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Born Again

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       “So, you’re saying you’d rather go to some mind-numbing formal function instead of out for a beer with your mate? You’re seriously mental, bruv.”

       Merlin sighed, though not loudly enough for Eggsy to hear through the phone. “So you’ve told me, many times. And as I’ve told you, many times, Chester King is not the kind of boss you want to disappoint.” That’s the understatement of the year. “I’ve always stood by his side, when it was prudent to do so, and his gallery’s opening is no exception.”

       “You sure you’re not just scared you’ll lose your job?” Eggsy said, in a voice that was only half-teasing. “He’s really got you in deep, hasn’t he? What’s next, then? Folding his laundry? Caring for his dog when he’s away?”

       “He hasn’t got a dog,” Merlin muttered. “I doubt he’d know what to do with one if he had.” He turned his head from the murky depths of his poorly-lit flat, gazing out onto the balcony that overlooked London. Again he sighed, not caring whether or not Eggsy heard. They’d strayed too far from the point. He knew Eggsy wasn’t going to like what he had actually phoned to say, but there was no putting it off any longer.

       “Look, Eggsy. Chester suggested a plus-one when he invited me to the gallery opening. It’s not mandatory, but it would look rather odd if I went alone, and I thought-”

       Eggsy groaned before Merlin could finish his sentence, proving his suspicion correct. “You’re not recruiting me for this. I wouldn’t show up there if my life depended on it.”

       “An artist, refusing to enter an art gallery?  That’s a new one.”

       Eggsy snorted. “I’m not that kind of artist. Those pretentious types with their heads up their arses, who’ll put two dots on a canvas and sell it for millions. No thanks. I’d rather not spend an evening rubbing shoulders with them.”

       “I understand your reservations,” Merlin said, choosing each word with care. Conversations with Eggsy often served as a painful reminder of their differences; all he had that Eggsy did not. It was necessary to keep his privileges in mind. “However, you might regret refusing an opportunity like this. This gallery specifically displays art from newcomers in the community. Not only would you get to talk shop with countless others in your position, but you might be able to have a word with Chester about getting your work displayed. I’ll arrange a meeting if you like.”

       Eggsy exhaled heavily. “It’s a matter of principle, Merlin. Besides, ain’t I a little too young to be your date?”

       “It’s not a date,” Merlin said. Though he was sure that was what Chester had meant when he sent out invitations. I wonder what he was expecting. Around Chester, who was very much settled in his ways, Merlin had always found it taboo to mention his love life. Assuming, of course, that I've got one.

       He tried for a different tact. “If you feel that strongly, I’m not going to force you to come. I’m just saying I’d greatly appreciate if you chose to accompany me.” Merlin leaned back in his chair, staring up at the balcony’s shadowy overhang. “We wouldn’t even have to stay for very long if it would suit you. There’d still be time for pub-hopping.”

       Eggsy paused for several seconds before replying, clearly mulling it over. “You’re not trying to bribe me, are you? I’m not gonna show up and find out you have to be there all night?”

       “You have my word of honor,” Merlin replied solemnly. “If you’re interested after all, I’ll text you the address and attach a copy of the invitation.”

       After another moment’s hesitation, Eggsy relented. “Yeah, all right. I’m in.”

      “Great. Have a good night, Eggsy.”

       “’Night, Merlin.”

       Merlin ended the call and laid his phone down on the small table before him, beside the whiskey tumbler. Carefully he readjusted his ice pack, shifting it from one hand to the other in order to stretch out his cramped fingers. He squinted balefully at the blurred lights from the street lamps before him. It was no use- tomorrow he’d have to wear contacts to work. If only he hadn’t donated all his old pairs of glasses. Or run into trouble in the first place. Those bastards…

        But Merlin knew better than to simmer in anger, because “those bastards” were faceless and used aliases, much like himself. Besides, it wasn’t fair for him to consider revenge, after he’d failed to come through for them tonight. As far as they were concerned, he deserved the black eye and busted glasses.

        On the table, Merlin’s phone began to vibrate madly. He leaned in to read the contact ID, before snatching it up and pressing it to his ear.

        “Hello, Harry?”

      Harry’s voice was as warm as ever, a balm to his soul. “Would you be interested in knowing what I found on a stroll through the park today?”

        Merlin fumbled with his ice pack, swapping it for the whiskey. “Try me.” He raised the tumbler to his lips and sipped deeply, the alcohol pleasantly stinging his throat.

        “I discovered a flower I’ve never seen before,” Harry said, in a voice that was close to glee. “Not in any of my books- though I’m sure half of those are outdated- and not in any greenhouse I’ve visited. Results are inconclusive on the gardening forum as well. I posted a photo. I suspect it’s a grex- a hybrid formed when two separate species cross-pollinate. Imagine stumbling across something so rare in a setting so commonplace!”

        “How amazing,” Merlin said flatly, setting his whiskey down. “I can hardly contain my excitement.”

      Harry let out a breathy chuckle, and the sound was music to Merlin’s ears. “I can tell. Your voice isn’t quite as monotone as usual.”

       Merlin rolled his eyes, not caring that Harry couldn’t see him. “Isn’t it?”

         Harry sighed. “At least you bothered to pretend to be excited.”

       Oh, here it comes. Merlin found himself wishing he’d polished off the rest of the whiskey in one gulp. He might need it to withstand whatever Harry was about to say.

        “Unlike a certain person you live with?”

       “Well, I suppose I can’t really blame James,” Harry began. “Botany has never interested him. Still, it would be nice if he acknowledged me instead of just talking about the game.”

       “How’d the game go, anyway?”

       “Do I look like I have any idea?” Harry retorted. “Or sound like, rather. That’s not the point. I’m getting quite tired of it, Hamish. I can indulge James’ interests in mixology and rugby, but when I try to talk to him about plants or tailoring, he won’t have a word of it.”

        “There’s a simple solution, Harry,” Merlin said, hoping the disdain wasn’t evident in his voice. “If he’s really so inconsiderate, tell him to shape up or get out.”

       “Can’t,” Harry replied. “It’s his house.”

      “Well, that was your first mistake,” Merlin said, aiming for a gentle tone. “You don’t need to rely on him to support you.” But the words didn’t come out quite as he’d intended.

       “I’m not,” Harry insisted, his voice tight. “Without me, I don’t even want to think of where he’d have ended up. Probably dancing on tabletops in nothing but a G-string.”

         “Harry. You know better than to put images like that into my head.”

       “If eases your mind, I find them hard to enjoy too,” Harry said. “I apologize, Hamish. I don’t mean to complain too much. He’s still a wonderful man.”

       Though Merlin was tempted to remark that Harry’s assertions were directly opposite to James’ actual displays of such a temperament, he held his tongue. “I’m glad.”

       “Well, in my book, anyway,” Harry murmured. He cleared his throat. “How’s your night been?”

       The word slipped out of Merlin’s mouth before he could think of anything else. “Difficult.”

       “Really?” Harry said, and Merlin cursed himself in his mind. Shouldn’t have said anything… “How so?”

       “I lost my glasses,” Merlin admitted. Safe to tell him that much. “I ended up setting a book down on them without realizing.”

        “Oh no,” Harry said, with an audible smile. “Are we talking a Maeve Binchy paperback, or your well-worn copy of War and Peace?”

       “I’ve no idea how you’ve formed such assumptions of my reading preferences, but never mind,” Merlin said. “Ulysses, actually.”

       He could almost sense Harry raising his eyebrows. “I wouldn’t have pegged you as a Joyce fan.”

        “Well-worn, too,” Merlin added. “You were right on that account. Personal annotations in all the margins.”

         “Well, it’s a pity you’ve ruined your glasses,” Harry said. “I’ll keep them in my prayers. Holding out hope for a miraculous recovery.” Suddenly he inhaled sharply. “Look at that!” Fascination crept into his tone. “Of course you can’t, Hamish, but I wish you were here so you could. The flower’s taking root so quickly.” Merlin pictured Harry’s eyes sparkling with wonderment, a look which never failed to hypnotize him. “I’ll have to take more photos. The forum will lose their minds.”

        “I’ll leave you to it, then,” Merlin said, quashing the plaintive cry of his heart for more. “Goodnight, Harry.”

        “Goodnight, Hamish.” Harry’s tone was distant, as if he were lost in a dream. “I suppose I should head off to bed soon too. Depends on how early Chester wants me tomorrow.”

        “Knowing your sense of time management, I doubt it would matter anyway,” Merlin said. He ended the call before Harry could launch a counterattack. If this conversation continued, he’d surely be trapped.

        Moments later, the phone buzzed with a new text. Merlin opened it to find an image of Harry hiding his cheeky grin behind the V-sign. That wasn’t very nice of you.

        Goodnight, Harry, Merlin sent back. As tempted as he was to wait for Harry’s response, he managed to power the phone down instead. I’ll be here all night at this rate. At least it was a better way to spend the night than his earlier exploits.

        Reflecting on said exploits brought the urge to down the rest of his whiskey. Merlin did so, before removing the ice pack and prodding his eye. The swelling was beginning to subside, but it would undoubtedly leave a massive bruise. Fortunately this wasn’t the first injury he had received when moonlighting, nor would it be his last.

        He hadn’t expected the deal to turn ugly so quickly. Then again, his provider had made him a promise. How was I to know he wouldn’t follow through? When the clients had arrived to find Merlin empty-handed, explanations weren’t enough. Their physical attack nearly rivaled the verbal chewing-out to which Merlin had subjected his provider, when he finally showed.

       Merlin breathed a long, heavy sigh as he got up to return the ice pack and tumbler. At least that was the last deal scheduled for the beginning of the week. Two days off, and then it was back to work. Makeup would cover for him tomorrow. Hopefully by the gallery’s opening, the black eye would have faded.

Chapter Text

       “Good morning, Hamish.”

       Merlin jerked his head from the stack of patterns he’d been asked to review, to find Chester King standing over him. He nodded. “Sir.”

       “You’re looking well.” Chester’s gaze lingered for a second on Merlin’s carefully-concealed black eye, before turning to the showroom and the tailors and customers who milled about it. Merlin knew there would be no further references to what had happened the night before. Not in broad daylight, at least.

       “Any sign of Harry?”

       Merlin shook his head. “No, sir. He hasn’t clocked in yet.”

       Chester exhaled heavily through his nose, his eyes hardening. “Of course I’m not one to air grievances in public, but he’s got a lot of nerve to leave our customers in the cold. He was scheduled to conduct a gentleman’s fitting over an hour ago.”

       “I know,” Merlin murmured. His ears still rang with the irate furor of said gentleman. Because of course the harmless shop clerk is always the one to blame. “Percy took over for him. He managed to defuse the situation.”

        “Well, good for Percy,” Chester grunted. “But it’s not up to him to take over another tailor’s job. That gentleman made an appointment with Harry Hart, not another associate. Rearranging everyone’s schedules is bad for business. Suppose Percy were to make a mistake. Who do you think would be at the center of the complaints?”

       Percy, probably, Merlin thought, but he held his tongue. Somehow, Chester believed that every minor mishap on Kingsman Tailors’ part could be traced back to him. Yet when he’s personally accused, he deflects the mistake every chance he gets…

       “I’ll have a word with Harry the instant he comes in,” Merlin offered.

       Chester waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t bother. Lectures go in one ear and out the other with that one. Just send him to me. I’d like to impress upon him what might happen if he doesn’t clean up his act.”

        Ironic, really, Merlin mused as he set aside the stack of papers he’d just finished perusing. Considering who among us has really got an act to clean up. Compared to himself and his boss, Harry Hart was nothing short of a saint.

        “I’ll leave you to your work,” Chester said. Swiftly, and giving no attention to the motion, he slid another paper face-down onto the counter. Merlin added it to his pile. “If you need me, you know where to find me.”

       Merlin angled his head and watched out of the corner of his eye as Chester retreated to the upstairs. Only when Chester had shrunk out of sight did he lift the paper and carefully turn it over.

        Tomorrow- after opening, the printed letters said, followed by a neatly-drawn symbol of a crown. It took Merlin a second to commit the message to memory, after which he crumpled the paper and tossed it into the wastebasket below the counter. This was no communication from Chester. This was a summons from King Arthur, one that he couldn’t dare to ignore.

        A brief twinge of regret needled him. Sorry, Eggsy. It appeared there would be no pub-hopping tomorrow night. Merlin was to return to his second job right away.

       The morning wore on, and Merlin lost himself in his work. He became so engrossed in mathematics, cataloguing, and answering customer’s questions that the shop became a blur around him. However, when the door opened just around noon, Merlin immediately glanced up, subconsciously recognizing the newcomer before his eyes landed on him.

       “Good morning, Hamish.” Harry strode forwards, ignoring all but Merlin. “I’m sorry I’m late. It… it was James.”

        Merlin raised his eyebrows, trying not to frown. The moment Harry had walked in, a dark cloud seemed to have rolled across the room. Instead of his usual cheer and banter, Harry brought with him the unpleasant chill of a rainy afternoon. His step was light, but mechanical, and the smile was missing from his face. Very bad sign.

       “James?” Merlin repeated, concealing his concern. “What did the mad bartender do now?”

       “I’m not sure… He was just… strange.” Harry reached the counter and set his umbrella down upon it, before leaning his elbows against it. A breach of etiquette- another bad sign.

       “It’s what he didn’t do that’s the problem.” Harry frowned, his expression darkening. “He wouldn’t speak to me this morning, just… pushed me away.”

        Merlin eyed the showroom floor, judging whether anyone was paying attention to the scene at the counter. Conversations like this were usually reserved for after hours, at a pub or on the phone, or at his or Harry’s homes. He’d never known Harry to spill his guts during the working day. Strike three. Harry’s behavior was so utterly uncharacteristic that Merlin had to find out what was wrong.

       “You mean he was dismissive, in the way you mentioned last night?”

       “No.” His frown deepening, Harry shook his head. “Not like last night. Eventually he played nice last night. This was… different. He didn’t touch me, didn’t even look at me. And when I looked at him…” He took a deep breath, lost in the morning’s persistent images. “There was nothing behind his eyes. It was like looking at a different man.”

       The unnerving description crawled under Merlin’s skin. He shook his head, filtering the image through a rational viewpoint. “Did you do anything last night that would have upset James?”

       “Not that I know of.” Harry’s jaw clenched, his emotional shield resuming control. But his eyes remained wreathed in shadow. “His behavior this morning had nothing to do with last night. He was certainly in a good enough mood to sleep beside me. But he was up before the alarm this morning. You know how odd that is.”

       Merlin shrugged. There’s no way I can fix that. He wished he could ease Harry’s mind, but he didn’t want to take too much time from his work.

       “He’s nuts. Anyone who invents cocktails on the fly and names them after his favorite sexual positions for a living is absolutely nuts.”

       “Yes, I know how highly you think of him,” Harry sighed. “I don’t mean to harp on about this, but it was very disturbing. He’s… changed, somehow.”

       “That can only be an improvement.”

       “It’s not,” Harry said, his brow furrowing. “It’s worrying.”

       Merlin sighed too, turning his chair away from his computer to face Harry directly. “Do you think-”

       “Harry!” a voice bellowed from behind. Both Merlin and Harry turned to see Chester standing at the bottom of the stairs, his arms crossed and his blue eyes cold.

       “It appears I’m in trouble with the headmaster.” Harry backed away from the counter. “I’m sorry, Hamish- I’ll see you later.”

       Merlin forced himself not to hesitate, spitting out the words before he could bite them back. “Is there anything I can do?”

      “No.” Harry’s face smoothed out into a picture-perfect blankness. “Goodbye, Hamish.”

       He left. It was only once he and Chester had departed the room that Merlin thought to call, “Your umbrella, Harry-”

*

       The aroma of fried fish enveloped Merlin as he held the pan in one hand, and searched for the proper seasoning with the other. He’d already finished the sautéed green beans, leaving only the main course and possibly a bottle of wine to be dished out. Dinner for one was shaping up to be a marvelous affair.

       Then a rapping at the door shattered Merlin’s concentration. Automatically he turned the stove off and cocked his head, listening intently. I wasn’t expecting company… Did Chester want to meet sooner than expected? No, no. Chester had always carefully avoided meeting Merlin at his home. Was it Eggsy, looking for a sympathetic ear to bend his way? Had one of his clients got ahold of his address?

       Only one way to find out. Merlin strode over to open the door, and came face-to-face with Harry.

       “Good evening, Hamish,” Harry said promptly. His voice was light, but from one look into his eyes, Merlin knew the darkness that had troubled him that morning was still hanging over his shoulder. “I know I should have asked before inviting myself over, but may I come in regardless?”

       It took Merlin a second to gather his thoughts, but he nodded quickly. “Certainly.” He stepped away from the door and motioned Harry in. “I was just cooking dinner. Could use a helping hand if you’re in the mood.”

       Harry nodded, but his eyes were cast steadfastly downward. He followed Merlin into the kitchen and leaned heavily against the wall.

        “Do you suppose it’s true that if you think you’re losing your mind, you aren’t actually losing your mind?”

       Merlin glanced over his shoulder, having returned to the stove. “That depends on who you’re talking about.”

        “I’m talking about myself.” Harry folded his arms, and Merlin reluctantly continued his food preparation. “I know you’ll think I’m off my head, but hear me out. I don’t think James is… James.”

       Again with James. Merlin’s concern adopted a hard, biting edge. When is he going to realize that I’m the last person who wants to hear about his relationship problems?

       “What do you mean by that?”

       Harry chuckled softly, and Merlin honed in on the sound. Harry hadn’t sounded so human all day. “Don’t laugh at me, just listen. The man I came home to today is not the man I moved in with two years ago. I’m not speaking metaphorically. They may look the same, and even, to some extent, act the same, but I’m not convinced. That is not James Spencer.”

       Merlin frowned, deeply puzzled. Harry had always been slightly less pragmatic than Merlin, but he’d never suggested anything so outlandish.

       “Are you saying he’s an imposter, Harry? Some evil twin who’s been hiding in his closet? Maybe one who had the door slammed in his face when James came out of it?”

       Harry laughed, and despite himself, Merlin felt pleased that he’d caused that momentary joy. “James never had to come out of the closet. But that’s not what I mean. Not exactly.” The mirth drained from his voice, leaving only exhaustion. “You know me, Hamish. I’m a skeptic just as you are. But there’s something different about James. Something that I can’t explain by any reasonable means.”

        Merlin turned off the stove, deposited his fish onto a nearby plate, and spun to face Harry at last. “And what’s the basis of these claims? Just because James is acting strangely doesn’t mean he’s… been replaced, or turned into someone else.”

       “That’s the problem,” Harry said. “I haven’t got any hard evidence, so I don’t expect anyone to believe me. All I know is that when I got home from work, James told me he had to leave right away. When I reminded him of the game that was on, and how we were going to watch it together, he said he didn’t care and I could watch it by myself. I asked him where he was going, but he said he didn’t feel he had to justify his every move to me. Then he left.” Harry exhaled, tension breaking through his carefully-constructed façade. “It’s not like him, Hamish. And I don’t like him like this. It’s highly unsettling.”

       Harry’s descriptions didn’t match up to the boisterous, outgoing James Spencer with whom Merlin had interacted in the past. At the same time, they didn’t seem to fit the thoughtless, uncaring lover Harry had described over the phone the night before. Reconciling all three versions of James made Merlin’s head spin.

       “That doesn’t sound like any way for James to treat you,” he said.

       “No, it’s not. And there’s more to it,” Harry added. “I thought… I thought something had upset him, so I went to put my arms around him. He snapped at me and asked me what I thought I was doing.”

       Silently Merlin pondered this new information. Could Harry’s suspicions hold a kernel of truth? If James hadn’t been replaced by an imposter, perhaps he had been an imposter all along. Had he strung Harry along all these years?

       The drawn look on Harry’s face was all Merlin needed to set his thoughts aside. “Come on.” Merlin waved a hand, motioning for Harry to come forward. “There’s enough dinner for the both of us. You can eat here tonight.” And stay here, his mind added, but Merlin managed to silence it. He wasn’t sure if it was safe for Harry to return to James, but his suspicions- and Harry’s presence in his flat- meant nothing.

       Though Merlin expected Harry to insist he couldn’t impose on Merlin’s hospitality in such a way, Harry was quiet as he watched Merlin serve the fish and green beans. He accepted the plate Merlin gave him with no remark. Merlin sighed and reached to push his glasses up, before remembering he wasn’t wearing any. Okay. He’s not going to mope any longer. Not if I can help it.

       “Why don’t we eat outside?” Merlin announced. He lifted his plate in one hand, grabbed the unopened bottle of wine in his other, and headed for the balcony.

       The fluorescent light overhead warded off the ensuing night. Merlin tumbled into the nearest wicker chair, while Harry followed suit. They eagerly set into their meals, before Harry raised his voice over the sound of the city.

       “I tried calling James’ sister after he left. The one who visited us last month, you know. I thought perhaps he was keeping some family trouble from me. But I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her.”

       “Why not?” Merlin murmured, his words sliding through the warm dusk. “You think she’s changed, too?”

