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Fic: "Infinite Regress" [PG-13, Raven/Erik, Raven/Destiny, katetshoni (at) yahoo dot com]

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  • Hermes Trismegistus
    Author: Trismegistus (katetshoni@yahoo.com) Title: Infinite Regress Rating: PG-13 Disclaimer: Oh, so not mine. If you think that I own anybody written about
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 9 11:29 AM
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      Author: Trismegistus (katetshoni@...)
      Title: Infinite Regress
      Rating: PG-13
      Disclaimer: Oh, so not mine. If you think that I own anybody written about herein, I know somebody who needs to pay more attention to Blue's Clues.
      Summary: Raven's got a lot to learn.
      Notes: Notes: Written for the X-Men Movie Ficathon (http://www.livejournal.com/community/xmmficathon/). Artaxastra requested gen/het/slash Mystique, pre-1990. Silly me, trying to nail all three conditions in one go.

      ***

      Coming into the city from Oakland on the BART, San Francisco glittered like a chain of jewels strung on fine gold filigree. Raven wanted to wrap it around her fingers. She wanted to clasp it to her chest. The city looked unreal, like it might vanish if she looked at it sideways, so Raven made sure to look at it straight on.

      Raven watched her reflection in the window, the faint ghostly imitation of her on the other side of the divide. She'd added seven more years to her face--Raven Darkholme was now twenty-four, a sensible young woman fleeing the flat, dull plains states and flinging herself into the hectic hurly-burly of sprawling, would-be-utopian-effectively-dystopian late-eighties-chic San Francisco. There was no hint of a scared, mousy seventeen-year-old who was more lizard than human, more chameleon than girl. She was perfectly ordinary in every way. Everything about her had purpose. She was older, to dissuade any interest from libidinous freshmen. She had non-descript brown hair, wore bookish glasses that perched low on her nose, cultivated a habit of moving her lips when she read. Raven's nails were bitten down to the quick. Fake pearl earrings punctuated the lobes of her ears. She was still pretty, in a plain-spoken-Coffeee-Bean-barrista-girl sort of way, but she had long ago learned that
      vanishing into the tall grass was a skill well worth perfecting. The easiest way to disappear was to have always been there in the first place.

      Designing the new Raven had been easy enough; the old Raven patterned her on a social worker who used to come by the home sometimes, a Reagan Democrat who wore sensible skirts and extravagant blouses and a handmade sea shell necklace that made a noise whenever she swayed her neck that sounded like the place where the ocean broke over the shore. Appropriating papers for her had been harder. Somebody far more inventive than her might have been able to craft an entirely new person out of the filament, but she was seventeen. She was no hacker, able to crack databases and insinuate herself into the machine. The most exposure she'd ever had to a computer was to the blocky Apple that the home let them use for games like Galaga and Snake and Space Invaders. It had been easier to change her existing records, fiddle with her age. It was always easier to build upon something that was already there.

      Ultimately, Raven had had to resort to bribery to grease her way out of the empty gray plains. It was a distasteful process, the acquisition of money, the gathering near of influence. Not difficult, but unpleasant all the same. Unethical took on a whole new meaning when you could put on the local bank manager's face. She tried not to think of the faces of all those people whom she was defrauding. Raven didn't think she had the heart for that--or rather, that she had too much. She didn't like standing full on in the light like that. She just wanted to let the shadows fold over her and be done with it.

      She'd arranged to let a smallish room on Market Street before she left the home. Carol, her future roommate, had sounded friendly enough on the phone. Bored, boring. Raven had already decided that she was the sort of woman whom you could call 'frumpy' with a straight face. Raven had called five different places before she found a roommate who sounded as though she wasn't planning on bringing Castro Street into their apartment every night. Raven wasn't leaving a thing to chance.

      Raven had been chafing at the bit ever since the change wrapped itself around her. The first time had been an accident; the pain was excruciating. A fight with the dumb bitch who lived three doors down from her, the one with the pretty flitty red hair and the bright blue eyes. Even in the home, there was a social hierarchy to maintain. They fed off one another, simply because they could. Sometimes, she wondered what it would have been like if she'd changed out of love and not rage.

      It was just a thing, just a phase, and besides, Raven was kind of bad at it, anyway. She was leaving soon. She had a boyfriend, waiting for her outside. Raven shivered. The girl had left their room, left it to Raven and Raven alone. After she'd left, Raven stared at herself in the mirror and tried to make the ugly go away.

      She was pretty surprised when it did. Her bones stretched like taffy. She felt her joints melt in their sockets.

      Her screams drew people to her room, and thank God that she'd managed to change her face back to normal before they flung open the door. Under her duvet, her skin was abrasive like sandpaper.

      A few hours afterwards, sitting in the home's infirmary, she'd said, "Stomach cramps," and hoped that they'd leave it at that. The nurse looked at her with sympathetic eyes and slipped her some Advil before she left the infirmary.

      Raven made sure to keep what she could do a secret. She practiced only when nobody else was around. She spent years clenching and unclenching her muscles in dark closets. Eventually, she learned that she needed to hear ten syllables of somebody's voice in order to mimic their speech; anything less and she was incapable of copying the rolling lows and elastic highs of another person's throat. She learned everything there was to know about disappearing underneath somebody else's skin, and if she had to forget what her own looked like from time to time in exchange, well, it wasn't like she thought that anybody would find hard, chitinous scales and India ink-blue skin all that attractive, anyway.

      There was nothing left for her at the home. She wanted to be surrounded by an ocean bluer than her. She needed to immerse herself in tides as mutable as her. And so, eighteen hundred miles, six carefully mistranscribed personnel files, two blowjobs and a train ride later, Raven was finally heading for her future. The train rattled and heaved as it sped along. The beach hung around her neck. She wondered if it looked the way it sounded.

