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Charles Shaw

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"Kevin says he doesn't even remember the fight."

"I didn't do anything to his memory," Charles tells his stepfather, not for the first time. "Have another telepath read him for it, they'll see."

"We can't just 'get another telepath,' it's not as if people like you grow on trees," says Kurt, "thank God."

"You found one who can spend an hour every week with me in those useless bond sessions with Dr. Shaw," Charles points out.

It's not that I don't trust you, Charles. Dr. Shaw's practiced, avuncular smile. But we need to make sure everyone's satisfied that you aren't just reading my mind and telling me what I want to hear. So Dr. Steed will be sitting in on our sessions to verify that you're keeping your mind to yourself.

Dr. Steed has blocked Charles from getting a single thought or feeling from Dr. Shaw. And then they wonder why Charles doesn't like him.

"Why can't you ask Dr. Steed to check?" Charles says.

"We can't go by another telepath's word," Kurt says. "Who knows if you're all loyal to each other before anything else. You could be talking to her now. Maybe offering her money if she backs up your story."

"I'm not. And the alternative is to believe Kevin with no proof, only his word for it-- how is that any more trustworthy?" Charles demands.

They don't say it; they don't have to, he senses it clearly enough. Kevin's human. Charles is a mutant.

Four human boys in that hallway, all harassing Raven and then attacking her, surrounding her, shoving her. Charles sensed her fear and anger and came running, Hank on his heels. Despite the provocation, Raven didn't fight back any more than she had to in order to keep their hands off her-- Charles begged her mind-to-mind not to hurt them, not to give anyone an excuse to take their side against hers. Raven dodged and evaded the bullies til Charles could get close enough to put the three followers to sleep and freeze the ringleader, Kevin, unreasoning rage fixed on his face as he lunged with his fist raised.

Charles thought he was doing the right thing, still thinks it was the right thing. He protected Raven without hurting her attackers, just held them there and held them accountable.

But the latest 'mutant terrorism attack' has the school spooked, and when the vice principal saw the three unconscious boys and Kevin Bentley motionless as a statue, Charles was the one who wound up answering for the scene, not them. It doesn't seem to matter that Raven and Hank back up his version of events; everyone assumes the mutants would lie to protect each other. Somehow the four bullies aren't subject to the same suspicion.

"You put three people to sleep at once and held the other one against his will," says Kurt.

"If he doesn't remember the fight, how does he remember whether I was holding him against his will?" Charles asks.

"Don't be cute, Charles, you admitted you did that."

"You believe me about that, conveniently..."

"The point is," Kurt says, "your telepathy's much stronger now than you were a year ago when we had you tested."

"We didn't even finish those tests."

"Which we probably should have realized was a red flag, right there," Kurt says. "Dr. Shaw's been worried all along that you're drawing psionic energy from your soulbond."

Originally Kurt sent Charles to Dr. Shaw because he heard Dr. Shaw had gadgets for measuring psionic energy much more accurately than EEGs, MRIs or PET scans. Kurt's always wanted to know exactly what Charles is capable of, became very nearly obsessed with it after Charles accidentally put a block in Kurt's mind during an argument, taking it away again as soon as he realized what he'd done. According to Dr. Shaw's device, at sixteen, Charles has as much psionic energy as anyone ever recorded.

Then Dr. Shaw, a specialist in the bond, claimed that Charles needed bond counseling, in what seemed to Charles to be a classic case of someone with a hammer declaring that an unrelated issue looked exactly like a nail. Since then Shaw's harped nonstop on the notion that Charles is pulling psionic energy from his soulmate through their bond.

"That's ludicrous," says Charles. "I sense my soulmate perfectly clearly. Dr. Steed knows that, she can feel it as well. If I were taking energy from the bond, his emotions couldn't reach me with that much strength."

"Unless you're getting energy from the bond and reading his emotions with your boosted telepathy. Look, Dr. Shaw wants to test you to make sure you're not getting more power from the bond."

Sharon, silent as usual through all this, finally speaks up softly. "You could be hurting him, Charles."

"I'm not. I'd never hurt him! Wouldn't I get unhappiness and fear from him when I'm reaching out to him, if that were happening?"

"You can change people's feelings," Kurt says.

"I'm not changing his feelings. If I were, he'd always be happy-- he wouldn't be so worried, so often."

"How do you know he's not worried about you?" Kurt fires back. "Maybe he feels good when you focus on him because you make him feel good. But the rest of the time, he knows something's wrong, and he worries."

That strikes a chord. Charles falls silent. He's been concerned about that himself, sometimes.

"It's just a test," Sharon pleads.

-

"It's just a mild anesthetic," Dr. Shaw says.

That's the truth. Dr. Steed is powerful, but Charles can sense how she's using her ability, and she's not blocking him from reading Dr. Shaw's emotions right now, the way she always has before. Charles still can't get thoughts, but she's letting him have feelings. Clearly they're trying to elicit his confidence, but the effort only makes him more suspicious.

"I haven't agreed to anything. I want to hear the details first. How exactly does this test work?" Charles asks.

"It's a little too complicated to go into it."

"Try me," says Charles.

Dr. Shaw shakes his head and lifts the syringe. "We're already running behind schedule."

"You're not giving me that," Charles stands, taking a step back, raising his hand to his temple.

All at once it's as if something sweeps right through his head, swift and shocking, a jolt that nearly puts him on the floor. He's dazed, barely able to move, and he's detached from his ability, can't put it to use no matter how hard he tries.

«That was a psionic blade,» Dr. Steed tells him. «I'm afraid you've been a little overconfident in your ability to gauge the extent of what I can do.»

«Why,» Charles begins, but the needle stings and an uncomfortable warmth blooms under his skin, and the room goes away.

-

Charles can't remember the procedure clearly, later. He's glad of that. He knows he felt it all happening at the time. The memories were nearly obliterated by the pain that must have come at the end-- it felt as if every muscle in his body was cramping at once, so huge and wracking that he was awed by it, thrown out of himself, amazed his body could hurt that much even as he tried to scream.

Nearly all his other memories were blotted out, but not everything. He remembers casting all his strength, everything in him, into the bond, frantic with the understanding that he might never feel his soulmate again, that their single, fragile connection was coming apart. He broadcast all his love and forced through words, Charles Xavier, Graymalkin, Westchester, New York. Other men might share his name, but if his soulmate came to Graymalkin Lane, surely that would be close enough. Graymalkin, Westchester, New York, Graymalkin, Westchester, New York... As many times and with as much power as he could force across the miles, and then the cut, the unbelievable pain as it separated, as if a knife were slowly sinking right into the back of his head.

He tells himself he can't remember it clearly, later.

-

Charles wakes up to arms around him, lips touching him at soul's-home. He was never sensitive there before; it aches dully now.

It doesn't matter. He's not really awake. He's dreaming. A bad dream, but only a dream. He feels an insidious sense of satisfaction coming from nearby, but nothing else. Absolutely nothing else.

He touches his temple and concentrates. Nothing. It's almost a relief, in a way. That's impossible, so this is just a bad dream. The arms around him, the sore rotten feeling at his joining spot. Those emotions, so grotesque and complacent. The vast, unknowable emptiness, as if there's only this one single mind in the world other than Charles.

It's all right that he's afraid, it's okay that the fear is building to terror, his chest seized with it, his stomach. Of course he's afraid, it's a nightmare. When he wakes up, it will all seem so silly.

It goes on, though. It feels like a long time to be dreaming.

Hands, touching him. His dreams are usually lucid, Charles can often control what happens, but when he tries to push those hands away, squirm away from those arms, he's pulled back, clasped against a long warm body.

"You're all right now. Everything's fine. Stop thrashing, lie still," a voice is saying, and that inflated, hollow satisfaction ebbs and crests with the words.

Charles is dreaming, though, or this strange image wouldn't occur to him: a ceramic toad, large and bulbous and glazed to a shine, and hollow. He's remembering it, a gardening shop, something placed in his small hands when he was young. It looked so big and substantial, but tip it over and the base was an open hole, the interior nothing but the features of the toad in reverse.

There's only one mind in this dream, and that mind's thoughts are obscured; all Charles senses are emotions, and the emotions are just like that pottery toad. Big and glossy and vacuous.

"I want to wake up," Charles says.

Hands gliding over him. A little laugh. Charles recognizes that laugh, remembers how it always came along with that practiced, avuncular smile.

Dr. Shaw combs his fingers through Charles's hair, and tugs. "Baby, you are awake."

-

It takes Charles hours to accept he's really not dreaming, hours obediently calling Dr. Shaw Sebastian and nodding at every surreal, nightmare thing he says. But the second time Sebastian comes in his mouth, pulls out still ejaculating and drags that taste across his tongue, dribbles the rest out on his lips and chin... Charles lies there, spunk cooling on his skin, drying in patches that pull tight like glue, and he knows he can't be dreaming this.

Dr. Shaw's zipped up again before Charles can connect realization to action. So grabbing him by the balls is out. Charles flexes his hands. He's not sure how much grip he has in him right now. His limbs feel heavy, sodden. His whole body feels weak and slow.

