Notes: In case it needs to be said beforehand (which it might), this chapter contains appearances by Quicksilver and Magneto. This is only noteworthy because of their recent affiliations: Quicksilver was teaching at Avengers Academy, and Magneto was, once again, affiliated with the X-Men. Just so no one will be confused if they expected either or both to be a bad guy.
Monsters Like Us
An X-Men Fanfic by
Nate Grey (xman0123-at-aol-dot-com)
Chapter 5: The Secret Keeper
The moment he stepped into the infirmary, Doug Ramsey understood that it was enemy territory to him, at least as far as the majority of the four girls inside were concerned. The first one he noticed was Penance, crouched on the floor in front of the bed and studying him with narrowed blue eyes. Her every motion was wariness and anger, mixed together with a powerful protective instinct. Doug had no doubt that if he did the wrong thing, she wouldn't hesitate to rip out his throat with her razor-sharp claws. That much, he'd been told up front, of course. Illyana had assumed he'd want Peter with him for protection, but Doug had quickly squashed that idea. He didn't want their first impression of him to be him hiding behind a steel man-mountain. If there was trouble, there was little his mutant ability to read virtually any language, including body language, could do, other than predict the ways in which Penance would attack. With any luck, the years of training that had been drilled into his body would be enough to keep up with her movements. He'd already died once.
Also as he'd been told, Claudette St. Croix, the entire reason he was here, was seated on the side of the bed. She appeared to be occupying herself by staring at the wall, and didn't seem to have noticed him just yet. Her sisters Monet and Nicole clearly had, however: the elder was watching him like a hawk, and the younger flexed her fingers anxiously, as if she expected a fight to break out.
"Sorry to intrude, ladies," Doug said, keeping his distance. "I'm-"
"Douglas Ramsey, codename: Cypher, current member of the New Mutants under the command of Danielle Moonstar," Nicole interrupted, frowning at him. "We know."
"Ah." Doug didn't need his mutant power to know that she really didn't like him: it was in her voice, her face, and her stance. "Maybe I should start by explaining exactly why I'm here. All I want is to help everyone, and you especially, better communicate with Claudette. I guarantee that this is nothing like the speech therapy you've experienced in the past."
"And you think you can tell us, who have been Claudette's sisters all of her life, how to better understand her, when you're just meeting her for the first time?" Monet demanded.
"No," Doug admitted. "But I do think I can pick up on certain visual cues that you may have missed. For example, I can tell that right now, the three of you are angry and extremely protective of Claudette." Nicole and Monet glanced at other and then Penance, apparently unaware that she'd felt just as they did. "However, I don't see any of that when I look at Claudette. I see someone that's shy around a stranger and needs reassurance. Which is refreshing, since apparently she's the only one not rushing to judge me here."
Claudette ducked her head and grabbed onto Nicole's arm, as if trying to hide behind her. Monet immediately moved closer to her sisters, effectively blocking Doug's view of Claudette.
"I'm not here to hurt anyone," Doug stated. "I just want to introduce myself to Claudette for now. That's all. This goes no further if she isn't willing to participate."
"I guess there's no harm in that," Nicole admitted reluctantly.
Wanting to appear as non-threatening as possible, Doug sat down on the floor. It would be a horrible position to be caught in if Penance decided to attack, but he was hoping that wouldn't happen. "Hello, Claudette," he said calmly, directing his attention to the spot behind Nicole and Monet where he figured Claudette's lowered head must have been. "My name is Doug. I'm a friend of Illyana's. I know that sometimes when you speak, some people don't understand you. I want to help you with that. I know that Nicole usually speaks for you, and you may be comfortable with that. But if you let me, I think I can show you a way for your family and friends to understand you without her having to do that. It's entirely up to you, though. If you decide you're interested, I'll just be over there by the door." Doug slowly got to his feet, though before he turned and walked away, he noticed Claudette peeking at him just over Nicole's shoulder.
By the time he reached the door, Doug could tell that someone had followed him, but he was surprised to see it was Monet.
"I don't trust you," she said simply.
"You don't know me," Doug corrected. "I'd be shocked if you did trust me."
"No, I don't trust you because you're a friend of Illyana's," Monet explained.
"Oh. Well, that will do it sometimes. More often than you might think these days," he admitted. "But everything I said was true. If that helps."
"It doesn't. You don't know what speech therapy was like for Claudette."
"True. But I also said that what I want to do isn't speech therapy," Doug reminded her. "I can't stress that enough. Don't you want to be able to communicate with her? Or are you satisfied with how much you're able to talk with her now?"
Monet's eyes narrowed. "No, I'm not. But if that means that she would have to change who she is, or learn something new and difficult just for our convenience, then-"
"It isn't just for your convenience, Monet. Don't you think Claudette gets tired of people looking to Nicole to translate for her? Don't you think Claudette wants to be understood? Don't you want her to understand you? I was under the impression that you have difficulty talking to her, even telepathically."
"That's only because her mental defenses are exceptionally strong. That makes it more difficult to connect and stay connected."
Doug shook his head sadly. "Should her defenses come into play at all if you're simply trying to have a conversation with her? That makes it sound like you're attacking her."
Monet's eyes widened in shock. "What? No! I would never hurt her! Claudette's psi-shields have always been very powerful, and very few telepaths other than Nicole have been able to talk with her that way. Even I can usually only get a few words at a time through to her, but it's not because she's doing it on purpose. It's just that Nicole is the only one able to have any prolonged contact with Claudette. That's the way her mind works, and I accept that."
"But you don't like it, do you? You want to be able to have that connection with her, don't you? You want to be able to tell Claudette that you love her without it having to go through someone else."
"I'll take what I can get. Whatever she's willing to give me."
"You could have more. Easily, I suspect. All you need is someone able to show you how. I'm willing, and I'd bet anything that Claudette is able."
"You don't know her."
"Maybe not," Doug said, smiling as Claudette suddenly peeked out at him from behind Monet's shoulder, "but I know a girl with spirit when I see one. Hello again, Claudette. It's wonderful to finally meet you."
Claudette hesitantly extended her right hand, which Doug shook slowly and carefully. She gave him a tiny, bashful smile and moved out from behind Monet, though Doug noticed that she kept one hand on Monet's arm. It was a good start, but there was one more thing that Doug needed to get the ball rolling.
"Claudette, I need to know that you want this to work. Your sisters aren't sure because they don't want you to be frustrated, but I'm willing to try if you are. Do you want to try?"
Claudette glanced at Monet, then back at Nicole, hesitated for several seconds, but finally let go of Monet's arm and moved to stand next to Doug.
"You don't have to do this, Claudette," Monet told her. "No matter what you decide, we'll still love and support you. So if you're only doing this for us, then-"
"She isn't doing it for us," Nicole interrupted. "Not just for us, anyway. She wants to be heard by more than just me. I'm not happy about this, either, but it's her decision, and I promised I wouldn't try to stop her if she volunteered."
"I still think you ladies really have the wrong idea about what I'm proposing," Doug said. "I'm not going to force Claudette to do anything, and I have no intention of pushing her out of her comfort zone. In fact, the first thing I'd like to do is just observe how she interacts with the people around her. That will give me a better idea of where we need to start. Just pretend I'm not here and act as you normally would."
"In that case, my vacation days ended around three hours ago," Monet sighed. "I should get back to work. Nicole, since we haven't resolved our dispute, I assume you're in no hurry to get home?"
Nicole gaped at her for a few seconds. "Uh, yeah! I'm still mad at you!" She pouted and crossed her arms over her chest to indicate this.
"Fine. You know how to call me if you need me, and I trust that you won't let anything happen to Claudette."
"You're leaving? Just like that?" Nicole asked in disbelief.
"You wanted me to treat you like an adult, so I am," Monet replied. "And I am needed back at X-Factor Investigations."
"And this isn't because you're still mad at me?"
"Nicole, your complaints were that I was treating you like a child, and mistreating your friends. Removing myself from the equation solves both issues. Jubilee and I have come to understanding, but we will always disagree on certain things. You and Claudette have your independence. I do still expect regular calls to be assured of your well-being, and I will of course immediately share any progress I make concerning Penance or our brother."
Nicole frowned at her. "You look mad."
