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The building looms over them in what Valentine finds is a very threatening manner and if it wasn’t for Gazelle at his side, he would already be going back. Or rather, he wouldn’t have made it ten steps into the creepy forest surrounding Poppy Pharmaceutical Research Laboratory before peeing his pants and deciding that night was definitely a time for all good little Valentines to be in bed.

He cannot quite put his fingers on why he feels so uneasy. He’s far from being brave or anything, but usually being in Gazelle’s company is all he needs to summon whatever courage is hiding in his body. That and imagining the torture those poor animals must be living through at the hands of their captors.

Tonight, though, he hesitates when Gazelle finally give the all clear and makes to climb over the no longer electrified fence.

After years of friendship and being part of the same advocating groups, she notices at once that he’s having second thoughts and she stops just shy of touching the railing.

“What is it?”

“I- I’m not sure if this is a good idea…”

He kind of expects her to start yelling at him, but of course she remembers the importance of being quiet and only throws him a disbelieving look.

“What do you mean, not a good idea? I know you’ve got a hard time trusting others, but I personally vouch for Clara and her guy. They'll keep the guards distracted just long enough for us to do our thing.”

It’s Valentine’s turn to be confused, because what has that got to do with anything? And then it hits him, this is Gazelle he’s talking to, she isn’t to be anything but utterly practical and down to earth.

Even if the forest or building were to make her nervous, she would chalked it off to what they are about to do.

“That’s… That’s not it. It just feels… Off? Doesn’t this feel off to you?”

“The only thing that is off right now is you suddenly being reluctant about saving those animals, especially after all the trouble you went through just finding this place.”

She looks annoyed now, but there is something worried in her eyes that reminds Valentine that no matter how harsh she is, she cares about him. He’s the only reason she’s here in the first place, since he knows she doesn’t really give two shits about animal cruelty. But anything that upsets him is a crime in her book and she has no qualms being judge, jury and executioner.

She would also turn back without a look behind her if he asked, something he realises he simply can’t do. Not when they’ve gone so far already.

Because she is right. Planning tonight had been the most trouble he’s had in years. He won’t let his nerves ruin it. Those animals need him.

“I’m being a scaredy cat again, let’s go.”  No one else will raise a finger for them if he doesn’t, that bitch Poppy made sure of it. No one is supposed to know what horrible things she is doing behind those walls. Well, she’ll be in for a surprise in the morning, won’t she?

He jumps the fence before he can change his mind, with far less grace than she does. But then again, Valentine has always been about the mind rather than the physical. While Gazelle, well, even with her prosthetics, she’s still pretty much the dancer. And the fighter.

They make it to the front door that has been left thankfully unlocked, the security team at Poppy Pharm probably relying on the building’s remoteness and its electric fence to avoid break-ins. It’s so dumb and negligent that Valentine has half a mind to let them know what he thinks about it, but right now it also saves them some precious minutes.

The distraction Gazelle’s contact is providing will only last so long.

“We have about half an hour left,” she whispers, her line of thought following the same path as his, “but I’d rather we leave in twenty minutes.”

He doesn’t bother answering, simply leads her through the maze of poorly lit corridors he’s memorized from the blueprints until they are standing in front of a single door. It’s even darker in the room that’s on the other side of it, but Valentine has no doubt that this is it. This is the main lab where they must keep all those poor animals they are experimenting on.

He makes quick work of the electronic lock on the door, scoffing at how outdated it is. His grandmother has better security than this and not just because she’s got him to mind her house.

The door’s barely open when the growling and yowling starts, Gazelle yanking him back outside even if there’s simply no way the animals can get out of their cages.

“Relax, they’re just scared. Which you would be too if you were imprisoned and being experimented on.”

She looks utterly unconvinced, but still lets him go reluctantly.

None of the animals calm down even when he switches the lights on. Their behaviour seems to get worse in fact as they properly step into the room, throwing themselves against the cages. He half expects them to break free without his help, but unlike the rest of the building, no expenses have been spared on their cages. It’s a good thing he was already planning to break into the private servers once he was here to dig out even more info on whatever they’re doing, because there is no way he can break through any of those cage locks otherwise. And seeing the poor creatures now, there is no way he’s leaving without giving them their freedom back.

He finally spots a computer in a corner of the room, guiltily feeling a wave of relief when he notices none of the cages are close to it. He might understand their aggression, but it’s still rather unnerving that the animals won’t let up for a second.

“Can you fuckin believe that shit?” He says it louder than he should, even with the security team distracted elsewhere, but he just can’t help it. They’ve actually left a computer logged in. And it’s not even into a fake account to trigger an alarm. It’s the real deal. “Those people deserve what’s coming!”

Before he can press the key to release the animals however, Gazelle grabs his arms. “Can you rig that so we won’t actually be in the room once they’re free? I’m pretty sure they won’t make any difference between us and whoever is working here. I don’t feel like being devoured.”

He opens his mouth to protest, but a loud howl interrupts him before he can get out a word. He’s got no choice but to grudgingly admit she might have a point.

“I’ll go check that other room, see if they’ve got physical records or something.”

He waves her off dismissively, muttering about people still being stuck in the dark ages, which make Gazelle roll her eyes over his blatant hypocrisy. Just last week, he had been praising paper as being the only real unhackable medium.

Her companion’s hypocrisy soon becomes the last thing on her mind however when she takes her first step into the next room.

She’s never cared much about Valentine’s causes beside the fact that they were important to him, but as she fights to keep her dinner down, she’s filled with a righteousness the likes she’s rarely felt before.

She’s glad he hasn’t followed her, because she knows that not only would he have been sick all over the floor, but he would have fainted too. And for once, she wouldn’t have blamed him one bit.

There are cages lining the walls here too and even if the poor lighting makes it hard to really distinguish the forms lying in them, probably making them look even worse, there is no mistaking the smell. The stench.

That’s what Death smells like.

Whatever Poppy Pharm is trying to do, Gazelle has definitely found where they shove all their failures.

The last thing she wants is to take another step in, but even in the dim light, she can make out a few folders on a nearby desk. They might turn out to be completely useless, but it’ll be better than leaving empty-handed.

Anyway, Valentine is the best at finding connections out of what would be utter rubbish for anyone else. That’s how he found about Poppy Pharm’s dubious practices in the first place. He had been looking at a weird case involving funeral homes and a burger place at the time. Why exactly, Gazelle doesn’t know, but that’s how it all started.

With the cacophony coming from all the other animals she can’t be sure, but she thinks she hears whines coming from a corner of the room. It makes her skin raise into goosebumps as she grabs the files and she doesn’t bother to check what they might be.

If any of those… things are still alive, she doesn’t want to know. And even if they are, there is nothing she could do to help them.

She doesn’t linger longer than necessary, especially with Valentine calling out to her.

“You found something?” Of course he’s noticed the folders she’s carrying, not that she’s trying to hide them. She just hopes that if they are about what was left in the cages of the second room, that there won’t be any pictures. The vague shadows she saw are gonna be enough to fuel her next nightmares, she knows that much for sure already.

“Maybe. Let’s go.”

She wants as much distance between her and this place as possible and she doesn’t doubt for a second that if Valentine is no longer behind the computer, then it means he’s done with everything too.

They don’t bother shutting off the lights or the doors behind them, far less careful on their way out than they were on their way in. They’re here to free the animals and let Poppy know someone is onto her after all.

They’re back to the car when Valentine finally fiddles with his phone to unlock the cages, too far away to be sure if it did work, but that’s a risk they are willing to take.

Not that they needed to worry.

All the feral animals escape into the forest that night and are given chase by the harried security team.

Though they should have been far more concerned about what slowly crawls out of the second room after a while.

Chapter Text

The first chime of his phone has Merlin rolling onto his back, groggy and blinking up at the ceiling wondering if he even really heard anything.

The second time Merlin groans and throws an arm over his eyes. He prays to gods he doesn’t believe in that whoever it is will give up.

When his phone suddenly goes off again, this time with Harry’s ringtone and then followed immediately by Roxy’s, he swears. He peels his arm away from his face and turns to grab the device. When he sees the time, Merlin barely refrains from throwing it across the room. It’s only been two hours since he collapsed into bed after a grueling nineteen hour day prepping briefs in the office.

He sits up and dials Roxy, knowing that she’ll get Harry into the conference call. Then he tosses the phone onto the bed and gets up to start digging for some clean clothes.

“It’s Poppy Pharmaceutical,” is the first thing Roxy says and Merlin swears again.

Poppy Pharm, and by extension its CEO Poppy Adams, is one of their most lucrative clients, but also the most bizarre when it comes to their needs.

“What has Poppy done now that requires our services at,” he looks at the clock, “four twenty-seven in the morning?”

“She’s hasn’t done anything herself,” Harry says, and if the rustling is anything to go by he’s getting dressed too. “But her research laboratory just got hacked. The test animals got loose and nearly all of their proprietary data was accessed. She suspects an inside job, and lucky for us one of her on-call lawyers happens to be a computer genius.” Harry’s voice is annoyed and Merlin rolls his eyes. “She’s called us in to find out who was involved and sue them for everything they’ve got.”

Merlin sighs and tosses his suit onto the bed next to his phone. “Give me ten minutes to shower and dress. Roxy, have the extra laptop in my office booted up and all the access codes that I’ll need for Poppy’s servers. Harry, you bring the coffee.”

There is a some half hearted muttering about finding a decent shop open at this hour, but Merlin just snorts and ends the call.

 

--

“Clara Von Gluckfberg,” Merlin says.

He turns to Roxy but she is already writing it down with a wave of her hand, so he leans back in his chair. His spine cracks and he considers at what point he might be able to convince Chester to buy chairs based on comfort and not how expensive they look.

“Who?” Harry looks up from his own laptop, eyes glazed and his cheek red from where he’s been leaning it against his fist. He’s somehow simultaneously better dressed and worse looking than how Merlin knows he must look himself, and he wonders what Harry was up to when he got Roxy’s call.

“Ex-girlfriend of one of the guards, Charlie Hesketh. He signed her into the laboratory forty minutes before the files were accessed. And it just so happens that, with a bit more digging, I found out she was contacted by Richmond Valentine two days earlier.”

“The activist?”

“Aye. Last time he was in the news he had started a campaign against animal cruelty.”

Harry raises his eyebrow and Merlin just shrugs. It was enough of a connection for now. Merlin knows he can dig up the details as needed, but for now they can start in on the necessary paperwork for Poppy’s suit.

Merlin takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. He squints at the clock. Less than an hour until the associates are in to help with the leg work. He settles his glasses back on his face and leans into his computer. He hopes one of them remembers to bring coffee.

 

--

“You guys are here early considering the day we had yesterday.”

Merlin glares at Eggsy and his cheerful attitude as he wanders into the office. He’s one of the last associates to arrive but he saves himself from a proper chewing out when he places a coffee from Merlin’s favourite cafe in front of him.

He picks it up and takes a long, grateful sip. Already the caffeine is perking up his system and he looks at Eggsy.

“Big client called us in, Poppy Pharmaceuticals. We’ve been working on getting the paperwork started to file a civil action against one of her employees.”

Eggsy looks a little surprised and sits down next to Harry. “I’m surprised that’s the angle she has you working on, what with the mess on the news.”

Harry turns to him and gives him a blank look. “What mess?”

“Did you not see the news this morning?”

When the two of them shake their heads, Eggsy grabs Harry’s laptop and pulls it over. He types something into the browser, and then turns the screen so they can all see.

Eggsy presses play on a video, and they watch as a news anchor starts talking about a dozen escaped animals from a research facility, that attacked a group of hikers in their campsite.

While they watch, Roxy comes over and puts a hand on Merlin’s shoulder.

“Charlie Hesketh and Clara Von Gluckfberg have just been admitted to a private hospital in Chelmsford. I’ll see that the papers get served to them there.”

Merlin nods and then turns away from the screen when Eggsy starts pulling up the video one of the hikers recorded before being airlifted to the hospital.

What a mess, he thinks. He takes another sip of his coffee and starts some of the associates on damage control.

Poppy Pharm just gave him one hell of a week of work.

Chapter Text

The video is grainy even after Valentine has put it through a few softwares of his own creation. It doesn’t help that the camera was a black and white one and Valentine curses the dumbass at Poppy’s Pharm who decided to skimp on the good tech in the security division.

Even when the lights of the room are clearly on, it’s hard to distinguish anything on the video.

Sure, he sees people in white coats he assumes to be scientists come and go near the cages, some clearly holding syringes in their hands, but he’s still working on decrypting the feed from the cages themselves.

He ends up fast forwarding through a lot of the footage and only stops when he realises no one has come close to the cages in a few days. His stomach turns when he realises it’s been closer to a week after he compares the timestamps.

Those bastards! They had starved those poor animals to death!

Or maybe not, he thinks with relief when he spots something that looks like movement in one of the cages.

Even if he knows it’s useless, he gets closer to his screen, hoping to get a better view. He’ll probably have to wait until he’s cleared the footage from the cages, but if he can confirm it’s not a trick of the old camera, he might sleep better tonight.

Indeed, there does seem to be some kind of movement, but the poor quality of the video makes it look… weird. Inhuman, he would say even, before shaking his head at his own ridiculousness. Of course it won’t be human, they’re animals.

Maybe if he zoomed in?

He’s about to press the key when his concentration is abruptly broken.

“Did you find anything yet?”

Valentine startles violently when Gazelle suddenly appears at his side, seemingly out of nowhere. Before he can so much as stare at her however, she holds up a smoothie for him and after taking a careful sip and only tasting cherries and avocados, he magnanimously decides she is forgiven for scaring him.

“Yes and no.” He swivels back towards his monitors to show her what he’s got to work with beside the videos. “This is probably incriminating as hell, but it’s also in a scientific jargon I don’t understand at all.”

