2020 by Allemande
Summary: Dystopian Arthur-Merlin reunion fic, not an AU. In 2020, the world has just about recovered from the global financial crisis. Its leaders, determined that nothing like this will happen again, have taken what they deem the necessary precautions. Arthur has been reincarnated but doesn't remember who he was, Merlin is a cynical old recluse living in a cottage on a hill somewhere in Wales. One day, someone else comes along and makes the link.
Categories: FPF Gen Characters: Arthur, Merlin
Genre: Drama, Humour
Pairing: None
Warnings: None
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 5 Completed: Yes Word count: 13757 Read: 8362 Published: Apr 06, 2013 Updated: Apr 06, 2013

1. Up the hill by Allemande

2. More questions than answers by Allemande

3. Back in the real world by Allemande

4. In the flesh by Allemande

5. James and Arthur by Allemande

Up the hill by Allemande
CHAPTER ONE – Up the hill

Just outside the village of Tawelfan, not far from the Welsh city of Newport, stood a smallish cottage on a hill. It had been there for as long as the villagers could remember, and so had the old man living in it. Grandma Ceridwen, the oldest one among them, said his father had lived there before him; though when asked when the man had died, or what his son had been like as a boy, she had the tendency to start talking about the weather instead.

Every now and then a child or a group of children would get curious as to what the old man was up to, all alone on his hill, and creep up to his house. However, this was not as easy as it looked: most of them returned without ever having seen the house, saying they’d run into some kind of obstacle on the way, and their parents would despair over the state of their clothes (“Mud, rotten vegetables, whole gallons of cherry juice, what will he think of next?” one mother was overheard complaining to her neighbour). Once, one kid had managed to get as far as the old man’s doorstep, but looked scared out of his wits when he came back and would only speak after a whole week, and then only to rasp out “Don’t – call – him – Gandalf!”.

“Still, you’ve got to envy him, in a way,” the men down at the pub would say to each other. “I mean, no bloody ID checks,” said Ray. “And no monthly bloody tax return,” said Rob. “Probably not even a bank account,” whispered Tom, and they all murmured in agreement, Ray checking for the umpteenth time whether the security camera in the upper right corner was still there.

Yep, it was.

“All right, boys, closing time,” said John the barman, and they all checked their watches, trying not to grumble too loudly. It was barely nine.

“You know I’ve got the inspector coming in tomorrow.” John held up his hands defensively, and they shrugged. Things really weren’t the same anymore.

Not three hundred feet away, Alex Carter was finishing his dinner. “Thanks for the lovely meal, mum,” he said, forcing the last few spoonfuls of stew down his throat.

“It’s not Cambridge cuisine by a long shot, I know,” sighed Mrs Carter, and Alex made an extra effort to look enthusiastic. “It’s great, mum.”

“So, what are your plans for the rest of your stay?” And without waiting for him to answer, she said, “I thought we could visit your Gran tomorrow. She hasn’t seen you in at least 6 months, and look how you’ve grown!”

“Mum, I’m twenty-four. I don’t grow anymore.”

“Well, your hair, then.”

He pushed his blond hair back self-consciously. “It’s getting a bit long.” Standing up, he took their plates to the sink. “Anyway, could we postpone that? I was thinking of going up the hill tomorrow, y’know.”

“Oh, Alex,” she sighed. “Are you still obsessed with going to talk to that man? He’s just an old loony, you know. Why, only the other day his pigs came running down the path on the south side of the hill, scared out of their tiny little minds, and I swear you could hear him trampling and howling behind them! And just last week young Barney Evans –”

“– tried to creep up to his house and fell into a pit full of mud. I know, mum. I’m telling you, though, there’s something about him. I just know he and his ancestors have probably been in this area forever, and you know how so many books link Caerleon and Arthur…”

“– with no proof whatsoever, Alex, from what you told me on the phone. I just don’t want your medieval obsession to interfere with –“

“My ‘medieval obsession’? Mother, only last year you were telling me how glad you were I’d finally decided on one course!”

“I know, it’s just that with all the inspections these days…” She sighed, her shoulders slumped, and he patted her arm awkwardly.

“I promise I won’t draw anyone’s attention to Tawelfan, mum. I promise.”

***

“Do we have your full attention, Mr Roshannon?”

James focussed on the woman opposite him, who for the last half hour had been giving the most boring statistics overview he had ever witnessed.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Those are very important developments.”

“Quite. As relevant to UKNB as any other national bank, I should say.”

James just gave her a small smile, one that he knew was just charming enough to win her over, but didn’t throw his professionalism into question. “Do carry on.”

And she droned on. Well, suspicion was what he’d expected, he mused as he idly scribbled some random words onto his notepad; after all, he was the youngest here by far and would therefore have to undergo some testing. He was sure these people hadn’t ever come across a national bank CEO’s personal assistant who was only twenty-seven. He was sure they were all asking themselves whom he had slept with to get to that position, and he was sure that they were all waiting for him to make a mistake.

Too bad for them. He was bored, but he was also good, and even if he didn’t listen to much of what was said, he would still be able to come out looking competent.

When it was his turn, he gave a brief, but comprehensive overview of UKNB’s current actions and transactions; everyone was visibly impressed, although whether with his easy manner and delivery, or with the bank’s results, he couldn’t be sure.

“So you’re saying British bank consolidation has been completed a hundred percent?” asked the Nippon Bank representative, and James nodded. “We bought the last HSBC shares only last week, in fact. All employees have been retained, naturally.”

His Japanese counterpart nodded, looking envious. “We are still working on bank centralization in our country. Some of the old CEOs are being a little… resistant.”

“Well, you had a lot more regional banks,” replied James. “Although I find it helps if you think about it in terms of mergers rather than as centralization. It really drives home to the critics that what we’re doing is important, and right.” Those who weren’t jotting down every word he said nodded in agreement.

“Your work is very impressive,” the German representative told him during tea break. “Within a year you have managed to implement GIFT’s regulations. We, meanwhile, have similar problems to our Japanese colleague. Federalism… it’s such a pain. You should see some of the arguments the Bavarians come up with.”

“Well, the Bavarians were given the chance to separate,” James commented. “But if they can meet neither GIFT’s nor IST’s requirements…”

“Quite right,” the German said, nodding and smiling at him, and James knew he had scored another point. These people were so easy.

Easy and gullible.

***

Alex’ promise hadn’t been enough to calm his mother, and he spent a lot of the next morning arguing with her about the same subject. Finally he managed to get away, and as he walked through the wood leading to the hill, he felt an almost physical relief, stress and worry stripping away until he felt only the cool breeze on his skin and the soft ground under his shoes.

It was funny, he thought as he gazed and listened all around him: It almost looked as though the vegetation increased, grew fuller and richer the closer he got to the hill, and there were more birds, and their song was happier, clearer.

Now stop it, Alex, he said to himself. As if you could tell when birds are happy. Maybe they’re scared and telling you to turn back.

But he wouldn’t turn back, he knew. This was easy, relaxing; there was no vestige of the fear he had felt that one time he’d made his way towards the old man’s house as a little boy.

He stopped. Funny. He hadn’t really remembered going there before. It was normal, of course, since every child from Tawelfan tried it sooner or later (if only to compare war wounds afterwards); but he hadn’t actually remembered doing it. And try as he might now, he couldn’t remember how his little adventure had ended.

He shrugged and continued on his path. It didn’t matter. He was going there now, and somehow he didn’t think he was going to be stopped.

As he started climbing the slope, he realized he hadn’t felt this free and unsupervised in a very long time. Certainly not in the last three years. He checked to his right and left, but he knew anyway that there were no surveillance cameras here, no clocking booths.

No IST. That really felt like ages ago.

When he had almost reached the top of the hill, he suddenly found himself in front of a vast bramble thicket. Almost without thinking, he went to the right, although that way looked much less passable. About two hundred metres further, he found a gap in the bushes that he could just about squeeze through – and there lay in front of him a small but neat path which led right up to the back door of the house. He stared at the path, almost willing it to divulge its hidden traps and snares. It stared back at him innocently.

