I helped brighteyedcat write this story for the Xmmficathon for ion_bond. Her request: Mystique – As a teenager, Raven is recruited by Xavier, Erik Lehnsherr or both and is brought to the school. Xavier or Lehnsherr gives her a lesson in using her powers. It would be cool if you could make this fit into canon.

Symbiotic Metamorphosis

Cousin Shelley


i.

Erik listened to the speaker as he pulled his coat closed, managing to button it without removing his gloves. A cool breath of air skittered down the nape of his neck and he pressed his fedora down a little more while tightening his scarf. It had turned out to be unseasonably cool – even as midday approached - but at least part of the chill came from the callous points being made in the keynoter's speech.

People among them, he spat, people not like everyone else. Different people. Non-people. The speaker's fear and ignorance hung in the air just above their heads like smog, and Erik had the momentary urge to send the man's microphone flying away from him. Charles would have scolded him for something so childish, which instinctively brought a smug grin to his chiseled face. He still considered it; but if something like that showed up on the news, the most innocent expression in the world wouldn't work.

It must have been a poltergeist, Charles, he could imagine swearing, complete with a finger drawn over his chest in the shape of an X. He chuckled at the notion.

A girl brushed by him then and he took notice of her, not just because of her red spiked hair or the way she jiggled her head in time with a tune he couldn't hear, but her daring. The whole package. Lots of kids dressed that way these days, it seemed. Punked, he thought might be what it was called. He couldn't quite explain it, but the way this girl weaved through the crowd impressed him. He admired her confident indifference to the world around her. He always liked people who weren't afraid to be what they were, especially when what they were was different.

Erik looked back at the ignorant mouthpiece standing so poised and purposeful on the platform and wondered if there were anything he could do that Charles wouldn't immediately blame on him. God forbid a critical nail come unscrewed or supporting beam collapse on its own when he was trying to behave.

He looked for the girl again, but she was long gone. Erik felt a pang of disappointment. She was wearing headphones so she obviously wasn't there to hear about the threat mutants posed to the very foundation of human values and existence, and he found himself wishing she had been. Maybe they could have had an interesting conversation. A teenage girl striving so hard to be who she was, something different, could surely understand his point of view more than the idiot on stage.

A loud pop followed by the screech of feedback came from the platform and while covering his ears, the speaker looked at the microphone then to his staff with a pointed glare, ordering them to fix the problem stat. He attempted to talk over the static only to discover he couldn't be heard. He tried talking louder, but then a plume of black smoke rose from behind him. Erik sighed. Maybe he could pretend he hadn't come, after all?

A flash of red caught his eye, nearly blending into the yellow flames being swiftly put out by the keynoter's crew, and he realized it was the girl that had brushed by him earlier. She was coming from the direction of the platform – from behind it – but no sooner did Erik catch sight of her than he lost her again amongst the frantic crowd. Frustrated that he'd lost her twice now, Erik fled the masses to seek quieter surroundings. Surely without so many people around, he would not be so inept as to lose her in broad daylight. Then, he spotted the bright red hair again and briskly walked in her direction. No, it wasn't her. Damn, he thought, seeing that who he had been chasing was a teenage boy, dressed in similar, punky clothes…but then he saw the boy blink.

The kid didn't blink his eyes, but rather his whole body blinked off, almost like a different frame had been inserted in a long, still shot of something on film. Erik looked back at the stage one last time and smiled at the speaker's frustration and subsequent renouncement, before following the boy to a nearby bus stop.

The further they got from the crowd, the faster the boy walked. By the time Erik was sure he'd caught up, when trying to catch up without looking like a predator wasn't easy these days, he rounded a corner and rediscovered the girl again. She slid her headphones off one ear and abruptly stopped walking. Erik couldn't hear any music.

"Ain't got money and you're a little too old. No offense," she said, in a way clearly intended to offend.

Erik regarded her, a smile forming. "Nice work back there."

"Not sure what you're talking about, but if you follow me for even one more step, I'll –"

"You sympathize with mutants?" Erik asked, taking a step back.

"Mutants?" She smacked her gum, and Erik had to force the smile to remain on his face. "Can't say I know any, but even if I did, I don't figure I'd help one."

"Really? Do you happen to know a boy, looks amazingly like you…? A twin, perhaps? I followed him here and found you instead. But, you don't know any mutants?"

"Look, buddy, I don't know–"

Erik halted her with a raised hand and a smile that turned much more genuine. As a shadow fell over them, he pointed his index finger up at the dumpster that now hovered over their heads.

The girl looked up and instinctively lurched backward out of its shadow. She looked at Erik, smiled, and her whole body blinked again. No, now that he was up close, he realized it wasn't really a blink. She shimmered, and it was stunning.

***


Charles didn't initially believe Erik about the technical difficulties at the rally. At least not until he'd introduced Raven and she'd claimed the act of defiance, quite proudly.

"Show him, dear," Erik encouraged, offering her a gentle hand upon her back.

Raven turned to Professor Xavier and shimmered out of the red hair and Doc Martens. She wore plain clothing now – jeans, a torn Patti Smith tee shirt, black Converse – and her hair changed from shocking red spikes to a brick red ponytail that Erik thought contrasted nicely with her smooth, royal blue skin and bright, yellow eyes.

"Shapeshifter…fascinating," Charles said.

Erik managed to maintain a neutral expression as Charles explained to Raven how he could certainly understand the sentiment behind what she'd done, but that in the long run, acts that could provoke violence never achieved anything progressive. When Charles and then the girl looked to him for confirmation, he stared blankly for a moment, and then raised his eyebrows. "Mmm? Oh, yes," he said, feigning sincerity.