      “I don’t know.” Harry stared first at the plate in his lap, and then at the building directly across from them. “Maybe I am losing my mind. Do you want to hear the oddest part? It wasn’t until after James had left tonight that I realized the flower I brought home yesterday was gone. As if it never existed. I don’t know if I simply misplaced it, or if James deliberately took it away.”

       “What purpose would taking it away serve?”

      “I don’t know. I considered the possibility that he was punishing me for being too obsessed with my plants, but that’s not like him, either.” Harry’s eyes lingered on the faintly-glowing windows ahead, his hands busying themselves with spearing a piece of fish. “This is excellent, Hamish. I had no idea you could cook like this.”

       “Thank you.” Slightly disappointed that the conversation had turned to trivialities, Merlin resumed eating. Harry poured himself a glass of wine and took a sip before speaking again.

       “What do you think? Am I really losing my mind?”

      “If it’s any consolation, you can’t lose something you never had.”

      Harry winced. “That one was a bit below the belt, don’t you think?”

       “I’m sorry,” Merlin hastily apologized. “Ribbing you is instinct by this point. Can’t always turn it off.”

      Wryly Harry smiled, sipping his wine. Merlin stared straight ahead, trying not to turn his head too far or catch too many glimpses out of the corners of his eyes. Harry was a magnetic charm, always pulling others in his direction, and all too often Merlin found himself falling victim to his spell.

       He racked his brain for something useful, something to cheer Harry up once and for all. Finally, he came up with a clumsy suggestion. “Did you accept Chester’s invitation for tomorrow?”

       Making a face, Harry shook his head. “I don’t want to get an earful from Chester about being late for work and his formal invitationals.”

       “Who says you’d be late?” Besides the fact that you almost always are. Merlin picked up his own wine glass and thoughtfully studied his faint reflection. “We could go together tomorrow. I’ve invited a plus-one but I wouldn’t mind at least picking you up.”

       As soon as the words had escaped Merlin’s mouth, it was all he could do not to cringe. Could he be any more straightforward? However, Harry smiled warmly, cocking his head to glance sideways at Merlin. “Don’t tell me you’ve finally found yourself a boyfriend.”

       “I haven’t.”

      At last Harry’s eyes sparkled, shaking off the darkness that had encompassed them. “Then I’d be happy to accompany you, if I’m not intruding.”

       “Of course not.” Merlin turned his head towards Harry, chancing to give him a small smile. The instant Harry caught his gaze, his eyes widened.

      “What in the world happened to your eye, Hamish?”

      Merlin’s insides froze to ice. Harry really had been distracted, if it had taken him this long to notice Merlin’s black eye. And it spoke volumes that Merlin had forgotten about his injury until Harry pointed it out.

       “It’s nothing,” he muttered, turning his head away. Thankfully Harry didn’t press the matter. Instead he gazed softly at Merlin, before swallowing the last of his wine.

       “I know how much you hate wearing contacts, but you should try it more often,” he said, setting his glass down. “The glasses hide the color in your eyes.”

       Merlin’s heart thudded once, painfully. He shrugged the compliment off. “That’s about the only upside.”

       How can he still fail to see…

      Eventually Harry pushed his plate aside and got up from his seat with a groan. “I’d best be on my way. James told me not to wait up for him, but…” He grimaced, effectively filling in the blank. “Goodnight, Hamish. Thank you for a wonderful dinner.”

       “Goodnight, Harry.” Merlin got to his feet and opened the balcony door, leading Harry inside. “If… if anything happens, don’t be afraid to call again.”

       “I won’t.” Harry held out his hand, his brown eyes as tantalizing as melted chocolate. Wordlessly Merlin shook it. Dissolving into a smile, Harry opened the front door and disappeared down the hall.

        For a while Merlin stood by the door, trying to imprint the sensation of Harry’s hand into his memory. But the feeling slipped away soon enough, so he retired to the kitchen to wash the dishes, shaking his head all the way. Harry Hart…

       I should have never let myself be sucked in.

        Unfortunately, the moment Merlin had first been introduced to his striking, witty co-worker, he had tumbled head over heels. It had taken a few weeks to warm up to him personally, but in no time he and Harry were sharing jokes and teasing each other like old friends. The harder Merlin tried to fight his affection, the stronger it grew. Of course, Harry is just too damn lovable in the first place.

       And yet Harry still refused to open his eyes to Merlin’s love, because a young, devilishly handsome bartender had swept him off his feet before Merlin had even worked up the nerve to ask him on a proper date. All that suggested Harry even knew Merlin’s feelings existed was the fact that he had never touched him beyond a handshake. A subtle, yet firm reminder that while Harry might enjoy Merlin’s company, he was committed to another man.

       The closest Merlin had ever come to breaking that barrier was at the holiday party Harry had hosted, several years ago. Harry had taken Merlin upstairs to find his coat, buried amongst the rest of the guests’ coats. In their frantic burrowing, Harry’s hand had landed on Merlin’s, entirely by accident. Slightly drunk, in the very home of Harry’s significant other, Merlin had taken the opportunity to lean in and kiss Harry’s cheek- only for Harry to pull away, and leave Merlin to find the coat himself. They hadn’t spoken of it since, so Merlin wasn’t even sure if Harry remembered.

       Harry Hart. Merlin turned the name over in his mind like a precious stone, watching it catch the light from different angles. As far as he was concerned, stolen moments like tonight were the best he’d ever be able to do. As overwhelming and exasperating as he found James, Harry deserved a man like him. A man closer to his temperament, who had never felt the need to hide anything. For Harry’s sake, he hoped that whatever James was going through would ease off quickly, and bring back his old self. Harry’s happiness was the goal, and Merlin would never dream of denying him that.

Chapter Text

      Kingsman Tailors was bustling with energy by the time Merlin arrived the next morning. Surprisingly, it didn’t let up for hours. For half the day Merlin’s hands were full with phone calls, order pick-ups, and customer complaints. Only the influx of said complaints caused him to realize something was wrong.

      “Where’s Harry Hart? He said he’d be available today.”

      “I spoke with Mr. Hart several days ago, and now he’s not in? Get me a manager, I need to…”

      Without any tailors willing to step in, the most Merlin could do was direct each customer to wait, and call Chester down to talk with them. By the time the disgruntled customers had been sorted out, their moods had improved while Chester’s progressed steadily downhill.

       “Have you called him?” he demanded the instant the last customer was out of his hair.

       Merlin nodded. “He didn’t answer.”

       Chester exhaled through his teeth. “I made a point yesterday to impress the importance of the job upon him. If he comes in today, this is his final warning.”

       He stalked back upstairs, leaving Merlin trapped in a mire of worries. Where was Harry? To call him less than punctual was an understatement… but he had never come into work later than noon. Nor had he ever called off work without an airtight excuse.

        Forcefully Merlin tried to throw himself back into his work, but as his eyes mechanically scanned the computer’s screen, his shoulders stiffened and his fingers drummed against the counter. Memories of the night before rose within his head, Harry’s descriptions of James’ odd behavior plaguing him. While James Spencer had never struck Merlin as the most sensible man, he couldn’t picture James ever hurting Harry, intentionally or otherwise. However, the possibility was all he could think about. What if James and Harry had gotten into a row the night before, one that quickly turned ugly? He’d been a fool to let Harry walk out the door, without asking to accompany him home at the very least…

       The customers’ nervous energy wore down by the end of the day, but Merlin’s didn’t diminish. Over and over, whenever he had a slight break, he ended up glancing at the telephone. His hands played with his own phone under the counter, as he told himself not to text Harry again. Three messages already looked desperate enough.

       If he’s ignoring me for a reason, I swear to god…

     At the end of the day, Merlin made his way to the door, reminding himself to take deep breaths. It wouldn’t do to show up at Chester’s gallery opening in this condition. He’d have to set aside all thoughts of Harry Hart- tonight was strictly a night for business.

       However, the attempt proved impossible when Merlin stepped outside, and found himself face to face with the very man he’d been trying to put out of his mind.

       “Harry!” Merlin rushed forward, relief dueling with his anger. “Where the hell have you been? You had me worried sick, I thought something had-”

      His words trailed off as his view of Harry grew sharper. Now that he was closer, he could see how rigid Harry was, his body hunched in on itself. His face was an anguished mask, tears brimming in his eyes.

       “Harry…” Chilled, Merlin started to take a step back, unsure of his boundaries. “What’s the matter with you?” He longed to reach out and touch Harry, but he was stuck in place, torn between comforting his friend and maintaining their usual distance.

       Harry solved the problem by grabbing Merlin. His arms locked around Merlin’s chest and his head fell onto his shoulder. There he stood, swaying as if unable to stand upright without Merlin’s support. Merlin was so shocked that he merely stood frozen for several seconds, before tentatively embracing Harry in return. All thoughts of comfort were driven from his mind as he selfishly clung to Harry, absorbing his warmth.

       The hug couldn’t have lasted even a minute, but for Merlin, it was more than enough. When Harry finally pulled away, Merlin reluctantly stepped back. Shame began to well in him. Here was a very upset friend, in desperate need of emotional support, and all he’d been able to think about was his little crush?

       “What happened?” Merlin said quietly. The words felt like boulders in his mouth. Harry stared dully back. The tears had disappeared, but his face was tight.

       “Let’s not talk here… Let’s go…” He swallowed hard, composing himself.

      Merlin nodded understandingly, and stepped towards the curb to hail a cab. “Come on. We’ll go to the gallery, and you can tell me about it on the way.”

*

       Harry was the first to speak as the cab pulled away from the curb and merged into the flow of traffic. “I’m terribly sorry for giving you such a fright, Hamish, but you would not believe the day I’ve had.” He reached up to massage his temples, expelling a long, weary sigh.

       “Tell me about it,” Merlin urged. Harry’s hands fell into his lap, and Merlin resisted the urge to reach out and brush his fingers against them, just to reassure Harry. “What happened, Harry?”

       Harry closed his eyes, apparently dredging up all that had come to pass over the course of the day. “To begin with… James never came home last night. He was still out when I woke up this morning, and wasn’t responding to my texts, so I headed to the pub to see if I could track him down. He always likes to be at work on time, you see.

       “When I arrived, neither the patrons nor the employees claimed to have seen James, or were able to point me in the right direction. But I caught sight of him from the window, talking to someone on the pavement. Instead of going out to confront him, I waited until he had left, and then I followed him.

       “I know it sounds entirely ridiculous.” Harry squeezed his hands together, the only outward indication of his stress. His face was a carving in stone. “But I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I’d got it in my head that James wasn’t being honest with me, and I had to find out what he was hiding, if he wouldn’t tell me himself.

       “So I followed him. All day long, I followed him. We must have trudged all over the city- by foot, on the Tube, everywhere he went I was right behind him. That’s where the trouble really began. James kept showing up for meetings with strange people, no one I recognized. Everywhere he went, he’d stop and talk with someone. It looked like some kind of information was being passed between them, but I wasn’t able to listen to what they were saying.”

       “Maybe they were friends of James’ whom you haven’t met,” Merlin suggested. “Acquaintances from the pub, perhaps.”

       Emphatically Harry shook his head. “Oh, I know they weren’t. These people looked like they’d never been to a pub a day in their lives. All very uptight, without a smile between them. For that matter, I never saw James smile either.” Harry’s voice grew hushed. “Their eyes were all as empty as his were.”

       Despite his rationale, Merlin felt the hairs on his arms prick up. He could picture James’ supposed associates all too well, as blank and featureless as the living dead. Mindless drones, combined in a horde with no goal in mind but to obey. Just like office workers who were stuck in a box all day.

        “It’s strange,” Harry whispered fervently. “I’ve lived in this city half my life- I know its ups and downs and insides and outs. London has always provided me with the greatest comfort. But today, something was different about it.” He turned his head, pinning Merlin down with a blazing gaze. “Do you know what happened when I went on the Tube? I saw people looking at each other. Making eye contact from across the seats. I saw people on the streets, complete strangers, who appeared to recognize each other as they passed by. I’d never seen anything like it before in my life. It was as if they were all in on the same joke, and I’d missed the punchline.”

       He fell silent, gazing into the distance at nothing in particular. During the uneasy pause, Merlin searched for something to say, something that would help lessen Harry’s turmoil. But he couldn’t seem to find anything useful. Harry’s story rattled about his head, tapping into his deep fears and setting down roots.

        This is ridiculous. The city and its inhabitants could not have changed overnight. Harry’s tension with James is causing paranoid delusions. And yet Merlin couldn’t swallow his own explanation.

        “Try not to dwell on it,” Merlin said, in an unconvincing attempt to get both his mind and Harry’s to drop the subject. “The gallery opening will serve as a convenient distraction. I think what you need most is to relax.”

       Harry chuckled. “I’m hardly dressed for the occasion.”

        “Nonsense.” Merlin rolled his eyes. Harry’s suit might not have been his personal favorite, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. “You’re always dressed for the occasion.”

       “Whereas you’ve still got your jumper on,” Harry said playfully. “Didn’t think to bring a change of clothes?”

        “I would have worn a proper suit tonight,” Merlin said. “How was I to know that you’d show up at the shop as soon as I left it?”

        “And how was I to know you’d direct our driver to the gallery right away?” Harry settled back into his seat, having apparently grown comfortable. “You’re right, Hamish. I could use a distraction tonight. Fretting about James has got me worn out.”

       “Interesting,” Merlin commented. “Usually a single minute in his presence is enough to wear me out.”

       Harry snorted. “Very true. Perhaps that’s why everything’s suddenly gone wrong between us. James and I are too much alike. We’re liable to exhaust each other in seconds flat.”

       “And that’s why I could never date Percy, despite the rumors,” Merlin said. He leaned forward as the cab rolled to a stop at a red light. “We get along beautifully, but the two of us were cut from the exact same cloth.”

       Harry raised his eyebrows. “Rumors? I think you’ll find there’s more truth to them than you assume.” Outside, the light turned green, and the car hastened to accelerate.

        “Well, if it’s true, Chester certainly never-”

       The rest of Merlin’s sentence broke off as the cab driver hit the brakes abruptly, throwing him back against his seat. A second later, he shot forward again, a gasp rising in his throat. Beside him, he heard Harry cry, “Speak of the devil-”

       A man had leapt in front of the cab- a man whose dark eyes were wide behind his glasses, and whose suit was neatly pressed despite his apparent urgency. It’s Percy. Frantically Percy pounded on the windshield, ignoring the blare of the car’s horn as the driver slammed his palm against the steering wheel.

       “They’re coming!” Percy howled, his voice full of unadulterated panic. “You have to believe me! They’re coming! You’re next! YOU’RE NEXT!” He continued to beat futilely against the car, even when the driver turned on the wipers in an attempt to shake him off.

       “He’s lost his mind,” Merlin whispered.

       Harry’s voice was brittle. “We need to help him.”

      He unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned forward, about to open the door for Percy- but Percy suddenly peeled himself off the window and fled in terror. He ran down the street, closely followed by a throng of pedestrians and several cars. Bringing up the rear was a police vehicle, its lights flashing and siren wailing.

       “Don’t worry,” Merlin said, unconsciously resting his hand on Harry’s knee to settle him. “The police will help.”

        But his hopes came crashing to earth upon hearing tires screech in the distance. Harry gasped, gripping the seat in front of him with white knuckles. As the cab turned down the street, Merlin caught sight of the crowd, standing stock still on the pavement. All were huddled around Percy’s bloody body, his eyes wide but unseeing.

        “Oh my god,” Merlin whispered. Harry sank heavily down into his seat, at a loss for words.

        What did Percy mean, “they’re coming?” Who’s coming? Why are we “next?”

      …Chester must know about this right away.

       “Hamish,” Harry whispered, in a firm tone despite his shock. “I knew it. All day long I’ve felt it. Something is terribly wrong.”

        Merlin couldn’t have agreed more.

*

        Merlin’s nerves were on edge as he strolled into the blessedly air-conditioned art gallery. Though the climate was refreshing, Percy’s stricken expression refused to leave his head. What was going on this week? In only a few days, Merlin’s entire routine had been knocked off-kilter. If it wasn’t for Harry at his side- and the pressing urgency to inform Chester of the recent events- Merlin wasn’t sure he could have made it through the doors.

       The gallery was packed to the brim with elegantly-clad men and women, either mingling amongst themselves or admiring the art surrounding them. A few pieces leapt out at Merlin- an eye-catching Calder-esque mobile hanging from the ceiling, images of politicians painted in garish shades adorning the walls- but for the most part, everything was a blur. He waited impatiently as the guard at the door checked both his and Harry’s invitations before waving them onwards.

       Approaching the crowd, Merlin heard Eggsy before he saw him. He balled his hand into a fist, groaning slightly in unpleasant remembrance. The last thing he’d intended when inviting Eggsy had been to third-wheel him, but concern for Harry had eroded his better judgment.

       “I dunno what all of you are yapping about,” Eggsy was loudly declaring to a couple resplendent in fine dress. To Merlin’s faint surprise, he was clad in a tuxedo, one that seemed several sizes too small. Probably got it for a wedding or a dance, and never wore it again.

       “Nothing here’s got any value. I’ve never seen someone with worse taste in art.”

      “How can you say that about a man like Chester King?” the woman scoffed, clinging tightly to her partner’s arm.

       Eggsy snorted. “I’m not saying that about a man like Chester King. I’m saying it about Chester King.”

       “Excuse me,” Merlin murmured, pushing through the flurry of people to reach Eggsy’s side. The moment Eggsy caught sight of him, his face lit up and he abandoned the couple, leaving them to take their affront elsewhere.

       “Merlin! Thank god you’re here.” Eggsy surged forward. “These people have been driving me bonkers. We’re still gonna grab drinks later, yeah?”

      “I’m sorry,” Merlin mumbled, the memories returning to him in a flash. He’d been so busy socializing with Harry the night before that he’d forgotten to tell Eggsy about his plans after the gallery’s opening. “I won’t be able to make it.” Suddenly aware of Harry’s presence, he gestured to his guest. “Eggsy, I’d like you to meet my coworker Harry Hart. Harry, this is my friend Eggsy Unwin.”

        Sizing Harry up, Eggsy broke into a knowing smirk. “Oh, so this is the Harry Hart?”

       Harry turned to Merlin, his eyebrows angled upwards. “Just what kind of stories have you been filling this boy’s head with?”

        “Nothing as exciting as you think,” Merlin murmured. He scanned the crowd while Eggsy and Harry shook hands. Chester. I need to find Chester… The gallery attendees were a sea of glitz and glamor, more engaged with each other than with the paintings on the walls. Merlin began to walk, and Harry followed him, while Eggsy pestered him at his side.

        “These people are completely mental. All this post-modern shit they’re eating up. They think it’s so profound to alter photos and call it a critique of consumerism, when I’ve seen that done better in art history textbooks! Nothing’s original, and they’re still trying to convince everyone that it is. Look around.” Eggsy gestured to the framed pictures on the walls, the mobile overhead and the sculptures residing on the floor. “This stuff ain’t art. This is just self-congratulatory crap-”

       “Hamish!” a voice boomed from the crowd. Relief filled Merlin, his insides unknotting, as Chester approached him, beaming.

       “Did you forget your change of clothes?” He shook Merlin’s hand, while Merlin brushed off the comment. Chester’s eyes narrowed when he caught sight of Harry, but he shook his hand as well, and proceeded to ignore Eggsy. A sinking feeling crept into Merlin’s stomach.

      “What’s the problem?” Eggsy said softly, stepping forward to meet Chester’s eyes. “Am I not good enough for you?”

      Instead of responding to Eggsy, Chester turned to Merlin. “Is this your plus-one, Hamish?”

      “Yes.” Merlin subtly jerked his head in Eggsy’s direction, and finally Chester offered his hand. “This is my friend Eggsy Unwin. Eggsy, this is my boss, Chester King.”

       A hard light flared in Eggsy’s eyes, and he put on a sardonic smile. “Charmed.”

       “Eggsy is an artist,” Merlin explained. A voice in his head yelled at him that there was no time for preliminaries, that Chester needed to hear about the accident as soon as possible. But at the same time, he’d lured Eggsy here in hope that he’d be able to form connections, and after abruptly cancelling their after-party plans, an introduction was the least he could do.

       “He’s interested in having his work displayed. Would you happen to have any advice?”

      Visually Chester appraised Eggsy, taking in the ill-fitting tuxedo, the arms folded across his chest, the sharp glint in his eyes. “What sort of art do you make, Mr. Unwin?”

       “Sculptures,” Eggsy said, staring Chester down. “Carvings, too. I use clay, wood, marble when I could get my hands on it. Not like the stuff you’ve got here.” He nodded towards a nearby sculpture, formed from plastic cups and topped with paper plates.

        Chester eyed Eggsy carefully in return. “I take it you’re on a traditional bent.”

      “Sort of.” Eggsy uncrossed his arms and reached into his jacket, emerging with a manila folder. “I’ve got photos if you want to see them. Maybe you’d be interested in displaying them here?” Despite the disgust for the gallery that Eggsy had previously voiced, a note of hope still lay in his words.

        Chester glanced once at the folder, before shaking his head. “I’m afraid I’m very busy tonight. There’s no time for a proper review. Perhaps you could give me the number of a reliable place to reach you, and I’ll arrange a meeting over the phone.”

