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Puzzle Pieces

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Title: Puzzle Pieces
Fandom: X-Men First Class (post-movie)
Genre: Gen, Action Adventure
Starring: Mystique, Emma Frost, Darwin, Angel
Co-Starring: Charles Xavier, Magneto, Hank McCoy, Alex Summers, Sean Cassidy, Azazel and Riptide
Rating: All ages.
Wordcount: 15,000
Summary: Magneto's team realises that Darwin might still be alive and attempts to find him. When they are caught in an ambush and half the team is captured, Mystique has to lead the rescue effort. Darwin calls in the kind of help that Mystique doesn't want, but does need.

 

 

"I was going to kill Shaw, you know," Angel abruptly stated one morning as she got out of the shower. Mystique stood at the sink, trying out hairstyles in the spotty mirror. Emma had been first to grab their only hairdryer, yet again.

*I know you planned to.* Emma spoke telepathically instead of shouting over the noisy hairdryer.

Mystique settled on a severe dark brown bob streaked with grey. She loved these fact-finding missions, where she first worked alone and the team followed it up. "If you knew, Emma, why didn't you tell Shaw?"

Emma shrugged and turned off the hairdryer, leaving it on the sink. "She didn't have a plan yet." She squeezed past Mystique – now creating appropriate make-up for the 50-year-old substitute teacher role she would be playing today – and sat on one of the beds in the adjoining room to take out her cosmetics case. "Why should I commit before I know who's going to win?"

Angel towelled herself dry, shaking water from her wings into the bathtub. "Well, no. You saw how tough he was. I still think my venom could have worked on him."

Mystique made herself some ugly faux-pearl earrings and joined Emma on the bed. "Are these okay, Emma?" She turned back to talk to Angel. "You went with him all by yourself, so don't try to tell me you were secretly on our side all along."

Emma carefully applied her mascara. "Those earrings are hideously perfect, darling. And you're right – Angel wasn't at all troubled at letting the humans wipe each other out. But she did want some nice juicy revenge for her poor innocent friend Darwin. Did Shaw kill him when he came to recruit you?"

Angel put her wet hair up in the last of the towels and stomped into the bedroom to find her clothes. "Don't you talk shit about Darwin. He understood what the world was like. He only wanted to protect his friends."

The cosmetics case snapped shut. "So did you."

"Shut up, Emma," Mystique spat. "And for God's sake pick a code name so we don't have to always call you Emma."

"Darwin had one even before Charles found him," Angel added, pulling on her costume. Only Mystique had a mission today – the rest of them would be training out in the desert while they waited for her return. Emma, of course, trained in full make-up.

Surprisingly, Emma didn't snap out a reply as she usually did, instead picking up Angel's comb and coming over to help comb her hair into a tight bun for training. Mystique watched closely – Angel had been straightening her hair for so long that it was kinking up in unexpected ways now, especially at the back where she couldn't see – and Mystique had shamefully little experience with non-Caucasian hair.

Emma teased at a knot. "Why was he called Darwin, then? That's an odd codename for someone who didn't know what he was."

Angel adjusted the bust line of her costume and sat down to give Emma better access to her hair. "Oh, he had the best power. He could adapt to survive. Put his head underwater? He'd grow gills. Hit him with an explosion? He'd grow rock-hard skin. He said when he was fourteen he got pushed off of a fifth-storey fire escape and bounced."

Scraping Angel's hair into place, Emma held her hand out to Mystique for some hair bands. "So how did Shaw manage to kill him, then? Shaw was the most powerful mutant I've ever met – yes, including our illustrious leader, Mystique, so don't make that face – but Darwin sounds perfectly suited to defend against him."

Angel flicked a telepathic image to Emma, of Shaw stuffing his power down Darwin's throat and Darwin's body flickering from silver and stone before exploding.

Emma snapped the hair bands into place, ruthlessly pulling at Angel's hair. "You're all idiots. No, I take that back. Angel didn't get to stick around afterwards to investigate. Mystique, you're an idiot."

Mystique had an immediate urge to punch Emma in her loud-mouthed, annoying face, but she knew Emma would turn to diamond when it was too late for Mystique to pull her hand away. She always did that.

"Mystique…" Angel warned, and Mystique looked down to see her hand had gone blue and lost the arthritis-swollen knuckles she'd worked so hard on. She flexed her fingers and they returned to the shape she wanted.

"Seriously," Emma continued, making her final adjustments to her pristine appearance, "Don't you already know someone who can turn into a mineral and be telepathically undetectable?"

Angel frowned. "But Darwin couldn't – "

"You said yourself – he adapted to survive. It's obviously possible for someone to be made of stone and yet alive, so how do you know he's dead?"

"I don't!" Mystique and Angel said in surprised unison, then Mystique continued. "But how would we find him? He exploded into little bits of rock and we can't find him telepathically."

"No idea." Emma shrugged. "But I bet you first choice of bed in the next house we borrow that Magneto will know."

---

Azazel had given Mystique a copy of The Feminine Mystique as a joke. Unfortunately for him, she'd not only read it, but passed it on to the other women and to Magneto. Kitchen duties had suddenly become equally shared among all the team members. Emma and Mystique argued about the book frequently. Emma certainly wasn't volunteering for extra cooking shifts, though, so Mystique considered that a victory, and not just because her cooking was terrible.

This morning Azazel was still at the stove making toast, sausages and boiled eggs, but thankfully Magneto had already made the coffee. Mystique poured cups for herself and the other two women and they joined Magneto and Riptide at the table reading through the days' newspapers and inhaling the sweet black coffee, as Azazel cursed quietly at the eggs.

Angel put a hand on Le Monde to catch Magneto's attention. "Emma thinks Darwin might still be alive."

Magneto looked over at Emma, who calmly read the Ladies' Pages as if there was nothing else on her mind.

"Hmm? Yes, I did say that. If he turned to rock, a telepath might not be able to detect him."

Magneto threw back the last of his coffee, and he looked more alive than he had in weeks. "Electrical potential."

"Do you think you can find him?" Angel was used to his sudden, cryptic comments by now.

"If we find the remaining pieces, if Darwin's protective mutation worked in a similar way to Emma's, and if we can buy enough time for me to look thoroughly, then yes, perhaps. I didn't sense anything then, but it's taken practise to sense Emma in diamond form."

"The place was a mess. They must have cleaned it up, for sure." Everyone turned to look at Riptide, who still spoke only rarely – whenever he had been using his powers, his voice switched off for a while. Emma said it was something to do with shared pathways in his brain, but Mystique had never caught exactly what.

Magneto made a gesture of impatience. "Then we'll find where they disposed of the debris. Nothing merely vanishes. "

Azazel slapped a large plate of toast down on the table and turned to retrieve the boiled eggs from the saucepan. "So, training is off for the day? We can plan while Mystique's going through the school records."

Magneto glared at him, though for once there was little force behind it. "Training is never off."

---

The CIA base was empty, but not unguarded. The team had two missions here tonight: to find Darwin, and to destroy the remains of Cerebro. The government might not have a telepath to operate it right now, but that didn't mean that they wouldn't find one: another Charles Xavier to stroll in and declare himself, another Emma Frost in a cell.

Mystique and Azazel waited by the fence for Emma's signal.

*I'm just saying,* he noted through the telepathic link, *There's a male mystique too. What if a man wanted to stay home and look after the kids while his wife worked? Even in Russia, motherhood is the most important role.*

Mystique kept a hand on his shoulder, ready to teleport. *Okay, I'll give you that one. But is that because of a male mystique or is it because female work is considered inferior?*

*You're giving me the most wretched headache.* Emma's telepathic voice was as sharp as her physical one. *Fortunately, you can go now.*

Without further need for words, Azazel teleported them both into the grounds of the CIA compound, appearing right behind two guards. They each grabbed one – still keeping contact with each other – and Azazel teleported them all out again, landing at Emma's feet. The two soldiers fell to the ground, fast asleep, and Azazel and Mystique grabbed their guns.

*Have you got what you need?* Mystique asked Emma.

*I've got the check-in routine and code words, but you'll have to give me a moment for the rest.*

Azazel checked his rifle over with a professional eye. Mystique followed suit, rather more slowly, as she hadn't grown up around weapons as Azazel had, let alone worked as a mercenary.

Emma's telepathic voice intruded, louder and clearer than anyone else's. *They did clean everything up after the attack, but it's all still on site. Here.* She showed them an image of four big green dumpsters, the bronze statue that Alex destroyed sticking incongruously out the top of one. *Looks like Magneto is going to go dumpster diving.*

Mystique grinned despite herself – and despite the sudden sour feeling in the telepathic network – then grabbed Azazel's shoulder and Emma's hand. *Ready, everyone?*

Azazel teleported Mystique and Emma to where they had taken the soldiers, Mystique changing her form to resemble one guard and Emma gently projecting the form of the other. They were to make their way over to the dumpsters, the area that these soldiers would have been patrolling, right near the building housing Cerebro. It had been severely damaged by Riptide when Shaw had had them attack the base, but Magneto had seen Cerebro afterwards, and considered it dangerously salvageable.

Emma and Mystique followed the route that the guards would have taken, which brought them close to where Hank's lab had been.

