Charles is two blocks away from Erik’s apartment before it occurs to him to think what he’s doing or where he’s going. He needs a place to hide where no-one – and especially not MacTaggert – would think of looking for him. Going home to Westchester is obviously out of the question – the last thing he wants is to be found and dragged back to face everything he’s running from.
Not literally running, of course. He walks briskly, but only in the way anyone might in the cool of dawn, as if he knows where he’s headed and has left in time to get there.
MacTaggert’s not the only one who’ll be looking for him. Whatever protection Erik and the rest of the team could give him, pitiful as that was, is over now. He thinks about adopting a disguise, but there’s always something false and too obvious about them. So dyeing his hair red or bleaching it is out. Different clothes would be a help, though, if he can get hold of some. The stores won’t be open for hours yet.
One good thing, Shaw’s gang probably won’t be expecting him to be out here on his own. They’ll be tracking MacTaggert’s team, maybe even still following Raven Darkholme’s decoy trail if he’s lucky.
You’re lucky, Charles. Who was it who’d said that to him, months ago? Vague memories of a tall, shy, gangling boy with glasses at that bar in the Village, bemoaning his difficulties with men, and Charles, slightly drunk, expounding his one-night stand philosophy to – to Hank, that was it. Hank McCoy. He’d told Charles a surprising amount about himself, including the new job he was about to start in DC, and his incongruous hobby.
Now that could be useful. Even if Hank has learned caution, Charles could probably coax him into doing what he wants. Best not to use his telepathy for that unless it’s absolutely necessary. Emma Frost may be behind bars, but there must be others out there who can detect telepathic interference. If Charles is going to fly under the radar, he needs to act like a baseline as much of the time as possible.
He ducks into a phone booth and flips through the residential directory, scanning the pages till he finds “McCoy, Henry P” in the right neighbourhood. It’s early for a phone call, but needs must.
“Hello?” Hank’s voice is fuzzy with sleep.
“Hank, hi, sorry to disturb you. It’s Charles.”
“We met in Christopher Street,” Charles says, and hears the gasp at the other end of the line.
“What do you want?”
“I – I’m in trouble, and I don’t know who else to ask.”
He can almost hear Hank’s panic in the long silence that follows.
“What kind of trouble?”
“It’s not easy to explain over the phone,” Charles says. “Can I come over?”
“Oh god,” Hank says. “OK. OK. I’ll watch for you and open the door.”
“Thank you,” Charles breathes.
Till this moment he hadn’t realized how much he was assuming Hank would put up a fight. Maybe he still will, when he hears; can’t relax too soon.
The apartment is almost as spartan as a student room, but Charles isn’t here for the soft furnishings.
“You’re not in trouble with the law, are you?” Hank asks nervously.
Not in the way you mean. “No,” Charles says. “It’s not that. I – got involved with someone, and now I need to get away from him.” More than one man, in fact.
It’s good of Hank not to gloat after all Charles had said about not getting tied down. Maybe he’s just relieved that Charles apparently isn’t going to bring the cops to his door.
“Tell me about it over breakfast?” Hank suggests.
Charles is torn between wanting to get out of DC as fast as possible and feeling he’d better eat something so he doesn’t keel over on the journey. “Thanks,” he says.
Hank puts the coffee pot on the two-ring stove and cuts thick slices from the half-loaf on top of the icebox.
“So, this guy, is he – serious?” Hank’s wistfulness is an irony Charles could do without right now.
“Yes,” Charles says. Serious as they come: it’s as true of Sebastian as it is of Erik.
“You can’t stay here,” Hank says quickly.
“No, of course not,” Charles says. “I wouldn’t dream of asking.” Overdoing it a bit, but there’s no time for subtlety.
“So what do you want?”
Charles takes a deep breath. “I need transport.”
“You want me to take you somewhere?” He doesn’t sound keen, and Charles doesn’t blame him.
