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Longer than the road that stretches out ahead

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I.

Raven had to concentrate, focus and channel her considerable energies in order to use her powers. Charles had to put effort into not using his. Sometimes she thought that said it all.

They were each other's first mutants, and Charles even coined the word. Not that she minded; the only phrases for what she was that she'd heard until then were terms like "freak", "monster", and, incomprehensible except in tone and intent to the child she was, "abomination." But still: home, language, both belonged to Charles when she entered them, and it was Charles who decided what they'd be to each other: brother and sister.

Years later, during one argument just before the Vietnam draft was installed, when she'd come to see him after hearing he'd finally done it, opened a school for mutants, and he'd misunderstood this as a kind of homecoming, she told him as much, interrupting him mid "you'll always be my sister" assurance.

"But I'm not," she said. "You decided I'd be. You didn't ask me."

He blinked, in his Charles way, pain of rejection immediately masked by determination to stay benevolent. "That's not true, Raven. I only said it after you thought it first."

Watching her expression, he added hastily: "That was before you made me promise not to read your mind. The first day, don't you remember?"

It was on the tip of her tongue to return "even if I didn't remember it this way, you could make me, and that's part of the problem". Erik would have said it, because Erik always, always reached for the most lethal weapon in any argument.

Raven preferred weapons that didn't leave the battlefield a scorched earth. There is nothing Charles could have said in return to such an accusation. Which would basically have stated that he was impossible to trust because of the very nature of his gift. There was an increasing amount of things Raven found herself ready to do as the years passed. But making another mutant deliberately feel guilty for what made them a mutant - that was where she drew the line.

She thought it, though. There was nothing in Charles' eyes or expression to indicate he was breaking his promise right now, that he was listening to what she didn't say. She could tell. She wouldn't be able to imitate others if she didn't observe them for minute reactions all the time, and there were few people she'd had the chance to observe as closely, for as much a time, as Charles Xavier.
That, too, was part of the problem.

"It doesn't matter," she said. "What matters is that you were the one to make all the rules. And you still won't admit it. Your house. Your family. Your words. And that's why I can't come back."

"They call me Professor X, you know", he said, apropos of nothing, referring to his new students, except that she knew how arguments with Charles went; this was somehow connected. "Hank must have told them. You chose that name."

She remembered. Remembered the reckless giddiness, the joy of that day; choosing code names for all of them. Erik had looked nonplussed by "Magneto". Charles had simply looked embarrassed. He'd been so easy to tease, when he was trying to impress Erik, Moira, and the entire CIA.

"Words are nothing", Charles continued, eyes now focused on her the way they were when she'd convinced him that probing Professor Tolkien's mind at Oxford for that unpublished Hobbit sequel was absolutely justified, "when you don't fill them with content because you want to. If you don't want to give them meaning. You didn't make me anyone's teacher by calling me that. I didn't make you my sister by saying you were."

He wasn't wrong. When she thought of family now, whether in affection, regret or rage, his was the face that came to mind, and that wouldn't be the case if she didn't want it to. She couldn't help being both touched and amused, in the middle of her lingering anger, by the thought he'd kept the silly name because she'd given it to him.

Giving words meaning as a choice. Yes. But the trouble was that from the moment he invited her to stay till the moment he'd told her to go with Erik in Cuba, he'd always presumed to know what her choices would be.


 

II.

Raven could choose to use her powers, and every time she accomplished her marvels, it was an active decision of hers. Charles had to put effort into not using his. Sometimes he thought that said it all.

They were each other's first mutants, and Raven forever defined for him what a mutant could and should be. Before, there'd only been the term itself, and the desperate hope he wasn't crazy.