"Go clean up, baby," Dr. Shaw prods him.

There's nothing in the washroom Charles can use. The mirror is conspicuously labeled Shatterproof. There's no one else in the world to reach out to.

All those things Dr. Shaw was saying. That he and Dr. Steed forced an artificial bond between Charles and Dr. Shaw to save Charles's life. That during the test, Charles pulled so much psionic energy from the bond that he overloaded himself, that he must have drained his soulmate dead, that he nearly killed himself with all the excess power he siphoned off.

Charles can't believe a word of it. He'd die before he'd hurt his soulmate like that. And he knows Dr. Shaw is lying. Dr. Steed stopped shielding Dr. Shaw during the procedure, and Charles could read from Shaw that there had never been any intention of conducting a test. With the zeal of a true believer, Sebastian really had convinced himself Charles was drawing power from the bond, that both Charles and his soulmate would be safer without it. He set out to sever Charles's bond.

The bond is gone. This isn't a dream. It's really gone.

Charles presses his fists to his temples and reaches with everything in him, please, please, please be all right, please be here... But he can't feel his soulmate. He's not there. Nobody is.

Charles gets into the shower and stays there til Sebastian comes and fetches him out.

-

A nurse brings new pyjamas, since Charles drenched the first set in the shower. Charles stares at her. She moves and smiles and talks, but there's nothing there. No emotions. No thoughts. When he touches his temple to try to focus, Sebastian knocks his hand away.

"Don't worry about that right now," he says.

Worry about that.

"I can't feel anybody. I can't... where is everyone? Anyone..."

"You can feel me. That's all you need." Sebastian wraps an arm around him.

Charles pushes at him, kicks him. "Leave me alone."

"Baby, you don't mean that." None of it's having any effect on Sebastian. It's not just that Charles is exhausted. Sebastian's skin barely compresses under his hand when Charles pushes him.

"Go away! Go away, leave me alone, stop," and Charles must be getting loud. Ghost footsteps approach the door and stay there, voices on the other side.

Sebastian stops, and looks at Charles. His face changes. His emotions dissolve from anger to a nasty sort of anticipation.

"If that's what you want," he says, and he leaves.

He leaves, and there's nobody.

Charles doesn't know how long it is. No clocks in the room, no minds to sweep for the time. When the door opens he nearly bolts out of the bed. It's two nurses coming in to check on him. Maybe they're kind. Maybe they're planning to chop him to pieces. He can't know.

"What's wrong, sweetie," one of them says.

His voice sounds wet and hoarse. "I lost my soulmate."

"I'm so sorry," she says. He's looking right at her, and there's nothing to those words. Her face is a mask. It's like she's mouthing sympathy at him to mock him.

"Please, I want to go home," he chokes on it, he can't seem to stop crying. They give him tissues and make noises at him, dispassionate, remote.

"It's okay, you'll be home before you know it," one of them says, unconcerned.

Shut up, in other words. He tries.

It's so long until Charles finally feels something again. He can't care that it's a thin shell of smug satisfaction, hollow at the core. It's something.

"I'm sorry," he says as soon as Sebastian opens the door, forcing out the words between gasps, through tears. "I'm sorry, Sebastian. I didn't mean it. Please don't go."

Sebastian comes back to bed, his hand clamping around Charles's wrist. He beckons, and Charles gives him the other arm, and he keeps still as Sebastian pins his wrists above his head, as Sebastian pulls the drawstring out of Charles's pyjama bottoms and ties him, the too-thin cord biting in.

"There," Sebastian says, his satisfaction bigger and emptier than ever. "That's more like it."

====

Erik's been restless all day long, so restless that Jason suggests going out and tossing a Frisbee to work off some nervous energy. Erik agrees, and they're off, a park just outside town, someplace they probably won't run into any other people.

Jason saved up a bunch of scrap aluminum foil for things like this, and when he pops the wadded ball out of the glove compartment, Erik grins at him. "I could feel that sitting there. You want me to do the frisbee this time?"

"Yeah. Just round off the corners? I'll wear gloves anyway, but just in case."

"I promise not to slice your hand off, don't worry," Erik says, already forming the aluminum into a nice, rounded-edge frisbee. "Come on."

They trot out into the center of the grassy part of the park. Erik slings the frisbee Jason's way; Jason catches it, hands protected with illusionary fingerless sport gloves. He tosses it back, and his aim's not that great, but of course with Erik on the other end, it hardly matters.

Erik catches it one-handed, but then he holds it down at his side, looking off into the distance. Even if Jason didn't know which way he was pointing, he's known Erik long enough to know that it's always east. If Erik's distracted, daydreaming, happy for no obvious reason, he'll look east.

Today, though... today that's not a happy look.

"What's going on?" Jason asks. "Everything okay?"

"He's not doing that well today," Erik says.

Jason jogs over and puts a hand on Erik's shoulder. "We don't need to play," he says. "You want to find a bench somewhere, talk about it?"

Erik shakes his head. "Not much to talk about. I still can't hear him. I mean, I can hear him, but..." He shrugs. "Let's go again. Go long."

"I always go long," Jason jokes, and he takes off, jogging back.

He's twenty yards from Erik when Erik suddenly turns east again and stays turned that way. Jason can almost see the blood draining from his face, and then he takes off running, just east, tearing through the park and the trees at the edge of it, ripping apart the chain-link fence that marks the border of the park with an angry wave of one hand.

Jason can keep up with some of that, but Erik's running like a man possessed. It takes Jason a second to put together all the moving parts, but then he's got a bike, a good rugged mountain bike with perfect gears and tires. He pushes through the dusty field, coming up behind Erik, skidding to a stop and then vanishing the bike, because Erik got only so far before collapsing, one arm stretched out in front of him like he's trying to crawl east.

Jason kneels down next to him. "Erik? Erik! Talk to me--"

"--hurts," Erik pants, "don't-- don't go, please don't go--"

And Jason starts shaking, because he knows Erik isn't talking to him.

He puts a hand on Erik's back, holding on. "It's okay," Jason whispers. "It's going to be okay."

"Graymalkin," Erik gets out, "Westchester," and finally, "New York," and then Jason realizes the sounds he's hearing, realizes his wrist hurts. He looks down at his wrist; the bronze wristband Erik made for him is biting in so hard he's bleeding. Jason gasps out loud-- it's not getting any looser-- and desperation as much as anything makes him try to put an illusion of a thick foam bracelet underneath it. It works, gets him some space, but the metal's biting into that illusion, too. Jason expands his illusion to force the wristband open and twists his wrist out of it just in time; it squeezes shut into a ball as soon as his arm isn't there to block it.

And that leaves the other noise, that horrible scraping sound, and Jason holds out both arms, thinking concrete bunker as hard as he can, as the chain-link fence sails toward them.

-

Jason's jeans are ruined. All the brass rivets ripped out of the seams, and the button-fly, too. The buckle on his belt tore loose. His wristband is a balled-up piece of scrap. He's grateful he doesn't have any piercings.

But his illusions aren't real metal. He gets the mountain bike out again and heads for the car, because-- here's another reason to be thankful-- he left his cell phone in his glove box. It's big and it's heavy and he doesn't need to show off his money by carrying it around in a pocket, or on a clip, the way a lot of the guys at school do.

"I'm going to be right back," he tells Erik. Erik's catatonic, but his eyes are open. Jason projects it into the air above him, in case Erik isn't hearing anything right now. BE RIGHT BACK.

At the car, he calls 911, but he has to spend five minutes on the phone talking to them before they can even understand why they can't send an ambulance. Or a stretcher. Or anything made of metal. God. What isn't made of metal?

Jason slowly tracks back to where Erik's lying collapsed in the woods, the chain-link fence ruined but curled up next to him, not covering him. Jason's ability could do that, at least. At fifty yards, Jason can sense him again, but there's no tug on his cell phone. At forty yards, thirty, still nothing. But at ten yards, the cell phone starts moving so it's pointing directly at Erik. Jason backs up a step.

He sits down in the grass and watches Erik while he talks to the 911 operator, and when she finally says she'll have a team out to him as soon as possible, Jason thanks her and calls his mother.

-

It takes an hour for them to get a team there. By then, Pat and Rick are already at the park, and Gerald and Aileen are there, too, clutching each other's hands. Pat brought Jason sweatpants, a t-shirt, a pair of slip-on canvas shoes she had to pick up for him at Target. She and Rick have matching shoes, all of them in clothes with no metal. Gerald and Aileen did the same, but it's Pat and Jason who end up sitting to either side of Erik, looking helplessly at the metal stuck to him. All of Jason's rivets, his belt buckle, the eyelets out of his shoes. It should be comical, but it really, really isn't.

"If he's like this when he's sleeping..." Jason says, taking a rivet between thumb and forefinger and trying to pull it away. It won't budge. "I don't know what anyone can do for him. We can't even move him, can we?"

"They could bring him some Psychitrex," Pat says gently. "It might help."

