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Mystique—like every sane mutant who had been at the mercy of humanity at its cruelest—had long since given up the hope for peaceful coexistence between the two species. Charles Xavier, on the other hand, had always been above mere trivialities like realism and common sense.

Ideological differences notwithstanding, Mystique couldn't bring herself to ignore what she'd seen on Stryker's computer—Charles had to be warned that the government was planning to invade the school. All the mutant children who sought sanctuary under the X-Men's protection shouldn't have to suffer for their leader's irritating allergy to belligerence. And so here she was: breaking into the old Westchester grounds, wearing the guise of a long-forgotten little blonde girl who had found family and acceptance in this very house.

It was suspiciously easy to avoid every other student in the house to get to Charles's study, which probably meant that she was being watched, and expected.

She slipped inside and found him sitting behind his desk, pain etched in every line on his face; her current appearance was clearly an unexpected punch in the gut. She carefully didn't think about how she was looking like this just to soften him up; but then again, why not add emotional manipulation to the long list of crimes she'd committed against the man she'd once called brother?

"Raven," he greeted her in a small, broken voice she hadn't heard in years. She couldn't find it in her to begrudge him the use of her slave name—not when she looked like the innocent child he'd loved.

"Charles," she said with a curt nod, her brusqueness at odds with with the sweet face of young Raven Darkholme. Mystique shifted to her natural form, which seemed to help him regain focus.

"What's happened? Is it Erik?"

She didn't have time to appreciate that, even now, Charles still strove to keep his promise not to read her mind. "Stryker's going to invade the school. I saw a map of the grounds and an attack plan in his servers," she reported. "There was no specific time frame, but you need to order an evacuation as soon as possible. He also has fairly thorough schematics for Cerebro, and is probably building his own version of it. I don't know if he has any telepaths capable of operating it."

Charles nodded, probably firing out quick telepathic orders to his minions even as he asked, "Do you have an assignment to go back to?"

"Yes."

He had no qualms about inferring the obvious. "Do try to break him out with as little bloodshed as possible."

Well, at least he wasn't naïve enough to think Magneto was planning to stay in his plastic prison forever. She couldn't help smirking. "You're not going to ask me not to break him out at all?"

"Of course not," Charles replied with a smile, unperturbed.

Mystique wondered, not for the first time, if he and Erik saw the mutants—maybe even the world—surrounding them as little more than pieces on a chessboard. She didn't mind following orders, provided she believed the person issuing them; but moments like these always caused her to question whether the ideological gap between the Brotherhood and the X-Men was quite as insurmountable as Magneto would have them believe.

All of a sudden, his grin broadened. "Oh, excellent! Logan has just arrived. He can accompany Scott, myself, and the children to a safehouse. I meant to go see Erik today, but I'm afraid it will have to wait. This is an act of war. Investigating Stryker and his plans has to be our priority."

She wrestled with her conscience for a moment before admitting, "It is mine as well."

Charles's face lit up. Mystique reasoned with herself that Magneto probably wouldn't mind the indiscretion; he might long for war, but not for a despicable human like Stryker to gain the upper hand. But she'd be damned before she actually suggested—

"You can help us investigate, then!" he said brightly, as if she hadn't personally attempted to kill at least half of his adult staff—as if they didn't all wish her dead. Her worries were probably being broadcast in stereo, because he replied to her thoughts with a dismissive, "Nonsense, my dear, everyone knows you're formidable. We'd be honored to have you working by our side."

**

"Storm and I are heading to Boston. The Professor wants us to track down the mutant that attacked the President."

Mystique watched Jean Grey with careful eyes, waiting for the hostile treatment that was bound to be forthcoming—surely even the X-Men weren't naïve enough to welcome an unrepentant sworn enemy into the fold with open arms, regardless of the vote of confidence from Charles. Wolverine was glowering at her, but that was probably just his way of looking at people.

"You should come with us, Mystique," Grey offered with a tentative smile.

Mutantkind, Mystique realized with despair, was utterly doomed without Magneto.

**

The church Charles had sent them to was apparently deserted, a mess of broken stained-glass windows, too many candles, and age-old furniture. The atmosphere was stifling. Bright red graffiti on the partially demolished wall read CLEAN THE GENE POOL.

Mystique clenched her fists, but it was Storm who spoke, thunder echoing outside as she hissed, with far more anger than one would expect from one of Charles's minions, "They'll never let us live our lives, will they?"

Before she could react, a voice from above echoed throughout the church, muttering, "Du bist gebenedeit unter den Frauen, und gebenedeit ist die Frucht deines Leibes, Jesus."

A whooshing sound came from several directions in rapid succession; she caught a glimpse of movement from afar and understood what was happening.

"A teleporter," Mystique and Grey realised in near unison.

Mystique spotted him on an empty window frame, and poised herself to attack. She was about to execute a somersault when Storm called out, "We're not here to hurt you. We just want to talk."

Honestly, these people.

When that approach failed, they thankfully seemed willing to resort to a more sensible course of action. Storm called down some lightning to dislodge the teleporter from his perch, and Grey held him in place for interrogation.

When asked, he replied that his name was Kurt Wagner.

