*Raven, Raven, wait! I've got company!*
Raven paused on the stairs outside the door to the flat he shared with his big sister, waiting for Charlotte to give the all-clear. He shifted from a sleek-bobbed, panda-eyed Mod girl to his usual tall, blonde female self, making sure not to change the size of his feet or calves and damage yet another pair of boots. Not that he couldn't make boots himself, but his naked feet didn't always agree with the English weather.
*Okay! Come in!*
Raven opened the door to find a very rumpled Charlotte and an equally rumpled blonde woman in tweed sitting on the couch with their textbooks open. The other woman gave Raven a hard glare.
"You're tutoring!" Raven exclaimed. "How kind of you to keep helping other students when you've finished your defence!"
Charlotte smiled - she was always annoyingly smug when she was getting laid - and turned to the woman beside her. "That's my sister, Raven. She's off to bed now, aren't you, Raven?"
"Sure! I don't want to disrupt your studies." Raven stomped into their shared bedroom - which now smelled of sex and perfume, great - and got changed into his baggy nightshirt. He snibbed the door: it had a feeble lock and either of them could get it open with a pen, but it should be enough to keep Charlotte's Totty of the Week from seeing Raven sleeping. That could cause a lot of fuss. They were supposed to be two sisters, not a sister and her not-really-decided sibling. He stretched out and rippled into his natural shape - a young man with ridged blue skin and sleek red hair - and got into bed. Well, at least Charlotte had been considerate enough to make him a hot water bottle.
Some hours later, Raven woke to the sound of Charlotte trying to get undressed quietly. Her moderate drunkenness was making this task unnecessary complex.
"Sorry to wake you!" Charlotte felt Raven's mind the second she woke, of course. "I wouldn't have made you go to bed early except that Julianne was a big brave butch and wanted to protect me from my mean old sister. It worked brilliantly, so thank you."
"Her name's Julianne? Oh god, are you still trying to fuck your way through the Famous Five?"
Charlotte giggled. "Anne and George were easy. I only need Timmy and Dick now."
"Timmy's a dog and the dick's all mine," Raven grumped. "And if you were really sorry, you would have slept on the couch instead of coming in here and waking me up. You didn't even ask me how my evening was."
Charlotte plopped herself down on Raven's bed, half-undressed. Raven reached up and unhooked her bra for her. "Raven, my dear, how was your evening? Did you meet up with that groovy guy in the velvet jacket?"
"Yes! And he's a queer!" Raven couldn't help laughing and Charlotte joined in. "Okay, yeah, I'll go as a guy next time. I think he likes wispy little brunettes with tragic moustaches."
"You do a great tragic moustache. Comes from being around students for years." Charlotte managed to get her bra off and her flannel nightie on, then looked at her rumpled bed, befuddled. "Can I sleep in your bed? My bed is cold now."
"No, you'll get your boozy breath all over me." Raven moved over anyway - Charlotte was tiny, but the single bed was narrow and barely held both of them.
Charlotte dove in and put her cold nose right on Raven's arm. "I love you! You are the best sibling in the whole world."
Raven rolled his eyes. "Tell me about it."
Charlotte was barely hung over the next morning, but at least that was a trait Raven shared. Today Charlotte was finally be awarded her doctorate, though she often proclaimed that she should be awarded two: one in her actual field of genetics, and one for fighting her way into the department in the first place.
Raven defied death to retrieve two pieces of toast from their dodgy toaster, and dropped them on a plate in front of his sister. "Don't start with the two doctorates again. I'll have to take one away for using telepathy on your committee."
"If they weren't such bloody idiots I wouldn't have had to fight hard enough to deserve two," Charlotte muttered, gouging at the cold block of butter on the table. "I mean, really, you'd think they'd never heard of Marie Curie, let alone Rosalind Franklin."
"Franklin was at Cambridge - they probably don't even acknowledge she existed." Raven retrieved his own toast and sat down. He was wearing his usual blonde female form today, back to being Charlotte's little sister for her ceremony.
"Point. I still haven't heard about the position I want, though."
Raven grimaced. "If they don't give it to you, they're idiots. On the other hand, we already know they're idiots, so…"
"We could go back to America, maybe?" Charlotte didn't look thrilled. "At least we wouldn't be tripping over each other in this tiny flat."
"No, we'd be rattling around in a giant house and we'd have to practically abduct our dates to get them all the way out there from New York."
Charlotte polished off her toast. "Still, we could get a place in the city. I bet there's lots of butches in New York."
Raven giggled. "Yeah, I bet they're all desperate for the love of Doctor Xavier. Maybe someone should give you a job teaching Interpersonal Relations."
"I need a job!" Charlotte yelled at the universe, via the ceiling. "I need adoring students to ravish!"
When the rain came down late that afternoon, Raven was glad he'd chosen to wear actual clothes today. His trusty black knee-high boots were perfect for this kind of weather. The ridged soles of his feet could deal with any surface from tarmac to pebbles, but he really didn't like the way mud solidified around his toenails. How this happened when he wasn't even showing any toes he wasn't sure, but it must be due to the inherent evil of English mud. He missed New York, sometimes: not the city, but their home, where the grass was plush and springy and you had to go all the way down to the lake to find mud or slush. Of course, they'd had a team of groundskeepers working to keep it that way, but the memory of that soft grass moving under his feet made him wistful.
"Homesick?" Charlotte was right there, wrestling with her umbrella and trying not to poke Raven in the eye with it.
"Sorry to project all over you. Just…it's rained for months, here, and everything is grey."
Charlotte grinned the manic grin of a woman who'd already had two glasses of champagne on an empty stomach and was looking forward to more booze the second she made it to the pub. While she rarely got blind drunk, Charlotte did tend to use drink to help her deal with the close quarters and busy minds of Oxford. Alcohol didn't help her filter thoughts, she said, but it helped her not care about the contents of those thoughts. The rain made Raven feel like they were in a private world under their flapping umbrellas, but she knew it wasn't the same for Charlotte.
