Once upon a time, a doppelganger was challenged to a contest by a boy.
The boy was young as far as humans go and angry as only a small child can be. He had committed some minor human offense and been sent to his bedroom as punishment. The doppelganger waited the requisite five minutes before opening the boy’s door and letting itself inside.
Seating itself gently on the rocketship bedsheets, it placed a slender, manicured hand on the child’s head. The doppelganger stroked the boy’s hair for a moment, then allowed its full lips to curve into a disappointed frown. “Are you ready to come downstairs and apologize?” asked the replica with the soft southern accent of the boy’s mother.
“No,” grunted the boy, his face clouded with resentment and frustration.
“No? And why not?”
The boy bared his teeth in a snarl. “Because you’re not my mom!” he shouted.
The creature flinched back in shock. Was this the usual lashing out of an adolescent human? Or had he somehow seen through three weeks of research, another of meticulous observation, and the doppelganger’s inherent magic?
The boy’s mother would have bitten her tongue to keep from retorting with words just as hurtful and venomous, ones she would regret the moments they flew unbidden from her mouth. Afterward, she would have rushed from the bedroom, tears blurring her eyes. The doppelganger parted its lips. The muscles in its thighs and calves and glutes tensed, ready to launch this body into action. However, it quelled the impulses and instead bowed its head.
“Truly spoken,” admitted the doppelganger with frustration and no small amount of chagrin. Its guise slipped back into its neutral, forgettable resting state.
The boy’s brow furrowed in confusion, his anger forgotten just that quickly. “You’re not my mom?” he repeated; his tone changed almost beyond recognition. “Who are you? Where’s my mom?”
The intruder chose not to dwell on the last question with its unpleasant answer. Just because it was a natural process didn’t mean it was proper to relish it. The doppelganger took no particular pleasure in playing with its food. “I am no one and everyone. I am as changeable as the tides. I am a master of slipping unnoticed into and out of lives. I am a being known as a doppelganger.”
“I caught you, didn’t I?” asked the boy, with the guileless innocence of the young.
“Did you?” asked the doppelganger in response, allowing a trickle of genuine curiosity in its normally toneless voice. “I doubt it. If not for the rules under which I am bound, I would have left you convinced within moments that I was and always had been your mother. I am the best at what I do. I am able to fit in anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. It is who I am if I am anyone at all.”
“So prove it,” said the boy.
The doppelganger silently reviewed the challenge but found no loophole. It was a fair contest. One it had left itself open to with idle boasting. The boy could not have snared him more tightly had he been an expert on folklore and fairy.
“I accept,” said the doppelganger. “You shall not see me until I have proven myself against all of the shapeshifters in the land. My facility in fitting in is unparalleled and unassailable.”
The boy thought for a long moment, running his hands over his bedsheets. “So you won’t come back if you lose.” The doppelganger nodded. “What if you win?”
The doppelganger showed a glint of sharp predatory teeth. “Then I will return to provide an intimate performance of my incomparable skill.”
The contest was simple to organize. All manner of creatures love a challenge, or a game, or an opportunity to show off. Messages were mailed, invitations issued, and rules written. A year and a day later, the competition began.
The lycanthropes lost early, betrayed by their savage natures—the vampires next, unable to overcome their appetites. The cuckoos were just too flighty. The tricksters proved quite wily, especially one young kitsune who outfoxed many of her kin.
In the end, however, the only competitors remaining were the doppelgangers.
Sudden death takes on a different meaning when apex predators compete. The rules changed. The degree of difficulty climbed. Complex and public targets, sanctioned interference, accelerated timelines--everything became fair game. Slowly the doppelgangers began to fall. Death claimed a few, some through accident and mischance, others at the hands of those who still remembered how to defend against a threat most of humanity had forgotten. Ignominious defeat drove others into hiding to avoid shame or capture. The more self-aware simply surrendered to the inevitable. It took twenty years, but in the end, only one doppelganger was left standing.
The boy had grown into a man in those two decades. He was not a paragon of virtue, nor a lion of courage, certainly not a fount of intellectual wisdom. He was an ordinary man with an ordinary job living an ordinary life.
On an otherwise ordinary day, he sat down on his lunch break to eat the ham and cheese sandwich he brought from home. He rolled up the dark blue sleeves of his coverall and ran a hand through his hair. The doppelganger sat down beside him, rolling identical sleeves up identical arms. The man turned and looked at his own reflection sitting beside him.
After a pregnant pause, the man broke the silence. “I didn’t think I’d see you again. One way or the other.”
The doppelganger shrugged, a gesture the man had himself made countless times in his life. “I thought you might like to know that catching me was a fluke. A stroke of bad luck on my part. No one fits in better than I do.”
“Does that mean you won?” asked the man.
With a flash of the man’s even white teeth, the doppelganger nodded. “Any last words?”
The man hesitated again, thinking. The doppelganger was comfortable waiting. Lightning wouldn’t strike twice.
Finally, the man’s brow furrowed again, a mannerism that had carried over from his childhood. “If you were the winner, doesn’t that mean you actually stood out? I thought the contest was to test your ability to fit in.”
The doppelganger bowed its head in shame. Its features melted back to neutral. It slinked away in defeat, never glancing back at a surprisingly worth opponent.
The man’s face took on an unnatural, vicious look of triumph. He allowed himself a small smile as he bit into his sandwich with what were now its unnaturally sharp, conical teeth. It watched as its rival disappeared, never to be seen again in any form.
Secure in the knowledge that it was the best shapeshifter, it lived happily ever after.