       He started to turn back to Merlin, but Eggsy’s voice rose, tight with suppressed rage. “You expect me to believe that? I came all the way out here to attend this shithole of a party, just so I could meet you! You can’t just brush me off!”

       A hard look crossed Chester’s face. He stepped back towards Eggsy, leering over him, the blaze in his eyes the only indication of his anger.

       “Mr. Unwin, I suggest you keep your voice down,” he said. “This is a formal affair. Don’t think I’m not familiar with your type. You’ve studied the classics, haven’t you? You think the only beauty lies in re-creating the past. Since you want to know so badly, I’ll tell you the truth. Your form of art is dying out. It’s been passe for centuries. If you really want to be displayed in distinguished galleries like this one, you had better evolve with the times, or get a day job.” Chester cleared his throat, dismissing the subject. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got a few matters to discuss with your friend Hamish.”

       The words were enough to startle Merlin. Arthur’s prejudices had always bubbled beneath the surface, looming unpleasantly in the background of his day-to-day interactions, but now they were presented more starkly than Merlin had ever witnessed. Eggsy’s eyes grew wide and his face flushed, as if Chester had struck him. Seconds later, lightning struck his eyes, and he shoved his folder into Merlin’s hands.

       “There. Maybe if you pass them off as yours, he’ll take them. Thanks for the invite.” With that, Eggsy whirled around and stalked off, disappearing into the throng of cheerful gallery attendees.

        For a moment, everyone was lost for words, until Chester spoke. “Have you gotten a chance to look at the pieces I’ve displayed, Hamish?”

       “That was absolutely uncalled for, Chester,” Harry blurted. “You didn’t even give the boy a chance. I thought this gallery was supposed to promote young artists, not tear them down.”

       Chester aimed an unfriendly look towards Harry. When he spoke, a razor blade lay hidden in his voice. “If you haven’t noticed, I am the patron of this gallery. It’s my decision to display certain artists, and I am under no obligation to accept someone’s work just because he wants attention.”

       “You could have told him that without publicly humiliating him,” Harry said, the softness of his voice belying his growing anger. Merlin wanted to put his face in his hands. Why had he ever expected this night to go smoothly?

      “And you,” Chester retorted, “might have had the decency to excuse your absence at work today, before showing up here unannounced.”

       Harry bristled. “I didn’t think I required your permission-

      “Harry.” Merlin laid his hand on Harry’s arm for a second, trying to steady him. “We’ve got important information to relay. There’s no time to stand around picking an argument.” Even alluding to the event sent a shiver up Merlin’s spine. Percy’s empty, bloodstained face sharpened into mental detail.

       Chester eyed his guests shrewdly. “And what might that be?”

       Merlin took a deep breath. “On the way here, Harry and I were accosted in our cab by Percy Blackwood. He ran right into traffic on an adjacent street, and was struck by a car.”

       Chester’s body language did not betray any emotion, but his eyebrows rose a fraction.

      “Percy Blackwood,” he murmured, as if re-acquainting himself with the name. “He must have been on his way here. Did you stop to see if he survived?”

       “No, but our driver passed his body on the side of the road,” Merlin said. “His… chances did not seem likely.”

        “My God. Percy Blackwood… What a shame.” Chester’s eyes glazed as his thoughts presumably turned inward. “Thank you for informing me, Hamish. Something ought to be done. I’ll tell you-”

       But Merlin was never privy to what Chester had been about to tell him, because at once a scream started up in the gallery.

       “Get away from him! That’s not Chester! That’s not my husband!!”

      Merlin glanced beyond Chester’s back to see, much to his surprise, Chester’s wife Ellen approaching from behind. Her navy blue cocktail dress swished with each step as she pointed an accusatory, trembling finger.

       “That’s not Chester you’re talking to!” she screeched desperately, attracting the attention of every gallery attendee. “Look out! Don’t come any closer!

      “Ellen!” Chester rushed over, leaving Merlin and Harry to inspect the scene from afar. “What the bloody hell has gotten into you?” He took her face in his hands, but she pushed him away, sobbing.

       “Leave me alone! It’s not him… It’s not him…”

       “Of course it’s me.” Chester tried to take his wife’s arm, only for her to jump back. “Who else could it possibly be?”

       “An imposter,” Harry breathed.

       Before Merlin could stop him, he darted forward, into the middle of the altercation. Fright fell across Ellen’s face as Harry approached, and she made an uncertain backwards move. But Harry was faster. He laid a hand on her shoulder and began to speak gently, so that Merlin had to move closer to hear him.

       “Listen to me. It’s all right.” He glanced over his shoulder. “You say that man is not your husband?”

       “No,” Ellen hiccupped, reaching up to smear mascara across her face. “He- can’t be…”

       “Ellen, you’re hysterical,” Chester growled. “It’s me.” He turned towards Merlin, spitting his words from between clenched teeth. “I swear to God, the delusions she invents…”

       “I’m not mad!” Ellen declared for the entire gallery to hear. “I know my husband… and that thing standing in front of me isn’t him!”

       Harry placed his other hand on Ellen’s other shoulder, leaning in closer. Merlin had to strain to pick up what was being said.

       “Ellen, I believe you,” Harry murmured. “I believe you because I’ve experienced the same. If you want, I can get you out of here.”

      Merlin strode forward, eager to break up the scene before the entire night was ruined. “Harry, let go of her. Chester can-”

        “Mrs. King.” A tap on the shoulder startled Ellen from her terror. Behind her stood a man in a plain uniform, presumably a security guard.

       “I believe you’ve had too much to drink.” He took her by the arm, in a grip that appeared to Merlin to be slightly too tight.

        “No!” Ellen cried. “I swear, I’m not mad! Believe me! Believe me…” She doubled over in a fresh round of sobbing, and the guard took advantage of her momentary weakness to escort her out of the gallery.

       At once, Harry dashed after Ellen, calling out to her.

      “Ellen! If you need to find me, I work at Kingsman Tailors! My number is-”

      He broke off as the flow of people surrounded him. Ellen disappeared down a corridor, the guard holding onto her the whole way.

       Chester’s only reaction was to sigh deeply and massage his temples. “I should have never brought her here. She’s been in a mood all week. I’ll go out to make sure she’s taken home safely.” In an instant, the weariness evaporated from his voice, leaving only a sharp, businesslike tone. “Afterwards, Hamish, I should like to meet with you outside the lobby.”

       He hardly gave Merlin enough time to nod in acquiescence, before vanishing into the crowd, most of whom had already gone back to their lively chatter. Resigned, Merlin could do nothing but watch as Harry threaded his way back through the crowd to Merlin’s side. His face was flushed, and he was breathing heavily as if tremendously excited.

       “Hamish,” he hissed once he reached Merlin, scanning quickly from side to side as if trying to catch eavesdroppers. “We have to go and find out where they’ve taken that poor woman. Have you got Chester’s address? I never did attend any of his-”

       “Why should we follow Chester’s wife?” Merlin cut in, suddenly fed up with the entire affair. All he’d wanted was a quiet night with his friends, a brief period of rest before returning to moonlighting. Unfortunately, said friends had made it too difficult for him to enjoy their time together. First Harry’s paranoia, then the hit-and-run case with Percy, then Chester’s lack of sympathy for Eggsy, and now this… Has the world flipped inside out, or has my perspective changed?

       “Chester just told me that he’ll make sure she returns safely home,” Merlin told Harry. “There’s no reason to assume that she won’t be well-provided for.”

      “Yes, there is,” Harry insisted. He gripped Merlin’s arm, a gesture which stunned and delighted Merlin all at once. “Did you hear her, Hamish? Ellen voiced the same thoughts I had about James. I think she’s right. Chester is not Chester, and we’ve got to help her before it’s too late.”

       Merlin shook his head, heat rising in the pit of his stomach. He’d tried his best to help Harry, but this was going too far.

       “What are you saying, Harry? That it’s all some sort of big conspiracy? For god’s sake, listen to yourself.” He retreated from Harry’s grasp, folding his arms over his chest. “It’s understandable to be worked up after the day you’ve had, but please, try to think rationally about this.”

       As soon as he’d said the words, Merlin knew he’d made a mistake. Before his eyes, Harry shut down.

       “I should have known you wouldn’t understand,” he said. “Goodbye, Hamish.”

       He turned around and left, before Merlin could even find the words to ask him to stay. He stood there for several seconds in the middle of the crowd, feeling more alone than he had ever before.

Chapter Text

       By nine o'clock, all employees of Roxy’s Spa had left for the night, but its owner and namesake remained. Roxy had just finished arranging a bouquet of pink flowers, courtesy of one of her customers, when the bell above the door tinkled. She didn’t look up as the visitor tramped in, recognizing his footsteps in a heartbeat.

       “How was the gallery opening, Eggsy?”

        In response, Eggsy huffed a sigh. Roxy glanced up from the flowers as he hauled a stool towards the counter and promptly plopped down. One look at his face told her the entire story.

       “Let me guess. Chester King didn’t take you seriously?”

        “And the grand prize goes to Roxanne Morton,” Eggsy said glumly. He rested his elbow on the counter and propped his chin against his fist, while Roxy seated herself opposite from him, behind the cash register.

      “He must have thought something of your portfolio.”

      “Sure,” Eggsy griped. “Was so impressive he didn’t even need to look at it.”

       Roxy winced. “Didn’t Merlin stick up for you?”

       Eggsy rolled his eyes. “Merlin was of no fucking help. He showed up tonight with this coworker he’s got major heart eyes for. Didn’t seem to remember he’d already invited someone.”

       Sympathy welled in Roxy, but she knew better than to show it. Instead she reached out and patted Eggsy’s hand. “Then Merlin can go to hell for that.”

       A small corner of Eggsy’s mouth turned up. “Doubt that’ll improve the situation, but thanks.” He pulled his hand away and stared silently at the counter for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was meek, as if he was ashamed of his own words.

       “What’s Chester King got against me anyhow? Obviously he’s got a huge stick jammed up his arse, but that don’t mean he has to tell me off in front of everyone.” Exhaustedly, Eggsy rubbed his forehead, cupping his cheek in one hand. “He made a huge deal out of nothing.”

       “Chester King is nothing more than a classist snob,” Roxy soothed. “Forget him. You don’t have to go chasing after the bigwigs in order to move your career forward.”

       Eggsy turned one baleful eye onto Roxy. “Easy for you to say. They don’t jump all over you…”

        “They would if I gave them half the chance,” Roxy said. “Just keep your chin up and try to stay one step ahead of them. Nothing they say can touch you, Eggsy. No one’s better than anyone else.”

        Eggsy folded his arms on the table and leaned forward to rest his head against them. His eyes peered questioningly into Roxy’s. “So how was work today?”

       Roxy shuddered, recalling her last customer, an obese man who’d been booked for a massage. “If I never touch a naked man again, it will be too soon.”

       Eggsy smirked. “Can’t say the same. Hey, where’d these come from?” He reached out to gently touch the nearby glass of flowers.

       “One of my customers gave them to me,” Roxy replied. “To thank me for the excellent pedicure.”

       Eggsy plucked one of the flowers and studied it with great interest. “Looks just like the one Daisy brought home from the park today. Been seeing them everywhere lately.” He pushed himself away from the counter and stood up. “Think I’ll go lie down for a while. That okay with you?”

      “Of course,” Roxy said, hopping off her stool. “I’ll just finish closing up, then maybe we can order some takeaway. I could really go for Chinese.”

       Eggsy moaned as he made for the massage area on the left side of the room, sectioned off by curtains. “Yes, Roxy.”

       Roxy grinned to herself, reaching down for a wet cloth to wipe down the front counter. Sometimes, when Eggsy was in a funk regarding his artistic abilities, words came across as inadequate. Roxy hardly even felt fit to speak when she considered the success of her business, a luxury Eggsy lacked. But at least conversation was preferable to going off and getting high or drunk together, a pastime Roxy had since sworn off. Though their daily lives couldn’t have been more distinct, Roxy always found time for Eggsy, and vice versa. Unlikely friendships could more susceptible to disintegration, but Roxy figured hers and Eggsy’s was a precious exception.

       Cleaning up the spa didn’t take long. Roxy swept the floor, checked each beauty station to make sure no product or piece of equipment was out of place, and counted the day’s earnings in the register. Finally, she clocked out and shut down the computer. It was time to fetch Eggsy and see if they couldn’t rustle up some food. Maybe they’d end up at Roxy’s flat, or perhaps wander aimlessly through the streets on a talking marathon.

       The massage area was still as a tomb, indicating that Eggsy was either asleep or knee-deep in thought. Roxy wandered over to one of the beds, spying a shadow of a reclined figure. She pulled the curtains back. “Eggsy, come on ou-”

       Her words died in a startled gasp, for the body that had come into view was not Eggsy. Nor was it a lazy customer who had fallen asleep during a massage. The first word that sprang to mind was cadaver, but it looked nothing like the photos of dead bodies Roxy had once seen in a forensic science class. Her wide eyes took in the milky paleness of the flesh, the knots of white hair. Its skin glistened as if damp. From the size and shape of it, Roxy guessed that it was male, but it lacked any specific attributes- let alone identifying factors.

        Immediately Roxy backed away- only for a hand to grab her shoulder. Swiftly she spun on her heel, her fist connecting with the intruder’s face before she got a chance to see who it was.

       “Ow!” Eggsy cried, his hands flying up to cup his nose. “Fucking hell, Rox, what’d you do that for?!”

       “Eggsy.” Placing a hand on his arm, Roxy gestured towards the body. Her fingers trembled, but her voice somehow remained under control. “Look at that…”

        Roxy felt Eggsy’s muscles tense. If she had been able to drag her gaze from the body, she would have seen his eyes bugging out of his head.

       “What the fuck is that thing?”

       Gulping to wet her dry throat, Roxy wordlessly shook her head. Her knees had grown weak, and she fought to stay on her feet.

       It’s a body…

      Before she could state the obvious, a trickle of blood ran from the body’s nose, setting off Roxy’s internal alarm bells.

       Not a dead body.

      Not a human body.

      In a flash, Eggsy turned and fled. It took Roxy a few more moments to shake off the influence of the grotesque figure, but ultimately she followed directly on Eggsy’s heels.

*

       After the disaster of a gallery opening, meeting with Chester King no longer proved troubling. Outside the gallery, Merlin headed toward the curb to hail a cab. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chester approach, but he didn’t turn to look at him- not even when Chester whispered in his ear the name of his destination. A second later, he melted into the night, leaving Merlin alone with his persistent thoughts.

        The cab ride felt as taxing to sit through as a three-hour long political lecture. To keep himself from fidgeting, Merlin took out his phone, but could only bring himself to stare into its bright screen. Who was he supposed to contact on the way to this illicit meeting? Eggsy required a personal conversation, and Harry… Merlin wasn’t sure if he should contact Harry at all. At least give him the night to mull his feelings over. No one could hold a grudge like Harry Hart, but when it came to Merlin, his grievances rarely lasted longer than a day.

       Yet something felt different this time. In Merlin’s attempt to console his friend, he had ended up worsening the situation. If he didn’t speak now, tomorrow’s workday would be a nightmare. Merlin pulled up his list of contacts and stole a few glances at the cab driver, before finally typing out an apology. I’m sorry about tonight, Harry. I hope you can forgive me. Such a message was inadequate, and truly deserved to be spoken, but Merlin was reluctant to make a call within earshot of a bystander.

        After a while, just as the cab pulled down the street where Chester’s suggested meeting-place was located, Merlin’s phone vibrated against his leg. He swiped the text without even checking to see who it was from.

        An image of a bouquet of pink flowers greeted him, with the message, Apparently James is sorry too.

        Merlin had no more time to puzzle over the message before the cab pulled up to a stop, and the driver demanded his fare. Merlin paid and slipped out the door, heading towards the warm lights of the Blue Heron Pub.

       Merlin knew exactly where Chester would be seated as soon as he walked through the door, but he dutifully played his part in waiting for the server to approach and direct him Chester’s way. He was led to the back of the pub, off in a shadow-shrouded corner, the flickering lights of the overhead TV providing the sole illumination. Merlin sat down and picked up a menu, careful not to look Chester in the eye.

       Eventually Chester’s gaze slid from the menu before him, to Merlin’s face. “Hello, Merlin.”

       Merlin nodded to indicate he had heard Chester. “Hello, Arthur.”

      Slowly he set his menu down to meet Chester’s glasses-shielded eyes. For a second or two neither spoke, before Chester reached into his breast pocket. From it he drew a small pink flower.

       “Tell me, Merlin,” said Chester convivially. “Have you seen any of these flowers growing around the city lately?”

       Merlin tried not to react, but a minor shockwave traveled through him at the sight. The pink flower looked exactly like the ones in the photo Harry had just sent him. Its center was bulbous, seemingly oversized compared to the fragile petals protecting it.

        He racked his brain, trying to remember if he’d seen any flowers springing up through the cracks in the pavement, or flourishing outside of his neighbors’ flats. All he could recall was gray, bleak concrete. Nothing as eye-catching as this diminutive, but unforgettable blossom.

        “I don’t believe so,” Merlin murmured. “What is it, sir?”

      Chester set the flower down, concealing it behind his glass of beer. “You haven’t been as observant as you should. These flowers are populating the city like weeds. I just pulled this one when I was leaving the gallery.”

       “Maybe they are weeds,” Merlin mused. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror…

        He waited an appropriate amount of time for a response, before forging ahead with, “Why are you showing this to me?”

       Chester lifted his glass to his lips and took a thoughtful sip before responding. “My purpose is our business, Merlin. I believe these flowers are more than just an invasive species. You witnessed some… unfortunate behavior earlier tonight.”

        It took Merlin a moment to realize that Chester was indirectly referring to his wife’s outburst at the gallery. He nodded, and Chester continued.

        “The subject was experiencing an unnaturally high level of paranoia. However, I have it on good authority that she has never displayed such a temperament before.” His eyes narrowed in unspoken certainty- I AM the good authority. “I believe that such behavior stemmed from the flowers she had been in contact with earlier in the day. And she’s far from the only case. I’ve heard several reports of paranoid, careless behavior from various friends over the past few days. Apparently the pattern is the same. They believe that a loved one has been replaced with an imposter, in a manner that defies all logic.”

        Merlin went still, debating on whether he should mention Harry’s paranoia. On the one hand, it showed that he too was familiar with the phenomena, and it might let Harry off the hook. On the other hand, what Harry was going through seemed too personal a matter for Merlin to discuss. At least not without Harry’s permission.

        “I know the pattern,” he said finally. “The same thing happened to a friend of mine, quite recently.”

       Chester’s gaze pierced Merlin. “Then you must know how potent these flowers are. It’s like some sort of… hallucinatory flu.”

       “So, you’re saying you want to stop the… flu from spreading?” How that goal fits into our business is beyond me.

       “No, Merlin.” Chester picked up the flower again, his eyes greedily focusing on it. “If these flowers are the source of the behavior, I believe that a drug can be derived from them. I want to research this species and find out more. In a diluted form, perhaps the effects would be mitigated, and the drug can go out on the market.”

        Oh. Silently Merlin nodded, trying to quell the objections rising within him. Neither he nor Chester, as Merlin and Arthur, had ever dabbled in a drug stronger than amphetamines. Certainly nothing that could cause hallucinations, or severe paranoia as Ellen King had already displayed. If a drug could be derived from these flowers, introducing it to the public might come with severe consequences, depending on how addictive it was. And depending on who bought the drug, it could be the start of society’s downfall.

        Then Merlin chastised himself for thinking too far ahead. Besides, was it really any better to deal amphetamines? He’d seen just as many clients who weren’t able to manage their habit, as those who were. Either way, Merlin was contributing to an eventual social collapse. It would just take longer, and have more participants.

       “Are you asking me to conduct research on your behalf?”

       “I’m asking you to consider it,” Chester said. “It may turn out that the drug is unsuitable for consumption, or unable to be properly processed. I’m a busy man, Merlin- you know that. So I’m entrusting this project to you alone.”

       Deftly he handed over the flower. Merlin took it, rubbing the stem between two fingers. Despite having been plucked half an hour ago, and having languished inside Chester’s breast pocket, the petals felt vibrant to the touch. As if they still held a sort of life.

       Chester cleared his throat, and Merlin glanced up to see his eyes glowing with satisfaction. “Take the flower home, Merlin. Sleep on it if you must. But I believe this is an opportunity that musn’t be missed.”

       Before Merlin could say a word, his phone began to vibrate madly. Yanking the phone from his pocket, he rose halfway from his seat. “Excuse me- I’ve got a call-”

       Chester nodded. “Go ahead, Merlin.”

       Merlin didn’t need a cue. He fled from his seat and made for the front of the restaurant. Once he saw the caller’s name, however, his step slowed.

       What does Eggsy want from me?

       Well, considering what had occurred at the art gallery, it was no wonder Eggsy wanted to talk. His anger must have blown over sooner than expected. Guilt twisted Merlin’s stomach as he remembered how unfair it had been to invite Harry to the gallery at the last second. Only one person had the right to apologize in this situation. Merlin accepted the call as he stepped into the cool night air. “Hello, Eggsy.”

