"I want to learn how to shoot a gun," Raven announced.
Erik barely spared her a glance, methodically stretching out his long legs, his sweatshirt damp with perspiration. She couldn't help but enjoy the view. "How nice for you."
"And I want you to teach me."
"Do you now."
Raven crossed her arms across her chest, tapping her foot. The painfully early hour didn't do much to improve her temper. She could still be sound asleep in her nice warm bed, not freezing her ass off out here in the misty dawn. "So will you teach me or not?"
Erik straightened, rolling his shoulders back to work out any lingering stiffness from his run. "Since you've cornered me outside the mansion at six o'clock in the morning, I'm guessing you don't want Charles knowing about this particular request."
She didn't. "I don't care what Charles does or doesn't know. It's none of his business. So will you?"
"Come on," she wheedled. "Alex is learning how to blast people with energy, Sean can shatter glass and probably eardrums, even Hank could be some kind of super-beast-fighter if he actually wanted. But if we're fighting Shaw--" and that devil-man and the whirlwinds and Angel-- "I've got to be able to defend myself!"
"I don't disagree," Erik said, catching her off-guard before she could launch into the rest of her argument. "But if you want to learn how to shoot, you should ask MacTaggert."
Raven blinked. "Moira? Why?" Righteous indignation fired through her blood, straightening her spine. "Do you think I'm too weak to handle your style of self-defense? Like girls shoot differently than real men?"
"No, it's because I'm the last person who should teach anybody about handling a gun," Erik said, in that all-too-patient tone that meant he was about three seconds short of losing his patience altogether.
He flicked his fingers, and something small and shiny hurtled out of his pocket and came to an abrupt stop right at the tip of her nose. She nearly went cross-eyed trying to look at it. A silver coin?
"Bullets only go exactly where I want them," he continued. "And that's not a skill I can teach."
She scowled at him, batting the coin out of the air. It flew back into his open palm with a faint electric hum. "You're just scared Charles would find out."
Erik shrugged. "Your brother is a terrifying man."
(She makes her decision on the final night before the battle, in her warm firelit bedroom, the syringe cold and somehow heavy in her pink-skinned hands. Every important decision she has ever made in her life has been instantaneous, impulsive, instinctive. The choice to break into this very mansion. The choice to trust the boy with the bright blue eyes when he saw her bright blue skin. The choice to impersonate that asshole agent at the CIA when Charles's presentation went awry. And a thousand other choices, made quick as thought, hurtling her life forward.
This is a choice she makes because of the recrimination on Hank's face, the disgust in his voice. It's a decision she makes in the space between one breath and another.
Once Raven makes a decision, she'll stand by it until the end of her days.
She chooses Mystique.)
Kurt's stupid nuclear bunker had never been Raven's favorite hiding place. It was just so damn empty. And ugly. And kind of scary, when she allowed herself to think about it much, which she generally didn't. But it probably was the best place on the grounds to shoot at things without being overheard. Gunshots weren't exactly quiet.
And if this place could handle Alex's energy bursts without noticeable damage, it could survive Raven's aim.
"This is a gun," Moira said, setting it down on the card table.
Raven rolled her eyes. "Yeah. I got that much."
Moira sighed. "I'm not letting you touch it until I'm sure you respect it. First rule: always assume any gun is loaded at all times. I don't care if you've just seen me empty the magazine right in front of you. Treat it as though it is loaded and ready to be fired. This isn't a toy. Many -- if not most -- firearms accidents occur because the idiot handling them thought it was empty, or safetied, or somehow disabled. Don't be the next idiot."
Raven could feel her cheeks heat up. "I'm not stupid!"
"Believe me, if I thought you were, I never would have agreed to this," Moira said coolly. "Don't make me change my mind." She turned back to the gun on the table without waiting for Raven's reaction. "This particular firearm is a Walther PPK semi-automatic pistol. Not that that will mean much more to you than aim, trigger, boom, so yes, that's still the general operating procedure."
"Aim, trigger, boom," Raven repeated, pulling her blonde hair back into a loose bun to get it out of her face. Her palms felt sweaty, and she fumbled with the hair band. She wasn't sure where the sudden case of nerves came from. The Walther PPK was starting to look very...real, in a way guns somehow hadn't quite been before. "Loaded at all times. Got it."
Moira studied her, expression unreadable. "You've never gotten the safety lecture before? I know Charles dislikes guns, but he does keep a few in this house."
"Those were Kurt's," Raven said with a shrug. "His stepfather's. Charles probably forgot they were even here until we all moved back in. Anyway, Kurt wasn't big on the explanations. I think he figured that if we somehow got into his armory, it was our own damn fault if we got hurt." Thinking back, she added, "And he probably did teach Charles at some point. A man should know how to use a gun."