Once Raven agreed to mull over his advice, Charles welcomed her to the school and did everything possible to make her feel at home. She was introduced to her new roommates; Jean – a brownnoser that spooked at the sight of Raven – and Laura – a girl with jet-black hair and lilac colored eyes. She was dressed almost identically to Raven and her eyes lit up when Charles told her that Raven was to be her new roommate. She excitedly introduced herself before going on and on about Patti Smith and how she'd seen her perform in New York once, and that Joey Ramone got up on stage with her!

"Do you think he's a mutant?" she asked, and when Raven said he probably wasn't, Laura pointed out his abnormal height and theorized that he had to be one because, "Well…have you ever actually seen him? Oh, he's a mutant all right. Total freak on stage."

While leaving Raven with Laura and Jean, who could not be more uncomfortable amongst the two of them, Erik and Charles left to discuss Raven's ability and the different ways it could benefit them all. Just as Erik had expected, Charles had fewer uses in mind for that ability than he.

Erik mingled far more than Charles did, and he'd heard about a mutant who could get information on the CIA that should have been impossible to get. For months this mutant had subverted every confidential plan the CIA devised against them. Could it be this girl, Erik wondered? He suspected her, and insisted that they find out, and even if it wasn't her, she could be their ear on the inside once she learned to control her gift. The possibilities were astounding.

"She needs to be a teenager, Erik, not a spy or anyone's ear inside anything. Let's take this one step at a time, and just let her learn to integrate – "

"Oh, Charles, we're not going to take that away from her, but don't you see the opportunity here? With training and practice, she could be anyone. Do you know what that could mean for us, for all mutants? She's clearly not afraid to use her gifts. Why shouldn't we help her develop them?"

"Use her, you mean."

"No, I don't mean use her. I mean make her part of our team. Does a car use its tires or are the tires an essential and valuable part of the whole? Charles, she can change form and mimic another person. Think of the possibilities, for just a moment. Put aside your protests – "

"Something's not right." Charles looked at him.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. She's not being completely honest."

"You could find out whatever truth you wanted – "

"Erik, we've been through this before, and you know I won't do that."

"She's frightened, despite her tough exterior. She's been on her own for some time. Maybe you're just sensing hesitation and suspicion on her part. She'll be fine, you'll see. She's a survivor, with a wonderful gift. I think once she develops it fully, we'll count ourselves lucky she's on our side," he said, laughing a little.

Charles walked away from him. He sat at his large desk – mahogany that shined beautifully in the light, a long-ago gift from Erik – and started writing in a notepad. He didn't look up or make small talk, as was their usual routine. In fact, he acted as if they hadn't just been in the middle of a heated conversation.

And then the problem dawned on Erik. "You're jealous."

Charles looked up, his pen poised in mid-air. For a moment, he thought to protest, but then he stopped himself. "Perhaps I am," he said, "and don't pretend you don't love every minute of it."

"I might if it weren't quite so creepy. She's a child, Charles."

Charles rose, sighed, and headed for the door with purpose, as if someone had just called for him. But before he left, he turned back to Erik. "Yes, she is a child, but it's all right. We both know it's not her body that you want."




ii.

Not that she was surprised, but Mystique's plans while at Xavier's were moving steadily along. For all its intents and purposes, it was almost embarrassing how easy it was for her to infiltrate, but now that she was here, it was time for her to acquire what she came for and get the hell out of Dodge before Charles, Erik, or one of the students got too suspicious about "the new girl."

For the most part, Mystique kept to herself, as usual. She attended classes just like any other student, although it was much more difficult to stay awake or alternatively, not talk back when the history that was being taught was completely inaccurate when compared to what she'd seen or read in newspapers at the exact time of certain events. She almost enjoyed her science class, but that was only because she could personally witness Laura honing her skills little by little. Most of the time, something ended up on fire or decayed until it was nothing but dust in her hands, which infuriated Laura, but it pleased Mystique. One day she'd get it right, but at present Laura's focus was always on Scott Summers, the guy everyone seemed to like but Mystique.

She couldn't remember what it was like to fawn over someone like that; she wondered if she'd ever done it at all, but every time she watched Laura attempt to say hello or smile at Scott only for him to ignore her because he was clearly only interested in Jean, a sharp flame singed up her spine and later, Mystique had to bite her tongue while Laura went on and on about what a great guy he was. She was not cut out for this high school shit and as every day passed, Mystique was losing her patience.

The following day, Raven watched Erik speak to her roommate Laura, from her bedroom window. Laura wore tall black boots, skinny dark jeans, a deep purple knit sweater, and a black scarf wrapped around her neck that trailed down her back. Glancing down at herself, Mystique focused, shifted her look to include similar apparel, and looked out the window again.

After a short while, Laura shyly waved goodbye to Erik and walked to a bench in the courtyard with a book in hand to read before lunch. Raven was already on her way outside.

As Erik walked up the stairs to return indoors, Raven popped up onto the railing of the fence, stalling Erik's progress. "Good morning," she chirped, crossing her legs.

Erik chuckled, "Morning? It's almost noon. You missed all of your morning classes. Charles won't be pleased," he reprimanded, wagging his finger at her.

"I overslept." Raven shrugged.

"You don't say," Erik said, tapping his index finger against his cheek, assuming she hadn't, but appeasing his young recruit anyway. "I thought that you'd high tail it out of here after a day or so."

"Trying to get rid of me already?" she teased.

"No," he laughed, "you just don't seem the type to stay in one place for long." He thought aloud, fishing for a little history. Coming up empty, he continued, "I'm pleased that you've elected to stay with us, Raven."

"Yeah, well…we'll see," Raven said. Turning her attention, Raven watched Laura read beneath a vibrantly colored red maple tree. "Sorry I was so defensive when we met. It's just who I am; hope you didn't take it personally."

