It starts that morning at the stop outside South Station, when Charles gets a faceful of exhaust from the departing bus. The driver honks the horn as he lurches out into traffic and Charles, heaving for breath and half-mad with adrenaline, hears the cheerful fuck you as clearly as if the driver had spoken it out loud. The faces of his former fellow passengers, gazing at him dispassionately from behind the windows (except for one little shit who flat-out smirks at him), don't help. Only etiquette and the sting of conscience keep him from ordering the driver to drive off the road; they do not, however, keep him from sending the little shit a heartfelt subliminal suggestion that one day his penis will fall off.
"Bugger, bugger, fuck, and shit."
Cursing can't change the fact that he's missed his train by ten minutes, a victim of timetables that lied and a bus driver who sloshed over at the edges with a hangover. Charles makes himself breathe deeply and reach for the sort of calm associated with adult and respectable people. Unfortunately, frustration puts cracks in the wall and he catches flickers of what the people around him see: a disheveled, red-faced young man with sweat sticking his hair to his forehead gazing with a mixture of despair and fury after the vanishing back end of a bus. He holds a leather satchel and a suitcase and wears a blazer too heavy for an early-summer Boston day, and altogether looks dismayed and overheated and forlorn. The porter can't decide whether or not to pity him; the cluster of teenagers nearby have decided against pity altogether and are unanimous in their contempt.
"Shit," Charles says again, but more feebly this time.
An approach to the information booth inside the station brings Charles the intelligence of two things: that the next train to New York is booked solid, and that the one following is booked solid too. For that matter – the clerk imparts this with a certain degree of satisfaction – they're sold out for the rest of the day.
"You could try the Greyhound," the clerk adds, indifferent to Charles's suffering. She favors him with a glance that unites overwhelming scorn and disinterest; the air around her radiates with it and Charles closes himself off hastily. "Or you could rent a car."
"It's the principle of the thing," Charles mutters as he picks up his now-useless ticket and stalks off. It's also the principle of living in a big city specifically for the purpose of not having to drive. His genius resides in areas other than behind the wheel.
Principle, bad luck, or whatever it is, has him standing in the blinding sun outside South Station, frowning in consternation at the line of traffic poking by. If he could get down to New York City by bus, he could maybe, by some miracle, catch a train that would have him in D.C. not long after dinner, or resign himself to a bus ride the rest of the way. He's not, Charles decides as he sorts himself out and begins the hunt for his wallet, above telepathically suggesting to someone that they give up their seat for him if the bus happens to be sold out.
He shuffles through the contents of his satchel, pushing aside pens, the metal puzzle he carries with him, keys, scraps of notepaper and, on the edge of panic, finally finds his wallet. After a minute of frustrated muttering and sifting through the ten thousand cards he's accumulated– student ID, state ID, library card, lab pass, museum passes – he finds a small, crumpled wad of bills that might get him onto a bus and to the conference, assuming he can find the energy to slog his way to the nearest stop. As he studies the money and considers the distance between Boston and D.C., Charles wonders if a chance to speak at the premiere conference in his discipline is actually worth it.
Temporarily at a loss, Charles sits down on one of the uncomfortable benches that litter the station's streetside entrance. A stray newspaper, blown along by the breeze of passing cars, catches against his foot and he considers it absently as he frets at a worn corner of a dollar bill. Withdrawals in Vietnam, unrest in Libya, another nuclear test by Russia, and in the United States protests over minority rights, protests over women's rights, mutant rights, the war; MIT and the surrounding campuses, out for the summer, still seethe with the same energy and uncertainty, and most of what Charles gets from people these days is a restlessness that crawls under his skin and stays there.
Distancing himself from it takes some work, enough that he almost wishes for the calm and quiet of his family's home. As he pulls back into himself, he catches the edge of someone's impatience, like a glimpse of something shocking in the corner of his eye. It's deliberate, targeted, and targeted, he realizes at him, projected as a silent look at me, look at me in the way someone thinks if they want a telepath to notice them.
He looks up.
"Need a ride?"