*I'm surprised Xavier let them hold onto all their mutant research,* Emma thought in Mystique's direction, with a faint tinge of a sneer. *Angel told me that your furry friend Hank wanted blood samples – exactly what the CIA should have in their possession.*

*Actually, my brother took the research with him. He's not a complete idiot. But they might be able to rebuild Cerebro anyway.*

*Oh, so we only have to worry about the extremely accurate mutant-finding device that they were trying to make me operate. That's all they've got.*

*Why do you have to be such a bitch?* Mystique thought before she could stop herself.

Emma laughed, so softly that no-one could have heard it. *No-one else is going to do it for me. Didn't they tell you that in your ridiculous book?*

Mystique pressed her lips together to stop herself retorting, and took Emma's arm to help her over a broken pieces of concrete that used to be a path. Emma did insist on wearing high heels, even on missions; Mystique preferred being on Emma's good side, and Emma always softened a little for politeness.

They passed only one other pair of guards on their way past the ruins of Cerebro to the over-filled dumpsters at the rear of the compound, checking the area for more guards as they went.

*All clear,* Emma signalled, and Azazel teleported in with Magneto, Riptide and Angel. Everyone quickly dispersed to their assigned tasks: Riptide and Angel headed for Cerebro; Magneto and Mystique went to the dumpsters with Emma keeping watch, while Azazel moved between the two groups, ready to carry everyone out in a hurry if needed. The floodlights along the fence illuminated everything strangely, standing in one great pool of harsh light surrounded by darkness, , Mystique had trouble seeing to the next.

"Can you find anything?" Mystique asked, quietly, but Magneto shook his head, then put his hands on the dumpsters, concentrating. The metal hummed and Mystique could hear things slowly shifting around inside the big steel bins, grating against each other. Suddenly the welded corners of three of the dumpsters unzipped themselves with a creak, and their contents spilled out onto the grass. Magneto turned to Mystique – a little of his rare, wide grin showing under the helmet – and pointed at irregularly shaped lumps of coal that had spilled from all three dumpsters.

"That's Darwin."

Even as Mystique watched, the lumps of stone were moving very slightly, twisting and rolling towards each other. "Oh, that's amazing! He's reassembling himself!"

"The rest of the rubbish in the dumpsters was holding the pieces apart." Magneto spread his cloak on the ground, and he and Mystique crouched down to collect the stones and place them in the cloak. The pieces of Darwin were oddly light, like pumice, and slightly warm under Mystique's hands, clacking together as she placed them carefully in the purple cloak. Emma observed them, but offered no help. Mystique was not surprised.

*I've lost contact -* Emma's telepathic voice cut off. "I've lost contact with Azazel! There's interference between ahhh!" She collapsed to the ground, unconscious. Mystique looked around, foolishly, before realising that whatever had hurt Emma wasn't affecting her. It was affecting Magneto – he hadn't passed out, but was kneeling on the ground doubled over in pain.

Mystique dashed over to crouch beside Emma, shaking her by the shoulder. "Shift form, Emma! Nothing affects you when you change!" Emma didn't move, and blood was seeping from one ear. Mystique ran over to Magneto. "What's happening?"

"Some kind of energy-based attack," he muttered, shovelling pieces of Darwin's body into the cloak. "Remain in the form of a soldier and carry Emma out of here – I'll bring Darwin and find the others."

Mystique waited a moment to make sure he could make it to his feet, then heaved Emma onto her shoulders and made for the fence. Emma was small and light, but she was completely limp. Raven discovered that carrying someone actually unconscious was rather different to pretending to do so in training, or dragging your drunken brother home from the pub. She couldn't increase her muscular strength, but she could at least shift her body weight around to balance the dead weight on her shoulders. That helped, but she was still slow.

"Kandinski!" someone yelled, but Mystique put her head down and kept walking. Two uniformed men with guns ran up to her.

"Kandinski! Where's Timmins?"

Caught, with no idea if they'd spotted her fellow mutants yet, Mystique decided to play her hand. She had no idea about Kandinski's voice, so quickly formed a large, fresh bruise across her throat and jaw and went for gruff. "Went after another mutant, sir. This one's out cold."

"That's the telepath – Agent Stryker said it would work on her. Good. Take her round to the gate."

"Yes sir!"

The soldiers moved on into the compound and left her alone with Emma. Mystique walked steadily but as quickly as she could towards the tall chain-link fence underneath the harsh lights. Just a few steps away from the edge of the compound, she heard Emma make a soft noise and hastily slid her to the ground in case she shifted form while Mystique was carrying her. She really didn't need to finish this mission with multiple lacerations. They were right underneath one of the big floodlights and Mystique was burning with the need to get the hell out of here.

"Emma! Shift form!"

Whether it was at Mystique's urging or consciousness restoring Emma's own danger sense, she did so, and immediately managed to sit up. "What –"

Mystique shielded her eyes from the dazzling prisms formed by the floodlights on Emma's diamond body. "You lost contact with the team and passed out. Cut that fence – we've got to make it to the rendezvous point."

"Okay, I'm okay." She clambered to her feet with none of her usual elegance and sliced a hole in the fence big enough for the two women to slip through. Whatever had affected Emma was wearing off quickly, and Mystique only had to slow down a little for Emma as they ran through the woods towards the hillock they'd designated as a meeting point.

"Mystique! Emma! What the hell happened?" Angel was the only one at the hillock, anxiously fluttering a few feet above the ground, well below the tree line.

"Emma lost contact then passed out. I'm fine. What did you see?"

"I was spitting acid into the machines and Riptide and Azazel were tearing up panels to make sure I could reach to all the important stuff. Then Azazel yelled out and vanished, and we lost touch with Emma." Angel wrapped her wings around herself, then flexed them out again, ready to fly. "Riptide said I'd better get out so he could destroy Cerebro quickly, and when I flew out Azazel was lying there on the ground."

"Is he dead?" Trust Emma to be blunt.

"No, he was lying there moaning, and told me to go to the rendezvous point right away."

"You left him there?" Mystique only meant to ascertain his position, but Angel bristled.

"He's twice my size! I couldn't carry him!"

"Okay, okay. Magneto said he'd try to find them on his way out." Mystique paced a little. "Emma can't change without being vulnerable again – Angel, get airborne and see if you can spot anyone under those lights. I can go back if I need to, but it's no good breaking in there without knowing where to go."

"Gotcha." Angel threw herself aloft.

"Look out for guards!" Mystique called after her, and Angel saluted, grinning.

Emma stood still and let Mystique pace around her. "You're right – we can't go in blind."

Mystique acknowledged her with a nod, but didn't feel any better.

Angel swooped down. "Found Magneto! He looks terrible, and he couldn't move the fence. I burned through it and he's on his way here."

"Great! Keep looking, and be careful!" Mystique stayed right where she was – no matter how terrible Magneto looked, she didn't want to go and surprise him in the dark. That would not end well.

Magneto stumbled into the clearing. Blood was drying on his ears, just like Emma's, and he could barely stand. He was carrying his cloak bundled up, and shoved it into Mystique's hand.

"I collected everything I could find," he croaked.

Mystique grabbed the bundle and held it firmly. "Did you see Azazel? Or Riptide?"

"Yes. Stay here, they need help."

"No!" Mystique grabbed his arm, and was alarmed by the fact that it took him effort to throw off her hand. "Angel is looking for them now. Stay here until we can work out what weapon they're using."

Magneto glanced at the bundled cloak in Mystique's other hand, and, even though she wasn't a telepath, Mystique knew they were both thinking about a beach in Cuba. "I'm not leaving anyone behind this time. I'm going back."

"Fine!" Emma snapped, "But don't expect me to go in. They imprisoned me for long enough."

"Understood," Magneto replied, and, to Mystique's annoyance, shoved past her and into the trees, heading for the fence.

Five minutes later, there was an explosion. A minute after that, Angel descended in their clearing with a look of horror on her face.

"Did they make it?" Mystique forced herself to ask, despite seeing the answer on Angel's face.

"They're not dead," was all she could say as she landed, then took a deep breath. " Something went wrong with Azazel's teleportation – his legs were stuck in the ground! Riptide and Magneto were digging him free but I think they shot Riptide. He was still alive, thank God. The other two suddenly passed out."

Emma gasped. "We've got to get out of here," and Mystique had to agree. With half the team captured already and Emma's telepathy unusable, they had to cut their losses.

"Come on. Angel, stay in the air and guide us out of here. There used to be a motel nearby, through these woods and across a stream – what?" she snapped at Emma's scornful look. "I lived here for a while, and my brother's a telepath. I know where to go for some privacy! There'll be cars there and we can drive to a safe house."

"What about Darwin?" Emma asked, as they start a brisk march through the dark trees, Mystique hugging the bundle of stones to her chest, and Angel keeping watch above them.

"What about him? We can't do anything right now. Once we're at the closest safe house – Baltimore, I guess – then we'll try to work out how to help him. And how to get everyone else back."

Emma giggled with a thin edge of hysteria in her laugh. "I guess we'll have to do our own cooking now."

---

The safe house in Baltimore didn't feel very safe. Like most of the places they stayed, it was an old farmhouse that was now on the edge of town, inhabited only by an elderly woman. This one's name was Ruth, so set in her routines that she still put a plate out for her husband who died twenty years ago. It was no problem at all for Emma to make her ignore them entirely, even when they were all eating breakfast together.

