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When the world burnt (I wasn't there)

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Arthur is eight years old when his father takes him on his first hunting trip.

Uther Pendragon is not a particularly kind man, and it is something Arthur has always known. His father possesses other qualities however; qualities that craft him suitable to run a kingdom, in his father’s own words.

Uther’s stern nature is written in the lines of his face, and his determination portrayed in the tense set of his jaw. The same face that sends soldiers out to fight in wars built on old grudges - sentences young men and women to their deaths for crimes knights have no proof of them committing - is the same face that smiled down on Arthur, warm as a sunbeam, when he was a fresh babe. The face of the man who cares for his son after his wife’s death is the same face of a rage filled king ordering the deaths of innocents: it is quite a perplexing act to love his father.

But he is only a boy now, and naïve to the true complexities of love and affection. Arthur is young with a head full of dreams of knights and glorious battles, and a set of bony shoulders already weighed down by the heavy burden of a promised throne. His father may not be a kind man but he is generous when he desires and taking Arthur along on a scheduled hunting trip seems to settle Uther’s generous spirit for the time.

The knights surround him and his father and listen intently to every word his father has to say. When his father orders they stop, the servants begin to unload their weapons and place them in the hands of the knights, before they begin setting up a camp for the night.

It takes exactly four minutes for the boredom of setting up camp to overcome him, and seven for the idea to explore to find a place in his head.

One of the Knights is yelling at a servant and indirectly causing the attention to be brought on himself. The distraction allows Arthur the rare chance to slip away, and he is amazed at what he sees.

There’s a river, the clearest he has ever seen with fresh water flowing down and over rocks. He kneels down beside it, he hears his father’s thunderous voice join the others to end the now frantic argument, and cups his hands to grab a drink: quickly, he thinks, before they find him missing.

He cups his hands ready to lower them when he hears a twig snap behind him. He attempts to turn around and forgets he is still only on his knees, his hands only a little ways from the water, and he loses his balance as his knees slip off the grass and he falls.

He falls into the river, where the waters work against his small arms and his quiet pleas for help will do him no good as they are drowned out by the loud rush of the water. Twigs snap beside him that he cannot hear over the rushing of the water, and unseen arms lift him onto dry ground. He coughs and heaves and allows his body to collapse in exhaustion, eyes closing and mouth shutting.

There are voices of all kinds surrounding him, but he does not open his eyes or mouth and instead allows himself to succumb to the dark abyss.

When he wakes up in his bed in the castle with his Morgana teary eyed by his bedside, he thinks he’s stuck in a dream. It is only when Morgana begins to scream as she looks at him, and Uther along with the knights come rushing into his room lead by Gaius, that he realizes he is alive after all.

He lays back and stares at the ceiling as Gaius tries to get his attention, before he breaks down into a rough mixture of laughter and sobs that have his father sending the guards away and rushing over to cradle Arthur to his chest.

His father doesn’t take him hunting again for a long time after that.

.

He dreams sometimes, about arms and whispers and promises he wasn’t meant to hear.

He dreams of strangely dressed strangers and words he doesn’t understand.

Magic, his mind sneers, it much be magic.

He doesn’t tell anyone about the dreams.

.

He’s fourteen and his father enters his room for the first time in five years.

Your mother had a friend, his father tells him that night, far too much wine on his breath and with rosier cheeks than normal, but the odd details of his father’s face do not deter Arthur’s young mind from the rare story topic of his mother.

He sits in his bed with wide eyes as his father sits on the edge closer to his feet and begins to weave tales far beyond his imagination, once he’s dreamed of before: tales that, if he didn’t know any better, he would say had a touch of magic to them.

(But he does know better; enough to know that even young princes are not exempt from the first gentle brush of the hands of sorcery, and what his father’s men will do in an attempt to release him from its grasp.)

So instead he listens, soaks in every detail of the story and does not move once from his spot.

“He was a rather odd fellow,” squints Uther as if he is trying to recall a perfect image of the man, “and he had the most peculiar set of clothes, and yet everything he wore your mother adored.”

His father smiles as he recalls the tale, never once looking at him, instead he looks out the window of his bedroom as if he is expecting to see someone there.

“He would always bring her the most elaborate gifts, and I often found myself half consumed with jealousy and half with anger until one day he brought me some as well. Where he got them I do not know. Rubies from places we had never heard of and creatures from the sea neither of us had ever once imagined.”

Uther’s voice lowers along with his eyes and Arthur holds his breath and pleas silently for more of his father’s tale.

(He thinks of red gems stolen from dying planets and creatures begging for new homes as theirs are destroyed.)

“They knew each other in her childhood she told me, the day I finally remembered to ask, as I had freed myself from my constant tormented state of flattery and jealousy I fell into whenever he was near. She was the happiest I had ever seen her when she was around him, I never understood her joy until he brought me into their little jokes and tradition of exchanging elaborate gifts, and I never truly understood the sorrow she would fall into every time he left, until the fateful day he left us both swimming in each other’s misery along with our own.”

