Actions

Work Header

The Emperor's New Clothes

Work Text:

Emma knows they have a problem ten minutes into the meeting.

They're speaking to a young mutant who can control water with his mind. It's a useful enough skill, one that might come in handy in certain damp situations, but she's more interested what she sees in his mind: seething hatred for humans, desire for power and revenge against those who have wronged him, yearning for a strong leader and fearless companions. He's perfect for the Brotherhood.

Erik says, "Will you join us?"

The young man opens his mouth to answer – and Emma sees, in his mind, a flash of what he imagines he will look like as a member of their Brotherhood, and she knows what he's going to ask even before he does: "Why are you dressed like that?"

Erik blinks. "What?"

The young man shifts uncomfortably. "The, er, never mind." He's got to be crazy, he thinks, and his thoughts are liquid and shimmering. Nobody dresses like that unless they're crazy. Or playing a joke. They must be playing a joke.

Emma sighs and reaches into his mind, erases the last half hour of his memory and puts him to sleep.

Erik glares at her. "What the hell did you do that for?"

Emma replies, "He wasn't right for our cause."

-

"I knew this was going to happen," Janos says. He throws himself onto an antique settee, tumbler of brandy in hand, and sighs with all the drama of one who can sigh hurricanes into existence. "I told you it was going to happen again. That's, what? Five? Six?"

"Six," Emma confirms. She has been taking more and more time away from the club and her business interests – curiosity is a strong motivator, and this Brotherhood is certainly curious - and the lack of progress is less than ideal. "There was the gentleman with the quills and the venom in Kentucky."

"Six," Angel agrees. She's been keeping a tally; she and Azazel have a running wager as to when the number of "thanks, but no thanks" responses will reach ten. There is a bottle of fine cognac riding on the outcome.

Emma and Erik have returned to the villa the Brotherhood is using as a base while it "gathers its strength," which is, as far as she can tell, Erik's code for "figure out what the fuck we're doing with ourselves." If he doesn't figure it out soon, Emma is going to steal his handful of followers from him out of shear boredom. But for now she's biding her time. She has seen the jagged corners of Erik Lehnsherr's mind; she's willing to hear his plans while he decides what to do next. (He does get some credit for not insisting on traveling about the world in a submarine. There is only so much overt phallic symbolism one can be expected to endure before mutiny becomes the only respectable option.)

But they have, yet again, returned from a meeting utterly empty-handed. It's remarkably difficult to entice new soldiers to their just and righteous cause of mutant supremacy when the only thing the potential recruits can think throughout the course of the conversation is, "I'm just not sure I can follow somebody who wears a silly cape – oh, shit, I hope the telepath didn't hear that."

Mystique says, hesitantly, "Maybe if we try talking to him again...?"

Emma arches an eyebrow. "Are you volunteering?" she asks.

"Um," says Mystique. She fidgets and looks very young beneath her blue skin. She still thinks of herself as Raven most of the time, but she has asked them to call her Mystique, and Emma won't begrudge her the chance to forge her own identity.

There is a pause while they all consider what happened last time Mystique tried to broach the subject of Erik's highly impractical wardrobe choices. Emma hears, loud and clear, from at least two of them, Maybe not.

"Exactly," Emma says.

"Perhaps we should try a more subtle approach," Azazel offers.

There is another pause.

"Such as...?" Angel ventures, and mentally, This ought to be good.

Azazel grins. Azazel is not known for his subtlety.

-

This is what happened the last time Mystique tried to broach the topic of Erik's unfortunate fashion choices:

Mystique had said, "It's just that you look so..."

"Conspicuous? Unusual? Different?" Erik had replied, voice dripping with scorn. "Do you think I should hide instead? Cower like an ordinary human in foul tweed and ill-fitting cardigans so nobody feels threatened?"

"...stupid," Mystique had finished.

Emma had to admire the girl's courage, if not her tactics, which were somewhat lacking in both finesse and the slightest possibility of success. Erik had bristled and narrowed his eyes; everybody else had nodded in agreement while trying to look like they weren't nodding in agreement, and also suddenly wondering just how much metal they had on and around their bodies.

Then Mystique's golden eyes had taken on a very pointed, very sly look, and she had said, "And, please, give me a break. Charles doesn't wear tweed because he thinks it makes him look human and harmless. He wears tweed because it helps him get laid. He used to have a scorecard for his ugly jackets to rate which ones had the most success."

At that point all of the cutlery in the kitchen had begun rattling in its drawers, and both Angel and Janos leaned forward eagerly to listen, as they did whenever Mystique broke out the embarrassing Charles Xavier stories. She seemed to have an endless supply, and even with the advantage of being able to read her mind Emma wasn't entirely sure if Mystique shared those tales of youthful indiscretion to reassure the others that Xavier was nothing to worry about, or if she shared them to remind them that he was the sort of man who could be arrested stark naked and falling-down drunk in the Trevi Fountain on his seventeenth birthday and somehow make the carabinieri and seventy-two wide-eyed tourists believe he was an objectionable American politician from Alabama rather than an English university student who had no idea that his underpants were draped over the nose of one of Oceanus's hippocamps.