Charles had been nine when he first started to hear the voices, which was old enough to understand that this was not in any way or shape normal and, in fact, sign of a mental illness. People who heard voices were locked up in institutions. Except for Joan of Arc, and he was reasonably sure there weren't any saints talking to him. Charles at nine had already decided God didn't exist, which automatically meant no saints, either. But that meant he was crazy, like his maternal grandmother back in England, whose maintenance in a Scottish hospital was financed by his mother's dutiful cheques and embarrassed silence if someone ever raised the topic of her parents. Which fortunately not many did in the US.

His mother loved her mother. She said so. She loved Charles, too. She said so. He had absolutely no doubt she would send him to a hospital, too, for his own good, if he ever told her about the voices. His stepfather, who didn't love him but was a firm believer in not letting the side down, would undoubtedly help her choose a very good one, and Charles would remain there, as Granny did, for the rest of his days.

As he grew older, he started being able to discern sense from an ocean of murmurs, shouts and fragments around him, and began to suspect that he did not suffer from schizophrenia after all. But going by all he'd been able to find in the libraries, - his stepfather's, his tutor's and the great New York City one which he'd persuaded his tutor to visit -, it was entirely possible that he was simply building up a more complicated and coherent delusion to function in. Alternatively, he had an ability which a lot of psychics claimed to have, but disappointingly, the one time he made the housekeeper take him with her to see such a person it was someone who droned on about tall dark strangers from distant lands and a journey across the water where they'd meet. The woman clearly had no mindreading ability at all.

Then there was Raven, and Charles was finally sure. Raven was not in any way or form a hallucination. She was the answer to everything. When he first saw her in his mother's shape, the division between looks and mental aura was sharp and instant. She didn't even pretend not to hear him when he reached out and talked inside her head. And then she changed, and everything came together. In all his fervent hopes and speculations about other people with abilities, he'd never thought of someone so marvelous. And she didn't even know she was. She was hungry, lonely and afraid. Charles vowed to change that. He had to, because if he didn't, she'd leave again.

There was the problem of his mother. His stepfather was away at Los Alamos at some secret project and wouldn't return until after the end of the war, rarely even bothering with letters because his mother's second marriage had degraded to the point of near non-existence. But while his mother often numbed her disappointment over this with alcohol, she would notice Raven. She'd say something like "darling, of course we have to help the little girl, just look at her", and then Raven would be the one ending up locked up in a hospital. Even if Raven managed to keep to a non-blue-shape all the time, his mother would simply put her in the next orphanage, with a handsome donation. She'd been clear about not wanting any more children; Charles had heard her, out loud and in his head, during one of the last arguments she'd had with his stepfather before his stepfather left.

He didn't plan to do it. He'd never done it before. He hadn't even known he could. But while he was still trying to think of a way he could persuade his mother to adopt Raven, the urgent desire to keep Raven with him, stronger than anything he'd felt other than the hope that he wasn't mad, became like a red thread that wove itself into the tapestry that was his mother's mind.

"I'll have Gavin draw up the adoption papers then," his mother suddenly said cheerfully, as if discussing the menu for the next dinner with the cook, referring to their lawyer. "No need to bother Brian. It'd be months until he writes back anyway."

Charles, sweating as if he'd run for an hour, knees shaking, was terrified and delighted at the same time. Intellectually, he knew he'd done something wrong, and that he shouldn't do it again. But it worked.

"I don't look like your sister", Raven said doubtfully when he told her the good news, and he could feel the mixture of longing and doubt around the term "sister". "Everyone will know I'm not."

There didn't have to be a physical resemblance for adoption, but that wasn't really what she meant. He caught an image from her, one of fairs with freakshows that were increasingly rare, and knew instantly she'd spent part of her life there.

"No, they won't", Charles said, and that was when she tried to find a shape that was both her and what she thought a sister would look like, keeping her bone structure, but with his mother's blonde hair and eyes similar to his own.

"How long can you look like this?" he asked, deeply impressed. He still couldn't make the voices stop for longer than five to seven minutes in a row.

"An hour," she said. "Then I have to relax. But I'll try for longer, if I can stay here."