        As suspected, the first words that came out of Eggsy’s mouth were wrought with emotion. “Merlin, I’m so sorry about tonight, I didn’t mean to fuck up your-”

        “It’s all right, Eggsy,” Merlin said, cutting off Eggsy’s breathless words. “I’m the one who should apologize. I shouldn’t have brought another guest along without telling you first.”

       “Okay,” Eggsy muttered. “Glad we got that out of the way. Merlin, I need you.”

        The change of subject was startling. “Need me for…?”

      Eggsy exhaled tightly, sounding as if his teeth were clenched. “I didn’t know who else to call, all right? I’m at Roxy’s Spa, and Roxy and I… well, she found… something.”

       Merlin cocked an eyebrow, waiting for Eggsy to go on, but upon receiving no further information he prompted him with, “What sort of… something?”

       Now Eggsy’s voice was tight with agitation. “There’s a body in one of the massage beds. I’m not making this up. You have to come over.”

       Merlin blinked. “A body? What kind of body?”

       “It’s… it’s a human body,” Eggsy said. “I think. You have to come over, Merlin. I didn’t know who to call, I didn’t want-”

        “A dead body?” Merlin broke in. Why hasn’t Roxy called the police? But the thought occurred that if Roxy hadn’t called them, the story must be more complex than Eggsy was letting on. Merlin wasn’t sure why Eggsy felt Merlin was better-equipped for the job, but Eggsy’s obvious stress convinced Merlin that he had to go. He couldn’t very well let his friend down twice in one night.

        “I don’t know,” Eggsy said. “I don’t know what it is. It looks like a person, but… something’s not right. It’s not moving, but I think it’s alive, and it’s freaky-”

      “I’ll be right over,” Merlin assured Eggsy, hoping he sounded calm. He glanced back into the restaurant, grimacing. Chester wasn’t going to like being abandoned in the middle of a meeting. But what choice do I have…

        “Thanks,” Eggsy breathed, relief coloring his tone. “You need to get here as soon as possible.”

        “Don’t worry. Just stay where you are.” Merlin strode towards the restaurant. “I’ll be there in no time.”

*

       What surprised Merlin the most upon being greeted at Roxy’s Spa was not the possible presence of a body, nor the poorly-suppressed terror in Eggsy’s eyes upon meeting Merlin at the door. Instead, he was taken aback at how unwell Eggsy looked. His face was pale, as if he were suffering from shock, and his lips were dry and chapped. His nose was swollen, dried blood staining his skin.

       “Merlin, thank god you’re here.” Eggsy pulled Merlin inside and shut the door. The spa’s lights were dimmed, and no music was piped in, lending the scene an eerie atmosphere contrary to the warmth it emitted in daylight hours. Merlin spied Roxy perched on a stool behind the counter. As soon as their eyes met, she leapt up and came around to the other side, looking nearly as shaken as Eggsy.

       There was no sense in beating around the bush. Merlin cleared his throat. “Where is… it?”

       “This way,” Roxy murmured, indicating the sectioned-off side of the room. “Eggsy went in to lie down, and… I found it. I thought it was Eggsy at first glance…”

        Without another word, she turned tail and headed for the massage area. Merlin followed her, with Eggsy bringing up the rear.

       At the third bed on the left, Roxy drew back the curtains. Merlin’s heart gave an involuntary thud. From Eggsy’s vague, panic-stricken descriptions, he hadn’t been sure what to expect upon arrival. In his vivid imagination, the body had turned into a creature Dr. Frankenstein would have been proud to call his own. But this body was… different. It was human, or human-shaped at any rate, but the features were profoundly wrong. The skin was a sickly yellowish-white, gleaming moistly under the lights. There was no hair on the head, only thick white filaments that crawled across the chest, legs, and arms. Its facial characteristics were strangely familiar, and as Merlin looked harder, his heart broke into a sprint. No wonder Roxy thought it was Eggsy…

       Quickly he turned to her, marveling at how steady his voice was. “This wasn’t here before Eggsy came in?”

        “I checked the beds about twenty minutes before Eggsy arrived,” Roxy replied. “The last customer of the night had a massage…” She bit the corner of her lip, seeming to suppress a shiver. “I would have noticed that.”

        Merlin crept closer, unable to resist further inspection. The starkly hideous figure was at once repulsive and compelling. One part of his mind acknowledged that he should be horrified, but at the same time he was downright fascinated.

       “It looks like a man,” he muttered, kneeling by the bed and peering at the body’s sealed eyelids. “But it hasn’t got any sexual organs.” Just a faint but distinct bulge at the throat.

       “That’s not a man.” Eggsy’s voice shook. “That’s a monster.”

       If Merlin hadn’t been so riveted, he would have smiled to himself- now who’s the one thinking of Dr. Frankenstein? Instead, he gazed at the body’s chest, dying to inspect with his fingers but mindful of potential danger to his health. “It doesn’t appear to have muscles, either. At least not many of them. It’s weak.”

        “It’s got no detail,” Roxy added. “No character.” She had stepped up, her voice close to Merlin’s ear.

        “It’s unformed,” he agreed. But who- or what- was it? Surely the hands will tell. Merlin steeled himself before lifting an arm and turning it over. Eggsy inhaled sharply behind him.

        “Don’t touch it, Merlin-”

       “No fingerprints,” Merlin whispered. The smooth pale skin filled him with ice, as if he had opened the refrigerator on a hot day. “Not a single mark on the hands.”

        “No fingerprints?” Roxy repeated. “Like a fetus?” Her voice was hushed, in what Merlin nearly mistook for wonder.

        “Okay, hold up.” Eggsy sounded as if he wished to stop the conversation in its tracks. “You’re not saying… this thing’s an adult, innit? It can’t be a baby looking like that…”

       “Just because it’s big, doesn’t mean it’s an adult,” Merlin argued. “Look at the moisture on its skin. Whatever birthed it could have done so not that long ago.”

        He couldn’t believe he was taking this seriously, when only a few hours ago he’d scorned Harry’s paranoia. But for Merlin, seeing had always been believing. And this sort of proof was undeniable.

       He glanced at the face, and was again struck with the sense of familiarity. It can’t be… But comparing the still, waxen face to Eggsy’s was all the confirmation Merlin needed.

        Best to make sure, though.

       “Eggsy. How tall are you exactly?”

       “Five-ten,” Eggsy replied, a note of puzzlement taking the edge off his fears. “Why?”

       “And your weight?”

       “I’m…” Suddenly the panic slipped back as Eggsy added up the pieces. “Fuck no! You’re not trying to say that… that that’s…”

       “Why couldn’t it be?” Roxy turned to look at Eggsy, her face shining with distress. “Before I discovered it, I thought it was you behind the curtains. And when I hit you by accident…”

        “Its nose bled,” Eggsy finished. He reached unconsciously to touch his own nose, his eyes wide. “No. No, no, no…”

        “Its nose bled?” Merlin inquired. “What happened?”

      “Eggsy startled me right after I found the body,” Roxy explained. She seemed to be taking care to focus her gaze on Merlin. “I punched him in the nose, and the… the body started bleeding right after he did.”

       Immediately Merlin straightened up into a standing position. He wanted to take a step back, to move as far as possible from the body, but he didn’t want to alarm his friends. Yet wild thoughts spun about his head, disrupting his inner calm.

        This wasn’t just any body. This was Eggsy, born again in a full state of maturation. Something had created a carbon copy, only to be interrupted during the process. Merlin wasn’t sure what would start the process again, or what the end result was, but he knew in his heart that he had to get Eggsy out of there.

        But before he could suggest leaving, the thought struck him over the head. What if the doppelganger hadn’t been made simply to copy… but to replace?

        There was nothing behind his eyes… He’s… changed, somehow…

        The man I came home with today is not the man I moved in with two years ago.

       THEY’RE COMING! You have to believe me! YOU’RE NEXT!!

     GET AWAY FROM HIM! That’s not Chester! THAT’S NOT MY HUSBAND!

     Merlin’s entire body stiffened. HARRY.

     He turned and started for the exit, but Roxy’s voice stopped him. “Merlin! What’s wrong?”

        Merlin took a deep breath, trying to control the frantic race of his pulse. “I might have an idea of what’s going on. I thought it was…” Well, never mind that you dismissed him. Never mind that you didn’t believe…

       “I’ve got a friend who’s been concerned, recently, that his partner… has become someone else. He had suspicions that… that they were replaced by some sort of imposter.”

       The moment the words were out of his mouth, he knew he’d gone too far in tying the two events together. Eggsy and Roxy stared at him, bug-eyed. However, Merlin went on, knowing that if he didn’t voice his theory, he wouldn’t be able to fully convince himself of its authenticity.

       “At the gallery opening tonight…” Again Merlin breathed deeply, curling his hand into a fist. The pressure was almost a sufficient distraction from his brain. Almost, but not quite. “Ar- Chester’s wife voiced the same fear about her husband. It could be… it could be that she and Harry have a point.”

        “What?” Eggsy whispered. His fists tightened as well. “What are you saying?”

       “I’m saying that I’ve got to find Harry right away,” Merlin stated firmly. “And as soon as he’s found, we need to get somewhere safe.”

         “You can’t just leave us-”

       “I won’t,” Merlin assured Eggsy. “I’ll send Chester King over. He might be able to help. In the meantime, stay here and wait for me.”

        “What do you mean, Chester King can help?” Eggsy protested. He trailed after Merlin, nearly rushing him towards the door. “He’s never helped people like me a day in his life!”

       “I believe he’s got some insight into the situation,” Merlin said. It was getting harder to maintain his breathing, now that the urgency had descended upon him. I’ve got to get out, I’ve got to get out… “Trust me. Just stay here for now.”

       He headed out the door before Roxy or Eggsy could say a word, his thoughts already turning to Harry and whether it was already too late.

Chapter Text

       “God, Roxy,” Eggsy announced, mere seconds after Merlin had left. “I know this thing’s just started, but I wish it was over already.” He slumped onto the stool he’d pulled up at the counter and pillowed his head on his arms. “What the fuck is going on?”

       Roxy swallowed hard. “Don’t worry. Merlin said Chester King will be able to help us.” But her words were robotic and lacked conviction. Her mind was leaping through hoops, scavenging for every tip she’d ever stocked up on what to do in worst-case scenarios. A flood or fire, she could handle. But nothing she’d ever learned could have prepared her for something so unnatural, borderline extraordinary. And not in a good way. Though Roxy wanted to trust Merlin, she couldn’t imagine how some snooty businessman like Chester King could possibly understand this situation any more than she could.

       As if reading her mind, Eggsy lifted his head to roll his eyes. “Yeah, right. As if a snob like him would stoop to dig us out of this shit.”

       Roxy frowned, Eggsy’s words sailing right through her as if he hadn’t spoken. Now that he’d looked up, she was fixated on his face. Eggsy hadn’t looked very well before, his nose swollen from where Roxy had punched him and his lips chapped. But now Roxy noticed the flakes of dry skin peeling around his mouth, and his unnatural pallor, as if blood was slowly leaching out of him.

       “Eggsy, are you okay?”

       Eggsy shot her an are you kidding me look. Roxy shook her head, gesturing to her mouth. “Physically speaking. You look ill.”

       “Oh…” Eggsy reached up to touch his lips, apparently just as surprised as Roxy. “I’m so thirsty, Rox.”

       “You’re dehydrated,” Roxy said. “I’ll get you some water.” She hurried off to the water cooler, concern spiraling through her. First the body, and now an unexplained illness… The two had to be related somehow. Considering the relationship she’d observed between the body and Eggsy… Was the body dehydrated as well?

       Eggsy practically snatched the plastic cup out of Roxy’s hand when she returned, gulping it down as if he’d never tasted anything better in his life. After Roxy fetched him several more cups, Eggsy looked a bit livelier, but his face was still pale and his eyes were tight with stress.

        “So what are we supposed to do now, then? Sit around on our arses until Chester shows up?”

       “I’m afraid that’s our only choice,” Roxy said. “Merlin said to wait here.” She stole a glance towards the massage area, consumed with the desire to check on the body. Studying it had yielded few clues, but at least it felt more productive than sitting around and worrying. “I’m going back to keep an eye on the body until Chester arrives.”

        Eggsy shrugged. “All right. Just be careful.”

       Roxy mustered a faint smile. “’Course I will.” She reached out to press Eggsy’s hand for a second, before retreating to the massage area.

        The body- or whatever it was- was in the same condition that Roxy had left it. Still eerily pale, shining with moisture, and covered in hair. Roxy stood silently over it, clenching her hands together, waiting with bated breath. But the body remained as still as ever, and Roxy tried to force her thoughts into perspective. What do you think is going to happen? Aside from seeing its nose bleed, Roxy hadn’t witnessed any other unusual occurrences involving the body. Nothing else had proven that it was alive. But now that Merlin had floated the theory of its recent birth, Roxy couldn’t shake it off. In some way or another, this… thing had stalled in its development. What could make it grow again?

       She stepped forward, angling her head to catch a better glimpse of the face. And as she did so, the body’s eyes snapped open. Brown irises floated in a sea of milky white.

       “Oh my god.” Roxy stumbled backwards, nearly falling over. In no time, she caught her balance and ran full-tilt out of the massage area. The instant she saw Eggsy slumped over the counter, her heart leapt to her throat.

       “Eggsy!” Desperately, Roxy ran to Eggsy’s side and shook his shoulders. “Eggsy! WAKE UP-”

       Eggsy jerked up, startled, his hands flying out and immediately curling into fists. His wild eyes met Roxy’s, and with one glance she was shaken to the core. The water Eggsy had drunk seemed not to have done him any good, as not only was his mouth dry, but skin was peeling from his face as if he was recovering from a nasty sunburn.

        “What happened?” Eggsy weakly rasped.

         Before Roxy could tell him, there was a rapping at the door. She exchanged a glance with Eggsy, wordlessly signaling for him to sit still, before rushing over to answer it.

        The door opened to reveal a well-dressed gentleman with white hair, peering over tortoiseshell glasses. “Chester King, at your service.” He smoothly offered a hand. “Your friend Hamish sent me. Are you Roxy Morton?”

        Hamish? Roxy shot a glance at Eggsy, who reluctantly nodded to confirm the man’s identity. “Merlin” must be an alias… Eggsy never told me… Deciding to dispense of niceties, Roxy ushered Chester through the door. “That’s me. Did Mer- Hamish tell you what’s going on?”

        Chester’s brow furrowed when he heard Roxy almost slip on Merlin’s name, and his face darkened when he caught sight of Eggsy at the counter. However, his polite reply gave away no sign of annoyance. “He tells me there’s been an incident at your place of business. You’ve discovered a body on the premises?”

       “He said you’d be able to help.” There was no animosity in Eggsy’s voice- only a gentle plea. Chester stared coldly at him.

       “Miss Morton, if you’d be so kind as to escort me to the… body. But don’t follow behind me. There may be a risk of contamination, and you’ve already been exposed for too long.”

        “Of course,” Roxy murmured. She led Chester to the massage area, watching as he disappeared behind the curtains. Promptly she returned to Eggsy’s side, but her eyes remained trained on the massage area, waiting for Chester’s verdict with her fingers crossed.

        However, it wasn’t long before Chester reemerged, implacable, with no sign that he’d been exposed to an inhuman form.

       “I checked the beds. There was no body there.”

       “What?” Eggsy sprang up from his seat. “Even the third bed on the left?!”

       Chester grunted. “I searched the entire area from bottom to top. I saw nothing that resembles a body.”

       “What the fuck are you talking about?” Eggsy strode over, but Roxy was faster, pushing past him towards the massage area. She and Eggsy began to strip away the curtains from each bed, traveling down the line until nothing was left. Just as Chester had said, each bed was empty. Roxy’s heart plummeted to her toes.

        “But it must be here. It couldn’t have just- gotten up and walked away…”

       “Face it, Miss Morton,” Chester said quietly. “You’ve got some friends who enjoy playing practical jokes.”

       Roxy rounded on him, unable to conceal the anger sparking in her eyes. “None of my friends would think this is funny.”

       Chester shrugged, unconcerned. “Then perhaps you’ve got some enemies.”

       He departed, leaving Roxy flabbergasted. Behind her, she heard Eggsy sit down heavily on one of the beds.

       “Told you he wouldn’t help us.”

       “I can hear you, Mr. Unwin,” Chester called from the main room.

        “So what?Eggsy struggled for a minute to get up from the bed, but he sunk back down instead, apparently not feeling well enough. In lieu of calling Chester out, he directed his words to Roxy. “He’s the enemy here, Rox. He doesn’t care what happens to us…”

       “Shh,” Roxy whispered. The word enemy sent flares exploding through her mind. What Eggsy had said before was true- Chester King had never helped people like him a day in his life. He was the enemy. And he was the last person to have been in the area where the body was found.

       There has to be something more. It has to still be here. But where could Chester have hidden it…

       Was it possible they’d missed it in plain sight? The beds were solid wood, which meant nothing could be hidden under them, but maybe the body was beside one of them, lurking in the shadows… Or maybe Chester had hidden it in the bathroom, which was accessible from the massage area. Roxy ran over and tried to the door, but it didn’t budge. Of course- she’d locked it earlier in the evening after assisting the last customer of the night. So where could the body possibly be?

       Stepping back from the door, Roxy happened to spy a nearby wastebasket out of the corner of her eye. It was much too small to contain a body, but it was her last resort. She approached it and peered down into its depths.

       Inside the wastebasket was exactly the waste that one would expect after a long workday. Mounds of gray matter filled its interior, looking for all the world like dust bunnies. But Roxy knew instantly that something was wrong. She’d emptied the trash just before Eggsy had arrived at the spa. This was not dust. Her heart pounded.

       Chester destroyed the body. He destroyed it and lied to us.

       “Eggsy.” Roxy spun around, forcing herself to walk, not run, to her friend’s side. “We need to get out of here right now.”

*

       The trip to Harry’s home was torturous. Wave upon wave of stress kept building inside Merlin, his mind continually lighting up with the most gruesome scenarios. What if I’m too late… what if something’s happened… What exactly this something was, Merlin had no idea, but he wasn’t exactly keen on discovering it.

       All Merlin knew was that James Spencer… was not James Spencer. Everything else was inconclusive speculation. There was no evidence that Harry was in grave danger, but seeing the body at Roxy’s had left Merlin with no doubt, however irrational his conviction might be. And to think I didn’t believe Harry…

       From time to time, when Merlin was able to pull himself out of the tension gnawing at him, he would find himself staring into the eyes of the person sitting across from him on the Tube. Harry’s words from earlier that day echoed through his head: Do you know what happened when I went on the Tube? I saw people LOOKING at each other… Though Merlin knew logically there was no way these strangers could know him, the piercing stares he received suggested otherwise. He was torn between staring directly back and keeping to himself as he normally would on the Tube. Which option would help him blend in now?

        Finally, after what felt like hours, Merlin’s stop came up. He fled the depths of the London Underground and hastened down the sparsely-populated sidewalk. As soon as Harry’s home came into view, Merlin ran to the front door, trying his hardest not to pound on it. Instead, he pushed his fear aside and rang the doorbell.

       Nothing happened. No curtains parted, no footsteps sounded from the interior.

       Okay. Merlin sighed through his nose. Okay… It was almost past midnight, after all- maybe Harry had already retired to bed, in preparation for the following workday. Merlin stepped back and waited a few more seconds, before ringing the doorbell again. Still nothing.

       He slipped quietly over to the nearest window and, eschewing all boundaries of personal etiquette, peered through the glass. The blinds were drawn, but it seemed that the lights were still on in the house. So someone had to be awake. Or was it his imagination?

       Returning to the doorstep, Merlin again gave the doorbell a futile ring, although his hope was waning. Harry, gentleman that he was, would never tolerate more than one ring. He must be asleep- the text he’d sent Merlin earlier that night implied that he’d already gotten home. But that didn’t account for the lights.

        Asleep… or in a much worse condition.

       Adrenaline spiked through Merlin’s chest. That does it. He racked his brain, trying to think of how else he was supposed to get in short of breaking a window open.

        From the times Merlin had visited, Harry appeared to keep an orderly household, but James was its owner, which meant Harry had to play by his rules. And someone like James wouldn’t be the type to think too carefully about security. Though he knew he was clutching at straws, Merlin hurried through the alley to the small back lawn. He easily scaled the gate and traveled around to the back door, straining his eyes in the darkness for a rock that seemed out of place or maybe a welcome mat at the back stoop.

       The stoop did indeed have a mat, but lifting it up revealed nothing but dirt and a few scattered insects. Merlin straightened up, not yet defeated. He turned on his phone’s flashlight and swung the beam around, until it stopped dead on a large thermometer.

        “Yes.”

       The hunch proved to be correct. Behind the thermometer lay what could only be a spare house key. Merlin held his breath as he retrieved it and then tried the back door. It unlocked with a friendly, welcoming click.