Mystique went on cheerfully: "The best turned out to be this horrible brown smoking jacket with elbow patches and tobacco stains and yellow thread. That one rated the entire Oxford blue boat and half the Cambridge rowers a few years ago. You would not believe what you can do with--"

And that was when the medieval swords hanging for show above the villa fireplace had tied themselves into knots and began to glow a deep, menacing red. Erik strode from the room, his ridiculous cape sweeping behind him, and slammed the door behind him.

A second later, he had to open the door and slam it again, because he still hadn't quite got the hang of sweeping the cape all the way through the door before shutting it.

"So," Janos said a moment later, when the swords had stopped glowing and the echo of the twice-slammed door had faded, "what can you do with one young professor and a boat and a half of strapping university rowers?"

-

They make a plan.

They make a plan and, with the fortitude and precision of an underground organization that is most certainly someday going to do something besides consume alarming quantities of brandy while failing to recruit young mutant soldiers, they put it into action.

Azazel is in charge of Damage and Destruction. He is particularly well-suited to this task – no pun intended; Emma abhors puns – and takes great pleasure in teleporting Erik and his cape into puddles, gutters, swamps, garbage bins and, on one memorable occasion, a campfire, although that did have the unforeseen consequence of urging Erik to consider only fire-resistant fabrics for the replacement.

Janos helps where he can, though after the first half a dozen or so sudden windstorms shred the laundry drying on the line, even Erik becomes suspicious. It soon becomes clear to everybody that Janos talents are best employed in another aspect of the mission entirely: that is, Janos is a man who very much understands the cut of a fine suit, and so he and Angel embark upon the daunting and perilous task of persuading Erik to wear something else without letting on what they are trying to do.

"I swear he looked normal when I met him," Angel says. Emma glimpses a memory: Erik and Xavier side by side on a red bed in a red room. Angel winks at her, knowing full well that Emma has caught that flicker of thought.

Mystique is nodding in agreement. "There were even hats," she says. "Lovely hats. Stylish hats. I don't know what happened."

Emma has her own theories about what would convince a man who is perfectly capable of dressing himself properly to don an absurd costume that makes small boys in the street snicker, but she keeps them to herself.

The villa is soon bestrewn with tailored jackets and trousers, fine collared shirts and a dizzying selection of fitted turtlenecks. They avoid anything that looks too much like a military uniform and, at the other end of the spectrum, anything too suggestive of a more professorial style, but it seems to have little effect.

Emma does count a small victory when she catches Erik covetously eyeing a leather jacket and a fedora, but before she can suggest that he might consider pairing the hat with a pinstriped suit instead, he sees her watching and turns away.

"You are not as subtle as you think you are," he says.

Emma knows with perfect confidence that she is many times more subtle than Erik will ever suspect, but she only taps her finger on her glass and meets his gaze.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she says.

He isn't wearing his cape or helmet at that moment, but Emma doesn't need to see into his mind to know he's imagining the cape billowing impressively as he stomps away.

With Azazel in charge of Damage and Destruction, and Janos and Angel handling Replacement and Redistribution, that leaves Emma and Mystique to the far more problematic task of Redirection and Reeducation.

"This could be challenging," Emma says.

Mystique says, "Don't worry. I have an idea."

I look forward to it, Emma says, a careful brush of words and nothing more. Mystique doesn't object when Emma speaks to her telepathically; Trust me, she'd said, very early in their acquaintance, I'm used to it, and at least you aren't telepathically asking me to help you flirt with idiot co-eds from across the pub.

Emma finds it refreshing to converse with somebody who doesn't shudder at the slightest mental touch, and she never mentions that she can feel Mystique's guilt and doubt and flutters of fear, the yearning of a young woman who is fairly certain she's in the right place but not at all certain about the choices that brought her here, who is still trying to decide if she wants to shed her name as well as her past, who misses her brother terribly and fears that if she went back to visit she wouldn't leave again.

What Mystique comes up with for the Redirection and Reeducation phase of their plan is a vast and rapidly changing array of transformations of her own. Every time she steps out, every time she ventures to the store, every time she joins the others on a reconnaissance mission, she changes her skin two or three or four times, flashing with bewildering speed through an astonishing range of appearances. Tall and short, male and female, white and black and Indian and Chinese, ugly and beautiful, fat and thin, for two weeks she never wears the same skin twice, never shows the same face, never forges the same clothing.

"What the hell are you doing?" Erik snaps, finally, as Mystique is forcing Azazel and Janos to offer their opinions on which hairstyles are most suitable for the squat, round woman she currently resembles.

"Playing," Mystique replies, her plump pink cheeks dimpling as she smiles, but what she thinks is: sharpening my knives.

Emma raises an eyebrow at that – at both the choice of words and that Mystique chooses not to say it out loud – and Mystique sees her and shrugs.