He took a tentative step, and felt… nothing. He took another step, and another, and forced himself not to break into a run. Earlier than he had expected, he found himself facing the door.

This was unreal. He was actually here.

He lifted his hand – hesitated – and knocked.

There was a loud crash from within. Then silence. Then the door flew open, and he stood face to face with the old man, who just stared at him.

***

“Did you see the demonstrations in Germany?”

James looked up from his Ipad. Mr Howen was standing in the doorway to his office, gazing at him in that slightly disturbing fatherly fashion that he had come to adopt with him.

“DAS IST GIFT.” James nodded and got up to shake his boss’s hand. “‘That is poison.’ Not the most original slogan, but at least it’s concise, I guess.”

Howen chuckled and sat down on the sofa in James’ office. “Concise, yes, that’s one way of looking at it.”

“How would you describe it, sir?” inquired James, sitting back down in his chair.

“‘Disturbing the peace’ is one thing that comes to mind,” said Howen lightly.

“‘No peace without order’,” quoted James, nodding. “One would think the Germans would understand that.”

Howen sighed. “Yes, it gets me worried, actually. If they can’t keep their people quiet… Ah well, at least they arrested all the major instigators.”

“It’s all a matter of time, sir. We just need to continue in our struggle to show everyone that what we’re striving for is global peace and stability. Sooner or later everyone will see that the world we’re building is a much better one than before the global financial crisis.”

“I like your spirit, son.” Howen suddenly looked very tired. “It will come in handy…”

“Are you all right, Mr Howen?” James had the impression he was looking properly at his boss for the first time in weeks. “You look… well, you look pretty exhausted.”

“I’m dying, James.”

James blinked. So did Howen. He looked surprised, as though he hadn’t planned on saying this at all.

“Sir?”

Howen fixed him with his gaze for several long moments, then nodded. “Yes. Only a matter of time now, they say.”

“Who does?”

“The doctors, of course. It’s my heart. Clots. Too late to operate, too, apparently.”

James was silent for several long moments. “I’m sorry, sir.” His heart felt hollow. In spite of everything that separated them, he’d grown quite attached to Howen. He knew the man had no family and barely any friends. Who would mourn him when he was gone?

The CEO seemed disinclined to continue, and James forced himself to ask, “How long?”

“Oh, anytime, apparently. Whenever I next get too stressed. And let’s face it, that’s not unlikely in my position.” He squinted at his assistant, then seemed to make up his mind about something. “I want you to take over, James.”

James stared at him.

“Yes, I know it’s a little sudden. But who better to continue my work? You know it best. And you have the right ideas, and the right spirit. You are the one who can truly bring it all together.”

James was at a loss. This was too early. He wasn’t ready. How was he supposed to just fill those shoes? How was he supposed to take over the position of CEO of the United Kingdom National Bank?

And what would Howen say if he knew why James was really here?

***

Aurelia Thomas sat back in her chair, her hands folded, her face in a frown. Interesting. That would undoubtedly bring some changes. But would they all be good?

Reporting to this Teal was obviously the first thing she should do. However, anticipating a few questions, she checked up on a couple of things before she went down there. It was never good to come unprepared. After having checked, moreover, that the system was still recording on all her seventeen screens, she left her office.

Gregory Teal, head of operations, also just called ‘The Teal’ (nobody really knew why), listened quietly to her report, his lips pursed. There was a long silence, during which he intermittently stared at her and his screens, several of them now switched to cover Roshannon directly.

Finally, he said, “The fact that we only found out about Howen’s illness today is unacceptable. Whom have we got on Howen’s doctor’s feed?”

“It’s William Fulton, sir.” One of the things Aurelia had checked before coming to him.

“Fulton William to my office,” said Teal into one of the many microphones on his desk, and she shuddered inwardly. That calm voice deceived no one; Fulton was getting the boot and he was lucky if he had a quiet life after that.

“Relay,” said Teal, almost dreamily. “Relay and coordination, that’s what’s still lacking. This should never have escaped our notice.”

“Agreed, sir,” said Aurelia and stood to attention as Teal stared at her for a minute or two.

“Check up on Howen’s illness and his chance of survival,” he ordered finally. “You have the entire press and medical departments at your disposal. Acquire new informants if necessary. And let me know by tomorrow how many new people you need to cover Roshannon.”

“Yes, sir.” Aurelia wondered if she had just been made officially responsible for UKNB as a whole. However, it was probably wiser for now to just follow The Teal’s orders to the letter.

Roshannon was going to be a tricky one, she felt. She never really knew what was going on behind that poker face.

***
More questions than answers by Allemande
CHAPTER TWO – More questions than answers

“Who are you?” the old man whispered.

“Umm,” said Alex. He was feeling very nervous, without really knowing why. The old man looked like he’d seen a ghost. “I’m Alex. I, er, live in the village down in the valley?”

“How did you get here?” The old man was blocking the doorway and didn’t look like he was going to budge. “Nobody gets this far.”

“I… just walked. Nothing stopped me.”

“Which takes me back to my first question.” The old man’s voice now sounded stronger, his eyes narrowing. “Who are you?”

Alex frowned. “I’m… just Alex. Alex Carter. I’m no one special.” Great. As if this wasn’t driven home to him enough every day of his life.

The old man snorted “Right.” Without warning, he surged forward so that Alex jumped out of the way, then slammed the back door behind him and advanced on Alex, who retreated into the garden.

“Nobody gets this far, like I said.” The old man had started to circle him. “So what are you?”

What am I?” Alex was trying his best not to panic. If he could only remain calm, surely this old man, albeit slightly insane, would calm down. “I’m a human being. I’m… just a kid from Tawelfan.”

“Ah yes, Tawelfan,” spat the old man. “‘Quiet place’. You try to kid yourselves you’re so quiet, and then you come up here with your children and your dogs and your smells and your songs, and you snoop around, and don’t think I can’t hear you talk about me down in the valley!” His words came out in a rush and he stopped himself suddenly, but still continued to mutter under his breath as he stomped around the garden.

Alex thought he could hear his own heartbeat gain even more speed, and forced himself to concentrate on his breathing. When he had taken a few deep breaths, he braved the old loony again. “Look, I’m sorry there have been people troubling you in the past, and I really don’t want to interfere in your life or take up much of your time. I’m just… I wanted to ask you a few questions about this region, seeing as you’ve lived here so long.”

“And who told you how long I’ve lived here, eh? Eh?” The old man advanced again and started stabbing Alex’ chest with his forefinger. “Nobody knows how long I’ve been here!”

“It’s just… people told me,” said Alex, trying not to move. “People in the village say you’ve been here for a while. And your father before you, and so on.”

To his surprise, the old man’s ancient, withered-looking face split into a grin, showing yellowing teeth. “My father. The tales they come up with when they don’t understand something.”

Not understanding something was definitely a feeling Alex could relate to. Still, he wasn’t going to give in so easily. “Okay… so we don’t understand you. And you don’t want to be understood, I think. That’s fine. I just… wanted to talk to you for a bit. Ask you a couple questions for my paper.”

“What do you mean, paper?” the old man barked.

“My final paper, for my studies. I’m a medievalist. More specifically, I’m writing my final paper on King Arthur, and I was hoping I could ask you if you knew anything about this region, Caerleon having been linked to Camelot in many writings, and... well… I was just wondering if you knew anything that could help my research.”

The old man’s face had been unreadable as Alex had started to speak; now he leant forward until their noses almost touched, and fixed Alex with a piercing gaze. Alex almost had the feeling he was reading his thoughts, separating facts from fiction, making absolutely sure Alex was telling the truth. Then –

The old man threw back his head and laughed.

***

“… and if you could have all that info on my desk by eight tomorrow, that would be much appreciated,” James Roshannon was saying to his boss’s secretary. “Thanks, Susan.”Finally, he exited the office.

Susan the secretary finished typing her email. Then she said casually, as if to herself: “Anything I should know about?”

She kept on typing for a few moments, then turned around and gazed at the picture frame on her desk, as if looking at something beyond it. “Not his usual calm self at all. Wants me to compile all these lists of basic information about the bank, members, statistics… like he wants to get himself up to speed.”

