The thing about being adopted was that it gave you a very strong sense of how alone you could be; how one tiny shift in reality could have led to a completely different worldview.
The thing about being able to make duplicates of yourself at will was that it made sure you were never alone.
JC watched as a pair of his dupes carefully sorted through his laundry, separating out anything with spangles or glitter to be hand-washed. JC himself couldn't remember the last time he'd actually hand-washed anything. One of the dupes was always around to take on the responsibility. "Take out the jeans with the tulips on them," he said absently, and Lance looked up from where he was engrossed in some hand-held videogame, curled up in an easy chair.
"What's that?" Lance asked. JC waved.
"Just talking to myself," he said, and Lance nodded with a roll of his eyes. His fingertips clicked and clacked on the controls of the videogame, weirdly delicate despite being claw-tipped. As JC watched quietly, Lance absently scratched behind one long pointed wolf-ear and his tongue lolled out a bit; JC heard him pant, soft and doggy, and his fingers itched.
"Time for a flea-bath?" JC said in the strident voice that always happened when he was aiming for nonchalant. "Lay off, C," Joey said instantly from behind his newspaper. Lance was in a good mood, though, and let his tail thump a couple of times against the back of the chair so JC leaned forward and dug his fingers into Lance's scruffy furry sideburns just long enough for a grrrr of pleasure before jerking his hand back. He needn't have bothered -- Chris and Justin didn't notice any of the goings-on and tease him about them, because Chris and Justin were fighting again. Not that this was particularly unusual, because *everybody* fought with Chris. Or rather, Chris got annoyed with people really easily and never held back on telling them so.
"You would think," he announced in Justin's general direction for the rest of them to hear, "that somebody who could theoretically rearrange an entire house just by thinking about its magnetic structure hard enough would find it easier to put some CDs back where he found them."
"You would think," Justin said smoothly, "that somebody who could theoretically have searched the entire block for those CDs and alphabetized and date-arranged them all in the time it takes me to say 'suck it up' would have done it by now."
They glowered at each other. JC rolled his magazine up and poked Joey in the arm with it. "Maybe you should step in here, leader-guy," he said. Joey casually turned a page in his newspaper and shook it out.
"This is nothing, Jayce. Besides, Justin hates it if I do the whole alpha-male protector thing -- he can take care of himself." Joey grinned. "And I'm sure as hell not worried about Chris."
"I don't require worrying about!" Chris shouted, having caught this last snippet of conversation. "Certainly not by you, Joe!"
"Nice how things work out then, isn't it?"
Shaking his head, JC opened up his magazine to the horoscope section and skimmed down to Leo; it said, "Today you'll be given the chance to move beyond old habits -- take it eagerly!" Meanwhile, Chris made that little popping noise that meant he was headed somewhere fast and the next minute, all of Justin's sneakers were scattered around the living room, no longer in pairs and some of them in places like the fishtank or on the ceiling fan.
Justin shrieked in rage and the air around Chris went wobbly a split second before he was being magnetically lifted into the air and jostled roughly up and down. Joey raised his paper a bit higher over his face and JC wondered if all of his duplicates were Leos too, and if they'd be given any chances to move anywhere.
"Hey yourself." Lance scrubbed his wet head with the towel and JC considered sitting down on the bench next to him, then decided he'd stand. Then he sat down anyway. "Little late to be going for a swim, man. Most people just settle for a few midnight Oreos or something."
Lance scrunched up his face and sat very still. "I was trying to clear my head," he said after a few minutes. "Swimming works better than cookies."
"Then you're not eating the right cookies." That didn't even get a tiny chortle. JC ducked in closer, trying to get a good look at Lance's face -- the poolside wasn't particularly well-lit, and he could tell there was something up. "Hey, you doing okay?"
Lance stayed in the same stock-still position, and when he did speak, his voice was quiet and so controlled that it came out hard at the edges. "Sure," he said. "As good as anybody could be when they find out they're an emotional nymphomaniac."