"It's not a game," Erik says, but he looks more baffled than angry.

It is all Emma can do not to stab his currently unprotected mind with the force of his own ignorance, and even without looking she can feel Angel's concurrent mental eyeroll across the room. Erik is an intelligent man in many ways, but he truly cannot understand why a beautiful young woman whose body has always been a source of fear for her might not want to walk about naked for all the world to see.

Emma thinks, not for the first time, that the world would be a much better place if men weren't allowed to make any decisions at all.

"Fine, then," Mystique says, ignoring the confused disapproval in his voice. "I'm practicing." She thinks, I'm conducting an experiment, but wisely does not say that aloud either. "What people do and think around me depends on how I look. The details. You should pay better attention. We can use that to our advantage."

Erik makes a sound that isn't quite disagreement but isn't quite agreement either, and certainly isn't what he's truly thinking: but you're only a child, Raven, you're not a weapon, not you, not like that. He doesn't look at Emma but she feels the jolt in his mind when he realizes she heard. He leaves the room quickly, dragging an annoyed get out of my mind, Emma behind him with as much flourish as he normally trails his cape.

Mystique settles on a pair of frizzy braids beneath a babushka and turns in a quick little spin. "Well?" she says. "How do I look?"

Azazel replies, perfectly deadpan, "If I didn't know better, I would think you were my own grandmother."

Mystique laughs, bright and young and delighted, and spins again. Suddenly her skin is red and her hair is black, and she says, "I don't know if I can manage a tail. I used to try to turn into a cat, but I've never tried just a tail before."

Emma leaves the others daring Mystique to attempt ever more outlandish appearances and follows Erik into the room he's claimed as his study. It's small and dark, with only one window, and the former occupants of the villa ("Dead," Erik had said when they first arrived, and nobody had been foolish enough to ask how or why) have left shelves of tiresome law books and dusty tennis trophies behind.

Erik is lying on the leather sofa, long legs dangling over one arm, a bottle of whiskey and glass on the floor beside him. He groans and throws his arm over his face when Emma comes in.

GO AWAY, he thinks, and the words are gleaming and metallic in his mind, an alphabet of blades.

"You needn't shout," Emma says. She picks up the whiskey, seats herself at the absurdly large desk, and drinks straight from the bottle. "This is the point at which my governess would say, 'Let us discuss the lessons we have learned.'"

There's a snort of something almost like laughter, and Erik drops his arm and rolls his head to the side to look at her. He really is a terribly handsome man, Emma thinks. It's a shame about his personality.

"Let's not," he says. "Let's not discuss anything about this new and frankly quite alarming obsession with my clothes that you've developed."

But she can see his thoughts, and he is thinking about clothing, and about uniforms and armor and the disguises people wear, and he's thinking about what others see when they look at him, how long they have to stare to see the scared, screaming little boy underneath. Shaw only ever saw himself as a giant, as massive and inescapable as the sun, even when he was at his most petty and pathetic.

Emma knows she's being too gentle for Erik to feel her touch in his mind, but he scowls and says, "Stop that." This is why I wear the bloody helmet.

It's a lie and they both know it; their distrust is balanced and mutual. Erik doesn't know why she worked with Shaw, and Emma doesn't know why Erik left a friend paralyzed and bleeding on a beach without looking back. Some questions are best left unasked and unanswered. They both know Emma isn't the telepath he's hiding from.

But Emma only says, You might as well ask me to stop breathing, or stop using my eyes.

He doesn't flinch, but he looks away for a moment, and that's enough. Emma doesn't need to look into his mind to see that Erik Lehnsherr knows how to follow men, how to find men who don't want to be found, how to root them out of their boltholes and hiding places, and he knows how to threaten and frighten and kill them in countless painful and humiliating ways. But he doesn't know how to lead them, not yet. He doesn't know how to make them want to follow him.

Start with a less remarkable suit, Emma says. Less purple, perhaps. "You can always astonish them with your magnificent cape later."

There's another laugh, more from his mind than in his voice, and Emma takes her leave.

-

They travel to a prison in Texas to facilitate the release of a mutant with the ability to turn anything he touches into stone. Emma entertains herself by imagining what uses they could find for such a power and wonders if it works on particularly dull conversationalists.

After they've opened the poor fellow's by means of the judicious application of obfuscating daydreams for the guards and a rather inappropriately showy bending of metal for the bars, the man blinks at them in wonder and says, "But – how can you – but you look so normal."

That, Erik thinks, eyes flashing toward Emma from beneath his slightly old-fashioned but very dashing felted hat, is entirely your fault.

What he says aloud is, "Looks can be deceiving. Come with us. We can offer you so much more than an iron cage."

Emma offers the prisoner her hand. The man gapes at the diamond shape of her arm, gleaming and sparkling even in the grim light of the prison block. Then he smiles, and steps over the mangled bars, and Emma thinks that maybe now they can get to work.