Aurelia frowned. Susan had always been a little over-zealous. But getting the job done very well, these past three years. She pressed a few buttons on her switchboard, opening communications with Susan, who was still gazing into the camera in her picture frame, looking at her right out of one of the manifold screens in Aurelia’s office.

“Nothing to worry yourself with, operative,” said Aurelia. “He’s just a little strung up. Just get the info ready for him.”

Susan, on the other end of the line, sighed. “Fine. If there’s anything I need to know, well, let me know.”

“Absolutely.” Aurelia paused, then added, “And by the by, Susan, could you put in an extra shift and give us some more informal stuff on Roshannon? Such as his pals, favourite food and drink, any quirks you haven’t thought important enough to report so far…” She trailed off. She knew that she was just confirming Susan’s suspicion that something big was afoot. But Susan Clarke was enough of a professional to just follow orders until her superiors deemed it wise to fill her in.

“Sure,” replied Susan, not batting an eyelid. “You’ll have it by nine tomorrow. Oh, and try Paul Hartnell – I think he’s a pal of Mr Roshannon’s from college and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t turn up on your payroll somewhere. He came to this office once and had the whole room mapped in five seconds.”

“Understood. Thanks, Susan.”

She had a lot of work to do.

***

It was a strange laugh.

It seemed to rise from deep within his throat, sounding cracked, sounding… unused. It went on for a while, too. As though he hadn’t found anything this amusing in a long time.

Finally, the laughter subsided and the old man, having held on to Alex’ shoulder for support, steadied himself.

“A medievalist,” he repeated, then chuckled again. “And you really are, I can see it… I mean, I can also see something else, I think…” And he squinted and stared right into Alex’ eyes again. “You know, my boy, whoever instilled that notion in you that you’re ‘nothing special’ is an idiot. But then, all men are idiots these days.” He frowned. “Huh. That sobered me up.”

“So…” said Alex tentatively. “Why is it funny?”

The old man stared at him a little longer, then shrugged. “Never you mind, Alan.”

“Er… it’s Alex.”

“Whichever.” The old man waved a dismissive hand. “Cup of tea?”

Alex followed him inside. It was a surprisingly normal-looking house, albeit very old, with a lot of old things in it – furniture, books, strange-looking bottles and bowls, bunches of dried herbs and flowers hanging upside down from the ceiling… But all in all, a normal country house.

“Expected a bat cave, did you?” the old man commented, without turning around, as he prepared the tea.

“Er,” said Alex, and the old man just snorted. Alex shrugged and continued his exploration of the parlour. There were a lot of bookshelves, and he scanned the titles quickly. Literature, mostly. A few cook books, it looked like… but the rest were just novels.

“No history books, I’m afraid.” Alex checked, but the old man still had his back turned. What, did he have eyes in the back of his head or something?

“No bloody good, history books,” the old man continued. “Always wrong, Alan, always wrong.”

“Alex,” the younger man corrected automatically.

“Right.” Walking over to the table near the largest window, the old man appeared to be balancing the kettle, tea cups, milk and a sugar bowl. He seemed much steadier on his feet than Alex had expected. “Alex. Never liked that name since that tsar dynasty. Bloody gits.”

Alex smiled and accepted the teacup that was being offered him. He was sure he had never heard the Russian tsars referred to as such, and that was saying something considering the level of eccentricity at his college. “So how about you then? Have you got a name?”

“What do you mean, have I got a name?” the old man barked, suddenly sounding quite deranged again. “Of course I’ve got a name, the question is just which one, isn’t it?” He muttered some more to himself, then sighed. “Just call me Rhys.”

Alex blinked. Best just to ignore the old man’s cranky outbursts, he thought. “Okay. So, Rhys… mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Fine. But only if I can ask you some of mine.” The old man grinned his wide, yellow-toothed grin again. “But you first. This should be interesting.”

“Er… right.” He wasn’t sure what he could possibly have to say that would be of interest to the old man. Perhaps some news from the outside world? Oh, great. That was bound to cheer him up immensely.

“So… how long have you lived in this area?” He took a sip from his tea. Strong, but very good.

Rhys snorted. “Easy questions first, eh? Let’s see. I’ve been here longer than you or any of your family would remember.”

“Not one for direct answers, are you?”

Rhys just grinned. It looked like he was starting to really enjoy himself.

***

As he shut the door of his flat behind him, James’ shoulders dropped, and he half-stumbled into the living-room, collapsing on his sofa.

He wasn’t ready for this. He’d been in the bank for no more than fourteen months, five of which as Howen’s personal assistant. There was no way he could just take over from his boss. He was only just beginning to understand how everything was linked together, how many threads Howen held in his hand and, more importantly, how he managed not to let go of a single one of them. How was he supposed to keep the bank running as it did now, without it running him over? And how were the other employees, never mind the world, ever going to accept him?

James curled up on the couch. He would just close his weary eyes for a minute and think this through.

Moments later, he was fast asleep.

***

“Do come by again,” said Rhys, in a tone that sounded almost friendly, as he shook Alex’ hand.

“And if you think of anything else…”

“I’ve got your address.” Rhys patted the chest pocket of his old-fashioned, actually rather ugly cardigan. “Be interesting to send a letter again. Do they still use stamps?”

“Er… yes.”

Alex said goodbye, and as he retraced his steps down the narrow path and through the brambles, he could feel Rhys’ stare in the back of his neck. Well, that had been interesting, albeit a complete waste of time academically speaking. Rhys had given him nothing. Only vague allusions and long speeches that sounded almost like riddles, and most frustratingly, a thorough pounding of whatever academic text Alex would happen to quote.

Then, the questions Rhys had asked him were also weird: none at all about politics or the state of the world, but personal questions about him, his life, his background, which he had all answered as truthfully as he dared.

Rhys reminded him very much of an old prof of his: He was either very, very clever, or completely insane.

Back in his garden, the old man was having very similar thoughts. “He’s either very, very clever or completely oblivious,” he muttered to himself, absent-mindedly tearing out a few weeds. “Still, this can’t be a coincidence… or can it? Certainly seen enough of those for three lifetimes…” He stopped, looking up at the stuffed fox that seemed to be standing in for a garden gnome. “What do you think?”

The fox didn’t reply, and the old man sighed. “Maybe I should get a cat again.”

“Wotcher, Catpaws.” Paul, Alex’s oldest pal from Tawelfan, had been mowing the lawn outside of his parents’ house as Alex walked past.

“Hey Paul.” They shook hands. “I can’t believe you’re still calling me that.”

“Well, you still move as quietly as a cat,” grinned Paul, clapping him on the shoulder. “Where you been off to? Crawling through thicket, by the looks of it.”

Alex looked down at his shirt and trousers and swore under his breath. His mother was going to kill him; she’d just mended those trousers the other day. “Yeah.” He looked up at Paul, and all remorse was forgotten. “I went up the hill, Paul. I met the old geezer.”

“No way!” Paul looked as delighted as he felt. “How did you get through?”

“It was really easy.” And he told him about the gap in the thicket and the path behind it.

“Fantastic. You’ve got to tell me everything, I’ve been wanting to meet the old man for ages. Hey, let’s go to the Owl – drinks are on me.”

Alex snorted. “Leave it to you to find a connection to beer consumption anywhere.”

“Yup, that’s me. Paul Hartnell, nothing but booze on his mind.”

***
Back in the real world by Allemande
CHAPTER THREE – Back in the real world

Three weeks later

Alex groaned and hit the snooze button without opening his eyes. 10 am lecture had sounded all right when he’d signed up for it. In practice, however, 10 am meant getting up at 9, which was four hours after he’d gone to bed, after drinking vodka in Paul’s room with Paul and some other mates. In practice, 10 am was early. Very, very early.

“Gnnnnhhhh,” he commented as the alarm went off again. This routine he repeated a few times.

Oh well, there was nothing for it. If he wanted to pass this subject, he couldn’t miss Prof. Jenkins’ lectures, dreary as they may be.

