Burning Ground

by Bagheera [Reviews - 3]

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  • Teen
  • None
  • Alternate Universe, Slash

Author's Notes:
Note: This is set in vedic India, so dating is a bit difficult, but it's roughly around 2000 - 1000 B.C, perhaps a bit earlier. Varanasi is the modern city Benares in Northern India and one of the oldest cities in the world. Apart from these facts, I'm borrowing stuff from Hindu religion and mythology left and right, mostly from the myths and attributes relating to Shiva, but also a couple of things, such as the oil-drenched palace, from the Mahabharata.

Every god these people venerate has a thousand names and a hundred attributes. The Master accepts them, often amused, sometimes bored by the endless interpretation of what they are. He spends more time talking to the architects of their gardens and palaces, the generals, the teachers that build their City of Light, Varanasi at the two rivers.

But the Doctor listens carefully to each singing brahmin, each kneeling kshatriya, each babbling saint and wandering ascetic. He listens to the songs of the maidens that tend to the herds, to the gossip of the painted palace women, to the muttered predictions of withered old queens. He begins to suspect that thousands of years from now these stories will have become sacred texts which the Doctor has read, a lifetime ago, never guessing that they were his own story. The tales will have been sung, and re-sung, and woven into intricate tapestries of fiction with a single silver thread of truth running through them, and it is hard to resist the temptation of divining what will happen from the future echo of their deeds.

People have started to call the Master the lord of time and destruction, the bringer of life and death; Lord Shiva the kindly one. They have brought tiger skins for his throne, an hourglass-shaped drum and a trident. They cry and pray when the Master's softly hypnotic voice makes a lethal cobra dance to his words, slowly swaying into a trance, until the Master picks it up and it hangs tamely around his neck.

The first miracle the Master performed when they arrived in their blue chariot, disturbing the half-settled, half-wandering tribe of herdsmen that lived in these lands, was perhaps his greatest. Already it is taboo to speak of how he took the man who came with him to a great rock and made him kneel before nature's altar, how he raised a blade of sunshine and slit the throat of the kneeling man. Those who saw the blood spatter the rock count themselves among the blessed, and it has become a place of secret pilgrimages. Because the dying man burst into flame, and in the arms of Lord Shiva was reborn into a different form, a god with a head of wild curls. They exaggerate the colour of his hair, comparing it to fire and flames, while in truth it is merely brown. Sometimes they call the Doctor Agni, the lord of the flame, and sometimes Rudra, the god of storms.

As readily as they accept the Master's supremacy, the people are disturbed by the Doctor's unclear station. They question the Doctor sometimes. Is he the Master's brother or his servant? Is he a defeated rival, sleeping at the foot of the Master's bed with a knife in his mouth, ready to kill any intruder, or is he the Master's consort? Is the Doctor merely an aspect of the Master, his power personified? The Doctor only ever answers with a smile, and sometimes the smile makes them shrink away in terror.

The Doctor doesn't know what the true answer would be. He's still waiting to find out. It all started with the Doctor losing his game against the Master. There was nothing left for him but to admit defeat. "You've won," he said to the Master, but he couldn't keep the disdain from his voice. "What are you going to do now?"

The Doctor could see that the Master hadn't been prepared to win. He hesitated, looking almost helpless without the Doctor's defiance to catch him, then made an impulsive offer that didn't surprise the Doctor. "It doesn't have to be like this. We could rule together, peacefully, benevolently — whatever it is you think I cannot do! I'll prove it to you."

Perhaps it had been a mistake to laugh at the Master. "Don't bother on my account," the Doctor sneered. "I know you. You can't do it."

That's how they ended up in India, with the Doctor kneeling over a dusty rock, unable to believe what was happening, and the Master whispering into his ear, "You'll believe it," before he slit the Doctor's throat.

The number of their followers grew rapidly after the sacrifice. A tribe of herdsmen soon became several, and then a small kingdom. Daily, now, more arrive within the walls of their new city. They don't have to be forced to come. Varanasi promises wealth and splendor, and the presence of gods. When their first palace was built, the Master moved the Doctor's TARDIS to the inner chamber, where it stands like a blue shrine, silent and unused. The Doctor has refused to enter it again. This unnerved the Master to the point where he moved from the TARDIS to the palace, sleeping there although he's clearly uncomfortable. Some nights the Doctor sits at the foot of the Master's bed, watching over the Master, knowing that while his eyes rest on the Master, the Master won't find a moment of sleep. Other nights he wanders the city, and the Master doesn't once order him to stay.

They may be bending history a little, but so far they haven't broken it. That might be why the Master chose this place and time for his demonstration: because it has room for them, because it was an appointed time, a moment of history waiting for them.

One morning, after another sleepless night the Doctor spent sitting cross-legged at the foot of the Master's bed, the Master says over breakfast, "You must admit that I was right and you were wrong. There's no need to drag this out any longer."

The Doctor leans back on his elbows, sprawled over the cushions, and watches the Master's tense face. The tone the Master used with him just now was impatient, but there was a pleading undercurrent as well. He's asking the Doctor to let him go.

The Doctor smiles widely at the Master, in the way that frightens their servants and makes the little children laugh and hide their faces from him. "I don't think we're done yet."

What are they? Master and servant, brother and brother, king and consort, a god and his shakti? The Doctor doesn't care. He just lets himself drift through history, towards the appointed conclusion. The Master just doesn't understand it, because he doesn't know the right stories. He stews over the Doctor's continued refusal. Three months into their reign, he declares that he will conquer all the kingdoms surrounding them, and be the king of kings, the ruler of all the known world.

