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August, 76AD

Mercifully - and Marcianus thanked all of the Gods - the insula looked like it would hold. The fire was confined to the upper stories which meant the foundations - decrepit and decaying though they were - should hold. That fact, however, did not help those people - his sort of people - trapped on the upper floor, just above the fire line. As always in these situations a crowd had gathered outside the building, the richer (although this was the subura, so how rich could they be?) dwellers in the building had evacuating and barked orders at the freedmen Vigiles that were trying to salvage the building, whilst on-lookers from the nearby poppina's and taverna's came out, drinks in their hands and grins on their faces as if they were viewing some twisted form of entertainment as the poorer citizens of the block lost everything in a cloud of ash and smoke. 

The muscles in his jaw worked as he watched them, tensing and flexing with hard eyes and a grim look on his ash smeared face. His hair - usually an unusual blonde - was almost black with smoke and dust and rivulets of sweat streaked down his face and neck. He'd been forced outside by his centurion, a humourless, useless man in his fifties who took as much pleasure in helping people as he did in socialising, which was to say, none at all. He'd had to have been yanked out by the back of his tunic and forcibly moved down the stairs, even as residents streamed past them. He'd been in the building too long - apparently - and the cough that rattled his lungs was testament to that, but as he eyed the building - the smoke billowing upwards into the night sky, he knew he couldn't sit idly by. The old and frail, the young and poor were still up there on the floors immediately above and below the fire, trying to find their way down in the smoke. He swallowed and felt as if his teeth might splinter from the set of his jaw. 

Pushing himself up nimbly, he ducked down behind the crowd to avoid the glances of his superiors. His eyes caught Gaius' - a friend and a follower to the hilt - who judging by his grim expression and itching fingers, wanted back in as much as Marcianus himself. He jerked his head towards the south stairs and then the fire hooks which had been deposited there by the last of their century to leave the building for rest. He knew his friends, colleagues were in there still and surely the Centurion wouldn't notice his absence? He moved to reach Gaius and slip unseen back into the building but before he did, his shoulder collided with anothers and he glanced up - his face painting a picture of displeasure. "Go and gawk somewhere else, it isn't safe here." The building might not come down onto the crowd, but the people jumping from it might.

 

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Lucius was cutting across the Subura when he saw the smoke. He didn't usually take this shortcut, but today seemed like a nice day, and while the Subura was seen as a dangerous place (and a downright mortal threat to most of his social circles), it was the most direct route from his home to the Forum. Sometimes, one could see and hear things that they couldn't in other parts of the city. The Subura was just as much a part of Rome as the Capitol or the Palatine were. Even though it smelled a lot worse.

The smoke was coming from the top floors of an insula. Insula fires were not all that unusual in the city, things caught fire with an alarming ease, especially in buildings that were not very well constructed. Even Lucius knew that. He tried to maneuver around the crowd that gathered to watch, comment, and make suggestions, but it equired him turning into a side street to take the long way around. 

He barely turned the corner when a young man covered in soot and dirt bumped into him.

"Go and gawk somewhere else, it isn't safe here." 

"No kidding, there's a fire" Lucius agreed, glancing up at the building. He did not like being accused of gawking. There was noise from the street and the crowd that gathered, some people yelling about their homes and other yelling general nonsense. But there was noise from above too. "Are there still people up there?"

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Marcianus didn't have a great deal of patience at the best of times, and right now his good manners were hanging by a rapidly fraying thread. He followed the other man's gaze up to the top floor of the building, his jaw set into a hard line as he surveyed the scene. 

"Yes, there are." He commented and then made to move again but as he did a cough echoed up from his lungs and seized his breath. It burned and ached his chest, but he had the sense to duck down as he did to hide himself despite the pain, lest his centurion glance over and see him approaching the building again. When he'd shaken off the worst of it he popped his head up - eyes darting back to the steps where Gaius stood, similarly racked with a cough. No wonder the vigiles' ranks were full of freedman, they were the perfect, cheap, dispensable fodder. 

He made no more move to talk to the man who had gotten in his way and slipped past him to try and reach Gaius and the fire sticks, eyes still trained on the building and unaware he wasn't alone moving through the crowd. 