      ***

      It took almost two hours each way for her to make the commute to Berkeley, but she'd block scheduled, so it wasn't so bad. Every Monday and Wednesday, she had classes from 9 to 6. She gave herself an hour and a half lunch break, but more often than not she forgot to eat and ended up spending that time in one of Cal's phenomenally huge libraries.

      Raven applied herself to altering the dimensions of her mind with all the diligence that she'd devoted to learning how to alter the dimensions of her face. She had intended to become a biologist--if she knew the language of the body so intimately, it only stood to reason that she might be able to converse with its linguists more readily than most--but, after three weeks of covalent bonds and polypeptides, decided she was better off as a politics major. How hard could it be, anyway? Politics were okay. A little dull. She was better at it than she was at anything else, though, so she stuck to it. Maybe she could become the world's first freak president.

      Her favorite class by far, though, was the one elective she'd allowed herself: a one hundred level introduction to philosophy course, taught by a visiting professor and author named Irene Adler.

      The first day of class, Irene ("Not Professor Adler, not until finals period.") had said, in a voice that carried itself throughout the cavernous classroom, "Class hasn't officially started yet. You may drop this course and suffer no consequences, provided you get up and leave right this second. How many of you think that you're perfectly free to leave, right now?"

      After a few moments' hesitation, nearly the entire class raised their hands. Raven was one of them.

      Irene was the first blind person Raven had ever met who didn't shutter her eyes away behind thick, black glasses; Irene was the first blind person Raven had ever met, period. While the class was conferring amongst itself, Irene tapped a student sitting in the first row to act as her eyes. The girl tapped her finger across the classroom, then said a number to Irene that Raven couldn't quite hear.

      Irene hummed theatrically. She turned on her heel and then, a moment later, added, "Now, suppose I tell you that you may still leave, but only with the following caveat: that I will automatically fail anybody who gets out of their seats. Your liberation in exchange for a black patina on your academic transcript. How many of you still think you're perfectly free to leave?"

      This time, only about five or six people kept their hands raised. Raven lowered her hand. The girl who'd volunteered to count whispered the number in Irene's ear.

      Irene smiled, made a shooing motion with her hand. The girl returned to her seat. "Good. Now I know who picked up the reading list from my office over the summer."

      ***

      Raven worked harder for Irene's class than she did for any other. She went to office hours. She devoured Hume, Ryle, Boethius, Ramsey and de Finetti and Savage. Choice was a novelty for her. Self-determination. Go west, my daughter. Raven figured that she was a walking philosophy course, herself.

      She knew, in a half-spent candle sort of way, that she was attracted to Irene. She figured that there was a little reciprocation there, too. Irene sometimes extended her office hours for two or three hours at a time, if Raven couldn't make them. She didn't think anything was going to come of it, though. Belatedly, Raven bemoaned the fact that she'd stopped at twenty-four; another decade, and Irene might have tilted her head when Raven talked in a way that communicated more than communication possibly could.

      "Do you have any plans for the winter break?"

      Raven had walked Irene back to her office after the conclusion of their final. Raven figured she aced it. Now, they were sitting together in Irene's little office, the tiny cubbyhole that the University of California administration had foisted upon her. Raven sat next to Irene, because Irene conducted her office hours sitting next to her students.

      Yes, Raven thought, plenty of plans. Cloistering myself away and making sure that I'm the exact color of the shadows pooling in the corners of my room.

      "Probably going to stick around town," she said. "I've got, you know. Stuff to do around here. I like Berkeley a lot, and San Francisco too. It's a hell of a lot better than home."

      "Ahh, good, good. You know, I could use a new teacher's assistant, if you're feeling up to the task." Irene reached out, brushed a fingertip against the inside of Raven's wrist. "Somebody to take me by the hand around campus."

      Attraction was easy for her. She knew that the face she wore was a signifier, a comfortable place where the real Raven rested. Binary sexuality meant nothing when you operated on a tertiary scale. Still, there was propriety to consider. She'd come too far to exchange one moment of incandescent beauty for the future unfurling at her feet.

      "Professor Adler," Raven began.

      Still, she was lonely. So very, very lonely.

      "You're not my student anymore," Irene said, and that was the final word on that.

      ***

      It was a shame that Irene could never see herself. She had beautiful blonde hair, nothing like Raven's own plain brown mane (brown? red, something snickered, red and taffeta not-brown and nothing like corn-silk blonde). Her eyes pinched tight at the corners with little crow's feet striations. Raven thought they made her look stately. Once, when she was alone in the apartment, Raven turned herself into Irene, and was discomforted by how comfortable she felt, sitting in her skin.

      Staying in Irene's apartment just off Telegraph made getting to class a breeze. Suddenly, Raven had free time. Suddenly, Raven could surprise Irene during her office hours with flutes of wine.

      They passed the days with philosophy lessons. Raven wondered whether Irene ever got tired of splicing the space between choice and will.

      "The problem is," Irene was saying, "that if there's some omniscient deity removed from time, how does that inhibit our own right to free self-determination?"

      "I don't follow," Raven said.

      "Let us say that there's some entity whom, for want of a better name, we shall call God. Tomorrow God says to you that you'll leave me in a year. If you do leave me, then God was right, and so it was always true that you were going to leave me in 1990. God knows everything, a circle circumscribed by its own radius. It must be necessarily true, then, because how could there be relative degrees of truth? How could it be true at one point in time and not true at another? Needn't it always have been true, if it's going to happen in the first place?"

      Raven immediately perceived what she supposed to be the great fallacy in Irene's argument, and lifted her head from her pillow to remark upon such. The easy way would be to discredit the God entity watching over them all, but Irene didn't hold much truck with the easy way of doing anything. Raven was starting to learn the same.