Charlotte finally got her umbrella under control, and wiped rain off her face, smearing her mascara. "There's a teaching post at the new university in Nairobi! Maybe we should go there?"
"Aren't they still having a rebellion over there?"
"Maybe? But it would be sunny!" They ducked into the pub with relief, to join the cheering throngs of new graduates who were already most of the way to pissed. Someone reached around to grab Raven's boob and he elbowed him hard in the face, producing a sad, drunken groan. Charlotte was ploughing through the crowds relentlessly, heading straight for the bar, and Raven could only follow in her wake.
"Miss Xavier?" It was an American voice, and Raven turned in surprise.
"Yes - and you are?"
The speaker was a neat young man in a smart suit, with shoes so highly polished that they kept reflecting lights into Raven's eyes. "MacTaggert. I've read your sister's thesis, and I really need to speak with her. It's a matter of some importance." His accent wasn't entirely American, now that Raven was listening closely - there was a Scottish burr somewhere underneath his big American vowels.
Raven eyed him up and down and he didn't flinch under the inspection. "I don't know how much you're going to get out of her this evening, but sure. Help me rescue her before she gets pawed to death."
MacTaggert watched Charlotte downing a yard glass to the cheers of a dozen students, and frowned.
"Yeah, I know what you're thinking -" Raven started, meaning to say Charlotte drinks a lot but MacTaggert almost jumped out of his skin and his hand went to his hip where his gun wasn't.
*Charlotte!* Ravens projected as hard as he possibly could. *Emergency! He knows about mind-reading!*
By the time Raven had pulled Charlotte away from her admirers - and Charlotte had stopped making eyes at some random brunette - Raven had filled Charlotte in on MacTaggert's overreaction. Charlotte, in return, had filled Raven in on the fact that the man was a CIA agent.
*Do you think he's met a telepath?* Raven was trying to shake Charlotte sober, but it wasn't really working.
*Oooooh, no, maybe? He's met some mutants, Raven! More of us! Oh, and with some really groovy mutations!*
*Don't let on to the CIA that you know!* Raven snapped, and dragged his sister over to the small table where MacTaggert was waiting for them - closer to the door than they were, Raven noted.
Charlotte threw herself into the chair opposite MacTaggert and stared into his face.
"Miss Xavier? Are you all right?"
Charlotte reached out and carefully touched the tip of MacTaggert's nose, and his eyes nearly crossed following her finger in. "I am very, very, very drunk. And that's very, very, very much all right with me. Also! You can call me Doctor Xavier!" She beamed up at Raven. "Now we'll know which of us people are talking to!"
Raven put his hands on Charlotte's shoulders, intending to pull her away, when he caught sight of MacTaggert's face. The man's expression was as glazed as Charlotte's. She was reading his mind, the physical contact aiding her. The images fed straight to Raven's brain, too: a skinny young man in white leather pants whose skin turns to diamond; a pretty olive-skinned woman sitting at a bar flicking whirlwinds from her hands, her skirt and long hair fluttering; a solidly built woman with bright red skin and plain black clothing reaching out her hands to a cringing man in a tuxedo; all of them paying attention to a handsome, well-dressed older woman in an expensive suit that wouldn't have been out of place on one of their mother's friends. The crimson-faced woman and the man she had grabbed suddenly vanish in a puff of reddish-black smoke. MacTaggert - inexplicably wearing only his underwear, and Raven certainly appreciated the glimpse of nice legs - reels back from his hidden viewpoint.
Random images came to Raven as Charlotte rummaged lightly through the CIA agent's mind - his superiors laughing at his claims, a picture of the man in the tuxedo now wearing an army uniform - but no more mutants came to mind. Raven could hardly catch his breath: at least three more people like them, and all in one place! And two of them had physical manifestations of their powers, the same as Raven!
Charlotte removed his finger from the end of MacTaggert's nose, and he continued with their conversation as if there'd been no interruption, which to him there hadn't.
"Doctor Xavier, my apologies. My name is MacTaggert, and I work for the CIA. I need your help."
"The direct approach at last," Raven muttered, impatient to find out more.
"Ma'am. Doctor Xavier, I need to ask you if it's possible that these mutated humans you write about - could they exist today?"
"Mr MacTaggert, Marcus, I think you have seen some very interesting things."
MacTaggert, unlike most people, had the presence of mind to react to being told information - his first name - that he hadn't actually given yet. His hand went halfway to his hip again, but Charlotte caught his hand and smiled at him.
"Marcus, we want to help you. No, we need to help you. Whoever these people are - Communists, gangsters, a big misunderstanding - they're like us. All this time…I've caught flickers of others, but I've never managed to find them."
MacTaggert obviously valued his mission - or maybe Charlotte and Raven's thrilled smiles - above his suspicion, because he took Charlotte's hand in both of his and, his face entirely earnest, said, "Doctor Xavier, Miss Xavier, thank you for trusting me. If we can prove this to my Director, we'll take a big step forward in national security."
The CIA certainly had a nice line in jets, Charlotte thought to herself. She was still adjusting to only being within range of five people instead of fifteen thousand. Raven was beside her, of course; the pilot and co-pilot who were, thankfully, thoroughly focused on flying the plane; and MacTaggert and his partner sitting across from them, hauling out files from a briefcase.
"So, I'm not saying that I can back up MacTaggert," the partner, Levine, said. "I'm asking which is easier to believe: that Colonel Hendry would book a ticket to Las Vegas, be seen at the airport and checking into his hotel, be spotted by us outside a party that we knew he was going to, and then somehow get to DC in under ten minutes, or that all our intel and all the people who saw him were wrong."
MacTaggert nodded. "Either way, we've got a hard sell. Agent Levine's got permission to at least discuss this case with you, but please remember the documents you signed."
