those ahead of her. It didn't take her long to realize that many of them were refugees from the south, fleeing ahead of advancing forces.
"They say that the Crusader's coming up from the south," said a grizzled old man holding the lead of a gray donkey. "They say her ships've landed and that She of the Djinn is making another attempt on the mainland."
"Least it's the Crusader coming and not Callisto the Fiery or the Warrior Princess," a matronly woman said fervently. "I've heard the Crusader at least shows mercy sometimes, but the Dark Conqueror and the Bright Warrior—never."
Another woman, young, in ragged clothing that had once been fine and with a baby at her back, scoffed. "Don't you believe that. They're all the same, all three of 'em. One's as bad as another." She pushed long, dark hair in a tangle back from a face that was lined with strain and old beyond her years.
"How do you know, Hermia?" asked the old man.
"Because my village was ravaged by all three of 'em, one after another," she said bitterly. "First Najara of the Djinn comes, and her men take all the grain we'd been saving for the spring planting to feed her army. When my husband Meron tried to resist, he was killed. Then the Warrior Princess comes and she claims that our village had been supporting the Crusader, and she crucifies the entire house of Menos, from the elderly down to little children, 'as a warning,' she says. And then, Callisto the Fiery comes, and she claims that we were giving aid to Xena, and she has the members of the other great house Lykos burned alive and puts the entire village to the torch. If I hadn't been out at the next village trying to buy more grain, I wouldn't have survived. If you can call this survival," she said, and laughed.
None of the others tried to contradict her; they all nodded soberly. Gabrielle guessed they had their own stories. She did herself; thoughts of Perdicus, the man she had been married to so briefly and so long ago, occurred to her for the first time in a few years. Strangely, they no longer stung as they once had; the memory of him had faded with time. One day. I had one day with him, and then Callisto's men killed him. Why didn't I marry him sooner? she mused. Maybe then at least I'd have more to remember….
"Besides," the woman—Hermia—continued acidly, "don't worry. Those three draw each other like flies to a carcass. I'm sure Xena or Callisto will be along shortly to battle Najara, and then you can deal with them." She smiled like a knife.
"They say Xena's dead," the matronly woman spoke up. "They say she was killed by Callisto."
"Good riddance." Hermia spat. "The day the last one of those monsters is burning in Tartarus will be the best day of my life."
Gabrielle said nothing, but listened, and when the blacksmith had finished with Argo, she silently took her leave. Somehow, after coming from the ashed-over plains of what had been the Eternal City, she found the snippets of news even more affecting, and a deep sensation of sorrow washed over her. It just seems like there isn't a lot of happiness in the world today, she thought to herself as she followed the ruts in the dirt road back to the inn. These are dark times, for sure. I don't know if some god up there has let Chaos loose onto Earth or what, but if anyone up on Olympus can see us, I wish he or she would take pity on us poor suffering mortals down here…. She realized that tears were pricking at her eyes, as she thought about the row of crosses lining the Appian way, the plain of ashes that had been Rome, the ruins of Athens, the death and destruction she had heard of or personally witnessed in the years since Xena and Callisto and Najara had arisen….
Abruptly she shook herself. Snap out of it, Gabrielle. Come on. Cheer up. Her mother had always said that one of the fastest ways to cheer yourself up was to do something nice for someone else. Maybe she should do something nice for her companion. She knew he wouldn't appreciate it, but she might at least make herself feel better. He wanted some wine. Maybe I'll buy him some. One bottle wouldn't be that much, and we could even split it. Who knows; it might make me feel better too….There's the inn up ahead.
Gabrielle drew Argo to a halt in front of the inn and swung off. A stableboy came running out to take her horse, and she handed him the reins, then pushed through the door into the interior of the old building.
It took Gabrielle's eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light of the interior. When they did, the first sight that met her gaze was the image of her companion, slouched over the end of the counter, with a bottle and a stack of cups beside him. From the looks of things, he had been there quite a while.