      "You're arguing that there's contagion, between what was said to me in 1989 and what comes to pass in 2004. You're supposing a connection, when, really, it's only with conjunction that such a thing would necessarily apply."

      Irene touched a finger to one wrist, in the manner that, much later, Raven would come to know meant she was pleased.

      "My apt pupil. My good girl."

      She then proceeded to show Raven just how pleased she was.

      ***

      "What distinguishes a causal sequence from mere coincidence?"

      Raven smiled; this was an easy one. "If I am to leave you tomorrow, then it must have always been true that I was going to leave you today. If something was always true, then I never had a choice in the matter. The actual execution of the action is merely a fait accompli, one which I am forced to follow. Therefore, I no longer have free will. I own nothing that I do."

      Irene tilted her head. "And?"

      "And?"

      "Why is it so important for you to own what you do? Why is it necessarily a good thing that you reject a deterministic philosophy? If there's something bigger and greater than us controlling our actions, there's no shame in throwing ourselves into the grand design."

      This caught Raven unawares; till now, they'd always argued from the rhetorical perspective that free will carried with it its own moral imperative, its own self-derived worth.

      "I don't like the idea that I have to surrender to anything," Raven said after a while. She kept her eyes fixed on the throw rug at Irene's feet, even though Irene wasn't exactly going to notice whether Raven was staring her in the eye or not.

      "It's not surrender. Sometimes, it helps to think of it as submission."

      ***

      "Or think about it this way," Irene said. "If it was true yesterday that I will burn my toast today, then necessarily I must do so. Reconcile this with a universe where I have complete and total free will."

      They stood at the counter, making breakfast. Irene was preparing toast, while Raven fried bacon. Fat sizzled and crackled on the pan.

      "I can't make that work," Raven said. She jabbed at the bacon with her spatula. The strips were burning to the pan already. She frowned, and covertly dumped the morning's efforts into the garbage disposal.

      "Yes you can," Irene said. "Think."

      "Can I get a hint?"

      "Think semantics."

      "Semantics." Raven made a face. "I hate semantics."

      Irene smiled. She buttered two pieces of toast, then carried them over to the dinner table. From the other room, she called out, "We all hate semantics. That doesn't mean we don't have to consider them. Think."

      Raven thought aloud. "Semantics. The correlation between what's said and what's meant."

      "The gulf between the sign and the signifier," Irene supplied helpfully.

      "Thank you," Raven said, with no small amount of sarcasm in her voice. "I wouldn't have gotten that far without you leading me by the hand."

      "Just trying to be a good educator," Irene said cheerfully. Raven heard her pour out two measures of orange juice.

      "The signifier: the statement that if it was true yesterday that I will burn my toast today, then necessarily I must do so."

      "Go on."

      "The signified: that there's a chain of causality linking the event and the knowledge." Raven opened up the package of bacon and tossed a few more strips onto the pan. She made sure to keep an eye on them this time. Besides, Irene was in the other room, so Raven wasn't about to get distracted by the way the morning light glanced off her bare shoulders.

      "Tell me about the chain," Irene said.

      "It dictates that there's some sort of connection between what I knew today and what I'll do tomorrow," Raven said. "It's not, if yesterday quantity p, then necessarily adjunct p comes to pass. It's if yesterday quantity p, adjunt then necessarily p comes to pass. You're shifting the significance of what you've qualified as the predicative. The necessity operator in that construction qualifies not the consequent but the connective. If it's true, then the chain is forged, but until you reach that moment in time when it's true--"

      "--It has no motive force of its own. And the meaning of this is?"

      "It's a way you can opt out of a universe qualified by fatalism and determinism."

      "Good girl," Irene said happily.

      "So what you're saying is that the future isn't writ large." Raven laid down the plate of bacon. Irene took three strips. "That we can change the future."

      Irene quirked an eyebrow at her. She took a bite out of her toast. "What do you think?"

      Raven smiled. She pressed her lips to the inside of Irene's wrist. "I think we're all writers, whether we know it or not."

      Irene braced her hands upon Raven's shoulders. Her fingers traced the curves of her body. "Then let me read what you have to say."

      ***

      She was Braille under Irene's fingertips, waiting to be read.

      ***

      One day, she'd come home from classes to find a man's coat and fedora hanging off the coatrack in the foyer. A fedora? Who still wore fedoras?

      Raven walked into the living room. Irene was sitting at a table. A tall, lean man sat on the sofa. He had thin musician's fingers that he kept steepled over his knee.

      "Ahh, Raven, good, you're home," Irene said. She rose and grabbed her cane. The man tried to support her at the elbow, but Irene brushed him off. "Raven, this is Erik Lensherr. He's an--old friend. Erik, Raven Darkholme."

      "Miss Darkholme," Erik said. His voice had wisps of European gentility to it. She prayed for seven more syllables, so she could practice his voice on her own.

      "Well," Irene said briskly, after a brief silence opened up. "Shall we eat?"

      They ate. It was the most surreal dinner she'd ever experienced.

      Irene sat primly the whole time, her back ramrod-straight. Normally, she had a lazy, indulgent insouciance when she ate, like some Roman aristocrat reclining on her sofa, but now she sat in a passable imitation of rigor mortis. Erik wasn't much better, either; his shoulders at least weren't so rigid, but Raven wondered if the man made a point of declaiming everything in a voice that wouldn't be inappropriate for a royally-trained Shakespearean. It was infuriating.

      The two seemed to be talking in some sort of code that only they understood. It was as if they were trying to dig into one another with their politeness. Their propriety was a weapon. Each smooth turn of phrase was a land mine waiting to detonate underfoot. The lead seemed to shift back and forth between them; the muscles around Irene's mouth would tighten, and Erik's eyes would twinkle as he took a sip from his wine, or a neat little line would almost form between Erik's eyebrows, and Irene would smile as she passed the saffron rice down the table. Raven wondered whether she was supposed to be keeping score.