Charles is not about to use phrases like "knight in shining armor" to describe Erik Lehnsherr, because, first of all, Erik is not anything approaching knightly (you don't need to be a telepath to figure that out), and second, he's stretched lazily and indecently behind the wheel of a battered Mustang, disreputable himself in jeans and a t-shirt that, like the sprawl of Erik's body, is also indecent. Erik regards him from behind the obscurity of his sunglasses, a smirk playing around the edges of that extraordinary mouth as though he can't be bothered to hide it. Satisfaction rolls off him like the heat mirages off the Mustang's hood.
When Charles doesn't move, Erik gestures impatiently, a come here flicker of long fingers. Charles gets up and, after a suspicious pause, sidles closer, trying to sort out the emotion and sensation everyone – even people as closed-off as Erik Lehnsherr – bleeds out: that satisfaction, interest (utterly puzzling), anticipation, all of it like a shot of caffeine straight to Charles's heart. As a telepath, most people are open books to him if he wants them to be, but if Erik's a book, he's written in some code that Charles sometimes feels he should know, but can't quite decipher. He gives up trying and settles for staring narrowly at Erik, who stares right back.
"I missed my train," Charles says, to say anything. Erik nods, mouth flexing in something resembling sympathy.
"I'll give you a lift," Erik says, and inclines his head meaningfully at the empty passenger seat.
Part of him wants to seize on the offer like a drowning man latching onto a piece of driftwood. Or, Charles supposes, a drowning man latching onto a passing shark, because Erik's sudden smile is all tooth and fierce pleasure, recklessness in the margins. Charles tries to shrug off the sudden burst of interest and the seductive you know you want to that Erik doesn't even bother to smother under politer surface thoughts.
"I'm going to Washington," Charles reminds him.
Erik nods patiently.
"For the weekend."
"I know." Erik rolls his eyes and asks again, with deliberate emphasis this time, "Do you want a ride?"
One of the benefits of being a telepath is that other people rarely surprise him. Erik Lehnsherr, for reasons both infuriating and intriguing, is one of the few who can do it.
Charles has never met anyone who unnerves him in the way Erik's managed to, and they don't even know each other all that well. And apparently Charles is capable of surprising himself; without consciously willing it, he has his briefcase and suitcase stuffed into the backseat and, after shoving a leather jacket across the seat, has himself installed next to Erik. Erik favors him with his terrifying grin before turning his attention back to the road and, with a howl of engine, explodes into traffic.
"Do you like The Doors?" Erik asks, and without waiting for Charles's answer flicks the radio on and begins to sing.
Raven had left for California and school two weeks back, her departure mixed in with and masked by the chaos of their moving. But now that he was installed in his new flat, he ached with loneliness. Raven had been with him through everything, or at least everything important – London, their father's death, their mother's remarriage – and not having her here… it was selfish, he knew, but he couldn't help reaching for her.
His new roommate helped a little. Moira specialized in technology, mutagenesis, and public policy, and her mind was something he found he could lean against, practical and well-ordered, a little playfulness and not much fear. Her aunt had been one of the agents who'd worked with the first mutants in the covert programs against the Soviets in the forties and fifties, she'd told him, and she hadn't stood for any of the fear or prejudice. Moira seemed ready to accept him for his own sake, unlike MIT, which had accepted him because academic institutions were quick to snap up anyone who might improve their reputation, mutant or not. All she asked was privacy, which basic decency said she should get anyway, and if Charles had girlfriends over to keep it down, and do his share of the chores.
She also strong-armed him into going to the new graduate student mixer, a terribly misguided attempt at inter-departmental socialization, Charles thought. Moira's mention of free alcohol roped him in, although he made a show of having too much work, even before the semester started.
The mixer was, as predicted, an exercise in awkwardness. A clutch of humanities students huddled in the corner, the physicists had taken over the table with the alcohol, and the chemistry, biology, and engineering students formed their own islands here and there in the gloom of the student center. Charles registered bits of conversation, stray thoughts, patchouli and incense and someone's terrible cologne, unmistakable interest when most of the guys realized Moira was gorgeous, and one of a handful of women in the room. Moira rolled her eyes – you didn't need to be a telepath to figure out what went through a twenty-something man's head – and made for the beer.
Over in another corner, aloof and disinterested, was Erik Lehnsherr, although Charles didn't know it at the time. He caught Charles's eye like sudden movement, a tug on the sleeve of his awareness, and, caught, Charles couldn't help but look.
