The first time, she had been alone.
Once, when they were much younger, with that delighted, passionate curiosity in his eyes, he had asked her if she could do it. She had refused. The idea had made her uncomfortable, for reasons she had not been able to pinpoint, and she knew, even if he didn’t, that it would be uncomfortable for him too. He hadn’t asked her again.
She lay on the bed, in the still silence, the dim light of dawn picking out the features of her room; the gentle, almost pleasant sensation of her atoms rearranging themselves.
She ran her palms down her sides, over the fabric of an unfamiliar shirt, over newly narrow hips. Curious fingers across the flat belly, sliding lower, stopping short just below the waistband, sliding back up to safer areas.
She sat up, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed so she was facing the full length mirror against the wall.
She had given his form an outfit she knew – cream shirt, top buttons unfastened, dark trousers, even dress shoes – though the decision had been unconscious, drawn from some hidden memory. She stood, took a few slow steps towards the glass.
The walk was hers, too feminine, and the posture was hers as well, slightly uncertain and defensive. It looked so wrong on him, and she straightened, forced herself to relax, attempting to mimic his easy confidence.
Better. By the time she was close enough to reach out and touch the reflection the likeness was almost exact. She stared, fascinated by the accuracy, down to the few subtle strands of grey in his dark hair, the length and shape of his fingers, the exact curve of his mouth.
She mouthed a word, barely a whisper, and her brother in the mirror mouthed it back at her. She tried again.
And it was his voice, exactly his, sad and questioning. Completely unprepared for the painful wrench of sorrow and loneliness it provoked, she staggered back from the reflection, saw Charles’s hand fly to his mouth and tears spring to his eyes. The image flickered and in a moment the reflection was her own, jarred back into her natural form, hand still over her mouth, eyes scared and wet. She sat heavily on the edge of the bed, furiously blinking back the tears.
It was some time before the dull ache of longing in her chest fully subsided.
In truth, she had barely spent any time with him since taking his outstretched hand that day on the beach. It had promised so much, that moment. It had promised acceptance, she had thought. It had promised him.
She supposed this was a kind of acceptance. But it was a cold, lonely kind, joined to these people by what she was and not, perhaps, by who she was, though it was only now that she was beginning to suspect the two were separate things.
He was never Erik here. Most of the others didn’t know better, but even Angel, who had known him by his proper name, only ever called him Magneto. Raven didn’t call him anything at all.
She had gone to him one night, in desperation more than anything else, found him hunched by the window in his room, forehead against the glass, his pose stiff with hatred and sadness, as it almost always was now.
She had reached up and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“What is it, Raven?”
He hadn’t looked at her, but he hadn’t become angry at her either, which had been her main fear. “I thought you might want some company,” she had said, with all the quiet confidence she had been able to muster. Inside, she had been buzzing with nervousness.
He had inclined his face to her, slightly, and raised his eyebrows. “Did you?”
“Well,” she had said, forcing herself to keep going. “I wanted some company.”
He had turned to her fully then, placed his hands on her arms, warm and firm, and even that small contact, in months of nothing, was some comfort. He had smiled at her, but it was efficient, tolerant, without affection.
“I don’t have time for this,” he had said, with all the deliberate patience of a man explaining the rules to a child. “You should go.”
And she had gone, her face hot with shame both at having misread him so badly, and at giving in so easily.
Now she watched the reflection in the full length mirror, getting used to the several extra inches of height she had in this body. She flexed the strong arms, ran her fingers over the stubbled jaw. She walked right up to the mirror, blinked slowly, hitched the mouth into a small smile, tried to soften those hard, burdened features.
“Maybe in a few years,” she said quietly. There was no visceral reaction to hearing those words again, though she had been prepared for one. Instead she found there was something funny about them, stripped of their underlying arrogance, rendering them meaningless and silly. She laughed, Erik’s laugh, or something very like it; the light, amused laugh she had only ever seen Charles draw from him.
On impulse, she stuck her tongue out at the reflection, and it looked so ridiculous on Erik she couldn’t help but laugh again.
