"The difference between weakness and wickedness is much less than people suppose; and the consequences are nearly always the same." (Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington)
"Blitzkrieg!" Raven's whispered squeal breaks the pre-movie quiet of the darkened cinema, followed by her giggles as Charles' hands go up in front of his face to deflect her barrage of popcorn bombs.
"Raven!" he hisses, annoyed, as he picks kernels out of his thick mop of hair.
She continues pelting him until his eyes twinkle back at her and he delves into the popcorn tub and returns fire.
"Your Fluffwaffe are no match for the RAF!" he says, providing appropriate airplane and explosion sound effects for their dogfight.
The familiar crackle of the cinema speakers and the sudden beam of light from the film projector interrupt their game. Raven squirms around in her seat for a comfortable position-as comfortable as she can manage in the eleven year-old girl's body that never feels quite like her own even though she wears it every day for school, because she has to think so hard about not being blue.
They're seeing The Picture of Dorian Gray, which Charles insists will be wonderful. Raven isn't so sure; her choice was The Body Snatcher, but Charles shot down that suggestion because "the tagline-The screen's last word in shock sensation!-is rather dubious." Raven isn't even sure what that means, but the posters for the Dorian Gray posters say Why did women talk about Dorian Gray in whispers? and show men and women wearing tuxedos and evening gowns and locked in romantic poses like Gone With the Wind, and she's not going to argue with Charles if he wants to take her to a movie like that.
Maybe Meredith Anderson and Evelyn Watters, who've been so hateful to her since she got hit with that dodgeball in gym class and lost her morph will be at the movies and see her with him and think she's got a smart, handsome, normal boyfriend. Maybe Charles will reach for popcorn at the same time as hers, and their hands will touch and they'll feel sparks or something like that and he'll wantto be her boyfriend.
At first Raven only half-watches the newsreels because she keeps glancing sideways at Charles to see whether he's reaching for the popcorn yet. But after a moment she notices he's glued to the movie screen, sitting very straight in his chair, and suddenly his mouth drops open and a piece of popcorn falls out, right into his lap. And he doesn't even notice.
Her face looks just like his when she looks up at the movie screen and sees what made him do that.
Dead bodies. Everywhere. Stacked up like firewood and spilling out of train cars. Tossed into piles like dirty laundry and filling ditches. For a second she thinks they've gone into the wrong movie, that this is The Body Snatcher after all. But no, that man's voice who does all the newsreels is talking about how this is the sight that greets Allied troops every day as they march deeper into Germany and liberate prisoners of the Nazis from places with strange names like Dachau, Buchenwald, and Ravensbrück. Everywhere, by the hundreds, the thousands, are the dead.
And then there are the people who are not dead, which she thinks may be even worse. Men, women, and kidslooking out from behind barbed wire fences, with shaved heads and scraps of dirty, striped clothing that are hardly even rags hanging onto bodies that look as much like skeletons as the naked bodies piled up on the ground all around them. At any moment she expects to see one keel over and join the dead.
Raven hardly remembers a time when America wasn't at war, but honestly, her own ongoing battle with being the girl with scaly blue skin and yellow eyes is more real to her than the Gerries invading half of Europe or even the Japs bombing Pearl Harbor.
This is different. This makes her popcorn taste bitter in her mouth and burn her throat when she swallows.
"Who are all those people?" she asks Charles, searching his face for answers; in the flickering light of the projector, she makes out dark eyebrows scrunched together, and his lips pressed into a tight, straight, white line.
"Jews," he whispers back.
"Why? What did they do?"
It must have been terrible, to get them thrown into prisons like this. But the kids…
"Shut up, Raven. Just watch."
But she can't watch. The images flickering on the movie screen-the walking skeletons, the skeletons on the ground, rotting, their faces half-eaten by worms…
"I'm gonna throw up," Raven says, and bolts from the cinema.
As she runs, not only is she not sure she's going to make it to the toilet in time, but she can feel her morph beginning to slip, too. She concentrates very hard on looking normal, deciding it would be more embarrassing to be seen as a naked blue girl than to throw up in the middle of a crowded cinema lobby. Luckily she manages not to do either, but the second she's hidden in a stall of the ladies' room, she falls to her knees the cold tile floor and loses her lunch and her morph. As she clutches the rim of the porcelain bowl, her sounds of weeping and retching echo in the restroom, but over it all she hears the creak of the door and a welcome voice.
"Charles?" she croaks, her throat sore from vomiting.
He shuffles further into the restroom to stand just outside her stall. "Are you okay?"
She knows Charles can probably see her bare backside under the bottom of the cubicle, but another wave of nausea makes it impossible for her to concentrate enough to change her appearance.
"This is the ladies' room," she says, weakly, thinking that upchucking in the lobby might have been less embarrassing, after all. "What if someone comes in?"
"I'll make them think I'm a girl," Charles replies.
"You can do that?" Interested enough by this to forget about her churning insides, Raven glances over her shoulder to see him peering around the stall door, which she forgot to lock.
"Why do you think Mum suggested we go to the movies today instead of doing our homework?"
Raven flushes the toilet, but feels too shaky to stand up. She sits back against the stall partition, drawing her knees up to her chest. "You're missing Dorian Gray."
Charles crouches just inside the stall. "I don't much feel like watching it after…"
The pictures from the newsreels rush into Raven's mind before she can stop them; she wishes her rising tears would blur them as they do Charles in front of her.