There it was again, coming so strongly from her, the fear he'd grow tired of the novelty and kick her out, or that the adults here would, because even if he wasn't lying about wanting her to stay, he was just a boy, and children had to do what adults said. Adults made the rules. No adults had ever wanted her to stay if they couldn't earn money through her, and she didn't want to go back to any of them.

"Raven", Charles said, because he wanted to stop the fear, "I - can make adults listen to me."

"The way you talked to me in the kitchen?" she asked, wide eyed.

"No," he said, half ashamed, half proud, because it was all so new, and a part of him still was convinced it was wrong, but at the same time, he realized he was bursting to tell her. "I can tell them what to do. If I really, really want to. I just did, with Mother. So you see, if someone doesn't want you here, I'll just tell them differently. "


 

III.

Neither Charles nor Raven ever visited a school, until Charles went to college. Charles had tutors. Raven was taught the alphabet, how to count and some songs by the Siamese Twins who'd once been genuine stars, back when freak shows had been more in demand. Then she'd learned by watching other people. But she hadn't really had a teacher until Charles, who discovered he loved explaining things through her, though sometimes her questions stumped him. When he didn't know the answers, he looked for them in books or in other people's heads. This was how he learned how to search and find specific information in another mind.

Raven, growing up, decided this was an unfair advantage, not least because she wanted to be the one to teach him something for a change, and how could she if he always knew anything that came into her mind first?

There was also the undeniable fact that the knowledge he could look inside her head at any time he wanted to didn't delight her, the way her power delighted him. It impressed her, certainly, but it also made her uncomfortable and disturbed her a little if she thought about it too long. Which he sensed, and that in turn disturbed him. He was afraid she'd leave if she was scared of him, Raven realized; and when she realized this, she began to feel more secure regarding her standing with him. He wasn't all knowing, all-giving, immune to fears. Sometimes he could even be annoying, in his insistence that Errol Flynn was better than Basil Rathbone, for example. He wasn't an adult in small form, he was just a boy who didn't have a friend other than her.

"Promise me you won't look inside my head unless I ask you to," she said, feeling less like a guest in the land of plenty and more like a fellow traveller in it who was entitled to bargain.

"But what if I can't control it?"

"Learn to," Raven said firmly, and felt glee when it dawned on her that this way, she could become his teacher, too.

That was, she later thought, the key to it; they taught each other, because there was no one else to teach them, not the really important lessons. Not parents, because both Charles' mother and his stepfather died without ever realizing the truth about him, and Raven had buried the memory of her own mother so deep she sometimes wondered whether even Charles, if she asked him, would ever find it. Not tutors, because learning Greek was nothing compared to training herself to maintain a shape for days at a stretch, while he finessed his ability until he could stop anyone he wanted to from moving simply with a thought.

Sometimes he still couldn't control it, though, or used it in a way that proved uncontrollable. As his mother was dying, he went into her head to be with her. Maybe he wanted to apologize for lying about so many things, maybe he wanted to tell her he loved her, maybe he wanted her to tell him she loved him, maybe he simply didn't want her to be alone, Raven didn't know, but she saw the result. Charles screamed and was a barely coherent mess for days. She had her arms around him, tried not to think about the possibility he might not come back from this, and fed him her attempt at chicken soup, since at that point they had dismissed most of the staff already. On the third day, he asked her why she couldn't mutate her hair into washed form, and she knew he was back to being her annoying, smug, safe and sound Charles. Afterwards, he swore never to share the mind of a dying person again.

Sometimes Raven's own control failed her when she didn't mean it, but for her, the frightening part was waking up with an assumed shape. It should have been a triumph. It was. Except she started to wonder what her true face was when she stared in the mirror. Whether it was still there, would always be there, or whether she would stay in another form one day, stuck forever.

