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An Awfully Long Time

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The corridor is empty save for one lone security guard near the glass door. He is a young man, not very experienced, and he gives his superior a mildly surprised glance.

"Forgot something, sir?"

"Just a few notes I've been meaning to take home," is the curt reply, and the guard nods as he steps aside. A few yards down the corridor bends around a corner, and the man who was just allowed in relaxes slightly, though he does not cease in his watchful gaze to make sure of his surroundings. The lock of the single office door poses a slight difficulty, but not an insurmountable one for a skilled lock pick. The man slides inside with the easy grace of a professional. He knows the most common hiding-places, the tricks and methods of camouflage, and how to effectively search a location without giving away that anyone was there. He also knows that he does not have much time.

It does not take him long to retrieve a thick folder from a secret compartment in the wall behind a painting. The painting shows picturesque scenery of mountains and a lake at sunset, which suggests more sentiment than the rightful owner of the office usually shows. But the intruder does not have the patience for art; instead he is flipping through the pages with casual efficiency. Then he freezes, and for just one second his eyes change from pale grey to an eerie shade of yellow.

The page he is holding shows grainy photographs of a hairy blue creature in human clothing, suspended in the air by poles of bent metal, bestial fangs bared in a roar. The photograph is part of a file, neatly typed on cheap white paper, name, address, CV, nature of mutation, just like the others. The name is highlighted in pale green.

Dr. Henry McCoy, Residence: 1407 Greymalkin Lane, Salem Center, Westchester, NY. Preliminary assessment: Highly useful.

 

The coffee in her cup has long gone cold. Mystique is not sure how much time has passed since her return, how long since she ordered the beverage from the room service and settled on the squishy white settee that overlooks the skyline of Vancouver. Her mind is still reeling from the impact of her recent findings, not quite as graphic as the autopsy reports at Trask Industries, perhaps, but terrifying in their vagueness and possibly just as monstrous. She has been tracking Stryker ever since she abandoned her original mission to kill Bolivar Trask, suspicious of his intentions and of the fact that he showed up in Trask's entourage more often than not; a henchman, perhaps, or one with a grander mission himself. Now she knows it is the latter, and she must find out what that mission entails.

It would be of prime importance for her to stay and continue her work. No disappearances have been reported since the White House incident, but she is reasonably sure that it is just a matter of time.

Which leads to the problem of her personal involvement.

It is not, she tells herself sternly, only for her own sentimental reasons if she considers interrupting her mission now. It is a strange feeling after she has been working on her own for so long, and a voice in her head that sounds suspiciously like Erik tells her that the cause must not be abandoned, not even to prevent great personal sacrifices.

Well. She has seen how far, exactly, he is willing to go. And she has seen where he means to take his cause. It was only her own common sense - granted, with a bit of prodding from her insufferable smart-arse brother - that prevented the war he is trying to bring down on all of them.

Speaking of which…

She eyes the newspaper on the coffee table with a weary gaze. There is a ring of coffee right on the photograph of Erik's face. He looks faintly ridiculous with those brown stains splattered over his face and helmet. There is not much else she can do to make his recent escapades a laughing matter.

Three political murders in three weeks. Yesterday Dr. Trask, her own nemesis for so long, was found dead in his prison cell with an iron rod around his throat. She does not grieve the deed but she loathes its implications.

He has not yet declared responsibility for the murders, but she is sure that he will. He made it quite clear that he wants his war. It's not like Erik to be subtle about it.

Bloody megalomaniac.

In a rush of righteous anger she rises from her seat and begins to pack her bags. She will take an early flight tomorrow.

 

She appears as a workman when she walks down the graveled driveway that leads up to the mansion. It will hardly attract attention, she reasons, for such a large building as this will be in need of repairs from time to time, even though the state of the gardens visible from the path suggests years of neglect. They used to be impeccable in those long-bygone days of her childhood, the days she does her utmost not to dwell on, especially not the happy moments she spent with Charles digging for treasures behind Rhododendron bushes or quiet summer evenings when they hid from the world and played chess by the pool. She does not quite remember how they looked like in the few short weeks before Cuba. Those weeks had been so full of excitement and life-altering important events that she never quite paid attention to the state of her old home.