She took on his form regularly after that, playing with his expressions like a toy, until the initial sight of his reflection looking back at her no longer incited a spark of fear.
The second time, she was ready for it.
They had moved on after three months, with little warning, to a new residence. An abandoned military base of some sort, she had assumed, though was clueless as to which military it had belonged to, and when they had abandoned it. The knowledge was exclusive, and she was excluded.
She resented the secrecy, though she understood the reasoning. It was a matter of security; Erik wore that helmet all the time now, as far as she could tell. But if he feared Charles would raid her consciousness for their location, he feared needlessly. All sense of Charles’s presence had gone from her the moment they left the beach, and her mind had been cold with its absence ever since.
She had insisted on bringing the mirror, any objections waved away on the basis that she was taking nothing else. She had clung to it awkwardly with one arm as they transported, and it had survived the journey unscathed but for one thin crack that split the glass horizontally, about two thirds of the way up.
Now the crack dissected Charles’s reflection, just under his nose, and she ran a finger slowly along the length of it. “I don’t think of you that way,” she murmured, thoughtfully, and the pain of hearing his voice was even less severe than she had hoped. It was still there, pooled in her chest, mingled with sadness and resentment and pride and a thousand other feelings, but it was tolerable. She could look into his eyes, and rearrange her smile until it was recognisably his, without the threat of tears.
She flicked the crack with thumb and index finger, mildly disappointed when it didn’t split further. “Silly girl,” she said - Charles’s familiar quiet warmth - and laughed under her breath.
The third time, she did it in spite.
She hated it here, and though she had failed to develop a close enough relationship with any of the others to openly discuss it, she could tell they hated it too. The poky rooms, all cold, sharp edges; the oppressive, spartan deadness of the whole place. Some days she wondered if the deadness had rubbed off on her, that this was what being dead was actually like, buried, and absolutely alone.
She had thought Erik unaffected at first. He was not happy - she doubted he ever had been – but he at least always seemed focused. Planning. Constantly planning.
She had gone to him for comfort, nothing more. She knew there was something almost amusingly perverse about going to this man, of any in the world, for comfort, but the truth remained that of everyone available to her he was the one best able to provide it. She knew there would always be a tolerant look for her, a warm hand on her arm, if nothing else. Now, in this place, that was enough. And perhaps the loneliness of the base had seeped into him too, because this time the warm hand was on her cheek, and the tolerant look was replaced by a kiss.
Now. Finally. She slid her hands across his shoulders, the muscle there making her stomach flip with excitement. As he splayed his other hand firm on her back, she curled her fingers round the base of his neck, against the hard edge of the helmet. It fit tight against his head, but she managed to find some small space for her fingertips and pushed it up, just a fraction.
He shoved her away, shockingly fast. She stumbled back, almost losing her balance, reaching a hand out behind her and finding the wall there for support.
His hands were on the helmet, it seemed not so much straightening it as reassuring himself it was still there. There was a flash of something like fear in his eyes, though there was no evidence of it in his voice. “You should go.”
She was stunned. And, for a single brief moment, so brief it hardly registered, she found him pathetic. His fear – the cause of it, that he should feel it at all – was pathetic to her. It was a strange, unfamiliar cruelty in herself, gone as suddenly as it had appeared. But her patience had broken.
“What is it you want?” she cried, her voice cracking. She hadn’t moved, one hand still braced against the wall behind her. “I can be whatever you want!”
He took a step towards her, his expression unreadable, but froze as she shifted into Angel’s form. “Is it this?” she said, spitting the words in Angel’s confident twang.
“This?” Cool and derisive as Emma.
She had done it because she wanted to hurt him, and she knew it would. But she had not expected him to pale so visibly, like he had forgotten how to breathe, like his heart had stopped.
“Stop it.” His voice shook.
She pushed herself away from the wall and took the few short steps to reach him. She had Charles almost perfect now: the walk, the calm, questioning expression, it was all his.