"You said those people were Jews…" She sniffs. "Why were they in prison?"
Charles looks at her the way he does a lot, the way that tells Raven he thinks he's so much older than her even though they're barely two years apart, and for a second she feels him slip into her mind and think, Do you read any part of the paper at all except the funny pages?But then he goes back to looking as shocked and horrified by the newsreel as she feels.
"Those weren't prisons," he says. "They were concentration camps."
Raven just stares at him, not understanding.
"Death camps," he explains.
Raven gasps. "You mean…"
She stops. That can'tbe what Charles means. It's too awful.
But Charles nods. "The Nazis have been rounding up Jews in the Third Reich for years and taking them to these camps. To work them to death or murder them in gas chambers."
Raven is crying again. "But why? Why didn't they just stop being Jews and save themselves? You can do that, can't you? Stop being religious?
"It wasn't about a religion," Charles replies, quietly. "It was about being different."
At that moment the main bathroom door opens with a bang that makes both of them jump, and the click of high heels on the tile signals a woman coming in and taking the next stall over. Raven screws up her face, concentrating on shifting her form, but looks down at herself and sees the raised patches all over skin that's only a little lighter blue than usual. She bites her lip to stop herself crying out in alarm and alerting the woman to their presence, and darts her eyes up to Charles for help.
"I've made Miss Aster think she's alone." He puts his hand on her shoulder and smiles at Raven as if he knows exactly why she's so upset. "Don't worry. That could never happen here, to you."
Raven wants to believe him, but so many people have hurt her, including her own family, and it's so hard, so tiring, to look normal all the time. "How do you know?"
The woman whose mind is under Charles' control comes out of her stall, washes her hands, and leaves the bathroom without noticing anyone else was there. Charles' chest puffs out slightly, and he raises an eyebrow at Raven.
"Because I won't let them."
Raven gives him a little smile. "You and me against the world, huh?"
She likes the sound of that.
"I love Lucy?" Charles says, by way of greeting, upon returning home one evening to the apartment he shares with Raven in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He's studying genetics at Harvard, while Raven takes the odd class at a nearby community college until she can figure out what she wants to do with her life besides wait tables at a local diner.
She sprawls out on the sofa in her PJs, too tired after a long day on her feet and in a body that's not her own to do anything but watch television and relax, but she musters the energy to change back into her blonde-haired form when Charles comes in.
"I can tell you what happens." Charles shrugs out of his overcoat and unwinds his scarf. Hanging them both neatly on the rack by the door, he goes on, "Lucy devises a desperate and wild scheme to get in Ricky's show, which, of course, backfires, resulting in a great deal of physical humor and public humiliation on Lucy's part, a great deal of Spanish swearing and stereotypical Latin machismo on Ricky's, culminating with his eventual condescending laughter at his wife's not bright but nonetheless endearing antics."
"Gee, do you know that because you're psychic?" Raven chucks a tasseled throw pillow at him, which falls short of his feet.
"It couldn't be because it's the most predictable program on television."
Raven turns back to the TV with a sigh. "Don't begrudge me half an hour of mindless entertainment at the end of a long day. We can't all be brilliant Harvard students."
"Of course I don't. And you could be. You're as clever as any of my classmates-a number of whom planned study sessions around tonight's Lucy."
Charles returns the throw pillow to its proper place at the foot of the sofa, and lays something on the coffee table beside her.
"I brought you something," he says, switching off the TV since the episode has ended. "Something that reminded me of you."
Raven rolls onto her side, stretches out her arm, and picks up the book.
"Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," she reads the cover, then looks up at Charles. "This reminded you of me? I never kept a diary. I never needed to, because you could just read my secret thoughts straight out of my brain."
"Which, of course, I never did-once I became aware of the ethical ramifications of doing so."
"Like getting your ass kicked by a little girl?"
Charles draws up the leather wing chair angled conversationally next to the sofa. He sits at the front of the cushion, elbows on his knees and fingers steepled, studying Raven from beneath a slightly arched eyebrow as he might contemplate a chessboard. Raven likes the idea of being an enigma to the man who can read minds-men enjoy a little mystery, don't they?-but not the other possibility hinted at by his gift, that he stillthinks of her as a kid sister. She pushes herself up on one elbow, which she knows allows him a peep of her cleavage between the collar of her pajama top, and runs a hand through her wavy blonde hair.
"So who's Anne Frank?" she asks.
"Ah." Charles sits up, rubbing the palms of his hands on the legs of his trousers. "A Jewish girl whose family hid from the Nazis for two years in a secret annex in Amsterdam."
Jewish girl. Nazis.The words make Raven's entire body go numb and paralyzed, except for her heart, which seems to beat very heavily in her chest.
"And it reminded you of me?" she says again.
"Well, not of you, specifically. Do you remember when we were kids and we went to see Dorian Gray? Only we didn't get to see it, because there was a newsreel about the concentration camps, which we both found rather distressing."
Does she remember? As clearly as the day she saw the horrifying images in the Salem Center cinema. Mostly in the form of recurring nightmares that have troubled her sleep ever since. Rather distressingis the understatement of the century.
"I can't forget," Charles says, quietly. "I imagine you can't, either."