"But in the Munich Circus, I was known as The Incredible Nightcrawler!" he added proudly.

His skin was blue, a hue darker and more opaque than hers; he had a sharp tail like Azazel's, and there were etchings on his skin. He looked intimidating enough; but, formidable mutations aside, he seemed every bit as helpless and peace-loving as an annoyingly reverent kitten. He was bound to get along swimmingly with Charles's merry bunch.

Nightcrawler explained how he hadn't been in control of his body during the attack on the President. He remembered little, mostly sensations, not actions. Despite the obvious need, Grey seemed hesitant to read the poor mutant's mind, claiming she'd prefer to wait until Charles could do it instead.

"I'm sorry, but aren't you a telepath?" Mystique snapped. The two women gave her a look, as if they hadn't expected her to interfere. Well, screw that. "Get the fuck on with it already! People's lives are at stake here, Grey, what the hell?"

The sermon seemed to hit home. Grey splayed her palms on either side of Nightcrawler's head and closed her eyes. Focusing seemed to cause her physical pain, if the tension in her every muscle was any indication—Mystique wondered just how mediocre a telepath she had to be to have so much difficulty—but after a minute she said, "It was Stryker. He has some kind of serum that can control mutants."

Mystique's mind ground to a halt. She could think of nothing but Magneto in his plastic prison, helpless, vulnerable to any and all tricks in Stryker's book.

"He's in an underground base at Alkali Lake," Grey adds. "He has some mutants under his control there, too. We need to get back to the jet to tell the Professor."

Storm, of course, offered Nightcrawler a place at their school. The prospect pleased him; they chatted about the place and its inhabitants all the way back to the jet.

"It's a school for people like us," Storm explained, smiling. "Where we can be...safe."

"Safe from what?"

"Everyone else."

Nightcrawler seemed sad. He looked at Storm with compassion—as if someone that powerful would ever need it. Mystique felt nauseated. Charles's people made such a huge fuss about being so damn nice all the time that they barely noticed how disgustingly weak it made them seem; Storm, who had one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring abilities Mystique had ever seen, was a prime example of this.

"You know, outside of the circus, most people were afraid of me, but I never hated them," he said. "I pitied them. Do you know why?" Storm shook her head. "Because most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes."

"I gave up on pity a long time ago," Storm spat, not a trace of tolerance in her tone. Surprised, Mystique offered her a genuine smile, a token of grudging admiration. Storm didn't miss her reaction, and said to her, "But not quite on your level, of course."

"Of course," Mystique conceded. "But you hate them, too. You know what they can do—what they have done."

Storm sighed. "Yes. Sometimes. But that doesn't mean I want them all dead."

"Not even if it's a matter of them or us?"

"That's what you and your Brotherhood friends don't seem to realize," Storm replies. "No one has to make that choice, and we're doing our best to keep them from ever having to."

"They're our parents, Mystique," Jean intervenes. "Our siblings, our childhood friends, our neighbours. Many of them have mutants they love—and they're every bit as capable of solidarity as we are. Why should we deny them the same care some of them feel for us?"

"We should find a way to set aside the ones that want us dead, then," Mystique bristled. "Maybe someday you'll be a powerful enough telepath to point them out in a crowd."

Grey felt the jab at her powers, but didn't acknowledge it. "We're here," she said instead, climbing the steps that led into the jet. Upon reaching the cockpit, she fiddled with the console until Charles picked up his communicator.

She reported what she'd seen in Nightcrawler's mind, and he gave them coordinates for a park in Canada, where they were to camp for the night. The rest of the X-Men would reconvene from the safehouses they were currently holed up in, using transportation less conspicuous than a huge jet to join them at the reserve.

Charles informed them that Stryker had broken into the Westchester mansion, only to find the Cerebro console and all the students gone. Mystique allowed herself a smile: this huge a loss for William Stryker was a definite victory for mutantkind.

**

They had been flying to the rendezvous coordinates for about half an hour when the consoles started beeping, flashing angry red warnings.

"Stryker must've used the systems at the mansion to locate us," Jean announced, fiddling with the controls. "We have two F-16s on our tail. Missiles incoming!"

Nightcrawler crossed himself.

Mystique wished with all her being that Magneto were present—or, failing that, that Charles's incurable antipathy for violence hadn't stopped Beast from designing a decent plane. "Please tell me this thing has weapons," she said.

Storm grinned fiercely. Her eyes went white, and the skies darkened; clouds swirled around them in a multitude of tornado shields while lightning chased after the F-16s and their missiles. The jet was cocooned in the eye of an enormous horizontal tornado, where no human planes could hope to reach it. There was one explosion, and another, further away—then the clouds parted and the sun shone again.

Mystique whistled in appreciation. "Not bad."

Suddenly, Jean spotted new blips on the radar screen. "There are still missiles on their way!"

The blips were intermittent, scattered. "I can't see them," Storm admitted, nervous. She switched to manual flight control, and turned to her co-pilot. "I can't, I—Jean?"

Grey seemed terrified. "I can't, either."

