Who Pays, When The Price of Self Is Soul?
His skin felt like rubber covered with the refrigerated skin of a dead fish. Raven was sure it was deliberate. Nathaniel Essex was as skilled a shapeshifter as she was, and for him to function in any of his alternate identities that dealt with humans, he had to be able to mimic normal human -- or normal mutant -- warmth and flesh. But he chose to shape himself into something cold and unpleasant, at least when he fucked her, or planned to -- she touched him as rarely as possible when he wasn't demanding sex of her, so for all she knew it was something he was doing specifically for her.
She knew how to use sex to derive power over another. She'd enjoyed doing it to any number of human men and women, most of whom she'd later killed. But her power came from being wanted. Essex's feelings of power, apparently, came from not being wanted. The fact that she would more or less voluntarily let him fuck her when she didn't want him, when he was in fact repulsive to her, was where he got his enjoyment. It wasn't from the sex itself; he denied her the power she could have gotten, as well, by showing no sign of actually desiring her outside of having an erection, which a shapeshifter could fake, anyway. His eyes didn't dilate, his breathing didn't change when she touched him; he never did anything but smile that cold little superior smile. Sometimes he didn't even come, and didn't seem upset or even inconvenienced by it, as if the whole point to fucking her wasn't to get off but to make her feel used.
It was working.
She had slept with human men and women, for the Cause, and before she'd met Erik, for more mundane reasons, like needing a place to stay the night. Most of them she'd killed afterward. In all cases she was the one using them, whatever they might have thought about it. She wanted or needed something and some meaningless bodily transaction was the way to get it. Real sex was for pleasure, with mutants, by her choice. What she did with humans wasn't even the same thing. They weren't her species, after all. It couldn't be real.
But Essex was a mutant. And every time he touched her with his dead rubber skin, she felt used and filthy, because sleeping with mutants should be for desire, not for gain.
In the old days she'd never have put up with this, no matter how important it was. If she had truly been Mystique, not Raven selling herself to buy brief moments of her old life back. Mystique had had pride, and dignity, and control over her own life. Mystique would never have slept with a mutant she didn't want, certainly not one who didn't really want her.
Funny. She was selling herself to buy herself back. Trading her soul for her identity.
The cell they'd kept her in, in Washington, had been very nice. It'd been one of the suites in an executive suite hotel. 796 channels of satellite TV, laundry service for the clothes she now had to buy, room service for food whenever she didn't feel like cooking and grocery service for whenever she did, even a computer and high-speed Internet connection. And, of course, two polite guards by her door who escorted her everywhere and a cuff around her ankle that transmitted her location at all times. The computer almost certainly had keyboard logging, screen scraping, and possibly, active remote access to her session going on all the time. There might have been cameras in the room. She never found any but if she'd been imprisoning a high-value, dangerous prisoner in a hotel room of all things, she'd have put cameras in.
She'd always expected the other shoe to drop. Surely they would figure out that everything she told them was either a lie, out of date, or -- in light of Erik's change of species and Xavier's death -- completely moot. As much as she'd hated Erik after he left her behind, she would never have truly betrayed the movement -- she'd known that as soon as she was captured, as soon as any of them were, Magneto would move the encampment. It was standard operating procedure in a world where the humans could create things like Stryker's serum. So she'd given them a lot of information about things she'd known Magneto would have immediately changed. And when she'd learned that Erik had become human, she had -- after laughing her ass off for half an hour straight, until it turned into tears and then she had to make it stop -- yielded historical information to her polite interrogators. She'd told them about dead comrades like Sabretooth and Toad. She'd told them how she met Erik, how things started. Nothing of value crossed her lips, and whenever they asked her something she didn't want to tell them, she lied. She couldn't change her shape, but she could lie without changing expression. That, she had years of practice with.
They couldn't be that stupid, could they? Sooner or later they had to figure her out, she'd thought.
