From those quiet moments of childhood, Charles can remember only one story his mother ever told him. It was about a mermaid who enchanted a sailor, and it occupies a warm spot in his heart.
“There must have been more,” Moira prods him with a finger. “Bedtime stories like Little Red Riding Hood? Jack and the Bean Stalk?”
Charles grimaces and sips at his lager. Raven shakes her head. “Charles' mother wasn't....the warmest.”
Moira looks between the two of them and her face goes apologetic. “I'm so sorry,” she says, and, when Charles shakes his head, “Please, continue.”
“It includes a sailor who is searching for the shore and there's a storm,” he tells her. “The man is in love with the sea, how wild it is and how it helps him provide for his village. He's from a sea village; they use the fish and crustaceans as food and the seaweed to fertilize their crops.”
Can you use seaweed as fertilizer? He hears Moira's thoughts as second-nature, a footnote.
He goes on. “He's saved from the bashing of the waves that threaten to drag him under. He falls in love in that moment.”
“Love.” Raven nods. They're having drinks in the Blues Lounge. There are fridges of imported beers, as well as a bowl of peanuts on every table. Charles feels at home here, like he's never had in his mansion.
“What happens then?” Moira asks. She thinks, The mermaid dies.
“Well,” Raven says. “Isn't it obvious? They always kill off the other.”
Charles spreads his hands, a helpless gesture. He feels like he's justifying something for an audience, making it palatable, excusable. “Fairy stories involving mermaids are bound to end in tragedy, after all. Once the mermaid is introduced, it's practically a done deal as far as narrative goes.”
To say he had lived well would be an understatement, but Charles was also unsocialized as a boy, too old for his age by way of reading the minds of all the adults he came across before he realized it was odd. He had been been pulled out of school to receive homeschooling, but made up for this lack of academic setting by going to Uni and then instantly moving on to a doctorate.
What his professors mistook for scholarly determination, a passion for genetics, was, yes, in part due to his own mutation and the drastic way it shaped his life, but could also largely be attributed to the conviction he held that the mermaid was out there, somewhere. It was bound to happen; if all these other mutations were possible, why not that? When he found her, he would tell her, “You're not alone. I've been searching for you this entire time and you didn't even realise.”
When he'd first met Raven, Charles had been creeping into the kitchen, fearing burglars, but had only been met by the thoughts of hot chocolate and whether there was any leftovers in the fridge, he thought—maybe?
Blue scaly skin does not a mermaid make, he told an older student when he was binge-drinking at his first frat party. “But you know,” he'd continued. “Maybe there was something. She had red hair when I met her, slicked back like she'd just clambered out of a lake. Chromosome 11? There has to be some secret....”
He spun tales out of the low-level genetic variances for auburn hair or perfect teeth. He became known as a hopeless flirt, hitting on women down in the pub while his friends patted him on the back and said, "Better luck next time, Xavier," but they didn't think too poorly of him, because he always landed straight-A's.
It didn't consume him, but it didn't leave him either: he searched for mutation.
During sophomore year he took to holing up in the archives, poring over mariners' accounts. He learned Ancient Greek for a time, badly, but made up for the shitty grammar by sitting next to other students and mining their knowledge of the language psychically—shady morality in exchange for the ability to decipher the old texts of Aegean sailors.
The accounts read more like the ramblings of madmen who, salty and scurvy-ridden, had been adrift too long, under the full moon and imagining the gleaming flippers of shelled women that broke the placid surface of the Mediterranean. Even the shores of Turkey, one sailor wrote, would have been preferable to this, nothing but empty waters for a hundred kilometers in every direction, and dreams of sea monsters.
Even so, Charles avoided fruits and vegetables in order to replicate the symptoms of delirium, for the full experience. Raven, who had taken a flat near his at the time, dropped in a few afternoons a week as always, and Charles, having been a fool, had truly underestimated her skills of observation, thinking she hadn't noticed his changed state. She slipped vitamin C tablets in the water filter in his fridge and threw him a pirates-themed party for his birthday that year. She even brought grog. It proved to be the best, yet least-remembered, party in his first few years of his PhD. Cheap rum, his friends decided, made for fantastic and mysterious photographic evidence.
When Moira came to find him, Charles secretly rejoiced in putting off applying for teaching fellowships, so America it was. He longed for the sort of ambiance of the East Coast, for returning to where he'd grown up.
Raven packed her clothes, glad for the change in scenery, as Charles considered leaving his well-organized documentation on mermaids behind him. He made to throw it away, held one of the notebooks over the bin, before sighing and muttering, "who am I kidding?" He tucked it, too, into the box to ship to the homestead Xavier.