Monet hesitated in answering. "I am... hurt and disappointed, not mad. I thought you liked the way I took care of you. I didn't realize you felt smothered, or that you resented my care. I'm glad that you finally made me aware of this, but don't expect me to like it. I consider your happiness more important than my own, so I can accept this arrangement, for now." She turned to leave, but Claudette immediately pulled her into a tight hug. Though a little startled at first, Monet quickly returned the hug, resting her head on Claudette's. Despite Nicole's claims of still being angry, she ran over and was accepted into the hug without a word of protest. "I love you both," Monet said softly, kissing their foreheads. "If I was ever too firm, it was only because Father never was. You probably don't remember Mother very well, but she wouldn't have wanted you to become spoiled. I have always tried to show that I cared, and if I ever failed in that, I'm truly sorry. I know I could never replace Mother, but I didn't want you to grow up without her. I did the best that I could, given our unique circumstances."
"We never wanted to hurt you," Nicole murmured, reaching up to stroke Monet's cheek. "We just wanted to help Jubilee. But there was no way to do that without upsetting you, at the time. You should have more faith, Monet. Trust that you raised us well enough that we know right from wrong, and that we know when to ask for help if we need it. But if we don't ask for your help, don't assume it's because we don't need you. We like that you worry about us, but it's what you do after that gets on our nerves. But we love you, anyway."
Doug watched it all unfold silently, making mental notes on little things he noticed: the way in which one of the twins' moods seemed to envelop the other in short order, how they united against (or with) Monet as the situation demanded, and more importantly, how Claudette responded both to the presence and touch of each of her sisters. They weren't things just anyone would pick up on, and he'd bet that the sisters themselves were largely unaware of most of it, but if there was one thing his mutant power was thankfully good at, it was being quite thorough where body language was concerned. From what he'd seen so far, Claudette mostly felt safe and happy with her sisters. But he suspected that Monet's inability to consistently connect with her, and Nicole's tendency to speak for Claudette, were both indicators that there was ample room for improvement.
He was drawn from his musing by the sudden approach of Penance, who, after giving him a long, considering look, sat somewhat near his feet in what for her seemed to be a relaxed crouch. Doug offered her a hesitant smile. Penance did not return it. What she did do was remove her gaze from him long enough where it was clear she no longer considered him a threatening presence, and that was just fine with him.
With Claudette cleared to leave the Avengers Academy infirmary, Illyana could come up with no valid reason for her team to continue imposing on their comrades. At the same time, returning to their hotel room was no longer an option, as the team now included Penance and Doug. Penance insisted on staying with the twins, and she was welcome to, but Illyana did not look forward to trying to explain or pay for the damage that Penance's razor-sharp feet would do to a hotel floor. Likewise, Doug didn't know anyone well enough where he felt comfortable sharing a bed. Well, that was inaccurate: he knew Illyana well enough, but that was entirely why he wasn't comfortable. The Illyana he had been friends and teammates with (oddly enough, before both of them had died and been resurrected) had been intelligent, impulsive, spunky, and stubborn. The current one was all of those things still, yet clearly more mature, colder, and though Doug hated to admit it because he loved her like a sister, far more attractive. If pressed, he would have been forced to admit that his primary concern over sharing a bed with her had less to do with trusting himself around her, and more to do with the fear of what she might decide to do to him for her own amusement.
However, Illyana was firmly against returning to Utopia, a decision immediately supported by Piotr, Jubilee, and Penance (they assumed she wanted to be nowhere near Emplate). They also rejected Logan's offer to come to the Jean Grey School, mostly because Nicole felt they'd become lost in the crowd, and Penance's issues might become secondary, whereas Illyana was willing to address them immediately. However, despite everything Illyana knew about magic, she was reluctant to try reversing Emplate's spell herself. She maintained that magic was best undone by the original spell caster, and tampering by others without a precise understanding of the original spell could result in a further transformation, possible harm, or even death. Because she had no idea who Penance had been before the transformation, it was nearly impossible to determine how radically she'd been changed, and so the only one with any real working knowledge of the spell was, and likely always would be, Emplate. Still, she wanted to exhaust all possible safe alternatives before dealing with Emplate directly, and planned to schedule a consult with Doctor Strange (through Cyclops, so he would at least feel he was being kept in the know) in the near future.
They were still ironing out the details of their new location when Spider-Man poked his masked head in and said they had a phone call from Emma Frost. Jubilee immediately assumed that they (namely she) were in some sort of trouble, but it was just the opposite: as a reward for rescuing Laura Kinney (and for not straining relations with the Avengers in the process), Emma was offering them the use of the Massachusetts Academy as a base, even if it turned out to be a temporary one. Normally, Illyana would have at least hesitated or given the matter more thought, but she accepted immediately after gauging her teammates' reactions. Most importantly, Penance still thought of the school largely as home, and to an extent, so did Jubilee, Nicole, and Claudette. Doug also wanted Claudette to be in a familiar, comfortable environment for their first official session. Pleased with their acceptance, Emma promised to have Storm arrange some cloud cover within the hour, so that Jubilee wouldn't need to worry about the sun when they arrived. With the arrangements made, everyone was in a good mood, which Illyana felt was as good a time as any for a little team meeting.
So, on the front lawn of Avengers Academy (and with Spider-Man looking on, partially because he was nosy, but friendly and neighborly enough where no one seemed to mind it), Illyana introduced them to Ferog.
The reactions were about what she'd expected.
Piotr had seen enough demons by now where even one as ugly as Ferog didn't really bother him, especially if Illyana was fond of it. Jubilee was curious in a way that implied this was either not her first demon, or not her first hideously ugly ally (that or she just found some gross things to be equally cool). Nicole recoiled but at least tried to hide it, which Illyana could understand since she hadn't really prepped them for this, having wanted their honest reactions. Penance just stared, but at least did not react with violence. Claudette alone showed signs of wanting to pet the demon, which Illyana allowed in an attempt to ease Nicole's tension. And, of course, if Spider-Man had any reaction, no one could see it through his mask.
"Everyone, this is Ferog," Illyana announced. "Obviously he's a demon, but he is also in my care."
"As in he's a friend or a pet?" Jubilee asked.
Illyana opened her mouth to respond, paused, and frowned. "I have only thought of him as a loyal follower so far. The rest is up for debate, I suppose."
"Well, can he talk?"
"No, but not for the reasons you might think. Demons get bored, just like humans do. To amuse themselves, they sometimes play games with extremely high stakes."
"You mean like they bet their lairs or something?"
"What I mean is that when I found Ferog, he had lost his memory, his will, his very soul. He was essentially an empty vessel, and the only reason he didn't waste away is because I saved him. Even now, he only acts when I will him to. It's not a perfect solution, but it keeps him alive and out of trouble."
"Ferog," Nicole said slowly. "Wait... Gofer?"
"Very good, Nicole. Though Gofer is not exactly a name that would go over well among demons. Most of them are, as a rule, not very bright, but they still don't care to be insulted in such an obvious manner. Otherwise, the name is descriptive enough."
"So what does he do when he's not with you?" Spider-Man asked.
"It varies. I try to keep him occupied with small tasks, but if there are none, I simply command him to sleep. So long as he is given a purpose and a small portion of power every so often, he shouldn't die. Not from inactivity, anyway."
Nicole frowned at her. "But he's not really... alive, is he? If you have to tell him how to live, or even to live at all..."
While that was something that Illyana had considered more than once, it was still something she didn't like hearing. "He's alive enough," she insisted.
Nicole took the hint and backed off. "Sorry. Claudette seems to like him well enough. And so long as I don't have to touch him, I guess he's okay."
Illyana nodded. "I simply want you all to be aware of him, so you will not be... as startled when he shows up later."
Spider-Man watched Claudette sit in the grass and cuddle Ferog like a baby for a moment, then shook his head. "Well, it's hard to have an issue with him when I see that. Not really sure where to approach this from a moral standpoint, either. But if you're the only thing keeping the little guy alive, and he isn't hurting anyone, no complaints from me."
"Yeah, same here," Jubilee chimed in. "We needed a team mascot, anyway."
