Erik squinted through the wind-shield as they passed another building, the heat of the sun falling on his face as they moved from a bar of chilly shadow into dazzling light.
They were in the black mustang, crawling along a side-street in DC: him at the wheel; Raven, an unusual addition sprawled across the back seat like a queen; and Charles in the front passenger seat next to him, in his navy-blue peacoat and fingerless gloves.
It was a cold day, with a bite of frost in the air, and to Erik the temperatures worked on the car like a giant fist, slowly squeezing. On the outside the metals contracted and shrank, becoming brittle, but under the hood they expanded from the friction and the heat - the engine itself he saw as a single, ever-shifting mass, a teeming cloud of smaller parts all moving in sequence like a shoal of fish.
In contrast, Charles sat frozen still. When Erik glanced across at him to check for developments he took in the air of anticipation about his posture; the way he had his elbow propped up in the window sill and was leaning towards it, with two of his fingers nestled in the greying hair at his temple and his blue eyes glazed over and searching.
Kleiner Laufhund, Erik thought, wondering if Charles would hear him or if the beam of his gift were focused elsewhere.
They were just about to pass the mouth of an alleyway when Charles suddenly animated; threw out a hand to his bicep and cried:
‘There- there! Stopstopstop!’
He took a sharp right and they pulled into a long, broad-ish alley hemmed in on either side by towering warehouses. It was grimy and bleak, chilled by the blue shadows of the enclosing walls, with sheaves of old newspaper pinwheeling around in the traffic draught like drunken seabirds, and a sliver of street visible in the distance directly ahead where a silhouetted parking meter stood and silently judged them.
As he killed the engine Raven leaned forwards over the back of the front seat, to see.
'Is this it?' she asked, disappointment ringing in her voice. 'Charles, you sure we're in the right place?'
'Yes,' Charles said, as infuriatingly unforthcoming as only an older brother could be, and he pulled on his door handle to get out.
As they emerged from the car an attendant bustled up out of nowhere, droning: ‘Sir, you can’t park here-’
Erik dealt with him in his own special way, by waving his hand at the distant parking meter.
It exploded in a shower of coins, like a fruit-machine disgorging its payload, and he noticed that Charles failed to suppress a smirk as he stepped in to help, with another touch of his temple and a compelling mutter of 'Oh yes we jolly well can!’ The attendant - suddenly mysteriously blind to their presence - shot off to try and fix the amazing regurgitating meter.
Behind him, Erik heard Raven snort. He slowed, to allow her to draw level with him and Charles - who was now dawdling in front of the car hood, with his hands buried deep in his pockets and his feet stomping on the spot to keep warm.
'Tell me that wasn't our guy?’ Raven asked him as she slipped her hand into the crook of her brother's elbow, nodding at the hapless human.
Charles grinned and shook his head. ‘Oh no.’
Then he looked over, right on cue, and caught Erik's eye.
Slipping back into that familiar two-man groove - a tilt of his head in the direction of the open alleyway was all that was needed to communicate a feeling of let's go - and as they went Erik scoped out the litter-strewn terrain ahead, where their breath moved before them in clouds of pearly-white steam.
Nestled in between the vast phantom skeletons of plumbing, wiring, and structural metalwork which made up his mental-image of the buildings on either side, he could sense a tiny flyspeck collection of parts - eyelets and zippers - which signalled a human presence.
It was the detailing on a pair of bluejeans, up ahead, to the left.
Coins in the pockets.
Nickel-plated something. Harmonica?
Something out of place...
Again, just as they were about to stride past the entrance of another alley, a soft musical voice came from down at street-level:‘Hey man, got a quarter? ’ And Charles span on his heel, inadvertently pulling Raven around with him.
‘A quarter?’ He said (Erik could hear the smile in his voice). ‘I can offer you much more than that my friend!’
Erik turned back, but Raven - blessed with a sisterly impatience for her brother's little foibles - tutted and tried to tug Charles along.
‘Char-arles,’ she moaned in a sing-song voice. ‘Come on! We gotta find this guy.’
‘Ra-ay-ven,’ Charles replied, mimicking her childish tone. ‘We just have.’
He was smiling down at the floor.