 

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There were still people up there, on the top floors of the burning building. The man he was talking to was already covered in dirt and coughing like he was dying, but Lucius could still make out that he was one of the vigiles. More of them same were standing by in the crowd a few steps away, watching the fire or trying to get people to leave. The young man, despite the bad cough, headed back towards the building. Lucius felt a pit in his stomach as the yelling from above got louder.

"Why the hell are the vigiles standing out here if they are people still up there?" he demanded, following the young man. It was, technically, none of his business. And yet, he felt something was wrong.

@Sara

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Titus whipped his head around at the other man, tempted - sorely tempted - to just shove him back into the melee of onlookers, gawping, crying and laughing around them. He restrained himself just in time. There were enough injured people here already, he didn't need to add to the medicus' workload from a brawl. 

"Go and ask the centurion, I don't have time for you." He jerked his head at the balding, rotund little man who was stood about chatting to one of the evacuees from the lower levels of the block. Titus weaved through the crowd until he reached Gaius at the steps. The man was wheezing and has his hand outstretched to support himself. Titus' jaw worked, the muscles of his neck tensing as his eyes flicked between the building and his friend. The screams were getting louder, were louder here by the stairs. Some people must be lost in the smoke. 

"Can you make it up?" Titus asked and pulled the man, his friend, to stand. Gaius nodded but his red rimmed eyes and panting breath told a different story. More of his colleagues were streaming out of the building but with fewer and fewer residents each time. "Do we know anybody else still in there?" Gaius looked as if he might pass out at any moment. 

 

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"Go and ask the centurion, I don't have time for you." 

He clearly didn't. Lucius was not about to go all patrician on the man who just came out of a burning building (and, from the sound of it, was possibly dying from inhaling all the soot). But as Lucius looked around, it became obvious what with all the gawking and commenting going on, the vigiles were still very much outside the building. The centurion seemed to be having a conversation with someone who demanded to know if his shop was in danger.

"Excuse me" Lucius stepped up to the centurion, not caring to be excused at all "There are still people in there."

@Sara

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The centurion guffawed and shot Lucius an exasperated look, only thinly disguising his indifference. "We'll get them out when it cools a bit." The man looked Lucius up and down with narrowed, beady eyes; "Sir." 

Then he turned his back and stalked away, barking orders at his men as they streamed out of the building and milled about in the courtyard - catching their breath or impassively looking up at the billowing smoke coming out of the insula. Titus, however, was doing neither. Gaius was still barely able to stand and his breathing was becoming more laboured by the minute. He'd managed to grab the neck of a gangly youth who'd been with them only a few weeks and convinced him to go back up, but beyond that, his unit seemed utterly disinterested in saving those still in the block. Time was running out, even an idiot could see that. 

Glancing around he barked at Lucius - a little way off, "You, get over here." The vigiles didn't have a great deal of power over the populace of Rome but Titus was never much one for propriety, "I need you to take him to the medicus whilst we go up." He jerked his head at Gaius, panting at his feet, and then back up at the burning building. He could do with more men to go in with, but there was nobody in earshot or not under the sway of their indifferent centurion. 

 

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"We'll get them out when it cools a bit. Sir." 

Lucius blinked. When what cooled? The ashes of the building? He glanced back up at the smoke and the flames. Whoever was in there could not have that long to wait. The centurion seemed done with the conversation, so Lucius turned around, spotting the young man he'd talked to earlier.

"You, get over here."

No one had talked to Lucius that way before (there was a reason he disliked the idea of the legions), but he hurried back to him anyway. Politeness was useless when things were urgent.

"I need you to take him to the medicus whilst we go up." 

The other young man looked worse for the wear, and barely breathing. Lucius nodded, putting an arm around the man and supporting him by the shoulder. It was clear that the centurion had not given any kind of order to go back in, but the young man didn't care. Lucius took a few steps, but glanced back. "Why isn't anyone bringing water?"

@Sara

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"Because they're going to let it burn." Titus spat back, his own chest heaving and burning. He glanced up again at the insula. Nobody was coming out anymore - no civilians and certainly no vigiles who merely stood around with their firesticks looking confused or worse, bored. Titus ground his teeth and glanced to the youth next to him who looked ashen faced and terrified. It was likely the first big fire he'd seen. "You'll be fine." He clapped the lad on the back which made him jump with a start. Titus saw the flicker of fear in his eyes and wondered if the boy would bolt. He didn't, but he did glance sideways to the centurion. 