Raven shakes her head, tears welling, as they always do, whenever she is confronted with the Holocaust. The knowledge she has now makes it worse: that millions, not thousands, were cruelly killed in the camps; that it wasn't only Jews, but Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped or deformed or diseased, the political dissenters-anyone deemed unfit to propagate the "master race."
But tonight she cries because, for the first time, it occurs to her that she is not the only one who fears it might happen again, the next time to people like her. She's never breathed a word of her terror to Charles, forgetting, since hismutation doesn't affect his physical appearance, that he is as different from normal people as she is.
Did he also spend those few months between the newsreel and V-E Day petrified that the Nazis would somehow regain their military might and invade America, put him in a concentration camp, use him for experiments, and finally murder him in the gas chambers? Has he spent the years since the end of the war worried that the Nazi war criminals who escaped without punishment would come out of hiding to finish the job they'd started for Hitler-or, if not them, people like them? The Klan, for example, or even just those people who believe coloreds shouldn't use the same toilets or drinking fountains as whites? Because that was how the Holocaust started, wasn't it? By drawing invisible lines between people long before the barbed wire fences were erected.
Charles reaches out a hand and taps the cover of the book Raven clutches in her hands. "There's hope in there."
Hope. Raven hugs the book to her chest as if Charles is talking literally, as if hope is something she can touch, something she can see, adopting the form of a girl's diary, shining in Charles' blue eyes. She carries it to bed with her and reads all night, unable to put the book down because it's as though Anne Frank read her mind through the span of years and nations about how it feels to grow up different and isolated and uncertain of your place in the world or even the likelihood of living to havea place in the world.
Yes, Charles is right, she thinks with a pounding heart as she devours the final pages of the diary, there is hope contained between these two hardbound covers. If a young Jewish girl can survive the Holocaustwith her faith in humanity and herself intact, then Raven and Charles and others like them can, too.
But then the diary ends.
In 1944. With the Frank family and their friends still in hiding from the Nazis. And nearly a year to go until the end of the war.
Until the liberation of the concentration camps.
Until the newsreels that introduced Raven to this particular brand of terror.
Her heart pounds, though for a totally different reason than before. Knowing she won't be able to sleep, she gets out of bed and pads out of her room, feeling a bit like the little girl who always wanted to go to Charles after a nightmare, but who never did because she was afraid he would tell her to go back to bed and stop being an idiot.
She finds Charles sitting at the kitchen table, either still awake or up early, poring over textbooks and stacks of notes. He looks up at Raven's entrance.
"You're up early," he says.
"I'm up late." She pulls out a chair across from him, and shakes her head when he offers her tea. She's always hated the stuff. Why can't the psychic genius ever remember that? "I finished Anne Frank."
He sits up in his chair, pushing back from the table and his work to give her his full attention. "And what did you think?"
"I know which part you liked." Raven closes her eyes, recalling the words she memorized; Charles' deeper voice quotes along with he, "I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I believe that people are really good at heart."
"It's remarkable she could write that under the circumstances, isn't it?" he says. "An extraordinary girl."
"But what happened to her?"
In a moment of hesitation, his eyes darken, and he looks away.
"No, Charles, she wasn't-"
"The Frank family were sent to Auschwitz."
Raven draws a deep breath. She'd expected that. "And killed in the gas chambers?"
"When the Nazis evacuated the camp during the Russian advance, Anne and her sister were sent to Germany, to Bergen-Belsen. She died there. Of typhus. Just a few weeks before the liberation."
Raven draws up her knees and hugs them against her chest, as if to fill the sudden emptiness inside her where hope had been, where she'd carried a connection with that young girl, almost her own age, and the life she'd dared to believe was possible for them.
"Just because she died doesn't make her words any less true," Charles says. "Her father survived the camps, and he must believe them or he wouldn't have published the book. Ibelieve them."
Raven has her doubts, but she squelches them. Because she believes in Charles. The boy who saved her from a life of impoverished misery and isolation. The young man who's taking the Harvard genetics department by the storm with his theories about mutation and human evolution, and the winning way he has with people, with a natural charm and likeability that have nothing to do with the ability to control minds.
Charles knows, far better than she, how much there is at stake for people like them, what they must do to ensure a future for themselves. He will keep her safe.
As he always has.
As soon as she's far enough from the kitchen, Raven lets go of her morph. She sighs with relief as skin and muscle and bone relax into her natural state, even though she can't stand being in that form.
Alex and Sean and Hank aren't the only ones Charles has been putting through the paces since they came to the mansion; they all need to learn how to control their abilities so they can use them to their full potential, and Raven is no exception. Shape-shifting, Charles insists, is perhaps the most practical skill for a special CIA agent, but it will never do for her to lose face, so to speak, when under pressure-or under the influence, as Moira says is frequently the case. Thanks to playing a drinking game for the past several hours, which required her to morph into each of her colleagues, she's holding her liquor better-or rather, holding her morphs better while holding her liquor. But she's-
Startled by the smooth tones from behind her, she turns to see Erik standing at the entrance to the hall, apparently having followed her from the kitchen with the stealth of a cat. One shoulder leans against the rich oak molding, and his hands are tucked casually into the pockets of his slacks. Raven notes each detail and files it away-in case she's required to mimic him again, of course.
"Exhausted," she admits.
