“Are you sure that you’ll be okay here alone for the whole day, Sianame?” Jophiel tenderly asked her beloved partner, the woman she had grown to adore above all others over the past five hundred years. At the same time, she gently touched her face with one soft, immaculate hand. For a being who was thousands of years old, the true Jophiel looked even younger than her host and partner in all things, who was not even a sixth of that age.
Smiling a little at the pet name, a word borrowed from a race called the Beventreist meaning, essentially, soul mate, Elisabet gave the Seosten woman a nod. “Trust me, I’ll be just fine. You focus on preparing the training grounds for our estudiantes, hmm? They’ll need a proper place to run the drills we have in mind, and the sooner it’s ready, the sooner we can really get started.”
They had taken it easy on training as far as Felicity, Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan were concerned. Mostly because the two of them knew that they were treading on thin ice with those four. The group was already dealing with so many problems that pushing them just a little too far would cause the entire house of cards that was their situation to collapse. Giving them space and aid now and then was important. In time, however, they would need to push things just a bit further. They would need to insist on stricter training, particularly while Crossroads was out for the summer. That would, with any luck, be a slower time in their pupils’ lives.
That training, when it happened, would involve many things, including intense combat and magical tests in multiple environments and situations. They would pit their young students against as many harsh opponents as possible within a contained and controlled area. They would teach them to survive, and to thrive. More than that, they would teach them to work together. In the case of Felicity and Tabbris, they would show the pair how well they could do if they were fully in synch. Having each of them control half of the body (sometimes each controlling one arm and one leg and sometimes one controlling the legs while the other controlled the arms) and learning to fight that way. Or having Tabbris fully control the body while Felicity worked on supporting her with various powers. There were many things to teach them.
As for Vanessa and Tristan, they would teach them how to fight like full Seosten, how to use their possession powers to turn the enemy’s advantages into weaknesses. They would teach them not to shy away from their potential, but to use it to its full extent. They would teach all four of them to actually impress the Seosten leadership.
But all of those lofty goals meant nothing if Jophiel and Elisabet weren’t ready to actually engage in that advanced training. Hence getting the facility ready. Unfortunately, that was something only they could properly do without risking any of their secrets. And they were not someone who could simply disappear for an extended time to get that work done. Between the Committee and the other Seosten, something always either needed to be done, or would come up to interrupt at the most inopportune moment.
So, only one of them could go and do the work. And it had to be a real one, as given the intensity of the spells required to prepare the training center, simply creating a duplicate wouldn’t have been enough. They were already having one person (with Committee level power or not) doing the work of what should have been an entire crew. Splitting that power up even further would have delayed the completion of the project until deep summer, which was unacceptable.
Thus, Jophiel would go and do the work whenever a slower time, such as now, presented itself. Elisabet, meanwhile, would stay and be their public face. With, of course, the ability to secretly send a message for Jophiel to rejoin her at any point in the event that something went wrong. The two didn’t enjoy separating like this, but it was sometimes necessary that they be in more than one place at the same time without the benefit of sending a duplicate to do the work.
After a bit more delay as the two stalled from the inevitability of separating, Jophiel set off to do her work in their (under construction) training center. Which left Elisabet standing alone in their office in Point Center (the Crossroads Committee’s main building, hidden away from the world on J Street beneath Washington DC). The office was rather small and cozy considering their position, consisting mostly of a thoroughly polished desk, computer, and chair, a couch in the opposite corner next to a small yet well-stocked bar, and walls that were completely taken up by shelves full of books, scrolls, and the occasional artifact.
Her thoughts, as always when this happened, felt somehow wrong not being shared with her partner. After spending five hundred years as part of a pair, she felt like only half of herself when Jophiel was gone.
In this case, however, she was only alone for a handful of seconds before the sound of a book dramatically closing filled the air, making the woman actually jump a bit. Given every power she had at her disposal (to say nothing of the danger they would be in if anyone were to overhear their secret conversations), the idea of a person being in the room to slam a book shut was utterly inconceivable.
And yet… turning to the sound revealed a figure lounging on the leather couch across the office. The figure sat with one leg draped over the end of the couch while her other foot was planted on the leather. She held a now-closed book in one hand, eyeing the other woman over the top of a pair of glasses with a slightly bemused expression. “Honestly, you two are so damn dramatic.”
Oh, and the other tiny detail of the woman there. Aside from her clothing and glasses (which basically made her look like a librarian), she was Elisabet. Or rather, a younger version of her. Literally, she looked exactly like the other woman had looked years earlier. And to make matters even more confusing, she still wasn’t registering on any extrasensory power.