He'd be useless in there, Titus thought. The only  thing worse than having no help was having somebody who was so shit-scared that they'd make stupid mistakes. Suppressing a frustrated groan, he grabbed the front of the boy's tunic and shook him to get his attention. "You're not going up, but I want you to stand here and wait for me and anybody else that I bring down, alright? If the centurion asks, you tell him you don't know where I am, alright?" The youth nodded dumbly, and then, without a second thought, Titus slipped past him and into the haze and the smoke of the building...

 

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"Because they're going to let it burn." 

"What?" Lucius managed to locate the medicus, and supported the young man until he could pass him on to the already overworked medic. He wondered what even could be done for him at this point. But his attention was already back to the other one who had been yelling. Was he serious? Was no one helping the people inside? He headed back towards him.

"If the centurion asks, you tell him you don't know where I am, alright?"

He arrived just in time to see the blonde man slip back into the building and disappear in the smoke. Alone.

"Dammit."

Before he could think twice, Lucius followed. Smoke was immediately stinging his eyes and scratching at his throat. He pulled the edge of his cloak up to cover his mouth and nose. "Wait!... Let me help."

@Sara

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Mercifully the fire was still confined to the upper stories of the insula but the smoke and the haze had drifted its way down into the lower levels. Titus tugged up the scrap of material he wore knotted around his neck to cover  his nose and his mouth, eyes already burning. He heard a voice behind him and stopped. Of course. Not only would he be in trouble for charging in here without permission, but he was now about to get a citizen wounded or worse. He fought the urge to snap and tell the man to fuck off back outside with the rest of the people gawking, but time was running out and with two of them they might be able to get twice as many people out. 

Thrusting his fire pole at the man, he glared - "Stay close to me, and use that," He jerked his head at the pole, "To test the floor before you walk on it - the fire eats  through the beams, you'll fall right th-through if you're not careful." The smoke was already making it hard to breathe, let alone speak and Titus hurriedly turned around and continued down the corridor. Most from this level would have been evacuated, but they needed to reach the top floors. Buckets of water - full - lay abandoned on the stairs from where the vigiles had abandoned them when recalled from the insula. Hoisting one up, he began to trudge up the stairs to the sound of crying and the heat of the fire. 

 

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What in the Furies was he doing? Lucius was inside the burning building before he could think twice. The whole thing was bound to come down on them sooner rather than later. But that one man was going in, and there were still people inside. He'd beat himself up later. If he lived. The sudden realization that he might die, really die, gave his heart a jolt, but he took the pole anyway.

"Stay close to me, and use that. To test the floor before you walk on it - the fire eats  through the beams, you'll fall right th-through if you're not careful."

The man picked up a bucket of water, and Lucius did the same with his free hand, following him up the stairs. He'd managed to throw his cloak around his shoulders in a way that it covered his face halfway decent.

"I'm Lucius. What's your name?"

Everything creaked, the smoke was thick, and his eyes were beginning to water.

@Sara 

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"Titus." He offered, with no preamble as he trudged up the stairs, bucket still in his hand. It was pointless, really, two buckets of water weren't going to douse the flames that were spreading but he had taken them more for the people. He'd seen what burnt tunic's did to skin and needed something to be able to douse it when needed. 

They were on the penultimate floor when Titus stopped, leaning heavily against the wall. His lungs and his eyes burned and the heat from the fire above them was prickling his skin. He shut his eyes, trying to focus on drawing in a clean air but all he got was a mouthful of smoke. He coughed and held his hand out for the pole. "Give that here," He demanded and then cast a glance to the other man, "We'll go up together. I-I'll use this," He gestured to the pole, "To open the doors and pull people out. I'll pass them down to you and you get them to make a chain - hands on back of the people in front of them - and lead them down the stairs. You got it?" It really was now or never. The sound of the building creaking and shuddering with the fire was getting louder, more pressing. 

 

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The higher they climbed, the worse it all felt. More smoke, more heat, more creaking. No wonder not even the vigiles were hesitant about running into burning buildings. Were people even still alive up there? Lucius followed, not bothering to give his full name. It didn't matter. He did not often get bossed around by a plebeian, but right now, Titus was the one with the experience, even though he was barely standing up.