The Doctor sighs at those plans, but actually, such ambitions fit well into the period. He stops the Master from just declaring war, telling him how it should be done, so it will fit into the tale. The Master, pleased by the Doctor's cooperation, plays along with what to him is just a silly game for the natives' benefit. Together, he and the Doctor select a white horse and the priests prepare it. Then the stallion is set free to race across the country. Every land it sets foot into is theirs to conquer, and the army is always driving the horse further. No man, be he enemy or friend, may slay the horse. It is, for the time of the ritual, a sacred animal. Tribe after tribe surrenders to their army. Kings fall at their feet, begging for mercy. The Doctor refuses to plan the battles with the Master, but he serves as the Master's charioteer, and the soldiers fear them both.

At nightfall, when the battles are over, the Doctor is the last to steer his chariot back to their camp. They drive in silence past the corpses, while jackals slink through the twilight, and crows peck at the fallen warriors. Neither of them has killed a single man with their own hands, and yet the dead all belong to them.

After the battles the army rests, and in their tent the Doctor washes the blood from the Master's hands and the dust from his face while outside the soldiers beat their drums and the priests sing their hymns.

"And to think that all those centuries you refused to rule at my side," the Master says. "I understand now. You enjoy it too much, don't you, Doctor? It makes you feel so guilty, but you love it, their screams when they die for us, their terror, their joy. That writhing, twisting mass of humans, so alive right before they die…"

It's interesting that the Master can see humans the way the Doctor sees them: the beauty in their short, fast-burning lives. Maybe he can see them that way only through the Doctor's eyes. And yet he still gets it wrong, thinks that this means the Doctor enjoys seeing them die. He enjoys seeing them live, and death is only the necessary condition for life.

"I still haven't agreed to rule at your side," the Doctor replies evenly. "So far you haven't done anything to impress me. Any human despot could do as much."

"If I did better than a human, you'd accuse me of changing history. No, Doctor, I think you just can't admit that this isn't wrong. It's the natural way of things." But the Master is annoyed, hurt by the Doctor's rejection and defiance.

"You're right," the Doctor says and wrings out the damp cloth he has been using. The water is now brown with blood and dirt. "Just history taking its course."

He rises, and unwinds the long scarf he has been wearing, undoes the clasps of his flowing garments, takes of his belt and sandals. The Master still wears the grey Nehru jacket, home in India millenia before its time, but the Doctor dresses like their human subjects. The velvet jacket and ruffled silk shirts he burnt at the altar where the Master sacrificed him.

He undresses completely before the Master in silent, mocking provocation, and then lays down on their bed of pillows and blankets, covering himself again. The Doctor will sleep and dream of war, and temples of learning and a blossoming civilisation. There is good and evil in equal measure in the Master's deeds here, creation and destruction. It isn't wrong. It's the natural flow of things. He knows that the Master won't touch him, won't sleep at all as long as they share a bed without the Doctor's consent. Consent that the Doctor cannot give, and the Master doesn't know how to obtain. The Doctor could escape the Master, regain his TARDIS and be free. They'd both be grateful. This is a dead end for both of them, and all that's left for them is to stay caught up in the web of time, making history.

After a year of conquest they return to their capital. Varanasi has grown beyond recognition. There are temples now in their name, hymns and rituals. But there is a feverish tension among the cheering crowds that dance in the name of Lord Shiva. The empire is at its turning point, its breaking point, and drunken with its own power.

Their citizens lead them to a palace built entirely of reeds and wood that is nearly dripping with sweet ghee and scented oils. They're expected to sleep here the first night; it was built in their honor just for one night, a gift from a recently conquered king. The Doctor stands in the entrance, wondering. A drop of oil falls on his brow. The whole building is soaked in it. He remembers a story that goes like this. The sigh he breathes is one of relief. The Master looks at him questioningly.

"Let's do it," the Doctor tells the Master, with an honest grin. "Let's spend the night here."

If the Master was going to protest, he's too captivated by the Doctor's smile to do it. He smiles back. "Well, Doctor? Have the cheering crowds changed your mind?"

The Doctor doesn't answer. He shuts and locks the door behind them, takes the Master by the hand and leads them deeper into their palace for the night. The roof is covered in straw, the floor not earth but dry tinders. The scent of spices is overwhelming. This time he undresses both of them. He feeds the Master almonds, shares fruit and sweetmeats with him. "Do you want to know why I never wanted to rule at your side?" he asks him.

The Master is too short and slight for an emperor, and it is painfully evident without his clothes, even more so when he becomes defensive, expecting another verbal blow. "Enlighten me, Doctor."

"Rulers never last," the Doctor says, and kisses him, silencing all questions. He completes the work of their citizens, anointing both their bodies with the oils that have been prepared for them, until their bodies glisten in the firelight that shines through the cracks in the walls. The Master trembles ever so slightly under each touch, quietly terrified by the Doctor's sudden change of heart.

"Perhaps - " he begins, but the Doctor lays a finger on his lips.

"No. No might-have-beens, Master."

The Doctor lays the Master down and he feels heat lick over his back, but they both have their eyes closed, clutching at each other. The smell of incense tickles his nose as he enters the Master, gently but without hesitation. They have little time now. The Doctor is covering the Master's shorter body with his own, shielding it, and the first glowing cinders fall on his skin while he takes him slow and deep.

"Doctor," the Master pleads, and suddenly his eyes snap wide open. The Doctor looks down at his face, illuminated by the dancing flames of the burning palace, frightened but full of understanding. He kisses the Master's forehead, enters his mind, weaves them into one, two aspects of the same dying man. Smoke brings tears to their eyes and numbness to their senses. The Doctor bursts into flame like the palace, melts in the furnace of their falling empire, and resettles in its ashes. He walks out of the inferno naked and covered in dark ash, but pale and fair as cinders underneath, and this is how he walks, quiet and blind, all through city and back to his TARDIS, accompanied by whispers and stories.

Shiva is also the god of cremation grounds.