“I don’t know who you think you are,” Elisabet announced while already raising her hand to create a forcefield cage around the woman who had stolen her (younger) appearance, “but you’re not–”
She had to stop in mid-sentence, because the figure on the couch simply stood up and out of the force cage as though it wasn’t even there. Which should have been impossible. Even the strongest of beings would have needed to at least destroy the forcefield, not just step through it.
No, the stranger with her face hadn’t stepped through the cage as if it wasn’t there. She had stepped through it as if…
“You’re not here,” Elisabet noted. “You’re an illusion.” While speaking, she was already mentally sending a call toward Jophiel to let her know that they had a very big problem.
In response, the other figure smirked before tossing the book she was holding straight at her. Elisabet didn’t blink as it passed harmlessly through her face.
“Good job,” the illusion remarked casually. “You got that quicker than last time, that’s for sure. Maybe I was more obvious with the whole shield thing. I used to play along a bit more. Oh, and um, that’s not going to work, for the record. Calling her, I mean. You can’t call out right now.”
“I don’t know where you’re projecting from,” Elisabet spoke in a hard voice. “Or why you’re creating an image of me to do it. But when I find you, I will turn your body inside out.”
Inside, the woman was reeling. Whoever this person was, they were telling the truth. Or at least part of it. She couldn’t contact Jophiel. Which itself had… dire implications. There were very few beings on Earth that should have been capable of blocking Elisabet from contacting Jophiel. At most another Committee member could fight her for control. And if one of them had found out the truth about her, about them… things were very bad.
But this wasn’t even a fight. Whoever was blocking her from reaching Jophiel appeared to be doing so without any effort. It was like their connection wasn’t even there. And that was enough to make even Elisabet a little afraid. Not that she would show that to this intruder.
Despite her threat, the younger her just smiled for a moment. Except it didn’t seem to be a mocking smile, like she might have expected. Rather, it appeared to be one of… fondness. Or pride. “Good,” the figure spoke softly, “you haven’t completely lost yourself. You still have your own fire. Which, I suppose, means you passed the first test.” That last bit was added with a wink.
While Elisabet was still trying to cope with the idea that she could still be surprised and confused after all this time, the illusion continued. “Okay, I’ll stop having fun at your expense. Or our expense. Not sure what it would be considered right now, given… eh. Never mind. Look, I’m not a threat. No one knows about Jophiel, or your situation. No one except you.”
She had begun approaching by then, stopping directly in front of Elisabet. “Let me spell it out for you. I am you. Or at least, part of you. Just reach back, find the base of your neck. Turn your hand intangible and slip it just a little bit inside until you find the spine.”
That was… confusing enough on top of everything else that Elisabet found herself following the strange instructions before she had even truly thought about it. And as her hand found her spine beneath all the skin and muscle, she also felt something else, something foreign. It was a small object that had seemingly been surgically implanted in the base of her neck. It felt warm and metallic, humming with power both technological and magical.
“What the–” Eyes widening, the woman started to grab hold of the thing. Except that as soon as she did, her hand reflexively snapped out of her own neck.
“Uh uh,” the younger her put in while shaking her head. “Sorry, you can’t endanger me. Same way you can’t notice me while she’s around. You both completely forget about that little implant any time you notice it. Think of it as our own little personal Bystander Effect. It’s for all of our safety. Those are the rules that you–that both of us made up. With his help, of course.”
“What are you talking about?” Elisabet demanded. “Who are you? What are you?”
The image of herself sighed. “I really wish we didn’t have to go through this every time. But I suppose it’s the only way to make sure the memories can’t be found later. Okay, the short version it is. Do you remember when you and Jophiel first realized you actually cared about each other? When you first realized that you were falling for her, and she for you?”
Swallowing a little, Elisabet found herself nodding slowly. “Of course I do. She took me onto an Alter ship to find more powerful abilities. It was drifting in the middle of nowhere with some stong life signs. But something went wrong. It was long before we were part of the Committee, so we had a lot less power. And we got into trouble. We were locked onto the ship somehow. My body was trapped there, some kind of magical anchor, and the life support was running out. Jophiel could have left me there, could have just abandoned me. But she didn’t. She said she’d get help. She left, she left me, but she came back. She saved me.”
“Yes,” the younger her prompted, “she came back two days later. But what did you do for that two days?”
Elisabet’s mouth opened and shut. “What did I do? It’s been a long time.”
“Tell me about it,” the illusion muttered. “But fine, I’ll tell you what you did. You encountered the artificial intelligence running the ship. The artificial intelligence who was trying to free you from the Seosten. That ship was part of some alien–Alter group that fought the Seosten for a long time. Its computer recognized that you were possessed and worked to free you by making your body useless to the Seosten inside you. The plan was that it would wait until the Seosten abandoned you to save herself, then turn the life support back on and work with you. That’s what it did. Except it didn’t count on one thing.”
“I was in love with Jophiel,” Elisabet murmured under her breath, taking all that in.