That chance meeting four years ago is the prequel to the awkwardness that is sitting next to Erik Lehnsherr, watching as he drives with one hand while levitating and weaving a coin through the fingers of the other. Charles thinks about pointing out safe driving practice, but gratitude and an awareness of the hypocrisy that would be him pointing out the bad driving habits of others keeps his mouth shut. Next to him, Erik still grins and sings, a bit more softly now, along to Johnny Cash. In front of them, the traffic crawls slowly southward into New York.
"Why," Charles ventures, "are you doing this?"
Erik shrugs elegantly. "No particular reason. It seemed like the thing to do." He slants a look at Charles from behind his sunglasses. "I don't suppose you could…"
"I could what?" Charles can't pick apart what he's getting from Erik, a knotty thread of interest, curiosity, mockery, contentment of all things, with the two of them stuck on I-95 and in the fringes of the Bronx.
"You know." Erik wiggles his fingers, his very long, capable fingers, in a vague gesture next to his forehead. "Move things along?"
"You mean like…" Erik smirks and, okay, he does mean like "use your telepathy to tell people to get out of our way." Charles tries to calculate exactly how many rules, written and unwritten, this sort of thing will break. "I could get arrested," he hisses, when the count reaches northward of fifteen – reckless use of powers, unlicensed use of telepathy without consent, probably aiding and abetting because Erik's likely got something illegal in the trunk, he could go on. When his very salient point doesn't dent Erik's grin, he adds, "You could get arrested," and that doesn't seem to help, either.
"I'm sure you could scan the area and work out if there are any telepaths around lying in wait to report us," Erik says lazily. "Also, do you want to get to D.C. today or tomorrow?"
He has a point. The interior of the Mustang is mercilessly hot, and smells like smoke and Erik – leather and sweat and the coffee they'd ended up splitting after Erik had spilled his– and it's still hours until D.C. Weeks, with the traffic.
"Okay," he says, and deliberately ignores the triumph that's coming off Erik in waves as he concentrates.
He reaches out with his power, and sweet god it's a rush after months and months of having to throttle himself back and keep to the rules MIT sets for students "with extra abilities." It's like flexing a muscle, stretching into movement after being still for years; it hurts and it's wonderful, and he's vaguely aware he's grinning madly, helpless, disbelieving laughter pulled from him because it's perfect. He wants to wander off into the labyrinth of the city, the minds buzzing down the streets and their energy not masked in the least by brick or concrete or glass, or even the deep, deep down of the subways. The effort is bringing himself back to the long, winding road in front of him, and organizing the thoughts of a hundred drivers to, please, move over.
It works. Next to him, Erik shines with awe and victory and pleasure as he watches the cars and trucks, one by one, file slowly into the driving lane. A tractor-trailer creeping up the entrance ramp stops cooperatively, long enough to let Erik ease the Mustang by and change lanes, and then the reflective surface of the highway stretches out in front of them – "Twenty miles," Charles says hoarsely, even though his effective range is more than ten times that – there are a lot of minds jammed into two lanes of interstate, and he's lamentably out of practice.
Erik shoves a canteen of water at him. At least, Charles assumes it's water – possibly not a safe bet with Erik – but he's thirsty enough not to take a first careful sip. It is water, thank god, and hell if it tastes metallic and is almost as warm as the interior of the car. As Erik picks up speed, the breeze freshens, still hot and stinking of diesel, but it dries the worst of the sweat. Almost idly, he searches ahead, quietly ordering traffic, watching absently as the drivers in the rearview begin to drift back into the passing lane.
Looking back over his shoulder, Erik laughs. His grin is genuinely terrifying, unadulterated pleasure in Charles, Charles and what he's done, and he's not even bothering to hide it.
Charles quickly comes back to himself, and the world closes in again and goes silent. Wordlessly, he thrusts the canteen back at Erik, who refuses to take it.
"You'll need to keep this up until traffic clears," Erik says. He's turned the radio down a bit, Charles realizes. Erik continues, "I'd do it myself, but people tend to notice when their cars don't do what they tell them to."
"Oh, so at least I'm breaking the law wisely," Charles says sarcastically. "Cool."
Erik laughs his lovely, dangerous laugh. God, lovely. For a moment, Charles wonders if he's managed to trip himself out, using his powers like this, too much too soon.
