Maisa and I skip the training, given that Saw Off used the room as a Kleenex tissue. Instead, I head back to my apartment while she splits off to go do her own thing. When I get back, I find Bedevil on the couch, with two cups of tea that have long gone cold.
“I hope you weren’t waiting for me too long.”
“Don’t apologize for that. You needed time.” Bedevil doesn’t take her eyes off me as her tea cup floats through the air. “Can I get some of your heat?”
I smiled and raise the tea’s temperature with my power, channeling the energy through a tendril of air. I’ve gotten so much better at the fine details. The surface of the tea steams as if freshly brewed and Bedevil takes a sip. She nods her head sagely and then offers the tea to me as I sit next to her.
“I’m not much in the mood,” I tell her.
Bedevil puts the tea back on the table and then cups my face with her hands. The feeling is odd; lopsided from her missing fingers on her right hand. A grim reminder of how fragile we are despite our powers. She strokes my cheek with her whole hand and stares me down with glistening, broken eyes — still beautiful and golden after all this time. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t need to speak.
All I can think is how close we’ve come to death, so many times. This latest instance of danger just shows me how close it can still come, even when we’re entrenched in the fortress of New Foundation and surrounded by friend. All I can think is that I’m wasting time.
“Will you marry me?” I ask.
The question catches her off guard. “I already said yes, didn’t I?” Even so, she smiles and a little laugh accompanies her caresses.
“I mean right now,” I tell her.
My proposal stuns her. She sits back from me and snorts. “You’re kidding?”
“I’m not.” I reach out and I take her hand, and a shiver travels up my spine at her touch. Even after all this time, her touch drives me wild. I take the ring off her finger. “I’ll make you a new one, right now. I’ll take you to where I made it and swear a vow.”
“But what about our wedding?” Bedevil asks. “What about our friends?”
“Before he left, Paul asked me if I loved you more than him.”
Bedevil leans back into the chair, her fingers still in my hand. A moment of silence comes and goes and she’s not smiling, not anymore. “Gabe, as much as I love you and want that, you know it’s not smart.”
“I know.” I retreat from her. I admit, it does sting just a little bit. Still, she’s right. “You know what my other question is, don’t you?”
“I don’t know the answer to it, either,” Bedevil replies. “Paul’s not going to be easy to get, Gabe. Not after everything that’s happened. We know that Doppelgänger is capable of more than we imagined. We need to step back and study and think.”
I know she’s right, but it doesn’t make it easier. Paul is my brother, and Doppelgänger is moving every second we don’t stall him. He’s replacing more and more people, and we might never know how many in the end.
“So what do we do?” I ask, exasperated. “Just sit here on our hands until he strikes?”
Bedevil shakes her head. “You know that’s not what we’re doing. Epione’s looking into the Affects of everyone of our staff. She’ll find any discrepancies. Templar is studying Mago to see if there’s any changes in his body that denote whether or not he’s a clone—”
I can’t help myself. Anger swells at Paul’s plight. “So we are sitting on our asses, then?”
“That’s not fair, Gabe.” Bedevil slams the disher shut once the teacups are in. “He’s more dangerous than anyone we’ve fought!”
“So we need to stop him as soon as possible!”
“Remember what I said, back in Houston, when you wanted to rush in and save Maisa? Paul doesn’t need your corpse hurtling at him.” Bedevil stands up and clears the tea cups as if that will calm us both down, but her small chore does nothing for my temper.
I can’t help but imagine Paul back in India, slaving away inside that engine room.
“You said we know where Doppelgänger is hiding and that the flags gave us permission, right?”
“We don’t need to charge in like that!” Bedevil retorts. “We need to take our time and figure out what all he can do before rushing in at him.”
“Every day we waste is another person replaced, it’s another clone, it’s another lash on Paul’s back!”
“And if you die going in the first time, if you go in and Doppelgänger has some kill switch on you that we don’t know about, how many clones is that?”
I’m so angry it feels like I’m sinking back into my head, the edges of my vision gray and widen. “Do you even care about him? He needs us!”
Bedevil raises her voice and lashes out at me: “He doesn’t need you being stupid!”
“Is that what I’m being,” I say, rising, “Stupid?”
“Yes! If you think charging in is the right idea, you’re being stupid.”
“And you’re being cruel! My brother—”
“He’s not your brother!”
That stops me in my tracks. The building fury screeches to a halt inside my chest. I digest what she says, because, while I’m pissed, I know Ruby. She’d never say something like that out of malevolence.
Bedevil closes her eyes. “Gabe,” she says. “Gabe. He’s not your brother. He’s not your family.” She closes the gap between us, her voice softening. She gingerly hugs me, and I’m too stunned to stop her. “That’s what Doppelgänger wants you to think. He wants you to be overly emotional and charge in. Paul isn’t your brother, he’s bait.”
I really don’t have a reply.
Bedevil squeezes me tighter. “I know it hurts. But please, trust me. We’re doing everything we can. We care about him, Gabe. I care about him. He’s not your brother but he’s the closest thing you’ve got.”
“How is he not my brother?” I ask, pulling out of the hug. The question grates at me, rubs a nerve, but I can’t call the feeling anger. Surprise?
“Doppelgänger, I think, thrives on that fucked up family dynamic. He wants you to view him as your father. That only gets reinforced if you see Paul as a brother… by default you’re playing into Doppelgänger’s hands that way. I’m not saying you’d get mind-controlled, but you see how that manipulates you into being more emotional? See how you want to charge in with no information at all? See how you’re only thinking of him… when we lost Lugs and Mago, and more?”
