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Hide a Hundred Girls in Your Hair

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A lifetime ago, there had been a canister of liquid nitrogen and a bouquet of roses in a classroom. Jean had dipped the flowers, one by one, then dropped the frozen flowers on the lab bench, watching them smash into tiny fragments of orange and yellow petals. She could still feel that terrible cold all the way through her body, holding her inert and folded like those frozen petals. Her muscles and brain and blood had slowed to nothing. She wanted to scream or escape or smash herself into pieces, but she couldn't anything other than wait in the cold and red-tinged darkness, neither sleeping nor waking, until she called herself back to the day.

Jean was surprised that surfacing didn't hurt, even as the light and air rushed at her. It had always hurt when she was a child, waking from her telepathic dreams. She gasped for breath and struggled to stay afloat in the chill black water of the lake. Her heavy leather uniform and boots dragged at her limbs and her long hair – longer than she remembered – kept wrapping itself across her eyes and mouth. The shore seemed very far away. The ripples she was making petered out long before they reached it.

"Grab the rope!" A woman's voice rang out and a splash followed. Jean kicked towards the sound, pushing her wet, clinging hair away from her face. With her vision cleared, she could see an empty plastic water bottle, the big gallon-sized ones people took camping. It was floating just a few yards away from her, a thin nylon cord tied to the handle. Jean grabbed the rope thankfully, not just because it would help her to shore, but because it was real, and didn't give way to her like the water and air.

"Got it!" She tried to yell back, but her throat was bone-dry, despite all the water she had swallowed. All that emerged was a hoarse whisper. Her rescuer must have seen or felt her grab the rope anyway, because she started hauling Jean towards the shore. Jean relaxed her body – just as she'd been taught in the endless safety drills with the X-Men – and concentrated on keeping her face out of the water. The sun was shining low through a gap in the mountains encircling the lake and everything gleamed golden, though the light brought little warmth. It was dazzling, after being in the dark, but thinking about that past darkness hurt Jean's head more than the sunlight could.

Jean's trailing knees and feet brushed against the pebbled bottom of the lake and she staggered to her feet in the water, gravity pulling at her so hard that she stumbled twice before securing her footing. She held onto the rope, even now, and her rescuer reached out a hand to help her the final few steps onto the rocky, sandy shore. She tried to catch Jean as Jean's knees gave way, and both of them ended up sitting on the ground. The woman seemed vaguely familiar, someone she had met in passing, not one of those Jean held safe in her heart. The rescuer was a tall, fair-skinned woman of about Jean's age, with an athletic build, in sturdy clothes – hiking boots, shorts, a sweater. Her dark hair was tied in a rough ponytail and her skin was scratched and slightly grimy. She looked like someone who hadn't seen hot water in a week or so.

"Are you okay?" The woman seemed concerned but surprisingly calm, considering that she'd just pulled a leather-clad woman out of a lake.

Jean peered at her. "Do I know you? I think I know you." Her voice was still raspy, but now the woman was close enough to hear.

"Yes, you do. Are you in pain? Cold? Hungry? I've got a fire going." She took Jean's smooth hand in her own calloused one and pulled her to her feet. "Come on."

Jean followed her a dozen steps off the shore, her water-logged boots squelching. They walked up the low grassy bank, where there was a small fire burning brightly in a ring of stones, and a one-person tent set up past that. Jean knew she was staring, but it didn't seem to matter. She still felt terribly cold, her limbs stiff and slow to respond, but she wasn't shivering. Her medical training tried to alert her to the fact that this was a bad sign, but her lethargy overwhelmed the alarms. The fire looked wonderful, though. She let go of the other woman's hand and crouched down beside it.

"Wait –" the woman called, but it was too late. The fire went out the moment Jean reached a hand towards it. Even the coals had gone cold and black.

She turned to the other woman, who looked cranky rather than shocked. "Why did that happen?"