"My dear, I expected it." He looked down the bridge of his nose at her.

Raven glanced over to her friend again, squinting her yellow eyes and watching her intently.

"You've become fond of her," Erik stated.

"Huh?" Raven asked, playing dumb.

"Laura. Your roommate. She's quite talented, you know. Very immature in using her gifts, but in time…" he said, his voice trailing off. He seemed as enamored in Laura as Mystique and this in turn piqued Mystique's curiosity even more.

As she gazed at the young woman, Laura looked up from her book and caught Raven's eyes. Raven smiled and waved at her, and Laura returned the greeting, but shyly looked back down to her book, pretending to read for a moment before glancing up at Raven once more. Raven snickered to herself.

"…it's been a long journey for her, but I feel confident that’s she'll excel here with us," Erik finished, which had Raven wondering how long he'd been talking about Laura while she was zoned out, exchanging glances with her.

"That's a shame," Raven said automatically, assuming the story was a depressing one, but still only half-listening as Laura got up from the bench and came walking towards her. "It's been real," Raven said patting Erik's shoulder before using it to hop off the fence then walking over to meet with Laura.

"Don't forget…later today," he called before turning away, making his way up the stairs and into the mansion.

Behind his back, Mystique rolled her eyes at the reminder. At Erik's insistence, she'd agreed to meet with Charles to discuss their objectives while at the school, as well as her personal observations of events and difficulties she experienced when changing form. The Professor was pleased with everything she'd told him, but said he would want to meet with her again, but this time with Erik so that he could aid in her discoveries and education. Not at all wanting to please Erik or the Professor, but needing a near constant diversion for the two of them, she agreed to comply.

But later that afternoon, Raven did not show up for her session. She was so close to leaving the mansion and didn't have time to play teenage apprentice any longer. Instead, Mystique hid out as Jean in the library doing research until dark. Then, she wandered from her room, down the hall, through the library, and towards one of the school's laboratories. Once she reached the door, however, she heard someone nearby.

Instinctively, Raven turned the corner, concealed herself in the darkness, and closed her eyes, waiting for the intruder to pass. She feared that it was Charles. She'd been at the school longer than she'd expected so surely he would start to become suspicious of her and use his telepathy to discover her true identity. When they walked on, Mystique opened her eyes that lit up like smoldering embers in the darkness, and walked away from the laboratory to go after them. Following the girl down the metallic pathway, Mystique immediately recognized the heavy black boots, dark purple sweater, and black scarf belonging to none other than Laura.

Mystique silently trailed Laura's sluggish tiptoeing until she finally decided to make her presence known. "Looking for trouble?" Raven asked, rapidly shifting her form to the one Laura was familiar with.

Laura nearly jumped out of her skin and shrieked in surprise before covering her mouth and turning to face Raven. "You scared me," she said with her slight Northeastern accent. Removing her hand from over her mouth, she smacked Raven's arm with it.

"Sorry," Raven said lightheartedly while taking a cautious step closer to the pretty girl whom she'd been hopelessly curious about since her arrival.

"It's all right," Laura answered with a nervous smile. "I was looking for you."

"You mean you were following me," Raven alleged with a smirk.

"What? No! Well, I mean, yeah, kinda, but only so I could–" Laura paused. "Wait. You're one to talk," she accused, turning the tables on Raven. "You seem to turn up everywhere I am nowadays. How long have you been following me?"

"Just today? Or…" Raven joked, neither confirming nor denying the fact that she'd been interested in Laura since she'd arrived at the mansion. Laura laughed at Raven's comment.

The flash of gold in Raven's eyes as she spoke made Laura blush and her stomach twinge in a way that she hadn't felt since she'd first seen Scott roughhousing with a couple of the other guys a few months ago. It made her nervous and she unconsciously covered her smile with her hand.

"So now that you've found me, what do you intend to do about it?" Raven asked, slinking around Laura, sizing her up.

Laura's stomach flipped again in the silent hallway and she folded her arms over her chest defensively. "I guess I didn't have much of a plan. But you do," she indicated with a nod. "What are you doing down here?"

"I couldn't sleep," Raven replied.

"Uh huh," Laura said, thinking for a moment. "You know they say you're the one behind the fire at the rally last week. Is that true?"

"Maybe," Raven answered, looking Laura dead in the eye. "Why?"

"Because if it was, you might be my hero."

"That so?" Raven laughed while the Mystique underneath celebrated in silence.

"Maybe," Laura quipped. "Come on, I want to show you something."

Moments later, Laura led Raven back to the laboratory that was commonly used for the biology and chemistry classes. "Wow, a lab. Never seen one of these before," Raven said.

"Not like this one you haven't," she declared, trying the door but quickly finding it was locked. "Shoulda figured this place would be locked up like a vault."

Spinning a ring of keys around her index finger then snatching them back into her fist like a revolver, Raven snickered as she bumped Laura aside with her hip.

"Where did you get those?"

"Can't tell you," she said, sliding one of the keys into the lock. "Then it wouldn't be a secret." She winked, opening the door for them and allowing Laura to enter first.

"It was you, wasn't it? I knew it," she said, taking a step into the room.

Laura certainly knew better than to break into a school laboratory after hours, but she also couldn't argue when the possibility of crossing boundaries came up. Everyone at school was so obsequious and predictable, but Raven was anything but! And while Laura did her best to please the Professor and her other mentors, she enjoyed bending an occasional rule and Raven was the perfect friend to do it with.

"Okay, girl, what ya got?" Raven asked, leaning against one of the blacktopped laboratory tables.

"Hmmm…" Laura considered, rubbing her hands together and looking around the room. "Hand me that, yeah?" she asked, pointing behind Raven where a small aloe plant rested on the shelf.