What in Hades— All thoughts vanished abruptly out of her head. I don't know the explanation for this, and I'm sure I don't want to find out. She marched across the room and grabbed him.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle demanded. She pulled him back by the shoulder, afraid to hear the answer.
Caesar looked at her, and blinked for a moment, as if he were trying to focus. "What's it look like?" he asked, slurring slightly, and picked up the winecup in front of him. It took him a couple of tries to get it.
"But—but—how are you doing this? I had the coin pouch—" Gabrielle began in dread.
He pushed her away, finished the cup in front of him, and shakily poured into it again. "But—" Gabrielle tried again, only to be grabbed by the tavern mistress.
"He said you'd pay," she said, looking down at Gabrielle. The tavern mistress was an imposing, dark-skinned woman with long curly dark hair. Gabrielle tried to remember her name, and came up with Zoe.
"What?" she demanded, turning back to her companion. He waved her off and drained the cup in one go, then filled it a second time. "Have you—Has he been doing this all evening?" she asked of Zoe.
"More or less," Zoe said shrugging. "He said that I could get the money from his wife, and since the two of you were staying here, I thought the chances of you running off were—"
"His wife?" she demanded, then "No. We are not married—"
Her companion muttered something that sounded like, "Thank the gods," and sloshed more wine into his cup.
"But you are going to pay, right?" Zoe asked sternly. "If you can't pay, then neither of you can stay here tonight."
Gabrielle turned and stared at her companion with wide eyes. He glanced over at her, blinked, then shrugged. "Don' look at me." He turned back to the wine. Gabrielle looked back at Zoe.
"Well, how much so far?"
Zoe named a figure.
"What?" She swung on Caesar. "You—you—you son of a bitch!" she cried. "We needed that money for lodging! And provisions! And—and—"
He waved one hand at her dismissively and took a gulp from the cup. He made a sound that might have been a laugh, and Gabrielle almost ground her teeth in anger; her fingers closed around an empty bottle and she had to stop and make herself put it down, though she couldn't help thinking how nice it would feel to smash it into the back of his head.
Zoe raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure you're not married?"
Gabrielle raised her hands to cover her face. Patience, Gabrielle, patience….Elysian fields, calm and green….Next chance I get, I'm abandoning him by the roadside, I swear it…. A couple of deep breaths later, she had calmed down. She looked back at Zoe. "No. I am not his wife, believe me."
"Yeah." Zoe shrugged. "I've gotta say, I thought it sounded a little strange—I've never heard of a wife yet who would be willing to pay for her husband's drinking spells, but he was so insistent—just wouldn't take no for an answer—"
"Yeah, I know," Gabrielle growled. "Believe me."
"Can you pay?" Zoe asked. "If you can't, I could always throw him out."
Does that ever sound really tempting right now…. Gabrielle drew another long breath. She looked over at her companion, then sighed. "No. I can pay." She glared at Caesar, who didn't appear to notice. "This time. Here." She counted out the money, growling to herself as she watched the coin she had earned with her tales disappear into the tavernkeeper's hand. Then she bit her lip and added more, leaving a pitiful amount remaining in the pouch. "For another bottle. Now help me get him upstairs."
Caesar did not want to be moved; it took Gabrielle and Zoe both to lever him off his stool, whereupon he would have collapsed to the ground if he hadn't clutched blindly at Gabrielle. "What are you doing, you little….blonde….female?" he slurred angrily; his dark eyes were not only unfocused, but even seemed to be slightly crossed, Gabrielle noticed. "Leave me alone, or I'll—I'll—Let go!"
"Come on, upstairs," Gabrielle grunted, bracing herself to support him.
"Does he do this often?" Zoe asked, ducking under his other arm.
"First time. And I hope, the last." It had better be, Gabrielle thought sourly to herself.