JC wasn't overly sure how to interpret that, so he settled for rubbing a hand against Lance's still-damp back, feeling the micro-bristles shirr under his palm. "You're not the first person to have an unrequited crush," he said when his throat unstuck itself, but that was maybe the wrong way to go because Lance jerked away, eyes blazing.
"A crush?" he repeated. "Those Genoshans made me a mindless slave, took away my personality and my free will and even my stupid mutation and worse than that, as if that wasn't enough of a violation, they mind-bonded me to Joey Fatone!" Lance was shaking now, and his teeth looked long and shiny and sharp. "Do you know what that means, JC? Do you know what it feels like to want him every minute of every day and know it's not even of my own damn accord? Does that sound like a fucking CRUSH to you?" Lance jumped to his feet and shook himself violently, all over, looking like a dog that had suddenly gained freedom after a week's confinement. Droplets of water showered JC's face but he forced himself not to wipe them off.
"Okay," JC said. "So, okay, yeah -- I get that. I get the whole pissed-off-at-rotten-deal thing, and I get that it's hard to be on a team with Joey considering ... everything. But it's not--"
Lance cut him off with a bark of laughter and JC winced at the way its harshness echoed in the huge pool area. "What, JC?" Lance asked. "It's not what? Not the end of the world? Not so bad? How about the fact that I'm stuck in my half-wolf form and I look like a freak twenty-four-seven, and the rest of you look like supermodels?"
"Joey doesn't--" JC started, then saw Lance's lip lift over his canines and thought better of it.
"You should get some sleep, JC," Lance said frigidly. And that was the end of that.
When JC got back to his room, there were a few dupes in there hanging out, folding laundry, fiddling with the guitar. "Here's the tulip pants," the hand-wash-only dupe said. JC pulled them on and admired himself in the mirror while his dupes milled around behind him, each in an identical costume of unstable molecules, each pretty much just like the others. "They look great," JC said. His dupes agreed.
"Fire in the hole!" Joey yelled and then the whole tunnel lit up with the white-yellow flare of his plasma blasts. The flesh-covered missiles headed towards them were knocked back by the plasma burst and blew through the obstruction blocking their way, and although shards of rock flew in their direction Justin threw up his hands and the rock spanged off an invisible magnetic barrier. When the dust settled a little, Lance snarled and leapt forward, running for the opening at top speed.
"Dammit!" Joey turned to look at them as Lance's tail disappeared into the darkness beyond the opening. "I'm going after Wolfsbane. You two see if you can find the missile launcher and decommission it. Keep your comm lines on and clear -- and that means no singing or humming or tongue-clicking, JC."
"How about nose-flute?"
Joey gave him a flat stare and Justin said, "We should find this guy a traveling circus--"
"--and throw him under it." Joey gave Justin a quick kiss on the cheek and then took off running, the sizzling plasma glow around his hands lighting the way. Justin reached over to JC's headset and tapped his comm on, then his own. "Quicksilver? Come in, come in -- Chris, can you hear me?" He made a frustrated noise and adjusted the frequency, and JC pounded a fist against the wall. Two dupes popped up and regarded him alertly.
"You two go see if Quicksilver needs help," he instructed. They nodded and went off at a brisk trot as Justin toggled his comm with no result. "I'm not getting him," Justin said. "I hope Havok can catch up -- you know how fast Lance can go when he's in wolf-form."
"S'okay, I sent a couple of dupes to see if they can get Chris here sooner."
Justin nodded, already distracted by scanning the tunnel walls. "There's some sort of structure underneath us," he said. "I can feel it, but it's muffled. Probably covered with this same organic stuff as the missiles were." He wrinkled his nose. "I guess we're gonna have to do some exploring in the sewer section...."
"No problem," JC said. He stomped a foot and another two dupes appeared. "Pry up that drainage cover and they'll go check it out for us," he said, as the dupes saluted first JC, then each other, then Justin as he lifted the heavy cover aside. A tremendous smell of rotted weed and other foul detritus rose from the hole as the dupes dropped down into it.
