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Learning to Choose

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Emma holds the man still; Erik’s hand slices from left to right, with the knife in the air following its motion. The blood misses him and splashes across Emma’s diamond form. It pools at her feet.

Raven watches the crimson spread. It’s strange to see Emma in the middle of something so bloody. She drapes white silk around the small amount of skin she doesn’t leave exposed and there’s never a stain on her. She doesn’t get her hands dirty.

Raven asks, “Was that really necessary?”

Erik sighs and strides away. Raven has followed him halfway around the world and back, and if she had her choice again she would make the same one. Still, he’s not the man he was before. She supposes none of them are.

Emma looks after him. “They’re hunting us now,” she says.

“I know that,” Raven says.

“Erik thinks you have too much of Xavier in you.”

Raven scoffs.

Emma’s mouth twists up. “But we both know, don’t we sweetheart, that there’s only one of us spending the nights wondering what Charles Xavier thinks of him now.”

Raven doesn’t betray either of them by agreeing out loud. But Emma doesn’t need to hear the words spoken, and she has none of Charles’s reluctance in drawing them out. Emma thinks no more of pulling the thought from Raven’s mind than she did of holding that man still so Erik could slit his throat.

Emma has turned back to flesh now. She wipes away a remaining speck of blood from her neck. It leaves a red mark on her white glove. She frowns at it. “We can’t afford to show mercy,” she says. “No one will show it to us.”

 

* * *

If Angel was given another name at birth, she won’t reveal it now. Raven admires that, in a way. Raven is caught between the two/ten/hundreds of names she gave herself and the one she had been called when she was still hiding. She wonders if she will always be Raven underneath it all, with Mystique just another mask she wears.

Emma strolls casually out of her room, wearing what Raven now recognises as her ‘meeting contacts easily distracted by cleavage’ outfit. She throws a cape over the top of the ensemble and then taps her foot. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Raven says. “Maybe he’s still looking for his best fuck-me heels. Since that’s apparently the theme of the evening.”

Emma smirks. “That’s something I would like to see.”

“Explain to me how this helps?” Raven asks.

“Well.” Emma shrugs. “This is what we call using your assets.”

Erik appears at that moment, so Raven doesn’t get to say her piece. The two of them leave, and Raven looks over at Angel. “Sorry. I didn’t mean- you know.”

Angel rolls her shoulders back. “I know what you meant. But she’s right.”

Raven raises her eyebrows. Emma’s good to have beside you in a fight, but Raven’s not sure that she trusts a word the woman says.

Angel doesn’t blink. “Not about everything. But about that part, yeah. Why not?”

“She’s a telepath. She really needs to dress up like a cross between an ice queen and a…?” Raven doesn’t fill in the end of the sentence.

Angel clearly picked up the subtext anyway. She says, “You think Shaw would have let her anywhere near him if he knew what she could really do? Or those fucked-up army guys? Even Erik-.”

“What about Erik?”

“We didn’t choose the hands we were dealt, okay? Maybe if we could have, we would have asked for another go round. Some place where playing dumb doesn’t work as a disguise like ninety-nine times in a hundred.” Angel sighs. “You think I never wanted to be able to shoot fire or turn invisible or, hell, inflict really permanent dick-rot on some of those guys? But I have dragonfly-wings and acid-spit. I do okay with that. We’re all just making the best choices we can with what we’re given. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

“Look, you didn’t have a-.”

“Sure I had a choice. Like you had a choice to stay with Charles, keep playing the dutiful sister, keep playing normal. We chose this instead.”

Raven looks around at the cramped basement apartment they’re sharing this month. She thinks about turning aside Hank’s offer of the syringe, about the way she might have stayed with Charles all the same, if he had asked that of her. Or at least, she might have stayed with him for a little while longer. Somehow, she thinks she would have ended up on this side eventually. Even for her brother, she couldn’t have kept pretending forever.

On the other side of the wall, there’s a loud curse. Riptide must be beating Azazel at whatever invented card game the pair of them have come up with tonight. In the apartment above, the creak of bedposts sends plaster-dust fluttering down to them.
Raven supposes that this better be her choice, or she would really have to start questioning the hand fate was dealing her. “This is us doing okay?” she checks.

