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Julio measured his day by the meal schedule. Breakfast, it was time to get up, regardless of how much his body protested, and spend the morning learning what he could from the collection of things in his room. Lunch, the day was almost half over, thankfully, and he could either take a midday nap or exercise if his body felt like it, which it hadn't for months. Dinner, there were a few hours of decent prime-time television to mindlessly zone out to before stumbling back to bed, inexplicably exhausted.

For the most part, this was his life. The deviations from the norm were what he had to watch out for.

They had never once meant anything good.

He was flipping through a math textbook aimed at a much younger audience when the door opened. Breakfast sat cold by the door, half-eaten pieces of toast and a picked through pile of fruit, and it was too early for lunch. Something uncomfortable settled in his stomach, and he watched them silently.

A couple of his cousins shuffled in, laughing among themselves, followed by one gringo he'd never seen before in his life. Tall, imposing, with short, mousy brown hair and nondescript brown eyes. Physically fit without being bulky, large hands, lanky in a way that made Julio think they were close in age. He probably looked incredible with his clothes off, but it was his face that really set him apart.

He could have been a model or something. Instead, he'd thrown his lot in with the Richter family.

What a waste.

The guy looked at him suddenly, as if he'd finally noticed Julio sitting there, and Julio stared back, keeping his face impassive, forcing down everything in his belly that was threatening to bubble out of his mouth. His skin was cold and clammy beneath his long-sleeved shirt, heart pulsing like a jackhammer in his chest.

"Have fun," Ramon said, a cruel twist to his voice, and it took a moment for Julio to realize he was speaking to the gringo, not him. He looked around, startled, and noticed a cot had been rolled into the room, and a single cardboard box left by the door. He glanced at Ramon, but he was already leaving.

The door clicked behind him, locking, and the gringo finally looked away.

"What the fuck," Julio said to no one in particular, especially not the bastard they'd left behind.

~~

The thing was that Julio's rooms were his sanctuary. His world was basically this one main room, the attached bathroom, and the balcony. It wasn't a huge amount of space, even for one person, but it was enough to hold his double bed, his myriad of bookcases, a ridiculously large couch, a wobbly coffee table and a television that was basically a relic at this point. He hadn't asked for anything but that.

And now they'd taken that away, too.

He waited for lunch to come, still not hungry, but it never did.

The gringo watched him but didn't speak. Julio, angry, upset, and struggling to swallow both emotions down, tried to nap instead, but sleep didn't come easy, even though his limbs felt heavy and useless. His chest – his stupid fucking chest – ached with some pain he couldn't pinpoint, except that it was persistent and agonizing. When dinner arrived, he didn't bother trying to eat, but the gringo did.

Tomorrow will be better, he told himself, hand pressed to his throbbing ribs. He'd give himself a single day to be pissed, and then he'd accept his new reality like he had accepted everything else in his life.

~~

Julio woke up choking, hand pressed to his throat, fingers on the collar around his neck. Nothing new, except he had an audience for it. Ignoring the watchful gaze, he stumbled into the bathroom and turned on the water, using his palm to shovel enough into his mouth that he felt like he could breathe again. The collar was too tight – felt like a noose most days – but it wasn't worth asking for an adjustment.

He looked at himself in the mirror. The face that stared back was alien to him.

With a cough to clear his throat, he stripped off his shirt and his shorts, tossing them into the laundry pile, then quickly turned away and turned on the shower. As the water heated up, he walked to the small bathroom window and stared out between the bars, watching various family members moving across the yard, armed and dangerous. He scratched over his jaw, watching them march around like ants.

When the room was sufficiently steamy, he removed his underwear and stepped under the water, hand immediately going for his cock, stroking himself. His cock, perfectly trained, hardened in his palm, and he closed his eyes, blocking everything out but the feeling of his fingers sliding over his dick, the only part of his body that still felt like it worked. He moaned, not giving a fuck if his guest heard him or not.

This was the best part of his day. It was almost always downhill from here.

~~

His new roommate was still there when he came out of the shower, dressed in another long-sleeved shirt and a pair of shorts. He scrubbed the towel through his hair, padding across the floor to the food on the table, sitting down on the edge of the couch and beginning to pick through the day's offerings.

Same shit as usual. He still wasn't hungry.

"Do you have a name?" Julio asked, settling on an apple, three pieces of buttered toast, and an egg.

"Smith," the guy replied, sitting on the cot, watching him. "My name is Stan Smith."

Boring name to go with his terrible haircut. Julio thought about saying, shit, dude, how much did your parents hate you? But he was still a little pissed about the circumstances, and he wasn't desperate enough to try and be friendly with this guy just because it felt like nobody had talked to him in months.

At least not yet. Another few days though ... Julio snorted softly, under his breath. He was pathetic.

"Can I just call you Smith?" Julio asked instead, rolling the hard-boiled egg on the table, cracking the shell. Carefully, using only his thumb, he began to peel it. "No offence, but you don't look like a Stan."

"That's acceptable," Smith said. "What should I call you?"

"I don't care," Julio replied, biting into the egg. It was overcooked and needed salt and pepper, but whatever, everything tasted like cardboard to him anyway. "You don't have to call me anything."

"That doesn't seem fair," Smith remarked.

Julio snorted. "Does anything about this seem fair?"

"Not particularly," Smith admitted, quicker than Julio would have expected, and he look at him suspiciously, but he seemed sincere, as much as Julio was a judge of these things anyway. He hadn't had much experience in recent years, and he wouldn't put it past them to send a guy to mess with him.

"Call me Julio," he said, finally, and Smith nodded.

It wasn't like anyone else did.

~~

Julio didn't talk to Smith for another four days, and it was as if Smith hadn't even noticed.

Every day, he just sat there, eyes fixed on some point on the opposite wall, without saying anything.

Twice, they came for Smith and took him out of the room, but it was never for very long.

Julio would have said it was like he wasn't there at all, but both of them would have known it was a lie.

~~

Julio spent the morning with a book, sprawled out on the couch, eyes swimming. Smith just sat there, which had to be boring, and Julio struggled to ignore him. He definitely resented his presence, and even six months ago, probably would have been a complete fuckhead to him, but times had changed. He had changed, for better or worse. And because nobody told him shit, he'd have to talk to him eventually.

If he wanted to know.

If Smith would even tell him.

Julio ran a hand through his hair, pushing it away from his face and over his shoulder. Twisted it in his fingers, then pulled it over his mouth. Smith's gaze shifted to his movements, watching him, just briefly, before impassively looking away again, and Julio exhaled sharply. "What are you doing here?"

"I was hired to be your bodyguard," Smith replied. "I've also been tasked with assisting your rehab."

"I don't want you here," Julio told him, no heat to his voice, just basic, undeniable fact.

"I understand," Smith replied easily, "but I am here. We cannot change that."

Julio laughed, hard and bitter, and inhaled deeply, the faint, lingering scent of his hair conditioner grounding him. Between his fingertips, he rolled his hair, rubbing it across his lips. His feelings were embarrassingly palpable.

"I will not make this worse for you," Smith said.

Julio turned his attention back to his book, swallowing at the bile that rose in his throat, trying not to choke again. "Yeah, well," he said flatly, "you'll have to forgive me if I don't quite believe that."

~~

Julio ate dinner outside, on the balcony. The air was hot and humid, and he found it easier to breathe. With his bare feet resting on the guardrail, he watched the bustle of his family below. Three of his cousins stood in a circle, smoking sweet-smelling cigarettes and punctuating the air with laughter and bravado. No one looked up at him – they never did – which made it easier to take in the scene unabashedly.

When he was finished eating, he headed back inside. Smith looked up briefly, expression impossible to read, and Julio wondered why he was just ... accepting his presence. Was he really so starved for human contact that he'd take a complete stranger whose entire purpose in life was to make his even worse?

Yep, Julio decided. No point in trying to lie to himself. The last few months had been ... difficult.

"You can watch TV or read or whatever," Julio said, gesturing around the room with a fling of his hand. "Stop just sitting there, okay? It's annoying the shit out of me. And don't fucking break anything either."

"Thank you," Smith replied.

Julio sat down on the couch, arms crossed, and turned on the TV without saying another word.

~~

It was pitch black when he woke, gasping, clutching at his chest, fingers digging into his skin. If he hadn't felt them rattling under his ribs, he wouldn't have thought the sounds coming out of him weren't human. He reached out for the light, but only managed to knock the lamp to the floor in his panic.

"Julio," Smith said from the darkness, a cool hand catching his flailing arm, guiding it down. "Inhale deeply, yes, like that, and then exhale slowly. Match my breathing, Julio. I promise that you are fine."

Julio tried to mimic him, even though it felt like he was underwater, drowning. Smith had kept his fingers on the back of Julio's hand and that helped more than his words or measured breathing, because Julio couldn't remember the last time anyone had touched him so carefully, so willingly. There was the old man they sent once in a while to shave his face, but he was rough and callous and terrified of him.

Smith was none of those things.

Julio shoved him away. "I'm okay," he said hoarsely. "Go back to sleep."

Smith, like the good guard dog he was, went back to his cot without protest.

Julio lay there with his hand cradled to his chest, a sick, ugly feeling in his stomach.

~~

"Sorry about last night," Julio said in the morning.