Mystique undid her seatbelt and rushed to the cockpit, kneeling before the console. "Grey, can you do this?" The telepath shook her head, looking nauseated. "Okay, no, panicking is not an option, you're going to have to. Storm, talk her through it, say something; I refuse to die because of a freaking missile!"

"Say what, exactly?"

"The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want," Nightcrawler prayed from his seat. "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures—"

"Not. Helping!" Mystique snapped. "Grey—"

Storm interrupted, "I don't know what makes you think yelling at her will magically make her do something, but—"

Focus on me, Mystique thought at Grey as strongly as she could. She hadn't done this in decades—not since Charles had had trouble shielding himself from others as a child—but it was the only course of action she could think of. Clear your mind. Reach out for the missiles, come on. You can feel them if you reach out hard enough.

I can't, I can't, I don't know how, Grey thought, desperate.

Yes, you can, she replied. I can feel the power rolling off of you even as we speak—you just have to get over yourself and do it.

It was true; for all her earlier doubts about Grey's abilities, Mystique now realized that the woman was deceptively strong, to a degree that was almost terrifying. Her entire body was shaking; the effort made her pupils look bright red, invisible flames tinting her face with a fire-like glow, and her skin was burning cold.

Mystique spared a second to think, What the fuck?

Grey reached blindly for her hand, as if asking permission, and Mystique granted it, closing her eyes to enjoy the unique rush of a telepath using her mind as conduit. Jean wasn't even reading her; she didn't have to. For one long moment, their thoughts were interchangeable, inextricable—and then Jean was reaching out for the missiles and simply disintegrating them.

Yeah, I don't know, either, Jean thought back at her with a tired smile.

"Good...job," Storm said cautiously, not knowing what had just happened or whom to congratulate.

**

The Fisher Bay Park Reserve was deserted and dark, and provided good cover for the jet. They set up tents outside, one for each of them, but all four mutants chose to sit out in the open by the fire. Storm and Nightcrawler were deep in conversation; Jean and Mystique sat across from them in complete silence.

"I don't understand what's happening to me," Jean said, finally speaking up after a half-hour hesitation that was starting to eat away at Mystique's sanity. "I've been having migraines. My powers have been...erratic these past few days."

Normally, Mystique would have had little to no patience for the constant squabbling drama that consumed the lives of Charles's minions, but she couldn't help feeling curious—she'd just felt the massive raw energy Jean carried in her, and couldn't begin to understand what on Earth could be keeping it trapped beneath the surface.

"My telepathy's off somehow, and now my telekinesis isn't quite right, either." Jean sighed, and then chuckled. "And of all the people I could've imagined having this conversation with, Magneto's right-hand woman would certainly not have made the list."

Mystique shrugged. "You've been inside my head; you know I mean you no harm. I think you're misguided and far too guileless for your own good, but for now we're on the same side."

"You've tried to kill me—multiple times."

"And you tried to kill me right back."

"Yes, but you work for Magneto. You believe in killing people just for the sake of it. Of course I had to defend myself."

"You honestly and truly believe there's merit in sacrificing mutant lives for the sake of humans—that's worse than killing humans for kicks in my book, but you don't see me sitting on my high horse saying I'm better than you, do you?" Mystique grimaced. "No, that's a privilege of whoever sides with Charles Xavier."

"I don't think I'm better than you. I just wish you could be a little less of an extremist, that's all."

Mystique shook her head and fell silent. Trying to have a sensible argument with Charles's people was, as ever, a useless and infuriating endeavor.

After a while, Nightcrawler approached them and squatted beside her, saying, "Storm says you can imitate anybody. Even their voice."

"Even their voice," she repeated in a perfect echo of his tone, already bored with the conversation.

"Then why not stay in disguise all the time?" She could see the envy in his eyes; the same envy many other mutants who deviated from average humanoid appearance often expressed to her. "You know...look like everyone else?"

She didn't meet his gaze, sad to have to explain this even one more time. "Because we shouldn't have to."

When it became clear that she wouldn't elaborate, he walked away, pensive.

"I think I like you better blue," Jean said unexpectedly, still staring at the fire. "It feels...wrong when you're blonde."

"Too ordinary, you mean?" Mystique smirked. "I think I like you better when you're catching fire and not afraid of your powers. Same principle, I think."

Jean made a face. "No. This is different. There's something wrong with me."

Mystique knew she truly believed it, and cursed Charles inwardly for his near-sightedness. Trust him to encourage every kid at the school to develop their own powers, all the while ignoring that one of his closest assistants had mutated into something gorgeous and mind-blowing, but was terrified of it.

She turned to Jean, stroked her cheek and said softly, with as much sincerity and empathy as she could muster, "I think you're amazing. You just need to stop trying so hard to control yourself."

Before Mystique realized what was happening, Jean's mind and lips were brushing against hers, hungry for reassurance and solace. This was an interesting development—not on her own part, since she had never been blind to the allure of potentially interesting mutants, regardless of affiliation—Jean had always seemed far too timid and loyal to the cause to look to any member of the Brotherhood for company.

Intrigued, Mystique caressed Jean's arms, her neck, ran fingers through her hair, expecting at every turn to be shoved off with horrified professions of judgment lapses or temporary insanity. None were forthcoming; instead, Jean moved frantically, at once unsure of her footing and desperate for more.