“I thought you were good at that shit.” She spares a quick glance at the text on the screen before losing interest. Not that it surprises him much. Gazelle is smart, but if it’s beyond him, she sure won’t understand it either. Except if she somehow found the time to get a medical slash biology slash zoology doctorate, but the last time he checked, she still had no diploma to her name.

“I am good at technological stuff. That though, is way beyond my paygrade. I’d need to consult with other experts.” He’s loathe to do so, but if he wants to stop Poppy from starting over and hurting even more animals than she already has, he’ll step on his own ego without too much of a fuss.

Gazelle makes a displeased sound, which isn’t surprising. She hates bringing in other people in the middle of one of their operations. “How long will it take?”

He shrugs helplessly. “Not sure. I might have found someone, but I’ll have to make sure the good doctor Ginger isn’t in Poppy’s pocket first.”

Gazelle snarls angrily at the news and Valentine frowns in confusion. Sure, it’s a bit of a setback in their plans, but it’s rather minor in comparison to what’s happened during some of their other gigs.

“How fast can you pack up?”

He blinks at her slowly, not because he doesn’t understand what she’s asking, but because she simply cannot be serious. Unfortunately, she doesn’t break eye contact and he’s reminded that she wouldn’t know a joke if it hit her in the face.

“Why?”

“I know from sure sources that they know of Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg’s involvement. Which means they can get to us any time now. I’d rather ditch this place and go to the mountain.”

The ‘mountain’ isn’t of course a real mountain. It’s just the name of their most secured safe house and things must really be fucked if Gazelle wants them to move there.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” she answers just a bit too quickly to not be lying, but if things really are fucked, now is not the time to argue. “But Poppy’s got a lot of money to throw at her problems and make them disappear. I’d rather we do that temporarily on our own than wait for someone to make us be so in a permanent fashion.”

Even if she isn’t telling him everything, she isn’t wrong either. He won’t be any help to those poor animals if he’s dead and if he wants to make sure Poppy pays for her crimes and doesn’t start again, he’s got to play it safe.

“Give me five minutes.”

 

*

Roxy has never liked hospitals and today is no exception. But she is a professional and she won’t let her discomfort keep her from doing her job. Though the two men guarding the hospital room does give her a slight pause.

Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg are barely conscious when she gets in the room, but she is far from complaining. She doesn’t know them personally, but she knows the type. She’s rather happy to avoid their tantrum at being served the papers.

Roxy jumps when Von Gluckfberg grips her wrist when she walks by to leave the room, with far more strength than she should managed in her drugged state. Trying to get free only makes the other woman tighten her hold onto her and Roxy shivers when she opens bloodshot eyes to stare at her.

All the while, Von Gluckfberg doesn’t say a word, merely grunts when Roxy finally yanks herself away. It’s probably just because of the cocktail of drugs they’ve given her, but Roxy still mutters a heartfelt freak before leaving the room.

After such an encounter, she’s eager to go back to the office and leave behind the two guards that clearly have concealed weapons on them. It seems a bit overkill, but she guesses Poppy’s doesn’t know how to scale her responses to the situation. If she had the same kind of money, Roxy isn’t sure she would know how to either.

It’s weird to see so much security milling around however, in addition to the guards at the door. Not that she had really noticed at first, but she cannot ignore them after they nearly shove her out of their way as they walk briskly to turn the corner. Of course, after what happened yesterday, she can’t say it’s too much precaution, but surely there are better use for the money? Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg aren’t going anywhere and she doubts anyone is coming to get them out. At least not in their current state.

With her mind occupied with what she would do if she had access to Poppy’s money, it’s not really surprising that she walks right into someone as she rounds the corner to get to the elevators.

She only avoids falling on the ground thanks to the quick reflexes of whomever she collided with, a strong arm shooting out to circle her waist and keep her upright.

“My, my, Miss Morton! Let me at least buy you a drink first!” She blushes when Detective Daniels waggles his eyebrows suggestively at her, but already, he’s letting her go. She knows anyway that he doesn’t mean any of it, that he simply hides behind the mask of a misogynist twat to throw off his interlocutors. It had worked on her for far longer than she wishes to admit, but it’s been years since she’s finally seen through him.

She wouldn’t call him a friend exactly, but he has often been a precious ally in her work. It’s better to work with someone with such strong integrity rather than someone who can be easily bought off after all.

“Jack,” she greets him simply, not bothering with any formalities. If he’s here already, then they’re probably working on the same side this time. “You’re already making an arrest?”

She knows right away she was mistaken in her assumptions when he frowns in confusion.

“An arrest? They were wild lab animals, the best thing I can do is shoot them. Which I won’t hesitate to do now that I’ve seen what they’re capable of… But you’re not talking about that. And you’re not coming from the hikers’ room either.”

It’s her turn to frown. She had not been aware that the hikers had been flown to this particular hospital. It’s a weird coincidence, especially considering it’s not the closest hospital to the attack site.

With the nurses looking anxiously at them she should probably cut their conversation short now that it’s clear Jack isn’t aware of Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg’s involvement. There is no way for her to know who reports back to Poppy and she doesn’t want to lose her job for something so stupid. But she is also very curious as to why the detective is apparently in charge of hunting down the escaped animals. It seems a rather odd choice when park rangers would probably be more qualified to deal with the issue.

“Are you free for a coffee right now?” She changes track right away when she notices they’ve garnered more attention from the hospital’s personnel than she’s comfortable with. She even flutters her eyelashes, playing up her flirtiness. “I feel like we have a lot of catching up to do,” she ends it with a little giggle, refraining from rolling her eyes at herself only because there is something very obviously not quite right and she’d rather have all her cards in hand before reporting back to Merlin and Harry, no matter what it takes.

Thankfully, Jack doesn’t make her wait, and his arm is back around her waist nearly as soon as she finishes talking. “Why, Miss Morton, I thought you’d never ask,” he says it deliberately loud as he leads her away from any indiscreet ears.

His wink will be taken as more flirting on his part from all bystanders, but she knows it means he understands her ruse.

She is distracted from her thoughts for a moment when the doors of the elevators close on them and she thinks she can see the lights start flashing. She would say something to her companion, but either Jack didn’t noticed or he’s unconcerned about whatever is happening in the hospital at the moment.

Considering his lack of hesitation at playing her game, it’s probably the latter. They have other concerns to address right now. Maybe it will turn out she’s being paranoid for no reason, but she rather doubts it if Jack shares her suspicions.

Now, if only she could figure out what exactly was so suspicious with the situation.

 

*

It has been crawling for a long time, knowing only one thing. Hunger.

Tirelessly it moves on, looking for something to sate the burning need in its core, but for miles and miles, it encounters nothing. At long last, after the moon has gone down and up again in the sky, the trees thin out and smells start reaching it.

There is no one around to witness it creeping into town.

Chapter Text

Jack sits in his car outside the cafe and slowly drinks his coffee, thinking. He nods when Roxy drives past him and waves. He has lots to consider now that he knows Poppy’s lawyers are scrambling over some stolen data, rather than circling the wagons on the injured hikers.

When the higher ups had assigned Jack to investigate the criminal culpability of Poppy Pharm and their research animals, he’d thought it was a waste of his time. His experience was that most companies would immediately pay the victims for their silence and then hope that the negative press would blow over. Without someone to file a police report and start an investigation, there wouldn’t be much that Jack could do.

But not only were the hikers already starting the process, despite their poor health, but Roxy’s evasive talk around her firms work has Jack thinking that there might be something more threatening going on with Poppy Pharm than just lax security at their laboratory.

Either way, he was going to have to pay the park rangers and the lab itself a visit to find out more. Now he just has more questions to ask. Draining his cup, Jack throws it into the back seat and starts the car. He feels a little more alert now the caffeine has hit his system.

As he pulls away from the cafe and starts out towards where the hikers were found, a report comes up on the radio about a quarantine being set up at the hospital the hikers are at. Jack is suddenly very grateful that he and Roxy made it out of the hospital when they did. He’s looking forward to when he can finally go home and kick back with a nice glass of whiskey, and an involuntary stay at the hospital is not how he would have wanted to spend the night.

 

--

Merlin knows he should be attempting to sleep. He and Harry have a deposition in the morning, and he still has to finish his trial prep for Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg. But at the back of his mind he knows there is something wrong with the situation with Poppy Pharm. And after two decades at Kingsman, with some of the toughest cases of his career won on too little sleep and a hidden piece of information, he’s learned to trust his intuition.

He takes another sip of his tea and sets the mug aside on the desk. Merlin is no stranger to using his computer prowess to find the things that people want to keep hidden from his clients. He may have left behind his hacker beginnings to start as Harry’s protege, but that didn’t mean that he forgot what to do.

He leans in and types another command into his laptop. When the query comes back with another half dozen files, he quickly begins reading and sorting them.

The majority of it is technical in a way even Merlin finds hard to understand. Medical reports and drug applications and internal memos. But as he’s going through one of the files he finds another thread to Valentine. An automated search finds excerpts of the document on the internet, showing up on underground animal rights forums frequented by Valentine and those like him.

Merlin reads through some of the posts and finds they all seem to be saying the same thing. The experimentation that Poppy Pharm has been doing on the animals is beyond what they claim is happening in the official documents that have been going to the FDA.

Merlin frowns. He’s never been impressed by Poppy Pharm, Poppy Adams herself always setting off something wrong in his gut. But they are a huge client, and it was never his place to tell Chester who to represent, even as a senior partner.

But what these posts are alluding to, it’s more than just a gut instinct. It’s the first bit of proof that there is something very wrong going at Poppy Pharm. And if so, Merlin has no desire to be the lawyer who is defending her or her company.

With a sigh, Merlin clears the screen and starts typing again. If he’s going to take down Poppy Pharm, he’s going to need more than just darknet hearsay. He’s going to need every internal memo and doctored report he can find.

It’s going to be a long night.

 

--

James stands at the swinging doors and glances at his watch again. This is a new situation for him. He’s not used to his name, or more frequently his clients name, not opening the doors for him right away. But no amount of clout can worm it’s way around a medical quarantine, and James is not invested in the Hesketh’s enough to fork out a bribe.

Finally, a woman comes through the doors and takes off her mask. With their biohazard gear, the doctors and nurses all look the same, but James is good enough with faces to know this woman isn’t familiar.

“Mr. Spencer, I’m Michelle Unwin” she says. “Thanks for waiting.” She holds out her hand for him to shake before she realizes she’s still wearing gloves. With a laugh she nods towards the nursing station and starts stripping them off as she walks, James following along behind.

“Pleasure to meet you miss. I’m assuming you have an answer for me?”

“I do. The administration has agreed to give you limited access to the quarantine area to brief your clients. I’m here to explain the quarantine procedure and to make sure that you are properly suited up before being allowed inside. You’ll have thirty minutes with them but there are strict rules in place for both your safety and theirs.”

James listens carefully as the nurse instructs him on protocols and hands him a biohazard suit and his own mask.

“Please make sure you follow procedure Mr. Spencer. While they are coherent, whatever it is that they’re infected with is affecting their behaviour. The bouts of irrational aggression seem to be occurring more frequently.”

James’ eyes narrow. He makes a mental note to have the firm’s psychologists pay Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg a visit. Maybe they can avoid a trial if they can prove some sort of mental impairment.

“Thank you, miss,” says James. “I’ll be sure to behave myself.”

Michelle nods and points him in the direction of the washroom. She blushes when he winks at her and then heads to get changed.

 

--

When James enters their room, he wonders idly if this would be the deathly turning point in some sort of science fiction universe.

His clients are both pale and sickly looking. Their eyes are sunk in and there is something corpse-like in their complexion. He clears his throat and plasters on a fake smile behind his mask. Let it never be said that he didn’t provide the best for his clients, regardless of the circumstances.

“Hello Mr. Hesketh, Ms. Von Gluckfberg. My name is James Spencer. Your parents hired me to serve as your legal council.”

When they just stare at him, eyes seemingly tracking his smallest movements he clears his throat and continues on. “I was told that you are aware of Poppy Pharmaceuticals intention to sue you for the theft of their proprietary information. I’m here to help you prepare a defence and get all the necessary paperwork started.”

Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg don’t say much as James go through the information they need to know, but they answer his questions when necessary and confirm that they are prepared to go to court.

“Alright, just one more thing. I need your signatures on this paperwork. I’ve got it marked here and here.”

James steps closer to Hesketh’s bed to hand him the sheaf of paper and point to the lines he needs to sign on, forgetting the repeated warnings to make sure that he stays back from either of them. As he reaches across the bed to set the pen down, he feels Hesketh grab his arm painfully tight. He freezes as Hesketh leans in and gashes his teeth near his neck, mumbling something about being so hungry.

He pulls his arm away and plasters on another fake smile. He turns and makes sure to keep back when he gives the other papers to Von Gluckfberg. If this case is going to move to court, he is going to have to find a way to work around whatever that is. He’s not going to win any points with a judge if he has to keep his clients from trying to bite people.

Chapter Text

Michelle slams the door behind her, leaning all of her weight against it, trying with very little success to get her breathing back under control.

How can she, when she’s seen what those- those things are capable of? They ripped through poor Dr. Simmons as if he was nothing more than a paper doll! She has never seen such carnage in all her years, even back when she had been a military nurse. Back then, had been horrific and monstrous sometimes, but never so, so… inhuman.

She jumps when she hears new cries of fear and pain in the distance, but thinking of her past has also reminded her of her training.

She cannot afford to lose it now, not when she’s still in enemy territory. What she needs to do is to get herself on the next floor and warn someone that things in the quarantine have gone terribly wrong. At least the threat is contained, but she finds herself hating Poppy for leaving them with no means to communicate with the rest of the hospital.

She regrets not having snuck in her phone instead of leaving it in the locker room like she always has since she’d heard the directive of total radio silence. But at the same time, how could she have predicted this?

Charlie and Clara were just two dumb rich kids with a weird infection. No one could have known they would turn into those things. If anyone had, surely they wouldn’t have brought them here? Or they would have evacuated the rest of the hospital…

Wouldn’t they?