"Give that here. We'll go up together. I-I'll use this. To open the doors and pull people out. I'll pass them down to you and you get them to make a chain - hands on back of the people in front of them - and lead them down the stairs. You got it?"

"Got it." Lucius handed over the pole and kept the bucket. There was a chance people would come out burning. Smoke stung his eyes and he coughed. He'd need to do this fast. "Ready."

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Titus nodded. Whoever the citizen was, mercifully he didn't seem the skittish sort. That was good. Maybe he'd only get a light bollocking for entreating him into a burning insula, rather than the whipping he probably deserved. 

With one last breath of 'clean' air before the final story, Titus snatched the pole and made his way up. The stairs were holding - just about, but  that seemed to be about it. He worked quickly, jabbing the pole at the doors to the various apartments, swinging them open to reveal rooms filled with acrid, black smoke. There was silence from all of them - even as Titus called out for any survivors. Silence and smoke - that was all. They were almost done, there were two apartments left when a noise finally broke through the roar of the fire. It was a scream and a cry for help and Titus hurried forward, smashing the pole into the wood to open up the door. In the darkness he saw three faces blinking back at him, two young women and an old man. 

"Lucius!" He bellowed and then reached in to grab the women, forcing them into the corridor. "Follow him down," He gestured at Lucius, "I need to check the last apartment and then I'll carry your father." He had to be quick, smoke was filling the space up faster now and he could see the flames licking from the last apartment to the roof. That must have been where it started.

 

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"Lucius!"

Lucius followed Titus up the stairs, but stopped at the landing, coughing from the black smoke and straining his eyes to see what was happening. Titus was opening doors and calling out, and it seemed like he had finally found someone.

"Here! Come this way!" He clapped his hands so that survivors could follow even if they were blinded by the smoke.

"Follow him down. I need to check the last apartment and then I'll carry your father."

Two women materialized from the inferno and Lucius helped them to the stairs and down to the floor below.

"Hold on to each other. Watch where you step."

@Sara

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There was nobody left. As Titus kicked and used the pole to open the final door, the flames licked from the room straight up and almost singed his face. He managed to retreat to the next apartment where the old man was struggling for breath. Nobody could have survived in that last apartment, not with that fire and that heat. He wound the old man's arm around his shoulder and helped him to his feet from where he'd fallen onto the floor. He was heavy, but the adrenaline and excitement and fear coursing in Titus' blood made him seem like a feather. 

He stumbled down the first set of stairs, pole and bucket abandoned and came up quickly behind Lucius and the two young women. "T-this is everybody," He said with a wheeze and a cough, "The rest of it is clear. W-we just need to get down now." And quickly, because despite his earlier assertion that the insula would stay standing, judging by the spread of the fire and the smoke, he wasn't entirely convinced now.

 

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Lucius herded the women towards the next flight of stairs, but kept looking back to see if Titus was coming. He finally appeared, supporting an old man. How he was still standing was a miracle in and of itself.

"T-this is everybody. The rest of it is clear. W-we just need to get down now."

"Give him to me." Lucius was wheezing too, but not nearly as badly as Titus. He moved to the other side of the old man and lifted him by the shoulder, draping his arms around his own shoulders. "Go."

Everything was creaking now, filling up with smoke. They could feel, more than see the stairs and the hallways as they descended. Lucius carried the old man, praying that the building would hold until they got out. There was a rumbling sound somewhere above.

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Titus would later not recall passing the man to Lucius, but as they stumbled out of the building - the two young women leading the way tentatively, followed by the men, Titus was beyond gratitude. The smoke was billowing up now into the night sky in a thick cloud, illuminated by the flames that licked the roof. He could see people standing and staring at them from the periphery of his gaze, but he didn't have the energy to go and talk to them. Instead, he collapsed to his knees, panting. The man was being ferried off by some of his colleagues and a waterskin was thrown at his feet. If the Centurion was around, he didn't pay Lucius or Titus any heed. 

Pulling down his makeshift mask and gulping down the water, Titus felt his breath come back into his scorched lungs. He felt wrung out, but energised and satisfied by the good that he had done. He had saved them. They would have died. This was why he did what he did. He glanced to his right to Lucius and held the waterskin aloft weakly. "You did well," Was all he could muster now as he moved to seat himself on the ground. "Thank you." 