Now the hedges are growing onto the path and the lawn is in desperate need of mowing, and the large fountain in the front yard is empty and overgrown with moss.

She never came near the house again after that fateful day she left with Erik, not even when they told her that Charles would never walk again, not once in those long years of her lonely battle while she justified her cause and tried not to think of him. She knew that Hank was taking care of him, which was another reason to avoid that line of thought entirely because she did not want to think of Hank, either.

The truth is that she is not sure if, had she returned, she would ever have been able to leave again.

She shifts to her blue form as she knocks, and it is mere moments before the door creaks open. Of course it is. Charles probably knew she was coming ever since she passed the front gate, and it is just a nod to her sensibilities that he even waited until she had knocked.

It is Hank who opens the door, Hank in his human form, with a careful and not-quite-genuine smile plastered on his face. Charles is waiting behind him in the hallway, and she knows that he feels all the emotions that are slamming into her now as she sees him like this for the first time.

Guilt, anger, sadness, love. More guilt, so much that it nearly stifles her, and then fury at herself and him and Erik and fate itself for doing this to him.

She thought she had come to terms with the fact that her brilliant brother is bound to a wheelchair. Apparently she was wrong.

She feels his soothing touch against her mind, gentle enough not to be intrusive, just a faint presence she remembers like a lost limb that was screaming in phantom pain for years after she left. Charles smiles, though his eyes do not sparkle the way they used to and there are lines on his face she does not remember. "Welcome home, Raven," he says aloud. "For as long as you choose to stay."

 

She follows Charles as he wheels himself into the kitchen, more alert than she wishes to be to the changes that have been made in the house. She cannot help but notice the ramps, the handlebars and the elevator doors in the hallway. Other changes are more subtle. The rooms are in an alarming state of disrepair that speaks of the same neglect as the overgrown gardens. Perhaps Charles has become careless over the years; the changes in his own attire certainly suggest as much. The brother she left was a prim and proper young professor who liked to underline his general importance to the world with impeccable suits and cardigans. She returned to find a bearded hippie in a wheelchair.

She must have been projecting some of her thoughts, because Charles looks around to give her a sheepish grin.

"I'm afraid I haven't been the most ardent housekeeper," he admits. "But Hank and I have been busy these few weeks. At least we managed to air the rooms properly and make a few repairs... We should be able to re-open the school this fall."

"That's good to hear," she says politely, and the problem about talking to telepaths is that they will know when you're just being polite even when they make an effort to stay out of your head. She doesn't miss her brother's flinch as he turns away and she sighs inwardly. He probably heard that, too.

Hank is trailing silently behind her, just far enough to stay out of her field of vision. She stares ahead and ignores him.

 

"Just gathering information, you say?"

Charles leans his elbows on the table and stirs his tea, milk and two sugars, just as he always liked it. She fiddles with her own cup.

"So far," she says with a frown. "I think. I can't be sure, but it's all I found. But the information is very detailed, and that worries me."

"It implies a purpose." Charles nods. "Trask just wanted mutants, dead or alive, no matter what the mutation was. But this suggests some sort of plan."

"Yes, and there's something else." She pauses, trying to put a finger on it. "The mutations were not… random. They were physical mutations mostly, and they were classified by their usefulness. Powerful mutations. No one with just coloured skin or spikes on their back." She takes a deep breath and turns to Hank. "You were in there as well. That's why I'm here."

He looks up at that and truly meets her eyes for the first time since she arrived. There is surprise in his gaze and also a different emotion she cannot read. He frowns.

"I'm not useful," he says coolly. "I'm with Charles. Whoever may be watching us must know that I won't defect."

"Perhaps they don't mean to give you a choice," Charles interjects, looking worried. "This is bad news. Thanks for the warning, Raven."

She nods and chews on her bottom lip.

"Anything you're going to do about it?" she demands. "Or, you know, about Erik?"

"I'm not going to discuss Erik." Even from the distance she can feel the echo of his mental shields slamming into place. "And no-one gets to Hank if I have a say in it. As to the rest… This requires some consideration. I have a bad feeling about it."

He turns his chair to leave the kitchen.

"If you'll excuse me for a while? I need a bit of time to think. Help yourself to the fridge if you're hungry, and your room is at your disposal. We haven’t changed anything about it."