Azazel had offered to kill the first old woman in one of his fits of bravado, trying to prove himself to his new leader; Magneto had refused. "We are soldiers, not murderers. Someone will miss her eventually, and Emma's methods leave fewer traces than yours."

Mystique had been very relieved, despite being sure that the old woman would turn them over to the police. She was merely a human, after all, afraid of everything new, but there was no need to kill her for their own convenience. That would make them as bad as the humans in their ships with their missiles. Being honest with herself, Mystique had to admit that she'd never killed anyone and she certainly didn't want to start with a helpless old lady.

This old woman, Ruth, blended into the background easily, pottering around the garden and watching TV in the evening. Her house was spacious – she and her husband raised six children there – but the three mutant women all crowded into one bedroom anyway. There was cash hidden here, where Ruth wouldn't find it, and fake ID; they hadn't managed fake passports for everyone yet. Magneto had taken precautions against losing Azazel and his teleportation, or Emma and her ability to cloud minds, and now Mystique was very grateful for that.

No-one slept well on the first night, not even Emma who made a grand show of relaxing on the bed as if she were completely unconcerned with the fate of their friends. Mystique got up in the grey light of dawn, leaving Angel asleep face down on the trundle bed, her wings fluttering lightly in sleep. Downstairs, Emma had commandeered a long table in the laundry and had tipped out all the pieces of Darwin's body. They were rolling gently on the wooden surface, shivering and bumping. Emma watched with immense concentration, her manicured hands carefully clicking the pieces into place as if she was assembling a jigsaw puzzle. There was something odd about her face – she looked younger than usual in the early morning sun – and it took Mystique a moment to realise what.

"I don't think I've ever seen you without makeup," Mystique observed from the doorway.

Emma didn't bother to look up. "With Shaw, I needed any armour I could find."

It was the first time Mystique had heard her talk about her life with Shaw in any context other than the most practical – the locations of Shaw's bases, his bank accounts, his allies. It made her wonder, suddenly, how Shaw had got Emma to work for him in the first place. She didn't want to press the issue, not in the quiet of the morning. "What are you doing with Darwin?"

Emma put two pieces together, then held them up for Mystique to see. The pieces of black stone clung to each other and Mystique couldn't see where they had joined. Emma put them on the table. "There's a lot of pieces here, but they want to be together. I'm only helping to move things along."

Mystique peered closer. "Most of those pieces look the same to me."

"They're not," Emma snapped. "They're all carefully faceted and shaped. Don't worry, they'll only join if they're the right pieces." She put a random pair together and they didn't click.

Mystique sat on an upturned wooden laundry basket. "You seem pretty good at this."

"I had to reassemble my own neck not long ago."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that when I was still working for Shaw, your brother couldn't read my mind, so Magneto choked me with a bedstead until he shattered a large portion of my neck, to force me to change out of my diamond form. It took me weeks to fold everything back into place."

Mystique stared at her. She had no trouble imagining Magneto doing that, but her brother letting that kind of violence happen seemed very unlike him. Then again, there was the manner of Shaw's death. "How did he do that? Aren't you made of diamond?"

Emma shrugged, and her face went hard again. "Diamonds have flaws. A Jew would know just where to look."

"You would never say that if Magneto was here."

"Well, he's not, is he? He's locked up. Or dead." Emma didn't look at Mystique again, her shoulders tense. Mystique gave up on having a conversation with her and retreated to the kitchen. Emma was often hostile but rarely outright rude, but, unlike Magneto, Mystique refused to be drawn into a fight with her. Honestly, Mystique didn't know which of Emma or Magneto was worse: they both had sudden, extreme mood-shifts, they were both arrogant, convinced they knew everything, and were permanently determined to piss people off. She found herself suddenly wishing that Charles was here, but that was a stupid idea. Charles was far more dedicated to everyone getting along than actually getting anything done. Charles hadn't gone back for Darwin: Emma had thought of it, and Magneto had done it. Mystique took a deep breath. It was her turn to act, now.

The old woman was there eating bread and margarine, but Mystique paid no attention to her and she paid none to Mystique. She had the morning's newspaper folded on the table and Mystique quickly flicked through it to see if there was any news of their raid on the CIA last night, but, as she expected, there was nothing. So much went on without anyone being informed. Mystique had always known this, but Shaw's plans and their resistance to it had brought it home to her how much everyone's lives depended on all the secret manoeuvres and hidden warfare that they never got to see – just like Ruth couldn't see Mystique right in front of her. Mystique hadn't wanted to return to her brother's house and stay hidden away, being quiet and good. She wanted to act, to be part of the real world.

"Angel!" Mystique yelled up the stairs. "Wake up! We need to start planning."

Angel stuck her head out the bedroom door. "There's no clothes for my wings."

"You used to cover them up."

"Well, I don't anymore," Angel snapped, then relented. "I can sew. I'll fix up one of the dresses."

"Bring it downstairs, then. There's a sewing machine."

One thing that Charles did do well, Mystique thought, was to have everyone sitting down and talking. She hurried to the kitchen – the old woman had gone upstairs now – and got out more bread, some apricot preserves and the butter. They would sit down, have breakfast, and work out what to do together.

By that evening, they had assembled about half of Darwin and half of a plan. Emma, it turned out, had not originally been held at the facility from which the team had rescued her, but quite close to Washington DC. The cell where the team found her and her original prison cell had both been lined with lead to prevent her from using her telepathy.

"There was an observation window, of course, in both places," Emma told Mystique and Angel. Her savage mood seemed to have settled after a day of carefully piecing Darwin back together, and Angel's honest amazement at Emma's skills, but Mystique was still watching her carefully in case she broke out more insults.

Angel nodded, remembering the exact same display room set-up when they were supposed to be allies. "Yeah, government guys really love watching the freaky mutant girls. And they don't even pay."

"Believe me, they paid once I got out. The observation chamber was lead-lined too, so I couldn't reach anyone outside the room. They did keep coming up to the window to stare at me, but I was trying not to seem too dangerous." She flicked a slow glance over at Mystique. "Also, I had to fix the cracks in my neck."

"Makes sense not to run if you couldn't see outside the room," Mystique noted calmly. "So they were already experimenting with ways to block our powers even before Cuba. It was just lead walls then, and now this. But it didn't work on me, or Angel, and I don't think it worked on Riptide."

"Nor I, in diamond form. Before the machine affected me and I fell unconscious there was a huge wave of sound crashing down on me. I think that if we approached it slowly, I could feel it from a distance and change form before it affected me."

Mystique unfolded a roadmap from their stolen car and put one blue finger on the area Emma had indicated as the prison. It was marked as a nature preserve, but it was handily close to both the CIA headquarters at Langley and the Pentagon. At the very least, they could check it out to see if whatever weapon had taken out half their team was active there – hopefully Emma would be able to detect it – and if there had been an upswing in security. E

Angel had adapted a sleeveless dress that she'd found into a halter-neck so her wings could swing free if needed, and Emma had managed to find a pale pink skirt suit that, while extremely short, looked quite respectable. Mystique was apparently several inches taller than any other woman who'd ever lived in this house and eventually gave up and shape-shifted into a middle-aged white man. Anyway, a man and two women would be less likely to be challenged on the road than three women out at night. They didn't want to be caught out somewhere where they couldn't freely use Emma's telepathy.

The facility where Emma had been held was near a military base, but one that housed many families. Late in the evening there was a lot of activity – teenagers driving around in their dad's cars, women coming home from evening meetings, medical staff on a shift change – which was helpful to disguise one extra car driving by. Mystique drove at a slow, steady pace so that Emma would have time to be alert for the anti-mutant device's effect.

"Wait – there!" Emma shifted to diamond form and Angel, as they had planned, threw a blanket over her. No-one was looking into the car, but that didn't mean that they wouldn't happen to notice the brilliant sparkle of a woman-sized diamond.

"Are you okay?" Angel asked. "We're still almost a mile from where they held you."

"I'm fine. We were right at the edge of the effect. I could feel it coming."

"I couldn't." Angel shook her head. Mystique hadn't felt anything, either.

"It's very steady and doesn't waver at all – not like a person. Even Xavier still wobbles a little at a distance. And it can't have been telepathic because it affected Magneto through the helmet."

Mystique nodded firmly. "Good. If it's something mechanical, that means it's something we can shut down." She pulled to the side of the road, near the trees of the nature preserve. "Angel, survey the area. Get the layout of their buildings and look for things that could project an energy field. We'll drive around and find the edges of the effect."

"No problem." Angel climbed out of the car, and hurried into the tree cover before taking off, her beautiful wings buzzing.

Emma lay down on the wide backseat, keeping covered. "You want me to change again, I suppose."

"You won't feel the edges of the field otherwise." Mystique swung out into the slowly diminishing traffic and took the next turn south.

"Ugh, it's giving me such a headache. At least Shaw's helmet and mirrors blocked me completely. They didn't leave me with this ridiculous halfway feeling."

"And now they've captured that technology, too. If they can work out how to use the helmet, anyway."

Emma stayed under the blanket. "Is there any Excedrin in the glove compartment? That was always the best thing when Shaw made me use my powers for too long."

Mystique flipped it open and fumbled inside, but there was nothing there except a vehicle logbook and a pen. "Sorry. Charles used to find a cup of coffee helpful, though."

