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1963

If it was a mistake, maybe it wasn't irrevocable. If Raven (no, Mystique) decided to leave, Erik wouldn't stop her. If she went back home, Charles would take her in. But it wasn't home anymore, and if she were going to go back, she should have gone when they'd first found out how badly he'd been injured. Hell, she shouldn't have left him bleeding on that beach. When he'd needed her, she'd already failed him. That wasn't the sort of thing you could take back.

Moreover, she believed in Erik. He had a dark view of the world, but the world was dark. She didn't want to be preparing for war, but war was almost here. If it hadn't been for Erik, the Russians and Americans would have blown them to bits back in Cuba. She and Erik understood that mercilessness in a way Charles, for all his telepathy, couldn't.

She wanted to believe Erik knew what to do. She wanted to believe he knew her. His eyes drank her in--the real her--as no one else's ever had, none of the nerdy boys she'd gone out with because they were misfits too and easily thrilled by the pretty girl they'd taken her to be. But she'd been something different, and so was he.


Erik knew he could have Raven any time he wanted, so he indulged in feeling for the optimal moment, the day he genuinely wanted her, not for her curves or her scales, not because she was Charles's sister, but because she had earned her own space in his life.

She'd gone with him like a child, seeking someone new to lead her; he'd accepted the mantle. When he went out recruiting or gathering materiel, he let her tag along, set her insignificant tasks to test her faces and voices. Her disguises themselves had been spotless for years; it was the choice of which and when and how he honed.

They continued the lessons in self-defense he'd started at the mansion. He could still throw her (most of the time), because she didn't really believe she could fight. But in raw potential, it began to be clear she was both faster and stronger than he was.

In a succession of motel rooms, he let her nestle up against him, gave her a languorous morning kiss before loading her up with their suitcases. He built her as he was building his new order, by nut and bolt.


Raven (Mystique) could have kicked him for the way he played with her. In the latest motel, he licked her scales till a moan broke out of her; then, like always, he drew back, leaving her aching. She'd felt him hard against her thigh; it wasn't like didn't want her. She just couldn't figure him out.

Except she could. It was his way of telling her she was here to be his soldier. Sex (if it happened) was the icing. He was different from the other guys that way too. It seemed like every boyfriend she'd ever had only cared about scoring with her--except Hank, if he counted as a boyfriend. By that token, it could be a side-effect of never showing her true self: why should they care about you as a person if they never saw the person? But here in this hotel room, she could be exactly who she was, and everything was O.K.

When Erik retreated to his own side of the bed, she turned on her side and poked his shoulder. "You are a tease."

He smiled and kissed her, and that kiss was worth more than all the sex she'd had with awkward, greedy boys, half her concentration bent on making sure they never saw her.

The next day, driving down the highway, he probed her about birth control. So she told the story:

"And then he looks up from this big, old science journal, all excited, and he says, 'Raven, they've approved the pill; get on it!'" She nailed Charles's tone and accent, though keeping her own register. (He'd cautioned her explicitly never to impersonate Charles.) "And I said, 'You know you said that in exactly the same tone of voice you use when you're telling me to put my face on because someone's coming?'"

Erik chuckled. "And what did he say?"

"He just laughed, like you." She snaked a finger through his hair. "Well, actually harder than you. Charles is kind of a fan of sex puns."

"Yes, I know."


When her birthday came the next month, Angel took her by the hand and dragged her into Erik's office to announce it.

Erik looked up from his landslide of papers with a slight, confuddled frown. "Happy birthday, Mystique. How old are you?"

"What a rude question!" said--Mystique. "Twenty-six."

He stared a moment. "You're twenty-six?"

"Why? How old did you think I was?"

He hesitated. "Nineteen?"

She was glad her blue face didn't flush. "That's right, Erik. Did Charles ever tell you about the time he found me in his kitchen when I was an embryo?"

He shook his head, a sort of universal negation. "He didn't do you any favors by treating you like you like a sixteen year old."

"Thank you," said Raven (Mys--) and beat a retreat (no, Mystique would never run away). In the kitchen, Angel put an arm around her and said men were all stupid, tactless morons, which didn't take the sting away. Erik was right; she had to learn to be a grownup. Maybe that, in the end, was why she'd had to leave Charles: not impending war or mutant pride but because Erik challenged her to be the woman she could be. She would be.


