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Ryan stretched with a yawn, the bones in his spine popping as his arms arched above his head. He rubbed his stomach in a displeased manner, wishing that the strange ache that had been plaguing him for the last few days would just go away already. He wasn't really sure what he had. It wasn't the sort of discomfit that made him want to throw up, more like someone had wrapped a rope around his insides and was gently trying to tug them out.

 

It wasn't a particularly pleasant sensation, but it wasn't like it was hurting him. He'd mentioned it in passing to Gavin, but neither of them had been particularly concerned about it. Ryan was a generally healthy person, after all, it wasn't likely to be anything serious. Ryan had been convinced it would fade quickly, but still promised Gavin he'd get it checked if it got worse or hung around for more than a week.

 

He hummed quietly to himself as he opened the cupboard doors of the bedroom, hanging and stacking his and Gavin's laundry away. The two of them had moved into the new apartment together almost six months previously, and had just that morning finally gotten around to unpacking the last of the moving boxes. He smiled to himself as he fed a coat hanger through the neck hole of one of Gavin's shirts. They were officially moved in.

 

Ryan hadn't quite believed Gavin when the Brit said he wanted to go on a date with Ryan, all those months ago - he'd thought that the Lads or Geoff had set him up on some sort of bet. Of course, he'd always considered the Brit to be a very attractive and interesting person. So he agreed, curious to see just how far Gavin was willing to go with the charade. Ryan took him out to dinner at a reasonably fancy restaurant, and had to stop himself from drooling too much at the sight of Gavin in dress shirt and slacks.

 

He'd mostly been joking when he offered for Gavin to come home with him. He hadn't really expected Gavin to say yes.

 

He definitely hadn't expected Gavin to tackle him to the couch and kiss him passionately. He'd pushed the younger man away once he'd started unbuttoning Ryan's shirt, and had been confused by the hurt expression on Gavin's face.

 

"What's wrong?"

 

"What's wrong?" Ryan raised both eyebrows at him, incredulous. "Don't you think you're going a little far for some dumb bet?"

 

Gavin gave him a quizzical look. "What're you on about?"

 

"I thought you were having some sort of bet with one of the guys to get me to go on a date with you."

 

The Brit burst into laughter. "Seriously? You think someone would need to pay me to want to go on a date with you?" He cackled, clutching his stomach as he wiped away mirthful tears. "Ah, Ryan. You're so funny. Really, I'd never mess with your feelings like that, it'd be bloody horrible of me."

 

"Oh. So you... actually feel that way about me?"

 

"No, Ryan, I just started snogging you on your couch because I needed to be able to collect your saliva without being obvious about it, and take the sample back to my alien rulers."

 

"Gavin, that's gross."

 

Gavin grinned. "You're the one that was letting me do it." He hooded his eyes, smirking seductively. "And I'm really hoping you'll let me do it again."

 

Ryan grinned right back. "Stop referring to it as collecting my saliva, and you can do what you like."

 

He smiled fondly at the memory, but the expression dimmed as the uncomfortable sensation in his abdomen grew stronger. He pressed a hand to his stomach and tried to ignore it as he put away a stack of jeans. He moved on to the underwear, but they fell from nerveless fingers as the tugging became so strong that he actually staggered, bumping into the cool synthetic material of his desk. The sensation spread from his abdomen and rushed through his limbs, his extremities tingling as he felt his whole body lurch back. He clutched at the desk, eyes wide.

 

Okay, now he wanted to throw up.

 

He dropped to his knees, body tipping forward, but before he could unhave his lunch he felt himself falling through more than air, felt time and space dilate around him, then suddenly spit him back out. He collapsed in a heap against the cold stone floor.

 

His head buzzed and he wondered why he was on a stone floor. He looked down in confusion. Why was he wearing a finely embroidered black coat? Why was he wearing a soft white silk shirt underneath it?

 

Why on earth was he wearing a fucking kilt?

 

Ryan shook his head and looked around the room. He stared in stupefaction for a good ten seconds, his brain refusing to process what he was seeing.

 

It almost looked like he was in a mad scientist's lab, only... medieval. Thick glass containers filled with all manner of strange substances and objects - was that a hand? - were arranged neatly on broad wooden shelves, labelled in flowing script with a parchment tag tied around the neck of each vial with thin rope. Horrifying-looking instruments hung from the walls near a raised slab, made of the same black stone as the walls, the floor and the ceiling. Ryan recoiled as he realised the dark stains on the slab's surface had to be from blood. His stomach roiled, threatening to propel its contents upwards and outwards, and he tore his gaze away from the stained stone.

 

He wished he hadn't.

 

His eyes immediately lit upon the mutilated corpses hanging on hooks to the left of the archaic dissection table, some barely even recognisable as human. His stomach protested fiercely at the sight, and he gave in, violently throwing up on the ground. He managed to avoid getting anything on himself, but this small mercy did little to comfort him as he crawled away from the puddle of sick. He leaned his back against the broad base of a stone bench, topped with a strange apparatus that quietly bubbled away with various liquids. There was a bronze mirror propped against the wall opposite, and he caught a glimpse of his face. Initially, he was relieved that it was his own, but he quickly realised that wasn't quite true. The face in the mirror was leaner, crueller, despite how pale and terrified it was. His head dropped in his hands and he started shaking uncontrollably.