Illyana stared at her, silently trying to decide if that was an insult, then promptly gave up. She knelt in the grass beside Claudette and Ferog, watching them play. Illyana found the sight more sad than anything else. She was commanding Ferog to play, an easy feat thanks to the small portion of her magic that she had embedded in him. Commanding him to enjoy playing, to recall that enjoyment later, and to associate Claudette with the enjoyment in the future, required more effort on Illyana's part. And she honestly wasn't sure if it was worth it. She had no way of knowing if Claudette would lose interest in Ferog later on. If so, Illayana wasn't sure if it was kinder to keep him as a blank slate, or to give him these fleetingly happy moments to dwell on later. All she knew for sure was that she wanted him to live. But as Nicole had pointed out in her own way, Illyana herself was no longer sure what all that included. Yet it was all so simple for Claudette, because she would always be protected and surrounded by love. She could afford to hold onto her childlike innocence, while Illyana felt she had lost her own so long ago that she barely ever remembered having it at all. It never would have occurred to her to view Ferog as a friend, and certainly not a playmate.
Without realizing she had done so, Illyana reached out and placed her hand on Claudette's shoulder. "Thank you for accepting him, Claudette," she whispered. "Thank you for seeing him as I could not."
Claudette lifted her head, staring blankly at Illyana's face for several seconds. Then she raised her hands, using two fingers to stretch Illyana's lips into a smile.
Nicole knelt beside her twin and grinned. "We agree by a vote of two to one. You look much prettier when you're smiling."
Though Monet actually did plan to leave Avengers Academy before her sisters, she ended up staying behind even after they'd left. After giving the matter of Penance's spell some thought, she'd realized that there was one source of information on the grounds they hadn't tried yet. Granted, it wasn't an obvious one, and Illyana probably hadn't tried out of professional pride (Monet was certainly not in the habit of asking anyone for help, so she could understand that much). But Penance had been suffering in silence for years, and it was time to call in all last resorts, even if it meant another confrontation with Marius himself.
Monet found her source in the gym, sparring with Laura Kinney. Oddly enough, Laura looked like she was losing, but was taking it rather well. Monet waited for a break in the exchange before announcing her presence by knocking on the open door.
"Your sisters have already left," Laura said at once. "I was under the impression that you had as well."
"I was under the impression that you required no further combat training," Monet replied.
"So was I, until he gave me ten black eyes within two minutes," Laura answered, gesturing to her partner.
"I was only trying to make a point," the man said. "There are a surprising number of people that excel in hand-to-hand combat at superhuman speeds."
Monet stared at Laura, seeing no indication of bruising on her face. "Your healing factor is back at full strength, I see."
"That isn't why you're here."
"No," Monet agreed, turning to the man. "I was hoping I could have a moment of your time."
"That earns you a break, Laura," her partner suggested, tossing her a towel.
"Two minutes?" Laura asked.
He smirked. "I'm feeling generous today. Let's make it three."
Laura nodded and immediately began sprinting around the gym, at what was probably a relaxed pace for her.
Monet stared at the man as he watched Laura for a moment. He was tall, slim but covered in tightly toned muscles, and stood in a way that suggested he knew how good he looked and was quite proud of that fact. There didn't seem to be a drop of sweat on him. This was more or less what she had expected from Pietro Maximoff, but it was still rather intimidating to be in his presence.
Pietro finally gave Monet his full attention. "You want to ask about Wanda," he stated. His tone suggested that this was not a topic he wanted to discuss at length.
"Not exactly," Monet replied. "I have a problem involving black magic, and I need some advice. I guess I was hoping-"
"That I was familiar enough with my sister's magic to be of some help? Doubtful, but I'm listening."
"My brother put a spell on Penance, which is responsible for the way she is now. I want to break it."
Pietro closed his eyes briefly. "I'm going to tell you something I learned about magic years ago, since you seem to be a young woman blessed with a higher intelligence: magic is not for the smart, but for the skilled. I have seen certified geniuses flub spells intended for amateurs. I have also seen people that I wouldn't trust to drive a car three feet save the world with their unparalleled magical prowess. In short, the smarter and more determined you are, the more likely you are to make a mistake with magic. My only advice is this: leave it to the experts, the people with years of experience. Try it yourself because you think you're smart enough, and you'll likely make that poor girl's life even worse, if that's possible. I would recommend you try Doctor Strange. He's a rare combination of being both highly skilled and highly approachable. Take advantage of that, before he wakes up one day and realizes nearly every other sorcerer of his talent is a jerk, and that he could easily join them."
"I understand. Thank you." Monet paused and asked, "How is your sister?"
"It's difficult to say. When you grow up as a mutant, you quickly learn that you have a power that sets you apart from humans. Charles Xavier would tell you that you can use that power to change the world. Wanda did that. Only she did it alone and without anyone else's consent. It's not something that most people would be able to live with. She's... adjusting, and will be for some time, I fear. But thank you for asking." Pietro shook his head. "I wasn't much help, was I?"
"You essentially told me the same thing that Illyana did. That tells me it's likely true."
"She's a smart girl. Listen to her. On this, anyway."
"You have doubts about her, too?"
"I have concerns. I was with X-Factor when she died, so I didn't really know her. I know that she meant a great deal to many people, my father included. Now she's back. That happens quite a bit in our circle, I'll admit. But it isn't something we should ever get used to. Because sometimes they just stay dead. And sometimes, we only wish they had."
"I know the feeling," Monet murmured.
"I don't think I can give you much else," Pietro admitted. "But I'm feeling nostalgic all of a sudden. Try calling Avengers Tower. If you're lucky, Beast will be visiting there today, and if you're luckier still, he'll send you anything they have that's even remotely related to black magic. But I suspect that's as far as your luck will get you, because I still think that if Illyana can't fix Penance, your brother is the only one who can."
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of."
Though there was plenty of space at the Massachusetts Academy for everyone to get their own room, Jubilee claimed one didn't get the full school experience unless they had a roommate. Quite predictably, Nicole and Claudette took a room for themselves, Jubilee and Illyana took the one next to it, and Piotr and Doug took a room across the hall. Penance seemed to prefer roaming the grounds to actually having a room, though the twins went to the trouble of making sure her old room in the basement was ready in case she changed her mind.
Illyana gathered everyone in the kitchen for lunch, and decided it was best to split up for the afternoon.
"Currently, we have two items on our team agenda: breaking Emplate's spell on Penance, and Claudette's first session with Doug. I have one idea I'd like to try with Penance, and I'd like Jubilee and Nicole to help with that. Peter will sit in on Claudette's session so that she has a familiar face around for comfort."
"You just don't want me in there with her, right?" Nicole asked.
"No," Illyana replied at once.
"Yes and no," Doug added. "Nicole, the goal of these sessions is to help Claudette communicate. You tend to do all the communicating for her. It's a bit counterproductive for what I have in mind. No offense."
"And I really do need your help with Penance, Nicole," Illyana explained. "She trusts you and Jubilee, and this idea I have isn't exactly the kind of thing one looks forward to."
Nicole frowned but didn't argue. "Fine. Peter, I'm trusting you with Claudette again. Doug doesn't look like he could hurt anyone, but all the same..."
"Why am I still the bad guy?" Doug complained.
"Because I still don't really know you yet."
"Rest assured that I have always known Douglas to be a gentleman and a scholar," Illyana said.
Doug smiled at her. "Thanks, Illyana."
"Also, I can beat him up."
Nicole grinned. "Okay then."
Doug scowled at them. "I hate you both."
As they begin to separate into two groups, Jubilee pulled Piotr to the side.
"Okay, what's up with you?" she demanded. "You've been really quiet today. You're not getting weird on me because of the kissing, are you?"
"No," he assured her. "That, I enjoyed immensely."
She grinned up at him. "Cool. So what is the problem?"
"Jubilee, are we... dating now?"
"What, you had time since we kissed to find another girl you like?"
"No, but I need to know. It's important to me."
"Then yes, I guess we are. So I can assume there will be no other girls?"
Piotr smiled. "Of course there won't."
"Then what's the big deal? Why did you need to know?"
"Because I want to be honest with myself, and I am not ashamed of any relationship I have been in."
Jubilee frowned at him. "Okay, I'm confused. What is it you're not saying?"
"...I want to tell Kitty."