Taking the plant into her blue hands, Raven held it out for Laura, who enclosed her hands over the thick, gooey leaves then closed her eyes. When she reopened both, the soil and aloe had morphed into a cluster of green grapes.

Amazed, Mystique raised her brows and took the fruit into her hands. "That doesn't even seem possible," she thought aloud, plucking one of the fruits from the vine. "Is it real or is just a glamour?"

"It's real. Taste it," Laura invited her friend, her eyes positively radiant with pride.

Though typically wary, Mystique ate the grape and was surprised by just how perfectly ripe and flavorful it was. "That's…incredible!" she exclaimed while doing her best to hide her utter enthusiasm. It was such a simple little trick, but the ways it could be used were tantalizing. With more exploration, she could shift and break building foundations, create organic toxins, compromise establishments simply by turning the flourishing into decay. "How did you learn to control it?" she asked, setting the grapes aside, but continuing to eat them one at a time.

"I owe everything to Charles," she explained. "He said if I steadied my hands just so and closed my eyes so that my focus was more directed towards my goal, that one day, I could create just about anything! Isn't that amazing?"

"It's...spectacular," Raven said, her voice drifting into a softer and seductive tone. She was hungry for the potential in this mutant. She'd heard rumors about her, but doubted their truth. Now she'd just witnessed the girl create something that she could just as easily destroy. Her untapped talents were overwhelming and Mystique would stop at nothing to recruit her into her underground movement against the human-run government and their never-ending ploys to destroy the mutant race. Having been abandoned at Xavier's the second her eyes changed color by her ignorant parents, surely the girl held more than her fair share of resentment. It would almost be too easy to manipulate that energy and show Laura how her gifts could truly be used for the betterment of mutants everywhere, not just in upstate New York.

Jumping up onto the lab table and leaning back onto her hands, Laura hesitated for a moment, taken aback by the change in Raven's tone and strange curiosity she saw in her eyes now.

She watched Raven as she ate the grapes, still wondering where she came from. Xavier's was an open-door institute, and yet, Raven's door was not only closed, but locked and bolted shut. As friendly and sometimes flirtatious as Raven could be, she wasn't forthcoming about any information about herself, which only made Laura all the more curious about her. She wanted to get to know this amazing mutant, wanted to know what it was like to be able to become anyone. Laura thought the best way to try would be to turn the conversation onto Raven, but she was never so great with broaching delicate subjects.

"All right, your turn," Laura said, shoving her friend's shoulder lightly.

"For what?" Raven asked, hopping up onto the table to sit beside her.

"Oh come on. Can you really look and sound like anyone?" Laura asked, leaning forward expectantly.

"Yes," Raven replied.

"That's so rad," she sighed, in awe.

"It can be," Raven said, looking down at her smooth blue hands. "But then I start to wonder things. Like who I really am and who my friends really like…me or who they want me to be," she said with a shrug.

"What do you mean? I like you," Laura said, following Raven's eyes down to her hands and taking one into her own, and smiling at the pretty contrast they made intertwined.

Mystique pretended to be bashful and hid her smile from Laura. "Thanks," she said quietly. "But I think you'd like me more if I were someone else," she said, shifting her form into Scott Summers.

Laura gasped and let go of Raven's hand, unable to process how effortlessly her friend could shimmer into a new figure. She couldn't speak her wonderment and when Scott's hand reached over and took hers into his, Laura felt the air in her lungs completely escape her. Just like Raven had done in inspecting the grapes, Laura took in the reflection of her purple eyes in his crimson glasses, the way his face felt against the back of her fingers, and the rippling strength she felt as she ran her hand down his arm.

"This is unreal. Say something," Laura asked, tentative.

"Anything?" Raven asked through Scott's voice and when Laura's eyes widened even more, Raven shifted closer to her and gently reached her hand around the back of Laura's neck. "Do you want to kiss me?" She asked through Scott's voice again, knowing the answer before she'd even shifted forms.

Knowing it was fake, but still helpless from the illusion of Scott showing interest in her, Laura cast all thought aside, closed her eyes, and allowed herself to be drawn into a kiss. Laura reveled in the moment of her dreams becoming a pseudo-reality and saved each and every sensation to memory. She cupped Scott's face in both of her hands and kissed him again.

When their kiss deepened even further and Laura couldn't stop herself from pushing her tongue into Raven's mouth just to see how real this could be, Raven abruptly pulled away and shifted back to "herself." "I think you get the point," she said, pretending to be disappointed.

Embarrassed that she'd lost herself to a delusion so easily, Laura couldn't bear to look Raven in the eyes now that she was a girl again. What did this mean? She wasn't sure, but she did suddenly understand what Raven had meant earlier by everyone preferring her as someone else…but was that really true? Deep down, Laura knew she was kissing Raven and not Scott, but she couldn't clear her mind enough to think let alone speak.

"Maybe we should get back to the room," Laura suggested, glancing over at Raven who hadn't budged from the table.

"Yeah. Maybe," Raven sulked, quietly enjoying the charade. She couldn't wait to get out of this place, but Laura's prying and curiosity told her Laura might not be there for too much longer, either.




iii.

Raven stopped at Charles' door, the sounds of a discussion coming from the room. Since no one was around, she pressed her ear to the door, only then realizing it wasn't latched. As she let the door crack open, she saw the Professor sitting at the desk and Erik sitting on the desk beside him. The Professor's hand was on Erik's thigh and they were laughing about something. Erik leaned down.

She pushed the door open. "Erik, I – oh, excuse me!" They hadn't quite kissed yet, but were close. She noticed that the Professor's hand flinched, but it looked like Erik held it in place. Erik only looked up, completely nonchalant, expecting to hear what she wanted.