Raven snorted and held up a skull and crossbones flag. "Remember this?"
Charles didn't. He also didn't remember the peg leg they found under his bed, nor the eye patch, but none of that was important. It was wreckage of his extended stay in England.
What was important was that he had graduated and that Raven wouldn't complain any longer about her waitressing job, and that both of their skills could be useful to the CIA. He was pleased about the paid-for holiday, not least of all the way he knew no one would let him drive over there because his license had expired since he'd been overseas, so he would be chauffeured everywhere.
Raven popped her gum all the way to the airport, pissing Moira off until Charles offered in low tones to throw Raven out of the emergency exit for her. Moira shook her head and Charles bought her a drink. She was pleased to have a gay best friend, and he was pleased to get a free airplane flight in First Class.
He felt his stomach drop out as the land lurched away out from under them, and then he saw the sky, and half an hour later got a full view of the sparkling ocean dwindling out just as they hit the cloud layer.
It was all rather exciting, really.
Directly after disembarking the plane, Raven bounced on her feet, refreshed after a gin-induced, eight hour nap the entirety of the flight with her sleep mask crooked over her eyes, and told Charles that they absolutely had to go to the mall.
"Shopping," Charles said as an aside to Moira. "What a surprise."
"Charles," Raven said, in tones of one deeply embarrassed by her sibling. "It's not—oh my god, just—"
"Yes," Moira told her. "I'll take you to the Mall."
Charles had been known to make assumptions before. Rarely, but yes, gaffes. This was one of those times. He slung his arm through his sister's as she dragged them off to see every monument.
He gazed up at the statue of President Lincoln, feeling jet lagged and travel weary. It was bigger-than-life, sturdy. Raven looked back and said, "Charles! Don't make fun, let's take a picture."
He followed her up the steps, hands in his trouser pockets. "I'm not making fun. It's actually rather impressive. Don't give me that look. It's great, in fact. There's a certain feeling of solace here."
She rolled her eyes at him and wrapped an arm around his waist while Moira had them stand absolutely still for the photo.
"You know the best thing about statues?" he asked. "They don't think too loud."
"You prattle on yourself," Raven said.
After a dinner at an Italian restaurant where Moira charmed the pants off of them both by speaking fluently with the wait staff, they took a stroll through the balmy evening. Raven skipped on ahead, garnering sidelong looks of jealousy and appreciation from passing business women who wore their hair back in no-nonsense buns.
Moira told Charles a bit about her job. "Training, you know. One day all this—the Russian and Spanish—all of it is going to come in handy. Or so they told me."
"Do you feel underappreciated?" However smart Moira obviously was, Charles couldn't imagine it would be easy for a woman to work at the CIA.
"Well, right now they're having me work through the backlog of foreign documentation. I'm a glorified document clerk when I'm not on surveillance."
"Hopefully that will all change. I'll make sure not to embarrass you at the meeting tomorrow."
"Just tell them what you know," Moira said.
Charles would, he assured her. He adjusted his tweed and put his hands in his pockets. They continued their walk.
It was impossible to accurately recount the events which followed, but they met people in the park who seemed friendly and invited them over for an evening in, to which Charles answered, "That would be delightful." One thing led to another and by ten o'clock the three of them found themselves at the rooftop garden of an apartment building somewhere in the capitol area, maybe even Virginia, one never could be sure.
Charles found it unethical to use his abilities in a recreational manner, but in practice he rarely acted accordingly. It helped him fit in, dissolve into the setting, and of course Raven never had any trouble. He worried for Moira at first, unsure whether this was her idea of a good time, but she took off her jacket and her shoes and instantly accepted the first drink offered to her.
There were tiki lights flaming in a way that might have been considered hazardous by local fire controls, and drinks were passed around and shared between roughly dressed folks seated around on blankets and cushions. Someone was giving an impromptu lecture on racial equality and a woman in one corner seemed to be talking physics. Charles wasn't surprised, more pleased; there was nothing wrong with holding onto ideals like they were a life raft set to keep you afloat.
"Is this always how you spend your evenings?" Moira asked out of the corner of her mouth.
Charles accepted a sip of tea out of a jam jar and murmured back, "Not as such, no."
"I did find you completely inebriated in a pub," she pointed out.
"In Oxford," Charles argued. "Where I attended many years of schooling."
Moira shrugged and quirked her lips, but then turned away when she was introduced to two men with dreadlocks and earrings. Charles looked around for Raven, and found her getting her hair braided by a woman in a beaded shirt, laughing and sitting cross-legged on one of the colorful floor pillows.