      Just when Raven was a mouthful away from finishing her tarragon chicken, Erik turned to Irene and said, "Charles sends his regards." There was that Charles again; Raven could only assume that he was a mighty important mutual friend, for them to come back to his name time and time again over the course of the night. It was like he was some planet or celestial body, around whom they could only orbit in collapsing, concentric paths.

      Irene smiled wryly. "Does he now? And here I was, thinking that you were wooing me without his consent. Whatever happened to forbidden love, I wonder."

      Erik arched one eyebrow. "I don't know what you're talking about. Charles asked me to come," he said neutrally. He pressed his napkin to the corner of his mouth.

      Irene scoffed. "Charles only asked me about my sight once, and even then it was only to ask whether he would ever be weak enough to do so again. You do not come speaking for him, I think, nor do I believe it terribly wise of you to presume to speak to me in riddles and in falsehoods." She passed one hand over her eyes, like a Bedouin dancer pulling back a veil. "I'm almost as stubborn as him, you know. Don't think it's possible to be quite as egotistical as the man without more testosterone flowing through my veins, and you're certainly number two on that list, but I think I run a close third."

      "Excuse me," Raven said, as Erik glared across the table at an Irene who suddenly looked like she couldn't care less about propriety and dinner etiquette and whether Erik's in-flight service had included honey-roasted or dry-salted peanuts. "I'm going to go fetch the cheesecake."

      From the kitchen, Raven heard Erik raise his voice. He said something about how Irene's gifts were absolutely imperative to the cause. Irene's reply was low and muffled, but it was certainly enough to draw a quick, angry retort from Erik that Raven couldn't quite make out.

      "You can't run from him forever," Irene was saying when Raven re-entered the dining room. She had both palms laid flat on the table, as if to steady herself against its sturdy and solid geometry. "A continent isn't enough space. A galaxy wouldn't be enough space. He hangs over your shoulder, the way you hang over his."

      Erik narrowed his eyes. "I merely wished to gauge San Francisco's putative tolerance towards society's marginalized others for myself. 'Running' from Charles was never on my agenda."

      "Cheesecake?" Raven interjected. She held the cake up with an earnest, stupid hopefulness that she didn't really feel.

      Irene turned her head in the direction of Raven's voice. Erik openly stared. A painful, long moment knit itself together, during which Raven imagined that she was turning purple underneath the skin she'd slipped on for Erik's comfort. After the moment fell apart, though, Erik laughed, a sound he hadn't made all evening long, and reached for one of the dessert plates set at the end of the table.

      "Yes, I believe a slice of cheesecake would be most agreeable," Erik said as he passed the plate on down to Raven.

      "More agreeable than the company," Irene muttered darkly. Raven hoped that Erik hadn't heard.

      After dessert, Irene claimed a headache, and asked Raven to see Erik out. Raven opened the door. She shuffled her feet. She rather liked the sound of Erik's laugh, and had been hoping that he would make it a few more times before he'd left.

      Erik said, "Please, convey my thanks to Irene for her--hospitality this evening." Raven wouldn't have noticed the half-beat there if she hadn't been listening for it. He placed a hand on her forearm. "And you, my dear. I apologize for we two old fools, I'm quite sure that we didn't mean to make you feel so uncomfortable."

      "You didn't make me feel uncomfortable," Raven said automatically, but Erik waved a hand in the air.

      "Nonsense. We did, and I apologize. Irene and I have history together, which is still no excuse for our comportment tonight." He brushed his lips against the side of her face. Erik's breath was hot. He smelled faintly of expensive, masculine musk and something else, something underneath the cologne. Like the steelworkers she shared the BART with sometimes, late after classes as she plunged back into the city. Or blood, maybe, fresh out of the vein. "It's good to see that Irene has surrounded herself with such capable and companionable friends."

      He swept out of the door with something that she could only call majesty, as if he would have been more comfortable with a cape hanging off his shoulders and a crown placed upon his brow. Raven closed the door. Idly, she noticed that her breath had hitched in her throat. She spent the rest of the night trying to dislodge it.

      ***

      After almost six months of practically living in Irene's apartment (six months of never having to wear somebody else's face, six months of hearing someone tell her that she was beautiful without ever having seen her face, six months of Irene and her and the universe coalescing between them), Irene started growing solemn, reserved. The philosophy lessons dwindled, then stopped altogether. This went on, till one day, Raven confronted her about it.

      Irene heaved a sigh, a heavy, weary thing full of exasperation and regret. Then, she crossed over to her desk and extracted a book from the bottom drawer. It was a slim notebook, the cheap kind purchased for a dollar fifty at the campus bookstore. While Irene could write, and frequently did, she preferred not to do so; she generally conducted her correspondence via casette tape, or dictated while Raven took notes. Raven had never seen this book before, though. A little hard knot began tying itself together at the bottom of her stomach.

      "What is this?"

      Raven read: that she was reading the book, and that she would ask what it was, and that Irene would shake her head at the question.

      Irene shook her head.

      "What is this?" Raven repeated, slanting her lizard-yellow eyes over at Irene. "A diary?"

      Irene reached over. She trailed one finger up and down the edge of one page.

      "Rather the opposite of a diary, really."

      Raven flipped a page.

      Tomorrow, scientists at the University of Utah would announce that they'd successfully triggered cold fusion. The claim would later be denied, and years from now cold fusion would fall to the wayside as unfeasible, a radiological pipe dream.

      Flip.

      The day after that, an oil tanker departing the Valdez oil terminal in Valdez, Alaska would run aground a reef. Eleven million gallons of oil would spill over the surface of Prince William Sound, like ink pooling over paper. The environment would buckle, then break. Litigations aginst the offending parties would go on well into the next decade.