"Do you have any coffee? No? Keep driving, then. We're right at the edge of the effect again."

"How much did Shaw make you use your powers?"

"It was more that he wanted certain things done, and he didn't care how I did them. And when it came down to using telepathy or using my body, well, telepathy was easier and safer." Emma sat up, the big tartan blanket wrapped around her. Mystique could see her in the mirror. She would have seemed unfocused but for the hard line between her eyes.

"Shaw himself was hard to read. He had tricks for keeping us in line."

"Were you really going to help him blow up half the planet?" Mystique blurted out. She'd never asked before – Azazel had said he hadn't known Shaw was planning anything on that scale, and Mystique believed him – but Emma had certainly known, because Charles had pulled the knowledge from her mind.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I think it was the same for you and your brother. He set the rules, you followed them. Only you followed out of love and then he let you go. Shaw narrowed my options until the only one left was to stay with him, and to stay with him I had to do what he said. It became unthinkable to leave."

"He hurt you?" Mystique understood the feeling of being stuck. What she didn't understand was how Shaw could entrap someone without giving as much of himself as Charles had once given to her. Comfort was a trap to Mystique: pain was not.

"Among other things. Mostly he made us lazy and dependent, and it was so much easier to stay than to risk leaving. And, of course, it was so easy to be myself there. I didn't have to hide."

Mystique nodded, as Emma quickly shifted from flesh to diamond in the backseat, only her face visible. "I remember hiding. Charles made me hide, too, but at least somebody knew about me."

"Shaw was the first mutant I met. I was fifteen. Magneto was even younger than that, he said." Emma shifted back from diamond to flesh again, no longer she needing the shielding, and bit her lower lip a little. "Angel's finished her survey. Pull over when we have cover."

Mystique frowned – Magneto certainly hadn't told her or, she thought, Charles about that – but drove along the southern edge of the forest and around to the tall trees of the nature preserve again. Angel flitted out of the trees and flung herself into the seat beside Emma, her wings folding down onto her arms.

"There's no way we can break in there," she gasped, slightly breathless from her flight.

"I'm taking us back to Baltimore," Raven declared. "Catch your breath then tell us in detail."

The information they put together indicated that there was a good chance that the rest of the team was being held there under high security, but that was the only good news.. Emma and Mystique had determined that the anti-telepathic effect covered nearly a square mile. The compound itself was considerably smaller, which would give the defenders a good buffer zone in an attack. The building was low and sturdy, but the number of personnel entering and leaving, even at night, made Mystique think there were probably underground levels; Emma, who had caught glimpses of the facility when she'd been held there, agreed. Every soldier Angel had seen was patrolling as a pair, and they'd needed keys to travel from one area to the next – Mystique alone wouldn't be able to break in.

"Charles should have mind-wiped every single one of them," Mystique muttered, and the other women agreed.

"I'd do it, but I don't know everyone he spoke to, let alone everyone they've told." At the old farmhouse outside Baltimore, Emma had drunk three cups of coffee and was looking much better. Mystique and Angel stuck with hot chocolate in the hope of getting some sleep later.

Angel stretched out her wings behind her, warming down slowly to avoid shoulder cramps, as they had discovered in training. She wasn't merely a normal girl with wings stuck on – her musculature had to support her weight in flight. "Yeah, well, too late for that. The whole roof was covered with antennas and two big satellite dishes, so maybe if we went in that way we could stop them blocking Azazel and Magneto? I'm sure they can break themselves out, given half a chance."

"Shaw worked with American scientists a few times," Emma interrupted, "And the first thing they'd do was sedate the mutant with drugs until they behaved. A few died, but some of us didn't. Even if we destroy the entire compound, they might not be able to walk out of there."

"They didn't sedate you when you were in prison," Angel pointed out.

"Diamond skin makes it a little tricky. Besides, they were still debating the Geneva Convention applied to non-humans, and whether spiking my drinking water would ruin their chances of further co-operation."

"It's the same as at the strip club – they talk about things in front of you as if you can't hear –" Angel cut off as a series of loud, painful coughs came from the laundry. "Was that the old lady?"

Emma checked quickly. "No, she's upstairs, asleep. Has Darwin- " She switched to diamond form, wary.

Mystique crept over to the door, her bare feet silent on the linoleum, and peered around the corner. Darwin sat on the laundry table, stark naked but for a tea towel he'd found, coughing as his chest and throat rippled into their former shape.

"Darwin!" Mystique couldn't stop herself throwing herself at him and hugging him tightly.

Darwin coughed again and shifted uncomfortably. "Raven? I don't know if you've noticed, but we're both naked. And in someone's laundry room."

Angel flung herself into the hug, her wings wrapping around everyone. "Darwin! You're really here! Magneto said you were but I didn't really believe it." She burst into tears, and Darwin put his arm around her, rubbing her back above her wings.

"Raven? Where are we? Where's Shaw?"

"Shaw's dead and we're in Baltimore." Emma leaned against the doorway, still in diamond form, "And you're on my side now."

Darwin coughed again. "Well, before you all start explaining which side is which, why the diamond woman is here, and what happened to Shaw, is there any chance I could have some pants?"

Mystique found Darwin some clothes that must have belonged to Ruth's husband – the sleeves and pants were a few inches too short for him – and Angel made him a towering sandwich, which he devoured with great haste. Apparently, reassembling his own body from rubble made him very hungry.

"He killed me?"

"Nearly." Angel sat protectively close to Darwin. "We all thought you were dead – I'm so sorry!"

"Hey, someone took out Shaw, I'm good with that."

"Magneto did. Then the humans all turned on us and try to blow us off the face of the earth," Mystique added. "With a hundred missiles. Charles still thought we should go and be friends with them, even after Magneto saved us."

"Since when are we not 'human'?" Darwin looked at Mystique sceptically. "And where's the Professor anyway? And all the other guys?"

"Mystique and I went with Magneto and then we rescued Emma from the CIA." Angel pointed across the table to Emma, who was on her fourth cup of coffee. "The guys all went with Charles, to help the people who just tried to kill us."

Darwin finished his second sandwich and started in on his own coffee. "So they work for the CIA and we… what? Hide in people's houses and use codenames?"

Mystique shook her head. "They don't work for the CIA anymore, at least. My brother is finding mutants, still, and taking them to his house. We're out there fighting the people who try to enslave or hurt mutants. And they're not codenames, they're mutant names."

"Yeah," Angel added, "It was wrong to go with Shaw – he was a murdering asshole – but it wasn't wrong to escape from the CIA. They were trying to make us be their own little mutant police squad. You saw how they looked at us."

Darwin took another swig of his hot chocolate. "Okay, I guess things have got pretty weird while I was out of it. So if this is Magneto's team, where is he? And who else is on the team, or is this the girl group?"

Angel punched him in the arm, but not hard. "It's only the 'girl group' because the guys aren't here right now. Magneto, Azazel and Riptide got captured while rescuing you. We're going to break them out."

"Azazel? The guy who killed all those CIA agents?"

"On Shaw's orders." Emma spoke up for the first time. "We did a lot of things on Shaw's orders."

"Azazel's a really nice guy, now that he's not being forced to kill people," Mystique added.

Darwin pushed back from the table. "This is way too much for me to handle right now. Are there beds in this house, or do we sleep in the laundry room?"

"The bedrooms are upstairs," Angel took his arm, "Come on, I'll find you a room."

She led him away, and Emma cast a look at Mystique. "I don't think he'll stay."

Mystique frowned. "That's up to him. He's not our prisoner. I hope he'll help us out rescuing the others, at least. Good night, Emma."

"Good night."

Mystique tossed and turned in her bed, anxious about what might be happening to their teammates at the CIA prison. Even though they hadn't treated Emma too badly, it did seem they'd been preparing to force her to work with them. She thought Azazel would cope with that perfectly well, but Riptide had been so happy to be treated as an equal rather than a lackey, and then there was Magneto who barely managed to work with his own team.

*Don't worry, Raven, we'll help you find them.*

*Get out of my dream, Charles,* she muttered, *And don't call me Raven.*

*Hank has a good idea what they've done to affect everyone's powers.*

*Seriously, go away. Don't talk to me about Hank, and-* Mystique sat up. She wasn't in New York – Charles couldn't be talking to her.

*Yes, I can,* Charles said, in that annoyingly superior older brother way.

*How do you know where we are?* Suddenly alert, Mystique poked Angel to wake her up. Emma hadn't come up to bed.

*She drank too much coffee to sleep. Don't worry, she knows I'm talking to you.*

*What do you even want?*

Charles sounded hurt. *I want to help, of course. I can't leave Erik and the others in the hands of the CIA.*

Angel frowned at her. "Are you talking to your brother? How did he find us?"

"Shh, I don't know. Go pack up. Check on Darwin."

*I'm afraid it was Darwin who called me,* Charles said. He didn't sound remorseful in the slightest.

*He's not a telepath!*

*No, no, on the phone. There's not many Xaviers in New York, you know, and almost all of them live in the city.*

*Fuck. Well, I guess you're here now, so I can ask why didn't you mindwipe the CIA properly? They had enough warning to make some kind of anti-mutant device, and now they've caught three of us. And if Darwin can find you through the operator, what's to stop anyone else doing it? They're probably trying to persuade Azazel to start teleporting in and grabbing your students.*

*Would he?* Charles sounded alarmed.

