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"Lights in the Dark"

Lights in the Dark

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Author's Notes

-=Chapter 2: Hanseatischer Heiligabend=-

Valerie Cooper was beginning to feel that it was going to be raining every time she was visited her widowed aunt. It had rained the last time, when she had been in Aunt Emma Andreesen's art nouveau house in the spring of last year, and it was raining now, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1997. But it was warm inside when her grandfather's youngest sister opened the door for her three visitors and showed them to her lilac sitting-room. In a way Valerie felt pleasantly surprised at how comfortable everyone was in this showpiece of her quarters, sitting around the coffee-table with the Advent Wreath with its four lighted candles, but then her ex-husband and her (for lack of a better word) consort had already straightened out their potential for hostility in the preceding week.

They had been on a mission in Southern Germany, one that involved a crisis at a US Army base in Bavaria, and Edmond Atkinson had volunteered to act as liaison for military intelligence. Mystique had not been able to resist the old saw about that being an oxymoron, and from then on the ice had been broken. They discovered that they had a very similar, dry sense of humor, and after a few days together they felt very comfortable with each other and the blue-skinned ex-terrorist and the African-American secret agent found they worked well together in action. Val still had taken a while to get used to the changes he had gone through since their divorce, but then their jobs had not made it easy for them to keep in touch. At some point Edmond started working out in a big way and gained several pounds of muscles. She had already witnessed the new, bigger frame at Irene's christening, but subconsciously she had refused to register it and thus it had once again come almost as a shock when he entered her office ten days ago.

Irene. She would be glad to see and hold her again when she got back home tomorrow. At the moment her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter was in the care of Strong Guy in Westchester, where she and Raven were going to spend the holidays with Raven's son Kurt and with Rogue, her, no, she corrected herself, their foster daughter. Valerie and Raven were going to leave tonight, using the X-Factor jet which now was waiting at Fuhlsbüttel airport. Havok and Polaris would pilot it and had by now presumably returned from their last-minute Christmas shopping in order to get a few hours' sleep before their departure. They were going to drop off Valerie and Raven in New York and then proceed to the big Summers family Christmas gathering in Anchorage. Alex and Lorna at the controls meant, among other things, that Val and Ray could indulge a little in Aunt Em's Glühwein (mulled wine) as well as the tea and Christmas cookies.

American by birth and Canadian by choice (naturalized after her wartime service), Emma Cooper Andreesen had lived most of her life in Hamburg. She had married a native journalist a few years after World War 2. Now firmly rooted near the Alster, she had not felt tempted to return across the Atlantic after Ernst Andreesen died four years ago. With the zeal of the convert immigrant she had taken up German Christmas customs, although she still liked to prepare mince pies and Christmas pudding as well as Braune Kuchen and Zimtsterne. But that was in keeping with her adopted home town, which 200 years ago had already been joked about as the most English city on the continent.

Aunt Em was in a good mood today -- she was always glad to see Edmond, having continued to look on him as a nephew-by-marriage even after he and Val had 'amicably divorced'. And she was warming to Raven, whose unusual relationship to her niece had become tabloid fodder all over the world. But she had at least met Raven briefly once before, during the 2nd NATO metapowers conference this spring. She was also looking forward to celebrating Christmas Eve with the family of her eldest son. "At my age I can finally fully enjoy Christmas again, with Sarah having to do all the hard work," she explained. "And the advantage of celebrating Christmas in Germany is that you have to wait half a day less than across the pond."

"Umm, maybe we should ask Uwe and Sarah for a second opinion on that this evening," Val couldn't help saying.

"Uwe had better agree with me," Emma chuckled, "or I'll just have to remind him of the time when he was twelve when he was dead against us going on a winter holiday with your grandparents." Her voice changed into a high-pitched whine: "'We'd have to wait until Christmas morning for our presents,' he said, as I recall." There was laughter all around.

"Should've gone to Holland then," said Raven, "there you get your prezzies on December the 6th!"