"God," Justin said, "your duplicates are always so cool with doing stuff like this, the really crappy jobs."
"Yeah," JC said. He shifted uncomfortably. He'd never asked them, but he had a pretty good idea that the dupes were just too eager to *exist* than to complain about what they were required to do. "It's not like I get out of it scot-free," he said. "I mean, when I re-absorb them, I'll have their memories of what the sewer was like." He sounded defensive even to himself, but the semi-good thing about being on X-Factor was that the others tended to be too wrapped up in their own problems to really pick up on subtleties.
Naturally, once JC had come to this conclusion of safety, that meant it was Justin's cue to stop running his hands over the wall frowning in that I'm-on-official-business way of his and instead reach out to grasp JC's wrist. "Of course, C," he said earnestly. "I didn't mean to insinuate that it was easy for you, I'm sorry." Justin blinked and looked down, and JC stared at his green eyelashes and wondered when Justin would stop bleaching his hair to make it a 'normal' colour and just ... be a green-head. "I mean, out of everybody, you're probably the most -- wait, hang on -- Joey?" Justin pressed his earpiece closer to his head. "Joey, are you -- I can't -- fuck!"
"What? They need backup?" JC tensed and his dupes came crawling up out of the sewer as Justin rose into the air. "There's something down there, all right," one of the dupes reported, and the other one chimed in, "-- and it's BIG. We think it comes right up through another part of the tunnel."
"Whatever it is, it's attacking Havok and Wolfsbane further down the line," Justin said, "so I'm gonna go subterranean and see if I can take it out that way. If Chris ever shows up, send him in after me." Justin grabbed one of the dupes and dived down into the sewer, leaving JC with the remaining clone.
"Better go see if we can help Joey and Lance," the dupe said, and JC said, "better stay here and wait for Chris and the other two, you mean. I'll go help Joey and Lance."
"Glory hog," the dupe groused. JC ignored him.
He could hear the peculiar fssssh-sizzle of Joey's plasma bursts long before he caught sight of his teammates; Lance was scampering around at top speed, looking more cheetah than wolf and worrying at the long, fingerlike things sticking up from under the ground. Joey was shooting at the base of each fingerlike thing with what JC considered to be curious restraint when you took into account that Joey was capable of blasting satellites out of the sky.
JC snapped his fingers and a couple of dupes appeared and instantly started multiplying. They rushed in and grabbed the fingery things, trying to wrestle them into submission. "Hey, leader-guy!" JC yelled. "You can start using the big guns any time now! Don't hold back on my account!"
"He can't--" Lance started at the same time Joey hollered, "I can't! This tunnel's already got seriously inclined bedding planes causing shitloads of semiplastic movement and crack kinking--"
"English!" Lance demanded. "For those among us who don't have degrees in geology! Meaning EVERYONE BUT YOU!!"
"I dunno," JC said, catching his breath after a fingery thing whalloped him in the face. "I wanna hear more about this 'crack kinking' stuff. It sounds sexy."
Joey popped a short burst of plasma against the finger attacking JC, which eventually fell away and twitched on the tunnel floor. "It means there could be a rockburst any minute," he explained. "All it'd take to set it off is enough expended kinetic, plasma, or magnetic energy to stress the faults."
"That, or more excavation."
JC winced. "Wow, you're really not gonna like it when I tell you what Justin's up to."
Joey stared, then smacked a hand over his face. "Oh, jeez," he managed, and then the floor lurched and the wall of the tunnel made an alarming crackity-scraping sound. JC started re-absorbing dupes rapidly as rock started to sift and then filter and then shower down on them and the fingery things left off attacking to wave uncertainly in different directions. Lance ran over, shifting back to half-human by the time he reached them.
"We'd better--" Joey began and then they all rocked back on their heels from the gale force of Chris's whooshing arrival. He had Justin slung over one shoulder and looked grubby and pissed.
"Beating an unspeedy retreat?" he said. "While I can totally see why you'd wanna hang around here with the falling goddamn boulders and those weird finger-ass-lookin' things, might I suggest we fuckin' SHIFT IT?!"