       The lights were on in the hallway through which Merlin trod, but the rooms he passed were dark and cavernous. All except for the living room, to the left of the main door. There was no sign of life, and for a moment Merlin began to panic. He’d technically just broken into a man’s house on a random whim, all because something he’d seen had frightened him. Harry and James could be asleep together in bed for all he knew…

       But the image of the mysterious body swam before Merlin’s eyes, stark and alien. It was precisely because he didn’t know that he had to find out. He steeled himself and made for the stairs.

       Harry’s room was to the left of the stairs. Merlin remembered it from the holiday party- the mound of coats on the bed, the stolen kiss… He tiptoed forward, again holding his breath and listening fervently for the sound of breathing or footsteps behind him.

       Harry’s bedroom door was slightly ajar, and golden light poured out from the space between it and the doorframe. His heart pounding, Merlin dared to crack the door open all the way. In an instant, he was facing two Harrys.

       The first Harry was curled beneath the covers of his bed, his arm obscuring his face and messy curls fanning about his head. His chest rose with a steady rise and fall. The second Harry, however, was spread out on the floor. His- or rather its body was naked, but entirely smooth, and carried a sheen under the light on the bedside table. Its chest did not rise, nor did a single finger twitch, but Merlin felt that any second it would come to life. If he waited too long…

       He darted forward, heading straight for Harry’s bed. “HARRY!” Merlin threw the bedcovers aside and grabbed Harry by the shoulders. “Harry! Wake up! We need to get out of here!”

       “Wha’?” Harry mumbled, his eyes opening. Merlin could have rejoiced, but instead his blood ran cold. Harry’s skin was flaking just as Eggsy’s had, as if he was severely dehydrated.

       That thing… it’s making him sick.

      “Harry.” Merlin squeezed Harry’s shoulder, until his brown eyes slowly focused. “We have to get out. It’s not safe for you to stay here.” He wished he could explain further, but Harry was still groggy from sleep and any explanation would likely fly over his head. “Come on. I’ll help you…”

       “What are you talking about?” Harry was beginning to rouse, his voice sharp with inquiry. “What are you doing here, I-”

       In answer, Merlin merely stepped back to reveal the body, still lying motionless on the floor. Harry gasped.

        “What the devil-”

       “Come on.” Without thinking, Merlin reached for Harry’s hand, and Harry latched on. He allowed Merlin to haul him up, and then they were running, Harry hardly having time to pull on his slippers before they had fled the room.

       “That- thing-” Harry gasped as Merlin dragged him down the stairs. “What is it, Hamish?”

       “Something terrible.” Merlin wrenched the front door open the moment he reached it. “I’ll tell you all about it as soon as-”

        His sentence broke off as he and Harry stumbled from the house, right into the piercing beam of headlights.

       Merlin threw his hands to his eyes, trying to make out who the driver was. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait very long. The headlights cut off, and James Spencer stepped out of the car. Even in the dark, the expression on his face defied description. He seemed to be frowning, but neither anger nor pain were dominant emotions.

        His eyes were colder than ice.

        “James.” Harry’s voice was quiet, meek. Already in submission.

        “Where are you going?” James asked, in a tone as brittle as bone. His words lacked inflection, and Merlin knew he wasn’t asking out of curiosity. In James’ eyes, he and Harry were already dead.

        “Away.” To prove his point, Merlin stepped forward. “As far away from you as possible.”

       At first James didn’t react, but then he raised an accusatory finger. And then he screamed.

       The scream was not the sound of a man outraged at the thought of his partner abandoning him. It was not a scream of horror or despair. No, those emotions were too human. This was the sound of a pig being slaughtered, the wail of a hawk spiraling down to tear its prey to shreds. It was a cry of purely irrational hate.

       Even the formidable Harry cowered, clapping his hands over his ears and shrinking back towards the door. Merlin was rooted to the spot. James’ scream had pinned him in place, entreating childhood terror to emerge from the depths of his mind. Stuck in a stupor, he nearly fell to his knees, at the mercy of James’ hands.

       However, the sight of a door opening nearby quickly drew Merlin back to reality. All along the rows of houses surrounding Harry’s home, neighbors were coming out to see what the fuss was.

       Merlin was about to thank God, we’ve been saved, until the neighbors began to scream too. Screaming in the exact same way that James was screaming.

        Above the cacophony, he raised his voice. “HARRY!”

        Harry was still half-crouched with his back against the door, his eyes shut. Merlin forced himself to turn his back on the thing that had been James, rushing to Harry’s side. “Come on, Harry! Get up! I know you’re better than this!” He hauled Harry to his feet and urged him towards the nearby car. There wasn’t a moment to lose…

       James, or not-James, made a move, but Merlin was faster. He ducked the incoming blow and slammed his fist into not-James’ chest. The punch didn’t seem to injure not-James, but he- it?- was startled. He hesitated for a second, giving Merlin enough time to wrestle it to the ground. He pried open James’ hand, exposing the car keys clenched in his fingers, and snatched them away. Not-James tried to retaliate, slamming his fist into the side of Merlin’s head, but Merlin struck James as hard as he could in the face. He leapt to his feet, the keys dangling in his hand.

        Apparently recovering his senses, Harry hopped into James' car. Merlin joined him, prying the door open on the driver’s side and jamming the key into the ignition. But Harry’s door hung wide open as Merlin slammed his shut. “Get the door, Harry! Get the door!” In the vague darkness around him, he could see the neighbors spilling out of their houses, all converging on a single spot. If any of them get into the car-

        Then Harry pulled the door shut at last, leaving Merlin to frantically reverse and speed away. He didn’t say a word or slow down until he had put more than enough distance between himself and James.

       “Are you okay?”

        “Hamish,” came Harry’s husky whisper. “I knew that he’d changed. I just didn’t realize… how much.”

        “Don’t worry,” Merlin said, mostly to Harry but partly to himself. “I’m taking you to my place. He- it… they won’t be able to track us.”

        They. The screaming neighbors proved it. This was not an isolated incident. This was a widespread pandemic.

         “When I came home, I found a bouquet of flowers left for me, and a note,” Harry murmured. Though he spoke nonchalantly, Merlin could tell that he was still shaken. “I thought… maybe you were right, Hamish. Maybe James was just going through a hard time and refused to tell me about it. It wasn’t until you woke me up that…”

       He fell silent. Merlin wished he could soothe Harry, but he had to concentrate on the road ahead. Just get home. Get home, and deal with the fallout later.

       Then his phone vibrated. Merlin swallowed back a curse and wrenched the phone out of his pocket, handing it to Harry. “Would you read this text to me?”

       “It’s from Eggsy,” Harry said. He squinted into the brightness of Merlin’s screen. “‘Chester King arrived. He says there’s no body. We think he got rid of it.’” Confusion darkened Harry’s voice. “What’s Chester doing with Eggsy?”

        Merlin couldn’t reply, because he felt as if someone had slammed a boulder into his chest. Ellen’s words from the gallery opening surfaced in his mind. That’s not my husband!

        “Shit.”

      “What?” Harry said. “Why is he talking about a body? Hamish, what’s going-”

      “I’ll explain later,” Merlin hissed. “As soon as possible. Just tell Eggsy to get out of there and head for my place. Tell him he needs to leave immediately.”

Chapter Text

       “All right,” Merlin said hoarsely, his voice little more than a raw whisper. He’d long since lost track of the time, locked in an endless debate with his guests. “We’ve got to take stock of the situation, once and for all. Harry, let’s start with you.”

       Harry was slumped in Merlin’s rocking chair, looking utterly exhausted. Almost immediately upon arriving at the flat, he’d made a beeline for the kitchen and filled the tallest glass in Merlin’s cabinets with water. It was so unlike his usual drink preference that Merlin could have teased him, but the matter was too serious. Now that he’d had some water, and a hasty meal that Merlin whipped up, Harry seemed steady- but his eyes were shrouded in shadow.

       “Two days ago,” he declared, his voice sandpaper-rough, just like Merlin’s. “I first became concerned regarding James two days ago.”

       “Three,” Eggsy murmured from his spot on the couch. His arms were draped across its frame, one hovering protectively over Roxy, who was curled beside him with a pillow in her lap.

       Harry glanced towards Eggsy. “Three?”

       “It’s two in the fucking morning,” Eggsy said. His voice was dull, retreating to the front he so carefully preserved whenever he was around people he didn’t know very well. Granted, he surely knew Harry better than most after the long round of arguments they’d just had, but they’d only just been introduced…

       Merlin reached up to massage his temples. Nine hours ago. Jesus Christ. So much had happened in the space of one night.

       “All right, then,” Harry murmured, unruffled by the correction. “Three days ago, I realized that my partner James was behaving peculiarly. He was guarded, defensive, and cold. My immediate thought was that he’d become an entirely different person. An argument we had that night only supported my theory. Throughout the following day, I spied on James and observed his highly unusual behavior. I watched as he conducted meetings with various unknown persons whom I had never met before. During the day I also perceived… or thought I perceived unusual behavior from those around me. I believed they were acting as if part of a conspiracy.” Self-consciousness riddled Harry’s voice, as if he felt foolish to describe his paranoia. But now it was justified paranoia.

        “I went home after attending Chester King’s gallery opening, to find flowers waiting on the table and James asleep in bed. Thinking that he’d come around, I joined him. Later during the night Hamish awakened me, which led to the discovery of a body in the room that was identical to mine. James was gone, but he returned as we were trying to escape. Instead of speaking, he screamed in a shrill voice. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.” Harry’s eyes darkened further as he recalled the sound. “Our neighbors came outside and began to scream as well. I knew then that they were no longer human.” He swallowed and glanced at Merlin, spent, wordlessly signaling that he was done with the story. Satisfied, but not by much, Merlin nodded to Eggsy.

        “Now, Eggsy. Before tonight, did you experience any unusual occurrences over the past few days, along the lines of what Harry’s just described?”

        “No,” Eggsy said, frowning. “It wasn’t until I went to Roxy’s that all this crazy shit started happening.”

       “And you, Roxy?” Merlin said. “How does your experience fit into what Harry’s described?”

        “Well, you weren’t the only one to discover a body tonight,” Roxy murmured. She spoke clearly and succinctly, as if presenting a police statement. “I came across one in a spa massage bed. It didn’t seem to be alive… but it wasn’t quite dead, either. It bore somewhat of a resemblance to Eggsy.” She breathed out, shakily. “But it was unformed. If Chester hadn’t gotten his bloody hands on it, we’d have been able to examine it further.”

       “Don’t blame yourself,” Merlin tried to assure Roxy, though he felt he needed the assurance more. How much damage had he caused tonight, by introducing Chester to Roxy and Eggsy? Thank god they had gotten out in time, but all the same… Whatever happens, I am not contacting Chester again.

        Trying to center himself, Merlin proceeded with the questioning. “Eggsy, can you describe your connection to the body, besides its physical resemblance to you?”

         Eggsy gestured with his palms out. “When I was at Roxy’s I took a nap, and I woke up feeling like I’d had my lights punched out. I was dying for water.”

        “That’s just like when Hamish found me,” Harry offered. “I was also severely dehydrated.”

       “I observed a sort of symbiotic relationship between Eggsy and the body,” Roxy recounted to Merlin. “When I punched him, its nose started bleeding. After he went to sleep again…” She hugged the pillow closer to herself, though her placid face showed no sign of fear. “I saw its eyes open.”

        Merlin nodded. A brief silence fell across the room as each person considered the facts. Merlin had hoped that presenting each statement in an orderly fashion, rather than a confusing flurry of overlapping voices, would help bring explanatory details to light. But he was just as much in the dark as he’d been upon arriving at his home. The puzzle’s pieces were laid bare, but the order in which they fit together was anybody’s guess.

        Then Eggsy spoke up. “What I don’t get is what Chester King has to do with all this? What does he know about the bodies that we don’t?”

        “He’s changed, too,” Harry said promptly. “His wife caused an outburst after you left the gallery, Eggsy. She claimed that he wasn’t her husband. I was the only person to believe her…” He paused, seemingly lingering on the conversation he’d had with Ellen. Remembering how he had tried to talk Harry out of his apparent delusion, Merlin readied himself for an accusatory statement, but all Harry said was, “There’s no way we can save her now.”

        “Let’s go over the full story,” Merlin said, though he doubted they were anywhere close to the full story. “Starting at least tw- three days ago, reports have come in about people changing inexplicably, seemingly overnight. As my experience at Harry’s house confirms, these people possess abilities that go beyond an ordinary human’s. Whether this is for better or for worse, I can’t say. The change seems to happen quickly, and so far it’s only taken place during repose. Eggsy, your body was created while you were taking a nap, and Harry was asleep in bed when I discovered his.”

       “Surely that means Chester King must have been replaced in his sleep too,” Harry said. “Do you recall him displaying any unusual characteristics today at work, Hamish? I was indisposed, as you well know.”

       Rather than admit that he’d spent more time obsessing over Harry than focusing on his work, Merlin released a pent-up breath. “Nothing struck me as out of the ordinary. Although I’ve never heard him speak so rudely as he did to Eggsy at the art gallery.” Not in public, at least.

        “Oh,” Eggsy said, an ironic smile brightening his face. “So he’s not always a completely prejudiced arsehole, is he?”

      “Unfortunately, Chester has never been one for equality,” Harry muttered. “But his harshness surprised me as well. It’s telling that his wife denounced him so soon after he spoke to you like that. She wasn’t even near him, but she knew something was wrong. She could feel it in her core.”

       Merlin rested his chin on his clasped hands, reflecting on the last time he’d seen Chester. He tried not to let his expression change, lest Harry notice and ask him what was wrong. The problem was that he didn’t recall Chester exhibiting any unusual behavior during their meeting at the Blue Heron. Both Harry and Ellen had noticed the change almost immediately. Were they simply more attuned to such things, or had Merlin’s skepticism clouded his judgment? How adept was Chester at fooling Merlin? And if he was able to blend in so easily, could the other replacements do the same?

       Merlin longed to voice his musings, but he knew he couldn’t mention that he’d seen Chester after the gallery opening without revealing the unsavory details of his second job. Not even Eggsy, who’d bought from Merlin before, knew that Chester was the driving force behind a local drug operation. So he descended into further contemplation, as if replaying his conversation with Chester over and over would dredge up some miniscule detail that he had overlooked. Something that would make sense.

       “Okay, but why’s this happening anyway?” Merlin dimly heard Eggsy announce. “Why now? You can’t just wake up and suddenly everything’s different. Nothing happens that quickly.”

        “Let’s not start that discussion again,” Harry intervened. Merlin assented with a quiet nod. It had taken hours to sort out the chaos of arguments and counterarguments once they’d arrived at his home. He felt Harry’s eyes upon him, as if expecting him to speak, but he did his best to ignore him. There had to be something he was missing. Something Chester had done, or said…

       Something he had said. Something about the future of their business. Something about flowers and their potential use as a drug. In front of Merlin, Chester had hypothesized that these mysterious pink flowers, growing like a weed all over the city, were the root cause of recent paranoid afflictions. But Merlin’s experience at Harry’s home had proven that this was more than paranoia. If Chester had been replaced, was he lying about the flowers? Why mention them at all?

       Automatically, Merlin reached into his pocket and withdrew the crumpled pink flower that Chester had pushed on him. A couple petals had fallen off, but other than that it was hardly withered. Still teeming with life, just like before. An unpleasant feeling began to build in Merlin’s gut.

        “Roxy,” he said, snapping the room to attention. “Didn’t I see some of these flowers at your spa?”

       Roxy’s eyes latched onto the flower, and she leaned forward, staring at it as if transfixed.

       “Yes…” she breathed. “One of my customers gave them to me. What’s that got to do with…”

       “Where did you find that, Hamish?” Harry said, peering closely at the flower. “That’s the same kind of flower I discovered-”

        “The night before James changed,” Merlin finished. He stared hard at the flower, not wanting his mind to connect the dots, but unable to think of anything else. Then he met the faces of his friends- Harry’s brow creased in a mixture of inquisition and worry, Eggsy frowning in baffled resentment, Roxy’s eyes wide with the sense of discovery

        “This flower was in the spa when you discovered the body, wasn’t it?” he said.

       “Yes.” Comprehension fell across Roxy’s face. “Eggsy took it along with him when he went to lie down.”

        “Then that makes two instances of… replacement, when these flowers were present,” Merlin said quietly. “There might be a connection. Harry? You said it was a rare species.”

        “I’d never seen anything like it before,” Harry murmured. He reached up to rub his temples. “Thank god you’ve got a specimen. I’d have given anything to study it further, before it disappeared…”

        “These things can’t be rare,” Eggsy spoke up. “I’ve seen a million of them in one day alone. Daisy even brought some home with her.”

        “Yes, but how often did you see them before yesterday?” Harry said. “I’d never seen one until this week, and I’ve spent my life studying plant types. They seem to have sprung up everywhere overnight.”

        “They’re an invasive species,” Merlin said.

       Roxy blurted out, “Like an alien invasion.”

       A few seconds of silence met her words, until Eggsy laughed in a dry, strangled tone. “Come on, Rox, are you kidding me? Aliens landing here?”

       “Why not?’ Roxy breathed. “It’s the only explanation that makes sense. Mer… Hamish said it himself. The people who have been replaced are more than human. They must be of extraterrestrial origin.”

       “But… these plants can’t be some kind of… space flower.”

       “Why not?” Roxy repeated, cocking her head at Eggsy. “It’s just as plausible as anything else. Why do we always think of flying saucers and little green men?”

       Now Eggsy’s laughter was full-bodied, though with little humor. “As if I ever believed in little green men!”

       “There’s no use in making assumptions now,” Merlin said. His deep voice rolled across the room, instantly stilling Eggsy and Roxy. As Merlin looked at them, a small flicker of fear kindled to life inside of him. His friends were depending on him, and he knew no more than they did. It only increased his desperation to figure out the truth.

       “It’s late, and we haven’t got the resources to run any tests on these flowers. Whether or not they’re extraterrestrial is a matter that can be determined tomorrow. Or rather… later today.”

       “So you’re holding onto that thing?” Eggsy said, pointing to the flower. “Even though it might be causing all this?”

        “There’s no other choice,” Merlin said firmly. “We’ve got to examine it. But if it will make you feel better, we can harvest a fresh specimen in the morning. Harry, is there any way to return to your house to procure research tools?”

        “It depends on where James goes during the day,” Harry said. “And whether or not I can dig up my old microscope. I’m afraid that’s the extent of my scientific equipment.”

       “We’ll work something out in the morning,” Merlin murmured, trying not to think about James waiting for them at his home. “Right now, we should all go to bed.” He addressed Eggsy, hoping to assuage him. “I’ll get rid of this flower now so that nothing happens while we’re asleep.”

         For a moment Eggsy looked as if he wanted to argue, but eventually he shrugged and averted his eyes. “All right. Thanks for the sleepover invite.”

        “The couch holds two people when it’s unfolded,” Merlin said. “You two can stay where you are if you’re all right with sharing. Harry, you can take my bed.”

       “I couldn’t do that, Hamish,” Harry said immediately. “Where would you sleep?”

       “I won’t be sleeping,” Merlin muttered. He stood up and tried to relax his tense muscles. “Take the bed, Harry. You need to rest. I’ll stay right where I am.”

       Harry looked dubious, but at last he got up from his seat and wandered off to the bedroom. Though he wanted to make sure Harry was comfortably settled, Merlin stayed where he was to help Roxy and Eggsy unfold the couch. They tumbled down in an exhausted heap, and Merlin decided to leave them to it. There was no time for blankets and pillows. He headed to the kitchen, ready for a long night.

*

       As he’d anticipated, sleep eluded Merlin for most of the night. Of course, the coffee he’d brewed shortly after his guests had settled in helped immensely. As he’d promised Eggsy, Merlin had gotten rid of the pink flower, grinding it to bits in the garbage disposal. However, its figure still haunted his thoughts, the strange bulbous core and vibrant petals. Whatever this situation was began and ended with that flower. As soon as he and Harry were ready, they would return to the belly of the beast that was James’ home to retrieve equipment with which to analyze it. And then…

        And then what? Though he knew worrying was far from productive, Merlin couldn’t stop glancing over to his bedroom door, which he’d insisted Harry leave open should anything happen to him during the night. If they managed to find out what this plant was and where it came from, what could they do about it? Who would believe their claims? Who among them still had a free mind? How many people in the city had woken up yesterday morning without even knowing that they’d been replaced?

        A more horrifying thought emerged. What if London was not an isolated incident? What if these flowers had sprung up around the entire globe?

       Merlin gulped down his coffee before such thoughts could consume him. Right now there was nothing to do but assess the situation, and wait for morning. He wouldn’t let the world- his home- go down without a fight.

       As the first light of dawn streamed through the uncovered windows of the balcony, Merlin’s guests gradually awoke. Roxy was the first to stir, and her movement woke Eggsy, who had cuddled up beside her in his sleep. Yet it was Harry with whom Merlin was most concerned. Though he had no reason to suspect that Harry had been replaced, he couldn’t wipe the vision of the body double at James’ home from his brain. It wasn’t until all three were seated around Merlin’s kitchen table, chowing down on a hastily-cooked breakfast, that Merlin felt satisfied. But not completely. Too many unspoken questions lingered in the air.

