Erik notices his words two days after his power manifests; two days after he hears but doesn’t see the bullet rip through his mother’s heart, after she promised him that everything would be okay.
He notices it as he’s crouched in the corner of the shower, the cold water trickling down his back and pooling around his toes as they curl under the soles of his feet. He bends his head down to rest it on his knees and sees the smudge on his chest, and tries to rub it off – but it won’t. He scrubs and scrubs but it doesn’t shift.
It’s not until he gets out of the shower and stands in front of the mirror that he can see it clearly, albeit backwards, and his heart sinks.
lass los it says in a fine and spidery hand, in a line from beneath his right armpit and up across to his left shoulder. The writing is permanently wet – smudged and dripping but seared into his skin. He traces the letters with trembling fingers, and wonders whose words they could possibly be. He hates it a little, hates the thought that every time he meets somebody he’ll be listening carefully to what they say. And what if lots of people say it? It’s hardly an uncommon phrase, not like his mother’s, who had known immediately who her soulmate was as soon as he’d opened his mouth.
Herr Schmidt notices a week later, when he makes Erik take off his shirt so that he can attach him to the machine. He mimics Erik’s previous inspection of the words and his hands are even colder than the metal table that Erik’s lying on. Erik waits for a comment of some sort, anything at all, but Schmidt says nothing – he just smiles, and reaches for the scalpel.
Erik likes to keep his words hidden. He doesn’t envy those whose words are in obvious places, where anybody who cares to look will see. That’s a level of knowledge of somebody that shouldn’t be so easily obtained.
He hears stories about soulmates from the guards and other prisoners at the facility. They tell him about people who have ignored their words and married whom they think they love, only for their actual soulmate to turn up and for them to leave their husband or wife for the person that completes them. He hears of soulmates who end up hating each other and wanting them dead. He hears of ones who finds each other when they’re so young that they don’t know what they’re doing, and who stay together until they die. He hears of one who don’t meet their soulmate until they’re old and struggling to walk, and can’t appreciate what they finally managed to find.
He’s not sure what he hopes for his soulmate to be like. He just hopes that Schmidt never gets his hands on whoever it is.
Two months before his eighteenth birthday, Erik escapes.
A decade later, he still won’t be able to explain where the sudden surge of power comes from, but he wakes in the early hours of the morning feeling like his blood is on fire and his whole body is aching. The backs of his eyes burn as he reaches out and seizes every metallic particle that he can find, and brings the whole facility crashing down to its foundations.
(Twelve years, six months and twenty-two days later and four thousand miles away, he will learn that the moment that he got the surge of power was the moment that his first words wrote themselves on his soulmate’s skin.)
He doesn’t stop, doesn’t look back, just wraps himself in metal to protect himself and keeps going until his head and heart stop pounding and his legs are weak with exertion, and the sun is starting to rise. It’s cold and dark in Warsaw at this time of year and his pyjamas offer very little warmth beneath his metal suit, and he shivers as he takes stock of his surroundings.
It’s been years since he walked the streets of the city but he can still half-remember his way around, and it only takes him a further two hours to find the train station. He leaves the metal in a back alley near the entrance and tries to ignore the strange looks that he receives from early morning commuters as his bare feet crunch on the light covering of snow that’s fallen overnight.
He spends some time in the station itself, stealing a few coins here and there from passing strangers (but never too much, not enough for them to notice) and checking the board for departures. Eventually he scrapes together enough to buy a ticket – despite the clearly distrustful look that the warden gives him – and boards his train away from Poland.
He falls asleep within minutes of sitting down, as the midday sun crawls across the sky and a wailing baby’s screams fill the carriage. The power surge has long since left him, and in its place is a gaping hole and a throbbing pain across his chest.