A quick shower and something that barely passed for breakfast later, he was out of the door. On his way past the mailbox, it suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t checked it for a few days, so he prised the ancient box open, ignoring the voice in his head that said he would do anything to procrastinate from actually going to class.

He found two bills, another excellent omen for the day. However, there was also a letter addressed to him in an untidy scrawl, with no return address indicated. Something to read during the lecture then.

“Dear Alex,” he read as he had installed himself in the lecture room and opened the letter inside his book, “I hope I remembered your name correctly this time. You asked me to contact you if I ever thought of something that might be of interest to your studies. As a matter of fact, I think I have found something, though I’d much rather discuss it in person. Can we meet in your room at the university tonight at 8? I know how to find you. Best, Rhys.”

Alex stared at the letter, wondering about the strange feeling of excitement in the pit of his stomach. After all, the old man hadn’t given him anything worth his while last time, why would he be of any use now? He was probably just looking to rile him up again. Anyway, what did he mean, ‘tonight’? Surely he couldn’t have meant the night he’d sent the letter, and neither could he have known when the letter would arrive… unless he was already in Cambridge and had hand-delivered it? Alex turned over the envelope. No stamp.

“Mr Carter?”

He looked up. The whole class was staring at him, including Professor Jenkins, who had evidently just asked him a question. She smiled a sour smile. “I know we can’t all be as important as some of the people you go out drinking with,” she drawled. “However, it would be most gracious of you to grant us your full attention. Now, I seem to remember you doing some research on this particular war, so if you would you be so kind…”

Alex mumbled an excuse and gave a brief overview of the texts he had read on the subject, then let Prof. Jenkins get on with the stupendously boring enumeration of dates and war statistics and pondered her earlier comment. There was no doubt whom she had meant, of course, but how come even his most unworldly, unsociable teacher had seen that photo in the paper, the one everyone had been teasing him about for a week now, that picture showing him, Paul, and Paul’s best mate stumbling out of a bar?

***

“What about this Alexander Carter, then, Mr Hartnell?” Aurelia Thomas tore a new page from her block, the first one already full with all the info Hartnell had given her. Contrary to her colleagues, she stilled preferred the old pen-and-paper approach. “Has he been in contact with Mr Roshannon a lot?”

“Oh, we’ve been out drinking a few times,” Paul Hartnell shrugged. “No important player as far as I can tell, though. Student of medieval history at University of Cambridge, Faculty of History. Know him from our common home town Tawelfan. Pretty unspectacular fellow all in all. Bit of a mother’s boy, I’d say. But nice. I would guess nothing on his GIFT record either. Though I guess that’s for you people to find out.” He smiled expectantly. Aurelia raised an eyebrow.

“It is indeed.” It wasn’t as though she was going to share the information. “No insurgent tendencies?”

Hartnell shrugged. “Not as far as I can tell. I mean, he’s voiced the odd complaint or two about ID checks and such, but everyone does that.”

“Indeed.” Aurelia raised her eyebrow again, making a show of noting this last comment. It didn’t do for people like Paul Hartnell to feel too sure of themselves, and she was secretely pleased when she saw him fidget in his chair a little.

***

Merlin breathed deeply as he walked through the streets of Cambridge. He liked to explore a place by smells, although not all of them were pleasant here. He’d lived in a cottage on a hill for almost 90 years now; his forages into the world that called itself “civilized” had been short and, for the most part, violent. There were a lot of man-made smells that he didn’t particularly enjoy, such as exhaust fumes – though it looked like man was now making an effort to filter them, that was good news. But all in all, he had to admit to himself, he did enjoy the smell of human towns. It just made him feel alive, in a way he didn’t often feel.

Slowly, he started expanding his senses, and realized after a while that something new inhabited the air, something he hadn’t felt before to this extent. As he walked slowly here and there, across bridges, through passageways, everywhere he felt the tingle of electricity in his veins. It was really everywhere now. How long had it been since man had made himself so entirely dependent on it, he wondered? He couldn’t tell, and he already knew he wouldn’t bother to look it up. For a while he’d tried to keep up to date with current events, be knowledgeable about the milestones in civilizational developments. But it had just become too much, and too frustratingly repetitive.

No, there was something else, he decided. It wasn’t just electricity. It was a very specific kind of wave emanating from… everywhere. He stopped right where he stood (there was a car horn and a shriek of tires, which he barely heard) and focussed.

There. He opened his eyes and looked up, straight into a small rectangular box attached to a lamppost. A tiny red light shone in its lower right corner. He walked on slowly, looking around for more of these boxes. They were everywhere. And if he was right... they were a lot smaller than the last models he’d seen, of course, but…

He shook his head, a bitter smile playing around his lips. “I told them when they invented the bloody thing,” he muttered. “I told them it would be used for this kind of thing one day…”

“Can I help you, sir?”

He looked up. A young man dressed in a casual, but stylish outfit stood in front of him, smiling a smile that Merlin knew at once was supposed to look puzzled and winning at the same time. Oh great. This was a secret service agent. He could usually smell them from a mile away. Well, unless he was muttering to himself, obviously.

“Help me? I doubt it,” Merlin sneered. The man just continued to smile, unfazed, and Merlin checked himself. This was obviously no newbie.

“You were just looking a little lost, sir,” the agent said. “Are you new in town?”

“Not really,” Merlin said. “Haven’t been here in a while, though.” He made to walk on, but the man blocked his way, his manner not aggressive, but decisive.

“Would you mind showing me some ID, sir?” Now every bit the businessman, the agent whipped out his badge. Merlin made a show of studying it, then looked up into the agent’s eyes.

“I don’t think so.”

The man raised his eyebrows just a fraction. “I’m afraid I must insist, sir.” Still that gentle, insistent tone. “You do know it is compulsory to show ID when it is demanded by an IST employee.” It wasn’t a question. The agent assumed that everyone knew. So this had been going for a while.

“I’m sorry. Of course.” He smiled, and put his hand in his pocket, drawing out nothing at all and holding up his bare palm to the man. Unseen by the cameras, his eyes flashed gold –and the man let him walk on undisturbed.

“What they won’t do to maintain order,” Merlin grumbled. He couldn’t help thinking about the last time he had tried to actively involve himself in human affairs. He wondered if it would end the same way this time – with him turning away from them, dispirited, cynical. But then again…

He really needed to get going and find Alex Carter.

***

The alarm clock went off, and James turned it off at once. Feeling unusually rested, he glanced at the alarm clock. Right. He had set it to 7 last night instead of the usual 6 and had gone to bed unusually early, which meant he’d had six full hours of sleep. An absolute luxury at this point.

The peace only lasted for a few minutes, though. Once up and under the shower, everything came creeping back into his mind, slowly but surely. All the meetings he had scheduled for that day, all the emails he had to send, all the figures – well, nearly all – that he had memorized the day before. And, of course, the most overwhelming fact of all: that his boss, Mr Howen, the one behind whom he’d been able to hide for so long, had been dead for a week and he was now head of Britain’s national, its only bank. He shook his head slowly, massaging the shampoo into his hair. How the bloody hell had it come to all this?

In the office, his secretary was waiting for him with an updated schedule – several cancelled meetings, several new ones (more, obviously) – and, as he had requested for every morning now, a fact sheet summarizing last night’s stock market activities and a national and international monetary overview.

He scanned the sheet quickly, looked up and smiled at Susan. She was really very good.

“Your 3 o’clock meeting is with Mr Williams of the Daily Telegraph,” she pointed out. “He seemed to hint at wanting to discuss those pub pictures.”

“Right.” James grimaced, earning a smile from Susan. “One little drink, too many reprints. I guess you’re going to tell me not to get caught doing something like that again.”

“Oh, no, sir. I think it adds to your resume. I think it’s harder for those two friends you were with, I bet they’re getting pelted with interview requests.”

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll handle it. They’re sturdy, those Welsh.” He gave her another smile, then passed through to his office. Another long, dull day ahead.

***

There was a knock on the door. Alex got up and opened it. And stared at the man standing outside.