Smith looked up from his breakfast. "There is nothing to apologize for."

Julio frowned but left it at that, heading into the bathroom. No use worrying about whether Smith would say anything to his family or not, because he had no control over Smith's actions, and even if he seemed like a decent guy, he was still paid with Richter blood money. Julio needed to remember that.

~~

"Are you American?" Julio asked, after lunch, when he was feeling more like himself. He'd jerked off in the shower, which helped put him back into his routine, and he'd spent the morning reading a ratty biology textbook as Smith watched TV on a very low volume, but now he was bored, and Smith was an easy target. Maybe if he annoyed him enough, he'd quit and Julio would get his rooms back for himself.

Julio barely stopped his eyes from rolling. As if it would ever be that easy, but it might be fun to try.

"I have American citizenship," Smith replied, eyes fixed on the TV, artfully dodging the question.

"Were you born there?"

"No," Smith replied.

"What are you doing in Mexico?"

Smith's gaze shifted to him, thoroughly unamused, and Julio smiled guilelessly. He didn't back down from Smith's stare. "There was a job opportunity I could not turn down," Smith said, finally, voice flat.

"How much are they paying you?"

"Not enough."

Julio laughed at that, loud and sudden, and Smith's tense posture relaxed a little, his expression softening. If it had been a joke – and Julio still wasn't sure it was, since Smith was downright impossible to read – that was the only indication. He was even better looking when he showed a little emotion. Grinning, Julio asked, "Has anyone ever told you that you're a terrible conversationalist?"

"Frequently," Smith replied.

Julio laughed again, softer than before, and pushed his hair back with his hand. Again, he noticed the way Smith's eyes automatically shifted towards his movements. Self-consciously, he plucked at the edge of his sleeve – a nervous habit – and Smith's gaze flickered away. Julio forced himself to relax.

"Sorry," he said, "I'm bored as shit."

"We can get started with your rehab," Smith suggested.

"I'm not that bored."

"I will answer any question you have. Truthfully."

"I might have a lot of questions," Julio warned him, but he found himself following automatically when Smith stood, his bare feet landing lightly on the cool tile of the floor. "I don't exactly get out much."

"I took that into consideration when I offered."

Julio looked at him, thinking he was joking – possibly again, possibly for the first time, who knew, who cared – but Smith's expression was ... Julio didn't have the words for it, but it was breathtakingly expressive for a guy who had spent too many days looking at nothing without complaint. And his eyes, the colour of sand, looked deeply and truly sad for a moment, just for a heartbeat, before he gained full control again. Julio didn't know who Smith was, but he thought maybe he'd just seen his true face.

~~

Smith started him on a series of low-impact exercises and stretches, asking Julio to bend certain ways or hold certain positions for specific periods of time, then nodding when he had gathered enough information and asking Julio to perform the next set of movements. It wasn't long before he was sweating, wobbly in all his limbs, breathing as hard as if he'd run a marathon. Smith held up his hand.

"Take a break," he commanded. "Rest and re-hydrate before you overheat. You should consider ..."

"No," Julio replied quickly, wiping the sweat from his face with his fingers. "The shirt stays on."

"I know ..."

"It stays on," Julio repeated. "I don't care what you think you know."

"Very well," Smith replied, hands raised in acceptance, then went into the bathroom. Julio heard the water running, focussed on the sounds for a few moments until he felt like he had control again, then accepted the plastic bottle Smith pressed into his hand. "Drink this. All of it. You don't drink enough."

"Fuck off," Julio said, without heat.

"You don't eat enough either," Smith added, equally as bland, and Julio rolled his eyes.

~~

"If you will not take off the shirt, will you allow me to touch you?" Smith asked, later.

"Knock yourself out," Julio replied, refusing to admit how dizzy he was, how weak he felt.

Smith came up behind him, tall and imposing, and Julio forced his breathing to level out, even though the collar felt like it was cutting into his skin. At the first touch of Smith's fingers, he flinched, and Smith paused, giving him a moment to get used to it, before pressing his palm flat against his breastbone. With his other hand, he lifted Julio's arm and held it straight out, then pushed again.

"Does that hurt?"

"It feels weird," Julio said, swallowing hard as Smith moved his hand against him, sliding it under his neckline and against the bare skin on his chest, a finger briefly brushing a nipple. His cock hardened immediately, shockingly fast, and he couldn't stop his entire body from tensing with embarrassment.

"Relax," Smith said.

Julio scowled, but Smith didn't sound the least bit judgmental and that ... helped. He had a list of excuses lined up if Smith needed to hear them, but Smith just continued moving his hand around, looking for whatever he had convinced himself was hiding beneath Julio's skin. The thing was that Julio didn't need to hide anything. It was all written on his body, obvious to everyone who saw him.

~~

Eventually, Smith let him go.

Julio grumbled his way into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. He turned on the sink, splashing the cool water over his face, his neck. In the mirror, he regarded his reflection. As he'd feared, his shorts hid nothing, the outline of his hard-on pressing obviously against the thin fabric. His gamut of excuses tumbled through his head again, but the fact was that nobody had touched him at all in years and nobody had ever touched him so intimately, even if that hadn't been Smith's intention at all.

Smith.

Julio exhaled sharply, pressing the heel of his hand against his erection, holding it there.

It wasn't like Julio hadn't already figured out he had preferences. In the early days, thinking they were doing him a kindness, they'd brought him various women, but he'd kicked up such a fuss that they'd stopped trying. And if he had known then what he knew now, he might have actually done it. Slept with them, because they had been nice to him, and it hadn't ever been their fault he hadn't wanted to do it.

Just the idea of his cousins laughing about it, maybe watching him ... it still made his skin crawl.

But in the resulting years, as masturbation had become his only option, he began to gather images in his head that got him off. TV stars, models in magazines, characters in the books he read. And the vast majority of them had been male, and he'd been ... perfectly okay with being gay. Lying to himself had never done him any favours. It wasn't like he'd ever get the chance to sleep with another guy anyway.

It wasn't like his family would ever throw a hot guy into his room then lock the door behind him.

"Shit," Julio said, slipping his hand into his shorts, fisting his cock. For a moment, it felt weird, uncomfortable, to do it without water beating down on him, but it turned out his body wasn't picky. The hardest part was staying quiet as he brought himself off, but he was sure Smith would know anyway.

~~

"Listen," Julio said, after dinner, as they were watching TV on the couch. Smith was – and there was no better word for it, Julio had wracked his brain for one – sprawled out, as relaxed as Julio had ever seen him, feet bare, arms loose at his sides, ridiculously long legs spread wide. "Routine is important to me."

"Me as well," Smith said without looking away from the television.

"I'll work out in the afternoon with you, but that's it. The morning and the evening are mine, okay?"

"That's acceptable," Smith agreed, lifting a hand to rub idly at his eye but otherwise unblinking.

~~

Julio settled back into his life as comfortably as he knew how. Smith left him alone in the mornings, doing his own workouts in the background, hundreds of sits up and push ups without taking breaks, warm ups and cool downs that consistently almost entirely of stretching, and he was ... flexible. More flexible than any person had the right to be, in Julio's opinion, trying not to watch him too closely.

He thought about moving his shower in the schedule, but he worried that might be too obvious.

That was the only time he let himself think about Smith in that way. Imagined what that boring haircut might feel like between his fingers, if Smith knelt between his legs and put his mouth on Julio's cock. How those brown eyes might look up at him, bright and honest. How his fingers would feel between Julio's legs. Like this, Julio thought, fucking his own fingers into his body, slippery with conditioner.

He always felt guilty afterwards, but in those precious moments, he was almost human again.

~~

The afternoons were painful and uncomfortable. Julio was weak, weaker than he'd ever been in his life, and Smith showed occasional flashes of anger, not at him, but at the people he felt had failed him. Not many people had the balls to badmouth the Richter family, especially when they were on the payroll. Not that Smith ever outright complained, just huffed from time to time and muttered indecipherably.

"What language is that?" Julio asked, after a few days of hearing it.

"Nothing you are familiar with," Smith said, putting his hand on Julio's back, adjusting his posture.

"I can speak a bunch of languages," Julio replied hotly, his arms wobbling with the effort to hold the weights – hardcover books, plucked haphazardly from the shelves – perpendicular to his body. "More than you probably. Fluent in four, and I could probably get myself through a conversation in French."

"I would teach you this one, but you have made it clear I only have your time in the afternoons."

"Why should I learn a language when you won't even tell me what it is?" Julio shot back, in a rotten mood now, exhaling sharply when Smith took the books from his hands and placed them on the table.

"I'll tell you what it is once you've learned it," Smith replied.

"Fine, I'll learn your stupid language," Julio snapped, feeling like he might throw up, grateful when Smith offered him a bottle of water, less grateful when Smith had to help him drink from it.

~~

They spent every evening on the couch, watching television. For Julio, it was mostly that he was too sore to move, too tired to think, but he'd fell into the trap of trying to sleep though everything before, so he forced himself to stay awake and watch whatever Smith felt like watching. For a man who basically bossed Julio around for the majority of the day, Smith was bizarrely indecisive when it came to TV.

"Just pick something," Julio muttered, too exhausted for the level of anger Smith's actions warranted.

"There are too many choices," Smith scowled.