The words inscribed there shifts as he crosses the border but it’s weeks before he notices as he washes in a Genoan canal early one morning before heading down to the docks to work. It’s smudged, the letters barely legible but still wet and dripping – he checks it every day and watches as the letters become clearer, warping and shifting, and Erik wonders if somehow his soulmate has changed.
lasci andare, it says one day, the letters clear for the first time in weeks. Happy birthday, he thinks to himself. Your soulmate’s not dead yet.
“I remember you.”
Erik looks up from where he’s studying his beer, and a beautiful young woman with auburn hair and bright blue eyes smiles at him across the bar. It’s 1954 and the summer is hot, and the streets of Vinnytsia are littered with men in linen and ladies in hats drinking nalykva and eating zhele, and the working men are lounging in the bars and enjoying the slow afternoon as it rolls past.
“I remember seeing you in Warsaw,” she says quietly as she steps up to him, and he notices her hand subconsciously move to her left forearm. “You were separated from your mother, and what you did to the gate…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says flatly, and perhaps a little angrily. “You must have me mistaken with somebody else.”
“I don’t. I know that I don’t, I saw you move that pen in your pocket five minutes ago. I thought that I recognised you, but that was proof.”
He turns to face her and graces her with a scowl.
“Well if you saw me at Warsaw, then you must have been on your way to a camp. How are you still alive? How did you manage to survive and make it to Ukraine?”
“I was a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz the same year,” she says and draws herself up to her full height, tilting her head up. “I was part of the Birkenau Revolt.”
“I heard that all of the escaped prisoners were found and killed.”
“You heard wrong. Six of us got away – we killed the guards that came after us with stones and axes, and we made it across Slovakia to Baia Mare; we’d heard rumours that Romania had switched sides and joined the Allies and thank the gods, those rumours were true.”
Erik looks at her closely. All the times that she’s been talking to her, she’s been casting furtive little glances around herself – taking note of the exits, of who is sat around them, of whoever walks in the door. It’s a habit that Erik knows all too well. It’s been four years since he ran from Schmidt but he still turns at every door, every footstep and every accented voice that he hears.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he says and smiles, and she returns it.
I remember you - it rattles around his head as Magda writhes beneath him, her nails digging into the skin on his shoulder blades as her head tips back and she gasps. She’s seen his words, traced the Cyrillic script with her finger and knows that she’s not for him, but he doesn’t care.
відпуститй it says, loss las he thinks. He could fall in love with this woman, with the way that her hair spreads out on the pillow and her lips whisper his name in his ear, close and hot – they could make a life together, live in the mountains and start a family and forget his hunt for Schmidt and the revenge that he’s due.
But she’s not for him.
Erik lets out the breath that he’s been holding and blinks slowly. His reflection stares back at him mutely, silently judging and hating him for everything that happened in Ukraine three years ago. True, the day was always going to come when someone would come to him and say te sueltes – the soaked lines across his ribs guarantee it – and when that day came he wouldn’t be able to stay with Magda and their daughter, his whole being would be torn in two as his heart fought between the woman and child that he loved and the soulmate that he was destined to be with, but… this was not how he planned the separation.
Of all of the permanent marks on his body, the words on his chest and the numbers on his arm are amongst the ones that he hates the least. The thick, puckered burn scar running up his left leg from his foot up to mid-thigh where a burning beam had set fire to his clothes; the four identical, evenly-spaced puncture wounds on his stomach where one of the men had struck him with a pitchfork, winding him and knocking him to the ground; the faint mark above his right eye where Magda had thrown a glass at his face in despair and fury and a sliver cut a line on his forehead as they both wept for their lost daughter; these are the marks that he hates the most.
He stares at the words in the mirror, displayed backwards to him. They shifted into Spanish a year after he ran to Seville with fire and mobs in his dreams, and Magda disappeared somewhere into the mountains. He wonders what would happen if he were to cut them out of his skin, or hold a burning poker to his chest until there was too much black to make out the letters. Would his soulmate feel it? Would it break their bond, prevent them from ever meeting? Would the words that he will say fade from his soulmate’s skin and be replaced with someone else’s?