Jason grits his teeth but nods. "Okay. Yeah. But he can't swallow pills like this... how are they going to get a needle in him...?"

When the paramedics finally show up, they have the answer. They have a dose of Psychitrex in a hypodermic with a glass needle. They load it into him-- he doesn't struggle-- and suddenly all the metal that's stuck to him falls away.

"Okay. I think we can get the stretcher now," one of them says.

"Thank you," Pat tells him.

"You're welcome. Are you his mother?"

Pat shakes her head. "We're friends. His foster parents are over there, with my bondmate." She points over at Gerald and Aileen, still standing next to Rick.

"I take it he hasn't found his soulmate yet."

Jason swallows. "Graymalkin," he whispers. "Westchester. New York."

Everyone looks at him for a moment, Pat most of all, but the paramedics just say, "If you have a phone number for his soulmate, you can try calling, but..."

But Jason nods, too. This doesn't look like anything he's ever heard about mourning sleep, but it's bad. It's really bad.

-

Erik wakes up and the world is unreal.

He grabs hold of the (fake, illusionary) metal railing on his hospital bed, pitches over the side, and throws up. Someone's moving (someone wearing no metal, there's nothing, he can't even tell where ey is) and grabbing for a basin, shoving it under Erik's head, but the basin is this gleaming grey substance and it's not metal.

He realizes, after it's over, that the person on his knees by the bed is Jason. His left wrist is bandaged. The wristband Erik made for him is gone.

They get someone in to clean up the rest of Erik's mess, but Erik's shivering now, shaking, huddled on his side in the bed.

"Let me out," he tells Jason. "Wherever this is. Wherever you put me. Let me out. Please." He manages to meet Jason's eyes. "Please."

Jason rubs his hand over his face, covering his mouth for a few seconds. "Erik-- this isn't me. You know I wouldn't do this. You're on Psychitrex."

Erik just stares at him. "Why...?"

Jason pulls out a wadded piece of something that looks like bronze. He presses it gently into Erik's hand. Erik clutches it, lifts it to his face, smells it. It smells like metal. He licks it; it tastes like metal. But it isn't, it can't be. He can't feel it.

He looks at it again. It's covered in cross-hatching... bronze... Jason's wrist.

"Did I...?"

"I'm fine," Jason says, reaching out immediately and squeezing Erik's hand. "I'm fine. How do you feel?"

Erik realizes, then, that there's more missing than the metal. He reaches back to soul's-home and takes a deep, shocked breath.

Are you out there?

Nothing.

Can you hear me?

Empty.

He tries to push himself out of bed, but he's so weak, so tired. Jason eases him down on his back.

"You need rest..."

"I need to get to Graymalkin," Erik says faintly. "I need to get to New York."

"We'll get you there," Jason promises. "As soon as you're out of the hospital, we'll get you there."

He doesn't make it out of bed for two weeks.

====

Week 1.

Anything would be small compared to the house Charles grew up in, but Sebastian's flat seems tiny. Six rooms. There's no getting away from Sebastian.

There's no getting away from Sebastian, and there's nothing else. Charles's real bond is gone, the world is gone. Even his name is gone. Sebastian pushed him into signing a recognition certificate at the hospital. According to the paperwork, he's Charles Shaw now.

The collar Sebastian put on Charles feels wrong. Not only because he's not submissive, and not only because it's Sebastian's. Charles has never worn jewelry before, beyond cufflinks and the watches his mother gives him every year for his birthday.

Now, somehow, he's a collared sub with a silvery chain that won't come off, lying tight at the base of his throat. He keeps tugging at it. Sebastian feels smug and pleased every time he sees Charles touching it. Charles tries to get out of the habit of pulling it, but he can't help it, he hates it, he keeps trying to make a little space for himself inside the circle of the chain.

Sebastian is terribly proud of the new bed he bought and had installed while they were still at the hospital. It's enormous, with a solid oak base, underbed drawers. And incorporated into the base at the foot of the bed is a slave cage with a submissive's pallet inside.

Wednesday, Sebastian locks Charles in the cage for a little while, "Just to give you a taste of it." Probably Charles is meant to react to the confinement with fear, but it's not so bad. It's sheltered. The bars are spaced widely enough apart that he can see what's coming. He'd rather sleep here than in bed with Sebastian.

The first week at the flat is a lot like the hospital. Sebastian's always there. He gives Charles a pill each night, sits him down in front of meals, reminds him to take care of himself. There's a lot of sex. Charles doesn't want to cooperate or accept it, but Sebastian's the only person he can sense, and when he's dissatisfied, it's all Charles can feel.

When Sebastian hasn't given an order, Charles stays passive and lets himself be done to. Usually, Sebastian likes that just fine.

 

Week 2.

Sunday, Sebastian tells Charles that he's going back to work the next day.

Charles spends hours begging him not to go, or to take Charles with him. Sebastian lets him try, but at the end of the night, he pats his cheek.

"That's sweet, baby, but you'll be fine here."

When Sebastian leaves in the morning, Charles touches his temple and stares out the window, trying to cling to his sense of Sebastian til he passes out of Charles's range. He used to be able to feel people for miles. He can still see Sebastian's car when he stops feeling anything. Sebastian's not even at the end of the block.

And then nothing. A vacant world.

Dozens of people walk along the pavement, but Charles can't sense them. He knows they're really there-- he knows that. The world isn't really different just because Charles lost one of his senses. But he can't believe it, deep down, not when there's nothing to tell him those are real people.

Next door, something thumps. Another sound, maybe a door closing. Someone's there, and it could be anyone, absolutely anyone, doing anything. Murdering someone. There's no way to know. He doesn't understand how people live like this, how they tolerate this much uncertainty.

Charles checks the security system. It's engaged. Sebastian didn't give him the code. Charles isn't meant to need it; he's not meant to leave.

He's not sure he'd have the nerve to turn it off even if he could.

Somewhere else in the building, a high mechanical whine starts up. Eventually Charles realizes it's a vacuum cleaner. When he hears someone walking down the hallway, passing the front door, he panics and falls back to the kitchen. There's a knife block, but a knife missing there would be conspicuous. He finds a bread knife in the drawer. That's better anyway, it's longer. He takes that to the bedroom and locks the door.

From there it's fits and starts, all day. Charles knows he's being ridiculous. The odds are very much against anyone coming here. The building has security. Visitors have to stop at the front desk and get buzzed in. If something sets off the apartment's alarm, the building's guards will come quickly. Charles is in no more danger here than he ever was at school.

But minutes pass, an hour, and he can't keep talking himself out of it. He wraps the hilt of the knife with a flannel, folding a makeshift crossguard at the base of the blade to protect his hand. He fastens it with a bit of bondage tape he cuts off the roll. Sebastian has so much, he won't notice some missing.

When he has to go to the toilet, Charles shoves a chair in front of the door, and then he leaves it there. It doesn't matter how much he reminds himself there's no real reason to be paranoid, that the world is the same as ever, that only his perceptions have changed. Everything feels different. Dangerous.

Sometime in the afternoon, there's a knock at the door, and he really feels as if he might hyperventilate hard enough to pass out, as if he might choke on his own fear and die. He's never felt anything like it.

By the time Sebastian gets home, Charles is exhausted from anxiety.

"I told you everything would be fine," Sebastian says.

It doesn't get better as the week goes on. There's little to distract him in the apartment. Kurt and Sharon told Sebastian about Charles's plans to study genetics, and Sebastian bought him a few books, but they're all survey texts, not much new to Charles, and he can't concentrate on reading.

Television and films have never meant much to him, nor the music on the radio. Sebastian locks up his office during the day. Charles is only allowed to use the computer while Sebastian sits next to him, watching him answer his emails from Raven, promising her that everything's fine. The phones are locked away as well.

Charles doesn't know how to cook; twice he forces himself out of the bedroom to try anyway, but he's too high-strung to focus on a recipe, jumping at every loud noise.

People used to ask him sometimes how he could hear all those other thoughts and feelings without getting distracted. That felt natural-- hard, sometimes, but natural.

This leaves him scattered, this is unnatural-- this unending silence, people seething all around him, a whole world of people thinking and feeling and doing, and Charles in the midst of it all, not knowing, never knowing. He can't believe this is how other people feel all the time, all their lives-- coping with this much constant uncertainty, this chaos, and always so disconnected, so alone...

Even in the bedroom with a lock, Charles can't stand to let his guard down much for long. He waits and takes his showers when Sebastian's in the apartment, and stays in the water til Sebastian gets angry. One night Sebastian's distracted with something and Charles showers for ninety minutes. If it were up to him he'd never get out.

The only thing Charles finds that helps during the days is exercising. He needs to get his strength back after that time idle in the hospital; he needs to be stronger again to feel safer. Push-ups, sit-ups, stretches, everything he can think to do in the locked bedroom. As long as he can always see the door.

When Sebastian gets back Friday night, Charles breaks down, so relieved by the prospect of two days without that awful quiet, ready to beg all over again for Sebastian to take him along to the office next time he goes.

It only reminds Sebastian that he likes to see tears.