*Who knows, if you put him under enough duress, or threatened his friends? And how are you talking to us anyway?*

*Hank and I have been rebuilding Cerebro! It let me find Emma, then she's letting me project through her. It's really very exhilarating.*

*Shut up, Charles.*

*Sorry. What I mean is, I did wipe the minds of the CIA, but it's very difficult to do completely. *

Mystique knew that tone of voice. *And…?*

*…and I thought it would be unfair if you went to attack them and they had no warning. So yes, they know about mutants. But they can't find the school – Darwin could only do it because he was supposed to be dead when I fixed everyone's brains. And, of course, I want mutants I have invited here to be able to find us.*

*Oh thank you, Charles. Most people can find the house, and you didn't want six mutants against the entire US government to be unfair. All right, then. In that case, it's partially your mess, so you can come down here and fix it.* Mystique cut off the connection as hard as she could and stomped down the stairs.

Darwin, sitting at the kitchen table with Emma, at least had the grace to look apologetic, but Mystique was in no mood to accept apologies.

"Emma, are you okay? Charles said he was projecting through you."

Emma had her full make-up on again, if not quite her usual palette. She must have had to improvise from what she could find in the house. "Yes, it was quite…pleasant, really, to speak to another telepath. Your brother wants you to pick them up at an airfield in four hours." She dropped the location into Mystique's head.

Angel came in with the bag of cash and documents that had been hidden under the floorboards. "I can't believe we're all going to go and work with them, after all they've done to us."

"What have they done to you? I know I wasn't with the team for long, but this doesn't sound right," Darwin muttered, not really at anyone.

Mystique flopped down at the table. "For one thing, Charles let the government remember our team and not his."

"Really?" Emma seemed interested rather than angry. "That's quite skilful."

Angel threw up her hands. "I'm not starting with this. I've hidden for most of my life, and changing the scenery to some big old mansion doesn't mean it's not hiding."

"Exactly!" Mystique snapped. Neither Darwin nor Emma looked particularly convinced. "It's suffocating in that place. With Charles."

"Your feelings aren't getting us any closer to rescuing our friends," Emma noted, brushing an imaginary speck of dirt off her jacket.

Mystique took a deep breath, and exchanged a look with Angel. "We should work with them, definitely. I'm just saying to be careful. When scary things happen, it's tempting to run home, but I bet you'd all given up as much as I had, to be safe at home."

Emma didn't respond, but Angel glared at Darwin until he nods, slowly. "I don't want to be some kind of mutant vigilante, Raven. Sorry, I mean Mystique. But I hear you. I do."

Mystique closed her eyes. Emma and Darwin were right – outraged feelings wouldn't rescue anybody. Taking a deep breath, she shifted form and walked out to the car: if Charles had the resources, it was up to her to make sure they were used to help, not to hide.

---

The swanky airfield was full of small private planes, and Mystique was oddly disappointed, as if she'd been expecting a new version of Hank's sleek black plane to be sitting like a great elegant heron amongst all the blocky little white planes. Instead, she caught Charles's mental voice coming from a plane that had recently landed.

*Raven! Hello! Drive around to the terminal, will you?*

*Yes sir!* she shot back, but Charles, as ever, didn't seem in the least troubled by her sarcasm.

She was wearing the body of the middle-aged white man again, an unremarkable creature who would go unquestioned almost anywhere, but as she pulled up by the terminal she let the face and body slip into her real shape, and got out of the car.

The valet didn't blink, and Mystique smirked. Charles was covering for her, yet again. Charles's group spilled noisily through the doors, Alex and Sean neatly lifting Charles's wheelchair down the three steps, and Hank struggled behind with two large crates. Charles must be covering for him, too, because no-one was even looking at the giant blue man in their airport. Charles's hair was still shorter than he preferred from where they had shaved his head in hospital, and Mystique could still see odd, nearly bald patches where the halo brace had been screwed into his skull. Still, he looked much healthier since the last time she'd secretly visited him in the New York rehab centre, and that turned her smirk into a smile.

"Hey!" Sean grinned, genuinely pleased to see Mystique, but carefully looking only at her face. Alex gave her a quick grin, too, and Charles held out his arms for a hug, but Hank kept his eyes down and fussed with his equipment boxes.

Mystique waited a moment to see if Hank looked up, then ran over and hugged her brother. It was awkward for a moment, reaching so far down, but he pulled her closer and suddenly it was just like it had always been, the two of them together.

"You're never going to wear clothes again, are you?" Charles said, with mock sadness.

"Maybe if we go to find mutants at the North Pole," Raven conceded, and kissed him on the head. "I always loved fur coats."

Charles laughed and kissed her cheek, then let her go. "Come on, it'll take me five minutes for me to climb into that behemoth of a car."

He was exaggerating, but not by much. Alex and Sean had obviously been trained when to offer help and when to stand back, because Charles moved his chair into place beside the car and carefully worked out his handholds before lifting himself in. Mystique watched out of the corner of her eye, unused to seeing Charles put effort into anything, really. Alex folded the chair and stowed it in the trunk, beside Hank's two crates.

Somehow, Hank had ended up in the front seat beside Mystique, and he didn't seem too happy about it. "Hello, Raven."

"Hi, Hank. You look great." He did, really – his fur had grown in properly and was a sleek dark blue rather than the kittenish fluff of when she'd last seen him, and he'd put on some weight. He still wore glasses, but he'd switched to a wire-framed pair that fit his wide face better than his old pair.

Hank didn't reply, but looked resolutely out the window.

"Is Darwin really okay?" Alex leaned forward and hung his arms over the front seat.

"Just hungry!" Mystique grinned in the mirror where Alex would see it. "Emma started putting him together and he did the last bit himself."

"Where did you find him? What did he look like? Is he mad at us?" Sean poured on the questions, and Mystique was glad to be distracted from Hank's silence.

It wasn't until they got to the house that Mystique realised that there were six steps up to the porch and another at the front door. Charles sized it up as Alex retrieved his chair – Hank unloaded the crates and hefted them up the stairs without a word – but when he caught Mystique watching, he smiled at her.

"Maybe a house with a ramp next time?"

"It wasn't the first thing on our minds when we picked the place, Charles."

He waved a hand casually. "I said next time. I can't take Sean and Alex with me everywhere, but for secret missions, it's no problem."

"I'm a packhorse," Sean muttered, but he'd obviously made this joke before, as Charles cracked an imaginary whip and Sean neighed back at him.

Charles got himself from the car to the chair and from the chair to the house, but there was a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead. Mystique was quite sure this wasn't all as easy as he was trying to make it seem. Before she could say anything, Alex and Sean had set the chair down and threw themselves at Darwin, falling into a great heap of hugging, punching, crying boys. Hank stood uncomfortably to the side fiddling with his glasses, but Alex hauled him into the pile and Darwin hugged him, too.

Alex was the first free of the group hug, to talk to Angel.

"I'm sorry about your wing."

"No problem." Angel stayed on the other side of the kitchen table, but she didn't look as upset as she had this morning. "It grew back okay. Sorry about your energy beaming thing."

"Yeah, Hank built me another one, it's cool."

Charles, meanwhile, was approaching Emma. "Miss Frost. I'm pleased we can meet under more congenial circumstances."

Emma stayed at the table, near Angel. "I've had no trouble with you or Magneto alone – it must be something that happens when the two of you are together."

They didn't say another word, but Mystique knew the signs of a telepathic conversation, and they were certainly in the midst of one, despite their calm faces observing the other mutants in the room.

"Yes, that should work," Emma said, eventually. "Presuming they're all on site, of course."

"If they're not, Emma, we should be able to find out where they're being held and proceed there immediately."

Angel slapped her hand on the table. "Will you giant walking brains fill us in, or are you going to remote control us the whole way?"

"That would be perfect, if it weren't for the anti-telepathic device," Emma snapped.

"Calm down, guys. We're all here for the same reason. I think." Darwin pulled Sean and Alex into chairs and Mystique started to wonder if his mutant power went beyond physical survival, because everyone else followed suit. Hank was the sole exception, preferring to lurk by the refrigerator.

Before Mystique knew it, Charles was holding court, as he always did, his acolytes clustered around him. She managed to catch Angel's eye, and was both gratified and relieved to see that Angel, at least, regarded Charles with the scepticism that almost no-one ever brought to his presence. Excepting girls in pubs, anyway.

"So," Charles said, "Emma has shown me what you discovered on your surveillance trip, and I think that with a larger force, we should have no trouble retrieving our friends."

"They're not your friends." Angel wasn't giving an inch, even when Darwin put a soothing hand on her arm. She didn't shake him off, but she didn't lower her gaze, either.

"I still consider Erik my friend, at least." Charles had his best placate-your-little-sister voice on, and Mystique flicked a glance at Emma, not entirely sure that Charles wouldn't go further telepathically. For all that it was a surprise not to trust her brother completely, Mystique still felt better now that she was alert to it: her prickly attempt at shielding wouldn't keep him out, of course, but it might embarrass him enough to stop.

Charles continued, ignoring Angel's interruption. "Hank has some ideas about what they might be using to block telepathy and some other abilities – " he looked over to Hank for support, but Hank was studiously looking at a calendar on the wall near the refrigerator " –but basically, we need to shut down their transmitter to reduce the area of effect, then shut down the device itself."