He’s heard of people whose soulmates have died and their bodies are suddenly clear of any writing – a blank slate that’s sometimes filled again, sometimes not. What must that feel like, to live with nothing on your skin, to move through life knowing that you will never meet your soulmate? It’s one of the few things that anchors Erik to himself – the knowledge that somewhere out there is someone who can help him stop hating everything about himself.
He stares at himself for a while longer, watching his chest rise and fall gently with each breath, before pulling his shirt over his head and leaving the room.
Usually when the words on his chest change language, it happens over a period of days or even weeks, and only when he’s been living in a new country for nearly a year. He’s used to the pattern now, expects it to happen, and he’s never surprised when it does.
But the final time that it changes, it takes him by surprise. He goes to bed with lâche ça in a flowing print on his skin, and when he wakes the next morning and heads to the shower, he catches himself in the mirror and it startled by what he sees.
let go, his words whisper and his bones resonate with them, and he prepares to fly to Miami to find the Caspartina and find his creator.
Erik is aware of people shouting as he’s dragged through the water, knows that people on the coast guard ship are calling to him as the submarine pulls him along, but he can’t hear them properly. There’s nothing except the metallic behemoth ahead of him and the sudden sharp burning sensation in his chest as he’s hauled underwater with outstretched arms.
And then suddenly there’s something else, not just the metal and the ache but a person beside him in the water, reaching out for him
You can’t says a voice in his head, loud and clear as an arm wraps around his chest and hold on tightly. You’ll drown..
He relents, and releases, and watches his revenge power away. It hurts, but it’s nothing like the burning in his ribcage as his body protests the lack of oxygen and he and his rescuer break the surface together.
“Get off me!” he shouts angrily as he pushes away from the man, gasping as he treads water underneath the spotlight from the ship, and for a moment he thinks that the man looks at him strangely – but then it’s lost in the boats that come for them, in the warm blankets and hot drinks, and the knowledge that finally he’s not alone.
Erik can’t shake the feeling that there’s something going on, something massive that he’s missing completely. He keeps on catching Charles watching him carefully as though he’s waiting for some sort of reaction, only to look away as soon as Erik starts to turn. He very nearly catches a few hushed conversations between Charles and Raven, but the moment that they see him, they start talking about mundane, everyday things.
The words across his chest change the night that they bring Alex into the fold, but not into a different language, as usual – when he wakes this time, the words are no longer smudged and wet but dry-looking, sharp and clear and intensely black across the muscles of his chest.
“Do your words disappear when you shift?” he asks Raven as they cook dinner, and she looks up at him in shock. They’ve spent the last fifteen minutes in complete silence – she’s still sulking about the jibe that he made about Hank’s feet that morning – and for him to ask her such an intimately personal question has clearly thrown her for a loop.
“Excuse me?” she puts down the wooden spoon that she’d been stirring the meatball sauce with, and he shrugs.
“I was just wondering if you could change them, or if they stay the same regardless of what you do. Mine have changed countless times over the decades, but the meaning stays the same. Is it even possible to change them completely?”
“Wait, you still haven’t found your soulmate?” Raven says, and her face splits into a teasing grin. “You must be like, forty, how has it taken you this long?”
“I’m thirty-two, if you must know,” he says stiffly, and it just makes her grin all the more. “And I’ve been rather more preoccupied with hunting down the man that killed my mother to worry about who I’m supposed to be spending the rest of my life with. Besides, it’s not as if you’ve found yours, is it?”
“No, but I’m still young and free, I’ve got plenty of time,” she laughs. She seems to think for a moment, before shifting into her natural form and walking around the table to him. She pulls the waistband of her skirt down on one side, gesturing that he look at her skin.
It’s tiny, in a script of blue that’s only a shade darker than her skin tone, weaving in between the scales on her right hip. He has to tilt his head several times and squint to see it, but she waits patiently until he’s made it all out.
“I’m looking for Raven Darkhölme?” he asks, and she nods her head and pulls away. “Is that your full name?”