      Flip.

      On January 3rd, 1991, a little over ten months from now, Manuel Noriega would surrender to American forces. Raven didn't even know who he was, but from all that Irene had written about him, he sounded like an important man.

      Flip.

      On February 7th, 1990, the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee would give up its stranglehold on legislative power throughout the USSR. A hemorrhaging of constituent states would follow: Lithuania, Estonia, the rest of the Baltic states. The official fall of communism would come a little under two years later, when, on December 9th, 1991, the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian republics would formally dissolve the USSR and install in its place the Commonwealth of Independent States.

      Flip. Flip. Flip.

      Raven closed the book, handed it back to Irene.

      "It's how I knew that you'd be enrolling in my class that day."

      "You knew because you had the class roster," Raven amended.

      Irene shook her head. "No. I knew that I'd meet you the day before you came in for office hours. What you do--how you change, the way you can assume somebody else's identity; don't be surprised that I know, I've known since I knew to know you--that's what people will eventually call a mutation. Erik has one, a very powerful one. I have one, too, and it's why I know that, in two years' time, the New York Times will publish a front page article on this very subject. Scientists will call us homo superior, but the rest of the world will call us mutants."

      Mutant. It was such an ugly word, for what she and Irene could do. It implied deviation, it implied defects, it implied shame. There wasn't room for shame in Raven, not anymore. Irene had taught her not to be ashamed of who she was and what she could do; Raven would die before she went back to the quiet co-ed sitting at the back of the bus.

      "So that's why we had to read so much Hume."

      Irene smiled. "No, we read so much Hume because Hume was right."

      Raven said, "So this is the big secret? You've stopped lecturing me about philosophy because you're a--" 'Freak' died on her lips; what Irene could do, there was nothing freakish about it. "--Mutant, like me? Like Erik?"

      There was surprise in Irene's voice as she said, "You're not going to ask to see more?"

      Raven shook her head. Her throat had suddenly gone dry and drumhead-tight. "No. Should I ask?"

      "No," Irene replied, but as she put the book away Raven couldn't help but feel that she'd given the wrong answer.

      Raven tried again. "Is it that you're worried about the future?"

      "There's no sense in worrying about it." Irene's voice made it clear that further discussion was unnecessary and, indeed, undesired, but Raven pressed the issue.

      "Didn't you just give a lecture to your students saying that we can still incorporate Humean humanism into a determinist universe? Haven't you spent the past six months trying to get me to believe that choosing to do something matters just as much as the act of doing it?"

      "I know he's right, but sometimes, I worry that Hume was wrong," Irene said. Her breathing became more precise, more pronounced, and Raven decided to leave it at that.

      ***

      What happened next, even Raven wasn't really sure about.

      It started when Raven had off-handedly asked whether Erik was going to be coming back for dinner any time soon.

      Irene had sighed, like she was expecting the question, and shook her head. "Let's not talk about Erik again, shall we?"

      "I just thought it might be nice."

      "What might be nice?"

      "You know. To be with other--"

      "Mutants?"

      Raven nodded, then added a moment later, "Yes. Like us."

      Irene's face darkened. "Erik is nothing like me."

      "He didn't seem so bad."

      "You don't know him."

      "I'd like to," Raven said, before she could stop herself.

      Shit.

      Irene curled her knuckles around her cane. "Raven, stop."

      She didn't.

      "I just--he seemed like such a nice man. What with the summer coming up and all, maybe a picnic in the Park would be--"

      "Erik is no man."

      Raven smirked. "Sure looked like it to me."

      Irene didn't laugh.

      "Erik does not view himself as a member of the race of man. He holds allegiance with the mutant species."

      "You say his name like he's a threat."

      "He is a threat. Charles can't see it now, won't see it now, but he is a threat."

      "A threat to whom?"

      "To us," Irene replied hotly. "To the whole mutant race."

      "Jesus Christ, Irene, make up your mind! First he's a card-carrying member of our species, now he's holding a knife to our throats."

      "He's both. That's the most terrible thing about him."

      "God, I just said that it might be nice to have dinner companions once in a while, another mutant like us. Not like we'll get acceptance anywhere else for who we are and what we can do."

      It was so stupid. All she'd said was that maybe they could have a man over for dinner again. The argument should have ended. The argument should never have taken place to begin with. Raven felt herself carried along against her will. Maybe this was the submission that Irene was always talking about.

      "I think you should go," Irene said.

      Raven stared. "Go where?"

      "Go home."

      Raven returned to her place on Market. A fine fuzz of dust coated her own meager possessions.

      An anasthetic numbness had settled down over her. She picked up the phone. It wasn't like she had a queue of friends, waiting to break down her door and comfort her. Raven had taken pains to disappear without ever having vanished to begin with, and now it pained her to realize just how effective she'd been.

      "I'm sorry," she said into the receiver. "I didn't know who else to call."

      "It's quite all right," Erik said on the other end of the line. "How can I help you, Raven?"

      ***

      She began to see the handsome man with the silver-flecked hair more frequently. Where Irene spoke of hypotheticals, of possibilities, of the future, Erik spoke of the now, of the concrete underneath them and the metal that spider-webbed the planet, waiting to be tamed. Irene spoke in the future conditional, while Erik spoke in nothing but the present, and it thrilled Raven on some perverse level to refute her former mentor and lover's linguistic code so.

      They fell together like complementary poles. His full name, she later learned, was Erik Magnus Lensherr, a German Jew who'd survived the camps. In no particular order, he was: a cynic, a Gemini, a terrible cook, a mutant, too quiet when he slept. He was the first man who kept his eyes open when he made love to her. He was the first man who made love to her, period, and didn't merely devour her body with his.