A loud bang in the corridor outside startles her out of her thoughts.

Now is really not the time for this. If there is indeed some kind of conspiracy going on, it’s all the more reason for her to get out of here.

She has to operate under the assumption she is the last one standing on this floor and the only one who can make sure that this stays contained.

She clenches her fist until the sharp bite of her nails in her palms finishes bringing her world back into focus.

Somehow, she’s found herself in a utility closet, which means she will have no choice but to get out again, but at least she won’t go out unarmed. She would have preferred a gun like those she’s seen on the belts of the guards sent by Poppy over a wrench, but at the same time, it’s not like the guns had done them any good. They hadn’t even had the time to shoot, too shocked by the bloody scene in front of their eyes.

The heavy weight of the tool in her hand is still comforting however, and no matter how unnaturally strong those things are, she is pretty sure that braining them will have the same effect on them as on any other living creature. She would rather not have to resort to that of course, in case there is still hope for them, but she won’t lose sleep about defending herself. She has a family to go home to after all and she promised Daisy that they would go to the zoo on her next day off.

Michelle’s an Unwin and Unwins don’t go about breaking their promises.

After a bracing breath, she slowly opens the door. It’s just a crack at first, but she can’t detect any movement. Not even the smallest shadow moving on the ground or the walls.

Feeling slightly more confident, she opens it all the way and carefully steps outside.

The corridor truly is empty and she does her best not to make too much noise with her biohazard gear as she walks to the nearest staircase, keeping close to the wall.

Since the floor is under quarantine, it will automatically trigger an alarm, but now that she thinks about it, it’s actually a good idea. Much better than to try and make her way to the elevators, where she would lose precious time unlocking the main doors before she could even press the button to call them.

When she finally sees the doors to the stairs, she feels like she could weep in relief. Instead, she grips her wrench tighter.

Now is not the time to let down her guard. It’s a rookie mistake and her military career might be decades behind her, but if she’s here today, it’s because she’s learned from everyone else’s mistakes in her unit.

She knows better than to start running, not when she hasn’t attracted any attention so far. Easy does it apparently in this situation, and she won’t change tactics until she has proof it would actually be better.

She freezes suddenly when she hears a sickening cracking sound coming from a room across from her. She should ignore it, she should continue on her way, but some morbid curiosity makes her peer inside.

She regrets it instantly, her resulting shocked gasp bringing the two things’ focus away from the brains they’re eating and onto her. She meets Charlie’s gaze briefly, but it’s just long enough for her to recognize that his eyes are empty of any signs of consciousness.

That’s when she finally starts running.

She hears them snarl behind her, but she doesn’t lose time checking if they are giving her chase or not.

As she barrels through the door, the alarm starts ringing, deafening after the eerie silence. It makes her falter for a bit, long enough that she can feel one of them gripping at her gear, but she pushes the doors closed on the outstretched arm before it can drag her back.

Without losing a second, she jams the wrench in the door handles just as the two things start throwing themselves against them. By some miracle, it holds against them, but she doesn’t stay to see for how long, nearly tripping in her haste to get to the floor below.

 

*

All day it crawled through town slowly, feasting on whatever small animals crossed its path, but none of those sated the hunger it feels.

In fact, if it had been capable of any thought, it would have recognized that the hunger has only grown the more it ate. But it isn’t capable of it and so, it only keeps going forward, getting bolder, attacking bigger and bigger preys.

Sudden growling and barking scare away the cat it had been stalking, but it matters not. Not when it brings its attention to something even better.

Right there, a few meters away, it lands eyes on the biggest prey it has seen yet, undisturbed by the dog’s warnings of nearing danger.

The dog itself is a scrawny thing, shivering in fright even as it tries to intimidate, but the creature isn’t concerned by something that is smaller than itself.

Its hunger is its only drive.

Before it can catch its new prey however, a harsh artificial brightness illuminates the area and makes it freeze in place.

“JB! Cut it ou- What the fuck?”

An even bigger prey steps out of the light and dashes to grab its young and carry it out of its reach. The preys retreat into the shelter of rock and glass quickly, the dog following on their heels, before the creature can attack.

It doesn’t stop it from trying however, but only crashes painfully against the now sealed entrance.

“Eggsy! Go get my gun!”

“The fuck is that?”

Now Eggsy!”

It snarls in frustration, pawing at the entrance, excited by the terrified shrieks from the youngest prey. But its efforts are to no avail and still it hungers and so, it gives up.

There are easier preys to get.

 

*

Valentine nearly falls out of his chair when Dr. Ginger suddenly rises from her own seat, after being as still as a statue for the past hour.

He’s not the only one who has been startled by the abrupt motion, Gazelle’s hidden knife falling in her hand before she realises there is no threat for her to fight off.

“What is it?”

“We need to go!” It’s rather disturbing to see someone who had been so calm while Gazelle explained what exactly she would do to her if she even thought of betraying them look so frantic now. But even if he doesn’t personally know the good doctor, there is no hiding the horror in her eyes as she quickly grab her things. “Come on! We can’t lose time! Grab everything you’ve got!”

Valentine does as she says without thinking, because for someone looking so meek, she’s got a pretty commanding presence when she wants to.

But Gazelle isn’t so easily cowed and she squints her eyes on a way that usually spells danger and pain for whoever is at the other side of her gaze. “Why?”

“‘Why’?” Dr Ginger stares at Gazelle as if she’s grown another head, but Valentine must admit his friend’s got a point. What’s the hurry? No one is going to get them here. “I’ll tell you ‘why’! Because this is bigger than you think it is! If we don’t warn someone soon-”

“Woah! Wait, we ain’t ready to go public ye-”

“If you don’t, there soon won’t be any ‘public’ for you to warn!” Gazelle starts dismissing her, but Dr. Ginger meets her eyes dead on, her face so serious it’s downright scary. “Explaining what Poppy did would waste time we don’t have to spare, but believe me, if we don’t act now, it will be too late for everyone.”

The two women glare at each other for a very long time, a battle of wills if Valentine has ever seen one.

Surprisingly, it’s Gazelle who looks away first, but not before her face twists into something like grudging respect.

“Let’s go V, we do what she says.”

He shudders, the bad feeling from when he had been about to break into Poppy Pharm’s lab back with a vengeance. If Gazelle is willing to defer to a near stranger simply on her say so, things are well and truly fucked.

But as he continues to gather his things, his phone chimes with an email alert. He thinks of ignoring it at first, right until he catches sight of the sender. Dr. Ginger and Gazelle pay him no mind as he sits back down to read the message carefully, looking for any kind of hidden catch. Though in light of Dr. Ginger’s revelations, if there is indeed one, it’s one he’s willing to live with.

“Girls, come and read this please?”

Chapter Text

There isn’t a knock, not even the sound of air as Roxy opens the door and steps inside. But Merlin still knows that she’s there, waiting patiently for his acknowledgement.

“I know why you’re here Roxy, but I don’t have anything I can use yet, at least not legally.” He turns in his chair and looks over his desk at her. “Unless you are here to bring me good news.”

“Not so much good news, but perhaps a strategy.”

Merlin nods and holds a hand out towards the couch for her. She walks over to sit and he gets up to pour them both a finger of scotch, the hour be damned.

“You aren’t the only one who’s looking into Poppy,” she says as she takes the glass he offers. He settles in next to her and sips his drink as she continues. “And you aren’t the only one who knows that there is something wrong at Poppy Pharm.”

“You’re talking about Jack.”

She nods and takes a sip of her own drink. “He’s smart. He’s going to be looking into her for the hikers, and he may find information that will help you. And you know that you are going to need him to actually make the arrest. But I wasn’t only talking about him.” She points her finger at him, glass still in hand. “You have Hesketh as well.”

Merlin looks up at her at that, confused. “Poppy is suing him, and as our client there is nothing that I can do to change that. The trial date is set and we’re going to get her everything she’s asking for.”

“But you don’t need to go to trial. Poppy wants revenge over what Hesketh stole, to take everything she thinks she’s owed from his disloyalty. But we don’t need a trial to do that. Offer him a settlement.”

“That’s not going to win him to my side. It’s going to push him away.”

“Not if he isn’t the one paying.”

There is silence between them as Merlin mulls over what she isn’t saying.

“Valentine,” he says with sudden realization.

“You promise not to indict him as the one who masterminded the theft, and in exchange he pays off the settlement for Charlie. And Charlie, in return for not paying or standing trial, agrees to testify against Poppy for what she’s doing in that laboratory.”

“It’s going to depend on Valentine. I doubt that Hesketh is going to have any problems turning on Poppy. But Valentine might not be so willing to part with his money with no guarantee that we’ll be able to stop Poppy in court. He’s used to doing things less than legally to get what he wants.”

“None of that, Merlin. You’ve got Harry and Eggsy and myself on this case with you. You and I both know that’s enough of a guarantee.”

Merlin chuckles softly. They are the best damn lawyers in the city. If anyone can bring down Poppy, it’s them. They both sip their drinks and let the quiet settle around them.

Eventually Roxy breaks the silence. “Have you talked to Eggsy yet today?”

“Nae, I’ve been in and out of meetings. Why, is everything alright with the lad?”

“It’s... I’m actually not sure. Something happened last night, something with his sister and a creature in their yard, and then he wasn’t able to get through to his mother at the hospital…”

Merlin quirks his eyebrow at that. He’s heard whispers from the associates and amongst the other partners that there is something strange happening in the city. But he mostly puts it down to paranoia. There has never been a quarantine at the hospital that has gone on this long that he remembers, and people are letting their imaginations get the better of them.

“Is everyone alright?”

“Yeah. He said his father scared it off with a shotgun, but he’s still a little rattled. I thought you might give him a little slack today because of it.”

Merlin only shakes his head. “Sorry lass, but I need all hands on deck. We’ve got a mountain of cases and I can’t afford for anyone to be distracted. But get him a coffee on me, and I’ll try not to keep him too late tonight if I can.”

Roxy drains her glass and stands up. “Alright Merlin, but I’m giving him the Henderson case. No need to rub the quarantine at the hospital in his face on top of everything else.”

They nod at each other and Merlin finishes his own drink as he watches her leave.

Roxy is smart. Already she and Eggsy are outpacing the other first year associates. And the Valentine suggestion, it’s a good strategy if he can spin it in a way that will appease both Chester and Poppy before...well before he stabs Chester in the back by turning on one of their clients.

He sighs and moves back to his desk, glass left beside Roxy’s on the table. If he’s not careful, this is all going to backfire and instead of Poppy coming to justice, he’s going to find himself out of a job and with one of the richest corporations in the world out for his blood. But as he sits behind his laptop and thinks about all the things he dug up in Poppy’s servers, he knows he can’t just sit on his hands.

But, first things first. He needs to find Valentine and see if he’s even willing to work with them.

Merlin pulls out his spare laptop and boots it up, taking a moment to consider his options. But once he’s decided, it takes him no time at all to trace that very first thread from Clara Von Gluckfberg back to Valentine’s system. The man has skill, but it doesn’t match up to Merlin’s.

He starts typing an email.

 

--

The weather is cold and wet, but Merlin sits outside the cafe anyways, the steam from his tea forming a soft cloud around him in the air. Harry watches from his seat beside the plate glass window and thinks how glad he is that he doesn’t need to be out there as well; the dampness would ruin his suit.

He’s sure it would have been more to Valentine’s -- or rather, Harry thinks, his intermediary Gazelle’s -- preferences to meet inside and amongst all the bustling people. But what they’re here to discuss is not for anyone else to hear, and Harry admires that Merlin has no intention of giving Valentine even an inch before they’ve begun.

Harry stares out the window as his fingers play idly with the edge of the folder in front of him.  He does hope Valentine shows up soon, Harry hates waiting and the music choice inside the cafe leaves something to be desired.

Ten minutes later, Harry watches as a woman comes out from an alley and stalks across the street. She’s dressed in all black, the collar of her trench coat popped up around her neck. If she looked anymore like she was up to no good she’d be a cliche, and Harry barely restrains from rolling his eyes.

Merlin, ever in control of his expressions, looks up at her with only slightly narrowed eyes. Harry can’t hear their conversation, but he sips at his tea as he watches Gazelle sit down across from Merlin with a wary look and they start to talk.

It takes a little longer than Harry expects for Merlin to convince Gazelle of their sincerity, and he’ll be sure to tease Merlin about losing his touch later. But eventually Gazelle pulls out her phone and makes a call.

He knows that it won’t be long now before it’s his turn, so Harry flags down the waitress and asks for another tea, but to-go this time.

A taxi pulls up beside the cafe, and a man steps out that can be none other than Richmond Valentine. The charming smile he gives in Merlin’s direction is weakened by the absolutely atrocious ball cap and sneakers he has paired with his sport coat. Harry cringes at just how poorly he and Gazelle are at keeping a low profile.

Harry watches as Valentine takes a seat next to Gazelle and leans back in his chair. He affects an air of confidence but not well enough, and Harry can tell that he’s not comfortable with anything about this situation.

They talk for a few minutes, and when Merlin stretches and taps the back of his head, Harry knows that Merlin has them right where they need them for his information to have the biggest impact.

He steps out the door and is to Merlin’s table in three long strides. Gazelle is immediately on her feet, hand inside her coat. But Harry knows her type, has represented a few of them or been on the other side of the courtroom to them, and he knows that even if she is dangerous, that she isn’t going to do anything in public by the side of a busy street, regardless of her appearance.

So he ignores her and stares directly at Valentine as he tosses the file onto the table right in front of him.

“You might think you’re good at hiding your assets, and maybe you are from government men, but not from me. That bank in the Caymans was a very obvious choice.”

Gazelle looks from Valentine to Harry, still standing with her hand inside her coat. But when Valentine waves his hand and picks up the folder, she removes her hand and settles back into her seat, eyes still cautious.

“True, but it serves its purpose. And who might you be?” he asks as he skims the contents of the folder. He doesn’t look at Harry, but Harry knows that Valentine is thrown, despite his put on air of nonchalance.