But they never had. Instead, she'd received a visitor -- a doctor from a high-level task force charged with documenting the effects of the "cure" on mutants, or so his papers had said. When he'd gotten through the guards it had been a different story. He had a drug that could undo the damage done to her, give her herself back. Did she want it?
Was water wet?
The rush of being Mystique again had almost overwhelmed her. She'd wanted to mimic every person she saw, to revel in all the faces she could wear again. But the doctor -- his papers said Nathan Milbury, but he'd told her his real name was Nathaniel Essex -- had told her there was a time limit, and there were things to do. She had shifted her cuff off, becoming too thin for it to stay on. And then she'd killed her two polite guards. And then she'd run.
And an hour later, her carriage had turned into a pumpkin. She'd gone cold, and reverted to Raven again, though at least this time she hadn't felt paralyzing sickness at the same time. Since she'd known it would happen, she'd carried real clothes with her as she'd run. She wasn't subjected to the humiliation of being truly naked in front of the eyes of humans.
Essex had given her his address. She'd gone, and found a bread crumb trail. A note directed her to another address, and another. She suspected strongly that the rooms with the notes were monitored and had remote-controlled weapons in them; Essex seemed to be a man who liked his privacy. And when she'd reached him, finally, he had offered her a deal. Work for him, steal information and perform assassinations and in general do the same things Magneto had asked her to do. Except that Essex wasn't working for the betterment of mutantkind and the safety of their race; he was pursuing knowledge about mutation, studying mutants, and he didn't care how many mutants he hurt in his quest. It made her sick, and she wanted him dead, and she couldn't bear the fact that she was actually helping him. If she could have, she'd have killed him in a moment.
But he never carried more than one vial of her self on him at a time.
She lived for the hours of being Mystique, and wept into her pillow, the nights that Essex didn't demand she come to his bed, at how weak she was. She would betray her fellow mutants for the chance to be a mutant again. And she tried to tell herself that he would just hire someone else, that she wasn't actually killing or harming any mutants, that some of the targets he gave her really were dangerous to mutantkind. That his research could help, as it had helped her. But it hadn't helped her, really, had it? Not when she could only have her power for an hour at a time, and had to come crawling back to him every time she needed to be herself again. Not when she was sacrificing her dignity, her integrity, her pride. She was giving up her self to be herself again.
She knew all that. But she couldn't stop. She couldn't give up those hours when the Cure, her destroyer, no longer had hold of her, when she could change her face at will and shape her body to her whim and be Mystique again.
"Erik Lehnsherr is in New York," Essex told her casually, as she ate breakfast in his kitchen.
Raven blinked, and looked up at him. Essex was drinking coffee -- she'd never seen him actually eat food; the man was weirdly fastidious, and went out of his way to hide most normal bodily functions inherited from humanity, to the point where she sometimes wondered if he did eat, sleep or shit, but he did drink coffee, water and wine in front of her. Usually, as a day progressed, in that order. He was showing every sign of reading the paper, spread out on the table in front of him, as if he had no interest in her reaction to that statement.
"He is?" She pushed her French toast and bacon sideways, out of her way, and leaned forward. "Where, and how do you know?"
"An apartment in Brooklyn. And I have my sources, Raven." He looked up at her and smiled thinly. "His mutation device had serious flaws, but there were flashes of brilliance in that and in his other work. I've kept track of him for some time... and he's rather easier to track, right now."
"Do you want me to do something with the information?"
"Do you want to do anything with the information?"
"He left me behind," she said softly, poisonously. "He couldn't kill me, and he couldn't bring me with him. I sacrificed everything for him, and he left me."
Essex returned to his paper. The thin, cold smile was still on his face, though. "He's usually to be found at the chess boards in Central Park most of the day, when the weather permits."
"Are you asking me to do something?"
"Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law... this time, at least. Go to the top left cupboard next to the pantry."
She did so. In the pantry she found a vial of her drug. An hour of her self. And a gun.