“No, I was thinking you might lend me one of your – um – projects,” Charles says, hoping to god Hank hasn’t given up his tinkering. “If you’ve got one in working order, that is.”
Hank’s shoulders drop with relief. “Oh! Yes, I could do that – if you’re sure. I mean – can you ride?”
Charles has taken some stupid risks in his time but he’s not that stupid. That misspent summer of his freshman year with Logan taught him enough to be safe. “Yes, Hank, I can ride.”
Maybe he’s still lucky; there are three motorcycles Hank says are roadworthy. Charles opts for the one that’s been modified least, not because he doesn’t trust Hank but because the paint job on the other two is rather too eye-catching.
“Your clothes,” Hank says, dismayed. “You can’t ride in those.”
“Can you lend me a pair of jeans?”
It’s not ideal but at least he can roll the bottoms up. Hank finds him an old t-shirt and denim jacket as well – not much good if he comes off the bike, but better than nothing.
Charles stows his own clothes in the compartment under the saddle, and borrows a baseball cap and sunglasses for good measure. At least those fit, and the sunglasses won’t look out of place in this weather.
“Thank you, Hank. You’ve been very kind.”
“Ride safely,” Hank says. “I hope –” He doesn’t seem to know how to finish that sentence. “Good luck, Charles.”
“Thanks,” Charles says. “Look, if I don’t manage to get the bike back to you –”
“Don’t worry about that,” Hank says, looking up and down the street. “Just go.”
If he gets out of this alive, Charles is going to find a way to repay Hank somehow. Have to do it so it can’t be traced, which means trusting someone else. Right now he can’t imagine who that would be, but he’s still enough of an optimist, even after everything that’s happened, to believe that there will be someone eventually. He still doesn’t know where he’s going, but he hasn’t forgotten how to do this, and his heart lifts at the familiar sensation of sun and wind on his face as he speeds along, mile after mile taking him further away from the unhappiness and strain of the last months.
“Watch out, bud!”
The motorist’s yell and the blaring horn jolt him out of his drowsiness, and he brakes just in time. That was a close shave – clearly the effects of Hank’s coffee wore off faster than he expected. Nothing for it but to stop somewhere on the road and try to kick-start his weary brain into gear.
He doesn’t know where he is, or even how long he’s been riding half-asleep. A wide tree-lined boulevard gives way to streets of old red-brick buildings, like the ones in Georgetown or Alexandria. In the distance he sees a band of young men in dark blue uniforms, marching along with a small boy in t-shirt and jeans following behind like a straggling mascot.
Annapolis. He and Erik had stopped here for lunch on the way to Rehoboth Beach that time.
Is that where he’s going now? It makes a kind of sense: nobody knew about that trip except the two of them, and Erik won’t remember.
The diner near the Naval Academy is already busy, even this early in the morning, with a rowdy group of navy boys who seem to be keeping their strength up after a night on the tiles. One cute midshipman looks at Charles a fraction too long, then looks away again.
Charles has seen that look so often that he doesn’t need to hear the thoughts that go with it: I like you; are you like me? How automatic that noticing is, even now: the boy giving him the eye, the location of the men’s room, the number of bodies between him and the exit…
He sends back a look that says Sorry, not today, friendly and rueful – another automatic reflex – and orders coffee and blueberry pancakes. Ridiculous to be hungry again so soon, though it’s probably from lack of sleep. He’ll need to have his wits about him, crossing the Bay Bridge on a strange motorcycle.
The young midshipman, exiting with his friends, lurches against Charles and mumbles an awkward apology. Charles smiles at him by way of answer, and the boy flushes to the tips of his ears. A new recruit, too raw still to know how to hide his reactions. The Navy’ll be a hard life for him, if he makes it through training.
Focus, Xavier. Easier said than done: his mind shies away from the thought of what lies ahead. He’s so tired that everything seems unreal. He knows the defences his mind throws up only make him more vulnerable, but he can’t bring himself to knock them down. The truth of his situation is like an ocean battering against a crumbling sea wall, ready to rush in and drown him at any minute.
