“What was it that I said again?” Darwin asks, hesitating, his fingers tight on the marker. It’s not exactly the smoothest thing he’s ever said, but this is hands down the strangest thing anyone has asked him to do after sex—give him a break.
Charles shifts under him, the muscles in his back rolling as he adjusts himself. Darwin levers himself up on his knees, spread wide around Charles’ hips, so Charles doesn’t brush up against his still sensitive dick.
“Where to,” Charles says, and it’s not a question.
Darwin nods because that makes sense. Of course those were his first words to Charles when he picked him up as Uber passenger. How was he supposed to know then that Charles would woo him into bed, give him a spectacular blowjob, and ask him to record his first words on his back so he can get it tattooed over later. Maybe Darwin should’ve just told him to fuck off.
Instead he traces his words across Charles’ shoulder blade, making sure not to run into the other letters on Charles’ back. There are a lot of them—too many to be real. Mostly it’s a lot of hello and excuse me and thank you, but Darwin’s Where to? isn’t the only phrase to stand out. Curving down Charles’ spine in blocky lettering there’s even a What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this? He can’t help but wonder which one is the real one. Maybe he doesn’t have one at all.
Darwin glances back up to meet Charles’ gaze over his shoulder, not expecting the smile he finds there.
“Thank you,” Charles says, twisting around under Darwin until he can reach up and pull Darwin down for another kiss.
Even while his senses are full of Charles, Darwin can’t help thinking of his own soulmark, the stark and lonely word on the inside of his thigh: Alex.
Moira’s not sure how they’ve made it to this point without taking all their clothes off—okay, she’s mostly sure it has to do with the fact that they’ve been making out in the elevator and then the hallway and have only recently made it into Charles’ hotel room. That seems perfectly logical, but somehow still impossible.
And yet when Charles slides the shirt off his shoulders and turns to place it over the back of the desk chair, Moira is suddenly very aware of his nakedness. Or rather, the fact that the skin of his back is still covered.
Charles catches her gaze over his shoulder and smiles, something liquid smooth that leaves her heart pounding. “Bet you can’t find the real one,” Charles says, his voice still as light and flirtatious as it had been at the bar.
But he doesn’t give her a chance to even try deciphering the words and phrases that spread across his back. He’s too busy turning and walking back towards her and the bed, pushing her down and kissing her, trailing his lips and tongue across her body like she’s the only thing in the world.
She tries to ignore it when he pauses over her soulmark, his lips damp against the jagged lettering that forms the words holy shit across her stomach. She worries for a moment that he’ll say something, question her, make her talk about it, but he doesn’t. He just lets his tongue slide over the letters as if they were just another patch of bare skin.
And when he holds out a marker to her later, she takes it and scrawls Congratulations, Professor in the small of his back.
When Angel catches sight of Charles’ back in the mirror, she spins him around to get a better look. When she realizes what the ink is, just how many different tattoos there are in varying shapes and handwriting, she goes cold. Her ears are ringing and it’s hard to breathe and she’s certain she’s never been more angry in her life.
She’s not going to be just another conquest, just another notch in his belt. She feels sick at the thought of how many people have let him do that to them—have signed off on it in their own hand afterwards. It’s disgusting.
She’s not sure what she says to him or if it comes out as a yell or not but he doesn’t put up a fight, just raises his hands in surrender and leaves her standing alone in her room staring at her reflection.
Closing her eyes, she runs through a breathing exercise to get herself more under control. It works, for the most part, but when she opens her eyes again, she’s staring right at her soulmark, the neat little words on her collarbone.
You’re gorgeous, did you know?
The words were nice when she was young, the thought that someone would want her right from the first moment they met was something to look forward to as a girl. But then reality set in and having a soulmark as visible as her collarbone led to people reading it just because they could. It’s the only thing people seem to notice about her anymore.
She wonders for a moment what her life would be like if she could lose the mark. She knows she can’t cover it—she tried once when she was a teenager, but modest clothing isn’t who she is. If she could disguise it some other way, though, she would seriously consider it.
The next week she finds Charles at the same bar and when he recognizes her, she cuts his apology short by holding out a marker to him.
“How about a dance?” she asks, trying to mimic Charles’ accent.
Charles’ breath seems to catch for a moment before he’s smiling and putting on an even worse impression of an American accent. “Only if you buy me a drink first.”
Those are terrible words to have tattooed on your body, Angel thinks, but she can’t really find it in herself to judge him on it.
They’re eleven and giggling in the bathroom, a package of colorful markers spilled across the floor. Raven tries to stop her fingers from trembling as she traces the first words she ever spoke to Charles across his back. You’re not scared of me? She still can’t believe it.
Charles pulls the marker out of her hands as soon as she’s finished and begins to write his words down the inside of her wrist. I thought you were a burglar.
“See?” Charles says, his words filled with his smile and somehow still breathless, like he can’t keep his emotions inside. “Now we belong together. Nobody can say no to that!”
Except magic marker washes off in the bath and in the pool and with sweat and rubs off on clothes and they both get in trouble for it about a hundred times a week, but they keep writing and writing and writing.
It’s not until they’re sixteen that Raven and Charles manage to con their way into a tattoo parlor, to have the words etched into their skin more permanently. And that’s enough—or Raven had thought it was enough.
But Charles hasn’t stopped. Charles’ back is a map of every single person he’s ever loved, even if only for one night, and Raven can’t help but resent him for it.