"I saw the transmitters on the roof," Angel said. "If Banshee came with me, we could fly right over and destroy them. Unless Banshee's power is affected, I guess."

Hank spoke up, finally. "There's, uh, no reason to think it would be. Sean generates soundwaves, rather than relying on the electromagnetic spectrum as telepaths, teleporters and magnetic powers do."

"Awesome!" Sean's enthusiasm never diminished.

"Well, then," Charles continued, "Angel and Sean can destroy the roof, then Emma – in diamond form, of course – and Darwin can find and stop the machine. Hank and I will set up our mini-Cerebro nearby, somewhere with a good power supply, and we'll monitor the field so that Emma knows when she is safe to change. Once you've done that, Emma and I will link minds to find our friends and wipe the memories of the people at the facility. Hank tells me that Alex's power may be affected, so he and Raven can stay in reserve to see if Emma and Darwin need help retrieving the three prisoners."

Mystique saw the others nodding. Emma and Angel were, to her surprise, looking at her, waiting. She took a deep breath. "No. That's not enough."

"What do you mean?" Charles looked utterly confused. "Rescuing our friends and shutting down the facility isn't enough?"

"That's exactly what I mean. Firstly, when Emma was held there, she was in a lead-lined cell to block her telepathy. You may not be able to find anyone there at all. I'm going in with the team to find them. Secondly, we can check if Alex is affected by bringing him to the edge of the field. He'd be useful in the compound for more than carrying people out."

"I'm only theorising that Alex could be affected," Hank noted. "There has been no opportunity to take readings of this particular phenomenon."

"Thank you!" Mystique smiled at him, and he ducked back to his former position beside the fridge.

"Yeah, I want to try it." Alex was paying attention to Mystique now, too – everyone was. She forged on: this autonomy was what she had wanted, and now that it was here, she was not retreating, no matter how much surprise and hurt was written on Charles's face.

"Good. Now, Charles, for your part. You and Emma need to fix the memories of everyone there, definitely, but you also need to see who else knows. There should be a clear chain of command to follow, and don't forget about the secretaries who type up all this information. With Azazel's help, it will be easy to remove the actual files once we know who has them."

"She's right about the cells. I doubt one would hold Magneto," Emma said in a bored voice, staring at her fingernails. "It might hold Azazel, if he can't feel his way to a safe jump, and Riptide was injured."

"Yes," Charles interrupted, "That's all fine – although I'm worried you'll get yourself hurt – but you want me to fix the memories of every single person who knows about us? That's a lot of people, over a huge area."

"I'm really better one-to-one but I can assist you," Emma offered.

Charles spread his hands on the table, placating. "That would be very helpful, Emma. Raven, I don't think you understand what you're asking."

"Can you do it, or not?" Mystique could feel her eyelid trying to twitch slightly whenever he called her by her old name, but she had something more important with which to challenge him right now.

Charles could never resist a challenge, whether it was a girl in a pub or a slight on his abilities. "Well, of course I can do it –"

"Good." Mystique smiled as it if was all settled. "You left us open to this attack by letting the CIA remember too much about us. Now we need to fix that and make sure it doesn't happen again."

"I'm not sure I can reach across the United States with this mini-Cerebro, let alone the world," Charles's voice was distinctly sulky, even though Mystique doubted anyone else could hear it. Everyone was looking from Charles to Mystique as if they were watching a tennis match.

Even with Emma's help, Mystique was pretty sure that Charles could lie to her about doing what he'd promised, but she had a trump card to play. Mystique kept her magnanimous smile firmly in place. "That's okay. We'll all be coming home with you afterwards, so you can finish the mind wiping with whatever you've built at home."

*Have you always been this manipulative?* Charles fired at her, but she could see that he was captivated by the idea of them all in one place, a team again, and with Darwin alive and well.

*No, Charles. I had you to do it for me.*

---

Mystique was quite astonished by how easily the rest of the team fell in line, now that she'd stepped forward to tell them what to do. Emma wasn't particularly polite about it, but she was doing what Mystique told her, and everyone else's objections and arguments were purely operational – talking about the best way to break in, poring over the map Angel drew them – rather than complaining about the plan itself or their goals.

Even Hank had been drawn into the group by Emma's questions about how Cerebro worked and whether she'd be able to use it, and Alex was making everyone coffee and sandwiches – always practical, Alex. Only Charles remained quiet, offering an occasional suggestion to Emma.

*Nothing's happened to her.* Emma's telepathic voice rang out in Mystique's head, and she realised that Emma was quietly linking her into a conversation between her and Charles.

*She never wanted to hurt people before.*

Mystique resisted the urge to give Charles a hug, no matter how sad he sounded.

*She doesn't want to hurt people now, Charles. That's why she wants you to act – to prevent violence. She's not paranoid like Magneto.*

*Erik.*

*Magneto. I'll do him the courtesy of using his chosen name. Your ability can prevent the CIA coming after us again – why don't you use it that way? You know you can't win every heart and mind instantly. Keep the CIA off our backs. Buy time.*

Charles sighed out loud, but kept his conversation private. *Your goals sound more compatible with mine than Erik's, even if your methods are similar to his.*

*If the two of you start defining your goals and methods as 'whatever the other one doesn't want to do', you'll destroy all of us.* Emma cut off contact and returned to Hank's astonishingly lengthy explanation of electronics and telepathic interfaces. Mystique bit her lip. Emma was right: there was so much more they could be doing together, and if she could draw Charles out, draw him into the action, maybe the team was worth a second try.

By nightfall – after two pizza runs by Alex and Sean – everyone was ready to go. Mystique and Alex had acquired a second car from a supermarket parking lot to accommodate everyone, and stocked up on first aid supplies. Hank had packed his mini-Cerebro – bulky, but much smaller without the computers needed for the mapping and recording functions –into the two crates and loaded them into the bigger car; Alex and Sean put on their blue and yellow suits to howls of laughter from Darwin.

"What the hell, man?" He poked Alex in the stomach. "What do you call yourselves, the Flying Canaries?"

"We've got extra in the car if you want one," Alex remarked. He didn't seem to mind teasing from Darwin that he would never take from anyone else.

"No, no, I think I'll be okay. Seriously, I'm good."

"We're the X-Men!" Sean shouted, and Mystique giggled.

"It was Moira's idea," Charles muttered.

Mystique kept giggling. "And she's conveniently mind-wiped so she can't confirm that, I hear."

Charles was close to smiling; Mystique could see it. "You have to admit it's catchy."

"That I can't deny."

---

Charles and Hank got set up at a private elementary school just outside the area affected by the anti-mutant device. The school had been recently renovated and the power supply was enough for Hank's satisfaction; Charles made the man who doubled as janitor and security guard take a nap. Mystique was beginning to flinch every time she saw yet another step in Charles's way, but Charles and his two chair-carriers seemed entirely used to the manoeuvres needed to lift him past each barrier and into the art room. Hank set up the mini-Cerebro by the kiln, carefully moving aside children's brightly coloured clay elephants. Angel warmed up her muscles while bickering about with Emma about high heels again. This time they'd to drag Darwin into the argument for a fresh perspective.

Darwin held his hands up. "I used to know ladies of the night who could've set a world-record in the 100-yard dash with heels higher than that. If Emma can run in them, I've got no grounds to complain."

"Thank you, I think." Emma smiled, and Angel grumpily punched Darwin in the chest.

"No, seriously." Darwin frowned. "I'm saying, this is one hell of a team. This is a good thing, working together."

"Professor, everything's ready." Hank held up the metal and plastic helmet and Charles rolled himself over.

Charles positioned the helmet and nodded to Hank, then a moment later Mystique could feel Charles's mind wrapped around her in a familiar hug. She reflexively returned the same warm feeling to him, before shaking herself back to reality: they had friends to rescue.

*I can feel the edge of the effect quite clearly,* Charles sent to everyone. *It extends upwards perhaps another ten feet above the roof.*

"Got that, Banshee? Stay above that, just in case." Mystique looked around at her team. She really wished she could simply sneak in by herself and avoid everyone looking at her as if she knew all the answers, but that wasn't possible. "Everyone straight on the plan? Okay, let's go. Charles, stay in contact as long as you can."

He didn't move physically, but the sense of a nod was projected to everyone. *I will.*

Mystique led everyone outside, and Charles made sure no-one noticed as they slipped across the road and onto the golf course that backed on to the nature reserve housing the CIA complex. Emma changed into her diamond form as soon as they made it into the trees at the edge of the course. A few moments after that, they lost touch with Charles.

Glancing over at Havok, who didn't appear to be physically affected by the device as Emma and Magneto had been, Mystique asked, "Alex? Are you in working order?"

Havok braced himself, but the concentric circles on the chest of his uniform didn't glow in the slightest. He checked the chunky watch on his wrist. "Nope, power levels zero outside my body. Sorry."

"Don't worry – once we reduce the range you'll be fine. Angel, you'll have to take out the power lines as well as the roof."

"Gotcha."

They flitted across the golf course as quietly as two boys in yellow and blue suits, three women recognisably not quite human and a black man on a whites-only golf course possibly could. They had to time their dash across the road to the nature preserve carefully, especially with Emma's tendency to sparkle in the headlights of passing cars, but made it safely across and into the trees.