“Yes, but there’s only three people alive who know that – two of us are in this room, and Charles sure as hell isn’t my soulmate. So who could possibly say this to me? There aren’t any records of me even existing and my biological family is dead, and for me to tell somebody my real name would mean that I already know and trust them, so those wouldn’t be their first words…”
“And your words disappear when you shift?” he asks as her skin flickers back to a paler tone and she nods as she pops a slice of capsicum into her mouth.
“Yep. I can’t change them, though, only conceal them.”
“What about Charles?”
She frowns at him over the stove and he counters it with an innocent smile, but she shakes her head as she resuming stirring the sauce.
“Nope, you’ve got to ask him about his yourself. It’s actually pretty interesting, it changed languages like seven times before it finally settled on English. I’ve heard some soulmate stories, but that’s a new one for me. Oh, shit,” she curses as she absently flicks sauce across the kitchen whilst gesturing with the sauce spoon.
Erik is already gone.
“Show me your words.”
Charles looks up in surprise from the book that he’s reading, giving Erik a stern look from over the top of his glasses.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your words,” Erik repeats. “Show me them.”
“That’s quite a personal request.”
“Charles, please, I need to know,” he begs, and his voice cracks as he sinks into the seat opposite him. Charles stares at him for nearly a full minute, the silence only punctuated by Erik’s laboured breathing; eventually he puts his book down on the desk between them and leans forward. He opens his palm slowly, and in miniscule letters across the centre of his palm are the words get off me, and Erik can hear his own voice echoing inside his head.
“It was in German for the longest time,” Charles says quietly. “And then Italian, and Spanish, and Ukrainian, and French… I had no idea what was going on.”
“It must have changed whenever mine did,” Erik croaks, and pulls off his shirt to reveal his own words written in clear and definitive English across his chest. “But you didn’t say it, the first thing was you can’t, you said it straight into my mind…”
“I shouted at you to let go before I jumped in,” Charles murmurs, staring at his chest in fascination. “You didn’t hear me.”
“How old were you when they appeared?”
“Fourteen. I cried when I saw them – I thought, how could anybody whose first words to me would be ‘get off’ ever be my soulmate?”
“I had a massive surge of power that night – it’s how I escaped. From thousands of miles away, you saved me from Schmidt. But why didn’t you say anything? I might have missed you telling me to let go, but you definitely heard me yelling at you to get off me when we were in the water.”
Charles flushes slightly, casting his eyes down to the book on the table between them, and his opens and closes his hands reflexively.
“You didn’t react at all. I thought that you must have realised who I was, and rejected me. I’ve heard stories about soulmates who just didn’t like each other…”
“You’re an idiot.”
The corners of Charles’ mouth twist upwards wryly, and he leans forward again slightly, worrying his lip with his teeth and holding out his hand.
“May I?” he asks, gesturing to Erik’s chest, and he leans forward as answer. When Charles touches the palm of his hand to the curve of Erik’s ribs, it’s like being struck by lightning – the whole world collapses and expands in a second, going from blackness to blinding light as his blood thunders through his veins and his marrow of his bones vibrates with a strange completeness, and he reaches out for Charles.
He gasps as the world rights itself, and when his vision clears he can see that Charles is in a similar state to him, but they’re holding each other upright and there’s a glow to Charles’ skin that wasn’t there before, and a brightness to his grin.
“Hello, soulmate,” Charles chokes out with a laugh, and Erik stares at him.
This is the man that he’s been waiting for his whole life. He knows, in that moment, that this man will make him feel alive and then say things to him that make him want to hide and never see the world again; Charles will kiss him one minute and then punch him the next, and Erik will always come back for more of both; Charles will challenge him and sometimes he will let him win, other times he will condemn him and cast him out. Erik will leave and come back; he will leave and be dragged back. They’ll love and hate each other until the words are wiped from their skin.
Charles will be exactly what Erik needs.
“Hello,” he breathes, and Charles grins at him.