Erik followed his gaze and saw-
There was no one there.
Over his shoulder, he raised an eyebrow at Raven, who looked like she was starting to fear for her brother's sanity.
Out loud, he said, ‘Charles, care to share?’
‘You can't see him,' Charles said, calmly. 'Because he's invisible... Isn't that right... Luke?'
Raven yelled and jumped backwards, yanking her hand out of Charles’ arm.
Erik looked back down with her, at the empty patch of ground, and all his breath left him in a laugh.
Because there was a man sitting there, right there in front of them, cross-legged on the freezing concrete floor. In his lap he was cradling a beat up powder-blue guitar, and Erik could feel the nickel frets and machine-heads and the bronze strings singing to him all along the neck.
So that's what felt out of place.
'Man, that is so cool! ’ Raven shrieked, beguiled by the transformation from nothing-to-something that he’d missed.
Erik looked again.
Judging by the state of his clothes, this 'Luke' person was living rough.
He was youngish - black, maybe in his late twenties or early thirties - stocky, muscled and square-jawed. Astonishingly handsome, even in the circumstances, with thick black tufts of overgrown beard on his cheeks, and a soft cloth cap on his head to cover the rest of his presumably equally dishevelled hair. The most remarkable thing about his appearance though (apart from the suddenness of it), was his eyes. They were a milky violet-blue colour, exactly the same shade as the peeling paint on his guitar, and they were currently tilted upwards at Charles with an expression of complete shock.
‘Good God!’ The man- the mutant -said.
Slowly, he propped up the guitar and pushed himself to his feet, using the rough brick surface of the wall at his back to support him, like he didn’t trust his legs to keep him up, and as soon as he was on his feet Charles pounced on him.
He looked so dazed he hardly seemed to feel it as his grubby hand was seized and shaken, with a genteel disregard for the dirt it must have been getting on Charles' glove.
He introduced himself with the customary self-assured murmur - ‘Charles Xavier' - and used the special, overly-familiar tone of voice; the one that caused mild panic as even total strangers racked their brains, trying to figure out where they knew him from.
Luke gazed down at Charles now with that familiar look of confusion on his face.
‘You can see me...’ he said, with a strange blankness to his voice, like awe. 'How?'
Charles launched into the standard evolution-of-a-single-celled-organism patter, and a shrewd suspicion grew in Erik's mind.
How long have you been telling Raven to keep her mutation hidden, he thought, gazing at the side of Charles' head. And the one time she manages to talk you into letting her tag along, you find a mutant whose only power is remaining invisible? What a coincidence...
Either Charles wasn’t listening or he didn't care to admit it.
‘We're all like you, Luke.’ He was saying.
This 'we' was their cue to perform as he gestured to each of them in turn.
‘This is my sister, Raven,' he said, ‘who can change her appearance-'
And Luke collapsed against the wall again with a cry as Raven’s scales shimmered, revealing another-him in a flicker of blue, then into her true form, and finally back to the innocuous cherubic blonde, smiling up at him.
‘And this is my friend, Erik-' a glance at him, vivid blue eyes checking in, ‘-who can control metal…'
Dutifully, Erik twirled his finger and summoned the harmonica and the string of coins he could sense lurking in Luke’s pocket.
Luke reacted instinctively - perhaps understandably - snatching for his money before it disappeared. But Erik ignored his pull, moved all the objects up to head-height and slowed their progress through the air for a moment, just to let him acclimatise himself to the impossible sight before his eyes.
The icy wind blew again through the alley, sending the newspapers flapping, and the harmonica hooted tunelessly as a stray thread of air wound its way through its insides, wheezing out a few mournful notes. It hung, with its tail of coins, suspended in mid-air in front of his face, each object revolving slowly and glinting in the light that slid along their sides, and Luke's violet eyes followed them all in wonder.
Then Erik snapped his fingers and sent the whole lot darting back down in a brilliant flash of silver, like a salmon leaping from a stream, to vanish into a pocket on Luke's other side.
And then the three of them launched into the 'mutant' pitch.