"Hmm, with a last name like Darkhölme, shouldn't St. Lucia's Day be your cup of tea?"

The foursome then discussed various matters of the extended Cooper and Andreesen families, with Valerie and her aunt providing most of the information, and Raven and Edmond the odd observation and witticism. The impending Heiligabend celebration at cousin Uwe's home in Wellingsbüttel also figured largely in the conversation. Emma had already forewarned her son that she would bring along three visitors, and now she wasn't taking no for an answer from her three guests. "And it will be much easier to get to the airport from there," she assured them.

"Oh, all right, since you're twisting our arms," Val had finally given in for herself and Raven, "I guess it'll be nice to see them again."

Edmond, who had to stay on in Europe in any case, also was game, pointing out that he had not yet attended a German family Christmas celebration in any case. "Oh, you'll get the hang of it soon," Emma assured him, "in our family we also sing English carols, and you can just hum along to the German ones."

"Well, I do know 'Silent Night'," Edmond replied pensively.

"Just follow Uwe and Sarah's lead, and you'll do all right as far as the kids are concerned," added Valerie. "Perhaps I should warn you that there's probably going to be a rush when everyone is let into the Christmas room. Uwe's bound to tell the kiddies they can still catch a glimpse of the Christkind if they hurry to the window."

"Christkind?" Edmond seemed a little puzzled, but Raven rushed to explain.

"This is a Protestant region, and German Protestants long had problems with worshipping saints like Saint Nicholas. So here Santa Claus doesn't bring the presents, but the Christ-child does."

"But I must have seen dozens of Father Christmases downtown today," Edmond protested.

"That's creeping commercialism eroding the old traditions," Mystique sniffed dismissively. "Now you have Santa Claus all over the world, and all over the world he looks like the Coca Cola ads."

"Ever the cynic, eh Raven?" Edmond smiled indulgently, which apparently slightly annoyed Mystique.

"In any case, it is still the Christkind in many family celebrations," said Emma. "And the children are not to see the Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, so the room with the tree, the Nativity figures and the presents is locked off, sometimes for days. In our family, they have to sing carols until the bell is rung three times, and only then are you allowed inside."

"Sounds like pretty hard work for the kids..."

The seasonal theme reminded Emma of the fact that this year it was exactly fifty years since her first Christmas in Hamburg, and as Raven and Edmond had not yet heard the story, she told them how she had met their mutual acquaintance Nick Fury at that time of the year in 1947:

"After the war, Nick Fury went into covert operations for the first time. He and his Howling Commandos were still young and had come to enjoy the life of adventure they led. So about half of the Howlers were only to happy to accept when the OSS offered to take them on as a covert action team. This was in part an effort to make the Army look more favorably on 'Wild Bill' Donovan's outfit, but it didn't help them much: the OSS was still disbanded in the fall of 1945. A few months later Fury and his men wound up in the new CIG which a year later became the CIA. But they were split up in the big expansion of 1947, and December that year he was sent to Hamburg.

His job was to track down Franz Krautwurster, a scientist who had worked on several German secret weapon projects during the war and bring him to America."

"Krautwurster?" asked Raven, failing miserably to repress a giggle, "you're making it all up!"

"Yeah, just the kind of name a pulp novel writer would give a bad guy," added a grinning Edmond.

Emma gave them her stern grandmother look, but her eyes twinkled.

"Nevertheless, that really was his name. The CIA wanted to bring him to the States, but unfortunately he was in the British internment camp in Bad Nenndorf, so they had to pull a few strings. I suspect Nick Fury's British wartime connections helped in that respect. Anyway, he picked up Krautwurster at Nenndorf and brought him to Bremerhaven, which then was an American enclave in the British Zone of Occupation. There they put him on a transport ship under the cover of darkness. Fury then decided to pay a visit to his British Howler buddy, what was his name?"

"Percy Pinkerton," offered Valerie who had had dealings with the head of SHIELD for years and been regaled by him with the occasional war story.