Erik had no revelation, no instant when things changed. Those first months soldered them. Divisions of labor grew automatic; looks began to serve for conversations; as he gave Mystique more responsibility, she grew into it; they learned each other's textures and weights. And one night, he lay down on her and rode her a long time, with such contentment that he was more sorry than satisfied when it was over. She was blue; she was the most perfect blue he had ever slept with.

She flopped over on top of him, studying his face too piercingly. "Jesus, Erik, you made me wait a fucking long time for you."

He brushed his fingers across her cheek. "Was it worth it?"

She kissed him roughly in answer.


2003

To: isaacspared@fort.net
From: waterysenator@fort.net
Date: October 18, 2003, 9:44 p.m.
Subject: Change of Plans

M,

I'm going to stop doing Kelly. We can talk about the best way. For right now, K's going on a medical leave. I'll be home soon.

M


To: waterysenator@fort.net
From: isaacspared@fort.net
Date: October 18, 2003, 11:19 p.m.
Subject: Re. Change of Plans

Don't be absurd. We will, of course, not throw K away. If you need to act out, go fuck someone. This tantruming doesn't become you.

M.


To: isaacspared@fort.net
From: waterysenator@fort.net
Date: October 19, 2003, 12:13 a.m.
Subject: Re. Change of Plans

I'm done with this conversation. I'll see you at home.

M


Mystique found the tableau unsurprising: Erik seated like the President behind his heavy desk, his Newton's cradle clacking, Pyro glowering at his shoulder in henchman position. (She knew it well.)

She'd made Erik wait for her at her own risk. No doubt, he'd wanted to accost her in Washington, but with her senator's security, he couldn't have pulled it off without creating a spectacle that would have thrown a kink in the whole Kelly ruse.

Now, he'd make her pay, one way or another: with that spiteful clacking, the smiling head games, or maybe slamming her into the wall with his desk and smashing her guts out, or giving Pyro the nod to torch her. He might, in spite of everything...

She was poised for flight, knowing she had nowhere to flee, not in the center of his power. And anyway, she'd made her decision. It was, as Erik might have put it, a fait accompli, so she sauntered in and stood before them.

Pyro glared daggers. (What a cheap trick, Erik, to use him as backup.) But she couldn't stop glancing at him, and Erik cracked a smile at the flick of her eyes. Pyro had no business being here, but she had no stylish way to get rid of him.

"Erik, we need to talk."

For several seconds, he just gave her his bland, chairman's face. "Pyro, would you be so good as to give us a moment?"

Pyro bent a swivel-headed stare on her almost to the doorway.

"Don't hit the door on your way out," she said, half suspecting he would.

"Fuck you."

Erik flashed a smile, his eyes on Mystique.

When Pyro was gone, she took the big, steel interviewee's chair, crossed her legs and sprawled an arm across its back in a facsimile of nonchalance, pretending that she didn't mind that the chair was set uncomfortably far from the desk and, of course, too heavy for her to move.

Erik leaned forward, knitting his fingers on his desk. "So what's all this about Senator Kelly?" Opening move, velvet gloved.

"The best way to get rid of him is to arrange to have him martyred for his pro-mutant change of heart. I could stage that within a week and time it to the vote on HR 326."

"Really. And since, I believe, we're talking about a senator, wouldn't it be more logical to wait until the bill reaches the Senate?"

She kicked her ankle a little, playing blasé. "I'm not waiting that long. I'm done. I'm leaving." Leaving. Erik. Jumping off a cliff--no, in mid-flight with the ground zooming in. One minute of absolute freedom.

He gave his displeasured look. She stared back. She could be displeasured too. They said drug addicts had to hit rock bottom before they realized they needed to change: maybe she'd jumped the cliff long ago. Maybe now she was just picking up her bloody remains.

Charles's letter had shaken them both.

Erik, Raven,

Jean is dead. She died expending her power to hold back the flood while simultaneously levitating and operating a large aircraft. If you had not abandoned us, she would still be alive. I will not forgive you for this.

C.

She couldn't deny it. If Erik had been there, he could have lifted them off in the Blackbird and saved everyone. But he'd left, and she'd trotted off beside him (merrily), leaving Charles in that room, leaving Charles's children at the mercy of that flood. Why? No real reason. Because they'd gotten used to being enemies? Because she was some sort of addict, and had lost her grip on reality?

If so, what was she addicted to? Erik? The idea of war? Hatred? Fear? Some sort of terrorist martyrdom? (And what the hell did mean that all those words went right along with "Erik/Magneto," yes, and with "Mystique" too?)