Smith eventually settled on an English-language drama, sitting back, clearly at odds with his decision. Julio watched through heavy eyelids, drawn into it without wanting to be. Sometimes, he passed the time watching Smith's face instead, who allowed the scrutiny without asking what Julio found so fascinating. Julio, of course, had a million excuses ready, but it was simple. He liked looking at him.

The only thing Smith ever watched without agonizing over the decision was the nightly news at eleven.

"Is that actually, you know, really happening?" Julio asked quietly, the first time, arms crossed over his chest.

"Yes," Smith replied, glancing over at him.

"Okay," Julio said, looking away, a little embarrassed. He just hadn't been sure, until then, was all.

~~

Three more times, he woke up choking, pulling helplessly at the collar around his neck, disoriented and frantic, until he felt the mattress dip and Smith sit down beside him, gently guiding his hand away.

Three more times, Smith sat with him until the episodes passed, talking him through them, patiently guiding him through the same methodical breathing exercises until his head stopped swimming.

"Why haven't you told them?" Julio finally rasped out, after the third one.

"It wouldn't matter if I did or not," Smith replied, guiding Julio down to his pillow without touching him. "I will only tell them what they need to know. You deserve to have some modicum of privacy."

Julio didn't say anything, but his chest ached so much he thought it might split in two.

It was a familiar, terrifying feeling.

~~

Smith disappeared for an entire morning, but Julio spent the whole time worrying he wasn't coming back, sitting out on the balcony and trying to remember how to breathe. Remember who he is, he told himself pragmatically. Smith wasn't his friend, even if it sometimes felt like it, even if he wanted him to be. And his family ... he knew he was a monumental disappointment to them. Maybe this was their revenge. Give him a taste of how things could be if he just got over himself, before taking it all away.

"Fuck them," Julio murmured, chewing at his thumbnail, watching the bustle down below.

He was a Richter, too.

~~

Smith returned before lunch, with a shaving kit and a grim countenance.

"I have a new duty," Smith explained without any further explanation of why he had been gone so long.

"Just don't fuck up my handsome face," Julio replied, hoping his light tone hid everything else rattling around in his skin. He sat down on the toilet as Smith turned on the tap, wetting a towel with hot water.

Smith regarded him for a moment then nodded, laying the towel over his face. "I will do my best."

Julio didn't escape entirely unscathed, despite the care Smith took with him, but he preferred him over the old man, because at least Smith had all his teeth and touched him with an almost reverent level of care. After, Smith painstakingly thumbed pieces of toilet paper over the myriad of nicks on his skin.

"Don't bother," Julio said, trying to pull away.

"I will do better next time," Smith promised, ignoring him.

When lunch arrived, Smith exchanged the shaving kit for a plate of tamales and a bowl of cherries.

~~

"What's that like?" Julio asked quietly when they were watching TV, tilting his chin towards the screen.

On it, a man and a woman were in bed together, kissing deeply, moving against each other. Though the camera angles and some well-hung sheets prevented him from seeing anything interesting, it was as close to porn as he'd come. His dick didn't seem to mind that everything was covered either.

Smith turned to look at him. "What?"

"That," Julio repeated, glancing at the screen, "sex. What's it like to have sex with somebody?"

"I wouldn't know," Smith replied stiffly, face reddening.

"Oh, fuck, sorry. I just assumed," Julio said quickly. "I mean, you're so ... shit, seriously, I'm sorry."

"It's fine," Smith assured him with a pained expression. "You're not the first person to assume that."

"Oh, fuck, this is so awkward," Julio muttered with a shaky exhale, dragging a hand across his face, and Smith nodded woodenly, and it was just so, so awkward and so, so hilarious that Julio couldn't help but start laughing a little. Smith looked at him, expression softening perceptibly, and Julio grinned.

"Hey, at least now I know you've been telling me the truth," he said, and Smith almost smiled.

~~

Time passed quicker with Smith around. He slept less and ate more. Smith's secret language was difficult, way worse than the time he had convinced himself he could learn German, no problem, but Smith was patient with him, correcting him even when he messed up the same phrase for the umpteenth time. Julio knew he was good at picking up languages – it felt like he had all the time in the world sometimes, and he'd tried to put that to good use – so he figured he'd get it eventually. Probably.

His body was harder to fix, because they both knew not all the damage was physical, even if Smith was too polite to mention it. Sometimes, he caught Smith watching him, when he unconsciously pulled at his collar, clearing his throat reflexively. Normally, he hated when people stared at it, but with Smith ...

With Smith, it was tolerable because while he couldn't name the emotion on Smith's face, it wasn't fear.

"Do you have any control over your powers?" Smith asked quietly one night, staring at him.

Julio shook his head, keeping his gaze fixed on the television screen. Smith didn't say anything else.

~~

"Who is the hottest person you've ever kissed?" Julio asked one afternoon, as Smith massaged the muscles in his shoulder with painful, hard twists of his fingers. In the background, there was an image of two people making out dramatically on the television, helpfully working towards distracting him.

"I've had no sexual contact with anybody," Smith replied. "I told you this already."

"Seriously?" Julio asked, unable to keep the note of surprise from his voice. Smith had made it clear he was a virgin, but Julio had assumed ... he really had to quit assuming shit about Smith. But it made him weirdly sad to think that Smith hadn't been living the sort of life Julio dreamed of. Not that he had kissed anyone either, but he wanted to. Sometimes, with the water beating down on him, he physically yearned for it.

"Seriously," Smith assured him, pressing down a little harder than Julio thought was necessary.

"Do you just not ... want to? Which is, like, totally legitimate. I'm just curious."

Smith's touch faltered, just briefly, before resuming. "It's more complicated than that."

"Sorry, I'll stop asking about this shit," Julio told him, wincing when Smith hit a particularly sore spot.

~~

"I haven't kissed anybody either," Julio said later, picking his way through the cheese and meat platter that had arrived for dinner, intermixed with small piles of purple grapes and various types of crackers.

"I figured as much," Smith replied dryly, eyeing his plate of food. "Eat more than that, Julio."

"Okay, fucking lay off already," Julio muttered, glaring at him, but did as Smith asked.

~~

Julio woke up to a commotion outside, a knot immediately forming in his stomach. Noticing that Smith was already awake and watching him, he padded over to the balcony door, opened it and stepped outside into the humid air. Smith followed him closely, catching the door before it shut. He'd seen this a million times before and knew exactly what it meant. From the look on Smith's face, he knew it, too.

Julio turned on his heel and went into the bathroom, where he promptly threw up in the sink.

While he was rinsing his mouth with water, he heard the door open. Quiet voices murmured angrily to each other, Smith louder than the others, but he couldn't hear what they were saying. When he came out of the bathroom, Smith was already dressed: black combat boots, black cargo pants, black shirt, black vest.

With shaking hands, Julio started pulling on his own clothes, embarrassingly slow, fumbling with the easiest of tasks. He got two socks on, his pants, boots that he tied with numb fingers. He looked to Smith for ... something. For comfort, maybe, for understanding, but he didn't see anything in Smith's face that offered either of those things. What stared back at him was the hottest rage he'd ever seen.

Smith blinked, and then it was gone, his expression slipping back into stony nothingness.

Julio finished getting dressed, replacing his long-sleeved shirt with a similar, high-necked one. He paused, took a deep breath, then picked up the Kevlar vest, but couldn't get his shit together enough to put it on. Smith took it from him without a word and slipped it over his chest, setting it into place with a jolt, fastening it tightly.

"I can't," Julio choked out abruptly, before he could prevent himself, then bit his lip to stop from saying anything more damning, the metallic taste of blood flooding over his tongue. He couldn't stop shivering.

Smith stared down at him for an excruciatingly long time then turned and pounded his fist on the door.

"I will get you through this," Smith said in their secret language – barely above a whisper and spoken slowly enough that he could follow – as the door opened, and Julio swallowed hard, following him out.

~~

He went away in his head, away from the judgmental looks of his family and the barely masked terror from the opposing side. He stood there, with Smith glowering behind his right shoulder, and just ... left. Imagined what his life could be like, if none of this had happened, if things had gone differently for him.

A boyfriend, maybe, who looked like Smith, and a university far away from home. A shitty student apartment with furniture salvaged on garbage day. Laughing friends, parties on Friday and Saturday nights, a week's worth of schoolwork on Sundays, hungover and complaining, but happy because he'd had fun, lived a little, relaxed. Kissing, sex, with someone who wanted to touch him, to be with him.

A nice, boring, respectable life, instead of this fucking nightmare he was living.

~~

They turned off his collar three hours into the meeting, and Julio snapped back to full awareness. His powers flared up, huge and dangerous and horrifying, and he stood there, enduring it without falling to his knees, ignoring the screams around him and the cracks of the walls as they heaved. Faintly aware of Smith, who continued to stand behind him, unmoving, despite the twist of the ground beneath his feet.

When the collar switched back on, he faltered, but Smith caught him one-handed by the strap of his vest and set him more firmly upright. His fingertips brushed briefly against the back of Julio's neck.

In the end, the Richter family got what they wanted. They always did.

~~

"Get this fucking thing off me," Julio gasped, the minute the door was locked, struggling to breathe.