"Please knock before you enter my office, Raven," the Professor said, but with patience and a slight smile. She gave him points for that.

"What can I do for you, my dear?" Erik released the Professor's hand and stood.

She realized that Xavier would even hide this from the students, but clearly Erik had no such compunction. What an interesting pair they were; how very different they were.

"Umm, you'd talked about helping me, teaching me better control…like you did with Laura?" She indicated. "And I…"

"Yes, of course," Erik said. "If you're feeling better today, that is," he said with a knowing smile. He was no fool and neither was Charles, but there was no sense in reprimanding Raven for missing her session. She was here now and that was good enough. "Shall we have a lesson now?"

She nodded, satisfied that he seemed eager enough, as he'd expected. This would give her the opportunity to really get a bead on Erik, and figure out what made him tick.

Professor Xavier said nothing, but instead went back to the papers fanned out in front of him. As Erik put his hand on her upper back and led her through an adjoining door into what was clearly his private office space, she could have sworn she felt Xavier's gaze. For a moment she was surprised Erik and Xavier didn't have their desks butted up against each other. Or at least in the same room.

Once in Erik's office, though, she understood. It was pretty clear Erik enjoyed his own space. Or perhaps Xavier didn't want all this metal interfering with his very Ivy League décor.

Unlike the rich wood of Xavier's desk, Erik's appeared to be polished steel. He didn't walk around it to sit in the chair, but instead perched on the front edge and crossed his arms casually. She looked around a bit in awe of all the metal surfaces in the room. Cabinets had steel frames and doors, the few things sitting on metal shelves appeared to be various types of copper or nickel knick-knacks and there were even some metal discs on the walls outlined in wrought iron, like framed collector plates for someone with a serious penchant for chrome.

She found herself grateful he didn't turn on the desk lamp, because surely the glare off the desk would be irritating. The desk lamp was metal as well, but painted a deep bronze-brown color. Maybe that was Xavier's touch, to break the never-ending theme of shiny.

She found herself wondering if people who could control fire might be right at home in hell, or if people with the ability to freeze things craved life on an iceberg. She laughed softly at the thought and found Erik looking at her, eyebrows raised, clearly curious.

"Fetish much?" she asked. "Freaky."

He shrugged, and she got the sense that he was used to that kind of reaction. "I feel at home here," he said simply.

"King of your domain, right?" She made an exaggerated move and flexed a bicep for emphasis.

Erik's head tilted and the corner of his mouth went up in a half-smile. "Something like that. Shall we? Would you like to stand or sit? What's easier for you?"

At least there was a nice place to sit, she realized. A short couch upholstered in a brown and gray swirled pattern looked comfy enough. "I'm surprised you don't have metal furniture, too."

"I like to feel at home and be comfortable whenever possible. Would – "

"So do you think you can help me learn not to phase out when I don't wanna?" She sounded uncertain and nervous, and inwardly smiled at how well she'd managed it. She sat on the surprisingly comfortable couch and leaned back as if relaxing.

"Well, Raven, I don't know, but I'll try. Clearly I can't control anything for you, but I can help you learn to concentrate and focus. That focus is something from which every mutant can benefit," he said, putting two fingertips on his temple and his thumb under his chin. Why don't you close your eyes and take a few deep breaths first. Will it help if I dim the room lights or block the windows?"

She looked toward the windows, and of course there were no curtains. Blinds, gunmetal blinds. "No, it won't matter," she said. "You mean this, the ability to concentrate, can help all people, right?" She didn't close her eyes, because she wanted to watch his face. "You just said mutants, but isn't concentration something everybody could use?"

Erik inhaled deeply through his nose, and acted as if the breath might topple him backwards for a moment. "I suppose everyone could benefit from concentration, yes."

The way he'd acted before answering, she'd expected some sort of long explanation and was disappointed that she didn't get it. "But you don't care about everyone, do you? Just mutants."

"I think...it's important that we look out for our own. Someone else can worry about everyone. Now, why don't you try to change shape and hold it, and we'll see what happens when you start to have problems."

"What shape?" she asked, though she already knew whose shape she'd hold.

"Choose one that you might find challenging." He rubbed his chin with his thumb, a very casual gesture, but Mystique could tell he was fascinated and scrutinizing her as he waited.

"All right." She put on a good show of working very hard to change, and made a point of going slowly, letting some features start to take shape, then letting them melt back into place before she finally looked back at Erik through his own eyes. Mystique knew they weren't perfect doppelgangers. She had him in the clothes he'd had on yesterday instead of today, just a gray sweater and khakis instead of today's blue, and his features were less sharp. Erik should easily see the flaws in her reproduction. At the moment, though, he appeared too impressed and stunned to mention them.

"That's amazing, Raven." Erik spoke slowly, clearly taken with this ability of hers. "Someone who didn't know me well would probably not be able to tell the difference, as long as they didn't see us side by side, of course."

As Erik talked, Mystique let the mask slip from her face a few times, and knew it was probably disconcerting to see your own face morph and stretch, and then pop back into the right form.

"You're having trouble holding it?" He stood and approached the couch, his voice soft. "Try to clear your mind of everything but whatever it is you need to achieve this. Just focus your thoughts on this one thing and let everything else fall away, believe that nothing else matters."

He had a soothing voice, and Mystique realized that if she did need a lesson, Erik would probably be a good teacher. "It's easier to keep changing than to hold one form," she explained in a close approximation of Erik's voice, before she slowly morphed into Charles Xavier.

"We do have to take care of our own, Erik," she said, in Xavier's voice, "make sure they realize the marvels they can accomplish..." She morphed into a poorly defined, unflattering double of Jean Grey, and in the teen's voice, explained, "Kids at this school have no idea what's really out there. They have no idea how much they're reviled." Then she morphed back into Erik, and pretended to struggle to hold it.