She excused herself from the rest of the group with the claim of needing to pee and get some fresh air after the uncustomary amounts of alcohol, but really she just needs a break and can't stand to disappoint Charles when he's so proud of her, for once. Why she's admitting the truth to Erik is an interesting question.
He's not like the others. Wary of this whole venture working with the government where Charles is enthusiastic, Erik is a participant but somehow at the same time seems to remain just outside the group. Clearly he's here on his own agenda, yet Raven watches him interact with the younger guys, and he's as sincere in his attempts to help them as Charles is.
And, insecure as Raven is about male attention, he seems particularly interested in helping her.
At first it made her a little uncomfortable the way Erik was always lurking around, butting into her conversations. Even the guys commented behind his back about the creepy stalker vibe. She can't describe what she feels around him now as being completely at ease with him-her heartbeat quickens, and the hairs on her arms stand on end-but she definitely doesn't think he's creepy. In fact, something about him tells her she'll find a sympathetic listener in him. Someone who understands.
Which is ridiculous, because she's always had that in Charles. Or she thought she did, anyway. Lately, since he got his Oxford degree, she's not so sure.
Erik's lips curve in a small, gentle smile as he pushes off the wall and strides toward her. "It must require literally every fiber of your being to do what you do."
Raven nods, speechless with surprise at how accurately he's observed her. He's tall, but lean, yet he seems to fill the hall as he approaches, coming to stand so close to her that she has to back against the wall just to get some personal space.
"You deserve a rest," he says. "You were most impressive tonight. Sean never looked better." His smirk fades, and fine lines crease the corners of his eyes as he looks intently into her eyes. "Although you missed one small detail when it came to me."
He withdraws his left hand from his pocket and extends his forearm, displaying a tattoo amid the fine golden hairs scattered sparsely across his fair skin: 214782.
In fact, Raven has been acutely aware of this detail, her eyes drawn to it as if it were a magnet the first time she saw his arms bared in a polo shirt. When she shifted into his form tonight, she intentionally omitted the tattoo, her old fears suddenly too close to home.
Somehow, she has a feeling that Erik knows this about her as surely as if he were a telepath like Charles, and that he's opening this part of his life to her because he needs that connection with someone else. Or maybe it's the alcohol, which she's not used to after years of abstinence, making her think things that are impossible. It's definitely the alcohol that loosens her tongue.
"You're a Jew?" she blurts.
Erik blinks his surprise for an instant, then his mouth twitches into a startlingly wide grin as a smoky chuckle rattles in his throat. "Yes, my dear Raven, I'm a Jew. I certainly am nota homosexual."
His eyes rake over her in a way that makes her feel naked even though she's fully clothed. As fully clothed as she can be in a miniskirt, anyway. And then she remembers that the expanse of thigh exposed between it and the tops of her go-go boots is blue, and she feels the heat flood her cheeks. Erik's ogling a blue girl?she thinks, fleetingly, before returning to her preferred form.
Still, she can't bring herself to look him in the eye; her gaze settles once more on his forearm, now hanging at his side, the edge of the tattoo just visible.
"Which camp?" she asks.
Black and white images flash in Raven's mind, not just from the newsreels, but gleaned from her own independent study prompted by morbid interest in the horrors of the concentration camps.
The train tracks, ending at the gates. The cruelly ironic sign worked in metal above the entrance to the camp: Arbeit macht frei-Work makes one free.The slave laborers, skeletal people indistinguishable as male or female. The lucky ones, who made it through the selections.
The unlucky ones, shuffling to the gas chambers. The sickest. The weakest. The oldest. The youngest-little childrenwith bloated bellies. The packed rooms. The corpses, spilling out. The ovens. The smokestacks.
And Erik was there. Lived it. Survived it.
"I was eleven when I saw the newsreels," she says. "I was terrified."
Confessing it makes her feel like the terrified child she was in 1945, and she half-expects Erik to put his arms around her and comfort her as if he is. She wants him to hold her.
But he doesn't. He makes no movement, and he speaks with no emotion."Because you couldn't conceive of anyone being capable of committing such unspeakable evil against a fellow human being?"
Raven raises her head, her chin jutting defiantly as she finds the courage to meet his eyes. "Because I couldbelieve it."
"Then you're a brighter girl than I gave you credit for."
Insulted by the backhanded compliment, and confused by the realization that his approval matters to her as much as Charles' does, Raven pushes past him and stalks away down the hall. "I'm not afraid of that anymore."
"Clearly I spoke too soon." Erik's voice comes close behind her, once again following as though walking on velvet paws. He continues to mock her. "Enlighten me, Raven, as to how you overcame your fear of the Holocaust. What changed for you?"
"Charles," she flings back at him over her shoulder, aware that she sounds very much, as Charles would put it, like a stroppy teenager. "This work he's doing. He's helping people understand mutants."
"Oh, yes," Erik scoffs. "Because Hitler would have changed his mind about the Final Solution to der Judenfrage if only he'd sat down with a few Rabbis so he could understandus."
Though Raven's temper flares at the implied attack on Charles' ideals, the truth in Erik's words stops her in her tracks as long-buried doubts resurface.
She draws a deep breath, turns around to face him; thankfully, he keeps a more respectable distance from her than earlier in this encounter. Before she can change her mind, she asks, "Have you read Anne Frank?"
Erik leans against the wall and glances at his wristwatch. "Mmm."