"You expect me to kill him."
"If that's what you want to do. I thought you deserved a reward. Take your catalysine dose and do as you will with it."
He wanted her to kill him. Essex believed in assassinating the competition. She'd been asked to kill half a dozen scientists who were working, or had worked, on mutant research. Where Essex and his assassins had been while Stryker had been working on his serum, she wished she knew. Erik had helped build Cerebro, had worked on artificially generating mutations; he qualified as a rival researcher to Essex, probably, and losing his powers wouldn't have changed that. Perhaps Erik was trying to find his own cure for the Cure. Perhaps Essex was simply afraid he might try.
"You could suggest to him taking the deal I offered you. He would be an asset to my work."
Or maybe he didn't want her to kill Erik. Maybe he thought she would be intrigued by turning the tables. Watching Erik grovel in front of Essex, lose himself to try to find Magneto again, after he had abandoned her so brutally... had Essex been in her place, she suspected he'd have very much enjoyed seeing Erik brought low. She was quite certain that even in his own place, he would enjoy that. If it gave him pleasure that he could own Mystique against her will, how much more delightful would it be for him to control the dread Magneto?
And it would work. For the same reason it had worked on her. Because Erik would not be able to bear merely being Erik. Because he would do anything to have Magneto back. Because he'd already willingly sold his soul for his Cause, and if he'd do that, his soul had to be fairly cheap. Mystique had never had any moral problem whatsoever with any of the things they'd had to do, including killing mutant teenagers if it was necessary. Magneto had, frequently, despised the things he had to do, been haunted by them for weeks or months or years afterward, but he'd done them anyway. He'd do what Essex told him for a chance to have his powers, his true self, back, and come up with elaborate rationalizations for why it was necessary, just as Raven was doing, except that Erik had always needed the rationalizations more and therefore was a lot better at coming up with them.
He'd be better off dead, but Raven wasn't sure that was what he deserved. He hadn't killed her when he should have, after all.
She couldn't kill herself. Her drive to live was too strong. Didn't prevent her from wishing for death, but she couldn't bring herself to take that final step. He was the same way. So they'd promised each other, when they heard of the Cure, that if either of them was destroyed by it, if either of them lost their selves to the humans' poison, the one with powers would grant the other the mercy of a quick death. And then he hadn't done it.
She knew why he hadn't brought her with him, human. They were hard men he was recruiting, and he couldn't show weakness, tenderness to a human, in front of them. He couldn't admit he cared and still hold their respect. That, she could forgive. But he'd left her alive, cold and naked and stripped of her true nature, abandoned her to be retaken by the government. Forced her to live like this, knowing she would not be able to give herself the mercy blow. He'd been too weak to kill her and too strong to save her. Under the circumstances, she would not grant him such mercy, either.
He deserved the life she was living. He would have taken the blow if she hadn't stepped in the way, and if she'd done to him what he'd done to her, he might be the one enslaved by Essex now. That she was here and he was not was because she had saved him, and he had not done as much for her.
"All right," she said. "I'll go to New York."
The entire train ride, she fondled the vial of catalysine in her purse, rubbing her thumb and forefinger over it. An hour to be herself again. An hour to be someone else, any number of someone elses, again.
She could take it in the park, after seeing where Erik was but before he saw her, and appear to Erik as Charles Xavier, who, she'd heard, was dead (and good riddance, in her opinion, but Erik would have been devastated, she knew. He hadn't been strong enough to kill Charles himself when that had needed doing, either, but then he'd had her to do his dirty work for him.) Or as his dead human wife. That would get his attention.
Or she could take it in front of him and transform to her true self. Flaunt her temporary freedom from the Cure in front of him. Kiss him. And then knock him to the ground and taunt him with his humanity, and leave, as he'd left her.
Or break his neck.
Or make him the offer that would make him a slave. And gloat privately over how far he had fallen.