She gaped at him. "What, about us? Why would you want to do that? Isn't she mad enough already?"
"Yes. But if I don't tell her as soon as it happens, and she finds out from someone else, she will be angry, hurt, and disappointed. While our break-up was not mutual, I do not wish to hurt her. And I am not ashamed of being with you, Jubilee. I see no reason to hide this."
Jubilee sighed and scratched her head. "Okay, fine. You have a point, and I guess if it was us breaking up, I'd want the same courtesy. Not that I ever expect us to, so don't you go getting any ideas. But I want it understood that if Pryde tries to haunt us, I'm totally willing to get into a vamp versus ghost-girl cat-fight over you."
"Jubilee, I do not think you can actually hurt Kitty while she is phased."
"I'm an X-Man. We're masters of the mutant workaround. I'll find a way. Now gimme some love, because I'm suddenly feeling really insecure."
Piotr drew her into his large arms and kissed the top of her head. "I'm sorry, Jubilee. I know this isn't easy."
"It's not 'becoming-a-vamp' difficult, either," she murmured into his chest. "I'll manage."
"This is not going to appear pleasant, but it is necessary," Illyana said as she lead Nicole, Jubilee, and Penance into the woods surrounding the school.
"Well, is there ever a pleasant way to break an evil spell?" Nicole asked from behind her.
"Yes. Just not this one. You can thank Emplate for that."
"As long as we don't have to sacrifice any virgins, I think I can manage." This earned Nicole two very long looks from Illyana and Jubilee, so she felt the need to explain. "Because I assume Penance and I are the only virgins here, and obviously we can't sacrifice her, so-"
Jubilee grabbed Nicole's ear and tugged. "Just stop now before I have Penny dig a tunnel in the dirt, and we stick you in it headfirst."
Nicole squealed in pain. "Okay, okay! I'm sorry! We're all virgins!"
"Stop saying that! I'll tell you when it's okay to start going on and on about virgins!"
"...which I guess leaves me to tell her when it's okay to begin sacrificing them," Illyana added.
Jubilee shot her a flat look. "Was that just a very bad joke, or a speaking point on your resume?"
Illyana looked perfectly serious. "Do you really want me to answer that?"
Nicole stared at her in horror. "You've really sacrificed a virgin?"
"It's very likely. Mind you, most were probably demons that were too hideous to mate, but there may have been some evil humans who were also never going to have sex in the first place."
"Okay, then what about innocent virgins?"
"Do we really have to keep talking about this?!" Jubilee demanded, grabbing Nicole's ear again.
"Ow! Why aren't you grabbing her ear?!" Nicole cried. "She's the one that's sacrificed virgins!"
"Evil, mostly demonic virgins," Illyana corrected at once.
Jubilee glared at them. "I have absolutely no problem repeating this conversation word-for-word for the listening pleasure of both your older siblings, you know. Poor Penny is traumatized enough as it is."
Illyana rolled her eyes. "Very well, this is far enough."
"Great. And what's this idea?" Jubilee asked, releasing Nicole's ear but moving her hand to Nicole's shoulder, as a reminder that her ear was still in grabbing distance.
"You remember my Soulsword?"
"That funky sword that comes out of thin air?"
"It actually comes out of Limbo, where I normally keep it, but yes. It has the ability to shatter virtually any kind of magic."
"Then why didn't we try this before?" Nicole asked.
"Because it must stay in Limbo for a number of reasons, and these days I use it only as a last resort. But I am willing to use it for Penance's sake. The problem is that it must penetrate her to do any good, and I need her to understand that it cannot physically cut her. I can't exactly ask you two to hold her down."
"And this will definitely work?"
"I have a theory as to why it might not, if that helps. But I would need to test it with the Soulsword first to be sure."
"I'll explain it to her," Nicole offered. She turned to Penance and began a series of complicated gestures, ending with pretending to thrust a sword into her own chest. Penance seemed mildly alarmed by this.
"I can accomplish this merely by penetrating her hand with the sword," Illyana added.
Nicole blinked. "Oh. Well, you should have said that first!" She went through all of gestures again, this time pretending to drive a sword through her hand. Penance glanced uncertainly at her own hands, but eventually nodded slowly.
"How does she know what any of that meant?" Jubilee asked.
"It's impossible to explain unless you've been trapped in her body," Nicole replied.
"Nope. But that's probably got something to do with it, anyway. If this works, I'm sure she wouldn't mind explaining it to you."
As Jubilee had described, Illyana did seem to pull the Soulsword out of thin air. She immediately pressed the point of the blade into the back of Penance's hand, far enough until the blade poked through on the other side. Without warning, the sword vanished, and Penance scrambled back, her eyes wide.
"Every second the sword is away from Limbo is crucial," Illyana explained. "Otherwise I would have been more considerate. Sorry."
Everyone stared at Penance's hand for a long moment, until there was finally a visible change: a tiny spiderweb of cracks in her palm, but nothing else.
"Is that it?" Nicole asked. "Did it work?"
"Yes and no," Illyana sighed. "It's as I feared. The spell is still in effect, but the Soulsword has done all it can do for Penance directly. But this is progress."
"How?" Jubilee asked.
"Those cracks on her hand indicate that the sword did have some impact, which confirms my theory. But it leaves us with another issue: to fully break the spell, I also need to penetrate Emplate with the Soulsword. Which means returning to Utopia and getting permission to do so."
"Oh, is that all? I thought it was going to be something tough, like taking down Apocalypse by ourselves."
"I don't know who that is, but he's got my vote," Nicole said weakly.
Doug chose the Massachusetts Academy's rec room for the first session. Though he initially had his doubts about how Claudette would respond without the other girls around, she quickly proved him wrong. From all indications, she was entirely comfortable with Piotr, and at the very least considered Doug a friendly authority figure. Once it was clear that Claudette was willing to communicate, Doug began to explain his theory. Just from observing the twins together, he had realized that they spoke to each other on several different levels at any given time. While the telepathic rapport between them was responsible for most of the talking, Claudette's stupors greatly reduced its effectiveness at times. Apparently without realizing it, Nicole had compensated for this with touch: each touch meant something different, and also without realizing it, Claudette had begun to respond to them, even while in her stupors. Granted, Claudette could generally only respond to simple requests such as standing, walking, or sitting in that state, but so long as it was Nicole doing the touching, she always responded. It was pretty much hit or miss with anyone else, but Doug felt this could be improved if the twins were made aware of the opportunity. At the very least, he hoped that Monet could eventually be included.
Doug had expected this to be a long, drawn-out process, but he was shocked to find that Claudette had learned the majority of the touches with Piotr in just under an hour. Clearly there was a high level of trust between them, but this strongly implied that Claudette trusted Piotr, who she hadn't yet known a week, more than she did Monet. It made Doug seriously question Monet's assumption that Claudette couldn't help who she was able to connect with mentally. So far Claudette was only connecting at all with people she clearly felt close to, and the strongest connections implied the stronger bonds. Even Doug was able to get her to consistently answer yes or no questions with head nods and shakes after a few tries, which really made him wonder where Monet had gone wrong. Then he realized that the answer was sitting right in front of him.
"Claudette, do you know why Monet has so much trouble talking to you?" he asked.
Claudette nodded, but offered no further explanation.
"Will you show me why?"
She gave him a slower, more hesitant nod, and then extended her hands to he and Piotr.
Doug wasn't sure what he'd been expecting to happen, but the moment his fingers touched hers, his stomach flipped over and the world went dark around him. He was only vaguely aware of Piotr shouting Nicole's name somewhere nearby, and instantly understood that whatever was happening to them now, Claudette was in complete control, for better or for worse.
Illyana's group was walking back to the school when Nicole froze, a look of alarm on her face.
"What's wrong?" Jubilee asked at once, touching her arm.
"Claudette and the boys are in some kind of trouble. I heard Peter call me through Claudette."
Without being asked, Illyana created a portal that deposited them in the rec room. Doug, Claudette, and Piotr were seated on the couch, holding hands, and had matching blank expressions on their faces.
"She took them in," Nicole murmured. "On purpose. Why would she...?"
"You're sure this wasn't an accident?" Jubilee questioned.