"The ones where we can never ever tell, cross our hearts and hope to die?" Charlotte quirked an eyebrow. Agent Levine was not pleased to have to babysit two "chicks", no matter how hot they were, and Charlotte was not inclined to bother impressing him. Agent MacTaggert, at least, was far too alarmed by what he had seen to be anything but grateful for their help.
MacTaggert opened one of the files and turned it around on the low table so that Raven and Charlotte could see. The attached photo showed the well-dressed older woman from MacTaggert's memories, this time in a pants suit with pearls.
"This is Sabrina Shaw. Wealthy American father, German mother, was visiting family in Munich when the war started. Nobody's quite sure what happened after that, but at some stage late in the war she made it to Switzerland. In the immediate aftermath she was a major donor to the Red Cross and personally assisted with the organisation of the DP camps."
"Sounds like a saint." Raven did not seem impressed.
MacTaggert nodded. "Well, no-one had their eye on her until quite recently. Her family was part of a private club for wealthy Bostonites. Intel gathered by the FBI showed that she had taken over the running of the club and was using the money, drugs and parties to influence senior US military personnel, among others."
"She's also spent time and money in East Germany and Russia, which is where we came in," Levine added. "Miss Xavier, Doctor Xavier, you might not know this, but it's not uncommon for people who suffered under the Nazis to swing too far in the opposite direction, start sympathising with the Reds."
"Like the Rosenbergs." Charlotte was rapidly running out of patience for Levine's slow and careful explanations.
"Exactly right!" Levine smiled as if Charlotte is a particularly bright five-year-old - and Charlotte picked up the usual unpleasant mix of lust and condescension, plus a reminder to himself not to trust the Jews - but Raven put a warning hand on Charlotte's arm.
*You're taking a job with these people - don't start antagonising them at 30,000 feet!*
*They're idiots, they can't tell.*
*Calm down, Charlotte. Do you want a drink?*
Charlotte rubbed her throbbing temples. *No, I used to be able to deal with small numbers of people. I need practice.*
*Well, don't start by telling them our old plan to rescue the Rosenbergs, okay?*
Charlotte pasted on a smile and looked to MacTaggert instead. "Has Miss Shaw displayed any mutant abilities herself?"
"Not that I saw, but of course we weren't looking for any such thing. Is there any way you can tell, Doctor Xavier?"
"Not yet, I'm sorry. With your resources, though, I'd love to find some more practical applications for my work." Charlotte made herself focus only on MacTaggert's thoughts, letting Levine's and the two pilots' - now that they were safely in the air they were chatting about the alleged sexual exploits of an air hostess in Madrid - fade into the background. She used to be better at this. The constantly crowded, ridiculously concentrated minds of Oxford had dragged her into bad habits and too much alcohol.
MacTaggert was attracted to both Charlotte and Raven, which didn't surprise Charlotte, but he was much more focused on how he could explain all of this to his superior officers and hoping desperately that Charlotte wouldn't flake out on him. His mind was not unpleasant to be around.
"I'm not going to flake out on you," Charlotte told him, laying a hand on MacTaggert's arm.
"How did you - oh, of course. My apologies, Doctor Xavier. It's just that this is very new, and I'm sure you're aware that people don't always take well to the new."
"Even in such attractive packages," Levine added helpfully.
Raven stood up. "I need to fix my make-up. Charlotte, are you coming?" She stalked to the rear of the plane, and Charlotte made her apologies and followed.
There wasn't actually a ladies' room on the plane, but the bathroom was spacious enough for both Raven and Charlotte to squeeze in.
*Charlotte, they're idiots. Well, Levine is. Can you really work with people like that?*
Charlotte opened her purse and got out her lipstick, ostentatiously making Raven's excuse concrete. *Why, do you think it's any different at the university? Any of the universities where I interviewed?*
*No, but at least you're with your peers there. And you can work on your research.*
*Here we can find more mutants!* She blotted her lips on a tissue and glared at Raven. "You're the one always encouraging me to try something new and not lock myself up in a library. Well, here we are."
"Field research? Okay, then." Raven switched to projecting. *Promise me you'll reconsider once we've found these mutants that MacTaggert saw.*
*Deal.* "And let's have a drink - this plane trip is intolerable sober."
Charlotte looked around in panic as everyone yelled about spies and pointed at MacTaggert, but Raven had the wits to show them something undeniable. He changed into one of the senior CIA agents and everyone fell silent, shocked.
The man whose appearance he'd borrowed sat back and threw up his hands. "Now what, MacTaggert? Now what?"
"I thought that -"
"You thought that we'd take the Xavier sisters and what? Send them out in the field? So you've proved your point. What are we supposed to do with them?"
"I'm offering my help," Charlotte said, but the men kept talking over her.
"And why are so many of them women anyway? We want weapons, here, MacTaggert, intelligence, and you bring me women."
There was one female agent tucked away in the corner, a solid older woman with olive skin and horn-rimmed glasses. She leaned forward to speak to Stryker. "The research facility has space. We could investigate what the Xavier sisters can do."
Charlotte smiled at the woman - Frieda Duncan - and got up to go shake her hand. "Actually, Agent Duncan, I was rather hoping that I'd be able to do some of the investigating."
Duncan opened her mouth to reply, but Stryker leapt up and got between them. He pointed at Charlotte. "Shut your pretty little mouth and sit down!" Stryker bellowed. "You will do as you're told! I may not like it, but Duncan's the one with the security clearance, not you, and -"
Charlotte put her fingers to her temple and everyone stopped. She'd really had enough of this.
"Thanks, Charlotte," Raven came over to stand by her side. "I don't think we'll get much help here."
"I really wish we could have. They're completely out of their league and they could use some help. Let me take a moment to erase their memories right back to the end of my lecture." She concentrated hard, and Raven gently rubbed her shoulders. "There. I suppose I should wake up MacTaggert."
MacTaggert looked dazed for a moment, then briefly terrified as he took in the scene before him, all his colleagues frozen mid-argument. To his credit, he didn't feel the need to accuse or attack Charlotte or Raven.