She didn't realize she'd slipped into Kurt's harsh voice until she noticed Moira looking at her funny. But Moira didn't remark on it, and Raven didn't elaborate further.
Kurt had been a loaded weapon in his own right, and his son Cain had been even worse. You never knew when they were going to go off, or what they'd hit when they did. Charles, usually. Sometimes Raven wondered if she were any better herself.
"So should a woman," Moira finally said. "All right. Here's how you check the chamber to see if there's already a round in there."
(Charles found her hours later, curled up in the back of his mother's walk-in closet, hiding among the expensive shoes and even more expensive bourbon that Sharon didn't know they knew about. "I'm sorry," she said, voice tiny, her skin unblemished blue. "I didn't mean to."
"You always mean to," Charles sighed, squeezing in beside her and slipping an arm across her shoulders. He had a ring of purple bruises around his skinny wrist, and his eye was starting to swell up in a way that promised a truly spectacular shiner by tomorrow. "But it wasn't your fault, anyway."
"If I hadn't said--"
"Cain was just looking for an excuse," Charles said tiredly, sounding much older than his fourteen years. "He would've gone off at me eventually even if you hadn't."
"You could have stopped him," she insisted, temper sparking. Charles never even tried to fight back. He was so stupid. "With your power. You could have changed his mind."
Charles stroked her copper hair back off her forehead. "If he ever goes after you," he said, "I will."
It wasn't until years later that Raven realized Charles already had, many times. Cain had never laid a hand on her. Not once.)
"Rule two," Moira said, once Raven was able to strip, reassemble, and load the pistol to her satisfaction. "Only point your weapon at something you're ready and willing to destroy. That means that even when you're just holding it, you're not accidentally pointing it somewhere stupid. Keep the muzzle aimed at the ground, preferably, until you're ready to assess your target. Never point a gun at anyone or anything you do not actually intend to shoot."
"Even when it's not -- oh, right." Raven pressed her lips together, embarrassed. "A gun is always loaded. Or at least that's what I'm supposed to assume."
Moira nodded. "Exactly."
"Okay, but if you're making an arrest or something, and you tell the guy to stick his hands up--"
"I think you've been watching too many Westerns," Moira said wryly. "But rule still applies. If I point my weapon at someone to intimidate them, I had damn well better be ready and willing to shoot the bastard."
"But if you're bluffing--"
"You're never bluffing with a gun." Moira's tone brooked no argument. She ejected the magazine, set it down, and pulled the slide back just enough to show that the chamber was empty. "It's not a hand of poker, Raven. Here."
Raven took it, keeping the muzzle pointed down at the concrete floor.
"Rule three follows directly from rule two," Moira went on. "Always be sure not only of your target, but also what's beyond and around it. Even when you know what you're aiming at, you can still do unintended damage -- you might miss. Something or someone might pass in front of your target and get hit accidentally. The bullet might even hit your target dead on and pass through it into something behind it."
Moira nodded. "Something like that."
(She can't honestly explain what propels her to Erik's room that night. Only a burning need to prove something -- to Hank, who refuses to accept her for who she is; to Charles, who only sees a precious object to be protected, not a full person; to Erik, to find out if he's willing to put his money where his mouth is. To herself.
But now that she's here, she's terrified. Erik is a very attractive man, and sure, a girl has her fantasies, but she never planned to take it this far. Anxiety creates a knot of ice in the pit of her stomach even as his kiss sends heat tingling across her skin. She's never been kissed in her natural body before. She can feel herself trembling, and isn't sure whether it's arousal or fear. When he breaks off the kiss, pulling away, she's torn between disappointment and relief.
"I'm sorry, Raven," Erik says gently, "but you're still too young."
"It's Mystique now," she snaps, stung. She might not be sure if she wants Erik, but she still has her pride. "And I'm not much younger than Charles."
She winces as soon as she says it.
"Ah, but you still have the leukocytes of a teenager," Erik remarks mockingly, and she's glad the flush doesn't show against her dark blue cheeks. Had Hank told him that? Or was it something Charles had overheard and shared with him? "As well as the emotional maturity of one," he goes on. "Who are you trying to hurt here, Hank or your brother?"
She pulls the sheets up to her chest. "They both want to force me to be someone I'm not."
"Hank has no right to take out his own self-loathing on you, and you're well rid of him," Erik agrees, "but this is a rather convoluted form of revenge. As for Charles..."
"I could hear you arguing in the study from halfway down the hall. Don't pretend you agree with him."
Erik's eyes are distant, unreadable. "That's between myself and Charles. Don't try to wedge yourself between us. You're better than that." He gets to his feet, stepping away from the bed. "Good night, Mystique."
She goes, but leaves her robe behind. Let Charles find it there. She tells herself she doesn't care.)