“Well it’s a good thing I turned off those bloody boxes in the corridor too,” muttered the young, dark-haired man standing it front of him. “Are you going to let me in at some point?”

“It’s… you,” Alex managed, and stepped aside just a little so the other man could squeeze through.

“Course it’s me.” The man, after a cursory glance around his room, looked back at him and frowned. “I asked if we could meet, you said yes, here I am.”

“But…” Alex thought he might as well sit down before he fainted. It was impossible. He knew who this was, but it couldn’t be, because he’d last seen him twenty years ago, when peering through a gap in the bushes up on the hill outside Tawelfan. A memory that had just come back to him in a flash. A young, dark-haired man, standing in the garden in front of his house, speaking in a language he didn’t understand, and making daffodils grow out of bare earth.

And yet… He also knew that that wasn’t the last time he had seen him. Somehow, he knew for certain that this was the old man who lived in the cottage. This was the man who had called himself Rhys. Except he wasn’t old now - he looked not a day older than Alex himself.

Something like a flash of realization passed over the man’s face, and he walked over to the mirror on the door of Alex’s wardrobe and studied himself.

“Ah. That wasn’t planned.” He scratched his head. “Sorry about that.”

“But… how can it be you?” Alex whispered. “I know who you are. But you’re old now. You’re not…”

“… young?” Rhys supplied. “No, can’t say I am. Haven’t been young for a very, very long time.” He glanced at Alex, with what Alex thought was a rather pitying look on his face.

“Look, sorry about that and all, but can we get to the point? I need to talk to you about this picture I saw.” And drawing a folded newspaper cutting from his trouser pocket, he advanced towards Alex. “Because the thing is, I knew there was something about you. Why would you find me so easily? Why would you even come to see me about your studies? I knew there had to be a connection. And then I saw you with him, in this paper, and-”

“Stop.” Alex screwed his eyes shut for a second, then opened them wide again. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about and I need you to stop and tell me what the hell is going on.” He got up.

Rhys tutted impatiently. “I haven’t got time for this. Just tell me where –“

“No.” Alex stood in front of him, crossing his arms. “You tell me. Everything.”

Rhys stared at him for a while, then smiled. “Fine. I guess you deserve to know.”

Alex suddenly felt nervous. Somehow he hadn’t believed he’d be successful in changing the other man’s mind, at least not so quickly. And somehow he also knew that what he was about to hear was not fit for other ears. “Let’s go for a walk then.”

“What, you don’t want to talk in here because of the camera surveillance?”

Alex stared at him meaningfully, but the other man just smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ve fiddled with them a little. They think they’re seeing an empty room.”

“You… fiddled with the cameras?” Alex shook his head as if trying to clear his ears of water. “You good at IT then?” He didn’t know why he believed the other man, but he did. It definitely made for a nice change to be able to say what he wanted inside a building.

“IT,” said Rhys, “that’s the modern name for maths, right? Nah, never been great at that. Anyway, it’s all waves. Don’t worry about it. It’s sorted.”

Alex, feeling like his head was about to explode, made a conscious decision not to worry himself with little things. What he needed was to understand the bigger picture, and he had a feeling that was going to be confusing enough.

“So.” He sat down on the chair on the other side of the room, facing Rhys.

“So,” repeated the old/young man.

“You’re Rhys.”

“Yes.”

“You’re the man I met the other day on the hill, except you were an old man then.”

“I looked like an old man,” Rhys corrected. “I still am old. I just… well, I seem to have made myself look younger without noticing.” He looked as embarrassed as though he had accidentally put on his jumper backwards or knocked over a vase. “I guess it’s the excitement, y’know.”

“Right,” said Alex, even though so many things weren’t. “I’ve seen you like this before. That was twenty years ago. I went up the hill, and I saw you in your garden, and you…” He faltered. Was it really a memory or had he dreamt it? But then how would he have dreamt this man’s face, and his dark hair?

“… I did something weird?” Rhys guessed, and Alex nodded slowly. “Well, that would certainly go a long way towards explaining why you sought me out again.”

“Would it?” asked Alex, faintly.

“Sure. You were looking for information on the Arthurian legends for your studies – never mind why for now – and something in the back of your mind linked me to that. That actually makes a lot of sense.”

“If you say so,” said Alex, whose life was starting to make less and less sense.

“The question is,” said Rhys, while Alex suddenly wondered why it wasn’t him asking the questions anymore, “how did you meet this man?” And he raised the piece of paper in his hand again. Alex looked at it more closely. It was a cutting of another one of those articles about the night out with Paul and his friend from Oxford, on whose face Rhys had just placed his finger.

“James Roshannon?” Alex frowned. “What’s he got to do with it?”

“Everything,” said Rhys, in a soft tone Alex had never heard from him before.

***
In the flesh by Allemande
CHAPTER FOUR – In the flesh

Two weeks later

Aurelia Thomas had been head of UKNB surveillance for no more than three weeks when James Roshannon made his first public appearance as head of UKNB. This presented her with no little stress. Public appearances of important players meant extra security – and not the kind you saw, not the muscle, although that was there too; it meant an optimum of surveillance, establishing a complete history of everyone who would and could be present and making sure nothing unforeseen happened. Basically, Aurelia hadn’t slept in ten days. All in all, though, she appreciated the new position. It meant not only more pay but also more responsibility, a greater chance to prove that she could really contribute to a more peaceful, ordered society. That was, after all, why she had joined the International Security Taskforce.

Roshannon was giving a press conference, a presentation of UKNB’s current strategies and goals in stabilizing national and international transactions – lower interest rates on credit, employment incentives for companies, all those things that Aurelia had been trying to cram into her brain for the last few weeks. She certainly couldn’t claim to understand it all, but from what she could glean, it was all fairly positive: lots of new jobs, less homeless people, that kind of thing. Roshannon obviously seemed to know what he was doing, and to share her and her employers’ general goals.

So why didn’t she trust him?

Oh well, she told herself for the umpteenth time, she probably just recoiled instinctively from the way all her female (and some male) colleagues seemed to swoon whenever Roshannon was on the telly, everyone talking about how handsome he was and how clever, and how lucky she was that she got to watch him all day long… it just made her want to puke. And Roshannon obviously didn’t seem to mind using his good looks to charm people into doing his bidding. She’d just never liked that kind of man.

“There was a last-minute request from a junior journalist last night,” her assistant informed her as she arrived in her office that morning. The press conference was two hours away. “Susan Clarke was going to deny it but Roshannon happened to see the email and said yes.”

Aurelia rolled her eyes. “He really likes to demonstrate he’s in charge, that one. Have you done a check-up on the journalist?”

Fred nodded. “We have a lot of data on him already, actually. It’s Alexander Carter, that friend of his from Wales he went out drinking with.”

“Interesting.” She raised her eyebrows. “What’s he doing playing journalist? I thought he was studying history or something.”

“Medieval history,” Fred confirmed. “Seems he’s also chief editor of his college newspaper, though. Personally I don’t think he’s a problem, we’ve compiled enough data about him – I mean, a lot of data,” he corrected himself, before she could reply with the unofficial company slogan – There’s No Such Thing As Enough Data. “The thing is, though, he’s bringing a fellow student, Roshannon okayed him too, and we didn’t have a lot on him yet. I’ve been doing a basic check-up though and I’ve asked Dennis Farthing to keep an eye on him.” He held out an impressively-sized folder, and Aurelia took it, smiling at him.

“Good work, Fred.” It was shaping up to be an interesting day, but she felt well-prepared.

***

“So explain to me again why we don’t have to worry about IST,” Alex muttered as they exited Canary Wharf station and started walking slowly towards UKNB headquarters.

“Because I look like your classmate Tom now,” said Merlin, “and Tom hasn’t had any dealings with them in the past, or only the standard ones like everyone else. Tom is also very conveniently your collaborator on the college newspaper.”

“And Tom has also very conveniently existed for a whole day,” said Alex. “How did you wing that, then? And please don’t say ‘it’s all just waves’.”

Merlin grinned. “As you wish. I went into their database and falsified their records, created Tom Anderson and some history on him, using magic.”