He'd forwarded the letter to her Washington P.O. box without comment. They exchanged no words about it, though they emailed several times a day about the Senate. Then, Charles's update lightened the pall just a little, just enough for her to hope. Maybe Jean wasn't dead after all. Maybe that meant Charles could forgive her. He didn't say so, but maybe someday. If Jean came back--

"Erik, I killed my niece." Jean wasn't her niece, and Mystique hadn't killed her, but the words spoke the truth all the same.

"Charles thinks she's survived," he reminded her.

"Do you have any idea what's involved in impersonating a senator? I spend so much time in other people's damn bodies I barely remember the sound of my own voice. God, I'm sitting here, right now, talking, and it sounds like someone else is talking because I don't remember what it's like to talk. Do you realize you almost killed the entire human race; does that even register with you? And what the hell has it all been for? We've been fighting for our freedom for decades, and things are just worse than when we started. We left them there, Erik, and it--we killed Jean. I am disgusted with us. Your expression is unimpressive."

Her attempt at a speech sputtered out, and she closed down--blank, blue face no one could read, the face of putty waiting for a mold to be squished into. Then, the mold would speak. As for Mystique, maybe she seldom tried because when she tried, all the words came out blather.

Erik never blinked. In the cavernous room, the spheres of the cradle clacked, persistently failing to run down in response to friction.

At length, she couldn't help but glance at them, fleetingly but enough to expose her weakness. Time to show her hand, not winning yet undefeatable. "Look, Erik, you can kill me; you can lock me up. But you can't make me go back to doing Kelly. You could torture me into submission, but if you did that, I'd be way too shaken up have the nuance to pull it off." She crossed her arms. "So if you're planning to kill me, why don't you just get on with it?"

The silence that followed stretched long enough for her to wonder if, in fact, these would be the last few seconds of her life. Should she be planning last words? Would it be restful, painful?

He assumed a bright demeanor. "Well then, it seems there's nothing left to say." He got up, waving his chair back behind him, and came to sit on the edge of his desk. "Where do you intend to go? To Charles?"

She stood--almost shaking, waiting for the hammer to fall, half shamed, half pleased he still knew her well enough to guess her course of action. She would go to Charles--well, she'd try. It wasn't exactly a good idea to walk into a den of her enemies, but she had nowhere else, and she'd spent all her life since first meeting Charles afraid of being alone again. And she had stayed with in that mansion before when had been full of enemies, called step-father, step-brother. Maybe he'd remember that.

She made for the door, too stiffly, unable to shake the expectation of some object hurtling at her back. At the door, she paused. "I missed you when you were in prison." She wondered where the man she'd missed had gone.


A week later, after Kelly had resurfaced and duly been murdered, she made her way to the school. She'd infiltrated it before, but on their guard though his X-Men might try to be, no one but Charles had good tools for recognizing her, so it was no trick to impersonate a student into his study. He, of course, was waiting for her--maybe making sure to be alone just for her.

"Come in, Raven," he said, his eyes on some book as she as dropped the teenage boy's appearance and assumed the one she'd designed for him. He looked up as she took a seat. "Well. That's an interesting choice."

She'd put on her "Raven" body. Why not? He'd called her "Raven." She'd aged it, though, to remind him she was still his sister, that she, too, had lived through all these years, even if her cells didn't show it.

"Can you feel my heart?" she asked randomly, unable to slow the hateful pounding.

"I can feel it, yes, and I have to say your anxiety is entirely appropriate." His voice might be mild, but his stone expression was not like Charles, not even Charles angry.

"I left."

"Yes, I noticed. So you want to stay here?"

"Not long." She had a sudden apprehension that her face had come out wrong. It had been so long since she'd worn it, and never with the wrinkles. "Just a little while, to get a little time to think."

Charles shifted his chair about 20 degree toward her. "You know, staying in a house full of people who hate you might not be the setting most conducive to thinking."

He was right. She'd been an idiot to come, but-- "Isn't there a saying that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in?"

"I'm weighing that against rights of the others not to have their home invaded by someone who manipulates them, kidnaps them, assaults them, and occasionally gets them killed."

"I am so sorry about Jean." She blurted it almost before he had finished.

He peered at her. "Well, that makes it all right then."