Several minutes later, Mystique was forced to acknowledge that Jean wasn't going anywhere. It was a bit of a shock, and forced her to readjust her understanding of Grey's personality. Perhaps she wasn't quite as easily frightened as she seemed—there was steel in her, though it was well-camouflaged behind layers of insecurity.

She felt knew the exact moment Jean processed that Mystique really was naked, that her entire body was within easy reach. Jean's hand, currently spread on Mystique's abdomen and instinctively moving downward, froze.

You can go ahead, you know, Mystique thought, amused, giving Jean a mental nudge to make both her meanings clear.

The first she obeyed at once, her touch now feather-light against the scales on Mystique's upper thighs, teasing playfully. The second request, however, was met with more resistance. Jean frowned. It's not safe, my telepathy—

Mystique abruptly slid into a combat position, pinning Jean's arms and legs to the ground with her own. "Oh, I feel perfectly safe," she whispered. Her breath ghosted over Jean's ear, provoking a helpless whimper. "Don't you?"

Raven—

With a growl, Mystique ground her hipbone against Jean's, drawing a gasp from the other woman.

That is not my name, she thought fiercely, tightening her grip on the girl's wrists and tormenting her with the filthiest mental pictures she could think of. Jean whimpered. Use my real name.

"Mystique," she breathed out, the name almost lost in her strangled moan.

Much better.

Mystique let go of Jean's arms, slipping a hand down to tease her instead. Jean wasted no time in putting her own hands to good use, exploring the texture of Mystique's skin with avid fingers.

Tentatively, Jean reached out to Mystique's mind, enclosing it with her own. Mystique tugged at the connection, broadening and deepening it, encouraging Jean to let herself go for once. When she finally did, it was...beyond magnificent.

Mystique had had sex with quite a few telepaths in her many years locating and working alongside mutants. This was nothing at all like any of those times—Jean Grey's was easily the most awe-inspiring mind she'd ever glimpsed. Through Jean, Mystique felt the earth beneath them, every plant and grain of dirt, and, far away, the sleeping town. She sensed the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of people for miles on end. Jean's power, of its own accord, sought after minds experiencing pleasure and amplified it—they both felt dozens of humans' lust and ecstasy running through them. Mystique buried her face in the crook of Jean's neck to keep the sensations from overwhelming her.

They kissed again, licking, biting, grasping, pulling each other closer in senseless yearning for the same level of intimacy their minds were sharing. They were both so close for so long that Mystique would never even know who came first.

"That was quite a show," Storm said dryly from behind them. She was trying to go for stern, but her flushed face belied her true reaction.

Jean laughed, more at ease than Mystique had ever seen her. Don't worry, Storm likes to watch, Jean thought wickedly, projecting several memories that showed just how much Storm liked it. Apparently, this was a recurring habit for the two women—and Cyclops apparently joined them on occasion.

Storm grinned. "Poor Kurt's probably fled to another continent by now."

Jean tilted her head, scanned for him, and said, "No, he just decided it's more advisable not to sleep in the tents tonight."

"Wise move," Mystique noted, wondering how long it would take Storm to get over her scruples and join them.

Not long at all, apparently—all it took was Jean reaching out for her with a smile. They kissed slowly, with evident familiarity, and Mystique enjoyed the opportunity to watch their interaction. Jean seemed more mellow in Storm's arms, her moans softer; maybe there was simply more trust between the two, and she had no reason to feel insecure.

Mystique could easily admit to herself that Storm was probably her favourite of Charles's minions. From time to time, she caught glimpses of unresolved righteous anger in Storm with which she could empathize; and in those moments, she often wondered if the two of them were more alike than they thought.

Right now, it certainly seemed so. There was a fluidity to Storm's movements that Mystique found mesmerizing, a nimbleness she seldom saw in bodies other than her own. She watched the two women's limbs entangle as they shed each other's clothes, never letting go, sharing caresses. Jean's touches were loving, almost reverent, and the endearments she gasped were impossibly sweet. There was no struggle for dominance here, no power play whatsoever. These two weren't in love, she realized—not in the ephemeral, romantic sense—but they loved each other deeply.

Mystique wondered for a moment if they were expecting her to take on a male shape, mirroring Cyclops's role in the memories she'd glimpsed at, but Jean's voice immediately interrupted this train of thought with an amused Are you honestly just going to lie there?

Storm moved towards Mystique just as Jean let both women's minds flow undeterred through her to each other. It took each of them a moment to adjust to the new swirl of thoughts invading their consciousness; the experience seemed to delight Jean, who closed her eyes to fully enjoy it.

Mystique caught some fleeting thoughts—So gorgeous, my God and I've always wondered what this would feel like—before Storm's body covered hers, lips on her skin, exploring, teeth grazing lightly over the scales on her breasts. She could feel the wind and the clouds answering to Storm's heart pounding, to the blood rushing through her veins; and she felt Storm's absent-minded dismissal of the elements as she lifted her head for a kiss.