The waters of the Bay gleam below on either side as he weaves his way through the slow summer traffic on the bridge. It’s more frightening like this than when he and Erik crossed it in the early hours of the morning, back in the spring. This time the crossing seems to take forever, but finally he reaches the other side and pulls over as soon as he can to wipe the sweat from his face and neck.
Deep breaths, Xavier. You can do this.
Rehoboth Beach in summer is almost unrecognizable. He can hardly believe it’s the same place where he and Erik strode briskly along the boardwalk, muffled up in coats and scarves against the chill sea breezes, or huddled by the fire indoors, drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows. Now it’s crowded with DC vacationers, kids in bathing suits and sunhats running in and out of the ocean or screaming on the Funland rides, families queuing up for saltwater taffy or caramel corn at Dolle’s. At least it should be easier to hide amongst the crowds than if the town had been as empty as it was in the spring.
But with all the NO VACANCY signs around, he’ll be lucky to find anywhere to stay here. More from sentiment than anything else, he heads a couple of blocks away from the beach towards the small hotel where he stayed with Erik, so quiet in the off-season he’d wondered how the business could possibly survive. The place looks as if it’s had a new coat of paint for the summer, but it’s otherwise unchanged, and the sign in the window says VACANCIES. Feeling as if he’s in a dream, Charles parks the motorcycle by the fence and goes up the porch steps to ring the bell.
“Kitty, can you get the door?” a voice yells from the upper storey.
“OK, OK, I’m going,” a younger voice grumbles from the hallway, and the door opens.
The girl is taller than he remembered her, and her face is set in a teenager’s scowl.
“Good morning,” Charles says. “I’d like a room, if you have one.”
She stares at him for a long moment, and then breaks into a grin. “Mr Charles! I didn’t recognize you. What are you dressed up like that for?”
He takes off Hank’s sunglasses and grins back at her. “Better now?”
“Much better. You look silly like that.”
“I’m on the run,” he says, knowing she won’t take it seriously.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says, rolling her eyes at the joke. “Is Mr Erik coming too?”
The question is a sharp pain in his chest, and he forces himself to breathe deeply. “Not this trip, I’m afraid.”
“Too bad,” she says. “I liked him.”
Me too. “Is your mother home?” Charles asks, pushing the thought away.
“She’s doing the rooms. Estelle got sick,” Kitty says. “Mom!”
He’s about to say he can wait, but a wave of tiredness hits him and he nearly buckles at the knees.
“You look terrible,” she says, eying him critically. “Mom!”
“Would it kill you to walk up the stairs for once, instead of shouting?” Theresa Pryde says from the far end of the hall.
“It’s Mr Charles!” Kitty says, ignoring the question.
Mrs Pryde looks as startled as Kitty did, but she welcomes him in, apologizing for the state of the place. If she’s surprised that he doesn’t seem to have any luggage, she conceals it well.
“Is that your motorbike out front?” Kitty asks, saucer-eyed.
“I borrowed it from a friend,” Charles says. “Hence the clothes.”
“Will you take me out on it?”
“No, he won’t,” her mother says firmly. “Number 3 is ready now, Mr –”
“Pembroke,” Charles says, hoping neither of them will think to check the register entry from his last stay.
“Kitty will take you up,” Mrs Pryde says.
The girl’s obviously sulking about the motorbike, but she shows Charles to his room. It’s across the hall from the one he and Erik shared, which feels strange. Being in the same room would be worse, though.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I won’t tell a soul you’re here. In-cog-ni-to, right?” She taps the side of her nose with her index finger.
“Right,” Charles says. “Thanks, Kitty. See you later.”
“Alligator,” she says, and clatters down the stairs.
Charles takes off the baseball cap and his shoes, and lies down on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Another wave of exhaustion sweeps over him and he plummets into sleep.