"Yes, that's right. He was here with the British forces, I forget in what function. Could've been the BFN. Anyway, Fury arrived here shortly before Christmas. Of course things looked rather different in the city then. Where people had Christmas trees, their fuel value was usually more important than the trimmings. Large parts of the city still lay in ruins, people had to live squeezed into small cellars and Nissen huts, and supplies of food and coal were already precariously low. Everybody was afraid there would be another winter like the one before, when hundreds had died of the cold and malnutrition. Still, life went on, the city was slowly reconstructed, its first freely-elected post-war Senate had just finished its first year in office, and Ernst could even take me to the theater."

She turned towards Raven, who, being new to the house, could not be expected to know all the details of the Andreesen family history. "He was from Hamburg, but he had emigrated before the war (he was a Social Democrat) and joined the British Army. Now was an officer in the military administration. I was in the ATS. Anyway, it was the day after Ernst had taken me out to Ida Ehre's Kammerspiele to go and see Draussen vor der Tür that we bumped into him and Pinkerton in the NAAFI. Ernst introduced them to me -- he had met him before, earlier that year. Of course I'd read about Nick's exploits during the war, so it was a huge thrill for me to meet him in the flesh. The textbook rugged American hero he was..."

Emma Andreesen silently and dreamily looked into space. "Anyway, der langen Rede kurzer Sinn,* er, to cut the long story short, we met a few times, and on one evening at Ernst's flat we had a convivial evening -- as in 'somewhat under the influence' -- and talked about all sorts of stuff that really fell under the Official Secrets Act."

She lowered her voice a little, just for effect: "As they started talking shop, it turns out that Ernst's section -- they had to ferret out war criminals -- had just been about to bring Krautwurster to trial for being involved in experiments on humans. You should have seen Nick Fury's face. He went ash white. Of course he was so far gone by that time that he then started bellowing about how his superiors had hoodwinked him, that he hadn't fought the war to let a rat like Krautwurster get away."

Edmond sat up: "You mean they didn't prosecute him for his crimes?"

"No, of course not. That they would have done in Europe." Emma's mutant contemporary interjected. "It happened a lot. Many Peenemünde scientists would have been tried for involvement in war crimes if they hadn't been needed for the US rocket program."

"And I guess the Russians and the other powers also found ways of overcoming scruples if they felt they could use people," added Valerie. "But we were interrupting you," she placatingly said to her aunt.

"Hrrhhm. It took a while to calm him down, and then Ernst was suddenly called away. They'd discovered a 'big fish' among a bunch of black-marketeers arrested in a raid earlier that day, and he had to interrogate him at once. Nick and I stayed behind, and, um, basically flirted a little. I must have had a bit of a crush on him -- he was so different from Ernst, he had a more earthy, animalistic appeal, I mean, he even looked a bit like a pirate with his eyepatch..." She blushed prettily, causing her listeners to smile. "I rather think he fancied me, but we didn't do that kind of thing on a first date in 1947. Unlike you young'uns!"

Emma comically wagged her finger at Valerie and Raven, reminding them of their bizarre early history and causing Edmond to grin broadly. "Anyway, it all made for a pretty miserable Christmas. I felt guilty towards Ernst for flirting with Nick, and Nick got disillusioned with intelligence work, and he and most of the Howlers signed up with the US Army again."

She took another sip of tea. "Ernst was angry at his superiors for allowing Krautwurster to be smuggled into the States. He really was brassed off with the secret services after that. But that was only one reason. At one of our earlier evenings he had been with this English guy whom he had met in the UK in '46. Being in his cups, Fury introduced him as a colleague, and he turned out to be a high-ranking MI6 officer en route from Turkey. He tried to sound Ernst out, but Ernst became monosyllabic. There was something about him that made him dislike him. Maybe it was his vocal and militant anti-communism that he found off-putting. Ernst had no particular love for the communists, but at that time many of his political persuasion still believed in the feasibility of a unified German state that would be a democratic socialist one. And the beginning Cold War threatened that aim, and in fact would lead to the creation of two German states. The irony is of course that sixteen years later it turned out that the man actually was a Soviet agent."