"You are remarkable," Mystique murmured to Storm in honest awe, reluctant admiration and lust conspiring to make her words clumsy.

Somewhat embarrassed by the outburst and eager to regain control, Mystique slithered further down underneath Storm, lapping playfully at her inner thigh. Storm, now balanced on her knees and elbows, growled and tried to shift her hips to reposition the other woman's tongue, to no avail. Mystique dug her fingers into Storm's thighs as she tasted her, enjoying the sound of Storm's stuttering moans.

It was getting more difficult to concentrate on the task at hand by the second. She saw a sudden flash of how they looked to Jean: Storm writhing on all fours, head bent low as she cried out and clutched the grass in spasms; and Mystique between her legs, eating her out with enthusiastic abandon.

Are you honestly just going to lie there? she mockingly projected back.

Jean crawled over and lay down beside them. Her hands wandered in lazy caresses; Mystique's body undulated, unconsciously mirroring Jean's movements. Moments later, Storm slid down to join them, boneless and giddy. "You are insanely good at that," she purred, nuzzling at Mystique's neck and licking her earlobe. Mystique smiled, brushing away strands of hair clinging to Storm's sweaty forehead with something akin to fondness.

We should—

Oh yes.

Before Mystique could wonder what decision had been made, Jean and Storm looked at her with identically mischievous grins and started planting soft, teasing kisses on her abdomen, making their way down with maddening slowness.

It was, she realized with no small degree of satisfaction, definitely going to be a very long night.

**

When the first touches of sunrise colored the night sky, Mystique disentangled herself from Storm and Jean and left the tent in which they had decided to fall asleep less than one hour earlier. The night had been unarguably exhausting, but Mystique's mutation provided the extra stamina that kept her up now, already high on the adrenaline she'd need for the day.

"Hey," said Storm, exiting the tent with a towel wrapped around her.

Mystique rolled her eyes at the incongruous morning-after modesty, but had to bite back her scorn when Storm simply set the towel on the grass and then invited Mystique to join her. Mystique complied, against her better judgment. Sex was well and good, but forming attachments of any kind with these people—who were, she reminded herself, delusional and infuriating, and more often than not bordering on ridiculous—was completely out of the question.

She lay on her side, facing the tent; Storm hugged her from behind and remarked with a smile, "It's too early in the morning to think so hard."

"You're extraordinary. You're clever; you're powerful," Mystique said bluntly. "I don't understand how someone so intelligent can live in denial like you do, hanging on Charles's every word just because he says pretty things that you know—and I know you know, I could feel it—don't correspond to reality. Basic human instincts take over when they're afraid, and solidarity is nowhere near the top of that list."

Storm pressed her lips to Mystique's shoulder, mulling over her reply in silence before saying, "I think one of our most important goals has to be to teach and inspire tolerance, because I know more mutant children are born to human parents throughout the world every day, and if by dedicating my entire life to this cause I can help just one mutant child have a better childhood at home—even if it's just one—then I'll feel accomplished. I am not a pacifist because the Professor says pretty things, Mystique, or because I believe human beings are likely to become a peace-loving bunch overnight. I'm scared of them, too. They're horrible most of the time, and I do know that through and through. Even then, I believe in doing everything I can to prevent—or delay, even—an all-out war, which is undoubtedly Magneto's endgame, because I have no wish to see the world destroyed or millions of people killed. If it absolutely has to happen, it will, but at least I will sleep easy knowing I did everything in my power to prevent it."

The all-too-familiar pitch sounded different, somehow, coming from someone who used less universal "we" statements and more personal "I" beliefs.

"If a war did happen," Mystique asked, "would you fight?"

"Yes," Storm replied at once. She'd clearly given the matter some thought. "I would defend my team and the kids with my life, obviously. But I don't like the idea of using my powers against humans, regardless—and I'd never be on the offensive."

"That's hypocritical." Mystique shook her head with a smile.

"It's the only way I could live with myself, I think."

"I don't think so. I imagine you've done plenty of gruesome things against humans and mutants alike in defense of your school—and being on the offensive isn't all that different once you know that otherwise you're just sitting around waiting to be attacked."

"It feels different to me, but who knows? Maybe I'd feel differently if a war were actually happening." Storm sighed. "And if there weren't a war? If the years pass and the humans don't brand us like cattle, if they just grudgingly accept us, would you give up your guerrilla lifestyle and settle for a life less...hostile?"

"No," Mystique said firmly. "There will always be prejudice, Storm, even in the most ideal of your best-case scenarios, barring the possibility of Charles or Jean tweaking the minds of each human on the planet. And I can't live with myself if I'm not out there making it very clear to every single human that they can't pull this crap and get away with it."

"You don't think that just generates more fear and prejudice?"

"Respect is still respect if it's born out of fear."

"No—it's resentment. They'd resent us much like we do them, and every day more and more violence would be necessary to quell all that animosity. The war would never end, Mystique; it would only spin out of control, and destroy countless lives in the process."

"At least it would be equal opportunity destruction, unlike today, when mutants are the only ones corralled and hunted," Mystique retorted.