"Not a fan?"
Flicking his eyes up to hers, he replies, "I only wonder what she'd have written about her belief that people are good at heart if the Nazis had let her have her diary at Auschwitz."
Yes. That's exactly what's always niggled at the back of Raven's mind. The thought she never dared voice to Charles because he made her feel as if it was sacrilege-or just stupidity-to believe otherwise. So much so that even now she can't bring herself to say it aloud, to Erik.
"So you think all this is hopeless?" she asks. "That there will never be a place for people like us?"
He pushes off the wall and steps closer to her. "I think if we want there to be a place for people like us, we have to do considerably more than hope for one."
She starts to question him about this, but her words are engulfed in a yawn.
"You should go to bed," Erik says. "You need your rest for more of Charles' training tomorrow."
His sudden shifts in mood-one moment criticizing Charles' methods, the next apparently supporting them, leave her feeling off-balance. Or maybe it's the way Erik makes her think she might have a crush on him, only to turn around and say things that make her leap to Charles' defense like a lovesick schoolgirl.
Or maybe it's the alcohol. It's got to be the alcohol. She's swaying in her go-go boots. So she turns and continues on her way to her room, where she should have been tucked into bed forever ago.
But then Erik calls her back, again. "If you're not afraid of the Holocaust anymore, Raven, why is your default form the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan ideal?"
She whirls on him. "Just who the hell do you think you are, you-?"
"Only you'd make your point so much more effectively if you don't package it in self-loathing. Just a thought. Good night."
"What are you thinking about?" Erik's whisper draws her out of her thoughts, and Raven becomes aware that he's nuzzling her ear.
Weird-she never pegged him as the nuzzling type, the type to stay in bed in a tangle of sheets and the lingering musk of sex, the type to trace the curves of her body, the raised parts of her skin, with a delicate fingertip. It's completely in-character for him to be an attentive lover, given the intent, deliberate approach he gives to everything else-even hunting and killing Nazis is sexy when Erik does it-but she just assumed supervillains were all wham-superbam-thank you, ma'am, only minus the thank youbecause of course they were chauvinist pigs, as well.
"How good this feels," she replies.
Erik chuckles low, his warm breath and the scratch of his stubble sending a chill coursing from the curve of her neck over her shoulder and down her breast and arm.
But he's serious when he says, "Liar. I wouldn't have to be a telepath to know you're not thinking about me or anything I'm making you feel at all."
His tones are husky, almost a growl, containing just a hint of danger that makes Raven catch her breath with the realization of how little experience she has with men in general, and how little she knows this one in particular. But then he moves over her, stretching out his long, lean body over hers, and trails kisses along her collarbone. His tongue darts out to taste the hollow of her throat before his lips glide up her neck, kissing the line of her jaw, her cheekbone, the ridge of her eyebrows. He presses his forehead against hers, and when he speaks again, his tone is as gentle as his touch.
"And I'm nota telepath, remember, my dear. So you'll have to tell me what's going on in that head of yours if I'm to help you sort it out."
It occurs to her, fleetingly, that she's not with Erik so he can sort her out, that she's perfectly capable of sorting her own head out herself, and that she should be annoyed at him for suggesting otherwise, but then she blurts, "Are we the bad guys?"
Erik draws back from her, his forehead creased but his mouth upturned wryly as he repeats, "The bad guys?"
"When I went with you-they looked at me like I was evil. Alex and Sean…and Hank, I mean. Like they're the good guys, and I was a traitor, running off to join forces with the bad guys."
"And how did Charles look at you?"
She doesn't want to think about Charles right now, days after the accident, while in bed with another man, much less talk about him. And why would Erik want her to, anyway?
She shrugs and says, "Like a guy who'd just taken a bullet in his spine."
With a sigh, Erik rolls off of her. Instantly Raven feels too exposed, the deep hue of her skin a stark contrast against the crisp white sheets. It's a ridiculous way to feel after being intimate with someone, especially when she hasn't worn clothes at all since she took off her uniform. She's cold in the absence of Erik's body, cold in her belly with the fear that he's taken her deflection as a personal attack. But then his arms go around her, turning her onto her side as he pulls her back against his chest.
She sodidn't think he was the spooning type.
"Charles told me to go with you," she says.
"And why did he do that? Because he thought you were evil and the only thing for you was to join forces, as you put it, with the bad guys?"
Raven shakes her head, glad that in this position, Erik can't see the tears that spill out the corners of her eyes at the memory of that awful moment on the beach. When Charles had lain there, helpless, and she'd just left him.
"That's because Charles' literature horizons expand beyond comic books," Erik says. "He understands that most of the conflicts in the world aren't between good guys and bad guys. They're between ideologies."
Her tears flow freely now as she remembers how Charles peered up at up at her, knowing even before she made it what her choice would be, obviously wishing she wouldn't make it, but encouraging her to follow where her heart led. Liberating her. Because he'd done all he could for her.
And because she could never do anything for him.
"He didn't look at me like I was making an evil choice. Just a weak one."
Even though she spoke in a steady voice, Erik disengages one hand from around her to brush the tears from her face. "If we didn't have weaknesses, we'd have nothing to form our ideologies around."
She's contemplating this when his hand leaves her cheek to cup her breast; the other works its way down into the V between her legs.
"What's your weakness, Mystique?" he murmurs, his voice like silk. "Is it the sex?"
