The man who claims to be my father is far more unremarkable than I would have expected. He stands at roughly five foot five, he keeps a shaggy beard, and wears the most obnoxious “I am a tourist,” outfit I’ve ever seen – cargo pants, Hawaiian t-shirt, sandals. He slouches and stuffs his hands into his pockets but pulls them out to scratch at his beard.
The details are what make him more interesting. His teeth seem to be entirely false, made of metal, and he’s missing a few fingers. His right middle finger, his left index, and both of his pinkies. The other fingers he adorns with rings like he’s fiercely jealous of them. There are small scars pocking his face and carving up the little beard he’s grown.
His smile reminds me of Epione’s, calculated to conceal something else. With him I am uncertain, where with Epione I understand why she does it.
“Gabe, it is so good to see you after all this time,” Doppelgänger smiles broadly, showing off his golden teeth. He doesn’t approach me just yet, but holds his hand out like I’m a spooked deer. Which, to be fair, I absolutely feel like a spooked deer.
“You are supposed to be dead.” I understand there’s some irony in saying that, considering Oracle was also presumed dead, but there’s an actual account and recording of Nero killing this man. A video of his death, pulled from Cynic’s heart-drive. “I saw you die.”
Doppelgänger closes his smile, makes it thin lipped to express some kind of disappointment. His emotions seem mechanical to me. Unnatural. Perhaps it’s because I feel like I’m staring at a specter. “Yes, well, these things happen. I survived.”
“How did you survive?” Archimedes asks, clearly not impressed with Doppelgänger’s explanation.
Doppelgänger does not seem impressed with Archimedes, either, and looks like he finds Archimedes to be an annoyance. An obstacle to speaking with me. “Through the help of my power. I discovered a great many things about it between my time at the lab and when Nero shoved his fist through my chest.”
“You made me,” I say, still feeling like my heart is about to explode. “Me and my brothers.”
“I fathered you,” Doppelgänger corrects. “You see, my power manipulates biology, specifically through genetics. Much like Templar, in fact, but less broad. However, I don’t believe Templar can grow an entire human, can she?”
Templar gives Doppelgänger a curious look. She doesn’t answer him but instead shrugs.
“Why are you here?” I ask. He helped them make the clones, helped them provide sheep for the slaughter. I’m not sure how I feel about him but I know that one fact makes me furious. Yet, didn’t Doc do the same thing? “Why did Nero try to kill you?”
I must look very angry, because Doppelgänger tries to placate me with a soft expression, with hands held up in surrender. “Because I refused to play their game anymore. They need to clean up loose ends and I was a loose end. They tossed me away.”
“And what have you been doing since then?” Oracle asks. How I wish she had her power to read memory, still, how I wish we could have this laid bare before us. We have Cynic’s power in Epione’s ring, but Epione doesn’t have it right this second and Archimedes forced us to give it to him. He’s the only one who will sign off on using it.
Looking at Archimedes’ expression, something tells me he might.
“I’ll be honest. Mostly healing. Mostly hiding. Powerful people thought I was dead and it was in my best interest to stay that way.” Doppelgänger turns his cheery smile upon Oracle. I see the comparison, honestly. They did the same thing. Though Oracle spent her exile working on Cynic’s defeat and the erosion of OPI.
“What brought you out of hiding?” Linear asks.
“Gabe did. Aethon.” Doppelgänger grins at me. “I was just absolutely floored by what you’ve accomplished. You knocked down OPI, you defeated Cynic, you defeated an entity they didn’t even want the world to know about because they didn’t know how to beat it! Now you’re cleaning up shop with the cloaks and making other nations tremble.”
I’m not in the mood for flattery. “Why did you help them make the clones?”
Doppelgänger’s smile fades out. He grows more serious. “I was young. I wanted to know my power. I didn’t understand back then what I was capable of, that I was capable of making humans like I am.”
“So why come to us?” Bedevil asks. She’s positioned slightly in front of me, perhaps because she thinks she’s protecting me from danger. One of the reasons I love her, she’s basically already a fierce mama bear.
“Again, I’m here because of Gabe. He’s doing remarkable work and I want to help,” Doppelgänger says. “I’ve been very worried about the way the world is going. I was so afraid that I’d have to stay in hiding forever, but when he toppled OPI—”
“Honestly, I had very little to do with that,” I say. “Oracle had the evidence against Cynic. Archimedes and Linear did far more than I did. I just fought a few people.”
“Still, it emboldened me. You’re emboldening the world, Gabe. I want to help. I want to join New Foundation.” Doppelgänger seems sincere enough in this, but there’s something in my gut that doesn’t like his fervor. Some hidden facet that is driving him more than a simple need to join our group. Yet I can’t put my finger on it and it might just be that he’s quite literally a specter of OPI’s corrupt past.
And really, since they tried to kill him and exploited his power, isn’t he as much a victim as I was? He was so scared for his life that he stayed in hiding until now.
However, I’m not the one who gives consent in the end. In the end it is Archimedes, who says, “Okay, then we’ll sit you down with our recruitment officer, DeClaire. He’ll go through what you need to know.”
“Of course, of course,” Doppelgänger replies. He’s enthused by this, flashing his metallic teeth at all of us and smoothing his shirt, and he seems for a moment a harmless old man that just wants to be involved in the world again. He wants to help.