"Just relax," Erik said, his voice sounding a little flat to her ears now, "and whatever it is that you feel when you change, just be that for a moment."

She became Erik with perfect clarity in the clothes he was wearing now. "It's helping," she said, completely Erik, from her voice down to the shape of her eyebrows and, she knew, even the tiny prominent capillary in his right eye that stood out against the white. "Do you think these students understand what their lives will be like when they leave here?" she said in his smooth baritone. "Or does Charles plan to keep them sequestered here for all time?" The words sounded so right in Erik's voice, she felt. And she wondered if he recognized his own thoughts spoken back to him, or if she'd somehow misjudged him.

Letting Erik's form blink several times, she sighed heavily and became the red-haired Raven again, her shoulders slumped as if exhausted. "How'd I do?"

Erik didn't speak for a moment, then he sat on the opposite end of the couch, facing her. "Quite well. I'm impressed that you know the word sequestered. No offense intended, of course," he said, holding a hand up. "I don't suppose it's a word in too many songs on your Walkman. Perhaps you're better read than I thought?"

She thought he looked suspicious, and she inwardly cursed. She'd wanted to sound like Erik, and hadn't realized it was almost a slip. "I'm surprised you know what a Walkman is," she snapped back, aiming for just the right mix of indignant and smart-assed.

"The school so happens to be overrun with children, so I've seen many of them. But touché." His smile led her to believe that he was enjoying himself.

She shrugged, as if maybe she didn't know what he meant. "I heard it on the news once. They sequestered a jury in a murder trial so that they'd have no contact with outsiders. Isn't that what's goin' on here?" She idly picked at a loose thread on her sleeve, and then pulled, appearing delighted at the small hole it caused.

"Not exactly, Raven." He examined her for a moment, then took a deep breath before exhaling slowly, as if in meditation. "You don't seem to like it here, but I think you've made a snap judgment. Why don't you give it some time before you decide all the students have been locked away by an overprotective headmaster."

She looked up, and didn't even try to suppress the smirk. "Not two overprotective headmasters?" No, not Erik, she knew, and the look in his eyes confirmed it. "Just the one?"

Erik grunted and rose, locking his hands behind his back and walking in a slow circle around his desk. Mystique could have sworn a low hum was coming from the desk now – a strange, deep whine that seemed just outside, but that felt like it was right in front of her.

"You're wrong about these students, Raven. A great many of them do know exactly how it feels to be reviled. Many of us are unfortunately deeply familiar with that feeling."

She knew he'd been in Auschwitz. Kids here talked, and she could blend in. But even if she hadn't known, the look he gave her then would have made her shudder, and that impressed her more than almost anything else he'd done since she met him.

His look softened just a little. "Are you suggesting that it would better for these children to be out among wolves while trying to learn to use their gifts? Here they can focus, concentrate. Learn among those who would care for them, instead of cast them out. Or destroy them."

She didn't answer, because she guessed – she hoped – he was presenting the argument to himself, more than her.

He continued, coming around the front of the desk again. "This is where mutants come when they have no place else to go. And some learn of us and come by choice, as well. You think the school does them a disservice, and perhaps shouldn't be here?"

She rose now and put her hand on the top of the desk, and she could feel the light vibration, but only for a fraction of a second before it and the almost otherworldly hum disappeared. She looked at Erik, and he glanced away almost like he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't.

"No," she answered, "I think it should be here." She slid her hand over the smooth steel, actually hoping he'd do whatever that was again. "I just think you shouldn't teach everyone that it's all going to be all right, and that life really can turn out fair. Maybe there should be another place for mutants. A place that deals with reality, where we still look out for our own?"

"Raven, I wish – "

"Thank you for the lesson, Erik. I'm really, really tired from it. Can we try again later?" She feigned a yawn and wobbled a little on her feet.

He hurried to her side and took her elbow. "Of course, of course. I know very little about your talent and the toll it might take on you – if you're too exhausted you can rest on the couch here, and I'll come back and check on you later, if you like."

She shook her head, yawning again, but lowered herself down to the couch even as she protested. Once down, she tried to look sheepish. "Well, maybe. But surely you don't let students just hang out in your office, with all your things. Files, and stuff."

Erik smirked, but she could see the amusement in his eyes. "Oh, everything's locked. I don't see the point in tempting honest people." The smirk became a smile and he patted her shoulder. "You rest as long as you need. We'll talk more later."

He opened a cabinet, without touching it, she realized, and produced a blanket which he spread over her in a rather fatherly way that pulled a genuine smile from her for a change. "Thank you, Erik."

He left through the adjoining door, and she waited only a few moments before she hopped up. Something told her it wouldn't surprise him to catch her snooping. He probably wouldn't even be angry. He'd just smirk in that way he had that said he knew all along, and aren't you clever.

But she also realized that he wouldn't be back, not until later, just as he'd said. She could tell that he truly wasn't worried about leaving her in here alone.

She laughed softly, as delighted as she was frustrated, as the reason became obvious. All the drawers, cabinets, and containers were metal, of course, and a custom design, probably built by Erik himself. There were no handles, and not even any locks to pick. Erik, after all, didn't need keys.

***


Mystique could no longer bide her time. She'd come for Laura, but had other pending projects and deadlines to tend to and couldn't afford to waste another day in the mansion convincing Laura that she was better off with her than with Xavier and Erik. However, that didn't mean that she'd leave Xavier's empty handed.