"I really am. I know the words are stupid." She swiped a hand across her cheek, a little surprised there were no tears; she could have sworn they were coming, for first time in years. "I don't know what happened--I mean what happened to me. I've been thinking and thinking, and I just don't know. I guess, by the time we got out to the lake, I was spread pretty thin. It was purgatory spending all those months as Kelly, without Erik, not even knowing where he was or if or when I'd see him again. Then, when I finally got him out, he barely said hello to me; it was just off to the next crisis, and I guess I just wasn't thinking clearly."

His face was so still, it might have been paper mâché. Only his eyes narrowed a little. "I don't know where to begin." He broke off, stared. After some awful stretch of seconds, his face twitched. "If this is the sort of drivel you've come to spout at me, get out of my house."

The tears did erupt then, chopping her up like asthma. "I don't know where to go! In here." She stabbed a finger at her head. "I don't know what to do." More than anything, she wanted him to hug her like he used to--twenty years at least since they'd made that pretense at staying family. He was looking away. She tried to get herself in hand, wiped her eyes, kept half-hiccuping. "Is Jean really still alive?"

Charles made no answer, but as she watched him, his face crumbled in.

"I really am so sorry. I'm so sorry for all of it."

He smiled marginally and made a helpless gesture.

"God, how you must miss her."

Dumb thing to say, but it cracked him open. His shoulders shook, his face unreal as an old theatrical mask of misery. She scooted her chair to his side and put her arms around him, scarcely remembering to be surprised when he hugged her back. After a while they withdrew, sitting side by side, chair facing chair, in their own inviolate worlds.

"There was a line somewhere," she said quietly. "I don't know where, or when I crossed it. I know--I'm sorry--but I know Erik's not wrong; he's not wrong there can't be peace. Your vision is beautiful, but it's about as feasible as utopian socialism. It's against human nature, Charles. You can't fight human nature."

He looked at her, saying nothing.

"But there are some things--no matter what the reality is, no matter how vital the goal is--there are some things no one should do, and I've done a lot of them. I don't know where the line is. I don't know how I could have left you in that place. I figured they'd rescue you but--I'm sorry."

After a moment, he said, "You're lucky Logan's not here. He would almost certainly kill you. Scott would very much like to, but him, and the others, I think I can reason with--if you stay out of the way and don't stay too long."


Erik gave Mystique a few days, then followed her to the school. Pyro, having just escaped it, had no desire to return, so Erik left him with some associates, less from fear he'd get in mischief than fear he would get lonely.

Entering Charles's establishment, of course, was not so straightforward. Mystique, no doubt, had disguised her way in, but Erik didn't have that luxury. Finally, as much as he favored the theatrical flair of an unannounced appearance, prudence made him phone ahead.

"I'm coming to visit, Charles," he said. "And if I end up lasered in half, I will be very incensed with you."

"I'll see to it no one lasers you," said Charles and hung up on him.

At the gate, he took off his helmet and, his presence thus announced, was met by Scott (Precision planning, Charles, to deputize Scott), who glared out of his Cylon eye and managed to escort him up the drive in silence for approximately twenty seconds before coming out with, "One of these days, I'll eviscerate you."

"That's the spirit," said Erik dully in what was probably some attempt to quote Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. Whatever it was, it fizzled.

As it happened, the one who couldn't refrain from nudging her powers against him was Storm. It was a token resistance, an atmospheric crackle, a little shock through his fingers. He barely saw her walk past, ghostlike.


Raven ("Raven"?) was in Charles's study--perhaps prudently afraid to venture much of anywhere else--and despite himself, Erik was impressed. She'd put on the old disguise she used to wear as Charles's sister, but it took him a moment to recognize it because she'd aged it up. She made quite an elegant sixty-five, character lines accentuating her bone structure, gray hair swooped in a loosely pinned swirl, a figure improbably exquisite in a lacy white blouse and jeans. It was a politic move. Though everyone surely knew who she was, she knew better than anyone that appearances swayed. I come as Charles's sister, she was saying, and her worst enemies couldn't help but be mollified, if only a little.

"You've outdone yourself, my dear," he said sincerely.

Charles pressed her hand. "Raven, Erik and I have some things to discuss."

"Yeah." She got up and brushed past them. "Good luck with that."

He spent the next six hours having the most difficult conversation of his life. It boiled down to Charles, in his most sermonizing voice, reiterating a thousand different ways, "You left me to die; you let my child die; you left me to die; you let my child die; it is only the sheerest good luck--for you--that she probably isn't really dead." It came to him he had never seen Charles enraged until now. His rage was cool and poisonous as an adder in the shade of a rock. And this, moreover, was rage already significantly softened: Good luck for me if she isn't dead.