Despite the imminent crushing, Joey still found the time to roll his eyes. JC admired that.
"X-Factor," Joey yelled, "we are leeeeeeaving!!" A few last dupes pelted down the tunnel after them and JC sucked them back into him, and between that and the splintering rock and the glimpse he caught of Justin's misaligned jaw and the unsettling erupting sound coming from somewhere beneath their trammeling feet, it took him far too long to realize that the dupe who'd gone back down into the sewer had never come back up.
Justin was lounging in a sunny chair in his room flipping through a copy of Vibe when JC knocked on the open door and came in. "Hey," JC said. "How's the war hero doing today?"
"Fabulous," Justin said in a small but cheerful voice, still looking uncomfortable about the bandage wrapped around his head to keep his jaw stabilized. "Finally graduating from semi-solids to food with an actual texture." He closed the magazine and patted his stomach. "At least I'm losing some weight."
JC snorted. "Like you need to." He came and sat down on the bed across from Justin. "You must be pretty bored, not being able to go out on missions and stuff. I mean, not like you're missing out on anything, it's been strictly penny ante. I hardly feel like I'm working for my top government dollar."
"No more run-ins with Random?" Justin asked after a moment, sounding tight and angry. After getting out of the tunnels and getting Justin to a hospital to deal with his dislocated jaw (which was the most serious but not the lone injury -- he'd taken a pummelling, all right) they'd held a makeshift debriefing at Justin's bedside. There had been a mutant down in the sewers who called himself Random and who seemed to generate weaponry out of his own body, which explained all the organic-based missiles and what Justin said looked like a semi-alive reactor being built in the sub-tunnel. The lack of metal in his weaponry had made Random a pretty formidable adversary for Justin and he'd been just about beaten down when the tunnel started collapsing and Chris had arrived for an eleventh-hour rescue.
JC shook his head. "Hide nor hair," he said. "And believe me, Joey's been looking; you mention Random around him and his teeth start making this really interesting grinding noise." JC grinned. "Although he's probably been playing it cool with you, what with you being all independent and stuff."
"Hmm, well." Justin stretched, looking pleased. "Don't tell him, but it is kind of nice to have him swearing vengeance in my honour." JC laughed and he was still smiling when Justin said, "C, about what happened to your dupe ...."
The smile froze on JC's face and his stomach gave a lurch, so fast and so deep that he felt bile shoot up into his throat. "What?" He didn't give Justin a chance to respond, just stood up and babbled, "What -- I didn't, it's not ... I mean, you don't have to ... look, I don't really want to--" JC stopped himself and took a breath. "Look," he said firmly, hating the careful sympathetic expression on Justin's face when obviously, obviously Justin had *wanted* to ambush him with this awful line of inquiry and catch him off-guard -- "there's nothing to talk about. We don't need to talk about it."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Fine." Justin locked eyes with JC. "I can't force you to. But we're gonna revisit this, JC, because you need to know what happened down there. You want to know, I can tell, and I don't blame you for being scared to hear it."
JC said, "I'm not scared." His face pulled into a sharp scowl. "I know you don't believe me, but I'm not. That's not it at all."
"Then what is it?"
"I ... he ... that dupe. He knew stuff." Justin made a confused noise and JC shook his head decisively. "You wouldn't understand." Resentment over Justin's meddling and anxiousness about having to think about (and possibly explain) what was happening to him curdled into a nauseous ball in JC's gut, and he turned and strode towards the door, wanting to get away.
"JC," Justin tried one more time, but JC was in a whirl of annoyance and upset and was having none of it. He stopped in the doorway to look back at Justin and shouted, "--and stop bleaching your damn hair! We all know it's green, Jesus!!"
The parting image of Justin's wide, startled eyes perhaps wasn't the *most* satisfying thing JC had ever seen, but it would do in a pinch.
JC woke up to piano music. Or, to be more specific, keyboard music. Or, to be even more specific, one particular phrase being played on the keyboard over and over at different pitches and on different settings.