“That’s better, I guess,” said Alex, sounding a little weak. “At least I was already chief editor of the newspaper. Or wasn’t I, and you changed that as well?”

Merlin looked at him seriously. “I wouldn’t change your memories without your permission, Alex.”

Alex smiled faintly. “But you could.”

“Of course.”

“Of course.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how I got myself into this.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Right. Destiny.”

They’d arrived in front of the huge building, UKNB headquarters, where the press conference was being held. Alex checked his watch and found they were half an hour early, so they sat down on a bench in the park opposite the building.

Alex had spent enough time with Merlin now to recognize the look on his face (even though it wasn’t his face at the moment, but Tom’s) when he was accessing his magic; in this case, probably sensing for nearby cameras and feeding them false images and sounds, so they could talk undisturbed.

“So remember,” Merlin said without preamble, confirming his suspicion, “James mustn’t meet me. He can see me from afar, just as one unfamiliar face in a crowd, but he mustn’t come face to face with me. If he comes up to you, don’t be surprised if I run off.”

Alex nodded. “I get it. We’re just here so you can find out if you’re right about him, but you don’t want him to know yet.” The thought that this was all just a very, very weird dream still hadn’t left him, but he’d decided a few weeks ago that he was just going to play along and see what happened. “There’s one thing I don’t get, though. You keep saying you’re worried what will happen if he recognizes you. Would it be so bad for him to… you know, find out who he is?”

Merlin suddenly looked as though he’d rather be somewhere else, and took a long time to answer. “Not necessarily. I just don’t want him to find out in the middle of a hundred cameras. I can stop a few of them at a time but not all, and I definitely can’t take on IST on my own. I haven’t been… well, back in the civilized world, so-to-speak, for long, but I’ve seen enough to know that IST is very, very powerful, never mind their mother organization, er-“

“GIFT,” Alex supplied.

“GIFT,” Merlin nodded. “A euphemism if ever I heard one. What’s it stand for, anyway?”

“Global Institute for Fund Transactions.”

“Institute.” He snorted. “You of all people should know they’re not a real institute. They just make themselves look academic to have more power. Power, that’s what it’s always about, you…” And he went of into one of his old man muttering fits again.

Alex knew those well by now. “I never said I approved of GIFT.”

Merlin passed a hand over his face. “Sorry. Sometimes I just get so tired with people and their irritating habit to always choose the leaders that are worst for them.”

***

The press conference was a frightening affair. Merlin had experienced cameras, and had experienced journalism, but neither at this level; the frenzy of flashing lights and the deafening roar of the journalists’ questions and requests and comments was almost too much for him. He closed his eyes for a moment and willed himself to imagine he was in a thunderstorm. A huge, frightening, wonderful thunderstorm. That helped.

“You all right?” whispered Alex, sitting next to him, and he nodded.

Some of James Roshannon’s assistants and heads of department had given addresses first; Merlin had seen James enter the room but couldn’t see him now. However, after the first flurry of questions had died down, he saw him get up and walk towards the podium in quick, confident strides.

Merlin looked at the head of UKNB on the podium, who had begun to speak in his calm, measured voice.

He blinked, once, twice. It shouldn’t come as such a surprise. He’d kind of known it ever since he’d seen the picture. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to believe it. There had been so many other moments of wild hope and bitter disappointment, it had been too much.

But James - even though he didn’t look like him - was Arthur.

His face was different, his hair was dark, his body was less muscled, and he was wearing one of those modern suits, of course; but it was him. Merlin took a deep breath and reached out with his magic, just to make sure.

As his senses reached the man on the podium, it was like a physical shock coursing through his body, and he thought he must have gasped audibly, because the man in front of him turned round, frowning at him, and Alex grabbed his arm.

As Merlin came back to his senses, of sorts, he realized that James Roshannon had also faltered briefly in mid-sentence, frowned slightly, then shook his head as though to clear it and continued.

“Are you all right?” Alex whispered again, and Merlin could only shrug.

***

Merlin hadn’t spoken a single word on the train back to Cambridge. Alex had thought about starting a conversation once or twice, but then, everything he really wanted to talk about was impossible to mention inside a public train. Never mind the cameras, there were people who said (in whispers, of course) that IST employed people to sit on a train all day and listen to other people’s conversations.

As they got off the train and walked slowly back to Alex’s dorm, Merlin still didn’t speak. He looked as though he was in a completely different world, actually. Back in the past, perhaps.

“Cup of tea?” Alex suggested, at last, as they’d arrived in front of his dormitory building.

“Why not,” said Merlin, almost wearily.

As they walked up the stairs to his room, Alex watched in fascination as Merlin gradually turned back into himself. “Cameras taken care of?” he asked, just to make sure, and Merlin nodded.

Tea was a quiet affair, too. Merlin barely said three words, and made a couple of assenting grunts, in reply to Alex’s careful questioning. It was enough, however, to find out that James was indeed who Merlin had thought him to be, and that Merlin, for some reason, was scared out of his wits.

Alex sighed. Well, it looked like his destined role didn’t end at arranging a meeting between those two then.

“So what’s wrong?” he asked, finally.

Merlin just stared into his cup.

“Look, Rhys… Merlin.” That got him a look, although he wasn’t sure what it meant. “You told me it was destiny that I came to see you, and that I was introduced to James through Paul, and that I made the connection. Surely that means you’re supposed to do something about it now.”

More cup-staring meant more frustration building up inside of Alex, who tried his best to remember that this man was very, very old and had very likely seen a lot of terrible things in his life.

“Or do you just need time to process it?” he tried again.

“Process,” Merlin muttered. “Such a modern word. Turning human beings into computers. Numbers, that’s what it’s all about, eh?”

Alex held himself back (but just about) from rolling his eyes, and decided to ignore that remark. At least the other man was talking.

“Did you sense something in him that you didn’t like?” he guessed, wildly.

Merlin frowned at that. Finally he looked up. “No. He’s just as good as he was.”

“Well, good,” said Alex, who did wonder what such an eminently good man was doing in that kind of job, but didn’t think mentioning this would be such a great idea.

Merlin, however, seemed to have read his expression – something he was very good at, Alex had remarked, whenever he bothered to pay attention to the person opposite him. “I know that doesn’t seem to fit very well with that job he’s doing, but there’s got to be more to it than meets the eye. This incarnation might a bit cleverer than the original.”

Alex snorted. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, sorry to burst your bubble, medievalist,” sneered the old warlock – which was the term Alex had come to associate with him whenever he started talking like this. “Arthur may have been a great warrior and king, but he was never exceptionally bright.”

Was?”

Merlin shrugged. “I know. James is Arthur. And yet he isn’t. I’m not really sure how that works, yet.”

“So are you going to find out?” Alex asked, tentatively.

Merlin took in a deep breath, and let out a very shaky one. “It’s just…”

“It’s just?” asked Alex, when he fell silent again.

Merlin got up very suddenly and started pacing the room, his voice agitated. “It’s just, what if he isn’t who he used to be? And what if the timing is all wrong? It’s not as though the gods of destiny always made the best calls. And look at this world, I mean, do you think it’s ready to be saved? I mean, it’s not as though this whole GIFT thing was a coup d’etat by some power-crazy individual, you told me it was a thing that developed sort of on its own, people want to be controlled, Alex, they want to be monitored! Who are we to tell them otherwise? And what if I’m not -”

He stopped himself suddenly, and sat down heavily on the sofa.

Alex got up and slowly walked over.

“What if you’re not ready to bear this burden again?” he asked quietly, sitting down next to him.

Merlin stared into space for a while, breathing heavily, then shrugged. Alex put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. Suddenly, the fact that Merlin had postponed meeting James again and again during the past few weeks made a lot more sense.

***
James and Arthur by Allemande
CHAPTER FIVE – James and Arthur

Aurelia Thomas sat by the lake in Regents Park, enjoying the sunlight on her face and watching the ducks being fed by unsuspecting children and –worse- parents. It marred the idyllic scene somewhat to know that bread in large amounts wasn’t very good for birds, but she decided to ignore that. The day was too beautiful.