"Don't worry, you'll feel better soon." The woman walked to the other side of the little tent and hauled back a big, plastic-coated solar battery the size of a gas can, a smaller version of the ones they'd kept as emergency backup at the school. It had a handle on the top, but it was awkwardly placed, and the battery kept hitting against the woman's legs as she walked.

"Here, let me help." Jean got to her feet, feeling a little warmer and more lucid than she had a moment ago. Her limbs were still stiff, though, her muscles aching as she tried to unfold them. The woman was trying to help her, she could see that, but she felt like other people should be here, waiting for her on the shore.

The woman put the battery down and backed up a few steps. "It's all yours."

Jean reached out her hands to pick up the battery, and warmth raced through her, not shattering her but flowing through her veins like sweet sap. Every molecule of her body was waking up and calling out. It took a good few minutes before the rush died down enough for her to speak again.

"You know what's happening, don't you?" Jean's hair was dry now, and she ran both hands through it, pushing it away from her face. Her uniform was dry, too, and even her toes were warm. It felt like they hadn't been warm for millennia. "Mystique. You're Mystique."

"Call me Raven, please. Mystique is gone."

Jean knew that Raven had lost her mutant power – although she didn't know how she knew – but that air of tremendous confidence had gone nowhere. Raven's body language hadn't changed – she walked as carefully and gracefully in her ugly hiking boots as she had in her bare, scaled feet. Jean had never once seen Raven less than pristine, though, in any form. It was strangely intimate to see her pink, slightly dirty knees peeking from beneath her khaki shorts, her short fingernails broken and her hair clean but flyaway and flat because she'd washed it with soap. It didn't feel at all strange that she was here, though Jean was still sure that Raven wasn't the only one who should be here.

Raven took a small shovel from beside her tent and cleared out the ashes of the dead fire. She looked up at Jean. "If I light another fire, are you going to eat that one, too?"

Jean shook her head automatically. "No... I... I ate it?"

"You were cold and hungry. Now that the fire is out and my solar battery is empty, you're fresh as a daisy. Put it together." She took sticks from a rough pile at the edge of the clearing and started rebuilding the fire, neatly and competently.

Jean handed her more wood. She knew that Raven was an opportunist and a liar, but also that Raven was not lying now. "You seem very calm about all of this."

"I came to find you, didn't I? I can't be too surprised that I succeeded." Raven's voice was casual and her posture relaxed, but she was keeping at least her peripheral vision fixed on Jean at all times. Her blue eyes were just as guarded as her yellow eyes had been.

"This is Alkali Lake, isn't it? The mountains seem familiar, and this must be where the dam broke." Jean looked around at the mountains. The sun glowed from behind one of the peaks, now, and the campsite was already much colder without the direct sunlight. Jean's uniform would keep her warm, though, now that it wasn't soaked with the deep, cold waters of the lake.

"Bingo. What can you remember?"

Jean closed her eyes for a moment. "Pressure. Fire. Waiting. Did the Blackbird get away?"

"Yes, you saved them." Raven flicked a match into the kindling, and tiny sparks twisted around the edge of the pile, fascinating and bright. "Jean! Look away from the fire, Jean."

Jean shook her head, feeling like one of her students, and looked down at her feet instead. "Sorry."

"Just give the fire a chance to get started. It might be summer, but it gets cold here as soon as the sun goes."

"Summer?" Jean stood up and walked a little way back towards the lake, away from the tempting lick of fire. She stretched her arms out like wings, feeling her strength returning as the stiff muscles unfroze from the positions they'd held for...how long? A long time. The setting sun flickered over her hair, and she toyed with a long dark strand. It had been short, when she entered the lake, dyed a brighter red than this. Her subconscious or whatever had shitty taste in hair colour. This looked like it had been dipped in blood.

She looked back over her shoulder. "Raven, why are you here? Not Scott or Ororo? Or even Logan? Can't the Professor find me?"

Raven stood up, the fire now well alight, and joined Jean at the shore. Her voice was tense, but surprisingly gentle. "Are you asking me because you don't know, or because you don't want to remember?"