Sometimes she even wanted to. It would certainly make her life easier. Sometimes the prospect horrified her beyond words. It felt wrong, wrong, wrong. But the worst thing of all was that she couldn't tell anymore how Charles would react to something like this. As they grew up and began to interact with more and more people, he began to throw around the word "caution" on an increasing basis, and it almost always referred to her own behavior. Not getting drunk, maintaining her cover shape, not talking to strangers alone. He, of course, felt entitled to flirt and get drunk with anyone he met. And he'd long stopped beaming in delight when she dropped all the shapes and returned to her natural form.

Sometimes she imagined telling him: "Charles, I can't change anymore. I'll always be blonde and pink skinned."

Would he even be upset?

They were still teaching each other, but a part of her would never forgive him that he had now joined the series of people who taught her to resent her own body.


 

IV.

At some point during the mid Sixties, Hank asked Charles, in all seriousness, what had kept him from becoming a telepathic dictator. This was before Hank had perfected the serum that would later allow Charles to suppress his powers and walk again, and at a point when they still were working for a school, but Charles had already started to drink now and then, and at any rate Hank had become too familiar to lie to. So he replied with the truth.

"Not what, who. Raven did."

Not Raven alone. Getting drunk always reminded Charles of his mother, and the unanswerable question whether he'd weakened her mind by implanting the desire to adopt Raven in it, which in turn ensured that a still controlled habit would become an addiction. Or maybe it would have happened even if he'd been the most normal child on the planet. He would never know. Or maybe the undisguised horror she'd felt at his presence when she died was his answer.

At any rate: Charles had been an intelligent child, and a mostly well behaved one, but the discovery that far from being crazy, he could not only read people's mind but order them to do something he wanted, at least in the short term, might very well have turned him into a psychic tyrant if he'd been alone when making it.

But there was Raven. Who was like him, different, only not, because she had her own gifts, and was the only person who knew the truth about him. The first time Charles sensed that Raven was afraid, not because of the strange house which she'd gotten used to, or the new people, or the possibility of discovery, but because of what he could do, he was deeply shocked. He wanted to protest that he would never use his ability against her, but considering that he had used it against his own mother, he knew she wouldn't believe him.

Maybe she was right not to. Because she knew what he was, it was just too easy to respond to what she thought, not what she said. To tell her secrets no one had ever entrusted him with, truths taken from the adult minds around them, to show off for her this way. He didn't even have to deliberately try after a while. It just came to him. Stopping himself from reading her mind, on the other hand, required a conscious effort.

"But what if I can't control it?" he asked when she asked him for his promise.

"Learn to," she said, arms folded. For a moment, he felt like refusing. It was like putting a hand in front of his eyes every time he looked at her. And it wasn't like she could tell.

Except that she might be able to; she was fantastic at observing people, as he'd found out when they started to play a game of deducing the truth about random strangers. And besides, here she was, trusting him to keep a promise. If he'd let her down, she wouldn't trust him again. She'd leave. He'd be alone again.

He promised, and started to learn. Not just a better command of his abilities. If Raven, who was different and who liked and trusted him, found his ability disturbing, other mutants most likely would, too, if and when he encountered them. This was an awful prospect; he'd imagined finally belonging to a group of people, not to be feared.

There were moments when he thought: I could make them not afraid. I could make Raven forget she ever was.

Which was of course precisely what she found so disturbing about his power. He tried to swallow his disappointment down along with the temptation and wondered about strategies to put people at their ease. This was when he got in the habit of putting his fingers to his forehead, as a signal to Raven that he was using his ability, because he had concluded that it was the unknown, the fact that she couldn't tell when he was using his power as opposed to his being able to tell when she was using hers, that was an element in her reaction. In a way, it worked. It amused her and appealed to her sense of playfulness, of sharing something others didn't, just the two of them.

But she didn't release him from his promise, and he began to realize she never would. Charles learned about boundaries from Raven, and years later, he was grateful. At the time, though, he saw it as a necessary evil to keep her with him, and though he would never have admitted it, least of all to himself, a part of him started to resent her for it. Resent her for being someone who taught him to fear his own abilities. Resented himself for being so dependent on her.