"I'm sure. They're holding hands, the stupors aren't contagious, and Claudette can't really trigger them. For the boys to be in it with her, she had to pull them into her mind before it started. The stupor is just a side effect of that. They're most likely to occur in moments of intense focus."
"But they'll come out of it, right?"
"Eventually," Nicole sighed. "But there's no telling how long it'll take, and it won't do any good to try interrupting them. All I can tell you is that Claudette had a reason, but I have no idea what it was."
"How long has the longest stupor lasted?" Illyana asked.
"In her own body, hours. When we were the false Monet, months. The few times I got dragged in with her, almost twelve hours exactly each time."
"So we should hope for a matter of hours, then."
Nicole shrugged. "She's never taken two people in, Illyana. I don't know what else to tell you."
"Do you think there's reason she wouldn't wait for you to return?"
Nicole frowned at her. "What are you implying?"
"There's no doubt in my mind this would have been safer if you had been here. Claudette did it without you. I think that was intentional."
"Because I might have stopped her?"
"Because Claudette didn't want to take you in with them, for some reason."
Nicole shook her head. "That makes no sense. We have no secrets from each other, and I'm not just saying that. Each time I combine with one of my siblings, all of our secrets are exposed to each other. There's literally nothing I don't know about Claudette's life before the last time we combined in that other dimension."
"I'm sure you believe that," Illyana replied. "But Monet herself said that Claudette's mental shields have always been impressive. And if all of your secrets were truly exposed, then after the last time you combined with your brother, you should not only know exactly how to cast the spell that created Penance, but how to undo it. Clearly, this is not the case. So maybe all of your secrets aren't truly exposed, or you just don't have that particular secret in your mind."
"But Claudette does," Jubilee murmured. "Maybe that's why she needs Doug to see it. He could memorize the spell and write it down once they come back!"
"Even if that were true, that doesn't explain why she took Peter in," Nicole pointed out.
"There's almost only one reason anyone would ever include my brother in a mission," Illyana said. "This must not be a secret that can be easily obtained. There's going to be a fight."
When the darkness faded, Piotr found himself in a tree-filled forest. He knew at once that it wasn't real, or at least normal: the trees seemed too brightly colored, and they were constantly swaying slightly, despite there being no wind. Doug was staring at a tree himself, murmuring softly, and he only stopped when Piotr spoke up.
"Where are we?"
"Claudette's mind," Doug answered. "That explains why she isn't here with us. Although I was still expecting her to have some sort of psychic avatar. Even without that, maybe she can still guide us somehow. Otherwise we have no option but to wander around aimlessly."
"You asked her to show you why Monet has trouble communicating with her. Could these trees be the answer? Perhaps they represent something?"
"They could be an answer," Doug admitted. "But somehow, I think they're the answer to a different question."
Before Piotr could ask what he meant, there was a noise behind them. Piotr spun around, only to find a woman walking toward them. He knew at once that she was a St. Croix: she looked a great deal like an older version of Monet, and she moved with a grace that seemed to indicate a life spent chiefly among high society. She wore a simple green dress that was slightly too long, judging by the way the end of it pooled around her bare feet and dragged along behind her. Piotr almost called out to her, but saw at once that it would be pointless: there was a glassy look to her eyes, and she did not actually seem aware of their presence. Indeed, she walked past them without even turning her head.
"She's Claudette's mother, or at least a representation of her," Doug said at last. "We should follow her."
"Why didn't she notice us?" Piotr asked as they began to follow at a distance.
"It's hard to say. Maybe she was autistic, too. Or maybe Claudette has simply combined the memory of her mother with aspects of herself. Or maybe this is actually a memory, so its path is already set in stone and we can't interact with it."
Claudette's mother soon came to a white gazebo that suddenly appeared in the forest. She slowly ascended the three steps and then simply stopped.
Doug moved to follow, but suddenly a gray, clawed hand burst from the ground and grabbed his foot. Piotr yanked him back by the collar as Emplate emerged from the ground, the clawed mouth on each of his palms opening and closing hungrily.
"Okay, not a memory," Doug muttered. "And thanks."
"Definitely not a memory," Piotr agreed, shifting to his steel form as more copies of Emplate began to burst from the ground all around them. He noted that they were entirely focused on the two of them, and seemed to be ignoring Claudette's mother. "I'm not completely familiar with your power, Doug. Can you fight without touching them?"
Doug winced. "Yes. Dani actually gave me a collapsible staff for just such an occasion. She's paranoid that way."
"And you're unhappy about this?"
"I'm unhappy that I left the staff back in our room, yes. Dani will kill me if she ever finds out that I put it down." He sighed and shook his head. "You're going to tell me that I should stay behind you, right?"
Piotr glanced at him. "On the contrary. I'm the Juggernaut now. You'd be far safer if you were nowhere near me."
"Ah. Running it is, then. I can definitely do running. So the plan is that you clear a path for me, I run, and you just keep hitting them?"
Doug frowned. "Wait. That might be a problem."
"So you don't want me to attack the Emplate clones that are going to attack us?" Piotr demanded.
"Peter, this is still Claudette's mind. These Emplates might be more important than we realize. And even if they aren't, you fighting them will no doubt cause severe damage to the area. You could accidentally destroy part of Claudette's mind."
Piotr gaped at him in horror. "You mean that I almost-?"
"We don't know for sure," Doug said quickly. "But we can't risk it. That means we both run until we can figure this out."
With no further complaint, Piotr picked up Doug, tucked him under one arm, and ran, easily shoving aside any Emplate clones that got in their way. Though he was at first worried about crashing into a tree, they all seemed to lean out of the way, opening up a clear path for them. Even though the path remained open for the Emplate clones, they moved slowly, and were no match for Piotr's speed. Soon Claudette's mother, the gazebo, and the Emplate clones had faded into the distance, and Piotr finally came to a stop and put Doug down.
"I'm such a fool," Doug whispered at once, a smile spreading across his face. "I should have realized it before!"
"Realized what?" Piotr asked.
"Claudette can hear us! We should have asked her for help from the start!"
"Because it's her mind?"
"That, and because she has to have imprinted my power by now. It explains why she was able to pick up the touches so quickly: she was able to understand my suggestions completely!"
Piotr considered that for a moment. "So all we have to do is ask her for help?"
"I think so. Claudette may be a mind reader, but she's obviously used to Nicole filtering out the non-important things. If we simply tell her exactly what we need, she should be able to help us." Doug pressed his hands against the nearest tree. "Claudette, we need your help. Can you give us a safe way to deal with the Emplate clones?"
At once, a new branch began to sprout from the tree, just above Doug's head. As he and Piotr watched, the branch began to bear fruit: a single, green pod that rapidly began to increase in size. In mere seconds, it was slightly taller and wider than Doug. Though its weight should have been enough to break the branch, instead the pod shook itself loose, breaking open the moment it touched the ground. What rolled out from the broken pod was not food, however, but a human body. A body that shuddered and slowly began to breathe as it opened its eyes for the first time.
Having spent an enormous amount of time reading and updating Utopia's database, Doug recognized the person after a few seconds. "Peter... I can hardly believe I'm saying it, but this is Everett Thomas."
"Not exactly," said the young man as he slowly stood up on shaky legs and brushed off his red and yellow Generation X uniform. "He's dead. All I am is a collection of memories based on him. But I welcome the mistake. In fact, you may as well call me Synch."
"You mean... Claudette grew you?" Piotr whispered. "Is that even possible?"
Synch gave him an amused smile. "Didn't you just escape from a number of Emplate clones? What sort of help did you expect? I could grow more of me if you want, but it isn't really necessary. Claudette provided you with all the help she thought you needed."
Doug nodded slowly. "Just as I thought. That growing ability is a mutant power, if you can synch with it. Is that Claudette's, too?"
For some reason, Synch abruptly stopped smiling. "We should hurry. We don't want to keep her waiting."
Piotr got the odd feeling that Synch wasn't referring to Claudette, but ignored this as he and Doug began to follow their new guide back the way they'd come.
Nicole sighed and dropped her hands from Claudette's face. "I'm done."
"Did you find anything?" Jubilee asked eagerly. She had been a little concerned when Piotr abruptly shifted to his steel form, apparently in response to something in Claudette's head.