"Don't worry," Charlotte told him. "They won't remember any of this."
"I'm terribly sorry - I really thought they'd be more open to this. They spend millions on research every year, but when their research walks in the door, well. Again, my apologies." MacTaggert was sincere, if scared, but there was an underlying hope that Charlotte and Raven weren't about to turn against the CIA.
Charlotte laughed. "I'm not going to betray you, Marcus. It's not the fault of the United States that she has fools for agents. Raven and I will find those other mutants ourselves. Please stay out of danger - you know how easy it is for a mutant to cause harm."
MacTaggert nodded. "I appreciate your patriotism, Doctor Xavier, I really do. Agent Duncan would be very interested to meet you again, I'm sure. Can I give you her direct phone number, at least?"
"I don't think that will be necessary," Charlotte replied. "We'll find her if we need her. But thanks."
Raven grinned at MacTaggert. "I think we'll be better agents on our own anyway!"
Charlotte touched her temple again and re-froze MacTaggert along with the rest, then took Raven's arm. They made sure to depart the premises before Charlotte let the frozen agents go, in case there was a problem - large groups of people were often more diverse in their minds than they seemed, and it was possible that someone would remember what had happened.
"Where to now?" Raven asked as Charlotte hijacked a driver to take them into DC. "Maybe we should have talked to Agent Duncan."
"No, we don't need to do that! Those senior agents had more up-to-date information on Sabrina Shaw than MacTaggert or Levine did - right now, she's on a yacht in Miami."
Raven grinned and leaned forward to talk to the driver. "To the airport, please!"
"Thank you, Agent Xavier," Charlotte said, with a regal wave of her hand.
"You're welcome, Agent Xavier! Or should it be Agent Doctor Xavier?"
"I don't know! I'm just enjoying all these ambisexual titles."
As soon as they stepped off the plane, Raven fell in love with Miami. It hadn't been a fun flight, via Atlanta and Jacksonville, especially as Charlotte had grimly reported the pilot's concern about rattling in the engines. The delighted feeling wasn't mere relief at putting his feet on solid ground: the sunset was gorgeous, the blossoms were tropical, and everyone was wearing considerably fewer clothes than they had been in Oxford or Washington DC.
"Do you think I can manage to make a Hawaiian shirt? They're pretty groovy," he asked the hung over and grouchy Charlotte, who was hiding her eyes from the last rays of the sun.
"I don't care, Raven, as long as you get me some sunglasses."
Raven escorted his cringing sister to a shop inside the big, shiny passenger terminal to buy them each a pair of sunglasses and Charlotte a big hat. Raven's natural dark blue skin never burned, and that seemed to apply to his fake fair skin as well. He'd have to remember to either tan or flush tomorrow, or the paleness of England would be a terrible giveaway for a girl with no hat. Charlotte had no such luck, and burned at the slightest touch of sun.
They only had overnight bags with them, and those were packed for Washington, not Miami. Raven got Charlotte settled in the airport bar with big sunglasses and a martini, and headed for the money exchange, then the row of shops. Even at six in the evening they were all open and busy, people dashing everywhere with giant suitcases and oversized souvenirs, perky air hostesses striding to catch their flights or limping off them, hawkers welcoming tourists and arguing with security guards. Raven checked out the bathing suits until he was confident he could make himself one - ruching wasn't as tricky as it looked. Sometimes he wondered if he was supposed to be a girl, with the love he had for fashion, but he'd seen plenty of men taking as much joy in dressing. Women simply had more variety, and Raven liked that. He didn't need to choose a sex to wear a two-piece bathing suit: his body was more versatile than that.
He took his selection to Charlotte, who was perking up greatly now that was she off the plane and had gin in her system, so they could change from "rumpled escapees from the CIA" to "elegant tourist sisters on a holiday".
"What did you get me?" Charlotte pawed through her bag. "I hope it's nothing too alarming."
Raven stripped off the parts of his clothes that were actually clothes and made himself a pretty cotton halter dress in a bright Hawaiian print.
Charlotte blinked. "Thanks for getting me sunglasses before you did that."
Raven twirled. "You don't like it?"
"It's very you. Not very me."
"Don't worry," Raven sighed. "I bought you something duller."
Charlotte pulled out a bathing suit and kimono-style wrap and raised her eyebrows. The clothes were certainly more restrained in colour that Raven's - the bathing suit was baby blue, the wrap a subdued flower print - but a long way from the A-line skirts and crisp shirts that Charlotte usually wore.
"Come on! We're in Florida! I've got you sandals, too." Raven complained, but opened the other bag and threw Charlotte a plain white shirt dress. "Bathing suit tomorrow, okay? "
"Deal." Charlotte sent Raven an image of her parading around the streets of Oxford in the bathing suit and wrap, and they both laughed, especially at the realistic goose pimples on her exposed legs.
The morning was lost to Charlotte's hangover recovery - longer than usual, which Charlotte attributed to all the air travel - but the afternoon saw Raven and Charlotte strolling around beachside Miami. After Charlotte had looked out their hotel window and got a good look at what everyone else was wearing, she'd had no more compunctions about wearing a bathing suit, wrap and sandals out in public - this close to the water, everyone from small children to elderly matriarchs were dressed for sun and swimming. Only people who were working wore slightly more, and even then the businessmen were mostly in shorts and knee-high socks. Raven was in his element, wearing as few clothes as possible, as he'd done as a child.
Back then, little Charlotte hadn't thought it strange at all that her new sister liked to run around naked. Her skin felt quite different to Charlotte's, the soles of her feet were tough, and she didn't seem to feel the cold until the temperature hit freezing. Charlotte was engaged in her own project to go barefoot and toughen up the soles of her feet - what if she happened to be kidnapped by pirates and had to work in the rigging? - but apart from flinching and cold toes, she wasn't getting far. The eye patch that Nanny had made them was pretty great, though.