The remnants of his father’s smile fade and his head lowers with his lips, “I always wondered why she specified that it was her childhood they met in, and why there were always times I still felt isolated in their presents.”

“After one particular visit he left and he never returned.” His father takes a light breath, “When she first found herself pregnant she sent a message through every possible way and he never came, never even responded. Not once.”

The room lapses into silence as Uther raises his head from the floor to stare out the window. A few minutes that feel like eternities passing later his father speaks, reducing his earlier skillful storytelling to drunken mumbles.

“Never trust a madman, my son, as they always break your heart.”

His father sits on his bed staring out his window and mumbling to himself for a moment before he suddenly jerks, shocking Arthur from his thoughts as he rises.

He takes care to gently kiss Arthur’s forehead before calling upon a servant and retreating from Arthur’s room without any further acknowledgement.

Arthur doesn’t allow himself to move for the longest time in his father’s wake, in fear of the act disrupting his memories and the serene surroundings, but after minutes that feel like hours he turns to his nightstand and with a shaky breath blows the candle out. It is when he is submerged in darkness that he finally allows his mind to wonder.

.

He doesn’t talk to his father again for four days, but when he does his father smiles at him as though nothing is different. Uther talks to him as if he had not told him about his mother at all.

His father never mentions the man again.

Arthur knows better by now than to ask.

.

He is sixteen and he still dreams of the arms and words in a language unknown. They come with a form now: a man who he never sees the face of.

The dreams continue and they go on the same again and again – they are all chaos and blood and smoke and fire, rare survivors and thin smiles poised to cut instead of heal as they were intended to, and loneliness continues to suffocate even in a machine with unlimited space – until one day something changes, a dream changes.

In the dream the man is alone. He is usually alone and there’s something wrong with that his mind whispers but he never has enough time to figure out why the man should never be alone so instead he waits and watches. The man sits in a daze, holding something that looks like a letter in his hands, his jaw tight.

Arthur had tried to interact with him the first few dreams, but the man cannot hear him and he has never heard the man speak so he stops trying.

The stranger stares down at the letter, eyes looking through it as if guessing its contents, and tightens his grip.

“I’m afraid it is time,” the man whispers standing and heading over to the strange source of lights.

He runs his hands gently over the smooth consul and speaks to the whirring machine as though it can hear him: “It’s time.”

He repeats the words softly and pulls something that rocks the machine and sends Arthur falling backwards.

There’s noise everywhere, vibrating throughout every part of his body and its insufferable, until he wakes up in his bed.

.

Arthur is eighteen and he wakes to a blue box in his room.

At first he thinks it’s a joke; a group of servants bored and ready for the stocks and he allows his mind to wonder about what he should do and—

And then the man who has haunted his dreams for the past eight years steps out of the blue box.

He’s dressed just as strange as his father told him and smiles just as sad as he had in his dreams.

(He wonders if his father ever knew what the man was capable of. If he ever knew of the people he had killed, the children he had gotten slaughtered, the orb surrounded by the night sky that burns – filled with the screams of billions – before it disappears forever.

He wonders if his mother knew.

He rethinks and rephrases.

He wonders when his mother knew. When she decided to keep it a secret, when she invited his father into their jokes as a way to calm him and distracted him from further searching the strange man.

He wonders how grateful the stranger had been. If she had done it voluntarily or been commanded to.

He wonders just how clever his mother had been.)

He pushes away the thoughts and allows the shock to fill his system.

“You’re him,” Arthur starts, sitting up in his bed as so many thoughts flood through him, “You’re the man!”

“I’m the man,” the stranger smiles, excited and mad at once with sadness carved into the curves, “I’m me.”

Arthur slides from his bed, never taking his eyes from the other man, and stands at the foot of it. For a moment they both stand frozen and watch each other; Arthur sorting through all of his questions for the man he has dreamt of for eight years, and the stranger waiting.

“What’s your name?” Arthur asks first, cautiously as he has seen this man do impossible things and he now stands before him in his bedroom unarmed.

“You can call me the Doctor.” The man, Doctor, answers simply.

Arthur scrunches his nose, “That’s not a name.”

The Doctor’s smile widens at the comment and he offers an easy shrug with the simple answer of: “Maybe not, but It’s mine.”

(He should have guessed he would have a name like that. Men who burn billions and run from their own chaos do not traditionally keep their birth names.)

“I’m Arthur,” he offers and watches the Doctor watch him, standing no more than two feet away from him, smiling and staring intently at Arthur as if he is the most interesting thing he has seen in a while.

(He’s not. He has seen some of what the Doctor has. He is not even close to being the most interesting of anything.)

He stops thinking of all the things to ask – like: I know it was you at the river, why did you save me, why were you there? Or why are you here now, what could you possibly want with me? Or how do you live with yourself after everything you’ve done, everything that has happened around you? – and instead he settles on questioning the very beginning, “How did you know my mother?”