Babysitting a drunken Caesar was, while not pleasant, an interesting experience, Gabrielle observed to herself, although one she hoped not to repeat for a long time, if ever. He turned out to be a mean drunk, which didn't surprise her in the least; he cursed her and Zoe all the way up the stairs and down the hall to their room, where she and Zoe dumped him on one of the beds. He promptly collapsed, still slurring curses on both of them. Gabrielle took the other bed, which was closer to the door; she made sure it was out of his reach. She knew that between his legs and the drunkenness, there was no possible way he could get to her from across the room, but she remembered their previous experience struggling over the belt knife; if she were to get close enough that he could grab her, he was strong enough that she could be in serious trouble. Just to be on the safe side, she thought, and remembered what Brutus had said to her about him a couple weeks ago: Don't underestimate him. And don't turn your back on him; like any other caged animal, he's still dangerous.
"You sure you want me to leave you up here?" Zoe had asked.
"I think we'll be okay," Gabrielle had told her. "If I need anything, I'll call."
"I'll be listening." Zoe stepped out the door. As she did, Gabrielle tossed the bottle Zoe had left her to her companion. "Here."
He tried to catch it, but missed; it landed on the bed beside him. "What's this for?" he demanded, squinting as he tried to look across the room at her.
"It's for you. Knock yourself out."
He looked down at the bottle, then back up at her, then down at the bottle again. He looked like he was trying to do a problem in his head and something just wasn't adding up. "Why?" he demanded suspiciously after a couple rounds of that.
"You—You don't even like me. Why're you giving me wine?"
Because after seeing the devastation left of your city, I felt that even you are entitled to a little sympathy, she thought, but didn't say it. Instead, she said, "Why are you questioning it? Just drink it."
He frowned, looking back down at the bottle and back up at her. "I'm drunk, not stupid. Tell me why."
Gabrielle sighed. "Oh, just because. Drink it."
It looked strangely to her like he shuddered slightly at her words; he fumbled the bottle open and took a long swallow. "Don't say that," he told her.
"Don't say what?" she asked curiously.
"Just don't." He took another gulp.
"Whatever. Knock yourself out," she repeated, and sat back on the bed. Though from where she was sitting, it didn't look to her like he needed any advice. "You could even thank me, if you wanted," she suggested, not too hopefully.
Her suggestion, however, seemed to sting; he lifted his head and glared at her, though the effectiveness of that glare was spoiled a bit by the fact that his eyes were unfocused, and without missing a beat, picked up the thread of the rant he'd been delivering to her and Zoe. "Thank you? Why? All you've done is—is insult me and torment me since we first met. You didn't want to go to Rome, you wouldn't give me any coin at first, and then you drag me up here, and now you're giving me wine for no reason? You expect me to thank you after all that, you screeching harpy? I've seen—seen dogs who were more helpful than you. And nicer to look at too—" Gabrielle rolled her own eyes, and sat back.
Not only was Caesar a mean drunk, Gabrielle observed, he was also a sloppy, messy one as well; it was as if the alcohol had opened a floodgate deep within her companion's being, and torrents of emotion came spilling out, all negative, and mostly formed into rambling soliloquies aimed at her. Gabrielle had the feeling that if he had been alone, he would have talked to the walls; she just happened to be there. Over the course of the evening, and with the aid of the bottle of wine Gabrielle had bought for him, he degenerated from semicoherent, surly abusiveness to a level of maudlin self-pity that Gabrielle found by turns humorous and nauseating. In his little mind, it really is all about him, isn't it?
It wasn't just the emotional content of her companion's ramblings that made the experience an interesting one, however; in a very short time, Gabrielle learned more about Caesar than she had ever wanted to know, and while she could only understand about half of what he was saying, the half she could understand was more than enough. All she had to do was keep nodding and making sounds of encouragement, and he went on and on and on.