Smith roughly removed the vest, letting Julio push at him, swear at him, flail at him, before Julio stumbled off into the bathroom, pulling off his clothes and turning the water as hot as it would go. Pressing one hand over his mouth, he screamed and pounded helplessly on the tiles with the other.

"Fuck off," he shouted when the door to the bathroom opened, but Smith merely stepped inside and closed it behind him. "Go away," Julio said, turned towards the wall so his back was to Smith. "Leave me alone. I just need ... I'll get it back together, okay? I just need a few fucking minutes. Go away."

"I don't think you should be alone right now," Smith replied.

"I don't fucking care what you think," Julio snapped, crossing his arms over his chest, hugging himself. Water sluiced over his skin, burning. "I'm not going to kill myself if that's what you're worried about."

"You couldn't even if you wanted to," Smith replied.

Julio laughed a little at that, harsh enough that it hurt his throat. "Oh, you noticed."

"No bed sheets, no utensils for eating, no grooming instruments. Of course I noticed, Julio."

Smith said it so kindly that tears prickled in Julio's eyes, and he scrubbed at them angrily. He hadn't cried over this shit for years, and he wasn't about to start now. He also didn't protest when Smith crossed the room and reached in to balance the temperature of the water to something more comfortable than scalding. Slowly, Julio turned around, letting his arms drop, and Smith looked at him.

"Ugly, aren't they?" Julio asked, watching as Smith's gaze moved from his wrists to his chest. His cock, of course, began to harden under Smith's relentless examination, but that was the least of his concerns. He wanted Smith to see him. To like what he saw, to understand how he felt, to make him feel again.

"Your scars simply speak to your capacity for survival," Smith replied.

"Yeah, lucky me," Julio said, with a bitter twist to his mouth.

~~

With Smith watching, he finished his shower and pulled on a pair of shorts and nothing else. He was still cold, but he didn't want to go outside, because he wasn't sure who could hear him out there. In his room, he knew there were no bugs or cameras, because he had become an expert at destroying them.

He laid on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, and wasn't surprised when Smith sat down beside him.

"I'm okay," he assured him. "It's not like this shit doesn't happen all the time. I'm usually better about it, but that was my first since ..." He trailed off, filling his cheeks with air then exhaling slowly. "But you know that. Of course you do. I guess my family hired you to stop any future assassination attempts?"

"They did," Smith said. "They believe it was a miracle that you survived."

Julio snorted softly. "They would. I'm worth millions to them. Can't say I share their opinion."

Smith leaned forward a little. "What do you think?"

"I think I'm a weapon, and I need to be destroyed," Julio said quietly, touching his fingers to the lattice work of heavy scarring on his chest, the much older scars on his wrists fully visible. Despite what had just transpired between them in the shower, he felt more naked now, but he needed Smith to see this part of him, too. "I think I'm dangerous."

"You are dangerous," Smith conceded, his words like daggers to Julio's already fragile psyche, but then he continued, "but so am I. I refuse to believe that means we don't get to live freely, if we agree to society's rules. I haven't known you for long, but I've seen no evidence that you are willing party to this."

"I used to be," Julio admitted, rubbing at his collar. "When I was younger, I thought I was hot shit, that I was doing my duty and helping my family. I thought I was just scaring people. I was a fucking idiot."

"Did you understand the consequences?"

"No," Julio said quickly. "Not until Oaxaca. They put me in the middle of ... and they just left. They would never tell me, but I think ... people died. I think a lot of people died. I think I've killed people."

"You have," Smith said without judgment.

"I don't know how to live with that."

"You'll find a way," Smith assured him.

~~

The days that followed were quiet. There were more questions he wanted to ask Smith, but he was too scared to voice them. He'd known, deep down, always gnawing at him in the back of his mind, that people had died because of him. It was a relief, almost, to have his fears confirmed by Smith. He felt like a monster, for still being unable to control his mutant powers, but the collar made it impossible to learn. He had taught himself a million things from his books, but he'd never found an answer to that.

Smith, for the most part, kept to himself, lost in thought, as troubled as Julio had ever seen him.

"Are you a mutant?" Julio asked over lunch, mostly just to hear Smith speak again.

Smith shrugged slightly. "It's difficult to say. I am superhuman. My biology is ... complicated."

"Why didn't they put a collar on you?"

"They believe this room is my collar," Smith replied.

"And when you're out of it?"

"I can still be shot." Smith pushed his plate away, half finished, and Julio almost teased him before thinking the better of it. "I am going to teach you how to meditate. It will help control your anxiety."

"I'm not anxious."

"It will help control your anger," Smith tried instead, standing up.

"I'm not angry."

"It will help," Smith said, and Julio reluctantly followed him to the centre of the room, where they sat.

~~

Julio started dreaming of Smith, explicit sex dreams that often woke him up with a jolt and wet shorts. He hadn't missed having blankets until then, lying flat on his back, a damp stain on the front of his underwear. Smith, of course, was the lightest sleeper in existence, and was usually already sitting up on his cot, legs crossed, watching him and thinking about whatever it was he was currently distracted with. Julio just hoped he wasn't also talking in his sleep.

He knew how he looked at Smith, knew it had to be obvious, and he thought sometimes Smith was equally curious, though Julio really had no idea what mutual attraction looked like. He basically relied on television for social skills, and despite what Smith said, nothing about television was worth trusting.

Julio thought about trying to kiss him, knowing Smith would forgive him, but he also couldn't risk losing the only hold on sanity he had left. Smith almost made him believe that he could survive this. That he deserved to survive this. Maybe, he could talk Smith into hugging him, tightly, for a moment.

It would be enough.

~~

They were watching the news, when reports of a large anti-mutant rally in Mexico City came on.

"I was almost kidnapped by an anti-mutant hate group once," Julio remarked casually, and Smith looked at him, close enough to surprised that Julio suspected he hadn't known that. "It was years ago. Right after my mutant powers manifested. I freaked and ran away, and The Right tried to kidnap me."

"What happened?"

"My family found me at the same time. There was a gunfight. People died. On both sides." Julio pulled at his hair, tugging it over his shoulder and examining the ends. "I mean, both groups were just human, so it ended pretty quickly. My uncle Gonzalo kept me knocked out until they found a collar. I was too young and stupid to realize what that meant. Last time I ever set foot outside on my own, too."

Smith remained silent.

"I sometimes wonder, how things might've gone, if The Right had taken me. I had the choice. I could have just ... I could have just gone with them. Like, maybe things would be better. Maybe I would have escaped or been rescued, or, fuck, killed quickly. I don't know. That's sick, right? To think like that."

"I don't believe so," Smith said quietly. "I think we do what we must in order to survive our reality."

"This reality is shit," Julio muttered then prodded Smith with his foot. "Except you. You're not bad."

Smith didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. The profound sadness on his face said it all.

~~

When Julio was a few years younger, after he had realized what was happening but before he had stopped believing someone was going to save him, he spent weeks coming up with his superhero identity, scribbling away in a half-used notebook that had been accidentally included in the stack of books someone found in a dumpster, the stub of a worn-down pencil clutched between his dirty fingers.

He told this to Smith, who didn't seem to find it as funny as he did.

"I was going to join the X-Men and call myself Rictor," he explained.

"It would make sense," Smith admitted after a moment. "With your powers and your family name."

"No, not Richter. Rictor." At Smith's blank look, Julio spelled it out. "R I C T O R."

"But the Richter Scale ..."

"You are way overthinking this, dude. I was fifteen. I was convinced I needed a secret identity." Smith looked at him like this was the most ridiculous thing anyone had ever said to him, and maybe it was, but Julio had spent months dreaming of this future for himself. Eventually, his family had discovered the notebook and taken it, but he still remembered every detail. "I even designed my own costume."

"I assume it was as terrible as the name?" Smith asked.

Julio smirked. "Hey, fuck you, it was bad ass. You wouldn't appreciate it even if I did try to describe it."

"That is probably true," Smith admitted. "May we continue with your workout now?"

"Ugh, fine," Julio said, and forced himself to do another set of sit ups as Smith watched him, silent.

~~

Nothing changed, until it did. He woke up to find Smith leaning over him. He blinked at him and lifted his head, loose with sleep and still not entirely awake, and this was exactly how most of his dreams started, but Smith put a hand on his chest and said, achingly soft as he pushed him back, "Julio, no."

Julio came fully awake then, blinking hard against the embarrassment, but Smith only sighed.

"I am not who I say I am," Smith said, sitting back in the dark, voice barely above a whisper.

"Are you here to kill me?" Julio asked, unable to swallow the emotions bubbling out of his chest. Betrayal, in very small quantities, but more than that: hope, elation, relief, immediate acceptance.

"Oh. No. Julio." Smith's stoic expression gave way to one of pure anguish. "I'm here to save you."

"Fuck you," Julio snarled, rearing back, but Smith put his hands on his face. "How dare you ..."

"My name is Shatterstar. I am a member of a team called X-Force, led by a man called Cable," Smith explained in a rush, a ragged mix of Spanish, English and the third unnamed language. It should have been impossible to follow, but Julio understood it easily. "I infiltrated your family's enterprise four months ago, shortly after the attempt on your life. Until then, we hadn't been able to locate you."

"Stop." Julio tried to pull back again, fighting him, word spit out, hoarse, but Smith's fingers tightened, holding him. His voice, when he spoke again, was wet and raw. "Why are you saying this?"

