One Step Forward

Many weeks had gone by since the attack. At the advice of Lord Ibrahim, Julianni had slipped into a new clone so as to save the healing process, and each day she felt thankful she had listened. There were no questions from others, no pokes and prods into just what had happened. Everything was normal. Everything was alright, as it always needed to be.

Her home was a total loss, and while she felt saddened, there were worse things, of course. God knew such a fact was at the forefront of the woman’s mind. What bothered her most was that Shiran Mazaki had been killed trying to stop the attacker. She knew that he was safe, of course, his own new clone having been activated at his passing. But to also know that it was her own fault that caused him to face such a problem was troubling, to say the least.

Calling off the investigation was the only right action, and since the weeks had come and gone, no more issues had arisen. No flowers, no notes, no threats or video calls. It was as if nothing had ever happened. Julianni had grown used to it, and she was happy to put the search into Dominius’ actions behind her.

Letting out a breath, she leaned back against her chair in her “home” within the Alliance headquarters. Her empty glass of wine discarded to the side, her hands came to rest at her lap and she closed her eyes.

She could put it all behind her, she thought. How easy it would be. If Dominius decided to send messages, then so be it. She’d simply forward them to the Executor, as ordered, and he’d handle what business matters needed tended to. There was no reason for her to interact with him anymore. While she’d felt an anger for what he did, the craving for revenge resting on the tip of her tongue so prominently, she knew that God had a reason for what had happened. She’d deserved every second of His Wrath, and so she’d suffer and pray for forgiveness.

Yes…that’s what she needed right now. A moment of prayer.

Her eyes opened and she stood, slowly striding towards her shoes. A pause came, however, when a message arrived in her inbox.

d0sha7r3mah7 | [UNTITLED] | YC119.11.19 11:30 | Inbox

Glancing off to the side, she let her implants take over her senses. The sender caused her brow to raise. What sort of name was that? Her head tilted. Was it a name at all? What was so familiar about that phrase?

Whatever it was, she couldn’t place it. Julianni shook her head and proceeded to read just what was sent.

you were right

degario

i have proof

need safe passage

immunity

will you help?

 

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Passenger

“It’s been some time since your last appointment. We’ve both been quite busy, haven’t we,” came the calming voice from the woman across from her.

“It has, and we have. But I could have tried harder to be here. You have my apologies.”

The brow of the psychologist raised, and her head tilted. “There’s no apology needed, Avala-haani.” A pause. That quiet, awkward pause of a person who was picking apart the structure of words presented to them. “We both could have tried harder. Nevertheless,” Emiri Aneozomi began, “I have decided to withdraw the mandatory drug tests you were subjected to. All of them have come back negative thus far, and myself and the Executor have no reason to believe they ever will.”

Julianni nodded her head. She’d expected something like that to come up, and she’d certainly been prepared for it. Lately, reading these people was getting easier and easier. It made her wonder just why she even came to these appointments anymore. “Thank you. Is there anything else?”

Another loft of the doctor’s brow. “There is, if you’ve the time to spare…”

With the way Emiri trailed off, Julianni knew that there was more of a demand there than was spoken. After a small shift in her seat, she laid her hands calmly into her lap and looked towards the doctor, nodding. “I do.”

“Good.” That pause. Julianni’s eye twitched. That damn pause. Why wouldn’t the woman just say what was on her mind? “I’ve noticed a bit of a change in you. More…confidence, perhaps. I’m happy to see it.”

“Thank you again, Aneozomi-haani. I’ve been working towards that, and I’m glad to see it’s noticed,” she confirmed. It was true, of course. The target practice at her home, the beginnings of combat training with Aldrith- both had done wonders to boost her courage thus far.

“Mh, yes. However, I’m concerned. Have you spoke to anyone about what you’ve endured?”

Julianni thought about it. Had she, really? No. No, she hadn’t. Not at length, at least. “Briefly.”

“Don’t you think it’s time to? You’ve not even revealed to myself what’s going on in that head of yours. Not that I am offended, of course. But surely there must be someone you can be open with. You need to be.”

Names began to swim through the sea of Julianni’s increasingly darkened mind.

Zeke.

Luna.

Utari.

Ioannis.