But she couldn't think of that. That would depend on trusting Erik, and she could never do that again. They weren't a team anymore, they weren't comrades in war. They'd both been defeated. Colonized, occupied. But he had broken in front of her, and he had betrayed her, and they couldn't find common ground after that. She couldn't trust him.
The vial was cool, still with the chill of the freezer Essex had stored it in before putting it in the cupboard. She'd gone looking for that freezer, and never found it. Somewhere in his home or his laboratory there was some security measure, a biometric screen, something that locked the freezer away where she couldn't find it. She only knew he kept them in the freezer because sometimes she'd gotten them frozen, and had suffered agonies of anticipation waiting for the dose to thaw.
Too precious to risk to a purse that could be snatched. Once she got out at Penn Station, she headed for the bathroom immediately, and hid the small vial in her blouse and bra, resting between her breasts. Her blouse was buttoned high enough to hide it, low enough that she could reach in and grab it in a moment.
Time to find Erik, and do, as Essex had suggested, what she wished with him.
She sat on a bench across a walkway from him, and watched him for an hour. He never noticed. If anyone had cared enough about a washed-up old man to bother assassinating him, he'd be dead by now. But no one but her had any quarrel with Erik. It was Magneto the world had hated, and Magneto was dead.
Erik was only halfway there.
He looked so old, so frail. She'd always known he was in his seventies, but she'd never seen it, not until now. Even when he'd been weak from using his mutation device, even when Senator Kelly had found an excuse to look in on him in his plastic prison, he had been more vital than this. She wondered if this was what she'd looked like to him, and if so, what kind of weak-willed bastard he was to not have put her out of her misery.
Dispiritedly, he played chess with no one, moving a piece only every five minutes or so, spending most of his time staring vaguely at nothing. He was bundled against nonexistent cold, dressed in trenchcoat and hat and warm sweater and wool pants despite the warm weather. His hands trembled as he moved the pieces.
No good to her. Too pathetic even to hate. She should just kill him.
Useless tears pricked her eyes. She wasn't Mystique -- Mystique never wept. Raven did.
She pressed her blouse against her chest once, feeling for the precious catalysine in her bra. Then she took a deep breath and approached him.
"Do you play yourself often?"
He looked up at her. His face had a grayish cast to it, and his eyes were blank. "Mystique."
"I'm not Mystique any more, remember? Erik?"
Pain flickered in his eyes. At least he was that alive. The emptiness had been horrifying, like watching one you loved resurrected as a zombie. Which, to be fair, was much what it was like, after the Cure. "Yes. I remember." He looked down at his chess board, unwilling or unable to keep meeting her eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry doesn't cut it, Erik."
She put her hands on his board, knocking pieces over, and leaned over it, her face looming toward him. "You left me, naked, powerless, and alive, in their hands. Do you know what that did to me? Do you?"
"I can imagine."
"No. You can't."
A bit of the old sharpness came back, a bit more life in his face. "After the Statue of Liberty, I was left alive, and rendered effectively powerless, in their hands. I do have some concept of what it would be like."
"You were abandoned by someone you hadn't trusted in years, who we'd just tried to kill. I got you out. But when I needed someone to get me out... it was you that abandoned me. I trusted you."
He looked away from her, out at the passersby. "Your martial arts skills were never dependent on your powers as my fighting prowess was. If you want to take your revenge, I cannot stop you."
Raven sat down across from him. "That's the question. What should I do, to take revenge? Kill you? You were supposed to kill me, if they gave me their Cure. You didn't do it. Should I grant you the mercy you denied me?"
"I am sorry," he said again, a helpless note in his voice. "But what do you want of me? What I did to you was an awful betrayal. You know it, I know it, and now you know that I know it, so what of it now? I cannot change what I've done. Kill me, or don't. Take your vengeance, or don't. I don't know what you expect of me, when we both know there is nothing I can do to make amends."