She ignores the sharp spike of guilt and looks at Hank, who is still watching her with a very strange expression.

"Thank you," he says quietly. "I didn't think you'd do something like that."

"You're welcome," she tells him, which is the most uncreative thing she could possibly have said, and then she flees the room.

 

The evening is nothing short of painful. They are gathered in the living room to have a drink and a chat, because that's what you're supposed to do when someone is visiting. Charles drinks water and she wonders if he is actually trying to become a saint; she cannot remember a time when he ever rejected a nightcap. At least he is attempting to socialize while Hank drinks nothing at all and hardly speaks a word. Perhaps she should not be surprised; it has been ten years since she fell in love with him, and they hurt each other in more ways than one. She wasn't sure what she expected of their reunion, but she admits to herself now that she did not expect this.

Charles, on the other hand, has slipped into the guise of a most charming host, and she is one of the very few people on whom it is wasted. She knows he is putting up a front, and he knows that she knows it. Still he talks animatedly about his big plans for the school as though there weren't more urgent matters to face, and he has not even deemed it necessary to tell her what he thinks about the information she brought him.

He acts as if there were not a double betrayal and ten years of silence separating them, pretends he is not hurt by the fact that he makes her uncomfortable, although she knows that he is. And he is always hopeful, always kind, even though he can't walk, and he still wants to make his peace with the world and with her as if nothing had changed. But she can't, and she won't, and she wants to run away from this haunted house that screams its accusations at her with every step and her perfect brother who thinks he is Peter Pan in a bloody wheelchair, and her - and Hank, who used to be so brilliant and beautiful and now has forgotten how to smile.

It was a mistake to come here, she thinks grimly. A call would have been enough.

Charles' gaze meets hers just as she has formed the thought and the pained look in his eyes makes her cheeks burn with shame, and then with anger.

"Don't read my mind," she snaps harsher than she intended to. He purses his lips and looks away. "I didn't," he says evenly, but she can tell from tension in his voice that she hurt him again.

Suddenly she cannot bear to be in the same room with him a moment longer. "I'm tired," she informs him and rises from her chair. "I'm going to bed."

Charles sighs, but he still won't get angry. "Good night," he tells her with a tight little smile. Hank glares at her and says nothing.

She will not remain in this house a minute longer than she has to.

 

Her original plan was to take a taxi to the train station early the next morning, but Charles insists on giving her a lift. "We have some errands to run," he tells her in a voice that brooks no argument. "I've been taking regular physiotherapy sessions since… well, nearly being crushed by a concrete pillar didn't do my spine any favours." He winces. "And we're planning to do some grocery shopping afterwards. The station is no detour at all."

There is no way to refuse his offer without looking childish, so she endures Hank's silence and Charles' forced cheerfulness for another hour until they finally arrive at her destination. Hank stops the car by the roadside and gives her a terse smile that tells her clearly what he thinks of her hasty departure. It does not matter, she decides angrily, because he has no right to judge her, and if he wants to live with Charles in their nice little bubble of righteousness and naïve optimism, he may do as he pleases. Charles opens his door as she gets out and reaches for her hand.

"Goodbye, Raven," he says, and she hardens her heart against the way his eyes look sad although he smiles. "You know you're always welcome with us. Even if you don't stay long."

"I know," she tells him and gives his hand a squeeze. Then she turns and walks away without a backward glance, away from her old life, from the ghosts of her past that will find her and haunt her however far she runs, and back to a mission that helps her make a difference.

 

She has not even reached the building when behind her a loud crash disrupts the regular noise of the street. There is a scream that makes her blood run cold, and it is inside her head, and then it breaks off.

For a moment she is blinded by a surge of raw panic. As she whirls around she sees a commotion down the street, people running and shouting and a truck that seems to block the street and beside it a blur of shiny red metal, too far away to see clearly.

She clutches her bags and breaks into a run.

 

The Beast is howling and raging as she gets there, trying to rip the battered roof off Charles' car without a single thought for his own safety. He shouldn't, she thinks desperately, everyone can see, and then nothing but Charles, Charles, Charles.

"Hank!" she screams, but he gives no sign that he hears her as he tears a large part of metal right out of the wreck. Inside her brother's figure is slumped on the passenger's seat and there is blood everywhere, on the window, on the seats, on the splintered glass that covers the debris.