Vince.

Hespyr.

As each name slowly waded through the murky sludge, so too did they sink to the blackened depths. For each person had their own life. Their own problems. Their own worries. Struggles. Heartache. Loss. She knew it, even if they didn’t show it. Who was she to drown them further?

“I am open with God,” was Julianni’s reply, a lie thick like the very dark sludge that was eating away at her mind.

Emiri sighed, then stood and made her way to her desk. “I hope one day that is true, Avala-haani, and that you find someone you are able to speak to without worry. You need to let it all go. I know it affects you, and I’m not the only one to notice.”

“If there are concerns with the quality of my work, I give my word I will try harder.”

“I’m sure you will, but that is not what I meant. Regardless, I have an appointment with someone else. I would like to see you again next month, if that works with your schedule. Otherwise, you know where to find me. I will be here,” the doctor said with a saddened smile.

This time, it was Julianni’s turn to pause. At the very least, she was beginning to wonder if maybe she really did need to let it out. But to whom?

Standing slowly, she bowed to Emiri, then gracefully glided to the door without another word. What else was there to say?

Chrysalis

“-dn’t you agree?”

Julianni snapped out of…where-ever she had been and focused on the room. Her appointment, that was right. She glanced back to Doctor Aneozomi and her head gave a nod. “Oh, yes. Frankly, it went much smoother than I thought. I wish you would have been able to attend.”

Emiri smiled, even going as far as to chuckle. “Oh, those kinds of get-togethers aren’t my thing, Avala-haani. While I understand its meaning, I am certain both the presence of the Executor, the I-RED baseliner personnel, and yourself was more than enough to show our gratitude towards our allies.”

“Of course. But I still think it would have been nice to see you there,” Julianni countered. “Nevertheless, there is always next time.”

“So there is. I’ll keep your thoughts in mind. Now…let’s move on. You are in a relationship now, correct?”

Julianni’s dip of the head confirmed and she sheepishly smiled. “I am. It’s been well so far. I believe it’s that…what do they call it, the ‘honey-moon stage’?” Her nervous chuckle escaped her lips faster than she could stop it.

Doctor Aneozomi gave a simple nod. “That’s what they call it, yes. Do you believe he’s good for you?”

“I’m…” A pause. “Pardon?”

“Is he good for you? Is he aware of what you’ve gone through? Both in the distant and recent past?”

Julianni furrowed her brows. “Er…he’s…aware of many things, yes. Forgive me, Doctor, but…is this necessary?”

The doctor raised a brow, a neutral expression replacing whatever smile she’d worn before. “It is, yes. If you’ve kept things from him, then it will only become a problem later down the road. And I don’t think I need to mention the issues it would have with your work productivity.”

This was something Julianni could never get used to with the Caldari. She understood it, most certainly, but no matter how many times it came up in a topic, it always felt like a low-blow to her. Was work really so important? Or was Faith?

When she spoke, she did so carefully, glancing off to the side. “He is aware of my past, yes. I’ve told him of Dominius, though not in full detail. I’ve also made mention of the…ah…the drug use.”

“And how did that go?”

How did it go? Julianni thought back to the interactions and she nodded. “It went well.”

This session, the doctor’s brow was becoming perpetually raised. “Well? That’s…such a simple word for those issues, Avala-haani.”

She was right, really. Julianni wouldn’t dare tell the doctor about the seemingly lack of concern that was exhibited regarding the drug-use. “It is, and it is the truth,” she said with sincerity.

Doctor Aneozomi frowned softly and her eyes went blank as she used her implants. “Utari Onzo, correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“I see,” came the doctor’s response.

An uncomfortable silence began, the kind where one is most assuredly looking through dirty laundry all the while standing beside someone watching. Julianni’s legs crossed and her shoulders sank somewhat.

“Were you aware of his record of carrying illegal substances?”

Well, she couldn’t very well lie, could she? A small wince came from her and she cleared her throat. “Later, yes.”

“Later?”

“With respect, Doctor, I didn’t go through his record to decide if I was attracted to him or not,” she replied softly. “Only after it was mentioned.”