By Sunday night, Charles doesn't know what to hope for anymore.

 

Week 3.

"It seems like you've been having some trouble adapting," Sebastian says Monday morning, and shakes out a pill from an unmarked bottle. It's different from the ones he gives Charles at night. "Take this."

"What is it?" Charles cringes before he's even finished the sentence. Sebastian's anger fills the world. From horizon to horizon, there's nothing else.

"It doesn't matter what it is. I told you to take it."

Charles opens his mouth.

He doesn't lock himself in the bedroom that day; he doesn't make it to the bedroom. He's watching Sebastian's car disappear down the block when whatever Sebastian gave him rises up and swamps him. Charles wades over to the sofa, every step unsure, and sits down.

There's a throw pillow crammed awkwardly under his arm. Eventually it occurs to him to move it. That takes most of the day.

Sebastian's not surprised or concerned when he comes back. He's a little annoyed when Charles has trouble walking up the stairs, but he just picks him up and carries him to bed.

Before, when Charles stayed passive during sex, it felt like the closest he could manage to resistance. But now it's not a choice. He feels heavy all over, even worse than when he first woke up in the hospital. As if he's lying under thick blankets. But there's nothing to insulate him from Sebastian's touch.

It's no use saying stop, much less red, he knows that. He keeps forgetting, though, lips moving, no voice. Sebastian covers his mouth.

 

Week 4.

Either Sebastian changes the dosage of whatever he's giving Charles, or Charles acclimates to the drug. During the fourth week, he feels as if he's trying to walk underwater, but he can walk, he can climb the stairs. It gets a little easier, slowly.

He starts exercising again. It seemed so important before. Nothing seems important now, but he sort of remembers that it might matter somehow, outside the haze he's in.

Charles feels disconnected from himself, as if his head is floating miles above the rest of him, like Alice in Wonderland with her neck grown long. His body feels far away, but he can make it do pushups til his arms give out.

On the weekend, Sebastian takes him down to Westchester for a family dinner. Raven is there. Charles hugs her for a long time, til Sebastian starts to get angry and Charles has to let go.

Sebastian stays with him the whole time; Charles has no chance to speak to Raven alone. Like every formal family dinner since Charles's mum married Kurt, it's tense and all but silent. His mum looks more wan and drained than ever. Across from each other at the dinner table, Charles and Raven look at each other helplessly. They never came up with any sort of secret codes or signals, growing up. They never had to.

He gets to hug her again at the end of the night, too briefly. He's sad to leave, but it feels like it's happening to someone else. He knows the emotion is there, but it barely touches him.

 

Week 6.

The drugs stabilize, or so it feels to Charles. This is probably as good as things are likely to get. He doesn't have to barricade himself inside the bedroom during the day anymore. He's not afraid. He's not anything.

He used to be a person, he thinks. He loved his soulmate. He loved his sister and his mother and the memory of his father. He liked people, as complex and contrary as most of them were. He cared about mutation and mutant education. He had favorite foods and favorite songs. He enjoyed sex, as unbelievable as that seems now. He liked learning new things. He had opinions.

Or maybe he didn't. Maybe that was a delusion. Maybe he was never anything, just a patchwork cobbled together from all the other minds he sensed, a mirror reflecting them back to themselves. And now that they're gone, there's nothing left of what seemed to be a person.

It explains a lot. He knows the world hasn't really changed, it's only that he's changed. Sebastian's started taking him places, and people look at him and talk to him and sometimes their faces stretch into smiles or their eyebrows knit, but there's no real emotion. Of course there isn't, of course no one cares about him now. There's nothing really there to care about.

Like the empty things he senses from Sebastian, Charles is just a surface. He always was, but now there's nothing to fill the inside.

 

Week 8.

Each day, Sebastian checks to make sure Charles swallows his morning pill. Mouth open, tongue out, tongue up, hands out, show he hasn't hidden it anywhere.

This morning, Charles licks Sebastian's fingers when Sebastian gives him the pill. Sebastian flares with satisfaction and pleasure.

Sebastian still checks, of course. He checks especially carefully. But that's fine. Charles knew he would, he took it. He takes a lot more than that, before Sebastian goes.

 

Week 9.

Charles keeps taking the pills while he makes it part of their morning routine to lick and suck Sebastian's fingers. It leads to a few more morning blowjobs than Sebastian might've demanded otherwise.

But finally, finally, he licks Sebastian's fingers, he opens his mouth, moves his tongue, shows his hands, and Sebastian's satisfied, Sebastian's pleased.

He leaves, and Charles goes to the refrigerator. Sebastian started buying him sports drinks when he noticed Charles has been exercising during the days. Charles takes out a bottle of Muscle Milk. The label covers the outside; the drink itself is opaque.

Charles tips the bottle against his mouth and tongues the pill into the bottle. Screws on the lid, and puts it back inside.

He's accustomed enough to the empty world, now, that he doesn't crave Sebastian's emotions so desperately anymore. If it's a choice between nothing and that heartless, smug satisfaction, Charles is ready to choose nothing.

Sebastian got careless; Charles saw him entering the code for the security system. But Sebastian gets some sort of alert whenever the code is entered. If Charles is going to leave, he can't just wait for Sebastian to go in to the office. He needs Sebastian to sleep long enough for Charles to get to Raven. Leaving at night wouldn't work. Sebastian wakes easily, and he's usually touching Charles, an arm thrown over him, something. And sometimes he locks Charles in the cage under the bed.

Charles isn't sure how many pills it will take. Maybe six. Maybe eight. He thinks Sebastian's giving him Valium. His memory isn't working the way it used to do, but he thinks a standard dose is ten milligrams, and he's sure he read that even five hundred milligrams isn't enough to really harm an adult. He should probably do it with eight.

It'll take time. He can't suck the pill into his cheek to hide it every time, it's tricky, and he only has to get caught once to ruin everything. But he may as well try.

He's not anything now, so there's nothing to lose.

====

Even after they let him out of the hospital, Erik isn't well enough to travel yet. His sense of direction is so mixed up he can barely walk in a straight line, at first; they take him home in a wheelchair.

When he first arrived at the Stones's, the fact that there was no metal in his room felt like an attack. Gradually, over the last couple of years, the Stones relaxed about it. Now the metal's gone again, and Erik keeps seeing Jason's bandaged wrist over and over in his mind.

"The doctors think you should stay on the Psychitrex for..." Aileen trails off.

Erik looks up at her. "For how long?"

She gives him a helpless shrug. Gerald steps in. "We think maybe you could try dialing your dose back. It's why we took the metal things out of your room."

It's the last thing he expected from them. "You'd let me stop?"

"Why don't we try cutting your pills in half, to start with?" Aileen suggests. "And if you don't have any trouble with metal..."

"If you don't, then we see about going down from there."

Erik's mattress is made of foam, the bedframe made of wood. He sits down carefully on the edge of it, looking up at them.

Gerald takes a seat next to Erik and takes his hand. His wedding ring, his watch, they're both gone. But he's got his hand on Erik's. Erik squeezes back as Aileen slips out the door.

"When I was a kid, I had cancer," Gerald says softly. "We didn't know until later that the treatment damaged our bond. I hadn't sparked yet when I got sick, so we really didn't know the difference for a long time. But when we met in person, we couldn't hide from it anymore. We never had what we were supposed to have."

He's told Jason; maybe now he can afford to tell the Stones, too. "I used to be able to hear him. His voice." Gerald's hand tightens on his. "When it happened... I heard him tell me, Graymalkin, Westchester, New York. But since then I haven't heard anything."

"Can you still feel him?"

"I don't know. It's so different, and with the Psychitrex..." He glances around the room. "I can't feel anything."

"Maybe you'll feel it more when we dial your dose down."

Erik doesn't mean to, but he squeezes Gerald's hand. Gerald doesn't seem to mind.

-

It's another six weeks before the dosage is all the way to zero, and even then Erik has to be careful. He owned so many metal things, almost all of which need to be replaced-- his pens and pencils, for instance. He ends up using felt-tip pens and all-wooden pencils, and he has to look carefully at the paper when he's writing. They let him finish out the rest of the school year at home, let him take the final exams after everyone else has come home for the summer. The Stones really pushed for that; they say it's important, so that he won't be held back a grade when he comes back to school in the fall.

If he comes back in the fall. Right now he doesn't care about that.

Everyone knows this day's been coming, but when Erik tells them he and Jason have plane tickets for tomorrow's flight, the Stones surprise him again. Gerald asks him something Erik never even considered.

"Can we go with you?"

Erik just stares for a few seconds, then finally shakes his head, hefts his backpack over his shoulder. "You don't have to do that. Jason's coming with me. We'll be fine."

"You're not fine," Aileen protests, but Gerald rests his hand on her arm, and she quiets. "Erik, what if it happens again? Your-- powers. What if you get hurt?"

"I still have my Psychitrex," Erik says quietly. And he does. He's going to need it for the plane ride. He doesn't think anything would happen, he's tested and tested and tested his abilities since the hospital, these last few weeks especially, but a passenger plane is nothing but thin sheet metal supporting two hundred people, if he's wrong.