I sigh out my rage, embers and sparks leaving my chest. She’s right, she’s right. After that, she lets me stew on her questions until I know that she’s absolutely right. I really am letting him fool me. My love for Paul, my imagined connection, it let my friends get killed. Saw Off lost her last friend from Houston, we lost our connection to Argentina’s capes. The people that Paul killed fleeing, they have families and friends, too.
Still, I’m angry that we had this fight at all. I don’t know what it means for us. “Okay, you’re right. I’m going to go get some air.”
Bedevil frowns. “Are you sure? You spent all night out… Are we okay?”
“We? Yeah.” I stuff all the things I want to say. I wouldn’t say we’re not okay, but this fight… this fight shook me. “Am I really stupid?”
“No, no,” Bedevil sighs. She takes my hand. “You’re not… I shouldn’t have said that.” She kisses my hand. “I know how much this hurts. We will save Paul, I promise you that.”
I nod and smile and let her kiss my hand, but deep inside I think that we can’t save everyone the way we want to save them.
Later in the evening, as I’ve had time to think about what Bedevil said, I decided to drop in on Templar and ask her about Mago’s body.
The morgue is a grim room, all metal and linoleum and cast in sickly pale light from the buzzing fluorescent lamps. Mago rests on a metal slab, his eyes and his throat in tatters from a knife, his fingers clawed, his face twisted into a grimace. The light casts him as a ghoul, gray and cold.
But that isn’t Mago. That’s his clone.
Templar stands over his body, looking more a butcher than a doctor. Her long, platinum blond hair is tied up in a bun, out of her face so she can work. She has one hand on Mago’s arm, her fingertips connected to his skin as if they were one flesh.
“Do we know what happened to our Mago?” I ask, quietly so as not to break her concentration.
Templar simply points behind me, to another of the metal slabs. Our Mago is there, his throat slit and one of his fingers missing. He stares at me with his lifeless, accusing eyes, and I wonder when he was ghosted. I was here when that happened. We all let him disappear on our watch because we underestimated Doppelgänger.
“Mago cut out his own eyes and his throat, stabbed himself in the chest and stomach at least five times before I got to him.” Templar releases her connection to Mago and approaches me so that she can whisper. It’s almost conspiratorial. “But the worst thing is that Doppelgänger put a failsafe in this clone. His body underwent a massive circulatory shock, multiple ruptured brain aneurysms, and his heart stopped. His brain stopped sending signals. I couldn’t do a goddamn thing, it was like he’d already been dead for minutes.”
“You mean that Doppelgänger can inflict conditions on his clones?” I ask.
“Yeah. I wouldn’t rule out weird stuff like degenerative diseases. His work is subtle and impressive. I’m guessing there’s far more to his power than just duplicating people. I’d guess he can manipulate people on a genetic level.” Templar pats me on the shoulder and then frowns. “Okay, you’re all good. Just making sure.”
“Thanks.” I return to the clone Mago and study his wounds. He stabbed himself so many times and he didn’t even have to. Now I suspect that Doppelgänger has a sadistic side — something we can use in the future. We might find some easy bait for him.
“Did it bother you, seeing Kassandra again?” I ask, not really knowing where else to steer this conversation. But I’d bet he’s awfully pleased Templar knows, now.
Templar looks like a woman out of time, for a moment. As if I grabbed her by the scruff from Syria and plopped her into the morgue to tell me what was happening in the past. When she sweeps her eyes over the room she does not see the metal or the linoleum. She sees sand and blood.
“It did,” is all she says after that.
“Do you think…” I trail off, reconsider. “How would Doppelgänger have gotten a clone of her?”
“I think the one I fought in Syria might have also been a clone. I’ve been thinking about the shape of her face. It doesn’t look right with her white skin and her red hair, but it also never looked right with her brown hair and skin in Syria. I think she’s someone else altogether, some other person. Maybe a Youxia with powerful geomancy.”
“So, he’s cloned this woman and changed her race, multiple times?”
Templar nods. “He must have gone there first, after he fled the States. The timeline makes sense. Only a year or so later, the Syrian conflict started. Of course, I was there trying to fight the Fear, and that’s why OPI got involved at all, but I did have to fight Kassandra in the end, anyway. I’m not sure what she was doing in Syria.”
“Might have been an early attempt to overthrow a government and see if he could replace it,” I say.
“Possible. Could have been a simple test of her powers, too.” Templar shrugs. “When we go after him, I’ll be there. I think I’m the only person that could combat his power.”
“You could undo his damage?” That gives me hope. Maybe she could free Paul mentally. “Could you release someone from their commands?”
Templar shakes her head. “I couldn’t find anything that made me think Mago’s command was some sort of neurological trigger, or based in biology. Epione could be able to tell you if he can influence Affect, too. I’d guess he can, so long as they’re one of his clones.”
“We’ll find out, won’t we?” I ask.
“We’ll have to, Gabe. Or else we can’t stop him.”
With that, our conversation is over, and I leave her to her work with one final person on my itinerary for the day: Epione. Truthfully, I’m scared of this conversation. It won’t just be about Paul or Doppelgänger.
We’re going to talk about Saw Off’s accusation and Epione’s question.
And I wonder… is Epione human?