The discomforting silence began again. This time, it lasted longer, leaving Julianni sitting there in it for at least fifteen minutes. Her palms began to sweat, and the fidgeting with her hands she usually did increased ten-fold.

What would happen?

“The Executor is not concerned with the lack of professionalism here regarding the fact he is a shareholder?”

Now Julianni was beginning to get frustrated. “Respectfully, I believe that is something to discuss with the Executor, if you believe there is a problem.”

“Very well,” the doctor replied. “Before you go, I’d also like you to make a trip to Medical for your testing. It’s been some time since the last one, anyway.”

At this point, Julianni stood in a gracefully swift action and bowed. “As you wish, Aneozomi-haani. I will report there at once.” The woman couldn’t tell if she was grateful for this end of the appointment, or disturbed that she couldn’t come up with good answers to Emiri’s legitimate questions. She turned on her heel and began to leave, heels barely making a noise.

“Also, Julianni?”

She stopped, then turned and glanced off to the side towards the doctor. Julianni could only imagine what would be said next.

“You should find someone willing to support you and guide you. Not potentially lead you down a darker path. Not only will your workload thank you, but I think you’ll find that you yourself will, as well.”

The look on Emiri’s face was not a stern one now, but instead showed of concern. It gave Julianni a small pause in her breath and she turned her head.

A smile then began to creep up onto her lips as she answered softly.

“I already have.”

 

Metamorphosis

It was a beautiful day, as most of the days at Julianni’s home had been. The heat had evenly applied itself to the oasis, and the wind did its job at cooling off the woman when the temperatures became too much. Now mid-afternoon, she could hardly wait any longer.

For hours, she had stayed within her garden, watching as the chrysalis of each butterfly twisted and turned. One had even cracked, but the beautiful beings had yet to grace Julianni with their full, stunningly vibrant appearance. She was as patient as she could be, sipping lightly at the mug of coffee in her hands. A small smile crept it’s way onto her lips as a thought crossed her mind.

These hours she had watched had also given way to moments of reflection. How far she had come. Once a toy to a power-driven lordling, now a director in a respected organization. At one time wondering just where it was she was supposed to call home, now sitting on her own property, with all the acreage and privacy she could ever want. As she observed the butterflies undergoing their metamorphosis, she couldn’t help but pair it to her own. Even now, with a relationship having appeared over the horizon, she was still undergoing a transformation into something that she prayed was as beautiful as the wings of the creatures before her.

Her patience paid off, that smile only further growing as one of the butterflies pushed its way out of its safe haven. For many moments that followed, one by one, the insects she so cherished appeared before her very eyes. Vivid yellows and black contrasting markings of these desert butterflies were revealed to Julianni and she let out a sigh of awe. The wings twitched. Shook. Fluttered. She knew the process, as she’d seen it before. And each time, it grew more remarkable.

Soon, it would be time to do what it was she always wanted to the moment she laid eyes on them. But for now, they needed to gain their strength, and she had some cleaning to do. For a few more minutes, she sat and watched as the butterflies slowly bat their wings to dry, then she pushed off of the bench to attend to her day’s work.

 


 

The storage room wasn’t as much of a mess as she’d believed. It was just disorganized. If there was one thing she enjoyed doing, it was putting things together. Like a puzzle, each item would have a place, and would fit best with its surrounding pieces. The paintings would be filed away together, the sculptures organized by years and set to one side, the rare fabrics would be sealed away for the most safe of storing. She was doing inventory, really. And she didn’t mind it.

The passing of the original owner of this home was unfortunate, to be sure. But such was the cycle. The art and fabrics that had been left behind by the merchant was…a bit much for the woman. Extravagant, lavish- it didn’t suit her. By placing them in the storage area, at least she was keeping the man’s memory alive instead of just being rid of them. And one day? She felt she’d even pull together an exhibit, perhaps. A charity, maybe. Her mind danced with positive ideas as she moved things one by one to their respective areas.

But it was moving that one statue, that one small carving of a desert snake that proved to shake those thoughts.

The grind of stone gave the woman pause, as did the fact the small statue wouldn’t leave the pedestal it was resting on. Her attention was caught off to the side at movement; no one was here but her, she thought. But her concern was somewhat washed away at the Eastern most wall sliding inward.