Edmond and Valerie gasped.

Only Mystique, who ever since Emma had mentioned Nick Fury's presence in Hamburg fifty years ago, had become most attentive, was unsurprised. "Kim Philby," she said, "yes, I now remember the occasion. I knew your voice was familiar, but of course over the years your accent..."

Now it was Emma's turn to be amazed. "You were there? But he had a man with him... well, that doesn't mean anything in your case... and Valerie told me you're much older than you look..."

"Let me get this straight," Val interrupted, "you worked with Kim Philby? Why did you never mention--"

"Well, you never asked," Raven answered without batting an eyelid -- and unaware (or uncaring) that she was using a trademarked Wolverine phrase.

"I guess you learned the art of deep cover from the master." Edmond seemed a little amused that Raven had not told this little tidbit of her past to his ex-wife.

"You could say that," Mystique replied as if it was nothing special. "I was eighteen at the time, although the MVD believed I was older. And a man. I became a Soviet agent in '43, as soon as I discovered my powers, because I couldn't bear remaining passive in the war. In '46 they placed me in the British embassy in Ankara. Uncle Joe was in one of his paranoid phases, and when Philby was transferred to the Turkish station, I was ordered to keep an eye on him. Of course I told him as soon as we met, and I became his protégé for a while. Then a few years later I went freelance."

"Didn't the Russians go after you?" asked Emma Andreesen. "After all, you knew their most important penetration agent..."

"Of course they wanted me dead. But what can I say, I was young, I thought I could beat the world, I was reckless..."

"Hard to imagine you once were so different from your shy, cautious self," said Valerie with a sarcastic smile.

"Anyway, after Kim escaped to Moscow in '63, the pressure was off. In the meantime I'd changed identities a few times, met Sabretooth and -- as Leni Zauber -- became his wife for a while, and then met Irene."

"I guess you then went on to emulate Philby by infiltrating the Pentagon hierarchy as Raven Darkhölme," added Valerie.

Edmond Atkinson scratched his goatee: "I suppose Raven Darkhölme isn't your real name, is it? I mean the one you were born with."

"Now Edmond, a woman's got to keep some secrets if she wants to retain her mystique," the indigo-skinned mutant joked. "But it's the name I'm sticking with. The three women who loved me as a mother or a mate knew me as Raven, so it is now my real name, whether or not I was born with it." She exchanged a tender look with Val.

"Well, it isn't the first time a nom de guerre supplants the original name," said Emma, thinking of former chancellor Willy Brandt (who had left his birth-name behind when he emigrated before the war) and of Rogue, another case in her own family.
Mystique continued: "Anyway, in '47 Kim and I were on her way to London, to have me transferred into another section to increase my effectiveness as a double agent. Kim Philby was being groomed as his successor by Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6, and so he took in a few foreign stations on his way home for a visit. The stay in Hamburg was pretty dreadful, as I recall. Although I remember feeling a little attracted to you, Emma. You had that wholesome English Rose look. Guess I was too engrossed with your face and hair to notice the 'CANADA' on your shoulder."

As usual, Mystique dropped her little bomb with a nonchalance that would have infuriated a saint. But Aunt Emma kept her cool, just smiled and toasted her with her half-empty cup of tea. Her niece had told her about Raven's conversational habits, so this gambit did not come entirely unexpected. Val raised her right eyebrow hat Raven, whose lips widened and thinned in a superior smile.

"In any case," Mystique continued, "Philby did not mention me in his autobiography. Rather unsporting I thought."
"Well, maybe his KGB superiors wouldn't have allowed it," suggested Emma. "By the way, I think his unmasking had something to do with Nick Fury's decision to rejoin the CIA after Korea. He must have been quite mad because he had let himself be taken in by him after World War 2. But he always preferred combat assignments to real intelligence work, even if they now came under the heading of covert actions. But I guess now that he's crippled, he's really stuck behind a desk. I wonder if he remembers me."