Raven brought the pistol up, aiming it down the long bunker at the paper target Moira had set up. Moira stepped in close, wrapping her hands around Raven's to mold hers into the correct grip. Her touch was cool, impersonal. Raven imagined Erik teaching her instead, his long body hard against hers, his hands -- no, definitely better to learn from Moira. You shouldn't be distracted while holding a loaded weapon.
She couldn't even imagine Hank firing a gun.
"Final rule," Moira said. "Trigger discipline. Always, always, always keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you are ready to fire. I think the reasoning behind that one should be fairly obvious by now, but basically, you'd feel like a real goddamn idiot if you stumbled on uneven ground and accidentally fired your weapon. That's what the trigger guard is there for. Like this." She gently positioned Raven's index finger to rest just above the trigger guard. "Once you're ready, you do need to exert some pressure on the trigger for it to fire." Moira released her, stepping well back out of her personal space. "Try it now. Take a deep breath in, give yourself a moment, then exhale and pull the trigger halfway through the breath out."
It really wasn't as easy as it looked in the movies. At the same time, it wasn't exactly hard. The trigger clicked on the empty chamber.
Moira regarded her critically. "Now, if that had been loaded, the kick would've knocked you off balance. Not too badly, but still. You can't fight Newton's laws. It helps to stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, and don't lock your knees. And be ready for the gun to jerk back. Don't smack yourself in the face if you can avoid it, it stings like hell." She cracked a smile. "Trust me on that one."
"My instructor at the CIA wasn't too happy to have to teach a girl to shoot," Moira said. "He didn't warn me about the kick. Ready for some live ammunition?"
Raven nodded and accepted the earmuffs that Moira passed her. Her mouth felt dry, and her own heartbeat sounded very loud in the absence of any other noise. She carefully loaded the magazine into the semiautomatic as she'd been instructed. Once loaded, the pistol felt heavier than she'd expected. She wrapped her left hand over her right on the grip, making sure her stance was well-balanced, and brought the muzzle up to aim at the paper target. Moira had sketched a quick bullseye on it with black marker. She lined it up with the sights.
She took a deep breath, exhaled, and pulled the trigger.
Even with the earmuffs, the shot made her head buzz. The gun jerked back in her grip like a kicking pony. She did not smack herself in the mouth. She also did not actually hit the target. Not even close.
"Not bad for your first shot," Moira shouted. "Try again."
Her wrist ached like hell by the time she'd emptied the clip.
(It was only two beers. She wasn't some kind of giggling lightweight, like most of the coeds. She was Sharon Xavier's adopted daughter, after all, and she could damn well handle her liquor. Only two pints of Oxford's dark, heavy beer, totally different from the bottles she'd snuck back home in Westchester. And maybe a shot or two. But whatever, her shift had ended and the student who kept buying her drinks had really lovely biceps, and she was gripping them tightly as he sloppily kissed her neck and her breath came in short gasps and she didn't even realize she was rippling blue until he suddenly shoved her back against the booth and her head smacked the wood so hard she might have seen stars.
"What the bleeding fuck?" the guy demanded, jerking away.
It was just a slip, that was all. Only couple of heartbeats. Only two pints and two shots and her head spun and she'd been feeling so good, and she'd let herself stop concentrating for one damn second.
She held tight to her peaches-and-cream skin, her blonde hair, her sultry smile. "What's the matter, honey? Aren't we having a good time?"
He'd been drinking, the pub wasn't very well-lit, she could surely sweet-talk him out of it -- but her head ached from the alcohol and the growing bruise where she'd cracked it against the booth, and she felt cold all over, not sweet or seductive at all.
"You were blue!" he said, voice rising. "I saw it! I touched it--"
And then suddenly he went very still, eyes still wide with fear. A hand gripped his shoulder. "Are you sure that's what you saw?" Charles asked him quietly. "Because it sounds highly unlikely to me."
"Highly unlikely," the student mumbled.
"You've had a bit too much to drink," Charles continued, in that low, soothing tone. "You'd best go home and sleep it off."
The other man nodded jerkily. "Sleepy."
"On you go, then." Charles released his shoulder, and he went, moving stiffly through the crowded pub.
Shame ate into Raven's chest like an acid. She had never hated anyone in her life quite so much as she hated Charles in this particular moment. "What the hell, Charles?" she demanded. Her voice sounded shrill and panicked even to her on ears, and she hated herself even more for it.
Charles blinked at the unexpected assault. "You needed help--"
What, had he thought she'd throw herself into his arms, sobbing gratefully? That self-righteous fucking asshole. "I didn't need your help! I didn't need anyone's help! I was handling it just fine! Christ, can't you mind your own goddamn business for once in your fucking life -- oh, wait, I forgot, no, you can't." She ended on a hiss, and shoved past him to get out of the booth. She needed air.
"Stay the hell out of my head, Charles," she snapped, and stalked out, wishing she could shift her body into someone who couldn't hurt, who didn't care, who wasn't crying.)