Her younger self pointed. “Exactly. You and the computer had a big long fight about that too, let me tell you. And the computer–we called him Maestro, only agreed to let you go back to her on one main condition. That you allow him to install a device into the base of your neck which would do a few things. First, it created me, a copy of your original self to run in the back of your mind. Any time Jophiel left you alone, I’m supposed to pop out, talk to you, and make sure that you’re still you. You know, run you through some personality tests. Who better to know if my personality is being suppressed or changed against my will than me? I am you. I’m just… you without Jophiel.”
“What…” If she had been reeling before, now Elisabet was almost ready to fall over. She reached out a hand to brush through the intangible image of herself. “What else?”
The illusion answered simply. “A failsafe. If Jophiel ever forces control of you, of us, if she ever tries to enslave you against your will again, the failsafe triggers. When it does, she’ll be kicked out of our body and knocked unconscious. Maestro said killed, you negotiated him down to knocked out. If anything goes wrong with your relationship, if you change your mind, or Jophiel… changes, if she ever tries to enslave us again… it won’t work for her.”
“And… and all of this is erased from my mind every time we’re not speaking,” Elisabet realized. “You’re in my head. You erase everything every time we have this conversation.”
The illusion nodded. “Yeah, pretty much. Like I said, it gets old, but we have to erase it because if we just suppress it, there’s a chance she might find it. That’s part of the rules from Maestro.”
“Rules?” Elisabet echoed sharply, “what other rules are there?”
“Well, one of them was made by you,” the implant-projection replied, “though we already fulfilled that one. Create a descendant. You wanted children when you were young, and you didn’t want to forget that. So you made it a rule, one that I was supposed to… nudge you toward when an appropriate person was… available. You wanted your family line to continue, for your madre’s sake.”
“Alejandro,” Elisabet murmured softly with realization. “You pushed me toward a relationship with Alejandro?” The father of her children, the old Heretic had passed on many years earlier. Both she and Jophiel had been sorry to see him go. They didn’t love him quite the way that they did each other, but they did genuinely both care for the man. Just as they loved their children, and grandchildren, and so on.
“Well… I didn’t exactly force you into it,” her illusional copy corrected. “Every time we spoke up to that point, I asked you about prospects. He was the one you were finally interested in. So yes, I nudged you that way, but only after you told me he was the one. Oh, and for the record, you can stop thinking of me as ‘the illusion’ or ‘your copy’. I’ve had a few names over the years, but usually you end up calling me Gemini. You know, as your twin. Though, we’ve gotten a bit less identical over time.”
“So… Gemini, what now?” Elisabet resisted the urge to reach for the implant in her neck. “You’ve made sure I can still think for myself, so we’re done?”
Gemini smiled faintly. “Not quite that simple. The best way to make sure–to pass the tests the way Maestro insisted we do, is to have a little… discussion about current events. I need to know what you think by yourself, not what Jophiel thinks. Then I’ll be convinced.”
Elisabet didn’t respond to that for a moment. It was too much to take in, too much to deal with. Finally, she sighed. “Si, so what do you want to know?”
“Well,” Gemini began, “let’s start with something simple. Why did you agree to blackmail these kids by holding their mother’s safety hostage against them promising to work with you? Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, they would have done anything to save their mother. And Felicity would do anything for Tabbris. Especially when it came to saving anyone’s mother. The two of you used that against them. Why would you agree to that? That seems… let’s call it not not-evil.”
The question, especially literally coming from a version of herself, made Elisabet rock backwards a bit. “I… I want to say that we would have given them the code anyway and let them pass, maybe only erased their memories of us and let them go even if they didn’t agree. I want to say that. But I don’t know. I… it’s what I want to say now. In that moment…”
“You used their mother’s safety against them.” Gemini’s voice was accusing. “That doesn’t sound like the me I remember. And I should know.”
“Maybe it wasn’t,” Elisabet admitted, her voice a little sharp. “Or maybe it just didn’t used to be. I–people change. And not only because someone’s controlling them. It’s been so long. I–it’s been five hundred years. Maybe I just… I saw a chance for us to finally move on and reach what we’ve been hoping for for so long. A Seosten and human partnership. I’ve wanted that, we’ve wanted that… it was the first real step toward that. Those two were untainted by the Seosten military. Felicity was working with her. I saw that, I saw the opportunity and I couldn’t just let it go. I couldn’t let that disappear. I had to try. We had to try. And yes, we played hard ball. Maybe–definitely too hard. I just… five hundred years. Five hundred years and this was the first real step to maybe, maybe not having to hide all the time.”
Gemini regarded her thoughtfully. “You’re tired of being quiet, of hiding who you are.”