Valerie and Raven left the Andreesen Christmas celebrations at around half past eight, when it was pitch dark already. Too tired to answer stupid questions and unwilling to engage in discussions with strangers, Raven had assumed her old look as Raven Darkhölme, director of DARPA, with black hair to match her given name. The taxi that took them to the airport, an ivory-colored Volvo, was driven by a young woman who worked on the holidays to finance her university studies. The two passengers sat in the back, letting the events of the day pass review before their minds' eye. Mystique thought about the eclectic mix of carols they had had to sing -- British, American, German, and one from the middle ages which kept switching between Latin and Low German:

In dulci jubilo
singt, weset fro!
Al mines Herten Wunne
lit in presepio,
de lüchtet so de Sunne
in matris gremio.
Ergo merito,
Ergo merito,
des sullen alle Herten
sweven in gaudio.**

Raven snuggled up to her strangely silent mate. "You okay, dear?" she asked.

"Just a slight headache. I really wish Aunt Em hadn't used such a cheap plonk for her Glühwein."

Raven started massaging Val's temples, and the younger woman exhaled in audible relief. Mystique admitted that she actually had enjoyed the visit, as Valerie's German relatives had made every effort to make her feel at home. But then, as in many other things, European's lagged a few years behind America as far as mutiphobia was concerned. Valerie's three nephews and nieces had stared at Raven with wide eyes, but it was a matter of curiosity, not fear. But then Raven's younger son, Nightcrawler, had become quite a celebrity in Germany ever since Excalibur set up shop very much in the public eye in the UK. They were even a little disappointed that she did not sport a prehensile tail too. Much to the amusement of the grownups, Raven quickly grew one to please them.

Now in the back seat of the taxi, Mystique was disgustingly cheerful, chatting on brightly (albeit in a low voice, so the driver would not hear) about how she enjoyed being with the Andreesens and Edmond. Val listened a bit testily, because of her headache; but she also felt a bit embarrassed because she had clicked so well with her ex now she had a chance to have a real conversation with him for the first time in many years. But the festive atmosphere (or was it a side-effect of the mulled wine?) and Raven's ministrations mellowed her mood. Bedding her head on Ray's lap she felt a compulsion to talk about (confess?) her feelings for Edmond Atkinson.

It had been a much more simple, straightforward romance with him, conforming much more to the expectations she had formed in high school than her relationship with Raven, which had clearly started off on the wrong foot. She now thought she felt she was as secure in her relationship as she ever could hope to be with a woman like Raven, but she could not help wondering about her failed marriage to Edmond. Would it have lasted longer, would it have survived until today if, for instance, they had had children?

Raven, eminently practical as she was, did not find it productive to speculate about what might have been. Although she had to admit that she still had moments when she suddenly felt the loss of her first great love, Irene Adler, more acutely. So she was not surprised that Val would still care about Edmond.

"Oh, don't be so damned understanding, woman!" Valerie moaned. "Doesn't it upset you at least a little that I still feel ... something about him?"

"Val, when you're my age..."

"Oh no, not that again," Valerie said, comically twisting her eyes upward, that is towards the door, as she was still lying down.

"Nevertheless, dear, I know about these things," Raven stated flatly, "and I know you. You're not going to go back to the dashing Major Atkinson. You know it wouldn't work out."

Val had to agree: "No, I guess not. It was just that I felt more comfortable with Ed than I ever had since our first year of marriage. But maybe that's because deep down I knew there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell of us getting back together and so I wouldn't have to adjust my life to his. And vice versa."

"But you do have to tailor your life to mine?" Raven said in an expressionless voice that made it hard for Val to decide whether she was joking or serious. "I hope that's not too much of a strain for you."