Sometimes this made him short tempered with her. He started to tell her to be more careful; if he was, so should she be. College came, and finding out he could easily socialize and get people who didn't have the faintest whiff of a mutant ability to like him without using his telepathy was a pleasant revelation. As much as he enjoyed it, though, in the end it also drove home to him that there was a difference between socializing and befriending someone. And you couldn't truly befriend someone without telling them the truth, the complete truth about yourself.

He was absurdly relieved when Raven agreed to come to Oxford with him, despite not wanting to study there. Charles told himself this was because he was afraid of what might happen to her in his absence, but he knew very well it was because he still couldn't imagine living without her. He'd have to one day; brothers and sisters did not live together as adults. But not yet. Not yet.


 

V.

It needed Erik to separate them. The manner in which it happened aside, which she would undo if she could have, Raven came to see this as a necessary thing, but what it took her a good while to realize was that she also needed to separate from Erik.

Erik was different from Charles. He didn't think he had all the answers, nor did he seek for the ones he didn't have. He simply thought there was only one answer. For a while, it became hers, too. There was a purity to it, a clarity that gave her purpose and freed her of any sense of inadequacy. She felt treated like an adult comrade, not a patronized adopted waif.

But she didn't really finish growing up until Erik was imprisoned and she fought her battles without any teachers of any type, and found that she could. Even then, it took Erik shooting at her to bring home that his answer wasn't hers, either. Not just because he was willing to kill her. Because he was willing to kill someone who trusted him, didn't even consider another way, let alone informing her first of what was going on and letting her make her own choice. So much for being a fellow warrior. Maybe he couldn't see anyone that way. Maybe, if this hadn't happened, she'd come to that point, too, where anyone was expendable and only the cause mattered. As it was, she didn't wish that sense of betrayal and utter helplessness she felt on anyone. She had sworn not be a victim ever again and it was Erik, Erik who' d made her feel that way.

He'd do it to other mutants, too. To anyone, because he couldn't see anymore that a cause was people, that was the point, the whole point. She couldn't allow herself to go the same way.

All of which had nothing to do with the mixture of relief and resentment the mere sight of Charles had brought. He'd come to save her, of course he would, when he was in a state that clearly needed saving, which made her want to shake him because how could he let things get that far? And of course he was still in a lecturing mode. If necessary by stewardesses and hapless passengers as mouthpieces. Trust Charles to make a display of his powers far more chilling than poor Hank exposed to all and sunder at a Paris fountain, if people had the sense to understand what he was doing.

She could have strangled him. The awareness of how much she'd missed him, lecturing and all, was the worst. By now, she really thought she'd gotten over this.

It was so strange, hearing him in her head after so many years. Oddly enough, it didn't provide any additional fuel for anger, though it meant him breaking his promise. When she held the plastic gun in her hand and Charles was in her head for the second time, Raven come to understand why. That promise had been made between two frightened children. He'd kept it for the wrong reasons, and maybe she'd demanded it for the wrong reasons, too.

He knew better now. He really did, at last. So did she. The decision she made that day wasn't about Charles, but after she had made it, and they looked at each other, she knew there could be a new start for them. Not right then, with the whole world watching and both of them bruised and bleeding. But she would see him again, and maybe get through an entire conversation without the urge to strangle or hug him.


 

VI.

She waited for him when he was leaving his physiotherapist's office. Hank had devoted a decade of his life to him, and Charles had allowed him to, despite knowing it wasn't good for Hank and his already fragile sense of self esteem. This, Charles acknowledged to himself, was what would have happened with Raven if she hadn't left him. He had a tendency for co-dependent relationships he really needed to combat. For starters, the least he could do now was to get as self reliant as possible so Hank would feel free to use that wonderful mind of his in any way and on anything he wanted. Charles felt Raven a moment before he spotted her in a nearby street café, a slim figure, not the shape he still associated with her as much as her blue one but a black haired woman he'd never seen before. Just as well; "the mutant who saved the President" had become an instantly recognizable national celebrity. With a pang, he recognized that there was hot chocolate in the cup in front of her. He pushed the memory of her offering to make some for him in his mother's voice aside.

