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Changing Course

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"And just what are you doing there, young man?" The sounds of the train leaving the station had died away, and Colin had crawled free of his hiding place only to come face to face (or, more realistically, face to button-down-jacket) with one of the station attendants - an older man, looking tired and poorly inclined to listen to excuses after being forced to help hold the station in quarantine.


Colin pulls on the 'lost little lamb' look he perfected in London, giving the attendant a soulful gaze. He'd really hoped to not have to explain himself, but this shouldn't prove too hard.
"Please, sir, my uncle was to come and fetch -" His voice, sad and woeful in the extreme cuts off in an outraged squawk as the man's hand cuffs him around the upper arm and he is dragged, bags and all, towards the offices. He surrenders pretense and howls in outrage, hoping someone would catch sight and jump to the entirely wrong conclusion.


Tragically, no one seems to be willing to hang about in chilly railway stations in a town recently under quarantine. Their steps - the attendant's crisp, his dragging and stuttering, echo against the tiled walls. The office, at least, is warm. The attendant releases Colin once they're inside, and he rallies his equilibrium as the man rounds a very official-looking desk. Oh. Not a station attendant. Station master, with video feeds from all over the station linked to a viewscreen behind him. Colin scowls - he thought he'd been thorough, but he hadn't seen the camera that had caught him, clear as day, scooting under one of the low benches to wait out the train's arrival and departure. He had thought himself as sly and quick as the once-common household cat he'd heard stories of. Evidently not. He blames the baggage - it was all to easy to pass unnoticed with just his duffel bag, only really half-full and easy to sling over his shoulders. Somehow he'd ended up with twice as much baggage as before, between Mr Dunworthy's distracted worry and Finch's need to prepare for every possibility and a few things which had made it from his Great Aunt Mary's house to his keeping since the funeral. Not so easy now to disappear before anyone can really think twice about the tale you've told them.


The station master (a mister Ronald Haysworth, if the brass embossed plaque was correct) has evidently noted Colin's attention to the viewscreen, and smiles thinly.


"You were meant to be on the London-bound train. There's been enough trouble here-abouts without young hooligans like yourself running wild in my station. Now, who do I call to inform them you will arrive on the seven-fifteen train, not the five-ten train that you have failed to board?" Colin thinks, briefly, about giving a false number, but why bother? He's fairly sure no one is going to answer at the flat anyhow. He hadn't told Mr. Dunworthy that, the man had looked about ready to tear his remaining hair out at the roots between dealing with students arriving for start of Hilary term, protecting Kirvin from the persistent questions of the Medieval History department, fighting to keep the graveyard dig from being razed and buried again in a spectacular fit of closing the barn door after all the horses have escaped, and dealing with Mrs Gaddson, who seemed entrenched in Oxford now that she'd come up, much to her son's (and everyone else's) everlasting dismay. He'd hoped that maybe everyone would forget that there was somewhere else he could go entirely - after all, it was only five years until he could start training to become a historian himself. Hardly any time at all, but evidently long enough to start a fuss about where he 'ought' to be almost as soon as they arrived back in this century.


But he could hardly admit to a man who hadn't even known of his existence more than a month ago that he felt more at home in Oxford than he did at his actual home in London.


There was suddenly a disastrous crash back in the main station, an unholy cacophony of clanging metal and startled screams, followed swiftly by an unholy cacophony of scolding voices. Scolding American voices, getting louder by the minute. Colin finds himself on the receiving end of a quelling glare before the stationmaster rises and hurries out to deal with the drama outside - on the camera feeds Colin can see how the crates holding the hand-bells he'd had the misfortune of hearing played for weeks now had fallen and broken open, sending bells of all sizes rolling every which way.


Never let it be said that Colin Templer looks a gift horse in the mouth. He raids his bag for the book Mr. Dunworthy had given him for Christmas, tucks it under his coat for safe-keeping, and abandons the rest of his now-bulky baggage. There's tags enough on it that eventually he's sure he'll see it again.


If not, it is no great loss - especially the muffler shoved down at the bottom of the bag.

 


 

Twenty minutes later, he was ducking past the gatekeeper at Balliol, and starting to realize his plan had a bit of a flaw. He hadn't wanted to return to London - after all, Mr. Dunworthy needed him. If it hadn't been for him, he'd still be wandering about the countryside, dodging fleeing refugees and stopping to see if every plague victim was Kirvin. Actually, no, he'd still be in the hospital, trying to avoid Mrs. Gaddson and demanding to see Bidri and generally getting no where since there'd be no one to push things along. However, he wasn't really sure that Mr. Dunworthy had seen it that way. There'd been vague comments about a school in Oxford, when they'd first come back, after he'd declared his desire to see the Crusades (the very idea he could do such a thing was apocalyptic, he'd been ready to go right then if someone would have just adjusted the settings). But once the vaccines had gone into wide-spread use and the terror over diseases and pandemics had died out, his mother had finally rung, evidently realizing that he couldn't just be left with strangers now that the quarantine had been lifted. A few weeks ago he would have been overjoyed. Now...