"I was given permission to tell you everything when I felt the time was right. That time is now. Cable's clone, Stryfe, was responsible for your father's death. This information recently came to light, but when he asked me to look into what happened that day, it was impossible to track you down. You had simply disappeared. Then one night, as I watched television, I saw the reports about the failed assassination."

"You didn't even know me," Julio cried, breathing hard, choking, and Smith smoothed a hand over his chest, holding it firm against his heart. "Why would you do that for someone you didn't even know?"

"I knew you," Smith said. "I knew you immediately."

~~

Smith. Shatterstar. Whoever he was made him get dressed in the dark. Neither of them had shoes, but Smith ... Shatterstar didn't seem concerned. Julio stumbled around in a stupor, completed fucked up in the head, but ... he wanted this. He wanted out of this room, out of this life, and if there was even the slightest chance Smith ... Shatterstar was telling the truth, he would risk it. He had nothing left to lose.

So ... decision made. He had no idea how this would turn out, but he wasn't picking his family again.

"Pack whatever you want to keep, but be quick about it," Shatterstar said, in that same mix of Spanish, English and other. Julio grabbed a few books and his bottle of hair conditioner, mostly because the smell had always calmed him down, and he felt like was going to lose it sooner than later. "Ready?"

"Why tonight?"

"They do maintenance on the security system once a month, and it's a new moon. They will notice us eventually, but I think we will have enough of a head start." Shatterstar put his ear to the door, listening briefly, before looking back at him, expression severe. "Whatever happens tonight, Julio, I will not let you go back to this. If it looks like I may die, I will end your life, if that is what you truly want. I would, however, ask you to reconsider. X-Force would rescue you in my stead, as soon as they could."

After a short pause, Julio replied, "Then you better not die. I have so many more questions."

"I will tell you everything later," Shatterstar promised, pressing his ear to the door again, concentrating, before straightening up. "The hallway is almost empty. If at any point I believe you cannot keep up with me, I will carry you." He sighed. "I did not expect to find you in such poor physical condition."

Julio rolled his eyes. "Are you always this much of an asshole?"

"Yes."

~~

Shatterstar forced the door off its hinges with a slam of his shoulder, startling his cousin dozing against the wall, arms crossed. Shatterstar moved like a blur towards him, and Julio shouted – "don't kill him!" – seconds before he made impact. Shatterstar shifted, and while Omar still fell, he was alive, groaning.

"I don't want anyone else to die because of me," Julio said when Shatterstar glared at him.

"Very well," Shatterstar said after a long pause. "I will spare as many lives as I can, even if they do not deserve it."

Julio nodded, then followed Shatterstar as he took off again, weaving his way through the hallways. He was brutally effective with each take-down, ruthless and methodical, and when they finally reached the outside, it was a clear shot between the building and the gate. By then, the sirens were going off, but Smith had done something to disable the lighting at the last intersection, and it was darker than usual.

Even so, in Julio's estimation, they'd still be visible, and his family was always well armed.

"Now what?" Julio asked.

"Now I carry you. Wrap your limbs around my torso," Shatterstar replied, picking Julio up without warning. Then, unbelievably, Shatterstar began to jump between various surfaces – a storage container, a shed, a security tower – all the while effortlessly dodging bullets as his family finally spotted them. When their only option was the impossibly tall security wall that circled the compound, Shatterstar flat out scaled it, his fingers gripping the smallest imperfections in the metal wall and dragged them up.

Shatterstar was shot once, clean through the forearm, but he barely seemed to notice.

~~

Shatterstar ran for ages, insanely fast, shifting Julio to his back, even when Julio protested. Between the dark and the unfamiliar surroundings, Julio had no idea where in Mexico they actually were. Eventually, Shatterstar slowed down, moving silently through the empty streets, before they arrived at a nondescript beige door with a keypad. Shatterstar tapped in a rapid series of numbers then slipped quickly inside.

Shatterstar finally set him down, and Julio wobbled on his feet, bile rising in his throat.

"Fekt," Shatterstar said, collapsing in a chair by the kitchenette. He poked at his forearm, examining it from both sides, and Julio noticed it had already scabbed over. Woodenly, he sat down in the opposite chair, running his hands through his hair as Shatterstar regarded him quietly. "Are you all right?"

"I don't know what I am," Julio mumbled. "You know they probably have a tracker in this collar?"

"And an explosive. I am confident your value will prevent them from triggering it," Shatterstar added. "The tracker remains an issue. Which is why I am now going to remove it and dispose of it elsewhere while you rest here. This place provides some level of shielding, but it will not put them off forever."

"I can't control my powers," Julio whispered.

"You will have to," Shatterstar replied. "I taught you how to meditate. I think it will be enough."

Julio looked at him through the veil of his hair, fingers against his scalp. "And if it's not?"

"I will render you unconscious until our rendezvous with X-Force, but it will be, Julio. Trust me."

"Fine," Julio said, before he could change his mind. "Do it."

~~

Shatterstar made him sit in the centre of the room, cross-legged, eyes closed, then he sat behind Julio and started working on the collar. Julio forced his mind to empty of everything from the day's events, and focussed instead on his own feelings, on his rage, on accepting it and letting it go before facing his next anguished emotion. "Slower," Shatterstar said at one point, putting his hand flat on Julio's chest.

"I am removing the collar now," Shatterstar said eventually, touching Julio's shoulder lightly. His voice was soothing, low and melodic. "I want you to know that you are safe. That I will continue to protect you. That there is nothing to be afraid of here. What happened before will not happen this time. I will leave for an hour, but I will return to you. That will be the hardest part for you, but it will pass quickly."

Julio kept his eyes closed, his breathing even, and let the words cover him like a blanket.

And then the collar was gone, and Julio took a deep breath, still and calm, for the first time in six years.

~~

Shatterstar returned after some indeterminate length of time, immediately sitting across from Julio on the floor.

"Open your eyes," Shatterstar said, and Julio reluctantly did, his hand immediately going to his neck, but Shatterstar gently moved it back to his lap. "Under no circumstances are you to use your powers. I am fully capable of taking on your family by myself. I was able to send a message to Cable and receive his reply. I've been out of contact for months. Our extraction is scheduled for two days from now."

"Two days," Julio started, but Shatterstar put his hand on Julio's chest again. "Okay, fine, I'll try."

"That is all I ask," Shatterstar said. "I purchased food for us. I didn't know what you actually liked."

"Can I use a fork?" Julio asked, and Shatterstar nodded. "Then I'll probably like it. I'm not picky."

Shatterstar gave him a very Smith look, and Julio took the plastic fork he offered gratefully.

~~

It started to rain later in the afternoon. Julio was exhausted, but he was terrified of sleep. For all he knew, his powers would flare up the minute he fell unconscious. He could feel them, huge under his skin, begging to be let out, but he concentrated on his breathing, fading in and out of his conversation with Shatterstar, which was proving interesting, if not completely and utterly absurd. He wasn't human.

"I was raised in the slave pens of Mojoworld," he explained, like he had promised he would. Julio kept his eyes on Shatterstar's face, but Shatterstar had placed one hand on his chest and left it there, which was incredibly hard to ignore. "From a very young age, I fought in the arenas. I did not ... dislike it."

Julio swallowed the lump in his throat. "You were forced to kill people?"

"Yes," Shatterstar admitted easily. "If I wanted to live – and I did – that was my only option. The crowds loved me, and their roar helped me ignore my growing unease with the consequences of my continued survival, but not forever. I eventually escaped and joined the Cadre Alliance, a rebel force."

"How'd you end up on Earth?"

"I was sent back in time to request help from the X-Men, but I became trapped here. I've never returned. I'm not sure I want to, even if I could," Shatterstar admitted with a troubled expression. "The only things I brought with me from my homeworld were my swords, my costume, and my language."

"Ah," Julio said, smiling softly.

"I thought it would allow us to communicate if necessary, in ways that others would not understand ... be it our enemies in the midst of battle ... or our friends, when the topics of conversation are of a highly ... personal ... nature1," Shatterstar explained, with an embarrassing level of earnestness, and Julio felt himself flush under Shatterstar's hand. "You will have friends in X-Force, Julio, if you choose to stay."

"Well, it's no X-Men," he replied with a small twist of his lips, "but it's not like I have a lot of options."

"Yes, exactly," Shatterstar said, and almost smiled.

~~

They talked for hours. Shatterstar told him about X-Force, about who he would meet and Shatterstar's opinion of their fighting styles. Julio drifted in and out of the conversation, almost delirious with the twin effort it took to control his powers and not fall asleep, but Shatterstar never faltered. Julio got the sense Shatterstar wasn't used to speaking so much, but Julio found his honesty immensely comforting.

"You should attempt to sleep," Shatterstar said eventually. "I will stay awake and watch over you."

"I'm fine," Julio murmured.

"You're not," Shatterstar insisted, helping him stand. He wobbled on his feet, stiff from the hours of sitting, and let himself be led to the lone bed. He had been so focussed before on not destroying the city, he hadn't taken the time to look around the room. It was much smaller than he expected – a single square, with a kitchenette, two chairs and a table, a double bed, and a door that led to a small bathroom.

"Just a few hours," Julio said, sinking down into the mattress. "Wake me up if I lose control."