       Conversation was sparse, until Eggsy pushed his seat back from the table and cleared his throat. “I’m going out today.”

        Merlin gave him a sharp glance. “You can’t go out, Eggsy. Not until we know what this thing is and how to fight it.”

        “So what do we do?” Frustrated, Eggsy rose from his seat, taking his empty plate with him. “We can’t hide up here forever. Sooner or later one of us has got to leave.”

        “I don’t want to see that person leave, and come back to us as a copy,” Merlin retorted. “It’s too dangerous, Eggsy. No one knows that we’re here right now.” At least, I hope no one knows. “If you’re caught and replaced, nothing could stop you from leading the rest of those bloody things right to my door. We need time to conduct our experiments. You’ll have to wait it out.”

       “Sure, that’s easy for you to say.” Eggsy’s voice was as flat as a bottle of soda that had been left open for a week. Merlin refused to rise to Eggsy’s irritation. He knew that no matter how anxious Eggsy felt, he wouldn’t dare to leave the flat alone.

        However, he wasn’t counting on Roxy setting her fork down. “I could go with you, Eggsy. That way, if anything happens, I’ll be able to come back and warn the others.”

        “Or they could replace both of you,” Merlin said, a touch of gruffness entering his voice. “We either all stay here, or we all go out together.”

        Roxy’s eyes flashed. “Then we all go out together.”

       “We can’t do that,” Eggsy insisted. “I’m not getting you all killed because of me.”

      At a loss, Merlin looked to Harry, who had remained focused on his breakfast throughout the unfolding argument. Calmly, Harry swallowed his last bite of food and gazed from face to face. Finally he settled on addressing Eggsy.

        “Why do you want to go out, Eggsy?”

        Eggsy’s eyes softened, but the glare on his face was frozen as ever. He gripped his plate tightly.

       “My mum didn’t text me last night to find out where I was. I’m not going to just… sit here and wait for those things to replace her.”

       Unless they already have, Merlin thought grimly. He was about to ask if Eggsy had tried to call her this morning- though he knew he hadn’t- when Harry replied.

       “Hamish, certainly you’ll allow one trip. We’ve got to go out too, in order to procure our research equipment. Perhaps Eggsy and Roxy can drop in on Eggsy’s mum on the way.”

        Merlin glanced over to Eggsy, who was now staring down at his plate as if it still held food. He swallowed back a sigh. Though he was nervous at the thought of prolonged exposure to the outside world, it was three against one. He had no choice but to accept the risk.

       “All right,” Merlin murmured. “First to James’ home, then to Eggsy’s.”

*

       The streets of London were as busy as they’d been the day before, bustling with traffic while a sizable amount of pedestrians strolled by on the pavement. Somehow, this unsettled Merlin more than anything he had seen last night. After witnessing such bizarre events, it felt wrong for the world to resume its usual pace. Unless they’ve all been replaced. Unless they’re going through the motions…

       Attempting to avoid the neighbors who, last night, had been poised to attack, Merlin eased James’ stolen car down the back alley. He parked directly at the gate and turned to face Eggsy and Roxy, who were seated in the back.

       “Harry and I are going in together. You stay and watch the car. If anything happens, honk the horn three times to get our attention. All right?”

       “All right,” Eggsy and Roxy chorused, without apparently noticing that they’d spoken at the same time. Merlin nodded to Harry, and in unison, they left the car and scaled the back gate.

       Now that Merlin had James’ keyring, entering the house was simple. However, he halted as soon as he and Harry stepped across the threshold, listening for any sign of James’ presence. They’d stolen his car the night before, leaving him without transportation. But Harry had said that he’d followed James on foot all day, so perhaps James had no use for it anymore.

       While Merlin hesitated, Harry started forward, with a confident stride that belied the seriousness of the situation. “He’s not here. I can feel it.”

      “Are you sure?” Merlin hissed.

      Harry nodded. “I’m positive.” He proceeded up the stairs, and with a deep breath, Merlin followed.

       Harry’s instincts proved to be correct. Nothing stirred upstairs except dust that rose in the wake of Merlin’s footsteps. He followed Harry into the bedroom, which lacked any evidence of having contained a second Harry the night before. This was Harry’s territory now, and Merlin hung back to let him search the room. After raiding the closet, throwing older and increasingly unused items to the floor, Harry triumphantly held up a black box.

       “Here’s the microscope. Hardly used it since I unwrapped it under the tree, so it should be in working condition.” He sobered. “Now let’s get out.”

        They made their way back to the ground floor and down through the yard into the alley. In no time they were back on the road, though the change in scenery was only a marginal comfort.

        The next destination was Eggsy’s mother’s flat, to which Eggsy helpfully provided directions in an uncharacteristically emotionless voice. The only sound accompanying their comparatively long drive came from the radio, as Harry flipped back and forth between stations. In between music, the radio announcers sounded as jovial and lively as ever, and no news reports mentioned anything out of the ordinary. Merlin had to remind himself of what he had seen the night before in order to keep his mind on his task. This wasn’t his morning commute- this was a rescue mission.

       “I’ll come with you,” Roxy murmured to Eggsy as Merlin parked the car just outside the building. Just like the alley behind James’ house, there seemed to be no sign of human life around, which didn’t set Merlin’s mind at ease. The weather was far from ideal for hanging around outside, but someone should be leaving or entering the flats. Doors should be slamming, TVs should be blaring, babies should be crying, couples should be arguing. All the signs of the rich, varied lives concealed within one unit of shared housing. But not even a curtain moved.

      Eggsy shook his head as he reached for the car door. “Could be dangerous.”

       “No worse than when Dean was living here,” Roxy said.

       “Dunno about that.” Eggsy tapped the back of the driver’s seat to get Merlin’s attention. “You stay here, yeah? Give us a sign if something happens.”

       “Will do,” Merlin replied. He watched in the rearview mirror as Eggsy opened the door and left the car. Without stopping to even scan for potential threats, he strode up the steps and down the walkway to where his mother resided.

        The following minutes were tense. Merlin continue to search his surroundings for a glimpse of people. Harry stared out the window with a glazed expression, while Roxy kept her gaze fixed to the door of Eggsy’s mum’s flat. The sound of their overlapping breathing filled the car. In his head, Merlin began to count the seconds. One one thousand…two one thousand…

       After nearly two hundred one thousands, the door opened again, and Eggsy emerged. Roxy visibly relaxed into her seat, while Merlin abandoned his counting in relief. Thank god Eggsy is all right. However, as Eggsy drew closer he noticed that his face was pale and pinched, hardened into a frozen mask. His eyes were on the car, but he didn’t seem focused as he walked.

       Roxy started to open the car door to let Eggsy in, but he ignored it, walking around to enter on the left. He slammed the door behind him and folded his arms across his chest.

       “Let’s go.”

       “Did you find them?” Harry asked softly.

       “No,” Eggsy spat. “Didn’t find Daisy’s flowers, either. How about that. Let’s go.” He slouched into his seat and gazed pointedly out the window. After checking his surroundings one more time, Merlin obeyed Eggsy’s wishes, turning the car around and heading for home. Not just his home any longer, he realized. Like it or not, Merlin was stuck with his guests from now to whenever they could fix this situation- if such a thing was possible.

*

       Upon their return, Merlin and Harry set up shop. They agreed to use Merlin’s bedroom as their makeshift laboratory, due to its privacy. Because it was sparsely furnished, Harry helped haul the table and chair from the balcony into the flat and through the bedroom’s door. He disappeared inside to set up the microscope, while Merlin went out to gather a plant sample. He had hardly taken three steps outside his building before spotting a flower emerging from a sidewalk crack, and with a sense of foreboding he uprooted it.

       “D’you need any help in there?” Eggsy asked Merlin as he headed back to the bedroom with the flower in his hand.

       “I think we’re fine.” Merlin tried to speak calmly, though he doubted the mere tone of his voice would lift Eggsy’s troubled thoughts. “We’ll let you know if there’s anything you can do.” He closed the door behind him.

      Harry glanced up from his seat at Merlin’s table, fiddling with the microscope. “Did you find one?”

       In answer, Merlin held up the flower. Harry reached for it, and Merlin came forward to hand it over.

       “Eggsy wasn’t joking,” he said, stepping back so that his shadow didn’t fall across the table. “They’re all over the place.”

      Harry sighed, setting the flower down and rifling through the box in which he’d transported the microscope. “And yet we suspected nothing until now. We must have been blind.”

       Merlin shook his head, strongly suspecting that Harry really meant to speak for himself. “It’s not our fault. We had no reason to suspect.”

       “Or did we?” Harry murmured. From the box, he withdrew several microscope slides. “Could you bring me something to cut this flower? A razor blade, perhaps a knife?”

       “Sure.” Merlin swiftly exited the room. When he returned, straight razor in hand, Harry had already set aside a suitable slide. He took the razor from Merlin without meeting his eyes.

       “We’ll prepare a dry mount,” Harry muttered. “I wish we could do more. Pity we haven’t got access to a proper lab.”

       “There’s no time,” Merlin reminded Harry. “Just do what you can.” And hopefully it will be enough.

        Without another word, Harry sliced into the flower’s stem. He carefully used the razor to pick up the sample, but halted in the process of transferring it onto the slide, peering closely.

      “Look, Hamish,” Harry whispered. “It’s not green on the inside.” He gestured to Merlin, and Merlin leaned over Harry’s shoulder, staring down at the remnants of the plant on the razor. It surface was stained with an unusually thick orange substance.

       “It looks more like sap than chlorophyll,” he remarked.

       “Listen to you,” Harry breathed. “Chlorophyll. I’ll make a botanist of you yet. Could you hand me a cover slip, from the box?’ He pointed, and Merlin went to retrieve one, thankful that he remembered how to conduct a scientific experiment from his courses in secondary school.

       Harry accepted the cover slip and attached it to the slide. He exhaled slowly as he slid it into place beneath the microscope’s lens.

        “I should have done this sooner,” he said. “The instant I found that damned flower. I shouldn’t have wasted my time calling you up about it.”

       Merlin swallowed to wet his dry throat, unsure of where Harry was going with this. Now was not the time to wallow in guilt.

       “It’s not too late. We’re getting it done now.”

      “I truly hope it makes no difference,” Harry murmured. He picked up the razor and thrust it towards Merlin, who pocketed it without question.

       “Still,” Harry continued, “if we’d discovered this sooner, I could have…” He fell silent, staring down at his hands. Merlin wasn’t sure if he wanted Harry to continue, or to begin the experiment, but either way he knew he had to prod him.

       “What are you talking about, Harry?”

       “Oh… nothing.” Harry made an apparent effort to look up, though he still refused to look at Merlin. “I just… I can’t help wondering.”

       Just get on with it, Merlin wished he could say, but he didn’t have the heart. “Yes?”

       Harry sighed. “I’m trying to decide if I would have stayed with James, had I known it would end this way. The more I think about it, the less likely it seems. Is that terribly selfish of me?”

       James… Merlin choked down the sudden cold, metallic lump in his throat. He’s still thinking about James? After last night?!

       “Focus, Harry,” Merlin said, his words ground out from between his teeth. “We’ve got serious work to do here. What happened to James is of no consequence compared to what could happen to the rest of the world.”

       Finally Harry turned his head to meet Merlin’s eyes. “You really think this could be a global threat?”

      Merlin nodded, caught in the depth of Harry’s fierce gaze for an all-too-brief moment before Harry turned back to his work. He reached for the microscope. “Then I suppose I’d better get started.”

        Good. Merlin stepped back, suddenly longing for a firm surface beneath him. That’s my Harry. He sat down at the edge of his bed and gazed up at the ceiling, trying not to watch Harry out of the corner of his eye. Muddled thoughts swam like wriggling fish through his head. God… I need sleep…

       The minutes droned on, the sound of Harry’s light breathing capturing Merlin’s attention. He tried to match the pace of his own breathing to it. Eventually his heartbeat began to slow, and a knot of tension in his chest that he hadn’t noticed before unwound itself.

       Then Harry’s breath spiked sharply in his throat, and Merlin rose to his feet.

       “Could you take a look at this?” Harry said, before Merlin could say a word. He got up from his seat, a crease in his forehead all that revealed his concern. “I want to make sure I’m… seeing what I think I’m seeing.”

       “Sure.” Merlin stepped forward, brushing Harry slightly as the two traded places. Hopefully whatever Harry was seeing wasn’t anything too advanced for Merlin to notice. He sat down at the table and peered into the microscope’s lens, blinking hard to keep his contacts from drying out.

      When the plant’s cells came into view, Merlin was so startled he almost pushed his chair back. No. That can’t be right. He rested his head on the table, squinting at the sample Harry had snipped from the flower. They hadn’t worn gloves to handle it… maybe that made a difference…?

       But when Merlin returned his gaze to the microscope, the evidence spoke otherwise, and he was forced to admit defeat. He stood up and turned to Harry, who stared back at him with his arms folded across his chest and his face ashen.

       “Well?” Harry murmured, just barely concealing his worry. Merlin sucked in a breath.

       “That is not a plant.”

       Science may not have been Merlin’s strongest suit in school, but he’d retained enough to know that plant cells were rectangular, compact, and motionless. Not rounded and mobile like the cells from the sample.

       For a moment he and Harry stood in silence, unsure of how to proceed. Should they continue to observe the sample, now that they knew it was some kind of animal lifeform? Should they destroy it and run the risk of losing information that could prove valuable? Did this flower really matter in the long run, when its existence was so obviously dangerous? How are we going to stay safe?

        “Now we know what it is,” Harry spoke at last, echoing Merlin’s thoughts. Merlin shook his head, and Harry swallowed, amending his statement. “Well, not exactly what it is. But we don’t know what it does. If this flower helps replace human beings with their doubles, I can’t for the life of me work out how.”

        “Right,” Merlin murmured. “We need more information.”

       “But how are we supposed to obtain any?” Harry said, unfolding his arms. “This is the extent of my scientific knowledge. We can’t just walk up to a person on the street and ask if they’ve been replaced…”

       He quieted, perhaps noticing the gleam in Merlin’s eye as an idea struck him. As soon as it presented itself, he knew it was an outrageous suggestion, but what choice did he have?

       “We know enough to speculate that replacement only happens when the victim is asleep,” Merlin said. “So one of us will go to sleep in the same room as the flower.”

        “One of us?” Harry blurted. “Who-”

       His words dissolved in his throat as Merlin pointed to himself.

       “Hamish! You’re mad if you think you’ve got to-”

       “Bring Roxy and Eggsy in here,” Merlin instructed. “There’s no time like the present.”

Chapter Text

       Roxy had just refreshed her Facebook feed for the tenth time, when she heard voices rising from behind Merlin’s bedroom door. She ceased her news-scouring to listen. A remnant of sense told her that she shouldn’t be eavesdropping, but if this was her future- stuck in a flat with three men for the rest of her life, only one of whom she was particularly close with- she figured it came with the territory. Roxy was scrupulous, though. When she realized she couldn’t make out any distinct words, she didn’t try to listen any harder. But she could still hear the voices, sharp and biting, one answering the other like a call-and-response, or maybe a swiftly-launched counterattack. They intertwined to create a distant duet, like thunder rumbling miles away before the storm broke. If Roxy’s instincts were correct, break it would. She began to count the seconds before one voice misfired and the bedroom door slammed open.

       It took longer than Roxy expected, during which Eggsy never once looked up from his phone’s mindless game. They’d spoken a bit upon returning to Merlin’s flat, enough so that Roxy knew the details: Eggsy’s mum and sister had disappeared, leaving the flat spotless as if they’d return any second, but Eggsy knew they wouldn’t because it was wrong, it wasn’t like them to up and leave without a word. Afterwards, he’d sunk into his phone as a convenient distraction. Roxy had, too, but she couldn’t deny that whatever was about to happen in the other room was more interesting than re-reading her friends’ recent statuses, trying to determine whether they’d been replaced. Surely alien creatures had no use for social media. She herself hardly had use for it on a normal day.

       Finally, the door opened- not with a bang as Roxy had imagined, but with a delicate singular motion. She wasn’t surprised that it was Harry who’d opened the door. Though she hadn’t had many opportunities to observe him, she’d noticed that his movements were infused with a graceful finesse. However, as he glided across the floor like a stealthy cat, Roxy caught a glimpse of frustration in his eyes. He looked seconds away from snapping and thumping someone.

      Merlin followed behind Harry without looking at him, carrying himself with his typical unassuming air- not so much humble as “I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of me.” When he spoke, the sound was enough for Eggsy to raise his head.

        “Eggsy. Roxy. There’s something you’ve got to let me know.”

        Roxy glanced over at Eggsy, whose eyes mirrored her confusion. Merlin didn’t sound suspicious, but she couldn’t imagine what he would want from her.

       “What is it?” she asked quietly.

        Merlin cleared his throat. “Do you feel safe in my flat? Is there anywhere else you could go to hide?”

       Roxy opened her mouth, but Eggsy beat her to the punch. “What d’you mean? There’s no one left. You saw it at my mum’s place.” A trace of pain shadowed his voice.

       “We’re with you now no matter what,” Roxy agreed. She was still on the verge of whispering, as if raising her voice would send the building tumbling down.

        “Good.” Merlin glanced to Harry, expecting him to speak, but Harry’s gaze was pointedly diverted, as if he were intentionally avoiding Merlin. Merlin clasped his hands and trained his gaze on Roxy and Eggsy. “It seems the situation is more serious than it appeared. After studying the plant sample, Harry and I have determined that it’s really not a plant at all. Cellular analysis suggests that it’s an animal life-form.”

       Somehow, the news didn’t shake Roxy’s world as she would have imagined. It was surprising, yes, but in a way, the results only confirmed her private hypothesis. Extraterrestrial forces were definitely at work here. The only question was whether the invasive species had attained any level of sentience. Perhaps that’s what they need humans for?

       Peering over at Eggsy’s unsteady eyes, Roxy wasn’t sure if he’d drawn the same conclusion. When he spoke, his tight voice showed no surprise, but his words were directed away from the topic. “Okay, fine. What’s this got to do with us running away and hiding?”

       Merlin sighed with evident exhaustion, but his voice remained calm. “I’ve got a plan to find out just what these things are capable of. It’s very risky, and if it goes wrong, I might end up hurting you. I won’t intend to hurt you, but I might. I’ll need someone to stay in the room to record what’s happening as I conduct the experiment.” Though his gaze didn’t shift away from Eggsy, Roxy saw Harry tense slightly, and she understood that he’d been selected as the witness. “But I’m not going to subject the two of you to what could be a dangerous endeavor. No matter what happens, if it all goes sideways, you two need to get out and run.”

       “What are you going to do?” Roxy asked, though she felt she already knew the answer. Harry was the first to reply.

        “He wants to sleep in the same room as one of the flowers.” Reflexively, Harry clenched and unclenched his fists, a dark shadow crossing his face. “He wants to see how far he can go before he’s replaced.”

       “It’s the only way,” Merlin broke in. “We must find out how replacement works, if we’re ever going to defeat it. We know that the flowers play a role, but we don’t know the exact process. I trust Harry to wake me up before I’m fully replaced, but if the process prevents him from doing so…” He paused, surveying his guests with a piercing stare. “I give you my blessing to destroy my copy before it destroys you in turn. Either destroy it, or leave before it can get you.”

       Even before Merlin had finished speaking, Eggsy was shaking his head. “Merlin… we’re not fucking abandoning you.”

        “Merlin?” Harry murmured, his brow creasing. He gave Merlin a pointed look, but Merlin didn’t meet his eyes. A small ripple went through Roxy- Harry still doesn’t know that Merlin is an alias. Neither Merlin nor Eggsy offered an explanation, so Roxy supposed they considered the information irrelevant.

       “It’s not me you’d be abandoning,” Merlin said. “I won’t let you put yourselves in harm’s way for my sake.”

       “And I won’t turn my back on a friend,” Eggsy shot back. “Rox? What about you?”

       Roxy’s gaze traveled steadily from Eggsy to Merlin. The question was a no-brainer. “I’m with Eggsy. We’ve got nowhere else to go.”

       Merlin exhaled slowly. His shoulders stiffened, as if he were mentally preparing himself. “All right, then. It’s decided. Harry-” He turned to Harry, who no longer bothered to conceal his unhappiness. “Go outside and select a new sample. The two of you-” He nodded to Eggsy and Roxy. “Come with me into the bedroom.”

       Wordlessly, Roxy and Eggsy got up from their seats. As Roxy passed Harry, she could feel the tension rolling off him. Although Merlin had professed his faith in Harry, it seemed that Harry did not share the faith. Yet he had no choice but to do Merlin’s bidding.

       They didn’t have to wait very long, Merlin sitting on his bed and Roxy and Eggsy standing silently in the corner, before Harry reappeared in the doorway, pinching a pink flower between his two fingers. Roxy’s eyes were glued to the flower as Harry came in and handed it over to Merlin. Though she didn’t doubt Merlin and Harry’s scientific findings, she found it hard to believe that this… thing was really an animal life-form. But why not?

       “Thank you, Harry,” Merlin murmured, studying the plant. He laid it down on his nightstand before leaning back, his head falling against the pillow. “Are you ready?”