"Well, no relationship is always easy." Val said diplomatically. "You always have a little give and take. And of course with someone as old as you..." here a mischievous twinkle appeared in her eyes, "... I've got to expect that you're set in your ways and make allowances..."

She then had to laugh uncontrollably because Mystique was tickling her under the ribs. "Okay, okay. But you know you're not making things any easier!"

Raven relented and gently put her hand to Valerie's cheek. X-Factor's government liaison visibly relaxed, savoring the moment. She started again: "No, actually a lot of things turned out to be much easier than I had imagined. Okay, we get our share of hostility in public, but my family has been very supportive once they got over the initial shock."

"I guess so" said Mystique, who was not so sure, "your parents still call me 'Ms. Darkhölme', though."

"Now, now, Raven, it was a bit much to get used to at one and the same time: their daughter announces she's bisexual, she's hooking up with a mutant ex-terrorist old enough to be her mother, and she's pregnant. Others have problems with any one of that list. And you've only met them a few times, so they still hardly know you. But they're holding up pretty well. And compared to your Graydon..."

"My elder son makes everybody else look good," snorted Raven, making light of the man who had been the most prominent mutiphobe leader in the US and even a viable presidential candidate until his parentage became public knowledge.

"No, seriously, in our private lives we've had much smoother sailing than I had dared hope. Your other kids are wonderful. Rogue especially. She always knows how to cheer me up, and I kind of get a kick out of the way she treats me as a mixture of stepfather and elder sister. And of course you've always been a considerate lover and consort." As Raven gently stroked the bullet scar on her scalp with one hand, Valerie squeezed the other.

"Not to mention we keep having great sex..."

"Yeeesss," Val slowly admitted, "but there's a downside to that. When I have sex with you in another shape, it's almost as if I'm cheating on you with somebody else, and then I start to fear that you..."

Raven was taken aback: "Good grief, isn't it a little early in our 'marriage' for you to fret about that? Don't over-interpret everything, love. Anyway, I get my kicks out of being somebody else with you, never fear. And you do have a great bod."

"But what'll happen when I grow all wrinkly and saggy? Don't laugh, please... I feel weird -- I know you're twice my age..." Val said apologetically, "still at times I have this irrational fear that one day you'll leave me for a younger woman..."

Raven was a little annoyed: "Don't be silly, you know I'm not that shallow."

"Of course not. I told you the fear was irrational. Still, I know your libido, and on days like this, with a headache like this, I wonder if I'll always be able to keep up with it. You know, with a power like yours, when you're apparently impervious to old age, it's enough to make a flatscan girl feel inadequate."

"Fishing for compliments, are we?" inquired Raven in a schoolmarmish voice.

"Well, your story of meeting Aunt Em 50 years ago got me thinking. By the way, did you have to tease her that way? Even if it wouldn't surprise me if you really had felt attracted to her then." But Val did not leave Raven time for an answer. "Anyway, I was thinking, and you don't have to answer this, but -- were you always faithful to Destiny? Sexually, I mean."

Mystique froze. Valerie too fell silent. Had she gone too far? Even though they had named their daughter after Irene Adler, her relationship was one of the subjects they tended to give wide berth in their intimate conversations. At last, Raven asked: "You really want to know the truth?"

Val pondered for nearly half a minute: ".... yes."

Raven sighed in resignation: "Well, when she began to feel her age, she said that she didn't mind if I had an occasional fling as long as she didn't get to hear about it. I don't know if it was because she was a precog and knew I was going to stray, or because in her family and generation the standards for marital fidelity were less stringent for men than for women. And that she looked on me as part male because I had fathered Kurt..."