While Laura and all the others were in class, Mystique made her way back to the base floor of the mansion, passing one locked room after another before finally arriving at the one laboratory she knew contained the very latest in mutant research, DNA manipulation, and various chemically based methods of defense. Picking the lock and sweeping into the room, Mystique stabbed a syringe full of a mild tranquilizer into the stunned lab tech's neck before she could even attempt to cry out or defend herself. Letting the syringe drop over her shoulder as the woman collapsed to the floor, Mystique shifted into her natural form for the first time in quite a while and began going through the cabinets.

In hacking certain intelligence records, she'd discovered an organic formula that humans had created by accident while trying to devise a liquid that once exposed to air would turn into a gas and tranquilize mutants on the spot. Unfortunately, their research was flawed…at least for humans. The toxin turned out to have a placebo effect for mutants but was deadly to humans. The entire team of researchers that had created the formula was killed in the process and any remaining sample or attempt to recreate it was banned worldwide. But Mystique knew if anyone had a sample of the PlaceboX formula, it would be Charles. He would waste such an opportunity on research whereas Mystique could replicate it tenfold and use it as an offensive strategy in dire situations.

Hearing footsteps approach the lab, Mystique looked to the technician on the floor behind one of the tables and rapidly changed her form and clothing to match hers. Mystique turned around to face the doorway and put her hands into the deep white lab coat pockets.

"Can I help you?" Mystique asked in a pleasant tone, only assuming what the mutant sounded like based upon the dimensions of her frame.

"Uh, no. Sorry," Laura replied, backing out of the lab when she saw that she was obviously in the wrong place and intruding on forbidden territory. "I was just looking for someone. I thought I saw her come down here somewhere," she replied.

"You did," Mystique replied, shifting back into Raven. There was still time and if she could leave Xavier's with PlaceboX and Laura, she'd really be pleased with herself.

"That's just messed up," Laura said, laughing lightly and surprised all again by Raven's ability. "Where have you been?"

"I don't know…around?" Raven replied, turning away from Laura and getting out her notes so she could identify the formula.

"Around? No you haven't because I've looked 'around,'" she said, using air quotes even though Raven's back was turned. "You disappear all the time – and on purpose, which is totally not even fair, Raven." Raven offered her no response at all, only climbed up onto the counter to search through the top shelves, so Laura walked over to her by the cabinets and vials of mutant blood work.

"What are you looking for? Are you even listening to me?" She asked. "Oh my God, what happened?" Laura exclaimed when she saw the real lab tech on the floor beside Raven.

"Oh, her? She's just sleeping; she'll wake up with a mean headache, but otherwise, she's fine."

On the counter in front of her, Laura noticed that Raven had an entire list of chemicals on paper, most of which had been checked off, a journal with all sorts of notes and scribbling of dates and locations in it, and an unlocked box containing six or seven vials of different colored liquids.

"This isn't the real you, is it?" Laura asked, looking closely at her friend now as though she may find some external flaw that gave away her true identity.

Raven shrugged with a smirk while she continued to rummage through the top shelves for any information that would lead her to the storage location for PlaceboX.

"Is your name even Raven?" Laura asked, her voice rising slightly, concerned that she'd been lied to.

"Does it matter?" Raven played, hopping down from the counter.

"Of course it does! I commended you for what you did at the rally and I could be suspended for something like that!"

Raven snickered. "That's not what you're worried about."

"No, it's not," Laura snapped. "I kissed you and I deserve to know who I was really making out with the other night."

"Scott, as I understood it," Raven teased, closing another drawer and walking to the back of the lab, thinking the formula was probably in one of the frozen incubators.

"Don't walk away from me," Laura barked. "What are you looking for that's so important right now?"

"Don't know if I can tell you."

"Why not? I've never betrayed your confidence before," she argued.

"I've never trusted you with anything substantial before," Raven countered.

"Try me," Laura said, grabbing Raven's arm and pulling her to look at and focus on her for once. And focus, she did. Raven remained silent, lifted her chin as though testing Laura's daring, then looked her up and down, waiting for Laura to prove her worthy somehow. Feeling a sudden loss of breath combine with the fury she felt from the realization she'd been successfully baited, Laura asked, "Who are you?"

Unable to stop the formation of a smile at the sight of those bright lilac eyes watching her so critically and with such passion, Raven's skin rippled and stretched until she became the taller more elegantly framed and stunning Mystique.

"My name is Mystique. I operate an underground revolt against human controlled governments and corporations that seek to harm or use mutants against their will. It's been suspected for some time now that Charles has been assisting the humans in researching mutant genetics and in turn, humans are using that information to test on mutants locked away from civilization. I intend to stop them."

"Charles wouldn't do that," Laura reasoned, lightening her grip on Mystique's arm, but not letting go. She didn't even bother to acknowledge the dramatic change she'd just witnessed; for all she knew this was just another smokescreen.

"No, I don't believe he would, but he is too foolish to assume that humans wouldn't use his research against his own people. I pity his naivety…and yours," she said sharply.

"I'm not naïve," she countered, shoving Mystique's arm out of her grasp and stepping away from her.

"No? Your petty hang up over one little kiss says otherwise."

"You're wrong. That's why I've been looking for you. I knew I wasn't kissing Scott and that it was you I was kissing the other night. I might not have known it was this version of you, but I still knew it was the Raven I knew, and news flash! I liked her."

"So come with me," Mystique proposed with a softer tone.

"What?" Laura blurted out, shaking her head as though water had somehow flooded her ears and she'd heard Mystique incorrectly.

"You heard me."

"I can't just leave with you. I don't even know who you really are," Laura deflected. She wanted nothing more than to leave this place she'd never called home and be part of something important, something that changed the way mutants lived in this country and around the world, but she was extremely wary of doing so with a complete stranger – and a dangerous one at that.