"I don't know." The moment Jean spoke, she realised that she did know – her family was no more. The constant warm hum of their presence, near or far, was gone entirely. She didn't know if they were dead or alive – or if that even mattered – but they were no longer hers. Jean stretched her arms out again, more awkwardly, then twisted her hands together, and caught Raven watched her closely. "Stop staring at me!"

"Okay." Raven walked away in instant obedience, then shook her head, turned and glared back at her. "Don't start with the telepathy again. I don't need that."

Jean blushed. She hadn't accidentally commanded anyone since she was a teenager. Glancing around, she could see the other embarrassing evidence of her teenage lack of control – random objects were starting to float. Small stones were spinning idly in the air, flecks of sand and water orbiting them like oddly shaped moons. She took a deep breath and thought back to the Professor's lessons: stay calm, let everything return to where it wants to be, gesture if it helps. She reached out a hand and gently pushed downwards, letting the stones fall back with their fellows.

"You stopped it!" Raven was grinning broadly and Jean smiled back, even though she wasn't a silly teenager anymore, and shouldn't be proud of correcting the telekinetic equivalent of bedwetting. Raven's delight was so clear, though, that Jean couldn't help herself. She ran the few steps over to Raven and high-fived her, suddenly giddy with success.

Jean caught Raven's arm, buzzed from the contact. "Hey, do you have any food? Real food, I mean, not batteries and fires." Maybe real food would feel this way, too, connected to reality rather than floating away, back into the dark.

"Of course I do. I need to eat, too." Raven hastily pulled her arm away from Jean's grip and strode back up to the campsite. "There's bears around here, though, so don't leave scraps out."

"Bears?" Jean paused for a second before following. She already knew there were bears here, that they were heavy and velvety warm and rich with life. Something tiny brushed against her hand and she glanced down to see hundreds of dead midges plummeting to the ground, all around her. She shook her head to get the tiny black corpses out of her hair, then ran after Raven.

Raven was placing a steel pail of water on the fire. "Since you put out my last fire, I don't have much in the way of hot coals yet. This could take a while."

"Sorry." Jean tried her best not to stare at the fire, no matter how enticing it was. "What are you cooking?"

Raven waved a sealed plastic pouch at her. It was labelled as chicken curry, and Jean's stomach growled. Raven laughed and threw her a chocolate bar.

Jean caught it gratefully and tore off the wrapper. The chocolate tasted good, even as it felt like paste in her mouth. It was nothing like the rush from the solar battery. "You had to bring all your food with you? Can't we catch fish or something?"

Raven sat down cross-legged near the fire, and patted the ground, inviting Jean to sit with her. "Did you see any fish in that lake? Can you hear any birds? There's nothing alive around here that's more complex than a very small insect."

Jean sat, and gave Raven a few squares of the chocolate, less hungry now. "Apart from you and the bears."

"Those bears have no danger sense."

"Oh." Jean finished her snack and dropped the wrapper in the flames where it twisted and melted. "Are you missing your danger sense, too?"

"I'm doing better than the bears, so far." She paused and looked sideways at Jean. "Or anyone else."

Jean pressed her lips together. "That's why you brought the battery." She could feel the spaces around her – Scott, the Professor, a tide of angry bodies, midges, a bear and her cub – but they didn't seem real. They were just memories, wrappers empty of anything they had been.

Raven put an arm around her. "Hey. Don't cry. You didn't mean to hurt anyone."

Raven's arm was heavy and real, unlike the tears that evaporated from Jean's face the moment they trickled from her eyes, and Jean turned her face to press against Raven's breasts, firm in her sports bra under the rough wool of her sweater. Raven put both arms around her and Jean's tears soaked into the sweater instead of evaporating. It was strange how much better it made her feel, leaving those tiny damp spots. She felt anchored in the world, just as she had when she grabbed the rope Raven had thrown her in the lake, solid and real. "I don't want to hurt people, just to survive. But I have to live. I can't not live."

"It's okay." Raven held her firmly, rubbing a small circle on Jean's back. "You're learning. You don't have to do everything all at once."

