I'm Not a Gangster Tonight
Smells like something I've forgotten
Curled up died and now it's rotten
I'm not a gangster tonight
Don't want to be a bad guy
I'm just a loner baby
- scissor sisters i can't decide
You could say the Arbiter’s lost his way.
It’s a little bit complicated though, working out which way was the one the Arbiter was supposed to walk down, exactly. There were so many paths in front of him, so many to choose from, and sometimes he has to wonder if he didn’t just accidentally fall onto this one for a reason, if maybe this really is his way, somehow, someway. The moments when he believes that, though, are coming less and less often. He wonders if maybe it’s acceptance of his fate, or just acceptance of his fear.
Most of the time he says he’s lost his way; the rest of the time he’s ignoring there are any other options for him to take.
At this point, he really isn’t sure just what exactly he should be doing with his time other than what he’s doing. He likes what he’s doing, oddly enough, likes managing unruly players and quiet, introverted men with frazzled hair with their politicians trailing after them, mapping out foreign policy within the confines of black and white squares on a miniscule little wooden board. It’s so incredibly human, the way they shuffle around this player and that lover and this reporter like little pieces of wood or plastic or whatever material, cheap or expensive, the situation warrants.
Maybe this hadn’t been his first choice, way back when, but it’s the choice he’s settled into. It’s the choice he’s spent the most time with, anyway.
When the war started, he had been forgotten. More to the point, he let himself be forgotten, let himself hide out on a planet full of confusing and convoluted history, forever changing and shifting and twisting. His way home had been stripped from him, lost in an accident, and he had been waiting to be recovered, waiting for a ride, forever standing on the curb and hailing a taxi that by now he knows will never come. He should have been there, fighting, helping, doing what he was born to do, but he couldn’t. The Arbiter was too afraid.
He felt it when the Time War ended. Even separated from time as he was, across years and universes and galaxies, he could feel it through the very fiber of his being, out to the fabric of his gloves, in the roots of his hair. He could feel it tingling, the force of the final blow, and the crushing losses on both sides. However alone and stranded he had been before, he hadn’t known the depths to which that loneliness could extend.
So he stopped waiting for someone to come, stopped waiting for the wail – the song – of another TARDIS fading into view, stopped waiting for just one more day before he could be out among the stars again. He started settling in.
That was years ago now, a handful of identities ago, and the Arbiter is doing his best to keep his lies to a minimum. He doesn’t like lying, which makes it difficult for him to deal with the politicians that skitter about in front of him, trying to hide from his eyes when they really should know better. Except they can’t. No one can, not ever.
He rarely passes out his name when he can avoid it. He doesn’t often let himself fall into idle conversation. He keeps his wits about him, keeps an eye out for threats, and half an eye out for that taxi that might one day come, maybe, sometime, if he’s lucky.
He knows, though, that if there are any Time Lords left, they could smell out his fear and maybe, if they’re merciful, they’ll leave him alone to rot in it.
He recognizes the small man on TV. Every Christmas, almost like clockwork, and a few times in between, there he is, right on the Arbiter’s television. It’s more than seeing; he can feel the connection, almost like he can feel him breathing right through the speakers, two seconds away from stepping into the Arbiter’s living room, and for all he knows, this man very well could be. It’s a decision every year, to reunite or to stay hidden, safely tucked away behind gloves and a suit and a completely blank face, letting pawns and kings and knights crumble at his feet so he can hide in the dust.
He recognized Saxon, too, before that year disappeared. He heard the drums and he watched London shift into something that should have been happening, something that was wrong, but it was the reunion that scared him. It was coming out from his tidy little corner of the world where he travels and moves and manages people like a factory owner, overseeing everything to make sure the machine works smoothly.
It isn’t entirely unlike being a Time Lord; he can feel the turn of the Earth, can feel the turn of the game, and can manipulate and twist accordingly. He can shift things back into place, back where they belong. He likes chess; it’s simple and easy, clean-cut rules to follow and paths on the board, this way and back, but no timelines. No histories. No worlds to accidentally destroy or races to fight to save, only to lose and watch thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions die at his hand.
Chess is safe. Formulaic. There are patterns. He likes patterns. They’re so much more soothing than the turn of worlds and universes and fixed and unfixed points in time that he has to carefully step around, carefully protect.
It’s possible to say he’s lost his way because after all the years, the line between Time Lord and Arbiter has begun to blur. The reality is both of them are speckled across his identity, black and white footprints across his body and mind, hemming him in within the confines of his own chessboard, his own limitations.
Every time that small man flickers upon his television set, the Arbiter can feel another piece sliding out of his control. They’re standing at check, himself and this stranger that’s more familiar to the Arbiter than any of the billions crawling along the face of this planet, and he knows he’s losing.
He’s counting the days until the game’s over.
He can feel the turn of the Earth; it won’t be long now.