 

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They made it out just in time. The building rumbled and creaked, and went up in smoke and flame, inside structures caving in. They barely made it to a safe distance, before Titus fell to his knees. People shuffled the women and the old men away, and someone broguth water. Lucius plopped down where he stood, coughing and gasping for air as he unwound the blackened cloak from around his shoulders.

"You did well. Thank you."

Lucius took the skin and drank; water had never felt so good.

"It was all you" he rasped, looking at the other man. Titus was covered in soot and ash, and he himself probably did not look much better either. "Those people would have died. You saved them."

@Sara 

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Titus wiped his face with his hands, smearing soot across his palms and fingers. He coughed again and felt his throat burn. "They would have, yes." He agreed, almost sounding dispassionate. He'd seen enough death in the six months he'd been on the job to know the outcome had he not gone in. Unfortunately, he'd also learned that his seniors were sticklers for their cost-benefit analysis. If they saved 2 upper floor plebs but it cost 2 vigiles it wasn't worth it; the loss of equipment and trained vigiles made it more profitable to let them burn. The thought made his stomach turn. 

He retook the waterskin and gulped down a few more mouthfuls before drawing his knees up to rest his forearms on them, hanging his head. His heart was still thrumming in his chest, and would be for hours. Few understood what this role was like, what it did to a person. "Why did you come in?" He queried as he pulled up his head. "You didn't have to." In fact, he was an idiot for doing so.

 

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They were both coughing and drinking water. Lucius could feel his lungs burning. There was also the smell of singed hair and clothes in the air, and he was sure he'd discover burns and bruises once the rush of the whole experience started to wear off. And yet, he felt... like had accomplished something. Saved people. 

"Why did you come in? You didn't have to."

"Someone needed to help." Lucius shrugged. Honestly, he was not sure about the answer. But he knew he did something right. "I have been looking for ways to help people, and honestly, this one feels more right than any of the other options I've had so far." he took the skin and drank some more. "How about you? How did you end up with the vigiles?"

@Sara

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Titus cast him a confused, and then amused look. This felt right? He scoffed and shook his head. He really shouldn't have been surprised though; he supposed he wasn't going to be the only person in the world that enjoyed the grittiness of this kind of labour, or the rush of something when it was done. He had no qualms in admitting he enjoyed leading by example and putting himself on the line, but he'd encountered few - no, scratch that, no civilians who felt likewise. 

"Is that not what the legions are for?" He arched a brow, "For citizens?" A quick glance at his new aquaintances attire suggested he wasn't a slave. 

"Freedman." He shrugged and lounged back, still regaining his breath. He didn't particularly want to expand, and usually didn't feel the need to, but this person had followed him into the flames, he owed him something"There's not many options for us. And it's good work, decent work." Better than working until his fingers bled at a warehouse, only benefitting his boss becoming richer. "And six years in the vigiles and I get citizenship." 

 

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He got a scoff from Titus, for talking like that. He did not know the first thing about the vigiles, really. He was probably talking nonsense, still on the rush from surviving that inferno.

"Is that not what the legions are for? For citizens?" 

"So they tell me" Lucius smirked, wiping some of the grime off his face. Titus wasn't a citizen, then.

"Freedman. There's not many options for us. And it's good work, decent work. And six years in the vigiles and I get citizenship." 

"Six years, huh. That's better than the legions." Lucius noted. People usually served for a full twenty-five on the limes for citizenship. "I hear that's a shit job too." he added with a smirk. The vigiles, at least, were doing good inside the city, for its people. "Is it fires all the time for you, or do you also patrol at night?"

@Sara

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Why anybody would join the legions was beyond him. Maybe for slaves born and bred in Italia it was a more natural fit, but he had seen the enslavement of people around him - had seen their pain at the hands of soldiers, and knew he didn't wish to be complicit in it. He had judged that this was better, if only just. 

"Night patrols as well." He confirmed with a shrug. "Thieves, rapists, murders, fires...we get the lot." And it was honest work, if a bit demoralising to do. There were only so many times one could be told not to bother following up an assault on a slave because 'she was only a pleb's slave' before you lost your wits - which he did, and he had the flog mark to prove it. 

He cast a glance sideways at Lucius. He wasn't usually in the business of asking questions, but the man's own interest had piqued his. "What do you do then? When you're not catching yourself on fire in insulas." 

 

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