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Nine Eleven Ten

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The days were getting shorter, the nights becoming even colder, when the time of the Chosen came round again.

Charles Xavier, youngest ever admitted to Oxford Before, head teacher-in-residence After, cast his thoughts across the frozen field. Pale gold leavings of hay, silver frost, a cold cloudless sky and the waning moon only just visible in the growing daylight. His mind flew like a bird. Bright needle in a haystack; where was she? It was almost eight, and well past time for them to start walking.

Come home, come home. Raven, Raven fly away home – and then ...

“There you are.” He smiled at the feather-light touch, the flashes of hello – love – and the flickering image of a creek bed flashing by. “Hurry up please - it's time. If we’re late, they’ll notice. You know that.”

It didn’t take long for him to hear the crunch of boots, running across the field. His sister was laughing - her hair streamed out behind her as she ran toward him. She thumped the fence as she came through the gate and a row of birds scattered into flight, calling and croaking in protest.

“Ravens! How many, Charles? Quick – count!”

It was easy enough to see them spiraling skyward, black against pale blue – far easier, though, to brush them with his mind. Crystal stone skipping over water. “Seven – eight? No. Seven.”

“Seven is a journey.” She caught her breath, grinned, and then put one gloved hand into his. They started walking.

“Don’t tell me you still teach that rhyme.” Charles smiled, watching his words puff white in the air. “The children take the silliest things quite seriously indeed.”

“One for bad news, two for mirth, three is a wedding, four is a birth,” Raven chanted. Then she shrugged. “I like it, and so do they. And with classes just starting, I have to cheer them up somehow.”

“Why not the story of the ravens at the Tower?”

“Fine.” Her smile was wide, crinkling her eyes up at the corners. “That’ll be next week.”

“Next week,” Charles agreed.

He had tried to keep his voice light, but of course she noticed. He felt her hand squeeze his, hard.

“It’ll work, Charles. We’ve planned it, we’ve practiced it, we’ve gone over it a hundred times. It worked already. It’ll work again.”

He squeezed her hand back. It worked already. The Takers came once every three years. His powers, even kept dampened - every hour, every day, always - had been enough to shield her from their notice. They had come to the school, they had performed their tests, and they had gone. Just his luck that she didn’t turn twenty-one for two more weeks. Why the hell couldn’t they have started with Cambridge this time?

He, of course, was exempt, being well over twenty-one. The standard assumption was that anyone over twenty-one and not Chosen was not strong enough to be of any ... what? Account? Importance? Use? He shoved the last thought aside; he knew his own use, teaching. Those not Chosen were either not strong enough or already in the grave. Life had grown exponentially more difficult since the war, and even leaving aside the first generation of deaths, there just weren’t that many people anymore.

Which meant fewer for the Takers, of course. Which was just as well, since ... once chosen, no Chosen was ever seen again.

None came back, from wherever they had gone. Almost nine years, now, of pouring drinks down strangers at the bar, winding strands of thought out of their minds with his, and he still hadn’t the slightest idea of what the hell the Chosen were chosen for –

“Hey.” Raven cuffed him on the shoulder. “Snap out of it.”

“Beg pardon.” Charles made his voice light, as he began the ritual that led off every hour of the day – check, dampen, veil – the image of veil after silken veil, gossamer-thin, floating down to shroud his mind. There would be no trace remaining of his call to Raven by the time they returned to Oxford.

Oxford. He had been a freak of nature, a wunderkind: devouring mathematics before he could read; reading the classics before he could ride a bicycle; memorizing Mendel by ten, Darwin by eleven. His parents had been overwhelmed with pride when Oxford had made a covert offer to have him start reading sciences there. The war had started not a year later. After, Oxford had tried to rebuild – in the neighboring villages, then gradually further afield. He taught a mix of everything, now; too much material for too few students.

He had found Raven on the first Oxford mission to London. He had been seventeen; she had been six. Charles had taught her to read, taught her maths. He had taught her to hide what she was, and to hide it extremely well.

And it was just as well that he had. The Takers had first come just before her twelfth birthday. He had been twenty-two. And now ...

One more Trial, and she would never need worry about them again.

“Bloody hell, Charles, you’ve a face as long as a wet week. Race you back!”

He couldn’t help the smile as he watched her run, her boots kicking up the gravel of the road. Twenty years old. One more Trial, and then they would be safe. Once more - and, speaking of which, it couldn't hurt to remind her of her name one last time that morning.

“Mallory!” he shouted. “Wait!”

Even with the veils, he could feel her laughing at the name, as she always did. This time with the image of a bird, flying bright and clear at the front of her mind.

Years later, Charles would remember that day. Sometimes he would wonder if he could have changed anything; other times he would despair over what he had since become.

But he would always hold the image in his mind: Raven, laughing, and his thoughts soaring alongside her on strong wings, silver-gold through the winter air. Once upon a time.

One for bad news,
Two for mirth,
Three is a wedding,
Four is a birth,
Five is for riches,
Six is a thief,
Seven, a journey,
Eight is for grief.
Nine is a secret,
Ten is for sorrow.
Eleven is for love,
Twelve – joy for tomorrow.

- Old English Rhyme -