      He had a little apartment in Palo Alto, similar to Irene's except nothing like it. It was spartan in outlay, economic, efficient. No paintings hung from the walls, no knickknacks adorned the shelves. He had books instead. Thick, heavy-bound things that looked like they projected their own gravitational fields. Dead German men, dead French men, dead English men and countless other dead white men constantly jockeyed for Erik's attention. Erik was an explosive reader, gesticulating sharply in the air at something splayed out on the page or raising his voice in counterpoint to a particularly offensive line of reasoning; sometimes, Raven thought that Erik didn't quite realize he couldn't engage in dialogue with the voices echoing in his head.

      The first time she'd spent the night, Raven had been too conscious of her own nakedness before Erik to do anything much beyond bring him little joy after little joy. Later, though, she started leaving little traces of herself in her wake: a magazine she'd bought at the newsstand or a tape casette she never quite got around to bringing home or a tube of her own toothpaste, because Erik used foul, bitter stuff that made her feel like she was brushing her teeth with finely-ground pumice. One day, she'd left a note for Erik on the fridge door before stepping out for the afternoon, berating him for not fixing the light bulb in the hallway like he'd promised.

      Moving in was merely a formality after that. The commute from San Francisco to Palo Alto was wrecking havok on her sleeping schedule. She was there all the time anyway, and Erik certainly had room to spare.

      ***

      On May 30th, Chinese students raised a statue to the goddess of democracy in the heart of Beijing. History was forking while they watched. Raven wondered if this was how Irene felt, all the time.

      Somebody was saying that the protests grew out of funereal arrangements for the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Hu Yaobang. The man on TV, who wore a soft blue blazer with broad shoulders, said that Beijing's students and educated elite viewed Yaobang as an advocate of democracy. He said that the students were in the thousands, tens of thousands. He sounded hopeful when he talked about the reform that would sweep over the country.

      Erik made a dismissive gesture with one hand. "Nonsense. Hu Yaobang was no more a friend of democracy than Yang Shangkun."

      Raven kept quiet. She thought he sounded like a good man, working towards reform through the system, but she didn't say anything.

      The television flashed picture after picture of students rallying. Somehow, CNN had maintained their satellite feed even after the Politburo cracked down on all outgoing transmissions, and for a few days afterwards, Raven panned over nearly a thousand Chinese students bound up in a hunger strike that sprawled across a public square nearly the size of Berkeley's vast quad.

      After a while, she said, "I think they're extraordinary."

      Erik raised an eyebrow, but didn't press the issue.

      On June 5th, they watched a single man hold a column of tanks at bay. He held a bag of what looked to be groceries in either hand. For half an hour, he ducked and wove. The great tanks, like some horrible line of martial insects, stuttered, then stilled.

      Raven found it mythic, enthralling. "The Avenue of Eternal Peace. I like that," she mused. "The open palm halts the closed fist. It takes a brave man to let peace affirm his purpose."

      Erik stared off, as though he could see over the horizon and clear on through, over the shoulder of the man with the grocery bags facing down the tanks in the middle of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. "Not all tank drivers are so sympathetic."

      A shadow passed over Erik's face, and it was then that Raven took it upon herself to pour bright light over him.

      ***

      She was iron in Erik's hands, waiting to be forged.

      ***

      Irene had never been too fond of the newspapers. It was more than her own natural discomfort around the written, non-tactile word. There were Braille papers she could have had delivered to her apartment, but she avoided those, too. She found them all depressing. "I have the world's despair cradled in my head already," she'd said to Raven once, after the affair with the diary. "Why should I add to my own emotional disrepair?"

      Erik was nothing like that. Erik read at least four papers every morning, and read them in their entirety, skipping only those sections he found utterly risible. ("Anything with the words 'Fashion,' 'Style' or 'Living' in its header has no business acquainting itself with me.") Erik had a near-encyclopedic command of history, and his grasp of the political was, in Raven's eyes, daunting.

      Erik talked to her about things like mutant rights and oppression and the inalienable sovereignty of the individual. They talked about flashpoints, moments when history was waiting to be written, not read. The Warsaw ghetto uprising, the formation of the R�publique d'Ha�ti. Black Panthers in America, Zionists and the Golan Heights. Irish Republicans, Basque separatists, Mujahideen hurling the Soviets out of Afghanistan by the scruffs of their necks. A theme was being constructed over her head, like a circus tent rising on its poles.

      Very soon, Raven realized that Erik was talking about more than stern letters to the editor dispatched to the New York Times. Raven realized, with a sort of slow comprehension similar to the way that the chambers of the lungs gradually circulated air throughout the body after a debilitating workout, that Erik trusted her. Very soon, Raven realized that Erik was giving her the world.

      She didn't know how to receive it.

      "I didn't know--I didn't. Well. Not really."

      They were sitting in the dining room. Erik was reading the paper, but he still had enough presence of mind to man the appliances. Every now and then, an implement would float out of the kitchen bearing more food; Raven took a slice of toast fresh out of the toaster hovering over her shoulder, and held out a hand obligingly while the orange juice jug tipped its mouth over her cup. She remembered the scene from The Sword in the Stone where Mad Madame Mim made the scullery dance. Kid's stuff. She was far removed from the home's media den. She frowned, and put the thought away.

      "I'm not angry with you," he said slowly when Raven finally told him about the diary. A sterling silver platter floated by his side, laden down with whole wheat pancakes. Erik took one, then the dish whisked itself away back into the kitchen. "I merely wonder why you chose to bring it up now in the first place. There's nothing we can do about it. Irene made it very clear that you were unwelcome in her home, and I sincerely doubt that she'd just hand over this diary of hers upon the asking."

      Raven shifted.

