Notes: For the aph_historyswap on livejournal, for akisilver
Characters: Rome, Nero, Tacitus
Summary: "And maybe I remember what historians like you write down and make truth, Publius, you ever thought about that?"
The emperor wasn't actually there, above the flames and smoke, watching the devastation from Palatine Hill. He certainly wasn't dressed in full stage costume, mournfully intoning the Sack of Ilium to the clouded heavens. He was at his villa in Antium at the time. This was the truth. However, it didn't make as good of a story, and so this was the story Rome told Tacitus, some fifty years later:
The emperor whirled. At the sight of the other man he paled considerably. Weak blue eyes pleaded, pale gray in the unnatural light. At twenty-seven he still looked like a child, a bit overweight but remarkably thin-limbed, spotty, fair curls limp in the humid night air. "That's not my name," he managed. And then, more outraged, "You know that's not my name."
Below, the fire pulsed, like a living thing, like a cancerous organ, merrying in destruction. It had spread to another district, the emperor noted with a vague, detached horror. It was too big to be comprehended, to be internalized in any meaningful manner. He wanted to sing again. He wished the other man would go away and leave him alone.
"Why are you singing, Lucius? Don't you know what's happening? Can't you see?" The emperor heard a stifled cough, and, startled, wondered if his companion had come from the shop district, if he had been down there pulling children from the blaze, if the smoke had damaged his lungs.
"Of course I can see," he replied. "It's chaos. The dark side of the universe. This is how Troy must have looked, don't you think, when the Greeks reduced it to ashes?"
"I wouldn't know," Rome said, smiling, white teeth gleaming in the dark. "I wasn't there."
Nero took a step backward.
"But that's not true," Tacitus complained, when Rome told him this. "We're never going to know for sure why the fire started, but Nero simply was not there at the time. It's just an urban legend, just what the common people believed."
"You calling me a liar, Publius?" Rome asked, taking another sip of the very excellent Spanish wine.
"I think you believe- and remember- what the common people believe and remember," Tacitus said carefully.
Rome laughed. "And maybe I remember what historians like you write down and make truth, Publius, you ever thought about that?" He chuckled expansively at the look on Tacitus' face and slapped him genially on the back.
"Hey, kid," Rome had said a year before the fire, strolling into the palace like he owned the place, which perhaps ultimately he did.
"You're still here?" Nero asked incredulously.
He shrugged, armor clanking. "Why wouldn't I be? I like what you've done with the place, by the way."
The emperor just looked at him.
Rome sighed, and threw himself down onto one of the sumptious couches. The air expelled from his lungs sounded like a gale. Nero edged away, just slightly. It wasn't that Rome was unusually large, because he wasn't. In fact, now that Nero thought about it he was quite average, for a Roman. Not six feet tall like a barbarian. But he was freakishly strong- Nero had seen him wrestle lions in the amphitheater for fun- and what's more, he knew it, moved like he knew it, all smooth motion and oiled muscles and carefully careless confidence. "So you exiled your wife, no big deal. Your adopted daddy did the same to your mama, and his granddady did it too. Then you murdered her, I guess I was a bit irritated about that. Still, I don't stay angry very long, most of the time. And I like you, kid. You did good, making peace with those girls in the East. And you stand up for the freedmen."
"I thought-" Nero swallowed. "The senate-"
"I'm not that bunch of slimeballs," he said, grinning. "I'm not you, and I wasn't the king or the dictator before that. I'm the army. I'm the people. And if I ever stop liking you, kid-"
Nero stared at him, eyes wide.
"-then you'll know you're in real trouble."
"He was the last of the line of the divine Julius," Tacitus pointed out, peeling a grape. "I'm sure there are some who regret getting rid of him. I'm not sure if I wouldn't have preferred him to Domitian. At least he wasn't actively sadistic."
"You were nine at the time of the fire," Rome reminded him, "and thirteen when Nero died. What would you know?"
"I know what I've read of Fabius Rusticus' work," Tacitus replied, a bit offended.
Rome waved a hand dismissively. "When you're around as long as me, Publius old fellow, you start to get some perspective, and not the good kind. I can't compare bosses. I'd go crazy."
"It's up to you, I suppose," the historian doubtfully conceded.
Rome rested his head on the cool plaster wall and listened. Outside, he could hear, as always, the bubbling of fountains, the laughter of children and the enraged cries of tourists being robbed. He knew if he opened his eyes and looked out the window he would see only the high wall that surrounded Tacitus' private house, but he imagined it didn't exist, and he could if he wished see the city itself, the apartment blocks rebuilt a lifetime ago in less flammable brick, each building a certain polite distance from its neighbor. He could remember it differently if he wished, but it was always the same underneath. It hadn't changed any more than he'd changed, or any less.
"Do you know what you've done?" Rome asked conversationally. "Do you know what you've done to me?"
"I haven't done anything," Nero shouted. He was still deathly pale, but there was a stubborn, almost martyred look in him now. "You're always blaming me, everyone's always blaming me for things I haven't done."
"I'm big," Rome continued relentlessly. "I surround the ocean. I control thousands of peoples. I have hundreds of provinces under my hands. And I'm thinking maybe that's made you forget what I really am. A city, Lucius, just one fragile little pimple of civilization, that's what I started out as, that's what's at the center of me, that's my heart." He paused, and took a deep breath. "You've set fire to my heart, you son of a-"
"It wasn't me!" Nero interrupted, terrified. "It really wasn't!"
"Who, then?" Rome snarled. "Talk fast and make it good, you spotty weakling hyena of a-"
"It was the Christians," the emperor said.
Rome paused, confused.
Just for a moment.
One moment too long.
Most historians don't think Nero started the fire, mostly because it made no sense for him to do so; then again, there were definitely suspicious circumstances, and he was supposed to be kind of crazy, so maybe he doesn't need a motive. The Roman people sure thought he did, and feeding Christians to the lions didn't actually fool anyone. I would recommend perusing Tacitus' Annals when you have the time, because he's interesting and very readable.