Charles addressed the genetics, the burgeoning sense of community, the importance of discretion. Erik was all on the side of brotherhood, pride, individuality, open rebellion. Raven pitched in on the joys of free self-expression, and her obvious delight in Luke’s powers was more effective than all of Erik’s dire warnings put together.
‘So now you know… ' Charles finished, with a dramatic flourish. ‘You’re not alone.'
And then, silence.
Hard to know how this one was going to take it.
Erik had seen a few different reactions by now. Fear, disgust, disbelief, scorn, even outright denial, (or, as in one case, an uninhibited cry of ‘you have got to be shitting me!?’ from that idiot Cassidy).
From a downtrodden black man cornered in an alleyway by three rich-looking white people, he expected fear or suspicion.
What he didn't expect was the half-agonised half-joyful cry that seemed to almost tear itself from Luke’s lips, or the way he pressed both his shaking fists to his mouth and then spread his hands up. Up to the miserable strip of grey which was all that was visible to him of the sky, his long eyelashes visible like the spokes of a star.
Even one who didn't believe in G-d any more could see who he was reaching out to.
Suddenly there were tears in Luke's violet eyes, and he was wringing Charles’ hand, hard enough to shake his whole arm.
‘Y-you,’ he stammered, laughing, ‘I- thank you- Goddamn!’
‘You're very welcome,' Charles said, his voice quavering too - both from the assault and from sympathetic laughter. ‘It's our pleasure.'
‘Goddamn!' Luke finished, almost like punctuation. ‘I got so many questions for you!' And finally allowed Charles to retract his hand.
By the time they had finished talking, the four of them had been standing in the alleyway so long that Erik’s fingers had started to go numb, and his partner's nose and cheeks had turned a rosy frost-pinched red.
‘And that,' Charles said, bringing Luke up to the present, ‘was when we came and found you.'
‘And uh... how'd you do that, anyway?' Luke said, frowning for the first time. ‘Y'know, find me and all? How d'you know I'm-?'
‘Ah, well, that's down to my power,’ Charles said, bouncing jauntily on the balls of his feet and somehow contriving to make the hands-stuffed-in-pockets stance seem casual, rather than cold-related.
‘Why? What's your power?' Luke asked with eyes the size of saucers - as Charles had obviously known he would.
'I...' Charles said, his little mouth twisted in a happy smirk ‘...can read minds.'
Show-off, Erik thought, sneaking a sideways glance and allowing a smile to curl at the corner of his mouth.
Luke’s reaction was exactly what it should’ve been:
‘Woah, man! You’re a telepath? Cool! Do me!’
Ever obliging, Charles extricated his hand from his pocket so he could hold it up to his temple.
‘Certainly!' he wiggled his fingers like a conjurer. ‘What would you like me to do?'
Luke threw his arms out expansively. ‘Anything!' he said. 'Look in my head! See who I am!'
Didn’t do anything.
Erik, watching Luke's face for any signs of telepathy, saw no change, and instead cut his eyes at Charles rather than his target.
He was standing with his fingers raised to his head, as normal, frowning at Luke, but other than that he wasn’t moving at all, and nothing was happening.
What was it?
Could it be, after all these mutants, that Charles was finally getting a little stage-fright?
Erik reached out and patted Charles’ shoulder-blade in what he hoped was a heartening way.
‘Go on, Charles.’
Raven looked around at her brother, too.
‘Yeah, go ahead!’ She murmured, encouraging him by nudging his side. ‘Show him.’
Charles ignored them both, or perhaps didn’t hear.
Instead he spoke to Luke, and there was a surprising note of warning in his voice.
‘Do you really mean that?’ He said. ‘You don’t mind me using my telepathy on you that way? Knowing everything about you - all your memories? All your secrets?’
Luke seemed genuinely taken aback.
‘Well- Yeah...’ He said, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘All of it. All that shit. Any time you want to rummage round my head, feel free. You're a telepath - you've got to be true to your mutant self, am I right?’
‘Hear hear,' Erik said.
On Charles’ other side Raven’s frown vanished in a laugh and she echoed him.
But Charles himself let out a noise like a cross between a laugh and a choked-off sob - when Erik really looked, he could see a tremor running through him, right from head to foot, and he didn't think it was because of the cold.