      "I thought it could be useful," she said at last, when she realized that she'd spent nearly a whole minute staring into the depths of Erik's eyes. They were blue and sharp, the color of the sky where the ozone layer ended and deep space began, and Raven thought that they saw infinitely further than Irene's own pale, impotent orbs.

      Erik smiled. He pressed a hand to Raven's knee under the table. "Useful indeed."

      ***

      Raven slipped into the apartment. It was almost half past six right now. The summer class bulletin indicated that Irene was teaching a class Tuesday nights from 6:00 to 7:15; Raven had a little under an hour before she returned.

      A fire was burning in the fireplace, or at least dying down. Embers sparked and sizzled, but didn't do much beyond that. Irene must have just left, then. Foolish of her, to leave before the fire was entirely put out. The apartment could easily have burned down. Then again, if Irene saw that the future didn't hold a visitation from the local fire company, who was she to waste time banking some tame flickering flames?

      Good for Raven, though. Timelines and markers were helpful when breaking and entering into former lovers' homes.

      She spent several moments relearning the dimensions of Irene's place. The apartment was just as she remembered. Wide, empty spaces, little in the way of art or decoration. Surprisingly like Erik's, but for all the wrong reasons. She half-expected to see a picture of herself sitting on Irene's desk, but, thankfully, neither she nor Irene were so far gone that such an absurdity could have been honestly said of either of them.

      She found the notebook where it had been the first time. She wondered why Irene hadn't moved it--if she saw this, she surely would have tried to compensate. The sensible thing to do would have been to take the book, flee, retreat to Erik's side and fly away from the city altogether with the book, and the future, in their possession.

      Just a quick peek. She needed to verify, after all.

      The book fell open to a little half-page entry. There was a little date header, but the ink had blotted, and all Raven could make out was a little scribble that looked like 00-07.

      The lightning god falters, then falls. Bolts sizzle. Proteus cries out, and she runs to ground.

      Raven blanched. Proteus, the Greek shape-shifting prophet of the sea. Distant ancestor, perhaps. Though she didn't know if she had any Greek in her.

      She flipped another page. Her fingers were growing moist, sweaty; they left ugly smudges on the page. The words were carving themselves on the insides of her eyelids, then scabbing over just as quickly. She didn't think she was retaining it all. She didn't think she could have retained it all.

      The urge to close the book suddenly grew strong. It would have been so easy. It had been months, after all, no reason for Erik to assume that the lay of Irene's apartment would have been the same, no reason for Erik to assume that Irene wouldn't have done the sensible thing, which would have been to destroy the book as soon as her far-seeing eyes saw that somebody meant to do more with it than borrow from the future like a library. Erik would have believed Raven, because Erik had to believe Raven, and they would have driven away and she would never have to come back to the little apartment with the windows that faced west over the Bay, ever again.

      It would have been so easy.

      She kept on reading.

      Raven felt like she was looking at a tapestry through a microscope, trying to make sense of the weave beyond her periphery. The entries became more erratic. They started reading like newspaper headlines: short, dense, packed full of meaning. Irene's blind handwriting, illegible on a good day, became nothing more than a series of loops and whorls. Raven ran her fingers over the text; the pen had been forcefully jabbed down, and she could feel the elevation of the words through the backs of the pages.

      --Registration Act passes--

      No.

      --President McKenna routed from office; billionaire industrialist Cameron Hodge captures 48 states in election landslide--

      No.

      --Xavier, famed mutant rights activist, assassinated by pro-human militia--

      --martial law declared in New York City after riots erupt in all five boroughs--

      No.

      --communication from the self-styled Mutant Brotherhood, swearing vengeance for the late Professor Charles Xavier--

      --camps opened. "Today, we preserve our genetic heritage. Today, we preserve the human species," said camp infrastructure architect Boliver Trask--

      --first Nimrod-mark Sentinels rolled off the conveyors today; President Hodge praised Homeland Security Secretary Larry Trask for his--

      --detonation over the island nation of Genosha, suspected to have been harboring a militant faction of mutant separatists--

      --culminated in the execution of the mutant terrorist Magneto, also known as Erik Lensherr. A national day of mourning was observed for President Hodge--

      --after a deadly firefight, finally apprehended the mutant terrorist Mystique, who, in the power vacuum left by Mr. Lensherr's execution last year, assumed command of the Mutant Brotherhood's global infrastructure. Mystique, a metamorph whose real name has yet to be determined, lead last month's assault on the Riyadh pipeline. The offensive effectively crippled the world's governments and plunged countless economies into debt, as banks defaulted across the globe--

      No, no, no, no, no...

      She felt more than heard the sound of the key in its latch; Raven was growing quite adept at feeling the pressures of other people jangling around her, and so she had already turned on her heel when Irene opened the door, casual as you please, as if she hadn't just walked in on her ex-lover thumbing through her most private of possessions, wrapped up in the heavy folds of the night. Irene's face swung around towards Raven, like a compass needle pointing due north. Raven wondered if being quiet would help. Probably not. Irene already had her professor's face on. Unsurprised at the sight of Raven, like she knew she'd be there.

      Like she always knew.

      Irene took the book from her unprotesting hands.

      "It's not what it looks like," Raven said, and immediately she hated herself for saying it. Yes, it was precisely what it looked like, and Irene knew it.

      Irene smiled, the way she did that made Raven feel like a thousand rays of light were trying to push their way out from underneath her fingernails and her scales and the little rough calluses all along her body. Raven felt a swelling, somewhere beneath her breasts and behind her lungs. Irene wouldn't have allowed this to come to pass if she didn't tacitly approve, right? For a second, Raven allowed herself to imagine that everything was going to be okay.

      Then, before Raven could react, she tossed the notebook into the fire.

      So that's why she'd left it burning.

      "That can't be--" Raven began, after the book was well and truly ash. "That can't be right."

      "It can be, and it will be."