"I would prefer to have as little destruction as possible." Storm shrugged. "Worst case scenario, our diplomatic efforts are buying mutants more time to be found and trained. Humans have undeniable strength in numbers—if an all-out war against mutantkind does happen, I'll make damn sure all my students can use their abilities to their full potential."

Mystique blinked. Storm wasn't naïve at all; she had her feet firmly on the ground. She was simply...hopeful, while preparing for the worst. It was an interesting worldview—one Mystique could not bring herself to oppose.

"What happens when we meet each other out in the field and we're supposed to fight to the death? How am I supposed to attack you?" she didn't ask, the unanswerable question going around her mind in circles as she let her eyes drift shut.

**

A few hours later, Charles contacted them to inform them that Wolverine and Cyclops were on their way to meet them. Charles was staying behind to tend to the children, and he asked Nightcrawler to come aid him; if Stryker somehow tracked them down, Nightcrawler could quickly teleport everyone to safety.

"Charles," Mystique called out, interrupting the conversation.

"Yes?"

"We need Erik."

An uncomfortable silence followed. Jean and Storm studiously avoided Mystique's gaze, holding off judgment until Charles responded. They didn't appear mortally offended by the suggestion, which was perhaps a good sign.

"We can't leave him there," Mystique reasoned. "Who knows what Stryker's making him do with that serum!"

There was silence for another minute, and then Charles sighed. Mystique beamed.

"Jean, Storm, take the jet to Washington. I'll send you the coordinates of where they're keeping him. And Raven," he added forcefully, "behave."

"Yes, sir," she replied cheekily. Jean and Storm, who had been exchanging sombre glances at the prospect of breaking Magneto out of prison, couldn't help sharing a grin.

Mystique counted that as a win.

**

Breaking into the facility where Magneto was being held was almost too easy: they were in and out of the place in less than fifteen minutes. Storm crashed the building's electrical systems with well-aimed bolts of lightning, and a mental command from Jean made all guards fall asleep. ("Controlling it is surprisingly similar to controlling the powers I had before. It's just...more," she said in response to Mystique's quiet astonishment at her level of control. "Reaching and influencing minds by the truckload isn't the part I'm going to have to practice. The problem is shielding myself, and keeping my thoughts from bleeding out and projecting accidentally.")

The look on Magneto's face when he saw the unlikely group come to rescue him was priceless. He seemed exhausted, and touched a deep burn on the back of his neck with the disgust normally reserved for the tattoo on his left forearm.

"Alkali Lake, Alaska," Mystique said by way of greeting, and handed him a gun she'd swiped off a perimeter guard.

Magneto dismantled it in half a second, relishing the feel of molten metal with evident satisfaction. "Do they have Charles?" he asked as they exited his plastic cell. She shook her head. "Stryker's building Cerebro; he needs a telepath."

"I know. He invaded the school—I warned them with only a few hours to spare." This didn't seem to alarm or surprise him, and Mystique continued, "Charles is sending a team to destroy this second Cerebro and dismantle Stryker's base in Alaska."

Magneto arched an eyebrow and she nodded, acknowledging the unspoken third objective: the two Brotherhood members would have to kill Stryker, since Charles' minions would be far too squeamish to take action.

I am not squeamish, for goodness' sake, Jean complained at once, throwing her an exasperated glare. But Stryker has to face trial, and his actions need to be made public.

The corners of Mystique's lips twitched, but she said nothing. Magneto, not one to miss small details, raised both eyebrows and gave her a look that was at once incredulous and highly amused.

When they returned to the jet, Magneto sat beside her in the back, out of earshot of the three other mutants.

"My helmet?" he asked.

"I'm sorry. I hadn't expected to take part in an impromptu rescue mission when I went to Westchester yesterday. It's still in New York."

"Why not?" He smirked. "You seem to have done an excellent job of making allies among the X-Men."

"I figured I could count on Charles's bleeding heart to get you out when we found out about Stryker's serum, and I was right." She shrugged, ignoring the underlying taunt. "But when we kill Stryker, Charles will throw a fit, and the truce will be over."

"Indeed." Magneto surveyed Jean with interest before noting, "She's far stronger since I last saw her. Has she found out what Charles did to her as a child yet?"

Jean turned to them abruptly, and Magneto's eyes glazed over for a moment as she leeched the information out of him.

The plane began to shake; Jean's skin was burning again, the air surrounding her sizzling with invisible flames. Storm was swearing as she clutched the yoke, trying and failing to hold the jet steady.

Cursing Magneto's timing, Mystique leapt out of her seat, clutching the arms of Jean's seat as the plane's tremors grew more violent. Storm gave up on the flight controls and did the same. "Jean!" they called out repeatedly, both out loud and in thought; Jean's entire body was glowing fire-red, and she gave no indication of hearing them. "Jean, please, you have to stop this!"

They were thrown to the side of the plane, hitting the wall with a loud bang—while suspended seven feet from the floor.

Mystique received angry flashes from Magneto's memories; apparently, Charles had suppressed Jean's power almost in its entirety since she was a child, and blocked her memories of it. He'd essentially transformed Jean into an extremely powerful time bomb—and she'd just started ticking.

