Grateful gushing thanks to Maggie for her on-the-spot beta-reading (that she so very graciously did even though I plopped it into her lap without warning. Isn't she wonderful?), for pointing out hitches that I was too blind to see, and for making me glow at the same time. Love ya, gal!

To Koolaid, for making me feel special. :) And for making me blush much too many times than is recommended (and no, Koolaid, this is *not* a form of encouragement!). *And* for actually getting me to do another Monet story, even though I was determined to do no more. You're a devious guy, Koolaid. . .


Wearing The Same Masks
by Maelstrom ([email protected])

    Bright pupil-less eyes stared at her, big, blue and silent. Behind those eyes she knew was a mixture of emotions, questions that cried out for answers, fear that craved for certainty and comfort. She knew, despite the facial expression that betrayed nothing, because she had once been behind those eyes herself. She had once been the red monster with razor-sharp skin, with claws for hands and spikes for hair. She had once been bound in black protective gear too, for everyone else's safety. She knew what it had been like to be unable to touch and speak.

    "I always did know everything, didn't I?" she spoke quietly.

    Penance flinched slightly, as if startled by the sudden invasion of words.

    Ah yes, that skittish feeling. Monet knew it too. That feeling of confusion, of trying to get used to the shell that now enclosed Monet's sisters in one body. What was it like to be eight years old and trapped in an unforgiving prison, she wondered. At least when Monet had been entrapped, she had known what was going on, and despite her fear, she had retained her mind and her wits about her. But eight was too young to be a prisoner, to be so lost and confused and restrained.

    And when it was two eight-year-olds sharing the same body, trying to make sense of their new situation, it didn't help any more.

    "You don't have to do this, you know," she told them, watching as they crouched over the children's books on the floor, the ones she had brought down for them to read. They watched blankly from behind blue eyes, shiny red face withholding all expressions as usual. She tried again. "You don't have to take my place. You don't have to be Penance."

    They gazed at her for a minute before turning back to the books. She had gotten them thick cardboard ones in the hope that the books would somehow withstand her sisters' sharp skin -- a hope that was miserably in vain, she knew. She knew, but she had gotten the books anyway. Why? She had worn the same skin before, she should have known better than to hope.

    A long-clawed hand reached out to turn a page, but instead sliced through the cardboard, leaving gash marks on the carpet below. The hand automatically withdrew as the crimson creature skittled back, stopping only when it was at a safe distance. Monet tried to speak, but instead she put her hand over her mouth. She had to stifle the sound that threatened to escape from her throat.

    'Quality time' with her sisters, she had called it. The rest of the team had not thought much about it when she had announced that she was going to spend more time with the twins. They merely shrugged or nodded, not really caring either way. *Monet St. Croix actually being kindly to someone else?* they must have thought. *Surprise surprise.* Even if it was - were - her sisters. Monet had breezed by the team without looking back, not wanting to see the looks on their faces. She wouldn't care if they were looks of contempt and derision -- it was pity and sympathy that she hated.

    It had been pity and sympathy that she had received, when she had been Penance. The ugly mute creature who knew nothing, who was lost and frightened, who couldn't tell anybody that she was in reality a rich and beautiful, smart and intelligent girl, and instead was treated as a pet, an animal. The biosphere had been her retreat then -- the others had thought that it was because she was more comfortable in the wild, but they were wrong. It was because she could not stand being treated so poorly, to be looked at and "Aww"ed upon, as if she was an uncivilized creature with no thoughts of her own. Only in solitude could she settle down and think, and weep.

    Now she looked at the twins, contained in one self and body, and she found herself clutching the shredded books in desperation. "I know what it's like in there," she said, black eyes urging and tearful. "I know how it feels to be unable to touch anything without slicing them apart, without hurting them. I know how it feels to not be able to speak, to shout and scream and be a human being. I *know.* Don't do this, *please.*"

    Blue eyes blinked back, twice.

    Hot tears began tracing their way down her face. "You don't have to *do* this! I don't blame you for my time as Penance. It was Marius's fault, you had nothing to do with it. I don't blame you for masquerading as me. I. . ." she spoke haltingly, choking on unheard sobs, "yes, I admit, there were times I was angry and wondered why you never told anybody about me, why you didn't release me sooner. But I don't blame you! I could never blame you! I love you. Please, come out of there. Don't be Penance. It hurts both of us too much."

    The creature's gaze flickered for an instant, then looked away. Its face maintained no expression, and would never maintain any expression. Monet knew that, because she had been behind that face before. It was a face too hard and unforgiving.

    The salty streaks began flowing more rapidly, but she didn't care. "I'm not perfect," she hitched. "You know that. I'm harsh and curt to everyone I know, but I was always good to you, wasn't I? I always made time for you and played with you. I used to hug and sing you to sleep, I used to vow to protect you always, and I want to do that again! I want my sisters back. I don't want them to punish themselves anymore, not for something that wasn't their fault. *Please,* come out of there!"

    Penance curled deeper in the corner, black costume almost blending in with the shadows. Monet released the pages from her grip, the pieces of cardboard crushed due to her superstrength. Now they fell to the floor, crumpled and torn like dreams of young.

    She reached out, but she knew it was hopeless. She could not touch or comfort the twins. They were doomed to remain at a distance, forever watching from behind glazed eyes, until they finally decided that they were punished enough and reverted back to the laughing, loving children she had once known.

    Monet hung her head and wept, covering her face with soft brown hands. Long black hair cascaded over her expression, half-hiding her guilt and grief. She had truly lost her sisters, and this she knew for certain.