Her brow raised, and of course, curiosity got the best of her. Who wouldn’t it have? With a cautious step, she began to proceed to the dark opening of what must have been another room.

No sound came from within, save for the distant eerie whistle of wind. The woman took a deep breath, as if taking a plunge into deep waters, then stepped inside fully, her hand searching for a light switch. It took her a bit of time, but she finally found it, and flipped it to the “on” position. Her dark brown eyes adjusted to the bright, uncomfortable light quickly.

Surrounding her was an assortment of containers. Suitcases, bags, and even filing cabinets were dotted around what she assumed was a panic room of sorts. Surprisingly, each one was empty. Why had this been cleared out, but the art had not? It was strange, to be sure. Even after double checking the various containers, she couldn’t find a single thing. Her head shook side to side, confused. It was at this point she decided that a call to the realtor was wise.

Julianni turned to leave, only to be stopped by the sound of metal rolling across the floor under her feet. Her brow raised and she immediately looked to see just what it was she’d kicked. It seemed the room wasn’t so empty after all. But her raised brow soon fell, as did the rest of her face.

She could see the writing slowly appear. Each and every letter appeared one by one, from the back to the front. It was like it was happening in slow motion.

But she already knew what it said.

She knew the moment she’d seen the first two letters.

As the vial of Drop came to a stop a few inches in front of her, she found herself face to face with one of the most difficult decisions of her life. What was to become of her own metamorphosis? Would her wings be as vibrant as the butterflies she so loved? Would they become colourless and broken? What could it hurt?

Moments seemed like minutes, minutes seemed like hours. She swallowed hard, knowing full well the decision had already been made the moment she saw the label.

And then:

She picked up the vial.

Home Sweet Home

The ride through the desert sand was enough to put Julianni to sleep. Sunlight beat down heavily to produce an uncomfortable heat, but winds within the area were always quick to bring a balance to the otherwise unlikable temperatures. The vehicle itself was…little to be desired. A hover-car, of course, but the engine gave off this puttering sound as if it wanted nothing more than to lay down and die.

But it didn’t matter. She was away right now, and no one knew her. The woman was without a name to many of these people she’d interacted with on this planet, instead someone who simply wanted privacy. An expensive privacy, that is. To this day, she still felt entirely uncomfortable about the cost of the bill for the private property, the furniture, and everything else in between. But over and over she’d been told it would be worth it. “A capsuleer simply couldn’t get by without these things,” the realtor had told her. She didn’t believe a word the man said, but she also wanted the entire ordeal to be over with. Worse came to worse, she could rent the place out to someone who needed it.

She hadn’t found herself completely submerged into the depths of slumber, only taking a sort of catnap. Her sheer headcover was tugged well enough against her left cheek to hide from the driver the fact that her eyes were, in fact, closed. There was little conversation on the way. Julianni had been ensured that the process was anonymous, that she’d not have to worry about people asking who she was, how she could afford such a place, or what her story was. The driver would keep to himself, the movers would be gone when she arrived, and she would have no worries about someone coming to knock on her door. Sure, the employees may wager guesses as to this woman’s status, but there was no definitive answer provided to them. It was none of their business, anyway.

“We’ll be arriving at the oasis momentarily,” the dark-skinned driver stated in what was his first words in hours. Her eyes opened and, sure enough, she could see the green foliage beginning to crop its way up in the distance. At first, dots of green on the horizon, encased by tan hills that acted as a mother’s protective arms. If she hadn’t known that this place was supposed to be here, she would most certainly have guessed it was a mirage. They were very much out of any area of civilization and hot sands had surrounded them for miles upon miles.

But it was real, and the closer they came to the location, the more she could see just how the video viewing of the location hardly did it justice. Trees and bushes were in abundance, enough that even the spring could hardly be seen, much less the home built within. What could be seen of the adobe was its roof and some parts of the wall surrounding it. Built somewhat more elevated, it still seemed to be hidden thanks to its tan colour against the sanded hills that surrounded.

The parting of the foliage was just enough for the hovercar to fit through, and so it did, expertly piloted by her driver. Even he seemed to glance about the scene in awe, as if he’d never seen it this close before. Julianni became so distracted with the beauty unfolding around her that she hardly noticed the vehicle come to a stop. “This is as far as I’ve been permitted to go, Miss…uh…ma’am.”