‘Thank you, Luke…' Charles said, this time in a genuinely warm voice, the goodwill flowing from him in waves, almost palpable. ‘You know, in all the years I've been alive, you're the first person who’s ever said that to me?' (Erik frowned) ‘Once they find out what I am, most people don't like me- er, being myself -around them...'
Now Erik actually blew out his breath in indignation.
He opened his mouth to ask Charles who these "people" were who wouldn't let him embrace his mutation, since he didn't know of any of them - and other than himself and Raven and the other mutants (oh, and Moira) who else was there in Charles' life?
And it wasn't as if he'd ever tell Charles he wasn’t… allowed… t-
It was as if something inside Erik froze.
Behind Charles’ back, he looked slowly across at Raven.
She was watching him too, with a thunderstruck expression.
A sensation like dread trickled down inside him, creeping into his guts.
We didn't do that, did we...?
We didn't do that to him...?
Charles stepped forwards out of their reach as they shared their horrifying little epiphany, towards Luke, and Erik felt an irrational pang of regret to have him so far away from him, even just an arm's length.
But Charles couldn't possibly know that, could he?
He was holding hands with Luke, the pair of them gazing excitedly into each others’ faces and gabbling nonsense, like two little children, already finishing each others’ sentences, falling over each other in their eagerness to communicate. Half their words were unspoken because they were being said mentally instead - it was hard to tell who was saying what.
‘Yes- yes!' Charles was saying. ‘I know just what you mean! I know how it leaves you-'
‘-But you can't do-'
‘-it's the one thing-'
‘-that makes you you, right?'
‘And it’s like, every goddamn time-'
‘-they just push you further-'
‘-you try, the only people who like know you-'
‘-away! Yes! And you can never fully-'
‘Exactly! Because you’re-'
‘The whole time, concentrating-'
‘-not doing it.'
‘That’s just it!'
‘You get it, man!'
Raven looked ill.
She had her eyes pressed shut and her mouth hanging open as if winded, every word like a blow, realising the full, awful extent of what they’d done.
And all this time they'd been hurting Charles... rejecting him ... him, of all people! So busy striding towards that glorious golden future that they'd left him behind.
And what had he done in return?
He’d sheltered them, helped them, nurtured their gifts, showered them with kindnesses, and never once asked to receive that level of acceptance too... and since neither of them was the kind of person to give something away unless asked for it, he never got it... the one thing that only they could have given him ... poor, wretched, hopeful, ever-patient Charles...
And had he been waiting on them? Praying? Secretly consoling himself perhaps that, never mind, eh? maybe not today... but surely one day they'll say it... one day...
All alone ...all this time-? It was too much to bear.
Raven wavered on the spot, moved as if to reach out, and Erik grabbed her arm.
Her eyes snapped across and she looked at him, shame-faced and beseeching, but he just shook his head at her. Just once.
There was no comfort to be had.
In the meantime, Charles had calmed down enough to offer Luke his card, and urged him to call them once he’d made up his mind. (He had apparently declined to go with them immediately, even though Charles was clearly dying to take care of him. )
Charles hadn't noticed the silent conversation going on behind his back.
How could he?
‘Here, take this. No, I insist!' he was saying, pressing what looked like half of their daily budget into Luke's grubby palm. ‘But if you need a quarter for the phone, there's a big pile of them just ahead there.’
He turned for a second, bringing Erik in on the joke, and treated him to a look of despairing, twinkly-eyed fondness, which Erik felt suddenly so unworthy of that it almost hurt.
‘Erik broke a parking meter...'
Luke just laughed.
He and Charles hugged, a proper bear-hug - Charles nearly disappeared in his big arms - patted each other affectionately on the back like they were already firm friends ( Erik couldn't summon up so much as a smile ), and then took a step apart, gazing frankly at each other with shining eyes, hungry to memorise every last detail before parting.
He was lit up with happiness.
‘Christ.' He said, shaking his head and laughing appreciatively. ‘I can't believe you just let me in like that!’
Luke ducked his head modestly and shrugged, an easy smile on his handsome face.
‘Hey man,' he said, ‘you can ask any homeless guy - sometimes it's just nice to be noticed…'