"Pat Wyngarde called this morning to let us know, so... we got you some things," Gerald says. Aileen nods, sighing. "We kind of didn't think you'd want us going with you, but we had to ask."

"Thank you," Erik whispers. "I-- thank you. For asking."

"Come to the dining room?"

Erik follows him, already nervous, restless, ready to leave. But when Gerald brings him into the dining room there's a brand-new cell phone, still in its box, on the table. There's a little cash, looks like five twenties. There's a credit card. There's a picture-- the only picture they have of the three of them. And there's a small, ugly copper sculpture, shiny as a new penny. It's a sculpture of a bird, but not a very good one.

"We would really like it," Gerald says, "if you'd call us. Every night, if you can. It doesn't matter how late. But you can use the phone as much as you need to. You can use the credit card, too--"

"--if you need a hotel room, meals. New clothes." Aileen fixes him with a look. "Obviously we're going to ask you to be responsible." Her expression softens a little. "But if you find him, you can use it to buy plane tickets home, too."

Erik sags a little against the dining room table. "You didn't have to do all this."

"Erik..." Gerald reaches out, hesitates, finally pats Erik's back. "We care about you."

He nods, and reaches out for the bird sculpture. "What's this for...?"

"For you," Aileen says. "We thought... for practice. If you'd had a hand injury we would have gotten you one of those rubber balls to squeeze..."

Erik pulls the sculpture close, breathes in and out for a few minutes. All this time they've been so anxious about his abilities, especially Aileen, but now... now, when it matters most...

"Thank you," he whispers. He sets the sculpture down carefully, and slips their picture into his wallet.

-

Jason checks his watch. "Okay. One hour to our flight," he says. He looks evenly at Erik. "Say the word and we drive it. It'll only take a couple days."

"It'll take three days," Erik says. He remembers road trips. He knows how far New York is. He knows they aren't going to drive all day and night for this, that they'll both need their rest. "I'll take the pill."

Jason hands him a bottle of water, and Erik stares down at the pill in his hand for several seconds. But eventually he grimaces and swallows it, and he leans against Jason's shoulder when it's down, eyes closed, hand wrapped around the bird sculpture.

It's not a bird anymore. Now it's a hunk of metal, misshapen, squeezed and stretched like Play-Doh. He keeps squeezing, but it gets harder and harder, more and more rigid. When the bench beneath them disappears and it feels like they're being held up by nothing, when the structure of the building goes away, when the copper solidifies and he can't change it anymore, he knows he's safe.

Safe. He's never felt less safe in his life.

"You know what I do on planes, right?" Jason asks softly. Erik nods. Jason's never content to let a plane be a plane; he always changes it to some other environment. A beach. A castle. A salon. "Do you want in?"

"Maybe. I'll tell you when we're on board."

The minute they're on, Erik grabs for Jason's hand and nods. They're in this huge metal tube, only he can't feel it. How can it possibly stay in the air if he can't feel it? It's not real, it's not really metal, none of it is real, it isn't safe, what was he thinking--

And just like that he's in a meadow, a breeze drifting through his hair. He's in a camp chair, under the shade of a tree.

It's not real, but nothing is, so it's okay. It's fine. He reaches over to Jason, in his camp chair, and exhales softly.

"Thank you."

"Always."

-

After they land, as the Psychitrex wears off, it becomes more and more clear: Erik's sense for his soulmate's direction has been coming back along with his magnetism.

He doesn't get anything of his bondmate's emotions, all the vibrant feelings that used to reverberate between them, but he definitely feels a pull. It's not nearly as strong as it was, but in the hours after their plane arrives at Westchester County Airport, as the metal bones of the world reform solidly around him, Erik feels enough to follow. He could make his way east blindfolded.

From the groundwork they started while Erik was still in the hospital, researching ahead of time, they know Graymalkin must be Graymalkin Lane in Westchester, New York. There are only three families living on the lane, but all three are huge estates. There wasn't any way to reach those people from a distance-- even the Wyngardes, with their ties to East Coast old money, couldn't find an in with any of them.

Jason rents them a car, and they drive up and down the road. After half a dozen passes, Erik ventures, "Maybe that one? I don't know, it's like there's something in that direction, but..."

"Fuck it, won't hurt to ring the bell," says Jason. "Let me handle this part." With a quick sweep of his ability, he's not a travel-rumpled teenager in jeans anymore. He's neatly dressed in the slacks, blazer and tie of a school uniform, complete with a tie clip. His hair is perfect, he looks bright-eyed and handsome. It's all Jason's own looks, just shined up a little. He looked a lot like that for their junior prom.

All that, and it turns out they never see anyone in person. There's a wall around the estate and a gate barring the drive. The gate is mild carburized steel, worked to look like wrought iron, with CARRINGTON part of the design.

The video surveillance system gazes down at them pitilessly. Jason takes a couple of minutes to spiff himself up really, since his illusions don't transmit on video. Erik can't believe combed hair is going to make a difference one way or another, but when Jason nudges him, he goes through the motions before they approach the gate.

"Hello, I'm Jason Wyngarde. Sorry to bother you. My friend and I are seeking, and we're getting something from this direction. We're wondering if anyone here is waiting for eir soulmate," Jason says to the intercom at the gate.

"I'm sorry, there's no one of seeking age here right now," a voice responds.

"My friend felt that his soulmate might've been sick or hurt-- it would've happened eight weeks ago. Has anyone here gone through anything like that?"

"No, I think you definitely have the wrong place."

"No point putting it off, we'll try the other two," says Jason, driving the car back onto Graymalkin.

The next place has Xavier carved into the stone of the wall. "I wonder if there was some kind of escalation between these guys and the Carringtons," Jason says. "Oh yeah? Well we'll put our name in metal in the gate, beat that! Oh yeah? Then we'll chisel ours into the wall!"

Erik can't laugh with him. He feels so restless he can barely contain it. Since he woke up from the loss of his bond, all he's longed and fought for is the chance to follow his soulmate's last clue to him, Graymalkin, Westchester, New York. But now that he's arrived, Erik just wants to be gone from here. He can feel this isn't right.

They have to deal with an intercom again at the Xavier place. The man who replies has an English accent, like a butler in a movie. Jason asks the same questions, and gets similar answers. The family's teenagers are away. There's no one unbonded here, not among the residents or the staff. Jason doesn't even get a chance to ask if anyone here was sick or hurt eight weeks ago-- the intercom clicks off while he's still talking.

The last family, the Pryces, are all abroad attending a wedding. No one who works on the estate is unbonded.

"I'm not so sure about the statistics there," says Jason. "It seems like we should've at least come across one or two unbonded people. Everybody working in the kitchens, every single person mopping the floors, they're all bonded? I wonder if they're just lying to put us off."

"It doesn't matter," Erik says. "Here isn't right. If he was here before, he's not anymore. I can feel that he's north of here." He holds his windcatcher between his palms. When he lost his soulmate and his magnetism went haywire, the windcatcher sealed into a grooved disk. Erik's been working on it ever since to get it back to what it was. It's almost there, but he doesn't have the control anymore to be as precise on a small scale as he used to be. No one would be able to tell with the naked eye that it's not as smooth and polished as it was before, but Erik knows. He'll keep trying til it's perfect again.

"North, then," says Jason.

They arrive in New York City that night.

From there it takes a week for Erik to realize they need to be in Manhattan, and a few more days to chase it down to the Murray Hill area, but the pull doesn't guide him anywhere more specifically than that.

It's driving Erik out of his mind to walk along the streets and feel so close without ever getting anything more to go on. He's cried so much on Jason by now that it's a miracle all Jason's shirts aren't tearstained at the shoulder.

"It'll happen," says Jason, over and over. "It got us this far."

-

On their fourth night in Murray Hill, Erik's tapping the windcatcher with his fingertip, frustrated that the rings don't move as easily as they did before, when suddenly he feels a little swell of power. He rubs his thumb over the rings, and the last tiny warps and scratches melt away. The windcatcher is as smooth now as the day he finished it, the rings spinning freely.

Erik reaches toward the copper his foster parents gave him, what started as a bird sculpture: it's in an egg shape right now, across the room. It takes some concentration, but it rolls toward him and then, wobbling, flies to his hand.

"Whoa," Jason sits up. "You okay?"

"I don't know," Erik says. "I feel like I got a boost." He goes to their luggage and digs out the condensed mass of Jason's wristband. Sitting on the bed, he molds it with both hands, and slowly, the crumpled bronze forms a rough ring. It's still not nearly as easy as it used to be, he's sweating a little from the effort, but it's much easier than it's been since he lost the bond.

"The bond," he tells Jason, eyes flying wide open. "I think I feel that more too."

"It's after midnight," Jason says, but he's already pulling his jacket on, stepping into his shoes.

Even with the stronger call from the bond, it still takes hours to find the right block, and then the right building, and then the right floor.