"They offered me a wife," he said, slumping back against the wall behind him; his voice was so thick it took Gabrielle a moment to figure out what he had said. "A wife. Someone's daughter, who was it….Was it Pompey? His daughter? Couldn've been Pompey's—what was her name, Cal—Cal—something. Too long."
"Did you take her?" Gabrielle asked.
He opened his eyes. His brows drew together. "No," he said, glaring at her as if she had just asked the stupidest question he had ever heard. "Why would I? She wasn't— Wasn't good enough. I'd had Xena, and you think I would take anyone less?" He shook his head as if he had said something so obvious that it shouldn't have needed to be said, and took another swallow from the bottle. "You of all people should know," he added, looking at her with unconcealed hostility.
"Of course," Gabrielle said dryly. "Silly me. I guess that was a stupid question."
"It was," he agreed. His eyes drifted closed briefly, and his head dropped. "Stupid. She was….She was a stupid little thing, almost as stupid as you," he added with another glare in her direction. Gabrielle sighed, unable to suppress a roll of her eyes. "I don't know why anyone would ever have thought I'd want a stupid, pale little thing like her. Xena was never stupid. Never. Maybe I should've taken her," he said after a moment's reflection.
"Cal—Cal—the other one. Aren't you paying attention?" he asked in irritation. "Maybe I should've taken her. Even if she wasn't as good as Xena. Maybe if I'd taken her, Pompey would've stayed with me. Divide and conquer," he said, and slurred a laugh. "I taught her that, you know," he continued, eyeing Gabrielle. "Me. Xena got that from me. Don't you forget it either."
"If Xena got it from you, then how come you fell for it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Shut up." He glared at her again. "What do you know, anyway? You know what you are? You're—Nothing. You're nothing, you stupid little….blonde….girl. I'm the—"
"Emperor of Rome, yes, I know," Gabrielle said, rolling her eyes. "I bow before your magnificence."
He eyed her unsteadily for a moment. "Good. You ought to." He took another drink from the bottle. "She should've been my empress."
"Pompey's daughter?" Gabrielle asked.
"The woman you were talking about. Cal-what's her name."
"She wasn't Pompey's daughter," he said, looking at her in frustration. "You're not listening. Why aren't you listening? She was….someone else's….You should listen better."
"Sorry!" Gabrielle said, holding up her hands. "She should have been your empress?"
"Xena should've been my empress!" Caesar shook his head in disgust. "You really are stupid. Xena. Should've gone straight for her, not wasted my time with those—those losers. Pompey. Crassus, by the gods…." He gestured sloppily with the bottle and almost dropped it. "What a waste he was. When that ridi—r'di—stupid djinn-girl killed him, she actually did me a favor….No, Xena," he said, glaring at her again. "D'you know what I could've done with her as my empress? I—we—could've conquered the whole world. You think that Crusader, the Bright Warrior, you think they could stand up to us together? You think Ch'in?"
"No, probably not," Gabrielle replied.
"Course not." He shook his head again. "She should've been my empress. I deserved her. I deserved her." Gabrielle could hear anger in his voice, and watched him warily. "She should've been mine. At my side. It was so obvious," he said, looking at her again. "So obvious. She was meant for me. Or…." He paused, and frowned vaguely, as if trying to figure something out. "Or….we were meant for each other maybe. She felt it. I know she did. Why else…." He squinted down at the wine bottle as if trying to see what was inside. "Why else'd she keep me alive," he mumbled, and laughed harshly. "No, she should've been my empress." His eyes closed again, briefly. "And look what she did to me."
Gabrielle said nothing, watching him.
"Look what she did to me," he repeated, the bitterness growing in his voice. He opened his eyes, looking at her, or through her; his eyes had that faraway cast she'd seen before. There was something else there, too, something Gabrielle could not identify; maybe because she had never seen it in him before. "She should've been mine and helped me conquer the world, and instead what do I get? She gets to be one of the— She gets to rule the world, and what do I get? She should've been my wife, why couldn't she see that?" he demanded, looking at her as if he expected an answer. His eyes had a strange, drunken glitter to them; not the gleam of lowering madness that had so worried her earlier, this was something different. "Why couldn't she see what a good match we'd make? Why?"