"Tell me why." She knew why, of course. But she wanted to hear his rationalization. She wanted to know what he thought his reasons were, before she decided what to do about him.
"I suppose I owe you that much." He was still staring at nothing.
"Yes. You do."
For a while he was silent. She was about to remind him, impatiently, that she was waiting for an answer when he spoke.
"When we spoke, of what we would do if either of us were infected with their so-called 'Cure'... I believed what I said. I thought such would be a fate worse than death, and I would not leave you to that, or wish you to leave me. But when I saw you, after they had broken you..." He shook his head. "I couldn't bear to look at you. Something beautiful and proud, smashed to pieces, hollowed out. And yet when I thought of killing you... I couldn't do it. Because, when it comes to it, I don't truly believe anything is worse than death."
"Not even this?" she asked acerbically.
"I am not dead, am I? I don't lack funds to purchase poisons or knives or rope, if this was truly worse than death. But..." He looked directly at her. "You must understand, I have been here before. In the camps, when every day was a horror and a terrible effort to survive. In their plastic prison, when Stryker was using his drug to force me to betray Charles and all the innocent mutant children he was sheltering at his school. I should have died, then, to stop myself from being used. I thought of it many times -- I could have forced them to kill me, I could have stopped drinking or strangled myself with my clothing, but I didn't. Because, in the end, as long as I live I can hope for freedom, or vengeance, or both. Death is final, and after I'm dead I can no longer fight. As long as I live, I might be able to win free and continue the fight.
"And I thought the same, as I looked at you. That this Cure might not be permanent. That someday, you might be yourself again. And if there was any such chance, I could not bring myself to end your life. 'Cured', you were a hollow shell, a travesty of yourself... but the Cure could perhaps be undone. Death cannot be."
"But you left me there."
"I knew the government wouldn't harm you -- they would see you as helpless, once your powers were taken from you, and the information you hold was valuable to them. I trusted you to know what to give them to preserve your safety, and what to hold back to protect the Cause. And I--" He swallowed. "I couldn't look at you, Raven. I would have broken down weeping, or lost all rationality to my rage, and I couldn't afford either right then. That is my weakness, my failure."
"You said I was of no use to you."
"What should I have said in front of my new recruits? 'I cannot look at you or I'll cry?' That would most certainly have won over men such as Juggernaut."
She had expected a rationalization, but Erik had never before outright admitted such a emotional weakness to her. Being weak and human, mourning their dead and suffering for the traumas that had been inflicted on them in the past -- that had never been what their relationship was about. Perhaps it was an excuse, then, but she didn't think so. Just as Mystique did not have to weep for the things that broke Raven down, perhaps Erik could not hide the weaknesses Magneto could. He didn't look as if he was currently capable of lying to her. She wasn't sure he was currently able even to lie to himself.
She made her decision.
"I understand. But that doesn't mean I forgive you. And it doesn't mean I trust you."
He nodded. "I expected no less."
"But you were right." She reached into her shirt and removed the vial of catalysine. "This is the cure for the Cure. It's called catalysine. Developed by a mutant scientist named Nathaniel Essex."
"I've heard of him."
"He's a monster, Erik. He experiments on his own kind, and he's not doing it to protect mutants -- it's just scientific curiosity. It's not enough for him to be better than humanity. He thinks he's better than us as well."
"How did you get this from him?"
"He gave it to me." Raven smiled bitterly. "He offered me a job in exchange for this. Each dose lasts about an hour, and he only gives me one at a time. I can serve him, and be myself for an hour at a time, or I can live knowing that I could be myself and I never will."
"I am in no position to fault you for your choices." His eyes were fixed on the vial in her hands, hungry but sadly resigned to starving.
"He told me how to find you."
"Did he send you here to kill me?"
"That or recruit you. He wouldn't actually tell me what he wanted me to do -- he said I should do as I wished. I think he might want me to offer you the deal I took, on his behalf. Or else kill you, I guess."