Erik's pulse races, his palms damp, his breath coming too fast. "Here," he stands squarely in front of 1062. It seems impossible that it's just an anonymous door, exactly the same as every other door they've passed.

It's seven AM, late enough. Erik rings the bell, knocks on the door, pounds on it. He can actually feel himself losing it, bit by bit. This is it, it's leading him here, and all he can think is what he's been denying to himself since Graymalkin Lane was a bust-- he doesn't feel his soulmate's emotions anymore, just a direction. He can't feel the other half of his soul. He refuses to believe there's nothing left to feel, he can't believe that, but beyond that door, what they might find...

They're going to find out. Erik grips the doorknob, presses his palm against the deadbolt; he reshapes and contracts all the metal, the entire lock mechanism, and just pulls it all out.

He shoves open the door, and no alarms go off, but there's a keypad for a security system blinking wildly. Erik puts his hand over it, scrambles the circuits inside. Jason gives a low whistle, looking at the wreck of the front door.

They search quickly. No one in the living room, the kitchen, the office. The last door has to be the bedroom and Erik's soulmate has to be in there.

Erik flings it open.

There's a figure on the bed, unnaturally still, but Erik knows on sight that the man sprawled there isn't any part of him.

He feels it, he definitely feels it, right here, here, but the room has nothing but a dresser, a bedside table and the bed, a huge, excessive thing with a slave cage built into the base, a red submissive's pallet lining the floor inside.

And in the cage, huddled back and away from the bars, staying very very still... Erik sees him. His other half, his dominant. This is so wrong, it's like something from a horror story, someone humiliating a dom by treating him like a sub.

Erik can't believe he's still breathing. It doesn't seem like there should be any room left inside him for air when every inch of him is taken up with rage. But he is, he's breathing, he's skidding into the room and dropping to his knees-- not how he ever imagined he'd first kneel for his soulmate.

He doesn't even feel the exertion as he takes hold of the cage door and pulls til it rips off, throws it aside. Erik holds out his hands and says, "I'm here."

His soulmate stares out at him, huge blue eyes, a pale face, mostly in shadow. Erik's heart is in his throat, he doesn't know what he'll do if his soulmate won't come to him. It feels like he'd just collapse into nothing right here.

And then all at once his soulmate climbs out of the cage and into Erik's arms.

Erik clings to him and sits back, pulling him further from the cage, holding on. "I'm here. I'm here, I'm so sorry, I got here as soon as I could."

His soulmate is collared with a thick metal chain. He's shirtless and barefoot, nothing but thin pants made of the crepey material of a classic houseslave outfit-- Erik wants to destroy whoever dressed him this way, but the rage melts so fast his head spins as his soulmate settles more closely against him, his skin warming in contact with Erik's.

He fits in Erik's arms perfectly. Erik's always been skinny as a rail; Jason sometimes teases him that he doesn't have anywhere to put a ribcage. His soulmate's build isn't quite so narrow, but he's shorter, a little smaller, and he looks underweight even for his slight frame. The fury starts kindling in Erik again.

And it fades again as his soulmate runs his hands lightly over Erik's shoulders and chest. He asks, "Are you all right?" A low voice, an English accent. Of course, God, of course that's exactly what he sounds like, that's the voice Erik's been waiting to hear for so long...

"I'm--" Erik fumbles it a little. "I'm all right, for now." All these weeks, all these years, this is really him, they're together. All Erik wants to do is find somewhere to lie with his soulmate and hold him, tangling up with him as close as they can physically get. But Jason's followed him in, getting between them and the other person in the room, and Erik remembers to worry. "The man in the bed..."

"Sebastian Shaw." His soulmate holds onto him more tightly, his arms strong. "We should go. Before he wakes up."

"Guys... we need to call the police," Jason says quietly. "He's not going to wake up."

Erik's soulmate makes a distressed noise; Erik instinctively gets them both further back away from the bed, across the room. His soulmate looks from Erik to Jason and huddles even closer to Erik, disbelief shot through his voice. "What?"

Jason makes the short sweeping gesture he uses to indicate he's casting an illusion, briefly showing Erik that he's making himself and the man on the bed look still and shadowed for Erik's soulmate. To Erik himself, Jason says, even but strained, "I can't find a pulse, and he's definitely not breathing." He keeps rubbing his hands, like he's trying to wipe away the sensation of touching the man's body.

"Okay." Erik's just barely holding it together-- when he hugs his soulmate again, it's as much for his own comfort as for... it strikes him that he doesn't even know his soulmate's name. Erik backs off enough to see his face, more clearly now that he's out of shadow. He's even more pale than he looked before, his eyes wide and vivid blue, and he's looking at Erik... if everything weren't so wrong, that look would be enough to make the rest of the world disappear.

But everything is so, so wrong-- his soulmate has bruises, one mottling the curve of his cheekbone, another at the corner of his mouth. Erik eases up on his embrace a little, suddenly horrified that he might be hurting his soulmate, if he's bruised anywhere else.

"My name is Erik. What's yours?"

His soulmate touches Erik's cheek. "Charles Xavier."

Erik closes his eyes and just sinks into that touch. Of course. Of course that's his name. "Charles. I love you." He kisses Charles's forehead. "I love you. I'm here."

Despite everything, Charles caresses his face and smiles a little. "You're all right. I've missed you..."

"I missed you, too." He wants to wrap Charles in his arms and squeeze him close, but there are more bruises on his shoulders and his neck, and pink marks on his back that could be abraded, and Erik can't stand to risk hurting him. He settles for gently stroking his hair, brown and silky under his fingers. "Charles, is there a telephone?"

Charles points at the bedside table. "In the drawer. It's locked."

"Do you need me to...?" Erik asks Jason reluctantly. He doesn't want to move, doesn't want to let go of Charles.

Jason looks at the lock, shakes his head. "No, I can handle this." He conjures a handful of putty and shoves it into the lock, hardens it, and turns it, vanishing the illusion after and pulling the drawer out. "There we go."

Charles watches that and smiles a little at Erik. Just that tiny curve of his lips is enough to take Erik's breath away. "You're mutants."

"Yes. And you?" That voice in his head... he's always imagined... he kisses Charles's brow again. "Telepathy?"

A few seconds pass before Charles answers. Eyes brimming, he finally murmurs, "Not anymore."

Erik has no idea what to say to that. Bad enough to lose the metal foundations of his world. If Charles could read minds, and can't now... it's hard to imagine. Metal was missing for Erik, but it wasn't walking around trying to ask him questions.

On the phone, Jason quietly explains the situation, tells them they need police, and an ambulance for Charles. He asks if they can come without sirens on; he's eyeing Charles with concern.

It's clear why. Charles peers around anxiously, looking at the unmoving man on the bed, and Jason, and back to Erik. "Is your friend holding him like that?"

Trying to tamp down all his anger, Erik says, "He's not breathing, Charles. There's no pulse. Jason's calling an ambulance."

"Why?" Charles clutches Erik's arms.

"It looks like he managed to choke to death," says Jason, looking green. "Probably in his sleep, sometime." He gets on his knees next to them on the floor, putting himself on their level but staying a good yard away. "How long have you been locked up down there?"

A shiver runs through Charles, but he looks at Erik and his shoulders settle a little. "Since half nine last night. Early."

That man, Shaw, he's so incredibly lucky he's already dead. If Erik had come here to find things like this, and Shaw were alive... he would've wrapped that cage door around the man's neck and maybe, maybe, eventually let him choke to death.

"You were in there all night," Jason looks sickened, but not surprised. "Do you know when he went to bed?"

Brow furrowing, Charles looks from Erik to Jason and back, studying Erik. "Not long after."

"Okay. The police and the ambulance are on their way. Charles, do you want to get dressed?"

Charles looks searchingly at Erik again with a frown of puzzled concentration. Erik can't imagine what he's looking for. Reassurance, maybe.

"It's all right now. It's going to be all right," says Erik. He puts every atom of conviction he feels into his voice and promises, "No one is ever going to hurt you again."

He's not sure it's really what Charles is after, but slowly, Charles nods. "I can dress. If that's all right. My clothes are in there." He points to the bottom drawer of the dresser behind them.

Erik reluctantly lets go. "Of course that's all right."

Right away, Jason comes over and puts both hands on Erik's shoulders, kneading. "Breathe. Breathe."

"I'm breathing," Erik mutters.

Charles watches them nervously. "What's wrong...?"

Erik stares at him. When he seeks out Jason's gaze he finds Jason's wearing a matching look of disbelief.

It's a mistake. Charles crosses his arms protectively over his chest, growing even more tense.

Quickly climbing to his feet, Erik holds out his hand, only offering it, not trying to touch or grab for Charles too soon. "It's all right. It's all right, Charles-- We were just..." How can he not know this? How is it not obvious, what Erik would be feeling now?

But it isn't. And Erik can't feel Charles, either. He's waited all this time to be together, and now he can't feel their bond, all the emotions that they've shared since they were twelve.

He wonders, for a moment, if the Stones felt this scared, this convinced something was wrong, when they first met each other, and felt their damaged bond. And then he thinks about Charles, only having his senses to go on... and one of them is missing.