"Maybe because you crucified her and broke her legs the first time you met," Gabrielle suggested dryly.
"What's that have to do with anything?" Caesar glared at her. "So what. I had to. I told her I would-"
"You know, I doubt that very much." Gabrielle folded her arms.
"-and anyway, she should've known. Not my fault if she can't figure these things out herself—"
"That doesn't make any sense," Gabrielle interjected. He didn't seem to hear her.
"She should've known, and anyway, so what," he repeated doggedly. "That was a long time ago. Could—Couldn she've gotten over it?" He squinted at the bottle again. "It's not fair," he repeated angrily. "She should've been my empress—She should've conquered the world for me and instead she—instead she—It's not fair!" he insisted, glowering at Gabrielle; his eyes were more than slightly crossed, she observed. "She took it away from me. She took everything away from me. She took my city, my destiny—" He gave that bitter laugh again. "Sh'even took my legs. How could she do that to me?" he slurred almost plaintively. "How could she do that?"
"I'm sure I don't know," Gabrielle sighed.
His eyes closed for a moment, then opened again. "She burned my city," he repeated. "She burned it. Right to the ground." Caesar waved one hand and let it drop to the surface of the bed. "My city. Rome. Salted the ashes. You saw what's left. My city, greatest city in the world. Rome was my destiny. My destiny, and she—" He took another gulp. "It's not fair," he said again, sullenly. "How could she burn my city?"
Oddly fascinated, Gabrielle asked, "What was the population of Rome before Xena came?"
"What?" He frowned at her, jolted out of his rant.
"Population. Population," she said slowly; seeing the glazed look in his eyes, she rephrased, "How many people did Rome have before Xena?"
"People?" His brows contracted and he stared at her. "How sh' I know? It's the censors' job, not mine Don't you know anything"
"Well, you must have some idea. Guess."
He shrugged. "Ten million," he said after a moment, with a wave of the hand; clearly he had grabbed the figure out of thin air.
"That many?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know, it was a lot." He frowned again. "Why d'you care?"
"That was a lot of people that died," she said quietly, watching him.
Caesar hissed through his teeth and gestured with the bottle again, spilling some. "I'm—Talking about my city here. Pay attention Can't you keep anything straight for once? People." He made a sound of disgust. "What people? Bunch of….worthless Head Count, that's what," he mumbled, closing his eyes again. "Who cares about them. All they do is eat and go to the shows. Did. And the Senate," he added after a moment's reflection. "Can' say I was sorry to see most of them go either."
Gabrielle sighed, not really surprised at his reaction. "Well, as long as we've figured out what's important."
"Right," he said, missing the sarcasm in her voice. He took another swallow of wine. "My city. It was my city and she burned it. Destroyed it. Destroyed my eternal city." Caesar lowered his head. "Eternal city," he muttered after a moment, with an edged smile. "Greatest city in the world. Not so great now, is it? Not after Xena got through with it….Sic transit gloria mundi," he said with a harsh laugh.
"Sic transit?" she asked, frowning.
"Never mind." He was silent for a long moment after that. Gabrielle watched him, wondering if he had gone to sleep. But after a moment he shifted slightly. "I should've married her." The words were almost inaudible.
"Why didn't you?" Gabrielle asked, curious.
Caesar opened his eyes now and looked at her. That thing she had seen there earlier was back, stronger in the weak light from the flickering oil lamp sitting on the washstand; it hovered on the edge of identifiability. "I didn't know," he said with a strange sort of dignity. "She was just another pirate when I first met her. How was I supposed to know that she—" He shrugged, looking somehow defenseless in the low light. "It was a mistake." The words were so low that Gabrielle could barely hear him. "Mistake. Only one I ever made, but….it was enough. More than enough." He gave an unsteady, mirthless laugh. "If I could do it over again, I'd never let her go. Ever." Coldness and heat warred in his voice. Gabrielle bit her lip.