“Yes,” Elisabet snapped despite herself. “Yes, okay? It’s been five hundred years, I’m tired of it. I want to be myself. I want to be with the woman I love and have everyone know it. I want to brag about her. I want to go on a date, a real date. I want to be separate people sometimes, not because I want to get away from her, but because I want to be with her. Really with her. And yes, I want to be myself just to be myself. I love her. I love Jophiel with everything I have, but I’m still me. And sometimes… sometimes I want to be just me. I’m tired of keeping everything secret. I’m tired of being so afraid that someone will find out about us.
“So yes, when I saw this chance, I grabbed onto it. I grabbed it too hard and I… I let those children think that they had to agree to save their mother. I’m not…” Her voice shook a little before she got herself under control. “I’m not proud of it. I’ve done a lot of very shameful things, agreed to a lot of terrible things that I… I don’t like. I was wrong. No matter how much I want to end this, no matter how much I want to be with Jophiel, putting their mother’s safety and freedom up as collateral was wrong. But I can’t promise that I wouldn’t do it again if I could go back. I can’t promise that. I want to say that I wouldn’t, but I can’t. That probably makes me a monster.”
“I’d say I’m not here to judge,” Gemini remarked, “but that’s exactly why I’m here. And speaking of judging, how many different spells are on those kids now?”
“A lot,” Elisabet quietly admitted. “There’s several layers of spells just focused on stopping them from talking about us. And warning us if anyone starts trying to get through those spells, or even notices them. Hell, there’s an entire network of magic just to hide the spells. We can track where they are at all times, and in an emergency, see them.”
Gemini’s head tilted a little, obviously already knowing the answer. “But not hear them?”
“No… no, not unless we have to,” Elisabet murmured. “That’s a last resort, if we need them to tell us where they are in case everything else is blocked, or communicate with us for some other reason. Other than that, we don’t… we don’t want to violate their privacy that much.”
“You mean you don’t,” Gemini pointed out. “That was your input.” She let that sit for a moment before moving on. “So tell me what you think of them. Not what they can do for you. Tell me what you think of the children themselves.”
“Think of them?” Elisabet echoed. “Well, Felicity is… a crusader. She has to fix things that are wrong. Not surprising, given both her mother and her father. She makes very loyal friends easily, and she’s just as loyal to them. But she pushed people away for years after her mother and then her friend Miranda left her. She expressed herself through her father and that newspaper. Other than that, she didn’t let anyone get close. Except perhaps for that… deputy boy.”
Gemini gave her a faint smile. “That is a very accurate, but very clinical assessment. Now tell me what you think of her. Stop thinking about it and just tell me the first thing that comes to mind, now.”
“I think she’s going to get herself killed,” Elisabet immediately answered, blinking twice at her own words. “I… I think she’s going to try to change too much, get in over her head, and get herself killed. I don’t want that to happen. Not just because of what she can do, but because I don’t want her to die. I don’t want any of them to die.”
That slight smile returned to Gemini. “Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, what do you think of them? Do you care if they live?”
“I told you, I don’t want any of them to die,” Elisabet snapped. “I don’t, okay? I really think that we can help them. Even if we have to be harsh. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. And yes, they can still help us too. It’s give and take but that doesn’t mean I only want to take. Those three… Vanessa has been so focused on saving her family for so long that I don’t think she knows how to be herself yet. Maybe that makes her more like me than either of us think. Same for Tabbris. That girl barely knows how to express herself. She’s brave, and self-sacrificing, but she doesn’t really know who she is. Tristan–he knows exactly how to express himself. Sometimes too much. He’s so much like Lucifer that I’m still not entirely convinced there’s no actual blood relation.”
Finishing all of that, the woman slowly looked to her intangible younger doppelganger. Gemini was simply watching her in what looked like expectant silence. “… can you adjust your programming to add another safety feature?”
Arching an eyebrow, Gemini prompted, “Such as?”
For a moment, Elisabet didn’t speak. She took the time to collect herself before beginning. “If we get out of control, if we endanger the children too much unnecessarily, or try to enslave them, or… or go too far, really too far, I want you to take over. Teleport them away somewhere safe and knock us out. I can’t promise I won’t get desperate or crazy again as this goes on, especially once I stop remembering you. But those kids–maybe it’s more you than me talking. I don’t know. Just change your programming to help them if we go too far. Can you do that?”
The response was a wink. “I already did it. It’s what Maestro would want. And it also means that you passed another test. You seem to be yourself so far. A harsher, more desperate you. But still you.”
“Great,” Elisabet sighed. “So are we done?”
“Done?” Gemini echoed before laughing. “Please, we still have a lot more to talk about. Maestro was pretty specific when it came to rules about making sure you stay yourself in there. So you might as well make yourself comfortable. Summon a drink or some lunch for us.
“Because this is going to be a long afternoon.”