"We were worried about you," Erik finishes, trying to sound the way he feels: concerned, protective. It feels ridiculous. He wishes he'd let Jason talk him into drama classes. Maybe then he wouldn't feel as if he's overdoing everything.

Charles takes his hand anyway, standing and sidling close to Erik. He swallows hard, still distraught, and he looks at the body on the bed, his eyes wide, face strained.

Erik pulls him close, whispering to him fiercely, "I would have been here sooner. I was so afraid. I didn't sleep, but I couldn't move, I couldn't see anything, they had me on Psychitrex for weeks. I would have been here so much sooner."

Leaning into him, Charles rests his hands at Erik's waist, touching a little hesitantly. "You're here now."

"I'm here now. And I'll do anything. Anything you need. I love you," Erik says, squeezing his soulmate gently.

Not gently enough. Charles makes a pained noise, Erik must have compressed one of his less obvious bruises.

Erik pulls back right away. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry--" He looks at Charles, and he just can't believe that anyone could ever allow him to come to harm, that anyone could see him and want to hurt him-- how is that even possible? He glares over at Shaw, dead, too easily dead after what he's done. Erik's hands clench into fists; the bedframe shakes.

Shaw, the bed, and Charles's bruises all vanish-- Jason's blanking them out. He grabs Erik by the arm. "Calm down. You have to calm down right now."

The urge is there to shake him off, even Jason, even his best friend, but Erik looks at Charles, who's gazing toward the cage under the bed like he'd rather go back there, as if he longs to hide.

Breathing hard, Erik leans against Jason. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry--"

Jason slaps Erik's hand over his own wristband despite the danger, resisting Erik's effort to wrench his hand away. "I trust you. But you have to hold it together. When this is over I will make you a safe place to get this out of your system, but right now, hold it together for your dom."

Jason is right. Charles might look small and lost right now, but Erik sees it in him. This is his soulmate, his dominant, it doesn't matter if right now he's hurt, if he's bruised, if he's stark white and verging on panic. It doesn't matter that he's cleaving to Erik and asking, "How did he die?" Erik owes him every bit of his loyalty and respect and protection, no matter what.

Erik looks at Jason, nodding back at the bed. "I'm all right." He holds Charles close, trying to keep him comforted and calm.

"Okay," says Jason, as the room reforms into place: the bed, Shaw, Charles's marks. Jason asks Charles, "Did he do drugs?"

Charles shrinks away from Jason a little. He fastens his gaze on Erik, making an obvious effort to respond. "I don't think so. He said he went to a bar... he didn't seem drunk."

"I think he had a little more than he was telling you," says Jason.

"He was fine when he got here," Charles tells Erik. "He didn't drink any more that I saw."

Jason says, "Okay. Charles... why don't you go ahead and get dressed? The ambulance is on its way; once they've taken care of you, they'll figure out what happened to him. We don't have to think about it right now."

Charles watches them both closely, throwing wary glances at Jason and more of those searching looks at Erik. Slowly, he kneels by the dresser and opens a drawer, digging through clothes. Most of what's in there is just as flimsy as what he's wearing, typical houseslave stuff. He takes out a thin charcoal v-neck sweater and shrugs it on quickly. He looks up at them both again, worry evident.

Erik swallows and attempts an encouraging nod.

Getting a pair of black trousers out of the drawer, Charles nods back to him and ventures, "Could you turn round, please?"

"I'll step out," Jason says right away.

"His mutation comes with an extra spatial sense. Just turning around wouldn't give you privacy," Erik explains.

"Oh... I see." Charles stirs a little. He raises his voice, calling after Jason, "Thank you."

As he goes, Jason flashes up a little sign that says "YOU'RE WELCOME." Charles stares at the illusion, reaching to touch the words. They vanish before he has a chance, and Erik remembers himself and turns quickly.

He hears rustling and the drawer sliding again, and then Charles is close to him, sliding a hand into his and softly saying, "Thanks."

Erik squeezes his hand, drawing Charles with him as far across the room as it's possible to get, away from the man... the body, God... on the bed.

It seems like for whatever reason, Charles gets agitated when Erik's not talking; "You look... better," Erik tries, but he can't sustain it. The v-neck sweater only calls his attention again to the collar around his dominant's neck. "He-- collared you...?"

"Yes." Charles pulls at it restlessly. He looks unhappy, but not outraged, the way Erik would expect. "It won't come off."

Erik swallows. "I can try, if you want. I'm... it's metal. My power. I can move metal."

"Metallokinetic?" Charles asks, animating slightly.

"Yes. Less now, than... before. But--" he nods down at the door to the underbed cage. "I don't have enhanced strength. I was pulling at the metal."

Charles turns the collar, feeling the links, trying to show him something. "One should be weaker than the others. He bent that one himself."

"I'm sorry," Erik has to close his eyes and gather himself again. "I'm trying not to... I'm so angry at him..." It's an effort just to get his eyes open. "Not you. Not you."

"You didn't..." Charles asks hesitantly, "or your friend..." He indicates the bed. "You didn't do that."

"He was like that when we came in."

"That's good," Charles seems relieved.

"Yes," Erik grits his teeth. "It is."

"How did you find me?" His soulmate's looking at him sadly; he has to ask, and worse still, he adds, "I can't-- feel you."

"I can still feel you. Not like before, but... I can feel where you are. It got easier a few hours ago..." Erik looks at the man on the bed again, wondering if there could be a connection.

"You feel me, I don't feel you. That's... poetic," Charles murmurs abstractly. It's like he's disappearing again, only this time Erik's right here to see it happen.

"May I take that collar off you? Please," Erik asks through the tears that keep trying to fall.

"Yes," Charles says, tipping his head back.

Erik wipes his eyes, warning, "I'm going to have to touch it, and it might not be fast. I'm sorry."

Charles rests his hands feather light on Erik's shoulders. "It doesn't matter how long it takes."

Taking a deep breath, Erik touches the metal. He's startled right away; he's never felt anything like it before, nothing at all. "What kind of...?" He is not asking Charles what kind of metal this is, he will find out later, when the idea of this metal doesn't make him want to drive the bedsprings through Shaw's dead body. He feels for the hand-bent link: There you are, you son of a bitch.

"Calm your mind," Charles soothes, stroking his fingertips over Erik's collarbone.

Now that he's not clearing his eyes, Erik's crying outright. He can't see very well, but he doesn't need to see to accomplish this. He rubs gently at the weak link with his thumb, coaxing the metal link to curve open for him.

"I feel that," Charles encourages him. "It's moving."

Erik nods, his throat so tight. It doesn't have to be a dramatic feat, he reminds himself. The link only has to part enough to make space for the next link to slip through the gap. Another few moments, and he has it, the collar's undone, he can pull it off Charles's neck, throw it on the ground. He has a mad urge to step on it. "There."

Charles touches his bare neck where the collar had been, relief in his eyes. "Thank you." He slips his arms around Erik again. "Erik. After all this time, I know your name."

This time when he embraces Charles, Erik is much more careful. "Charles, I'm going to get you out of here," his voice breaks. "I'll take you wherever you want to go. Anything you want. I love you. I'm yours."

"I don't care where we go," Charles answers, low. "I just want to be with you."

Erik moves them toward the door. "Then let's start by getting out of this room," he says, and they leave together.

-

Bad as it was to find Charles that way, dealing with what comes next is worse. EMTs and police arrive, and if Charles was nervous about Jason, he's obviously terrified of the strangers searching the apartment and examining him.

He bears up, his hand gripping Erik's brutally hard, but his eyes are wild and he's trembling, his voice dwindling to a whisper when he speaks at all. Erik can't stand letting these people get close to Charles and touch him when he's this scared, but the EMTs must have experience dealing with frantic soulmates. They let Erik stay with Charles, and work around him.

He's still angry at them. They won't let Charles eat or even drink anything. They say it's because they don't know what drugs are in his system or whether he's sick in ways that aren't obvious yet, but it still has Erik fuming.

Worse, Erik explains to them that Charles is a telepath whose ability is cut off right now, and they shrug as if that equals out to normal.

"He's not baseline," Erik insists. "He's lost a sense. It's like he's blinded. You need to tell him what you're doing and why you're doing it, even if it seems obvious to you."

They're a little better after that, but Charles is still shivering under the blanket they gave him, trying to watch both of them at once.

"Where you want to go when all this is over?" Erik asks, trying to distract him. "Anywhere."

Charles looks around at the EMTs and police officers with suspicion and whispers, "Let's not say now."

The detective who seems to be in charge comes into the living room with evidence bags, pill bottles inside and prescription sheets. He asks an EMT, "Can I borrow one of you guys for a minute? How dangerous are these?"

"Psychitrex is pretty benign, it only works on X-gene mutants to suppress the effects of the mutation. Basically just gives humans dry mouth. Temazepam... that can be dangerous. Take a few of those with alcohol and you're in bad shape."

"Like dead kind of bad shape?"

"It can happen," the EMT agrees.