"Not really. Like I told you, the safe zone is there to keep me from getting pulled into Claudette's stupors. So it only makes sense that the area is well shielded from the rest of her mind. She did it to protect me." Nicole reached out and fondly stroked her twin's cheek.
"You two have always been close, huh?"
"No," Nicole said softly. "I can remember a time when I resented her for all the attention she got. In some ways, she was worse than Monet, because she couldn't actually tell our parents to stop focusing on her, and she actually did need the attention. It wasn't fair, but that didn't matter. We were all expected to look after Claudette, because she was the baby. I think I understand at least some of why Marius hates us and her in particular."
Jubilee stared at her in shock. "You don't really mean that, Nicole."
Nicole smiled sadly. "Yes, I do. Once when we were kids, I woke up in the bedroom I shared with Claudette to find her gone. It was the middle of the night, and as a rule we kept the outer doors firmly locked and bolted, but if Claudette was really determined to leave, there's no doubt in my mind that she'd have found a way. I went to look for her, not because she was my sister , but because I knew how much trouble I'd get into if I didn't. Our parents would have blamed me and never forgiven me, even though it wasn't my fault."
"That can't be true!"
"I felt like it was. I looked everywhere, for hours, Jubilee, but she was nowhere to be found. Finally, I gave up and decided to hide in my father's study. He had this old chest in there carved from a tree in Kenya, and he was so proud of it that he never even put anything inside of it. So I thought if I hid there, no one would ever find me. I climbed in and fell asleep. It was almost noon the next day when Marius finally found me. I don't know how he did, but he was so relieved that he forgot to be angry. And he was only that relieved because at some point, Claudette had climbed into the chest and fallen asleep beside me. My parents never even got mad at me. They were happy because I hadn't let anything happen to Claudette, when she could have gotten out of the house and gotten herself kidnapped or killed. That was the first time that I remember actually loving Claudette. She saved me from the worst punishment of my life, even though she would have been the cause of it. She could have ended up anywhere in the house, but she came back to me. If she'd been found anywhere else, I'd have been grounded for life."
"Sounds rough," Jubilee murmured, reaching over to pat Nicole's shoulder.
"Actually, I feel pretty lucky. Families with autistic children usually have lots of problems. Most of our problems had more to do with us being mutants, though. There were always warning signs with Marius, but we ignored them. He was my big brother, and I just assumed he would always love us, no matter how unhappy he was. I learned to love Claudette, after all. I thought he would just magically come to accept his place in the family. Clearly, I was wrong."
Synch quickly proved himself to be a huge help. Instead of touching or even harming the Emplate clones, he merely encased them with rapidly growing tree bark that sprang up from the ground at his command. Thankfully, these versions of Emplate were based on his latest appearance, so they did not have Penance's diamond-hard skin to fall back on.
While impressed, Doug had become convinced that the growing ability that had created Synch was just one aspect of an overall mutant ability to manipulate plants. He also believed that this ability had not originally belonged to Claudette, if only because she had never displayed it before.
In no time at all, they had retraced their path back the gazebo, where Claudette's mother was still waiting. This time she noticed them at once, and the distaste on her face was obvious. "None but my children can be here," she stated, taking several menacing steps toward them. Her arms seemed to explode into a mass of writhing, thorn-covered vines, and she lunged at them, clearly meaning to attack.
Synch stepped forward, unafraid but also very reluctant. "I am one of your children. Through no fault of my own." He raised his hands, as if meaning to push her back, and began to approach her.
Claudette's mother froze, then shrank back, seeming to not want to touch Synch. He backed her to the other side of the gazebo, where she simply gave up the fight, turned, and fled.
"Don't worry about chasing her," Synch told them. "Everything you're looking for is right here."
"What did you mean about being one of her children?" Piotr asked. "Because Claudette created you?"
Synch shook his head. "Because I am essentially a collection of the original Everett Thomas's experiences, I more or less went through the same things he did. Which means I was also once under Emplate's sway." He showed them his hands, revealing the small, tooth-filled mouths unique to all of Emplate's vampiric slaves. "Don't worry about trusting me any longer. I've done what Claudette created me for. The rest is up to you two." Even as he spoke, his facial features were gradually fading.
"One last question," Doug said. "The plant manipulation belonged to Claudette's mother. I'm sure of that now. Has Claudette not imprinted that power out of respect to her mother's memory?"
"The dead should be allowed to rest, Doug. With their secrets, if they so desire. Please remember that, for Claudette's sake." Synch turned and walked away from the gazebo, quickly vanishing into the forest.
The gazebo suddenly began to spin at a blindingly fast pace. Doug had to grab onto Piotr to keep from falling. Thankfully, the spinning did not last long, and when it stopped, the pair found themselves standing in front of the St. Croix home. There was a black limousine idling in the driveway, and as they watched, Cartier St. Croix emerged from the house, carrying a much younger Claudette. Nicole hopped up and down just behind them, obviously excited about going out, while Monet held her hand and tried to keep her from running ahead. Even after they piled into the limo and left, the door remained open. Doug sensed at once that this was not part of the memory, but an invitation for them to enter the house.
Inside, they found exactly what Doug had been fearing: the day that Marius's mutant power had first emerged, combined with his never-ending need to feed on mutant marrow. They saw Marius's mother, afraid of the change in him but unable to ignore one of her children in clear agony. They also saw Marius turn on his mother, feeding on her marrow until she crumpled to the ground, not dead but close enough to it where there was no hope of recovery. Even that much had been recorded in Emplate's file in Utopia's database.
But what followed had most certainly not been in the file. It erased all doubt in Doug's mind that Marius St. Croix still existed somewhere deep down in Emplate, and proved to him once and for all that Emplate was and always would be a monster.
When Doug, Piotr, and Claudette finally emerged from the stupor, not one of them moved or said a word. Nicole only noticed because the usual static that flooded her telepathic rapport with Claudette during the stupors suddenly ceased, and Illyana had been watching closely enough where she saw the change in their breathing.
"Guys? Are you okay?" Nicole asked, drawing Jubilee's attention.
Doug slowly shook his head. He turned to Claudette and immediately hugged her tightly. This was only odd because Claudette offered no resistance, closing her eyes and leaning the embrace. "You poor, poor girl," he murmured into her hair.
Piotr stood up and moved across the room, to where Penance crouched on the floor. She gazed at him only with curiosity, already used to his presence. She was therefore more startled than anyone when he knelt down, carefully gathered her in his steel arms, and simply held her. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so, so sorry we weren't able to help you sooner."
Penance stared at him for a few seconds, then closed her eyes and relaxed.
"What happened?" Nicole demanded. "What's wrong?"
"Claudette showed us what she needed us to see," Doug finally answered. "It answers many questions we had. Most importantly, we know exactly who Penance is, and that's why we can't allow her to remain in this form a moment longer." He turned to Illyana. "I know you have issues with going back to Utopia, but as a friend, I'm asking you to get over them now. This cannot and should not wait, Illyana. Please. Whatever you have to do to get some time with Emplate, do it."
Illyana nodded, saying nothing.
"Will someone tell me what's going on?!" Nicole shouted. "Who is Penance? What did you see?"
Doug sighed. "We can't tell you, Nicole. Claudette was very clear about that. She showed us only so we could do something about it. But she wants the secret to remain just that for now: a secret. Once Penance is restored, you'll understand exactly why she couldn't tell you."
Nicole turned to Claudette, clearly unhappy with this. "Why? What aren't you telling me, Claudette?"
Claudette withdrew from Doug's arms and shook her head firmly.
"Claudette, please! If this is about Penance, I have every right-"
Claudette shook her head harder, clapping her hands over her ears.
Nicole tried to pull Claudette's hands away. "That isn't fair! We shouldn't have secrets from-"
Claudette jumped up from the couch, shoving past Nicole and breaking into a wild run. She did not head for the open doorway, as expected, but instead ran straight at the far wall with her head lowered, clearly intending to knock herself out. Illyana was thankfully faster, placing a portal in Claudette's path that transported her from one end of the room to just above the couch, where she was dropped safely. Realizing what had happened, Claudette immediately tried to repeat the process, but Nicole jumped on her and pinned her to the couch. Claudette began to trash her body wildly, trying to break free.