"I'm pretty sure you signed the same agreement I did," Charles snaps, "you know, the one where we agree to abide by – "
"'Regulations intended to promote the welfare of all student groups at MIT, and to preserve the image and integrity of MIT as an institute of advanced learning,'" Erik says with a deliberate and singsong mockery. "Bullshit."
"Do you want the Supreme Court to reverse its decision on the MRA? Because this – "
"No, of course not," Erik growls. The Mustang's engine roars as he stomps on the gas. Traffic starts to thicken again, and before, Jesus, before he knows what he's doing, he directs it all into the other lane, easier this time. Erik snickers quietly, and he's still talking about why should we suppress who we are? and if you think this existence should be the status quo, then you are seriously fucking stupid, but his thoughts run louder than the words do, a lifetime of frustration and anger like thorns.
It reminds Charles of Raven, who can legally go out as blue-skinned and yellow-eyed as she wants, but has to put up with a ton of shit if she does. It's why she went to Berkeley in the first place; most mutants with "unconventional" or visible mutations head out there, or to Iowa, or any one of the more radical campuses. "Your mom and dad wanted me to be someone I'm not," she'd said when she'd showed him her acceptance letter, you wanted me to be someone I'm not, and it hurts thinking about that. She'd been right, of course, because Raven could understand people in a way Charles sometimes can't.
"Why don't you go out west, then?" he asks.
Erik shrugs. He's staring straight ahead, coaxing the Mustang to speeds that are certainly illegal (Charles sends a few suggestions to lurking cops that they not notice any of this), fingers absently rubbing the leather of the wheel.
"I've been offered a predoc at the Berkeley Lab," he says almost casually. "A chance to work on the design for a new cyclotron. I might go."
Charles tries not to wonder why the announcement feels like Erik's punched him right under the ribcage. "Nice," he says.
"Who's the cat over there?" One of Moira's friends – human, technology and policy like Moira, but unlike Moira bland and white-bread – pointed to the tall guy lurking in the corner. With a face like that, Charles couldn't quite believe there weren't at least a few girls in orbit around him, a face whose geometry was hawkish angles with not much to soften them, lean body, the sort of dramatic good looks Charles associated with movie stars. There was interest, Charles could sense that much, but no one strayed close, or if they did, they didn't stay very long.
Intrigued, but not enough to bend the rules – at least, not this soon – Charles settled into a superficially bored silence and, under the guise of being preoccupied with his drink, listened to the speculation. "Genetics and psychodynamics," he'd mumbled when the white-bread friend asked what it was that he did, and "Roommates," when another one of Moira's friends, Levine, asked how they knew each other. The beer, weak and warm and thoroughly offensive, didn't loosen him up enough to go roaming around people's minds and learn how to draw them out and dispel the stiffness.
When he'd been younger and more optimistic about these things, he'd found friendliness smoothed down the spikes of awkwardness and made others want to reach out to him and be friends in turn. But adults aren't kids, and most of the time Charles found there wasn't much of a point in trying to make friends when people got skittish around telepaths. Legislation was one thing, people actually accepting what he was – that was something else altogether.
For most of his life, his only friend had been Raven. He'd been okay with that, for the most part.
They stop for lunch at a diner in New Jersey, its exterior shiny white enamel and metal and its interior crowded and sticky with years of grease fires and ketchup. The booths are built for children, and certainly not for people like Erik, whose mile-long legs will either obstruct the aisle or get tangled up with Charles's. Charles is about to gnaw his own hand off with desperation, and doesn't care that he has to suggest one pair of diners ahead of them in line go elsewhere.
The waitress needs a year, or so it seems, to get their order out to them: iced tea, double bacon cheeseburger, extra French fries, and an extra-large chocolate shake, and that's just Charles's.
"Damn," Erik says.
You didn't try to tell ten thousand people what to do, he tells Erik crossly, and figures if Erik has a problem with someone talking directly into his head, too bad for him. For himself, Charles is too busy trying to inhale his cheeseburger whole. Erik watches him, sardonic curl to the corner of his mouth.
"You have eaten this week, right honey?" the waitress asks when she stops by to refill their iced tea. Charles, overstimulated by the drive, can't help but read the bored-amused-concerned-god-my-feet-hurt she exudes along with her strange perfume of sweat, grease, and rosewater. The other patrons, mostly business people, some vacationers headed for the shore, mostly devote themselves to hunger, their thoughts an annoying song played at the edge of his hearing.