She is no stranger to the sight of blood but now a wave of nausea hits her, and for the first time since Cuba her knees nearly give out. Her fingers dig into Hank's arm as she chants "keep calm, keep calm" like a mantra, not sure if she means him or herself. But the sight of his injured friend seems to sober Beast, and he lifts Charles out of the wreckage with a gentleness she didn't know he possessed.

The ambulance arrives a few minutes later, closely followed by four police officers brandishing their weapons in search of a rampart blue ape-man. They talk briefly to the bystanders before they turn to gape at Hank, who is now once again brown-haired and skinny and even paler than usual. Blood trickles from a shallow gash on his forehead, but otherwise he seems unharmed.

"I'm a doctor," he snaps at them. "I gave first aid to my friend. You can question me if you like, but you'd better find out why that truck changed direction and hit us right in our own lane."

"It just turned all on its own." The truck driver is a burly, dark-haired man with a ponytail and a peace sign on his cap. He looks shaken. "I swear I didn't do anything. It was like someone ripped the steering wheel out of my hands and turned it, and then there was this car." He shrugs helplessly. "I'm sorry, gents. I'm so sorry."

Hank meets Mystique's gaze, and for the first time in a decade she knows that they are thinking the same. It is not a pleasant thought.

 

The day seems to drag endlessly. They spend hours in a nondescriptive police office that makes her nervous by experience, and each undergo a lengthy separate questioning before they are released. The officers assure them that they are merely considered witnesses and have no legal trouble on their heels. They should probably be grateful, she muses bitterly, that Hank's true appearance alone was not enough to earn them a night in prison. Charles' blue-eyed optimism cannot change the realities of a world that still views mutants with distrust and scorn.

Hank is pale and tense on their taxi ride to the hospital, and her own thoughts are a maelstrom of fear and anger, so they do not talk more than they have to. But at least they are allowed to see Charles immediately when she identifies herself as his sister, and although he is still unconscious, the friendly young doctor assures them that there is no need to worry. He escaped with a concussion, three broken ribs and a few bruises and flesh wounds, which makes him comparatively lucky. Hank and Mystique both watch over his sleep for several hours until the world outside the hospital window has turned dark and the nurse tells them in friendly but unmistakable terms that her patient needs to be left alone.

Hank shuffles his feet and tells her that he will take a taxi back to the mansion. That should be the end of it, she knows; she will remain at the hospital in the guise of a nurse, because she will not leave Charles alone for the night right after someone attempted to murder him. But for some reason she herself is not quite sure about, she promises Hank that she will join him as soon as she can.

 

Charles wakes the next morning shortly before dawn, and the happiness that passes over his face as his mind touches hers is stunning. But then she catches a vague memory through his weakened shields, the echo of another awakening, another hospital room, of pain in the back and the sheer terror of not sensing anything below the waist and agonizing loss because they're gone, gone, gone...

Stop it, she thinks as loudly as she can. I'm here. It's over, you're safe.

Stay, he returns sleepily before he drifts off again.

She tries very hard to ignore the bile that rises in her throat.

 

Charles sends her back to the mansion after breakfast. He is much more alert and immediately realizes that she has not slept at all during her watch, so he insists in his usual uncompromising manner that she should allow herself some hours of rest and a good meal. Hank looks vaguely surprised as he lets her in, but they do not talk much before she retreats to her room and throws herself on the bed, too exhausted to brood over the events that led her back here.

It is mid afternoon when she wakes with a much clearer head and in desperate need of a shower. There is not much time to indulge in it; they have serious matters to discuss, matters Charles refused to face that have now caught up with him. She finds Hank in his lab, where he is leafing through a large stack of notes.

"Cerebro," he says by way of greeting. "That must be why Erik attacked him. He knows Charles can find him with Cerebro now that he has lost the helmet, he could get in the way…" He slams a folder on the table in frustration. "I never thought he'd do it," he growls. "I know he's an asshole, but Charles, I thought…"

He breaks off and meets Mystique's gaze. She shrugs.

"He tried to kill me," she points out. "And you as well."

"Yes, but we're not Charles." Hank takes off his glasses and buries his face in his hands. Then he peeks at her through his fingers. "Why are you here?"