"Sounds almost like you miss her," she said, and waited to see what he would say.
Caesar didn't answer her. Or perhaps he did; after a moment, he said, "She was the best. The best. There'll never be another like her. Not ever" His mouth twisted. He straightened from the wall, and raised the wine bottle shakily to an empty room. "To Xena!" he announced in a ringing voice, as if he were speaking to a cheering crowd. His eyes had the elsewhere cast that Gabrielle had seen in them before, as if he were seeing something other than the bare walls and rough floorboards. "Ave Xena Imperatrix!" Caesar cried to an unseen audience, and laughed again, bitterly. He drained the rest of the wine in a single, long gulp, then tossed the empty bottle aside. It shattered as it hit the floor. He laughed at that too, then settled back down against the wall. His eyes closed and his head drooped.
"What does that mean?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Her companion gave no answer. After a moment she heard a slight snore. Apparently that was his last hurrah, she thought.
Carefully, watching him closely, she rose from her bed. He made no move as she approached him. After a moment, she reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. Again, nothing. Satisfied that he was really asleep, she slowly pushed him down on the straw-filled mattress, then unfolded the blanket at the foot of the bed and spread it up over him gently. She looked down at Caesar for a moment in the unsteady illumination of the flickering lamp. The lines of pride and arrogance in his face had smoothed out; as she looked down at him, she saw there the marks of long suffering, of pain and old bitterness. The scarring on his throat and wrists was pale in the lamplight. Gabrielle was suddenly seized by a terrible feeling of pity, strong enough to almost bring tears to her eyes. Telling herself it was just the lateness of the hour and the stress of the day, she extinguished the light, then climbed into the other bed. It took her a long while to sleep.
When Caesar opened his eyes the next morning, he realized things did not look any better.
It was the door slamming open that woke him, driving through his head like a tent spike; he forced his eyes open, and squinted painfully against the sunlight. After a moment, squinting hard, he made out the form of that ridiculous blonde girl standing in the dark rectangle of the door's opening.
"Well," she said, "look who's up." She was holding something and dropped it with a crash. He flinched at the sound.
"Stop it," he heard himself growl; he tried to sit up, but fell back, feeling ill.
"Oh, I'm sorry, was that too loud for you?" she asked without a trace of sympathy. She went to the shutters and banged them open, letting in more piercing light.
"Close….damn shutters," he muttered, raising one hand to shield his eyes.
"No." She stepped back against the wall and folded her arms. "Are we a little bit hung over?" she asked with saccharine sweetness. "Serves you right after that lousy trick you pulled yesterday."
"Go to Tartarus, you screeching bacchae." If he only opened one eye at a time, he could almost handle the light. Caesar raised himself on his arms. The room swung around him; he swallowed, and tried to swing his damaged legs over the side of the bed. They shrilled with pain, and he bit back a cry; then remembered, cursing himself, that he had spent all of yesterday wandering among the ashes of Rome. No wonder his legs hurt today. "Help me."
She sighed, but came to the bedside and drew his arm across her shoulders. He leaned on her as much as he could, carefully moving until his feet were on the floor. He felt her brace, then push to a standing position; he swayed unsteadily, as what felt like red-hot knives slashed their way up his lower legs, and clutched at her until he found his balance. Then swallowed again, hard.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"I'm going to be sick," he managed, and lurched forward. The girl lost her grip on him and he collapsed to the floor, banging his shin in the process. He did cry out then; the pain almost made him forget about the revolt going on in his guts. Almost. Cold sweat had broken out on his arms. The sun was stabbing into his eyes like daggers.