Her attention turned towards the man, and an awkward smile found itself on her face. “Oh, of course. Thank you for the ride, sir.”

Gracefully slipping out of the car, she bowed lightly before him, (which of course caused him to raise a brow), then moved to the trunk to take out her bags. With an effortless lift, she retrieved them and made her way to the gate that stood guard in front of the building.

Security had already been set up, she’d been told. Cameras upon cameras, key code locks, retinal scans, fingerprint scans, voice recognition…state of the art, of course. She went through the process of verifying her identity, and sure enough, the small gate parted enough for her to fit through. The safeguards were needed, she knew, especially with what had happened in the past. But it was uncomfortable to know that she needed them at all.

To say the home was what she saw in the video tour was accurate, of course, but it was also so much more. Her eyes widened at just how extravagant the place was. Before, it was empty, and it still looked almost too excessive for her taste. But she’d taken the plunge to do something for herself for once. There was also the fact she’d been largely talked into it by both Doctor Aneozomi, and the realtor himself.

Now, however, furniture had been arranged within the building. Julianni silently cringed at just how lavish each room was turning out to be. She didn’t deserve this, no. Not by a long shot. But here it was, and it was here to stay. Her thoughts drifted back to renting the place out. It was certainly a possibility. Maybe even make it into a retreat for I-RED and its allies’ personnel. A getaway of sorts.

But the moment Julianni stepped out through the back door, her heart felt as if it stopped. Nevermind the half-moon swimming pool and the personal hot tub. Nevermind the outdoor bar and the chairs that must have cost more than most baseliners would ever dream to make in three lifetimes. No, what caught the mixed woman’s dark eyes was a small glass observatory off within the shade towards a few large trees. This was not something she had asked for, nor was it on the video tour.

Cautiously, she approached the lightly tinted structure, the click of her heels hardly making a sound on the stone pathway. Within, she could see various congregations of lush desert plants, all in their state of blooming. There were a few other plants that she knew may not necessarily survive in the area, but she guessed that their life was granted by some sort of indoor irrigation system.

A garden, of course, and an indoor one at that. There were two doors, however, to pass through to get inside. The first, tinted glass that sealed shut behind her, then the second which swung open easily. A rush of the scent of the flowering cacti and bushes danced their way into her senses, bringing a smile to her face. What’s more, the garden itself was exactly as how she envisioned one for herself to be- not too large, and with just enough plant life for her to be able to take care of on a busy schedule.

It was what next that caught her eye that drew the breath from her very lips. There, beyond the flowers, bushes, and small amounts of decor, was what she immediately identified as a chrysalis holder meant for butterflies. Within, she could see the large number of butterfly chrysalis within, all looking relatively fresh in their state of metamorphosis. A small datapad lay to the side of the open box, inviting Julianni to take it up to read.

She did so, letting the screen come to life, then began to read the words.

Avala-haani,

They are native to this area. I’m told they emerge after approximately 15 to 20 days. There are people on this planet who know their habits quite well, but I am quite certain you’ll do well in caring for them. The Executor has approved your schedule has been adjusted so that you will have those days to yourself.

Congratulations on your new home. I’ll see you at our next appointment.

Dr. Emiri Aneozomi

Julianni was left speechless.

She felt guilty. After everything, how could she possibly be deserving of any of this? Was she not running away? Hiding like some scared fool in the middle of a desert on an unimportant world? Even with her specifications of a prayer room being built here, was she not pulling further away from God by running instead of facing her trials? How could she possibly accept something like this, much less purchase some home when people had died because of her mistakes?

But there was a small part of her that felt relief. This was a place that had no affiliations with any organization. It was not within I-RED headquarters, it was not a part of the Degario Holding. It was hers.

Her eyes welled up with tears, overcome with the knowledge that she had a place now to call home. Even if every day she felt as if she were caught between two worlds, this place was solace from that. She could feel it within her heart, her hand reaching up to rest at her chest while she let those emotions free.

At least one place, she could finally belong.