Erik figured he contributed about 40 percent of the dialogue, but he couldn't for the life of him keep track of what he said. There was something about "desperate times," and a certain recurrence of "I'm sorry," which he was: he'd been angry; he'd been raw from months in prison, months of drugs; he'd seen a chance to end the problem once and for all; he'd taken it. He'd assumed Charles's children would save him; they always did. But the truth was he had barely cared. He'd been so angry at Charles, so angry at all of it. And he'd left him helpless and out of his mind, left him to die. He'd let Charles's child die. There were also sandwiches, though where they appeared from he couldn't say.

At some point, he thought he said, "I'm tired," or something along those lines, or maybe he'd thought it. With Charles, it could be hard to tell.

Then, Charles was by his side, arms around him. Erik clutched the fabric of Charles's jacket and let his forehead sink on his shoulder, which smelled more of Tide than it used to.

"You can stay the night," said Charles in a distant tone that clearly appended, not with me.

"How certain are you she's alive?"

Charles hesitated. "I'm certain her presence persists somehow. How much, in what form, it's hard to say. But I think that she'll return to us... in some way. I have no choice but to believe in that."


Raven lay half asleep in bed, the other half anticipating the click of the lock. When it came, she opened her eyes on the nightlight gleam from the hallway. The bedside lamp snapped on as Erik creaked in, old and wrung out, as he'd been when he met up with her after his prison break.

If it pleased him to see her in her real form, he didn't acknowledge it, just dropped his backpack on the floor, stripped down and shuffled into an old t-shirt and sweatpants. Like a stone tumbling into a gully, he rolled into bed and lay still. She watched his back, waiting for the light to go off. When it didn't, she pressed the switch and lay back, too much reminded of that night they'd camped by the Blackbird, the night he had frightened her with his mortality.

He could pretend to the others that he was, as ever, invincible Magneto. He could even arrest the plane in the arc of its descent. (He saved them that night, at least, Charles.) But the bags around his eyes and the slump of his shoulders told her how much Stryker had taken from him.

She'd felt like she was going to explode that night. Charles was right to castigate her for whining about it, but the fact remained: she'd been pushed to her limits. Her skin had crawled as it always did when her mind was too exhausted to hold her thoughts steady. Everything scattered like sand: her mind, her skin, the sights before her eyes.

She'd come on to Wolverine disguised as Jean because she'd needed to touch someone. She hadn't imagined she could carry it off, and even if she did, she'd have been outed the next day, and the result would been the same. But his heat, for a moment--yes, his anger--that was solid. And in the back of her mind, he was a deeper solidity. He didn't age; he was almost indestructible, and the years were rushing by in time lapse. Erik would be dead soon, and Charles would be dead. The world she'd known would pass away--its good and bad and plain nostalgic. And she'd be left with those magic, regenerating cells Hank had admired so much. She needed someone there who wouldn't die, someone to whom she existed, even if he hated her. Give it enough time, and even hate comes around. Or that's what she'd been thinking. Before Jean at the lake...

That night by the Blackbird, after Wolverine had thrown her out, she lay on the grass and watched Erik sleeping, his breathing light and slow, his cloaked form heavy as a petrified log. It was nothing like the twitchy dozing that had so often woken her up through the years when they'd been stuck out in the open like that with enemies closing in.

He slept the same way now: exhausted. Spent up.

Irreplaceable.


He awoke in the night, fuzzy and less headachy. His hands found her, then his mouth and all of him. Wordlessly, she wrapped him in her unchanging softness. They made love with a simple, quiet urgency that blossomed out of the blind dark. It pleased him to think that Charles could feel him taking the woman that Charles had given him. It was so similar to his first time with her it threw into stark relief the past one hundred times.

At some point, their vocabulary had shrunk to two languages: work and games. Sex had been one of the games, a series of polished techniques whose object was to prove proficiency. Nakedness, he reflected, could be its own armor. He remembered that scene in Histoire d'O when she'd entered the party naked and shaven and pierced, self-encased as if in iron. How long had it been since they'd touched unarmored by the light?


In the morning, she put on her "Raven" body as a sign of truce with Charles and maybe because when she looked at the mirror, she hated the blank, remorseless blue that looked back. She watched Erik don his own costume: knit trousers and sweater, like an old, retired man. This, too, must be a token of truce. She doubted, for him, it meant anything else.