Though she's annoyed at him for interrupting a serious conversation this way, Raven can't help but roll her hips against his hand and press her ass back against his groin and allow his touch to melt away her troubles with the same ease with which he manipulates metal. She hates the idea of anyone thinking she's here, with Erik, because other guys wouldn't give her what she wanted from them, but at the moment he's giving her exactly what she wants.
And possibly what she needs, too.
"It's definitelythe sex," she says.
"I hope not because you have concentration camp survivor fetish."
Realizing she's been unconsciously stroking her thumb over the prisoner number tattooed on his forearm, she flushes. But she glances back over her shoulder at Erik and, seeing his smirk-and another, milder, deeper emotion in his eyes that speaks to her of empathy and more-she disengages herself from his arms, pushes him onto his back, and straddles him.
"If either of us has a fetish, it's you with your thing for blue girls…"
"Blue women," he corrects her with a small grunt as he pushes inside her-quite a change from a week ago, when she tried to seduce him at the mansion and he told her to come back in a few years. "And only one. But yes," he says, settling his hands on her hips for a moment before sliding them, fingers splayed, up over her stomach to cup her breasts, "I confess, I'm guilty as charged."
Neither speaks again as Raven begins to rock her hips down and against Erik's. She doesn't even think about their conversation leading up to this moment as her senses take over. It's good not to think, and it's even better to feel good-not just from the building of tension in her core toward the inevitable release, but from what she's giving to him at the same time. He's always alert, always watching, always moving, always doing. Now, he seems almost like a different man as he lies beneath her, his fingers curled loosely over her skin, his head back, eyes half-open but not looking at anything or lost in thought, his lips parted slightly and making low, wordless sounds of pleasure.
Despite having the unique ability to become a man's wildest fantasy, she never imagined she'd ever be able to give this to anyone, or that anyone like Erik would seek this from her. Of course, she never imagined anyone quite like Erik, at all. Knowing that she can do this, as herself, is even more delicious than the sex itself.
She tests her skills, sliding slowly down him, drawing a long, throaty moan from his throat until her pelvis presses against his and she feels herself starting to go. Relaxing the muscles of her thighs, she pulls up, and then repeats the extended roll until his hands grasp her hips and rock her against him in a frantic tempo that quickly finishes both of them off, Raven collapsing against Erik's chest and breathing heavily against the racing pulse in his neck.
They lie there for a moment, then Erik nudges her off of him and climbs out of bed.
"I know what your weakness is," he says, picks up the discarded pieces of his suit off the floor and begins to dress, as if for work. Because there is work to do. Always, so much work; tonight they're coming up with a plan to break Emma Frost out of the CIA holding cells. But he's not sofocused on that that he minds when Raven comes up behind him, sliding her arms around his trim waist to button his vest.
"I know your weakness," he says, "because it's mine, too."
Raven meets his eyes in the mirror as he knots his tie. "Fear?"
"You chose to come with me because you're afraid-of a very real threat, which demonstrates wisdom on your part, and a strong survival instinct. Remember-fear can be a weakness, but it can also be a strength if it inspires you to fight."
Raven rises from the bed and stands beside him, shoulders back, head erect. "That's what I came here to do."
In the mirror they almost look like two soldiers, standing at attention, except that she is naked and Erik clasps her hand. "I am proud to fight alongside you, Mystique."
Charles is sitting behind the big oak desk when she enters his study, and for a moment she pretends that the past few months haven't happened, that she didn't leave him for a political ideology and a man who thinks she's a goddess. And especially that he's not confined to a wheelchair.
She hasn't seen him in it yet, having visited only once since the accident, when he was still in the hospital; she hasn't set foot in the mansion since the team left together, for the first and last time, for Cuba. But recently he contacted them, Erik about a teaching position at the school he's opened, her about tea. And since Erik agreed to take a job from the man he crippled she can't very well refuse tea with her oldest friend, especially when this liaison is necessary to their cause, even though she hates tea and Charles should know that after all these years. Which should piss her off more than it does, especially when it should have given her a clue long ago that he didn't care about her like that. But if he did remember, it would disrupt her illusion of sameness.
Then his hands go to his sides, and she sees his shoulders pump as he backs up from his desk and he wheels the custom stainless steel chair around to her and there's no point pretending that things aren't very different between them now, that he hasn't changed, that she isn't a stranger to him.
Not that her changes are unwelcome, especially since Charles is fundamentally the same in all ways but the legs and therefore reacts exactly as she hoped he would when she bends to hug him, his eyes bulging at the pair of bare blue breasts dangling in his face.
"It's good to, ah, seeyou," he says, patting her awkwardly on the back. "Decided to eschew clothing? Last time I saw you, you at least pretended to care about modesty."
"That's because hospital security doesn't allow naked visitors."
Charles quirks an eyebrow. "This isa school."
"Have you ever seen a tiger and wanted to cover it up?" Raven takes a seat in one of the leather wing chairs front of the fireplace and makes a show of crossing her legs.
"Just something Erik said once."
"Please," says Charles, holding up a hand and giving an embarrassed chuckle. "I don't need to know what Erik calls you in the bedroom."
"Mystique, usually." She smirks and Charles shakes his head, once again giving her the illusion that their relationship hasn't really changed.