The detective turns to Erik. "Ready to answer some questions?"

"Whatever I can."

"You came here seeking him?" The detective nods toward Charles.

"Yes."

"You and your friend, the other kid," the detective jerks a thumb behind him. A different guy is questioning Jason across the room, out of earshot.

"Wyngarde," says the officer who took all their details. "This one's Erik Lehnsherr, he's Charles Xavier."

"Right. Erik. I need you to tell me everything you touched on your way into the apartment. Did you take out that lock on the front door?"

"Yes. And the control panel for the alarm on the wall. And then the door to the cage under the bed. Jason opened the drawer by the bed so we could call for help."

"He jimmied the lock on the drawer there? Did either of you touch anything else in the drawer?"

"I didn't. I don't think Jason did. I was holding onto Charles by then, I wasn't watching..."

"Shaw, the guy on the bed. How'd he look when you got here?"

Erik keeps his voice even, his face hard. If they suspect him of doing something to Shaw-- of doing what he wishes he'd done to Shaw-- they'll take him away from Charles. "He looked just like that. Dead. He didn't move when I ripped the bars off the cage."

"Did you try it first to see if it was locked?"

"No. But when I pulled at first it didn't open."

"So, front door lock, alarm system, cage door. Your friend opened the drawer and took out the phone. You touch anything else?"

"No," Erik says. "Or-- yes. The collar Shaw put on Charles. I took it off him."

"That was you. Okay. Now we're getting somewhere." He turns to Charles. "What's your relationship to Sebastian Shaw?"

Charles stares at him, nearly unblinking, his hand crushing Erik's. "We're legally recognized."

Erik feels sick, he wants to scream, but he just wraps his arm more securely around Charles and holds him.

"You're recognized with Dr. Shaw, but you're bonded to him?" The detective indicates Erik.

So quietly, Charles answers, "Dr. Shaw had a theory about making changes to the bond. He wanted to test it on someone with a lot of psionic energy. He cut my real bond and made an artificial one between himself and me."

"Oh my God," Erik can't stop himself from saying it, or keep the horror out of his voice.

"I'm sorry," Charles tells him, almost inaudible. To the detective he says, "I think... I think everything about it is in his office somewhere."

"I don't know what Shaw did to us, but Charles and I sparked when we were twelve," Erik says. "I followed bond intuition here, we knew each other on sight. I am Charles's soulmate."

"Yes," Charles says, definite.

"Okay," the detective just notes something down and moves on. "Somebody was on Psychitrex, who's a mutant? You or Dr. Shaw?"

"Both," Charles is back to whispering.

"Who was taking the suppressant?"

"I think me."

"You think?"

"He didn't tell me what it was," Charles leans against Erik, closing his eyes. "One pill every night. Then two weeks after we came here... a different pill every morning."

The detective keeps asking questions, and Erik tries to answer what he can, but Charles won't say anything else, curling up tighter against Erik and withdrawing into himself.

Erik just keeps telling himself he has to cooperate to protect Charles, but when the detective asks if Charles will undergo an exam with a sexual assault evidence kit, Erik snaps.

"Why would we put him through that?" he hisses. "The bastard's dead."

"He is," says the detective. "And I'm guessing we're going to find out this was death by misadventure. Maybe suicide. But maybe not, depending on the coroner's report. If this was a murder, your soulmate's going to be a suspect, and in that case... it might help to have evidence of what's been going on here."

Charles tugs Erik down toward him and whispers in his ear, "I'll do it."

-

Erik didn't think anything could hurt as much as it hurt to lose his mother. But the hospital is agonizing.

When it's time to do the evidence kit, Charles flicks a look over the nurse and the officer. "Can he stay?" He turns to Erik. "Will you stay?"

"Of course I'll stay," Erik tells him, ready to fight if anyone tries to tell him otherwise.

No one does, but Erik has to sit and stay out of the way so that he doesn't contaminate the evidence. They're already going to have to take his fingerprints and samples of his hair.

Charles avoids looking at anyone else, the officer, the nurse. He catches Erik's eyes now and then, looking at him seriously, unreadable. The nurse wears nitrile gloves and only touches him lightly when it's necessary, but Charles shudders in response anyway, and Erik grips the legs of the chair hard, the metal crumpling under his hands. He can't stand this, he can't do this, sitting helpless while his soulmate is afraid and hurting... but somehow he has to.

He ruins the chair legs and fixes them, ruins and fixes, over and over again. He has to do something. It's killing him that he can't protect Charles from this. From everything.

When it's over, Charles asks the nurse, so low Erik can barely hear it, "May I shower now?" As if he needs permission. Erik clenches his fists, nails cutting into his palms, forces his hands open.

"Let's get you to your room, you can shower there," the nurse answers. She guides Charles into a wheelchair.

An orderly escorts them to a hospital room. There's already an officer posted by the door.

"What are you doing here?" Erik demands, resting his hand on Charles's shoulder.

"If there was a murder, Xavier's a suspect," the policeman tells him.

"That's why, huh," Erik says. "Not because we're mutants."

"I wouldn't know," the policeman says blandly.

"You just go where they tell you?"

"Pretty much."

Disgusted, Erik turns his back on the officer and goes with Charles into the room. The orderly starts to give Charles a hand out of the chair, but Erik says sharply, "Don't touch him," his nerves frayed to the breaking point. "Just leave us alone."

He closes the door behind the man and returns to Charles's side, uncertain. Physically, Charles isn't badly off. He has some bruises and abrasions, but the nurse said he should heal from that within the week.

But the emotions between them are gone, and after what that bastard did to them, there's no way to know if they'll get that back. And these weeks apart, with everything that's happened, Charles has changed so much... Erik remembers the symphonic sweep of the feelings he received from Charles, confident, audacious, intelligent, passionate, and the quieter nuances, the patience and kindness and devotion.

And now... Charles has retreated into himself so much. They only met a few hours ago, but Charles looks at him now as if Erik is just a memory.

Erik shakes himself, gets a grip. "You wanted to take a shower?" he offers his hand.

Rather than taking it, Charles touches Erik's wrist, as if he wants to ensure he has Erik's attention. As if he doesn't know that Erik has eyes for nothing else.

"I think I might have killed him," Charles whispers.

"Good," Erik says, fierce and immediate.

Charles shakes his head, frowning deeply.

With an effort, Erik doesn't argue the point. "How?"

"I've been hiding the sedatives he gave me," Charles says. "In a protein drink bottle. I keep thinking... if he drank that... when he'd been to a bar..." He breathes shakily. "We should tell someone."

Erik grabs the arms of the chair. "No! Charles, please, don't. They'll take you away from me."

"They may find it."

"Then we'll get you a lawyer. Don't tell them anything. They're human, they'll take any excuse--" but he feels a pang at that, remembering how the Stones were there for him when it mattered. And Charles looks disturbed, too; Erik changes tack. "You don't know what happened, you didn't see it. Please don't, don't go, we can't feel each other-- if they take you--" The arms of the wheelchair are crumpling like tinfoil under his hands. Erik has to focus hard to get them to go back.

It feels like forever before Charles finally nods. "I won't."

Erik hangs his head. "Thank you."

"Don't... I let us in for all this. Erik. I'm so sorry."

"You have nothing to apologize for. You said--" Erik chokes just thinking of it. "You said he wanted to test--"

"During... I could read him, for the first time," Charles tells him, halting. "He wanted an excuse to try this since he met me."

Jason's waiting for Erik, downstairs somewhere. He promised to make Erik a safe place to vent some of this fury. Erik desperately needs it. But for now he has to be strong for Charles, gathering the few shreds of calm he has left, telling him, "There's no reason for you to be sorry. What happened to us wasn't your fault."

Charles slowly nods. "Sorry that it happened, then."

"I'm sorry for that, too. And--" he shouldn't, it's probably not the right time, but he's been waiting for this moment for five years. He wants so much to make this gesture, and he wants Charles to know, to see, that Erik will be here for him, that Erik belongs to him.

Erik kneels at Charles's feet. "I'm sorry I couldn't be here sooner. I wanted to be. More than anything."

Charles reaches out without hesitation; this is the most certain that Erik has seen him. He smooths back Erik's hair and slides a caress down his neck, and he's finally speaking above a murmur when he says, "I know." He gazes at Erik, his blue eyes focused and soft. "Look at you. Perfect. You're like a dream..." His expression clouds over, hands dropping back into his lap. "No. Everything else is like a dream."

Erik catches both of Charles's hands in his, keeping his touch as light as he can. "I'm what's real. And I'm going to help you wake up."

For a long moment, Charles just looks at him, indecipherable. But then Charles leans forward, and he presses his lips lightly to Erik's cheek; he stays close, brushing Erik's face with his.

His breath warms Erik's skin when he softly says. "I've loved you... has it really only been five years?"

This time, when the tears come, Erik doesn't fight them, doesn't even want to, so overwhelmed with everything he's feeling. "It seems like so much longer. It seems like all my life."

Charles wraps his arms around Erik's shoulders, and he holds on, after everything, strong.