"Angel, go. Banshee, get ready."

Angel leapt into the air, her wings beating faster than the eye could see, and headed off through the trees with a soft whirring noise. Banshee made an odd noise, and Mystique turned around to see him finish gargling from a silver flask and spit salt water on the ground.

"Helps my throat, as long as it doesn't make me puke."

"All over Hank, who suggested it in the first place," Havok added. "His fur stunk for a week."

The lights from the complex abruptly flickered, and Banshee took his cue. With a shriek that wasn't nearly as ear-splitting as it had been when Mystique last heard it, he soared up above the trees and into the air.

"To the fence!" Mystique called, and they ran forward, Darwin and Emma in the lead. As they emerged from the trees, the lights at the compound flickered again then went out; fires and small explosions lit the roof. Soldiers were running everywhere and Mystique hoped that Angel and Banshee were sensible enough to keep their heads and retreat as planned.

"Yes!" Havok yelled, and sprinted to the front of the group, firing a mighty blast from his chest, destroying the fence and blowing a good sized hole in the side of the concrete building.

Charles's voice was in their heads suddenly. *I'm making the soldiers sleep but I haven't found– * He was abruptly cut off as power was restored. Mystique heard Havok curse – his energy blasts must have shut down again, too.

Angel and Banshee had followed the plan, soaring high over the barbed wire of the gate and leading the soldiers that way, spotlights trying to catch them in mid-air.

"Go!" Mystique yelled. Darwin and Emma charged forward over the remnants of the fence, Mystique and Havok right on their heels in a formation that Mystique and Emma had practiced with Magneto in Darwin's place.

There was a brief burst of gunfire, ricocheting off Darwin and Emma's bodies. Mystique flinched at the ricochets – that day on the beach was still in her body memory – and was slightly relieved that Havok flinched, too. Emma took out one of their assailants with a well-placed punch, and Darwin ran straight over the other one, his armour more than enough to knock the soldier to the ground. Mystique scooped up the man's weapon, and Emma snapped the barrel of her target's gun, then the one Mystique had picked up.

"Don't want to be shot in the back," Mystique explained to Havok. "It's faster with Magneto here, but we still need to do it."

Inside the compound, there were at least a dozen men fast asleep on the ground, just as Charles had said he was doing, but a few were already starting to stir. The four mutants quickly grabbed weapons and Emma broke them, then they ran on to the stairs.

Indicating to the others that they should stay put, Mystique shifted into the most senior of the unconscious men, adding some bloodstains to her chest. Thenshe rolled herself down the stairs, making sure to end up on her side so that she could easily get to her feet.

"Jesus, they got the Lieutenant!" she heard.

"They said that machine would shut down all the freaks! Like the cells do!"

"Those are bullet holes," the first voice replied. "Maybe it did work and they've got to stand and fight us."

Only two of them, then, scared and off-balance. Mystique could do this. She'd trained for it, with Azazel and Magneto, men who'd fought in war, and Emma and Angel, women who'd fought for their lives. She could be no less.

She opened her eyes a fraction and confirmed the positions of the two men, then surged upwards. She punched one in the groin so hard that he doubled over and hit the ground, then swung the other into the wall by his gun arm.

"Get down here!" she yelled, after a moment's pause while she wondered why Emma hadn't telepathically received her cue: Emma was stuck in her diamond form, without telepathy, until they shut down the machine. Mystique pressed the soldier's face into the wall and stood on the arms of the one on the ground. From the sounds he was making, she didn't think he'd be standing up in a hurry.

"Freak!" spat the man she had pinned, trying to struggle free as Darwin jumped down the last few stairs and pinned him.

"Come on, let's get this show on the road," Darwin said in a kindly voice.

Mystique moved around until she could watch his face. "Show us to the machine."

"Never!" His eyes gave him away: he couldn't stop himself sneaking the smallest look to his left.

"Give him to Emma," Mystique told Darwin, and shifted into the form of the other guard, ready to play their own hostage if they encountered more guards.

Emma, who had neatly and thoroughly tied up the first soldier with his own clothing, reached out for the second man. At Havok's appraising look, she smirked at him and drawled, "Oh, sweetie, not even in your dreams."

They cautiously moved down the blank white corridor. This was not the level with the cells, according to Emma. Her glimpses of the facility had been plucked from men's heads more than seen with her own eyes, as she'd been blindfolded whenever they moved her, but her observations been accurate nonetheless. As they turned the next corner, Mystique could both hear and feel a faint hum.

"Wow, I think it's getting stronger," Havok muttered, staggering slightly.

Mystique touched his arm. "Stay here, guard our backs. You're no use if we have to carry you."

Havok looked mutinous for a moment, but the device must have been affecting him more than he was letting on, because he did what she said. "Don't be long. The Pentagon's not far from here – they could be bringing reinforcements."

"They have to make it past the Professor," Emma noted.

"Yeah, well, can he stop a hundred of them? A thousand? I've done enough jail time, thanks."

Mystique prodded Darwin and Emma on before the whole mission devolved into an argument, and they turned the corner only to be thrown to the ground by something cannoning into Darwin.

No, someone, Mystique registered as she struggled to maintain her shape. It was a hairy guy in a leather jacket, who was now leaping away as Darwin glowed red-hot. The burns on his hands faded instantly: he must be a mutant. Emma punched at him, but he neatly avoided her and swept her legs out with one kick, sending her skidding along the hall.

Then he stopped. "Shit, you're a bunch of kids." He looked straight at Mystique as he spoke, even though she'd held the form of the guard. "They said it was going to be some mutant super-team that Lehnsherr assembled."

Mystique couldn't decide whether to go with what the man obviously already knew, or to maintain the disguise. Fortunately, Darwin kept it together.

"Hey, listen. We want our friends back, okay? We're not a super-team." Catching the man's raised eyebrow, he continued. "Well, we've got super powers, I admit, but we're just here for our friends. They got caught while they were rescuing me, and I owe them."

"I hear you, but I've got orders. Your friends ain't being treated badly."

"And then what?" Mystique snapped, letting the fake face slip away. The short guy ogled her naked body without trying to hide it, and Mystique took the opportunity to take a step closer. "Then they'll lock them up for life and wreck their powers with that horrible noisy machine, and eventually they'll start trying really hard to extract information. But that's all okay, you're only following orders."

He looked pleased, rather than angry or put off. "That sound is something to do with their powers? Shit, I hate that noise. They told me it was a generator."

"Switch it off and we can make it out of here ourselves," Mystique replied, close enough to touch him, now. He was still blatantly staring at her breasts. She snaked an arm out to hit him in the throat, but he got his hand up and knocked her onto her butt.

"Cool it, babe. I guess if that machine got shut down, there'd be nothing I could do to stop you, eh?"

"Sounds good," Darwin said, hopefully.

"Guess I'd better go see if it's going to malfunction." He sauntered off down the corridor and through a heavy door.

Mystique and Darwin gaped at each other for a moment, then Darwin shook his head. "You think Erik's been giving him the mutant solidarity talk?"

"No, I think it's more that he likes naked women." Mystique was filing that reaction away for later. She hadn't even thought that her natural form was a weapon all in itself.

Emma limped dramatically down the corridor, despite remaining in her diamond form which was unlikely to actually be hurt. "You'd better start wearing a good bra then, Mystique. That trick won't work if your tits are sagging down to your navel."

Mystique stuck her tongue out at Emma, and, a moment later, the humming noise stopped.

*I'm here!* Charles projected, far too loudly.

*Are Angel and Banshee all right?* On receiving an affirmative feeling, Mystique sent back, *Put everyone to sleep, then, and start with the mind-wiping!* She wondered if Charles's brain would have exploded if he'd seen her flirting with the mutant soldier, and tried not to think about it too hard.

*If you insist. There's blank spots on the floor below you – the lead cells, I presume.*

*We know that.* Emma had switched from diamond to flesh, and her mental voice sounded as bored as her physical one. *You're on the brainwashing mission, not the rescue mission. Get to it.*

Charles retreated in a huff and Mystique grabbed Emma's hand out of sheer joy. Everything was going to be okay. Emma didn't smile, but she didn't pull away, either.

Havok skidded around the corner and everyone jumped in surprise. "Guys! My power's working!"

Emma pointed at the floor. "Make yourself useful then, and punch us a hole to save us walking back to the stairs."

Havok did so, and the team quickly lowered themselves down to a creepily identical corridor below. As soon as they were down, Mystique could hear the familiar sound of metal tearing.

"Magneto! We're here!" she yelled, and followed the sound to a heavy wooden door with a slowly warping doorframe. Two soldiers had been stationed outside, but they were peacefully dozing on the floor.

"Drugged, can't…" came the voice from inside, and Emma stepped forward.

"These guards can't open the door – have you got enough space in there to be safe if Havok blasts the door?

" Havok? No. Alex is here? Charles – "

Emma talked over him. "I think I can open it if you pull the frame a little more.

The steel frame peeled away obligingly, and Emma switched to diamond form, inserting her hard fingers in the tiny gap and pulling hard.

*Charles! Who can open the doors?* Mystique called at her brother, whom she could feel lurking at the back of her brain. It was quite comforting, really.