Angel smiles. “I’ll tell you a secret. Having wings is pretty cool.”

Raven holds out her hand, palm up. “And I like blue. So I guess we better keep doing what we’re doing.”

 

* * *

Raven wraps her arms around her knees. Angel’s hand slips into hers. She’s sitting beside Raven, not saying a word. It’s probably best – Raven’s pretty sure she would throw up if she tried to speak.

Emma frowns. “Your brother did you a disservice.”

“He-.” He had reached into her mind and twisted. Not just scanning surface thoughts, like every time he had promised he wouldn’t and lied. Charles had jumped into her thoughts and turned the one that he needed. He had made her raise her hand against Erik, ready to run him through with a forearms-length of broken windowpane.

“Not that,” Emma says dismissively. “Any one of us would have done the same. Erik had your little friend at knifepoint, if you recall.”

Erik had been holding all the weapons tight in the air; the knife had been an inch from Sean’s throat. She will forgive him for that before she can forgive Charles. He had promised.

Emma says, “He should have taught you better. There are defences against telepathy.”

“Even Erik can’t fight you off without the helmet,” Raven says, “and you’re powerful enough to keep Charles in stalemate. What makes you think-?”

“I’m not saying you could stop him. I’m saying you can make him work for it. He just waltzed right in, didn’t he? As though he owned the place.”

Angel answers, “And you think you can do something about that?”

Emma shrugs. “Possibly. It’s certainly better than sitting here moping, isn’t it?”

Charles had idly speculated once, during his interminable thesis revisions, that Raven might be able to use her abilities to fool a polygraph. She’s capable of regulating biological responses in ways she still hasn’t fully explored. But he had always been so focussed on her passing for normal that the hypothesis hadn’t gone any further than that. Thoughts aren’t biological in the same way; she has no idea where to start making her brain fire different pictures when Charles roots through it.

Emma flickers into diamond. “Picture a prism,” she says. “You can’t keep him out – that’s my trick alone, I’m afraid. But you can deflect him. Send him bouncing off in another direction, and give yourself some time.”

Raven doesn’t picture a prism. She pictures the shift of her skin, rolling pink into blue, scattering herself into a thousand pieces and rearranging them into something different.

 

* * *

Emma and Erik get themselves kidnapped. Or arrested, for values of arrest that do not involve handcuffs or badges but do include people throwing canisters of smoke into their apartment at two a.m. Everything happens quickly. They know what they’re doing; they know to incapacitate Erik first and Emma immediately after. Azazel grabs Raven from behind, wrapping one arm around her shoulders and reaching for Riptide with the other. “Angel!” Raven calls.

“Here, I’m here.” Her hand is folded around the bend of Raven’s elbow.

They flash away and tumble down in the dark somewhere else. “Where are we?” Raven asks.

Azazel shrugs.

Raven looks around them. This is clearly someone’s house. Granted, she can’t exactly be judgemental about breaking and entering, but it’s not safe. “Tell me the owners are on vacation or something?”

“There is no one here,” Azazel confirms.

“Good,” Angel says. “Great. Now what the hell happened?”

The others have as little an idea as Raven does. There was a noise, and smoke. Without Erik to point them in the right direction, Azazel had followed his longstanding instructions: if we’re found, get everyone else out. Someone had known they were in that apartment. Someone must know where Erik and Emma have been taken.

Azazel is no kind of leader and Riptide is worse. Raven sits across from Angel on a couch that was probably bought for the smiling family in the photograph over there. They stare at each other; Raven twists her hands together and tries to think.

Angel says, “You could call Charles.”

“Not yet.”

“You don't think he'd-?”

“He would. But not yet. Not until we know where they are.”

“And how d'you want to do that?”

Raven smiles, remembering. “We use our assets.”

Angel objects pretty strenuously to the plan, once Raven has explained it. But they don’t have any other option. Raven goes to a payphone and calls the FBI switchboard to ask for Agent MacTaggert. It takes her three attempts to get someone who will admit they have an Agent MacTaggert, and another two to convince them that Raven has information vital to national security.