They decided to stroll the grounds, well away from the children. But to get outside they had to walk the gauntlet of the mansion. They passed Scott on the stairs, which could not be coincidental; he must be keeping a watch on them. His hand twitched as they went by as if to say, "All I have to do is shift my glasses a fraction, and I'd never have to deal with either of you again."

In the kitchen in pursuit of cereal bars, they ran into Rogue, who glared at Raven with much the same teen hatred as Pyro--amazing really to see such venom pouring out of that kiddie-round face. It came as no surprise that Raven was the central object of Rogue's wrath. Yes, it was Erik who had almost killed her, and maybe both of them equally to blame for what had happened at the lake, but Raven, in her boyfriend's shape, had told her no one wanted her and she was all alone. Rogue had fallen exquisitely into that trap, of course. Misfit adolescence was a melody Raven could have plucked in her sleep these fifty years.

Erik did his usual thing. "You've changed the style of your gloves, I think. The green is very becoming."

"Just be glad I'm not taking them off." Rogue never took her eyes of Raven.

Erik laughed, reaching for a cereal bar. "Well said."

"I don't care if you think so."

Raven got up and went out, thoroughly sick of his repartee. At the front door, the little kids scattered before her, and that was the saddest thing of all. She made a bee-line up the hill, opposite the road, conscious at some point of Erik behind her.

At the ridge line, she turned and waited for him. For a while, they surveyed the sweep of the lawn below, the morning already warming.

"So have you come around to Charles's view?" he asked casually.

"No." The question made her angry--no, it filled her with conviction: she found the two hard to tell apart. "Erik, you've always been right that mutants and humans cannot live together. There will be war or chaos or some bloody thing that will end in the extinction of one branch or the other. That's just a fact--like global warming." She started walking the ridge, and he fell in step beside her. "Charles certainly hasn't done anything to prevent it. Though he may have outstripped us in preparing for it. But that's the thing. None of our big plans ever work; people get killed--"

"And yet you say that having thrown away our trump card in the Senate? It's a bit much, wouldn't you say, to expect a plan to work if you don't execute it."

"Senator Kelly was not going to change the world. In fact, having alienated most of his constituency, he wasn't even going to win the next election."

"Mystique." (She didn't want that name right now. Mystique was a psycho with an impenetrable face, who got off on beating people up. Mystique was the mask Magneto wanted her to wear.) "These operations rarely take the form of a single definitive strike. They're an accumulation of particles: ideas, resources. You should know that."

She sighed. "Our accumulation of particles is... insufficient recompense for the cost." She wasn't sure where she'd got those words; they weren't like her. But, then, what was? Mystique never said anything. She just leered and smacked people. Maybe Charles had put it in her head. No, if Charles had wanted to play that game, he'd had decades of opportunity. "I don't want to go on making enemies among my own people just to get nothing done."

She could feel him marshaling his rebuttals, his list of their achievements, but he said merely, "Capitulation is hardly a solution."

"No," she agreed.

"So if you're not with Charles and you're not with me, what exactly do you propose to do?"

"I don't know. I need to figure it out." They passed under the boughs of a maple; it seemed a gentle, momentary darkening of life. "I think I'll travel around a little, just people-watch, you know, see how things are. Charles said he might give me some coordinates to go recruiting."

"For the school?" A touch of genuine surprise.

"Well, he's not going to send me recruiting not for the school. Don't worry, Erik. If they don't belong, they won't stay. You know that."

He looked at her out of his aged face, with its crinkles round the eyes and fallen cheeks, a face with character. But his gaze was as blank as her own in the mirror. He didn't get it. She might as well try to teach a cat to fetch. And yet he was here--and in a corner of her head where she'd quartered off hope, that surprised her. What had he come for? How much had this wreckage transformed him too?

She felt a sudden tug, as if her bones were metal and he was drawing her in. The idea of setting off without him seemed impossible. It was different from those months as Kelly; he'd taught her how to do a job on her own. But to be on her own--her own, only determiner--she had no notion of where to begin. She put a hand on his arm. "I still love you, Erik."

She wasn't sure what she wanted him to say in return. It will be all right? We can still be together, even on different sides? Erik and Charles had achieved it. She swallowed a reflux of pure hot, jealous rage that Erik had accepted Charles's intransigence for decades, while she... she had given two-thirds of her life to him, just to be clacked at by his Newton's cradle the instant she got out of line. Damn, was it because she was a woman? Or was it just fair payment for having no backbone?

"I love you too," he said and kissed her veined hand briefly. Then, he started back down the hill, and she walked the ridge a while.