We take our leave, but before we do, Doppelgänger pulls me aside to speak. I grab Bedevil’s arm and make her privy to the conversation; I don’t feel comfortable with a secret between me and this man.
“Listen, Gabe, I would love to chat with you some more. I’d love to hear about you and what you’ve been doing, and I’d love to tell you about what I’ve been doing, too!” Doppelgänger peels his lips back over his teeth into a smile, discomforting me. He offers me a small handwritten note. “Here’s the address of where I’m staying in the city. Come by and see me.” He pauses, and gingerly he pats the back of my hand while I take the card. “I’m glad to see you… and I look forward to working with you, hopefully.”
Bedevil and I head back to the apartment. I’m too frazzled to actually think about training right now. Instead, I just sit on the couch and let Pawpaw and Isabelle cuddle up to me while Bedevil makes tea. She brings me a cup and we sit in quiet for a minute.
It’s not unusual for us to bask in silence. At first we both would try to come up with some way to fill space with words, to stuff them in and somehow make every passing minute meaningful. Bedevil had a bad habit of this at first. Just being engaged did not remove that awkwardness from between us, that need for every moment to feel like a firecracker.
Now, there’s a comfort in quiet between us. An anticipation of things unsaid that creates a pleasant tension to when we do talk. After all, a violinist is not constantly bowing the strings, a pianist does not smash the keys down one after another with absolutely no space. Music is made with absence as much as it is made with existence.
Though I do feel the need to talk about Doppelgänger. “I’m not alone in thinking he’s creepy, right?”
Bedevil is relieved to hear me say that. She almost chokes on her tea mid sip and says, “Oh, God, I was worried you’d be taken in by him. He’s super creepy, babe. Something’s definitely not right there.”
“Do you think it’s just that he almost died? Spent the last six years in hiding?” I’m obviously privy to when someone’s trying to ply me, ever since the Fear masqueraded as Megajoule. However, I can’t assume this guy has malevolent motivations until I see him actually do something bad. People have been ruined over simply being creepy without any ill will.
“It’s possible…” Bedevil contemplates the question over her tea. “Obviously give him the benefit of the doubt. He reached out to us. He says he wants to help. Why don’t you ask Flashfire how his interview goes?”
Flashfire is an excellent judge of character. I nod. I smile and take Bedevil’s hand. She sets aside her tea and cuddles up to me, and lays her head on my shoulder.
“I love you,” I whisper to her.
“I love you, too.” She pecks me on the cheek. After the peck is a kiss, and hands on each other, and clothes slipping off, and a crescendo that leaves us breathless on the couch, her chest pressed against mine as we lay there in the afterglow.
I run my hands through her long, golden hair, and feel at peace. “I can’t wait to marry you.”
Bedevil grins and runs her fingers up my chest. She kisses me and stands up, and I watch her walk away to our room. I purse my lips at her, feeling a bit slighted.
“You didn’t say it back!” I call.
Bedevil pokes her head out of our room. She still doesn’t say anything but merely beckons me to join her with a sly smile. “If you want a response out of me, you’re going to have to work for it.”
What else to do?
Later that evening, I decide to do a bit of work on the wedding, which I find preferable to dwelling on the man who claims to be my father. Bedevil told me that I’d handle caterers and the venue. The venue, I’ve decided, will be the beach. That was easy enough. However, I need to rent a company that can decorate a beach for a wedding.
To that end, I recruited my incredibly affluent and polite minded friend, Epione.
I find her and Saw Off hanging out in one of the lounges on our floor, playing a party video game with Remise and Echo, and they appear to be on the losing side.
“Gabe Babe!” Saw Off shouts at me. She drops the controller and trots up to me, abandoning Epione. “Haven’t seen you in a hot minute.”
“Well, you know, life ending threats, super-villains, everything’s on fire,” I jest. “Man’s gotta eat.”
“Mmm, something needs to fuel those muscles. I bet Ruby’s a pretty happy girl.” Saw Off grins at me. Strange that she’s started getting flirtatious again. I’d assumed she was trying to woo Mr. Gold still, but maybe that didn’t pan out?
“Okay, well, since you mention it, I’m here about my wedding. With the pretty happy girl.” Saw Off makes a gagging face, an air-jerk, and flips me a bird as she returns to her chair. I smile at Epione and ignore the child. “What have we got so far?”
Epione drops her controller, too, and jumps up from the seat, and claps her hands.
“Hey,” Remise complains. “We’re still playing a game here.”
“Oh, let it go, love,” Echo says, patting her cheek.
“Right,” Epione says. “From a pool of twenty seven decorators I’ve selected five for you to choose from. I recommend…” The words fall away as I struggle to keep up with the details of each of these companies.
I just pick the first one she recommends. But once I’ve done that, I drop my voice to a low murmur. I know Remise will hear me, but she’s the only one I am comfortable with knowing what I’m about to ask. “Listen, the reason I really swung by is that I want you to come with me to Doppelgänger’s house. He invited me to talk with him, and I want you to bring Cynic’s ring. Can you do that for me?”
“We’ll have to ask Archimedes.” Epione meets my gaze. She really is different these days. She’d never look you right in the eyes back when I first knew her. “I’ll go with you.”