"I'm going to help."

"Is that so." He smiles bitterly. "Yesterday you couldn't be gone fast enough."

"I didn't..." She flounders, and her shame turns into anger as it always does. "I'm not a monster, Hank. Did you think I'd just walk off?"

"Wouldn't have been the first time."

"That was ten years ago, and he sent me away!"

"You could have told him to stuff it, but... Ten years. You didn't even call once. You've no idea what it was like..." He breaks off. His face is twitching in a way that does not bode well. She is overcome by a strange feeling of foreboding, as if something is deeply wrong and she has not even scratched the surface.

"You mean what - you and Charles hanging out in the mansion while others were risking their lives for the cause?" she says defiantly.

Hank turns away and breathes slowly, and she understands in a flash that he is struggling to keep his mutation under control.

"No," he says tightly without looking at her. "Being cooped up in this damned house and not able to do anything while my paralyzed best friend was frying his brain with booze and his sister didn't give a damn. You could have helped. You could have dragged him out of it. But I..."

He breaks off and squeezes his eyes shut. Mystique stares at him, reluctant to let her brain catch up with the things he said.

"I don't believe you," she says doggedly. "Charles would never."

Hank's laugh sounds hysterical. "Why do you think we had to air the rooms?" he demands. "Does this place look normal to you? He's been sober for a month now, since... since Paris and Washington. He's been doing well, I hope it lasts."

For a moment there is only the sound of her own breathing that rings loudly in her ears. Unwanted memories flood her brain, images of hidden bottles and smeared make-up and the stench of whisky in Mother's breath as she turned away from her children in disgust. "She doesn't mean it," Charles had told her again and again, "it's just because she drinks," and then he had taken her hand and led her away to their secret hideout in the garden where they could play and pretend that the world was kind to them.

He had protected her then, as he always protected her, even later when he failed to see that she was growing up and perfectly capable of protecting herself. She had to free herself from his influence at some point, and she had done so by running away. There was just one thing that never occurred to her before, and it hits her now like a fist in the guts.

She should have protected him. She should have looked out for him and offered her support. That's what siblings do for each other.

"Excuse me," she mutters and turns and flees to the bathroom where she locks herself in, and she leans over the sink to splash her face with cold water that cannot wash her tears away.

 

Hank is preparing tea in the kitchen when she returns. He makes no comment, but instead points his head towards the table. "Read the paper," he says. "Page two, bottom article."

Page two is already opened, and the headline catches her attention immediately. Magneto strikes again, it reads, and in smaller print, Assassination attempt on human-friendly mutant intellectual.

She puts the paper down with a sigh.

"We need to find him," she announces.

"Of course, but right now I can't see how." Hank sounds annoyed. "We know he was in town yesterday, but that's all we have. We could use Cerebro if Charles was here, but like this…" He takes two mugs from the cupboard and puts them on the table with more force than necessary.

"I've tracked people before," she says thoughtfully. "We must find out if he has some sort of… headquarters? It's only been a month, he didn't have much time to get organized."

Hank frowns and turns to fetch the teapot, but he is interrupted by the loud ringing of the doorbell.

 

Mystique shifts smoothly into her favourite human form as she follows Hank into the hall, but he stops in his tracks so violently that she almost runs into him.

The front doors are already wide open. Leaning in the doorway with a thoroughly pissed-off expression on his face is Erik Lehnsherr, master of magnetism and most wanted criminal in the United States.

Hank's claws begin to sprout instantly, but Mystique catches his arm. "Wait," she tells him before he can lunge at Erik's throat.

Erik's eyebrows shoot up. "Mystique. I did not expect to see you here."

"Not your business, Erik," she snaps. "What do you want?"

"We'd better discuss that indoors."

Hank controls his appearance with visible effort, but his skin has taken on a bluish hue. "The only thing we can discuss," he snarls, "is whether you want to go back to your prison cell or take off to South America. Charles would want me to give you a choice, otherwise I wouldn't."

"Don't overestimate yourself, Beast," Erik sneers, and Mystique steps between them before a blue fist can grab his throat.

"I said," she hisses with mounting fury, "What do you want?"