Besides, she had other things to concentrate on.

“Roshannon now entering through Clarence Gate,” said Fred’s voice in her ear, and she nodded, knowing her assistant had her on a small camera. She turned slightly to the left, and sure enough, there were Roshannon and his bodyguards crossing the bridge, heading towards the bench a hundred metres to her right, where Alex Carter had been waiting for the last half hour.

She saw Roshannon approach him, probably apologizing for being so late, and she saw his bodyguards frisking Carter very discreetly.

“Got to hand it to them, they’re professionals,” she muttered.

“Sure,” replied Fred. “One of them’s ours.”

Aurelia smiled slightly and continued watching over her newspaper as Roshannon sat down and Carter started interviewing him. She liked watching important players in the flesh. Sure, this wasn’t standard procedure, she was supposed to be in the office surveying everything from afar. But she trusted Fred to get this one done. And when Paul Hartnell had informed them of Alex Carter’s request to contact Roshannon so he could interview him for his newspaper, in a park somewhere if possible, the occasion had been too good to miss.

In order to paint the whole picture of the individual James Roshannon, she had to see him in person. Just seeing the confidence with which he had crossed the bridge, as though the thing belonged to him, had been very interesting. And now the ease with which he sat next to Carter, the entirely non-business manner he adopted when talking to someone outside of the financial world… definitely a people person, that one.

“Wait a second, who’s that?” she muttered into her mike, as a second man approached the bench Carter and Roshannon were sitting on. But the bodyguards had already clocked him, and Fred informed her at the same moment that it was that mate of Carter’s who had joined him for the press conference the other day.

“Tom Anderson,” said Fred in her ear. “No word about him joining the party. But it wasn’t exactly an invite-only event, I guess…”

Aurelia had stopped listening, completely distracted by what was happening in front of her.

***

Merlin had dragged Alex aside, leaving James alone on the bench and his bodyguards standing next to him, looking slightly annoyed.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Merlin hissed. “You tell me you want to meet me, and you invite him to come as well?”

“Well, you had to meet him at some point,” said Alex. “And he you.”

Merlin glared at him. “It’s not for you to decide when that happens.”

Alex held his gaze. “Yes, I think it is. I’m the one who brought you together, I think it’s my responsibility that you two should meet properly.” He took hold of Merlin’s arm. “You see, I don’t think you’re ever going to feel ready for this.”

Merlin swallowed, then dropped his gaze. For a while Alex saw his jaw working hard, biting back more retorts perhaps. Then the warlock looked up, and for a brief moment, Alex thought he saw his eyes flash gold.

“All right. Cameras taken care of. Let’s get this over with.”

Alex smiled, and squeezed his arm again briefly before leading him over to the bench. Merlin just glanced at the two bodyguards flanking James and they walked off without another word, James staring after them.

“Hey, where are you two going?” he called after them, getting up. When he got no reply, he turned back to Alex. “What is this? Some sort of –“

He broke off, his eyes having found Merlin.

“Do I know you?”

Alex glanced at Merlin. He still looked like Tom, but apparently that didn’t matter.

Merlin gave no reply, just swallowed again, looking more nervous than Alex had ever seen him.

“You look familiar,” James continued. “Did we… meet that night in the pub?” He motioned at Alex, clearly referring to that night out which had produced those infamous pictures. “You a friend of Alex’s?”

Merlin cleared his throat, and when he spoke, his voice sounded like nothing Alex had ever heard before.

“I guess I am.”

“So what was your name again?” asked James. “Sorry, I don’t usually forget a name.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Alex watched as Merlin took a deep breath and evidently came to a decision. He took a step forward, his hand outstretched. “I’m Merlin.”

James smiled. “That’s an interesting –“ He took his hand. At that same moment, he gasped and his eyes grew wide. Their hands still linked together, James stared at Merlin, looking as though he would overbalance if Merlin let go, looking as though his whole world had just been turned upside down.

“Hello, Arthur,” said Merlin softly.

***

Aurelia stood up when Roshannon and that other man, both men now again flanked by the two bodyguards, had crossed over the bridge. She had to get back to the office at once, rewatch that material, not least find out why she had lost audio contact with Fred so suddenly.

Turning a sharp corner towards the bridge, she bumped into a man who had come from the other path leading the same way. “Sorry,” they said at the same time, and she looked up into green eyes. Alex Carter.

Who was staring at her as though he’d seen a revelation.

“Sorry,” he said again.

“No problem,” she replied. He was taller than she’d thought. “My fault.”

“No, mine,” he said, then added almost immediately, “let me make it up to you with a drink.”

“Er,” she managed, overwhelmed, and Carter looked sheepish.

“Sorry,” he repeated. “Erm, only if you want to, obviously. I mean…”

There was a pause in which Aurelia did some very quick thinking. “Sure, why not,” she said at last, smiling at him tentatively. “Give me your number, I’ll call you?”

“Right,” Carter said, taking out his mobile. Why people did that, Aurelia had never understood – surely you didn’t need your own mobile to give someone else your number – but it was a reflex she had adopted too.

Carter seemed to have come to the same conclusion as she had, because he pocketed his mobile again, looking even more sheepish. And kind of cute. Aurelia hated herself for this last thought almost at once.

He gave her his number, then said, in that blunt manner that seemed to do something to her stomach, “It’s not an ‘I’ll call you’ that actually means ‘I’m just saying this to get rid of you’, right? I mean, it’s okay if it is, too, it’s just… well, be a pity.” He blinked, looking extremely embarrassed.

She smiled. “I’ll call you.”

“Right.”

And they went their separate ways.

Back in the headquarters, and her mind firmly back on the job, she did her best to rush up to her office while still looking dignified. Fred wheeled around in his chair as she burst through the door. “I don’t know why we lost communication,” he said without preamble. “I’ve had technicians go through every link. They tell me it’s all working perfectly.”

She briefly studied the monitor on which Roshannon could be seen back in his office, now alone, apparently sitting over some paperwork.

“Replay it,” she ordered. “Replay everything that happened in the park.”

They watched together as Roshannon approached Carter, the bodyguards frisked Carter, and the interview began. Then Tom Anderson arrived, and Aurelia’s eyes widened as she watched him sit down with the other two men and Carter continue his interview. Having installed an extra microphone under all the benches in that area the night before, they could hear everything that was said – standard, boring interview questions, no special occurrences, no bodyguards walking off without explanation; the whole thing went perfectly, and Aurelia knew that something was very, very wrong.

“That’s not what happened,” she said slowly, sinking into a chair.

Fred stared at her. “What do you mean? Are you saying someone tampered with the recording? But I was here the whole time –“

“No, Fred,” she interrupted him. “I’m not questioning your loyalty or your judgment. It’s not the recording that was tampered with. It’s the recording equipment. Something happened there that we didn’t foresee, and I think…” She got up and pointed at Tom Anderson’s face, frozen on the screen, “it’s somehow linked to him.”

***

“Thank you, Susan, that will be all,” said James, closing the door to his office. He stood there briefly, staring at the door, then turned around and looked at Merlin, who was sitting on the sofa in the corner, looking at him intently.

“And you’re saying she didn’t see you,” he said. “What about…”

“… them?” Merlin asked, waving a vague hand through the air. “They can’t see me either. And they can’t see or hear you talking to me. All they can see right now is you sitting at your desk reading some paperwork.”

James nodded slowly, sitting in the armchair opposite him. He looked like he was only barely keeping it together. “And that’s… no big effort for you, I suppose. I mean, Gaius said you were…”

A flash of pain passed over Merlin’s face and was quickly gone. James winced. He’d have to remember not to mention their old friends by name. To him, it felt like they were just around the corner, and even though he knew they were long gone, he couldn’t find any sadness inside of him.

Finally, Merlin shrugged. “It’s just seven cameras.”

“Seven?” James stared at him. “They’ve got seven cameras in this office?”

“You’re one of the top players. Would you expect anything less?”

“I guess not,” James said, trying not to feel flattered.

They sat there for a moment in silence.

“How are you feeling?” Merlin asked, finally.