      "That can't be right," Raven repeated emphatically. "You're wrong."

      "Why not?"

      "Irene, what you wrote in there--it's not true. It never will be true."

      "It's not true yet. This is the antecedent, the moment a priori. What you do from here on out determines everything. More than everything, really. Everything is what happens now, in the present, at this precise moment in time. Everything is stasis. What you have encompasses more. What you have is flux. What you have in your head is the future."

      "You're wrong. That's not the future. I'm no murderer," Raven said hotly. "I never will be a murderer."

      "Yet."

      "Yet?" Raven's voice went dark and low and dangerous, and she let a little bit of Erik creep into her eyes.

      "Yet," repeated Irene.

      Raven took a step towards Irene; Irene held her ground.

      "What kind of answer is that, 'yet'? What kind of justification is 'yet'? How can you--how could you show me this," and never mind that Irene hadn't actually shown it to her so much as Raven had pilfered the knowledge from Irene; with what she knew, allowing Raven access was tantamount to handing it to her with a pair of reading spectacles, "and say that, just say 'yet' like you haven't just augured my death?"

      "The future demands much of us. You've seen it for yourself, now. You know what we need to do if we're to survive, and what we don't." Irene turned her face towards the fireplace. "Erik is no alchemist. He might command metal like time commands me, but he's not yet so adept at turning the will to steel. You have to choose, Raven. You must own this decision. It must be yours."

      Raven didn't like the way that Irene said Erik's name: like an unclean thing, in need of purification. She wondered how Irene knew about Erik's plans, then realized she was being foolish. Irene knew, because she was supposed to know. That was that.

      "Was everything just--"

      "Was everything just what?"

      "Just a test." Raven's eyes nictitated sideways. "Just part of something bigger than you and me. Were we just part of the journey, not the destination?"

      Irene didn't answer.

      "Oh," Raven said.

      "Why didn't you stop me?" Irene asked, as another enthusiastic silence dogged at their heels. "You could have tried to grapple the book from my hand before I tossed it into the fire. Me, a blind middle-aged woman with nothing but a walking stick at my defense. If you'd succeeded, you'd've had the blueprints to the future."

      Raven sneered. "Would there have been a point? Wouldn't you have foreseen every move I made, or are you that far behind on your payments to the Psychic Friends Network?"

      It was a childish, petulant thing to say, and it only foregrounded the vast distance between them, her the woman still clinging to the faded tatters of her girlhood and Irene the woman who was older than tomorrow, but it drew a reaction from Irene. She sighed wearily and said, "You won't understand for a while yet, but trust me when I say that you needed to have this choice. You needed to make this choice, yourself."

      "What choice?" Raven very nearly spat. "I have no fucking choice. You've made it for me. From the minute I walked into your classroom, you've made all the choices."

      Irene smiled, if but faintly. "You have a choice. You always have a choice. I'm just helping you see it."

      Well. Cryptic philosophical determinism. All right then. At least they were covering familiar territory.

      They were silent again.

      After a long moment, Irene said, "So, you're looking well."

      Raven scoffed. "How would you know?"

      "Because I know you haven't yet learned to look otherwise."

      Raven stared.

      "The police will be here soon." The pleasantries were clearly over, if they could even have been called such. Irene moved through her little apartment, touching this, touching that, walking with the slow, steady gait of one who intended to savor each step through sweetly familiar terrain.

      The police. Numbly, Raven said, "When did you call?"

      Irene lifted one shoulder. She ran happy fingers over the surface of a small Chinese evergreen; she always liked those best, she said they had the most eloquent texture to their leaves. "Before I left the school."

      "You didn't have to do that," whispered Raven.

      Irene tilted her head. Irene had elegant hands, well-suited for one whose fingers plucked at the skein of time. One of those fingers touched the inside of her wrist. "Would it have been the same if I didn't?"

      The police came about a quarter hour after that. Irene Adler met them at the door, a robe drawn around her thin frame, and if she seemed a little off, well, she had been having a difficult day today, so the officers would have to excuse her for her distraction. She assured the officers that it had merely been one too many glasses of Chardonnay after dinner, making her jump at shadows. She told them that there was nothing to worry about--she'd heard a cat jump upon her fire escape, exactly, a cat, nothing to worry about, yes, that was all, she was sure.

      She let them sweep her apartment anyway, but asked that they keep from dragging their boots through her bathroom; she'd just laid down new tiles, and didn't want them leaving tracks.

      Later, Raven would reflect (to herself; always, in the end, to herself) that Irene had been wrong about many things, but chief among them was this: that Raven would have reacted any differently, had Irene been...been...

      Had been, yes. Exactly.

      It was Irene's final gift to Raven, this fire-alarm clarity that came with such terrible, precise knowledge of who and what she had to be. It was also Irene's last great fuck you, to both Erik and herself; that she had been able to temper Raven's steel when his own fires had proven insufficiently hot. Somewhere between the two, Raven had been given balance. In this, she had to believe. In this, she did believe. This, she knew, and in knowing, she knew that a thing could become true, even if it wasn't before.

      This had to be true, because she'd said it was true. Because she needed it to be true.

      Erik was waiting outside, in his sleek, aerodynamic car with the bright silver dollar hubcaps. It looked like if he but willed it, it might defy the laws of gravity and man alike and peel off for parts unknown.

      She got in the car.

      "Well?" he asked, after a heartbeat of watching her breathe like a long-distance runner cresting a hilltop.

      "Teach me," Mystique said, her voice even and flat. "Teach me about tomorrow."

      Magneto smiled a smile, a small half-crescent that did nothing to settle the tumbling in Raven's stomach.

      He pulled away from the curb.


      word�smith�y, noun: a place where words and ideas are worked and tested. also, see http://homepages.nyu.edu/~jmt269/fic.htm.
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