King Arthur, Samantha, and Batman
"Hi, Bruce Wayne," said Rob, looking at the photo he'd picked up from the last works do. He shook his head, depressed again.
They loved him at work - they said so. He cheered them all up, and stopped them taking things too seriously. Even one of the managers had once admitted that he was good for morale.
Everyone apart from Sam, anyway. She didn't even know him. They had shared eighteen words over the time Rob had been working there - almost two years now. And out of all the people in the office, she was the only one he wanted to talk to.
Merlin walked up behind him. "My lord," he began.
Rob turned. "Merlin, what are you doing here?"
"My lord, I have come to warn you."
Arthur smiled. "You always bring warnings, Merlin. When will you bring me good news. The kingdom flourishes, as it has for years. Camelot is complete. My knights are well respected and well loved. What is there to warn about?"
Merlin looked down at the Guinevere's portrait. Arthur was still holding it close to him - the only image of her he possessed. Merlin, he felt sure, could conjure something closer to the real thing. "Your love for the lady," he began. "It will undo your greatest works. It will ruin the kingdom."
"How so?" asked the king, and then remembered. Lancelot. Why did he always pick such tragic stories to play out? Why stories where good things didn't happen? Rob shook his head.
"No, Merlin," said the king. "It could be different this time."
"No, sire. It will always be as it has always been. She will desert you, and you will tear the kingdom apart in your rage. Think of what you have achieved."
The king shook his head, sure there was something missing from Merlin's analysis. He stood up, letting the photo fall to the floor. The oven was on, and he hadn't put the lasagne in yet. If he didn't eat soon, he'd be up late again, and then he'd not sleep well and he'd feel exhausted all the next day. Every time Rob thought like that he felt very old.
The lasagne safely popped into the oven, Rob walked upstairs and lay down on the bed. He stared up at the ceiling. The sun was just setting, and the curtain rail - or rather the curtain wire that he still hadn't got round to fixing - made a long shadow across the ceiling.
"Hi, Bruce Wayne," he said, again.
"Sam," came the reply. A posh party, like the one Vicky Vale had been seduced at. Came down to the money, then?
Suddenly it was dark. The batcave. Computers all around him. The schoolboy's fantasy. Rob wondered if schoolboys still fantasised about computers, now that they lived with them every day of the week.
Bruce pushed a couple of buttons, and the lights behind him came on. The car rose up out of the ground and turned round. That turntable had always been a part of this kind of fantasy - right from the toy cars and the train set he'd had as a child.
Vicky walked down the stairs. "Bruce," she began.
"No," he replied, his voice suddenly deeper. "Not tonight."
She was right next to him. He had hardly noticed her move. Her green eyes stared right into his. "Who are you?"
"I'm Batman." He smiled, remembering how difficult Michael Keaton had found saying those words.
"I love you."
Stupid words. I lust after you, perhaps. They always did. But understand? Never. Bruce understood, he knew what he needed, and he knew what he wanted. Two very separate things. You prowl the night, the girl you need doesn't come looking. The wrong sort does, of course.
"I've got to work."
Running away again. He stood up. The cloak billowed behind as he ran to the car. Somehow the run never involved his feet touching the floor - that would remove the perfection. The cloak billowed and he was there. Like the bat. By the time he returned, she was gone.
Again, he thought. Another tragedy. "Why is that, Alfred?"
"Sir?" he replied, in his usual unworried tone.
"She left me."
"You drove her away, sir."
At work he sat at his desk, tapping away. Cross-legged on the chair - that really irritated his boss, but it was more comfortable. Every ten minutes or so he stopped and spun round on the chair, taking a look at the office as they looked at him.
"Why am I always separate?" he mumbled to himself.
"Because you are king," replied Merlin, serious as ever. "You must remain aloof, so the people can idolise you."
"But is that not wrong? Should I not be their leader rather than their god?"
"They are interchangeable," said Merlin, and promptly disappeared.
Rob thought about it for a while, and then settled back into his typing. Separateness. So he didn't like the world very much? That wasn't a crime. It shouldn't stand against him, just because he didn't take it seriously.
Except he did, he just tried not to.
He hid behind the mask. The bat. Or the sword.
"Rob?" Rich was next to him, sitting there already. No warning. Rob hated sitting with his back to the main part of the office.
"Yeah?" said Rob, picking up a paper fish he'd made the previous day and prodding Rich with it.
"We're going for a drink on Friday. Fancy coming along?" Rich smiled. A normal, friendly smile. He was a normal, friendly person. Down to earth, not screwed up, chatted to people when he felt like it.
"What do you think, Mr Fish?" he asked of the fish. He waved it next to his ear for a moment. "Mr Fish doesn't like drinking. He says he won't drink anything his friends have fornicated in."
"You're mad," said Rich. All Rob's friends said that, sooner or later. "So do you want to?"
"Why not?" said Rob. Why not a yes? Why couldn't he be enthusiastic? Probably because he didn't know whether he'd feel enthusiastic enough to spend the night having fun playing or whether something would bring him back into the real world. Something or someone. Like Sam.