"Claudette, stop!" Nicole cried. "Please stop!"
Claudette shook her head hard, and as a last resort, finally tried to headbutt Nicole, but Jubilee grabbed her head before she could.
"Nicole, you stop," Jubilee ordered. "If poor Claudette would bash her brains to keep herself from telling you this secret, it has to be huge and painful."
At this, Claudette finally stopped struggling, instead burying her face in the couch cushion to avoid Nicole's eyes. Nicole simply stared at her twin with an unreadable expression on her face.
"Nicole, Claudette has good reason for this," Doug whispered. "This secret is so important to her that she's even been willing to risk her relationship with you and Monet to keep it."
Nicole's eyes widened as she turned to him. "You mean the reason Monet has so much trouble talking to her-"
"Is because Claudette purposely strengthens her psi-shields when they do. All to protect this horrible secret."
"No," Nicole gasped, turning back to Claudette. "No!" She grabbed Claudette's head, forcing their eyes to meet. "You promised me, Claudette! You promised that if there was ever something that hurtful in one of our lives, we would share the burden so that neither would have to suffer alone!"
Claudette's eyes filled with tears, and she shook her head as much as Nicole's grip would allow.
"You can't do this! It's not your place to go this far to protect me, Claudette!" Nicole cried, shaking her. "We protect each other together! We're strongest together! That was our promise!"
"Then think about what might be so painful to you and Monet that Claudette would feel the need to break that promise," Piotr suggested.
Nicole looked as if she wanted to argue, but suddenly froze with her mouth hanging open. Then her expression crumpled, and she collapsed onto Claudette, sobbing and clutching her desperately.
Claudette shut her eyes tightly, wrapping her arms around Nicole and stroking her hair.
Doug grimaced and shook his head. "She knows."
Jubilee looked at him in surprise. "You mean Claudette caved?"
"No. But Nicole is a smart girl, and she's been a twin all of her life. She knows there's really only one thing Claudette would ever try to hide from her at such a high cost. Once she thought about it, I'm sure it was obvious to her. That's the real shame of it."
Nicole slowly lifted her head and looked into Claudette's worried eyes. "Oh, my sweet twin," she sighed, leaning forward to drop kisses on Claudette's cheeks and nose. "You should have told me. We could have hidden it from Monet together. She's convinced herself that we don't love her as much now, anyway. And if we lose her the same way we did Marius-"
"That isn't going to happen," Piotr interrupted. "What was done to Penance was only one person's fault, and we're going to fix that immediately."
"But the X-Men won't just let us see him," Jubilee pointed out.
"Actually, they will," Illyana disagreed. "I've planned for this eventuality. Well, not exactly for this, but for something reasonably like it. You made me the leader for a reason, and now I'll show you what all that includes. Penance will be restored, and Emplate will be dealt with. I give you my word on that."
Minutes later, the entire group was standing in Utopia's transport bay, staring up at the rather imposing figure of Magneto as he touched down in front of them.
"Sorry to drop in unannounced, sir," Doug apologized, "but this is an emergency."
Magneto placed a hand on his shoulder. "Any day I see both you and Illyana alive is a welcome one, son. But I will admit that calling ahead would have been appreciated, especially if you're here for the reason I think you are." His gaze lingered on Nicole, Claudette, and Penance.
Doug nodded. "Probably. Sort of. But-"
"We are here to right a wrong," Illyana interrupted. "Specifically, the wrongful imprisonment of a comrade."
"...you had better not mean Emplate," Magneto replied.
"She means Penance," Doug explained. "We know how to restore her to her rightful form. But we'll need access to Emplate."
"Danger," Magneto said to the metallic blue figure that instantly appeared just over his shoulder, "please tell Cyclops that we have guests."
Illyana spoke up. "Tell him the Rasputin squad is here on team business."
"I don't remember getting a vote on the team name," Nicole complained.
"It's only the name we'll use for official X-Men business," Illyana told her patiently. "You didn't get to vote because it wasn't up for debate. You are all my family, and that should go without saying."
Nicole smiled. "Oh. Okay. So long as there's a good reason, sis. But don't think for a second that we're not going to corner you and hug you the moment this is over with."
Illyana sighed, but did not bother complaining.
Cyclops was not pleased, not that anyone had expected him to be. Still, he did not outright refuse to let them see Emplate. There was just a laundry list of conditions beforehand, the first of which was that only Illyana and Nicole would be allowed into the X-Brig. He gave them the rest as they rode the express elevator down.
"Illyana is the only one that needs to get anywhere near Emplate. Magneto goes along as her guard, and Nicole observes. Once you're in the cell, you'll have twenty seconds to get this done and get out. Either of you tries anything funny, and Magneto will cripple you first and ask questions later. Don't let it come to that."
Illyana stared at him. "Goodness, Scott. If I didn't know any better, I'd think you didn't trust me."
He gave her a sharp look. "I trusted you right up until you told me why you were here. Emplate is a dangerous man with or without mutants to feed on, and the last thing we need is him armed with your power."
"But you can't possibly think that I would want him to be free?"
"So long as you behave and do only what you said you're here for, we won't have any problems."
Nicole gave Magneto a long, considering look. "Would you really cripple us?"
He nodded. "If it meant Emplate would never create another vampiric slave or be free? In an instant. We have talented healers here. Depending on how badly you misbehave, we might even let you see one afterward."
Once the elevator reached its destination, everyone but Cyclops walked out.
"I'll be waiting here, listening in and observing," he told them, indicating a small screen built into his left glove. "This is the only way out. Illyana, you try to teleport out and it won't be pleasant, trust me."
"You know, for not expecting us, you guys seem pretty over-prepared," Nicole murmured as they walked away.
"With good reason," Magneto replied at once. "We don't want him escaping."
"But I'm not escaping," said a raspy voice as they stepped into the viewing area. "Escape is the furthest thing from my mind right now."
Nicole swallowed hard, stopping abruptly and staring at the prisoner. Though he was confined in a water-filled tank in the center of the cell, she was hardly aware of the distance. "Big brother," she whispered, starting to touch the glass in the viewing area, but then thinking twice about it.
"I've told you countless times, Nicole," Emplate sighed weakly, his voice amplified by the built-in microphone in the respirator fitted over his face, "I'm no longer your brother. That part of me died long ago. There is no Marius, there is only Emplate."
"You'll have to forgive me if I choose not to accept that. We both know that if I touched you right now, I'd still be able to combine with you. So long as that's true, my brother you are and my brother you'll remain, Marius. And while I hate seeing you like this, I'm glad you're alive, at least."
"I'm sorry, Nicole, but we're wasting precious time," Illyana said.
"You mean just being supremely annoying wasn't your primary reason for visiting me?" Emplate chuckled. "Consider me shocked."
"We are here to release Penance from the spell you placed on her. Know now that I can simply remove it by force, but I'm giving you a chance to do it willingly."
"And why would I ever do something as foolish as that? Out of the supposed goodness of my supposed heart? Try again, little girl."
"Because I am proposing a trade. You undo the spell, and I give you something in return." Illyana paused and said a word in another language, which sounded a great deal like "flusjet". Nicole didn't recognize the word or the language. Magneto did, as all of the conversation had been pre-approved, so far. In any case, Emplate clearly knew the word and the language, because his eyes widened, and then he laughed. "You are free to doubt my word, but not my capabilities, Emplate," Illyana warned him.
"I must admit that you amuse me, Illyana Rasputin," Emplate replied. "But your offer does not impress me. I have absolutely no desire to see Penance restored. Indeed, I wish for her to suffer endlessly. I will not help you, not for any price, and certainly not for a promise that you have no intention of keeping."
"Then I will shatter your spell and leave you with nothing but your public shame."
Emplate's eyes narrowed. "Do what you wish, child. But my plans are not so easily broken. Even if you did manage to restore Penance, her suffering would not end. In fact, I guarantee that it would only increase. Either way, I win, she loses, and you will have made no real difference in either of our lives at all."
Illyana turned to Magneto, nodded, and approached the cell door with him. As she raised her hand to push it open, Illyana paused and stared hard at Emplate.
"Having second thoughts?" Emplate asked.
"I am. You seem far too unconcerned. This is a trick, isn't it? The moment I break your spell, it will backfire on Penance, won't it?"