Someone brought out a guitar and started twanging out some sensible chords, a song that hit Charles the right way. They lyrics concerned peace and the need for it, and Charles suddenly felt pleased to be in America. It hit him like a ton of bricks to the chest. After he gave the talk the next day, he decided as he leaned back on his hands, he'd rent a car and he and Raven would go visit their property, the old mansion, and see if the lake was still clean enough for a summer of swimming and picnics.
A pill box was proffered shortly thereafter, loaded with different shades of tablets for each day of the week. "What color will you have?"
"Me?" Charles pointed to himself. "Me, choose a color? Ah—"
"He'll have the whole rainbow," Raven sang. "Because he's a complete queer."
There was some nodding. "Right on, right on."
"No, I won't have the whole rainbow," Charles cut in. Raven sighed in disappointment, but Moira supported Charles by patting him on the arm.
They had to be at the CIA the next day, top secret business and all that. But then, these people were so nice, and it was shaping up to be the sort of night you decided to stop worrying about and just go with.
He cleared his throat and said, "My favorite color is blue, if that makes any difference."
Laughs all around. Charles felt secure in the fact that he had enough cash on him to get a taxi back to their hotel in the wee hours of the morning, where they could shower and have coffee and eggs. Everything would work out; he made that decision right then. And besides, he'd always wanted to learn the guitar. It was the beginning of the sixties, after all, a wild movement was just taking root. Maybe he could join a band.
He leaned forward, towards the guitarist. "Now tell me, what were you singing?"
"It's about love," a woman said. "And peace."
"Groovy," Charles said. "Let's hear it."
His whole life had been speeding towards one moment, he'd note that retrospectively over a tumblr of scotch and their thirtieth game of chess. But for now, the wind whipping his face, the taste of salt in the night air, there was the problem of the telepath. He could sense her aboard the boat in the absence of everything past an invisible line drawn in the water between their two ships.
Charles had the black ops on their side and the backing of the CIA, and still he doubted their victory.
“It's like ice,” he rubbed at his temple with a finger. “Blocking my mind. It's like a solid wall of—gahh.”
“Charles!” Moira shouted. He felt hands grabbing at his shoulder to hold him upright.
“I'm afraid I'm not going to be much help,” he said. He frowned out against the yawning empty ocean and the complete void of psychic thought, unused to half of his consciousness being shut out like it never had existed in the first place. He made a quick, emergency sweep of the deck of the ship he was on and found that he could read all their minds with little effort.
So it was just this ship in the water. Yes, the telepath must have known of his existence. Of course she did. In the future, Charles would have to be more on guard, but for now....
“This is incredible,” he said aloud.
A suited man frowned his way. “Excuse me?”
“Sorry, I just—” Charles gripped the cold handrail. “I've never met someone with similar abilities to my own—this is going to be wonderful.”
“Except we're currently heading to arrest them," Moira said.
He murmured, “Oh, right,” but stared toward the ship that was bobbing in the dark distance.
Then there was something, cutting into the corner of his senses. He put two fingers to his temple again and looked desperately in the black ocean which was slapping against the sides of their ship.
“There's someone there!” he shouted, gripping the railing. A figure splashed along the surface of the dark waves, like something fabled, like a—
Charles took off at a run, without second thought. "We need to help! There's someone in the water!"
The navy seals tensed and clutched their guns to their bullet-proof vests as he sped by. He ran the gamut, his leather penny loafers slipping and sliding over the pebbled deck of the ship. He didn't even hold the railing; it would have slowed him.
Whether someone else was going to do something was never an option. It felt like the world had shrunk down to just the two of them: Charles on the port side and a mermaid—the mermaid—waiting in the water.
Mermaid, he thought one last time, and took the leap.
To say he dove in would be misleading; it was a graceful plummet, though, not unlike a physical manifestation of the sailor falling in love in the middle of a tale Charles had heard once. He won't remember, after the fact, how it felt, those two and a half seconds it took to leap from the side of the ship to the moment he was sucked down into the harsh, frigid water. He would have bruises on his ribs, though, and a sprained wrist.
Immersed and freezing, kicking, he was still wearing his shoes. This should have slowed him, did slow him, but he navigated the water well-enough thanks to the moves he had learned from their private swimming tutor as kids and the help of his psychic abilities which were returning in wisps with the push of Charles' power, exponentially increased by the surge of emotion, breaking through the telepath's shield.
Please, he shouted soundlessly, mouth open in the briny waves as he grabbed at what felt like seal skin, rubbery, slick. Please.
Another voice entered his head, but he ignored it: Pathetic
Later, idly, Charles will search out fables in Erik's mind, but the only fairy tale he'll find will be Hansel & Gretel, coupled with the swimmy memory of a man offering chocolate across a desk.