“Harry Hart. Corporate Finance. Which means that I know you have enough funds to pay off the settlement to Poppy and still have plenty for your charitable contributions. The folder shows how you’re going to do it so that it can’t be traced back to you or to us.”

“You’re that confident that we are going to agree?” Valentine asks as he tosses the file to the table in front of Merlin.

Harry smirks as Merlin leans forward in his seat and slowly pushes the folder back, deliberately making a point of straightening it to align with the edge of the table before sitting back.

“Aye, we are. There is no way that you will take down a corporation as massive as Poppy Pharmaceuticals with just the two of you and the cloak and dagger routine. And as much as neither of us is fond of working with the other, we also don’t want to see Poppy get away with what she’s doing in that laboratory.”

Valentine looks between Harry and Merlin and frowns before leaning in closer to Gazelle.

“Dr. Ginger did seem convinced that this was more serious than we’d thought,” Valentine murmurs to Gazelle. “Maybe he has a point. We can’t take down Poppy Pharm completely by ourselves and it seems as though, on this, we’re all on the same side.”

Gazelle glares at Merlin, eyes narrow and mouth drawn tight. But Merlin just relaxes into his chair and sips his tea. Harry watches the way Valentine keeps glancing back at them, and listens to the way he talks about Dr. Ginger. Merlin’s right of course, they’re going to agree. It’s only a matter of how much of a fight they put up to save face.

They wait patiently while Gazelle and Valentine stare at each other, but after a few moments they must come to some sort of silent agreement because Valentine turns back to them and starts talking. “We have a biologist, Dr. Elizabeth Ginger. She’s analyzed the data that we acquired from Poppy’s lab, and she needs someone’s help to stop what Poppy’s doing. Dr. Ginger seems to think it’s far more dangerous than just animal testing.”

It takes a minute for him to make the right connection, but then Harry knows where he’s heard that name. She was the expert witness for the opposing counsel in the Evan’s case last year. She is also one of the only expert witnesses he’s ever encountered that he wasn’t able to shake.

Working with Valentine is going to get them a lot farther than he originally thought.

Harry sits down beside Merlin, smirk still on his face, and takes a long sip of his tea. They make a decent cuppa here, even if the atmosphere leaves something to be desired. He’s going to have to come back again to see if their coffee is just as good.

 

--

James paces back and forth in his office. There has to be a way that he can spin this to his advantage, but he’s too preoccupied to give it any proper consideration. He can’t focus on setting up a defense when his mind seems stuck processing the knowledge that his clients are quite obviously guilty of consuming human brains. He gags a little at the thought.

Eventually he sinks down into the chair behind his desk and sighs wearily. Those problems will have to wait. First, he needs to contact the Kingsman lawyers representing Poppy Pharmaceuticals and let them know that Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg are no longer fit to stand trial.

A few minutes later, the ringing on the other side of the line is interrupted by a deep Scottish brogue.

“Merlin.”

“Hello Merlin. This is James Spencer. I represent Charlie Hesketh and Clara Von Gluckfberg.”

“Ah, hello James. I was just getting some paperwork ready to send over to your office in the morning.”

“Then I’m glad that I called. There has been a… complication with my clients. They are no longer of sound mind, and I think it best they aren’t present for the proceedings. I’ll be contacting the judge to reschedule the trial--”

“Actually, that might not be necessary,” Merlin interrupts. “The paperwork we were sending over was for a settlement offer. If Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg are no longer mentally competent, perhaps you would be amenable to us presenting the settlement offer in person to their families instead. No need to bring this before a judge if it can be handled privately.”

James hums. Presuming the offer is reasonable, he has no problem seeing this case over with sooner rather than later. “I don’t have any objections to that. I’ll look into arranging something and get back to you.”

“Thank you, James. You’ll have the paperwork soon.” Merlin pauses for a moment. “And let me say, I hope that the reason your clients are no longer fit has nothing to do with their quarantine at the hospital.”

James gives a weak laugh. “It has everything to do with the quarantine. Just… make sure you stay away from the hospital, Merlin. I’ll contact you soon about the meeting. Goodbye.”

James hangs up the phone and turns his chair to look out the window onto the city at night. He imagines that one of the lights out on the horizon is the hospital, and he is thankful that it’s so far away. He doesn’t want to be anywhere near the mess that the government must be making as they deal with the broken quarantine.

 

--

The Von Gluckfberg house is nicer than the one that he grew up in as a kid, but it’s showing signs of age. The outside could use a new coat of paint, and some of the windows are fogged. Eggsy walks up the cracked driveway towards the front porch and wishes that Merlin had sent someone else to do this.

Regardless of what their children did, these families are suffering now, and he’s coming in as the bearer of even more bad news. His mind goes to his mother, finally home with his father and sister after the hours stuck in the secondary quarantine and the extensive testing to make sure that she wasn’t infected. If she had tested positive for whatever it is that Charlie and Clara have…

Eggsy shakes his head to clear the thoughts. Now is not the time. He has a job to do, as much as he’d rather not.

He rings the doorbell and waits while a stern looking man opens the door for him.

“Hello, Mr. Von Gluckfberg? My name is Eggsy Unwin of Kingsman.”

The man nods and opens the door wider for Eggsy to come in. “Hello Mr. Unwin. The Heskeths and Mr Spencer are already here. Please follow me.”

As Eggsy closes the door behind him and follows Mr. Von Gluckfberg, he can’t help but look around at the numerous photos that line the hall. Many of them are of Clara at varying ages. Family photos and beauty pageants, graduation and vacations. As Eggsy reaches the living room where everyone is gathered, he passes a photo of Charlie and Clara together, at some sort of mountain resort. Fuzzy hats and thick coats, a towering mountain in the background, and both with beaming smiles. Eggsy swallows down the unpleasant taste in his mouth.

When they are all seated and introduced, Eggsy clears his throat and dives right in.

"I- First, I just want to tell you how sorry I am to hear about Charlie and Clara's... condition. It's… bloody awful is what it is. And I know my timing is just as bad and I wish I could do anything to change that, but I can't."

Mr. Spencer has surely shown both families copies of the paperwork, but Eggsy is always sure to do his job properly, so he pulls a fresh copy from his briefcase.

It’s different from the one that he had been drafting the night that Mr. Spencer had contacted Merlin. With Charlie now unable to testify against Poppy when they finally bring her to court, Valentine's payment was off the table.

And while Merlin could bring this to trial instead, and most certainly win for more than the current offer, they all knew that what happened to Charlie and Clara was due to what was going on at Poppy Pharm. They are going to offer them this settlement -- that while less than Poppy would have wanted from them, will still make lives difficult for both families -- and then join forces with Valentine and his expert to bring her down.

But the knowledge of what they are going to do to Poppy doesn’t make what he’s doing on behalf of Poppy now any easier. Especially with both families looking at him with loss and fear and resignation in their eyes.

“As I’m sure Mr Spencer has explained, I’m here offering a settlement agreement between your two families and Poppy Pharmaceuticals for the theft of proprietary information…”

Chapter Text

Except the evenings he’s entertaining, silence usually reigns in Chester’s house, even when he’s present. He’s never been one for the mindless chatter of radio, completely abhors television and he’s always been of the opinion that the only place to appreciate music is at the opera.

He knows some people are too weak to deal with their own thoughts, but as he gets older, he’s found that his own company is probably the only one truly worthy of his attention. Heavens know he hasn’t had any semblance of intelligent conversation in a months. Even his esteemed colleagues are getting far too sensitive to his taste. And that’s without mentioning the new hires. A woman and a chav. It’s enough to makes him wonder where the world is going.

It would be enough to tempt a lesser man into retirement, but Chester has never been one to stay idle at home. He likes feeling productive, even if nowadays, it’s only by making sure everyone is really doing whatever they should be doing at the office.

The thought reminds him that he should probably send a text to the chav, make sure he got the Von Gluckfbergs and Heskeths to sign on that settlement agreement. He doesn’t trust him not to have messed up even that most basic of tasks, but forcing Merlin to send him instead of a senior partner or going in himself did send a powerful message to the family that they weren’t even a blip on the firm’s radar.

Miss Adams might disagree, but even if he is willing to concede she is a mastermind when it comes to the pharmaceutical world, she doesn’t really understands the stakes that are at play in the legal world. Valentine is the big fish they want to fry, the rest is mere casualty.

He realises just how late it’s gotten when he unlocks his phone and thinks briefly that it can wait until morning. Surely the chav is asleep by now. But really, that’s not Chester’s problem if he is. As an associate, he should always be available and ready to answer. If Chester can’t reach him, it could be grounds for a formal complaint and then a dismissal, something he’s been more than looking forward to do. It would show Hart once and for all that they have no time to lose on charity cases.

A loud crashing sound outside makes him drop his phone before he can even pull up the contacts on his screen. It’s sheer luck it falls on the rug rather than the floor, because he really doesn’t feel like getting yet another lecture from Merlin about how he should take better care of his work equipment. It’s not his fault that technology is getting frailer every year and can’t sustain hard shocks or wine spills.

But that doesn’t matter for now. Whatever he’s heard, there is very little doubt it came from his backyard. The tall hedges all around his yard makes it near impossible for any outside noise to disturb him. Anyway, in such a calm neighborhood as the one he lives in, such nightly disturbances are completely unheard of, except if a thief or some such lowlife had the bad idea to come looking for trouble.

He walks up to the nearest window and pushes the curtains out of his way, squinting into the darkness in the hope of spotting what could have caused the noise. For a long moment, he can’t distinguish one shadow from another, but as his eyes get accustomed to the lack of light outside, he notices that one of his hedges is has been completely ruined.

Just quite how he doesn’t understand since they are several feet thick, but there is no way he is waiting until the morning to investigate just what happened. If there are any troublemakers out right now, they’ll soon regret coming all the way here to mess with his property.

After grabbing a poker from the fireplace, he turns on the garden light on his way out of the patio doors, regretting for a moment not taking the time to put on more sensible footwear than mere slippers, but the cool dampness of the wooden deck won’t make him turn back now. He’s made of sterner stuff than that.

It’s not long before he makes it down the stairs of the deck into the garden proper and he’s about to set out for the hole in his hegde when a sudden movement in the periphery of his vision make him turn toward the other end of his backyard where the shed stands.

The lights can’t quite illuminate that area but he thinks he can make out a darker shadow slowly moving in the dark. For a moment, he thinks of going back inside and calling the police, before dismissing the idea scornfully. Sure, he’ll call them in the end if there is really a thief to bring to the station, but he’s not so old yet that he can’t deal with some mediocre delinquent that can’t even make sure nobody’s home before attempting a robbery. It might have been a while since he served, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a marine. Some things, you simply never forget.

He gets a better grip around the poker he’s holding, ready to thrust it forward to stab whoever is coming at him or bring it up to defend himself, and steps out from the comforting zone created by the lights on his deck.

As he gets close to the shed, he starts smelling something putrid and it’s with great effort that he keeps the bile from rising in his throat. He doesn’t understand how that scent can be here, in the middle of a great city. It makes absolutely no sense for the air to carry the overbearing decay of rotten flesh, the memories rising in his mind at the unfortunately familiar scent making his palms sweaty around the iron of his makeshift weapon.

But if anything, it makes his resolve to see this thing through stronger. Whatever is happening right now, it’s nothing good. He’d be a disgrace if he were to run away now, undeserving of the name King.

Finally, he can make out the shape of whatever is crawling on the ground through the shadows, a quiet horror rising in his chest when it starts dawning on him that whatever is in front of him isn’t human or animal. It’s a… A thing. An abomination.

The thing seems to have noticed him because it emits a sound that is between beastly growl and breathless moan right before it lunges at him.

Or rather, it tries to, but Chester is ready for it.

As the poker swings to connect with what passes for its head, he feels like all his life, he’s been preparing for this moment somehow. He hears a sickening crack even as the thing is projected through the air against the wall of the shed and he stumbles back from the shock of the collision. It’s not enough to lose his footing, but it’s a second of inattention that proves fatal when it comes to facing this particular enemy.

He’s barely gotten his bearings back that the thing is jumping on him again, as if the pain it should have felt somehow hasn’t registered or if it hasn’t been enough to stop it. This time, he barely gets to bring the poker up before the thing collides with him, making him fall on his back to the ground.

He knows from experience that he’s surely pulled something and that he’ll feel it for weeks, but for now, the adrenaline does its work and he can ignore the discomfort in favor of pushing his arms and the abomination away from him.

From this close, the stench coming from the creature is nearly unbearable and if he wasn’t fighting for what he is sure is his life, Chester would be retching all over the ground in pure repulsion.

The creature snaps its teeth at him, in a clear attempt to bite him, but Chester is still holding up against it. Though he fears it won’t be for long, not with the way he can feel his arms shaking under the deceptively heavy weight of the thing on top of him.

In a move he had all but forgotten, he manages to twist around and dislodge the creature from him, swiftly thrusting his poker through the creature’s chest and pining it to the ground, a shiver coursing through him at the cry of pure agony it gives off.

He doesn’t stay long enough to watch it expire however, backing away to the house as quickly as his bad back allows him to. He isn’t sure who exactly he needs to call, but he’ll figure it out. Or rather, he’ll yell at someone until they figure out who to send to get the impaled thing in his garden away.

He’s made it to the steps of the deck when he hears a disturbing sound, like a wet cracking and more groans from the creature and he makes the mistake of turning around rather than continuing to the safety of his house.

He freezes in absolute terror when he sees that the creature has somehow risen from the ground and out of the poker, showing no sign of distress at having a gaping hole in its chest now.

This time when the creature charges, there is no escape.

He cannot even cry out, his voice lost in a pathetic gurgle as the creature tears away at his throat with its teeth, bare claws sinking into the flesh of his chest like a knife into butter.