"Ugh, I am such crap," Raven groaned, massaging her wrist as she glared down the bunker at the target. The edges of the paper were now spackled with holes, but the bullseye at the center remained untouched. "I can see the target, I just can't focus on it. Stupid goddamned--"
"Focus," Moira repeated thoughtfully. "Raven...your mutation. You're using it now, aren't you?"
"When am I not?"
"It just occurred to me," Moira continued. "When Charles is deliberately using his, uh, abilities, he tends to appear...distracted. Erik and the boys, they really have to concentrate to make their powers work, but with you and Charles, your mutations are always sort of on in the background, no matter what you're doing, right?"
Raven would never have thought to compare her and Charles's mutations in that way -- they're so completely different. But Moira had a point. "Yeah, I guess. So?"
"So turn it off for a minute."
"That's not how it works--" Raven started to say, irritated, then reconsidered. "Or did you just mean, revert to blue?"
"Whatever you look like when you're not trying. Yes."
Raven shrugged and shifted. Slipping back into her natural form always felt like a relief, like a weight lifted off her shoulders. Ugly blue scales and all. In the back of her head, Erik's voice whispered, if you're using half your concentration to look normal, then you're only half paying attention to whatever else you're doing. She put the earmuffs back on to drown him out.
"Now try," Moira said. "Line the target up with the sights. Breathe into it. And--"
Raven aimed, breathed, and fired. Sixty feet away, the bullet neatly punctured the dead center of the paper bullseye.
On the Cuban beach, everything goes to hell so fast it makes Mystique's head spin. Shaw is dead, but there are missiles hurtling towards them (always be sure of your target) and then Erik's hurtling them right back at the ships and he and Charles are scuffling in the sand like schoolboys and then she hears gunshots, and it's Moira, of course it's Moira, with perfect form and the sights lined right up with her target and Erik whirls around--
(Bullets only go exactly where I want them.)
--and then Charles screams.
And her world comes to a screeching halt.
(Always be sure not only of your target, but also what's beyond and around it.)
For the first heartbeat afterward, the second, the third, she's in complete agreement with Erik, blaming Moira. Moira the government agent, Moira the firearms expert, Moira who only ever fires when she's absolutely sure. Moira who had to have known that she couldn't hurt Erik, that he'd only deflect the bullets, that he'd be distracted enough by the immediate assault to let the missiles go.
"She didn't do this, Erik," Charles chokes out. "You did."
Erik, manipulator of metals, disdainer of humans and their puny weapons, had long since stopped respecting guns.
He clutches her brother like a lifeline, and breaks off from him like a puppet with its strings cut when Charles pushes him away. Stupid Charles, noble Charles, arrogant stifling self-sacrificing Charles -- Mystique wants to scream and yell at him, wants to murder Erik and Moira both right in front of him, wants him to throw his arm across her shoulders and hold her tight and promise her that everything is going to be all right.
He kisses her blue hands and sets her free instead. As though her freedom is something only he can grant her. She's so angry she can't see straight, or maybe those are just the tears in her eyes. Fuck him, anyway. Every important decision in her life has been impulsive, made between one breath and the next, and she will never, ever look back.
"Raven!" Moira calls after her.
She shakes her head, taking Erik's proffered hand firmly. "It's Mystique now."
"Mystique," Moira echoes. Mystique allows her one final glance. She's still cradling Charles against her lap. Her eyes are red-rimmed with unshed tears, but they meet Mystique's unflinchingly. It's her firearms instructor face, hard as nails, uncompromising.
Only point your weapon at something you're ready and willing to destroy.
Mystique looks back down at her brother, her infuriating protector, her best friend and worst aggravation, broken and deserted in the narrow swathe of sand as he watches her walk away.
"I can't," she gasps out, all at once. "Oh, god, I can't."
She drops Erik's hand and runs back across the beach to her brother's side.
(She will be holding his hand when he confesses he can't feel his legs.
She will see all the color drain from Erik's face.
She will convince the devil-teleporter-man to transport them all directly to a hospital.
She will chafe at Charles's long recovery, and argue with him, and bully him, and walk away from him, and return again. She will walk naked through the Westchester mansion and flirt with whomever she chooses and try to make peace with Hank and ignore anyone who calls her by her old name. She will help Hank and Alex destroy Shaw's helmet for good. She will be too easily swayed by Erik's convictions and too easily hurt by Charles's disapproval and will too often allow herself to be caught in the crossfire between them, but will always, always be the first person to knock their heads together and force them to make peace anew. The mansion isn't big enough to wage the coming war on the home front as well, and besides, the new kids at the new school do so hate it when Daddy and Daddy fight.
She'll still visit the firing range in the old bunker with Moira once a week, every week. She's a hell of a shot.)