"whuthehell shut UP," JC mumbled, flailing the arm that wasn't trapped in the sheets. The dupe who was playing the keyboard didn't even bother to turn around, just hummed something that went counterpoint to the phrase of music and then scribbled in a little book with a pen that had a poodle on the end.
JC sat up, peeved. "Didn't you hear me? I'm trying to sleep here!"
"Oh, right ... sorry." The dupe pushed his hands through his hair and JC squinted and asked in disbelief, "Are those -- did you highlight my hair?"
"I highlighted my hair," the dupe said pissily, and JC gaped.
"And those are my tulip jeans!"
The dupe gave him a disgusted look. "Oh, so sorry that I decided to put on something other than that dumpy unstable molecule suit! And that I dared to treat myself to multi-faceted shimmering haircolour! I guess that kind of free thinking's not allowed in your own little personal gulag, huh? Maybe you should just go ahead and break my fingers so I can't make music either, Stoli!!"
"Uh. I think you mean Stalin."
"Whatever!" The dupe tossed his head (the hair did look really fetching, JC had to admit) and crammed his little pad and pen into his pocket. JC pointed at the grey poodle flopping around on the part of the pen that wouldn't fit in his dupe's pocket. "Where'd you get that?"
The dupe folded his arms and smirked. "Lance gave it to me." He rubbed his hip and said, "We went to the carnival down by the waterfront, and I won it for him in a dart-throwing game but he decided he wanted me to have it. To write my songs with."
JC stared, aghast. "You went to--?" he blurted. "With--? To write--?" He threw up his hands. "I don't even know what crazy part of that sentence to address first!!"
"Looks like *somebody's* got a case of the jealousy bugs."
"Shut up," JC said, disturbing new thoughts rising in his waking-up mind. He held out his hand, sticking out two fingers. "Get back in here."
The dupe took a step back. "Can't," he said. "I promised to go to an aromatherapy class with Lance."
"Uh." JC scrubbed his face hard with his fists. "Lance is ... into aromatherapy?"
"Yeah." The dupe smiled and gave a lazy blink. "Guess he didn't tell you."
That exiting line pretty much erased all hope of going back to sleep, so JC got up and got dressed and went into the kitchen. Chris was there, steadily eating his way through a mound of tacos, a medium pizza, and a serving-bowl filled with caesar salad. "Can't talk, eating," Chris said the instant JC came in.
JC shuffled over to the fridge and opened it, restlessly taking out jars and putting them back. "Tell me something," he said. "Have you ever been in, like, a love ... uh ... pentangle?"
"I'm totally not listening," Chris said. "And what the hell is a pentangle?"
"You know, five people. Like a love triangle but with five people."
Chris raised his eyes to the heavens. "And they told me when I took this job that the biggest problem would be the spandex," he said.
JC put back a jar of mayonnaise. "See, the thing is, it's not even like some of the people in the pentangle really love the other ones. In the pentangle. I mean, they love *some* of them, but for some of the other people it's one-way, or it's kind of psychosomatic, or it's all messed up and wrong."
"No doubt." Chris folded up two slices of pizza and munched thoughtfully. "This pizza's really good," he said. JC shut the fridge and sat at the kitchen table, propping his head up miserably on one hand. He watched Chris chew and swallow and mumbled, "It looks good."
"Pepperoni." Chris shut the empty pizza box. "When I called to order it, they asked me if I wanted a different cheese on it, cheddar or something. Can you imagine that? What's the point of a pizza with cheddar cheese?"
"It's a crime," JC said dully.
"Exactly. There are some things you don't mess with, because they're supposed to be that way." Chris slanted a look at JC and then dived quickly into his salad. "Like the crust and the mozzarella. They said I could get pesto instead of tomato sauce, and I guess you could put pesto with the crust and it might even be good for a while, but I just don't think it works in the long run."
JC scrunched his nose. "Oh-kaaaaay...."
"Pesto belongs in other dishes, with other stuff that doesn't belong on pizzas."