"I will," Shatterstar promised, his hand on Julio's chest again.

~~

Julio woke up with a start, Shatterstar leaning over him with a stern, "be calm, Julio, control your breathing." Confused, he touched his neck, then his chest, bumping Shatterstar's hand with his own, before remembering. The sun was coming up, which meant Shatterstar had let him sleep all night.

"You were supposed to wake me," Julio muttered, sitting up, dragging a hand through his hair.

"You needed the rest," Shatterstar replied.

Julio looked at him briefly then winced. "Are you aware your face is chipping off?"

"Yes," Shatterstar said, taking his hand off Julio's chest. "I would like a shower. Will you be okay?"

Julio nodded, watching as Shatterstar crossed the room and went into the bathroom, keeping the door open. He washed his hands first then dragged one finger tip across his right eye, blinking, then repeated the same motion on his left. His gaze shifted briefly to Julio, who stared at him through the doorway.

Blue eyes, Julio thought, chewing on his thumbnail, his powers rumbling under his skin, wow.

~~

Julio opened his eyes when the shower turned off. He didn't feel as steady as he had, but as long as he concentrated on keeping his breathing even and his pulse steady, it seemed to be enough to keep his powers quiet. He hadn't been so out of it that he hadn't noticed they were in a densely populated area.

Shatterstar stood in the doorway to the bathroom, towel wrapped low around his hips.

Along with the blue eyes was a black, star-shaped tattoo over his left eye, beyond ostentatious.

"Really," Julio said flatly, and Shatterstar shrugged, eyes bright with amusement. It was gaudy as hell, but it suited him. And it didn't escape his notice that Shatterstar seemed to be in no hurry to move, so Julio took his time, taking in the breathtaking sight of his body. It was even better than he expected, toned and smooth, except for the faintest dusting of ... Julio narrowed his eyes. "Are you a red head?"

"Yes," Shatterstar replied warmly. "Are you calm, Julio?"

"Yeah, why?" He asked distractedly, eyes sweeping over Shatterstar's amazing body again, then forced himself to measure his breathing when Shatterstar's hands moved to the towel, pulling it off his hips.

"I've wanted you to see me," Shatterstar said, "ever since that day in the shower. When I saw you."

Julio looked up at him, at his open expression and the kindness in his eyes, then glanced down again. At his bare arms, completed healed from yesterday's gunshot wound, the dusky pink of his nipples, the naked expanse of his chest. His flat stomach, his narrow hips. His cock, hardening between his legs, the most amazing sight Julio had ever seen. Julio touched his fingers to his own lips, swallowing hard.

"You're beautiful," Julio said softly, meeting his eyes again. "Thank you, Shatterstar."

"You're welcome, Julio," Shatterstar replied, and went back into the bathroom to get dressed.

~~

The last day passed slowly.

It became harder and harder to quiet the roar under his skin. Shatterstar sat with him, talking him through visualization exercises, holding his hands. Julio tried not to hear the kids in the alleyway outside, the neighbours shouting to each other, the barking dogs. He willed himself not to hurt them, not destroy anything else, but he could feel his powers trying to tear free. He thought about attempting something small, to ease some of the pressure, but he had no idea how to do anything but explode.

And if he fucked up ...

"You have to do it now," he said finally, breathless, looking at Shatterstar. "I'll be fine, but I can't ..."

"Are you sure?" Shatterstar asked, and Julio nodded. "I'm sorry I was not better prepared."

"You tried. It was a good idea, but I guess it's not that simple. I'll get it someday," Julio promised him, trying to smile even though it felt like he might shake apart at any moment. "Just make it count, okay?"

Shatterstar's expression softened. "I will try not to permanently damage you."

Julio laughed roughly, wiping the sweat out of his eyes with a firm hand. "Thanks, I appreciate it."

Shatterstar leaned forward, and Julio braced himself, but Shatterstar kissed him instead, pressing a hand to his chest, over his rapidly beating heart. The room rattled ominously, and Julio clutched him tightly, kissing him back, desperately putting all of his feelings into that kiss, and then everything went black.

~~

Julio woke up with a minor headache, and a blond man peering down at him.

"Oh, good, you're awake," he said, expression warm and affable, and didn't seem at all fazed when Julio stared at him without speaking, hands fisted in the blankets, the contents of the room shaking with every breath he took. "Name's Sam Guthrie. Cannonball. On account of my blast field. English okay?"

"Yeah," Julio replied, taking a deep gulp of air and holding it, and it helped, a little bit. "Where am I?"

"With X-Force, in Arizona. You arrived with Shatterstar earlier today. He'd be here, but he's been in a debrief with the boss for a few hours. He asked me to stay with you. I'm field leader here, and I'm known for being friendly," Cannonball explained with a grin, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck.

Julio sat up, grateful when Cannonball backed off, still smiling at him. More vigorously than needed, he scrubbed his hands through his hair, breathing calming, methodically, until his heart rate began to even out. The room finally stopped rattling, and Julio looked at him. "That doesn't ... bother you?"

Cannonball shrugged, loose and easy. "Nah. There ain't nothing here that can't be patched up, good and proper, with a bit of hard work and glue. We're pretty isolated out here, which serves our purposes." Cannonball's smile brightened again. "Especially considering how often Tabby blows stuff up."

Julio nodded, bowing his head, hoping his hair covered everything on his face.

"I'm thinking you could do with a shower and something warm to eat, if you're interested?"

"Shower sounds good," Julio admitted, "but I'm not hungry."

"Fair enough. Shatterstar asked me to tell you something, and I beg your pardon for the noises about to come out of my mouth, but he said it was important. For all I know, he could be playing me for a fool."

Julio looked up at him, and Cannonball spit out a series of rough, mangled sounds. The startled laugh left his mouth before he could stop it, pressing a hand to his face. Cannonball only jumped a little.

"Breathe," Cannonball had said, in the language of the Cadre Alliance. "You are safe. Eat something."

~~

This was, it turned out, Julio's new room. Cannonball stayed back as Julio stood up on wobbly legs, unpacking the things he had taken from home, including his bottle of hair conditioner. Cannonball didn't say anything as Julio clutched it tightly to his chest before following him out into the hallway.

"You doing okay? Shatty's never been one to pull his punches."

"Yeah, I'm fine," Julio said.

"I'll just be in the next room. Come find me when you're done and maybe we'll see if you're hungry then. It's just me and you for a while. The others made themselves scarce. Wanted to make a good first impression," Cannonball added, warm with humour. "Help yourself to what you need. We buy in bulk."

Inside the bathroom, he stared at himself in the mirror then began to undress, pulling off his shirt and shorts and, after a moment of hesitation, his underwear. Cannonball had left a neat, folded pile of towels and clean clothes for him. He checked, immediately relieved that the shirt was long-sleeved.

On the counter was a basket of various shaving supplies. He grabbed a razor and some shaving cream. Briefly, he looked at the faded scars on his wrists, uneven lines that he barely remembered carving into himself. All he really recalled were the days after and his immense grief. He had been sixteen years old.

He'd never shaved himself before, but he filled one palm with shaving cream, spreading it over his upper lip, his cheeks, his neck. Turning on the water, letting it run hot and steamy, he lifted the razor to his face and dragged it across his jaw, nicking himself once, with a startled gasp, and felt like crying.

~~

The shower was easier – familiar – and he stood under the stream, running his fingers through his hair, working the sweet-smelling shampoo in with soothing, circular motions. He thought of Shatterstar, how he had looked, naked, revealing himself, the gorgeous lines of his body, his cock. Some small part of his brain urgently reminded him where he was, but he needed to feel normal, calm, safe in his routine.

He rinsed his hair then combed in the conditioner with his fingers, still slippery when they slid down his stomach and circled his cock. Stroking himself, he thought of Shatterstar's beautiful body, the way he smiled only with his eyes, how his lips had felt pressed against his own. How his mouth had tasted.

Julio came with a cry, muffled into his forearm, eyes closed, room shaking.

~~

After, he let Cannonball take him to the kitchen and make him something to eat, just basic eggs and bacon with toast. Julio stood around, silent, looking at the message board on the wall. Notes left between teammates, friends. Sometimes serious, sometimes not. Clippings from newspapers. A cleaning schedule, a training schedule, and show-times for a movie theatre. There was also a team photograph.

Four smiling faces, on a sliding scale between quiet amusement and outright laughter, and a man he immediately recognized as Shatterstar, standing at the back, serious and solemn. With a ridiculous amount of red hair, tied back in a high, lengthy ponytail. Idly, Julio pulled at his own long hair.

"Shatty'll be happy to have someone else around who hates haircuts as much as he does," Cannonball said, with a gentle, teasing tone, and Julio dropped his hand. "Food's ready, if you're willing to risk my cooking. We try to have dinners together, when we can, but you'll be on your own for the remainder."

Cannonball talked off and on through the meal, which Julio ate, even though it sat heavy and greasy in his stomach like a lump. Occasionally, the room rattled, but Cannonball just kept on eating and chatting like he hadn't noticed anything was amiss. The only casualty was a stack of dirty plates by the sink.

"Ah, well," he said affably, sweeping up the mess, "less to wash. I'm on dish duty anyway."