"Can I put it back how it was?" Jean clenched her fists in Raven's sweater and thought about expanding into those hollow spaces, filling them with light and life.

Raven shook her slightly. "You're glowing, Jean. Maybe you can fix them, but not right now. You don't have control. But you'll get there."

Jean took a deep breath and relaxed her hands, pulling the energy back into herself, just as she had quelled the floating stones. Raven was right – even thinking about doing something constructive was making her chilled and tired. Raven said that she was learning, and Jean felt the truth of that, of everything Raven said. It was strange to return to something close to her wild abilities as a child, rather than the neat, practical powers of her adult life. She could tell truth from lies, she could lift any number of individual objects without even thinking about it, she could reach out without reference to distance or time and know that the Professor was nowhere to be found.

"Yes, I'm telling the truth," Raven muttered dismissively, as if they'd had this conversation before. "I don't have any reason to lie." She tried to push Jean away, but Jean clung tight.

"Don't leave me."

"I'm not going anywhere. I'm just putting the curry in the pot."

Jean didn't let go. The thorny tendrils of her power were clinging to Raven, now. Raven wasn't lying, but she wasn't saying everything, Jean was sure of it. "What are you not telling me? Why are you here?"

Raven stopped trying to pull away. "If you calm down, I'll tell you."

"Tell me!" Jean felt the uncontrolled rush of her power shoving at Raven, both physically and mentally, sending Raven sprawling on her back on the ground. Raven started crawling backwards towards her tent, but Jean was on her feet, suddenly, her long fingers spread out to stroke the energies connecting them, holding Raven in place. The fire spat out one ferocious flare then went out.

Raven tried to keep her mouth shut, but she had been commanded, and she couldn't stop herself. "You killed mutants to eat their powers. I'm not a mutant anymore, so you don't try to disintegrate me on sight." She snapped her teeth together, but still couldn't stop talking, spitting out words. "I wasn't lying to you. You can tell if I lie."

"How do you know so much about me? Tell me!"Jean crouched close, cutting off Raven's attempts to struggle upright. The sun had vanished behind the mountains and the fire was gone, but Jean glowed red and gold, casting her light on Raven's dirt-streaked face. Jean leaned over Raven and put a hand on her forehead, pushing her backwards into the dirt, drawing strength from her resistance. "Tell me how you know!"

"Because..." Raven was straining now, her neck tendons standing out in an effort to keep her jaw closed, her whole body shivering as Jean glowed brighter. "Because we've done this every few days for two months now."

Jean blinked, and Raven used that instant of distraction to bring up her right arm with all her strength and slam her shovel into the side of Jean's head. Jean felt the heavy impact but it was not pain that froze her in place. It was cold, the inertia and darkness of that red-tinged place. No matter how much she wanted to reach out to Raven's warmth, to rescue and safety, she could only feel herself slide backwards into the dark.

 

Jean stared back at Raven, then blood bubbled from her mouth and she toppled sideways to the ground, the bright glow gone. Raven staggered to her feet and smashed the shovel into Jean's skull a few more times for good measure. With the daylight mostly gone, she couldn't tell what was dark red hair and what was blood.

"I thought you were getting better! Last time you went a whole day before trying to kill me!" She kicked Jean in the ribs. "Get past this, damn you! Mutants need Jean Grey, not a serial killer!"

Jean's corpse lay still for a moment, then slowly started to curl in on itself, assuming a fetal position, almost instantly as cold as if she'd been dead for hours. Raven sighed, and put down the bloody shovel. She was going to have to burn her clothes again, and she didn't have many more. She grabbed Jean by the armpits and hauled her down to the lake, walking backwards through the sand and pebbles, feeling her way through the dusk. Raven reached the shoreline where the tiny waves of the dead lake lapped, and rolled Jean's battered body into the water. As always, the lake glowed softly for a moment, then took her in. Raven washed her hands in the chilly, black water and pulled her flashlight from her pocket to make her way back to her campsite. One day Jean would emerge whole and sane, her hunger sated by what Raven had to offer, she was sure of it. But not today.