"Arr, First Mate Raven!" Charlotte yelled, running along the hall to the bathroom, "I hear tell there be treasure, arrrr!" The door was open, so she ran right in.
"Go away! I'm peeing!" Raven shouted, and Charlotte skidded to a halt. Raven was peeing standing up. Charlotte had never seen an actual boy's penis before, but there were plenty on the sculptures around the garden and in the art and medical books.
"Wait…you're a boy?"
Raven finished peeing and tucked the penis back under the hard pad of skin that protected her - his - groin. "I don't know! Mostly I don't think about it."
Charlotte put her fingers to her temple and rifled through Raven's mind. "Most people are pretty clear which one they are, even when it doesn't match what they look like on the outside. Do you want to be a girl? Or a boy?"
Raven scowled. "I said I don't know! And stop reading my mind, I don't like it!"
Although Charlotte was just reaching out a hand to direct Raven to the sink for hand-washing - Raven wasn't very good at indoor living yet - Raven flinched away as if Charlotte was about to hit her.
"Leave me alone!"
Charlotte took a step back at once. "No, I'm sorry. I would never hurt you. But wash your hands, please, so we don't get dysentery."
"Yuk," said Raven warily, and kept an eye on Charlotte while washing. "And you hurt my head when you look in it."
"Then I promise I will never do that again, unless you let me," Charlotte replied magnanimously.
Raven smiled again. "Oh good! Do you want me to be a boy or a girl? I don't mind, really."
Taking Raven's now-clean hand, Charlotte led her towards their bedrooms, where one of the four-poster beds was serving pretty well as a pirate ship. "Well, I've convinced everyone that you're a girl, so you'd better stick with that around other people. But when we're alone, I'll call you 'he' because that's universal." Charlotte had been sulky about this grammatical use when she learned it, but now it was suddenly useful. She hardly wanted to call Raven "it", as if he wasn't a human being.
"Okay!" Raven was entirely unbothered now that Charlotte wasn't trying to read his mind and jumped up on the bed. "Ahoy, a whale! And a mermaid!"
Here in Miami, Charlotte didn't make it out of bed before midday, but Raven had been outside in the heat four times. When he bounced back into the hotel room, Charlotte wasn't at all surprised that he wasn't wearing any real clothes for warmth, as he did in Oxford. In fact, he was covered only by a skimpy hot pink two-piece and a tan, his hair shorter than usual to keep it off his neck.
"Come on, Charlotte," he whined. "You're missing everything! I saw a bright green girl and thought she might be like us, but she was actually wearing body paint and handing out flyers. Still, no-one even looked twice!"
Charlotte struggled out of bed. "No way, Raven. Even if no-one looked at you being blue, there's your eyes and your scales, and we don't know that Miss Shaw's mutants want to be found. We have to be stealthy."
Raven stuck out his tongue, but fortunately stopped dropping hints about showing his real form. "Well, if we want to find them, there's a lot of ground to cover. Get dressed and I'll take you to the coffee. Don't forget your hat!"
Despite the bright sun, busy beach and unexpectedly hot weather, Miami was surprisingly relaxing for Charlotte. No-one here was ever likely to see her again, so she felt no compunction gently floating her consciousness along in other people's minds instead of blocking everything. She'd found very young that people tended to make close and often inappropriate bonds with her if she spent too long in their heads. It was a forced and unnatural intimacy that never worked out well, so, apart from a few short holidays, she hadn't allowed herself this degree of freedom in a decade at Oxford. The big sunglasses made it easy to watch the attractive people in very little clothing wandering by. There were even some body builders posing and flexing down on the beach, and there were women among them, deeply tanned to show off their smooth, thick muscles. Charlotte brushed against their thoughts and smiled at their sheer pleasure in their own control and power.
She wasn't here to enjoy herself, though. The marina was much, much bigger than they had expected, and Charlotte was looking through the heads of the regular beach-goers for glimpses of Sabrina Shaw's yacht, the Caspartina. She'd certainly caught a few images of the vessel and even one of Miss Shaw getting out of a taxi at a restaurant two blocks from Raven and Charlotte's hotel, but nothing yet that indicated the yacht's likely position. The two of them had checked out the restaurant, where they had found that Miss Shaw and a blonde younger man were occasional diners there; that she paid the bill herself and was a moderate-to-good tipper; and that staff opinion was divided on whether the pretty young man was a relative or a gold-digging boyfriend. The man was the same one who MacTaggert had seen in Las Vegas, though now dressed more conventionally in a white linen suit and with no sign of sparkling diamond skin. Raven and Charlotte were definitely on the right track.
Currently, Raven was in the shape of an older man with calloused hands and the swollen nose of a chronic drunk - the marina's supervisor. Charlotte had tried to get the location of the Caspartina's dock from his mind, but unfortunately the alcohol had damaged his short-term memory to the extent that the details simply weren't there for Charlotte to find. Instead, Charlotte had suggested that he go home an hour early, giving Raven time to search through his disorganised office. Charlotte needed a drink after going through the supervisor's brain - his thoughts about Raven and Charlotte were more repulsive than most - so now she reclined on a comfortable chair on the balcony of a bar that overlooked the beach, second elaborate cocktail in hand, enjoying the afternoon breezes.
*How are you doing, Raven?*
*This is the most disorganised office I've ever had to ransack. Even worse than that professor who had it in for you in second year.*
Charlotte nearly slopped her drink in surprise. *That was you who posted his photographs on his college's noticeboard?*
*Of course, silly! He cheated on his wife with attractive undergrads and was silly enough to take photos, and then he was mean to you for knocking him back.*
*I can't say he didn't deserve it. I just didn't know it was you!*
*Well, he may have had pornographic photographs stashed all over his office, but at least he didn't have ants. This is revolting.*
*Sorry, Raven. Do you want me to come to you and help?*
*Oh, wait! I've got it! Stay where you are, I'll find you, then we'll go find the other mutants!*
*I'll drink to that!*
The marina was much, much bigger than Charlotte and Raven had thought, and the Caspartina was docked at the far end, nearly two miles away. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant evening stroll in the tropical sunset, despite Charlotte's sandals starting to pinch a little. Raven was a genius at picking a shoe that would fit well, but he couldn't do anything about new leather digging in. Charlotte was determined to be a good sport about it, and didn't say a thing until they reached the Caspartina's dock to find it missing.