After everything was cleaned up and Julio had choked down as much as he could without being sick, he hung back, staring at the team picture again, and Shatterstar's blank, empty expression. "Do you think ..."He started then stopped, taking a deep breath. "Would it be okay if I went outside for a bit?"

"You don't need permission," Cannonball said gently, his cheerful countenance wavering for the first time. "I'm not your keeper. We just thought you might need a friend. You're free to go as you please."

"Okay," Julio said and followed him to the exit. When he asked if Julio wanted shoes, he said no.

~~

Outside, Julio took a deep breath and held it. The air was hot and dry, the sand soft beneath his bare feet, and he looked around, taking in the rocky pillars and the bright blue sky and the vast emptiness in every direction. He hadn't realized he'd been underground until he stood now, on the surface, in the sun.

At first, he walked aimlessly, because he could, because the ground felt nice under his feet, because something inexplicable stirred inside him, some connection to the earth between his toes. It was like he was breathing for the first time, and while his powers still rumbled under his skin, they almost felt ... good.

Eventually, he settled in the centre of a clearing, away from the ominous rock towers.

He looked up at the sky, down at the earth, and put a hand on his chest, on the rapid beat of his heart.

He sat there, wondering: what would his life be like now? And why did he so desperately want to go home?

~~

That was where Shatterstar found him, cross-legged on the ground, meditating. Julio opened his eyes when Shatterstar settled down across from him, hair the same colour from the photograph. Without thinking, Julio lifted his hand, pausing before Shatterstar guided him the rest of the way to his head and the soft bristles of his buzz cut. "It will grow back, Julio," Shatterstar told him. "I needed to blend in."

Julio looked away, dropping his arm to his side.

"I'm sorry I was not there when you woke up," Shatterstar said, and Julio shrugged, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground. "Cable was concerned for my mental state. I was upset at what I could not do for you, and he has always been overly invested in how I interact with this world. When I arrived on Earth, he was the one who noticed how I struggled and taught me how to meditate to calm my thoughts."

"What thoughts?" Julio asked quietly.

"Violent ones. My rage was difficult to manage. Everything irritated me. I felt I had made a mistake."

Julio looked up. "Do they go away?"

"Yes, in time. The regret, anyway. I am still violent and easily annoyed, but those may be personality flaws," Shatterstar said, so dryly that Julio knew he had to be joking, at least about the last part. Shatterstar's expression eased, eyes bright. "Did Samuel give you my message? Did you eat dinner?"

"Fuck, yes, he did," Julio grumbled. "You don't have to take care of me anymore."

"I know."

~~

They stayed outside, watching the sunset, then lying on their backs and looking up at the sky.

"Cable would like to meet you, but later, once you have adjusted to being here. He has been called away anyway, so it may be some time, but he is eager to welcome you to the team," Shatterstar explained, one hand loosely laid over his stomach. "The others will return tomorrow. They will be kind to you, because they are good people, but I know they will like you like I have come to like you."

"Not in exactly the same way, I hope," Julio said, glancing over to regard the profile of Shatterstar's face, and Shatterstar nodded, serious, without looking at him. "Was that just ... part of the job?"

"I was not sent to seduce you into joining us, Julio," Shatterstar assured him, even though Julio had given him an easy way out. "I would be the absolute last person anyone on this team would send in if that was what the situation warranted." He sighed deeply. "The only thing I lied about was my name."

"That was a terrible fucking name."

"I didn't pick it."

"Are you okay with what happened?" Julio asked suddenly. "What is probably still happening?"

"Definitely still happening," Shatterstar corrected him, finally meeting his gaze. "After discussing it with Cable, I am confident I acted as professionally as I could have, while making my first romantic connection with another person. I enjoyed kissing you. I enjoyed seeing you naked. I will enjoy sex with you."

Julio put that thought away, in a neat little box, to deal with later. "You were worried about that?"

"I had power over you. I'd never been asked to care for someone before. I didn't know if I had erred."

"I'm okay with everything," Julio told him, touching Shatterstar's hand, sliding their fingers together, just in case Shatterstar needed to hear it, and from the immediate look of relief on his face, he did.

~~

They slept together that night, in the same bed. Eventually, Julio couldn't pretend he wasn't exhausted, and Shatterstar knew him well enough to know what the issue was, so after a few awkward moments, with Shatterstar hovering in the doorway of his new room, and Julio rolling his eyes and saying – "what are you, a vampire? Just come in, okay" – they settled on Julio's new bed, sharing Julio's new pillow.

"I didn't say thank you," Julio said, looking at Shatterstar, who had his head propped up with one bent arm, his other slid under Julio's shirt, palm flat against the naked beat of his heart. "For saving me."

"I'm just glad I could," Shatterstar admitted, leaning over and kissing him, and Julio kissed him back.

~~

Julio woke up once with a start, powers teetering on the edge of a flare up, but Shatterstar murmured to him, in that baffling mix of English, Spanish and Cadre, until his blood stopped racing. When he opened his eyes again, in the morning, he realized Shatterstar had intentionally jolted him awake.

"I can tell by the beat of your heart and the rise of your chest," Shatterstar said when Julio mentioned it.

"Is it that obvious?"

"To me, it is," Shatterstar said. "It always has been."

~~

The next few days were a blur.

He met the others. They were nice to him, but they weren't his friends, not yet, and he knew he was too quiet around them, even with Shatterstar's gentle urging. When they trained as X-Force, he watched, because his powers were an on and off thing that he honestly had no idea what to do with. Shatterstar assured him that Domino had some thoughts and would train with him when she returned from Houston.

Inside, he struggled to get control of his life back. He tried to measure his day by the meal schedule again, without being too rigid. Breakfast, it was time to get up with Shatterstar, regardless of how much his body protested, shower, then watch X-Force train and try to learn the formations. Lunch, the day was almost half over, surprisingly, and he spent the time with Shatterstar, talking as they worked out together, usually strength training, sometimes cardio, always followed by meditation. Dinner, he ate with the rest of the team and tried to feel like he was one of them then watched TV or played games.

"Is it helping?" Shatterstar asked, at the end of the second day of his new routine, undressing.

Perched on the edge of the bed, Julio shrugged. "I haven't flared up in two days, so maybe it is?"

"We will gather more data," Shatterstar agreed, tugging him down, sliding up against him.

It was his favourite part of the new routine. Making out with Shatterstar, his hand on Julio's heart.

~~

Boomer plopped down next to him at dinner. "Are you and Shatty, like, you know?"

It took him an embarrassing amount of time to realize she was speaking to him. "What?"

"You know, like me and Sammy," she said, elbowing him a little. A couple plates rattled, but that didn't appear to put her off her line of questioning. When he looked around the table, everyone else was staring, and he rolled his eyes. It didn't escape his notice that she waited until Shatterstar left the room.

"Yeah?"

"Oh, wow, okay. That's new," Boomer replied with a shrug, squirting a dollop of ketchup on her burger.

Shatterstar came back into the kitchen, stopped when all heads turned towards him, looked at Julio – who rolled his eyes again – then shook his head. He sat down on Julio's other side, leaned over and grabbed a burger from the pile. "Why is everyone staring at me?" Shatterstar demanded, finally.

~~

"You told them," Shatterstar said later.

"Was I not supposed to?" Julio replied, sitting cross-legged on the bed, watching Shatterstar's nightly ritual of stripping down to his underwear before making out and then getting some sleep. "We weren't hiding it, and I know I'm gay. I had a lot of time on my hands in that room to figure out what I liked."

"I am okay with it if you are," Shatterstar replied. "What did you discover you liked?"

Smiling, Julio shrugged. "Oh, you know, things."

"I know you like masturbating in the shower," Shatterstar said affectionately, shrugging out of his shirt. "I should warn you in addition to superhuman agility and strength, I also have enhanced senses."

"Thank you for telling me that several weeks too late," Julio replied with a laugh, and Shatterstar nodded, unzipping his jeans and pushing them down his legs, stepping out of them. Reflexively, Julio glanced down, enjoying the bulge of his cock in his briefs, fuller than usual. "I do like jerking off in the shower. And in my younger years, in the bedroom. And in front of the TV. And with a good book."

Shatterstar swallowed. "What else? You often smelled of your hair conditioner."

"I like fucking myself with my fingers," Julio replied, breathing deeply, calmly. "Sometimes the bottle."

Shatterstar's gaze flickered to the dresser, where his books and hair conditioner sat. Julio hadn't used it since that first day, fearful he'd need it later and not have enough. Shatterstar's cheeks were pink when he turned back, his cock perfectly outlined by his underwear. "I'm ready to have sex with you," he said.

"Okay," Julio agreed, as Shatterstar pushed off his briefs and climbed onto the bed, straddling him.

Shatterstar put one hand on Julio's chest and kept it there. It turned out Julio liked that, too.

~~

It became part of the routine, having sex with Shatterstar. Discovering what they liked together, helping Shatterstar figure out what he liked alone. Orgasming was his least favourite part, which sucked, because while he didn't care if people knew he was gay and had a hot boyfriend, he did care if they knew every detail about his sex life, and his powers always went off when he came, without fail.

"They will not notice the timing," Shatterstar assured him. "You frequently flare up."

"That doesn't actually make me feel better," Julio groaned, but they didn't stop having sex.