Val, whose brow had furrowed at the reminder of early-to-mid-20th century sexual double standards, nodded. Raven had told her the truth about Nightcrawler some time ago, how she had conceived him with her leman, how Irene had given birth to him in a village in the Alps, and how they had handed him over to Margali Szardos to protect him from old enemies like Sabretooth. Despite their physical resemblance and the contradicting accounts of how the baby had been found (once it was in the arms of his dying mother, once in those of his dying father), Kurt had at first suspected nothing or been too indolent or scared to inquire. Only after Raven was drafted into X-Factor did he muster up the courage to ask and found out the truth. Talking to Valerie about the matter, Raven had suggested she could inject a little levity in the situation by saying "Kurt, I am your father" in James Earl Jones' best Darth Vader voice, but it was perhaps for the better that she didn't. All this flashed through Valerie's mind before Raven continued:

"Still, I tried to curb my sex drive after a time. Irene never gave any indication of being unhappy, but I found it was easier to look in the mirror if I did nothing more than flirt with other people, even if Irene and I made love less and less frequently and energetically. Of course my relationship with her had been less sexually active than ours is, even before she went through 'the Change'. But it wasn't always easy. Sexual urges aren't easy to control or predict. You'll no doubt remember that after Irene's death I went through a phase when I seemed to need it more than ever before. I won't try to prophesy how things will turn out with us. I don't even know if I'll have a normal life-span or a longer one. With my job descriptions I'd be surprised if I died of natural causes in any case..."

"Now there's a somber thought..."

"But really, Val, why so moody tonight?"

"Oh, just my usual holiday blues," Val said resignedly, "I'm afraid you'll have to get used to the fact that you're stuck with a woman for whom the pre-Christmas stress is replaced with the post-holiday depression with absolutely no gap in the middle."
Val couldn't rightly tell in the bad light, but she was sure Raven grinned.

"Well, if I didn't know for certain that we haven't made love as man and woman for half a year, I'd have felt duty-bound by the stereotype board to ask you if you're pregnant."

Val had do laugh silently at that gentle upbraiding. "Speaking of which, when we were in the kitchen, Sarah asked me if we intended to have more children."

"And? What did you tell her?"

"What did you think I told her?" Valerie was a little annoyed with herself. "No, don't answer that question. Actually I hemmed and hawed a lot, talked about having to keep my job in mind and all that..."

"Well, I could have the next one," Raven suggested with an unreadable expression. "I mean, we could fertilize one of your eggs and have it implanted in me. People do that sort of thing all of the time these days and I'm sure we could talk Hank McCoy into doing the necessary..."

"I don't know," said Valerie unsure. "Of course," she paused for some mental calculations, "it would be nice for Irene to have a brother or sister who's a little over two years younger. Still, I wanted to have at least one more baby myself, only I never seemed to be able to decide when."

"Hey, I second that emotion," said Raven, "if only because you're so gosh-darn cuddly and sexy when you're pregnant." She enthusiastically hugged her slightly embarrassed lover, "It looks so cute when your navel pops out." She turned to admonishing the driver: "Behalten Sie die Augen ruhig auf der Straße, junge Frau!"***

"So we're agreed we're going to try for another one?" Raven's voice returned to its previous low tone. "Now all we have to do is decide which one of us is going to be the mother this time."

"Now there's something you don't hear every day," grinned Valerie despite herself. "Of course we also could both have kids. Three would be a nice, round number, don't you think?"

Now it was Raven's turn to become meditative, finding the sudden prospect of enlargening her family that much a little daunting. "Well," she finally said, "we definitely should not rush into things. Not that I'd discount that possibility. I mean, if we're going to claim more maternity leave, Uncle Sam might find it more 'economical' if we did it all in one fell swoop..."

"Okay, we'll sleep over it." Valerie's spirits were raised, although it was impossible to say if that came from the relief of having discussed some of her hang-ups with Raven, the joyous expectation of another child or Schadenfreude over Raven's sudden unease.


Continued in Chapter 3

* "The long speech's short meaning." F.Schiller: Wallenstein.
** In sweet jubilation/ sing, be glad!/ All my heart's joy/ lies in the crib,/ it shines like the sun/ in the lap of the mother. / So verily/ So verily/ for that shall all hearts/ soar in joy.
*** "Just keep your eyes on the road, young lady!"


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