 

*

The need to throw something at the wall in a fit of rage is getting harder and harder to resist since the break-in into what Poppy’s head of security had sworn was the most secured laboratory on earth. She has to wonder just what state her competitors’ labs are in after the absolute fiasco at the lab if hers is supposed to be the best of the best.

Or she would if she had a minute to spare on such trivial matters when she has a crisis on her hands.

But Valentine didn’t only get away with her precious research that night, he also stole the fruit of her hard labor and that, that she cannot abide.

She had been briefly reassured when she had found out about the hikers’ attack and what they had described of the event since it clearly meant her baby had freed itself from Valentine’s clutches. She didn’t want to imagine what use Valentine would have made of it if he had succeeded in keeping it to himself.

Not that she had known it was Valentine at the time, since the accident had demonstrated just how clueless the people she had hired to protect her company truly were. No, she had had to wait for Chester King’s team to finally get some real results. Apparently, when he brags about how he only recruits the best of the best, he isn’t lying.

Unlike some soon-to-be ex -head of security Poppy just so happens to currently have on her payroll.

After hearing Chester’s good news, she had thought herself magnanimous enough to keep Angel in his position once he brought back what Valentine had so carelessly set free, but of course he had to go and disappoint her.

Not that she had been unhappy to be reunited with Bennie and Jet. They might not have been quite the successful experiment she had wanted them to be at first, but they had given her scientists valuable insights to come up with the final zombie virus. Without them there simply wouldn’t be any Patient Zero.

She’d rather just have the Patient Zero back instead if she could choose.

Even though setting him loose would be unavoidable to show the world’s leaders just how seriously the threat of a zombie plague is, the serum production is not quite at the levels she wants them to be. She needs an adequate supply ready just in time for her to play the selfless heroine and then some more to sell once the crisis is averted and fear of being the next country hit by this new disease leads various governments and paranoid rich third parties to stock up on the miracle cure.

But all her careful planning is for naught if Angel keeps failing in his simple task of bringing Patient Zero back where it belongs for now, in the controlled environment of the labs.

“What do you mean you still haven’t found Elton?” Somehow her professional ‘approachable boss’ smile must still be pasted on her lips, because Angel is smiling back at her, albeit extremely sheepishly. “I thought you said you had good news!”

“I do Miss Poppy, I do! I now have definite intel about its location! No room for error!”

Poppy feels her eye twitch and she wisely pushes the heavy paperweight on her desk out of easy reach, lest she throws it at Angel’s face. Right now, she doesn’t need that kind of bad press. Not that she has any doubt Chester and his team could make anything disappear before it affected her stocks too much, but rumors of her having a short temper and a violent streak could be far more damaging in the long run than the breach in lab.

“Why aren’t you over there then?” She doesn’t quite snap the words at him, but there’s a definite bite in her tone that makes him sit up even straighter.

“You said you wanted personal updates Miss Poppy! And my team is already on its way to retrieve Patient Z- erm, Elton”

She forces herself to calm down when she realises that she did give Angel those instructions after news of an attack in the city had been reported to her. That attack seems to have set off a wave of panic in the general population and become the first of many bizarre accidents, but at least Elton doesn’t seem to have hurt anyone else quite yet.

She doubts anyone could make the connection between it and Poppy Pharm -- at least, not a connection she couldn’t easily deny -- but she doesn’t want to risk anyone else capturing it. The thought of others exploiting her creation to their own nefarious ends is more infuriating to her than Angel’s constant failures at bringing Elton back to her.

It’s at the thought of another such failure that she’s finally prompted into action.

“Alright Angel, bring me to Elton.”

He flounders a bit, but at least he knows better than to argue or ask about her sudden change of heart. Since the beginning, she had wanted plausible deniability, but in light of her employees’ flagrant incompetence, she simply has no choice.

One is never better served than by themselves after all.

 

*

Relentlessly, it throws itself against the bars of the cage, heedless of the powerful electric shocks coursing its body everytime it makes contact.

The only thing that matters is that there is prey on the other side. Big prey. Bigger than anything it has feasted on so far.

If only it wasn’t trapped, maybe it could finally be sated.

“Oh wonderful! Look at that cutie! Isn’t it adorable?”

The the scent coming from this prey is… familiar.

But it’s not enough to distract it from the finger poking into the cage.

Unfortunately, it’s not fast enough and its teeth only snap around thin air as a delighted giggle rings through the air.

“Are you still hungry even after eating poor old Chester? Such an appetite you have. You naughty boy, eating Mommy’s friends. But that’s okay, Mommy will still bring you home, I’m sure you miss it, don’t you Elton?”

 

*

After the freedom of running aimlessly in the forest, being trapped in their cages again immediately becomes unbearable. But no amount of throwing themselves against the bars, of barking, growling and howling, of snapping and clawing at whatever comes near enough -- none of it changes the unforgiven reality of confinement.

Injections and samples start in the hour following their return to the lab, the jabbing pain of needles and scalpels making Bennie and Jet lash out with renewed desperation, but their keepers and torturers have learned to deal with their hostility long before they escaped.

It doesn’t stop them from trying, especially once their hunger make itself known again.

After the thrill of their hunt and the coppery taste of fresh meat, the sight of dry kibbles is off-putting and there is no doubt that it won’t do anything to satiate their hunger now.

Jet grows more ferocious as time passes, the fear of their keepers whenever they approach its cage only provoking him more. Meanwhile Bennie gets despondent, its snarl a pitiful sound.

And then suddenly, days later, Jet calms down and Bennie perks up, to the great confusion of the technician minding them at the time. They turn to look intently at the door of the lab, their nose high up as they sniff the air, the rotten scent of death reaching them before they can even hear the familiar clicking of heels on linoleum.

They start yipping as the door opens, tails wagging with great force against the walls of their cages.

“Look who Mommy brought back boys! Elton’s back home! Aren’t you happy?”

The following wild yowl would have had them rolled on their belly in submission if there had been enough space to do so in the confines of their cages.

Chapter Text

“Chester’s dead.”

Eggsy’s voice is not as impartial as he thinks it is, and Harry knows that Eggsy isn’t going to lose sleep over the matter anytime soon. But Harry has worked under Chester for nearly three decades, and even if he didn’t like the man, his death gives him a moment’s pause.

“Dead? How?” Chester might have been getting on in years, but Harry’s always thought the man would outlive them all out of spite in order to keep anyone else from taking over as managing partner.

They both sit down on the couch in his office, and Eggsy suddenly looks very uncomfortable.

“I…Roxy heard about it from Jack, but I guess they aren’t really sure. What he did tell her was that it was messy. They found...pieces of him around his back yard. She said there’s speculation that it’s from the same strange creature that’s been seen around the city.”

The fact that it’s the same creature that tried to attack his little sister goes unsaid, but Harry reaches out and rests a hand on his knee regardless.

“Daisy is safe. And neither of us can truly say that Chester didn’t have it coming.”

Harry sits back and stares out the window at the city. The lights twinkle back at him and he lets the knowledge of Chester’s death sink in.

 

--

The elevator dings and Merlin steps out onto the floor. He quirks an eyebrow as he looks around at the vacant reception desk and darkened space behind and heads in the direction of the only lights shining at the back.

As he walks past the jungle of potted plants and the strange art about cuts of beef, Merlin frivolously wonders if he should turn back around and have someone else bring Poppy the paperwork.

He’s never been to her corporate offices before. Usually she makes her way to Kingsman, or invites them out to discuss work over dinner at the fifties diner she owns in the heart of the city. Merlin hates the food there, but one of the things Chester was very clear about when he gave Merlin Poppy as a client, was that you never, ever refuse Poppy’s invitation to dinner.

When Merlin reaches her office, he lifts his hand to knock when he hears someone clearing their throat. He looks over to see a man sitting in the corner watching the hall in front of her door.

“Identify yourself,” says the man, hand slipping inside his coat.

A guard? Merlin thinks. He knew Poppy was paranoid, but she is getting worse. Although maybe now she finally has a reason to be.

“I’m Merlin from Kingsman. I’m Miss Poppy Adams’ attorney.”

The guard looks at him a moment longer before he nods his head and presses the intercom button on the wall beside him. “Poppy, you expecting a lawyer tonight?”

Poppy’s voice comes out over the speaker, the fake sweetness to her tone setting Merlin’s teeth on edge.

“Oh yes, please send him in. And don’t forget to make sure that no one else has come in behind him!”

The guard presses the button to buzz open the door and waves his hand in Merlin’s direction. Merlin doesn’t waste any time, opening the door and heading immediately into Poppy’s private office.

“Good evening, Poppy.”

“Merlin! Thank you so much for bringing the documents to me. I would have loved to take you to dinner, but I have some work that I just can’t get away from tonight. But I’ll be sure that we have a reservation for next time. I’ll even have the chef cook us up some of his specialty burgers.”

Trying not to gag at the thought of the terrible food, he plasters on a fake smile, and thankfully Poppy doesn’t seem to notice. “Of course, Poppy. I have the paperwork I need you to sign to complete the settlement with Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg right here.”

“I had a lovely chat with Chester before his gruesome death. He told me why you didn’t want to take this to trial even though he guaranteed our winning,” she says as Merlin gets the papers from his briefcase. “Making sure that the company doesn’t get any more negative press now that the criminals are… sick is a sensible idea. But I’m not happy that we aren’t taking them for everything but the clothes on their backs.”

“I understand,” he says as he hands over the papers. “But I think you’ll find this at least somewhat satisfactory.”

Despite Poppy’s strange personality, Merlin has to give her some credit for not just being another rich CEO with no actual idea how things work. She’s smart, and she takes the paperwork he hands her and starts to read through it rather than simply signing on the dotted line.

He stands and waits at the side of her desk while she reads, looking around at the office. Two large, upholstered chairs; vintage photos and art; fifties themed momentos; it feels like stepping back in time and Merlin feels decidedly out of place in his bespoke suit.

Finally she picks up her pen and carefully signs her name along the bottom of the final page. An alert chimes from Poppy’s computer just as she is handing the paperwork back to him. The screen, previously black, comes to life and Merlin can’t help the way his eyes are drawn to the movement. He only gets a glance at it before she turns it off and he is rounding back around her desk, paperwork in hand, but what he does see makes his blood run cold.

It was a security feed, from multiple angles and overlaid with what looked to be vitals. The subject was a… Merlin isn’t sure what, black as night and strangely proportioned, strapped down to a steel bed.

Was that supposed to be a human? What in the world is she hiding in that laboratory?

Merlin grits his teeth as he says his goodbyes and heads back out of the office. At least having this mess with Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg settled, he can finally start the ball rolling on an end to whatever is going on at Poppy Pharmaceuticals.

 

--

Jack groans and leans back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling. There is a headache brewing right behind his eyes but he already knows that no medicine he takes will touch it. It’s the stress, and nothing besides solving this case is going to bring him relief.

It’s nothing new for him -- cases have their own progression. Some practically hand Jack the evidence to put away the bad guy on a silver platter. But others fight him. There are too many days in a row spent waiting and hoping for something to happen, some clue that will unlock all the rest of the information he needs to finally arrest someone.

The case against Poppy Pharm is the latter, lingering with little for him to go on.

The park rangers didn’t find the escaped lab animals, and after a few days the reported sightings stopped coming in too. No judge would issue him a search warrant of Poppy’s laboratory because of the proprietary research, and when Jack attempted to convince her head of security that it would be in their best interest to give him access, he was just laughed at and ushered back out the door.

He has no evidence of foul play and no ability to gather any without a way to gain access to Poppy’s lab. All he has is the hikers, who he’s no longer able to even visit inside the growing quarantine at the hospital, their initial report, and a feeling in his gut that something very wrong is going on.

With a sigh, Jack leans back over his desk and shuffles the papers there as though it might shake something out for him to use.

A noise near the doors draws his gaze, so he sees the moment a well dressed woman walks in. She looks around the room as she approaches the man at the front desk. Unlike a lot of the people he sees walk into the station, she isn’t nervous. She has the look of a woman who knows exactly what she wants and plans to get it. Jack immediately wonders whether she’d be interested in a drink.

“I’m looking for Detective Daniels?”

Straightening his tie, Jack stands up from his desk and makes his way over to the waiting area. “I’m Detective Jack Daniels. What can I do for you ma’am?”

“Doctor Elizabeth Ginger. I’m here with some information that I think will help you with one of your cases. Roxy Morton said to ask for you?”

Jack smiles at the mention of Roxy. "Then you must be here for the Poppy Pharmaceuticals case.” He holds open the gate that separates the waiting area from the detectives desks and gestures for Elizabeth to follow him. “Follow me, sugar, and we’ll see why Miss Morton sent you my way.”

 

--

The station isn’t a quiet place. All around them are the sounds of police radios and drunks yelling and officers taking statements. But the space around Jack’s desk feels impenetrable, like all that noise is muffled and she and Jack exist alone in this moment.

She takes a deep breath and stares at Jack. She’s told him all she knows, but that doesn’t mean he’ll believe her or be willing to help. And she needs help if she’s going to prevent a disaster.

“Zombies?” Jack asks. “You’re trying to tell me that Poppy Pharmaceuticals has manufactured a zombie virus and it escaped their lab inside a bunch of research animals. And now we are on the brink of a critical outbreak because it’s found its way into human hosts and no one knows what it is.”

Ginger sighs and rolls her eyes. “Not zombies. They aren’t technically reanimated dead. I will admit that it’s reminiscent of what pop culture refers to as zombies, but this is only an infection. It cuts off the brain's ability to receive information from the pain receptors and heightens the hunger sensation until the victim falls into a carnivorous mania where they have to feed and--”

“So they're zombies.”

Ginger sighs and wonders how this is the part that they’re stuck debating. "You're not going to call them infected no matter what I tell you, are you?"

Jack just shrugs, and Ginger gives up and moves on.

“Regardless, because it’s an infection it’s possible that they can be cured and return to normal if we catch it in time.” She lets emotion bleed into her voice. This is the important part -- letting the doctors and scientists know what is happening and finding a cure to save lives.