James pondered this for a moment, wondering if there was a word in the English language that could adequately express the utter confusion of your past life suddenly exploding inside of your head and trying to cram itself in with your present one.

“Completely fucking freaked?” he offered, which got him a small smile from Merlin.

“Sorry about that.”

He snorted. “As if it’s your fault. Just give me a moment to process it.”

Merlin frowned at this for some reason, but said nothing.

“So…” said James finally. “I guess the first question is… well, it’s a little weird, but…”

“Don’t worry. There are no dumb questions in this kind of situation.” Merlin shrugged. “I guess. I’ve never been in one that’s at all similar, but…”

James had to smile. Merlin still did the rambling thing then.

“Well… who am I?”

Merlin didn’t laugh at him, as he had irrationally feared, but looked very understanding. “You’re Arthur Pendragon. And you’re James Roshannon. Somehow the fates left you with both when they reincarnated you.”

“So… even though I don’t feel like I can handle that at the moment, I guess the fates thought I could?”

Merlin, however, snorted. “Well, the fates aren’t exactly known for their ingenuity or their kindness,” he growled. “If you ask me, there was no great deliberation at work there.”

“Thanks, Merlin, that’s really reassuring.”

Merlin smiled, a real smile for the first time since they had met in Regents Park. “Sorry. I mean, of course you’ll be able to handle it. This is just the initial shock.”

“Shock doesn’t even begin to cover it,” James muttered. “I mean, Merlin. I’ve been dead for, what, a thousand years?”

“One thousand five hundred, more like.”

“And yet here I am,” said James. “And I have another family now. I mean, they’re really my family. I have two brothers. And I have a mother now. Oh God, my mother… what am I going to tell her?”

Merlin looked slightly peeved, and James thought he knew why. “Here I am, going on about myself again. What about you? Have you been reincarnated too? You look the same, though. Although you didn’t back in the park… or did you? Blimey, my head is spinning.”

Merlin leaned forward and laid a steadying hand on his arm. “I did look different in the park. Just making sure IST don’t get any files on me. I do look as I did now, though. And no. No reincarnation here.”

James stared at him for a long moment. “You’ve been alive all this time.”

Merlin leaned back, and suddenly James could see the very old man that he was reflected in his eyes.

“Yes.”

James swallowed. “Merlin.”

“Oh you know, it wasn’t so bad,” said Merlin, so cheerfully that James was sure that it had been. “I traveled a lot. Well, after a while at least. After I realized you weren’t going to move your lazy arse anytime soon.”

They laughed together, then, which felt both like yesterday and like a lifetime ago.

***

Alex Carter sat in a pub in London, waiting for his date. She was late (she had warned him that this might happen) so he had a lot of time to brood over his end-of-term paper, which he’d been trying to work on until she’d called him and he had spontaneously boarded a train to meet her in London.

His paper was driving him crazy. He’d been making good progress on it before spring break and had looked forward to some new input in Tawelfan, as well as a renewal of his creative energy when he came back. He’d fully expected to be done by the end of May. Now, he just kept staring at it, wondering what the hell he was supposed to write.

It wasn’t as though he could write about anything that he now knew for sure. And the worst thing was, from the hints Merlin had dropped here and there, he could tell that what he’d written so far was pretty much made-up, storybook nonsense.

Oh well, at least he now knew he hadn’t chosen medieval history out of his own free will, he thought wryly.

“You look really annoyed about something,” said a voice above him, and he looked up. Aurelia had arrived, looking just as gorgeous as she had in the park. He stood up to shake her hand and get their drinks, then they sat down.

“So how come you wanted to meet here?” Alex asked after they’d made a bit of small talk.

“The Prince Arthur? It’s sort of between my office and my home, and I like it.”

Alex smiled. This had to be destiny, too, right? But whether it was a nudge in the right direction, or a cruel joke, he couldn’t be sure. “It’s funny, because I’m writing a paper on Arthur,” he said in response to her questioning look.

He explained what he did, then she reciprocated, assuring him that working for The Sun was much less amoral than it sounded. They smiled at each other. This was shaping up to be a good night.

“So I was wondering why you seemed familiar,” she said after a while. “And I did some digging. You know, Sun archives and all that, you end up finding something on everyone.” She grinned when he looked alarmed. “Just kidding. It actually turns out I was doing a shift the night before your infamous pub picture was published.”

Alex groaned and passed a hand over his face. “Honestly, it was just a picture of three drunk men coming out of a pub. Not such an uncommon occurrence in Britain, I’m told.”

“Sure,” she nodded. “Not so uncommon either to be seen with the head of UKNB, I guess.”

Alex shrugged. “He’s just a friend of a friend.” And just our once and future king, he thought, trying to keep his expression neutral as hysterical laughter threatened to bubble up inside of him.

“What’s he like, though?” She leant forward. “Sorry. I guess everyone asks that. But, you know, he’s a pretty charismatic guy. And important.”

Alex snorted. “So you went out with me because you fancy James Roshannon?”

His date looked a little sheepish at that and blushed. “Of course not. And I don’t fancy him. I just… find him interesting. But never mind, we don’t have to talk about him. Tell me about you. Where did you grow up?”

They stared at each other for a long moment, until Alex had to laugh.

“The thing is, I don’t know a lot about him. I’ve met him once or twice through my mate Paul. Seems like a nice chap though. Not at all stuck up or self-important. Well, maybe a little at that.”

She smiled. “I guess you’d have to be. I mean, it can’t be easy being so young and in such an important position.”

“Yeah.”

They chatted a bit more about James, but to Alex’s relief she didn’t seem massively interested in this celebrity connection of his, and listened with equal interest to other things he had to say. She was also obviously very clever, and he liked her subtle sense of humour just as much as her chocolate-brown eyes.

However his evening turned out, he was sure this girl was going to be something special.

***

“So where are we?” asked James, as they got out of the car. He’d told Susan he was taking the afternoon off to ‘take a walk’, and Merlin had said he’d make sure they wouldn’t be followed.

“In a place without cameras or bodyguards.” They were walking down a path, dark in places, sunlit in others, surrounded by immense trees and thick bushes bearing berries of all imaginable kinds.

“I didn’t know a place like this existed in Britain anymore,” said James, after silently breathing in the air and the atmosphere for a while.

“Nobody does,” said Merlin, enigmatically.

The trees suddenly gave way to a clearing, which was just at the edge of a lake, and suddenly James knew where they were.

“This is Avalon.”He stared across the lake at the island he’d last looked at during the last minutes of his life as Arthur. “Did we travel to the past or why does it look like it used to?”

“No, we’re in the present. It’s shielded from mortal eyes. I had to make sure it would remain undisturbed.” Merlin laughed, suddenly, although he didn’t sound very amused. “Because, well, the way the story was told to me back then was I’d get a call from the island and come to pick you up. But they weren’t right about everything.” He studied James. “I guess you couldn’t wait for me to fetch you.”

“Always been a little impatient,” James shrugged, and they smiled at each other. “So why am I back now? Do you know?”

“Not really.” Merlin sat down at the edge of the lake, and James noticed only then that he’d brought a picnic basket and a blanket. He smiled. Merlin would always remain full of surprises.

“It’s got to have something to do with saving the world, though, right?” Merlin continued.

“Hm.” James sat down, picked up a strawberry and studied it speculatively. “Would now be a good time to mention my plan to dismantle GIFT and IST and give people back their freedom?”

Merlin stared up at him in surprise. Then he burst out laughing.

Warmth spread through James’s chest at the sound. For the first time since realizing his true identity, he thought of himself not as James, but as Arthur – and Arthur was happy because Merlin was. He could see in his friend’s eyes, and hear in his voice, that he felt the same way.

Sure, the whole plan wasn’t going to be easy to pull off. There were still unsolved bits and pieces here and there, but somehow he got the feeling he would find solutions for them pretty quickly now.

It was like Arthur had turned over the leaf that was his life, and found Merlin on the other side.

Or some pretentious metaphor like that.

THE END
This story archived at http://merlinfic.dtwins.co.uk/viewstory.php?sid=581