"I really don't see how that matters," Mystique said, stepping up to Laura and hesitantly tucking a strand of her long dark hair behind an ear. Shimmering her form back to that of Raven's, Mystique gently held Laura's face in her hand. "But there's always time," she offered.

Laura lost sight of her doubts for an extended moment as she looked into Raven's eyes. They were the same captivating color as when she was Mystique, but the added darkness and wisdom she saw now made leaving with her all the more alluring. Tearing herself away, Laura rubbed her fingertips against her temples and hid her face from Raven, considering the proposition.

Walking back to the counter in the other room with Raven following close behind, Laura read over Mystique's list of samples she was collecting from the lab. Noticing the one still unchecked, Laura picked up one of the miscellaneous vials the lab tech had been working on, wrapped her hand around it, reviewed the formula written out in Mystique's journal once more, then closed her eyes. When she reopened them, she held the vial out to Raven.

"What?" Raven asked, confused.

"PlaceboX," she answered, putting the vial into the box full of samples beside the journal then locking it shut. Looking over her shoulder at Raven, "How soon do we leave?"

***


"This really isn't the place for me," Raven announced to Erik after breakfast when she ought to have been in her first class.

Erik pushed his lips out and shook his head as he set down his cup of coffee. "Stay. You can help me change this, and you know it. You're still young, but the more you–"

Raven laughed, and she could tell it confused and delighted him at the same time. She stepped up to Erik, covered his hand with her own and lifted it. She touched the tattoo that showed just beyond the edge of his pushed-up sleeve. She knew he wanted to pull his hand away, but to his credit, he didn't.

"That will never happen to you, Raven."

"I know," she replied flatly.

"That's what we're trying to prevent, don't you see? What we're trying to do here. It doesn't have to end up as you might imagine."

"I remember when they started rounding you up like cattle," she said, her voice lower than before, a deep satisfaction stemming from the look on Erik's face. "At first it was criminals, political prisoners, dissident Poles. And then the camps went from forced labor to extermination. Meanwhile, this country's government did little but sit by and watch. You were an entire people unable to imagine the atrocities in store, offering little resistance because you saw no immediate need to do so. That's what you're teaching them here. That the differences don't matter. And they may not to Xavier or to these children, but to the rest of the world – the world I know, that you know – they matter a great deal."

Taking a step away, Raven watched the other students run out into the courtyard between classes. "No, this is no place for me, Erik. It's no place for you, either. But I think you already know that," she said, looking back at him.

Erik's face…she'd never forget the expression he wore. It was like surprise and realization dawning all at once. "You remember?"

She nodded, walking back to stand face to face with Erik, the man only a head taller than she. "And before," she elaborated. "I remember when Germany declared war against Russia just over two decades earlier. The U-Boats and the grand liners sinking in the sea, Gallipoli, deaths from influenza, Versailles," she paused, considering. "I wanted to celebrate the turn of the century, but I was young then and it was difficult. It was exhausting to hold a form for long. Just looking at someone long enough would start a transformation. But I learned."

Erik stared at her a long time. "It's not exhausting to hold a form now, Raven?"

"No. Just infuriating that I have to." She paused, looking up at him. "And my name is Mystique," she said, her voice now laced with a hint of something unknown.

"Mystique." He whispered the name as if he'd heard it before, and only just been reminded of it, or as if it were a delicacy he'd just tasted for the first time in years. "Show me," he asked, his eyes glinting with anticipation.

She changed then, the teenage clothing gone, the youthful face and smooth blue skin, it rippled and shimmered, clicked and hissed into place one inch at a time, until she stood several inches taller, glimmering in the faint light, fully developed beneath the ridges and satin plates of reflective blue. She saw Erik's hand lift and thought he was going to touch her. He didn't.

"You're good," he whispered.

She rippled, smiled, and spoke over her shoulder as she walked away. "You have no idea."

***


Charles had been disappointed, but not surprised. He'd suspected something wasn’t quite right, after all. Erik knew Charles was concerned about her out there, on her own, even though she was probably far older than both of them put together. What she could do – the damage – that was Charles' worry. He also wanted her to stay, not just out of fear of what she might do, but fear for her. Erik knew that Charles believed all mutants would be better off inside the school.

Charles stood at the window and from across the room Erik could see the leaves blow across the yard and the students dashing from place to place, hoping to beat the coming rain. One of them literally disappeared from one place and appeared in another. Erik stepped up behind him and put a hand on the back of his neck, let his fingers ruffle through the thinning ring of brown that was getting lighter by the month, it seemed.

He realized that Charles had never met the real Mystique. Erik thought of how she'd so easily shed one mask and donned another. He thought of the blue, ridged skin she'd so proudly revealed to him, with its shimmer and serpentine roll as she changed. She was so beautiful and able to be anyone. Anyone.

"Erik, is that…?"

Erik recognized the girl by her signature red hair, watched as she approached one of the students. Laura Lewis, Erik realized. Laura's parents left her at the school only for Charles and Erik to come to realize that she could rearrange the cell structure in any type of organic material. She had no idea how to apply her gift yet. She was only 17 and had been abandoned, so her lack of control wasn't surprising. She had great potential, though. Laura was thrilled to see Raven – skipping over to her and giving her a quick kiss – clearly they'd gotten close in a fairly short amount of time.

Clever girl, Erik mused to himself, watching the two girls whispering to each other in the courtyard.

Laura handed Raven her backpack, a backpack that could have been full of schoolbooks but Erik knew probably wasn't, over to her new friend before she bent to tie her shoe.

Mystique's golden eyes flashed at the dark clouds drawing near as she smiled over her shoulder at the two men watching her from the mansion.

Charles sighed. "Do you think she's going to pose a problem?" He caught Erik's eyes in the glass.

For Charles' sake, Erik didn't smile. "Yes."
November, 2009