"Bloody buggering death!" she cursed, throwing herself down on the dock to take off her stupid shoes. "I don't want to have to return to the CIA for more information, if they even have any!"
Raven looked out to sea, peering at the lights of several luxury yachts in the darkness. "They can't have gone far. The records said they were paid up to the end of the week. Maybe they're cruising around the bay."
"Or they could have gone out into the open ocean. We're never going to find these mutants!"
Raven shook Charlotte's shoulder, nearly knocking off her big hat, and pointed out to sea. "Look!"
A larger ship had suddenly approached from the ocean and its giant spotlight was dazzling. The light shone directly onto a vessel, and that vessel was the Caspartina. The yacht was close enough that Raven and Charlotte could see not just the name on the stern but at least three people silhouetted on the upper deck.
The loudspeaker was easy to hear, even from shore. "THIS IS THE US COAST GUARD! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO LEAVE YOUR VESSEL! STAY WHERE YOU ARE! "
"It's the CIA! I can feel MacTaggert and Levine on that ship!"
Raven yelled at Charlotte. "The mutants must be out there! You should warn them!"
Charlotte hesitated for a moment - it didn't seem that Miss Shaw was a particularly nice person, judging from MacTaggert's memories - but Raven was right. The CIA didn't have anything good planned for Miss Shaw and her mutant friends, and there was no reason why Charlotte shouldn't make contact with the first other mutants that they had met.
She reached out cautiously, and was astonished to be shoved away, her image of the people on the boat cracking like crystal and slipping sideways.
"Raven! Someone on that boat is a telepath!" She jumped to her feet in delight and tried again. *I'm a friend!*
The weird crystal effect was a very effective shield indeed - Charlotte couldn't even talk to the people on the yacht, let alone influence them. Suddenly, other minds came into range - military minds, focused on their mission to capture the dangerous Commie spies. Charlotte hesitated, unsure how many she could affect at once, and in that moment their minds screamed in shock as waterspouts hit their inflatable boats and sent them flying in all directions; a few died instantly, most swam for their lives.
"I don't think they need our help," Charlotte said, clutching at Raven's hand for support.
"I can't see - were those tiny little hurricanes? Precisely targeted hurricanes? What MacTaggert saw, but much bigger!"
"Yes! Amazing! Oh, Raven, I wish the telepath would let me talk to them!"
Raven pulled Charlotte towards a small motorised dinghy tied to a moored yacht. "Come on, let's go to them before they make a break for it. Stay in touch, and maybe you'll be able to get through when they're not being attacked."
They both climbed down into the dinghy. Charlotte quickly pulled the operating instructions from a woman asleep on the yacht then fed them to Raven. It wasn't the first time they'd learned a skill that way, and Charlotte needed to concentrate on trying to reach the telepath. Another telepath! Amazing!
*I'm a friend! A friend!* Charlotte continued to broadcast at the yacht as Raven guided them towards it. The Coast Guard didn't seem to be launching any further attacks, but nor had the Caspartina tried to flee. Charlotte was beginning to understand how the diamond shield worked - it was a very clever skewing of perspective that wouldn't take much effort at all - and although she still couldn't sense the telepath, she could feel the other two minds on the boat. One was a young woman, alert and focused; the other was an older woman brimming with amusement and confidence, presumably Miss Shaw. Of the people MacTaggert had seen, that left only the red-skinned woman and the young blond man.
Raven turned the boat so fast that Charlotte nearly fell out, and landed in a heap in the bottom of the dinghy. "Raven, what-"
"Look with your eyes, Charlotte!"
Blinking away her telepathic focus, Charlotte looked up to see a massive anchor poised above the boat, the chain swaying behind it. A moment later it plunged into the yacht, dragging through it in a massive swathe of destruction. Debris rained from the vessel on both sides, and Raven quickly piloted them a little further away for safety.
"That's not the CIA," Charlotte gasped, "That's another mutant! How many of us are there?"
Raven cheered, his voice barely audible as the anchor chain made another violent pass through the yacht. Splintered wood flew everywhere, warped metal splashing after it. "You always said there could be hundreds of us!"
Charlotte crouched down in the dinghy and tried to reach the telepath again. For a second the diamond shield dropped and Charlotte managed to yell, clumsy as she hadn't been for a decade, *My name's Charlotte! I'm a friend!* Something else cut them off completely and Charlotte couldn't feel the three people from the yacht any more. Not far away there was another mind, burning with anger and murderous determination. It was a woman and her mind was totally unshielded, absolutely focused on the anchor chain, and Charlotte could feel her violent emotion as if she were being stabbed with it.
"Are you okay?" Raven leaned forward to put a hand on Charlotte's shoulder. "Charlotte? You look terrible."
"The other mutant is in the water. She hates, she hates so much, I can't - "
Raven gave her a hard shake. "Let go. You're too close."
"She's tired, Raven, the anchor was too much - oh!" Charlotte pulled away, then, in sheer surprise. "There's a submarine! That's where they all went!"
"Now there's a submarine? Charlotte, I think these people are capable of looking after themselves against the CIA. We should get out of here." Raven turned their small boat towards the dock.
Charlotte put her fingers to her temple again, still staying low in the boat. "Wait, wait! The woman in the water - she's trying to stop the submarine. It's pulling her under, Raven, she's going to drown!" She got to her feet and stripped down to her bathing suit, fully intending to dive into the water.