       Smoothly, Harry produced his phone from his pocket. He opened the camera and switched to video mode, before giving Merlin the go-ahead. Merlin curled up on his side beneath the covers.

       “Are you sure you can sleep with all of us in here?” Eggsy piped up.

       Merlin nodded, his eyelids already falling shut. “Clearly you have no idea-” His words were lost in a yawn. Roxy watched as Harry hit the record button on his phone and trained its mechanical gaze towards the bed.

       At first, for a good while, nothing happened. Merlin slept soundly, Harry recorded impassively, and the flower lay, immobile and deceptively innocuous, on the nightstand. Roxy found herself crossing her arms and counting the seconds as she waited for the action to commence. What sort of action, she couldn’t say, but that was what the experiment would tell them.

       What if the flower was already sentient? What if it was sitting there, mocking them all, waiting for them to give up before finally striking?

        Fervently, Roxy stopped that line of thinking in its tracks. The plants hadn’t exhibited sentience. That was the paranoia setting in. Rubbing her forehead tiredly, Roxy wished that she were the one in bed instead of Merlin.

       Then, a gasp from Eggsy drew Roxy’s attention. Her eyes instantly darted to the nightstand, to find that the flower’s petals were dropping off. One by one, they fluttered to the floor in a sinister game of loves-me-loves-me-not.

       The sight of the petals dusting the carpet was no cause for concern, but Roxy still felt a shiver run up her spine. It’s starting.

       She watched, her breath quickening, as thin white vines began to sprout from the seedpod’s bare patches. Though the filaments resembled spider silk, the way they moved, waving in an invisible breeze, reminded Roxy of a sea creature’s tentacles. It wasn’t difficult to guess what they were seeking. Roxy’s suspicions were confirmed when the vines gravitated towards Merlin’s slumbering form. Slowly, they stretched and slid beneath the bedcovers. When the vines went taut, Roxy assumed they had latched themselves to Merlin’s body. A fleeting thought crossed her mind- did heat guide the vines, or were they searching specifically for human flesh?

       Though Roxy found the movement of the vines transfixing, her interest soon gave way to disgust as its purpose became clear. Half of Merlin’s body was still buried beneath the bedcovers, but as Roxy stared into his face, she saw his blood gradually drain. He grew pale, and his skin began to dry and flake. It was the exact same reaction that Roxy had seen from Eggsy, when he’d dozed off at her spa. Her eyes flickered frantically to Harry, but his hands were steady, holding up the camera. With nothing else to focus on, Roxy glanced towards the flower. A cold wash of shock spiraled through her.

        The flower could no longer be called a flower anymore. As more and more tendrils reached for Merlin, the seedpod bulged, expanding outward. The rate at which it grew was astonishing. Roxy felt as if she were watching a time-lapse video as the plant knocked objects from the nightstand- first Merlin’s glasses case, and then the lamp, which crashed deafeningly to the floor. The plant itself was the next to go, collapsing with a thud, and Roxy winced. The sound was similar to the impact of a falling corpse.

        Again Roxy looked to Harry, waiting for him to declare that the experiment had gone on long enough. But Harry only switched angles, focusing the camera on the ground. The process was far from over.

       As Roxy’s gaze traveled down to her feet, a wet, fleshy sound caused the hairs on her arms to prick up. The growing pod had torn open at the end, filling the air with a putrid, earthy stench. It reminded Roxy of the smell of her blood when she was menstruating. Thick, orange fluid oozed from the opening, dribbling onto the carpet. For a long, terrifying moment, nothing happened beyond the plant’s expansion and the oozing of fluid. But then the pod opened further, revealing at last what was forming inside.

       A high-pitched whine pierced the air, like the ringing in one’s ear, externalized. But Roxy didn’t register it, so focused was she on the sight below her. A head emerged from the open end of the pod, its eyes sealed shut and its skin sticky with moisture. It was covered in white tendrils- exactly the sort that had hooked onto Merlin. Just like the body Roxy had discovered, it was brand-new, unformed. But this body was moving, its dark mouth open wide. It cried out, and the sound turned Roxy’s stomach inside out. She couldn’t help but notice the creature’s vague resemblance to Merlin.

        Her heart pounding hard, Roxy glanced to where Merlin lay in bed. With that, her remaining courage drained away. Merlin looked terrible, withered, nearly as sallow as the replacement on his floor. It seemed as if a simple touch would shatter him. Any moment now, his body would shrivel up and the replacement would take over…

       Roxy tried to force her feet to move, to wake Merlin up or to turn around and walk out the door like he’d asked of her. But she was too horrified to take a step. She stood dumbstruck as the replacement grew, and Merlin shrunk, and…

        “HAMISH!” Harry roared. The phone slipped from his hands as he lunged forward, grabbing Merlin by the shoulders. It was only then that Roxy heard herself screaming. She couldn’t seem to stop.

*

              An ear-splitting scream woke Merlin from his slumber. When he opened his eyes, he wasn’t sure if he was still dreaming. His vision was dim and blurry, and he couldn’t seem to focus. But his sense of hearing and touch were as sharp as ever. Over the screams, a beautiful, compelling voice urged him. “Hamish, get up, get up, get up-”

        Harry. Merlin struggled to sit up, to obey that lovely voice, but he couldn’t quite seem to make it. He slid beneath the covers, overcome with lassitude. But Harry persisted, shoving his weight against Merlin’s back until finally Merlin was sitting upright. Though his head swam madly, he managed to make out Harry’s face right before his eyes.

        “We’ve got to go.” Desperately Harry grabbed Merlin’s hands, and all Merlin could think was how warm Harry’s touch was on his skin. “We must go right now-”

       “Harry?” Merlin murmured- or rather, tried to murmur. His tongue felt like a rock in his mouth. He glanced down, seeking the cause for concern- and jolted back as soon as he found it.

       On the floor beside Merlin lay a giant seedpod, and from that seedpod emerged the head and shoulders of a man. But not just any man. This man was an oversized fetus that closely resembled Merlin himself. Its mouth was stretched in a horrible frozen wail.

        In a flash, it all came back to Merlin- the replacements, the flowers, the experiment. Though his body was physically weakened, the sight of his own replacement sent a burst of adrenaline surging through him. He followed his instinct, leaping out of bed and withdrawing from his pocket the one item he could think to use for protection. Harry cried out in shock, but Merlin didn’t hear as he leapt upon his replacement, straight razor drawn. With a hurried, unpracticed motion, he sunk the blade into the replacement’s flesh again and again, stabbing holes through the eyes, the throat, that gaping void of a mouth…

        Die.

      Die.

      DIE! DIE-

      “Hamish!” Harry’s arms locked around Merlin, forcefully dragging him upwards. Though it took his entire will not to wrestle out of Harry’s grip, Merlin forced himself to relax, melting against Harry as they hustled out of the room. The door clicked shut behind them, and Merlin had never been so relieved.

       Outside the bedroom, Merlin spotted Roxy sitting slumped on the couch, her head between her knees, while Eggsy knelt before her, his fingers at her pulse. He had no time to register the sight or to say a word before a sudden thirst descended on him, occupying his every thought. “Water,” he croaked, and somehow, Harry understood. Tightening his grip, he walked Merlin to the kitchen, only letting go once Merlin had braced himself, wavering, against the counter.

       Without a word, Harry rushed to the sink, turning on the faucet and opening the nearby cabinet. He filled a glass with water before returning to Merlin’s side. “Here.” Merlin didn’t even thank Harry before raising the glass to his lips, greedily gulping down every drop. For a few seconds he felt he might choke, but he recovered quickly. When the glass was empty, Merlin grabbed Harry’s shoulder and used him as a lever to propel himself forward.

       “That thing, Harry. You’ve got to go back. You’ve got to destroy it…”

        Harry’s eyes gleamed coldly, his mouth set in a firm line. “Understood.” Swiftly he went to the knife rack on the counter and removed Merlin’s largest tool, before fleeing the room. Exhausted, Merlin went to the sink and filled his glass to the brim.

        After Merlin had drunk two more glasses of water, Harry reappeared in the kitchen. The knife he’d taken was gone, and his hands trembled slightly. Nevertheless, his voice was steady when he spoke. “It’s done. I’ve dealt with it.”

       “Thank god,” Merlin whispered. He closed his eyes, sticky from sleeping with contacts in, and exhaled a long, slow breath. The image of the replacement forming from the flower’s monstrous pod haunted his inner eye. A second too late, and he surely would have been lost.

        He opened his eyes to meet Harry’s. “How are Roxy and Eggsy?”

       “Shaken,” Harry replied. “But they’ll pull through.”

        Merlin nodded, finally releasing his empty glass. He glanced down at himself, and gave a little start when he realized that his shirt was covered in orange blotches. Must be the replacements’ blood… He fought the urge to retch. Fortunately, Harry seemed to read Merlin’s thoughts. Without a word, he removed his jacket and offered it to Merlin. Merlin took it gratefully and put it on, Harry’s lingering scent clearing his addled mind.

        “So.” His voice was a husky murmur. “What did you find out?”

        Harry’s eyes darted downward to the floor. He filled his chest with a deep breath, but he didn’t meet Merlin’s gaze. “Nothing good, I’m afraid. Useful, certainly. As far as I can tell, the thing sucks the life from its victims. The flower grows into a pod in a matter of minutes, and from that pod, the replacement is formed.”

        Merlin waited to see if Harry would look at him, but when his eyes remained fixed to the floor, he finally had to prod him. “Did you get it on film?”

        At last Harry looked up, his eyes full of anguish. “I… I can’t watch it again, Hamish. It was horrible enough living it.”

        Merlin nodded, his lips shaping the word okay. Tilting his head back, he stared up at the ceiling, racking his brain for the next step. Now that Harry had caught the replacement process on film, they could use the evidence to warn others and stop the invasion from spreading. But in the time that he’d spent asleep, how many had been corrupted? Who left were clear-minded and who had been replaced? What if it was already too late?

        “Thank you for saving me, Harry,” he murmured, with a touch of awkwardness. Harry nodded.

        “You saved me from being replaced. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return the favor.”

       Again Merlin nodded, and the word traveled through his brain- Okay. Now he and Harry were even, which was all he could ask for. It was best to put an end to any silly, gushy thoughts before they distracted him.

        “What do you propose we do now?” he asked.

        Harry opened his mouth, but Merlin never knew what he was going to say. The sound of rapping at his front door startled the both of them. On an ordinary day, Merlin would have leapt to answer the door, but now his blood ran cold. Everyone I care about, everyone I can trust, is within the confines of my flat. Who in the world is searching for me?

        A few seconds later, Eggsy appeared in the kitchen’s doorway, breathless. “Hey, Merlin. You expecting any visitors?”

        “No.” Around Merlin, the room began to spin, as if he had just woken up from his near-replacement-experience. He tried to inhale deeply, focusing on his surroundings and on Harry’s solidity beside him. He had to be strong. He couldn’t go to pieces, not now when everyone was looking to him for guidance…

        The rapping came again, and this time Roxy moaned from the main room. “Merlin! They’re here!”

       They’re here. They’re coming. YOU’RE NEXT. With a burst of energy, Merlin sprang from where he was standing and rushed to the main room, beckoning behind him. “Harry! Eggsy! Roxy. Follow me! We’re going to escape.”

        Thankfully, no one questioned Merlin or asked him where they were going. They filed into a line behind him- first Harry, then Roxy, and finally Eggsy bringing up the rear. Ignoring his pounding heart, Merlin led the group to the balcony and threw open the sliding doors. He briefly scanned the ground below, to find that the area was deserted. But that did little to alleviate Merlin’s mind. For all he knew, replacements were watching him from the building behind.

       “We’ll climb down,” Merlin murmured. He nodded to where he had parked James’ car. “Once your feet touch the ground, run for the car. I’ll unlock it now.”

        Reaching into his pocket, Merlin withdrew James’ car keys. He pressed a button to unlock the doors, before stepping aside and ushering his group forward. Harry and Eggsy both took a “ladies first” approach, allowing Roxy to hoist one leg over the railing and swiftly drop down. For a sickening moment, Merlin was afraid she wasn’t going to make it, but she landed on her feet and hurried to the car without a glance over her shoulder. Next was Eggsy, who neatly followed Roxy’s example, and then Harry. His wide eyes searched Merlin’s face with a purpose that was lost on Merlin, before he disappeared from sight. Gritting his teeth, Merlin placed his hands on the railing and forced himself over. He nearly lost his balance when he landed, but in no time he had righted himself and made it to the getaway vehicle.

       Sliding into the driver’s seat, Merlin didn’t check to make sure seatbelts were on before he had inserted the key into the ignition. The car took off like a rocket. Eggsy and Roxy sat scrunched up in the backseat, while beside Merlin, Harry sat staring.

        “Where are we going, Hamish?” he asked, his hands clasped tightly in his lap and his voice just barely expressing worry.

       Merlin shook his head. “I don’t know. Far away, I’m hoping. As far as we can get before this car breaks down.” With a few turns, he merged into traffic, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. Of all the places he knew around in the city, he couldn’t for the life of him think of one where four people could safely hide. They’d have to leave London to do that, if traffic permitted. The countryside was sure to have fewer people about- and in return, fewer replacements.

       The first portion of the impromptu road trip was spent in stony silence. Several times Merlin opened his mouth, eager to break the tension, but each time he closed it again. He had no idea what he was supposed to say. Everyone in his car had already had a difficult day, but the experiment that Merlin had insisted upon conducting seemed to have pushed them over the line. Vividly he recalled Roxy’s scream that had woken him, the panic in Eggsy’s eyes… and how, with no hesitation, Harry had stepped in to rescue him. It had been for the best- Merlin knew it was for the best. But he grimly wished he hadn’t invited that thing into his home, under his roof.

       Merlin had no idea how long they’d been driving- he was tempted to say an hour, but that couldn’t be correct- when the car’s frame shuddered, intruding upon his mulling. He stared down at the car’s layout with a twinge of fear. For the first time, he noticed how dangerously close the needle was to E.

        Fucking Christ… A whole night and day he’d spent driving this car, and no one had thought to check the mileage until now…

       That was all Merlin had time to think before the vehicle came to a stop, its lights switching off. Fortunately, traffic was slow and all Merlin received were a few angry blares from the drivers behind him, but his mind raced. He sat motionless, scanning both sides of the road for a glimpse of a filling station. But none were nearby, which meant that he and his group would have to push the car to the side of the road. If it didn’t attract so much attention…

       A hand clapped Merlin’s shoulder, startling him. “Merlin,” Eggsy blurted. “What’s going on?”

       “The car-” Merlin fell silent as he realized that from the pavement, pedestrians had stopped walking and begun to watch him instead. He expected them to come over to see if they could help, or at least express concern. But their faces were blank, bodies completely still, as if they were waiting for something…

       As if they were predators, and Merlin’s group was their prey.

        Merlin yanked the keys from the ignition and hit the button to unlock the doors. “Get out. Now.” No one needed to be told twice. Eggsy and Roxy leapt from the backseat and rushed to safety on the pavement, followed by Harry, who stayed for a few seconds to make sure Merlin escaped the car. The four of them began to walk headlong into the gathered crowd, right as the first screams rang out.

       “Run!” Again, the order was obeyed without a second thought. Merlin turned on his heel and pelted full-tilt towards the nearest building. But how could he seek refuge, when he had no idea how many people had already been replaced…? He ran blindly, with Eggsy and Roxy behind him and Harry at his side. Harry’s breath came in short gasps, suggesting that he was unused to so much exertion, and Merlin reached for his hand. Stay with me, he hoped his touch conveyed. Keep fighting. Keep fighting.

       Hot on the four’s trail came the replacements, their endless shrieks obliterating the rest of the city’s sounds. They couldn’t seem to catch up to Merlin’s group, but somehow the thought wasn’t relieving. They’re superhuman creatures. What are they doing, running us ragged until we give up? With all his heart, he prayed that he wouldn’t have to find out.

       Finally, rounding a corner, Merlin stumbled across an unexpected godsend. An alleyway opened up before him. He dove in, pulling Harry along, while Roxy and Eggsy followed. The turn would only slow the replacements, not stop them, but he hoped what few seconds he could buy would be enough to map an escape route, or at least try the back doors of the buildings surrounding him.

       It wasn’t until they reached the end of the alley that Merlin realized they’d hit a dead end. Behind two dumpsters rose a brick wall. Scaling it was possible, but that would take time… and their time was swiftly running out…

       “We’re cornered,” Harry gasped. He slid his hand from Merlin’s and jogged over, pressing his palms flat against the wall. “They’re catching up.”

       “We’ll take shelter,” Merlin immediately asserted. He rushed behind the dumpster, waving Harry to his side. The screaming of the replacements was louder now as they prepared to round the corner. “If we all stay completely still…” It was a feeble hope, but he had to believe it would work, because if not, what would?

       Roxy turned to the dumpsters, her face tight, but Eggsy stood still, staring down the alley as the first few replacements began to appear. Anxiety curled in Merlin’s chest. What the hell is he doing??

        “Eggsy!” he hissed. “There’s no time-”

       “Keep them here, Merlin.” Eggsy’s voice was steady, and he looked calmer than Merlin had ever seen him. “All three of you, stay where you are. I’ll draw them away.”

       He darted in to kiss Roxy on the cheek, and then, before anyone could react, he took off running headlong towards the replacements. A single defiant shout split the air. “Here I am, you bastards! Hey! Come and get me, you scum!”

       “Eggsy!” In the blink of an eye, Roxy was gone too, chasing after her best friend. Beside him, Merlin felt Harry’s body tensed, and he reached out and grabbed him because god no. Roxy was one thing, but if he lost Harry too, there was no point to Eggsy’s sacrifice.  A fresh round of screaming rose up, stabbing into Merlin’s eardrums. He clung desperately to Harry and closed his eyes, focusing only on counting his breaths.

        When the screaming stopped, the silence was just as deafening. For a long, intolerable moment, Merlin and Harry remained crouched behind the dumpster, Merlin’s arms around Harry as he listened to the beat of his heart, before they finally picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and walked out into the setting sun.

Chapter Text

        Neither Merlin nor Harry spoke as they made their way out of the alley. They took care not to out-pace each other, or to touch. Even the slightest movement could draw unwanted attention, and they couldn’t afford to be separated now.

       Merlin tried his best to keep a straight face as he walked. He found the effort astonishingly easy. Although he had just witnessed the replacements hunting down two of his friends, he couldn’t wrap his mind around what had occurred. They’re gone, he told himself. They’re gone, and you’ve got to continue.  Now your first priority is Harry’s safety. And his own safety, of course.

       However, while Merlin remained outwardly calm, he couldn’t help but let his gaze linger on the passersby. Previously, when he, Harry, Roxy, and Eggsy had been running for their lives, a screaming mob had chased them as it this were a normal occurrence. But now he passed nonchalant faces, people who appeared to take no notice of him and Harry. A sense of disquiet rose within Merlin.

       Have they all been replaced?

      Strangely, the city was still humming with life and noise. Human voices sounded from every corner, but Merlin didn’t find it comforting. They might be replacements who’ve gotten better at acting.

       Over the course of the long walk, Harry never once questioned Merlin as to their destination. Either he trusted Merlin enough, or he merely feared the consequences of speaking. When their surroundings grew familiar, Merlin took the lead. “Turn down the alley up here,” he whispered, so softly that he wasn’t sure Harry could hear. Fortunately, Harry followed him, and they wound into the shadows. The relative privacy did not abate Merlin’s concerns. Were any replacements watching him from the windows? Did his actions appear suspicious? Did they think he was merely hunting his prey instead of searching for a hideout?

        Harry drew a quick breath as Merlin approached a back entrance, suddenly appearing to recognize where he was. “You’ve taken us to the tailor shop?”

        “It’s the best place to hide,” Merlin murmured. “I’ll show you once we’re inside.” He fished out the key that Chester had given him and unlocked the door, a foreboding feeling swirling inside him. The fear of replacements catching him dissolved into entirely meaningless tension over the thought of Harry discovering his night job. Surely now was too dire a time to worry about morality. Yet Merlin was concerned that Harry would walk off into the night the minute he realized what Merlin had been up to.

         “Since when have you had a key?” Harry asked as he followed Merlin inside. Merlin ignored the question.

        “Don’t turn on the lights. Just follow me.”

         He felt his way across the floor, moving towards Fitting Room Three. It was a trek he’d made often with the lights out, though never under these circumstances. As Merlin swung open the fitting room’s door, Harry hummed curiously in the back of his throat.

 

      “Pardon me, Hamish, but is there a purpose to this?”

 

      “Just wait,” Merlin muttered as he slipped inside. “Trust me.” The interior of the fitting room was even darker than the shop’s main room, but Merlin surged forward in a display of confidence, reaching for the second coat hook on the far wall.

 

       “You needn’t worry about that,” Harry said quietly. “I already d-”

 

       His voice cut off abruptly as Merlin turned the coat hook. Responding to his touch, a hidden door swung open, revealing a cavernous room beyond. Merlin gave a faint, grim smile as he flipped the light switch. This room was safe to enter.