Erik’s jaw was clenched. He was standing his ground, in the same way that a deer stands its ground when confronted with an oncoming vehicle.
She raised a hand to touch him, though she had not planned where or how, but before she could make contact Erik had gripped her by the shoulders and sent them both colliding against the wall, knocking the breath out of her.
His fingers dug tight into her arms, bruising through Charles’s shirt. He looked down at her, a slightly different angle than when she was in her own body, his face exhilaratingly close. His words ground out with audible effort. “Change back.”
She held his gaze, fascinated by the conflict there. She felt somehow protected by this body, and it made her brave. “This…is what you want?” she said slowly, quiet now, the curiosity in Charles’s voice a contrast to the strain in Erik’s. She shook her head, a light frown. “I didn’t know.”
He winced, as if the situation were causing him actual physical pain. “Don’t.”
She tried to imagine what it must be like for him. Whether his discomfort was because he had revealed this to her, or whether part of him was already fooled, despite himself, into thinking he had revealed himself to Charles. Because Erik can’t have told him, surely. Or what if he had told him, and been rejected? What if her words now had been exactly those Charles had uttered to him previously? How agonizing that would be for him.
She brought her hand up again to touch him, and this time he let her. She rested it high on his chest, fingertips against the bare skin at his collarbone, and his eyes squeezed shut. In a way, she thought, that made him easier to convince. If she was to betray herself it would be in her face, something not quite right in her eyes. But the voice was perfect. The voice could fool Charles himself.
She swallowed, resolved herself. Then, carefully: “I want this too.” It was not, technically, a lie.
Erik sucked in a tight, shuddering breath. If it was intended to steel his will, it seemed not to have worked, because when he opened his eyes he immediately cupped her face with both hands, a fraction too forceful, a little too desperate. “Please…” he said. The word caught in his throat, coming out broken.
She didn’t know what he was asking, or if he was asking her, or Charles. But it didn’t really matter. She blinked, slowly, and leaned into his touch with a kind of calculated neediness, and that was enough. He kissed her in a way he had never kissed her before, in a way she had never been kissed by anyone. There was a fierce, underlying violence to it that almost frightened her. It might have been too much, she thought, if she had been herself. But there was a strength and safety as Charles; a sense of control that kept her from crumbling.
The cold edges of the helmet scraped the bridge of her nose and made her flinch. Erik barely seemed to notice. When she pushed her fingers under the metal, attempting to lift it for the second time, he jerked out of the kiss, but not completely out of her grasp.
“Take it off,” she said, Charles’s voice imploring, but with a hint of a smile. “You don’t need it now.”
The way he looked at her was nearly unbearable, a mess of emotions. He swallowed thickly, but didn’t move when she established a better grip, her palms laid firmly on either side of his head.
She held his gaze steadily, unsure whether she could get away with further play-acting, unsure whether Erik would buy it. She searched for Charles’s guileless sincerity, for that particular expression he had that compelled you to trust him simply because of his absolute faith that you would. “It’s safe,” she said, her eye contact never wavering. “I’m here, and I won’t do anything.”
He knew, of course. She was playing a part. But perhaps he was playing a part too, because he didn’t stop her when she lifted the helmet, slowly, as if she might startle him out of submission, until it was completely free of him. She let it dangle from her hand for a moment before allowing it to drop to the floor. It had been heavier than she had expected, and it hit the ground with a dull, metallic thud.
Erik blinked, as one would coming out of a dark room into bright sunlight. His hair was plastered messily against his head, and she instinctively ran her fingers through it, pushing through the flattened strands from temple to nape. His eyes fluttered closed, then he tightened his grip on her waist and kissed her again. Unimpeded by the helmet, his touch was even more desperate, pressing her into the wall, stealing her breath. She held his face, gripped the short hair at the back of his neck, touching the parts of him he had kept hidden behind metal, hoping he would never hide them again.
Soon he was tugging her shirt loose of her trousers, skimming his palms tentatively across the skin of her waist. There was an air of reverence in his touch, and she felt a stab of jealousy. Bitterness washed over any sense of guilt, and made it easier to ignore.