"Good. We might as well pick up a chinese and head back to my place, so we can go straight from work."
With that Rich was off, back to his dull routine. Rich disliked his job, but never got round to doing anything about it. Rob could never understand that.
"My lord," began Merlin.
"Merlin," said the king. "I am busy."
"I wished to warn you away from this evening's entertainments. The feast. I believe it would be a mistake."
Arthur turned round to face Merlin. Merlin was standing, staring off into space. "Why?" asked the king.
"Your lady is of another world, my lord. If you leave here, your works will be undone."
The king understood. He couldn't leave. This was his life. His kingdom had to mean more than his own emotions. It was selfish to believe otherwise. "Thank you, Merlin," he said, dismissing his faithful adviser as firmly as he ever had.
The old man appeared. The sky disappeared, replaced with dark rock. "Sir?"
"What do you think?"
"You came down here for a reason, sir. Without it you will be half of what you are now. But it is your judgement that matters, sir."
The background disappeared again, replaced by a ledge of rock, just in time for Bruce to collapse to his knees and scream, clawing at the ground. "To leave or not to leave," he began, and then thought better of effecting another shift.
At lunchtime, a good morning's work completed - mainly to take his mind off that evening - Rob went for a walk down by the canal. As soon as he arrived, of course, it changed. A lake stretched out in front of him.
"My lady," he whispered as he sat down.
"My lord," came the eerie voice from the water.
"I have not asked your opinion on the matter."
There was a slight movement under the water, but no one appeared. A barge floated past, slowly. Rob waited until it had gone to continue his conversation.
"My king, what are you afraid of?"
"She will turn me down."
"You have not lost anything, and you have been turned down before," came the voice, now internal. "Your majesty can survive that."
"It would be doomed anyway. I could not live like her - going to clubs and drinking and chatting all the time. And I am needed here. Merlin is warning of the death of the kingdom again."
The lady thought for some time before replying. "Merlin is right. The kingdom is dying..."
"Why? What can be done?"
"...just as you are dying. Someday it will end. But that is not important. Your rule will have given us a few decades of prosperity, and no one can ever destroy that, no matter what becomes of the kingdom."
"But I can build something that will last. Something that will live forever."
"No, my lord. You cannot. You can build during your life. When you reach the end, or when the kingdom falls, you can stand back and bask in the glories you have achieved. After that, it is the job of another."
"So is all this really for naught? Are the struggles to build the perfect kingdom futile?"
"If you think of them like that, yes. They are."
"How else can I think of them?"
"A bright light, shining for a short time in a long night. The light is good, but the candle will burn out."
"The same. If she is with you for a year, is that not enough? Would you rather you had a year than nothing?"
"Why not forever?"
"Because forever, my lord, is never." Abruptly, she was silent.
Rob waited a moment for anything further, and then stood up. "Thank you, lady. As ever, you are wise." He bowed towards the canal, and then turned and walked back into the office.
The night itself.
Rob sat nervously waiting. He didn't know if his courage would last, and prayed he would get the chance this time. It was now or never. He knew that. But how many times had he said that before, only to repeat it again the next week?
She walked into the bar. Beautiful as ever. He heard Rich's sharp intake of breath as he watched her find a table and sit down. Her friend - female - went to the bar to order drinks.
Rich turned to Rob, as if prompting. Rob took a deep breath. He shut his eyes and counted to five. Just to steady his nerves a little. He knew, though, this time. At the end of five. Rich began to say something, but stopped as Rob opened his eyes and stood up.
Rob began the walk over to her table, but Arthur ended it. He leant slightly over the table. "My lady," he said. "May I?"
"Sure," she said, looking slightly puzzled. He had to admit he liked that look.
"Merlin warned me against talking to you," he began, in a slightly hushed tone. "But I had to anyway. I trust I am not intruding?" She shook her head. "He believes you will be the death of the kingdom, while the lady of the lake believes you would be a light for the people to delight in."
Her friend arrived at the table. Arthur stood up.
"This is Jo," said Sam. "Sorry, I don't know your name..."
"Arthur. King Arthur Pendragon. I am honoured to make your acquaintance, my lady," he said, bowing low.
Jo blushed. Sam smiled. A beautiful smile. Almost worth losing a kingdom for. Almost.
Rob shook his head. "I do apologise. He gets everywhere. One minute you're sitting having a quiet drink, and the next there you are - King Arthur. Terribly embarrassing. Especially in this day and age." He turned to Jo. "Obviously I'm not King Arthur." Then back to Sam again. "Hi," he said. "Bruce Wayne."
He held out a hand, smiling as confidently as he could. His heart was pounding. Enter my world, please enter my world. Only for a while, maybe, but enter my world.
She looked down at the hand. Then, slowly at first, her hand moved to hold it. "Mr Wayne," she replied. His heart leapt. The door flew open, and a light shone through it. A king stood on the other side, welcoming his queen. A hero, welcoming a fellow traveller, someone to trust. Visitors in the realms.
"Call me Bruce," he said.
"All right. Bruce. How are you?"
"To be honest," he replied. "It's complicated. You know how some people have a sort of double life...?"