2020 by Allemande
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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
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