It was better than he had imagined. Having Shatterstar over him and under him. His hands on Julio's body, one permanently pressed to his heart and the other exploring. Touching Shatterstar in return, helping him discover pleasure, arousal, satiation, seeing him fall apart from it, shuddering, writhing. The taste of a cock in his mouth, and the way Shatterstar's mouth felt on him. Fingers in him, twisting.

Shatterstar fucked him once, carefully and lovingly, slicked up with his hair conditioner.

"We should probably get real lube," Julio said after, smiling, running his fingers over Shatterstar's hair.

"I will never be able to smell mangoes without getting an erection," Shatterstar agreed, kissing him.

~~

There were still moments when he was deeply sad. When he choked on his regret. When a gunshot on television caused him to shatter glass or send all items in a room to the floor. He still had nightmares where he was left confused and aching, though Shatterstar always woke him up before they got bad.

After a week, he found himself outside, where he felt safest, kneeling in the dirt, weeping. Around him, rock formations split and crashed to the ground, but Shatterstar stayed with him, a hand on his back. He hadn't cried since he was fourteen, desperate to go outside, have friends, anything that felt normal, finally realizing that the bars on his windows weren't for keeping people out but for keeping him in.

"I don't how to stop," he finally gasped out, choking on the tears in his mouth. "I still feel trapped."

"Meditate with me," Shatterstar replied, "and then I will show you something."

It was hard, almost impossible, but he focussed on his sorrow, on accepting it and letting it go. On his regrets, on accepting them and letting them go. On the mistakes he made, on accepting them and letting them go. On forgiving himself for the things he couldn't control, on accepting them and letting them go.

Shatterstar held his hands until the world stilled, and he was calm.

~~

Shatterstar led him to the communications bunker, sitting down in front of a dozen screens and tapping on the keyboard. Julio sat beside him, quiet, watching the images as they popped up, mostly news channels from Mexico. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed hearing Spanish every day until then.

"I have alerts set up on your family," Shatterstar explained. "Not just through the news. While I worked for them, I gathered intel on their computer systems, their preferred aliases, anything I thought might be useful. Their influence has waned, slightly, but I've found no indication they are looking for you."

"They're terrified of mutants," Julio replied with a rueful, bitter laugh, "especially me. They never looked at me the same, after my powers manifested. I think that's why it was so easy for them to ..." He trailed off, swallowing hard, breathing deep. "Too bad for them that it turned out I had a conscience."

"Your goodness was always obvious to me," Shatterstar said, reaching out and squeezing his forearm.

Julio put his hand over Shatterstar's, looking at the screens again. "Is this where you saw the report?"

"Yes," Shatterstar replied then added, "I have it recorded."

The words hung in the air, heavy, and Julio coughed a little, clearing his throat. "I want to see it."

"It's graphic," Shatterstar warned him.

"I know. I was there. Show me."

~~

Julio watched silently, holding Shatterstar's hand against his chest. The video was clearer than he expected it to be. A few minutes of arguing, posturing from both sides, mumbles from the people watching. He could see himself in the background, rigid as a board, a faraway look on his face, but otherwise nothing about him stood out. Dressed in the standard issue black combat gear: boots, cargo pants, and long-sleeved, high-necked shirt that everyone wore. Kevlar vest. Hair tied back. His identity was a well guarded secret. With his collar covered, he looked just like every other Richter. Impossible to tell which one was the mutant. Heavy security and mandatory disarmament took care of the rest.

Shatterstar's fingers tightened against him slightly, and Julio leaned forward, eyes fixed on the screen.

There was sudden agitation from the crowd, as if someone had noticed something amiss, followed immediately by the loud bang of a gunshot. He dropped to his knees, blood spilling out of his mouth. Chaos followed – people rushing to him, others tackling the gunman – and the video ended abruptly.

"That's when I knew you," Shatterstar said quietly.

"I don't understand," Julio replied, and Shatterstar looked at him.

"You smiled," Shatterstar said, moving the video back with the turn of a dial to a still image of Julio's face, eyes clear. "In that moment, as the bullet hit you, you smiled. You were at peace. You were happy. That was the face of a man who had just been granted his freedom. That's how I knew who you were."

"It could have just been a reflex. I was choking on blood. My lung had collapsed."

"Perhaps, but I have a theory. I believe someone tried to help you. I think one of your family members leaked the information about your identity before that meeting and then, when that failed, I think they released this video to the media. I think they meant to end your suffering in the only way they could."

Julio stayed quiet.

"This was the first and last time you were ever caught on video. The angle of the video is filmed from your family's side of the meeting, just barely, but I did the calculations. Whoever filmed it would have been standing at the far left, near the back. The only thing I am unsure of is if you asked them to do it."

Julio didn't say anything for a long time.

"Does it matter?" Julio asked finally. "It's not like it worked. Guy was a lousy fucking shot. Still got me pretty good, though. And knew enough to use an armour-piercing bullet. I mean, who survives that?"

"You do," Shatterstar said. "It doesn't matter, but if someday, you want to tell me, I will listen."

"Someday," Julio agreed.

~~

"Are you angry with me?" Shatterstar asked, later, after finding him outside, having skipped dinner.

Julio shook his head.

"I've said more words to you than I think I've spoken in my entire life," Shatterstar said, sitting down on the dusty ground, drawing one leg up with his arms. "I've definitely been more honest with you than anyone else. Sometimes, I say things without considering the feelings of the person I am speaking to."

"Seriously, I'm not angry," Julio replied, looking up at the stars, propped up by two stiff arms. "I really did think I was going to die that time. I remember lying there, drowning in my own blood, ready to go."

"It must have been horrifying to wake up," Shatterstar said.

"Yes," Julio said, emphatically, heart leaping in his chest. "Yes, it fucking sucked. I was so pissed."

"Selfishly, I am glad you did. I would have never known you otherwise, and I know my life would have poorer for it." Shatterstar slid behind him, taking Julio's weight onto his chest, and Julio relaxed into him.

He closed his eyes, and he breathed.

~~

Eventually, Shatterstar spoke again, fingers in Julio's hair, idly playing.

"In those months it took me to get to you, there were times I feared I would fail. That I would never get there. That my motives would be obvious. I had no idea what to expect once I finally did reach you."

"What did you think you'd find?" Julio asked, curious.

"I would not have blamed you if you had treated me poorly," Shatterstar said after a thoughtful pause. "You obviously resented my presence, and I knew I had taken something precious away from you just by being there, but despite that ... you spoke to me. You smiled, and you joked, and you were kind."

"You have a really low bar for kindness. I was an asshole to you for at least a week."

"Perhaps," Shatterstar agreed, with a breathy sound that almost sounded like a laugh. Touching his fingers to Julio's forehead, sweeping his hair back, Shatterstar continued speaking. "Your loneliness was devastating. It terrified me. That I would not be able to handle it, that I would be the one to finally break you. But there was so much good in you. You had lost almost everything, and still you smiled at me."

"Maybe I just wanted to fuck you," Julio muttered, flustered, staring across the emptiness.

Shatterstar made that same warm sound again, deep in his chest. "You clearly wanted that, too."

"Can you believe my family just threw the hottest guy I'd ever seen into my room? Lucky me."

"Very lucky indeed," Shatterstar agreed, nuzzling him on the temple before finally kissing him there.

~~

In the morning, over the oatmeal he had made himself for breakfast, sprinkled liberally with cinnamon and raisins, Shatterstar sat down beside him and said, "Cable has returned and would like to meet you."

"Okay." Julio swallowed hard, wishing he hadn't picked something so gummy to eat. "You'll be there?"

"Yes, but this isn't an audition," Shatterstar said, touching his hand. "You are a member of X-Force."

And that, to a point, was true. Julio felt more settled, more comfortable. He still didn't feel like himself around them, but he felt positive that would happen. He actually looked forward to being able to use his powers instead of just repress them, which he had become pretty decent at. Boomer had even drawn up some options for a costume, which Julio had completely redesigned, ignoring Shatterstar's knowing look.

"I'm sure it'll go fine," Julio said, less confidently than he wanted. Shatterstar touched his chest. "Not like this guy's face has the potential to trigger me into shaking this place to dust or anything, right?"

"That is why we are meeting outside," Shatterstar said sagely, and Julio laughed despite himself.

~~

There was one terrifying, precarious moment when Julio saw Cable's face and remembered, in vivid technicolor, being that kid and witnessing his father getting shot in the head, falling with a thump, brain matter everywhere, but Shatterstar pressed his hand to Julio's chest and held it there, dragging him through the memory and out the other side. Shatterstar had given him no reason to ever doubt his word.

If Shatterstar said this wasn't the same man, then every part of Julio believed it wholeheartedly.

"Glad to have you with us," Cable said finally, offering his hand, and Julio took it, shaking.

"I'm glad to be here," he said, and Cable nodded gruffly.

"It might be a while until you're out in the field, but we'll get you there. Dom has some ideas – she's always been good with this sort of thing – and Shatterstar here will make a decent sparring partner. James has also volunteered to help." Cable regarded him for a moment, and Julio stared back. "As far as I'm concerned, everyone is entitled to a fresh start if they're willing to work for it. Agreed?"

Swallowing hard, Julio nodded, Shatterstar's hand a steady presence on his chest, grounding him.

"What do you want to be called?" Cable asked.

"Rictor," he said.