“Alright, so say that I believe you. How exactly do you expect me to help? You’ve got no proof other than your word and a series of documents that you obtained illegally. I can’t go in and arrest Poppy with just that. That would be a sure fire way for me to lose my badge and that’s if I’m lucky.”

“You have to! I have enough respect within the scientific community that I won’t be completely ignored or laughed at when I go public with this information. Others will look at the documents and research and come to the same conclusion. But if Poppy is still in control of her company, if the police haven’t shut down her lab and seized all of her work, she’ll destroy it. We don’t have time to start from scratch! If there is going to be any hope at all of curing this in time we’ll need samples, lab animals, anything we can get from that lab.”

Ginger watches as Jack thinks, rolling a pen back and forth across his desk, brows furrowed. She knows it’s a lot to ask of him, believing someone he’s only just met about something as crazy as zombies, but she hopes that Roxy’s relationship with him is enough to convince him to help her.

Finally he drops the pen and sits up straight. “Alright sugar, it’s probably a sign I’ve finally lost my grip on reality, but I believe you. I’ve got a couple of favors owed to me. I’ll cash them in and get us an arrest warrant for Poppy and a search warrant for the lab. But I can’t guarantee much after that. She’s going to tell her lawyers to have the case thrown out, and they’ll win if I can’t get something more concrete than this.”

Ginger lets out a sigh of relief. “That’s enough. If I get any new evidence that you can use, I’ll bring it to you immediately.” She holds out her hand, and he takes it in a firm shake. “Thank you, Detective Daniels. You’re doing the right thing.”

“Just doing my job, Doc. But maybe when my job is done, you might let me buy you a drink.”

Ginger laughs and stands up from her seat. “You help me stop this outbreak, and I’ll think about it.”

 

--

“Me,” Harry says it like a statement, but Merlin knows him well enough to hear the unspoken question in it.

“You. It was unanimous.”

Harry scoffs and shakes his head. “And how many of the other senior partners did you have to call in favours from? Or have Andrew bribe?”

Merlin smirks. “Only a couple, and it was worth it. Congratulations, Harry, on becoming our new managing partner.”

They shake hands, and then Merlin chuckles as Harry pulls him in for a hug. Neither of them are much on affection, but he can grant his friend this moment in celebration.

As they seperate and Harry moves to sit down behind his desk.  “My first act as such will be to drop Poppy Pharmaceuticals as a client,” he says over his shoulder. “I’ll call her up first thing in the morning and let her know that we’re... downscaling our corporate clients. I’ll do my best to keep her unaware of the real reason.”

Merlin thanks Harry and steps out of his office with a nod of his head. For the first time since this whole thing began, he’s starting to feel like the firm is on the right side of the case.

 

--

Merlin sits at the back of the courtroom and watches as Poppy’s new lawyer addresses the judge.

He’s not bad, a name partner from one of the other major law firms in the city. But he isn’t Merlin, and Merlin’s already finding the weaknesses that he’d exploit if he was the one sitting at the opposing counsel's table.

Merlin doesn’t normally wish he was a prosecutor. As much as they can be demonized in the minds of the public, his job as a defence attorney is usually without the drama or moral ambiguity most people think it has and he feels good doing what he does.

But as he watches the district attorney stand up and start his statement, Merlin regrets that it can’t be him standing there.

Jack and Elizabeth are sitting a few seats up from him, and Merlin catches Jack’s eye when he shifts. He nods his head in appreciative acknowledgement. None of this would be possible without either of their help, and he’s never been happier to owe someone a favour than he is with Jack. Jack smiles and winks in return before turning back to the DA, and Merlin can’t help chuckling to himself.

When the DA finally finishes his opening statement and sits down, the judge calls for a recess until the following morning. There are murmurs in the gallery as everyone stands and then slowly makes their way to the courtroom door. But Merlin stays by his seat, eyes locked onto Poppy’s back.

He knows that they don’t have a lot of time to get something on her. The minute that the defence realizes that they don’t have anything other than Ginger’s testimony, they’ll move to dismiss the case. They’re lucky Poppy’s lawyer hasn’t done it already, but apparently Poppy’s need for retribution when she’s been wronged is greater than her own self preservation. He suspects she’ll see them all dragged through the mud in the meantime.

The courtroom is nearly empty when Poppy turns around. She locks eyes with Merlin and he’s not sure he’s ever seen someone look at him with so much contempt. They stare at each other across the seats for a long moment before Merlin finally turns around and heads to the door.

As he leaves the courthouse he thinks about Poppy’s self assured stance and sharp smile and hopes that Jack and Ginger find something concrete and soon.

For the next few days, Merlin returns to the courtroom to watch the trial unfold. Every time he catches sight of Poppy she looks as though she doesn’t have a concern in the world, and Merlin gets a little more worried.

Then, on the third day, Ginger is called to the stand. She presents slides that show a synthetic sequence in the dna of the virus people are infected with. Merlin is impressed with how well Ginger speaks, simplifying the science so the judge doesn’t get lost. She explains that the sequence is encoded, and that when it’s decoded it includes reference numbers for the specific strain, along with a patent number.

The smile on Ginger’s face when she says that the patent is owned by Poppy Pharmaceuticals is infectious, and Merlin grins as he bites his tongue to keep from saying fucking spectacular outloud. There is no way the case gets thrown out now, and as he sees the judge frown, he knows that the prosecution has hit their mark.

After that, Poppy’s facade starts to crumble. Merlin watches as she clenches her fists on the table in front of her as her lawyer tries to dispute some of the witness testimony, eluding that Poppy wasn’t aware of what was going on in her own company. Merlin knows that it eats at the image Poppy has built for herself and her company.

The fifth and final day before the prosecution rests their case, there is a commotion outside the courtroom as Merlin approaches. Reporters mill around the door, and Merlin nearly has to push his way inside. But he understands the commotion once he makes his way to his seat.

In an attempt to sway the judge in their favour even further, the DA has arranged to have Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg brought to the courtroom. Merlin can only imagine the conversations that had to happen to have the doctors agreeing to remove them from the quarantine and transport them to the courthouse.

There is a strange glass box near the front of the room. It seems they’ve determined the virus isn’t airborne because none of the personnel are in biohazard suits. But the box has filtered air being pumped in. It takes Merlin a moment to realize that it’s to keep their smells out, away from Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg.

The two of them are dressed in nice clothes, but their faces are sallow and sickly -- they look on the verge of death. They stare at the people as they continue to file into the room and then shuffle closer to the glass. They don’t move the way you’d expect normal people to move, and Merlin understands what the prosecutor is doing. There is no way that pictures or video could fully capture just how inhuman Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg appear now. This is no normal virus, and whatever reason Poppy had for creating it, it never should have gotten out.

Eventually the judge bangs his gavel and everyone settles into their seats as court resumes. Merlin can see both Poppy and the cage, and he is discomfited by the way that Poppy looks at Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg like a proud mother.

The DA has one of Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg’s doctors on the stand, explaining the changes they’ve gone through. The juxtaposition is jarring -- the straightforward facts being presented about Hesketh and Von Gluckfberg’s condition and the way they are getting more and more agitated, pacing inside their cage and banging against the glass with their fists.

When Hesketh snarls and throws his shoulder hard into the glass, the judge startles and bangs his gavel.

“I think it would be appropriate to take a recess. We’ll resume in one hour. Please clear the courtroom of everyone except essential personnel in the meantime. Thank you.”

Merlin stands and is nearly to the door when he feels a hand on his arm. He turns around to find Poppy’s lawyer looking at him suspiciously, Poppy smiling behind him. “Miss Adams would like to have a private word with you. Please follow us.”

He doesn’t know what Poppy could possibly want to talk to him about, but he’s curious. He nods his head and he swears Poppy’s smile gets wider as he follows them out of the courtroom.

Chapter Text

Poppy’s lawyer doesn’t follow them inside the empty meeting room that is generally used between the prosecution and the defense to see if they can agree on a settlement whenever a case has already made it to the court. Merlin has never been to this one in particular, but they all look the same, a table and some semi-comfortable chairs, the shelves lined walls filled with law books and legislation that have probably been gathering dust since before he was born.

Poppy doesn’t sit down and so he doesn’t either. Even if she isn’t one to be intimidated easily, there is no reason for him to concede her any advantage, perceived or otherwise. And if he’s honest with himself, there is something satisfying in looking down on her after all the terrible things she’s done. She might be looking at him with pure hatred in her eyes now, but it feels strangely good to be the cause of such a powerful emotion in her. To be one of the elements in her downfall.

He might fear sometimes as to where the world is going, but at least he can reassure himself that when push come to shove, this is where he’ll be standing. A defender of humanity rather than the harbinger of its complete annihilation.

And he really should take up Roxy and Eggsy on their offer to go out for a drink, because with such dramatic musings, he is definitely spending too much time with Harry lately.

“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?” Even during the trial, he doesn’t think he’s seen Poppy with such a sneer twisting her face. It’s also the first time he’s seen her mask crack entirely and show what lies beneath the professional businesswoman persona she’s always doned in public. He wishes it could have happened in the courtroom, but it’s a bit of a moot point right now.

They both know she’s not winning this case, no matter how much money she’s thrown at her new lawyer.

“That’s not the issue, Miss Adams.” It’s a bit weird calling her by her last name, but he wants to make clear he’s putting as much distance between them as he possibly can. Judging from the disgust in her eyes, she perfectly understands what he’s doing. “What you’ve been doing… it’s sick. There’s no way you can justify the legitimacy of your actions and you know it. And now everyone will know you for the madwoman you really are and you’ll be stopped before you can do anymore damage.”

He was expecting her to get angry and maybe even yell a bit, so he is completely nonplussed when she starts laughing. He’s always found her laughter grating, but this time, there is a proper shiver running down his spine. It’s not the laugh of the privileged once more getting what they want at the detriment of someone else. It’s not even the chuckle of someone who knows something you don’t.

It’s full on cackling. It wouldn’t be out of place coming out of a demented supervillain’s mouth.

It’s the sound of someone completely losing grip on reality.

“Oh Merlin,” her smile is nearly fond once she calms down and her next words are enough to freeze his blood in his veins. “No one will be stopping me today. In fact, this is just the beginning.” Her smile turning predatory, she brings her wrist up to her lips and before he can react, gives an order that he has no doubt means nothing good. “Angel? Release Elton.”

 

*

“I have a bad feeling about this.” Ginger half-expects Jack to dismiss her worries out of hand, but instead, his uneasy frowns deepens even if he doesn’t go so far as to agree with her.

“You think she’ll walk free?” He’s looking intently at the door leading to the room they’ve brought Charlie and Clara’s containment unit during recess, the scowl on his face enough to make the two security officers guarding the room put their hands on their weapons as they tense up with suspicion. It’s rather amusing to see the man have such an effect on people when he’s usually so charming.

“That’s not it.” No amount of money can save Poppy now. But something about today doesn’t sit quite right with Ginger. “It’s those poor kids.” She ignores the detective’s snort at her description of Poppy’s victims, not that she really blames him. It’s hard seeing them as being even human right now, but the moment she stops doing that, she feels like she will be no better than Poppy. “I see no reason why they should have grown so agitated at the end.”

“Could it have been seeing all those people?”

“No, their aggression isn’t triggered by sight, that’s why the DA decided to take the risk of bringing them to court.” A loud banging sound from inside the room makes them all jump, the security officers completely failing to keep their composure.

“How strong is that glass anyway?” Jack is getting more and more jittery and she forces herself to take a deep breath before answering. Of course, she’s the one who brought up her concerns first, but there is absolutely no reason for them to lose their cool.

“Very strong.” For a moment she thinks of leaving it at that, but she also doesn’t believe in withholding any information. “Though you have to keep in mind nothing is ever truly indestructible. It would take a long time, but after enough shocks, the glass would give at one point. It’s why there are far more security precautions back at the lab.” And why she had been against parading the kids in court even after they had found a way to keep them eerily calm.

It’s clear it’s not the answer he wanted to hear, but he gives her a grateful nod nonetheless for her honesty.

Whatever he’s about to say next is forever lost to the terrified screaming that suddenly starts echoing in the big halls of the courthouse.

Even if it leads to an emergency exit, the corridor they’re in is relatively out of the way. It’s the entire reason why they decided to hold Clara and Charlie here until they can be returned to the quarantine, but suddenly it’s filled with panicked people running away from Heavens knows what.

Jack has her flush against the wall before she can get trampled on and she sees out the corner of her eye that the security guards still hold their position even in their obvious confusion.

It takes a moment for the words some of the fleeing people are yelling to make sense, but when they do, she feels herself freeze with dread.

Run- It’s not human- It’s going to kill us- It ripped her head off- Run!

The abrupt silence falling around them once they’ve run past is deafening and she probably loses a few years off of her life when Jack suddenly starts giving orders and startles her out of her shock.

“You two, you get in that room and you don’t let anyone in or out until you get the all clear. And if those things break the damn glass, you shoot them in the head, got it?”

There is a twin “yessir” before the two officers lock themselves in the room and if she wasn’t currently busy freaking out, she would be impressed by how commanding the detective can be to make two complete strangers obey him right out of hand.

“As for you Doc, I’d tell you to follow everyone out, but since we know nothing about the situation, I’d rather have you sticking to me like old gum under my boots. That is if you think you can do that. Can you do that, Doc?”

It’s a simple enough question and it should be easy to answer but she’s having some difficulty breathing now and nothing is as easy as it seems.

“Hey, sugar, it’s okay, you’re fine, you just need to breathe okay? I’m not letting anything happen to you, but I need to know if I’m bringing you with me or locking you up in a room like the precious treasure you are.” His wink is half-hearted at best, but his bad flirting is exactly what she needs to completely snap out of her panic.

She’s never let anything stop her before and she won’t start now.

“Lead the way.”