 

This couldn't be real. He had to be dreaming, or hallucinating, or, or... something. He couldn't have just dropped into the mind of his doppelganger in some alternate time period. That was ridiculous. That was impossible.

 

Something scratched at his mind as he sat there, trembling, and it grew more and more insistent until light exploded behind his eyes and he was bombarded by a terrifying mixture of sounds and images, merging together to form memories that weren't his. He felt nauseous all over again as he saw himself - no, no, it wasn't really you, it was whoever's body you're now in - cutting into skin, carving away at flesh and bone, extracting organs - it's not you, it's HIM - maiming, torturing, killing, revelling in the pained cries of others-

 

"NO!" Ryan shouted, but he continued to remember the life of his alternate self in sickening detail. His stomach heaved and he threw up again, vomit splattering onto his fingers and he hunched over on his hands and knees.

 

There was a series of muffled thumps on the door. "My King, are you alright?"

 

Ryan trembled, wanting to cry.

 

"King James! Do you require assistance?"

 

Get up, his mind screamed at him. Whoever's out there will realise something's gone wrong if you don't answer, and they'll probably torture you or kill you if they find out you're not actually their King. Get the fuck up!

 

Ryan rose unsteadily to his feet, swiping a rough cloth from the bench and wiping the vomit from his still-shaking hands. He noticed a thick red cloak hanging from a stand next to a pedestal holding a crown, and quickly donned both items. The cloak was warm and comforting, but the crown sat heavily on his head.

 

The fact that his alternate self went by his first name made Ryan feel a little better for some reason, and he let his voice grow sonorous and authoritative. "I'm quite alright. Don't concern yourself." He flinched a little at the way his voice boomed strongly off the stone walls, then squared his shoulders, schooling his features into a mask. He did theatre in college, he could do this. He could bluff his way through until he found a way home.

 

He didn't really dwell on how exactly he was going to accomplish that. There was time for that later.

 

He opened the door.

 

"My King, what is the matter?"

 

Ryan forced himself not to react as he recognised Michael under the guard's uniform. This isn't the Michael you know, he reminded himself sternly, and he became aware of an air of awe - no, fear - clinging to the guard like perfume. Michael was scared. Of him.

 

"Has there been any progress in your experiments?" Michael asked, gaze respectfully averted. Too afraid to meet Ryan's eyes.

 

Not Michael, he chanted over and over in his mind, keeping his face completely impassive. "There has been something of a... complication with my work." Yeah. 'Complication' is a word for it. "My studies are done for the day, send for someone to clean up. Tell them that if they touch anything they are not meant to, I will gladly have their skin removed." He let his mouth curl into a smirk. "I'm sure they are already aware of that, but it does no harm to remind them." He swept past the guard without another word, hiding the tremors of his hands in the folds of the cloak.

 

He strode down the corridors without looking at anyone, glad for the memories of how to get to the royal chambers. He shoved the oaken bedroom doors open and quickly shut them behind him, leaning his head against the solid wood. He ground the palms of his hands against his eyes. The trembling in his hands overtook his whole body, and he let out a horrified sob at how disturbingly easily those cruel words had fallen from his lips.

 

After what felt like hours, his breathing finally steadied and he stopped quivering. He wiped at his eyes and crossed the room, tugging at the heavy drapes covering the window and peering outside. He could see the castle's courtyard far below, underneath walls and towers dotted with braziers that kept the patrolling guards from freezing in the icy night air. Ryan shivered in sympathy, even though the glowing coals in the large fireplace embedded in the opposite wall filled the room with heat. Beyond the bulky structure of the castle walls, he could see the dim outline of a forest, cast into darkness by a night sky that had no moon but was strewn with more stars than he'd seen in his life. Guess there's nowhere near as much light pollution here as back home, he mused. Wherever 'here' actually is.

 

Sighing, he let the curtain fall back in place and padded over to the huge bed, undressing as he went. He slipped underneath the covers and resigned himself to lying there until morning came, wracked with fear and confusion.

 

He didn't account for how soft the bedding would be against his tightly wound body, or how drowsy the heat of the fireplace would make him, or just how exhausted this whole parallel universe ordeal had actually made him. Despite himself, he felt his tensed limbs gradually relax, and it wasn't long before his eyelids drooped shut, his mind drifting peacefully into the realm of sleep.

 

~* * *~

 

James gripped the edge of the desk, the strange material feeling out of place under his fingers. He grinned savagely. It had worked! His experiment had actually worked!

 

He shook himself. Well, of course it had. He was a genius, after all.

 

His grin grew and grew until he started laughing.

 

Who was the mad one now? He knew what the court scholars thought of his ideas of the existence of multiple universes; of entire worlds that held all the same people as theirs, except different in minor or major ways, depending on how closely each world overlapped. He knew they whispered that he was crazy when they were behind closed doors, but they weren't the ones standing in an alternate dimension, now were they? They weren't the ones with a whole new world at their fingertips. He laughed again.

 

This was going to be an absolutely fascinating venture.