The girl had lunged under the bed; after a moment she came out with the chamberpot. He bent over it, shivering, realizing what he was doing—that he was about to be sick in front of this foolish blonde girl. He would have hated it more if he hadn't felt so thoroughly and completely miserable. He felt her hand on his shoulder, gentle and soothing; somehow, it helped. He tried to concentrate on that, fighting with his gorge, and after what felt like a year he was able to sit back, leaning weakly against the bed and breathing shallowly. The girl didn't say a word, but he could feel self-righteous satisfaction radiating from her. If he had been any stronger, he would have struck her.
Caesar closed his eyes, unable to bear the sight of her any longer, and thought about the knife again. Sitting on that squalid inn floor, only a few miles from the total destruction that was all that was left of his ambitions and dreams, it seemed so logical: I am Rome. Rome is dead. Therefore, I am dead. Or should be. Brutus—Brutus—had even said as much to him. Vale, Caesar. You're as dead as your city. In this brave new world, you have no value…. It would not hurt, compared to his broken legs, and it would be easy too; much easier than going on in this world where everything that had ever meant anything to him was gone. He let his thoughts dwell on the knife for a long while, turning it over in his mind in a dizzy, half-dreaming way. It would have to be the little belt-knife the girl carried; she had the only blade between them. She was sitting right next to him. He could probably just reach over and take it. He'd have to do it fast though; he knew from a previous try that she was strong enough to put up quite a resistance.
He opened his eyes and looked over at her. She regarded him calmly, her arms folded. From out of nowhere, her voice came back to him: You're a coward and if you kill yourself I'll see to it the whole world knows.
So what? The world already thinks of me as nothing more than Xena's crippled little whore. What more can she do than Xena already did?
You think you're a laughingstock now? I promise you, you ain't seen nothing yet….Kill yourself and I'll see to it that your name is remembered for a thousand years—for two thousand—as the name of a coward and a fool. Julius Caesar will be the biggest joke the world has ever known.
He was still shivering. He raised one hand to his throbbing head, realizing his skin felt clammy to the touch. Could he even take the knife away from her in this condition? Probably not. I'm already a joke. Can't even overpower that ridiculous blonde girl. She looked very solid, watching him with that stupid cow-look of concern on her face. Concern. He ought to kill himself just to spite her. It would serve her right.
I wouldn't even have to write an epic….It's much more effective to tell familiar stories with slight variations. You know, "As cowardly as Caesar," or "When Achilles held Patroclus in his arms, he wept as if he were Caesar, only for better cause…."
That's it. The memory made him grind his teeth. The thought of that shrieking harpy slyly ridiculing him to a crowd hanging on her every word—he'd seen the way she could bring a room of drunken tavern-goers to rapt attention within a few sentences; the girl had talent, he'd give her that—grated on him like the metallic screech of a file. I may have lost my city. I may have lost my legs. I may be thought of to the world as nothing more than Xena's little whore. But I'll be damned if I'll let that irritating blonde slander me while I'm not there to defend myself. I haven't sunk that low. Not yet.
He realized he was glaring at her. She frowned. "Are you all right?"
"I'm going to be sick again." As soon as he said it, he realized it was true. He bent over the chamberpot again. This time, he couldn't keep it down. As he heaved into the pot, he felt her hands rubbing his back. Somehow, it helped a little.
"Your friend give you any trouble last night?"
Gabrielle paused on the rough flight of stairs leading down to the tavern's common room. She juggled Argo's saddlebags, and looked over at the tavern-mistress's question.
"Not really," she said after a moment. "He just talked." She grimaced. "A lot."
"I had my ears open for a while, but everything seemed pretty quiet. Though I must say, after the trick he pulled about the wine, I was wondering if I was going to have to break things up by hand." Zoe smiled slightly at Gabrielle. The blonde bard simply shook her head in disgust.
"I guess I should have expected it. We haven't been together very long, but long enough that I've already noticed he doesn't like to hear the word 'no.'"
Zoe nodded. "He looks the type. Out of curiosity, did your friend use to be a warlord at one time?"