Lost

Regardless of how many times she’d been instructed to see the alliance psychologist, she could never get used to it. There was a certain anxiety of it to her, not knowing exactly what was appropriate to say. She trusted the woman fully, having known her for a few years now, but still she felt the need to guard her deepest, most troublesome of thoughts.

Her eyes drifted to the reminder flickering on her holo-display within her office, a drawn out exhale passing from her lips.

ATTENTION: MANDATORY APPOINTMENT IN 15 MINUTES.

With a simple thought, the reminder disappeared from the screen to reveal the massive workload that had been left unattended for so long. Some may have found such a prospect stressful. Overwhelming. Julianni, on the other hand, was welcoming of it. What better way was there to draw her focus away from the garbled mess that was her mind.

She stood with her normal grace, much more stable in her movements than she’d been in the past couple weeks. Her body had finally caught up to the recovery that had taken place, save for the weight loss. But that would come in time- her appetite was still returning. In a fluid movement, she crossed her office and exited the door. There was, of course, a guard posted at the door.

“Avala-haani.” A tone with professionalism, but she could hear the concern bordering on pity. Guilt, perhaps. Since her captivity, she’d caught on even more to such subtle sounds. The man straightened to attention, though remained where he stood, knowing full well where she was scheduled to be headed.

She offered a dip of her head and a smile that most certainly would pass as legitimate, turning to the door that stood just down the hall within sight. A strange feeling it was to know the office was so close. It was a comfort to know that if she needed to open up, all she had to do was walk down the hall and knock. There were many that would give anything to have that. Julianni was, however, less comforted by this fact and instead felt unease. It was not the support system she was necessarily comfortable with.

The door slid open once her knuckles gave a light knock, the scent of the office reaching out as if to taunt her. It was lavender.

She made no visible reaction, knowing full-well that the doctor often had flowers in her office during appointments to help put people at ease. A kind gesture, even if the current fragrance instead wrapped itself around Julianni in an oppressive weight.

“Doctor Aneozomi,” she said softly, bowing lightly at the waist to the older woman.

Emiri Aneozomi was already seated across from a couch, which Julianni knew as The Spot to sit.

“Avala-haani. Good to see you again. How have you been since returning to work?” This woman’s tone was harder to catch on to, though it was obviously quite inquisitive.

Julianni lowered herself into The Spot, smoothing the folds over her skirt. “It has been busy. Much was left while I was gone,” she admitted, jumping right into the session. At least it’d be over sooner.

“Too busy? Or are you happy for the fact?”

“The latter.”

Doctor Aneozomi nodded silently as if taking an internal note. She sat with a certain confidence to her that made her seem so open. Julianni expected she was trained to do so, considering her job. After all, who would talk to a psychologist if they appeared closed off? Another question was posed by the doctor, moving the conversation right along.

“I understand you had a meeting with the designated SFRIM diplomat to I-RED. How did that go?”

Julianni considered the question, smiling with a bit more authenticity. “It went well. I had expected a much more tense evening, but Lord Iyhr was quite wonderful to speak with.”

“Wonderful to hear. A nice break away from the workload, even if it was technically business, hm?”

“I think so, yes,” she answered, though there was a hint of hesitation. Rather than question her or give an expression to suggest she expected an answer, Doctor Aneozomi instead patiently waited to see if Julianni expanded on that. Which she did, after a moment of gathering her thoughts.

“I’m having difficulty holding it together, wearing this mask. Acting as if everything is okay.” Her voice was soft as she spoke, her eyes moving to her hands in her laps. When had she begun picking at her nails? “I hear them whisper along the corridors. I see the looks that are given, the tones in their voice.”

“Who?”

Julianni glanced back up and towards the doorway. “The Internal Watch. The ones that know where I was.”

The doctor nodded again studying Julianni passively. “Do you think that by acting as if everything is okay, that they’ll be less concerned? Or that people won’t notice something amiss?”

She considered the questions and almost immediately came back with an answer. “It’s possible. It would at least prevent questions.”

“Do you think you’ve been convincing thus far?”

“I do.”

“And what about convincing yourself?”

Julianni frowned, unable to answer. Had she really been trying to convince herself as well, all this time? If she had, she knew it certainly wasn’t working.