"Sit down, Charlotte! If you jump in now you'll have to swim through all that debris and you'll be too late." Raven steered their dinghy around the worst of the wreckage.
Charlotte obeyed, leaning far forward as if she could make them go faster, feeling the woman's energy draining away as her strength and her air ran out. "You're saying that to stop me going after her."
"No, Charlotte, I'm saying that because I don't want you to die. And I need you to stop the Coast Guard seeing us. Now link to me and show me where to go."
"Oh, of course!" It was easy for Charlotte to split her attention: the woman's focus was so strong, even now, that Charlotte couldn't lose her if she tried. With a little time to rest, Charlotte probed for the woman's name, so she could call out to her, perhaps break her intense concentration and make her release the submarine before she went to the bottom of the ocean with it.
Names were usually easy to grab. People often introduce themselves; their family and friends and workmates address them; people sign documents and cheques and letters; people are alert to their own name in speech or text. This woman didn't have this familiar detritus at all, but, fortunately for Charlotte, someone had recently called her by her name. Charlotte had no trouble skimming the immediate and terrifying memory out of the woman's head - she was Erika Lehnsherr. Hearing her own name was so overwhelming and unfamiliar to her that Charlotte held on a moment longer in fascination and saw that Erika's name was, in fact, strongly connected to something else, a distinct memory.
There is a girl in a cellar, with sunlight peeping through the slats of the floor above. She is hungry, as usual. She and her parents have written their names in the dirt floor with a stick, and now her mother tells her to scrub out the names with her foot. They are Alois, Edyta and Erika now, names and papers that might buy them precious time. Erika destroys out the old names with such determination that Charlotte can't see what they were.
"It will help you remember," says Mama, says Edie, speaking German as she always does now.
"Charlotte! Can you still find her!" Raven had to yell because the Coast Guard now had a helicopter in the air. The spotlight was sweeping the sea in search of the submarine, but they weren't going to find it: it was completely submerged, and so was Erika.
"Yes! Stay here, I'm going in to get her!" Charlotte stepped off the side of the dinghy and into the water. She wasn't the most athletic of women, but when her boarding school had forced them to choose a sport, the only one available that didn't involve teamwork - and thus too many chances for telepathic accidents - was swimming. Four years of ploughing up and down the length of an icy salt-water pool every morning stood her in good stead now. She cut easily through the water, making straight for Erika's location: even as Erika's mind started to shut down, her rage was a beacon. Once Charlotte dove beneath the water, she could hear the submarine groaning as it pulled away, dragging Erika with it by her outstretched hands. The woman's strength was astonishing: she was actually slowing down a submarine.
Charlotte shook her head. She didn't have time to be amazed. She grabbed Erika around the shoulders, as she had been taught in school, because drowning people were often irrational and would fight their rescuers. *You can't,* she projected. *You'll drown.*
Erika didn't fight back: instead she kept her hands pointed towards the submarine, that intense focus only slightly hindered by Charlotte's desperate attempt at rescue.
*You have to let go. I know what this means to you, but you're going to die. Please, Erika, let go.*
She didn't know what made Erika release the submarine - if it was the oxygen deprivation, the surprise of telepathic speech, or Erika's strength running out - but Charlotte was fairly sure that it wasn't her persuasive skills that did it. As soon as she let go Charlotte could propel the two of them upwards with strong kicks, holding Erika against her body with both arms.
Erika didn't resist until they made it to the surface, where after a few huge breaths she immediately shook Charlotte off. "Who are you?" she shouted, her wet hair clinging to her face.
"I'm Charlotte Xavier; I'm like you." Charlotte looked around for Raven, and quickly found him. *Raven! We're here! We're okay!*
*Never do that again!* Raven snapped, but his relief was palpable through his anger. *I'm not far, stay there.*
Erika wasn't trying to get away, but looking at Charlotte in stunned amazement. "You were in my head."
"I'm like you, Erika."
"I thought I was alone." She sounded Irish, of all things, though Charlotte had no idea what she had expected.
Charlotte grinned so wide that salt water splashes into her mouth. "You're not alone."
Erika just stared. The dinghy appeared out of the darkness, puttering along slowly amid the debris - the Coast Guard vessel had moved on, and the men in the water seemed to have got themselves out - and it was a mark of how astonished Erika was that she looked to Charlotte for a cue.
"Don't worry, that's my sibling, Raven." Charlotte didn't bother with the usual gender obfuscation. Here was another mutant: they didn't need to hide.
Raven cut the engine and Erika paddled slowly to the dinghy, but was too weak to pull herself over the side. The remnants of Charlotte's mental link showed her that Erika was so exhausted that she could barely move her limbs.
*Raven, please help her.*
If Erika thought it was odd that a woman had the physical strength to drag another tall, athletic woman from the water and into the boat, she certainly didn't show it. She nodded a thank you and slumped in a heap. Raven reached down and gave Charlotte a hand up, too, and they set off for the docks.
Erika's arms and legs gave way like cheap elastic, and her lungs burned. Schmidt had been there, right in front of her, and all she'd done was laugh. If there were more people with Erika's abilities, of course Schmidt would have found them and trained them. It made sense: the boy on the boat who had glared at Erika and dragged old horror and pain into the present must be a newer project. Schmidt had openly admitted she was only a Nazi for convenience's sake; here she was continuing her work in America. That didn't explain the two attractive young women in bathing suits who had rescued Erika from the water. Charlotte Xavier had pulled Erika away from the submarine, but even Erika could see that she hadn't been strong enough to stop Schmidt. It wasn't as if Charlotte had saved Schmidt from Erika - quite the opposite, really.
Her head hurt. Minutes ago, everything had been so clear. Erika needed to kill Schmidt and Schmidt was there for the killing. Without Charlotte, she would have died, and while part of her was angry that Charlotte had turned her from her path as easily as Erika would turn a bullet, another, more familiar, part was even angrier at Schmidt for being alive, and Erika's death would have meant nothing without Schmidt's to go with it.