When she dared press a hand to his crotch he was excitingly hard, and the effect of her action was immediate. He made a low, breathy sound in his throat, then took a fistful of her shirt where it hung loose and used it to yank her roughly away from the wall, turning her and walking her backwards towards the cold, featureless bed.
He was heavy on top of her, his hand inside her trousers, stroking one of the few parts of Charles she had never dared to examine herself when in his form. The physicality was different, of course, but the sense of arousal was not so unlike that familiar to her from her own body. If anything the pleasure was more intense, and relentless, building until she was breathless, until she wanted to tell Erik to stop, and to tell him never to stop.
He was rocking himself fitfully against her hip, and she was desperate to touch him. The second her hand found his belt, she felt his hand falter. He looked at her, their faces close. His hair hung messily over his forehead, and his chest shook with each breath.
She momentarily abandoned his belt to pull at his thin sweater, drawing it up to expose his stomach. Her breath actually caught at the sight. She flicked her gaze back up to his. “Want you.”
He sat up and allowed her to pull the sweater over his head. Hurriedly, and with slightly trembling hands, he unbuttoned her shirt, spreading his hands over the revealed skin. She found herself following his gaze down Charles’s chest, his stomach, the teasing half-exposed edges of his hips. She hoped Erik wouldn’t notice.
Erik unfastened his own belt, and Raven did not touch him until he lay beside her again. When she did, with a hand that was not her own – a hand larger, stronger than her own – wrapping around his cock, he moaned into her mouth with such hopeless need it threatened to overwhelm her.
She did not know what Charles was like when he fucked. She didn’t know if he talked, if he took control or submitted, the sort of noises he made. She was counting on Erik not knowing either. He kissed her throat, tongue and teeth against her pulse, and she moaned with Charles’s voice, and hearing it made her stomach clench. “Please, Erik…”
Erik made a sound, a cross between a groan and a sob. His name on Charles’s lips, she realised – and remembered her own reaction, all those weeks ago, in front of the mirror.
She was so close. With her free hand she held Erik against her, digging her fingers into his back. She wondered, wildly, if Charles was listening, sat in his study, knowing what they were doing. She had long assumed his abandonment of her, but now Erik’s mind was once again available to him, perhaps he wouldn’t be able to resist.
She hoped he was. She hoped he could see what he had lost, what he could have had, and she didn’t know if she meant Erik, or herself, or this, or why she wanted him to hurt, only that she did.
When he came Erik groaned and cursed, and when she followed she said his name, over and over, until he kissed it out of her.
“Please,” he said quietly, pushing dark hair back from her forehead. She noticed how he searched her features intently, as if committing them to memory. “Please don’t do this again, Raven.”
She swallowed, trying to dislodge the lump in her throat, and stroked his hair with Charles’s hands, and brushed his jaw with Charles’s lips. “I won’t. I promise I won’t.”
The fourth time, it was anger.
He struck her. Not especially hard – it was the shock of it that caused her reel, rather than any serious force in the blow – but that wasn’t really the point.
They had argued. She was no longer afraid enough to hold her tongue when she disagreed with him. She supposed that, in a way, she should thank him for it. It was he who had made her this brave.
She had transformed before she even hit the ground, so that it was suddenly Charles sat heavy and crumpled against the door, palm against the hot, reddening mark on his cheek, staring at Erik with confused, wide-eyed shock.
Erik actually took a step back. He looked terrible, and Raven wanted to believe he might have displayed even a fraction of that regret had she stayed in her own body. But she knew, with absolute certainty, that there would not be this sad, fearful sickness in his eyes if it had been anyone other than Charles looking back at him.
There was no need for her to speak. Charles would hate her for this if he knew, she thought. Anger solves nothing, he would say, or some similarly trite platitude.
“Have you not hurt me enough, Erik?” she said. She heard Charles’s voice – plaintive, disappointed, resigned.
And inside, she felt nothing.