He found he preferred Mr. Dunworthy's heart-felt, if often-times awkward and ill-timed caring to his mother's distracted love.


He lets himself into Mr. Dunworthy's rooms with the key no one had remembered to confiscate, after a brief scouting mission to the cafeteria - he was beginning to suspect that someone actually liked that absolutely necrotic oatmeal, because even though there were enough eggs and rashers and toast to steal himself a healthy plate, there'd still been a pot bubbling away in the corner like some sort of foul witch's brew. Curling up in the window seat, he plans his future while munching on toast smothered in marmalade. He wants to stay in Oxford, that was a fact. He also wants to become a historian one day, and even though he's certain he'd be brilliant at it as he was now, he's also sure no one else will see it that way. That means getting into the university, which means secondary school - a good secondary school, so he would be guaranteed entrance to Balliol on his own rights in five years. He could do it, he's sure.


The door opens, startling him, and the marmalade-covered toast plops onto the seat cover beside him.


Mr Dunworthy, damp muffler and overcoat in one hand, sheaf of papers in the other, stands in the doorway, eying him. Colin thinks about attempting the angelic look again, but dismissed the idea - after everything that'd happened, there's no way it would be believed.


"I could have sworn I saw you off at the train station." Dunworthy sounds puzzled, possibly wondering if he'd actually forgotten in amidst the chaos of start of term. Colin thinks about confirming that idea, or perhaps saying that the trains had been cancelled, or that it had been full - but he can see that his missing bag has been noted, and there's probably very little use denying a certain number of facts.


"Sir, I don't want to go back to London." His teeth click together on the heels of that statement, too late to trap the words and keep them from escaping. He hadn't meant to say it, and he can feel himself blushing in embarrassment, but there it is. With an almost painstaking slowness Mr. Dunworthy hung up his coat and muffler to dry and crossed the room, settling into the Chesterfield.


"I want to stay here, with you - I can go to school, and then take my A levels and become a historian. I really do want to, you see, and I wouldn't be any trouble..." He babbles, only stopped when Mr. Dunworthy raises his hand in a gesture calling for silence.


The silence stretches, painfully. He's expecting a lecture on scorned maternal love, on doing what he is told until he is of age, on the dangers of time travel itself, on marmalade and what it does to seat cushions... anything. Instead he finds he is being stared at, examined, and he feels an acute sympathy for any of this man's students.


Then Mr. Dunworthy sighs, heaving out of his chair and disappearing into his office. He re-appears before Colin can decide if he's suppose to follow, and the original sheaf of papers is gone, replaced with a slim folder. The folder is handed to Colin silently, and then Mr. Dunworthy retreats into the Chesterfield again, still watching Colin as if this was some sort of trial.


Maybe it is.


Inside the folder are the bright and glossy pages of a school brochure - St. Edward's of Oxford, with its crest of a sword in a cup, an independent boarding school. Under that is a list of classes, with annotations about pros and cons to each written in the margins Dunworthy's cramped hand.


"I pulled your record. Your papers were exemplary... but I notice you only had them sent to schools in London. Your mother?" Colin flushes and nods, caught between embarrassment and pride, and momentarily, uncharacteristically, tongue-tied. "I thought perhaps that was it. I took the liberty of having them sent on to St. Edwards. They seemed suitably impressed."


"But... then why send me back to London?" Colin demanded hotly, the uncomfortably familiar coil of dread of abandonment twisting in his gut. "If you knew I could stay..."


"I did not want did not want to presume, and..." If anything Mr Dunworthy looks uncomfortable, like when he was trying to explain why he couldn't go after Kirvin, after fretting about her to the point of collapse. "Well. I didn't quite know how to ask, to be honest - you may have changed your mind, after the memorial and with how hectic things have been around here."


"Changed my mind?" Colin demands incredulously, earning another forestalling gesture and something of an exasperated grin.


"Clearly not. You are sure about this?" At Colin's fervent nod, the man rises again, disappearing back into the office, but he can hear the one-sided phone conversation that follows.


"Firth? Yes, please arrange for Mr. Colin Templer to be transferred to St. Edwards starting this term, the paperwork should be waiting at the office, and do inform Mrs. Templer of the changes. Doctor Arhen's trust should cover this year's fees without trouble. Yes, today, if you please. Oh, and can you send someone 'round to the railway station before Colin's bags are sent away to police as evidence of a runaway?"


He is going to stay in Oxford. He is going to study in Oxford and one day be part of Balliol's history department and he will be able to see the past with his own eyes. This last, greatest Christmas gift leaves him grinning at the open door of Mr. Dunworthy's office like the world's greatest idiot, and he cannot bring himself to care.


"Apocalyptic."