 

*

When the power suddenly cuts out in the building, Harry starts thinking that maybe he should have followed the crowd of hysterical people out. After all, even if he hadn’t spotted Merlin’s stupid head running past him at the time, he could have been closer to another exit and already be outside.

But if he was safe, he would be answering Harry’s multiple texts or at least have looked at them. But so far the little read indication refuses to appear next to the ones he has sent.

He’s not even sure what is happening right now, as he had been far away from the lobby entrance at the time, making his way to the courtroom so that he could be there and hear firsthand the poppycock that would fall from the defense lawyer’s mouth to justify Poppy’s actions to the court. He thinks he hears something about a monster and in light of everything he heard about this case, he really hopes he’s mistaken. Detective Daniels’ team has found a bunch of Poppy’s test animals during their first search of her laboratories, but after seeing the pictures, Eggsy had been adamant that whatever had been roaming in his backyard the other night wasn’t in one of the cages.

It had been far too big for one, and looked more like something that could have been more human than animal according to Eggsy’s description. Not that he had gotten a good look, Eggsy was the first to admit, but Harry sees no reason not to believe him.

The thought is far from reassuring however, not when his only weapon is his umbrella. For the first time he wishes the fantastical spy stories Eggsy tells his sister around naptime were true and that his umbrella also doubled as a gun. Or he would also take Roxy’s fairy tale version of the weapon and have it conceal a sword, he really isn’t picky. As long as it’s more durable than what he’s currently yielding.

As he gets in sight of the entrance lobby, he thinks that maybe, he’ll give up his search for now and get out, if by sheer luck the building hasn’t been put on lockdown. The idea makes guilt gnaw at him, but he also knows that Merlin would be madder to know he’s put his own life in danger when he could have gotten to safety and let the professionals do their job.

Not that he knows who the professionals would be in a zombie-on-the-loose type of situation, but at least they won’t be armed with umbrellas.

His hopes are dashed when he notices that the security gates are completely down and that he won’t escape this way. He doesn’t linger on that for long, not when a familiar metallic scent reaches him and he takes a moment to center himself so that he won’t lose himself in memories that have no place resurfacing in his waking hours.

Now that his eyes have accustomed to the poor emergency lighting in the building, he can distinguish what he had overlooked when he had first stepped into the lobby.

Blood. Blood and gore.

Blood everywhere on the dark walls, the uncomfortable chairs and on the ground. Bits and pieces that he would never know what they were scattered all over. Even his own morbid curiosity wouldn’t get him to investigate them closer, because that wasn’t something he needed branded into his mind.

The biggest of the messes leads to a side corridor, one Harry knows leads to the closest exit.

He debates for a moment whether or not he should risk it. On one hand, there is no telling if whatever had caused such carnage was still in the area. On the other hand, there is also no telling if the emergency exit will still be functional during a lockdown.

His best bet would probably be to go find a room to barricade himself in until he is rescued by whatever strike team will be sent in to deal with the situation. He could probably even find other survivors stranded along the way. After all, the courthouse is a maze of corridors and dead-ends. He’s lost count of the times he’s been called in to go fetch a lost intern, and on one hilarious occasion, James Spencer who had somehow found himself on the roof.

His foot hits something soft and somewhat squishy and he forces himself to look down, a grimace already twisting his face.

It’s a severed arm and he shivers when he realises there are also no bodies anywhere nearby that it could belong to. He gives a quick prayer for the poor sod who got his arm ripped off and probably died horribly. And, even if he’ll feel horrible for it once he’s gotten out, he also thanks him for the gun that’s still gripped by the lifeless fingers.

It didn’t do the bloke any good, but hopefully, it will bring Harry a bit more luck.

Now feeling a bit more confident that he can defend his position until the reinforcements get in, he decides to go with the only solution that makes sense in the current circumstances and spins around to go to the closest room with a lock he can find.

Or he would if he didn’t run straight into someone else. If he had any doubt that he’d lost his reflexes over the years, they’re now put to rest when he finds himself facing the stranger with his gun raised for a headshot. When he realises that the man in front of him is no stranger however, he is proud that even though he was ready to shoot, he still kept a level-headedness that stopped him from being too hasty.

“Woah there partner! Careful where you point that thing!” Jack’s warning comes when Harry is already lowering his gun since one of the first rules of gun safety is not pointing your firearm where you don’t want to shoot. Now that he isn’t hyper-focusing on the perceived threat that had been in front of him, he notices that Dr. Ginger is standing a bit behind the detective. She seems calm enough, but her voice is shaking slightly when she speaks.

“What are you doing here?”

“I came by because I was curious what kind of lies the defense would spin for Poppy.” Jack nods wisely, most probably because he would have done the same if his presence had not been required for the trial. “Have either of you seen Merlin?”

Just from his worried expression, he knows before he hears Jack’s answer that he won’t like what he has to say. “Last I saw him, he was following Poppy, about fifteen minutes before everything went to hell. You wouldn’t happen to have seen what happened, did you?”

“Unfortunately no. When I got back to the lobby, everything was already on lockdown.” He doesn’t see the point in mentioning his theory that the carnage was probably caused by one of Poppy’s creature. If he’s here, Jack has probably arrived to the same conclusion as he did. And he’s looking to put an end to it. “I think I know where they might have gone.” With his free hand, he gestures to the corridor where even the poor lightning does very little to hide that something akin to carnage just happened there.

Jack and Ginger both grimace when they look over, but they also seem to be bracing themselves in preparation of what they’re about to do.

“I can’t promise we’ll find Merlin, but if you really know how to use that gun I wouldn’t say no to having you with us partner.”

The glare he shoots Jack has nothing to do with him doubting his ability with firearms and everything to do with the nickname he always calls him by. It’s a step above being called ‘bruv’ by Eggsy, but he would still rather Jack use his name instead.

“I was an army doctor. And yes, before you ask, I’ve seen action.”

“Good.” He can see Jack quickly planning the best course of action with this new information, before nodding to himself. “Alright, I’m usually in and out of this place, so it’ll make more sense having you at the front if you’re okay with that. I’d be bringing up the rear, making sure nothing tries anything funny like jumping on us.”

He agrees quickly with the plan of action, seeing no fault in the reasoning. But before they leave the lobby, Harry bends down to grab the umbrella he had discarded and hands it to Dr. Ginger.

“It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.”

She doesn’t say anything, but there is something grateful in her eyes when her grip tightens around it.

 

*

The shame of having been subdued by Merlin so easily and the indignity of having her wrists restrained by a simple tie of all things, is lessened by the thought that soon enough it won’t matter. Merlin might think he has the upper hand now, but that’s because the man simply doesn’t understand.

As if a two-bit lawyer like him could stand in her way, her, Poppy Adams, mastermind of the pharmaceutical world. She’s renowned all over the world, has been praised by the most ruthless sharks in the business since day one.

She’s planned everything carefully, there is absolutely no way she’ll be stopped now. Soon Elton will find her, or Jet and Bennie, and she’ll be rid of the pesky man once and for all. Then she’ll meet up with Angel at the helicopter and they can leave Ground Zero for her safe house in Mongolia and wait for the British authorities to come beg her for the cure.

“How can you be smiling? We’re about to get infected or eaten by the monsters you’ve created! Even you can’t be this crazy!” Merlin’s voice brings her roughly back to the present and the room she had led him to earlier, where they are now being forced to hide.

She had wished to go out and see Elton in action, but unfortunately only got to hear her new lawyer’s screams through the thick door as he most probably got devoured alive. She isn’t sure where Elton went after that, but it’s been a while since they’ve heard anything and judging from what he just told her, she thinks Merlin is about to try and run for an exit.

She scoffs at the idea, amazed at his sheer stupidity.

“Do you really think you stand a chance at survival? Even if you escape this courthouse, this is just the beginning. You cannot escape this Merlin, no one can! I made sure of it!”

He looks at her with utter disbelief and she has to remind herself that of course a simpleton like him wouldn’t understand her genius.

“You truly are that crazy! You don’t even care if you die or get infected yourself!”

“Nothing of the sort will happen,” she rolls her eyes at having to state the obvious, but she’s simply too nice to let him meet his end while being this ignorant. “My boys would never hurt me and even if an accident were to happen, do you honestly believe I wouldn’t carry an antidote with me?”

For a moment, Merlin only stares at her, unmoving, and she wonders with a bit of worry if perhaps he’s having a stroke. It shouldn’t really matter as long as she’s rid of him, but at the same time, it would be like the gods themselves had robbed her of her righteous revenge.

And then suddenly, the man’s hands are all over her and he completely ignores her outraged protests at being frisked without consent. She’s never wanted to hurt someone so much as when he finally extract the small vial of antidote from one of her pockets and slips it in one of his own.

“I’ll take that.” He sounds so very smug and if he were closer she would try to headbutt him, just to see if he would look as superior with a broken nose. “And now, let’s see if we can get out of here alive.”

 

*

Months later, Jack won’t remember much of what happened in the courthouse that day. He can recall the order of events, but that’s about it.

First, his decision to try and hunt down the creature with Ginger’s help, teaming up with Harry along the way, having the unbelievable luck to find Merlin right away as he was leading that crazy madwoman in front of him to the nearest exit.

Then, he knows they stood there in the corridor for a bit like a bunch of fools, but he won’t be able to say for how long. At least a few minutes, enough for Merlin to tell them about an antidote and pass something to Ginger for safekeeping.

Enough for the creatures to catch their scents and close in on them, leaving them with no other alternative but to fight them for their survival.

The memories of the ensuing fight are a bit hazy, but he usually tries not to linger on those.

Anyway, that’s not what has him waking up drenched in cold sweat some nights. It’s not why he sometimes reaches for his weapon when a passing dog growls too loud near him. It’s not the memory of the attack that gets him to freeze in absolute terror when there is a metallic scent in there air, reminiscent of the blood that had painted the walls of the courthouse that day.

No, what will probably forever haunt him is the sight of those monsters at the end of the corridor. Something that should never have seen the light of day, something that was so very wrong, the only reason he hadn’t start running was because his horror kept him rooted to the spot.

The three creatures come to a stop, sniffing at the air in a way Jack had seen many police dogs do, the two smallest ones growling so low he would forever doubt if he had really heard them or not. Those two might well have been dogs at one point, but no one would mistake them for man’s best friend anymore. They’ve lost all their fur and their skin seems to be burnt and raw at the same time, bruises and scars marring their bodies. Their milky white eyes cannot seem to focus on anything, but their ears still flicker in the direction of any little noise. Drool and blood drips slowly from their maws and one even has what he thinks is entrails dangling from between its filthy fangs.

But, no matter how terrifying they are, Jack barely took notice of them at the time.

Not when the other creature -- the other thing -- is taking all of his attention.

It could have been human. Jack dearly hopes not and will sleep a bit more easily when the autopsy had revealed it had been a primate of some kind.

However at the time, he only feels dread as he stares at the monster standing on its two legs, gangly limbs disproportionate compared to everything he knows about anatomy. What has him shudder in disgust however is its skin. He might have believed it was only a trick of the poor emergency lighting, but the smell that reached them even from the distance made it impossible to come to any other conclusion. Somehow, even if it’s still alive and breathing, the monster is rotting where it stands.

It’s a wonder how it can still stand on its feet, how it can still move. But there is no denying that it’s doing all of that.

He cannot suppress a shudder when yellowish eyes meets his, a glimmer of intelligence glinting in their sunken depths. There’s hunger in there, but something vicious too, something that shouldn’t be. Whatever Poppy has created, she should never have done it.

A black tongue flicks out for a second to wet non-existent lips, reminding Jack of a slimy leech fat with blood. He has to look away, distantly noting that it appears to have no nose and he briefly wonders if it rotted away or if the creature simply never had one in the first place.

His eyes don’t trail far off, falling to its chest and for a second or two, he’s too stunned to think of anything. There’s a hole there, as if the creature got pierced through and through by something. It’s not big, but the skin there seems scarred rather than rotten as if this is a wound the monster is healing from. As if getting impaled isn’t enough to stop it.

It’s the last clear thought he remembers having until he finally gets a grip on himself a couple of hours later when he’s escorting Ginger back to her lab to work on replicating the antidote. As last thoughts goes, it’s a pretty terrifying one to get when the monster a few meters away from you is suddenly charging you, its angry snarl leaving no doubts as to what it intends to do with you.

They don’t ever mention it, but the only reason he doesn’t die is because Harry kept his head about him and stepped in front of the group. He starts shooting and doesn’t stop, his arm steady even when he he has to realise that except from a small jerking back when they hit, the bullets don’t have any effect at all on the creature.

He hears Poppy say something, but he’ll never know what it is because at the same moment, Harry is screaming in pain when the monster collides with him and its claws slash at the left side of his face. Luckily for him, before the creature can snap his neck, Merlin recovers his sense and starts pulling at the creature. It doesn’t take very long before Jack is helping, but even with its slimy skin and what is probably part of its muscles sticking to their fingers, the monster is deceptively strong.

It’s only several days later when Ginger gives her account of the incident that he’ll realise how lucky they were that Poppy tried to flee at the exact same time and fell prey to the zombie-dogs. With something to eat already in their paws, they paid no attention to everything else around them.

Somehow, they manage to get the creature off of Harry, but their victory is short-lived when the creature uses the momentum to push Merlin on the ground, its teeth closing on his shoulder before anyone can react and try to help him.

This time however, Jack doesn’t freeze and its with cold fury that he realises he still has his gun. He doesn’t even have the time to fear that a creature that has probably survived impalement could maybe survive a headshot, he simply aims and fires.

 

*

Nothing will ever weigh heavier than the vial in her hands did as she looked over Merlin and Harry being loaded into two different ambulances, as no one knows for sure if either of them have been infected.

Sometimes, she’ll wonder if she would have chosen any differently if only one of them had been injured or if she had any assurances that a half-dose would have worked just as well. If she would have chosen to help the people who helped her survive, people she knew, instead of choosing the faceless multitude of the possibly infected.

She’ll never know for sure and she never shares that thought with anyone.