Moira meets her in the park on a non-descript bench, with Raven wearing her best non-descript brunette body. Moira meets her eyes and nods. “Raven.”

“Hi.”

“I can’t say I was expecting you to call. And I don’t know how much help this is going to be. They don’t tell me much.”

“I would have thought you were exactly the person they would tell.”

Moira shakes her head. “You’d be surprised the effect being mind-wiped has on your credibility.” She smiles, a little, as though it’s a joke but Raven looks closer. Moira says, “You didn’t know.”

Raven takes a second to absorb the fact that Charles- that her brother has taken a slice of this woman’s mind. Not a moment, not ‘forget my face’, but enough that Raven is practically looking at a stranger. This isn’t a person who trained with her and fought with her. This is the person before. Raven takes a second to absorb this and then she’s done because Emma and Erik are still missing. She asks, “How much did he take?”

“I remember the attack on the base. I’ve read the reports about the rest.”

“He didn’t want you to know where they were.”

Moira taps her hands on her knees. “I think that was the reason, yes. Obviously I don’t remember. Flashes, but nothing that makes any sense.”

“Flashes?”

“I know the house is surrounded by trees. I remember- sitting with you kids listening to the radio in a room with huge windows.”

“Yes.” That would be something Charles wouldn’t think to erase. Charles had remembered the facts and the big traumas – he forgets the way other people hold small joys hidden close to their heart. Or perhaps he hadn’t thought that it mattered, leaving Moira these scraps. But Moira’s smart. She’ll put the pieces together sooner or later.

Moira takes a brown folder from inside her jacket. She slips it under Raven’s hands. “If we have them, this is where they’ll be. I don’t have anything more than that.”

“How did you get-?”

Moira’s smile is sharp. “I said they stopped telling me things. I didn’t say I stopped looking.”

“Moira. Thank you.”

“Good luck.” Moira doesn’t ask her to take a message to Charles, and Raven doesn’t reassure her that Charles will hate himself for what he did to her. It doesn’t seem to matter.

 

* * *

“You two find Erik, me and Angel will go and look for Emma.”

Emma?” Charles asks. Sean looks quickly at his feet.

Charles had come to meet them at Moira’s site without asking any more questions than ‘when?’ He only had brought Sean with him, leaving the others at the school, but they don’t need any more of an attack than this. The place hadn’t stood a chance.

Raven lets Riptide blast the guards away from them; Azazel stands at the fork of the hallway and picks off the stragglers. Raven can feel Charles glance across her thoughts. The question scatters off and deflects – Emma’s practice sessions must have done some good - and Charles won’t press harder than that this time.

“Yes,” Raven says. “Emma.”

“Raven, the woman is-.”

Raven looks at him. Emma has done a lot of terrible things, worse than Charles would ever contemplate. It’s just that she generally doesn’t do them to Raven. Charles has.

Charles sighs. “You know that I’m sorry about-.”

“Charles. Focus. Go and get Erik.”

He shakes his head, trying to clear it. “Yes. Yes of course.” He chooses the hallway on the left and heads away.

Raven thinks, for a moment, that Charles will leave her to find Emma alone. But he whispers in her mind, soft as if he is leaning over her shoulder, “End of the hallway, turn right, then left. Last door on the right. Be careful.”

She calls back, “I’m always careful,” just to hear his exasperated laughter. She is precisely as careful as she chooses to be. That’s what has always frustrated him.

Angel scouts ahead, hovering near the high ceilings. “This one?”

Raven taps gently on the door. “Emma?”

“Oh good.” A cough. “The cavalry.”

Angel rolls her eyes and burns the door open. “You rather we didn’t come at all? This is the second time we’ve busted you out of one of these places.”

“I would have rather you didn’t bring Xavier.” She looks at Raven. “Still. Help me up.”

Raven shifts to a form that better matches Emma’s height. She offers her hand to pull Emma to her feet, and then wraps her arm around the other woman’s waist. “All right?”