 

        He glanced back to find Harry staring blankly into the void. “Hamish-”

 

       “Come in,” Merlin urged, wanting more than anything to keep Harry from asking questions. “We’re not safe until we’re inside. No one else knows this room exists.” Except for Chester… But if Chester had really been replaced, there was no guarantee he’d retained his host’s memories.

 

      Inside the hidden room, an endless array of cardboard boxes surrounded a wooden work bench. Merlin sat down right away and reached for the nearest half-open box. From it, he pulled a Ziploc bag filled with speed pills.

 

       “Take three of these,” he instructed in a monotone, not meeting Harry’s eyes. “There’s plenty in here to keep us awake for weeks, or at least long enough to find a place that hasn’t been contaminated and call for help.”

 

      After removing three pills for himself, Merlin finally offered the bag to Harry. But Harry stayed right where he was, taking in the boxes, the bench, the pills.

 

       “Hamish?” he said at last, in a voice that wasn’t accusatory so much as inquisitive.

“What’s the meaning of all this?” His eyes found Merlin’s, and Merlin was unable to look away. “Where did you get all these pills?”

 

       Merlin silently stared back, collecting his thoughts. Now was the moment of truth, and as much as he wished he could worm his way out of it… he’d kept Harry in the dark for too long. About time he discovered my true nature.

 

      “You are aware that Chester King has never been one to limit himself in his business ventures?”

 

      “Of course,” Harry said. Within the tight, enclosed space, his voice didn’t ring as sonorously as usual. The room absorbed each word like a sponge. “He’s a so-called pillar of the community.”

 

      “Yes.” Merlin took a deep breath and gestured to the pills in his hand. “Well, this is one of his... more illegal activities.”

 

      The pause came crashing like a brick through a window. Until Harry finally said, without emotion, “How long have you known?”

 

      Merlin shook his head. He found himself bereft of shame, now that he’d worked up the courage to admit what he’d done. It’s all in the past now, anyway. Whether or not they survived the replacements, Merlin knew in his heart that he would never- could never go back to drug dealing.

 

      “Since day one, Harry. I was central to Chester’s scheme from the beginning.”

 

      Harry’s face remained placid. He continued to stare at Merlin, lost for words. Merlin sighed, his hand twitching to push his glasses up on his nose, before remembering that he wasn’t wearing glasses.

 

      “Do you remember why Chester brought me aboard as a shop clerk in the first place?”

 

      Harry’s brow furrowed. “Yes, he sought you out as his first openly gay employee. I suppose he’d only seen me with women at the time. I hadn’t met James yet.”

 

      “Right,” Merlin said, nodding. He wasn’t surprised that Chester’s motives had been so transparent, considering he’d been hired a mere week after rumors of Chester’s homophobia first came to light. He sighed again, eager to get the weight off his shoulders. “He hired me in a show of support. Not actual support, unfortunately. Enough for me to worry, perhaps more than I should, about the possibility of unemployment. Enough to pique my attention when he requested my service on matters outside the tailoring business.”

 

      Harry nodded tightly, unsmiling.

 

      “To make it perfectly clear… you helped him sell these drugs.” He motioned to the bag which Merlin was still clutching, and Merlin instantly set it down.

 

      “It was the most foolish thing I’ve ever agreed to do. Once I’d started, I was in it for life. He was Arthur, and I was his Merlin.” Merlin swallowed, the shame welling in his chest at last. He wished he could reach inside himself and tear away the gathering fog.

 

      “And that’s how you and Eggsy met?”

 

      “Yes.” Oh, Eggsy. Eggsy running down the alley shouting, sacrificing himself to the replacements because he had nothing left to live for. Never would he reach his full potential.

 

      Oh god…

 

      “Working for Chester was the worst decision I’ve ever made,” Merlin said fiercely. “It was prompted solely by cowardice. I could have left the tailor shop altogether, but I was too much of an idiot. I swear, if… when we survive this, I’m never working for that man again.”

 

      Harry cleared his throat. “Hamish…”

 

      “And don’t try to make excuses,” Merlin insisted. He looked down at his hands, desperate to impress the full context upon Harry. “I knew it was wrong, and I did it anyway. I knew what Chester was up to, and I played right into his hand. It’s not as if-”

 

      “Hamish.”

 

      Startled, Merlin looked up to find that Harry had approached him. Now he towered over him, watching with eyes that were not hard or blazing or disgusted… but warm. Merlin had never seen Harry look at him with such tenderness.

 

      “Self-pity is not an attractive look on you,” Harry murmured. “Stand up.”

 

      Without no consideration, Merlin rose, anchored to Harry’s eyes. Harry regarded him softly.

 

      “I know what you’ve done, but I hold nothing against you,” he said. “Your past actions are not what define you. With that in mind, I hold and will continue to hold the same opinion of you, which is that you’re the most pleasant man I’ve ever known in my life.”

 

       Stunned, it took Merlin a moment before he barked a harsh laugh. “Define pleasant.

 

      “If you insist,” Harry said. He reached out and took Merlin’s hand, setting Merlin’s nerves ablaze. Could this be happening-? Harry was touching him?

 

      “Harry-” he whispered helplessly, only to be shocked into silence when Harry lifted his hand and pressed it to his lips. He looked up, seeking confirmation in Merlin’s eyes. At that, Merlin could no longer stand it. He leaned forward, his lips meeting Harry’s.

 

      For a while they kissed. It couldn’t have been longer than a few seconds, but in those seconds, time seemed to melt away. All Merlin could feel was Harry gathering him into his arms, stroking his back, moving his lips so gently against Merlin’s…

 

      Then they pulled apart, dizzy and breathless. A smile built on Harry’s face, until it became full-on laughter.

 

      “Hamish,” he said, in apparent wonderment. “I’ve been a bloody fool, too.”

 

     He pulled Merlin into another kiss. This time, Merlin allowed himself to release his emotions and focus more closely on what was happening- the parting of Harry’s lips, the warmth saturating him… He dared to make a move of his own, reaching up to cup Harry’s face. The lines of his skin were smooth beneath Merlin’s fingers. He shuddered, clutching at Harry to draw him as close as possible.

 

       God dammit. Merlin had spent more years than he could count hiding his feelings, watching Harry from afar and convincing himself that what he wanted so badly would never come to be. But now that it had… Would it have killed Harry to come to his senses sooner?

 

       Harry broke the kiss, but he didn’t move away from Merlin. Instead he rested his forehead against Merlin’s, closing his eyes. Merlin slid his hand from Harry’s cheek to his waist, wrapping his arms around him. Here, in the privacy of Fitting Room Three, nothing could go wrong. As long as they had this moment… as long as they had each other…

 

       Until a knock sounded at the door. Harry and Merlin instantly broke apart, unable to speak. Horror struck Merlin as the door creaked open- until Eggsy appeared in the doorway.

 

       “Eggsy…” In his relief, Merlin rushed forward, but Harry grabbed his arm. It was only then that Merlin noticed the hard, grim expression on Eggsy’s face.

       “Would’ve been a lot easier if we’d just gone to sleep last night,” he said.

        He stepped into the room, and all of Merlin’s hopes were dashed when he saw the company Eggsy had brought. In walked none other than James Spencer, as blank-faced as the last time Merlin had seen him, followed by Chester King.

       “Clever hiding place,” Chester commented, crossing his arms over his chest. “But you forget, I was the one who showed you where it is.”

       Harry surged forward, his hands already forming fists. However, James was faster. He grabbed Harry’s arms and twisted them behind his back, locking him into place. Just as Merlin lunged to help Harry, Eggsy wrapped him in a bear-hug from behind, pinning Merlin’s arms to his sides. His grip was so tight that it hurt.

       “Don’t touch him!” Harry shouted, struggling against James’ hold, to no avail. “Don’t you dare! Let him go!”

       Merlin struggled too, attempting to break free. But Eggsy held him firm, with no indication that he would ever relent. God, I never realized how strong he is. Merlin was tempted to glance behind him, checking to see if Eggsy’s face was as empty as James’. Instead he directed his gaze to Chester.

       “I knew it,” he said, his voice low as a thunder’s rumble. “You’re one of them now.”

       Chester broke out into laughter.

       “On the contrary, Hamish.” He slipped his hand into his pocket, withdrawing a syringe. “This is just another… partnership.”

       Merlin’s head spun with the overflow of new information. Of course. Of COURSE. No wonder Chester had pushed the flowers so vigorously. No wonder he’d suggested that Merlin “sleep on” his decision… No wonder the body had disappeared from Roxy’s Spa the instant Chester arrived. As Merlin had suspected, Chester was now working with the replacements. He just hadn’t realized it was a collaborative effort.

       “Chester.” Try as he might, Merlin couldn’t keep the shock from coloring his voice. “Don’t you realize what you’ve done? You’re helping to doom the human race!”

       “Some might say doom.” Chester shrugged. “I say the future has never looked brighter. Everything will be clearer once you’ve gone to sleep. Or so they tell me.”

       “Chester’s right,” Eggsy said, his lifeless voice close to Merlin’s ear. “I’ve never felt better.”

       “You’ve never agreed with him in your life!” Merlin roared. This can’t be happening. He tried again to free himself, but Eggsy only clung harder.

       Chester crept close to Merlin, looming towards him. He tested the syringe, his face wreathed in joy, as if basking in the glow of victory.

       “There’s more to these pod people than you think,” Chester announced in a reverential tone. “It was all very simple, once they explained it to me. They’ve arrived from a dying star. Buoyed by the currents of space, they seek new life on inhabited planets. They’ve come to consume the flora and fauna of this planet, and make it their own.”

       Merlin glared coldly. “Aren’t you afraid they’ll consume you?”

       For a moment he thought he saw something human in Chester’s eyes- a touch of weariness, a split second of vulnerability. But then Chester chuckled, and Merlin knew it was just wishful thinking.

       “Far from it, Hamish. I look forward to joining them once we’ve taken care of you and Harry. To be born again into an untroubled world, where the petty emotions that plague this mortal coil no longer exist.”

       He forced Merlin’s wrist from Eggsy’s grasp and gently rubbed his finger over the veins. Suppressing a shudder, Merlin raised his voice in a last-ditch effort to appeal to the heart of his former employer.

       “Chester, you’re killing us. You’re killing me. Don’t do this. You don’t have to-”

       “Yes, I do,” Chester said. With no further ado, he plunged the syringe into Merlin’s vein. Merlin sucked in a sharp breath, not because it hurt, but because he had no idea how fast-acting the sedative was. How long did he have before he keeled over and woke as an unfamiliar creature?

       “Your turn, Harry,” Chester said, stepping away from Merlin and producing another syringe. Harry only stared at Chester, his dark eyes blazing.

       “I never could stand you, Chester,” he said. “Suppose it doesn’t matter now what I say to you. You’ve really reached a new low.”

       He drew back, prepared to strike with his free arm, but Chester caught the punch mid-swing. He wrenched Harry’s arm down and injected him quickly.

        “They don’t hate you,” Chester murmured soothingly. “And neither do I. There’s no need for hate anymore. No more hate, anger, dismay… or unrequited love.” He subtly eyed Merlin, who felt a cold chill run through him. He knew. He knew all along…

       Harry waited precisely one second after Chester had stepped back before lashing out, catching Chester’s kneecap with a well-aimed kick. As James struggled to hold Harry back, Harry’s head whipped towards Merlin, a savage look in his eyes.

        “Hamish, I love you.”

        Merlin only stared. He longed to conjure up the perfect response, but was unable to force the words from his throat. Harry’s eyes were shining and defiant, but in them all Merlin saw was a life he could no longer lead. This was no time for kisses, slow and sensual, or hard and desperate. No time to explore and learn bodies with hands. He and Harry couldn’t move in together, argue, make up, share their deepest thoughts and feelings. And there would certainly be no slipping of rings onto fingers, had the relationship progressed that far.

        After years of pining, Merlin had fallen into sync with Harry just a little too late. An alien invasion was no time or place for a romance to play out.

        Merlin tried to ignore the overwhelming sense of despair rising within him. He couldn’t afford to mourn potential futures. He’d rather figure out how to preserve the future, whether a week from now or only five minutes. He hoped his eyes conveyed to Harry all that he couldn’t articulate.

       Before him, Chester grunted as he straightened himself up. “Now, now, Harry. That’s exactly the sort of unpleasantness that the pods intend to eradicate.” He motioned to James and Eggsy to let go of their captives, before sliding between Harry and Merlin and pulling them close as if they were the best of friends. Harry glared balefully, but when he started to move away, Merlin saw Chester apply pressure to his shoulder, forcing him to stay in place.

       “James!” Chester shouted. “Eggsy! Bring in the pods. Let’s introduce our friends to their new lives.”

       James and Eggsy strolled obediently out of the room. When they returned, each carried a massive seedpod in their hands, and Merlin’s blood ran cold. That did it. He had to find a way out, right now…

       Then, with a jolt, he remembered. Hidden within his deep pockets… the straight razor.

       “The transformation process is quite fascinating,” Chester said. He drew Harry and Merlin closer as Eggsy and James set their pods down and stared dumbly, waiting for their next command. Slowly Merlin worked his hand into his pocket, tightening his grip around the razor’s handle. Chester didn’t seem to notice; he was practically aglow with ecstasy.

       “I’ve seen it myself. Two wombs, birthing the most unnatural crea-”

        With no time to lose, Merlin struck. He withdrew the razor and jabbed Chester’s arm. Chester recoiled instantly, giving Merlin time to break from his grip. Harry followed suit, leaping upon Chester and wrestling him to the floor.

       “You wretched pricks-!” Chester growled breathlessly. “James! Eggsy!”

       Eggsy burst into action like an actor awaiting his cue. He charged towards Merlin, but Merlin was faster. He grabbed Eggsy by the throat and plunged the razor into his neck. Eggsy fell to his knees, choking as orange fluid began to spurt from his open wound. He collapsed, limp and lifeless.

       Meanwhile, James had rushed over to Harry. Merlin steeled himself and moved forward, prepared for battle. But instead of attacking Harry, James pushed him away from Chester. Harry sprang to his feet, his face wrought with confusion.

       “James!” Chester cried, trying to sit up. “Go after them!”

       But James’ face was frozen as he shoved Chester to the floor, locking his hands around Chester’s wrists like manacles.

       “It’s time,” he said flatly. “It’s time to be reborn.”

       There was no way in hell Merlin wanted to stick around for the birthing process. Grabbing the bag of speed pills he’d dropped, he met Harry’s eyes to make sure he was okay, before rushing towards the door. Harry reached his side, clutching at his hand. Together they ran through the darkened tailor shop, heading straight for the back exit.

       “Where are we going?” Harry asked, under his breath.

       “Don’t worry.” Merlin wrenched the door open. “We’ll find some-”

      His words died in a silent horrified shout as the pale, passionless face of Roxy came into view.

Chapter Text

       For two terrible seconds, Merlin was frozen, utterly at Roxy’s mercy. Then she blinked, her smooth face dissolving into worried lines.

       “Eggsy’s gone,” she said. “We were separated-”

       “Oh, thank goodness,” Harry sighed, the tension visibly draining from his body. Merlin exhaled shakily and gave the door through which they’d just exited a side-eyed glance. Hopefully Chester was too busy being replaced, and James was too busy watching over him, for either of them to take chase, but all the same… Better safe than sorry.

       “Roxy, we’ve got to move. Do you know of a hiding place nearby?”

       Roxy shook her head. “I’ve been wandering among them. They can be fooled, you know. The trick is to not show any emotion at all. We’ll be safe if we stick together.” She hesitated. “Do you know if Eggsy was captured? I had to hide and I lost track of him…”

       Now it was Merlin’s turn to hesitate, despite every instinct screaming at him to get going. He forced his lips not to form the words: He was replaced and attacked me, so I cut his throat. If emotional composure was the key to safety, no one would benefit from his admission. Least of all Eggsy’s best friend.

       “There’s no time to talk,” he said. “This building’s swarming with replacements. We’ve got to hurry.”

       “Wait,” Harry announced. He snatched the bag of speed pills from Merlin’s hand and hastily fumbled with it. “Take these, Roxy. They’ll help you stay awake.”

       Roxy accepted the pills, downing them as if they were sweets. “What do we do when they wear off?”

      “We’ll watch over each other in our sleep,” Merlin said hoarsely. “Just like you did for me at my flat.”

      “All right.” Roxy turned away from Merlin and Harry, heading for the street. “Follow me. Just remember, no emotions.”

        When they reached the front of Kingsman Tailors, Merlin had to use Roxy's advice to strengthen himself. Of all that he could have imagined, he’d never expected to see the traffic stopped. Across the street, massive lorries were parked along the curb, their back ends open. Beside each one were stationed what looked to be policemen, decked out in helmets and gear with a gun in one hand and a megaphone in the other. Some were speaking through the megaphones, but try as he might, Merlin couldn’t make out the garbled words. From one end of the street to the other, replacements stood in single file lines, all waiting for an unknown occurrence.

      How long were we in the tailor shop? Certainly no longer than an hour. How had the replacements established control so quickly? Surely this was more than Chester had ever bargained for.

       Without speaking to each other, Merlin, Harry, and Roxy randomly selected a sluggishly-moving line and slid into place. Surrounded by so many replacements, Merlin felt a chill in the stale air. The ambient sounds of the city remained, but the silence surrounding him was thick enough to drown them out. He felt as if he were standing in the eye of a hurricane.

       It wasn’t until the line had moved a few centimeters that the megaphone users’ words coalesced into comprehension. “South Bank, please make your way to the line at the far right… Trafalgar Square, to the center… City of London…”

       What are they doing? Merlin squinted, trying to make out the lorry’s cargo, although he had a sinking feeling that he already knew what it was. The replacements at the front of the line veered off in separate directions, and none of them came close to him.  But then he saw one gently cradling its bounty under a nearby streetlamp. In its arms was a large seedpod, exactly the type that Chester’s cronies had brought out for him moments ago.

       Merlin’s heart gave a desperate thrust in his chest. This is how they do it. There’s safety in numbers. These things were conducting their business out in the open, confident that no human souls would remain in the city by morning. For a fleeting instant, he wanted to grab Harry and Roxy by the hand and drag them away. Damn the consequences, so long as they didn’t have to play pawns to the replacements…

       He was never able to act on his impulse, though, because the squeal of a car’s tires filled the air. Merlin turned and found himself pinned in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, obviously one of the few humans left alive, who hadn’t expected to find a roadblock on Savile Row. A second later, Merlin heard Harry’s cry- “Hamish!”- before he was tugged backwards, so violently that he lost his balance and fell to his knees on the pavement. The replacements calmly parted ways to allow the car clearance, although Merlin doubted they’d let its driver get away.

       He looked up to find Harry offering his hand, an anguished look of regret on his face. Taking his hand, Merlin was about to ask him what was wrong, before remembering that he wasn’t supposed to show emotion.

      Emotion…

      “I’m sorry, Hamish,” Harry whispered as he hauled Merlin to his feet, right before the replacements began to scream.

       Fuck. There was no time to lose. Now that the replacements had exposed them, Merlin dropped his placid façade. Gripping Harry’s hand tightly, he took off at a run.

       The car that had almost ended Merlin’s life ironically turned out to be a godsend. It stalled the replacements’ chase as a small group accosted the driver and passengers within. But even with the head start, Merlin wasn’t sure that he and Harry would escape with their lives. Only Eggsy’s diversion had protected them earlier. Now neither were willing to sacrifice the other.

        Just as the replacements let out a particularly horrific shriek, Merlin spotted one lorry pulling away from the curb, its back end open, doors rattling against the sides. Yes! Adrenaline surged through Merlin’s veins. Letting go of Harry, he put on an extra burst of speed, racing for the lorry before it could get away. At first he wasn’t sure if he could make it, but then his fingers scraped metal. Frantically Merlin hoisted himself up, before kneeling to Harry. Harry grabbed Merlin’s hand and braced himself against the back grille.

       That was when the first shots rang out.

       “AH!” Harry suddenly teetered forward, agony spreading across his face. His grip on Merlin’s hand became vice-like. Merlin glanced back down the street, to find that the replacements had abandoned their chase- but they hadn’t abandoned their desire to defeat Merlin and Harry. One of the policemen standing guard had raised his weapon, and he was about to aim again. Quickly Merlin wrapped his arms around Harry’s chest and used all his strength to haul him into the back of the lorry. Harry crumpled to the ground, his leg stretched out in front of him, while Merlin backed against the furthest wall, panting. It wasn’t until the replacements had faded in the distance that he went to inspect Harry.

       “What happened?”

       Harry wordlessly gestured to his leg. Even in the dark, without his contacts, Merlin could see the dark stain spreading over the fabric of his trousers. He removed his jacket and folded it, though he knew it would do little to help.

       “Here.” Merlin gently laid his hand on Harry’s leg, pushing the makeshift cushion underneath it. “Once we stop, we’ll see if you can walk on it. Then we’ll make our escape.”

       But to where?, his desperate mind protested. To whom? They were rapidly running out of options, and yet Merlin refused to consider any other possibility. How could they give in at this point?

    He gathered Harry close to him, pressing his face into Harry’s neck, but Harry’s reply rendered his comfort meaningless.

       “Hamish… we can’t run forever.”