“I thought it was supposed to be us against the world, Charles,” she shouts across the apartment when Charles comes home with another tattoo on his back.
She knows it’s from Hank or Harry or whoever it was Charles had been draped over at the bar the night before. She’d watched them from their booth, watched as Charles swung his arm around the man’s shoulders at the bar, waiting for him to say the magic words. She’d watched as Charles had deflated when the man spoke, his words completely wrong. But still Charles had gone home with him.
Charles is still trying to fill in part of his soul and when Raven slams the door to her room and throws her dress on the floor, she’s greeted with the sight of bare skin and Charles’ handwriting on her wrist.
It’s still the only thing resembling a soulmark on her entire body.
Charles slings his arm around the shoulders of a woman at the bar even though it kind of looks like she might be there with the man who’s just vacated his seat and made off to the restrooms.
The woman rolls her eyes at him and takes a sip of her drink. “You’re living dangerously,” she says and still makes no move to dislodge him.
And that’s just it. He has to live dangerously because no one ever pushes back.
He remembers Cain sneering at him when he was eight and in the pool with his new stepbrother for the first time. “Get off me,” Cain had said, reading Charles’ soulmark with his voice pitched high and mocking. “I bet you hear it all the time. Who’d want you, anyway?”
The words still hurt, because Cain was right—his soulmate is going to hate him—and because Cain was wrong, too—no one ever pushes Charles away. No one has ever even uttered those words to him except Cain and Raven and they both know.
Charles tries to smile at the woman whose bubble he’s just invaded. “It’s always worth a shot,” he says, letting his arm fall back to his side.
“I’m guessing not this time,” she says, nodding over Charles’ shoulder towards the bathroom and isn’t that just perfect. He knows when he turns around there’s going to be a fist coming towards his face which would suck on a good night, but tonight is a decidedly bad night because he’s here alone instead of with Raven who’s still mad at him for reasons beyond his comprehension.
He turns around anyway. Better to meet fate head on than to ignore it.
There is a fist headed towards his nose already, but it never connects because someone else steps in, nearly tackling Angry Boyfriend to the floor. Charles watches the two men grapple, shocked, before he jumps into action. He’s not one for unnecessary violence, but he’s also not one for letting someone else take punches for him.
There are a few moments of chaos as Charles tries to drag the newcomer away, wrapping his arms tightly around him, but the man has a fist tangled in Angry Boyfriend’s shirt and is winding up for a punch straight to the nose when Charles finally gets a grip.
“Let go!” he shouts, pulling harder. The scene they’re causing is most certainly going to get the cops called. “Let him go!”
Thrusting his elbow back into Charles’ ribs, the man growls, “Get off me.”
And Charles does.
As soon as the arms holding him back disappear, Erik tumbles forward, completely losing his balance and his footing, dropping the other man hard. The world is spinning and Erik knows that it’s not just because he’s lost some support—something fundamental has shifted, something in his very core.
Casting around, Erik locks eyes with the stranger he’s just attempted to rescue from getting his skull crushed in from behind and his heart stutters in his chest because his ears have finally caught up with his brain and are telling him to let go.
Everyone tells Erik to let go. Almost every single person he meets. They’re apparently all trying to help him figure out the puzzle of the words high up on his neck—too high to cover with clothing, right under his ear—but they’re really all just being rude.
But not this man.
Usually the words roll over him like water, but this time they’ve stuck and they’re digging their way in and Erik can barely breathe.
“You know they called the cops,” someone from the bar says.
Erik swears aloud this time and finds he can only stand when the man—his soulmate, he can’t deny it now—takes his hand. They’re faster together than Erik thinks he’s ever been before, but that can’t possibly be true.
When they finally come to a halt, they’re in Erik’s living room. He’s not altogether certain how they got there, but he’s not going to complain, not with the way his soulmate is leaning into him, kissing him, pulling at his hair to hold him in place.
“I don’t even know your name,” Erik tries to say, his voice thick and rasping in the quiet of his apartment.
“Charles,” his soulmate says, mouthing his way across Erik’s cheek and down to the soulmark under his ear and it’s the best thing Erik has ever felt in his whole life.
Erik barely manages to gasp out his own name, his fingers clutching weakly at Charles’ shirt, not sure what to do with himself while his neck and his heart and his soul are on fire.
Finally, too soon, unnecessarily, Charles pulls back, his lips wet and red and Erik is still burning.
“You have to understand something,” Charles says, his fingers twitching at the hem of his shirt. “I didn’t have anyone for a long time—and then I had a lot of people. And—and now I have you.”
Erik doesn’t understand, not until Charles unbuttons his shirt and lets it fall to the floor, turning so Erik can see.
The first thing Erik notices is his handwriting forming the words Get off me right where Charles’ heart would be, and he’s running his fingers over it before he can think, before he takes in the rest of the tattoos across Charles’ back.
Vaguely he thinks he should be offended, maybe he is or he will be, when he’s no longer on fire. The spark in him is only growing and he traces his fingers over each letter, watching Charles shiver.
“I never thought I’d find you. And I never thought you’d want me if I did.” Charles is breathless as he speaks and Erik digs his fingers into Charles’ hip, spins him around and kisses him again, one hand still splayed across his mark on Charles’ back.
“I’m here,” Erik says into Charles lips, barely pulling away enough to form the words.
Right now, the rest of the marks don’t matter.
Right now they’re burning together.
“I’m not going anywhere.”