"Like linguine, y'know? That's more natural. So it's not like linguine needs to worry about pesto wanting its shot at being a pizza sauce. Pesto's probably gonna end up with linguine in the end anyhow." Chris pushed aside the salad bowl and gobbled down the tacos in four seconds flat. JC blinked rapidly and then grinned.
"Chris," he said. "You old softy."
Chris snorted. "Don't fool yourself, kiddo. I got more points than a pentangle."
"The two of us are going away."
"Do you really think this is a good time?" Chris asked. "We're still trying to track down Rand--"
"Don't say it," Joey held up a forestalling hand. "My teeth hurt from all the grinding."
JC piped up, "Quicksilver's got a point. There's stuff happening here that we kind of need all members on board for, especially our leader-guy and the only person who's actually fought Rand -- uh, The Mutie Who Must Not Be Mentioned."
"I don't see why everybody's making such a big deal out of this!" Lance glared from Chris to JC. "If Joey decided he needs to leave right now, then he's probably got a completely legitimate reason for it!"
"We're going to Hawaii!" Justin said brightly. Lance's glare tripled in Justin's direction.
"Oh. Well," he growled. "I hope you don't ... drown." Lance bounded away and Joey spanned one hand across his eyes and rubbed his temples in what JC was starting to realize was a regular gesture of his.
"This is exactly why we're leaving," Joey told the others. "I need to remove myself from this equation for a while so we can gauge just how bad this mind-connection thing with Lance is to make sure he's not debilitated by it, and Polaris--"
"--isn't much good against a guy with organic weapons anyhow," Justin finished for him. "Don't worry, I already entered everything I remember about Random into the infobase, so you guys can brush up on the file in case you have to come face to face with him."
"Howcome Justin gets to say the R-word?" Chris pointed out.
"Because Justin's the only one who has to deal personally with the repercussions on my teeth," Joey said. Chris flapped his hands in an effort to dispel the mental imagery and JC shrugged.
"Fine," he said. "Go on your vacation, have fun, cram yourselves full of pineapple and macadamia nuts. Just don't blame us if you come back and find the place completely upside-down or totally razed to the ground."
"That's the spirit," Joey said. JC decided it was time to make his own disgusted exit and followed Lance's path out to the garden, hoping to have a nice intimate talk among the rosebushes. Lance was very partial to rosebushes, JC had some vague notion.
He did find Lance, but not alone. Lance was twirling a big flat pink flower in his fingers and smiling shyly at Poodle-Pen Dupe; they were sitting on the garden bench, heads tipped together so Lance's bristly blonde hair-fur and the dupe's shimmery, multifaceted (man, did those highlights ever look good) hair tangled up. Intimately.
JC stood under the ivy trellis, paralyzed. Should he go barging over and cut in on this tender scene? That was *him*, after all, sitting there canoodling with Lance. They were the same person! Therefore, Lance would welcome the presence of even more of JC, right? It wasn't like the situation could possibly get awkward or anything, when two of the people involved were the same person. That would be ridiculous.
Feeling heartened, JC strode over and clapped a hand on either of the couple's shoulders. "Hey there!" he said. Lance jumped and actually growled, dropping the big flat pink flower, and Poodle-Pen had the temerity to loudly snap, "Do you mind? We were having a conversation, a personal private conversation here!"
"No, I don't *mind*," JC said, affronted. "And since you're part of me, I fail to see how you can have a conversation separate and private from me, since I'll know everything you know once I re-absorb you--"
"JC, please," Lance said, standing up and putting one clawed hand on JC's arm. JC stopped talking and swallowed, hard, as Lance fixed those big green eyes on him. "I really ... I need to talk to Josh alone."
"...Josh." JC looked at Poodle-Pen, stupefied; the goddamn dupe gave him a smug and self-righteous smirk and crossed his arms defiantly. "Josh?" JC shook his head in disbelief, waving one hand wildly in the general direction of the other two. "This is -- this is nuts, you guys. You're nuts. And I am totally not in the mood to deal with your very special performance of Schizophrenic Mutiny Theatre right now, okay, so I'm just ... I'm just gonna go."