"So which will it be?"
"I had a better idea, actually." She put the vial back in her shirt. "How about, you come back with me. I give you the cat when we get to Essex's house. He's a shapechanger -- I can't beat him in a fight, and I don't know where he hides the freezer where he keeps the drug, or what the chemical formula for it is. You overpower him, make him tell you the formula -- or if he won't, kill him and then we search his lab -- find the supply, and then we'll both be free."
"You'd fight by my side again? After what I did?"
"It would be you by my side, this time. And I don't trust you, Erik, but I do trust that you'll do what you have to do to be Magneto again."
He nodded slowly. "In that case... no. That is not what we'll do."
Her eyes narrowed. "You have a better idea?"
"Yes. Essex is a very clever man -- I have read his papers, and I have heard rumors of him before. If he gave you this drug, my location and the freedom to do as you wish, he will have taken into account that you may choose to recruit me against him. This could be a test. So this is what we will do. You, return to him. Tell him you couldn't find me, or make up some excuse. Go on his missions. And after some time, when you expect him to be at home when you return, call me. I will come to you, and then you give me the drug and we will carry out your original plan."
Raven couldn't stop a genuine smile from breaking out on her face. This was the way it should be. Erik finding the weaknesses in her plans, helping her to make them stronger. He was right, of course -- Essex probably would expect that she might come back with Erik as her ally against him.
"He might be monitoring me right now," she said. "I don't know if I can convince him that I never saw you." She could say she took the drug and used it to taunt Erik, so he wouldn't ask for it back. An observer wouldn't necessarily be able to tell if she had shifted part of her body. But she might not be able to get away with claiming that she hadn't seen Erik at all.
"Then tell him I was too pathetic to kill, and you didn't think I deserved a chance at my powers back," Erik said sardonically. "I'm sure you can make that believable."
Raven smiled, equally sardonic. "Oh, I can do that."
Erik pulled a dog-eared small notebook and an expensive pen out of his trenchcoat, and scrawled down a phone number. "It's doubtful Essex would have had my phone number. The phone company is under the misapprehension that this number belongs to a different individual, at a different address." He tore off the paper and handed it to her.
Raven pocketed the paper in the purse. "One of your aliases?"
"No, simply a mix-up in the records. Apparently, a young man went overseas and never turned his phone off, and whoever is living in his apartment uses a cell and hasn't noticed that the phone bill is for a number that doesn't ring to the house. I get occasional drunken calls at 3 am from his former friends, but that seems an improvement over calls from my former friends."
It was nice to know that Erik didn't need his powers to game computerized databases for his personal needs, in the end. "I'll call you when I'm ready."
"Don't rush. I know it must be terrible for you, but Essex is a dangerous man. With only an hour to use our powers, we can't take any risks."
"Erik. Don't patronize me. I know Essex much better than you do. And I've always been more patient than you."
"Yes, well, I imagine how I would feel under your circumstances, and I know I would have trouble with patience. But then, you're quite right -- you have always been better at waiting than I am."
The danger of working with Erik again, of trusting him, Raven thought, was how tempted she was to forgive him. All he needed to do was smile ruefully and compliment her, and she wanted to let bygones be bygones, forget about a little thing like abandoning her to the enemy and embrace him as her friend and partner again. It couldn't be allowed, of course; she was no Charles Xavier, to infinitely forgive any transgression. "I'll be in touch," she said, and left, before she did something she'd regret.
Only a short while longer, she thought on the train back to DC, back to Essex's lair. Only a short while longer, and she would have her self back. And if it meant working with Erik again, so be it. He owed this to her, anyway.
If there was more to her anticipation than that, she didn't want to know.
Author's note: The idea that Magneto's betrayal was in not mercy-killing Mystique comes from Artaxastra in her fic "Last Resort". I loved the idea so much it became part of how I wrap my head around Magneto's behavior in X3.