There was a small silence, just long enough for her to process things before the doctor continued.

“Have you been able to find a place of solace? I know you mentioned previously that you are having troubles with prayer at the chapel here.”

“I may have, yes. I’ve yet to go, but there’s chapels that accept the public that SFRIM has. I asked both Mister Onzo and Lady Aspenstar about them,” Julianni explained.

“I think it would do you well to worship with them. I know you struggle between paths here, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

She’d heard this before from the doctor, but she didn’t quite believe that Emiri really understood what it meant, being caught between two worlds. Instead of speak that openly, she decided it was best to simply keep it to herself. “I plan on taking some time to go out there and do so. I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to pray with someone else, though. It’s been many years.”

Emiri smiled, reflecting understanding as she spoke. “Take your time, Avala-haani, and let it come naturally. I’m confident that you’ll find what you need to heal.” As she spoke, she moved her gaze towards Julianni’s fingers which had apparently been fidgeting and picking again. Though she made no physical change in stature or expression, Julianni heard that small sigh, just barely touching at the quiet air around them.

“I’m glad you made it a point to attend this appointment, however brief they may be,” she finally said.

Julianni nodded, even dipping her head. “Of course. I realize how important they are.” What she didn’t say, though, is that she also knew that she had no choice in the matter.

“They are. I’m eager to see the progress you make from the unfortunate circumstance you had.” The more Emiri spoke, the more Julianni could pick up that there was something more to what she was saying. Her eyes were still focused on Julianni’s hands. Keeping silent, though of course accepting of the doctor’s words, she listened.

“I’d like you to go for testing today, after this meeting.”

A frown crossed Julianni’s lips, but she was quick to stifle it. “I mean no disrespect, Doctor Aneozomi, but I just had o-”

“You know I have to order them if I have concerns,” Emiri interrupted. “I don’t do it lightly, and it’s to protect you and this alliance. Your position is not one that allows for mistakes, Julianni.”

The silence that proceeded this time was much more uncomfortable. On one hand, Julianni could most certainly understand the worries. But on the other, the lack of trust was almost like a slap in the face.

“I understand.”

Emiri gave a small smile, though it was somewhat forced. “Your decision to remain in that clone is the main worry over all of this. I never got the chance to ask you what your reasoning was behind that. Though, I have my suspicions.”

“If your suspicions have to do with my Faith, then they would be correct.” Her arms folded, both to stop herself from fidgeting with her hands as well as to give a small comfort to herself. “God meant for us to feel suffering when He deems it fit. I realize how easy it would be to put this behind me, physically. But I do not agree that it should be done. He has a plan for all of us. Aneozomi-haani. Pressing a button and diverting from that?” Her head then shook.

“I thought as much,” the doctor said with understanding on her features again. “Each decision we make in life has consequences. I’m glad to see you’re sticking to your ideals. Just remember that just as you have to do your best to accommodate our wishes, so to do we have to accommodate yours. My understanding is that they were moments away from switching your clone, but saw the request you made in your medical file.”

Julianni’s mind flickered back to when she filled out paperwork with the request to medical emergencies and her clone state. To know that, in the end, I-RED had indeed listened to her wishes was a comfort. “You’re right,” she said with a small smile. “Thank you for pointing that out to me. I’ll make my way to the test immediately.”

Emiri stood, making her way to the office door. “Rikaato. I realize how difficult all of this may be, but remember that you have a support system in place, and it’s ready to assist you.”

It was again a small comfort, though there nonetheless. Julianni stood in kind, striding towards the door. “Thank you again,” was all she said, and she could sense that Emiri knew quite well that Julianni had no intention of fully discussing what was on her mind. Though she’d known her for years, and in fact knew much of I-RED for the same time, she felt worlds away.

The farewell was brief, and soon Julianni found herself in the medical office for her mandatory drug test. It would come back negative, of course, proving that despite what stresses she may have been under, she still had not caved. There’d been no reason. Sure, she’d been stressed, having what many would call as a crisis of Faith. But turning to those kinds of substances was not within her mind. At least, not mentally.

Her eyes darted to her fingers once the results of the test had come in. As they trembled, she silently shook her head and began her journey to the bar. She needed a drink.