But, when he has angled his chair to accommodate conversation between friends, a tea table between them, he looks at her, nostalgia written so clearly on his features that she wonders if he's opening his mind to her. "Do you ever look like the Raven I knew anymore?"
"That wasn't Raven. That was just a scared, confused girl trying not to be noticed." Except when she'd wanted Charles to notice.
"I'm glad you're finally comfortable in your own skin."
"Literally." But the truth is that she's notcomfortable. No matter how many times Erik tells her she's exquisite, a goddess, and pays more than lip service to it by worshiping her body with his own, she still looks in the mirror afterward and hates the blue skin and yellow eyes. She just hates the old Raven more.
Still, that's progress.
"And you're happy?" Charles asks, turning to pour tea. "With Erik? You're making friends?"
"Oh my God, Charles! I'm not thirteen years old and going to a new junior high. I'm part of the Brotherhood of Mutants, fighting for what I believe in, with adultswho think like me."
"I think it's wonderful that you've formed such firm convictions." Charles heaps one of the teacups with sugar and cream-as she took it as a kid when she was trying to like tea, for his sake-and offers it to her. "But in my experience, a belief system can only be strengthened by differing points of view."
"That definitely explains why you parted ways with Erik."
Charles flinches. "You were never sarcastic before."
"Yeah, well, I was never empowered before." She sets her tea down without taking a sip and stands, adding injury to insult by forcing him to look up at her, tall and naked and blue, as she assumes the dominant role in this scenario. "So should I go home to the Brotherhood and tell them to expect an invitation to join the X-Men, where different opinions are welcome?"
"Any mutant is welcome here, at any time, you know that, Raven. So long as the betterment of mankind is the goal."
"What about the betterment of mutantkind?"
"I don't believe the two are mutually exclusive. You didn't either, once."
"Then mankind tried to blow mutantkind to smithereens."
"Mutantkind would have come out unscathed if we hadn't begun fighting amongst ourselves!"
Charles' voice, ordinarily so calm and collected, rings out in the book-lined study and startles Raven so that the argument dies. Her breaths come quickly, as if she's the one who made the passionate outburst. This is Charles. Not an anonymous political opponent she's debating with, but Charles. The boy who rescued her. The boy who gave her a life. The boy who loved her, and whom she loved back. And somehow, in such a short time that it's frightening, she's forgotten that. Howcould she forget?
Who the hell is she?
She sits down again, and reaches for Charles' hand; his fingers wrap firmly around hers. It's as if they're ten and twelve again, and he's just caught her breaking into his kitchen looking for food, and instead she finds a handshake and a smile and a brother and hope.
"You still think it's possible for us to be a team?" she asks.
His eyes crinkle at the corners as his lips curve in a gentle smile. "Why do you think I've asked Erik to teach modern European history?"
"Because you're an optimistic idiot?"
As he chuckles, he leans one elbow on the arm of his chair and rakes his hair back through his fingers. Raven blinks. Is it her imagination, or has his hairline crept further back than the last time she saw him? She opens her mouth to tease him about it-he's always been so vain about his hair, and for good reason-but he speaks first, turning the conversation back in a serious direction.
"I'd be an idiot if I didn't take advantage of having a friend who survived the most horrific period of persecution in human history. Even if I do disagree with the conclusions he's drawn from his experiences."
Friend. After everything, Charles still considers Erik his friend. Which means that Erik is right, this really isn'tabout good guys and bad guys.
"Anyway, conclusion is rather a final word, isn't it?" Charles goes on. "Erik is a young man-"
Raven snorts. "You say that like you're the older one, not him. Condescending, much?"
"-still forming his worldview."
"And you're asking him to teach even younger men…and women, who hardly have one. Who are different and alone and scared and…" Her voice drops to a hush. "…like me."
"Oh, Raven." Charles looks at her for a long moment, his eyes as bright blue as she's ever seen them. She feels the gentle touch of his empathy as if he's inside her head, but he's not. "In all these years, I never appreciated how profoundly affected you were by those newsreels. I never had so much to set me apart as you have. I think I understand a little better, now." He opens his palms on the armrests of his wheelchair.
A thought flits through her mind, wondering if Charles' new perspective has made him appreciate her in other ways, too. If she returned to him, would things be different? Would she have what she'd always hoped to have with him?
Hope.The central point of this conversation, and, in fact, the conversation she's been having with him her whole life.
"But you still read Anne Frankand agree with her that people are good at heart," Raven says, reflecting on what he said a moment ago about Erik being young enough that a change of heart isn't an impossibility. Is it possible that Charles' philosophies might yet…evolve? That he might one day lose hope?
"By the way," she says, "if you're planning Anne Frankas part of your history curriculum, you might want to re-think that. Erik's slightly less than impressed than you are."
" It's on the Twentieth Century World Literature syllabus. One of mycourses."
"Obviously I'm not telling you Erik shouldn'tteach," Raven says. "He'll be fantastic, and obviously I agree with the viewpoint he'll be teaching. I just think you need to know that in addition to a teacher's salary, you might be paying him in new recruits to the Brotherhood."
"I know," Charles says, at last taking a drink of his tea, which, given his expression, has cooled; it's too bad neither of them has the groovy mutant ability to heat things up. "Believe it or not, Raven, I'm not running this school to create X-Men. If the day ever comes when I try to make anyone else's choices for them…"
"You let me make mine."