Lance made a half-hearted attempt to stop him, but as JC walked away he could hear "Josh" soothing Lance in dulcet, sugary tones. "oh, you dropped your gerbera daisy," Josh cooed, and JC clenched his fists. Chris was leaning amusedly in the doorway to the house, and raised an eyebrow when JC glared at him, hoping against hope that Chris wouldn't say anything.
"Awwwwk-waaard!" Chris warbled as JC went past.
"Ohmigod, shut UP." JC rounded on Chris, pointing with one shaking finger out into the garden. "This? Is *your* fault! You with your stupid talk about cheese and linguine and pesto! You didn't foresee the possibility of fucking pappardelle showing up to ruin the whole goddamn MEAL!!"
Chris looked impressed. "You know what pappardelle pasta is?"
"Yeah, well. One of my dupes is a certified chef."
"And yet, most of the time you eat fluffernutter sandwiches on white Wonder Bread for dinner. What a sad, sad state of affairs."
"Yes!" JC shouted. "It's even sadder when one of your own dupes is playing you behind your back and making time with your would-be boyfriend, and then refusing to be re-absorbed in order to foster the common good!"
"Hunh," Chris said thoughtfully. "I didn't know they could refuse to go back in. Can't you, like ... force him back in?"
JC frowned. "I don't know," he admitted. "It's never actually come up. In real life." He sighed. "And anyway, I don't even know if that would be the right thing to do in this situation. I don't wanna deprive him of his existence, or anything like that."
"You should really talk to Lance."
"I really should."
Chris unfolded his arms and straightened up, slapping JC on the back. "You won't, though, will you?"
"Not if I can possibly help it."
"As long as we got that sorted out."
Poodle-Pen didn't show up again until late that night. Even worse, he tried to sneak in while JC was sleeping, but fortunately JC was lying awake obsessing over the scene in the garden and snapped on his bedside lamp. His dupe grabbed a double armful of random crap and tried to bolt for the door, but JC yelled, "Don't you dare!" and he stopped and slowly turned around.
"Finally decided to come crawling back, eh?" JC said, getting out of bed. "Like a thief in the night!"
The dupe clutched his armfuls of socks, CDs, and jumbo-sized boxes of Q-Tips tighter. "I'm not a thief!" he said indignantly. "This stuff is as much mine as it is yours!"
JC assumed a crafty look. "Oh, I see," he murmured. "And by that very generous if somewhat misguided logic, does that mean that, oh, let's say ... Lance is as much mine as he is yours?"
"It's just like you to think of a person as an object you can own," the dupe sneered. "That's one of the reasons Lance likes me better -- I'm not ashamed to tap into my compassionate, feminine influences."
JC took a deep breath. "Look, Poodle-Pen--"
"My name is Josh."
"Your name is JC! Same as mine! We're the same person, idiot, why can't you see that?" He was shouting in frustration now. "You're not an autonomous individual, you're a part of me. You're not ... you're not a whole person on your own."
The dupe put down his swag and shut the door. "Or maybe," he said quietly, "you're not a whole person on your own."
They stared at each other. JC dropped his gaze first. "You're right," he admitted, sitting down at the end of the bed. "I'm not. You guys are personifications of parts of my personality, so of course I'm not whole without you. You're all elements of me, and so to *be me* I need to have you all re-absorbed." He looked up at the dupe in despair. "You know this."
The dupe nodded. "I just thought it would be good for you to say it out loud," he said. "And maybe to talk about the ... other thing."
JC blinked, trying to clear some of the bleariness from his eyes. "Yeah. The other thing." This was better than talking with Justin about the way his dupe had died, he supposed. At least there would be no embarassing platitudes or tears or anything. "Which one was he?"
"I don't know. None of us do. None of us even remember what experiences and memories he held."
"Great." JC flopped back on the bed. "So you mean I'm just gonna have to go on about my normal business and never know what part of my mind got killed until I suddenly realize I don't know how to, oh, I dunno -- change a tire? Speak Farsi?"