"Are you hungry?" she asked with a crooked smile that was entirely Raven, which ever shape she chose.

"Well, I did just go through some considerable physical exercise," Charles said ruefully, and she gently pushed the chocolate towards him. She didn't try to help him manage the wheelchair, but he noticed she'd picked a spot for both of them to sit that was easily accessible, to reach and to leave.

There were so many questions he wanted to ask her. But maybe a good start for what he hoped would be a new chapter would be to wait and see whether she had anything she wanted to say to him first. So he sat, and drank, and listened; didn't try to read her thoughts but didn't shield himself from them, either. He got a sense of purpose from her, of curiosity and some underlying nervousness. There was even a faint trace of guilt, though not necessarily related to him.

"Erik said they made weapons to wipe us out in the future", Raven said. "Based on me. Do you think this will still happen?"

Charles shook his head, though he had no way to be certain. Logan had disappeared. At least the Logan of the future had. The man who'd resurfaced briefly in Paris was still there, fished out of the Potomac by someone who hadn't been Captain Stryker and had only told him to visit a certain house in Westchester.

"What you did, Raven", he said. "I don't think that ever happened in the other timeline."

"Yes, well. I've read some newspapers which think it was all a set up to distract people from that story the Washington Post has been reporting - about those burglars in the Watergate Hotel." She grimaced. "I'd rather have saved McGovern."

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask whether she'd voted for McGovern at the last election, but he caught himself before he could blunder. People on the run didn't take the time to register for voting.

"The thing is, Charles," she said, leaning towards him across the table, "even if they don't believe it, people forget quickly. Right now, sure. They've changed their mind for now. But we can't rely on this alone having changed everything. We have to do more."

"I'll reopen the school", he said, "and -"

She interrupted him. "That's good, because kids like us need a place like this. But I meant doing something more direct."

She couldn't simply be referring to tracking down people like Bolivar, who were abusing or killing mutants; that was too self evident. Raven took a deep breath.

"They know about us now. How we look like. Well, how I look like, and Hank, and Erik. So I think - we should be even more public. We should be a movement. Do you think that Vietnam peace conference in Paris would have happened without all the demonstrations before? Without people getting organized? And the civil rights marches, I was in Washington for some of that, Charles. And then look what happened."

"Yes," he said, his imagination catching fire, though the cynicism the last decade had intermingled with his natural optimism reminded him how many Vietnamese and how many Americans had needed to die for the public to turn against the war. Still. It was a line of action he could believe in.

"You can find us", Raven said. "With Cerebro. But no offense, Charles, if I didn't know you and you came to me and said something about getting organized, going out there, I'd think, that's easy for you to say, rich boy. You look like them and you don't have a job to lose."

A decade ago, he would have been offended regardless by the implied criticism. It was amazing what waking up in your own vomit could do for you.

"They'd listen to you, though", he said. Raven frowned.

"I was going to say Hank."

"Hank didn't just save the President and stop the Sentinel program from getting launched", Charles countered. "If I were a mutant who'd watched the news, you'd be my heroine. I'd listen to you."

"You're not making my choice for me again, are you?" she warned. But he knew, as certain as he'd ever known anything, that she was going to do it. Not because he was reading her thoughts. Because Alex had told him what she'd done for him and the others in Vietnam. Because she must have spent the last years like this, saving people, while he and Erik were sinking into their respective hells.

"I'd listen," he repeated.

Raven was still frowning. "Would you?" she asked. Their eyes held, and as hers turned golden, he could sense the weight of the years, of every time he'd told her, in word or gesture, that another shape was preferable; of every time she'd made him feel distrusted, and wrong to be what he was.

"I would," he said, with every sense he had, and she heard him.