Charles looks up at her, searching her face. "And you're happy with your choice? You didn't answer me before."
"I love him."
Raven doesn't know which is more surprising, her own ready admission, or Charles' follow-up question.
"And he loves you?"
In the past, Raven would have felt pathetic as Charles' directness forced her to be honest that no, Erik hasn't expressed this in so many words. Now, though, instead of stirring up all her old insecurities, Raven realizes her self-worth isn't dependent on her hearing certain phrases. She's never fished for them from Erik as she spent so much energy trying to get them out of Charles. Since she took Erik's hand that day on the beach, he's never once made her feel anything less than fully accepted and important to him on a professional level as much as on a personal one. And what she feels is the important thing, isn't it?
"Yes," she replies. "Erik loves me."
Charles smiles sadly, and glances away. "He'd be a fool not to."
So…he doeshave regrets.
Raven, on the other hand, does not. She's sure of that. If she'd stayed by Charles' side, she'd have the man she'd always wanted, but not the life. She'd still be living in that other woman's body, hiding her natural one. Fear and doubt would gnaw at the back of her mind, always unvoiced. She'd believe things just to keep a man, instead of having a man come to her because of the convictions she already holds.
Doing it the other way around-the rightway around-makes her feel...
The cinema in Salem Center where Mystique and Charles used to go to the movies as kids is still there. Largely abandoned now in favor giant screens and booming surround sound systems for big budget blockbusters, the old cinema caters to a particularset of filmgoers with indie movies and classics.
Mystique definitely doesn't consider herself a hipster, though technically she is elderly-nearly as old as Charles, who wheels up to the box office window and purchases two tickets for a special fiftieth anniversary screening of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
He contacted her this morning, to let her know it was playing and ask if she'd like to finally see it with him, since history thwarted them all those years ago. Her instinct was to say no; it's been so long since he contacted her, personally-for good reason, the tensions between the Brotherhood and the X-Men putting them in outright conflict, superheroes versus supervillains, more often than not. Charles must have probed a little deeper than that old promise never to read her mind would have allowed and sensed her indecision, because when he got in touch again later and asked if she was sure she didn't want to go, she said, Oh, what the hell? Erik's still good for the occasional game of chess with you. But she resisted the urge to add that if he really wanted to make up their movie date to her, he'd find her a showing of The Body Snatcherinstead, because Robert Louis Stevenson has as much literary value as Oscar Wilde.
She does give in and tease him when he complains about the price of the tub of popcorn he grudgingly buys at her insistence. "Ten bucks is hardly going to break the Xavier bank account."
"It's the principle of the thing," Charles retorts. "I remember coming here with you and paying a nickel for popcorn."
"Inflation. A nickel got you all worked up back then, too-What?"
He's staring at her so intently that she feels naked even though she deigned to put clothes on-an ankle-length skirt and turtleneck, no less-for this. Though she's in her natural blue form.
"Forgive me," Charles says, shaking his head. "I was just thinking that if it weren't for my memories, I would scarcely believe you could be old enough to remember when popcorn cost five cents. I rather envy your perpetual youth."
"Or is it my lustrous head of hair?"
"Erik must, too."
Mystique bristles at the reference to her aging partner, Erik being older than Charles by a few years. "He doesn't have any trouble keeping up with me."
Or with a number of other women whose abilities have captivated him over the years.
But he always returns to her. Because she's always the same.
That's what hurts, more than the infidelities-that every time Erik comes back, he's a little older, a little closer to leaving her forever. While she lingers on…for how long? And will she be able to continue to fight off the looming, growing threat against mutants without him by her side? After all these years of fighting to stop what they fear, it seems ever more likely that those who want to round up mutants, lock them in secure "facilities," and "study" their mutations-or destroy these threats to "security" altogether-will have their way, and bring the strike of another Holocaust against humanity.
The familiar crackle of the cinema speakers and the sudden beam of light from the film projector interrupt the conversation, and Mystique turns her attention to the movie screen. Out the corner of her eye she sees Charles take a handful of popcorn, and she thinks about being a girl and hoping their hands would brush as they reached into the tub at the same time. She leans her head back on the lumpy upholstery of the battered theater chair. Just because she doesn't look old doesn't mean she doesn't feelold.
Gone are the days of newsreels-good riddance; hopefully because someone wised up to the fact that some of the content might be traumatizing to kids-and after a few previews for coming attractions, Dorian Graybegins.
Even without images of world events to take her by surprise and frighten and sicken her, Mystique finds enough in the unexpected story to make her want to bolt from the cinema. For all these years, she'd thought it was a romance, a bodice ripper where good girls fall for a bad guy, but instead it's about a man kept forever young and beautiful while a portrait bears the horrifying consequences of time and sin.
She hasn't worn her blonde Raven form since she took it off at Erik's encouragement, and she wonders, if she were to morph into it now, whether it would have aged into a sixty year-old woman whom some would argue had spent the better part of the last three decades fighting on the side of the bad guys. Which, she guesses, is where she and Dorian Gray part ways.
All she's ever done is be herself, and, when necessary-and sometimes when not, because, frankly, she gets off on it-defend her right to be so. If that's a crime, then she'll march through the gates of whatever prison they construct for her and take her punishment with her blue shoulders thrown back and her own head held high.
Her yellow eyes will never look back.