"Thank you," she rasped, her throat sore.
Charlotte threw an arm around Erika's shoulders, utterly familiar, and offered her a steel flask of water. "Here. Drink. You've had a long night."
Erika did, though she shrugged out of Charlotte's embrace. Charlotte looked a little hurt, but covered it well. She was a very pretty woman, even in a sagging bathing suit with her hair soaking wet and clinging to her shoulders; Erika couldn't work out why she spoke with an English accent and her sibling sounded American, but she couldn't work out much about these two. It didn't seem to matter whether she spoke out loud or not, because Charlotte answered her anyway.
"Oh, I spent my childhood in Britain, then we came back to America during the war - my father was American, you see. That's when I found Raven, and even though we moved to Britain again later, he never lost the accent."
"You mean you never lost your accent," Raven snapped, fondly. "Where are you from, Erika?"
Erika wasn't sure why Charlotte referred to Raven as "he", but that was hardly the most unusual thing about them. "Uh, I was born in Germany, but I learned English in Ireland."
"That makes sense," Charlotte laughed. "And yes, Raven is one of us. A mutant."
"Mutant." Erika rolled the word around in her mind. "We're mutants."
"Oh, don't get Charlotte started. She's got a doctorate in genetics and she can go on for hours and hours and hours and…"
"What can you do?" Erika interrupted, astonished by Raven's new revelation: despite being like Erika, Charlotte was not only not an outcast but a highly educated woman.
"Go on, show her!" Charlotte grinned.
Raven shimmered blue, then instead of a handsome blonde woman, the American President, Kennedy, was steering their boat. He was wearing an expensive navy blue suit rather than a two-piece bathing suit, and was perfectly dressed down to the laces on his shoes.
Erika somehow summoned the energy to lean forward and touch the leg of Raven's pants. They felt exactly like a good wool cloth. "That's astounding. Raven, forgive me, I have never seen anyone so amazing."
Kennedy blushed, and the blue flicker appeared again, then the blonde woman in the hot pink bathing suit was there again. "Thanks. That's not usually the reaction I expect." Another flicker of blue, and Raven was a slim blue-skinned man with dark red hair and bright yellow eyes. He had delicate patches of scales on his face and body, and larger scales protecting his chest and genitals. He looked more uncertain now.
Erika couldn't help but smile in delight, a broad smile that she hadn't felt since the last time she killed a Nazi and watched him bleed out onto the floor. "You're so beautiful! I didn't know there were more people like us! But maybe we're all hiding away, alone." She looked Raven up and down in honest amazement: the ability to change himself made Erika both thrilled and slightly envious, all at once. She was more envious that Charlotte and Raven had had each other. That, more than anything, was telling her to stay with them for the moment. It was easier than thinking that she was going to have to start her hunt all over again with new parameters, easier than thinking that she had nowhere useful to go.
Charlotte patted Erika's shoulder. "It hasn't been all sunshine and roses: when I said that I found Raven, I really meant it. He was a starving child and broke into our kitchen."
Erika thought she could get to enjoy this half-spoken conversation, cutting out the awkwardness of speech and the irritatingly inaccurate overlaps of her languages. "I'm glad he found you."
This must have been the right thing to say, because Raven's wariness immediately vanished, and Charlotte, to Erika's surprise, threw her arms around Erika. She was utterly bewildered by these strange siblings and the bizarre new world she found herself in, but they were far more scared of her judgement than she was of their abilities. Erika knew she was a monster, but now she could think something that she hadn't thought since she was a child: perhaps it was what Schmidt had done to her that made her one, not something inherent in who she was.
Erika felt a little stronger now, and sat up straight, carefully extricating herself from Charlotte's hug. That was alarming, that Charlotte would make herself so utterly vulnerable to someone she had seen trying to kill people; it meant that Charlotte was either justifiably confident in her abilities or, alternatively, had never yet met a real challenge. Erika tended to think the latter.
"Miss Xavier, why were you here?" Best to get straight to the point, since Charlotte could read her mind.
"We were looking for, well, not you in particular, but other mutants. And it's Charlotte, please."
Raven interrupted. "The CIA tried to recruit Charlotte as an expert on mutants - they've seen some of Miss Shaw's people. It didn't go well, but we still wanted to find other people who were mutants, so we came down here to find Miss Shaw and the others."
"Who are they? There was a boy who attacked me with my own memories."
"He must be the telepath that was blocking me." Charlotte flicked an image to Erika, of Frau Doktor Schmidt in a neat suit, looking for all the world like someone's wealthy aunt. "That's Miss Shaw."
Erika grabbed Charlotte's arm, harder than she intended, twisting the skin, and Charlotte squeaked in surprise.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you. Whatever name she is using now, she is a very dangerous person and you must stay away from her. I knew her as Frau Doktor Schmidt, in Germany. She knows about mutants - she is fascinated by us - and she makes people into weapons."
Charlotte was staring at Erika in horror. "Oh, God, what did she do to you?"
"Charlotte, are you okay?" Raven brought the dinghy into dock. "Charlotte?"
Erika was starting to understand the feeling of Charlotte in her mind. It was oddly companionable, much the same as being in a room with someone else while you both went about your own business. Nonetheless, she didn't want Charlotte rifling through her life: she could see that Charlotte trusted her, but she did not entirely trust Charlotte. That other telepath had let Erika go when a very strong memory - her mother's death - had come up. Instead of focusing on that, Erika focused on the feel of the anchor crashing through Schmidt's boat, the relentless joy she had felt at hurting Schmidt.
"You're, ah, a very quick learner." Charlotte sat back, her face relaxing again. "I'm sorry to intrude on your mind. Your thoughts are very strong, very focused."
Raven had tied the dinghy to a yacht and climbed up a short ladder to the dock. "She says that to all the girls, Erika."
"Stay away from Shaw, Charlotte. She is not your friend."