Oh, Charles, fuck you, fuck you so very hard, you sanctimonious bastard, she thought despondently. I'm going to get disintegrated on a plane, and it's all your fault.

The jet suddenly went still. Storm and Mystique were released, and fell on their feet. Magneto held out his hand to keep the aircraft from crashing, and the two women rushed forward to check on Jean, who had sagged forward, limp, held back only by her seatbelt.

"I can't believe the Professor would do that," Jean said quietly, her tone subdued and wretched. "I just—I've seen him help so many children who couldn't control their powers. Why would he do that to me?"

"He thought you were far too powerful," Magneto replied. "He was afraid."

"You were afraid of your abilities your whole life, Jean," Storm said delicately. "Maybe he thought you needed to learn to control them first."

"Or maybe he put that fear there so that I never would!" Jean spat, and the jet quivered again. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm herself. "How can I trust him again after this? How do I know he won't do it again?"

Magneto approached her, sporting the proud grin he reserved for recruitment. "You don't have to trust him ever again. You are magnificent, my dear. I was against what Charles did to you, you saw that—I would never try to repress you, Jean."

"No, you just want to control me, and use me as an asset to a cause I don't even believe in," Jean replied tiredly, motioning to his lack of helmet with exasperation. "No, Magneto."

Mystique knelt before Jean, bringing to the forefront of her mind all the memories of her own teenage years with Charles. He'd discouraged her from walking around in her natural blue form for so many years that his attitude toward little Jean didn't shock or disappoint her. He hadn't even understood her resentment when it had surfaced—and in the end, joining forces with Magneto had been the only course of action she'd been able to stomach.

She held Jean's hand and said, "Charles trusts himself more than anyone else to make huge decisions. He was trying to protect you, in the most misguided, arrogant way possible; he thinks only he can see the big picture, but beneath all that intelligence he's really just a self-righteous idiot most of the time. You don't have to trust him, or Magneto, or me—you just need to trust yourself, and learn to live with your powers in a way that won't endanger your life or anyone else's."

Jean gave her a small smile. "That sounds like what we tell the kids."

Storm stepped forward and planted a soft kiss on Jean's forehead, stroking her hair. "We'll help you figure yourself out, Jean." She threw Mystique a look. "Well, maybe not her, but the rest of us—me, Scott, Logan. We love you, and we'll be there for you. And the Professor will never do that to you again," she vowed fiercely. "For starters, we won't let him. Also, I have a feeling you might actually be more powerful than he is now, so once we're back home you two can have it out telepathically and give the rest of us horrible migraines for weeks on end. I promise I won't even complain."

Jean laughed weakly, and leaned her head on Storm's abdomen. "Deal."

For a moment, Mystique envied the wholehearted trust they shared, knowing she could never have faith of that magnitude in someone else.

Jean threw her a sympathetic smile, too well-acquainted with Mystique's mind to disagree.

**

They picked up Cyclops and Wolverine outside Winnipeg, and reached Alkali Lake at midday. Under the cover of the heavy mist Storm summoned, Jean made them a path to the base through the lake. The two newcomers were stunned to see her use her powers so liberally and on such a massive scale, but Jean must have shushed them mentally; they fell silent, limiting their reaction to wide-eyed stares whenever she did something impressive.

"There's a mutant in that facility named Jason Stryker," Magneto said as they approached the makeshift door Jean had carved out of the dam. "You need to incapacitate him once you have him within range, or else he'll trap us all in illusions and we—"

"Done," Jean interrupted him. "And Stryker, too."

The facility's human guards didn't pose much of a challenge. Jean planted a suggestion in their minds that the dam was about to burst, and they nearly fell over themselves in their effort to leave the place as fast as they could.

The mutants walked straight to Stryker's office. There, they collected enough damning papers to fuel a media whirlwind and Senate hearings for months, if not years.

"Aren't you collecting Stryker?" Magneto asked, tone carefully neutral.

Jean clenched her jaw. "Not until you're out of here."

Mystique rolled her eyes, but knew when to pick her battles. Even Magneto wouldn't dare defy Jean right now—not without his helmet—but she could see the fury in his eyes. There was nothing he hated more than feeling helpless.

"We did you a favor breaking you out, Magneto," Wolverine snarled, claws sliding out of his hands. "Don't tempt us to throw you right back in the big house."

"You never learn, do you?" Magneto smirked. "Why don't you point those somewhere safer?" He flicked his hand, turning Wolverine's arms inward so his claws dug into his chest.

Jean didn't hesitate to throw Magneto across the room, breaking his control over the adamantium claws, and rush to Wolverine's side; he seemed to be in pain, but the wounds healed almost instantly.

"You should leave right now, Magneto," she said, her voice quivering with barely contained anger. Too irate for words, he walked away from the group, making his way back to the stairs they'd come from.

When Jean turned to Mystique, her rage faltered. "You...could stay. If you wanted," she offered with a hesitant smile.

"That's sweet, but no, thanks. I chose my side a long time ago." Mystique walked to Jean, kissed her, and whispered against her lips, "Good luck." Wolverine and Cyclops spluttered. She ignored them and turned to Storm, who stepped forward to kiss her as well.