*All the men with keys are upstairs,* he replied. *That's no way to run a prison facility – what if someone fell ill?*

*Thanks, Charles, now please shut up. I'll see if Magneto can make keys once he's outside his cell.*

Darwin had wedged his arm in the door and it grew protective plating, letting him lever the door along with Emma. It didn't take long before they'd got the door moving and Magneto squeezed out through the gap. He didn't look too bad, although he was moving clumsily and Mystique could see some small burn marks on his skin at the loose collar of the shirt. Darwin caught him as he stumbled, and that produced a real smile, as the two men embraced each other hard.

*Charles? Are you there?* Magneto projected, so loudly that everyone linked into Charles could hear it. Charles shielded the reply.

"Riptide and Azazel are here, we think," Mystique told him, trying to avoid yet another endless secret conversation between Erik and Charles. It was as if no time had passed at all since they'd set out on the mission to Cuba, but Mystique wasn't so foolish as to think that was true. Darwin was alive, Emma was by her side, Angel was safe, and now they were rescuing Azazel and Riptide, her friends.

Darwin supported Magneto as they continued to the other cells. At the next in the row, Havok pushed Emma aside. He'd been antsy ever since seeing Magneto in his plain prison clothes, and, considering where he'd been recruited, Mystique couldn't blame him.

"Let me try something." He fired up his power – his finesse and ability to control the degree of force had definitely increased – but instead of shooting directly at the door, he angled his shot so it dented the door. The blast then sheared off a chunk of wall before ricocheting down the hall and blowing up a big chunk of plaster.

Although the gap made by the dented door was small, Azazel immediately teleported into the hall. He didn't seem drugged at all.

"Thank you, comrades! I couldn't feel a damn thing outside that cell, even once that noise stopped. Is everyone safe?"

"Only Janos now," Emma said, and no-one bothered to remind her about code names.

Riptide was an easy rescue – Emma punched a diamond fist into the wall to break the continuity of the lead that restricted Azazel's ability; Azazel teleported right into the cell and returned with Riptide. He was staggering, obviously drugged and was naked from the waist up, a large, clean bandage covering his right shoulder and much of his chest.

"Bullet wound," Azazel explained. "I'll take him out first, yes?"

Emma projected Charles's location to him, and he disappeared with his burden. The rest of the team stayed put, so that Azazel could find them on his return, and he shortly did, taking them to Charles and Hank in a flash of red smoke.

---

As soon as they arrived, Magneto and Mystique had moved towards Charles. Riptide was lying in the corner of the room on a gym mat; Hank had been crouched over him but jumped up to stop people going near Charles and Cerebro. There were wires running everywhere and Mystique certainly didn't want to break a connection when she shouldn't.

Emma stepped forward. "Let me go. Charles needs my help."

*Correct,* Charles said in all their heads, *Yes, Raven, I'm doing what you asked. Azazel, I have one more mission for you, if you are well: here is the location of the lab, where they have Shaw's helmet. Retrieve it, please.*

As everyone watched Azazel vanish, Emma perched herself daintily on Charles's lap. Mystique, Hank and Magneto all reached out to stop her, but Charles discouraged them with the feeling of a waved hand. Emma slid her hands up his face to his temples and joined in the telepathic link.

"What are you doing, Charles?" Magneto growled.

*I see my sister hasn't told you yet." Charles's voice was annoyingly serene. "She believes that I'm partly responsible for your capture because I didn't mind-wipe half of Washington. Emma and I are simply fulfilling her request.*

*Even with my help, that's not a simple process, and we can't possibly finish it tonight,* Emma added.

*No, we'll just deal with the immediate problems.*

"I see that Mystique is, yet again, considerably more persuasive that I am." Magneto turned to look at her.

Mystique didn't want to be part of that game again, the chess piece being traded back and forth between her brother and her leader, so she went to check on Riptide instead. He seemed comfortable on the gym mat, with Angel and Hank taking care of him. Angel had found a glass of water somewhere and was giving Riptide tiny, careful sips as Hank supported his head.

"Hey, how are you feeling?" Mystique crouched down at his side.

"Shot. Drugged."

Hank, who had the most medical knowledge of any of them, nodded. "He's received good treatment, but he'll need painkillers and antibiotics for a while yet."

"And rest," Angel added. "I've seen plenty of people survive gunshot wounds, and they all got in trouble when they got right up and kept working. They all ended up in the hospital, and I don't think we should be dropping Riptide at a hospital."

Darwin leaned in to join the conversation. "Yeah, I'm starting to understand what happened while I wasn't around, and why you're all fighting each other." He looked Mystique in the face. "I took the first step. You take the second."

Mystique raised her hands in surrender. "I get it, I get it. I'll talk to Magneto." Hank and Angel were right – it had been easy to tempt Charles with the promise that they'd all head to his house once they'd saved their friends, but it was another thing entirely to persuade Magneto to go along with it.

Magneto was watching Charles and Emma very closely; Mystique had no idea whether he could actually sense the magnetic fields involved of the machine or if he was just staring.

"They're making friends," Mystique observed, gesturing at the two telepaths.

"I have the feeling that, if we turn away for a moment, they'll start grooming each other like monkeys in the zoo."

"They've been having secret telepathic conversations all day. I can't really blame them. I'd love to meet another shapeshifter."

"I would not want to meet another of me." Magneto's face was still calm, even if his hands were shaking slightly and his voice sounded thick and forced. "I will have to thank Charles for his help."

Mystique grimaced, making sure he saw it. "His help wasn't free, you know."

"What do you mean? Charles would give a stranger the coat off his back."

"A stranger, yes." She laughed. "You know it's not the same for people he knows, for you or me. From us, he wants reciprocation. He wants to see how he's helping. I promised him we'd all come to the house in New York, and then he agreed to help." Mystique was careful not to lie – she didn't want Charles leaping up and telling her off, as he had so often done – but left out that it was she who had made the offer in the first place.

Magneto nodded slowly, either contemplative or drugged. "Cerebro does much more than find mutants, I see. This set-up…it could be much better designed."

You'll have to be at the house to do that, Mystique thought, but said, "That would be a good deal for the help he's given us here."

"As soon as Charles and Emma are done here, then. I will not be in his debt, of all people."

Mystique did her absolute best not to smile, and almost managed it. She was going home with her eyes open and her team behind her, rather than as a supplicant child. Maybe this could work, all of them together again, as adults. Even if it didn't – and she couldn't believe that Magneto and Charles would ever reconcile their philosophies – they would at least be able to rest and recover.

---

Azazel and Mystique got their base packed up and dumped the stolen cars; Hank and Emma – who, of all people, were getting along very well, arguing politics and literature in a friendly sort of way – flew the plane back to New York. Finally, everyone was at the house together.

"Another mutant helped us," Mystique told Charles. The house didn't look much different, but his room was on the ground floor now, in the old parlour, and all the rugs were gone from the study and the halls. There was a camera at the gate, and the gates were closed now. "I think he was military, but he didn't seem too committed to it. He called us a bunch of kids."

Charles took the image she offered. "Oh, yes, Erik and I briefly met with him on our recruitment trip. Very few of the adults we approached were interested – I think Darwin was the oldest that we managed."

Mystique bent down and hugged him, despite his attempts to put the desk between them. "You're not too grown-up for all of this, are you?"

Charles shut his eyes. "Please, please put some clothes on. Be as blue as you want, but please. Clothes. For my sake."

Mystique rolled her eyes, but created a cute little dress she'd seen Emma wearing, changing the colour to bright orange. "There you go. Remember, Charles, this is still my naked body you're hugging."

He hugged her, laughing. "Thanks for that. Mystique."

Darwin was in the library, as usual; he read more than Charles did. "Catching up," he had told Mystique. "I've never had this kind of time to myself, not since I was little."

Today he wasn't reading. He was looking through a long list of co-ordinates, an atlas beside him and a pile of US Geographical Survey maps close at hand.

"Hey." Mystique dropped into the seat next to him. "Did Charles find those in Cerebro?"

"Yeah. Erik's made it a lot more accurate. There's so many of us. I never realised. If I hadn't got hurt fighting Shaw, maybe we could have kept on finding them."

She threw an arm around his shoulders. "Yeah, but then the CIA would have known about them all, and they might have more than that one guy on their side. And there's no way that anyone else would have called Charles for help. No-one on his side would have called us for help, either."

"I don't know what it was like on that beach in Cuba, but it scared the shit out of all of you. So half of you go running around proving you're big and strong, the other half come and hide in this giant, empty house, and then what?"

"Then we're enemies?"

"Yeah. Happens whenever people want to change the world." He put his arm around her waist and they sat there quietly and companionably for a few minutes, the co-ordinates of so many mutants lying on the table in front of them.

Erik and Charles went past the door, arguing vociferously about some minor adjustment they needed to make (or didn't need to make, according to Charles) to the giant new Cerebro they were building in the basement. Erik was waving his hands; Charles let go of a hand-rim to gesticulate and nearly ran into the doorframe before Erik dragged the chair back into the hall with his powers.

Mystique grinned at Darwin, and caught him smiling. She punched him gently on the shoulder. "You think there could be another way forward?"

"Frightened people make bad decisions, but we've got lucky enough to have a little breathing room. Yeah, we can make our own future." He put a hand on the co-ordinates. "And their futures, too."