Emma looks at her. Her eyes don’t quite track right, like she’s been jabbed in the arm with something to make her tired. They don’t have a custom cell set up for her here yet. Emma says, “I’ll be better when we burn this place to the ground.”

“Can we just get you out of here first?”

“No. There are fourteen other mutants in this facility. One is a serial killer who probably shouldn’t be among the general population, although I’m not sure that anyone belongs in this place. Of the other thirteen, five would join us if we asked. The remaining eight could be persuaded.”

Angel coughs. “Your methods of persuasion or Erik’s methods?”

Emma glares. “Please don’t take Erik as a model. Everything turns into a weapon in his hands.”

“So what do you want to do?” Angel asks.

“I want to get them out of here. What happens after that is up to them.”

Charles meets them at the turn of the hallway. Erik is leaning on the back of Charles’s wheelchair; he looks far worse off than Emma did, but he is still standing upright. Charles says, “I’m taking Erik back to the school, just for tonight. Would you like to-?”

He doesn’t say whether he means all of them, and Raven doesn’t ask. She looks at Emma – bloodied and still swaying a little from the sedatives wearing off. Even without the diamond skin, her head is always held up high. She meets Charles stare for stare.

Raven says, “We have something to finish here. I’ll call the house in the morning to let Erik know where we are.”

“Raven.”

“Get home safely, Charles.”

When they are gone, Raven turns to Emma. “Which doors?”

 

* * *

Erik doesn’t intend to rescue people. It isn’t like Charles and the school, or the recruitment before that. Erik targets government facilities and prisons - rescues seem to be a by-product of that. Some of the escapees always end up sticking around, despite his frowns. And then he doesn’t know what to do with them.

“You’ve got to tell him,” Angel says.

“Tell him what?” Emma raises one perfect eyebrow.

“That we need a bigger place. Or another place, I don’t know. But we sure as hell can’t stay here. I’m pretty sure we’ve people sleeping in the bathroom at this point. You have to explain it to him.”

Emma is quiet for a moment, her hands folded together on her lap. “Three men,” she says, “and three women. But we ended up a ‘Brotherhood’ all the same, somehow.”

“What does that-?” Raven asks.

“It means that while I’m thrilled Erik decided to invite me into his boys club, I’m not under any illusions about what he thinks of me. With or without the helmet on.”

“So?”

“So I don’t think the nice approach is going to work here. We have to make him listen.”

The matter is complicated when they find the girl. Anna Marie is small and frightened and all alone in the world. Raven pushes the girl’s hair back, careful not to accidentally brush against her skin (Riptide had learnt that lesson when he caught her arm and she sent back a whirlwind to push him away). Raven tells Erik, “You said we would form our own society.”

“We aren’t babysitters, Raven.”

“So what are we? An army? We need to be something more than that.”

She knows that she’s talking into the wind. Erik doesn’t want to look that far ahead: he’s ready to tear this world down but he hasn’t come up with a replacement yet.

Erik says, “We are. We will be.”

Angel puts her hand on Raven’s shoulder. She looks at Erik. “Let’s prove it then.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Not just the mutants who can fight. Not just metal-masters and telepaths and shape-shifters. Just mutants.”

“Mutants, yes,” Erik says. “But not children.” He looks at Raven, trying to reason with her. “I can take the child to-.”

She knows he’s been with Charles recently. She knows that it’s not just Charles and the boys now; she has visited the school too. Raven saw Jean and Ororo, and she knows that Erik helped to find Jean. It’s undoubtedly safer for a child to be at a school in Westchester than to be following around after the government’s most-wanted.

“No,” Raven says.

“Mystique.”

“Charles- Charles loves me, and he tried, but he never understood. He did that- and I’ve forgiven him for it. Because I love him too. But this girl, with what she can do? She should be with us. I don’t ever want her to be ashamed of who she is.”

Erik rubs his shoulder. He looks at them ranged: Raven with Anna Marie’s small, gloved hand held in hers; Angel with her arms defiantly folded; and Emma staring right back at him. He rolls his eyes. “Fine. Do what you want.”

Emma smirks. “Oh, we will.”

“Come on.” Raven tugs at Anna Marie’s hand. “We have an awful lot to show you.”