"I suppose there really is only one way to find out. Unless you're afraid, that is."
Glaring at him, Illyana pushed the cell door open, carefully stepping only on the tiles that Danger had instructed her to. As she neared Emplate, she drew the Soulsword out of the air and, with a cruel smirk, thrust it directly through the tank's surface and into Emplate's chest. His body gave a sharp jerk, and his breathing sped up considerably, but this was due more to his expecting pain than anything else.
After a few seconds, Emplate snorted. "Looks like you failed."
"Looks can be deceiving," Illyana answered, turning her back on him just as a portal opened on the floor, swallowing the entire tank whole. Instantly, her entire body jerked to a stop as Magneto seized control of the iron content in her blood.
"That was a big mistake, Illyana," he said softly.
"Then do what you must," she invited.
"Illyana, no!" Nicole cried. "What are you doing?! He'll really cripple you!"
But Illyana did not seem concerned, and for good reason, which Nicole soon caught onto as well: Magneto was hesitating.
"You know I don't want to do this to you, Illyana," he said. "You were once one of my prized students."
Illyana nodded. "And you were once a man I had complete faith in. We failed each other, but hating you for that now requires an amount of effort I am no longer willing to devote to such meaningless pursuits."
"Then don't let it end like this. Just bring Emplate back now and Cyclops might be lenient."
"I can't do that. I swore an oath to take care of family business. Besides, by now the wards on Emplate's tank will have activated, and he should be in excruciating pain. Do you want his suffering to have been for nothing?"
"Honestly, I don't care if he suffers or not. But I won't let you get away with this."
Illyana's gaze shifted to Nicole. "For what it's worth, I meant everything I said earlier. The family comes first." Another portal opened beneath her feet, allowing her to drop out of sight, but not before Nicole caught a glimpse of the small, green demon that had apparently opened the portal in the first place.
Magneto cursed under his breath as the portal snapped shut, while Nicole sank to her knees.
"She lied to me," Nicole whispered in disbelief. "She lied to all of us."
"I doubt it," Magneto answered. "Whatever Illyana's done with Emplate, I imagine she really thinks she is doing you a favor. But you may as well get comfortable, because none of you are going anywhere until she comes back."
Completely unaware of what had happened below them, Jubilee, Piotr, Penance, Claudette, and Doug were having a snack in a locked conference room. They had been told they couldn't leave, but Doug had simply used the phone to call Dani Moonstar. Ten minutes later, Dani brought them two dozen doughnuts, along with plenty of orange juice and milk, and repeated the instructions to stay put before locking them back in. While it was true that Claudette, and to some degree, even Penance, had telepathic connections to Nicole, neither one gave any sign that they sensed something was amiss. In fact, Claudette was carefully tearing her doughnuts in half and feeding portions to Penance, who soon had a fine dusting of powdered sugar on her lips.
Everyone noticed at once when Penance's red skin developed numerous cracks all over it. Starting with the hand that Illyana's Soulsword had pierced, the armor began to gradually fall away in pieces. The first large chunk to break off revealed that underneath, Penance's true hand was both a rich brown and rather on the dainty side, neither proving much of a surprise. By the time all the armor had fallen away, no one was really too surprised at all: Piotr and Doug had learned Penance's true identity while in Claudette's mind, and Jubilee had simply associated her with the St. Croixs for so long that she would have been more shocked if Penance had managed to look like anyone else. Although Jubilee did find it a little unsettling that Penance's true form looked almost exactly like Monet had at seventeen, and privately hoped that she didn't have the same attitude as well. She would have been even more unsettled had she known that the simple green dress the girl was wearing was the same one from Claudette's memory, and more importantly, was technically the same dress that Claudette's mother had been wearing when she died.
After several minutes of no one speaking, Doug slowly stood up. "Hello, Ms. St. Croix. Welcome back."
The girl that had been Penance immediately collapsed to the floor, barely able to breathe properly with the uncontrollable sobbing fit that seized her.
Claudette knelt down, drew the girl's head into her lap, and began to lightly stroke her hair. Jubilee found this odd, but only because if the girl was who she suspected, not only was Claudette handling this rather well, but she seemed far too detached about it. She decided to test her theory on Doug and Piotr.
"So this is their mother, right?" Jubilee asked.
Doug and Piotr traded knowing looks. "It's complicated," Doug said slowly.
"What do you mean? It's a yes or no question!"
Doug smiled at her. "We're X-Men, Jubilee. There are rarely ever any answers so simple as that."
"Come on. You're messing with me, right? It's really her, isn't it?"
"You might as well stop asking. I can tell by your tone that you're not totally convinced, either. And you're right to have doubts. Clearly, Claudette isn't reacting the way you'd expect her to, and it has little to do with her autism this time. This family buried its mother a long time ago, in every sense of the phrase. The girl in front of us may be a lot of things, but the one thing she definitely is not is their mother. But at the same time, to say there was no connection between them would be false. I have no doubt that the late Mrs. St. Croix once looked a great deal like this girl."
Jubilee frowned. "Hey, wait. So then why did you call this girl... um, Penny, I guess... Ms. St. Croix?"
Doug nodded. "In reference to her being of their blood, I felt it was only proper. And I would prefer not to label her as anything else until she actually tells us what she prefers to be called. She's had enough choices taken away from her."
"Oh. I guess that means I can't call her Penny anymore. That's going to take some getting used to."
"No," the girl on the floor whispered hoarsely, reaching out to Jubilee with a trembling hand. "Please, don't stop calling me that."
Jubilee knelt down and hesitantly took her hand. "You're really okay with it?"
The girl smiled and nodded. "It reminds me... that not all of my life has been filled with horror, frustration, and pain. And I would rather be Penny than... nothing at all."
"Wait," Jubilee said slowly. "You... don't have another name?"
"No," Penny admitted. "I never had a name to begin with. And before I could choose one for myself, the choice was taken out of my hands, as so many others were." She hesitated. "I would rather only tell my story once, and I want Nicole and Monet to hear it. They deserve that much."
"I'm sure Nicole and Illyana will be back shortly," Doug said.
Penny glanced at him and slowly stood up. "You'll have to forgive me... Doug, wasn't it? I have spent virtually all of my life waiting, to be free of the painful prison that was my own body. I don't intend to wait any longer." She walked over to the locked door, studied it for a moment, and then knocked it down with a single, super-powered punch. Satisfied, Penny turned and extended her hand to Claudette.
Claudette glanced at the others, then took Penny's hand and followed her out of the room.
"We're going to get in so much trouble for this," Jubilee moaned. "But I know if we just stay here, they'll blame the two of us with superhuman strength, anyway."
"She has a point," Doug sighed, already jotting down a quick note of apology to Dani and Cyclops.
"She usually does," Piotr agreed. "We'd better get going."
End of Chapter 5.
Continued in Chapter 6: Darkchylde Rising
Illyana reveals her plans for Emplate, Limbo, and the team. Penny reveals a mother's final, secret shame, and makes a very unwelcome request of her family.
To be clear, as far as I know, the only thing cemented about the late Mrs. St. Croix is that she was the first victim of Marius, which was directly responsible for her death. Everything else I have to claim artistic license with. Still, considering each St. Croix child has a variety of mutant powers, I tend to think that both parents were mutants, though the father seems pretty non-mutant so far.
The X-Men have grown a lot over the years. I bet some of us remember when there were only the Blue and Gold teams. Now there's all these squads. Too many for me to keep up with, and not all of them seem to matter much. The important thing being that most squads have a name that is somehow related to the squad leader. In this case, Illyana has not discussed a squad name ahead of time, so she needs something rather obvious that Cyclops will immediately associate with her and Piotr. So the Rasputin squad is born... but only while on official X-Men business. Which won't be often, since they have their own interests to pursue.
I don't know about the sacrificing virgins stuff, that was mostly for laughs. I do know that Illyana has left arguably evil humans (one of which was responsible for Doug's death, in fact) in Limbo, likely to be torn apart by demons or worse.
If you're confused about who Penny is still, don't worry, that's done on purpose. Though if you really paid attention, you can probably guess already. Maybe. I actually invite you to. But not to worry. All will be revealed next chapter.