"The same as you, I hope," Erik returns angrily. "Find out who tried to kill Charles and make sure they don't do it again."

There is a moment of speechless silence.

"The perpetrator of these crimes didn't exactly try to keep his identity a secret," Hank growls, but Erik shakes his head.

"On the contrary." His hand clenches in agitation. "It wasn't me. Someone's using my methods and so far I had no reason to interfere. I thought..." He grits his teeth. "I didn't think they'd target Charles."

"And you expect us to believe that?"

"I do." Hank has changed back into his human form and stares at Erik as though he is thinking hard. "It actually makes more sense this way. I was wondering... but yes, of course." He gives Erik a cold look. "That doesn't mean I want you here."

"Why don't you make me leave?"

"Now, wait a minute." Mystique is still standing between them, looking from one to the other. This is going rather too fast. "Erik, the truck moved on its own account. Care to explain that?"

"How should I know?" Erik snaps. "And why does everyone believe what the driver tells them? I'm being framed for this entire series of crimes and I really couldn't care less, but I know it's deliberate and now they've hurt Charles." He gives them a dark look. "Big mistake."

Hank's eyes narrow. He seems utterly unimpressed by Erik's bravado.

"You might be of use, but I doubt we'll like your methods."

"Oh, won't you?" Erik looks at Mystique with a smile that makes her uncomfortable. "You agree with him?"

"I don't trust you," she informs him stiffly. "But this is about Charles, Hank. Let's hear him out."

Hank looks like he is about to argue, but then he shrugs and gestures for Erik to come in. The look that passes between the two men could freeze a tropic river.

"What a lovely team you make," Erik mutters, and it takes her a moment to make sense of the pure bitterness in his voice. It is not, she reasons as they follow Hank into the kitchen, that he does not care about her, about Charles or the wonderful time they had here in this house ten years ago, those whirlwind weeks when the world seemed to be for them to shape anew. He sees what has become of them all, and he must know that much of it is his own doing, or would have been in his power to prevent. He did not want to leave Charles paralyzed on a beach. He did not want to kill her in his own twisted attempt to save the world. But the dangerous thing about Erik is that he will do whatever he deems necessary in pursuit of his cause, even if it breaks his own heart, assuming that he has one. He is absolutely ruthless towards the word but just as much towards himself, and no one can ever be safe in his company because he will always be driven by his purpose, and never be swayed by sympathy and understanding.

At least the relationship between Hank and Erik is uncomplicated, she acknowledges with a sigh. They loathe each other, plain and simple. She wishes she could hate Erik as well, but she cannot.

 

"He says that someone is framing him?"

Charles leans back against his pillow and frowns. His face is pale beneath the bandage around his head, but the bright blue eyes are as sharp as ever.

"It makes sense." Hank stuffs his hands into his pockets. Mystique gets the distinct impression that he is not quite comfortable in his skin. "The others, I could believe. But not you."

Charles glares at him. Hank's lips become a thin line. It seems that Erik is a forbidden topic in this household.

"He wants to help us find out who did it," Mystique interjects. "To deal with them in his own way, I suppose, but we could use some help."

"It seems that Erik is not the only one who wants a war," Charles says thoughtfully. "These murders were designed to turn the public opinion against mutants. Someone wants to fuel the hatred... or to demonstrate power. The question is, which side are they on?"

"It they're on a side at all." Hank stares blankly at the wall. "Sometimes war is started for economic reasons. Perhaps someone wants to sell weapons. Now that there's peace in Vietnam..."

Charles nods and winces immediately. Hank and Mystique exchange an uncomfortable look, and Charles frowns. "I'm fine," he snaps before he leans back and closes his eyes. "Where is he now?"

"Sulking outside your window," she provides helpfully. He shoots her a dirty look and she is tempted to stick her tongue out. Now this she recognizes, the banter and familiarity, and she likes him a lot better when he is not attempting to be mutant Jesus.

"Well, he is," she defends herself. "You know how he gets. He's staying the night too, well within your telepathic range. Apparently we're not qualified to provide satisfactory protection."

"Tell him to shove off," Charles says wearily, but she will do nothing of the kind because she is actually quite relieved that someone else is going to take the night watch. She may not trust Erik, but in this she admits that Hank is right; he will not let anyone get to Charles.