They shared a warm smile. "Thank you," Storm said, and squeezed her hand.

Mystique didn't bother acknowledging anyone else in the room before running after Magneto. Behind her, she could hear Wolverine and Cyclops voicing their disbelief.

Thank you, Mystique, Jean thought at her.

Mystique commandeered a military helicopter with Magneto and flew out of the Alkali Lake base with a wide grin on her face.

**

Epilogue

**

Mystique had been undercover for three weeks when she first heard of the mutant boy named Jimmy, who seemed to be the source for the much-publicized "cure" for mutants. According to his files, he temporarily neutralized the abilities of any mutants who approached him; recovering him in person would be difficult, if not impossible.

Armed with this knowledge, she took the most logical course of action: she contacted Jean Grey, the only mutant she knew and trusted (to a degree, anyhow) whose powers had sufficient range to sidestep this hurdle.

Jean and Storm met her at Angel Island the next day, and greeted her fondly; they hadn't met in several months, and it had been longer still since their last encounter in a setting conducive to casual conversation.

They carefully skirted the most complicated subjects; agreeing with each other in serious matters was every bit as unsettling as the disagreements that would inevitably spring from political debates. Jean showed off some of her latest progress—Storm had been helping her train with dispersion and condensation of water molecules, and the results were impressive. Her relationship with Charles was only now beginning to heal. She'd used Cerebro for the first time, too, and went on excitedly about how wonderful it felt to spread her consciousness around the entire globe. Mystique, of course, teased her about the upcoming hair loss.

They lay down on the grass together, kissing slowly and getting reacquainted with each other's bodies after so long. A comfortable familiarity was growing among the three women, fueled by the ease with which their minds slid together. They could understand each other then—there were no incompatibilities on this level.

Once night settled in, Jean took advantage of the cover of darkness—aided by mist and low-hanging clouds, courtesy of Storm—to stage Jimmy's rescue. She opened her mind to Mystique and Storm as she dissolved part of the outer wall holding him captive. Don't worry, she thought at him. We're getting you out of there.

Jean fashioned a transport for him—door, seat, seat belt—out of the spare furniture in his room. When he was secure inside the makeshift box, she brought it zooming across the Bay. Storm rifled through her duffel bag and surfaced with a robe, which she threw at Mystique as Jimmy's box approached them.

Mystique's blue skin turned white and smooth; her hair became shorter and black. Her powers' absence was maddening—she was trapped in an alien's skin, her body's reflexes and balance subtly changed, weighing her down—she felt nauseated, and by the looks on their faces Storm and Jean felt the same.

"It's so quiet," Jean groaned, rubbing her temples.

Storm spared Mystique a glance and snorted. "And that looks just plain wrong. I mean, you're gorgeous no matter what, don't get me wrong, but that's...unsettling."

"I know!" Mystique spat, fingers splayed on her bare chest with repugnance. She put on the robe, in equal parts to avoid shocking the kid and to hide this body from herself.

Jimmy stepped out of his box and stared at them.

Storm was the first one to step forward with a smile. "Hi, Jimmy," she said, holding out her hand. "I'm Storm. Nice to meet you."

"Hi."

"We have a school for mutants, and we'd really love it if you'd join us." She glanced at Mystique, clearly wondering if she'd want to make her pitch as well. But the Brotherhood would have little use for this boy—he'd be far safer in the school. Mystique shook her head, and Storm grinned. "There are a lot of us there."

"Everyone will hate me," he replied with a sigh. "I suppress people's mutations—everyone hates the feeling."

Jean knelt in front of Jimmy and wrapped her arms around him, saying, "You'll find a place there, I promise. Do you want to try?"

He nodded. Jean held him by the hand and they made their way to the jet. The other two lagged behind; they let out identical sighs of relief once they were out of Jimmy's range. Mystique tossed the robe aside with disgust.

She couldn't help feeling they'd just averted an immense crisis—possibly the most insidiously dangerous of all, because several mutants had actually been tempted to take the "cure" in a tragic effort to fit in. Even Mystique herself, once upon a time, would have considered it; now, the very idea made her ill.

"Creating this 'cure' was an act of war," Mystique said quietly. "There's no going back now."

Storm grimaced. "Probably. There's been a definite shift in how the public perceives mutants—the few humans who didn't assume we were all dangerous criminals now think we're sick. Jean's overheard rumours from within the military that they're thinking of using the 'cure' as ammunition against mutants. It doesn't look good."

"Yeah. If it comes down to it—"

"Of course we'll fight together." Storm wrapped an arm around Mystique's waist, pulling her closer for comfort. "For one, the children will need protecting. And of course we'll need to recruit intensively across the world to find mutants before the humans do. I strongly doubt the Professor hasn't prepared for this contingency—and Magneto too, obviously. It's a grim prospect, but we always knew it was a possibility."

"Together, then." Mystique smiled. She'd never doubted mutants could win the war against humans; even the three of them were already pretty damn unbeatable on their own.

Storm's face was sad but determined as she echoed, "Together."

"Well, obviously!" Jean said, descending the stairs leading up to the jet. She grinned at them. "Wouldn't have it any other way."