"I'm pretty sure we never spoke Farsi, but yeah, that's about the long and short of it." The dupe sighed. "It'll be hard, but I think we'll figure it out. There's not much we can't manage to do together."
"You're using the royal 'we' again."
"Yeah." The dupe lay down on the bed next to JC and linked their fingers together. "I figure now that we've had this talk, I'm okay to go back in and be part of us. Now that you've admitted all this stuff to yourself."
JC snorted. "This is so messed-up, this self-therapy bullshit."
"All therapy is self-therapy, if you really think about it," the dupe said seriously. They lay there, listening to each other breathe, and then JC said, "so what about Lance? Won't he be upset?"
"I don't think it matters in the long run. We can't have separate lives, even if I wanted to keep being Josh." The dupe rolled onto his side and planted a kiss on the corner of JC's mouth. "See you later."
JC pursed his mouth in automatic response and then there was a tiny *pop!* in the stillness of the room, and then it was just him lying on the bed.
Joey and Justin came back the next afternoon.
"Before you ask," Joey said, "neither of us was impotent."
"Who would EVER ask that?" Chris demanded, eyes wide and aghast.
"What happened?" Lance asked. He was pretty composed, all things considered; his claws were slowly shredding the armrests of the easy-chair he was curled up in and one ear was laid back flat, but he spoke calmly and didn't seem about to launch himself at Joey in adoration. In fact, if JC didn't know better, he'd describe Lance's movements as 'contemplative' or 'dreamy' rather than 'frustrated mind-control'.
Justin stuck his hands in his jeans and looked put-out. "I guess you could say we took our work on vacation," he said. "Random showed up and tried to kill me."
"At a really, really inopportune time," Joey glowered. Chris made a pained noise.
"What can I pay you to get you to stop reminding me that you two have sex?" he begged.
JC was confused. "I thought your magnetic powers couldn't work on him?"
Justin shrugged. "Sure, but they worked just fine on the dumpster I wrapped him up with."
"And he was powerless before the might of my government checkbook," Joey added wryly. "The guy was just a paycheck-chasing bounty hunter and I managed to buy him off. He'd been hired by an, um, as-of-yet unidentified party to attack Polaris after our run-in with him in the tunnel."
Lance released his claws from the upholstery with a ripping sound and sneezed, shaking his head so vigorously his teeth clacked. "So what was he doing in the tunnel in the first place?" he snuffled.
Joey and Justin exchanged looks. "Turns out he wasn't really the big bruiser he made out to be," Justin said. "His mutation's left him with unstable molecules, and that big generator-thing was part of a really optimistic plan to artificially generate a more stable body for himself."
Joey coughed into his fist. "Also, it turns out he's fifteen."
"His name's Marshall!" Justin supplied helpfully. There was a pregnant pause and then Chris dusted his hands with great exaggeration.
"Just another productive day rounding up the villain world's most inane and pointless criminals!" he announced, sarcasm dripping. "Not to sound too demanding, but are we ever gonna fight anybody, y'know, like ... Magneto? The Goblin Queen? The Brood? Hell, I'd settle for Power Pack at this point!"
"Power Pack's not evil," Lance said.
"You're letting your hair get green," JC observed quietly as the other three argued over whether or not Namorita was still good and still blue. He nudged Justin with his elbow and Justin grinned, self-consciously raising one big hand to scrub at his head; the green was just at the roots yet, but normally Justin wouldn't even let *that* happen.
"Yeeeaaah," he said. "I figured it was time to stop hiding who I really am."
JC wrapped an arm around Justin's shoulders and squeezed. Lance looked brightly over at the movement, and when his eyes met JC's there was a sudden jolt of sense memory -- Lance's mouth, soft and spicy and the feel of their bodies pressed close together and inhumanly warm -- and Lance smiled in a coy and secret way and rubbed one palm languidly against his chest.
"You know, Justin," JC said as Lance's gaze lowered and then swept back up, "that's a pretty darn good idea."