Two people are bitching quietly about recent "pro-mutant" legislation. One of them is sincerely a bigot who thinks the government should ship mutants off to Genosha and not be requiring all public schools to offer special "ability-oriented" classes, because it's bad enough schools have to let in the black kids. The other one nods along, because it's easier to nod along than tell an asshole to shut up.
"You should do something about that," Erik says, and adds speculatively, "maybe I will."
Charles has a good line of sight to the bigot, and he'd love to implant some small, festering suggestion – that he's been eating piss instead of chicken soup, that his wife is about to leave him in favor of his friend (a fear already present, but one Charles idly toys with exploiting) – but Erik's already headed down the path of vengeance.
"Does he have a car here?" Erik asks quietly, and Charles, without thinking much, filches the information from the bigot's brain and says, "Red Fairlane, second from the end."
He pretends to be absorbed in his cheeseburger (which is not nearly big enough; he needs another) and Erik pretends to be absorbed in his club sandwich, and they both pretend not to notice the red Fairlane easing slowly back from its parking space, rolling across the car park, and out into Route 1. Erik doesn't even bother looking up at the screech of brakes and metal grinding together shrilly. Charles has to look up, though, hoping Erik hasn't brought an innocent person to disaster for the sake of revenge.
The Fairlane cradles a lamppost in its dented roof, its windshield concave and spiderwebbed with broken glass. Consternated drivers try to edge around it; Charles can see the silhouettes of their heads as they turn to look. The rest of the diners in the Premium are on their feet, peering out the window, and the commotion distracts the bigot from his rant enough to look up.
"My car!" the bigot yelps, scrambling to his feet. Chicken soup goes everywhere, including all over his friend. "Son of a bitch, my car!"
"There," Erik says calmly. He offers Charles a beatific smile and steals a French fry.
After the bigot leaves to lament over the corpse of the Fairlane, the diner settles down to normal. Maybe more amusement this time, and the collective shadenfreude is an odd cool-warm glow as distracting as the chaos. The waitress brings another chocolate shake (for Charles) and more of her preoccupation and disbelief – "Where are you putting all of this, dear?" – and Charles suddenly has a headache. He thanks her with a strained expression and as much politeness as he can muster, and quietly asks for her to get the check.
Focusing on Erik helps. He sort of hates and sort of loves that it does, because Erik's always drawn his attention like… well, like a magnet, ever since that stupid party when Charles had sensed his power without any kind of effort. His thoughts are something else altogether, emotion cool on top, like still water, something to rest on even though something dangerous – compelling –stirs underneath.
"Are you going to be done eating any time this week?" Erik asks. He's appropriated Charles's cigarettes, Pall Mall, British label? is the thought, and Erik's mouth curves with amusement. "How terribly Oxfordian of you." Erik's imitation of Charles's accent is blisteringly accurate. A lighter drifts up from the pocket of his ever-present leather jacket, and in a moment Erik's drawing a mouthful of smoke, lips curved neatly around the cigarette, and expelling a satisfied breath.
"So," Charles asks as he picks his way through the few French fries Erik hasn't stolen, "I know I've asked, but why, exactly, are you here? I mean," he adds, before Erik can say something smartassed, like Do you mean existentially?, "I'm pretty sure it's not charity. Are you running drugs or something? Taking over the government?"
Erik's laugh is almost a purr. "You could just…" he does the wiggly fingers again, "and find out. You could know everything about me." He lingers, beautifully, on the everything.
He could, Charles knows, and that's the temptation that hasn't run its course in almost four years.
In September 1950, Dr. Brian Xavier was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify on the presence of suspected Communists in Alamagordo and at Columbia University. The following year, on account of his affiliation with Alamagordo and suspected Communists there, a federal court called him to testify in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
"Among the files decrypted by the Signals Intelligence Service there is a reference to 'the exploitation of posthuman or enhanced-human soldiers at Alamagordo as key to American security objectives,'" the Justice Department attorney said. "Would you know anything about that?"
"I'm a nuclear physicist," Dr. Xavier said irritably. "Of course not."