But during the sleepless nights she really lets herself dwell on it, during those moments when she’s being entirely honest with herself, she thinks that she would have been able to live with herself either way.

Chapter Text

Hunger. It’s the first thing Merlin recognizes when he wakes up.

He cracks open his eyes and looks blearily at the ceiling. His body hurts but it’s nothing compared to how ravenous he feels. He tries to think about when he ate something last, but time is foggy -- it seems solid but when he tries to grab it, there is nothing but air.

Pushing himself up in his bed, he realizes for the first time that it isn’t his bed. A quick scan of the room tells him that he’s in the hospital.

What happened? He tries to focus on the last thing he remembers, but it keeps slipping away from him.

There’s a window set into the door and the motion of someone walking past draws his eye. However, when his door remains resolutely shut, he realizes that he's going to need to buzz for a nurse. His stomach growls loudly and he starts to struggle up from his bed just as the automated IV pushes another dose of medicine into his system.

Immediately Merlin can feel it taking effect and the urgent tug of unconsciousness pulling at him. He sags back against the sheets and sighs. It’s not worth fighting it to go in search of food. He’ll make sure they bring him something to eat the next time he wakes up.

 

--

“Our top headline for tonight: the quarantine zone has been expanded around the Chelmsford Broomfield Hospital by another two blocks today. Government officials are asking citizens not to be alarmed, it is just a precaution, but that they should continue to report to the quarantine zone if they have reason to suspect they’ve been infected.”

Eggsy groans as he turns down the volume on the television and looks over at Daisy playing on the carpet, oblivious to Eggsy’s inner turmoil. He doesn’t need to be reminded that Liam, and Merlin, and now his mother are inside the quarantine zone.

Roxy assures him that Ginger and her colleagues are working hard to reverse engineer the antidote, but it doesn’t put his mind at ease. Those are people he knows and cares about slowly turning into zombies inside that quarantine.

Sitting behind Daisy, he pulls her into his lap and she gives a little cry of protest when she can no longer reach her toys. Eggsy pulls her close to his chest, and hopes that the antidote is found soon.

 

--

The next time he wakes up, Merlin’s head feels clearer. He’s able to remember the courthouse and Poppy and her creature.

His hand comes up to touch his shoulder, only to feel the heavy gauze packed around it. They must have switched him to the good pain meds because he can barely feel it.

The memory of the creature's teeth sinking into his flesh makes him shudder. But along with the memory comes the sudden acknowledgement of his hunger, and how much worse it is now. He clutches at his stomach and rolls until he’s hanging half off of the bed. His arm is tangled in the line for his IV and he growls in frustration.

Grabbing the needle, Merlin pulls it from inside his elbow, blood welling up and then flowing down his arm. He stumbles from the bed and shuffles to the door, only to find it locked from the outside.

He rattles the doorknob, and when he can’t convince it to open he starts banging on the door. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knows that there’s a reason that he’s been locked into his room, but he can’t focus past the hunger enough to remember why that’d be. Then, out the window Merlin sees a nurse walking down the hall, flanked by an armed guard.

A red smudge is left on the glass when he raises his hand and hits the window.

“Hey!” he yells, his voice sounding rough and broken. “Hey, in here! What kind of hospital is this? Don’t you feed your patients?”

The guard says something into his radio, and two others hurry down the hall. The nurse steps towards the door, hands raised as though Merlin is a threat.

“Sir, please step back from the door,” she says. “I’m going to unlock it and come in but I need you to stay calm.”

He backs away from the door, confusion evident on his face. “Calm? Why wouldn’t I be calm…”

His voice trails off as the seal on the door is broken and suddenly he is overwhelmed with the scent of meat. The door is barely open when he finds himself rushing it, fingers scrabbling at the door and the frame trying to push his way out.

Reaching through the opening, the guards grab Merlin’s arms and push him back inside. He growls as they hold him secure, and the nurse comes in holding a syringe.

“What are you doing? This isn’t right! I’m a lawyer, you can’t treat patients this way. You have to feed us!”

The closer the nurse gets, the more tantalizing the smell gets and Merlin struggles to get free of the guards. “Where are you hiding it? I can smell it! Where is it?”

The nurse doesn’t respond, just holds his arm and sticks the needle in, pressing the plunger.

The drug is just as fast acting as it was in his IV, and he sags back against the arms holding him. The last thing Merlin thinks before he falls into unconsciousness is to wonder why they won’t give him anything to eat.

 

--

Harry has never been good at doing nothing. Even when he takes his mandated two weeks vacation every year, he’s sure to bring along some of his long term client files to whatever picturesque location Morgana has booked for him. Merlin always teases him about it, but Harry keeps reminding him that he doesn’t have a leg to stand on considering he somehow always manages to get around the rules and avoid taking a vacation altogether.

But he doesn’t have any of that now, stuck in a hospital on the opposite side of the city from his best friend, his colleagues and clients rightfully too busy dealing with their own problems to provide him with any sort of decent distraction. He’s flipping through the channels on the television when a picture of the courthouse has Harry’s finger freeze on the remote.

“...is now reopened to the public after the gruesome attacks that happened there last week,” says the news anchor.

“As previously reported, a viral outbreak has been spreading throughout the city of Chelmsford and the outskirts of London. Poppy Adams and her multi-billion pound drug company were standing trial at the Law Courts for illegal medical research and malicious release of the virus.

Last Wednesday, several of Poppy Pharmaceuticals lab animals were released inside the courthouse. Miss Adams was one of dozens of others that were caught in the ensuing attack.

Twenty-three people died, including Miss Adams. Another thirty-six were injured and are currently being treated inside the quarantine zone.

Dr. Elizabeth Ginger -- who has doctorates in both biology and engineering -- was the scientist responsible for finding the connection between Poppy Pharmaceuticals and the virus. She is now leading a coalition of scientists, researchers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers in the engineering and distribution of an antidote.”

The picture switches to show Dr. Ginger standing outside the government enforced quarantine border.

“We are working tirelessly to create an antidote that can be mass produced…”

“That anchor is nice -- a little imported southern charm in amongst all your British stoicism -- but the Doc is far nicer to look at.”

Harry startles at the voice, and looks over to see Jack leaning against the doorframe to his room. While he’s grateful for the sudden company, and he does enjoy Jack’s friendship, it would never do to let the man know that, so he groans in mock annoyance.

“To what do I owe this unannounced visit, Jack? I’m afraid I’m not in much of a position to be taking on any new clients.”

Jack straightens and saunters into the room. He grabs a chair, scraping it across the floor to the edge of Harry’s bed and sits down on it backwards. Harry doesn’t even bother stopping himself from rolling his eyes at the man.

“Not quite, partner.” Harry huffs at the name, and Jack just smiles and nods his head at the television. “I’m here about that.”

Harry looks back to see that images of people waiting in lines at governmental checkpoints, getting tested for the virus. “What, exactly, about that?”

“The Doc is doing everything she can to get the antidote figured out as fast as possible. But the number of infected is starting to spiral out of control and she’s worried. But I was thinking, if there is one thing I know, it’s not to underestimate people’s greed. Poppy had a vial of the antidote on her, after having created the virus in the first place. What if she had planned to release the virus, and then once the nation was gripped in panic, swept in with her miracle cure -- for a price.”

Harry frowns. It’s a disgusting thought, but after everything that he’s seen happen and the lengths he knows Poppy would have gone through to get her way, he honestly can’t say that it doesn’t fit.

“If that’s true, she’d need to have stockpiles of the antidote already created and ready to ship out as needed.”

“Exactly. I’m here because I need your help finding it. That shit had to cost her loads of money until she was able to sell it. And I heard from Roxy that you were the man to go to if someone needs every penny of a corporation's money accounted for.”

Harry pushes himself up straighter in his bed, and attempts to look more put together than his robe and untamed hair want to allow.

“Bring me the files and I’ll find you that antidote.”

 

--

It’s easy for Merlin to hurt himself now without realizing it -- he doesn’t notice when he bangs into the edge of the bed or drops something on his foot. He bruises and bleeds and feels nothing. Except for the hunger.

The last time they sent someone in to reattach the IV, he lunges at the man’s leg and nearly bites straight through the muscle. With the taste of flesh and blood in his mouth, he feels for the first time like his hunger could be satisfied. But then comes the drugs and he falls back to unconsciousness still trying desperately to get at the man.

When he awakens, they have replaced his door with one that has an airtight food slot, and they stop sending anyone in to sedate him. They push food in for him, but no matter what it is, it does nothing but make him hungrier. He drinks glass after glass of water to try and take the edge off, but it never helps.

There are times when he feels almost lucid, can almost remember being with people and being in control. Most of the time he simply sits on the bed and waits. For food that might actually satiate him. For the hunger to end. For a chance to grab and bite and eat the first thing that enters his room.

 

--

“Ma’am? Ma’am!”

Ginger hears the guard run down the hall after her, but she refuses to slow down. He catches up quickly, then rounds her shoulder and comes to a stop in front of her. “This man is dangerous. You need to let our personnel handle administering the antidote.”

It doesn’t take much effort for the guard to play up his size, blocking Ginger from moving any father down the hall. But she’s used to men trying to use their size to intimidate her into doing what they want. She’s never let it stop her in her work, and she won’t let it stop her now.

“This man’s name is Merlin,” she says sharply, pointing to the door to his room. “And without him we would’ve never been able to cure this in the first place. He deserves to have a friend be there when he’s brought back. Get your men ready to go in, but they won’t be the ones to bring him back.”

In the end she doesn’t know if it’s her words, or simply the fact that it’s her name that everyone is associating with the cure that gets the guard to step back and radio for assistance. She doesn’t really care either way, she just needs to get in that room and get Merlin back to normal.

The guards stand two wide and two deep at the door, with Ginger behind them. They nod to each other and then the door is unlocked. As soon as the seal is broken she hears a terrible growl and she jumps when the door is flung open from the inside. Merlin comes rushing out, arms outstretched and teeth gnashing desperately.

The guards push him back into the room, and Ginger watches from the hall as the four of them work in tandem to get Merlin pinned onto his back on the floor. She can see them struggling to hold him down, so she doesn’t waste any time waiting for them to give her permission to enter.

The antidote is in a simple vial, and she uncorks it as she walks around behind the guards to kneel down near Merlin’s head. His head whips to the side, and his struggles grow stronger as he tries to get his teeth into her knee.

“Careful ma’am,” says one of the guards, as he reaches down cautiously and wrenches Merlin’s head back up straight. Ginger grimaces at how inhuman he looks, and then carefully reaches out to pour the liquid into his mouth.

“Hush now Merlin. I promise this will make everything better.”

She’s seen the antidote in action a dozen times now, on people in all stages of infection, but she still holds her breath as she waits to see it take effect.

Slowly Merlin stops struggling against the guards restraining him. Then his body sags and he lets out a long, deep sigh. He blinks his eyes and looks carefully around the room before focusing on Ginger. She can see the moment that he recognizes her and understands what has happened, and she feels her eyes well up with tears.

“You did it, Elizabeth.”

She laughs, surprised, and wipes at her eyes under her glasses. “It was a joint effort. It was taking too long to manufacture the antidote. Harry and Jack managed to find some hidden stockpiles that Poppy had. Now we have enough for all the infected. All the cases should be cured in a week or so.”

Her hand is suddenly gripped in Merlin’s and she looks down at him. His face is still sunken, his skin starting to turn yellow and his shoulder an angry mess of scars, but his eyes are clear and he looks back at her with all the fierce intelligence and embarrassing fondness that she remembers.

“Thank you,” he says quietly.

She smiles at him and squeezes his hand. “It’s over now, Merlin.” They’ve done it.

 

--

The office has never seemed so vibrant or full of life before, and Harry pats himself on the back for a job well done.

“Nuh uh, bruv. I can see your smug face,” he hears Eggsy say. He weaves his way through the people milling about and gets right up in Harry’s space. “This was not your idea. You were ready to send a primly worded email and call it a day. This was Roxy and I’s master plan, even if you were the one to fork out the dough.”

Harry can only chuckle fondly. “Of course, Eggsy. You’re right. Thank you.”

“Damn straight I am,” Eggsy says with a smirk. “And you’re welcome.”

The two of them stand to the side, glasses in hand, watching the room. The whole firm is here, partners and associates alike, along with a few special guests. Harry takes note of Jack flirting with one of the third-year associates, and makes a mental note to have Andrew send a note to Jack telling him to keep his cowboy charm on the other side of the pond from his associates.

When Dr Ginger walks into the room and looks around, wearing a beautiful dress that sparkles in the light, Harry smiles. Catching Ginger’s eye, he nods his head and raises his glass in her direction. She smiles and returns the gesture before mouthing Merlin’s name. Harry chuckles softly to himself, and points to the other side of the room where Merlin is sitting in a leather chair surrounded by people and looking like he’s trying very hard not to tell them all to shove off. She nods gratefully and starts making her way towards him.

Harry has just turned to ask Eggsy if perhaps he might enjoy joining him for lunch sometime, when a Breaking News bulletin flashes across the tv set-up in the corner.

“Hello, my name is Channing Turner for BBC1.”

“Shhh, shhh!” Roxy hushes, and the room falls quiet.

“In breaking news, it has just been announced by government officials that Poppy Pharmaceuticals is being forcibly shut down...”

Cheers go up around them and Harry grins when he sees Ginger grip Merlin’s hand, and Merlin brings his arm up to wrap around her waist.

“...due to their involvement in the viral outbreak, now being called the Great Zombie Panic or GZP by the public, that devastated London and its neighboring cities three months ago. Their assets are to be sold off at government auction and the money will be invested in providing long term support for the people and communities most affected by this horrible tragedy.”

Harry feels Merlin slide up beside him and smiles to himself. “Guess everything turned out alright, didn’t it?”

“Aye, it did,” Merlin replies.

They tap their glasses together, and Harry has to admit that he doesn’t think his scotch has ever tasted so good.