"Something like that," Gabrielle said cautiously. "How did you know?"
"Shot in the dark." Zoe smiled again. "I used to be a warrior myself once. I got to know the type. You can kind of tell after a while." Suddenly she turned toward the door. "Honey," she called, "could you take that stack of wood around to the back?"
Startled, Gabrielle turned to see a gawky-looking blonde man in a brightly-colored tunic standing in the doorway with an arm full of wood. "Yes, dear, I'm doing it, dear, right away, Zoe-my-love," he responded. "Light of my life, apple of my eye—"
"Just do it," Zoe replied. Her voice was warm with amusement. With a wave, the man vanished from the doorway. "My husband," she explained to Gabrielle.
"He looks nice."
"He is." She looked after him a moment. "That's my man," she said, with quiet pride. Seeming to return to herself, she picked up the thread of her original topic. "Anyway, I was saying, your friend reminds me of some warleaders I used to serve under. Not the good ones, either. He looks like the kind of commander who would get his company killed to prove how long his sword was."
"Yeah," Gabrielle said after a moment. "Sounds about right."
Zoe fixed her with an eye. "Can't imagine it's a lot of fun traveling with him."
"It's not," Gabrielle said with feeling, "but oh well. What can you do." She shrugged.
"Well, you have my sympathy," Zoe told her.
"Thanks. I appreciate it." Readjusting Argo's tack, Gabrielle crossed the room and stepped outside.
Caesar was leaning on his staff near the hitching post, where Argo was tied. He still looked awful, pale and greenish, and his eyes were almost closed against the light of the cloudy day. Gabrielle threw Argo's tack over the mare's back, and turned toward him. "Feeling any better?" she asked, not without sympathy.
"What do you think?"
"Okay, forget I asked," she said with a shrug. She patted Argo's neck for a moment, then offered the mare a piece of an apple she had saved; Argo bit into it with relish. Gabrielle had noticed that Argo liked apples quite a bit. As she scratched the horse's crest, she said to Caesar, "You know, I'm still mad at you from last night."
He squinted at her. "I care what you think," he said waspishly.
"I'm serious. We needed that money for important things. You had no right to go wasting it like that. And I'm really not happy about the fact that you lied to get it either."
She paused, watching him to see if her words had any impact. His frown deepened.
"Since when do I have to care about your concerns?"
Taking hold of her temper with both hands, Gabrielle said, "You have to care because we're traveling together. If you ever pull anything like that again, I'll—I'll abandon you. I mean it."
"Go ahead. I don't need you. And besides, it might be worth it to get away from your chattering."
Gabrielle sighed in exasperation, knowing he had just called her bluff successfully. Abandoning him at this point would be leaving him to die, and she couldn't bring herself to do that. She ducked under the mare to fasten the saddle girth, then said, "All right. We've been to Rome, like I promised you." She thought about adding how she had been right and there was nothing there, but decided that would be kicking him when he was down. "Now can we please go back to Potedaia, like I wanted? I would really like to see how my family is doing, and reassure them I'm still alive; I'm sure they've heard of Xena's destruction of Athens." She thought of her mother and father, and her sister Lillen, and suddenly she was filled with an ache to see them again, to know they were all right. Anything could have happened to them while she was gone, and she wouldn't have known anything about it. Please, gods, if you're there and if you're listening, let them be all right…
She looked back at her companion, waiting for his answer. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, gripping his staff with white knuckles; for a moment, Gabrielle wondered if he was going to be sick again. When the moment had passed, he said, "You can go to Tartarus for all I care."
Gabrielle sighed. Should have known. "Fine. That's about what I expected from you." She bent to give Argo's saddle girth a last yank, then faced him again. "Come on."
She had to heave him up onto Argo's back, where he sat swaying uneasily, then slid his staff through the saddle girth. A moment later, she swung up before him and took the reins. She turned Argo's head east, toward her home village; he offered no objections. And they set off.