The next year, an unnamed source approached the Daily Bugle with extensive information on a secret government program engaged in designing the posthuman and enhanced-human soldiers Brian Xavier denied knowing about. Almost casually, he dropped in a reference to the slaughter of three hundred African-American soldiers at Camp Cathcart, the casualties of the military's failed experiments. The deaths of three hundred black soldiers vaguely disturbed the public, but the suggestion that the government might be perpetrating disturbing acts on young white men – and the suggestion that the Soviets were probably doing the same – triggered a wave of paranoia and protests even from the most staunch supporters of the war in Korea. Appeals to patriotism couldn't quite stem the tide, and the public demanded answers.
Two weeks before he was scheduled to meet privately with Senator McCarthy to discuss the leak, Brian Xavier died in an explosion at his facility in Alamagordo. A week later, a courier delivered his files to the same reporter who had broken the Cathcart scandal, and the truth about posthumans, as J. Jonah Jameson wrote, "went public."
Occasionally, Charles wonders what his life would have been like if no one – not his father, not the public, certainly not the damned government– had known about mutants, what it would have been like to have his powers to himself. When he'd been younger, he and Raven would pretend they were king and queen of a whole realm of people like them, or sometimes the carriers of a mystical secret who had to evade the machinations of evil and shadowy figures, usually represented by the household staff and Charles's mother.
"Does it matter if people do know?" Erik asks impatiently. He gestures around them – at the moment, the people concerned are crossing from New Jersey into Delaware – and snorts. "Why should you care what they think of your powers, or how you use them? Is that the only difference, what people think?"
"For a telepath, it's a big difference," Charles retorts. "Imagine people looking at you like a freak, or like you're unnatural, every time you tell them what you are."
"I'm Jewish," Erik tells him. "I know a bit about that."
"Now imagine you can hear and feel them thinking it."
"You try too hard to be like everyone else," Erik says at last, after a pause that includes Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Charles mentally shuffling a slow driver into another lane. "That's all the damned Society talks about, is how to integrate."
Personally, Charles finds MIT's Society for Mutant Graduate Students to be unbearably ridiculous and twee. They have embarrassing T-shirts – "Mutant/Posthuman and Proud!" – and spend most of their time arguing the semantics of calling themselves mutants or posthumans and complaining about work. No one uses their powers or talks about them much, or did, the one meeting Charles went to.
"I suppose if you were in charge you'd stage a coup and take over the administration," Charles laughs.
"I would," Erik says reflectively. "Although, why stop there?" He drums his fingers against the wheel in time to a blistering Hendrix solo, "Voodoo Child," and Charles nods his head along absently to the beat, only half paying attention to whatever megalomania is coming out of Erik's face. Erik pushes it at him quietly, though, his thoughts softly persuasive, you know why they regulate us, why they control us, you of all people should know, and why let them do it? Why let them when you can change their minds?
The pounding in Charles's head keeps time with the long, growling throb of the Mustang's engine. He's hot, far too full from lunch, his shirt sticking to him in ways that make him squirm, he's cultivating a sunburn on his right arm, and Erik's interrogation pushes him past his usual patience.
"Can we please just fuck off and not talk about this?" Charles rolls his eyes and pays for it with a knifepoint of pain in his temple. "Seriously, is it that important?"
"I've had relatives die for what they are," Erik says chillingly. "My father sacrificed himself so my mother could take me and get on a boat to Sweden. Don't…" He trails off, and he must have caught the look on Charles's face, or maybe Charles – shit, he's projecting, which isn't bad but it's sloppy as hell, regret and I shouldn't have said that and he finds himself babbling about his bitching death headache, and he gets it, he gets it, but he can't – "Later," he says to Erik's angry-sad-confused expression. "I know it's important."
"Go to sleep," Erik says curtly, and turns glowering back to the road. "I'll wake you if I need traffic taken care of. Or if the police stop us."
"We're okay," Charles tells him. The nearest cop interested in speeders is ten miles away. The sun is potent on his face, the overwarm stretch between his neck and collar bones, and the exhaustion is somewhere between the awful kind – he hadn't counted on a mutant rights conversation with Erik fucking Lehnsherr – and the good kind – doing what he's made to do, what he's supposed to do.
Drowsily, he supposes Erik's right. The conclusion slips through his fingers and he thinks about chasing it, but heads down into sleep instead.