The sad edges of the Doctor’s smile cave in and for a second Arthur wonders if the struggling smile will collapse.

“We traveled together.” He offers kindly, softly, reverently. “I met her when she was eight and she mistook me for a servant. She asked me to hand her an apple, the shiniest and reddest I could find. I did of course; I’m not foolish enough to deny a young ladies request, and when I gave it to her she offered to tell me a story and then another and another until I would arrive to meet her with apples and she with new stories to tell.

The Doctor’s smile softens, “And after awhile she grew tired of the apples and the same stories and decided she needed new adventures to fuel her mind for new stories.”

Arthur swallows, and lets the tale fill every corner of his room. It’s the most he’s ever heard about his mother and of all the people he hears it from a madman, and by the look of the Doctor’s face he seems to know it too.

He forces himself to bury his mixed feelings and continues.

“My Father said you stopped visiting after she became pregnant,” he starts and the Doctor’s smile finally falls. He hardly recognizes the man without it and idly he wonders if the Doctor knows just how many planets he has watched fall and die while wearing a smile. “He said they tried to contact you. I saw you holding a letter, it was theirs wasn’t it? One of the many she sent you.”

The Doctor doesn’t say anything.

“You knew didn’t you? You knew what would happen to her.”

He continues through the other man’s silence, “You knew what would become of her, I know you did,” Arthur sneers, “I have seen you every night Doctor, watched as you have explored worlds and brought upon their downfall. I have seen the death you have left in your wake, so much you do not even know of, and the life that carries on despite your interference.”

The Doctor’s face is ashen when he finishes and the room is silent but for the sounds of their breath.

“I am sorry,” the Doctor begins, raw conviction and pain clear in his tone, and Arthur laughs dryly, “I am so sorry for everything. For your mother’s death, my inability to prevent it, and your father’s rage, oh I am so sorry. I’m sorry that you are so alone, left alone with dreams of a man that have driven you to the brink of insanity and paranoia. I am sorry for who you will have to be, and that your mother is not here to guide you.”

Arthur bares his teeth at the mention of his mother and feels sheer anger ignite in his blood, but the Doctor continues.

“I did try, you know. I set the coordinates, prepared the gifts and tales I had to share and packed my ship with them in mind, with her in mind.” The Doctor shakes his head and settles his eyes to the floor, releasing a sad laugh, “And do you know what happened? I couldn’t go back. She wouldn’t take me no matter how much I begged or tried to trick my way around her I never could come back.”

He raises his eyes from the ground and meets Arthur’s gaze head on, “That is until the day at the river where I pulled you out, she took me there in the middle of a trip and believe me that was a hard one to explain, but even after that I couldn't come back.”

The Doctor licks his lips, "That is until now."

Arthur scoffs, too tired to allow the rage boiling in his blood to flood into his system he diverts his attention to a simple question, “Who is ‘she’?”

The right side of the Doctor’s mouth curves at the query, and something lights in his eyes. Arthur hates it.

“She,” The Doctor says as he breaks eye contact to lean back and run his hands along the sides of the blue box, “is her and her is my ship. The same ship who has gifted me another opportunity.”

The Doctor’s mouth softens into something too reverent to be mistaken for a smile, “I have a chance now to make it, this, right.”

The Doctor’s eyes shift back to him, clouded and hungry and altogether unreadable, “There are so many more places to see outside of Camelot, and I could take you there if you wanted. You wouldn’t be alone anymore.”

He pretends the invitation doesn’t intrigue him. “Why,” Arthur asks, restraining himself as he is not foolish enough to provoke a monster, “would I ever go with you.”

A gentle smile appears on the Doctor’s face as he whispers. “Because you have seen Arthur, and you are curious. You have your mother’s spirit in you, one of adventure and bravery and heart, and most of all,” the Doctor looks at him, stares at him and reads him, “You want to know what you are missing.”

Arthur doesn't move.

(He wonders what his father would do, if offered the chance to explore everything with a man whose shadow carries chaos and destruction in it.

What the Knights would do.

What other princes in his place would do.

What his mother would do.

What his mother did.)

The Doctor holds out his hand and offers – the world, universes, discovery, and adventure – everything at his fingertips.

(Never trust a madman, his father had said.

But his father hadn’t always been right.)

“Your mother did it, and now,” the Doctor smiles, bright and excited and completely mad, “it’s your turn if you’d like, Prince Arthur.”

Arthur thinks of his mother – her travels, the life she lived that he heard nothing about, the death she died that he can never forget and will always be blamed for, the loneliness always lurking beside him – and reluctantly looks at the man before him and asks, “I can return when I please?

A radiant smile, a nod, and a hand still outstretched.

Arthur takes it.

.

(Never trust a madmen, his father had warned, they only break your heart.

I am sorry to say then father, Arthur thinks silently staring at the Doctor as he talks to himself loudly and runs around his strange blinking machine; he can taste the universe on his tongue and it’s euphoric, but I think he has made one of me.)